When we objectively look at the 80s, any contribution the decade gave to pop culture is open season for ridicule. Film’s auteurism was dead and buried; television was anchored by Bill Cosby; and the Billboard charts were, for the most part, soulless. In other words, high culture was in short supply.

Looking into the music realm, those who were looking for music holding any lasting value look to but a handful of places.

First up are those punk bands that made a lot of noise but never made it out of a dive bar in a rapidly deteriorating part of town. So as much as I like listening to bands like the Dead Kennedys or Minor Threat, their cottage industry of hocking any product they can find to rebellious teenagers looking to be in the minority at any cost doesn’t deserve a look today.

Second is usually The Smiths. This is usually because everyone thinks they can brood on the same savage level as Morrisey. And yet, many focus their attention on the melancholia they hear on a track like “How Soon is Now?” at the expense of the wit that came to the forefront with Morrisey’s solo career. The Smiths have also benefited from the release of last year’s (500) Days of Summer, so no one’s exactly expanding their horizons this time.

Contrary to popular belief, the world WILL listen

That said, Morrisey was not the only British songsmith of the 1980s. Believe it or not, a handful of guys actually did manage to release some worthwhile, enduring music in the same era as Bananarama and Kajagoogoo. For that, they’re worth a look for a generation beyond a handful of forty something’s.

1.) Paddy McAloon/ Prefab Sprout

Just take a guess at which one he is...

He expressed a desire to be “the Fred Astaire of words”. He tried writing with the wisdom of a middle-aged man in his early twenties. McAloon wrote, without parody, in the same depressing tone as Morrisey but made it his own with his band’s sound and old soul mentality. Prefab’s debut, 1984’s “Swoon”, had a little more jangle but nonetheless breezy arrangement and lyrics of love lost perfectly reflecting any jilted ex’s over-introspection.

1985’s “Steve McQueen” (alternately known as “Two Wheels Good”) retained the lyrical theme but reflected a band with more maturity and more to work with in the studio. The variety of sounds, from country to sweeping pop to a hint of Motown, reveals a fuller instrumentation that cemented The Sprouts as critical darlings and evade the “80s band” pigeonhole.

Prefab has continued up to the present day in some form or another, releasing a series of concept albums and adding to a legend that many more sit in the vault. Unfortunately, their biggest hit could be classified as stereotypically 80s: the embarrassing “The King of Rock n Roll” from 1988 features an interesting enough story but the tackiest music (and video) you could possibly imagine from that era. I mean, what the hell is this?!?

2.)Roddy Frame/ Aztec Camera

Not the most flattering image

Drawing on the Elvis Costello school of wordplay, Scot Roddy Frame’s intelligent, abstract lyrics arrived with his “band” (he had a Nine Inch Nails-style revolving door policy) Aztec Camera in 1983 with “High Land, Hard Rain”. Out of place for its time- the acoustic “Oblivious” was a whimper compared to hits like “1999” and “Union of the Snake”- references from John Keats to Hogmanay nonetheless made Frame a critical darling. And considering the circumstances, just missing the top 20 in England made Aztec Camera’s debut an unexpected success.

So what better way to follow up all that goodwill by conforming to the times and trying to produce straightforward pop albums? 1984’s “Knife”, produced by Dire Straits’ Mark Knopfler, is a far louder effort filled with the moody synthesizers and drum machines whose absence made Aztec Camera a breath of fresh air just a year prior. The album, on the whole, isn’t bad. In particular, “All I Need is Everything” is a fantastic halfway point that sounds like a more amped-up “High Land” track and “Birth of the True” should’ve been a B-side in 1983. But in pairing troubadour verses with pop melodies, something simply doesn’t click the way his rookie effort went.

Following 1987’s “Love”, where Frame forged ahead a further pop approach that works on an entirely disposable level, Aztec Camera finally got back to what made them a hit with 1990’s appropriately titled “Stray”. It isn’t a quiet rocker altogether, as Frame’s pop period rears its head at some points. It’s when that’s discarded and Frame simply picks up his guitar again that the record clicks. “The Crying Scene” is the closest Frame ever got to recording a straightforward rock song, and “Good Morning Britain”- a duet with Mick Jones from The Clash (!)- brings back Frame’s rousing folk roots. In many ways “Stray” is Frame’s mature effort, taking the good and not-so-good of what he learned and putting out an album that satisfied on all sides.

3.) Lloyd Cole/ Lloyd Cole and the Commotions

Easily the most Americanized artist of the three, Lloyd Cole of Buxton, England arrived in 1984 with a lonesome-heart voice and simple sound that could almost be termed alt-country had that genre been coined at the time. With his band The Commotions, freshman effort “Rattlesnakes” is, like “High Land, Hard Rain”, an album so fantastic it simply set the bar too high.

Anchored by singles “Perfect Skin”, “Forest Fire” and “Are You Ready to be Heartbroken”, Cole had the jangle sounds inspired by The Smiths but coupled with poetic imagery and pop culture references that make each track an event. Cole is plenty preoccupied with Americana, name-dropping Norman Mailer and the chorus of “Rattlesnakes” where he actually sings “She looks like Eve Marie Saint in On the Waterfront”. It’s silly read, but so damn good heard. “Rattlesnakes” is truly a lost classic, largely forgotten in nostalgic circles. Probably because the music is so timeless it can’t really be thought of as “80s music”.

Of course, Cole was not immune to following trends like the other two on this list. 1985’s “Easy Pieces” adopts a pop surface and tones down on mentioning films and books, but Cole could still allow his uniqueness to shine through. It has its imperfections of course, as “Brand New Friend” lets Cole wax philosophical, but overall is simply a bland mid-80s track. But with songs like “Cut Me Down” and “Perfect Blue”, beautifully depressing and penned by Cole at his most poignant, the album is still a more-than-worthy release.

(Note: This BBC-produced cut and the album cut vary slightly. Both, however, are clutch performers.)

1987’s “Mainstream” brings an unfortunate end to The Commotions. Cole established himself enough to have commercial hits like “Jennifer He Said” and “My Bag”, both of which are trying to get back to “Rattlesnakes” acoustics and decent enough to listen to. Unfortunately, the notes and introspection are more of the same following two great efforts, and alas little more than mediocre in the overall catalog.

Marc