Usually when people think of ’80s music, the first artists that come to mind might be Michael Jackson, Cyndi Lauper, Madonna, Prince, Duran Duran, a-ha, and other MTV staples. and Top 40. was a golden age for pop music, although some of the quintessential hits of the ’80s have aged better than others. Many young music fans in particular regard ’80s music as hopelessly out of date, and in many cases, they are right. But like all decades of music, there’s another layer of music that overall doesn’t fit right into Top 40 playlists (at least in the US).
My first question: what is an alternative? When it comes to music from the ’80s, or any decade for that matter, the answer is never really clear. “Outside the mainstream” is not really a sufficient definition. After all, there are a lot of artists who reside outside the limited universe of Top 40 radio and who wouldn’t be considered alternative: folk, metal, country, reggae, bluegrass, orchestral, jazz, blues, some hip. -hop and others. “Alternative” requires a certain edge, a particularly adventurous atmosphere, a very specific sensitivity. It’s hard to put your finger on it exactly, but you know it when you hear it.
The term “alternative” didn’t really gain importance until the very end of the 80s and the beginning of the 90s. Before that, we had punk, post-punk, new wave, college. rock, underground, modern rock and other more specific labels like goth, industrial, new romantic, ska, power pop, hardcore, indie rock, etc. as part of what would be considered an alternative. Of course, it also depends on the artist, the album, the country, even the listener. There are songs that reach the top of the singles charts in the UK or elsewhere – the 1979 Boomtown Rats classic “I Don’t Like Mondays”, for example, “A Town Called Malice” by Jam or David Bowie “Ashes to Ashes” – which had no chance of becoming a mainstream hit in America.
Most would agree that Blondie’s first tracks, all released in the ’70s, would fit into the alternative realm, but what about their chart-topping pop hit streak? They had four No. 1 singles in three years: “Heart of Glass”, “Call Me”, “Rapture” and “The Tide Is High”. Can an artist with this level of commercial pop success still be considered an alternative? It seems a lot more doable if it’s an artist breaking through with a surprise hit – like Love and Rockets with “So Alive”, for example, or “Luka” by Suzanne Vega. Sometimes it’s just a judgment call. Many of these songs fall into multiple categories and many that have been left out as not being alternatives could very easily be considered by others to fit into this label quite well. There is necessarily and inevitably a degree of subjectivity not only in choosing which songs to include and in their ranking, but also in determining which songs can be considered as alternatives in the first place.
The most important factor in compiling and ranking the list is artistic significance, with cultural significance also being taken into account. Only one song per artist is selected and only songs released in the 80s are included. There are some omissions that some might find surprising. The Ramones, for example, released almost all of their most important work in the ’70s, as did Wire and Television. Early MTV staples like “Pop Music”, “Cars” and “Video Killed the Radio Star” were all released in the 1970s. The Clashes London call, one of the most important albums of the genre, was released in December 1979, narrowly lacking in eligibility.
Likewise is that of Depeche Mode Violator, which hit stores in March 1990 (although the single “Personal Jesus” was released in 1989 and was therefore eligible for review). Although the term “singles” is used in the title, it is used lightly. As long as the song is a key track on the album or represents a major song in the artist’s repertoire, it does not need to have had a single physical release. There were nearly 400 songs on the initial list of potential candidates for inclusion, and the reduction to 100 involved heartbreaking cuts. Lots of great songs aren’t included, but we’re left with 100 of the best and most important songs of the decade spanning a vast expanse of stylistic territory. At the very least, even if you don’t pay any attention to the rankings, it’s a great starting point to explore some of the surprisingly diverse and powerful music of the ’80s that still holds up today.
Editor’s Note: This list was researched and curated by Chris Gerard, and it is not a staff-wide list.