10 Best College Rock Albums
Back in the 1980s, indie rock wasn’t called indie rock. Sure, some of the snobbier types referred to certain branches of the music as “Amerindie,” but for the most part, people just called it “college rock.” But what defined it? Besides steering clear of mainstream popularity, what tied together the bands we think of when we hear the words “college rock”? Is it the synthesis of punk, post-punk and New Wave sounds? Or the hazy vocals buried in DIY production? Or is just that left-of-the-dial aesthetic you know when you hear it? We can’t say for sure, but whatever it is, you’ll find plenty of it on our list of the 10 Best College Rock Albums.
Picking up the pieces of Joy Division (see No. 5 on our list of the Top 10 College Rock Albums), the surviving members reconvened with less gloomy undertones to their music. They push the synths on their second album (from 1983) — the record that shaped their sound and helped warm college radio to electronic music.
America had R.E.M.; England had the Smiths. College radio was dominated by U.S. bands in the first part of the ’80s. The Smiths managed to cut through the Black Flags and the Hüsker Düs with one of the decade’s most influential and defining records. From Johnny Marr’s shimmering guitar to Morrissey’s barbed lyrics, the Smiths made Anglophilia cool on their 1984 debut.
These Los Angeles punks’ second album (from 1981) plays like a summation of turn-of-the-decade sociopolitical ills. It’s fast, furious and angry about so many things (love, domesticity, life in general), the band itself probably couldn’t tell you what’s buzzing by in the 33 minutes it takes to tear through the 13 songs.
‘Double Nickels on the Dime’
The 1984 double-album opus from this California trio strayed outside the band’s usual punk boundaries and discovered an entire world of American noise there. Jazz, poetry, country and even some ragged R&B show up in the album’s 45(!) songs, which chronicle the latter half of U.S. history with sharp perspective.
The Pixies’ 1988 debut album set the template for a number of indie-rock staples in the next decade: the quiet-loud-quiet dynamic favored by moody guitar-wielding bands, the boy-girl thing, Steve Albini’s style of press-record “production.” But more than any of that, ‘Surfer Rosa’ is stuffed with great songs that sound amazing blasting out of your speakers.
One of the most influential records ever made, ‘Unknown Pleasures’ sparked an entire genre with its post-punk shadings and gloomy hues. The 1979 album predates the college-rock era by a couple of years, but its influence still resonates, as does its history: Singer Ian Curtis killed himself at the band’s peak. The surviving members regrouped as New Order (see No. 10 on our list of the Top 10 College Rock Albums).
Nineteen-eighty-four was a good year for ambitious two-LP epics from American punk bands. Like Minutemen’s ‘Double Nickels on the Dime’ (see No. 7 on our list of the Top 10 College Rock Albums), ‘Zen Arcade’ — by another trio, this one from frosty Minneapolis — scanned America’s wasteland for a biting commentary on social and political injustice.
‘Let It Be’
After two albums and one EP filled with barely two-minute songs like ‘More Cigarettes’ and ‘F–k School,’ the Replacements got serious in 1984 — well, as serious as these perennial screw-ups could be. For the first time, frontman Paul Westerberg let down his guard, allowing the pop music he cherished to find its way into his own increasingly melodic songs. There’s still some blistering punk here (‘Gary’s Got a Boner,’ anyone?), but ‘Let It Be’ doesn’t play dumb.
Of course Sonic Youth’s sprawling 1988 masterpiece is messy and unstructured. They designed it that way. But it’s also a pivotal record in ’80s college rock — the moment where art-rock gave way to noise and chaos and somehow it all made sense. ‘Daydream Nation’ is the sound of a band operating at the height of its collective powers.
Before ‘Murmur,’ college-rock radio was made up of commercial-FM outcasts forced left of the dial thanks to tightening airplay restrictions. R.E.M.’s 1983 debut album unified a movement. It was part punk, part post-punk, part New Wave and a watershed moment for music fans seeking something a little more adventurous. By the end of the decade R.E.M. would be inside the corporate machine. But for most of the ’80s, they were college-rock kings. Their reign begins here.