If the mainstream pop charts during the '80s had paid a bit more attention to the activity from artists deemed college rock, post-punk or alternative acts, they might have boasted a few more eventual classics instead of quite so many calculated but forgettable hits. When it comes to melodic, usually guitar-based rock of the era, these genres feature nothing less than a multitude of worthy offerings. Here's a look at some of the finest pop songs of early alternative.
One of alternative rock's finest British prototypes of the early '80s, this legendary post-punk band benefits highly from the rich, textured vocals of frontman Ian McCulloch. However, the group also managed to compose songs that not only sported a haunting, semi-Gothic quality revered within the genre but also produced direct, achingly melodic pop songs. "Shiver and say the words of every lie you heard" follows the tune's strong chorus and somehow pulls off the feat of taking an already nuanced single to an even higher level. As one of the best songs of 1985 that you never heard on American Top 40 radio, this track showcases Echo & the Bunnymen's knack for covering large amounts of musical ground within the context of a simple pop song.
Though these foremost underground rock heroes of Minneapolis drew the ire of some by signing a major-label record deal before the 1986 release of Candy Apple Grey, the album contains an impressive amount of thoroughly engrossing music. Along with "Don't Want to Know If You Are Lonely," this Grant Hart-penned track communicates maximum passion and reminds us just how talented the group's drummer was even if he was frequently overshadowed by bandmate Bob Mould. No matter which creative leader took songwriting and vocal duties, Husker Du always delivered smart, penetrating guitar pop that could not be obscured by Mould's buzz-saw guitar attacl. I wonder if the band might not have preserved its mystique had this tune reached a wider audience.
Another U.K. band that took time for American audiences to embrace, Scots alternative rockers the Jesus & Mary Chain broke new ground with their innovative guitar pop. Capable of rocking out in jagged, unpredictable fashion, the group nonetheless based its output on straightforward songwriting always built on solid, accessible melodies. Brothers Jim and William Reid did not gain widespread attention stateside for their band's efforts until the late '80s and early '90s, when alternative music reached vogue. But this 1987 track from Darklands skillfully blends a dark, brooding vocal approach with the band's signature guitar tapestry of taste and intricacy. Mainstream pop radio didn't know what it was missing by ignoring this one.
Listening to this song for about the millionth time, my primary impulse is to thank the heavens or whatever forces may be responsible for providing us with the combination of Bob Stinson's breakneck, dangling-from-the-ledge guitar sound with the consummate pop music mastery of Paul Westerberg. This brilliant track from one of the Minneapolis quartet's seminal mid-'80s releases, 1985's Tim, sounds consistently as if it's preparing to jump the rails at any moment. But somehow Westerberg's immense gift for melody miraculously averts disaster, ultimately making for one of the most enjoyable pop music rollercoasters you'll ever have the thrill of riding. "All you ever wanted was someone to take care of ya." Indeed.
Perhaps no modern rock song of the late '80s is more innocently pleasing to the ears than this delectable 1989 track from British singer-songwriter Ian Broudie's wonderfully named group. Pop music during the '80s - particularly of the guitar-based and rocking varieties - may not have seemed as varied and fruitful as it was, probably because mainstream radio rarely recognized its impressive expanse. But this tune sparkles with a confident Beatlesque sheen that's laced also with alternative rock's signature ironic detachment. Built on a lovely, repeated synth riff instead of the electric guitar base featured on most of the songs on this list, "Pure" nonetheless lives up to its title in its grasp and enthusiastic embrace of pop melody.