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Top 100 Greatest Rock Albums of the '80s

Updated: Nov 14, 2023


Top 100 Greatest Rock Albums of the '80s

(Pictured - U2 in studio with Dave Fenning, 1982)

The 1980s heralded the rise of alternative and indie rock, as well as a burgeoning appetite for punk, post-punk, noise rock, new wave, metal, and of course, the golden age of college rock. Despite the era's charts being dominated by synth-pop, one-hit wonders, and MTV icons within the Michael Jackson popstar epoch, our list zeroes in on the quintessential rock albums of the decade. Our criteria for this list include all styles of rock music including metal, punk, post-punk, new wave, experimental, blues, roots, country, progressive, southern, hard, and symphonic rock—essentially, any genre followed by "rock." To keep our focus rock-centric, pop albums, even from titans like Michael Jackson and Whitney Houston, have been omitted, although their contributions to music remain laudable. While many albums featured here never really touched the pop charts, their massive influence on rock is unmistakable. For broader explorations, check out The Top 100 Greatest Rock Albums of All Time or The Top 100 Greatest Rock Albums of the '70s.

At least in terms of praise from us, no album has received more than The Queen Is Dead, the third studio album by The Smiths. Dominating indie rock in the '80s, The Queen Is Dead stands as the crowning achievement for the band. It left its mark on nearly every indie rock album after 1986, with its top-tier production quality and talent. The album is home to some of the catchiest tracks of the decade, such as There is a Light That Never Goes Out, Some Girls Are Bigger Than Others, and Bigmouth Strikes Again. The Smiths struck a vein of gold with this album, the likes of which few had done before. Even after 40 years of indie rock, The Queen Is Dead still stands tall with Morrissey's tongue-in-cheek humor and Johnny Marr's unparalleled guitar playing across ten flawless tracks. Although The Smiths are often dismissed by some music enthusiasts, The Queen Is Dead remains not only one of the finest rock albums of all time but most importantly, the best rock album of the '80s.


2. Purple Rain - Prince

You can't bring up '80s music without mentioning Prince. Although Prince's easily accessible music found plenty of love on the pop charts, a deeper listen to his discography reveals that at his core, Prince was a rockstar. His undeniable presence as a musician led to an almost larger-than-life persona as he dominated the '80s pop and rock charts. Prince's musical peak was 1984's Purple Rain, which housed some of the decade's most iconic songs, like When Doves Cry, Purple Rain, and Let's Go Crazy. Prince fused funk and R&B with rock, leaving us with nine unique and memorable songs. Not just us at Melophobe, but Purple Rain has also been acknowledged as one of the best albums of all time by outlets from VH1 to Rolling Stone. To this day, Purple Rain remains a soundtrack of youth for countless listeners who grew up in the '80s.


3. Graceland - Paul Simon

Paul Simon's musical career is second to very few. After having a successful run with Art Garfunkel, Simon continued to experiment with new sounds throughout the '70s and into the '80s. Following a few so-so records that Simon's record label did not love, he flew to South Africa with his engineer to begin work on Graceland. The relative disinterest from his label gave Simon a lot more creative freedom this time around. He jammed in the South African studio for two weeks with local musicians, who were paid well above the standard rate to secure the best talent. Between his South African recording sessions and his stateside sessions, Paul Simon crafted one of the most musically diverse records of all time. Catchy, airwave-friendly songs like You Can Call Me Al and Graceland were met with enthusiasm in the United States, especially with the famous Chevy Chase cameo in the You Can Call Me Al music video. However, it was the musically diverse tracks like Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes and Under African Skies, which embraced African and worldbeat influences, that truly propelled Graceland into the realm of greatness it now enjoys.


Dark, surrealistic, humorous, yet jangly—these words encapsulate the essence of the Pixies' second album, Doolittle. Alongside The Queen Is Dead, Doolittle is perhaps the second most praised album by us at Melophobe. On Doolittle, as with their debut, the band wasn't shackled by the expectations of radio stations or major record labels. With this album, the band had free rein, and anything was possible. The result was one of the most influential indie and alternative records ever. College radio listeners formed an almost cult-like appreciation for the band that persists today. The guitar-forward, reverb-drenched riffs laid the foundation for much of the '90s alternative and indie rock sound. The Pixies' influence seeped into the 2000s, with bands like The Strokes, Bloc Party, and Franz Ferdinand either directly or indirectly matching the sound to one extent or another. In the realm of '80s alternative rock, songs like Debaser, Hey, and Here Comes Your Man rank among the very best. With its significant influence on grunge, Doolittle has endured well beyond the '80s, with each listen revealing new layers to appreciate.

5. The Joshua Tree - U2

U2's most monumental release in their long and esteemed career was 1987's The Joshua Tree. Bono's impassioned vocals, The Edge's distinctive guitar work, Adam Clayton's steady bass, and Larry Mullen Jr.'s precise drumming combined to create a record that captured the emotion of an era to a level that no other U2 release had done before, or has since. Housing some of the band's finest songs like With or Without You, Where the Streets Have No Name and I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For, the album dominated mainstream pop and rock airwaves for the remainder of the decade. Bono, the sole lyricist on the record, crafted deep, thought-provoking lyrics about America from the perspective of a Western outsider. His lyrics went beyond political commentary, also reflecting the awe-inspiring geographical might of the US, hence the album's title. U2 subtly stepped out of their chant-fueled power-pop, post-punk hybrid comfort zone to create something bigger and deeper than even their praiseworthy previous records like War and The Unforgettable Fire, lasting for generations.


Talking Heads' fourth release, Remain in Light, stands atop the fantastic 16-year discography of Talking Heads. The 1980 record stands as a serious statement of the band's boundary-pushing sonic might and remains virtually unparalleled. Securing its rightful place among the greatest musical creations, its fusion of new wave, funk, and world music not only showcases the band's innovative style but also solidifies their role as icons in the alternative music space. Produced by Brian Eno, just as The Joshua Tree was, Remain in Light introduced ambitious musical ideas influenced by afrobeat, funk, and dance music. This melding of diverse influences created a danceable, hypnotic experience that drew listeners into a mesmerizing space between the familiar and the unexplored, especially with the album's third track, The Great Curve. Tracks like The Great Curve and Crosseyed and Painless foreshadowed the Madchester rave scene of the late '80s, turning rock songs into infectious anthems that demand movement. For alternative rock fans, few bands are revered more than Talking Heads, and Remain in Light sits near the top of those timeless '80s alternative records.



7. Master of Puppets - Metallica

Master of Puppets by Metallica is more than just the high point in the band's illustrious career; it's one of the finest releases in the world of heavy metal. Released in 1986, the record cast a long shadow over the metal scene of the following decade, influencing the sound and attitude of '90s metal alongside the band's 1984 release, Ride the Lightning. With its fast yet intricate guitar work, furious pacing, and complex musical arrangements, Master of Puppets offered a masterclass in the genre's potential for aggression and musicianship. By their third release, thrash metal was already on the rise, and Metallica didn't let listeners down with an even more aggressive and thrashier album. The more refined and technically savvy release showcased Metallica's evolving sound, propelling them to the top of the metal hierarchy where they remained supreme for decades.


In the latter half of the '80s, the Manchester music scene was captivated by a dance-forward indie rock sound, creating the psychedelic-fueled Madchester sound. The one Madchester record that took the world by storm was the debut album by The Stone Roses. The Stone Roses melded the city's indie-dance scene with the jangly pop sound popularized by The Smiths (at least in the UK), crafting a masterful hybrid. Songs like She Bangs the Drums and Made of Stone reflect the indie rock vibe of the era, while Fools Gold and Don't Stop are quintessentially Madchester. However, it was I Am the Resurrection that truly stunned listeners, becoming one of the finest indie rock songs ever. The band starts the track with guitar-driven indie rock, then shifts into an acid-fueled Madchester jam for the final four minutes. Although it took time for the album's greatness to be recognized outside the UK, it has since been hailed as one of the finest British albums of all time. This is one of those albums that seems to only get better with age.

9. Brothers in Arms - Dire Straits

Of all the commercially successful rock groups of the '80s, the one that worldwide seemed to stick out farther than any of the other was Dire Straits. Frontman Mark Knopfler encapsulated the world in the'80s with his unique, finger picking guitar style, exposing a clean, precise, nostalgic sound. Despite the changing lineup of musicians accompanying Knopfler throughout the decade, the band consistently released high-caliber albums. Their finest work of the decade, 1985's Brothers in Arms, was not only one of the best-selling albums of the '80s but of all time. Featuring iconic songs such as Money For Nothing, Walk of Life, and the jazzy rock tune Your Latest Trick, the album was adored by listeners even though it took critics a few years to come around to it's greatness. Over the seven years from their debut to Brothers in Arms, Dire Straits skillfully evolved from their traditional roots rock/pub rock sound to a mighty arena-rock sound. They amped up the volume, wrote longer and more complex songs, and added layers of horns and keyboards, achieving a mature and pristine mainstream rock sound that was crisper than most of their contemporaries. If you listen closely to Bye Bye Badman from The Stone Roses' debut, you can even hear a subtle nod to Mark Knopfler's Walk of Life guitar playing, as it weaved its way into the Madchester sound.


10. Daydream Nation - Sonic Youth

Being called an "extraordinary album" by David Bowie, Sonic Youth's fifth studio album, Daydream Nation, stands as on of the iconic, late '80s alternative album that helped pave the way for '90s alternative rock, alongside Doolittle by Pixies, You're Living All Over Me by Dinosaur Jr., and Nothing's Shocking by Jane's Addiction. This ambitious double album set the stage for grunge with its reverb-drenched guitar lines and surrealistic lyrics, while also laying the groundwork for much of '90s indie rock. Alongside help from Pixies, Daydream Nation heralded a return to an avant-garde, art-rock-influenced approach to songwriting, characterized by unconventional uses of space and expansive noise. Despite its nonexistent mainstream success, the album's excellence was recognized quickly and its influence became evident within just a few years.

11. Surfer Rosa - Pixies

12. The Number of the Beast - Iron Maiden

13. 1999 - Prince

14. Murmur - R.E.M.

15. Power, Corruption & Lies - New Order

16. Crazy Rhythms - The Feelies

17. Synchronicity - The Police

18. Closer - Joy Division

19. Hounds of Love - Kate Bush

20. 1984 - Van Halen

21. Let It Be - The Replacements

22. Disintegration - The Cure

23. The Smiths - The Smiths

24. Get Happy!! - Elvis Costello & The Attractions

25. Psychocandy - The Jesus and Mary Chain

26. Nightclubbing - Grace Jones

27. Songs from the Big Chair - Tears for Fears

28. Nothing's Shocking - Jane's Addiction

29. Double Nickels on the Dime - Minutemen

30. Whitesnake - Whitesnake

31. Low-Life - New Order

32. Reign in Blood - Slayer

33. The River - Bruce Springsteen

34. Skylarking - XTC

35. Rain Dogs - Tom Waits

36. Damaged - Black Flag

37. Back in Black - AC/DC

38. Sign 'O' the Times - Prince

39. Kaleidoscope - Siouxsie and the Banshees

40. Heaven Up Here - Echo & the Bunnymen

41. Los Angeles - X

42. Violent Femmes - Violent Femmes

43. Speaking in Tongues - Talking Heads

44. On Fire - Galaxie 500

45. War - U2

46. In the Flat Field - Bauhaus

47. Learning to Crawl - The Pretenders

48. From Her to Eternity - Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds

49. Making Movies - Dire Straits

50. Bleach - Nirvana



51. Private Dancer - Tina Turner

52. Tattoo You - The Rolling Stones

53. You're Living All Over Me - Dinosaur Jr.

54. Document - R.E.M.

55. New York - Lou Reed

56. Trust - Elvis Costello & The Attractions

57. Sister - Sonic Youth

58. Tracy Chapman - Tracy Chapman

59. Spirit of Eden - Talk Talk

60. Oranges & Lemons - XTC

61. Ride the Lightning - Metallica

62. Fresh Fruit for Rotting Vegetables - Dead Kennedys

63. Sandinista! - The Clash

64. Born in the U.S.A. - Bruce Springsteen

65. Locust Abortion Technician - Butthole Surfers

67. Gaucho - Steely Dan

68. Zen Arcade - Hüsker Dü

69. Appetite for Destruction - Guns N' Roses

70. Pornography - The Cure

71. Rio - Duran Duran

72. London 0 Hull 4 - The Housemartins

73. Vs. - Mission of Burma

74. Tim - The Replacements

75. Imperial Bedroom - Elvis Costello & The Attractions



76. Hex Enduction Hour - The Fall

77. Dirty Mind - Prince

78. Bug - Dinosaur Jr.

79. Head Over Heels - Cocteau Twins

80. Ace of Spades - Motörhead

81. Avalon - Roxy Music

82. Telephone Free Landslide Victory - Camper Van Beethoven

83. Dare - The Human League

84. Out of Step - Minor Threat

85. The Good Earth - The Feelies

86. So - Peter Gabriel

87. The Completion Backward Principle - The Tubes

88. Moving Pictures - Rush

89. Genesis - Genesis

90. Movement - New Order

91. Isn't Anything - My Bloody Valentine

92. I Just Can't Stop It - The Beat

93. Pyromania - Def Leppard

94. 16 Lovers Lane - The Go-Betweens

95. Non-Stop Erotic Cabaret - Soft Cell

96. The Traveling Wilburys Vol. 1 - The Traveling Wilburys

97. Pleased to Meet Me - The Replacements

98. Pretenders II - The Pretenders

99. Let's Dance - David Bowie

100. Green - R.E.M.

 

Just Outside the Top 100

101. Heartbeat City - The Cars

102. Full Moon Fever - Tom Petty

103. Ocean Rain - Echo & the Bunnymen

104. Eliminator - ZZ Top

105. The Sensual World - Kate Bush

106. My Life in the Bush of Ghosts - David Byrne & Brian Eno

107. This Nation's Saving Grace - The Fall

108. The Blue Mask - Lou Reed

109. Escape - Journey

110. Your Funeral... My Trial - Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds

111. Technique - New Order

112. Kick - INXS

113. Reckless - Bryan Adams

114. Music for the Masses - Depeche Mode

115. Meat Puppets II - Meat Puppets

116. Bad Reputation - Joan Jett

117. Soul Mining - The The

118. Signals - Rush

119. The Game - Queen

120. In My Tribe - 10,000 Maniacs

121. Business as Usual - Men at Work

122. Darklands - The Jesus and Mary Chain

123. Colour by Numbers - Culture Club

124. Last Mango in Paris - Jimmy Buffett

125. Juju - Siouxsie and the Banshees


Be sure to check out our list of the Top 100 Greatest Rock Albums of the '70s. Check us out on Instagram @melophobemusic for new articles, releases, reviews, pictures and more!




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