In my article ranking the best albums released during Jimmy Carter’s presidency I wrote, “By the time Jimmy Carter took the oath of office on January 20, 1977, the albums dominating the critics’ ‘best of’ lists had begun to look a little different from the albums on the “best-selling” lists.” That statement is even more true when ranking the music from Ronald Reagan’s time in office.
Ronald Reagan wasn’t your run-of-the-mill president. Likewise, the ’80s was a decade filled with a vibrancy that’s hard to match. And while I know that President Reagan didn’t actually have anything to do with the albums released while he was POTUS, it’s not really surprising that the music released during his administration is colorful, varied, and much of it is excellent. The sad thing is that the best music of the ’80s is generally overlooked for the music that MTV foisted on us as kids. This means that readers expecting a list that looks similar to the Best of the ’80s CDs sold by Time Life on late-night TV are going to be disappointed. That being said, some of the usual suspects can be located among the Honorable Mentions, which are listed at the bottom of the article.
10. Rain Dogs — Tom Waits
Not only is Tom Waits a treat to listen to, Rain Dogs is a musical melting pot that reflects the urban environment that Waits wrote and sang about on the album.
9. Night of a Thousand Candles — The Men They Couldn’t Hang
You may have never heard of The Men They Couldn’t Hang, but you’ve definitely felt/heard their influence. Along with The Pogues, TMTCH kicked off the folk-punk movement in the early ’80s. Fast-forward to today, and a variety of bands operating within the wide folk-punk ethos echo The Men They Couldn’t Hang, bands like Mumford & Sons, The Avett Brothers, Gogol Bordello, and Flogging Molly. Night of a Thousand Candles is a masterpiece, and in a just world would’ve been a top-seller.
8. It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back — Public Enemy
Many critics consider It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back the greatest hip-hop album of all time. Regardless of whether a person agrees with that or not, it’s impossible to deny that Public Enemy’s second studio album is one of the most influential albums of all time, for good and bad. With this album, Chuck D became one of the foremost social commentators on life in black America.
7. Let It Be — The Replacements
Don’t let the album’s title fool you; Let it Be is not an ode to the Beatles. It reflects the ’80s underground/hardcore belief that nothing is sacred. The irony is that twenty years later, many fans and music critics consider The Replacements’ masterpiece to be sacred.
6. Murmur — R.E.M.
Murmur, R.E.M.’s debut album, showed that the ’80s indie music scene had a softer side. Although it took some effort, R.E.M. managed to convince lovers of indie music that excellent music didn’t have to flatten the hairs of the inner ear.
5. Surfer Rosa — Pixies
If an individual who’s not familiar with the Pixies was played Surfer Rosa and then asked to guess which decade it was released, I doubt that they’d choose correctly. Most likely, they’d guess the ’90s. Surfer Rosa is a great example of how the music buying public of the ’80s consistently missed out on what was actually the best music of the decade.
4. The Queen Is Dead — The Smiths
President Reagan loved to laugh, and one of the most unexpectedly funny albums of all times was released by a navel-gazing alt-rock band during his administration. Of course, that alt-rock band also happens to be one of the greatest bands of all time, featuring one of the most iconic frontmen of all time. The Queen may have been displeased by The Queen is Dead but we’re anti-monarchists in America.
3. The Joshua Tree — U2
Ronald Reagan’s “Morning in America” was apparently so bright that it compelled an Irish rock band to create an album in an attempt to make sense of their love for America. And what an album! Almost everyone is familiar with the incredible first three tracks, but the remaining eight tracks on The Joshua Tree are just as good.
2. Zen Arcade — Hüsker Dü
Recognized as one of the leaders of the hardcore scene, Hüsker Dü created a concept album with Zen Arcade, a previously unheard of foray for a hardcore band. It incorporated musical elements that broadened the hardcore sound. Forcing hardcore to evolve opened up the scene for Sonic Youth, Pixies, and, ultimately, Nirvana.
1. Daydream Nation — Sonic Youth
Whether or not you agree with Sonic Youth’s take on the American Dream, it’s hard to deny the impact that Daydream Nation had on the music industry. The discordant music on Daydream Nation was played to great effect opposite the harmonic genius of Kim Gordon and Thurston Moore.
Honorable Mentions: Thriller by Michael Jackson; Graceland by Paul Simon; Sychronicity by The Police; Moving Pictures by Rush; Shoot Out the Lights by Richard and Linda Thompson; A Kiss in the Dreamhouse by Siouxsie and the Banshees; The Message by Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five; A Momentary Lapse of Reason by Pink Floyd; Violent Femmes by Violent Femmes; Swordfishtrombones by Tom Waits; Texas Flood by Stevie Ray Vaughan; Purple Rain by Prince; Rum, Sodomy & the Lash by The Pogues; Hatful of Hollow by The Smiths; Skylarking by XTC; Brothers in Arms by Dire Straits; Brotherhood by New Order; Strange Times by The Chameleons; King of America by The Costello Show featuring the Attractions and Confederates; Bad by Michael Jackson; Diesel and Dust, Midnight Oil; Tracy Chapman by Tracy Chapman; 1999 by Prince. Run DMC by Run DMC; You’re Living All Over Me by Dinosaur Jr; Appetite for Destruction by Guns N’ Roses; Double Nickels on the Dime by Minutemen; Straight Outa Compton by N.W.A.