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The 100 Best Alternative Singles of the 1980s: 40 – 21

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.

40. Peter Murphy – “Cuts You Up” (1989)

The last song chronologically eligible for this list is Peter Murphy‘s “Cuts You Up”. The single wasn’t released until early 1990, but its parent album Deep hit shelves on 19 December 1989, making it eligible for the list by 12 days. After Bauhaus fractured in 1983, Murphy began a solo career in which he’s unleashed nine albums up through last year’s masterful sonic powerhouse Lion. “Cuts You Up” helped drive Deep to become Murphy’s most successful album.

Like most of Murphy’s work, “Cuts You Up” is dark and fiercely intense. His rich and shadowy voice wrings every ounce of drama from the enigmatic lyrics, and the main instrumental hook is played by a stormy cello that gives the song a portentous gravitas. Murphy’s imagery is arresting as he sings in his oddly clipped and theatrical voice, “I find you in the morning / after dreams of distant signs / you pour yourself over me / like the sun through the blinds”. It’s not actually clear what is doing the cutting in “Cuts You Up”, but that ambiguity only adds to the song’s mysterious vibe.

“Cuts You Up” reached #55 on the pop chart, and #1 on the Modern Rock chart — by far Peter Murphy’s biggest single. Casual fans who only know this song need to check out the rest of his catalog, especially Lion which will hurl your speakers into overdrive.


39. Patti Smith – “People Have the Power” (1988)

Patti Smith‘s stature is such that she gives a populist anthem like “People Have the Power” an immediate air of authority. As the lead single from her first new album in nine years, Dream of Life, “People Have the Power” received substantial attention from rock and alternative radio, as well as MTV. Smith is clearly fully invested in the material, and her vocals are particularly powerful as she sings, “The power to dream, to rule, to wrestle the earth from fools / well it’s decreed the people rule!” Her shining optimism is genuine and stirring — she pulls you in with lyrics like, “I believe everything we dream can come to pass through our union / we can turn the world around / we can turn the earth’s revolution”. After hearing Smith’s exhortation to action, it’s hard not to feel pumped up and idealistic.

Of course, the glow quickly fades as reality sets in, and the ongoing nightmarish political circus we find in our midst intrudes itself like a hammer to any positivity. Twenty-seven years after Smith recorded her song, people still have the power, at least theoretically. Or has it all been a lie? Do people really have the power if we are unwilling, or unable, to use it?


38. Suicidal Tendencies – “Institutionalized” (1983)

Every generation has a teen-angst anthem that seems revolutionary. Believe it or not, they existed long before “Smells Like Teen Spirit”. In the early ’80s, this spirit was personified in the California-based hardcore band Suicidal Tendencies. “Institutionalized” is an amazing freakout. We get to peer inside the head of a teen who seems to be operating on an entirely different wavelength than his parents, who have absolutely no clue how to connect with him. Of course, we are only hearing one side of the story, but that doesn’t matter. If the parents want to write a song about raising nutso teens, they are free to do so (I just wouldn’t expect to see it on this list).

The raw power of “Institutionalized” is massive — it’s a delirious cathartic release of pent-up frustration, confusion, and rage. Bitterly acerbic and laced with dark humor, “Institutionalized” rings completely true. Despite the jokey video which does the song’s innate power a disservice, “Institutionalized” is as potent an expression of teenage disillusionment as has ever been recorded.


37. Nine Inch Nails – “Head Like a Hole” (1989)

Trent Reznor took the industrial and dark electronica that had been the terrain of bands like Front 242, Nitzer Ebb, Ministry, and Skinny Puppy for years and made it digestible for a mass audience with his piercingly direct screeds that were edgy enough but still accessible. Reznor is a wizard in the studio, and his songs are a sharp mix of blunt sonic force and experiments in textures and mood. His visually arresting videos and early support from MTV certainly helped. After his debut single “Down In It” set the stage, “Head Like a Hole”, the second single from Nine Inch Nails‘ classic debut Pretty Hate Machine, was his big breakthrough. With a wonky keyboard riff over an aggressively charged rhythm that explodes with brash guitar and Reznor’s intense vocals during the chorus, “Head Like a Hole” is industrial-strength electronic rock.

One wonders how Reznor feels about “God Money” now that he’s a multimillionaire with a long string of smash albums to his credit, and an Academy Award for good measure. Back when he was a 24-year-old musician full of rage, a screed about money was easy to digest. “I’d rather die than give you control!” — does he still feel this way? Given his determination to follow his own path and not chase the lure of easy commercial success, it seems the obvious answer is “yes”.


36. Japan – “Ghosts” (1981)

Japan’s “Ghosts”, from their 1981 album Tin Drum, occupies a singular place on this list — nothing else sounds remotely like it. David Sylvian’s mannered baritone with its odd vibrato is like ripples of dark water flooding around and between the ghostly swells of keyboard. The synths are suspended in space, not latched down by any percussion. The “ghosts” are frailties that chain us to the past — things we cannot escape. It’s an apt term because we can be haunted by memories that are intrinsically linked with who we are. These ghosts can drag us down if we let them: “Just when I think I’m winning / when I’ve broken every door / the ghosts in my life blow wilder than before”.

“Ghosts” is poetic lyrically and musically. There is a theatrical grandeur about it, an otherworldliness. The bare-bones arrangement was a brilliant and brave approach — it’s easy to imagine this song, with its strong melodic hook, in a more traditional pop approach, but thankfully Sylvian stuck with his vision. “Ghosts” reached #5 on the UK singles chart, but perhaps not surprisingly American radio programmers were completely oblivious to the song’s power.

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