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Music is subjective: what we enjoy is deeply rooted in our personality, sense of taste, and developmental years. But some albums are undisputed masterpieces, even if you aren’t a fan of the genre. When played on vinyl, they have a classic sound that can make even those not born in the decade nostalgic for a different time.
Here are the 15 best vinyl records from the 1980s that you can buy and enjoy now:
- AC/DC – Back In Black (1980)
- Prince – Purple Rain (1984)
- Madonna – Like A Virgin (1984)
- Kate Bush – Never for Ever (1980)
- Van Halen – Fair Warning (1981)
- Pixies – Surfer Rosa (1988)
- De La Soul – 3 Feet High and Rising (1989)
- Metallica – …And Justice For All (1988)
- Talking Heads – Remain In Light (1980)
- Siouxsie and the Banshees – JuJu (1981)
- Michael Jackson – Bad (1987)
- Iron Maiden – The Number Of The Beast (1981)
- The Cure – Disintegration (1989)
- N.W.A – Straight Outta Compton (1987)
- Dead Kennedys – Fresh Fruit and Rotting Vegetables (1980)
- Joy Division – Closer (1980)
All albums are available on Amazon.com and you find appropriate links to Amazon in each heading.
1. AC/DC – Back in Black (1980)
The death of Bon Scott was a devastating loss for the hard rock world. When Brian Johnson took over as frontman and lead singer, there were plenty of worries that he couldn’t fill those shoes. Those worries were unfounded, as this first studio album released with him at the helm brought us such classics as ‘Hells Bells,’ ‘You Shook Me All Night Long,’ and of course, the title track “Back In Black.’
It was just the beginning of what would be an excellent run for the band.
2. Prince – Purple Rain (1984)
Prince had a certain “It Factor” that’s hard to explain even now. He wasn’t exactly a trendsetter, as no one could accurately imitate him. He was more the creator of a world all his own, and when he was in his prime, he was untouchable. ‘Purple Rain’ is an album that only gets more beloved with time.
Along with ‘I Would Die 4 You’ and ‘When Doves Cry,’ this record stands alone as one of the best representations of his work in a long and varied career that would bring many twists and turns clear into the new Millennium when we really were partying “like it’s 1999”. If you can hear the final vocal runs on the title track for this masterpiece without getting chills, you are stronger than most.
3. Madonna – Like a Virgin (1984)
The 1980s was a good decade for the Material Girl. Not only did she record some of the greatest pop songs of all time, but she would go on to lead the way in fashion, music, and social scandals that helped change pop culture forever. In a post-WAP world, it’s hard to remember how shocking Madonna was for the time.
Watching her performances of her songs on this album through the years is racy even by today’s standards. Police attempted to shut down her shows for obscenity in some cities, and her antics and life as an icon made her the subject of some rather outrageous documentaries. But it all started here, with ‘Like a Virgin.’
4. Kate Bush – Never for Ever (1980)
Kate Bush has always been a creative force to be reckoned with. We can see her influence in many interesting artists prominent today, such as Björk, Fiona Apple, and Tori Amos. They all owe a lot to the musical stylings of one of pop’s first manic pixie dreamgirls (meant in the most complimentary way possible). ‘Never for Ever’ isn’t Kate’s most popular album; that honor probably grounds to ‘Hounds of Love’ or ‘The Dreaming.’
But while not her biggest hit, it has some of her most poignant songs. The haunting lightness of ‘Army Dreamers’ set to cocking rifles or manic intensity of ‘Babooshka’ makes her third studio album memorable.
5. Van Halen – Fair Warning (1981)
Everyone who loves Van Halen has their favorite era broken up by the three singers who fronted the band. ‘Fair Warning’ was from the David Lee Roth years, and while it was slower to catch on by the ones who came before it, it’s arguably one of the strongest of an extensive discography.
‘Unchained,’ the fifth song on the song list, remains one of the most famous of their entire body of work. Listening to it now, it still holds up and is a great taste of what made Roth such a charismatic performer. That scream over Eddie’s opening riffs still sends chills up the spine of listeners decades later.
6. Pixies – Surfer Rosa (1988)
‘Where Is My Mind’ is one of those songs that transcends the decade. Released in the late ’80s, it became a hit a second time after the film’ Fight Club’ featured it on its’ soundtrack in 1999. It’s hard to think of one without the other to this day. But that song is arguably one of the weakest on an album that gives us one of the most significant alternative records ever conceptualized.
We would go on to hear the influence of this band (and this album in particular) in many greats to come later, from Smashing Pumpkins to PJ Harvey and Pearl Jam, just to name a few. You can’t find anyone from the 1980s with a similar impact on the sound that would come when Nirvana broke out on the scene and continued through the decade of alternative dominance.
7. De La Soul – 3 Feet High and Rising (1989)
The moment you listen to the intro to ‘3 Feet High and Rising’, you can’t help but be taken from the charming silliness. The transition into an equally fun sound of ‘Magic Number’ catches the ear and holds onto the heart.
De La Soul is one of the most incredible early hip-hop acts in history, and they would continue through the ’80s and ’90s to give their unique sound even into the era of gangster rap that would follow. This debut album is just as significant today, epitomizing the genre from their personality to their extensive use of sampling.
8. Metallica – And Justice for All (1988)
Trying to choose one Metallica album from the 1980s from a list like this is frankly painful. You could make a case for most, and entering into the 90’s you would have a similar issue. In the end, ‘…And Justice For All’ made the final cut based on ‘Harvester of Sorrow’ and ‘One,’ which might be one of the most challenging songs in their anthology.
9. Talking Heads – Remain in Light (1980)
Talking Heads is one of those acts that even people who don’t “get it” can come up with a song they would defend. This band was tailor-made for the MTV era, from their sweeping instrumentals to passionately bizarre music videos. While it doesn’t hold some of their most famous works, like ‘She Was’ or ‘Burning Down The House,’ ‘Remain In Light’ might be described as one of their most “cohesive” albums.
It was both a commercial and critical success, and after a brief break, they would come back better than ever. But even if they had never recorded again, this record would have acted as a beautiful legacy.
10. Siouxsie and the Banshees – JuJu (1981)
Siouxie and the Banshee stand in history as one of the greats of the darker underground movements. Creating the aesthetic that we still think of when we talk about classic Goth, the sounds represent that image perfectly. Unforgettable hits like ‘Spellbound’ and ‘Into the Light’ still blast in alternative clubs today, and few acts hold the respect as dear Siouxie. This was not music for the Hot Topic crowd; it was real, raw, and still gets our black hearts pumping.
11. Michael Jackson – Bad (1987)
Not everyone will agree on the greatest work of Michael Jackson’s solo career. But if you were to ask them to name their favorite album, nine times out of ten, they would say either ‘Thriller’ or ‘Bad.’ For the sake of this list, we choose the second one.
While it’s hard to make such a monumental cut as the record that brought us ‘Billie Jean’ and (of course) ‘Thriller,’ ‘Bad’ and ‘Smooth Criminal’ make up for it. If you have a taste for the late King of Pop’s more sentimental side, you can also add ‘Man In The Mirror’ to that list. Whatever controversies surrounded his personal life, there’s no denying the classics he gifted to the world.
12. Iron Maiden – The Number of the Beast (1981)
‘Hallowed Be Thy Name’ is one of the best metal songs of all time. The End.
OK, we have to say more about this album than just that, but can you deny it? Teenage rock fans were blown away in 1981 when they heard the ballad of a man facing the gallows, set to screaming guitars and an equally intense vocal performance.
Story songs were a dime a dozen in 80’s concept metal. Few have the emotional impact, and the rest of the album is nearly as impressive. Many have covered this song, Dream Theater to Cradle of Filth. None have the heart-wrenching effect of the original, sung by the incomparable Bruce Dickinson.
13. The Cure – Disintegration (1989)
Robert Smith is one of the old gods of the Goth scene, but he and The Cure had a gentler soul than many of their contemporaries. Listening to ‘Disintegration’ is a reminder that a cloud of hairspray and enough eyeliner to blackout the sun doesn’t stop one from serenading a generation. ‘Lovesong’ and ‘Pictures Of You’ come immediately to mind.
Still, they’re far from the only examples of incredible and saccharine sweetness that would be overwrought if not for all the heartwarming sincerity offered by Bob’s infamous vocals. We may have had a few years to wait for ‘Friday I’m In Love,’ but there was plenty to fall in love with here.
14. N.W.A – Straight Outta Compton (1987)
It takes a lot to shock an audience these days. Some of the tracks on Straight Outta Compton, one of music’s most influential rap albums, can still bring the heat. Antiauthoritarian, aggressive, and with the kind of righteous anger that can only come from those who have lived the life, N.W.A is one of the most influential protest groups in history.
Their debut album remains in the top spot of albums that changed the face of music forever. Not only are they infamous for their reputation as some of the world’s first gangster rappers, but for how this album manages to be even more relevant today than in 1987 when it was released.
The belief that punk is dead may not be fair, but it’s hard to disagree when you hear the real OG’s. Dead Kennedys are one of the best of the genre, and nearly every song they have recorded is special in some way. ‘Fresh Fruit and Rotting Vegetables’ has some of their best, and even the less impressive songs blow most punk bands out of the water.
Listening to this album is a quick way to pump up your rebellious spirit. If you can listen to the tracklist without at least a little desire to mosh, then punk really is dead. But as long as we raise a fist to these classic tunes, we will always keep a little spark of it alive.
16. Joy Division – Closer (1980)
Sometimes listening to Joy Division can feel like an endurance test. Vocalist and frontman Ian Curtis had a way of singing that dripped with cynicism and bitterness. Hearing him belting out songs like ‘Isolation’ and ‘Twenty Four Hours’ puts you in a certain mood that is hard to shake.
But if you are already in that kind of mood, nothing else but the painful refrains of Joy Division will do. ‘Closer’ is one of their best albums, and you can’t beat hearing it on the original vinyl. They are one of those bands that feel more complete when coming from a turntable. Even if you weren’t alive during their heyday, you will get a sense of nostalgia for the era.
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