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The 50 best albums of the 80s

Dire Straits - Brothers In Arms

30) Dire Straits - Brothers In Arms (1985)

’I want my MTV’ they sang. Well, thanks to Money For Nothing, they sure got it. An addictive riff, a memorable computer-generated video and the aforementioned refrain propelled Mark Knopfler and Dire Straits to another level, and turned Brothers In Arms into a huge international hit. 

While might have got lukewarm reviews upon its release, it arrived at precisely the right time. MTV was about to launch in the UK, and the music station leapt upon the animated promo mentioned above, choosing it as the first video to be aired on the channel. The compact disc had also arrived, and Brothers In Arms’ exquisite production was tailor-made for the new format. 

The album sold more than a million copies on CD alone, taking Dire Straits to a new generation of consumers who saw music a status symbol. It took up a four-year residency in the UK chart and spent nine weeks at No.1 in the US, elevating Knopfler and his band to the top table of 80s megastardom alongside Springsteen, Prince, Michael Jackson and Madonna.

Rush - Signals

29) Rush - Signals (1982)

Following the live Exit… Stage Left, the Canadian trio simply picked up from Moving Pictures and added more keyboards. Lots more. The result was an album that split the band’s following clean down the middle.

Where Signals saw the trio beginning to experiment with keys, played by bassist/vocalist Geddy Lee, it meant that the potency of Alex Lifeson’s guitar was sometimes sacrificed. For some, this was tantamount to heresy. However, The sheer quality of songs like New World Man, Subdivisions and The Analog Kid render such quibbles pointless.

More radical changes to the Rush soundscape, though, are in evidence on Chemistry and Digital Man, both of which further explore Police-style techno-reggae (this a full year ahead of The Police’s Synchronicity), and The Weapon, built on a dance music drum pattern. Then after a brilliant guest solo by electric violinist Ben Mink on Losing It, Rush reach for the stars with Countdown, based on watching a shuttle launch as VIP guests of NASA.

28) Judas Priest - Screaming For Vengeance (1982)

Priest needed to up their game after the previous year’s disappointing Point Of Entry, and that's exactly what they did here. The band's biggest breakthrough, particularly in the US, came with this immaculate slab of none-more-metal bravado. 

Screaming For Vengeance is an imperious display of heavy metal in its purest, most exhilarating form. Still a spectacular opening to their live show, the clarion call of The Hellion and Electric Eye was a great way to begin a heavy metal album (if there’s a harder hitting one-two opening shot, we haven’t heard it). From that point onward, it was metal mastery all the way. 

From the ageless rush of Electric Eye and the world-dominating thud of You’ve Got Another Thing Comin’ through to the neck-wrenching attack of the title track and the fiery crunch of Devil’s Child, it’s a flawless encapsulation of everything that made metal such a global force during the ‘80s. But the pivotal track was You’ve Got Another Thing Comin’, its hooky riff and badass attitude making it an irresistible force on US rock radio. 

But if that track had mainstream appeal, the album’s dominant tone was all-out heavy metal attack with bludgeoning credentials a-plenty. The result was an album which became a benchmark heavy metal title for the rest to aspire to. 

27) Judas Priest - British Steel (1980)

1980 was one of the best years ever for heavy metal, with an extraordinary amount of classic albums released, including Back In Black, Heaven And Hell, Ace Of Spades – but more on all those later. Right up there with all these landmarks was British Steel, an album which in many ways defined the style, sound and image of metal as we know it today.

Guitarist KK Downing refers to it as The People’s Album. And the recording process included broken milk bottles, a billiard cue and a cutlery drawer. Oh, and then there was the story that the tapes of the album were stolen and held to ransom. All pretty metal, right?

From the first words that Rob Halford sang on opening track Rapid Fire – ‘Pounding the world like a battering ram’ – to the cacophonous finalé of Steeler, this is as definitive a heavy metal album as Sabbath’s Paranoid. Two brilliant singles hit the UK Top 20: party anthem Living After Midnight and the yobbish Breaking The Law. And in the dystopian vision of Metal Gods, the band had their signature song.

26) Queensrÿche - Operation: Mindcrime (1988)

This first-rate concept album tells the story of a genius, a junkie and a street girl and their alienation from 80s society. Layered guitars, operatic vocals and Michael Kamen’s orchestrations lend the whole thing a grand, epic feel. The album hit a new audience when – in that most 80s make or break move – the band filmed a video for single Eyes Of A Stranger which got picked up by MTV. 

With its stretching, adventurous 10-minute epics like Suite Sister Mary and powerful statement pieces like Revolution Calling, O:M has seen Queensrÿche heralded as one of the first true prog metal pioneers.

But this album is a rare beast in another sense: it's an 80s metal album that puts the song – or, more specifically, the story – first and lets everything else take a back seat.

25) Def Leppard - Pyromania (1983)

The one that cracked America for the Sheffield-based metallers, with new guitarist Phil Collen adding a brighter element to the band’s songwriting. Touring the US in Union Jack outfits was a gimmick that paid off, certainly with the then fledgling MTV.

When Def Leppard recorded the album that made them superstars, they were still on wages of £40 a week. The serious money went into Pyromania’s high-spec production. The result was state-of-the-art arena rock with the riff-power of AC/DC and the melodic sophistication of 80s pop. Joe Elliott called Pyromania "probably the best produced album of all time". 

Photograph was the key hit single, Die Hard The Hunter the epic set-piece (its riff nicked from Cliff Richard’s Devil Woman!), Rock Of Ages the stomping, We Will Rock You-style anthem, complete with joke faux-German intro from Mutt Lange. “With Pyromania, everything changed for us,” Elliott told Classic Rock. Phil Lynott even blamed this album for finishing Thin Lizzy’s career, telling Joe: “I can’t compete with that!”

24) Iron Maiden - Iron Maiden (1980)

Iron Maiden was an audacious debut: raw, fiery, subtly progressive and delivered with utmost passion and power. People were expecting great things from the leaders of the New Wave Of British Heavy Metal, but no one expected the band’s debut to be quite this gritty, ramshackle and ill-refined. 

A mile away from the sleek metal machine Maiden would later become, their debut has nevertheless endured the test of time well. Vocalist Paul Di’Anno (later to be replaced by Bruce Dickinson) barks out the words like a drunk threatening you with a broken pint glass, and the band carry out their hybrid punk/metal thing with aplomb.

Its songs are all established classics and its finest moments – the exhilarating Prowler, the monumental Phantom Of The Opera, the spine-tingling Remember Tomorrow – are as good as anything Maiden have ever recorded. As Steve Harris has often noted, the production is a little flat, but that hasn’t stopped millions of people from banging their heads to Running Free and perennial set closer Iron Maiden, that’s for chuffing sure.

Iron Maiden Killers cover

23) Iron Maiden - Killers (1981)

Maiden were on fire at this point: Killers was an explosive confirmation of the immense potential the band had shown on their debut, with an even greater sense of momentum and conviction thrown in. 

Vocalist Paul Di’Anno’s swansong with Maiden, Killers is an underrated album in the band’s catalogue. Few albums begin with as much haughty braggadocio as this one, as heroic intro The Ides Of March and the pummelling Wrathchild give way to Murders In The Rue Morgue, a song so ridiculously exciting and joyfully metallic that it once made Hammer writer Dom Lawson fall off his bike (it’s a long story). 

Bruce Dickinson has said it's his favourite out of the first two albums ("Killers, in particular, is a favourite of mine. The sound on that album really was the sound that should have been on the first Iron Maiden album") – though in some quarters the new slicker sound, courtesy of producer Martin Birch, detracted from the impact of the debut. 

But as a whole the album was a triumph, and indicated the more overblown direction Maiden would take once new vocalist Bruce Dickinson took the helm.

22) Bon Jovi - Slippery When Wet (1986)

Bon Jovi had made a splash from the off with 1984’s debut, but seemingly faltered with 1985’s 7800 Fahrenheit (referred to in one magazine as ‘a pale imitation’ of their first record). But it all came together here: cowboy anthems and tales of New Jersey love, heavily inspired by Bruce Springsteen and Southside Johnny, wrapped up in shaggy hair, tight jeans and Desmond Child hooks.

The album’s biggest tune is also its standout track. Jon channeled his inner lyrical Springsteen on Livin On A Prayer to paint a picture full of optimism in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds. When Tommy’s got his six-string in hock and Gina’s working the diner all day, what else is there to believe in but the twin redeeming powers of love and rock? The histrionic delivery of this chorus has surely caused more sore throats than any other song in rock history.

Elsewhere, Richie Sambora rifled through his big bag of riffs on some of the most recognisable pop rockers ever written. It wasn’t just Bon Jovi and Sambora’s good looks that attracted women in their droves. The clever trick of the light the band pulled off here was to produce material with plenty of pop sensibility lurking beneath the big chords. Big chanty vocals, ear-wormy melodies and ‘all lads together’ mateyness make for an impressive ’one size fits all’ winner of an album.

21) Ozzy Osbourne - Blizzard Of Ozz (1980)

Widely regarded as a busted flush after his sacking from Black Sabbath, Sharon brought Ozzy to his senses and somehow coaxed this excellent album out of him – with a little help from the late guitar genius Randy Rhoads along the way.

Ozzy described the first time he heard Rhoads play guitar as “like God entering my life”, but for his former bandmates in Black Sabbath it was surely a more sobering experience. Rhoads was the most exciting young guitar hero since Eddie Van Halen – one in the eye for Sabbath’s old master Tony Iommi. 

This solo debut marked a new decade and a new era for Ozzy, and above all it was Rhoads’ cutting-edge style that gave the album its vital, contemporary edge. Blizzard Of Ozz (an inspired title) spawned several deathless Ozz classics: the deranged Crazy Train, the occult-dabbling Mr. Crowley and the lawsuit-inducing Suicide Solution all established Ozzy as an artist in his own right. 

A triumph against all the odds, it remains the Double-O’s greatest solo work.