Each December, I write up my ranking of the top albums that came out that year. (You can read ’em all here, if you’re so inclined.)
It’s always a highly personal list; what else could it be? And it’s anachronistic because in this era of streaming, most people fall in love with songs rather than an album worth of material…but I’m old; sue me.
To give you a sense of how old I really am, I’ve decided to tackle an impossible ranking: a look back at the top 10 albums of the 1980s.
This is, of course, folly. The 80s were my teen years and, as such, music was critically important to my very existence. I made MEMORIES to these tunes, people, so it’s impossible to untangle the nostalgia from these albums.
Over the last few weeks, I did my due diligence and re-listened to much of my 80s collection — about 1,500 songs (a little over four days worth of music.)
There were lots of magical songs; the 80s may have been the high-water mark for the cassette mix tape, after all. But as wonderful as “Don’t You Want Me” and “I Melt With You” and “Blister in the Sun” are, I decided to focus on full-length albums instead of individual tracks.
Some albums that I remembered fondly were charming, but didn’t really hold up. Others felt as fresh as if they’d been released this year.
And as I went down the rabbit hole, I had to figure out if my ranking would be based on how I felt about them BACK THEN or how I feel about them NOW. In the end, I decided to split the difference. They got points for what they meant to me in the 80s, but they needed to stand the test of time to make this list.
And there’s a reason I’m releasing this list today, which I’ll explain in a minute.
The Compilation Caveat
Before we start the list proper, a word about previously released music…
When I dove into my collection, I found that many of my “80s favorites” were, in fact, compilations of previous work.
A few of these deserve a special shout-out as they were an integral part of my teen soundtrack:
Legend — Bob Marley and the Wailers (1983)
The Best of Elvis Costello and the Attractions — Elvis Costello and the Attractions (1984)
Staring At The Sea: The Singles 1979–1985 — The Cure (1985)
Compact Snap — The Jam (1983)
Basher-The Best of Nick Lowe — Nick Lowe (1989)
The Singles Collection — Spandau Ballet (1984)
Singles 45s and Under — Squeeze (1982)
The Man and His Music — Sam Cooke (1985)
The Singular Adventures of the Style Council — The Style Council (1989)
And, of course, like every teenager since the 1960s, I also discovered and fell in love with The Beatles and the Motown catalogue, bought ’em all, and poured over the liner notes as I played them over and over again in my room.
But for the actual list, I followed the same criteria that I use with my annual ranking: full albums of original music that were released between 1980 and 1989. Here we go…
1. The Queen Is Dead — The Smiths (1986)
I wish everybody could be 16-years-old when they first hear this album. I mean, it’s just about perfect no matter when you first hear it, but when it hits your 16-year-old eardrums, it sears itself into your DNA in some sort of primal way.
A million words have been written about this album and The Smiths and I’m not sure that I can really say anything that hasn’t been said. Messrs. Morrissey, Marr, Rourke and Joyce crafted something that sounds as vital today as it did 31 years ago.
I literally wore out two cassette versions of this album in my bitchin’ Camaro Z28 and I mooned over its songs at proms and parties and while writing bad poetry in my journal. So many feelings!
And it’s also the reason I’m releasing this ranking today. Because today they are releasing a new 36-track version of this album, complete with re-masters and b-sides and live versions and all the sorts of overkill extras that super fans will eat up with spoon. (I’m probably listening to it right now as you read this.)
But if you’ve never heard this gem — or haven’t heard it in a long time — go back to the original 10-track masterpiece and fall in love with every song all over again. There is a light and it never goes out, indeed.
2. Some Great Reward — Depeche Mode (1984)
Depeche Mode was my favorite band of the 80s. Period.
Given their current status as the elder statesman of 80s synth, it’s sort of hard to imagine anyone “discovering” them. But in early 80s Bakersfield, when the only options were top 40 radio and country music, stumbling upon Depeche Mode felt like uncovering a door to a dark and sexy netherworld.
There are a half dozen Depeche Mode albums that I could put in this slot: A Broken Frame, Construction Time Again, Black Celebration, and Music for the Masses are all amazing. (Yes, so is Violator, but that was 1990, friends, so it misses the 80s cutoff.)
But Some Great Reward was the top of the mountain for me. Yes, it had their breakthrough hit, “People are People,” on it. But the other tracks were all catnip to this gawky high school freshman.
It’s hard to explain the rush I felt when “Master and Servant” came on during a Catholic high school dance. (“Does the administration even KNOW what this is really about??!?”) And the distant train whistle at the beginning of “Somebody,” meant that I was going to spend the next 4 minutes and 27 seconds thinking about my sure-to-be-awesome-but-at-that-point-nonexistent high school girlfriend and our deeply-emotional-love-that-would-inspire-songs-with-a-heartbeat-in-them.
Again, so many feelings!
The lad’s voices were subtle and loaded with emotion and the soundscapes that they created where out of this world. The arrangement on a song like “It Doesn’t Matter” with its layers of synths, cascading like a waterfall over one another, has been copied many times since, but I can still hear the craft in it when I listen today.
In June 1988, my high school girlfriend and I made the pilgrimage to the Rose Bowl for their legendary 101 concert and they played many of the songs from this album. Seeing them live was cool, but honestly, it could never beat the joy of sitting in my room, slapping the LP on the old turntable, and listening to Some Great Reward over and over again.
3. Skylarking — XTC (1986)
For my money, this is the closest any band ever got to Sgt. Pepper’s (and I realize that’s saying something.) My love of the Beatles certainly influenced my affinity for this album, but I also loved it because it didn’t sound like anything else that was out at the time.
The lush string and horn arrangements, the complicated lyrical structures, and the tight harmonies all seemed super ambitious to me, and unlike anything else that I was hearing in the guitar- and synth-driven albums that ruled the day.
That sense of discovery — of finding something that nobody else loved in the same way — is a part of adolescent musical exploration that is probably much diminished in our everything-is-available-to-everyone streaming age.
Listening to the album again all these years later, I have to admit…it’s pretty baroque. But the orch-pop musicianship is still undeniable (I’m still a sucker for the violins on “10,000 Umbrellas”) and it has a permanent place on my desert island album list.
Years after the fact, I read more about the making of the album — the tension between the band and producer Todd Rundgren, the influence of the Beach Boys, and front man Andy Partridge’s concert panic attack that led to the end of touring and more musically-complex records. I love that the behind-the-scenes story is as sprawling and layered as the album itself.
4. Nothing to Fear — Oingo Boingo (1982)
Oingo Boingo was the first real rock concert I ever attended. At the Bakersfield Convention Center in, I want to say, 1983 or 1984?
You probably remember your first concert fondly, no matter who it was, but I can safely say these guys kicked ass. The songs that I loved from this album sounded even better live and including funky bangers like “Private Life,” “Wild Sex (In the Working Class),” and “Nothing to Fear (but Fear Itself).”
Musically, you could hear their 70s punk roots, but on top of that they’d slathered 80s experimentation, banging on xylophones and bells and whatever else was lying around. And the horns! And a high-energy, over-the-top Danny Elfman fronting the whole thing? It was bonkers. They were an incredible party band even though 13-year-old me didn’t really know what a party band was.
They got even bigger as the 80s went on, with Weird Science and Dead Man’s Party, but this was the one that lit the fuse for me.
5. Little Creatures — Talking Heads (1985)
This (and O.M.D.’s Crush) was one of the first CDs I ever bought. When I got my first real hi-fi system and first CD player when, um, CD players first came out. (Told you I was old.)
The opening drum riff and the pristine mix on “Television Man” made it the PERFECT song to show off my new JBL speakers, which I did every chance I got.
Listening to it again all these years later, I was surprised by how “country” parts of it sound, especially since my teen musical taste was all about rebelling from the country music that saturated Bakersfield radio. But, boy-oh-boy, this thing is loaded with steel guitar.
Speaking in Tongues and Stop Making Sense are also great T’Heads albums from the same era, but Little Creatures has a special place in my heart.
6. The Joshua Tree — U2 (1987)
I mean, c’mon, right? It has to be on the list. One of the great albums of all time.
It’s also an album that’s almost impossible to hear with fresh ears. It’s been such a pervasive part of popular culture for so long, it’s hard to put yourself back in 1987 and appreciate its power when it came out.
And I have to admit that I remember being a bit diffident about it even back then. U2 was the cool band. Not mega popular at that point, but the sort of band whose logo you scrawled on your Pee-Chee folder (ask your parents, kids) to signal that you were in the know.
I was aware of their early albums — Boy, October, War, Under a Blood Red Sky and The Unforgettable Fire — but I didn’t really get them in the same way that some of my cooler friends did. When Joshua Tree came out, it was stratospherically popular and U2 was anointed as “the greatest rock band in the world.” Part of me didn’t want to jump on the bandwagon.
But then, during a school-sponsored ski trip (one of the three times I went skiing in my youth) I listened to the whole album 10 times on my Sony Walkman during the bus ride, and the hook was set forever. It’s an amazing collection and it stands the test of time.
7. In My Tribe — 10,000 Maniacs (1987)
My older self is a little embarrassed that my 80s collection was so dude-centric. There aren’t a lot of female musicians on this list. Maybe that makes sense — narcissistic teens are looking for music that gives voice to their feelings and so that’s the bands that I gravitated toward.
But I loved 10,000 Maniacs. Part of it was that they weren’t all that popular, at the time, and their weird name made me feel like I’d discovered some “college band” that made me cooler than I was.
Natalie Merchant’s (now famous) voice was rich and emotional and the musicianship has a lot in common with that era’s R.E.M — jangly, intelligent college rock. “Like the Weather” is still a terrific track and I had the CD that had “Peace Train” on it, which was removed from later pressings because of the controversy around the song.
Their earlier album, The Wishing Chair (1985), was also great and their next one, Blind Man’s Zoo (1989), made them a lot more famous. But In My Tribe is still my favorite.
8. Especially for You — The Smithereens (1986)
I’m gonna be honest: I didn’t appreciate how great this album was when it first came out.
I mean, I liked it. But I was also so deep in moody synth music in 1986 that the Smithereens’ guitar-driven hooks didn’t feel quite as “modern” to me (whatever the hell that meant.)
Of course, it’s those guitar-driven hooks make it so timeless and it’s one of those albums that I grew to love more and more as time when on. When I went to college and I stopped playing a lot of the music that I’d loved in high school, I would come back to this one again and again.
“Strangers When We Meet,” is such a great song and feels like a tune that every high school band that ever jammed in a garage wishes it wrote.
9. Special Beat Service — The English Beat (1982)
When I first thought about my top 10 from the decade, this one wasn’t on my radar. But on my re-listening tour down memory lane, I was gobsmacked by how terrific and fresh this album sounded.
Its fusion of ska, soul, pop, reggae and punk gives is still vigorous and infectious 35 years later.
“Save it For Later,” was a staple on 80s mixtapes and “Rotating Head” got famous when Ferris Bueller raced home to it, but for my money, “End of the Party” is the underappreciated gem of this album, with its atmospheric romantic storytelling.
The band broke up after this album and the splintering members formed General Public and Fine Young Cannibals, both of which made lots of other great music, but this collection is lightening in a bottle.
10. Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me — The Cure (1987)
You have no idea how many different albums popped in and out of this tenth spot as I was writing this thing. (It’s weird how much agony goes into a ranking that, let’s be honest, nobody really cares about. 😉)
In the end, I gave the nod to this collection of songs from the decade’s favorite depressives. Actually, despite Robert Smith’s tortured wail, this is a pretty upbeat collection of pop hits. “Catch” is positively bouncy and “Just Like Heaven” feels right at home at middle school dances.
Starting at the Sea was already mentioned above and would be a fine inclusion in this top 10 too, but Kiss Me3 was the one that pushed them mainstream and I kept playing it through high school and was still spinning it in college, so it stood the test of time.
Their next album, Disintegration, was released in 1989, so it too makes the cutoff for inclusion here, and many critics think that one is their finest work. But there’s a sense of experimentation on Kiss Me3 (aided, no doubt, but the 75-minute run time) that still charms the socks off me.
There were a bunch of albums I really thought would make the list before I did my re-listen and they deserve a special shout out. Either Document (1987) or Fables of the Reconstruction (1985) by R.E.M. should probably be represented on the list above and I’m going to regret not including them as soon as I hit “publish.” Crowded House (1986) and Temple of Low Men (1988) by Crowded House are both still great, but just missed the cut. So (1986) by Peter Gabriel is a classic, of course, but felt a little dated to me. Junk Culture (1984) and Crush (1985) by O.M.D. and Wonderland (1986) by Erasure were all at the top of my list in the 80s, but felt a little thin to my 40-something ears. Soul Mining (1983) and Infected (1986) by The The were on and off and then on this list and one of them would probably be on again if I finished this on a different day. And the three-pack from Tears for Fears — The Hurting (1983), Songs From the Big Chair (1985), and Seeds of Love (1989) — are all still terrific and didn’t make the list because I couldn’t pick just one.
Other honorable mentions:
How to Be a Zillionaire by ABC; High Land, Hard Rain by Aztec Camera; Whammy! By the B-52’s; The Trinity Sessions by Cowboy Junkies; New Traditionalists by Devo; Shooting Rubberbands at the Stars by Edie Brickell & The New Bohemians; Discover by Gene Loves Jezebel; General Public by General Public; Pelican West by Haircut 100; London 0 Hull 4 and The People Who Grinned Themselves to Death by The Housemartins; Hipsway by Hipsway; Human’s Lib and Dream Into Action by Howard Jones; Joe Jackson Live 1980/86 by Joe Jackson; My Nation Underground by Julian Cope; Burning Bridges by Naked Eyes; Substance by New Order (my CD copy of which got STOLEN when my apartment was burglarized in 1992, before I digitized my music collection, and I’ve missed it ever since!); Promise by Sade; Cupid & Psyche 85 by Scritti Politti; Bring on the Night (Live) by Sting; Tracy Chapman by Tracy Chapman; Rat in the Kitchen by UB40; and Violent Femmes by Violent Femmes; Upstairs at Eric’s by Yaz (or Yazoo, for you purists)
Basically, it was a rad decade for music.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: John Kovacevich is a writer and creative director based in San Francisco. If you hire him, he’ll obsess over which track to put on your project (and then quietly gnash his teeth when the client decides to use “that song that the DJ played at my wedding” instead.) If you’re interested in his spin on 80s MOVIES, check this out.