Sometimes it feels like the neon thumbprint of the 1980s never went away. It’s arguably the defining throwback aesthetic of American culture today, from the TV series we reboot to the prints we wear. And when it comes to its music, well, that’s even more ubiquitous: The decade was one of great upheaval and innovation, and the seeds it planted continue to flourish. It was a time when disco and punk were in tatters, its artists rebuilding from the rubble with new innovations to birth hardcore and new wave. Rock was getting more ridiculous, with Aqua-Net to spare, but it was also paring back into the thoughtful nexus that would someday be called “indie rock”—or it was throwing up pentagrams, getting sludgier and meaner, and turning into metal. Jazz and ambient were pushing their experimental borders, getting more cinematic and free. Singer-songwriters in folk and R&B were plumbing new depths of the human experience, getting frank about social and gender politics. And hip-hop was evolving at a head-spinning clip, expanding its reach and ambition along the way.
Now, with hindsight, we’re attempting to look at the ’80s with new eyes—reassessing old favorites, rediscovering undersung gems. And that means, in part, looking at Pitchfork’s own history frankly: Longtime readers may remember that, in 2002, we made a list of The Top 100 Albums of the 1980s. That list was shorter, sure, but it also represented a limited editorial stance we have worked hard to move past; its lack of diversity, both in album selections and contributing critics, does not represent the voice Pitchfork has become. For this new list, we gathered votes from more than 50 full-time staffers and regularly contributing writers to open up our discussion. Our list still reflects the realities of the ’80s—many great artists worked more successfully in singles than in full albums, for example—but we hope it represents the best of what this innovative decade has to offer, as well as how people consume music now. Tune in.
Malcolm McLaren: Duck Rock (1983)
Malcolm McLaren was something of a pop music Zelig between 1974 and 1982—he managed the New York Dolls, assembled the Sex Pistols, launched Adam Ant, and then stole Ant’s band for Bow Wow Wow, which turned into an early MTV sensation. Inspired by a 1981 trip to New York, McLaren enlisted super-producer Trevor Horn and conceived of an album under his own name that would pay tribute to social music and dancing from around the globe.
Hip-hop on record was still in its infancy, but McLaren made it the binding force of his album, hiring the World’s Famous Supreme Team (the crew behind one of the first hip-hop radio shows) to contribute vocals and scratches and serve as a kind of Greek chorus. In an era where the average hip-hop track still consisted of rapping over a warmed-over disco groove, McLaren was throwing South African guitar pop, salsa, new wave, and country & western music into the mix. Yes, Duck Rock is an album that we’d now call problematic, with uncredited borrowing from cultures that were not McLaren’s own and a few exoticizing lyrics from McLaren that make you cringe. But it was also a far-reaching pop music document that looked to a future when sounds and songs would zip around the planet and recombine into exciting new forms. –Mark Richardson
Listen: Malcolm McLaren: “Buffalo Gals”
Tenor Saw: Fever (1985)
Though it omits some of his best work, including the all-time dancehall classic “Ring the Alarm,” Tenor Saw’s 1985 debut is rightly recognized as a cornerstone of the genre. Not only does this Sugar Minott-produced set deliver the best of Saw’s shallow catalog (the young singer died under mysterious circumstances in Texas only three years after its release), it captures the singular appeal of his spooky yet sonorous wail with songs that speak to each other in a minor-key language all their own. “Roll Call” encapsulates that appeal: Saw transposes the gospel imagery of “When the Saints Go Marching In” to the ghetto heaven of the dancehall, bringing a quasi-religious fervor to his soundsystem boasts. –Eddie “Stats” Houghton
Listen: Tenor Saw: “Roll Call”
Mercyful Fate: Don’t Break the Oath (1984)
The ’80s saw heavy metal engaged in a sort of arms race, as groups across the world set out to one-up each other in a quest to be the heaviest, the most technical, or the most extreme. Mercyful Fate were adept at all three. On Don’t Break the Oath, the Copenhagen quintet were drawing power from the rollicking tempos of hard rock, the neo-classical techniques of prog, and the brutish heaviness of UK standard bearers Venom. Then, on top of that, they threw in King Diamond, a genuine Satanist whose operatic vocals dripped with evil grandeur, but who was also capable of a pathos-laden wail curiously reminiscent of the Cure’s Robert Smith. Thanks to Diamond’s distinctive corpse paint, Mercyful Fate are often pigeonholed as a sort of proto-black metal band. But ultimately, Don’t Break the Oath isn’t great because it’s a roadmap to some future sound; this is ’80s metal in excelsis. –Louis Pattison
Listen: Mercyful Fate: “Gypsy”
Whodini: Escape (1984)
Whodini’s Escape is a collection of raps delivered fiercely over beats that sound as huge as basketball echoes off a warehouse floor. After enlisting Run-D.M.C. producer Larry Smith, the New York group originally intended to make a rock-oriented rap album. But when Smith ended up throwing a guitar on Run-D.M.C.’s “Rock Box,” Whodini instead retreated into severely cropped drum sounds and synths to produce a rap/R&B hybrid that scraped against an outer emptiness. Synths boil and spark on the top of “Freaks Come Out at Night” like oil leaping in a pan. “Friends” is constantly worried by its underlying rhythms, drum machine sequences trembling across each other like spider legs. Escape is an album of compressed explosions; few rap records since have sounded so big with so little detail. –Brad Nelson
Listen: Whodini: “One Love”
Virgo: Virgo (1989)
Born of Chicago’s burgeoning ’80s house music scene, Virgo’s only LP shares the dreamy yearnings of Mr. Fingers and Joe Smooth while using many of the same Roland drum machines and synthesizers that would define the era. It was largely written in seclusion during a burst of heady collaborative inspiration between producers Eric Lewis and Merwyn Sanders, and it both captures and transcends its moment. Tracks like “Ride” and “Going Thru Life” reach beyond the dancefloor, shimmering like mirages and glowing with an intimate warmth that would make most DJs blush. Virgo is understated throughout, which is perhaps one reason it was so widely slept-on in its time. “Deep” doesn’t begin to cut it: There isn’t a millimeter of wasted space, and each moment surges in confident, monastic introspection. The twisting basslines and searching drums—played by hand without sequencers—take on a human fragility. Listening to Virgo isn’t so much a flashback to Chicago’s house heyday as it is a portal to another dimension. –Daniel Martin-McCormick
Listen: Virgo: “Going Thru Life”
Cecil Taylor: For Olim (1987)
This path-breaking sorcerer of the jazz piano richly deserved—but did not always receive—the support of club owners and record labels. But whenever Cecil Taylor found a supportive new home, he tended to make the most of it. Between 1984 and 1994, Soul Note recorded an unusually vast selection of Taylor’s groups, including the large-ensemble effort “Winged Serpent (Sliding Quadrants)” and a duo outing with percussion icon Max Roach. Yet the pinnacle is For Olim, an inspired live solo performance of potent improvisational intensity and compositional range. Percussive and experimental from the jump, For Olim also offers some pristine pools of reflection on “Mirror and Water Gazing” and “The Question.” After the rigors of the main set, a sequence of compact encores hints at Taylor’s humor and his ability to channel a wide range of emotional states through his virtuosic playing. –Seth Colter Walls
Listen: Cecil Taylor: “For the Rabbit”
Patrice Rushen: Straight From the Heart (1982)
Straight From the Heart is a holy grail in the hip-hop sampling community—its nine pop songs have been clipped, mangled, and remixed by Slum Village, Grandmaster Flash, Common, Will Smith, Mobb Deep, Faith Evans, and more. It was California dance pop prodigy Patrice Rushen’s seventh album and her first commercial breakthrough. The record is powered by the unforgettable energy of “Forget Me Nots,” a once-in-a-lifetime club track that took over the discotheques in Europe and dancefloors of North America with ease. The album itself is as versatile and thoughtful—a genre-hopping collection of jazz, funk, house, and disco that rolls out like a survey of all the fun the ’80s could offer. –Kevin Lozano
Flipper: Generic Album - Flipper (1982)
Slow, sludgy hardcore punk seems counterintuitive even today, so imagine what it must have sounded like in 1982. Hardcore was still defining itself when Flipper crashed the party on their first full-length. Their lurching beats, heavy bass lines, and sloshing guitars sounded like punk with a hangover, or maybe the Stooges chugging codeine. Yet Flipper’s reject-it-all lyrics, shouted with anger and irony, proved you could be sloppy and still make a point.
It wasn’t always easy to tell exactly what that point was, though. The album’s most famous song, “Sex Bomb,” repeats an empty lyric alongside screams and hoots, as if nothing matters. In other places, Flipper stand up for life—“the only thing worth living for”—and turn nihilism into a blank slate full of potential, much the way Richard Hell’s “Blank Generation” did a half-decade before. Throughout Album - Generic Flipper, the band is bent on upending its own gravity, and sometimes it can all feel like an awesome joke. But Flipper’s first record is much more passionate than a punchline. –Marc Masters
Listen: Flipper: “Life Is Cheap”
Salt-N-Pepa: Hot, Cool & Vicious (1986)
Riot grrrl is remembered as ground zero for third-wave feminism, but Salt-N-Pepa were rapping about equality, ambition, and the pursuit of pleasure before Bratmobile could even vote. In retrospect, the debut album by college pals Cheryl “Salt” James and Sandy “Pepa” Denton, with DJ Pamela Greene (soon to be replaced by Spinderella) on the decks, plays like a foundational text of the movement. On Hot, Cool & Vicious, there was no wrong way to be an empowered woman. Career-making hit “Push It” paired the decade’s steamiest synth hook with a dextrous display of female sexual bravado; “Tramp” found them applying the slur to men with one-track minds; “I Desire” was a complete sentence.
Sexuality was always central to Salt-N-Pepa’s music, but it was far from the only thing occupying the rappers’ attention on Hot, Cool & Vicious. Tracks like “Beauty and the Beat” and “My Mic Sounds Nice,” odes to the joy of women believing in themselves and each other enough to make music together, were equally vital to the trio’s appeal. If all-female rap crews are as maddeningly rare in 2018 as they were in 1986, it’s certainly not for lack of worthy role models. –Judy Berman
Listen: Salt-N-Pepa: “Tramp”
Bronski Beat: The Age of Consent (1984)
It’s hard to imagine a more wrenching cri de coeur than the one that pours from Bronski Beat singer Jimmy Somerville. His countertenor pierces through every song on the British synth-pop band’s unflinching debut, conveying pain, anger, righteousness, and freedom all at once. His howls exorcised the vexing truths of gay life at the time, while finding release in the liberating rhythms of dance music. While many artists of the British synth-pop movement were gay, from Soft Cell’s Marc Almond to Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s Holly Johnson, none were nearly as political or outspoken as Bronski Beat.
Amazingly, that didn’t stop their tentpole single, “Smalltown Boy”—which dealt with the violence of gay bashing—from hitting No. 3 in their home and cracking the U.S. Top 50. The album also had a sense of humor, found in the cover of Gershwin’s “It Ain’t Necessarily So,” where they stressed the song’s sly line of questioning about what’s written in the Bible. The fact that Somerville only performed with Bronski Beat on this album cemented its legacy as a snapshot of proto-queer-pop power. –Jim Farber
Listen: Bronski Beat: “Why?”
Ini Kamoze: Ini Kamoze (1984)
Ini Kamoze’s self-titled 1984 debut was not just the introduction of a talented new voice in reggae. It was also the chosen vehicle for riddim twins Sly & Robbie to usher in a new evolution of the reggae beat. Their innovation is apparent from the album’s very first track, “Trouble You a Trouble Me,” slow in tempo but punctuated by rapid-fire digital filling in every bar. It has been described as “robotic reggae,” but similarities have also been noted to the sound of automatic gunfire echoing off concrete walls—sadly, a much more common presence during ’80s Jamaica than robots.
That hard rhythm section is well met by Kamoze’s unique voice and perspective, a Rasta coolly observing ghetto culture with an almost journalistic eye: “Down in the region where I rest/It’s the survival of the hardest/One man well-cool, the next man tense/Some sounds like these across the fence.” A cult favorite, the album’s legendary status was not fully written until Damian “Junior Gong” Marley used Kamoze’s voice—sampled from the second cut, “World-a-Music”—as the sonic cornerstone of his 2005 hit “Welcome to Jamrock”: “Out in the streets, they call it MUR-THERRR!” –Eddie “STATS” Houghton
Listen: Ini Kamoze: “General”
Butthole Surfers: Locust Abortion Technician (1987)
Like a batch of brown acid spiking the American underground, no ’80s band was as hallucinatory and psychosis-inducing as Texas’ Butthole Surfers. Their overwhelming live shows—flaming cymbals! penile-reconstruction videos! frontman Gibby Haynes firing a shotgun!—warped the minds of Nirvana, Soundgarden, Sonic Youth, and thousands of punks along the way. And none of their albums captured that live insanity better than Locust Abortion Technician. From the John Wayne Gacy-indebted cover art to the turbid sounds within, the group’s third LP took a chainsaw to hardcore, psychedelic rock, country blues, Black Sabbath, and, on closer “22 Going on 23,” the sound of mooing cows and the agonizing confession of a sexual assault victim. Butchering every notion of good taste in their path, the Butthole Surfers revelled in the most cartoonish and nightmarish aspects of reality without regret. Or, as Haynes put it here: “If you see your mom this weekend, will you be sure to tell her… Satan!” –Andy Beta
Listen: Butthole Surfers: “U.S.S.A.”
Yoko Ono: Season of Glass (1981)
If you’ve never actually heard Yoko Ono’s music, you may be surprised by the polish, professionalism, and aesthetic deference here. Released months after John Lennon was shot and killed in front of their apartment building, Season of Glass is, in most senses, a pop-rock album, replete with saxophone breaks and guitar solos, plus nods to doo-wop, disco, and, inevitably, the Beatles. (In the narrative of Ono as an avant-garde firebrand, it’s easy to forget that the album was co-produced by girl-group architect Phil Spector.)
The unsettling, sometimes jarring turn here lies in hearing someone as heartbroken as Ono in the context of music so indifferent and pristine. Like the sight of someone crying in a shopping mall, Season of Glass is touching in part because of how sharply it contrasts the real with the fake, the primitive with the alienated and overly evolved. In the album’s liner notes, Ono wrote that she almost scrapped the album because her voice was choking and cracking, because people told her it wasn’t the right time. Then she realized that there were a lot of people out there whose voices were choking and cracking for one reason or another. It’s not like she had a choice: Her extremely famous husband had died. When asked about her candor in The New York Times, about making an album while still so raw, Ono, fortified by grief, responded rhetorically: “What was I supposed to do, avoid the subject?” –Mike Powell
Tom Tom Club: Tom Tom Club (1981)
If anyone still gets sentimental about the Lower East Side of the ’80s, a fantasy land where Madonna and Fab Five Freddy partied with the graffiti artists Futura and Keith Haring, we probably have perfect records like Tom Tom Club to blame. As the bassist and drummer of the Talking Heads, respectively, Tina Weymouth and Chris Frantz were in love with rubbery grooves and polyrthythms. They might never have formed Tom Tom Club if not for Island Records A&R exec Chris Blackwell, who heard them cover Zapp’s “More Bounce to the Ounce” and asked them to delve deeper. The result is one of those records that is about record collections: Besides having one of the world’s most buoyant grooves, the immortal “Genius of Love” is also a breathless rundown of all the new music electrifying its makers. (“BOHANNON! BOHANNON! JAMES BROOOOWN!”)
Tom Tom Club is music about learning that music can be your entire world, even after you have spent your life in it already: It is a paean to inexhaustible joy. It presents New York as the sort of gleeful interracial paradise that sadly only ever existed inside the music itself; this was the early ’80s, after all, amid the early rumblings of the crack epidemic and the AIDS crisis. But this music, weightless and unconquerable, knows nothing about any of that. It is invincible in its innocence. –Jayson Greene
Listen: Tom Tom Club: “Lorelei”
Paul McCartney: McCartney II (1980)
Like its predecessor, Paul McCartney’s second proper solo album was titled with subtle defiance, forcing the millions who adored the Lennon/McCartney partnership to accept life after the slash mark. A strange, guileless wisp of a synth-pop record, released with the nonchalance of a hiccup from the greatest rock balladeer of all time, McCartney II veers into an eccentric new direction even Beatlemaniacs might not recognize.
McCartney had fiddled with synths before, but this album motors almost entirely on them, its Top 40 choruses distilled to essence below cheery keyboards and tinny drum machines. Its gulping electronic beats are so playful that the record can initially scan as shallow—one long, instrumental furtherance of his “Silly Love Songs” sanguinity—but the skill in its arrangement and embrace of technology doesn’t waver. Originally derided as a novelty, McCartney II is now remarkable in its prescience of the lo-fi and bedroom pop movements. The Cute One could be weird, too. –Stacey Anderson
Too $hort: Life Is... Too $hort (1988)
Once grouped into the Bay Area rap scene, Oakland has become its own hip-hop hub, known for a distinct, simple sound in which the drums kick a little harder and the 808s boom with more intensity. And Oakland’s own Too $hort prophesied this unmistakable vibe with his early albums. Released in 1988, his fifth LP, Life Is...Too $hort, now feels like a glimpse into the following decade. The rapper forced the music industry’s hand, refusing to adhere to their careful language etiquette, beginning songs like “CussWords” by laughing and letting the profanity fly: “To all you bitches, hoes, and all that shit.” Even the instrumentation was ahead of its time, stripping the funk and letting the drums run wild, especially in the incessant hi-hat rattle of “I Ain’t Trippin.” Together, all this made Life Is...Too $hort an early playground for the direction rap would soon embrace. –Alphonse Pierre
Listen: Too $hort: “City of Dope”
Change: The Glow of Love (1980)
Recorded in both New York and Bologna, Italy, The Glow of Love is the ultimate cosmopolitan dance record, so well-traveled it seems to have recently arrived from space. Like a Chic album, Glow is designed to magnetize people to a dancefloor, but it also embodies lowercase chic, a luxurious overspill of detail, as if one were watching city lights melt across the window of a limousine. Singer Jocelyn Brown crackles over the first side, but the second side is defined by the low, steady glow of Luther Vandross’ voice. Vandross described the title track at the time as the most beautiful song he’d sung in his life; its sunlit piano figure was eventually sampled for Janet Jackson’s “All for You,” where it was altered to be less about the gentle glow of love than the hard boil of lust. Like other Italo-disco acts, Change’s grooves are drawn to a distant, glittering future; “The End” closes the record by seeming to accelerate up a highway ramp extending into the cosmos. –Brad Nelson
Listen: Change: “Searching”
The B-52’s: Wild Planet (1980)
Campy, subversive, and queer in a decidedly square era, the B-52’s were a party band at heart. After the manic perfection of their 1979 debut put them at the forefront of new wave as well as alongside their Athens, Georgia neighbors R.E.M. in the realm of college rock, Wild Planet doubles down on discarded things like surf rock, exotica, girl groups, and TV theme songs. Their itchy dance grooves are topped by giddy gibberish about everything from digging up spuds in Idaho to being 53 miles west of Venus. But just beneath the bop lie more paranoid elements, from the desperate pleas of “Give Me Back My Man” to the hell ride of “Devil in My Car.” In the face of such fears, the B-52’s offer the only solution possible: Keep dancing out of bounds. –Andy Beta
Listen: The B-52’s: “Private Idaho”
ABBA: The Visitors (1981)
For a snapshot of how life changed for young people in Western Europe between the ’70s and the ’80s, you need only compare ABBA in their 1974 Eurovision triumph with the band that released The Visitors seven years later. Gone are the electric blue pantaloons and giddy songs about love, replaced by somber color schemes and songs about nuclear paranoia, divorce, and the jarring melancholy of watching your child leave for school, knowing on some level you are losing them forever. That makes The Visitors sound incredibly bleak, but ABBA don't really do bleak. Here, their pop is so unbelievably well crafted—from the triumphal synth hook on the title track to the subtly waltzing drums on “Soldiers”—that it always feels like there is some kind of hope behind the tears, the sublime melodies picking you up even as the words knock you down. –Ben Cardew
Listen: ABBA: “The Visitors”
Nuno Canavarro: Plux Quba (1988)
Thirty years on, Portuguese composer Nuno Canavarro’s lone solo work remains as enigmatic and inscrutable as the day it was first released. Plux Quba was discovered by wily experimenters like Jim O’Rourke, Mouse on Mars, and Oval in the ’90s; from there, it became an influence on early ’00s clicks-and-cuts aesthetes, adventurous producers like Jan Jelinek and Fennesz, and present-day shapeshifters like Oneohtrix Point Never and Yves Tumor. As such a heady list of admirers suggests, Canavarro’s music eludes easy classification.
Made up of chiming electronics, processed cries and whispers, electroacoustic études, smeared noise, and scrambled lullabies, Plux Quba skips and glitches between one sound world and the next. At first, it can feel jarring and cracked, yet such shards slowly assemble into an exquisite whole. Plux Quba plays like some long-lost memory, conjuring evocative emotions before fragmenting and falling back out of reach again. –Andy Beta
Listen: Nuno Canavarro: “Bruma”
808 State: 90 (1989)
808 State were a much more radical proposition than their Madchester peers in the Stone Roses and Happy Mondays. Instead of augmenting traditional, jangling psych-pop with dance rhythms, the group started at the other end of the spectrum—rough, squelching acid house—and used it as a base for their wildest impulses. They were huge music nerds, the kind of guys who’d congregate at the record store that member Martin Price owned and listen to everything under the sun. When they started making their second album, 90, they thought carefully about how and where the album should flow and peak, and they infused it with the jazz, prog, and electro they enjoyed in their spare time.
There are a few straightforward rippers on 90 (“Donkey Doctor,” “808080808”), but it’s an album that shines when its creators get weird. “Ancodia” tosses a chugging breakbeat, lounge-lizard synths, and kooky vocal samples into a blender; “Cobra Bora” is an acid-funk odyssey that opens with a disco sample before twisting like a corkscrew and whacking you over the head with a cowbell. The surprise UK hit “Pacific State” (present here in its “202” mix) still sounds invigorating today, with its warm chords and hooting wildlife cushioning an oily, goofy saxophone riff. Bold choices like those proved that electronic music could be brainy without being boring. –Jamieson Cox
Listen: 808 State: “Magical Dream”
LiLiPUT: LiLiPUT (1982)
Some post-punk groups made a big deal about how they were tearing up the rulebook, but listening to the music of LiLiPUT—and the music they made before, under their previous, legally problematic name Kleenex—it's unclear if they were aware that a rulebook even existed. That’s not a comment on the group’s professionalism, or lack of; more that the group’s itchy, playful, irrepressibly danceable music felt truly sui generis. Largely ignored by the punk scene in their native Switzerland, for the sin of being women, they instead found fans in the UK, where they were championed by Radio 1 DJ John Peel, toured with the Raincoats, and fell in with the indie gurus Rough Trade, who released the group’s self-titled debut LP in 1982. “Do You Mind My Dreams” and “Outburst” capture their sound at its most effervescent. In their clattering, cyclical post punk grooves peppered with nonsense chants and horse-like whinnies, it's clear how they exerted a lopsided influence on generations of DIY punk who followed. –Louis Pattison
Listen: LiLiPUT: “Do You Mind My Dream”
Joe Jackson: Night and Day (1982)
Night and Day revels in self-conscious sophistication as it plays upon shared fantasies of New York. A former angry young man, Joe Jackson eschewed the grit and grime of downtown punks for uptown elegance on this album, which combines salsa rhythms with the refined songcraft of Tin Pan Alley. Despite his affection for bygone eras, Jackson didn’t turn a blind eye to the present. On “T.V. Age,” he yelps about the destructive nature of remote controls with the manic energy of David Byrne, and on “Steppin’ Out”—Jackson’s biggest-ever hit—he makes synth-pop seem as sophisticated and sultry as Cole Porter.
The album was designed as two complementary suites that illuminate each other. Following the exuberant Night side, the Day plays like a hangover thanks to the heartbreak of “Breaking Us in Two” and “Real Men,” a ballad where Jackson covertly addresses his sexuality. Such sly nods to modernity root Night and Day in the new wave era, but composer aspirations lend the album a lasting elegance. It remains a quintessential dream of what NYC can possibly be. –Stephen Thomas Erlewine
Listen: Joe Jackson: “Target”
Queen Latifah: All Hail the Queen (1989)
All Hail the Queen is a prodigy’s statement of intent. At 19, Queen Latifah was proudly Afrocentric, forwardly feminist, and a brilliant rapper. She was powerful and playful in the same breath, and from the reggae toast chorus on “Wrath of My Madness” to the soft background cooing on “Latifah’s Law,” she could obviously sing, too. Funky with horns out front and at the bottom of its jumpy breakbeats, All Hail the Queen is also the best example of production from the often-overlooked and quietly prolific 45 King, who helped expand both the scope and sound quality of hip-hop beats throughout the 1980s.
Over the course of a few decades, as Queen Latifah became the type of ubiquitous talent tapped to sing at Super Bowls and star in biopics and host her own talk show, the force of her debut album was eclipsed. While she would go on to make bigger hits and build bigger stages for herself, she never made a better record than this one. –Jay Balfour
Listen: Queen Latifah: “Dance for Me”
Psychic TV: Dreams Less Sweet (1983)
Dreams Less Sweet, the second album by Genesis P-Orridge and Peter Christopherson’s post-Throbbing Gristle project Psychic TV, is as arresting as it is difficult. This is true of both its composition—barking dogs and sirens share airspace with hymnals and lyrics borrowed from “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town”—and its sound. Everything about the album feels on the precipice of exposure and calamity, from the gunshots that pierce the hellish sound loops of “Finale” to the way P-Orridge screams, “No absolutions in the nursery” over a honking car horn. Even the album’s most inviting track, a Velvet Underground-style lullaby called “The Orchids,” is filled with lyrics about shriveling skin and burning eyeballs. Though capable of real beauty, Psychic TV were never going to coddle you for long. –Andrew Gaerig
Listen: Psychic TV: “White Nights”
Godflesh: Streetcleaner (1989)
Using repetitive percussion, violent samplers, jagged guitar noise, overdriven bass, and distorted vocals, Godflesh hollowed out metal then filled it with existential rage. With their debut studio album, Streetcleaner, the Birmingham, England band took a deep dive into urban despair with an industrial sound that pulled from New York’s Swans and Chicago’s Big Black but felt more metal than either. (Maybe hometown forefathers Black Sabbath provided indirect inspiration.) It’s bleak stuff, for sure, but even as singer/guitarist Justin Broadrick howls like a wounded animal about the hellishness of it all, you can feel a beating human heart beneath. (His knack for infusing emotion into sound surfaced even more clearly in his later work as Jesu.) A couple of years later, in 1991, Godflesh opened for Nirvana, and it’s interesting to think of this brief overlap with grunge when considering how relevant the band’s mechanical despair still feels in 2018—it’s like they foresaw the alienation of the digital age around the corner but kept going. –Brandon Stosuy
Listen: Godflesh: “Christbait Rising”
Ornette Coleman: In All Languages (1987)
Saxophonist, violinist, and composer Ornette Coleman’s startling intonation could be considered experimental, but his music also contained the warmth and melodic immediacy of the best pop and folk traditions. Still, he spent a lot of time waiting for culture to catch up with him. The harmonic language of his 1972 orchestral work Skies of America famously flustered some members of the London Symphony Orchestra. Then when Coleman was being widely described as a jazz colossus—at least for his acoustic quartet music—he changed the game again in the mid ’70s, moving into electrified, funk fusion with his Prime Time group.
Divided between sets by Prime Time and Coleman’s classic acoustic quartet, the double-album In All Languages could be considered a compromise affair. But this divide also manages to highlight the beauty found in all branches of Coleman’s creativity. The two bands even share several of the same compositions, which helps underline the polylinguistic concept advanced by the title. Surprises abound: Which group, acoustic or electric, might be the best fit for a tune titled “Space Church (Continuous Service)”? Turns out, the quartet’s “acoustic” take has plenty of atmospheric grandeur, between Don Cherry’s trumpet and Coleman’s alto sax, while the Prime Time players riff off ’80s drum machine sonics. Both takes have their merits. The album was one of the last times Coleman would offer such a wide array of concepts on a single recording. –Seth Colter Walls
Tina Turner: Private Dancer (1984)
After divorcing her abusive husband and musical partner Ike Turner in 1978, Tina Turner released three middling solo albums that had the R&B icon trying country, rock, and disco. None of them found an audience. Unsigned and unsure of what might come next, she dove headfirst into her epic live shows. One gig at the Ritz in New York prompted David Bowie to push Capitol into giving her a deal, eventually leading to her comeback with Private Dancer.
On opening track “I Might Have Been Queen,” she howls, “I look up to my past, a spirit running free/I look down and I’m there in history/I’m a soul survivor”—rising from the ashes of an incendiary relationship, born anew. Cultivated with five different production teams in England over two weeks, Private Dancer redefined Turner as a pop-rock force and solo star. The album hits the sweet spot between Turner’s blues roots and new wave aspirations, as she mixes primal reimaginings of singles by Bowie, the Beatles, and Al Green with new material. The album is as finespun as it is prone to pyrotechnic feats, harnessing Turner’s face-melting roars for slick recordings and ushering soul into a neon age. –Sheldon Pearce
Duran Duran: Rio (1982)
With Rio, Duran Duran became a group of ultra-proficient musicians, capable of churning out chart-topping pop songs with effortless aplomb, as well as a teen-baiting boy band, setting schoolgirls’ hearts aflame with their sharp clothes and packaged personas. It was simultaneously style-over-substance and substance-over-style; even the album’s neon and pastel cover art became something of a shorthand for the gilded excess of the ’80s.
The title track is the sound of all five members leading at once, John Taylor’s frenetic bassline barely outrunning Nick Rhodes’ typhoon of synths. Super-smash single “Hungry Like the Wolf” sees lead singer Simon Le Bon full of swagger, drunkenly cruising down summer streets on Andy Taylor’s polished guitar licks. Even the slower tracks, such as the sparkling mid-tempo ballad “Save a Prayer,” were orchestrated around rock-solid hooks. Rio sounds like a glossy magazine photo shoot looks, with the whole band making love to the camera. –Cameron Cook
Scritti Politti: Cupid & Psyche 85 (1985)
Formerly a scraggly, Marxist post-punk band, Scritti Politti rematerialized as a completely redesigned pop group on their second album, Cupid & Psyche 85. Pop music, already saturated in symbols and semiotic play, seemed the perfect stage for singer Green Gartside’s densely footnoted lyrics, a forest of references to philosophy and theory. On the opener, “The Word Girl (Flesh & Blood),” Gartside analyzes the linguistic structure of a love song while singing within the linguistic structure of a love song, reeling out in the slow twitches of pop reggae. “Absolute” is an airy pop shimmer built on the concept of the ultimate reality, the thing that contains everything else within it. Cupid & Psyche also contains some of the most texturally intricate pop music ever made, each song a glittering maze of synth horns sprouting from every available surface and Gartside’s light and transparent voice disappearing and reappearing between each pulse. It’s bubblegum music that’s both consumerist and communist in its approach. –Brad Nelson
Listen: Scritti Politti: “The Word Girl”
Yellowman: Mister Yellowman (1982)
Winston Foster, aka Yellowman, arguably holds the distinction of being the original king of dancehall. His cadence and signature phrases (“To you! This one dedicated to you!”) are so imitated, in fact, that they almost slide off the ear. But his 1982 LP Mister Yellowman illustrates his seismic impact. On a track like “Lost Mi Love,” a few simple elements—King Yellow’s improvised folktale and producer Junjo Lawes echoey take on the funereal “Dirty Harry” riddim—strike a perfect balance. The resulting mixture is so transporting as to be nearly psychedelic. –Eddie “STATS” Houghton
Listen: Yellowman: “Lost Mi Love”
The Faith / Void: The Faith/Void (1982)
By 1982, punk had transformed into something heavier and darker in America: hardcore. The Washington, D.C., bands the Faith and Void epitomized the genre, as shown on this split LP. At first glance, they seemed interchangeably young, fast, and pissed; both groups spewed their lyrics with venomous intensity atop quadruple-time rock riffs. Both shouted fevered transmissions of paranoia and angst. But beneath their surface similarities was a poetic duality. The Faith, true to their name, found redemption in the chaotic unity of the mosh pit. Void weren’t so sure, railing against family, friends, the scene, and anyone caught in their path; creepy effects, pitch warble, and a singer with a loose sense of cadence give their side a desperate, face-clawing pathos that remains unmatched. –Daniel Martin-McCormick
Listen: Void: “Who Are You?”
Nurse With Wound: Soliloquy for Lilith (1988)
One of the most moving installations in the field of machines singing to themselves, Nurse With Wound’s 1988 album Soliloquy for Lilith moved away from the caustic barbs typically associated with self-perpetuating noise music. While working with a number of effects units wired up to each other, Nurse With Wound leader Steven Stapleton and his wife, Diana Rogerson, found that their equipment produced different sounds based on how close they were, physically, to the machinery. They composed a series of droning loops via this inexplicable phenomenon, moving their bodies and hearing the electronics respond in turn. Through this unlikely glitch, the couple recorded one of the most beautiful and hypnotic drone albums to date: a deep, patient meditation on time and being, and the magic that can spark when you’re not looking out for it. –Sasha Geffen
Au Pairs: Playing With a Different Sex (1981)
Like their contemporaries in Gang of Four, Delta 5, and the Raincoats, UK quartet Au Pairs were political in the face of power inequalities; as the chorus of their biggest song, “It’s Obvious,” goes: “You’re equal but different.” Made up of two men and two women, the group addresses issues both systemic and intimate on their debut album, Playing With a Different Sex; the record is also one of the decade’s tightest fusions of punk, funk, and dub. “Come Again,” which describes intercourse as an often-pleasureless task mandated by society, was banned from the BBC; “Armagh,” a tightly coiled song about abuses faced by protesting female IRA prisoners, only received limited distribution in Northern Ireland. Au Pairs split two years after they released this album, but their uncompromising attitude still ripples outward. –Quinn Moreland
Listen: Au Pairs: “We’re So Cool”
Ice-T: Rhyme Pays (1987)
Ice-T’s vivid first single, “6 ‘N the Mornin’,” was a shock to the system—a crime-riddled cruise through Crenshaw, Los Angeles, infused with details about a brutal stabbing, a uzi and hand grenade discovered by the cops, and women he pimped. The track set the tone for Ice-T’s similarly unsparing debut album, Rhyme Pays, where he continued to depict Crenshaw’s violence with an unwavering eye while criticizing a corrupt LAPD and taking shots at Ronald Reagan. “Squeeze the Trigger” represents how defiant Ice was, aware that his violent content would only make him the most convenient villain in the culture’s growing anti-rap sentiment. But Ice didn’t stop, and his desire to tell his story ultimately helped gangsta rap rise fast to become the scene that would put West Coast hip-hop on the map. –Alphonse Pierre
Listen: Ice-T: “I Love Ladies”
Swell Maps: Jane From Occupied Europe (1980)
For the earliest generation of rock bands, making records required a modicum of professional ambition. You had to sign with a label, tour, submit to a producer. But punk’s rising DIY tide lifted many misfit boats, securing the decidedly fame-averse Swell Maps an audience outside their native Birmingham, England. Founded in 1972 by pseudonymous teenage brothers Nikki Sudden and Epic Soundtracks, the band took around five years to self-release their first single; decades later, Sudden explained that they simply hadn’t known a band could book studio time without a label until the punk bands started doing it.
Swell Maps pasted mostly incomprehensible, drawled vocals into noisy, krautrock-inspired sound collages, straying further beyond the boundaries of any existing genre with each release. Their second album, Jane From Occupied Europe, marked the culmination of that trajectory. It was, most of all, a catalog of thrilling new sounds: “Let’s Buy a Bridge” deployed manic synth gargles of the sort Dan Deacon would trademark in the 21st century. “The Stairs Are Like an Avalanche,” a Jane-era recording that was added to the 1989 reissue, reduced industrial rage to a nearly wordless metallic simmer. Sadly, such generative chaos can never last long. Realizing they’d come too close to the commercial success they’d never wanted, the band broke up before Jane was even finished. –Judy Berman
Listen: Swell Maps: “A Raincoat’s Room”
Pauline Oliveros / Stuart Dempster / Panaiotis: Deep Listening (1989)
What is “deep listening?” A process, a practice, a way of life? Well, to start, it’s a joke. The term was coined by Pauline Oliveros and some cohorts after they descended 14 feet below the earth (get it?) into an enormous, disused water tank in rural Washington for a recording session. The cathedral-like reverberance of the chamber lasted a mammoth 45 seconds, stretching the sound of voices, trombones, accordions, and more into ethereal waves.
Underground in Washington, they located a sound beyond words: geological, ancient, and untamed by any high-minded academic theorization. In this strange, subterranean world, Oliveros and her partners drew out tones so glacial and pure, they seem to have always been there. –Daniel Martin-McCormick
Ryuichi Sakamoto: Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence (1983)
Ryuichi Sakamoto was cast in the 1983 World War II drama Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence before he was even considered to pen the film’s soundtrack. The brash 29-year-old told director Nagisa Oshima that he would agree to star in the film—opposite David Bowie, no less—only if he was allowed to compose the music. Although he’d already crafted numerous important electronic albums, with Yellow Magic Orchestra and on his own, Sakamoto had never scored a feature film before.
The title track has since far surpassed the legacy of the movie itself, its piano motif highlighting the humanity of soldiers haplessly embroiled in conflict. Elsewhere, Sakamoto deftly sneaks in electronic elements and hints of ambient, all the while juggling more traditional film cues. And on “Sowing the Seed,” which soundtracks the film’s climactic scene, Sakamoto articulates a powerful moment of desire and despair between Bowie’s Major Celliers and his own character, Captain Yonoi, with just five looping, melancholy notes. –Noah Yoo
King Sunny Adé & His African Beats: Syncro System (1983)
A decade into his recording career, King Sunny Adé spread his message to the world at large, becoming one of the first African artists to make waves in Europe and America. As the greatest proponent of jùjú, a Nigerian form of music rooted in the talking drums of the Yoruba people, Adé's guitar prowess spread those mesmerizing rhythms far and wide. On Syncro System, his second album to be released in the West, his guitar is as brilliant as sunlight on water as it speckles his band’s gurgling polyrhythms. The record finds Adé pushing at the boundaries of his trademark sound, adding more synths to the teeming mix, along with all manner of shakers and talking drums. (Seven different percussionists are credited on the LP.) The breezy yet sinewy record further solidified King Sunny’s reign across oceans and continents, showing Africans how their traditional rhythms could mingle with modern technology to make world-conquering music. –Andy Beta
Richard and Linda Thompson: Shoot Out the Lights (1982)
On Shoot Out the Lights, the first couple of British folk sang about a collapsing relationship—a subject they’d often addressed in the past but, this time, turned out to be newly relevant. By the time the album was completed, their own marriage had come undone, right when Linda was pregnant. The symmetry turned Shoot into perhaps the most crushing breakup album this side of Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours. At the same time, the music on the Thompsons’ sixth and final album together represented the most beautifully honed work the couple ever produced.
By alternating lead vocals on the songs, they were able to present two different perspectives: his on the desperate “Don’t Renege on Our Love” and the violent title track, and hers on the despondent “Walking on a Wire” and the accusatory “Did She Jump or Was She Pushed?” Richard’s guitar work, often bracingly nervous and fleet, became more agitated and wild than ever. Linda’s voice, always warm and knowing, discovered a new balance of empathy and ache. For all the vitriol and need expressed, each side of the album ends philosophically, first with the comforting “Just the Motion” and, ultimately, with “Wall of Death,” which used an amusement park ride as a metaphor for the games of chance life tempts us to play. –Jim Farber
Mr. Fingers: Ammnesia (1988)
Larry Heard invented a new way for electronic musicians to speak to their machines—his programmed drums, synthesizer sounds, and bass lines oozed a sweet sadness and depth of feeling that’s still radical. The period from 1984 and 1988 was among Heard’s most fruitful, and the songs he released as Mr. Fingers during those years provide a template for modern house music. Ammnesia tells that story. It collects 12 of Heard’s greatest hits, and each song is iconic in its own way, from the deep house melancholy of “Can You Feel It” to the proto-acid of the title track. –Kevin Lozano
Listen: Mr. Fingers: “Children at Play”
Various Artists: The Indestructible Beat of Soweto (1985)
The anti-apartheid movement was one of the dominant human rights causes of the 1980s, and music, both within South Africa and beyond it, played a singular role. The Indestructible Beat of Soweto is protest music by example rather than through any explicit message. Recorded between 1981 and 1984, the dozen songs on this compilation radiate a palpable joy that belies the political oppression of their time and place. It’s both traditional and urban: Loping rhythms, flickering guitar riffs, and shimmering synth licks back a dazzling array of groaning, ululating, harmonizing voices. The singers stick it to the oppressor by mostly ignoring his role in their everyday life altogether.
Soweto received fervent critical acclaim, and Paul Simon tapped its township styles—not to mention the closing track’s performers, Ladysmith Black Mambazo—for his own landmark Graceland. The album remains a powerful introduction to South African music, as well as a window to the polyglot nature of contemporary pop. Most of all, it’s a testament to the human ability to dance and sing in the face of crushing adversity. –Marc Hogan
Listen: Moses Mchunu: “Qhwahilahle”
Judas Priest: British Steel (1980)
Doubling down on their more accessible sound that first surfaced on 1978’s Killing Machine, the sixth album from the British metal band Judas Priest found them shortening their songs, upping their hooks and melodies, and taking influence from AC/DC, whom they’d toured with in 1979. The lyrics weren’t as dark as on past releases, so instead of S&M, genocide, the apocalypse, and Jack the Ripper, there’s the late-night partying of “Living After Midnight” and the disgruntled down-and-out salvo “Breaking the Law,” which was later heavily adopted by a couple of miscreants named Beavis and Butt-Head. They weren’t suddenly a different band, though: Fronted by Rob Halford’s operatic vocals and powered by the group’s scissoring dual guitars, British Steel showed that Priest could transcend their earlier speed metal races and push towards larger stages without sacrificing what made them special. –Brandon Stosuy
Listen: Judas Priest: “Grinder”
MC Lyte: Lyte as a Rock (1988)
It took a bit of nepotism for a talented teenage MC named Lyte to become the first woman with a major-label solo rap LP. When Atlantic wanted to sign her stepbrothers’ group, Audio Two, they had no intention of picking up their rapping sister as well. But Lyte’s stepfather presented the two acts as a package deal, and soon enough, production began on Lyte as a Rock.
Groundbreaking and unconfined, the album has a take-on-all-comers bravado buoyed by Lyte’s aerodynamic style. She is unflappable—as cool as Big Daddy Kane, as cerebral as Kool Moe Dee, harder than Salt-N-Pepa but just as cheeky. Her raps fracture in funny places, unfurling vivid stories about rhyming rivals, passersby looking to test her mettle, or those dismissing her talents altogether. That monumental chip on her shoulder was a byproduct of all the naysayers claiming women couldn’t rap, and it drove her to outdo everyone: “If a rap can paint a thousand words, then I can paint a million,” she proclaims proudly on the title track. This is a record about being a woman in a boys’ club and blowing up the spot with uncompromising attitude. She wasn’t in it to pander to the male gaze, or to play affirmative action girl. She was in it to win. –Sheldon Pearce
Listen: MC Lyte: “I Am Woman”
Stevie Wonder: Hotter Than July (1980)
Hotter Than July broadened Stevie Wonder’s pop landscape, breaking from his organic soul of the ’70s and looking forward with modern synthesizers and drum programming. There’s a subtly funky country song, a reggae Bob Marley homage, and a giddy R&B jam about a neighborhood dance prodigy. Throughout, Wonder’s politics are urgent and reinvigorated. He sings about housing discrimination, peace in Zimbabwe, and on “Happy Birthday,” he crusades to make Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday a national holiday. The sound may be different, but Wonder’s boundless energy and intelligence remain constant. –Jay Balfour
Listen: Stevie Wonder: “All I Do”
Elvis Costello & the Attractions: Imperial Bedroom (1982)
Elvis Costello’s seventh album represented a crucial pivot in his career. While his previous release, Almost Blue, had him going country, it did so via covers of Nashville classics, giving the piece a retro air. “Imperial Bedroom” was a far more bracing leap forward, tossing all previous assumptions about what structures Costello’s melodies could take, how his songs could be paced, and how far his character portraits could evolve. There’s no strict rock, punk, or R&B on the album. Instead, there are songs that draw on the sophistication of American standards, yet ones twisted by so many quirks, they can’t be confined to that term. Costello also chose a new producer, forsaking his common ally Nick Lowe for Geoff Emerick, the Beatles’ engineering whiz. That particular switch helps account for the sound’s new sweep. The lyrics, too, showed growth, shading Costello’s earlier vitriol with greater perspective, while also allowing for far more enigmatic imagery. The album announced the maturation of an artist whose reach would not cease. –Jim Farber
LL Cool J: Radio (1985)
LL Cool J was 16 years old when he made his debut, Radio. Ghetto blasters had become a defining marker of early hip-hop, so when LL adopted the loudspeakers as his visual signature, he sent a message: He was a block hero, representing for inner city rebels and b-boys. The album was hard, spare, and overwhelmingly confident: It was the first full-length release from Def Jam and also introduced the masses to Rick Rubin, who produced (or “reduced,” as the back cover joked). Rubin’s spacious, minimal sound brought LL’s flow to the fore. Seething with teenage aggression, overflowing with confidence, and, yes, cool as hell, LL instantly sounded state-of-the-art. He may have rapped that he couldn’t live without his radio, but soon radio couldn’t live without LL. –Eve Barlow
Listen: LL Cool J: “You’ll Rock”
Meredith Monk: Dolmen Music (1981)
Soon after her 1964 debut in New York’s concert halls, the composer, singer, and pianist Meredith Monk revealed her theatrical talents in the realm of experimental song. She also proved adept at moving between mediums, sagaciously editing and rearranging her stage shows into LPs, starting on her 1971 debut Key. But her skill at writing albums reached a new level with her first recording for ECM in 1981.
Dolmen Music’s two halves reflect distinct approaches. Side A collects some of the best songs from two early conceptual shows, focusing on the connection between her writing for piano and her own voice. This is early Monk at her best, with catchy piano motifs working as the ground beneath her vocal acrobatics. As excitable and tinny tones alternate with luminous, slower lines, Monk crafts new dramatic—often wordless—worlds. By bringing conceptual theater inside classical music, she didn’t merely invigorate the latter. She also brought new, contemporary-art audiences along with her. –Seth Colter Walls
Listen: Meredith Monk: “Travelling”
Meat Puppets: II (1984)
Though hardcore punk later came to adopt strict rules, early on it was adaptable, prone to local mutations. Formed in 1980 in Phoenix, Arizona, by brothers Curt and Cris Kirkwood, Meat Puppets were one of the first bands to sign to SST, the foundational punk imprint run by Black Flag’s Greg Ginn. But if Meat Puppets’ self-titled debut—a bristly fusion of hardcore thrash and Beefheart weirdness—could pass for a punk record, II was very much on its own trip. Its outsider Americana took in Grateful Dead-style jamming, fearsome pulpit sermons, and peyote-addled surrealism. Cowpunk thrashes like “Split Myself in Two” and “New Gods” suggested the trio hadn’t entirely outgrown its hardcore roots, but the moments that linger are the pretty ones, like the shimmering guitar instrumental “Aurora Borealis,” a beautiful acid trip amid the cacti. II found new life in 1994 when Nirvana reprised three of its songs on MTV Unplugged in New York, the three Puppets in tow. –Louis Pattison
Listen: Meat Puppets: “Lost”
The Clean: Compilation (1988)
The Clean had already put out two EPs, catalyzed the New Zealand punk scene, reformed under a new name, and dissolved by the time their music officially hit the United States in 1988. Picked up by the tastemaking Homestead Records (run largely by zine editor and future Matador founder Gerard Cosloy), Compilation included the entirety of 1981’s Boodle Boodle Boodle, showcasing a band that reinvested lo-fi punk with the kind of self-imploding, psychedelia-loving fun often missing from their grim American and British contemporaries. Unafraid to either get totally gnarled (as on their eternal jam vehicle “Point That Thing Somewhere Else”) or uncork pure sunshine (“Tally Ho!”), the Clean’s constant experimentation resisted nearly all of punk’s emergent stereotypes and musical formulas. Finding devotees in Pavement and Yo La Tengo, and inspiring a major indie vogue for all things New Zealand, the Clean soon reunited, turning a bit more jangly in the process. But Compilation still sounds as fuzzed and free as the day it crash-landed on U.S. shores. –Jesse Jarnow
Listen: The Clean: “Tally Ho!”
La Monte Young: The Well-Tuned Piano (1987)
During the 17 years of work that preceded the first release of “The Well-Tuned Piano,” minimalist pioneer La Monte Young was developing and testing everything about the piece—including the unusual tuning he preferred for his custom Bösendorfer Imperial Grand piano, as well as the improvisational approach that he would use when playing it. But despite the deliberate pace of “The Well-Tuned Piano”—this live recording from 1981 lasts five hours—sustained listening reveals that it isn’t all about slowness. Sometimes it’s about the pummeling power of a specific chordal area, explored at intense volume, in what Young terms “clouds.” Sometimes it’s about the (comparatively) swift transitions between themes—as with a section in the third hour that includes the “Hommage à Debussy Sequence” as well as “The Goddess of the Caverns Under the Pool” and “Sunshine in the Old Country.” The piece isn’t officially finished, but this performance, all on its own, is beautiful enough to support decades of close listening. –Seth Colter Walls
Anita Baker: Rapture (1986)
The songs on Anita Baker’s second album, Rapture, are all shimmering vehicles for her voice, a contralto as textured and liquid as crushed velvet. Each arrangement is a slow-forming quiet storm that seems to respond sensitively to her muted inner quakings. She’s an impressionistic, painterly singer. The substance of her voice sifts and pours wordlessly through the synth blushes on “Caught Up in the Rapture,” and it shivers with the same weightless ripple produced by the drum machine in “Same Ole Love.” Everything is almost a little too luminous and precise in its drift to be real; Rapture is an R&B record upholstered in a dreamy haze, suggesting, in its varied swells and glitterings from both Baker and her band, that real love is as deep and indefinite as a dream. –Brad Nelson
Rites of Spring: Rites of Spring (1985)
There isn’t enough hot tea and honey on the planet to undo the damage Guy Picciotto must have done to his vocal cords during these sessions. For a mid-’80s D.C. hardcore album, Rites of Spring’s lone full-length was uncommonly melodic. But nobody remembers it that way, because for all the musicianship hidden under the hood, it's hard to register anything other than the fury and agony at the surface. It’s a portrait of crisis driven by one of the most violent, demanding vocal performances ever captured on record.
Underscoring the seething despair in his lyrics, Picciotto sang as if choking on a Brillo pad, punishing his larynx until all that remained was a tattered rasp. He effectively turned singing into a form of self-flagellation. Rites of Spring is widely credited as the first emo album, which overstates its footprint somewhat. For generations of bands, the record has been less an influence than an ideal. Musicians may have marveled at Picciotto's sheer commitment to expression, but few dared to replicate it. –Evan Rytlewski
Listen: Rites of Spring: “Drink Deep”
Virginia Astley: In the Gardens Where We Feel Secure (1983)
“Swing gate,” “lambs Sunday afternoon,” “owl, clock, night noises.” These are some of the sounds—or maybe ingredients—credited as part of Virginia Astley’s deeply beautiful In the Gardens Where We Feel Secure, an inimitable album of ambient music. On it, the English artist manipulates and loops such sounds, blending them with earthy piano. Astley occasionally worked on more straightforward pop, but Gardens abandons the normal inclinations of song structure in favor of two side-long suites, an organic recreation of what it feels like to be cradled by a warm British afternoon in the countryside on a slow day. Its feeling is both ancient and eternal—many worlds away from our fast-moving, digital era. –Matthew Schnipper
Geto Boys: Grip It! On That Other Level (1989)
After their Run-D.M.C.-aping debut, Making Trouble, flopped by all conceivable metrics, Geto Boys went through some personnel changes, ending up with a foursome that would put Houston rap—and, to a certain extent, Southern rap—on the map: Bushwick Bill, DJ Ready Red, Willie D, and Akshen, later known as Scarface. The songs on Grip It! On That Other Level blend the real-world horrors of Houston’s 5th Ward with exaggerated savagery from slasher flicks. (“Should I live in reality? Or live in the television?” Bushwick Bill asks on “Mind of a Lunatic.”) The hair-raising scenes of murder and torture are so dark that they’ve often been cited as formative texts for the horrorcore stylings of Eminem and Tyler, the Creator. But beneath those obvious incitements are gut-wrenching truths, revealing the shock raps as a front for latent unease: “This game is dangerous, I’m livin’ in fear,” Scarface admits on “Life in the Fast Lane.” This is music that elicits both pangs and thrills from its studies of violence, all of it coming from a clear-eyed vantage point. The Geto Boys were sociologists; Grip It! is their survey of baser instincts. –Sheldon Pearce
Listen: Geto Boys: “Let a Ho Be a Ho”
Daniel Johnston: Hi, How Are You: The Unfinished Album (1983)
These songs are recorded so intimately, it almost feels like an invasion to listen to them. Daniel Johnston’s Hi, How Are You originally came out as a self-released mail-order tape and eventually became among the most influential lo-fi records of the ’80s, to the point that Kurt Cobain famously wore a shirt with the album’s cover drawing at the 1992 VMAs. The record dismissed the conceit that music needed to be created in an expensive studio to resonate emotionally with its listeners. If anything, the record’s tape hiss and flat notes add to its immediacy. It’s easy to imagine Daniel Johnston pounding away on a cheap keyboard on “Big Business Monkey” or fiddling with a kids’ toy on “Walking the Cow.” Even the guitar tracks, like “Despair Came Knocking,” have a tactility to them, like the Austin songwriter is in the room with you as he’s playing.
Because Hi, How Are You is an album about loneliness and desolation, the feeling of sharing space with Johnston makes it ring with additional poignancy. He sang these earnest, infectious melodies to himself, into a cheap cassette recorder, but he knew exactly how to reach people across time—to make them feel that, for the duration of a three-minute pop song, they weren’t on their own in this world. –Sasha Geffen
The Clash: Sandinista! (1980)
On their fourth album, the Clash combined their passion for global politics with an embrace of world music, most notably Jamaican dub and reggae. It’s one thing to bemoan the plight of the impoverished on a track; it’s another to do that over a dub reinvention of the same track, as they did with “One More Time” and “One More Dub.” The Clash, of course, did not abandon their guitar origins, turning Sandinista! into an experimental, triple-album behemoth that melded punk’s urgency with reggae’s bent toward social justice. Sandinista! is a near-anthropological undertaking that is in loving awe of its sources, a feat of passion and endurance that the band would never again match. –Matthew Strauss
Listen: The Clash: “Let’s Go Crazy”
Descendents: Milo Goes to College (1982)
The average song on Descendents’ Milo Goes to College is about a guy fearing what he doesn’t understand, which is basically everything: parents, social hierarchies, the lingering allure of conformity, and women, the most baffling and powerful authority figure of them all. Frontman Milo Aukerman described his band’s spitball attack of a debut as “completely unfiltered,” and like many other documents of ’80s pop rebellion, Milo Goes to College tends towards the highly problematic at points. Give Descendents as much blame or credit as you want for fathering the Warped Tour, but “Marriage,” “Parents,” and especially “I’m Not a Punk” are evidence of what pop-punk does best. –Ian Cohen
Listen: Descendents: “M-16”
Midori Takada: Through the Looking Glass (1983)
A beautiful demonstration of minimalist composition, Midori Takada’s 1983 solo album Through the Looking Glass was nearly lost to time. Never released on CD and an expensive rarity on vinyl, the four-song, 42-minute album was performed and recorded almost entirely by Takada in just two days, straight to analog tape. Despite its relative obscurity in Western circles, it’s a work that should place her among the most important avant-garde composers of the ’80s. Throughout the album, Takada reinterprets traditional Asian rhythms with a blend of chimes, gongs, and other percussion instruments. This is music that tears open a meditative portal, luring the listener into a new world of tranquility before crescendoing into a gorgeously aggressive wall of transients. The Japanese composer is now 66 years old, but her mission remains unchanged: “In my own way, I create sounds, and by myself, I emit them,” Takada said last year. “It’s that simple. So to speak, it’s like living off the land.” –Noah Yoo
Listen: Midori Takada: “Crossing”
Celtic Frost: To Mega Therion (1985)
If your favorite metal band pisses people off, then Celtic Frost’s relentlessly creative leader Tom G. Warrior probably did it first in the ’80s. Too extreme? His early group, Hellhammer, helped define the sounds of death metal and black metal while being critically slaughtered by the burgeoning underground. Too commercial? Try Cold Lake, Celtic Frost’s collection of croony glam anthems, released to universal disdain in 1988.
Between those two poles, Celtic Frost released some of the decade’s most brilliant and influential music. The Swiss metal group’s imperial streak begins with To Mega Therion, their sophomore album, which spread apocalyptic visions over ungodly, vicious thrash metal. As subgenres began to harden into unified aesthetics, this music could not be pinned down: French horns, droning keyboards, and constantly shifting song structures assured that even the most devoted metalheads had never heard anything quite like it. Whatever response they elicited, Celtic Frost never seemed to care much: After all, they reminded us, we’re all going to the same place anyway. –Sam Sodomsky
Listen: Celtic Frost: “Jewel Throne”
3rd Bass: The Cactus Album (1989)
Perhaps emboldened by the example set by the Beastie Boys three years earlier, New York’s 3rd Bass became the genre’s second major act to be led by white MCs. They also filled a void at Def Jam; following the success of Licensed to Ill, the Beastie Boys left the label due to contract disputes. Yet 3rd Bass’ debut, The Cactus Album, wasn’t a carbon copy—in fact, the crew dissed the Beasties on the album’s second track. Where the Beastie Boys used comedy for levity alone, 3rd Bass was more serious. On “The Gas Face,” MC Serch defended blackness, while Pete Nice took aim at shady record label executives. In that way, The Cactus Album was a bold step away from the Beastie Boys era at Def Jam: Though that group is to be lauded for the trail they blazed, 3rd Bass brought a no-bullshit energy to their music that felt new. –Marcus J. Moore
Listen: 3rd Bass: “Sons of 3rd Bass”
The Durutti Column: Vini Reilly (1989)
Durutti Column leader Vini Reilly always went against the grain of his fellow Factory Records colleagues. While Joy Division and Cabaret Voltaire did chilly, industrial-tinged post-punk, Reilly rendered bucolic and poignant guitar instrumentals. But as the ’80s wore on, he began to see his instrument as just another machine. So he made another left turn on Vini Reilly, pitting his six-string against an early Akai sampler to sublime effect. Punching in snippets of soul and opera, as well as the likes of Otis Redding and Tracy Chapman to sing what he couldn’t, Reilly’s playing bounces between fado and funk. Utilizing acoustic and electric guitar—sometimes with a band, other times just him solo—Reilly staked out a liminal state, the sampled voices clipped so as to be indecipherable yet still emotionally resonant. The end result is the most eerie and affecting entry in his large catalog. –Andy Beta
Big Daddy Kane: Long Live the Kane (1988)
Back his ’80s prime, it felt like Big Daddy Kane wasn’t playing fair. He had the rhymes: steady and unbeatable, a multi-syllable flow coming at you like machine gun bullets. Then he had everything else, too: Women loved his suave nature, the way his words slipped through a silky baritone. His first album, Long Live the Kane, also proved that he could talk about topics like Afrocentricity and sound realistic. Kane’s 1988 opus gave us many of the classics in the rapper’s vast repertoire: the combative “Raw (Remix),” “Set It Off,” “Ain’t No Half-Steppin’,” and the playful back-and-forth with Biz Markie on “Just Rhymin’ With Biz.” Long Live the Kane was the foundation for a rapper who could do it all. –Marcus J. Moore
Horace Andy: Dance Hall Style (1982)
Horace Andy had been a prolific recording artist for some 15 years, cutting discs for Studio One and the dub pioneer Bunny Lee, before he made Dance Hall Style. On paper, at least, there’s no reason it should stand out as a classic. Recorded at Wackies, a damp basement studio in the Bronx, it was just six songs long, and some of those had already lived a full life; Andy himself had recorded “Lonely Woman” with producer Derrick Harriott a decade earlier, while “Cuss Cuss” was a cover of a track released by rocksteady stalwart Lloyd Robinson back in 1968. But Dance Hall Style has a special alchemy. Under the guidance of founder Lloyd “Bullwackie” Barnes, Wackies had become a home for skulking heavyweight dub of the first order. The record can be sonically adventurous—on “Stop the Fuss,” a blanket of echo pushes the bass and drums to the point on disintegration—but you’re gripped tight throughout by Andy’s voice: sweet, sinuous, reflecting on greed, division and the Rasta life. One highlight is the penultimate “Spying Glass,” which Andy would later reprise on Massive Attack’s 1994 LP Protection, drawing out its themes of paranoia and surveillance. –Louis Pattison
Listen: Horace Andy: “Lonely Woman”
Neneh Cherry: Raw Like Sushi (1989)
For a few months in 1988, as Neneh Cherry’s debut single “Buffalo Stance” climbed the global charts, it looked like Madonna might have a serious competitor to her pop throne. Particularly irksome for Madonna, probably, was the fact that “Buffalo Stance” effectively beat her at her own game, using the modish club sounds of hip-hop and house to forge pop music that was brazenly cool, instantly memorable, and utterly authoritative.
Cherry’s debut album, Raw Like Sushi, which followed in 1989, took a similar approach, plucking from the ’80s club pantheon of new jack swing, freestyle, and go-go to create an audacious global pop fusion that made Cherry’s competitors look like tar-ridden dinosaurs. The fast-moving nature of club music means that today, Raw Like Sushi sounds both incredibly of its time and also strangely modern in its omnivorous outlook, while the razor-sharp observational songwriting on “Manchild”—one of the best songs ever to capture that sinking feeling that life isn’t turning out how you imagined it—ensures its immortality. –Ben Cardew
Listen: Neneh Cherry: “Buffalo Stance”
Big Black: Songs About Fucking (1987)
Like most things with Big Black, the title Songs About Fucking is something of a sick joke. Frontman Steve Albini actually covers a wide range of unusual topics on Big Black’s second and final industrial noise-punk album: grotesque execution methods, a psychedelic fungus, cats. When sex does appear in these songs, it’s usually as a means of getting at something darker, like perversion, domination, or violence. Save for Albini’s occasional bursts of black humor, the album is unrelenting as it plumbs the depths of depravity; a more accurate title might have been Songs About Cruelty.
Such extreme subject matter demands equally extreme music—and by the end of their six-year run, Big Black were more than up to the task. Albini and Santiago Durango’s dueling guitars buzz like metal against metal (not least because they used custom-made metal guitar picks), their Roland drum machine throbs with cold precision, and Albini’s yelp alternates between coiled and unhinged. Yet as uncompromising as Songs About Fucking is, the distance between Big Black and the mainstream would soon shrink. Watch footage of the band’s final show in Seattle and you might spot a young Kurt Cobain in the audience; as the legend goes, he left the show with a chunk of Albini’s smashed guitar as a keepsake. –Mehan Jayasuriya
Listen: Big Black: “Precious Thing”
Jane’s Addiction: Nothing’s Shocking (1988)
Many albums on this list can lay claim to inventing the ’90s, but it took a guy like Perry Farrell to sell it. Furthering the tradition of rich kids playacting as counterculture shamans, Farrell knew the value of a good hustle, and Nothing’s Shocking found Jane’s Addiction equally believable as crass cock-rockers, Chili Pepper blood brothers, glam gutter-punks, prog-metal virtuosos, and post-punk magpies, all while adding a healthy dose of classic rock heroism. On a person-by-person basis, Jane’s Addiction is basically Led Zeppelin recreated as Los Angeles street urchins. Whether Farrell was lyrically channeling Ted Bundy, an abandoned child, a junkie, or a prophet, it was all framed in a way that could be easily understood by Midwestern kids from the suburbs. With Farrell repeating this act every summer with Lollapalooza, Nothing's Shocking now stands as a founding document of Alternative Nation. –Ian Cohen
Listen: Jane’s Addiction: “Had a Dad”
XTC: Skylarking (1986)
By 1986, XTC had shrunk to a trio: three self-described “garden gnomes” from rural England with dire finances and a frontman who refused to tour. As Thatcherism squeezed Britain, the band were derided by the press as out-of-touch country boys and their label as unsellable oddballs. For their survival, Virgin demanded a surefire U.S. crossover hit. Instead, they were handed Skylarking, a grand English symphony of sun-blasted melodies, shambling psych, and wildly eccentric pop. Miraculously, America loved it.
For that, thank producer Todd Rundgren, who culled XTC’s edgier material and sunlit their pastoral whims, perhaps recognizing that American narcissism is rivalled only by its fetish for a teacup-English wonderland. There were few summertime larks in the studio—frontman Andy Partridge apparently threatened to axe Rundgren’s head—but the opulent melodies are unimpeachable. Capitalist satire “Earn Enough for Us,” the one social commentary here, coexists with bucolic scenes of “flower lava” and trees “dancing drunk with nectar”—conflicting ideas, erratic beats, and knotty compositions harmoniously daisy-chained together. –Jazz Monroe
Listen: XTC: “Grass”
Prefab Sprout: Steve McQueen (1985)
Prefab Sprout were the vehicle for the brainy songs of Paddy McAloon, a wordsmith who was equal parts clever and inscrutable. Steve McQueen—released as Two Wheels Good in North America to quell a dispute with the titular actor’s estate—was McAloon's stab at pop, a suite of literate songs that draw as much from 1950s rock and country as from Elvis Costello. McAloon is known for his writing, but his lithe voice sells these songs. To hear him lean into the chorus of “Bonny” or “Goodbye Lucille #1” is to feel the acceleration of the cover’s motorbike as it rounds a curve, with Wendy Smith’s lovely backing vocals serving as guide rails. Significantly gussied up by ’80s studio wiz Thomas Dolby, the arrangements match the refinement of the lyrics. Though nostalgia cycles will continue to churn through sounds without end or mercy, the synthesizer that announces “Appetite” tattoos it to a particular moment in the mid-’80s, possibly the last time that a shrewd Englishman with a guitar and studio budget would be seen as the pinnacle of pop sophistication. –Andrew Gaerig
Listen: Prefab Sprout: “Hallelujah”
Echo & the Bunnymen: Ocean Rain (1984)
In America, Echo & the Bunnymen always seemed to be stuck between the Smiths and the Cure on one side and U2 on the other. After three albums that zigzagged between goth dirges and soaring post-punk anthems, everything came together on their fourth album, 1984’s Ocean Rain. Submitting to their tendency toward grandiosity and enlisting a full string section, Echo constructed an album of gorgeous, emotionally shaded symphonic rock. The first half of the record features some of their early jaggedness and their catchiest single, “Silver.” But the second side, opening with the breathtaking “The Killing Moon,” is controlled, elegant, and dramatic—one of the great album sides in rock. –Mark Richardson
Listen: Echo & the Bunnymen: “Silver”
Scientist: Scientist Rids the World of the Evil Curse of the Vampires (1981)
After starting his musical career in the late ’70s as an apprentice to King Tubby, the originator of dub reggae, Hopeton “Scientist” Brown arguably did more than any other producer to elevate dub into its own genre. Though Lee “Scratch” Perry had already taken the idea behind dub—deconstructing vocal mixes into sound collage via aggressive remixing and use of effects—as grist for full-length albums, the young Scientist surpassed even these masterpieces in sonic inventiveness. 1981’s Curse of the Vampires is one of the greatest dub albums ever, transforming the swing of dancehall’s catchiest tunes into their spookiest, most expansive selves. Historically, this record is a precursor to trip-hop and dubstep, but even encountered as an isolated sonic experience, the tracks are revelatory, uniquely suffused with an eerie joy. –Eddie “Stats” Houghton
Listen: Scientist: “The Corpse Rises”
The D.O.C.: No One Can Do It Better (1989)
Simply put, “The Formula,” from the D.O.C.’s 1989 debut, invented G-Funk. The atmospheric bit of jazz-funk introduced the combination of D.O.C.’s slick flow and Dr. Dre’s creeping funk production, dictating the direction of the next decade of West Coast hip-hop. But No One Can Do It Better didn’t otherwise restrict itself to that formula. On the contrary, its status as an eminently listenable rap classic remains precisely because of the way the D.O.C.’s versatile flow is showcased by a range of production styles. The rapper is always on, even when his cadence is slightly off. D.O.C. would never sound the same again after a serious car accident altered his voice and derailed his career shortly after this record’s release. So No One Can Do It Better is a rare document—even the spoken interludes that stitch it together are tantalizing glimpses of an artist in his prime. –Eddie “Stats” Houghton
AC/DC: Back in Black (1980)
Before Back in Black, AC/DC were a cult act whose songs included one about everyone in the band getting an STD and another about their bouncing Australian balls. In 1980, Brian Johnson, a Newcastle pub singer who always wore one of those old-timey flat caps, became the impossible replacement for Bon Scott. (His voice, like Scott’s, sounded like the extended yelp of a cartoon character who suddenly realizes his pants are on fire.) When Johnson joined two months after Scott’s death, founding guitarist Malcolm Young—whether from grief, disdain for Johnson’s broad frame, or some combination of both—reportedly called him a “fucking big fat cunt.”
Nevertheless, they became the biggest band in world with this album, because nothing could turn off the AC/DC hit factory: They punched Johnson into their hyper-masculine, lizard-brain rock’n’roll with Malcolm and his brother Angus writing the kinds of riffs that sounded good in a car, better in a weight room, and best in an arena. The title track was the death rattle of ’70s rock and the dinner bell for a decade of hook-heavy metal. It also contained their best, most palatable double entendre in “You Shook Me All Night Long,” a song somewhat about premature ejaculation and mostly about an endearing, feverish submission to a woman. Back in Black was an album made by terrific idiots, the true north of mainstream rock in the ’80s. –Jeremy D. Larson
David Bowie: Let’s Dance (1983)
After years of heady, singular art rock, David Bowie wanted to open up to his adoring public and talk to other music. So he borrowed the build-up from the Beatles’ “Twist and Shout,” brought in Stevie Ray Vaughan to play blues licks, quoted a line from My Fair Lady, and made the biggest record of his career. Even with all these references, though, Let’s Dance sounds anything but dated, in part thanks to Nile Rodgers’ chipper production and its crisp gated snare—the one true drum sound of the ’80s.
Bowie told Rodgers that he wanted the album to sound like a photo of Little Richard in a red Cadillac—that’s “Modern Love.” He wanted something relatively warmer—that’s every note of “Let’s Dance,” a major hit in a minor key. That track has an odd equilibrium: Compared to other slick ’80s chart pop, there’s way too much empty space on “Let’s Dance,” and Bowie’s growling is queasy and unsettling. With its mix of panache and subversion, Let’s Dance became a Trojan horse for the world to discover all the many Bowies hiding underneath the blond bouffant and designer suits. –Jeremy D. Larson
Listen: David Bowie: “Modern Love”
Pet Shop Boys: Actually (1987)
Neil Tennant was a music journalist before he formed Pet Shop Boys, so it’s little wonder he was adept at melding acid social commentary with pop. There are some particularly clever lyrical turns on this album, especially on “Rent”: “I love you, you pay my rent.” Actually, the duo’s second record, did not shrink from the enormous success of its predecessor, Please. The synths this time are even more over-the-top as they match Tennant’s immediately recognizable vocals, somehow dry and impassioned at once. At the time, he was especially pissed off with Margaret Thatcher’s government and the likelihood of her re-election, and he explores his malaise with privatization and capitalism on “Shopping” and “King’s Cross.” The record even resurrected Dusty Springfield's career after she featured on the wry single “What Have I Done to Deserve This?” On Actually, Pet Shop Boys mastered the art of dealing with the decade's socio-political stresses without sacrificing the need for dance and laughter. –Eve Barlow
Listen: Pet Shop Boys: “Rent”
Peter Gabriel: Peter Gabriel (1980)
Released in the spring of 1980, Peter Gabriel’s third album foreshadowed so much of what would happen in rock music throughout the rest of the decade; not quite adhering to the aural architecture of either post-punk or radio rock, the record nevertheless had a profound influence on both. Gabriel teamed with Steve Lillywhite—a producer who cut his teeth recording experimental punks XTC and Siouxsie and the Banshees—with the intention of pushing through the past into the future. Adopting a strict set of rules, such as the banning of cymbals, but allowing for happy accidents, Gabriel and co. developed a sound that was simultaneously cinematic and hermetic. It’s the articulation of a lively, neurotic interior world.
Underneath that eerie, sexy shimmer, Peter Gabriel teems with paranoia about the erosion of humanity, a theme that resonated strongly during the age of Reaganomics and the Cold War. But the record ends with a glimmer of hope thanks to “Biko,” an ode to the slain anti-apartheid activist Steve Biko. By concluding this dark-energy record with a rallying call, not a dirge, Gabriel suggests that humanity is worth the fight. –Stephen Thomas Erlewine
Listen: Peter Gabriel: “Biko”
Bruce Springsteen: Tunnel of Love (1987)
Following the unreasonable success of 1984’s Born in the U.S.A., Bruce Springsteen found himself filthy rich, beloved by millions, married to a model—and scared shitless. Instead of a honeymoon, the self-consciously spare Tunnel of Love plays like the loneliest night of the soul. As he tells it in his autobiography, his first marriage often felt like a countdown to failure. Eternal vows unleashed the singer’s brooding side, and he soon began to suffer anxiety attacks and paranoid delusions. He leans into this discomfort throughout Tunnel of Love, even likening commitment to a terrifying carnival ride—replete with death-scraping screams—on the title track.
All of Springsteen’s deep-seated neuroses come forward on the album’s thematic center, “Brilliant Disguise,” and its monochrome music video. The one-shot clip finds him sitting all by himself in a quintessential American kitchen, the same sort of room where Springsteen once absorbed his depressed and drunken father’s anger on a nightly basis. As the camera inches into the singer’s face, the crease in his brow fills the frame. The song’s 3 a.m. confessions lay out Springsteen’s innermost fears, brutal in their candor: Who can I trust? Is my life a lie? Am I capable of love? A year after Tunnel of Love’s release, to the surprise of no one who heard it, Springsteen was signing divorce papers. But as long as there are people lying awake at night, twisting and tugging at their wedding rings, the album will endure. –Ryan Dombal
The Go-Go’s: Beauty and the Beat (1981)
If Ramones’ Phil Spector-produced 1980 album End of the Century proved a connection between girl groups and punks, the Go-Go’s took that idea and ran with it. Not only was the California quintet inspired by the ultra-catchy hooks and compact song structures of the Supremes and their ilk, its members had the advantage of being living, breathing girls. They understood that joy and feminine playfulness were valid emotions to pull into the kind of brash music that had inspired them to form in the first place, after seeing a Sex Pistols show. Though their punk credibility was often underestimated, the Go-Go’s laughed their way into the history books: Beauty and the Beat, their 1981 debut, was the first No. 1 record by a female group who wrote their own music and played their own instruments.
The album is full of tough, tight theme songs for the new wave generation. With its driving rhythm section and girl-gang vocals, “We Got the Beat” never quite gets old despite its ubiquity. “Our Lips Are Sealed,” the album’s other smash, fills the listener with a rush of California cool the second its muted guitar chug kicks in. Like many popular albums that are quietly subversive, the non-singles here hew closer to the band’s heavier roots: Songs about sexual autonomy and romantic disenchantment, set to furious drums and eerie electric guitar riffs, are a welcome reminder that no amount of polish could take the grit out of the Go-Go’s. –Jillian Mapes
Listen: The Go-Go’s: “Fading Fast”
Beat Happening: Beat Happening (1985)
In 1979, a punk-obsessed teenager from Olympia, Washington named Calvin Johnson wrote a letter to the new wave magazine New York Rocker. “Rock’n’roll is a teenage sport, meant to be played by teenagers of all ages—they could be 15, 25, or 35,” he wrote. “It all boils down to whether they’ve got the love in their hearts, that beautiful teenage spirit.” This idea of youth as an attitude, not an age, would eventually come to define Johnson’s band, Beat Happening.
On the trio’s 1985 self-titled debut, they gleefully reinterpret the “rules” of punk. While other underground acts masqueraded as tough guys, Beat Happening proudly adorned their record with a stick-figure cat aboard a rocketship and sang about beachside dance parties hosted by one Mr. Fish. They played rudimentary, raw songs, frequently switched roles, and occasionally ditched proper instruments altogether. Beginning here, Beat Happening used innocence as a vehicle to explore deeper, adult anxieties, emboldening a new generation to make music no matter the means. –Quinn Moreland
Listen: Beat Happening: “Foggy Eyes”
Pretenders: Pretenders (1980)
It’s easy to come away from Pretenders thinking only about Chrissie Hynde, the band’s dusky-voiced lead singer and composer. Hynde had fled Ohio and immersed herself in punk at its peak, working at Sex Pistols svengali Malcolm McLaren’s boutique and hanging out with the Clash; she fought hard for a spot in a band, only to be rejected time and time again. By the time she formed Pretenders, she could put an iron curtain up around herself on songs like “Precious,” and then yank it down just as quickly, revealing an unexpected vulnerability on hits like “Brass in Pocket.” She only needed 12 tracks to prove she was one of the coolest people on the planet.
Hynde also had plenty of help from the other Pretenders, who backed up her raw writing with inventive, tricky musicianship. Jimmy Honeyman-Scott could toss off razor-wire solos like the one slicing up “The Wait” and chiming, romantic leads in equal measure, and the whole band delighted in ripping through unorthodox time signatures at high speed. This version of Pretenders didn’t last long: The band was undone by the summer of 1982, with two of its members succumbing to drug addiction. That sense of impending doom makes this album’s blend of punk energy and pop sophistication sound especially poignant. –Jamieson Cox
Listen: Pretenders: “Private Life”
Run-D.M.C.: Run-D.M.C. (1984)
Prior to Run-D.M.C.’s eponymous debut album, hip-hop had been mostly written off as party music derived from funk and disco. Such disregard went all the way to MTV—an important barometer for mainstream success at the time—which didn’t air any hip-hop videos. But the acceptance of the genre would change overnight with the swag and no-bullshit attitude the Queens group brought to their rapping. Their flex anthem “Rock Box” was the first rap music video to break onto MTV, notably featuring a guitar riff to pair with Jam Master Jay’s drum machine, along with visuals that left rap’s typically disco-inspired outfits in the past while ushering in ’80s B-Boy style. In the process, Run-D.M.C. became hip-hop’s new shit-talking poster boys, and rap never looked back. –Alphonse Pierre
Listen: Run-D.M.C.: “Hard Times”
Steely Dan: Gaucho (1980)
Steely Dan’s seventh album, Gaucho, doesn’t belong to a specific place as much as a specific culture—one filled with high rollers, hustlers, and perverts who while away their hours in luxurious locations, including expensive recording studios. Gaucho belongs to those studios, the places where Steely Dan chased their famously fastidious sound. Meticulous but not stiff, the record glides upon on its well-tailored grooves, offering the elegant degenerates that populate Steely Dan’s songs the louche music they deserved.
Legend has it that Dire Straits guitar god Mark Knopfler played hours’ worth of solos only to have a couple of licks surface on the horn-laden strut “Time Out of Mind,” an anecdote that seemingly underscores how Donald Fagen and Walter Becker prized perfection above all else. But really, what Steely Dan cherished was vibe, looking for the right rhythms and instrumentals to serve their concepts—and in that sense, Gaucho is the apotheosis of their art. –Stephen Thomas Erlewine
Listen: Steely Dan: “My Rival”
Philip Glass: Solo Piano (1989)
By the time Philip Glass released Solo Piano in 1989, he was probably the most famous composer alive. He had a big deal with a major label; he’d collaborated with Paul Simon and Linda Ronstadt; he’d played live on “Late Night With David Letterman.” Solo Piano represented Glass at his most ruminative and stripped-down—beginning-of-the-morning music, or end-of-the-night. It ambles, digresses and—as Glass does—repeats. At times it almost seems to pour out of him like thought, or conversation. You wonder how something so simple could inspire such hatred (and Glass did—and still does—inspire hatred). It may have something to do with the collective delusion that entertainment should feel easy but art should feel hard. Glass wasn’t even a great pianist in the conventional sense—he flubs notes, he muddies phrasing. Where his ensemble pieces had a seamless, ecstatic quality, Solo Piano sounds mostly like what it is: A man alone at the piano.
But there is an elegance here that is hard to achieve and harder to replicate. For whatever reputation Glass has as an ambassador of the avant-garde, what emerges on Solo Piano is a vision of contemporary music not for the concert hall but for the living room; of the piano not as a vehicle for systems or ideas, but something more elemental: a companion, maybe, the quiet voice you want to hear when you have nothing else to say. –Mike Powell
Whitney Houston: Whitney Houston (1985)
Before her voice beamed into every car and home in America, Whitney Houston had to walk her proving grounds. The songs on her self-titled debut don’t pop to the elastic heights of her later hits; even compared to its chart competitors, the album kept things slow, smart, and safe, with swaying soul ballads and easy dance numbers. But the simplicity of the record’s architecture highlighted all the ways Houston’s voice could shine. On the early single “You Give Good Love," she digs her heels in as she hits her notes, a full-body feat of focus and effort. On “How Will I Know,” she rides the seam between a croon and a gasp, gleefully playing her role as a teenager dreaming of love. Her vocal range still astounded, but her success relied on more than technical ability: Houston folded a new emotional expressiveness into the pop voice. She could swing from levity to gravitas in an instant; she could shiver or seethe as the song required. She had the voice to make millions fall in love, and on her first album, she seized her chance. –Sasha Geffen
Misfits: Walk Among Us (1982)
During a period when bludgeoning political hardcore was going full steam and the Ramones were making a Phil Spector album, the Misfits were distinctive. Along with their over-the-top imagery of cult horror movies, brooding frontman Glenn Danzig’s narratives set them apart from their peers: Their debut album, Walk Among Us, begins with back-to-back songs about transforming into monsters (a 20-eyed creature and a Martian, respectively). What’s even more impressive is the amount of emotional tumult in the singer’s performances: His portrait of the 1950s character Vampira is downright reverent, and even when he takes on the persona of a head-collecting demon on “Skulls,” there’s genuine longing in his voice. Here, Danzig is the devil, and he’s really good at convincing you to shout along with him. –Evan Minsker
Listen: Misfits: “20 Eyes”
Madonna: Like a Virgin (1984)
Like a Virgin caught Madonna in a transitional moment. She was only a year removed from the effervescent electro-pop of her debut, and singles like “Dress You Up” and “Angel” revisited that sound with a little more polish from producer Nile Rodgers. Her voice was still developing, so she sold ballads like her cover of “Love Don’t Live Here Anymore” with raw emotion rather than vocal power. And the soulful “Shoo-Bee-Doo” hinted at the genre exercises that would pepper every Madonna album from here on out. She was an unfinished product, but the rough edges were charming rather than sloppy.
Like a Virgin would be a worthy sophomore album if it stopped there, but it’s special because it also boasts the two songs that made Madonna a brilliant and purposeful provocateur, equally adept with irony and melody. “Material Girl” is a bratty celebration of rich boys and fancy toys that doubles as a send-up of Reagan-era materialism, complete with nasal spoiled-princess affectation and dumb-hunk backing vocals. And the indelible title track laid down the blueprint for the virgin-whore dichotomy she’d spend the next three decades exploring; she dominated water-cooler conversations the morning after the 1984 MTV Video Music Awards, where she took the stage solo and gyrated all over her wedding veil. Madonna knew how to get people to listen from the very beginning. Like a Virgin proved she could get them talking, too. –Jamieson Cox
Listen: Madonna: “Like a Virgin”
INXS: Kick (1987)
When Atlantic Records president Doug Morris heard the final version of INXS’s Kick, he offered the band a million dollars to go to back to Australia and come up with something else. He was somehow convinced that making a swaggering, slithering, serpentine album that squarely focused on frontman Michael Hutchence’s sex appeal was going to lose the rock fans. And though this album admittedly contains some filler that’s slick and blowzy enough to be palmed off on Huey Lewis, it also includes “New Sensation,” “Devil Inside,” and “Need You Tonight”—state-of-the-art ’80s funk-pop played with enough charisma and volume for the cheap seats. Kick made INXS inescapable, and Hutchence played his “guy she tells you not to worry about” version of Bono for the rest of the decade. –Ian Cohen
Listen: INXS: “The Loved One”
Spacemen 3: Playing With Fire (1988)
It’s often said that the best rock’n’roll isn’t about skill, it’s about feeling—and the music of Spacemen 3 was all about bottling up that feeling, cooking it in a spoon, and letting it course through their veins to the point of numbness. The UK group cut its teeth subjecting proto-punk standards from the Stooges and 13th Floor Elevators to desecrating distortion, but by their third album, Playing With Fire, leaders Pete “Sonic Boom” Kember and Jason Pierce had perfected a brand of minimalist yet magisterial psychedelic rock that all but did away with rock’s essential building block—rhythm—to marinate in the music’s fuck-it-all attitude. It’s a record where every codeine-dripped tremolo effect flares up and fades like a slow-motion shooting star, where every organ drone feels like a sunrise beaming into your third eye, where the scarce drum beats are felt more in the heart than in the hips. –Stuart Berman
Listen: Spacemen 3: “Honey”
New Order: Technique (1989)
New Order never got the chance to become known an albums band. This is not because their albums aren't great—Technique marks the end of a five-album run largely unrivaled in the halls of pop—but because their singles were so damn good. So consider Technique the New Order album for album connoisseurs, their sweetest and most even work. Thirty-three at the time of its release, singer Bernard Sumner aims his always-dopey lyrics at a lackadaisical peace of mind, having dropped any pretense of being dangerous or sexy (two things he never was anyway).
There are still nods to the dancefloor—the band were part owners of Manchester’s legendary club the Haçienda, and “Fine Time” is a winking nod to the acid craze sweeping Britain at the time—but the arrangements largely accommodate Sumner’s burgeoning chill. Here, on display, are the little things the band does so well: the way the guitar bites during the chorus of “Run 2,” the vampy piano of “Vanishing Point,” the way “Mr. Disco” takes dance music’s tropes and settles them into a gentle, mid-tempo swagger. The album’s title begins to make sense, technique being something the band's bigger hits always obscured. –Andrew Gaerig
Listen: New Order: “Round & Round”
Roxy Music: Avalon (1982)
Everyone knows what romance feels like. But what does it sound like? An answer can be found in Avalon. Roxy Music’s most rapturous album doesn’t just address romance; it embodies it in every sumptuous bass line, sleek guitar progression, and silky vocal caress. It also represents both the apex and the end of the band’s studio career: Their final album of original work, it streamlines all the quirks and smirks of their earlier records, giving way to sincerity and beauty.
Everything about Avalon sounds expensive, from the high-thread-count production to the lush arrangements. Yet fathoms of feeling lie beneath the gloss. Bryan Ferry, adopting the most earnest voice of his life, addressed love as a thing both elusive and vital. The melodies, which he largely composed, dance like Fred Astaire, but the synths that drape them suggest something sadder. Andy Mackay’s sax and oboe work lends the music a wan new beauty, while Phil Manzanera tailors his guitar lines with the care of a bespoke suit. Like romance itself, Avalon doesn’t last long, but the memory of it lingers. –Jim Farber
Listen: Roxy Music: “India”
X: Los Angeles (1980)
When X’s debut, Los Angeles, came out in 1980, they were among the first L.A. punk bands to release an album. So it’s no wonder they used the platform to represent their city. Fronted by two lovestruck poets, John Doe and Exene Cervenka, X condensed their dueling wails, rockabilly riffs, and concise storytelling into riveting California noir. Through the windows of a vomit-reeking city bus, the band led a guided tour of local racists, junkies, rapists, and psychokillers so fearsome, they made ’70s New York sound quaint. A frenzied cover of the Doors’ “Soul Kitchen” paid tribute to producer Ray Manzarek’s original band of L.A. weirdos, while “Sex and Dying in High Society” set the casting couch ablaze. X’s Los Angeles wasn’t somewhere you’d want to live, but like any great pulp novel, it sure was an exciting place to visit. –Judy Berman
Listen: X: “Los Angeles”
The Cure: The Head on the Door (1985)
The Cure’s sixth LP was also their big American breakthrough—a bright, crisp record nearly devoid of their signature swirling gloom. In this new light, Robert Smith’s dark desires took on positively cheery undertones, from jangly opener “In Between Days” and the eternal synth bop of “Close to Me” to the almost-disco of “Push,” which is basically Blondie viewed through a veil of distortion. It was the only one of the band’s albums to be entirely conceived by Smith, but far from being a hermetic affair, it veered outward, eagerly grabbing at new ideas. And with an added fifth member, multi-instrumentalist Porl Thompson, the sound was tighter and bolder, too. The brief, wondrous record marks a transition point in the Cure’s canon, a snapshot of a band making their way toward sprawling works yet to come. –Eve Barlow
Listen: The Cure: “The Baby Screams”
Young Marble Giants: Colossal Youth (1980)
There was nothing colossal about Colossal Youth, the sole album by the Welsh post-punk group Young Marble Giants. Their songs were so muted and spacious that they felt almost confrontational: How do you expect rock music to sound? Why do you need all that noise? In some of the only live footage of the band, filmed in 1980, it’s easy to forget there’s an audience watching. Every song, from the anxious surge of “Searching for Mr. Right” to the slyly funky “Wurlitzer Jukebox,” feels like a private interaction between these musicians, as they stand there smoking cigarettes and gazing into the middle distance with the stillness that comes right before you launch into a fury or collapse in a heap. Young Marble Giants opted for the latter, and their work is continued by a new generation of artists, all stepping on stage to make their quietest thoughts sound immortal. –Sam Sodomsky
Listen: Young Marble Giants: “The Taxi”
The Feelies: Crazy Rhythms (1980)
The Feelies wrote much of their 1980 debut, Crazy Rhythms, long before they recorded it, reworking their caffeinated punk over and over as they skittered between suburban New Jersey basements and clubs like CBGB, Max’s Kansas City, and their beloved Maxwell’s. Discovering Brian Eno’s Another Green World with a vengeance, chief songwriters Glenn Mercer and Bill Million spent several years turning their songs into propulsive devices before laying them to tape, as if charting a world of syncopation hidden behind the Velvet Underground’s feedback grooves—and then getting rid of the feedback. Mapping precise parts for second (and sometimes third) drummers, removing extraneous cymbals, and finding the right guitar tones, Mercer and Million’s crazy rhythms weren’t so much unhinged as obsessive, and the album’s recording no less so. Mercer’s vocals sometimes channel a twitchiness adjacent to Jonathan Richman or David Byrne, but the Feelies’ rhythmic ecstasy is perhaps even twitchier; their signature “The Boy With Perpetual Nervousness” is all intricately churning drums and minimal guitar. Finding unexpected range and drama in their pep, from a manic Beatles cover to the exquisite paranoia of “Forces at Work,” the Feelies would inspire Yo La Tengo, R.E.M., and others before returning to the basement for another half-decade of tinkering and Eno obsession. –Jesse Jarnow
Laurie Spiegel: The Expanding Universe (1980)
As much a programmer as a composer, Laurie Spiegel realized the musical potential of computers decades before they became commonplace. Her 1980 album The Expanding Universe was written in the mid-’70s using machines that ran the early programming language FORTRAN and loomed large over a room—a far cry from three-pound laptops with GarageBand preinstalled. The album’s rhythmic and melodic complexities informed electronic composition at its root: The playful, overlapping figures of “Patchwork” stir up the same momentum much of pop music aims for today, while the album’s mesmerizing title track unfolds with cinematic patience across 28 minutes. Before anyone had time to accuse computer music of being soulless, Spiegel was already busy flooding her machines with ghosts, teasing out emotional resonance from a new frontier of mathematical tools. –Sasha Geffen
Listen: Laurie Spiegel: “Patchwork”
Boogie Down Productions: By All Means Necessary (1988)
Boogie Down Productions’ classic 1987 debut, Criminal Minded, delivered proto-gangsta rap with force: “I do not contemplate a battle ’cause it really ain’t worth it/I’d rather point a pistol at your head and try to burst it,” KRS-One rapped. But that all changed when BDP co-founder and producer Scott La Rock was shot and killed in the Bronx just a few months after Criminal Minded’s release. Having lost his friend and running mate, KRS-One made peace the new BDP mandate with By All Means Necessary.
This is one of rap’s earliest activist records, directing its fire at government corruption, big business, and the local drug trade. The album promotes safe sex, educating others, and positivity, each message carried by KRS’ sonorous voice, his hard, walloping flows, and his professorial disposition. This is wholesome boom-bap without sanctimony, a powerful elegy through which Scott La Rock’s ghost still lingers. By All Means Necessary also owes a heavy debt to Malcolm X: The album’s title is a reference to a 1964 speech by the civil rights leader, and its cover is a recreation of the famous photo of X at his window with a rifle. And like that photo, this record can be construed as both a call to action for the black community and a warning to those who might harm it. –Sheldon Pearce
Public Image Ltd: Second Edition (1980)
John Lydon will always be best known for fronting the Sex Pistols, a manufactured band whose impact had as much to do with their style and attitude as their songs. But with his following act, Public Image Ltd, Lydon proved himself a visionary and changed the course of punk’s musical trajectory. Following a 1978 trip to Jamaica bankrolled by Virgin Records founder Richard Branson, Lydon—along with guitarist Keith Levene, bassist Jah Wobble, and a rotating cast of drummers—sought to marry the elastic rhythms and spacious sounds of reggae with punk’s confrontational, nihilist spirit.
Second Edition (originally issued in a film canister as Metal Box) is the moment when that vision snaps into focus. Its highlights are punk in spirit and expansive in sound: “Albatross,” the lumbering, nearly 11-minute-long opener, wherein Lydon casts off the yoke of post-Pistols expectation; “Poptones,” which manages to wring an unsettling beauty from jagged shards of guitar, a serpentine bassline, and vignettes pulled from a horrifying story of kidnapping and rape; the spectral “Careering,” which bears almost no resemblance to rock music at all. Second Edition is the sound of a band throwing out the maps and heading into uncharted territory. –Mehan Jayasuriya
Listen: Public Image Ltd: “Albatross”
Beastie Boys: Licensed to Ill (1986)
Hip-hop is black music, so if a group of white rappers were to thrive as the genre still sought its footing, they had to be dope. Luckily, Beastie Boys were, and they gained respect—even when it was begrudging. The Beasties brought raw punk edginess to hip-hop, and while videos for “No Sleep Till Brooklyn” and “Fight for Your Right” poked fun at lame social gatherings and hair-metal culture in a way that spoke directly to suburban white America, a song like “Paul Revere” proved they could rock a mic regardless of skin color. They paved a way for the flurry of rap-rock hybrids, and likeminded artists like Eminem and Kid Rock draw a direct line to Licensed to Ill’s brash irreverence. Songs like Em’s “White America” and Kid Rock’s “American Badass” don’t exist without Beasties’ “Rhymin’ & Stealin’,” with its massive drum sample of Led Zeppelin’s “When the Levee Breaks.” The trio would go on to become generational spokesmen, but they likely weren’t thinking about any of that at the time: They simply wanted to party and bullshit. –Marcus J. Moore
Listen: Beastie Boys: “Slow and Low”
Wipers: Youth of America (1981)
The first Wipers album, 1980’s Is This Real?, established them a vital new voice in punk. Portland’s Greg Sage was a singular presence who could cut traditional guitar scuzz with dramatic vocal performances and stretches of calm. His follow-up, Youth of America, took this iconoclastic bent even further, placing dour monologues about the grim state of the union up against feedback-addled guitar solos. On the title track, whorls of noise and a mesmerizing krautrock bass groove build drama and urgency across 10 minutes—a direct reaction to punk’s penchant for ultra-short songs. Sage has said the song was written about a dystopian dream he had—one where overpopulation led to competition in every facet of life. But Wipers don’t just wallow. There’s a stunning and urgent instrumental song here called “When It’s Over”; before a live performance of it, Sage once told the crowd, “This song is about the beginning… ’cause when it’s over, it begins.” There’s darkness all over Youth of America, but there’s also the possibility of things shaking out. –Evan Minsker
Listen: Wipers: “No Fair”
Alice Coltrane: Turiya Sings (1982)
After the death of her jazz titan husband in 1967, Alice Coltrane deepened her spiritual practice, adopting the Hindu name Turiyasangitananda and studying under the guru Swami Satchidananda. Many of the solo recordings she released in the ’70s reflected her spiritual practice, but Turiya Sings marked the moment when she detached fully from jazz signifiers and worked to establish her own musical vernacular. With nothing more than organ, harp, piano, and her voice, Coltrane wrote and recorded Turiya Sings as a series of deeply moving devotional hymns. The album boasts some of her most affecting vocal performances; full of reverence and melancholy, her voice tracing spellbinding mantras. Turiya Sings is the sound of a spiritual seeker in full awe of her journey so far, and in full anticipation of the path she has yet to walk. –Sasha Geffen
Listen: Alice Coltrane: “Jagadishwar”
Cyndi Lauper: She’s So Unusual (1983)
The 1980s marked a time when true oddballs could infiltrate the pop machine and transform—through new wave’s armor of shiny synths and perfect beats—into radio-ready superheroes. After the demise of her band Blue Angel, Cyndi Lauper became one. Her solo debut, She’s So Unusual, stands as an all-time great art-pop collage. Then 30 years old, she sang unstoppable covers of Prince (blurring away gender norms) and the new wave band the Brains (complicating its anti-capitalist statement even further). She tied in wild laughter, a Betty Boop sample, and an air of gleeful oddity. It felt all the more heroic given Lauper’s previous difficulties in the music industry and her tumultuous personal path, which found the Queens native fleeing home at 17 to escape her abusive stepfather. Perhaps it was a source of her defiance. Lauper’s four-octave voice always curled slightly into a shout—you could be forgiven, today, for thinking that it’s Sleater-Kinney’s Corin Tucker on “Yeah Yeah.”
It was Lauper’s brash delivery and rewritten lyrics that defined the album’s globe-conquering slumber-party anthem, “Girls Just Want to Have Fun.” Inspired by the women’s movement and the rawness of bands like the Clash, Lauper turned the original song—written by a man, Robert Hazard—from an arguably sexist power-pop tune into an anti-authoritarian, feminist rallying cry. In Lauper’s voice, its lyrics became an ode to girls everywhere who are causing scenes and staking out their right to adventures, time after time. –Jenn Pelly
Listen: Cyndi Lauper: “Time After Time”
Kool G Rap / DJ Polo: Road to the Riches (1989)
In the late ’80s, hip-hop was flooring the gas pedal: The music and lyrics were moving faster and sounding denser, and there was a collective epiphany taking effect thanks to new sampling equipment. Road to the Riches, the debut collaboration between producer extraordinaire Marley Marl, hard-bitten gangsta rap pioneer Kool G Rap, and DJ Polo, captured these evolutions. Amid hip-hop’s first sampling rush, Marley Marl expanded his sound to channel everything from James Brown to Gary Numan and obscure jazz loops. Meanwhile, Kool G Rap laid the groundwork for everyone from Nas to Wu-Tang to 50 Cent; if your favorite rapper has ever compared themselves to John Gotti, they have Kool G Rap to thank. He rapped about crime brutally with attention to texture and detail, never sounding like a lurid cartoon. Entire generations of knotty rhyme schemes and vivid street storytelling arose from here. –Jay Balfour
Nirvana: Bleach (1989)
Punk had a way of making anger sound righteous and fashionable, but Kurt Cobain knew better. Real anger, he understood, is ugly and isolating. On Nirvana’s mercilessly scuzzy debut, Bleach, Cobain railed against zealots, bigots, chauvinists, and father figures—especially father figures—with the awkward, wounded rage of an alienated teen. Cobain was already realizing that punk, which he’d once seen as a respite from the restrictive establishment, had its own tendency toward groupthink. He postscripts “About a Girl,” the album’s most tuneful track and a glimpse at the melodic impulses that would make him one of the defining rock musicians of the ’90s, with “School,” a roaring fuck-you to purists who might object to such a flirtation with pop. Seattle’s grunge scene, he contended, was no better than a petty high-school clique.
Cobain never disguised the pain at the root of his rage. “Scoff” rails against a parent who gaslights him into believing the worst about himself. And on “Downer,” he screams some parting advice: “Don’t feel guilty masturbating!” After spending his entire youth feeling boxed-in and ashamed, he wanted everyone who heard him to know they didn’t have to feel the same. –Evan Rytlewski
Listen: Nirvana: “School”
The Raincoats: Odyshape (1981)
Whether you think of it as one of the earliest classics of London post-punk or as a forerunner to feminist rock, the Raincoats’ self-titled 1979 debut was nothing short of revolutionary. The band practiced a quieter but no less groundbreaking form of iconoclasm on its follow-up, Odyshape. Drummer Palmolive’s departure had stripped their music of its signature roiling rhythms, but rather than try to replicate her sound, they used the lineup change as an opportunity to drift even further from rock convention. Drawing on free jazz and incorporating African percussion that complemented Gina Birch’s slithering basslines, the band members settled into more fluid roles. Vicky Aspinall’s violin soared to the foreground of warped folk tracks like “Red Shoes” and oddball ballads like “Family Treet.” Even when their words were inscrutable, Birch and co-frontwoman Ana da Silva’s voices traversed the emotional spectrum, from the sweetness of “Dancing in My Head” to the outrage of “Go Away.” The album offered no “Fairytale in the Supermarket,” the shout-along anthem of quotidian alienation that anchored the Raincoats' debut. Instead, Odyshape lives in a headspace light years away from the ordinary, a travelogue from a heretofore unexplored universe. –Judy Berman
Listen: The Raincoats: “Baby Song”
Fela Kuti: Coffin for Head of State (1981)
Though it’s comprised of just a single song, Fela Kuti’s 1981 opus Coffin for Head of State brims with substance. A moody, simmering example of the Nigerian Afrobeat style that Fela spearheaded, the restrained anger of the disc’s opening instrumental side does not quite prepare the listener for the blistering crescendo it reaches in its second half. Witnessing and decrying the effects of foreign influence across Nigeria, Fela’s ostensible targets are religions like Christianity and Islam, traced out via a whimsical (if generally offensive) impression of frantic prayer. But Fela’s verbal fusillade eventually makes its way to the many “bad bad bad things” perpetrated by the country’s military dictatorship: “Them steal all the money!/Them kill many students!/Them bomb many houses!/Them bomb my house too!/Them killed my mama!/So I carry the coffin.” If his voice seems uncharacteristically enervated, almost quavering with fury, it’s because Fela is narrating the actual events of his life here, including his mother’s death due to injuries sustained during the previous decade’s army raid on his compound. His response was to deliver a coffin to the quarters of the general who ordered the raid, an act of defiance and symbolic justice for which Fela and his partisans were jailed and viciously beaten. All of it is immortalized on this singular masterwork of ensemble funk. –Eddie “Stats” Houghton
Brian Eno / Daniel Lanois / Roger Eno: Apollo: Atmospheres and Soundtracks (1983)
While working on a documentary about the Apollo space missions, Brian Eno, his brother Roger, and Daniel Lanois discovered a previously untapped natural resource: the pedal steel guitar as generator of ambient music. Inspired by the country tapes early astronauts brought on early NASA missions and by the vastness of space, Eno set Lanois’ pedal steel adrift inside his comforting synth clouds. (“Zero gravity country music,” Eno called it once.) Though the pedal steel isn’t on every track, it is mimicked elsewhere, providing a central texture for the album. In Eno’s DX7-driven rendition of outer space, Lanois’ occasional melodies act like constellations, drawing out images from the void. Apollo: Soundtracks and Atmospheres is usually grouped with Eno’s ambient albums, but like Lanois’ pedal steel, it stands apart, pointing to worlds still unexplored. *–*Jesse Jarnow
Morbid Angel: Altars of Madness (1989)
Generally speaking, death metal is guttural and body-based, while black metal is up there with the ghosts. When the Tampa band Morbid Angel released their debut in 1989, though, they provided a suffocatingly complex template for death metal that bled black. Their intermittently breakneck, slow-mo songs were inspired by a fictional ancient text from the works of fantasy writer H.P. Lovecraft. Fronted by the swamp beast snarls of bassist/vocalist David Vincent, tracks went from laser-focused war anthems to eerie mid-tempo marches to sludgy drop-outs and then back again. (The ghoulish quagmire of the cover art is the perfect mood board, like a piece of origami burning in hellfire.) Emerging from the same humidity as other late-’80s Floridians like Death, Obituary, and Deicide, Morbid Angel’s mix of satanic murk and shiny technicality felt like a complete world. This was due in part to the time the band took to record it: Mastermind Trey Azagthoth, who concocted kaleidoscopic guitar solos, weirdo time signatures, and Pink Floyd-inspired flourishes, famously said he wanted to make a record that forced other bands to run and hide. Mission accomplished. –Brandon Stosuy
Listen: Morbid Angel: “Suffocation”
Steve Reich: “Different Trains” / “Electric Counterpoint” (1989)
Steve Reich’s late-career masterpiece grew out of a family separation. As a youngster, he rode trains between Los Angeles and New York, splitting time between his divorced mother and father. On these trips, he internalized the ch-chk, ch-chk of wheels racing on tracks while his mind wandered outward. “If I had been in Europe during this period,” he reflected later, of the seed of “Different Trains,” “as a Jew I would have had to ride on very different trains.”
The piece was evocative in the way of Reich’s pioneering ’70s tape experiments, but increasingly somber in the way of his ’80s work. In the first part, recorded here by Kronos Quartet (and packaged with Pat Metheny’s recital of “Electric Counterpoint”), a string quartet chugs ahead, as American train porters yell out the years like passing stations: “1939! 1940!” Then the strings turn despairing and harried. “1940, on my birthday, the Germans walked into Holland,” a European woman croaks, air-raid sirens leering overhead. Both suites, American and European, invoke longing to reunite a scattered family. The piece found a new tenor for Reich—clear-eyed, anguished, searching—that suited him. He wasn’t a minimalist upstart anymore; he was a moral conscience, albeit as earthbound and lost as the rest of us. –Jazz Monroe
Fleetwood Mac: Tango in the Night (1987)
From the get-go, Tango in the Night was marred with even more drama and strife than had become typical for Fleetwood Mac. Stevie Nicks was in the throes of a Klonopin addiction and was only present for a few weeks of recording. Lindsey Buckingham was forced to give up tracks he had written for an upcoming solo record, just so the band had enough material to release as an album—and he quit the group as soon as sessions were done. He’s since called it “the worst recording experience of my life.”
It’s even more notable, then, that Tango in the Night is undeniably one of the best records in Fleetwood Mac’s arsenal, a flawless study in ’80s rock’n’roll slickness. One of Buckingham’s dearly donated solo tracks, “Big Love,” opens the record and immediately slides the listener into a whirlwind of crystal guitars. Christine McVie, forever the band’s most underrated performer, contributed “Everywhere” and “Little Lies,” two songs as warm and poignant as anything on Rumours or Tusk. And when Stevie was there, she was transcendent: on “Welcome to the Room… Sara,” the pain in her voice is almost unfathomable. Tango in the Night had all the makings of a legendary flop—instead, it sold 15 million copies. It was a victory against all odds. –Cameron Cook
Listen: Fleetwood Mac: “Big Love”
George Michael: Faith (1987)
George Michael was never satisfied. He shot to prominence as a tanned, toothy teen idol who sought nothing less than the highest echelon of pop stardom, and by the time he reached that rarefied air, he was thoroughly disillusioned with celebrity. Michael made Faith, his crowning achievement, just as his hunger for recognition began to overlap with his artistic maturity; it was the last moment he believed he’d be gratified by becoming bigger and better than his peers.
After reprising “Freedom” with a funereal organ figure, laying Wham! to rest, Michael used Faith to prove that his range as a singer and writer was boundless. He could dip his toe into jaunty rockabilly on the title track and follow it up with Middle Eastern flair, heartfelt soul, and muscular pop-funk. Pleas for sweaty, straightforward sex could sit alongside songs like “Hand to Mouth,” a thoughtful reflection on American poverty, and the elegant “Kissing a Fool.” And on stunners like “Father Figure” and “One More Try,” the soul behind the denim-clad tush and immaculate stubble came into view: a lonely, longing young man whose queerness was hiding in plain sight. Faith’s chart-crushing success and Grammy win may not have made Michael happy, but the album remains a monument to his tender heart. –Jamieson Cox
Listen: George Michael: “Faith”
R.E.M.: Reckoning (1984)
For their second album, R.E.M. lifted the veil. Shedding the mystique they’d cultivated on their 1983 debut Murmur, Reckoning presented their songs with a crystalline mix that hid nothing. It was a risky move—Murmur’s great masterstroke was leaving so much to the imagination—but they had the material to back it up, spry songs with emotions as direct and pronounced as the music. The tension between Peter Buck’s ringing guitars and Michael Stipe’s furtive vocals drives the record. Stipe’s writing was rarely more personal—he blames himself for a relationship gone to ruin on “So. Central Rain,” while on the harrowing “Camera,” he eulogizes a friend, sickened by the fear she’ll be forgotten—yet such grief is offset by the prevalent joy of the music. Reckoning was the album where R.E.M. revealed the root of their longevity, their relentless commitment to reinvention. The band would continue to shed its skin on nearly every album that followed, but there’s nothing like the thrill of hearing them do it for the first time. –Evan Rytlewski
Listen: R.E.M.: “Letter Never Sent”
Cocteau Twins: Blue Bell Knoll (1988)
For a group whose sound is seen as so monolithic and singular, the Cocteau Twins’ catalog is actually surprisingly diverse, from angsty, gothic noise-pop to their early, effervescent post-punk missives. But by the time they released Blue Bell Knoll in 1988, they had permanently settled on the now-classic lineup of guitarist Robin Guthrie, bassist Simon Raymonde, and vocalist Elizabeth Fraser, and all three further locked into the ethereal and glossy sound that they would become best known for. From the to-and-fro melody of “Carolyn’s Fingers” to the summertime jangle of “A Kissed Out Red Floatboat,” each dreamlike track deftly weaves into the next, with Fraser’s lyrical spirals offering their own language of fantasy. –Cameron Cook
Listen: Cocteau Twins: “Blue Bell Knoll”
The Stone Roses: The Stone Roses (1989)
In 1989, as British clubland raved to acid house, the pre- and post-party belonged to the Stone Roses. For a good decade, the Manchester band’s debut album was inescapable in the UK, uniting ravers, guitar-heads, and pop fans with its exquisite songwriting, snaking guitar lines, Byrds-ian harmonies, and generous layer of psychedelia to cushion the post-club comedown. The Stone Roses is a rock record in sound—even a fairly traditional one until the breakbeat-led rock/rave monster “Fools Gold” was appended to the U.S. release—and it’s easy to imagine a field of flower children picking out the album’s sunlit melodies on acoustic guitars between 1967 love-ins. But its spirit is pure acid house, full of ecstatic release, saucer-eyed emotions, and a newfound confidence to take on the world. Songs like “She Bangs the Drums” and “I Am the Resurrection” became anthems, ones that would fill stadiums three decades later, as The Stone Roses continues to enjoy a rare pan-generational appeal among British music fans. –Ben Cardew
Tears for Fears: Songs From the Big Chair (1985)
Curt Smith and Roland Orzabal created pop anthems for emotional turmoil the way their hard-rock contemporaries championed hormonal swagger. The British duo’s sophomore record, Songs From the Big Chair, has more hooks than a 12-round boxing match, production that could turn the air Day-Glo, and smash hits to spare. But beneath all of its pop maximalism is a heart-on-sleeve approach that captures weariness with an almost folk earnestness. “Shout” champions catharsis through Smith and Orzabal’s signature chorus, and its follow-up, “Everybody Wants to Rule the World,” takes one look at the power-grab politics of the time and happily opts out. Throw in “Head Over Heels,” one of the decade’s best songs about loving someone with deeply embedded trauma, and the result is a remarkable string of hits that added some much-needed depth to 1985’s pop charts. –Nate Patrin
Listen: Tears for Fears: “Mothers Talk”
Guns N’ Roses: Appetite for Destruction (1987)
Appetite for Destruction could only have happened in the late ’80s, a heady and perilous time during which the only way was down. Guns N’ Roses seemed to acknowledge as much with their first notes of their gloriously unstable debut: By opening with a screeching and ridiculous riff-a-thon titled “Welcome to the Jungle,” they established that you could not out-sleaze them if you tried—and god help you if you did. G’N’R were tenacious about their desire to do very bad things, and their commitment yielded a hard rock landmark that showed up all of the cheesy hair bands on MTV. You couldn’t have dreamed up a more appropriately indulgent henchman as frontman Axl Rose, who displayed unbeatable songwriting skills and a voice as undulant as his hips. According to guitarist Slash, “Welcome to the Jungle” was written in just three hours, and “Sweet Child O’ Mine” was almost passed off as a joke song. They went on to indulge in the rewards of fame and fortune, but they would never be as razor-sharp as they were here. –Eve Barlow
Listen: Guns N’ Roses: “Rocket Queen”
The Blue Nile: Hats (1989)
Blue Nile’s Hats is near-glacial in its patience: Synthesizers stretch out until they are miles wide, and frontman Paul Buchanan sings as if he were recently stirred from decades of sleep, announcing the arrival of every new feeling with a deepened appreciation. The results aren’t far off from the romantic synth-pop that ascended the charts in the ’80s, but this album isn’t remotely as self-conscious or theatrical—which may explain why it landed with so little notice at the time (and why we’re still feeling the ripples of its influence today). From the xx to Majical Cloudz to the slow emotional overloads of the 1975, Hats feels like it’s still being gradually, privately discovered. This is music that’s devoted to the very instant of falling in love, and the way the world seems to remodel itself around that feeling. –Brad Nelson
Lucinda Williams: Lucinda Williams (1988)
The old saying goes something like this: “Nobody comes from Los Angeles. Everybody comes to Los Angeles.” People move there to make it, to find jobs or an audience for their art, and Lucinda Williams was no different. After two albums of spare acoustic blues, the Louisiana native headed west, where she worked as a record store clerk and gigged around town. She also made a record for each and every one of the city’s transplants: “The Night’s Too Long” follows a waitress who sells her possessions to move to a place where something actually happens; “Crescent City” tells of a return home, of hanging out with siblings and listening to zydeco.
Williams’ rock-tinged country (or is it country-tinged rock?) was rejected by every label until she sent demos to punk haven Rough Trade, who perhaps recognized something punk in her intractability and self-definition. Today, it still stands as one of the fiercest and most thoughtful country records of the decade, a foundational text for the alt-country movement of the ’90s. More crucially, Lucinda Williams continues to influence any artist making music in the lonely spaces between genres and markets, between the place you live and the place you dearly miss. –Stephen Deusner
Listen: Lucinda Williams: “Like a Rose”
Jungle Brothers: Straight Out the Jungle (1988)
In 1988, three young men from New York took the “concrete jungle” metaphor and ran with it. The MCs Afrika Baby Bam and Mike G, with DJ Sammy B—collectively known as the Jungle Brothers—gave listeners a snapshot of late ’80s New York that brought together Afrocentricity, club culture, and the city’s burgeoning hip-hop scene. Their sound was an unpolished but highly effective extension of what their pioneering DJ forebears like Afrika Bambaataa (Baby Bam’s namesake) had done on the turntables. Their beats were an eclectic mix of samples from acts like the Meters, Lightnin’ Rod, Kool & the Gang, and Manu Dibango, the common denominator for their sources being an undeniable funkiness. The subject matter ranged from cheeky to boastful to socially conscious. With this formula, they laid the foundation for the Native Tongues collective (including De La Soul, Queen Latifah, and A Tribe Called Quest)—which in turn went on to inspire countless artists, from the Roots and the Neptunes to Flying Lotus and Tyler, the Creator. Though the Jungle Brothers rarely get the credit they deserve, we know that in the jungle, roots run deep. –Timmhotep Aku
Listen: Jungle Brothers: “On the Run”
Iron Maiden: The Number of the Beast (1982)
Iron Maiden bassist and chief songwriter Steve Harris watched the spooky 1978 flick Damien: Omen II one night, had terrible nightmares, and wrote one of the great metal anthems of the Satanic Panic. Fittingly, the title track from the band’s 1982 breakout album unfolds like a horror movie: A widower has visions of a cult of devil worshipers, but when he investigates, he finds himself overwhelmed by macabre temptation. The band pummels their way through the song with agitated guitars and thundering drums as frontman Bruce Dickinson wails from the literal pits of hell. The English rockers found inspiration in the pop culture and history books of their youth, whether in the empowering humanism of “The Prisoner” (based on the short-lived TV series of the same title) or the colonialist horrors of “Run to the Hills” (a surprisingly sophisticated narrative that toggles between the voices of European conquerors and Native Americans). The whole record can be a little silly but it’s also dead serious, a line few bands—metal or otherwise—have walked as confidently since. –Stephen Deusner
Listen: Iron Maiden: “Invaders”
Brian Eno / David Byrne: My Life in the Bush of Ghosts (1981)
In the downtime between 1979’s Fear of Music and 1980’s Remain in Light, Talking Heads frontman David Byrne and producer Brian Eno constructed a massive map of a music world that extended far past pop. Originally envisioned as the folk music of an imaginary country, My Life in the Bush of Ghosts eventually emerged as something more sophisticated and revolutionary in its use of found sound and samples. Byrne and Eno gathered voices from every source they could find: political radio call-in shows, an impassioned Baptist sermon, Lebanese mountain singers, and a particularly unsettling exorcism. The result is an exploration of folkloric styles and possible cultural intersections that’s both avant garde and danceable. Its border-erasing grooves went on to be adapted by everyone from post-punk bands and early hip-hop groups, but neither age nor familiarity have managed to dull the album’s unknown-transmission allure. –Nate Patrin
Manuel Göttsching: E2-E4 (1984)
E2-E4 will go down in history as a towering monument to the value of always hitting “record.” Logged in one take by Manuel Göttsching, best known for his work with krautrock titans Ash Ra Tempel, the album was recorded at the guitarist’s home studio as an exercise. Since then, E2-E4 has become a holy grail for jam bands, amateur noodlers, and even some techno producers: a moment of unreplicable artistry with excellence that is immediately felt but difficult to articulate, much less reproduce.
The album is built around a two-chord synth riff. The first half entertains a series of zappy, percussive sounds along with the odd synth improvisation, and Göttsching delivers an extended, ropy guitar solo on the back end. Somehow both monolithic and ephemeral, it is the most explicit marriage of krautrock’s dippy expansiveness and its deterministic rhythmic pulse—an extended outre session that can simultaneously please the stoned and the aerobic. –Andrew Gaerig
Listen: Manuel Göttsching: “Ansatz”
The Fall: This Nation’s Saving Grace (1985)
The Fall’s eighth studio album wasn’t meant as a pop record, and its stakes weren’t particularly high. Yet This Nation’s Saving Grace still feels like a breakthrough, with the Mark E. Smith-led ensemble’s addiction to repetition turning a corner toward accessibility without losing any of the band’s spitfire edge. Part of this is due to Smith’s wife Brix, whose smooth guitar and voice make as big a stamp on the music as her husband’s singing, as well as the addition of classically-trained bassist Simon Rogers, who fits right in while also shifting the band’s sound. But like all other Fall albums, This Nation’s Saving Grace gains most of its octane from Smith himself. Spewing out a geyser of deftly arrhythmic speak-singing and wizened commentary, the frontman shows that he can suddenly transform pretty much any sort of music into something wry and dense. Smith’s most striking alchemy comes on “I Am Damo Suzuki,” in which he grafts together parts of three songs by German krautrock legends Can while still sounding resolutely like no one but the Fall. –Marc Masters
Listen: The Fall: “Mansion”
Madonna: Like a Prayer (1989)
By the end of the 1980s, Madonna had positioned herself as one of most important pop icons of the decade—if not the century—through an irreproachable string of hit records. And with her fourth studio album, the brash and bold Like a Prayer, she reshaped the role of “pop star” once again. The clip for the title track, which features a field of burning crosses and sexualized imagery of Catholic saints, pissed off Pepsi enough to drop her as a sponsor, and the Catholic church itself all but officially boycotted her record-breaking Blond Ambition Tour the following year. But Like a Prayer is much more than tabloid blasphemy: “Till Death Do Us Part” and the Prince co-written “Love Song” are surprisingly emotional accounts of her divorce from actor Sean Penn, while the heartrending “Oh Father,” chronicling her experience with paternal neglect, reveals more about Madonna’s interior life than any of her previous songs. Balanced between extremely public and shockingly intimate, Like a Prayer is the record where Madonna not only earned her crown as the Queen of Pop, but rightfully established herself as the Mother of Reinvention. –Cameron Cook
Listen: Madonna: “Express Yourself”
Depeche Mode: Music for the Masses (1987)
When Dave Gahan opened Depeche Mode’s sixth album with the line “I’m taking a ride with my best friend,” he couldn’t have known that American teens would turn out in hordes to follow him. Their most polished effort to date, Music for the Masses took the British quartet on a crusade around the States that culminated in them playing for 70,000 fans at Los Angeles’ Rose Bowl. The record was commercial enough to dominate the airwaves and countercultural enough to feed its hardcore devotees. New producer Dave Bascombe helped blow out Martin Gore’s near-emo songwriting to arena levels, making the band sound at once intimate and universal. The album’s title was intended to be ironic, playing up their own lack of perceived cool, but by the end of the ’80s, nobody was ashamed to admit that they were into Depeche Mode. –Eve Barlow
Listen: Depeche Mode: “Little 15”
Nine Inch Nails: Pretty Hate Machine (1989)
Trent Reznor’s debut as Nine Inch Nails embraced certain ’80s trends—transgression of religious and sexual purity, a love of ominous synth pop—but, more crucially, the album also predicted a dire strain of outcast angst still to come. Nearly everything that Reznor would inspire and stand for in the ’90s started here in some way, with more lurid danceability thrown in the claustrophobic mix. Never before had industrial rock been packaged with such an eye toward pop music, with cathartic choruses that practically screamed themselves and a charismatic anti-hero as its star.
Pretty Hate Machine showed that there was a mass audience for this kind of music, so long as the message tapped into truths so ugly, the mere expression of them felt like a relief to listeners. The album’s two dueling emotions could be viewed as a dark cycle of cause and effect: On “Head Like a Hole,” Reznor boils over with the rage of being fed lies by capitalism, religion, lovers, all of it; on songs like “Something I Can Never Have,” he retreats into the belief that his young life is nothing before it has even begun. Hailing from northwest Pennsylvania and recording many of the album’s demos at the Cleveland studio where he worked, Reznor imbued his record with the anger and hopelessness of the crumbling Rust Belt. Maybe at the time, he thought he was the only one feeling that way, but after millions embraced Pretty Hate Machine, never again was he without his lost cult of followers. –Jillian Mapes
Listen: Nine Inch Nails: “Sanctified”
Siouxsie and the Banshees: Juju (1981)
The godmother of goth is also living proof that patience is a virtue. As a member of the punk scene's infamous Bromley Contingent, Susan Ballion, better known as Siouxsie Sioux, was already UK tabloid-headline fodder in 1976. But the band she formed with bassist Steven Severin didn’t release their first album, The Scream, until two years later, helping to define post-punk and goth-rock in the process. They went in a more electronic direction on 1980’s Kaleidoscope, notably bringing ex-Magazine guitarist John McGeoch and former Slits drummer Budgie into the fold.
This revamped roster cohered brilliantly on Juju, an early, jagged peak for the ceaselessly evolving group. Siouxsie’s vocals sound as imperious as ever here, from guttural depths to piercing shrieks, but they are now cast into fine relief by McGeoch’s effortlessly fluid guitar explorations. The doomed majesty of “Spellbound” prophesied not only a whole lot of black eyeliner and teased-up hair, but the future of foreboding guitar bands and commanding frontwomen alike. –Marc Hogan
Bob Marley & the Wailers: Uprising (1980)
When people think of Bob Marley in the ’80s, they tend to think of his greatest hits collection Legend, which deliberately featured a politically non-confrontational and radio-friendly snapshot of the reggae icon. But the decade’s Marley record that depicted a more authentic picture of him was Uprising, the last released in his lifetime. Recorded as he came to terms with his terminal cancer, Uprising is a definitive musical expression of his Rastafarian beliefs and political agitation. Even though his strength is audibly waning, his voice is still full of life, from the righteous rebellion in “Coming in From the Cold” to the sadness concealed in the upbeat motion of “Real Situation,” a deceptively cheerful song about mutually assured destruction. The Wailers’ taut rhythms and billowing melodies sound lock-tight but beatific, the sound of relaxation as a meditative respite from long, toiling work. Uprising is a stunning final word, the place where Marley’s legend was sealed. –Nate Patrin
This Heat: Deceit (1981)
This Heat were a bit out-of-step with their times. Chronologically, they were a post-punk band, but on their second and final studio album, their cerebral song structures, avant-garde abstraction, and pointillist beats and chords were hardly of the moment. Thematically, though, Deceit was right on time. It addressed armageddon and societal meltdown right at the beginning of the Reagan era, when tensions between empires and nuclear threats were daily concerns. As singer/drummer Charles Hayward said, “We had a firm belief that we were going to die, and the record was made on those terms.”
Sometimes that feeling is conveyed literally, as in closer “Hi Baku Shyo,” which uses the harrowing sounds of distant winds and scream-like noises to evoke a post-apocalyptic scene. But more often, This Heat dissect the broken state of international politics through chopped-up songwriting, serrated lyrics that are both sharp and open to interpretation, and sequencing that alternates dizzying complexity with gut-punching rock. The result is intentionally unsettling but also oddly uplifting. Deceit’s expression of existential dread is so rich and expansive, it turns out to be inspiring. –Marc Masters
Listen: This Heat: “Paper Hats”
Michael Jackson: Bad (1987)
By the release of Bad, in 1987, few recognized Michael Jackson as the biker-jacketed outlaw of its cover. He was a global superstar, with all the bizarre proclamations and mythology-souring controversies that entailed. But as his image evolved, the eccentricities—bathing in Perrier, for instance—somehow suited his strangely impersonal music. For Thriller, he had wed delirious dance beats to delirious paranoia. On its follow-up, the leaping falsetto and sha-mones intensified, while personal detail vanished altogether.
The song “Bad” illustrates Jackson’s changing identity, his transformation into a pop-cultural symbol. On it, a meticulously funky Quincy Jones and highly strung Jackson sound like they could do anything in the world except break the rules. Aside from the gospel reckoning of “Man in the Mirror,” the remaining tracks reveal Jackson’s vulnerability only by virtue of their white-glove fussiness. He wrote eight of them himself, including “The Way You Make Me Feel” and “Speed Demon,” songs flirting with the sublime yet riddled with unease, designed for a world demanding the impossible: to be sexy and sexless, vulnerable yet dangerous, black and white. For awhile, Jackson was everything at once, a ubiquitous enigma beckoning mystified pop fans into his aura. Bad is his last fling with perfection before a strange, unutterable spell was broken. –Jazz Monroe
Listen: Michael Jackson: “Bad”
Motörhead: Ace of Spades (1980)
At one point on Motörhead’s fourth album, Ace of Spades, Lemmy Kilmister growls about the power of rock’n’roll over a rollicking blues riff, then orders the listener to dance until their shoes get hot. In the hands of any other standard rock band, this sort of thing could easily have sounded campy and vintage. Yet even in this mode, Motörhead sound wholeheartedly like Motörhead: burly and searing and massive. They were one of the heaviest rock bands of all time, and they embodied rock’s earliest stereotype—that the men who make it are wild and dangerous. The leather-clad, mustachioed dudes wearing bandoliers on the cover of Ace of Spades are planning—if their lyrics are to be believed—to take your money, shoot you in the back, chase young girls, and literally attack you with a hammer. Even “(We Are) the Road Crew,” a straightforward story about the downfalls of life on tour, sounds like a Western epic. Led by its title track, Ace of Spades cemented Motörhead’s reputation: They were the bad guys, and they were not to be fucked with. –Evan Minsker
Listen: Motörhead: “Ace of Spades”
Ultramagnetic MC’s: Critical Beatdown (1988)
Ultramagnetic MC’s debut album, Critical Beatdown, proposed a maximalist experiment: What if hip-hop was kinetic and menacing and zany all at once? The record hinges on the ingenuity of Ced-Gee’s production; right as a new breed of samplers were hitting the market, the young Bronx producer was at the forefront of harnessing their potential. On this album, he used the just-released SP-1200 to intricately chop up and rearrange drum loops and sound snippets in a way that forecasted hip-hop’s eclectic future. Atop that, Kool Keith flips Critical Beatdown upside-down with his motor mouthed weirdness. Keith was abstract and out-there in an era defined by the concrete, straightforward economy of words. He dropped references to arcane pseudoscience and checked other MCs, sounding like a guy launching into a tirade about aliens on a New York street corner. As Kool Keith looked to the stars, Critical Beatdown expanded hip-hop’s universe. –Jay Balfour
Listen: Ultramagnetic MC’s: “Ease Back”
Metallica: Ride the Lightning (1984)
In the early ’80s, Metallica was a band single-mindedly focused on speed. But with their second album, Ride the Lightning, they fine-tuned such brute force, with bassist Cliff Burton introducing a sophistication and compositional intricacy into their thrash metal. The resulting gorgeous melodies, acoustic sounds, and classical rigor were enough to convince fans that this was a new band entirely. But the transformation goes deeper. Frontman James Hetfield’s lyrics reached a thoughtfulness here that they never returned to: These hyper-literary songs ruminate on the depravity of death row, mutually assured destruction, suicidal depression, and life after the apocalypse. They’re about the terrors of the real world, and with that groundbreaking sound powering them, Metallica set the gold standard for metal in the ’80s. –Kevin Lozano
Listen: Metallica: “Escape”
Hüsker Dü: Zen Arcade (1984)
Released in the summer of 1984, Hüsker Dü’s Zen Arcade was one large step for the Minnesota trio and an even larger one for then-nascent indie rock. They were still a hardcore band, as was evident in the battering drums and shredded screams, but by easing their collective foot off the gas a bit, Hüsker Dü’s music shot into bolder and more personal dimensions. The album offered an escape strategy for a generation of punks seeking their own paths. Along with labelmates the Minutemen’s Double Nickels on the Dime, Zen Arcade transformed the double-album from a symbol of ’70s self-indulgence into a tool of liberation for the ’80s indie era. Packing in un-hardcore melodies, harmonies, Bob Mould’s wild and sometimes backwards-masked guitar, noise drones, and even a cathartic acoustic strummer in Grant Hart’s “Never Talking to You Again,” Zen Arcade burst forth from the sometimes restrictive austerity of punk. Wearing both its raw emotion and musical inventiveness on its sleeve, the record remains a vital document of a band testing just how far they can push their youthful energy. –Jesse Jarnow
Listen: Hüsker Dü: “Pride”
Julee Cruise: Floating Into the Night (1989)
The twisted spirit of David Lynch’s work has become as recognizable as a color, and the ethereal singer Julee Cruise was crucial in helping mix it. When licensing Tim Buckley’s “Song to the Siren” for 1986’s Blue Velvet proved too expensive, Lynch and composer Angelo Badalamenti enlisted Cruise to sing their original, oceanic ballad “Mysteries of Love.” It served as a foundation for the misty dream pop of Cruise’s debut album—which, like Blue Velvet itself, is full of tilted beauty and disquieting innocence so confounding, it makes the skin crawl.
On Floating Into the Night, Lynch wrote the yearning lyrics, Badalamenti composed the uncanny music, and Cruise sang elegantly, as if sleepwalking. They arrived at the likes of “Falling” and the stunning, swaying “Rockin’ Back Inside My Heart,” both of which were prominently featured on “Twin Peaks.” The album blurs the edges of what music for film can be, and while these atmospheric songs often accompanied shocking moving pictures, they also trigger shadowy, softened visuals of their own. With Floating Into the Night flowing through headphones, life is instantly a movie—a reminder that, off screen as much as on, things are never what they seem. –Jenn Pelly
Listen: Julee Cruise: “Into the Night”
Vangelis: Blade Runner (Music From the Original Soundtrack) (1982)
One of the first movie scores to fully showcase the possibilities of synthesizers, Vangelis’ Blade Runner soundtrack perfectly compliments the stormy neo-noir of Ridley Scott’s sci-fi classic. Sound and narrative are inextricably woven together, ghostly dialogue fragments leaving cold reverb trails that echo through the rain. Arpeggiated synth bass and emotive electric piano performances on tracks like “Wait for Me” and the iconic “Rachel’s Song” paint a beautiful neon-lit city where danger lurks around every corner.
More than accompaniment, Vangelis’ soundtrack feels more like an indispensable character in the film. Yet even removed from the visuals, the influence of the Blade Runner soundtrack stands apart. Sampled and studied by everyone from El-P to Gary Numan to Oneohtrix Point Never, the score remains a touchpoint for musicians looking to tap into an expansive and mysterious mood. –Noah Yoo
Listen: Vangelis: “Wait for Me”
Violent Femmes: Violent Femmes (1983)
In 1983, Gordon Gano was a Milwaukee, Wisconsin high schooler who’d built a local reputation as a “pint sized Lou Reed imitator.” Intrigued, a local punk named Brian Ritchie checked out one of his gigs, and soon, the teen was playing alongside Ritchie and Victor DeLorenzo in Violent Femmes. Their 1983 self-titled debut is full of simple, snotty folk-punk songs penned by Gano about adolescent frustrations: insatiable desire, hormonal torment, loneliness. Gano’s discomfort with his increasingly adult body and emotions are mirrored in his alternately high-strung and stuttering voice and the band’s manic, lurching music.
While many of Violent Femmes’ critics have acknowledged the record’s unabashed (and catchy) horniness, they tend to brush off its consequent gender-based violence. On “Add It Up,” Gano bitterly laments his nonexistent sex life; later, on “Gimme the Car,” he vows to solve this problem by borrowing his dad’s car, picking a girl up, getting her drunk, and touching her all over. His entitled misogyny is a symptom of his misanthropy, and in turn a reflection of society’s outdated model of masculinity. (“We’ll teach you how to act like a man,” he bellows on “Confessions.”) On one hand, Gano’s honest disclosures, while often deeply disturbing, reveal the emotional maelstroms of many young men. On the other, Violent Femmes is an eternal reminder that some men may never outgrow this mode of thinking. –Quinn Moreland
Listen: Violent Femmes: “Kiss Off”
Grace Jones: Nightclubbing (1981)
Nightclubbing, like its predecessor, 1980’s Warm Leatherette, found Grace Jones working alongside reggae duo Sly & Robbie and their Compass Point All Stars band. “I wanted a rhythmic reggae bottom, aggressive rock guitar, atmospheric keyboards in the middle, and Grace on top,” producer Chris Blackwell once said, and the resulting mix is plush and luxe as a limo. Much of it came from the Warm Leatherette sessions but took on new life, like “Pull Up to the Bumper,” which is equalled only by Prince’s “Little Red Corvette” when it comes to car filth that’s just as hot for the car as for the filth. There’s depth and lyrical darkness, including a nihilistic stalker in “I’ve Seen That Face Before” or the now-questionable presence of a 16-year-old in “Feel Up.”
What’s even more remarkable is that over half of Nightclubbing is composed of covers, yet it all seems completely natural to Jones. Bill Withers’ “Use Me” and Flash and the Pan’s “Walking in the Rain” are gender- and dominance-bent; “feeling like a woman, looking like a man” in particular feels written for Jones to intone. The title track refashions the louche vaudeville of Iggy Pop and David Bowie’s original into a sleek expanse of scaffolding and smoke machines. It also contains the one line Grace Jones sings here that rings false: “We learn dances, brand new dances.” When has Grace Jones ever come across as a person who needed to learn anything from anyone? –Katherine St. Asaph
Listen: Grace Jones: “Nightclubbing”
Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds: From Her to Eternity (1984)
Nick Cave’s first album with the Bad Seeds opens with a cover of Leonard Cohen’s brooding “Avalanche,” setting the bar absurdly high for Cave’s post-Birthday Party career. Where Cohen stared down humanity’s horror with a practiced stoicism, the Bad Seeds’ goth-punk attack is sharp, their arsenal crammed with every variety of bludgeon. And Cave sounds nearly hysterical on the song, especially when he sings, “Do not dress in those rags for me,” dragging out the accusatory vowels with extreme disgust.
His subject on From Her to Eternity is humanity at its grisliest extremes: the seafarers’ duress of “Cabin Fever!,” the all-consuming sexual desire of the title track, the communal bloodlust of “A Box for Black Paul.” Meanwhile, the Bad Seeds play like they’re scoring the short films projecting inside Cave’s fractured skull. It’s ghoulish to the point of ridiculousness, which is the entire point. In the Bad Seeds’ visceral hyperbole is something powerful, as though we’re hearing humankind’s palm read by a fortune teller with a cockeyed grin and a hand snatching your wallet. –Stephen Deusner
Glenn Branca: The Ascension (1981)
Glenn Branca is that rare figure who could honestly claim to have reinvented the guitar. An experimental theatre director from Pennsylvania, he touched down in New York just as punk was kicking off. Like Jean-Michel Basquiat, whose graffiti-inspired canvases collided high culture with low, Branca the musician sought to fuse two distinct worlds—rarefied modern classical music and punk rock. He spearheaded the guitar orchestra. Later, he would assemble ensembles of up to 100 guitars, set in elaborate tunings.
By comparison, 1981’s The Ascension is positively lean—just four guitars tuned in chorus, backed by bass and drums. “Lesson No.2” and “The Spectacular Commodity” conjure up clanging clouds of discord, race to heady crescendos, or lock into drawn-out codas that feel like being trapped in a thunderstorm, lightning arcing around you. Its magnificent sturm und drang may never be equalled, although one of the recording’s guitarists, Lee Ranaldo, would certainly try in his next group, Sonic Youth; Branca would release their debut EP on his own label the very next year. –Louis Pattison
Listen: Glenn Branca: “The Ascension”
Talking Heads: Stop Making Sense (1984)
“Hi, I’ve got a tape I want to play,” David Byrne says at the beginning of Stop Making Sense, the 1984 Talking Heads live album and Jonathan Demme-directed concert film. Wearing white sneakers and a soon-to-be-iconic boxy grey suit, he hits play on a boombox and launches into an off-kilter solo rendition of “Psycho Killer.” It was a bold move from a bolder band: At the height of their popularity, the quartet turned a live show into performance art.
The Stop Making Sense album also feels immersive, and there’s a mounting energy throughout the set that translates the live experience into a sit-through listen. This was a band that sang euphorically about architecture and philosophy, making such nerdy topics sound fun. The synths and programmed drums flit between zany and chilling, kitschy and funky, as Byrne’s breathless delivery compliments the anxious isolation of his lyrics; even before a roomful of adoring fans, the singer knew how to sound alone. –Jay Balfour
EPMD: Strictly Business (1988)
On their debut album, EPMD—the Long Island hip-hop duo of Erick Sermon (“E”) and Parrish Smith (“PMD”)—came through with performances so laid-back, they bordered on sleepy. Their message, by contrast, was brash: They’re the best in the game, they’re strapped, and they won’t hesitate to fuck up errant sucker MCs and biters. Armed with an untouchable arsenal of funk and soul samples, they pepper their verses with pop culture ephemera, nodding to commercial jingles (“Absorb that ass like Bounty, the quicker picker upper”) and spending an entire track inventing a dance based on the 1979 Steve Martin comedy The Jerk (called “The Steve Martin”). The album title isn’t a lie—they’re strictly business, and they press that point with tough bars and straight-faced delivery—but as they prove, hard doesn't have to mean boring. –Evan Minsker
Listen: EPMD: “I’m Housin’”