How does one define the indefinable? With a top 20 list, of course. Post-punk is one genre that seems to be accredited to almost every rock ‘n’ roll act that came out after the fervent explosion of fiery punk around 1976. In fact, there’s even a great deal of music that could, stylistically, be attributed the post-punk moniker while being released before the advent of the mother genre. It’s a confusing theme that runs throughout most of the albums listed here.
A few rules guide our 20 favourite post-punk albums of all time. Firstly, such is the wealth of music collated under this banner that we’ve limited inclusions from single acts to one record each. While it does restrict acts such as The Cure, Siouxsie and The Banshees and Talking Heads, it also opens up the room for more artists to show their wares. Equally, we’re only looking at the strict post-punk period of 1977 – 1988. It removes many revivalists of the genre, which still make rollicking post-punk music in the 21st century. What we have, therefore, is a rock-solid, robust and riveting rundown of the greatest post-punk albums of all time.
Originally called ‘new musick’, post-punk became the hottest genre around after punk had seemingly burnt itself to the ground with the commercialisation of their safety-pinned sound and ripped-up aesthetic. As soon as it burst into life, it was publically snuffed out by bands and artists. While punk had been founded on the DIY ethos that still permeates today’s genre — championing a basic song structure, rudimentary playing and fearsome performances — post-punk was a far more experimental place to be.
The genre encouraged musical experimentation and welcomed the avant-garde like an old friend. While punk had been a liberation of music that somehow managed to confine a whole generation to three chords, post-punk was the real push for musical freedom. It meant that new styles such as funk, jazz and electro were suddenly given a new home in the rock forum. Post-punk may feel like an afterthought, but it was the most forward-thinking musical movement the world had witnessed.
It makes whittling down the vast genre to just 20 of its greatest albums one of the more difficult things we’ve had to do in a while. But here we are, the greatest post-punk albums of all time.
20 greatest post-punk album:
20. Orange Juice – Rip It Up (1982)
Now, we’re not going to try and argue that the success of Orange Juice’s 1982 record Rip It Up wasn’t directly tied to their song ‘Rip It Up’ but to ignore the whole record’s impact is to miss a trick.
The Scottish band put the one-hit-wonder at the front of the album as a way to sate those only here for the song. Beyond that track, the album evolves into a crossover of new wave, funk and foundational math-rock that both delights and sears everything in its path. Post-modernist punk at its finest, the album refuses to conform in every way.
19. Suicide – Suicide (1977)
Few people had an over-arching influence on the post-punk scene like Alan Vega and Suicide. The band are now rightly toted as inspirational figures of the genre but struggled to find a footing when they initially released their self-titled record in 1977. Only just scraping into our list thanks to the date, the electro-punks completely changed the game.
The truth is, when Suicide was released, the band were very much disliked. The group were even the cause of a riot after their support slot for Elvis Costello saw the crowd lose their cool and storm the stage. But it was exactly this kind of visceral engagement that the band took pleasure in.
In attitude, sound and delivery, Suicide never bowed to commercial pressure and have been considered heroes because of it.
18. Magazine – Real Life (1978)
Magazine had some serious chops attached to them when they started. The Manchester band were fronted by now other than the Buzzcocks own Howard Devoto. The Buzzcocks were famed for turning punk into pop songs but with Magazine, Devoto took the rhythm of punk and turned it upside down.
Somehow adding an even naughtier tone to the music, Devoto opened up the floor for a flood of different musicians. It means Real Life isn’t just stacked with guitars but bustling synths and rambunctious saxophones too. The record is both candid and humorous, dramatic and silly, unbridled yet cultivated.
It’s the kind of album that shines as a foundational moment of the genre, least of all because it came from one of punk’s icons.
17. X-Ray Spex – Germ Free Adolescents (1978)
X-Ray Spex only really missed out on being labelled punk for three reasons. Firstly, though their act on this record is honed to perfection, the band never gained a strong enough foothold in a quick enough time to be considered punk. Secondly, the group employed a range of different musicians too, hanging heavily on the saxophone. But, most important of all, they had Poly Styrene.
That’s not to say lead singer Styrene was an archetypal punk — she most certainly was. But Styrene brought an incredible amount of talent with her to the position of punk rock lead singer. Not the kind of talent one expects from a punk singer.
On Germ Free Adolescents she shines brightest of all and allows this record to traverse almost every genre definition you want to chuck at it. A gem of an album, from start to finish.
16. Nick Cave – From Her to Eternity (1984)
The band’s debut record was titled as a pun on the James Jones novel From Here To Eternity and suggested that Cave was always making a joke, whether you were listening or not. It shone a light on Cave’s talents as a songwriter and allowed his style to finally be given the room it deserved.
As well as providing the first real helping of what being a Bad Seed was all about, it also saw Cave pay homage to his hero Leonard Cohen, covering the singer’s song ‘Avalanche’ as the first number on the record. From there on it’s a masterclass in evocative imagery.
15. The Fall – Grotesque (After The Gramme) (1981)
The first record to come from The Fall’s brilliant relationship with Rough Trade record label, Grotesque (After The Gramme) saw the band pursue a purer sound with the help of label founder Geoff Travis.
Notable moments of the album highlighted their fiery heart with ‘The N.W.R.A’, ‘New Face In Hell’ and ‘Impression of J. Temperance’ all inspiring in their own right. But, as with every Fall record, the real reason we’re here is to get our faces splattered with acidic rhetoric from Mark E. Smith. It’s one album where Smith steals the show and we, as an audience, are left captivated by his charisma.
14. Talk Talk – Spirit of Eden (1988)
Okay, so here is one album that truly defies definition. A combination of post-punk, post-rock, jazz, psychedelia and the hefty dose of experimentation Mark Hollis brought to everything, makes up one of the most essential albums of the 1980s.
Talk Talk’s Spirit of Eden isn’t just a great record from the decade but, if released today, would still send shockwaves across the airwaves.
Hollis’ subtle and gentle vocal acts as the perfect refrain from the sometimes bonkers instrumentation. There are some double-bass notes, a few trumpets and even the kind of cymbal work that makes drummers drool. But all of it is underpinned by the feeling that this album, almost unlike any other on our list, is a pure and singularly unique venture. It’s a record that deserves re-listening again and again.
13. Devo – Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo
Few albums have announced a band as sufficiently as Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo. The record says everything you need to know about the band Devo, and while in 2021 the prospect may feel a little passe, in the late seventies, the mere concept of Devo was revolutionary.
For that reason alone, the band go a long way to define the very nature of post-punk music.
Not necessarily the band’s best album, Are We Not Men? is certainly their seminal moment in musical history. It was this album that allowed a generation of music lovers to cock their head sideways and attack rock music with a brand new view. Devo are undoubted pioneers of the post-punk genre and kept the keen spirit of experimentation at the forefront of everything they did.
12. Echo & The Bunnymen – Ocean Rain (1984)
Some bands and genres were made for each other. The idea that a world of post-punk music could exist without Echo & The Bunnymen in it is preposterous. Likewise, the band relished the opportunity for expression, the new styles and sounds provided to them.
Ocean Rain, the band’s fourth record, is the perfect distillation of this meeting of minds.
Not only was the album imbibed with a sense of drama thanks to Ian McCulloch’s searing lyricism, but accompanied by a 35-piece orchestra, lush arrangements vastly enriched the album. Across nine songs, the record’s dark and moody concept feels as attainable as the wind in the night. Chaotic and crazed in parts, the album is a tour de force of experimental expression. As we said, Echo & The Bunnymen and post-punk are the perfect fit.
11. The B-52s – The B-52s (1979)
There’s no getting away from the campy cartoonish image of The B-52s and, frankly, they wouldn’t want you to. The band emerged in the late seventies as the kitschy cousin of punk-rock but as their sound progressed and began to involve more elements of surf-rock, rock-a-billy and so much more, their moniker soon changed.
Its dark and moody sound often characterises post-punk, but the B-52s do a good job of brightening the place up. While the band’s contemporaries were keen to use post-punk to rally against the day’s political factions, the B-52s were far happier shaking their rumps and getting down on the dancefloor.
Their absurdist standpoint and experimental sounds allow them to fit neatly as a square peg into the post-punk’s round hole.
10. The Jesus and Mary Chain – Psychocandy (1985)
Psychocandy definitely captures a certain dream-like, moody aesthetic. Perhaps it helps that the most popular track off the album, ‘Just Like Honey’, appears in Sofia Coppola’s film, Lost in Translation featuring Bill Murray. It may take some people a few listens before they realise just how brilliant the record is.
What one may have to do, is let go of any expectations you have for music; meet the music — don’t always expect the music to meet you.
Psychocandy is certainly not a commercial record, this is a work of art. Although having said that, the record is very enjoyable in ways that a commercial record is enjoyable; it has catchy hooks, loud guitars, and a general reverb-soaked sound. Although released in 1985, the album sounds like it belongs in the ’60s; today’s age is not the only time that bands looked back in time and saw a better time for art.
9. Public Image Ltd. – Metal Box (1979)
Desperate to torch his past, John Lydon, nee Rotten, was the man holding the matches when Public Image Ltd. announced themselves on the world stage. Granted far more exposure than most bands of the time thanks to the Sex Pistols, Lydon never missed an opportunity to promote the premise that this group weren’t really a band at all.
It was a catchy headline for plenty of tabloids, but the truth is, on this record, Lydon finally put the music first.
Helped in no small part by the sincere talent of Jah Wobble on bass and Keith Leven on guitar, the force with which PiL landed is hard to quantify. It’s the band’s defining moment on record and should rightly be regarded as one of the foundational moments of the genre. Simply put, drop the needle on Metal Box and guarantee yourself a world-class time.
8. Siouxsie and The Banshees – Juju (1981)
Having become one of the pivotal figures in punk rock during the late seventies, by the early part of the next decade, Siouxsie and her band were beginning to find their own feet and creating a brand new sound of their own.
In 1981 they released the brilliant Juju, and it signified a big change, not only in The Banshees’ sound but also in Britain’s culture entirely. The brazen and bratty side of punk had resided, and now there was something more artistic awaiting the group. With Steve Severin’s basslines and Siouxsie’s theatrical vocals, the move into something new was always likely to be a touch darker.
There are hits all over the LP too. ‘Spellbound’ and ‘Arabian Knights’ are obvious bangers while a similarly dark territory is explored on ‘Voodoo Dolly’ and ‘Night Shift’, as two fine pieces of goth-pop gone right. While the album was just a stepping stone for the band towards their neo-psyche-pop stardom, the LP is a clear cultural touchpoint for any fledgeling goth.
7. The Cure – Pornography (1982)
In 1982, The Cure were still establishing their sound and with this album, Pornography, the group did a great job at rounding it all out. If you wanted a quick summary of exactly what the band were all about in ‘82, then you need only hear one of the first lines of the album: “It doesn’t matter if we all die.”
That song, ‘One Hundred Years’, is one of many songs highlighting The Cure’s new direction. Having followed a similar path to Siouxsie and The Banshees (emerging from punk to find a new artistic channel), the group use their post-punk sensibilities to capture the intense feeling of the band’s regeneration.
The album is only eight tracks wrong, but every aspect of gothic rock is covered. There are the themes of sex through the track ‘Siamese Twins’, drugs on ‘A Short Term Effect’ and the impending dread of death on pretty much of every song. The group brings their single-minded vision to record and prove that they were a band capable of defining whatever scene they drifted into. It just so happens that they’re happiest when sad.
6. Gang of Four – Entertainment! (1979)
By 1979, it was clear that punk was never going to recover. The stars of old had all but burnt out, and although The Clash released the seminal album London Calling in that year, the writing was firmly on the wall. After all, that album had been rather more littered with wide-ranging influences anyhow. One band saw this devolution of a genre and jumped on as soon as possible — Gang of Four.
Typified by their angular guitar sounds, the Leeds-based quartet were capable of shaking a room like punk rock did while also improving the IQ of all who listened to them. Entertainment! was the band’s debut LP and landed like a cartoon anvil on the music scene, flattening anything unlucky enough to be in its shadow.
Take classic punkrock add some dub sensibilities and a slither of funk and you’ll have the perfect recipe for a Gang of Four jaunt.
5. New Order – Power Corruption & Lies (1983)
After Joy Divison fell apart following the death of lead singer Ian Curtis (more on that later), the remaining parts of the machine got together to continue their dream and push forward as New Order. After acquiring Gillian Gilbert for the band — a pivotal moment for pop — the band set on their synth-pop journey to stardom. The record is a perfect concoction of Joy Division’s trademark sound and the new way forward for not only the group bu the rock world, in general.
Peter Hook is at the top of his game, delivering blistering basslines that make your soul rattle. Meanwhile, on songs like ‘Age of Consent’, Bernard Sumner’s new vocals are given ample room to shine, while Stephen Morris delivers metronomic drums.
While arguably New Order acts more as a post-post-punk sound in this instance, Joy Divison’s trademarks can still be heard. Sure, the packaging may have jumped up a couple of shades, but the material was still as moody, melodramatic and mixed up as ever before.
4. Talking Heads – Remain in Light (1980)
Acts like Blondie and The Jam had kept a degree of personality in the music scene; the real draw was Talking Heads. Although they had been born in the embers of punk, they didn’t really fit there. In fact, they didn’t really fit anywhere. That was exactly as David Byrne and the band preferred it, so they pushed forward to make themselves that most desirable of things—unique. It meant Byrne’s lyrics got stranger, his performances more entangled within themselves, and his costuming grew to unimaginable levels. Byrne, to all intents and purposes, made himself irregular on purpose.
In truth, Remain In Light doesn’t sound like Talking Heads previous songs, or, indeed, like anything that had come out in 1980. It was an album built upon poly-rhythmic jams devoid of many traditional pop hooks or structure. It saw Eno and Byrne work tirelessly to make tracks via looping rhythmic sections and a penchant for layering instruments as they went. They also overdubbed Byrne’s vocals, allowing him to add his Preacher-yelp with aplomb and welcome Andrew Belew to lay down some synth-treated solos.
It’s the kind of ensemble that often ends with an album of strong conception but lacking any real songs. Not so for Talking Heads. While there are certainly three huge songs on the eight-track album (‘Born Under Punches’, ‘Crosseyed and Painless’ and ‘Once In A Lifetime’), one could easily argue that ‘The Overload’ is the distillation of the LP. Not because musically it aligns with the rest of the record but precisely because it doesn’t. Remain In Light was Byrne and Talking Heads next step in the art for art’s sake.
3. The Smiths – The Smiths (1984)
The Smiths are a band who many now feel a little bit strange adoring so deeply. Not only do they have the, at best, polarising figure of Morrissey as their former frontman, but they’ve been so acutely attached to incels, simps and other social media defamation that it can feel a bit dirty to pick up a Smiths record with glee. However, if you remove the guff surrounding their debut LP, you have one of the decade’s defining albums.
Released only a few months after The Smiths had begun to make a name for themselves with their new indie jangle-pop sound, this album gave a generation of adolescents a unique sound and a brand new idol. Punk, and everything that had since followed it, provided the public with a voice of frustration and anger. The Smiths, however, rolled their eyes at the world and went back to their books.
There’s some real gold on the record too. ‘Pretty Girls Make Graces’, ‘Still Ill’ ‘Hand in Glove’ and ‘What Difference Does It Make’ all feature on a landmark indie record. Forget this one at your peril. The only issue with the album on this list is whether it constitutes post-punk in its fiercest forms.
2. Television – Marquee Moon (1977)
One of the most widely influential bands of all time, Television operate in their own atmosphere. They’re the archetypal New York City godfather of the post-punk sound, and they bring a blue smoke chill to everything they did. Their landmark moment came in 1977 as the embers of punk still flickered red with every passing breath. Yet Television were far cooler than that on Marquee Moon.
The album managed to encapsulate everything that makes Television such an influence. Not only is their languid and effortless playing style given ample room to ruminate, but the unique and singular sound perfumes every rotation of the disc. Endlessly compared to their punk contemporaries, the world wasn’t ready for Television.
Tom Verlaine is arguably one of the most underrated figures in music, and this album proves it. Alongside Richard Lloyd, the two provided some searing riffs while still hinting at the experimentation that would cement their place in the pantheon of post-punk. Come for the album’s title track but stay for an experience.
1. Joy Division – Unknown Pleasures
Rightly regarded as one of the most poignant and potent albums of all time, Joy Division’s debut effort redefined post-punk and offered up a brand new route for the anger and frustration that encircled Britain at the time. As Black Flag frontman said of the album: “When they finally write the real book on rock and roll, when all the dust settles, and the truth is finally told and they get it right. One of the bands at the top of the mountain along with the David Bowies and The Rolling Stones will be Joy Division because they are easily as great as any band that has ever existed.”
He continues, “Their first album, Unknown Pleasures, is an absolute masterpiece.” One can’t disagree either. It provided a sense of artistic evolution and the purity of art itself. It suggested a new avenue of the mainstream for us to explore by including a reem of bruising songs that captured the attention of everybody who heard it.
Not just relying on pure intensity to see them through, Ian Curtis’ lyrics are both marred in the tragedy of his eventual suicide and enlightening in understanding the man behind them. Peter Hook’s basslines are, for want of a better word, unfathomable, all the while Bernard Sumner gilds the tunes with his guitar work, and Stephen Morris provides blistering rhythm.
It’s the kind of album that can change your life.