The 100 Best Alternative Songs of the 1980s
Image by StockSnap from Pixabay

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.

40. Peter Murphy – “Cuts You Up” (1989)

The last song chronologically eligible for this list is Peter Murphy‘s “Cuts You Up”. The single wasn’t released until early 1990, but its parent album, Deep, hit shelves on 19 December 1989, making it eligible for the list by 12 days. After Bauhaus fractured in 1983, Murphy began a solo career in which he’s unleashed nine albums up through last year’s masterful sonic powerhouse Lion. “Cuts You Up” helped drive Deep to become Murphy’s most successful album.

Like most of Murphy’s work, “Cuts You Up” is dark and fiercely intense. His rich and shadowy voice wrings every ounce of drama from the enigmatic lyrics, and the main instrumental hook is played by a stormy cello that gives the song a portentous gravitas. Murphy’s imagery is arresting as he sings in his oddly clipped and theatrical voice, “I find you in the morning / after dreams of distant signs / you pour yourself over me / like the sun through the blinds”. It’s not actually clear what is doing the cutting in “Cuts You Up”, but that ambiguity only adds to the song’s mysterious vibe.

“Cuts You Up” reached #55 on the pop chart and #1 on the Modern Rock chart — by far Peter Murphy’s biggest single. Casual fans who only know this song need to check out the rest of his catalog, especially Lion, which will hurl your speakers into overdrive.

39. Patti Smith – “People Have the Power” (1988)

Patti Smith‘s stature is such that she gives a populist anthem like “People Have the Power” an immediate air of authority. As the lead single from her first new album in nine years, Dream of Life, “People Have the Power” received substantial attention from rock and alternative radio, as well as MTV. Smith is clearly fully invested in the material, and her vocals are particularly powerful as she sings, “The power to dream, to rule, to wrestle the earth from fools / well it’s decreed the people rule!” Her shining optimism is genuine and stirring — she pulls you in with lyrics like, “I believe everything we dream can come to pass through our union / we can turn the world around / we can turn the earth’s revolution”. After hearing Smith’s exhortation to action, it’s hard not to feel pumped up and idealistic.

Of course, the glow quickly fades as reality sets in, and the ongoing nightmarish political circus we find in our midst intrudes itself like a hammer to any positivity. Twenty-seven years after Smith recorded her song, people still have the power, at least theoretically. Or has it all been a lie? Do people really have the power if we are unwilling, or unable, to use it?

38. Suicidal Tendencies – “Institutionalized” (1983)

Every generation has a teen-angst anthem that seems revolutionary. Believe it or not, they existed long before “Smells Like Teen Spirit”. In the early ’80s, this spirit was personified in the California-based hardcore band Suicidal Tendencies. “Institutionalized” is an amazing freakout. We get to peer inside the head of a teen who seems to be operating on an entirely different wavelength than his parents, who have absolutely no clue how to connect with him. Of course, we are only hearing one side of the story, but that doesn’t matter. If the parents want to write a song about raising nutso teens, they are free to do so (I just wouldn’t expect to see it on this list).

The raw power of “Institutionalized” is massive — it’s a delirious cathartic release of pent-up frustration, confusion, and rage. Bitterly acerbic and laced with dark humor, “Institutionalized” rings completely true. Despite the jokey video, which does the song’s innate power a disservice, “Institutionalized” is as potent an expression of teenage disillusionment as has ever been recorded.

37. Nine Inch Nails – “Head Like a Hole” (1989)

Trent Reznor took the industrial and dark electronica that had been the terrain of bands like Front 242, Nitzer Ebb, Ministry, and Skinny Puppy for years and made it digestible for a mass audience with his piercingly direct screeds that were edgy enough but still accessible. Reznor is a wizard in the studio, and his songs are a sharp mix of blunt sonic force and experiments in textures and mood. His visually arresting videos and early support from MTV certainly helped. After his debut single “Down In It” set the stage, “Head Like a Hole”, the second single from Nine Inch Nails‘ classic debut Pretty Hate Machine, was his big breakthrough. With a wonky keyboard riff over an aggressively charged rhythm that explodes with brash guitar and Reznor’s intense vocals during the chorus, “Head Like a Hole” is industrial-strength electronic rock.

One wonders how Reznor feels about “God Money” now that he’s a multimillionaire with a long string of smash albums to his credit and an Academy Award for good measure. Back when he was a 24-year-old musician full of rage, a screed about money was easy to digest. “I’d rather die than give you control!” — Does he still feel this way? Given his determination to follow his own path and not chase the lure of easy commercial success, it seems the obvious answer is “yes”.

36. Japan – “Ghosts” (1981)

Japan’s “Ghosts”, from their 1981 album Tin Drum, occupies a singular place on this list — nothing else sounds remotely like it. David Sylvian’s mannered baritone, with its odd vibrato, is like ripples of dark water flooding around and between the ghostly swells of the keyboard. The synths are suspended in space, not latched down by any percussion. The “ghosts” are frailties that chain us to the past — things we cannot escape. It’s an apt term because we can be haunted by memories that are intrinsically linked with who we are. These ghosts can drag us down if we let them: “Just when I think I’m winning / when I’ve broken every door / the ghosts in my life blow wilder than before”.

“Ghosts” is poetic lyrically and musically. It has a theatrical grandeur and otherworldliness. The bare-bones arrangement was a brilliant and brave approach. It’s easy to imagine this song, with its strong melodic hook, in a more traditional pop approach, but thankfully, Sylvian stuck with his vision. “Ghosts” reached #5 on the UK singles chart, but perhaps not surprisingly, American radio programmers were completely oblivious to the song’s power.

35. Public Image Ltd. – “Rise” (1986)

Johnny Lydon’s post Sex Pistols band Public Image Ltd. was a logical extension of his explosive work with punk’s most famous trail-blazers. From PiL’s 1986 release Album, the six-plus minute “Rise” is a spirited protest against South African apartheid. Lydon’s drawls “anger is an energy” repeatedly in his semi-deranged voice, exhorting the oppressed to harness that power and rise up against their persecutors. Then he wishes them the best of luck with a recitation based on an Irish benediction, “May the road rise with you.” The jittery track features the prodigious Steve Vai on lofty guitar lines that connect the loping beats like coils of anxiety.

Vai isn’t the only virtuoso musician that Lydon brought in for the recording: Swedish bassist Jonas Hellborg is known primarily for his work with jazz fusion master John McLaughlin, and drummer Tony Williams is a highly respected jazz percussionist who worked with Miles Davis. Epic in scope, brilliantly conceived and performed, “Rise” reached #11 in the UK and became popular on college radio in America. It’s a surprisingly accessible and melodic tune from an artist who’s spent much of his career making music that isn’t exactly easy to digest.

34. Romeo Void – “Never Say Never” (1981)

San Francisco-based Romeo Void recorded a distinct brand of post-punk/dance-rock with plenty of moxie. Although it wasn’t a Top 40 hit, “Never Say Never” is their signature tune. The great Debora Iyall delivers a wicked vocal performance, deadpanning the lyrics with vulnerability hidden under a tough veneer. “I might like you better if we slept together,” she sneers cavalierly throughout the song as if the act of sex itself is no big deal at all. Musically, “Never Say Never” is a ferocious machine, with ratcheting guitar, propulsive bass, and wildly frenetic sax by Benjamin Bossi that forms the main instrumental hook between the verses and sometimes explodes into free-form firestorms over the manic percussion.

The definitive six-minute version appears on the 1982 Never Say Never EP, stylized as “Nvr Say Nvr” on the cover art. The shorter single version is on the band’s excellent 1982 album Benefactor. Romeo Void’s only Top 40 hit came two years later when the controversial “A Girl in Trouble (is a temporary thing)”, an arch reference to abortion, reached #35.

33. The Psychedelic Furs – “Pretty in Pink” (1981)

The Psychedelic Furs originally recorded “Pretty in Pink” for their 1981 album Talk Talk Talk. They re-recorded a more commercially viable version for the soundtrack to the 1986 John Hughes film, which shares its name and with which it will forever be associated. The 1986 version almost became the band’s first Top 40 hit in America, peaking at #41 on 31 May 1986. “Pretty in Pink” has little to do thematically with the uplifting coming-of-age fable spun in the film. It’s actually a rather sad and pointed song about a young woman named Caroline who’s frankly a bit of a mess. She sleeps around to help with her low self-esteem, and as a result, she thinks that she’s kinda riding high while her so-called friends are really just laughing behind her back.

Richard Butler’s raspy and strangely aristocratic vocals are dripping with irony and empathy when he sings, “Pretty in pink… isn’t she?” The original single is murkier and darker and better fits the true vibe of the song than the sanitized version made five years later, thanks to Molly Ringwald (although it’s still a great track, and the soundtrack for Pretty in Pink as a whole is one of the decade’s best).

32. The Blue Nile – “Downtown Lights” (1989)

Scottish trio the Blue Nile released the dazzling “Downtown Lights” as the first single from their 1989 album Hats. “Downtown Lights” is solemn, graceful, and elegant, with Paul Buchanan’s alluring tenor resplendent throughout. The band should take pride in their own production work — it’s exquisite. The arrangement is languid and slow-building, with a lush bed of synthesizers and a pulsing rhythm. “Downtown Lights” moves with a slow burn until it gradually builds to a dramatic climax introduced by ringing guitars. Its soaring beauty is riddled with palpable loneliness and pain.

Buchanan’s voice becomes tense and profoundly emotional at the 5:24 mark: “The neon’s and the cigarettes / rented rooms and rented cars / the crowded streets, the empty bars”, he howls into the night, alone, bathed by the city streetlights. “Downtown Lights” stretches to six-and-a-half leisurely minutes but never overstays its welcome. In the UK, “Downtown Lights” reached #12, and in America, it landed at #10 on the Modern Rock chart.

31. Elvis Costello – “Veronica” (1989)

“Veronica” is one of the multiple songs that Elvis Costello co-wrote with Paul McCartney toward the end of the ’80s. Some appeared on McCartney’s Flowers in the Dirt, while others were on Costello’s Spike (including “Veronica”) and Mighty Like a Rose. “Veronica” became Costello’s biggest mainstream hit by far, reaching #19 on the Hot 100 in June 1989. It’s about an elderly lady suffering from dementia, inspired by Costello’s own grandmother. Parts of “Veronica” are sunny and upbeat, as much a celebration of life as it’s a portrait of a woman lost in her own mind. He portrays Veronica as suddenly having vivid flashes of memory amidst the fog, singing with wrenching emotion, “She spoke his name out loud again!” as a newspaper photo suddenly triggers the memory of an old love that lifts from the depths of her mind like a bubble rising to the surface of a pond and popping into the air. Costello’s deeply personal performance is rich with genuine emotion.

Veronica’s story deserves to be told, and Elvis Costello does so with grace and passion. We can only hope our stories will be told so well sometime.