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.

80. Bob Mould – “See a Little Light” (1989)

After the disintegration of Hüsker Dü, Bob Mould retreated to rural Minnesota to plot his first solo album. The highly polished, largely acoustic Workbook was a radical departure from the raw and edgy rock he’d been known for in his prior band. His songwriting talents were maturing, and he delivered a strong collection of melodic, introspective acoustic rock. He drafted Pere Ubu rhythm section Anton Fier and Tony Maimone to play on the album. The first single was “See a Little Light”, an upbeat charmer that finds Mould exploring a melodic side to his writing that he’d only hinted at in Hüsker Dü. Despite the song’s sunny disposition, with a soaring chorus, jangly guitar, and the great Jane Scarpantoni providing a beautiful undertow of cello, the song finds Mould at the moment of realization that a relationship is doomed and a lover is going to leave.

Workbook was only the beginning for Mould. Over the 26 years since college radio embraced “See a Little Light”, Mould has released numerous solo albums, a pair of acclaimed power pop LPs in the ’90s with Sugar, and is now one of rock’s most respected elder statesmen. “See a Little Light” remains Mould’s most widely recognized tune, and in 2013, he enshrined it as the title of his biography, See a Little Light: The Trail of Rage and Melody.

79. Pale Saints – “Sight of You” (1989)

The Leeds, England-based indie-pop trio Pale Saints are best known for their majestic and darkly obsessive “Sight of You”, originally released in September 1989 on their EP Barging Into the Presence of God, and then re-recorded for their 1990 full-length debut The Comforts of Madness. Vocalist Ian Masters’ reverb-laden performance of the syrupy-sweet melody soars over deeply churning guitars. Masters’ dulcet voice is all the more chilling as he contemplates murdering a man who is evidently his former lover’s new boyfriend: “I think of him / I think of him soaked all in red / I wish him dead.”

The lyrics, almost nursery rhyme in their simplicity, give a peek into the mind of someone detached from empathy — throughout the song, he’s concerned only with his own thoughts and feelings. “Sight of You” builds to a menacing crescendo at the 5:00 mark and then falls apart listlessly with a haphazard drum part dueling with an elastic bass as it fades to silence, unresolved. Pale Saints eventually split in 1996 after failing to break through commercially, but they left behind a treasure of music that seems barely to have been discovered. It’s time for that to change.

78. Black Flag – “Rise Above” (1981)

California punk rockers Black Flag released their debut album Damaged in 1981 to little fanfare. Still, in the years since, it’s universally recognized as a landmark in American punk. Singer Henry Rollins had just joined the band, and he belted out the ragged tunes with raw and intense focus. “Rise Above”, the album’s opener and anarchist anthem, is blistering full-throttle hardcore. “We are tired of your abuse / try and stop us it’s no use… / We’re gonna rise above!!” is the shouted chorus, and when you hear it, there’s no doubt they believe it.

Like the rest of Damaged, “Rise Above” is non-stop — it barely lets you breathe. Greg Ginn and Dez Cadena’s dual guitars clash violently behind Rollins’ ranting, and Robo’s drums are fierce and unhinged. At the 1:26 point, there is a brief but piercing guitar solo that’s like a drill to the ear. “Rise Above” packs a sonic punch despite its murky production and mix. This isn’t music for audiophiles — “Rise Above” is nihilistic mosh pit fodder, two-and-a-half minutes of the real thing.

77. INXS – “Don’t Change” (1982)

Shabooh Shoobah is the album in which it all came together for INXS — it set the Australian band on the path to international stardom. Its two major singles are particularly noteworthy: the new wave rocker “The One Thing”, which became the band’s first American hit, and the electrifying “Don’t Change”. After an opening swell of keyboards that sound like the sun rising, there’s a few seconds of rattling guitar, and then the full band erupts ferociously. Drummer Jon Farriss plays with wild abandon, and Michael Hutchence has by this time turned into a first-rate rock ‘n’ roll frontman.

Although “Don’t Change” failed to follow “The One Thing” into the US Top 40, it’s indisputably one of the band’s most pivotal singles. It helped raise expectations for their next two albums, The Swing and Listen Like Thieves, both of which were substantial hits. “Don’t Change” is a young, energetic, fresh-faced version of INXS, which would become wiser and more jaded as the years went on. It’s a glorious affirmation of self — be proud of who you are, don’t let things you can’t control crush your spirit, and most definitely be loud.

76. The Sisters of Mercy – “This Corrosion” (1987)

Opening with eerie choral vocals, “This Corrosion” is a magnificent dark epic that melds industrial and goth into a massive wall-of-sound production that’s aggressive and danceable. The full-length version from the band’s second album, Floodland, is a punishing 11 minutes. “This Corrosion” is a tensely dramatic rocker with a hard-driving electronic beat, ornate vocal arrangements, and bursts of wailing guitar. The song only intensifies as it rips over your psyche like a tornado swirling slabs of crashing metal. Multi-instrumentalist Andrew Eldritch’s vocals are reminiscent of Peter Murphy in all his glowering beauty.

It’s easy to imagine a dark, dungeon-like club packed with a crowd all in black slamming into each other and spinning wildly to these heavy mechanized beats. When Eldritch growls lines like, “On days like this / in times like these / I feel an animal deep inside”, one is strongly reminded of a particular Nine Inch Nails juggernaut from the ’90s. “This Corrosion” hit #7 on the UK singles chart. Just imagine a song this extreme making the American Top 40, let alone the Top 10… unthinkable.

75. Love and Rockets – “So Alive” (1989)

Sometimes, from out of nowhere, a song will stun everyone, take off, and jet up the charts, and that’s what happened with Love and Rockets’ “So Alive”. It wasn’t even the first single from the band’s 1989 self-titled album (that honor went to the noise-rocker “Motorcycle”), but it clicked with a massive audience and steamrolled to #3 on the Hot 100. It’s easy to understand why — “So Alive” is indeed a great single. It’s slick and sexy, with a sensually swaying groove and a wonderfully salacious vocal by Daniel Ash. When Ash seductively coos lines like, “Don’t know what color your eyes are, baby, but your hair is long and brown / your legs are strong, and you’re so so long, and you don’t come from this town”, it’s about as far away from his old band Bauhaus as you can imagine. And that’s not a bad thing.

There’s room for powerfully dramatic rock and sweltering, sexy pop — Love and Rockets are capable of producing both. Alas, “So Alive” was the band’s only brush with mainstream success. Their follow-up single, “No Big Deal”, lived up to its name and limped to #82.

74. B Movie – “Nowhere Girl” (1982)

British group B Movie didn’t have much staying power, but they certainly turned out a killer single with their debut “Nowhere Girl”. It’s classic new wave with an urgent rock ‘n’ roll kick. “Nowhere Girl” has an ominous excitement about it as it should play during a late-night action sequence in a violent, mysterious thriller. It’s a tight performance and clever arrangement, with jaggedly echoing guitars and multiple intertwining keyboard parts that include the unforgettable main riff played on two distinct synths simultaneously and an ascending counter-melody. There’s even a brief acoustic guitar line near the end of the main instrumental section and piano vamping in the background to add to the song’s drive.

Lyrically, “Nowhere Girl” seems to be about a guy trying his best to get through to someone who doesn’t particularly want to be gotten through to, although since we only have his perspective, we don’t really know if he’s sincere and she’s in a bad situation, or if he’s a bit of an obsessive stalker. The jittery vibe of the song hints at the latter. B Movie recorded a far inferior version for their 1985 album Forever Running that doesn’t do the song justice. Seek out the 1982 original single mix — it’s new wave at its most immediate and impactful. A gem that should not be forgotten.

73. Tracy Chapman – “Talkin ‘Bout a Revolution” (1988)

The opening track from Tracy Chapman’s ground-breaking self-titled debut, “Talkin ‘Bout a Revolution”, is so timely it could have been written yesterday. As the follow-up single to the Top 10 hit “Fast Car”, “Talkin ‘Bout a Revolution” failed to match its predecessor’s mainstream success, peaking for two weeks at #75 in October 1988. Its legacy as the lead track on Chapman’s groundbreaking debut is much more significant than its chart position might signify. These lyrics could have easily been written today: “While they’re standing in the welfare lines / crying at the doorsteps of those armies of salvation/wasting time in the unemployment lines / sitting around waiting for a promotion”. As the country grapples with greater income inequality than at any other time in our history and nearly stagnant wage growth, Chapman’s song very much captures the pulse of modern society, even though it was written almost three decades ago.

Just like “Fast Car”, though, “Talkin ‘Bout a Revolution” is fiery, idealistic, and a fable. The tables aren’t “finally about to turn”. Twenty-seven years have passed, and poor people have yet to “rise up and take what’s theirs”. There will be no revolution in this police state; this oligarchy is ruled by massive corporations.

72. Nirvana – “Blew” (1989)

Although Nirvana are understandably more generally associated with the ’90s, the Seattle trio’s first album, Bleach, was released during the summer of 1989. It didn’t have much impact at the time, but in retrospect, Bleach can be considered the album that cracked open the door to the genre-defining Nevermind, which hit like a colossal sonic meteor only two years later. Bleach has a rawer vibe and finds the band still developing its sound and songwriting skills, but there are moments of greatness.

Particularly strong is the album’s torrid opener, “Blew”. Kurt Cobain’s ragged vocals follow along with his guitar, which then slithers into a brain-searing barbed-wire solo. It’s clear even from these early tracks that Cobain’s sense of drama and melody are both strongly developed. Still, this is Nirvana in its embryonic form. Teenage angst had yet to pay off well, and he’s not quite bored and old. Yes, it noticeably lacks Dave Grohl’s missile-strike rhythmic power, but that’s okay. The shambolic nature of the song is probably better for not having a sharper drummer. “Blew” is the best of early Nirvana, viscerally spiked garage rock that’s buzzing with energy and of things to come.

71. The Plimsouls – “A Million Miles Away” (1983)

The Plimsouls were a California band led by Peter Case, best known for their kinetic rocker “A Million Miles Away”, which has the energy of a tightly coiled fist. Originally released as a single in 1982, the song received significant attention the following year when it was featured prominently in the iconic film Valley Girl. A re-recorded version appeared on their outstanding 1983 release Everywhere at Once, but the album sold poorly, and the Plimsouls disbanded shortly thereafter. “A Million Miles Away” couldn’t quite make headway on the pop chart — it spent one week at #82 in early August 1983.

It should have been a bigger mainstream hit. It’s a fiery power-pop gem with an expansive sound, chiming guitars, and a soaring chorus. Lyrically, we don’t exactly know where our narrator is spaced out, but he’s definitely cut adrift emotionally from his current reality. Perhaps it’s a matter of stagnating while he watches the world and everybody in it pass him by. Suddenly he realizes there’s no place for him anymore, and what he thought he knew is now a mystery, and everything seems untethered. “A Million Miles Away” practically sparks with anxiety.