The 10 Best of the ’80s (Music)

August 29, 2010

In keeping with the thread that included my Hip Hop^, METAL!, and Country. articles, I decided to do one that focused on a decade rather than a genre. I think the ’80s is a great decade to focus on primarily because it gets written off far too often by people who remember or think of it as containing only hair rock, death metal, post-disco pop, disco rhinestone-country and early gangsta rap. It was all of these things as well, of course; and before the complaints roll in, sure Madonna and Michael Jackson made a few great pop records, bands like GNR and Motley Crue despite being silly and over-the-top were often fun, and NWA served a purpose even if that purpose got lost along the way. But moving beyond that, there was a lot of great music bubbling underneath. College radio was born in the eighties and the alternative music and indie scene (sung about by the second band on this list in their “Left of the Dial” song) came about from that. There were a slew of great pop singles – “Your Love” by The Outfield, “Sunglasses at Night,” Crowded House’s “Don’t Dream It’s Over,” The Church’s “Under the Milky Way”…hip hop, goth rock, speed metal, art rock, post-punk, and a lot of other great stuff stirred up.

So here is my list of the 10 best popular music acts of the eighties.

1) The Smiths

For many music critics, The Smiths were the bookend to The Beatles; where The Beatles opened the door as the first truly great rock and roll band, The Smiths closed it by being the last. I won’t go that far, but I will go so far as to say they were the best rock group of the eighties. Lead Singer and songwriter Morrissey and lead guitarist Johnny Marr created some of the best pop songs of all time as well as a couple of the greatest records ever as well– The Smiths are good in both departments, singles and albums. Forgive them for being the inspiration for the generation that created and took emo worldwide–Moz’s lyrics were often so melancholy and Marr’s chords so mournful (combined with song titles like “Please Please Let Me Get What I Want This Time”) proved to be the fire that lit that whole movement, but where most of the emo groups failed in going beyond shallow disappointment and self-pity, The Smiths succeeded in capturing existential doubt and confusion that often got lit up with the highs of adolescence as well–the joyous first love in “There is a Light That Never Goes Out,” the acceptance of self in “Hand in Glove,” the outright bounce of “Ask.” Sure they could bring you down–has there ever been a more sad song about simply living than “Never Had No One Ever” ?– but the humor was always waiting around the corner even if was a “Vicar in a Tutu.”  If “Abbey Road” was the greatest record of the sixties, “The Queen is Dead” was its eighties counterpart.

2) The Replacements

The Replacements were such a great post-punk band. Their earliest singles reveled in simplicity and noise – “Kids Don’t Follow,” Shiftless When Idle”–and their later singles were just perfectly crafted and produced rock and roll songs–“Alex Chilton,” “I’ll Be You,” “Can’t Hardly Wait.” Along the way they had room to work in southern twang (and lead singer Paul Westerburg took that as a launch point for his later often alt-country solo career) with songs like “Here Comes a Regular.” Their “Let it Be” and “Tim” records are perfect even when they drop into the gutter with what should be throwaway and  juvenile like “Tommy Got His Tonsils Out,” or “Gary’s Got a Boner.” They even made a great song out of a Kiss cover with their version of “Black Diamond.” The Replacements were the perfect band for eighties teenage life, even though I can only imagine since I was more than a decade away from that phase of my life in the midst of their  career!

3) Public Enemy

Chuck D boomed with baritone rhymes, Flava Flav ligtened things up with a little humor, Terminator X laid down fierce cacophonies of sound and samples as DJ, and the Bomb Squad Production made everything go boom. “It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back” and “Fear of a Black Planet” are two of the greatest albums in hip hop history, and much of their later work had moments that came close to living up to those highlights. Singles like “Fight the Power,” “Welcome to the Terrordome,” “911 is a joke,” and “Rebel Without a Pause” rank among the best to ever emerge from the genre. Politically conscious even if sometimes misguided, PE blueprinted what Hip Hop could be even if NWA unfortunately pushed things to follow the other route.

4) U2

U2 is more than an eighties band and arguably their best work came afterward–“Achtung Baby,” “All That You Can’t Leave Behind,” and “No Line on the Horizon.” Yet if U2 had only done what they did in the eighties they would still be considered a classic rock band. Their alternative sounding early work, “Boy,” October,” “War,” and the live “Under a Blood Red Sky” were a lot rawer and younger than what came later but also produced some of their greatest songs: “New Years Day,” “Pride (In the Name of Love),” “Sunday Bloody Sunday,” “I Will Follow.” They went global with “The Joshua Tree” and completely defined mainstream eighties without really selling out; and even with the sometimes borderline pretentiousness of “Rattle and Hum,” U2 managed to convincingly play the part of rock stars and still give lead singer Bono a platform to address the social issues he felt strongly about (and which he worked-and still does- tirelessly for in his own time).

5)New Order

Everyone always name-checks Joy Division; as sad as the tragic suicide of it’s lead singer is and as good of an album as “Closer” was, I prefer the music of New Order, the band that formed from their remnant,  most often over Joy Division. New Order made the best synth-pop of the eighties, which pretty much means of ever by default. The electronic dance and guitar rock fusion just clicked perfectly in their work and songs like “Shellshock,” “Blue Monday,” and “Bizarre Love Triangle” still sound excellent. Many of their albums were great, but the best way, in my opinion, to experience them first is with the 2 disc “Substance” compilation. Stretched out at around 2 hours you get the pop singles and the extended dance mixes which are equally important for getting New Order.


Prince is excellent and as amazing he is at playing pretty much anything and at catching perfect pop melodies in his head and recreating them for the rest of us to hear, he often is his own worst enemy as most know. When he’s on, though, he’s on in aces and he most definitely was on in his career high of the eighties with epic funk-soul-pop masterpiece albums: “Dirty Mind,” “Purple Rain,” “1999,” and “Sign O the Times” not to mention some of the best pop singles ever in “When Doves Cry,” “1999,” “Little Red Corvette,” etc. His eccentricity took over for most of his post eighties career even though superb 2000s releases like “Musicology” and “3121” reminded us all how good Prince really was.


You can read my full survey of these guys in that above-linked “Metal!” article, so I won’t rehash it all here. I still refuse to excuse them for their ignorance or moral lapses, but the pure unhinged roar of work like “Reign in Blood” will forever catalog these guys as game changers and metal kings.

8)The Cure

The Cure, as well as I discussed with The Smiths, bear a bit of blame for the emo generation (less you think I completely castigate that genre, you can read my appraisal and appreciation of the genre here–a rather embarrassing and more heart-on-sleeve personal tone that I try and avoid in most articles). The Cure though, are best placed on this list for their perfect pop songs– “Friday I’m in Love,” “Just Like Heaven,” “Pictures of You,” “Love Cats,” etc. Those type of songs would be enough to make them worthy but above that they had the bouncy, bass line heavy post punk “Boys Don’t Cry” album and the gothic, emo-inspiring works of “Disintegration” and “Pornography.” Yet the sheer artistry of “Disintegration,” much like that of, say, “The Queen is Dead,” places it far ahead of any emo-genre item and into the land of classic rock albums. “Disintegration” packs weight and also had massively great songs like “Love Song” and “Fascination Street.”

9)Run DMC

Run DMC made hip hop viable and widespread; they made full classic Hip Hop albums (like “Raising Hell”) at a time in which rap had primarily been a singles game. They paid close attention to sound and production, crafting music that was clean in the audible sense and that could compete with any rock record in terms of production. They were stylish, had attitude, and would’ve been huge even without that over-hyped Aerosmith collaboration (which did more for Aerosmith than these guys, since Tyler and the guys had been in a slump at the moment that team-up occurred). Run DMC weren’t the end destination of the full consummation of what hip hop could or should be, but they were the next major step in that direction.

10) Tom Waits

Tom Waits was a great musician in the ’70s, so in that sense he’s not an “80s Artist”– not to mention that his work continued on through the ’90s and the 2000s, always evolving, always creative. His work in the seventies was more traditional in some senses, more nostalgic in others: albums like “The Heart of Saturday Night” were great piano balladry and Sinatra filtered through rock and roll-esque tunes that worked like drunken yearning soundtracks to old noir novels. Wait’s later work pushed the boundaries of noise experimentation yet would always stop to take time for excellent ballads driven by character. Yet Waits makes this list just for his ’80s work, specifically for his trilogy of underground masterpieces “Swordfishtrombones,” “Rain Dogs” and “Frank’s Wild Years.” “Rain Dogs was the centerpiece, a great noisy, noir, scary, exciting, eccentric work that stands alone pretty much uncontested as a combination of progressive alternative rock, folktale balladry, jazz nodding appreciation, with horror rock flourishes and pop melodies sung with evolved (or devolved) Waits vocals in which he now sounded like someone who had gargled with whiskey and nails for 5 years.

So that’s it for my picks and I know a lot of folks who were teens and twenty- somethings in the eighties who would definitely disagree with my picks, but that’s how I see it now looking back as an outsider to that generation! I’ll leave this article with a short, and by no means complete, list of classic eighties albums made by artists who didn’t make the cut for me but whose work deserves a mention.

Siouxsie & The Banshees: Hyaena; REM: Murmur; Kate Bush: Hounds of Love; Motley Crue: Too Fast For Love; Metallica: Master of Puppets; Guns N Roses: Appetite For Destruction; Erik B and Rakim: Paid in Full; NWA: Straight Outta Compton; Dwight Yoakam – Guitars, Cadillacs, etc.; Lyle Lovett – Pontiac; INXS – Kick; XTC – Skylarking; Bruce Springsteen – Tunnel of Love; Husker Du – New Day Rising; The Jesus and Mary Chain – Psychocandy; Danzig-Danzig; Chris Isaak – Heart Shaped World; The Rolling Stones: Tattoo You *

– Many of these albums are by artists whose work before and/or after the the eighties place them for me far above anyone who made the list, but I tried to judge this list by the artists work in the eighties only.


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