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The 100 Best Alternative Singles of the ’80s: 20 – 1

Songs of anxiety, paranoia, freak-outs, chilling verses, feverish desire, harrowing lyrics — they all make for damn good music.

20. The Police – “Spirits in the Material World” (1981)

The opening track and first single from the Police‘s fourth album Ghost in the Machine, “Spirits in the Material World” is a tense expression of anxiety and paranoia. It vividly demonstrates how far ahead The Police were over many of their contemporaries in terms of musicianship, their deft arrangements, and the gravity of Sting’s lyrics. “Spirits in the Material World” is a complex musical puzzle during the taut verses before retreating to straightforward rock during the chorus. During the verses, Stewart Copeland’s rhythm anchors the alarm bell combination of reggae-flavored synths and guitar, while Sting’s explosive bursts of bass roil like snakes in a burlap sack. Faint squeals of sax and a jittery counter-melody of guitar that floats above the final verse add to the oppressive unease.

“Spirits in the Material World” has a strong sense of foreboding in its political overtones, and sharp disdain for our “so-called leaders”. Sting offers no solutions to his caustic observations, only more uncertainty: “Where does the answer lie? / living from day to day / if it’s something we can’t buy / there must be another way.” It’s a bleak outlook on the world in general, and it’s hard to argue with any of it.

19. R.E.M. – “So. Central Rain (I’m Sorry)” (1984)

Of all the great artists in this list, many with multiple songs that were potential candidates for inclusion, the most difficult band to pin down was R.E.M. They have tons of fantastic songs in the ’80s without having one that overshadows all the rest. Ultimately, though, “So. Central Rain” was most pivotal for R.E.M. in many ways. True, “Gardening at Night” and “Radio Free Europe” got them in the door, but “So. Central Rain” kicked the door down and got them permanent residency. “So. Central Rain” was R.E.M.’s slickest and most mature recording up to that point in their career.

The primary single from their all-important second album Reckoning, “So. Central Rain” was a staple on college radio, and MTV even gave the video some limited airplay. It reached #85 on the Billboard Hot 100 and set the stage for ever-escalating popularity that went through the roof in the ’90s. But most importantly, “So. Central Rain” is just a killer tune. It’s tight, compact, melodic and with a deeply felt vocal by Michael Stipe.

The freak-out ending, with Stipe wailing achingly and Mike Mills angrily slamming on the piano keys, provides some emotional release from the song’s inherent tension. Stylistically it defines R.E.M.’s early period before their sound became much more expansive beginning on albums like Fables of the Reconstruction and Document.

18. Siouxsie and the Banshees – “Peek-a-Boo” (1988)

The track that became “Peek-a-Boo” started life as a possible b-side for their 1987 cover of Iggy Pop‘s “The Passenger”. The stuttering drumbeat was created from a sample of their song “Gun” played backward, over which wildly inventive instrumentation was added. There’s a madly lurching accordion, a single-note belch of bass, and brief samples of brass laden with effects. “Peek-a-Boo” features a dazzling vocal arrangement in which Siouxsie Sioux sings the lurid carnival freak show lyrics from a different part of the sound spectrum on each line. Her vocal phrasing is ingenious throughout.

In the chorus she wails “Peeeek-a-Boo, Peeeek-a-Boo” over a creepy extrapolation of the old jazz standard “Jeepers Creepers”. It all comes together in a hallucinatory whirl of diabolical sounds and provocatively sexual imagery. While Siouxsie and the Banshees released numerous great singles in the ’80s, “Peek-a-Boo” is their most innovative recording. It was the lead single from Peepshow, arguably the band’s greatest album (although many old-school fans will disagree). “Peek-a-Boo” also became Siouxsie and the Banshees’ first-ever hit on the Hot 100 (reaching #53), and it owns the distinction of holding the first-ever spot at #1 when Billboard started its Modern Rock chart on 10 September 1988. The 12″ single of “Peek-a-Boo” is worth seeking out for the excellent extended “Silver Dollar” mix as well as its two brilliant b-sides, “False Face” and “Catwalk”.

17. Tom Waits – “Time” (1985)

There’s nobody remotely like Tom Waits. He’s a lyricist almost without peer. Waits’ whiskey and cigarette-smoked voice is that of a consummate storyteller, his nuanced and expressive phrasing injecting meaning and feeling into the words. His 1985 album Rain Dogs is one of the decade’s most essential, and its centerpiece is the poignant acoustic ballad, “Time”.

Waits doesn’t follow normal convention in anything he does. He often begins each line of vocal a half-beat ahead of the guitar, so it falls dripping from the start of his voice like rain cascading to the pavement. “Time” is a sad portrait of grief and acceptance, of moving on from a devastating, senseless loss. Waits’ poetic lyrics reach to the very soul of his characters. Each of them is struggling with something, such as the death of young men in war: “Well things are pretty lousy for a calendar girl / the boys just give right off the cars and splash into the street”.

Indeed, Waits’ masterful imagery in “Time” is melancholy. No matter how many times death visits, he’s always just around the corner with your loved ones in its shadow. Waits speaks from death’s point of view in the chilling verse, “so put a candle in the window and a kiss upon his lips / as the dish outside the window fills with rain / just like the stranger with the weeds in your heart / and pay the fiddler off ’til I come back again”. It’s a reminder, as if we needed another one, that time on this world is short, and the time we have to love one another grows shorter every day. Don’t waste it.

16. Sonic Youth – “Teen Age Riot” (1988)

Sonic Youth‘s 1988 album Daydream Nation is one of the cornerstones of ’80s alternative rock, and its high point is the seven-minute behemoth, “Teen Age Riot”. It begins hesitantly with a long hazy intro, Kim Gordon deadpanning “spirit desire / we will fall” and other murmurings. When the song finally gets going it turns into feedback-drenched surf rock, fizzing with voltage. Thurston Moore’s vocals peek through unassumingly from under a web of inexorable guitars. Drums crash during the long instrumental break notable for Gordon’s wildly untamed bass.

Strangely enough, the song was written as a fantasy imagining Dinosaur Jr. frontman J. Mascis as a kinda rock ‘n’ roll President who can harness the defiant energy of the youth. Moore explicitly references his fellow noise-rocker here: “You come running in on platform shoes / With Marshall stacks to at least give us a clue / Ah, here it comes / I know it’s someone I knew.” The lyrics are enigmatic, but seem to imagine a world where leadership gives in to the innate rebelliousness of youth and allows them to learn from their foibles rather than allowing their mistakes to ruin and mark them for life, as is often the case now: “So who’s to go take the blame for the stormy weather / You’re never gonna stop all the teenage leather and booze / It’s time to go round / A one-man showdown / Teach us how to fail.” Learning how to fail isn’t always easy.