overground scene

my 15 best albums of north-american punk

In a country as big as the USA, and as influential in terms of contemporary mainstream music, picking out 15 albums from a music scene is a hard task. The US is the place were punk was born. Some people disagree with this, ignoring the simple fact that the RAMONES started playing in 1974, and claim that the Sex Pistols were the first punk band ever. Maybe if they listen to songs like “Looking for a kiss” from the first New York Dolls album, they may figure out where Rotten got its singing style. In any case the sex pistols launched punk in the UK and killed it at the same time, by turning it into a comercial joke. I still cannot believe that even today there are some people who are offended by the slogan “Punk is Dead”.

Lets get back to America. By saying north American punk I refer to all kinds of punk, may it be pop-punk (stupid title I never went along with it), skate-punk, hardcore-punk, anarcho-punk, and so on. There is also cookie-punk, or else turquise-punk or scoobie doo-punk which are titles we have come up with my friends in Greece to characterise bands like greenday, millencolin, nofx, blink 182, etc. So, from the oldest to the newest:

1. Ramones – Leave Home (1977)


The Ramones are for me the cornerstone of punk music. They have all the elements I am looking for in a punk band. Most importantly, I need the drums to sound like the Ramones. If they don’t, it’s not punk. The second Ramones album is my favourite because it is the album to which I have danced more than any other album in my life. It has a 100% rock n roll feeling but in a totally different context, with simplistic structures, drums, guitars and bass that can be played by absolute beginners. Yet, all the songs are so inspired and all the melodies will stick on your mind forever. Chord progressions like in the chorus of “commando”, were meant to become a guide for composing punk songs. Favourites: “oh oh, I love her so“, “Commando“, “I remember you”, “Swallow my pride”. “Gimme gimme shock treatment”.

2. Circle Jerks – Group Sex (1980)


It is hard to comprehend that this album came out in 1980. A record whose speed and intensity are unbelievable even today. I cannot remember how I reacted when first listened to “red tape” but I am sure my jaw dropped. “Operation” is indeed a statement of our times, funny but dead serious at the same time, “Live fast die young” is an all time classic ‘into the pit’ song, “I just want some skunk” is furious. In spite of the fact that it is less than 20 minutes, it is varied and all inclusive and certainly provides with a sufficient dose of neck-breaking hardcore. However, the term hardcore is really not enough to describe the richness of this album. It is a shame the albums that followed were indifferent.

3. Adolescents – s/t (1981)


The combined geniuses of Rikk Agnew, Casey Royer, Steve Sotto, et al. shine in this album which is the definition of O.C. punk. I consider Rikk Agnew as my all time favourite punk composer and overall one of the great personalities of punk music. His first personal album is a true gem, and the only reason I put this album here instead of his personal is…I do not know why. Anyway, at least two of the best songs ever recorded are included here: “Kids of the Black Hole” and “No Friends”. Agnew’s melodies over the main riffs are ubiquitous and make the compositions special. Songs like “Amoeba” or “Creatures” are blueprints of the o.c. sound. The band proves in songs like “self destruct” or “word attack” that when it comes to faster more hardcore sound they are still capable of writing inspired songs.

4. Agent Orange – Living in Darkness (1981)


If I had to choose the most serious record the Californian scene has produced, Living in darkness would have to be the one. So much a typical Californian sound and at the same time so different from the rest of the scene. Eight songs, each one an instant classic. Ok, I have to admit that if I listen one more time to “Misirlou” I will puke, but it is not their fault. A quite melancholic album in general, with songs like “A cry for help…”, being timeless testaments of the alienated contemporary society. Palm sounds jaded and saddened by the passing of years, loneliness and short-lived human relationships. All songs are perfect, but my two favourites are “cry for help…” and “everything turns grey“.

5. True Sounds Of Liberty – Dance with Me (1981)


Another album-definition of Californian punk. Hymns like “Abolish government” or “superficial love” are not included here, but others are. A dark record with perfect guitars and drums, some unbelievably good lyrics (e.g. “The triangle”, “80 Times”, “Peace through Power”) and some unbelievably bad lyrics (e.g. “Code blue”). Grisham (vocals) sounds a lot like Biafra sometimes but they started about the same period. Barnes is my personal favorite drummer and together with Tommy from the Ramones, the definition of punk drummer. The riffs and melodies are most of the time far from the typical punk. The frequently changing time signatures are another interesting aspect of their music, since then copied by bands like System of a Down (e.g. any system of a down song sounds a lot like the ending of “I’m tired of life”). Favourites: “The triangle”, “80 times”, “Die for me”, “Peace through power”.

6. MDC -Millions of Dead Cops (1981)


An angry political hardcore album from the early 80s in which two or three songs were meant to become classic. The guitars are insane and the riffs are ahead of their time (just like the Bad Brains and DK). All songs are hyperfast and the singer is awesome, among the greater punk vocalists of all time. Openly gay, Dictor’s lyrics criticise in a clever way the fascist homophobic American society, with best example the chorus “…What makes America so straight and me so bent?”. The fury, the riff, the incredible lyrics of “John Wayne was a nazi” are beyond the imagination. The chorus of “Born to Die” is a timeless slogan (“No War, No KKK, No Fascist USA”). My family is a little weird resembles “Sick Boy” by GBH but they came out around the same time… So I cannot tell who stole whom. Certainly a cornerstone of hardcore music. Fast, powerful, technical and political.

7. Minor Threat – s/t (1981)


Even though it is not a standard album but a compilation of the first two 7” ep’s it is a big part of hardcore history. Only MDC are equally furious, but in a more ‘metal’ way. Minor threat are furious in a 100% punk way. Clever riffs, frenetic drums and great vocals, on some of the greatest hardcore songs ever. Even though I am against the philosophy of “Guilty of being white” (in fact I think that its message – absolving white people of their racist crimes – is horrible) I think it is one of the best song ever written! In fact all songs are monuments of how hardcore-punk should sound. Again no one ever managed or attempted as far as I know to copy them because it is impossible (although Pantera’s song “strength beyond strength” starts exactly like “Guilty…“). Their “out of step” album is equally perfect and more coherent, though much slower.

8. Dead Kennedys – Plastic Surgery Disasters (1982)


Even though the first album is a masterpiece and probably the most important album from that scene in America, “Plastic surgery…” is my personal favourite. When I first listened to it I was sure that I would never listen to a more complete album ever. I still don’t think I have. By far the best orchestration I have ever listened to in a punk album. The changes on “Forest fire” and the lead guitar when Biafra sings”….and hey, what about that cocaine…”, the fury with which it continuous with “…where’s your brand new pretty wife…”, the guitars on “dead end”, the riff of “Buzzbomb”, the lyrics of “Terminal prepie”!!! What about the boiling tension of “Riot” and that amazing bass-line! This might be one of the most chaotic and tense songs ever written. Biafra, Ray, Peligro and Flouride give their best performance ever. Really a masterpiece of flawless compositions and variety.

9. Misfits – Walk Among Us (1982)


Misfits is a name with negative connotations in Greece, because of its connection with hooligans and their football clubs (Misfits 7 is a club of violent olympiakos’ fans) and generally it is considered a band admired by brainless fans. It is certainly not the band with a serious punk ideology, and their lyrics are full of sexism and violence, and would easily fit into a heavy metal band. If we muster up the strength to ignore sexism and focus on the music, we are confronted with some of the best rock’n’roll in history.  This album has the best melodies and some really fun lyrics. The key quality of this record is that it is enthousiastic and makes you wanna dance. It has incredibly intelligent choruses, every single song is a surprise and the BEST vocals EVER. Here’s a cool video of “I turned into a martian” and the incredible “All hell breaks loose“.

10. Bad Brains – Rock for Light (1983)


When it comes to punk, Bad Brains stick out from the rest bands. Their genius is admitted by most bands of that era (late 70s early 80s). However, their influence is not easily recognisable. This happens for the reason that they simply cannot be copied! The funny thing is that I cannot explain what they were listening in order to play the way they did. I don’t mean the reggae songs, but the punk ones. The riffs would remind me death or grind riffs, but the Bad Brains came first! So, what were they listening to play the riff of “FVK” or the riff in the middle of “We will not” just before the solo? The brutal vocals on “Riot Squad” surely had an effect on early death or grind bands. The tempo of “Big Takeover” is among the highlights of the album. Bass, drums, guitars and vocals are from another planet, not only at the time of its release but even in terms of contemporary music.

11. Youth Brigade – Sound and Fury (1983)


Stern brothers’ first album has everything one can ask for from California. Fun, speed, rage, thoughtful lyrics and melody blend together in the most beautiful way. When I first listened to the record I found traces of British Oi punk (in “Men in blue”, “What are you fighting for”) which made it even more interesting. This album contains the famous oozin ahs Bad Religion use, before Bad Religion. It also contains the punk hymn “Sink With California“. Favourites; “blown away” (the chorus-the ending are unique), “What are you fightin for”, “Sink with California”, “What will the revolution change?”.

12. Bad Religion – No Control (1989)


It is extremely difficult to pick one out of more than ten perfect albums B.R. have released since 1981. Even if someone would hold them responsible for all the bad taste and downfall of today’s mainstream American punk scene, that does not mean that they should not be among the greatest bands ever in music history. Suffer, No control and Against the Grain are my favourite B.R. albums but No control is the first one I listened to, so I choose this one. A 100% original band with Graffin borrowing elements from traditional American music, making the difference. The melodies are unprecedented and the choruses are the best. A record to dance to forever. Highlights: “No control”, “Big Bang“, “Automatic man”, “I wanna conquer the world”, “you”, “It must look pretty appealing”.

13. Nomeansno – Wrong (1989)


A Nomeansno album should be in this list, not only because they are one of the most sophisticated and innovative punk bands, but because they continue releasing extremely perfect albums as well. Wrong is somehow a turn in the bands sound, employing a more punk attitude. In this album one can find songs with so intricate and clever orchestrations, that no matter how much technocratic bands can turn, will never top them. The chorus of “The Tower”, a majestic song that deserves to be among the best songs ever, “It’s catching up”, “brainless wonder”, are among these songs. Songs like “tired of waiting” or “the tower” are songs that every hardcore wannabe band would envy. Other uptempo songs like “Oh no Bruno” or “Two lips…” are more Ramones-like but still exciting and make you wanna dance. Overall, clever lyrics, great music but also technique, something not so common in punk bands, but definetely punk. I like to call it Zappunk or Punk Zappa!

14. Reagan Youth – Volume 1 (1989)

The first complete Reagan Youth album is huge (recorded in 1983-4). The guitars are twisted and the singer delivers some of the best vocals ever. “Anytown” is one of my favourite songs of all time and lyric-wise is a true gem. Music-wise the album in general has some of the most twisted riffs ever which create a stressful atmosphere. Best examples are “new aryans” and “in dog we trust” with that lead guitar on the latter imitating an ambulance siren and creating an unbearable tension! “Degenerated” and “Gonowhere” represent heavy critiques of punk lifestyle and yet are extremely enjoyable. All great songs with great lyrics and most importantly, original.

15. Propagandhi – Today’s Empires, Tomorrow’s ashes (2001)


After much thought I decided to put one relatively recent record in this list. Even though there are huge bands that I have not chosen, Propagandhi are here because they are gods. Propagandhi have it all. They think critically about societal issues, their lyrics are beautiful and they are proficient musicians. Furthermore, they draw on different genres and create something very interesting and inspired. This album is unbelievably perfect. It is fast, sentimental, brutal and the lyrics are perfect. The songs “Fuck the border” and “bullshit politicians” are too good to be true.

p.s. For bands that deserved to be here and are not like Subhumans (Canada), Jerry’s Kids, D.I., Middle Class, Germs, Descendents, Tragedy, Brother Inferior, Ballast, Zeke, I will make it up to them in the future!


2 Comments so far
Leave a comment

ok, so i haven’t read this in full just yet. i will, but i just scanned through your list, and i have one major thing to say:


damaged, my way or the first four years (if that counts, as a collection of eps): its your choice. but surely their influence cannot be overlooked, even if you hate their style and simply recognise what they contributed to the mindset of american punk?

other obvious omissions (more relating to my personal opinion, though): minutemen, born against… edit: just realised you specifically said punk and maybe these suggestions would relate more to hardcore… although i think black flag still stands.

Comment by sam

Hi Sam,
I like the first 4 years of Black Flag and Damaged, but I don’t like Rollins’s vocals. I am not sure how much they contributed, maybe they have, but I personally don’t admire them that much. About minutemen, I like songs from their albums but not an entire album. I have only listened to 2-3 songs from Born Against, so I am not into them, but from that small sample they did not seem like anything new or innovative or whatever. Maybe I’m wrong, you ‘ll have to change my mind.

Comment by lentil81

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