Music

The 100 Greatest Alternative Singles of the '80s: Part 2: 80 - 61

Just imagine songs this extreme making the American Top 40, let alone the Top 10… unthinkable.

80. Bob Mould - "See a Little Light" (1989)

After the disintegration of Hüsker Dü, Bob Mould retreated to rural Minnesota to plot his first solo album. The highly polished, largely acoustic Workbook was a radical departure from the raw and edgy rock he'd been known for in his prior band. His songwriting talents were maturing and he delivered a strong collection of melodic, introspective acoustic rock. He drafted Pere Ubu rhythm section Anton Fier and Tony Maimone to play on the album. The first single was "See a Little Light", an upbeat charmer that finds Mould exploring a melodic side to his writing that he'd only hinted at in Hüsker Dü. Despite the song's sunny disposition, with a soaring chorus, jangly guitar and the great Jane Scarpantoni providing a beautiful undertow of cello, the song finds Mould at the moment of realization that a relationship is doomed and a lover is going to leave.

Workbook was only the beginning for Mould. Over the 26 years since college radio embraced "See a Little Light", Mould has released numerous solo albums, a pair of acclaimed power pop LPs in the '90s with Sugar, and is now one of rock's most respected elder statesmen. "See a Little Light" remains Mould's most widely recognized tune, and in 2013 he enshrined it as the title of his biography, See a Little Light: The Trail of Rage and Melody.

79. Pale Saints - "Sight of You" (1989)

The Leeds, England-based indie-pop trio Pale Saints are best known for their majestic and darkly obsessive "Sight of You", originally released in September 1989 on their EP Barging Into the Presence of God, and then re-recorded for their 1990 full-length debut The Comforts of Madness. Vocalist Ian Masters' reverb-laden performance of the syrupy-sweet melody soars over deeply churning guitars. Masters' dulcet voice is all the more chilling as he contemplates murdering a man who is evidently his former lover's new boyfriend: "I think of him / I think of him soaked all in red / I wish him dead".

The lyrics, almost nursery-rhyme in their simplicity, give a peek into the mind of someone detached from empathy -- throughout the song he's concerned only with his own thoughts and feelings. "Sight of You" builds to a menacing crescendo at the 5:00 mark, and then just kinda falls apart listlessly with a haphazard drum part dueling with an elastic bass as it fades to silence, unresolved. Pale Saints eventually split in 1996 after failing to break through commercially, but they left behind a treasure of music that seems barely to have been discovered. It's time for that to change.

78. Black Flag - "Rise Above" (1981)

California punk rockers Black Flag released their debut album Damaged in 1981 to little fanfare, but in the years since it's universally recognized as a landmark in American punk. Singer Henry Rollins had just joined the band, and he belted out the ragged tunes with raw and intense focus. "Rise Above", the album's opener and anarchist anthem, is blistering full-throttle hardcore. "We are tired of your abuse / try and stop us it's no use… / We're gonna rise above!!" is the shouted chorus, and when you hear it there's no doubt they believe it.

Like the rest of Damaged, "Rise Above" is non-stop -- it barely lets you breathe. The dual guitars of Greg Ginn and Dez Cadena clash violently behind Rollins' ranting, and Robo's drums are fierce and unhinged. At the 1:26 point there is a brief but piercing guitar solo that's like a drill to the ear. "Rise Above" packs a sonic punch despite its murky production and mix. This isn't music for audiophiles -- "Rise Above" is nihilistic mosh pit fodder, two-and-a-half minutes of the real thing.

77. INXS - "Don't Change" (1982)

Shabooh Shoobah is the album in which it all came together for INXS -- it set the Australian band on the path to international stardom. Its two major singles are particularly noteworthy: the new wave rocker "The One Thing", which became the band's first American hit, and the electrifying "Don't Change". After an opening swell of keyboards that sound like the sun rising, there's a few seconds of rattling guitar and then the full band erupts ferociously. Drummer Jon Farriss plays with wild abandon, and Michael Hutchence has by this time turned into a first-rate rock 'n' roll frontman.

Although "Don't Change" failed to follow "The One Thing" into the US Top 40, it's indisputably one of the band's most pivotal singles. It helped raise expectations for their next two albums, The Swing and Listen Like Thieves, both of which were substantial hits. "Don't Change" is a young, energetic, fresh-faced version of INXS which would become wiser and more jaded as the years went on. It's a glorious affirmation of self -- be proud of who you are, don't let things you can't control crush your spirit, and most definitely be loud.

76. The Sisters of Mercy - "This Corrosion" (1987)

Opening with eerie choral vocals, "This Corrosion" is a magnificent dark epic that melds industrial and goth into a massive wall-of-sound production that's aggressive and danceable. The full-length version, from the band's second album Floodland, is a punishing 11 minutes. "This Corrosion" is a tensely dramatic rocker with a hard-driving electronic beat, ornate vocal arrangements, and bursts of wailing guitar. The song only intensifies as it rips over your psyche like a tornado swirling slabs of crashing metal. Multi-instrumentalist Andrew Eldritch's vocals are reminiscent of Peter Murphy in all his glowering beauty.

It's easy to imagine a dark, dungeon-like club packed with a crowd all in black slamming into each other and spinning wildly to these heavy mechanized beats. When Eldritch growls lines like, "On days like this / in times like these / I feel an animal deep inside", one is strongly reminded of a particular Nine Inch Nails juggernaut from the '90s. "This Corrosion" hit #7 on the UK singles chart. Just imagine a song this extreme making the American Top 40, let alone the Top 10… unthinkable.

75. Love and Rockets - "So Alive" (1989)

Sometimes from out of nowhere a song will stun everyone, take off and jet up the charts, and that's what happened with Love and Rockets' "So Alive". It wasn't even the first single from the band's 1989 self-titled album (that honor went to the noise-rocker "Motorcycle") but it clicked with a massive audience and steamrolled all the way to #3 on the Hot 100. It's easy to understand why -- "So Alive" is indeed a great single. It's slick and sexy, with a sensually swaying groove and a wonderfully salacious vocal by Daniel Ash. When Ash seductively coos lines like, "Don't know what colour your eyes are, baby, but your hair is long and brown / your legs are strong, and you're so so long, and you don't come from this town", it's about as far away from his old band Bauhaus as you can imagine. And that's not a bad thing.

There's room for powerfully dramatic rock, and sweltering, sexy pop -- Love and Rockets are capable of producing both. Alas, "So Alive" was the band's only brush with mainstream success. Their follow-up single, "No Big Deal", lived up to its name and limped to #82.

74. B Movie - "Nowhere Girl" (1982)

British group B Movie didn't have much staying power, but they certainly turned out a killer single with their debut "Nowhere Girl". It's classic new wave with an urgent rock 'n' roll kick. "Nowhere Girl" has an ominous excitement about it, like it should play during a late night action sequence in a violent, mysterious thriller. It's a tight performance and clever arrangement, with jaggedly echoing guitars and multiple intertwining keyboard parts that include the unforgettable main riff played on two distinct synths simultaneously, and an ascending counter-melody. There's even a brief acoustic guitar line near the end of the main instrumental section and piano vamping in the background to add to the song's drive.

Lyrically, "Nowhere Girl" seems to be about a guy trying his best to get through to someone who doesn't particularly want to be gotten through to, although since we only have his perspective we don't really know if he's sincere and she's in a bad situation, or if he's a bit of an obsessive stalker. The jittery vibe of the song hints at the latter. B Movie recorded a far inferior version for their 1985 album Forever Running that doesn't do the song justice. Seek out the 1982 original single mix -- it's new wave at its most immediate and impactful. A gem that should not be forgotten.

73. Tracy Chapman - "Talkin 'Bout a Revolution" (1988)

The opening track from Chapman's ground-breaking self-titled debut, "Talkin 'Bout a Revolution" is so timely it could have been written yesterday. As the follow-up single to the Top 10 hit "Fast Car", "Talkin 'Bout a Revolution" failed to match its predecessor's mainstream success, peaking for two weeks at #75 during October 1988. It's legacy as the lead track on Chapman's groundbreaking debut is much more significant than its chart position might signify. These lyrics could have easily been written today: "While they're standing in the welfare lines / crying at the doorsteps of those armies of salvation / wasting time in the unemployment lines / sitting around waiting for a promotion". As the country grapples with greater income inequality than at any other time in our history and nearly stagnant wage growth, Chapman's song very much captures the pulse of modern society, even though it was written almost three decades ago.

Just like "Fast Car", though, "Talkin 'Bout a Revolution" is fiery, idealistic, and a fable. The tables aren't "finally about to turn". Twenty-seven years have passed and poor people have yet to "rise up and take what's theirs". There will be no revolution in this police state, this oligarchy ruled by massive corporations.

72. Nirvana - "Blew" (1989)

Although Nirvana is understandably more generally associated with the '90s, the Seattle trio's first album Bleach was released during the summer of 1989. It didn't have much impact at the time, but in retrospect Bleach can be considered the album that cracked open the door to the genre-defining Nevermind, which hit like a colossal sonic meteor only two years later. Bleach has a rawer vibe and finds the band still developing its sound and songwriting skills, but there are moments of greatness.

Particularly strong is the album's torrid opener, "Blew". Kurt Cobain's ragged vocals follow along with his guitar, which then slithers into a brain-searing barbed-wire solo. It's clear even from these early tracks that Cobain's sense of drama and melody are both strongly developed. Still, this is Nirvana in its embryonic form. Teenage angst had yet to pay off well, and he's not quite bored and old. Yes, it's noticeably lacking Dave Grohl's missile-strike rhythmic power, but that's okay. The shambolic nature of the song is probably better for not having a sharper drummer. "Blew" is the best of early Nirvana, viscerally spiked garage-rock that's buzzing with energy and of things to come.

71. The Plimsouls - "A Million Miles Away" (1983)

The Plimsouls were a California band led by Peter Case, best known for their kinetic rocker "A Million Miles Away", which has the energy of a tightly coiled fist. Originally released as a single in 1982, the song received significant attention the following year when it was featured prominently in the iconic film Valley Girl. A re-recorded version appeared on their outstanding 1983 release Everywhere at Once, but the album sold poorly and the Plimsouls disbanded shortly thereafter. "A Million Miles Away" couldn't quite make headway on the pop chart -- it spent one week at #82 in early August 1983.

It should have been a bigger mainstream hit. It's a fiery power-pop gem with an expansive sound, chiming guitars and a soaring chorus. Lyrically, we don't exactly know where our narrator is spaced out, but he's definitely cut adrift emotionally from his current reality. Perhaps it's a matter of stagnating while he watches the world and everybody in it pass him by. Suddenly he realizes there's no place for him anymore, and what he thought he knew is now a mystery, and everything seems untethered. "A Million Miles Away" practically sparks with anxiety.

70. Faith No More - "We Care a Lot" (1987)

Mike Patton is overall a much better frontman and vocalist for Faith No More, except on one song: "We Care a Lot". Chuck Mosley spits the lyrics with acerbic scorn, with the repeated sardonic chant of "We care a lot!" over a heavy backbeat and Billy Gould's rumbling bass. Some of the things Mosley derisively singles out include "starvation and the food that Live Aid bought" and "the smack and crack and whack that hits the streets', skewering society's short media-driven attention spans and our tendency to focus on band-aids that make us feel good rather than personally working for change. He also takes down our love for empty artifice -- "We Care a Lot" enjoys the distinction of being the only song in this list with references to the Garbage Pail Kids and Transformers.

The song was originally recorded for the band's 1985 album We Care a Lot, a San Francisco-area release with limited distribution. The more widely-known version, and a far superior recording, came on 1987's Introduce Yourself. Faith No More would grow much tighter musically in the years to come, but the shambolic looseness of "We Care a Lot" fits its insolent vibe perfectly. It would have been impossible to envision that a mere five years later, Faith No More would score a Top 10 pop hit with their surprise smash "Epic".

69. Tom Tom Club - "Genius of Love" (1981)

Tom Tom Club was an offshoot of Talking Heads that found success with their quirky single "Genius of Love". Centered around the Heads' rhythm section of Tina Weymouth and Chris Frantz, and featuring frequent Talking Heads collaborator Adrian Belew on guitar, the infectious groove and dreamy, carefree joy that imbues "Genius of Love" makes it a classic. The second single from Tom Tom Club's self-titled debut album, "Genius of Love" was a massive success in the dance clubs. It hit #1 on the Billboard Dance Chart, and #2 on the R&B chart. On the Hot 100, "Genius of Love" climbed to #31, where it spent two weeks during the spring of 1982.

The genial, colorful, laid-back groove would become a favorite source of hip-hop samples, with everyone from 50 Cent, Ice Cube, Erick Sermon and Warren G incorporating it into their own work. Perhaps the most famous extrapolation came in Mariah Carey's chart-topping 1995 single "Fantasy". "Genius of Love" is part of the fabric of the early '80s pop and dance scene. Tom Tom Club would never again approach the same heights of success, although they did have a major alternative hit later in the decade with "Suboceana" from their 1988 album Boom Boom Chi Boom Boom.

68. Big Country - "In a Big Country" (1983)

Scotland's Big Country became a major creative force in the '80s and well into the '90s with a series of acclaimed albums, although in America they are best known for their exciting 1983 single "In a Big Country". Its distinct bagpipe guitar effect, the song's sonic signature, was achieved by running e-bowed guitars through a pitch transposer. The tight harmony vocals throughout the song give it a frantic sense of exuberance, a rush of rock and roll adrenaline that hasn't subsided in the 32 years since its release.

"In a Big Country" received enough MTV and radio play for it to reach #17 on the Hot 100. It was the first single from their outstanding debut The Crossing, which also yielded the lesser hit "Fields of Fire", and has achieved cult classic status among rock fans of the era. This story ends sadly, though. In December 2001, vocalist Stuart Adamson tragically hanged himself in his hotel room in Hawaii, after many years of battling alcoholism. "I thought that pain and truth were things that really mattered, but you can't stay here with every single hope you had shattered."

67. Ministry - "Stigmata" (1988)

Ministry's classic "Stigmata" is a massive industrial wall of sound with chainsaw buzz guitars, distorted vocals and deranged screams by Al Jourgensen. In case that isn't enough to cauterize your brain, there's also the earsplitting jackhammer electronic blast-beats. "Just like a car crash, just like a knife," Jourgensen sneers. "My favorite weapon is the look in your eyes!" The whole thing sounds like a heavy equipment metal machine shop in one of Hell's outer rings. "Stigmata" is the opening song and highlight of Ministry's 1988 album The Land of Rape and Honey, generally considered the most influential of their career.

"Stigmata" is sonic overdrive, so intense that it should melt the speakers. The enigmatic lyrics are too darkly abstract to interpret with any degree of certainty; Jourgensen may be ranting against hypocrisy among leaders and in society, or about a particular individual, or possibly he's looking at himself and raining bullets of self-loathing and disgust at his own skin. However one interprets the song, it's a powerhouse of loathing and rage -- you can feel the anger and disgust swirl up around the song like a dust-storm. Al Jourgensen would continue as Ministry's primary musical force well into the '90s, while simultaneously struggling with a sometimes debilitating drug addiction.

66. House of Love - "Shine On" (1987)

House of Love's stunning debut single "Shine On" is a cinematic swirl of delicate beauty, with a thunderous rhythm and Terry Bickers' darkly shimmering guitar. Everything is bathed in reverb, including Guy Chadwick's dramatic lead vocals and the glistening harmonies by Andrea Heukamp (who left the band prior to their first album being recorded). There is a classical, almost elegant feel to "Shine On" -- it rides the line close to melodrama, but it so staggeringly powerful that it doesn't feel pretentious. "Shine On" is distant and dreamlike, as if it's leaking through layers of space or time or another dimension.

It's what an indie pop band might sound like in a Nathaniel Hawthorne novel. The lyrics are as abstruse as the music, with lovelorn imagery that hints of emotional trauma through the haze of a feverish dream. It's redolent of late summer evenings, bittersweet memories of youth, and wrenching regret. A much crisper re-recorded version of "Shine On" was included on the House of Love's 1990 self-titled second album and became a sizable hit in the UK, but it lacks the spooky atmospheric magic of the original single version on Creation Records.

65. The Stranglers - "Golden Brown" (1981)

The Stranglers' "Golden Brown" is a shadowy carousel ride with multiple swirling keyboard parts, including a gilded harpsichord, that intertwine to create a diabolical musical facade. The song's unique time signature gives it a sense of uneven circular motion, like a top that's about to fall over on its side at any given moment. The nightmarish musical arrangement suits the bleak subject matter, as a river of barely-restrained desperation flows cooly just inches below the erudite neoclassical surface. Vocalist Hugh Cornwell recites the effects of a heroin rush in a flat, joyless affect. He's detached and remote, sonically replicating the floating lassitude that a user experiences.

Cornwell also provides a brief but luminous guitar solo that offers a momentary respite from the haunted kaleidoscope created by keyboardist Dave Greenfield and drummer Jet Black. Released as a single from The Stranglers' sixth album La Folie, "Golden Brown" became the band's biggest ever hit in the UK, reaching #2 despite its harrowing subject matter and unnerving atmosphere. It's a brilliantly conceived studio creation that arguably stands as The Stranglers' single greatest musical achievement.

64. The Go-Betweens - "Cattle and Cane" (1983)

The Go-Betweens were an Australian band built around singer/guitarists Robert Forster and the late Grant McLennan, who died tragically in 2006 of a heart attack at the young age of 48. "Cattle and Cane" explores the memories of McLennan's childhood in Queensland. It has a warm and wistful vibe, like a summery dream. The main melodic hook in the vocal is echoed by a stuttering guitar pattern that repeats throughout the song, and the guitar solos are simple and stately. The unusual time signature adds to the song's hypnotic mood. There is a quiet dignity to "Cattle and Cane", like McLennan is divulging his most treasured memories.

Each verse captures another period of McLennan's life, from his young boyhood, to adolescence -- "like everyone, just waiting for a chance" -- and then, his escape to "a bigger, brighter world / a world of books and silent times in thought." Always, though, his reveries are pulled back to those childhood fields of cattle and cane. There is a gently somber nostalgia to "Cattle and Cane" that is touching. As a recording, it's warm and resonant, uncluttered and precise. "Cattle and Cane" is a gleaming gem, a mark left by one man upon the world so that the fields of his childhood are never forgotten.

63. Gang of Four - "I Love a Man in a Uniform" (1982)

Gang of Four is one of the preeminent post-punk bands to emerge from the UK in the late '70s. Their lean, mean 1979 debut Entertainment! is an essential classic of its era. "I Love a Man in a Uniform", the only single from the band's third album, Songs of the Free, is an indolent strut with wicked attitude and nerve to spare. It contains one of the great double entendres of all time, "The girls, they love to see you shoot!", complete with the repeated sound of gunfire in sync with the spiky funk/rock groove.

"I Love a Man in a Uniform" savagely lampoons the would-be heroes who signed up for the British Army at the time of the Falklands War, rightly assuming there would be little chance of actual combat but eager to impress the ladies and each other, to escape their dreary daily lives, to boost their confidence and hopefully latch onto career opportunities. Vocalist Jon King's straight-faced delivery of the song's caustic sarcasm is perfect -- he captures the cocksure swagger of a man eager to become a stereotype that exists only in films or recruitment videos.

The song's sly, mockingly strident beat and the female backing vocalists belting out "I love a man in a uniform!" complete the satire with wit and brazen audacity. Brilliantly subversive, comical but also sharply pointed, "I Love a Man in a Uniform" is one of Gang of Four's greatest singles.

62. Liquid Liquid - "Cavern" (1983)

"No wave" pioneers Liquid Liquid, a four-piece group based in New York City, put out a handful of records in small batches at the beginning of the '80s. None of their recordings made much of a notable impact at the time of their release, but original vinyl copies now fetch ridiculously high prices (although all of their music is now widely available on reissues and compilations). Particularly essential is their 1983 Optimo EP, originally released on the tiny independent 99 Records. Optimo includes the band's most consequential piece, "Cavern", a wonderfully surreal mix of funky bass, Afrobeat percussion, sharp whip cracks, bits of nonsensical vocals by Salvatore Principato, ambience and atmosphere.

"Cavern" is more about a groove and a vibe than anything else, and that's all it needs to be. It's trippy headphone music of the highest order. The soul-shaking bass line was borrowed by the Sugar Hill band who used it to form the backbone of Grandmaster Melle Mel's early hip-hop classic "White Lines (Don't Do It)". "Cavern" and Liquid Liquid's music in general slowly became popular with knowledgeable DJs and musicians over the years, leading the group to reform in 2008. Perhaps their grandest moment of vindication came in 2011, when LCD Soundsystem chose Liquid Liquid to open their marathon goodbye concert at Madison Square Garden.

61. Grace Jones - "Private Life" (1980)

There is simply no denying that Grace Jones is badass in every way. Her take on "Private Life", a song originally written by Chrissie Hynde for The Pretenders' 1979 self-titled debut, is a prime example of her ultra cool. Jones has recorded many covers over the course of her career, and when she takes charge of a song and injects it with her fiery personality it no longer belongs to the original artist -- it's all Grace. She makes it seem like the song she's covering was written specifically for her to perform.
Her version of "Private Life" has a reggae vibe with swells of keyboard, weird spikes of synthesizer and pyretic bursts of guitar over the smooth, inexorable groove. Jones delivers the spoken-word verses in a throaty sexual cadence, and then sings the chorus with soulful beauty. "Private Life" is included on her Warm Leatherette album, which was recorded in the Bahamas with famed Jamaican reggae duo Sly and Robbie on bass and drums. It was her first ever pop hit in the UK, reaching #17, and raising her profile considerably as a musical artist demanding of respect.

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