Music

The 100 Greatest Alternative Singles of the '80s: Part 3: 60 - 41

Photo: Transparent Cassette tape via Shutterstock.

Some songs are too weird to attract mainstream success.

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 drumwork. 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 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 the 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".

55. Midnight Oil - "Beds Are Burning" (1987)

Australian rockers Midnight Oil had been churning out great tunes for almost a decade before they made a meteoric impact in America with the surprise crossover hit "Beds Are Burning", the lead single from their excellent 1987 album Diesel and Dust. Despite being about as far away from a typical 1987 pop song as you can get, "Beds are Burning" clawed its way to #17 on the Hot 100. Peter Garrett, the band's imposing bald frontman, croaks out the lyrics in a voice that sounds like it's been parched out in the desert for months without water.

The song is about the Pintupi, and aboriginal people from Australia's western end who had been forcibly removed from their native lands. Garrett's passion for the issue about which he sings is obvious. A three chord exclamation of guitar and brass opens the song, introduces the anthemic choruses, and provides the finallé. Throughout "Beds are Burning" a ratcheting guitar and elastic bass play in tandem, giving it motoric power. It's superbly produced with immaculate attention to detail -- give it a good listen on headphones sometime. Viscerally exciting, emotional, instilled with real inspiration, "Beds Are Burning" is arguably the apex of Midnight Oil's outstanding career.

54. Hüsker Dü - "Don't Want to Know If You Are Lonely" (1986)

The trio of guitarist Bob Mould, bassist Greg Norton and drummer Grant Hart recorded four albums between 1983 and 1985, honing their sound on each. Hüsker Dü's 1986 release Candy Apple Grey marked a turning point for the band, who were growing from blazing hardcore to a more accessible college-radio friendly brand of songwriting with an emphasis on stronger melodies. Of course, that doesn't mean there isn't plenty of aggression and in-your-face rock 'n' roll. The Grant Hart composition "Don't Want to Know If You Are Lonely" burns at a furious pace with ragged guitar riffs and crashing drums. Hart sings about trying to disconnect from a woman who left him but can't seem to let him move on without her. Hart's narrator, though, sounds like a guy who protests too much when he insists, "don't want to know if you are lonely / don't want to know if you are less than lonely".

Mould, Norton and Grant would stick together long enough to record one final album, the stellar 1987 double-LP Warehouse: Song and Stories, but that would be their swan-song. "Don't Want to Know If You Are Lonely" is the one track that distills the essence of Hüsker Dü's the best. Green Day covered it in 2011 for a Record Store Day promotion that put the original on one side of a 45 and the cover on the flip.

53. Sinéad O'Connor - "Mandinka" (1987)

Sinéad O'Connor immediately established herself as a significant musical force with her remarkable debut album The Lion and the Cobra. O'Connor is gifted with a remarkably expressive voice that can veer from crystalline beauty to completely unhinged wailing banshee, sometimes within the span of the same song. "Mandinka", the album's first single, is known for its hard-charging guitar riff and O'Connor's blazing vocal delivery. She cut a striking figure as she performed the song on the 1989 Grammy Awards, with her defiantly bald and painted head, black sports bra with midriff showing, ripped jeans and combat boots. O'Connor was a stark contrast to all pop culture demigods of the moment bedecked in glamorous suits and gowns in the audience -- she was rock 'n' roll, and they were artifice.

It's symbolic of how O'Connor has operated her entire career. She's always marched to the beat of her own drummer, defying societal and music industry norms and expectations and remaining fiercely independent. It all started with "Mandinka", a passionate rocker inspired by a West African tribe named in the novel Roots by Alex Haley.

52. Meat Puppets - "Lake of Fire" (1984)

The Phoenix-based brothers Curt and Cris Kirkwood released their self-titled debut in 1982, but it was Meat Puppets II, released two years later, that stands as a bedraggled classic. The high point is the frazzled "Lake of Fire", with its slow swamp-rock beat, Curt Kirkwood's deranged vocal, and swarms of guitar buzzing overhead like nasty bugs in the marsh that won't stop biting. The feverish lyrics are like an old folk fable that was born of some secretive cult haunting the countryside. The song clocks in at under two minutes, but its brevity seems appropriate. It would collapse under its own weight if it dragged on any longer.

Of course, Nirvana performed "Lake of Fire" and two other Meat Puppets songs on their historic Unplugged in New York album, even bringing the Kirkwood brothers on stage to guest. Like he did all the songs on Unplugged, Cobain scrapes "Lake of Fire" to its rawest, bare essentials.

51. Devo - "Whip It" (1980)

"Kerrrack that whip!" Devo's singularly unique band of art rock wasn't ever really mainstream, but somehow their single "Whip It" got enough radio and MTV support to reach #14 in 1980. There's been nothing quite like "Whip It" in the Top 40, before or since. Although in retrospect it seems like the most obviously commercial track from its parent album Freedom of Choice, it wasn't the first single -- that honor went to "Girl U Want". With its krautrock inspired motorik beat, spidery electronic bass line, and synthetic whip cracks, "Whip It" is a bold and provocative recording that still sounds fantastic blasted out of a good set of speakers. During the chorus a frantic alarm-bell keyboard riff flashes in the background, amping up the frenetic energy. One of the great things about the '80s is that sometimes the stars aligned and oddities like this could break through to mass consciousness.

Of course, we'd be remiss if we didn't mention the truly bizarre video. With the group wearing red flowerpots on their heads and garbed in tight black turtlenecks while on the set of what looks like the world's cheesiest western sitcom (or amateur porno), a splendidly geeky Mark Mothersbaugh brandishes his whip like an alien sex fiend.

50. The Replacements - "Can't Hardly Wait" (1987)

The Replacements grew out of their ragged post-punk roots into a first-rate group of songwriters. The transition really began with 1984's Let it Be, arguably the finest album of the band's career. As for singles, one has to look a few years later to "Can't Hardly Wait", from their Pleased to Meet Me album. Paul Westerberg's voice is plaintive and awash in vulnerability as he opens the song with diffidence, "I'll write you a letter tomorrow, tonight I can't hold a pen / someone's got a stamp that I can borrow / I promise not to blow the address again." A discrete wave of strings soars above, a horn section adds vibrant color and Chris Mars delivers some fantastic drumwork.

"Can't Hardly Wait" is a masterful studio creation, also notable for its lyrical guitar riff that is echoed by horns during the song's protracted ending, with Westerberg's increasingly battered cries of "I can't wait!" The band's next album was the comparatively disappointing Don't Tell a Soul, followed by their weary goodbye, 1990's downbeat All Shook Down. The Replacements recently finished up a reunion tour in which they bashed through their back catalog in front of wildly appreciative fans who have waited a very long time, and sure enough "Can't Hardly Wait" was part of their set.

49. Missing Persons - "Destination Unknown" (1982)

Released as the second single from Missing Persons' spectacular debut Spring Session M, "Destination Unknown" was catchy enough to nearly make the Top 40 on the pop chart, but like the album's first single "Words" it fell just short, peaking at #42. Although it wasn't a mainstream hit, "Destination Unknown" is a classic of the new wave era and is frequently found on compilations that focus on the period. It's no accident that the song's electrifying new wave/rock blend of synthesizers, guitar, bass and drums blasts emphatically out of speakers -- it was produced and engineered by Ken Scott, one of the best in the industry, with a long pedigree that includes some of David Bowie's greatest works.

Visually and sonically, Dale Bozzio's presence in Missing Persons was one of the cornerstones of the new wave era, and has been enormously influential. She was also working with a top-notch group of musicians, including ace guitarist Warren Cuccurullo, formerly of Frank Zappa's band and a future replacement for Andy Taylor in Duran Duran. Missing Persons were an iconic band of the new wave era, and had the musical chops and artistic originality to back up their exalted stature in the genre.

48. The La's - "There She Goes" (1988)

The La's "There is Goes" is one of those instantly classic melodies that will wrap its sweet tendrils around your brain and squeeze hard until it's impossible to forget. It's perfect '60s-style guitar pop, but with a hint of slightly mad obsession lurking under the surface as apparent in Lee Andrew Mavers' piercingly intense vocals. It's a sugary dream-pop delight, but it's hard not to feel there's a dark side. Some have even suggested that the "she" in the song is a metaphor for heroin (largely because of the lines "racing through my brain" and "pulsing thru my vein"), but the band has denied this.

In any event, "There She Goes" is one of those timeless singles that some bands are fortunate enough to hit upon at some point in their career. After delays caused largely by Mavers' compulsive perfectionism, The La's finally released their self-titled debut album in 1990, which featured a remixed version of "There She Goes". It would be their only album. It took the Christian-turned-secular Sixpence None the Richer to get the song into the U.S. Top 40. Their 1999 version is rather nice and Leigh Nash's vocal is lovely, but it wholly lacks the profound focus of The La's original recording.

47. Icicle Works - "Birds Fly (Whisper to a Scream)" (1983)

The British trio Icicle Works released a handful of minor singles, but they are best known for their 1983 hit "Birds Fly (Whisper to a Scream)". Over a frantic rhythm and clanging guitars, "Birds Fly" is a strident anthem with a booming chorus: "We are, we are, we are but your children / finding our way around indecision / we are, we are we are ever helpless / take us forever, a whisper to a scream." It's a powerful showcase for Ian McNabb, the band's primary songwriter, guitarist and vocalist. In America, where it was labeled "Whisper to a Scream (Birds Fly)" and a different mix was released, it reached #37 for two weeks in June 1984, a full year after the original single's debut in Britain.

There are multiple versions of the song, with the best being the UK release that features the spoken-word segment by "Mariella": "Some things take forever / but with building bricks of trust and love / mountains can be moved." The song seems to be about the foibles of youth, and how we all struggle to come to terms with the world around us and the life and future we face. Children and adolescents often think that when they "grow up," suddenly everything becomes clear. It never really works that way. We're all just making it up as we go along.

46. X - "Johnny Hit and Run Paulene" (1980)

From the California group's acclaimed debut Los Angeles (produced by the Doors' Ray Manzarek), "Johnny Hit and Run Paulene" is a lurid post-punk fable that explores the hollow emptiness of rampant random sexual encounters and the desensitization to intimacy that meaningless debauchery can cause. "Johnny" takes a "sex machine drug" that allows him to have sex once every 24 hours, so he goes on a rape binge: "He got 24 hours / to shoot all Paulenes between the legs / 96 tears through 24 hours / sex once every hour." Musically the song blends old-school rockabilly guitar by Billy Zoom, frenzied bass by John Doe, and D.J. Bonebrake's maniacal drum work. John Doe, with Exene Cervenka on harmony vocals, sounds like a lunatic version of a '50s rocker as he raves about his gruesome anti-hero.

"Johnny Hit and Run Paulene" is creepy and disturbing, which was surely the band's intent. X released a string of generally well-received albums through the '80s and into the early '90s. They still tour regularly with their original lineup, although guitarist Billy Zoom recently took a leave of absence as he battles cancer. "Johnny Hit and Run Paulene" remains a staple of their live set.

45. The Jam - "Town Called Malice" (1982)

The Jam is tight as nails on "Town Called Malice", a soulful rocker built around Bruce Foxton's thumping Motown-inspired bass, Rick Buckler's explosive drumwork and Paul Weller's energetic vocal delivery. A lively whirling Hammond organ completes the song's retro vibe. As the primary single from the band's final album, The Gift, "Town Called Malice" was the Jam's final major hit, reaching #1 in the UK.

"Town Called Malice" is a working class anthem written by Paul Weller and inspired by his own home town. It starkly describes the lives of the working poor of Thatcher-era England. The resiliently upbeat vibe of the song belies the harsh realities described in the lyrics: "Struggle after struggle, year after year / the atmosphere's a fine blend of ice / I'm almost stone cold dead / in a town called Malice." It's almost as if the band is determined to keep the party going no matter how bleak life may be. Toward the end of the Jam's spectacular run, Weller expanded the band's stripped down post-punk by incorporating Motown and northern soul influences, which is particularly evident in "Town Called Malice".

After the Jam's acrimonious disintegration, Weller would take his interest in soul music to the next level with his sophisticated pop group the Style Council. As for "Town Called Malice", its as apt as ever, and includes a line well worth remembering: "Stop apologizing for the things you've never done / 'cause time is short and life is cruel." Indeed it is.

44. Cocteau Twins - "Carolyn's Fingers" (1988)

"Carolyn's Fingers", the standout track on Cocteau Twins' fifth album Blue Bell Knoll, is one of the Scottish trio's most magical creations. It's the Cocteau Twins' version of a pop song, more immediate than much of their work. Elizabeth Fraser trills and warbles like a mystical faerie in a high fantasy novel. It's music from another world -- nothing this enchanting could have been formulated on earth. Cocteau Twins are an escape into a beguiling dimension of sound unlike anything else. On the joyful "Carolyn's Fingers", Fraser's voice swirls about Robin Guthrie's honey-dripping guitar and hypnotic percussion like a spirit drifting on the wind.

Her vocal style is endlessly fascinating; it's not rooted by perfunctory requirements like actually pronouncing words. The words sound like Fraser wants them to sound, and whether or not that translates to anything intelligible in the listeners' ears is irrelevant. Cocteau Twins occupy a certain legendary status in alternative rock history, in part because of the otherworldly beauty of their music, but also because of Fraser's reclusiveness. Perhaps it's for the best. If you tear the veil off something mysterious and unknowable it suddenly becomes earthbound and normal, and with the Cocteau Twins who wants that?

43. Mission of Burma - "That's When I Reach For My Revolver" (1981)

Boston-based Mission of Burma released their debut EP Signals, Calls and Marches in 1981 to significant critical acclaim. On "That's When I Reach For My Revolver", written and sung by bassist Clint Conley, the band harvests punk energy and molds it into whip-smart alternative rock that bristles with menace. It sounds so raw and loud the air around it practically quivers with electricity. Peter Prescott's drumming is brutal and incendiary. The title is paraphrased from a line by Nazi playwright Hanns Johst from his play Schlageter: "Whenever I hear of culture… I release the safety catch of my Browning!" The quote is often misattributed to Nazi military and political leader Hermann Wilhelm Göring.

Mission of Burma uses it in a bit of a different context. "Once I had my heroes / once I had my dreams / but all of that is changed now / the truth begins again / the truth is not that comfortable, no!" Conley is railing against the problems that life presents, which are in stark contrast to the idealism of youth. He sings, "The spirit fights to find its way" -- the daily struggle to cope with the constant barbs that the world can fling into our hearts. "That's When I Reach For My Revolver" is a biting indictment of the world around us, a near surrender to disillusionment.

42. The Cult - "She Sells Sanctuary" (1985)

Before they veered into a heavy blues-rock vibe on Electric, the Cult were more into deeply romanticized goth-flavored alternative rock on albums like Dreamtime and their triumphant 1985 release Love. With Ian Astbury's powerful voice and Billy Duffy's guitar prowess, the Cult possessed a talented core to work their emotional and melancholy alchemy. "She Sells Sanctuary", the first of three hits from Love, was a breakthrough for the band. It's a hard-charging rocker practically dripping with testosterone. It's very clear what kind of sanctuary Astbury is seeking to relieve the pressures of everyday existence.

Billy Duffy opens with stands of psychedelic guitar and plays a searing riff throughout the song, with an acoustic rhythm guitar providing the foundation along with Jamie Stewart's bass and Nigel Preston's drums (it was the last recording with the band for Preston, who was fired soon after). Astbury's voice is as potent as usual, his blood red and hot coursing through his veins as he contemplates the object of his lust: "The fire in your eyes / keeps me alive / i'm sure in her you'll find / the sanctuary!" "She Sells Sanctuary" hit #15 on the UK singles chart, the Cult's second highest placement behind 1987's "Lil' Devil" which reached #11.

41. Suzanne Vega - "Luka" (1987)

Suzanne Vega enjoyed a commercial breakthrough with "Luka", the first single from her acclaimed second album Solitude Standing. It was the surprise hit of the summer of '87, climbing all the way to #3 in August. "Luka" is told from the point of view of a young victim of physical abuse who relates his experiences with a stoic and quiet dignity. You can hear the wall of protection the child has built within himself in Vega's matter-of-fact recitation of lines like "Yes I think i'm OK / I walked into the door again / if you ask that's what I'll say / it's not your business anyway." Vega's crisp and precise vocal performance manages to capture the wrenching pain felt by the child, and the listener aches for him.

For a song so heartrending, the music is deceptively upbeat, especially the glorious finale which is filled with an overriding joy as if transmitting the hopes and promise of a young person ill-used by society and willing him to rise above the terrors of his upbringing, relying on his innate resilience. In the buoyant swell of guitars that spiral skyward you can almost imagine the day Luka will leave all this pain behind and become the master of his own destiny. Suzanne Vega is a songwriter of extraordinary grace and dexterity, and her performance on "Luka" is one for the ages. There's a reason this song touches so many people.

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