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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.

85. Thomas Dolby – “Airwaves” (1982)

The Golden Age of Wireless is one of the smartest albums to come out of the new wave era. Synth-wizard Thomas Dolby cast himself as the mad musical scientist, with subject matter frequently touching upon technology and science — for example, “Airwaves”, “Windpower”, “One of Our Submarines”, “Cloudburst at Shingle Street”, and of course “She Blinded Me with Science”. The spacey, dramatic ballad “Airwaves” is particularly compelling. It’s notable for its exquisite harmony vocals, lovely piano, and synthesizers that rise and fall with the song’s intensity.The song has a retro vibe with old-school radio effects whirring at the beginning and end of the song.

Thomas Dolby shared with us exactly how this effect was created: “I’m twiddling a knob on a MicroMoog. Overload the resonant filter; turn off the oscillators; use the cutoff frequency to control the pitch.” The video (which unfortunately features the single edit rather than the much superior full-length version) suggests cold war era intrigue with a hint of danger. Some may view Thomas Dolby as something of an ’80s novelty act or an irrelevant “one-hit wonder” since he’s best known for “She Blinded Me With Science,” but this couldn’t be farther from the truth. The Golden Age of Wireless is an essential album of the era, and “Airwaves” is its emotional centerpiece.


84. Fugazi – “Waiting Room” (1988)

Washington, D.C.’s hardcore legends Fugazi first released two EPs (1988’s Fugazi and 1989’s Margin Walker), which were compiled for their September 1989 release 13 Songs. “The Waiting Room” was initially the lead track for their self-titled 1988 EP and remains one of the band’s signature songs. The four-piece Fugazi, comprising of Guy Picciotto, former Minor Threat frontman Ian MacKaye, Brendan Canty, and Joe Lally, produced a string of acclaimed and enormously influential albums through the ’90s while eschewing the major label machinery and insisting on remaining true to their DIY approach.

“The Waiting Room” is typical of early Fugazi. Written by MacKaye, the song is ragged and edgy post-punk, raw, and viscerally exciting. It seems to be told from the point of view of a prisoner, watching those outside his cell go about their lives and waiting for the chance to continue his — although it can certainly be viewed in other contexts as well. “The Waiting Room” has a bit of a laid-back ska influence during the verses, and then it explodes with hard rock intensity during the chorus. At the 0:22 point during the chugging guitar introduction, the song stops entirely for four unexpected seconds of silence before heavy drum beats get it rolling again. “The Waiting Room” has been covered numerous times, including by TV on the Radio, Red Hot Chili Peppers, and Rancid.


83. The B-52’s – “Channel Z” (1989)

Since their groundbreaking early singles like “Rock Lobster” and “Planet Claire”, the B-52’s lost their way a bit in the ’80s. Their 1983 synthpop album Whammy! was charming, but the reaction from fans was lukewarm at best. Tragedy struck with the death of Cindy Wilson’s brother Ricky, and their album Bouncing off the Satellites (1986), released just after Wilson’s death, was haphazardly promoted. The band took a few much-needed years off and came back with the biggest album of their career: 1989’s Cosmic Thing. The Don Was-produced comeback gave the B-52’s their first taste of mainstream success with three major pop hits: “Love Shack”, “Roam”, and “The Deadbeat Club”.

“Channel Z” was another major single, hitting the top of the Billboard Modern Rock chart in August 1989. The funky dance rocker about negative information overload is high energy and hard groovin’. The B-52’s finally happened upon a formula that brought their wildly manic brand of alternative pop to a much larger audience. The mainstream success was fleeting, and they’d never again approach the level of Cosmic Thing, but the album went a long way toward cementing their already impressive legacy.


82. A Flock of Seagulls – “Wishing (If I Had a Photograph of You)” (1982)

A Flock of Seagulls are generally viewed as something of a novelty band because of their outlandish style and hair — they are often used as an example of the cheesier excesses of ’80s new wave. This view does them an injustice. They recorded a string of terrific singles, like their breakthrough hit “I Ran (So Far Away)”, which became a Top 10 hit in America, “Space Age Love Song”, “Transfer Affection”, “Nightmares” and especially the first single from their second album Listen, “Wishing (If I Had a Photograph of You)”.

It’s a swirl of lush keyboards built into a lovelorn and wistful piece of melancholy beauty. Mike Score’s voice radiates longing and regret. The main melodic hook is in the thick waves of sinuously flowing synthesizer, with dense layers of guitar providing support. The atmospheric synths quaver until the very end, when it finally falls apart and stutters out without resolution — much like the sorrow of opportunities missed that forms the heart of the song. “Wishing (If I Had a Photograph of You)” spent two weeks at #26 in July 1983. It was the band’s final Top 40 hit.


81. Yaz – “Don’t Go” (1982)

Electronic mastermind Vince Clarke was part of Depeche Mode for their debut album Speak and Spell (1981) which includes the chirpy hit “Just Can’t Get Enough”. After leaving Depeche Mode, Clarke formed Yaz (known as Yazoo in the UK) with powerhouse soul belter Alison Moyet. The duo released two essential new wave collections, Upstairs at Eric’s (1982) and You and Me Both (1983). “Don’t Go” is the opening track to their debut, and the quintessential Yaz single.

The bouncy synthpop nugget was a worldwide smash, hitting #3 in the UK. In America, Top 40 radio was inexplicably uninterested in the song, but college radio stations played it heavily and club DJs sent “Don’t Go” to #1 on the Billboard Dance Chart (their second in a row, following “Situation”). After splitting with Moyet, Vince Clarke would go on to form his most successful collaboration with Andy Bell in Erasure, a long-running pop duo that is still going strong today. As for Alison Moyet, she has enjoyed a successful solo career — her most recent album is 2013’s stellar The Minutes.


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This article originally ran on 28 September 2015.

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