alternative songs
Image by StockSnap from Pixabay

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.

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 drum work.

“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 She 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 1960s-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.

FROM THE POPMATTERS ARCHIVES
Call for essays, reviews, interviews, and list features for publication consideration with PopMatters.
Call for essays, reviews, interviews, and list features.
SUBMIT SUBMIT