Goth means a lot of things these days, and can encompass everything from emo to EDM to straight-up pop to just someone who only wears black. But “classic goth,” as a genre, mostly refers to the dark strain of post-punk from the first half of the 1980s, pretty much starting with Bauhaus‘ debut single, “Bela Lugosi’s Dead” and ending around 1985 when London’s Batcave, run by Ollie Wilson of Specimen and regarded as the epicenter of the UK scene, closed its doors for good.
There were of course bands before that who dabbled in the dark arts (The Damned, The Cramps, Alice Cooper) and many of the artists from the scene achieved even bigger fame (The Cure, Siouxsie, Bauhaus’ Peter Murphy), not to mention groups from the rest of the world, but that fertile half decade gave the world so much of the music we associate with goth today. The genre has had its resurgences and subsects of fans ever since — from Nine Inch Nails and Marilyn Manson in the ’90s to Interpol, The Horrors, My Chemical Romance and more in the ’00s, to more recent artists like Chelsea Wolfe, Algiers, and Savages — but most of it you can sonically trace back to the ’80s.
With that in mind, here’s our list of 13 essential albums from the classic goth era. We kept things mainly to the 1980-1985 period, with a few notable exceptions. It was tough keeping things to a baker’s dozen, but it seemed like the right number. Light a candle and check out our list below.
CLASSIC GOTH’S 13 GREATEST HITS (ALBUMS)
13. Red Lorry Yellow Lorry – Talk About the Weather (1985, Red Rhino)
Like Sisters of Mercy, Red Lorry Yellow Lorry hailed from Leeds, England and, early on, cribbed from Joy Division, with singer/guitarist Chris Reed sounding eerily like Ian Curtis at times — though more often there was more ferocity than fragility in his growl. (Their records may beg otherwise but, for what it’s worth, the band say their primary influence was MC5.) By the time of their 1985 debut album, Talk About the Weather, the Lorries had figured out their own variant within the genre and had become good songwriters, too. A lot of RLYL’s best-ever songs are here, including the anthemic, Wire-eque “Hand on Heart” and the driving, danceable single “Hollow Eyes.” With a mix of rhythm boxes and live drums, the scrappy mid-’80s indie production on Talk About the Weather has held up remarkably well, with songs like the punky, rigid “Happy,” and the strutting title track which sounds rough, tough and dour, without ever laying it on too thick.
12, The Chameleons – Script of the Bridge (1983, Statik)
While generally not lumped in with the early-’80s goth scene — like Killing Joke they leaned more “post-punk” — Manchester’s The Chameleons have all the earmarks of the sound: Reg Smithies and Dave Fielding’s delay-soaked guitars, that could be both driving and dreamy, John Lever’s massive drums, and the foreboding bass and melodrama-drenched voice of frontman Mark Burgess. No matter what genre you put them in, their debut album, The Script of the Bridge, is fantastic. The Chameleons didn’t sing about vampires, but Burgess painted a paranoid world where the walls were constantly closing in and “I must’ve died a thousand times, feeling less than human in God’s eyes.” Burgess’ empathy, and Smithies and Fielding’s inventive, interwoven guitar playing, make Script of the Bridge a marvel still today.
11. The Cramps – Off the Bone (1983, Illegal)
Many groups projected a dark image, but The Cramps’ Lux Interior seemed like the kind of person you would not want to encounter in a dark alley, and his band’s music — bare bones rockabilly — was a party that always seemed seconds away from turning into a fight with broken liquor bottles, or perhaps the undead. It was mostly in good, campy fun, though, with Lux, guitarist Poison Ivy and the rest of the band (that included Kid “Congo” Powers for many years) spinning tales of the radioactive wasteland of the ’50s nuclear family, fueled by late night TV and b-grade monster movies. Off the Bone, a UK compilation of the band’s best stuff to date that was released while they were still in their early prime, has pretty much everything you need by The Cramps, including early classic “Human Fly,” the lusty horror of “Goo Goo Muck,” covers of “Fever” and “Surfin Bird,” and hedonist anthem “New Kind of Kick.” Bonus points: Off The Bone‘s amazing movie-poster-style cover art illustration is done in old-school 3-D, and original copies came with those red and green glasses needed to make it come alive.
10. Virgin Prunes – …If I Die, I Die (1982, Rough Trade)
Featuring not one, not two, but three very eccentric, flamboyant frontmen with voices to match — not to mention The Edge’s brother, Dik, on guitar — Dublin’s Virgin Prunes were genuine weirdos whose music was hard to pigeonhole but dipped often enough into the macabre to fit right in at the Batcave alongside Specimen and Sex Gang Children. Gavin Friday and Guggi were the main vocalists, sounding a bit like a new wave Smeagol and Gollum, with Dave-iD Busaras rounding out the trio of voices. (As teenagers, Friday and Guggi co founded an arty gang in Dublin called the Lypton Village with Bono; all members, like Dave-iD, were given new names that reflected their “true character.”) Live shows were theatrical and confrontational — to the point of getting them banned from a few clubs — and the Prunes were known for high-concept releases like their “A New Form of Beauty” series which laid out their M.O. that being different was beautiful. In that respect Virgin Prunes were very beautiful indeed, as is their 1982 debut which was produced by Wire’s Colin Newman. Ranging from mascara-smeared mutant disco (“Baby Turns Blue,” “Pagan Lovesong”), to pretty pop (“Ballad of the Man”) and creepy mood pieces (“Decline and Fall,” “Theme for a Thought”), If I Die, I Die is a terrific, one-of a kind record for those willing to take the leap.
9. Dead Can Dance – Spleen & Ideal (1985)
While Dead Can Dance’s music has become known for its sweeping, globe-trotting influences, the band began life in Australia as a more standard fare goth group, albeit one with two powerful singers: Lisa Gerrard, capable of vocal acrobatics and glossolalia (4AD’s Ivo Watts-Russell said she used her voice “like a weapon”); and Brendan Perry whose melodramatic baritone could give Scott Walker a run for his money. It’s what makes their 1984 self-titled debut gripping, even as they were still finding their sound (and dealing with hastily recorded, tinny production). It’s their next album, though, where Dead Can Dance blossom into the group we know today, one who sounds like it belongs in a 300-year-old cathedral and not a grimy rock club. In fact, Spleen & Ideal‘s opening three tracks sound like church (a very ancient, ornate one), but from there the album opens up wide, incorporating ’60s and ’70s soundtrack music, grandiose strings (that furthered comparisons to Walker), and baroque arrangements and influences from around the world. You can still hear their post-punk origins in songs like “Advent” and “Avatar,” but Dead Can Dance were now writing the kind of grandiose compositions other groups used as walk-on music.
8. This Mortal Coil – It’ll End in Tears (1984)
This Mortal Coil was the passion project of Ivo Watts-Russell, the founder of 4AD Records, where, with help from studio wiz John Fryer, he could take some of his favorite songs and turn them into spare, lush midnight music. Ivo couldn’t play an instrument, but he knew what he wanted things to sound like. “It worked between us because we were both depressed motherfuckers at the time,” said Fryer in 4AD biography Facing the Other Way. “He trusted me in the studio.” TMC’s first single remains their defining moment, an unforgettable cover of Tim Buckley’s “Song to the Siren” featuring Cocteau Twins’ Elizabeth Fraser and Robin Guthrie. To follow it up, Ivo called on most of his label’s roster, including members of Dead Can Dance, The Wolfgang Press, Xmal Deutschland, and more. The result was It’ll End in Tears, which blends Ivo’s ear for covers with evocative nighttime instrumentals. “Song to the Siren” is here and Fraser also sings lead on a string quartet version of Roy Harper’s “Another Day.” There’s also two knockout Big Star covers: ” Kangaroo,” featuring Magazine’s Howard Devoto (and an incredible arrangement by Cocteau Twins’ Simon Raymonde), and “Holocaust” sung by Cindytalk’s Gordon Sharp. The album also features 4AD’s other most famous voice, Dead Can Dance’s Lisa Gerrard, who sings on three songs. A rocking cover of Colin Newman’s “Not Me” breaks the mood a little, but It’ll End in Tears is still prime comedown music for those who like it dark.
7. Cocteau Twins – Treasure (4AD, 1984)
When Cocteau Twins released their 1982 debut album, Garlands, there were flashes of the ethereal band they would become, but at that point they were basically better-than-most Banshees clones with a talented guitarist and promising lead singer. They improved by leaps and bounds on 1983’s Head Over Heels, with Elizabeth Fraser flexing her vocal muscles and Robin Guthrie spinning delicate webs of guitar on “Sugar Hiccup.” But it was Treasure, their first album as a trio with multi instrumentalist Simon Raymonde, where Cocteau Twins became the otherworldly group fans obsess over still. A truly gorgeous album, Treasure sounded like nothing else at the time, with Fraser’s multi-octave range spiraling skyward, intertwined with Guthrie’s celestial fretwork. Brian Eno was actually approached to produce but — according to 4AD’s Ivo Watts-Russell — told the band, “I’m really flattered that you’ve asked, but I’d never have had the courage to use the size of reverb that you used on Head Over Heels!” and suggested they do it themselves. Which they did with fantastic results. Though their sound had mutated, Cocteau Twins were also still very, very goth, from the mix of synthy chimes and swirling acoustics of “Ivo” to the ornate melodrama of “Beatrix,” the crashing, thunderous drum machines and jagged guitar and slithering bass of “Persephone” and “Cicely,” and the choral ice palace of “Donimo.” You also cannot discount the visual aspect of the Cocteaus, from Vaughn Oliver’s iconic Treasure artwork (which adorned the walls of many a teenage goth’s bedroom in the ’80s), to their coifs that were as meticulously crafted as their music. Treasure is as much a world of lace and candles as Stevie Nicks was inhabiting at the time, just not one where Tom Petty might show up.
6. Bauhaus – Mask (1981, Beggars Banquet)
In many ways, it’s hard to get much more goth than Bauhaus, a four-piece from Northampton, UK whose introduction to the world was a 10-minute creep-out named after the actor who played Dracula that featured skeleton-like frontman Peter Murphy bellowing “Undead! Undead! Undead! Undead!” Bauhaus were a very talented band that pulled from a variety of sources, from glam (they all loved Bowie) to dub reggae, disco, and the many groups who’d just sprung up in the nascent post-punk scene. Though people at the time mostly focused on Murphy’s “dark lord” presence, Bauhaus also featured the songwriting talents of bassist David J and guitarist/saxophonist Daniel Ash, while David’s brother, Kevin Haskins, was a subtle beast behind the drumkit. Having left 4AD after their striking 1980 debut, In the Flat Field, Bauhaus released their second album, Mask, in 1981 via Beggars Banquet. While it may not contain anything as iconic as “Bela Lugosi’s Dead” or “Dark Entries,” Mask is an improvement over In the Flat Field across-the-board, with better songs, better production and arrangements, and more varied material. The album rips open with the pounding, urgent “Hair of the Dog” and songs like the breathless “Passion of Lovers,” funky “Kick in the Eye” and skronky disco number “In Fear of Fear” are classics, as are the ferocious “Dancing” and “The Man with X-Ray Eyes.” Mask‘s greatest quality may be that, as heavy as it can be, it’s also fun, with welcome flashes of wry humor (mostly from David J) — a quality that most of their dead-serious contemporaries lacked.
5. Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds – Tender Prey (Mute, 1988)
“Unfortunately all the worst sides of my output in my creative life seem to have been adopted by people as the most influential ones,” Nick Cave told NME writer Jack Barron back in 1988, shortly before the release of Tender Prey, speaking of his influence on the goth rock scene. “I’d hate to go down in history as the No 1 goth, the man who spawned a thousand goth bands with stacked hairstyles, no personality, pale sick people.” As far as pale sick people went, Cave’s late-’70s/early-’80s band The Birthday Party were arguably the sickest of them all (and plenty pale even without corpse paint), bringing a genuine intensity — and palpable threat of violence — to their live shows and, to a lesser extent, their records. Going solo with the Bad Seeds, Cave dialed back the fury and noise, opting instead for a more suave and sophisticated musical approach while still exploring his favorite themes — love, sex, death, religion — with the fire and brimstone fervor of a man on the brink. With a Murderers’ Row lineup of the Bad Seeds, including Kid “Congo” Powers, Einstersturzende Neubauten’s Blixa Bargeld, Mick Harvey, Roland Wolf, and Thomas Wylder, Cave delivered his greatest record to date. Tender Prey opens with “The Mercy Seat,” which remains one of The Bad Seeds’ signature songs, sung from the point of view of a man awaiting execution on the electric chair, and is as riveting as it gets. And the album keeps delivering, be it groovy garage rock rock (“Oh Deanna”), lush ’60s orch pop (“Slowly Goes the Night”), or spaghetti western ballads (“Mercy”). Death was at the heart of nearly every song, and with Cave’s distinctive baritone wail, Tender Prey is as gothic as it gets, even if in his case, the bats had long left the belfry.
4. The Cure – Faith (1981)
Picking one album by The Cure for this list is difficult, as there are at least three from the ’80s that are contenders. If you want them wallowing in despair, it’s Pornography. If you still want them wallowing but with lots of hits, it’s Disintegration. But 1981’s Faith is where Robert Smith fully embraced the moping as a stylistic choice, while still retaining a little spring in his step — and the more minimal sound — that they sported on their first two albums. Things might’ve turned out differently, though. “The initial demos that we did in my mom and dad’s dining room are really quite upbeat,” Robert Smith told Rolling Stone. But then, the whole band had a close death in the family. “Within about two weeks, the whole mood of the band had completely changed. I wrote ‘The Funeral Party’ and ‘All Cats Are Grey” in one night, and that really set the tone for the album.” Memorable, drowned basslines lead more songs than not (see “Other Voices,” “Holy Hour,” the title track) and work in tandem with tom-heavy drum patterns. Guitars spin delicate threadwork, glacial synthesizers spread permafrost, and brittle echo covers everything. Despite a couple relatively upbeat tracks, Robert Smith seems resigned to his mood, as is evident just from song titles like “The Funeral Party,” “The Drowning Man” and, what’s one of the best, most Cure-like titles ever, “All Cats Are Grey.” Faith is a mood, but Smith and company haven’t completely shut all the curtains just yet.
3. Joy Division – Closer (1980)
So much of what we know as classic “goth” was born out of Joy Division’s sound that it’s both difficult to overestimate the band’s significance and, for some, to understand their significance, as Ian Curtis’ tortured vocals, Peter Hook’s basslines, Stephen Morris’ tom-heavy drumming and Bernard Sumner’s wiry guitars have been imitated endlessly since. (See nearly every band on this list in some way or another.) But where some of the other artists to follow in their footsteps appropriated their style because they liked the way it sounded and looked, Joy Division were the real deal. Closer was the group’s defining, final statement, released two months after the suicide of Curtis. (The cover art, featuring a tombstone from an Italian cemetery, was in production before his death.) “This is the way, step inside,” our guide Curtis sings on the album’s opening song, “Atrocity Exhibition,” letting us into a dark world that is all rolling drums, moody bass, and guitars that sound nearly as industrial as the factory machines producer Martin Hannett mixed in. That tone stayed throughout the album: “Isolation,” with its icy synthesizers and rapid-fire bass; the metallic, heavy “Colony”; the death disco of “A Means to An End”; the sleek, sexy “Heart and Soul”; and the somber closing tracks “The Eternal” and “Decades.” The mood is bleak and unrelenting, though Martin Hannett may have hit on the best description, at least for this list’s purposes: “dancing music with Gothic overtones.”
2. Siouxsie & The Banshees – Juju (1981, Polydor/PVC)
Siouxsie & The Banshees’ 1980 album, Kaleidoscope, was their first to feature both drummer Budgie and former Magazine guitarist John McGeoch, but it was their next album that took full advantage of the new lineup’s alchemy. Spinning off the highs of Kaleidoscope singles “Happy House” and “Christine” (and 1980 standalone single “Israel”), the Banshees pushed the highs even higher for what is their best album, mixing dark, mysterious world influences into their signature sound that has proved highly influential on countless bands, whether the Banshees liked it or not. McGeoch, whose inventive playing is across-the-board fantastic here, was quoted in the liner notes for the 2006 reissue of Juju that it was “simply not true” that the Banshees were goth. “It simplifies things too much to give it a label like that. We were more thriller than horror movie, more Hitchcockian blood-dripping-on-a-daisy than putting fangs in something.” The band protest too much, especially on a record involving voodoo, witches and a song titled “Halloween,” not to mention the general creepy atmosphere of inky classics like “Spellbound,” “Arabian Nights,” “Night Shift,” and Siouxsie’s next-level vocal performance on “Head Cut.” But like most great albums, Juju transcends genre, even if its sound was mimicked by dozens of inferior bands.
1. Sisters of Mercy – Floodland (1987, Merciful Release/Elektra)
If Joy Division unwittingly helped create goth, and the closing of Batcave signaled the end, then Sisters of Mercy welded the lid shut with the over-the-top late-’80s widescreen glory that is 1987’s Floodland. When members Wayne Hussey and Craig Adams left the group to form The Mission (UK), Andrew Eldritch and erstwhile drum machine Doktor Avalanche initially renamed themselves Sisterhood but soon refashioned Sisters of Mercy with former Bags/Gun Club bassist Patricia Morrison to make their defining statement. (Morrison, who would later join The Damned, doesn’t actually play on the album, but her face looks out across the water on the album cover, and her style added much to the videos from this record.) At the center of the album is the truly epic “This Corrosion” which was produced by Jim Steinman — who wrote and produced Meatloaf’s Bat Out of Hell albums (and “Total Eclipse of the Heart” and more) — which is so ridiculous (the 40-piece choir) it tips fully into genius. It’s not even the best song; that would be “Lucretia My Reflection” with its killer bassline, ferociously whispered vocals and mix of power chords, synths and thundering drums. There’s also opener “Dominion” / “Mother Russia,” the crawling, synthy “Flood 1,” the windswept acoustics of “Flood II,” and sullen torch song “1959.” In a genre that is rarely subtle, Eldritch swings for the fences and connects right down the clever/stupid line for a home run. Turn it up loud, let the Floodland wash over you and sing “This Corrosion” with him.
Clearly, there’s a lot of things that almost made the cut, and groups who had great songs but maybe not great albums. With that in mind we made a list of 13 great classic ’80s goth songs by artists not on this list.