The Alternative Side of the ‘80s: A Playlist

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By Faith Vara
Music Journalist

Generally when people think of 80s music, some of the artists that first pop into their heads include Michael Jackson, Madonna, Prince, Whitney Houston and any other staples of the Top 40 hits. There’s no doubt that the ‘80s were a golden age for pop music, but like all musical decades, there’s another side of music that didn’t necessarily fit into the Top 40 rankings. A more “alternative” side, if you will. Made up of genres such as post-punk, new wave, college rock and other more specific labels like goth and industrial, all of these fit under the umbrella of what is considered to be “alternative.”

Let’s take a look at some featured songs:

“Dreams Never End” – New Order:

After the death of Joy Division’s frontman Ian Curtis, newly-formed New Order set out to release their debut album, Movements, in 1981. As the first track on this album, “Dreams Never End” features bassist Peter Hook on vocals, as opposed to frontman Bernard Sumners. Although Hook is primarily known for his addicting basslines, his monotone vocals fit well on this track, which are very reminiscent of Curtis’ voice. However, what Hook lacks in vocal range he makes up for in his expressive bass playing. His riffs can be compared to those from Joy Division like “Shadowplay” and “Digital,” providing yet another memorable performance. Hook’s bass playing, along with machine-like drumming and glistening guitar lines, add a sense of motion and danceability to the track, setting the bar for what would become New Order’s irresistible sound.

“Only a Shadow” – The Cleaners From Venus:

From their 1982 album Midnight Cleaners, The Cleaners From Venus became pioneers for future DIY musicians with this track. This track, which MGMT would later go on to cover, uses dark textures and post-punk sadness to darken their ‘60s-influenced pop approach. The jangly guitar sounds and repetitive lyrics during the chorus of this song are enough to get the listener hooked. Listen to this track and you will be able to hear the similarities of many current-day artists such as Ariel Pink, DIIV, Real Estate and Beach Fossils.

“April Skies” – The Jesus and Mary Chain

As the first single released from their second LP, Darklands, “April Skies” provides a more confident expression of dark pop, compared to their first album. While stripping away their use of clamorous guitar noise used throughout most of their previous album, “April Skies” still manages to exhibit a sense of danger in lines such as “making love on the edge of a knife” and “shaking hand, life is dead.” This track, along with many other tracks from Darklands, exemplifies a sense of nostalgia that’s hard to resist falling in love with.

“Rip It Up” – Orange Juice:

In 1982, Orange Juice released their infectious and quirky track, “Rip It Up.” With a mixture of a Chic-inspired guitar riff, a catchy synth bassline and a wailing saxophone solo, it’s easy to assume that this song would sound just like any other pop song of its time. However, this track has as much to do with new wave as it did the post-punk scene they originated from. Almost sounding like a funked version of Talking Heads, “Rip It Up” is a timeless indie dance classic that’s guaranteed to get your head bobbing along to the beat.

“The Fan and the Bellows” – The Chameleons:

In the mid 1980s, The Chameleons released post-punk anthem, “The Fan and the Bellows.” Beginning with a scratchy guitar riff that continues throughout the rest of the track, The Chameleons continue to add key post-punk elements such as a driving bassline and hard-hitting guitar lines. While the verses present a gloomy and somber mood, the chorus offers a brighter and happier sound that gives the listener a sense of hope and nostalgia. The climax towards the last minute of the track will leave listeners in awe, as layers of guitars, bass, drums and a subtle synth mix together perfectly.

Now fasten your seatbelts because it’s time to explore some of the most diverse and powerful music that the ’80s has to offer.

Featured image by Faith Vara.

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