The Best Punk Albums of the '90s
May. 11, 2009
By Matt Schild
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The news that mall-punk icons Blink 182 are getting back together's triggered a wave of nostalgia among pop-punk types we haven't seen since Blink broke up. With everybody talking about the past these days, what better time to go beyond Blink and look at the '90s lasting punk legacy?
The decade's got a bad rap over the years. Much of it's deserved. A lot of third-wave ska, late-'90s pop-punk and emo set the genre's credibility back significantly, but the decade also produced some of the genre's significant milestones, from modern skatepunk to post-hardcore to a handful of significant ska releases. Strap on your Doc Martens, pierce your eyebrow and color your hair, because we're blasting back for the ten most significant punk albums of the '90s. We'll count them off in order of appearance.
Against the Grain, Bad Religion (1990, Epitaph)
After tinkering with its melodic hardcore formula for several albums, Bad Religion scored its most powerful album with Against the Grain. A rhythm section pounds along at the clip of a runaway hardcore band as a pair of guitars fire up the half-stack and blaze through over-amplified melodies. Singer Greg Graffin's literate lyrics were laser-focused, tilting at everything from anti-abortion extremists ("Operation Rescue") and scientific denial ("Flat Earth Society") to the anomie of disconnected youth ("21st Century Digital Boy"). Sleek backing vocal harmonies added a layer of sugar, though Bad Religion hadn't begun filing down its hard-edged guitars by this point. A blueprint for a wave of melodic hardcore bands, from Pennywise to 1208, Against the Grain was the majestic final breath of the '80s Los Angeles hardcore scene.
Repeater, Fugazi (1990, Dischord)
Long before anyone even knew there was even a thing called post-hardcore, Fugazi was perfecting it. The Washington, D.C. band's first full-length took hardcore to artistic new heights, as guitarists Ian MacKaye and Guy Picciotto hack and slash, cross-referencing the angular vision of Gang of Four against the District's hardcore heritage, while rhythms chug and grind just enough to keep everything just shy of aural warfare. Underneath the clangor, though, lurked a wiry musicianship that'd make Repeater a blueprint for post-hardcore for decades.
Almost as important as Fugazi's sound was the agenda it laid out on Repeater, challenging the marriage between art and commerce, attacking the sell-out doctrine with a clear-headed intelligence few in the punk police have yet to match.
Nevermind, Nirvana (1991, DGC)
Grunge? Grunge? Come on. When Kurt Cobain led his Seattle trio onto the airwaves, cutting down a swath of god-awful glitter-metal losers in its path, "grunge" was merely a term coined by writers scared of the connotations of "punk." Punk it is: The roar of the guitar, the tidal wave of outsider's rage, the hammering rhythms: they were all punk. Cobain came at it from a new angle, certainly, but Nevermind was a product of the punk underground, and it became the most important punk record since The Sex Pistols, turning pop culture on its head and ushering in the alt-rock era. Amid all the noise and cultural revolution, though, Nirvana cranked out some incredibly infectious singles: "Lithium," "Come as You Are" and, of course, "Smells Like Teen Spirit" aged much more gracefully than many of the grunge-years' other staples.
Dookie, Green Day (1993, Reprise)
Although Green Day certainly didn't invent pop-punk, nor, arguably, did it perfect it, the band's 1993 major-label debut forced the style into the mainstream spotlight. Don't blame Green Day for years and years of Blink 182s, Sum 41s and Good Charlottes, though: Despite its high fructose content, Dookie's still a product of the Berkley, Calif. underground, with songs about unstable love affairs, ghetto life and, masturbation, the latter of which spawned the band's incredibly unlikely smash single "Longview." While Green Day's mainstream success forced it to weather a shitstorm of sell-out accusations from the punk rank-and-file, Dookie's just as twisted, energetic and punk if had been released on Lookout!
Diary, Sunny Day Real Estate, (1994, Sub Pop)
For a little bit better and a whole lot of worse, Sunny Day Real Estate's debut album congealed the notion of '90s emo into a tightly wound, impressively melodic single album. Led by Jeremy Enigk's soft-spoken vocals and incredibly introverted, to the point of self-pitying, lyrics, Diary bent the notions of pop-punk and East Coast emo around one another for a self-referential and immediately acclaimed effort. The act's up/down dynamics, quiet breaks and lull-to-roar song structures skewed a keen sense of pop fundamentals, which were further obscured by the band's explosions of visceral guitars reminding listeners of its roots in the hardcore underground. The languid, sensitive material would give a foothold for bands like The Promise Ring and Jimmy Eat World to separate themselves from the conventional punk underground and develop a more pop-driven take on the music
Punk in Drublic, NOFX (1994, Epitaph)
NOFX sure didn't start the obsession with faster tempos, too much guitar and a snotty sense of loser-kid humor, but by 1994's Punk in Drublic, the Los Angeles band would set the tinfoil standard for brash skater pop-punk. With the band's amateurism still guiding it, it races through songs that wrap pop melodies up in a big, stinky diaper, while crashing tongue-in-cheek into pop culture. The act takes on hippies ("Jeff Wears Birkenstocks?") and punks ("Punk Guy [Because He Does Punk Things]") alike, even dropping hints at the culture-war mischief ("Don't Call Me White") that would shape the band's Bush-years agenda. Unfortunately, the subtleties were lost on most of the fans -- and on many of the songs -- leading NOFX to spawn a generation of snot-nosed pop-punk brats.
Dear You, Jawbreaker (1995, DGC)
Don't look know, but punk rock is venturing inward. A major-label deal brought Jawbreaker to DGC, where the band's swan song took pop-punk into gloomy directions. Singer/guitarist Blake Schwarzenbach mines a wealth of psychological poisons, from crippling depression ("Jet Black"), the sting of first-love betrayal ("Chemistry") and the malaise of loathing-everything hipsters ("Save Your Generation"). In an era when big-guitar pop-punk and love songs were capturing the world's attention, Dear You didn't fare so well. Too dark, too gritty and too depressing for its day, the album tanked by major-label standards and Jawbreaker broke up. The album remained an underground staple, however, helping influence a generation of punks, touching everyone from Fall Out Boy and Dashboard Confessional to The Alkaline Trio and Bayside. If you're a fan of modern punk, Jawbreaker influenced you, even if you've never heard Dear You.
Dig Me Out, Sleater-Kinney (1997, Kill Rock Stars)
While the bicoastal riot-grrl movement produced an avalanche of talent, none managed to transcend the genre's roots like Sleater-Kinney. The Olympia, Wash. trio built upon the usual riot grrl notions -- feminism and punk's can-do spirit -- but by its third album, had taken the blueprint onto a whole new plane. Signer/guitarists Carrie Brownstein and Corin Tucker expand from the punk simplicity of their early albums, developing the style of intertwined guitar figures and vocal performances that'd come to mark the band's sound. At times angular, others anthemic, Dig Me Out proved the buzz around the brand-new Kill Rock Stars signing was justified, and catapulted the band to almost godlike status in the underground. The trio would tinker with the blueprint on later albums, but the defiance, the confidence and the poise of Dig Me Out balanced the trio's punk roots against ambitious artistry.
The Shape of Punk to Come, The Refused (1998, Epitaph)
Musical progress and hardcore don't usually jive so well, so when Sweden's The Refused set out to redefine the genre before the turn of the millennium, it's a tall order. Redefine the style, it did. Taking post-hardcore notions like dynamic tempo shifts, explosive quiet-to-loud songwriting and doubling them back on good, old-fashioned hardcore energy, The Shape of Punk to Come wiped the slate clean for post-hardcore in the late '90s and early '00s. Electronics and keys ambitious intersperse themselves in an album that's a monument to ingenuity and respect for its roots. Although too visceral for much acclaim outside of the underground, The Refused's agenda effectively instantly rewrote the hardcore agenda, pushing white-hot guitars, tortured dynamics and a hope for the style's future sustainability across the usually staid underground.
Life Won't Wait, Rancid (1998, Epitaph)
If the hardcore world proved open to The Refused's innovations, the punk side of the fence was equally resistant to Rancid's shot at updating the punk playbook on Life Won't Wait. Unquestionably the band's most ambitious album, its fourth record found the Berkley, Calif. band finally living up to all the comparisons it drew to The Clash through the years. Reaching out past the confines of the Gilman Street scene, Life Won't Wait is Rancid's London Calling, as the act bends multiple genres around its punk fundamentals without ever getting off track. Rockabilly ("Lady Liberty"), a devilishly hardboiled twist on ska-core ("Life Won't Wait") and a bizarre out-of-nowhere rockabilly-goes-sleaze number ("Crane Fist"). Mid-tempo punk numbers ("New Dress" and "Black Lung") mingle with love ballads ("Who Would Have Thought") for an album that spreads Rancid's sound all over the world, without ever getting too thin. Unsurprisingly, the punk-rock hooligan squad reviled it, and kicked up such a backlash Rancid would drop its experimental edge forever.