When you think of ’80s music, you probably think of, at most, three things. Hair metal (Poison, Mötley Crüe, et al.), the big pop stars of the day (Michael Jackson, Prince, Madonna, Bowie) or the dance-y, new wave stuff that’s soundtracked every wedding and retro ’80s night you’ve ever attended (Duran Duran, The Cure, Depeche Mode).
All of which is great. But the ’80s, the greatest decade in pop music history (don't argue, it's a non-alternative fact) was so much more than that. And as much as its music still gets constant play on radio, at clubs and in movie and TV soundtracks, many of the decade’s best bands and greatest songs have been virtually forgotten.
Most of you probably will recognize about half the bands on this list, but only from a song or two. The rest you’ve likely either never heard of or haven’t thought about since the last time you shopped for a prom dress. Does that make them underrated? Listen and judge for yourself.
This Norwegian trio deserves to be remembered for more than just soundtracking what was arguably the entire decade’s greatest music video, the animated "Take on Me." As great as that track is, it's not necessarily representative of the rest of their catalog, which tended to mix the synths and drum programming of ’80s pop with lavishly arranged live orchestrations, swooning vocals and an old-fashioned knack for massive, melodramatic choruses. Barbra Streisand could do a whole album of A-ha covers and her fans would probably lap it up. (The less said about their addition to the James Bond theme song canon, however, the better.)
The Boomtown Rats
These days, Bob Geldof is more remembered as the ambitious humanitarian behind the 1985 Live Aid famine relief concerts and the charity single "Do They Know It’s Christmas?" (both of which he put together with Midge Ure of Ultravox — another underrated ’80s band). But before all that, his group Boomtown Rats produced a string of hits that combined punk-rock attitude with herky-jerky new wave rhythms and whip-smart lyrics, all held together by Geldof's theatrical yet oddly vulnerable vocals. If the band is remembered at all today, it's for the melodramatic piano ballad "I Don’t Like Mondays," but check the off-kilter reggae goof "Banana Republic" and the crunchy power-pop of "She’s So Modern" to see just how versatile Geldof and his bandmates could be.
Fine Young Cannibals
For about five minutes in 1989, Roland Gift was the most exciting new singer in pop music, thanks to the back-to-back hits "She Drives Me Crazy" and "Good Thing" off his band’s second and final album, The Raw & the Cooked. Gift’s elastic, quavering vocals (and good looks) were obviously FYC’s main attraction but, despite being almost totally forgotten, the rest of their catalog holds up as well as their best-known hits, and even sounds pretty forward-thinking in hindsight — check out the Moby-like mix of organ and breakbeats on "I’m Not the Man I Used to Be."
Fun Boy Three
The Specials were an immensely successful two-tone ska band when members Terry Hall, Neville Staple and Lynval Golding split off to form the Fun Boy Three, an altogether weirder and harder-to-categorize project with a sound largely built around sparsely arranged group vocals, horns and percussion. After just two albums — a 1982 self-titled debut and 1983’s Waiting — they called it quits, but their legacy has lived on in a number of ways. Hall has collaborated with everyone from Tricky to Gorillaz (whose sound owes a huge debt to Fun Boy Three), and Neville’s short-lived collaboration with The English Beat's Ranking Roger, Special Beat, helped spur the ska revival in the United States that launched the careers of No Doubt and Rancid. Bonus fun fact: Fun Boy Three’s biggest U.K. hit, "It Ain't What You Do (It's the Way That You Do It)," featured a then-unknown female trio called Bananarama, who would go on to have much bigger international hits with "Cruel Summer" and "Venus."
Haircut One Hundred
This London new wave group’s jazzy, hyper-polished sound took a magpie-like approach to early-’80s British pop music, borrowing the slinky horns and Roxy Music vibes of new romantic bands such as Spandau Ballet, the jangly guitars of Orange Juice, even some touches of ska on their biggest hit, the irrepressible "Favourite Shirts (Boy Meets Girl)." Frontman and main creative force Nick Heyward quit the band after just one album, 1982’s outstanding Pelican West; though he went on to a successful solo career, his former band lapsed into obscurity, especially in the United States, where only the bouncy, xylophone-laced "Love Plus One" cracked the charts.
Led by singer-songwriter Dave Faulkner, these Australian rockers were huge in their home country but never quite achieved the same level of recognition in America as other ’80s Down Under bands such as Men at Work and Midnight Oil, despite scoring a couple of modern-rock radio hits as the decade was winding down, 1989’s "Come Anytime" and 1991’s "Miss Freelove ’69." Their crowning achievements came earlier in the form of two classic albums, Mars Needs Guitars! and Blow Your Cool, that combined power-pop hooks, cowpunk guitars and Faulkner’s sardonic, off-kilter songwriting in a way that heavily influenced ’90s alt-rock bands from The Rembrandts to Toad the Wet Sprocket.
While another Southern college rock band called R.E.M. would go on become superstars, this North Carolina group, led by singer-songwriter-guitarist Mitch Easter, never rose above cult status, despite early tracks like "Every Word Means No" and "Room With a View" that were every bit as smart and catchy as anything their Athens peers ever produced. While his band remained a well-kept secret until they broke up in 1990, Easter would go on to have a very successful career as a producer — starting, in fact, with R.E.M.'s 1983 debut album, Murmur, released the same year as Let’s Active’s classic debut EP, Afoot.
A quartet from England's Isle of Wight, Level 42 played smooth new wave like a jazz fusion band, especially thanks to the endlessly inventive bass lines of lead singer Mark King. In the United States they're mainly remembered for the jaunty synth-pop hits "Something About You" and "Lessons in Love," but their deeper cuts could go off on all sorts of funky, jazzy, sophisti-pop directions. One of their best songs, "Hot Water," originally appeared on 1984’s True Colors as a midtempo funk jam, but with a little clever editing, it reappeared on their 1985 breakthrough LP, World Machine, as the ultimate new wave workout, complete with screeching synth stabs, chugging English Beat–style saxophones, compressed funk guitar and every other trick in the mid-’80s pop playbook.
The S.O.S. Band
The "S.O.S." stood for "Sounds of Success," and they did indeed have a disco-era smash with "Take Your Time (Do It Right)." But it's this Atlanta R&B group's later work with producers/songwriters Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis — who would go on to become superstars in their own right thanks to their collaborations with Janet Jackson and Boyz II Men — that really holds up. Their 1983 album On the Rise, which contained the slinky, sexy hits "Tell Me If You Still Care" and "Just Be Good to Me." is a classic collection of early-’80s electronic soul, full of intricate 808 beats, funky bass lines and seductive vocals courtesy of lead singer Mary Davis.
If you like this story, consider signing up for our email newsletters.
SHOW ME HOW
You have successfully signed up for your selected newsletter(s) - please keep an eye on your mailbox, we're movin' in!
This Celtic folk-rock group’s best-known song, "The Whole of the Moon," is an undisputed classic but remains weirdly underrated in and of itself. At least one band (Hothouse Flowers) pretty much owe their entire career to it, and it's likely Bono and The Edge had it on repeat when they conceived The Joshua Tree. But the rest of This Is the Sea, the 1985 album featuring "The Whole of the Moon," is just as good, and its 1988 followup, Fisherman's Blues, is arguably even better, abandoning the band's earlier new wave embellishments in favor of a looser, rootsier sound that lets singer-songwriter Mike Scott's passionate vocals carry most of the drama.
Want to hear more underrated ’80s? Good, because we created a Spotify list for just that purpose. Enjoy.