Five absolutely perfect albums from the 1980s

These five albums helped define the decade.
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The creation of Bruce Springsteen’s sixth album is a story worthy of its own book. Actually, Warren Zanes took care of that last year with “Deliver Me From Nowhere: The Making of Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska.” Zanes tells the story of an artist in crisis, and how he used his art to work through it. By 1982, Bruce Springsteen had conquered the world.

Of all the singers touted as “the next Bob Dylan,” Bruce proved to be the one who could become a true star in his own right. After steadily climbing the charts throughout the 1970s, he finally hit the top with the 1980 double album The River. But success raised doubts, and Bruce withdrew from public life for a little while to figure it all out.

He holed up in a nondescript house in New Jersey not far from where he grew up and began writing songs. He’d record them himself with a cheap commercial 4-track tape player. It was just Bruce, playing guitar and singing. Occasionally he’d mix in a harmonica or glockenspiel. When he brought his new collection of songs back to the studio to test them out with the E Street Band, everyone could tell something wasn’t right.

A few of the songs did benefit from the full band treatment, but most actually got worse. So the decision was made to simply release an album made up of some of those songs just as Bruce had recorded them in his bedroom in New Jersey.  The results were extraordinary.

From the opening harmonica wail of the title track – inspired by a late-night screening of Terrence Malick’s movie Badlands – this was new territory. That opening track tells the true story of serial killer Charles Starkweather. He follows it with the desperation of a good man gone bad in ”Atlantic City.” Then there are eight more stories from the heartland. Stories of people struggling with economic and moral choices that they know will not turn out very well.

This was the underside of the Reagan Revolution and Bruce Springsteen, through ten tracks of Nebraska, chronicled it better than any social scientist could ever hope to. It yielded no hits, but its imprint was enormous. And with Nebraska out of his system, Springsteen could turn to those songs that did seem to blossom with the full band treatment. They would make up much of his next album – Born in the USA.