Hope Despite the Times

12 Essential Alternative Rock Albums from the 1980s

by PopMatters Staff

27 August 2014


The Replacements and more...

The Replacements
Tim (1985)

Tim was the Replacements’ final release before founder Bob Stinson left. It was also the record that saw the misfits from Minneapolis sign to their first major label, switching from Twin/Tone to Sire Records, and snagging Tommy Ramone as their producer.

The album includes some buoyant, even upbeat, songs. “Can’t Hardly Wait“, “I’ll Buy“, and “Little Mascara“ are the perfect blend of tattered rock and playful pop. Paul Westerberg’s biting wit is in top form in “Waitress in the Sky“, and both outtakes of “Can’t Hardly Wait“ (from the 2008 reissue) are gritty romps, verifying no matter how composed the songs became, Westerburg’s gravely yowl was ever present. The slapdash blast of “Bastards of Young“ (which had a notable black-and-white video featuring just a speaker and turntable), “Left of the Dial“, “Lay it Down Clown“, and “Dose of Thunder“ proved that the Mats were far from finished rocking out. However, the record, like its precursor Let It Be (1984), incorporates some softer songs. This time, however, they showed more sophistication. For instance, “Swinging Party“ (possibly one of the best Replacements songs ever) is musically refined beyond anything the band had ever recorded and made exceptional use of Westerberg’s writing talent. “Here Comes a Regular“, which closes the album, is a spare gem featuring Westerberg singing along with just an acoustic guitar and piano. The song showed Westerberg was ready to spill his guts and proved that the Mats were losing their shit-faced-drunk, fuck-off attitude. Maybe they were growing up. Just a little bit. —Jennifer Makowsky

Recommended tracks: “Dose of Thunder”, “Bastards of Young”, “Swinging Party”, “Here Comes a Regular”

The Jesus and Mary Chain
Psychocandy (1985)

It’s easy for Psychocandy’s reputation to overshadow its merits. The Jesus and Mary Chain’s epochal first album is ground-zero for noise pop and shoegaze—entire swaths of alt-rock’s lineage would not exist without it. Yet brush past all the namechecks and the plaudits and what remains at the center of nearly three decades of hubbub is a record that possesses a visceral and almost primal appeal. The reference points for the Mary Chain’s trademark sound—Velvet Underground white noise, Ramones chord progressions, Beach Boys melodies, Phil Spector beats—are obvious if ears are tuned properly (not that the Scottish group has ever really tied to obscure them anyway). The brilliance of what the band did on its first singles and on Psychocandy was mash those elements together in the most jarring way possible, then pare the result down and crank it up to obscene volumes. The cool, detached attitude with which the Mary Chain did it is one of the unresolved contradictions that characterizes the LP, as is the surprisingly hummable nature of track after track bathed in layers of howling feedback. The juxtapositions that define Psychocandy don’t stop there; they also make violent maelstroms (“In a Hole”, “Never Understand”) come off as joyous romps, and lend more sedate numbers (“Just Like Honey”, “Sowing Seeds”) an ominous undercurrent. Bands have based entire careers around trying to remake Psychocandy, yet to this day it may still be the only noise pop LP anyone ever really needs to own. —AJ Ramirez

Recommended tracks: “Just Like Honey”, “In a Hole”, “Never Understand”, “You Trip Me Up”

Siouxsie and the Banshees
Tinderbox (1986)

Siouxsie and the Banshees’ seventh album Tinderbox is a reflection of its title. With John Carruthers’ pressing guitars, Budgie’s expert drumming, and Siouxsie Sioux’s unyielding vocals, the songs are capable of igniting the listener’s heart and ears. The concept of heat is a thread that runs throughout the album—from the image of Pompeii’s incineration in “Cities in Dust” to the heat of “92“ (degrees), to the “moths touched by flame“ in “Land’s End“. The only respite from the high temperatures is “The Sweetest Chill“, a dizzying love song filled with rushing guitars that have a spinning quality, making the listener feel as if they are being twirled on the floor of a large, abandoned dance hall. The album, like many Banshees records, focuses lyrically on dark subject matter; in this case, natural disasters, predators, and panic deepen the mood. “This Unrest“—a meditation on anxiety—is a perfect example of how musically tight the band was at the time of recording. The menacing guitars and tense drums are restrained and measured as Sioux calmly sings, “This unrest crucifies my chest“.

While the Banshees’ signature chiming guitar sound is always within ear’s reach, the album makes use of a synthesizer, most prominently employed in “Cities in Dust“. The video that accompanied the single depicted skeleton marionettes, lava, victims of the Mt. Vesuvius eruption, and Severin and Budgie covered in white powder while Sioux danced behind a wall of flames. The song gave the band radio and TV exposure, nudging the album to number 13 on the UK charts. Despite its accessibility, Tinderbox remains a bold and enchanting album that ought to be included in any record collection. —Jennifer Makowsky

Recommended tracks: “Candyman”, “This Unrest”, “92”

Lifes Rich Pageant (1986)

Why pick Lifes Rich Pageant? Why not the better-known Murmur or Document, or any other R.E.M. LP for this list? The reasons are simple: Lifes Rich Pageant is the best, most direct, and most accessible album the band put out during the entire 1980s. The Athens, Georgia quartet faced several creative and career crossroads when the time came to make its fourth album. Where would it go after the confused murkiness of Fables of the Reconstruction? Could it expand its popularity beyond its loyal collegiate fanbase without compromising its integrity? As the leading American alternative rock outfit of the era, R.E.M. had to chart a path into the unknown, and Lifes Rich Pageant was its decisive response to the challenge. The production on Pageant was clearer and more muscular than it had ever been before, and the group came across as newly reinvigorated and confident. Pageant was especially pivotal for singer Michael Stipe, who for the first time unobscured his lyrics and enunciation, crucial initial steps towards his molting into a spokesman for an entire movement.  At the core of it all are the songs, which are frequently, astonishingly first-rate— the rousing political anthems “Begin the Begin” and “Cuyahoga”; the unhurried beauty of “The Flowers of Guatemala”;  the heady vitality of “These Days”, “Hyena”, and “I Believe”; and “Fall on Me”, the band’s first truly perfect song. Throughout the ‘80s, the guys in R.E.M. were lauded as cult heroes. This is the album that proves they are worthy of the status of rock legends. —AJ Ramirez

Recommended tracks: All of side one, “The Flowers of Guatemala”, ”Swan Swan H”

Sonic Youth
Daydream Nation (1988)

Sonic Youth was one of the coolest bands to emerge from New York City’s No Wave scene of the early 1980s, but although its fourth album Sister (1987) made significant progress fusing avant-garde noise rock with a much more accessible rock ‘n’ roll aesthetic, the band was still strictly an underground phenomenon. That all changed with Daydream Nation, an ambitious double album that saw Sonic Youth’s various influences coalescing into a striking, searing whole.

From the beautiful Gerhard Richter painting on the album cover to the alternately melodic and atonal music therein, this was a “music as high art” statement on the level of The Velvet Underground and Nico 21 years earlier. Featuring significant contributions from the acerbic Kim Gordon (“The Sprawl”, “Kissability”) and the Beat Generation-influenced Lee Ranaldo (“Eric’s Trip”, “Hey Joni”), this album is nevertheless dominated by several irrefutable Thurston Moore classics, including “Silver Rocket”, “Candle”, “’Cross the Breeze”, and the timeless, laconic “Teen Age Riot”. Nirvana’s Nevermind would burst the alternative rock dam wide open three years later, but as far as influence goes Daydream Nation was just as seismic, not to mention the superior album in the long run. —Adrien Begrand

Recommended tracks: “Teen Age Riot”, “Silver Rocket”, “Eric’s Trip”, “Candle”

Doolittle (1989)

Boston-based band Pixies’ second full-length, Doolittle, captured the musicians at the top of their game when it was released in 1989. After having put themselves on the map as alternative rock heavyweights with their critically-acclaimed album Surfer Rosa the previous year, they signed a distribution deal with Elektra Records and brought on Gil Norton as producer. These changes brought the band a hefty production budget, which resulted in a crisper sound. However, a bigger budget didn’t take away from Pixies’ raw genius. It just allowed the band to stretch its talents and resulted in 15 songs about death, violence, environmental ruin, vampires, and biblical characters on the “crapper“.

“Monkey Gone to Heaven“, “Debaser“, and “Here Comes Your Man“ gave the band a face on MTV and a bigger presence on college radio. The album’s power is evenly distributed, showcasing Joey Santiago’s guitar prowess and drummer David Lovering’s perfect timing. Lovering even sang slinky, surf rock ditty, “La La Love You“. Black Francis’s vocal acrobatics and Kim Deal’s ethereal backing vocals complement each other on songs like “I Bleed“, “Silver“, and “There Goes My Gun“. Any tension among the band (the quartet took a hiatus after touring the record due to friction between Deal and Francis) went unnoticed, and may have been the spark that made the album come to life. To mark its 20th anniversary in 2009, the Pixies toured the album to crowds of eager fans, proving Doolittle remains a solid disc in the spine of ‘80s alternative rock. —Jennifer Makowsky

Recommended tracks: “Tame”, “Wave of Mutilation”, “La La Love You”, “Hey”

The Stone Roses
The Stone Roses (1989)

The self-titled debut by Manchester’s Stone Roses is considered by many critics to have spawned the “Madchester“ movement that swept across the music scene in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s. While members of the band are said to have not even liked the album, the Stone Roses’ psychedelic, drug-powered pop songs garnered critical acclaim and earned them a well-earned place in alternative music history.

“I Wanna Be Adored“ opens the album with a slow-building bass line that merely hints at the melodic impact about to spool through the speakers. When Ian Brown finally sings the words “I wanna be adored“ in his cool, offhand fashion, it’s as if he already knows he has legions of fans drooling for more. From there on in, the album bestows hit after hit. The Stone Roses is one of those albums that gets even better with each listen, unpacking numerous musical nuances every time the play button is pushed. Songs like “Waterfall“ and “Don’t Stop“, which incidentally run into each other (with a backwards recording of “Waterfall“ mixed in for good measure), crank up the psychedelic influence, reminiscent of the Byrds and Donovan. “(Song for My) Sugar Spun Sister“ and “She Bangs the Drums“ add the tasty pop undertones, while sweeping, climatic tracks “Made of Stone“ and “This Is the One“ give the album emotional gravity. Unfortunately, the Roses’ time was cut short by disagreements and lawsuits with their label as well as a disappointing sophomore release, Second Coming (1994). The Stone Roses were one of those bands who were here and then gone. But when they were here, their self-titled album captured the soul of the time and made an impact on the music scene that would last for years to come. —Jennifer Makowsky

Recommended tracks: “She Bangs the Drums”, “(Song for My) Sugar Spun Sister”, “Made of Stone“, “This Is the One”

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