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10 Albums that Defined Being a Teen in the ‘80s

Simon Le Bon 1984 courtesy of Getty Images

If you thought watching Stranger Things brought you back to the days of Izod shirts, Trapper Keepers and New Coke, then you’re going to love finding out that U2 will be touring in 2017 to celebrate the 30th Anniversary of The Joshua Tree. Given this momentous fact, we thought now was the perfect time for us to look back at those ‘80s-era albums — like The Joshua Tree — that helped define being a Gen X teenager. This was an era of one-hit wonders, hair bands and synth pop and these are the 10 albums that have stuck with us way longer than our junior high crushes.

1. Bon Jovi’s Slippery When Wet
Less dangerous than Motley Crue or Poison (and blessed with impossibly handsome front man Jon Bon Jovi), this was a hair band that appealed to boys, girls and their parents. Even if you were a 15-year-old with a mullet just getting into Led Zeppelin and the Stones, chances are, at one point, you shouted out “Oh, oh, we’re half way there…” while driving your mom’s Audi. At the very least, you included the ballad “Never Say Goodbye” in that make-out mix-tape you made for the cute girl in the white jean jacket who drove a Cabriolet convertible.

2. The Cure’s Disintegration
It wasn’t just the Goth kids in black eyeliner who were into The Cure. Their songs pierced the souls of any hormonal member of The Breakfast Club who felt like the only one in the world going through “whatever.” Beautiful and introspective songs like ”Lullaby” and “Lovesong” relate a kind of gloomy/rainy day, comforting vibe that’s basically music to the ears of any angsty youngster aspiring to be a self-styled romantic while “Pictures of You” is the post-breakup song you cling to after a breakup like a T-shirt left behind by your ex.


3. Duran Duran’s Rio
To this day, there are still 40-somethings crushing on Duran Duran’s bass player John Taylor. That’s how strong the guitarist’s Rob Lowe appeal was and is. The other band members — Simon Le Bon, Roger Taylor, Andy Taylor and Nick Rhodes — were hardly slouches in the looks department either, with their New Romantic hairstyles. When their album Rio came out in 1982, a series of Miami Vice-style videos shot in exotic locales followed. That “My Own Way,” “Hold Back the Rain” and “Hungry Like the Wolf” were earworms with sing-a-long choruses only broadened their massive appeal.


4. The Go-Go’s Beauty and the Beat
“It doesn’t matter what they say. In the jealous games people play. Our lips are sealed.” The Go-Go’s had catchy lyrics, a California look, and awesome hooks that spoke to teens looking for something fresh in a post-disco universe. Beauty and the Beat, indeed. The 1982 classic Fast Times at Ridgemont High opens to “We Got the Beat” with its infectious bass line as the camera shows kids walking into the school to start their day. That was us! Then after school, we went home to watch MTV hoping to catch Belinda Carlisle, Jane Weidlin and the rest of this all-girl band living the life while driving around in a red convertible.


5. Guns n’ Roses’ Appetite For Destruction
“Welcome to the Jungle. We’ve got fun and games.” With these words, hard rock in the late ‘80s reclaimed its edge. The way that people felt when they heard Nirvana’s “Smells like Teen Spirit” for the first time is how many Gen X-ers felt when first encountering “Welcome to the Jungle” and “Paradise City.” The uniquely powerful voice of Axl Rose and the total coolness of Slash’s hair, hat, and name helped make these rockers the most bad-ass band of the decade. Slash’s opening guitar riff to “Sweet Child O’ Mine” will trigger flashbacks more powerful than any inspired by seeing a photo of yourself with feathered hair and braces.

6. Madonna’s Like a Virgin
Oh, she made it through the wilderness, alright. The Material Girl exploded onto our TV screens with her come-hither-if-you-dare look right at the camera. And in 1984, she was everywhere — literally — as 13- and 14-year-old girl lookalikes started imitating her messy chic style cluttered with necklaces and bracelets, lacy shirts, and wavy ‘dos with bows on top. But she didn’t just “Dress You Up,” she also let you get down with dance tunes (“Angel,” “Like a Virgin”) or slow down with ballads (her great cover of “Love Don’t Live Here Anymore”). The mistress of reinvention isn’t just an ‘80s icon, she’s a cultural phenomenon. This album may be her cornerstone.

7. The Police’s Synchronicity
There’s never been a band as good as The Police to call it quits while at their creative peak and the height of their popularity. They were the ‘80s band that came closest to emulating The Beatles in terms of breadth of talent and wattage of charm. Their album Synchronicity doesn’t just have a string of hit singles; it’s entirely made of great songs. Sting, our “King of Pain,” understood us, even at our darkest. And while “Every Breath You Take” definitely has a creepy stalker aspect to it, that didn’t stop it from being the era’s most beloved “Couples Only” song at the roller rink as well as in the parking lot afterward.

8. Prince and the Revolution’s Purple Rain
Like Madonna, Prince only needs one name. In fact, he did Madonna better for a while: he only needed a symbol. So damn talented that he can’t really be compared to anyone, he recharged us with his electric sexuality that gave us permission to defy convention. His Purple Rain (1984) was at once an album, a movie, a dance party, and a masterpiece on which he showed off his guitar-god skills and convinced Apollonia to jump into what she thought was Lake Minnetonka. Nothing before or since had helped us so much get through this thing called “life.”

9. U2’s Joshua Tree
“I want to live. I want to hide. I want to tear down the walls. That hold me inside.” What 16-year-old in 1987 didn’t passionately sing along to these lyrics in the shower as Bono’s voice boomed from your mini boom box on the sink? This was the year that U2 went from “most famous Irish band in America” to “most famous band in the world.” To gauge the success of The Joshua Tree, you need only recall how many guys and girls could be seen in U2 concert T-shirts in the halls of American high schools nationwide. “With or Without You,” “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking for,” “Where the Streets Have No Name…” Need we say more?


10. Van Halen’s 1984
Even if you were a tween back then, you’ll never forget David Lee Roth’s ninja moves in gold spandex for “Jump.” That and Van Halen’s sixth studio album propelled the band into the stratosphere of guitar rock legends. The combo of Eddie Van Halen’s guitar licks and David Lee Roth’s over-the-top kicks made 1984 as tasty as Sprees candy to a 14-year-old boy-brain. The “Hot for Teacher” video made real many a late night cable movie fantasy and “Panama” exploded with playfulness. The next year, Roth left Van Halen and Sammy Hagar stepped in. For some, that was the end of the ‘80s.

Jeff Finkle

Photo Credit: Simon Le Bon of Duran Duran circa 1984 by Hulton Archive/Getty Images

PS. For more on some other ’80s artists, check out our posts The Adele of the ’80s, Andy Partridge Looks Back at XTC, and The Professor Will See You Now: The Many Lives of Thomas Dolby. Plus, we look back at the top TV shows of the ’80s here.

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5 comments on “10 Albums that Defined Being a Teen in the ‘80s

  1. Good list! For #11 I would add “Rebel Yell” by Billy Idol (and Steve Stevens). Killer album end-to-end.

  2. No problems with any on the list, BUT how do you leave out “Thriller”???

    • #22Dupree

      Exactly. You can only omit that album if you intended to from the start.

  3. Dwaynesworld

    The Lion and the Cobra

  4. Bradford Thompson

    *I want to run. I want to hide.

    I’m a huge U2 fan but I hate The Joshua Tree. For the 80s…U2’s War is a more iconic album.

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