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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.

15. Jane’s Addiction – “Jane Says” (1988)

“Jane Says” is a gripping tale of drug abuse and a damaged relationship. It’s an idiom borrowed from Lou Reed, particularly echoing “Caroline Says” which tackles similar subject matter. “Jane Says” was first released in live form on Jane’s Addiction‘s self-titled 1987 debut, with the studio version appearing on their brilliant 1988 release Nothing’s Shocking. The song is notable for its simple repetitive two-chord circular acoustic guitar, with steel drums sometimes echoing the pattern.

“Jane Says” was inspired by Perry Farrell’s ex-roommate, actually named Jane, and many of the struggles detailed in the song echo her life. We understand the Jane that Farrell is portraying, and can even see her in our heads. Farrell’s voice is high and reedy, weighted with obvious empathy, particularly when he sings “Jane says, ‘I’ve never been in love — no I don’t know what it is”, and “She don’t mean no harm, she just don’t know what else to do about it.”

“Jane Says” reached #6 on the Modern Rock Chart in November 1988, and nine years later a live version charted at #25. Jane’s addiction released two perfect albums in Nothing’s Shocking and its 1990 follow-up, Ritual de lo Habitual, but they then fractured into pieces before reuniting in 2003 and again in 2011 with a much slicker, heavily produced hard rock sound.

14. Depeche Mode – “Everything Counts” (1983)

Depeche Mode are often dismissed by critics who view them as lightweight, and it’s true that some of their early work hasn’t aged well. That said, their influence as electronic music pioneers is undeniable, and they’ve scattered dozens of essential recordings over a 35-year career that is still going strong. “Everything Counts” is Depeche Mode at their best (until 1990’s Violator, that is). Perhaps no line better defines the rapacious ’80s than, “The grabbing hands grab all they can — all for themselves, after all.”

“Everything Counts” is structured as a contrast between the rough-hewn verses with Dave Gahan’s bold baritone vocals and the sweetly melodic chorus featuring Martin Gore’s smooth tenor. The arresting electronic arrangement is a cleverly conceived mix of multiple synthesizer parts and samples.

The lead single from the band’s third album, Construction Time Again, “Everything Counts” reached #6 in the UK and in America it made the Billboard Dance chart, reaching #17. A live recording taken from the band’s successful 1989 live album 101 was also released as a single, and hit #13 on the Modern Rock Chart.

13. U2 – “Bad (Live)” (1985)

Although “Bad” was included on U2‘s 1984 album The Unforgettable Fire, it’s the epic eight-minute live version from the Wide Awake in America EP that became a staple on college and rock radio. The recording was taken from a 12 November 1984 performance at the NEC Arena in Birmingham — the 37th show of the tour. By this time the band had honed the song into a dramatic powerhouse with a soaring passion and intensity that is absent from the comparatively sedate studio recording. From the bright keyboards that open the song to the Edge’s glimmering lines of guitar and Bono’s towering vocal performance, “Bad (Live)” was the most powerful musical statement U2 had achieved up to that point in their career. It received enough airplay to reach #19 on the Mainstream Rock Chart despite its length.

This is a song that transcends the turbulent, political, and sometimes spiritually strident brand of rock for which U2 had become known since their Three EP debuted in September 1979. “Bad” is about addiction, a subject Bono has delved into numerous times. There is powerful yearning and inspiration driving the song, a feverish desire to help someone break their chains: “If I could through myself / set your spirit free / I’d lead your heart away / see you break, break away”. U2 takes a lot of flak for their supposed bombast these days, but perhaps some folks are so jaded that they are unable to take real passion radiating directly from the heart at face value.

12. The Church – “Under the Milky Way” (1988)

The lead single from Australian band the Church‘s fifth album Starfish, “Under the Milky Way” is a brooding, elegantly orchestrated song with sparkling trills of keyboard and Steve Kilbey’s romantic baritone over a 12-string acoustic guitar. The distinct bagpipe-like solo is played from an e-bowed guitar sampled through a synclavier. The production and arrangements are stellar — the layers of sound all gel perfectly and create a wonderfully lush and mysterious vibe. The song’s beautifully haunting imagery is evocative of lost love and painful regret. “Under the Milky Way” is one of those songs that totally eclipses everything an artist has been about before and shapes everything the artist does thereafter. It reached #26 on the Hot 100, and the atmospheric video received substantial airplay on MTV.

The Church has recorded many great songs in the years since, but they have never really been able to escape the song’s considerable shadow. Their most recent album, Further/Deeper, is an outstanding gem that was released in the US earlier this year and has thus far been largely overlooked.

11. Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds – “The Mercy Seat” (1988)

“The Mercy Seat” sounds like boulders crashing down a mountainside while a hurricane of guitars, pianos, strings and wildly crashing drums all slam into each other. Nick Cave inhabits the wretched mind of a condemned killer about to burn for his sins, “The Mercy Seat” representing both his awaiting electric chair and what he imagines will be his perch in the Kingdom of Heaven. The harrowing lyrics are a constant fission of Biblical and violent imagery, with Cave alternating between growling the verses like a psychotic zealot, and chanting the choruses with feverish madness. He proclaims his innocence, and ends each maniacal verse with the resolutely defiant declaration, “I’m not afraid to die”.

As the mania builds intensity at each pass of the mantra-like chorus, the condemned begins dropping dark hints that his evil side did in fact kill. Perhaps the victim was his wife, as hinted by the lines: “My kill-hand is called E.V.I.L. / Wears a wedding band that’s G.O.O.D. / ‘Tis a long-suffering shackle / Collaring all that rebel blood”. By the end of the song, you can almost feel his blood boiling as the current of fire courses through his veins, his defiance fizzling away at the very last moment: “But I’m afraid I told a lie.”

“The Mercy Seat” peers into the demented inner thoughts of a malevolent spirit with a blistering ferocity and malevolence that only Nick Cave could have produced. It was the lead single from his aptly-named 1988 album Tender Prey. The shortened single version is notably more polished than the titanic seven-minute album version, which is far superior.