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Thanks to WSO for an Excuse to Debate Pop Music

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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#1 Comment By PTC On February 24, 2010 @ 7:16 am

You are wrong to exclude bands who had a presence in both decades. You have to go with when the band made it big. That clearly puts U2/ ACDC, Tom Petty, Metallica, Motley Cru, The Police, etc… in the 80s lane, while not someone like Van Halen, ZZ Top, and the Boss- who were 70s.

Beatles or Stones?

80s all the way. Disqualifying bands because they did some stuff in the 90s is bogus dude, bogus. That disqualifies any great band that lasted for more than a decade that started in the 80s, while keeping in play 90s bands that had hits in 2000. Unfair!

You still forgot many great 80s band.. even with the bogus DQ!

INXS, Journey, Eurythmics, Bryan Adams, Billy Idol..

80s smokes 90s.

#2 Comment By jeffz On February 24, 2010 @ 7:21 am

If you employ that criteria, which is fair PTC, I’d say the 80’s lead grows even wider, as you note. Wilco is really the only major band (that I can think of offhand) added to the 90’s list — I’d probably slip them in at fifth — if you consider when folks first achieved some degree of fame …

#3 Comment By jeffz On February 24, 2010 @ 7:22 am

Oh, and while I like both Beatles and Stones, I am definitely a Stones guy, hands down.

#4 Comment By PTC On February 24, 2010 @ 7:24 am

What about 60s? No one beats that. Beatles, Stones, The Who, Jimi Hendrix, The Doors, Janis, Jefferson Airplane, Cream, Yardbirds…

Also 70s dude… Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, Queen, Van Halen, The Boss… etc

Cannot touch the 60s and 70s…

#5 Comment By PTC On February 24, 2010 @ 7:28 am

Well, it is unfair to exclude bands because they were so great that they lasted…

In which case.. you would have to have some criteria… like date of the first hit record… to denote exact decade…

I think that would be best… date of the first hit or hit album denotes when they broke… and that is the decade they belong in. Otherwise.. you’ll only end up with bands that died or were not good enough to last in the race, which is fundamentally unfair.

Is AC/DC 70s or 80s? Aresomith is clearly 70s…for example.

#6 Comment By jeffz On February 24, 2010 @ 7:32 am

60’s would definitely be a leading contender in any conversation … 70’s, though, is for sure below the 80’s, no question, even under your standard, when Talking Heads and Tom Waits would switch to 70’s (Zeppelin would go to the 60’s, though). After The Boss and a few others, there is a serious drop-off … plus, the 70’s lose serious points for the disco era. So much of the best music of the 70’s was produced by 60’s artists like Dylan, The Stones, etc.

#7 Comment By PTC On February 24, 2010 @ 7:33 am

The band recorded their highly successful album Highway to Hell in 1979. AC/DC is a 70s band… believe it or not. 70s looks tougher with every google search!

#8 Comment By PTC On February 24, 2010 @ 7:34 am

Is Black Sabbath 60s or 70s?

#9 Comment By PTC On February 24, 2010 @ 7:36 am

releases such as quadruple-platinum Paranoid, released in 1970….

I don’t know dude… 70s are looking pretty rugged…

The Police… is that 70s or 80s?

#10 Comment By PTC On February 24, 2010 @ 7:39 am

For the Police, their first album, Outlandos d’Amour was a hardship, working on a small budget, with no manager or record deal. Stewart Copeland’s older brother Miles Copeland III heard “Roxanne” for the first time and immediately got them a record deal with A&M Records.[10] Originally released in 1978, the single was re-released in 1979,

Police… 1970s… the 70s look tougher with every google search…

Queen- Queen enjoyed success in the UK during the early 1970s but it was the release of Sheer Heart Attack (1974) and A Night at the Opera (1975) that gained….

Queen rocks… the 70s are looking pretty rugged man.

#11 Comment By jeffz On February 24, 2010 @ 7:41 am

While probably not easier, probably most fair just to look at music actually released in a decade. Doing that definitely helps the 70’s as that is when much of the best stuff from Stevie Wonder, Rolling Stones, Zeppelin, Springsteen was released. I am still a bit more partial to the 80’s (and I think if you factor in rap / hip hop, then 80’s CLEARLY trumps the 70’s), in part due to the much greater diversity in that decade, and again, the late 70’s had some brutal music, other than early punk.

If I had to make an overall ranking, I’d probably go 1. 60’s, 2. 80’s, 3. 00’s, 4. 70’s, 5. 90’s. Of course, it’s all subjective / a matter of opinion … other than 90’s below 80’s in the original debate. That’s just a fact :).

#12 Comment By PTC On February 24, 2010 @ 7:42 am

Van Halen is an American rock band formed in Pasadena, California in 1972. They have enjoyed large scale success since the release of their debut album Van Halen, (1978).

Van Halen… 1970s… I think 70s beats 80s Jeff…

#13 Comment By jeffz On February 24, 2010 @ 8:03 am

You could convince me, possibly, on 70’s vs. aughts, but no way will I ever believe that the 70’s can touch the 80’s … The Smiths, U2, Michael Jackson, some good stuff from Springsteen, Pixies, New Order, Joy Division, if you get into rap Public Enemy, the best era for Tom Waits, REM, Prince, Red Hot Chili Peppers, GnR, Sonic Youth, Beastie Boys, Talking Heads, The Police, De la Soul, The Cure, Jesus and Mary Chain … that’s a hell of a decade for inventive music. 70’s got bogged down in a lot of classic rock and funk repetitiveness (including some great stuff, but nowhere NEAR the variety of interesting music in the 80’s), plus suffered from the disco era.

#14 Comment By PTC On February 24, 2010 @ 8:11 am

While probably not easier, probably most fair just to look at music actually released in a decade. Doing that definitely helps the 70’s as that is when much of the best stuff from Stevie Wonder…

I disagree. Doing that would end up with endless arguments… while the date of the first hit or first hit album… cannot be questioned.

#15 Comment By PTC On February 24, 2010 @ 8:16 am

Led Zeppelin’s eponymous debut album was released on 12 January 1969…

Zeppelin, 60s.

#16 Comment By PTC On February 24, 2010 @ 8:19 am

I would rate it like this..

70s-1, 60s-2, 80s-3, 90s-4, 00-5. The 70s also had some really great disco acts as well..

#17 Comment By jeffz On February 24, 2010 @ 8:22 am

I think you are underrating the 00’s. Tons of great music this decade from the likes of Radiohead, Arcade Fire, The National, Wilco, Spoon, White Stripes, TV on the Radio, Dylan, Tom Waits, Radiohead, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, New Pornographers, Modest Mouse, Sleater-Kinney … it is a little too recent to fully appreciate, but the 00’s are very solid.

#18 Comment By jeffz On February 24, 2010 @ 8:23 am

and “great disco” is an oxymoron :)

#19 Comment By PTC On February 24, 2010 @ 8:30 am

Jeffz- Disco did not suck.

I think you would reconsider that if you did a quick you tube watching of “Donna Summer” live for a bit… there was a lot of talent in Disco. Some really amazing female vocalists.

#20 Comment By rory On February 24, 2010 @ 8:35 am

Disco sucked. There was talent, but disco was not a good vehicle for it…those singers would have been talented even without being stuck with horrific disco songs to sing. If we’re going away from the rock/pop genres, then the explosion of rap in the 1980s clearly gives it the lead.

I’ll put it this way:when both hipster bars in Philly and frat parties use your decade as a theme party (michael/madonna/prince and 80s night) even for kiddies who weren’t born in that decade, you’re a better decade than the one following.

Had rap not ended so poorly in the 90s, 90s rap would have a case for being better than 80s rap, but Nas’ fall from grace in the 90s hurt, as did biggie and tupac’s early deaths.

#21 Comment By PTC On February 24, 2010 @ 8:38 am

Hot Stuff and Bad Girls are pretty amazing and sexually powerfull songs.

Genesis, Blondie, Pink Floyd, … the start of Rap.. funk… Metal, New Age, Punk,- all developed in the 70s. Most of the sounds you have heard since, have already been done.. in the 70s.

#22 Comment By bfleming On February 24, 2010 @ 8:39 am

The real question — does Heart belong to the ’70s or ’80s?

#23 Comment By PTC On February 24, 2010 @ 8:39 am

Rap was created in the 70s Rory.

#24 Comment By PTC On February 24, 2010 @ 8:43 am

Heart- 70s.

#25 Comment By PTC On February 24, 2010 @ 9:00 am

The Police, Fleetwood Mac, Pink Floyd, Queen, KISS, RUSH, Bob Marley, Marvin Gaye, Steely Dan, Boston, Derek And The Dominos,Lynyrd Skynyrd, Allman Brothers Band, Stevie Wonder, Elton John, Van Halen, Areosmith, Metallica, Black Sabbath, Pat Bennatar, Paul McCartney and Wings, Grand Funk, The Carpenters, Freyda Payne, Donna Summer, Commadores, Bee Gees, Eagles, David Bowie, Four Seasons, The Spinners, Jimmy Cliff, The Clash, Elvis Costello, Iggy Pop, Sex Pistols, Blondie…. 70s.

I don’t know fellas.. the 70s is looking hard to beat.

#26 Comment By Jeffz On February 24, 2010 @ 9:08 am

About a third of that list I consider to be blights on the musical landscape — eagles, Boston, bennetar, blondie, the carpenters, wings, etc. That list just increases my confidence that for me, the 70s are fourth best. Plus if the Dude hates the Eagles, enough said. Although you do get points for Creedance.

#27 Comment By PTC On February 24, 2010 @ 9:30 am

Jeffz- But there is something there for everyone man…

And you have to dig Pink Floyd man… if you ever played around with the chemistry kit.

The Carpenters… like in the movie black sheep, you are only fooling yourself my man. You sing along like everyone else, when it comes on the radio.

#28 Comment By JeffZ On February 24, 2010 @ 9:31 am

Again, I know almost nothing about rap, but it probably warrants inclusion, and based on what Rory is saying, sounds like it helps the 80’s case even more. Really an underappreciate decade for music.

PTC, of course, all music is derivative, in some way, of what came before. I’d say that the new wave, alt-rock, rap and so on in the 80’s owed a far lesser debt to the 70’s, in the aggregate, than the rock and funk of the 70’s owed to the rock and blues of the 60’s. In other words, when I look to eras when musical boundaries were pushed and innovative directions explored, the 80’s is one that stands out, to me, FAR more than the 70’s (which until very late in the decade was relatively staid), even though there was of course some good stuff happening in all of these eras. I mean, even the putrid stink left my much of what was released in the latter half of the 90’s was redeemed by Radiohead hitting its stride during the same time period.

Oh, and btw, thanks a lot for inspiring a series of disco-themed ads suddenly appearing on my gmail account :).

#29 Comment By PTC On February 24, 2010 @ 9:40 am

and of course Jeffz- you cannot deny, REO Speedwagon and Loverboy- rocked the 80s!

#30 Comment By PTC On February 24, 2010 @ 9:44 am

Jeffz- So you did indeed watch Donna… she was a absolute hammer… no doubt about it.

#31 Comment By IngafromSweden On February 24, 2010 @ 10:02 am

Ay yoost don’t know how yoo can forget about ABBA!


#32 Comment By Ronit On February 24, 2010 @ 10:14 am

I think the ’80s win, no question

#33 Comment By rory On February 24, 2010 @ 11:14 am

Yes, it was created in the seventies, but the eighties are when rap exploded into a mature art form. Early nineties rap was its pinnacle, perhaps, but the eighties are when it really became a great musical form.

#34 Comment By dcatsam On February 24, 2010 @ 11:26 am

I’m jumping right from the lists to make this comment, so forgive me if someone already mentioned these. But the Replacements are the greatest group in history and should top any valid 80s list. And any list of the 80s without Husker Du? Hell, that’s no list at all!

Still, this is an awesome post both on its own merits and for its purgative powers.


#35 Comment By JeffZ On February 24, 2010 @ 11:50 am

I will fight to the death to keep The Smiths at the top of any 80’s list, but Replacements and Husker Du / Bob Mould were definitely inadvertant oversights. 80’s is looking stronger and stronger all the time …

One personal favorite and noteable omissions from your 70’s list, PTC, is Warren Zevon (also did good stuff the last two decades, as well).

#36 Comment By Derek On February 24, 2010 @ 2:26 pm

Jeff —
That is because you are worse than Pol Pot – Worse, I say!!!

I love the Smiths. Not as much as the ‘Mats or Husker Du or Pixies or REM or U2, but they are easily a top 10. I am a huge Radiohead, Sleater Kinney, Whiskeytown, Wilco fan as well, so the 90s were hardly awful, though much of Sleater Kinney and Radiohead straddle the 90/00 line. But really, Pavement ranks well ahead of a lot — almost all — of the bands you have on your top ten list. And your Smiths love is overwhelming you there. morrissey’s output as a solo artist has been good, but better or more important than Pavement or Pearl Jam? Pol Pot, I say!!!


#37 Comment By Aidan On February 24, 2010 @ 3:28 pm

I’m sorry, when it comes to Van Halen, they’re an ’80s band. They’re as ’80s as Ronald Reagan and Michael J. Fox.

’78 and ’79, musically, were the ’80s.

#38 Comment By PareskyLawnBowler On February 24, 2010 @ 3:29 pm

Sadly, no one has noticed the greatness that was XTC

#39 Comment By rory On February 24, 2010 @ 3:34 pm

btw, anyone else notice how absurdly white this discussion has been? :)

#40 Comment By Derek On February 24, 2010 @ 4:53 pm

Rory —
I was operating under Jeff’s strictures. Obviously Public Enemy belongs on the list, albeit crossing over both decades. I can imagine adding hip hop would take us in myriad directions that I’d happily follow.
I will say the 80s gave us one of my favorite albums of all time, The Indestructible Beat of Soweto. But that takes us in directions far from Jeff’s post and I don’t want to hijack. But I hope many of us agree, Elvis, was a hero to most but he never meant . . .


#41 Comment By jeffz On February 24, 2010 @ 5:10 pm

I have no objections to others introducing other types of music into the discussion, I was just handicapped by own lack of knowledge of those arenas, hence I did not factor rap into my analysis.

Ken, I ask that Derek be BANNED. NOT for calling me Pol Pot, that I can deal with; I’ve probably been called worse, in fact. But Morrissey’s solo work < Pearl Jam? That statement is outright bannishable. Pearl Jam made 2 1/3 good albums before a rapid decline into irrelevance. Morrissey is still going strong producing VERY good stuff, including, incredibly, a song that I understand has been widely adopted by the Latino community in L.A. (there's my tiny bit of non-white appeal, even!), The First of the Gang to Die. I can list, easily, 30 fantastic solo Moz songs (and yes, I am a BIT biased towards The Smiths and Morrissey, obviously, but still). I realize Pavement has their devotees; I am less enamored of them then most folks / critics, but I know they are well-loved. Just could never get into them. Oh, and I enjoy XTC, I think they are a good addition to the ever-growing 80's list.

#42 Comment By PTC On February 25, 2010 @ 2:04 am

Van Halen clearly broke into fame and fortune in the 70s..

I also mentioned the great Regge and Disco that developed in the 70s…

If you are going to claim Van Halen… then I can claim Led Zeppelin and perhaps even The Who, The Doors, The Dead in the 70s.. as well as many others. You guys are going to get smoked if you allow the many 60s cross overs into the 70s… SMOKED. It is already, no contest.

There has to be a metric of what era to which said bands belong… else we come out with a string of one hit wonders and suicidal/ drug overdosing maniacs- and the easiest way to drill that down is to denote when the band first broke with a big single or album.