The 1980s were a pivotal decade for modern music. New genres and subgenres were being explored, from R&B to country, pop, and hip-hop. Many of these albums are considered some of the most influential and significant in music history.
1. Born in The U.S.A. — Bruce Springsteen
There are few albums that more perfectly exemplify the 1980s than Bruce Springsteen’s Born in The U.S.A. Thought by many to be an expression of patriotism, the title song is also a subtle critique of life in the United States, particularly in the aftermath of the Vietnam War. The album solidified Springsteen as a pop star, spawning seven hit singles. Born in The U.S.A. remains one of Springsteen’s most iconic songs and is still regularly performed at his shows.
2. Thriller — Michael Jackson
Ask anyone for the first 80s song that pops into their head, and there is no small chance they will say Thriller. Michael Jackson, then a rising star, intended to create an album where every song was an amazing experience. He undoubtedly achieved his goal with 1982’s Thriller.
Though the title song is undeniably the most iconic, the album also featured some of his other famous tracks, such as Billie Jean, Beat It, and Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’. It also cemented Jackson’s reputation as an astounding live performer, as proven by his introduction of the famous moonwalk at a performance of Billie Jean.
3. Doolittle — Pixies
The Pixies were one of the most influential indie rock bands of the 1980s, a genre still in its infancy at the time. The group’s best work is widely considered to be 1989’s Doolittle.
The album produced two hit singles, Monkey Gone to Heaven and Here Comes Your Man. It was hugely influential in the development of indie rock over the following decade, particularly in its focus on topics such as surrealism, violence, and death.
4. Tracy Chapman — Tracy Chapman
Tracy Chapman had to fight to get a record label to sign her debut album. She at last succeeded in 1988. The risk paid off, and Tracy Chapman was a hit. The album gained attention across the music industry for its unique folk rock content and focus on political and social issues. The album featured the song Fast Car, undeniably one of Chapman’s most famous. It is one of the best-selling albums in history.
5. Bleach — Nirvana
Grunge band Nirvana was highly influential on the Seattle grunge scene throughout the 1980s, but it wasn’t until 1989 that they released their debut album, Bleach. It was a huge critical success, setting the stage for Nirvana to become the undisputed grunge kings in the following decade. After the release of the band’s second album in 1991, Bleach experienced a resurgence in popularity; it is now the best-selling sub pop album of all time.
6. Disintegration — The Cure
Though drugs are never the answer, there is no denying the effect that they had on The Cure’s 1989 album Disintegration. Frontman Robert Smith had struggled to find inspiration after the band’s previous, more pop-driven albums. Smith later said that his heavy use of psychedelic drugs influenced the direction of the album, which featured the single Love Song (which hit No. 2 on the charts). Disintegration was lauded as the culmination of all the band’s efforts throughout the decade.
7. Appetite For Destruction — Guns N’ Roses
It seems amazing to think about it now, but Guns N’ Roses released the 1987 album Appetite For Destruction almost without notice. It wasn’t until a year later that the album became popular after the band had gone on tour. At that time, the songs Welcome To The Jungle, Sweet Child O’ Mine, and Paradise City became more widely known. Subsequently, Appetite For Destruction peaked at No. 1 on the charts. It remains one of the band’s most famous albums.
8. War — U2
It is certainly an achievement to push Michael Jackson off the charts, but U2 managed it with their 1983 album War—at least on the UK charts. The album was also extremely popular in the US and placed at No. 12 on the charts. War is known for its message of pacificism by highlighting the horrors of conflict, most notably in the song Sunday Bloody Sunday. The song recalls Bloody Sunday, the 1972 incident in Northern Ireland where British soldiers opened fire on civilians.
9. Trouble in Paradise — Randy Newman
Randy Newman’s 1983 album Trouble in Paradise almost always gets a mention on any list of the top albums of the decade. The soft rock album did very well on the charts, particularly due to the single I Love L.A. Newman’s duet with Paul Simon, The Blues, also attracted attention. I Love L.A. became a kind of anthem for the communities of southern California; however, careful listeners noted the subtle criticism of the area in Newman’s tongue-in-cheek lyrics.
10. Madonna — Madonna
Pop icon Madonna exploded onto the scene with her debut album in 1983. The album was instantly popular partly because of Madonna’s pioneering sound; she seamlessly combined pop and disco genres and used some of the most up-to-date electronic technology of the time.
The album is considered one of the best debut albums in history, setting the course for the development of dance-pop throughout the 1980s and 1990s.
11. Hounds of Love — Kate Bush
Kate Bush’s 1985 album Hounds of Love helped revitalize her career after a lag throughout the early-mid 1980s. The single Running Up That Hill (A Deal With God) climbed to No. 1 on the charts in the UK; the album is one of Bush’s most successful works and is considered an exemplary work of progressive rock. In 2022, Running Up That Hill returned to the top of the charts after it was featured prominently on the fourth season of the show Stranger Things.
12. 1984 — Van Halen
Van Halen was a leader of heavy metal during the 1980s, and one of the best examples was the album 1984. With its iconic cover art featuring a cherub holding a cigarette, the album pioneered the synthesizer-heavy 1980s glam rock that remained popular throughout the decade. 1984 was at the top of the charts, just behind Thriller. Some of the most iconic tracks of the album include Girl Gone Bad, Jump, and Panama.
13. The Queen is Dead — The Smiths
The Queen is Dead, released in 1986, has been alternately called one of the best albums of the 1980s and one of the best of all time. The album is a work of indie rock that features complex and, at times, satirical lyrics, one aspect for which critics praised it. It was also commercially successful, spending 22 weeks on the UK charts and receiving a Gold certification in the US.
14. Graceland — Paul Simon
Paul Simon’s 1986 album Graceland stood out from the crowd in many ways, most notably because of its use of South African street music. Simon traveled to South Africa to collaborate with local musicians there. The result was an eclectic mix of worldbeat music with influences from the Zulu and Louisiana Creole cultures. Considered to be Simon’s best work, it was named Best Album of The Year at the Grammy Awards.
15. Diesel & Dust — Midnight Oil
Australian band Midnight Oil’s 1987 album wasn’t just remarkable for its musical qualities; it was also one of the first albums to draw attention to the plight of indigenous Australians—or at least, one of the first commercially successful ones. Diesel & Dust also commented on other issues, such as environmental threats. It is one of the most acclaimed Australian albums of all time and is considered an important work of art both culturally and creatively.
16. Let It Be — The Replacements
The Replacements released Let It Be in 1984. The album was seen as a maturation of their earlier musical style, embracing the softer and more introspective post-punk styles. Let It Be focused on themes of growing up and finding oneself; it also used humor to grapple with topics of puberty and teen angst. The album’s famous cover art became iconic, depicting the members of the band sitting on a roof.
17. The Smiths — The Smiths
The Smiths were one of the most influential English bands of the 1980s, appearing on the scene with their 1984 debut album. The album was an international success, charting around the world. It was seen as a uniquely English work, tackling depictions of life in Manchester in the late 20th century and even topics such as child abuse. It was a bold debut album that remains one of the most famous UK rock albums of all time.
18. Speaking in Tongues — Talking Heads
Talking Heads took a brief break from recording throughout the early-mid 80s before reuniting to record 1983’s Speaking in Tongues. The album was praised for its blending of musical genres, which spurred a development in art rock and funk rock throughout the rest of the decade. Speaking in Tongues was the band’s most popular album, peaking at No. 15 on the Billboard charts; the single Burning Down The House was their only song to reach the Top 10.
19. Eliminator — ZZ Top
Rock spiraled into countless subgenres in the 1980s, including synth-rock and new-wave rock, both of which were explored on ZZ Top’s 1983 album Eliminator. The album modeled a specific sound that would be copied many times over the next decades, featuring intense drum kits and heavy synthesizers. Like every good 80s group, ZZ Top also released a series of music videos that helped drive the album’s popularity. Four singles were particularly successful—Gimme All Your Lovin’, TV Dinners, Sharp Dressed Man, and the iconic Legs.
20. Private Dancer — Tina Turner
Tina Turner’s career struggled in the early 1980s after her divorce from Ike Turner, her former musical partner. But that all changed in 1984 when she released her fifth album, Private Dancer. The album included some of Turner’s biggest hits of her career, such as What’s Love Got To Do With It and I Might Have Been Queen. Private Dancer was a global success, launching Turner to stardom as a solo artist. It was later added to the Library of Congress’s National Recording Registry.
21. Faith — George Michael
George Michael entered the music scene with a bang in 1987 with his debut album Faith. The album was an instant success, cementing his reputation as a dynamic performer and a sex symbol. It broke records in its first year, staying in the Top 10 for 51 weeks non-consecutively and putting four singles on the No. 1 spot. It won Album of The Year at the Grammy Awards as well as a host of MTV Awards, making it one of the most successful debut albums of all time.
22. Closer — Joy Division
Many bands break up after losing one of their members, particularly after a death. But Joy Division decided to keep going after the loss of their frontman, Ian Curtis, to suicide. The result of their next collaboration was Closer, released in 1980. The album was a huge success and has been widely recognized as one of the most influential works of the post-punk and gothic rock genres. It would be the last album released under the name Joy Division; after Closer, the members started the group New Order.
23. The Blue Mask — Lou Reed
Many rock albums of the 1980s were focused on themes of being young, but not Lou Reed’s 1982 The Blue Mask. Reed’s 11th studio album was an examination of topics such as love, life decisions, violence, fear, and addiction. It was heavy material but nevertheless a great success. The Blue Mask was praised by critics for its musical complexity, deep content, and poetic lyrics; many people called it the best album of Reed’s career.
24. Purple Rain — Prince
If 1982’s 1999 was Prince’s breakthrough, 1985’s Purple Rain cemented his superstar status. It also established his reputation as a flamboyant but androgynous sex symbol, particularly due to his sultry music video for the single When Doves Cry. The album was both controversial and widely acclaimed, having been called one of the most influential and skillful albums of all time. It was also seen as the work that established Prince’s signature style of over-the-top, musically complex performances.
25. Indigo Girls — Indigo Girls
Indigo Girls released their second but first major label album in 1989. The album was praised for its exploration into folk rock, earning attention from both commercial audiences and critics. It was nominated for two Grammy Awards, winning Best Contemporary Folk Recording. Indigo Girls was also a collaborative work featuring guest vocals from the members of R.E.M. and Hothouse Flowers.
26. Double Fantasy — John Lennon & Yoko Ono
After the Beatles’ breakup in 1970, John Lennon embarked on a career that would include solo albums and collaborations with his wife, Yoko Ono. The album was less a duo performance and more of a showcasing of each musician, with tracks alternating between the two. Double Fantasy was Lennon’s final album, released just two months before he was murdered. Lennon’s death garnered a closer look at the album, which has since been called one of the best of his career.
27. Pyromania — Def Leppard
Def Leppard had released two albums before 1983’s Pyromania. But it was the band’s first album to reach widespread commercial success. This was partly due to their move away from heavier, more aggressive metal music; the shift to a mellower sound made them more appealing to a wider audience. Pyromania was an attempt to be better suited to radio—a clearly successful attempt, as it produced a bevy of top hits, including Rock of Ages and Photograph.
28. Daydream Nation — Sonic Youth
Daydream Nation was Sonic Youth’s key to commercial success. The 1988 album was a mainstream hit, significantly affecting the course of indie rock through the turn of the decade. In fact, music critics consider it so historically and artistically important that it was added to the Library of Congress’s National Recording Registry.
29. Document — R.E.M.
Alternative rock was at the beginning of its heyday in the late 1980s when R.E.M. released the album Document. The 1987 album was released under a new producer and with new instrumentalization, which would characterize the band’s releases throughout the 1990s. The album was most famous for the song. It’s The End Of The World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine).
30. Midnight Love — Marvin Gaye
Marvin Gaye released the final album of his life in 1982. Only a year and a half later, he would be murdered by his father. The album was a huge success, featuring the Grammy Award-winning song Sexual Healing—one of Gaye’s biggest hits. It was considered to be one of the most influential albums for R&B singers throughout the end of the century.
31. She’s So Unusual — Cyndi Lauper
Brightly colored, loud, and in-your-face, Cyndi Lauper was an icon of the 1980s. This reputation began with her debut album, She’s So Unusual, released in 1983. The album featured many of Lauper’s most famous songs, such as Time After Time and Girls Just Wanna Have Fun. The latter was a hit worldwide, sending Lauper to the international stage. She’s So Unusual was nominated for six Grammy Awards and won two.
32. Run-DMC — Run-DMC
Hip hop group Run-DMC made its debut in 1984 with its eponymous album. It was one of the earliest samples of the more aggressive hip-hop sound that would become predominant in the late 1980s and 1990s with the rise of gangster rap and other subgenres. Most hip hop at the time featured lighter material in both content and musical style. Run-DMC set the stage for the sound of hip hop throughout the 1980s.
33. London Calling — The Clash
London Calling was released in the UK in December 1979 and in the US in January 1980. This timing meant that, for some, it set the tone for the direction of music throughout the beginning of the decade. The album was noted for its introspective lyrics, which focused on themes of social issues, and its skillful fusion of punk and new wave styles. It is widely recognized as one of the greatest albums by a UK band.
34. The Joshua Tree — U2
U2 was prolific throughout the 1980s, during which time they experimented significantly with various sounds and musical influences. Their 1987 album The Joshua Tree explored folk rock, with unmistakable influences from American and Irish traditional music. It focused on social and political topics, contrasting ideal America with real America. The Joshua Tree won several Grammy Awards and spawned the top singles I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For and With or Without You.
35. Licensed to Ill — Beastie Boys
The Beastie Boys got their start in 1986 with their debut album Licensed to Ill. It has been recognized as one of the greatest debut albums of all time thanks to the members’ synchronicity as a group and their unique musical style. In particular, Licensed to Ill caught the world’s attention thanks to its eclectic use of rap, making the album an early foray into rap rock. It is best known for the single Brass Monkey.
36. Control — Janet Jackson
Janet Jackson’s solo career took flight just a few years behind her famous brother, but by the mid-80s, she was solidified as a pop icon. Her 1986 album Control won praise not just for Jackson’s vocal performance but also for her introspective and deeply personal lyrics. It was a huge accomplishment for a black female musician, paving the way for many other pop singers throughout the following decades. The much-accoladed album was a massive success, launching Jackson into mainstream pop.
37. Tunnel of Love — Bruce Springsteen
Bruce Springsteen’s music seems to quintessentially represent life and culture in the 1980s. His 1987 album Tunnel of Love continued the trend, winning Best Solo Rock Vocal Performance at the Grammy Awards. Springsteen, who composed the music and recorded most of the instrumental tracks, alternated between themes of fantasy and cliche with reality; the theme was both deeply personal and universally relatable. It is widely considered to be one of the best albums of his career.
38. 1999 — Prince
There is no doubt that Prince was one of the biggest superstars of the 1980s. His album 1999, released in 1982, has long been considered his breakthrough work (though it was his fifth studio album). The album held several firsts for the star, including his first Grammy Award nomination (Best Male R&B Vocal Performance on International Lover) and his first Top 10 hit (Delirious). The album’s title came from the single 1999, a commentary about nuclear warfare.
39. Get Happy!! — Elvis Costello & The Attractions
Elvis Costello had developed a signature persona throughout the 1970s, but his 1980 album was a marked step away from that. Costello seemed to take the album title literally, moving toward a more mellow R&B-influenced sound and more personal lyrics. Get Happy!! Is widely considered one of Costello’s best albums.
40. Synchronicity — The Police
The Police’s final album was 1983’s Synchronicity, and there is no doubt that they ended their career with a bang. The album featured some of their most enduring hits, particularly Every Breath You Take. It won three Grammy Awards the following year.
41. Back in Black — AC/DC
AC/DC did the almost impossible, replacing their lead singer after frontman Bon Scott’s death. Their next album was 1980’s Back in Black. It was undoubtedly one of their biggest successes—and in fact, one of the best-selling albums in history. The title was a mark of respect for Scott.
Next: The best AC/DC songs
42. Three Feet High and Rising — De La Soul
De La Soul released their debut album in 1989, sliding in at the end of the decade. Nevertheless, the album made a significant impact, setting the course for hip hop throughout the 1990s. It has been called one of the most influential rap albums of all time.
43. Peter Gabriel — Peter Gabriel
Don’t get confused—Peter Gabriel released two albums titled after himself. The second Peter Gabriel, released in 1980, has been called Gabriel’s breakthrough, featuring a bold lyrical style that focused on societal and political issues. It was praised for its innovative and creative exploration into art rock.
44. Fisherman’s Blues — The Waterboys
It is difficult to categorize the 1988 album Fisherman’s Blues. The album is an eclectic mix of Irish and Scottish traditional folk songs, rock, and even country music. Nevertheless, something about it worked. The album was the most successful work from The Waterboys, peaking at No. 76 on the Billboard 200.
45. Power, Corruption, & Lies — New Order
Electronic rock was in its early days with the release of Power, Corruption, & Lies in 1983. The album was a departure from New Order’s previous sound, exploring more extensive use of synthesizers and upbeat dance rhythms. The album was well-received and is still routinely named as one of the top albums of the early post-punk period.
46. Radio — LL Cool J
1985’s Radio was an exploration into the burgeoning genre of hardcore hip-hop. It has been called one of the most historically and musically significant albums in hip hop, focusing on ghettoblaster culture and inner-city life. It also introduced many of the musical elements that would influence the development of later hip-hop.
47. Empty Glass — Pete Townshend
Though his 1980 album Empty Glass wasn’t Townshend’s first, it was the first album to feature his own compositions. The success of Empty Glass is often attributed to Townshend’s personal turmoil, as he struggled with addiction, grief, and marital problems while working on the album. Regardless of his inspiration, his work on the album was inspired, leading to a Top 10 hit single.
48. Making Movies — Dire Straits
Dire Straits released Making Movies in 1980; ironically, the album became widely known several years later when its single Tunnel of Love was featured on An Officer and a Gentleman soundtrack. The album also featured another hit single, Romeo & Juliet, and peaked at No. 19 on the US charts. Critics called Making Movies one of the most quintessential albums of the 1980s, praising it for its musicality and lyrical work.
49. Oh Mercy — Bob Dylan
When it comes to Bob Dylan, it is almost impossible to choose one album to count as his best. But of the albums he released in the 1980s, we have to mention 1989’s, Oh Mercy. His previous work throughout the decade had been poorly received by critics; Oh Mercy is widely credited with bringing him back from a career slump. The album’s hypnotic, laid-back rock rhythms earned it a place at No. 30 on the Billboard charts.
50. It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back — Public Enemy
Public Enemy was one of the most influential groups at the birth of hip hop, particularly political and social hip hop. Their 1988 album It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back was modeled off of Marvin Gaye’s later music, with its upbeat, intense rhythms and heavy social commentary. From its first release, critics seemed to know how influential the album would be. Public Enemy’s work heavily influences the development of hip hop and rap music throughout the 90s and into the 2000s.
51. Pretty Hate Machine — Nine Inch Nails
Nine Inch Nails exploded onto the rock scene in 1989 with their debut album Pretty Hate Machine. The album was an experiment in electronic rock or synth rock, which had almost never been heard before. It was an instant commercial success, spending 115 weeks on the Billboard 200. Pretty Hate Machine received three platinum certifications in the United States for selling more than three million copies.
As the Head Editor and Writer at Music Grotto, Liam helps write and edit content produced from professional music/media journalists and other contributing writers. He works closely with journalists and other staff to format and publish music content for the Music Grotto website. Liam is also the founding member of Music Grotto and is passionate in disseminating editorial content to its readers.
Liam’s lifelong love for music makes his role at Music Grotto such a rewarding one. He loves researching, writing and editing music content for Music Grotto.