The 50 Best Post-Punk Albums Ever: Part 2, The B-52's to Magazine
This week we are celebrating the best post-punk albums of all-time and today we have part two with the Cure, Mission of Burma, the B-52's and more.
40. The B-52's - The B-52's (1979)
The B-52's are one of those bands that conjure a different image depending on the decade you recognize them from, and the further along you get, the more likely you are to see them as a novelty more than anything else. In their formative years, though, they were an innovative force in American post-punk, a scene that wasn't quite as well equipped with ambitious superstars and widespread cultural infrastructure as their UK contemporaries.
Coming out of Athens, Georgia -- far from punk hubs like New York, California, and even the Midwest -- the B-52's made shockwaves early on with music that was informed by the New York punk boom but still didn't conform with any particular regional sound. With a unique perspective on the movement that remained more-or-less remote, they would go on to embody the transition from punk's destructive tendencies to new wave's arty poptimism.
Their self-titled debut, in particular, was the perfect marriage of the utilitarian funk of early post-punk and the kitschy technicolor qualities of early new wave. The album is a relentless back-and-forth between the two, the piercing punk-fusion of "52 Girls" and "6060-842" rubbing up against goofy, winsome romps like "Rock Lobster" and their cover of Petula Clark's "Downtown". Over time, the band would push the scales almost entirely in favor of the latter style (ten years after their first album, "Love Shack" would come to define them in the mainstream), but their effect on the self-seriousness of late '70s post-punk was indelible.
This is, after all, how the genre would live on through the neon '80s and emerge again in the technologically egalitarian new millennium: weaved between the rosy charm of synthpop, new wave, and electropop, and invigorated with radiant positivity, catchy hooks, and good humor. The dark clouds summoned by many of the movement's greats would pass over time; post-punk's more subversive effects on pop music, on the other hand, would abide for decades.
39. The Fall - Hex Enduction Hour (1982)
There should be no qualms about calling the Fall the single most prolific classic post-punk band, seeing as Mark E. Smith and company released about a dozen studio albums before the end of the '80s and have continued at about the same pace up to today, with each record being more or less worthy in its particular way. In the case of Hex Enduction Hour, their fourth album and first unimpeachable classic, it was a triumph of form; recorded in non-traditional studio spaces and featuring two drummers in the lineup for the first time, the album is meant to sound unsettling and alien above all.
Songs like "The Classical" took post-punk's minimalism and multiplied it over itself: background vocals crawl around Smith's leads, rabid patterns on the tom-toms played by one drummer muscle their way through the more standard beats played by another, and the dueling guitar noise seems to reproduce the longer it goes. "Fortress / Deer Park", meanwhile, balances on the fabric of traditional punk, led by crisp guitars that cut through with a repeatable set of chords through which Smith rears his drawling speech, but it all devolves into a wall of guitar static and relentless drumming that speaks to the band's affection for chaos.
"Hip Priest", one of the album's greatest outliers, is more open and ragged with its spontaneous feel, suffocated by lo-fi production that seems like a surefire Guided by Voices launch point. All of this cacophony at once, fixed together with Smith's latent and subtle sense of melody, made Hex Enduction Hour one of the most rhythmically complex records of its decade, but even more, it gave the Fall its mainstream identity, placing the band in the proper UK album charts for the first time, but certainly not the last.
38. The Feelies - Crazy Rhythms (1980)
Crazy Rhythms is one of those records that sits at the intersection of so many different styles -- at the genesis of college rock and jangle pop, the apex of melodic post-punk, and even the earliest materialization of what would branch off into post-hardcore and emo a decade later -- that it's impossible to know where it belongs in the context of its release. The Feelies, with their infectious choruses, frantic guitar work, and convulsive energy, were in many ways most stylistically similar to the dB's, Let's Active, and other contemporaneous power pop groups, but their extended expeditions through noisy interludes, prolonged, repetitive compositions, and love of furiously propulsive grooves landed them much closer to the domain of post-punk than the melodically-focused guitar pop of the early '80s.
It's exactly this singular combination that earned the Feelies -- and their debut especially -- their immense following. At just two-minutes-long and with more hook than verse, "Fa Cé-La" is dazzling, concise pop, but just two tracks later there's the seven-minute "Forces at Work", which wears listeners down with over a minute long intro of near silence before breaking into a grinding exchange of drums and guitars that almost never changes throughout the song, acting instead as a bed for freewheeling guitar solos and wispy vocal melodies.
The album maintains an active balance between that heady, drifting brand of post-punk and a more succinct pop immediacy in a way no band has since accomplished. Everything from the Stooges to Can to Wire was routed directly into Crazy Rhythms, and everything from R.E.M. to Weezer to Parquet Courts came out.
37. Siouxsie and the Banshees - Juju (1981)
Siouxsie Sioux remains one of the few quintessential, perennial figures of post-punk, and for a good reason. When one examines the handful of classic and deeply influential albums her most famous band released during its tenure, one finds that the Banshees' longevity and consistency are entirely a result of Siouxsie's singular taste and talent. From her controversial moniker to the downright reprehensible fetishization of Nazi imagery she took to early in her career (an unfortunate facet of the provocative aesthetic adopted by far too many punk bands of the era), she helped shape the dubious politics and outsider fashion that would define contemporary and future rock movements, and with her dramatic and powerful voice that continues to see imitators decades later, she violently upended the prevailing sensibilities of English post-punk at the time which, for a large part, relied upon ironic, half-apathetic vocalizations rather than "authentic", dynamic singing.
Fans argue over which album in the band's vast and enduring discography can claim total superiority, with Kaleidoscope, Hyæna and Juju in particular vying for the top spot, and in many respects, it's a toss-up. Kaleidoscope's buoyant songwriting and Hyæna's densely layered pop textures are unassailable, but it's Juju, with its proto-gothic dirges, lively, transformative guitar work, and fully-realized art-rock sound, that had the most profound effect on the post-punk world.
Lead single "Spellbound" in particular stands as one of the great relics of the period with a wholly unique sound uncharacteristic of the reputation the Banshees often (unfairly) receive as bearers of the "standard" post-punk sound; no one else could emulate that propulsive pace, that chiming guitar picking, and, of course, Siouxsie herself, with a simultaneously fiery and euphonious voice, pushing everything into the stratosphere.
36. Mission of Burma - Signals, Calls, and Marches (1981)
Plenty of bands could claim to be the missing link between hardcore punk (which evolved in tandem with post-punk during the early '80s) and the next generation of alternative rock -- Hüsker Dü, Minutemen, the Replacements -- but Mission of Burma fired the initial shots with their first EP Signals, Calls, and Marches, a release that sat deeper in the middle of the highly complicated alt-rock/indie rock/post-punk web than any of them.
Listening to the EP, the transformation is clearly audible. "This Is Not a Photograph" and "Fame and Fortune" have the straightforward construction of standard punk, but are far too slow, sentimental, and melodic to be anything near hardcore, while "Outlaw" and "Red" have the hard-to-master discordant, danceable energy of Gang of Four and other post-punk stalwarts, but with a far more personal face.
It was the single "That's When I Reach for My Revolver", though, that had the greatest impact on the era of rock to come; poetic and intimate lyrics combined with an explosive chorus for massive emotional impact, and a style that switched from contemplative college rock in the verses to heavy punk in the choruses to classic post-punk funk in the interlude together formed a wholly original "kitchen sink" methodology that would go on to inform the immense versatility of the coming alternative rock dynasty of the late '80s and '90s.
That Mission of Burma would go on to actually improve upon their debut to a significant degree goes to show how powerful a force they were at the time. Of course, Hüsker Dü, Minutemen, and the Replacements would all make highly influential albums, but all of them were eclipsed by Mission of Burma at their peak.
35. This Heat - This Heat (1979)
Noise was essential to the punk playbook in the '80s, but it took a few forward-thinking masterminds for it to eventually become so fundamental to the basic songwriting process. London's This Heat weren't quite at the forefront of the post-punk noise paradigm, which in 1979 would have been closer to the explosion of the no wave circus across the Atlantic in New York City, but they were certainly one of the most inventive with the tools it offered, from feedback and static to the heavy atmosphere of silence. This Heat is the first of two full-length albums from the band, and while both have become required listening for those interested in the period, their self-titled is arguably more cerebrally electrifying, if not much more bizarre and, ultimately, divisive.
Because it is so sublimely liberated from convention, This Heat, perhaps more than any album from the era, verges on the indescribable, but this is largely a result of its mercurial approach to style and tone. "Horizontal Hold" is utterly belligerent, cascading from swatch to swatch of pins-and-needles bedlam rendered through extensive tape-editing likely inspired by the experimental works of Can, while ethereal lo-fi elegies like "Not Waving" and "Music Like Escaping Gas" land on the opposite end of the spectrum; it's hard to know which is more avant-garde. "24 Track Loop", though, is the record's inimitable peak, taking that fractured tape experimentation and giving it some real industrial funk flair. Both it and the rest of This Heat remain absolutely singular works, even within a disparate crowd of experimental rock and electronic forerunners.
34. Essential Logic - Beat Rhythm News (1979)
Lara Logic's brief stint with X-Ray Spex, one of England's most distinctive early punk talents, had an enduring effect on her follow-up project, Essential Logic, which retained the former's off-kilter saxophone lines and wild pop melodies and barricaded them in the meaty dance rhythms and dynamic basslines that were coming to the fore of the movement. The band's sole studio album, Beat Rhythm News, had the connecting tissue that referenced Logic's murky past in England's punk colonization, but it was made new through the latest trends that would eventually lead to another movement she would help develop: dance-punk.
The album sets off with an explosion of funky anarchy in "Quality Crayon Wax O.K.", combining overlaid vocal harmonies, playful time signature shifts, and a rhythm section that alternates between punk-driven momentum and disco- and reggae-tinged elasticity for a song that immediately canonized Essential Logic as one of the most rhythmically interesting artists in a genre that already deeply valued rhythmic intricacy. They further showcased their punk fury in "Collecting Dust" and "Wake Up" and developed a greater taste for abstract dance music with "Albert" and "Popcorn Boy (Waddle Ya Do?)".
But it was songs like "The Order Form" that really separated Essential Logic from the broader punk wave, switching through contemplative, romantic, and buoyant strands without missing a step -- somewhat in the vein of progressive rock but without the pretensions and with more swing. Taken as a whole, Beat Rhythm News resonated with vigorous individualism, and eventually it became an intelligent and fluid benchmark for any band willing to dabble in both punk and dance music at the same time.
33. The Cure - Pornography (1982)
The Cure, despite being one of the bands most commonly associated with the post-punk label, expanded way beyond those horizons quite quickly during their adolescence. A vast majority of their most highly appreciated work (1989's Disintegration in particular; Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me and The Head on the Door to a lesser extent) came well after their precarious post-punk beginnings, when their sound had drastically evolved to be more dulcet and pop-oriented. Up to that point, they had been a far darker and less approachable band, limited to the mournful fringes of post-punk's conventional architecture.
Pornography is the masterpiece of the first stage of their career, stark and ominous in ways they would slowly leave behind for more sentimental textures. Post-punk was still coursing through their veins in '82; the drums feel mechanical and industrial, the guitars jagged and cacophonous, and Robert Smith's melodies more sinister than gothic-romantic. Pornography, like Echo & the Bunnymen's Porcupine, showed a band reaching the peak of their youthful exuberance before entering an age of artistic maturity that would justifiably push their popularity into another realm entirely. But the thrusting forward charge of "The Hanging Gardens", the cavernous gloom of "One Hundred Years", and wonky dirges like "Cold" and "Siamese Twins" would remain the pinnacle of the band's sound for many fans.
Separated from the initially cold reaction it received upon release, we can now see exactly how critical Pornography was in the expansion of goth rock and, by extension, the cultural reach of post-punk as a whole.
32. ESG - Come Away with ESG (1983)
For how dance-centric post-punk became over its short lifespan, that quality was always more of a side-effect from the inspiration of club music and electronic -- disco, reggae, dub, motorik krautrock -- than a primary intention of the art. There were plenty of exceptions, especially as the decade wore on and political and intellectual priorities waned in favor of the possibilities afforded by the commercial retention of new wave and synthpop, but no artists were as gifted with adapting funk to the movement as ESG. After 1983, all funky rock music was chasing after Come Away with ESG, an album danceable enough to claim R&B and funk influence and serve as an underground influence on the burgeoning hip-hop form, all while staying true to the minimalist rock foundations that spawned punk and post-punk.
The record's popularity has only been further cultivated since release, especially in the new millennium as bands like LCD Soundsystem and the Rapture brought ESG's funk into the hands of modern indie heads and trendsetting hipsters. ESG were the shapers of the specific color of post-punk that would prevail three decades later: the looping, toe-tapping basslines, the tertiary cowbell, agogo, and vibraslap rhythms, the spoken hooks, guitar as percussive texture, etc.
Classic highlights "The Beat", "My Love for You", and "Moody (Spaced Out)" are liable to carve out a permanent place in your head mere moments after listening, going some way to explaining how the album maintained such an essential connection between post-punk and that early hip-hop sound that was all hooks and steady beats. But even without historical context, Come Away with ESG is an effortlessly infectious and easy listen helped by its distinctive sound that has now been proven timeless.
31. Magazine - Real Life (1978)
The Buzzcocks were already one of the UK punk scene's more forward-looking bands when frontman Howard Devoto left to found Magazine, a band he would use to sidestep the straightforward aims of punk for a more progressive sound and experimental sensibility. The Buzzcocks' 1977 Spiral Scratch EP (the band's only release with Devoto) made shockwaves as the first self-released punk record in the UK (something the Buzzcocks' more explosive contemporaries the Sex Pistols couldn't claim), a show of independence from the establishment that would help further develop the punk movement's egalitarian framework. Devoto would continue in that individualist spirit with Magazine's debut.
If nothing else, Real Life was integral in establishing the ambitions of what would become known as post-punk. Devoto took no time in transitioning away from the punk conventions he was familiar with: the record is characterized by its heavy use of piano and synthesizers, drawn-out intros, and dense mood building, among its many other quirks. At times, the album straddles progressive or even glam rock, luxuriating in atmosphere and melodicism rather than hammering through with the raw urgency of a band like the Buzzcocks, yet it remains inextricably tied to that legacy.
The album's only single, "Shot by Both Sides", wouldn't take much augmentation to properly fit on a Buzzcock's release, and indeed, it, along with "The Light Pours Out of Me", was co-written by Devoto's former bandmate and the Buzzcocks' new frontman Pete Shelley. If any one album could lay claim to being the missing link between real UK punk and the immense growth and expansion that was just beginning to take place, it's unquestionably Real Life.
- The 50 Best Post-Punk Albums Ever: Part 1 - PopMatters ›
- The 50 Best Post-Punk Albums Ever: Part 3 - PopMatters ›
- The 50 Best Post-Punk Albums Ever: Part 4 - PopMatters ›
- The 50 Best Post-Punk Albums Ever: Part 5 - PopMatters ›
- The 50 Best Post-Punk Albums Ever (playlist) - PopMatters ›
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