2. Joy Division, Unknown Pleasures
Another album that’s become so much a part of other bands’ DNA (including so much of the Factory Records roster that immediately followed), it’s easy to forget just how unique it was when it debuted. It was, in fact, a sound that not even Joy Division itself had heard before. Before being forced into a freezing studio with producer Martin Hannett, the group’s idiom was just as ominous but much more aggressive, a rolling thunderhead topped off by Ian Curtis’ haunted croon, yet not leagues apart from the other punk bands it shared a stage with. Hannett transformed that sturm und drang energy into a sustained eeriness—all negative space and dub-like echo, with the occasional lightning crack of processed snare drum—creating a record that’s instantly transfixing and impossible to ignore. Seriously, next time you want to trainwreck a party and make everyone shut up, pop this on.

3. The Fall, Live At The Witch Trials and Dragnet
Cerebral and caustic over a decade before it released Cerebral Caustic, The Fall’s earliest works almost seem like inside jokes, a prodding parody of every other band around—maybe even a parody of the idea of playing in a band itself. The music is deliberately atonal, amateurish, and repetitious, the lyrics are peppered with specific digs at the music industry—with Mark E. Smith even going so far as to actually bait critics by quoting verbatim reviews of his own band—and Smith enunciates like he’s delivering everything through a smirk, the sound of a polite Salford shipping clerk who spends the whole day indulging idiots until the whistle blows and he finally takes mic in hand to seek his revenge. It’d be off-putting if it weren’t so brilliant, the work of a mad, idiosyncratic genius who’s convinced that he’s making the only music worth listening to and that everything else is utter, pandering shit. After a while, you start to realize that he’s right.

4. Wire, 154
My colleague Jason Heller already offered a worthy summation of Wire’s overall importance in his 1977 write-up, but there’s no overstating how crazy the band was about constantly reinventing itself. The group remains notorious for never looking backward, and its third album, 154, was the tail-end of a constant forward motion that propelled them through the buzzsaw Pink Flag to the ambient weirdness of Chairs Missing to the skewed art-pop of 154 so rapidly that they quit after it was released, saying they were already out of ideas. They weren’t, of course, but you can see how 154 would be hard to top, effortlessly bridging the gap between the experimental soundscapes of “A Touching Display” with the soft, even sunny pop melodies of “Map. Ref. 41°N 93°W” and “The 15th” in a way so many “art-rock” bands have tried and failed.

5. Tubeway Army, Replicas and Gary Numan, The Pleasure Principle
Forget “Cars.” Though VH1 would have you convinced that Gary Numan is simply a quirky one-hit wonder, an android-version-of-David Bowie novelty act, his earliest albums are stark, nihilistic affairs that also happen to be galvanizing and quite moving—the furthest thing from quirk or novelty. Replicas, Numan’s last album under the Tubeway Army name, offered a bridge between punk and all of the New Wave, synth-pop, and industrial acts to follow, setting his dystopic, science-fiction-inspired paranoia to mammoth Minimoog lines, and wringing romance and pathos out of the cold in ballads like “Down In The Park.” His solo debut that same year, The Pleasure Principle, found him digging that sound into even deeper grooves—it’s no wonder that so many hip-hop artists have sampled from that album—and expanding it with spacier atmospheres. It also has “Cars.”

Brian Eno continued to build his reputation as rock’s most valuable producer with Talking Heads’ Fear Of Music and—the last of their shared “Berlin Trilogy”—David Bowie’s Lodger, two albums that pushed those artists’ respective boundaries to something weirder and worldlier. Although both were received as “experimental,” even challenging, they’re nothing compared to Public Image’s Metal Box, which found John Lydon daring listeners to turn away with drawn-out, maddeningly repetitive songs built on dub lines and dread, delivered in his cackling, gibbering sneer; it’s abstract, alien, and hypnotic—and indispensable. The same could be said for both the excoriating, angry funk of The Pop Group's landmark Y and The Raincoats’ self-titled debut, which is full of flat vocals and sloppy guitar playing, approaching pop music as an experiment in naïve art, and creating something utterly disarming.


The Cure’s debut Three Imaginary Boys (which would later sort-of see release as the much stronger Boys Don’t Cry) captures the band in its brittle beginnings, when it was all chiming guitar lines and Robert Smith’s slightly-less-pained yelp. Similarly, Siouxsie And The Banshees’ second album Join Hands is a dark, grimy, and difficult—though rewarding—listen that barely hints at the goth psychedelia they’d soon begin reliably turning out. In that sense it’s much like Simple Minds’ debut Life In A Day, an album that was, by the band’s own admission, too derivative of groups like Magazine (who were already growing tired of their own sound by that year’s Secondhand Daylight), but is nevertheless a fascinating glimpse at the uneasy transition most bands had to make between punk and whatever you want to call New Wave. (For a look at how that stress would lead some to just give up, consider Pere Ubu’s unappreciated New Picnic Time.)

As an indicator of how amorphous “New Wave” was, consider that it was also applied that year to the spiky Baroque pop of Elvis Costello And The AttractionsArmed Forces, The Police’s slippery reggae-rock on Reggatta De Blanc, the synth-glam of The CarsCandy-O, The B-52s’ wild and weird self-titled debut, XTC’s nervy, playful Drums And Wires, and Devo’s screwy outer-space transmission Duty Now For The Future. All of these are good to great albums, so they have that in common, but seeing them crammed into the same “New Wave” genre really illustrates what a catchall, ill-defined term that was—basically the “indie rock” of its day.


Finally, I’d be remiss not to mention Michael Jackson’s Off The Wall, an album that escaped unscathed from the disco wars thanks chiefly to Jackson’s otherworldly voice, and the fact that anyone who doesn’t like “Don’t Stop ’Til You Get Enough” or “Rock With You” is probably a deeply unhappy person. For those people I would heartily recommend either of that year’s releases from industrial pioneers Cabaret Voltaire or Throbbing Gristle—Mix-Up and 20 Jazz Funk Greats, respectively—or Leonard Cohen’s somber, elegant Recent Songs, which ditched the ill-fitting Phil Spector arrangements of Death Of A Ladies Man and returned him to stately, romantic acoustic numbers, making for a record as calm and timeless as the year it was released was chaotic and often disposable.

Early Warnings
That original first wave of British and New York punk may have begun to flame out, but the flag was being picked up worldwide—particularly on the West Coast, where a new generation of hardcore California kids was already rebuilding the genre to take it into the next decade. 1979 saw the first single from the Dead Kennedys and with it the launch of the Alternative Tentacles label, while other already-established bands in the area like Black Flag and Social Distortion were soon joined by groups like Agent Orange, the Adolescents, and Bad Religion. Meanwhile, a bunch of goofy, white Bad Brains fans in New York started a hardcore punk band called the Beastie Boys that only got better and better the less seriously they took themselves. That year, the influence of punk and early New Wave reverberated from the Minnesota heartland—where Hüsker Dü and The Replacements started getting their acts together—to the Netherlands and its experimental anarcho-punks The Ex, then down to Australia, where future ’80s titans INXS were staging their first gigs. And in September, a scrappy little group called U2 self-released a vinyl EP titled Three, which set Irish radio playlists ablaze and that was about it.


Also hardly indicative of how quickly ubiquitous they would become: Huey Lewis And The News released a single under their original name, Huey Lewis And The American Express (to the protest of a certain credit card company), a disco version of the theme from the film Exodus that was completely ignored, if you can believe that. Fellow ’80s mainstays Def Leppard had far more success with their self-released Def Leppard EP, the word-of-mouth hit pushing the band to the forefront of the New Wave Of British Heavy Metal movement that was rising up around groups like Saxon, who also put out its self-titled debut that year. But without question, the biggest omens of things to come were two singles: The Sugarhill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight,” which would introduce hip-hop to the world at large (and also, make rapping look so easy that any professional wrestler or reality TV star could do it, but we can’t blame them for that), and The Buggles’ “Video Killed The Radio Star,” which would go on to launch MTV and thus convince every former New Wave experimentalist that mainstream pop stardom was within their easy grasp.

I have an equally sentimental reason for choosing 1995: It was the year I graduated from high school, and looking back it seems like the following summer and my first cakewalk semester in college were the easiest days of my life, when all my free time was spent going to shows and listening to records. And maybe that carefree state had something to do with how crazy open-minded I was for a teenager, loving equally slack indie like Pavement’s Wowee Zowee, Sonic Youth’s Washing Machine, and Superchunk’s Here’s Where The Strings Come In; ’90s punk revivalist stuff like Green Day’s Insomniac and Rancid’s …And Out Come The Wolves; the strange female chanteuse sounds of PJ Harvey’s To Bring You My Love and Björk’s Post; and big shiny guitar rock like Foo Fighters’ self-titled debut and Smashing PumpkinsMellon Collie And The Infinite Sadness.


And of course, 1995 was also a peak year for the second British invasion, giving us Radiohead’s The Bends, the ongoing Britpop battle between Oasis(What’s The Story) Morning Glory? and Blur’s The Great Escape (I think Oasis won that one; sorry Blur), plus Elastica’s flawless debut, Pulp’s Different Class, Sleeper’s Smart, Supergrass’ I Should Coco, The Verve’s A Northern Soul, and Morrissey’s Southpaw Grammar. Stateside, college radio introduced me to the debuts from Wilco, Sparklehorse, The Dandy Warhols, and Sleater-Kinney, the weird guy at my local record store pushed Scott Walker’s Tilt on me (though it took me years to fully appreciate it), and seeing them open for Hum led me to Mercury Rev’s See You On The Other Side, a CD I fell asleep to for about six months straight. I even gladly ponied up for obvious one-album wonders like Spacehog’s Resident Alien and Wax’s 13 Unlucky Numbers and played the hell out of them. Forget being open-minded for a teenager—I’m not sure I was ever this open-minded again.

One of my only regrets that year is that I somehow never found room for hip-hop: Although I was a casual fan of artists like Ice Cube and Cypress Hill, it wasn’t until a couple of years later that I realized I’d completely missed out on classic 1995 releases like 2Pac’s Me Against The World, Mobb Deep’s The Infamous, Big L’s Lifestylez Ov Da Poor And Dangerous, Ol’ Dirty Bastard’s Return To The 36 Chambers, Raekwon’s Only Built For Cuban Linx, and GZA’s Liquid Swords, but loving them now only further convinces me that 1995 offered a bumper crop. And even without them, I remember feeling like every other day of 1995 sparked some new musical obsession, cementing the desire to absorb all I possibly could that set me on my current path. For me, at least, it was one of those few years everyone gets in their lifetime that seem to change everything.