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Top 10 Obscure & Underground Artists of the '80s

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While it's impossible to do a list like this justice, it's as vital to make the attempt as it was for alternatives to the mainstream to exist and thrive during the glitzy, image-obsessed '80s. Luckily for all of us, the pool from which to draw the cream of the underground was always overflowing with possibilities during the decade, even if many music fans couldn't detect any activity whatsoever. Here's a look at 10 of the most interesting under-the-radar contributors to '80s popular music, many of whom have ultimately attracted the attention they deserved but didn't receive the first time around.

1. Minutemen

Album Cover Image Courtesy of SST

This Southern California trio may have been inspired by punk and hardcore, but the band’s music may stand as the most unique, organic and unclassifiable of any artist active during the '80s. The late, great D. Boon played guitar, sang and wrote politically charged, thoughtfully independent songs in ways not seen before or since. And along with his childhood friend Mike Watt on bass and George Hurley on drums, Boon worked confidently without the aid of comforting boundaries to create a band that, for me, endures as one of the very best of the rock era. It’s just too bad more people don’t know that.

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2. Marshall Crenshaw

Album Cover Image Courtesy of Rhino/Warner Bros.

While a band like the Minutemen embraced its underground status and in many ways made a conscious choice to work in the shadows of pop culture, the fact that an accessible, melodic singer-songwriter like Crenshaw toiled in obscurity was far more accidental. Early on the artist’s tuneful pop/rock found a significant if short-lived mainstream outlet, but Crenshaw probably should have been one of the biggest-selling artists of the '80s. Instead, his fiercely independent determination to make music his way forced the singer rather quickly away from a vague association with the new wave scene.

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3. Descendents

Album Cover Image Courtesy of SST

For better and for worse, the punk pop explosion of the last decade or so can be traced back to one common earliest ancestor, and it’s not Green Day. The Descendents first arose during the very early '80s, sporting a definite link to SoCal hardcore through their speed and aggression but also a pop sensibility not shared or matched by any acts in that scene. Vocalist Milo Auckerman raised the bar not only for punk energy and anger but injected a cerebral, self-deprecating and even geeky edge to the band’s music. The Descendents never wanted to be Green Day, but the latter would have never happened without them.

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4. BoDeans

Album Cover Image Courtesy of Rhino/Slash

Perhaps no band from the Milwaukee area is cosmically allowed to achieve much in the way of mainstream success, as the only other '80s group I can think of from that upper Midwest town, Violent Femmes, certainly resisted normalcy in every way. But the BoDeans took a very different path from other college rock brethren, drawing deeply from '50s and '60s styles to forge a unique roots rock sound. Kurt Neumann and Sam Llanas were a blue-collar, underground Lennon & McCartney for music fans who had little use for MTV. As such, these guys were around for a whole decade before "Closer to Free," their theme song to '90s TV drama Party of Five brought a flash of fame.

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5. Black Flag

Album Cover Image Courtesy of SST

One of the originators of Southern California hardcore punk, this legendary band with a constantly revolving lineup was always primarily the brainchild of founder Greg Ginn. Although lead singer Henry Rollins became arguably the most visible member after he joined Black Flag in 1981, it was Ginn’s independent spirit and record label SST that fueled an entire movement of like-minded underground artists and fans across America. Like the Minutemen, Black Flag explored many different styles of music throughout its decade-long existence, even if they ultimately leaned toward plodding heavy metal, of all genres.

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6. Fugazi

Album Cover Image Courtesy of Dischord

Led by Ian MacKaye, a childhood friend of Rollins from the Washington, DC suburbs where both grew up, Fugazi took the DIY aesthetic of punk and hardcore to its far reaches of possibility. With his legendary straight-edge hardcore outfit Minor Threat, MacKaye had always demonstrated an unwillingness to allow corporate influences to impact his music, and he had always insisted upon all-ages access to his band’s shows as a sign of solidarity. But beyond this fiercely underground aesthetic, Fugazi created an entirely new form of post-punk that led to the wildly popular emo style of the '90s.

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7. The Smiths

Album Cover Image Courtesy of WEA/Warner Bros.
So as to avoid seeming too ethnocentric or provincial, let me include a seminal British band known as much for its underground aesthetic as its odd collaborative team of guitarist Johnny Marr and singer Morrissey. Whereas Marr’s meticulous, layered and ringing guitars created an almost traditional rock sound, Morrissey’s dreamy crooning contrasted intriguingly with Marr’s playing. This give-and-take may have led to a relatively early demise for the Smiths after only five productive years, but the volatile partnership of the two musicians also kept the music fresh.
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8. Husker Du

Album Cover Image Courtesy of SST

Though this Minneapolis-based trio got its start also as a hardcore punk outfit, the band ultimately took an indie rock path that laid down the template for much of the alternative rock to follow in the '90s. As is often the case with successful bands, a songwriting partnership between wildly different personalities in Bob Mould and Grant Hart fueled the group creatively. While Mould employed an aggressive presentation both vocally and in his guitar playing, Hart often took a softer, clear-voiced approach, sometimes even adding piano parts. The band was also one of the first indie bands to sign a major label contract.

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9. Sonic Youth

Album Cover Image Courtesy of Geffen

This New York City group was informed by punk rock but rarely sounded like it, choosing instead to explore dissonant sonic landscapes at the expense of traditional song structures and melody. The band’s early-'80s noise rock seemed to deliberately embrace the avant-garde side of things, but by the mid-'80s Sonic Youth began to make a larger impact on college rock and early alternative. By 1988’s double album, Daydream Nation, any music fans put off by the mainstream’s hair metal fixation found a hip and certain alternative in Sonic Youth.

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10. G.G. Allin

Album Cover Image Courtesy of Halcyon
Those looking for a truly underground alternative found an extremist jackpot if they knew of Allin during the '80s. Known for defecating on stage and consuming his own waste, Allin took his confrontational performance art beyond all boundaries during controversial and dangerous gigs at small clubs throughout the U.S. Musically, Allin got his start as a fairly straightforward if unexceptional punk rocker, but after years of substance abuse and all manner of hard living his voice deteriorated to the point that his music often took a backseat to his onstage antics. Still, Allin’s shock rock was often the real deal.
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