54 Great Albums Of The 1980s

OK, it’s cards on the table time. Time to ‘address’ the elephant in the room, no more waltzing around it, etc etc…

Regular readers of this site may already have an inkling about my favourite albums of the ’80s, but what the hell – here they are in no particular order (apart from the unimpeachable collection in the #1 spot).

Numbers have been crunched, playlists have been quantified. Only kidding. This is a totally sentimental, unscientific list. And I promise, dear reader, that my original intention was to narrow it down to only ten. But, to quote Hugh Grant: fuggedaboudit…

The rules: only one artist per slot, soundtracks allowed but no best-ofs, and all albums must have a no-skip guarantee. A few things pop out: 1981, 1985 and 1987 strike me as very good years, 1984 and 1986 as pretty barren ones. It wasn’t a great decade for straightahead jazz, soul or funk albums, at least not in my house, though Alexander O’Neal, Janet Jackson, Cameo and Terence Trent D’Arby nearly made the cut. And I wish there were more female artists, though Will Powers (Lynn Goldsmith), Wendy & Lisa, Sheila E, Chaka Khan, Rickie Lee Jones, Mary Margaret O’Hara, Donna Summer, Cocteau Twins, Randy Crawford and Madonna came close.

Let the countdown commence…

54. Bireli Lagrene: Foreign Affairs (1988)

53. Stanley Clarke: Rocks, Pebbles & Sand (1980)

52. Human Chain: Cashin’ In (1988)

51. The Tubes: The Completion Backward Principle (1981)

50. Terje Rypdal: The Singles Collection (1988)

49. The Blue Nile: Walk Across The Rooftops (1983)

48. David Sanborn: Voyeur (1981)

47. Randy Newman: Trouble In Paradise (1983)

46 De La Soul: Three Feet High And Rising (1989)

45. Nile Rodgers: Adventures In The Land Of The Good Groove (1983)

44. John Martyn: Glorious Fool (1981)

43. Gabriel Yared: Betty Blue Original Soundtrack (1987)

42. Mike Stern: Upside Downside (1986)

41. Wayne Shorter: Phantom Navigator (1987)

40. Jeff Beck: There And Back (1980)

39. The Robert Cray Band: Bad Influence (1983)

38. Kate Bush: Hounds Of Love (1985)

37. John Scofield: Still Warm (1985)

36. Steve Khan: Casa Loco (1982)

35. Donald Fagen: The Nightfly (1982)

34. It Bites: Once Around The World (1988)

33. Talking Heads: Speaking In Tongues (1983)

32. Michael Jackson: Thriller (1982)

31. Lyle Mays: Street Dreams (1988)

30. David Sylvian: Gone To Earth (1986)

29. Peter Gabriel: III (1980)

28. Roxy Music: Avalon (1982)

27. Grace Jones: Nightclubbing (1981)

26. Prince: Around The World In A Day (1985)

25. Joni Mitchell: Dog Eat Dog (1985)

24. Mark Isham: Vapor Drawings (1983)

23. David Bowie: Scary Monsters  (1980)

22. King Crimson: Discipline (1981)

21. Hue & Cry: Remote (1988)

20. Scritti Politti: Cupid & Psyche 85 (1985)

19. XTC: Skylarking (1985)

18. Prefab Sprout: Steve McQueen (1985)

17. Vladimir Cosma: Diva Original Soundtrack (1982)

16. Lee Ritenour: Rit (1981)

15. Larry Carlton: Friends (1983)

14. Japan: Oil On Canvas (1983)

13. Love And Money: Strange Kind Of Love (1988)

12. Level 42: World Machine (1985)

11. Weather Report: Sportin’ Life (1985)

10. Various Artists: That’s The Way I Feel Now: A Tribute To Thelonious Monk (1984)

9. Thomas Dolby: The Flat Earth (1984)

8. Stump: A Fierce Pancake (1988)

7. China Crisis: Flaunt The Imperfection (1985)

6. Propaganda: A Secret Wish (1985)

5. Danny Wilson: Meet Danny Wilson (1987)

4. Marc Johnson/Bass Desires: Second Sight (1987)

3. Miles Davis & Marcus Miller: Music From Siesta (1987)

2. Valentin Silvestrov: Symphony No.5 (1988)

And the 1980s album I would save if my flat was on fire…

1. Steely Dan: Gaucho (1980)

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Re: Eurythmics

At the peak of their pop success in November 1986, Eurythmics’ Annie Lennox told Melody Maker magazine: ‘I’m an angry person. I’m angry generally. The world is not a place to be passive in. I didn’t ask to be born…’

Lennox played at Sadler’s Wells the other night to rave reviews, her first London gig for over 10 years. I’d like to have been there; her music makes much more sense to me live than on record. And her solo work appeals more than Eurythmics – they’re so much part of the UK pop furniture that maybe I can’t really judge anymore, though ‘Love Is A Stranger’ always seems genuinely beguiling.

But then I saw some footage that made me re-assess their whole career. The penny dropped. A fascinating documentary has appeared online capturing Annie and Dave demoing their enormo-selling 1985 album Be Yourself Tonight in a fairly cheap Paris studio complex.

The songs are stripped down to just drum machine, a few keyboards, guitar and vocals, and what comes across is the sheer joy of creating this music, a world away from Annie’s ‘anger’. She brings the songs to life with skill and courage and Dave Stewart’s guitar playing is wittier and flashier than I’d ever heard it before (and he gives good interview too). I’ve since compared these early run-throughs to the album versions and they’re so much better; wish they’d had the guts to release them as they were.

Stump: A Fierce Pancake 30 Years Old Today

If you read the press blurb about Stump, the general consensus seems to be that they didn’t quite ‘make it’. But rather we should probably be thankful that they got it together for as long as they did.

The Anglo-Irish band made me smile (and continue to do so), released a great mini album (Quirk Out) and one full-length one, A Fierce Pancake. Released 30 years old today, the latter is probably in my ’80s top 10 (and is reportedly one of Faith No More/Mr Bungle frontman Mike Patton’s favourites too).

It was never going to be easy: the drummer (Rob McKahey) sounded like he belonged in Beefheart’s Magic Band or Ornette Coleman’s Prime Time, the fretless bassist (Kev Hopper) was into sampling, Pere Ubu and Brand X, the guitarist (Chris Salmon) sounded like a cross between Hank Marvin and Adrian Belew and brilliant frontman/lyricist (the late Mick Lynch) was more than likely to engage in a bit of onstage belly dancing.

But it somehow works. A Fierce Pancake is dedicated to the life and works of physician/psychoanalyst Wilhelm Reich and writer Flann O’Brien. It was released on Ensign Records, mainly known for breaking Irish acts like Sinead O’Connor and the Waterboys. Recording sessions at Hansa in Berlin were apparently long and difficult – original producer Holger Hiller jumped ship halfway through and then ‘stabilising influence’ engineer Stephen Street got summoned away to work with Morrissey.

But the album’s sometimes hilarious (‘Bone’, ‘Charlton Heston’, ‘Chaos’, ‘Eager Bereaver’), sometimes touching (‘Alcohol’, ‘Boggy Home’) and always musically interesting. I think of it as something like a cross between Viz magazine and XTC. It’s a shame that they couldn’t maintain the John Peel-endorsed momentum of their early days.

Their manager persuaded them to call it a day after a disastrous Camden Electric Ballroom gig supported by The Blue Aeroplanes on 21st December 1988. A Fierce Pancake hadn’t come close to recouping its costs and the Rave scene was in full flow. It was all over, barring a one-off comeback gig in May 2015.

For more on the band, check out this excellent podcast.