Many fans and philistines pilloried the 1980s as a low point in popular music. Why the hate? Probably because 1980 to 1989 was a time of such accelerated, disturbing change. This was the era when electronic equipment and synthesizers transformed rock and soul into New Wave and Hip Hop. The radio became an alienating wonderland of cheesy alien newness.
This list tries to capture some of the proliferating genres and weirdness that made purists gasp and the future sit up in its spaceship. It counts down from 25th best to 1st.
25. I Am What I Am: George Jones (1980)
Producer Billy Sherrill layers on the strings and the echoes for I Am What I Am. But there’s no polishing up late-period George Jones. His ravaged, Texas-thick twang and gulping syllable-chewing delivery make every song a devastating exercise in failing to clean up.
In the schlock operatic classic “He Stopped Loving Her Today,” it’s clear Jones himself is the broken man he’s singing about, who is shoved into a suit before being laid out in the coffin.
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24. The Burning Train: R.D. Burman (1980)
“The Burning Train” is the disaster picture where longtime Bollywood composer R.D. Burman showed he could keep up with the times. The composer deploys his usual assortment of gritty funk guitars, psychedelic sitar, manic percussion, blaring horns, and swirling swings.
But, especially on the title track, he adds a laser zap synthesizer. That pushes the song to an intensity both fiery and incongruously space-aged. Burman’s ex-wife, the incomparable Asha Bhosle, handles the sinuous vocals on the bulk of the album. But it’s the man himself who emits the signature English lyric in a rumbling growl. “The Burning Train! The Burning Train!”
23. Fair Warning: Van Halen (1981)
On the Fair Warning sessions, guitarist Eddie Van Halen snuck into the studio to do overdubs. In the night, he added weird synthesizer interludes without the rest of the band knowing. They all wanted another big hit via their signature sound.
Instead, they got this lumpy ominous masterpiece. Singer David Lee Roth emotes like he’s in Vegas as always. But the music descends into apocalypse sleaze. That’s especially true on “Dirty Movies,” where the guitar practically leers. On the stunning opener, “Mean Streets,” Eddie’s hammer-ons and pull-offs hit like lightning strikes in a sewer.
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22. The Visitors: ABBA (1981)
ABBA famously recorded The Visitors after Agnetha Fältskog divorced Björn Ulvaeus and Benny Andersson divorced Anni-Frid Lyngstad. The album is still a sugar bomb of twee pop. But the hyper-pristine 80s synth sheen is also suffused with melancholy.
The title track is a cheesy paranoid masterpiece in which Cold War totalitarian dystopia is a thin metaphor for a disintegrating relationship. And the amazing, towering “When All Is Said and Done” ramps up the full power of Agnetha and Frida for a final autumnal stentorian weeper. There is no ABBA more titanically ABBA than late decadent ABBA.
21. Djam Leelii (The Adventurers): Baaba Maal & Mansour Seck (1989)
Senegalese singer/guitarist Baaba Maal eventually became a central figure of world fusion. But his greatest album is arguably his first and most traditional. On Djam Leelii, he and his teacher, Mansour Seck burrow deep into the musical traditions of the Pulaar-speaking people.
Their twin acoustic guitars don’t duel so much as they urge each other on, flowing from one dreamy, bluesy melody to another while Maal’s keening vocals slide in and out of the soulful groove.
20. Through the Looking Glass: Midori Takada (1983)
Japanese percussionist Midori Takada was fascinated by both Western minimalism and African music. She painstakingly recorded layers and layers of overdubs to create Through the Looking Glass, a mind-bending assault of throbbing polyrhythms.
The album is intentionally impersonal, cold, and obsessive. The music seems to come from nowhere and go into nowhere. It exists in some other world where pure numbers turn into pure sound and back again.
19. The Queen is Dead: The Smiths (1986)
The Smiths’ third album is their perfect distillation of melancholy irony, ironic melancholy, and elliptical jangle pop. Morrissey moans through soaring self-loathing and soaring self-aggrandizement. “If you’re so very good-looking, why do you sleep alone tonight?”
Johnny Marr’s guitar locks into unforgettable pop hooks before chiming towards ambient atmospherics of maudlin ecstasy and mope. The songs float heavily, one into another, like flashes of melody in a fog of lachrymose posturing and exquisite craftsmanship.
18. Sister: Sonic Youth (1986)
On Sister, Sonic Youth is caught mid-transformation. Before this, they were a feral, scruffy art noise band. Afterward, they were still a feral scruffy art noise band, but one on a major label that made recognizable, somewhat radio-ready songs. This monstrous hybrid is a slouching entity of feedback and wrong tunings.
Everything melts and shatters in a calculated rage for chaos. It’s the sound of musicians not quite ready to pull themselves from the howling void.
17. Biyuya: Astor Piazzolla (1980)
Tango legend Astor Piazzola recorded Biyuya in Buenos Aires with the group that was to become the core of his 80s band. That included legends like Pablo Ziegler on piano, Fernando Suarez Paz on violin, Oscar Lopez Ruiz on electric guitar, and Piazzolla himself on bandoneon.
The album is a stunning blend of tango rhythms, jazz solos, and hints of rock fusion fire. Check out the relentless “Movimiento Continuo.” Piazzolla loved shark fishing, and he based this composition on the undulating progress of that ocean predator who never sits still.
16. Control: Janet Jackson (1986)
“Give me a beat!” Janet Jackson demands. Terry Lewis and Jimmy Jam complied with some of the most brutal machined funk ever laid to wax. Jackson herself is hardly any less tough.
Her every “huh!” is like a disdainful slap to the face, and it only hits harder because she’s obviously in on the joke (“What have you don’t for me lately?). Jackson isn’t generally thought of as metal or industrial. But this is some of the most uncompromisingly harsh music to ever conquer the charts.
15. Trio: Dolly Parton, Linda Ronstadt, and Emmylou Harris (1987)
Three unforgettable voices blend together at the intersection of folk, country, and bluegrass. Dolly’s mountain warble takes the lead on the wistful “Wildflowers.” Emmylou’s aching hippie burr caresses the cowboy-tinged “My Dear Companion.” Linda Ronstadt belts out the wronged-woman weeper “Telling Me Lies.”
On each track, the singers are lifted up by the others’ exquisite harmonies; it’s hard to tell whether they’re most miraculous, as frontwomen or background singers.
14. Nebraska: Bruce Springsteen (1982)
Nebraska was supposed to be a sketch, not an album. Springsteen recorded the songs on a 4-track and meant them to serve as demos for the full E-Street Band.
He changed his mind, though, and decided to release the songs as they were—just his plainspoken talk-singing, a guitar, a haunting harmonica. The stark sound brings out the stark poetry of his lyrics; stories about failing to find lost fathers, about betraying brothers, about being unable to buy new cars, about death. It’s Springsteen’s loneliest album and his best.
13. 24→24 Music: Dinosaur L (1982)
Classically trained avant-garde cellist Arthur Russell’s no-wave post-punk broken disco project Dinosaur L only released this one album, possibly because dance-floor space-time could not withstand another such volley. Rhythms honk and duck-walk and keyboards wander between atonality and minimalism.
Russell, minimalist composer Julius Eastman, and like-minded oddballs like Jill Kroesen repeat klunk-headed koans. “You’re gonna be clean on your bean!” “Go Bang!” “In the coooornnnnbelt!” It’s high-brow low-brow nerdy cool sublime.
12. Noir et Blanc: Zazou Bikaye Cy1 (1983)
Congolese singer Bony Bikaye was recording in Belgium when he met up with French composer Hector Zazou, who introduced him to Cy1, aka the electronic music duo of Guillaume Loizillon and Claude Micheli.
The group’s debut recording is a wonder of New Wave Afrofuturism, which fuses the African dance style of soukous with a battery of electronic patter and rhythm. Zazou’s easy vocals make every computerized blip sound completely organic as if the future is unfolding from the roots of a tree, flowering forth in leaves and neon.
11. Kill ‘Em All: Metallica (1983)
Metallica’s second and third albums get most of the critical love. But their first, Kill ‘Em All is one of the great thrash metal statements of purpose. The Motörhead influence is everywhere, but drummer Lars Ulrich, guitarist Kirk Hammett, and vocalist James Hetfield drive the pace even faster than Lemmy.
Bassist Cliff Burton is the true mastermind, though. His demi-classical, feedback-laden, wah-wah solo on “(Anesthesia)—Pulling Teeth” is a twisted promise of ambitious metal weirdness to come, and a reminder of how much the band lost with his tragic early death.
10. Paul’s Boutique: Beastie Boys (1989)
After their first album of obvious rock samples and snotty party raps, The Beastie Boys got weird. Mike D, The King Ad-Rock, and MCA tapped the Dust Brothers to produce their second record.
It’s a dizzying collage of dozens of samples—Donovan, Jean Knight, Pink Floyd, the Eagles—mixed, stirred, and smeared beneath a series of horny, bizarre raps about eggs, science, and traveling on the bus. Today clearing this many samples would be almost impossible. So Paul’s Boutique stands as a unique, tripped-out memento of a lost era of hip hop.
9. Come Away With ESG: ESG (1983)
Scroggins sisters Renee (vocals), Valerie (drums), Deborah (bass), and Marie (congas) stripped funk down to its bare essentials till there was nothing left but a throbbing bottom and hypnotic, repetitive lyrics.
Largely ignored when their debut Come Away With ESG was released, the group has since been recognized as post-punk, post-disco pioneers. They pointed the way to the pounding thump of hip-hop, house, and many a dance music to come.
8. Drastic Season: African Head Charge (1983)
There is weird, twisted, fiendishly distorted dub, and then there is London’s African Head Charge. A collaboration between master percussionist Bonjo Iyabinghi Noah and producer Adrian Sherwood, Drastic Season is the band’s furthest venture into psychedelic glorp and glawp.
Melody and beats are stretched like rubber bands, curl up into spiky balls like hedgehogs, and shimmy under rocks like snakes.
7. Sweet Sweet Dreams: Shadow (1984)
Winston Bailey, aka Shadow, wedded calypso and disco and came up with just about the happiest funk ever played at a beach party.
The synths churn and slide, the guitars come to a tasty boil, and Shadow’s out there with the heart on the sleeve, just enough melancholy desperation in his lyrics to make you appreciate the sunshine: “To dreeeeam of you is my delight.” The world didn’t dream of him back, unfortunately; the record is still known mostly to collectors. But that only adds to the bittersweet pleasure.
6. Around the World in A Day: Prince and the Revolution (1985)
Prince’s deepest dive into psychedelia put off a lot of critics. But there’s a strong case for it as his masterpiece. The lascivious, sunny “Raspberry Beret” is one of his absolute perfect singles, but the starry-eyed utopian sweep of “Paisley Park” and “Around the World In a Day” are just as good, as is the skanky metal Funkadelic yowl of “Temptation.”
It all fits together into a cracked concept album in which music is eros is fantasy is truth is music, sent to earth to save us all.
5. Perotin: Hilliard Ensemble (1989)
French devotional composer Perotin is credited with developing four-part harmony in the late 1100s. You might think music this old would sound fuddy-duddy and bloodless. But the Hilliard Ensemble’s a cappella arrangements have a sweeping, power—rhythmic, ravishing, and unrelenting.
The longest tracks, “Viderunt Omnes” and “Sederunt Principes”, are the highlights, building to a pinnacle of polyphony, like angels soaring up to detonate in light.
4. Stop Making Sense: Talking Heads (1984)
The celebrated concert film, recorded in Hollywood, is also arguably the Talking Heads’ best album. The core band of David Byrne, amazing drummer Chris Frantz, keyboardist Jerry Harrison, and bassist Tina Weymouth is augmented by supporting players including guitarist Alex Weir, keyboardist Bernie Worrell, and others.
The additional band members transform Byrne’s jittery, neurotic compositions into an exuberant polyrhythmic dance party. Even when you’re not watching the singer vibrate and shake and do laps around the stage, you can feel the herky-jerk energy just about burning down the house.
3. Pop-Eyes: Danielle Dax (1983)
English experimental oddball Danielle Dax recorded Pop-Eyes on a four-track by herself. She also sang and played all the instruments: guitar, drums, drum machine, bass, flute, keyboards, banjo, saxophones, and trumpet. When she was done she had an insular bedroom pop goth masterpiece, in which half-stunned pop melodies wander through private dream worlds of gentle squeaks, shamamen, and harvest buns. Even the cover art is brilliant. It’s an image of pieces of meat arranged into the form of a disturbing face, and was, of course, designed by Dax herself.
2. Run-DMC: Run-DMC (1983)
Hip hop has covered a lot of ground since the early 80s, but no noise rap to come would ever sound quite as raw as the first Run-DMC album. The production feels like it was recorded live in a Hollis, Queens gymnasium and the beats by Jam Master Jay are, as the record says, cut “down to the bone.”
Joseph Simmons (Run) and Darry McDaniels (DMC) throw ping-pong rhymes back and forth like a single street consciousness, spitting raps about hard times, nuclear apocalypse, and sucker MCs with a flow that’s percussive, jagged, and unforgettable.
1. Keyboard Fantasies: Beverly Glenn-Copeland (1986)
Classically trained folk singer Beverly Glenn-Copeland holed up in Huntsville, Ontario with a Yamaha DX-7 and a Roland TR-707 and emerged with New Age perfection. The natural landscape, all snow, winter stars, and sunset, is digitized and purified, as soulful robots embrace in bodies made of klonks and plonks and love.
Glenn-Copeland’s distinctive, intimate tenor, rich with vibrato, is filled with a tenderness that seems to exist outside time. “Welcome to you both young and old,” he promises. “We are ever new. We are ever new.”
I think the last album I took off was the Bangles’ Everything, a record I adore. I wrote about how much I love it elsewhere, though, and I don’t want to repeat myself. Similarly, Public Enemy was on the best 90s albums list, and there are so many other musicians to praise.
What about Sade? Kate Bush? The Indestructible Beat of Soweto? As always, there’s more music than you can fit on any one list. That’s what makes writing (and hopefully reading) music lists fun.
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Noah Berlatsky is a freelance writer based in Chicago. His book, Wonder Woman: Bondage and Feminism in the Marston/Peter Comics was published by Rutgers University Press. He thinks the Adam West Batman is the best Batman, darn it.