The 80s was the decade I really discovered music. I developed a taste for what I like, and not just what my parents liked. I’ve recalled several times the story about hearing REM’s “Stand,” and how it changed my life. So many musical firsts happened in the 80s, the first albums I purchased, my first concert (of my choosing). I could go on about how important the 80s were to my musical growth, but you get the point. The 80s, as far as I’m concerned, was the most important decade for me as far as music. So many firsts for me, and so many amazing albums. So – that begs the question, what was the best album of the 80s?
Contender #1: The Joshua Tree – U2
We’ll start with the first album I bought for myself. Yes – The Joshua Tree by one of my all time favorite bands, U2. With three US singles, and three more in other countries, The Joshua Tree doesn’t have one bad song. I might even argue that some of the best songs were the ones not to be released as singles.
Let’s look at Bullet the Blue Sky. I’ve only experienced U2 live once, but I’ve seen many videos of their concerts. Bullet the Blue Sky always feels and sounds like a high point in U2’s concerts. All four members really give this song their best effort, both live and on the orginal. Bullet the Blue Sky screams about injustices with such high energy. Certainly one of the best U2 songs ever recorded – and again – it wasn’t released as a single!
Of course, the songs that did get released as singles hardly need any introduction. Where the Streets Have No Name, I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking for, and With or Without You are staples in most serious music lover’s listening diet. Sidenote, does anyone else remember With Or Without You playing as Ross and Rachel’s song on “The One with the List?“
The Joshua Tree might no only be one of the best albums of the 80s, but might also be one of the best albums of the century!
Contender #2: Spike – Elvis Costello
Spike has a special place in my heart for a couple reasons. Firstly, Veronica was my first real exposure to Elvis Costello. Sure, he had about a million songs with and without the Attractions by the time Spike came around, but I was pretty young, so even if I heard any previous songs, I didn’t really experience them.
Spike also contains my all time favorite lyric in the song “God’s Comic.” “So there he was on a water-bed / Drinking a cola of a mystery brand /Reading an airport novelette / listening to Andrew Lloyd-Webber’s “Requiem” /He said, before it had really begun, “I prefer the one about my son” / “I’ve been wading through all this unbelievable Junk /and wondering if I should have given The world to the monkeys.” So chilling! So apocalyptic. So absolutely brutal.
Other songs that I love from this album: Let Him Dangle, which talks about a man who was executed, but found innocent after the fact. Tramp the Dirt Down which talks about Costello’s disdain towards Margaret Thatcher’s hard lined policies. There’s the soulful Deep, Dark, Truthful Mirror. There’s the soft, yet lamentful Baby Plays Around. Oh, and let’s not forget the dark and tragic, yet energetic Miss Macbeth.
Elvis Costello might have given us his best effort to date with Spike, and that’s why I view this as a contender for best album of the 80s.
Contender #3 So – Peter Gabriel
What can I say about So that has not been said. Firstly, we all know half the songs. In Your Eyes might be one of the most romantic songs ever (not to mention the iconic Boombox Serenade in Say Anything). Songs like Sledgehammer, Big Time, Red Rain….all solid songs.
Of course, Gabriel’s So also boasts some amazing guest vocalists. The chorus of Don’t Give Up sung by Kate Bush makes me want to cry, it’s so sweet and caring. The duet with Laurie Anderson on This is the Picture, well, that’s just unusually interesting.
Finally – there’s the hint to worldbeat sounds found throughout the album. The ending vocals of In Your Eyes and Don’t Give Up, the percusion on This Is the Picture and Mercy Seat. The album So sets Peter Gabriel up as someone who’s destined to explore and promote the genre of worldbeat for the rest of his life.
Gabriel’s So gives us emotions, sounds, and amazing compositions which earns its place as a contender for the best album of the 80s.
Contender #4 Hysteria – Def Leppard
I already named Hysteria as the best hard rock album of the 80s, and gave the album a thorough review – so I’ll be brief. Rocket, Pour Some Sugar On Me, Armageddon It, and Hysteria are all amazing and solid songs. There’s the conflicting points of view we get with Animal and Love Bites. Don’t forget the politically charged Gods of War and the crowd pleasing Excitable.
I don’t think I need to really go on. Hysteria is just a solid album, from start to finish, and this is why I call it the best hard rock album of the 80s. This is why it might even be the best album of the 80s altogether.
Contender #5: Thriller – Michael Jackson
Thriller, when it was released, was unstoppable, and seems to remain so. Thriller consistently appears on lists such as this (usually in the number 2 spot). Before Thriller, Michael Jackson was just a pop singer with a big family. Because of Thriller, Michael Jackson earned the title the king of pop.
The songs themselves were fairly thought provoking for a pop album. There’s P.Y.T. (Pretty Young Thing) which talks about an interracial relationship (which was still quite controversial in the 80s). Of course there’s the anti violence anthem, Beat It – which stands as a challenge to overly macho thugs. Having Beat It blasted on every loud speaker for a few months might have been one of the best things to happen in the 1980s.
Oh, and Jackson also gave us a duet with Paul McCartney, not to mention a cameo by Vincent Price. On the same album! Thriller packs a punch in every song. While some critics probably state Thriller is overrated, in my book, Thriller certainly earns it’s spot as a contender for the best album of the 80s.
Contender #6: Green – REM
I don’t want to repeat myself, but again – Stand changed my life. That’s actually kind of ironic, considering REM wrote the song as a joke. But I digress – because there’s so much more to Green than Stand.
The opener to Green, Pop Song 89 parodies pop music of the late 80s. You Are Everything dabbles in confessionalism, showing feelings of fear, safety, and everything in between. Green makes a political stance with Orange Crush, a song that talks about agent orange and its atrocious use during the Vietnam war.
Even in songs about herbicidal warfare and the shallowness of pop culture, Green somehow makes us happy. Maybe it’s the reliance on jangle pop on several of the songs. Maybe it’s just that REM knows how to write a song. Regardless, of the reason – Green finds a spot as a contender for the best album of the 80s.
Contender #7: London Calling – The Clash
London Calling serves as a cry for rebellion, freedom, and justice. London Calling starts off strong with the title track – a rant/cry against everything from nuclear power to police brutality. Rudie Can’t Fail praises the rebelliousness of Jamaican “rude boys,” while utilizing a reggae beat. Spanish Bombs, a pop rock song, compares the ETA’s separatist movement to the Spanish Civil War. London Calling has songs like Rebellion Rock and Lost in the Supermarket which also calls out for rebellion and freedom.
I could look at every song on the album and pull out a similar theme. London Calling, perhaps the very first pop punk album, gives us a staggering 19 tracks of anthems, all crying for the same thing. All wanting justice and freedom.
Yes – London Calling by the Clash technically had a 1979 release date, but it was late 1979 (December 14th). Close enough! Besides, starting the decade out with such war cries, such passion – why I can’t think of a better way to start the 80s. Crying out for freedom and justice, in the start of a decade which valued greed gives London Calling the credentials it needs to contend for best album of the 80s.
Contender #8: She’s So Unusual – Cyndi Lauper
Cyndi Lauper became an icon with one album. Because of She’s so Unusual, we learned of the pop singer’s almost childlike voice almost overnight. Lauper has gone on to do so many other amazing things, all because her foundation with one amazing album.
She’s So Unusual was more than just a pop album – the album gives us a depth in it’s songs that was rare in 1983. The album starts out with “Money Changes Everything,” a song warning of greed as it became a rampant force in United States. Of course there’s the feisty feminist anthem, Girls Just Want to Have Fun – probably the most loved feminist anthem of the decade. Let’s not forget the song She Bop, a song about female sexual liberation.
Granted, She’s So Unusual gives us a few songs about love. The album is, after all, a pop album. When You Were Mine (a cover of a Prince song), absolutely crushes our heart as we experience the pain of a break up. Then we have the timeless Time after Time. Time After Time might might be the most beautiful song written in the 80s.
All of the songs on this album can be called liberating, transcendental, or at the very least, a lot of fun. That’s why She’s So Unusual by Cyndi Lauper contends for best album of the 80s.
Look, I know there’s about a billion albums I could have listed here. There’s just not enough space. So, here’s a few honorable mentions. Albums I cherish that would indeed find their way into this list if I were to list about twenty or fifty albums, instead of 8: Faith – George Michael | The Works – Queen |Kick – INXS | Rhythm Nation – Janet Jackson | Purple Rain – Prince | Remain in the Light – Talking Heads| Synchronicity – The Police| The Big Picture – Michael W Smith|Freedom – WhiteHeart | Self Titled – The Smiths| Back in Black – AC/DC | Zen Arcade – Hüsker Dü | Frankenchrist – Dead Kennedys | Disintegration – The Cure | Doolittle – The Pixies | Slippery When Wet – Bon Jovi | Power, Corruption & Lies – New Order.
That’s just a list off the top of my head, and these don’t even include repeat artists (U2, The Cure, and REM would have several in this list if I repeated artists). So, I’m sure I missed a few artists and albums, but that’s on me! My decisions are final! Ok, maybe not final. Seriously, I would love to hear what significant albums I missed.
So…what’s the best album of the 80s?
If we’re talking about mass appeal, we can probably rule out Hysteria. As much as I love the album, Def Leppard’s style is too polarizing. London Calling as well, as punk music’s sound and message doesn’t sit well with many people. The same thing can be said about Cyndi Lauper’s She’s So Unusual, as Lauper’s voice sounds grating to certain ears. Besides – her pop stylings sound rather dated, even if the songs are amazing. Yes, everyone loves Thriller, but I’ll argue that the average person can’t name more than three songs from the album despite its mass appeal. Besides, while half of the songs on Thriller hold up well, the rest, like Lauper’s songs, sound way too dated.
Elvis Costello’s Spike and REM’s Green also lack mass appeal, as the songs often times get too heady. A quality I really enjoy, but not everyone loves. The Joshua Tree might be one of the most sound rock and roll albums of the 80s, and maybe of all time. Everyone seems to know the album start to finish (even if they don’t realize it). This makes it a strong contender of course, but there’s more than just mass appeal. Again – The Joshua Tree is a sound rock and roll album, with amazingly written songs, but did it innovate? Mm, I’m dangerously close to insulting one of my all time favorite bands, so I’ll just say I like U2’s Rattle and Hum more.
So…that leaves one contender. One album that not only contains mass appeal with songs like “In Your Eyes” and Sledgehammer,” but really goes out of it’s way to innovate, incorporating world beat sounds. There’s also the level of emotion felt in “Don’t Give Up.” Besides, the songs are just interesting to the ear. So, by Peter Gabriel, is the best album of the 80s!