Alternative rock of the 1980s was such a large and diverse scene that any box set documenting the genre is bound to be the cause of debate as to what is and isn't included, even a four-CD, 82-track production such as this one. Despite the inevitable exclusions, Left of the Dial: Dispatches from the '80s Underground does a decent job of collecting representative cuts from all spectrums of the style, even if it does tilt toward the more mainstream of such acts. Of course, artists like R.E.M., the Cure, Aztec Camera, the Pretenders, Ultravox, Lone Justice, the Smithereens, Concrete Blonde, Echo & the Bunnymen, and the Church (all sampled on this box) were "mainstream" only by the standards of the more left-leaning college radio programmers; by the measurements of the actual mainstream, they were still pretty "alternative," even "underground" in some cases. And the set doesn't neglect the edgier side of '80s underground rock, with tracks by the Dead Kennedys, Minor Threat, Throbbing Gristle, the Minutemen, Black Flag, Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds, Gun Club, the Butthole Surfers, the Raincoats, and Beat Happening as well. Between the poles are numerous slices of music of different shades of anti-mainstreamdom, from the paisley underground (the Three O'Clock, the Rain Parade, the Dream Syndicate) and an iconoclastic singer/songwriter (Billy Bragg) to British guitar-grounded sounds (the Jesus and Mary Chain, the Stone Roses, XTC), goth (Sisters of Mercy, Bauhaus), folk-punk (the Violent Femmes), retro-garage (the Lyres), ska (the English Beat), and even punk novelty (the Dead Milkmen).
Naturally, there's room for argument about some of the choices: Prefab Sprout's alt-rock credentials are certainly specious, for instance, and the roll call of missing notables includes the Fall, Shonen Knife, the Chills, Romeo Void, the Television Personalities, the Wipers, the Mekons, and many others. There are few real surprises or underexposed gems: the Passions' 1981 single "I'm in Love With a German Film Star" is about the only item by a group that hasn't been canonized in the '80s alternative rock pantheon, though actually that song was a British hit. On the other hand, the astute and eclectic programming makes for a better listen than other attempts that have been made to compile '80s alternative rock. It's sort of like listening to an actual '80s college radio station, but one that's more listenable than any college radio stations actually were, both because of the catholic stylistic assortment and the selection of some of these artists' very best songs. If you did listen to this sort of music devotedly back in the '80s, in fact, much of this will be like revisiting familiar hits and standards, even if few of them actually made the charts as actual hits (and then usually in the U.K.): R.E.M.'s "Radio Free Europe," the Dead Kennedys' "Holiday in Cambodia," the Jesus and Mary Chain's "Just Like Honey," Joy Division's "Love Will Tear Us Apart," the Violent Femmes' "Blister in the Sun," XTC's "Senses Working Overtime," the Sugarcubes' "Birthday," Faith No More's "We Care a Lot," the Church's "Under the Milky Way," Siouxsie & the Banshees' "Christine," Gun Club's "Sex Beat," and Suicidal Tendencies' "Institutionalized," for instance, all fall into that category. And if you didn't experience the music directly during the era, this box set still gives you a pretty good idea of what was going on, and what paths to travel down for further investigation.