If you can get passed the mullets and shoulder pads, the big hair, legwarmers and fingerless gloves, the ‘80s was actually a remarkable decade for alternative music. Here are some of our favorite lesser-known indie songs from the bullish eighties—timeless tracks that every Ray-Ban donning, pegged jeans wearing fan of alt rock should acquaint themselves with before their next ‘80s-themed dance night.
Did we miss your favourite? Let us know in the comments.
Pixies – “Debaser”
Okay, it may be a bit of a stretch considering “Debaser” underrated, but unlike “Here Comes Your Man,” which features prominently in the cult film 500 Days of Summer, or “Where is My Mind” which plays during Fight Club’s iconic final scene, “Debaser” lacks a memorable pop culture moment. Never released as a single and rarely talked about as one of the band’s finest tunes, it’s been growing in popularity since ’89 nonetheless. A track that eschews the band’s usual quiet-loud structure, for an all-out maelstrom of guitar fuzz, tambourine, and Frank Black’s unhinged howl, it holds up as well as anything in Pixies’ catalogue.
The Smiths – “There Is A Light That Never Goes Out”
Their time in the sun may have been brief, but when The Smiths were ‘on’ in the 80s, few bands burned as brightly. Yes, “This Charming Man” may be the go-to party track for Smiths lovers these days, but “There Is A Light That Never Goes Out” is perhaps their most quintessential work. The morbid, evocative lyrics, the silky, inimitable vocals, Johnny Marr’s singular guitar style—it’s a tune that any fan of British alt-rock should know.
New Order – “Age Of Consent”
Prescribing to the age-old philosophy ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,’ “Age of Consent” is 5+ minutes of Peter Hook’s damn-near perfect bass-line (the decade’s best for my money), buttressed by spikey rhythm guitar and propulsive, high-hat heavy drumming. While it never reached the stratospheric heights of singles like “Bizarre Love Triangle” and “Blue Monday”, the opener from Power, Corruption & Lies finds it’s own bit of transcendence in playful, earnest simplicity. It’s a track that sounds more like Bloc Party, The Rapture, or any number of great post-punk bands from the early 2000s than a throw away song from 1983.
Sonic Youth – “Teenage Riot”
Despite the long runtimes, violent eruptions of noise, and utter and absolute refusal to make “pop music,” Daydream Nation is one of the most important alt-rock albums of the ‘80s. And “Teenage Riot” is its noisy, ebullient centerpiece. Like Broken Social Scene? Nirvana? Any kind of guitar-based indie music? You probably have Sonic Youth to thank.
Dinosaur Jr. – “In a Jar”
What the song lacks in polish, J Mascis and Lou Barlow more than made up for in wild teenage zeal. A shambling piece of Proto-grunge that starts and ends with no warning, and is, of course, anchored by a ripping Mascis solo. Few loser love songs from the 80s spoke so directly or effectively to their intended audience, and none did so with more zeal. If you don’t know these modern rock legends, do yourself a favor and pick up a copy of the 1987 track “You’re Living All Over Me”.