The 1980s: The Music Was Unfairly Maligned

The 1980s: The Music Was Unfairly Maligned

Written by Larry Jaffee

Leave it to an unexpected COVID-driven quarantine to reassess one’s affinity for an entire decade of music. The impetus for this rabbit-hole deep dive was my Australian Facebook friend Katie posting a well-researched 2021 BBC-TV documentary that made me realize the 1980s were as important to me as my beloved 1960s and 1970s.

Hosted by the personable British music journalist Dylan Jones, this hour-long, highly watchable special includes recent interviews from notable musicians such as Nile Rodgers, Paul Weller, and Bananarama. In addition to looking at the bands and the music, the show notes major developments that affected music consumption, such as the launch of MTV in 1981 and the compact disc in 1982.

The decade started with me graduating college, while new wave was in full swing. My record-buying tastes reflected the times (e.g.,The Smiths, Yaz, Tears for Fears, et. al.). Arguably, synth-fueled new wave – a more homogenized outgrowth of punk – really started in 1978.


Analyzing the list I compiled, there’s a good representation of legacy icons (Bob Dylan, Paul Simon, Lou Reed and others) and folk-leaning singer/songwriters (Al Stewart, Richard Thompson, Loudon Wainwright). I think far more interesting are the artists who emerged during the 1980s (like Sade, Frankie Goes to Hollywood, and The Go-Go’s to name a few), all whose popularity grew as a result of their videos getting played often on MTV, and who really sound like a product of the Reagan years.


One might look at the 1980s list below and wonder: where are alternative music stalwarts like Depeche Mode and Echo & The Bunnymen? At the time, their greatest hits records sufficed in my collection.

Also missing are any of the “hair” bands. My taste in metal then and now still ends with Black Sabbath, much to the chagrin of many close friends about 10 years younger. (I’m 64.) No apologies. I like what I like.

One of the odd things about the 1980s is that towards the end of the decade, the prerecorded cassette became the most popular music format for about a half-dozen years. I remember going to a record store in early 1985 to buy the Talking Heads’ recently released Little Creatures, only to find it wasn’t available. The clerk pushed the tape on me, which I bought, but I wasn’t happy.


The cassette’s ascendancy was caused by the major labels being bent on making sure the CD became the format of choice, so they changed their retail policies and would no longer accept returns on vinyl. However, they would be on CDs. This led to the record industry’s ridiculously corrupted system (“shipped gold, returned platinum,” keeping two sets of books,) which for LP fans resulted in the advantage of the proliferation of 99-cent and $1.99 LP cutouts, which helped my record collection grow by enabling me to take a chance on titles I wouldn’t otherwise have purchased. Anyone remember Jimmy’s Music World?

No doubt the cassette’s popularity was fueled by the advent of the Walkman and car decks as standard features, unlike in the 1970s when you needed to install them. An 8-track player and now-collectible tapes from the likes of Roxy Music were stolen from my AMC Hornet, and I’m far from the only one who ever had a car tape deck ripped off. (Choosing an auto audio system for one’s vehicle: another lost technological art form of sorts.)

The most popular 1980s albums did not make the cut. I certainly bought and listened to the likes of Dire Straits’ Brothers In Arms or Don Henley’s Building the Perfect Beast. This list focuses on the albums that meant the most to me, then and still.

Albums that had just two or three tracks I really liked are not on my Top 100. I have to want to hear the entire album with no inclination to move to the next song, and the presence of hits or album length is immaterial. You’ll notice I opted for The Clash’s Sandinista! rather than Combat Rock. I’m sure I could easily come up with 100 one-hit wonders from the decade if I included not only LPs but also seven-inch or 12-inch singles.


Looking back on the list, I definitely had my mellow side. I remember exactly where I heard Everything But The Girl for the first time (it was at a grad school classmate’s party).


I wish the list had more diversity, despite the presence of Sonny Rollins, Robert Cray, Peter Tosh, and Neneh Cherry. It wasn’t until the 1990s when I expanded my genre horizons significantly, into jazz, blues, reggae, and country (the latter, thanks to my now ex-wife, who grew up in the South; we met in 1987). Come to think of it, in 1989 at an MTV party I had a ridiculous argument with her when she took issue with me proclaiming “Buffalo Stance” as the single of the year. You decide.


Living a 15-minute walk from Manhattan’s downtown Tower Records store circa 1992 – 1994 was how I killed a Sunday night. Remember, these were pre-internet days.

I imposed a few rules in compiling the following register of recommended 1980s listening:

  • Only one studio album per artist.
  • No greatest hits or live albums (except for G-Man – I didn’t realize it was a recorded concert until Frank Doris pointed out this fact).
  • The album had to be released as new music during the decade (i.e., no back-catalog releases).
  • This is not a “ranking,” which I have always found to be a somewhat arbitrary exercise with no basis for choosing one over the other.
  • Solo careers wouldn’t be penalized if the artist’s band that made them famous (Sting, Bryan Ferry, Morrissey, Alison Moyet, among them) is also on the list.
  • It makes no difference what format (LP, cassette, or CD) a release was purchased; I’ve bought all three, although by 1986, I bought CDs almost exclusively, as my disposable income grew.
  • A 1980s album that I learned about or bought in the 1990s or later (for example, Joy Division’s Closer) is not on the list (but New Order’s Ceremony is).

Without further ado…my 100 Favorite 1980s Albums list (in no particular order; they just came to me off the top of my head):

  1. The Smiths – Meat Is Murder (1985)
  2. The The – Soul Mining (1983)
  3. Kate Bush – Hounds of Love (1985)
  4. Sade – Diamond Life (1984)
  5. Lou Reed – New York (1989)
  6. Bob Dylan – Oh Mercy (1989)
  7. Frankie Goes to Hollywood – Welcome to the Pleasure Dome (1984)
  8. Bronski Beat – The Age of Consent (1984)
  9. Prince – Sign ‘O’ the Times (1987)
  10. Tears for Fears – Songs from the Big Chair (1985)
  11. Paul Simon – Graceland (1986)
  12. Rickie Lee Jones – Pirates (1981)
  13. Richard & Linda Thompson – Shoot Out the Lights (1982)
  14. Peter Gabriel – So (1986)
  15. Talking Heads – Speaking in Tongues (1983)
  16. Yaz – Upstairs at Eric’s (1982)
  17. Ministry – In Sympathy (1983)
  18. Stan Ridgway – The Big Heat (1986)
  19. Soft Cell – The Art of Falling Apart (1983)
  20. The Church – Starfish (1988)
  21. The Clash – Sandinista! (1980)
  22. Introducing the Hardline According to Terence Trent D’arby (1987)
  23. The Police – Synchronicity (1983)
  24. The Neville Brothers – Yellow Moon (1989)
  25. Joe Jackson – Night and Day (1982)
  26. Suzanne Vega – Solitude Standing (1987)
  27. Tom Waits – Rain Dogs (1985)
  28. Randy Newman – Trouble in Paradise (1983)
  29. The Pretenders (1980)
  30. Garland Jeffreys – Escape Artist (1981)
  31. Bruce Springsteen – Tunnel of Love (1987)
  32. Michelle Shocked – Short Sharp Shocked (1988)
  33. Hüsker Dü – Warehouse: Songs and Stories (1987)
  34. Bob Mould – Workbook (1989)
  35. The Ramones – End of the Century (1980)
  36. Bruce Cockburn – Stealing Fire (1984)
  37. David Bowie – Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps) (1980)
  38. Traveling Wilburys – Vol.1 (1988)
  39. Simple Minds – New Gold Dream 81-82-83-84 (1982)
  40. The Kinks – Give The People What They Want (1981)
  41. Squeeze – East Side Story (1981)
  42. Rolling Stones – Tattoo You (1981)
  43. Billy Bragg – Talking with the Taxman About Poetry (1986)
  44. Roxy Music – Flesh and Blood (1980)
  45. Bryan Ferry – Boys and Girls (1985)
  46. General Public – All the Rage (1984)
  47. The Feelies – The Good Earth (1986)
  48. Neil Young – Freedom (1989)
  49. Blondie – Autoamerican (1980)
  50. Human Switchboard – Who’s Landing in My Hangar (1981)
  51. Lenny Kravitz – Let Love Rule (1989)
  52. Everything But the Girl (1984)
  53. Marianne Faithful – Strange Weather (1987)
  54. The Waterboys – Fisherman’s Blues (1988)
  55. U2 – The Joshua Tree (1987)
  56. Sting – …Nothing Like the Sun (1987)
  57. Robert Cray – Strong Persuader (1986)
  58. Fine Young Cannibals (1985)
  59. The English Beat – Special Beat Service (1982)
  60. Robbie Robertson (1987)
  61. New Order – Movement (1981)
  62. The Pogues – If I Should Fall from Grace with God (1988)
  63. George Harrison – Cloud Nine (1987)
  64. The Jesus and Mary Chain – Darklands (1987)
  65. Jonathan Richman – Jonathan Sings (1983)
  66. Loudon Wainwright – More Love Songs (1986)
  67. Alison Moyet – Alf (1985)
  68. Sinead O’Connor – The Lion and the Cobra (1987)
  69. Stevie Nicks – Belladonna (1981)
  70. Cowboy Junkies – The Trinity Sessions (1988)
  71. The Cars – Shake It Up (1981)
  72. The B-52s – Wild Planet (1980)
  73. Elvis Costello – Imperial Bedroom (1982)
  74. Peter Tosh – Wanted Dread & Alive (1981)
  75. Pete Townshend – Empty Glass (1980)
  76. The Bangles – All Over the Place (1984)
  77. The Go-Go’s – Beauty and the Beat (1981)
  78. Al Stewart – Russians & Americans (1984)
  79. Morrissey – Viva Hate (1988)
  80. Ian Hunter – Short Back n’ Sides (1981)
  81. The Housemartins – London 0, Hull 4 (1986)
  82. Willie Nile (1980)
  83. The Cure – Kiss Me Kiss Me Kiss Me (1987)
  84. Heaven 17 (1982)
  85. ABC –The Lexicon of Love (1982)
  86. Graham Parker – The Mona Lisa’s Sister (1988)
  87. Leonard Cohen – I’m Your Man (1988)
  88. Dramarama – Cinéma Vérité(1985)
  89. Sam Phillips – The Indescribable Wow (1988)
  90. Neneh Cherry – Raw Like Sushi (1989)
  91. Berlin – Pleasure Victim (1982)
  92. The Lounge Lizards (1981)
  93. New Model Army – The Mark of Cain (1986)
  94. Pixies – Doolittle (1989)
  95. Pet Shop Boys – Please (1986)
  96. Tom Petty – Full Moon Fever (1989)
  97. The Psychedelic Furs – Talk Talk Talk (1981)
  98. XTC – Skylarking (1986)
  99. Sonny Rollins – G-Man (1987)
  100. The Smithereens – Especially for You (1986)

My annual salary quadrupled over the course of the decade, starting at about $12,000 with my first job after graduation in June 1980. Thus, I must have bought at least 1,500 LPs and CDs during the decade that didn’t make the list.

The Algerian-born French economist Jacques Attali once wrote: “People buy more records than they can listen to. They stockpile what they want to find the time to hear.” Professor Attali’s observation reminded me of the fall of 1986 when I was struggling internally with my proclivity towards purchasing at least one CD a week, and often, I couldn’t leave the store without several discs.

At this time, when I was a full-time reporter for the cable TV trade publication  Multichannel News (one of the few magazines that I worked for that is still in business, albeit under different ownership). At an industry event in the late 1980s, I remember telling then-MTV VJ Carolyne Heldman about this habit. She also was grappling with the same issue.

Buying music – no matter the format – has always had a therapeutic effect on me when feeling low. I was reminded of this during the past two years of quarantine, bolstered by the digital age’s ability to order anything via e-commerce without leaving your home. Discogs, eBay, Facebook merchants, Amazon, and, among others, all scratched that itch.

Analyzing the list by year, the picks are pretty dispersed, as you can see below, with 1981 slightly edging out 1987 as selecting the most records of the decade.

1980: 10
1981: 15
1982:  8
1983:  7
1984:  7
1985:  8
1986: 11
1987: 14
1988: 10
1989: 8

And just for the record, Talking Heads were my favorite band of the first part of the 1980s and U2 for the second half. Looking ahead, Nirvana captured it for the first half of the 1990s.

I have a sneaking suspicion that I might have a 1990s list coming sometime in the future.

So, what would your 1980s picks be?


Larry Jaffee is the author of the book Record Store Day: The Most Improbable Comeback of the 21st Century. More information is at, where it is also available for purchase.


Header image: The B-52’s, Wild Planet album.

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