Skip to main content

Rolling Stone's 100 best albums of the '80s

Mick Jones and The Clash released "London Calling" stateside in January 1980.
Mick Jones and The Clash released "London Calling" stateside in January 1980.
  • The 1980s have been the decade of synth pop, Michael Jackson and the CD
  • "Born in the U.S.A." was the breakthrough Springsteen fans expected for a decade
  • The members of R.E.M. incorporated elements of folk and country music into pop

(Rolling Stone) -- 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 ten 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.

Rolling Stone's Original 1980 Review

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.

See the full list of 100 best albums of the 1980s here.

1. The Clash, "London Calling"

This album could not have come at a more perfect time or from a more appropriate band than the Clash. Released stateside in January 1980, with the decade but a pup and the new year in gear, "London Calling" was an emergency broadcast from rock's Last Angry Band, serving notice that Armageddon was nigh, Western society was rotten at the core, and rock & roll needed a good boot in the rear.

2. Prince and the Revolution, "Purple Rain"

Released in tandem with the film of the same name, "Purple Rain" was more than simply a soundtrack, and it stands as Prince's most cohesive and accessible album. "He envisioned the film as he made the album," says Alan Leeds, vice-president of Paisley Park Records, Prince's label. "He had a vision in his mind of the film a year before he got in front of the cameras, and he wrote the music to that vision."

3. U2, "The Joshua Tree"

"The Joshua Tree" is the rather esoterically titled album he's referring to -- a title that even the typically solemn Bono could joke about.

500 Greatest Albums of All Time: 'London Calling' by the Clash

4. Talking Heads, "Remain in Light"

"Remain in Light" may have been a commercial disappointment, but musically, the band's 1980 album -- which combines funk, disco and African rhythms -- was years ahead of its time. "It got great critical acclaim, and we felt that it kind of took popular music to the next phase," says Frantz, "which is what we always wanted to do."

5. Paul Simon, "Graceland"

The journey to "Graceland" began with an unlabeled cassette tape that guitarist Heidi Berg gave to Simon, who listened to it incessantly, without knowing what it was, throughout the summer of 1984.

6. Bruce Springsteen, "Born in the U.S.A."

"Born in the U.S.A." -- the album, the song and the sixteen-month tour -- turned out to be the breakthrough that Springsteen fans had been expecting for a decade. The influential Jersey musician became the world's biggest rock star -- and a bona fide American icon, to boot.

7. Michael Jackson, "Thriller"

"Thriller," reportedly recorded for $750,000, has sold more than 40 million copies worldwide -- and it still sells. It earned Jackson over 150 gold and platinum awards worldwide and a record seven Grammys.

8. R.E.M., "Murmur"

The members of R.E.M. incorporated elements of folk and country music into pop that was, by turns, bright and murky. Theirs was a quasi-traditional yet boundary-breaking sound that served as a blueprint for alternative bands throughout America for the rest of the decade.

9. Richard and Linda Thompson, "Shoot Out the Lights"

"Even in the best days of our marriage, Richard and I didn't communicate with each other fabulously well," says Linda Thompson. "I think that the reason the music was good was that we tended to save it for work." Perhaps that explains why "Shoot Out the Lights" is both the best and last album Richard and Linda Thompson made together.

10. Tracy Chapman, "Tracy Chapman"

Tracy Chapman was discovered in 1987 by fellow Tufts University student Brian Koppelman. "I was helping organize a boycott protest against apartheid at school, and someone told me there was this great protest singer I should get to play at the rally," says Koppelman, who now works in A&R at Elektra. He went to see Chapman perform at a coffeehouse called Cappuccino. "Tracy walked onstage, and it was like an epiphany," he says. "Her presence, her voice, her songs, her sincerity -- it all came across."

See the full list of 100 best albums of the 1980s here.

Copyright © 2011 Rolling Stone.

Featured Deal |