By Spencer. When I dared last week to make a statement about what the definitive soundtrack to the 80s should be, I knew I’d be wandering into controversial territory. As Antony pointed out, I set the rules for my list—artists who in my opinion transcended the 80s were immediately disqualified—in a way that shut off all debate. And while dodging debate is never my goal, it’s true that I intentionally focused on a narrow subset of quintessentially 80s music: pop music full of synths and saxophones and sounds we haven’t really heard from the music of any other decade. But I was also quite clear that I was in no way attempting to speak to what the “best” songs of the 80s were.
Meanwhile, Biff pointed out from the flip side of the argument that there were a lot of artists on the forefront of the alternative wave—bands like The Cure and The Smiths and The Pixies—as well as a lot of early hip-hop that I excluded from my list. As he noted, that music defined the 80s for a smaller but hugely important contingent of listeners—making my list somewhat less than “definitive.” Well, today, I’m more than happy to answer their charge with a playlist focusing on the other 80s.
The fracturing of music into the genres of today—pop, rock, alternative/indie, hip-hop, country—arguably reached full development in the 80s. More than in any decade that preceded it, the 80s were a time of diverging tastes, and with the increased commercialization of music and the affordability of cassettes (remember those?), it was possible to find very particular niches that, as a listener, might set you apart from the so-called mainstream (a term that, appropriately enough, first found meaning in the 80s).
And indeed it was much of this niche music that would plant the seeds for the next few decades. Distinctively 80s pop died with the 80s, but The Cure and The Smiths gave rise to 90s alternative and Britpop and even emo and modern indie; R.E.M. and The Pixies influenced the development of 90s pop rock and grunge within the broader alternative movement; U2 initiated the first of several reinventions of rock music to which they would contribute over the next few decades; Sonic Youth influenced a legion of more experimental rock bands; Depeche Mode paved the way for the rise of electronica and house and later dubstep; Metallica and Guns N’ Roses didn’t invent metal but they were the biggest faces of a newer, harsher brand of it that still continues; and of course Run-DMC and Public Enemy and N.W.A. helped create a genre that quickly matched and arguably surpassed the cultural importance of rock.
So yes, there is a whole other 80s that’s worthy of examination in this context. These acts, in their sounds and in their influence, transcended the 80s and will never be defined exclusively by that decade. But when we put this list side-by-side with last week’s pop-centric offering, the 80s’ place in history becomes less of a footnote and more of a cultural watershed. It was the inflection point for everything we’ve known about music ever since.
Enjoy S&N’s The Other 80s on Spotify. And as always, flock to the comment section to let me know what else I missed.