Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Not Murmur: 36 great but underappreciated records from 1983

A ton of excellent records came out in 1983, and a good number of them—R.E.M.’s Murmur, New Order’s Power, Corruption & Lies, Metallica’s Kill ’Em All, Madonna’s Madonna, and so on—have been written about a million times. Rather than contribute to that 30-year-old dogpile, The A.V. Club decided to take its celebration of the music of 1983 a different way and focus on records that are actually pretty great but maybe haven’t gotten the ink—virtual or physical—that they really deserve. Below are 36 excellent but tragically underrated records from 1983, from Crass’ Yes Sir, I Will to “Weird Al” Yankovic’s self-titled debut.


Merle Haggard and Willie Nelson, Pancho & Lefty
Outlaw pals Merle Haggard and Willie Nelson have released a number of outstanding records together, including 1983’s Pancho & Lefty. The record dominated country radio that year and even helped revitalize Haggard’s career, but it’s not exactly widely revered within the rock community. Townes Van Zandt’s original version of the track “Pancho & Lefty” is better, but this record as a whole is a must for anyone who tolerates a twang. [ME]

Pulp, It 
Considering Pulp didn’t really get popular traction until the ’90s, it feels a little weird that the band’s excellent debut, It, came out in 1983. (Even more surprising is that the group actually formed in 1978, long, long before Oasis was even a glint in the Gallagher brothers’ eyes.) Still, It is an excellent record, with frontman Jarvis Cocker’s voice already rich and fully blossomed, even though he was only 19. Plus, the record has a punny name, and that’s always fun. [ME]

ESG, Come Away With ESG
ESG has experienced a critical resurgence in recent years, but that doesn’t mean that Come Away With ESG isn’t still brutally unknown by the masses. The Bronx act has only made four full-lengths in its 35 years of on-and-off existence, and Come Away is absolutely the best. Tracks such as the opener, “Come Away,” and the jazzy “Dance” not only shaped hip-hop at the time, but they also continue to influence dance-punk, post-punk, and disco acts to this day. [ME]


The Raincoats, The Kitchen Tapes 
The Raincoats’ real masterpieces are their first two records, The Raincoats and Odyshape, but The Kitchen Tapes does a great job of capturing the band’s live show—and New York’s downtown sound—at the time. Taped at The Kitchen art space, the originally cassette-only release features plenty of whooping and hollering, as well as sharp and angular takes on tracks such as “Animal Rhapsody” and “Oh Oh La La La.” [ME]

Bad Religion, Into The Unknown 
By 1983, Bad Religion had already made a name for itself in the punk scene with its debut album, How Could Hell Be Any Worse? So the group decided to get experimental on its sophomore release and recorded a prog-rock album called Into The Unknown. It was received so poorly by fans that the band actually broke up for two years. After reforming, they ditched the keyboards for power chords and pretended it never happened. But even though the most die-hard fans have swept it under the rug, the album is worth revisiting, if only just to remember the one time Bad Religion went into the unknown. [DO]


“Weird Al” Yankovic, “Weird Al” Yankovic
Back in the early ’80s, Alfred Matthew Yankovic was a twentysomething goofball with some Dr. Demento street cred and a proto—Sideshow Bob haircut. Not much changed when Yankovic’s self-titled debut album was released in 1983: Though the album managed to crack the Billboard 200, it was casually dismissed as a disposable novelty record. Quickly overshadowed by 1984’s In 3-D (which contained “Eat It”), “Weird Al” still contains some silly stone-cold classics, including “My Bologna,” “Another One Rides The Bus,” and the not-so-happy “Happy Birthday.” [MW]

Herbie Hancock, Future Shock
Herbie Hancock is most often understood as a jazz musician, butthe truth is that he’s one of the great unclassifiable artists in the history of popular music. 1983’s Future Shock, arguably Hancock’s best album, solidified his taxonomy-resisting qualities. Singles such as the Grammy-winning “Rockit” introduced Hancock as a hip-hop pioneer, and his aggressive experimentation in the realms of electro-funk and jazz can be seen as a direct antecedent to the lush productions of Steely Dan and latter-day Daft Punk. Future Shock stands as one of the few essentially omnivorous albums, coming nearly 30 years before the Internet made that kind of genre crossing commonplace. [JB]


Orchestral Manoeuvres In The Dark, Dazzle Ships
A melancholy concept album steeped in Cold War—era existential angst and Kraftwerk-indebted technological fetishism, Dazzle Ships was a huge commercial misstep for Orchestral Manoeuvres In The Dark. It was also a work of inventive and affecting art, one whose scathing reception upon release shocked the synth-pop innovators into chasing New Romantic pabulum and John Hughes soundtracks. But from the short-circuit snaps of “Radio Waves” and “Telegraph” to the mournfully post-apocalyptic ballads “The Romance Of The Telescope,” “Silent Running,” and “Of All The Things We Made,” Dazzle Ships is a bravely ambitious statement, a forward-thinking gamble in a genre that became increasingly swallowed by cheap stagnation. [SO]

The Fall, Perverted By Language
Mark E. Smith’s still-churning Mancunian machine never sounded brattier or more idiosyncratically self-assured than on the A-side of Perverted By Language, the clattering post-punk stalwarts’ sixth album. Particularly the CD edition, which kicks off with the bizarro William Burroughs-esque tale of “The Man Whose Head Expanded,” time travels via a pair of flabby “Wings,” and then ends in the existential sing-song of “Eat Y’self Fitter”—a wind-up so wacked-out, even the cynical Smith can’t help but laugh. Maybe credit the addition of wife and guitarist Brix Smith for his playful mood (which eventually dissipates in tense, insidious side-B tracks such as “I Feel Voxish” and “Smile”). Definitely credit her for wrangling his avant-garde abrasiveness into hooks and using this corker of a record to kick off the band’s poppiest era. [SO]


Jonathan Richman, Jonathan Sings!
By the early ’80s, Jonathan Richman had so thoroughly alienated original Modern Lovers fans with his children’s songs about Martians and leprechauns that many didn’t even bother with his 1983 effort. If they had, however, they would have discovered some of the most touchingly adult songs Richman has ever written. More varied than the primarily acoustic records that would follow, it’s one of Richman’s finest solo works, but like many of his albums from the ’80s, it remains out of print. [ER]

The Chameleons, Script Of The Bridge
The first in a trilogy of sterling releases from these often-overlooked British post-punk visionaries, The Chameleons’ simultaneously frightful and gorgeous debut LP rips from one exhilarating track to the next. There were so many bands competing to out-gloom each other in ’83 that some great acts were bound to slip through the cracks, but few conjured guitar tones this immersive or played songs with such unrelenting tension. The Chameleons deserve to be more than a cult band. [ER]


Divinyls, Desperate
A young woman indiscriminately sleeping her way though the neighborhood suddenly realizes the trap she’s set for herself and begins clambering for escape. The aptly titled Desperate begins one second later. Years before Divinyls’ biggest U.S. hit painted them as self-diddling punchlines, the late, great Chrissy Amphlett’s take-no-shit attitude is in full, sneering flower on her band’s pugnacious debut. It’s simultaneously tough and vulnerable, not to mention flirtatious and sexy as hell. Old habits die hard. [MH]

Crass, Yes Sir, I Will
From its inception Crass gave itself a definite end date of 1984. During its existence the crust punks did plenty to challenge the Thatcher regime and the punk scene in equal measure, but its final album, Yes Sir, I Will, was its most ambitiously agitated. Intended to be consumed as one interconnected piece, the album traverses styles from crust to piano ballads, all the while ensuring that Crass would end exactly as intended, changing the palate of punk and its politics in its wake. [DA]


Subhumans, The Day The Country Died
Though the U.K.’s Subhumans had been kicking around for a couple years, the group’s debut LP established it as a force in the fresh-faced anarcho-punk community. The Day The Country Died appropriately opens with the sound of a bomb falling before giving way to 16 anxiety-ridden tracks about nuclear war and a country in decline. Where its contemporaries focused on political sloganeering, Subhumans injected sci-fi into its lyrics (“Subvert City,” “Zyklon-B-Movie”), a trait that would come to define the group’s career and marked the band as one that rarely played it straight. [DA]

Swans, Filth
Nothing sounds like Filth. Swans would polish their attack as the years wore on, but here on the band’s first full-length, the group’s aesthetic was almost entirely noise, pure and painful. With two drummers on board, the percussive deluge sounds like a drum kit falling down a flight of stairs—guitars and bass scrape out repetitious patterns while Michael Gira chants mantras of degradation. There’s no fun to be had here, but don’t let that stop you. [AL]


Rain Parade, Emergency Third Rail Power Trip
One of the lesser-known acts of the Paisley Underground scene (the psychedelic rock revival in early ’80s Los Angeles; see also: The Dream Syndicate, The Three O’Clock, and the Bangles), Rain Parade is mostly remembered as the starting point for guitarist David Roback of Mazzy Star. Like that band, Rain Parade sounded like a distant memory from the get-go—imbued with a hazy, halcyon glow, its debut is a gorgeous, forgotten record from another age. [AL]


Manilla Road, Crystal Logic
The history of heavy metal is littered with lost classics: Crystal Logic, by Wichita trad-metal stalwarts Manilla Road, is the stuff of forgotten legends. Released on a long-gone local label, Crystal Logic floated around for years, gradually developing a reputation among die-hards as one of the best underground metal records of all time. With the inclusion of the phenomenal non-album single “Flaming Metal System,” the reissue is worth tracking down at any cost. [AL]


Ministry, With Sympathy
Generally loathed by Ministry fans, Al Jourgensen’s first album is a classic mindfuck. Before his obsession with hard-edged sonics and harder-edged drugs, he made this record in a pure synth-pop style. Ditching the noisier approach of his earlier singles, Jourgensen instead adopted a hilarious fake British accent while dabbling in darkwave and stilted lite-funk. While only “Revenge” is a legitimate classic, the album as a whole lives on as the ultimate dancefloor guilty pleasure. [AL]

The The, Soul Mining
The The mastermind Matt Johnson has never been fond of compromising his musical vision or following prevailing trends. Soul Mining is a gloriously weird debut record that grafts new wave flourishes to the abstract atmospherics of Bowie’s Berlin years. Tinny synthesizers and drum machines, funky bass, manicured keyboard collages, and Matt Johnson’s mercurial vocals—ranging from wild-eyed and unhinged to sincerely melancholy—collide on sprawling songs such as “Uncertain Smile,” a delicate ode to obsession and devotion. [AZ]


Plimsouls, Everywhere At Once
The Plimsouls were a quintessential California band that straddled the line between nervy rock and new wave-tinged punk, and the band’s second album is probably vocalist/guitarist Peter Case’s finest moment as a songwriter. Proto-Replacements ragged-pop (“Shaky City,” Valley Girl movie soundtrack staple “Oldest Story In The World”), blues-tinged bar-band hollers (“Lie, Beg, Borrow And Steal”) and one undeniable classic (the surging tale of fresh heartbreak, “A Million Miles Away”) make Everywhere At Once a must for power-pop aficionados. [AZ]

The Church, Seance
The Church’s third record darkened up the jangly sound found on the band’s first two albums with moody keyboard washes, prominent bass lines and goth-smudged guitar tones; highlights include the ringing “Electric Lash,” Cure-like “Fly” and the post-punk aggression exercise “Dropping Names.” While not nearly as accessible as previous (and future) releases by The Church, Seance crystallized a brooding, psychedelic-pop sound that the group continues to build on 30 years later. [AZ]


Tears For Fears, The Hurting
Tears For Fears’ debut makes a case for Curt Smith and Roland Orzabal as Depeche Mode’s lit-loving, philosophy-digging cousins. Lyrically, The Hurting is claustrophobic, confused, and vulnerable. Musically, it combines gnarled prog-pop signifiers with accessible synth-pop hooks and the eerie burned-out glam of obvious influences David Bowie and Roxy Music. The title track and singles such as “Pale Shelter,” “Change,” and pop culture touchstone “Mad World” are far removed from any scene or genre pigeonhole; three decades later, so is The Hurting. [AZ]

Ramones, Subterranean Jungle
The Ramones left behind such a hefty body of work when they disbanded in 1996 that it was inevitable that some of it would fall through the cracks. Everyone talks about Rocket To Russia, Leave Home, and the self-titled debut, but Subterranean Jungle is the unsung hero of the punk pioneers’ catalog. It’s poppier and a bit more in step with the new wave sound of the ’80s, and yet it still sounds perfectly Ramones-like. [RB]


B-52’s, Whammy!
The B-52’s’ third album didn’t meet the band’s commercial or critical standards, but Whammy! is still punchy, classic B-52’s. The record didn’t feature anything as sublimely weird as “Rock Lobster” or as catchy as “Love Shack,” but the album is still full of excellent tracks like “Whammy Kiss” and “Song For A Future Generation” that showcase the band’s humor and talent, all laden with extra ’80s synth. [ET]

Fun Boy Three, Waiting
Terry Hall, former frontman of The Specials, co-wrote “Our Lips Are Sealed” for The Go-Go’s. After it became a hit, his new band with two other Specials alumni, Fun Boy Three, recorded a subdued version of it for its second album, Waiting. The whole album is just as gorgeous. It was also the last LP Fun Boy Three recorded—a snapshot of dubby, ghostly pop in a decade of sharpness and flash. [JH]


Toy Dolls, Dig That Groove Baby
Punk rock had been overtaken by hardcore in 1983, but no one told Toy Dolls. The trio’s irrepressible debut, Dig That Groove Baby, flew in the face of crusty English anarchists and angry American pit-starters alike with a bouncy, goofy take on classic Clash-meets-Buzzcocks punk. Beneath the comedy, frontman Michael “Olga” Algar showed himself to be one of the most dexterous guitarists and songwriters of the era. Mostly, though, he just dared to have fun. [JH]

Aztec Camera, High Land, Hard Rain
The Smiths released the band’s first two singles in 1983, and Edwyn Collins’ Orange Juice had already released two albums the year before. Sitting almost exactly between them is Aztec Camera’s first full-length, High Land, Hard Rain. Led by precocious 19-year-old songwriter Roddy Frame, the band softened post-punk’s jagged edges into something almost Byrds-like, setting the tone for a thousand jangling ‘80s bands to come. And sublime tracks like “Oblivious” still ring. [JH]


Hanoi Rocks, Back To Mystery City
Glam-metal had yet to conquer the world in 1983, but it was well on its way. Sadly, Hanoi Rocks wouldn’t get to ride that wave. The Finnish band broke in up ’85 following drummer Nicholas “Razzle” Dingley’s death in a car accident (while being drunkenly driven by Mötley Crüe’s Vince Neil)—but not before releasing several classics including Back To Mystery City, a tough, catchy amalgam of ’70s glam and punk that updated The New York Dolls’ sound for a new decade. [JH]

Satan, Court In The Act
1983 saw the release of many milestones of extreme metal, from Metallica’s Kill ’Em All to Mercyful Fate’s Melissa. But Satan never made as big of a splash, despite the towering excellence of the band’s debut, Court In The Act. Akin to NWOBHM-mates Iron Maiden, only with far less of a commercial bent (note the name), Satan stoked a searing technicality and unrepentant darkness that would influence both death and black metal in the coming years. And with a solid comeback album, Life Sentence, out in 2013, Satan still burns. [JH]


Gang Of Four, Hard
Considered one of the group’s lesser efforts—if not disowned entirely by many fans—Gang Of Four’s Hard has gotten an unfair rap. True, the album is pastel-hued and pillowy compared to its predecessors, but the shift from funk to disco had been a gradual one and shouldn’t have come as a surprise; the pseudo-New Romantic shimmer of Hard is far more subversive than the jarring post-punk of GOF’s early days. And really, how is Marxist Duran Duran a bad thing? [JH]

Blue Öyster Cult, The Revölution By Night
Blue Öyster Cult’s success has always been an up-and-down cycle. 1981’s Fire Of Unknown Origin produced the hit, “Burnin’ For You,” but the band had no such luck with 1983’s The Revölution By Night, whose sound dived deeper into the decade’s slick, synthetic sheen. But it makes for a sterling example of new-wave-steeped hard rock, and includes a lyrical contribution by longtime champion Patti Smith plus plenty of eeriness, imaginative songcraft, and otherworldly weirdness. [JH]


The Dicks, Kill From The Heart
SST Records released records by Black Flag and Minutemen in 1983, but The Dicks’ full-length debut for the label, Kill From The Heart, has always gotten far less attention. It shouldn’t. Literate, articulate, passionate, openly gay, and full of righteous rage, singer Gary Floyd leads his band through a dozen tracks of raw catharsis, a sound that would influence many grunge- and garage-rockers while standing apart from The Dicks’ less dimensional hardcore peers. [JH]

Jonzun Crew, Lost In Space
Rap and funk were mutating wildly in 1983, but no mutation was as radical as the rise of electro. Along with acts like Afrika Bambaataa and Newcleus, Jonzun Crew was on the gene-splicing edge. The sci-fi-fixated outfit released its debut, Lost In Space, in ’83, and it grafted Parliament Funkadelic’s progressive phantasmagoria to Kraftwerk’s icy robotics. Herbie Hancock may have had electro’s first, fluke hit “Rockit” that year, but Jonzun Crew laid a large slab of the genre’s foundation. [JH]


Paul Simon, Hearts And Bones
For years, Hearts And Bones was known as Paul Simon’s failure before Graceland, the misstep that prompted the renaissance. But the record has recently received a critical rehabilitation, and rightly so: Its songs are among Simon’s best, from the lovely title track to the John Lennon homage “The Late Great Johnny Ace” (which features a dramatic coda by Philip Glass). The record ranges in style from quiet folk to quasi-funk, but the songs—warm, funny, and complex—are unquestionably Simon’s. [DB]

Psychic TV, Dreams Less Sweet
Started by Throbbing Gristle’s Genesis P-Orridge and Alternative TV’s Alex Fergusson immediately following the dissolution of the former’s primary project, Psychic TV shifted in sound and vision over its several decades in action. On its 1983 sophomore album Dreams Less Sweet, plaintive ballads collide with barking dogs, breaking glass, and otherwise imposing soundscapes crafted by fellow former Throbbing Gristle member Peter Christopherson. It’s psychedelic and schizophrenic in equal measure, and it’s just as engaging as any of Throbbing Gristle’s hallowed work. [CJ]


[Editor's note: The blurb for Felt's The Splendour Of Fear was removed from this story after we discovered that it was released in 1984. Sorry about that. It's still a good record, though.]

Share This Story

Get our newsletter