When people consider the variety of music genres that peaked during the '80s, new wave often comes up as one of the first topics of discussion. Once a term used somewhat interchangeably with punk rock, new wave eventually expanded to include almost any quirky yet mainstream pop/rock form of the first half of the decade. At its core, however, the style featured a heavy focus on guitars and keyboards supported by an unwavering if complicated pop sensibility. Here's a short list, in no strict order, of the most influential and important artists that fell under the valuable if overused new wave designation.
1. The Cars
One of the original and most musically balanced torchbearers for the new wave style, the Cars both exemplified and defined new wave with their sweeping, accessible sound. Blessed with a genius songwriter in usual frontman Ric Ocasek, a powerful guitarist in Elliot Easton and the distinct keyboards of Greg Hawkes, the Cars tapped into classic rock, album rock, post-punk and mainstream pop/rock to build a wide appeal. The presence of bassist and supporting lead vocalist Benjamin Orr helped the group scale even greater heights, ultimately becoming one of the top-selling and most consistently excellent bands of the era.
A common characteristic of the most enduring artists of the new wave era, perhaps by necessity, is an overriding versatility and searching need to test the boundaries of what pop music had to offer. Costello was inspired by the British pub rock scene and developed his sound as punk rock broke there, but his talents as a songwriter and performer always challenged expectations, perhaps even his own. Without even delving into his post-'80s work as a terrifically well-rounded musical genius, an observer must view Costello's work within that decade as unwavering in its sense of adventure and artistic passion. Exploring influences as disparate as R&B and country music, Costello became one of new wave's most impressive legends.
4. The Police
The proximity of the Police to the punk rock revolution in England may have had as much to do with the band's inclusion in the new wave category as its reggae-inflected sound, but the trio certainly reflected the variety ultimately housed within the genre. Starting off as a bona fide punk band, the Police slowly evolved to spotlight world music influences as well as the veteran precision of guitarist Andy Summers. However, everyone knows that the central essence of the group lay in the personality and songwriting of frontman Sting. The band's relatively brief '80s existence (a long-awaited 2007 reunion was tremendously successful) did nothing to diminish its impressive layers, only one of which fits the description new wave.
5. Duran Duran
Though largely driven by a fascination with dance music and considered little more than a pre-fabricated boy band by some music purists, Duran Duran was always a quintet devoted to a unique kind of musical fusion. The band's singular combination of guitar rock, synth pop and Euro beats proved immensely popular in both Britain and America, and at one time the Duran Duran furor rivaled that of the Beatles two decades before. Though plenty adept musically, the group attracted more attention for its photogenic appeal than its songwriting, a handicap that has haunted Duran Duran only slightly over what's now more than a 30-year career on the pop music landscape.
6. Culture Club
During the early '80s an unsuspecting American public probably had no idea what to call a neo-soul pop band led by an androgynous cross-dresser. So naturally Culture Club quickly secured the new wave label just in time to score hit after hit on the American pop charts. Musically, the group had little in common with the guitar-based pop or synth-heavy dance music that had otherwise been christened with the marketable signifier. But the group's tight songwriting and fine showcase for the smooth vocals of Boy George found plenty of takers among radio programmers and the record-buying public, and MTV helped Culture Club make the most of its unusual visuals.