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The New Wave era of the 1980’s has proven one of the most versatile genres in music. Evolving from post-punk, and encompassing sub-genres as disparate as Synth-pop, Goth, New Romanticism and Big Music, it laid the groundwork for the alternative rock movement of the 90’s.
New Wave’s elastic brand encompassed so many artists, that for every breakout star (U2, INXS, Duran Duran, Simple Minds, The), there were just as many bands that got lost in the shuffle, or unfairly branded as one-hit wonders.
So let’s look back at 8 underrated 80’s New Wave bands that deserve another listen.
Essential Tracks: Away, Please, Crack In Smile, Happy Boy, Sunday Morning
Essential Albums: Friends, Lindys Party
These Londoners expertly blended dance beats with gothic undertones, making moody songs with killer hooks including ‘Away’ and ‘Please’.
The group had initial success on college radio and a modest hit album with 1987’s ‘Lindy’s Party’. But record label issues stalled their (as yet unreleased) album ‘Country Life’ and the band folded soon after.
As of 2015: Singer/guitarist Trevor Tanner and keyboardist Paul are still active musicians, but work as solo artists.
Essential Tracks: This Is The Day, Uncertain Smile, Giant, Infected, Heartland, The Mercy Beat, The Beat(en) Generation, Armageddon Days Are Here (Again), Love is Stronger Than Death, The Dogs of Lust
Essential Albums: Soul Mining, Infected, Mind Bomb, Dusk
Trent Reznor was inspired to start Nine Inch Nails thanks to the influence of Matt Johnson, the mastermind and sole constant member in music project The The, with rotating guest collaborators including Sinead O’Connor, Neneh Cherry, and former Smiths guitarist Johnny Marr.
Mixing electronic textures and dance rhythms with blues rock, Johnson’s work ranged from the deceptively pop of This Is The Day, to darker tracks like ‘The Dogs of Lust’.
His deeply political lyrics have informed songs like ‘Infected’, which dealt with the late 80’s AIDS epidemic, or ‘Armageddon Days Are Here (Again)’, which dealt with the Cold War conflicts of the 1980’s.
As to why they never became a huge act? Perhaps it was Johnson’s refusal to make the same album twice, which made his music hard to pigeonhole from a marketing standpoint.
Thoughtful, provocative and emotive, The The’s work feels as timely as ever, and well worth rediscovering.
As of 2015: Johnson is currently readying a new studio album set for a tentative 2016 release.
Essential Tracks: Between Something and Nothing, Drifting, Falling, Vanity Fair, Myron, Sublime, Mercury
Essential Albums: The Ocean Blue, Cerulean, Beneath The Rhythm and Sound
Unless you knew they were from Hershey, Pennsylvania, you’d be forgiven for thinking The Ocean Blue hailed from the UK.
Their crystalline guitar lines, cooing vocals and lush production were influenced by bands like Echo and The Bunnymen and The Smiths, but their musical output has its own distinct charms.
While the band got significant airplay from their self-titled 1989 debut, they got shafted upon the arrival of Grunge, lapsing into cult status.
As of 2015: After bouts of inactivity, the group resurfaced in 2010. Their most recent release was 2013’s Ultramarine.
Essential Tracks: I Got You, Poor Boy, History Never Repeats, Six Months In A Leaky Boat, Hard Act To Follow, Dirty Creature, Message To My Girl
Essential Albums: True Colors, Waiata, Time and Tide
This eclectic New Zealand group morphed from folk to prog and eventually New Wave. One of the first bands featured on MTV, their videos for ‘I Got You’ and ‘One Step Ahead’ brought New Wave to the masses.
But touring fatigue and side projects stalled their momentum, and they called it quits by the mid 80’s. Co-vocalist Neil Finn would go on to greater success with his group Crowded House.
As of 2015: Although they have reformed for several short spurts over the past two decades, things have been quiet since 2009.
Essential Tracks: I Go Crazy, Siamese Twist, Sooner or Later, Postcards From Paradise, Seven Hail Marys, Every Little Word, Decline and Fall, Day One, Disenchanted, Tame Me
Essential Albums: Long Live The New Flesh, Plastic Fantastic, Gigantic
British rockers Flesh For Lulu are best known for their 1987 hit I Go Crazy, off the ‘Some Kind of Wonderful’ Soundtrack.
But despite modest follow-up hit ‘Postcards From Paradise’, record company woes and creative issues caused the group to fold in the early 90’s.
As of 2015: The group reformed in 2013, but charismatic frontman Nick Marsh tragically died from cancer on June 5th, 2015. Now is the perfect time to celebrate his musical legacy.
Essential Tracks: Desire, Upstairs, Stephen, The Sweetest Thing, Gorgeous, The Motion of Love, 20 Killer Hurts, Every Door, Why Cant I, Evening Star, Jealous, Josephina, Heavenly Bodies
Essential Albums: Promise, Immigrant, Discover, The House of Dolls, Heavenly Bodies
The Welsh group fronted by twins Michael and Jay Aston blended gothic drama and glam rock hooks, which worked in concert with their androgynous fashion sense. They had dance club hits with ‘Desire (Come and Get it)’ and ‘Motion Of Love’, but internal discord and record label troubles dimmed their spotlight by the early 90’s.
As of 2015: Due to legal issues there are two incarnations of the band: Michael plays in the U.S. based group as Gene Loves Jezebel, while brother Jay operates as Gene Loves Jezebel with Jay Aston in the UK, as well as his musical project Ugly Buggs.
**Fun fact: my second ever concert was Gene Loves Jezebel and Flesh For Lulu way back in 1987. Life changing!
Essential Tracks: Swamp Thing, Tears, Every Day Im Crucified, Soul In Isolation, Up The Down Escalator, Dont Fall
Essential Albums: Script of The Bridge, Strange Times, What Does Anything Mean Basically?
This Manchester England group had echoing guitar hooks to rival groups like Echo & The Bunnymen and The Cure, and a charismatic vocalist in frontman Mark Burgess. So why aren’t they as well known? It’s one of music’s great mysteries.
Songs like the strident ‘Every Day I’m Crucified’, the hypnotically eerie ‘Swamp Thing’ and the shimmering folk of ‘Tears’ all point to a band that deserve far greater acclaim (bands like The Stone Roses, Oasis, and Editors have long sung their praises).
As of 2015: While the original band is no more, Burgess still performs as The Chameleons VOX, most recently on a 2014 U.S. tour.
Essential Tracks: Under The Milky Way An Unguarded Moment, You Took, One Day, Myrrh, Tristesse, Tantalized, Lost, Reptile, Disappointment, Metropolis, Ripple, Dome, Feel, Mistress, My Little Problem, June, Sealine, Louisiana, Miami, On Angel Street, Pride Before A Fall… and too many to fully list here!
Essential Albums: Too many to mention! But start here: Priest=Aura, The Blurred Crusade, Heyday, Starfish, Gold Afternoon Fix, Forget Yourself, Untitled 23, Further/Deeper.
These Australian psych-rockers are best known for their 1988 hit Under The Milky Way. But hardcore fans appreciate their rich body of work (21 albums and counting), which layers labyrinthine guitars over frontman Steve Kilbey’s soothing vocals and clever wordplay.
But despite other modest hits like ‘Reptile’ and ‘Metropolis’ they were yet another band that suffered from lack of promotion during the grunge era… particularly unfortunate given their 1992 album ‘Priest=Aura’ is now seen as a masterpiece.
But while they aren’t massive rock stars their passionate fan base will attest they’re the best band on the planet. The rest of the world needs to catch up.
As of 2015: Still going strong thanks to their excellent 2014 album ‘Further/Deeper’ a 2015 SXSW showcase and current tour with beloved new wavers The Psychedelic Furs.
Well that concludes my list of underrated 80’s New Wave bands. I hope I’ve inspired you give these groups a listen. Their work still holds up. And while The Church’s discography may look intimidating, take the plunge. It’s worth it.
I’ve also included several honorable mentions worth checking out:
Lowlife, The Alarm, Camouflage, The Lilac Time, Boomtown Rats, Translator, House of Love, Japan.
Also, be sure to have a look at my list of underrated 90’s alternative bands for even more hidden musical gems.
Now it’s your turn: agree with my choices? Have some other groups you’d like to add to the list?
Tell me in the comments.
Love the mention of Split Enz. Still one of my faves and Neil Finn is easily the greatest songwriter of his generation and more. He is one of my all time favorites for those who know his work beyond the Enz.
Yes, when I was first coming up with this list I had just a mental image of the “One Step Ahead” video pop into my brain! Really great songwriting and melodies. What recent albums/projects by Finn would you recommend listening to?
U missed the Sound. .
Killing Joke could be added, still going strong and new album,”Pylon” on the way.
Ah yes the great KJ. One of my faves so expect to see them on another list in the near future :). Can’t wait for their new album!
Ironic that all my favourite bands are considered underrated although Ocean Blue i never got into The Bolshoi/ The Church/GLJ/and Split Enz are all time favs. i was into Split end since 79′ i think
7out 8 aint bad aside from Ocean blue the rest are all time favs!!!! special The Bolshoi/The Church/GLJ/The The/Split Enz & Chameleons
Triffids, Go Betweens, Wild Swans, Chills, Felt… just off the top of my head
Japan and Lowlife rate higher than an honorable mention, in my estimation. Also, your list needs The Comsat Angels. Oh, our webcomic about the Goth subculture has referenced four of your pics; enjoy: http://www.poseurpatrol.com/comics/bib-01/
P I L
I would add The Woodentops, Urban Verbs & Hunters & Collectors, to name a few.
Thanks for featuring The Bolshoi at the top of the list- great to see them getting some recognition. Singer Trevor Tanner has had a very prolific career as a singer-songwriter since then, with two bands on the go at the moment- Rathkeltair and Gypsies Ginger- as well as his solo work.
Three other criminally underrated bands worth mentioning are It’s Immaterial, Kissing The Pink and TV21. Oh yes, and The Shop Assistants, and The Wild Swans…
Thanks for mentioning Tanner’s solo work, I’m going to check that out. And totally forgot about Wild Swans! Young Manhood was a great song.
Nice list, I would have added Guadalcanal Diary though…
The Bolshoi: The best band in the world that no one’s ever heard of.
A fan of all of these , especially The Church and keenly aware even when they were doing their thing that they were unappreciated, underrated and too good for most peoples taste in music, then and today. My collection includes much of the body of work of all the bands mentioned and my wife and I are excited to see The Church and The Psychedelic Furs in our home town in August.
That is a great double bill. Saw The Church at sxsw this year and they were amazing as always!
XTC should be in there as well.
From ‘Black Sea’ and ‘English Settlement’ to ‘Skylarking’ & ‘Oranges & Lemons’, XTC were releasing Pop music put together with a lot of thought and care: musically and lyrically. Commercial radio stopped playing their music after they stopped touring in 1982. But, they still put out stellar albums like ‘Mummer’ in 1983, ‘The Big Express’ in 1984, The 2 Dukes Of Stratosphere recordings: ’25 O’Clock’ in 1985 and ‘Psonic Psunspot’ in 1987, and other fine albums, mentioned earlier. Brilliant writing all around from Andy Partridge & Colin Moulding. I’d say the same for another underrated band of the 80’s: Squeeze. Yet another good choice from the era would be Robyn Hitchcock.
XTC is not underrated
A few others.. Human Sexual Response, Crash Course in Science, The Method Actors, Japan, Skids (Skids founder, Stuart Adamson later formed Big Country, which had a similar sound. If you are a fan of Big Country, check out Skids) and, Stiff Little Fingers
I as well saw Gene Loves Jezebel with Flesh for Lulu way back when … have actually seen them quite a few times .. about 6 over the years!
Aztec Camera, The Housemartins, The Ralway Children, Cactus World News, China Crisis
Housemartins were more indie than new wave.
Great list but here’s a few more to investigate, spanning various time frames:
Sad Lovers And Giants
The Snake Corps
The Monochrome Set
Thanks for the kind words! Icehouse…oh my, they totally slipped my mind, but definitely a great band in addition to all the other bands you listed.
Ypu are all missing The Icicle Works. Now that was a great underrates band.
new order, china crisis, saeona dancing, tin tin duffy, echo and the bunnymen, aztec camera, orange juice, xtc, gene love jezebel, siouxie and the nanshees, the housemartins, abc, wiretrain, stray cats, the style council, xmal deutschland, the sound, the church, jesus and mary chain, the care/wild swans, the the, the adventures, lotus eaters, bolshoi, icicle works, psychedelic furs, modern english, soft cell, fiction factory, roxy music, the pale fountains, lots and lots more underrated great bands.
The Drivers, one album, rare to find. You ate the only one that mentioned icicle works they were great. Also The Swingers and Hunters and Collextors
I agree with you Michael Taylor that there are much too many underrated 1980’s era New Wave bands. I would add to your very good list the following unheralded, under-appreciated, and underrated bands: The Suburbs (from my home city of Minneapolis, MN), Red Lorry Yellow Lorry, Pseudo Echo, The House of Love, The Wolfgang Press, The Godfathers, and Stabilizers, etc.
All great bands! I included The House of Love in honorable mentions and expect to see Red Lorry, Yellow Lorry on a forthcoming list very soon. Godfathers “Birth, School, Work, Death” was one of my fave songs back in the day!
The The. Yes.
Japan. Certainly well known in the UK, but unknown in the USA.
Definitely underrated! You may have noticed I included them in the honorable mentions section :).
You forgot Kissing the Pink. I love those guys. Big Man Restless and Frightened in France are my mojo, and I’ve Dj’d them a few times.
There were so many good bands back then, it was a time of bounty. We have been in a musical desert for nearly twenty years.
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