10. Circle Jerks - Group Sex
In 1979, Keith Morris, Black Flag’s beloved vocalist, quit the band and formed Circle Jerks. In 1980, they released “Group Sex”, which I consider to be synonymous with the infant hardcore scene. While Dead Kennedys embraced a snotty sort of sarcastic wit that wouldn’t be seen a whole lot as the D.C. style became more prominent, Circle Jerks had a more angry directness. These songs are fast, pissed, and don’t fuck around. Whenever the topic of early 80’s hardcore punk comes up, the violence and anger of “Deny Everything” always plays somewhere in the back of my head.
9. The Cure - Seventeen Seconds
With their slew of mid-’80s pop records, it’s sometimes easy to forget that The Cure was once a legitimate gothy darkwave/post-punk band. Seventeen Seconds, their second album, contains some of their best work from this stage of their career, as well as some of Robert Smith’s best instincts as a songwriter. The album is very downbeat, with a stripped down minimalistic quality to both the songwriting and production. This, along with its remarkably tight structure leads to a new wave-y album concerned more with building mood and atmosphere than it is in hitting the listener with catchy guitar hooks. In fact, the driving force in this album’s more urgent moments is not Robert Smith’s subdued and dreamy guitar but Simon Gallup’s punkier bass lines, something that would be somewhat of a trademark of the Cure’s sound as they would evolve and gain popularity in the following years. Seventeen Seconds is in certain ways typical of its genre, but only in the sense that it is the paragon of such, and is so wonderfully crafted and performed that it would remain the archetypal example of gloomy punk-inspired new wave up to the present day.
8. The Fall - Grotesque (After the Gramme)
Crazily prolific Brits The Fall never quite fit in with the crowded post-punk landscape of this period. While bands like The Cure and Joy Division sort of dominated with a somewhat palatable and melodic interpretation of the genre, The Fall was a little bit more angular and dissonant, with thrilling results. This is their third album, and a big departure from their previous two. Songs written mostly by leader Mark E. Smith are more devastating and abrasive than they had been previously, with lyrics less introspective and more outwardly focused. This is also the first The Fall record to feature keyboards, provided by Marc Riley who played bass on the first album and guitar on the second. The textures of the keys range from an organ-like sound to a bizarre electro-harpsichord timbre on tracks like “New Face In Hell”. It’s clear in The Fall’s earlier records that they were inspired by fellow English band Wire’s trilogy of incredible genre-defining albums from the late ’70s, but The Fall began to distinguish themselves by incorporating a pronounced influence from their more experimental predecessors like Can and Captain Beefheart, and this is truest on Grotesque. The result is a dense art rock classic combined with a punky ferocity unrivaled by their peers.
7. The Residents - The Commercial Album
Simultaneously a deconstruction and parody of pop music. The Residents took the average pop song, cut out any repetition of verses and choruses, and concluded that said average pop song contains about one minute of music, about the same as a commercial jingle. Hence, commercial jingles are the “music of America”. So they composed forty songs, all exactly one minute long, and packed them into one LP. They are all done in the basic style of radio jingles, except twisted and horrible in that unique Residents way that can’t be imitated; casting a sickly light on what American mass culture essentially is. The Commercial Album is one of The Residents’ most successful projects, achieving that perfect blend of unconventional aural terror and a sort of outré humor.
6. Dead Kennedys - Fresh Fruit For Rotting Vegetables
Maybe I’m wrong, but I never really considered this to be so much a prototypical hardcore record as I did a general staple of American punk rock. Maybe it’s my east coast D.C. bias making me hear these songs and not immediately think “hardcore”, but I do appear to be in the minority on this. Dead Kennedys were, however, mightily influential, and really did help to kick start the California scene along with Black Flag. Jello Biafra’s unusual quavering vocals are instantly recognizable, while his lyrics tend to be fairly direct and dripping with bitter sarcasm. This is a must-listen album if you give even the slightest shit about the history of American punk, and it’s still pretty fresh today.
5. The Feelies - Crazy Rhythms
4. Prince - Dirty Mind
Prince’s third album, and his first great one. In the ’70s, Prince was somewhat of an anomaly. He was a (very) young man of obvious and far-reaching talents who made mostly fashionable disco-infused pop music. As if realizing simultaneously the impermanence of disco and how dumb and beneath him the whole movement was, Prince changed gears in the 1980s, starting with the phenomenal Dirty Mind. Here Prince crafts a blend of sounds from funk to punk to R&B to new wave to synthpop to create a genre all his own, pioneering the so-called “Minneapolis sound” that would become a dominant influence on the direction of dance music in the years to come. While Prince’s instinct to passionately combine all sorts of styles and tones on Dirty Mind may sound to the uninitiated like a recipe for something unfocused and muddled, the opposite could not be more true.
3. Swell Maps - Jane From Occupied Europe
The last thing ever released by the elusive Swell Maps in their tragically short recording career.
2. Talking Heads - Remain In Light
Talking Heads’ last great album, and it starts right out with one of the best track David Byrne ever wrote: “Born Under Punches”. The entire A side to this record is white hot electro-funk, with producer Brian Eno’s background in ambience clashing beautifully with Byrne’s loud staccato guitar and Tina Weymouth’s very prominent bass riffs. Bands are still ripping this album off 30 years later. Don’t believe me? Go listen to literally any young hot-dicked “dance-punk” band working today and then go and listen to this album. Are you confused? Are you confused about how you just heard the exact same thing twice? This would’ve been number one had Byrne’s instincts to make more subdued tracks with traditional African rhythms not kicked in so hard on the B-Side. The songs are still great, but after such an exciting first half, the second can be a little dull in comparison.
1. Wipers - Is This Real?
At the time, Portland wasn’t exactly known as a big punk town. But then again, this isn’t much of a typical punk record. It’s difficult to classify “Is This Real?” in the context of where punk was in 1980, because Wipers didn’t really care. They did their own thing, and ten years later, the influence of this record (especially in the northwest) was undeniable. Greg Sage’s short powerful songs are absolutely infectious. Combine that with his unique and very textured feedback-y guitar sound and you get a record you simply can’t stop listening to. You could say its punk, or early noise punk, or early grunge, but I say it’s fucking amazing.
Honorable mentions: “Songs the Lord Taught Us” by The Cramps; “Get Happy!!!” by Elvis Costello & The Attractions; “Beware” by Misfits; “Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps)” by David Bowie; “Black Sea” by XTC; “Ace of Spades” by Motörhead; “In the Flat Field” by Bauhaus; “The River” by Bruce Springsteen & The E Street Band; “Closer” by Joy Division; “Los Angeles” by X; Killing Joke LP; “Sound Affects” by The Jam