The Best Albums of 1980

1980 seems like such a simple and innocent year in retrospect. Jimmy Carter, an actual humanitarian, was running the United States and Margaret Thatcher was just getting started on dividing the United Kingdom but hadn’t yet fully ramped up. So the version of the Eighties that many hate — the unbridled worship of money, along with the implication that just making a living was somehow a loser’s fate — didn’t really begin until Ronald Reagan became the US president.

But in 1980 things were still largely cut and dried: communism was bad, people thought disco sucked (although not as much as “Saturday Night Live” sucked), and Mark David Chapman could go straight to hell.

Musically, the impact of punk remained enormous but we had moved on to post-punk, an infinitely more interesting variation that seemed to have few rules and thus much more imagination. At the same time, the venerable genres of the 1970s were still going strong and metal was about to see a worldwide resurgence.

All in all, it was a good year for albums and some all-time classics were released, the kind of records that are buried in time capsules or get shot into space. Enjoy.

Top 25 Most Collected and Wanted Albums of 1980

ABBA - Super Trouper album cover

#25. ABBA – Super Trouper

Even when delivering songs about the collapse of two marriages within the band — for those keeping count, that covers everyone in Abba — this Swedish pop juggernaut insists on being relentlessly catchy. While the hooks are what made Abba a Top 40 mainstay, a lot of modern musicians are into them for the vocal arrangements and production of songwriters Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeuso, who could manhandle a recording studio. In an age of cynicism and irony, it’s almost tough to figure out how to enjoy Abba — ah, screw it. Just crank it up.

Billy Joel - Glass Houses album cover

#24. Billy Joel – Glass Houses

“You May Be Right,” the opening track, might be Joel’s most honest and insightful song. The lyrics read like a toss-off but it’s basically about an unrepentant jack-ass hoping to find someone who’s really into unrepentant jack-asses, and the truth behind the words emerged as Joel’s alcoholism and destructive lifestyle became public knowledge. There’s also “It’s Still Rock and Roll to Me,” the first “OK, boomer” pop song and some nice deep cuts.

The Blues Brothers - The Blues Brothers (Music From The Soundtrack) album cover

#23. The Blues Brothers – The Blues Brothers (Music From The Soundtrack)

Here’s one that drives the purists crazy. While John Belushi and Dan Ackroyd dearly loved the blues, soul and R&B music to which the Blues Brothers paid homage, they were comedians and actors. Not singers. Still, the album did serve as a gateway drug to the real thing and the band was one of greatest ever assembled, filled with luminaries from the 1960s and ‘70s soul, blues and R&B scenes.

Peter Gabriel - Peter Gabriel album cover

#22. Peter Gabriel – Peter Gabriel

Gabriel’s third album, commonly referred to by fans as “Melt” because of the cover art, firmly established him as a commercial force even as his artistic momentum continued unabated. The deep cuts are just as varied and interesting as the two hits, “Games Without Frontiers” and “Biko” — if not more so in some instances. “Lead A Normal Life” is a masterpiece of minimalism that perfectly captures Gabriel’s attempt to describe what it felt like inside his head as he dealt daily with depression, and the cinematic “Family Snapshot” is chilling.

Stevie Wonder - Hotter Than July album cover

#21. Stevie Wonder – Hotter Than July

“Hotter Than July” is the proper follow-up to 1976’s masterful “Songs In the Key of Life,” which is right up there with the hardest acts ever to follow. It doesn’t reach those heights, which isn’t much of a complaint, but it’s a solid album that finds Wonder beginning to show a few cracks after a long run of brilliance. For anyone with an interest in Wonder, the superior tracks make this essential listening; “Did I Hear You Say I Love You,” “Master Blaster (Jammin’),” “As If You Read My Mind,” “Cash In Your Face” and the heartbreaking “Lately” are all keepers.

Bob Marley & The Wailers - Uprising album cover

#20. Bob Marley & The Wailers – Uprising

“Uprising” was the last album Bob Marley released before dying from cancer the following year and it includes two of his enduring standards in “Redemption Song” and “Could You Be Loved.” Marley was peaking in global popularity and influence when he died — earlier that year he and the Wailers had played to a crowd of 100,000 — and the combination of activism and empathy on “Uprising” is a fitting epitaph for the man who remains reggae’s only true international superstar.

The Clash - Sandinista! album cover

#19. The Clash – Sandinista!

Sprawling, ambitious, self-indulgent, brilliant, cocky — there are as many adjectives to describe “Sandinista!” as there are songs on this triple-LP, which is 36. Is there filler? Of course. There aren’t any perfect double albums so a triple doesn’t stand a chance, but it’s a safe bet that you won’t find any others that careen so wildly and confidently between so many genres: early rock, dub, punk, swing jazz, dance, electronic (sort of), pop, whatever “Junkie Slip” is. Maybe The Clash could have edited more judiciously, but despite its faults “Sandinista!” remains a thrill ride.

Judas Priest - British Steel album cover

#18. Judas Priest – British Steel

“British Steel” is considered one of metal’s essential albums and helped to make the 1980s one of the genre’s greatest decades. Priest had already been around for five albums but on “British Steel” they added a few more hooks with tracks such as “Living After Midnight,” “Breaking the Law” and “Rapid Fire,” making metal that you could sing along to. It made them international superstars.

Ozzy Osbourne - Blizzard Of Ozz album cover

#17. Ozzy Osbourne – Blizzard Of Ozz

Ozzy was despondent after being kicked out of Black Sabbath in 1979, spending most of a year living on pizza, booze and cocaine. He got back into the game with his debut solo album, “Blizzard of Ozz,” which gave the world “Crazy Train” and a transcendent new guitar prodigy in Randy Rhoads, who contributed greatly to the album’s music. An essential album for fans of metal, hard rock and glorious excess.

The Cure - Boys Don

#16. The Cure – Boys Don’t Cry

The Cure’s stateside debut album is actually a compilation of various tracks from the late 1970s, including eight songs from the band’s UK debut, “Three Imaginary Boys.” Robert Smith was already writing ambitious lyrics at this point — the band’s first single, “Killing An Arab,” was based on Camus’ “The Stranger,” after all — but the music was more stripped and lean compared to the sticky web of goth rock it would start weaving on its second album, “Seventeen Seconds.”

U2 - Boy album cover

#15. U2 – Boy

U2’s debut album finds the band lean, tough and self-righteous in all the ways that only extremely earnest 20-year-olds can be. For anyone only familiar with U2’s more heavily-produced work, such as “The Unforgettable Fire” and “The Joshua Tree,” the muscular “Boy” can be an exhilarating ride. Key tracks: “I Will Follow,” “Twilight,” “Out of Control.”

Black Sabbath - Heaven And Hell album cover

#14. Black Sabbath – Heaven And Hell

After firing Ozzy Osbourne for conduct unbecoming a rock star, Black Sabbath guitarist Tommy Iommi hired Ronnie James Dio and made “Heaven and Hell,” which became one of the band’s most successful records. Ozzy was really holding those guys back, apparently. While much different from the classic Sabbath sound, it fit in perfectly with where metal was heading in the 1980s and Dio’s cannon of a voice is undeniable.

Motörhead - Ace Of Spades album cover

#13. Motörhead – Ace Of Spades

This is peak Lemmy Kilmister, which is to say peak rock and fucking roll. The brutal “Ace of Spades” features Motörhead’s classic lineup of Lemmy, “Fast” Eddie Clarke and Phil “Philthy Animal” Taylor, the most powerful of all power trios, and they play with a ferocity that seems impossible to capture on tape. Imagine a semi, on fire and filled with propane, hurtling down a 45-degree mountain grade toward a crowd of people leaving a Dave Mathews Band concert. That’s “Ace of Spades,” a record hellbent on righting all wrongs in rock and roll.

The Cure - Seventeen Seconds album cover

#12. The Cure – Seventeen Seconds

An album that’s almost more about mood than music, and the mood is not a happy one. It’s a cold, bleak, gloomy collection of songs that bend and blend together into a dark sonic landscape that is often cited as ground zero for the goth rock movement. It’s the band’s second album but an argument could be made that this is where Robert Smith really found his voice as a songwriter, which was speaking for those who had lost something, anything, everything.

John Lennon & Yoko Ono - Double Fantasy album cover

#11. John Lennon & Yoko Ono – Double Fantasy

John Lennon was murdered three weeks after the release of “Double Fantasy” and that forever changed the public and critical perception of the album, which was hyped as Lennon’s return to music after five years of domestic seclusion. Famously, or infamously, the tracks alternate between songs by Lennon and Ono.

The slickness of Lennon’s tracks on “Double Fantasy” is almost as jarring as the rawness of “John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band,” released almost exactly 10 years prior. These are glossy, middle-aged pop songs, catchy and beautifully sung but ultimately a bit pedestrian. Ono’s tracks sounded alien in 1980 but have aged well as pop music has morphed into all manner of forms undreamed of 40 years ago.

Dead Kennedys - Fresh Fruit For Rotting Vegetables album cover

#10. Dead Kennedys – Fresh Fruit For Rotting Vegetables

While the Dead Kennedys relied quite a bit on blunt force trauma, the band was also musically nimble on this debut album — even subtle at times. Singer and lyricist Jello Biafra commanded most of the attention, justifiably so, but guitarist East Bay Ray was a monster on this seminal slab of hardcore punk, balancing aggression with sprinkles of melody. Biafra, meanwhile, countered his brazen politics with generous doses of humor. It’s a shame that songs such as “Kill The Poor” remain relevant 40 years later.

David Bowie - Scary Monsters album cover

#9. David Bowie – Scary Monsters

After the artistic triumph of his Berlin Trilogy — “Low,” “Heroes” and “Lodger” — Bowie returned to a more commercial sound with “Scary Monsters,” which had a pair of major international hits in “Ashes to Ashes” and “Fashion” and kicked off a period of enormous mainstream success.

But just because “Scary Monsters” is more marketable doesn’t mean that it always plays well with others; in its own way, it’s as challenging as anything from the Berlin years. Still, the album’s definitely more friendly and much more generous with radio-ready hooks.

Bruce Springsteen - The River album cover

#8. Bruce Springsteen – The River

The album where Springsteen comes to grips with the fact that being born to run isn’t enough because the harsh demands of life, and the toll that they take, don’t often allow escape. It was a game-changing album for him as a writer and its basic themes have been a part of his music ever since. A double album, “The River” is packed with powerful songs and character studies (“Jackson Cage,” “Point Blank,” “Stolen Car”) balanced by a handful of gloriously dumb rockers (“Sherry Darling,” “Crush On You,” “I’m A Rocker”).

Dire Straits - Making Movies album cover

#7. Dire Straits – Making Movies

Mark Knopfler made it clear on the first two Dire Straits albums that he approached songwriting with a cinematic mindset, spinning stories and character studies, but on the majestic “Making Movies” he went full throttle. “Tunnel of Love” kicks off the record with Knopfler in full Springsteen mode — it’s no accident that Springsteen keyboardist Roy Bittan is all over the record — and rarely lets up. “Romeo and Juliet” is the saddest song ever, “Skateaway” one of the most charming. And that’s just side one.

The Police - Zenyatta Mondatta album cover

#6. The Police – Zenyatta Mondatta

The best tracks on “Zenyatta Mondatta” are some of The Police’s finest work and seem to be tapping into a bit of the same post-punk zeitgeist as Talking Heads. “When the World Is Running Down, You Make the Best of What’s Still Around” sounds like a “Remain In Light” outtake, for example, and its repeating three-chord motif is mesmerizing. While the band is on record as not being overly fond of “Zenyatta Mondatta,” which they recorded under intense pressure in only four weeks, it remains a fan and critical favorite.

Queen - The Game album cover

#5. Queen – The Game

Queen’s last truly great album is filled with the kind of perfectly bombastic rock and roll that fans had long loved and a couple of left turns that worked beautifully. While it may seem ridiculous in 2020 to question the integrity of a song like “Another One Bites the Dust,” it caused a stir in 1980 when rock fans instantly distrusted anything that sounded remotely like disco. Rock fans used to be kind of stupid.

Freddie Mercury is in spectacular voice throughout and Brian May crushes, especially on “Dragon Attack.” After “The Game,” Queen consistently struggled — other than “Under Pressure” — and the remainder of its catalog is spotty.

Iron Maiden - Iron Maiden album cover

#4. Iron Maiden – Iron Maiden

Iron Maiden’s debut was part of the explosion of metal in England that soon took off around the world. It’s a heady mix of classic Sabbath-style metal, the aggression of punk and the virtuosic speed-based musicianship that was a hallmark of ‘80s metal. Perhaps most importantly it gave the world Eddie, the album’s cover boy and the greatest mascot in rock and roll. The original UK vinyl pressing is one of the few with the full-length version of “Phantom of the Opera” but is getting more pricey every minute.

Talking Heads - Remain In Light album cover

#3. Talking Heads – Remain In Light

A remarkably ambitious album on every level, “Remain In Light” found Talking Heads reinventing itself as a band. In partnership with Brian Eno, and with input from friend and musician David Gans, the band approached the album with a profoundly different mindset.

With African music as a core inspiration both musically and thematically, the band and Eno crafted a record that effortlessly blended a half-dozen genres yet didn’t specifically sound like any of them. “Once In A Lifetime” is the signature song but the entire record rewards repeated listens.

Joy Division - Closer album cover

#2. Joy Division – Closer

Punk rock was one of music’s most crucial innovations but it spray-painted itself into a corner in fairly short order — the music’s rawness and simplicity was a limitation. Joy Division took all of the core emotional values of punk and expressed them with the same ferocity but as seen through a different musical lens, laying the groundwork for post-punk, a much more open-ended path.

Released two months after the suicide of singer and lyricist Ian Curtis, “Closer” served as both a warning and a rallying cry for disaffected youth. Four decades later it still sounds vital.

AC/DC - Back In Black album cover

#1. AC/DC – Back In Black

Has there ever been a more perfect record made for hormone-addled 16-year-olds with more acne than options? A hard-rock classic in every way, “Back In Black” is one of the best-selling albums of all time and one of rock’s most unlikely successes.

Lead singer Bon Scott had died, choking on his own vomit, just as the band was peaking in popularity. But Malcolm and Angus Young quickly recruited Brian Johnson and the rest is very rowdy history. “Hell’s Bells,” “You Shook Me All Night Long,” “Rock and Roll Ain’t Noise Pollution,” the title track — it’s the epitome of big dumb fun.

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