The 80s were one of a kind. It was as if the 1950s were asked to depict what they thought the year 2000 would look like. Needless to say, they missed the mark, but we got a lot of awfully awesome things in return.
The decade that gave birth to Millennials felt like it was in a constant state of identity crisis, and nothing showed that better than the music industry – everything from hair metal madness and synth pop classics to the birth of hip hop and the tide of new wave.
Talking Heads – Remain in Light
Often considered their magnus opus, Remain in Light is like a genre melting pot experiment. It’s got a little funk, a dab of electronics, a touch of new wave and even some Safari beats. Still to this day, nearly 40 years later, “Once in a Lifetime” sounds like a song that just came out yesterday.
AC/DC – Back in Black
One of the greatest rock groups of all time with a song (“Back in Black”) that’s pretty much a certified football anthem. Plus, “You Shook Me All Night Long” puts the roll in rock n’ roll.
Journey – Escape
When it becomes everything just short of mandatory for your smash song to be a bar and wedding staple, that’s when you know you’ve cemented your legacy in 80s lore. A lot of people may not realize it, but Journey had four singles from Escape land in the Top 20, but with “Don’t Stop Believing” leading the charge, who needs to remember the other three?
Rush – Moving Pictures
Tom Sawyer. Mean guitar riff. Slappin’ da bass. I Love You Man.
Michael Jackson – Thriller
What do you say about possibly the greatest record of all time other than it’s one of, if not, the greatest records of all time? Not much. Thriller and its magnificent seven singles speak for itself. That, and the fact that it was and still is the world’s best-selling album.
Prince – 1999
The late artist (formerly known as), had a remarkable impact on music and culture. The little man oozed sex appeal and played a wicked guitar to boot. Purple Rain may be the most revered album, thanks in large part to the movie, but the song “1999” from the album of the same name helped issue in a millennium nearly 18 years before the calendars flipped over to Y2K.
Violent Femmes – Violent Femmes
Sometimes to find lightening in a bottle, you’ve got to turn to unlikely places. And Violent Femmes’ self-titled debut album captures that thunder with “Blister in the Sun,” the unlikeliest of hits. With just an acoustic guitar, standup bass and snare drum, this barebones band made minimalist nerd rock cool for perhaps the first time, but definitely not the last.
The Police – Synchronicity
From 1978 to 1983, The Police released five full length albums. An album every year for five years?! That’s a music masterpiece in and of itself. And while they had a string of amazing songs from those previous albums, it wasn’t until Synchronicity hit radio waves that they struck music legend gold with the beautiful albeit slightly creepy smash single, “Every Breath You Take.”
Madonna – Like a Virgin
How do you go wrong with the album that introduced the world to the edgy, sexy, social norm-pushing Madonna? Like a Virgin launched miss M into the lime light, and she took full advantage of the platform paving way for future understudies like Lady Gaga and Miley Cyrus. In a decade and industry laden with dudes, Madonna was the first female to come in like a wrecking ball. Sorry, Miley.
Bruce Springsteen – Born in the USA
The Cold War was entering full swing in the early 80s. With the threat of a nuclear war, America needed something they could rally around – an anthem of sorts. Enter “The Boss” with Born in the USA. Featuring an impressive seven top 10 hit singles, Springsteen created an American pledge of allegiance that spoke about freedom and national pride – something the country was in desperate need of embracing.
John Mellencamp – Scarecrow
Following in “The Boss’” footsteps, Mellencamp was next in line to capitalize on national pride with Scarecrow, an American homage of sorts. From rocking in the USA to being born in a small town, Mellencamp takes listeners on a musical journey across the heart of America and the soul of its citizens – past and present.
Tom Waits – Rain Dogs
The middle part of a trilogy of albums – Swordfishtrombones and Frank’s Wild Years being the other two – Rain Dogs felt like anti-music. What can be misconstrued as recorded cacophony in large part to Wait’s snarling smoker voice and drunken musical garnishes, Rain Dogs takes listeners on an oxymoron-like journey across genres, just like an acquired taste. There’s country, gospel, polka – even cabaret tunes and ballads, and that’s just the tip of Rain Dogs genre-blurring iceberg.
Run-D.M.C. – Raising Hell
In 1986, hip hop was still young and fairly new to the masses. It needed a voice. A group to help it cut through the pop/rock clutter and breakthrough to the mainstream. Thanks to Run-D.M.C. (with a little help from Aerosmith), they were able to literally kick down pop radio’s door.
Beastie Boys – Licenses to Ill
You gotta fight … for your right … to land on this list, and the Beastie Boys do just that with this acclaimed punk rock rap masterpiece.
U2 – Joshua Tree
The Irish rockers struck everlasting musical treasure with Joshua Tree, inspired by their love affair with America from previous tours. Looking to be more than just an arena rock band, U2 went back to the drawing board and matured their sound with the perfect mix of rhythmic rock, raw force, acoustic soulfulness and melodic ballads. The result? One of the greatest selling albums of all time.
Guns N’ Roses – Appetite for Destruction
If it were any other year, Appetite for Destruction would have probably locked in the top spot. After all, it introduced the masses to Axel, Slash and co. while paving way for what good hair metal rock should have been.
Sonic Youth – Daydream Nation
Indie. Underground. New youth culture. Daydream Nation was all these things wrapped into one alternative trailblazing album. It was the perfect combination of budding nerd rock, collegiate anthems and indie angst that would later breed an impressive collection of alternative rock bands like Fugazi, Weezer and Beck in the 90s.
N.W.A. – Straight Outta Compton
Sure. N.W.A was a musical movement that helped thrust hip hop into even greater popularity in the 90s, but it was much more than that. It was a cultural change that boiled the underlying ocean of black oppression in America to the surface of the nation’s soil.
Nine Inch Nails – Pretty Hate Machine
Trent Reznor wrote, played and produced all of Pretty Hate Machine as a way to create music that wasn’t being made at the time. Rather than just calling the project a solo act under his name, he named it Nine Inch Nails to give it the illusion that it was a band – an orchestra of alternative/aggressive synth pop musicians. It was a coming of age album for a lot of angsty teens who were just trying to figure out how they all fit in.
Pixies – Doolittle & Janet Jackson – Rhythm Nation 1814
Two completely contrasting artists and albums, but both holding their own clout of musical and cultural influence as they rung in the 90s.
Speaking of the 90s, check out our blog on The Best CD Albums of the 90s