best 80s songs
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The 100 Best Alternative Singles of the 1980s: 80 – 61

Just imagine songs 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 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 color 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. Its 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 noticeably lacks 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.