The 50 Best Post-Punk Albums Ever (playlist)

This playlist celebrates 50 of the most brilliant, impactful, innovative, and controversial albums of the classic post-punk era.

“Post-punk”, in the most general terms, has come to refer to the resulting boom of musical experimentation that developed out of this industry-wide sea change, but without any more definitive attributes, the term could just as easily apply to almost any working musical artist of the early ‘80s, from R.E.M. and U2 to Grace Jones and the Police to Flipper and the Minutemen. Perhaps the easiest way to understand post-punk, then, is both as a somewhat narrow genre classification as well as, from a historical perspective rather than an artistic one, an umbrella term under which fell anything that retained even the remotest connection to the subversive, anti-establishment ethos of punk music in the wake of its rapid commercialization: jangle pop, goth rock, new wave, synthpop, early electro, etc.

This particular list is intended as a primer for the more focused stylistic conception of the post-punk genre, but given the genre’s breadth, lapses into its wider reaches are entirely unavoidable. To counteract this inevitability, albums usually characterized by more auxiliary subgenres such as new wave were chosen for this list based on whether they maintained a significant link to the standard set of codes usually associated with the more narrowly-defined definition of post-punk. This is why esteemed artists such as New Order, whose album Movement was their most historically “post-punk” recording but also widely regarded as their weakest of the period, do not appear on this list, and others like the Cure and Echo & the Bunnymen, who originated as “traditional” post-punk bands but eventually evolved to transcend the label, appear with records that aren’t universally considered their in-their-prime masterpieces.

Another problem arises in strictly limiting the list to only studio albums. As with any genre, the full story of post-punk cannot be unmasked in such a restricted way. There are too many artists like Liquid Liquid, Mars, and the Normal, whose legacies exist only through singles, EPs, and posthumous compilations rather than conventional albums, or like Delta 5 and Bush Tetras, whose studio records are widely regarded as inferior products unrepresentative of their greater influence. Because of these limiting factors, an exercise like this is inherently flawed, but it does not mean it’s entirely devoid of merit. After all, most of the history of post-punk only survives through these albums, some dug out of obscurity and reissued as recently as the last ten years, and even in today’s age of exponentially increased cultural splintering, the album remains the quintessential conventional format to release popular music, even when the stories they tell are incomplete. We may no longer be able to see Joy Division or the Talking Heads perform first-hand, for example, but their legacies persist most concretely through their albums.

So it’s with these considerations firmly in mind that I welcome you to explore 50 of the most brilliant, impactful, innovative, and controversial albums of the classic post-punk era, a collection the reverberations of which can be and will continue to be felt for generations.