Riff Relevant Lists: 15 UNDERGROUND CUTS FROM THE ’80s

Article By: Shaun Katz ‡ Edited By: Leanne Ridgeway

Despite what the history books tell us, the ’80s weren’t all about MTV and men in pink slacks. Under the smiley-faced conservatism, something odd and esoteric was brewing.

In Australia, the Scientists and the Birthday Party heralded their arrival, along with vicious acts from around U.K. and Europe, such as Einstürzende Neubauten and Napalm Death. An endless list of unprecedented and inspiring bands was revolting against mainstream normalcy, with an endless approach to sounds and styles.

At its core, it was America that seemed to have the most thriving underground community of all. A network of pissed off, disenfranchised youth, playing in shitty clubs and rehearsal spaces, inadvertently rewriting the rule book on what music could really be. Some were already permeating the mainstream (Butthole Surfers, Jane’s Addiction), while others had a fan base that wouldn’t be able to fill a flight of stairs. Either way, the ’80s Underground was freewheeling and far-reaching in scope.

As a nod to my favourite 80’s underground artists, who broke their backs and blazed trails. I’ve selected 15 of my favourite records, in order of release dates:


The Gun ClubFire Of Love (1981, Ruby Records)

The manic genius of Jeffrey Lee Pierce howls out to the souls of preachers who succumbed to temptation, to the bluesmen who boarded those ghosts trains and never returned. ‘Fire Of Love’ is an unsettling, campfire tale about the roots of the American experience – and essential listening for any student of music.


Black FlagThe First Four Years (1983, SST Records)

Technically not an album, but just the finest collection of Hardcore music courtesy of B.F.’s pre-Rollins vocalists. For those who tell you punk died after ’83, this would be its epitaph.


The ReplacementsLet It Be (1984, Twin/Tone Records)

Drunken buffoonery and heartbreak meld together in a bratty, freewheeling poem to life, love, and Rock ‘n roll.


Hüsker New Day Rising (1985, SST Records)

A melodic, pop record sealed in a case of ear-splitting noise.


Naked RaygunThrob Throb (1985, Homestead Records)

While Jettison is Naked Raygun’s fiercest moment – the nerdy, knee-slapping style of ‘Throb Throb’ came first.

Jeff Pezzati’s lyrics are at once profound and hilarious. This stripped-down, angry little lab rat of an album would eventually become the sound of Post-Hardcore.


Bad BrainsI Against I (1986, SST Records)

Even if Bad Brains hailed from D.C., their musicianship was on an other-worldly level. This one separates the Gods from the mortals. A spectacular display of craft across any genre, mainstream or otherwise.


Screaming TreesClairvoyance (1986, Hall Of Records)

This jangly début from the Trees is arguably their most perfect offering. With sprinklings of psychedelic ear candy, ‘Clairvoyance’ digs into the dusty crates of its favourite ’60s Garage rock, while simultaneously being ahead of its time.

Singer Mark Lanegan was yet to develop the unique gravelly stylings we know today, often aping Jim Morrison to glorious effect on highlights like “Strange Out There” and “Lonely Girl”.


Suicidal TendenciesSuicidal Tendencies (1986, Frontier Records)

A contender for one of the greatest Hardcore punk records of all time. Mike Muir spazzed and slobbered against middle America, your mom, and anyone else who wouldn’t give him a Pepsi.


Revolting CocksBig Sexy Land (1986, Wax Trax! Records)

The Cocks bust out a slab of sleazy, sweaty protest music. This Ministry side project delivers an intoxicating dose of bass and drums with masterful restraint.


Big Black – Songs About Fucking (1987, Touch & Go Records)

I think I fucked your girlfriend once, maybe twice, I don’t remember”, sneers Steve Albini. “Then I fucked all your friends’ girlfriends – now they hate you”.

A lean, industrial juggernaut. Deliciously designed to provoke, at deafening levels.


Jane’s AddictionNothing’s Shocking (1988, Warner Bros Records)

The turning point. An oddly universal combination of goth rock, psychedelia and metal. The iconic album that urged all the underground tribes to come together as one, forming the sound of the 90’s alternative nation.


Sonic YouthDaydream Nation (1988, Enigma Records)

For me, this album represents the apex of the Underground. A beautiful, dreamscape of noise that does whatever it wants. An emotional and dazzling, creative call to arms.


Cro-MagsBest Wishes (1989, Profile Records)

Holy shit! Absolute head-banging bliss. For many, a betrayal of their sound, but as a Thrash album, very few metal bands have reached such heights of sonic power.


Skinny PuppyRabies (1989, Capitol Records)

Produced by Ministry’s Al Jourgensen, ‘Rabies’ gives a more traditional shape to Skinny Puppy‘s nightmares, and in the process creates their strongest set of songs.


MinistryThe Mind Is A Terrible Thing To Taste (1989, Warner Bros Records)

A close contender for the greatest industrial album ever. Furious and unlike anything else before or since.

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