alternative songs
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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.

45. The Jam – “Town Called Malice” (1982)

The Jam are tight as nails on “Town Called Malice”, a soulful rocker built around Bruce Foxton’s thumping Motown-inspired bass, Rick Buckler’s explosive drum work, 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 hometown. 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 whipsmart 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.


< GO TO 80 – 61 | GO TO 40 – 21

This article was originally published on 30 September 2015.

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