Welcome back, ladies and gentlemen. Hope y’all had a wonderful weekend.
Last week, we kicked off our countdown of the 100 best albums of the Eighties, and today, we’ll start the second half of our list, with numbers 50-41.
Now, let’s move on. Shall we?
#50. R.E.M. | Document
Released: 9/1/87 | RIAA certification: Platinum
Fun Fact: The very first arena show our esteemed Blerd-In-Chief saw was R.E.M. at Madison Square Garden in 1995, and they opened with “Finest Worksong.”
I mark my college years by which R.E.M. album was released, for example Reckoning instead of freshman, etc. Document, released in September 1987, is an apt metaphor for my senior year. Just as I was starting to wrap up my undergrad days and take the first steps into true adulthood, so, too, was R.E.M. They wrapped up its association with IRS records (this would be their fifth and final full-length studio release for IRS) and prepared to move on to life on the Warner Records label. In terms of overall sound, Document would have more in common with what was to follow than its predecessors, especially since the record’s producer, Scott Litt, would go on to produce the group’s following five releases.
Litt built on the straight-ahead rock sound that John Mellencamp producer Don Gehman had collaborated on with their previous release, Lifes Rich Pageant, only with more polish. There were also touches of other instruments, notably a sax on “Fireplace” and Peter Buck playing a dulcimer on “King of Birds”. But what this record would be most noted for were Michael Stipe’s clear and coherent vocals and lyrics. From the historical name check “Exhuming McCarthy” to the speed-rapping of “It’s the End of the World as We Know It (and I Feel Fine)” there was no mistaking that Stipe was largely singing about dissatisfaction with the later Reagan years. The only confusion in the album’s lyrics came on what was the group’s first top 10 single, “The One I Love” which was wildly misinterpreted as a love song rather than the vitriolic kiss off that it really was.
Document would go on to be the R.E.M.’s first platinum-selling album, but the days of playing clubs and college theaters were nearing their end. The band would go on to sign what was reported to be the richest record contract in history and enjoy massive commercial success over the next nine years. R.E.M., too, had graduated. (Dennis)
#49. Peter Gabriel | Peter Gabriel
Released: 5/30/80 | RIAA certification: Gold
Fun Fact: Peter Gabriel is often credited as the album that introduced the world to the big, echo-ey drum sound that would later be most identified with Peter’s former Genesis bandmate Phil Collins (Collins plays drums on much of this record.)
By the time Peter Gabriel’s third album came out — his third self-titled album, even, also known by the names Melt (thanks to the cover graphic) and 3 — he’d already proven he could make his keep as a singles artist. “Solsbury Hill” was his signature track to that point, and “Here Comes the Flood” also had its own share of popularity and notoriety. Still, with a second album that was, let’s face it, a bit of a mess, it remained to be seen whether he would flounder without his old Genesis bandmates.
Melt put those thoughts to rest, not with an album filled with huge singles, but with a set of songs that perfectly embodied the insecurity and madness of a man trying to find his place. Opening with “Intruder” — a strange, bendy, jerky little song that made him sound small and cowardly and frighteningly full of rage — was a brilliant move, one that ensured that his audience would be left off balance for the remainder of the set. Paranoia and self-doubt abound, as songs like “No Self Control”, “I Don’t Remember”, and “And Through the Wire” offer glimpses of mental illness and imprisonment, while an activist streak also made its place in Gabriel’s music through the album-closing anti-apartheid epic that is “Biko” and perhaps the most lasting radio “hit” on the album, “Games Without Frontiers”.
Unpredictable and odd as the album is, however, it also seems to make sense as a cohesive unit. One gets the sense that the instability of the album’s protagonist(s) is borne of injustice, that the madness of Gabriel’s narrators is proxy for the “Mad World” that Tears for Fears would sing of a couple years hence. It would still be a half-decade before Gabriel became a worldwide solo sensation; those who were paying attention, however, saw the seeds of that success sown with this album. (Mike Schiller)
#48. Huey Lewis & The News | Sports
Released: 9/15/83 | RIAA certification: 7X Platinum
Fun Fact: Sports was only the second album by a group to post four Top 10 pop hits. The first? Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours.
It’s arguable that Sports isn’t even Huey Lewis and the News’ best album of the 80s. As a hardcore fan, I prefer Fore! and Small World to Sports, but if not for Sports, those other albums don’t get made. Sports was so big that it was 1984’s second best selling album. You can probably guess the top selling album. It was fun rock. It was a little bluesy. It was bar music. The band’s goofy sense of humor showed up in their lyrics and odd videos and being on MTV at the time when MTV was the new big thing definitely helped the rise of Sports. Even as a kid, I thought Lewis would be fun to hang out with and shoot the breeze.
The first four singles all ranked in the top ten on the Billboard Top 100. Second single “I Want A New Dru”g was even ripped off by Ray Parker Jr. and the filmmakers of the hit movie Ghostbusters for the movie’s theme song. Huey Lewis and the News released the similar sounding Fore! before challenging themselves to create a more creative album in Small World. I’ll let you guess which album sold the least.
Today, the group doesn’t make new music. Their most recent album is a list of covers and they still tour a good bit. If you see them on TV, it’s probably because they performed the National Anthem at a San Francisco Giants or 49ers game. Yep, sports. (GG)
#47. The Clash | London Calling
Released: 12/14/79 (U.K.) 1/18/80 (U.S.) | RIAA certification: Platinum
Fun Fact: This album’s lower-than-you-may-expect ranking might be due to some confusion as to whether it should be included as a Seventies or Eighties album.
For an album called London Calling, the Clash—being the Clash—put on full display the full panoply of their American influences, beginning with the record’s cover art, a punk rock take on Elvis Presley’s debut. Threaded through the double-album set were Stax-like horn charts (“Jimmy Jazz”); references to the great American actor Montgomery Clift (“The Right Profile”); a “Bo Diddley” beat, sifted through reggae (“Rudy Can’t Fail”); an extension of the “Stack O’ Lee” myth (“Wrong ‘Em Boyo”); sweeping Springsteenisms (“Lover’s Rock,” “The Card Cheat”); and positively poppy AM radio fodder (“Lost in the Supermarket,” “Train in Vain”).
This is the preeminent punk band of its day, at the absolute height of its powers, showing what an amazing and diverse rock and roll band it was. What Strummer, Jones, Simonon, and Headon created would influence bands for a generation, with a work largely accepted as one of the two or three best albums of the decade.
What London Calling also did, for better or worse, was give the Clash license to pursue its collective muse without regard to commercial concern (though that would come, with Combat Rock in 1982) or self-editing (the three-LP sprawl of Sandinista!, which dropped in 1981). They would continue to create ambitious music until Jones was fired in 1983, but never again were they as strong a band as they were in 1979 and 1980. London Calling was their apogee, their pinnacle, their toppermost and poppermost. (Rob Smith)
#46. Bruce Springsteen | The River
Released: 10/17/80 | RIAA certification: 5X Platinum
Fun Fact: “Hungry Heart” was originally written for The Ramones. It went on to become the first of Bruce’s 13 top ten pop hits.
The rare double album that arrives with most of the fat already trimmed, The River largely ditches the thematic narrative arcs of Bruce Springsteen’s previous record; it picks up some of the same narrative threads, “Jackson Cage” and “The Ties That Bind” echoing the realist/escapist juxtaposition of previous albums Born to Run and Darkness on the Edge of Town, “Independence Day” providing an intriguing counterpoint to Darkness‘ angsty, familial “Adam Raised a Cain”. More importantly, though, given enough room to stretch out and play, many of Bruce’s subsequent records find their logical genesis on River tracks: “The River” foreshadows Nebraska, with one of Springsteen’s patented hometown heroes trapped in a dead-end town with his shotgun marriage souring, “Hungry Heart” mines the pure pop Bruce would play with on Born in the U.S.A., and the stunning “Drive All Night” predates Tunnel of Love by seven years, but explores over a lengthy, minimalist soundscape the wrenching connection between extreme love and extreme pain. All of these things make The River a fascinating historical document, but don’t necessarily make it a great album; what makes it a great album is the way that some of Springsteen’s most nakedly emotional performances rub elbows with some of his purest rock n’ roll. “Sherry Darling” is a chestnut, a sax-coated r&b groove with gang vocals and a funny lyric, but Springsteen is at both his most dynamic and his most depressive here. It’s a record of beautiful, wild contradictions, and the artistic whiplash is both immediately satisfying and performed to the hilt. (Drew)
#45. Tom Waits | Rain Dogs
Released: 9/30/85 | RIAA certification: none
Fun Fact: The dude on the cover is not Tom Waits, facial similarities be damned.
There’s a reason Rain Dogs is often lionized as Tom Waits’ finest hour – simply put, it’s the closest thing to a pure distillation of his sound (in the sense that Tom Waits has a “sound”) that he’s ever put to wax. It’s all here – creaking blues, skeletal sea shanties, ominously jaunty carnival music, a cast of colorful ne’er-do-wells to sing about, caustic, bruised balladry. “Time” and “Hang Down Your Head” showcase the notoriously gruff songwriter’s gift for finding beauty in unlikely places; in turn, back-alley creepers like “Singapore” and “Clap Hands” show why beauty and pathos are unlikely tendencies for Waits, and “Downtown Train” briefly spotlights the man’s knack for classic pop. As a musical journey, it excels, no song quite sounding like another, genres freely pinwheeled through with swift abandon, yet somehow the uniquely singular product of one of America’s unsung treasures. (Drew)
#44. Tears For Fears | Songs From The Big Chair
Released: 3/11/85 | RIAA certification: 5X Platinum
Sort of Creepy Fact: The album’s title is a reference to the creepalicious Seventies film “Sybil,” about a woman with multiple personalities.
On Songs From the Big Chair, Tears For Fears branched out from their earlier synth-pop sound, avoided the sophomore slump, and scored a massive hit record in the process. Although The Hurting boasted a number of classic 80’s tracks and first put the band on the radar in the States, it was much more successful in the UK. “Songs” is the album that catapulted them to fame in the U.S., boasting four Top 40 singles, including Number One smashes in “Shout” and “Everybody Wants To Rule the World”.
Roland Orzabal and Curt Smith separated themselves from the synth based bands they were lumped in with by incorporating a much larger rock influence into the tracks on “Songs”. There was no denying the anthemic call of “Shout”, the song that first grabbed my attention, pulling me in to check out the album. The pure pop melodies of “Head Over Heels” and the previously mentioned “Everybody Wants to Rule The World” made them unavoidable on the radio and MTV, yes they used to play music videos, for much of 1985.
Songs From The Big Chair ultimately stands as the crowning achievement for Tears For Fears. Selling over five million units in the U.S. alone, it enjoyed five weeks as the Number One album in the country as well. Artistically and commercially, it goes down as their biggest success. (Mike A.)
#43. Minutemen | Double Nickels On The Dime
Released: July 1984 | RIAA certification: none
Fun Fact: Cost of recording Double Nickels On The Dime? $1,100.
Vanguards of the early ‘80s DIY punk scene, the Minutemen drew inspiration from SST labelmates Husker Du’s double album Zen Arcade to make their expansive 40-plus-song opus Double Nickels on the Dime. The San Pedro, Calif., trio had already recorded an album’s worth of material but decided to keep going until they had more than 80 minutes’ worth, with only one song coming in over three minutes. Unlike the Huskers’ classic, Double Nickels contains no underlying theme, although the album title is a response to Sammy Hagar’s “I Can’t Drive 55” and the cover photo shows bassist Mike Watt driving his car at exactly 55 mph on California’s Highway 10. Watt, singer-guitarist D. Boon and drummer George Hurley were stylistically all over the place on Double Nickels, careening from punk to jazz to spoken word to funk and even throwing in a few covers: a 40-second take on Van Halen’s “Ain’t Talkin’ ‘Bout Love” and versions of Steely Dan’s “Dr. Wu” and Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Don’t Look Now.” The song that got the most attention, though, was “This Ain’t No Picnic,” which got some MTV play with a cheaply made video that featured footage of then-President Ronald Reagan piloting a fighter plane while the band played. “Political Song for Michael Jackson to Sing” and “History Lesson, Part II” also highlight a diverse collection of songs that holds together like amazingly well after all these years. (Jay)
#42. The Jacksons | Triumph
Released: 10/18/80 | RIAA certification: Platinum
Fun Fact: Triumph was The Jacksons’ first #1 album on Billboard’s Soul charts since 1971…a span of almost a decade.
For all the talk about Michael Jackson being a painstaking craftsman and a perfectionist, it needs to be said that the four best albums he recorded were released in a four year span from December 1978 (The Jacksons’ Destiny) to December 1982 (Thriller.) While the albums he recorded during this period as a member of The Jacksons don’t get equal shine to Off The Wall and Thriller (hell, they’re practically unknown to most casual music fans,) they’re almost as good as those two widely-acknowledged classics.
Released at the tail end of a whirlwind stretch in which the brothers gained creative freedom and scored their first major success as adult artists, Michael became a super-duper megastar with Off The Wall, and youngest brother Randy recovered from a car accident that left him at death’s door, Triumph is an ambitious album that shows how much the brothers’ confidence had increased. While the prototypical Jacksons dance tunes are here (“Lovely One,” “Walk Right Now”), there’s also a prog-soul epic (“Can You Feel It”), a spare, easy-listening ballad (the excellent “Time Waits For No One”), the first instance of what would become widely known as a Michael Jackson lyrical/production style (“Heartbreak Hotel”), and the other brothers even get to take a crack at lead vocals, with Marlon taking the reins for the smooth “Give It Up” and Jackie contributing the electro-funk of “Wondering Who.” As would befit an album entitled Triumph, this album showcased the brothers at the top of their game. Sadly, it would be the last true artistic statement made by them as a unit. (Big Money)
#41. R.E.M. | Lifes Rich Pageant
Released: 7/27/86 | RIAA certification:
Fun Fact: The missing apostrophe in the album title is deliberate (thank you, Rob Smith and Wikipedia!)
The battle hymn of college radio, writ arena-large and Miles Standish proud, with John Mellencamp’s producer deciphering the mumbles and cleaning up the grainy Athens ambience. Lifes Rich Pageant is a record tailor-made for FM radio, for classic rock radio, both in sound and songs; the band would evolve the approach further on Document, perfecting it on Green, as the decade closed and REM became the most unlikely of hockey-rink seat fillers.
The most immediately striking aspect of Lifes Rich Pageant can be explained in six words: Don Gehman properly miked Bill Berry. From the snare shot that opens “Begin the Begin,” the difference between 1986 REM and the REM of their previous three records comes into full relief. Not only is the trip-hammer beat now crystal clear; Michael Stipe’s cagey vocals are opened clearly to the ear, and they are … well, largely still open to interpretation. He sees feathers hit the ground before their weight can leave the air; his spirits hit a rattlesnake; he wishes to start a new country up, perhaps between the horns of the day. Mike Mills gets a turn at the mic, with a cover of The Clique’s “Superman,” which is nice, but not as nice as his bass work on “Cuyahoga.” And if you’re not moved by the bridge and guitar solo in “Flowers of Guatemala,” you are very likely a cadaver, and how the hell are you reading this, anyway?
I name this as one of REM’s very finest records, possibly their best of the Eighties (though Murmur gets votes for being their first—or second—and Green is probably the better record). Lifes Rich Pageant is where REM began to become what we spent the next 10 years knowing them as—one of the biggest bands on the planet, and without question one of the best. (Rob Smith)
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