The 50 Best Post-Punk Albums

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The 50 Best Post-Punk Albums

As far as genre descriptors go, post-punk is pretty vague—let’s just get that out of the way immediately. In the late ’70s, punk bands like the Sex Pistols and Buzzcocks began tiring of the standard rock tropes, and members went on to experiment in different directions, inspiring others—particularly in the UK and New York, but also in places like Cleveland and Athens, Ga.—to incorporate unusual sounds, from electronica to free jazz to world music, into their punk-rock roots. The results were as musically and lyrically diverse as they were artistically vital. Post-punk lyrics could be scathingly political or absurdly nonsensical. There was an anger to much of the music, but it was often masked by a playfulness. These were musicians interested in seeing where music could go.

The 50 post-punk albums here were selected by a team of Paste writers and editors, looking at the original post-punk movement from 1977-1987, not post-punk revivalists like The Strokes or Arctic Monkeys. There’s significant overlap here with the New Wave movement, but you won’t find bands like Duran Duran or even Elvis Costello. There are early albums from U2, R.E.M. and The Cure on here, even though we wouldn’t consider the bulk of their output post-punk. But we want to celebrate the pioneering, essential albums of the post-punk era, many of which have been overlooked by history. It should be noted that, while still underrepresented, women played a much bigger role in the evolution of post-punk than of the punk rock of the 1970s; that original decade was also overwhelmingly white, though post-punk has since had several resurgences throughout the world, especially in Latin America.

Here are the 50 Best Post-Punk Albums (1977-1987).

orange-juice-rip-it-up.jpg 50. Orange Juice – Rip It Up (1982)
For most people, Scottish band Orange Juice was a one-hit wonder known for the UK Top 10 song “Orange Juice,” which was one of their most keyboard-driven New Wave-y tunes. But for those who bothered to listen beyond the opening title track, Rip It Up was an overlooked post-punk gem with funk rhythms, angular guitars and catchy melodies. It was New Romanticism with all the softness and glamour removed.—Josh Jackson

marine-girls-lazy-ways.jpg 49. Marine Girls – Lazy Ways (1983)
Taking cues from their forebears in Young Marble Giants, Marine Girls stripped their instrumentation down to the barest of essentials: a strangely tuned guitar, stately bass playing, stray bits of percussion, and the distinctive vocals of co-leaders Jane Fox and Tracey Thorn. There was little else like this in the U.K. indie scene of the time, and no one has managed to replicate the daring beauty and unkempt charm that this quartet accomplished during their short stint together. Their second album especially has a quiet weirdness that feels like a language made up by the closest of close friends. If the Lisbon sisters of The Virgin Suicides grew up in late ’70s England, this is the music they would make.—Robert Ham

51+vlhbPxqL.jpg 48. Killing Joke – What’s THIS For…! (1981)
There has always been something angular and mechanical about Killing Joke, as if their dark, frantic tunes were meant to be the workplace soundtrack for our future robot overlords. As much post-metal as post-rock, the English quartet (now quintet) laid the groundwork for an industrial music revolution. The real genius here is the human emotion that comes through such spare efficiency.—Josh Jackson

the-fall-grotesque.jpg 47. The Fall – Grotesque (After the Gramme) (1980)
Mark E. Smith confirmed his status as the funniest man in rock ‘n’ roll with the Fall’s third record, where he directs his acid wit towards early Thatcherite England, the cartoonish promise of America, the fatuousness of the music industry, and the gormlessness of modern society and culture. Even at his most scathing and condescending, Smith remembers to toss out one-liners and observations more brutal and hilarious than any comedian on songs like “English Scheme” and “C ‘n’ C-S Mithering.” It culminates in the genuine epic “The NWRA,” a ten-minute fantasy of England’s industrial north rising up against their cultural enemies in the south and making a hash of it.—Garrett Martin

xray-spex-germ-free.jpg 46. X-Ray Spex – Germfree Adolescents (1978)
As with some of the best post-punk bands of the era, this punk quintet didn’t survive past the bright blast of their debut album (LP #2 didn’t arrive until 17 years later). Burning out never sounded quite as great as this, though. Honed to a dangerous point by months of live shows, the London-born group tears through a dozen songs with a casual swing but enough jet fuel in their tanks to propel lead singer Poly Styrene and Rudi Thompson’s sax playing to dizzying heights. Poppy enough to feel like candy; weighty enough to leave a deliciously painful knot in your gut after “The Day The World Turned Day-Glo” grinds to a halt.—Robert Ham

72.Soft-Boys.jpg 45. Soft Boys – Underwater Moonlight (1980)
Today it’s hard to understand how the lightly psychedelic pop-rock of the Soft Boys was ever considered anything close to punk. Frontman Robyn Hitchcock is basically just Elvis Costello without the need to appear at every all-star jam. Underwater Moonlight sounds like the best bar band in the world playing hits from a world that’s better than our own. “I Wanna Destroy You” and “Queen of Eyes,” especially, should be radio staples.—Garrett Martin

mission-of-burma-vs.jpg 44. Mission of Burma – Vs. (1982)
“Post-punk” is about as vague and ill-fitting as most genre names. It could mean music that was more complex or more stripped down than punk, catchier or noisier. Or, when you talk about Mission of Burma, almost all of those things at once. Vs., the only album they released during the 1980s, before reuniting in the 21st century, is punk rock as wall of noise, with Roger Miller’s guitar and Martin Swope’s tape effects washing over Clint Conley’s melodic basslines and Peter Prescott’s complex drum patterns. It’s a furious sound that’s both passionate and cerebral, and a pivotal influence on some of the best underground guitar rock of the last 30 years.—Garrett Martin

game-theory-big-shot.jpg 43. Game Theory – The Big Shot Chronicles (1986)
The third LP by cult favorite power pop band Game Theory was a massive leap forward for the project. At this point in the group’s trajectory, band leader Scott Miller had relocated to San Francisco, forced to assemble an entirely new lineup to fulfill promotional duties for the previous record and to continue the momentum he had gained to this point. The stars then fell into alignment for Game Theory as the sound of Big Shot is big, brash, and purposeful. The chords of the hip-grinding “I’ve Tried Subtlety” cutting through the stereo field like a rapier; the charming hooks of “Erica’s Word,” “Never Mind,” and “Crash Into June” impossible to ignore. And through it all Miller’s silver-tongued wordplay and giddy wit dances through it all, revealing that there is still life left in the love song and the angst-ridden ballad.—Robert Ham

homepage_large.016597f9.jpg 42. Swell Maps – Jane From Occupied Europe (1980)
Krautrock was a big influence on some of the earliest post-punk bands, and it might be more evident with Swell Maps than anybody else. They made catchy rock songs out of droning noise and repetitive rhythms, with group vocals that are often almost chanted, occasional saxophone blurts and burbling organ beneath Nikki Sudden’s monolithic walls of guitar. Between the shambling noise-rock of second album Jane from Occupied England lie ambient experiments, sound collages and poignant piano detours from Sudden’s brother Epic Soundtracks. Perfectly acceptable pop songs like “Cake Shop” share space with proto Sonic Youth jams like “The Helicopter Spies” and the clattering assembly line noise of “Big Maze in the Desert”—and all in a straight sequence on the first side. The 1980 album is a sampler of various possible paths for rock music to take in the decade ahead, filtered through the unique sensibilities of one of the era’s most distinctive bands.—Garrett Martin

the-raincoats.jpg 41. The Raincoats – The Raincoats (1979)
If the prototype for post-punk is a bunch of British art students in the late ‘70s forming a garage band that incorporates dub beats and an odd collection of world music instruments, then Raincoats are the most post-punk band of all time. By the time they released their self-titled debut, they were a quartet of women, playing dissonant, non-commercial songs with odd harmonies and mesmerizing critics.—Josh Jackson

cocteau-twins-treasure.jpg 40. Cocteau Twins – Treasure (1984)
The first full realization of the ethereal pop sound that this Scottish group was cultivating for the previous few years finally came to flower on their third album Treasure. With the help of newest member Simon Raymonde, they struck the perfect balance of accessibility and inaccessibility. You could fall in love with the deliriously dreamy guitar tones that Robin Guthrie coaxed to life and their well-programmed drum machine, but if you wanted to sing along, you were out of luck as vocalist Elizabeth Fraser kept you at an arm’s length with her fractured experiments in language. Yet the sheer allure of that voice and the variations in timbre that she was able to bring out of it kept you trying in vain to get closer and closer to the source.—Robert Ham

sonic-youth-sister.jpg 39. Sonic Youth – Sister (1987)
Sonic Youth’s Sister saw the no-wave band take the most tentative steps towards traditional song structure, and the result was a perfect ending to the original post-punk era. While many of the genre’s leading bands came out of a punk background, adding experimental art-rock elements, Thurston Moore, Kim Gordon and Lee Ranaldo adapted their avante-garde project into an ass-kicking rock band. While the following year’s Daydream Nation may be their indie-rock masterpiece, the weirder, more muscular Sister exemplifies everything great about post-punk music.—Josh Jackson

young-marble-giants-colossal-youth.jpg 38. Young Marble Giants – Colossal Youth (1980)
This minimalist trio have yet to record a follow-up to their magical debut album, even after playing a bunch of reunion shows together in recent years. And I rather hope that they never try. I think even they know that they will never recapture the same strange combination of rickety drum machine technology, shambling guitar and bass work, and Alison Statton’s just barely in tune vocals. You couldn’t have plotted it out on a map at the time to any degree of success, yet these Welsh wonders did it without a second thought. They used the tools available to them at the time and a keen ear for songwriting (courtesy of guitarist Stuart Moxham) and came up with a sparkling jewel of an album never to be bettered or replicated.—Robert Ham

birthday-party-prayers.jpg 37. The Birthday Party – Prayers on Fire (1981)
The world first encountered Nick Cave’s junkie vampire schtick through the Birthday Party, the nihilistic post-punk band he formed in Melbourne with Mick Harvey, Phil Calvert, Tracy Pew and Rowland S. Howard. Their first full-length Prayers on Fire is almost oppressively dark, with the only relief from Cave’s perverse lyrics coming from his own guttural whelps and moans. Meanwhile the thudding rhythms of Calvert and Pew add a firm spine for Howard and Harvey to mold their guitar scrapes and organ buzz around. Prayers on Fire takes the challenging sound of the Pop Group and PiL’s Metal Box and turns it into something even darker and more disturbing.—Garrett Martin

pere-ubu-dub-housing.jpg 36. Pere Ubu – Dub Housing (1978)
I honestly didn’t know what to make of Pere Ubu when I heard them as a teenager. This sounded like music coming from a tribal village on Pluto, not Cleveland, Ohio. Frontman David Thomas jokingly called it “avant-garage,” but that actually sums it up pretty well: If Marcel Duchamp and Alejandro Jodorowsky plugged in a second-hand guitar with a wah-wah pedal and an EML synthesizer full of sci-fi whizzes and whirs in their suburban basement, you might have gotten something like this. Their second LP Dub Housing deconstructed song after song into noise collages that would occasionally resolve into bubbly pop-punk. It’s as rewarding as they is challenging.—Josh Jackson

japan-tin-drum.jpg 35. Japan – Tin Drum (1981)
On Tin Drum, Japan’s fifth and final LP, the British band adds a layer of worldliness to their lush art-pop, immersing themselves in Asian instrumentation (Chinese reed instrument suona) and imagery (“Visions of China”). Following the departure of guitarist Rob Dean, Japan secured more sonic space to indulge their experimental whims – from the digital landscapes of UK hit “Ghost” to the Far East textures of “Canton.” Throughout, David Sylvian’s warbled, post-Bryan Ferry croon slithers around Mick Karn’s purring fretless bass and Richard Barbieri’s textured keys—a combination both soothing and unsettling. —Ryan Reed

pylon-gyrate.jpg 34. Pylon – Gyrate (1980)
When Pylon released their debut album, not many outside of Athens, Ga., took notice. But for the art majors and quirky townies in the Classic City, Pylon was the local embodiment of the post-punk scene, proving you didn’t have to be in London or New York to create something special. Droning bass, buzzing guitar and absolutely punishing drums provided the framework for Vanessa Briscoe to scream her way to the edge of insanity. Live, the singer was a spinning firecracker on stage, personifying the album’s title, Gyrate, exploding through songs like “Feast on My Heart” and “Stop It.” R.E.M. ensured the album wouldn’t be lost to history, when drummer Bill Berry proclaimed Pylon the best band in America.—Josh Jackson

go-betweens-tallulah.jpg 33. The Go-Betweens – Tallulah (1987)
Led by their two distinctive—and distinctly different—singer/songwriters, the incurably ironic Robert Forster and the incurably romantic Grant McLennan, Australia’s Go-Betweens were a classic case of a band that was criminally under-appreciated in its time beyond a fiercely loyal cult following. For the uninitiated, Tallulah is a great introduction, featuring several signature works by the group’s chief writers, most notably McLennan’s infectiously chorused shoulda-been-hits “Right Here” and “Bye Bye Pride,” as well as such characteristically edgy Forster compositions as the undertowing “House That Jack Kerouac Built” and “The Clarke Sisters,” a haunting character study of spinsters that perfectly captures its author’s eye for detail. For aficionados, it’s a wonderful opportunity to relive the promise and optimism of the New Wave movement.—Billy Altman

minutemen-double.jpg 32. Minutemen – Double Nickels on the Dime (1984)
The Minutemen’s magnum opus is a stream-of-consciousness jumble of punk, jazz, funk, country and folk, with a handful of abbreviated classic rock covers thrown in for context’s sake. It’s an overwhelming piece of work, as overtly political as anything in the band’s catalogue, with its kaleidoscope of fractured, bite-sized songs treating personal and global politics as equally important. D. Boon and Mike Watt complimented each other perfectly, both as two halves of the band’s skronky, funky guitar/bass heart, and as politically conscious citizens who together could address issues both macro and micro.—Garrett Martin

feelies.jpg 31. The Feelies – Crazy Rhythms (1980)
If I had a musical time machine, one of my first stops would be to visit the post-punk scene of New York right around 1980. I’d go see The Feelies at CBGB right after their debut album Crazy Rhythms and watch the crowd of other young musicians react to the melding of driving bass and drums with experimental guitar, a sound that would help inspire some of the best New Wave, gothic rock and jangly college rock.—Josh Jackson

the-pop-group-y.jpg 30. The Pop Group – Y (1979)
A band that cooked up completely unhinged music informed by African beats, free jazz, dub reggae production, and various extremes of Dadaist poetry and self-expression yet calling themselves The Pop Group is one of the greatest bits of irony to come out of the post-punk era. The debut album by this band from Bristol is all right angles, jagged shards of melody, and the coiled rage that would fuel fellow bands like The Birthday Party, The Fall, and Minutemen. Nothing comes as expected and nothing is as advertised, and you would do well to brace yourself against Mark Stewart’s barrage of words, groans, squeaks, and shrieks.—Robert Ham

Talk Talk Spirit of Eden.jpg 29. Talk Talk – Spirit of Eden (1988)
Call it post-punk, post-rock, psych-jazz or experimental mumbo-jumbo. Whatever your preferred tag, one thing is clear: In the 20-plus years since its 1988 release, there’s never been another album quite like Talk Talk’s infamous masterpiece, Spirit of Eden. Mark Hollis sings enough just to barely sing, quivering out artful melodic squiggles with his radiant chest-cold tone, slinging spiritual poetry drenched in fog. Beneath is a utopian cavern of sonic heaven—double-bass moans, flickers of muted trumpet, sizzling cymbals, violent clashes of electric guitar.—Ryan Reed

The Fall Hex.jpg 28. The Fall – Hex Enduction Hour (1982)
In my alternate universe, The Fall would have the top 12 or so slots on this list. If I could only pick one, though, and if that one can’t be an EP (sorry, Slates!), then Hex Enduction Hour would get the nomination after an unusually rancorous brokered convention. Basically it’s classic second-wave Fall at the peak of the twin-drummer/pre-Brix era, a lumbering rock ’n’ roll juggernaut built on plodding repetition and Mark E. Smith’s caustically hilarious lyrics. In classic Fall fashion, both band and record are entirely indifferent to whatever an audience could theoretically want.—Garrett Martin

dbs.jpg 27. The dB’s – Stands For Decibels (1981)
Two years before R.E.M. released Murmur and three years after Big Star’s Third/Sister Lover, Peter Holsapple and Chris Stamey continued the tradition of Southern jangly guitar rock with their Winston/Salem, N.C. outfit The dB’s. Stamey had played bass with Alex Chilton, but the combination of Stamey and Holsapple produced something equally Byrds-influenced with lovely harmonies, tight rhythm and power-pop melodies.—Josh Jackson

b-52s-st.jpg 26. The B52’s – The B52’s
In a 1980 Rolling Stone interview, conducted mere months before his tragic assassination, John Lennon credited The B-52’s cooky surf-rock classic “Rock Lobster” with sparking his final musical comeback. High praise, but not unwarranted: With their 1979 debut, the Athens, Georgia quintet seemingly arrived on Earth as rock stars from Planet Camp—combining chugging punk guitars, Farfisa organs, Swinging Sixties sci-fi lyrics and the enthralling vocal silliness of singers Fred Schneider, Kate Pierson and Cindy Wilson. The B-52’s remains a lost classic of post-punk/New-Wave, delivering more fun-per-minute than almost any other LP of the past four decades.—Ryan Reed

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