Desert Island Discs: 1980s Rock and Pop Edition

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Just sit right back and you’ll hear a tale, a tale of a fateful trip … through our record collections. This time, just before our tiny ship was tossed, we grabbed a bunch of rock and pop sides from the 1980s.

Though there are some notable differences in our latest lists of Desert Island Discs, certain sides received much (if not unanimous) praise: U2’s The Joshua Tree and AC/DC’s Back in Black both appear four times, with each receiving a No. 1 vote from Jordan Richardson and Beverly Paterson, respectively. Peter Gabriel’s So was mentioned three times, while Donald Fagen’s The Nightfly appeared on a pair of lists, topping S. Victor Aaron’s.

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Bruce Springsteen earned three mentions, with The River tops for both Gordon Hauptfleisch’s and Glen Boyd. Born in the U.S.A., meanwhile, will be packed for David Greenberg’s trip. The Police appear twice, with Zenyatta Mondatta at No. 1 for Mark Saleski and Synchronicity in the same position for Kit O’Toole. Mark Knopfler and Dire Straits have three different albums packed away in our luggage, while R.E.M. has two.

Without further ado, here are our Top Five Desert Island Discs from 1980s rock and pop music, followed by more from our meeting around the watercooler at SER Towers …


1. THE CLASH – LONDON CALLING (1980): I’m not sure there would have been a 1980s without this renegade record, which over 19 tracks set a new musical agenda by kicking nearly every convention squarely in the ass. More importantly, its hard-eyed sense of topical passion jump started a decade that would produce Live Aid, USA for Africa and Artists United Against Apartheid.
2. PETER GABRIEL – SO (1986): My first CD, given as a gift before I even had a player. For months, it just sat in the old longbox packaging — and by the time I finally opened So, I was already sick of the hits. Turns out they were simply a gateway into Gabriel’s most fully realized album, a long-awaited solo breakthough.
3. R.E.M. – MURMUR (1983): At times, this mesmerizing record felt old fashioned, from its kudzu-covered cover image to its retro-Byrdsian strummings. Other times, with its stream-of-(un)consciousness, barely heard lyrics, Murmur felt like a new kind of art rock. In many ways, its dark mysteries are still unraveling.
4. U2 – THE JOSHUA TREE (1987): An album that perfectly combined the experimental abstractions of their previous Brian Eno-coproduced Unforgettable Fire with the rootsy blues and complicated politics of America. It’s simultaneously their most mature, most interesting and most consistent album.
5. LLOYD COLE AND THE COMMOTIONS – RATTLESNAKES (1984): Literate guitar pop that went nowhere in the age of MTV in America. Cole’s wry, detail-packed debut, however, represents the very best of a lost indie-jangle scene that blossomed around the UK with the likes of Prefab Sprout, the Soup Dragons and Aztec Camera.

[ONE TRACK MIND: Legendary rock bassist Tony Levin digs into key cuts recorded alongside the likes of Peter Gabriel, King Crimson, Yes, Paul Simon and others.]


1. BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN – THE RIVER (1980): Audacious and ambitious, inspired and inspiring, Bruce Springsteen “contains multiples,” to paraphrase Walt Whitman, and he gets it on record – or two, in the case of this sprawling treasure trove.
2. ELVIS COSTELLO – GET HAPPY!! (1980): “20 songs – All Different!” promised the advertising slogan at the time, and a restless Costello came through in this kaleidoscopic and wonderfully sloppy sonic sketchbook.
3. TOM WAITS – RAIN DOGS (1985): Harrowing and heartfelt, lyrically wry and musically varied and punch-drunk, Rain Dogs furthers Waits’ stylistic and thematic transformation — from Beatnik barfly to Beefheartian partisan, with his stream-of-loquaciousness couched in an inventive and imaginative fever-dreamt method to the madness.
4. THE PIXIES – SURFER ROSA (1988): For those who take their humor black, and their surrealism set to pre-Nirvana quiet-loud-stop-start dynamics of space, sex, incest, and scriptural carnage (not to mention a “song about a superhero named Tony/ It’s called Tony’s Theme!”), this Steve Albini-produced brew of whimsical and wonderfully warped indie rock and punk spirit marks an influential shock of the raucous and cathartic new.
5. GAME THEORY – BIG SHOT CHRONICLES (1986): Earworm alert! This Mitch Easter-produced album is the most cohesive and consistent showcase for lead vocalist and songwriter Scott Miller’s unerring melodic gift, infectiously effortless hooks, and cryptically personal lyrics, all tucked away in tough but tender power-pop and often aching poignancy.

[SOMETHING ELSE! INTERVIEW: Nils Lofgren discusses his lengthy tenure in E Street Band, as well as collaborating with Neil Young in Crazy Horse.]


1. THE POLICE – ZENYATTA MONDATTA (1980): Synchronicity might have been the bigger attraction, but this album never lets up with it’s twitchy brand of sorta-Reggae, sorta-Punk.
2. DIRE STRAITS – MAKING MOVIES (1980): The 1980s were huge for this band. With so much great music to choose from I ended up here because I’d really miss Knopfler’s little “Hey La, my boyfriend’s back” aside on “Romeo and Juliet.”
3. AC/DC – BACK IN BLACK (1980): I’m pretty sure I’ve annoyed more people with this record than any other. Good I’ll be alone on that island.
4. THE ROLLING STONES – TATTOO YOU (1981): The last great Stones record? Aw c’mon, don’t give me that Brian Jones crap!
5. GRATEFUL DEAD – IN THE DARK (1987): The Dead’s catalog is huge, wide and deep. This album gave the band their last big resurgence, but the draw is “Black Muddy River,” which is unspeakably beautiful.

[SOMETHING ELSE! INTERVIEW: Trusted sideman Gary Wright was a consistent presence with George Harrison through the years, from ‘All Things Must Pass’ to his smash 1980s return on ‘Cloud 9.’]


1. DIRE STRAITS – LOVE OVER GOLD (1980): These post-punk pub-rockers managed to find some prog-rock in their repertiore with the fourteen minute opening track, “Telegraph Road,” and guitar hero Mark Knopfler leads the way. This dude is one of my all-time favorite axmen and this whole album proves why.
2. MARK KNOPFLER – LOCAL HERO (1983): Knopfler’s first and best soundtrack is addictive, especially because of four very different versions of its central theme. It has jazz, rock, country, and new age all rolled into one nifty package.
3. THE PRETENDERS – LEARNING TO CRAWL (1984): Chrissie Hynde’s new-found maturity was clear on The Pretenders’ greatest album, their first one after the drug related deaths of two key members. Couple the Ohio native’s songwriting with a band that always sounded like the offspring of The Rolling Stones and the Clash and you have one of the best LPs of the 80s.
4. GEORGE HARRISON – CLOUD NINE (1987): It’s not George’s best album (that would be All Things Must Pass) but this was a wonderful comeback that proved he should no longer be underrated when compared to his more prolific and accomplished bandmates. In a weak decade, this easily makes the list. Tuneful and spirited throughout.
5. MICHELLE SHOCKED – SHORT SHARP SHOCKED (1988): Shocked’s major label debut embraces rock, folk, and blues and is one of the best singer-songwriter albums in history. Its best known track, “Anchorage,” combines superlative songwriting with great musicianship.

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1. AC/DC – BACK IN BLACK (1980): Could AC/DC survive without their crazy, charismatic singer, Bon Scott, who unfortunately drank himself to death the previous year? Rather than mark the end of AC/DC, “Back In Black” sired a new beginning for the Australian band.
2. THE SCORPIONS – ANIMAL MAGNETISM (1980): An incredibly great album on the basis of the slinky, swaggering rhythms of “The Zoo” alone. But the whole record stands as an exciting exposition of melody-thick heavy metal.
3. THE MOODY BLUES – LONG DISTANCE VOYAGER (1981): After several years of being absent from the scene, these classically minded rock and rollers returned to the fore with an album comparably as good, if not better, than anything they recorded in the past.
4. HUEY LEWIS AND THE NEWS – SPORTS (1983): Released at an hour when mainstream music was either bland dance pop or cookie cutter heavy metal, how refreshing Huey Lewis and the News were. Promoting a trilogy of blue-eyed soul, bar band rock and power pop, the Northern California group seemed to be having as much fun as the folks listening to their hooky little tunes.
5. JOHN FOGERTY – CENTERFIELD (1985): What a phenomenal comeback! It had been ten years since John Fogerty, lead singer, guitarist and songwriter of the legendary Creedence Clearwater Revival, had recorded any music, so one can only imagine the unrealistic demands dumped on his shoulders. But he exceeded all expectations.

[ONE TRACK MIND: First-call rock drummer Kenny Aronoff on John Fogerty: “People think John’s music is simple and easy, and it’s not. It’s way intense.”]


1. MICHAEL JACKSON – THRILLER (1982): “Thriller,” “Billie Jean,” “Beat It,” “Wanna Be Startin’ Something,” “PYT,” “The Girl is Mine” and, my personal favorite, “Human Nature.” all on a single album … need I say more?
2. U2 – JOSHUA TREE (1987): This album cemented the already popular and beloved group U2 as legends in music history. And, the song “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” speaks so truly about the universal and eternal human search for spiritual fulfillment.
3. TRACY CHAPMAN – TRACY CHAPMAN (1988): Chapman sings the lead track, “Fast Car” with such a rawness that we can see, feel and in a way experience for ourselves, through song, the wounds of poverty — not to mention the lyrics, “You got a fast car”, “And I got a plan to get us out of here”, “But is it fast enough so we can fly away”, would so poignantly expresses the feelings of living stranded on an island.
4. AC/DC – BACK IN BLACK (1980): The first record to be recorded with their new lead singer Brian Johnson only several months after the sudden death of Bon Scott, this album, which is dedicated to Scott, grew to become the third best selling album of all time.
5. BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN – BORN IN THE U.S.A. (1984): Known as Bruce’s most famous record, this album can be a vessel to rejoice in after a long and hard-fought struggle of the daily grind.

[SOMETHING ELSE! INTERVIEW: Steve Lukather takes us inside the sessions for Michael Jackson’s blockbuster album ‘Thriller,’ saying: “We knew something special was happening.”]


TALKING HEADS – REMAIN IN LIGHT (1980): Dark and weird overall, the first half finds bright rays of sunshine peeking through the crevices. The second half breaks free and mines a dark seam of alien rock.
KING CRIMSON – DISCIPLINE (1981): The fact is, no matter how closely I study it, no matter how I take it apart, no matter how I break it down, it remains consistant.
XTC – SKYLARKING (1986): With producer Todd Rundgren at the helm, XTC crafted this pastoral oasis of sound that attempts to sum up life in one album.
PETER GABRIEL – SO (1986): Take out the overplayed “Sledgehammer” and “Big Time” and this album stands the test of time amazingly well. The pop-sheen of the time was a tool in Gabriel’s hands, not a hindrance.
RUSH – PRESTO (1989): Perhaps Rush’s most personal album, aside from 2002’s Vapor Trails, it is also their most unusually textured album, full of acoustic guitar, lighter keyboard and faux-orchestral moments. The musical equivalent of an after-dinner mint, except more fulfilling.

[SOMETHING ELSE! INTERVIEW: King Crimson’s Adrian Belew on the 1981 ‘Discipline’ project: “I really felt like we ended up making something fresh that didn’t sound like anything else.”]


1. U2 – THE JOSHUA TREE (1987): Kissed by The Edge’s echoing guitar and Bono’s neo-spiritual cries, one of the best rock records of all-time is made magical by the swell of ambition and the melodic splendour of every song.
2. AC/DC – BACK IN BLACK (1980): The album that introduced AC/DC as a band that would never quit doing the same thing. Brian Johnson’s first kick at the can comes with blistering sex and darkness, blasted in full-figured glory thanks to Angus Young’s always-on guitar precision.
3. GUNS N’ ROSES – APPETITE FOR DESTRUCTION (1987): Possibly the greatest rock debut of all-time. This is killer from start to finish, erupting with “Welcome to the Jungle” and tearing through raucous hits like “Paradise City” and the beautiful “Sweet Child O’ Mine.” Slash at his very best.
4. THE CURE – DISINTEGRATION (1989): This is the “I give up” record for the proverbial desert island. If you’re tired of surviving and feel like wallowing, this is the ticket. Soaked in Robert Smith’s eyeliner and beautiful pieces like “Lovesong” and “Lullaby,” Disintegration is just the thing for (causing) blissful depression.
5. BRYAN ADAMS – RECKLESS (1984): Maybe it’s my Canadian allegiance, but this blistering hunk of rock seems to fit. Featuring hits like “Summer of ‘69” and “Run to You,” Reckless also packs a punch thanks to Adams’ pairing with someone by the name of Tina Turner (“It’s Only Love”).

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1. METALLICA – KILL ‘EM ALL (1983): It’s raw and not nearly as refined as their later work, but that’s why I love it. There’s a great blend of punkish energy and classic metal, and “The Four Horsemen” still kills.
2. BLACK SABBATH – HEAVEN AND HELL (1980): Ronnie James Dio not only brought a new voice to Sabbath, but a whole new sound. This album rivals anything they did with Ozzy, and the title track is one of the greatest metal songs ever recorded.
3. DIO – HOLY DIVER (1983): So, Dio makes two appearances on my ’80s list. You could argue Holy Diver is the greatest metal record of the decade – or of all time for that matter. Not a bad song on it from top to bottom, and Dio’s vocals are incredible as always.
4. OZZY OSBOURNE – DIARY OF A MADMAN (1981): Sabbath’s former frontman wasn’t too shabby himself on his 1980s solo albums. Diary is far and away the best of the bunch, though. It’s got his best songs and some of my favorite Randy Rhoads guitar work.
5. IRON MAIDEN – NUMBER OF THE BEAST (1982): Lots of great Maiden albums to choose from, but the first with singer Bruce Dickinson was a watershed moment for the band. There’s still some of the raw 1970s sound of their first two albums there, but also hints of the epic style that was to come later in the decade.

[CAN’T GET ENOUGH BRUCE?: Check out our weekly feature ‘Sparks Fly on E Street,’ where Mark Saleski breaks down Bruce Springsteen’s legendary career – song after memorable song.]


1. BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN – THE RIVER (1980): As relevant now as it was thirty years ago, The River’s side four closing segueway from “Ramrod’s” frat-rock into “The Price You Pay” and “Drive All Night” is also about as sublime as it gets. On Springsteen’s most stylistically varied album, its characters still reluctantly live for Saturday nights in a grown-up world of dead-end jobs and dashed dreams.
2. NEIL YOUNG – FREEDOM (1989): After a decade of bizarre genre experiments that gave cause for more than a few diehard Rusties to jump ship, Neil shocked the crap outta’ everyone with the sort of album most had long since given up hope he still had in him. Whod’a thunk it?
3. U2 – THE JOSHUA TREE (1987): This album, along with Springsteen’s Tunnel Of Love, got me through a particularly brutal breakup, hence its inclusion here. Fortunately, I think the girl who broke my heart has long since forgiven me the 2 a.m. drunk-dials where I insisted on playing “Red Hill Mining Town” (“I’m hanging on … I’m still waiting”), over the phone for her.
4. ECHO AND THE BUNNYMEN – PORCUPINE (1983): These guys are often unfairly lumped in with the 1980s MTV “new wave” bands of the day, and the comparison couldn’t be further off-base. One listen to the dark psychedelic textures of tracks like “Higher Hell” here reveals a lot more Syd Barrett-era Floyd than it does some random Flock of Haircuts.
5. THE CHAMELEONS – SCRIPT OF THE BRIDGE (1983): Nobody (well, almost anyway) has ever heard of this brilliant band, but those who have will unanimously tell you they should have been as big as — bigger even! — U2. This brilliant debut album weds Robert Smith’s darkness with R.E.M.’s guitar jangle like nothing that has come before or since.

[SOMETHING ELSE! INTERVIEW: For nearly two decades, drummer Kenny Aronoff was a key sideman with John Mellencamp – and he’s got the stories (and scars) to prove it.]



1. THE POLICE – SYNCHRONICITY (1983): Picking just one Police album is a challenge, but their best-selling album represents their commercial peak. Yes, “Every Breath You Take” is grossly overplayed (and often misinterpreted), but “Wrapped Around Your Finger” and “Tea in the Sahara” rank among Sting’s most elegant compositions, and “Synchronicity II” still seethes with anger.
2. DONALD FAGEN – THE NIGHTFLY (1982): Only Fagen would write a romantic song about hiding underground during nuclear war. The Steely Dan wordsmith covers everything from jazz to rock to 50s doo-wop, and the album remains one of the most distinctive and eclectic works ever recorded.
3. PETER GABRIEL – SO (1986): Sure, “In Your Eyes” became one of the biggest—and most overexposed—hits of the 80s. However, the entire album is packed with simply exquisite tracks like the chilling “Red Rain” and “Mercy Street,” or the surprisingly funky tracks “Sledgehammer” and “Big Time.” Quite simply, it’s Gabriel’s tour de force.
4. JOHN COUGAR MELLENCAMP – SCARECROW (1985): This release illustrates Mellencamp’s remarkable transformation from bad-boy rocker to the Midwest’s answer to Springsteen. When he chants “blood on the scarecrow” or paints a stark picture of working class America in “Small Town,” the listener feels every word he sings. Scarecrow has joyful moments too, such as the classic rockers “Rumbleseat” and “R.O.C.K. in the U.S.A.”
5. R.E.M. – GREEN (1988): Like The Police, it’s difficult to select just one R.E.M. album. Their final 80s release contains everything from down and dirty rock (“Turn You Inside-Out”) to political commentary (“Orange Crush”), catchy pop (“Stand”) and delicate ballads (“You Are the Everything”). What more could one ask for out of a single album?

[SOMETHING ELSE INTERVIEW: Bill Champlin makes an impassioned defense for the David Foster-era of Chicago, saying he “really put some life back in that band.”]


1. CHICAGO – 16 (1982): This was/is easily Chicago’s best post-Terry Kath album. While not as successful as the quadruple-platinum 17, there’s a “hunger” in the music 16 that wasn’t on 17.
2. ALAN PARSONS PROJECT – EYE IN THE SKY (1982): While best known for the title track, there are a lot of other gems on this one. “Sirius,” “Silence & I,” “Mammagamma,” and “Psychobabble” are all equally brilliant.
3. TOTO – FAHRENHEIT (1986): Toto put out 3 consecutive great albums. This one edges out the other 2 (Isolation and The Seventh One) as it features Joseph Williams on vocals and all 3 of the Porcaro brothers were in the band at this point as well.
4. YES – DRAMA (1980): With Geoff Downes on keys and Steve Howe on guitar, this was a pre-cursor to Asia’s debut album. But as much as I love Asia, I believe Drama has better stood the test of time.
5. MARILLION – MISPLACED CHILDHOOD (1985): Prog-rock brilliance from Marillion, who picked up in the 1980s where Genesis left off after Peter Gabriel left. With Derek Dick at the helm, lyrically I’d argue Marillion was superior to Genesis even at their peak in the ’70s.

[ONE TRACK MIND: Chris Squire discusses returning to tracks like “Tempus Fugit” from 1980’s ‘Drama’ on stage, as well as other key moments from Yes and his solo career.]


1. DONALD FAGEN – THE NIGHTFLY (1982): Steely Dan precision, but with a thematic sweep.
2. BILLY IDOL – REBEL YELL (1983): You can actually hear Idol sneering through the speakers, amidst Steve Stevens’ crashing guitars. This record is too much fun to exclude.
3. TOM WAITS – RAIN DOGS (1985): How can you improve on Swordfishtrombones? Add Marc Ribot, that’s how.
4. JOHN HAITT – SLOW TURNING (1988): Bring The Family was Haitt’s breakthrough, but this one’s got more downhome charm.
5. STEVIE RAY VAUGHAN – IN STEP (1988): Gotta have some blues-rock on this island, and in the ’80s, Stevie Ray epitomized it.

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