Editor’s Note: The 500 may be dead, but Harris isn’t.
At the end of August, Pitchfork put out a list of the 200 Best Songs of the 1980s. This was followed a month later by PopMatters’ 100 Greatest Alternative Singles of the ‘80s. While both are fine lists, what was striking was how much the Southeast was ignored on both. This led to me and my good friend Baker discussing the omissions with his friend Kevin. We all decided to come up with our own lists, and Kevin was the first to accomplish the task with the 25 Best Southeastern College Rock Songs from the 1980s, which he posted on November 10. It’s a fine list and inspired me to finish compiling mine. [Edit: to complete the trinity, Baker has now published his top 25.]
The last couple of weeks I have listened to a lot of great songs from the era and have enjoyed the musical research. My list is also 25 songs and consists mostly of college rock. I haven’t ranked them, but have instead put the songs in alphabetical order. This main reason for this is it allows me to start with REM.
I have a representative video after every entry, and most are of amazing live performances or official videos. And I have also made a Spotify playlist of 20/25 of the songs that were available. [Edit: I have updated the playlist to include as many of the songs from all three lists as possible.]
- “Begin the Begin” – REM* (Life’s Rich Pageant): Choosing one REM song was going to be a daunting task, so I enlisted my friend Rachel to choose for me. She made the choice for “Begin the Begin” and this is her reasoning, which I find to be perfect. “Life’s Rich Pageant is important because it’s the album that transitioned them from what we now think of as their “early sound” into the distinctive sound of their early-90’s work … It’s no surprise then that “Begin the Begin” is the album’s opening track because it’s one of their most aggressive up to that point, especially in comparison to a lot of their earlier work and it sets the tone for the entire album, or perhaps in a larger sense, an indicator for the band’s overall direction. It’s loud and it is in your face and it’s the perfect beginning track … So, I love this song, always have, and there are others tracks I probably like more from their 1980’s catalog, but I picked this one because in the great canon of R.E.M. it’s one of the most important. It was a bridge from the sound of a young band still trying to define themselves to the band they would eventually become. If Murmur was an infant and New Adventures in Hi-Fi was the adult then Life’s Rich Pageant is the assertive teenage somewhere in the middle.”
- “Cool” – Pylon (Gyrate): Pylon was one of the earliest bands to come out of Athens in the 80s and were right there with REM as the scene developed. It was Pylon’s “Crazy” that REM covered on their Chronic Town EP [correction: appeared on the Dead Letter Office compilation]. “Cool” is a great song of their debut album in 1980, and Vanessa Briscoe’s vocals along with Randall Bewley’s guitar work take no prisoners. And you can dance to it.
- “Eight-Ball” – The Jody Grind (One Man’s Trash Is Another Man’s Treasure): This Atlanta band put out two albums. “Eight-Ball” is from their 1989 debut, and it quickly becomes apparent how compelling Kelly Hogan’s vocals are on this track. Hogan currently lives in Chicago and plays with the likes of Robbie Fulks and Neko Case, but it was the Jody Grind that first brought her attention as an amazing talent.
- “Elvis is Everywhere” – Mojo Nixon* & Skid Roper (Bo-Day-Shus!!!): Out of Chapel Hill, NC Mojo Nixon and Skid Roper got their start in the 80s looking to rock with country tinges and potentially offend as many people as possible. “Elvis is Everywhere” is his signature song of sorts, and I guess I didn’t quite trust myself to choose “Stuffin’ Martha’s Muffin.”
- “Everywhere Girl” – Dreams So Real (Everywhere Girl/Whirl 7”): Dreams So Real were also part of the Athens scene. At the time, I wasn’t into them as their college rock was a little more on the arty side than I liked at the time. That was mistake. “Everywhere Girl” from 1985 was produced by Peter Buck, and it is a pop gem.
- “Hittin’ Where It Hurts” – Webb Wilder* (Hybrid Vigor): Webb Wilder from Mississippi is still producing amazing roots rock, and “Hittin’ Where it Hurts” is from his second album released in 1989. Not only is he an amazing songwriter, he’s also a philosopher of sorts as evidenced by his credo: Work Hard / Rock Hard / Eat Hard / Sleep Hard / Grow Big / Wear Glasses if You Need ‘Em.
- “In Little Ways” – Let’s Active (Big Plans for Everybody): I had a hard time choosing a song by Let’s Active but finally decided on this from their 1986 full length. That’s Mitch Easter on vocals there, and his brand of North Carolina jangle pop set the standard in many ways. He also had a hand in producing the first three REM releases.
- “Intervention” – Corrosion of Conformity (Animosity): I listened to a lot of hardcore punk in the 80s. There were a handful of regional acts that fit the genre, but none reached the status of bands out of, for example, California. Corrosion of Conformity are from Raleigh and while their sound in 1985 was already more of a punk/thrash/metal crossover, their heavily politicized lyrics, as can be heard in the following video, are definitely in keeping with the time.
- “Into the Night” – Michelle Malone* (New Experience): This is song is from the Atlanta native’s 1988 debut album, and the version in the video is the one with the band Drag the River, which I was lucky enough to see live at Al’s Pumphouse in Greenville. It flat out rocks!
- “Leave My Heart” – The Accelerators* (Leave My Heart): Oh man, the Accelerators might just be my favorite band of the era. I saw them several times at Dawg Gone in Spartanburg and it never disappointed. The above-mentioned Baker and I even once called information to get singer Gerald Duncan’s phone number in Raleigh. He answered and even talked to us a bit, but did note that it was “quite odd” that we had called him. This is the title song off of their 1983 album. It’s amazing.
- “Love is for Lovers” – the dB’s (Like This): The dB’s got their start in NYC, but all three hail from Winston-Salme, NC. This song is from their third album in 1984, and it is a pop masterpiece, perhaps the best song of the decade of any genre.
- “Mary Jane” – The Vulgar Boatmen (You and Your Sister): Check the above, this might be the best song of decade. The Vulgar Boatmen are from Gainesville, FL, and the songs from their 1989 debut are perfect in their restraint. I chose “Mary Jane,” but could picked one of many from the album.
- “Private Idaho” – The B-52’s (Wild Planet): Off of their 1980 album, “Private Idaho” doesn’t mess around. The B-52’s started the Athens scene, and this song is a perfect example of their manic style as Kate Pierson and Fred Schneider trade vocals. I could listen to this on endless loop.
- “Riot In Cell Block No. 9” – Flat Duo Jets (In Stereo): This band hails from Chapel Hill and later moved to Athens, and if the sound is a little familiar to you it is because Jack White openly acknowledges the influence the Flat Duo Jets had on him. This song is from their debut in 1985.
- “Scarred but Smarter” – Drivin’ n’ Cryin’* (Scarred but Smarter): DnC from Atlanta had so many great songs, but it is always this one that I return to when choosing the one that means the most to me. I saw them live a couple of times in the late 80s and just saw them again in July, which I wrote about here. They still rock.
- “Somebody That I Know Is Going To Die” – Mercyland (No Feet on the Cowling): Mercyland out of Athens were led but Dave Barbe, who would later go on to be a member of Bob Mould’s Sugar. This is off or their only album, which was released in 1988.
- “Something for You” – Dillon Fence (Dillion Fence): Off their 1988 self titled debut, “Something for You” is another representative from Chapel Hill and is keeping with the clean pop stylings of their contemporaries.
- “Something To Say” – The Connells (Fun & Games): Keeping it in the Tarheel state, Raleigh’s The Connells put out a lot of pop gems and were a big part of the college circuit in their day. I wasn’t a huge fan of them at the time for different, nonmusical reasons, but that was a mistake I now am looking to rectify this.
- “Spin Your Partner” – Love Tractor (Around the Bend): Love Tractor were one of the founders of the Athens scene, and their version of mostly instrumental, folky, home spun rock were highly successful at home and on the road during the 80s. “Spin Your Partner” is from their second album, released in 1983.
- “Tennessee Fire” – The Silos* (Cuba): This is the lead track from Cuba, the 1987 album that was named by Rolling Stone as the best newcomer of the year. As my friend Baker says, it’s a “true masterpiece. Artsy and alternative in the best sense, but with a folk and roots-rock angle.” The Silos are a favorite and Cuba is a desert-island disc for me.
- “The Underdog” – Matthew Knights* (Demos): Matthew was a stalwart of Spartanburg’s rock scene in the 80s and I saw him many, many times at Dawg Gone. He is still playing around town, and I see him as often as possible. This is the kind of “underdog” rock that would make Bruce Springsteen proud, and maybe even a little jealous.
- “The Waiting” – Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers (Hard Promises): Tom Petty was selling out arenas by the time the 80s came around, but he is most definitely southeastern from Gainesville and this song is exquisite.
- “Watusi Rodeo” – Guadalcanal Diary (Walking In The Shadow Of The Big Man): Guadalcanal Diary are from Marietta but spent a lot of time in Athens. And I am pretty sure I once bought a record from the lead singer at Athens’ The Wuxtry (or was it Ruthless Records). This song is from their debut full length released in 1984.
- “White Lies” – Jason and the Scorchers* (Lost & Found): Jason & the Scorchers become the de facto inventors of cowpunk with their debut EP Fervor in 1983. Lost & Found followed in 1985 and this was one of the standouts on the classic album.
- “The world needs a little more love” – Bruce Joyner* (Hot Georgia Nights): Bruch Joyner, from Georgia, composed so many great pop and rock songs throughout the 80s and beyond. I saw him once with his band Out of the Fire at Dawg Gone, and I didn’t know what to make of it because it was so good.
That was a lot of fun, and I hope to hear from you in the comments. I am sure I have missed many songs, and my kind readers will let me know about it.
*Was lucky enough to have seen this band live.