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Good Alternative Rock Music (1985-90): Out from the Underground

Michael Taylor itcherThe late 80’s saw the origins of alternative rock that would dominate the 1990’s. Its underground college radio beginnings left a multitude of lesser known bands, underrated songs and forgotten albums from acts like The Lilac Time, Concrete Blonde and Jellyfish. ~ Michael Taylor

Subversive Subculture…

Thanks to groups like REM, The Replacements, Sonic Youth and Jane’s Addiction, college radio of the mid-80’s became a lifestyle soundtrack for music fans craving something different from pop music and hair metal.

It had an underdog, artistic appeal to loners on the left-of-center, but its burgeoning success made fans of the genre realize they weren’t quite so alone after all.

But any scene that celebrates its underground, obscure origins leaves room for many great bands, albums and songs that never get their full due. Let’s look at some of the most notable examples.


Super Rad Alt-Rock Recommendations

Concrete Blonde (1982–1995, 2001–2004, 2010-Present)

Essential Albums: ‘Free’ (1989), ‘Bloodletting’ (1990), ‘Walking in London’ (1992) , ‘Mexican Moon’ (1993)

Essential Tracks: ‘Joey,’ ‘Caroline’, ‘Tomorrow Wendy’, ‘Bloodletting (The Vampire Song)’, ‘Roses Grow,’ ‘God Is a Bullet’, ‘Walking in London’, ‘Mexican Moon’, ‘Still in Hollywood’, ‘Heal It Up’

I know you’ve heard it all before // So I don’t say it anymore // I just stand by and let you // Fight your secret war…

This L.A. trio featured two notably distinctive elements: the husky soulful vocals of Johnette Napolitano and Jim Mankey’s otherworldly, liquid guitar tone.

The group (whose evocative name came from R.E.M. vocalist Michael Stipe), mixed bluesy hard rock with Goth overtones, resulting in a unique, gritty sound.

This gave them a cult following, but huge mainstream success eluded them. While they’re best known for their 1990 torch song ‘Joey’, they have a solid discography worth investigating further.

The Lilac Time (1986-Present)

Essential Albums: ‘The Lilac Time’ (1987), ‘Paradise Circus’ (1989), ‘& Love for All’ (1990)

Essential Tracks: ‘Black Velvet’, ‘Return to Yesterday,’ ‘American Eyes’, ‘The Girl Who Waves at Trains’, ‘She Still Loves You,’ ‘Father, Mother, Wife and Child’, ‘All for Love and Love for All’, ‘The Laundry’, ‘Dreaming’, ‘Prussian Blue’

The earth revolves around the sun // Infinity has just begun // And we are bound to wonder why // Like a baby born to cry…

This British alt-folk group featured the vocals of Stephen “Tin Tin” Duffy, previously known as a new wave solo act (and the original vocalist for Duran Duran).

The Lilac Time saw a change in style however: recalling 60’s folk rock, but adding some post-punk atmospherics for good measure.

For whatever reason, they never got the push they deserved, but just a cursory listen to songs like the haunting ‘Father, Mother, Wife and Child’ illustrates their talents.

Jellyfish (1989-1994)

Essential Albums: ‘Bellybutton’ (1990) , ‘Spilt Milk’ (1993)

Essential Tracks: ‘The King Is Half Undressed’, ‘Baby’s Coming Back’, ‘That Is Why,’ ‘Ignorance Is Bliss’, ‘Joining a Fan Club’, ‘Bye, Bye, Bye’, ‘New Mistake’, ‘The Ghost at Number One’

I know it’s hard for you to see // What lies behind’s a mystery // If words could speak they’d mean even less // When the king is half undressed…

These San Francisco power-pop revivalists offered sugary hooks on songs like ‘The King Is Half Undressed’ and ‘Baby’s Coming Back.’ Unfortunately, inner-lineup tensions and lack of mainstream success made their career short and (bitter) sweet.

But they left two solid underrated albums full of wonderful songs behind— which would have been better received if Grunge hadn’t overshadowed the power pop alternative sub-genre.

The Pixies (1986–93, 2004–Present)

Essential Track: ‘Gouge Away’ (1989)

Sleeping on your belly // You break my arms // You spoon my eyes // Been rubbing a bad charm // With holy fingers…

The Pixies’ influence on alternative rock can’t be overstated: Nirvana, Radiohead and PJ Harvey all claimed them as formative influences, and David Bowie was one of their biggest fans.

But while tracks like ‘Here Comes Your Man’, ‘Where Is My Mind?’ and ‘Debaser’ are classics of the genre, the sinisterly erotic ‘Gouge Away,’ which closes out their seminal album ‘Doolittle’, is a lesser-known gem.

Featuring Kim Deal’s decadent bass line and Black Francis at his howling best, it’s both catchy yet chaotic, and one of their finest tunes.

Forgotten Soundgarden (1984–1997, 2010–Present)

Essential Album: ‘Soundgarden-Louder Than Love’ (1989)

Essential Tracks: ‘Gun’, ‘Hands All Over’, ‘Get on the Snake,’ ‘I Awake’, ‘Loud Love,’ ‘Ugly Truth’, ‘Full on Kevin’s Mom’

There’s no time to keep it low // I’ve been deaf now I want noise!

While grunge gods Soundgarden ruled the 90’s, their ‘89 major label debut ‘Louder Than Love’ remains a curiously unacknowledged effort overshadowed by hit records like ‘Badmotorfinger’ and ‘Superunknown.’

This was largely due to timing–the album arrived two years before Nirvana’s ‘Nevermind’ opened the floodgates to the Seattle rock scene.

But tracks like the haunting ‘I Awake’, the Zeppelin-esque ‘Hands All Over’ and the menacing ‘Gun’ add up to one of the 80’s heaviest albums, with vocalist Chris Cornell wailing with glass shattering urgency.


“It’s Lit to Pop and Nobody Is Gonna Stop”…

Those fitting lyrics from Jane’s Addiction’s ‘Stop’ (off their 1990 breakthrough album ‘Ritual De Lo Habitual’) would prove prophetic as the 80’s drew to a close.

That album’s success would give vocalist Perry Farrell the financial clout to start Lollapalooza, the festival that ushered in alternative culture to the masses, paving the way for Nirvana, Smashing Pumpkins, Nine Inch Nails and countless others, which would dominate the decade.

So that concludes my list of good alternative rock from 1985-1990. What artists, songs and albums would you add to the mix? Sound off in the comments section below. I’ve also included a list of some honorable mentions below.

And for even more alt-rock magic, check out my list of Good Alternative Bands from 1990-1995, Underrated 80’s New Wave Bands, Underrated 90’s Alternative Bands, Underrated 90’s Indie Bands and Underrated 90’s Industrial Bands.

My name is Michael Taylor and I′m your go-to source for finding the best in Alternative rock in all its various genres, such as Goth, Grunge, Post-punk, Shoegaze, Britpop and Electronica, with some metal thrown in for good measure. Film-wise, I′m all about sci-fi and horror, comic book movies, and cult classics. I love checking out all the best concerts and film events in my hometown of Austin, TX. I′ve written for sites such as Cracked, and I cover all my various pop culture obsessions on my site
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