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Top '80s U.S. Music Scenes


The fabric of American music during the '80s - particularly of the underground variety, where distinctiveness could more easily be preserved - spread out to reveal a wonderful tapestry of innovation and energy. Although punk rock, hardcore, post-punk, post-hardcore, and college rock seemed to dominate most of the nation's major scenes, many types of music emerged to lay claim to a specific American identity. Here's a look, in no particular order, at a few of those scenes that made their presence felt the most back in the day.

1. Athens, Georgia

American singer Michael Stipe, of the group R.E.M., performs during a free concert in the student center at the University of Georgia's Memorial Hall, Athens, Georgia, May 16, 1980.
Larry W. Cutchall/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

For many fans of underground music and college rock during the '80s, this relatively small university town may be the first to come to mind when it comes to music scenes of the decade. And there's good reason for that, as Athens' own R.E.M. eventually became one of the biggest rock bands of the '90s. Typical of the town's eclectic and quirky musical activity, R.E.M. began in the early '80s as underground legends before gaining sweeping appeal in alternative rock circles. The B-52s, a band that actually preceded R.E.M., took quirky party rock to an entirely new level, though their influence was not nearly as long-lasting. Other groups like Pylon and Dreams So Real also made an impact during the '80s.

2. The Piedmont Triad & Research Triangle of North Carolina

Album Cover Image Courtesy of Capitol/I.R.S.

Well, I hate to cover such a large geographical area and therefore oversimplify the music of this region, but on the other hand I don't want to risk looking totally biased by including on this list multiple scenes from my home state of North Carolina. Besides, many of the brightest lights of the jangle pop and college rock movements of the '80s, including Don Dixon (of local legends Arrogance), Mitch Easter (of Let's Active), and Chris Stamey (of the dBs) had strong connections with the areas surrounding both Winston-Salem and Chapel Hill. Dixon and Easter were also major forces in the production world, working with R.E.M. and other indie acts. Other important '80s bands from this fertile region include the Connells and Flat Duo Jets.

3. Washington, D.C.

Album Cover Image Courtesy of SST

Our nation's capital became one of the most explosive music scenes of the '80s, thanks mostly to the distinct style of hardcore punk that sprouted from its large metro area. Bad Brains, Minor Threat, Youth Brigade and Government Issue played a particularly fast and aggressive but disciplined form of hardcore, helping the region to become one of the seminal breeding grounds for independent music. Minor Threat's Ian MacKaye played a major role in putting into reality a genuine D.I.Y. aesthetic, insisting on self-release and self-production as well as low record prices and keeping rock shows accessible to underage fans. Later, the D.C. scene and straight edge pioneer MacKaye helped birth emocore, exemplified by Rites of Spring and Fugazi.

4. New York City

Album Cover Image Courtesy of Geffen

In all art forms, the far-reaching influence of America's largest and arguably most diverse city extends furiously in many directions. The same can be said for rock music, as New York City's mid- to late-'70s punk and new wave movements found a healthy host of interpreters in many local artists. Beloved indie rock band Sonic Youth formed during the early '80s as a No Wave band, in reaction to what that movement's originators viewed as increasing conformity in new wave. Sonic Youth took that experimental mission further as the decade wore on, contributing strongly to noise rock and the rise of alternative rock. An important hardcore scene also rose from New York, exemplified by tough, thrashy outfits like Agnostic Front and the Cro-Mags.

5. Boston, Massachusetts

Album Cover Image Courtesy of Chrome Dreams

Dominated by mainstream acts such as Aerosmith, Boston, and the Cars during the late '70s, the Boston area produced a great deal of very eclectic music throughout the '80s, mostly of the as-yet-unnamed alternative variety. Mission of Burma started off the decade with an original flourish, expounding upon the aggression and raw energy of punk rock by injecting experimental rhythms, sound manipulation and a fiercely independent aesthetic. By the late '80s, influential bands like the Pixies, Throwing Muses and Dinosaur Jr continued to carry the mantle proudly for genuine alternative rock. The Boston area also contributed unique artists in its hardcore offshoot, the regimented skinhead group SS Decontrol, Jerry's Kids and Gang Green among them.

6. Chicago, Illinois

Album Cover Image Courtesy of Riot Fest

Though many of the popular mainstream bands from the Chicago area were already stars during the '70s (Styx, Cheap Trick and REO Speedwagon among them), it's arguable that each arena rock band's heydays came during the '80s. And while it's true these bands produced some fine music despite their faceless, rather MOR reputations, there was plenty more going on in Illinois throughout the '80s. Most notably, Chicago's '80s punk rock and hardcore scene produced versatile, highly respected bands like Naked Raygun, Big Black and the Effigies as well as the crude, determinedly offensive squall of the Mentally Ill. In essence, '80s music around Chicago had the ability to veer from the power pop of Shoes all the way to hardcore band Articles of Faith.

7. Austin, Texas

Album Cover Image Courtesy of Capitol

Always a rich and eclectic city for musical blends and hidden talents, the freewheeling college town of Austin produced some significant and often underappreciated music during the '80s. The influence of country music and a preponderance of roots rock persist in abundance to this day, but during the '80s the city became an unlikely hub for the burgeoning hardcore punk scene. Several energetic and workmanlike bands such as Big Boys and the Dicks helped shape the genre's sound and also represented some of the most politically fiery punk rock of all time. On an entirely different note, roots rockers the Reivers put an Austin spin on jangle pop and college rock but unfortunately toiled far too much in abject obscurity.

8. Minneapolis, Minnesota

Album Cover Image Courtesy of Ryko/Rhino

So far a fairly common thread of this list has been the near omnipresence of hardcore punk, which had an important niche in almost all the cities discussed here. That may be a slight sin of encroaching personal taste on the part of yours truly, and for that I apologize. However, there's no doubt that hardcore launched though never dictated the cult careers of Husker Du, the Replacements and Soul Asylum. More interestingly, however, country and roots music found its way into many corners of the Minneapolis scene, most notably in the sinfully overlooked Gear Daddies as well as the formative years of '90s alternative country/Americana legends the Jayhawks. Of course, there was also Prince, who's always seemed like his own island to me anyway.

9. Southern California

Album Cover Image Courtesy of Elektra/WEA

Well, it's pretty much impossible to distill the '80s music influence of the huge metro area of Los Angeles into a few lines, but I'll feebly try nonetheless. This region witnessed a shift during the '80s from the stylish, eclectic or quirky punk of the Weirdos, X and the Dickies to a generally more homogenous and aggressive hardcore style exemplified by bands like Black Flag, Angry Samoans and Fear. Still, the L.A. scene held just about any kind of music one could imagine during this period, from power pop to skinny-tie new wave and, of course, the Sunset Strip hard rock scene that birthed hair metal. Always a tremendously active spot for pop music both corporate and underground, southern California spread ample influence across the '80s.

10. Seattle

Album Cover Image Courtesy of Sub Pop

The inclusion of this Pacific Northwest town may seem unexpected on this list, but I believe the town's '80s scene had more to do with the explosive '90s popularity of grunge than any kind of quick-forming movement. Specifically, the clash between Seattle's hardcore scene and its heavy metal contingency ended up forging a distinctive mixture musically akin to the chocolate and peanut butter in Reese's Cups. For that reason, formative proto-grunge outfits like Green River, the Melvins and Mudhoney almost always straddled a blurry line between fast, aggressive punk and slowed-down, sludgy, often morose hard rock. Nirvana took this blend to its popular and artistic peak, but Seattle's rock music scene wildly percolated during the '80s.

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