There's a couple different ways to go about this, with the most obvious being choosing what your favourite album from a given year is now, but a different way would be to try and recollect what your favourite album was then (at least for years where you were old enough to have an opinion). I'm choosing the favourite album now way to go, since I think it's more interesting posting opinions I can defend now, as opposed to ones where I can just say "what do you want from me; I was a kid". That said, in years where I didn't have a strong favourite, or needed a tiebreaker, I chose albums that defined the year for me at the time.
So here's the list, with some thoughts about how it all shaped up to follow:
1977: Television - Marquee Moon
1978: Ramones - Road to Ruin
1979: The Clash - London Calling
1980: Joy Division - Closer
1981: Joan Jett & the Blackhearts - Bad Reputation
1982: Violent Femmes - Violent Femmes
1983: The Cure - Japanese Whispers
1984: The Smiths - The Smiths
1985: The Smiths - Meat is Murder
1986: The Smiths - The Queen is Dead
1987: The Smiths - Strangeways, Here We Come
1988: Pixies - Surfer Rosa
1989: Pixies - Doolittle
1990: Public Enemy - Fear of a Black Planet
1991: Nirvana - Nevermind
1992: Neil Young - Harvest Moon
1993: Wu-Tang Clan - Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers)
1994: Nas - Illmatic
1995: Radiohead - The Bends
1996: Belle & Sebastian - If You're Feeling Sinister
1997: Radiohead - OK Computer
1998: Belle & Sebastian - The Boy with the Arab Strap
1999: The Flaming Lips - Soft Bulletin
2000: Aimee Mann - Bachelor No. 2
2001: Death Cab for Cutie - The Photo Album
2002: Tegan and Sara - If It Was You
2003: Kathleen Edwards - Failer
2004: Arcade Fire - Funeral
2005: The Decemberists - Picaresque
2006: The Decemberists - The Crane Wife
2007: The National - Boxer
2008: Flight of the Conchords - Flight of the Conchords
My process for putting the list together was as follows: first, I sorted my iTunes player by year in reverse, then looked at each year from 1977 on. I'd cross-reference these dates with Wikipedia's lists of albums released per year (like this one for 1977), to make sure my albums weren't mistagged by year (some were). If a year had an obvious winner, then I wrote it down and moved on. If it had a few different contenders, I wrote them all down and listened to them to make the hard choice (ties are for sissies). The most difficult were for years where no particular favourite emerged. That's when I'd reconsult the Wikipedia lists to see if there was an album from that time period that I'd previously enjoyed (or had a few songs on it that I enjoyed), but didn't have in iTunes. I then downloaded those contenders and picked a winner. Oh, and only actual albums were eligible, no compilations (otherwise 1988 would've been Joy Division's Substance, and it wouldn't have been close).
Sure, that might sound like too much work for a silly meme, but the whole fun of a list like this is using it to reconnect with your music collection. Keep in mind, this is a favourite list, not a best of list, so I felt no pressure to listen to albums I didn't know in order to make my decision (after all, if I wasn't already familiar with the album, then it couldn't exactly be a favourite now could it?).
The toughest years to find favourites that I could be enthusiastic about were the early 80s. My least favourite album on the list would have to be Bad Reputation from 1981. Worse, its presence is a bit of a cheat, since the album is just a re-issue of Joan Jett's independently-released self-titled 1980 album. But, its only competition in my collection is The Cure's Faith, which is a bit too dreary for me, and the Ramone's poorly received Pleasant Dreams album. So Bad Reputation it is, which I enjoy only half-unironically, and mostly because Freaks and Geeks used it as a theme song. Let this serve as a reminder that I need to check out Elvis Costello & the Attractions' Trust and Echo & the Bunnymen's Heaven Up Here.
1982 didn't get any easier, with The Cure's gloomy Pornography being my only selection. I was gonna go ahead and go with Michael Jackson's Thriller, which was undeniably my favourite album at the time, until I downloaded it and listened to it for the first time in years. Don't get me wrong, "Billie Jean" still rules, and "Human Nature" and "Beat It" still have their appeal, but after listening to the whole album once, I can promise that I won't be doing it again anytime soon. "The Girl is Mine" is one of the more dreadful pop songs of all-time, and the other ballads are no pleasures either. Even "Thriller", nostalgic fun though it may be, doesn't have a lot of replay value and is basically the most famous novelty song of all-time. I was prepared to go the other way and choose Prince's 1999 until I listened to Violent Femmes and decided after one listen that I had a winner (I was previously familiar with several songs off the album, just not the entire album itself).
About 1984-1987: yeah, I'm not completely pleased with The Smith's sweep, but what can you do? I was tempted to go with Echo & the Bunnymen's Ocean Rain for 1984 over The Smiths to get in a bit more variety, but it would've been a lie. Since this is basically a series of 30 top one lists, variety shouldn't be the goal. Strangeways, Here We Come is my least favourite of the four Smiths albums, but as luck would have it, there really wasn't much else competition for 1987. Since I'm not a U2 fan (who released The Joshua Tree that year), the only real competition to prevent The Smith's sweep was The Cure's Kiss Me Kiss Me Kiss Me (if you're wondering, my undoubted favourite album during the time period was Guns N Roses' Appetite for Destruction).
The early 90s is when I resorted mostly to the tiebreaker of "what was my favourite then", which is why you see three hip-hop albums there (with a fourth, A Tribe Called Quest's The Low End Theory just barely losing out to Nirvana's Nevermind). That said, all three are on my iPod right now for occasional listens, unlike most of my hip-hop collection, which is either sitting on my top shelf or was sold en masse to a pawn shop (I had hundreds of hip-hop CDs from the 90s that I lugged around through 3 or 4 moves before admitting that I stopped listening to most of them).
My most difficult years in terms of multiple strong contenders were 1979 and 1989. 1979 featured a battle royale between Gang of Four's Entertainment!, Joy Division's Unknown Pleasures, and The Clash's London Calling. I can't even say for sure whether or not my decision to go with London Calling was influenced by the fact that I knew Joy Division would be represented the next year with Closer. 1989 featured the Pixie's Doolittle vs The Cure's Disintegration (my favourite Cure album) vs The Stone Roses's self-titled debut. It's hard to go wrong with Doolittle, but I can't say that this wouldn't change in another month or so.
As the list moved into the current century, it got a little easier for me since I've been making year end best of lists for the past few years that I could consult. These lists weren't always still an accurate representation of my current favourites for the year, but at least they gave me a direction to pursue (and in the case of 2005, helped decide the dead heat between The Decemberists' Picaresque and The National's Alligator). 2008 was probably the hardest, simply because I haven't been listening to enough new music this year. I have plenty of 2008 albums, I just haven't put many into heavy rotation. Then I picked up the Flight of the Conchords album after watching season one, and that settled it for now (though I fully expect that decision to change by the end of the year).
And there you have it, a lifetime of music. I'm pretty pleased at how the list shaped up, and had a lot of fun doing it (even though I'm convinced I could do a better job with the ten years prior to my birth than those following it). What would your list look like?
Top 10 Albums of 2007
Top 10 Albums of 2006
Top 20 Albums of 2005
Top 10 Albums of 2004
Top Five Songs of the Half-Decade
Top Five Songs from the 90s
Top Five Songs from the 80s
Top Five Songs from the 70s