The 1980s was a strange and explosive period for music. In the 1950s, you might be a fan of jazz or the blues. In the 1960s, you might find yourself on either side of The Beatles-Rolling Stones fence. By the 1970s, we began to see a true sprawl in genre classification with the dawn of the synthesiser and creative masterminds like David Bowie and Brian Eno pushing the boundaries, be it through William Burroughs influenced lyrics or avant-garde production styles. By the time the ’80s swung around, we were well and truly stood in the eye of a swirling storm packed with different music styles pushing us this way or that.
The 1980s saw the raw and unskilled punk of the ’70s morph into the steadier and more erudite form of post-punk. Meanwhile, new-wave and synth-pop groups like Duran Duran and Depeche Mode took the charts by storm with colourful suits and ludicrous hairstyles. In the 1980s, there was no longer the simple duality of previous decades. The only conflicting allegiances decipherable were perhaps those between synth-pop groups and the more classically guitar-driven groups precursory to the modern “indie” genre (i.e. The Smiths).
With so much variety to choose from, people were still able to form strong allegiances. Goths would avidly follow groups like The Cure and Siouxsie and the Banshees, angst-ridden teenagers would follow The Smiths, and those impartial would get bombarded by the barrage of pop on the radio courtesy of Madonna, Prince, Lionel Richie, Wham and so on and so forth.
The 1980s may well have brought some of the first truly awful music, but on the flip side, the sprawling diversity served up some absolute gems at the same time. As is often the way with music, some of the greatest releases of a given era aren’t appreciated in their time due to the artist’s non-conformist creativity, which can often be, as we label it, “years ahead of its time”. Throughout the ’80s there were so many acts fighting for our attention that several artists and albums, in particular, seemed to slip under the radar.
The following list is a tribute to some of the most overlooked albums of the decade year by year. While some of the bands are admittedly far from underrated, the albums have been chosen based on their individual merits. A number of the albums may now be seen as classics, but if they are, they were likely chosen because they seemed to pass the world by at the time of their release.
The most underrated albums of the 1980s year by year
1980 – The Comsat Angels – Waiting For A Miracle
So many fantastically gifted groups were born from the advent of post-punk that even the most avid follower of the genre in the early 1980s would admit to letting a few great acts pass through their net. Many readers won’t be familiar with these Sheffield post-punkers, but I maintain that The Comsat Angels were worthy of popularity on par with their Manchester contemporaries Joy Division.
The wholly overlooked band hit a creative peak in 1980 with the release of their debut album Waiting For A Miracle. The album boasts some of the band’s finest musical and lyrical marriages. The highlights are the title track and ‘Independence Day’. The latter is the group’s most well-known song that carries the genius lyrics: “I can’t stand up and I can’t sit down / Cause a great big problem stop me in my tracks / I can’t relax ’cause I haven’t done a thing / And I can’t do a thing ’cause I can’t relax” – the soundtrack to my days in lockdown.
1981 – The Sound – From The Lion’s Mouth
The entry for 1981 comes in a very similar vein to that of 1980. The Sound were an extraordinarily overlooked post-punk group that formed in London in 1979. They struck a fantastic chord with their debut album, Jeopardy, in 1980, but they hit their peak with the flawless From The Lion’s Mouth in 1981.
This second album came as a refined upgrade on Jeopardy. ‘Sense of Purpose’ was the only single released from the album; however, there are many tracks just as worthy of release as a single, such as ‘Winning’, ‘Contact the Fact’ and ‘New Dark Age’. The album is a well-balanced treasure trove, and I implore those with a post-punk partiality to check out the band’s other albums as well; you won’t be disappointed.
1982 – XTC – English Settlement
XTC were a cult group of the 1970s and ’80s who managed to make a name for themselves thanks to a collection of isolated commercial singles such as ‘Making Plans For Nigel’, ‘Dear God’ and ‘Senses Working Overtime’ – all of which arrived on different albums. Their art-rock sound was unique and seemed to draw from punk and ska influences among others.
As an albums band, they weren’t quite so commercially successful. The peak of XTC’s success came in 1979 with the release of Drums and Wires, thanks to the buoying single ‘Making Plans For Nigel’, but one of their most overlooked albums was 1982’s English Settlement. The album was known for its lead single, ‘Senses Working Overtime’, but for me, the album came as one of the group’s most well-balanced albums when taken as a whole.
1983 – The Chameleons – Script Of The Bridge
Manchester group The Chameleons poured a lot of care and attention into their debut album Script Of The Bridge in 1983. The album is a musical and lyrical masterpiece that was tragically overlooked, barring a small cult following the group garnered in the early years of their formation. Rivalling bands of the same vein of gothic music, namely The Cure, seemed to have sequestered all of the love at this point.
Thankfully, the album hasn’t been lost to the obscurity of time, with a healthy supply of modern bands still citing The Chameleons as a key inspiration. Their debut album wields four brilliant singles in ‘Up the Down Escalator’, ‘Don’t Fall’, ‘As High as You Can Go’ and ‘A Person Isn’t Safe Anywhere These Days’, but the real highlight for me is ‘Second Skin’.
1984 – Section 25 – From The Hip
Blackpool electronic rock group Section 25 were one of the lesser-known acts signed to the famous Manchester label Factory Records, home to Joy Division, New Order and Happy Mondays. Section 25 came with a sound akin to that of labelmates New Order, but their music maintained an identity of its own that brought something new and unmissable.
Alas, many people did miss this group and their handful of essential albums. They started strong with the release of Always Now, their debut album, in 1981. The debut album is seen by many as the group’s best, and it was famous for containing one of late Joy Division frontman Ian Curtis’ rare production endeavours on ‘Girls Don’t Count’. But for me, the band’s greatest album came with 1984’s From The Hip, which was highlighted by ‘Looking from a Hilltop’ and ‘Inspiration’ but also has so much to offer in its underbelly.
1985 – The Jesus and Mary Chain – Psychocandy
Scottish rock pioneers The Jesus and Mary Chain were one of the most underrated groups of their time but have since become cult heroes with an immortal legacy comparable to that of The Velvet Underground. They hit an early creative peak with the release of their debut album Psychocandy in 1985.
The noise-rock sound was something utterly unprecedented at the time, and it seemed that the public wasn’t quite ready for them yet. The album holds the group’s most popular hit to date in ‘Just Like Honey’, which was popularised after its appearance on the soundtrack to Sofia Coppola’s Lost In Translation in 2003. Its effect-heavy fuzz of guitar tracks throughout has earned the album plaudits for being one of the key sources for the shoe-gaze subgenre that would become popular in the early 1990s thanks to the likes of My Bloody Valentine and Ride.
1986 – Cocteau Twins – Victorialand
Cocteau Twins were one of the unsung heroes of the 1980s who did find a large degree of success with a healthy cult following, but one feels that they should have been more popular. They received critical acclaim for most of their albums, especially with The Moon and the Melodies (1986) and Heaven or Las Vegas (1990) – which finally saw them shoot toward more mainstream success.
But an album called Victorialand, released in 1986, seems to have gone somewhat overlooked within the band’s impressive discography. Without their bassist and co-creator Simon Raymonde, who had stepped out temporarily to work on a project with This Mortal Coil, vocalist Elizabeth Fraser and guitarist Robin Guthrie decided to create a more subtle album. The album comes with a little less intensity, thanks to the notable absence of bass and percussion. Despite its subtle and more gentle sound, the album is still a fantastic listen, and one of the most overlooked LPs of the decade.
1987 – Spacemen 3 – The Perfect Prescription
Spacemen 3 were formed in Rugby, Warwickshire, in 1982. The initial line-up consisted of just Jason Pierce (who later formed Spiritualized) and his friend Peter Kember. The sound of their early music was often described as neo-psychedelia and boasted a distinctive mangle of distorted guitar sounds and synthesiser tracks that repeated throughout their ethereal songs with minimal note or tempo changes.
All of Spacemen 3’s work can be described as underrated as they only ever managed to garner a small following before they disbanded in the early 1990s. The group have since been cited by a number of alternative groups as a key influence. Towards the end of the 1980s, Spacemen 3 enjoyed their peak success with The Perfect Prescription (1987) and Playing with Fire (1989). Both albums are worthy of mention for this list; Playing with Fire is usually seen as the pinnacle of Spacemen 3’s material, but The Perfect Prescription is, for me, their finest work and mustn’t be overlooked. A personal highlight is ‘Ode to Street Hassle’, their tribute to Lou Reed’s 1978 song, ‘Street Hassle’.
1988 – Galaxie 500 – Today
Massachusetts dream-pop group Galaxie 500 introduced their distinctive style of slow neo-psychedelic rock music with their debut album, Today, in 1988. The distorted dreamy haze of the album evokes distant memories in a sentimentally chilled out atmosphere. The music has a unique quality to it, thanks to the distorted rhythm guitar and Dean Wareham’s distinctive vocals.
Galaxie 500 were only around for four years, from 1987 to 1991, but during that time, they released three albums of critically influential music. Maintaining only a cult following over their short existence, Galaxie hit their commercial peak in 1989 with On Fire, but I feel this album overshadowed the perfection of their debut album, Today. The record doesn’t have a bad track on it, and it is awash with dream-pop essentials, including ‘Flowers’, ‘Tugboat’ and an arresting cover of Jonathan Richman’s ‘Don’t Let Our Youth Go to Waste’.
1989 – Nirvana – Bleach
Nirvana were by no means an underrated band, in fact, the fame and acclaim they received following the release of their masterpiece Nevermind in 1991 has been largely unparalleled by any other band since. However, before the success of 1991 came the unrefined mastery of Bleach two years before.
The entire album was recorded in producer Jack Endino’s basement for only $600, and it did not sell particularly well upon release, despite being relatively well-received by critics at the time. The album has since garnered the respect it deserves with some of the band’s formative classics like ‘Love Buzz’ and ‘About A Girl’.