The 1980s is the most important decade for me, musically speaking. It’s when I was a teenager so – as I’m sure is true for you too – music from my teens will always have an extra special resonance to me. Unlike my best of the 1970s list, pretty much all of the albums below I heard at the time of release.
So many great albums dropped in the 1980s, but there’s only room for a dozen or so of them here. So sorry to exclude some other favourites of mine from the 1980s: albums from synthpop and new wave acts like Soft Cell, Gary Numan, Duran Duran, Japan, Ultravox, OMD, Eurythmics, Erasure, Joy Division, New Order. I was also very into the indie scene, listening to lots of music from The Cure, The Smiths, The Soup Dragons, Goodbye Mr. Mackenzie, Shop Assistants… by the end of the decade I was into acid house, new beat, the Madchester thing and dub reggae.
I really tried to keep the following picks down to just ten albums, but in the end I just couldn’t limit myself that much. So here are my ten(ish) favourite albums of the 1980s!
The Alan Parsons Project – Eye in the Sky (1982)
I hardly ever saw my uncle Roger, but his contribution to my “musical awakening” was immeasurable. As a young teenager I went to stay with my grandparents in Kent for a short holiday, and as I arrived my uncle Roger was just packing up to leave for a new life in West Africa. Although a would-be writer he’d found himself working in casinos and as an impressionable young boy and James Bond fan this seemed to me like the most glamourous job anyone could ever have. I stood in silent admiration as he packed his things, and watched as he threw a few cassettes from a huge pile into a bag. “You can keep any of these if you like, I don’t have room for them all,” he said. I looked at the biggest collection of music I’d ever seen and was ecstatic: what an incredible gift! I spent the rest of the holiday going through them all, hearing for the first time albums from bands I’d never heard of like Ultravox, Visage, Shakatak, The Human League and The Alan Parsons Project.
From the opening recursion of Sirius through to the brilliant title track and the military drumming at the end of Children Of The Moon, Eye in the Sky is an immersive sequenced experience like nothing I’d ever heard before. There is one lame track on here (the AOR of You’re Gonna Get Your Fingers Burned) but the rest of this album is so good I can excuse that one blip. Closing song Old And Wise is one of the most emotional and touching songs I’ve ever heard. It always kinda chokes me up, even back then as a wide-eyed young lad with a future ahead of him I knew this song had to be there for the final curtain.
Human League – Travelogue (1980)
I can’t remember exactly when I first heard Travelogue – it was after I’d heard Dare and Love and Dancing though. Actually yes: It was while waiting for Hysteria to come out that I delved back into the League’s past only to discover they’d effectively been a completely different band. I didn’t know what to make of it at first: there were no girls, no glamour, no pop. But the sci-fi themes of The Black Hit of Space lured me in, the inexorability of Life Kills kept me going, and Dreams of Leaving instantly became (and remains) one of my all-time favourite Human League songs.
My love for the music of The Human League started with Love and Dancing and three decades later I’m still dancing. It was Love and Dancing by the League Unlimited Orchestra (aka Martin Rushent and The Human League) that changed the way I saw music. Listening to it with my new Walkman, this League remix album completely blew me away. Of course I’d heard Dare, but (I’m slightly ashamed to say now) it hadn’t really excited me much. Perhaps this was because I was getting obsessed with Kraftwerk and still mistrusted any vocals that weren’t obviously made by robots. But Love and Dancing was something else: it was different, it was completely different because it was the same songs I knew already – but re-produced to make them into something better. It brought the synthesizers out to the foreground and highlighted all those wonderfully sequenced nuances and previously hidden synths. From the drum machine break half-way through Hard Times to the all echo effects in Don’t You Want Me – a song that was now over 7 minutes long! I loved the stereo positioning effects added near the end of Love Action: it gave me goose-bumps every time. I must have played that section to everyone I knew at least a hundred times. I soon discovered that much of Love and Dancing had already been released on 12 inch singles. Up until then I’d only bought LPs, as I considered singles poor value for (pocket) money. I could get the same songs on an LP and a twelve inch just looked like a single but in a bigger (and more expensive) cover so what was the point? But Love and Dancing showed me that a song could be changed into something quite different: it could have long instrumental bits where you can hear the synthesizers and drum machines, it could have weird sci-fi special effects, it could be extended!
Yazoo – Upstairs at Eric’s (1982)
Whenever someone says to me that electronic music is “just pushing buttons” and has no soul, I usually play them some Yazoo to set them straight. I got into Yazoo just as You and Me Both came out and loved every single track I heard (even Happy People!) But as the years have rolled by, I’ve found that I listen to Upstairs at Eric’s a lot more. With Yazoo, Alison Moyet’s vocals provide the perfect humanity to Vince Clarke’s synthetics, and this could not be clearer than on the 2008 remaster of this album. Many times now I’ve come home from a long day at work, poured myself some cognac, dimmed the lights and cranked this album up on the stereo. I close the curtains then dance about badly, singing along poorly (this is one of the few albums where I know all the lyrics). I’ll skip I Before E of course, then turn up the volume even more for my two favourites: Midnight and In My Room.
I saw Vince and Alf live for their reunion tour in 2008. As they came on to the stage, the electro-queen sitting next to me leapt up and shouted “Oh Alf you’re divine! We love you!” I couldn’t have agreed more.
Heaven 17 – The Luxury Gap (1983)
I wrote a story in high school that began “I was thirty-seven, she was seventeen” then went on to (poorly) detail a break-up between my two protagonists. In typical melodramatic and over-the-top style, I ended the story with the twist that she’d left him to date the man’s son (whom I’d failed to mention at any point leading up this “revelation”) and with the father walking off to the bathroom to commit suicide as a result (I think the last line was something like “He knew where there was a large bottle of Paracetamol.”) My English teacher somehow loved my story and decided to read it out for the whole class to hear, much to my growing horror. I was petrified that someone would shout out “You copied that from Heaven 17!” but fortunately I was new to this school and the kids there didn’t really know me. Although not compulsory, they all wore school uniform. I’d walked in a few weeks earlier wearing baggy blue trousers, a Walkman and a Howard Jones T-shirt. These kids wouldn’t know Heaven 17 from Level 42, they all seemed to be stuck on bands like Dio and AC/DC and had missed the electronic revolution completely.
I love all Heaven 17’s albums up to Pleasure One, but The Luxury Gap is probably the most consistent. It’s certainly the one that raised the band from “copy from a friend” to “buy on day of release including all the 12” singles.” Heaven 17 are touring this album this year so I’m really looking forward to hearing it all live for the first time.
Propaganda – A Secret Wish (1985)
That summer in 1984 was an amazing time for music. The Human League had just released Hysteria – an album I played on a daily basis all through the summer – and Frankie Goes to Hollywood were ruling the charts and minds of teens like me. I became obsessed with everything ZTT and was soon hooked on Propaganda. My love of all things electronic and German was at its height, so it was inevitable that I’d fall in love the Germanic voice of Miss Claudia Brücken. For nearly 30 years A Secret Wish has remained one of my all-time favourite albums. It takes time to reveal its secrets: this is a record that rewards repeat plays as intricate detail is teased out. Maybe it’s the Dr. Mabuse references but there’s definitely something hypnotic and slightly disturbing about this album. For several years I was convinced there were parallels with the sci-fi series Babylon 5, but perhaps that was just the dream within the dream…
I met Claudia recently at a Heaven 17 after-party. I usually make a point of not meeting my heroes, but in this instance I just had to make an exception. Completely star-struck, all I could manage was “I think you’re wonderful, thank you for making such amazing music!” to which she kindly thanked me back. My wish fulfilled.
Associates – Perhaps (1985)
My student days in Edinburgh were typical for any student back then: full of sex and drugs and C86 indie music. By the start of 1989 I was half-way through my degree course, trying to study but frequently distracted by the debauched delights the city had to offer. I had a gay landlord who’d treat me to nice meals and access to his record collection, but that was an unrequited love. He had a friend who I came to idolize, a singer and musician who introduced me to some amazing music. His own hero then was Billy MacKenzie, the local lad who’d made himself a star with the band The Associates. The Perhaps album had come out a couple of years earlier but I’d missed it at the time (too much The Smiths and New Order). I soon learned that Human League alumni Martyn Ware and Martin Rushent were involved in the making of Perhaps, and it wasn’t long before this became my most-played album for months. These days it’s Sulk that’s gets all the acclaim, but for me Perhaps will always be the better album and worth every penny Warners paid for it. Billy’s voice is absolutely incredible here, and songs like Breakfast still have the emotional punch now as they did back then. I bought the cassette version which I still have, as it has instrumental and extended versions that still haven’t been released on CD or MP3.
That summer I went home to stay with my parents in Ayr for the holidays. My mum was working for astrologer Lynne Ewart, who also had a show on local radio station West Sound. Always one to try to share my musical discoveries, I persuaded Lynne to play my latest favourite record. I duly lent her my 10” vinyl copy of The Associate’s Take Me To The Girl and asked her to play the opening track. She duly played the song live on air, but unfortunately at 33 RPM instead of 45! She probably still correctly thinks Billy MacKenzie had a unique voice, but alas for all the wrong reasons.
Depeche Mode – Black Celebration (1986)
My best friend at school was a kid called Fergus. Despite initially having similar tastes, by the time we started 2nd year in high school Ferg had gotten heavily into metal and rock music (especially Status Quo and Rainbow). I hated that stuff but had been mining his siblings for music whenever I went round to his house. From Ferg’s sisters I got copies of Duran Duran albums and from his older brother I got OMD and Depeche Mode. Depeche I really took to, they seemed to have a synthpop drive but a goth heart and this perfectly suited my blossoming teenage angst. Also my parents were horrified by Martin Gore on TOTP so that was a bonus. Most kids thought Ferg’s big brother was a bit of a square, but with such cool music tastes I always secretly admired him. Ferg said “he was always a little darker than me” and I think that came through in their relative music tastes too.
I lost touch with Fergus after high school and hadn’t seen him in decades. I finally tracked him down via his YouTube channel, just a few months before he was tragically killed in a motorbike accident. We exchanged a bunch of long emails, reminiscing about school days and all the good times we’d had together, exchanging old photos and having a laugh at our 80s hair and clothes. It was clear that I’d been going New Romantic and he was all blue jeans and demin. “It was just a matter of time before I became an outlaw,” he said. It turned out that we’d both been living in the same city in France in the early 1990s. Ferg said he’d heard I was there, so he kept an eye open for “a chap with a New Romantic hairstyle, blondey highlights and baggy trousers with elasticated bottoms.” We were both at the same Oasis gig and didn’t realize it. I’m so glad we finally had a chance to chat again one last time. It’s good to celebrate the past sometimes, as I guess the future must always be black eventually.
This Mortal Coil – Filigree & Shadow (1986)
My first weeks in higher education were accompanied by a soundtrack of This Mortal Coil. I’d been following 4AD releases for a year or two and just had to buy this on the back of Song to the Siren and my love of Colourbox and The Cocteau Twins. Something about Filigree & Shadow affected me deeply, it caressed my goth heart and stirred feelings of melancholy that had no business being in any teenage head. The echo and reverb all spoke of something lost and fading, but it seemed that somebody had to try hard to remember it all and I thought I was up for the job. Many nights I would slip in and out of dreams with this album still playing on my headphones. I was enthralled by Tarantula; chilled to the bone by Come Here My Love. Filigree & Shadow was an indie-pop opera where the performers were all ghosts of long-dead angels. It remains an incredibly powerful double-album, but I’m far less reckless these days so always take the necessary precautions before I put it on.
Yello – One Second (1987)
Yello had always been there in the background throughout my 1980s, but it wasn’t until the early 90s that I really got into them seriously. The albums One Second, Flag, and Baby have become my triple-Yello-delight, and it’s probably no coincidence that my favourite singer Billy MacKenzie sung on all of them. That’s not to denigrate the genius of Herr Blank and Meier: their masterful touch and wonderful sense of humour is what makes Yello one of the best electronic acts of all time. Their fusion of a South American style with a synthpop rhythm is pure class: there’s nobody else quite like Yello. One Second is my most-played Yello album, and it always puts me in mind of a certain older woman. We’d put the album on and pour ourselves some red wine, then she’d dance about the room, showing off her Salsa skills and teasing me with her feather boa… We had lot of fun together and Yello was the perfect soundtrack.
The The – Mind Bomb (1989)
My mind was pretty much bombed throughout 1989 as I struggled to cope with the stress of sitting exams for my degree, my parent’s divorce, and increasing alienation from my long-term girlfriend. This album from The The arrived at the perfect time for me and became my most-played piece of vinyl for that year and a good few years afterwards too. I was already a fan of The The (I had both Soul Mining and Infected on cassette) but Mind Bomb was an altogether different beast. Dave Palmer’s drums were much more to the fore and the album was a lot less electronic-y than previously. But the songs and the lyrics and album art and production are all so magnificent that I became completely absorbed in this album. Johnny Marr and Sinéad O’Connor add some celebrity glamour to the proceedings, but this is Matt Johnson’s album and I think it’s the best thing he’s ever done.
Nitzer Ebb – Belief (1989)
I’d had an earlier brush with DAF but nothing could have prepared me for Nitzer Ebb live at The Venue in Edinburgh, February 1989. I saw many bands at The Venue (I think the last one was Coldplay back in March 2000) but of all the hundreds of gigs I’ve been to, that show from Nitzer Ebb was the most epic. I hadn’t even heard of them before and so had no idea what to expect: a friend (the one who gave me The Associates) said come along to a gig, he had tickets and thought I’d like it. We arrived and through the smoke I saw two drummers, all sweat and muscle, take their positions standing either side and just batter the fuck out of their drum kits. The music was electronic but this was no synthpop: it had an edge and menace new to me and I was completely captivated. The audience were totally losing it, we all joined in the chant even though I hadn’t heard any of the songs before – it was just that kind of show. I bought Belief the next day and played it every night for weeks. I heard tiny echoes of Depeche Mode but other than that this was an alien sound. So much of it didn’t seem to fit, synth lines that shouldn’t have worked but they just did. For many of my synthpop friends this was a step too far, but me – I totally loved it. This album led me on to discover Front 242, Front Line Assembly, Nine Inch Nails, KMFDM and a whole heap of other electro-industrial bands I got into in the 1990s. And Flood – the producer of Belief – went on to work on what’s probably my favourite album of the 1990s. But more of that soon…