30 Best Albums Turning 30 in 2017: The Best Albums of 1987–our list of the greatest releases celebrating 30th anniversaries this year.
If you had to choose one year in the Reagan era for the best music, you’d be hard pressed to do better than 1987. Something clicked–the mainstream that had been over saturated with saccharine pop and flaccid hair metal was growing stagnant. There was a hunger to hear something new.
In truth the answer had been there all along: college rock was booming with a variety of sub-genres–industrial, indie, Goth and more, and 87 saw the vanguards of that scene take a foothold in a larger musical world.
It was also the same year when R&B and hard rock regained its edge, while hip-hop continued its expansion in sound and social commentary.
This list was a bitch to rank. There were just SO many great albums of such diversity, it was hard to whittle down and to quantify, based on both my personal taste and cultural impact. After some heavy blogger decision-making I made the hard choices and split the difference between the two.
So let’s take a trip back into an inimitable decade–retreat into awkward adolescence and revisit the soundtracks of our lives, shall we? I’ll also be including a healthy portion of honorable mentions as well (including EP’s which I excluded for streamlining purposes).
If you’d like to own any of these bygone classics, just click on the album cover to preview/purchase on Amazon.
Without further ado, here’s the best of 1987. The 30 best albums from 30 years ago.
One of Goth’s more obscure acts, Fields conjures atmospherics with Spaghetti Western guitars and Carl McCoy’s undead croak. And on songs like Dawnrazor and Slowkill the group added a metallic stomp to the genre.
Maybe the most criminally underrated band of the late 80s (featuring the late vocalist Nick Marsh), FFL are considered a one-hit wonder thanks to the Some Kind of Wonderful soundtrack hit I Go Crazy. But one listen to any of the tracks on Long Live The New Flesh (which featured Crazy) shows that it could have easily been a greatest hits album if it had received more promotion: Postcards From Paradise, Sooner or Later, Sleeping Dogs…there isn’t a bad track in the bunch.
28. TIE: Nitzer Ebb That Total Age/Skinny Puppy Cleanse, Fold and Manipulate
1987 saw two seminal industrial releases. Nitzer Ebb’s That Total Age featured anthems like Join In The Chant while Skinny Puppy’s harrowing release contained the darkwave standard-bearer Deep Down Trauma Hounds. The genre hasn’t been the same since.
Jay and Michael Aston were androgynous twin brothers who fused goth and glam, and on The House of Dolls they made their most polished effort, but still kept their edge thanks to guitarist James Stevenson’s slithering riffs. Simmering songs like Gorgeous, 20 Killer Hurts and Every Door were custom-made for hormonal teenagers.
Happy? wasn’t as groundbreaking as Public Image Ltd.’s albums like Album or Metal Box. But the trade-off were catchier songs bolstered by inventive riffing from former Siouxsie & The Banshees guitarist John McGeoch.
Tracks like Seattle, Rules and Regulations and The Body showed John Lydon and co’s unique knack for making danceable dissonance.
One of the most accomplished major label debuts of the 80s, Hardline showcases Darby’s golden pipes on hits like Wishing Well and Sign Your Name and deep cuts like the haunting acappella Seven Days.
If not for Darby’s ego and eccentricity he may have had a more lucrative career, but Hardline’s sense of songcraft and muscular vocals still captivate.
Sinead O’Connor was a shot in the arm in the late 80s. From her striking shaved head image to strident vocals and confrontational lyrics, she made an instant impression. The Lion and The Cobra was a striking début, blending spiky rock riffs with exotic song structures on tunes like Mandinka, Jerusalem and I Want Your Hands (On Me).
Synth pop duo Vince Clarke and Andy Bell expanded on their new wave melodrama on this sophomore element that covered everything from sugary love song (Sometimes), gay pride anthems (Hideaway) and political screed (title track).
It’s pop euphoria and melancholic reflection wrapped in a shimmering bow.
The former guitarist for The Band went from bluesy roots rock to a sleek, contemporary sound in the late 80’s on this self-titled effort featuring cameos from U2, The Bodeans and Peter Gabriel.
It’s a beautiful work, resplendent and hewn in the comforts of nature on songs like Broken Arrow, Showdown at Big Sky and Sweet Fire of Love. While a hit at the time, its legacy has faded over the years, but its mix of classic rock and alt-rock soundscapes makes for a bewitching listen worth revisiting.
21. Midnight Oil Diesel and Dust
One of the most unlikely hit albums of the 80s, Diesel and Dust was a deeply political album about injustice down to Australian indigenous people as well as a cautionary tale of ecological collapse.
Songs like hit singles Beds are Burning, and Dead Heart, along with fan favorites Put Down That Weapon and Bullroarer showcased the Aussie band’s unique sound (while the Beds are Burning music video immortalized singer Peter Garrett’s one of a kind dance moves)
The suave singer’s New Wave-flavored affair runs the gamut from dancey sophistopop (Kiss and Tell, the Johnny Marr-led The Right Stuff) to slow-dance gems (Zamba, the title track). If you were a moody teenager in the 80’s, this is what you played when you wanted to feel like a grown-up.
Public Enemy’s début was an opening salvo for their dynamic politically infused hip-hop. Chuck D’s blistering diatribes, Flava Flav’s court jester retorts, The Bomb Squad’s synapse-firing production–it all started here.
18. George Michael Faith
I’m not a huge pop music fan, so I struggled on including Faith on this list. But truthfully, I would be a dick to exclude it given his recent passing and its cultural imprint. Michael had the voice of an angel and an edge most pop singers lack. Faith is known for the big hits, but the one song that has always stuck out for me was the jazz-inflected Kissing A Fool. RIP sir.
J Mascis’ lo-fi masterpiece is the anthesis of the sophomore slump. You’re Living became an indelible indie imprint that would influence genres as diverse as grunge and dream pop and was a breakthrough revelation for My Bloody Valentine’s Kevin Shields.
The Bunnymen’s eponymous album may not reach the heights of early 80s masterworks like Crocodiles and Ocean Rain, but it did produce some of their biggest hits: Lips Like Sugar and Bedbugs and Ballyhoo, along with satisfying deep-cuts like New Direction and The Game. The irony is that the albums great success ended up widening the divide between vocalist Ian McCullough and his band mates, and he would jump ship afterwards (only to return in the late 90s).
15. TIE: Hüsker Dü Warehouse: Songs and Stories/Sonic Youth Sister
How to choose between two distortion fueled landmark alternative albums? I couldn’t. Songs and Stories saw Hüsker Dü at the peak of their powers before their breakup shortly afterwards, while Sister was a sci-fi inspired noise-rock opus.
JAMC turned down the feedback for their subdued follow-up to Psychocandy, but its a deeply satisfying sophomore effort, on moody charmers like April Skies, Happy When It Rains and About You. As a result of its understated sonics, Darklands doesn’t get name-checked as much as it should, even though it features some of the best tracks of their career.
After years on the college rock circuit, REM hit the bigtime with Document, resulting in breakout hits like The One I Love, Finest Worksong and It’s The End of the World As We Know it (And I Feel Fine). Their emergence into the mainstream would foreshadow the rise of grunge and alternative music in American culture.
The post-punk trio Daniel Ash, David J and David Haskins turned down the distortion on their third album, but kept the psychedelia in full swing on acoustic, Beatles-inspired tunes like No New Tale To Tell, The Telephone Is Empty, and Rainbird. Elsewhere they flirted with 50’s style rockabilly (Lazy), and threw goth fans a bone (Mirror People).
Vocalist Andrew Eldritch ditched his fellow Sisters member on Floodland, a sophomore album that acted more like a solo release (with the exception of bassist Patricia Morrison, whose input has been debated), full of wonderfully inky, electronic goth soundscapes. His undead croak reigns supreme on the epic, gloriously over wrought dance dirge This Corrosion, the strident Lucretia My Reflection and the ethereal bonus track Colours. It still fits any day you need a soundtrack for a rainy or foggy night.
This alt-rock classic is one of those albums that didn’t sell millions of copies but inspired countless musicians with tracks like Alex Chilton And The Ledge.
A mix of indie, punk and power-pop packed with vocalist Paul Westerberg’s priceless lyrics, it’s the gold standard of 80s college rock.
As a general rule compilation albums should be excluded from best-of lists. But this is Substance dammit, one of the most essential albums of the 1980’s. New Order are a ban defined by their singles, remixes, and alternate cuts, and Substance represents them best, from early classics like Temptation and Ceremony, to extended remixes of Blue Monday, Subculture, and Confusion.
The double-disc version is a necessity for In A Lonely Place and 1969 alone. It was a high-school car stereo staple in the 80s, and it’s still my go-to disc when I need my New Order fix.
Electric got hammered by critics upon its release, because the music press were utterly confused by a goth group turning into a biker rock band. The stripped down Rick Rubin production was miles away from Love.
What the press misunderstood was the group’s pioneer spirit. The Cult helped make it safe for alternative bands to rock out and songs like Love Removal Machine and Wildflower were mission statements. It set the stage for the 90’s alt-rock revolution, when bands could play loud riffs without stooping to lazy butt rock.
Vocalist Ian Astbury and guitarist Billy Duffy fused bludgeoning guitar, howling vocals and psychedelic mysticism that still casts a spell today. I’m proud to have sung its praises all these years, no matter the protestations of music snobs. There’s still no better album for blasting on the highway.
The Smiths final album saw the group going out on a high note, leaving us with 10 classic tracks, including fan favorites Girlfriend in a Coma, Stop Me If You Think You’ve Heard This One Before, and I Started Something I Couldn’t Finish.
After years of building a quiet, yet rabid fan base, Depeche Mode broke through in a big way thanks to the appropriately titled Music For The Masses. Working with producer Flood, they employed samples and industrial overtones to craft cinematic moody masterworks, from hits like Strangelove, Behind The Wheel and Never Let Me Down (all with iconic music videos from collaborator Anton Corbin) to cult classics including To Have and to Hold and Little 15.
Masses proved that a quirky androgynous group of English keyboard twiddlers could conquer America, as witnessed by the band selling out the Rose bowl the following year.
In many ways INXS were a very strange band. Classifying their sound is difficult: is it new wave? Pub rock? Funk rock? It’s hard to define.
In the end their indescribable yet highly accessible approach only bolstered their success and Kick was the biggest album of their career. It spawned four top 10 singles (you know the ones) and cemented frontman Michael Hutchence’s legacy as the mysterious sex god of the 80s.
Kick is one of those albums that was so imbedded in 80’s adolescence that you can have vivid flashbacks to high school when you hear a track pop up on satellite radio. It was a freak of nature release and a Generation X cultural touchstone. The Kick tour was my first concert. PiL opened. Good times.
Robert Smith and co. made their most ambitious album with Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me, a double disc which covered every facet of their wide-ranging repertoire. From classic goth (If Only Tonight We Could Sleep, Torture), to Dance Pop (Why Can’t I Be You, Just Like Heaven) to all things in-between (The Kiss, Like Cockatoos, Icing Sugar), they left no stone unturned.
A double album is almost always prone to filler, and Kiss Me is no exception (Hot, Hot, Hot, How Beautiful You Are and Hey You are pretty meh), but its batting average is pretty damn stellar.
Kiss Me would be considered a zenith for most band’s careers, but then they went and topped themselves with Disintegration. But for Cure fans with short attention-spans, their double disc remains a source of constant delight.
The late, great Prince ditched his long-time backing band The Revolution on this double-disc effort (although select members still contributed), and created the most wide-ranging, diverse album of his career.
Funk-rock dance hits like U Got The Look (featuring Sheena Easton), I Could Never Take The Place of Your Man and the title track are the best remembered, but there’s really no dud in the bunch–If I Was Your Girlfriend showed him at his most androgynous, Starfish and Coffee explored his love of psychedelia and the Hendrix-esque The Cross was a paean to his ever-present dichotomy of the spiritual and sexual.
The Purple One would continue to make great albums, but Sign of The Times was his career peak in ambition and scope.
Conventional wisdom says Nirvana killed off hair metal. But in truth it was on life support even before then. GN’R got in the first punch, delivering an edge of sleaze and danger that (like their friends in The Cult) had been missing in rock for far too long. Appetite is the best-selling début album of all time for good reason–every song feels raw, lived-in, and a sonic snapshot of decadent life on the sunset strip. Welcome to the Jungle, It’s So Easy, Mr. Brownstone, My Michelle, Rocket Queen…all these songs still paint a vivid picture of 80’s L.A decadence.
Axl Rose’s ragged falsetto, Slash and Izzy’s guitar interplay, the seismic rhythm section of McKagan and Adler, were a finely oiled (or alcohol fueled) machine.
I’m not sure what else to add about The Joshua Tree that hasn’t been said before. The album (which turns 30 this month) is a pop-culture touchstone of the 80s. It spoke to something deeper, more spiritual, more intangible than any other album of that decade. The production work by Daniel Lanois, Flood and Brian Eno remains unsurpassed, along with the group’s sparse yet grandiose sonic architecture.
We all know the hits, and they still pack an anthemic wallop, even to this day. The deep cuts are just as compelling. Exit remains one of my favorites of the latter, and Where The Streets Have No Name still gives me the chills.
Many U2 fans still have spirited debates on whether Joshua Tree or Achtung Baby is U2’s best album (my opinion varies on my mood). One thing remains clear however: The Joshua Tree made U2 into U2: a musical force that transcends genre and time.
Honorable Mentions (in no particular order):
Pixies Come on Pilgrim (EP)
Jane’s Addiction (Self-titled EP)
Butthole Surfers Locust Abortion Technician
Big Black Songs About Fucking
Spaceman 3 The Perfect Prescription
Opal Happy Nightmare Baby
Defenestration’s Dali Does Windows
Swans Children of God
Wire The Ideal Copy
Psychedelic Furs Midnight To Midnight
Siouxsie and The Banshees Through The Looking Glass
Pet Shop Boys Actually
Pink Floyd Momentary Lapse of Reason
Faith No More Introduce Yourself
Anthrax Among The Living
Dead or Alive Mad Bad and Dangerous To Know
The Bolshoi Lindy’s Party
Icehouse Man of Colours
Well that wraps up my list of the best of 1987! Now its your turn–tell me your favorite discs turning 30 in 2017, and feel free to rank as you see fit.