In the standard narratives delivered about the history of the last century of popular music, post-punk’s influence is almost always drastically minimized, or worse, goes completely unrecognized. No other genre in the past four decades (including its namesake punk) has had such a profound and demonstrable effect on so many disparate musical styles and icons from the worlds of pop, R&B, electronic, hip-hop, metal, and, of course, rock, and yet the broad implications the movement had (and continues to have) for the wider music community are so often reduced to only a handful of recognizable names and ancillary cultural trends in most popular accounts.
Part of the problem is the dramatic fragmentation the underground rock community experienced during the genre’s rise around the years 1977-1985, something that severely complicates the process of delineating post-punk’s boundaries. Punk’s revolutionary effects on the pragmatics of the music industry — the popularization of independent recording, distribution, and marketing, a rejection of the bureaucratic institutionalization of the same, and a democratization of music-making to a degree unprecedented before the development of the internet — were just as pivotal as its effects on popular songwriting and performance; the genre subsequently broke down the locked doors of the musical establishment that for so long kept amateur artists from pursuing their creative sensibilities, but in that change, caused the long-pervasive schisms between genres to all but dissolve.
In response to the factionalization of the early punk scenes, musicians around the world sought to eradicate the perceived barriers of creation that divided their art into easily marketable product. They began taking from disco and R&B because rockists deemed it uncool; they began taking from dub, psych-rock, and German experimental music because those genres were at the forefront of sound design; they began exploring Dadaist, existentialist, and postmodernist themes because most rock and punk music hadn’t been intellectually stimulating enough for their liking. After punk, popular music became something of a conglomeration of cultural thought from around the world.
“Post-punk”, in the most general terms, has come to refer to the resulting boom of musical experimentation that developed out of this industry-wide sea change, but without any more definitive attributes, the term could just as easily apply to almost any working musical artist of the early ’80s, from R.E.M. and U2 to Grace Jones and the Police to Flipper and the Minutemen. Perhaps the easiest way to understand post-punk, then, is both as a somewhat narrow genre classification as well as, from a historical perspective rather than an artistic one, an umbrella term under which fell anything that retained even the remotest connection to the subversive, anti-establishment ethos of punk music in the wake of its rapid commercialization: jangle pop, goth rock, new wave, synthpop, early electro, etc.
This particular list is intended as a primer for the more focused stylistic conception of the post-punk genre, but given the genre’s breadth, lapses into its wider reaches are entirely unavoidable. To counteract this inevitability, albums usually characterized by more auxiliary subgenres such as new wave were chosen for this list based on whether they maintained a significant link to the standard set of codes usually associated with the more narrowly-defined definition of post-punk. This is why esteemed artists such as New Order, whose album Movement was their most historically “post-punk” recording but also widely regarded as their weakest of the period, do not appear on this list, and others like the Cure and Echo & the Bunnymen, who originated as “traditional” post-punk bands but eventually evolved to transcend the label, appear with records that aren’t universally considered their in-their-prime masterpieces.
Another problem arises in strictly limiting the list to only studio albums. As with any genre, the full story of post-punk cannot be unmasked in such a restricted way. There are too many artists like Liquid Liquid, Mars, and the Normal, whose legacies exist only through singles, EPs, and posthumous compilations rather than conventional albums, or like Delta 5 and Bush Tetras, whose studio records are widely regarded as inferior products unrepresentative of their greater influence. Because of these limiting factors, an exercise like this is inherently flawed, but it does not mean it’s entirely devoid of merit. After all, most of the history of post-punk only survives through these albums, some dug out of obscurity and reissued as recently as the last ten years, and even in today’s age of exponentially increased cultural splintering, the album remains the quintessential conventional format to release popular music, even when the stories they tell are incomplete. We may no longer be able to see Joy Division or the Talking Heads perform first-hand, for example, but their legacies persist most concretely through their albums.
So it’s with these considerations firmly in mind that I welcome you to explore 50 of the most brilliant, impactful, innovative, and controversial albums of the classic post-punk era, a collection the reverberations of which can be and will continue to be felt for generations.
— Colin Fitzgerald