The 25 Best Pop Albums Of The 1980s
Today is my blog’s third anniversary! It’s hard to believe I’ve been at this since August 1, 2010.
If you’ve been a regular reader, you know how often I preach the importance of remaining on message and sticking close to your core brand. But as an anniversary gift to myself (and, hopefully, for many of you), I granted myself permission to wander off message today to write about one of my personal passions – 1980s music. (Many readers probably don’t know that I began my career as an on-air DJ at an adult contemporary radio station.)
My list of the “25 Best Pop Albums of The 1980s” is highly subjective. Some 80s classics are missing here–you won’t find The Clash, R.E.M., George Michael, The Talking Heads, Run-D.M.C., The Beastie Boys, or Whitney Houston, for example–all of whom arguably belong on the list. What you’ll see below are my personal pop favorites – the ones I have happy memories of listening to as a kid and teenager in the 1980s.
So without any further ado, here’s my list. And if I missed any of your personal favorites, please leave them in the comments section below.
For more information about any of these albums, click on the album name or album cover.
25. Billy Joel, An Innocent Man (1983) – This album, a tribute to music’s doo-wop era, sold more than seven million copies in the U.S. alone. Released during Billy Joel’s Christie Brinkley phase, this album featured “Uptown Girl” and “Christie Lee,” along with “The Longest Time” and “Tell Her About It.” But the smaller hits from this record have aged better, such as “Leave a Tender Moment Alone” and “Keeping The Faith.”
24. Tina Turner, Private Dancer (1984) – When Tina Turner had a massive comeback at the age of 44, she proved that she was still the baddest diva around. “What’s Love Got To Do With It” was this album’s huge hit, but “Better Be Good To Me” and the title track also hit the Top Ten.
23. Bryan Adams, Reckless (1984) – “Summer of ‘69” is the most enduring classic here, but Adams’ hits-packed album also included the number one ballad “Heaven,” along with hit singles “Run To You,” “Somebody,” and “One Night Love Affair.”
22. Lionel Richie, Can’t Slow Down (1983) – Lionel Richie never got his full due as a singer/songwriter, but he should have. This album—which sold a whopping 20 million copies—boasted five Top Ten hits, including the smashes “All Night Long” and “Hello,” both of which became Billboard Number Ones. His ballad “Stuck On You” was also notable for crossing over to the country chart, a rarity for black singers in the 1980s.
21. Don Henley, The End of the Innocence (1989) – With artists including Sheryl Crow, Melissa Etheridge, Edie Brickell, and Axl Rose providing backing vocals, it’s no wonder this album was so great. The title track hit the Top Ten, but it’s his “The Heart of the Matter” that remains a heartbreaking gem.
20. Madonna, True Blue (1986) – This album, the best-selling of Madonna’s career, hit at the height of her pop powers. Three songs reached the top of the pop chart: “Papa Don’t Preach,” “Open Your Heart,” and “Live to Tell.” Throw in “La Isla Bonita” and “Where’s The Party?”, and you have one monster pop album.
19. Aerosmith, Pump (1989) – “Oh, good morning Mr. Tyler, going down?” That lascivious opening from “Love In An Elevator” got my attention. So did the dark “Janie’s Got a Gun,” the harmonious “What It Takes,” and the hard-charging “The Other Side.” This album stands as a good reminder that long before Steven Tyler was known for being an American Idol judge, he was one helluva rock star.
18. Paula Abdul, Forever Your Girl (1988) – Speaking of American Idol judges: Before she became known as the show’s original “ditzy” judge, Paula Abdul released this giant pop album, which contained four—yes, four—Billboard Number One smashes: “Straight Up,” “Forever Your Girl,” “Cold Hearted,” and “Opposites Attract.” Some of the non-hits haven’t aged particularly well, so pick this one up for the album’s many hits. Besides, could anyone less adorable have gotten away with dancing with an animated cat?
17. Def Leppard, Hysteria (1987) — “Step inside / Walk this way / You and me, babe / Hey, hey!” With those opening lines, Def Leppard scored its first Top Five hit, “Pour Some Sugar On Me.” More hits followed from this album, including “Armageddon It” and the Number One power ballad “Love Bites.” But it’s the harmony-filled chorus of the title track, “Hysteria,” that makes me reach for the repeat button.
16. The Police, Synchronicity (1983) – If you don’t listen carefully, “Every Breath You Take” sounds like a delightful love song. Listen closer, and you’ll hear that it’s really a song about an obsessive, stalking ex-lover. Other hits, including “Wrapped Around Your Finger” and “King of Pain” also explore dark themes. My personal favorite? “Synchronicity II,” a rocker that alludes to psychologist Carl Jung. The Police’s most popular album — and also their last.
15. Janet Jackson, Rhythm Nation 1814 (1989) – Janet Jackson fully emerged from her more famous brother’s shadow with this album, which became the first record ever to have seven singles reach Billboard’s Top Five. Among them were four Number Ones: “Miss You Much,” “Escapade,” “Black Cat,” and the sexy “Love Will Never Do (Without You).”
14. Genesis, Invisible Touch (1986) – Many people remember this album for the iconic “Land of Confusion” video, featuring strange puppets that resembled Ronald Reagan and Mikhael Gorbachev. But this band, fronted by vocalist Phil Collins, scored five Top Five singles from this album, including the title track, “Tonight, Tonight, Tonight,” “In Too Deep,” and “Throwing It All Away.”
13. Bruce Hornsby and the Range, The Way It Is (1986) – The socially conscious “That’s Just The Way It Is” stood in marked contrast to much of the other pop produced in the mid-80s, and Grammy voters rewarded this debut album by naming the group the Best New Artist of the Year. In addition to the title track, the Top Five hit “Mandolin Rain” has also aged well.
12. Huey Lewis and the News, Sports (1983) –The success of this album – which saw four singles hit the Top Ten—led this band to even bigger success with the Back to the Future soundtrack. But this record was probably their best, with “The Heart of Rock and Roll,” “Heart and Soul,” “I Want a New Drug,” and my personal favorite, “If This Is It,” paving the way. Even smaller singles, like “Walking On A Thin Line,” have survived the past three decades well.
11. Cyndi Lauper, She’s So Unusual (1983) – That hair! That snarl! That accent! Cyndi Lauper knew how to draw attention to herself, but her music spoke for itself. I’d maintain that “Time After Time” is one of the best pop songs of the 20th Century. The album also included “Girls Just Want To Have Fun,” the subversive masturbation cut “She Bop,” “All Through The Night,” and the underrated “Money Changes Everything.”
10. Michael Jackson, Bad (1987) – Michael Jackson was under an enormous amount of pressure to produce a follow-up to Thriller worthy of his name. Remarkably, he did. In fact, Bad accomplished something Thriller didn’t—it produced five consecutive Number One singles: “I Just Can’t Stop Loving You,” “Bad,” “The Way You Make Me Feel,” “Dirty Diana,” and one of my all-time favorites, “Man In The Mirror.”
9. Guns N’ Roses, Appetite for Destruction (1987) – The opening lick of “Sweet Child of Mine” deserves its own place in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Axl Rose, Slash, and the rest of Guns N’ Roses made a huge splash with this debut album, which also included “Paradise City” and “Welcome to the Jungle.” Even if their career was short-lived, it was spectacular while it lasted.
8. Bruce Springsteen, Born in the U.S.A. (1984) – Ronald Reagan wasn’t alone in thinking that the title track of this classic album was a patriotic tune. It was actually an anti-Vietnam song that was just one several darker recordings on this record—“My Hometown” explored gutted industrial towns, for example, while “Glory Days” reflected wistfully upon better days. In all, the album had seven Top Tens, including “Dancing In the Dark,” “Cover Me,’” and “I’m On Fire.”
7. Bon Jovi, Slippery When Wet (1986) – Quick, complete this line: “Shot through the heart, and you’re to blame…” If you couldn’t complete those opening lines to “You Give Love A Bad Name,” you probably haven’t been inside a bar since the Nixon Administration. And that isn’t the only enduring classic from this album—“Livin’ On a Prayer” remains one of the decade’s most-popular songs. “Wanted Dead or Alive” and “Never Say Goodbye” were also on this album, which remained the nation’s top-selling record for two months.
6. Tracy Chapman, Tracy Chapman (1988) – Tracy Chapman wasn’t exactly the archetype of a pop star. And her remarkable debut album only had one hit (“Fast Car”). But she was a brilliant songwriter with a fresh voice whose entire album crackles with sharp social commentary, particularly on her haunting a cappella song “Behind The Wall.” Also check out “Talkin’ ‘Bout a Revolution” and the beautiful “Baby Can I Hold You.”
5. Journey, Escape (1981) – Thanks to the use of this album’s “Don’t Stop Believing” during the final scene of HBO’s The Sopranos, Journey gained exposure to a whole new generation. That song may be the most instantly recognizable these days, but the album also contains the quintessential power ballad “Open Arms,” along with “Who’s Crying Now” and “Stone in Love.”
4. U2, The Joshua Tree (1987) – Bono and the boys made their name earlier in the decade, but The Joshua Tree exploded the band into the mainstream. The band’s only two U.S. number one songs—“With Or Without You” and “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For”—are both here, along with “Where The Streets Have No Name.” This album arguably helped to make U2 the biggest band of the late-20th Century.
3. Michael Jackson, Thriller (1982) – It may be hard to believe, but in my sixth grade class, virtually every boy wanted to be Michael Jackson. As we waited for the doors of our elementary school to open each morning, we’d have Michael Jackson imitation contests. I’d try to outdo the other boys with my version of “Billie Jean.” Or “Beat It.” Or “Human Nature.” Or “P.Y.T.” Or “Wanna Be Starting Something.” (I’m only glad YouTube wasn’t a thing back then.) This album really was great, as was the performer. Thriller remains the best-selling U.S. studio album of all time.
2. Prince, Purple Rain (1984) – This album is a masterpiece. “When Doves Cry” and “Let’s Go Crazy” both hit number one, while “Purple Rain” and “I Would Die For You” both hit the Top Ten. But it was his filthy “Darling Nicki” that appealed to my 12-year-old heart, even if it was the very song that spawned Tipper Gore’s “Parental Advisory” music labeling campaign. Every track on this album is a winner, and it’s sequenced perfectly.
1. Tom Petty, Full Moon Fever (1989) – I loved this album when it came out, and I love it even more today. If you don’t scream the chorus of “Free Fallin’” at the top of your lungs when driving alone, you’re probably not breathing. The hits “I Won’t Back Down” and “Runnin’ Down a Dream” also appear here, as does a good cover of The Byrds’ “Feel A Whole Lot Better”—but it’s his largely unknown album track “Yer So Bad” that gets me singing along every time. A feel-good, pure Americana, classic for the ages.
What are your favorites? Please leave your favorite 80s memories in the comments section below. And thank you for making the first three years of the blog so rewarding!