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The 100 Best Alternative Singles of the 1980s: 60 – 41

We present the best punk, post-punk, new wave, college rock, goth, industrial, new romantic, ska, power pop, hardcore, and indie rock singles of the 1980s.

60. The Human League – “Love Action (I Believe in Love)” (1981)

British new wave pioneers the Human League formed in Sheffield in the late ’70s. Their early recordings were raw and primitive, using basic synthesizers and not much melody. That changed as the group’s membership expanded in 1980 with the additions of Joanne Catherall and Susan Ann Sulley. Their 1981 album Dare is one of the cornerstones of new wave. In addition to singles “Open Your Heart”, “The Sound of the Crowd”, and their American chart-topper “Don’t You Want Me”, the album includes the electro-pop nugget “Love Action (I Believe in Love)”. It’s one of the band’s finest singles, with glistening synthesizers, Philip Oakey’s wonderfully odd baritone vocals, and a jaunty electronic rhythm. In Britain, “Love Action” was the band’s breakthrough single, reaching #33 and leading the way for bigger hits to follow.

In America it was the follow-up to the iconic smash “Don’t You Want Me”, but was too weird to attract mainstream success. There’s something endearing about the band’s failure to follow pop convention in “Love Action”. The awkwardness of lines like “I believe, I believe what the old man said / though I know that there’s no lord above / I believe in me, I believe in you, and you know I believe in love”, is kinda stilted ear-candy, the guileless creation of a lonely young man in his basement writing love songs on his computer.


59. The Chameleons – “Up the Down Escalator” (1983)

Manchester band the Chameleons‘ debut Script of the Bridge is one of the great unheralded post-punk albums of the ’80s. It’s strong from start to finish, but they really nailed it with the first single “Up the Down Escalator”. It’s a galloping rocker with a massive wall of guitars by Dave Fielding and Reg Smithies over John Lever’s rousing drum work. Frontman Mark Burgess delivers an impressive vocal performance, conveying all the restless urgency and simmering unease exhibited by the song’s title (never mentioned in the lyrics), and the boldly repeated chorus, “Oh, must be something wrong boys / Yeah, there must be something wrong, boys”.

If the world needed another song about society generally going down the tubes, at least the Chameleons made it a great one. “Up the Down Escalator” is powerfully direct rock ‘n’ roll, in your face, aggressive and confident. At its conclusion, the song grinds slowly to a halt like a boulder finally coming to rest at the bottom of the rocky hillside… and again, we have a song whose lyrics and general sentiment are every bit as relevant now as when it was released.


58. Eurythmics – “Beethoven (I Love to Listen To)” (1987)

Dave Stewart and Annie Lennox rose to prominence with their heavily synth-layered hits like “Love Is a Stranger”, “Here Comes the Rain Again”, and the #1 classic “Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)”. They branched out for a more pop/rock sound on their albums Be Yourself Tonight and Revenge, and both were hugely successful.

For their darkly obsessive 1987 album Savage, an underrated triumph that was met with some bewilderment at the time of its release, Eurythmics retreated back to their electronic roots. It seems to be more highly regarded these days — perhaps a few decades were needed for some folks to appreciate its glorious weirdness. Particularly fascinating is the opening track and mood setter, “Beethoven (I Love to Listen To)”. It’s hard to listen to it and not think of the stunning video, in which Annie Lennox portrays a fractured woman literally coming to pieces. With its long percussive opening and enigmatic spoken-word verses, “Beethoven” is dramatic, daring, and defiantly eccentric. It’s Annie Lennox at her best, veering between icy cool and tensely theatrical, and Dave Stewart’s genius as a musician, songwriter and producer is on full display.


57. The Waterboys – “The Whole of the Moon” (1985)

Mike Scott of the Waterboys is one of the great lyricists in rock, and “The Whole of the Moon” is arguably his signature song. Scott’s parable about someone who rises too far too fast only to fall spectacularly has an almost medieval grandiosity to its vivid imagery and in the trumpets baying as if from the top of a castle announcing the arrival of the king. Its message is clear — pure genius and restless ambition can’t always save you from the fatal flaw of being in over your head. The other side of the dynamic between the song’s two figures is the narrator’s regret about missed opportunities, and a life lived in the shadow of someone who followed their dreams to incredible heights only to see them collapse.

The scintillating climax at about 3:54, when a cannon explodes in the midst of the layers of vocals, guitars, and brass, is genuinely stirring. “The Whole of the Moon”, from the Waterboys’ landmark album This Is the Sea, reached #26 in the UK upon its initial single release — it was reissued five years later and rocketed to #3, by far the band’s highest chart appearance.


56. Magazine – “A Song From Under the Floorboards” (1980)

Magazine was formed in 1977 by former Buzzcocks vocalist Howard Devoto and future Siouxsie and the Banshees guitarist, the late John McGeoch. “A Song From Under the Floorboards” was the lead single from the band’s excellent third album The Correct Use of Soap. It’s a terse rocker in the vein of many post-punk bands like Wire, but also with a new wave vibe. Devoto’s lyrics, which begin with the feel-good quote of the year, “I am angry, I am ill and I am ugly as sin”, seem to be inspired by Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s Notes from Underground. Devoto delivers an angry tirade of self-loathing over chilly synths and serrated guitar. The anger is directed at society which has reduced him to this state.

Free will versus one’s place being dictated by society is a question that has different answers for different people. When one is at their lowest point, it’s hard not to lash out, even if you hate yourself for doing so. “A Song From Under the Floorboards” has remained one of Magazine’s most widely-known songs even though it never charted. Morrissey recorded a cover in 2006 for the b-side to this single “The Youngest Was the Most Loved”.

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