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.

30. Bauhaus – “She’s in Parties” (1983)

Vocalist Peter Murphy, guitarist Daniel Ash, drummer Kevin Haskins, and bassist David J formed Bauhaus in 1978. Bauhaus were goth pioneers whose most famous single, “Bela Lugosi’s Dead”, was released in 1979. “She’s in Parties” is one of the more accessible Bauhaus tracks and points to both Peter Murphy’s solo work and Daniel Ash, Kevin Haskins, and David J’s work as Love and Rockets. It was the primary single from Burning on the Inside, the band’s final album before disbanding.

“She’s in Parties” reached #26 in the UK, their second-highest placement. As one would expect from Bauhaus, there’s a thick layer of gloom infusing the song like smoke. Peter Murphy’s highly stylized vocal sits atop some crafty musicianship. David J’s bass is a propulsive force, and Daniel Ash’s razor-wire guitar slashes brightly through the murk. “She’s in Parties” references Marilyn Monroe’s gilded image and private turmoil as a reflection of the personas that everyone adopts, that society is, in fact, built upon. Everywhere you go, it’s a different act. While “Bela Lugosi’s Dead” would certainly have been chosen if it came out one year later, “She’s in Parties” isn’t a bad consolation prize.

29. Morrissey – “Everyday Is Like Sunday” (1988)”

Only Morrissey could open a single with the following joyless lines: “Trudging slowly over wet sand / Back to the bench where your clothes were stolen / This is the coastal town / That they forgot to close down / Armageddon — come Armageddon!” “Everyday Is Like Sunday”, the second single from Morrissey’s solo debut Viva Hate, is his version of a hymn. Naturally, it’s steeped in a morose world outlook; it’s almost defiantly grim in the face of a sweeping melody, orchestral grandeur, and Morrissey’s smooth crooning voice.

Morrissey makes his mordant observations with zero traces of irony. It’s not just an act — Morrissey is quite sincere in his regular repudiation of the world around him (and us), and he’s not shy about pointing out its shortcomings (and ours, and his). One wonders how he finds the motivation to keep going. He still performs “Everyday Is Like Sunday” regularly before crowds that sing along and wave their arms in the air as if it were an ode to peace, love, and togetherness instead of a lushly beautiful expression of fatalistic pessimism.

28. The Sugarcubes – “Birthday” (1988)

The breakthrough single for Icelandic legends, the Sugarcubes, “Birthday” is frighteningly good — it sounds like absolutely nothing else ever created. “Birthday” is strangely discordant, with a tumbling rhythm, strums of oddly tuned guitar, wheezing trumpet, and Björk‘s mystical alien vocals. Her voice is a unique force of nature — just listen to her sing, “She’s painting huge books and glues them together / they saw a big raven / it glided down the sky / she touched it!” Absolutely incredible. There’s an almost childlike simplicity in the evocative and pictorial lyrics.

Björk captures the sense of a five-year-old’s wonder at the world, how children can find things endlessly fascinating and beautiful, as can grown-ups if they so choose. “Birthday” received immediate acclaim upon its release and helped create a massive buzz around the band. It’s included on the Sugarcubes’ debut album Life’s Too Good, a strikingly brilliant collection of oddball pop that is superior to anything Björk has released as a solo artist (and she’s put out some great ones). With Einar Örn playing the Fred Schneider role, the Sugarcubes sound like the B-52’s if they were born in an ocean on one of Saturn’s moons.

27. The Clash – “Rock the Casbah” (1982)

Since the Clash‘s most essential album, London Calling, was released at the very end of 1979 and was thus not eligible for consideration, we instead look to “Rock the Casbah”, from their smash 1982 release Combat Rock. After a long, slow climb up the Hot 100, “Rock the Casbah” spent four weeks at #8 in early 1983, becoming the band’s only Top 40 hit in America. Drummer Topper Headon wrote and performed the rollicking piano section over his drums and bass, and Mick Jones added some jagged guitar to go along with Joe Strummer’s searing vocal performance.

Strummer’s inventive lyrics were inspired by an incident in which Iranian citizens were flogged after being caught with a disco album. He parlays that into a sardonic parable about a bumbling Sharif who hates disco and tries to ban it, only to be stymied not only by his own people but even by his military. A striking video was filmed with caricatures of an Arab and Jewish man driving around in a Cadillac listening to a boombox while the band plays the song in front of an oil well (with an armadillo inexplicably wandering around the shot).

“Rock the Casbah” is arguably the most fully developed and richly produced single of the Clash’s career, and it perhaps points to the direction the Clash might have sounded if they’d continued to develop with their full lineup.

26. The Stone Roses – “She Bangs the Drums” (1989)

Manchester’s Stone Roses helped popularize the so-called “Britpop” movement, which dueled with “grunge” in the ’90s for the title of the most ubiquitously annoying and overused label in rock history. The Stone Roses’ debut album was lavishly fawned over by critics and is often considered one of the great debuts in rock history. There is no question that it was influential, as illustrated by the barrage of imitators that sprung up in its wake. “She Bangs the Drum” is winsomely melodic psychedelic rock with a glowing retro vibe. It sounds like someone beamed back to 1967 and snatched it from a jukebox. It’s deliriously joyful.

Even the lyrics sound like they were written around the time of the Monkees: “Have you seen her, have you heard? / the way she plays, there are no words / to describe the way I feel.” John Squire builds a wall of guitar, and he and drummer Reni harmonize with vocalist Ian Brown on the insanely catchy melody. John Leckie’s production work is exceptionally good, as usual. “She Bangs the Drums” has one foot in the ’60s and one foot in the ’90s — ironically enough, the one decade it doesn’t really sound like is the ’80s.

25. The Pretenders – “Talk of the Town” (1980)

Although not as bold as the Pretenders‘ breakthrough single from their 1979 debut, “Brass in Pocket”, the lower-key “Talk of the Town” is every bit as cunning. Chrissie Hynde doesn’t get enough credit for her consistently stunning vocal performances. Her phrasing and tone on “Talk of the Town” are brilliant — she perfectly delivers the slightly detached wistfulness that the song requires. She sings about a one-time fascination with someone who is like a lodestone until he burns out and fades away. Hynde’s narrator follows the safer and surer path and never gives in to him. She has no regrets, but it’s clear she wonders what might have been.

“Talk of the Town” also contains one of the lines that symbolizes not only Chrissie Hynde and the Pretenders but “alternative” music in general: “Oh, but it’s hard to live by their rules / I never could and still never do.” The simple truth. “Talk of the Town” was a standalone single in the UK, where it reached #8 in 1980. It was later included on the band’s second album, Pretenders II, released in August 1981, but did not follow “Brass in Pocket” into the U.S. Top 40. “Message of Love” was the bigger hit, reaching #5 on the Mainstream Rock chart.

24. Talk Talk – “It’s My Life” (1984)

Talk Talk sustained one of the more fascinating artistic progressions in rock history, from smartly crafted new wave to their dual post-rock masterworks, Spirit of Eden and Laughing Stock. “It’s My Life” is their biggest hit and the most incisive song from their early new wave years. The title track and first single from their second album, “It’s My Life”, was Talk Talk’s only Top 40 appearance in America, logging two weeks at #31 in May 1984. Fluttering bird noises decorate the opening, which rests upon the foundation of an almost Latin rhythm by Lee Harris and a lyrical bass by Paul Webb. Producer Tim Friese-Greene provides the main keyboard riff, which is melancholy and shimmery during the verses and turns sharply intense during the choruses.

Mark Hollis has a deeply resonant voice that’s a bit like an old-school crooner with an odd timbre, and he sings with blazing intensity. “It’s My Life” finds Hollis struggling to come to grips with how deeply he should commit to a relationship, knowing that anything less than complete committal is doomed to failure: “Funny how I find myself in love with you / if I could buy my reasoning I’d pay to lose / one half won’t do / I’ve asked myself / how much do you commit yourself.” He offers a bristling reminder (“Don’t you forget!”) to his lover (or himself) that her actions (and his decisions) impact his life deeply. Unlike some new wave, “It’s My Life” is so well-produced that it doesn’t sound cheesy and dated — it’s as compelling as ever.

23. Tears For Fears – “Mad World” (1982)

Tears for Fears, the British duo of Curt Smith and Roland Orzabal, are one of the most essential recording groups of the ’80s. They touched on new wave, rock, pop, and even jazz on their three highly distinct albums released during the decade (The Hurting, Songs from the Big Chair, and The Seeds of Love). Each is a classic and each couldn’t be more different than the other two. The Hurting is emotional and often agonizingly confessional new wave that’s ripped directly from the soul. The album’s key track is “Mad World”, a #3 smash in the UK (the band wouldn’t reach the U.S. Top 40 until their #1 single “Everybody Wants to Rule the World” three years later).

Curt Smith sings in his gleaming tenor about all the world’s craziness, his voice brimming with desperation as he contemplates his suicidal ideation, “And I find it kind of funny, I find it kind of sad / the dreams in which I’m dying are the best I’ve ever had.” The song explores isolation and disillusionment, especially among the young. Interlocking synthesizers and electronic rhythms sound almost like clockwork machinery, with swells of keyboards floating above. It’s an unremittingly bleak and pessimistic song, which tends to be the norm for early Tears for Fears. Singer Gary Jules resurrected “Mad World” in 2001 for the film Donnie Darko, sending his stark acoustic version to #1 in the UK.

22. Peter Gabriel – “Games Without Frontiers” (1980)

Peter Gabriel‘s string of brilliant solo albums from the late ’70s into the ’80s were far more in the “alternative” arena than his work with Genesis, which is firmly in the realm of progressive rock. Gabriel is clearly influenced by Bowie’s Berlin Trilogy as well as Krautrock bands like Neu!, Kraftwerk, and Faust. “Games Without Frontiers” is the first single from his third album, commonly referred to as Melt, after the ghoulish cover art, which depicts his face dripping like wax. One of the great Cold War songs of the early ’80s, “Games Without Frontiers” is built around a sharp guitar riff over creepy overlapping keyboards and a tense electronic rhythm. Kate Bush guests on the song, repeatedly singing the title in French.

The song explores war as a game, with depersonalized soldiers like expendable toys on a battlefield or statistics on a map. The song also illustrates the absurdity of war by imagining all the combatants as children who would, naturally, all rather play without prejudice if brought together as youths and left to their own devices. “Games Without Frontiers” uncovers the numbness of war and violence that can too easily lead to the unthinkable becoming acceptable. In America, “Games Without Frontiers” spent two weeks at #48 in September 1980, but it was a smash in the UK, reaching #4.

21. Pixies – “Monkey Gone to Heaven” (1989)

Pixies‘ acclaimed EP Come on Pilgrim (1987) and their brilliant full-length debut Surfer Rosa landed the perversely original Boston group a deal with Elektra Records in time for 1989’s Doolittle, easily one of the decade’s greatest albums. The first single, “Monkey Gone to Heaven”, is a meditation on mankind’s ruinous environmental legacy. Musically, it’s laid-back and channels a dreary, sardonic tone. Kim Deal’s prominent bass is the foundation, and a restrained string arrangement largely mirrors her playing.

In his turbulently cryptic lyrics, Black Francis tends to look at things sideways and from directions that others just don’t. In the first verse, he turns his acerbic pen to water pollution. The ozone layer occupies the second verse, and then he gets to global warming as he injects with withering scorn, “Everything is gonna burn, we’ll all take turns, I’ll get mine too.” Francis laconically calls on the guitarist to “Rock me, Joe”, and Santiago obliges with a jagged solo. In the feverish climax, Francis alludes to numerology, ominously half-whispering, “If man is five, if man is five… then the devil is six…” before savagely screaming, “Then God is seven, then God is seven, then God is seven!”

Kim Deal’s calm and lovely recitation of the title during the chorus is a perfect foil for Black Francis’ vocal histrionics. “Monkey Gone to Heaven” was the band’s most prominent single in America, reaching #5 on the Modern Rock Chart in early June 1989.