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.

90. Berlin – “Sex (I’m A…)” (1982)

“Sex (I’m A…)” is a seedy red-light district synthpop featuring a sexy vocal by Terri Nunn, with bandmate John Crawford adding the male counterpoint. Nunn chirps at one point, “I’m a virgin!” and at another, “I’m a slut.” The song’s extended fade-out is punctuated by Nunn’s steamy moans of passion to the point where it almost begins to sound like low-dollar amateur porn. It’s wonderfully sleazy like it should be playing at the world’s most squalid strip club. Most radio stations wouldn’t touch a track oozing with such brazen sexuality, but it sold well enough to crawl to #62 on the US pop chart.

Like many songs that emerged in its wake, “Sex (I’m A…)” owes a debt musically and thematically to Donna Summer’s seminal “I Feel Love”, produced by the great Giorgio Moroder. Speaking of Moroder, it’s hard to envision while listening to “Sex (I’m A…)” that barely three years later, Berlin would be riding high at #1 on the pop chart with the Giorgio Moroder-produced soundtrack ballad “Take My Breath Away”. It’s a far cry from their edgy debut album Pleasure Victim, which includes new wave essentials like “The Metro”, “Mannequin”, and “Sex (I’m A…)”.

89. Furniture – “Brilliant Mind” (1986)

“I’m at the stage where everything I thought meant something seems so unappealing.” Furniture’s “Brilliant Mind” is melancholy and pensive with a twist of self-deprecating bitterness. Jim Irvin’s doleful baritone hangs over shadowy synths and rumbling bass with the wounded tone of a man emotionally bruised and riddled with self-doubt. Much of the song simmers at a slow boil until the emotion spills over during the bridge with cascading drum rolls, squeals of saxophone, and Irvin’s voice crying out vehemently, “Shame / Shame on you / Shame!” The final verse and run-through of the chorus are particularly intense. A discordant sax wails as the song rings to its tortured climax. “Brilliant Mind” was a Top 30 hit in the UK from Furniture’s 1986 album The Wrong People. (A year later, a re-recorded version was included on the outstanding soundtrack to the John Hughes film Some Kind of Wonderful.)

Unfortunately, their label went broke shortly after The Wrong People was released, leaving the band in a lurch. Despite critical acclaim, The Wrong People remained out of print for years, and Furniture ground to a halt in 1990 after one album for Arista Records. Finally, in 2010, Cherry Red Records put out a deluxe reissue of what many consider to be a lost classic — if you haven’t discovered it yet, now is the time.

88. They Might Be Giants – “Ana Ng” (1988)

The duo of John Flansburgh and John Linnell, They Might Be Giants, first reached national consciousness with “Ana Ng”, from their second album Lincoln. Jolts of angular guitar, bass, and drum rattle insistently throughout, along with an autoharp that whisks sharply along with the beat. The song is a neat juxtaposition of precise math rock and sweetly charming nostalgia tinged with faint regret. It’s essentially a love message to someone who’s on the other side of the world.

The touch of human emotion bleeds through the cold edges of the oddly perfect music, which ratchets with machinelike precision. Linnell’s reedy, rapid-fire vocal is almost impossible to sing all the way through without gasping for air. The inspiration for the song’s name came when Linnell was perusing the New York City phonebook and was fascinated by the number of listings for the name Ng, which is a popular Cantonese surname. The video for “Ana Ng” received considerable airplay on MTV, and the single reached #11 on the Billboard Modern Rock chart in early December 1988.

87. Adam Ant – “Goody Two Shoes” (1982)

“Goody Two Shoes” is a lascivious big-band pastiche with massive drums, ferocious horns, and a sly vocal delivery by Adam Ant. The arrangement is genius, especially the manic acoustic guitar that bounces merrily atop the drums and the call-and-response horn riff between sax and trumpets. “You don’t drink, don’t smoke, what do you do?” leaving unsaid that, of course, we know what you do, don’t we? Ant is practically giddy at the prospect. His sexy self-confidence really makes the song work. There’s a sizzling brass solo about midway through and then a snarl of an electric guitar as the verses escalate up one half-step with each new line, broiling the excitement to a fever pitch.

It’s a breathless three-and-a-half minutes, ending with two quick guitar strums and a final kiss-off from the drums. “Goody Two Shoes” was Adam Ant’s first solo single from his album Friend or Foe and became by far his biggest crossover hit in the US. Unlike many of Ant’s earlier singles, which tend to be murkier and harder to penetrate, “Goody Two Shoes” is razor-sharp and fresh—it sounds like it could have been recorded yesterday.

86. Violent Femmes – “Blister in the Sun” (1983)

From the Wisconsin group’s self-titled debut album, “Blister in the Sun” is a simple stripped-down skiffle with just acoustic guitar, a snare drum swatted with brushes, a sometimes frenetic bass, and bits of violin. Songwriter Gordon Gano’s vocals are unrefined and as wonderfully unkempt as the music. It’s basically a twisted campfire singalong that seems to be about those timeless, youthful pursuits of getting wasted on heroin and preferring masturbation to any other human intimacy, but the lyrics are just enigmatic sketches of imagery, so it’s hard to know for sure.

“Blister in the Sun” blew up on college radio and is somewhat ubiquitous even though it was never officially released as a single. It’s also appeared in numerous films, including a new version recorded for Gross Point Blanke in 1997. The band actually broke up in 2009 after Gano licensed the song for use in a Wendy’s commercial, prompting a blistering public rebuke by bassist Brian Ritchie and the filing of a lawsuit. In recent years the trio has patched up their differences and can be heard touring the festival circuit, with “Blister in the Sun” still the audience favorite in their set.

85. Thomas Dolby – “Airwaves” (1982)

The Golden Age of Wireless is one of the smartest albums to come out of the new wave era. Synth-wizard Thomas Dolby cast himself as the mad musical scientist, with subject matter frequently touching upon technology and science — for example, “Airwaves”, “Windpower”, “One of Our Submarines”, “Cloudburst at Shingle Street”, and of course “She Blinded Me with Science”. The spacey, dramatic ballad “Airwaves” is particularly compelling. It’s notable for its exquisite harmony vocals, lovely piano, and synthesizers that rise and fall with the song’s intensity. The song has a retro vibe, with old-school radio effects whirring at the beginning and end of the song.

Thomas Dolby shared with us exactly how this effect was created: “I’m twiddling a knob on a MicroMoog. Overload the resonant filter; turn off the oscillators; use the cutoff frequency to control the pitch.” The video (which unfortunately features the single edit rather than the much superior full-length version) suggests Cold War-era intrigue with a hint of danger. Some may view Thomas Dolby as something of an ’80s novelty act or an irrelevant “one-hit wonder” since he’s best known for “She Blinded Me With Science,” but this couldn’t be farther from the truth. The Golden Age of Wireless is an essential album of the era, and “Airwaves” is its emotional centerpiece.

84. Fugazi – “Waiting Room” (1988)

Washington, DC’s hardcore legends Fugazi first released two EPs (1988’s Fugazi and 1989’s Margin Walker), which were compiled for their September 1989 release 13 Songs. “The Waiting Room” was initially the lead track for their self-titled 1988 EP and remains one of the band’s signature songs. The four-piece Fugazi, comprising Guy Picciotto, former Minor Threat frontman Ian MacKaye, Brendan Canty, and Joe Lally, produced a string of acclaimed and enormously influential albums through the ’90s while eschewing the major label machinery and insisting on remaining true to their DIY approach.

“The Waiting Room” is typical of early Fugazi. Written by MacKaye, the song is ragged and edgy, post-punk, raw, and viscerally exciting. It seems to be told from the point of view of a prisoner, watching those outside his cell go about their lives and waiting for the chance to continue his — although it can certainly be viewed in other contexts as well. “The Waiting Room” has a bit of a laid-back ska influence during the verses, and then it explodes with hard rock intensity during the chorus. At the 0:22 point during the chugging guitar introduction, the song stops entirely for four unexpected seconds of silence before heavy drum beats get it rolling again. “The Waiting Room” has been covered numerous times, including by TV on the Radio, Red Hot Chili Peppers, and Rancid.

83. The B-52’s – “Channel Z” (1989)

Since their groundbreaking early singles like “Rock Lobster” and “Planet Claire”, the B-52’s lost their way a bit in the ’80s. Their 1983 synthpop album Whammy! was charming, but the reaction from fans was lukewarm at best. Tragedy struck with the death of Cindy Wilson’s brother Ricky, and their album Bouncing off the Satellites (1986), released just after Wilson’s death, was haphazardly promoted. The band took a few much-needed years off and came back with the biggest album of their career: 1989’s Cosmic Thing. The Don Was-produced comeback gave the B-52’s their first taste of mainstream success with three major pop hits: “Love Shack”, “Roam”, and “The Deadbeat Club”.

“Channel Z” was another major single, hitting the top of the Billboard Modern Rock chart in August 1989. The funky dance rocker about negative information overload is high energy and hard groovin’. The B-52’s finally happened upon a formula that brought their wildly manic brand of alternative pop to a much larger audience. The mainstream success was fleeting, and they’d never again approach the level of Cosmic Thing, but the album went a long way toward cementing their already impressive legacy.

82. A Flock of Seagulls – “Wishing (If I Had a Photograph of You)” (1982)

A Flock of Seagulls are generally viewed as something of a novelty band because of their outlandish style and hair — they are often used as an example of the cheesier excesses of ’80s new wave. This view does them an injustice. They recorded a string of terrific singles, like their breakthrough hit “I Ran (So Far Away)”, which became a Top 10 hit in America, “Space Age Love Song”, “Transfer Affection”, “Nightmares”, and especially the first single from their second album Listen, “Wishing (If I Had a Photograph of You)”.

It’s a swirl of lush keyboards built into a lovelorn and wistful piece of melancholy beauty. Mike Score’s voice radiates longing and regret. The main melodic hook is in the thick waves of sinuously flowing synthesizer, with dense layers of guitar providing support. The atmospheric synths quiver until the very end, when it finally falls apart and stutters out without resolution — much like the sorrow of opportunities missed that forms the heart of the song. “Wishing (If I Had a Photograph of You)” spent two weeks at #26 in July 1983. It was the band’s final Top 40 hit.

81. Yaz – “Don’t Go” (1982)

Electronic mastermind Vince Clarke was part of Depeche Mode for their debut album Speak and Spell (1981), which includes the chirpy hit “Just Can’t Get Enough”. After leaving Depeche Mode, Clarke formed Yaz (known as Yazoo in the UK) with powerhouse soul belter Alison Moyet. The duo released two essential new wave collections, Upstairs at Eric’s (1982) and You and Me Both (1983). “Don’t Go” is the opening track to their debut and the quintessential Yaz single.

The bouncy synthpop nugget was a worldwide smash, hitting #3 in the UK. In America, Top 40 radio was inexplicably uninterested in the song, but college radio stations played it heavily, and club DJs sent “Don’t Go” to #1 on the Billboard Dance Chart (their second in a row, following “Situation”). After splitting with Moyet, Vince Clarke would go on to form his most successful collaboration with Andy Bell in Erasure, a long-running pop duo that is still going strong today. As for Alison Moyet, she has enjoyed a successful solo career — her most recent album is 2013’s stellar The Minutes.