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Top Albums of the '80s - The Essential Eight

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The best albums of any decade are always about far more than hit songs, record sales and other stats that can be measured. Scope of influence and breadth of impact are really more about feel, a sense that can be perceived only by experiencing the music. In short, these albums reverberated throughout the decade and became classics, not only of their own time but of all time.

1. Michael Jackson - 'Thriller'

Michael Jackson performing.
Joe Traver/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Perhaps no album has ever been as ubiquitous or far-reaching or inescapable as Thriller, Michael Jackson's nearly 60 million-selling monster hit from 1982. This is the one album most of us children of the '80s still have on vinyl at our parents' houses when we go home to visit. The songs are versatile and efficient, but most of all they're skillfully produced and conveyed to fulfill their maximum commercial accessibility. For once a multitude of hits actually reflects consistent quality.
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2. Madonna - 'Like a Virgin'

Album Cover Image Courtesy of Sire Records
It's difficult to choose a signature album from an artist who produced so many top-selling LPs, but this one wins out probably because it placed Madonna on an entirely different plane than her '80s music cohorts. With this album, mere song titles like "Material Girl" and "Like a Virgin" became key threads in the fabric of '80s culture. While becoming an icon alone does not guarantee a classic album, in this case the impact of the music was as important as image in making that happen.
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3. Bruce Springsteen - 'Born in the U.S.A.'

Album Cover Image Courtesy of Columbia Records
Though Bruce Springsteen successfully transcends any decade in which he has worked, this album, in terms of quality, influence and style, stakes a fierce claim as one of the most signature releases of the '80s. The quality throughout the 14-song set is astounding, filled with irresistible hooks, a remarkable diversity of styles, and Springsteen's artfully rendered socially conscious brand of rock and roll.
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4. Prince - 'Purple Rain'

Album Cover Image Courtesy of Warner Bros.
Prince had produced some excellent and diverse music before, but with this 1984 release he synthesized pretty much everything he had to offer into a tight, nine-song LP. The hits were astounding in their efficiency and musical scope, but the lesser-known charting tunes and album tracks like "I Would Die 4 U" and "The Beautiful Ones" were no less skillfully presented. And of course, Prince being Prince, the album stoked controversy with "Darling Nikki", a tune that dealt with (gasp) masturbation.
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5. Guns N' Roses - 'Appetite for Destruction'

Album Cover Image Courtesy of Geffen Records
In the midst of the Los Angeles hair metal scene, Guns 'N Roses exploded with a different kind of music on its 1987 debut release that could beat the hell out of any of the other glossy pop-metal floating around on MTV. Inspired equally by classic hard rock, metal and punk, the band's grimy rock was threatening, aggressive and supercharged with walls of guitar sound. In essence, the album provided a necessary bridge between a time when hard rock had teeth and when it regained them once Nirvana hit.
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6. U2 - 'The Joshua Tree'

Album Cover Image Courtesy of Island Records
Also a landmark 1987 release, U2's breakthrough to superstardom is a rare artistic statement that also works extremely well as rousing rock and roll. The Irish band had already become extremely important on the burgeoning college rock/alternative scene, but with this collection the band graduated to something way more far-reaching and intense. While surely notable for its eclecticism, this album has the distinction also of having genuine things to say about faith, despair, loss and doubt.
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7. George Michael - 'Faith'

Album Cover Image Courtesy of Columbia Records
Following the dissolution of the consistent but slight hit machine Wham!, which he had previously led, George Michael surely was not expected to go out and immediately release a masterpiece. But that's just what he did, with this erotically charged collection of dance pop and ballads. The songs "Father Figure" and, of course, "I Want Your Sex", particularly harbored an edge that certainly raised the eyebrows of parents whose teen children wore this record out.
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8. Van Halen - '1984'

Album Cover Image Courtesy of Warner Bros.
In stark contrast to its Orwellian title, this album is purely and simply a party record, an ode to a brand of hedonism that only David Lee Roth could accurately convey. As such, it's a particularly effective document of its time, but it's also filled with a number of high-quality tunes, from the very hard-rocking "Hot for Teacher" to the synthesizer-infused "Jump" to the affecting power ballad "I'll Wait". And credit should go to Eddie Van Halen for understanding the lure of the synthesizer.
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