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1979: The Greatest Year for '80s Alternative

by Nick Dedina

1979: The Greatest Year for '80s Alternative


A couple of years ago I was programming a new Napster radio station to complement our New Wave channel. Since it was called '80s Alternative, I was loading it up with hundreds of songs from the 1980s (no duh!). Picking songs for this station was easy as can be -- after all, this was the era I grew up in. But when I listened to the station I knew that something was wrong.

When I looked into what was missing, I discovered that much essential '80s alternative music, from New Wave and synth pop to British art rock and N.Y.C. art punk, actually came out in the late 1970s and was on heavy rotation deep into the next decade. Limiting the station to songs released from 1980 through 1989 only told part of the story. The records from '79 just kept multiplying until it looked like a watershed year ... in the '80s.

Just looking at the releases that came out in 1979 was awe-inspiring -- The Specials, Joy Division, The Cars, The B-52s and Joe Jackson all had debuts, while Elvis Costello and The Police started making real headway into the American mainstream. (Nick Lowe actually scored the biggest Top 40 hit single with "Cruel to Be Kind," but for some strange reason he did not sustain the mass Blondie-style commercial appeal he deserved.) Gary Numan released two (!!) synth classics with Replicas and The Pleasure Principle; O.M.D. put out the equally trend-setting single "Electricity," and The Human League were about to get more pop oriented.

The punk bands from '77 were also continuing to mature and grow, with The Jam taking the top spot in the U.K. and The Damned releasing the most underrated album of their career. The Buzzcocks also put out two classic albums, including their phase 1 swan song and a singles set that ranks with the finest ever released (like the Buzzcocks, The Undertones' debut would help define pop punk and even kids' music well into the new millennium).

Research shows that The Clash's peerless double LP London Calling (cited as the best album of the 1980s everywhere) actually came out in 1979 in the U.K., but I've kept it off this list just because it did not show up at the Dedina household until a year later.