Hope Despite the Times: 12 Essential Alternative Rock Albums from the 1980s

For those interested in acquainting themselves with alternative rock's rich and diverse early years, Sound Affects has assembled this '80s alt-rock primer.

In 2014, alternative rock is a standard fixture of the musical landscape. This is an era where Coldplay regularly placing near the top of the pop charts, Foo Fighters and Red Hot Chili Peppers filling stadiums, Radiohead and Arcade Fire racking up Grammy Award nominations, and Nirvana essentially being begged to be honored by the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame are normal, even expected, occurrences. One not even need look beyond PopMatters itself for confirmation, for like any other current critical publication online or off-, a sizable percentage of new rock releases reviewed will originate from the alternative/indie spectrum due to sheer volume and the ubiquity of the style.

It wasn’t always this way. Before the Grammy Awards and the guaranteed sales base and the tastemaking websites, alternative rock was a loosely-arranged, amorphous genre/movement that existed on the sidelines of music, and indeed, mainstream culture. Rather than get into a history lesson that once again states how Nirvana Changed Everything Forever, instead we’d like to emphasize what it was like when alternative rock first emerged in the 1980s out of the ashes of punk and post-punk. Some ‘80s alternative artists surely would have liked to get rich and conquer radio, even if it would have been a faux pas to express that desire so brazenly. Others found such desires anathema to their entire ethical system, while others never even considered anything like that was possible; for them the height of their ambitions might have been putting out a single on a local indie label and playing a few gigs. As much as it was ignored by the masses, the ‘80s alternative rock milieu largely afford artists the freedom to develop unconcerned with the expectations placed on better-known acts.

The wide range of hopes and ambitions harbored by 1980s alternative rockers means that deciding to explore releases from that time involves being faced with an immense body of output with a wildly inconsistent level of quality. For every group or artist from the era seemingly blessed with a faultless spate of classic LPs, many more only made one great album, or one or two decent songs. Even with the more consistent artists, it can be difficult to know what record to start with. That’s not even considering which material is important from a historical or musical evolutionary standpoint -- and in those cases, it can be a bummer to discover that a record critics lauded for changing music back then may be revealed to be no great shakes 25-30 years on.

Sound Affects has eagerly embraced the challenge of determining the most essential albums from alternative’s formative decade in order to piece together a practical, 12-record entry-level guide to the era. This list is drawn from a cross-section of popular favorites, critically revered cult touchstones, subgenre representatives, and handy introductions to seminal artists. Arranged chronologically and hewing to an egalitarian one-LP-per-artist mandate, listeners can get a sense of how the genre evolved after R.E.M. inaugurated it in the early '80s, from its origins involving like-minded visionaries from far-flung locales applying the lessons learned from the punk and post-punk revolutions to their rediscovery of rock’s history, to its gradual coalescence into a more definable (yet still varied and diverse) style as the decade wore on.

Alternative rock bands today owe their heritage to at least one act on this list, be it R.E.M.’s ringing arpeggios and cryptic vocals, or the Jesus and Mary Chain’s nonchalant, cooler-than-school blending of feedback and melodies, or the simple genius of the Pixies’ quirky guitar leads, unwavering eighth-note basslines, and loud/quiet/loud song structures. If your sense of alt-rock history goes back no earlier than Nirvana or Radiohead, this is your introduction to a time when it really was an alternative -- to major label dominance, to narrow-minded radio and music television programming, to glossy, vapid pop and sexist dinosaur rock, and to a conservative political climate that tried its damnedest to turn the clock back on a world that was irrevocably changing. Three decades later, alternative rock is victorious, and though there have been those who have outshone their forefathers in the intervening years, these records are proof that the best ‘80s alt-rock is more than a historical curiosity.

Violent Femmes
Violent Femmes (1983)

Violent Femmes’ debut was a wonderfully fresh oddity when it first came out. Too uptight and acoustic to be punk, too scruffy to be New Wave, and too nervy and puerile to be plain old pop -- its inability to fit in any of the period’s cleanly-marked musical categories was rendered irrelevant by its unabashed catchiness and its relatable adolescent anxiety. The record’s misfit nature is also an integral part of its appeal: the group’s tumbling acoustic timbres and Gordon Gano’s nervous braying wear teenage awkwardness simultaneously as an affliction and a badge. Though the three-piece’s genealogical footprint isn’t as large as that of others on this list (there has never been a rash of Violent Femmes copyists), the popularity of its definitive album has proved quite sturdy in comparison. Violent Femmes is one of the rare ‘80s alternative albums that has racked up sales of over a million copies, and the pop culture ubiquity of its trademark track “Blister in the Sun” is such that history has almost forgotten that the song never troubled the charts. As unlikely an enduring artifact it may appear to be on the surface, Violent Femmes has been well worth remembering. -- AJ Ramirez

Recommended tracks: “Blister in the Sun”, “Kiss Off”, “Add It Up”, “Gone Daddy Gone”

The Smiths
The Smiths (1984)

The emergence of the Smiths signaled the start of a new era in British music. Their callbacks to pre-psychedelic guitar pop and their disdain of synthesizers and modern studio trickery set them apart from the still-thriving post-punk movement, even as they swam in the same independent label waters. The group’s pronounced ordinariness, literate lyrics, and thoroughly un-macho stance were potent symbols that a generation of maligned youth could rally around. Yet the Smiths wouldn’t be held in such reverence today if the music wasn’t up to snuff. Their first album was the culmination of the introductory chapter of their brief career, one where the Mancunian quartet’s cult had already been cemented by three previously-issued singles, all of which are included on modern pressings of the LP. Alienation, mistreatment, rejection, and longing: the themes that would reoccur throughout singer Morrissey’s career are fully accounted for on The Smiths, where they are rendered all the more piercing by Johnny Marr’s delicate guitar-picking and John Porter’s stark production. While the Smiths only improved from here, this is one instance where jumping in at the beginning is the advisable way to delve into an act’s catalog. -- AJ Ramirez

Recommended tracks: “Miserable Lie”, “Pretty Girls Make Graves”, “This Charming Man”, “Hand in Glove”

Cocteau Twins
Treasure (1984)

Despite having already released two LPs and four EPs, it was when Scottish band Cocteau Twins released Treasure in 1984 that they hit their stride. Not only did they solidify their lineup, trading Will Heggie for Simon Raymonde on bass, but they also cemented their signature sound -- a combination of Elizabeth Fraser's ethereal vocals and Robin Guthrie's wistful, yet powerful, guitar.

Each song on the album is seemingly named for a person, beginning with “Ivo“, written for Ivo Russell-Watts, the founder of 4AD Records and the band's label for eight years. The names go all the way down the roster to “Domino“, which ends the album with a sampling of all the Cocteaus’ musical magic tricks. In between, each track makes brilliant use of Fraser's soprano and baritone vocals. Even her whispers, which are scattered over Guthrie's lulling guitar on “Otterley“, are spellbinding. Fraser's ability to deliver her nonsensical lyrics with the diaphanous touch of a moth or with the muscle of a ravenous lion is astonishing. Meanwhile, Guthrie (who could easily outplay anyone in a “proper“ rock or metal band) couples his fierce solos with echoing mellifluous chords that complement Fraser's voice. Standing the test of time and paving the way for bands like Sigur Rós and Beach House, Treasure is an aptly titled album. -- Jennifer Makowsky

Recommended tracks: “Lorelei”, “Pandora (for Cindy)”, “Domino”

Hüsker Dü
New Day Rising (1985)

A band cruelly too ahead of its time to gain the notice it deserved back in the ’80s, this Twin Cities trio is superseded possibly only by R.E.M. and the Smiths when it comes to measuring the influence of alternative rock’s early pioneers. Unlike R.E.M. and the Smiths, who counted punk as a reference point but were not stylistically wedded to it, Hüsker Dü specialized in blazing fast, ferociously-barked harder-than-hardcore fare on its initial recordings. By 1984’s double disc Zen Arcade, the Dü was kicking violently against hardcore’s limited sonic palette, and certain slower, more tuneful -- yet no less intense -- songs like “Chartered Trips” and “Pink Turns to Blue” were tantalizing peeks into the future of rock ‘n’ roll.

Released mere months after Zen Arcade, the astonishing New Day Rising was Hüsker Dü’s first full-blown alterna-rock record. It’s an album that captures a thoroughly road-tested band in its prime, one invigorated by its discovery of how to balance melody, noise, passion, and power without diminishing any of those aspects. The Pixies, Dinosaur Jr., Nirvana, Foo Fighters, and countless others -- their immediate ancestry begins here. On New Day Rising the tunes buzz and sing in equal measure, and the songwriting rivalry between guitarist/singer Bob Mould and drummer/singer Grant Hart challenged both men to try to constantly out-do one another, leading to a tracklist that hardly disappoints. Had this LP been released a decade later and been shepherded by a more flattering producer, it wouldn’t be hard to imagine “Celebrated Summer”, “Books About UFOs”, or “I Don’t Know What You’re Talking About” being embraced by alternative radio playlists. Hüsker Dü was so creatively blessed in the mid-‘80s that it issued another incredible LP, Flip Your Wig, before 1985 was even finished! -- AJ Ramirez

Recommended tracks: “The Girl Who Lives on Heaven Hill”, “I Apologize”, “Celebrated Summer”, “Terms of Psychic Warfare”

The Cure
The Head on the Door (1985)

In 1985, The Head on the Door was a turning point in the Cure's by-then nine-year-old career. After recording one of its darkest albums, The Top, in 1984, the English band restructured its lineup to include new drummer Boris Williams, and reintroduced former band members Porl Thompson on guitar and Simon Gallup on bass. The album melded the group's previous gloom-and-doom aesthetics with its penchant for synth tunes to create a cohesive and celebrated album.

The singles “In Between Days“ and “Close to Me“ and their accompanying whimsical videos opened the band up to a wider audience. By diversifying its sound on the album, the Cure proved it was more than a “goth“ or “New Wave“ outfit. Case in point: “The Blood“ is infused with flamenco flavor, while Robert Smith's fascination with all things Japanese made its mark on “Kyoto Song“. Additionally, “The Baby Screams“ is a funk-inspired piece driven by Gallop's pulsing bassline. No Cure album would be complete without a love song -- in this case, a ballad, featuring Smith as a heroic suitor in “A Night Like This“. But The Head on the Door isn't all inventive pop numbers and love tunes. The record closes with “Sinking“ -- one of the band's most hypnotic and darkest tracks, and also a foreshadowing of the songs that would later be found on Disintegration (1989). The Head on the Door is an outstanding example of Smith's ability to use pop music as a means to express angst while applying just a hint of the polish, a trait that would coat the band's future recordings. -- Jennifer Makowsky

Recommended tracks: “Push”, “The Blood “, “Sinking”

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