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20 Best: US Hardcore records ever made

From 2003-2008, FACT operated as a bi-monthly print magazine. As part of a new From The Archives feature, we’ll be regularly uploading vintage articles from FACT’s ink-and-paper days. With The Vinyl Factory’s newly announced exhibition in mind, we’re kicking off proceedings in earnest with Philip Sherburne’s guide to the best of US Hardcore, originally published in 2008.


Hardcore is back. 

Not you-know-the-score ‘ardcore, but the American strain of punk that ruled suburbia in the ’80s, and its return is right on time. The ’80s were defined by Reagan, yuppie culture, and the Cold War; the ’00s have taken shape under Bush, the wholesale transfer of wealth to the super-wealthy, and the ‘War on Terror’. If the ’90s, for a privileged few, offered the chance to put one’s nihilism on hold, the old apocalyptic rash is back, and it burns worse than ever.

Hardcore’s revival has been a while in the making: in 2006, Paul Rachman’s film documentary American Hardcore (based on Steven Blush’s 2001 oral history of the same name) revisited the movement’s golden era in interviews with bands like Black Flag and Circle Jerks. This fall, MTV Books will publish Nathan Nedorostek and Anthony Pappalardo’s Radio Silence: A Selected Visual History of American Hardcore Music. It’s not all academic: bands like Fucked Up, Sex Vid, and even Sub Pop signees like Pissed Jeans and No Age are introducing a new generation of kids to the pleasures of power chords and breakneck tempos, while in the UK, groups like Gallows are reviving the classic American sound. If the original wave of hardcore was a reaction to the excesses of mainstream rock, new wave, and even punk- streamlining and accelerating the form, compressing it into atomic blasts of focused (and, often, unfocused) rage – then the current indie-rock hegemony leaves plenty of room for a furious, back-to-basics barrage.

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“The current indie-rock hegemony leaves plenty of room for a furious, back-to-basics barrage.”

Just as there’s no single strain of hardcore – like all great subcultures, it splintered endlessly, into subgenres like crossover, queercore, powerviolence, and innumerable local styles – there was no one experience of it. Breaking with England and New York’s punk traditions, it sprouted up simultaneously in Los Angeles and Washington, D.C. at the tail end of the ’70s and raced across the States as fast as broken-down vans could carry it. In every community – the more suburban, the better – hardcore flowered in basement gigs and all-ages shows (as the name Minor Threat implies, much of hardcore’s animus was fueled by under-age frustration). ‘Unity’ was the watchword, but violence – whether the casual athleticism of the pit or more serious dust-ups between factions—was endemic. Hardcore was anti-style, enforcing a militantly democratic dress code of jeans, t-shirts, and short hair, but every region developed its own codes. DIY to the extreme – ironically mirroring Reaganite ethics like self-reliance – hardcore was, in fact, radically democratic, at least if you look beyond the fact that it was mostly white, and almost all male.

White, male, middle-class: I should probably feel awkward about the narrowness of my roots, but that was simply hardcore. It was where I came from, even as hardcore became a way of rebelling against those same surroundings: jocks, suburbs, and the general awfulness broadcast by the world when you’re 15 years old. My role in the “movement” was negligible, by most standards: I attended shows (and broke a collarbone stage-diving, thank you very much); bought records by the truckload; obsessed over the back pages of Maximum Rock & Roll. My tastes were all over the place, from SST and Homestead to NYHC and, above all, Dischord; after college, burned out on indie rock but not yet having discovered electronic music, I spent a few blissful years bleeding my ears to the spazzed-out mayhem of bands like Heroin, Rorschach, and Universal Order of Armageddon.

The following list is, admittedly, highly subjective; it skews to ‘classics’, but I’ve indulged my own prejudices, favoring the avant over the stoopid, the angry over the bored. Hardcore, for me, was above all a kind of hopscotch played out across black plastic circles; despite its emphasis on community, it was a lonely avocation spent poring over liner notes and mail-ordering back catalogue. So what follows is my history of hardcore. Record collectors are pretentious assholes. Deal with it.

01. THE GERMS
(GI)
(SLASH, 1979)

Fast, cheap, and out of control. That was LA’s Germs, and that was their legacy: singer Darby Crash killed himself with a heroin overdose only three years into the band’s career. In that time, captured in Penelope Spheeris’ Decline of Western Civilization, he rolled in glass, wallowed in chaos, and set the tone for hardcore’s drunken, atonal extremes.


02. DEAD KENNEDYS
FRESH FRUIT FOR ROTTING VEGETABLES
(ALTERNATIVE TENTACLES, 1980)

In retrospect, the DKs’ surf-influenced rock & roll doesn’t sound much like the gruff, salty blasts with which we’ve come to associate hardcore. They were slippery, avoiding hardcore’s macho doldrums with scathing wit, withering social commentary and freaky musical tendencies. If it weren’t for them and Doonesbury, Reagan might still be in power.


03. BLACK FLAG
‘RISE ABOVE’, FROM DAMAGED
(SST, 1981)

Arguably the most important hardcore band ever, Black Flag did it all, from two-chord anthems to meandering epics, using humor and anger like a double-edged sword. Fusing a powerhouse rhythm section with guitars that verged on anti-music, they compressed the music into something diamond-hard, and then turned it into magma. ‘Rise Above’ is the furious cry of a generation, backs against the wall and spit flying.


04. MINOR THREAT
OUT OF STEP
(DISCHORD, 1983)

They didn’t just invent straight edge; D.C. heroes Minor Threat created the very model of politically progressive, DIY hardcore (they also spawned no small degree of nonsense). Out of Step stripped down the rollicking punk rock of the UK, increasing tempos and compacting the changes to template a uniquely American style. ‘Betray’ still heaves like a house on fire.


05. VOID
‘FAITH/VOID’
(DISCHORD, 1982)

Another D.C. band, Void didn’t sound like it; it’s hard to imagine anything this evil ever appearing on Dischord. Sabbathy riffs fall into a breakneck tumble; occult forces wring mind-melting feedback from the fast-moving sludge. When Bubba Dupree screamed, “It’s time to die, you’re next,” you believed him. One of hardcore’s most unrelenting records, its drones carry the seeds of Sunn 0)))’s ambient doom.

06. NEGATIVE APPROACH
10 SONG EP
(TOUCH & GO, 1982)

Along with Minor Threat, this Detroit band’s short, sharp shocks – ‘Pressure’ ran to only 14 seconds – defined hardcore’s baseline sound with rapid-fire drums, serrated guitars and hoarse, football-coach vocals. Essentially it was English Oi!, but sped up, detached from its class background and set loose as a field of free-form malevolence. Despite their Motor City origins, New York hardcore simply wouldn’t have existed without them.


07. FLIPPER
‘LIFE’, FROM RAT MUSIC FOR RAT PEOPLE
(GO!, 1982)

San Francisco’s hardcore court jesters, these blues-addled, proto-grunge minimalists sounded like the West Coast’s answer to No Wave, but with a sunnier disposition, baser physical urges and way more psychedelics. Recorded live, the dirgey ‘Life’ – “Life is the only thing worth living for”—was an ecstatically ironic response to the ’80s’ culture of health and efficiency.


08. BAD BRAINS
BAD BRAINS
(ROIR, 1982)

It’s tempting to pick ’83’s Rock for Light, if only for Ric Ocasek’s producer cameo. But Bad Brains never sounded faster, fiercer or more furious than on their debut, which ranged from stomping, one-minute blasts like ‘The Regulator’ to extended roots-reggae jams. Black and punk, they were outcasts everywhere, and HR’s vocal delivery was equal parts rage and suffering.


09. MDC
MILLIONS OF DEAD COPS
(R RADICAL, 1982)

San Francisco’s MDC—Millions of Dead Cops, Millions of Dead Children, Multi Death Corporation—didn’t speak truth to power, they screamed it, proclaiming John Wayne a Nazi, rejecting corporate capitalism, and ceaselessly taunting cops and rednecks. Musically, MDC ranged from double-barrelled rock & roll to terse, mean-spirited chord changes delivered with extreme prejudice. Dave Dictor’s blunt attacks were surprisingly poignant: “What makes America so straight, and me so bent?”


10. SUICIDAL TENDENCIES
‘INSTITUTIONALIZED’, FROM SUICIDAL TENDENCIES
(FRONTIER, 1983)

The hardcore anthem. In Repo Man, they didn’t have to give it more than a moment’s screen time; every misfit in the audience understood. Suicidal Tendencies and their thrashy skate rock could be juvenile, even ridiculous, but in ‘Institutionalized’, the well-meaning, Pepsi-drinking Mike invoked a deeper emotion behind all youthful rebellion: the fear of being misunderstood.

11. THE MISFITS
EART A.D.
(PLAN 9, 1983)

Where so much hardcore was about shirtless immediacy, New Jersey’s Misfits indulged theatricality in a sound (and image) that drew upon ’50s B movies and swampy rock & roll; like the Ramones, they looked to Phil Spector as the original punk. As shlocky as they could be, Earth A.D. offers a genuinely terrifying barrage of buzz-saw guitars, amphetamine backbeats, and sinister chants dripping with mayhem.


12. POISON IDEA
RECORD COLLECTORS ARE PRENTIOUS ASSHOLES
(FATAL ERECTION, 1984)

Fuck you, I’m from Portland. Wasn’t localism—at its core a conservative, even reactionary force—at the heart of hardcore’s most passionate fandoms? You stayed true to your scene, and Poison Idea were Portland, Oregon’s scene. Grossly overweight and grimly engaged, they laid down a pounding, minor-key assault with blunt-force basses, chainsawing guitars, and Jerry A’s throat-stripping vocals. Fucked Up wouldn’t exist without them.


13. MINUTEMEN
DOUBLE NICKLES ON THE DIME
(SST, 1984)

Punk’s poet laureate, the late D. Boon penned aphoristic lyrics that rang like Walter Benjamin; the working-class, SoCal trio challenged hardcore’s musical conservatism by folding country, funk and Mexican music into their one-minute maelstroms. Every one of their records is essential, but this sprawling double LP is their masterpiece, marking a definitive rejection of the genre’s strictures and a pivotal moment in American indie.


14. HÜSKER DÜ
ZEN ARCADE
(SST, 1984)

1984’s other massive double LP, this is hardcore’s prog classic. (What could be more punk than acoustic guitars in hardcore?) Minneapolis’ Hüsker Dü lay the foundations of emo here, but conceived as a music as messy as emotion itself, supplementing hard-charging riffs and sing-along choruses with ballads, tape experiments, studies in Merzbow-like noise, and even a 14-minute jazz-metal jam.


15. RITES OF SPRING
RITES OF SPRING
(DISCHORD, 1985)

Emo’s ground zero. It might look pretentious to cop your name from Stravinsky’s legendarily riotous composition, but D.C.’s Rites of Spring made no bones about their leap into the sublime. Cutting power chords explode into jagged, errant melodies; feedback crawls like suffocating ivy. Their harmonies lie hanging open like a gaping wound of the heart. Pre-Fugazi, Guy Picciotto sings of blood and water like a man on fire.

16. BIG BLACK
SONGS ABOUT FUCKING
(TOUCH & GO, 1987)

Purists might protest that the drum machines disqualify Big Black, but that’s precisely what made them so hardcore. That and the firecrackers Steve Albini threw into the crowd, far more dangerous than your average stage-diver. Backing Albini’s misanthropic rants, the group’s sound, a mixture of Metal Machine Music and proto-EBM, worked by sheer force of will. A Midwestern “fuck you” to the coasts.


17. EYEHATEGOD
TAKE AS NEEDED FOR PAIN
(CENTURY MEDIA, 1993)

Technically, Louisiana’s Eyehategod are more metal than hardcore; their dopesick grooves are the opposite of hardcore’s sprinter’s pace. But backed up with precise, punishing drums and vocalist Michael D. Williams’ bloody, feral screams, Eyehategod’s droning blues riffs showed that slow could be even more punishing than fast. (More impatient bands, meanwhile, sped up the pace to create powerviolence.)


18. BIKINI KILL
THE CD VERSION OF THE FIRST TWO RECORDS
(KILL ROCK STARS, 1994)

American hardcore can be exuberantly masculine and insufferably macho. Founding riot grrrls Bikini Kill, of Olympia, Washington, said “fuck that” to both options. Leaning on the vintage LA punk of bands like X, they celebrated amateurism and self-sufficiency—plus grass-roots activism—with muscular songs that sneered at patriarchy and inspired a genuine rock revolution.


19. BORN AGAINST
BATTLE HYMNS OF THE RACE WAR
(VERMIFORM, 1992)

Legendary even in their brief time, Virginia’s Born Against channeled Black Flag’s blistering tempos and Sonic Youth’s melting detunings to create one of hardcore’s most bracing variations. Angry, uncompromising, and too smart for their own good, they helped cement the Olympia/San Diego/D.C. triangle, and made enemies everywhere they went (as documented on answering machine on ‘Born Against Are Fucking Dead’). As heartbreaking, and invigorating, as hardcore gets.


20. HEROIN
HEROIN
(GRAVITY/VERMIFORM, 1993)

Fellow San Diegans Antioch Arrow got more press for their glam-obsessed spock-rock, but Heroin were fiercer. Dread and tape hiss are pierced with starry-eyed mysticism, inaugurating screamo. Recorded perilously thin, it’s as though an oily layer separates the bass from the frequencies that found their way to tape. That’s part of the record’s pleasures: its queasy glide across the surface, flailing in two dimensions.

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