What the heck is post-punk, and why should you care? Well, it’ the most fun you’ll ever have banging a metal chair with a hammer and screaming about depression in a dark factory, but it’s also one of the most influential genres of the last 50 years.
Punk was a reaction to bloated stadium rocker who played increasingly-cinematic compositions for fans they could no longer see. It was a back-to-basics movement born in the streets of New York City and London (and which scene reigned supreme is an argument for the ages), a simple anyone-can-do-it attitude with a spit in your face sort of anti-theory ethos. Of course, when true artists set their mind to something, they inevitably get a taste for more. They dream bigger and conceive of grander messages and, that’s where post-punk comes in.
Post-punk, quite literally meaning “after punk,” marks where the first chapter of punk ended and a more artful approach began – and that’s not to say that punk isn’t art. It so clearly is, deriving one of the strongest emotional responses in modern music and one of the largest and everlasting impacts, but post-punk is more akin to the music we hear now. It’s just as bold and confrontational, but it’s more melodic, more thoughtful, and more technically experimental. It was not a sudden reaction to the outside world, but rather a meditation on the strange parts of reality.
Drawing on literary references and social commentary, post-punk bands merged high art with the plight of the common man. It’s intellectual but it’s still raw, full of high-quality droning, wailing vocals, rushing rhythms, trudging funk bass, and screeching guitars.
Emerging in the late-1970s and thriving into the mid-’80s, post-punk took musical cues from R&B, jazz, dub and reggae, disco, and pop; the genre gave birth to goth, synthpop, new wave, art rock, and dance-punk. It enjoyed a resurgence in the early-2000s, becoming the sound of another disaffected generation dreaming of more. Its influence continues to color the noise of today, and we’d be unsurprised if it came back strong in the next decade.
If that does happen, you’ll want to know your ABCs. Here are some of the most foundational records of the post-punk movement, from its earliest days to the post-punk revival.
Editor’s note: Keep in mind that the Discogs Database is powered by the hard work of our contributors. Some of these releases may not be classified under the post-punk style. The list features this author’s listening recommendations. You can share your essential playlist with our List function.
If you’re looking for the birth of post-punk or an entry-point to the genre, Television’s debut LP is one of the best places to start. The New York foursome were darlings of the punk scene and residents at CBGB alongside the reigning punk poet Patti Smith, but when it came time to record an album, the group dug much deeper into their musical psyches than a few bar chords.
Inspired by jazz and Chuck Barry-era rock’n’roll, Marquee Moon leans into melodic refrains and wandering instrumental licks. Its classic intro, “See No Evil,” begins with an iconically punk electronic guitar, but just as quickly comes the melodic bassline and infectious counter melody. Frontman Tom Verlaine – who demanded of the label that he produce the album himself – delivers downright catchy choruses with but a hint of punkish snarl. “Venus” and “Guiding Light” feel like soul-pop callbacks, “Friction” mixes rowdy desert blues with Middle Eastern motifs, “Elevation” explores minor chord melodies in a sort of proto-goth style, and “Torn Curtain” is an outright banger of a ballad – a far departure from the stripped-down roots of pure punk.
With eight songs totaling 45 minutes, Marquee Moon was hailed as “something entirely original” by journalist and biographer Tony Fletcher. By incorporating such a diverse palette of influences, Television changed the course of DIY rock, but even as they recorded, others were already merging on the path.
Imagine being a band so cool, David Bowie and Brian Eno clamor to produce your debut album. Devo is that cool; a totally bizarre five-some out of Akron, Ohio, that only uncultured fools call a one-hit-wonder. Armed with satirical humor and surrealist kitsch, Devo gave birth to the entire ’80s nerd wave aesthetic.
Bowie and Eno did get the chance to put their stamp on the debut, and Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo begat one of the most left-field and jovially-jarring moments in musical history. Taking its title from H.G. Well’s novel The Island of Doctor Moreau, what was initially seen as a soulless novelty is now seen as the seed of art-rock, new wave, and post-punk all in one.
From the roaring stutter-funk of “Uncontrollable Urge” to the off-kilter horror of “Shrivel-Up,” this 11-track journey through the stranger side of recorded sound tears down any expectation of what rock and pop should be, clearing room for artists to do whatever the heck they want. This turn-it-inside-out ethos is most prominent on Devo’s cover of The Rolling Stones’ hit “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” which completely reimagines rock’s primal strength into a post-industrial deconstruction. Of all the albums on this list, Devo’s is probably the most fun. Do give it a spin.
What is more “post-punk” than the poster boy of the genre moving on? John Lydon, aka Johnny Rotten, was the lead singer of the Sex Pistols, a raging anarchist icon, and a blood-curdled scream of a generation. The only problem was, Lydon fucking hated his band.
“They never bothered to listen to what I was fucking singing,” he told Melody Maker in 1978. “They don’t even know the words to my songs … I found that offensive, it meant I was literally wasting my time.”
After a famous on-stage implosion, the Sex Pistols broke up, and Lydon went on to form an “anti-rock” band called Public Image Ltd. He was joined by The Clash’s guitarist Keith Levene, his grade school buddy John “Jah Wobble” Wardle on bass, and a drummer named Jim Walker. Their first single, “Public Image,” was released in October 1978. It was a total diss track to his old band and manager, and it served as the lead single for PiL’s debut LP.
Public Image: First Issue opens with a wild and moody, almost cacophonous nine-minute lament, driven by a trudging bassline, screeching electric guitar mess, and an almost militant drum march. Lydon wails “I wish I could die,” humorously attributing the whole dramatic tune to a hangover. It’s followed by spoken-word derision of Christianity and another droning musical accompaniment of the same speech.
Tracks “Low Life” and “Attack” are rooted in the jangling guitar of Never Mind the Bullocks and album bBside “Cowboy Song” is about as rash and noise-addled as punk has ever been, but overall, this eight-track effort boldly closes the door on what was and bursts onto a plane of what will be.
Even more so with the 1979 follow-up, Second Edition, AKA Metal Box (for the metal container the vinyl was sold in). The sophomore LP dives deep down into the dark, meandering moors of the band’s dub-bass experiments while Lydon becomes even less anchored by traditional vocal styles. The debut was lambasted upon release, and yet the sophomore landed at No. 2 on NME’s best albums of 1979 list. Both are now regarded as foundational watersheds of the burgeoning post-punk movement, and both deserve a good, wallowing listen.
Beloved as a crowning achievement in post-punk and often credited as the root of goth, Joy Division’s debut album is so much more than an omnipresent T-shirt design. The Manchester band formed in direct response to a Sex Pistols concert that members Bernard Sumner and Peter Hook had attended (if you haven’t read about the June 1976 show at Manchester Lesser Free Trade Hall, you really should). Their style was just as raw but moved like molasses on mud.
Marked by excessive use of delays and modulators, echoing drums, front-and-center bass, and far-away lead guitars, Joy Division’s sound was all at once morose and demanding. “Disorder,” “She’s Lost Control,” and “Shadowplay,” are driving and even funky, while “Candidate” and “I Remember Nothing” hang loose like the sallow skin of a junky in a dirty hall. Ian Curtis’ depressed baritone floats throughout. Singing of disaffected alienation, he grabs at bursts of angst as he meanders through the dark, industrial moods. If you’re a fan of The Velvet Underground, you’ll like Joy Division.
The band was keen on experimenting, weaving in the sounds of smashing bottles and backward guitar, someone eating chips, and even a toilet. Just as striking as the noise one does hear is the noise one does not. The album, produced by Martin Hannett, is undeniably heavy, yet there is space and atmosphere. It often feels as if the brooding bass and lurching drums are the only physical element for miles. It’s tense and uncomfortable in a way that punk’s high-energy brashness could never attain. It’s tough, biting, and smart, the kind of album that grips you by the shoulders and turns you toward a new sonic universe.
Unfortunately, the despair of the record was not without its real-life hinge, and Curtis took his own life a year after the album’s release. He’d long suffered from epilepsy and depression, and Joy Division released the band’s sophomore LP, Closer, without him. Every cloud has a silver lining, though. After a bit of a reformation, the band renamed itself New Order and went on to become another of the most influential bands of the post-punk and synth-pop era.
Jumping back into the jauntier side of things, Gang of Four came straight out of Leeds with one of the most powerful post-punk punches in the genre’s annals. Entertainment! packs 12 tunes into 40 minutes, grappling with everything from capitalism to terrorism, sex, poverty, resource wars, and feminism. Equal parts funky bassline and screaming electric guitar, it’s a full-throttle, left-of-center, dance-rock bomb that spurts melodies with distant cool.
The accompanying album art wore the band’s politics on its sleeve, depicting a Native American shaking hands with a cowboy and winding text that reads: “The Indian smiles, he thinks that the cowboy is his friend. The cowboy smiles, he is glad the Indian is fooled. Now he can exploit him.” On the back is a nuclear family. The father says “I spend most of our money on myself so that I can stay fat,” while the mother and children are shown saying, “We’re grateful for his leftovers.”
Angst-ridden as it is, Entertainment! is another record that reeks of fun and energy. With “I Found That Essence Rare,” “Natural’s Not In It,” “Damaged Goods” and the rest, dancing is a revolutionary act. The hooks often devolve into riotous noise, capturing the slow and ever-present descent into insanity that is the modern condition, and just when you think you can’t take anymore, it erupts in a volcanic release. It’s an absolute listen from start to finish and a great primer for post-punk and funk-rock alike.
So many of the albums on our list are debuts, but by the early ’80s, post-punk had morphed from a new sound on the scene to the sound of an era. Siouxsie and the Banshees were born from London’s punk scene, rising to the spotlight with 1978’s The Scream to immediate critical acclaim. They spent the first few albums experimenting with a dark mix of guitar and electronic, but it’s their fourth album that graces our list with peak passion.
Juju embraces the band’s guitar-heavy roots as frontwoman Siouxsie Sioux finds heightened vocal power. Loud, thrashing, and joyful, the band weaves twisted noise over driving rhythms and layers of Sioux’s rich, throaty wails. She is powerful and cool, instantly-recognizable with her signature, Egyptian-inspired eye makeup; a figure that has gone on to personify post-punk and the goth subculture – although Siouxsie and the Banshees don’t generally love the latter distinction.
Eve more danceable than Entertainment! and jagged as ever, Juju plays strong with a confidence of self that differs from the earlier albums on our list. The experiments feel like second-nature, playing jazzy riffs and manic energy against pop hooks with ease. “Spellbound” lures you in with rushing drums and languid guitar, pulsing towards the dynamic peaks of “Halloween” and “Sin of My Heart,” tempered by the shadowed valleys of “Night Shift” and psychedelic play of “Into The Light.” It’s dangerous fun in sonic form, culminating in the scratchy, shouting mess and poetic comedown of “Voodoo Dolly.” An example of the genre at its peak, Juju is one you just can’t miss.
Inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2019, The Cure are perhaps the most famous band on this list. Just like their friends in Siouxsie and the Banshees, The Cure are considered pioneers and figureheads of the goth movement, although they see themselves as more of a post-punk band, too. Pornography is the British band’s fourth studio album and certainly its darkest, which is why we’ve chosen to include it here.
Released in 1982, Pornography picks up where Joy Division left off, brooding into even harsher shades of doom. The depths of this pain is deafening, beating you over the head in red, jangling guitars and pummeling drums. Right from the start with “One Hundred Years,” it’s a striking, stark-raving collection of all the meandering melodies, droning edge, and poetic yelling that makes post-punk what it is. If that feels dramatic, wait ’til hear the backstory.
The Cure nearly broke up making this record, their nerves reduced to live wires after hundreds of days touring back-to-back without a break for real life or thought. There was a lot of LSD and alcohol at recording sessions, and they for whatever reason decided not to throw any of their garbage away, letting it pile up in a corner, sleeping in the studio all the while.
“I had two choices at the time, which were either completely giving in [committing suicide] or making a record of it and getting it out of me,” singer Robert Smith is quoted in the 2005 band biography Never Enough. “I really thought that was it for the group. I had every intention of signing off. I wanted to make the ultimate ‘fuck off’ record, and then sign off.”
Thankfully, Smith did not kill himself and The Cure continue to be a kick-ass band. Their 1989 record Disintegration is widely regarded as their best, but Pornography‘s desperate depression, throbbing bass, and rushing rhythms make for one unbelievable listen. “The Hanging Garden” alone is worth the trauma these guys lived, and we get seven more songs on top of it.
The Cure lived through the mid-’80s, but post-punk mostly did not. By the later half of the decade, post-punk bands were fracturing off in different directions, exploring more synth work or noisier frontiers. Some of them were making “art rock” or “synthpop.” They were called “new romantics,” and then there were these fresh faces making something called “no wave.” Sonic Youth were one of those groups. The original trio took the New York art scene by storm, deconstructing the electric guitar and approaching it with boundless (and slightly destructive) imagination. Certainly inspired by their post-punk forefathers, it wasn’t until their fourth album Sister that you could bring them into the genre fold.
Altogether, Sonic Youth isn’t exactly a “post-punk” band, but Sister‘s clanging guitars and deadpan vocals fit the bill, bridging the gap to grunge, college radio, and more. The erratic hooks of “Stereo Sanctity” and haunting aura of “Beauty Lies in the Eye” would make anyone on this list proud. Conceptually, it’s an album inspired by the life and work of sci-fi author Philip. K Dick, and as post-punk bands are so fond of literary references, we count that as yet another tie to the form. Like many of its partners here, it was met with a lot of head-scratching upon release and later recognized for the genius bit of mayhem that it truly is.
After Sister, things went dark on the post-punk stage for about 15 years – that is, until a rag-tag group of New Yorkers kicked on an amp and turned on the bright lights. We’d like to think Television was proud, seeing the post-punk flag brought back to the Big Apple in the form of Interpol. Singer Paul Banks’ monotone moan, Daniel Kessler’s bright and clear guitar riffs, Greg Drudy’s slap-push drums, and most certainly Carlos D.’s bubbling basslines kick-started a post-punk revival for a new generation.
A lot of critics at the time called the album a Joy Division rip-off, but that’s very short-sighted. Sure, Turn On the Bright Lights is mostly devoid of choruses and full of cloudy moods, and Banks really does sound a lot like Curtis, but Interpol’s melodies are much more straight-forward, colored by the shoegaze and ambient movements that came between.
“PDA” is a post-punk revival pinnacle, a clinking, sputtering sort of jam that’s both bouncy and brooding, as if Gang of Four played in muted colors. Special shout out to that punk-snarl background voice in the chorus. “Obstacle 2” is a perfect post-punk love song, and “Obstacle 1” is a generational classic.
Hailing from Scotland, Franz Ferdinand‘s melodic-driven sound was more akin to Television than anyone else’s, but not without a healthy dose of Gang of Four. The band formed in 2002, and two years later, they’d release what is quite possibly the most popular post-punk revival album of all time. Franz Ferdinand‘s bright funk-punk guitar and strutting beats were an instant smash with crowds around the world, especially when the cocky charm of “Take Me Out” hit the streets. The single charted in 13 countries, and the album charted in 16.
Sexy, silly, and sophisticated, the debut is a playful take on the genre with more melody than growl, though we don’t hold that against it. It does incorporate some garage rock sound, which was also enjoying a revival at the time, and it brings much from the dance-punk style. Certified platinum in the United States, the record won Franz Ferdinand the coveted Mercury Music Prize in the United Kingdom, proving once and for all that post-punk is a style of music for the people.
The post-punk revival of the early and mid-2000s did not last forever, giving way to the dance-punk, electro-clash and blog house scenes of the late 2000s. Meanwhile, post-punk has often been cited as a main influence on rappers Vince Staples and Tyler, The Creator, and sampled by Kanye West. It’s not dead, either.
There are a lot of new bands picking up the baton. We’re particularly fond of Ireland’s Fontaines D.C., who we recently discovered via the 2020 album A Hero’s Death. All the tell-tale signs are there: droning guitars, rushing rhythms, pained vocals, cultural commentary, pulse-pushing bass. It’s a perfect amalgamation of The Cure and PiL’s most morose experiments with a bit of Franz Ferdinand’s growling guitar. Meditative and psychedelic, we even hear some Sonic Youth in “Love Is The Main Thing.” If you listen to one song, give the title track a try. It’s a boiling mantra for our broken age, a soulful sing-along for the joyless that reminds us to always keep chugging. Live by these words, and you’ll be okay – and so will the future of post-punk.