As the 70s heralded the golden age of the album, by the following decade the format was fighting an existential battle. Whilst the punk and new wave movement had embraced the LP as much as the genres it threatened to replace, the 1980s ushered in the music video. Two former members of quintessential 70s pop act 10cc, Kevin Godley and Lol Creme spearheaded this revolution that may on the face of it seemed expensive, but would ultimately save record companies the expense of sending bands to studios across the globe to promote their latest single.
What this meant is that early 80s bands focussed on seven-inch hits, but by the middle of the decade the CD had been launched and the album was reborn. Vinyl was on the decline, but a movement started that has finally blossomed into today’s vinyl revival scene. This list is purely personal and the order is in chronology only, and whilst some have been re-released, others may only be found on the second hand market.
Joy Division – Closer – released July 1980
In my previous list I agonised over leaving out Joy Division’s masterful debut Unknown Pleasures, so Closer makes this list almost by default. It’s a good point to start the decade, as it contains the legacy of the punk movement as well as the emerging electronic scene. Opener Atrocity Exhibition is as experimental as any post-punk track, but then it leads into Isolation, where Peter Hook’s bass is quickly followed by synth flourishes, pointing towards the band’s New Order future. It’s a tough listen; Ian Curtis’s bleak lyrical content is no act – he committed suicide two months before the album’s release – but it digs deeper than any artefact of this era ever did. There’s also a morbid beauty in this piece, from Martin Hannett’s claustrophobic production to Peter Saville’s artwork.
AC/DC – Back in Black – released July 1980
The opening year of the 1980s was not a good one for the rock and roll world; as well as Joy Division’s sudden end, Led Zeppelin’s Jon Bonham died, John Lennon was assassinated, and AC/DC lost singer Bon Scott. Whilst Joy Division morphed into New Order, AC/DC carried on, recruiting Geordie (in both region and band) singer Brian Johnson for the album that they had been recording at the time of Scott’s demise. Its defiant title is also one of the band’s best-known songs, complete with a brilliant riff. It’s classic AC/DC fare; don’t expect answers, the band are here for a good time and it shows from opener Hells Bells through What Do You Do For Money Honey, You Shook Me All Night Long and closing track Rock And Roll Ain’t Noise Pollution.
The Human League – Dare! – released October 1981
In the 1970s the Human League was a futurist act making records with synthetic instruments and whilst a few of their early singles such as Being Boiled or Blind Youth are now better known, they never troubled the charts. After a quick personnel change that included the recruitment of two girls discovered dancing in a nightclub, Phil Oakey and co shifted their sound away from Kraftwerk and towards Giorgio Moroder and success quickly followed. Love Action, Open Your Heart, Sound of the Crowd and monster hit Don’t You Want Me are all here, as is their love of covers, this time the theme from bleak north-east movie Get Carter. It all adds up to the perfect snapshot of the early 80s electronic movement at its finest.
Kate Bush – The Hounds of Love – released September 1985
Another artist that just missed the cut from my 70s list, Kate Bush appeared from nowhere at the end of that decade with the formidable Wuthering Heights and after an initial flourish, disappeared in the early 80s after The Dreaming suffered disappointing sales. Building a studio in her South East London home, she crafted her masterpiece over two years, something that was considered unreasonably long in those days, yet the norm now. The first side contains the hits Running Up That Hill, Cloudbusting and the title track, but it’s the second side, titled The Ninth Wave that really impresses. A seven-piece, often instrumental and very experimental work, it’s this that sets this album apart from the commercial offerings from many of her peers during this era.
Tom Waits – Rain Dogs – released September 1985
Tom Waits’ career has been defined as everything pre-1983’s Swordfishtrombones and his subsequent output. Indeed, follow-up Rain Dogs follows this new direction, in which Tom moves away from late-night tales of debauchery accompanied by a jazz-tinged band and into something far more experimental. It’s a largely percussive sound, incorporating instruments that aren’t often heard in the output of his contemporaries, including the marimba, accordion and trombone, but Tom’s lyrical themes are still familiar to his fans. There are still guitars, too – with contributions here from Marc Ribot and Rolling Stone Keith Richards. Although the previous album contains the huge element of surprise in this new direction, Rain Dogs builds upon it with a sprawling selection of song styles, and even contains Downtown Train, which became an unlikely hit when covered by Rod Stewart a few years later.
The Smiths – The Queen is Dead – released June 1986
In the sea of 80s commerciality that epitomised the times, The Smiths shone as a beacon to the disenfranchised. Dismissed by the pop crowd as depressing, the reality is that Morrissey’s lyrics are shot through with biting wit, whilst Johnny Marr’s compositions are full of joy. There’s even an amusing nod to critics of the singer’s unconventional style in the title track – you should hear him play piano. Sure, there’s bedsit melancholy in Never Had No One Ever and I Know It’s Over, but in addition to hits Bigmouth Strikes Again and The Boy With The Thorn In His Side, you’ll find probably their finest moment; There Is A Light That Never Goes Out. It’s a bittersweet love song that, like any romantic endeavour, will provoke both laughter and tears.
Paul Simon – Graceland – released August 1986
By the early 1980s Paul Simon’s career had reached a dead end. A reunion with 60s musical partner Art Garfunkel had culminated in acrimonious recording sessions for the Hearts and Bones album, which was released without Art’s contribution and subsequently sank without a trace. Simon had also embarked on a brief and ill-advised marriage to Carrie Fisher and the resulting low was tempered by the loan of a cassette that he soon became obsessed with. Tracking down the musicians to South Africa, then under the oppressive regime of Apartheid, he tiptoed around the United Nations cultural boycott to make music that transcended politics. World Music had already been popularised by Peter Gabriel and Malcolm McLaren, but Simon’s work found its way into the living rooms of millions, helping to bring black South Africa’s struggle into focus amongst the majority. A quarter of a century on from the end of Apartheid, it’s still an essential listen, not least for the reflective, yet optimistic title track, which Simon confesses to be the best he’s ever written.
Prince – Sign ‘O’ The Times – released March 1987
After years of hard graft, Prince became one of the 80s biggest stars, and having mixed funk, soul, rock and psychedelia into his Paisley Park melting pot, he made his grand statement as the decade entered its final third. No longer fronting The Revolution, he nevertheless retained many of the band’s musicians for this double album. The title track, released as a single the month before the album’s release, was a classic protest song, whilst the LP’s other big hit, U Got The Look is a duet with ex-pat singer Sheena Easton. However, Prince duets with himself on third single If I Was Your Girlfriend, playing both male and female roles on the track. It’s not the only moment of genius on this classic that cemented Prince’s status as a true innovator of the era, although this is probably the moment his talent peaked.
The Wedding Present – George Best – released October 1987
In the immediate void left by the acrimonious split of the Smiths, The Wedding Present were tipped by many as the act most likely to replace them. The Leeds-based act had already emerged from the ‘C86’ scene, named after a compilation cassette produced by indie bible NME. Recorded on a tiny budget with a tinny sound to match, the lo-fi production doesn’t detract from the energy and excitement from this album. Most of frontman David Gedge’s songs tend to lament failed relationships, but he makes them sound joyous on Everyone Thinks He Looks Daft, A Million Miles, My Favourite Dress and Shatner.
The Stone Roses – The Stone Roses – released May 1989
In some ways the 80s ended as they had started; electronic sounds dominated the airwaves, with the guitar bands of Manchester incorporating the prevailing vibe into their output. There wasn’t an obvious link to the acid house sound on The Stone Roses’ eponymous debut – that would come later with decade-ending single Fools’ Gold – but it had an undeniable groove and swagger. Opening track I Wanna Be Adored is a clear statement of intent that defied the quiet ambition of traditional indie acts. She Bangs The Drums and Waterfall remain classics, but the most memorable moment is I Am The Resurrection, which ends the album with a glorious instrumental section where guitarist John Square heads off on one of his many flights of fancy, accompanied by Reni and Mani’s seminal rhythm section.