50 Essential Punk Rock and New Wave Albums: Numbers 1 to 10
Punk rock and new wave music are forms of music that has always belonged to a certain few over the years. And while the origins of punk are often argued over 1940s country singer Hank Williams, the first rock artists of the 1950s, or the garage bands of the 1960s; punk’s origins appear to stretch over a long period of time. New wave’s history is very well known since it was used to describe a new form of punk music. Punk is something that stills continues and has produced many bands over the years. The best years of both music genres would arguably the late 1970s and early 1980s bands. This list compiles fifty of the best and must own punk and new wave albums that include some of punk’s originators in 1960s to some recent bands of the 1990s. Now many people may dispute this list and say that many were left off the list, but this is what I feel to be the essentials albums of punk and new wave music.
1. The Clash [U.K. Version]- The Clash
Often called “The Only Band That Matters”, The Clash was one of the greatest bands of the 20th Century and of the 1970s U.K. punk rock movement. Formed in 1976 as Joe Strummer on lead vocal and guitar, Mick Jones of lead guitar and vocal, Paul Simonon on bass, and Terry Chimes on drums; The Clash brought the politics of violence and the working glass citizen to music with their self titled debut album in 1977. The album was only released in Europe on CBS Records and was not released in the United States because their American label, Epic Records, thought the album was too violent for American audiences. It was imported to the U.S. and still holds the record for the most imported album in music history. (An American version was released in 1979 when the band’s success grew, but featured a different track listing.) The album was very successful in Europe and helped to open the door for The Clash’s success to come.
Key album tracks: “White Riot”,"London's Burning", and "I'm So Bored With the U.S.A."
2. Never Mind the Bollocks Here's the Sex Pistols- The Sex Pistols
They spit at their audience, they were banned from television in Britain, and became the poster image of punk rock. They were the Sex Pistols and from August 1975 to January 1978 (just 26 months) they cause havoc allover England with their songs and concerts. Composed of Johnny Rotten (real name John Lydon) on vocal, Steve Jones on guitar, Paul Cook on drums, and Glen Matlock on bass; they proved to the fiercest U.K. punk band of the mid 1970s. Their songs did talked about things that had never been done before such as putting the Queen of England down, addressing issues of people and the laziness of youth, being anarchists in their country, and many other issues, the Sex Pistols were truly a band that had never been heard or seen before. Matlock was soon kicked out of the band and was replaced by Sid Vicious (real name John Simon Ritchie), who really couldn’t play the bass. After they were dropped by two record companies they soon signed a deal with Virgin records and set out to record their first album. Vicious was sick and in the hospital during recording of the album so Steve Jones played all the overdubbed bass parts. When it was released it was an instant success thanks to all the media coverage that band was receiving. After a tour of the United States, the Sex Pistols disbanded and only released the one album.
Since its release in 1977, Never Mind the Bollocks has been considered a classic album and has sold very well over the years. The Sex Pistols would reunite over the years since their demise in 1978 with Glen Matlock back on bass (Sid Vicious died of an overdose of heroin on February 2, 1979 at the age of 21.) Even though they only had the album, the Sex Pistols are just as popular as they were in 1977 and their only album shows why this is.
Key Album tracks: “God Save the Queen”, “Anarchy in the U.K”, and “Pretty Vacant.”
3. Horses- Patti Smith
The album opens with three basic chords on the piano: E, D, A. these are the chords of rock’n’roll and poetess Patti Smith carried the tradition with the opening track “Gloria: In Excelsis Deo/Gloria” on her 1975 debut album Horses. Smith had been writing poetry for almost ten years when she formed a band, composed of Lenny Kaye on guitar, Ivan Kral on bass, Jay Dee Daugherty on drums, and Richard Sohl on piano; they proved to a force to be reckoned with. Smith had the idea of taking her poetry and singing or reciting it while her band played music behind at the same time, something similar to The Doors and Bob Dylan. They became known as the Patti Smith Group and signed with Artista Records in 1975 to begin work on an album.
The album was to be produced by former Velvet Underground member John Cale and was recorded at Electric Lady Studios in New York. The album was released in November the same year and was critically acclaimed. The album cover photo was taken by Robert Mapplethorpe in Greenwich Village. The photo showed Patti Smith wearing a man’s white button down shirt, an untied tie around her neck, and a sports coat over her shoulder. It showed that a woman could do just as well as men in music and didn’t have to have a feminine appearance. The album was truly unlike anything up to that point in music with its sharp and biter lyrics, driving musical backbeat, and a sound that was new at the time, Horses was destined to become an instant classic. The group toured the album heavily all over America and Europe and became huge stars in the world of underground music.
Patti Smith’s Horses opened new doors to music and was very influential to future alternative bands like; U2, R.E.M., The Smiths, and other bands, and has been regarded as a most important album in music history. It has been inducted into The National Recording Registry and is a fine example how poetry and music are able to coincide with each other.
Key Album Tracks: “Gloria: In Excelsis Deo/Gloria”, Break It Up”, and “Land: Horses/Land of a Thousand Dances/La Mer (De)”
4. In the City- The Jam
1977 was filled with punk bands that were the same but different at the same time. The one band that really stood out from the rest of their fellow counterparties was The Jam. With Paul Weller on lead vocal and guitar, Bruce Foxton on bass and vocal, and Rick Buckler on drums, they were one the smallest band at the time, but were one of the loudest and most hard-hitting bands of 1977 in the England. Although they played with the other punk rock groups of the time and had the energy and attitude of punk music, The Jam were in fact a Mod revival band. They were heavily influenced by the 1960s Mod bands and wore suits with suede shoes, had short haircuts that were not spiked, and played Rickenbacker guitars and basses something that where big in the 1960s. Paul Weller was the youngest musician on the U.K. punk scene, at just the age of eighteen he was considered a revolutionary among his fans because of the songs that he wrote and what he wrote about. Even though they formed in 1974, they were not offered a record deal until 1977 by Polydor Records. They started work on their first album and it was released a few months later. In the City, the albums title named after a song on the album, received rave review in the U.K. upon its release and was being called the best album of 1977. Success was not as well in America and The Jam was forgotten about early on into their career.
The songs on the album had the attitude of the rest of punk, but also had dance type beats and featured lyrics that could be angry, but also dealt with love and reminiscing about days of youth and having to grow up. The album’s title track “In the City” was one of Weller’s finest and was also his favorite song by the group, that they would open their concerts with it, perform it in the middle of their set, and would end their shows with the song during their encores. Songs like “I Got by in Time” and “Away From the Numbers” dealt with leaving youth behind and having to deal with growing up while a person has a problem grasping reality and having to face the truth.
In the City was a fine example of a debut album with its heavy instrumentation and profound lyrics written by 18 year-old Weller. The album never really received the attention as it should have in the United States, but is legendary in England and is still the only punk album to talk about people dancing to James Brown.
Key Album Tracks: "In the City", "Art School", and "Non-Stop Dancing"
5. Damned Damned Damned- The Damned
The Damned were many first in U.K. punk rock: they were the oldest group on the scene, the first to get signed with a record company, they had the first punk single in the U.K., and had the first punk album; Damned Damned Damned. The Dammed formed out of the band Masters of the Backside in the mid 1970s and featured future Pretenders front woman Chrissie Hynde. The group disbanded in 1976 and the reformed later that year with a new name and a new lineup. With Dave Vanian (real name David Letts) on vocal, Brian James (real name Brian Robertson) on guitar, Captain Sensible (real name Raymond Burns) on bass, and Rat Scabies (real name Chris Millar) on drums, the band soon dominated the punk rock scene and became the forerunners for everything that was to come. They were a huge draw at the 100 Club in London and were soon offered a recording contract with independently owned Stiff Records in 1976 and were one of the label’s first groups. The album was produced by Stiff solo artist and bass player for Rockpile Nick Lowe and was recorded over a period of ten days in September 1976 and December 1976. October 22, 1976 saw the release of the first Damned Single with “New Rose”. Written by Brian James, the song opened with the line “Is she really going out with him?” taken form The Shangri-Las’ song “Leader of the Pack” with a b-side with a cover of The Beatles “Help!” The song was a smash hit and helped launch The Dammed to stardom and on February 18, 1977 (Brian James’ birthday) and was very well received.
The album spanned several minor hits and made the band a big concert draw in the U.K. The album became an underground hit in America and made The Damned big concert draws in both the U.K. and the U.S. All the songs on the album were written by James with the exception of two: “Stab Your Back” by Rat Scabies and a cover of The Stooges “I Feel Alright”. The album was noted for its driving drumming, with Scabies being called the “Keith Moon of punk rock”, the Chuck Berry style guitar playing, the heavy bass sound and Vanian’s vampire look and they way he sang were unlike any of the other punk bands. Another interesting thing on the album is there is no distortion of the guitar at all; instead the amp is at high volume thus giving the sound of a distorted guitar.
The Damned had a harder time with their second album Music for Pleasure and disbanded in 1978. They reformed in 1979 sans Brian James and Captain Sensible now on guitar and would go through many lineup changes over the years. They never released another album that was as powerful or highly acclaimed as their first album, but with the one album they showed how punk had its origins in the U.K. and are still citied as a source of influence since 1977.
Key Album Tracks: “New Rose”, “Neat Neat Neat”, and “Fan Club”
6. The Velvet Underground and Nico- The Velvet Underground
They were cooler than you could ever hope to be. The Velvet Underground hailed from New York City and got their name from a fetish book of the same name. Formed in 1965 and composed of Lou Reed on lead guitar and lead vocal, John Cale on electric viola, piano, and bass, Sterling Morrison on lead and rhythm guitar, and bass, and Maureen Tucker on percussion and drums; they wore all black and sunglasses all the time. They were discovered by artist Andy Warhol in 1966 and were invited to play Warhol’s multimedia light show the Exploding Plastic Inevitable and have German born Warhol actress and model Nico (real name Christa Paffgen) perform with them on stage. The band accepted the offer and was soon local celebrities thanks to the local and nationwide press. They would perform in front of films directed by Warhol with flashing and spinning lights going around while the band performed. The Velvets had to write their songs and Lou Reed became the principle song writer of the band. Warhol wanted to get the band a recording contract so he booked Scepter Studios in New York and recorded nine songs over a period of four days for $15000 to $3000. They had a real hard time selling the demos to any record companies until Verve; a jazz label owned by MGM records, showed interest and signed the band thanks to the help of the label’s staff producer Tom Wilson. Most of the albums songs were kept form the original Warhol demo tapes with three songs being re-recorded. Verve wanted a song that they felt could be a potential hit single, so one more song was added to the album before its final release.
Released in March 12, 1967; The Velvet Underground and Nico proved to be unlike any album up to that point. It was an album that was full of feedback for the instruments and lyrics that dealt with subjects that had never been in songs. Lou Reed wrote songs about drug abuse, sadism and masochism, sexual desires, and prostitution. Songs like “I’m Waiting for the Man” talks about a guy trying to buy some drugs, “Heroin” is a song about the drug and how people abuse it, and “Venus in Furs” told of the underground world of S&M bondage. The song that Verve wanted a hit single to be, “Sunday Morning” flopped and the album received terrible reviews when it was released. It was well received however by small music magazines and considered a nice to change to some of the hippie music that starting to take over the music charts at the time.
The album has been hailed a classic and is regarded as one of the greatest albums ever recorded and released. It has been featured on every top 100 list since 1967 and has been inducted into the National Recording Registry. Everyone that has bought any Velvet Underground album, mainly their first one, has formed a band and has inspired many musical forms to come including: American alternative, grunge, and of course punk.
Key Album Tracks: “Heroin”, “I’m Waiting for the Man”, and “Run Run Run”
7. Kick Out the Jams- MC5
They were known as The White Panthers and got their name form the city that they hailed from. They were the MC5 and they played music that was energetic, loud, and sang out against political radicals. Formed in 1964 as Rob Tyner on vocals, Wayne Kramer of guitar, Fred “Sonic” Smith on guitar, Dennis Thompson on drums, and Michael Davis on bass; they were a huge success all around Detroit and were performing nightly at clubs all around Detroit. They were heavily influenced by the Marxist/Maoism of the Black Panthers and Fred Hampton, the chairman of the Illinois Black Panther Party. They soon met John Sinclair, who along with Black Panther founder Huey P. Newton was establishing the White Panthers. Sinclair saw the MC5 perform and became the voice of the people in Detroit. The MC5 were the only band to perform at the Democratic National Convention in 1968 and soon caught nationwide attention, including Elektra Records founder Jac Holzman and set out to sign the band to his label. He wanted to get the live energy that he heard the band had on stage, so Holzman and Elektra producer and engineer Bruce Botnick flew to Detroit to record the MC5 live in concert for their first album. What they got that night neither one of them could have expected.
Recorded over two nights on October 30 and 31, 1968 at the Grande Ballroom in Detroit, the Mc5 played their regular set of songs and acted as if they weren’t even recording. Halzman and Botnick were both shocked and surprised by the bands stage show and the audience’s reaction to it, they knew that they had a very successful act. Kick Out the Jams was released in February 1969 and included liner notes by John Sinclair. The album soon caused some controversy because of the opening line on the album’s title track. With the line “And right now…right now… right now it is time to …KICK OUT THE JAMS MOTHERF*#%ERS!” screamed by Tyner before launching into the song. It went virtually unnoticed until Hudson’s Department Store refused to carry the album. The MC5 attacked Hudson’s for refusing to carry their album and released a photo of the band with the line “F*%k Hudson’s” on it with the Elektra logo on the bottom. Elektra had no choice but to drop the MC5 to end the conflict and would only release censored versions of the album for the next twenty years.
With Kick Out the Jams the Mc5 opened a new door for many bands to come because of their songs and their refusal to back down for what they believed in. Kick Out the Jams would become the bands best album they ever released and would be hailed as a classic protopunk album and has received praise form many critics and musicians over the past 40 years.
Key Album Tracks: "Kick Out the Jams", "Motor City Is Burning", and "Starship"
8. The Stooges- The Stooges
With a name like The Stooges, one would think that this is a band that does not take themselves very seriously. But one can quickly see how wrong they are when they play the band with the comedic name 1969 self-titled debut. Formed in 1967 as Iggy Pop (real name James Osterberg) on vocals, brothers Ron and Scott Asheton on guitar and drums, and Dave Alexander on bass; The Stooges hailed from Ann Arbor, Michigan and played music that was high energy and brought a new rawness to rock music and helped changed it in the long run with their concert theatrics and their first album, simply called The Stooges.
The Stooges were a big attraction the Ann Arbor and Detroit in 1967 and 1968, and were compared to their counterparts the MC5. The band’s stage show was noted for Pop’s stage persona and antics which included wearing women’s clothing on some nights, crawling across the stage, and dancing like a chicken with its head cut off. When Elektra Records sent a scout named Danny Fields out to see the MC5 in concert and negotiate a recording deal, he saw The Stooges the same week and signed both bands. Elektra flew to New York to record the album with Velvet Underground member, John Cale on production duties. The band showed up with five songs that made up their live shows at the time; but Elektra rejected the album saying it was too short and need more songs. Pop set out to write lyrics for three more songs and the rest of the band improvised music and played the songs for the first time in the studio. The album now had eight songs and met the record company’s approval, and The Stooges debut album was released August 5, 1969.
The reviews for the album were very poor and critics hated the album. It sold very poorly compared to the MC5’s album Kick Out the Jams released some seven months earlier. It failed to have a song released as a single from the album and none of the album’s tracks were played on the radio at the time. It was not until about ten years after its release that the album received acclaim as a great album and was citied by many musicians as a source of inspiration and some calling it their favorite album, including jazz legend Miles Davis who called The Stooges his favorite band for years until his death in 1991. The album since its original release has been hailed as a classic and one of the most important albums in rock music.
Key Album Tracks: “I Wanna Be Your Dog”, “1969”, and “No Fun”
9. My Aim Is True- Elvis Costello
There have been many nerds over the years in music, and Elvis Costello (real name Declan Patrick MacManus) was the hero for many nerds in the world of music. Having been in clubs and bars all around London and Liverpool since 1970, he was made a name for himself on the local music scene. He had some demo tapes that he had recorded in the early 1970s and had failed to have anyone interested in his music to make an album. All this changed when Stiff Records was founded in 1976 and Costello took his demo tapes to the record company.
Stiff was an old store building with two offices in the back, a receptionist desk in the front in the middle of the main room, and a couple of couches in the front of the main room. Stiff liked Costello’s songs and hired him as a song writer for Dave Edmunds, but Edmunds was hesitant about Costello’s lyrics and the company had Costello record the songs with a backup band called Clover; which consisted of John McFee on guitar and pedal steel guitar, Sean Hopper on keyboards, Johnny Ciambotti on bass, and Mickey Shine on drums, and have Nick Lowe, bass player for Edmunds’s backing band Rockpile produce the songs. Stiff liked the songs that they dropped the idea of Costello writing for Edmunds and offered him a record deal. They were going to release two songs; “Less Than Zero” and “Alison” as singles, however not until Costello made a few changes to his image and name. He had been performing as Declan Costello for years (Costello was his grandmother’s maiden name) and Stiff wanted him to change it to Elvis. The reason for the change was they felt he was the new hero in music and was the next Elvis Presley. Also they wanted him to change the style of his glasses from wireless rimmed to Buddy Holly style glasses. The final change was that he was to quit his jab as a data-entry clerk and become a full time professional musician. He agreed to the changes and his debut album My Aim Is True, a line taken form his song “Alison”, was released on July 22, 1977.
The album cover depicted Costello with his new look and name standing with his legs slightly bent and spread apart holding his Fender Jazzmaster giving a smirk look to the camera. The album also featured a checked design with the phrase “ELVIS IS KING” in the checkered design. The album was a big success when it was released and Costello became an overnight sensation in both England and America. He made television appearances solo with just his guitar. The reason being for the solo appearances without Clover was members of the band went on to join Huey Lewis and the News and The Doobie Brothers. Costello set out to form a band of his own and in late 1977 debuted the Attractions, composed of Steve Nieve on keyboards, Bruce Thomas on bass, and Pete Thomas on drum(no relation to each other).
My Aim Is True was probably the most unusual album to come out of the U.K. in 1977 but is one of the most important albums of the time and helped to establish punk rock and new wave in the years to come. It also helped to establish Costello as one of the most acclaimed musician in the 20th Century and a legend in all fields of music. The album does show that Elvis Costello is in fact king of not only punk rock, but of all music.
Key Album Tracks: "Miracle Man", "Alison", and "Watching the Detectives"
10. London Calling- The Clash
By 1979, punk rock was pretty much looked like it was done for in the U.K.The Sex Pistols had broken up the years before; The Damned had disbanded only to reform later that year but had change their style of music; The Jam really took on the Mod revival scene; and Elvis Costello was now part of the new wave scene and no longer considered punk. It was up to The Clash to show that there was at least one English punk band left and they set out to do so with their 1979 double album London Calling. The Clash by point was still composed of Joe Strummer on lead vocal and rhythm guitar, Mick Jones on lead guitar and vocal, Paul Simonon on bass and vocal, and Topper Headon on drums, who replaced Terry Chimes when he left in 1977 after the release of their debut album. After great success with their eponymous debut album in 1977 and the less successful second album Give ‘Em Enough Rope in 1978, The Clash had to show with their third album that they were truly at the top of their game and that punk rock was not just a passing phase. They changed their management, producer, and the style of music that they were making.
They entered Wessex Studios in London to start work on the album and asked their future manager, Guy Stevens to produce the album much to the record company’s dismay. Stevens had a drug and alcohol problem and had a very unconventional way to recording the album. He would often throw chairs and allders at the mebers of the band to help them paly a certain way. He would beer ove rthe keys on the pinao if a piano part was needed for a song and would try to get on the band’s nerves while recording. Thorugh all this though, the band got along with Stevens real well and recorded the album in a period of one month. They relesaed the album’s title track as a single on December 7, 1979 and the album followed one week later with a release date of December 14, 1979. The album was very well received and sold out all over Europe and the United States its first few weeks of its release. The Clash were the biggest punk band in the world at this point. The music on London Calling was radcially different from what the band had previously recorded. It included not only punk, but also ska, rockabilly, reggae, and jazz. The album cover showed Simonon smahing his bass on stage at The Palladium in New York on September 21, 1979. For the lettering on the labum they used green and pink letters designed the same way as on Elvis Presley’s first album in 1956. It has been said that if you compare the two covers side by side; on Elvis’s he is holding his guitar up in the air almost symbolizing the rise of rock music, while The Clash show the bass guaitr being smashed on the ground showing the end of rock music.
London Calling has been called one of the greatet and most important albums ever made. It has appeared on numerous best of essential music lists ove rteh years, and is The Clash’s best selling album out of the five that the band released during their years together as a band. It shows why the band where the only band that ever really mattered.
Key album Tracks: “London Calling”, “Revolution Rock”, and “Clampdown”