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.

50. The Replacements – “Can’t Hardly Wait” (1987)

The Replacements grew out of their ragged post-punk roots into a first-rate group of songwriters. The transition really began with 1984’s Let It Be, arguably the finest album of the band’s career. As for singles, one has to look a few years later to “Can’t Hardly Wait”, from their Pleased to Meet Me album. Paul Westerberg’s voice is plaintive and awash in vulnerability as he opens the song with diffidence, “I’ll write you a letter tomorrow, tonight I can’t hold a pen / Someone’s got a stamp that I can borrow / I promise not to blow the address again.” A discrete wave of strings soars above, a horn section adds vibrant color, and Chris Mars delivers some fantastic drum work.

“Can’t Hardly Wait” is a masterful studio creation, also notable for its lyrical guitar riff that is echoed by horns during the song’s protracted ending, with Westerberg’s increasingly battered cries of “I can’t wait!” The band’s next album was the comparatively disappointing Don’t Tell a Soul, followed by their weary goodbye, 1990’s downbeat All Shook Down. The Replacements recently finished up a reunion tour in which they bashed through their back catalog in front of wildly appreciative fans who have waited a very long time, and sure enough, “Can’t Hardly Wait” was part of their set.

49. Missing Persons – “Destination Unknown” (1982)

Released as the second single from Missing Persons’ spectacular debut Spring Session M, “Destination Unknown” was catchy enough to nearly make the Top 40 on the pop chart, but like the album’s first single, “Words”, it fell just short, peaking at #42. Although it wasn’t a mainstream hit, “Destination Unknown” is a classic of the new wave era and is frequently found on compilations that focus on the period. It’s no accident that the song’s electrifying new wave/rock blend of synthesizers, guitar, bass, and drums blasts emphatically out of speakers — it was produced and engineered by Ken Scott, one of the best in the industry, with a long pedigree that includes some of David Bowie’s greatest works.

Visually and sonically, Dale Bozzio’s presence in Missing Persons was one of the cornerstones of the new wave era and has been enormously influential. She was also working with a top-notch group of musicians, including ace guitarist Warren Cuccurullo, formerly of Frank Zappa’s band and a future replacement for Andy Taylor in Duran Duran. Missing Persons were an iconic band of the new wave era, and had the musical chops and artistic originality to back up their exalted stature in the genre.

48. The La’s – “There She Goes” (1988)

The La’s “There She Goes” is one of those instantly classic melodies that will wrap its sweet tendrils around your brain and squeeze hard until it’s impossible to forget. It’s perfect 1960s-style guitar pop but with a hint of slightly mad obsession lurking under the surface, as apparent in Lee Andrew Mavers’ piercingly intense vocals. It’s a sugary dream-pop delight, but it’s hard not to feel there’s a dark side. Some have even suggested that the “she” in the song is a metaphor for heroin (largely because of the lines “racing through my brain” and “pulsing thru my vein”), but the band has denied this.

In any event, “There She Goes” is one of those timeless singles that some bands are fortunate enough to hit upon at some point in their career. After delays caused largely by Mavers’ compulsive perfectionism, The La’s finally released their self-titled debut album in 1990, which featured a remixed version of “There She Goes”. It would be their only album. It took the Christian-turned-secular Sixpence None the Richer to get the song into the US Top 40. Their 1999 version is rather nice, and Leigh Nash’s vocal is lovely, but it wholly lacks the profound focus of the La’s original recording.

47. Icicle Works – “Birds Fly (Whisper to a Scream)” (1983)

The British trio Icicle Works released a handful of minor singles, but they are best known for their 1983 hit “Birds Fly (Whisper to a Scream)”. Over a frantic rhythm and clanging guitars, “Birds Fly” is a strident anthem with a booming chorus: “We are, we are, we are but your children / finding our way around indecision / we are, we are we are ever helpless / take us forever, a whisper to a scream.” It’s a powerful showcase for Ian McNabb, the band’s primary songwriter, guitarist, and vocalist. In America, where it was labeled “Whisper to a Scream (Birds Fly)” and a different mix was released, it reached #37 for two weeks in June 1984, a full year after the original single’s debut in Britain.

There are multiple versions of the song, with the best being the UK release that features the spoken-word segment by “Mariella”: “Some things take forever / but with building bricks of trust and love / Mountains can be moved.” The song seems to be about the foibles of youth and how we all struggle to come to terms with the world around us and the life and future we face. Children and adolescents often think that when they “grow up,” suddenly everything becomes clear. It never really works that way. We’re all just making it up as we go along.

46. X – “Johnny Hit and Run Paulene” (1980)

From the California group’s acclaimed debut Los Angeles (produced by the Doors’ Ray Manzarek), “Johnny Hit and Run Paulene” is a lurid post-punk fable that explores the hollow emptiness of rampant random sexual encounters and the desensitization to intimacy that meaningless debauchery can cause. “Johnny” takes a “sex machine drug” that allows him to have sex once every 24 hours, so he goes on a rape binge: “He got 24 hours / To shoot all Paulenes between the legs / 96 tears through 24 hours / Sex once every hour.” Musically, the song blends old-school rockabilly guitar by Billy Zoom, frenzied bass by John Doe and D.J. Bonebrake’s maniacal drum work. John Doe, with Exene Cervenka on harmony vocals, sounds like a lunatic version of a ’50s rocker as he raves about his gruesome anti-hero.

“Johnny Hit and Run Paulene” is creepy and disturbing, which was surely the band’s intent. X released a string of generally well-received albums through the ’80s and into the early ’90s. They still tour regularly with their original lineup, although guitarist Billy Zoom recently took a leave of absence as he battles cancer. “Johnny Hit and Run Paulene” remains a staple of their live set.

45. The Jam – “Town Called Malice” (1982)

The Jam are tight as nails on “Town Called Malice”, a soulful rocker built around Bruce Foxton’s thumping Motown-inspired bass, Rick Buckler’s explosive drum work, and Paul Weller’s energetic vocal delivery. A lively whirling Hammond organ completes the song’s retro vibe. As the primary single from the band’s final album, The Gift, “Town Called Malice” was The Jam’s final major hit, reaching #1 in the UK.

“Town Called Malice” is a working-class anthem written by Paul Weller and inspired by his own hometown. It starkly describes the lives of the working poor of Thatcher-era England. The resiliently upbeat vibe of the song belies the harsh realities described in the lyrics: “Struggle after struggle, year after year / the atmosphere’s a fine blend of ice / I’m almost stone cold dead / in a town called Malice.” It’s almost as if the band is determined to keep the party going no matter how bleak life may be. Toward the end of the Jam’s spectacular run, Weller expanded the band’s stripped-down post-punk by incorporating Motown and northern soul influences, which is particularly evident in “Town Called Malice”.

After the Jam’s acrimonious disintegration, Weller would take his interest in soul music to the next level with his sophisticated pop group the Style Council. As for “Town Called Malice”, its as apt as ever, and includes a line well worth remembering: “Stop apologizing for the things you’ve never done / ’cause time is short and life is cruel.” Indeed it is.

44. Cocteau Twins – “Carolyn’s Fingers” (1988)

“Carolyn’s Fingers”, the standout track on Cocteau Twins‘ fifth album Blue Bell Knoll, is one of the Scottish trio’s most magical creations. It’s the Cocteau Twins’ version of a pop song, more immediate than much of their work. Elizabeth Fraser trills and warbles like a mystical faerie in a high fantasy novel. It’s music from another world — nothing this enchanting could have been formulated on Earth. Cocteau Twins are an escape into a beguiling dimension of sound unlike anything else. On the joyful “Carolyn’s Fingers”, Fraser’s voice swirls about Robin Guthrie’s honey-dripping guitar and hypnotic percussion like a spirit drifting on the wind.

Her vocal style is endlessly fascinating; it’s not rooted in perfunctory requirements like actually pronouncing words. The words sound like Fraser wants them to sound, and whether or not that translates to anything intelligible in the listeners’ ears is irrelevant. Cocteau Twins occupy a certain legendary status in alternative rock history, in part because of the otherworldly beauty of their music but also because of Fraser’s reclusiveness. Perhaps it’s for the best. If you tear the veil off something mysterious and unknowable, it suddenly becomes earthbound and normal, and with the Cocteau Twins, who wants that?

43. Mission of Burma – “That’s When I Reach For My Revolver” (1981)

Boston-based Mission of Burma released their debut EP Signals, Calls and Marches in 1981 to significant critical acclaim. On “That’s When I Reach For My Revolver”, written and sung by bassist Clint Conley, the band harvests punk energy and molds it into whipsmart alternative rock that bristles with menace. It sounds so raw and loud that the air around it practically quivers with electricity. Peter Prescott’s drumming is brutal and incendiary. The title is paraphrased from a line by Nazi playwright Hanns Johst from his play Schlageter: “Whenever I hear of culture… I release the safety catch of my Browning!” The quote is often misattributed to Nazi military and political leader Hermann Wilhelm Göring.

Mission of Burma uses it in a bit of a different context. “Once I had my heroes / once I had my dreams / but all of that is changed now / the truth begins again / the truth is not that comfortable, no!” Conley is railing against the problems that life presents, which are in stark contrast to the idealism of youth. He sings, “The spirit fights to find its way” — the daily struggle to cope with the constant barbs that the world can fling into our hearts. “That’s When I Reach For My Revolver” is a biting indictment of the world around us, a near surrender to disillusionment.

42. The Cult – “She Sells Sanctuary” (1985)

Before they veered into a heavy blues-rock vibe on Electric, the Cult were more into deeply romanticized goth-flavored alternative rock on albums like Dreamtime and their triumphant 1985 release Love. With Ian Astbury’s powerful voice and Billy Duffy’s guitar prowess, the Cult possessed a talented core to work their emotional and melancholy alchemy. “She Sells Sanctuary”, the first of three hits from Love, was a breakthrough for the band. It’s a hard-charging rocker practically dripping with testosterone. It’s very clear what kind of sanctuary Astbury is seeking to relieve the pressures of everyday existence.

Billy Duffy opens with stands of psychedelic guitar and plays a searing riff throughout the song, with an acoustic rhythm guitar providing the foundation along with Jamie Stewart’s bass and Nigel Preston’s drums (it was the last recording with the band for Preston, who was fired soon after). Astbury’s voice is as potent as usual, his blood red and hot coursing through his veins as he contemplates the object of his lust: “The fire in your eyes / Keeps me alive / I’m sure in her you’ll find / The sanctuary!” “She Sells Sanctuary” hit #15 on the UK singles chart, the Cult’s second-highest placement behind 1987’s “Lil’ Devil”, which reached #11.

41. Suzanne Vega – “Luka” (1987)

Suzanne Vega enjoyed a commercial breakthrough with “Luka”, the first single from her acclaimed second album Solitude Standing. It was the surprise hit of the summer of ’87, climbing all the way to #3 in August. “Luka” is told from the point of view of a young victim of physical abuse who relates his experiences with a stoic and quiet dignity. You can hear the wall of protection the child has built within himself in Vega’s matter-of-fact recitation of lines like “Yes I think I’m OK / I walked into the door again / if you ask that’s what I’ll say / it’s not your business anyway.” Vega’s crisp and precise vocal performance manages to capture the wrenching pain felt by the child, and the listener aches for him.

For a song so heartrending, the music is deceptively upbeat, especially the glorious finale, which is filled with an overriding joy as if transmitting the hopes and promise of a young person ill-used by society and willing him to rise above the terrors of his upbringing, relying on his innate resilience. In the buoyant swell of guitars that spiral skyward, you can almost imagine the day Luka will leave all this pain behind and become the master of his own destiny. Suzanne Vega is a songwriter of extraordinary grace and dexterity, and her performance on “Luka” is one for the ages. There’s a reason this song touches so many people.