The Best Alternative Bands in the 1980s

During the 1980s, alternative music meant anything that mainstream radio would not play, which was mostly anything back then. If you want to listen to alternative music, you need to have an “alternative” station or a college radio station to hear them. 

1. The Smiths  


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 also have 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.

2. 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 is consisting 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 have continued to perform and record songs since then. 

3. 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 was a staple of the emerging style of music which is known as gothic rock. 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 have 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) [1]. 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 [2].

4. 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 have initially divided audiences within the hardcore punk scene of California’s Inland Empire before finding wider acceptance and eventually having 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.

5. Prefab Sprout

Prefab Sprout is an English pop band from England. The band became popular during the 1980s where nine of their albums have 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 in 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.

6. Depeche Mode

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 last albums of the band 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 [3]. 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.

7. 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 which 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 have been referred to as the most prolific band of the British post-punk movement. 

8. Sonic Youth

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 to the mainstream which led them to headlining the Lollapalooza festival in 1995, together with the bands Hole (led by Courtney Love) and Pavement [4].

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

9. 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. 

10. New Order

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.

11. R.E.M.

Formed in Athens, Georgia in 1980, R.E.M was an American rock band who is composed of Peter Buck on guitars, Bill Berry on drums, Michael Strip on vocals, and Mike Mills on bass and back-up vocals. The band was known for their unique approach in 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.”

12. Siouxsie and the Banshees

Described to be one of the “most audacious and uncompromising adventurers of the post-punk era” by The Times [5], Souxsie 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.

13. 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 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 indie sounds of The Smiths and goth tunes of Bauhaus [6], which made them stand out among other alternative rock bands during the mid-1980s.

14. Cocteau Twins

The Cocteau Twins was 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 bandmates’ Elizabeth Fraser and Robin Guthrie’s romantic relationship.

These are the top alternative bands of the ‘80s, which one did you remember listening to?

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