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The Best Albums of 1989

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As the 1980s came to a close, pop music ruled the radio with hits like Madonna’s “Like a Prayer,” The Bangles’ “Eternal Flame” and Phil Collins’ “Another Day in Paradise” topping the charts. But there was plenty of weirder and wilder stuff bubbling underneath, from De La Soul to the Pixies to the Kate Bush. The Cold War was ending—Paul McCartney began the year releasing a version of “Back in the USSR” in Russia, and acts like Bon Jovi, Ozzy Osbourne and Motley Crüe would all play the Moscow Music Peace Festival. By year’s end, Andrea Gardner Swift would give birth to a little girl and name her Taylor. In the meantime, there were a lot of great albums released. The Paste music editors and writers voted on their favorites, and they range from pop to jazz, with a healthy dose of college rock and even a few latter works from icons of the 1960s. I was just starting my senior year of high school and discovering one new favorite band after another on MTV’s 120 Minutes. Many of them are represented here.

Here are the 30 Best Albums of 1989:

30. The Blue Nile: Hats
If popular music in the 1980s was one long flirtation with synth-pop, then Hats may be the decade’s best and most mysterious deep cut. Words like “ethereal” and “transcendent” are critical banalities at this point, but this sleeper-turned-cult-classic by synth-happy Scots The Blue Nile is an otherworldly experience worthy of those descriptors. The second of four albums released by Paul Buchanan, Robert Bell and Paul Joseph “PJ” Moore is a low-pitched, low-stakes palate of overcast pop. Listening to Hats in the daytime is a funny experience—not a bit of sunlight creeps through on this seven-song bundle of sly, lurking slow jams. Buchanan has a flair for the dramatic, but when he sings lines like “Where is the love? / I need love to be true,” from the pitch-black “Seven A.M,” it doesn’t feel hokey or overly theatrical. He sings about a dark kind of love, and his moody methods are absolutely mesmerizing. Hats isn’t likely to shake its reputation as vinyl-collection filler any time soon, but for the few who truly enjoy venturing into the fog, it can work as brilliant study in mood. —Ellen Johnson

29. Andrew Hill: Eternal Spirit
This album marked the uniquely gifted pianist-composer’s return to the classic jazz label that launched his career in the 1960s with such brilliant post-bop outings as 1964’s Black Fire and 1965’s Point of Departure. Recorded at Rudy Van Gelder Studio in Englewood Cliffs, N.J., on Jan. 30 and Jan. 31 with a group of jazz veterans in vibraphonist Bobby Hutcherson, bassist Rufus Reid and drummer Ben Riley and one young gun in alto saxophonist Greg Osby, Eternal Spirit was Hill’s strongest recording in years. Osby’s pungent, angular alto lines lead the way on the minor key, ethereal “Pinnacle” and the swinging “Spiritual Lover,” both underscored by Hutcherson’s warm vibraphone, Reid’s deep, unerring baselines and Hart’s flexible, interactive drumming. “Samba Rasta” has the leader comping reggae style while Osby and Hutcherson double the buoyant Brazilian melody on top. Osby and Hutcherson share the jaunty line on Hill’s boppish “Tail Feather,” and Osby soars on the romantic ballad “Bobby’s Tune,” a showcase for the great vibraphonist and Blue Note label mate of Hill’s back in the mid ’60s. Shifting meters, impressionistic harmonies and idiosyncratic melodies make this one an off-center gem. —Bill Milkowski

28. The Ocean Blue: The Ocean Blue
When The Ocean Blue released its self-titled debut in 1989, it was my favorite thing to come out of Hershey, Penn., since those little aluminum-wrapped bundles of joy. I’d stumbled across the band’s first video on MTV’s 120 Minutes. They’d been playing together since junior high and were still teenagers when they landed a record contract with Sire. The Ocean Blue was a jangly proto-indie-pop gem that attracted lots of kids like me looking for the next R.E.M. Two singles from that album, “Drifting, Falling” and “Between Something and Nothing,” were modest hits on Modern Rock radio, but the bass and guitar lines of nearly every song pogoed their way through my inner ear, while the keys wrapped the whole thing up in a wash of warmth. David Schelzel’s treatises on love were among the first songs I shared with a girlfriend. Okay, maybe it was better than a Hershey’s Kiss. —Josh Jackson

27. New Order: Technique
Towards the end of the ’80s, New Order continued to push the boundaries of electronic dance-rock by escaping the dreary confines of the U.K. recording studios to make their fifth studio album Technique within the subtropical, 24/7 party atmosphere of Ibiza. There they were introduced to a variety of new sonic influences like acid house and Balearic through the island’s wall-to-wall club scene, allowing them to once again stay ahead of the curve of where dance music was headed going into the ’90s. On “All the Way” lines like “I don’t give a damn about what all those people say” may be targeted at critics of the band, as well as those continuing to center the narrative around the past (especially Ian Curtis of Joy Division’s suicide). The chorus—“It takes years to find the nerve / to be apart from what you’ve done / to find the truth inside yourself / and not depend on anyone”—is a relatable, sad echo of the difficult nature of developing self-awareness and coming into one’s own. And while never released as a single from Technique, “Vanishing Point” was certainly one of the album’s standout deep tracks that helped bridge the gap between the band’s early pulsing synthscapes and their newer Ibiza-informed euphoric buoyancy. An instrumental version of “Vanishing Point” was also used as the theme song to the BBC series Making Out from 1989-1991, eventually getting a bonus track release on the 2008 reissue of Technique as the “Instrumental Making Out Mix.” —Will Hodge and Katherine Logan

26. Lou Reed: New York
In his polemical liner notes to this concept album, Reed directed the listener to hear the 57-minute album in one sitting, “as though it were a book or a movie.” Indeed, the frank lyrics to New York-centric tunes like “Halloween Parade,” and “Dirty Blvd.” carry some of his most vivid imagery and literate wordplay since “Walk on the Wild Side” and “Sweet Jane,” while the raw, stripped-down sound of the band recalls the stark, punchy appeal of Reed’s Velvet Underground days. His broadsides about a multitude of current events, issues and personalities, from the Howard Beach incident to Jesse Jackson, Rudy Giuliani, Donald Trump and Minister Louis Farrakhan to the devastating impact of AIDS and the crack epidemic, are fueled by righteous rage and an angry vision of a decaying Big Apple. Homelessness, poverty, child abuse, racial violence, class warfare, environmental degradation and political corruption are other themes he touches on in 14 scenes and sketches here, representing some of Reed’s strongest writing of his fabled career. Rolling Stone’s Anthony DeCurtis called New York: “fierce, poetic journalism, a reportage of surreal horror in which the unyielding force of actual circumstances continually threatens to overwhelm the ordering power of art.” Reed doesn’t shy from much on this album, excoriating his subjects with keen observations and a sardonic wit. It’s a social protest music of the highest order, harkening back to Bob Dylan and Woody Guthrie before him. —Bill Milkowski

25. The Mighty Lemon Drops: Laughter
Resenting the fact that they were labeled as a gloomy, Echo and the Bunnymen-style act, West Midlands band The Mighty Lemondrops shifted their focus as the ’80s drew to a close. It was a gamble that paid off, spawning two charting singles, the peppy “Into the Heart of Love” and the sparse, church-gothic “Where Do We Go From Heaven.” But they never lost their edge. “At Midnight” opens with the Cure-lite lines “The sun isn’t out / the sky isn’t blue,” but vocalist Paul Marsh, buoyed by guitarist and lyricist David Newton, carries the song with a wink and an air-kiss. “The Heartbreak Thing” is the album MVP, an underrated gem with Keith Rowley just hammering away on drums, Marsh with his beating heart exposed. Like too many post-punk, pre-college rock treasures, Laughter has been somewhat lost to time. Only the singles appear on the greatest hits collection Rollercoaster, and now out of print, it’s not on any digital service. —Libby Cudmore

24. Yo La Tengo: President Yo La Tengo
The first song on President Yo La Tengo wasn’t an absolute break from the college rock of their slump-ish sophomore release Ride the Tiger, but its clean guitar and bouncy bass are underlined with a looping guitar squeal. It was an immediate sign that they weren’t the same band anymore. “Barnaby, Hardly Working” is a beautiful droning pop song and the best original the band recorded in the 1980s. “Drug Test” should have been a college-radio hit. It’s catchy in a classical sense, like something Jackson Browne could’ve written. And is this album where Yo La Tengo realized how beautiful Georgia Hubley’s voice could be? “Alyda” is a catchy folk tune with pop hooks (think brushed drums and an acoustic guitar playing an ascending three-note major chord riff) and Dylan-esque vocals from Kaplan. But what makes it great is Hubley’s background vocals. They’re mostly just wordless ahhhhs, but it’s a crucial element that elevates the whole song and also points to what will become one of the band’s most defining sounds. —Garrett Martin

23. Galaxie 500: On Fire
Boston dream pop outfit Galaxie 500 weren’t around for very long, but the influence of their downtempo, reverb-filled three albums is still glaringly present today. Their second album On Fire is a cornerstone of dream-pop bashfulness and trippy lo-fi rock, and it remains their strongest full-length. Dean Wareham’s voice isn’t exceptional by any stretch of the imagination, but he cultivates something imposing out of his humble means. Their debut Today still stands out for swaying minimalist cuts like “Tugboat” and their cover of Jonathan Richman’s “Don’t Let Our Youth Go to Waste,” but where On Fire bests it is in its slow thrash and more diverse instrumentation. The guitar solo in “When Will You Come Home” isn’t stereotypically dream pop—it grooves and drips and definitely doesn’t cower under the spotlight—but the juxtaposition of this self-assured, flare-filled tangent with delicate vocals and shy, boy-next-door lyrics is incredibly moving. On “Another Day,” bassist Naomi Yang’s dainty lead vocals are just as crushing as Wareham’s psychedelic guitar tumbles, and lead track “Blue Thunder” proves there’s a sheer force in plain, headstrong strums and good-natured vocals. —Lizzie Manno

22. Neil Young: Freedom
This album marked Young’s triumphant return to Reprise Records after a difficult Geffen tenure that resulted in genre exercises and lawsuits. Young had aborted his first attempt at a Reprise album, releasing five of those songs in a Japan/Australia-only EP, El Dorado. Three of those songs resurfaced on Freedom, which takes its title from one of Young’s greatest rock ‘n ‘roll anthems, “Rockin’ in the Free World.” With a terrific guitar riff and vocal hook, the chorus seems like a patriotic sing-along. But the verses describe a junkie mother leaving her young baby among the garbage cans, drenching the chorus in the most irony since Springsteen’s “Born in the U.S.A.” The eight-minute “Crime in the City” and six-minute “El Dorado” extend the sociological tableaus, but some tender love songs balance the mood. —Geoffrey Himes

21. Elvis Costello: Spike
One can only be an “angry young man” for so long without becoming a self-parody, and Costello was smart enough to make his music keep pace with his life. Where his opening trilogy of albums burned with fury and landed like artillery shells in 1977-78, his ’80s work reflected his hard-won appreciation for nuance and the many branches of Anglo-American music. Nothing demonstrates that better than Spike, which boasts collaborations with members of the Beatles, Byrds, Chieftains, Pretenders, the Tom Waits Band and the Dirty Dozen Brass Band. What never changed during Costello’s evolution was the acerbic intelligence that make him one of the best songwriters of his generation, as he proves here with his angry attack on Margaret Thatcher (“Tramp the Dirt Down”), his Randy Newman-ish send up of the Supreme Being (“God’s Comic”), his lovely co-write with Paul McCartney (“Veronica”) and his understated dissection of capital punishment (“Let Him Dangle”). —Geoffrey Himes

20. Indigo Girls: Indigo Girls
A folk duo from Atlanta was an unlikely radio success story, but Emily Saliers and Amy Ray’s major-label debut went platinum thanks to hits like “Closer to Fine” and “Kid Fears.” With guest appearances from their R.E.M. neighbors up the road in Athens, it recalled times when folk songs from Greenwich Village became anthems across the country. Every kid with an acoustic guitar quickly learned how to play half the album and many of those without guitars learned to sing the harmonies instead. These were campfire songs, road-trip songs, sing-along-at-the-top-of-your-lungs songs whenever and wherever they came on. —Josh Jackson

19. Bob Mould: Workbook
On the surface Mould’s first solo album sounds lighter and less abrasive than the classic work he did with Grant Hart and Greg Norton in Hüsker Dü. It’s got acoustic guitars, folky arrangements, a cello—this certainly ain’t Zen Arcade. Despite those softer edges, Workbook still has the painful emotional honesty Mould’s known for—despite its pop hooks, “See a Little Light” is about a relationship on the cusp of a breakup, and “Poison Years” is a sharp stick in the eye of Mould’s former bandmate Hart. Workbook signaled that Mould’s success with Hüsker Dü wasn’t just a one-off—that he was a songwriter with a future ahead of him who was building a legitimate career. —Garrett Martin

18. The Replacements: Don’t Tell A Soul
Considering All Shook Down is a Paul Westerberg solo record in all but name, Don’t Tell a Soul was the last real ’Mats statement: a hooky, radio-ready set that essentially answers the question “What would The Replacements sound like if they didn’t sound drunk?” And frankly, they sound excellent, if you can stomach a slick adult contemporary sheen applied to the band’s ragged roar. Don’t Tell a Soul is almost nobody’s favorite Replacements album, but it’s full of gems anyway, from the generational anti-anthem “We’ll Inherit The Earth” to the Billboard-charting stomper “I’ll Be You.” Elsewhere, the delectable “Asking Me Lies” features some of Westerberg’s strangest lyrics ever (“At a Mexican Bar Mitzvah / For seven hundred years”??), and “Rock ‘N’ Roll Ghost” exposes the weariness behind this record’s slick shell. You could make the case that Don’t Tell a Soul invented Top 40 Goo Goo Dolls a decade ahead of time. —Zach Schonfeld

17. The B-52’s: Cosmic Thing
There’s more to Cosmic Thing than “Love Shack,” a staple of every wedding you’ve ever been to. The band’s comeback album following the death of guitarist Ricky Wilson, the album spawned two of their most well-known songs, the aforementioned party-perfect jam and the wanderlusty “Roam.” The lead single, originally titled “(Shake That) Cosmic Thing” was debuted on the Earth Girls Are Easy soundtrack, a perfect match of insanity and delight, and “Roam” was sung by the cast in concept productions of the never-to-be-seen stage musical. But Cosmic Thing is a surprisingly grounded album from the band that gave us trippy art-pop jangles like “Rock Lobster” and “Private Idaho,” drawing inspiration from their Georgia roots. Just as “Party Out Of Bounds” characterized their history of crashing parties, the dreamy “Deadbeat Club” pays homage to their drifting days, hanging around cafes and skinny dipping. And the “Love Shack”—Kate Pierson lived there in the ’70s—was also where they wrote “Rock Lobster.” And Cindy Wilson’s iconic “Tin roof rusted!” was an outtake. Happy accidents are the hallmark of the band. —Libby Cudmore

16. XTC: Oranges & Lemons
XTC stopped touring in 1982 when Andy Partridge had a breakdown before a sold-out show at the Hollywood Bowl. But the British art rock band would return to Los Angeles to record its 11th album, which would turn out to be one of its best. Double LP Oranges & Lemons incorporated some of the psychedelic sounds of their side project as the Dukes of the Stratosphear, but with the brilliant pop melodies on 1986’s Skylarking. The breakout single “Mayor of Simpleton” sports the jangly guitar of 1980s college radio, but right from the opening “Garden of Earthly Delights,” things got proggier and more intricate, and on prescient socio-political songs like “Here Comes President Kill Again,” much, much darker. It’s a complex and varied album with a staggeringly wide range of influences from jazz fusion to reggae to Pet Sounds. And it even got Partridge touring again, if only a stripped-down set for radio stations and one acoustic performance in front of an audience for MTV, which inspired the network to invite other bands to play Unplugged. —Josh Jackson

15. Bonnie Raitt: Nick Of Time
To say Bonnie Raitt had seen better days before Nick Of Time came out is an understatement. She’d been dropped by Warner Bros after her eighth album, Green Light, came out in 1982, and Warner released Nine Lives in 1986 with little input from Raitt aside from the previously recorded music. Depression, alcohol and substance abuse now stood in the way of the commercial success she’d almost tasted in the past, but never found the right formula with which to break through. A failed attempt at releasing a record with Prince on his Paisley Park Records label made the nearly 40-year-old Raitt take a long look in the mirror, go sober and re-group on the search for a label to release her 10th LP. Trouble is, major labels weren’t lining up to take a chance on an aging Americana singer and guitarist who was just about out of options. A low pressure deal from Capitol Records allowed Raitt and producer Don Was to expand on the demos they recorded in Was’s home studio, and Nick Of Time essentially came out of nowhere to win the Grammy Award for Album of the Year. Nick of Time is a testament to how powerful music can be as an authentic expression of the difficult times one goes through. It’s why it’s impossible to understand what made Nick of Time so popular and resonant in 1989 without the context for what was happening in Bonnie Raitt’s life leading up to it. This wasn’t your run-of-the-muck major-label-manufactured instant classic. This. Was. The. Blues. It was Raitt’s furious blues guitar on “Thing Called Love.” It was the R&B melodrama of “Cry On My Shoulder” (with backing vocals by Graham Nash & David Crosby!). It was Raitt’s tender vocals on “Too Soon To Tell.” It was an album with broad appeal because Raitt and Was weren’t confined to any one type of sound. And most of all, it was the positively universal emotions of “Nick of Time,” a perfect song if there ever was one and the embodiment of how close Bonnie Raitt came to retreating into obscurity. Instead, she became one of the most influential artists of the past 30 years. —Adrian Spinelli

14. Camper Van Beethoven: Key Lime Pie
Cracker was a bright spot on the modern-rock-radio landscape in the early ’90s, but even better was David Lowery’s earlier band, Camper Van Beethoven. The self-described “surrealist absurdist folk” group incorporated world music, psychedelia and Americana into a sound that was completely unique, driven by violins, Greg Lisher’s electric guitar and Lowery’s caustic humor. And “All Her Favorite Fruit” is one of the saddest songs of all time. The desperate loneliness the narrator feels comes through in nearly every line of David Lowery’s lyrics, as he dreams of a girl out of his league. Sure there’s a bit of creepiness on the part of a guy who calls the object of his affection and never says a word, just imagining what she looks like on the other end of the line—especially since she already has a man in her life. All he can do is ride the train to an unfulfilling job and dream of all the places he wants to take her. Chris Pederson’s thumping tom drums measure out the mundane days while Don Lax’s violin counters the pitiful longing with a beautiful melancholy. You don’t have to dream of playing croquet or drinking your tea at four to feel the pain of unrequited love. —Josh Jackson

13. Janet Jackson: Rhythm Nation 1814
Janet Jackson’s crowning achievement as an artist and a pop star set a number of chart records. It had seven singles hit the top five, which is the most ever from a single album, and also had three number one singles in three different calendar years, another record. It was basically inescapable from the second half of 1989 into 1991, which is a pretty significant chunk of middle school, if you happen to be the right age. We don’t hail it today for nostalgia, though, or solely for its popularity; Rhythm Nation 1814 is like a one-album overview of where pop, dance and R&B found themselves as the ’80s bled into the ’90s, with Jackson excelling at a variety of different styles, and elevating a few as well. And it’s not just a party record, but a concept album explicitly aimed at increasing awareness of social justice issues. This is the best work Jackson and her collaborators Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis ever did, and a legitimate classic that remains as good and relevant today as it did 30 years ago. —Garrett Martin

12. Bob Dylan: Oh Mercy
Oh Mercy saw the re-emergence of Dylan as a darling among critics in the late ’80s, although that might not have been the case without producer Daniel Lanois, best known for his work on U2’s The Joshua Tree. Lanois’ schedule-free, unconventional sessions lead to a sonically intriguing record that still brings Dylan’s songwriting to the foreground, and it only takes a listen to “Political World” or “Most of the Time” to showcase Lanois’ impact on the legend. —Tyler Kane

11. Nirvana: Bleach
Nirvana’s 1989 debut only reached No. 89 on the Billboard 200 chart, and even then, it wasn’t after its 1992 re-release—and the 1991 success of Nevermind. But charts and popularity be damned. Bleach is grunge personified: a smart, bleak, troubled album from an equally smart, bleak and troubled young man. —Ani Vrabel

10. Fugazi: 13 Songs
Fugazi stirred up a movement with the strong-handed sense of integrity with which they toured, recorded and released music throughout their career. But it’s not the group’s ethics that should have been getting them press all the time—it was their gymnasium-filling, intelligent brand of punk rock. Released in 1989, Fugazi’s 13 Songs had a title that would only be self-applied by a group of honest musicians that wanted their tracks taken at face value. The album was a compilation of their first EPs, 1988’s Fugazi and 1989’s Margin Walker. —Tyler Kane

9. Nine Inch Nails: Pretty Hate Machine
The debut album from former Cleveland studio assistant Trent Reznor was released in October 1989. It didn’t have much impact upon release, but its slow burn success helped shape 1990s alternative music culture. Pretty Hate Machine helped get rock fans to accept that samples and keyboard could thrash like guitars, helped make anguished confessionals the default lyrical outlet for bands and proved that independent labels could compete with the majors, even if Reznor and TVT’s relationship was troubled and short-lived. The video for “Head Like A Hole” juxtaposed images of performance and tribal dance; from punk to goth, raver to metalhead, few albums helped unite the myriad tribes of alternative rock like Pretty Hate Machine. —Michael Tedder

8. Tom Petty: Full Moon Fever
Everything about making Full Moon Fever was different for Tom Petty: writing it, recording it (in guitarist Mike Campbell’s garage) and his choice of collaborators. The result was the best album of Petty’s impressive career. Though Full Moon Fever was his first album not to bill the Heartbreakers on the cover, most of them contributed, along with Petty’s Traveling Wilburys bandmates Jeff Lynne, Roy Orbison and George Harrison. Lynne was the biggest influence, giving Petty’s immensely catchy songs a glossy sheen with layers of guitars, synthesizers and dizzying stacks of harmony vocals. With “Free Fallin’,” “I Won’t Back Down” and “Runnin’ Down a Dream,” the album features some of Petty’s most recognizable songs, but even the deep cuts here are first-rate, including “Love Is a Long Road,” “Apartment Song” and a jangly cover of Gene Clark’s “Feel a Whole Lot Better.” Thirty years later, Full Moon Fever still sounds so fresh and vital—so timeless—that it’s hard to believe that Petty is really gone. —Eric R. Danton

7. Kate Bush: The Sensual World
While 1985’s Hounds of Love arguably trumps the 1989 follow-up The Sensual World, Kate Bush is still in fine form here. There’s a grand mystique and transcendental quality to most of her music, but on The Sensual World, Bush also creates something distinctly personal. Inspired by James Joyce’s Ulysses, the opening title track reimagines Molly Bloom’s soliloquy into Bush’s own cloud of sultry magnificence with provocative lyrics of peaches, kisses, flowers and seedcake. On “Love and Anger,” Bush struggles to escape the shadow of a tragic life event, but she communicates that lingering fear with angelic pop vocals as if she’s triumphed and now twirling in a celebratory manner through open fields. The addition of traditional Irish folk instrumentation and sweeping strings give this album a regal beauty, and Bush’s lead vocals are theatrical, ribbon-like and emotive, but never over-the-top. —Lizzie Manno

6. The Stone Roses: The Stone Roses
There was a time when every single day after school I raced upstairs, turned on my boom-box to either the local alt.rock station or the local college station, and popped in a blank tape to wait patiently for songs I liked to come on so I could record them. The first time I heard “Fools Gold” by The Stone Roses was years after it had come out, but it floored me immediately. I had no idea if the radio DJ would ever play it again. When he finally did, late at night on an empty Friday, my last blank Maxwell had clicked full halfway through a Spacehog song an hour ago. The next day I gathered up my Sam Goody gift certificates, got a ride to the mall and bought my very own copy of their self-titled, seminal work, with no idea that I wasn’t buying that one song I loved but an album I pretty much always will. —Jeff Gonick

5. The Cure: Disintegration
Disintegration is a return to goth glory after The Cure’s foray into pop with 1987’s Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me. It’s lush, mournful and gorgeous—in other words, it’s Robert Smith and company at their very best. From the first notes of “Plainsong” to the somber romance of “Lovesong” and the sweeping “Fascination Street,” the album is emotional but never overwrought. Smith surpasses hokey teen angst, instead creating a lasting work that’s entirely relatable. —Bonnie Stiernberg

4. Beastie Boys: Paul’s Boutique
Paul’s Boutique changed the game of rap music forever. The trio’s heavy use of sampling and name-dropping soon became industry standard. The Beasties’ lyrics are witty, explosive and explored an array of topics few rappers had touched before them and even fewer since. While many of the samples are from popular artists like The Beatles and The Ramones, there are hundreds of lesser-known riffs that helped make the producers (L.A.-based Dust Brothers) sampling superstars. The album’s sonic backbone alters drastically from beginning to end, proving the range of this enduring trio of rappers. —Adam Vitcavage

3. Madonna: Like a Prayer
Upon the album’s release, a Rolling Stone critic wrote that Madonna’s Like a Prayer was “as close to art as pop music gets.” Despite that being a repulsively rockist declaration, it tells you a little something about how people viewed Madonna the pop star at this point in her career. After six years of her dominating popular music, they were taking her more seriously than ever, and Like a Prayer landed as her first, true grown-up album. The girlish fascinations of her debut and Like a Virgin were replaced with rock and funk-fueled confessions—after all, she did work with Prince on this record, namely on their duet “Love Song.” On Like a Prayer, she confronted her Catholic upbringing, let down her guard and only occasionally slipped into the melodramatic, all while experimenting with a sparkling pastiche of sounds—from triumphant Spanish trumpets to searing electric guitar, it was a massive sonic step forward. Like a Prayer is remembered for its title track and juicy cuts like “Cherish,” but it’s perhaps best heard as a sort of religious concept album of romantic musings. The last track, “Act of Contrition,” begins with a whispered prayer, plays out in a bombastic fusion of rock and gospel and ends with Madonna herself screaming into the void, “What do you mean it’s not in the computer?” Could there be a better invitation to the ’90s? —Ellen Johnson

2. The Pixies: Doolittle
At the tail end of the ’80s, an album came out that would continue to influence rock for a couple more decades and counting. The Pixies followed Surfer Rosa with the band’s magnum opus that—although it only reached #98 on the Billboard chart—would eventually get certified Gold in 1995. Doolittle turns on a dime from quiet beautiful melodies to balls-to-the-wall rock with Black Francis screaming his heart out, often within the same song. Gigantic pop hooks delivered with muscular rock chops set the template for the grunge movement that would follow and ensured that Doolittle would sound every bit as good in 2019 as it did in 1989. —Josh Jackson

1. De La Soul: Three Feet High and Rising
Here’s high praise for De La Soul’s 1989 debut: It’s one of the only hip-hop albums in history whose skits are as good as the music. Even 23 years later, who skips over those head-scratching interstitials about rudimentary French, unintelligible game shows, Ludens cough drops, and the silliest orgy ever committed to tape? Singles like “Me Myself & I” and “Potholes in My Lawn” were groundbreaking on MTV and radio, but Three Feet High and Rising works best as an whole album, one that samples liberally (Johnny Cash, Hall & Oates, Steely Dan) and explores every corner of the Long Island trio’s D.A.I.S.Y. Age philosophy. There’s something fearless in the way De La rethink rap radicalism as hippie nirvana: playful, lackadaisical, wryly digressive and deeply hilarious. —Stephen M. Deusner

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