A beginner's guide to post-punk in 5 essential albums

Idles, Joy Division, Franz Ferdinand, Talking Heads, Television
(Image credit: Roberta Bayley/Redferns, Chris Mills/Redferns, Roberta Bayley/Redferns, Karl Walter/Getty Images, Jim Dyson/Getty Images))

Post-punk is one of the most fascinating genres of music. For while some of the most beloved and well-known bands in the history of guitar music have adopted the tag, pinning down exactly what post-punk is is quite a task and one which continues to divide opinion/spark heated debates.

Punk was characterised by a distinctly DIY attitude - despite major label backing for The Stooges, Ramones, The Clash and more - and a love of rudimentary, stripped-down rock'n'roll. The same was true of the post-punk movement, only instead of wanting to musically ape The Stooges or 60s garage rock, the bands were inspired more by the experimental, oblique sounds of The Velvet Underground and krautrock. This has led to the creation of a genre responsible for countless essential and influential releases.

Here is the story of that genre, via five classic albums.

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Television – Marquee Moon (1977)

So ahead of its time was Television’s sublime debut album that you could argue it gave birth to post-punk before punk itself had made its most definitive statements. The fact that Marquee Moon came out a full seven months before Sex Pistols Never Mind The Bollocks, yet still somehow sounds utterly contemporary by today's standards is some kind of alchemy on the part of the New York quartet.

Of course, Television’s influence spreads way beyond the confines of merely post-punk, but the dubby bass, disco-esque beat and unpredictable, scatty guitar lines employed on a song like Friction, or the jagged but danceable art-funk of the remarkable title track feel like clear signposts to the genre's 80s peak. Put simply, one of the most influential guitar albums in the history of popular music.

Joy Division – Unknown Pleasures (1979)

If you were to pick one band that defines post-punk then surely that band would be Joy Division. The Manchester band's debut full length album is a perfect example of how four musicians and one iconoclastic producer could change the course of music history... even they weren’t aware, or even sure of it at the time.

Unknown Pleasures is beautifully free form whilst also being a true musical democracy – each instrument is given acres of its own space to breathe, creating those unique, iconic tones in the process. Producer Martin Hannett’s famous insistence on recording Joy Division with increasingly bizarre and polarising methods, Peter Hook’s low-slung bass, Stephen Morris’ regimented and mechanical drum patterns and Bernard Sumner’s wiry guitar work all contribute to this idiosyncratic sound. 

But the special element really is vocalist Ian Curtis. His deep baritone – wrought with emotion, empathy and pain, intoning lyrics filled with literary references to JG Ballard, Franz Kafka and more – was unlike anything else “punk rock” had produced to that point. From U2 to The Cure to AFI to Soundgarden to Danny Brown, at this point it’s probably easier to list the guitar bands who haven’t been influenced by Unknown Pleasures.

Talking Heads – Remain In Light (1980)

Talking Heads weren’t very far behind Television when it came to the early pioneering of post-punk aesthetics, and truthfully any of their albums released before this, their fourth record, could represent the band and the history of the genre beautifully.

Remain In Light gets the nod for a few reasons: firstly, it’s a truly unique, yet consistent, album, the influence of funk, afrobeat and early hip-hop rhythms seamlessly merging with their more abrasive art rock ideas. Secondly it acted as proof of the genre's ability to crossover to a more mainstream audience, giving the band their first US Billboard top 20 album and a worldwide smash hit single in the iconic Once In A Lifetime. Although you could argue it's the sound of Talking Heads heading to post-punk's exit door, Remain In Light was proof of how broad the genre could be and the possibilities of where it could go next.  

Franz Ferdinand – Franz Ferdinand (2004)

Toward the middle of the 1980s post-punk began to shapeshift to the point where many of its defining characteristics had all but vanished. In its place new wave, no wave, college rock, indie and alternative rock sprang up and snatched the baton from post-punk. However, the aftermath of The Strokes' blockbuster 2001 album Is This It – which would be in this spot if it wasn't technically considered a garage rock album – led to a resurgence in early punk and rock‘n’roll sounds, sparking a genuine post-punk revival in the early 2000s. 

Those involved included Interpol and The Bravery in the US, and Editors, Bloc Party, Art Brut and The Futureheads in the UK. But the band who did the most to put the genre back on the map was Glasgow quartet Franz Ferdinand. Their self-titled debut album was an homage to sharp suited, art-rock, disco beats, and the throbbing bass and stuttering guitars of early post-punk, but with an inescapable pop sheen that sounded ideal for the era. The album won the 2004 Mercury Music Prize, sold over a million copies in both the UK and the US and spawned one of the decade's most recognisable hit singles in stomping anthem Take Me Out. Post-punk was back.

Idles – Joy As An Act Of Resistance (2018)

By the time the 2010s rolled around, most of the post-punk revivalist bands had either split or were treading both creative and commercial water. The genre seemed to be out of ideas again, and was rapidly losing the interest of its audience as a result. Surely no one was banking on a bunch of burly Bristolians, playing a mixture of socially aware noise-punk, Oi and post-hardcore, singing songs about toxic masculinity, death in childbirth and body positivity, to kickstart the next wave of post-punk. But with their second album, that’s exactly what Idles did. 

Joy As An Act...  is a brilliant, inspiring record. It's full of heart, boisterous riffs and football chant earworm choruses, and it took Idles from being a tiny pub band to the top 5 of the UK album charts, with a memorable performance on Jools Holland and Mercury Music Prize and BRIT Award nominations to boot. Such was its impact that in its wake, Fontaines D.C., Black Midi, Squid, Yard Act, Black Country, New Road, Dry Cleaning, Life and many, many more have risen behind them. It was proof that, even though it may peak and plateau with regularity, post-punk is a genre that you can never write off.

Stephen Hill

Since blagging his way onto the Hammer team a decade ago, Stephen has written countless features and reviews for the magazine, usually specialising in punk, hardcore and 90s metal, and still holds out the faint hope of one day getting his beloved U2 into the pages of the mag. He also regularly spouts his opinions on the Metal Hammer Podcast.