The 100 Top Punk Songs of All Time, Curated by Readers of the UK’s Sounds Magazine in 1981

When did punk rock die? Everyone knows it happened sometime in recent history, but few people agree on when. The music still exists, in knowing quotation marks, but its winning combination of unforced abrasiveness and calculated offensiveness seems to have disappeared. Maybe pick a year at random; say, 2010, the year the last great punk songwriter, Jay Reatard, died. It also happens to be the year the last great punk band, OFF!, formed, but they’re a supergroup of classic punk musicians.

One could push that date back into any decade and make reasoned arguments. One snarling purist even once wrote that punk died in 1977 when the Clash signed to CBS. Maybe he was on to something. The following year, it was post-punk, with Johnny Rotten, aka Lydon, releasing his post-Sex Pistol’s project Public Image Limited’s first album, First Issue. Also in 1978, Siouxsie and the Banshees released their debut album, a statement for the spikiness and melodrama of post punk if there ever was one.

By 1981, a year someone might also choose to etch on punk's tombstone, surviving members of post-punk darlings Joy Division had reformed into New Order and released their first album, Movement. Declaring the death of punk sounds like a bummer, but many people found solace in the arms of new wave synthpop and acid house. Still, 1981 didn’t care about anyone’s punk opinions. A slew of now-classic punk and hardcore albums coexisted with the likes of Gary Numan—Black Flag’s Damaged and D.O.A.’s Hardcore ’81, classic albums from Crass, The Adicts, Adolescents, T.S.O.L., and, of course, The Exploited’s Punk’s Not Dead.

The list above (view it in a larger format here), the “All-Time Punk Top 100”—voted on in 1981 by readers of the “music paper” Sounds—contains a handful of songs from Siouxsie and the Banshees and Public Image Limited. Some people might choose to split hairs. The Exploited make many appearances, as do the Sex Pistols, The Clash, UK Subs, Discharge and other British stalwarts. The heavy UK lean is to be expected from readers of the short-lived UK music mag, but the fact that there are no Ramones, no Dead Boys, no Stooges, no Blondie, no Black Flag even… can begin to feel downright insulting.

Maybe punk just looked different on the other side of the pond in 1981. If it looked like the all-time top 100 list, then it sounded like the playlist above (stream it on Spotify here), which collects these 100 best-ofs, or greats, or not so greats, or clearly misguided choices, or whatever. Enjoy it as you furiously correct it with your own picks.

Related Content:

The History of Punk Rock in 200 Tracks: An 11-Hour Playlist Takes You From 1965 to 2016

33 Songs That Document the History of Feminist Punk (1975-2015): A Playlist Curated by Pitchfork

Hear the 50 Best Post-Punk Albums of All Time: A Nostalgia-Inducing Playlist Curated by Paste Magazine

Stream a Playlist of 68 Punk Rock Christmas Songs: The Ramones, The Damned, Bad Religion & More

Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness


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Comments (21)
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  • Dan Gibson says:

    The absence of anything by The Brothers from Queens renders the list questionable.

    Some good choices, but no Gabba Gabba Hey? No wonder the magazine didn’t last.

  • Deedee says:

    No Ramones, Stooges, X, Bad Brains, Buzzcocks, Blondie, Television, New York Dolls, Misfits, Cramps…sad list.

  • Almostred says:

    21 years (1970 – 1991)is “short-lived”? With the patronage of contributor Garry Bushell, Sounds became the standard-bearer for “Oi!” punk, which would explain multiple entries for Discharge, Anti Pasti, Exploited, Angelic Upstarts and Sham 69, etc. so the absence of US bands at the time should not be confusing. Hell, 80% of the list is Oi!. Also, remember this was 1981: no Internet and the only way you could hear about cool bands was from fanzines, music papers and tape-trading with friends. Although the Ramones, Blondie, etc. had mounted UK tours, others from the SoCal and NYC scenes would have been virtually unknown to any but the hippest of hipsters at the time, with the exception of the few that found UK distribution, like the DKs. Sounds was very much focused on regional coverage; it was a UK paper for UK music.

  • Taylor says:

    “All Time”

  • ChrisR says:

    There wouldn’t have been any Misfits songs on an American list from the same time either as they were quite an obscure group in 1981.

  • Andy says:

    What he said. Sounds was an inferior and much more limited music paper than NME and Melody Maker and this list is heavily weighted to Bushnel’s favourite right-leaning, in some cases extreme right leaning Oi! bands. Not relevant.

  • Todd Kimmell says:

    Whenever I’m asked about my favorite punk song I’m happy to offer, with a smile and without hesitation At The Chelsea Nightclub, by The Members. Not on this list at all? Tough toenails, bub. Whoever bothers to read this, look it up on YouTube and play it immediately, then buy the album and share it with friends.

    Best punk show I ever saw, and I saw a lotta shows from 79 on in the US and London, was Manufactured Romance during what was the annual rock week at one of the central London colleges. Don’t know if they were as amazing leading up to that night, or if they were ever that magnificent again, but I can close my eyes now, all these years later, and see and FEEL that set. Earth shattering and fun.

  • zapatilla loca says:

    should be top 100 *commercial* punk bands, which technically is an oxymoron. Another Top..whatever.. list generated by people who dont have a clue about the subject.

  • Donuts says:

    No Minor Threat? Hmmm…

  • Brian White says:

    “When did punk rock die? Everyone knows it happened sometime in recent history, but few people agree on when.”

    LOL okay. It must have happened sometime after last week. Maybe the bands I saw were just pretending to be punk.

    Stupid article.

  • JV says:

    In 1981, a lot of the early proto-punk and NYC bands were still not that really well known and the lineage was not mapped out yet, so I’ll forgive the lack of The Stooges, Iggy, Television, what-have-you. But no Ramones? I mean come on.

  • Almostred says:

    This is a list from 1981. Minor Threat didn’t release its first 7″ until June of that year. Only a very few people in the UK would have even heard of them at the time.

  • Ralph says:

    Punkrock didn’t die.

  • Jimi LaLumia says:

    Johnny Thunders and the Heartbreakers
    Wayne County and the Electric Chairs
    Cherry Vanilla
    YES!!

  • Alex Plode says:

    I had all but forgotten about the Angelic Upstarts.

  • daveg says:

    No mention of The Stains – (I’m) Stranded…a punk anthem if there ever was one.

  • Joel emmett says:

    Without any American bands to speak of (DKs excluded), the list is simply invalid. With only a few songs from The Clash, it’s even less accurate. Further, it doesn’t seem to incorporate anything after the mid-80s which, whatever the intent, is rather ridiculous.

  • Uncle Punk says:

    No Bestie Boys? WTF….bad list.

  • John Gauvin says:

    Pretty good list but i don’t see any Canadian Bands on it, Toronto and Vancouver were “punk rock meccas” back in the day TEENAGE HEAD/DOA/VILTONES/BGIRLS

  • alwayslurking says:

    You’ve put the whole “Best of Penetration” album on the spotify playlist, instead of just “Don’t Dictate”.

  • Jimi LaLumia says:

    Leaving out the first ever “fuck’ record. By Wayne County and the Electric Chairs which was a punk era sensation completely delegitimizes this list; same with Chinese Rocks by The Heartbreakers

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