Stories sung with grace and compassion. We can only hope our stories will be told so well, sometime.
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 his 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.
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 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 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 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 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 a 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 a 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.
30. Bauhaus - "She's in Parties" (1983)
Vocalist Peter Murphy, guitarist Daniel Ash, drummer Kevin Haskins and bassist David J formed Bauhaus in 1978. Bauhaus were goth pioneers whose most famous single, "Bela Lugosi's Dead", was released in 1979. "She's in Parties" is one of the more accessible Bauhaus tracks, and points to both Peter Murphy's solo work and Daniel Ash, Kevin Haskins and David J's work as Love and Rockets. It was the primary single from Burning On The Inside, the band's final album before disbanding.
"She's in Parties" reached #26 in the UK, their second highest placement. As one would expect from Bauhaus, there's a thick layer of gloom infusing the song like smoke. Peter Murphy's highly stylized vocal sits atop some crafty musicianship. David J's bass is a propulsive force, and Daniel Ash's razor-wire guitar slashes brightly through the murk. "She's in Parties" references Marilyn Monroe's gilded image and private turmoil as a reflection of the personas that everyone adopts, that society is in fact built upon. Everywhere you go it's a different act. While "Bela Lugosi's Dead" would certainly have been chosen if it came out one year later, "She's in Parties" isn't a bad consolation prize.
29. Morrissey - "Everyday Is Like Sunday" (1988)"
Only Morrissey could open a single with the following joyless lines: "Trudging slowly over wet sand / back to the bench where your clothes were stolen / this is the coastal town / that they forgot to close down / Armageddon -- come Armageddon!" "Everyday Is Like Sunday", the second single from Morrissey's solo debut Viva Hate, is his version of a hymn. Naturally it's steeped in a morose world outlook; it's almost defiantly grim in the face of a sweeping melody, orchestral grandeur, and Morrissey's smooth crooning voice.
Morrissey makes his mordant observations with zero trace of irony. It's not just an act -- Morrissey is quite sincere in his regular repudiation of the world around him (and us), and he's not shy about pointing out its shortcomings (and ours, and his). One wonders how he finds the motivation to keep going. He still performs "Everyday Is Like Sunday" regularly before crowds that sing along and wave their arms in the air as if it was an ode to peace, love and togetherness instead of a lushly beautiful expression of fatalistic pessimism.
28. The Sugarcubes - "Birthday" (1988)
The breakthrough single for Icelandic legends the Sugarcubes, "Birthday" is frighteningly good -- it sounds like absolutely nothing else ever created. "Birthday" is strangely discordant, with a tumbling rhythm, strums of oddly-tuned guitar, wheezing trumpet, and Björk's mystical alien vocals. Her voice is a unique force of nature -- just listen to her sing, "She's painting huge books and glues them together / they saw a big raven / it glided down the sky / she touched it!" Absolutely incredible. There's an almost childlike simplicity in the evocative and pictorial lyrics.
Björk captures the sense of a five-year-old's wonder at the world, how children can find things endlessly fascinating and beautiful, as can grown-ups if they so choose. "Birthday" received immediate acclaim upon its release and helped create a massive buzz around the band. It's included on the Sugarcubes' debut album Life's Too Good, a strikingly brilliant collection of oddball pop that is superior to anything Björk has released as a solo artist (and she's put out some great ones). With Einar Örn playing the Fred Schneider role, the Sugarcubes sound like The B-52's if they were born in an ocean on one of Saturn's moons.
27. The Clash - "Rock the Casbah" (1982)
Since the Clash's most essential album, London Calling, was released at the very end of 1979 and was thus not eligible for consideration, we instead look to "Rock the Casbah", from their smash 1982 release Combat Rock. After a long slow climb up the Hot 100, "Rock the Casbah" spent four weeks at #8 in early 1983, becoming the band's only Top 40 hit in America. Drummer Topper Headon wrote and performed the rollicking piano section over his drums and bass, and Mick Jones added some jagged guitar to go along with Joe Strummer's searing vocal performance.
Strummer's inventive lyrics were inspired by an incident in which Iranian citizens were flogged after being caught with a disco album. He parlays that into a sardonic parable about a bumbling Sharif who hates disco and tries to ban it, only to be stymied not only by his own people, but even by his military. A striking video was filmed with caricatures of an Arab and Jewish man driving around in a Cadillac listening to a boombox while the band plays the song in front of an oil well (with an armadillo inexplicably wandering around the shot).
"Rock the Casbah" is arguably the most fully developed and richly produced single of the the Clash's career, and it perhaps points to the direction the band might have sounded if they'd continued to develop with their full lineup.
26. The Stone Roses - "She Bangs the Drums" (1989)
Manchester's Stone Roses helped popularize the so-called "Britpop" movement which dueled with "grunge" in the '90s for the title of most ubiquitously annoying and overused label in rock history. The Stone Roses' debut album was lavishly fawned over by critics, and is often considered one of the great debuts in rock history. There is no question that it was influential, as illustrated by the barrage of imitators that sprung up in its wake. "She Bangs the Drum" is winsomely melodic psychedelic rock with a glowing retro vibe. It sounds like someone beamed back to 1967 and snatched it from a jukebox. It's deliriously joyful.
Even the lyrics sound like they were written around the time of the Monkees: "Have you seen her, have you heard? / the way she plays, there are no words / to describe the way I feel." John Squire builds a wall of guitar, and he and drummer Reni harmonize with vocalist Ian Brown on the insanely catchy melody. John Leckie's production work is exceptionally good, as usual. "She Bangs the Drums" has one foot in the '60s and one foot in the '90s -- ironically enough, the one decade it doesn't really sound like is the '80s.
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 that a 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 imaging 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)
- PLAYLIST: The 100 Greatest Alternative Singles of the '80s ... ›
- The 100 Greatest Alternative Singles of the '80s: Part 1: 100 - 81 ... ›
- The 100 Greatest Alternative Singles of the '80s: Part 2: 80 - 61 ... ›
- The 100 Greatest Alternative Singles of the '80s: Part 3: 60 - 41 ... ›
- The 100 Greatest Alternative Singles of the '80s: Part 4: 40 - 21 ... ›