The 1980s: a decade remembered for perms and shoulder pads, Walkmans and Rubik's Cubes, MTV and iconically cheesy movies.
Perhaps not, on the surface, our finest period as a species – but take a look at some of the records that were released and it's not difficult to see the cultural significance of that ten years.
From a golden era for hip-hop to records that would shape alternative rock for the next 30 years, the albums below – though, as ever, not an exhaustive list – are as pivotal as they are prodigious.
And what's more, they'll all provide a smashing test for your speakers. So turn your amplifier up to 11 and let a few of these spin.
- Our guide to the best test tracks to trial your hi-fi system
90 by 808 State (1989)
It feels crass to pigeonhole any genre with one definitive album, but if needs must then 90 would surely be it for acid house. Certainly it is an album to which British electronic music owes a huge debt, helping pave the way for musicians on these isles to reinterpret rather than ape the great American art forms of house and techno. It is equal parts atmospheric and aggressive, blending beats and infectious melodies at tempos that refuse to allow you to remain sedentary.
World of Echo by Arthur Russell (1986)
Arthur Russell’s World of Echo – his only solo studio album released during his lifetime – is a gorgeously spontaneous collection of songs where his delicate tenor flirts with a cello treated with reverb, delay and distortion. Russell’s experimental, percussive playing is a superb workout for your speakers, but should let you drift along as it ripples rather than rock you out of the boat.
The Poet by Bobby Womack (1981)
No-one is smoother than Bobby Womack, and for our money none of his records were more accomplished than The Poet. Romping into action with opener So Many Sides Of You, before the infectious melody of Secrets and stand-out single If You Think You’re Lonely Now, this album witnessed Womack shedding his orchestral accompaniments of the 1970s in favour of a slicker, fresher soul sound.
Paid in Full by Eric B. & Rakim (1987)
This, Eric B. & Rakim’s debut and one of the most influential hip-hop albums of all time, was recorded in only a week. “Listen to the lyrics and listen to how short they are,” says Eric B. “That’s because Rakim wrote it right there.” That impulsive writing, mixed with the fact Rakim was reading from a sheet of paper as he recorded, makes for an energetic but measured delivery that suits perfectly the record’s profundity.
Tango in the Night by Fleetwood Mac (1987)
Beginning life as a Lindsey Buckingham solo album, and then destined to be his last with Fleetwood Mac, Tango in the Night was anything but a breeze to produce. “That was in my estimation when everybody in the band was personally at their worst,” he says. “Everybody was leading their lives in a way that they would not be too proud of today.” Nevertheless, despite a fractured group – Stevie Nicks only spent two difficult weeks with the band during recording – it turned out to be a sparkling swansong for Fleetwood Mac’s classic line-up, and one of the finest pop records ever written.
Echoes by Frank Harris & Maria Marquez (1985)
Admittedly a bit of a cheat as this album, though written and recorded in the 1980s, wasn’t actually officially released for more than 30 years, but its impact decades on is testament to the beauty of this ethno-wave gem. A collaboration between Venezuelan vocalist Maria Marquez and American multi-instrumentalist Frank Harris, Echoes feels the warmth of South American sun on its smooth melodies and sun-kissed synthesizer accompaniments.
13 Songs by Fugazi (1989)
Released in September 1989, and so just sneaking onto this list, 13 Songs is effectively a compilation formed of Fugazi’s first two EPs – Fugazi and Margin Walker – that has spent the past 30 years providing a huge influence on alternative rock music. Its post-hardcore arrangements are sometimes eerily sparse, which often only accentuates their brutality, and beg a sharp performance from your speakers.
Nightclubbing by Grace Jones (1981)
Whenever the word ‘icon’ is frivolously bandied around to describe those not fit to dust her shoulder pads, it is an insult to Grace Jones. A collection of original songs and creatively rearranged covers – including the Iggy Pop track from which the record takes its name – Nightclubbing witnesses Jones at her most powerful and most inventive, and has enough dub-like bass lines to keep your bass drivers honest.
Philharmony by Haruomi Hosono (1982)
An icon in his native Japan at least, even if woefully underappreciated outside, Haruomi Hosono had a huge hand in shaping pop and electronic music in his homeland over a number of decades. Philharmony is an abstract pop masterpiece that showcases Hosono’s playful artistry as well as his ear for a melody.
Grace & Danger by John Martyn (1980)
Another record that makes this list by a hair’s breadth, Grace & Danger’s release was actually delayed by a year because Island Records owner Chris Blackwell found the album – written and recorded during John Martyn’s divorce from Beverley Martyn – too depressing. Certainly it is not a jolly record, but we’d go for sad rather than depressing – and in Sweet Little Mystery and Hurt in Your Heart it holds two of the most stunning songs Martyn ever wrote.
Hounds of Love by Kate Bush (1985)
This, Kate Bush's fifth studio album, wasn’t the first time she had used complex electronics and musical computers to guide her compositions, but it is this record that most comfortably inhabits the spaces in between the electronic and the human, the earthy and ethereal. And that’s not to mention the songwriting that witnesses Bush at the top of her craft.
Computer World by Kraftwerk (1981)
Released in both German (Computerwelt) and English language versions, Kraftwerk’s eighth studio album has been reimagined by countless artists, in a sprawling array of genres since its release in 1981. Yet, despite all that sampling making it one of the group’s most familiar records – whether or not you know you’ve heard something from it – it has that magical Kraftwerk quality of still sounding futuristic almost 40 years later.
The Expanding Universe by Laurie Spiegel (1980)
In 1977, Laurie Spiegel’s Harmony Of The Worlds was chosen by astronomer Carl Sagan to be included on Voyager 1 and 2’s Golden Record, which would travel to outer space; three years later, she released her cosmic yet somehow intimate synthesizer opus The Expanding Universe. Composed on computers the size of studio flats, it is a playful and intelligent exploration of a new world.
Straight Outta Compton by N.W.A (1988)
Released in August 1988, N.W.A’s debut album had already gone platinum by the time it celebrated its first birthday despite some heavy censorship and limited radio play. The infamy of much of its aggressive social commentary no doubt helped the group’s notoriety, but that would have soon died down were it not for Straight Outta Compton’s brutal beats and thorny lyricism.
Power, Corruption & Lies by New Order (1983)
Despite Movement having been released two years previous, Power, Corruption & Lies was arguably the record that defined New Order as being a band apart from Joy Division. (Joy Division's Closer, released in 1980, also could have made this list.) Its use of synthesizers is far broader than on the band’s debut, but still intelligently intertwined with guitars and acoustic percussion for a sound that is at once texturally dense and refreshingly spacious.
Africa by Pharoah Sanders (1987)
Though his late mentor penned only one of this album’s tracks, Pharoah Sanders’s Africa is heavily laced with the spirit of John Coltrane. From the trademark overblowing that sparks the album into life with You’ve Got To Have Freedom, to the soulful balladry of Coltrane’s own Naima, the nods are plentiful without ever sounding like a mere tribute act.
Doolittle by Pixies (1989)
Producer Gil Norton cleaned up Pixies’ sound somewhat for their second album Doolittle, accentuating the shifts from loud to soft and making one of the band’s most popular sets of songs more accessible for worldwide consumption. As influential on the landscape of alternative rock as Fugazi’s 13 Songs, Doolittle has been regularly imitated but never surpassed.
Steve McQueen by Prefab Sprout (1985)
Released as Two Wheels Good in the United States, due to a threat of legal action from Steve McQueen’s estate, Prefab Sprout’s second studio album is an undeniably smart and sophisticated example of great British indie songwriting. Backed by a gang of clean, reverberant guitars, and held aloft by Thomas Dolby’s sparkling production, Paddy McAloon’s smooth vocal guides us through 11 tracks that pass like a cool breeze, begging us to do lap after lap in order to take in every last detail.
Sign o' the Times by Prince (1987)
Originally destined to be a triple album named Crystal Ball, before Warner Bros. managed to reduce it to this double LP, Sign o’ the Times was Prince’s first release following the disbanding of his band The Revolution. It allowed him to bring back previously shelved songs, as well as those written for the record, and work heavily with drum machines and samplers. It also features the introduction of Camille, his androgynous alter ego, to cap what our money says is Prince’s most creative and accomplished work.
It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back by Public Enemy (1988)
“Our mission was to kill the Cold Gettin’ Dumb stuff and really address some situations,” Chuck D said of Public Enemy’s second record. Setting out to record the hip-hop equivalent of Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On, the group succeed in marrying thoughtful social commentary with imaginative musicianship and some stinging heavy rhythms.
Murmur by R.E.M. (1983)
R.E.M. showed their aptitude for growth as early as their debut album, with Murmur showcasing a slightly more subdued version of the garage rock sound heard on the Chronic Town EP. Helping elevate Michael Stipe’s cryptic lyricism and iconic vocal, and majoring on Peter Buck’s melodic guitar lines, it is a lesson in timbre and tonality matching the strength of the songs.
Seven Waves by Suzanne Ciani (1982)
Suzanne Ciani's debut is a gorgeously mellow and romantic example of new age electronic music, recorded over two years on equipment that at once almost dates it and leaves it sounding timeless. Gentle, undulating synths and pads bob on the sea over each wave, taking the listener out with them.
Speaking in Tongues by Talking Heads (1983)
“I originally sang nonsense, and uh, made words to fit that,” said David Byrne of the title Speaking in Tongues. “That worked out alright.” Certainly it did, with the focus on melody and rhythm paying off to bring Talking Heads their commercial breakthrough – including the band’s only top-ten single in Burning Down The House. Still, its eclectic art rock style makes it the Talking Heads album most able to unite fans across genres, proving accessibility needn’t necessarily come at the expense of individuality.
Hats by The Blue Nile (1989)
The five-year gestation period between The Blue Nile's debut, A Walk Across The Rooftops, and this follow-up was in fact the shortest gap between any of the band’s four records. But certainly it was long enough to create a near-perfect misty pop album, where it is often the space between the lines, and a refusal to settle for pedestrian melodies or instrumentation, that invite our ears for deeper listening.
Disintegration by The Cure (1989)
The fact that songs such as Lullaby, Lovesong and Pictures Of You can be considered the singles from a top ten album is a glorious reflection on British music, as far as we’re concerned. It isn’t that they aren’t melodious – Robert Smith’s move away from the pop sounds that garnered The Cure much of their mainstream appeal wasn’t at the expense of some masterful songwriting – but this album’s dense, thoughtful textures along with its almost psychedelic gothic bent is far from the clean-shaven production you might expect to do well in the charts.