By Rami Abou-Sabe
As we get ready for another Classic 80s Weekend here at ZLX, we put together a list of the most influential albums of the decade. Spanning from Paul Simon to Tom Petty, the eighties marked a fascinating time in music.
The commercial pull of pop and the advent of personal recording technology weighed heavily on the rock n’ roll titans. Synthesizers and drum machines filled the airwaves, pastel-tinted John Hughes films packed box offices, and Kevin Bacon played a game of tractor chicken in rural Oklahoma.
Below are our picks for the most important albums.
8. Michael Jackson, Thriller
Not only is Thriller the best-selling album of the eighties, Michael Jackson‘s 1982 release is the best-selling album of all time. Clocking in at nearly forty-three minutes of pop perfection, the record produced seven top ten hits including “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’,” “The Girl Is Mine,” “Thriller,” “Beat It,” “P.Y.T. (Pretty Young Thing),” “Billie Jean,” and “Human Nature.” Jackson and Quincy Jones didn’t just influence the future of pop music, they forever changed the format and importance of the music video.
7. AC/DC, Back In Black
Kicking off the decade, AC/DC returned with their biggest hit yet. Following the shocking death of Bon Scott, new singer Brian Johnson led the band to bigger and better heights, recapturing a bit of their early magic on the 1980 release. For better or worse, the record would go on to define the band with songs like “Hell’s Bells,” “You Shook Me All Night Long,” and the title track “Back in Black.”
6. Red Hot Chili Peppers, Mothers Milk
While Mother’s Milk isn’t the group’s finest work, it might just be their most important. The 1989 Red Hot Chili Peppers record marked the first time vocalist Anthony Kiedis, bassist Flea, guitarist John Frusciante, and drummer Chad Smith were recorded together. With Frusciante’s unique approach to melody, the band pivoted from their early funk-metal days into the alt rock behemoth they’re known as today. “Knock Me Down” and the Stevie Wonder cover “Higher Ground” give a glimpse into the musician’s stretching their wings and embracing a more refined sound.
5. Paul Simon, Graceland
Paul Simon‘s seventh studio album was his most successful. A bit of an oddball, Graceland combined the eclectic sounds of South Africa with meticulous production and Simon’s penchant for unique song structure. The 1986 record is a sneaky nominee for best bass performance. Don’t believe me? Just listen to “Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes” and “You Can Call Me Al.”
4. Tom Petty, Full Moon Fever
The debut solo album from Tom Petty still featured the core members of the Heartbreakers, and added other notable guests including George Harrison. Released in 1989, Full Moon Fever spawned the hits “Free Fallin’,” Runnin’ Down a Dream,” and “I Won’t Back Down.” Petty cemented himself as the standard bearer for American rock music, and solidified a legacy as one of the finest songwriters of his generation.
3. U2, The Joshua Tree
While this award probably belongs to producers Daniel Lanois and Brian Eno, The Joshua Tree is a seminal album from one of rock n’ roll’s most influential bands. Bono demonstrates an incredibly nuanced songwriting style, exploring themes of American idealism while struggling with the Reagan administration’s imperialistic tendencies. A protest album disguised as mainstream rock… we could probably use a bit more of that these days.
2. Guns N’ Roses, Appetite For Destruction
The hard rock kings were never as electric as they sounded on 1987’s Appetite For Destruction. Axl Rose, Slash, and Duff McKagan deliver 53 minutes of visceral, ear-piercing, hair-raising glam rock. The record has forever entered the zeitgeist with countless hits like “Welcome to the Jungle,” “Paradise City,” and “Sweet Child o’ Mine.”
1. Bruce Springsteen, Born In The USA
No artist captured the essence of the eighties more than Bruce Springsteen. Springsteen and the E Street Band shed their Jersey roots and embrace the heartland on 1984’s Born in the USA. The quintessential album captured the glitzy production of the decade and placed it squarely in a place where rural America could access it. Springsteen’s gravelly delivery feels at home as he leads a confident backing band at the height of their musicianship. While the disco influence on tracks like “Dancing in the Dark” may have been off putting for hardcore enthusiasts at the time, there’s no denying the album has crossover appeal and massive staying power.
See something we missed? Can’t believe we included Michael Jackson? Just want to argue? Let me know! @ramiabousabe