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 signalled 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.


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.


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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.

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