Home Music Music Lists

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.

42

The Robert Cray Band, ‘Strong Persuader’

"I think that my band was part of a blues-roots movement that included people like the Fabulous Thunderbirds and Stevie Ray Vaughan, who were coming along at that particular time," says bandleader Robert Cray. While Cray's sense of what was happening on the American rock scene in late 1986 is accurate, it modestly downplays the accomplishments of the singer-guitarist and his backing trio.

In February of that year, Strong Persuader — Cray's fourth album — hit Number Thirteen on the Billboard pop-albums chart, making it the highest-charting blues album since Bobby "Blue" Bland's Call on Me/That's the Way Love Is, which reached Number Eleven some twenty-three years earlier. Strong Persuader, in effect, introduced a new generation of mainstream rock fans to the language and form of the blues.

An army brat who grew up on bases in West Germany and the Pacific Northwest, Cray was introduced to popular black music at home, but he discovered blues artists on his own as a teenager. "I still have a lot of the same influences today," Cray says. "People like Albert Collins, Buddy Guy, O.V. Wright and Sam Cooke."

In his lyric themes, Cray often veers away from the hard-luck road trod by most bluesmen. But his trebly, razor-sharp guitar playing is straight out of the electric blues tradition, and it provides Strong Persuader with a distinctive edge.

Signed to the small High Tone label when work on Strong Persuader began, Cray was hoping to hook up with a larger company. "The production on the first records was too low-budget," he says, "and we were looking for a major label because we want to make a better record every time."

Cray and his band eventually cut a deal with PolyGram, but they continued to work with producers Bruce Bromberg and Dennis Walker, who had produced their High Tone albums. As a result, Strong Persuader was released with a combined High Tone/Mercury imprint. In addition to coproducing the album, Walker contributed "Right Next Door (Because of Me)," a tale of infidelity played out in a motel room. The song, which became the album's centerpiece, also includes the lyrics from which Strong Persuader derived its title.

The song that really drove Strong Persuader up the charts, however, was "Smoking Gun," a smoldering tale of jealousy and murder. Although released two months after the album hit the streets — late for a first single — it became a Top Forty hit, and the video became a staple on MTV.

Strong Persuader ultimately went gold, a feat virtually unheard-of for a blues album. Yet Cray maintains that the album was less a departure from his blues path than a natural evolution. "The recording sessions have been pretty much the same for each of our albums," he says. "I just thought the quality of the music we were making was getting better. It was about the whole band being together."

41

R.E.M., ‘Document’

R.E.M.'s thorniest and most overtly political album, ironically, was the one that brought the band a mass audience, yielding its first bona fide hit single in "The One I Love." After four albums of unique, visionary rock & roll (not counting Dead Letter Office, a collection of B sides), the unconventional Georgians left the alternative-music substrata and entered the mainstream, at least saleswise, with Document as their passport. As Peter Buck put it at the time, "We're the acceptable edge of the unacceptable stuff."

Recorded in Nashville with producer Scott Litt, R.E.M.'s Document is an angry, largely topical look at a world wracked by political and environmental catastrophe. Singing in clear, enunciated syllables, Michael Stipe trains his disapproving lyrics upon despoilers of nature ("Disturbance at the Heron House"), peddlers of right-wing dogma ("Exhuming McCarthy"), warmongers in Latin America ("Welcome to the Occupation") and other abusers of the planet and the public trust. The first side closes with "It's the End of the World As We Know It (and I Feel Fine)," a nervy pop-music news bulletin about an apocalypse in progress. A rapid-fire spew of pop-culture images leads to the main title and its cryptic tag: "… And I feel fine."

What was going on? "Michael broached the idea that the stuff he was writing was a little more direct politically," says guitarist Peter Buck, "and the stuff we had been writing was a lot more chaotic, too. It kind of came together."

R.E.M.'s politicization on Document, Buck believes, is due to the fact that "your thoughts are obviously different at thirty years old than they are at twenty-three." Even the seeming love song "The One I Love" is far from a fairy-tale view of romance, describing "the one I love" as "a simple prop to occupy my time." "It's definitely not a love song," says Buck. "It's more of a nasty comment about oneself."

Despite its success, "The One I Love" is not one of the band members' favorites. "It's funny that the songs on the radio from us are probably the ones we feel from the heart the least," says Buck. So how did he feel when R.E.M. was proclaimed America's best rock & roll band on the cover of Rolling Stone as Document was ascending the charts? "Embarrassed, like any sensible person would be," he says with a chuckle.

Rolling Stone's Original 1987 Review

R.E.M. Roar Back With 'Collapse Into Now'

40

U2, ‘War’

"Punk had died," says the Edge. "we couldn't believe it had been swept to the side as if it had never happened, and War was designed as a knuckle buster in the face of the new pop."

Indeed, at the time of the album's release in 1983, the anger and anarchy of the late-Seventies punk movement had been replaced by the new romanticism best typified by Duran Duran and Spandau Ballet. Into such tepid waters, U2 dropped its bomb: War is a powerful fusion of politics and militant rock & roll, an album that anticipated the political awareness that would come back into vogue as the decade progressed.

With two of U2's best sing-along anthems, "Sunday Bloody Sunday" and "New Year's Day," War became something of a Who's Next for the Eighties. The album's aggressive sound is highlighted by what bassist Adam Clayton calls "all those helicopter guitars."

Following U2's first two albums, the delicate and ethereal Boy and the moodier and disjointed October, War arrived with the force of a jackhammer ripping into concrete. Rough, hard and metallic, it remains U2's most overt rock album.

"We loved the Clash's attitude early on," the Edge says. "And Richard Hell and the Voidoids, the Pistols. Guitar bands that didn't use blues clichés. I was listening to Tom Verlaine to figure out how to make tough music."

The title itself was arresting, as were its politically inspired songs. "We wanted a record people couldn't just write off," says Clayton. "It was an unsettled time, a year of conflict. Poland was on the news at the time. You looked around and there were conflicts everywhere. We saw a lot of unrest on TV and in the media. We focused on that."

Still, U2 wanted to leave listeners with a feeling of hope. "We wanted love and anger," says the Edge. "We wanted a protest record, but a positive protest record."

War was recorded in about six weeks at Windmill Lane Studios, in Dublin, with most of the songs written in the studio. Vocalist Bono improvised lyrics to completed tracks, then refined them. "Bono would sing, and whatever came out would be the starting point," says producer Steve Lillywhite.

Completing the songs was difficult. "It's always hard to finish them," says Clayton. "It takes Bono a long time to commit to a lyric. 'New Year's Day' was a tough one. We had arguments over the vocals. At one stage it wasn't even on the record."

The album's final track, "40," which takes its title and lyrics from the Fortieth Psalm, was literally finished at the last moment, even as the next band scheduled to use the studio cooled its heels. "We were trying to get lyrics down and mix it with people pounding on the door," says Clayton.

Rolling Stone's Original 1983 Review

Photos: U2, The Rolling Stone Covers

39

ZZ Top, ‘Eliminator’

ZZ Top's Eliminator was the hands-down party album of the decade, pleasing hard-core boogie freaks and New Wave ironists alike with its bluesy vamping, tawdry lyrics and chic, trashy videos. You practically had to be in a coma not to have found some opportunity to dance to "Legs," "Sharp Dressed Man" and "Gimme All Your Lovin'" in 1983. ZZ Top had enjoyed million-selling albums in the Seventies, but Eliminator outsold all the band's previous releases. Most amazing of all, the album suddenly made the Texas trio with two of the longest beards in Christendom the hippest and hottest thing in rock & roll.

"We still sometimes wonder what exactly did transpire to make those sessions dramatically different," says guitarist Billy Gibbons. "I suppose it might have been a return to playing together as a band in the studio as we did onstage."

Many of the songs were written backstage during the Deguello tour. "Those dressing-room sessions that so many traveling bands talk about really are invaluable to creating a body of studio work," says Gibbons. The band was determined to keep that dressing-room ambience alive when it went in to record. Eliminator was cut at Ardent Recording, in Memphis, a city whose musical heritage of Stax-Volt soul and Beale Street blues rubbed off on ZZ Top. "There was quite a stirring of sentiment around 1983 in Memphis," Gibbons recalls. "The city is steeped in a very time-honored and strong tradition. It's in the air. There was a soulful element in that period of time that affected the way we were playing."

A trip to England prior to the sessions yielded its own influences, with the band taking in synth pop and the intense fashion consciousness of its "new romantic" practitioners. The modern technology inspired the band members to have a go at synths themselves, while the cool threads they had seen on the streets of London inspired them to write "Sharp Dressed Man."

The synthesizers the band began noodling around on at Ardent happened to be primitive analogue models, with lots of wires and dials and no presets. "When we finally did return from England to get our work done, I think curiosity was a real magnet to turning on those things," says Gibbons. "What you got was a bunch of cowpokes on blues twisting knobs from outer space." But it worked: The synthesizers — layered organically amid guitars, bass and drums — contributed to Eliminator's dense, bluesy feel. "Synthesizer meets soul was a good combo," Gibbons says.

Often lyrics were inspired by real-life situations. "Legs," for instance, came about one rainy day on the way to the studio. "There was a young lady dodging the raindrops, and being obliging Southerners, we spun the car around," says Gibbons. "No sooner had we turned around to pick her up — boom! — she'd vanished. And we said, 'That girl's got legs, and she knows how to use them.'"

Another song, "TV Dinners," was inspired by seeing those very words stenciled on the back of a woman's jumpsuit on the dance floor of a funky nightclub on the east side of Memphis. "I was stunned," says Gibbons, deadpan. "It was just that moment — there it is, a gift. I mean why, other than to inspire us, would she have walked past sporting TV Dinners on her jumpsuit?"

As Eliminator gathered steam, Gibbons and bassist Dusty Hill's flowing, belt-length beards became a visual symbol of ZZ Top. At one point, the Gillette company actually offered to pay them to shave off their beards on national television. "Our reply was 'Can't do it, simply because underneath 'em is too ugly,'" says Gibbons, guffawing.

Photos: Taylor Swift, ZZ Top, Tim McGraw and More Rock for Flood Relief

38

Elvis Costello and the Attractions, ‘Imperial Bedroom’

When Columbia records released Elvis Costello's Imperial Bedroom — the angry young Brit's seventh album in six years — the company took out ads that read, Masterpiece? Without question, Imperial Bedroom is one of Costello's major artistic statements — and arguably the high point in the career of a prolific musician who has consistently delivered impressive work.

Perhaps reacting to the creative limitations of his preceding album, Almost Blue — a disappointing collection of country covers recorded in Nashville with the veteran producer Billy Sherill — Costello returned to form on Imperial Bedroom. It is a far-ranging gem that finds him moving all over the musical map, from the ominous, jazzy "Shabby Doll" to the Sgt. Pepper-esque pop of "… And in Every Home." Reviewing the album in Rolling Stone, Parke Puterbaugh wrote, "Elvis Costello's Imperial Bedroom is really a mansion, each of whose rooms is decorated with painstaking care and detail by the artist."

When it comes to Imperial Bedroom, Costello is its harshest — and maybe its only — critic. "In retrospect, I feel some of the songs are just not well written enough," he said in an interview with Rolling Stone earlier this year. "Some of them were attempts to create a little mystery room the listener could go into. And in some cases, the subject matter is maybe too large for the song's own good. 'The Loved Ones' is about the trap of playing to posterity, and it's just too vague a subject for a song. It's too theoretical."

Asked about the Columbia ad, Costello grimaced and said, "There were some ludicrous things claimed on behalf of that record." Some reviewers compared Costello to John Lennon and Paul McCartney (Costello would later collaborate with McCartney), as well as Tin Pan Alley immortals like Cole Porter and George Gershwin.

"It could be momentarily flattering," Costello said of the praise. "But then you realize that, strange as it may seem, some people don't like Cole Porter, you know? It made me very perverse on that tour. I'd be playing amphitheaters in the Midwest, and I'd do eight ballads in a row, only two of which would be mine. In the end, all those comparisons just made things more difficult."

According to Geoff Emerick — the veteran recording engineer for the Beatles and the producer of Imperial Bedroom — his approach to recording the artfully crafted album was actually quite simple. "We were trying to capture Elvis's spontaneity, because he's a first-take kind of guy," says Emerick. "We wanted to get back to basics." Work at AIR Studios in London proceeded quickly. "Elvis is very fast," Emerick says. "When we did the first session, there was an onslaught of something like eighteen songs, which we cut in fast takes. It took me quite by surprise. From then on, it was a matter of thinking which ones should we record."

The savage guitar and wordless screaming that link three of the songs on the album's first side — "The Long Honeymoon," "Man Out of Time," "Almost Blue" — was something of an afterthought. "That may have been part of a song we didn't use," says Emerick. "We just faded it in and out." Considerable thought, however, went into keyboardist Steve Nieve's inventive orchestrations for many of the album tracks. "Steve didn't want the standard orchestration — first and second violins, cellos and so on — on 'Town Cryer' and some of the other songs. So we used, I think, eighteen violas, which was really unique."

Despite the rave reviews, Imperial Bedroom yielded no hit singles, and the album peaked at Number Thirty in the United States. Still, it is a favorite of many Costello fans, as well as producer Emerick's. "Elvis is a major songwriter," he says. "He just oozes talent. And we captured Elvis then and there. It was easy — I pulled up the fader, and away we went."

Rolling Stone's Original 1982 Review

Video: Elvis Costello and the Sugarcanes Play the New York Public Library

37

Marvin Gaye, ‘Midnight Love’

It was conceived as an album about spiritual and sexual salvation titled Sexual Healing, after the song that eventually became one of the biggest hits of Marvin Gaye's three-decade-long career. But the singer's new record company, Columbia, wasn't thrilled with the title, and ultimately neither was Gaye, who worried that such a provocative title would spoil what he hoped would be his comeback.

Gaye dropped the idea but kept the song "Sexual Healing," which he correctly believed from the start would be a hit (it reached Number Three on the Billboard pop charts). "They'll be jamming all over the world to this," he told his biographer David Ritz, who collaborated with him on the lyrics of the song.

While Midnight Love is not Gaye's masterpiece — that honor goes to the landmark album What's Going On — it is an inspired, mature work from one of the greatest soul singers, and it is certainly one of the best soul albums of the Eighties. Loaded with infectious dance-floor grooves, sophisticated guitar work, third-world rhythms and seductive vocals, Midnight Love did indeed prove to be Gaye's comeback. Sadly, it was also the last album he made before he was shot to death by his father in April of 1984.

"Marvin had been living in Europe, and he was influenced by both reggae and the synthesizer work of groups like Kraftwerk," recalls Larkin Arnold, a former CBS Records vice-president who was the executive producer of Midnight Love. "He took the rhythm of reggae, the new technology and American soul and came up with something fresh and unique."

Although Midnight Love has an urbane, high-gloss feel, the album was actually conceived and created while Gaye was living in Ostend, a quiet seaside town in Belgium, where he had retreated to escape the excesses of Hollywood and London. At first he worked with his brother-in-law the multi-instrumentalist Gordon Banks, at Studio Katy, in Ohaine, a small town not far from Brussels. Later the veteran Motown producer Harvey Fuqua (who had discovered Gaye and added him to the historic doo-wop group the Moonglows in 1958] was brought in to keep things on track.

Gaye worked sporadically on the album over a nine-month period. "He was stubborn," says Arnold. "He enjoyed the role of the tortured and spurned artist. He would pout and go off. Two or three times he stopped working on the album. It was nerve-racking." Columbia's financial cost for getting Gaye into the studio and keeping him there was high — more than $1.5 million to buy his contract from Motown, a $600,000 advance for the singer and more than $1.5 million in recording costs, according to Curtis Shaw, Gaye's attorney at the time. But Arnold, who masterminded the deal, puts the cost of recording Midnight Love closer to $2 million.

Whatever the cost, the album was a hit, selling 2.7 million copies worldwide, more than 2 million of them in the United States. Gaye saw his album — which followed two unsuccessful records for Motown — as a commercial endeavor designed to win back a mass audience. In a typically frank interview, he even dismissed a couple of the album's songs as "contrived."

Although he told the writer Nelson George in 1983 that his "mission" was to "tell the world and the people about the upcoming holocaust and to find all of those of higher consciousness who can be saved," Gaye felt the need to draw everybody's attention with a hit before returning to message music. "For legitimacy, I need worldwide exposure," he said. "This is a chance for the world to recognize Marvin Gaye, so that ultimately I can get my message across."

Rolling Stone's Original 1983 Review

Rolling Stone's 100 Greatest Artists of All Time: Marvin Gaye

36

Anita Baker, ‘Rapture’

Although Anita Baker's Rapture exudes an aura of dimmed lights and romantic introspection, the album was, in fact, a product of hard times and difficult decisions. Baker had previously cut a funk record with a band called Chapter 8 and a solo album called The Songstress, which was released on the Beverly Glen label in 1983. When she moved to Elektra, a legal battle ensued that threatened to block the release of Rapture.

"You don't see any of that turmoil in the music," says Baker. "It's as if it were an outlet for more beautiful things." Baker moved to Elektra because she was looking for creative freedom. "I knew what I wanted to sing, and I knew what kind of production I wanted, which was a minimalist approach," Baker says. "The dilemma was choosing a producer."

Baker turned to Michael J. Powell, the former keyboardist in Chapter 8, who produced seven of the eight tracks on Rapture. Baker herself is credited as executive producer. Elektra, meanwhile, let Baker make the record her way. "They just gave me my budget and left me the hell alone," she says, appreciatively.

Rapture, which was released in 1986, is an emotionally rich, subtly restrained suite of songs that merge elements of jazz and soul, with an emphasis on ballads like "Sweet Love," "You Bring Me Joy" and "Been So Long." It is bold in its very conservatism, and it evokes favorable comparisons to the work of some of Baker's idols, such as Sarah Vaughan and Nancy Wilson. Baker says she was not concerned about how different Rapture seemed from much of the music out at the time. "It didn't cause me any apprehension," she says with a laugh, "because I didn't think anybody was gonna hear it!"

Rapture was recorded in a couple of months, with a good deal of time spent selecting material and working out arrangements. Baker still finds the album's depth of feeling satisfying. "I was very pleased," she says. "I didn't know I had that in me. I wanted a smooth product with energy and heart, but I surprised myself. There's passion there. I knew I could pop a note, but the nuances, I think, are what's important on that album."

Interestingly, despite its torch songs and paeans to love, Rapture ends with the edgy "Watch Your Step" — one of three songs Baker wrote or co-wrote. It's a relatively uptempo R&B number that warns an inconstant lover, "You better watch your step/You'll fall and hurt yourself one day." Baker says: "The last thing that people hear from you should be something to stir your emotions, to shake you up. I don't like to leave people relaxed. I like to start off relaxing them and then build up to some sort of crescendo."

Despite her regard for the album, Baker did not anticipate the multiplatinum sales Rapture earned. "Nobody did," she says, laughing. "Nobody. It was like a music-industry fairy tale. I've heard people speak of things like that happening; I've seen it happen to other people. I'll tell you, though, it took a hell of a lot of work."

35

Metallica, ‘Kill ‘Em All’

With their 1983 debut, Kill 'Em All, Metallica rose up from the heavy-metal underground to establish a vital new subgenre, known as speed metal or thrash metal. As pioneered by Metallica, it was a hybrid of punk and metal, distinguished by lightning speed, manic rhythm changes and a thoughtful if outraged approach to lyrics about suicide, religion, war and nuclear holocaust.

At a time when most young metal bands still slavishly imitated aging or absent gods like Ozzy Osbourne and Led Zeppelin, such songs as "Whiplash," "Hit the Lights" and "Seek and Destroy" were refreshing and revelatory. The no-sellout attitude of the band — singer-guitarist James Hetfield, lead guitarist Kirk Hammett, bassist Cliff Burton and drummer Lars Ulrich — inspired metal fans seeking new thrills and heroes.

Kill 'Em All, originally released on Megaforce and later reissued on Elektra, was the product of what the band calls "riff tapes." Riffs that emerged during practice or jam sessions were committed to tape. Then Ulrich and Hetfield constructed songs from the best riffs. "You start at the top and figure what vibe the song has," Ulrich told Rolling Stone last year. "The general tempo, where you want to take it all. Get an opening. And at one point soon after the opening, you enter into the Mighty Main Riff."

Hetfield's lyrics, by comparison, were the result of "drinking and thinking, seeing what's going on around me." He tackled weighty subjects like spiritual isolation ("No Remorse") and bloody apocalypse ("The Four Horsemen"). The title of the album certainly captures the adversarial tone of the record, although not as graphically as the name the band originally proposed: Metal up Your Ass.

At the time, Metallica had temporarily relocated from California to New York City, where, according to Hammett, they lived on bologna sandwiches and Schlitz Malt Liquor while rehearsing and recording. "When we started out, it seemed like all the odds were against us," says Hammett. "The sound we had was so different, other people didn't know what to do with us." When Megaforce told the band that distributors wouldn't go for an album called Metal up Your Ass, Ham