High Variance

New Wave: Not Dead Yet!

Believe it or not, new wave isn’t dead. It may not be popular anymore, but several bands that haven’t had a hit in the US since the eighties are still producing great music. And I mean new music—they aren’t just not milking their catalog for “new” remixes and playing the state fair circuit in the summer.

While not all this new music is any good, you will be happy to know that I’ve done the hard work of listening to it over the last couple weeks to separate the wheat from the crap.

The Human League are (is?) absolutely the most under-rated new wave band of the eighties. About ten years ago I saw an eighties triple bill headlined by Boy George. He was good, but the Human League were totally unexpectedly fantastic. They nailed their old stuff (like (I’m Only) “Human”, “Fascination”, and “Don’t You Want Me”) and their then new stuff (from Secrets 2001) was just as good. It totally holds up today and I even love their 2011 album Credo. Except for the more contemporary dance beat on the lead track (Never Let Me Go) it could have been released in 1983.

The Pet Shop Boys disappeared from the US music scene at the end of the eighties, but, just like Kylie Minogue, they have continued putting out hit album after hit album in the UK. They’re still sensitive and synthy but their music has matured with them in a really good way. My favorite of their recent work is Release (2002), but the dance remixes of Fundamental (2006) are a lot of fun.

Morrissey: I loved the Smiths and would have cried when they broke up if I hadn’t discovered them long after the break-up had already happened. Morrissey has amazingly just continued to put out solid albums in the years since and thoroughly proven that he was the talented one and that Johnny Marr (like Wham’s Andrew Ridgely) was just along for the ride.

Depeche Mode I’ll be honest–I’m not one of those totally nutty Depeche Mode fans who believe Dave Gahan is God. And I left them behind after Violator (1989) even though “Policy of Truth” is one of my all time favorite songs. But they do continue to produce music and I did take a chance on Playing the Angel (2005). It has one good track (“Precious”) and the rest is crap. Am I still bitter about that? Yes.

The Cure The Cure are an amazing band and certainly Robert Smith is closer to God than Dave Gahan. Their range, from minimalist early new wave to syrupy pop to wall of sound, is impressive. When I saw them in 2003, I was blown away by Smith’s guitar playing of all things. That said, I’m not a huge fan of their recent stuff.

Tears for Fears Their first two albums (The Hurting and Songs from the Big Chair) hold up surprisingly well, but Seeds of Love was a little goofy even for me. They broke up in 1991 and Roland Orzabal released two kind of lousy albums still using the band’s name. They got back together and released Everyone Loves a Happy Ending in 2004 and I’ve tried to like it over the past few days. It sounds just like Seeds of Love and I’ll let you decide if that’s good or bad.

Howard Jones opened the same triple bill I mentioned above and I had such high hopes since I absolutely played Dream Into Action into the ground when I was in high school. Shoot, I still listen to it all the time! Unfortunately, the show was a big let down and everything he’s recorded since In the Running (1992) is in my opinion unlistenable.

A-ha! Most American’s think of A-ha as that one-hit wonder with the fun cartoony music video, but they happen to be the biggest band ever out of Norway and just broke up in 2010. It’s kind of hard to find their albums (read: they aren’t in the iTunes Store), but they do have a greatest hits (The Singles: 1984-2004)) that I’ve been enjoying.

Alphaville Released in 1984, “Big in Japan” and “Forever Young” are absolutely quintessential eighties new wave songs. I have a soft spot for their second (less successful) album, Afternoons in Utopia (1986) since I wore out the the cassette I copied from my freshman dorm roommate. But I just can’t listen to anything they’ve released since. And I’ve tried.

If you’ve managed to read to the bottom of this too-long post, you probably you loved the work of these guys (and girls) back in the day. I strongly recommend giving some of their newer stuff a listen. If you’re pleasantly surprised, keep an eye out for an upcoming post about newer bands that emulate this style even though it guarantees they’ll never get rich or even played on the radio. Hint: it’s now called SynthPop–maybe the world’s dorkiest musical genre.