While preparing my year-end review entry (coming Friday), I began ruminating about the music I grew up with. How much of it is truly great twenty years later? What were the best albums of the 1980s? (Using Garrison Keillor’s definition of “good” as discussed yesterday, which albums are “sticky”?)

Here are my favorite albums from the 1980s:

15. Culture Club – Colour By Numbers (1983)
One of only two albums I ever shoplifted (a story for another time), this was destined to become one of my favorites for years. I’d been mildly interested by the songs from Culture Club’s first album — particularly “Time (Clock of the Heart)” — but I fell in love with the obtuse “Karma Chameleon”. So much in love that I was willing to steal this from the PayLess Drugs in Woodburn. To my surprise, the entire album was impressive, breezy and light, soulful and true in a way I’d never heard before. (I was only fourteen.) To this day Boy George’s melodramatic “Victims” makes me misty.

14. Tracy Chapman – Tracy Chapman (1988)
Though it’s her song “Crossroads” that’s become a personal anthem, Tracy Chapman’s debut album has stuck with me more than the follow-up. I don’t listen to it much anymore, but I think of it often. I used to hate “Fast Car”, but now that I’m older, its lyrics have more resonance. The entire album — a testament to growing up poor and black — might seem irrelevant to a young white man like me, but something about it got in my soul, wormed its way into my center and stayed there. This is a fine album.

13. Asia – Asia (1982)

Yes, I’m serious. This and its follow-up (1984’s Alpha) were two of our most-listened-to albums growing up. This album was the first that Jeff and I bought with our own money. It was the first album I bought from the iTunes Music Store. Why do I love it so much? The power chords! The cheesy lyrics! The bouncy synths! This is accessible 80s power rock at its finest.

12. Duran Duran – Rio (1982)
I was a sensitive boy, almost a fop. Duran Duran’s sparkling emotionalism made me feel at home. These guys wore their hearts on their sleeves. Forget “Hungry Like the Wolf”. This album’s gems were songs like “Lonely in Your Nightmare”, “Hold Back the Rain”, and “Save a Prayer”. I was just feeling the first pangs of teenaged angst when this was released, and it helped to ease the pain. This album is a pleasure to hear now, a smooth ride down Memory Lane.

11. Billy Joel – Greatest Hits vol. 1 and 2 (1985)

Billy Joel? Yes, Billy Joel. His music was always there in the background as I was growing up — and I loved his mournful tune “An Innocent Man” — but I never really heard him until he released this double-album. It’s filled with one great song after another: “Piano Man”, “Entertainer”, “Stranger”, “Scenes From an Italian Restaurant”, “Movin’ Out”, “My Life”, “It’s Still Rock and Roll to Me”, “She’s Got a Way”, “Allentown”, “Goodnight Saigon”, ad infinitum. There’s something comforting in Joel’s voice, something that feels like home.

10. Paul Simon – Graceland (1986)
The critical darling of 1986 (along with Peter Gabriel’s “So”), Graceland seemed inaccessible to me at first. I bought it on a trip to the beach, a date with Lena Doak. We listened to it on the ride home, and I didn’t know what to make of it. This didn’t sound like the Simon and Garfunkel stuff I’d grown up with. It was all, well, African and stuff. In time, however, I wore my tape out. I listened to it that much (especially the beginning to “Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes”). In college, this was one of those albums everyone owned, and you could hear wherever you went on campus. (But especially at The Bistro.)

09. Bruce Springsteen – Born in the U.S.A. (1984)
I used to hate the songs from this album, an album that I’ve never actually owned. Yet so many songs from this — seven — were radio singles that I feel I know the album well. And now that I’m older, I appreciate it more. These songs weren’t written for a fifteen-year-old; they were written for a thirty-year-old. Or forty-year-old. These are songs of growing older, of living life. These are songs about real people in real situations, a sharp contrast to the fluff I was listening to at the time.

08. Prince – Purple Rain (1984)

A brilliant album! This was like a shock to the head when I first heard it, so different from anything else I knew. Raw, emotional, direct. I remember sitting in Nicole‘s bedroom, the two of us raving about Purple Rain. There were a number of popular singles from this album, but it really works best as a single whole. I used to love when “Purple Rain” was played at a high school dance; the song wasn’t particularly sexy, but it was a slow song and what? six or seven minutes long. Awesome! Sad to say, I no longer own this album in any form. I’ll have to fix that, and soon.

07. Michael Jackson – Thriller (1982)
Yes, Michael Jackson has become a joke, a faint parody of himself. And even in 1982 and 1983 people mocked him. But that doesn’t change the fact that Thriller was everywhere back then. It charted top-10 singles for a year. The songs were simple but catchy. Even the cool kids on the back of the bus listened to this album (though only for “Beat It”, which they played as loud as they could on their boomboxes). Once in a while, when Kris is not home, I listen to Thriller. It’s only human nature.

06. Cyndi Lauper – She’s So Unusual (1984)
Probably another surprise to many of you, but not if you know me well. This album is amazing, filled with track after track of great music. I consider “Time After Time” to be the #2 song of the 1980s — “Every Breath You Take” is #1, “Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)” is #3 — but everything here is good: “When You Were Mine”, “Money Changes Everything”, “All Through the Night”, “Witness”, etc. The b-sides to the singles were also fantastic. It’s hard to remember it now, but there was a time when Cyndi Lauper was just as popular as Madonna. To my mind, she’s certainly the better musician. (Note: one reason this album was great was that Lauper’s back-up band was The Hooters, a group that produced the minor hits “And We Danced” and “All You Zombies”.)

05. Frankie Goes to Hollywood – Welcome to the Pleasuredome (1984)

Now we’re getting to the really good stuff. To most people, Frankie Goes to Hollywood is all about one song: “Relax”. This is sad because “Relax” is only a minor part of this double-album masterpiece. And make no mistake, Welcome to the Pleasuredome is a masterpiece. From the opening of “The World is My Oyster” to the rampaging “Welcome to the Pleasure Dome”, the first of this album’s four sides sweeps the listener along at breakneck speed, sixteen minutes of bliss. The second side is more pop-oriented, featuring the singles “Relax”, “War”, and “Two Tribes”. The second record returns to a moody, breathtaking exploration of love and lust, highlighted by the outstanding erotic “The Ballad of 32”. This album caused me great alarm in the mid-eighties; I was certain that homosexuality was a diabolic practice, and the openly gay themes espoused on the album — one song is “Krisco Kisses” — bugged me. But I liked the music. Ah, the moral dilemmas of youth.

04. The Cure – The Head on the Door (1985)

I was an angst-filled sixteen-year-old, and this record was the soundtrack to my life. It’s filled with songs of sorrow and pain: “Baby Screams”, “Screw”, “Sinking”. Yet through it all runs a thread of hope — “Close to Me” fairly breathes with life and love. Twenty years later, this album remains one of my favorites. What’s more, I love any song that covers a tune from The Head on the Door. I can’t help it. I’ve a weak spot for them. (My favorite is Ben Folds’ cover of “In Between Days”, a roaring piano-pop interpretation.)

03. Indigo Girls – Indigo Girls (1989)
I was driving to Portland to see Amy Ratzlaf, who had just returned from a year in Germany. A folk song came on the radio, but one like I’d never heard before. I loved it. When the announcer identified it — “Closer to Fine” by the Indigo Girls — I pulled off at the nearest exit to buy the album. And that was just the beginning of the rest of my life. Amy and Emily have been a constant presence in our lives for fifteen years. We try to see them in concert whenever they’re in town. Check out my latest audioscrobbler list. What group have Kris and Iistened to in the past three months? The same group we listen to most in any three month period: the Indigo Girls. I like to think that Kris and I are responsible for spreading the Indigo Girls around Willamette, largely due to the fact that we pushed them on our friends, and Kris played them all the time in The Bistro.

02. U2 – War (1983)
I’ve written before about my love affair with U2. This is where it all began. A cold, bleak album discovered during a cold, bleak winter. War is a raw and wonderful work from men who have something to say (a decided contrast to their overhyped and shitty How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb, released last month — a shoe-in for worst album of the year). The songs here are haunting and beautiful, from the bleak “New Year’s Day” to the angry “Sunday Bloody Sunday” to the peaceful, hopeful “40”. It’s hard to imagine a better album…

01. U2 – The Unforgettable Fire (1984)
…but here it is. My favorite album of the 1980s. A true masterpiece. U2 steered from their standard power-rock to something more ethereal here, producing an album of kaleidoscopic sounds. True, there aren’t many catchy singles to grab hold of — “Pride (In the Name of Love)” comes closest. The Unforgettable Fire begins quietly with the gentle lyrics of “A Sort of Homecoming”:

And you know it�s time to go
Through the sleet and driving snow,
Across the fields of mourning —
Light in the distance.

And you hunger for the time,
Time to heal, desire, time —
And your earth moves beneath
Your own dream landscape.

A dream landscape is what U2 created with this album. A dream landscape that’s difficult to explain, a dream landscape that must be heard. The centerpiece is “Bad“, a tender lament about drug addiction (to be echoed later in The Joshua Tree‘s “Running to Stand Still”). The other songs are wonderful, too, and they lead perfectly into the coda, the gentle “MLK”.

Obviously this list is biased toward the first half of the decade. I sincerely believe that’s when the best music was being produced, but more than that, I didn’t buy as much music after I graduated from high school. I lost touch with pop culture. (And that’s not a bad thing.)

Also — just as obviously — this is a list of my favorite albums, the ones that have stuck with me. These aren’t the only albums I like from the 1980s, but only the ones that have stuck with me most. There are many other albums hovering just off the list that I think are very, very good. (Stuff from The Police, Dire Straits, a-ha, New Order, ABC, Stevie Nicks, etc.)

And that’s how you turn a two-minute meditation on your drive to work into a two-hour weblog entry. It’s a good thing it’s a slow time at work right now…


On 29 December 2004 (10:33 AM),
pril said:

i’ve kind of avoided blogging about my favorite 80s music. it would take me weeks upon weeks to get it all out.

I agree about U2 though. I thought Gloria, Boy, War, Live at Redrocks, and the Unforgettable Fire were the good ones. And Rio.. John Taylor was the bass player than made me perk up my ears and think, “wow, i want to play that instrument”. He was my favorite d2 guy, too. he had the best hair and the nicest smile ;P I’ve recently discovered, too, that i like Billy Joel a lot more than i thought I did. I’ve got a double-album greatest hits thing i ended up with and it is fab.

I would add Aztec Camera’s “High Land Hard Rain” and Guadalcanal Diary’s debut album, and Del Amitri’s debut album (so much better than anything they’ve released since) and the Alarm’s “The Stand”. I became a raving, slobbering New Model Army fan sometime in 1985 or so, and still adore everything of theirs. And then there’s the punk stuff – a whole other comment/post/etc. “walk among us” by the Misfits (’81 i think?), Dr. Know’s albums, The Descendents, TSOL with the first Jack (Dance with Me, etc)…

The 80s had a lot of really fantastic stuff. That’s for sure. And even though i don’t like the song, “Bad Medicine” by Bon Jovi will always remind me of hauling down the road to get to my college classes on time in my friend’s chartreuse Fiat Spyder as it rattled down the road.

On 29 December 2004 (11:00 AM),
Paul said:

That top ten list reflected your musical taste very well from my perception which is based on a lot of musical interaction with you during those days in the 80s.

My musical taste reflects a lot of your influence. You loved to look for singles and in hopes of finding great b-side releases from sythnpop groups like Frankie, The Cure, Soft Cell and so many others. Those 12″ remixes and b-sides demonstrated a much deeper electronic experimentation than the radio singles that most people listening to. Most of these remixes found there way on to your mixed tapes. Those were cherished items in my world. You had the wax, the tapes, the double tape player/recorder and the time & creativity to make those nostalgic artifacts. This has evolved to my enjoying artists like Flunk, Kosheen, Hooverphonic and Dirty Vegas.

I still have a hard time making a mix without judging myself against your production specifications. I watched many times while you re-recorded a song because you stopped it a tad too early or started a song too early which would upset the delicate time lag between songs. I also remember searching our collective memories trying to come up with a song that would fill in say the last 2:18 of a mixed tape.

Thanks for those experiences!

On 29 December 2004 (01:43 PM),
Denise said:

There is no Cheap Trick on this list.

I am appalled.

On 29 December 2004 (02:13 PM),
sennoma said:

Have you listened to the new U2 album? I think it’s terrific, and from your comments here I think you’d like it too.

On 29 December 2004 (02:55 PM),
Scott said:

Ah but I must differ Mr. Roth.

Nine Inch Nail’s Pretty Hate Machine (1989) is a groundbreaking work that from first listen to last still sounds original and fresh. No other album listed above can make that claim.

On 29 December 2004 (03:18 PM),
sennoma said:

Heh, I don’t read so good do I? You said above you didn’t like the album! D’oh.

On 29 December 2004 (04:21 PM),
Emily said:

Ah, to be a music lover of the 1980s…we are lucky enough to have an 80s radio station in my area. I agree with most of your album picks, I would have to lean a little more new-age. While listing to most of the above, I was a huge fan of Depeche Mode (5 concerts), The Smiths, INXS, New Order, Soft Cell, Love & Rockets (2 concerts, one with you), The Cure (that you mentioned, 2 concerts), Pet Shop Boys (1 concert) etc. I was drawn to the not-happy music that sang about pain from my age or older. I liked knowing that things were not always better then you get older, you still had hard break and loss. PIL was my angry music.

There was that group that did not fit in… Oingo Boingo (4 concerts all on Halloween). OB was my happy band; I could put them in and dance around. I still hold out hope that D Elfman will go bank to making music for the radio instead of movies.

On 30 December 2004 (06:09 AM),
Amanda said:

The Unforgettable Fire is by far my favorite U2 album. It seems to be overlooked in favor of the much-hyped The Joshua Tree, also brilliant, but The Unforgettable Fire is, to me, their masterpiece.

On 31 December 2004 (09:46 PM),
J.D. Roth said:

Holy cats. Kris pointed out that I left off one of my favoritest albums of all time, one that could fit in on the list anywhere from #1 to #5.

Sinead O’Connor’s debut, The Lion and the Cobra contains some of the rawest, most powerful songs I’ve ever heard. It’s a sonic wall. Sinead’s voice is a force of nature. “Troy” is one of my favorite songs of all time. How could I have forgotten this album?

Also, 10,000 Mainiac’s In My Tribe ought to have made the list. I’ve listened to that album a lot over the past fifteen years.

Thanks, Kris, for jolting my memory.

On 26 July 2005 (02:37 PM),
Jim said:

No R.E.M.? No Clash? No Husker Du? Shame!

On 26 July 2005 (02:40 PM),
Jim said:

Top Ten Albums of the 1980s?

10) “Green”-R.E.M.
9) “New Day Rising”- Husker Du

8) “Combat Rock”- The Clash
7) “Meat Is Murder”- The Smiths
6) “Cargo”- Men At Work
5) “Spike”- Elvis Costello
4) “Oranges and Lemons”- XTC
3) “Saint Julian”- Julian Cope
2) “Music For The Masses”- Depeche Mode
1) “Murmur”- R.E.M.

On 20 September 2005 (06:41 PM),
Kon said:

Two words – Sonic Youth.

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