A few months ago, I took 80's music to task in a little ditty called High School Music: A Reunion from Hell.
Of course, I took some shit from some of my friends and classmates, so I promised them I'd try to look at the positive side to the eighties down the road. That moment has arrived.
Like the moment a chemistry test arrives.
Hey, I promised, so stay tuned as I try to find some musical needles in a decade long haystack.
The Best of the Worst
Here's my original premise: In my opinion, overall, the '80s were the worst decade of music since rock and roll was born. Most of it didn't sound good then, and it doesn't sound good now.
This little "research project" hasn't done a lot to change that opinion.
All jocular harassment aside, I figured I'd easily find a bunch of '80s albums that still hold up (meaning that I still listen to them today).
I gotta tell you, even being a smart-ass '80s basher, it was harder than I thought it would be. Of the more than 1,500 albums I've ripped, it was amazing how few were '80s albums. I'd scroll through, looking for possible candidates. When I'd see one, I'd check the dates, and time after time I'd end up muttering one of two things:
"Damn, 1979 again," or...
"Oops, early '90s again."
After scrolling and listing for an hour, I was able to find 21 albums that fit the bill. I've divided them into four random categories (with a brief set-up for each) for your scrutinizing pleasure.
(Yes, I realize half of you little shits weren't born until the eighties, but stay with me and you just might pick up a good recommendation.)
Start with Four Popular Records
I started by scanning the decade's Billboard charts. I immediately found that two great albums had topped the album charts in 1980, and I was thinking, "Maybe I'm was too tough on the '80s."
Turns out one of the two (Pink Floyd's The Wall) was released in 1979, and I wasn't being too tough at all. The best-selling titles got really bad, really quick. Next thing you know, I'm at 1990, and I've only got four total that I've listened to in the past few years.
That's right, only FOUR. For the entire fucking decade. I guess we are talking about agreeing with the '80s mainstream, so that sounds about right.
1. U2 - Joshua Tree (1987) In the eighties you couldn't avoid the hits like you can now, and excessive radio/MTV play would inevitably cause me to hate them early in the album's lifespan. I hated Joshua Tree's hits from the beginning. Sap City. Luckily, Boner and the boys put all three of them up front, so I can start on track four and have a great time with rest of the album. (Note: Achtung Baby is better, so is War, but neither went to number one.)
2. Queen - The Game (1980) I listen to The Game more than my other four Queen albums (all from the 70's) combined. I always skip "Another One Bites the Dust" (although it is the only song I know that features my name), but I really enjoy the rest. Both sides. Brian and Freddie's interplay on "Dragon Attack" still blows my hair back.
3. Police - Synchronicity (1983) "Every Breath You Take" is the epitome of hideous '80s music. The rest of the album is great (including the other two hits, which were also overplayed at the time.) It's loaded with quirky, but over the years, the quirk has grown on me. My favorite part: Copeland's crazy drum rhythms on "Wrapped Around Your Finger".
4. Guns and Roses - Appetite for Destruction (1987) I already piped off about this in Ten Rn'R Hall of Famers That Never Topped Their Debut, so I'll spare you here. I could have put it with the metal section of the list, but it did go to number one for five weeks (and signal the death of hair-metal).
Now Give Me Five Album Rockers...
Although most of the great '70s rockers stopped making good records in the '80s, and the genre itself was severely hampered by MTV, keyboards, and the love of all things cheesy, there were a some good AOR (Album-Oriented Rock) records that made it through new wave mist.
5. Tom Petty - Full Moon Fever (1989) I also play two Heartbreakers records (Long After Dark, Hard Promises) from the decade, but not as much as I listen to Tom's first solo effort. I skip the first two tracks, which I've heard a zillion times, and start with the fantastic "Love is a Long Road."
6. John Cougar - Nothing Matters and What if it Did (1980) Perhaps my favorite '80s album. Mellencamp (whose name had been changed by the label, much to his dismay) was young and he didn't give a fuck about saving farmers, etc. He just wanted to be young, get laid, and have a good time. Partying my way through a small town high school was a blast, and nothing reminds me of it more than this album.
7. Stevie Ray Vaughan - Couldn't Stand the Weather (1984) Once in a blue moon, MTV did alert you to someone that rocked, but mostly it was the weird shit (as I lovingly called it then.) I still remember seeing the title-track video with Stevie jammin' in the face of the rain, and then going to buy the album.
8. Los Lobos - How Will the Wolf Survive? (1984) This is one of those records I didn't find until later, mainly because I just thought of Los Lobo's as "La Bamba music" until I heard Kiko (another great eighties album). Ever since I found it, it's been playing. Try "I Got Loaded". Nifty guitars and sweet horns from East L.A.
9. Triumph - Allied Forces (1981) If you asked me for a list of guys that were both a great vocalist and a great guitar player, Triumph's Rik Emmet might be at the top. I still listen to Thunder Seven and Progressions of Power as well. Second best Canadian trio ever.
Throw in Six Pieces of Metal... Looking at metal today, it sure does make metal of the eighties seem tame by comparison. But the decade did give us some great heavy guitar music - at the beginning and the end (the middle was full of hair bands from poseur-hell) - and it was heavy metal to us. Still sounds heavy to me.
10. Van Halen - Fair Warning (1981) First they rocked our worlds with Van Halen I and II. Then they weirded out on Women and Children First. Fair Warning hailed the return (and last sighting) of the vicious Eddie lead.
11. Black Sabbath - Heaven and Hell (1980) I've had Ozzy up to here since about three days after Randy Rhodes died... but I have never tired of Ronnie James Dio. This is--gasp--my favorite Black Sabbath album of all. Very tight.
12. Riot - Fire Down Under (1981) Yeah, I know, you've never heard of 'em. Dial up "Outlaw" or "Feel the Same" and give some of this New York heavy metal a ride. Big guitar, big sound.
13. Def Leppard - High n' Dry (1981) Def Leppard sucked after this album. If you want to hear Def proper, listen to 'em before they booted hard-drinkin' Pete Willis for puppy-boy Phil Collen. I haven't listened to Pyromania (which some say started the pop-metal movement) since it came out, and I never made it through Hysteria once ("Armageddon It" caused immediate ejection), but this one still sounds great.
14. Michael Schenker Group - Built to Destroy (1983) Michael Schenker wails. Critics would want the debut, which is also excellent. I really wanted to use The Scorpions' Lovedrive, which Michael was a part of, but it came out in the 1979 (surprise). The bottom line: I listen to this one the most... keyboards and all.
15. Rush - Moving Pictures (1981) Truly a work of art from Canada's best trio ever. I want to skip "Tom Sawyer", but the album doesn't sound right without it. The last time I saw Rush in concert, they did Moving Pictures in its entirely, and I thought the arena was going to lift off at the initial crescendo/break (if that's what you cal it) of "YYZ".
Finish with Six True '80s Albums...
Some bands are just eighties bands. While they may have recorded albums before or after, there's no other decade with which you can associate them.
What I've found over the years is that most of those bands sounded OK then, but don't hold up now. It could be due to maturing tastes, but mainly I think it's because they just weren't that good. Here's six that made it through.
16. Greg Kihn Band - Rockihnroll (1981) They don't write 'em like that any more... and they don't make this album on CD (they do, but it's running around $180 on Amazon.) I had to have a customer digitize it off my LP to even get this pop gem. It was worth the effort.
17. John Waite - Ignition (1982) I'm in college. We're partying and listening to music. I say, "I don't care what it is, Fred, just tape me something good." He put on this album. I'm like, "Seriously, John Waite?". Almost thirty years later, the recommendation holds, and this album by the former Babys lead singer is amongst my all-time most played.
18. Crowded House - Temple of Low Men (1988) Their first album is more well-known, but this is the one that hooked me. There's not one song on the album I skip. There aren't many albums about which I can make that claim... in any decade.
19. The Fixx - Reach the Beach (1983) I was listening to this last week - and it reminded me that I had an '80s posi-blog to write. This album probably has more of that dreaded '80s pop sound than the others in this blog, but for whatever reason, I can still dig it.
20. Jane's Addiction - Nothing's Shocking (1988) I remember looking at the cover of the promo cassette, and the name of the band, and rolling my eyes. Three nights later, we're at a party and I hear this wicked guitar work. I found out who it was, and learned forever not to judge a band by it's name and cover. They never topped it.
21. Talking Heads - Remain in Light (1980) Another instance where MTV introduced me to an artist I wouldn't have heard on the radio. But I really didn't get exposed to any of their albums until the turn of the century. Ever since then, this nifty little rascal has been a fave. Try: "Crosseyed and Painless".
...and We've Got An 80's Blackjack! Don't Ask Me for More.
Oh all right, it wasn't that bad. I probably could have found a few more if my life depended on it.
We Believe Local Journalism is Critical to the Life of a City
Engaging with our readers is essential to Phoenix New Times's mission. Make a financial contribution or sign up for a newsletter, and help us keep telling Phoenix's stories with no paywalls.
Support Our Journalism
Truth be told, you can always find good music if you look hard enough.
Even in the '80s.
Thanks for reading and have a great day.