Before high school's freakiest and geekiest could proclaim themselves "alternative" and hear their favorite band on the radio, these outsiders needed to dig beyond mainstream broadcasting to find music that could truly speak to their black-sheep souls. In the '80s, these kids looked up to their older brethren in the college set as heroic musical tastemakers. Instead of tuning into Casey Kasem's American Top 40, they'd search the dial for a local college station (or for the lucky ones with cable, go to MTV's 120 Minutes) to find out what was bubbling up from the underground. By 1988, mainstream radio (and major labels) were catching on, and college-rock icons like R.E.M. and The Smiths were making it onto the Billboard charts.
So high school kids in the late '80s were experiencing an interesting convergence of the underground rocker with the superstar popper. Soon, the alternative bubble would burst, but at the time, college rock was still mostly an underdog's game, one that accepted myriad styles and sounds. The kids embraced independent labels like SST, Touch and Go, K, Factory, Rough Trade, and Dischord, and listened to everything from jangle pop to U.K. indie to post-punk to noise-rock to twee pop to post-hardcore to even a few established acts like U2.
Here, we celebrate the true cool kids of the mid-to-late '80s, those who were listening to stuff that would influence a whole new generation of left-of-the-dial pursuers. No cassette deck necessary.