The 100 Best Alternative Songs of the 1980s
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The 100 Best Alternative Songs of the 1980s

The best alternative songs of the 1980s span punk, post-punk, new wave, college rock, underground, goth, new romantic, ska, power pop, hardcore, and indie rock.

10. XTC – “Dear God” (1986)

“Dear God” started life as the b-side to the single “Grass”, from XTC‘s 1986 album Skylarking. “Dear God” became college radio’s preferred track, and the band quickly added it to subsequent pressings of Skylarking, reissued it as a single, and filmed a chilling video. The song is an incendiary indictment of the Christian deity featuring a tremendously powerful vocal performance by Andy Partridge over a striking acoustic guitar and string accompaniment.

As unremarkable as that seems now, years ago, it was daring and shocking in its way to suburban youth discovering alternative music and hearing something that pointedly challenges a belief system that has surrounded them since birth. It’s jarring and ultimately thought-provoking. Some of the best art tries to make sense of our circumstances and the world around us.

“Dear God” does, after all, posit legitimate questions. Why do the innocent suffer? Why are the weak killed by the strong, the rich allowed to pillage the poor? The world over, people die in misery and horror every day. Of course, the wrenching finale is an outburst of raw anger. Partridge, who had been sardonic, wry, and pointed during the first 3/4 of the song, repudiates God with a series of desperate accusations of neglect, beginning with the provocative, “I won’t believe in heaven or hell, no saints, no sinners, no devil as well, no pearly gates no thorny crown you’re always letting us humans down.”

This isn’t John Lennon’s luminous imagining of no religion. This is direct confrontation. It’s riveting drama, with Partridge’s strident vocal buffeted by jolts of strings. Then at the very climax, it falls back to the intro, with a young child speaking to God over a simple acoustic guitar. As to the song’s questions… No answers have as yet been forthcoming.

9. The Jesus and Mary Chain – “Just Like Honey” (1985)

The third single taken from Scottish band the Jesus and Mary Chain‘s landmark debut album, Psychocandy, is the stately “Just Like Honey”, a dusky romantic dream that unfolds under fuzzy swirls of feedback. It opens with the distinctive drum riff from the Ronettes 1963 single “Be My Baby”, and the track in general sounds like ’60s guitar-pop swallowed in an acid trip buffeted by gales of swaying distortion. Jim Reid’s vocals are smooth like the honey in his title as he ponders a one-sided, obsessive love that is too sweet to set aside just because of a little hurt and pain. There’s a certain innocence and naivety to his lovelorn lyrics like he’s in way over his head but is captive to his hopeless feelings.

The pace is leisurely and measured, the melody unfolding under the increasingly powerful layers of William Reid’s heavily reverbed guitars. Psychocandy is one of the great debut albums of the decade. Its influence is especially felt in the “shoegaze” sub-genre, which would include artists like My Bloody Valentine and Slowdive. “Just Like Honey” was memorably featured in a key scene in director Sofia Coppola’s 2002 film Lost in Translation, starring Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson.

8. The Cure – “A Forest” (1980)

The Cure‘s debut Three Imaginary Boys (1979) is a collection of melodic but slightly kooky power-pop. For their next album, Seventeen Seconds (1980), the band went in a much more austere and emotional direction, inspired by the icy ambient soundscapes of David Bowie’s Low. The first single is their epic achievement, “A Forest”.

Opening with a keyboard that sounds like a beam from an alien starship, a stately and simple guitar pattern emerges, followed by a rumbling bass and a taut rhythm. It’s a stark atmosphere of tension that builds for a full 1:47 before Robert Smith begins his echoey, dreamy vocal about a man haunted by the vision of an imaginary girl who is lost in a forest. Much in “A Forest” is left to the imagination. There is so much space in the recording, and every sound is so perfectly placed.

When “A Forest” is performed live, it becomes a behemoth often stretching well past its studio length, building to an immense climax with Smith restlessly calling out the song’s final vocal line “again and again and again and again and again…” with manic intensity, leading the band into a protracted full-throttle ending that slowly collapses one instrument at a time. First, the drums give out while the guitar squalls continue over the thumping bass. Then, finally, the guitar peters away, and only the solitary bass survives for ten more seconds.

“A Forest” is a powerful recording that emanates unease, isolation, and dark wonder. It became the Cure’s first Top 40 hit in the UK, reaching #31, and was the first proof that the Cure were more than just an awkward power-pop trio. “A Forest” laid the groundwork for all future Cure songs.

7. New Order – “Blue Monday” (1983)

Out of the ashes of Joy Division rose New Order, a band together even today. New Order’s first post-Joy Division material sounded like a natural extension of what they’d been doing previously — singles like “Temptation”, “Everything’s Gone Green”, “Ceremony” and their album Movement were not too far removed from their previous band’s work. But they soon moved into a more electronic pop direction while always retaining their experimental edge.

They released some classic ’80s singles throughout the decade, but the undisputed triumph of them all is “Blue Monday”, a seven-minute electronic dance recording that is almost as influential in its way as Donna Summer’s “I Feel Love”. It’s impossible to quantify the imitations that flooded the marketplace in the wake of “Blue Monday” and its mix of sullen emotion and dancefloor kinetics. Vocalist Bernard Sumner’s dour vocals are quite suitable for a “blue Monday” — he sounds like a wounded man, his voice wrenched with hurt, as he repeatedly asks his lover, “How does it feel to treat me like you do?” Electronic effects between the verses add sonic texture that jolts out of the speakers and grabs you.

The original 1983 single hit #9 in the UK and #5 on the US dance chart. A remixed version hit #3 in the UK and #68 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1988.

6. Echo and the Bunnymen – “The Killing Moon” (1984)

Some bands, even those with a strong overall catalog, have that one special song that obviously towers mightily above all their others. For Echo and the Bunnymen, it’s unquestionably “The Killing Moon”, an enchanted epic with cinematic sweep and gothic beauty. “The Killing Moon” is darkly romantic, with glistening cellos and a deeply resonant lead vocal by Ian McCulloch. Everybody in the band delivers their best.

The atmosphere is elegant and mysterious, with flourishes of electric guitar and keyboard over the bedrock foundation of sinewy strands of acoustic guitar, Les Pattison’s rumbling bass, and innovative brushwork by the late drummer Pete de Freitas. McCulloch’s highly stylized lyrics read like something Mina might have written in Bram Stoker’s Dracula: “In starlit nights I saw you / So cruelly you kissed me / Your lips a magic world, your sky all hung with jewels / The killing moon will come too soon.”

The song meanders for nearly six minutes, its long, evocative ending emblazoned with Will Sergeant’s sonorous guitar lines and McCulloch ad-libbing soaring variations of the main melodic hook, progressively further down in the mix of a musical arrangement that becomes more tempestuous as the song winds to its conclusion. “The Killing Moon” was released as the first single from the band’s fourth album Ocean Rain and was an immediate Top 10 hit in the UK. McCulloch himself has been effusive in his praise for the song over the years, calling it the best ever written. He might not be too far off.

5. David Bowie – “Ashes to Ashes” (1980)

Eleven years after “Space Oddity” ends enigmatically with its hero drifting silently out into space, Major Tom returns, and he’s far more damaged than when he left. David Bowie‘s “Ashes to Ashes” is a brutal shattering of illusions. Musically, it’s as otherworldly as its celestial subject matter, with multiple interlocking keyboard parts, all eerie and all with distinct sounds, the trippy syncopated rhythm, the popping bass that strums your very soul, the boomerang guitar riffs. The bits and pieces of sonic invention are perfectly balanced and react to one another.

Of course, it’s Bowie’s stunning vocal arrangement that brings the real haunted magic. The creepy nursery rhyme ending is like a mantra or a riddle that remains unresolved. “My mama said, ‘to get things done, you better not mess with Major Tom’.” Remember, kids, the Major Tom of your youth? The tragic hero astronaut who gets lost in space, his famous last words, “Tell my wife I love her very much,” the staunch patriotic role model that every dad wanted to be? Well, surprise, he’s back! Very much not dead, and oh yeah, he’s an addict. It’s a parallel that has happened millions of times the world over as we grow up and learn. Things are not always as simple as they seem when you’re a child. It need not be anything as lurid as drug addiction, although that is certainly often true. It could be any siren that derails us.

And what’s so wrenching about “Ashes to Ashes” is the bridge, the heaving desperation that Bowie imparts in Major Tom’s voice: “I never done good things! I never done bad things! I never did anything out of the blue. Want an axe to pick the ice! Want to come down right now.” But then, Bowie has been skewering “heroes” his whole career; it’s perfectly understandable that he’d tear down one of those he raised himself. The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation, it is indeed true — and in “Ashes to Ashes” Bowie dares to say the simple truth, which is that we are all only human.

4. Talking Heads – “Once in a Lifetime” (1980)

Despite its status as one of the decade’s most enduring singles, “Once in a Lifetime” didn’t exactly burn up the charts. As the lead single from Talking Heads‘ landmark 1980 album Remain in Light, “Once in a Lifetime” reached #14 in the UK and failed to make the Billboard Hot 100 until a live version from the Stop Making Sense album hit #91 in 1985. As with many songs on this list, the chart positions don’t tell the story.

“Once in a Lifetime” is certainly one of the most important singles of the new wave era, and its parent album, Remain in Light, is an absolutely essential part of any ’80s music collection. David Byrne’s spastic movements and the imagery in the video are as iconic as the song itself. It’s part of the fabric of an entire era, the start of the information age, the dawn of MTV, and pop culture overload. Its message was perfectly timed. The circular groove could be the years passing by, one after another, like an hour on a clock that gets smaller with each rotation of its hand. It may cause you to pause and examine yourself. How did I get here? Where am I, exactly? It may cause moments of sudden clarity. We may contemplate the choices we’ve made and the consequences. Roads taken and untaken. How the massive spider web of actions and reactions and ripples of pure chance have conspired to put us somehow right where we are at this very moment. And we may think of the eternal, the “water flowing underground… same as it ever was.”

The music is joyous, though, not fatalistic or grim. Who cares how I got here? The fact is I am here. It’s not about the quickly passing years or the mistakes and regrets that we live with. It’s about the now, living the life you deserve in the situation you are in. “Once in a Lifetime” happens every moment, and those moments are ours to seize.

3. Kate Bush – “Running Up That Hill” (1985)

“A Deal With God” became “Running Up That Hill” because record company executives were spooked by the prospect of the word “God” in the title of Kate Bush‘s first major single in three years — they were afraid some religious countries, the US included, would shun it. Possibly, they were correct, but it’s not because the song has anything to do with God. God is a minor character in this drama.

“Running Up That Hill” is the timeless relationship dance of men and women (or any combination of the sexes, for that matter) misunderstanding each other. Sensual and warm as a heartbeat with insistent tribal drums, waves of the fairlight synth, and an intricate and richly layered vocal arrangement, “Running Up That Hill” is a pure marvel as a recording. It’s so tense you can feel the anguish flow out of the speakers like waves of heat. Bush’s voice is passionate and inflamed, at times unhinged.

Very few artists know how to layer numerous vocal parts to such astonishing effect as Kate Bush, who never shies away from theatricality if needed. Turn off the lights, put on your best headphones, hit play, and just focus your concentration on all the vocal parts happening across the sound spectrum — it’s nothing short of stunning. There is passion in this couple, that is certain, but with the passion comes the power to wound.

“Running Up That Hill” is about trying to see things from the other’s perspective, the real impossibility of understanding exactly how someone is feeling no matter how close you may be, no matter how many sparks of electricity unite you. It’s an ongoing battle with no resolution, and it’s never been explored with such radiant grace as by Kate Bush on “Running Up That Hill”.

As the lead single from her classic Hounds of Love, “Running Up That Hill” became Kate Bush’s only Top 40 hit in America, reaching #30 in November 1985. In the UK, it topped out at #3, her biggest hit there since her chart-topping debut single “Wuthering Heights” seven years earlier. A partially re-recorded 2012 mix was issued in celebration of the Olympic Games in London, and “Running Up That Hill” became a hit yet again.

2. The Smiths – “How Soon Is Now” (1984)

With an expression of loneliness and disillusionment that straddles the line between maudlin self-pity and soul-wrenching melancholy, the Smiths‘ “How Soon Is Now” spoke to a generation trying in some way to connect and find their place in the mystifying and often cruel world they inhabit. That line “I am human, and I need to be loved just like everybody else does” practically defines an entire subgenre of music, derided as whiny mope-rock by detractors but revered by those who relate to its message.

Morrissey’s milky and strangely fey voice paints dejection with a timorous vulnerability that sometimes sparks defiance. It’s easy to relate to the painful recitation of social rejection: “There’s a club if you’d like to go / you could meet somebody who really loves you / so you go, and you stand on your own, and you leave on your own / and you go home, and you cry, and you want to die.” Morrissey understands the intense pain of rejection and loneliness. These are not ephemeral feelings — they can wear down the soul.

Morrissey’s empathetic anthem for the disillusioned is surrounded by a glorious musical soundtrack. “How Soon is Now” features Johnny Marr’s famous tremolo guitar work, which is the centerpiece of the long, beautifully cinematic instrumental section in the song’s middle. Marr and producer John Porter create a distinct musical vibe that certainly doesn’t sound like any other Smiths tune. “How Soon Is Now” was originally released as the b-side to the single “William, It Was Really Nothing”.

The band added it to their compilation album Hatful of Hollow, and it was appended to the U.S. version of Meat Is Murder. It was finally released as a single in its own right in 1985 and reached #24 in the UK. Over the years appreciation for “How Soon is Now” has grown, and it’s become synonymous with alternative rock in the ’80s. It’s one of those singles that no longer belong to those who created it. It’s an anthem for the misunderstood, to put it simply, the different, or as might be appropriate here, the alternative.

1. Joy Division – “Love Will Tear Us Apart” (1980)

There could only be one choice — Joy Division‘s “Love Will Tear Us Apart” was recorded at the very dawn of the ’80s, just weeks into the decade, and it set a standard impossible to match. Joy Division has always sounded a galaxy apart. Their influence on music, in general, is incalculable, particularly in the “alternative” universe. If someone writes that a particular band sounds like Joy Division, everyone knows exactly what this entails, but it’s far more than just about the clones with spiky guitars and sullen vocalists (and there have been many).

The visceral, wrenching emotion, bottled so tightly in the form of Ian Curtis, was influential in itself, in the level of passion and intensity. His mannerisms, his doleful voice, the unremittingly bleak and isolated tone of his lyrics… Joy Division was never about pop melody until “Love Will Tear Us Apart”. Although it’s an acerbic riposte to the chirpy “Love Will Keep Us Together”, Curtis and his bandmates nonetheless wrote what can pretty accurately be considered Joy Division’s version of a pop single. Of course, we’re still a long way from AM radio territory.

The visceral, wrenching emotion, bottled so tightly in the form of Ian Curtis, was influential in itself, in the level of passion and intensity. His mannerisms, his doleful voice, the unremittingly bleak and isolated tone of his lyrics… Joy Division was never about pop melody until “Love Will Tear Us Apart”. Although it’s an acerbic riposte to the chirpy “Love Will Keep Us Together”, Curtis and his bandmates nonetheless wrote what can pretty accurately be considered Joy Division’s version of a pop single. Of course, we’re still a long way from AM radio territory.

The song still sounds channeled from another dimension, wherever it is that Ian Curtis resides. Curtis details the disintegration of a relationship in his oddly detached croon, asking, “Why is the bedroom so cold? / You’ve turned away on your side, is my timing that flawed?” as if out of idle curiosity. Icy synths echo the main melodic hook over a clattering bass by Peter Hook and Bernard Sumner’s guitar (which reinforces the main melody). Stephen Morris’ furious drum work is the foundation that holds everything together.

Joy Division’s only chart single in the UK, “Love Will Tear Us Apart”, reached #13 in June 1980, a month after Ian Curtis hanged himself while listening to Iggy Pop’s The Idiot. Curtis slammed the door shut on what might have been. Joy Division’s music would be compelling whether Curtis died or not, although there is no question that his death has given the band a sort of mythic quality. It’s almost sacrilege even to consider anything Joy Division ever issued as less than divine brilliance, especially because of the paucity of material. But the reality is that Curtis’ suicide only rendered the music more potent.

The songs are so personal and piercingly intense that you can’t really disconnect the man from his work. Through Joy Division’s catalog, we’re privy to the deepest struggles of a man so disturbed he found it unbearable to live and committed the ultimate act of self-destruction. All that struggle is set to music, and we know how the story ends. It’s the soul scraped bare, music at its most elemental and primal.

This article originally ran on 28 September 2015.