10 Classic Albums Every ’80s Music Lover Should Own

Before Reagan demanded, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this [Berlin] wall,” the best albums of the 1980s tore down the walls separating genre and demographics, creating music that defied the boundaries the industry had clung to up until then. The result: artists from every era since have continuously recycled from the Neon Decade. The albums below are essential.

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10. Madonna by Madonna (1983)

There’s a reason Madonna sounds like a club soundtrack—that’s exactly what it was. Madonna arrived in New York from Detroit determined to be a star. And her first conquest on her way to conquering the charts was the dance floor.

Post-disco hits like “Holiday,” “Borderline,” and “Lucky Star” are Madonna overdosing on synthesizers and sex. Autobiographical and honest, the future Material Girl’s self-titled LP drew the map for artists like Lady Gaga to follow.

9. The Joshua Tree by U2 (1987)

Noel Gallagher once said that if “Where the Streets Have No Name” doesn’t move you, you’re made of stone. By the mid-’80s, U2 were a band on a mission of world domination, and The Joshua Tree realized that goal. Utter yearning can be heard on mega-hits “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For,” “With or Without You,” and the aforementioned “Streets,” while “Bullet the Blue Sky” warns of revolution on the strength of Larry Mullen Jr.’s urgent beat and Adam Clayton’s ominous bass line.

8. Disintegration by The Cure (1989)

Robert Smith songs are almost always bittersweet and heartbreaking. “Pictures of You” and “Lovesong,” in particular, are both distant and immediate. They could provide the soundtrack to an event that makes you so happy you want to cry.

Some bands write riffs; The Cure write themes. “Fascination Street,” led by Simon Gallup’s tense bass line, feels like an act of desperation. Robert Smith’s guitar on “Prayers for Rain” sounds like as though he must be dancing dangerously close to the edge of hopelessness.

7. Doolittle by Pixies (1989)

Without the Pixies we likely wouldn’t have Nirvana or Radiohead. A strong statement, but the quiet/loud format of songs like “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and “Creep” that proved to be such a winning formula are a direct result of the songwriting of Pixies bandleader Black Francis. “Here Comes Your Man,” “Debaser,” and “Monkey Gone to Heaven” were not chart toppers, but Francis was playing the long game; indeed, this album sounds as good today as it did back then.

6. Remain in Light by Talking Heads (1980)

Remain in Light is the Talking Heads sampling the globe. “Once in a Lifetime” asks the question many were too afraid to ask in the 1980s: How did I get here? And producer Brian Eno turned the band into human samplers, celebrating world music like Fela Kuti’s Afrobeat put up against frontman David Byrne’s angular anxiety. What sounds like loops is really the band performing in repetition. Hypnotic, yet perfectly imperfect—like all of us.

[RELATED: David Byrne Opens Up on His Behavior after Talking Heads’ Breakup]

5. Straight Outta Compton by N.W.A (1988)

To suggest Straight Outta Compton is not subtle would be a grave understatement. It’s a defiant debut that brought Ice Cube, Dr. Dre, the late Eazy-E, and company into the conversation of mainstream pop culture and politics. With each parental advisory sticker, N.W.A’s voice only became louder and more defiant.

Straight Outta Compton isn’t a morality tale. It’s a tale of truths and everything uncomfortable associated with growing up in L.A.’s Compton neighborhood. N.W.A’s narration and Compton’s characters were so vivid and real—perhaps too real for some audiences. Many authoritative groups tried to take N.W.A down, but Straight Outta Compton stood tall, and stands tall today like a once-banned book now read and adored by millions.

4. The Queen Is Dead by The Smiths (1986)

The Queen Is Dead exemplifies the second coming of the British Invasion. Johnny Marr’s layered guitars provide the soundtrack to Morrissey’s signature wit , making The Queen Is Dead more than just a jewel in The Smiths’ catalog; it voraciously put the disposable sounds dominating UK charts at the time on notice.

The irony of Marr’s supporting wall of guitars, which are rooted in rock ‘n’ roll, a feel-good genre, is that Morrissey still sounds lonely. But like all great writers, the singer uses irony as a tool—a means to a melancholy, but sublime end.

3. Born in the U.S.A. by Bruce Springsteen (1984)

Born in the U.S.A. is the sound of Bruce Springsteen at the height of his powers. And that’s saying something considering this album followed the lo-fi and brilliant Nebraska. “Dancing in the Dark” is everything that’s great about The Boss, while “Born in the U.S.A.” is a protest song—one that’s uniquely American. The bittersweet nostalgia of “Glory Days” is another anthem decrying despair but built for arenas. Springsteen’s genius is making the listener feel good as he narrates the bleak reality that not everyone will attain the American dream.

2. Thriller by Michael Jackson (1982)

Some albums are so big, so transformative, that it seems like they’ve always been here. But someone had to make Thriller. And Michael Jackson and Quincy Jones were the someones, producing a record that could not be more aptly named.

Songs can be the fabric of a generation. But this collection is the wall, the floor, and the roof of the whole building. “Billie Jean” and its video’s lighted sidewalk squares; Edward Van Halen’s guitar solo on “Beat It” and the gang dance-off in its video; “Thriller.” with its epic werewolf/zombie mini-movie for a video—all these songs are so compositionally fantastic that you wouldn’t be out of line speaking of them in the same breath as Mozart, or Jackson’s friend and frequent duet partner Paul McCartney. The “King of Pop,” indeed.

1. Purple Rain by Prince and the Revolution (1984)

Purple Rain is a masterpiece. The album is book ended with two hymns, of sorts: “Let’s Go Crazy” is glam-funk-gospel that features a guitar solo that would gob-smack Hendrix. “Purple Rain” is Prince live and sweaty, desperate and vulnerable. “When Doves Cry” is sexy, spiritual, confessional, ethereal. And only Prince could write something spiritual and sexy. And the album track “Darling Nikki” topped the Parents Music Resource Center’s “Filthy Fifteen” songs the political group believed should be banned. It doesn’t get more ’80s than that.

Photo by Ross Marino/Getty Images

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