Friday, May 31, 2024

Back To School: College Rock's Top Graduates (2024)

Talking Heads
Talking Heads 1980
Ah, to remember those hallowed days of ‘80s “college rock,” an ephemeral genre and overall catchphrase for bands too oblique and oblong to fit into the era’s increasingly straitjacketed commercial FM radio format. The domain of university radio stations that were originally launched in the 1970s as outlets for progressive rock records played by dope-smoking student DJs, college radio took on a new mission in the ‘80s, providing a safe haven for odd, unusual, and ornery music that was too unpredictable and, well, too chaotic overall for corporate radio, all of which was categorized as “college rock.”   

As Noel Murray wrote for The A.V. Club webzine, “though hardly uniform in style, there were commonalities between the college-rock acts. Not really punk, hard rock, or art rock, most of these groups played conventionally hooky songs, heavy on jangle and twang, with lyrics steeped in poetic Americana.” In the wake of America’s overall indifference to the bloato-hype of “new wave” and the sort of neutered, safe-as-milk punk rock then being shilled by the major label machine, Murray insightfully states that “the edgier and artier acts found a home on college radio, where screaming noise, retro country, avant-garde electronics, and power pop could coexist, linked by cheap-sounding singles recorded by local bands, often peopled by college-radio DJs and record-store clerks.”

College rock was a genre-that-wasn’t-a-genre unique to the ‘80s, later to be subsumed into the alternative rock tsunami of the 1990s, which itself was heavily influenced by many of the bands included on this list. College radio went further underground in the ‘90s as many onetime college rock stalwarts found unexpected (and often unwelcome) mainstream success. College radio itself barely exists today as many universities have divested themselves of their broadcast licenses for much-desired cold cash. Once upon a time, however, the “left of the dial” provided adventuresome listeners a respite from the anodyne hard rock pushed by homogenized, consultant-driven commercial FM radio playlists.

To follow is the Reverend’s “Top 10” list of college rock artists that helped blaze a trail during the uncertain ‘80s, my favorites among the many records I heard spun by DJs on Vanderbilt’s WRVU-FM in Nashville over the years. Your list may differ from mine, and you’re welcome to hype your personal faves in the comments section.

They Might Be Giants

10. They Might Be Giants
The “Two Johns” – John Flansburgh and John Linnell – were the unlikeliest of ‘80s-era rock heroes. They weren’t black-clad, axe-toting, semi-Goth fops moping around and moaning about how bad their lives were, nor were they tech-obsessed keyboard warriors with wobbly stacks of synthesizers, moaning about how bad their lives were. They Might Be Giants was a jaunty acoustic duo with absurdist, often surreal songs which displayed the John’s quirky sense of humor and playful, imaginative lyrics. Signed to the regional independent Bar/None Records label, their critically-acclaimed 1986 self-titled debut album became a mainstay of college radio with tracks like “Don’t Let’s Start,” “Put Your Hand Inside the Puppet Head,” and “(She Was A) Hotel Detective” becoming staples of FM alt-rock airplay.

The Giants’ 1988 follow-up album, Lincoln, was even more successful, fueled by the infectious single “Ana Ng,” which brought them to the attention of Elektra Records. Called up to the major leagues, the Johns were forced to recruit a full band to tour with, but they recorded their third LP and 1990 label debut, Flood, largely by themselves with a slew of guest musicians. Provided a fair amount of creative freedom, Flood eventually achieved Platinum™ sales status on the back of melodic earworms like “Birdhouse In Your Soul” and “Istanbul (Not Constantinople).” The band rode out the ‘90s with a string of moderately-successful major label efforts, eventually branching into movies and TV, and even kid’s music, and the Two Johns are still banging away at it today, proof that a band can retain both its innocence and its integrity. Recommended Album: They Might Be Giants   
They Might Be Giants photo courtesy Elektra Records


9. XTC
College rock wasn’t notably biased in favor of American artists who, it could be argued, experienced greater corporate marginalization in the ‘80s. Anglophiles made up a large segment of college radio listeners and import LPs from the U.K. and elsewhere were easy to get in larger cities (especially those with universities). As such, artists like the Smiths, Depeche Mode, Robyn Hitchcock, and the Cure found loyal audiences on the left of the dial. XTC is a perfect example of a British band whose stateside following was 90% built by college radio (MTV later adding the other 10%). Formed in 1972 in Swindon, England and fronted by singer/guitarist Andy Partridge and singer/bassist Colin Moulding with keyboardist Barry Andrews and drummer Terry Chambers, the band’s unique blending of New York Dolls-inspired punk, jagged guitar rock, and skewed Britpop had “cult rockers” written all over it. XTC transcended punk and new wave with the eccentric musings of White Music, their 1978 Virgin Records debut album.

British record buyers nevertheless pushed the album into the U.K. Top 40, and it was quickly followed up later that year by Go 2, which rose even higher to #21 on the charts. Andrews left afterwards, replaced by a second guitarist in Dave Gregory. The band found a creative balance between eccentricity and accessibility with 1979’s Drums and Wires, scoring a Top 20 hit single in “Making Plans For Nigel.” The album was also XTC’s first to inch onto the U.S. charts, albeit at #174, but with the new decade came Black Sea, which became the band’s highest-charting U.S. release. Released in 1982 and quickly finding a home on college radio stateside, English Settlement is arguably XTC’s masterpiece, singles like “Senses Working Overtime” and “Ball and Chain” threatening to take the band mainstream. Subsequent albums like 1983’s Mummer and 1986’s Skylarking earned diminishing returns for the band, but 1989’s psych-pop oriented Oranges & Lemons brought XTC a renewed reputation with the hit single “Mayor of Simpleton.” By 1992, the members of XTC had gone their separate ways, but despite the band’s relative obscurity in America, they were major influences on ‘90s-era bands like Jellyfish and Apples In Stereo. Recommended Album: English Settlement    

XTC 1978, photo by Jean-Luc Ourlin, courtesy Wikipedia Commons   

Love and Rockets

8. Love and Rockets
Formed in 1985 from the ashes of Goth-rock pioneers Bauhaus by that band’s Daniel Ash (vocals, guitar), David J (bass, vocals), and Kevin Haskins (drums, synthesizers), Love and Rockets pursued less morose music with a guitar-driven pop/rock sound that quickly resulted in a cult of fans stateside and in their British homeland. Signed to the Beggar’s Banquet label (which had previously released three Bauhaus LPs), the band introduced themselves with a psych-drenched take on the Motown classic “Ball of Confusion,” a non-album single which didn’t sell particularly well but found a welcome home on college radio in the U.S. Their 1985 debut album, Seventh Dream of Teenage Heaven, faltered commercially, but the following year’s Express album yielded well-received singles with “Kundalini Express,” “All In My Mind,” and “Yin and Yang (The Flowerpot Man).”

Although 1988’s Earth, Sun, Moon represented a step forward creatively, it performed weakly commercially save for the minor college radio hit “No New Tale To Tell.” The band’s self-titled 1989 album evinced a bolder AOR sound that resulted in a Top 10 U.S. hit with “So Alive,” which pushed the album to Gold™ sales status. After a lengthy hiatus that saw the band members pursue individual solo projects, Love and Rockets returned with 1994’s Hot Trip To Heaven, a severe departure from their previous sound that incorporated electronic and ambient sounds with psychedelic elements which fell on deaf ears among their longtime fans. Dumped by Beggar’s Banquet, the band recorded a 1996 album for Rick Rubin’s American Recordings label, Sweet F.A. returning to a harder-rocking sound a day late and a dollar short. A final album for the ill-fated Red Ant Records – 1998’s Lift – returned the band to an electronica sound that resonated with absolutely nobody. Red Ant’s subsequent bankruptcy, along with a long-anticipated Bauhaus reunion tour, stamped ‘paid’ to Love and Rockets, but at least the band delivered three enduring albums during the college rock era. Recommended Album: Love and Rockets         

Love and Rockets photo by Mitch Jenkins, courtesy Beggar’s Banquet Records

The Pixies

7. The Pixies
Suffice it to say that, with the 1988 release of their debut album Surfer Rosa by the U.K. 4AD Records label, rock fans had never heard anything like the Pixies. Formed a couple of years earlier in Boston by singer/guitarist Black Francis (a/k/a ‘Frank Black’), guitarist Joey Santiago, bassist Kim Deal, and drummer David Lovering, the Pixies were almost too late for the college radio party, their brief (1988-91) four album heyday straddling the college rock ‘80s and the alternative ‘90s and having an immense influence on bands like Nirvana and Smashing Pumpkins. Produced by underground wunderkind Steve Albini (R.I.P.), Surfer Rosa was groundbreaking in its use of a “loud/quiet/loud” musical dynamic (later utilized with some success by Nirvana), coupled with the band’s chaotic, cacophonic punk-influenced sound, and Black’s eerie, odd, and often surreal lyrics. Due to scattered distribution, Surfer Rosa was little heard in the U.S. save for on college radio.

Doolittle, the Pixies’ sophomore album, offered more of the same, only with a bigger recording budget, and the extra noise the additional cash could buy. Songs like “Debaser,” “Here Comes Your Man,” and “Monkey Gone To Heaven” received heavy college radio airplay, while a new distribution deal with Elektra Records put the record in stores across the U.S. which, combined with constant touring by the band, launched Doolittle to Platinum™ sales status. Not wanting to mess with a good thing, the band recorded 1990’s Bossa Nova with producer Gil Norton (who helmed Doolittle), but their sound was showing signs of being watered-down for popular consumption. The Pixies’ swansong, 1991’s Trompe le Monde, displayed further creative exhaustion, and that would be it for the band until their first reunion in 2004. Elektra reissued Surfer Rosa in 1992, after the band was essentially kaput, extending the Pixies’ notoriety well into the alt-rock era. Frank Black subsequently pursued a solo career that is still thriving to this day alongside various Pixies reunion tours, while Kim Deal made a name for herself in the ‘90s as the creative force behind the Breeders. Recommended Album: Doolittle

The Pixies photo courtesy 4AD Records

Camper Van Beethoven

6. Camper Van Beethoven
Formed in 1983 in Southern California, the eccentric and visionary Camper Van Beethoven pursued a unique hybrid musical that blended the sounds of punk, pop, folk, country, and folk music into a heady sonic stew that often left their hardcore punk audiences gasping in confused fury. Students at the University of California, Santa Cruz, the line-up of singer/guitarist David Lowery, guitarist Chris Molla, bassist Victor Krummenacher, multi-instrumentalist Jonathan Segel, and drummer Anthony Guess recorded 1985’s odd yet entertaining Telephone Free Landslide Victory. The album quickly earned the band much coveted college radio airplay with “Take the Skinheads Bowling” and a countrified cover of Black Flag’s “Wasted.” Camper Van Beethoven tread water with their 1986 sophomore effort II & III, with Guess dropping out and guitarist Greg Lisher coming on board. Guess was replaced by Chris Pederson on drums.

With their best-known line-up in place, the band broke through with its tongue-in-cheek self-titled 1986 album, which threw caution to the wind with an inspired mash-up of punk rock, psychedelia, Zep-styled bombast, and satirical lyrics on songs like “Joe Stalin’s Cadillac” and a raucous cover of Pink Floyd’s “Interstellar Overdrive.” The album also saw the beginning of the band’s association with avant-garde D.I.Y. guitarist Eugene Chadbourne, which would result in two impressive collaboration LPs. Camper Van Beethoven made the jump to Virgin Records for Our Revolutionary Sweetheart (1987) and Key Lime Pie (1989), both of which featured a more mainstream rock style. The band subsequently broke up, with Lowery forming the modestly-successful ‘90s band Cracker and the rest of the guys pursuing their musical side project, Monks of Doom. Camper Van Beethoven reunited in 1999 and released several albums through 2014, but the college rock era was long over and only hardcore fans noticed. Recommended Album: Camper Van Beethoven     

Camper Van Beethoven photo courtesy Virgin Records

Talking Heads

5. Talking Heads
Forming in 1975 in New York City and mainstays of the decade’s CBGB scene, Talking Heads were never really a punk band, although their unique sound and uncompromising attitude certainly appealed to the more free-thinking punk-rock fanatic. The same aspects of the band that made them outliers on a CBGB stage that included such diverse artists as Blondie, The Ramones, Television, and Patti Smith also positioned them for college rock stardom in spite of their success as a Top 30 charting band with albums like More Songs About Buildings and Food and Fear of Music. Singer/guitarist/keyboardist David Byrne, guitarist Jerry Harrison, bassist Tina Weymouth, and drummer Chris Frantz were musically adventuresome, the band’s wandering muse leading them down some seldom-travelled creative pathways that paid off in cold, hard cash. Talking Heads burst out of the CBGB ghetto and arrived to the 1980s, bag of tricks in hand, ready and willing to infect college radio with their peculiar vision and talented musicianship.

They became darlings of the fledgling MTV network, mostly due to imaginative music videos and Byrne’s exaggerated on-screen personality, but it was their Brian Eno-produced 1980 album Remain In Light, which incorporated Afrobeat rhythms inspired by Nigerian musical legend Fela Kuti into a sonic experiment with funky grooves and an alt-rock soundtrack, that earned the band their first Gold™ Record on the back of the classic single “Once In A Lifetime.” Their 1983 album Speaking In Tongues transcended the band’s long-standing college rock popularity to cement their mainstream rock status with the Top 10 hit single “Burning Down the House,” which drove the album to Platinum™ sales status. Their college rock popularity suffered little from hit albums like 1985’s Little Creatures or 1986’s True Stories, both of which featured a poppier “new wave” sound but, after better than a decade in the trenches, 1988’s back-to-Afrobeat collection Naked sounded weak by comparison to their earlier works and the band went on a hiatus that continues, more or less, to this day. Recommended Album: Fear of Music   

Talking Heads 1980, photo uncredited, courtesy Sire Records

Hüsker Dü

4. Hüsker Dü
Originally formed in St. Paul, Minnesota in 1979 as ‘Buddy and the Returnables’ and featuring singer/guitarist Bob Mould, bassist Greg Norton, keyboardist Charlie Pine, and drummer Grant Hart, the core trio soon dropped Pine, took on a new name, and plowed ahead with a fast ‘n’ loud guitar-rock sound that often teetered on the shiny, sharp edge of heavy metal. Although Hüsker Dü’s initial guise was that of a hardcore punk band, the guys left themselves a lot of creative space to grow into, and I’ve always considered them the first true ‘post-punk’ band of note. After regional tastemakers Twin/Tone Records rejected the band, they began releasing singles on their own Reflex Records label, which led to the release of the live Land Speed Record in 1982 and their 1983 studio debut, Everything Falls Apart. Steady touring by the band made fans out of scene heavies like Jello Biafra of the Dead Kennedys, D. Boon of the Minutemen, and Black Flag’s Greg Ginn, who signed them to his SST Records label.

Hüsker Dü’s tenure with SST was astonishingly brief (a couple of years, really…) but fruitful, resulting in three bona fide classics of punk/post-punk Sturm und Drang with the 1984 double-album Zen Arcade and the following year’s New Day Rising and Flip Your Wig. The band benefitted by having two accomplished singers and songwriters in Mould and Hart, and they successfully kept their unique musical formula intact after signing with Warner Bros. I defy any critic to argue that the band’s major label output (1986’s Candy Apple Grey and 1987’s Warehouse: Songs and Stories) isn’t as fresh and exhilarating as their SST albums. As music historian Michael Azerrad stated in his 2001 book Our Band Could Be Your Life, Hüsker Dü provided a bridge between punk 1980s-era college rock, writing that the band “played a huge role in convincing the underground that melody and punk rock weren’t antithetical.” After the band had run its course, Mould went on to an acclaimed solo career that included the alt-rock band Sugar while Hart released two albums with his band Nova Mob as well as a number of solo records. Hüsker Dü was immensely influential, with everybody from Nirvana, the Pixies, Green Day, and Superchunk singing their praises. Recommended Album: New Day Rising

Hüsker Dü 1986, photograph by Daniel Corrigan, courtesy Warner Bros.

The Replacements

3. The Replacements
Much like their crosstown contemporaries (and sometimes rivals) Hüsker Dü, the Replacements started out as a punk rock outfit and quickly veered towards an influential alt-rock sound that was as equally influenced by bands like Big Star, the Rolling Stones, and the Beatles as it was by the Ramones and Sex Pistols. Formed in Minneapolis, Minnesota in 1979, the early line-up of the Replacements featured singer/guitarist Paul Westerberg, guitarist Bob Stinson, his brother Tommy Stinson on bass, and drummer Chris Mars. They came to an agreement with the local indie Twin/Tone Records to release their 1981 debut, Sorry Ma, Forgot To Take Out the Trash, which received overwhelmingly positive fanzine reviews. The eight-song Stink EP followed in 1982 but, with Westerberg emerging as the band’s primary songwriter, 1983’s Hootenanny album saw the band shrugging off the punk rock albatross and incorporating elements of blues, country, and rockabilly into their ramshackle sound. With their third album, Let It Be, the Replacements found its voice as a band, Westerberg’s ‘coming-of-age’ lyrics evincing a humorous, rather than dour vision of the transition into adulthood. Songs like “I Will Dare,” “Unsatisfied,” “Androgynous,” and a cover of Kiss’s “Black Diamond” became college radio staples.

The major labels soon came calling and the Replacements signed with Sire Records. Former Ramones drummer Tommy Erdelyi produced the classic 1985 album Tim, which yielded several timeless tracks like “Kiss Me On the Bus,” “Bastards of Young,” and the band’s ode to college radio, “Left of the Dial.” Three more major label releases cemented the band’s status as college rock trailblazers: Pleased To Meet Me (1987) was recorded at Ardent Studios in Memphis with producer Jim Dickinson, and includes the band’s tribute song “Alex Chilton” while 1989’s Don’t Tell A Soul was the first to feature guitarist Slim Dunlap, who had replaced Bob Stinson. All Shook Down (1990) was the band’s swansong, essentially a Westerberg solo album, and afterwards the band went its separate ways. The Replacements could have been bigger, commercially, save for their unpredictable live shows – some nights they were the best rock ‘n’ roll outfit anywhere while other nights they were falling down drunk and barely able to play. Ticket-buying fans never knew which version of the Replacements that they’d get, but the band was still highly influential, with disciples like the Goo Goo Dolls, Beach Slang, and the Gaslight Anthem following in their wake. Recommended Album: Let It Be

The Replacements 1984, photo by Laura Levine, courtesy of Twin/Tone Records

The Smiths

2. The Smiths
Along with RE.M. the Smiths were probably the most influential of the college rock bands of the ‘80s, directly inspiring the following decade’s “Britpop” movement and bands like Blur, Suede, Oasis, and the Manic Street Preachers; alt-rockers like Belly and Throwing Muses; and contemporary millennial bands like the Magnetic Fields, Arcade Fire, and the Decemberists. Formed in 1982 in Manchester, England by vocalist Steven Morrissey (i.e. ‘Morrissey’) and guitarist Johnny Marr, who shared a love of the New York Dolls and Patti Smith, the band eventually evolved to its best-known line-up with bassist Andy Rourke, and drummer Mike Joyce.

Signed to Rough Trade Records, the Smiths released their self-titled debut album in 1984, hitting #2 on the U.K. albums charts and hanging around for a grand 33 weeks. Sire Records picked up the band’s albums for stateside distribution, which proved to be the Smiths’ entry to college radio. Meat Is Murder, the band’s classic 1985 album, hit #1 on the British chart and they added keyboards to their sound for 1986’s The Queen Is Dead would rise to #2 in the U.K. on the strength of a pair of Top 30 charting hit singles, “The Boy With the Thorn In His Side” and “Bigmouth Strikes Again.” Internal band tensions would break-up the Smiths after the release of 1987’s Strangeways, Here We Come, another #2 U.K. hit and the band’s highest-charting U.S. release. Morrisey would go on to a successful solo career that has resulted in better than a dozen albums through 2020. Recommended Album: Meat Is Murder

The Smiths 1984, photo by Paul Cox, courtesy Sire Records


1. R.E.M.
Although they would become major label chartbusters, R.E.M. began as a humble band of jangle-rock enthusiasts in the sleepy college town of Athens, Georgia. Fittingly, for the undeniable granddaddies of “college rock,” the four members of R.E.M. – singer Michael Stipe, guitarist Peter Buck, bassist Mike Mills, and drummer Bill Berry – came together while students at the University of Georgia in Athens. Buck and Stipe met at Wuxtry Records where Buck worked between classes, quickly bonding over a shared love of artists like the Velvet Underground and Patti Smith. A mutual friend introduced them to Mills and Berry, who had been playing together since high school and, after jamming for a short while, a magical musical chemistry emerged, with each band member contributing something special to the cauldron. R.E.M. released its first single, the enigmatic and awe-inspiring “Radio Free Europe,” in 1981 on the Atlanta-based independent Hib-Tone Records label.

Signing with the major/minor I.R.S. Records imprint, they released their landmark Chronic Town EP in 1982, following it up with the critically-acclaimed 1983 album Murmur. With subsequent albums like 1984’s Reckoning, 1985’s Fables of the Reconstruction, and 1986’s Life’s Rich Pageant, R.E.M. dominated the college rock landscape, quickly outgrowing both the medium and a crowded Athens rock scene (which also included The B-52’s, Love Tractor, Pylon, and Dreams So Real, among others). Signing with Warner Bros, R.E.M. easily made the transition to become a mainstream rock band, releasing five subsequent multi-Platinum™ selling albums that would make them one of the most successful bands of the ‘90s. R.E.M. influenced a generation of artists like Nirvana, Pavement, Pearl Jam, and Dream Syndicate and can arguably be held responsible for the alt-rock explosion of the 1990s. Not bad, eh? Recommended Album: Reckoning

R.E.M. 1992, photo by Anton Corbijn, courtesy Warner Bros.

Honorable Mention: Depeche Mode, The dB’s, The Feelies, Game Theory, Let’s Active, New Order, The Pogues, Sonic Youth, Violent Femmes, Wall of Voodoo...

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Credit where credit is due…quoted above, my colleague Noel Murray wrote a great piece on college rock titled “1992: The Year College Rock Died.” If you’re interested in the subject at all, you should give it a read:

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