Essential New Music: Various Artists “Left Of The Dial: Dispatches From The ’80s Underground”

This four-CD boxed set can’t and won’t do anything lofty like write the definitive history of a bountiful musical decade, nor will it become some sort of mythical portal into the ’80s. (Leave that to the films of John Hughes.) Which isn’t to say this well-researched and lovingly compiled collection doesn’t aim high or true, just that the likely target listeners—those who favored college radio over Winger during the Reagan era—will probably use the 82-song Left Of The Dial more as a trip down memory lane than as a textbook. That it has potential to be both makes it a success.

Virtually every expected ’80s post-punk/alterna-rock/underground name shows up on this boxed set, each sporting a relatively obvious song choice: the Smiths (“This Charming Man”), Violent Femmes (“Blister In The Sun”), Pixies (“Monkey Gone To Heaven”), Joy Division (“Love Will Tear Us Apart”), R.E.M. (“Radio Free Europe”). These familiar—and rightfully canonized— songs act as a comely hook to experience some of the read-about-more-than-they’re-heard bands of the decade, from the Minutemen (whose “Political Song For Michael Jackson To Sing” still seems oddly revolutionary) to X (“Johny Hit And Run Paulene” is from Los Angeles, the band’s unforgettable debut). The Replacements’ Let It Be (“I Will Dare” is featured here) will never move enough units.

Left Of The Dial also sports a number of tracks clearly inspired more by fuzzy nostalgia than objective importance. What other reason could there be to include Lone Justice, Green On Red or the Smithereens? And since we’re asking the tough questions: Where’s Elvis Costello, Spacemen 3, the Fall, Mekons, Flaming Lips, Yo La Tengo, Galaxie 500, Wire, 10,000 Maniacs and Soul Asylum?

But as Bad Brains’ “Pay To Cum!” bumps up against the Sugarcubes’ “Birthday,” you have to wonder what, aside from the obvious timeframe, ties the often insanely disparate bunch together. From They Might Be Giants’ stiffly beautiful “Ana Ng” to the Stone Roses’ nearly perfect “She Bangs The Drums” to the Pogues’ “A Pair Of Brown Eyes,” what unites these moments—with a few obvious exceptions for out-and-out experimentalism—are their contributions to the parameters of the pop song.

If ’70s punk set fire to the guidebook, those who came after salvaged what they liked and wrote new definitions over scorched pages. Non-mainstream rock splintered and spiraled in a dozen compelling directions, instigating a creative boom whose aftershocks still rumble and whose epicenter deserves the kind of revisit Left Of The Dial does its best to inspire.

—Josh Modell