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Every Essential Album (and Music Video) From the Golden Age of MTV

Because it's time to get your Big '80s on

spinner image Side by side images of Madonna, Michael Jackson and Bruce Springsteen
(Left to right) Madonna, Michael Jackson and Bruce Springsteen
Pictorial Press Ltd/Alamy Stock Photo; TCD/Prod.DB/Alamy Stock Photo; Paul Natkin/WireImage

It was rad, it was chill and it was totally tubular.

The launch of MTV just after midnight on Aug. 1, 1981, sparked a musical revolution and cultural shift that both reflected and defined Generation X, the “baby busters” born between 1965 and 1979, now with a median age of roughly 50 and numbering 65 million people.

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With the powerful influence MTV had over music, fashion, lifestyle trends and politics, it's no surprise Gen Xers became known as the MTV Generation. The channel's early years delivered a dizzying diversity of memorable videos that boosted careers and fueled sales of iconic albums. Pop open the ultimate soundtrack to the Big ‘80s with our guide to the MTV-fueled albums and stars that defined a generation.

Thriller, Michael Jackson (1982)

The music: Jackson's masterful R&B-infused pop album, produced by Quincy Jones, became his first No. 1 album, spent 37 weeks at the top of Billboard's album chart and set a record for the most top 10 hits from a single album with “Thriller,” “Beat It,” “Billie Jean,” “The Girl Is Mine,” “Human Nature,” “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin'” and “PYT (Pretty Young Thing)."

The video: "Billie Jean's” debut on MTV in 1983 was the first clip by a Black artist to get regular airplay and is credited with breaking the channel's color barrier. It also sent Thriller sales into orbit.

Watch it: Billie Jean, on YouTube

Rio, Duran Duran (1982)

The music: The British pretty boy band's second album, packed with shiny synth-pop and new wave, fared poorly in the U.S. until videos on MTV began stirring excitement months later.

The video: Rio captures the glitz, glam and camp posturing of both the group and the ‘80s. The band wore designer silk suits while cavorting with a painted leggy model on a yacht off Antigua, and fans lapped up the fantasy.

Watch it: Rio, on YouTube

She's So Unusual, Cyndi Lauper (1983)

The music: The eccentric singer's debut album, a blast of up-tempo pop-rock and power ballads, peaked at No. 4 on the strength of such hits as “She Bop,” “Time After Time” and “Money Changes Everything.” Lauper won the Grammy for best new artist.

The video: “Girls Just Want to Have Fun,” Lauper's breakthrough hit, yielded a low-budget, wildly popular MTV clip featuring Dan Aykroyd in his Conehead role.

Watch it: Girls Just Want to Have Fun, on YouTube

Let's Dance, David Bowie (1983)

The music: Leaving behind personas Ziggy Stardust, Major Tom and the Thin White Duke, the mercurial Bowie delivered his most successful album ever with this dance-rock collection coproduced by Chic's Nile Rodgers. Pushed by the popularity of such singles as “Modern Love” and “Let's Dance,” the album sold nearly 11 million copies worldwide and rode the U.S. chart for 69 weeks.

The video: MTV viewers were mesmerized by the heady “China Girl” video, which attacks racism by portraying Asian stereotypes and includes a reference to From Here to Eternity.

Watch it: China Girl, on YouTube

An Innocent Man, Billy Joel (1983)

The music: The Piano Man's ninth studio disc was a concept album toasting American pop music styles from the late ‘50s to early ‘60s, including R&B and doo-wop. Driven by such singles as “Tell Her About It,” “The Longest Time,” “Keeping the Faith” and the title track, the album spent 111 weeks on the Billboard chart.

The video: Supermodel Christie Brinkley, his future wife, stars in the video for “Uptown Girl,” a song that expressed Joel's astonishment at his ability to attract glamorous women.

Watch it: Uptown Girl, on YouTube

Synchronicity, the Police (1983)

The music: The last album by the British trio topped the chart and sold 8 million copies thanks to such hits as “King of Pain” and “Every Breath You Take,” which won the song of the year Grammy.

The video: Celebrated video production duo Godley & Crème crafted the atmospheric “Wrapped Around Your Finger” by creating a maze of tall lighted candles in a dark room and having the Police mime while the song played at a high speed. Slowed to normal speed, the band appeared to move in slow motion.

Watch it: Wrapped Around Your Finger, on YouTube

Eliminator, ZZ Top (1983)

The music: The Texas blues-rock trio's eighth studio album was also its most successful, selling 10 million copies in the U.S. and generating hits “Sharp Dressed Man,” “Legs” and “Got Me Under Pressure."

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The video: The humorous “Gimme All Your Lovin'” video, staged at a gas station, kicks off a three-part narrative and introduces the ZZ Top red Eliminator hot rod, three ZZ video vixens and the magical ZZ key chain.

Watch it: Gimme All Your Lovin', on YouTube

Private Dancer, Tina Turner (1984)

The music: Turner's fifth solo album heralded a heroic comeback as well as a departure from the raw R&B of her early years toward the more polished rock and balladry of “What's Love Got to Do With It,” “Better Be Good to Me” and “Let's Stay Together."

The video: The clip for the dark and dramatic “Private Dancer,” a tune written by Dire Straits’ Mark Knopfler, casts Turner as a jaded taxi dancer, a bygone livelihood from when men paid for partners in dance halls.

Watch it: Private Dancer, on YouTube

1984, Van Halen (1984)

The music: The hard rock band's last album with all four original members (David Lee Roth would leave and be replaced by Sammy Hagar) sold 10 million copies, was critically hailed for its humor and instrumental prowess, and delivered Van Halen's only No. 1 single, “Jump."

The video: Unapologetically tacky (and a reminder of the strong sexist streak in music videos), “Hot for Teacher” follows nerdy kid Waldo and boy versions of the band through a day at grade school, where teachers strip to bikinis.

Watch it: Hot for Teacher, on YouTube

Learning to Crawl, the Pretenders (1984)

The music: Following a two-year hiatus and the drug-overdose deaths of two members, the rock band rebounded with its highest-charting U.S. album and such fan favorites as “Middle of the Road,” “My City Was Gone” and “2000 Miles."

The video: In a clip that is both gritty and surreal, Chrissie Hynde sings “Back on the Chain Gang” as people sail through the sky and workers scramble across a bridge to work.

Watch it: Back on the Chain Gang, on YouTube

Purple Rain, Prince and the Revolution (1984)

The music: A critical and commercial smash, Prince's electro-pop soundtrack was his first album to top the Billboard chart, where it spent 24 consecutive weeks at No. 1. It brims with instant classics, from the upbeat “Let's Go Crazy” and “I Would Die 4 U” to risqué “Darling Nikki."

The video: In “When Doves Cry,” a nude Prince rises from a steaming bathtub and crawls across a floor strewn with flowers. City fathers were not amused.

Watch it: When Doves Cry, on YouTube

Born in the USA, Bruce Springsteen (1984)

The music: The seventh studio album by the Boss became the top-selling album of the year, propelled by seven hits that included “Cover Me,” “I'm on Fire,” “Glory Days,” “My Hometown” and the title track, one of the most misinterpreted rock songs in history.

The video: Brian DePalma directed the live video for “Dancing in the Dark,” shot in St. Paul, Minnesota, on the first night of the “Born in the USA” tour. Springsteen plucks a “fan” (actress Courtney Cox, not yet famous on Friends) from the audience to dance with him on stage.

Watch it: Dancing in the Dark, on YouTube

Like a Virgin, Madonna (1984)

The music: The pop siren's fame exploded with her second studio album and the title track, which became her first chart-topping single. Sharp, sexy, irresistible pop tunes cemented her status as the decade's hottest diva.

The video: In “Material Girl,” Madonna is decked in jewels and steeped in suitors (including Keith Carradine) as she pays homage to Marilyn Monroe's performance of “Diamonds Are a Girl's Best Friend” from Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.

Watch it: Material Girl, on YouTube

Whitney Houston, Whitney Houston (1985)

The music: After a slow start, Houston's debut topped Billboard for 14 weeks in 1986 on the might of three No. 1 singles: “Saving All My Love for You,” “How Will I Know” and “Greatest Love of All.” Her powerful voice inspired scores of copycats.

The video: “How Will I Know,” Houston's first video to get heavy rotation on MTV, captured the elusive teen demo sought by Black artists with its neon colors, trendy fashions and energetic choreography.

Watch it: How Will I Know, on YouTube

Graceland, Paul Simon (1986)

The music: After the commercial flop of 1983's Hearts and Bones, inspired by his divorce from Carrie Fisher, Simon snapped back with a world music masterwork crammed with jewels like “The Boy in the Bubble,” “Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes” and “Under African Skies.” It won the album of the year Grammy.

The video: In a hilarious video conceived by Saturday Night Live producer Lorne Michaels, Chevy Chase lip-syncs the entire track for “You Can Call Me Al” while Simon twiddles his thumbs and takes a short conga drum solo. Near the end, the two team up for dance moves and horn breaks.

Watch it: You Can Call Me Al, on YouTube

Raising Hell, Run-DMC (1986)

The music: The landmark third album by the Hollis, Queens, rap trio ended debate about the genre's commercial and artistic viability. Produced by Rick Rubin, Raising Hell was the first hip-hop album to reach sales of 1 million copies and earned wide praise for its dazzling beats and savvy mainstream reach.

The video: Run-DMC's cover of “Walk This Way” by Aerosmith features the rock band's singer Steven Tyler and guitarist Joe Perry, who appear in the spirited video, first as rivals in a battle-of-the-bands scenario, then as collaborators.

Watch it: Walk This Way, on YouTube

Faith, George Michael (1987)

The music: Already a global sensation as half of Wham!, George Michael hit the stratosphere with this soul-fired pop debut, which won the album of the year Grammy. Fueled by hit singles “Faith,” “Father Figure,” “One More Try” and “Monkey,” it spent nearly a year in the top 10.

The video: The suggestive video for widely banned first single “I Want Your Sex” was aired only late at night. Though Michael is seen using lipstick to scrawl “explore monogamy” on nude costar Kathy Jeung's back, the video stirred controversy for promoting promiscuity.

Watch it: I Want Your Sex, on YouTube

Hysteria, Def Leppard (1987)

The music: The British rock band's fourth and best-selling album sold 12 million copies in the U.S. and yielded such pounding hits as “Armageddon It,” “Love Bites,” “Rocket” and “Animal."

The video: Ill at ease in concept videos, the rockers chose to flaunt their stagecraft instead in the high-energy “Pour Some Sugar on Me,” recorded during a show in Denver.

Watch it: Pour Some Sugar on Me, on YouTube

Kick, INXS (1987)

The music: The Australian rock band's sixth and biggest-selling album reached No. 3 on Billboard and dominated radio and MTV with four dance-rock hit singles: “Devil Inside,” “Need You Tonight,” “Never Tear Us Apart” and “New Sensation."

The video: A detour from the frenetic, effects-laden INXS videos that preceded it, “Never Tear Us Apart” is a somber, straightforward treatment with long tracking shots and muted colors that features the band strolling the streets of Prague.

Watch it: Never Tear Us Apart, on YouTube

The Joshua Tree, U2 (1987)

The music: The Irish band pays tribute to American rock ‘n’ roll roots with spiritual adventurism and a slew of classics, including “With or Without You,” “I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For” and “Bullet the Blue Sky.” It topped the chart, sold 25 million copies and won the album of the year Grammy.

The video: For “Where the Streets Have No Name,” the band performs the song on top of a liquor store in downtown Los Angeles, a nod to the Beatles’ Let It Be/Get Back rooftop farewell performance.

Watch it: Where the Streets Have No Name, on YouTube

Edna Gundersen, a regulr AARP music critic, was the longtime pop critic for USA Today.

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