Top Ten Underrated 80s Bands



10. The Cure. OK, OK. I received much grief for my inclusion of the Cure in Most Overrated Bands of the 1980s. Then I heard a fantastic song at the end of last week’s episode of “The Americans” — it turned out to be the Cure’s “Siamese Twins.” I’ve since delved into more of the Cure, and I’ve changed my tune. They’re actually pretty good, even if Robert Smith is a sad bastard.

9. Crowded House. Most well-known for their hit “Don’t Dream It’s Over,” these Aussies and Kiwis (that’s folks from New Zealand) wrote some of the catchiest pop melodies of the 1980s. Unlike many of their 80s contemporaries, however, Crowded House stands up to the test of time. Their debut album, which is chock-full of great songs courtesy of main songwriter Neil Finn, is still in regular rotation in my iTunes library.

8. The Cars. Somewhere around 1987, I got my ten-year-old hands on a cassette of The Cars’ “Heartbreak City.” They had me at “Hello Again.” Band leader Ric Ocasek, like his counterpart in Crowded House, was a master at crafting songs that stuck in your head like bubblegum to the bottom of your shoe. While The Cars broke up long ago, Ocasek has had his hand in numerous bands, producing albums for Weezer, Black Flag, Bad Religion, and Guided By Voices, among others.

7. The Minutemen. When singer/guitarist D. Boon died in a car crash in 1985, the 1980s lost what could have become its most influential alternative rock band. I was introduced to the Minutemen when I was in high school and searching for every punk album that I could my hands on. The Minutemen transcended the “punk rock” category; their quirky time signatures and sonically adventurous songs rival anything the Police — who also began life under the banner of punk rock — wrote and recorded.

6. The Cult. Bridging the gap between punk, goth, and hard rock, The Cult formed a style completely their own. Singer Ian Astbury was a modern-day Jim Morrison; his reputation, not to mention a vocal range eerily similar to the Lizard King, led former-Doors Ray Manzarek and Robby Krieger to ask Astbury fill the role of Morrison in their band Riders on the Storm. “She Sells Sanctuary” and “Firewoman,” played at a volume of 11, should be enough to cure anyone of the bad day blues.

5. Living Colour. Breaking the colo(u)r boundary of the predominantly white hard rock/heavy metal scene, Living Colour also changed what it meant to be in a hard rock band. Poppy vocal melodies, courtesy of Corey Glover, easily co-existed with Vernon Reid’s scorching and stunning guitar work. One of the best guitar solos of all-time has to be Reid’s fretwork in “Cult of Personality.”

4. The Stray Cats. A true throwback, the Stray Cats were a life-raft of swing/rockabilly/classic rock in an ocean of synthesizer-driven bands. Guitarist Brian Setzer set the tone with his jazz-inflected solos, while bassist Lee Rocker and Slim Jim Phantom laid down the rock-solid rhythm. The Stray Cats, and Lee Rocker in particular, are hailed as heroes by today’s rockabilly bands. Setzer has since started his own Brian Setzer Orchestra, which is another true throwback to the swing sound of the 1940s and 1950s.

3. Traveling Wilburys. Best supergroup of all time, perhaps the best band of all time. Wanna argue with me about that? My only answer to you is the following list of Wilburys: George Harrison, Roy Orbison, Bob Dylan, Tom Petty, and Jeff Lynne. The lyrics to their most famous song “Handle With Care” were apparently written collaboratively while everyone was hanging out at a barbeque at Bob Dylan’s house. Everyone took turns writing lines, and if everyone laughed or agreed, the line got into the song.

2. Huey Lewis and the News. In the SF Bay Area, Huey Lewis and the News are living legends. Outside of their home turf, however, Huey don’t get no respect, and that’s just a crime. “Sports” is one of the single greatest albums of the 1980s. The band relied on tried-and-true, no frills, blues-based rock n’ roll. Huey Lews and the News was my very first concert. They rocked the Oakland Coliseum when I was in 4th grade, and the fact that Dwight Clark, Joe Montana, and other 49ers greats of the time joined them onstage for “Hip To Be Square” made me a fan for life.

1. The Clash. If you only know The Clash by “Rock the Casbah,” I strongly urge you to dig a little deeper; “London Calling” should be your next musical purchase. Known as a punk band, The Clash — and Strummer in particular — were deeply influenced not only by the sound of the Jamaican reggae musicians who had moved to London in the 1970s, but also by the socio-political messages that reggae espoused. The world lost a staunch defender of the people’s music from around the world when Stummer died unexpectedly in 2002. For a more full picture of his influence, check out the most excellent documentary “The Future is Unwritten.” These days, ex-Clash bassist Paul Simonon appears on albums by Gorillaz and The Good, The Bad, and The Queen — both post-Blur projects of Damon Albarn, whom I will definitely talk about when it comes time for 1990s-themed Top Ten List.

Honorable Mention: Tears For Fears. “Songs from the Big Chair” also captivated my young, pre-teen years. Funnily enough, I was so naive at the time that I thought this was a soundtrack for a movie called “The Big Chair.”



10. Mr. Mister –  Whether you like it or not, “Broken Wings” is the quintessential 80s pop song. Lead singer Richard Page (who was once offered the front man gigs for Chicago and Toto) urges you to “take your broken wings and learn to fly again…learn to live so free.”  How can you say no to that? It is, however, their lesser-known song, “Kyrie,” that earns them a spot on my list. I have no idea what or who Kyrie is or understand what they’re saying half the time but I will proudly rock out to that song any day of the week.  And I’m still waiting to have a heated debate with someone over what is truly the better Mr. Mister song.  I have a feeling I’ll be waiting a while.

9. Billy Ocean – I recently Googled Billy Ocean to see what he’s up to these days. I wish I could say I was making that up for the sake of this list, but I would be lying.  Why did I do this? Because Billy Ocean freaking rocks. Okay, maybe he doesn’t so much as ROCK, but he’s a badass. If you try to tell me you don’t like “Caribbean Queen,” you are either hard of hearing or a liar.  Few 80s artists get me to turn up the volume on my car stereo faster than Billy Ocean. His hits include “When the Going Gets Tough (The Tough Get Going) and “There’ll Be Sad Songs (To Make You Cry),” but it’s none other than “Get out of My Dreams, Get Into My Car” (the theme song to the 1988 gem of a movie “License to Drive”) that is my absolute favorite.  Spotify that song right now. You know you want to.

8. Howard Jones – One could easily lump in Howard Jones with the standard 80s pop fare: Culture Club, Spandau Ballet, Wang Chung, et al. But I think there should be a special category for artists like Jones, Crowded House and Tears for Fears, who are certainly “pop” artists but have a little more substance when it comes to their lyrics and composition. Jones had hits with “Things Can Only Get Better” and “Life in One Day,” but it’s his song “No One Is To Blame,” that will transport you back in time and have you rethinking your life. Maybe that’s a tad dramatic, but it’s a solid, solid tune.

7. Toto – I presume I will get the most shit from people for my inclusion of Toto.  I just don’t know what it is, but “Africa,” in all of its soft-rock/background music at your dentist’s office goodness, it’s just such an excellent song. It seems that the band has had quite the revolving door of members during its tenure, but it was stellar in its late 70s/early 80s heyday, with songs like “Rosanna” and “Hold the Line” – I mean come on! And their lesser known ballad “I’ll Be Over You”…Shut the front door with that song! Do not, I repeat NOT, listen to that after going through a breakup. Man alive, that is a tearjerker. (Oh, and listen for Michael McDonald on background vocals – LOVE that guy).

6. Wham! – I’ve already shown my true dork colors by my earlier Billy Ocean freak-out, but here’s where I’m really going to go over the edge. I have a list of top 5 songs of all time (doesn’t everyone?!), and on that list is “Last Christmas” by Wham! Go ahead and judge me, I give you permission.  I’ve always been a HUGE George Michael fan, and this no doubt started with a little ditty called “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go.” Call it cheesy, call it silly, call it AMAZING, I don’t care. It’s a catchy saccharine dance track that demands some respect. More than a one hit wonder, they also had success with songs like “Freedom,” “Everything She Wants,” and “I’m Your Man.”  And do I even need to mention “Careless Whisper?” I think not. Wham! for the win.

5. Bruce Hornsby –  About as talented as they come in terms of musicianship. An accomplished pianist, accordion player, singer, writer and producer, Hornsby has written for artists like Huey Lewis and Don Henley, and he played piano on Bonnie Raitt’s massive hit “I Can’t Make You Love Me.” That is all aside from his own achievements with his band Bruce Hornsby and the Range (“Mandolin Rain,” “The Way It Is,” “Every Little Kiss”) and his subsequent stint with the Grateful Dead (who knew?).  All hail Hornsby.

4. Hall & Oates – I was a somewhat early adopter of Spotify and one of the first playlists I made was a “best of” Hall & Oates mix called “You are the Hall to my Oates.” Dumb title, I know. But the music is certainly not.  By sheer numbers, Hall & Oates is one of the most successful duos of all time (the most successful, according to Billboard).  Former college roommates Daryl Hall and John Oates hit their “rock and soul” stride in the 80s with “I Can’t Go For That,” “Private Eyes,” “Kiss On My List,” “Maneater” and my favorite “Method Of Modern Love.” With seven platinum and six gold albums, you’d think they’d be more respected in the industry.

3. Christopher Cross – There are things in life that everyone should plan for: buying a house, having kids, retirement, and of course, choosing the song that will play at your funeral. Luckily, I have done one of these things (okay, I also have a 401K, but whatever).  The song that will play at my funeral is “Sailing” by Christopher Cross (family, please make this happen).  Strangely enough, there is another Christopher Cross song called “Think of Laura” that would work better, but no thank you.  The multi-talented Cross’s unique voice lends itself to songs like “Sailing,” “Ride Like The Wind” (backed by Michael McDonald – have I mentioned I LOVE that guy?) and “All Right.” But it is “Arthur’s Theme (Best That You Can Do),” that earned him an Oscar for best song in 1981 and left us with some sage advice should we ever find ourselves caught between the moon and New York City.

2.  Michael McDonald – The aforementioned blue-eyed soul of baritone Michael McDonald…what can I say? Former front man of the Doobie Broothers and background vocalist for Steely Dan; writer, producer and collaborator with countless artists… he’s an American treasure. Scoff if you wish, but McDonald is legit, and he really came into his own in the 80s.  My favorites of his include “I Keep Forgettin,” “On My Own” (a duet with Patti LaBelle), “Sweet Freedom” and “Yah-Mo Be There” (a duet with James Ingram).

1. Lionel Richie – There are artists that I hold in such high musical regard that I call them by just their first name: Phil, Michael, Elvis and yes, Lionel. (That’s Collins, Jackson and Presley for anyone keeping track at home.) By now it should be clear that my musical heart beats a little differently than most. Lionel Richie is no exception here. The lead singer for The Commodores (whose song “Sail On” was the first song in my life that I can associate with a distinct and specific memory of childhood), Lionel Richie rose to solo fame in 1982. He has amassed an arsenal of hit songs, creating a soundtrack to the 1980s that few other acts were able to duplicate. As a master balladeer, he served up gems like “Say You, Say Me,” “Truly,” and “Hello,” the latter of which has sealed its spot in pop culture history through one of the most iconic music videos of all time (Lionel’s clay head anyone?). There are too many epic Lionel songs to list here, but if I had to choose one that is tops on my Lionel list, it is hands down “Penny Lover.”  You’ve never heard of it – I get that. But trust me, it is impeccable, from the subtle first notes to the “Oh Penny baby” that closes it out. Genius.

Honorable Mention: I struggled with whether I should include Mike & the Mechanics or Bruce Hornsby on this list.


  1. Patio · March 28, 2013

    I don’t understand your definition of underrated or unappreciated. Every band on both of your lists enjoyed huge commercial success or they are widely recognized as an influential band -or both… Do you consider any band from the 80’s that wasn’t Michael Jackson or Madonna underrated???

    • bammer77 · March 28, 2013

      I agree that most of these bands/artists enjoyed commercial success, but the question I asked myself when putting this list together was, “Would the average person mention this band in their top ten bands of the 80s?” Many bands enjoy commercial success, but are not remembered as well as some of the hugely successful bands of each era. Now if you asked me to put together a list of bands that weren’t commerically popular during their time, but turned out to be influential for the coming generations, I’d say that’s a grand idea.

  2. Alex Piazza · March 28, 2013

    Graham–your 180 on The Cure made my day. Loved The Clash making the list (no. 1 no less).
    Dufte Biene (sorry, had to)–the Howard Jones inclusion was awesome. Loved so many of his songs.
    To both of you–were Duran Duran, New Order, and/or The Smiths considered? Or were they not underrated enough?

    • bammer77 · March 28, 2013

      I did consider Duran Duran and New Order. But for the previous list. Sorry dude, not making a 180 on those bands. 🙂

      • KingCobalt · October 12, 2017

        Rather disappointed that neither Japan nor the Smiths were mentioned, but that’s okay i guess. Don’t ever think of adding Duran Duran without Japan! They ripped them off bigtime. If you don’t know who Japan are, listen to Nightporter or Gentlemen Take Polaroids

Leave a Reply to Patio Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s