Punk is an attitude. Punk is diverse. Punk is non-adherence to status quo. Musically speaking, if we put Classic in front of Punk, the sounds stand the test of time. For an LP to be Classic, it must be at least 26 years old; these Classic Punk albums broke ground before 1990. The records here are cornerstones of punk rock ‘n’ roll history; the bands represented both obscure and original in their own fantastic way. The formulation of punk music in the ‘70s and ‘80s, and it’s aforementioned greatness, paved way for modern acts that we now love; it may be the most influential movement in music history. If these 10 albums were never made, record collectors would have suffered mightily, and punk rock would surely have been of different mold. Think of them as the huge redwood tree in a field of shrubs, or the fast Aston Martin on a highway full of beaters. If you don’t have the albums summarized (drooled over) below, then it’s going to be really hard to be trusted.
Big factors with punk: weirdness, volume, aggression and ambition. Large misconception with punk: It doesn’t have to sound like a lo-fi piece of shit. There is no Ramones, no Sex Pistols, and no “how-did-you-leave-this-band-out” drama; each delegate is here for being a super spectacular version of it. Since everything revolves around time and place, we’re going in chronological order. These records are pillars in the house of bad religion, each a masterpiece of punk.
Fun House is the logical starting point for the punk genre. First of all, the next album of legitimate punk importance is seven years behind this joyfully spastic monster. Second, no punk band can claim to be as cool as The Stooges. Fun House is rock, but its noise, energy and Iggy Pop’s malicious vocal behavior birthed a revolution. Traveling back to the summer of 1970, I can see conservative mothers of radical teenagers ripping Fun House from their children’s hands and lighting the LP on fire. In certain sectors, The Stooges can be heard as Hell’s Children; Iggy Pop is practically burning in molten lava on the cover. But this sophomore record didn’t sell well initially, and that was probably better in the long scheme; each successive spin is a reward. Whether it’s Steve Mackay’s diligent inclusion of saxophone or Ron Asheton’s cleaving guitar, Fun House is the documentation of the Stooges’ roadshow inside Elektra Sound Recorders in Los Angeles at the commencement of the ‘70s, arguably the best decade for rock music. Eardrum abuse never felt so delightful.
Cleveland’s infamous punk band didn’t last half a decade, but Dead Boys had enough bad behavior to last a lifetime. Vocalist Stiv Bators got blown during a set at CBGB, drummer Johnny Blitz got stabbed 17 times for being a prick, but that lewdness is irrelevant to the blunt frippery of Young, Loud and Snotty, an excellent title for a punk album. Young, Loud has proper context — “Sonic Reducer,” “Caught with the Meat in Your Mouth,” “I Need Lunch” — and being recorded at Electric Lady Studios, enough quality to bottle up and separate the rowdy and violent sounds Dead Boys were known for in a live setting at steamy, disgusting clubs throughout the Northeast.
Four decades on, Wire is functional, making respectful music. No other band here can attest to that. Pink Flag flies with no other — grimy, frightening, but plenty of hooks to draw in the ear. Six tracks last less than a minute; three songs surf the needle past three minutes. In between, 12 tracks make a concentrated impact. It is physical, it is brutal; it has brainpower. Take Colin Newman’s lyrical passage from “Pink Flag:” “I was sold up the river to the red slave trade / The stores were gathered, the plans were laid / Synchronized watches at 18:05 / How many dead or alive in 1955?” Nothing else compares, not even the 14 Wire albums that followed.
Looking back, Danzig may be the only Misfits member that mattered. Danzig’s supporting band was a revolving door, but the initial guitar-bass-drums trio (Franche Coma, Jerry Only, and Mr. Jim) recorded a special piece of history in the winter of 1978. Static Age is full of head-bobbing hits (“TV Casualty,” “Return of The Fly,” “We Are 138,” “Hollywood Babylon,” etc.) and sounds amazing when you factor in the New York City studio time constraints that plagued the Misfits — the eight minutes of studio banter at the end tells the story of a band trying for perfection with an impatient producer. Few takes, few overdubs, and Static Age is the seminal Misfits LP. But here’s something: Static Age did not get a proper release for 18 years. Misfits couldn’t find a label among its band problems and recycling of guitar-bass-drums. Static Age was postponed until Danzig had time to re-work some of the material after Misfits broke up in 1983.
Certified platinum in the U.S., and still selling well today, London Calling far eclipses any other album on this list in sales and popularity, which comes across as a very un-punk circumstance. Sure, its roots and attitude are punk — “London Calling” and “Brand New Cadillac” launch the record in true form — but it goes many places. To name a few: reggae, ska and jazz. “Spanish Bombs” and “Lost in the Supermarket” can be heard as pop; “Guns of Brixton” is a helpful dose of menace that London Calling needed. The double album is 65 minutes, another attribute that could work against its punk appeal, but not one of those minutes is wasted. Label London Calling whatever you want, make up narratives if you want; the album is Classic Punk. The Clash became mainstream somehow; they were just dudes in a grocery store looking for food to eat.
A headless band dressed in tuxedoes. Cars engulfed in flames. Just a few images that come to mind while listening to this lo-fidelity monster. Fresh Fruit is a must for punk fans. Don’t own it? Please, stop reading and go straight to the nearest record store. Jello Biafra, a very intelligent man — he ran for mayor in 1979 — doesn’t care about the world he lives in; he wants to tell us how it really is while doing psychotic dances. Rotting Vegetables majors in sharp lyrics and East Bay Ray’s tooth-decaying guitar; the bass and drums are oppressed. Despite the harsh recording — snare head sounds like it’s made of lined paper — Fresh Fruit rides a dynamic wave. It will induce riot and singing along with Jello is encouraged. Rotting Vegetables is influential; mostly, it’s a lot of fun.
Not too fast, not too slow, but a tumbleweed doing a barrel roll. A cruel world of psychedelic guitars and drums so big they rock your head. Lux Interior is Elvis on methamphetamine, and they don’t give guitarists names like Poison Ivy and Kid Congo Powers for nothing. Never has grime been recorded so clear. Sway to “Caveman,” slam to “The Crusher,” and listen to The Cramps shred one thousand voodoo skulls. Psychedelic Jungle is witty, excitable, and a victim of being ripped off (ask the Violent Femmes!).
Lightning strikes 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue in the form of four hyperactive black men playing raw, blitzed rock ’n’ roll. H.R., Darryl, Earl Hudson, and Dr. Know waved the flag of anarchy, but sent all praises to the All Mighty Creator Jah Rasta Far I while blazing a trail eventually walked on by Sublime, Death Grips, 311, and Mark Kozelek. Bad Brains thrashed with the best; their reggae heart achieved originality. Lazy, but fortified in destruction, the punk-reggae dynamic is still as fascinating as it was 35 years ago. The Clash meets Bob Marley? Not really that easy. Bad Brains were an ominous reality and its own movement. Originally, a cassette-only format on Reachout International Records, Bad Brains was re-issued on vinyl in 1996.
It’s almost unbelievable that Zen Arcade exists. Crude, attractive, and groundbreaking to the hardcore — it’s a 70-minute fever dream. Zen Arcade could happen only once, and Minneapolis’ most driven punk band is the lucky owner of the extraordinary opus. But maybe the Huskers weren’t so blessed in the end; peace, love, and anarchy led the band down a $150,000 hole. Bob Mould said that Zen Arcade was the beginning of Husker Du’s end; he wonders why people hold on to the past so much. It’s as holy as the Bible, and in the same league as Exile on Main Street. Melody and punk rock got married; a bridge was gapped between hardcore and alternative rock. Writers throw the word “epic” around a lot, but Zen Arcade truly deserves such tag — prolific, fully formed, and so wide.
Fugazi built a DIY battlefield — Dischord Records and $5 ticket prices for a decade — while avoiding patterns; the music is exigent and exciting. Fugazi was 150-percent engaged in the scene; its righteousness and integrity were unmatched. Released seven months apart — eventually becoming the infamous 13 Songs — these successive EPs was the start of the Fugazi fulfillment. Since 13 Songs wasn’t a vinyl release, Fugazi and Margin Walker are meant to spin back-to-back. From the opening bass line of “Waiting Room,” through the distorted drone fest of “Burning;” through the jingling high-hat and irresponsible politics of “Provisional,” to the emotional plodding of “Promises,” these anthems remain iconic.