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The 10 Best Rock Bands of the '80s

Chrissie Hynde (center) and the Pretenders at House of Blues Houston in 2009
Chrissie Hynde (center) and the Pretenders at House of Blues Houston in 2009
Photo by Daniel Kramer

Whether you lived through them or not, we can all admit that the '80s were a long time ago. Even a kid born on New Year's Eve 1989 could be most of his or her way through medical school by now. And although that decade refuses to go away in all sorts of ways, one concept that does feel like has been lost is the idea of the no-bullshit, straight-ahead rock and roll band. Guys who wore cuban-heeled boots or sneakers onstage, smoked cigarettes and idolized Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley, Lennon & McCartney. There was a lot we didn't know back then.

So strictly because one of our personal '80s-rock favorites, Living Colour, is in town Sunday night, not long ago we thought it would be fun to ask a few of our writers to give us a couple of their favorite rock bands of the Reagan/Bush years. And that's it: rock bands. No metal (including G'N'R), no punk, no alternative, nothing too synthy or New Wave. Just pure rock and roll -- a couple of guitars, bass and drums, maybe a piano or saxophone, and an unflagging desire to conquer the stage every single night.

It wasn't easy. Yes, we see you, Springsteen. You'll live. And forgive us, Huey Lewis and the News. Your name did at least come up.

The 10 Best Rock Bands of the '80s

THE BLASTERS Steeped in blues and rockabilly, the Blasters were part of the early '80s California trend (X, Beat Farmers) that involved a return to roots-based rock and roll often tinged with aggressive punk attitude. Marked by Dave Alvin's blistering guitar and exquisite songwriting, brother Phil's incomparable jump-blues singing, New Orleans sax king Lee Allen, and Texan Gene Taylor's  propulsive piano, the band left both audiences and themselves sweating. Their 1981 no-bullshit, no-filler album The Blasters still sounds fresh today, and they get extra points for introducing Houston to Dwight Yoakam. WILLIAM MICHAEL SMITH

CHEAP TRICK The 1980s may not have been the decade of iconic hits Cheap trick had in the '70s, but it was by far their most successful as a band. The departure of bassist Tom Petersson after the release of 1980's All Shook Up left a void, and though there were some absolute gems on the string of albums in the middle of the decade, it wasn't until his return for 1988's Lap of Luxury that they found real success. Power ballad "The Flame" became their biggest-selling single and their live shows killed, as they always had. JEFF BALKE

The 10 Best Rock Bands of the '80s

JOE ELY BAND Ely hit his rock stride in the '80s after playing bills with The Clash in England. During the first half of the decade he was a punk extension of Buddy Holly, so hot he was tapped to open for the Rolling Stones. After a mid-decade personnel shift, he went on to drop one of the most atomic live albums of the '80s, Joe Ely Live in Chicago.

Ely's band was one of only a few capable of opening for Springsteen, who once sat in for an entire set in Dublin, Ireland, or for Merle Haggard, with whom Ely toured England. Fellow Lubbockite Terry Allen aptly described Ely as performing "like his hair is on fire." WILLIAM MICHAEL SMITH

GENESIS The greatest rock band of the 1980s? It's got to be Genesis. That's right. Don't let Phil Collins' solo career fool you. There was never a more well-rounded rock and roll band. Slimming to a trio with Collins as singer and ditching prog, the band crafted pop-rock masterpieces like "Invisible Touch," which may be the most instantly gratifying pop song of the entire decade.

But these guys could rock too! Some of the most accomplished musicians on earth, they delivered stunning rock opuses like "Domino" and "Home by the Sea" on even their most pop-oriented records. Not to mention Collins' incredible, soul-shaking scream heard on tracks like "Mama" and "No Son of Mine." These guys were never the pussies you thought they were -- at one point, they were the best damn rock band in the world.  COREY DEITERMAN

The 10 Best Rock Bands of the '80s

JOAN JETT & THE BLACKHEARTS Let's face it, the '80s were a lousy decade for lady rockers. Racy pop stars sure, but lacy gloves only go so far. R&B divas of course, but what's love got to do with it? That leaves Joan Jett, who put it right up front in one of the greatest singles in jukebox history, "I Love Rock and Roll": me, yeah me.

But to go with all that attitude, Jett had a terrific ear for rock history -- lurking deep on her '80s albums are choice cuts like "Cherry Bomb" (by her '70s band the Runaways), Tommy James & the Shondells' "Crimson & Clover" and and Gary U.S. Bonds' classic 1960 single "New Orleans." Still, it's those unstoppable songs like "I Hate Myself For Loving You" that made her bad reputation. Jett always sounds like about two feet away from kicking your ass if you step out of line. CHRIS GRAY

JOURNEY They may have been, for a minute, the kings of the pop ballad, but Journey was also a killer rock outfit. Both Escape and followup Frontiers went multiplatinum primarily behind the ballads "Open Arms" and "Faithfully." But, songs like "Escape," "Separate Ways (Worlds Apart)," "Stone in Love" and, of course, "Don't Stop Believin" featured the expertise of guitarist Neal Schon and the soaring vocals of Steve Perry. They were a massive concert draw, including a show at the Summit in 1981 live on MTV. JEFF BALKE

 

The 10 Best Rock Bands of the '80s

TOM PETTY & THE HEARTBREAKERS Although they didn't quite make a truly great album in the '80s, Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers spent the decade becoming a truly great band. Coming off one great album already in 1979's Damn the Torpedoes, their next few records spawned enough five-star singles -- "The Waiting," "A Woman In Love (It's Not Me)," "You Got Lucky," "Don't Come Around Here No More" -- and standout sleeper tracks ("Letting You Go," "Rebels") that it didn't matter so much that each individual album felt somehow wanting.

Then after practically an entire decade of road work, Petty did make another great album, 1989's Full Moon Fever. Though not technically a Heartbreakers record -- only then-drummer Stan Lynch wound up missing -- it finally made him every bit Springsteen's equal as a rocker America could believe in. CHRIS GRAY

THE PRETENDERS Chrissie Hynde is the baddest thing to rise out of Akron, Ohio since the Goodyear blimp. I bought Pretenders, the band's 1980 debut, based solely on the way she rocked the red leather jacket on the cover. Plus, the way she stares at you while you're holding her album in your hands says, "Dude, you can't handle this." By the time I finished listening to first cut "Precious," I was almost convinced she might be right.

I manned up and have been a fan ever since. Pretenders is considered one of the best rock albums ever, but I actually prefer the follow-up, Pretenders II. It's classic, sexy and a little bit crazy - "like Brigitte Bardot!!" Every once and then, I'll fire up "Middle of the Road" from Learning to Crawl just to hear Chrissie sing about "standing in the middle of life, with my plans behind me." Yeah, I identify. JESSE SENDEJAS JR.

The 10 Best Rock Bands of the '80s

STEVIE RAY VAUGHAN & DOUBLE TROUBLE Stevie Ray Vaughan could play the blues better than any guitarist outside of Albert King, Jimi Hendrix and maybe one or two others, but Double Trouble was also a rock and roll band through and through. Yes, they had serious chops, and stocked their four studio albums with plenty of extended-blues workouts, tasty R&B balladry and even a groovy soul-jazz instrumental or two.

But what most people remember today are the rockers, songs that swang and strutted all over the place -- "Love Struck Baby," "Cold Shot," "Pride and Joy," "Couldn't Stand the Weather." Double Trouble vanished just when they were really hitting their stride as rock and rollers, too: consider 1989's In Step, which tragically became Vaughan's final album. The thing opens with "The House Is Rockin'," "Crossfire," and "Tightrope" all in a row. Come on. CHRIS GRAY

ZZ TOP The little old band from Texas had its breakout success in the '80s thanks to Eliminator and a series of successful videos that landed in MTV's heavy rotation. While Eliminator may have been a more digitized version of earlier ZZ records, it still featured their Texas swagger and Billy Gibbon's signature guitar, easily making them all-time most successful band from Houston. JEFF BALKE



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