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Essential Sounds of the ’80s

From Prince to Public Enemy, these artists helped define the golden age of MTV

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    Michael Jackson: ‘Thriller’ (1982)

    Last winter, as the music industry gushed about Adele’s massively successful album, 25, the King of Pop’s titanic compilation stole the mic by becoming the first album ever to be certified 30 times multiplatinum. Thriller catapulted Jackson into a stratosphere of mythical proportions, inhabited only by the likes of Elvis Presley and the Beatles. Fueled by iconic jams like “Billie Jean,” “Beat It” and, of course, the title track, Thriller didn’t just tower over the ’80s, but over the entire music industry.

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    R.E.M.: ‘Murmur’ (1983)

    Credit it to beginner’s luck or that hot Georgia air, but this debut album from a ragtag group of creative college kids mystified critics and music fans throughout the nation. Haunting lyrics fused with understated jingles to create a pioneering sound that acted as a blueprint for alternative bands following in its wake. It took until the late ’80s for the group to sign a record deal and the early ’90s to sell out amphitheaters, yet the transcendent magic of Murmur always remained unmatched.

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    Bruce Springsteen: ‘Born in the U.S.A.’ (1984)

    The Boss has been a headliner in the America’s sonic landscape for so long that it is easy to take him and the album that launched his heartland rock into stardom for granted. His set list draws from 18 albums, but songs from his 1984 discography always make the cut. Springsteen, complemented by the E Street Band, paints such a spot-on portrait of small-town America via lyrics that swell and music that punches. It is a rowdy, spirited and immortal work.

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  • Richard E. Aaron

    Prince: ‘Purple Rain’ (1984)

    Released in tandem with a raunchy, autobiographical movie of the same name, Purple Rain brought the mystifying Midwesterner more fame and praise than he could have possibly imagined. After cementing a spot in the ranks of musical gods, Prince quickly retreated from the spotlight, stonewalling the public and rebuffing music press royalty. Yet the musical legend’s reclusiveness added to his tantalizing mystique. Fans trusted wherever his melodies went, even if that meant a stab at arena rock in “Purple Rain.” Though it helped that the song put even the genre’s biggest names to shame.

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    Whitney Houston: ‘Whitney Houston’ (1985)

    Houston’s debut album served gospel with a side of pop. From the moment she crooned onto the music scene, critics had an idea of her forthcoming sonic impact. “With her sleek beauty and her great voice, Whitney Houston is obviously headed for stardom,” Rolling Stone said. The self-titled composition topped the charts for 14 months, alluring listeners with an unrivaled combination of sultry ballads, punchy pop and wholesome gospel.

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    Bon Jovi: ‘Slippery When Wet’ (1986)

    With a cliché title and simplistic choruses to match, Slippery When Wet is unapologetically meant for the masses. Millions — especially young girls, a demographic hair metal had failed to attract in the past — flocked to see the New Jersey rockers crank out swoon-worthy sing-alongs like “Livin’ on a Prayer” or “Wanted Dead or Alive.” Their shameless razzle-dazzle was on full throttle in the album, sending the leather-clad quartet up the charts and into the hearts of ’80s teens everywhere.

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    U2: ‘The Joshua Tree’ (1987)

    An Irish platinum-selling group takes on the American Southwest in an album defined by tracks of doubt and gloom. On the surface, Joshua Tree seemed unlikely to succeed, yet the album soared, enthralling audiences with a mixture of trademark U2 catchiness and dark-hued seduction. By 1987, U2 had already captured the hearts of millions as a touring act, but their fifth album catapulted them into rarefied stardom by turning palpable anguish and spiritual struggle into arena-rocking sing-alongs.

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    Guns N’ Roses: ‘Appetite for Destruction’ (1987)

    Like the band’s paradoxical name, Appetite for Destruction features everything from cynical, sneering romps (“Welcome to the Jungle”) to melodic, emotional ballads (“Sweet Child o’ Mine”). Although unquestionably a heavy metal group, Guns N’ Roses wasn’t afraid to showcase its emotions, which made the group all the more primal and powerful. The album, conjured up from a drug-and-alcohol-induced stupor, wasn’t just good music — it was an anthem for disenfranchised and disillusioned ’80s kids throughout the nation.

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    Public Enemy: ‘It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back’ (1988)

    Infused with shrieking sirens, free jazz, comedic relief, endless bravado and pumped-up politics, Public Enemy’s sophomore album is urgent and enduring. Not only did Nation of Millions boisterously address the turmoil of time, it also gave rise to some of the most iconic voices and tracks of the rap industry. The album is dauntless and obnoxious, but it grabs you and holds on tight the whole way through.

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    Madonna: ‘Like a Prayer’ (1989)

    In the ’80s, Madonna was not just a pop singer — she was a cultural phenomenon. With Like a Prayer, she rocked the worlds of millions of young women through religious and sexual rebellion and straight-up fashionista flair. Her fourth album bid adieu to the cotton-candy pop of Like a Virgin and True Blue and introduced provocative and vivacious tunes that cemented Madonna’s status as the Queen of Pop.

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