The Best Albums Of 1986: An Outstanding Year For Music

From Janet Jackson’s R&B masterpiece to Slayer’s metal opus, there’s something for everyone in this list.

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Janet Jackson, artist behind one of the best albums from 1986
Photo: Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

As far as years in music go, 1986 is up there with the best of them in terms of albums. You had the arrival of the adult Janet Jackson, Paul Simon’s masterful Graceland, and a whole slate of excellent metal records. The year saw more and more hip-hop was beginning to come out in album form. And a guy named Rick Rubin seemed to be just about everywhere. In short, there’s something for just about everyone in this list of the best albums from 1986. Dig in and start to explore.

Listen to the best of 80s pop on Spotify.

57: Ozzy Osbourne – The Ultimate Sin

Recorded after a stint in rehab, Ozzy Osbourne’s fourth solo album may have its share of detractors but upon closer inspection, it reveals an artist at a point of transition earnestly trying to find his footing.

56: Cinderella – Night Songs

Featuring the standout single, “Nobody’s Fool,” Cinderella’s debut album offers a quality snapshot into the era of pop metal.

55: Hiroshi Yoshimura – Green

The Japanese ambient pioneer’s 1986 album is beloved for its attention to harmony and its emotional range.

54: Poison – Look What The Cat Dragged In

The American glam metal band’s debut album is a study in excess that is at turns raunchy, anthemic and rebellious, and always super fun.

Poison - Talk Dirty To Me

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53: Van Morrison – No Guru, No Method, No Teacher

Recorded during the peak of his spiritual phase, this album is among Van Morrison’s most poetic, warm, and reflective works.

52: Eric Clapton – August

Eric Clapton’s 1986 album had some of his best songs, most notably singles “It’s in the Way That You Use It” and “Behind the Mask.”

51: Europe – The Final Countdown

This massively successful 80s glam metal album is mostly remembered today for its title track, a dramatic tune that continues to resonate decades later.

50: Jackson Browne – Lives in the Balance

Celebrated singer-songwriter Jackson Browne turned in another excellent effort with this 1986 album, a record perhaps best remembered for its single “In the Shape of a Heart.”

49: Pat Metheny/Ornette Coleman: Song X

This collaborative album between a jazz-fusion great and a pioneer of free jazz leans more on the latter, but the result is a stunning record.

48: Just-Ice – Back to the Old School

New York MC Just-Ice’s debut album has become something of a cult classic due to producer Kurtis Mantronik’s booming production and Just-Ice’s unforgettable rhymes.

47: Sonny Sharrock – Guitar

Sonny Sharrock’s album is a remarkable testament to his skill and range as a jazz guitarist, from heady experimental riffs to gorgeous chord progressions.

46: Patti LaBelle – Winner in You

The R&B diva’s eighth studio album produced her first number one on the pop charts with “On My Own,” and set her on a path to superstardom.

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45: Cro-Mags – The Age of Quarrel

The New York City band’s debut album helped cement “crossover thrash” – an idiosyncratic blend of thrash metal and hardcore punk music – as a genre in its own right.

44: The Chameleons – Strange Times

Strange Times is yet another highly underappreciated record from the English post-punk band that shows off their keen eye for detail, clear lyricism, and beautiful melodies.

43: Freddie Jackson – Just Like the First Time

With nearly half of the record reaching the Top Ten, Freddie Jackson’s 1986 album showcases an R&B master at his best.

42: The Bangles – Different Light

Led by the Prince-penned hit single, “Manic Monday,” the Bangles’ second album was far from a sophomore slump and proved that they were much bigger than the 60s pop-rock of their debut.

41: Steve Winwood – Back in the High Life

On this album Steve Winwood shed the solitary approach for a more collaborative one, producing a record that skillfully weaves together his love of the blues, R&B, and rock music.

Steve Winwood - Back In The High Life Again (Official Video)

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40: Os Paralamas Do Sucesso ‎– Selvagem?

Taking cues from reggae, African music, and pop music, the Brazilian band’s third studio album is considered a classic of 80s Brazilian rock.

39: Eurythmics – Revenge

The new wave duo’s fifth studio album is a shift away from synth-pop towards more traditional rock, a bold move that garnered them chart success in the US and the UK.

38: Robert Cray Band – Strong Persuader

Robert Cray’s Grammy-winning album, supported by the Memphis Horns, proved that the blues was still sexy, cool, and contemporary as ever.

37: Candlemass – Epicus Doomicus Metallicus

Candlemass’ debut might’ve been inspired by Black Sabbath, but where the Swedish doom metal group added their own creative flair resulted in an album considered a masterpiece in the genre.

36: Iron Maiden – Somewhere in Time

Iron Maiden’s sixth album saw the band continuing to build on the success of their previous work, this time upgrading the technology with the use of guitar synths.

35: Reba McEntire – Whoever’s in New England

Reba McEntire’s first number one album is replete with powerful ballads that expertly mine the depths of romantic despair and ecstasy.

Reba McEntire - Whoever's In New England (Official Music Video)

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34: Bruce Springsteen and the E-Street Band – Live/1975–85

Although some editing choices rankled superfans upon release, Bruce Springsteen’s 40-track live album showcases some of his best performances and demonstrates why he is one of the most beloved musicians alive.

33: Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds – Kicking Against the Pricks

On Nick Cave’s 1986 covers album, he adds his distinct spin to pop classics, folk songs, and country ballads, injecting new life into the tunes while showing off the band’s superb musicianship. They would follow it up later in the year with the (also excellent) Your Funeral… My Trial.

32: Prince – Parade

Prince’s second soundtrack album and the last to be credited to Prince and the Revolution is yet another testament to Prince’s musical genius and is home to the much-loved “Kiss.”

31: Siouxsie and the Banshees – Tinderbox

Perhaps the most cohesive body of work from the English rockers, Tinderbox is also their first album to feature the excellent guitar playing of John Valentine Carruthers.

30: Lionel Richie – Dancing on the Ceiling

Featuring the catchy title track and the incredible “Say You, Say Me,” Lionel Richie’s 1986 album is full of extended grooves and some of his best ballads.

Lionel Richie - Dancing On The Ceiling

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29: Crowded House – Crowded House

Following the dissolution of Split Enz, the debut album of Neil Finn’s second act Crowded House – which includes the smash hit “Don’t Dream It’s Over” – proved that the Aussie musician still had massive pop appeal.

28: Salt-N-Pepa – Hot, Cool, & Vicious

Salt-N-Pepa’s debut album broke barriers for women in rap music and was a smash hit, in no small part to the success of the single, “Push It.”

27: Sonic Youth – EVOL

The first album to feature Steve Shelley on drums, Sonic Youth’s 1986 album is a beautiful marriage of their noise roots with their growing pop sensibilities.

26: Queen – A Kind of Magic

The unofficial soundtrack to the 1986 film Highlander, is among Queen’s best work and was their first to be released as a CD.

Queen - A Kind of Magic (Official Video Remastered)

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25: Elvis Costello – King of America

King of America kicked off a remarkably prolific year for Elvis Costello that was capped by Blood & Chocolate. Both albums are great, but King was particularly emotionally affecting and intimate.

24: Talk Talk – The Colour of Spring

Talk Talk’s third studio album demonstrated its ability to transcend the commercial trends of the 1980s to create a wonderfully experimental and evergreen record.

23: Genesis – Invisible Touch

Invisible Touch is a standout of Genesis‘ Phil Collins era. While some fans derided it as too commercial, its powerful pop ballads and poignant moments of introspection are undeniably impactful.

22: Hüsker Dü – Candy Apple Grey

The Minnesota punk rockers’ major label debut wonderfully manages to be accessible and pop-friendly without sacrificing too much of their hardcore intensity.

21: Megadeth – Peace Sells… But Who’s Buying

Megadeth’s thrash metal classic touches on geopolitics, disillusionment, and the apocalypse with thrilling guitars and captivating vocals from Dave Mustaine.

Megadeth - Peace Sells

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20: Arthur Russell – World of Echo

Composed of just cello, voice, and minimal studio effects, Russell’s most celebrated album still sounds fresh and timeless decades after its 1986 release.

19: Madonna – True Blue

Madonna’s third studio album cemented her place as the queen of dance-pop and made her an international superstar.

18: Various Artists – C86

This essential compilation of British indie-pop compiled by NME has influenced the likes of My Bloody Valentine and the Strokes.

17: Cameo – Word Up!

Cameo’s 1986 album captures the best of Black music in the 80s – it’s funky, high-tech, and effortlessly hip.

16: New Order – Brotherhood

On Brotherhood, New Order excellently brings together traditional guitar-laden rock with synthesized dance music to form a cohesive and quality whole.

15: XTC – Skylarking

Produced by Todd Rundgren, this album introduced XTC’s technically adept pop to a wider American audience and is widely regarded as their best record.

14: Van Halen – 5150

Released just months before Eat ’Em And Smile – the solo debut of former frontman David Lee Roth – Van Halen’s first album with Sammy Hagar has stood the test of time to become a rock classic.

13: Steve Earle – Guitar Town

The country-rock musician’s debut album is a gritty and raw Americana classic that still resonates today.

12: R.E.M. – Lifes Rich Pageant

R.E.M.’s 1986 was a landmark record for the group, opening them up to a wider audience and commercial success.

R.E.M. - Fall On Me

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11: Bad Brains – I Against I

The D.C underground legends’ third album saw them moving away slightly from reggae and punk to create a genre-busting masterpiece without sacrificing their hardcore origins.

10: The Smiths – The Queen Is Dead

The brooding brilliance of this 1986 album is best captured in its biting takes on British society and its complex and layered instrumentation.

9: Run-DMC – Raising Hell

Featuring the massive rock and hip-hop mash-up, “Walk This Way,” Run-DMC’s groundbreaking third studio album laid the foundation for hip-hop’s crossover success.

8: Anita Baker – Rapture

Anita Baker’s seminal 1986 album, home to the unforgettable “Sweet Love,” has come to represent the best of quiet storm R&B: sophisticated production, lush vocals, and passionately romantic lyrics.

7: Bon Jovi – Slippery When Wet

Home to radio staples “Living on a Prayer” and “You Give Love a Bad Name,” the commercial success of Bon Jovi’s 1986 album made the glam metal outfit household names.

Bon Jovi - Livin' On A Prayer

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6: Slayer – Reign in Blood

Produced by Rick Rubin, Slayer’s thrash metal magnum opus is super fast, extremely frightening, and overall an incredibly thrilling record.

5: Peter Gabriel – So

Featuring the hit single “Sledgehammer” and stellar contributions from Kate Bush to Youssou N’Dour, Peter Gabriel’s 1986 album was a commercial success that beautifully showcases his unique mix of art rock, African influences, and pop.

4: Metallica – Master of Puppets

Metallica’s third album is widely considered to be one of the best metal albums ever recorded and was added to the National Recording Registry of the Library of Congress in 2015.

3: Beastie Boys – Licensed to Ill

The Beastie Boysdebut album was the first hip-hop album to top the Billboard 200 and with its fusion of rock and rap and goofball humor, it has stood the test of time to become an early hip-hop classic.

Beastie Boys - No Sleep Till Brooklyn (Official Music Video)

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2: Paul Simon – Graceland

Inspired by a controversial trip to South Africa, Simon’s album has since been held up as a pop classic that gracefully brings together Southern African musical styles and Western pop.

1: Janet Jackson – Control

With help from Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, Janet Jackson shed her good girl image and stepped out as a strong and sexy leading lady poised for superstardom on Control.

Janet Jackson - Control

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Listen to the best of 80s pop on Spotify.

1 Comment

1 Comment

  1. Howard Roth

    June 7, 2023 at 11:15 pm

    I WANT A MISTRIAL! Lou Reed album 1986

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