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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.

90. Berlin – “Sex (I’m A…)” (1982)

“Sex (I’m A…)” is seedy red-light district synthpop featuring a sexy vocal by Terri Nunn with bandmate John Crawford adding the male counterpoint. Nunn chirps at one point, “I’m a virgin!” and at another, “I’m a slut.” The song’s extended fade-out is punctuated by Nunn’s steamy moans of passion, to the point where it almost begins to sound like low-dollar amateur porn. It’s wonderfully sleazy like it should be playing at the world’s most squalid strip club. Most radio stations wouldn’t touch a track oozing with such brazen sexuality, but it sold well enough to crawl to #62 on the US pop chart.

Like many songs that emerged in its wake, “Sex (I’m A…)” owes a debt musically and thematically to Donna Summer’s seminal “I Feel Love”, produced by the great Giorgio Moroder. Speaking of Moroder, it’s hard to envision while listening to “Sex (I’m A…)” that barely three years later, Berlin would be riding high at #1 on the pop chart with the Giorgio Moroder-produced soundtrack ballad “Take My Breath Away”. It’s a far cry from their edgy debut album Pleasure Victim, which includes new wave essentials like “The Metro”, “Mannequin”, and “Sex (I’m A…)”.

89. Furniture – “Brilliant Mind” (1986)

“I’m at the stage where everything I thought meant something seems so unappealing.” Furniture’s “Brilliant Mind” is melancholy and pensive with a twist of self-deprecating bitterness. Jim Irvin’s doleful baritone hangs over shadowy synths and rumbling bass with the wounded tone of a man emotionally bruised and riddled with self-doubt. Much of the song simmers at a slow boil, until the emotion spills over during the bridge with cascading drum rolls, squeals of saxophone, and Irvin’s voice crying out vehemently “shame / shame on you / shame!” The final verse and run through of the chorus are particularly intense. A discordant sax wails as the song rings to its tortured climax. “Brilliant Mind” was a Top 30 hit in the UK from Furniture’s 1986 album The Wrong People. (A year later, a re-recorded version was included on the outstanding soundtrack to the John Hughes film Some Kind of Wonderful.)

Unfortunately their label went broke shortly after The Wrong People was released, leaving the band in a lurch. Despite critical acclaim, The Wrong People remained out of print for years, and Furniture ground to a halt in 1990 after one album for Arista Records. Finally in 2010 Cherry Red Records put out a deluxe reissue of what many consider to be a lost classic — if you haven’t discovered it yet, now is the time.

88. They Might Be Giants – “Ana Ng” (1988)

The duo of John Flansburgh and John Linnell, They Might Be Giants, first reached national consciousness with “Ana Ng”, from their second album Lincoln. Jolts of angular guitar, bass, and drum rattle insistently throughout, along with an autoharp that whisks sharply along with the beat. The song is a neat juxtaposition of precise math rock and sweetly charming nostalgia tinged with faint regret. It’s essentially a love message to someone who’s on the other side of the world.

The touch of human emotion bleeds through the cold edges of the oddly perfect music which ratchets with machinelike precision. Linnell’s reedy, rapid-fire vocal is almost impossible to sing all the way through without gasping for air. The inspiration for the song’s name came when Linnell was perusing the New York City phonebook and was fascinated by the number of listings for the name Ng, which is a popular Cantonese surname. The video for “Ana Ng” received considerable airplay on MTV, and the single reached #11 on the Billboard Modern Rock chart in early December 1988.

87. Adam Ant – “Goody Two Shoes” (1982)

“Goody Two Shoes” is a lascivious big-band pastiche with massive drums, ferocious horns, and a sly vocal delivery by Adam Ant. The arrangement is genius, especially the manic acoustic guitar that bounces merrily atop of the drums, and the call and response horn riff between sax and trumpets. “You don’t drink, don’t smoke, what do you do?” leaving unsaid that, of course, we know what you do, don’t we? Ant is practically giddy at the prospect. His sexy self-confidence really makes the song work. There’s a sizzling brass solo about midway through, and then a snarl of an electric guitar as the verses escalate up one half-step with each new line, broiling the excitement to a fever pitch.

It’s a breathless three-and-a-half minutes, ending with two quick strums of guitar and a final kiss-off from the drums. “Goody Two Shoes” was the first solo single by Adam Ant from his album Friend or Foe, and became by far his biggest crossover hit in the U.S. Unlike many of Ant’s earlier singles, which tend to be murkier and harder to penetrate, “Goody Two Shoes” is razor-sharp and fresh — it sounds like it could have been recorded yesterday.

86. Violent Femmes – “Blister in the Sun” (1983)

From the Wisconsin group’s self-titled debut album, “Blister in the Sun” is a simple stripped-down skiffle with just acoustic guitar, a snare drum swatted with brushes, a sometimes frenetic bass, and bits of violin. Songwriter Gordon Gano’s vocals are unrefined and as wonderfully unkempt as the music. It’s basically a twisted campfire singalong that seems to be about those timeless youthful pursuits of getting wasted on heroin and preferring masturbation to any other human intimacy, but the lyrics are just enigmatic sketches of imagery, so it’s hard to know for sure.

“Blister in the Sun” blew up on college radio and is somewhat ubiquitous even though it was never officially released as a single. It’s also appeared in numerous films, including a new version recorded for Gross Point Blanke in 1997. The band actually broke up in 2009 after Gano licensed the song for use in a Wendy’s commercial, prompting a blistering public rebuke by bassist Brian Ritchie and the filing of a lawsuit. In recent years the trio has patched up their differences and can be heard touring the festival circuit, with “Blister in the Sun” still the audience favorite in their set.