Before we end this list, thank you all for reading, and thanks to those who voted and contributed blurbs: GG, Brittany, Dennis, Michael Parr, Drew, Mike S., Rob Smith, Cristobal, Mike Duquette, Dan Paquette, Grez, Jay, Dr. Gonzo, Ken, Greg, Carlos Halston and Crispin.
#10. Guns ‘n Roses | Appetite For Destruction
Released: 7/21/87 | RIAA certification: 18X Platinum
Fun Fact: Grez placed this album at #1 on his list. It finished #5 on Drew‘s list and #13 on Michael Parr‘s list.
I mean, if you want to get right down to it, I guess it is woven, intrinsically, into a fair amount of my adolescent memories. I mean, there was that one night in Arizona when, convinced that it was within my destiny to be a world-changing rocker, I slipped my oversized headphones over my ears and took a walk through the quiet town. It was my family’s massive month-long sojourn out west, and yet I was nursing my first broken heart. A few years on, College Drew would retreat into sad indie music and wonder why nobody understood him when this type of thing happened, but Adolescent Drew harbored secret dreams of rocking faces off.
And so, during that stroll through the empty town, torch songs and acoustic ballads weren’t keeping me company; no, there was no other cure for this pimply wannabe besides the purest distillation of bad-assery, epitomized by the rag-tag brawlers of Guns N’ Roses, and Axl Rose, the patron saint of the middle finger. “If you leave me now, you’ll take away the biggest part of me?” Hell no. “WAKE UP LATE, HONEY, PUT ON YOUR CLOTHES, AND TAKE YOUR CREDIT CARD TO THE LIQUOR STORE!” It didn’t matter that, at that age, I had no knowledge of credit cards, liquor stores, or anything that would require a woman putting her clothes back on. All that mattered was the rock, and Appetite For Destruction brought that in spades, dusted it in guitar histrionics, and layered Axl’s unmistakable cat-in-heat yowl on top of it all. It was thrilling as a 14-year-old on a late-night stroll; it was thrilling as a newly-licensed 17-year-old barreling through New Jersey back roads and yowling like a banshee; and guess what? When I’m in the right frame of mind, it’s thrilling to the married, late-20s career man.
Some things will never change. And so, I suppose, in their own ramshackle way, GNR and Appetite did change my life after all. Huh. (Drew)
#9. De La Soul | 3 Feet High & Rising
Released: 3/3/89 | RIAA certification: Platinum
Fun Fact: 3 Feet High placed at #4 on Big Money’s list, #15 on Drew’s list, and #17 on Dennis’s list.
“Quirky” was not a word you heard thrown around very much in reference to hip hop, prior to the release of De La Soul’s 3 Feet High & Rising. While gangsta rap had yet to make any significant mark, there was definitely a certain “hard” quality associated with rap, offset occasionally with the goofiness of a Fresh Prince. De La Soul’s debut album-released at the top of 1989- was funny in parts, certainly, but there were no “Parents Just Don’t Understand”-sitcommy hijinks to be found here. The humor was way more offbeat and warped, as was just about everything associated with 3 Feet High. The rappers had weird names, they spoke in their own weird dialect, and they didn’t scream or shout. They took rap stereotypes and kicked them in the ass, becoming the spiritual fathers to everyone from A Tribe Called Quest to Kanye West.
They also sampled acts generally not associated with hip-hop or hip-hop’s main musical sources-funk and disco-like Steely Dan and The Turtles. Prince Paul’s production of 3 Feet High was a highlight in a two-year period of amazing what-the-fuckness in terms of hip-hop production (specifically sampling) that started with Public Enemy’s It Takes a Nation of Millions To Hold Us Back and concluded with the same group’s Fear of a Black Planet. Before artists got wise and realized they could reap a financial windfall from suing other artists who sampled them, there was a virtual free-for-all which resulted in some of the most ingenious production of the past thirty years.
Nearly a quarter century later, there aren’t many hip-hop albums that would qualify as 3 Feet High’s artistic equal (although one of them would be De La’s own 1991 follow up De La Soul Is Dead.) Musically, it’s a gem. Lyrically, it covers more diverse ground than any hip-hop album had bothered to tackle at that point-discussing everything from positive individual expression to drug abuse to sexual awakening (and throwing in one of hip-hop’s 5 greatest love songs in “Eye No.”) Those three crazy-looking dudes from Long Island (and their madcap producer) heralded a paradigm shift in their genre before they were even old enough to drink. (Big Money)
#8. Peter Gabriel | So
Released: 5/19/86 | RIAA certification: 5X Platinum
Fun Fact: So was #2 on Greg‘s list, #4 on Mike A.‘s list and #6 on Michael Parr‘s list.
All it took was five solo albums, and Peter Gabriel finally came up with a title for one of them.
All it took was five solo albums, and Peter Gabriel was finally a household name.
He never lost his eccentricities — writing songs about Milgram Experiments and interpreted dreams sort of ensures that his artistic credibility remains intact — but amongst those eccentricities on So is a brilliant collection of pop songs, melodies that have come to help define the ’80s.
To be sure, almost anyone who owned a television in the ’80s and ’90s will have seen the brilliant, groundbreaking video for “Sledgehammer”. “Big Time” was the catchiest commentary on Reagan-era overstimulation that could possibly have been written, and “In Your Eyes” is both a beautiful, soaring song and the centerpiece of one of the most memorable climactic scenes ’80s cinema ever offered.
Only the most jaded Peter Gabriel/Genesis fans could see his success as a sellout; So was the right album at the right time by the right person. His clean-cut look and his jacket and his grin told us that he was a 1980s success story. What we missed at the time, however, was the irony. He was in on the joke. He recognized the excess of the era and offered satire by embracing it.
Of course, it’s easy to miss satire when it’s couched in instantly memorable pop hooks. In the end, it didn’t matter if we, or anyone, “got it”. It was enough to simply recognize that So was brilliant. (Mike Schiller)
#7. Prince | 1999
Released: 10/27/82 | RIAA certification: 4X Platinum
Fun Fact: 1999 was Dr. Gonzo‘s #2 album of the ’80s, as well as Mike A.‘s #3 and Brittany‘s #4.
Historically, when I’m asked to name my favorite Prince album, I say Sign ‘O’ the Times. It’s probably Prince’s best songwriting, there’s a good variety of styles represented, and while always a critics’ favorite, it isn’t the obvious choice (Purple Rain). Over the last few years though, I’ve found myself thoroughly reevaluating 1999, and it may in fact now reign as my favorite Prince album. Allow me to justify. In my estimation, never before nor since has Prince been so adventurous in his production work. Listen to the album closely. I’m not talking about lyrics, vocals, or even melody. Listen to the sounds. The voices (“Don’t worry…” “Mommy?”). Prince’s mastery of the LINN-LM1 drum machine was never more adventurous, save “777-9311.” While everyone else was trying to simply make beats with the thing, Prince was running it through effects processors, tuning them into some sort of futuristic sex act of rhythm. Hell, just listen to “Something in the Water (Does Not Compute)” – possibly the weirdest track on a top ten pop record in the entire decade. Beyond that, it was Prince’s first mainstream success in the US, thanks to the hit title track and “Little Red Corvette.” Truthfully, the first disc of 1999 is among the best dance albums of the 1980s. It is the definitive document of what became known as the Minneapolis sound; nobody did it better than Prince; nobody did it better than 1999. (Dr. Gonzo)
#6. Public Enemy | It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back
Released: 4/14/88 | RIAA certification: Platinum
Fun Fact: Nation of Millions finished at #2 on Big Money‘s list, #3 on Dr. Gonzo’s list, and #4 on Cristobal‘s list
Released in 1988, a year when the world was in thrall to the likes of Phil Collins’ “A Groovy Kind of Love” and Belinda Carlisle’s “Heaven is a Place on Earth,” Public Enemy’s second album hit like an atom bomb-propelled freight train.
Socially-conscious hip-hop was nothing new by the late ‘80s thanks to pioneers of the form like Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five. But with the syncopated steps of the S1W and the bombastic beats of the Bomb Squad, the stage was set for the group’s celebrated vocalists to unfurl calls to action not heard since the early ‘70s heyday of Gil Scott-Heron and the Last Poets. Chuck D was Public Enemy’s intellectual center, a gruff storyteller balanced by his comedic foil, Flavor Flav. In 2012, with the reality shows and the failed business ventures in our collective consciousness, it might be difficult to believe there was a time when Flavor Flav was an absolute essential piece of the puzzle, but one listen to “Cold Lampin’ With Flavor” or any other track on which he emerges from the furor should help set the record straight.
Even its sleeve – with Chuck D and Flavor Flav behind bars – is provocative, and coupled with classic songs of anarchic angst like “Bring the Noise” and “Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos”, It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back isn’t just one of the finest hip-hop albums of the ‘80s, but is one of the best albums by anyone in any genre of any era. Public Enemy nearly matched it in quality with their next album, Fear of a Black Planet, but they never had so much shocking power as on It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back. (Crispin)
#5. Beastie Boys | Paul’s Boutique
Released: 7/19/89 | RIAA certification: 2X Platinum
Fun Fact: Paul’s Boutique was #5 on Michael Parr‘s list, #8 on Big Money‘s list, and #10 on Mike A‘s list.
If the Clash’s London Calling had the power to singlehandedly destroy everything lame from the entire decade that preceded it in 1979, then perhaps the same can be said of Paul’s Boutique. Released in the summer of 1989, the Beastie Boys’ sophomore album may not have fully abandoned the sophomoric wordplay of Licensed to Ill (“I stay up all night, I go to sleep watching Dragnet/Never sleep alone because jimmy is a magnet”), but there was an undeniable maturity in its meticulously constructed grooves.
Paul’s Boutique is as compelling a case for the art of the sample as anything ever recorded, with easily recognizable sounds (Curtis Mayfield’s “Pusherman” on “Egg Man”) effortlessly mixed with decidedly less so (the beat from “Egg Man” was lifted from Lightnin’ Rod’s “Sport”). Many of the album’s backing tracks had already been built by the Dust Brothers before the Beastie Boys found them, but together the collaboration – along with co-producer Mario Caldato, Jr. – created a masterpiece.
Though one might feel compelled to attach a sense of the maudlin to the music of the Beastie Boys with the recent passing of Adam “MCA” Yauch, all these years later it is impossible to listen to Paul’s Boutique without being overcome with joy. They would go on to record more classic material, but the Beastie Boys were never better than on Paul’s Boutique, an album which perfectly captures the curious comfort of the musical schizophrenia of city life. (Crispin)
#4. Prince | Sign ‘o The Times
Released: 3/31/87 | RIAA certification: Platinum
Fun Fact: Sign ‘o The Times was #1 on Big Money‘s, Michael Parr‘s, Mike A.‘s, and Rob Smith‘s lists.
Borne out of three abandoned projects, Sign ‘O’ The Times still goes down as Prince’s masterpiece. Eight of the songs come from the unreleased 1986 double album Dream Factory, intended as the next release from Prince and The Revolution. But when Wendy and Lisa expressed their intentions to leave the band, Prince disbanded The Revolution and shelved the album.
By November of 1986, Prince had a new plan. An eight track album, credited to Camille, a pseudonym he came up with after speeding up his voice on numerous tracks as a rather weak attempt to shield whose songs they were. There was no way the general public would have been fooled by the Camille persona, the songs scream Prince, but this project was also put on the back burner when Prince decided he wanted to release his opus, a three album set called Crystal Ball. Warner Bros. had different ideas however. Label executives were not thrilled with the cost of producing such a set, nor did they feel it would sell well enough given the high price a three album set would carry. They insisted Prince pare his treasured master work down to two albums. Major arguments and battles ensued, but in the end Prince caved and cut seven songs from “Crystal Ball” which became the Sign ‘O’ The Times album we know today. It would be the first major crack in his relationship with Warners, but as time would tell certainly not the last.
Prince fans can argue all day if The Dream Factory or Crystal Ball would have ultimately been better albums than what did get released, but there is little argument Sign ‘O’ The Times stands as his greatest officially released album. Prince was at the top of his game during this period, and Sign was rich in diversity and some of the best songwriting of his career. The topical title track still holds relevance today. Sex is still the focus of tracks like “It” and “Hot Thing”, but there was a depth to Prince’s lyrics when it came to the subject of relationships previously unexplored, much in part due to his relationship with Susannah Melvoin.
Prince’s tumultuous relationship with Melvoin inspired many of the best tracks from this era, including deep expressions of love and commitment on “Forever In My Life” and “Adore” to the brilliant “If I Was Your Girlfriend”, an expression of Prince’s frustration that he could not share the closeness with Susannah that she had with her twin sister, former Revolution guitarist Wendy.
Sign ‘O’ The Times explores all of Prince’s musical influences, the slamming funk of “Housequake”, the thunderous guitar rock of “The Cross” and “I Could Never Take The Place Of Your Man”, the soul balladry of “Slow Love” and the aforementioned “Adore” and esoteric tracks like “The Ballad Of Dorothy Parker” and “Starfish And Coffee” that only Prince could produce. It was Prince at the peak of his powers, and not only goes down as his best, but for my money the best of the 80’s.
#3. U2 | The Joshua Tree
Released😐 RIAA certification: Diamond
Fun Fact: The Joshua Tree was voted #4 by Jay. It finished #7 on Brittany‘s list, and #9 on Mike S.‘s list.
Many U2 fans, myself included, will gladly offer up the band’s chilly 1991 revamp Achtung Baby as U2’s finest hour; Joshua Tree, however, remains its most accessible and inescapable artistic statement, a big-throated, bigger-hearted record stuffed to the gills with anthems. The big-ticket numbers remain ubiquitous in popular culture – “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For”, “With or Without You” and the like – but nestled in the album’s back half remains some of the band’s most potent work, most notably “Red Hill Mining Town”, which bleeds like a sliced jugular, the groovy “Trip Through Your Wires”, and haunting denoument “Mothers of the Disappeared”. There are better U2 records, song-for-song, but none that feel as widescreen, as heartfelt, and as panoramic as The Joshua Tree. (Drew)
#2. Prince And The Revolution | Purple Rain
Released: 6/25/84 | RIAA certification: 13X Platinum
Fun Fact: Purple Rain was#2 on Brittany‘s, Jay‘s and Michael Parr‘s list, and #3 on Grez‘s list.
Forget the accompanying film; Prince delivered Purple Rain, a full-fledged album (complete with natural ebb and flow, and emotional peaks and valleys), directly into an era of singles. Living as we are in a similarly single-oriented era, it’s fascinating to see all the pieces fit. It’s a dynamic, brief piece of work, as dance-able (“Let’s Go Crazy”, “Take Me With U”) as it is utterly heart-piercing (the jaw-dropping “The Beautiful Ones”, “Purple Rain”), sometimes in the same song (“When Doves Cry”, still one of pop music’s finest moments). Known for letting his overactive creative muse run wild (double and triple albums, wildly eclectic side projects), Purple Rain remains Prince’s most focused and tenacious hour. (Drew)
Now, before we get to the #1 album, I figured you might want to see which albums just barely missed the cut. So, without further ado, here’s #120-#101
#120. The Smiths | The Smiths
#119. Scarecrow | John Cougar Mellencamp
#118. Uprising | Bob Marley & The Wailers
#117. Radio | LL Cool J
#116. Megatop Phoenix | Big Audio Dynamite
#115. Freedom | Neil Young
#114. Whitney | Whitney Houston
#113. Learning To Crawl | The Pretenders
#112. Some Great Reward | Depeche Mode
#111. Eliminator | ZZ Top
#110. Crowded House | Crowded House
#109. Full Moon Fever | Tom Petty
#108. Nothing’s Shocking | Jane’s Addiction
#107. The Nightfly | Donald Fagen
#106. East Side Story | Squeeze
#105. VIVIsect VI | Skinny Puppy
#104. Whitney Houston | Whitney Houston
#103. Fair Warning | Van Halen
#102. Horse Rotorvator | Coil
#101. The Mekons Rock ‘n Roll | The Mekons
and now…surprising absolutely NO one…
#1. Michael Jackson | Thriller
Released: 11/30/82 | RIAA certification: 29X Platinum
Fun Fact: #1 votes for Thriller came from: Dr. Gonzo, Brittany and GG. Mike S., Mike A. and Grez voted it #2.
Sideline Commentator: So, Michael Jackson, you’ve just released Off The Wall. It became the highest-certified album of all time by a black artist. You became the first solo artist to score four top ten singles from the same album, and picked up a Grammy and five American Music Awards. Now, what are you gonna do?
Michael Jackson (in whispered falsetto): I’m going to Disneyland. And I’m going to make the biggest selling album of all time. Hee hee!!
Sure enough, at the tail end of 1982, the future King of Pop came to transform the music industry. Most of you already know Thriller‘s stats, but they bear repeating. 7 Top 10 singles (a record that has only been tied twice in the thirty years since), 7 Grammy Awards, 29 million albums sold in the U.S. and countless millions sold worldwide, 37 weeks at #1 on Billboard’s album charts (a record.) Thriller was Billboard’s #1 album of 1983 and 1984. All accomplished long before the artist’s 30th birthday.
That’s before you get to the jaw-dropping performance of “Billie Jean” on the “Motown 25” special or the breakthrough he made for black artists at MTV. Thriller is one of the few albums in the history of music that can legitimately be called a game-changer.
Now, “game-changer” and “great record” aren’t mutually exclusive. However, Thriller manages to be both. Quincy Jones’ production and Michael’s songwriting covered just about every pop music subgenre successfully and seamlessly. So, you have something for everyone: post-disco boogie (“Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin'”), hard rock (“Beat It”), airy easy listening pop (“Human Nature”), a Beatle (“The Girl Is Mine”), a slow jam ballad in the “sex you up” mode (“The Lady In My Life”), and a title track that manages to funkify Vincent Fucking Price. Plenty of albums before or since have been as ambitious in scope (or more ambitious) but few albums have pulled the trick of cherry-picking from multiple genres off so well.
Despite the fact that at this point, I must have listened to this album 10,000 times, I still actively search it out to play. Despite the fact that it’s songs have been remade or sampled a multitude of times, I still spin Thriller like it’s that day in mid-winter 1983 when I heard Michael’s voice spilling out of our stereo system and tripped and fell going up the stairs in order to get a look at the album cover. My balance is (a little) better, but my love for Thriller remains as strong as ever. According to these results, a lot of people share my sentiment. (Big Money)