The Best Alternative Bands in the 1980s

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The 1980s were a time of big hair, bright clothes, and music that changed the world. Among the many sounds of the decade, alternative bands stood out for doing things differently. These bands weren’t afraid to experiment with new styles and ideas, creating music that still feels fresh today. From the jangly guitars of The Smiths to the electronic beats of New Order, the ’80s alternative scene was rich and diverse.

This article dives into some of the best alternative bands from the 1980s, exploring the unique sounds and unforgettable songs that made them stand out. Whether you’re a long-time fan or new to the genre, join us on a journey back to a time when music was all about breaking the rules and trying something new.

The Smiths

The Smiths in 1985

The Smiths were an English rock band that was formed in 1982 in Manchester. It’s comprised of Morrissey on vocals, Johnny Marr on guitar, Andy Rourke on bass, and Mike Joyce on drums. According to critics, The Smiths are one of the most important bands to emerge from the British independent music scene in the 1980s. They had singles that reached the top twenty of the UK Singles Chart, including “Meat Is Murder,” which hit number one. However, the band broke up in 1987 because of internal tensions, and they have also turned down several offers to reunite.

With other successful hits in Europe for their albums The Queen is Dead (1986) and Strangeways, Here We Come (1987), The Smiths hold a legacy in alternative music for their distinct fusion of 1960s rock and post-punk sound and a particular focus on bass and drums. The band’s former vocalist, Morrissey, later pursued a solo career and continues to perform today.

Suicidal Tendencies

Suicidal Tendencies is an American band that was formed in Venice, California, in 1980. The only remaining original member of the band is Mike Muir, the vocalist. This band is often credited as one of the “fathers of crossover thrash.” Currently, the band consists of Dean Pleasants and Ben Weinman on guitars, Ra Diaz on bass, and Dave Lombardo on drums. They have released 13 studio albums, but they achieved their first success with the release of their 1983 self-titled album, which spawned the single “Institutionalized.” The band broke up in 1995 but reunited a year later and has continued to perform and record songs since then.

The Cure

The Cure is an English rock band that was formed in 1976 in Crawley. During the 1980s, The Cure’s increasingly dark and tormented music, known as gothic rock, was a staple of the emerging style of music. After they released their “Pornography” album in 1982, their future was uncertain. It’s because Smith was keen to move past the gloomy reputation of their band to introduce greater pop sensibility into their music. They released popular songs in the 80s, such as “Let’s Go to Bed,” “Just Like Heaven,” “Lovesong,” and “Friday I’m in Love,” which gave them commercial popularity. In 2019, they were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

Did you know that some of The Cure’s songs were used as movie soundtracks? “Friday, I’m In Love” and “Lovesong” have both been featured (as reggae covers) in Adam Sandler’s rom-com “50 First Dates” (2004). Meanwhile, the award-winning drama “Boys Don’t Cry,” which starred Hilary Swank and Chloe Sevigny, took its title from the band’s hit song of the same name.

Camper Van Beethoven

Camper Van Beethoven is a rock band that was formed in 1983 in California. The style of this band mixes elements of pop, punk rock, folk, world music, and alternative country. They initially divided audiences within the hardcore punk scene of California’s Inland Empire before finding wider acceptance and eventually having an international audience. The first single of this band was called “Take the Skinheads Bowling,” which was released in 1987. The band disbanded in 1990 due to internal tensions, but the former members reunited in 1999 and made several new records.

Prefab Sprout

Prefab Sprout is an English pop band from England. The band became popular during the 1980s when nine of their albums reached the Top 40 in the UK Albums Chart. One of the band’s songs is “The King of Rock and Roll,” which ranked number 7 on the UK Singles Chart. The vocalist of Prefab Sprout, Paddy McAloon, is referred to as one of the greatest songwriters of his era. This band was also credited with producing the most beloved pop music of the 80s and as well as the 90s.

Depeche Mode

Depeche Mode in 1982

Depeche Mode was an electronic band from Essex that was formed in 1980. It currently consists of a trio of Dave Gahan on lead vocals, Martin Gore on keyboards and guitar, and Andy Fletcher on keyboards. It was in 1981 when they released their debut album, which brought them into the British new wave scene. The band’s last albums in the 1980s are “Black Celebration” and “Music for the Masses.” They had 54 songs in the UK Singles Chart and 17 top 10 albums in the UK chart.

Did you know that the members of Depeche Mode were heavily influenced by The Cure? Prior to forming Depeche Mode, Vince Clarke and Andy Fletcher formed a The Cure-inspired band named No Romance in China in 1977. Three years later, Clarke and Fletcher teamed up with Martin Gore and Dave Gahan, first as the band Composition of Sound, and soon after, they adopted the name Depeche Mode.

The Fall

The Fall is an English post-punk band that was formed in Greater Manchester in 1976. This band underwent lots of line-up changes, and the only constant member of it is Mark E. Smith, who is the band’s founder and vocalist. The Fall was not able to achieve widespread success beyond minor hit singles in the late 1980s and early 1990s, but they were able to maintain a strong cult following. The Fall has been referred to as the most prolific band of the British post-punk movement.

Sonic Youth

Sonic Youth in 1987

Sonic Youth was a rock band formed by Thurston Moor on guitar and vocals, Kim Gordon on bass, vocal, and guitar, and Lee Renaldo on guitar and vocals. It was formed in 1981 in New York City. These three remained together for the entire history of Sonic Youth while having short-term drummers in 1985. Before they evolved into a more conventional rock band, they emerged from the experimental no-wave art and music scene in New York. Sonic Youth became the most prominent of the American noise rock groups, and they are considered to be a pivotal influence on the alternative and indie rock movements.

From their popularity in the underground music scene, Sonic Youth emerged in the mainstream, which led them to headline the Lollapalooza festival in 1995, together with the bands Hole (led by Courtney Love) and Pavement.

Sonic Youth disbanded in 2011 following the separation and eventual divorce of lead singer and bassist Kim Gordon and guitarist Thurston Moore.

X

X is an American rock band formed in 1977 in Los Angeles. This band is among the first wave of punk and was able to release seven studio albums from 1980 to 1993. They achieved limited mainstream success, but they were able to influence different genres of music, such as folk rock and punk. Because of this band, Los Angeles was ranked 91st on Pitchfork’s Top 100 Albums of the 1980s. X received an Official Certificate of Recognition from the city of Los Angeles because of this.

New Order

New Order in 1985

Formed in 1980, New Order is an English rock band that was formed after the disbandment of another band, Joy Division. This band is composed of Peter Hook on bass, Bernard Summer on guitars and vocals, Stephen Morris on drums, and Gillian Gilbert on keyboards. New Order mixed dance music, electronic music, and post-punk, which made them one of the most celebrated and influential bands during the 1980s.

New Order received massive airplay during the 1980s with their hits “Blue Monday,” “Confusion/Walking on Sunshine,” “Ceremony,” “Bizarre Love Triangle,” and “Temptation,” among others.

R.E.M.

R.E.M. on tour in 2008

Formed in Athens, Georgia in 1980, R.E.M was an American rock band which is composed of Peter Buck on guitars, Bill Berry on drums, Michael Strip on vocals, and Mike Mills on bass and backup vocals. The band was known for its unique approach to music. The band received critical and commercial success throughout their career, and they managed to produce international hit songs such as “Everybody Hurts” and “Losing My Religion.”

Siouxsie and the Banshees

Described to be one of the “most audacious and uncompromising adventurers of the post-punk era” by The Times, Siouxsie and the Banshees first gained prominence with their debut album, The Scream, in 1978.

Led by vocalist Siouxsie Sioux, the band established their presence in the alternative rock scene with tracks such as “Hong Kong Garden,” “Spellbound, later on with “Kiss Them for Me.”

With their knack for experimenting with goth rock, punk, post-punk, and new-wave genres, Siouxsie and the Banshees are regarded to have influenced musicians and bands, including Joy Division, The Cure, The Smiths, and Depeche Mode.

Echo & the Bunnymen

Hailing from Liverpool, Echo & the Bunnymen first achieved cult status with their debut album Crocodiles in 1980. They later emerged into the mainstream with the UK’s top 2 hit, “The Cutter,” and another top 10 single, “The Killing Moon.”

Echo & the Bunnymen are known for fusing post-punk and synthpop themes, putting them somewhere in between the indie sounds of The Smiths and the goth tunes of Bauhaus, which made them stand out among other alternative rock bands during the mid-1980s.

Cocteau Twins

Cocteau Twins in 1986

The Cocteau Twins were best known for the song “Pearly-Dewdrops’ Drops” in 1983, followed by “Carolyn’s Fingers,” “Iceblink Luck,” and “Heaven or Las Vegas,” which all ranked within the top 10 of Billboard’s Alternative Airplay charts between 1988 and 1990. Formed in Scotland in 1979, the Cocteau Twins disbanded in 1997, subsequently after the disintegration of bandmates Elizabeth Fraser and Robin Guthrie’s romantic relationship.

Talking Heads

Talking Heads in 1980

Talking Heads was a band that started making music together in the mid-1970s and was popular in the 1980s. They were known for their unique sound, which mixed rock with other types of music like funk, African rhythms, and art punk. The band had a way of making songs that were both catchy and a bit strange, which made people really pay attention. Their lead singer, David Byrne, had an unusual voice and a way of performing that stood out. One of their most famous songs is “Once in a Lifetime.” Talking Heads made music that was different from what other bands were doing at the time, and they became very popular for it. They showed that rock music could explore new ideas and still be something a lot of people would enjoy.

The Jesus and Mary Chain

The Jesus and Mary Chain is a band from Scotland that started making music in the early 1980s. They were known for their loud and noisy guitar sounds mixed with sweet, catchy melodies, almost like mixing the noise of a buzzing chainsaw with the beauty of a lullaby. Their music had a big wall of sound, which means they used a lot of feedback and distortion to create a very full and powerful effect.

Despite the noise, their songs often had simple, catchy tunes that stuck in your head. One of their most famous songs is “Just Like Honey,” which shows off their style perfectly. The band was part of the alternative rock scene, and they influenced many other bands with their unique sound. They showed that music could be both beautiful and rough at the same time.

Pixies

Pixies is an American band that started in the mid-1980s and quickly became one of the most influential acts in the alternative rock scene. Their music is known for its dynamic mix of loud, raw guitar noises and quiet, melodic parts. This “loud-quiet-loud” style was something new and exciting at the time, and it went on to inspire many other bands, including the famous grunge band Nirvana.

Pixies’ songs often feature unusual and interesting stories or themes sung by the distinct voices of Black Francis (the lead singer and guitarist) and Kim Deal (the bassist). One of their most famous songs is “Where Is My Mind?” which showcases their unique sound and has been used in movies, TV shows, and commercials. Pixies’ music is celebrated for its creativity and energy, making them a key part of rock history.

The Replacements

The Replacements in 1984

The Replacements were a band from Minneapolis, USA, that started in the late 1970s. They were known for their raw and heartfelt style of rock music. Unlike many bands of their time, they mixed punk’s energy and rebellion with the deeper feelings and stories found in traditional rock and roll. Their music was like a diary, filled with honest and sometimes messy emotions about life, love, and growing up.

The Replacements didn’t care much for being perfect or polished; instead, they played with passion and a kind of rough charm that made their fans love them even more. Songs like “Can’t Hardly Wait” and “Bastards of Young” showed their ability to combine catchy melodies with real, down-to-earth lyrics. The band had a big influence on alternative rock, showing that it’s okay to be vulnerable and imperfect in music.

Violent Femmes

Violent Femmes is an American band that became famous in the 1980s for their unique blend of punk rock and folk music. Their sound is easy to recognize because it’s a bit like a street performance – very raw and filled with energy. They use acoustic guitars, which are not very common in punk music, but they work perfectly for them, giving their songs a catchy and upbeat rhythm.

Violent Femmes are best known for their honest and straightforward lyrics about teenage life, love, and the frustrations of growing up. Their song “Blister in the Sun” is one of their most popular tracks and has become a classic. Even though their music talks about heavy and sometimes dark themes, they manage to keep it light and fun to listen to, making them a favorite among fans of all ages.

Conclusion

As we look back at the 1980s, it’s clear that it was a golden era for alternative music, with bands that pushed the boundaries of rock and introduced us to new, exciting sounds. From the poetic lyrics of The Smiths to the groundbreaking electronic beats of New Order, each band brought something special to the music scene.

These groups not only defined the alternative genre during their time but also left a lasting impact on the music we listen to today. Whether you’re revisiting these classics or discovering them for the first time, the innovative spirit and raw emotion of these bands continue to resonate with listeners around the world. The 1980s may be long gone, but the music and the influence of these alternative bands are timeless.

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