My favorite albums (1980s), vol. 3
Why am I writing this? I mean, Best 80s Albums. Who cares? Hell, it’s my list and even I don’t care.
The better question is why are you reading this? I mean, I don’t know if you know this, but there’s a whole lot of stuff on the internet. You could be looking at Impeachment Porn. I do that a lot. Or Food Porn. Or Regular Porn. Or Irregular Porn. How’s this for a new category: “Irregular Food Impeachment Porn.” Makes a list of Best 80s Albums seem pretty palatable, doesn’t it?
So, naturally, before coming up with my own list, I looked at a few lists that already exist. There must be 80 thousand lists of Best 80s Albums. And, needless to say, they all suck. Who would go to all the trouble of listening to every album made in the 1980s, then put them in the wrong order? But, as my list is about to prove, they all did.
Actually, one of the people responsible for all this Listomania. (Wait, wasn’t that a Roger Daltrey album? No, I looked it up. It was a movie. And it’s Lisztomania. It wasn’t going to be on my list anyway.) That’s something you couldn’t do in the 80s, look something up on Google. You wanted to find out of if Listomania was an album or a movie and whether it had a Z in the middle, it might take you an hour. And once you finally found it, the pressure on your steam-powered computer had gone down, so you had to shovel in more coal, wash your hands. I’m telling you, it was a miracle anything ever got written.
What was I saying? Oh yeah, Listomania. One of the guys responsible for all this was legendary LA Times rock critic Robert Hilburn. He had a list for everything. I remember he once wrote this gigantic piece about how he decided to move Born in the U.S.A. to No.1 on his list for Best Albums of 1984 over Purple Rain. Wow. And it’s not impossible that I ran it The News & Observer. Seems dumb now, but as we used to say in the 80s, “It was the 80s.”
So, a friend of mine actually met Robert Hilburn. It was July, and Hilburn asked him what his top 10 albums of the year were so far. My friend explained that he usually waits till all the summer releases come out before painstakingly compiling such a list. Hilburn seemed to buy it. The details may be sketchy, but I’m not making that up.
So, what the hell. Here’s my list. And I’m not going to apologize for not putting Grandmaster Flash on it, I don’t care how furious all five of them get.
— Bob Langford
10. A FLOCK OF SEAGULLS (1982) A Flock of Seagulls
In addition to representing all the ridiculousness of the 80s, they’re on the list for a couple reasons. First, “I Ran” is a great song with a so-bad-it’s-great video that everyone in America saw 3 million times. And “Space Age Love Song” and “Telecommunication” are still fun to hear.
Oh, and Jules doesn’t mention The Cure in Pulp Fiction. What does he call that guy on the couch right before he blows his head off? That’s right, Flock of Seagulls.
And the Flock’s drummer, Ali Score, lives in the Triangle. Wake Forest, I think. He even has a LinkedIn page. The first listing is “Original Drummer, Flock of Seagulls,” and the next one is “Production Manager, Microtouch Systems.” This album ought to be on this list just because Alister (that’s his real name, I looked it up) Score convinced a hiring manager that being the drummer in Flock of Seagulls was perfect experience to be the production manager at some company.
There’s another reason. When I was just a young cable journalist, the Seagulls showed up in Chapel Hill. And my last question to Mike Score, the one with the hair, was about four guys from Liverpool and comparisons to … and before I could finish the question, he stopped me. Here’s what he said: “We’re not the Beatles. We’re just a Flock of Seagulls.”
I have gathered quotes in 38 states and 17 countries (you can look it up on LinkedIn) and that may have been the best quote I’ve ever gotten. Yup, Flock of Seagulls is on the list.
Producers | Mike Howlett, Bill Nelson  Label | Jive  Released | April 30, 1982
9. COSMIC THING (1989) B-52’s
So, the B-52’s were playing in Carmichael Auditorium, which, for the record, was one horrible place to see a concert. It had all the lousy acoustics of Dorton Arena, with none of the architectural significance. (That’s one reason it was an absolutely spectacular place to see a basketball game.)
So, it made sense to go over there with a camera and see if we could shoot the setup. You know, weird-looking B-52 fans streaming in (think opening scene of Spinal Tap but with bigger hair) maybe catch a bit of the sound check, start talking with Kate Pierson and then one thing would lead to another and I could quit my crappy cable news job and run off with the B-52’s.
I went there with my regular shooter, a guy called Beve, and we were approached by an official-looking dude with a clipboard. If we were carrying a bazooka that fired anthrax pellets he couldn’t have freaked out any worse. The conversation went something like this:
Clipboard Guy: “Hey motherbleepers, where the bleepingbleep do you think you’re going with that bleeping thing.”
Me: “Umm, hi, we’re from the local cable channel and we just thought.”
Clipboard Guy: “You just bleeping thought you’d shoot a bleeping video and show it on bleeped-up MTV. Get the bleep out of here. Bleepholes.”
And that’s the cleaned-up version.
Now, Beve was as good shooter, but the idea that the two of us were gonna crank out a music video that would get international play from a soundcheck shot in the place with the worst acoustics in the world is ridiculous. Besides, if he had just waited a couple weeks it wouldn’t have mattered. MTV was gonna stop showing music videos anyway.
Also, even though it isn’t on Cosmic Thing, Kate Pierson’s ending trill on “Rock Lobster” is about the greatest 20 seconds of non-word vocals ever recorded (Clare Torry on “Great Gig in the Sky” notwithstanding).
Producers | Nile Rodgers, Don Was  Label | Reprise  Released | June 27, 1989
8. AFOOT (1983) Let’s Active
OK, it’s only an EP, but any list of 80s albums should include an EP. First, it makes the person writing it seems so clever and insidey. “You want me to write about obscure albums from 35 years ago? That’s way too on-the-nose. I’m gonna write about things that weren’t even albums.” And EPs just seem so dumb. Come on, you couldn’t muster up a 9-minute cover of “Louie, Louie” to round things out?
And because of, shall we say, current events, there is this Let’s Active line that gets more airplay in my head than anything else. It’s this one from “Every Word Means No”:
It used to be no words could come between us
Any time was right for secret meetings
First, rhyming “between us” with “meetings” is either an inspired use of assonance, or the laziest lyric writing ever. No matter. It works great. Cut to 2018, and I can’t watch 10 minutes of Impeachment Porn without someone mentioning … wait for it … a secret meeting between a Trump stooge and some nefarious dude. If no one is around, I’ll just yell out: “Any time was right for secret meetings.” (And if someone is next to me, I’ll just yell it in my head.)
So, thanks, Mitch Easter. Your words give us hope in these difficult times.
Producer | Mitch Easter  Label | I.R.S. Records  Released | 1983
7. THE UNFORGETTABLE FIRE (1984) U2
During my early days at the newspaper, it wasn’t very often that an album fell so far down the food chain that it landed on my desk. Somehow this one did.
So, our society writer (yes, we had one of those back then) walks by my desk and says real loud: “Ohhhhh, The Unforgettable Fiiiiiiiire.” And she said it in this snarky, rock-and-roll will be over in another two years and we can go back to listening to Perry Como, sort of way. Kind of like Bruno Kirby’s limo driver in Spinal Tap. That made me like this album more than I should have. Felt I owed it to U2. Besides, it was good then and it still is.
“A Sort of Homecoming” kicks it off with that great Adam Clayton bassline, and “Bad” at Live Aid is what turned U2 into U2.
Watch the clip. Bono still had eyeballs. Edge still had hair. Music still had the power to unite. And that little Stones/Lou Reed homage at the end was perfect for that day, and forever. Eat it, society columnist. We still have music, at least kind of, but we no longer have you.
So yes, “Ohhhhhh, The Unforgettable Fiiiiiiiire.”
Producers | Brian Eno, Daniel Lanois  Label | Island  Released | October 1, 1984
6. MAKING MOVIES (1980) Dire Straits
I wish I had a great, or an even decent story about Mark Knopfler and Dire Straits. I don’t. All I know is, this was the best Dire Straits album and it’s loaded with so many great songs that you can’t remember them all.
At a time when songs clocked in at a cool 2:25, this was loaded with epics. “Skateaway,” “Tunnel of Love,” “Romeo and Juliet.” Three great songs, one great first side. The entire first side.
And the best song on the album might be “Expresso Love.” If some coffee company were clever, they’d buy the rights, change it to “Espresso Love” and we could all complain about it but secretly think it’s cool and buy their espresso.
And it has some of the greatest keyboard work you’ll hear, because Roy Bittan stopped by from the E Street Band to balance out the great guitar and the, well, understated vocals. And I always liked that Dire Straits had a drummer named Pick.
I also still had that crappy job, and putting this album on the turntable (no, that’s really how we heard music back then) helped me through it.
And while we’re on the subject, one of the reasons Local Hero is one of the best movies of the 80s, is Mark Knopler’s music. Really, it’s wonderful. If you’ve seen the movie, it’ll make you weep. If you haven’t seen Local Hero, you should weep about your wasted life.
Producers | Jimmy Iovine, Mark Knopfler  Label | Warner Bros.  Released | October 17, 1980
5. PURPLE RAIN (1984) Prince
Ladies and gentlemen, The Revolution.
So, as I mentioned, I was looking at lists of 80s albums before compiling my own. And one guy had Purple Rain at No. 76. Seventy-freaking-six. Really? Prince couldn’t crack the top 75 for this guy?
Spin did a whole oral history for the 25th anniversary of Purple Rain, and it’s a great read.
This piece would have been done last week if I hadn’t wasted all that time reading it. (But it wasn’t a complete waste of time. I learned that Prince’s favorite thing to eat was spaghetti with orange juice.)
You don’t need me, or anyone else to list why Purple Rain is one of the best albums of any decade. Dig, if you will, the fifth-best album of the 80s.
Producer | Prince  Label | Warner Bros.  Released | June 25, 1984
4. BORN IN THE U.S.A. (1984) Bruce Springsteen
It has to be one better than Purple Rain. The guy who invented Listomania has so declareth.
I have to admit that the buffed-up, headband wearing Bruce was my least favorite. Too on-the-nose. That doesn’t mean the album isn’t great, even if it’s Bruce’s, maybe, fifth-best album. And, probably more importantly, this was the beginning of what we know as Bruce Springsteen. It all started when Bruce told Ronald Regan that he couldn’t steal his song.
And while the line from “Glory Days” “he could throw that speedball by ya” still sounds kind of clunky, it does have a great video. This was the 80s — the video was more important than the music. This was billed as Bruce’s first non-concert video, even though it’s mostly a concert video.
It opens with The Boss being an employee sitting in the cab of a bulldozer. Then, after work, he heads to the park, plops down a bucket of balls and starts pitching to this piece of wood with a strike zone painted on it. (Unfortunately, and there’s no good way to say this, Bruce went to the Tim Robbins School of Pitching. No wonder he wound up working construction.)
His kid asks him how he pitched, and Bruce says: “Nettles got me … bottom of the ninth.” And his first wife, Julianne Phillips (again, I had to look it up), pulls up in her beat-up station wagon and waves for him to come home. As we’ve all gotten older, we’ve had to own up to the fact that we’re not gonna pitch in the bigs. Just like Bruce.
Producers | Jon Landau, Chuck Plotkin, Bruce Springsteen, Steven Van Zandt  Label | Columbia  Released | June 4, 1984
3. PAUL WELLER, Different Incarnations
Don’t bother looking this up. There is no Paul Weller album called “Different Incarnation” (although that is a great name for an album, especially a Paul Weller album).
I almost put The Cure here. And then I was gonna put R.E.M. in the three-spot, but I didn’t want to type those stupid periods every time. Besides, Automatic for the People is their best album and it technically doesn’t qualify for Best Albums of the 80s. And The English Beat was here for a while because they represented all the ska bands like The Specials and The Selecter. And I was all set to include London Calling and tell my cool story of making a pilgrimage to Mick Jones’s London office, but it came out in 1979.
Then it hit me. There’s no Paul Weller on this list. What? How can you have a list of Best 80s Albums and leave off Paul Weller?
First there’s the Jam — kind of invented angry British youth music, dinnit? Listen to Sound Affects and you want to become a soccer hooligan, at least for 35 minutes. Then, Weller makes this 180 and forms The Style Council, a sort of dancy, bouncy, horn and keyboard band. Bruce Jenner didn’t make a bigger transition.
And I understand that hardcore Jam fans don’t care for the change (probably the same people who are still mad Dylan went electric) but I thought Café Bleu was great fun then and still do now.
“My Ever Changing Moods” is an all-time fave, and the slow, piano version that’s actually on the album might be even better. And find me a cooler opening lick than “You’re the Best Thing.” And if you watch the video, you’ll see Paul Weller pick this little piece of lint off his sweater around 50 seconds. So Modfather. And I still get chills at the end.
And since then he’s been cranking out interesting stuff, doing smaller tours and living the life that every musician from the 80s should be: Paying homage to the past but still looking forward.
Poor man’s Bowie? Maybe. But still pretty rich.
2. THE SMITHS, Strangely, Meat is Dead
The four real Smiths albums really are one giant an album. They all worked the same way: Johnny Marr would whip out a handful of super-cool, melodic licks a day, Morrissey would listen to them, explain how he used to be miserable, is miserable now, and probably will be miserable later. Throw in a George Eliot reference or two and there’s your album.
The beauty of the Smiths is how a song like “Girlfriend in a Coma” has the prettiest melody you’ve ever heard, the lyrics are about as distasteful a subject as you can think of, yet you can’t imagine changing anything. The sweet-and-sour pork of 80s music.
Besides, I came to the Smiths late. I dunno, I had a job. And kids. But once I figured out what I’d been missing, I was all in for all their stuff. So if it came from Meat is Murder or The Queen is Dead or some obscure EP, I didn’t care. I was ready to make a pilgrimage to the Salford Lads Club. (Yes, that’s Ryan Adams, who did just that.)
And a couple of Christmases ago, I got my wonderful daughter-in-law A Light That Never Goes Out: The Enduring Saga of The Smiths. Yes, if all your daughter-in-law wants for Christmas is a book about the Smiths that’s so big you can’t carry it with one hand, she automatically qualifies as wonderful. Just like the Smiths.
1. THE JOSHUA TREE (1987) U2
Remember when U2 was on the cover of Time after Joshua Tree came out? And there was this picture of The Edge with an ace of spades tucked into his hat band.
I remember my ex-father-in-law laughing about that. He was a funny guy, my ex-father-in-law. See, he went to State, but lived in Durham so he was always surrounded by Duke guys. And he used to tell this joke.
“I got tickets to the Duke football game, but they didn’t have the starting time on them. So I called the Duke football office and said, ‘what time is kickoff on Saturday?’ And the person on the phone didn’t say anything for a second. Umm, when does the game start on Saturday? Finally, she said, well, ‘what time can you be here’?”
The chance to tell that joke is not the only reason Joshua Tree is on the list. It’s also really great. And, most importantly, it got me through an ice storm where I had no power for three days. Somehow, I had this battery-powered CD player and must have listened to Joshua Tree 50 times. It was a semi-religious experience, just listening to that album over and over again in the cold and the dark and eating everything I had that didn’t need to be cooked.
Believe me, I knew what looking for: a forth pair of socks. Now, every time I hear something from Joshua Tree, the toes in my left foot go kind of numb.
And with any really good album — or movie or team, now that I think about it — it’s about the supporting cast. “Red Hill Mining Town,” “Trip Through Your Wires,” “One Tree Hill.” They’re just great. And that’s why it’s the Best Album of the 80s. At least it is right now. If I have to write this again in 10 years, it might not be.
That’s the beauty of writing about something from 35 years ago. I believe it was Faulkner, or maybe it was Michael Stipe who said: “The past isn’t dead, it isn’t even past. But it does tend to get a little blurry.”
Producer | Daniel Lanois, Brian Enoe  Label | Island  Released | March 9, 1987
Among Bob’s incarnations, he was entertainment editor, then TV critic at The Raleigh News & Observer and features reporter at WRAL-TV. He was also advisor to N.C. State’s student newspaper, where he first encountered the ne’er-do-well associated with this web site.