Updated: Apr 27
The avoidance of pandering to the masses or the constraints of radio allowed many rock musicians the ability to create some incredibly unique songs great in their own right. A mesh of new-wave, art-rock, post-punk and a DIY attitude led to the growth in popularity of alternative rock in the 1980's exploding into the 90's. Below is a list of 10 iconic early alternative rock songs in no particular order. For the purposes of this list, we will define early alternative rock as anything released before 1990.
Pictured - XTC (1978)
The Replacements - I Will Dare (1984)
Released as the only single from the third studio album by The Replacements, this track finds itself among their most popular along with Androgynous, also off of this record. Following this critically praised album, The Replacements established themselves as one of the premiere alternative rock bands of the mid 80's, while also leaning in the post punk direction giving way to a unique, fresh sound.
Yo La Tengo - The Cone of Silence (1986)
An album released in 1986 which largely fell on deaf ears as Yo La Tengo did not get their break until the 90's with records like Fakebook, or their indie rock masterpiece, I Can Hear the Heart Beating as One. Their debut album Ride the Tiger had a ton of great early alternative rock tracks such as The Cone of Silence with its magical guitar work and subtle twang. Perhaps the least known song on this list, with the later sucess of Yo La Tengo, and their influence as a whole, early songs like these are always worth sharing as they seem to always be well received once discovered.
The Cure - Fire in Cairo (1979)
The premiere pioneers of gothic rock, The Cure developed a unique sound a bit outside of the mainstream throughout the late 70's, 80's, and 90's. Fire in Cairo found itself as a song in the alternative rock airways throughout the late 70's and 80's along with Boys Don't Cry. Fire in Cairo is great early alternative song worth checking out if you have not already off of an even greater album.
The Housemartins - Happy Hour (1986)
The Housemartins saw some sucess in the UK throughout the mid-80's with a sound similar to that of The Smiths. Their debut album, London 0 Hull 4 did very well in the UK, but tracks like Happy Hour and Get Up Off of Our Knees only found moderate sucess in the US through college radio and other alternative sources of music consumption. The sounds of The Housemartins lived on though throughout the 90s as the sounds of jangle-pop gained popularity thanks in part to these guys.
XTC - Mayor of Simpleton (1989)
This song is an interesting one well worth the listen if you're re unfamiliar with it. It checks all of the composition boxes for a great song leaving it as one that is largely praised by not just listeners, but musicians. Groovy bassline - check, clever lyrical writing - check, catchy and singable chorus - check, impressive vocal harmonies - check. An all-around groovy song that's hard not to dance to, how could this song not be on a list of this nature? Oranges and Lemons gave us not just Mayor of Simpleton but other iconic alternative rock songs such as King for a Day and has since been viewed by some as XTC's masterpiece and scores incredibly well retrospectively by critics.
Iggy Pop - The Passenger (1977)
Deservingly so, The Passenger has become one of the most well-known songs in the alternative realm thanks to its use in many TV Shows, movies, video games and of course the many times it has been covered, most notably by Siouxsie and the Banshees. A tale of Iggy Pop and guitarist Ricky Gardiners travels through Europe with David Bowie, with that iconic guitar lick to start the song, the listener is already hooked.
The Smiths - Still Ill (1984)
The Smiths have been credited as one of the greatest alternative and indie rock groups of the 80s, as well as the prime pioneers of the jangle-pop sound. Their debut album had a bunch of great rock songs like This Charming Man, Pretty Girls Make Graves, Miserable Lie, and this song, Still Ill. Featuring fantastic guitar playing by Johnny Marr, Still Ill is a fantastic rock song, and the influence of this unique sound can be heard throughout the 90's and 2000's alike. Two years later they released The Queen is Dead which is often cited as one of the most influential early alternative/indie records of all time.
Velvet Underground - Sweet Jane (1973)
Often credited as the first alternative rock band after their whisper of a debut The Velvet Underground and Nico, Velvet Underground grew to the influential monster it has since become. The band turned out a whole bunch of memorable tracks throughout the late 60s into the 70's including Sweet Jane which has since been covered by Mott the Hoople, Brownsville Station, and Cowboy Junkies. A great early precursor to the sounds of the alternative rock realm to be developed.
10,000 Maniacs - Like the Weather (1987)
Natalie Merchants siren like voice (in the Greek meaning), and Robert Buck's pleasantly melodic guitar line make for a great late 80's soft rock song. About as college rock as you could get for the time, this allowed their songs to get a ton of spins on college radio across the US and Canada throughout the late 80's and early 90's.
Squeeze - Pulling Mussels (From The Shell) (1980)
Squeeze came to the stage in the late 70's from the British new wave scene and saw a fair amount of popularity on both sides of the pond. Their distinct sound found its place in the growing alternative rock scene with this song being one of their most memorable alternative rock tracks. Squeeze found a bit more sucess in the UK which was a bit more welcoming to the alternative rock scene and still is to this day with tracks like these finding only very limited sucess in the US. Regardless, what a catchy song that finds itself on new wave, and alternative radio and playlists alike.
Songs like these paved the way for the acceptance of the DIY attitude which led to the growth of independently released music away from the narrow path of what is required to be played on the radio. Plenty of bands such as R.E.M, Siouxsie and the Banshees, Talking Heads, Joy Division and Pixies all had their large part in the growth of this genre turning it into what it has become today, a nice escape from the overproduced and often uninteresting songs that hit the mainstream. A couple honorable mentions are, Here Comes Your Man - Pixies, Been Caught Stealing - Janes Addiction, Blister in the Sun - Violent Femmes, and Planet Claire - The B-52's.
For an expanded collection of early alternative rock check out this Spotify playlist!