[Scroll down for the listening list; read this description to help orient you to the complicated way that New Wave intersects and deviates from familiar styles of the 1970s.]
Post-punk and New Wave are examples of stylistic categories that serve the record industry a little better than they serve those of us who are trying to learn about musical culture and its evolution. The term “New Wave” originated as an industry term for punk rock, and this may have itself been a marketing strategy for a style whose name (punk) was associated with degeneracy. But “New Wave” is a useful term to encapsulate a lot of popular music of the late 1970s and early- to mid- 1980s, that clearly draws influences from punk music (and the many post-punk bands, like the Talking Heads and Blondie, that broadened punk’s musical palette), without necessarily sharing the nihilistic “anti-pop” tendencies of those movements.
One thing that bands described as “New Wave” and bands described as “punk” have in common, is a tendency to strive for simplicity, and a rejection of some of the smooth, over-produced, sugar-coated, richly-textured sounds of 1970s Disco, Progressive Rock, and Art Rock. Instead of using synthesizers the way Pink Floyd did (as miniature orchestras set to give rock a newly symphonic feel, striving to blend with the “real” instruments in the band), New Wave artists tended to let the synthesizer sound plastic, cheap, direct, and technological; in short, to let it be what it is. But the technology was new, so they managed to sound significantly different from the “Do it Yourself” aesthetic of the punk movements before them; and sometimes their music videos and fashion choices suggest that New Wave artists, like early Hip-hop artists, were trying to become the music of the future.
Not all New Wave bands used synthesizers, but they all concentrated their energies on creating funky, but uncomplicated, textures of sound, giving a feeling of directness and accessibility. Their music was technologically, lyrically, and sometimes melodically more sophisticated than punk rock, and they consciously drew their aesthetics from the worlds of high fashion (which is an idea that true punk would never accept), but they avoided the appearance of being musically grand, virtuosic, or Romantic, which makes them a serious break from the Art Rock and Disco of the 1970s.
Some of New Wave’s stylistic roots
The Reagan Years: Eighties New Wave
1. Talking Heads—Psycho Killer (1977)
2. Gary Numan—Cars (1979)
3. Devo—Whip It (1980)
4. Human League—Don’t You Want Me (1981)
5. Falco—Der Kommisar (1981)
6. The Cure—Let’s Go To Bed (1982)
7. Culture Club—Do You Really Want to Hurt Me? (1982)
8. Psychedelic Furs—Love My Way (1982)
9. Flock of Seagull—I Ran (1982) [Best New Wave Look]
10. Cyndi Lauper—She Bop (1983)
11. Depeche Mode—People are People (1984)
12. Aha—Take On Me (1984)
13. Echo & Bunnymen—Lips Like Sugar (1987)
14. The Church—Under the Milky Way (1988)