It was one of the most colorful decades in history. Movies like Back to the Future, E.T., and The Breakfast Club were released and took the world by storm. It was the age of the arcade, acid washed jeans, hair metal, the Macintosh computer, the Walkman, and the cassette tape. It was the golden years – it was the eighties!
The music of the eighties can be characterized by glamour, big hair, and new age sound that was revolutionary and exciting. Recording technology and synthesizers played a big part in musician experimentation. With the invention of the Walkman, listening to cassettes on the go was made possible, and the world of music became more personalized and convenient, meaning that the music industry was bigger than ever – just like the hairstyles.
What were the most popular cassettes released in the eighties? Let’s take a look.
Double Fantasy by John Lennon and Yoko Ono (1980)
This album released by John Lennon and Yoko Ono was at first poorly received. Many critics were disappointed in the specificity of lyrical content, as many of the songs were focused on John and Yoko’s marriage, and they argued that this made for a “lousy record.” Not to mention the sour taste that fans had for Yoko, feeling like she was a large part of breaking up the Beatles. However, following Lennon’s murder just a mere three weeks after its release, the album gained more recognition and praise from critics and fans alike and went on to win Album of the Year.
1980 Honorable Mention: Back in Black by AC/DC
Preceded by their smash sixth album Highway to Hell, fans were expecting nothing but rock and roll greatness from Back in Black, and they weren’t disappointed. With hits like “You Shook Me All Night Long” and “Back in Black,” this album rose to the top of the charts and became one of the best-selling records of 1980. Honestly, it doesn’t get more rock n’ roll than Angus Young shredding on his Gibson SG while hopping around the stage in a school boy uniform.
Working Class Dog by Rick Springfield (1981)
Working Class Dog was Rick Springfield’s fourth studio album. It went platinum in the U.S. and features the hit song “Jessie’s Girl,” which hit number one on the Billboard 100 in its year of release. Rick Springfield continues to make music, with his latest album being released in 2018. It makes you wonder though … was Jessie still a friend, a good friend, after this song became a smash hit? And did Rick get Jessie’s girl with the newfound fame from this ode to her? So many life questions we need answers to.
1981 Honorable Mention: Moving Pictures by Rush
Rush’s eighth studio album was a hit in their homeland of Canada where it reached the top of the charts, and in the U.S. as well where it peaked at number three. The track “Tom Sawyer” became one of their best-known songs, and the album has since hit quadruple platinum since its release in ’81. To see the longevity of Rush’s influence, look no further than Paul Rudd and Jason Segel ‘slappin’ da bass’ to “Limelight” in the hit comedy I Love You, Man.
Thriller by Michael Jackson (1982)
This album didn’t just produce the greatest Halloween song and dance of all time. Michael Jackson’s Thriller is the second-best selling album in the United States. The album has gone 30 times platinum, and it won eight Grammy awards in 1984, a record that has only been tied once by Carlos Santana. Thriller boasts some of Michael Jackson’s greatest hits, including “Beat It,” “P.Y.T. (Pretty Young Thing),” and “Billie Jean.” It also has The King of Pop laying with a baby tiger on the cover fold because … it was the 80s and anything went.
1982 Honorable Mention: Toto IV by Toto
Although not everyone knows the band Toto, most everyone knows the song that brought the band its popularity. Toto’s first and only number one hit, “Africa,” is still a popular song today, known for its unique soft-rock sound. Both “Africa” and “Rosanna” boosted their album Toto IV into the mainstream and gained the band a Grammy for Album of the Year in 1982. The song is so classic that it even had a giant resurgence more than 30 years after its release thanks to geek rockers Weezer brilliantly breathing fresh life into the track in 2018.
Can’t Slow Down by Lionel Richie (1983)
Can’t Slow Down is Lionel Richie’s second studio album, recorded and produced by the famous Motown Records. Five singles were released from the album, and each one made it to the Billboard 100 top ten. “Hello” and “All Night Long (All Night)” both made it to the number one spot on the 100. Can’t Slow Down is Richie’s best-selling album and solidified his solo artist position as an R&B/pop idol, and not just a previous member of the soul group, The Commodores.
1983 Honorable Mention: Let’s Dance by David Bowie
David Bowie’s 15th (can you believe he had 15 albums before the early 80s?) studio album Let’s Dance gained him a new mass audience due to the popularity of the titular track, which reached number 1 in multiple countries around the world. Rolling Stone has called this album, “the conclusion of arguably the greatest 14-year run in rock history,” and despite not being Bowie’s most popular album, it still garnered him great success and an even larger audience than what he had before. It also propelled him to pursue even more acting roles, as he would land his iconic role in Labyrinth just three years later.
Purple Rain by Prince (1984)
Prince’s Purple Rain is often found among lists of the greatest albums of all time. His magnum opus, the album garnered huge commercial success with the release of the Purple Rain film, and many of the songs ranked high in the charts. In 2012, The Library of Congress added the album to it’s National Recording Registry which is a list of sound recordings that are historically, culturally and aesthetically important. Eccentric, energetic and not wanting to be labeled or placed in the confines of a genre box, Purple Rain lives on even after the unfortunate passing of The Artist Formerly Known As Prince.
1984 Honorable Mention: Like a Virgin by Madonna
Madonna’s second studio album was met with mixed reviews from the critics but was a smash hit in many countries all over the world, with songs like “Material Girl” and “Like a Virgin” that were catchy and provocative. Many critics felt that Madonna would become a one hit wonder with Like a Virgin – but Madonna proved them wrong and continued to show her influence on the music industry and her fans by producing many more studio albums after. The album’s pop-heavy tracks and Madonna’s “ready to ruffle any and all feathers” helped pave the way for future acts in the 90s like Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera.
No Jacket Required by Phil Collins (1985)
Phil Collin’s No Jacket Required was received with praise and accolades in the year following its release. Collins won three Grammy awards from the album, proving that his drumming could succeed in mainstream pop music. Fun fact: All of Phil Collin’s solo albums consist of an extreme close-up of just his face on their covers. Hey, if you find something you like, stick with it.
1985 Honorable Mention: We Are the World by USA for Africa
We Are the World is the name of the superstar album recorded for relief efforts for famine in Ethiopia. The title track was famously written by Michael Jackson and Lionel Richie, and was produced by Quincy Jones. Since the release of the album, We Are the World has raised over $63 million for humanitarian aid efforts.
Graceland by Paul Simon (1986)
After listening to and becoming obsessed with a bootleg cassette of South African township music, Paul Simon and his musical engineer Roy Halee took a trip to Johannesburg and recorded parts of Graceland with South African musicians. Graceland is a conglomerate of genres and stylistic choices and has often been cited as one of the best albums of all time. Graceland has been added to the Library of Congress’s National Recording Registry and has won numerous awards including a Grammy award for Album of the Year in 1987. As happy as we are for Paul Simon, you’ve got to feel a little bad for Art Garfunkel who couldn’t quite get the same solo draw.
1986 Honorable Mention: Slippery When Wet by Bon Jovi
The third studio album on Bon Jovi is an American classic, with tracks like “Livin’ On a Prayer,” “You Give Love a Bad Name,” and “Wanted Dead or Alive.” Although released in 1986, it was named by Billboard as the top selling album of 1987. If you’ve ever been to a bar, like ever, then you’re sure to have heard any of the three smash hits from this album.
The Joshua Tree by U2 (1987)
Irish rock band U2’s prominent album The Joshua Tree is considered one of the greatest albums of all time and is one of the world’s best-selling albums with over 25 million copies sold. The album was remastered for its 20th anniversary, and the band took to the road once again for the album in its 30th year since release. The style of the album was inspired by Irish and American roots music, with America as a theme for the album, focusing on sociopolitical themes prevalent to the country. This album was also added to the Library of Congress’s National Recording Registry. Imagine being a band that was on top of the world in the late 80s to a band that everyone was mad at in the early 2010s because they uninvitingly added their 2014 album Songs of Innocence to everyone’s iTunes account. You’re better than that, Bono.
1987 Honorable Mention: Faith by George Michael
George Michael’s debut solo album after leaving the pop duo Wham! was a huge success, winning him the Grammy award for Album of the Year in 1988. George Michael went on to prove himself as a serious solo musician, something he was determined to do as Wham! had been labelled nothing but a teenybopper sensation by critics. His songs, such as “Careless Whisper,” “Praying for Time” and 6 others made it to number one on the Billboard 100 in the U.S. You know what they say, sometimes you just “gotta have faith ...”
Straight Outta Compton by N.W.A. (1988)
Known as the first record to be released in the genre known as gangsta rap, Straight Outta Compton has been a supremely influential record for hip hop artists since its release. In 2017, it was selected for preservation by the Library of Congress for its cultural, historical and aesthetic relevance. A biographical drama of the same name was made by director F. Gary Gray in 2015 and was produced by members of the group. It’s difficult to talk about the success of rap without mentioning the cultural impact of Straight Outta Compton and the solo rap careers (Ice Cube and Dr. Dre, in particular) that the group would bring to the hip-hop game.
1988 Honorable Mention: It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back by Public Enemy
Public Enemy’s second studio album was influenced by Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On, and was produced in an effort to match Gaye’s socio political commentary in a hip hop format. It is ranked number 48 on Rolling Stone’s list of the 500 greatest albums of all time. It is the highest-ranking hip hop album on the list. The late 80s, thanks to groups like N.W.A, Public Enemy, The Beastie Boys and Run D.M.C really began to push rap music into the mainstream.
Bleach by Nirvana (1989)
Bleach is Nirvana’s debut album, recorded in their hometown of Seattle, Washington. Although well-received by critics, it’s original release failed to reach the charts. Lead singer Kurt Cobain claims that he felt pressured by Sub Pop records to match the sound of other Seattle grunge bands that came before Nirvana, and that he wrote all the lyrics for the songs the night before recording when he was in a bad mood. After Nirvana’s second album Nevermind’s success, Bleach was re-released and garnered much more success the second time around. And with its success, the era of flannel shirts and ripped jeans started replacing skin-tight mesh shirts and leather pants as grunge took over what was a booming hair metal scene.
1989 Honorable Mention: Storm Front by Billy Joel
Billy Joel’s Storm Front features one of his three number one hits – “We Didn’t Start the Fire,” a politically-charged anthem that shaped the decade. Some themes from Storm Front include historical and political events and stories, such as in the song “Leningrad,” as well as the ups and downs of Joel’s emotional life.
The eighties were filled with some of the best music of the 20th century. With major musical styles and new genres coming to popularity in the decade, such as hip hop, grunge, electronic, and more, and with the invention of the Walkman, it’s no wonder that people consumed so much music in the eighties. What are some of your favorite songs from the eighties?