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.

20. The Police – “Spirits in the Material World” (1981)

The opening track and first single from the Police‘s fourth album, Ghost in the Machine, “Spirits in the Material World”, is a tense expression of anxiety and paranoia. It vividly demonstrates how far ahead The Police were over many of their contemporaries in terms of musicianship, their deft arrangements, and the gravity of Sting’s lyrics. “Spirits in the Material World” is a complex musical puzzle during the taut verses before retreating to straightforward rock during the chorus. During the verses, Stewart Copeland’s rhythm anchors the alarm bell combination of reggae-flavored synths and guitar, while Sting’s explosive bursts of bass roil like snakes in a burlap sack. Faint squeals of sax and a jittery counter-melody of guitar that floats above the final verse add to the oppressive unease.

“Spirits in the Material World” has a strong sense of foreboding in its political overtones and sharp disdain for our “so-called leaders”. Sting offers no solutions to his caustic observations, only more uncertainty: “Where does the answer lie? / living from day to day / if it’s something we can’t buy / there must be another way.” It’s a bleak outlook on the world in general, and it’s hard to argue with any of it.

19. R.E.M. – “So. Central Rain (I’m Sorry)” (1984)

Of all the great artists in this list, many with multiple songs that were potential candidates for inclusion, the most difficult band to pin down was R.E.M. They have tons of fantastic songs in the ’80s without having one that overshadows all the rest. Ultimately, though, “So. Central Rain” was most pivotal for R.E.M. in many ways. True, “Gardening at Night” and “Radio Free Europe” got them in the door, but “So. Central Rain” kicked the door down and got them permanent residency. “So. Central Rain” was R.E.M.’s slickest and most mature recording up to that point in their career.

The primary single from their all-important second album Reckoning, “So. Central Rain”, was a staple on college radio, and MTV even gave the video some limited airplay. It reached #85 on the Billboard Hot 100 and set the stage for ever-escalating popularity that went through the roof in the ’90s. But most importantly, “So. Central Rain” is just a killer tune. It’s tight, compact, melodic and with a deeply felt vocal by Michael Stipe.

The freak-out ending, with Stipe wailing achingly and Mike Mills angrily slamming on the piano keys, provides some emotional release from the song’s inherent tension. Stylistically, it defines R.E.M.’s early period before their sound became much more expansive, beginning on albums like Fables of the Reconstruction and Document.

18. Siouxsie and the Banshees – “Peek-a-Boo” (1988)

The track that became “Peek-a-Boo” started life as a possible b-side for their 1987 cover of Iggy Pop‘s “The Passenger”. The stuttering drumbeat was created from a sample of their song “Gun” played backward, over which wildly inventive instrumentation was added. There’s a madly lurching accordion, a single-note belch of bass, and brief samples of brass laden with effects. “Peek-a-Boo” features a dazzling vocal arrangement in which Siouxsie Sioux sings the lurid carnival freak show lyrics from a different part of the sound spectrum on each line. Her vocal phrasing is ingenious throughout.

In the chorus, she wails “Peeeek-a-Boo, Peeeek-a-Boo” over a creepy extrapolation of the old jazz standard “Jeepers Creepers”. It all comes together in a hallucinatory whirl of diabolical sounds and provocatively sexual imagery. While Siouxsie and the Banshees released numerous great singles in the ’80s, “Peek-a-Boo” is their most innovative recording. It was the lead single from Peepshow, arguably the band’s greatest album (although many old-school fans will disagree). “Peek-a-Boo” also became Siouxsie and the Banshees’ first-ever hit on the Hot 100 (reaching #53), and it owns the distinction of holding the first-ever spot at #1 when Billboard started its Modern Rock chart on 10 September 1988. The 12″ single of “Peek-a-Boo” is worth seeking out for the excellent extended “Silver Dollar” mix as well as its two brilliant b-sides, “False Face” and “Catwalk”.

17. Tom Waits – “Time” (1985)

There’s nobody remotely like Tom Waits. He’s a lyricist almost without peer. Waits’ whiskey and cigarette-smoked voice is that of a consummate storyteller, his nuanced and expressive phrasing injecting meaning and feeling into the words. His 1985 album Rain Dogs is one of the decade’s most essential, and its centerpiece is the poignant acoustic ballad, “Time”.

Waits doesn’t follow normal conventions in anything he does. He often begins each line of vocal a half-beat ahead of the guitar, so it falls dripping from the start of his voice like rain cascading to the pavement. “Time” is a sad portrait of grief and acceptance, of moving on from a devastating, senseless loss. Waits’ poetic lyrics reach the very soul of his characters. Each of them is struggling with something, such as the death of young men in war: “Well things are pretty lousy for a calendar girl / the boys just give right off the cars and splash into the street”.

Indeed, Waits’ masterful imagery in “Time” is melancholy. No matter how many times death visits, he’s always just around the corner with your loved ones in its shadow. Waits speaks from death’s point of view in the chilling verse, “So put a candle in the window and a kiss upon his lips / as the dish outside the window fills with rain / just like the stranger with the weeds in your heart / and pay the fiddler off ’til I come back again”. It’s a reminder, as if we needed another one, that time in this world is short, and the time we have to love one another grows shorter every day. Don’t waste it.

16. Sonic Youth – “Teen Age Riot” (1988)

Sonic Youth‘s 1988 album Daydream Nation is one of the cornerstones of ’80s alternative rock, and its high point is the seven-minute behemoth, “Teen Age Riot”. It begins hesitantly with a long hazy intro, Kim Gordon deadpanning “spirit desire / we will fall” and other murmurings. When the song finally gets going it turns into feedback-drenched surf rock, fizzing with voltage. Thurston Moore’s vocals peek through unassumingly from under a web of inexorable guitars. Drums crash during the long instrumental break notable for Gordon’s wildly untamed bass.

Strangely enough, the song was written as a fantasy imagining Dinosaur Jr. frontman J. Mascis as a kinda rock ‘n’ roll President who can harness the defiant energy of the youth. Moore explicitly references his fellow noise-rocker here: “You come running in on platform shoes / With Marshall stacks to at least give us a clue / Ah, here it comes / I know it’s someone I knew.” The lyrics are enigmatic but seem to imagine a world where leadership gives in to the innate rebelliousness of youth and allows them to learn from their foibles rather than allowing their mistakes to ruin and mark them for life, as is often the case now: “So who’s to go take the blame for the stormy weather / You’re never gonna stop all the teenage leather and booze / It’s time to go round / A one-man showdown / Teach us how to fail.” Learning how to fail isn’t always easy.

15. Jane’s Addiction – “Jane Says” (1988)

“Jane Says” is a gripping tale of drug abuse and a damaged relationship. It’s an idiom borrowed from Lou Reed, particularly echoing “Caroline Says”, which tackles a similar subject matter. “Jane Says” was first released in live form on Jane’s Addiction‘s self-titled 1987 debut, with the studio version appearing on their brilliant 1988 release Nothing’s Shocking. The song is notable for its simple, repetitive two-chord circular acoustic guitar, with steel drums sometimes echoing the pattern.

“Jane Says” was inspired by Perry Farrell’s ex-roommate, actually named Jane, and many of the struggles detailed in the song echo her life. We understand the Jane that Farrell is portraying and can even see her in our heads. Farrell’s voice is high and reedy, weighted with obvious empathy, particularly when he sings, “Jane says, ‘I’ve never been in love — no I don’t know what it is”, and “She don’t mean no harm, she just don’t know what else to do about it.”

“Jane Says” reached #6 on the Modern Rock Chart in November 1988, and nine years later, a live version charted at #25. Jane’s Addiction released two perfect albums, Nothing’s Shocking and its 1990 follow-up, Ritual de lo Habitual, but they then fractured into pieces before reuniting in 2003 and again in 2011 with a much slicker, heavily produced hard rock sound.

14. Depeche Mode – “Everything Counts” (1983)

Depeche Mode are often dismissed by critics who view them as lightweight, and it’s true that some of their early work hasn’t aged well. That said, their influence as electronic music pioneers is undeniable, and they’ve scattered dozens of essential recordings over a 35-year career that is still going strong. “Everything Counts” is Depeche Mode at their best (until 1990’s Violator, that is). Perhaps no line better defines the rapacious ’80s than, “The grabbing hands grab all they can — all for themselves, after all.”

“Everything Counts” is structured as a contrast between the rough-hewn verses with Dave Gahan’s bold baritone vocals and the sweet melodic chorus featuring Martin Gore’s smooth tenor. The arresting electronic arrangement is a cleverly conceived mix of multiple synthesizer parts and samples.

The lead single from the band’s third album, Construction Time Again, “Everything Counts”, reached #6 in the UK, and in America, it made the Billboard Dance chart, reaching #17. A live recording taken from the band’s successful 1989 live album 101 was also released as a single and hit #13 on the Modern Rock Chart.

13. U2 – “Bad (Live)” (1985)

Although “Bad” was included on U2‘s 1984 album The Unforgettable Fire, it’s the epic eight-minute live version from the Wide Awake in America EP that became a staple on college and rock radio. The recording was taken from a 12 November 1984 performance at the NEC Arena in Birmingham — the 37th show of the tour. By this time the band had honed the song into a dramatic powerhouse with a soaring passion and intensity that is absent from the comparatively sedate studio recording. From the bright keyboards that open the song to the Edge’s glimmering lines of guitar and Bono’s towering vocal performance, “Bad (Live)” was the most powerful musical statement U2 had achieved up to that point in their career. It received enough airplay to reach #19 on the Mainstream Rock Chart despite its length.

This is a song that transcends the turbulent, political, and sometimes spiritually strident brand of rock for which U2 had become known since their Three EP debuted in September 1979. “Bad” is about addiction, a subject Bono has delved into numerous times. There is powerful yearning and inspiration driving the song, a feverish desire to help someone break their chains: “If I could through myself / set your spirit free / I’d lead your heart away / see you break, break away”. U2 takes a lot of flak for their supposed bombast these days, but perhaps some folks are so jaded that they are unable to take real passion radiating directly from the heart at face value.

12. The Church – “Under the Milky Way” (1988)

The lead single from Australian band the Church‘s fifth album Starfish, “Under the Milky Way”, is a brooding, elegantly orchestrated song with sparkling trills of keyboard and Steve Kilbey’s romantic baritone over a 12-string acoustic guitar. The distinct bagpipe-like solo is played from an e-bowed guitar sampled through a synclavier. The production and arrangements are stellar — the layers of sound all gel perfectly and create a wonderfully lush and mysterious vibe. The song’s beautifully haunting imagery is evocative of lost love and painful regret. “Under the Milky Way” is one of those songs that totally eclipses everything an artist has been about before and shapes everything the artist does thereafter. It reached #26 on the Hot 100, and the atmospheric video received substantial airplay on MTV.

The Church has recorded many great songs in the years since, but they have never really been able to escape the song’s considerable shadow. Their most recent album, Further/Deeper, is an outstanding gem that was released in the US earlier this year and has thus far been largely overlooked.

11. Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds – “The Mercy Seat” (1988)

“The Mercy Seat” sounds like boulders crashing down a mountainside while a hurricane of guitars, pianos, strings, and wildly crashing drums all slam into each other. Nick Cave inhabits the wretched mind of a condemned killer about to burn for his sins, “The Mercy Seat” representing both his awaiting electric chair and what he imagines will be his perch in the Kingdom of Heaven. The harrowing lyrics are a constant fission of Biblical and violent imagery, with Cave alternating between growling the verses like a psychotic zealot and chanting the choruses with feverish madness. He proclaims his innocence, and ends each maniacal verse with the resolutely defiant declaration, “I’m not afraid to die”.

As the mania builds intensity at each pass of the mantra-like chorus, the condemned begins dropping dark hints that his evil side did, in fact, kill. Perhaps the victim was his wife, as hinted by the lines: “My kill-hand is called E.V.I.L. / Wears a wedding band that’s G.O.O.D. / ‘Tis a long-suffering shackle / Collaring all that rebel blood”. By the end of the song, you can almost feel his blood boiling as the current of fire courses through his veins, his defiance fizzling away at the very last moment: “But I’m afraid I told a lie.”

“The Mercy Seat” peers into the demented inner thoughts of a malevolent spirit with a blistering ferocity and malevolence that only Nick Cave could have produced. It was the lead single from his aptly-named 1988 album Tender Prey. The shortened single version is notably more polished than the titanic seven-minute album version, which is far superior.