michael jackson - thriller (album cover)Purple Rain (1984) is, if possible, even more ’80s-sounding than Thriller (1982), and while I have frequently made my position quite clear throughout this list that I hate the way music sounded in the ’80s, great songwriting is great songwriting. Most of the time when I hear something from the ’80s, the sound of it gets in the way of the content and I just can’t take it seriously. But with albums like Purple Rain and Thriller, it’s not like that. I hear the music for what it is, and the production doesn’t seem good or bad, it’s just kind of there. One of the clichés you’ll see a lot of film critics use is “this or that becoming a character in the movie” or something like that. (Examples: the snow in Fargo or the music in Into the Wild.) I think of Purple Rain‘s over-the-top, machine-like production in the same way.

It’s ridiculous, how this album sounds, and I’ll be the first to admit it, but I sort of find it charming. The synthesizers, the reverb, the drum machines — it’s all excess, but that’s what the ’80s were like. I always have viewed the ’80s as a baffling period in our country’s history. In fact, I have never pretended to understand it, even though I was born in the ’80s. The clothing, the hair, the music, the movies, even the president — I don’t understand why everyone older than I am looks back on the ’80s as some kind of magical time. Whenever I see movies or television from the ’80s, I think everyone just looks ridiculous. And the music from the decade is easily the worst offender, as far as art and culture goes. But Purple Rain comes across as more of an artifact. It’s one of those albums that you can put on and it takes you back in time, and I wasn’t even there in the first place. It’s that effective.

Of course, if you’re familiar with Purple Rain, you’ll know that it’s actually a soundtrack to the movie of the same name. When I was putting together this list, I considered compilations and soundtracks ineligible, since I wanted to just focus on “real” albums. But then I saw some of the Purple Rain movie on the Palladia channel last summer and I decided Purple Rain had to make the list. What I didn’t know before seeing the film is that the movie is a complete joke. It might not have been the worst movie I’ve ever seen, but it was pretty damn close. Seriously, you think movies are bad now? Try watching Purple Rain, which is basically a 111-minute music video. To be fair, I came in during the middle and I didn’t watch very much of it — it was so bad I couldn’t even make it to the performances — but I saw enough. The dialogue, acting, directing and editing were all way, way below the standards we’ve become accustomed to almost thirty years later. Nevertheless, it grossed over $68 million on a $7 million budget, and the soundtrack was one of the biggest albums ever.

bruce springsteen - born in the u.s.a. (album cover)Once I saw some of the movie and read a little about it, I decided to include Purple Rain on the list since Purple Rain is basically a giant music video/vanity movie. Furthermore, most soundtracks feature songs by multiple artists and aren’t particularly coherent, whereas Purple Rain is in the tradition of the Beatles’ A Hard Day’s Night (1964) and Help (1965), which are considered albums by themselves. So I had to amend my rule and make an exception for Purple Rain, since it is very much its own work and has aged a lot better than the movie it supposedly pulls its material from. The truth is, the opposite likely happened, with the movie serving as an excuse to promote the album. Whatever the strategy, it certainly worked — the movie and album turned Prince into a superstar. Thriller might have sold better and Born in the U.S.A. is the best of the three in my opinion, but to me Purple Rain will always be the ultimate ’80s album. It’s just a fascinating listen, hearing all of the gears turn with that now hopelessly outdated technology.