Last week I deejayed a party and did a deep dive into ‘80s music. I hadn’t thought that much about ’80s music in some time. In general, I had dismissed the decade. The Human League, Thompson Twins, Soft Cell and Men Without Hats were all guilty pleasures, but their music had as much substance as Pop Rocks, a popular candy from the decade. So I put on my musical scuba mask and dove in to the rock ’n’ roll side of the ’80s.
Here’s my year-by-year take on my favorite records of the ’80s, and vinyl is how I listened to music in those years.
1980: While it’s hard to ignore AC/DC’s “Back in Black,” (I have rocked out to “You Shook Me All Night Long” and “Back in Black” for three decades), my favorite record of the year and possibly the entire decade is The Clash’s “London Calling.” This record is a masterpiece.
The album moves deftly through ska, reggae, R&B, high-octane rock ’n’ roll and hard-driving punk. The title track is one of the greatest openers ever, other stand out tracks include “Rudy Can’t Fail,” “Jimmy Jazz” and “Lost in the Supermarket.”
My two favorite records of 1981 came out of New Orleans — The Neville Brothers “Fiyo on the Bayou” and The Radiators “Heat Generation.”
I didn’t get hip to New Orleans music until 1989 when I heard The Neville Brothers play “Hey Pocky Way” with the Grateful Dead. They came to New Haven and played the legendary bar Toad’s Place (where I got my master’s in live music during college) where they floored me. I still have the copy of “Fiyo on the Bayou” that I purchased that night, signed by the band, with the set list from the show that night in it.
Once I got into The Neville Brothers, someone told me, “If you like the Neville Brothers, you need to check out The Radiators.” I caught them at Toad’s and I have had a lifetime love affair with the band ever since, including producing a live album of theirs in 2004. If you’ve never heard “Heat Generation” do your ears and (yo ass) a favor.
1982: The Clash were on a roll in the early ’80s, and the band’s last record “Combat Rock” blew me away when I was 14. “Shareef don’t like it, rockin’ the casbah, rockin’ the casbah.” “Should I Stay or Should I Go” is another classic and the slinky “Straight to Hell” is a favorite.
Prince’s “1999” dropped in 1982, and “Little Red Corvette” and “1999” are still reverberating through the ionosphere.
1983 is simply too chock full of nuts (the slogan for the 1980s popular coffee) to pick a favorite — The Police’s “Synchronicity,” Talking Heads “Speaking in Tongues,” R.E.M’s “Murmur” and Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” all came out in 1983. Actually, “Thriller” came out in December 1982, but it owned 1983, and 1983 owned the ’80s. All four of these records are in my Top 10 of the decade.
1984 was another stellar year as R.E.M. followed up with “Reckoning” and U2 released the album “Unforgettable Fire.” Their single “Pride (In the Name of Love)” about Martin Luther King propelled the band to superstar status.
But the main course of 1984 was Prince’s masterpiece “Purple Rain.” “Purple Rain,” was one of the top three albums of the ’80s, and put Prince toe-to-toe with Michael Jackson as the King of Pop. The album featured the singles “When Doves Cry,” “Let’s Go Crazy,” “Purple Rain” and “I Would Die 4 U.” That’s rock ’n’ roll filet mignon.
The year 1984 also saw the release of Talking Heads’ “Stop Making Sense.” I’m not counting live albums but this might be my favorite of the entire decade.
I’m going to blow through 1985 and 1986 as there wasn’t any record that really knocked my socks off and I only have so much space in the column. Peter Gabriel’s 1986 album “So” would be the one record that I would mention as exceptional.
This brings me to 1987 and what I consider the greatest album of the decade, U2’s “Joshua Tree.” Consider the opening six tracks: “Where The Streets Have No Name,” “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For,” “With Or Without You,” “Bullet the Blue Sky,” “Running To Stand Still,” “Red Hill Mining Town.”
That’s a greatest hits album. There are bands in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame that don’t have six songs that match up to those. This album is radicchio and I’m not talking lettuce.
The Grateful Dead released “In The Dark” in 1987 and charted their first hit with “Touch of Grey.” I dug it, too.
My two favorite albums in 1988 were low-key releases — the eponymous debut of Tracy Chapman and John Hiatt’s masterpiece “Slow Turning.” Tracy Chapman’s folky blues seemed to come out of nowhere. I had not heard a female folk singer as powerful as Chapman. She reminded me of Dylan and I was lucky enough to catch them both on a double bill that summer in Vancouver.
If you don’t know John Hiatt’s “Slow Turning,” run to Spotify and click play. You might get carpal tunnel syndrome for how many times you press replay. It is incredible. It features the song “Thing Called Love,” which Bonnie Raitt turned into a hit a year later. Hiatt has joked over the years that he thanks Bonnie Raitt every time he sees her for sending his kids to college.
1989: This year was the cherry on top of the decade and a harbinger of things to come in the ’90s, which I consider to be the best decade of music of my lifetime. Check out this embarrassment of riches from 1989: Bonnie Raitt’s “Nick of Time,” Eric Clapton’s “Journeyman,” Tom Petty’s “Full Moon Fever,” Widespread Panic’s “Space Wrangler (never heard it, trust me) and Lou Reed’s “New York.” Holy guacamole.
In closing, here are my Top 10 records of the ’80s (with a nod to “Stop Making Sense,” which doesn’t qualify because it is a live album). I also limited myself to only one per band.
1. “Joshua Tree,” U2; 2. “Purple Rain,” Prince; 3. “London Calling,” The Clash; 4. “Speaking in Tongues,” Talking Heads; 5. “Synchronicity,” The Police; 6. “Full Moon Fever,” Tom Petty; 7. “Space Wrangler,” Widespread Panic; 8. “Slow Turning,” John Hiatt; 9. “Murmur,” R.E.M.; 10. “Fiyo on the Biyo,” Neville Brothers.
That list comes with directions. Load it into Spotify. Dig.