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The 100 Best Alternative Singles of the 1980s: 100 – 81

Beginning today and continuing all week, we present one critic’s best punk, post-punk, new wave, college rock, underground, modern rock, goth, industrial, new romantic, ska, power pop, hardcore, and indie rock of the ’80s.

95. Red Hot Chili Peppers – “Knock Me Down” (1989)

“Knock Me Down” is taken from 1989’s Mother’s Milk, by far the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ finest release at that point in their career. It’s a tightly-wound freakout in which the Chili Peppers’ boundless vitality is obvious. Listen to the skittery bassline that jumps all over “Knock Me Down” — lean, mean, fast and tight. Vicki Calhoun is the vocalist soaring in the background as the song winds to its manic conclusion. Along with their cover of Stevie Wonder’s “Higher Ground”, the wickedly funky “Knock Me Down” helped crack open the door to massive success for Red Hot Chili Peppers, reaching #6 on the Billboard Modern Rock chart. With “Knock Me Down”, the band showed they were capable of writing great songs that were still unmistakably their style, but with mass appeal.

It was the Chili Peppers’ biggest hit until three years later, when their timeless ballad “Under the Bridge” lodged at #2 on the pop chart. “Knock Me Down” is ultimately about living hard every moment, and about hope rising with the tide in the face of whatever challenges life might offer — it may as well be the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ theme song.


94. The English Beat – “Save It For Later” (1982)

“Save It For Later” was written by vocalist Dave Wakeling early on in his band’s career, and true to its title he saved it until the English Beat’s third album Special Beat Service (in the UK they are simply known as the Beat). Along with their earlier single “Mirror in the Bathroom”, the upbeat ska-flavored rocker “Save It For Later” has become one of the band’s signature songs. “Mirror in the Bathroom” is the bigger hit, but “Save it For Later” has arguably aged better. It is the band’s most fully-realized track, catchy with tight harmonies, subtle strings, enigmatic lyrics (presumably about a young man discovering that adulthood does not automatically provide the answers and solutions that one might have assumed), and a terrific vocal by Wakeling. And if Wakeling is actually singing “save it fellator” at some points in the song as is widely assumed, then that opens whole new avenues of possible interpretation (not to mention humor). Although “Save It For Later” wasn’t a major hit upon its release, it has become something of an ’80s new wave/rock standard over the years.


93. Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark – “Enola Gay” (1980)

Notable for its dizzying synthesizer that whirls relentlessly in the background, “Enola Gay” is a landmark single of the synthpop genre. The main melodic hook is the spirited riff that winds between the verses like an electronic top that never quite stops spinning. The Enola Gay was the Boeing attack plane which deposited its payload “Little Boy”, an atomic bomb, on the Japanese city of Hiroshima. It seems odd that such a perky electronic pop tune could be about that massive destruction of human life and property, but such are the absurdities of life, and Andy McCluskey’s passionate vocals make it work.

McCluskey personalizes the bomb, as if it is actually a “little boy”: “Enola Gay, is Mother proud of Little Boy today? / Ah-ha the kiss you gave, it’s never going to fade away”. And indeed the effects of that kiss will never fade from human consciousness. “Enola Gay” was the first (and only) single from O.M.D.’s second album, Organisation. It reached #8 in the UK, the first in a long string of Top 10 hits in their native country. O.M.D.’s biggest American success came with the Pretty in Pink soundtrack hit “If You Leave” six years later.


92. Happy Mondays – “24 Hour Party People” (1987)

“24 Hour Party People”, the outrageously decadent second single from Happy Mondays’ debut album Squirrel and G-Man Twenty Four Hour Party People Plastic Face Carnt Smile (White Out), immediately brings to mind dreamlike images of endless, writhing, sweat-drenched dancing with lights flashing in dark clubs, of a youth culture immersed in the chemical haze of non-stop partying, sex and drugs. Produced by John Calle, “24 Hour Party People” features an audacious vocal sung by Shaun Ryder in an irascible drawl that sounds like he’s on the verge of collapse but is unwilling to stop the party for even a moment’s respite.

The song’s chaotic vibe sucks the listener right into the midst of the madness and along for the feverish ride. And when the inevitable crash comes, well, the pain only lasts until the next party begins. “24 Hour Party People” captures the beginning of the ecstasy-fueled rave culture, of which Happy Mondays were an integral part. The scene surrounding Happy Mondays and other Factory Records bands in Manchester is covered in the acclaimed 2002 film directed by Michael Winterbottom and appropriately titled 24 Hour Party People. Happy Mondays went on to score about a dozen or so hits in their native UK, two of which — 1990’s “Step On” and “Kinky Afro” — made substantial waves on US modern rock radio.


91. Lloyd Cole & The Commotions – “Rattlesnakes” (1984)

Lloyd Cole is a lyricist of wit and incisiveness, as demonstrated by the magnificent third single and title-song from his Scottish band The Commotions’ debut album. Cole describes an alluring character who’s been bitten too many times by love and relationship problems, and who has now adopted a detached persona as a barrier and protection.There’s a sadness and vulnerability under the lady’s ultra cool exterior. “It’s so hard to love when love was your great disappointment”, she confides tremulously near the end of the song. There is great truth to the line, “She says ‘all you need is therapy.’ / Yeah, all you need is love, is all you need”.

“Rattlesnakes” is poignant and reflective under the outwardly jaunty acoustic-rock exterior, with a wave of strings bouncing buoyantly over top as if unaware of the heartbreak fermenting just inches below. Rattlesnakes is the first of three albums Lloyd Cole released with The Commotions before pursuing an extensive solo career.

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