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.

60. The Human League – “Love Action (I Believe in Love)” (1981)

British new wave pioneers, the Human League, formed in Sheffield in the late ’70s. Their early recordings were raw and primitive, using basic synthesizers and not much melody. That changed as the group’s membership expanded in 1980 with the additions of Joanne Catherall and Susan Ann Sulley. Their 1981 album Dare is one of the cornerstones of new wave. In addition to singles “Open Your Heart”, “The Sound of the Crowd”, and their American chart-topper “Don’t You Want Me”, the album includes the electro-pop nugget “Love Action (I Believe in Love)”. It’s one of the band’s finest singles, with glistening synthesizers, Philip Oakey’s wonderfully odd baritone vocals, and a jaunty electronic rhythm. In Britain, “Love Action” was the band’s breakthrough single, reaching #33 and leading the way for bigger hits to follow.

In America, it was the follow-up to the iconic smash “Don’t You Want Me”, but it was too weird to attract mainstream success. There’s something endearing about the band’s failure to follow pop convention in “Love Action”. The awkwardness of lines like “I believe, I believe what the old man said / though I know that there’s no lord above / I believe in me, I believe in you, and you know I believe in love”, is kinda stilted ear-candy, the guileless creation of a lonely young man in his basement writing love songs on his computer.

59. The Chameleons – “Up the Down Escalator” (1983)

Manchester band the Chameleons‘ debut Script of the Bridge is one of the great unheralded post-punk albums of the ’80s. It’s strong from start to finish, but they really nailed it with the first single “Up the Down Escalator”. It’s a galloping rocker with a massive wall of guitars by Dave Fielding and Reg Smithies over John Lever’s rousing drum work. Frontman Mark Burgess delivers an impressive vocal performance, conveying all the restless urgency and simmering unease exhibited by the song’s title (never mentioned in the lyrics), and the boldly repeated chorus, “Oh, must be something wrong boys / Yeah, there must be something wrong, boys”.

If the world needed another song about society generally going down the tubes, at least the Chameleons made it a great one. “Up the Down Escalator” is powerfully direct rock ‘n’ roll, in your face, aggressive, and confident. At its conclusion, the song grinds slowly to a halt like a boulder finally coming to rest at the bottom of the rocky hillside… Again, we have a song whose lyrics and general sentiment are every bit as relevant now as when it was released.

58. Eurythmics – “Beethoven (I Love to Listen To)” (1987)

Dave Stewart and Annie Lennox rose to prominence with their heavily synth-layered hits like “Love Is a Stranger”, “Here Comes the Rain Again”, and the #1 classic “Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)”. They branched out for a more pop/rock sound on their albums Be Yourself Tonight and Revenge, and both were hugely successful.

For their darkly obsessive 1987 album Savage, an underrated triumph that was met with some bewilderment at the time of its release, Eurythmics retreated back to their electronic roots. It seems to be more highly regarded these days — perhaps a few decades were needed for some folks to appreciate its glorious weirdness. Particularly fascinating is the opening track and mood setter, “Beethoven (I Love to Listen To)”. It’s hard to listen to it and not think of the stunning video in which Annie Lennox portrays a fractured woman literally coming to pieces. With its long percussive opening and enigmatic spoken-word verses, “Beethoven” is dramatic, daring, and defiantly eccentric. It’s Annie Lennox at her best, veering between icy cool and tensely theatrical, and Dave Stewart’s genius as a musician, songwriter, and producer is on full display.

57. The Waterboys – “The Whole of the Moon” (1985)

Mike Scott of the Waterboys is one of the great lyricists in rock, and “The Whole of the Moon” is arguably his signature song. Scott’s parable about someone who rises too far too fast only to fall spectacularly has an almost medieval grandiosity to its vivid imagery and the trumpets baying as if from the top of a castle announcing the arrival of the king. Its message is clear — pure genius and restless ambition can’t always save you from the fatal flaw of being in over your head. The other side of the dynamic between the song’s two figures is the narrator’s regret about missed opportunities and a life lived in the shadow of someone who followed their dreams to incredible heights only to see them collapse.

The scintillating climax at about 3:54, when a cannon explodes in the midst of the layers of vocals, guitars, and brass, is genuinely stirring. “The Whole of the Moon”, from the Waterboys’ landmark album This Is the Sea, reached #26 in the UK upon its initial single release. Five years later, it was reissued and rocketed to #3, by far the band’s highest chart appearance.

56. Magazine – “A Song From Under the Floorboards” (1980)

Magazine was formed in 1977 by former Buzzcocks vocalist Howard Devoto and future Siouxsie and the Banshees guitarist the late John McGeoch. “A Song From Under the Floorboards” was the lead single from the band’s excellent third album, The Correct Use of Soap. It’s a terse rocker in the vein of many post-punk bands like Wire, but also with a new wave vibe. Devoto’s lyrics, which begin with the feel-good quote of the year, “I am angry, I am ill and I am ugly as sin”, seem to be inspired by Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s Notes from Underground. Devoto delivers an angry tirade of self-loathing over chilly synths and serrated guitar. The anger is directed at society, which has reduced him to this state.

Free will versus one’s place being dictated by society is a question that has different answers for different people. When one is at their lowest point, it’s hard not to lash out, even if you hate yourself for doing so. “A Song From Under the Floorboards” has remained one of Magazine’s most widely-known songs even though it never charted. Morrissey recorded a cover in 2006 for the b-side to this single “The Youngest Was the Most Loved”.

55. Midnight Oil – “Beds Are Burning” (1987)

Australian rockers Midnight Oil had been churning out great tunes for almost a decade before they made a meteoric impact in America with the surprise crossover hit “Beds Are Burning”, the lead single from their excellent 1987 album Diesel and Dust. Despite being about as far away from a typical 1987 pop song as you can get, “Beds Are Burning” clawed its way to #17 on the Hot 100. Peter Garrett, the band’s imposing bald frontman, croaks out the lyrics in a voice that sounds like it’s been parched out in the desert for months without water.

The song is about the Pintupi, an aboriginal people from Australia’s western end who had been forcibly removed from their native lands. Garrett’s passion for the issue about which he sings is obvious. A three-chord exclamation of guitar and brass opens the song, introduces the anthemic choruses, and provides the finallé. Throughout “Beds are Burning”, a ratcheting guitar and elastic bass play in tandem, giving it motoric power. It’s superbly produced with immaculate attention to detail — give it a good listen on headphones sometimes. Viscerally exciting, emotional, and instilled with real inspiration, “Beds Are Burning” is arguably the apex of Midnight Oil’s outstanding career.

54. Hüsker Dü – “Don’t Want to Know If You Are Lonely” (1986)

The trio of guitarist Bob Mould, bassist Greg Norton and drummer Grant Hart recorded four albums between 1983 and 1985, honing their sound on each. Hüsker Dü‘s 1986 release Candy Apple Grey marked a turning point for the band, who were growing from blazing hardcore to a more accessible college-radio-friendly brand of songwriting with an emphasis on stronger melodies. Of course, that doesn’t mean there isn’t plenty of aggression and in-your-face rock ‘n’ roll. The Grant Hart composition “Don’t Want to Know If You Are Lonely” burns at a furious pace with ragged guitar riffs and crashing drums. Hart sings about trying to disconnect from a woman who left him but can’t seem to let him move on without her. Hart’s narrator, though, sounds like a guy who protests too much when he insists, “don’t want to know if you are lonely / don’t want to know if you are less than lonely”.

Mould, Norton, and Grant would stick together long enough to record one final album, the stellar 1987 double LP Warehouse: Song and Stories, but that would be their swan song. “Don’t Want to Know If You Are Lonely” is the one track that distills the essence of Hüsker Dü’s the best. Green Day covered it in 2011 for a Record Store Day promotion that put the original on one side of a 45 and the cover on the flip.

53. Sinéad O’Connor – “Mandinka” (1987)

Sinéad O’Connor immediately established herself as a significant musical force with her remarkable debut album, The Lion and the Cobra. O’Connor is gifted with a remarkably expressive voice that can veer from crystalline beauty to completely unhinged wailing banshee, sometimes within the span of the same song. “Mandinka”, the album’s first single, is known for its hard-charging guitar riff and O’Connor’s blazing vocal delivery. She cut a striking figure as she performed the song at the 1989 Grammy Awards, with her defiantly bald and painted head, black sports bra with midriff showing, ripped jeans, and combat boots. O’Connor was a stark contrast to all pop culture demigods of the moment bedecked in glamorous suits and gowns in the audience — she was rock ‘n’ roll, and they were artifice.

It’s symbolic of how O’Connor has operated her entire career. She’s always marched to the beat of her own drummer, defying societal and music industry norms and expectations and remaining fiercely independent. It all started with “Mandinka”, a passionate rocker inspired by a West African tribe named in the novel Roots by Alex Haley.

52. Meat Puppets – “Lake of Fire” (1984)

The Phoenix-based brothers Curt and Cris Kirkwood released their self-titled debut in 1982, but it was Meat Puppets II, released two years later, that stands as a bedraggled classic. The high point is the frazzled “Lake of Fire”, with its slow swamp-rock beat, Curt Kirkwood’s deranged vocal, and swarms of guitar buzzing overhead like nasty bugs in the marsh that won’t stop biting. The feverish lyrics are like an old folk fable that was born of some secretive cult haunting the countryside. The song clocks in at under two minutes, but its brevity seems appropriate. It would collapse under its own weight if it dragged on any longer.

Of course, Nirvana performed “Lake of Fire” and two other Meat Puppets songs on their historic Unplugged in New York album, even bringing the Kirkwood brothers on stage to guest. Like he did all the songs on Unplugged, Cobain scrapes “Lake of Fire” to its rawest, bare essentials.

51. Devo – “Whip It” (1980)

“Kerrrack that whip!” Devo‘s singularly unique band of art-rock wasn’t ever really mainstream, but somehow, their single “Whip It” got enough radio and MTV support to reach #14 in 1980. There’s been nothing quite like “Whip It” in the Top 40, before or since. Although in retrospect it seems like the most obviously commercial track from its parent album Freedom of Choice, it wasn’t the first single — that honor went to “Girl U Want”. With its krautrock-inspired motorik beat, spidery electronic bass line, and synthetic whip cracks, “Whip It” is a bold and provocative recording that still sounds fantastic blasted out of a good set of speakers. During the chorus, a frantic alarm-bell keyboard riff flashes in the background, amping up the frenetic energy. One of the great things about the ’80s is that sometimes the stars aligned, and oddities like this could break through to mass consciousness.

Of course, we’d be remiss if we didn’t mention the truly bizarre video. With the group wearing red flowerpots on their heads and garbed in tight black turtlenecks while on the set of what looks like the world’s cheesiest western sitcom (or amateur porno), a splendidly geeky Mark Mothersbaugh brandishes his whip-like an alien sex fiend.