The more fun sounding side of the numerous punk offshoots of the late ’70’s and early ’80’s
When one thinks of New Wave, what likely comes to mind are the neon colors, ridiculous hair (by current perceptions!), and synth-tinged pop music of the early- to mid-‘80’s. MTV had a heavy hand in creating New Wave’s image in its nascent days, and these aspects aren’t even particularly wrong, as several of the genre’s progenitor’s featured some of these elements – typically much more so as the ‘80’s progressed. But before New Wave was co-opted by MTV, it was a movement with serious artistic integrity, made up of great musicians making exciting, original, and slightly left-of-center music. Of course, only including American bands makes for some high-profile exclusions. In fact, some of the very best examples of the genre, but no one’s record collection should be complete without the following releases.
Oingo Boingo – Only A Lad (1980)
In what is perhaps one of the more bizarre releases of the era, vocalist Danny Elfman, now famous for his prolific output of big budget soundtrack music, sings like an absolute madman, with lyrics to match. Writing from the view point of all stripes of disreputable characters – pedophiles; a businessman railing against middle-class socialists, where it’s impossible to tell whether he’s being sarcastic; closing the curtains to hide from his neighbors his “nasty habits,” such as dressing up and rollerblading; feeling like an outsider… The album is a wild ride in every way. Danny’s vocal performance is one of the most eclectic out there. There’s yodeling in one song, wild jumps between styles and registers, and a fast-paced manic energy in both the vocalizations and the music. The album takes inspiration from ska, punk, and more recent movements that were yet to be defined at the time of creation and release. There is a 3-piece horn section, some slap bass, very ‘80’s-sounding keyboards, but all this before the gated reverb drums trend, which most often defines the sound of the 80’s (and Oingo Boingo’s later work as well) really took off. As such, it’s a unique and wild ride and one of the ‘80’s best releases.
Devo – Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo! (1978)
Before Devo’s debut album, as well as before they went on to be heavily associated with the term “New Wave,” they were a far more experimental art rock band, as can be evidenced by the collections Hardcore Devo, Vol’s 1 and 2. Fortunately for the listener, these trace elements are retained on their superb debut LP. Far-out songs like “Too Much Paranois” blend excellently with more straight-forward rock-based songs, such as “Uncontrollable Urge,” making for a varied album filled with interesting ideas. Thematically, lyrically, and musically, it is a cohesive project unique in the world of music. It suited Devo very well to bring more melodic elements into their music and it is indeed one of the movement’s greatest releases.
Talking Heads – More Songs About Buildings and Food (1978)
Choosing a Talking Heads album that best exemplifies the sound of the umbrella term “New Wave,” never mind the band’s sound itself, is no simple task. For one thing, Talking Heads were generally more on the serious, and arguably, the artistic side. Although they were certainly no strangers to creating danceable music, they weren’t afraid to get darker in all aspects of their music. They looked the furthest from the image associated, i.e., like regular people, their music and lyrics often got darker, and there’s simply an aura of seriousness surrounding their overall presentation, as opposed to the more fun sound of their contemporaries. Nevertheless, this album features a ton of fun, high-energy moments, nevertheless and is one of Talking Head’s finest collections of songs.
The B-52’s – The B-52’s (1979)
As should already be clear by now, there are few defining characteristics shared between the bands on this list, highlighting the absurdity inherent to genre designations. There is no guarantee that if you love Talking Heads, you will love, or even like, The B-52’s, but I digress. The word “unique” has probably come up too many times in this article already and, foreshadowing, it will occur again! However, perhaps the major defining characteristic of New Wave, and post-punk for that matter, is uniqueness. Since there is an incredibly well-known song on this album, let’s consider it. I implore you to name a song similar to “Rock Lobster” that is not another song by The B-52’s.
The Cars – The Cars (1978)
Okay, okay. Saying this album’s been co-opted by mainstream classic rock outlets is probably a bit of an understatement. Even after many years of listening to this album all the way through, I cannot break my association of sitting in my parents’ car and hearing more than half these songs on the radio at least a dozen times. Little does that matter though. This is an amazing album through-and-through, and there are several wonky, unusual moments more typical of the New Wave movement than they probably get credit for, such as on “I’m In Touch With Your World.” Then there’s “Moving In Stereo,” which precedes the sound of the MTV-ified version of New Wave that would take over in a few years hence. And really? Who is immune to the charms of “Just What I Needed”? You’d have to be dead inside.
Wall of Voodoo – Dark Continent (1981)
Another unique entry from the time period, and possibly the darkest entry that still gets thrown under the New Wave label. This album is like a mix between early Oingo Boingo, Devo, and Cardiacs, except far darker and with much greater use of drum machine sequencing. You know you are in for something quite different from the first moments of “Red Light.” Then, three songs on you get to “Animal Day,” which features Western elements, making this a uniquely American experience. Wall of Voodoo enjoy the distinction of being by far the least known band on this list, but they started their career out with a two-album bang-of-a-run that belongs in the upper echelon of New Wave.