The 50 Best Post-Punk Albums Ever: Part 3, Echo & the Bunnymen to Lizzy Mercier Descloux
This week we are celebrating the best post-punk albums of all-time and today we have part three with Echo & the Bunnymen, Cabaret Voltaire, Pere Ubu and more.
25. Cabaret Voltaire - Red Mecca (1981)
Not enough is said about the theatrical qualities of certain post-punk scenes. After all, many of the genre's most innovative acts were art school educated and invested in performance art as much as the music itself. Of course, part of the allure of performance, when not captured on video or another replicable media, is that it's fleeting; some of the artists, drawn to post-punk by its subversive energy and rebellious outlook, no doubt found that ephemerality exciting. For many of these acts, though, we only have the recorded music to judge them by, which explains why this key component of post-punk is so often undersold. The records abide, but certain performances have been passed down only in legend and, in rare cases, grainy low-resolution bootleg videos shared over YouTube. It hardly paints a complete picture.
Luckily for Cabaret Voltaire, their legacy would be secured even if all we had was Red Mecca. The band's third album is a cinematic masterpiece of industrialized post-punk that hit the sweet spot of experimentation. It was not as impenetrable as some of records from their contemporaries in the avant-garde (or indeed, at certain points of their tenure, Cabaret Voltaire themselves) but not generic enough to near predictability or mundanity. Even the 10-minute-long "A Thousand Ways", built off relentlessly repeated rhythms, is unprecedented enough to feel fresh far longer than most other bands could manage.
Even with the visual component of their performance missing, Cabaret Voltaire are still stunningly dramatic on Red Mecca. The band's take on the film score of an Orson Welles classic, "A Touch of Evil", bookends the front and back of the record, and it's a perfectly calibrated introduction to the menacing melodrama of the rest of the album. Yet for all its vaudeville theatricality, the band's vision is held together by post-punk staples: fat bass grooves, steady drum beats, and an apocalyptic enthusiasm.
24. Orange Juice - You Can't Hide Your Love Forever (1982)
Even with a reputation that spoke mostly to a dominant dark and serious sensibility, post-punk tapped into pop sound constantly, and no band commanded the brighter edge of the genre more than Orange Juice. Their debut album You Can't Hide Your Love Forever was wildly melodic but not quite new wave, romantic but severed from the New Romantics movement, jittery and guitar-focused but a lane or two away from jangle pop. It held a place of its own with a tone, if not an entire sound, that separated it from its contemporaries in every imaginable faction, bringing to underground music the sincerest elements of the mainstream more authentically than anyone around them could.
Orange Juice's penchant for catchy harmonies and tight structures was actually the gift of two distinct but well-matched songwriters who brought their own energies to the music. Songs like the solidly conceived "Falling and Laughing" and the rigidly danceable "Satellite City" and "Tender Object" came from Edwyn Collins, while those like the soaring "Felicity" and the jaggedly off-kilter "Three Cheers for Our Side" spawned from the more winding mind of James Kirk. Through Collins and Kirk, You Can't Hide Your Love Forever showed that classic songwriting had its uses in a post-punk climate dominated by both hyper-focused nuggets of anti-punk courtesy of bands like Wire and loose, demented jams in the rambling vein of Public Image Ltd. Orange Juice's early successes were due to that love of classic pop architecture that prevented them from going too far in dismantling their inspirations, and it's that devotion that resulted in one of the most sentimental and colorful of post-punk classics.
23. Killing Joke - Killing Joke (1980)
In 1980, when most ancillary modes of post-punk were still in a period of early gestation, Killing Joke were already commodifying the genre, accentuating its rock background for a more approachable take that was both hook-heavy and arena-ready. Though the band never really broke the seal of post-punk's commercial appeal and remained relatively unknown until future generations of rockstar devotees began to sing their first album's praises years later, they nonetheless laid the foundation for the future of the accessibility of funky, heavy punk music.
Their greatest contribution was updating the post-punk mandate, simplifying it in a way that maximized its potential for popular appeal. On Killing Joke, heavy metal guitars run through repeated riffs, the drums are driving but mostly static, and the vocals are draped in a thick fog of reverb that gives Jaz Coleman's hooks a sweeping theatricality that would become essential to rock in all forms for the entire decade. Killing Joke pushed post-punk ever closer toward the realm of popular music in a less garish way than new wave, synthpop, and bands like U2 (who came on the scene the same year with their debut, Boy).
To many in the contemporaneous post-punk audience, though, Killing Joke probably bordered on sacrilegious. It took the essence of the scene and paired it with the rock conventions the community was trying so hard to dismantle. The head-banging guitar riffs in "Primitive", "Tomorrow's World", and "The Wait", the massive chorus of "Requiem", and the heavy rock production all must have seemed philosophically tied to the rockist establishment. With modern ears, though, it sounds less like a cheap appropriation of the underground and more like a forward-thinking hybrid record -- the shape of post-punk-indebted rock to come -- and despite its sound having become almost like a factory pre-set for hard rock bands, Killing Joke is still a beast of its own.
22. Swell Maps - Jane from Occupied Europe (1980)
A lot of communities from the post-punk period would love to lay claim to the singular brilliance of Swell Maps, and rightfully so. Alt-rock and indie, experimental and avant-garde, noise and post-punk all coalesced into their amalgam of nearly incomprehensible cacophony appropriately representative of an era of cultural fragmentation. The truth is that Swell Maps spoke to so many different corners of the movement because they employed a million different aural textures to construct their music, and in that fractured state, offered a quintessential overview of the essence of punk music after punk proper had been buried. Swell Maps were all the wide expanses of the musical underground of the '80s melted down and crystallized.
Jane from Occupied Europe, their sophomore record, is the deranged bedlam of totally uncensored noise-rock indulgence, sounding, at its most melodic, comparable to something like an accelerated Pet Sounds played over an early Wire record, and, at its least accessible, like nothing at all. Layers of noise, source unknown, swallow melody and rhythm whole, with only hints of sax, organs, and amplifier feedback occasionally escaping from the all-but-tangible wall of sound. Even through all the racket, it's clear that some of the biggest and most influential bands from the forthcoming generations of alternative music -- Sonic Youth, Guided By Voices, My Bloody Valentine -- derived something vital from Jane from Occupied Europe's belligerent, disorienting treatment of rock conventions.
No wave and industrial had their hands in making noise rock a dignified artistic pursuit, but few bands beyond Swell Maps committed to the full-blown sensibility so quickly and so confidently. Jane from Occupied Europe was an early apex, and surely one of the most visceral punk experiences ever conceived.
21. Lizzy Mercier Descloux - Press Color (1979)
Though she remains relatively unknown on a mainstream scale, multi-talented French artist Lizzy Mercier Descloux deserves a place in whatever post-punk canon exists. She naturally worked herself into the American punk universe in the '70s through the New York scene where she met and collaborated with icons like Patti Smith and Richard Hell, and it's in that context that she gradually developed an appreciation for the city's sonic network that would have such an enormous impact on her own future music career.
Her solo debut Press Color showed an affinity for all the flavors of punk that New York offered, along with her own individual sensibility that burst through in her heavily-accented singing -- simultaneously manic and pixieish -- and her ear for demented harmonies and grooves. Even with an approach that was pure no wave -- detuned guitars, dance beats, frenzied, nonsense vocals, a simultaneously noisy and melodic take on musical minimalism -- Press Color came out as a frighteningly catchy, high-spirited listen that prioritized the sheer delirious joys of post-punk above all else. The album stole accessible elements from across the musical spectrum -- worldbeat, funk, reggae, even the Mission: Impossible theme song -- in what seemed like a quest to divorce the weirdo, subversive disco-tinged music of the time from all its intellectual pretenses and distractions and leave only a refined example of raw dance-punk. In that way, Press Color, even under the massive shadow of the scene which gave birth to it, is pure and elemental, and few of Descloux's contemporaries ever came close to her sense of deviant fun.