Best Alternative Albums of the 80s : Part 2
So it seems our “Top 20 Best Alternative Rock Albums of the 80s” left out too many prime candidates, and we need to add to the list. The public has spoken. Well, a few people at least.
Therefore, I have decided to add to these selections by choosing the best and brightest 3-4 albums per each year of the decade. Although there will still be many deserving records left out, let’s just call this the best alternative albums of the 80s – part deux.
Before we get started, I would like to make a couple disclaimers. As I mentioned in the first list, it is often difficult to define what is alternative, so here are some of my less-then set in stone parameters:
- Though I specifically stated “rock” albums in the original 20 list, I stretched this a little in a few cases. For example, not sure if New Order is really a “rock” band. But it’s my list, so I say it is allowed. For this list, I will just say “alternative” albums.
- In the first list, I kept it to what I felt was each band’s best or most influential album. For this list, I have included some bands more than once – because they deserve it.
- I have put this in table format with not a lot of commentary – I have added links on the album title for relevant reviews. Though I can add my opinion, others have said it better before me. The fact that the album is on the list means I really, really like it already.
- Minnesota bands may be over-represented, but I think The Replacements and Hüsker Dü were true pioneers of “alternative” music, so “let it be” – it’s my list.
So let’s get started. For those who are interested in classic rock vinyl for their collection, we have a summary of what we would recommend, as well as new vinyl albums just released.
Best Alternative Albums of the 80s : By Year
|Talking Heads||Remain in Light||Considered an early new wave band, they emerged from the 1970's punk New York scene with an arty masterpiece. Contains the classic single "Once in a Lifetime", an abstract take on alienation and existentialism.|
|XTC||Black Sea||Although a little harder edged than their earlier 70s releases, Black Sea was still full of pop hooks and melodies. Combined with sharp introspective and sometimes political lyrics, this was an underappreciated classic of the early 80s indie scene.|
|Pretenders||Pretenders||Tremendous debut album by a pioneer in new wave post-punk pop. Chrissie Hynde's distinctive vocals anchored classic songs like "Brass in Pocket".|
|X||Los Angeles||With a punk rockabilly sound, combined with the unique vocal stylings of Exene Cervenka and John Doe, X had a West Coast sound all their own. With poetic lyrics about topical issues as well as the struggles of daily life, the music had an authentic darkness and grit.|
|Wall of Voodoo||Dark Continent||Sometimes relegated to one-hit wonderland for their oddball single "Mexican Radio" on their 2nd album, the debut album is a classic, full of weird spaghetti western pop-rock. Stan Ridgeway's unique nasal vocals and often absurd lyrics make this band and album truly one of a kind.|
|The Psychedelic Furs||Talk Talk Talk||More than just the song "Pretty in Pink", the Furs defined post-punk new wave / art rock attitude. Vocalist Richard Butler had a unique raspy, almost mechanical vocal style, but the lyrics spoke of human melancholy and angst.|
|The Replacements||Sorry Ma Forgot to Take Out the Trash||An early shotgun blast from the bad boys of Minneapolis, it contained a high dose of punk attitude and sloppiness, while signaling changes to come. Paul Westerberg was still finding his lyrical and melodic legs, but this was a strong start to a career that had more influence than commercial success.|
|The Jam||The Gift||The farewell album for Britain's mod revivalists The Jam. A major hit, but more importantly, just a great album (IMO) full of short, poppy but edgy northern soul songs.|
|Bad Brains||Bad Brains||Fastest, loudest, hardest - this was hardcore Rastafarian punk. Originally a jazz fusion band, they were hugely influential for later hard rock / reggae bands of the 90s.|
|Simple Minds||New Gold Dream||One of Scotland's finest exports, this album was one of their best, before there became a poor man's U2. Huge in the UK, they were still relatively unknown in the US, but this album highlighted all their pop/rock strengths.|
|Social Distortion||Mommy's Little Monster||With punk fury and power chord rock punch, this album set the stage for later more melodic work in the 90s. Mike Ness's tales of losers and loners, sung in his distinctive nasal snarl, hits hard and fast.|
|The Replacements||Hootenanny||Pretty much love every song on this album. The beginning of the clear divergence from their punk roots towards a more pop sound, while still retaining the snotty lyrical edge. A grab bag of styles, showcasing versatility nobody knew they had.|
|R.E.M.||Murmur||Although the album title could have been "mumble", the lyrics are not important - the sound is the thing. REMs debut was a harder edged version of a folk record, full of angst and southern atmosphere.|
|R.E.M.||Reckoning||A jangle pop/rock masterpiece even if you can't always understand the lyrics. My personal favorite REM album, full of moody greatness in every song.|
|The Replacements||Let It Be||The first "real" Mats album, showing what they could do - and what they wouldn't. They could create great songs like "I'll Be You" juxtaposed with "Gary's Got a Boner". Clearly demonstrated the dichotomy that defined their "almost was" career - punk non-conformists with pop sensibilities.|
|Echo and the Bunnymen||Ocean Rain||While lush and dark, the album retains it's pop/rock song structures, with Ian McCulloch's deep goth-tinged vocals on top. The highlight single was "The Killing Moon", making them Liverpool's second biggest band.|
|The Smiths||Meat Is Murder||Lyrically political and musically diverse, the sound was driven by Johnny Marr's 60's style guitar and Morrissey's plaintive vocals. The song "How Soon Is Now" was added in US release - my favorite Smiths song.|
|Husker Du||Flip Your Wig||The last of Husker Du's SST catalog before major label success, this set the standard for more pop-driven hooks to come. Bob Mould's guitar still rages, as do his lyrics. Grant Hart pounds the beat and sings with passion and angst.|
|The Cult||Love||The start of their transition to a more straightforward rock sound, this album still was heavily influenced by goth and psychedelia. Billy Duffy's searing guitar and Ian Astbury's signature howl created a dense atmospheric sound.|
|XTC||Skylarking||They sounded like a throwback 60's pop psychedelic band - think of a cult version of the Beatles. The addition of the single "Dear God" in later pressings only enhanced the power-pop with a message feel.|
|BoDeans||Love & Hope & Sex & Dreams||John Couger without the flash, heartland pop/rock with an edge. Sweet harmonizing vocals and staccato guitar gave this debut a sound unique to this Wisconsin band.|
|Husker Du||Candy Apple Grey||Easily my favorite Husker album - there is no filler here, just great rock songs with just an edge of their earlier punk thrash. Evolving further into more lyrical and melodic song structures, it's a more accessible version of the band without losing their hard edge.|
|The Replacements||Pleased to Meet Me||Few songwriters can mix it up like Paul Westerberg. From the dramatic tension of "The Ledge", to the urgent longing of "Skyway", to the snarky lyrics but poppy beat of "Can't Hardly Wait", the band could switch gears as well as any band of the era. Criminally underappreciated in their time.|
|Midnight Oil||Diesel and Dust||With overtly political lyrics, speaking to issues of environmental destruction and human rights, the music of this band is often deemed secondary. However, with strong rock / pop melodies and Peter Garrett's earnest shout-sing vocals, the music stands up on it's own.|
|The Jesus and Mary Chain||Darklands||While the guitar focus stayed similar to the earlier Psychocandy, this was more straightforward rock and gasp, ballads, although plenty of reverb remains. Both Reid brothers sing with a more introspective tone than more punky previous work.|
|The Church||Starfish||Although they may sound a little British in their influences, this Australian quartet created an atmospheric, moody minor masterpiece. With songs like "Under the Milky Way" and "Destination", the album was top 40 capable while keeping an indie vibe.|
|My Bloody Valentine||Isn't Anything||Whether termed dream pop, shoe gazer, or experimental, MBV's innovative guitar "noise" sound and heavy drum and bass rhythms are akin to Sonic Youth, but more psychedelic in tone. This is arguably their best album, or at least a strong prelude to 1991's classic Loveless.|
|Living Color||Vivid||Besides the huge hit "Cult of Personality", this debut album showcased the bands strengths - Vernon Reid's sizzling metal jazz guitar artistry, Corey Glover's heartfelt vocals, and often funky rock beats. One of the early bands breaking down barriers in the hard rock arena. One of my favorite records of the era for it's uniqueness.|
|The Pixies||Surfer Rosa||Short and to the point. The quiet/loud blueprint for later grunge. With the cryptic weirdness of the lyrics, wiry guitar and influences of hard rock, punk and pop, the album covered a lot of ground. The 80s didn't get much better than this.|
|Concrete Blonde||Free||Featuring Johnette Napolitano's distinctive howling whiskey and cigarettes vocals and James Mankey's wiry metallic guitar, Concrete Blonde's hard-edged and emotional songs hit hard. The band could rock hard as in the single "God is a Bullet" or slow it down without losing an edge like "Scene of a Perfect Crime".|
|Screaming Trees||Buzz Factory||Their last record on SST, this may not be quite up to their 90s work, but the ingredients were set - Mark Lanegran's deep raspy vocals, with heavy bottom end and psychedelic, grinding guitars. See also recordings by Mudhoney, and of course, Nirvana - setting the stage for what was to come.|
|The Cure||Disintegration||Melodramatic, dark, self-loathing, haunting, etc, etc. This is the Cure at their goth-pop best, incorporating all the lyrical and musical elements that made them one of the most influential bands of the era.|
|Faith No More||The Real Thing||Classic metal guitar, power drumming, a little funk - and piano. Add one of rock's more versatile vocalists in Mike Patton. The ingredients were set for a schizophrenic hard rock album that presaged the nu-metal of the 90s - and did it better.|
What Have We Learned
It is my belief that for the last 50 years of the 20th century, every decade had it’s game-changing rock movements. The 50’s had the blues and Elvis, the 60’s had the Beatles, Stones and “experimentation”, the 70’s had future classic and metal rock, as well as, yeah, disco – which was really just a form of dance-floor funk.
The 80s was a little of all those eras past, with the beginning of the indie or alternative scene – it was a response to the glossy and sugary pop, as well as the “corporate rock” of the 70s. The bands that made music outside the mainstream of the era were the influences that led directly to the grunge and alt-rock explosion of the 90s.
My verdict is still out on the 21st century so far. Although there is a lot of good rock music still being made out there, with the advent of the digital age we have lost a lot of the “album” rock of the past. When every song of every band is at your fingertips the experience of really listening to an artist’s collection of songs as a whole seems to be fading into the past.
This is part of the reason that we focus on the vinyl form of music – it is a link to this more immersive experience of the past. It’s more than just nostalgia, it is an ethos, a philosophy. Or that’s what I tell myself – maybe I’m just a rock dinosaur. So be it.
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