Five Lesser-Known Albums From The 1980s You Need To Hear Today

Oct 9, 2020
It was at the tail end of the 1980s that I really began to explore the further reaches of what popular music had to offer, the guiding influence of Pixies and Public Enemy sending me on a journey that I'm still on to this day. I've since gone back to find plenty musical treats in a decade which, for me at that younger age at least, seemed to be overshadowed by the Live Aid 'dinosaurs' until further investigation was performed to disprove that notion.

It was an era memorable for a variety of different musical movements, from New Romanticism to alt. rock; it saw hip hop begin its march towards global dominance and heavy metal splinter into numerous sub-genres, from thrash to death metal. 

When it comes to albums released across that ten-year period, the usual suspects are frequently given the spotlight, whether it's Prince's Sign Of The Times, The Smiths The Queen Is Dead, Hounds Of  Love by Kate Bush or Doolittle by Pixies. And there are obvious reasons why these LPs feature so prominently and so regularly, but there are plenty of lists out there to confirm which ones are considered the best the eighties had to offer.

There was a whole lot more happening throughout that decade though and what follows here are five of my LP picks by artists that may have released more acclaimed albums within that time but posses enough invention and creativity to make them worthy of repeat visits, over 30 years later.

Album cover for GRACE JONES - Warm Leatherette (1980, Island Records)

GRACE JONES - Warm Leatherette (1980, Island Records)

A striking figure in any artistic venture, Grace Jones' musical career really came into its own with this, her fourth album. Previously investing primarily in disco sounds without attracting too much attention outside of the club scene, she hooked up with production duo Sly & Robbie (amongst others) as the 1970s came to a close to work on Warm Leatherette. Going for a more new wave/post punk aesthetic, it was a transformation in terms of her sound, incorporating flavours of reggae and funk for what were mostly cover versions of songs by the likes of Roxy Music, Tom Petty and Smokey Robinson. The title track, an interpretation of The Normal's 1978 single, smooths down some of the original's rougher electro edges but still must have sounded extraordinary at the time compared to her earlier output - a real statement of intent. Clipped, near-robotic spoken word delivery mixed with more soulful (but still somehow standoffish) singing helped Jones' version of The Pretenders' 'Private Life' become her first significant chart hit while her monumental take on Roxy Music's 'Love Is The Drug' became a lasting dancefloor classic (the '86 remix actually improving on it) - regardless of the genre, her ear was always firmly attuned to the club scene. A cover of Tom Petty's 'Breakdown' gives the song a reggae overhaul but still manages to veer into a Doors-esque jam, and one of the few original songs on the album - 'Bullshit' - although not penned by the singer, has the kind of no nonsense approach that suits her to a tee. Her follow-up LP, Nightclubbing, was the album that became the most acclaimed of her career (nabbing NME's coveted Album of the Year slot) but it's on Warm Leatherette and its sonic reinvention that it became abundantly clear that her music could finally match her formidable public persona.

Album cover of TOM VERLAINE - Dreamtime (1981, Warner Bros.)

TOM VERLAINE - Dreamtime (1981, Warner Bros.)

The band Television arguably provided New York's CBGBs punk scene in the 1970s (see also Blondie, Ramones, Patti Smith) with its crowning achievement in the form of their debut album, Marque Moon. Acclaimed as a masterpiece upon its release, and a regular botherer of Best Albums Of All Time lists, it has remained hugely influential ever since, an extraordinary record with a more avant garde approach to rock music than was typical within the punk movement, its nocturnal atmosphere and serpentine guitars as astounding and evocative now as they were back in 1977. Creative differences, drugs and a lack of commercial success led to them splitting following the relatively lukewarm response to their second LP, Adventure. Band leader Tom Verlaine quickly began his career as a solo artist with a self-titled debut album in 1979 that proved his talent for crafting angular pop songs remained undiminished. It was great, but his follow-up, Dreamtime, was even better, and is perhaps his best work outside of Marque Moon. The guitar work from Verlaine and Ritchie Fliegler - from the hypnotic, motorik groove on the likes of 'Always' to the frequent, inquisitive, soaring (but never overwhelming) solos - is exquisite, blending perfectly with Veraline's distinctively intense vocal style. Some tracks fit more closely into that period's 'new wave' sound than others (a musical genre that Television could take some credit for inventing  -CBCB owner Hilly Kristal described the band's first show at the venue as "the beginning of new wave"), but sonically they're all extensions to what Verlaine began perfecting on Marque Moon. And if you've searched for something that could hold a candle to that legendary album, Dreamtime is a good place to start.

Album cover for LOU REED - New Sensations (1984, RCA Records)

LOU REED - New Sensations (1984, RCA Records)

Lou Reed seemed somewhat adrift from the cultural zeitgeist in the eighties. While The Velvet Underground's reputation grew in stature, Reed didn't hold the same position in the rock firmament as he did in the seventies, and it wasn't until 1989's New York that commercial and critical success gave his career a new lease of life. But he was always an adventurous character, and although often overlooked in favour of more acclaimed releases, his output remained arresting during the eighties, especially on 1984's New Sensations. It's an album that swings with its blend of determined guitar riffs and smart, frequently humorous observations; Reed was consistently a consummate storyteller, and here he moves from personal to societal topics with his deadpan vocal delivery, packing in the pop culture references and colloquialisms. From the stomping 'Doin' The Things That We Want To', an ode of sorts to Martin Scorsese, to reflecting on how dangerous NYC was during that period in the musically jaunty 'High In The City', to the slightly questionable merge of Old Testament allegory and phallic imagery in 'Red Joystick', Reed was never out of touch even if he wasn't always in favour. An album perhaps in serious need of reappraisal.

Album cover of SONIC YOUTH - EVOL (1986, SST)

SONIC YOUTH - EVOL (1986, SST)

You'll find little disagreement over Sonic Youth's Daydream Nation being their pinnacle, and indeed it regularly features very highly on the more respectable 'Best of the 80s' lists, to the point where that album - and those that followed their subsequent move to a major label - eclipses what came before. 1987's Sister is an excellent, scrappy hint at what was about to drop the following year, but it's 1986's EVOL that marked a concerted effort by the group to move towards greater accessibility, leaving behind the more abrasive noise experiments of their early years (although noise and discordance were always part of the Sonic Youth package). It's clear on the likes of 'Starpower' that there's a poppier element being added to their repertoire but their trademark sprawling/dueling guitars retain an avant garde element, while the desperate, disconcertingly brilliant 'Shadow Of A Doubt' displays how the band's renowned usage of strange/unique guitar tunings could bring a darker edge to songs, preventing them form being too overtly palatable for a mainstream audience. Lee Ranaldo's sole writing credit shows him resisting melodic conformity more than bandmates Thurston Moore and Kim Gordon's contributions, but their cohesiveness as unit means they remain on the same page musically, which is especially noticeable on the album's centrepiece, the epic 'Expressway To Yr Skull' (AKA 'Madonna Sean And Me'). The final track, a cover of Kim Fowley's 'Bubblegum', points at a direction Sonic Youth would double down on with their 1990 breakthrough album, Goo.

Album cover for ICE-T - Rhyme Pays (1987, Sire Records)

ICE-T - Rhyme Pays (1987, Sire Records)

Perhaps familiar to many these days as Detective Fin Tutuloa in long-running TV show Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, back in the late 1980s Ice-T was more controversially known as one the progenitors of the angry, violent branch of hip hop that would be latterly known as gangsta rap. Rhyme Pays, his debut album, released in 1987, was more of an indication of what was to come in the genre rather than arriving fully formed (at least not in the same way as NWA's Straight Outta Compton, released the following year), but as a showcase for the rapper's talent, it was extremely successful. Forceful, rapid-fire rhymes coupled with a mix of drum machines, synths and samples (Black Sabbath, Mike Oldfield, an obligatory James Brown) land with audible toughness even if it sometimes veers too much into the realms of shout outs and confirmations of knowing what time it is. The expected braggadocio is offset by a decent sense of humour, even if some of the lyrical contest is a bit iffy by modern sensibilities (it was back then as well, to be fair). It's when Ice leans into edgier territory that things become especially interesting, none more so than the colossal venture into gang culture and police harassment, '6 In The Morning' and the more overtly politicised track, 'Squeeze The Trigger'. At one point in 'Pain' we get the rhyming couplet "Gold rope wearer, neighborhood terror, Can't hang around my mother 'cause she says I scare her" and it's delivered with such devious authenticity that you believe it to be absolutely the case.

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All the above albums are available on various streaming services but please always consider physical media where possible!

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