List: Top 5ive Albums Of The 1980s

Everyone loves lists, right? Well then, here comes a list: the best albums of the 1980s.

Any such “Top” list having to do with music is going to be controversial, of course. But this one may be less so than others, at least for me. These five albums simply stand out from all the rest. These were some of the strongest efforts by their creators, and helped shape both my life and the music business in general during that decade and for years thereafter. There are going to be other lists in Shoulblog in the future, some music-related, but I wanted to start with this one because it is, in fact, the most cut-and-dried.

Even though this exercise seems pretty obvious, there are still some parameters and caveats to consider. First, this is a list based on music I know. There may be more technically proficient, more popular, more critically acclaimed, more influential records out there, but they didn’t float into my universe or into my collection, so they’re not listed. Second, I’ve restricted myself to one album per artist. There are other albums, particularly by the folks in the No. 3 and No. 4 slots, that could very easily have made this list, but in my opinion, the ones I picked are just a hair better. Third, these choices are based on the original albums, not on subsequent expanded reissues.

Oh, and an additional note: I bought all of these records on vinyl originally, and later bought them all again on CD. In fact, the No. 2 album on this list was probably the last vinyl record I purchased before switching over to digital. This is neither here nor there—oh wait, it’s actually BOTH here and there—but it is kind of interesting, to me, anyway.

OK, here we go with the list:

5) Graceland — Paul Simon. This was a nice little album. I don’t really have a lot to say about it, other than it was, and remains, fun to listen to. “These are the days of miracle and wonder,” Simon sings. Much of the album was recorded during and following a trip to South Africa, and it consequently features a lot of rhythms, and instruments, that we weren’t used to hearing before. The top songs, in my opinion, are the title track, the above-mentioned Boy In The Bubble, Crazy Love and Diamonds on the Souls of Her Shoes.  Speaking of fun, if you’re like me, it’s been at least 20 years since you’ve seen this video.

4) White City — Pete Townshend. I could have gone with his 1980 album, Empty Glass, but this one won out, by the slimmest of margins, because it has a more mature feel to it. And yes, on some days that very fact would tip the scales in favor of the other one. But White City also has the song Hiding Out, which I’m pretty sure is on the soundtrack of Heaven. For me, this album is Pete Townshend at his peak as a solo artist, just as the Who had their peak as a group in 1971–73 with Who’s Next and Quadrophenia. The actual title of this album is White City: A Novel, for reasons that now, 25 years later, escape me. I do remember there was a short film that went along with it. For me, the film and that “novel” back story are pretty much lost in the mists of history now, but the music remains, and that’s good enough for me.

3) Get Happy!! — Elvis Costello. If you know this album, you understand why this post is headlined the way it is. If you don’t know it, you should. (OK, I don’t need to be as coy as Elvis would be here: one of the tracks on the album is titled 5ive Gears In Reverse. Works for me.) Get Happy!! was Elvis’ foray into Motown music — some said it was his apology for some grossly intemperate drunken remarks he’d made  about Ray Charles a year or so earlier. Anyway, the record has a sound all its own, heavy on the organ and bass, in a smoky, bluesy mix. Both the lyrics and the music are just about his best. I don’t know if there’s one song on here that made it anywhere on the charts, but there are a bunch on my own top-songs list: Possession, King Horse, Temptation, Motel Matches, B Movie, Human Touch, and on and on and on. Close behind Get Happy!! is Elvis’ Imperial Bedroom, which was released a couple of years later. Imperial Bedroom has a completely different sound — much crisper, more fully produced — but is equally worthy of attention, even though I prefer Get Happy!! by just a hair.

2) The Joshua Tree — U2. This one was released in 1987, a follow-up to 1984’s Unforgettable Fire. You’ve heard the singles: I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For, With Or Without You, and Where The Streets Have No Name, the later the subject of one of the best music videos ever. But my favorite song on the record is One Tree Hill, a somber song, written after the funeral of Bono’s personal assistant, who was killed in a motorcycle accident. “We run like a river runs to the sea” … it’s hard to beat that imagery. As far as I’m concerned, you can play that song at MY funeral. I would have another selection dilemma here if U2’s subsequent album, Achtung Baby!, was released in the 1980s, but it didn’t come out ’til 1990.

1) London Calling — The Clash. For me, there’s no doubt on this one. This one competes for the Greatest Album of All Time, but, in my mind, comes in at No. 2, behind Who’s Next. As I wrote here before, this album, released at the dawn of the decade, opened my eyes to a whole new area of rock music. Politically relevant, but not necessarily angry. In fact, some of the songs on this album—Rudie Can’t Fail, Wrong Em’Boyo, I’m Not Down—are delivered with such joyful exuberance that you forget that the Clash were a so-called “punk” band.

So there you have it. Did I miss some? Do these choices completely offend your sensibilities? Should I have picked X instead of Y for artist Z? What’s your top 5ive? Let me know in the comments below.


2 thoughts on “List: Top 5ive Albums Of The 1980s

  1. Myself, I prefer Rattle and Hum to Joshua tree. And Trust to Get Happy. And Purple Rain is missing. So is Tunnel of Love (not to mention Born in the USA and Nebraska). And The Trinity Session by the Junkies. This is tough. Blue Mask by Lou Reed. Let’s Dance by Bowie. Welcome to the Pleasuredome is possibly the iconic definition of a great 80s record. All the Best Cowboys Have Chinese Eyes. Oy vey. London Calling is the correct call however. Even tho it came out in1979.

  2. London Calling wasn’t released in the U.S. until January 1980. It pretty much defines the line for me between the 1970s and the 1980s.

    Purple Rain, Let’s Dance, Tunnel of Love and Born in the USA would be on my Honorable Mention list, along with Trust, Empty Glass, Imperial Bedroom, and the Pretenders’ Waiting To Crawl. Not Chinese Eyes though, although it did have a couple of great songs..

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