Ok, so this one is just for fun: 80 albums from the ’80’s. To be clear, I don’t dwell in the ’80’s or in it’s music, really. But it was a formative decade— where I spent the entirety of my teen years plus some— and one that continues to inform a lot of my thoughts and tastes today. And there was some great music back then, especially lurking just below the surface, blasting on college radio stations, or sneaking out from this independent label or that.
To me, the best of the ’80’s was probably a culmination of three earlier influences: The Byrds, the Ramones and Elvis Costello; or, put another way, jangly folk rock, pop punk, and the rockier side of new wave. A good bit of this sort of thing appears on my list. But there was a lot of other good stuff, too.
Anyway, this isn’t a “best of” list, although some of these are regarded as such, but rather a personal one, reflecting my own tastes— then, but more so now — meaning this is all stuff I would, or still do, listen to today (although a few are purely nostalgia picks). It’s admittedly a hugely biased list. Rock rules over pop, guitars over synths, upbeat over gloomy, etc. It’s heavy on jangly British pop rock. It’s almost embarrassingly white. There’s nary a whiff of mainstream country, rap, or metal, and it happily omits any and all power ballads I might have heard at a junior high or high school dance. It does include some jazz, “world,” and roots music, which are near and dear to my heart.
I’ve organized these by year, in no particular order. First, though, are a few compilations. I also limited it to one album per band or artist.
So, with all that out of the way, here are“80 from the ’80’s.” I hope the music geeks out there, as well as, perhaps, a few fellow children of the ’80’s, might find it worthwhile.
Jesus and Mary Chain – Upside Down, the Best of the Jesus and Mary Chain (Comp, 2-cd). I could have gone with Psychocandy here, their best-regarded album, but I really like this 2-cd comp, which combines some of the best tunes from Psychocandy with other killer J&MC tunes.
Vaselines – Enter the Vaselines (Comp, 2-cd). Another compilation, but good luck finding their original EP’s. This is the bulk of the Vaselines’ recorded output, which is outrageously fun, plus a second disc of demos and live tracks which is almost unlistenable at times, but still something of a hoot. So bad, they were great. That was the Vaselines.
Various – CD 86 – Apparently, back in 1986, some British music rag issued a cassette called “c-86,” which helped define and publicize a group of mostly little-known British indie bands who were mining that certain territory now known as “twee,” or “indie” or what have you. A few went on to bigger and better things, including Primal Scream, the Pastels, the Jesus and Mary Chain, etc., but most remain obscure today. In 2006, a 2-cd reissue came out, replacing some of the original tunes, adding a bunch of others, but still hitting the core of that British pop sound of the ’80’s. The Mighty Lemon Drops, Shop Assistants, Flatmates, Soup Dragons, Talulah Gosh . . . some of the best the ’80’s produced, in my opinion.
Shop Assistants – Will Anything Happen? (Comp). Unpolished, unpretentious Scottish post-punkers, often labeled as “twee.” Pretty essential for fans of the “twee”/c86” sound.
Flatmates – Potpourri (Hits, Mixes and Demos ’85 – ’89) (Comp). Like the Shop Assistants, but from England, and perhaps slightly harder rocking, and a bit more talented.
Talulah Gosh – Backwash (comp). All 25 tracks they ever recorded. Downright essential.
The Clean – Compilation (Comp). The Clean was a New Zealand band, labeled “punk,” but harder to categorize, I think, with some mellower folk rock and psychedelic influences (think Byrds and Velvet Underground). Two founding brothers – David and Hamish Kilgour, are still putting out quality stuff today, in their own names. This one tracks the Clean from the late ’70’s to 1986. There’s another more recent anthology out there, too, which might be easier to track down.
The Sea Urchins – Stardust. This album was released by Sarah Records in 1992, after the Sea Urchins had already left the label. It was released as an album, but was actually a compilation of material released between 1986 and 1990, including the stellar Pristine Christine, their best-known song, which was the first single ever released by the label. Jangly British pop music at its best.
Various – The Indestructible Beat of Soweto, Vol. 1 (’86). South African township music. Pretty essential international folk if you’re into that sort of thing, which I am.
Dolly Mixture – Demonstration Tapes (’83). Dolly Mixture was a British female punk pop trio from the late ’70’s/early ’80’s who, while only releasing four singles, were apparently pretty influential as forerunners to the “twee” movement that came along not long after. You can hear some of them in Talulah Gosh, the Flatmates, and Shop Assistants, above. Anyway, In 1983 they released an album of mostly old demos, which was later re-released as a cd in the ’90’s. It’s all but impossible to find, but if you do, snag it. Then give it to me for my birthday.
Elvis Costello – Get Happy (’80). Vintage Elvis Costello, in a particularly happy mood.
Clash – London Calling (’80). The rest of the world got this one in 1979, but it didn’t hit American shelves until ’80. Thus, I’m thus giving it a pass. But regardless of the decade, it would have made the cut.
Talking Heads – Remain in Light (’80). Best ’80’s album from the Heads? I dunno, but it’s gotta rank up there. Smack dab in the middle of their punkish/art-pop ’70’s stuff, and their more poppish, world-music-inflected ’80’s output.
Feelies – Crazy Rhythms (’80). Weird, frenetic blend of new wave, punk, and rock, with the best cover of the Beatles’ Everybody’s Got Something to Hide Except me and My Monkey ever laid to wax. (The reissue also includes another classic cover — the Stones’ Paint it Black).
Ramones – End of the Century (’80). If you listen, you’ll hear Phil Spector’s influence on this album (he produced it). And, if you think about it, that wasn’t that big of a stretch, given the obvious influence of early ’60’s rock on the Ramones’ sound. This may be “Ramones Lite” to some, but it’s still the Ramones, and still a fun album – in some ways, one of their most fun.
Television Personalities – And Don’t the Kids Just Love It (’80). This comes out of punk, but doesn’t quite sound like punk music. It’s a bit mellower, more stripped down (if that’s possible), a little quirkier, folkier. And it somehow works. A weird little gem of an album.
Young Marble Giants – Colossal Youth (’80). A sparse, low-fi, minimalist, post punk indie classic. One I’d call pretty essential.
B-52’s – Wild Planet (’80). This is what 1980 might have sounded like had I been cool enough to hang out with the slightly punkish girls after school in 7th grade, spinning records and dancing in their basements, which I know they were doing, instead of listening to Air Supply on the lonely bus ride home.
X – Los Angeles (’80). I was way late to the game in getting into X, for reasons I don’t really understand. Perhaps the band name, “X,” coupled with the album art from “Los Angeles” made me associate them with a certain kind of hardcore punk/metal that I never really liked. (Thanks to my good friend, Lisa, for convincing me to finally give them a fair listen). Regardless, this was a great band, more punkabilly than anything, and a stellar debut album.
Archie Shepp – Trouble in Mind (’80). The once fire-breathing jazz saxophonist in an intimate duo setting, exploring old blues, gospels,and spirituals from the ’20’s, comped by the the great jazz pianist, Horace Parlan. Unexpected. Amazing.
Bob Marley & The Wailers – Uprising (’80). Marley’s last studio album, and another good one, making us all wonder what more he would have given us had he stuck around.
Devo – Freedom of Choice (’80). Quintessential new wave.
Art Pepper – Straight Life (’80). One of the last and best albums from legendary hard bop saxophonist, Art Pepper. As good of a straight ahead jazz record as you’ll find, and possibly even better than his acclaimed ’50’s output.
Rory Block – High Heeled Blues (’81). Rory Block, singing and playing acoustic country blues. Not many do it better.
The Go-Go’s – Beauty and the Beat (’81). Laugh if you want, but this was a great, fun little pop/punk/new wave record, top to bottom, which has held up well through the years.
Dick Gaughan – Handful of Earth (’81). A blend of celtic and western folk, Gaughan cuts with his political lyrics, and plays pretty mean guitar as well. A great album, and another one of my introductions into the world of celtic music, thanks to my brother Jeff, who discovered him, and it, before I did.
Black Uhuru – Red (’81). Reggae music may have peaked in the ’70’s, but there was still a lot of good stuff coming out in the early ’80’s. This was some of it.
Raincoats – Odyshape (’81). I can’t figure out how to describe the Raincoats. They are un-categorizable. But I like them. Check ‘em out.
Squeeze – East Side Story (’81). Squeeze just sounds like the early ’80’s to me.
Andy Stewart – By the Hush (’82). Debut album by Silly Wizard lead vocalist, Andy Stewart. Top notch celtic/folk music.
King Sunny Ade & His African Beats – Juju Music (’82). King Sunny bringing some much needed Juju to America.
Bruce Springsteen- Nebraska (’82). Springsteen’s stripped-down, demo-esque solo effort, proving that he was, above all, a folk singer at heart.
Richard and Linda Thompson – Shoot out the Lights (’82). Swan song by two artists who never made a bad album— together or apart — but would be apart after this one.
Sarah Vaughan – Crazy & Mixed Up (’82). A late career gem from one of my all-time favorite jazz vocalists, accompanied by, among others, one of my favorite jazz guitarists, Joe Pass.
U2 – War (’83). It would be probably be a crime not to include something by U2 on this list. “War” gets my nod as perhaps the pinnacle of their early “era,” when they were still very much a high energy rock-n-roll band.
Billy Bragg – Life’s a Riot with Spy vs. Spy (’83). Bragg’s first, and the first of several excellent ’80’s dates. Stripped down folk rock, with Bragg’s heavy Irish brogue and piercing social commentary. It’s raw and earnest and still sounds great.
Violent Femmes – Violent Femmes (’83). This one knocked me out back in the ’80’s with its thick acoustic bass, brutally frank and irreverent teenage-angsty lyrics, and infectious, neurotic melodies.
Tony Rice Unit – Backwaters (’83). Rice called it “spacegrass,” a “newgrassy” sound he helped pioneer (and few, if any, ever played bluegrass guitar better).
Dan Crary – Guitar (’83). Crary, playing with some of the young bucks of the bluegrass/newgrass movement. Strong, updated bluegrass/newgrass from a top-notch picker.
Stevie Ray Vaughan & Double Trouble – Texas Flood (’83). The ’80’s were a down decade for blues, and I really didn’t start to appreciate them until I was older. But we all knew who Steve Ray Vaughan was after this one came out. This was his first album, and it’s still top-notch.
Utah Phillips – We Have Fed You All A Thousand Years (’83). Two things that were on life support in 1983 were (a) folk music, and (b) labor unions. Enter Utah Phillips, railing on behalf of working people with uncompromising commentary and humor that might have made even Pete and Woody blush. Some of Phillips’ commentary during this live set was surprisingly prescient, listening to it today, some thirty years later.
Replacements – Let it Be (’84). One of the best albums from one of the early ’80’s best straight-ahead rock-n-roll bands.
The Smiths – The Smiths (’84). In truth, I didn’t like the Smiths that much in the ’80’s. I think their strange blend of happy/sad confused my young brain. Ironic, given that my young brain was mostly comprised of that same strange mix. Eventually, though, I came around, and could see how and why they were so influential. I went with this one, in part, because everyone needs “This Charming Man” in their lives.
Minutemen- Double Nickels on the Dime (’84). Punk meets funk meets soul and other stuff. This is post-punk punk music by dudes who could actually play a little and who had listened to more than surf music and garage rock. It still sounds great.
Whippersnapper – Promises (’85). A hard to categorize blend of modern acoustic folk with touches of celtic/British folk. High quality musicianship. A great little obscure record.
Wynton Marsalis – Black Codes From the Underground (’85). Because we were all too young back then to remember Miles Davis’ second great quintet, circa 1965. This is a pretty close facsimile.
Joe Henderson – State of the Tenor Volumes 1&2 (’85). This is essential jazz, regardless of the decade. Joe Henderson, Ron Carter, and Al Foster. One of the great sax trio recordings of all-time. Recent Japanese reissues have greatly enhanced the sound quality of this recording.
Robyn Hitchcock & the Egyptians – Fegmania! (’85). Lunatic, genius, or both? Robyn Hitchcock’s shifty music and bizarro lyrics always put a smile on my face.
The Dentists – Some People are on the Pitch They Think It’s Over It Is Now (’85). Progenitors of that British “c86” jangle pop sound of the ’80’s, although more “Byrds” than “Smiths.” At times, this sounds like something straight out of the ’60’s, but then that ’80’s British pop sound weaves back in. Great stuff.
The Woodentops – Giant (’86). Brilliant, occasionally manic, mostly acoustic British folk/dance/pop. This sounds like a bunch of the best of the 1980’s — the ‘Heads, Feelies, Smiths, Devo, XTC, Billy Bragg, Soup Dragons, Madness, maybe a little Pogues— tossed into a blender and somehow coming out sounding both good and distinctive.
Michelle Shocked – The Texas Campfire Tapes (’86) Yeah, she turned out to be a pill, but we all thought she was pretty cool back in 1986, when her lo-fi batch of Guthrie-style folk tunes first hit the record shelves.
R.E.M. – Life’s Rich Pageant (’86). Perhaps R.E.M.’s high water mark — kind of midway between their jangly, rootsy, garage folk origins and their later, more unabashed pop efforts. I wore my cassette of this one out back in the day.
Paul Simon – Graceland (’86). Paul Simon’s fusion masterpiece, blending his own western folk/pop with South African rhythms and harmonies.
XTC – Skylarking (’86). Truly, one of the great albums of the ’80’s. More than just a bunch of good tunes, it somehow plays out like a well thought out program, making the whole greater than the sum of its collective parts — reminiscent of some of the late Beatles’ efforts in that regard. Indeed, this was a bit like a late ’60’s psych pop concept album, but one that only could have been made in the ’80’s.
Maloney, O’Connell & Keane – There Were Roses (’86). Mick Maloney, Robbie O’Connell, and Jimmy Keane, putting out an ’80’s celtic classic.
Lyle Lovett – Pontiac (’87). From the first listen of the first track, “If I Had a Boat,” you knew Lovett was someone different, with a sound completely his own. Country, folk, swing, rockabilly, and man . . . that voice.
Soup Dragons – Hang-Ten (’87). Snappy, jangly, hyper British pop music from the golden age of snappy, jangly, hyper British pop music. This was before the Soup Dragons grew up and became more of a Britpop/dance band hybrid, but I like this album of theirs the best.
Le Mystere des Voix Bulgares (the Mysterious voices of Bulgaria, ’87). Technically, this was recorded in the ’70’s on a tiny label, re-discovered, and re-released to wide acclaim in the 80’s. Still, essential “’80’s” international folk.
Ladysmith Black Mambaza – Shaka Zulu (’87). This was produced by Paul Simon, who helped give LBM international exposure with the prior year’s “Graceland.” This is Ladysmith playing their own stuff. Excellent.
Hot Rize – Untold Stories (’87). Hot Rize arguably carried the banner of traditional folksy-sounding bluegrass through the ’80’s. A great band led in part by one of my favorite bluegrass/folk/Americana musicians, Tim O’Brien.
Bela Fleck – Drive (’87). Top shelf “newgrass” by Fleck and some of the top acoustic players of the past forty years, including Jerry Douglas, Sam Bush, Mark O’Connor, Tony Rice, and Stuart Duncan.
Pogues – If I Should Fall From Grace With God (’88). The Pogues had one of the best and most unique sounds of any ’80’s band — blending punk and garage rock energy with traditional Irish folk melodies and instrumentation. This might be their best album, top to bottom.
Cowboy Junkies – The Trinity Sessions (’88). Beginning with Margo Timmons’ dreamy a cappella version of “Mining for Gold,” and ending with a bluesy, harmonica-and accordion-comped, molasses-paced take on Patsy Cline’s “Walking After Midnight,” this was, top-to-bottom, unlike anything I’d heard before or even since. Ambient-acoustic-acid-chamber-dream-country? Yep, and it worked.
Edie Brickell – Shooting Rubber Bands at the Stars (’88). I was recently at Treefort, Boise’s big indie music festival, and saw a singer from Denver who I dug named Esme Patterson. Yet, all I could think as she was playing was how much she sounded like 1988-vintage Edie Brickell. Edie had a sound, and it’s endured.
Silly Wizard – Live Wizardry (’88). Essential celtic music from the quintessential ’80’s celtic band, fronted by Andy Stewart’s impeccable vocals.
Tracy Chapman – Tracy Chapman (’88). By the ’80’s, folk music had all but vanished from mainstream radio, which is perhaps why Tracy Chapman’s debut sounded so refreshingly honest when it came out in 1988.
Carmen McRae – Carmen Sings Monk (’88). Late career gem from the great jazz vocalist, Carmen McRae. Excellent lyrics by Jon Hendricks and Abbey Lincoln; tight, supportive band(s); intimate . . . it just works.
Waterboys – Fisherman’s Blues (’88) – Waterboys’ classic mix of Irish and English folk and rock.
Michael Doucet & Beausoleil – Hot Chili Mama (’88). Beausoleil’s infectious blend of cajun, zydeco, and blues makes you want to eat crawfish, drink Abita, and find a Louisiana girl to dance with.
Barney Kessel – Red Hot & Blues (’88). One of the last recordings of the legendary jazz guitarist, with a stellar supporting cast. This is straight ahead, mostly swinging, bread-and-butter jazz. Nothing new under the sun. But it’s one of those albums that just scratches that itch, finding its way to my turntable more than most.
Indigo Girls – Indigo Girls (’89). I once spent a week in Barcelona listening to this album on cassette repeatedly, since it was one of only two my buddy, Chiz, and I had in our possession at the time, for whatever reason. I still can’t listen to it without smelling a nostalgic combination of ocean air, shallow sewer, and the unique blend of cooking spices wafting from the apartment complex we were staying in. Anyway, I know a lot of dudes (always dudes, for some reason) who recoil at the thought of the Indigo Girls, but I thought they were great — and perhaps never better than on their stellar debut album, which was full of unique melodies, intelligent lyrics, and incredible harmonies.
Michael Penn – March (’89). I don’t know what it is about this one I’ve always liked so much. Perhaps it just sounded different from so much of the post-Madonna pop music that was coming out around that time, all full of synthetic beats and overproduced glimmer. This was straight up acoustic pop, and it sounded great.
Robbie O’Connell – Love of the Land (’89) Irish-born celtic/folk artist equally adept at gut wrenching ballads or humorous, uptempo tunes. A great songwriter, perhaps at his best when he took on serious subject matter, such as the Nicaraguan revolution in Full Moon Over Managua. One of the first celtic albums I loved, which opened me up to many more.
Altan – Horse With a Heart (’89) Perhaps the greatest celtic band of the past 30 years. I think this was their first album, and it’s a good one.
Pat Metheny/Dave Holland/Roy Haynes – Question and Answer (’89). One of Pat Metheny’s most straight ahead jazz albums, w/legendary bassist Dave Holland and even more legendary drummer, Roy Haynes. It’s the one Pat Metheny album that even ardent jazz purists should dig.
Gipsy Kings – Mosaique (’89). How the Gipsy Kings managed to carve out a few gold records and some measure of stardom in the U.S. in the late ’80’s, amidst the hair metal and dance pop acts dominating the airwaves is anybody’s guess. But they did, and I’m glad. There’s a deep, rich pool of international folk music out there, and cross over groups like the Gipsy Kings, even if slightly watered down for mainstream tastes, can really open up a lot of ears. They did for me, anyway.
Lou Reed – New York (’89). Lou at his rocking, raconteuring, railing best. Consistently good, top to bottom.
Stone Roses – The Stone Roses (’89). I didn’t really catch up with this one until well after the ’80’s had passed, but man, what a great little album, worthy of its status as an ’80’s indie classic. (Side note: Britain is, without a doubt, the pound-for-pound champion of rock-n-roll).
Galaxie 500 – On Fire (’89). If you took the jangle-fuzzed British pop sound that was so good in the mid ’80’s, mixed it with some R.E.M., and filtered it through a gallon or so of morphine sludge, it might sound something like Galaxie 500. I mean this in a good way . . .
The Pixies – Doolittle (’89). Alternatively poppish and brutal. A bit more accessible than Surfer Rosa, which may be why I’ve always preferred it.
Phew. That was harder than I thought it would be. Anyway, there you have it: 80 from the ’80’s. If I’m feeling ambitious, someday I’ll attempt “70 from the ’70’s,” my other “formative” decade, which will probably prove even more difficult. ‘Hope you enjoyed the list, and let me know who I forgot 🙂
Thanks, and best regards,