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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.

25. The Pretenders – “Talk of the Town” (1980)

Although not as bold as the Pretenders‘ breakthrough single from their 1979 debut, “Brass in Pocket”, the lower-key “Talk of the Town” is every bit as cunning. Chrissie Hynde doesn’t get enough credit for her consistently stunning vocal performances. Her phrasing and tone on “Talk of the Town” are brilliant — she perfectly delivers the slightly detached wistfulness that the song requires. She sings about a one-time fascination with someone who is like a lodestone until he burns out and fades away. Hynde’s narrator follows the safer and surer path and never gives in to him. She has no regrets, but it’s clear she wonders what might have been.

“Talk of the Town” also contains one of the lines that symbolizes not only Chrissie Hynde and the Pretenders, but “alternative” music in general: “Oh, but it’s hard to live by their rules / I never could and still never do.” The simple truth. “Talk of the Town” was a standalone single in the UK where it reached #8 in 1980. It was later included on the band’s second album Pretenders II, released in August 1981, but did not follow “Brass in Pocket” into the U.S. Top 40. “Message of Love” was the bigger hit, reaching #5 on the Mainstream Rock chart.


24. Talk Talk – “It’s My Life” (1984)

Talk Talk sustained one of the more fascinating artistic progressions in rock history, from smartly crafted new wave to their dual post-rock masterworks Spirit of Eden and Laughing Stock. “It’s My Life” is their biggest hit and the most incisive song from their early new wave years. The title track and first single from their second album, “It’s My Life” was Talk Talk’s only Top 40 appearance in America, logging two weeks at #31 in May 1984. Fluttering bird noises decorate the opening which rests upon the foundation of an almost Latin rhythm by Lee Harris and a lyrical bass by Paul Webb. Producer Tim Friese-Greene provides the main keyboard riff which is melancholy and shimmery during the verses and turns sharply intense during the choruses.

Mark Hollis has a deeply resonant voice that’s a bit like an old-school crooner with an odd timbre, and he sings with blazing intensity. “It’s My Life” finds Hollis struggling to come to grips with how deeply he should commit to a relationship, knowing that anything less than complete committal is doomed to failure: “Funny how I find myself in love with you / if I could buy my reasoning I’d pay to lose / one half won’t do / I’ve asked myself / how much do you commit yourself.” He offers a bristling reminder (“Don’t you forget!”) to his lover (or himself) that her actions (and his decisions) impact his life deeply. Unlike some new wave, “It’s My Life” is so well-produced that it doesn’t sound cheesy and dated — it’s as compelling as ever.


23. Tears For Fears – “Mad World” (1982)

Tears for Fears, the British duo of Curt Smith and Roland Orzabal, are one of the most essential recording groups of the ’80s. They touched on new wave, rock, pop, and even jazz on their three highly distinct albums released during the decade (The Hurting, Songs from the Big Chair, and The Seeds of Love). Each is a classic and each couldn’t be more different than the other two. The Hurting is emotional and often agonizingly confessional new wave that’s ripped directly from the soul. The album’s key track is “Mad World”, a #3 smash in the UK (the band wouldn’t reach the U.S. Top 40 until their #1 single “Everybody Wants to Rule the World” three years later).

Curt Smith sings in his gleaming tenor about all the world’s craziness, his voice brimming with desperation as he contemplates his suicidal ideation, “And I find it kind of funny, I find it kind of sad / the dreams in which I’m dying are the best I’ve ever had.” The song explores isolation and disillusionment, especially amongst the young. Interlocking synthesizers and electronic rhythms sound almost like clockwork machinery, with swells of keyboard floating above. It’s an unremittingly bleak and pessimistic song, which tends to be the norm for early Tears for Fears. Singer Gary Jules resurrected “Mad World” in 2001 for the film Donnie Darko, sending his stark acoustic version to #1 in the UK.


22. Peter Gabriel – “Games Without Frontiers” (1980)

Peter Gabriel‘s string of brilliant solo albums from the late ’70s into the ’80s were far more in the “alternative” arena than his work with Genesis which is firmly in the realm of progressive rock. Gabriel is clearly influenced by Bowie’s Berlin Trilogy as well as krautrock bands like Neu!, Kraftwerk and Faust. “Games Without Frontiers” is the first single from his third album, commonly referred to as Melt after the ghoulish cover art which depicts his face dripping like wax. One of the great Cold War songs of the early ’80s, “Games Without Frontiers” is built around a sharp guitar riff over creepy overlapping keyboards and a tense electronic rhythm. Kate Bush guests on the song, repeatedly singing the title in French.

The song explores war as a game, with depersonalized soldiers like expendable toys on a battlefield, or statistics on a map. The song also illustrates the absurdity of war by imagining all the combatants as children who would, naturally, all rather play without prejudice if brought together as youths and left to their own devices. “Games Without Frontiers” uncovers the numbness of war and violence that can too easily lead to the unthinkable becoming acceptable. In America, “Games Without Frontiers” spent two weeks at #48 in September 1980, but it was a smash in the UK, reaching #4.


21. Pixies – “Monkey Gone to Heaven” (1989)

The Pixies‘ acclaimed EP Come on Pilgrim (1987) and their brilliant full-length debut Surfer Rosa landed the perversely original Boston group a deal with Elektra Records in time for 1989’s Doolittle, easily one of the decade’s greatest albums. The first single “Monkey Gone to Heaven” is a meditation on mankind’s ruinous environmental legacy. Musically it’s laid-back and channels a dreary, sardonic tone. Kim Deal’s prominent bass is the foundation, and a restrained string arrangement largely mirrors her playing.

In his turbulently cryptic lyrics, Black Francis tends to look at things sideways and from directions that others just don’t. In the first verse, he turns his acerbic pen to water pollution. The ozone layer occupies the second verse, and then he gets to global warming as he injects with withering scorn, “Everything is gonna burn, we’ll all take turns, I’ll get mine too.” Francis laconically calls on the guitarist to “Rock me, Joe”, and Santiago obliges with a jagged solo. In the feverish climax, Francis alludes to numerology, ominously half-whispering, “If man is five, if man is five… then the devil is six…” before savagely screaming “Then God is seven, then God is seven, then God is seven!”

Kim Deal’s calm and lovely recitation of the title during the chorus is a perfect foil for Black Francis’ vocal histrionics. “Monkey Gone to Heaven” was the band’s most prominent single in America, reaching #5 on the Modern Rock Chart in early June 1989.


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This article was originally published on 1 October 2015.

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