Music

The 50 Best Post-Punk Albums Ever: Part 5, Joy Division to Gang of Four

Gang of Four / Photo: Tom Sheehan

This week we are celebrating the best post-punk albums of all-time and today we conclude with part five featuring Joy Division, Gang of Four, Talking Heads and more.

10. Joy Division - Unknown Pleasures (1979)

Indisputably one of the most recognized post-punk albums on a global scale, Unknown Pleasures has a legacy a thousand times larger than its sound.

In many ways, the young and vulnerable Joy Division became the unwitting pillars of the movement following the release of their debut, tapping into a very specific energy at the right time and garnering a remarkable level of acclaim that even their significantly more prolific and seasoned contemporaries never attained over time. But despite its enormous reputation, Unknown Pleasures is primarily an intimate, fragile, crude record, and with flawed performances and a patchy mix, it's hardly the perfect collection it's often held up to be. At the same time, Joy Division's tormented sound was essential to their success, and it's that unrefined, unpredictable edge that made them such an eminent presence in the post-punk community.

Under its coarse exterior, Unknown Pleasures was constructed from robust, inventive building blocks. Bernard Sumner's guitarwork was stark and elemental, and the band's rhythm section was one of the most distinctive in the genre, pairing Peter Hook's melodic basslines with Stephen Morris's reliably static drum beats. More than anything though, it was Ian Curtis's tortured, imperfect vocals that made Unknown Pleasures the heart of post-punk's dark essence.

Joy Division's second and final album Closer and their legendary non-album singles may have been more mature and concise, but Unknown Pleasures was a creative force of near unprecedented degree upon release, a sonic boom that sent shockwaves across the world over the next three decades of global culture at least. Goth, college rock, grunge, '90s alternative, and modern independent rock took so much from the record since 1979, but because none of them properly emulated the band's unique nuance and raw intensity, Unknown Pleasures remains a surprisingly singular work, and a truly definitive one for post-punk.


9. Television - Marquee Moon (1977)

Television's epochal Marquee Moon has a reach so broad and pervasive that compelling arguments could be made for whether it belongs more to the designation of punk, post-punk, or, given the band's long legacy before the release of their debut album in 1977, proto-punk, but given the extensive influence of its individualistic bent and one-of-a-kind style on the artists immediately following the rise of punk, it's a necessary inclusion in any narrative about post-punk.

Most discussions of Marquee Moon rightfully center on the relationship between Tom Verlaine and Richard Lloyd's complementary guitarwork that intentionally transcended the simplistic framework of most punk instrumentation, but this it was especially relevant for inspiring so much of the more sonically exploratory and elaborate technicality of the post-punk movement. The frictionless harmonies developed in "See No Evil" and "Marquee Moon", to name a couple songs, are legendary specifically because they can still be heard everywhere today. The exchanges between the guitars in Television were clean, subtle, and precise, but indeed groundbreaking.

But even for as innovative as the band's duelling guitar setup was, there was far more to Marquee Moon that spoke to the hearts and minds of the future stars of alternative rock. The album's long, winding builds spit directly in the face of punk's pared down aesthetic; its intricate melodicism introduced more complexity to the rock genre's pop craft; its understated sensibility ran in conflict with the brash confidence of '70s hard rock and the brutal antagonism of punk. Through the '80s, all artists even tangentially tied to the punk scene had something to learn from Television, and all other musicians for long after that.


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8. Wire - Pink Flag (1977)

The subtle differences between Wire's music on Pink Flag and what was going on in the punk community around them helped separate the more inventive class of early post-punk from the more conventional punk grit that seemed to die off sooner. Wire immediately situated themselves apart from the brash and domineering punk scene, but their ethos of simplified, minimalist rock 'n' roll put them in the same general category at the same time. The result was punk-esque, but constructive rather than purely destructive, progressive rather than regressive.

Pink Flag is an immense 21 tracks long, but very few of them are longer than three minutes. The band's utilitarian brevity mixed with their power-chord-heavy guitar lines and shouted vocals held them in the radius of the punk movement, but it was clear their unusual songwriting approach kept them at arm's length. Often cutting down their songs to just a verse and a hook, Wire were remarkably adept at making earworm songs with absolutely no fat; pre-empting hardcore bands like Minor Threat by quite a few years, the 28-second "Field Day for the Sundays" is simple yet immediately infectious, while longer songs like "Ex Lion Tamer" use every moment to their advantage, trading between rigid verses and melodic, chiming choruses with little in the way of transition. One of Wire's greatest quirks, and one which pushed them further away from generic UK punk, was their love of silence; the intervals between verses and the choppy guitar pattern in "Three Girl Rhumba" were both utterly unique in a scene of relentless, speedy riffage. Even in Wire's seemingly basic chord progressions there was more harmonic interplay and texture. An affront to the reckless belligerence of punk, Wire weren't afraid to slow down, contemplate, and craft. Pink Flag was punk, certainly, and even rudimentary at times, but it spoke to something more dynamic and determined than many punks ever envisioned.


7. Suicide - Suicide (1977)

In contrast with many other American bands from the early punk period who became instantly legendary through nationwide buzz, acclaim, and legions of lesser imitators, it isn't hard to imagine just how novel Suicide's redefinition of rock music was because their first record still sounds entirely original. The inimitable nature of Suicide meant its success was a slow burn, and only over time were we able to look back and account for just how prototypical it was for post-punk, electronic, and alternative rock music. It's marriage of styles was unprecedented, even future-proof, but definitely ahead of its time. Alan Vega's swaggering vocals were reminiscent of Iggy Pop and other rock and proto-punk mammoths, but the music behind his voice was unlike anything else in the New York or Midwest scenes. Martin Rev's looping compositions used driving drum machines, droning, overdriven keyboards, and effects manipulation to provide sideways movement to the propulsive currents he established, combining for some weird approximation of the conventional rock sound manifested through gritty electronics and obfuscating effects.

Over time, generations of musicians who grew up on rock music but were wary of its stagnation looked to Suicide as inspiration that there was still unexplored territory to discover, including those on the soon-to-materialize post-punk fringe. The idea that rock 'n' roll still had some movement left -- and far more than anyone else seemed to realize -- introduced truly radical thinking into the cultural ecosystem, and as independent recording became more and more viable, creative output grew exponentially more diverse. For the seven or eight years following the release of Suicide's debut, artists would continue to build on Vega and Rev's work in blending rattling electronic sonics with more generic rock and pop philosophy, thereby advancing the medium far beyond the constraints people had experienced in the preceding years. It took a uniquely powerful record to upend such restricted thinking.


6. The Raincoats - The Raincoats (1979)

Punk eliminated musical experience as a prerequisite for success as a musical artist, but it was a handful of bands in the post-punk community that took such inexperience to its logical conclusion, making detuned guitars, untrained singing, and senseless construction virtues worthy of flaunting rather than concealing. With the Raincoats, amateurishness was indeed the basis of their singular sound, and yet their ability to craft complete, artistically complex songs rivalled that of alternative rock bands who followed in their wake, even with a musical perspective some would characterize as classically limited. The Raincoats, their first album, introduced a band that was perhaps musically illiterate, but instinctually very in-tune with the artistry of the age as a whole.

If the album lacked technical polish, it made up for it in sheer charisma. The record could be discordant, even abrasive, which added another layer of obfuscation to what was ostensibly a bright-eyed, pop-leaning intention on the part of the band. Nowhere was it more apparent than the album's original opening track, "No Side to Fall In", which married a harsh and scratchy violin riff to cheery, swooning vocal harmonies. Notably, the band, like several post-punk groups before and since, covered a rock standard in the Kinks' "Lola", lending a jittery and nervous pulse to the original through hollow tom-tom rhythms and anemic but oddly warm guitars. The Raincoats could devise infectious and enchanting music seemingly out of thin air.

Lo-fi sonics and the charms of idiosyncratic pop continued to trend up well into the '90s (assisted perhaps in part by Kurt Cobain's self-professed love of the Raincoats' debut), but it was the Raincoats who brought the aesthetic alive early in post-punk's lifespan, well before Half Japanese or Beat Happening took control. Through the Raincoats, people learned to alter their definition of music to encompass more perspectives and broader ideals -- an inclusiveness on which the post-punk community thrived.

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