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The 20.2: An Essential Guide to New Wave


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Music critics tend to throw around the word “New Wave” like it’s going out of style.  But if you’ve heard Santigold or The Killers, or if you jammed out to Bloc Party’s Juice Jam set last year, then you’re well aware that the opposite is actually true — it’s pretty much impossible to find any musical act in any genre today that doesn’t owe some kind of debt to the the punk-mod fusion that came out of the ’80s.

But put “This Modern Love” on pause for a second.  Here at 20 Watts, we’re interested in getting back to our musical roots.  That’s why we’ve recruited a team of music fanatics to write comprehensive, 20-album guides to all their favorite genres. THE 20 is more than a curated list — it’s the absolute best of a style or movement, condensed to a form you can play in one sitting.

So what’s the very best in New Wave?  20 Watts’ CHARLIE WEEKS has the answer.

TelevisionMarquee Moon

Soft compared to The Sex Pistols’ and The Ramones’ punk, Marquee Moon was the first “new wave” album, showing off rock’s past, present, and future. “See No Evil,” sounds like The Strokes, but “Friction” starts with a Doors-y bass riff. The album’s ten-minute centerpiece, “Marquee Moon,” undoubtedly influenced bands like Franz Ferdinand, but draws from the jagged guitar duels of Neil Young with Crazy Horse. It’s one of the most underappreciated albums ever made.

Key Track: “Marquee Moon”

Talking HeadsTalking Heads: 77

David Byrne, always too high-brow for punk, was behind Talking Heads: 77‘s unique, bare-bones sound. There’s a twisted innocence to the album, heard in the aural contrast between the music and Byrne’s haunting vocals. “Happy Day,” a track with the sweetest melody and instrumentation, presents a troubled lyrical persona ranting like a madman. This continues to 77’s violent climax, “Psycho Killer,” a musical tour de force led by a bouncy bass line from Tina Weymouth.

Key Track: “Psycho Killer”

BlondieBest of Blondie

So what if Blondie never had any seminal studio albums? Their singles helped shape the genre. This best-of release was impeccably timed, since their streak of decent albums ended atrociously with The Hunter. When you take the best of their previous releases, you get a great one. This collection shows how Blondie’s sound never evolved like other bands here. They employed similar funk and disco bass lines from 1978’s “Heart of Glass” to “Rapture.” Both sound great.

Key Track: “Atomic”

Joy DivisionUnknown Pleasures

Darkness and urban desolation never sounded so rich and intense as on Joy Division’s debut . The band’s bleak soundscapes perfectly complement Ian Curtis’ vocals. In tracks like “Insight,” Peter Hook plays his bass as a lead instrument while Bernard Sumner transmits effects-driven crunch chords on his guitar. But Curtis is the album’s crux. His bellowing of “We were strangers,” on the last track “I Remember Nothing” is a suitably ends our first entry into Joy Division.

Key Track: “Disorder”

Joy DivisionCloser

Death looms over Joy Division’s final album, Closer, and it’s almost unbearable to listen to all the way, given Ian Curtis’ suicide before its release. Barbaric drums kick the album off in “Atrocity Exhibition.” By the final track, “The Eternal,” they sounds like they’re  playing a funeral. Ian Curtis’ self-hatred culminates in “Isolation,” with “Mother, I tried, please believe me / I’m doing the best that I can / I’m ashamed of the things I’ve been put through / I’m ashamed of the person I am.”

Key Track: “Passover”

Talking HeadsRemain in Light

When Talking Heads walked into the studio to record Remain in Light, they had no pre-written songs. At Brian Eno’s encouragement, they cut unarguably their best album. On “Born Under Punches (The Heat Goes On),” Byrne sounds like he’s tearing off a straitjacket as he yells the lyrics. This style carries on for the rest of the album’s first half. The second half takes on a dreamier, more ethereal feel. Remain in Light shows how a band can get brilliance from scratch.

Key Track: “Cross-Eyed and Painless”


While Bono’s voice sounds like he’s jumping and dancing around the recording, The Edge is consistent. The tones he creates encapsulate childhood feelings of bewilderment, anxiousness and curiosity. Whereas Bono is still under-developed as a lyricist, The Edge is sturdy as a rock, driving the album with his eclectic rhythm and lead psrts. The band flawlessly glides from the dark, mystifying “An Cat Dubh / Into the Heart” into the more happier “Out of Control.”

Key Track: “An Cat Dubh/Into the Heart”

The JamSound Affects

With their most eclectic album, 1980’s Sound Affects, The Jam encapsulated the best of British rock. The track “Monday” melds The Kinks, David Bowie and Pink Floyd. They more or less set up the blueprint of Britpop with “But I’m Different Now,” which begins with crunchy guitars that could have come from Blur’s Graham Coxon fifteen years later. Yet they return to late-’70s Britain in “Set the House Afire,” recalls The Sex Pistols’ “Pretty Vacant” and London Calling.

Key Track: “Monday”

The Psychedelic FursTalk Talk Talk

The Psychedelic Furs cut one great album: 1981’s Talk Talk Talk. Lead vocalist Richard Butler swoons and croons like David Bowie on tracks like “Pretty in Pink” and “She is Mine.” On more abrasive tracks like “Dumb Waiters,” he snarls like Johnny Rotten. Though not the most imaginative or innovative album, Talk Talk Talk gets the job done and is a great listen all the way through. It’s a necessary part of any ‘80s record collection.

Key Track: “Dumb Waiters”

A Flock of SeagullsA Flock of Seagulls

You’d figure a band whose frontman looks like a space age serial killer could only be a one-hit wonder. But in fact, A Flock of Seagulls deliver a fast-paced and engrossing listen. Besides the overplayed classic, “I Ran (So Far Away),” the self-titled debut has soaring melodies mixed with spacey guitar lines — exhibited in the second track: “Space Age Love Song.” The album carries nostalgia for a time we weren’t alive for.

Key Track: “Space Age Love Song”


By the time they reached War, U2 had developed musically and lyrically. Tracks like “Sunday Bloody Sunday” highlight a grittier album. Bono is clearly a more confident frontman. The Edge proves himself once again, playing a both rhythm and lead guitar parts. His signature style shows in the six-note theme of “New Years Day” by playing off Adam Clayton’s bass line and Bono’s flamboyant howl. After a listen you’ll be obsessed with these mulleted revolutionaries.

Key Track: “Like a Song …”

New OrderPower, Corruption & Lies

With Ian Curtis’s death, the rest of Joy Division had big shoes to fill. On the second album under the moniker New Order — Power, Corruption & Lies — they gained a foothold. Its centerpiece, “Your Silent Face,” uses Kraftwerk-y synth, spicing it up with clever guitar and bass lines. While album closer “Leave Me Alone” features Curtis-esque lyrics, Power, Corruption & Lies shows New Order growing past its darker post-punk.

Key Track: “Your Silent Face”

The PoliceSynchronicity

Synchronicity is a peculiar album title for a band that’s fallen apart. But The Police’s chaotic relationship somehow worked on their best and final effort. The instant classics on the album’s second half makes up for its schizophrenic first. The driving “Synchronicity II” leads the way — Sting screaming all sorts of lyrics about a dysfunctional “suburban family morning.” Intensity lingers on the hit “Every Breath You Take,” a sweet ballad with the dark line “I’ll be watching you.”

Key Track: “Murder by Numbers”

Echo and the BunnymenOcean Rain

Ian McCulloch found a balance between the dreariness of Joy Division with the lush sounds of The Cure. The album also incorporates sounds ahead of its time. Rather than use synths, The Bunnymen got a proper string section to back much of the album, making it sound more timeless. This classic is New Wave’s Nostradamus, its brilliant tracks predicting styles that U2 and The Cure would pursue by the end of the decade.

Key Track: “The Killing Moon”

The SmithsMeat is Murder

The Smiths combined Morrissey’s brilliant lyrics with the genius of ’80s riff-god Johnny Marr. By their second album Meat is Murder, the band had its formula down as shown in their opening track “The Headmaster Ritual.” Marr’s complex guitar work is laced with Morrissey’s complaints about how “belligerent goons run Manchester schools.” We get the Smiths track everyone knows: “How Soon Is Now,” a testament to their position on synth-overuse in music. Timeless.

Key Tracks: “The Headmaster Ritual”

Tears for FearsSongs from the Big Chair

Songs from the Big Chair succeeds at capturing ’80s overindulgence. Big drums, sequencers, heavy synths, over-the-top solos … you name it, it’s here. Each song with its own multi-layered mood, it’s a band’s ambitious attempt to make the greatest record ever. Recall the chewing gum ads that went with recognizable tracks like “Everybody Wants to Rule the World” or “Head Over Heels.” Excess was never this charming.

Key Track: “Head Over Heels”

New OrderLow-Life

Even before Power, Corruption & Lies, New Order had already put out dance rock singles like “Temptation” and “Blue Monday.” But in 1985, the band released a follow-up — Low-Life — that danced on every track. On “The Perfect Kiss” and “Sunrise,” they work lead bass lines, synth and melody together to turn cynic to fanatic. Bernard Sumner’s assuredness throughout shines on “Love Vigilantes” — one of many tracks where he doesn’t emulate Ian Curtis.

Key Track: “The Perfect Kiss”

The CureThe Head on the Door

For The Cure, The Head on the Door began a trilogy that became their best work. The first three tracks display an eclectic mix of various themes. “In Between Days” is a typical New Wave single with Smiths-y guitars and New Order keyboards. The next track, “Kyoto Song,” has more of an Eastern feel. “The Blood” features Spanish guitars and an Egyptian flute line. The Head on the Door displays a band finally grasping a more mature sound and sense of identity.

Key Track: “Push”

The SmithsThe Queen Is Dead

“Life is very long, when you’re lonely,” Morrissey howls on The Queen Is Dead‘s title track, setting a tone for The Smiths’ third, best album. Running the gamut, tracks like “I Know It’s Over” and “There Is a Light That Never Goes Out,” showcase him at his most emotional. It’s tongue-in-cheek too. On “Bigmouth Strikes Again,” he apologizes: “Sweetness I was only joking when I said I’d like to smash every tooth in your head.” Anthems for disaffected youth.

Key Track: “Frankly, Mr. Shankly”

The CureDisintegration

By the time Disintegration came out, The Cure were one of the biggest bands of the decade. Yet Robert Smith had to still be upset. Thus, The Cure’s magnum opus conveys almost everything that most other new wave and post-punk bands were going for: a combo of brooding dark moods with lovely music. The songs range from sweeping epics, like “Pictures of You” to concise pop songs, like “Love Song.” The title reflects on what happened to an era and genre of music.

Key Track: “Fascination Street”

— Charlie Weeks


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[…] what’s the very best in New Wave?  20 Watts’ CHARLIE WEEKS has the answer in our second 20 installment.  Watch for new 20s each Thursday, only on 20 […]

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