Hail to the '80s

A rash of new compilations makes a case for the Me Decade's place in rock history

Brace yourself. It's coming. Nostalgia for the '80s, that is. And it's barreling full-speed toward music consumers, disco balls bobbing in its wake. I should know, after all. Statistics show that my thirtysomething demographic is the one expending all the expendable income these days. And for what it's worth, history says that we were also the ones who once wore the tattered Flashdance sweatshirts and cheesy spandex, molded and color-treated our hair like obedient Flocks of Seagulls and blared "Meat Is Murder" out of dorm-room windows until the campus police broke down the door.

Besides, with the '70s now plundered of every marketable angle and kitschy collectible, where else but the Me Decade can the industry turn? And the way '90s music is shaping up, the '80s are looking ... umm ... totally awesome at this point. I mean, what have Marilyn Manson, the Prodigy and the Spice Girls done recently that Skinny Puppy, Depeche Mode and Bananarama didn't do better -- and with considerably more class? And as for Alanis Morissette, I'd be willing to wager that Tiffany could kick her triathlete's butt in a mall-rat minute. When you think about it, few decades were more rife with tantalizing contradictions. The '80s were a veritable celebration of polar opposites in popular music: hair metal versus Haircut 100; Madonna versus Debbie Gibson; Bono versus Boy George; synths versus ska; "The Safety Dance" versus "Sunday Bloody Sunday"; the list goes on ad infinitum. It could be argued that the Reagan years, one of the most self-centered eras of governing this country -- and indeed the world -- has ever witnessed, produced some of the most intriguingly self-absorbed rock and roll moments of all time. Here's a decade that nurtured two of the most important acts in the post-punk universe -- U2 and R.E.M. -- and, possibly, two of the worst -- Bow Wow Wow and Twisted Sister. That's got to be saying something ... right?

And so, if the major-label archivists feel they must milk another mound of memories, at least they've begun in the right place. Among the non-American acts recently anthologized are the Psychedelic Furs, the Cure and Midnight Oil, all of which enjoyed cultish pockets of U.S. support before eventually getting a leg up in this country by making what was perhaps some of the finest -- and most brazenly commercial -- music of their careers. That accomplished, it was almost as if each (with the notable exception of the Cure) lost interest in America's hit-making apparatus by the '90s.

Galore, which assembles the Cure's giddy postStanding on a Beach A-sides, is the most shameless greatest-hits collection of the three mentioned. If anything, this single-disc affair proves, once and for all, that bandleader Robert Smith's doughy, ambisexual self-flagellation is most endearing when taken in hummable, few-minute spurts. But then, you probably already knew that the Cure was a singles band anyway.

Conversely, the two-disc Psychedelic Furs retrospective, Should God Forget, is exhaustive almost to a fault. It goes on longer than required to enshrine the British band's brief, early-'80s hold on a post-punk audience whose tastes and perspective hadn't yet jelled. Ahead of its time, the Furs' brooding, guitar-based art-rock ignited, spread and expired in a brilliant, if bleak, three-release spurt. Granted, completists will welcome the inclusion of various alternate studio takes, import-only singles and live tracks, but casual fans are advised to track down 1988's All of This and Nothing, a more efficient best-of collection that has most of the minor hits and modest classics without the filler -- which includes more or less everything the band recorded after 1984.

To its advantage, Midnight Oil's 20,000 Watt R.S.L. is less littered with throwaways. In chiseling down the durable Australian quintet's righteous 18-year career to a potent 18-track manifesto of socioenvironmental protest, Columbia has fashioned a well-paced encapsulation of a band whose politics and communal spirit formed the basis for some of the most powerful post-punk proselytizing ever heard. Perhaps even more so in the '90s, Oil's message carries global implications that simply can't -- and won't -- be snuffed out. Frothing over with epic choruses, pummeling rhythms and lead singer Peter Garrett's cranky, deranged croak of a delivery, tunes such as "Power and the Passion," "Best of Both Worlds" and "Beds Are Burning" sound as larger-than-life today as they did ten years ago.

Shifting the focus back to our part of the globe, new compilations from the Replacements, X and the Pixies provide a less than heartening glimpse into the business of three of America's leading underground crusaders. Doted on by music writers everywhere, each of the groups was at one time or another hailed as the most relevant remedy to everything from AOR to MTV. And all three had a whiff of mainstream acceptance, soaking up a few perks before coming unglued, their more commercial intentions rudely dismissed by the same people who once sang their praises.

The Replacements made their way to the majors in 1985, a year after their indie-label swan song, Let It Be, sent critics scrambling for superlatives. Let It Be was heralded as the decade's most authentic coupling of punk's shit-faced insolence and pop's more ingratiating hooksmanship. But all the attention seemed to hurt more than it helped: The Minneapolis foursome's subsequent signing to Reprise set in motion a pesky self-conscious streak that led to the group's 1990 breakup.

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