The 50 Best New Wave Albums

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The 50 Best New Wave Albums

As we look at the best New Wave albums of the ‘70s and ‘80s, we’re focused both on the early records which overlap with our 50 Best Post-Punk Albums list through the New Romantics, left-of-center power-pop and synth rock of the ‘80s. The following albums were collectively chosen by Paste music writers and editors.

New Wave music meant a lot of things in the late 1970s. It encompassed pretty much everything that followed the punk movement that still served as an alternative to mainstream pop and rock. There was power-pop, neo-psychedelia, acid-punk, art rock and lots and lots of keyboards. While “New Wave” and “post-punk” were pretty much interchangeable terms in 1977, by the early ‘80s, the more avant-garde, harder-edged bands divided off into post-punk, and New Wave was the realm of synth-driven pop.

“One of the first misconceptions to fall by the wayside will be the notion that new wave/punk rock is raw, offensive, noncommercial music,” wrote Greg Shaw in a 1978 issue of Billboard. “In fact, it’s now widely recognized that the new wave represents a full spectrum of musical styles with the common factor being a fresh, honest approach and a sense of cultural involvement between artists and audience.”

Shaw also noted that “artist-owned labels, once meaningful only as demos or vanities are now commercially viable thanks to new wave marketing systems.”

In many ways, New Wave gave hope to independent bands playing in burgeoning local scenes. The college-radio boom of the ‘80s and indie rock of the 21st Century both owe a lot to the New Wave bands on this list.

Here are the 50 best New Wave albums:

pretty-in-pink.jpg 50. Pretty in Pink (1986)
John Hughes’ use of music was so distinct and masterful that to this day, lazy music writers can describe something as sounding “like it belongs in a John Hughes movie” and you know exactly what they mean. And out of all his soundtracks, Pretty in Pink is perhaps the John Hughes-iest, full of New Wave classics worthy of its record store-clerk heroine. (The movie even takes its name from the Psychedelic Furs track it opens with.) It’s weird to think that there was a time when people would make out to stuff other than Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark’s “If You Leave” at prom, but the band actually wrote the song specifically for the movie. Echo & the Bunnymen did the same thing with “Bring On the Dancing Horses.” The soundtrack manages to fit perfectly with the themes of the movie, the tastes of its characters and the musical era during which it was compiled.—Bonnie Stiernberg

vapors-new-clear.jpg 49. The Vapors – New Clear Days (1980)
British new wavers The Vapors are often looked at as one-hit wonders with their hit single “Turning Japanese,” a song whose meaning was up for debate upon its release in 1980 when the video was in constant rotation on MTV. But New Clear Days (a pun on “nuclear” days) is a smart, New Wave power-pop record through and through, dripping with satirical lyrics and jagged hooks. Songs like “Letter From Hiro” and the brilliant “Sixty Second Interval” deal with the casualties of war, showing that there was far more to frontman David Fenton’s songs than just a pretty melody.—Mark Lore

beat-stop-it.jpg 48. The Beat (The English Beat) – I Just Can’t Stop It (1980)
While many of their 2-Tone Records contemporaries like The Specials and Madness took pains to cover classic ska sides to establish their bona fides, The English Beat took a different tack, embracing easy listening schmaltz with the same fervor as the reggae artists that inspired them. Hence, the group was able to take a 1963 hit by crooner Andy Williams, tease out the romantic sentiments at its core, and turn it into something more slinky and spirited. It helps that the source material was created by the great songwriting team of Doc Pomus and Mort Shuman and that their arrangement is so spare and open that it could be easily adapted for a rocksteady beat and Dave Wakeling’s blue-eyed soul vocalizing. “Mirror in the Bathroom” was the original hit off this record, but “Can’t Get Used to Losing You” would be the true gem released as a single three years later.—Robert Ham

bow-wow-candy.jpg 47. Bow Wow Wow – I Want Candy (1982)
Bow Wow Wow’s cover of the Strangeloves’ “I Want Candy” still sounds fresh today, with its lively production, surf guitar and tribal drums. It was released as a single and ended up on this compilation along with older songs and a few new ones. Former Sex Pistols manager Malcolm McLaren (he also managed Adam and the Ants) pushed to make teenage vocalist Annabella Lwin the focus during the rise of MTV. It worked, as the video for “I Want Candy” received heavy play. Although the song didn’t push the band to stardom, it does continue to draw ears to Bow Wow Wow’s modest but punchy catalog. And you still hear the influence of songs like “(I’m a) TV Savage” and “Louis Quatorze” on modern indie rock today.—Mark Lore

72.Soft-Boys.jpg 46. 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

buggles-age-plastic.jpg 45. Buggles – The Age of Plastic (1980)
“Video Killed the Radio Star” ushered in a new era in music when it debuted on MTV at 12:01 a.m., Aug. 1, 1981. And while that international hit may be forever associated with a certain time and place, the rest of The Age of Plastic has aged quite well. Buggles were essentially Trevor Horn and Geoffrey Downes, two geeky British musicians who, like Gary Numan, were disciples of bands like Kraftwerk and were dabbling in their own future sounds in the late-’70s. The Age of Plastic’s New Wave influence was forged less in British punk and more in prog rock (both Horn and Downes would later join prog institution Yes on their Drama record). It makes this record (and, even more so, the band’s second album) stand out more for the musicianship, while never taking itself too serious.—Mark Lore

xray-spex-germ-free.jpg 44. 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

adam-ants-kings.jpg 43. Adam and the Ants – Kings of the Wild Frontier (1980)
Adam and his Ants were perhaps known as much for their look as they were their music. Frontman Adam Ant was hard to miss, a swashbuckling lothario in warpaint and glammed-up colonial garb. In fact, some critics in his home country of England dismissed the band on account of their image. Of course, listening with their eyes proved foolish. Kings of the Wild Frontier refined the sound of the band’s debut Dirk Wears White Socks, introducing Burundi beats and a slicker guitar sound from Marco Pirroni on songs like “Antmusic” and “Dog Eat Dog.” To this day it simply sounds like nothing else.—Mark Lore

orange-juice-rip-it-up.jpg 42. 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 “Rip It Up,” 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

waitresses-tomorrow.jpg 41. Waitresses – Wasn’t Tomorrow Wonderful?
Hailing from Akron, Ohio, with the likes of Devo and The Pretenders, The Waitresses fused funk and New Wave to great effect. Guitarist Chris Butler wrote the band’s material, but it was late-singer Patty Donahue’s voice and sassy attitude that made the single “I Know What Boys Like” (and the accompanying video) work like a charm. You could hear the sarcasm and confidence in her voice on songs like “Pussy Strut” and the title track, with the always killer line: “What’s a girl to do? Scream and screw?” Donahue deserves credit for keeping the punk and feminist spirit of singers like Patti Smith and Poly Styrene alive and well, and effectively shoving it onto mainstream audiences, even for a fleeting moment.—Mark Lore

madness-one-step.jpg 40. Madness – One Step Beyond… (1979)
“Hey you, don’t watch that, watch this! This is the heavy heavy monster sound, the nuttiest sound around” So begins the opening track of Madness’ 1979 debut album, immediately reaching out, grabbing you and offering an introduction to the group’s ska-pop. One Step Beyond features a heavy Prince Buster influence, with two Buster covers (the title track and “Madness”) and a tribute to him (“The Prince”), but that “heavy heavy monster sound” it boasts isn’t just a knockoff—it’s a unique statement, a classic moment for the two-tone genre and one that introduced uninitiated pop fans to ska’s second wave.—Bonnie Stiernberg

knack-get.jpg 39. The Knack – Get the Knack (1979)
In retrospect, it’s easy to demean and even dismiss the Knack’s highly hyped debut, but there’s still a certain guilty pleasure associated with the one-two punch of the album’s mega hit singles, “My Sharona” and its equally compelling follow-up, “Good Girls Don’t.” Built on ricochet rhythms, heavy-handed hooks and leader Doug Feiger’s obvious infatuation with the Beatles (they’d later attempt to emulate the Fabs’ evolution into more adventurous terrain), the band’s sound helped spearhead rock’s resurgence following disco’s demise, a take on pure pop with charmingly devilish designs. A blend of school boy naughtiness and inside humor—offered up with a wink and a nod—their attitude hinted at the fact that they never took things quite as seriously as their critics would believe. So while their record label touted them as The Next Big Thing, their inability to transcend the hype relegated them to a momentary phenomenon that sadly fell out of favor.—Lee Zimmerman

gary-newman-pleasure-principle.jpg 38. Gary Numan – The Pleasure Principle (1979)
Groundbreaking in its use of the Polymoog synthesizer, Gary Numan’s debut, The Pleasure Principle, still sounds like the dystopian future, almost four decades later. Like many New Wave artists of the time, Numan often gets unfairly lumped into one-hit wonder status, as his single “Cars” became a Top 10 hit in the U.S. But there’s nary a bad cut on here. “Metal” and “M.E.” buzz with paranoia as synths swell throughout, and the rock-solid rhythm-section of drummer Cedric Sharpley and bassist Paul Gardiner give the songs a welcome rawness and human element.—Mark Lore

jam-all-mod-cons.jpg 37. The Jam – All Mod Cons (1978)
At the tender age of 20, Paul Weller was already burned out. All Mod Cons, the Jam’s third album, was fraught with uncertainty, despite the fact that its young wunderkind was already earning kudos as the once and future Modfather. The album title, an abbreviated take on the familiar slogan, “All the Modern Conveniences,” seemed to both affirm and yet scoff at that suggestion all at once, while a knowing cover of the Kinks’ “David Watts” and the nearly discarded, yet soon to be classic, “Down in the Tube Station at Midnight” solidified the bond between past and present. In time, Weller would transcend his role as a Jam band man and further his standing as “the guvnah,” affirming his standing amongst his heroes-turned-peers Davies and Townshend. For now, however, he was simply content to emulate the legacy of the best Mod gods.—Lee Zimmerman

pylon-gyrate.jpg 36. 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

police-outlandos.jpg 35. The Police – Outlandos d’Amour (1978)
I don’t need to tell you about “Roxanne.” If you are a resident of Earth with access to a radio, you’re definitely familiar with Sting and company’s classic ode to the red light district. But The Police’s debut album is so much more than “Roxanne”: “Can’t Stand Losing You” is an undeniable hit in its own right (and rightfully so), those “whoa-oh-oh”s from “Truth Hits Everybody” make comeuppance sound catchy as hell, and while “So Lonely” lifts shamelessly from Bob Marley’s “No Woman, No Cry,” it’s so good you’ll barely mind.—Bonnie Stiernberg

human-league-dare.jpg 34. The Human League – Dare! (1981)
The Human League’s third record sold loads of copies due to the massive success of the single “Don’t You Want Me,” which you simply couldn’t escape in 1982. The band’s music relied heavily on synthesizers, but it was Dare where their more avant proclivities met with pop and even elements of Bowie-esque glam. But not everything on the record is as immediately catchy as “Don’t You Want Me.” “Seconds” is dark and moody and “Do Or Die,” even with its synth hook, is still elegant and nuanced. Dare was a huge hit for The Human League, but it also remains a forward-thinking record that has aged better than most.—Mark Lore

siouxsie-juju.jpg 33. Siouxsie and the Banshees – Juju (1981)
Siouxsie Sioux started playing music in punk anarchy of the Sex Pistols’ 1970s, but when she invited Magazine guitarist John McGeoch into her band, Goth pioneers Siouxsie and the Banshees helped create a whole new sound. It came together on 1980’s Juju, a dark concept record that ditched electronic sounds for McGeoch’s foreboding guitars. Together with Budgie’s punishing drums and Steven Severin’s frenetic bass, they created the perfect bed for Siouxsie’s lovely, haunting vocals. Who knew black magic could be so beautiful?—Josh Jackson

split-enz-true.jpg 32. Split Enz – True Colours (1980)
By the time Split Enz released True Colours in 1980 they’d already established themselves as a colorful and bizarro art rock band in their home country of New Zealand. This record changed all that, both commercially and stylistically. The band’s proggier elements were replaced by more streamlined pop songs that were heavily influenced by early-Beatles and the burgeoning New Wave scene, most notably in songs like “Shark Attack” and the psychedelic synth instrumental “Double Happy.” Young Neil Finn, recruited by his brother Tim for their previous record Frenzy, also upped his songwriting game, most notably on Split Enz’s breakthrough single “I Got You,” which stands as one of the best New Wave pop songs to this day. That earworm found its way onto a new network called MTV one year later, and the video—which showed the band hadn’t completely abandoned all their eccentricities—pushed Split Enz from cult band to chart-toppers in New Zealand and Australia, and MTV staples in the States.—Mark Lore

go-betweens-tallulah.jpg 31. 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

73.Depeche-Mode.jpg 30. Depeche Mode – Music for the Masses (1987)
By 1987, the popularity of synthizer-based pop music was waning. What was not waning was the widely held belief that keyboard-based music wasn’t as real as rock ’n’ roll, man. In response, Depeche Mode released Music For The Masses, a collection of songs that were, if anything, far more epic in scope that any American arena band at the time; “Never Let Me Down Again” alone had a towering low-end that could shame anything on Headbanger’s Ball. Though written off as fey-novelty when they debuted with “Just Can’t Get Enough” in 1981, the band kept working. Masses was their sixth album and proof that they had perfected a mix of sulk-worthy, no-one-understands lyrics and sensual groove. The title proved accurate, as Masses was Depeche Mode’s biggest worldwide hit yet; they even shocked their detractors by selling out Los Angeles’s gigantic Pasadena Rose Bowl, a feat very few “real” rock bands were capable of.—Michael Tedder

a-ha-hunting.jpg 29. a-Ha – Hunting High and Low (1985)
Most people recognize the Norwegian band a-Ha for “Take On Me”, the rambunctious first track off of Hunting High and Low. Unless you’re a real New Wave fan, it’s not likely you will recognize the remainder of this album, but it’s layered with both bursts of high energy and heart-wrenching slowburners. Title track “Hunting High and Low” shows lead singer Morten Harket’s vocal range, while “Train of Thought” challenges Men At Work’s “Land Down Under” in a windpipe battle. (It’s a tough decision, but a-Ha wins.) Sondre Lerche may be today’s hot Norwegian artist, but thirty years ago it was all about a-Ha.—Annie Black

devoWeAre.jpg 28. Devo, Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo! (1978)
I think I was 16 when I realized Devo wasn’t a jokey one-hit wonder but one of the greatest rock bands of all time. Not that “Whip It” isn’t an amazing song, but it was a little too goofy and ubiquitous for me to take seriously at that very serious age. If I had heard the spastic art rock of Are We Not Men? first I never would’ve doubted them. It’s not their best album, but it’s the best at convincing serious young rock nerds that Devo were more than a silly footnote.—Garrett Martin

b-52s-st.jpg 27. 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

japan-tin-drum.jpg 26. 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

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