The ’80s are usually looked upon in two different mindsets. The first is usually through the prism of mass-culture nostalgia from those who were there. The other school of thought was that the ’80s were a hotbed for creativity. Forget the songs that you were playing when your mom met your dad. How about the music that was truly new? Our list of era-defining ’80s songs has a foot in both camps, with a phantom limb or two in others.
These kinds of lists are always a lightning rod for discussions both casual and heated. We went through various genres of music and looked for the crucial songs that sparked both consciousness (read: fans) and influence (e.g., consecutive generations of musicians). What they all have in common is that they woke listeners up to musical realms they may have never discovered otherwise. Of course, what’s radical at one point sooner or later becomes public domain. But at the time, these were the tracks that populated a generation’s mixtapes.
Because Alternative Press was born in the middle of the decade, there are some tracks that figured big in that history, as well. Whatever didn’t fit in radio’s tightly playlisted programming was deemed “underground,” then “new wave,” then “college rock” (because university radio stations were built by adventurous music directors and DJs) and then “alternative.” Here are some bands who dug the foundation for what would later be defined as “alternative rock.” If these bands had never come to fruition, we may have only had this to measure our rock ’n’ roll evolution.
Gary Numan – “Cars” (1980)
In the late ’70s, Gary Numan was the leader of a punk band called Tubeway Army because, well, that’s what you did back then, apparently. When he was making his band’s debut album, he discovered a Minimoog synthesizer some band had left in the studio. After breaking through in the states in 1979 with the synth-laden track “Are ‘Friends’ Electric?,” Numan did away with the name and began making music under his name. “Cars” was issued in the U.K. in 1979 before hitting the U.S. the following year. (We didn’t have an internet to erase oceans between us back then.) Numan was considered by many to be a one-hit wonder, but people from Trent Reznor to Jack White knew the score. Also, did anybody notice that this song doesn’t have a chorus? A prime era-defining ’80s song.
Black Flag – “Six Pack” (1981)
Forty years ago, if someone ever started a compilation album called Now That’s What I Call Hardcore, this Black Flag bruiser would’ve been side one, cut one. Yes, the production is shoddy. Henry Rollins didn’t get a poet laureate award from a major university for the lyrics. But it’s not like the band (or their fans) had a couple of extra fucks under the seats of their van to give about it. When when you reach that headspace where everything sucks and things had better change soon, you’re going to need a theme song. Or a mantra. In 1981, this song (from the legendary Damaged) did double duty.
The Go-Go’s – “Our Lips Are Sealed” (1981)
With “Our Lips Are Sealed,” this Los Angeles all-girl quintet had the feel-good hit of the summer and beyond. But let’s break it down: Yes, the band played bona fide punk gigs on bills alongside such bands as the Germs, X and Fear. The Go-Go’s also signed a one-off single deal with the v. cool U.K. punk label Stiff Records. The song was written by guitarist Jane Wiedlin and Terry Hall (of U.K. ska pioneers the Specials) and became a No. 1 hit. And the band members played the songs themselves. Let’s see: punk cred, pop sensibilities and the historical accomplishment. There’s no reason why this track shouldn’t be on the list. Check out their debut, Beauty And The Beat right now.
Bauhaus – “Ziggy Stardust” (1982)
A lot of Americans think Van Halen’s take on the Kinks’ “You Really Got Me” is vastly superior to the original. While preparing to play “Hurt,” Nine Inch Nails’ Trent Reznor has prefaced it as “a song that’s not mine anymore.” (That’s in righteous reverence to the late Johnny Cash’s version.) So is there something wrong with mentioning the world’s legendary goth band for covering a David Bowie standard? No. Because Bauhaus ramped up everything on this track, from Daniel Ash’s glass-bomb-sharp attack to Peter Murphy’s majestic roar. Bowie’s sweet ’70s ride was chromed out with some horsepower attitude dropped in. If this was your first intro to Bauhaus (“Bela Lugosi’s Dead” was released in 1979), it’s totally fine. It remains an era-defining ’80s classic.
Metallica – “Hit The Lights” (1982)
Mötley Crüe released their debut album, Too Fast For Love, in 1981, and a lot of other pretty boys with guitars followed suit. Fortunately, when Lars Ulrich and James Hetfield started Metallica a few years later, creme-rinse conditioner and Clinique counter gift certificates were the farthest things away from their intentions. “Hit The Lights” is considered to be a turning point for underground metal, powered by accelerated tempos and twisted shredding. Metallica are also important for being one of the bands who bridged metal and punk at a time when neither tribe wanted sweet fuck all to do with one another.
New Order – “Blue Monday” (1983)
New Order’s 1981 debut album, Movement, was an admirable attempt to shake off the memory of Joy Division. But it wasn’t until the band went to New York City and immersed themselves into the nascent stages of hip-hop and electro that they ended up with this game-changing, electronic-rock classic. The drum machine programming and ramped-up synthesizers were anchored by Peter Hook’s idiosyncratic bass tone, making it the perfect crossover for listeners to get their Dr. Martens on the dance floor. It’s since been covered by self-described fashion bitches Orgy, sampled by Rihanna and is one of the biggest-selling 12-inch singles in history. It’s an era-defining ’80s song that influenced a lot of the electronica that came after it.
The Smiths – “This Charming Man” (1983)
This may be the only British band who’ve helped define their country’s indie scene, Britpop and a lot of modern emo. With frontman Morrissey’s articulate ruminations on why life is futile and Johnny Marr’s chiming guitars, the Smiths were genuinely exciting and morose. “This Charming Man” is powered by Marr’s African highlife guitars and Morrissey’s slightly neurotic take on a romantic encounter. It was an amazing calling card to a generation of listeners wanting something new and vibrant. For that small four-album window in the ’80s, the Smiths were incredible.
Depeche Mode – “People Are People” (1984)
Depeche Mode began their techno-pop voyage with perfunctory, quaint tracks such as “Just Can’t Get Enough” and “New Life.” But with the advent of the industrial music happening (Einstürzende Neubauten, Test Dept) and the sampling technology, a rethink was in order. “People Are People” was the first time their melodic aspects were offset by clattering samples. To his credit, chief songwriter Martin Gore has penned songs that translate flawlessly when played on acoustic instruments.
The Replacements “I Will Dare” (1984)
The Replacements were college-rock darlings who made scrappy records and played ramshackle gigs. The band cut punk and hardcore’s thrashiest aspects with great melodies and lyrics that never failed to connect. Let It Be, the Minneapolis team’s final record for the indie leagues, connected on such a visceral and heartfelt level, it was only a matter of time before the major labels would visit, showing off the covers to their new checkbooks to offer the band a deal. The Replacements were a high point in a decade where growing up was not tantamount to being boring.
U2 – “Pride (In The Name Of Love)” (1984)
Ireland’s favorite sons raised a lot of American pulses with their 1980 debut, Boy. But “Pride” (taken from their fourth album, The Unforgettable Fire) really cements the band’s reputation as creators of genuine anthems. This song, a tribute to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., remains resonant given the current world awareness of the Black struggle in America. In a moment of history that was often labeled as “the Me decade,” U2’s support and admiration for a great figure in American history felt like a wake-up call that America had been hitting the snooze bar on for entirely too long.
Kate Bush – “Running Up That Hill (A Deal With God)” (1985)
British singer-songwriter Kate Bush never did a lot of touring in America. But “Running Up That Hill (A Deal With God)” defied the odds to receive a passionate response over here. The song, which addresses the communication gap between men and women, has continued to move artists since its release. British treble-rocking’ unit Placebo delivered a haunting version of it in 2003; Meg Myers’ take on it came out last year; and most recently, Emma Ruth Rundle participated in a version for Two Minutes To Late Night this past summer. This may be the only song to be used in both the CW series The Vampire Diaries and WrestleMania XXVI…
Bad Brains – “I Against I” (1986)
Bad Brains raised the bar so high in the evolution of hardcore, most bands got altitude sickness trying to reach it. Sure, the band had already broken land speed records with their 1980 single “Pay To Cum.” But the title track from their 1986 album was another sonic milestone with hairpin turns, gear-stripping tempo shifts and musicianship as tight as a mosquito’s anus. In less than three minutes, Bad Brains had incorporated their sonic passions (hardcore/metal/reggae) into one whirling ball of plasma. An era-defining ’80s track that’s been paid forward to this century.
Cocteau Twins – “Love’s Easy Tears” (1986)
The Cocteau Twins’ formula of lush, dreamy guitars occasionally peppered with phonetics (as opposed to lyrics) was captivating from their 1982 debut, Garlands. This single is one of their most narcotic releases, with copious washes of delay and reverb and Liz Fraser’s curious approach to vocals. The trio have been considered everything from a goth gateway drug to major architects in the development of dream pop.
Sisters Of Mercy – “This Corrosion” (1987)
Since their early ’80s beginnings, the Sisters Of Mercy have been considered a cornerstone of gothic rock. (Their 1985 full-length debut, First And Last And Always, is essential, whether you identify with the g-word or not.) This tenet has always perturbed founding frontman Andrew Eldritch. After the rest of the band were discharged from their duties, he teamed up with Patricia Morrison and hired Meat Loaf producer/collaborator Jim Steinman to oversee some songs from SOM’s next album, Floodland. “This Corrosion” was much more robust melodically, effectively putting the Sisters on the mainstream map.
R.E.M. – “It’s The End Of The World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine)” (1987)
Since their early days in 1980, R.E.M. were a genuine conduit for underground culture and independent thought. You know that cartoon meme of the dog sitting in a room having a drink with the caption “This is fine”? This single from the respected Athens, Georgia, unit is a lot like that. When previous records matched Michael Stipe’s seemingly impenetrable lyrics over Peter Buck’s jangling guitars, this song has always been a laugh in the face of disaster. These days, we’ve got a pandemic and civil annihilation from Russia. What goes around comes around. Oh, and don’t forget your mask if you’re voting in person at the polls.
Mudhoney – “Touch Me I’m Sick” (1988)
By the late ’80s, hardcore leaned too far toward hurting people to hurt than reacting honestly to the music. Mudhoney’s debut single “Touch Me I’m Sick” turned the underground on its head with its early ’70s Detroit rock signifiers (Stooges, MC5), distortion unit worship and a filter-free frontman in the form of Mark Arm. A whole new grunge vibe (and era-defining ’80s song) from the Pacific Northwest was happening. (Curl up with a copy of Mark Yarm’s gloriously illuminating Everybody Loves Our Town for more deets.) Sure, Mudhoney ended up being groomsmen as Nirvana were rolling up the pop culture altar. But everybody who heard this single had to have it and, subsequently, everything else on the mighty Sub Pop label.
Pixies – “Gigantic” (1988)
There was no way the Boston-based Pixies could’ve had any idea what they were doing would go on to influence generations. David Bowie raved about them and couldn’t understand why American radio wouldn’t play them. Kurt Cobain had admitted how influential their loud-quiet-loud dynamic had on Nirvana. Move it up a little further and consider how bassist/co-vocalist Kim Deal would go on to help define a post-grunge landscape as a member of the Breeders. On this track from 1988’s Surfer Rosa, Pixies made us forget about hair metal, AOR rock and everything else that quite simply didn’t fucking matter anymore. No list of era-defining ’80s songs should be without Pixies.
Ministry – “Stigmata” (1988)
Ministry mainman Al Jourgensen has a storied career of being a punk, a post-punker, a new-wave personality and a raging psychopath on the veneer of industrial rock. “Stigmata” from Ministry’s perfect album The Land Of Rape And Honey jacked up the power sweepstakes like the winning circle of a Venn diagram of punk, avant-noise and straight-up confrontation. It’s like witnessing a train wreck and then watching parts of the engine fall off and melt. It’s a blistering song from the ’80s that fits our current dystopia quite nicely.
The Cure – “Fascination Street” (1989)
In their storied career, the Cure have gone everywhere from minimalist post-punk to deranged art-punk to metal-adjacent neurosis. But “Fascination Street” is the track where the masses completely flocked to Robert Smith and co’s idiosyncratic darkness. Disintegration, the album from whence it came, was such a profound success, given how so incredibly opaque the record is. Did Smith set the scene for grunge’s 100-db manifestation of depression that became the start of the next decade? Not that it matters: Arena goth begins right here, with an ’80s-defining era song that’s still haunting.
Nine Inch Nails – “Head Like A Hole” (1989)
While the industrial genre did have its supporters, it was Nine Inch Nails’ Trent Reznor who took that culture into the mainstream. Previous singles from his debut, Pretty Hate Machine, felt like Depeche Mode on a steroid-induced rage. But “Head Like A Hole” was the track that made the rivetheads take notice and fall to their knees. Then hobble over to the merch booth to empty their wallets in submission. Reznor injected his first-person musings into industrial rock’s mechanized fury, changing the genre permanently. It was an ’80s-defining era song that pushed way into the ’90s.