The 50 Best Post-Punk Albums Ever: Part 5, Joy Division to Gang of Four
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)
In many ways, the young and vulnerable Joy Division became the unwitting pillars of the movement following the release of their debut. They tapped into specific energy at the right time and garnered 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 a prominent presence in the post-punk community.
Under its coarse exterior, Unknown Pleasures was constructed from robust, inventive building blocks. Bernard Sumner's guitar work 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. This sonic boom sent shockwaves across the world over the next three decades of global culture, at least. Gothic rock, 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 complimentary guitar work that intentionally transcended the simplistic framework of most punk instrumentation. But this 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 of 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 dueling 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 popcraft. 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.
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. Still, 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. Meanwhile, 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 unique 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. Its marriage of styles was unprecedented, even future-proof, but 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. That combined 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. 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. They thereby advanced 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. Still, 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. Yet, their ability to craft complete, artistically complex songs rivaled that of alternative rock bands who followed in their wake, even with a musical perspective that 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 -- inclusiveness on which the post-punk community thrived.
5. Public Image Ltd - Metal Box (1979)
After John Lydon escaped the deteriorating Sex Pistols, he understandably became one of the strongest symbols of post-punk defiance. There were things Lydon wanted to accomplish, dialogues he wanted to open. Because the Sex Pistols came to embody a set of restrictions the band originally sought to dominate, Public Image Ltd came to be the best example of life after punk.
Of course, the band's first album was sloppy and erratic, even as it introduced a broader set of influences and codes to the punk system. It wasn't until 1979, on their second album Metal Box, that Lydon and company perfected the post-punk formula they helped establish immediately after the Sex Pistols fell to dust. Droning, morose, and groovy, the 10-minute-long "Albatross" refined the structure-less ventures of First Issue with a consistent throbbing thrust still subversive to conventional punk wisdom. On the surface, "Poptones" was as jammy and elaborate as early PiL cuts but it centered on a serpentine guitar figure that gave it more balance. The maniacal disco of "Swan Lake" (issued as a single in another version as the appropriately titled "Death Disco") was noisy and violent but also the most approachable of the band's songs up to that point.
Throughout the album, Lydon seemed sharper and more directed, no longer blindly lashing out at easy targets for the sake of provocation but expanding his criticism into a more abstract sense for figurative language and imagery. In so many ways Metal Box took Public Image Ltd and made it more than just a symbolic gesture to an insular punk scene that prized fetid, do-nothing angst over artistic ambition, and with the band as a universally recognized emblem of the new post-punk sensibility, it helped the genre as a whole cross that gap, as well.
4. The Slits - Cut (1979)
More than any other post-punk record, Cut put the genre's reggae and dub appropriation into focus. The Slits' wobbling bass, offbeat guitars, and prodigious use of delay, reverb, and other studio effects gave greater nuance to songs with as much political and social purpose as any of their contemporaries, even including those who lifted the same characteristics for their music, but often with a far groovier backdrop and a more distinctive sonic approach. Cut was, in many respects, the ideal conglomeration of dance music and punk, volatile politics and quirky sound, world influence and local flair -- everything the best post-punk bands promised to be and more.
At the same time, the Slits were far too unique to be a quintessential post-punk band. "Typical Girls" ricocheted through beats in a way that pointed toward post-punk's obsession with unbalanced rhythm, but without any particular center. "So Tough" vibrated with a manic punk essence, but with an emphasis on memorable yet ever-changing melodies. Their subversive twist on "I Heard It Through the Grapevine" might have been pure post-punk irreverence if it weren't for an earnest commitment that transformed it into a more-than-worthy cover. Too much about Cut was divorced from the conventions of the larger post-punk movement to make it truly representative.
Perhaps the most discernable lasting influence the album bestowed upon the punk world was vocalist Ari Up's signature voice, a combination of wailing vibrato and gnashing power that would re-emerge throughout the '90s in particular, namely through riot grrrl movement. It was one of the fresher traits -- along with their vigorous vocal harmonies and pop-mined feminist politics -- that pushed the Slits away from cross-cultural novelty and into the territory of one-of-a-kind visionaries who brought together hybrid sounds and sparks of radical experimentalism for something utterly brand new.
3. Talking Heads - Remain in Light (1980)
Released between the elemental Fear of Music and the groovy pop musings of Speaking in Tongues, Remain in Light sat on the cusp of Talking Heads' more accessible turn from post-punk credibility to prime new wave prominence. The album represents far more than a transformative hybrid rock experience, though. It brings together for the first time the dynamic rhythmic interplay of classical minimalism and the everyman groove of modern dance music in a new vision of postmodern art-pop that would forever alter the course of popular music.
While post-punk stalwarts were no strangers to seemingly unrelated genres like reggae and disco, on Remain in Light, the Talking Heads took guidance from even more oblique inspirations. The record derived much of the nervous energy it's known for from the restless grooves of Afrobeat and the jittery highs of contemporary funk. Those moves that added swaths of new percussion instruments and multi-tracked guitar and keyboard lines to the mix, intricate layers of texture that distorted the band's previously focused approach to songwriting.
Even the album's most accessible tracks -- "Once in a Lifetime", "Crosseyed and Painless", "Born Under Punches (The Heat Goes On)" -- cut long and winding paths through common post-punk territory, yet the band still maintained their vivacious pop identity. It's not hyperbole to recognize that the perfectly calibrated yet artistically vibrant Remain in Light revealed at once all the brilliance and ambition of the post-punk movement. With it, the Talking Heads showed how, even as artists gradually turned away from the genre's standard trappings, they were able to carry its distinct sensibilities into new realms of sound wholly intact. That is, after all, how the genre was able to endure up to today.
2. Joy Division - Closer (1980)
So much of Closer, Joy Division's second and final album, has been reduced to mythology. Long after his tragic suicide, lead singer Ian Curtis became a folkloric figure. He was subject to the same kind of lionization that those who presumably appreciated the dismantling power of post-punk to confront the glorification of the rock star lifestyle would have, under normal circumstances, fiercely rejected. But if Curtis's death introduced a hiccup in the ideology of the larger movement, it speaks mostly to just how essential Curtis and Joy Division had become, and just how traumatic their demise was for anyone who followed them.
Closer deserves an understanding from more analytical angles than simply those that try to line up its production with the beats of Curtis' troubled personal life. It's one of the most brilliant evolutions of a band between albums in its time. Beyond reflecting the hidden temperament of a deeply conflicted man, it also introduced a broader musical ambition that would elevate Joy Division's legacy beyond the clear but somewhat unrefined talent they cultivated on Unknown Pleasures.
The searing sound effects, bounding drum beat, and infectious hook of "Atrocity Exhibition", the ever-present sparkles of synthesizer in "Isolation", the off-kilter rhythmic patterns of "Colony", the contemplative yet transformative energy of "Twenty Four Hours" -- it all added new wrinkles to the Unknown Pleasures formula that showed that, even if everyone else was copying the band's essence for their own benefit, Joy Division was going to keep pushing. It's something the surviving members carried into the creation of New Order, and it's the reason Joy Division is remembered so fondly rather than merely as a bright light that faded in a tragic instant.
1. Gang of Four - Entertainment! (1979)
Over its short but ridiculously meaningful lifespan, post-punk came to represent so many different things to people in disparate musical communities all around the globe that, as in today's impossibly expansive, fragmented musical culture, universal acclaim was a precious rarity; no wavers had few connections with European synthpop, jangle pop had little in common with the avant-garde, and dance-punk artists in one scene had completely different interests from dance-punk artists in another. On one hand, it was part of the beauty of the movement that every individual artist had their own ambitions, their own voice, and their own passions; on the other, it kept the genre from penetrating into mainstream appreciation the way it deserved.
Still, a few key albums during the post-punk period managed to transcend such factionalism and unite the divergent visions of the genre as a movement. Gang of Four's magnetic debut is one such masterpiece. Entertainment! is the quintessential post-punk record, embodying in parts everything the movement was as a whole: political, cerebral, hook-heavy, danceable, and raw. It somehow did it all better than any of them, and it did it all at once.
It's all there: Andy Gill's searing guitar hooks, Dave Allen's athletic bass maneuvers, Hugo Burnham's hollow funk beats, Jon King's infectious snarl. Separated from the others, each individual's contributions on Entertainment! are instantly recognizable and, to various degrees, iconic. Gill in particular delivered some of the greatest guitar licks of the era in any genre alongside his and King's lyrics that were stark and cutting but plainly evocative, as politically relevant now as then. The combination made songs like "Natural's Not In It", "I Found That Essence Rare", and "Damaged Goods" not just bold statements of anti-capitalism, but also lively, wildly fresh, and irresistibly groovy music that no one else anywhere could match. Even with all its serious greatness, the album was still primal fun with no compromises.
Entertainment! exemplified the best post-punk had to offer in every facet, and it earned the record an esteemed position as one of the most respected and appreciated albums of the '70s even outside of the genre. Of course, post-punk was never one idea, or even a handful of ideas, conventions, or codes. But the closest the movement ever got to a singular ideological, artistic, and musical statement was Entertainment!
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This article originally published on 26 January 2017.
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- The 50 Best Post-Punk Albums Ever: Part 2 - PopMatters ›
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