Today is the third annual National Album Day, when music lovers are encouraged to celebrate their favourite records.
This year, for the first time, the organisers have chosen a theme, the ’80s, to help us cope with the lockdown blues. It’s apt, as the culture of the decade is enjoying a bit of a resurgence – on TV, music streaming services, in fashion and in classic film remakes.
It was the decade that gave us Madonna, Eurythmics, Culture Club, Kylie and Wham!, but there was plenty of good music too. Depeche Mode, The Cure and New Order came to the fore, while The Smiths rose and fell. It saw the demise of vinyl and the advent of the CD, and Live Aid showed us on a massive scale how music can bring people together and do some good at the same time.
National Album Day celebrates all this, with labels ‘joining in the fun’ with the release of new albums, boxsets and classic reissues (in other words, it’s another excuse for major labels to flog us stuff we’ve already owned on LP, cassette, CD, download, and probably vinyl again!).
Enough of my cynicism though; it might not always feel like it, but there was some great music released in the 80s.
Here’s a list of my favourite albums of the decade*, one for each year, and to make it more interesting I’ve only allowed one album per group.
1980 Stiff Little Fingers – Nobody’s Heroes. My second-favourite album by my favourite band, the Belfast punks whose music has soundtracked my life. The cleaner production was a little disappointing after the beautiful noise of Inflammable Material, but what an album. Key tracks: At The Edge, Tin Soldiers, Fly The Flag, Wait And See, Doesn’t Make It Alright, Nobody Hero.
1981 Discharge – Why. Like many young punks, I had my political side awakened by the likes of Discharge and Crass, who questioned the need for war, and much more. This mini-album had 10 tracks, was over in less than 15 minutes, and was stunning in its power and ferocity. Hardcore punk, D-beat – call it what you like, this record changed music. Key tracks: Does This System Work, Look At Tomorrow, Maimed And Slaughtered, Ain’t No Feeble Bastard.
1982 Anti-Nowhere League – We Are The League. They were crude, they were lewd, and their debut single had been seized from the shops for its obscenity-laden B-side. This album was the Never Mind The Bollocks of its day, for those of us just too young to have been there in ’77. Key tracks: We Are The League, Woman, Can’t Stand Rock ‘N’ Roll, Snowman, I Hate People.
1983 Big Country – The Crossing. My favourite band (see 1980) had split up, and I didn’t like a lot of the anarcho stuff which was beginning to dominate the punk scene. Where to go next? That bloke out of Skids (who’d also broken up), had a new band, and he could make a guitar sound like bagpipes. Sorted. Key tracks: In A Big Country, Fields Of Fire, Inwards, Lost Patrol, Harvest Home, Porrohman,
1984 The Smiths – Hatful Of Hollow. Yes, Morrissey is an arse nowadays, but unless you were there it’s hard to describe how important The Smiths were, with Moz’s lyrics and Johnny Marr’s wonderful guitar. I much preferred this collection of session tracks, B-sides and alternative versions to the over-produced debut album released a few months earlier. Key tracks: What Difference Does It Make, This Charming Man, Still Ill, Reel Around The Fountain, Girl Afraid, Back To the Old House, How Soon is Now?
1985 The Alarm – Strength. The Smiths were great but it was all a bit miserable wasn’t it? Enter four blokes from Wales with acoustic guitars, Clash-influenced anthems and the sort of big backcombed haircuts so popular with goths of the day. This was their second album, more electric than their debut, and a favourite to this day. Key tracks: Knife Edge, Strength, Spirit of 76, Deesside, Father To Son, Only The Thunder, Walk Forever By My Side.
1986 The Men They Couldn’t Hang – How Green is The Valley. Another second album, by a London band often unfairly overshadowed by The Pogues. They were much more political than you might think, nailing their colours firmly to the mast. They split in 1991 but returned five years later and have been kicking up a folk-punk storm ever since. Key tracks: Ghosts Of Cable Street, The Bells, Shirt Of Blue, Wishing Well. Going Back To Coventry.
1987 U2 – The Joshua Tree. No apologies for this one. U2 were a great band through most of the 80s, and this was their best album, taking as its theme the ‘real America’, as opposed to the mythical one. Its whole feel is widescreen, and there’s a reason why it’s sold something like 25 million copies: the tracklist. Key tracks: Where The Streets Have No Name, I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For, With Or Without You, Red Hill Mining Town, In God’s Country.
1988 The Wonder Stuff – Eight Legged Groove Machine. I’d seen the Stuffies live, supporting Big Country, a few months before this came out, and didn’t like them. I thought the singer was a gobshite, goading a crowd who weren’t there to see him anyway. Then this came out. It’s brilliant. Key tracks: Red Berry Joy Town, Give, Give, Give Me More, More, More, Grin, Unbearable, It’s Yer Money I’m After, Baby, A Wish Away.
1989 Del Amitri – Waking Hours. Yet another second album by a Scottish alternative rock band who were, in my opinion, criminally under-rated, even though (or possibly because) they enjoyed a bit of chart success. Justin Currie remains a wonderful songwriter, but the Dels didn’t really fit into any of the scenes at the time. I didn’t care, I loved them. Key tracks: Kiss This Thing Goodbye, Move Away Jimmy Blue, Stone Cold Sober, This Side Of The Morning, Nothing Ever Happens.
As you can tell, I liked guitars and anthemic choruses. No change there then. There’s not many artists who would be considered classic, though they’re hardly underground either. And there’s no electro or synth-driven nonsense (though I do own some now, with the benefit of glorious hindsight. Still not keen on dance or ‘Madchester’ though).
There were many more great albums released in the ’80s, but these were my favourites at the time. I know now, for example, that Pixies’ Doolittle is a far better record than Del Amitri, but somehow I didn’t hear it until years later.
Some are now considered classics, others very much of their time. Discharge is there because under my self-imposed rules I can’t have the SLF album Go For It (though I did love the sheer sonic battering that Discharge gave my ears too). Anti-Nowhere League – So What (see what I did there?). It’s loud, rude and very un-PC, all the things that punk set out to be. And I was 15, what’s not to like? And they’re still great live.
Yes, I do know that technically The Smiths album Hatful Of Hollow is a compilation, but it’s better than their debut album proper. U2? I loved them throughout most of the 80s, and this was their last great album, before Bono disappeared up himself.
* To put this list into some sort of context, as 1980 dawned I was a 13-year-old schoolboy whose love of music had blossomed in 1979 (which I personally still regard as THE greatest year ever for music).
By the end of the decade I’d been to college, bought my first car and house, and got married! And yes, I still listen to all these albums, some of them more than others.
I find it fascinating how my tasteschanged and mellowed as I left my youth behind, even if they have gone full circle and I listen to lots of angry music again!