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The 80 Greatest Albums of 1980

What came out of all this was, arguably, the greatest year for great albums ever

Rolling Stone

It was the end— the end of the Seventies — and everyone was more than a little antsy to get going on whatever was about to come next. In terms of music, the new decade started off like someone had fired a starter’s pistol.

It’s fitting that the Clash’s London Calling, which is ranked Number One on our list of the best albums of 1980, came out in January of that year, and if you listen to the records that follow it on the list, there’s a palpable sense of clearing away the past to invent the future. Every style of music was fragmenting and evolving in ways that would’ve been hard to imagine just a couple of years ago, especially punk and New Wave, which were mutating into synth-pop, post-punk, goth, the New Romantic movement, the two-tone ska revival, the very beginnings of indie rock, and more. Funk and disco were getting streamlined. Metal was getting meaner, faster, and sharper.

Meanwhile, the classic artists who’d defined rock, country, and R&B were going strong, either by responding to the changes around them (Pete Townshend, Genesis), sticking to their guns (Van Morrison, Neil Young), or getting even weirder than they were in the Seventies (Bob Dylan).

What came out of it all this was, arguably, the greatest year for great albums ever. If you walked into a record store on October 8th, and you only had enough cash for one record, you were really in a bind, because Prince’s Dirty Mind (Number Three) and Talking Heads’ Remain in Light (Number Four) both came out that very same day. This kind of consumer crisis came up all the time in 1980. July 18th was an especially rough day for mopey punk fans, who were forced to choose between Echo and the Bunnymen’s Crocodiles (Number 72) and Joy Division’s Closer (Number 10), and headbangers had it rough on April 14th, the release day for Iron Maiden’s self-titled debut (Number 41) as well as Judas Priest’s British Steel (Number 18).

Getting our list down to 80 was a real struggle (sorry, Dire Straits’ Making Movies and George Benson’s Give Me the Night). But it was a joy to revisit so much great, groundbreaking music.

From Rolling Stone US

11. Bob Marley and the Wailers, ‘Uprising’

The last album Bob Marley recorded before his death in 1981 opens with the buoyant graciousness of “Coming in From the Cold,” and contains his gorgeous reggae-disco-fusion hit “Could You Be Loved.” He depicts a world on the edge of armageddon on “Real Situation” and “Bad Card,” with Rastafarian spirituality offered as faint hope against the impending apocalypse. But he ends with “Redemption Song,” his most beloved and powerful statement of global and personal resistance. —J.D. 

10. Joy Division, ‘Closer’

Joy Division’s second and final album was both recorded and released under tragic circumstances. As the band put together the post-punk masterpiece, singer Ian Curtis’ struggle with epilepsy was growing increasingly dire and his seizures were becoming more violent and disruptive to his life. In May 1980, the singer hanged himself. Closer would be released two months later, an unrelentingly icy, dark, suffocating body of work that is also immensely danceable. With their final album, Joy Division set the tone for the next decade of goth rock and New Wave, including the soon-to-be-formed group New Order, comprised of Curtis’ former bandmates. —B.S.

9. Diana Ross, ‘Diana’

Miss Ross wanted to celebrate a new chapter in her life — so she turned to clubland’s hottest duo, Chic’s Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards. They wrote their idol a brash anthem called “Upside Down.” She hated it. Motown hated it. The only one who seemed to realize its greatness was — of all people — Kiss’ Gene Simmons. As Rodgers wrote in Le Freak, “We respected Gene, but he was dating Diana Ross at the time, so what else would he say?” Yet, Gene got it right. “Upside Down” zoomed right to Number One, and her Chic collab Diana became her defining solo masterwork — especially the prophetic queer pride of “I’m Coming Out.” —R.S. 

8. Bruce Springsteen, ‘The River’

“Let’s make a record that’s like the show” was the goal for Springsteen’s sui generis double album. His fifth LP is also an exercise in extremes: Its songs tend to be either seaside frat-party rockers (“Sherry Darling,” “I’m a Rocker”) or midnight confessional ballads (“Drive All Night,” “Stolen Car”). One of the many qualities of The River, which predicted the vulnerable starkness of 1982’s Nebraska, was the way in which the party anthems actually concealed a profound bleakness: Springsteen once called “Ramrod,” his revved-up psychosexual ode to muscle cars, “one of the saddest songs I’ve ever written.” —J.B.

7. David Bowie, ‘Scary Monsters’

No album reflects the cocaine-dusted chrome of the Eighties quite like David Bowie’s Scary Monsters. The album kicks off with actress Michi Hirota shouting in Japanese on “It’s No Game (Part I)” and careens through a jagged, crystalline landscape populated by lurching mimes (“Ashes to Ashes”), robotic scenesters (“Fashion”), and, of course, the titular monsters. Bursting with top-tier talent — Pete Townshend, E Street Band pianist Roy Bittan, and guitarist Robert Fripp — Scary Monsters neatly obliterated various iterations of Bowie (sorry, Major Tom) at the crest of a new decade. —B.E. 

6. X, ‘Los Angeles’

X rose out of the L.A. hardcore-punk scene, immortalized in the documentary The Decline of Western Civilization. They had a brilliant four-album run in the early Eighties — 1981’s Wild Gift is practically punk’s Rumours — starting with this raw, insurrectionary debut. John Doe and Exene Cervenka (a married couple) harmonize their street poetry over the rockabilly slam-dance of guitarist Billy Zoom and drummer D.J. Bonebrake. Their L.A. is a town full of psycho creeps, racists, drug fiends, losers — but they call it home. It ends with their theme song, “The World’s a Mess, It’s in My Kiss.” —R.S. 

5. The Pretenders, ‘Pretenders’

Chrissie Hynde had survived both the American-hippie and English-punk movements by the time she got the Pretenders together, and their self-titled debut reflects both of those sensibilities. The first song, “Precious,” with Hynde’s “Fuck off” declaration and James Honeyman-Scott’s tasteful, jammy solos was like a middle finger to those two scenes at once. Meanwhile, “Brass in Pocket” and “Mystery Achievement” have both a tough grit and sense of melody that showed the Pretenders were capable of so much more in the years to come. —K.G. 

4. AC/DC, ‘Back in Black’

AC/DC’s 1979 LP, Highway to Hell, was a commercial breakthrough, finally getting the Australian hard rockers significant airplay in the U.S. But lead singer Bon Scott’s death in February 1980 almost led to the band’s long-awaited mainstream success being cut short. In light of the tragedy, AC/DC quickly regrouped and decided to push forth with a new singer. Back in Black was written and recorded with Brian Johnson in under two months and was met with an even bigger response than its predecessor. Punchy and raw, the album bridged the gap between the old and coming eras of metal, notably influencing the likes of Van Halen and Metallica. —B.S.

3. Prince, ‘Dirty Mind’

Dirty Mind is one of the most concise, joyful statements in modern musical history — a blazing-quick tour through jubilant pop (“When You Were Mine”), ankle-breaking synth-funk (“Head”), romping rock (“Sister”), and late-night soul (“Gotta Broken Heart Again”). It served as an announcement of Prince’s grand ambitions and once-in-a-generation talent, and other artists couldn’t help but get jealous: “I can’t believe people are gullible enough to buy Prince’s jive records,” Rick James told Rolling Stone. Meanwhile, Prince was winning over James’ fans show by show. “We would go over like gangbusters,” guitarist Dez Dickerson said, “because the black audience was just dying for something new.” —E.L.

2. Talking Heads, ‘Remain in Light’

While AC/DC were making Back in Black one room over in the same Bahamas studio, Talking Heads were creating their own masterpiece. Inspired by Nigerian musician Fela Kuti, the band — along with mastermind producer Brian Eno — fused New Wave, world beat, funk, and more, which resulted in the most danceable record of their career. They later brought in King Crimson guitarist Adrian Belew and singer Nona Hendryx to expand the palette of their sound, from the dizzying opener, “Born Under Punches (The Heat Goes On),” to the hit “Once in a Lifetime.” “Our process led us to something with some affinity to Afro-funk, but we got there the long way ’round, and of course our version sounded slightly off,” Byrne said in 2017. “We didn’t get it quite right, but in missing, we ended up with something new.” —A.M. 

1. The Clash, ‘London Calling’

The Clash set out to make history on London Calling — and that’s exactly what they did. London Calling is the punk upstarts’ bold double-vinyl statement, on a death-or-glory scale. With their classic 1977 debut, the Clash proved they could blow away any band when it came to passion and intensity. But here they showed they could do it all, dabbling in reggae, rockabilly, New Orleans R&B, even pop. It’s the mightiest band of their era hitting new heights, from the anti-fascist rage of “Clampdown” to the jolly brew-for-breakfast skank of “Rudie Can’t Fail.” When Joe Strummer yells, “Now get this!” he’s got your full attention.The album was a breakthrough hit, as the Clash knew it deserved to be. Strummer told Rolling Stone he met a German skinhead who said, “My grandmother likes ‘Wrong ‘Em Boyo.’ What have you done to me?” They confront tough times — poverty, drug addiction, racist violence, the nuclear arms race. With right-wing regimes on the rise in the U.K. and the U.S., there was an urgency to “Spanish Bombs” and “Death or Glory” — songs about keeping the revolutionary spirit alive even in the face of defeat. Like Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull, London Calling arrived just as the Seventies spilled into the Eighties, with a challenge to the new decade. Also like Raging Bull — a movie Scorsese directed while constantly blasting the Clash’s first album on the set — it’s a gritty portrait of rude boys facing a hostile world. There’s even a love song — the surprise hit “Train in Vain (Stand by Me).” But the Clash gave it the same honesty they brought to everything else. That’s why London Calling has remained a classic ever since. —R.S.