Top Ten Albums of the ’80s

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Photo Courtesy of AllMusic.

Photo Courtesy of AllMusic.


  1. The Blue Mask by Lou Reed: Lou Reed found the success in the early ‘70s and successfully dismantled it (see Metal Machine Music). By the end of the decade, it was clear he lost. However, in the beginning of the next decade, he sobered up and got married, and the new stability gave him direction. The Blue Mask is the triumph of his solo career: ten personal, reflective songs with a groundbreaking guitar sound. Credit must also be given to Robert Quine, a Velvet Underground superfan who played guitar on the entire album. From the wistful “My House” to the paranoid title track, Reed channels both ends on the spectrum of his songwriting: warm and calm to scary and disorienting. The best track is the closer, “Heavenly Arms,” a song to his wife at the time, Sylvia Morales.
  2. Let it Be by the Replacements: On Let it Be, The Replacements, a Minnesota garage band, were moving from their metal influences to more melodic songs, and hearing that transition in process makes this their strongest album. Paul Westerberg’s raw vocals and Bob Stinson’s even rawer guitar on songs like “Favorite Thing” were tempered with Westerberg’s pop sensibilities, resulting in songs like “I Will Dare,” “Sixteen Blue,” and the anthem “Satisfied.” It was also turning point lyrically, with the juvenile side of the group still around, but also striking maturity, especially on the empathetic “Androgynous.”
  3. Nebraska by Bruce Springsteen: Springsteen’s first record without the E Street Band, which was very controversial at the time, ranks among his best. The empty, acoustic sound about the abandonment of Reagan’s America suits these songs well and they couldn’t be done any other way. These are all haunting, lonely songs about desperate people. The title track is a recounting of the Starkweather killing spree; “State Trooper” is about a criminal driving, praying not to be pulled over; “Atlantic City” is about an unemployed man succumbing to mafia work; “Highway Patrolman” is the account of an authority faced with the dilemma his criminal brother brings. Springsteen could always write dark songs, but to many this was still a shock.
  4. Graceland by Paul Simon: Paul Simon was struggling to find inspiration in the ‘80s and he found it when he went to South Africa in 1986. Working with some of the best musicians there and renowned vocal group Ladysmith Black Mambazo, Simon gave his songs the energy they craved. “Graceland” is the best song he has ever written, a song about seeking redemption, and “The Boy in the Bubble” and “Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes” are right up there. Many of the songs are co-written by other musicians, which might explain the new direction he was taking. With Graceland, Paul Simon proved he hadn’t faded into obscurity.
  5. The Queen is Dead by The Smiths: The Smiths could churn out classics with ease and The Queen is Dead showed everyone that they weren’t just a singles group. Johnny Marr is the backbone of the groups sound, providing the music to Morrissey’s words, and keeping the songs afloat when his partner’s pretentions and ego threatened them. “Vicar in a Tutu” and “Frankly, Mr. Shankly” prove that Morrissey didn’t always take himself too seriously and the latter has a Kinks-like sound to it. “Bigmouth Strikes Back” and “The Boy With the Thorn in His Side” are classics. The highlight, however, is “There Is A Light That Never Goes Out,” a ballad that became an anthem to fans. It’s one of the best songs ever made. The Smiths often had mixed results on their albums, but here they had a clear focus.
  6. Closer by Joy Division: Released a few months after Ian Curtis’ tragic suicide, Closer delivered on the promise of their debut, Unknown Pleasures. Curtis’ lyrics of shame and gloom hang over the pulse of the drum and moan of the synth. His almost mechanical baritone paradoxically bring emotion to songs like “Atrocity Exhibition,” “Isolation,” and “Decades.” It’s an uneasy listen, but well worth the experience every time.
  7. The River by Bruce Springsteen: Springsteen’s double album channeled his dark storytelling gifts and his charisma on the stage. It has both ballads and light pop. The chilling title track is one of his best songs, loosely based on his sister’s marriage. “Stolen Car” and “Wreck On the Highway” follow in a similar vein. However, “Hungry Heart” [a big hit for him], “Out in the Street,” “Sherry Darling,” and “The Ties That Bind” have a joyous sound, even if the stories they tell aren’t always that way. They also show what a tight group the E Street band was, where every member shines.
  8. Daydream Nation by Sonic Youth: It’s hard to argue with claims that Sonic Youth make loud noise, but Daydream Nation can be a rebuttal, showing the group had more up its sleeve than feedback. “Teen Age Riot” is an exhilarating anthem, with Thurston Moore delivering mighty guitar licks and a Lou Reed-esque vocal about teenage disillusion and boredom. “Silver Rocket,” “Eric’s Trip,” “Hey Joni,” and “Trilogy” are all great too. The band looked beyond it’s industrial music influences and forged their own sound. 
  9. Born in the U.S.A. by Bruce Springsteen: Springsteen appearing three times on this list?! He just might be the artist of the ‘80s [in addition to the ‘70s]. Born in the U.S.A. is when Springsteen transformed into a stadium star. The title track, a reworked outtake from Nebraska, laid the groundwork for the album. It tells the story of a Vietnam vet who returns to America ignored and avoided. The rest of the album isn’t as overtly political, but the working class struggle is always felt throughout the synth-infused record. It spawned several hit singles, such as “I’m On Fire,” “Darlington County,” “I’m Goin’ Down,” “My Hometown,” “Cover Me,” and “Dancing in the Dark,” the best song on the album. The chipper, disturbing “Working on the Highway” is another highlight. It wouldn’t be long before Springsteen veered in another direction, but this album made him a star.
  10. New Day Rising by Hüsker Dü: Hüsker Dü, like the Replacements, were a Minnesota hardcore punk band. New Day Rising embraced melodic songs, but the edge was still there. The title track, “I Apologize,” “Folk Lore,” “Celebrated Summer,” and “Books About UFOs” are all great songs that embrace a more pop sound. The rock opera that preceded it, Zen Arcade [which narrowly missed this list], flirted with the sound and the group was smart for embracing it further. The fuzzy guitar and lo-fi production aren’t lost, and the record is, of course, evidence that Bob Mould is an underrated songwriter



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