Five of the most significant albums of the '80s

The '80s had more substance in its music than the corporate rock it became known for. Here are 5 top albums from that decade.
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By Lee Zimmerman

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Peter Gabriel: So

The Significance:
Prior to the release of So, Peter Gabriel’s ties to Genesis had already been severed, but his identification with the band he helped found still figured prominently in his persona. While a string of self-titled albums had underscored his penchant for experimentation and a decidedly eclectic approach, none of those recordings had managed to take him beyond his prog-rock following and into the realms of mainstream credibility. This time around, he could finally count on any number of songs boasting distinctive melodies and decidedly strong hooks — the elements needed to bring him the greater exposure befitting his emerging role as a solo superstar.

The Backstory:
Producer Daniel Lanois was key to bringing So to fruition, not only in terms of capturing the full scope of its sound, but also in formulating the overall approach. Lanios had previously worked with Gabriel in the construction and composition of the Birdy soundtrack the year before, so he was well equipped to get the gig over the other producers Gabriel had in mind. Guitarist David Rhodes was present for the initial sessions as well, along with drummer Jerry Marotta, bassist Tony Levin, violinist L Shakar and engineer Kevin Killen. Their efforts culminated in what was the most commercially successful album of Gabriel’s career up to that point, as well as a recording that still ranks among the best works of his career. A nominee for Grammy’s 1987 Album of the Year and a big winner at that year’s Brit and MTV Video Music Awards ceremonies, it still ranks as both an innovative and accessible effort that still sets its own standards.


The Standout Songs:

In terms of sheer quality, tones, textures, and diversity, So was a triumph in terms of its overarched styles and sounds. It yielded no less than five distinctive singles — “Sledgehammer” (featuring one of the most innovative videos of the modern era), “Red Rain,” Big Time,” “In Your Eyes” and “Don’t Give Up,” the latter a stunning duet with Kate Bush. Each is compelling in its own way, with the latter two offerings considered two of the best ballads Gabriel has ever recorded.

  

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U2: War

The Significance:

U2 had been at it for awhile prior to War’s release, but it took this, the band’s third album to effectively shift the group’s perspective and help frame their fortunes. It proved an unlikely combination in that regard, a set of songs that was overtly political but also one well equipped to bring them to the top of the charts and provide them with the big breakthrough befitting their career. It spawned a series of hit singles, giving them a prominence and presence that had eluded them before. In fact, it went so far as to take the band to No. 1 in the British charts, no small feat considering the fact that they had to bump Michael Jackson’s mega-million selling Thriller to get there.


The Backstory:
U2’s first two albums, Boy and October, established their reputation as a mostly sullen and somewhat introverted lot, a group that showed little interest in any populist appeal or massive notoriety. War was informed by the many conflicts that appeared so prevalent in the early ‘80s, and was further fueled by “The Troubles” that were gripping Northern Ireland, turning it into an ongoing bloodbath after years of consistent conflict. A protest album by its very nature, it cast the group in the guise of unrepentant insurgents, unafraid to call out those who would squelch the rights of others. Never again would U2 find themselves simply spectators as far as where societal issues were concerned. From this point forward, they would draw on a reputation as both activists and influencers.

The Standout Songs:

War was the first U2 album to truly show off their song craft, boasting material that was far more strident and passionate than any of the work that had preceded it. “Sunday Bloody Sunday,” “Seconds” and “New Year’s Day” are both dark and defiant, yet irresistibly compelling in tone and tenacity. The Edge’s guitar provides a sonic tapestry that underscores the urgency of each, effectively establishing a striking new element within the group’s signature sound. That dire uncertainty persists in “Two Hearts Beat As One,” a stirring example of U2 at its most urgent and anthemic.

  

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Paul Simon: Graceland

The Significance:

Graceland effectively changed the way Paul Simon’s persona was perceived. Having further distanced himself from his branding as half of that forever folkie duo, Simon and Garfunkel, it found him turning away from his reputation as a moody singer-songwriter. While he was still capable of writing beautiful ballads, his time on the charts had come to a a close. Graceland changed all that. An innovative album in all regards, most especially in the fact that it fused African rhythms with modern pop appeal, Graceland became the first World Music recording to achieve true commercial credence.

The Backstory:
Having failed to find favor with the masses with his previous albums One Trick Pony and Hearts and Bones, Simon found himself at a critical juncture in his career, one which appeared to imperil his relationship with his label, Warner Bros. He became enticed with the sound of South African street musicians practically by chance, and although that country had become the target of an international cultural embargo due to its apartheid policies, Simon and his longtime producer Roy Halee made the controversial decision to travel to the country’s capitol, Johannesburg, and record with local musicians. He later toured with the same backing band, bringing them worldwide exposure and reaping himself a Grammy for Album of the Year as well, making for his biggest solo success so far.

The Standout Songs:
Given its mix of styles — a blend that included pop, rock, zydeco, acapella and, naturally, the influences of indigenous African music — the songs were effortlessly infectious, a credit to Simon’s skills as both a songwriter and archivist. “The Boy in the Bubble,” “Graceland,” “Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes,” “You Can Call Me Al,” “Under African Skies” and “Homeless” each constitute the essence of craft, creativity and effortless accessibility. They not only gave the album several accredited hits and spawned sales of six million copies within the first 12 months, but also reinforced his relationship with his record label and rebooted his commercial credence as well.

  

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The Clash: London Calling

The Significance:

An album of major importance — not only for the band but for the punk ethos overall — London Calling established the Clash as prime movers and major players within the insurgent establishment. It was more than a simple expression of the anger and angst which typified their first two albums, but instead, a more varied, mature and evocative effort as well. It found them freely indulging in an impressive array of sounds and style, from reliable rockers to material that spanned reggae, ska, pure pop and R&B. A sprawling two record set, it still ranks as the Clash’s greatest achievement.

The Backstory:
The late ‘70s were a time of division and dissatisfaction. Unemployment in the U.K. was at a new high, while racial tension and economic disparity added to the unrest and helped fuel punk’s increasing agitation. Margaret Thatcher’s election as Prime Minister and a newly-installed Conservative government added extra impetus for the underground. London Calling gave voice to that frustration, through a sturdy blend of protest songs and character-driven diatribes that helped underscore both the urgency and intensity — and it went on to deliver that message across the Atlantic when it was released in the U.S. at the very start of the decade, in January of 1980.

The Standout Songs:

Opening track and title tune “London Calling” set the tone, an anthemic call to arms that made the mission clear. “Train In Vain,” the album’s triumphant coda, offered a ricochet rhythm and a ready riff that ensured both resilience and rock-steady reliability. Sandwiched in-between, “Spanish Bombs,” “Brand New Cadillac,” “Revolution Rock,” “The Guns of Brixton” and “Rudie Can’t Fail” added to the political pontificating, plied through historical and societal references and recrimination. It also provided a brilliant showcase for songwriters Joe Strummer and Mick Jones, giving them cause to proselytize with a purpose

  

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Bruce Springsteen: The River

The Significance:

The River continued to define Bruce Springsteen not merely as a hometown hero, but rather as an Everyman whose cares and concerns reached well into the heartland. His first and only double album, it also took him to the top of the charts, further confirming his credence as not only as a durable rock god, the equal of those that came before, but also as a compelling artist who was worshipped by committed legion of fans. After piloting The River, Springsteen was unequivocally in command.

The Backstory:

Originally slated as a single album titled The Ties That Bind, The River was refocused into a thematic work that reflected the turmoil and despair that seemed so prominent at the time. Inflation and unemployment were prime, and while Springsteen’s commitment to form and a love of rock and roll were as ardent as always, he had come to realize that he couldn’t ignore the societal pressure and underlying ambivalence affecting his audience. Darkness on the Edge of Town was, as its title implied, a decidedly dark set of songs, but The River found him delving deeper into the causes and conflicts that spawned the dissatisfaction.

The Standout Songs:
Several songs had been recorded earlier — “Independence Day,” “The Ties That Bind,” “Ramrod” and “Sherry Darling” in particular — due to the fact that they had been initially slated for the Darkness album. However, with a unified theme in mind, several others were added, each as compelling as the tracks that came before. “Hungry Heart” was especially engaging, and it gave Springsteen’s biggest hit to date with a top five entry on the singles charts. So, too, “You Can Look (But You Better Not Touch),” “Cadillac Ranch” and “I’m a Rocker” reinforced Bruce’s infatuation with the sound of unabashed rock and roll. That upbeat appeal was countered by the solemnity of “Wreck on the Highway,” “Stolen Car” and the title track itself, each a brooding nod to the uncertainty and instability of the times.

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