Underrated 80s albums

What about hair back then, eh? Maybe you too were swishing your Nick Beggs beads to the aspirational pop of the day, but beneath it all the 1980s was the first decade when independent music started to really come through.

It isn't how most people will remember the 80s, not when megastars like Madonna, Prince and Michael Jackon were ruling the roost. But punk and new wave bands had proven that you didn’t need to be signed and have lots of money to release music, and this attitude continued into the 1980s with a whole host of underground bands providing an alternative to Duran Duran’s yachts.

The 1980s was the decade where 'indie' - whatever that means - became a huge genre in its own right. Bands as innovative as My Bloody Valentine nestled up against the more conventional likes of The Wedding Present, whilst the likes of The Smiths and The Housemartins broke into the charts.

We're not here to discuss these bands for the umpteenth time though. Nope, as with our previous entries in this mini-series of our (see here for the 60s and here for the 70s) we want to take a look at a few of the lesser-appreciated albums of the time. Let's make a start...

Young Marble Giants - Colossal Youth

So minimal it barely existed on release in 1980.

With only one album and a few EPs under their belts before their premature split, Young Marble Giants could have been easily forgotten - except for the fact that Colossal Youth was incredible statement.

Using just bass, drum machine and either guitar or organ (never both at the same time) the trio created a timeless set of songs that turned the dial right down, as if the band were performing while their housemates were asleep upstairs. Stuart Moxham’s tough guitar patterns and brother Phil’s wobbly bass locked in perfectly, but the star of the show was singer Alison Statton. Her girl-next-door voice was completely deadpan and bereft of any kind of emotion, floating across the music in a carefree manner.

The songs were great too and incredibly influential. Kurt Cobain named Colossal Youth as one of his five most influential records whilst wife Courtney Love covered Credit In A Straight World On Hole’s 1994 album Live Through This.

McCarthy - I Am A Wallet

One of the stranger lineages of musical influences in recent years is Manic Street Preachers' complete and total obsession with McCarthy’s I Am A Wallet.

They’ve covered not one but two songs from it over the years and mention it at almost every opportunity. For once they are right in their thinking as I Am A Wallet is a classic. The main thing that differentiated McCarthy from the hoards of other C86 janglers and strummers is their far-left political lyrics. No fey mumblings about lost love or a girl you are too shy to talk to - their albums were political manifestos. This is not Billy Braggish thundering rhetoric though. Their lyrics were carefully hidden beneath catchy jangle pop that nodded towards The Smiths and The Buzzcocks. I Am A Wallet rattled though 14 tracks with titles like "The Vision of Peregrine Worsthorne" and "The Procession of Popular Capitalism" and was a tour de force of high octane guitar pop.

They never quite recaptured this energy on subsequent albums before guitarist Tim Gane went on to form similarly left leaning kraut-poppers Stereolab.

A Certain Ratio - To Each

A Certain Ratio were a post-punk group from Manchester who were eventually famous for wearing shorts, but before all that they released To Each which (depending on who you believe) is either their first or second album.

Where it comes chronologically is less important than the brilliant blend of sounds contained within, which saw them move from low-voiced Ian Curtis-like sludgathons to the more danceable, proto-Happy Mondays funk. It's a breed of pop that they would go on to mine, with slowly diminishing returns, over the next decade but To Each blends the two worlds perfectly, creating an atmospheric monster of an album. It's the a perfect soundtrack to Manchester before it started its reinvention process, and a record that you can dance miserably to.

Tracey Thorn - A Distant Shore

Tracey Thorn - A Distant Shore

She may be now more famous as a constant presence on microblogging site Twitter, but Tracey Thorn was once something of a prodigy.

A Distant Shore was the album she made between her initial DIY band the Marine Girls and the more commercially-leaning Everything But the Girl. And A Distant Shore is, in a word, perfect. It’s just Tracey - a rudimentary strummed guitar and that voice. The lack of instrumentation works in its favour, leaving space for her voice to swoop and haunt all over the tracks.

'Dreamy' is my absolute favourite with its proto C86 guitar jangling and her voice echoing all over. This was the age of ‘bedsit’ records and A Distant Shore had all the ingredients - sad, lovelorn lyrics about love not quite going right, delicious dusty melodies and an atmosphere of spring nights spent lolling amongst books. 'Plain Sailing' makes tears come to my eyes to this day. If you own one Tracey Thorn/Everything But the Girl record make it this one.

Swans - Children of God

Swans had forged a reputation as an intense and uncompromising band since their 1982 inception, notoriously playing fierce shows that led to audience members vomiting and eardrums being perforated.

Leader Michael Gira started to steer the band in a more acoustic and melodic direction around 1987's Children of God LP. As the title suggests, the album's lyrics focus on religious themes more centrally than on previous records, Gira commenting in particular on the practices of the Catholic church. Musically, though, the record is a step away from their previous industrial nihilism, taking in traditional folk and black metal as just two of its influences. It would pave the way for the doomed, commercially accessible The Burning World but showed the band perfectly at the crossroads of introducing more melodic flourishes into their brutal sound.

The Go Betweens - 16 Lovers Lane

The Go Betweens - 16 Lovers Lane

The Go Betweens (initial) swansong and one of the best albums of the 1980s was strangely underrated on release. I remember thinking it was a bit too polished, and so did many critics at the time, but now it just sounds perfect.

It’s their most well-produced for sure, with studio guru Mark Wallis creating colour in the band’s sound where before was a certain brittleness. The songs were superb too though. The band had recently moved back to Australia from London and the sunshine and good vibes obviously had an effect. The songwriting of Robert Forster and Grant McLennan was never stronger but as well as producer Wallis the band had an ace in their sleeve in recently joined bassist John Wilsteed. Wilsteed may have been a prickly punk rocker out of step with the band’s bookish image, but he was also an amazing musician and here slathered the arrangements with brilliant playing which at last brought a real musicianship to the songs.

Sadly it was the last album by the classic Go Betweens line up. Later, post-reformation albums were decent but this is the real thing - that moment when everything comes together and a band releases its masterpiece. It sold literally tens of copies but its influence is huge.

Glenn Branca - The Ascension

With its front cover depicting Paul Young (heh) carrying a dead man, it would be hard to tell on initial glance the wonders that are contained within this debut album from the chain smoking New York legend.

But here Glenn Branca began his on-record exploration of guitar resonance, following his legendary live performances . He gathered a small team of musicians (including notably Sonic Youth’s Lee Ranaldo) to play detuned guitars which gave out a sound that has been described as dissonant, jarring, clanging, heavenly but is most of all just beautiful. The album contains five slowly unfurling tracks which have gone on to heavily influence many guitar manglers, most notably Swans and of course Sonic Youth. Those bands may have popularised this initially avant garde sound but the groundwork was all done by Branca.

The Associates - The Affectionate Punch

The Associates - The Affectionate Punch

Many go for 1982s Sulk as the essential The Associates album to buy but less is said about its predecessor, their debut 'The Affectionate Punch'. It may not have the memorable alien hits that Sulk possessed but as an album I think I prefer it over the more claustrophobic Sulk.

The album was made entirely by the duo of Billy Mackenzie and Alan Rankine (with a session drummer) and you can just feel the wild abandon streaming through the grooves. Though you can trace back their sound somewhat to David Bowie’s Berlin era albums, it still sounds remarkably unique. It has a cleaner, less cluttered sound than its extremely intense successor which allows space between the instruments. Its strange and evocative form of post punk is impressive in itself, but add Billy Mackenzie’s incredible voice into the equation and you get utter brilliance. It swoops, hollers, leaps octaves over the metronomic pop in such a manner that the effect is almost overwhelming. Check out Paper House for starters. Shirley Bassey emoting over early U2. Brilliant.

Arthur Russell - World of Echo

Arthur Russell had done everything: disco with Dinosaur L, New York funk with Loose Joints, Talking Heads collaborations - the lot. Everything but a purely solo album just comprising his voice and his cello.

That was until his 1986 album World of Echo. The title was apt as Russell slathered his playing in tape echo leading to an incredibly evocative and moving album. The skeletal instrumentation places Russell front and centre yet still he is a ghostly presence, his voice drifting in and out of view and the cello playing consisting not only of standard notes but slaps and squeaks and other noises made by the instrument. The album gains further importance by the fact that it was Russell’s final full length album before his premature death in 1992. The album’s drifting, barely there textures gave creedence to the quote by Kyle Gann of The Village Voice that Russell appeared to simply vanish into his music.

Cabaret Voltaire - The Voice of America

Cabaret Voltaire - The Voice of America

Cabaret Voltaire emerged out of post-industrial Sheffield in the mid 70s and their sound was partly inspired by the clank of the steel works still heard from where they lived. Alongside the likes of Throbbing Gristle, Cabaret Voltaire were notable for being part of the ‘industrial’ music scene producing thought-provoking, challenging music made up of primitive electronics, drum machines and found sounds. The Voice of America was their 1980 album and their second with the classic line-up of Richard H. Kirk, Stephen Mallinder and Chris Watson and featured Watson's early tape experiments which would be the foundation of a now successful career in field recording.

Here they blended casio drum machines with shards of electronic noise, out of nowhere voice interruptions and two note bass melodies to create an unsettling yet hypnotic soundtrack which perfectly reflected the angst of the times it was released. With a country that was slowly crumbling as old industries were shut down, the music here is dark and claustrophobic - pulsing eerily like the dying industrial machines of Sheffield.

The Blue Nile - A Walk Across The Rooftops

The Blue Nile - A Walk Across The Rooftops

In a decade of excess and ballooning recording budgets, Scottish trio The Blue Nile were a strange anomaly. Theirs was a sophisticated, high-end sound (they were even signed to a record company set up by hi-fi manufacturer Linn) but they recorded in near poverty and used atmospheres that borrowed deeply from the grisly tenements of their rain-lashed home city of Glasgow.

Singer Paul Buchanan had a wonderful, yearning voice which strode confidently above a unique mixture of the electronic and the acoustic. It seems that the band were equally influenced by Kraftwerk and Scott Walker and they set about amalgamating pulsating electronics with orchestrated pop. The result was a stunning textural album with a feel all of its own. Brilliant throughout, it yielded a future near standard composition in 'Tinseltown in the Rain'. Typically, the reclusive band quickly returned to the depths of the studio only returning a full six years later with the equally impressive Hats.

Pylon - Gyrate

Emerging out of the same fertile Athens GA scene as the likes of REM and the B52s, Pylon were kind of the band everyone within the scene looked up to and admired but who didn’t reach the level of success the others attained.

It was sort of easy to see why. Firstly, they broke up after just two albums after turning down a support slot with U2. Secondly, their music was just a little too spiky and obscure for mainstream acceptance. Still, what they produced was the raw essence of what would become the Athens sound: a rhythmic splurt of post-punk with a kinetic energy and remarkable melodic instincts.

Gyrate showcased their sound at its most raw the ‘classic’ sinewy guitar, bass, drums racket topped off by Vanessa Bricoe-Hay’s growly, impassioned vocals. There’s nothing quite like it elsewhere in the musical canon. Luckily Pylon’s brilliance was presented to a new generation of music fans when hip New York label DFA re-issued the record as Gyrate Plus in 2007.

This Kind of Punishment - A Beard of Bees

This Kind of Punishment were New Zealand’s gloom brothers Peter and Graeme Jeffries. The pair had already been in Joy Division-styled post-punkers Nocturnal Projections but, with This Kind of Punishment, they slowed their music down to a smudged crawl where they combine guitars, pianos, found sounds and percussion to devastating effect.

Their compositions have the feel of chamber music that appears out of sonic chaos. Often beginning with field recordings and clattering noise, they slowly find their feet to produce gorgeous, cyclical, classical-inspired pieces dictated by the brothers’ baritone inunciations. The album ends on 'An Open Denial' where everything they’ve been trying to achieve comes together as seemingly disparate notes unite as an elegaic whole.

Sex Clark Five - Strum and Drum

Sex Clark Five - Strum and Drum

An album that does exactly what it says on the tin, Strum and Drum is an incredible tour de force of 60s style songwriting and biscuit-barrel production that deserves a much bigger audience that it got upon its 1987 release.

Hearing it now, Robert Pollard must have been devoured it as it shares a lot of sonic territory with the early Guided By Voices records. It seems to have arrived direct from the 1960s - completely out-of-step with 80s production or songwriting. Featuring twenty brief, hugely melodic songs, nothing clocked in much over a minute as the band rattled through their embarrassment of riches as if trying to show everything they could do over two sides of vinyl.

Interestingly, too, the band were very political in their lyrics - their upbeat, strummy songs masking thought-provoking lyrics such as those on Liberate Tibet and Sarajevo. Not much more became of the band despite a clutch of releases on a variety of labels but Strum & Drum pretty much says everything they needed to say over one incredible record.

Game Theory - Lolita Nation

Game Theory were the sort of band that you could be a bit reticent about admitting liking. They weren’t cool like The Stone Roses nor as commercially acceptable as REM or U2. Singer Scott Miller had a big bundle of extremely curly hair. And they sometimes could sound a little too close to Belinda Carlisle for comfort.

But they made an array of brilliant, technicolour albums throughout the 80s and Lolita Nation was their high water mark both commercially and artistically. Basically, it’s mayhem from the get go. Shards of songs, found sounds and experimental pieces are slotted amongst the more realised songs to form a patchwork quilt of sound which veers from acoustic ballads, all out rockers, the sound of someone singing over a hoover, exceptional REM-style folk and everything in between.

A double album with several minutes of cut up experimentation dominating the third side, it’s hard to deny its influence. Suddenly everyone was using {something} Nation as titles (see Daydream Nation as an example). Guided By Voices made albums that seemed to be put together using scissors and glue. Sadly dear old Game Theory were just too weird for the mainstream and too mainstream for the hipsters. Scott Miller made several more albums as both Game Theory and Loud Family before tragically taking his own life in 2013.

Love Tractor - Wheel Of Pleasure

Love Tractor - Wheel Of Pleasure

Years before Mogwai made cyclical guitar instrumentals into an artform, there was Love Tractor.

The band emerged out of the same arty Athens GA scene as R.E.M and the B52s but were unique for their era in that they had no vocals. After post-rock took hold there were countless instrumental bands, but this was a rarity back in the early 80s.

Wheel of Pleasure collects together the best bits of Love Tractor’s early EPs and is a lovely document of the band at their best. They range from utterly delightful instrumental pieces ('Fun to be Happy' is so sun-dappled it actually appeared as background music on the Weather Channel) to darker, churning material that takes nods from the guitar interplay of bands like Television. One of their finest moments is a cover of Kraftwerk’s 'Neon Lights' which twangs with brilliance and includes (gasp!) vocals. Later albums introduced vocals more prominently and the band were less effective as a result, but Love Tractor at their best were just adorable.

The Brotherhood of Lizards - Lizardland

Martin Newell was the great lost pop genius of 80s music. His Cleaners From Venus project seemed to set about to do exactly the opposite of what everyone else was doing in the decade of excess. The songwriting was purely 60s influenced, the production lo-fi and analogue organic. He was totally out of place.

It’s a shame because a lot of his better songs had a melodicism and grandeur that would fit in the sort of hit parades that Echo & the Bunnymen and XTC regularly featured. Behind the whimsy, though, the songs were majestic. With a mid-fi rather than lo-fi production Newell’s songs were properly fleshed out and jammed full of the sort of touches that regularly lead people to proclaim his talent.

Sadly, however, nothing much happened and Newell went back to his garden shed to make his acclaimed The Greatest Living Englishman LP. Again no sales, but the wise people at Captured Tracks keep re-issuing his stuff seemingly in the notion that eventually a wider circle of people will see what some of us already see.

Hugo Largo - Drum

Hugo Largo - Drum

Probably just too quirky for mass acceptance were Hugo Largo who emerged out of New York with your standard two bass, violin, and vocals line up.

Nothing less than 100% original could come out of that batch of instrumentation and Hugo Largo didn’t disappoint, creating a unique and haunting sound led by singer and performance artist Mimi Goese. Goese’s voice swooped and swallowed around the gentle music - part Kate Bush, part Natalie Merchant, creating an incredible form of chamber music.

It contains the single best moment in recorded music history on ‘Eureka ‘ when producer Michael Stipe’s distinctive whinny appears way in the background - a note of reassuring familiarity amongst the oddness. So odd, in fact, that the record was re-issued on chief weird music provider Brian Eno’s Opal records before the band recorded a similarly good second album Mettle before splitting indefinitely.

Wall of Voodoo - Call of the West

Wall of Voodoo - Call of the West

It’s just me isn’t it? It’s just me that thinks putting together Gary Numan-esque gothy synths, frantic drum machine patterns, guitars that appear to have come off the set of 'The Good, The Bad and The Ugly', all topped off with a singer who constantly sounds like he is rolling a boiled sweet around in his mouth was the greatest musical idea of all time?

Well it might not be just me, as Wall of Voodoo did pretty alright for themselves at the time - even scoring a MTV hit with Mexican Radio. It was both commercial and just a bit weird - an incredible combination of influences that led to a sound that not a single person has ever attempted to replicate.

Guitarist Marc Moreland was the star of the show, tangling feedback-drenched noise with twangy Bert-Weedon-on-speed picking and everything in between. His detuned guitar is always busy amongst the cacophony. It shouldn’t work, but it does. For the uninitiated, think Devo meets Ennio Morricone.

Just after its recording singer Stan Ridgeway (yes the camouflage guy) left and the band stumbled on effectively but not as interestingly with the more conventional singer Andy Prieboy. Then guitarist Moreland and drummer Joe Nanini passed away and so this unique combination of musicians could never reunite and reclaim the glory that was surely theirs.

Virginia Astley - From Gardens Where We Feel Secure

Virginia Astley - From Gardens Where We Feel Secure

One of the more under-appreciated ambient works of the early 80s is Virginia Astley’s From Gardens Where We Feel Secure.

It's a gorgeous, mostly instrumental sound cycle that is intended to recreate a beautiful summer's day in England. Astley was a piano player by trade, and so the pieces are built around sun-dappled splashes of her intricate playing joined by field recordings (birdsong, church bells) and woodwind to create a bucolic paradise. The album runs through from morning to evening, Astley playing improvised pieces over tapes of field recordings. Occasionally a voice appears, but mostly you are left with the sound of the intertwining instruments.

What initially could seem slightly twee soon becomes incredibly moving, and the work stands compare to Harold Budd and Brian Eno’s ambient pieces of a similar vintage. From Gardens Where We Feel Secure, though, has a unique atmosphere all of its own.

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