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.
30. Echo & the Bunnymen - Porcupine (1983)
In 1980, just when post-punk was beginning to be a commercially viable sound, Echo & the Bunnymen released their debut, Crocodiles. The album had all the refined skimpiness of Wire, all the furiousness of the Fall, and, hidden away, something fresher, a stranger and more romantic lilt than their contemporaries. The band evolved quickly away from their roots, focusing more and more on the latter aspect of their style, but Porcupine, their third and last record before their decade-defining smash Ocean Rain, wrestled with both the past and future of their sound.
Before they fully escaped those youthful eccentricities that placed them gently within the post-punk framework, Porcupine showed them at their prime. "Back of Love", "Heads Will Roll", "Gods Will Be Gods", and "Clay" have all the grandiose stadium richness the group would build on in the future, but angular guitars and booming, hyper-rhythmic drum patterns sourced from their earliest influences give the songs all their forward momentum. On Porcupine, the Bunnymen used post-punk's tools, but they did it in a way that called forward to the next era, toward the evolution of the genre that Ocean Rain would come to define so well.
The record pointed away from the skeletal sounds of punk and into the embrace of the maximalist romance of the future, brimming with rich arrangements and full orchestrations, theatrical production, and grand melodies. R.E.M., U2, the Cure, and the Smiths would soon after go on to define that new era of rock 'n' roll heroism. But Echo & the Bunnymen also anticipated the change, all while clinging to the shifting post-punk heritage that gave way to their rise.
29. Pylon - Gyrate (1980)
Athens, Georgia became a modest punk haven in the '80s with a scene that spawned two instant superstar outfits in the B-52's and R.E.M., but the scene's all-but-forgotten bulwark of post-punk style, Pylon, carried the punk spirit more faithfully than anymore in that scene or, arguably, anywhere else in the country.
With heavy-hitting dance beats, infectious, looping bass hooks, atmospheric guitar lines that followed the bass rather than vice versa, and Vanessa Briscoe Hay's ragged and dynamic vocal performances, the band's first album Gyrate is raw post-punk energy, an example of the purest form of the genre practiced on American shores during its initial boom. The ferocious and caustic "Feast on My Heart" and "Human Body" display the hardest edges of Pylon's energy, while the instrumental "Weather Radio", in contrast, is almost mockingly upbeat, yet the entire album shares that purist rock sensibility that lends the music its galvanic force.
It took the album being reissued in 2007 by DFA Records, one of the hippest labels at the time (in part thanks to LCD Soundsystem and James Murphy, who was doing post-punk missionary work throughout the decade), for the band to actually earn the status it deserved since Gyrate's first issue. Pylon's robust, untreated punk stood in contrast to the post-punk revival's pristine electro-dance-punk avenues, but their authentic, understated funk sat well with millennial audiences nonetheless. Apart from being one of the most underappreciated bands of the classic post-punk era, Pylon's modest resurgence in the last few years is indicative of the enduring appeal of genre's sensibility and style.
28. Pere Ubu - Dub Housing (1978)
Pere Ubu's formation and the release of their earliest singles occurred before post-punk had a name -- before punk was even a coherent movement. But by 1975, they were nevertheless already assembling their grimy core, hurdling over punk's initiation ("Blitzkrieg Bop" didn't even come out until the following year) and establishing a framework of minimal futurist rock instead. they were one of the few bands already working toward a reinvention of the musical language of popular music.
It would be a couple of years before their first full-length album, The Modern Dance, would surface, but from that point, the band weren't just pioneers, but also post-punk's force of momentum. From 1978 to 1979, Pere Ubu delivered three albums that would soon earn varying degrees of classic status (their staggering productivity continues even to this day). Each release showed an eager wit, propulsive attitude, and forward-looking ambition that became essential to the post-Ramones, post-Sex-Pistols era.
Dub Housing was only Pere Ubu's sophomore album, but by then, they were effectively veterans. The band's deranged garage rock flavor is most potent and controlled on the record, directed toward more consistent ends than their noisy, manic debut or the less immediately novel New Picnic Time from 1979. The record also seemed to poke and prod the contemporary mainstream rock establishment in ways that would become instinctual for most post-punk artists. On "Caligari's Mirror", the band blended red-blooded arena-rock choruses with offbeat, deconstructed verses. On the title track, they demonstrated a far more authentic reggae influence than the Rolling Stones or Led Zeppelin, for example, who awkwardly appropriated the genre's burgeoning fame for mostly commercial rather than artistic purposes.
Pere Ubu were certainly among post-punk's earliest champions, and Dub Housing, by virtue of the many subversive tendrils it extended out into the world, spoke to its dismantling power more than most records at such a formative stage.
27. The Chameleons - Script of the Bridge (1983)
Of all the classic post-punk artists from this period, the Chameleons are probably the one band that most closely resembles the genre as it's imitated today by everyone from the Killers to Merchandise to Interpol. It turns out the band's disciplined, reverb-drenched guitar lines and melancholic sense of melody has aged far better than quavering analog synthesizers and era-specific takedowns of the dominant musical philosophies -- though the Chameleons didn't shy away from those either.
Script of the Bridge, the band's first album, remains one of the more approachable listens of its time, even three decades later, because of this. 1983 had no shortage of foreboding, funereal music; after all, that was when the real goth and industrial music movements began to consolidate and build, and though no wave may have been on the downswing, noise-centric music was still trending up. But Script of the Bridge, despite aesthetic and tonal similarities to the music of those more narrow scenes, was bleak and heavy post-punk, flat-out, and even among those musical relatives, it carved its own niche.
The result was an album not tied down by the generic expectations of the era. "Don't Fall", "View from a Hill", and "Up the Down Escalator" could have been recorded yesterday if not for the telltale early '80s production style that flattens the drums and shrouds the vocals behind the discord of the guitars. Darker songs that still maintain some catchy melodicism -- "Less Than Human", "Second Skin", "Here Today" -- are more distinct to the Chameleons then and now, but the characteristic angst nevertheless continues to echo through hundreds of today's more obscure mimics. In terms of sheer name recognition, the Chameleons may no longer be as culturally relevant as Gang of Four, Joy Division, or the Fall, but the prestige is still there.
26. Bauhaus - In the Flat Field (1980)
The greatest disservice ever done to In the Flat Field was being doomed to the characterization of a pioneering goth rock record. It's unfortunate for the simple fact that the record doesn't properly live up to the public's (misguided) perceptions of the style. More than anything, goth rock is frequently ascribed effeminate qualities because its raw emotionality stands in such sharp contrast to the purely illusory hyper-masculinity of the previous generation of rock music, but, questions of the accuracy of such claims aside, Bauhaus' debut couldn't possibly undermine those expectations anymore.
The outside public understands goth to be dour and impotent, almost lethargic, marinating in cliches about wounded hearts and the inevitability of death. Still, Bauhaus, as acutely moody as they could be, were far from the perennial image of the languid goth rock band, and In the Flat Field proves it. Those who buy-in to the notion of the soft-hearted, droning gothic frontman haven't heard Peter Murphy rip his throat raw on the seriously heavy "Double Dare".
Those who hear "goth" and think about wiry, sentimental synthesizers and jangle guitars haven't heard "Dive" and "Stigmata Martyr" grow off of downright rock 'n' roll style guitar riffs. Those who find the idea of listening to depressing and sleepy goth dirges are unaware of the pure fevered energy of "In the Flat Field", "Dive", and "A God in the Field". In the Flat Field's rank as one of goth rock's forerunning musical visions seems based more around aesthetic than anything, particularly Bauhuas's dark, glam-rock-inspired look. Sonically, though, their debut is inarguably a post-punk inferno, perhaps only rendered a bit more temperamental.
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. 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. In that fractured state, they 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.
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This article was originally published on 24 January 2017.
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