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News / Life / Entertainment

Flashback to 1983: 40 years ago, these were the year’s most influential albums

By Peter Larsen, The Orange County Register
Published: July 28, 2023, 6:04am
12 Photos
David Bowie (Fox Photos/Hulton Archive)
David Bowie (Fox Photos/Hulton Archive) Photo Gallery

Imagine you sent a time traveler back to 1983 to bring back the biggest, most influential album of the year. If your time traveler didn’t return with Michael Jackson’s “Thriller,” well, you’d just have to send them back to get it right.

Yes, we know that it was released on Nov. 29, 1982, so technically it got a head start on the new year in music. But just look at what Michael Jackson and “Thriller” did by the end of 1983:

With 32 million copies sold by the time 1984 arrived, it became the top-selling album of all time, a record it still holds though the tally is now estimated at 70 million.

Its seven singles — the title track, “Beat It,” “Billie Jean,” “The Girl Is Mine,” “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’,” “P.Y.T. (Pretty Young Thing),” and “Human Nature” — all were hits, setting a record for most singles in the Top 10 from a single album that stood until 2021.

Grammy Awards? Eight. Music videos? Iconic. By any measure, “Thriller” transcended pop music, becoming a cultural artifact worthy of its place on lists of the best albums of all time.

But 1983 as a whole was a particularly rich year for influential albums. Some were massive hits from the jump, flying out of record stores on the day of release. Others had a slower burn, overlooked until their power to inspire was revealed.

Here in no particular order are a baker’s dozen of the most influential albums of 1983, each of them paired with a thematically related record or two to know as well.

1. ‘Let’s Dance,’ David Bowie

The album that provided hits with its title track, “Modern Love,” and “China Girl” was influential for Bowie more for its commercial success than the more muted critical acclaim it received. Even Bowie later downplayed its artistic merits. But by broadening Bowie’s audience – Serious Moonlight was the biggest tour of 1983 – more fans ultimately found their way to his greatest works before and after it. And c’mon, it was fun and you could dance to it!

Now hear this: With “An Innocent Man,” Billy Joel also found success with a makeover of his musical style, mining the doo-wop and soul of his adolescence to write hits such as the title track, “Uptown Girl,” “Tell Her About It,” and “The Longest Time.”

2. ‘Murmur,’ R.E.M.

The quartet from Athens, Ga., released its debut album in April 1983 to rave reviews — it ended up Rolling Stone’s album of the year — for singer Michael Stipe, guitarist Peter Buck, bassist Mike Mills and drummer Bill Berry. The songs enthralled listeners with moody mysteries and Southern rock far from that of the Allman Brothers or Lynyrd Skynyrd. If I could pick one band from 1983 to get back together today, R.E.M. would be it.

Now hear this: Violent Femmes released its self-titled debut one day after “Murmur” and while the words and music on “Violent Femmes” have their own distinct style there’s definitely common ground in the sometimes folk-infused rock of both bands.

3. ‘Synchronicity,’ the Police

The fifth and final record by the Police spent 17 weeks at No. 1, and the single “Every Breath You Take” was the overall No. 1 of 1983. Here singer-bassist Sting, guitarist Andy Summers and drummer Stewart Copeland expanded the use of synthesizers, sequencers and influences such as world music to make a record that sounded more perfect than anything they’d done before. It made them the biggest band in the world for a year or two, and then they were done.

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Now hear this: Elvis Costello, like the Police, arrived in the new wave of the late ‘70s but quickly pushed beyond its confines to explore more challenging, eclectic music. With 1983’s “Punch The Clock,” Elvis Costello and the Attractions found their biggest commercial success (“Every Day I Write the Book”) without losing any of the sophisticated intelligence (“Shipbuilding”) of previous work.

4. ‘Pyromania,’ Def Leppard

The English rock band and producer Mutt Lange found a way to make hard rock pop songs on “Pyromania.” The crunchy opening riffs of “Photograph” proved irresistible to fans and radio programmers alike, while “Foolin’” and “Rock Of Ages” were just as catchy.

Now hear this: Quiet Riot became the first heavy metal album to take an album to No. 1 on the charts when “Metal Health,” fueled in large part by the single “Cum On Feel the Noize,” bumped the Police and “Synchronicity” from the top spot in November 1983.

5. ‘War,’ U2

“Sunday Bloody Sunday” kicks off U2’s third album and with it all the promise of the Irish group’s first two records locks into place. Bono, the Edge, Adam Clayton and Larry Mullen Jr. became worldwide stars with the arrival of this LP. Forty years later, they still play songs from this record in concert and they are as thrilling as ever (as they are in 1983’s other U2 disc, “U2 Live at Red Rocks: Under a Blood Red Sky.”)

Now hear this: Where U2 looked outward, Tears For Fears explored the internal on their 1983 album “The Hurting.” Today, it’s best known as the source of the single “Mad World,” but songs such as the title track, “Pale Shelter,” and “Change” also served to introduce the duo, who play the Hollywood Bowl in August and the Darker Waves festival in November, to the world.

6. ‘Madonna,’ Madonna

It’s wild to read the Rolling Stone review of Madonna’s debut, which begins by dissing her voice and taking its time before offering a decent amount of praise for the songs on the record. And what songs they were: “Lucky Star,” “Borderline,” “Burnin’ Up,” “Holiday,” and “Everybody” among them. This was the sound of a fierce talent and a ton of ambition arriving. Step aside, Rolling Stone, Madonna’s coming through.

Now hear this: A few months later, fellow New Yorker Cyndi Lauper arrived with her own unique voice and distinctive songwriting on “She’s So Unusual,” another terrific debut with hits including “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun,” “All Through The Night,” and “When You Were Mine,” and “Time After Time.”

7. ‘Power, Corruption & Lies,’ New Order

On the second album after New Order formed from the ashes of Joy Division the English electronic rock band hit their stride. The songs mostly mined a wistful romanticism with “Age Of Consent,” “Your Silent Face,” and “Leave Me Alone” remain as fresh and powerful today as they did the day the shrink wrap came of my copy of the album.

Now hear this: With “True,” Spandau Ballet perfected its own kind of lushly romantic pop. The title track and “Gold” find the English New Romantics at their swooniest.

8. ‘Touch,’ Eurythmics

The second album released by Eurythmics in 1983 is the one that really pushed them to the top. And with songs such as “Here Comes The Rain Again,” “Who’s That Girl?” and “Right By Your Side” how could it not? Like many of the acts on this list, the rising power of MTV provided a boost. If you heard Annie Lennox, you loved her voice. If you saw her and partner Dave Stewart in a music video, you only fell harder for the duo.

Now hear this: What, you thought we were going to ignore their first album of the year? “Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)” is excellent too, with the title track one of Eurythmics’ signature songs and hidden gems scattered among the lesser-known tracks on the record.

9. ‘Speaking in Tongues,’ Talking Heads

Like several of the artists on the list, Talking Heads had been successful prior to their 1983 release. “Speaking In Tongues,” with songs such as “Burning Down The House,” “This Must Be the Place (Naive Melody),” and “Slippery People,” the band reached a critical and commercial peak. The Jonathan Demme-directed documentary of the band’s tour for the film album is one of the great concert films and will be rereleased in August.

Now hear this: The Talking Heads were considered oddballs when they first showed up at CBGB’s in New York City in the late ‘70s. In 1983, NYC weirdness meant bands more like SonicYouth, whose debut album, “Confusion Is Sex,” arrived in February.

10. ‘Can’t Slow Down,’ Lionel Richie

Lionel Richie’s second solo album made clear that mainstream pop could count on him for years to come. This is another of those records that just kept spinning off singles: “All Night Long (All Night”)” and “Hello” both reached No. 1, and “Running With The Night,” “Stuck On You,” and “Penny Lover” all reached the Top 10.

Now hear this: Huey Lewis and the News were local heroes in and around San Francisco until “Sports” turned them into stars. Like Lionel Richie’s record, this one was another singles machine with songs such as “The Heart of Rock and Roll,” “Heart and Soul,””If This Is It,” and “I Need a New Drug.”

11. ‘… And a Time to Dance,’ Los Lobos

There are only seven songs on this EP but they served to introduce the world outside of East Los Angeles to Los Lobos in 1983. With songs such as “Anselma” and the Ritchie Valens’ cover “Come On Let’s Go,” it found fans and rave reviews in the Village Voice, Rolling Stone and more.

Now hear this: The Southern California music scene also saw another pair of noteworthy releases in 1983. X released the album “More Fun in the New World,” which expanded their musical palette. And Orange County’s Social Distortion released its debut album “Mommy’s Little Monster,” kicking off a career that’s made them one of the region’s most beloved homegrown bands.

12. ‘Kill ‘Em All,’ Metallica

Formed in the metal clubs of L.A., refined after a move to San Francisco, Metallica made its debut LP in 1983 with one of the heaviest, fastest heavy metal albums the world had ever seen. Singer-guitarist James Hetfield, guitarist Kirk Hammett, and then-bassist Cliff Burton made something new here. Others soon would follow.

Now hear this: Metallica contemporaries Slayer also released their debut album “Show No Mercy” in 1983, and, if anything, it’s heavier and darker than the Metallica album. Together the two bands represent half of the so-called Big Four of thrash metal, with Anthrax and Megadeth also part of that constellation of heavy metal thunder.