Music

The 50 Best Post-Punk Albums Ever: Part 1, Gang of Four to the Birthday Party

Photo: Courtesy of Scotty Murphy, PIL Twin Limited / PiL Official Ltd.

This week we are celebrating the best post-punk albums of all-time and we kick things off with Gang of Four, Public Image Ltd. Throbbing Gristle and more.

In the standard narratives delivered about the history of the last century of popular music, post-punk's influence is almost always drastically minimized, or worse, goes completely unrecognized. No other genre in the past four decades (including its namesake punk) has had such a profound and demonstrable effect on so many disparate musical styles and icons from the worlds of pop, R&B, electronic, hip-hop, metal, and, of course, rock, and yet the broad implications the movement had (and continues to have) for the wider music community are so often reduced to only a handful of recognizable names and ancillary cultural trends in most popular accounts.

Part of the problem is the dramatic fragmentation the underground rock community experienced during the genre's rise around the years 1977-1985, something that severely complicates the process of delineating post-punk's boundaries. Punk's revolutionary effects on the pragmatics of the music industry -- the popularization of independent recording, distribution, and marketing, a rejection of the bureaucratic institutionalization of the same, and a democratization of music-making to a degree unprecedented before the development of the internet -- were just as pivotal as its effects on popular songwriting and performance; the genre subsequently broke down the locked doors of the musical establishment that for so long kept amateur artists from pursuing their creative sensibilities, but in that change, caused the long-pervasive schisms between genres to all but dissolve.

In response to the factionalization of the early punk scenes, musicians around the world sought to eradicate the perceived barriers of creation that divided their art into an easily marketable product. They began taking from disco and R&B because rockists deemed it uncool; they began taking from dub, psych-rock, and German experimental music because those genres were at the forefront of sound design; they began exploring Dadaist, existentialist, and postmodernist themes because most rock and punk music hadn't been intellectually stimulating enough for their liking. After punk, popular music became something of a conglomeration of cultural thought from around the world.

"Post-punk", in the most general terms, has come to refer to the resulting boom of musical experimentation that developed out of this industry-wide sea change, but without any more definitive attributes, the term could just as easily apply to almost any working musical artist of the early '80s, from R.E.M. and U2 to Grace Jones and the Police to Flipper and the Minutemen. Perhaps the easiest way to understand post-punk, then, is both as a somewhat narrow genre classification as well as, from a historical perspective rather than an artistic one, an umbrella term under which fell anything that retained even the remotest connection to the subversive, anti-establishment ethos of punk music in the wake of its rapid commercialization: jangle pop, goth rock, new wave, synthpop, early electro, etc.

This particular list is intended as a primer for the more focused stylistic conception of the post-punk genre, but given the genre's breadth, lapses into its wider reaches are entirely unavoidable. To counteract this inevitability, albums usually characterized by more auxiliary subgenres such as new wave were chosen for this list based on whether they maintained a significant link to the standard set of codes usually associated with the more narrowly-defined definition of post-punk. This is why esteemed artists such as New Order, whose album Movement was their most historically "post-punk" recording but also widely regarded as their weakest of the period, do not appear on this list, and others like the Cure and Echo & the Bunnymen, who originated as "traditional" post-punk bands but eventually evolved to transcend the label, appear with records that aren't universally considered their in-their-prime masterpieces.

Another problem arises in strictly limiting the list to only studio albums. As with any genre, the full story of post-punk cannot be unmasked in such a restricted way. There are too many artists like Liquid Liquid, Mars, and the Normal, whose legacies exist only through singles, EPs, and posthumous compilations rather than conventional albums, or like Delta 5 and Bush Tetras, whose studio records are widely regarded as inferior products unrepresentative of their greater influence. Because of these limiting factors, an exercise like this is inherently flawed, but it does not mean it's entirely devoid of merit. After all, most of the history of post-punk only survives through these albums, some dug out of obscurity and reissued as recently as the last ten years, and even in today's age of exponentially increased cultural splintering, the album remains the quintessential conventional format to release popular music, even when the stories they tell are incomplete. We may no longer be able to see Joy Division or the Talking Heads perform first-hand, for example, but their legacies persist most concretely through their albums.

So it's with these considerations firmly in mind that I welcome you to explore 50 of the most brilliant, impactful, innovative, and controversial albums of the classic post-punk era, a collection the reverberations of which can be and will continue to be felt for generations.

50. Gang of Four - Solid Gold (1981)

In the time between the release of Gang of Four's epochal debut and their slightly more articulate and expansive sophomore outing Solid Gold, pretty much everything had changed -- and it only been two years.

Entertainment! was an unprecedented case of both boundary breaking and foundation setting at the very end of a decade that had been run over by hard rock machismo and dumb swagger; after the initial shock of the much needed post-punk revolution, there was no unringing the bell. For Gang of Four, who broke the all the rules and instituted a new order of countercultural music all with their first record, the future didn't seem quite as promising. It was unlikely that any band could hit such a high watermark more than once.

As such, Solid Gold has regrettably spent the last three-and-a-half decades living in the shadow of its predecessor, still largely considered one of the greatest albums of all time. It's doomed forever to be the obligatory second stop for anyone just discovering Gang of Four if they even manage to make it past the delicious grooves and flawless construction of Entertainment! But the album is worthy of so much more. Yes, it revisits the band's standard turf -- steady funk beats, angular guitar riffs, satirical examinations of modern consumerist malaise -- but it's a meticulous elaboration of those motifs that could only come from their originators. Gone was the tight control of songs like "Damaged Goods" and "Not Great Men" and in its place was the intricately layered instrumental spontaneity and contemplative exploration of "What We All Want" and "If I Could Keep It For Myself". Entertainment! is, of course, an absolute monument, but Solid Gold gave us songs that were darker, more complex and every bit as biting as anything from post-punk's classic years.

49 . The Durutti Column - The Return of the Durutti Column (1980)

To say that there was no other band like the Durutti Column in 1980 would be an understatement. Even after punk had pushed young creatives away from classic rock stylings and early post-punk broadened tastes and nurtured the independent logistics of music making, the band -- pretty much entirely the brainchild of guitarist Vini Reilly -- represented a new wave of sound that had no clear inspirations (or far too many) and that no one else participated in. Whatever roots Reilly's music had in punk were impossibly obscured; nothing was more antagonistic to the tenets of that movement than moody, indulgent instrumentals with noodling guitars, drenched in romantic chorus and reverb, stretched over intricate chord changes, and that's all the Durutti Column was -- at least on the surface.

Even more interesting is that the Durutti Column, as peculiar as they were, still managed to become an essential part of the post-punk establishment, if such a thing existed. They were signed to Factory Records, the genre's home base, and had Joy Division producer Martin Hannett look after their 1980 debut. It speaks to the nature of the period that such an outwardly bizarre band with what might be described as a radically un-hip sound could be institutionally authorized to such a remarkable degree.

To compensate for Reilly's nerdy, delicate subversion of punk's destructive essence, The Return of the Durutti Column was given a more crude and straightforward method of provocation as well: the first 2,000 LPs were packaged in sandpaper sleeves that would tear up any records stored beside it on the shelf. The Durutti Column was one of post-punk's more modestly challenging acts with a sound that today would be regarded as subdued, maybe even safe, but the low-key rebelliousness of The Return of the Durutti Column was entirely singular in its time, and yet still characteristic of the genre's nonconformist practices.

48. Au Pairs - Sense and Sensuality (1982)

If you're looking for powerful voices in post-punk that never got their due, Au Pairs' Lesley Woods has to be near the top of the list. Her measured, operatic howl is nothing less than the band's key distinguishing feature, but on their second and final record Sense and Sensuality especially, Woods showed her versatility with the band as they sailed from stylistic archetype to stylistic archetype, from the disco-informed dance-punk of "Instant Touch" to the cabaret swing of "Tongue in Cheek" to "That's When It's Worth It", a song that took several elements of popular post-punk -- looping auxiliary percussion rhythms, a sporadically used horn section, a simple and purposeful hook -- and crafted a wild sound that was equal parts dance, psychedelia, punk, and art pop.

But if Woods' voice was Au Pairs' unique musical element, their distinctly punk take on sex and gender politics was their strongest thematic strain, and that's truly where Sense and Sensuality shined. "Would you like to express your sex without stress? / Would you like to discover physical conversations of a different kind?" Woods croons on the album's second song, hearkening to the sexually-liberated reality of the early punk scenes while at the same time biting back at the misogynistic macho myths that said men could flaunt their sexual exploits while women had to suppress theirs, normalizing the idea of sex for the repressed youth of the conservative '80s. Post-punk quickly became a haven for feminist musical pursuits, but only Au Pairs offered blunt gender analysis in such a ferociously upbeat way.

47. Adam and the Ants - Kings of the Wild Frontier (1980)

Though frequently understood as a purely serious endeavor, post-punk was essential in bringing pop kitsch into hitherto "distinguished" and "dignified" cultural spaces as a part of their Dadaist mission to dismantle the established rock legitimacy of the time. The bright and colorful new wave would become the most widespread example of this irreverence, in which Adam Ant played a crucial early role.

After the Ants' more typical post-punk flavored debut -- and following former Sex Pistols manager Malcolm McLaren's cheeky hijacking of the band's backing performers to form Bow Wow Wow -- Adam Ant went headlong into the weightless frivolity of new wave pop with Kings of the Wild Frontier. Familiar elements occur in new patterns on the record: searing, anemic guitars are used as texture rather than as a basic foundation, Ant's classic punk voice is wrapped around light melodies with abandon, and world rhythms (Ant initiated the Burundi beat craze before McLaren and Bow Wow Wow could lay claim to it) aim to reanimate the dance veins of post-punk in an offbeat way.

Adam and the Ants' music didn't age nearly as well as that of a lot of their contemporaries, but it's only because their anachronistic quirks were an essential part of their charm. Self-reflexive and playfully deprecating in a way few real punk bands were -- "Antmusic" and "Ants Invasion" are prime examples -- and willing to tap into "trashy" music for camp value in a way no humorless traditional rock bands were -- "Los Rancheros" adopted cliches of country-western, "Don't Be Square (Be There)" was at least part ironic disco pastiche, etc. -- Kings of the Wild Frontier remains a truly singular record, albeit one steeped in a distinctly '80s consciousness.

46. Tuxedomoon - Half-Mute (1980)

The post-punk era was brimming with half-baked experimental projects from art school drop-outs and pseudo-intellectual dilettantes who just discovered synthesizers, drum machines, and performance art, but very few of them were constructive in the way the movement called for. Tuxedomoon, though they came from a similar background, was of a different breed, far more focused and meaningful, but just as whimsical and exploratory, committed to innovating and building on the independent spirit of punk. Singer Steven Brown boils it down in one of Half-Mute's standout (and most conventional) tracks, "What Use?": "Give me new noise / Give me new affection / Strange new toys from another world / I need to see more than just three dimensions."

Tuxedomoon's debut is as free-spirited a pop record as you're likely to find from the era if it can even be called pop. The instrumental "Nazca" opens the record with funereal atmosphere, dark synths roiling under erratic bursts of discordant sax before leading into the downright goofy "59 to 1", in which spoken vocals bounce over a plucky bass guitar groove and a chintzy drum machine loop. Tuxedomoon's embrace of both catchy minimalist pop songwriting and experimental electronic lamentations served as a precursor to the eventual popularity of both mainstream synthpop and the New Romantic bands like ABC and Spandau Ballet, but they still maintained the credibility of post-punk sophistication and the artistic avant-garde in a way few others could.

45. Throbbing Gristle - 20 Jazz Funk Greats (1979)

Throbbing Gristle's third album is a manifestation of so much of the post-punk aesthetic -- most noticeably a ruthlessly flippant attitude toward the mainstream culture and conventions of the time, hence the provocatively misleading album title and cover -- that it may in fact be the defining artistic artifact of the movement for some.

20 Jazz Funk Greats reconfigures conventional musical forms of the '70s as elaborate industrial exotica, hemmed together with bouts of gravelly noise, heavy-handed drum machine loops, and inebriated improvisation. Over the course of the album, listeners are treated to perverted jazz pastiche in the form of the rubbery basslines and atmospheric vibraphone sounds of "Tanith" and "Exotica", subtle electro-funk in the form of synth-led jams like "Walkabout", and the demented mechanical grooves of "What a Day". The record clearly came from a steady legacy of prominent sonic experimenters: "Still Walking" sounds like what the Velvet Underground might have been if they formed 15 years later, playing with warped rhythms and digitized feedback rather than distorted, hazy-eyed melodies, while "Convincing People" is almost pure Can, and "Hot on the Heels of Love" inherits the extensive groundwork laid by Kraftwerk in establishing the early modes of electronic dance music through its four-on-the-floor kick and arpeggiated synths.

Released just before the avant-garde sect of post-punk would really come into it's own, 20 Jazz Funk Greats signalled the many disparate directions of the coming decades of postmodernist musical styles, from the industrial, drone, and noise music of the '80s and '90s to the avant-pop and post-rock of today.

44. Josef K - The Only Fun in Town (1981)

Like so many bands of the post-punk era, Josef K's influence far outweighs their output. The Only Fun in Town, the band's only album, was blistering post-punk at its most assailing and approachable, full of piercing guitars, intensified rock beats, and off-kilter melodies that would later inform groups from mid-'80s college rock all the way up to the modern garage rock revival. Whether or not they had ever been a household name, Josef K's genetic material certainly coursed through the last three decades of alternative music.

The Only Fun in Town was released on Scottish label Postcard Records, recognized for issuing Orange Juice, Go-Betweens, and Aztec Camera singles which brought lush pop hooks and an upbeat spirit to the dark spaces in which post-punk found itself following the rise and fall of Joy Division. Josef K were undoubtedly Postcard's most abrasive act, but that buoyant sensibility still influenced the band's meticulously constructed, surprisingly melodic work, particularly songs like "Sorry for Laughing" and "It's Kinda Funny".

Fearing that they had risked becoming too accessible, though, the band recoiled; in the spirit of the prevailing post-punk ethos of the time, The Only Fun in Town was mixed to be intentionally muddy -- specifically, singer Paul Haig's vocals were buried under jagged guitar phrases and an excessively energetic rhythm section -- because the band was unsatisfied with the polished sound of their first attempt to record an album, Sorry for Laughing. So many post-punk artists struggled to balance their intellectualism and independent methodology with their commercial ambitions and mainstream inspirations; The Only Fun in Town, beyond its colorful compositions, was also emblematic of that conflict.

43. Public Image Ltd. - First Issue (1978)

John Lydon's first record after forming Public Image Ltd. (just one year after his last record, Never Mind the Bollocks, Here's the Sex Pistols, introduced punk to the wider UK) was just as egregiously provocative as one would expect considering he just left the most controversial band of all time to pursue more personal musical interests, but First Issue went even further than Never Mind the Bollocks by abandoning all the commercial pretenses that punk had already begun adopting to better serve his artistic message in all its dubious nakedness. "Religion II", for example, was so flagrantly offensive and disrespectful of its titular subject that Malcolm McLaren had advised the Pistols against playing it at all (hence its second life as a PiL song), while "Religion I" took away the music and left Lydon preaching his screed alone in spoken word, making the message even more stark. The Pistols were formed, in some ways, to serve commercial interests; Public Image Ltd., in contrast, was an outlet for all of Lydon's brazen vitriol, maximized and uncensored.

The music had already evolved well beyond the point of three- or four-chord progressions and dead-simple song structure, as well. "Theme" begins First Issue with a droning tempo, a thick, dub-inflected bassline courtesy of Jah Wobble (compare with the meager contributions Sid Vicious, more of a cosmetic figurehead than an actual bassist, gave the Sex Pistols), and Lydon's vague, hook-less screams for over nine minutes of sprawling, noisy chaos -- utterly unsellable in comparison to the Pistols' concise and catchy three-minute singles. Overall, PiL achieved the next evolution of the punk mentality by practicing what the movement constantly (and somewhat hollowly) preached: destruction of the precedented, and exploration of the unexplored. It was there that post-punk was truly born.

42. LiLiPUT - LiLiPUT (1982)

It took years for LiLiPUT to be recognized as an innovative force in post-punk, but listening to LiLiPUT, the first LP by this early Rough Trade act that most hear now as a part of the essential Kleenex/LiLiPUT compilation of their entire recorded output, it's hard to imagine why. They had all the dance-punk fury of Pylon and ESG ("Do You Mind My Dream", "Like It or Lump It"), the offbeat melodicism of the Raincoats ("Birdy"), the avant-garde aesthetics of This Heat and the Residents ("Umamm", "Tschik-Mo"), and their own strand of dreamy pop-rock ("Feels Like Snakes Twisting Through the Fog", "Might Is Right") that today is standard in the wheelhouse of indie bands like Warpaint, Beach House, and Chairlift. They could quite literally do it all. Plenty could account for the band's lack of recognition at the time -- a homebase in Switzerland rather than London or New York, frequent shifts in their lineup, an unplanned-for name change from Kleenex (for obvious reasons) -- but none of it today seems justified with such a dynamic record as LiLiPUT as counter-argument.

In some senses, the band may have been too adept at blending pop and avant-garde composition, landing them in the middle of two fairly distinct audiences. In "Ichor" and "Birdy", they grapple with anti-rock textures (what sounds like doom-heralding clarinet and the scratching of violin strings) over their more balanced post-punk sound; some of their songs featured German lyrics, others English; LiLiPUT itself vacillated between styles more frequently than nearly any of their contemporaries. When we talk about post-punk bands who were ahead of their time, LiLiPUT (and any other band who took decades to find their biggest audience) stand as a great example of the genre's futurist perspective.

41. The Birthday Party - Prayers on Fire (1981)

Of all the artists to survive well beyond post-punk's classic era, Nick Cave is probably the one who maintained the genre's essence for longest. Listening to Prayers on Fire, the second album from his first band the Birthday Party, one encounters many of the same mannerisms and flourishes Cave carried with him even into the 21st century, but ripened by its vicinity to the flourishing dark energy of post-punk's artistic peak and emphasized by the raw ferocity the band was known for in their live performances (a reputation that would be further cultivated with Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds).

Unlike Cave's future work, which would look beyond the insular post-punk movement to the grim boundaries of blues and rock, the Birthday Party was grounded in the culture of its time. Stylistically, Prayers on Fire was a blend of sinister proto-goth and the unhinged, tribal funk of the Pop Group and Public Image Ltd's most chaotic tracks, occasionally punctuated with ornamentation from a brass section that served both the band's carnivalesque atmosphere and the album's cabaret-lite aesthetic (something Cabaret Voltaire and Tuxedomoon, among others, were already orchestrating elsewhere in the community).

But what makes Prayers on Fire such a compelling listen today is that you can bear witness to the dawning of Cave's singular sense of style. In particular, you get to listen to him find his distinctive voice: on "Figure of Fun" he barks like Iggy Pop, on "Capers" and "Nick the Stripper" he dons a deep Tom Waits rasp, and on "Cry" he wails with the stamina and theatricality he's recognized for today. So not only is the record an impressively intense post-punk gem from start to finish, it's also the fascinating origin story of one of the world's most consistent and unique rock stars.

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