Let’s Revisit Billboard’s First-Ever Modern Rock Tracks Chart Published 30 Years Ago Today
Thirty years ago today, Billboard launched the “Modern Rock Tracks” chart, which currently exists under the Alternative Songs nomenclature. The chart tracked songs that received heavy airplay on college and modern rock stations, rather than more mainstream airplay, and as the very nature of “modern” and “alternative” rock music changed over the past few decades, so did the chart makeup.
As of this writing, Imagine Dragons’ deathless “Natural” currently sits atop it, with pop-rockers twenty one pilots’ “Jumpsuit” and Weezer’s baffling cover of Toto’s “Africa” preceding it as chart-toppers; last year, Portugal. The Man’s “Feel It Still” spent a record-breaking 20 weeks at the top, while Linkin Park’s 2003 album Meteora notched five number-one singles.
Those are some big names of modern and alternative rock past and present — and taking a look at the inaugural week of the chart, you might notice a near-total absence of big names. Not to fear: what follows is a breakdown of every song that appeared on the chart’s first week, from how it did elsewhere to where it falls, chart success-wise, in greater context of the artists’ careers — not to mention whether the song sounds any good in 2018.
All I can say is: get ready for a lot of earnest British and Australian rock. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.
30. Joan Armatrading – “Living For You”
Where’s it from? The British singer-songwriter’s 11th studio album, The Shouting Stage.
Did it chart elsewhere? Peaked at #98 on the UK Singles Chart.
Is it the musician’s biggest hit? Not by a long shot — 1983’s “Drop The Pilot” made it to #78 on the Billboard Hot 100, and was a #1 single in South Africa. (The closest she came to achieving similar in her home country was the 1976 cut “Love And Affection.”)
Does it hold up? Not really. Armatrading’s swinging, mid-tempo devotional might bear some production touches befitting today’s crop of alt-pop stars (see: the 1975, Troye Sivan), the result of her utilizing drum machines at the suggestion of drummer and collaborator Jamie Lane. But despite her capable vocal delivery, the goes-down-easy groove of “Living For You” more resembles something you’d hear while perusing the supermarket aisles.
Where are they now? Her 19th studio album, Not Too Far Away, saw release earlier this year on new label home BMG.
29. Crowded House – “Better Be Home Soon”
Where’s it from? The Australian band’s second album, Temple Of Low Men.
Did it chart elsewhere? Yup, plenty of places — from the band’s home country (#2 on the Singles Chart) and Canada (#8 on the RPM Top Singles) to a smattering of European countries and even the U.S. Hot 100 (#42).
Is it the musician’s biggest hit? In Australia, yes — but both the previous year’s “Something So Strong” (#7) and 1986’s “Don’t Dream It’s Over” (#2) did better on the Hot 100.
Does it hold up? It’s a sweet enough song from the band’s primary songwriter Neil Finn, later covered by artists ranging from the Sleepy Jackson to Donny Osmond — but its relatively treacly tone and simplicity doesn’t do it any favors.
Where are they now? After a reissue campaign and a brief reunion show or two with bassist Nick Seymour in 2016, Finn went on to join Fleetwood Mac(!) earlier this year following Lindsey Buckingham’s dismissal from the band.
28. INXS – “Never Tear Us Apart”
Where’s it from? The Australian rockers’ blockbuster Kick, released the previous year.
Did it chart elsewhere? A ton of places, reaching a peak of #7 on the Dutch Top 40 and the Hot 100. “Never Tear Us Apart” also charted again in 2014, in both Australia (#11) and New Zealand (#27).
Is it the musician’s biggest hit? Bro — have you even heard “Need You Tonight”?
Does it hold up? The swaying and vaguely blues-y single still glimmers with a certain shadowy appeal, and it’s endured beyond its 2014 chart positions, with cover versions over the years from Tom Jones and Natalie Imbruglia and Paloma Faith — not to mention the 2010 re-recording from that year’s iteration of the band featuring Ben Harper and Mylène Farmer on vocals.
Where are they now? In the years following frontman Michael Hutchence’s death in 1997, INXS have reunited multiple times under various iterations and participated in the 2004 CBS competition TV show Rock Star: INXS to find a new lead singer; as of now they’re on permanent touring hiatus, although drummer and founding member Jon Farriss said “Never say never” regarding the band’s future in the 2014 Australian TV special The Story Behind INXS.
27. Graham Parker – “Don’t Let It Break You Down”
Where’s it from? The British singer-songwriter’s solo LP The Mona Lisa’s Sister.
Did it chart elsewhere? Nope, but the album’s other single “Get Started. Start A Fire” peaked at #85 on Canada’s RPM chart.
Is it the musician’s biggest hit? Nah, he previously charted higher in the UK — 1977’s “Hold Back The Night” and “(Let Me Get) Sweet on You” both reached #27 — and in the U.S. — 1985’s “Wake Up (Next To You)” hit #39 on the Hot 100.
Does it hold up? It totally depends on your predilection for earnest and vaguely riffy British rock from the 1980s, but it has a pleasant jangle to it.
Where are they now? The same year that Parker reunited with his main band the Rumour for 2012’s Three Chords Good, he and the band also made a cameo appearance in Judd Apatow’s This Is 40; they released one more reunion album in 2015, Mystery Glue, before disbanding again.
26. The Bible – “Crystal Palace”
Where’s it from? The British band’s final album of their ’80s era, Eureka.
Did it chart elsewhere? Peaked at #82 in the UK.
Is it the musician’s biggest hit? A re-recording of their 1986 single “Graceland” fared slightly better on the big British charts, peaking at #51.
Does it hold up? Sure. There’s a faint impression of R.E.M.’s 80s jangle, as well as the effortless tunefulness of Dunedin Sound architects the Chills.
Where are they now? The band’s broken up and reunited multiple times since their initial 1990 split; there was a cobbled-together third album Dodo released in 1999 after another breakup, and as of 2013 they stated that work was being done on a fourth record “as and when schedules allow.”
25. Erasure – “Chains Of Love”
Where’s it from? The British synthpop aesthetes’ third album, Innocents.
Did it chart elsewhere? Yup, all over Europe (and Singapore!), reaching as high as #12 on the Hot 100.
Is it the musician’s biggest hit? In the US, yes; in the UK, they released multiple higher-charting singles throughout their career, hitting a peak with 1991’s “Chorus” (#3).
Does it hold up? Hell yes, great song from a solid band.
Where are they now? Still going strong — their latest LP, World Beyond, was released earlier this year.
24. Tracy Chapman – “Talkin’ Bout A Revolution”
Where’s it from? The Cleveland singer-songwriter’s self-titled debut.
Did it chart elsewhere? Yup, landed on four other Billboard charts (highest position: #22 on the Mainstream Rock chart) and did well elsewhere, peaking at #18 on the Dutch singles chart.
Is it the musician’s biggest hit? No way — “Fast Car,” the single’s predecessor, went #1 in multiple countries and peaked at #4 on the Hot 100. (“Talkin’ Bout A Revolution” topped out at #75.)
Does it hold up? You think I came here to talk shit on Tracy Chapman?
Where are they now? Her last album, Our Bright Future, was released 10 years ago; she also covered “Stand By Me” on one of the final episodes of Late Show With David Letterman in 2015.
23. Ranking Roger – “So Excited”
Where’s it from? The British musician and ex-English Beat/General Public member’s debut album Radical Departure.
Is it the musician’s biggest hit? Pretty much; Radical Departure also peaked at #151 on the Billboard Hot 200.
Does it hold up? Unless you’re the type that totally rejects anything ska- and 2-tone-adjacent (and that includes reggae, you plebe), the effervescence and playfulness of “So Excited” is literally undeniable.
Where are they now? Ranking Roger continues to front the English Beat, who released their first album in 30 years, Bounce, in 2016.
22. Shona Laing – “(Glad I’m) Not A Kennedy”
Where’s it from? The New Zealand musician’s fifth album, 1987’s South.
Did it chart elsewhere? Yup, highest in her home country at #2.
Is it the musician’s biggest hit? Definitely.
Does it hold up? It does! “(Glad I’m) Not A Kennedy” has an offbeat, archly political charm not unlike the work of British “new pop” bands like Heaven 17. Plus, the synth programming is on point.
Where are they now? The sometime member of Manfred Mann’s Earth Band hasn’t released a solo album since 2007’s independently released Pass The Whisper.
21. Edie Brickell & New Bohemians – “What I Am”
Where’s it from? The Dallas-hailing singer-songwriter’s debut album, 1988’s Shooting Rubberbands At The Stars.
Did it chart elsewhere? Lotta English-speaking countries, and it peaked at #7 on the Hot 100 to boot.
Is it the musician’s biggest hit? There’s a reason why it was ranked at #77 on VH1’s list of The 100 Greatest One-Hit Wonders.
Does it hold up? As long as you don’t mind the earnestness of it all, it’s still kind of a jam.
Where are they now? Her last studio album was a bluegrass collab with Steve Martin, So Familiar, in 2015.
20. In Tua Nua – “All I Wanted”
Where’s it from? The Irish folk-rock group’s final album, The Long Acre.
Did it chart elsewhere? Peaked at #17 on the Irish charts.
Is it the musician’s biggest hit? In the US, definitely; in their home country, 1986’s “Seven Into The Sea” peaked at #9.
Does it hold up? Its chorus is totally infectious in a very old-fashioned way, with impassioned vocals to boot.
Where are they now? After disbanding in 1990, a few members reunited in 2004 for the occasional show or two; members Paul Byrne and Jack Dublin also backed Pogues frontman Shane McGowan earlier in the decade.
19. Toni Childs – “Don’t Walk Away”
Where’s it from? The Australian-American singer-songwriter’s debut, Union.
Did it chart elsewhere? Yup, in Australia and a smattering of European countries — and it also peaked at #72 on the Billboard Hot 100.
Is it the musician’s biggest hit? Only 1991’s “I’ve Got To Go Now” did better in Australia, peaking at #5.
Does it hold up? Not really — Childs’ growl of a voice is impressive, but the repetitive chorus proves a little grating after a while.
Where are they now? Her most recent album, It’s All A Big Beautiful Noise, was released in 2015.
18. Hunters & Collectors – “Back On The Breadline”
Where’s it from? The North American release of the Australian rockers’ fifth album, 1987’s What’s A Few Men? (It was called Fate over here.)
Did it chart elsewhere? Peaked at #37 in Australia.
Is it the musician’s biggest hit? The following year’s “When The River Runs Dry” peaked higher at #5 (this song eventually peaked at #6).
Does it hold up? It’s a bit plain, but the horns that come in during the song’s back half help spice things up a bit.
Where are they now? After calling it quits in 1998, the band reunited for a few shows this decade, ending the spate of gigs in April of 2014.
17. The Sugarcubes – “Motorcrash”
Where’s it from? The Björk-led band’s debut album, Life’s Too Good.
Did it chart elsewhere? Peaked at #65 on the UK Singles chart, and #2 on the UK Indie chart.
Is it the musician’s biggest hit? 1992’s “Hit” ended up topping this chart.
Does it hold up? The Sugarcubes are a notoriously divisive listen compared to Björk’s solo career that followed, but “Motorcrash” is one of a handful of effervescent singles that’s easy to recommend.
Where are they now? Hmm, who knows — anyone heard from Björk lately?
16. Paul Kelly & The Messengers – “Dumb Things”
Where’s it from? The Australian rock group’s second album, 1987’s Under The Sun. (In Australia, they went by Paul Kelly & The Coloured Girls — wonder why they changed their name for North American release!)
Did it chart elsewhere? Peaked at #36 on the Australian Singles chart.
Is it the musician’s biggest hit? Only a few singles from 1986’s Gossip performed better in Australia.
Does it hold up? If you listen to all these songs on a single playlist, a lot of the Australian rock stuff begins to sound the same after a while — and this one is certainly no different.
Where are they now? Kelly’s latest solo album, Nature, is out in October.
15. Hothouse Flowers – “Don’t Go”
Where’s it from? The Celtic rock group’s debut album, People.
Did it chart elsewhere? Yup, all over Europe.
Is it the musician’s biggest hit? 1990s’ “Give It Up” peaked higher on this particular chart, while the subsequent single to this one, “Feet On The Ground,” topped the charts in Ireland.
Does it hold up? Eh, it’s fine. Kind of funny to imagine a lot of this Celtic rock being retrospectively considered “alternative rock,” considering what the designation came to mean later on.
Where are they now? Their latest album, Let’s Do This Thing, was self-released in 2016.
14. Debbie Harry – “Liar, Liar”
Where’s it from? A cover of the Castaways’ 1965 single for the Married To The Mob soundtrack.
Did it chart elsewhere? Nope.
Is it the musician’s biggest hit? It’s safe to say that, in her career fronting Blondie alone, Debbie Harry had bigger hits than this cover (which isn’t even currently available on Spotify).
Does it hold up? Yeah, it does the trick — the spiky rhythms and synth flourishes are good complements to Harry’s hollering vocal take.
Where are they now? Blondie’s still around, dude. (In case you forgot, too, Harry was featured on Blood Orange’s 2016 album Freetown Sound.)
13. The Icicle Works – “High Time”
Where’s it from? The British rockers’ fourth album, Blind.
Did it chart elsewhere? Peaked at #76 in the UK.
Is it the musician’s biggest hit? A few of their previous singles performed better in their home country; 1983’s “Love Is A Wonderful Colour” peaked at #15.
Does it hold up? It feels just weird and colorful enough to stand out amidst the other jangly English rock bands that populated this chart around this time.
Where are they now? The band essentially collapsed shortly after the release of Blind, when drummer Chris Sharrock departed to join the La’s; after officially calling it quits in 1992, frontman Ian McNabb continued on with a solo career before reviving the band with a revolving-door lineup in 2006, sporadically performing shows under the name since.
12. Patti Smith – “Up There Down There”
Where’s it from? The veteran rocker’s fifth album, Dream Of Life.
Did it chart elsewhere? Nope.
Is it the musician’s biggest hit? The eternal “Because The Night,” from 1978, continues to be her most commercially successful (and, to some, memorable) single.
Does it hold up? Patti’s always been an acquired taste, but even considering the breadth of her work, this one’s a pretty decent single.
Where are they now? Her last solo album, Banga, dropped in 2012; if you suffered through Terence Malick’s latest film Song To Song, you probably caught her cameo in it.
11. The House Of Love – “Christine”
Where’s it from? The British rockers’ self-titled Creation Records debut.
Did it chart elsewhere? Nah.
Is it the musician’s biggest hit? Ironically, shortly after this single’s release the House Of Love would notch multiple UK chart appearances through 1992, with a 1990 re-recording of their 1987 single “Shine On” peaking at #20.
Does it hold up? Hell yes. It has that fuzzy, droney Creation Records sound, a perfect flavor for anyone who enjoys the taste of the Jesus And Mary Chain.
Where are they now? Still going; their latest studio album, She Paints Words In Red, was released in 2013, and they have a UK tour planned this fall where they’ll play their debut album in full to honor its 30th anniversary.
10. Information Society – “What’s On Your Mind (Pure Energy)”
Where’s it from? The American synth-pop act’s self-titled debut album.
Did it chart elsewhere? In the UK, Ireland, and Canada — and it reached #3 on the Hot 100, to boot.
Is it the musician’s biggest hit? Yup, definitely. It also topped the US Dance Club Songs chart.
Does it hold up? If you’re at all a sucker for synth-pop, ’80s or otherwise, this will undoubtedly hit a sweet spot.
Where are they now? Their most recent album, Orders Of Magnitude, came out in 2016.
9. 10,000 Maniacs – “What’s The Matter Here?”
Where’s it from? The American band’s third album, In My Tribe.
Did it chart elsewhere? Peaked at #80 on the Hot 100.
Is it the musician’s biggest hit? 1992’s “These Are Days” is perhaps their most recognizable single, and it topped this chart eventually — but their highest-charting Hot 100 song would end up being their MTV Unplugged cover of Patti Smith’s “Because The Night” in 1993.
Does it hold up? It’s aight. “These Are Days” still slaps, though.
Where are they now? The band has since continued to exist in various incarnations; if you’re a ’90s kid, you’ll surely remember Natalie Merchant’s unbeatable 1995 solo album Tigerlily.
8. The Escape Club – “Wild, Wild West”
Where’s it from? The English pop-rock band’s sophomore effort of the same name.
Did it chart elsewhere? Only in Australia — but! This was a #1 song in the US, smack dab on the top of the Hot 100.
Is it the musician’s biggest hit? Unquestionably.
Does it hold up? It is, at the least, better than both the Will Smith film and single of the same name.
Where are they now? The band reunited with a slightly rejiggered lineup in 2009, releasing their latest album Celebrity in 2012.
7. The Psychedelic Furs – “All That Money Wants”
Where’s it from? Specifically recorded for their greatest-hits collection (remember those?) All Of This And Nothing.
Did it chart elsewhere? Topped out at #75 on the UK Singles chart (it would eventually top this chart, too).
Is it the musician’s biggest hit? Not even close (you’ve heard “Love My Way,” right?) — although upon creation of this chart, the band would go on to notch two more chart-topping singles (1990’s “House” and the following year’s “Until She Comes”).
Does it hold up? Yeah, it’s nice enough for a single specifically recorded to promote a greatest-hits collection!
Where are they now? The occasional tour now and then — and I’d be remiss not to mention “Love My Way”‘s iconic utilization in last year’s Call Me By Your Name.
6. Shriekback – “Intoxication”
Where’s it from? The Gang Of Four/XTC offshoot’s fifth album, Go Bang!.
Did it chart elsewhere? Nope.
Is it the musician’s biggest hit? Pretty much, although 1983 singles “Lined Up” and “Working On The Ground” did well on the UK Indie chart (#3 and #5, respectively).
Does it hold up? Don’t come to this one expecting anything remotely resembling XTC or Gang Of Four, but it’s not an incredibly offensive pop song.
Where are they now? Their latest, Why Anything? Why This?, saw release earlier this year.
5. Ziggy Marley And The Melody Makers – “Tumblin’ Down”
Where’s it from? The Marley family members’ fourth album, Conscious Party.
Did it chart elsewhere? Peaked at #84 in the UK, and topped the Dance/Electronic Singles Sales chart in the US.
Is it the musician’s biggest hit? Its predecessor, “Tomorrow People,” peaked at #39 on the Hot 100 (where “Tumblin’ Down” failed to chart).
Does it hold up? The synthetic sound-clash with Marley’s reggae sound ultimately makes for a sour brew.
Where are they now? Since releasing their final studio album to date, 1999’s The Spirit Of Music, the band’s members have all pursued solo careers or other musical endeavors since.
4. UB40 & Chrissie Hynde – “Breakfast In Bed”
Where’s it from? A cover of the Muscle Shoals standard and collaboration with the Pretenders bandleader, taken from the English reggae-pop outfit’s self-titled LP.
Did it chart elsewhere? Yup — all over Europe, its highest chart peak in the Netherlands (#4).
Is it the musician’s biggest hit? No fucking way, man. “Red Red Wine”!
Does it hold up? I’m sure if you were sitting at a Sandals and this was playing over the speakers, you’d get lit.
Where are they now? A few of the band’s members reunited in 2014 under the name UB40 Reunited (clever name!).
3. The Primitives – “Crash”
Where’s it from? The English pop band’s debut, Lovely.
Did it chart elsewhere? Yup, peaked at #5 on the UK Singles chart and #15 in South Africa, too.
Is it the musician’s biggest hit? Pretty much.
Does it hold up? Yeah! It has a punky new-wave energy that, if Haim were to cover it, would absolutely kill today.
Where are they now? After founding member Steve Dullaghan passed away in 2009, the band reformed and went on to put out several more releases, the most recent being last year’s Spin-O-Rama.
2. Big Audio Dynamite – “Just Play Music!”
Where’s it from? The third album from ex-Clash member Mick Jones’ band, Tighten Up, Vol. 88.
Did it chart elsewhere? In New Zealand and the UK (and it ended up topping this chart, too).
Is it the musician’s biggest hit? 1991’s “Rush” would go on to peak at #32 on the Hot 100.
Does it hold up? There’s a mildly pleasing pop pastiche going on here, as well as a self-referentiality (not-so-subtly hinted in the title) that scans as slightly clever.
Where are they now? After disbanding in 1997, they went on a reunion tour in 2011.
1. Siouxsie And The Banshees – “Peek-A-Boo”
Where’s it from? The British post-punk band’s ninth studio album, Peepshow.
Did it chart elsewhere? In Ireland and the UK, and it peaked at #53 on the Hot 100.
Is it the musician’s biggest hit? Just in terms of the US, 1991’s “Kiss Them For Me” would go on to peak at #23 on the Hot 100; the band had multiple higher-charting songs in the UK, most notably their 1983 cover of “Dear Prudence” (#3).
Does it hold up? Bloc Party singer Kele Okereke once said this song “sounded like nothing else on the planet,” and he’s definitely right — the strangeness of its arrangement goes a long way here in terms of appeal.
Where are they now? The band broke up in 1996, and Siouxsie Sioux released one solo album, Mantaray, in 2007.