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Higher Culture: Mining the Eighties (and Nineties) for 'New' Music

Screenshot/UPROXX Indie Mixtape

Essential Listening

If you grew up as a member of Generation (or Gen) X, most of what served as your musical upbringing has a dash of the late Seventies, all of the Eighties and for many, a good part of the Nineties (and beyond, naturally). Some of us were lucky to get a trace of the Fifties and Sixties passed down in the genes from music-obsessed Boomer parents, too.

But within the first three decades are so many different styles and trends — maybe more so than any decade since rock ‘n roll was invented.

I mentioned a few of them in a culture piece last summer, while explaining how my musical tastes radically changed sometime in the mid-80s: from Top 40 fare to what used to be called modern rock or alternative. One day, I loved Duran Duran, Tears For Fears, The Thompson Twins, The Pet Shop Boys, Orchestral Maneuvers in the Dark, Madonna, and Cyndi Lauper.

 

The next, it was the Smiths, the Cure, early R.E.M., Depeche Mode, Lloyd Cole and the Commotions, and The Clash (plus, I still loved PSB and OMD). Later, I fell hard for all sorts of indie rock, including bands like the Wedding Present and their Pixies-adjacent cover of the Monkees classic:

 

And there was the emergence of house music from the clubs of Chicago and Detroit in the Nineties. (More on that in a future article).

But what I’m finding as I talk to people about their recollections of the music from the Eighties and even the Nineties is that there are surprising gaps. If you know a certain group or song, you tend to think everyone you know from your generation (or thereabouts) will be familiar with them.

That isn’t always the case.

Our individual jukeboxes, if you will, are formed from all different sources: the favorites of friends, family members, a specific night you went to a nightclub, a certain radio station or deejay you happened to have access to. These all bring a different flavor to what each person considers “(name a decade) music.”

There are even gaps — blind spots — that we have about the musical era we think we know forwards and backwards. We think we know it, but we really don’t. Too much music is released for anyone to be completely on top of what went down across several decades of tunes.

One of the people I began to find this happened with was my friend Bill, who is just a few years younger than me (but still qualifies as a GenXer). Sure, he knows who Belinda Carlisle and Prince are, and I think he knows “How Soon Is Now?” is by the Smiths. And he’s got a passing familiarity with Depeche Mode dance tracks and New Order classics (sometime around “Substance”).

 

But he drew a blank when I tried to talk to him about ABC, including an MTV mainstay like “The Look of Love”; he didn’t know who Scritti Politti was, which had videos with heavy rotation on the cable channel, including the one below. Which, in some circles, might count as generational malpractice.

Another person who brought about this ‘gap’ realization was one of my RedState colleagues, whom I happened to be on a Zoom meeting with recently. We got talking about music at one point, and he told me he didn’t know who OMD and many other alternative bands were — prompting me to ask what did you listen to in the ’90s. And what he listened to was diametrically opposite from what I was soaking up from modern rock radio and in clubs.

He was listening to things like this, for example:

 

And this:

 

Maybe there’s Nineties music like this I could bear to learn more about.

One other way of thinking about this phenomenon — and how to overcome it to find ‘new’ music you missed — is with two terms: mining and amplifying. In the first one, you take an inventory of your musical lineage. You take the time to listen back to full albums from bands you only heard on the radio as a singles artist. You listen to albums before or after the time you knew their music the best. This can, depending on the band, be an encouraging or disappointing move. Some bands have a rich back catalog. Others really were just good for a few hits — and all the rest of their output is lackluster in their shadow.

In amplifying, you take actions that will necessarily widen your exposure to different people and their jukeboxes. I can’t think of a better example of this recently, for me, than Twitch, which I wrote about recently. Or you pick up the music a friend loves and see if it fits you, too. Or you could look into used vinyl or CDs (or random videos on YouTube or some other video platform). There are many possibilities — only limited by your time and inclination to find new sources.

You take chances, in other words. And in both of these methods, whichever you use, you end up in the same place. You have a better and deeper love of what makes these decades’ music just as relevant today as when they came out.

This one, which was released in 1984, remains timeless:

 

Essential Listening Verdict: Becoming aware of the music we don’t know from our own era is a good thing, because it reminds us that other people might have similar gaps…and that’s okay.