For some, the debate still persists to this day: ’80s metal or ’90s alternative? Depends what your ears hear, what kind of background, musical or otherwise you come from or simply what generation or what end of Generation X you hail from. For me personally, I’d have to go with the ’80s, though as evidenced by my ’90s list from last month I’m not at all hostile towards grunge or alternative rock, I just click with the prior stuff a bit more. With that said, here’s my Top 10 as far as the metal years go.
1. Guns N’ Roses- Appetite For Destruction (1987)
The spiritual successor to Aerosmith’s Rocks, Appetite For Destruction brought G’N’R to the world in a big way and established their identity as a ragged, recalcitrant gutter-rat band clearly and authentically set apart from their poppy hair-metal counterparts on the Sunset Strip. Their contrasting approach made them next in line in a defiant and decadent lineage dating back to Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley, evolving more cohesively with the Stones in the ’60s and Aerosmith in the ‘70s; though with the generational sea change that grunge and alternative rock brought in the ‘90s and the fall of the traditional record industry in the ‘00s, no band has emerged since to pick up the torch in their wake. The closest thing may have been Velvet Revolver, which mostly consisted of Guns’ ex-members.
Runner-Up Recommendation: G’N’R Lies (1988)
2. Mötley Crüe- Dr. Feelgood (1989)
By the end of the ‘80s, Mötley Crüe had long since proven themselves the kings of L.A hair metal, having made and sold millions off their first four albums and lived their image past what most leather-clad shit-disturbers would even conceive of doing. Still, there were two feats they were yet to pull off: A chart-topping album, and more importantly, an album done completely sober. Both of these milestones were reached with Dr. Feelgood, as the Crüe (temporarily) cleaned up and busted out their most successful and quality release to date, generating radio staples including the title track, “Kickstart My Heart”, “Same Ol’ Situation (S.O.S)” and a couple of obligatory slow tunes of the likes of “Without You”. The commercial solidification Feelgood brought for Mötley wasn’t the only thing that saved them from being irrelevant after the grunge era, but it undeniably helped.
Runner-Up Recommendation: Girls, Girls, Girls (1987)
3. Whitesnake- Whitesnake (1987)
The early Whitesnake releases in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s saw David Coverdale working with a more restrained and soulful incarnation of his contributions to the Deep Purple catalogue on Burn, Stormbringer and Come Taste The Band. While there were a number of undeniably great cuts from this period (some of which were re-worked for later albums), much of the output failed to catch on, leading to a gradual reinvention starting with 1984’s Slide It In and culminating in their breakout self-titled album three years later. Only a few scant traces of Purple can be found on Whitesnake, the album and the band behind it were by then immersed completely in the over-the-top sounds and aesthetics of the hair metal era. A pair of chart-busting ballads (“Is This Love”, “Here I Go Again”) and a few rockers (“Bad Boys”, “Children Of The Night”) came out of Coverdale’s magnum opus, with numbers of the likes of “Still Of The Night” essentially answering the question of what Led Zeppelin would have sounded like in the ’80s had John Bonham lived, much to Robert Plant’s chagrin.
Runner-Up Recommendation: Slip Of The Tongue (1989)
4. Van Halen- 5150 (1986)
This pick will surely anger some VH purists, and indeed, there is no beating the classic lineup. Nevertheless, Van Halen’s first LP with the Red Rocker was a great act of balance (no pun intended) that retained enough of the core of Van Halen as a discernible sonic entity to keep longtime fans from straying while toying within reason with synth keyboards and more mature lyrical themes (the former of which was already creeping in by 1984) to bring in new ones. Whether the moniker was intended derisively or not, it was absolutely correct and accurate for VH 2.0 to be dubbed Van Hagar. Van Halen under Sammy and Van Halen under Dave aren’t the same band, and neither should be held to the other’s standards but rather to the merits each incarnation possessed in the eyes and ears of listeners. Where there was “Jump”, “Panama” and “Hot For Teacher” two years prior, “Get Up”, “Summer Nights” and “Dreams” hold up as great cuts as well.
Runner-Up Recommendation: OU812 (1988)
5. Tesla- Mechanical Resonance (1986)
Tesla started as another hair band back in the early ‘80s under the names Earthshaker and City Kidd before stripping back the smoke and mirrors and tapping into their blue-collar roots. While their debut album Mechanical Resonance and subsequent records didn’t launch them to the absolute pinnacle of the industry, it did establish them as a rock-solid working man’s band for the late ‘80s and early ‘90s. Despite Tesla’s meat-and-potatoes approach, there’s a treasure trove of dynamic variety on Resonance; their cover of Ph.D’s “Little Suzi” and the intro of “Gettin’ Better” preset their later acoustic adventures, “Changes” dabbles reasonably in the synth sounds of the era while the likes of “EZ Cum EZ Go”, “Cumin’ Atcha Live” and “Modern Day Cowboy” provide a potent dose of hard-driving rock for the core of their listenership that cares about that kind of stuff (like the author of this article).
Runner-Up Recommendation: The Great Radio Controversy (1989)
6. Judas Priest- Screaming For Vengeance (1982)
Before there was glam metal, thrash metal, death metal, progressive metal or any other of the litany of subgenres that blossomed over the course of the ‘80s, there was just heavy metal, period; encapsulated by a filthy few of the likes of Ozzy Osbourne, Black Sabbath, Dio and of course Judas Priest. Eight albums in and yet only recent newcomers to widespread recognition, Priest achieved their zenith with Screaming For Vengeance, capturing a pivotal moment in their career where they had finally mastered their sound after years of growth and improvement and were yet to embark on a steelier path for the remainder of the decade starting with Defenders Of The Faith. Indeed, Screaming is one of the records from the ‘80s that channels metal in its purest form, and Judas Priest in its best form to the ears of many.
Runner-Up Recommendation: British Steel (1980)
7. Bon Jovi- Slippery When Wet (1986)
Slippery When Wet broke Bon Jovi almost immediately when it was released back in ’86, birthing at least three rock-radio staples and hitting Diamond status by 1993. Beyond setting the soundtrack for late-night rendezvouses, Westerns and wedding receptions for years to come, Slippery was the flagship release of hair metal’s second wave and shifted the tone for 80s rock and metal. With the smilier, slicker brand of arena rock Bon Jovi brought to the table, the leather-and-hairspray scene accelerated its turn away from its brooding beginnings of studded bondage gear and W.A.S.P-esque shock antics towards neon colours and cute faces. Additionally, it continued the growing power ballad trend started by Mötley Crüe’s “Home Sweet Home” a year earlier, leading to female concert attendance exploding at best and a rigid commercial formula being established at worst. Perhaps that’s giving this one album way too much credit, but it did surely bring a new dimension to metal’s sound and look.
Runner-Up Recommendation: New Jersey (1988)
8. Ratt- Out Of The Cellar (1984)
Ratt weren’t a band that were around that long as far as the charts go, but they can certainly be credited as one of the shining lights of L.A metal and one with a fairly identifiable sound, thanks in large part to Stephen Pearcy’s distinct vocals and Warren DeMartini and Robbin “King” Crosby’s guitar work. “Round And Round” is of course the standout cut from their debut and the band’s signature song, but Ratt can hardly be called a one-hit wonder: “Back For More” is also a notable single, along with “Wanted Man”, which spurred on a western-themed music video to accompany it. “I’m Insane” and “You’re In Trouble” are a couple more notable tracks, shaping Out Of The Cellar into a strong start for one of the earlier bands to successfully channel glam and grit at the same time.
Runner-Up Recommendation: Dancing Undercover (1986)
9. Def Leppard- Hysteria (1987)
An event as significant as a band member being seriously maimed, incapacitated or dying means the end for a lot of bands, or at least the decline of their careers. In the case of Def Leppard, the result was a comeback that propelled the band to megastardom three years after drummer Rick Allen lost his arm in a car accident. Hysteria is one of those landmark albums that wholly encapsulates the decade it comes from, from the mechanical, polished instrumentation to the thundering arena anthems and earworm choruses. There’s not much dynamic difference from one track to the next, as would be expected from such a squeaky-clean album as this, but Hysteria still remains a blockbuster collection of hits (mostly packed back-to-back in the album’s first half for maximum effect) that endure to this day.
Runner-Up Recommendation: Pyromania (1983)
10. ZZ Top- Eliminator (1983)
ZZ Top had been known to the public since 1973’s Tres Hombres, but it wasn’t until 10 years later when they seared themselves permanently into the public consciousness with Eliminator. The main secret of Eliminator’s success was of course the music videos for its singles; the unforgettable visuals of the ’33 Ford Coupe, the trademark beards, the fuzzy, twirling guitars and other synchronized maneuvers earned that little band from Texas a place in MTV history and provided an early example of the viral A/V magic that would be taken to new heights in the 21st century through YouTube, Vine and TikTok. It’s not all video gimmicks though; the music speaks for itself and provides a great example of a band reinventing themselves and not scuttling all they had worked to establish in the process. Plus, it may have inspired a drummer or two.
Runner-Up Recommendation: Afterburner (1985)