Postmodernism began as an architectural term to describe the loss of a seemingly stable social order and the building of new forms in the 1960s and 70s. The new architecture was an elaborate patchwork of high and low culture and past and present design trends. In both theory and practice, postmodernism delighted in odd juxtapositions and self-referential irony. It did not shy away from politics but made sardonic critical commentary its métier rather than the totalizing agendas of late modernism.
Postmodernism added to modernism’s genre-hopping a broader cultural scope and wider inclusivity of forms of expression. We can see a similar cultural shift happening in popular music in the mid- to late-20th century. The pop and rock of the sixties fragmented into dozens of radio friendly genres, all of which met their critical match in the aggressiveness of punk, a movement with high aesthetic commitments and a corresponding desire to detonate cultural norms by any means necessary.
When we arrive at the “post-punk,” we find all things counter-culture rubbing up against each other, filling the void left by the old social order with new sounds and visions, some determinedly grim, some playful and ironic, nearly all of them danceable.
A fine description for what the world of “post-punk” looked like comes from a recent personal essay by the poet Patrick Rosal:
It was the early 1980s, a brief few years when punk rock kids, b-boys, new wave freaks, and disco fiends might all get down on the same dance floor: this one in moccasin boots this one in a track suit with three side-stripes down the sleeves and legs, this one in a baggy neon sweater and extra eyeliner.
This was a time when bands like Public Image Limited (John Lydon’s post Sex Pistols project) and Bauhaus incorporated dub reggae rhythms, basslines, and studio effects into the core of their sound. The Clash had already embarked on such experiments, and Clash guitarist Mick Jones took things further with Big Audio Dynamite, a punk/funk/reggae/hip hop hybrid that didn’t make the list of Paste Magazine’s “50 Best Post-Punk Albums,” but was certainly representative of a strain of post-punk expansiveness.
Bauhaus doesn’t make the list either, but Public Image Limited’s 1979 Metal Box appears, at number 14, an album of wobbly, dub-inflected “death disco” that won a special place in the hearts and record collections of an eclectic group of fans as the eighties dawned. At #36 we find the equally experimental Dub Housing, the 1978 second album of Ohio’s Pere Ubu, a project that coalesced in the midst of Cleveland’s punk scene to make what frontman David Thomas called “avant garage.”
These disparate bands define post-punk as much as do the jangly, southern, Byrds-influenced sounds of R.E.M. or The dB’s, the surf-rock revivalism of The B52’s, jazzy, angular art-rock of Television, jittery, So-Cal punk/jazz/country/funk of Minutemen, dark drone of Joy Division, chaotic blues-punk of Birthday Party, anarchic noise and motorik beats of Swell Maps or Sonic Youth, shambling rants of The Fall, new romantic pop of The Smiths or Orange Juice, satirical synthpunk of Devo…. The list can and does go on and on. You can see the full 50 at Paste Magazine, chosen and annotated by the magazine’s writers. Above, we’ve compiled 48 of these albums in a Spotify playlist—save Metal Box and Dub Housing, which are not available on Spotify.
This is music made by people “interested in seeing where music could go.” Many of them former punks, many new to the scene. Many of them left behind these early experimental phases to become more conventionally genre-based, while some had only started to push in new directions later in their career. Some of these bands arrived at a sound, made it their own, and rarely deviated, some shifted and changed throughout their career; some burned brightly, or darkly, for a short time, leaving indelible marks of odd greatness in a time when popular music took more risks than before or maybe since.
At least that’s what it feels like looking back. If this is a nostalgia trip for you, you’ll find it’s pretty comprehensive, with the inevitable omission of a favorite album, band, or two (where, I must ask, is My Bloody Valentine?) If you’re new to the range of this music, consider that, for all the vagary a term like “post-punk” might evoke, like the “postmodern,” it has a specific historical context, one in which a handful of artists saw tremendous creative opportunity amidst a general sense of cultural malaise.