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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

30. George Jones, ‘I Am What I Am’

Most everyone had written off George Jones as a has-been by the time the 49-year-old country legend released this return-to-form honky-tonk classic: “He Stopped Loving Her Today” single-handedly rejuvenated the Possum’s career, instantaneously becoming his signature song, but 40 years later, the rest of the album holds up shockingly well. There’s classic cheating-song wordplay (“I’m the One She Missed Him With Today”), tragicomic meditations on middle-age (“I’ve Aged Twenty Years in Five”), and foreboding premonitions about the difficulties of getting sober (“Bone Dry”). —J.B.

29. Black Uhuru, ‘Sinsemilla’

Five years before winning the first Grammy for Best Reggae Album, Jamaican reggae pioneers Black Uhuru linked with rhythm-section/production gods Sly and Robbie for their third outing and first on powerhouse label Island Records. While their best album, Red, would come a year later, the group’s devotion to Rastafarianism and the synthesis of traditional roots reggae with laser-conjuring synths is in stark relief on Sinsemilla. It’s the most influential Jamaican music releases of 1980, and the album that helped introduce the group to audiences outside of their Jamaican roots. Bonus points for the group having a rare American singer in former social worker Puma Jones. —J.N.

28. Ozzy Osbourne, ‘Blizzard of Ozz’

After Black Sabbath booted Ozzy Osbourne for excessive drinking and drugging (even by Sabbath standards), the singer’s gut reaction was to drink and drug himself into oblivion. Fortuitously, he met the six-string whiz kid Randy Rhoads, whose speed-demon riffs and gothic flare reinvigorated Osbourne when they wrote. “Crazy Train” was an instant classic, “Mr. Crowley” exuded darkness, and the ballad “Goodbye to Romance” was a sweet farewell to Sabbath. Osbourne sounded reborn, and subsequently half of Blizzard has stayed in his set lists for the past four decades. —K.G. 

27. Paul McCartney, ‘McCartney II’

As the Seventies wound down, Paul McCartney decided to detach himself from Wings and make a solo album … literally. As with his first post-Beatles album, 1970’s McCartney, he wrote every song and performed every instrument himself (with a little vocal help from his wife Linda) on McCartney II. Like everyone else in the late Seventies, he got his hands on some cool synthesizers and went to town, writing quirky dance numbers (“Coming Up”), avant-garde expeditions (“Temporary Secretary”), and, of course, silly love songs (“Waterfalls”). —K.G. 

26. Teddy Pendergrass, ‘TP’

Pendergrass, the husky-voiced dynamo at the center of the Philadelphia ensemble Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes, established himself as one of soul’s pre-eminent balladeers in the late Seventies and early Eighties. On tracks like the disconsolate “Love T.K.O.” and the sensual “Feel the Fire,” he managed to merge meticulous precision — catlike guitars tiptoe around Pendergrass as he wails — with pile-driving force: This singer could inhale louder than some of his competitors could belt. But Pendergrass wasn’t all low and slow; he threw himself into uptempo numbers with the same vigor that he attacked ballads. “Take Me in Your Arms Tonight,” a chipper back-and-forth with Stephanie Mills, still gives off enough sparks to ignite a dance floor. —E.L.

25. John Prine, ‘Storm Windows’

On his last major-label album before starting his own Oh Boy Records, Prine headed to Muscle Shoals, Alabama, for this dynamic collection of childhood remembrances (“One Red Rose”) and dystopian dreamings (“Living in the Future”). Songs like “Shop Talk” and “Baby Ruth” still have traces of Pink Cadilllac, the singer’s chaotic rockabilly collection released the year before, but the title track is one of Prine’s most enduring originals, complete with its rainy-day-lullaby chorus. —J.B.

24. U2, ‘Boy’

The four members of U2 were barely out of their teenage years when their debut album, Boy, hit, but they’d been gigging around their native Ireland for the previous four years and had amassed an incredible collection of songs steeped in lost innocence and apprehensions about entering the adult world. Leadoff track “I Will Follow” was their first hit, but it’s lesser-known songs like “Into the Heart,” “The Ocean,” and “Stories for Boys” that show the true depths of their talents. —A.G.

23. The Feelies, ‘Crazy Rhythms’

With their tucked-in, straight-laced look, two drummers, introverted stage presence, and taut, frantic jittery sound, Hoboken, New Jersey’s Feelies weren’t like anything else on the punk scene, and their debut still radiates with a guitar-crazed sense of discovery. The off-kilter tension builds through “The Boy With the Perpetual Nervousness” and “Loveless Love,” until it erupts into the clattering rapture of “Raised Eyebrows” and the six-minute, trance-jam title track. Meanwhile, their wild version of “Everybody’s Got Something to Hide Except Me and My Monkey” is one of the greatest left-field Beatles covers ever recorded. —J.D. 

22. Stevie Wonder, ‘Hotter Than July’

After the disappointing critical and commercial performance of Wonder’s 1979 album, Stevie Wonder’s Journey Through The Secret Life of Plants, some speculated that his magic touch may have been fading a bit. But Wonder was back on his game here, showing off his versatile touch with the lovely disco pop of “All I Do,” the Bob Marley tribute “Master Blaster,” and the country-tinged “I Ain’t Gonna Stand for It.”  He ends the album with the synth-y euphoria of “Happy Birthday,” written in honor of Martin Luther King Jr., whose birthday was recognized as a national holiday three years later. —J.D. 

21. The B-52’s, ‘Wild Planet’

Cindy Wilson, Kate Pierson, Fred Schneider, and Ricky Wilson — with their mix of beehives and bouffants, quirky vocals and visual idiosyncrasies — were always operating somewhere out of time. So their sophomore album — coming after the sci-fi hi-fi of “Planet Claire” and the perennial party hit “Rock Lobster” from the first album that landed like a neutron bomb — wasn’t as shocking as their debut, but it was still consistently excellent. The group continued to channel a Sixties retro weirdness, but what makes this record unforgettable is “Private Idaho,” which kept the radio-friendly success rolling for the self-proclaimed “tacky little dance band” from Athens, Georgia. —J.P.

20. John Lennon and Yoko Ono, ‘Double Fantasy’

Released less than a month before his murder, Lennon’s final album marked his return to music, following a five-year hiatus when he was a stay-at-home dad to his son Sean. It kicks off with the joyous and appropriately titled “(Just Like) Starting Over,” while “Watching the Wheels” reflects on his period away from the spotlight. Entering the Eighties, the production is sleek and refined. As a collaboration with Yoko Ono, each song acts as a dialogue between the couple, covering the good times (“Woman”) and the bad (“I’m Losing You,” and “I’m Moving On”). “I feel like Double Fantasy would have been the beginning of a whole new style of records for him,” Sean Ono Lennon recently told Rolling Stone. A.M. 

Various Artists, ‘Wanna Buy a Bridge?’

The London indie label Rough Trade compiled this sampler at the perfect moment — just in time to document an explosion of arty postpunk rebels, rising up to make a new kind of noise. Wanna Buy a Bridge? catches these bands at their peak: Delta 5 (the manic feminist funk chant “Mind Your Own Business”), the Raincoats (the wild guitar-violin groove “In Love”), the Slits, Stiff Little Fingers, Kleenex, Cabaret Voltaire, Essential Logic, Scritti Politti, the Pop Group, and others. Wanna Buy a Bridge? became hugely influential in the U.S., where these bands’ proper records were impossible to find. Comic relief: Television Personalities’ “Part Time Punks,” a singalong ditty making fun of anyone who might buy the record. —R.S. 

18. Judas Priest, ‘British Steel’

British Steel was Judas Priest’s sixth album, but they had the energy of a band just starting out. There’s not a wasted second on their anti-Thatcherism screed (and MTV hit) “Breaking the Law” or their ode to living after midnight, “Living After Midnight,” and “United” was about as pop as heavy metal could get in 1980. But what made the record a classic is how nearly every song could have been a single, from the foot-stomping majesty of “Metal Gods” to the lumbering acrimony of “The Rage.” British Steel helped heavy metal level up. —K.G. 

17. Steely Dan, ‘Gaucho’

Steely Dan’s slickest album was the last one they released before taking 20 years off. Guacho’s vacuum-sealed sound was the perfect fit for “Babylon Sisters,” “Hey Nineteen,” and “Glamour Profession,” sickly smooth dispatches from Donald Fagen and Walter Becker’s cocaine-glazed El Lay. It was the peak of the Dan’s obsessive studio perfectionism. Becker and Fagen even famously constructed a $200,000 drum machine to give their easeful, arid grooves just the right antiseptic feel, and indeed this is $200,000-drum-machine rock at its finest. —J.D. 

16. The Jam, ‘Sound Affects’

Paul Weller was just a lad of 22, but he’d already outgrown the London punk scene. On Sound Affects, the Jam’s fifth and finest album, he revels in the classic English songcraft of the Kinks and the Small Faces, singing about working-class anger over the mod bravado of “Boy About Town” and “Pretty Green.” “Start!” cleverly nicks the Beatles’ “Taxman” — a tribute to Weller’s fab arrogance as well as his amazing drummer. “That’s Entertainment” is a grim acoustic ballad of urban malaise, but Weller was typically cheeky about it, recalling, “Coming home pissed from the pub and writing ‘That’s Entertainment’ in 10 minutes, ‘Weller’s finest song to date,’ hah!” —R.S. 

15. Chic, ‘Real People’

Chic masterminds Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards were riding high, crafting dance hits for Diana Ross, Sister Sledge, and others. But they saved their weirdest, edgiest tunes for themselves. After the pop success of Risqué, with the hit “Good Times,” they felt free to flaunt their cerebral side in Real People, on New York grooves like “26” and “Chip Off the Old Block.” In Rodgers’ words, “We were bards who self-imposed a deceptive masquerade architecture on our lyrics.” It’s a disco version of a late Steely Dan album, with high-life ennui and despair under the swank surface. —R.S. 

14. The English Beat, ‘I Just Can’t Stop It’

Along with the Specials and the Selecter, Birmingham, England’s the Beat were part of a racially integrated “2 tone” movement that mixed Jamaican ska and U.K. punk. Their debut is at once jubilant and caustic, setting sharp dispatches on the same less-than-zero solipsism Elvis Costello and the Clash were singing to the tense, serpentine grooves of “Mirror in the Bathroom” and “Twist and Crawl.” They buoyantly cover Smokey Robinson’s “Tears of a Clown,” deliver skanking anti-fascist politics (“Stand Down Margaret”), and top it off with the incisive guitar-pop sunburst of “Best Friend.” —J.D. 

13. Elvis Costello and the Attractions, ‘Get Happy!!’

“Our soul album,” Elvis Costello called this tour de force. “We went down to the pub and had a drink and said, ‘Let’s do it like Booker T and the M.G.s.’” Get Happy!! was the result — 20 two-minute songs crammed on one vinyl LP, with Motown and Stax R&B licks bashed out at Ramones speed. For all the clever wordplay (“The chairman of this boredom is a compliment collector/I’d like to be his funeral director”), the songs hit deep, especially ballads like “Opportunity,” “Riot Act,” and “Clowntime Is Over.” —R.S. 

12. Motörhead, ‘Ace of Spades’

There are few heavy-metal underdog anthems as eloquent as “Ace of Spades”: “You know I’m born to lose, and gambling’s for fools/But that’s the way I like it, baby, I don’t wanna live forever.” Lemmy Kilmister was hard rock’s great philosophical poet, and Ace of Spades was part Paradise Lost and part Don Juan, and a whole lot funnier than either. Throughout, Kilmister spits lewd double entendres, words of wisdom, and even the rare glimmer of hope as on “Live to Win”: “They might try and fence you in/But you’ve only gotta live to win.” —K.G. 

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.

In This Article: best albums, New Wave, R&B, The Clash