A couple of years ago, I posted the best of the 90s, and the best of the 00s, from my point of view.
So, here is the fourth part of my look at the 80s, the decade I grew up in (I was born in 1978). I discovered many of these bands subsequently, yes. But music is a voyage of discovery, and I enjoy continuing on that.
[Note: This was written a while ago, and like the other lists, has been left as it was written originally – only the formatting has been updated and corrected where appropriate.]
My appreciation of Tom Waits came much later than the 80s, that is for sure. The young me – along with my siblings – thought this alien-sounding, bizarre music was horrid, unlistenable stuff, and it took a good few years, well into the nineties, before I finally appreciated the chaotic brilliance at the heart of Tom Waits’ music. The opening track of probably his greatest album is the enduring favourite for me, though, a curious sea-shanty that shakes, rolls and wheezes it’s way through weird tales of seafarers and the odd men that choose to take up the dangerous profession of going to sea. Like all of Waits’ best material, though, these are glorious short stories that reward time spent on them and, more importantly, repeated listening.
I’m not one for Christmas songs – in fact, I detest most of them thanks to having worked in retail at Christmas for a few years when I was younger and less wise. Oh yes, nothing to get you out of the Christmas spirit more than listening to the same sodding songs all day, every day, in the run-up to Christmas. However, there is the odd exception to this, mainly as they don’t fit that mould – that of enforced jollity and an altogether fake view of a holiday period. So one of the joys of this song is the resonant reality in it. OK, not the jail time on Christmas Eve, but that of getting boozed up at Christmas, times of dreams, hopes and reflection, and that realisation that not everything is all wonderful. But to do it in such an affecting way, and with such a tune? It is stirring, it is both joyous and desperately sad, and is the one song I’ll happily hear again and again as autumn turns into winter, and Christmas approaches once again.
Ni Upanja, Ni Strahu
No Hope No Fear
Contemporaries of Laibach, their fortunes diverged a while back, and indeed aside from a two-CD compilation of the best of their material in 2009, I thought they’d long gone – so it was quite a surprise to see them return on Metropolis this year with a brand new album (and they play BIMFest in Antwerp in December, too, which I’ll be at). The new material sees them taking a different direction (almost Snog-like) at points, but the political lyrics are still there, but interestingly mainly in English. So quite a departure from their greatest moments in the eighties, like this: industrial dance music with a burning heart – the title translates as “No Hope No Fear” and in (what was to become) Slovenia in the late-80s, I can help but feel this would have been the feeling amongst those wanting change.
Back In Black
So how do you deal with the loss of your iconic lead singer to alcohol poisoning? Well, in the case of AC/DC, you find a new singer the other side of the world, record what becomes your finest album, and sell over 50 million copies of it. Clearly something just clicked, and the album Back in Black was stuffed with some of their most enduring anthems, including this, the doomy opener that represents something of a passing of the torch from Bon Scott to Brian Johnson – and also of course the use of a fucking enormous bell to make the appropriate sound effects. No cowbell here…
Angel of Death
Reign In Blood
Thrash or death metal, who gives a fuck? Slayer’s twenty-nine minute blast is rightly noted as one of the greatest metal albums in existence – a view that nearly three decades on is still unquestionable – but most importantly it is bookended by two of the greatest metal songs of all, without which Slayer’s legacy would not be what it is (and, perhaps, they wouldn’t be cut so much slack on new albums, either). Either could have made it here, but Angel of Death‘s relentless, hurricane force blast wins by a severed finger, for the iconic riff, that scream that opens things, the hyperspeed breakdown and solos, the simple fact that this has been a gateway into extreme metal for many. Above all, though, it still sounds fucking amazing.
I am far from the only person that didn’t discover Nirvana until Nevermind – I was only eleven in 1989, although I was already starting to discover some alt. stuff by that point, but was very much relying on MTV – and indeed I have had something of a difficult relationship with Bleach for many years. The (much) rougher feel compared to the polished, radio-ready Nevermind was the first barrier to overcome, but also there were some songs that just did nothing for me. Not so Negative Creep, which was always the standout on the album for me, the grinding, repetitive riff, bass and refrain, along with what I always saw to be somewhat self-deprecating, tongue-in-cheek lyrics, coming together to make a truly brilliant proto-grunge song. Some of the covers that have come since – and there have been a few of this one – are worth your time, too.
Shake Your Rump
As they moved on from being smarmy kids pissing around with rap and rock – which admittedly is still fun now – their sonic adventures into hip-hop, funk, sampling, electro, bluegrass and anything else they heard with the assistance of the Dust Brothers to make Paul’s Boutique sounds like they had suddenly become the musical equivalent of astronauts. That is, that rather than just dabbling with ideas, instead they sound like they’ve been trained on everything to go where no-one had gone before. This track, the awesome first single, used elements of no less than twelve other songs but never feels a mish-mash, instead being a hard-funk whole that was catchy as hell. In fact, the Beastie Boys never, ever got better than this.
Dead Eyes Opened
Dead Eyes Opened EP
Always something of an outlier musically and geographically – Australia is a hell of a long way from everywhere else, of course – Tom Ellard and his Severed Heads project as a result went in rather different directions to many contemporaries. Rather than an outright, nasty darkness, his dance-tinged industrial music instead used sardonic humour frequently, with impressive samples and visuals, and a habit of allowing songs to unfold at length, brevity apparently never being a strong point. His best-known track remains, and always will, frankly, be this track, a hypnotic 4/4 march with samples telling the titular tale where an apparently dead body is not, well, dead…
Welcome To The Jungle
Appetite For Destruction
A remarkable 27 years old, this album, and while it has dated, it hasn’t dated half as much as the tired cock-rock that this album helped to sweep away. OK, so this song – and much of the rest of the album – came from the same, murky pit that is the LA rock scene that a whole lot of cock rock came from, but this lot had a harder edge, a more steely attitude, and crucially, the motherfuckin’ tunes. And nowhere did it get better than this track, surely one of the greatest opening tracks (and opening statements!) from a band in history. In four blistering minutes it managed to send the band crashing through the door, but also showing the vulnerability and wide-eyed wonder of being new in town, accompanied by a thundering rhythm and awesome riffage.
The Cure reached their peak, as far as I’m concerned, with the sprawling, nightmarish darkness of Disintegration, an album so bleak I’ve always been amazed that it was such a success (over three million copies sold!). The lead single, though, is and was a thing of utter beauty – a curious, slow-march of a “lullaby” that details a nightmare of being eaten by a human-sized spider, and sounds and is so much more beauteous and elegant than the description could ever do justice to.
One of the first “hardcore” bands to evolve from punk, it took Henry Rollins joining them in time to release Damaged to really make this band as influential and important as they are now. Rollins added a new level of power, intensity and anger to the band, delivering furious missive after furious missive, but also recognising that there was time for moments of humour (TV Party in particular!) but also positivity. And that is what makes Rise Above so affecting. While their constant touring and inclusive nature in bringing people into hardcore did so much to influence others to form bands and carry the torch on, it would be nothing without irrepressible anthems like Rise Above providing the words and fire behind their actions.
Geburt Eine Nation
Laibach’s career has now unfolded for more than longer than thirty years, with various changes of line-up but rarely a change in outlook or direction. Their quasi-martial take on industrial pokes fun at western tastes, western politics and frequently subverts the whole idea of pop music with startling results, and none more so than with this, where they took Queen’s One Vision, translated it into German and gave it a Wagnerian makeover that, to put it mildly, makes it sound very different indeed, without ever changing the meaning of the words.
Carter the Unstoppable Sex Machine
Carter never really became fashionable in the indie scene – perhaps because they were smarter than that and decided to stay out of the way and plough their own furrow. It worked, too, with a string of hits and robust sales for a good few years. Yeah, they had a romantic side (just check their ballads and covers), and a general sense that they actually identified and supported the causes and things they sang about, but also they had a viciously angry side, unleashed in songs such as this – where they called out a number of famous slum landlords (the song itself was summed up by a shitty landlord of their own), a London issue back in the late-80s, and frankly an even more pressing issue now. The song fucking rules, needless to say.
Life’s Too Good
Remarkably, Björk’s recording career actually goes back to the seventies, so by the time The Sugarcubes first single Birthday dropped like a bombshell, she was pretty much a veteran already in musical terms. There were many striking things about The Sugarcubes, but needless to say Björk’s extraordinary voice was the most obvious. As it soars and weaves amongst the band’s distinctly odd take on eighties alternative music, it was perhaps easy to see in retrospect that Björk was a singular talent.
The Sisters of Mercy
Lucretia My Reflection
I’ve something of a soft spot for the later-period (i.e. Floodland/Vision Thing) Sisters output, particularly their majestic singles of that era – none of which were anything other than anthemic (their constant appearances in goth club playlists even now, nearly twenty-five years on in some cases, attests to their staying power). Trying to pick one of these to put in this list was really bloody hard, too, but I’ve decided to plump for this – the thundering, stately sweep of the song that actually sounds better in the extended, eight-minute version, the beat powering on as Andrew Eldritch growls his way through a song that appears to be a bitter kiss-off to his ex-band members. The bitterness doesn’t sink the song, however – indeed by the time we get to the monstrous chorus it just elevates it even higher. My favourite thing about the video, though? The bemused looks on the Mumbai cotton mill workers as Eldritch prances his way through…
The cover of Streetcleaner looks like the apocalypse, and frankly Like Rats sounds like it too. A slow-moving bulldozer of depth-charge levels of bass, jackhammer beats and Justin Broadrick’s snarled, distorted vocals, this took the idea of a “wall of sound” into new realms – an ever-advancing wall that simply crushes everything in its path. As an early Godflesh track, it was one of the markers laid down that many, many other industrial bands have followed since to start their own careers. Few, though, have ever got the menacing, grimy heaviness right like Godflesh did, though.
Love Like Blood
I got into Killing Joke late, really – probably around 2002 or so before I truly gave them a listen beyond the handful of ubiquitous singles that remain on goth club playlists to this day – and somehow didn’t manage to see them live until a few years back. What’s interesting is the vast influence their sound has had – on newer post-punk bands, on goth bands, on industrial bands, even grunge and metal bands (Nirvana, of course, famously borrowed the bedrock of Eighties for Come As You Are) – and it seems sometimes that they were way ahead of their time in the directions they took. Their peak for me – aside from their first album which actually comes from the seventies – remains this astonishing, skyscraping single whose intensity remains undimmed even as it nears thirty years old.
The Unacceptable Face of Freedom
Probably the most politically energised and engaged industrial band of them all, Test Dept. stood apart from all of their peers with the exception of Neubauten, who were kindred spirits in their use of “found” and “created” instruments and resulted in a sound that could be termed more industrial than any other. Clearly, though, the Miner’s Strike that had ended the year before this release (which they had supported in various ways, not least with an astonishing album in conjunction with a Welsh Miner’s Choir) had pushed the band into ever more angry, bitter political realms, and this track in particular didn’t pull its punches, sampling Tory ministers of time and throwing the comments back in their face. How we need bands such as this now…
Nine Inch Nails
Pretty Hate Machine
I’ve listened to Pretty Hate Machine an awful lot over the years, but I think it really took the astonishing remaster in 2010 to fully appreciate the details within. Many so-called remasters are not generally doing too much – but here it appeared that Trent Reznor took the original masters and did a thorough job, to the point that the whole album has details I’ve never even heard previously, the clarity and remastering is that good. Yeah, so the singles sound great, but it was some of the other songs on the album that gained the most. Sanctified is a case in point – there was always a lot going on in the background on this track – the sparse bassline and beats have all kinds of choral samples and effects bubbling away, and the remaster makes it sound utterly amazing. This is one of a number of Reznor’s songs to bring together the ideas of religion and sex until the lines truly blur, but it isn’t just the lyrics that click here – the way the track switches a gear later on is breathtaking, too.
Burning Down The House
Speaking In Tongues
It is perhaps appropriate that a band as restless and combustible as Talking Heads should have their greatest song (in my opinion, anyway), to be one as equally fiery. David Byrne and the band were always like magpies, picking up influences from literally every corner of the world to bring into a sound that started out as post-punk and probably ended up entirely unclassifiable. For this song, one of their best-known singles, they bring in party-starting, rabble-rousing funk to amazing effect, the joyous, uplifting feel of the track demonstrated best in the version unleashed in the legendary concert film Stop Making Sense.