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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.

10. XTC – “Dear God” (1986)

“Dear God” started life as the b-side to the single “Grass”, from XTC‘s 1986 album Skylarking. “Dear God” became college radio’s preferred track, and the band quickly added it to subsequent pressings of Skylarking, reissued it as a single, and filmed a chilling video. The song is an incendiary indictment of the Christian deity featuring a tremendously powerful vocal performance by Andy Partridge over a striking acoustic guitar and string accompaniment.

As unremarkable as that seems now, 30 years ago it was daring and shocking in its way to suburban youth discovering alternative music and hearing something that pointedly challenges a belief system that has surrounded them since birth. It’s jarring and ultimately thought-provoking. Some of the best art tries to make sense of our circumstances and the world around us.

“Dear God” does, after all, posit legitimate questions. Why do the innocent suffer? Why are the weak killed by the strong, the rich allowed to pillage the poor? The world over, people die in misery and horror every day. Of course, the wrenching finale is an outburst of raw anger. Partridge, who had been sardonic, wry, and pointed during the first 3/4 of the song, repudiates God with a series of desperate accusations of neglect, beginning with the provocative, “I won’t believe in heaven or hell, no saints, no sinners, no devil as well, no pearly gates no thorny crown you’re always letting us humans down.”

This isn’t John Lennon’s luminous imagining of no religion. This is direct confrontation. It’s riveting drama, with Partridge’s strident vocal buffeted by jolts of strings. Then at the very climax, it falls back to the intro, with a young child speaking to God over a simple acoustic guitar. As to the song’s questions… No answers have as yet been forthcoming.

9. The Jesus and Mary Chain – “Just Like Honey” (1985)

The third single taken from Scottish band the Jesus and Mary Chain‘s landmark debut album, Psychocandy, is the stately “Just Like Honey”, a dusky romantic dream that unfolds under fuzzy swirls of feedback. It opens with the distinctive drum riff from the Ronettes 1963 single “Be My Baby”, and the track in general sounds like ’60s guitar-pop swallowed in an acid trip buffeted by gales of swaying distortion. Jim Reid’s vocals are smooth like the honey in his title as he ponders a one-sided, obsessive love that is too sweet to set aside just because of a little hurt and pain. There’s a certain innocence and naivety to his lovelorn lyrics like he’s in way over his head but is captive to his hopeless feelings.

The pace is leisurely and measured, the melody unfolding under the increasingly powerful layers of William Reid’s heavily reverbed guitars. Psychocandy is one of the great debut albums of the decade. Its influence is especially felt in the “shoegaze” sub-genre which would include artists like My Bloody Valentine and Slowdive. “Just Like Honey” was memorably featured in a key scene in director Sofia Coppola’s 2002 film Lost in Translation starring Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson.

8. The Cure – “A Forest” (1980)

The Cure‘s debut Three Imaginary Boys (1979) is a collection of melodic but slightly kooky power-pop. For their next album Seventeen Seconds (1980), the band went in a much more austere and emotional direction, inspired by the icy ambient soundscapes of David Bowie’s Low. The first single is their epic achievement “A Forest”.

Opening with a keyboard that sounds like a beam from an alien starship, a stately and simple guitar pattern emerges, followed by rumbling bass and taut rhythm. It’s a stark atmosphere of tension that builds for a full 1:47 before Robert Smith begins his echoey, dreamy vocal about a man haunted by the vision of an imaginary girl who is lost in a forest. Much in “A Forest” is left to the imagination. There is so much space in the recording, every sound so perfectly placed.

When “A Forest” is performed live, it becomes a behemoth often stretching well past its studio length, building to an immense climax with Smith restlessly calling out the song’s final vocal line “again and again and again and again and again…” with manic intensity, leading the band into a protracted full-throttle ending that slowly collapses one instrument at a time. First the drums give out, while the guitar squalls continue over the thumping bass. Then finally the guitar peters away, and only the solitary bass survives for ten more seconds.

“A Forest” is a powerful recording, emanating unease, isolation, and dark wonder. It became the Cure’s first Top 40 hit in the UK, reaching #31, and was the first proof that the Cure was more than just an awkward power-pop trio. “A Forest” laid the groundwork upon which all future Cure songs were built.

7. New Order – “Blue Monday” (1983)

Out of the ashes of Joy Division rose New Order, a band together even today. New Order’s first post-Joy Division material sounded like a natural extension of what they’d been doing previously — singles like “Temptation”, “Everything’s Gone Green”, “Ceremony” and their album Movement were not too far removed from their previous band’s work. But they soon moved into a more electronic pop direction, while always retaining their experimental edge.

They released some classic ’80s singles throughout the decade, but the undisputed triumph of them all is “Blue Monday”, a seven-minute electronic dance recording that is almost as influential in its way as Donna Summer’s “I Feel Love”. It’s impossible to quantify the imitations that flooded the marketplace in the wake of “Blue Monday” and its mix of sullen emotion and dancefloor kinetics. Vocalist Bernard Sumner’s dour vocals are quite suitable for a “blue Monday” — he sounds like a wounded man, his voice wrenched with hurt, as he repeatedly asks his lover “how does it feel to treat me like you do?” Electronic effects between the verses add sonic texture that jolts out of the speakers and grabs you.

The original 1983 single hit #9 in the UK and #5 on the US dance chart. A remixed version hit #3 in the UK and #68 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1988.

6. Echo and the Bunnymen – “The Killing Moon” (1984)

Some bands, even those with a strong overall catalog, have that one special song that obviously towers mightily above all their others. For Echo and the Bunnymen, it’s unquestionably “The Killing Moon”, an enchanted epic with cinematic sweep and gothic beauty. “The Killing Moon” is darkly romantic, with glistening cellos and a deeply resonant lead vocal by Ian McCulloch. Everybody in the band delivers their best.

The atmosphere is elegant and mysterious, with flourishes of electric guitar and keyboard over the bedrock foundation of sinewy strands of acoustic guitar, Les Pattison’s rumbling bass, and innovative brushwork by the late drummer Pete de Freitas. McCulloch’s highly stylized lyrics read like something Mina might have written in Bram Stoker’s Dracula: “In starlit nights I saw you / So cruelly you kissed me / Your lips a magic world, your sky all hung with jewels / The killing moon will come too soon.”

The song meanders for nearly six minutes, its long evocative ending emblazoned with Will Sergeant’s sonorous guitar lines and McCulloch ad-libbing soaring variations of the main melodic hook, progressively further down in the mix of a musical arrangement that becomes more tempestuous as the song winds to its conclusion. “The Killing Moon” was released as the first single from the band’s fourth album Ocean Rain, and was an immediate Top 10 hit in the UK. McCulloch himself has been effusive in his praise for the song over the years, calling it the best ever written. He might not be too far off.