Essential 80's collage

Twelve 80s Albums You Must Own

By Thursday Review editors | Published, Tuesday, February 4, 2014 |

Are you so Old School that you think all the important rock and roll innovations stopped at the end of the 1970s? It's time to rethink that viewpoint. Sure, hard rock took a decade-long break, but beginning at the end of the 70s there was an explosion of sound and style, innovations in Pop Music that had an enormous influence in the 90s, the aughts and beyond. Regardless of your age, here are the dozen essential sounds from the Big 80s.

1999; Prince. The artist previously (and afterwards, and possibly in between) known as Prince was the epitome of innovation, while always conscious--without being derivative--of his roots of Rock & Roll and R&B. 1999 was his masterpiece, his Sgt. Pepper's, his Are You Experienced, and in my book the most astounding record to emerge from the 80s. You cannot help but like every tune, and no CD collection is quite complete with Prince. If you have only room on the shelf for one of the Minneapolis Master's work, this is the one.

War; U2. Proof that there was real life left in the edgy advance of hard rock in the 1980s, War put U2 on the map and took them out of second-and-third-tier status. (How things can change: I saw them first as an opening act for Bryan Adams in the early 80s). The crackling, energetic songs "Sunday Bloody Sunday" and "New Year’s Day" remain two of the most recognizable anthems of a whole generation, and two compositions that remain relevant to this day.

Remain in Light; Talking Heads. Though Talking Heads really got their start in the mid-70s (they were a frequent opening act for Iggy Pop) they remain in our collective memory as one of the most important bridgeheads into the early 80s. This was a band of almost limitless innovation and exploration, so avante garde that had it not been for the pre-eminence of MTV, many people would be unfamiliar with band leader David Byrne or the Talking Heads sound. But the music was as infectious as anything ever recorded. One can argue the merits of which of the albums were the best—since they were all mind-blowing for their innovations—but my vote goes to Remain in Light, the best of their collaborations with producer Brian Eno. Features the songs "Houses in Motion" and "Born Under Punches (The Heat Goes On)." And of course "Once in a Lifetime" is one of those songs that...well, the name sums it up neatly.

Brothers in Arms; Dire Straits. This was Dire Straits (and front-man Mark Knopfler) at the height of their songwriting and recording prowess. Brothers in Arms became a culturally-defining achievement, and elevated Dire Straits to the top of the charts in the 80s. The album is at once innovative, atmospheric and seductive—sometimes all at once. The marriage of the band to MTV and a whole generation—thanks to the enormous success of "Money for Nothing" and its famous accompanying computer-generated video—distracts from the fact that this is truly great music. If possible, locate the 20th anniversary edition on CD—it features re-mastering and video content on the flip side of the disc. Songs like "So Far Away" and "Walk of Life" are still dazzling to listen to, and the title cut "Brothers in Arms" is one of the most haunting pieces ever recorded in the pop genre. This is a pure joy, from start to finish.

Off The Wall; Michael Jackson. Sometimes fun music trumps everything else, and Off The Wall was Michael at the real height of his powers of performance. These are simply some of the best songs of the era, period. Throw in great collaborations with Quincy Jones, Paul McCartney and Stevie Wonder, and the result is what plays like a greatest hits record. The catchy, infectious songs include "Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough" and "Rock With You," among many others. This was the best mainstream dance music of its time, and it established Michael as the King of Pop. Buy the Special Edition for its top-notch re-mastering and the audio interviews and bonus tracks, including a demo of "Workin’ Day and Night." Keep the CD handy: if you ever throw a party that starts to slide into the doldrums, relieve that ho-hum by popping this into the stereo—I guarantee you things will come to life.

Emotional Rescue; The Rolling Stones. This was insurmountable proof that these guys would never stop, never quit, and never stop rocking us no matter how old they got. They were squarely on top with this collection, which includes some of their punchiest and snappiest tunes: the aptly named "Dance," the infectious "Where the Boys Go," and the unstoppable "She’s So Cold." The vinyl featured a huge wall poster, sadly lacking in the CD. Still, every song is a winner. If the song "Let Me Go" doesn’t make you want to dance, call your doctor at once.

The Cars; The Cars. Some people know it by the opening cut Let the Good Times Roll, but the album is really just The Cars. Technically late 70s transition stuff (it was released in late 1978) this record was a harbinger for the sweeping changes and experimentation of the post-disco era, loosely called New Wave. The album is so good—down to every single track—that it plays like a greatest hits collection. Indeed, every song is iconic. "From My Best Friend’s Girl" to "You’re All I’ve Got Tonight," and from "Just What I Needed" to "Moving in Stereo," there are evocations of the late 70s and 80s on every track. Front-man Ric Ocasek was a songwriter extraordinaire. Essential stuff for your collection.

The Joshua Tree; U2. The game changer for this band: already a force to be reckoned with, The Joshua Tree took their raw, edgy sound and polished it to a highly transcendent dazzle, thanks in part to producers Daniel Lanois and Brian Eno. A few purists of the movement complained at the time—Bono had developed messianic affectations and besides, who needs all that slickness and luster?—but when it came to music, the 80s were about innovation and exploration, not finding a single niche. The whole album is seamless, and the moody, pseudo-spiritualistic songs like "Where the Streets Have no Name" and "With or Without You" remain potent and halting to this day. This is a collection of songs that belongs on any music shelf, if only to have a copy of "I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For." Best played without distractions, so leave your smart phone in the other room.

Graceland; Paul Simon. Released in 1986, Graceland was Paul Simon’s biggest album success since his departure from the Simon & Garfunkel duo, and the record was a smashing creative success. Noted for its unusual mix of styles and compositions, including collaborations with several African musicians as well as the group Los Lobos, the record introduced the concept of “world music” to millions of mainstream music lovers. Dazzling and innovative from start to finish, Graceland includes the title track, along with numerous other classics: "The Boy in the Bubble"; "You Can Call Me Al"; and the shimmering, hypnotic African sounds of "Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes." Has made it somewhere on everyone’s list of the greatest 100 albums, including Time, Rolling Stone and Q. It is impossible not to like this recording.

Reggatta de Blanc; The Police. Released in late 1979, this is also transitional music, post-disco and early New Wave. In fact, many critics regard this album as the primary force which propelled the larger, loosely defined post-punk, New Wave movement squarely into the mainstream of American and British pop music. This was only the trio’s second album, but it produced two mega-hits, "Message in a Bottle" and "Walking on the Moon," each of which hit number one on the U.S. music charts. Those two songs propelled the obscure, reggae-influenced band into stardom: one year before, they were touring The States in a rented van, but after this they were one of the biggest musical groups in rock history. Several songs pegged the charts in other countries as well, including Holland, Germany and Australia. Reggatta de Blanc also contains many more wonderful songs from the era, including "The Bed’s Too Big Without You" and "Does Everyone Stare." The album was also largely responsible for the surge in mainstream interest in reggae music. You have to have a copy of this on CD.

Like a Virgin; Madonna. With this smash album, Madonna established herself as the Queen of Pop and dismissed all rivals among female artists. Released in the fall of 1984, this was one of the biggest selling albums of the 1980s, and if you are not familiar with most of these songs, then you were asleep for the whole Reagan decade (and then some). Five songs were released as singles, and they all had an impact on the charts, not the least of them the title cut, "Like a Virgin," and the iconic "Material Girl." The album also contains "Angel" and "Dress You Up." The music was hugely influential on other female artists who came later—from Brittney Spears to Lady Gaga—but also immeasurably controversial, then and now, for its narcissistic message presumably passed along to younger females. Still, your 80s collection is not complete without this around somewhere. Admit it, you like "Into the Groove."

Permanent Waves; Rush. The Canadian trio of Neil Peart, Geddy Lee and Eric Lifeson created a band that from the very start always seemed to be in some form of motion or evolution, despite their unique voice print—easily recognizable even in an unfamiliar song. After numerous modestly successful classical-rock albums in the 70s, Permanent Waves put them squarely on top. No other band of this size—only three performers—could create this much sound, and Peart is simply one of the most skilled and versatile percussionists of the last thirty of forty years. Two tunes here, "The Spirit of Radio" and "Free Will" established Rush as a permanent force on the hard rock scene, and left them with few peers after the demise of lesser pretenders. Anything by Rush is best played loud, but this one deserves the best speakers you have. I still think "Jacob’s Ladder" is what killed my pair of three-foot-high, wood-grain Pioneers back in 1981.

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