Top 25 New Wave Songs


Oliver Barnfield

70s New Wave music is far more guitar-driven and angular than its 80s counterpart, but it contained just as many classic hits provided by striking and iconic bands.

New wave music is a very misunderstood and misused term for a genre of music. It seems to encompass both ‘70s guitar music that was somewhat adjacent to punk AND ‘80s synth pop such as Duran Duran. Well, I always considered bands like New Order and Duran Duran to be either synthpop or new romantic, while my personal definition of new wave is centralized around ‘70s artists like The Cars and Blondie – artists who mixed the loud guitars of punk with synthesizers and massive pop hooks, to great success. This genre is to me far superior to punk, which had and still has a tendency to get caught up in its own pointless rage and not leave the listener enough to enjoy in terms of melody or rhythm. The way I see it, new wave is the more cerebral and intellectual twin brother of punk. It’s fitting, then, that another term for it can be Post-Punk, as its similarity to its older brother can seem like a conscious reaction to it. But as the ‘80s waged on, the guitars were phased out and synthesizers took over, taking music in a robotic new direction that wasn’t bad, just different. Most of the bands on this list had hits later in the ‘80s but this is how they started – with angular guitars, quirky lyrics, and primitive synths. The way music should be. I’ve always loved this genre but making this list made me appreciate it more and I discovered so many songs I never would have heard otherwise. Experimentation mixed with melodic hooks, guitars mixed with synthesizers – this genre has so many surprises and variations that it’s easy to get lost. Trust me, if I could, this would be a top 50. 

  1. I Got You by Split Enz (1980)

In what might be the most stylistically different verse and chorus in music history, this 1980 single by New Zealanders Split Enz is, appropriately, split into a moody verse and an upbeat, triumphant chorus. The first time you listen, the two halves seem diametrically opposed, but upon further listening, you start noticing the craft in this masterpiece of a song. The slow layering of synths and drum fills that lead into the chorus all make the transitions less uneasy, creating a divide that begins to feel seamless after a while. Split Enz members would later go on to achieve even more success as parts of Crowded House, although by that point their new wave edge had smoothed into a suave, sophisticated soul sound that worked just as well. 

  1. I Will Follow by U2 (1980)

U2 has become one of the most famous, successful, and mocked bands of all time. They sell out stadiums and release albums directly to your iTunes account, they attract derision from hipsters and adoration from fans. U2 are many things, but they are not subtle and certainly not edgy. So it’s hard to believe that this bombastic band started out as a scrappy post-punk quartet who could barely play their instruments. Producer Steve Lillywhite whipped them into shape and helped craft their distinct sound, which was almost fully formed on the opening song of their debut – the majestic I Will Follow. It’s all there – Bono’s passionate and dramatic vocals, the steady rhythm section, and of course The Edge’s soaring, delayed guitar. But it’s not quite as bombastic or epic as their future songs would get – the distortion on the guitar still has a punk edge, and the lyrics haven’t lapsed into boring political pontificating. The songs are lean, quick, and lack pretension and gluttonous keyboards have not yet added syrup to their spiky sound. It’s almost refreshing to hear it in comparison – it’s the best parts of their hits without the parts that make you feel guilty for listening. No delusions of grandeur or ponderous politics, just soaring, reverb-y guitars and dramatic vocals with a clean, insistent beat. 

  1. Making Plans For Nigel by XTC (1979)

XTC is one of those bands that’s intense Britishness has made it hard for Americans to appreciate them. Still, they are well-appreciated although their lyrics may lose something in translation. Even the title of this song, Making Plans For Nigel, makes one crave tea. But enough about that. What’s important is that bassist Colin Moulding cooked up a delicious track with an addictive drum track and the crunchiest of guitars, topped off with perfectly snide vocals – echoed by falsetto whoops from second vocalist Andy Partridge, inspired by The Beach Boys. The remainder of the track was based on songs by Devo, furthering its new wave cred. XTC may have more artful and meaningful songs, but none are as catchy or as fun to listen to as Making Plans for Nigel.

  1. See No Evil by Television (1977)

New York’s CBGB was home to a number of highly successful bands that got their start playing in its cramped quarters. Blondie, Talking Heads, and The Ramones got the most attention and sales, but the criminally overlooked Television had just as much potential. Boasting the intertwining lead guitar lines of Tom Verlaine and Richard Lloyd, Television could be just as intellectual as Talking Heads but just as addictive as Blondie, although they criminally lacked the pop smarts of both bands, instead focusing on 10-minute songs which won them no favors among punks. But none of that mattered because their songs were great. Searing guitar lines and Verlaine’s yelping vocals established a clearly defined sound even on their debut, which was led off by this song, which boasts six strings that are both edgy and sweet. The band seemed to realize they had peaked with this record and released a stylistically different follow-up before a reunion album many years later, leaving See No Evil and Marquee Moon as their greatest legacy. 

  1. Our Lips Are Sealed by The Go-Go’s (1981)

The Go-Go’s blend of pop hooks and crunchy guitars, sung with the upbeat swagger of an old-fashioned girl group, made them an instant hit and one of the first real success stories of the new wave genre. Their all-female lineup made them an anomaly but soon they’d be joined by the likes of The Bangles and others. And make no mistake, the Go-Go’s were no fluke novelty. This song has so many hooks packed into less than three sunny minutes, and it’s all layered into a tight and highly focused guitar and synth instrumental. It’s a song so good you wish it would go on for longer. 

  1. Pablo Picasso by The Modern Lovers (1976)

Jonathan Richman and his band The Modern Lovers sound a lot like an innocent version of the Velvet Underground, especially on this memorable track, which spins a bizarre story of Pablo Picasso driving an El Dorado that makes girls turn the color of an avocado. The lyrics are nonsensical but nevertheless quotable and memorable. The song and album would prove a big influence on The Cars and Talking Heads and echoes of their quirky humor and naive spirit can be heard throughout modern indie music. 

  1. The Boy With The Perpetual Nervousness by The Feelies (1980)

Beginning with almost a minute of nearly inaudible percussion, this appropriately named track is a bundle of nerves, instrumentally and lyrically, setting the proper tone for Crazy Rhythms, the debut album by New Jersey band The Feelies. The churning, jittery guitars layer over the spastic drumbeat as Bill Million talks us through a tale of suburban slacker-dom. The dry wit on display and lack of chorus make for one of the most odd and memorable songs of the genre – the song and the album it belonged to was no hit but it certainly had staying power, with huge bands like R.E.M. and Weezer paying tribute in music or album covers throughout the 90s.

  1. Jumping Someone Else’s Train by The Cure (1979)

The Cure later became known for their goth dirges and sprightly pop rock, but it’s easy to forget that they started as a tight, controlled trio that pumped out lean and clean new wave singles. The tempos were fast and the lyrics hadn’t evolved into the epics of self-loathing or exaltations of love that they would soon become, so the listeners are left with simplistic slabs of clean, guitar-based rock that brood only slightly. As the immediate follow-up to their breakthrough single Boys Don’t Cry, Jumping Someone Else’s Train tends to get overlooked, but that’s simply unfair. It might not be as classic or popular as that song but it’s certainly more refreshing – I’ve listened to Boys Don’t Cry so many times that it’s become background noise. And besides, this song lacks mopey lyrics, the likes of which edge Boys Don’t Cry into slightly gothier territory. Train is propelled by an insistent and hooky bassline and a descending lead guitar line that echoes the one on Boys. Smith’s vocals seem pissed rather than sad, and his spite towards poseurs and fashionistas is audible in his sneering delivery before the song pauses for an inventive hand-clap rhythm break. 

  1. Private Idaho by The B-52s (1980)

Much like their peers Devo, The B-52s had a highly unusual and specific sound that drew on old B-movies. And just Devo, they grew inexplicably popular despite their strangeness. Their surf rock sound was led by the transatlantic vocal stylings of Fred Schneider and the chatty housewife singing of Kate Pierson and Cindy Wilson, and their dichotomy is at its best on this addictively quirky and shamelessly fun and ridiculous single. It’s certainly not the band’s most popular song, but it’s carved a distinctive hole in pop culture, and those rumbling riffs are too good to pass up, coupled with odd lyrics about potatoes to deliver an extremely memorable tune.

  1. In the City by The Jam (1977)

The Jam was a band that defined the literate, modish side of punk. Their style frequently lapsed into new wave and this Who-style tune remains one of their most enduring songs, propelled by thrashing guitars and Paul Weller’s sneering vocals. Especially surprising is that this powerful song was the trio’s first single – a great start to an exceedingly influential band. 

  1. Up the Neck by The Pretenders (1979)

One of the many reasons new wave was such a great genre and far superior to its edgier cousin punk was that it had so much room for female vocalists, more so than any other rock subgenre before it. Blondie was of course the best example of this phenomenon but The Pretenders came close with their effortlessly cool frontwoman Chrissie Hynde. This album track from their debut is my favorite song by them, an impossibly cool slice of guitar-driven new wave that is led by a cyclical guitar riff and Hynde’s talky vocals which at times lapse into cooing before the guitarist goes crazy in the ever-building fade-out. The open and harmonic-drenched verses give way to a minimalistic and tense chorus and the mysterious and risque lyrics just add to the song’s power. Highly recommended.

  1. Whip It by Devo (1980)

For many, Devo is the prototypical new wave band. Quirky, jerky, and nonsensical with angular guitars and speak-sung vocals. No song better showcases their distinctive sound than this sharp and off-kilter tune, propelled by a rumbling bass line and chintzy keyboards. But of course what everyone remembers is the hilarious vocals, extolling the virtues of whipping with old-fashioned panache at times reminiscent of a game show host. While the lyrics seem stupid (and they are) Devo actually incorporated conceptual themes into some of their other songs – including a concept they invented called “devolution”, from which they derived their name. This concept may not be on its best display on Whip It, but it’s certainly their catchiest song and the one that remains in the public consciousness. 

  1. Pulling Mussels (From the Shell) by Squeeze (1980)

Chris Difford and Glenn Tillbrook of Squeeze knew how to write a song and this might be their masterpiece. Sure, the instrumental is solid but this is a songwriter’s showcase through and through. The rich, evocative lyrics lilt and flow around the instrumental and paint a distinct portrait of a British holiday camp. But despite the wordy prose the song never seems pretentious, refusing to let the song be dragged down by an abundance of words or images and instead letting the mix of music and lyrics speak for themselves. Squeeze perfected a sometimes coarse mix of blue-eyed soul, punk, soft rock, and pub rock that was commercially successful in addition to being beloved by critics – a rare feat, but one that they definitely deserved. 

  1. Is She Really Going Out With Him? by Joe Jackson

Joe Jackson was too often dismissed as Elvis Costello-lite. Don’t get me wrong – there are many similarities. The two share a snide voice, sarcastic lyrics about the futility of love and spiky, edgy guitar and bass. But Jackson was just as talented, despite his lower profile, and his songs are admittedly easier on the ear due to his less caustic voice. His songs are funny and frequently border on jazz – this element of his sound would only grow more prominent on his later albums, but for now, his songs were tight, focused new wave with a special focus on lyrics. And speaking of lyrics, they could be funny, especially on this, his most popular song. Jackson laments an epidemic of pretty girls going out with unattractive guys, as well as his inability to score. His pitiful delivery is believable but it’s just exaggerated enough to read as a joke, and a particularly funny one at that. Instrumentally, the song is just as good, anchored by a simple but very catchy bassline and clattering piano, just minimal enough so as not to distract from the lyrics but interesting enough to make the song listenable as more than a collection of funny lines. Jackson remains consistently underrated even in the new wave community and it’s unfortunate that he peaked commercially with this album as his later material is even more artful. 

  1. Pretty in Pink by The Psychedelic Furs (1981)

Although a re-recorded version would share its name with the popular 1986 John Hughes film, the original tune from 1981 is darker and grittier than most remember. Take a look at the lyrics and listen to Richard Butler’s voice and you’ll hear the sad story of a woman who isn’t respected despite her pleas for approval. They’re easy to miss, however, as Butler’s voice is reedy as ever and layered in chiming guitar. There’s an odd instrumental break where Butler babbles about who knows what, which only adds to the art-rock cred that the band was surely aiming for. The Furs would beef up their sound with the help of Todd Rundgren on their next album and these tunes would prove even more popular, but the artful distortion of their first song remains a classic, especially due to its association with the film of the name, although Butler has long insisted the two were unconnected. 

  1. Love Will Tear Us Apart by Joy Division (1980)

One of the gloomiest and most depressing bands of all time, Joy Division nevertheless gave us an all-time new wave classic with the heartbreaking Love Will Tear Us Apart. While their other songs are far too dense and dark to be considered within the genre, Love rises above the depressing doldrum of their other songs and sounds almost hopeful and yearning despite its depressing (as always) lyrics. That high, keening synth and the prominent, metallic bass provide an elegant backdrop for Ian Curtis’s inhumanly low voice, the ideal vehicle for the lyrics, which chronicles the ending days of a relationship. But despite their depressing reputation, at least they offer some hope: after all, it is love that is tearing them apart, and Curtis admits that the affair was “something so good”. The song remains their most popular but Curtis had already passed away before it was even released – soon enough the remaining members would form New Order, but that’s another story for another article…

  1. Train in Vain (Stand by Me) by The Clash (1979)

The Clash is a truly unclassifiable group, especially as they evolved. They may have started as a punk band but eventually, they omnivorously took elements of reggae, rap, and funk and made an extremely distinct genre of their own. I debated about including them on this list but Train In Vain is simply too good to ignore, and its mix of soul, funk and rock with dejected lyrics provides plenty of new-wave flavor, fitting right in with the cultural stew of styles on their masterpiece album London Calling. What else would you even call this song? From the faded-in drumbeat at the beginning that’s quickly joined by supremely funky slap bass and bluesy harmonica to Mick Jones’ jumpy vocals, the song sounds entirely different from anything in the band’s catalog but also undeniably similar at the same time. Despite their punk credentials Strummer and Jones could write a pop hit and this would be their first breakthrough. Their star would only grow higher with Rock the Casbah and their experimentation with disparate genres would reach a peak on Sandinista! but Train In Vain may still be their finest moment. 

  1. I Melt With You by Modern English (1982)

This song remains one of the most beautiful and sweet love songs ever written, and it’s all wrapped up in some sweetened new wave and post-punk goodness. The lean guitars, both acoustic and electric, the simple melodic synths and the rumbling bass coalesce into what might be the most beautiful song of the new wave era, and at the very least the best love song. Modern English never had another hit but that was alright. Who needs other songs when you’ve made a song this perfect and flawless?

  1. Message in a Bottle by The Police (1979)

An argument could be made that The Police were the most successful new wave band, and while their sound eventually evolved into an unusual synth-rock smorgasbord, they began as bleach-blonde “punks” dressed in leather and playing three-minute songs. I put “punk” in quotations because they most certainly were not – they simply co-opted the sound and style into something more interesting before dispensing with it altogether. One of the reasons new wave exists in the first place is that its musicians were always too unusual or odd to be considered real punks, so they instead molded the genre to fit in their image. Lead vocalist Sting was a former school teacher and he used this training to pen distinctive character studies and draw on literary sources for his lyrics. Guitarist Andy Summers and drummer Stewart Copeland both had prog and jazz backgrounds, and the fast-paced tempo of the song shows this off well. Cyclical arpeggiated guitars, a strong bass line, propulsive and busy drums and, of course, Sting’s passionate and unique vocals propel Message in a Bottle into masterpiece territory. It’s a song filled with electric energy, it’s catchy and slightly dark, and showcases each member extremely well. In short, it’s the ultimate Police song, the template for their many future hits. 

  1. Allison by Elvis Costello (1977)

Is Allison even new wave? It doesn’t seem to tick many of the boxes that new-wave music usually ticks. It’s slow, soft, and sweet-sounding. But to dismiss it as a sugary sweet confection is to overlook its acerbic humor and Costello’s snide voice. Costello’s detailed portrait of a lonely girl with wasted potential has a distinct literary quality that would become a staple of Costello’s sound. Allison would become a new wave anthem despite its slow-dance sound, and it remains Costello’s best song. 

  1. Fashion by David Bowie (1980)

David Bowie is inarguably the king of new wave – he started the genre by mixing his glam theatrics with icy cold synths and crunchy guitars. His foundational glam albums inspired the visual aesthetic of the genre and his experimental Berlin records inspired the soundscapes – but when his acolytes took his sound and made it their own, Bowie had to react, and his reaction was in the form of his 1980 LP Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps). As a whole, the album is a mixed bag – a lot of songs delve into unlistenable noise as if Bowie is trying to prove that he can still be as weird and experimental as his followers. A pair of radiant singles rose above the rest, however, proving two of Bowie’s most enduring songs and arguably his two greatest songs of the 80s, bridging the gap between the poppy electronic soul he would cash into later and the experimental soundscapes of the Berlin years. The more new-wavey of these two singles is the spiky and slightly robotic Fashion, an ode to catwalks and designer brands that is handsomely adorned with some cacophonous Robert Fripp guitar. Bowie drolly spits some contrasting phrases about the fashion world and commands the listener to do various tasks as a monotone vocal choir eggs him on. Of course, even the new wavers who were more inspired by his earlier work took note, and the innovative cross-breeding of funk and disco into the angular new wave sound was much imitated afterward, just as all his work would be. 

  1. Psycho Killer by Talking Heads (1977)

Talking Heads are one of the best bands of all time, but this is far from their best song. Nevertheless, it’s one of their most emblematic songs that fits the genre with its strange lyrics, prominent bassline, and yelpy vocals. And as this innovative band’s first hit, it has become something of a symbol for the band although would best it in the ensuing years. Byrne’s typically off-kilter lyrics are taken to their bloody extreme on this dark track that nevertheless has a disturbingly chipper sound. The band would later grow into an extremely funky and well-populated collective that piled songs with hooks, vamps, and riffs but here they are a simple four-piece with a sturdy bassline and choppy guitars. 

  1. Just What I Needed by The Cars (1978)

This song. I am obsessed with it. I have barely gone a week not listening to it since I first heard it. I know all the words and all the chords. I could sing it in my sleep. I love this song. I’ve even written about it in another one of these articles. And I still didn’t talk about it nearly as much as I could have. It starts with this chunky, palm-muted guitar groove, occasionally broken by bursts of exclamatory chords that occasionally double themselves. This intro is incredibly iconic and from the moment I first listened to this song in my fifth block English flex I was in love. I must have listened to this song at least five times that day – that’s how addictive this song is. I thrill every time the first verse leads into the fake-out chorus that sounds more like an instrumental break, letting the futuristic synths take center stage before leading into the rest of the verse. And as the song ramps up, it reaches a high point with its triumphant chorus. The shouted group vocals are an earworm and the sharp guitar chords that slash beneath them only add to the hookiness. And when Benjamin Orr sings “time, time” and the beat changes completely, totally catching the listener off guard? I melt every time. It’s incredible in its power and catchiness, in its intensity and hookiness, in its smoothness and raucousness. This song is so good it completely changed my songwriting style and how I look at music – it’s just that perfect.

  1. Love Is The Drug by Roxy Music (1975)

Roxy Music could be considered the first new wave band – their dangerous and cool mix of hard guitars, robotic synths, and the demented croon of Bryan Ferry was unlike anything in the music world in the early 70s, and they were met with moderate success that hinged as much on the music as it did on their glamorous aesthetic. While Ferry provided the louche playboy charm, the band’s resident genius was Brian Eno, future superproducer of hit albums by Talking Heads, U2, and Coldplay. His chilly electronics provided the futuristic edge that made the band unique, but Roxy Music would feel their first success in the United States only after Eno left the band. And despite his absence, this song is amazing, one of the best new wave songs ever, and the band’s finest moment. A feverishly catchy bassline anchors the song and chirpy saxophones play triumphant riffs, all while the drums and percussion roll and rumble. Elsewhere, an almost reggae-ish guitar and subtle keyboards flit about the mix. But the most important element is of course Bryan Ferry – lovably sleazy and impossibly cool and elegant with his subtly tortured delivery. And when he harmonizes with himself, it sounds like new-wave lounge lizard heaven. Soon Roxy Music would lean even harder into disco stylings and eventually turn into an adult contemporary band almost completely shorn of their new wave beginnings. But this early example of the genre remains one of the best ever recorded. 

  1. Hanging on the Telephone by Blondie (1978)

A beeping telephone at the start is our only moment of calm in this two-minute and 25-second head-rush that never once lets up. Debbie Harry opens the song after the sound effect completely unadorned – “I’m at the phone booth it’s the one across the hall” – before the rest of the band kicks in, a steady and euphoric blend of squealing guitars, analog synths, piercing organs and Clem Burke’s inventive drumming. And just as you’re about to settle into the sound, the song ends, never giving the listener a chance to catch their breath. I don’t know if this is my favorite song from this era of new wave but it’s certainly the best example of this style – it’s energetic, quirky, loud, and guitar-based with a hint of synth. And of course, Debbie sings her heart out, giving us a truly powerful vocal performance that drills itself into your skull. If this all sounds hard to listen to, don’t be misled. Despite its power and brevity, this is a pop song all the way, and its catchiness is immeasurable – as the first song on Blondie’s breakthrough album, it would announce the band to the world and establish them as one of the first new wave bands to receive pop exposure. Their other hits like Heart of Glass, Call Me and Rapture would all expand their sound into other territories, including disco, hard rock, and rap but this song remains their best, nothing but unadulterated power in under three minutes.

These 25 songs are some of the most fascinating I’ve ever listened to. Each one takes you into its own little quirky world and I’ve truly enjoyed exploring it further. Echoes of this style are still felt all over modern music, and it’s been a pleasure seeing newer bands and artists co-opt the style to great success. New wave may no longer be a popular term or genre, but its echoes are constant today and these songs have truly stood the test of time.