Generally when people think of ’80s music, the first artists that pop into their heads might be Michael Jackson, Cyndi Lauper, Madonna, Prince, Duran Duran, a-ha and other staples of MTV and the Top 40. There’s no question that it was a golden age for pop music, although some of the quintessential hits of the ’80s have aged better than others. Many younger music fans in particular consider ’80s music irredeemably cheesy, and in many cases they are correct. But like all musical decades, there is another layer of music that by and large didn’t fit neatly into Top 40 playlists (at least in the US).
My first question: What is alternative? As it pertains to ’80s music, or any other decade for that matter, the answer is never really quite clear. “Outside the mainstream” isn’t really enough of a definition. After all, there are plenty of artists who reside outside the limited universe of Top 40 radio who wouldn’t be considered alternative: folk, metal, country, reggae, bluegrass, orchestral, jazz, blues, some hip-hop and others. “Alternative” requires a certain edge, a particularly adventurous vibe, a very specific sensibility. It’s hard to put your finger on it exactly, but you know it when you hear it.
The term “alternative” didn’t really become prominent until the very end of the ’80s, and into the early ’90s. Before that we had punk, post-punk, new wave, college rock, underground, modern rock, and other more specific labels like goth, industrial, new romantic, ska, power pop, hardcore, indie rock, etc. All of these fit within the umbrella of what would be considered alternative. Of course, it also depends on the artist, the album, the country, or even the listener. There are songs that hit the top of the singles chart in the UK or elsewhere in the world — the Boomtown Rats’ 1979 classic “I Don’t Like Mondays”, for example, the Jam’s “A Town Called Malice”, or David Bowie’s “Ashes to Ashes” — which had zero chance of ever becoming a mainstream hit in America.
Most would agree that Blondie’s earlier material, all of which was released in the ’70s, would fit into the alternative realm, but what about their string of chart-topping pop hits? They had four #1 singles in a three year span: “Heart of Glass”, “Call Me”, “Rapture” and “The Tide Is High”. Can an artist with that level of commercial pop success still be considered alternative? It seems much more feasible if its an artist that breaks through with one surprise hit — like Love and Rockets with “So Alive”, for example, or Suzanne Vega’s “Luka”. Sometimes it’s simply a judgment call. Many of these songs fit into multiple categories and many that were left out for not being alternative could very easily be considered by others to fit into that label quite nicely. There is necessarily and unavoidably a degree of subjectivity in not only selecting which songs to include and ranking them, but also determining which songs can be considered alternative in the first place.
The most important factor in compiling and ranking the list is artistic importance, with cultural significance also considered. Only one song per artist is selected, and only songs that were released during the ’80s are included. There are omissions that some might find surprising. The Ramones, for example, released almost all of their most important work in the ’70s, as did Wire and Television. Early MTV staples like “Pop Music”, “Cars” and “Video Killed the Radio Star” were all released in the ’70s. The Clash’s London Calling, one of the genre’s most important albums, came out in December 1979, just missing eligibility.
Likewise is Depeche Mode’s Violator, which hit stores in March 1990 (although the single “Personal Jesus” did come out in 1989, and was therefore eligible for consideration). Although the term “singles” is used in the title, it’s used lightly. As long as the song is a key album track or represents a major song in the artist’s repertoire, it need not have had a physical single release. There were nearly 400 songs on the initial list of potential candidates for inclusion, and narrowing that to 100 involved cuts that were heartbreaking. Many great songs are not included, but what we are left with is 100 of the best and most important songs of the decade covering a vast expanse of stylistic territory. At the very least, even if you pay no consideration to the rankings, it’s a great starting point for exploring some of the amazingly diverse and powerful music from the ’80s that still holds up today.
100. The Primitives – “Crash” (1988)
The opening track and first single from Lovely, the Primitives’ debut album, “Crash” is a fizzy, melodic power-pop confection. Tracy Tracy’s spritely vocals glide beautifully above the chugging guitars and locomotive drums. The chorus, with its “na-na-na-na-na-na / slow down” backing vocals, is an earworm of insidious virulence. It’s almost impossible to avoid getting it stuck in your head. “Crash” is compact at only two-and-a-half minutes, but its brevity only adds to its impact. This isn’t quite the little red Corvette going much too fast in Prince’s classic, but the Primitives certainly dip their toes in the same metaphoric territory, although “Crash” could have a broader variety of meanings. Musically it’s like a car barrelling down the highway, mimicking the motion suggested in the chorus, with the sudden snarl guitar at the beginning suggesting the crash itself. Despite the sharply worded warning in the lyrics, “Crash” is a breezy nugget of glimmery perfection. It reached #5 in the UK singles chart, and #3 on the Billboard Modern Rock chart in America.
99. Laid Back – “White Horse” (1983)
Danish duo Laid Back had one of the decade’s most unlikely crossover hits when their minimalist electronic oddity “White Horse” reached #26 on the US pop chart for two weeks in May 1984. It was initially the b-side to their European hit “Sunshine Reggae”, but American DJs started spinning “White Horse” so it was reissued as a single in its own right. It became a popular dance hit, and for a while it was a go-to tune for breakdancers showing off their Robot skills. “White Horse” is built on a repetitive keyboard riff and rhythm pattern from which bleeps and spikes of synthesizer with various effects and textures erupt throughout the song. The deep multi-tracked vocals sung in a deadpan baritone exude a sense of menace, repeating “If you wanna ride, don’t ride the white horse” with the air of someone speaking from experience, and recommending instead to “ride the white pony”, evidently suggesting cocaine is preferable to heroin.
Perhaps the lyrics’ enigmatic nature snuck the song past most of the censors, although some radio stations did indeed balk at playing it. One of the new wave era’s more interesting curios, “White Horse” is included on Laid Back’s second album …Keep Smiling.
98. JoBoxers – “Just Got Lucky” (1983)
JoBoxers’ jubilant “Just Got Lucky” was a surprise hit in America, spending two week at #36 in November 1983. Unlike many songs from the new wave era which can often sound hopelessly dated, the upbeat Northern soul-influenced “Just Got Lucky” has aged extremely well. “Just Got Lucky” is a joyous sing-along with a heavy back-beat, whirring organs, jolts of sax and exuberant piano that strongly echoes some of the soulful ravers of the Motown era. As relationship songs go, “Just Got Lucky” captures love in its first bloom of excitement and promise — faces are still plastered with silly grins, flowers are delivered for no reason other than to say ‘I Love You’, and the inevitable disillusionment and complications of the real world have yet to seep in. “Just Got Lucky” was the second single from JoBoxers’ debut album Like Gangbustersand their only chart hit in America.
In the UK, JoBoxers’ first two singles “Boxerbeat” (#3) and “Just Got Lucky (#7) were both major hits. “Just Got Lucky” is also notable for a prominent appearance in the 2005 comedy The 40-Year-Old Virgin.
97. 10,000 Maniacs – “Like the Weather” (1987)
“Like the Weather” was the second single from 10,000 Maniacs’ second album In My Tribe, and is arguably their finest. Natalie Merchant’s glimmery vocals skate above the lean and insistent groove, with restrained organ, a lyrical bass, and bright lines of guitar. A simple ascending guitar pattern opens the song, over the polyrhythmic percussion played by the band’s versatile drummer Jerry Augustyniak. Despite the grim lyrics about a woman so depressed she can’t get out of bed, “Like the Weather” has a gentle warmth to it. Natalie Merchant sings lines like, “The color of the sky is gray as I can see through the blinds / lift my head from the pillow and then fall again”, with deceptive vibrancy. Anybody who has ever struggled with depression will understand when Merchant sings, “it is such a long time since my better days / I say my prayers nightly this will pass away”.
Perhaps the relatively sunny nature of the recording is a conscious effort to hasten the passing away of those nights. “Like the Weather” peaked at #68 on the Billboard Hot 100, and was a substantial hit on college radio.
96. Concrete Blonde – “God Is a Bullet” (1989)
Johnette Napolitano is one of rock’s most under-appreciated vocalists, and she delivers a blistering performance on “God Is a Bullet”. The concept of a bullet playing the role of God, the ultimate arbiter of life and death, is as relevant as ever as America continues to struggle in the grip of a gruesome spree of mass shootings. Of course the mass shootings get the headlines, but the problem is far deeper than that, with an astonishing 30,000 gun deaths in America every year. “God Is a Bullet” is a searing rocker, with Napolitano giving the song its heart and soul with her powerful and nuanced vocal, especially during the main hook, “God is a bullet, have mercy on us everyone!” The track has the sonic and emotional impact of a bullet, tight and sharp and capable of piercing the skin, shattering the skull, and burrowing deep inside your head until it wedges somewhere in your cerebral cortex.
As it winds to its harrowing conclusion, the guitars flash like sirens in the wake of yet another shooting as they fade to black. As powerful today as the day it was released, “God Is a Bullet” is the opening track to the band’s second album, Free, and it reached #15 on the Billboard Modern Rock chart in June 1989.
95. Red Hot Chili Peppers – “Knock Me Down” (1989)
“Knock Me Down” is taken from 1989’s Mother’s Milk, by far the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ finest release at that point in their career. It’s a tightly-wound freakout in which the Chili Peppers’ boundless vitality is obvious. Listen to the skittery bassline that jumps all over “Knock Me Down” — lean, mean, fast and tight. Vicki Calhoun is the vocalist soaring in the background as the song winds to its manic conclusion. Along with their cover of Stevie Wonder’s “Higher Ground”, the wickedly funky “Knock Me Down” helped crack open the door to massive success for Red Hot Chili Peppers, reaching #6 on the Billboard Modern Rock chart. With “Knock Me Down”, the band showed they were capable of writing great songs that were still unmistakably their style, but with mass appeal.
It was the Chili Peppers’ biggest hit until three years later, when their timeless ballad “Under the Bridge” lodged at #2 on the pop chart. “Knock Me Down” is ultimately about living hard every moment, and about hope rising with the tide in the face of whatever challenges life might offer — it may as well be the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ theme song.
94. The English Beat – “Save It For Later” (1982)
“Save It For Later” was written by vocalist Dave Wakeling early on in his band’s career, and true to its title he saved it until the English Beat’s third album Special Beat Service(in the UK they are simply known as the Beat). Along with their earlier single “Mirror in the Bathroom”, the upbeat ska-flavored rocker “Save It For Later” has become one of the band’s signature songs. “Mirror in the Bathroom” is the bigger hit, but “Save it For Later” has arguably aged better. It is the band’s most fully-realized track, catchy with tight harmonies, subtle strings, enigmatic lyrics (presumably about a young man discovering that adulthood does not automatically provide the answers and solutions that one might have assumed), and a terrific vocal by Wakeling. And if Wakeling is actually singing “save it fellator” at some points in the song as is widely assumed, then that opens whole new avenues of possible interpretation (not to mention humor). Although “Save It For Later” wasn’t a major hit upon its release, it has become something of an ’80s new wave/rock standard over the years.
93. Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark – “Enola Gay” (1980)
Notable for its dizzying synthesizer that whirls relentlessly in the background, “Enola Gay” is a landmark single of the synth-pop genre. The main melodic hook is the spirited riff that winds between the verses like an electronic top that never quite stops spinning. The Enola Gay was the Boeing attack plane which deposited its payload “Little Boy”, an atomic bomb, on the Japanese city of Hiroshima. It seems odd that such a perky electronic pop tune could be about that massive destruction of human life and property, but such are the absurdities of life, and Andy McCluskey’s passionate vocals make it work.
McCluskey personalizes the bomb, as if it is actually a “little boy”: “Enola Gay, is Mother proud of Little Boy today? / Ah-ha the kiss you gave, it’s never going to fade away”. And indeed the effects of that kiss will never fade from human consciousness. “Enola Gay” was the first (and only) single from O.M.D.’s second album, Organisation.It reached #8 in the UK, the first in a long string of Top 10 hits in their native country. O.M.D.’s biggest American success came with the Pretty in Pink soundtrack hit “If You Leave” six years later.
92. Happy Mondays – “24 Hour Party People” (1987)
“24 Hour Party People”, the outrageously decadent second single from Happy Mondays’ debut album Squirrel and G-Man Twenty Four Hour Party People Plastic Face Carnt Smile (White Out), immediately brings to mind dreamlike images of endless, writhing, sweat-drenched dancing with lights flashing in dark clubs, of a youth culture immersed in the chemical haze of non-stop partying, sex and drugs. Produced by John Calle, “24 Hour Party People” features an audacious vocal sung by Shaun Ryder in an irascible drawl that sounds like he’s on the verge of collapse but is unwilling to stop the party for even a moment’s respite.
The song’s chaotic vibe sucks the listener right into the midst of the madness and along for the feverish ride. And when the inevitable crash comes, well, the pain only lasts until the next party begins. “24 Hour Party People” captures the beginning of the ecstasy-fueled rave culture, of which Happy Mondays were an integral part. The scene surrounding Happy Mondays and other Factory Records bands in Manchester is covered in the acclaimed 2002 film directed by Michael Winterbottom and appropriately titled 24 Hour Party People. Happy Mondays went on to score about a dozen or so hits in their native UK, two of which — 1990’s “Step On” and “Kinky Afro” — made substantial waves on US modern rock radio.
91. Lloyd Cole & The Commotions – “Rattlesnakes” (1984)
Lloyd Cole is a lyricist of wit and incisiveness, as demonstrated by the magnificent third single and title-song from his Scottish band The Commotions’ debut album. Cole describes an alluring character who’s been bitten too many times by love and relationship problems, and who has now adopted a detached persona as a barrier and protection.There’s a sadness and vulnerability under the lady’s ultra cool exterior. “It’s so hard to love when love was your great disappointment”, she confides tremulously near the end of the song. There is great truth to the line, “She says ‘all you need is therapy.’ / Yeah, all you need is love, is all you need”.
“Rattlesnakes” is poignant and reflective under the outwardly jaunty acoustic-rock exterior, with a wave of strings bouncing buoyantly over top as if unaware of the heartbreak fermenting just inches below. Rattlesnakes is the first of three albums Lloyd Cole released with The Commotions before pursuing an extensive solo career.