The decade of the 1980's can be looked at musically in a number of ways. On the surface it's easy to dismiss the decade as one of the worst in terms of popular music. What wasn't being dominated by the horror of Journey, REO Speedwagon, Survivor, Toto and Styx was being dominated by Duran Duran, Kenny Loggins, Culture Club and Michael Jackson. The rockers had their own mindless decade being fed a steady diet of Def Leppard, Van Halen, Molly Hatchet and Aerosmith.
We noticed that bands moved the Roots needle further than their album did. It was not a time when artists had the control over their music, or the ability to make music at home. If you were recording, you had someone attached to the project that saw things a different way. There were budgets and every album needed the 'hit single'. The artist development that had existed in the 1960's and 1970's was virtually gone. The major labels were simply showing up and collecting cash. The invention and proliferation of the compact disc started around 1982 when the discs became commercially available. Major labels were more interested in mining the catalogs and reselling hit records in a different format, so radio waves started championing the term 'classic.'
Soul music was either too Pop or too dance. Folk music was still riding high on the success of 1970's singer/songwriters, bluegrass was still traditional. Blues had some artists that were making noise and some were starting to expand with it and have some fun. Rock was the king and the genre took chances. Many of the artists on our list considered themselves to be rock bands but the groundwork laid would have a rippling effect. There were scenes rather than breakout artists. Los Angeles had cow punk and a roots scene that was very much part of punk rock with bands like X, Dwight Yoakam, Lone Justice, The Knitters, The Blasters, Rank and File, Cruzados, Blood on the Saddle and The Long Ryders all fighting for a small piece of ground. The lower east side of Manhattan was still taking pride in its birthing of punk but bands like The Del-Lords, Mike DeVille and Robert Gordon were playing their music and using their influences to create a more roots sound. Athens, GA had the rock of R.E.M., Pylon, The B-52's and Dumptruck. Nashville was set on taking country into modern times and away from the classic sound of Hank Williams. Lefty Frizell and others. The outlaw country was headed in the roots direction with a lot of steam but the music was still more Country than Roots.
As we set out to search for the albums of the 1980's that shaped the Roots Rock movement of today we found that the 80's thrived in terms of great music even though most of the albums we chose as our Top 40 Most Important by and large flew under the radar and we didn't even get into R.E.M., U2, The Alarm, The Clash, The Pretenders or The Psychedlic Furs. We left a ton of great albums off of our list that were in our stack to narrow down from a list of hundreds to a list of 40.
This is not a history lesson about Roots Music in it's purest forms. That music started in the early 1900's and we'll get to it in time. Everyone that followed was influenced by the great masters. These albums and these artists paved the way during the decade previous to our list of the last 25 Years but make no mistake, these albums and these artists were influenced by music from the previous decades and so on. We'll tackle the 70's, 60's and 50's in time and in order.
So here it is. The Alternate Root Top 40 Roots Rock Albums from 1980-89
1. Paul Simon - Graceland (1986) - Graceland brought the indigenous music of South Africa to the world stage and launched the International careers of more than a few South African musicians. The album combined traditional American elements of pop, a capella, Tex-Mex and zydeco with traditional South African elements of isacathamiya and mbaqanga and the eclectic, critically acclaimed album changed the way the world looked at South Africa at a time when the world wasn't looking at South Africa very favorably. 27 years later this album still stands as a monumental achievement in music and continues to influence musicians around the world.
2. The Blasters - The Blasters (1980) - The Blasters self titled album caught the music world by surprise...a mix of rock, country, rockabilly, mountain music and early rhythm and blues that burst onto the American music landscape in 1980, ripped your head off and screamed into your soul. It was sweaty, smokey, loud and so original that few people knew what to make of it. Brothers Phil and Dave Alvin along with John Bazz on bass and Bill Bateman on drums comprised the band that had more talent and energy than it should be legal to have in one band. Critics loved it and people associated with the industry shouted about it but the album never found it's way to the masses.
3. Bruce Springsteen - Nebraska (1982) - Nebraska is a bit of an enigma and marks a turning point in the illustrious career of one of America's greatest musical treasures. Springsteen recorded the tracks as demos for an album that was to be recorded by the E Street band. The entire album was actually recorded with the full band but those recording were never released. Springsteen instead released the demos, recorded at home on a four track with very sparse instrumentation. The album's dark subject matter, centered around everyday American blue-collar characters facing challenges without hope or salvation, is unlike any other in the Springsteen catalog.
4. Tom Waits - Rain Dogs (1985) - Rain Dogs was sandwiched between two other brilliant Tom Waits albums Swordfishtrombones and Frank's Wild Years forming a trilogy of sorts. Waits wrote the songs for Rain Dogs in a basement in Greenwich Village in 1984. The album documented the malaise and urban depression of New York City through sounds that included recordings of street noise and a wide range of instrumentation from Waits' dark piano to accordion, marimba, trombone, banjo and upright bass. The album was dark, drifting from old blues to New Orleans funeral dirge and a slew of points in between.
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5. Townes Van Zandt - At My Window (1987) - At My Window was the only release by Townes Van Zandt in the 1980's and was his first studio release in nearly a decade. By then his place on the pantheon of great American songwriters was already secure and the album re-affirmed that Townes still had the songwriting chops. At My Window was different in that it was richer musically than most of his previous material which can be attributed to the production of the legendary "Cowboy" Jack Clement. Clement brought in a host of notable session players including Mark O'Connor, Mickey Raphael and Roy Huskey Jr. and the result was a brilliantly crafted and performed album.
6. Bonnie Raitt - Nick of Time (1989) - The appropriately titled Nick of Time came at a point in Bonnie Raitt's career where she needed a jolt both professionally and personally. She notes that Nick of Time was the first album she had done sober. Raitt's career was sliding backwards after a string of mediocre albums and was being kept relevant by appearances on a series of political projects including MUSE, Amnesty International, Farm Aid and Sun City. Nick of Time took off after a sweep of the four Grammy's Raitt was nominated for in 1989 and her career has been on an upward trajectory since. The album was more soul than straight on blues and proved that Bonnie Raitt still had it all.
7. Los Lobos - How Will the Wolf Survive (1984) - East L.A. has a long history of contribution to the American musical landscape with the influences of brown-eyed soul, R&B and Latino rhythms. Artists that rose up from the vibrant East L.A. scene including WAR, El Chicano and Malo combined Latino rhythms with funk, early R&B and blues. Los Lobos took it a step in another direction, combining traditional Mexican music, rock, folk and Latin rhythms together on their major label breakthrough album How Will the Wolf Survive. The album stands as a benchmark for Americana music and helped to usher in a new genre of music.
8. k.d. lang - Angel With a Lariat (1987) - Though her albums Shadowland and Absolute Torch and Twang would spawn more 'hits' and radio success than Angel with a Lariat we chose it because it was Lang's coming out party for America and the rest of the world outside of her native Canada. Produced by Dave Edmunds, the album was seasoned with hints of rockabilly, country and British pop and mixed with Lang's unmistakable mezzo-soprano vocals to form a vintage that gets better with age. k.d.lang influenced millions of young women not only as singers but as social and cultural activists as well.
9. Cowboy Junkies - The Trinity Session (1988) - It was mostly a family affair for Cowboy Junkies with siblings Margo, Michael and Peter Timmins counted as band members. Their 1986 recording debut was blues inspired, but the sound culture clash of their 1988 release, The Trinity Session, brought a larger audience from a rock camp. The Trinity Session married classic country covers (“Walking After Midnight”, “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry”) with classic rock (“Sweet Jane”) all played out of a moody groove and airy arrangements.
10. Steve Earle - Guitar Town (1986) - Steve Earle's breakthrough album Guitar Town topped the country charts and garnered two Grammy nominations in 1987 and it was the first and last time that "country radio" would recognize Steve Earle. It also marks the starting point for one of the most prolific, politically charged and culturally significant careers in American music history. Little of the subsequent Steve Earle catalog even closely resembles Guitar Town musically but the album sparked a new era of country based rock with intelligent lyrics that continues today.
11. Blue Rodeo Diamond Mine (1989)- Formed in 1985 in Toronto, Canadians Blue Rodeo released their first album, Outskirts, in 1987, which would have excluded them from our 1988+ list. Luckily, their second album, Diamond Mine, is date friendly and keeps the same intentions of their debut. Blue Rodeo marry rock and country with a true Indie Rock feel and form, with organ swells sharing the sonic space with guitars and rhythm. Diamond Mine balances Indie Rock tunes (“God and Country”) with torchy twang (“How Long”) and a mix of both (“Love and Understanding” and the title track).
12. The Subdudes - The Subdudes (1989) - The Subdudes debut release The Subdudes proved a couple of things. One is that a major label in 1989 couldn't find it's ass with two hands and a flashlight when it came to roots music. Second was that the "music business" wasn't really about music at all. It was about cash registers although that was pretty much agreed upon by most people already. Had a label like Rounder or Sugar Hill had the album, the effect The Subdudes had on the musical landscape might be much different. The Subdudes combined a plethora of innovative musical styles to their music including blues, swamp rock, cajun, funk, soul, R&B, folk, country and just about everything else and their influence resonates still today.
13. Stevie Ray Vaughan - Texas Flood (1983) - Blues music post WWII has a tendency to ebb and flow with periods of great popularity followed by periods where it searches for a popular voice and becomes seen as a historical genre. Like Jimi Hendrix, Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker and The Bluesbreakers before him, Stevie Ray Vaughan arrived on the scene when blues needed a shot in the arm and a popular voice. His debut album Texas Flood may not have been well received by critics or blues purists but it resonated with the public and changed the way a million kids felt when they picked up a guitar. Vaughan's influence on blues based rock will be felt for generations.
14. Danny Gatton - Unfinished Business (1987) - Danny Gatton was a monster guitar player that fused together a variety of styles including jazz, country, rock and blues to create a sound that mesmerized both his followers and his peers. His fans included guitar greats from Les Paul to Roy Buchanan to Eric Clapton and just about everyone in between. His album Unfinished Business never garnered him the commercial success he deserved although it was met with a mass of critical acclaim. His later releases 88 Elmira Street and Cruisin' Dueces put him on the radar screen and captured a legion of fans but depression would overcome Gatton and his life ended with his suicide in 1994. Unfinished Business would prove to be a prophetic title that many before him from Buddy Holly to John Lennon could have used.
15. The Del-Lords - Based on a True Story (1988) - The Del-Lords rose up from the post-punk, New York City scene of the 1980's and changed a lot of the status-quo at the time. Ex Dictators guitarist Scott Kempner and ex Joan Jett guitarist Eric "Roscoe" Ambel along with bassist Manny Caiati and drummer Frank Funaro created a sound that melded rock, country, blues and a gritty form of garage together and became one of the most important bands of the decade. The Del-Lords would become the main innovators of the roots rock sound that resonated throughout the following decades and on to today. After two stellar openers, their third album, Based on a True Story would prove to be the Del-Lords crowning acheivement although one more album, Lovers Who Wander would follow.
16. KoKo Taylor - Queen of the Blues (1985) - One of the original female giants to come out of the Chicago blues scene in the 1960's, Koko Taylor learned from the master himself Willie Dixon who discovered her in 1962. Although her music was well received by critics Taylor pinnacled commercially in 1965 with her song 'Wang Dang Doodle.' Queen of the Blues took the Grammy for Best Blues Album in 1985 and put the name KoKo Taylor back on the map of innovative and electrifying blues performers. In the 1980's Blues was again regaining popularity on the heels of Stevie Ray Vaughan, the Fabulous Thunderbirds, Robert Cray and KoKo Taylor.
17. The BoDeans - Love & Hope & Sex & Dreams (1986) - The BoDeans emerged from the vibrant Wisconsin music scene that erupted in the 1980's with the Violent Femmes. Their debut Love & Hope & Sex & Dreams was an instant success and pushed the band too fast into territory they had scarcely earned. Jangly guitars, Beatle-esque harmonies, synergy and simple, light hearted lyrics all wrapped in a masterful work of production by T-Bone Burnett made Love & Hope & Sex & Dreams the BoDeans finest moment. Although they would have a long run as a band and amass a solid body of work, the BoDeans never matched the magic of Love & Hope & Sex & Dreams.
18 (tie). Semi-Twang - Salty Tears - (1988) - Another band that broke out of the Milwaukee music scene of the 1980's, Semi-Twang released only one record until re-uniting in 2009 resulting in a subsequent album due in 2013. Salty-Tears united an all star cast of producers, (Mitch Froom, Chris Thomas and Jerry Harrison,) a group of outstanding musicians, a budget from Warner Bros. records and a brilliant collection of songs. The result ushered in the alt-country movement and while it was lauded by critics, there was no radio outlet for it and it floundered commercially.
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18. (tie) Georgia Satellites – Georgia Satellites (1986) - Hair metal was king. and radio rocked. Top 40 was synth dance and lots of hair spray. Into this environment came the simple phrase, “I gotta little change in my pocket going jing-aling-aling”. The Georgia Satellites looked and acted like rock stars on holiday. The sound liberally borrowed from the Faces and The Stones. They took “Keep Your Hands to Yourself”, the Roots/Rock version of “if you like it, put a ring on it”, to Number 2 in Billboard and gave Rock’n’Roll another chance on the charts.
19. The Neville Brothers - Fiyo on the Bayou (1981) - The follow up to the dbut album, The Neville Brothers, Fiyo on the Bayou incorporated more elements of funk, reggae and New Orleans, cajun flavored R&B than it's predecessor. The result resonated with critics and the public and The Neville Brothers have become synomymous with American R&B world wide as a result. It contains the monumental songs, 'Hey Pocky Way,' 'Sitting in Limbo,' and 'The Ten Commandments of Love' that have become 'standards' of the standards.
20. The Stray Cats - The Stray Cats (1981) - Though the Stray Cats US debut Built for Speed was released in 1982, we chose the debut album and British release Stray Cats for this list. The Long Island band founded by guitar ace Brian Setzer along with upright bass player Lee Rocker and drummer Slim-Jim Phantom had a solid following in the New York City post-punk scene but hit their meteoric stride after re-locating to London in 1981. Stray Cats, both album and band, revitalized the rockabilly movement, created a sub-culture centered around vintage fashion and style and turned millions of American kids on to a forgotten form of American music. 'Rumble in Brighton,' 'Stray Cat Strut,' 'Rock This Town' and 'Runaway Boys,' could have made for a career alone.
21. Richard and Linda Thompson - Shoot Out the Lights (1982) - After several critically acclaimed albums, Shoot Out the Lights ignited the careers of Richard and Linda Thompson just as the pair were falling apart as a couple. The album stuck with the folk with a strong rock side that Richard Thompson cultivated and shepherded since his first recordings with Fairport Convention. Darkness falls over the songs, like much of the material from Richard Thompson, with love songs taking on an edge in “Don’t Renege on our Love” and “Man in Need”. Richard Thompson can even bring danger to a day in the (amusement) park, with the high climbing tension of “Wall of Death”.
22. Jason and the Scorchers - Fervor (1983) - Formed in Nashville in 1981, Jason and the Scorchers looked country, played hard rock and crafted songs with the attitude of a punk rocker. Their E.P., Fervor, raised and set the bar for Alt Country earsplitting volumes with six fire-breathing originals, including “Hot Nights in Georgia” and a blistering cover of Bob Dylan’s “Absolutely Sweet Marie”.
23. The Morells - Shake and Push (1982) - The Morells released Shake And Push in 1982 with a sound that relied heavily on good old rock’n’roll riffs, the simplicity of rockabilly and story lines that dug deeper. Based in Springfield, Missouri, The Morells gave the world producer/player Lou Whitney. Shake and Push has become one of those legendary releases, with new copies of the disc selling online for close to $200.
Listen and buy the music of The Morells from AMAZON
24. Melissa Ethridge - Melissa Ethridge (1988) - Time magazine announced that ‘She’s the Boss’ when Melissa Etheridge became a contender in the crown formerly worn by Bruce Springsteen. Her self-titled debut showed a woman with spit and snarl to her tales of love gone wrong. She balanced her audio attacks with a teasing emotion that lets you think you just might be able to tame her. Don’t count on it!
25. The Rave-Ups – Town and Country (1985) - The Rave-Ups began life in Pittsburgh, PA but took hold in a second incarnation that set up roots in Los Angeles. The group successfully took Roots/Rock into Pop without getting any of the Pop smear on itself. All four members were at a major label before any deal was signed. Each member of the group had mailroom jobs at A&M Records, and they rehearsed in the basement at night when the offices were closed. Town and Country met with critical acclaim, The Rave-Up’s were an MTV buzz, and they made their movie debut with an appearance in John Hughes’ film “Pretty in Pink”.
26. T-Bone Burnett - Trap Door (1982) - In the days before becoming the man set on moving Americana into the mainstream, the Grammy winning producer (O Brother, Where Art Thou?) was a guitarist for Bob Dylan on Rolling Thunder Revue. Trap Door was an E.P. released on the Warner Brothers label that showed how T-Bone Burnett performed on his own. Trap Door contained an in-your-face version of “Diamonds Are a Girls Best Friend” and the memory of a chance meeting with The Faces/Pink Floyd go-go dancer, Kim English (Kim Boston in England).
27. Rockpile - Seconds of Pleasure (1980) - As a band, Rockpile made several records before their name appeare on the cover. Nick Lowe and Dave Edmunds brought name recognition to the four-piece which also included Billy Bremner (guitar) and Terry Williams (drums). Seconds of Pleasure was the only release from a band that got everything right in music, but could not get past the more human side of group management, ego. “Teacher, Teacher” used old Rock’n’Roll riffs, like many of the Rockpile songs, and let the rhythm tear. Rockpile created great music for a short space in time, but when the wind blows just right, you can still hear the sound hammering away.
28. Lone Justice - Lone Justice (1985) - Maria McKee and Ryan Hedgecock were playing country covers on the tiny L.A. cow punk scene. Adding in veteran players like bassist/producer Marvin Etzioni helped the band to craft originals. A supporting hand by fan Linda Ronstadt helped them seal a Geffen Record deal, and U2 tapped the band as tour openers. Lone Justice self-titled debut is a roots/rock masterpiece with Maria McKee guiding the songs into Pop (“Sweet, Sweet Baby”), country rock (“After the Flood”) and lunch for the spirit (“Soap, Soup and Salvation”).
29. Steve Forbert - Streets of this Town (1988) - Steve Forbert returned to recording after a legally imposed six year hiatus with his first release on Geffen Records, Streets of This Town. The album maintained and expanded on the smarts of his lyrics and laid a new found maturity over the story lines. Produced by E-Street bassist Garry Tallent, Streets of This Town further secured Steve Forbert’s status as a singer/songwriter who would stick around rather than leaving the building when Pop had its fill of the genre.
30. Joe Ely - Musta Notta Gotta Lotta (1981) - Joe Ely formed The Flatlanders with fellow Lubbock natives Butch Hancock and Jimmie Dale Gilmore in 1970. Following some great album releases in the late 1970’s, the singer/songwriter caught a big break from British punk rock gods, The Clash. The band talked about and championed Joe’s music after meeting during a 1977 U.K visit and tour together. Musta Notta Gotta Lotta received lots of love from underground rock radio due to The Clash thumbs up and became his highest charting album with rock friendly tunes like “Hard Livin’” and the title track.
31. Beausoliel- Bayou Cadillac (1989) - Beausoleil have become world ambassadors for Cajun music. The band hit a creative groove in the 1980’s, and Bayou Cadillac was album number seven for that decade. Bayou Cadillac kept the French language lyrics in place, and amped up the rock punch, adding in English lyrics for crossover appeal. The album’s title track fused Rock’n’Roll classics “Not Fade Away”, “Bo Diddley” and “Iko Iko” into a zydeco reel.
32. Lyle Lovett - Lyle Lovett and His Big Band (1989) - On his third recording as Lyle Lovett and His Big Band, Mr. Lovett took home a Grammy for best Country Male Vocal performance for the 1989 release. Lyle Lovett’s slightly hesitant delivery never sounded better and his take on classics such as “The Glory of Love” and the gender-bending “Stand By Your Man” took him to a new audience.
33. The Paladins - The Paladins (1987) - The Paladins formed in the early 1980’s and set the knobs on their amps for rockabilly and roots. Their first, self-titled album was produced by The Fabulous Thunderbirds’ Kim Wilson and fanned the fires for roots and maintained a heart on for twang. The Paladins stands firm as a statement to the glory of Roots/Rock that the band maintained until Dave Gonsalez left in 2004 to focus on the Hacienda Brothers.
34. The Del Fuegos - Boston, Mass (1985) - What was an in-house project for the kitchen workers at Boston’s Hoo-Doo BBQ took greater form when Chef Jimmy Ryan handed the microphone over to guitarist/songwriter Dan Zanes. Dan recruited his brother Warren (at Mom’s request) who took on lead guitar chores and the name OrkBoy. A Miller beer commercial gave them a national TV stage and hits from Boston, Mass such as “I Still Want You” and “Don’t Run Wild” from their second Slash Records release put them on the charts.
35. Albert Collins, Johnny Copeland, Robert Cray - Showdown! (1985) - “Three guitars, no waiting” could have been the sub-title for the 1985 Alligator Records recording of Showdown! by blues guitar men Albert Collins, Robert Cray and Johnny Copeland. Nine tracks and barely a moment of quiet throughout as Blues axes make quick work of everything in their path.
36. Nanci Griffith - Once in a Very Blue Moon (1983) - Nanci Griffith brought in musical backing for her third album release, Once in a Very Blue Moon. The folk-fed sparseness of her earlier releases was replaced by a fuller sound that contained a little more Country. Guest musicians Bela Fleck (banjo) and Mark O’Connor (fiddle) bring in musical magic as support for the dream texture of “Year Down in New Orleans” and the nod to favorite venues “Spin Around the Red Brick Floor”.
37. Joan Armatrading - Walk Under Ladders (1981) - Joan Armatrading came further into the full-on rock world with the Steve Lillywhite produced Walk Under Ladders. The mix of studio personnel was all over the map with new wave representation from Thomas Dolby and Andy Partridge (XTC), Elton John percussionist Ray Cooper, reggae rhythm man Robbie Shakespeare and Orleans’ Peter Gabriel and Hall & Oates alumni, Jerry Marotta.
38. John Mellencamp - Scarecrow (1985) - Pre-production for Rain on the Scarecrow was simple, and sounds like a lot of fun. John Mellencamp and his band spent a month playing about a hundred Rock’n’Roll songs from the 60’s before heading into the studio to record. The album took a stand in and for the heartland. Without changing the Roots/Rock sound, John Mellencamp brought lyrics that had meaning, talking about good lovin’ in Middle America (“Lonely Ole’ Night”) and touring ala Motown caravans (“R.OC.K. in the U.S.A.”). Rain on the Scarecrow would be the first volley heard for the plight of America’s farmers and for Farm Aid.
39. Chris Isaak - Silvertone (1985) - Chris Isaak had the snarl and the chops to be the next in line for Elvis Presley comparisons. His band was equally stripped down but the resulting sound was more ethereal and dream like. The tone of the music was a good match for filmmaker David Lynch, whose work in films had the same dreamscape attached. The director’s use of the tune “Gone Ridin’” from Silvertone jettisoned the album to much deserved recognition.