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80s Best Rock and Alternative Music

Updated on September 19, 2014

Not All 80s Music Sucks

The 80s was a decade of some pretty awful music. From hair bands to new wave, the music was cheesy and annoying. But there was also some pretty good alternative music from the 80s. The best thing about it is it gave way to the awesome 90s decade of alternative rock and grunge. Despite my opinion of the wretchedness of the music in general I discovered some gems that I liked and still do today.

MTV really defined the decade. That was a time when they actually played music videos. It was terrible and defined by crap bands like Human League, Culture Club, Men Without Hats, Wham!, among other new wave artists. Rock and Roll died a little during the decade as well. Huey Lewis and the News, J. Geils Band, Dire Straits, Glenn Frey marked a sad time in rock. Of course hair bands came on during the latter point of the decade and we suffered though garbage from Poison, Skid Row, Warrant among others.

You can always find some good songs, even among the trash. For instance, I never cared for Quiet Riot but I liked the song "Love's a Bitch". I never cared for Guns n Roses but the song "Don't Cry" has one of the great guitar solos of all time. So yea, you can find a few gems. But mostly these bands were awful and mostly one or two hit wonders.

A lot of people would disagree about the 80s. They grew up then, have a lot of memories from those years and connect with the music. I didn't realize how bad the music was in general for me until the 90s gave us alternative music and grunge. My interest in 80s music, such that it was, always involved finding specific hooks in the music. I discovered the sound I was looking for in the 90s but I was able to find the sound in the just took more effort.

80's Music Poll

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U2 War

In 1983 I discovered U2. The album War has become one of my favorite albums of all time. The song "New Years Day" remains one of my top 5 songs. Other albums post War in U2's collection do nothing for me but this one rocks. This album is very political in tone. "Sunday Bloody Sunday" and "40" take the subject of Ireland's troubles head-on. No song that I can think of embodies the military marching beat as well as "SBS". It made a lot of people back then wonder what was actually going on in Ireland.

The video for "New Years Day" caught my eye as it was on heavy rotation at the time on MTV. Four dudes standing in the snow playing their instruments. The Edge's guitar had a sound that seems today to be a precursor to the alt rock sound I came to enjoy 10 years later. I've never been a much of a fan of organs and pianos in rock music but the piano in "NYD" is simple but melodic. I love it.

I remember watching the Red Rocks concert video of "Sunday Bloody Sunday" and seeing Bono run around with the white flag on the stage. Come to find out there was a cool black concert t-shirt with a white flag on the back. I thought it was the coolest shirt and wished I could get one. U2 never toured close enough for me to see them but I really enjoyed their music in 1983-84.

I got the earlier albums Boy and October. They were very good as well. It seemed to me that U2 peaked on War. I bought the Unforgettable Fire, that followed War. It was forgettable. After that U2 went on a save the world kick with Live Aid and released crapola like Joshua Tree. After The Unforgettable Fire I had already lost interest and have remained disinterested since. But I loved and still love War.

U2 War


The 1983 U2 release, "War," features a boy with haunted eyes on the cover, and the song cycle displays an increasing political awareness by the group, with "Sunday Bloody Sunday," "Seconds," and "New Year's Day."

What caught my attention back in the day was the video for "New Year's Day" played in high circulation on MTV. The band playing their instruments in that snowy field was cool, but I really liked the powerful bassline and piano melody. The Edge's slashing guitar style was unlike anything I'd heard before, and Bono's vocals are passionate and evocative. This remains one of my favorite U2 songs.

"Sunday Bloody Sunday" invokes images of Irish history, and with its rat-a-tat-tat martial drums and guitars, it's more choppy than "New Year's Day" but more anthemic. This really hit home with the Red Rocks video when Bono was waving that huge flag. It's a powerful song.

"Seconds" benefits from being sandwiched between these two songs, but the cold war lyric and intertwining vocals of Bono and the Edge, along with the largely acoustic tracking, make this an interesting piece.

Another standout is "Two Hearts Beat as One," which does not usually make the best of compilations, but is an underrated nugget with a propulsive guitar line and vocal performance by Bono.


U2 - Live at Red Rocks - Sunday Bloody Sunday


My favorite rock and roll album of the 80s was AC/DC's Back in Black. It may very well be my favorite rock and roll album of all time. No other album had as many great songs from the first track to the last track as Back in Black. Th big hit was "Shook Me All Night Long", a song that I did not like then and despise hearing today. It has been played in clubs as a re-mix and is a staple of calssic rcok stations. I could go the rest of my life never hearing it again.

But the rest of the album, wow. My favorite track has always been "Hells Bells". I love the the guitar on this song. It starts with those gongs and builds to a solo guitar in one of the most recognized guitar riffs in rock history. It is a great song. Other favorites on this album was the tawdy tune "Given the Dog a Bone". Great guitars on this song. The album ends with "Rock and Roll Ain't Noise Pollution" which is a cool bluesy song. "Let Me Put My Love into You" is another sordid rocker but is really heavy on the guitars. And I really enjoyed "What Do You Do for Money Honey", another bluesy raucous rocker.

Angus Young is one of the greatest rock guitarist in history. I've always loved his sound and his solos are some of the few that I can actually tolerate.

The rest of the 80's weren't really that awesome for AC/DC. They released a one/two hit wonder album "For Those About to Rock We Salute You". The title track is an arena staple and there was another track, "Let's Get It Up", that was popular but didn't really do much for me.

They released Flick of the switch in 1987 which was not that successful. It had a song that I loved though, "Badlands" which had a cool hook and groove. Such a cool song.

AC/DC Back in Black

Back in Black
Back in Black

Released in 1980, "Back In Black" featured new lead singer Brian Johnson who replaced former singer Bon Scott who died months earlier. With the death of Scott, there were sceptics that thought this was the end of the hard rocking Aussy band. But to their surprise "Back In Black" was a huge success with absolutely no filler tracks. The album produced a number of hits with the title "Back In Black", "Hells Bells" and "You Shook Me All Night Long". In my opinion some of the best songs on the album were not hits such as "Shoot To Thrill", "What Do You Do For Money Honey" and "Shake A Leg". With the addition of Johnson to the line up the band seemed to be stronger than ever, and Angus Young's guitar licks are absolutely amazing. Just listen to the lead guitar in "Shake A Leg" and I'm sure you'd agree. Numerous soundtracks have included AC/DC songs from this album, notably the Steven King film "Maximum Overdrive" which featured "Hells Bells" and "You Shook Me All Night Long".


AC/DC - Hells Bells

The Cult

One of the best rock bands of the 80s was The Cult. They had a sonic and soaring guitar sound courtesy of Billy Duffy. The band had two albums that were staples on college radio, 1985's Love and 1987's Electric. Sonic Temple was release in 1989 and had a more anthemic sound. All three were great albums.

"She Sells Sanctuary" on Love was a huge college radio hit. The song is a lot of fun. The guitar is jangly and the beat is danceable. "Rain" was another hit. It had a better guitar sound. The song just flows nicely.

"Love Removal Machine" from Electric was another college radio hit. It was a simple guitar rocker. The sound was harder. You could tell they were moving further into a guitar rock sound. "Wild Flower" was a tasty little rocker. Simple guitar riff with a solid beat. "Lil Devil" was another cool rocker with a rockabilly groove. Yea, Electric was a cool rocking album.

The last good Cult album was Sonic Temple. This was a sonic boom to your senses if you dig guitar. The cover art of Billy Duffy in the classic guitar stance says it all about the album. The first four tracks were classic hard rocking tunes. "Sun King" was a hard driving rocker. "Fire Woman" has one of the great guitar intros of any rock song. It starts with a steel sounding guitar that builds to a screaming melodic rock guitar. Pretty cool. The song is a classic rock staple these days."American Horse" is a stomping rocker. "Edie" is a classic rocker as well. It starts slowly with guitar and violin strings then launches as a slow rocker with a great guitar sound. The guitar in this song simply soars.

I will say that the music is what brought me to The Cult and kept me there. I have no idea what the lyrics were about. The lead singer Ian Astbury had a voice that I really didn't care for. He oversold his singing. I saw them in concert after the release of Sonic Temple and to this day will say they were one of the worst bands live I have ever seen. His singing sucked.

The Cult - Sonic Temple

Sonic Temple
Sonic Temple

If you must buy one recording by The Cult, this is the one. I would give very few records 5 stars, but 1989's 'Sonic Temple' is one of them. Emerging from the late 1980s era of glam metal and mindless dance music, this was the welcomed return of rock music - a perfect combination of the ethereal elements of The Cult's major label debut, 'Love', and the bombastic rock of their sophmore outing, 'Electric'. Of course, everyone knows "Fire Woman," the record's catchy jam, and "Edie", the tribute to Warhol's muse which defied the contemporary power-ballad circa 1989. All the familiar Cult themes are here - peace ("Soldier Blue"), Native American ("American Horse"), drug-culture ("Medicine Train"). But unlike their other efforts, this record is top-notch from start to finish - the Zeppelinesque "Soul Asylum", the anthemic "Wake Up Time for Freedom", and the manic "New York City" (with appropriate backing vocals by Iggy Pop) - putting the ROCK back into Alternative Rock with the help of producer Bob Rock


The Cult - Fire Woman

Depeche Mode

I'm sure you might wonder why I would include a group like Depeche Mode in this 80s music list when I happen to be critical of other bands of the same ilk. I really enjoyed the album Music for the Masses. It was a synthesizer heavy album with plenty of melodic tunes and enjoyable beats. I don't really care much for electronica but Depeche Mode has always been a band that I could tolerate.

"Never Let Me Down Again" is a solid tune that had a bouncy vibe with a lot of synthesized groove going on. The beat was heavy and the song flowed around the lyrics nicely. "The Things You said" is an airy slow song that was much appreciated with headphones. I really enjoyed that song. "Strangelove" was a solid tune with a good beat. It sounded like a typical 80s tune more than most on this album.

The next few songs were not all that great. "Sacred" sounded like bad 80s pop, "Little 15, "Behind the Wheel", "I Want You Now" and "To Have and to Hold" were too experimental for my taste. Just when you thought the album would fail "Nothing" was the next track and it is fantastic. It is a tight and bouncy rocker. It has a good beat and fun synth sounds.

"Agent Orange" is an instrumental. No doubt an experiment that they really got right. It is one of the better tunes to listen to with headphones. It is actually rather haunting and sad in a way, but I really enjoy it.

Overall I think this is one of the more solid efforts by Depeche Mode. They had other hits off later albums that were good enough but i wouldn't buy the album for that one song. MFTM at least gave you a solid effort over 75% of the album. A couple of songs have remained favorites through the years.

Depeche Mode - Music for the Masses

Music for the Masses
Music for the Masses

This album is a culmination of Depeche Mode's middle-period experimentation. More informed by Goth than techno, it is still anchored by plenty of the larger-than-life-baritone melodrama so distinctive of David Gahan's vocals. The most experimental track is "Pimpf"--a song that heave-hoes along with the synthesized emulation of a Russian men's choir. Although nowhere near fast enough to be danceable, the commanding "Never Let Me Down" ranks as the best single on the track, with the most hummable "Strangelove" coming in at a close second. Each song is a praiseworthy accomplishment, but the singles here set off the experimental tracks, making the album seem thematically schizophrenic. --Beth Bessmer


The Rainmakers

Unfortunately, unless you were from Kansas City you probably never heard of The Rainmakers. The band was fronted by Bob Walkenhorst who was one of the most interesting frontmen of the decade. He was a true songwriter. He had a voice and delivery that might annoy some and could be dismissed today but back in the day it was well-known and liked on the college radio scene. I had the privilege of seeing The Rainmakers perform in Montecello, Alabama back around 1987. They remain one of my favorite live shows. You know you go to some shows and the crowd just can't seem to get into the show? It happens more than not these days. Not with The Rainmakers. It was a big party. The music was so good.

Unfortunately they weren't around for long. Their self-titled album, released in 1986, is a classic in my mind. Newsweek magazine dubbed it "the most auspicious debut album of the year." It featured "Rockin' at the T-Dance" which was a bouncy rock tune with plenty of beat to dance to. Downstream was another lively rocker with great lyrics. Everybody in college loved "Let My People Go-Go" at parties. Again it had a bouncy vibe to it with solid guitar licks and a great drum beat. It also made use of horns. "Big Fat Blonde" was a groovy little song that had a simple hook and was fun to listen to. "Government Cheese" had plenty to say lyrically.

The thing about The Rainmakers music was that it was fun to listen to. Great to hear at parties. It had a driving beat and tight guitars. Unlike lyrics today, Walkenhorst told a story in his lyrics. They were funny and smart.

The next album Tornado was a good effort released in 1987. The song that made the alternative radio stations was "Snakedance". It kept with the danceable rock theme of their first album. Honestly I don't remember much of the rest of the album. "Small Circles" was a cute song that was popular on alt radio.

Later albums just did not capture the magic of The Rainmakers and Tornado. This band should have gone nuclear but like many talented bands just did not find that level of success.

The Rainmakers

The Rainmakers
The Rainmakers

This is The Rainmakers debut album which spawned 2 minor hits "Downstream" and "Let My People Go-Go". They should really re-release this classic album. This band was way ahead of it's time.

Buy this CD, read the lyric sheet and listen to it without interruptions. It will blow you away. Every song is powerful, cathcy, poetic. This band should have sold millions.

Intelligent, electric, explosive, and humorous - simultaneously. It's the reason why my username is "Downstream", which is the title of the second track on the disc. The Rainmakers literally changed my life when I was 16 years old and altered my outlook towards music. It made me realize how good music can be and still not get radio play. Discover the magic.


The Rainmakers - Let My People Go-Go

Billy Squier

Anybody remember Billy Squier? The dude had some of the best guitar rock of the decade. He is most known for "The Stroke". It gets played daily on classic rock stations. It came from his great 1981 album, Don't Say No. This rocking album had multiple rock radio staples and was a standard in my car cassette deck. Hard rock tunes like "In the Dark", "My Kinda Lover" and "Lonely is the Night" were certainly favorites. The man could play a rock guitar. "Whattya Want From Me" was another great tune and if you felt like getting cheesy you could certainly do worse than "I Need You".

Squier released two more really good rock albums in the 80s. He followed up Don't Say No with Emotions in Motion in 1982 which was pretty good. "Everybody Wants You" is the hit that everybody remembers but I loved the third track, "Learn How to Live". "It Keeps You Rockin'" is a solid rocker. "One Good Woman" is a fun rock tune that flows nicely. "Catch 22" is an interesting tune that had an interesting hook that just flowed through the whole song. The album ended with "Listen to the Heartbeat" which was another really good rock song with tight guitars and solid drums. It may be the most melodic of all the songs on the album but lyrically it pretty much sucked. If i had a dollar for every time he sung "Listen to the Heartbeat". Good grief.

The quality of Squier's music declined after Emotions. 1983 saw him release Signs of Life. The first track was pretty awesome. It started with a heartbeat sounding drum then evolved into a raunchy guitar solo then solid drums. I remember hearing it for the first time during the midnight rock album release. I had my headphones on and thought it was pretty cool. Then the next song was some crappy pop sounding song "Rock Me Tonite" which became a staple on MTV. Had squier dancing around and crap. It was awful. I liked "Take a Look Behind You" it had a rock-a-billy Indian beat vibe that I thought was pretty cool. For the most part the album sucked. what made the Emotions and Don't say No such great rocking albums was completely lost on Signs and pretty much for the rest of his career.

Billy Squier - Don't Say No

Don't Say No
Don't Say No

Don't Say No is Billy Squier's best album and an early-80's hard rock classic. This was released when heavy metal was getting very little airplay and the hard rock bands that were huge, like Journey and Reo Speedwagon, were scoring primarily with power ballads. Billy Squier proved you can have commercial success playing melodic hard rock and staying true to your roots. This album, along with his next release Emotions In Motion, paved the way for the melodic metal movement of the mid-80's which spawned bands like Ratt, Bon Jovi, and Def Leppard.

Every track here is a winner. The singles "The Stroke", "My Kinda Lover", and "In The Dark" were all big hard rock hits and still sound great today. Other great tracks including the hard-driving rockers "You Know What I Like" and "Whadda You Want From Me", the mid-tempo rocker "Too Daze Gone", and "I Need You", which is carried by Mark Clarke's excellent bass line. The ballad "Nobody Knows" is also a strong track. "Lonely Is The Night" is probably the best track here, one of the great hard rock riffs of the '80s. Although there are keyboards featured throughout the album, they're only added for color, and don't overwhelm the guitars like on other hard rock albums. His next album Emotions In Motion was pretty good, but the rest of his albums were inconsistent, including 16 Strokes, his greatest-hits album. If you want to hear the best of Billy Squier, this is the album to purchase. Highly recommended.


Billy Squier - Lonely is the Night

What is your favorite 80's music?

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    • shay-marie profile image

      Shay Marie 3 years ago from Southern California

      I'm a fan of all these bands AND new wave AND 80s pop. I'm just a glutton for the whole decade I suppose! Also, the alt rock of the 90s also hold a special place in my heart. It's my favorite decade for rock for sure.

    • profile image

      KFRaizor 3 years ago

      Of commercially successful bands, my favorite was Talking Heads. I became a serious "underground" music fan in the 80's, listening to things like Marshall Crenshaw, the Replacements, the BoDeans, REM and the Call.

    • profile image

      MelindaManning 4 years ago

      I'm so glad you included "Nothing" by Depeche Mode. It's a great song and, in my opinion, they are a great band. Nice work!

    • cmcyclist profile image

      cmcyclist 5 years ago

      @vang-po-9 - You don't know anything about me. I went to high school and college during the 80's for your information. MY opinion is the music sucked. From Michael Jackson to Madonna to Duran Duran to Guns n Roses. No thanks. I will take Alice in Chains, Soundgarden, Smashing Pumpkins, REM, Oasis and any number of college radio, alt rock, grunge music over 80's music. Any day. Before shooting off your mouth how about tolerate other people's opinion without veiled insults.

    • profile image

      vang-po-9 5 years ago

      The 90's was just as cheesy as the 80's. You really can't say the 90's were great while the 80's sucked musically. Doing so only proves you weren't old enough to be "there" in the first place. With the exception of grunge what exactly did the 90's contribute to music? A bunch of one hit wonders, that's what. Meanwhile the 80's was the decade of some of the biggest stars in music history from Michael Jackson, to Madonna to Prince to Guns N Roses. Do some research next time.

    • FunMoneyBusiness profile image

      Sharyn Read 5 years ago from ... either in the kitchen or at my laptop...

      We do thousands of miles, road trip style each year and we have lots of 80's music on the player - ACDC, U2, Guns n Roses and some of that genre rock is fun when you are traveling down the highway! I miss my long hair when the headbanger stuff comes on! :) Thanks for memories, enjoyed your lens!

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      TBrennan0101 5 years ago

      Jane's Addiction!

    • profile image

      madhu2219 5 years ago

      Refreshing lens!

      80's had its best music composers and best songs..

    • Close2Art LM profile image

      Close2Art LM 5 years ago

      The 80's were a good time for music

    • profile image

      kelli320 5 years ago

      The 80s were my favorite. Great Lens.

    • katesawyer profile image

      Kate Sawyer 5 years ago from Nashville

      Well at least some music from the 80s was pretty good. LOL Nice selection and the Rainmakers is a band I've never heard of. Pretty cool.

    • sushilkin lm profile image

      sushilkin lm 6 years ago

      Good Lens. Well Done

    • profile image

      Russell-Shaw 6 years ago

      U2, The Cult and AcDc....nope, the eighties weren't all that bad at-all:-)

    • profile image

      samrichmond 6 years ago

      We referred to him as Bon Joker.

      Pretty cool lens.

    • kittycollar profile image

      kittycollar 6 years ago

      This is more like it. But you still forgot Bon Jovi :p