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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.

5. David Bowie – “Ashes to Ashes” (1980)

Eleven years after “Space Oddity” ends enigmatically with its hero drifting silently out into space, Major Tom returns, and he’s far more damaged than when he left. David Bowie‘s “Ashes to Ashes” is a brutal shattering of illusions. Musically it’s as otherworldly as its celestial subject matter, with multiple interlocking keyboard parts, all eerie and all with distinct sounds, the trippy syncopated rhythm, the popping bass that strums your very soul, the boomerang guitar riffs. The bits and pieces of sonic invention are perfectly balanced and react to one another.

Of course, it’s Bowie’s stunning vocal arrangement that brings the real haunted magic. The creepy nursery rhyme ending is like a mantra or a riddle that remains unresolved. “My mama said, ‘to get things done, you better not mess with Major Tom’.” Remember, kids, the Major Tom of your youth? The tragic hero astronaut who gets lost in space, his famous last words, “Tell my wife I love her very much,” the staunch patriotic role model that every dad wanted to be? Well surprise, he’s back! Very much not dead, and oh yeah, he’s an addict. It’s a parallel that has happened millions of times the world over, as we grow up and learn things are not always as simple as they seem when you’re a child. It need not be anything as lurid as drug addiction, although that is certainly often true. It could be any siren that derails us.

And what’s so wrenching about “Ashes to Ashes” is the bridge, the heaving desperation that Bowie imparts in Major Tom’s voice: “I never done good things! I never done bad things! I never did anything out of the blue. Want an axe to pick the ice! Want to come down right now.” But then, Bowie has been skewering “heroes” his whole career, it’s perfectly understandable that he’d tear down one of those he raised himself. The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation, it is indeed true — and in “Ashes to Ashes” Bowie dares to say the simple truth, which is that we are all only human.


4. Talking Heads – “Once in a Lifetime” (1980)

Despite its status as one of the decade’s most enduring singles, “Once in a Lifetime” didn’t exactly burn up the charts. As the lead single from Talking Heads‘ landmark 1980 album Remain in Light, “Once in a Lifetime” reached #14 in the UK, and failed to make the Billboard Hot 100 until a live version from the Stop Making Sense album hit #91 in 1985. As with many songs on this list, the chart positions don’t tell the story.

“Once in a Lifetime” is certainly one of the most important singles of the new wave era, and its parent album Remain in Light is an absolutely essential part of any ’80s music collection. David Byrne’s spastic movements and the imagery in the video are as iconic as the song itself. It’s part of the fabric of an entire era, the start of the information age, the dawn of MTV and pop culture overload. Its message was perfectly timed. The circular groove could be the years passing by, one after another like an hour on a clock that gets smaller with each rotation of its hand. It may cause you to pause and examine yourself. How did I get here? Where am I, exactly? It may cause moments of sudden clarity. We may contemplate the choices we’ve made and the consequences. Roads taken and untaken. How the massive spider web of actions and reactions and ripples of pure chance have conspired to somehow put us right where we are at this very moment. And we may think of the eternal, the “water flowing underground… same as it ever was.”

The music is joyous, though, not fatalistic or grim. Who cares how I got here? The fact is I am here. It’s not about the quickly passing years or the mistakes and regrets that we live with. It’s about the now, living the life you deserve in the situation you are in. “Once in a Lifetime” happens every moment, and those moments are ours to seize.


3. Kate Bush – “Running Up That Hill” (1985)

“A Deal With God” became “Running Up That Hill” because record company executives were spooked by the prospect of the word “God” in the title of Kate Bush‘s first major single in three years — they were afraid some religious countries, the US included, would shun it. Possibly they were correct, but it’s not because the song has anything to do with God. God is a minor character in this drama.

“Running Up That Hill” is the timeless relationship dance of men and women (or any combination of the sexes, for that matter) misunderstanding each other. Sensual and warm as a heartbeat with insistent tribal drums, waves of the fairlight synth, and an intricate and richly layered vocal arrangement, “Running Up That Hill” is a pure marvel as a recording. It’s so tense you can feel the anguish flow out of the speakers like waves of heat. Bush’s vocal is passionate and inflamed, at times unhinged.

Very few artists know how to layer numerous vocal parts to such astonishing effect as Kate Bush, who never shies away from theatricality if needed. Turn off the lights, put on your best headphones, hit play, and just focus your concentration on all the vocal parts happening across the sound spectrum — it’s nothing short of stunning. There is passion in this couple, that is certain, but with the passion comes the power to wound.

“Running Up That Hill” is about trying to see things from the other’s perspective, the real impossibility of understanding exactly how someone is feeling no matter how close you may be, no matter how many sparks of electricity unite you. It’s an ongoing battle with no resolution, and it’s never been explored with such radiant grace as by Kate Bush on “Running Up That Hill”.

As the lead single from her classic Hounds of Love, “Running Up That Hill” became Kate Bush’s only Top 40 hit in America, reaching #30 in November 1985. In the UK, it topped out at #3, her biggest hit there since her chart-topping debut single “Wuthering Heights” seven years earlier. A partially re-recorded 2012 mix was issued in celebration of the Olympic Games in London, and “Running Up That Hill” became a hit yet again.


2. The Smiths – “How Soon Is Now” (1984)

With an expression of loneliness and disillusionment that straddles the line between maudlin self-pity and soul-wrenching melancholy, the Smiths‘ “How Soon Is Now” spoke to a generation trying in some way to connect and find their place in the mystifying and often cruel world they inhabit. That line “I am human, and I need to be loved just like everybody else does” practically defines an entire subgenre of music, derided as whiny mope-rock by detractors, but revered by those who relate to its message.

Morrissey’s milky and strangely fey voice paints dejection with a timorous vulnerability that sometimes sparks to defiance. It’s easy to relate to the painful recitation of social rejection: “There’s a club if you’d like to go / you could meet somebody who really loves you / so you go, and you stand on your own, and you leave on your own / and you go home and you cry and you want to die.” Morrissey understands the intense pain of rejection and loneliness. These are not ephemeral feelings — they can wear down the soul.

Morrissey’s empathetic anthem for the disillusioned is surrounded by a glorious musical soundtrack. “How Soon is Now” features Johnny Marr’s famous tremolo guitar work, which is the centerpiece of the long, beautifully cinematic instrumental section in the song’s middle. Marr and producer John Porter create a distinct musical vibe that certainly doesn’t sound like any other Smiths’ tune. “How Soon Is Now” was originally released as the b-side to the single “William, It was Really Nothing”.

The band added it to their compilation album Hatful of Hollow, and it was appended to the U.S. version of Meat Is Murder. It was finally released as a single in its own right in 1985, and reached #24 in the UK. Over the years appreciation for “How Soon is Now” has grown, and it’s become synonymous with alternative rock in the ’80s. It’s one of those singles that no longer belong to those who created it. It’s an anthem for the misunderstood, to put it simply; the different, or as might be appropriate here, the alternative.


1. Joy Division – “Love Will Tear Us Apart” (1980)

There could only be one choice — Joy Division‘s “Love Will Tear Us Apart” was recorded at the very dawn of the ’80s, just weeks into the decade, and it set a standard impossible to match. Joy Division has always sounded a galaxy apart. Their influence on music, in general, is incalculable, but particularly in the “alternative” universe. If someone writes that a particular band sounds like Joy Division, everyone knows exactly what this entails, but it’s far more than just about the clones with spiky guitar and sullen vocalists (and there have been many).

The visceral, wrenching emotion, bottled so tightly in the form of Ian Curtis was influential in itself, in the level of passion and intensity. His mannerisms, his doleful voice, the unremittingly bleak and isolated tone of his lyrics… Joy Division was never about pop melody, until “Love Will Tear Us Apart”. Although it’s an acerbic riposte to the chirpy “Love Will Keep Us Together”, Curtis and his bandmates nonetheless wrote what can pretty accurately be considered Joy Division’s version of a pop single. Of course, we’re still a long way from AM radio territory.

The visceral, wrenching emotion, bottled so tightly in the form of Ian Curtis was influential in itself, in the level of passion and intensity. His mannerisms, his doleful voice, the unremittingly bleak and isolated tone of his lyrics… Joy Division was never about pop melody, until “Love Will Tear Us Apart”. Although it’s an acerbic riposte to the chirpy “Love Will Keep Us Together”, Curtis and his bandmates nonetheless wrote what can pretty accurately be considered Joy Division’s version of a pop single. Of course, we’re still a long way from AM radio territory.

The song still sounds channeled from another dimension, wherever it is that Ian Curtis resides. Curtis details the disintegration of a relationship in his oddly detached croon, asking “Why is the bedroom so cold? / You’ve turned away on your side, is my timing that flawed?” as if out of idle curiosity. Icy synths echo the main melodic hook over a clattering bass by Peter Hook and Bernard Sumner’s guitar (which reinforces the main melody). Stephen Morris’ furious drumwork is the foundation that holds everything together.

Joy Division’s only chart single in the UK, “Love Will Tear Us Apart” reached #13 in June 1980, a month after Ian Curtis hanged himself while listening to Iggy Pop’s The Idiot. Curtis slammed the door shut on what might have been. Joy Division’s music would be compelling whether Curtis died or not, although there is no question that his death has given the band a sort of mythic quality. It’s almost sacrilege to even consider anything Joy Division ever issued as less than divine brilliance, especially because of the paucity of material. But the reality is that Curtis’ suicide only rendered the music more potent.

The songs are so personal and so piercingly intense, you can’t really disconnect the man from his work. Through Joy Division’s catalog we’re privy to the deepest struggles of a man so disturbed he found it unbearable to live and committed the ultimate act of self-destruction. All that struggle set to music, and we know how the story ends. It’s the soul scraped bare, music at its most elemental and primal.


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This article was originally published on 2 October 2015.

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