Days of Punk | Fashion


New Wave as a genre is notoriously difficult to pin down. Like Athena from Zeus’s skull, it sprang from the punk rock scene in the late 70s, and was immediately attached by music critics and promoters to a wildly diverse range of artists. Despite New Wave’s nebulous nature, it managed to define the musical landscape of the late 70s and early 80s.

But that’s not what we’re here to talk about. If you want an in depth account of the genre’s story, check out our article on the history of New Wave. Today, our objective is to rank the 5 best New Wave bands of all time.

Disclaimer: Before you get your hackles up on behalf of your own personal favorites, please remember that our objective is subjective; we mean to entertain, not to aggravate.

Now, let’s get into it!

5. Devo

A lot of people remember Devo solely as that weird sci-fi looking group with the kitschy dance hit from 1980. Though not inaccurate, we find this take extremely reductive. Sure, “Whip It” is the single that first brought Devo mainstream attention, and their style was undoubtedly bizarre, but this band had depth.

Formed in 1973 by Kent State students who were deeply affected by the May 4 massacre, Devo was profoundly political from inception. Everything they did was a cultural critique. Their cutting-edge commentary and Dadaistic approach to music led the late great David Bowie to dub them “the band of the future” in 1977. While their message never hit home for a majority of Americans, it certainly had a lasting impact on those who got it. On the whole, we feel that Devo is more than deserving of a spot on our list.

4. B-52’s

Formed in Athens, Georgia in 1976, the B-52’s were the first major New Wave group to hail from the American South. They were flashy, dramatic, zany, eccentric; everything about them screamed “camp”. They were also musical innovators with a completely unique sound that inspired a slew of incredible artists, including Beatles icon John Lennon, who was reportedly snapped out of a writing slump after hearing “Rock Lobster” at a club in ‘79.

Despite their obvious genius, the B-52’s have suffered from chronic “novelty band” syndrome over the course of their long career. People tend to note their madcap fashion sense and whimsical lyrics and dismiss them as some sort of charming joke. We think this is a terrible disservice to one of the most casually subversive and effortlessly brilliant bands in music history, which is why we’ve made sure to save them a place in our top 5.

3. Elvis Costello

With a musical career spanning 6 decades, and a place secured in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, it’s safe to say that Elvis Costello is one of New Wave’s most celebrated figures. He began his career in the British pub rock scene in the early 70s and was soon swept up in the burgeoning punk movement.

As Costello’s style continued to change and develop, he (like many of his punk rock peers) became a prominent voice in the New Wave scene, and he managed to do it with a fair amount of commercial success. Costello’s ability to write songs that are clever and compelling, both musically and lyrically, has kept him relevant for a gobsmacking 45 plus years and easily earned him the third slot on this list of New Wave icons.

2. The Cars

Many New Wave bands, though renowned in their own niche circles, lived somewhere left of marketability, and never managed to make it big in the mainstream. The Cars were not one of these bands. The Cars formed in Boston in 1976. Two years later, they released their self-titled debut album and became bona fide stars overnight.

The Cars appeared on the Billboard 200 album chart for 139 weeks, and sold 6 million copies. The band was subsequently voted “Best New Artist” in the 1978 Rolling Stone Readers’ Poll. They released their second album, Candy-O, in ‘79 to even greater success. It peaked at number 3 on the Billboard 200 album chart. They continued to put out hits until they disbanded in 1988. The Cars were the force that drove New Wave into the cultural heart of the 80s, and for that, we rank them second on our list.

1. Talking Heads

And coming in at number one is, of course, Talking Heads. The New Wave genre was literally invented for them! (For more on that story, check out our blog about Michael Grecco’s interview with Tina Weymouth and Chris Frantz) Forged in the fires of the New York punk scene, Talking Heads took the world (or at least a very specific section of it) by storm when they released their first album in 1977.

The Talking Heads’ propensity for pushing the musical envelope made them difficult to categorize. It also made them great. They spent 16 years at the forefront of New Wave, experimenting, innovating, and defining the sound of an era.

Want to get up close and personal with all of your New Wave faves? Check out photographer Michael Grecco’s punk rock book, Punk, Post Punk, New Wave: Onstage, Backstage, and In Your Face. Pick up your copy today and peruse never-before-seen images of the legends who made the genre.