The 80s, big perms and shoulder pads. The age of the Yuppy and cheesy music. 80s nostalgia is still a big thing. You only have to be a fan of Stranger Things to see how the 80s are still relevant. However the 80s was not all Duran Duran and Wham. I hope you enjoy reading my Top 20 Alternative 80s Songs.
I have added the Spotify playlist at the end of the post.
If you listen please turn it up loud.
#1 – Life’s What You Make It
What a great song to start this list of Top 20 Alternative 80s Songs. Talk Talk where one of those bands that should have been bigger than what they were. This song is breathtaking. Released in 1985 from The Colour of Spring album. “It’s My Life” was probably there biggest hit single, which was covered by ‘No Doubt’
Lead Singer Mark Hollis sadly passed away earlier this year. He was quoted as saying “I want to write stuff that you’ll still be able to listen to in ten year’s time.” With this fantastic tune his wish was granted.
Baby, life’s what you make it
Don’t backdate it
Baby, don’t try to shade it
#2 – She Sells Sanctuary
Get ready to rock. Two years before ‘Sweet Child o’ Mine’. Rock ‘n Roll was alive and well in the mid 80’s. This is not Bon Jovi. This song kicked ass.
This was the staple song to start the school disco. The song has all the key ingredients to make a classic rock song. Big riffs, loud vocals and banging drums.
Lead singer Ian Astbury hails from Hoylake, Merseyside. He was influenced by the Doors’ song “The End”, which he heard while watching the movie Apocalypse Now, later describing this as “a religious experience”. Enough said.
“What’s the song about? Sex. Plain and simple, it’s about sex. I’ve had sex and I’m very proud of that fact,” said Ian Astbury in 1994.
And the fire in your eyes keeps me alive
Inside her you’ll find sanctuary
Inside her you’ll find sanctuary
And the world, and the world, the world drags me down
#3 – Ship of Fools
This song is magnificent in so many ways. Lead singer Karl Wallinger, was a former member of another great group ‘The Waterboys’. He left The Waterboys after falling out with Mike Scott. They released the song in 1986 from their debut album ‘Private Revolution’
Wallinger is World Party. He wrote, produced, and played most of the songs on the album.
They released the song when Margaret Thatcher was in her 7th year as PM in the UK. The lyrics aimed at the greed and materialism. The Ship of Fools led by right-wing policies. Not very much has changed with today’s political climate. The Ship of Fools has a biblical and environmental theme that has been explored in a variety of songs and films.
We’re setting sail to the place on the map
from which no one has ever returned
Drawn by the promise of the joker and the fool
by the light of the crosses that burned.
Drawn by the promise of the women and the lace
and the gold and the cotton and pearls
It’s the place where they keep all the darkness you need.
You sail away from the light of the world on this trip, baby.
You will pay tomorrow
#4 – Lost Weekend
Lloyd Cole and the Commotions
The song was released from ‘Easy Pieces’ in 1985. It was their highest place Top 20 UK hit.
This jolly song bounces along like a Labrador puppy. But don’t be fooled. The lyrics by contrast are somewhat darker. The lyrics are a little obscure, is he ill or simply hungover? If your going to have a lost weekend, where better than Amsterdam.
I was a king bee with a head full of attitude
Wore my heart on my sleeve like a stain
And my aim was taboo, you
Could we meet in the marketplace?
Did I ever hey please, did you wound my knees
#5 – 24 Hour Party People
Before ‘Step-on’ announced the Happy Mondays to a larger audience. This primitive but funky as James Brown on coke bad ass tune, highlighted everything good about the Mondays. Bouncing bass line. Keyboard direct from the Casio handbook. Obscure lyrics and Shaun Ryder’s unique vocals.
Released on their debut album ‘Squirrel and G-Man Twenty-Four Hour Party People Plastic Face Carnt Smile (White Out)’ in 1987.
Plastic Face Carnt Smile (white Out) is a strange phrase. But, we have all been there haven’t we? Allegedly when taking E you have a tendency to gurn and even have plastic face. All good fun and games!
The video is fun time. Life in Madchester in the late 80’s stolen cars, drugs and disco beats. It appears that Bez is driving in which case how the hell did they survive?
How old are you? Are you old enough?
Should you be in here watching that?
And how old are you? Are you owning up?
Should you be in here with?
Twenty four hour party people
Plastic face can’t smile the white out
#6 – Big Audio Dynamite
Mick Jones from the Clash formed Big Audio Dynamite in 1984. Released from their debut album in 1985. Its a fabulous song which still sounds just as fresh today.
The song is a tribute to film director Nicholas Roeg. It features several samples from his various movies. There is dialogue from ‘Performance’ which starred Mick Jagger and Edward Fox. There is also reference to “The Man Who Fell to Earth” starring David Bowie, “Space guy fell from the sky”. The song is considered to be one of the first rock songs to feature recorded samples. Way to go Mick.
Space guy fell from the sky, scratched my head and wondered why
Time slides into time across international dateline
Scientist eats bubblegum; hall of fame, baseball
Senator’s a hoodlum, big chiefs in the hall
Ritual ideas, relativity
Holy buildings, no people prophecy
Time slide, place to hide, nudge reality
#7 – Talking Heads
This Must Be the Place (Naive Melody)
Talking Heads are one of my favourite groups that I never seen. Their live performances are amazing. They are such a tight group honed by years of playing together at CGBG’s and the like. If you have never seen the complete ‘Stop Making Sense’ video. Stop reading this and go and seek.
Talking Heads where quirky and funky. They never wrote many love songs but this a beautiful and laid back tune.
I’m just an animal looking for a home and
Share the same space for a minute or two
And you love me till my heart stops
Love me till I’m dead
#8 – Stone Roses
I am the Resurrection
Possibly one of the best debut albums of all time? I remember buying ‘She bangs the drum’ on single and have great memories of seeing them play live at Spike Island. This song finished the self-named album and what a song to finish a magnificent album.
The song begins with Reni’s drum leading into Mani’s bass. The chorus is hymn like. It’s just under halfway when the song really kicks into gear. John Squire’s guitar playing is on point. Part Led Zep meeting Hendrix acid fusion. Immense.
Your face it has no place
No room for you inside my house
I need to be alone.
Don’t waste your words I don’t need anything from you,
I don’t care where you’ve been or what you plan to do.
#9 – theThe
One of my personal favourite songs on this list of alternative 80s Songs.
This was the first song I’d heard proper by one of my all time favourite groups. I remember watching the video above intrigued by the intensity of the lead singer. The lyrics are amazing. How many top 30 songs can get away with lines such as “This is the place, where pensioners are raped, And the hearts are being cut from the welfare state”. Released in 1986 from the superb album ‘Infected’ which I cannot recommend enough. They only released a handful of albums and I love them now just as much. Matt Johnson featured in my post for my Top 10 Singer/Songwriters.
The song was like a sharp kick in the balls of UK politics at the time. Lead singer Matt Johnson said in NME interview “I’m attacking those working class Tories and middle class who still think Britain is on a par economically with France and Germany… I wanted to write a classic song which is basically representative of its time, a record that in 1999 people will put on and it will remind them exactly of this period of time… you know it took 18 months to write on and off because I knew it was the most important song I was writing”
The song’s chorus laments the UK morphing into the 51st state of the USA. Over 30 years later not very much has changed if anything it’s got worse.
This is the land where nothing changes
The land of red buses and blue blooded babies
This is the place, where pensioners are raped
And the hearts are being cut from the welfare state
Let the poor drink the milk while the rich eat the honey
Let the bums count their blessings while they count the money
#10 – New Order
Age of Consent
Released in 1983 on Power, Corruption and Lies. New Order’s second album opened with this sublime song. Lot’s of people wax lyrical about Joy Division and rightly so. Ian Curtis was a legendary but tragic front man. But for me New Order where different and a little obscure. There influence can still be heard today. Most of their songs where electronic masterpieces. They hid away with very little publicity. There albums released on the legendary Factory records label where miniature works of art.
The song bounces along with Hooky’s bass line snaking along like a drunk driver. The lyrics deal with the dying embers of an illicit underage relationship. The Age of Consent in the UK is 16.
When the synths drift in they sound ecstatic. The song is just over five minutes of joy.
I saw you this morning, I thought that you might like to know
I received your message in full a few days ago
I understood every word that it said
And now that I’ve actually heard it, you’re going to regret
#11 – Kate Bush
But every time it rains
You’re here in my head
Like the sun coming out
Ooh, I just know that something good is going to happen
And I don’t know when
But just saying it could even make it happen
#12 – Public Enemy
Bring the Noise
Rap is not my favourite genre. I have always preferred rock. However, this song is a weapon. Public Enemy kicked audio ass. It’s a powerful political scornful blast.
Beat is for Sonny Bono, beat is for Yoko Ono
Run-DMC first said a deejay could be a band
Stand on its feet, get you out your seat
Beat is for Eric B. and LL as well, hell
Wax is for Anthrax, still it can rock bells
Ever forever, universal, it will sell
Time for me to exit, Terminator X-it
#13 – The Waterboys
The Waterboys broke big with, “The Whole of the Moon” which was their biggest hit. They still tour now and release good albums to date. This song took a long time for me to like. Released in 1985 as part of the excellent third album, ‘This is the Sea’. It’s a moody and slow number. As far from “The Whole of the Moon”, as you could get, its polar opposite. The saxophone is superb. For me it’s the lyrics that make this song so special
The lyrics deal with Thatchers policies which affected the UK during the 80s. This was a time of doom and gloom. Rising unemployment and the use of heroin as a way of escape. It’s both sad and beautiful and unfortunately correct and still applies now.
I just freeze in the wind and I’m
Numb from the pummelin’ of the snow
That falls from high in yellow skies
Down on where the well loved flag of England flies
Where homes are warm and mothers sigh
Where comedians laugh and babies cry
Where criminals are televised politicians fraternize
Journalists are dignified and everyone is civilized
And children stare with Heroin eyes
#14 – 808 State
The song that introduced dance music. Just kidding I wouldn’t be that presumptive. The late 80’s where a great time to be alive. Not because of all the doom and gloom caused by Thatcher. The joy of being around when Acid House was beginning was something else.
#15 – Simple Minds
Theme for Great Cities
Simple Minds had the massive hit ‘Dont you forget about me’. The NME and Melody Maker would often slate them for not being relevant. For me this came about from them being as popular as they were. Music snobbery annoys the shit out of me. There early releases where influenced by David Bowie which is never a bad thing. Not when it’s this good. This song could sit alongside the songs that made up Bowie’s ‘Low’ LP. Jim Kerr was a massive Bowie fan. The band name originated from Bowie’s ‘Jean Genie’ song.
#16 – The Teardrop Explodes
Bless my cotton socks, I’m in the news
The king sits on his face buttons all askew
All wrapped up the same (same)
All wrapped up the same (same)
They can’t have it
You can’t have it
I can’t have it too
Until I learn to accept my reward
#17 – De La Soul
Me, Myself and I
Poems I speak are plug two type
Please oh please let plug two be
Himself, not what you read or write
On the soul, de la that is,
Style is surely our own thing
Not the false disguise of showbiz
And this fact I can’t deny
Strictly from the dan called stuckie
And from me myself and I
#18 – The Cure
Just like Heaven
Spinning on that dizzy edge
Kissed her face and kissed her head
Dreamed of all the different ways, I had to make her glow
Why are you so far away she said
Why won’t you ever know that I’m in love with you?
That I’m in love with you?
#19 – China Crisis
Black Man Ray
Are we believing
The heavenly survive
Faith the future
Big life on their side
And we the people
Who can but try
As time goes by
#20 – Prince
How could I have a Top 20 Alternative 80s Songs and not have Prince on there? Okay you could argue that he was mainstream. But for me Prince was anything but mainstream. Prince was his own entity. There are very few artists that define their own genre. Bowie fall into this category.
The song starts with a simple 4/4 drum beat and a funky guitar. It builds on and just gets better as it goes on. This was Prince finding himself. Released in 1981 on his 4th album of the same name. The song addresses the speculation about Prince at the time. His sexuality, was he straight or gay? Racial background, was he black or white? His religious beliefs. He sings in first person and third person. The song was a little controversial due to the lords prayer recital on the album version. Maybe this was Prince praying to God for the answers. I love the last verse where he says ‘I wish there was no black or white, I wish there was no rules.” Maybe this is the answer.
Five days before the album was released. Prince was the support act with The Rolling Stones on their ‘Tattoo You’ tour. He played to an audience of 90,000 Stones fans. Who didn’t take kindly to this strange relatively unknown singer. More power to Prince.
Well that’s my list of Top 20 Alternative 80s Songs. I hope you enjoyed reading. I would love to hear comments or feedback. Do you agree with my choices? Have I missed out anything obvious.