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100 Best Albums of the Eighties

From synth pop and rap to metal and funk, 100 best albums of the Eighties selected by the editors of Rolling Stone

First 10 entries here span the Clash's polyglot punk, Prince's crossover funkadelica, Afro-bop from Talking Heads and Paul Simon and hymns of innocence and experience by U2 and Tracy Chapman.

This has been the first rock & roll decade without revolution, or true revolutionaries, to call its own. The Fifties witnessed nothing less than the birth of the music. The Sixties were rocked by Beatlemania, Motown, Phil Spector, psychedelia and Bob Dylan. The Seventies gave rise to David Bowie, Bruce Springsteen, heavy metal, punk and New Wave.

In comparison, the Eighties have been the decade of, among other things, synth pop, Michael Jackson, the compact disc, Sixties reunion tours, the Beastie Boys and a lot more heavy metal. But if the past 10 years haven’t exactly been the stuff of revolution, they have been a critical time of re-assessment and reconstruction. Musicians and audiences alike have struggled to come to terms with rock’s parameters and possibilities, its emotional resonance and often dormant social consciousness.

The following survey of the 100 best albums of the Eighties, as selected by the editors of Rolling Stone, shows that the music and the values it stands for have been richer for the struggle. Punks got older and more articulate in their frustration and rage, while many veteran artists responded to that movement’s challenge with their most vital work in years. And rap transformed the face — and voice — of popular music.

The first 10 entries here span the Clash’s polyglot punk, Prince’s crossover funkadelica, Afro-bop from Talking Heads and Paul Simon and hymns of innocence and experience by U2 and Tracy Chapman. Further down the list, old-timers like Dylan, the Stones and Lou Reed hit new highs; Public Enemy and Run-D.M.C. kicked out some serious streetwise jams; Metallica and Guns N’ Roses established new hard-rock beachheads; and Hüsker Dü, Sonic Youth and the Replacements offered definitive statements of postpunk angst. The embarrassment of riches on this list is all the more remarkable, since arthritic radio programming, corporate sponsorship and outbursts of racism and sexism in rap and metal have complicated rock’s present and raised fears for its future.

Best-of lists such as this one are by nature subjective. But rock in the Eighties was like that — lively, varied, contentious and, to some degree, inconclusive. Looking at the best rock has had to offer in the Eighties, it’s clear that there’s plenty of life left in the old beast yet. The next revolution may be just around the corner.

This feature was originally published in the November 16, 1989 issue of Rolling Stone.

66

The Neville Brothers, ‘Fiyo on the Bayou’

Keith Richards thought the Neville Brothers' Fiyo on the Bayou was the best album of 1981. Most music fans never had a chance to form an opinion. "I knew it wasn't going to get played on the radio," says Cyril Neville. "So I didn't build up any false hopes. We just made the best record we could."

With Fiyo on the Bayou, the Neville Brothers — singer Aaron, keyboardist and singer Art, saxophonist Charles and percussionist Cyril — set out to capture their undisciplined sound, descended from New Orleans Mardi Gras music, while commercializing it enough to reach a broad audience.

The tracks on Fiyo on the Bayou can be divided into two distinct categories: dance-floor burners (like "Hey Pocky Way" and "Sweet Honey Dripper") and showcase ballads for the band's primo canary, Aaron (like "Mona Lisa" and "The Ten Commandments of Love").

"The first time I saw the Nevilles was at the Bottom Line, in New York," says producer Joel Dom. "They completely blew me out of the water."

Dorn pitched a Nevilles deal to A&M, which initially didn't share the producer's enthusiasm. "A&M thought the Nevilles were too ethnic and too regional," he says. Concurrently, singer Bette Midler — whom Dorn had produced and who is also a Nevilles fan — lobbied A&M on behalf of the band. The label eventually gave Dorn the green light.

A self-admitted "sucker" for Aaron's angelic voice, Dorn painstakingly surrounded it with lush orchestration. "When we cut 'Mona Lisa,' we used the New York Philharmonic," says Dorn, "and Aaron sang live in the booth. We turned out all the lights except for one spot that was focused on a Nat 'King' Cole album. He sang the whole song to that album."

Of course, everyone involved was convinced he had a hit on his hands. "It was one of the few times that I've made a record and was 100 percent satisfied when we finished," says Dorn. "I felt Fiyo on the Bayou was the culmination of my career." But the title of the album proved confusing. Both Cyril and keyboardist Art Neville had been members of the seminal New Orleans band the Meters, which had released a 1975 album entitled Fire on the Bayou! Inclusion of a new version of the Meters' signature tune "Hey Pocky Way" on Fiyo further muddied the bayou. "We wanted those songs to be heard by more people," says Aaron.

Most radio stations were just as puzzled by the Nevilles' style, which didn't fit easily into any programming format. "We just couldn't get any airplay," says Dorn. "It was the kind of record where I wished I could have gone door-to-door and said, 'Here — listen to this record!'"

65

10,000 Maniacs, ‘In My Tribe’

In My Tribe — a feast of acoustic rockers centered around singer Natalie Merchant's alluring vocals and a jangly guitar sound — vaulted 10,000 Maniacs from underground status into the Top Forty. And not a moment too soon, either: The third album from the upstate-New York cult band was literally a make-or-break affair.

"There was a lot of pressure on us," says keyboardist and band cofounder Dennis Drew. "If Tribe hadn't been successful, there never would have been another album."

In My Tribe is more than a successful record — it is a poetic, heartfelt message about social concerns such as alcoholism, child abuse and illiteracy.

The Maniacs didn't always have such a passionate sense of purpose. Drew and Steven Gustafson, both college-radio DJs, formed a band called Still Life, which started out covering Joy Division and Gang of Four songs. Merchant joined after wandering into the radio station armed with a pile of LPs she wanted heard on the air. Also recruited were guitarist Rob Buck and John Lombardo, a seasoned composer-guitarist who served as the group's major creative force. Drummer Jerome Augustyniak came on board in 1982, and the group — after changing its name — released an independent EP and album before moving to Elektra Records.

The Maniacs' major-label debut, The Wishing Chair, won fine reviews but met with indifference outside alternative-music circles. Lombardo quit under stormy circumstances, and the anxiety proved to be contagious. After rejecting demos for the band's next album, Elektra insisted the group work with producer Peter Asher, best known for his work with Linda Ronstadt and James Taylor.

The shotgun marriage worked out in the end, but it was a shaky trip to the altar. The band felt uncomfortable recording in Los Angeles, Asher's home turf. The Maniacs were also unhappy with many of Asher's additions to their sound, including computerized drums. Asher insists he was merely "cajoling" the band into doing its best work.

Elektra suggested doing a familiar song as the lead single, resulting in a cover of Cat Stevens's "Peace Train." The gambit failed to break the group, and the song was later removed from the album after Stevens — a converted Muslim — called for the death of Satanic Verses author Salman Rushdie. The Maniacs ultimately scored with their sadly lilting second single, "Like the Weather." It took two years for In My Tribe to go platinum, but even the band agrees it was better late than never.

"The album gave us a great chance to really coalesce as a band," says Drew. "At that point we had to save our career and make a good record. We fucking buckled up, tightened our belt and did it."

64

Living Colour, ‘Vivid’

Screaming electric guitar punctuates the raucous melodies and street-smart lyrics on Vivid, an album that not only marked the auspicious debut of the hard-rocking band Living Colour but was also credited with breaking down racial barriers in pop music. The band proved to be the first black rock group to attract a large mainstream audience since Sly and the Family Stone in the early Seventies, and the album's ascent was accompanied by as much hubbub over the band's ethnic makeup as its compelling style.

"It wasn't like the idea of Vivid or Living Colour was generated by some sort of desire to make it in the white world of rock music," says lead guitarist and group founder Vernon Reid. "There was a lot of talk about it. But it's not odd that black people play rock & roll — what's really odd is that people think it's odd. It's a shame more people didn't focus on the music itself, because that's what we wanted."

The music itself is an intoxicating brew of hard, grinding rock with splashes of funk, jazz, reggae, rap, punk and even country rhythms. Darting from the hip-hop twang of "Broken Hearts" to the philosophic