As with the other decades, here’s a list of the big-ticket Eighties albums you probably already know of. I’ll list them briefly, with a suggestion that if you don’t own them you should. In no particular order, they are:
Michael Jackson – Thriller
- Bruce Springsteen – Born in the USA
- Prince – 1999
- Prince – Purple Rain
- Talking Heads – Remain in Light
- AC/DC – Back in Black
- U2 – The Joshua Tree
- Paul Simon – Graceland
- Madonna – Like a Prayer
That’s probably all there is. I’ve included some other big-selling albums in the list itself, where I felt I wanted to say something about them.
The Eighties are difficult. On the face of it it’s the easiest decade to source album recommendations from because it’s the era I grew up in and I remember a lot of the releases, especially independent releases, whereas I had to work pretty hard to catch up with marginal albums when compiling Seventies and Nineties lists. On the other hand, so much of the music of that decade has travelled very badly. There’s a particular Eighties sound – synth-heavy, with programmed beats and big crashes and swoops, showy and bombastic even when playing it light – that only really lived in that decade and seemed to infect even the interesting indie stuff. It means you have to love the Eighties on its own terms, which for me means nostalgia, and I’m not sure “I loved dancing to this stuff” is really appropriate when suggesting music to people that weren’t there.
The other thing is that music did change in the Eighties. The first noticeable sign was that the charts were being flooded with generic sentiment. I’m a big fan of the mainstream singles of the late-Seventies, early-Eighties era, because the subject matter was so diverse – I won’t quote a whole lot, but if you think of songs like ‘Antmusic, ‘Wuthering Heights’, ‘Rock Lobster’, ‘Walking on the Moon’, ‘London Calling’, ‘Oliver’s Army’, that gives you an idea at least of the wide range of concerns that were hitting the charts. And even the ‘relationship’ songs were off-kilter – ‘Tusk’, ‘So Long’, ‘Turning Japanese’, ‘Brass in Pocket’. Of course there were plenty of more standard boy-girl songs as well, but the point is that those other, weirder ideas were out there shifting units.
By around the mid-Eighties, the charts were taken over by the likes of Wham, A-Ha, The Eurythmics, Phil Collins, Bon Jovi, Huey Lewis etc, and the subject matter retreated to variations on old reliable themes of “I want you/I got you/I lost you”. The music itself commodified as well, as production streamlined and the sound began to homogenise throughout the charts. It was just a lot less quirky.
I’m in danger of generalising too much here, so let’s look at the other side of the coin. Albums such as Graceland, Born in the USA, Welcome to the Pleasuredome, even, say Like a Prayer, did expand the subject matter, and there were oddball songs throughout the late Eighties that charted – ‘Rock Me Amadeus’, ‘E=MC²’, ‘Walk Like an Egyptian’. There just weren’t as many, and they weren’t as incorporated into the whole music milieu, they always came off as conversation pieces.
The upshot of all this is that finding recommended albums from this decade isn’t as easy – a lot of the candidates are really well known already, the general meshing of independent and mainstream music tended to work badly on both categories, the MTV-isation of product had artists more concerned about their look than their subject matter, and just generally the freedom to experiment with styles tended to become the province of major artists. I believe rap kicked off as a major force late in the Eighties because the music scene had become stodgy and repressive in the same way it did in the Seventies before punk blew it apart.
Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe I’ll revise this whole entry when I’ve had another think about it. But I am sure that music got stale after about 1983, and revitalised around 1988/9.
I’ve decided to provide entries for as many albums as I can find that sit in that half-known area, behind the megahits but not wilfully obscure. What I’m hoping is that you will recall a lot of the acts here, but maybe you’d forgotten about them or never really properly checked them out the first time around.
Having now completed the list and compiled the reference page, a few things stand out regarding my selections, which I’ll address in turn:
1. There may be a disproportionate number of Australian releases. I count 16 of them. And a couple of those, I admit, are indulgences. On the whole, I believe the best Australian music was released in the Eighties, but even so I didn’t regard home-grown product as highly then as I do now. Somehow Australian pop/chart music from the era has aged better than its UK competition. I’ve ignored artists such as Culture Club, Yazoo, Tears for Fears, Duran Duran (actually, I was never going to include them), Eurythmics, Simple Minds, Roxy Music and no doubt quite a few more. Nothing against those other acts, but my preference is definitely disposed toward the Australian selections.
2. California punk is definitely under-represented. And I don’t want that to look like a dismissal of the genre. I’m happy to recommend the Dead Kennedys, Black Flag, the Descendents, the Circle Jerks, the Misfits and others. If and when I get around to compiling a spill-over list, they’ll all be there. Call it a glitch or a predilection. I seem to have leant in a different direction, despite the inclusion of a couple of other acts from that time and place.
3. In fact, the entire list is a little lacking in hardcore artists of any genre. That’s a complaint you can level against all my lists, probably. I tend towards pop/alternative and straddle chart and alternative chart in my tastes, but I don’t go very hard. I think I’ve done ok with rap (no doubt with a few omissions, as there would be with any genre). But yes, I’ve been remiss with the harder-core releases.
4. Some of my favourite big-name artists – Stones, Dylan, Young in particular – just don’t make it. I could have included Infidels, Oh Mercy, Empire Burlesque, Tattoo You, Dirty Work, Freedom – I even went close to writing up Trans which has been unfairly slammed – but none of them really cut it. Ditto Springsteen’s Tunnel of Love, which I thought I’d be into until I gave it a proper listen. Nebraska is the only one I seriously considered. In the end I decided I admired it a lot more than I actually liked it, and I never voluntarily pull it out for a listen.