Home Music Music Lists

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

48. Kate Bush, ‘Never for Ever’

Kate Bush’s third album was a turning point — she got deeply into her synthesizers, using the brand-new Fairlight CMI sampler to open new vistas for her songwriting. Never for Ever showed how much her imagination thrived on this level of control — it led to her next two albums, The Dreaming and Hounds of Love, arguably her two best. “Breathing” is her dark fantasy of an unborn baby contemplating the threat of nuclear war, wondering if she should linger in the womb longer; “The Infant Kiss” is a ghost story where Bush plays a Victorian governess in a haunted house. —R.S.

47. Black Sabbath, ‘Heaven and Hell’

The departure of Ozzy Osbourne in 1979 was supposed to doom Black Sabbath, but the remaining three members simply brought former Rainbow vocalist Ronnie James Dio into the fold and carried on like nothing happened. Dio brought not only an incredibly rich and dynamic voice into the group, but also lyrics about neon knights, kings and queens, and children of the sea that were unlike anything in the Sabbath canon. It was a fusion of new life for a band that had been repeating itself for the past couple of albums, and one of the great metal albums of the Eighties. —A.G.

46. Donna Summer, ‘The Wanderer’

Disco may have been nearly dead by the Eighties, but that didn’t mean Donna Summer’s reign was quite done yet. After leaving her controlling, exploitative label Casablanca Records, she found herself on a journey of self-discovery and renewed faith in Christianity. Summer signed to the then-new Geffen Records as their first official artist and strutted out of Studio 54 and into the world of New Wave and rock. Her trusted allies Giorgio Moroder and Peter Bellotte came along for the ride, helping the Queen of Disco earn a Grammy nomination for Best Female Rock Vocal Performance for foot-stomper “Cold Love.” Her faith also takes center stage, with Summer tackling a bit of gospel for closing track “I Believe in Jesus.” —B.S.

45. Van Morrison, ‘Common One’

Every six or seven years, Van Morrison sails into the mystic, as he did on this underrated gem, returning to the blissed-out exploratory territory of Veedon Fleece and Astral Weeks. If you’re the kind of Van fan who likes to hear him stretch out, mumbling about poets (“Did you ever hear about Wordsworth and Coleridge?”) as he worries his syllables to the point of abstraction, “Summertime in England,” one of two 15-minute-plus epics here, is a career highlight. Much of the rest of the track list is taken up with sumptuous ballads bathed in brass, strings, and Pee Wee Ellis’ heart-rending sax. —H.S.

44. Pylon, ‘Gyrate’

The coolest band in the college-rock utopia of Athens, Georgia, Pylon gave clipped U.K. dance punk a red-clay makeover, tempering the precise drive of “Feast On My Heart” and “The Human Body” with wide-open agrarian jangle that made their minimalism feel open and fun. The guitar sound influenced R.E.M., among others, and singer Vanessa Briscoe Hay invented a new slacker lexicon when she sang lines like “Working is no problem/Just as long as I keep my mind,” looking past trendy anger and alienation to speak to the real lives of art-school refugees like herself. —J.D.

43. Shalamar, ‘Three for Love’

Shalamar was born out of Soul Train: Two of the group’s members, Jody Watley and Jeffrey Daniel, started as dancers on the popular weekly music show. When they entered the studio with the formidable writer-producer-multi-instrumentalist Leon Sylvers III, the result was a steady trickle of hits. Three for Love contains two of their best — “This Is for the Lover in You,” a slinky, funky ballad polished to gleaming, and “Make That Move,” with a bass line that would make Chic’s Bernard Edwards glow with pride. “Make That Move” earned the group an invitation to return to Soul Train — as performers. —E.L.

42. Captain Beefheart and the Magic Band, ‘Doc at the Radar Station’

The avant-garde rock great returned to the surrealist primitive attack of his 1969 classic, Trout Mask Replica, on what would end up being his penultimate album before retiring from music. The frenetic free-form tumult of “Dirty Blue Gene,” “Hot Head,” and “Ashtray Heart” found the Captain strikingly in step with post-punk, and “Sue Egypt” is almost a straight-ahead guitar anthem, which makes the serene beauty of the instrumental “A Carrot Is as Close as a Rabbit Gets to a Diamond” all the more striking. —J.D.

41. Iron Maiden, ‘Iron Maiden’

Bassist and lead songwriter Steve Harris has always downplayed punk influences on Iron Maiden’s early music, but there’s a raw energy in frontman Paul Di’Anno’s husky vocals on fist-banging anthems like “Prowler,” “Running Free,” and “Iron Maiden” that feels more like the Clash than Deep Purple. It’s that confluence of Di’Anno’s street-tough singing and the verve with which the band executed Harris’ unusual melodies (“Remember Tomorrow”) and galloping riffs (“Phantom of the Opera”) on Iron Maiden that positioned them as leaders of the so-called “new wave of British heavy metal.” —K.G.

40. Siouxsie and the Banshees, ‘Kaleidoscope’

Siouxsie Sioux had been in the game for a couple of years, but she made her big power play on Kaleidoscope — the album where she claimed her place as a high priestess of rock’s dark arts. One reason: She upgraded her Banshees, recruiting drummer Budgie and one of the Eighties’ unsung guitar masters in John McGeoch, from the band Magazine. His heavily flanged psych-swirl sound colored the trilogy of Kaleidoscope, Juju, and A Kiss in the Dreamhouse. Sioux’s vocal charisma goes through the roof in hits like “Happy House” and “Christine.” —R.S.

39. Rush, ‘Permanent Waves’

Just two short years after their high-concept, progressive-rock masterpiece Hemispheres, Rush redefined what prog would mean for themselves and an entire generation by filtering their unabashedly geeky ideas through New Wave aesthetics on Permanent Waves. What resulted was a pair of future FM staples, the joyous, reggae-tinged “The Spirit of Radio,” and “Freewill”; the beautifully streamlined and openhearted “Entre Nous”; the understated ballad “Different Strings”; and two lengthier tracks that gave prog a sleek Eighties facelift. Permanent Waves would hit Number Four in the U.S. and pave the way for the career-defining Moving Pictures one year later. —H.S.

38. Grace Jones, ‘Warm Leatherette’

How strange to think that in the 1970s Grace Jones was just another Studio 54 disco singer. But she remade herself into the planet’s weirdest New Wave cyborg dominatrix with Warm Leatherette. Jones got herself a butch flat-top haircut and a new Caribbean band with Sly and Robbie. She flexed her severe snarl on tunes by Roxy Music, Smokey Robinson, and Chrissie Hynde. “I treated the songs as though they were already classics,” Jones said. “When I sing a song I need to get into character, because it is all theater for me.” And who was this new character? “A creature that was based on me, that was all me, but made more, made bigger.” —R.S.

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.