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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.

35. Public Image Ltd. – “Rise” (1986)

Johnny Lydon’s post Sex Pistols band Public Image Ltd. was a logical extension of his explosive work with punk’s most famous trail-blazers. From PiL’s 1986 release Album, the six-plus minute “Rise” is a spirited protest against South African apartheid. Lydon’s drawls “anger is an energy” repeatedly in his semi-deranged voice, exhorting the oppressed to harness that power and rise up against their persecutors. Then he wishes them the best of luck with a recitation based on an Irish benediction, “May the road rise with you.” The jittery track features the prodigious Steve Vai on lofty guitar lines that connect the loping beats like coils of anxiety.

Vai isn’t the only virtuoso musician that Lydon brought in for the recording: Swedish bassist Jonas Hellborg is known primarily for his work with jazz fusion master John McLaughlin, and drummer Tony Williams is a highly respected jazz percussionist who worked with Miles Davis. Epic in scope, brilliantly conceived and performed, “Rise” reached #11 in the UK and became popular on college radio in America. It’s a surprisingly accessible and melodic tune from an artist who’s spent much of his career making music that isn’t exactly easy to digest.

34. Romeo Void – “Never Say Never” (1981)

San Francisco-based Romeo Void recorded a distinct brand of post-punk/dance-rock with plenty of moxie. Although it wasn’t a Top 40 hit, “Never Say Never” is their signature tune. The great Debora Iyall delivers a wicked vocal performance, deadpanning the lyrics with vulnerability hidden under a tough veneer. “I might like you better if we slept together,” she sneers cavalierly throughout the song, as if the act of sex itself is no big deal at all. Musically “Never Say Never” is a ferocious machine, with ratcheting guitar, propulsive bass and wildly frenetic sax by Benjamin Bossi that forms the main instrumental hook between the verses, and sometimes explodes into free-form firestorms over the manic percussion.

The definitive six-minute version appears on the 1982 Never Say Never EP, stylized as “Nvr Say Nvr” on the cover art. The shorter single version is on the band’s excellent 1982 album Benefactor. Romeo Void’s only Top 40 hit came two years later, when the controversial “A Girl in Trouble (is a temporary thing)”, an arch reference to abortion, reached #35.

33. The Psychedelic Furs – “Pretty in Pink” (1981)

The Psychedelic Furs originally recorded “Pretty in Pink” for their 1981 album Talk Talk Talk. They re-recorded a more commercially viable version for the soundtrack to the 1986 John Hughes film which shares its name and with which it will forever be associated. The 1986 version almost became the band’s first Top 40 hit in America, peaking at #41 on 31 May 1986. “Pretty in Pink” has little to do thematically with the uplifting coming-of-age fable spun in the film. It’s actually a rather sad and pointed song about a young woman named Caroline who’s frankly a bit of a mess. She sleeps around to help with her low self-esteem and as a result, she thinks that she’s kinda riding high while her so-called friends are really just laughing behind her back.

Richard Butler’s raspy and strangely aristocratic vocals are dripping with irony and empathy when he sings, “Pretty in pink… isn’t she?” The original single is murkier and darker, and better fits the true vibe of the song than the sanitized version made five years later, thanks to Molly Ringwald (although it’s still a great track, and the soundtrack for Pretty in Pink as a whole is one of the decade’s best).

32. The Blue Nile – “Downtown Lights” (1989)

Scottish trio the Blue Nile released the dazzling “Downtown Lights” as the first single from their 1989 album Hats. “Downtown Lights” is solemn, graceful, and elegant, with Paul Buchanan’s alluring tenor resplendent throughout. The band should take pride in their own production work — it’s exquisite. The arrangement is languid and slow-building, with a lush bed of synthesizers and a pulsing rhythm. “Downtown Lights” moves with a slow burn until it gradually builds to a dramatic climax introduced by ringing guitars. Its soaring beauty is riddled with palpable loneliness and pain.

Buchanan’s voice becomes tense and profoundly emotional at the 5:24 mark: “The neon’s and the cigarettes / rented rooms and rented cars / the crowded streets, the empty bars”, he howls into the night, alone, bathed by the city streetlights. “Downtown Lights” stretches to six-and-a-half leisurely minutes but never overstays its welcome. In the UK, “Downtown Lights” reached #12, and in America, it landed at #10 on the Modern Rock chart.

31. Elvis Costello – “Veronica” (1989)

“Veronica” is one of the multiple songs that Elvis Costello co-wrote with Paul McCartney toward the end of the ’80s. Some appeared on McCartney’s Flowers in the Dirt, while others were on Costello’s Spike (including “Veronica”) and Mighty Like a Rose. “Veronica” became Costello’s biggest mainstream hit by far, reaching #19 on the Hot 100 in June 1989. It’s about an elderly lady suffering from dementia, inspired by Costello’s own grandmother. Parts of “Veronica” are sunny and upbeat, as much a celebration of life as it’s a portrait of a woman lost in her own mind. He portrays Veronica as suddenly having vivid flashes of memory amidst the fog, singing with wrenching emotion, “she spoke his name out loud again!” as a newspaper photo suddenly triggers the memory of an old love that lifts from the depths of her mind like a bubble rising to the surface of a pond and popping into the air. Costello’s deeply personal performance is rich with genuine emotion.

Veronica’s story deserves to be told, and Elvis Costello does so with grace and passion. We can only hope our stories will be told so well, sometime.