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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

37. Billy Joel, ‘Glass Houses’

The music world was changing quickly, thanks to the rise of New Wave, punk, and disco, when Billy Joel cut Glass Houses. But Joel is a rock traditionalist and he responded with “It’s Still Rock and Roll to Me” and an album of songs that would have worked in any musical era, including the hits “You May Be Right” and “Don’t Ask Me Why,” and the deeper cuts “Sleeping With the Television On” and “Close to the Borderline.” Many of them remain in his set list to this day. —A.G.

36. Smokey Robinson, ‘Warm Thoughts’

Robinson’s long run as a hitmaking writer-producer with peerless gifts for soul melodies was beginning to wind down at the end of the Seventies. But then he engineered yet another burst of ingenuity and commercial success, scoring Top Five R&B hits in 1979, 1980, and 1981. “Let Me Be the Clock,” which opened his Warm Thoughts LP, was the centerpiece of the run, a tender, breathy come-on modeled on the previous year’s classic, “Cruisin’.” “Wine, Women and Song” and “I Want to Be Your Love” were similarly irresistible, proving Robinson’s inimitable, quavering falsetto was as alluring in 1980 as it was in 1960. —E.L.

35. Devo, ‘Freedom of Choice’

Devo spent the Seventies straddling the fine line between punk and art rock, but when the Eighties began they found themselves in the world of mainstream pop, when Top 40 radio embraced their deceptively subversive song “Whip It.” It was one of the most memorable tunes on Freedom of Choice, but there’s truly not a weak one on the entire LP. “Girl U Want” is an ode to teenage horniness, while “Freedom of Choice” sums up the band’s entire theory of devolution in a single frenzied song. The album ultimately destroyed the band because its label demanded “Whip It”-size follow-ups, but for one shining moment in time, Devo teenagers all over America thought Devo were cool, and it was glorious. —A.G.

34. Joan Armatrading, ‘Me Myself I’

Joan Armatrading built her devoted cult by going her own way — “Me Myself I” is a tribute to the joys of being a loner: “I wanna have a boyfriend and a girl for laughs,” she sings, “But only on Saturday/Six days to be alone.” A soft-spoken folkie songwriter, she taught herself guitar growing up in a West Indian immigrant family in England. Me Myself I is her punchiest rock album. Even the love songs celebrate blissful solitude, as in “I Can’t Lie to Myself,” where she shrugs and states “You’re a beautiful person/But just now you bother me.” —R.S.

33. Young Marble Giants, ‘Colossal Youth’

Forming in the isolated seaside city of Cardiff, Wales, Young Marble Giants were inspired by punk’s liberating spirit, but developed their sound in a private world outside of the punk scene — and you can hear their isolated epiphanies all over their debut LP. Singer Alison Statton sang with a tense, hushed prettiness over Stuart Moxham’s muted guitar and his brother Philip’s soft bass pokes, creating an arresting, quiet sound that had influenced generations of shy indie-rockers — and some less shy ones, too, like Courtney Love, who covered “Credit in the Straight World” on Live Through This. —J.D.

32. Rolling Stones, ‘Emotional Rescue’

At the dawn of the Eighties, the Stones were coming off the high of 1978’s Some Girls and dealing with the aftermath of Keith Richards’ arrest for heroin possession and all the distracting drama that followed. That might explain why Emotional Rescue feels a bit tossed-off at times, but that’s part of its charm; the disco-inspired title track and gems like “She’s So Cold” and “Dance (Pt. 1)” prove that the Stones could deliver even when it seems like they’re barely trying. —A.G.

31. Public Image Ltd., ‘Second Edition’

When the Sex Pistols broke up in 1978, Johnny Rotten started using his original name, John Lydon, and immediately got to work violently inventing his new future with Public Image Ltd. PiL packaged initial pressings of their second LP in a tin can and called it Metal Box (conventional pressings in the U.S. and U.K. were released as Second Edition). Improvised in the studio, with Lydon coming up with irony-dripping songs like “Poptones,” “Careering,” and “Swan Lake” over Jah Wobble’s molten reggae bass and Keith Levene’s banshee guitar peels, Second Edition pushed beyond post-punk into a fractured space between demented abstraction and cranky freedom. —J.D.