This WSO discussion raises the question, which decade had better music, the 80’s or the 90’s?  (The thread also asks for the ten best songs of each decade … even as a prolific drafter of top-10 lists, I find that to be a nearly impossible task, but I will aim to list my top ten bands of each decade).  I am fairly objective here, having split my formative music appreciation years between those decades, and in my mind, the answer is easy.  A few caveats: I am limiting this to pop / rock / alternative, given my relatively limited knowledge of country, metal and rap / hip-hop.  Also, I am excluding from consideration bands that, roughly, were equally prominent in each decade, such as U2, Depeche Mode, Beastie Boys, Red Hot Chili Peppers, and Sinead O’Connor (if the bulk of a band’s best work clearly came in one decade, however, that decade earns the right to claim that band).  Arriving at a list of top ten bands for each decade yielded a clear winner overall to a question that I initially thought would be tougher.  I am curious to hear others’ thoughts, as well as others’ suggestions for the top songs or bands of each decade.  More below the break.

Top ten bands of the 80’s:

1. The Smiths  2. Talking Heads  3. Prince 4. REM  5. The Pixies  6. Joy Division / New Order  7. Michael Jackson 8.  Tom Waits  9. The Police 10. The Jesus & Mary Chain

Wow, impressive group.  This was not easy, and I excluded a lot of very strong bands / artists who could make credible arguments, including Madonna, Tom Petty, The Cars, Van Halen, Violent Femmes, Genesis / Peter Gabriel, Guns N Roses (although GnR also had an early 90’s presence), and The Cure.  (Springsteen I’m giving to the 70’s despite his strong 80’s work, and he’s been strong in virtually every decade).  I’m sure I’m forgetting a few that warrant inclusion as well, although I feel very good about my top five.  This also ignores the fact that the 80’s were prime ground for lots of fantastic one-hit or few-hit wonders, songs like I Don’t Like Mondays by the Boomtown Rats or Only You by Yaz.  Even the low art in the 80’s, synth pop, is fun and enduring.

The top ten bands of the 90’s was tough for a different reason.  After the top few, I quickly ran out of strong candidates.  The 90’s are hurt by sharing their top band with the aughts (but for purposes of 80’s vs. 90’s, I’ll give it to’em) and by the untimely death of two of the three artistic geniuses to emerge from the decade (Cobain and Buckley).

The top ten bands of the 90’s:

1. Radiohead  2. Nirvana  3. Morrissey  4. Beck 5. Jeff Buckley  6. The Magnetic Fields  7. Pearl Jam  8. Green Day  9. The Flaming Lips 10. NIN

(I give Wilco to the aughts as that is when they really hit their stride, but they could slide in at number seven here as well).  I feel like the top five-to-six stacks up fairly well with the top five from the 80’s, but after that, there is no contest.  And the omissions from the 90’s list (Pavement, Oasis, Liz Phair, Modest Mouse, Smashing Pumpkins) caused much less consternation.  The 90’s started VERY strong, but thanks to the deaths of Cobain / Buckley, the horrific spree of generic alt-rock and soft R&B wanna bees, some promising artists yet to hit their primes, and the premature flame-out of lots of bands like Oasis, Pearl Jam, etc., the second half of the decade (with the notable exception of Radiohead) was a veritable musical wasteland.  Moreover, the BAD music from the 90’s is MUCH worse than the bad music from the 80’s.  The latter is fun, enduring, and includes a lot of great one-hit wonders.  The former just grows more painful and grating over time.  The reputation of the decade that inflicted the likes of Color Me Badd, Nickelback, Snow, Ricky Martin, Hootie and the Blowfish, The Spin Doctors, and Vanilla Ice on the American populace must suffer accordingly.

It is too soon to include the aughts in this conversation, but with the likes of Radiohead, Arcade Fire, TV on the Radio, The National, Wilco, Spoon, Ben Folds (another good musician to emerge from the late 90’s, to be fair), Beck, and The White Stripes doing great things, plus a deep bench, this past decade clearly kicks the 90’s in the rear.  80’s vs. 00’s could eventually be a very interesting debate, however.

*Special bonus discussion … best Eph pop band / artist of the past 20 years … any contenders besides Fountains of Wayne and Lee Hom Wang?

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