The 25 Best Alternative Bands of the 1980s

Rob O'Connor

New Order is touring, as are two original Smiths, Morrissey and Johnny Marr (separately, of course). So what better time to discuss the 25 Best Alternative Bands of the 1980s? Just call it synergy!

Alternative in the 1980s basically meant anything that mainstream radio wouldn’t play. Which was mostly everything back then. You had to either have an “alternative” station or a college radio station available to hear most of these acts. It was a painful process deciding on the final 25. At the start of the decade, R.E.M. defined college radio but by the end of the decade were considered too mainstream, but I allowed them on the list. So many bands just missed: Black Flag, Butthole Surfers, Echo & The Bunnymen, Love & Rockets, Cocteau Twins, the Meatmen, Dinosaur Jr., the Pogues, Nick Cave, the Descendents, the Misfits, O.M.D….but 25 is 25…

And you want to know what’s really crazy? I don’t even like some of the bands on the list! I’d rather listen to “War of the Superbikes” by the Meatmen than anything by Depeche Mode. But sometimes you (that’s me, actually) have to put things on the list for “historical balance.” Or else you know what happens? Life becomes meaningless.

25. Suicidal Tendencies

Any college radio DJ from the mid-’80s can attest that “Institutionalized” by Suicidal Tendencies was requested on a daily, sometimes hourly, basis. The guy wore a bandana on his head that looked like it should have gone in his mouth.

24. Camper Van Beethoven

"Take the Skinheads Bowling" was another one of those endless requests. Had that catchy title that kids couldn’t resist. The rest of their catalog had its moments as well and the albums looked different than those by others since they used lots more cardboard. But as I learned the hard way, you can’t eat cardboard. But it does hurt your teeth less than aluminum foil.

23. Depeche Mode

Damn, these guys were popular with girls. Male DJs often played their records in hopes that they’d get lots of calls from the female listening audience. Which when you’re mostly dealing with a bunch of teenage boys requesting Suicidal Tendencies and the Cro-Mags, might seem like a decent option. Me? I’d just play country music and get everyone off my back.

22. Sonic Youth

By playing atonally for their first few releases, everyone felt like Sonic Youth had made “progress” by the time they actually recorded some listenable songs. By decade’s end, they were huge. Glenn Branca must’ve been confused and very, very angry.

21. XTC

DJs loved them. I don’t know if the audience did. Well, if you played the “hits” they seemed OK with it. But most DJs couldn’t help themselves and would play the album’s “deep cuts” and then everyone either got angry or confused, much like Glenn Branca.

20. The Cramps

By playing rockabilly like it was modern psychosis, the Cramps managed to endear themselves to people who were looking for something beyond a good time. Or more likely considered a visit to the mental hospital to be like a real vacation.

19. Bauhaus

Yes, “Bela Lugosi’s Dead” got requested every time someone played something that even barely resembled a “Goth” tune. Bauhaus spearheaded anentire movement that refused to exist until after dark. Work the midnight shift or shut up!

18. New Order

Well, they knew Joy Division was kaput, since their lead singer hanged himself and killed not only himself but their U.S. tour. Regrouping took some time and when it did, they slowly emerged merrier than you would’ve expected. But methinks they wanted to sell some records and make some dough. Can’t blame them. I like electricity, too, and I, too, felt the cold slap of reality when I learned it wasn’t free. Capitalism isn’t that good sometimes.

17. R.E.M.

How a Byrds cover band became the beacon of hope for all college radio bands remains one of life’s deep mysteries. OK, they didn’t cover the Byrds so much as emulate their jangle. But R.E.M. went straight to the top of every college radio playlist you can imagine by employing a singer who started his career mumbling. Who would’ve guessed they would end up making Warner Bros. spend tens of millions of dollars just to put out their records? That’s a lot of money and an amazing redistribution of wealth.

16. Siouxsie & The Banshees

Siouxsie knew that plenty of people would be intrigued by her unusual makeup job, so then she worked on the hair. She gave Robert Smith of the Cure some side work while he was in financial need and her general place in history is reserved with most of the Goths who all wanted to be her so bad, they almost were.

15. Psychedelic Furs

With a singer who sounded like he drank Drano for fun, the P-Furs unfortunately ran out of gas sometime around mid-decade, frustrating their fans who were sure there was more in the tank. I hate it when that happens. They’ve reunited since, of course.

14. Violent Femmes

Their debut album ensured them a place in history. That every album afterwards lacked the immediate impact is something that, well, happened. Everyone defends a different album and claims to like one more than the others. Just goes to show how “personal taste” is what it is. ButI’ve never heard anyone argue against the debut.

13. Public Image Limited

When Johnny Rotten, er, Lydon, formed this “group,” he was in danger of becoming a Can/Amon Duul II cover band. But luckily most people had never heard those German byproducts thanks to onerous trade agreements. Then the “group” began to splinter and members left and Lydon hired studio pros and the “group” got noticeably worse. Until there was nothing left. Andpeople grew tired of his ranting. But for a short few moments, it was as if he was going to change society as we know it. Didn’t happen. Or did it?

12. The Jesus & Mary Chain

By turning up the feedback and acting really stoned, the Chain managed to evoke the Velvet Underground and lots of bubblegum pop bands without becoming either. They were like a foreign band who lived in your backyard. Where’d they get that cool tent?

11. The Go-Betweens

I’ve written about these gents a few times now and naturally SALES HAVE BEEN THROUGH THE ROOF. Thank you, dear readers. It is always a pleasure to learn my powers are omnipotent (a word I don’t understand, but I’ve been told applies). The Australian economy has been rescued by your valiant efforts. We should all own more of their albums, even if it means buying themfor a third time.

10. Sisters of Mercy

I wasn’t so keen on their mid-’80s comeback. “This Corrosion” doesn’t really do it for me. But when they first appeared, so dreary, so mechanical, and now so out of print… well, their versions of “Gimme Shelter” and “1969” were pretty intriguing. And that album, First, Last, and Always, got played to death on my college radio station, so much so that they gave me the damn thing because it was virtually unplayable, having been bled white. Sounds kinda cool that way. Like an old blues recording.

9. Duran Duran

Oh, the pressure is on here. The dark overlords of Yahoo Music have spoken. “Find a place for Duran Duran or else cease to exist in the body and mind given to you by the Yahoo Music Gods.” So I read the terms of my contract very closely. I called in my legal team (Beck, Bogart, and Appice). “Will you put The Duran Durans on your list already?” all three spoke in unison. So, yes, here they are, young men who changed the world, who made young women do unspeakable acts, and who understood MTV before most of us had any idea it even existed. (My family celebrated running water in 1982, not cable TV.) I will now live to see another day. (I think.) If not, existence was a pleasant notion and I wish I’d had more Dairy Queen Blizzards.

8. Husker Du

Their records range from hummable to unlistenable. Anyone who tells you they listen to Land Speed Record for enjoyment is either lying or in denial. But Zen Arcade, New Day Rising, Flip Your Wig, and Candy Apple Grey were a solid foursome. I once asked Bob Mould why the vocals sounded so muffled on parts of their records. I thought maybe it was a deliberate aesthetic. He laughed and told me they were just trying to get the records done fast to keep under budget. You succeeded, boys! Your fiscal responsibility has not gone unnoticed.

7. The Replacements

Loved, hated, a glorious mess. The ‘Mats would take your lunch money and spend it on crap. You want to know why we’re in such an economic mess? It’s because of those big wigs on Wall Street taking risks with other people’s money, but we’ll blame it on these schlumps because it’s easier and people can relate better to the idea of irresponsible young men blowing their meager allowance on candy, gum, and other things sold on the streets. Or something like that. Can I borrow a billion dollars now?

6. Robyn Hitchcock & The Egyptians

Who doesn’t love someone who doesn’t make sense? You should never try to get too literal with Hitchcock. He defies meaning by circling the range. You get the idea from him and then it’s up to you to connect the dots. Or just allow your mind to follow him into his own Magical Mystery Tour. He also has a rather large head. It’s kind of disturbing.

5. X

By the time I arrived on “the scene,” X was already battling an inability to procure a mainstream audience. I saw them on two separate Dick Clark programs and you could sense they weren’t going to connect with the outside world. They were a cult band whether they played punk, country, rock… it’s just the way it was. It’s a hard thing to accept. At least I know, judging from all the loving comments this blog inspires, I’m going places!

4. The Fall

If one band could represent the atonal end of alternative rock, it would be these John Peel faves. Mark E. Smith somehow managed to take his tone-deaf mutterings and turn them into prophetic pronouncements about nothing in particular. Sometimes it sounds as if he’s eating while he’s ranting. Sometimes it sounds like the band is stuck in a loop. And sometimes they sound like a garbage truck finding their way down a dirt road. I need a nap.

3. Prefab Sprout

PS was garish, overproduced, slick, smooth, and with horrible fashion sense, but Paddy McAloon wrote songs that snuck up on you. I hated these folks when I was a college radio DJ. They represented everything I despised. Then something happened. I can’t explain it. But I became a different person. I saw the light. I found meaning where once there was none. I once was lost but now was found. So I did what any “found” person would do. I got myself a hot dog. With mustard. And ketchup.

2. The Cure

You could say they deserve the top spot. They were everywhere on college radio in the ’80s and they did it with records that sounded so different from each other. “The Love Cats” never did much for me, but Pornography was the sound of a soul being skinned alive. And I’ve always been a big fan of records that reflect a complete emotional breakdown. He says, he’ll never be clean again? Yeah, I’m going to boycott soap, too!

1. The Smiths

It’s a shame Morrissey and Marr couldn’t get along. They probably won’t even reunite if they getinto the Rock and Roll Hall of fame next year. I’ve interviewed Marr twice and found him to be one of the friendliest guys in the music business. So I have to assume that it’s Moz who’s the difficult one here. But when they worked together, it was magic. You never got stuck with a record with song titles like “I Will Always Love You” or “My Baby Left Me,” titles so uninspired as to put to question why anyone would bother in the first place. No, with titles like “Still Ill,” “There is a Light That Never Goes Out,” “Shoplifters of the World Unite,” “Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now,” you just have to listen, even if it makes you an even unhappier person than the one you were when you started.