80 must-own albums for ’80s fans: ABC to ZZ Top

The official Stuck in the ’80s list of 80 Albums Every ’80s Fan Should Own is here.

Back in 2010, I put together a list that was obviously heavy on the genres that made the decade unique: pop, New Wave, heavy metal and rap. Missing are albums by country, jazz and blues performers, which I believed then – and still do today – were not as essential to the DNA of the decade’s music.

Though I thumbed through more than 200 albums for the list, in trimming them down to just 80 entries, I followed a few rules.

  • No band has more than a single album on the list. That was tough with acts like Prince, Depeche Mode and U2.
  • No soundtracks were considered.
  • No live albums were considered.
  • No greatest-hits CDs are included.

Albums represented on this list were nominated by readers of the Stuck in the ’80s blog in 2010. The comments made after each album name were my notes in 2010. Podcast links have been updated to reflect all the interviews to date.

This online list disappeared when my old newspaper blog was pretty much deleted over time, but I was able to find the fragments and put it back together for this list. The 80 albums are listed in alphabetical order. Would I reconsider which albums I picked 10 years ago? Probably, but I like republishing it as-is for historic context. Let me know what I got right and wrong. Thanks!


ABC: THE LEXICON OF LOVE (1982): Trevor Horn lends his help producing a concept album about heartbreak and the never-ending search for love. Listen to our Martin Fry interview

AC/DC: BACK IN BLACK (1980): Brian Johnson’s debut was also a tribute to the late Bon Scott. Listen to our Brian Johnson interview

ADAM AND THE ANTS: PRINCE CHARMING (1981): The last album released before Stuart Leslie Goddard would simply become Adam Ant. Listen to our Adam Ant interview.

ASIA: ASIA (1982): Not a bad song on the album. The debut by the British prog-rock band narrowly defeats Alpha for this list. Listen to our Carl Palmer interview

B-52s: COSMIC THING (1989): The hit-filled album was a comeback for the band after the death of guitarist Ricky Wilson in 1985.

THE BEASTIE BOYS: LICENSE TO ILL (1986): The first rap album to top the Billboard 200 chart.

BILLY IDOL: REBEL YELL (1983): The title song might be the weakest cut on the album, that’s how good it is.

BON JOVI: SLIPPERY WHEN WET (1986): You Give Love A Bad Name, Livin’ on a Prayer and Wanted Dead or Alive form the foundation of one of the most popular albums of the decade.

BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN: BORN IN THE USA (1984): The best-selling album of 1985 in the United States, producing seven Top 10 singles.

BRYAN ADAMS: RECKLESS (1984): Six singles made the top 15, a feat that had been accomplished previously only by Michael Jackson’s Thriller.

THE CARS: HEARTBEAT CITY (1984): Five top 40 singles and a video –Hello Again — directed by Andy Warhol. Listen to our Ric Ocasek memorial podcast.

THE CLASH: COMBAT ROCK (1982): The last album to feature the Clash’s classic lineup. Best known for Rock the Casbah, my favorite tune remains Straight To Hell.

CULTURE CLUB: COLOUR BY NUMBERS (1983): Boy George and Co.’s second album is ranked No. 96 on Rolling Stone magazine’s list of the 100 Greatest Albums of the ’80s.

THE CURE: HEAD ON THE DOOR (1985): With Six Different Ways, Close to Me and In Between Days, it feels like a greatest-hits album.

CYNDI LAUPER: SHE’S SO UNUSUAL (1983): More moxie than music, the videos from this album would set the town for MTV’s early years.

DAVID BOWIE: LET’S DANCE (1983): His best work was decades beforehand, but this album still had plenty of hits for the ’80s, including China Girl, the title track and Modern Love.

DEF LEPPARD: PYROMANIA (1983): Their breakthrough album with producer Mutt Lange. The video for Photograph made sleeveless shirts with the British flag a modern fashion statement. Listen to our Joe Elliott interview.

DEPECHE MODE: SOME GREAT REWARD (1984): Hard to pick just one Depeche Mode album. This one nudges out Speak & Spell thanks to the S&M anthem Master & Servant.

DEVO: FREEDOM OF CHOICE (1980): Contains Devo’s best-known song, Whip It, though I prefer Girl U Want.

DIRE STRAITS: BROTHERS IN ARMS (1985): “Money for nothing and chicks for free…” The band’s best-selling album and one of the top 10 best-selling albums in UK music history.

DURAN DURAN: RIO (1982): Just nine tunes, but all great, including Rio, Hungry Like the Wolf, Hold Back the Rain, New Religion, Save a Prayer, The Chauffeur. Listen to our interview with Andy Taylor

ECHO AND THE BUNNYMEN: OCEAN RAIN (1984): The band played the album in full a few times live in 2008.

ELVIS COSTELLO: GET HAPPY (1980): Rated No. 11 on Rolling Stone magazine’s list of the 100 greatest albums of the 1980s.

THE ENGLISH BEAT: SPECIAL BEAT SERVICE (1982): The third and final album by the English Beat (aka the Beat outside the U.S.).

FOREIGNER: 4 (1981): The band’s only No. 1 album features the handiwork of a young Thomas Dolby. Listen to podcast with Mick Jones.

FRANKIE GOES TO HOLLYWOOD: WELCOME TO THE PLEASUREDOME (1984): Thanks to three No. 1 singles and advance sales exceeding 1 million, their debut album started at the top of the charts.

GENESIS: INVISIBLE TOUCH (1984): The title track is the only Genesis song to hit No. 1 in the U.S.

GEORGE MICHAEL: FAITH (1987): His debut solo album had six top 5 singles. Listen to our George Michael memorial podcast.

THE GO-GO’S: BEAUTY AND THE BEAT (1981): The first album entirely written and performed by an all-female band to top the charts.

GUNS N’ ROSES: APPETITE FOR DESTRUCTION (1987): The fastest-selling debut album in music history.

HOWARD JONES: DREAM INTO ACTION (1985): Side one is full of hits: Things Can Only Get Better, Life in One Day, No One Is to Blame, Dream into Action, Like to Get to Know You Well. Listen to our Howard Jones interview.

HUEY LEWIS: SPORTS (1983): Ranked No. 2 on Billboard’s 1984 year-end album chart, after Michael Jackson’s Thriller, and spawned four top 10 hits. Listen to our Huey Lewis interview

THE HUMAN LEAGUE: DARE (1981): Under Philip Oakey’s creative direction, it marked the band’s move into commercial pop. Listen to our Phil Oakey interview

HUSKER DU: ZEN ARCADE (1984): A concept album about a young lad who runs away from home, only to find the outside world is even worse.

INXS: KICK (1987): Four top 10 singles, including Need You Tonight/Mediate, Devil Inside, New Sensation, and Never Tear Us Apart.

JOHN MELLENCAMP: SCARECROW (1985): Three Top 10 hits, a record for a Mellencamp album: R.O.C.K. in the U.S.A., Lonely Ol’ Night and Small Town.

JOURNEY: ESCAPE (1981): How great is an album when Don’t Stop Believing isn’t even the best song? Listen to our interview of Steve Perry | Listen to our Ross Valory interview

JOY DIVISION: CLOSER (1980): The only ’80s album by the band was released two months following the suicide of lead singer Ian Curtis.

KATE BUSH: THE HOUNDS OF LOVE (1985): In 2002, Q Magazine ranked it No. 3 on the its list of greatest albums of all-time by female artists.

MEN AT WORK: BUSINESS AS USUAL (1982): Spent an unprecedented 15 weeks at No. 1 on the U.S. album charts from late 1982 to early 1983. Listen to our Colin Hay interview

METALLICA: MASTER OF PUPPETS (1986): Reached No. 29 on the U.S. Billboard 200 album chart without any radio airplay or the release of a single or music video.

MICHAEL JACKSON: THRILLER (1982): Simply the most important album for an entire generation of music fans. Maybe the most important album since the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s? Listen to our Thriller podcast

N.W.A.: STRAIGHT OUTTA COMPTON (1988): Responsible for the creation of hip-hop and gangsta rap.

NEW ORDER: POWER, CORRUPTION & LIES (1983): Ranked No. 94 on Rolling Stone magazine’s list of the 100 greatest albums of the 1980s.

OINGO BOINGO: DEAD MAN’S PARTY (1985): The band’s biggest commercial success, thanks to landing two songs (Weird Science and Dead Man’s Party) into movie soundtracks.

ORCHESTRAL MANOEUVRES IN THE DARK: ARCHITECTURE & MORALITY (1981): All of the album’s songs were included in the set list on OMD’s 2007 comeback tour.

OZZY OSBOURNE: DIARY OF A MADMAN (1981): The last album with guitarist Randy Rhoads before his death in a Florida plane accident in 1982.

PAT BENATAR: CRIMES OF PASSION (1980): Full of hits, including Hit Me with Your Best Shot, You Better Run, Treat Me Right. Plus a cover of Kate Bush’s Wuthering Heights. Listen to our Neil Giraldo interview

PAUL SIMON: GRACELAND (1986): Because much of the album was recorded in South Africa during the apartheid era, Simon faced accusations that he had broken the cultural boycott imposed by the rest of the world. Ultimately, it was proven he didn’t.

PET SHOP BOYS: PLEASE (1986): Their debut album had West End Girls, Opportunities (Let’s Make Lots of Money), Suburbia and Love Comes Quickly.

PETER GABRIEL: SO (1986): Q magazine readers voted it the 81st greatest album of all time. VH1 placed it at No. 91. Rolling Stone puts it at No. 187 on its list of 500 greatest albums of all time (and No. 14 among 100 best albums of the ’80s). Listen to our So podcast.

PHIL COLLINS: NO JACKET REQUIRED (1985): Many of the songs — Take Me Home, Long Long Way To Go — were used in episodes of Miami Vice.

PIXIES: DOOLITTLE (1989): A 2003 poll of NME writers ranked Doolittle as the second greatest album of all time. (No. 1? The debut album by Stone Roses. Hmmm.)

THE POLICE: SYNCHRONICITY (1983): The band’s last album. The cover artwork was available in 36 variations, with different arrangements of the color stripes and photographs of the band members, which they took themselves. Listen to our interview with Stewart Copeland

THE PRETENDERS: LEARNING TO CRAWL (1984): Released after a two-year hiatus — and the deaths of band members James Honeyman-Scott and Pete Farndon.

PRINCE AND THE REVOLUTION: PURPLE RAIN (1984): I maintain this is not a soundtrack, since it only features the songs by Prince and the Revolution. Brilliant start to finish. Should be listened to in order.

QUEEN: THE GAME (1980): The only Queen album to No. 1 in both the United Kingdom and the United States. Listen to our podcast on The Game.

R.E.M.: LIFES RICH PAGEANT (1986): No apostrophe in Lifes! Fall on Me is reportedly still a personal favorite of frontman Michael Stipe. Superman, the only other single, is actually a cover by a band called the Clique.

REO SPEEDWAGON: HI INFIDELITY (1980): The biggest selling rock album of 1981 contains the hits — Keep On Loving You, Tough Guys, Take It On The Run — the band can never stop playing live. Listen to our Kevin Cronin interview

THE REPLACEMENTS: PLEASED TO MEET ME (1987): The single Alex Chilton is playable in the game Rock Band 2.

ROXY MUSIC: AVALON (1981): The band’s only platinum record in the U.S. Oddly enough, the album’s biggest single — More Than This — was a Top 10 hit in many countries, but a flop in the U.S.

RUN-D.M.C.: RAISING HELL (1986): It’s Tricky, My Adidas, Walk This Way. Up until this album, rap and hip hop was a fad. Afterward, it was a fact of life.

RUSH: MOVING PICTURES (1981): Just seven songs, but not a bad one in the bunch. A masterpiece by Canada’s holy trinity.

SCORPIONS: LOVE AT FIRST STING (1984): Has both an epic metal song — Rock You Like a Hurricane — and a signature power ballad — Still Loving You. Listen to our Klaus Meine interview

SIMPLE MINDS: ONCE UPON A TIME (1985): Don’t You (Forget About Me), which appeared on The Breakfast Club soundtrack and had become a No.1 hit, was left off the album at the band’s request. Listen to our Jim Kerr interview.

THE SMITHS: THE QUEEN IS DEAD (1986): Hard to pick just one Smiths album. This one (named from a chapter of the novel Last Exit to Brooklyn) narrowly beats Meat is Murder.

SQUEEZE: EAST SIDE STORY (1981): Imagine how even greater it’d be had they followed their initial concept: a double album with one side produced by Elvis Costello, a second by Dave Edmunds, a third by Nick Lowe and the fourth by Paul McCartney.

STEVE WINWOOD: BACK IN THE HIGH LIFE (1986): Higher Love won the Grammy Award for record of the year.

STING: THE DREAM OF THE BLUE TURTLES (1985): Released only a year after The Police had unofficially broken up.

STYX: PARADISE THEATER (1981): Became the band’s only No. 1 album in the U.S., but it was also their fourth consecutive multi-platinum album (The Grand Illusion, Pieces of Eight, Cornerstone). Listen to our Dennis DeYoung interview | Listen to our Chuck Panozzo interview

TALKING HEADS: REMAIN IN LIGHT (1980): Since I can’t pick Stop Making Sense (concert albums are verboten!), this Brian Eno-produced masterpiece will have to do. One critic called it “scary, funny music to which you can dance and think, think and dance, dance and think, ad infinitum.”

TEARS FOR FEARS: SONGS FROM THE BIG CHAIR (1985): Featured a string of hit singles, including Mothers Talk, Shout, Everybody Wants to Rule the World and Head Over Heels.

THOMAS DOLBY: THE GOLDEN AGE OF WIRELESS (1982): Songs included Airwaves, Commercial Breakup and Radio Silence. You think Dolby had a radio fetish? Listen to our Thomas Dolby interview

THOMPSON TWINS: INTO THE GAP (1984): In addition to having maybe the best love song in the decade on it (Hold Me Now), it featured Doctor! Doctor!, You Take Me Up, Sister of Mercy and The Gap. Listen to our Tom Bailey interview.

TINA TURNER: PRIVATE DANCER (1984): Her best-selling album both in the U.S. and internationally, with the help and contributions of Jeff Beck, David Bowie, Martyn Ware and Ian Craig Marsh.

U2: THE JOSHUA TREE (1987): The toughest decision of all, picking this album over War and Unforgettable Fire. Ranked No. 26 on Rolling Stone magazine’s list of the 500 greatest albums of all time.

VAN HALEN: 1984 (1984): The final album featuring singer David Lee Roth — and the first album where we realized Eddie Van Halen was a classically trained piano player.

VIOLENT FEMMES: VIOLENT FEMMES (1983): I’m pretty sure they gave this album to all incoming college freshman in the ’80s as part of their orientation. And knowing the lyrics to Blister in the Sun and Add It Up were requirements for graduation.

XTC: SKYLARKING (1986): A “life-in-a-day” semi-concept album heavily influenced by The Beatles, The Beach Boys and The Kinks.

ZZ TOP: ELIMINATOR (1983): Were the videos actually better than the songs? (Does it matter?) Ranked No. 396 on Rolling Stone’s list of the 500 greatest albums of all time.