Published Dec 01, 2011Listen to our Best of 2011: Punk playlist on Rdio by clicking here.
1. Fucked Up
4. Bomb The Music Industry!
5. Junior Battles
8. The Wonder Years
9. Cloud Nothings
10. Polar Bear Club
12. The Brains
14. Bridge and Tunnel
1. Fucked Up David Comes to Life (Matador)
Records of this scope don't show up very often. David Comes to Life is as adventurous musically as it is thematically, the kind of fully-realized creative monument that lets you comfortably produce nothing but increasingly dull versions of the same for the rest of your career and still be labelled geniuses. Here's hoping Fucked Up don't slide in that direction, but, seriously, who could blame them after pulling off this meta-masterpiece? It's entirely possible that most of the plot makes no sense, and that after listening to the story-concluding seven inch, Octavio Made the Bomb, you'll be left wondering how much of it was even intended to be taken seriously in the first place (sample lyric: "Hadn't made an album in almost three years / So we met at the mall to start moving the gears / Mike got a smoothie, I got some fries"). But David is bold and brilliant, a consummation of all the things that have made Fucked Up the most exciting punk band of the last decade. The brutality of '80s hardcore is still present, but it's balanced by an equal appreciation for the wild, the melodic, and the epic. And there's some narrative in there about love and bombs and left-wing politics, too, if you really want to dig into it.
2. OFF! The First Four EPs (Vice)
The past few years have been evidently important in the resurgence of '80s hardcore punk as pioneering bands have re-formed, re-released classic albums and inspire younger audiences to start their own band with little resources. In a time where rock giants like the Foo Fighters and Red Hot Chilli Peppers are playing Hüsker Dü and Circle Jerks songs live to sold-out stadiums, it only makes sense for the forefathers of punk to step out of retirement and back onto the stage, which is exactly what Keith Morris felt he needed to do. However Morris, Black Flag's first and arguably most controversial front-man, did things differently by starting a new band oppose to re-hashing Flag or the vulgar aforementioned Circle Jerks. With a line-up consisting of members from underground rock heavyweights Redd Kross, Rocket from the Crypt and Burning Brides, OFF! is an explosive force of raw and unbridled energy delivered at a ferocious pace. Although similar in style and moniker (both insecticide inspired), OFF! pick up where Nervous Breakdown-era Flag left off 30 years later with Morris barking over choppy Greg Ginn-ish guitar leads on "Now I'm Pissed," "Poison City" and the anti-social anthem "I Don't Belong." Compiled as a miniature box set, The First Four EPs total 16 breakneck tracks in under 20 minutes in a purely destructive fashion, making for the perfect '80s punk throwback. It takes a veteran like Morris and his motley crew in OFF! to thoroughly execute the urgency of the early punk movement while making it as relevant today as ever.
3. Iceage New Brigade (What's Your Rupture?)
On their debut, Iceage manages to distil nearly four decades of punk (and its offshoots) into one glorious 25-minute squall. Mixing the aggression of proto-punk, '80s hardcore's youthful energy, and post-punk's darkness, New Brigade would seem like the product of the meticulous mining of punk's past, if the whole thing didn't sound so effortless. Digesting influences that are up to twice their age, the Danish four-piece spits out a dozen tracks with a sort of youthful intensity that's anything but contrived, simultaneously wearing their influences on their collective sleeves while managing to craft a sound that's distinctly their own. Crawling to life with a 47-second intro featuring a guitar mimicking advancing footsteps, the record explodes during the chorus of the first proper track, "White Rune," and doesn't let up until an errant drum hit plays out closer, "You're Blessed." In between, New Brigade jumps from the frantic hardcore of "Count Me In" to the pop of "Remember," with nods to Wire, early Joy Division, and Fugazi (among others) sprinkled throughout. On the album's centrepiece, "Broken Bone," they even manage to capture their schizophrenic nature in a single track, tearing down the record's most anthemic verse and chorus with two jagged, evil sounding breakdowns before building the whole thing back up again. With all of the stylistic shifts and unbridled energy, the musicianship isn't always flawless, but the end result is an album that's as close to punk perfection as you can get.
4. Bomb The Music Industry! Vacation (Quote Unquote)
With a name like Bomb The Music Industry! you might expect Jeff Rosenstock and his band of punks to spew some tired anarchist nonsense. Instead, there is an intensely honest and self-aware vibe to Vacation. The record sucks you in with the kind of "Down on your luck, but still fighting" mentality that many a 20-something have made their credo. Couple this with rousing sing-alongs, and you have a recipe for a record that acts as glue between friends both old and new. Vacation harkens for the glory days we've lost, and compliments this longing with pure, unadulterated hooks that beg for attention. It's a record that, amazingly, unites both the mall punks with an eye on better days and the jaded, cynical types. Tracks like "Sick, Later" comes to terms with the regrets that swallow teenage love whole and "Savers" is a candid attempt to understand what it is that forces youth into self-destruction. And what better way to get reacquainted with your younger self than with massive, rousing '90s inspired choruses? It would be fair to say that Vacation is a record that begs to be heard, but when you consider that Bomb The Music Industry! gave this record away free, we can begin to understand how important a record it really is. Vacation is a lesson in self-awareness, one that both listeners and the band's contemporaries can benefit from.
5. Junior Battles Idle Ages (Paper + Plastick)
There were a lot of records that tried to sound like the '90s this year. But only Junior Battles managed to capture what it was actually like as a teenager during that decade. Nostalgic without feeling retro, Idle Ages encapsulates the feeling of limitless possibilities of adolescence. The Toronto crew lay out their manifesto on opener "Seventeen" where they dedicate themselves to reclaiming their young ideals, before they're dashed in "'Ever Get the Feeling You've Been Cheated?'" ― it's Sex Pistols reference having less to do with the English punks' nihilism than the feeling of disconnect in the modern world. But through it all ― lost innocence, soul sucking jobs etc. ― we can still depend on ourselves our friends and, appropriately, the music. If it all sounds a bit emo, that's because it is. These guys clearly grew up on the late '90s version of the often-derided genre and folded it into this nostalgic creed. But it works. Using the genre's lyrical tropes to look back rather than wail about girls that won't date them gives Idle Ages the aged wisdom and hip delivery of a John Hughes movie albeit with a few more beers thrown in.
6. B-Lines (Deranged)
Vancouver telecaster punks B-Lines followed up their snarling demo tape with a hit-making seven-inch in 2009. Adding approximately four minutes to the playing time of that record, their self-titled twelve-inch pummelled eardrums into submission this year with another batch of hardcore-informed poppy punk. Musically, the band take no-frills to the next level, trimming the fat from their playing so that all you're left with are terse bursts of clean, snappy hardcore. Making a strong argument that no song should ever break the two-minute mark, there is no bullshit to be found on this entire record. Which might be surprising, considering there are songs about the apocalypse ("World War Four"), a chemistry class gone too far ("Psychedelic High School") and the hot new homeless guy dance move ("Hastings Strut"), but the lyrics are witty enough to have you squirting terrible beer through your nose with laughter. Whether you're putting it on after a bad day or getting ready for a night on the town, B-Lines will incite a raging, wall-punching house party wherever you are. This is the sound of teen angst for adults.
7. Obits Moody, Standard and Poor (Sub Pop)
Before Standard and Poor's made headlines for downgrading the United States' long-term credit rating this past August, the financial services company was already on the mind of Obits, an American punk band schooled in the blues, and trying, like everyone else, to thrive in one of the most tumultuous periods of their country's history. Moody, Standard and Poor captures the post-Bush damage like few other artistic outpourings but it does so with a graceful mix of pointed power and personal perspective. You can feel the pain in Rick Forberg's voice when he admits, "I'm so tired, tired of my dreams," on the record's tense centrepiece, "New August," articulating a feeling of hopelessness that's relatable virtually anywhere in the world these days, though, as the draconian tone of "No Fly List" coyly implies, some of us might be resigned to only experience it from home. "There's no idea or theme behind it, but it seems like it's about a feeling of powerlessness, generally, in every facet of life," Froberg said of the record in an Exclaim! interview back in March. "The margins have narrowed, generally, but I don't think 'marginalization' is the right word. There's a certain poverty of inspiration and energy and things are going to shit. It's really hard to explain what I mean. If I was better at it, I'd do a speaking tour or something." Such self-effacement shines through too in the band's musical interplay, which is deceptively straight-ahead. The guitar/bass/drums combo deftly write powerful, infectious, no frills punk-blues songs that enhance rock conventions simply by being better at them than almost anyone else. Yet for Froberg, there's nothing particularly high-minded about Obits' sound or their lyrics. "I don't want to downplay it, but it could be high school poetry, as far as I'm concerned. Some of these things are pretty obvious and you want people to have some sort of interpretation. If you explain everything, it's sort of tyrannical, in a way, because they're like, 'That's what this song's about; it came from the horse's mouth.' I don't set out to say anything in particular; I just put crap on paper."
8. The Wonder Years Suburbia I've Given You All and Now I'm Nothing (No Sleep)
By writing 2011's best pop punk album, the Wonder Years took the confusion and moderate angst of being a 20-something in contemporary America and made it a completely enjoyable experience. Suburbia I've Give You All and Now I'm Nothing wastes no time before dishing out huge hooks and sing-along choruses in the appropriately-titled leadoff track "Came Out Swinging." From there the band blasts through 13 tracks of insanely catchy pop punk that touches on all the hallmarks of the modern young adult. The title of the record might lead a first-time listener to believe that the band hates the suburbs. While vocalist Dan Campbell spends much of his time lamenting over life in a town with little to offer in the way of culture, he spends even more celebrating the familiarity that comes with returning to a place with faces you recognize and streets you can navigate with ease when the sun goes down ("Summers in PA") and a coffee shop where the staff know your name and don't rush you out the door ("Coffee Eyes"). The romanticism behind the anger is half of what makes the album work so well, with the other half of success coming in the outstanding songwriting the band pulled together for this, their third LP.
9. Cloud Nothings (Carpark)
It's not punk! Any time an album like Cloud Nothing's debut LP comes around, waves of "purists" can be heard complaining from tattoo chairs and dive bars about its lack of punk spirit. It's true that the 11 piss and apple cider vinegar fuelled tracks sound just like sped-up versions of indie rock, but weren't the Ramones just the Ronettes on speed (and copious amounts of booze)? Working heavily with vocal repetition and rhythmic ticks, Cloud Nothing's Dylan Baldi has already crafted a style that not only stands on its own but contrasts what so many melodic emo-ists are doing at this exact moment. On songs like "Understand at All" and " Forget You All the Time" Baldi plays the straight man, passing over his chance to snarl and sneer only to further expose the awe-shucks charisma he brings to his songwriting. With simplistic and childlike lyrics that draw comparisons to Best Coast and a sense of energy and timing that rival only early Lemonheads, Cloud Nothings represents a more sincere and Zen-like approach to four-chord rock, dropping the in-chic fuzz and lo-fi that defined his early singles. And while the world is busy arguing if Cloud Nothings is actually punk, Baldi's already getting ready to release his next album.
10. Polar Bear Club Clash Battle Guilt Pride (Bridge Nine)
Taking the pop punk approach of crafting catchy blistering anthems and putting them through their meat grinder of post-hardcore and indie rock influences, Polar Bear Club have struck upon a sound that gently smears genre boundaries. The sugary sweetness of upbeat major chord rock outs is tweaked and prodded out of becoming overly saccharine through attention to rhythmic nuance, dynamic song structures, thick blankets of fuzzy guitar tone, and economic lead riffs that play well off of Jimmy Stadt's gruff melodic shout-singing. "Life Between the Lines" and "Bottled Wind" are muscular, riff-tastic album highlights that push the band towards the frantic energy of At the Drive-In, with brief atmospheric dips, effective use of cut-time and unabashed deference to the central vocal melody; moments of instrumental flailing are calculated to be supportive rather than spotlight-seeking. Hailing from upstate New York, a bit of small town frustration bleeds through in the lyrics of tracks like "Religion on the Radio." The sentiment of not being able to find a spot on the dial that's not trying to force an ideal down your throat is a good set-up for the epic climax of "3-4 Tango," its pounding ferocity driving home just how damn good an album Clash Battle Guilt Pride is.
Scott A. Gray
11. Lemuria Pebble (Bridge Nine)
Lines get blurred and genres get crossed all the time in contemporary music, and the independent punk world is no exception. Ostensibly an indie rock trio, Brooklyn, NY's Lemuria have found their home with the punk kids; they play those shows and inhabit that part of the internet, and though their debut Get Better was released on Asian Man, it was a further reach when, this year, contemporary hardcore label Bridge 9 released their very un-hardcore sophomore album Pebble. It's just like when the emos starting creeping in on post-hardcore (i.e., the Promise Ring taking over Jade Tree in the mid-to-late '90s); musically, it shouldn't fit by bare definition, but it does, and the differences in the distortion don't ultimately matter. Through working with one of the most seasoned modern punk producers, Jawbox's J. Robbins, Lemuria were able to hone in on their strengths on Pebble ― the vocal dynamics between drummer/vocalist Alex Kerns and guitarist/vocalist Sheena Ozzella, their intricate, surprising songwriting, their strange and smudgy allure on "Ribcage" or "Wise People," and their harder edge, which is mostly on reserve here but proves stronger than ever on songs like "Bloomer" and "Chautauqua County." On Pebble, Lemuria met and exceeded sophomore expectations, and now, they've got this beat on lock.
12. The Brains Drunk Not Dead (Stomp)
If done well, psychobilly can be a lot of fun. If not, it risks turning into a fashion show: who has the biggest pompadour, the biggest polka-dots and the shiniest double bass. The Brains fall somewhere in the middle, which is to say that they've got big hair, crazy contact lenses and one hell of an upright, but the aesthetics don't distract from the music, which on Drunk Not Dead epitomizes why so many people fall in love with the genre in the first place. As an album, Drunk Not Dead works from front to back, running through a selection of tracks that demonstrate the band's ability to write killer hooks (in three languages!) while speeding through stories about, well... being drunk but not quite dead. More importantly is how the album works in relation to its peers. In a year when Nekromantix faltered for the first time, the Brains have made a push for the throne, and if their recent tour together proved anything, it's that the race is probably closer than you think. Look no further than "Six Rounds" to see what makes this album work. While employing the style's typical use of slappy bass runs, the song instead relies on its fatally catchy chorus... about a woman being shot to death. Nobody said the macabre couldn't be fun, and that's the kind of attitude propelling the Brains to the top of their craft.
13. Crusades The Sun Is Down and the Night Is Riding In (It's Alive)
Ottawa, ON's conservatism inspired a dark and savage debut from Crusades. It helps to know that the band's name is indeed very deliberate; in fact, they had lyrical and thematic intentions from the get-go, inspired by personal and historical experiences with Christianity, and here they've created a narrative through a "spiritual voyage" from belief to rejection and everywhere in between (and beyond). And it's not only lyrically provoking ― musically, The Sun Is Down and the Night Is Riding In is dual intensity and accessibility, running the gamut from three-chord power-punk blasts ("Sacraments") to darker metal-tinged meandering ("Remedy") and '80s gloom-gaze ("Serpentine"), all without losing the thread. As a four-headed creative machine of individuals who have played in various bands together across handfuls of years in the incestuous Ottawa scene, Crusades master diversity as well as they do precision, and their spirit, so to speak, is still so alive. Together they've created a work that's at once expansive and jarringly immediate. Any caution with which you might approach a weighty concept album about religion and atheism disappears when you hear the passion and the focus, and you realize that you're actually being let in on something really personal. There's no preaching going on here. What we're witnessing is an exorcism.
14. Bridge and Tunnel Rebuilding Year (No Idea)
A sophisticated sense of melodic trajectory is one of the many song-writing tools Bridge and Tunnel effectively utilize to build one of the best post-punk albums in recent memory. Insistent, crashing drum beats lay a fierce foundation for consistently potent interweaving guitar lines, vocals that rapidly switch between throat-shredding yelps and powerfully sung group harmonies, with steadily driving bass lines to anchor the involved arrangements. Minor washes of guitar affects gurgle and slither in at the beginnings and endings of some songs, but most of Rebuilding Year's sonic density comes from thoughtful interval choices that create eerie, stirring harmonics. There aren't any easily identifiable weak moments among these ten structurally adventurous songs; it's the kind of album where every track seems like the best moment while it's playing. Slow burners like the near-ballad "Hands" and six-minute opener "Synchronized Swimming" get a lot of mileage out of dramatic builds and surprisingly beautiful melodies that soar over mounting instrumental intensity. With the invigorating intensity of complex rockers like "Drill Instructor" and "Griflocked," which feel delightfully whimsical in spots due to idiosyncratic guitar phrases, comfortably coexisting with the passionate and serious mid-tempo wrecking ball weight of "Cooked Books" and "Harder Pill to Swallow," this mixed-gender foursome have created an album with an excellent balance of sonically expressed emotions and concise compositional ingenuity, sure to make Rebuilding Year a reference point in the genesis of post-punk for future generations.
Scott A. Gray