Music

The 50 Best Post-Punk Albums Ever: Part 4, James Chance to the Pop Group

The Residents

This week we are celebrating the best post-punk albums of all-time and today we have part four with Talking Heads, the Fall, Devo and more.

20. James Chance and the Contortions - Buy (1979)

Throughout the 1970s, New York City, more than any other community in the world, facilitated the inauguration of punk music, namely because it was the intersection of so many unique factors: its singular degree of cultural fusion, the breadth, and depth of its artistic environments, the density of its socio-political diversity, etc. The city that the Velvet Underground, Patti Smith, the Ramones, and countless others called home was unquestionably the punk capital of the world before England started to catch wind. But after that point, New York had a greatly diminished share of influence on the punk scene. But beyond the burgeoning new wave, one major movement, no wave, kept the city relevant.

James Chance & the Contortions, the unwitting no wave nobility, were New York's post-punk saviors. One could hear Richard Hell in Chance's manic yelps, Richard Lloyd and Tom Verlaine in Jody Harris' angular, penetrating guitar funk, Lou Reed and John Cale's independent spirit in the Contortions' dismantling aggression. Buy, the band's first album, epitomized NYC's broad artistic coalition after punk began to splinter, equal parts mutant disco, avant-funk, and noise. The album truly delivered on the New York scene's continued commitment to advancing punk's sonic landscape, in much the same spirit as Television and the Talking Heads but with way more anarchic vigor.

After a decade of proto-punk classics indebted to the nurturing atmosphere of New York, Buy became the city's quintessential record for the post-punk age: dry, audacious, chaotic, breathless. No album better signaled the coming era of punk's diffuse distribution while tied so inextricably to its hometown roots.

19. Mission of Burma - Vs. (1982)

While Mission of Burma's Signals, Calls, and Marches was undoubtedly a pivotal release for the origination of independent rock, it was the band's first full-length album Vs. where they pushed their own identity and brought real integrity to the burgeoning concept of the genre. Vs. not only improved in almost every way on their already stellar 1981 effort, but it also served as evidence that Mission of Burma was a matured band with grand ambition and purpose. Signals, Calls, and Marches' somewhat dry punk production, fierce and raw guitar sound, and straightforward songwriting dissipated with Vs., in which the band went after a far more layered and lush sound.

The changes were immediately apparent: "Secrets", the album's blistering opener, announced the band's evolved vision with basslines, shouted vocal harmonies, and guitar melodies shrouded under flurries of distortion and noise, roiled by drawn out instrumental sections that confused the pace and geography of the song. "That's How I Escaped My Certain Fate" returned the band to driving punk, but its dense and relentless wall of guitar served mainly as a harmonic link to the lead vocals. Meanwhile, "Mica's" stuttering rhythms and off-balance vocal melodies rendered over disorienting tape effects took the band somewhere new entirely. In general, the music on Vs. was far more sonically obscured than similarly designed songs from a year earlier in the band's career, as if the album sounded the way Mission of Burma had always wanted to sound in the first place.

Even though they disbanded a year later for what would turn out to be a two-decade-long hiatus, Vs., the only LP from the first era of the band's existence, easily solidified their legacy.

LISTEN: Bandcamp

18. The Art of Noise - Who's Afraid of the Art of Noise? (1984)

In a decade that would see hip-hop and electronic dance music rapidly evolve all the way up to (near) mainstream credibility, the Art of Noise's frenzied synth- and sample-heavy debut Who's Afraid of the Art of Noise? seemed almost prophetic. The world already had Afrika Bambaataa, Suicide, and Kraftwerk, of course, but the Art of Noise's gritty electro avant-pop carved its own headspace that was somehow even more futurist, even more cerebral, and even groovier -- a unique build that set its own benchmark for innovation.

In comparison to a lot of early techno and house tracks from the Detroit warehouses and Chicago apartments, Who's Afraid of the Art of Noise? doesn't sound nearly as primitive or dated today, thanks mostly to its reliance on constantly shifting aural textures and non-static grooves that trend more toward hip-hop funk than four-on-the-floor disco. Indeed, the Art of Noise's songs evolved in a way that it would take the proper dance music world a while to emulate, and although their approach differed greatly from most conventional post-punk artists even this late in the movement, the Art of Noise clearly had a penchant for reorganizing pop music ephemera to serve a moodier, more artistically challenging purpose in much the same way they had.

Who's Afraid of the Art of Noise? preempted other visionary, kaleidoscopic masterpieces brought to life through sampled mosaics like Paul's Boutique, 3 Feet High and Rising, and Since I Left You (not to mention legions of late '80s and early '90s techno acts) -- music decidedly outside the network of post-punk (as genre or even as ideology) that nonetheless took influence from the deconstructive ethos of the Art of Noise and the experimental music community that surrounded them -- an integral piece of post-punk's legacy.

17. The Fall - This Nation's Saving Grace (1985)

If Hex Enduction Hour was the height of the Fall's first classic period, This Nation's Saving Grace, the band's first album since the departure of Paul Hanley, one of their two drummers, was the genesis of the next. The band, no longer able to be as gleefully sprawling with their sense of rhythmic interchange, relied even more heavily on guitar melodies and Mark E. Smith's vocal delivery than ever. The result is some of the most conventional rock sound in the Fall's discography up to that point, albeit still filtered through post-punk dissonance.

"Barmy", for instance, kept a near constant chiming guitar riff which Smith followed vocally, so upbeat and consistent it came weirdly close to jangle pop, with the exception of some freewheeling noise interludes. "What You Need" had an easy-to-follow bassline and a background chant, "L.A." toyed with synthesizers only to the extent that it provided a steady arpeggiated riff to follow the chord changes, and on "Vixen", the band even emulated traditional blues. Across the album, accessible melodies and hooks filled the vacuum left by the loss of Hanley and the Fall's characteristic intricacy of rhythm, leaving in its wake something far more approachable.

In the context of its time, the band's changes make sense. By 1985, the era of post-punk music at the forefront of rock innovation was dwindling, while the era of its widespread influence was only beginning. The Fall, one of the most iconic post-punk artists of the previous decade, were forced to adapt like everyone else as they endured lineup changes and altered cultural perspectives. In some ways, This Nation's Saving Grace may have seemed like the end of one movement and the beginning of a more diffuse understanding of the post-punk genre. Post-punk remained restless through its golden age, and the Fall followed after it once it began to disappear.

16. Devo - Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo! (1978)

Despite being one of the most distinctive sounding and heavily conceptualized bands of the last 40 years, Devo have, every moment since their inception, had to deal with inattentive listeners brushing off their quirky, mechanical style as impersonal novelty. Critics and audiences eventually caught on to the band's irreverent mind-games (though it took until the band's third album, Freedom of Choice, to really have an impact), but their debut, co-produced by an eager Brian Eno and David Bowie, was arguably the height of their bizarre pop experimentation.

"Jocko Homo" is the definitive Devo cut: robotic, jittery, mockingly existentialist. "Uncontrollable Urge", which would eventually become a staple for car and cell phone commercials, was undeniable proof that the band could make infectious pop to rival any new wave hitmakers. Even more, all of post-punk's flippant attitudes carried through Devo's idiosyncratic cover of the by then already canonical "(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction", itself an expression of rebellion, albeit an out-of-date one. That song in particular was evidence that Devo were reinventing the standard practices of popular music as much as any band from the era, but instead of assembling a discordant, inaccessible vision like many, they put together a delirious and eccentric version of pop music.

As such, Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo! should be recognized as a key moment in the genesis of pop absurdism, a miniature movement with broad implications for the future of new wave and mainstream pop. True to post-punk's unofficial mandate, Devo infiltrated the mainstream mechanisms of music and imposed their singular influence from the inside.

15. This Heat - Deceit (1981)

Though their self-titled had come out only two years earlier and their experimental savvy was still reaching its peak, the fact is that This Heat filtered their music through a completely different set of perspectives for Deceit. Despite the disparate strands of sound that came to form the band's second and last album -- the progressive studio trickery of krautrock, the compositional intricacy of prog rock, a dour romanticism seemingly drawn from English folk music, the band's continued obsession with tape manipulation -- Deceit comes out as a remarkably focused album sonically and thematically. That's because This Heat revisited their shrewd noise experimentation in a more musical context, divorced from the boundaries drawn even by post-punk, for something both approachable and entirely unique to them.

Everything about Deceit is calibrated to set it apart from the post-punk horde. A range of hypnotic eccentricities from eerie vocal harmonies and tribal chants to bold polyrhythmic flourishes warp the surprisingly melodic undercurrents running wildly through the album's grooves. Still, whereas This Heat was far more recklessly sprawling, Deceit channels This Heat's avant-rock proficiency into a remarkably effective, streamlined process; ambient noise experiments ("Radio Prague") collide seamlessly with oblique, ragged post-punk masterpieces ("Makeshift Swahili") and artfully discordant improvisation ("Triumph") meshes delicately into tightly-controlled rock arrangements ("S.P.Q.R.") without even a minor shift in tone. \

The mere fact that This Heat could venture so daringly into the uncharted wilderness of experimental music and return with so complete a musical conceptualization as Deceit, a record that quotes krautrock, dub, and the Residents as readily as England's storied rock music industry, shows how critical a volume the album has become for the genre as a whole. Deceit remains a definitive piece of the post-punk canon because it adopted the post-punk mindset so well that precisely no one has ever managed to make anything quite like it since.

LISTEN: Bandcamp

14. The Residents - Eskimo (1979)

One can say with utmost confidence that Eskimo is almost certainly the only avant-garde ambient album from the 1970s that tells the story of the lives of Inuit people through abstract synthesizer soundscapes and nonsense guttural vocalizations. But depending on who was listening at the time, Eskimo represented either one of the most stunning works of art from the post-punk era or the most undeserving, pretentious, garbled collection of meaningless noise in the entire canon of popular music -- a characterization the Residents would doubtless be more proud of.

Indeed, it's because of this conflict that Eskimo could be said to be utterly definitive of the period's significant avant-garde sensibilities better than most other records can. It was wholly visionary, novel, and -- despite offering a loose plot and series of "characters" -- completely inaccessible, but in the band's relentless efforts to disrupt the musical establishment and push the medium as far forward as possible, Eskimo fit the spirit of the post-punk scene better than many.

Of course, one of the most striking things about the Residents is that they had been working toward such goals since before even punk had materialized. The band's legendary debut from 1974, Meet the Residents, an album that viciously and infamously lampooned the Beatles on its cover in the spirit of the "anti-art" Dada movement (also a major influence on post-punk in general), could have been a post-punk gem had it been released five years later. Instead, Eskimo, a far more refined and ambitious experiment, met the post-punk scene at the right time and place, after the Residents had already done their foundational theses and were on a new level of experimentation. The record is a rare example of a piece of art that's innovative, cohesive, and entertaining without making a single sacrifice of vision.

13. Young Marble Giants - Colossal Youth (1980)

The short-lived Young Marble Giants took post-punk's greater approach to rock minimalism and magnified it, paring down a sound to its essential pieces without losing what made it work. Post-punk was reliant on unique rhythmic interactions, for instance, but Young Marble Giants simplified it, taking out the drums and leaving only the barest of drum machine loops to play with and letting the bass and guitar do all the pacesetting. Many post-punk artists took influence from the infectiousness and universality of pop genres, but Young Marble Giants left their melodies raw and delicate for a more authentic vision of what pop architecture could do. Colossal Youth was post-punk stripped of everything but what Young Marble Giants needed, and it remains one of the most startlingly dynamic examples of the power of rock minimalism ever made.

Post-punk was a movement brimming with quietly innovative artists who, for various reasons, could only manage a one-off album or single, artists who didn't fit in with the no wavers, the New Romantics, or the college rockers, artists who carved their own special place in the increasingly inclusive post-punk movement, artists whose delicate influence could be felt rippling through the following decades, even if most people never knew their names. Young Marble Giants have always been the champions of this oft-neglected side of post-punk. Colossal Youth signified no greater movements, prompted no armies of imitators the same way Gang of Four or Joy Division did. It was just a spectacularly quirky, groundbreaking, singular record that stood alone in a community of like-minded innovators.

12. Talking Heads - Talking Heads: 77 (1977)

In many ways, the groundwork for the future of alternative rock was already being laid in the US before UK punk had even peaked, exemplified in particular by the Talking Heads' debut, the new wave masterpiece Talking Heads: 77, released just a month before Never Mind the Bollocks, Here's the Sex Pistols even landed on store shelves.

Though the Talking Heads wouldn't hit real commercial relevance until the following year, their peculiar sensibility started having a demonstrable effect early on. David Byrne's ironic wit combined with the band's dedication to real pop music craft made them unique among both the contemporary art school community and the artists populating the urban punk scene in New York, and their first album helped to bridge those worlds in a surprising way, just as new wave as a whole was finding meaningful connections between punk and pop music.

In retrospect, the relative simplicity of the quirk-laden art pop gems on 77 -- songs such as the effortlessly upbeat "Pulled Up", the subversive love song "Uh-Oh, Love Comes to Town", or the legendary "Psycho Killer" -- stand in sharp contrast to the globetrotting intricacy of Remain in Light, the exquisite melodicism of Speaking in Tongues, or even the rigid post-punk exploration of Fear of Music, but still the album was as prescient as any of the band's essential records, peering forward into the future that post-punk and college rock would soon bring: angular guitar workouts, idiosyncratic, self-aware poetics, and a relaxed sense of rhythm and melody. Talking Heads would innovate with every record moving forward, but Talking Heads: 77 cut open the path in a way that allowed everyone else to follow.

11. The Pop Group - Y (1979)

For as attracted to raucous chaos as post-punk groups undoubtedly were, very few who chose to tap into such anarchy could actually control it. The Pop Group were unique in that every song on their hugely influential album Y seemed like it could fall apart at any moment, but even in their loosest moments they somehow managed to contain the turmoil long enough to create something bold, dramatic, meticulously organized, and even catchy. Such is the way of "Thief of Fire", one of the quintessential post-punk songs, which abuses listeners with the crushing funk of a manic rhythm section, an ear-splitting lead vocal, and an angular, spiny guitar coalesced into a groove-laden, jittery dance-punk opus.

The Pop Group were the forerunning "break it down and build it up again" band; they sharpened the straightforward guitar lines of punk, the bounding throb of funk rhythms, and the sonic manipulation of dub and let them penetrate each other in ridiculously slapdash fashion. "We Are Time", another of the band's signature tracks, starts heavy and aggressive before it crumbles into a wispy jam that disorients with its fluidity; even with a recurring punk hook on the guitar, the song floats away from any perceivable direction, and in so doing, treats punk conventions with the same irreverence as everything else. Improvisational and spontaneous but not assembled at random, Y may be the closest the mutant disco brand of post-punk ever came to the jazz ethos.

The Pop Group was unquestionably one of the broadest-reaching and noisiest acts during the post-punk era. At the same time, their philosophy boiled down to an erratic, adventurous, danceable vision unrivaled by most in either category. For as radical as Y seemed, it hardly sounded like the product of a band yearning for success. Instead, they aimed only to be visceral and provocative -- true to the core of post-punk.

Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2018 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.