Five absolutely perfect albums from the 1980s

These five albums helped define the decade.

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PAUL SIMON: GRACELAND (1986)

Of all the great American singer-songwriters, Paul Simon may be the most restless and the most inquisitive. Even now, in his 80s, Simon still sounds like a man with something to prove. He broke up his massively popular partnership with Art Garfunkel at the height of its success so that he could stretch his musical wings in all directions. As with any experimenter, he doesn’t always hit home runs. When he does, it’s called Graceland.

The story of the creation of Graceland, a process which garnered a lot of condemnation for the singer, is hard to comprehend today. During apartheid, most artists refused to perform in South Africa. When Simon went there to record with black musicians like Ray Phiri and Bakithi Kumalo, in addition to the vocal group Ladysmith Black Mambazo, he drew heavy criticism. But those black South African musicians provided the pulse of Mbaqanga that helps give iconic tracks like “Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes,” and “You Can Call Me Al” their unique quality.

And just take a look at all the other influences Simon managed to incorporate throughout the 11-song cycle. Everyone from Los Lobos David Hidalgo to Adrian Belew. Linda Ronstadt sings background on the gorgeous “Under African Skies.” He has accordions and zydeco constantly on tap. There were hits, like “The Boy in the Bubble,” and the title track, but many of the lesser-known tracks are just as good if not more engaging. It all comes together on the final track – “Áll Around the World or the Myth of Fingerprints” – an accordion-fueled rocker that suggests there is no true distinction between music regardless of origin. It’s a lesson Paul Simon has been examining for his entire career.