Australia and New Zealand had long enjoyed vibrant music scenes before the '80s broke, but the decade that brought new wave seemed especially kind to artists from Down Under locales. Artists like INXS, the Church, Crowded House, Rick Springfield and Men at Work combined quirk and a tuneful approach to guitar-based rock to establish a solid niche among the decade's many sounds. The two Down Under island nations contributed a wide array of styles and demonstrated unique tinges of eclecticism, all of which rounded out the decade and filled it with richness and character.
One of the best, most layered guitar-centered pop bands of the last 25 years, this four-piece group made a huge splash in America in 1987, overcoming weak record label support to become a pop success rather independently. Still, while best-known for simpler numbers like "Something So Strong" and "Don't Dream It's Over," the band introduced a greater density to its sophomore release, 1988's Temple of Low Men. "Better Be Home Soon," in particular, stands as one of the decade's most beautiful, haunting performances. Frontman Neil Finn has since proven himself to be one of the most prolific and moving singer-songwriters of his generation, and the band's reformation following the 2005 tragic death of drummer Paul Hester has yielded fine results.
2. The Church
As a college rock stalwart during the '80s, this Australian band emphasized sonic textures to inject its music with ethereal, dreamlike qualities. And although "Under the Milky Way" receives the lion's share of attention from mainstream music fans, the band's catalogue has far more to offer than gentle, chiming pop. In fact, some of its best songs feature instead a jagged, piercing sonic assault, especially the enchanting, almost sinister "Reptile" or "Spark," also from 1987's brilliant Starfish. Frontman Steve Kilbey's odd but mesmerizing vocals and evocative songwriting certainly define the music of the Church, but this is also one of the most capable and influential rock ensembles of the '80s.
Rising out of the pub rock tradition of Australia during the late '70s, this hardworking band turned out to be Down Under's most smashing new wave success story. Riding in on the appeal of frontman Michael Hutchence's good looks and abundance of charisma, the band made some fine, underrated new wave in the early '80s before becoming full-fledged pop stars by 1987's Kick. Still, for my money, the band's synth-flecked but hard-rocking earlier tunes "This Time" and "Don't Change" are its best, easily trumping the group's increasingly dance-inflected pop during its years of greatest success. The tragic 1997 death of Hutchence has made the INXS story even more gripping, especially given the band's continuing evolution during the '90s.
4. Men at Work
I really hate it when people use the term "one-hit wonder" incorrectly, and for some reason that term is too often applied, always erroneously, to this tuneful bar band that dared to inject flute and saxophone into otherwise guitar- and keyboard-heavy compositions. In fact, the quintet enjoyed four Top 10 hits during a brief early-'80s career, two of them (the remarkably solid "Who Can It Be Now?" and the exotic "Down Under") number ones. I particularly favor "Overkill" and "It's a Mistake," the band's two "lesser" hits, both of which feature great guitar work. This may not be an '80s band that always receives due credit as a world-class pop/rock band, but a trip through its discography proves that's only because of its limited output.
5. Air Supply
I also hate it when people present a band, a concept, or even a food as "love-it-or-hate-it." I suspect that many music fans indeed erase gray areas when they discuss this Australian duo that enjoyed a string of saccharine soft rock hits during the first half of the '80s. But the reality is that I love the great tunes "All Out of Love" and "Lost in Love" without loving the group in general or many of its other hits like "Even the Nights Are Better" or "Making Love Out of Nothing at All." I don't think I'm alone in such mixed emotions regarding this artist, but one thing everyone can agree on is that during the first half of the '80s, Air Supply made the most of its relatively short-term relevance on the pop music charts.
Soap star and heartthrob Rick Springfield was able to embark fully on the career he'd always wanted in 1981, when his debut solo album, Working Class Dog, became a huge hit in America. And while his extreme handsomeness as well as his participation in the film Hard to Hold conspired to make it hard for Springfield to garner respect as an artist, his best songs truly demonstrate a significant amount of pop songcraft bordering genius. "What Kind of Fool Am I?" is even better than "Jessie's Girl," and "Don't Walk Away" and "Love Somebody" cut right through the slick production to deliver genuinely glimmering mainstream pop/rock glory.
Come to think of it, artists from these two island nations seem to have in common a strong tendency to be criminally underrated. This Australian band never seems to get the appreciation it deserves for churning out a succession of not only hit singles but genuinely brilliant songs from the late '70s into the early '80s. Tunes like "Take It Easy on Me" and "The Other Guy" may have had trouble breaking the top 10 on the pop charts, but they possess a melodic hold that persists proudly today. "Man on Your Mind" and "The Night Owls" have always struck me in a positive way as well, and I think the reason I've never "outgrown" that perspective is that these are simply great songs that cross genres effortlessly.
8. Hoodoo Gurus
The two seminal Goth/post-punk bands led by singer Nick Cave make the Hoodoo Gurus look like straight-laced '50s crooners with guitars. Following the breakup of the Birthday Party, Cave, a stylized singer with a menacing, brooding look as well as a similarly spooky delivery, formed the Bad Seeds. That group's "Red Right Hand" sidles in and plants a feeling of dread deep into the listener. The effect is at once exhilarating and unnerving, and Cave's signature sound always defied categorization with as much passion and intensity as two other standout '80s Cave tunes, "From Her to Eternity" and "Deanna."