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.

70. Faith No More – “We Care a Lot” (1987)

Mike Patton is overall a much better frontman and vocalist for Faith No More, except on one song: “We Care a Lot”. Chuck Mosley spits the lyrics with acerbic scorn, with the repeated sardonic chant of “We care a lot!” over a heavy backbeat and Billy Gould’s rumbling bass. Some of the things Mosley derisively singles out include “starvation and the food that Live Aid bought” and “the smack and crack and whack that hits the streets’, skewering society’s short media-driven attention spans and our tendency to focus on band-aids that make us feel good rather than personally working for change. He also takes down our love for empty artifice — “We Care a Lot” enjoys the distinction of being the only song in this list with references to the Garbage Pail Kids and Transformers.

The song was originally recorded for the band’s 1985 album We Care a Lot, a San Francisco-area release with limited distribution. The more widely-known version, and a far superior recording, came on 1987’s Introduce Yourself. Faith No More would grow much tighter musically in the years to come, but the shambolic looseness of “We Care a Lot” fits its insolent vibe perfectly. It would have been impossible to envision that a mere five years later, Faith No More would score a Top 10 pop hit with their surprise smash “Epic”.

69. Tom Tom Club – “Genius of Love” (1981)

Tom Tom Club was an offshoot of Talking Heads that found success with their quirky single “Genius of Love”. Centered around the Heads’ rhythm section of Tina Weymouth and Chris Frantz and featuring frequent Talking Heads collaborator Adrian Belew on guitar, the infectious groove and dreamy, carefree joy that imbues “Genius of Love” makes it a classic. The second single from Tom Tom Club’s self-titled debut album, “Genius of Love”, was a massive success in the dance clubs. It hit #1 on the Billboard Dance Chart and #2 on the R&B chart. On the Hot 100, “Genius of Love” climbed to #31, where it spent two weeks during the spring of 1982.

The genial, colorful, laid-back groove would become a favorite source of hip-hop samples, with everyone from 50 Cent, Ice Cube, Erick Sermon, and Warren G incorporating it into their own work. Perhaps the most famous extrapolation came in Mariah Carey’s chart-topping 1995 single “Fantasy”. “Genius of Love” is part of the fabric of the early ’80s pop and dance scene. Tom Tom Club would never again approach the same heights of success, although they did have a major alternative hit later in the decade with “Suboceana” from their 1988 album Boom Boom Chi Boom Boom.

68. Big Country – “In a Big Country” (1983)

Scotland’s Big Country became a major creative force in the ’80s and well into the ’90s with a series of acclaimed albums, although in America they are best known for their exciting 1983 single “In a Big Country”. Its distinct bagpipe guitar effect, the song’s sonic signature, was achieved by running e-bowed guitars through a pitch transposer. The tight harmony vocals throughout the song give it a frantic sense of exuberance, a rush of rock and roll adrenaline that hasn’t subsided in the 32 years since its release.

“In a Big Country” received enough MTV and radio play for it to reach #17 on the Hot 100. It was the first single from their outstanding debut The Crossing, which also yielded the lesser hit “Fields of Fire”, and has achieved classic cult status among rock fans of the era. This story ends sadly, though. In December 2001, vocalist Stuart Adamson tragically hanged himself in his hotel room in Hawaii after many years of battling alcoholism. “I thought that pain and truth were things that really mattered, but you can’t stay here with every single hope you had shattered.”

67. Ministry – “Stigmata” (1988)

Ministry‘s classic “Stigmata” is a massive industrial wall of sound with chainsaw buzz guitars, distorted vocals, and deranged screams by Al Jourgensen. In case that isn’t enough to cauterize your brain, there’s also the earsplitting jackhammer electronic blast-beats. “Just like a car crash, just like a knife,” Jourgensen sneers. “My favorite weapon is the look in your eyes!” The whole thing sounds like a heavy equipment metal machine shop in one of Hell’s outer rings. “Stigmata” is the opening song and highlight of Ministry’s 1988 album The Land of Rape and Honey, generally considered the most influential of their career.

“Stigmata” is sonic overdrive, so intense that it should melt the speakers. The enigmatic lyrics are too darkly abstract to interpret with any degree of certainty; Jourgensen may be ranting against hypocrisy among leaders and in society, or about a particular individual, or possibly he’s looking at himself and raining bullets of self-loathing and disgust at his own skin. However one interprets the song, it’s a powerhouse of loathing and rage — you can feel the anger and disgust swirl up around the song like a dust storm. Al Jourgensen would continue as Ministry’s primary musical force well into the ’90s, while simultaneously struggling with a sometimes debilitating drug addiction.

66. House of Love – “Shine On” (1987)

House of Love‘s stunning debut single “Shine On” is a cinematic swirl of delicate beauty, with a thunderous rhythm and Terry Bickers’ darkly shimmering guitar. Everything is bathed in reverb, including Guy Chadwick’s dramatic lead vocals and the glistening harmonies by Andrea Heukamp (who left the band prior to their first album being recorded). There is a classical, almost elegant feel to “Shine On” — it rides the line close to melodrama, but it is so staggeringly powerful that it doesn’t feel pretentious. “Shine On” is distant and dreamlike, as if it’s leaking through layers of space or time or another dimension.

It’s what an indie pop band might sound like in a Nathaniel Hawthorne novel. The lyrics are as abstruse as the music, with lovelorn imagery that hints at emotional trauma through the haze of a feverish dream. It’s redolent of late summer evenings, bittersweet memories of youth and wrenching regret. A much crisper re-recorded version of “Shine On” was included on the House of Love’s 1990 self-titled second album and became a sizable hit in the UK, but it lacks the spooky, atmospheric magic of the original single version on Creation Records.

65. The Stranglers – “Golden Brown” (1981)

The Stranglers‘ “Golden Brown” is a shadowy carousel ride with multiple swirling keyboard parts, including a gilded harpsichord, that intertwines to create a diabolical musical facade. The song’s unique time signature gives it a sense of uneven circular motion, like a top that’s about to fall over on its side at any given moment. The nightmarish musical arrangement suits the bleak subject matter, as a river of barely-restrained desperation flows cooly just inches below the erudite neoclassical surface. Vocalist Hugh Cornwell recites the effects of a heroin rush in a flat, joyless effect. He’s detached and remote, sonically replicating the floating lassitude that a user experiences.

Cornwell also provides a brief but luminous guitar solo that offers a momentary respite from the haunted kaleidoscope created by keyboardist Dave Greenfield and drummer Jet Black. Released as a single from the Stranglers’ sixth album La Folie, “Golden Brown” became the band’s biggest-ever hit in the UK, reaching #2 despite its harrowing subject matter and unnerving atmosphere. It’s a brilliantly conceived studio creation that arguably stands as The Stranglers’ single greatest musical achievement.

64. The Go-Betweens – “Cattle and Cane” (1983)

The Go-Betweens were an Australian band built around singer/guitarists Robert Forster and the late Grant McLennan, who died tragically in 2006 of a heart attack at the young age of 48. “Cattle and Cane” explores the memories of McLennan’s childhood in Queensland. It has a warm and wistful vibe, like a summery dream. The main melodic hook in the vocal is echoed by a stuttering guitar pattern that repeats throughout the song, and the guitar solos are simple and stately. The unusual time signature adds to the song’s hypnotic mood. There is a quiet dignity to “Cattle and Cane”, like McLennan is divulging his most treasured memories.

Each verse captures another period of McLennan’s life, from his young boyhood to adolescence — “like everyone, just waiting for a chance” — and then his escape to “a bigger, brighter world / a world of books and silent times in thought.” Always, though, his reveries are pulled back to those childhood fields of cattle and cane. There is a gently somber nostalgia to “Cattle and Cane” that is touching. As a recording, it’s warm and resonant, uncluttered, and precise. “Cattle and Cane” is a gleaming gem, a mark left by one man upon the world so that the fields of his childhood are never forgotten.

63. Gang of Four – “I Love a Man in a Uniform” (1982)

Gang of Four are one of the preeminent post-punk bands to emerge from the UK in the late ’70s. Their lean, mean 1979 debut, Entertainment!, is an essential classic of its era. “I Love a Man in a Uniform”, the only single from the band’s third album, Songs of the Free, is an indolent strut with a wicked attitude and nerve to spare. It contains one of the great double entendres of all time, “The girls, they love to see you shoot!”, complete with the repeated sound of gunfire in sync with the spiky funk/rock groove.

“I Love a Man in a Uniform” savagely lampoons the would-be heroes who signed up for the British Army at the time of the Falklands War, rightly assuming there would be little chance of actual combat but eager to impress the ladies and each other, to escape their dreary daily lives, to boost their confidence and hopefully latch onto career opportunities. Vocalist Jon King’s straight-faced delivery of the song’s caustic sarcasm is perfect — he captures the cocksure swagger of a man eager to become a stereotype that exists only in films or recruitment videos.

The song’s sly, mockingly strident beat and the female backing vocalists belting out “I love a man in a uniform!” complete the satire with wit and brazen audacity. Brilliantly subversive, comical, but also sharply pointed, “I Love a Man in a Uniform” is one of Gang of Four’s greatest singles.

62. Liquid Liquid – “Cavern” (1983)

“No wave” pioneers Liquid Liquid, a four-piece group based in New York City, put out a handful of records in small batches at the beginning of the ’80s. None of their recordings made much of a notable impact at the time of their release, but original vinyl copies now fetch ridiculously high prices (although all of their music is now widely available on reissues and compilations). Particularly essential is their 1983 Optimo EP, originally released on the tiny independent 99 Records. Optimo includes the band’s most consequential piece, “Cavern”, a wonderfully surreal mix of funky bass, Afrobeat percussion, sharp whip cracks, bits of nonsensical vocals by Salvatore Principato, ambience, and atmosphere.

“Cavern” is more about a groove and a vibe than anything else, and that’s all it needs to be. It’s trippy headphone music of the highest order. The soul-shaking bass line was borrowed by the Sugar Hill band, who used it to form the backbone of Grandmaster Melle Mel’s early hip-hop classic “White Lines (Don’t Do It)”. “Cavern” and Liquid Liquid’s music, in general, slowly became popular with knowledgeable DJs and musicians over the years, leading the group to reform in 2008. Perhaps their grandest moment of vindication came in 2011 when LCD Soundsystem chose Liquid Liquid to open their marathon goodbye concert at Madison Square Garden.

61. Grace Jones – “Private Life” (1980)

There is simply no denying that Grace Jones is badass in every way. Her take on “Private Life”, a song originally written by Chrissie Hynde for The Pretenders‘ 1979 self-titled debut, is a prime example of her ultra-cool. Jones has recorded many covers over the course of her career, and when she takes charge of a song and injects it with her fiery personality, it no longer belongs to the original artist — it’s all Grace. She makes it seem like the song she’s covering was written specifically for her to perform.

Her version of “Private Life” has a reggae vibe with swells of keyboard, weird spikes of synthesizer, and pyretic bursts of guitar over the smooth, inexorable groove. Jones delivers the spoken-word verses in a throaty sexual cadence and then sings the chorus with soulful beauty. “Private Life” is included on her Warm Leatherette album, which was recorded in the Bahamas with famed Jamaican reggae duo Sly and Robbie on bass and drums. It was her first-ever pop hit in the UK, reaching #17 and raising her profile considerably as a musical artist demanding respect.