Quick question: What is punk? No, seriously, I’m asking: Can you really define punk? Is it a type of music? A fashion sense? Is it an ideology? A persona?
If you’re asking me — and I know you didn’t ask, but you’re reading something I wrote, so just hang on a second before you judge — I would say that the true definition encompasses all of the above. All these parts of the equation work together to create something beautiful, something that exists outside the pipeline of the mainstream, something that speaks to people who might feel alienated in their community for one reason or another.
When all of the aforementioned characteristics are put together, punk becomes a genre of relatability, one that bolsters a sense of community. While the actual aesthetics of the word are difficult to define, punk scenes around the country and the world are often comprised of like-minded individuals working toward a common goal.
2018 was no exception to the rule, and saw the release of a lot of incredible albums that can be categorized under the umbrella of punk rock. So get ready to scream along, dance with reckless abandon, and/or open up the pit (these are not mutually exclusive) along with these 10 must-hear albums.
10. The Longshot, Love Is For Losers
Perhaps it’s the lack of the name “Green Day” that makes these songs so enjoyable, but it becomes abundantly clear from the first lines of opening track “The Last Time” that The Longshot’s debut album Love Is For Losers is the most fun Billie Joe Armstrong has had on a record in the 2010s. As he should have — by changing the name of the project, there are no expectations to match a “Welcome To Paradise”, or “Jesus Of Suburbia” or, hell, even “21 Guns.” As such, Love Is For Losers is packed with anthemic numbers that might not have been appreciated by your average Green Day fan. Tracks like “Taxi Driver” and “Kill Your Friends” seem to have been designed specifically for drunken singalongs with rowdy intimate crowds. That’s exactly what Armstrong did with the Longshot’s summer tour, playing bars and small clubs across the country, all with capacities of under 600 patrons. All told, Love Is For Losers (and the existence of The Longshot at all) is an entry in Armstrong’s successful practice in forgoing the fortune he made on punk rock and revisiting the spaces that gave him room to find himself in the first place.
9. Tiny Moving Parts, Swell
With just three members, Tiny Moving Parts manage to perform some of the most mind-bogglingly intricate instrumental work in modern punk-leaning music. Swell is no exception, with guitarist/vocalist Dylan Mattheisen’s vocals overpowered by his explosive tapping guitar lines on tracks like “Feel Alive,” but anchored into beautiful emotive tracks with the massive rhythm support from his cousins, drummer William Chevalier and bassist Matthew Chevalier. The strengths of the rhythm section can really be heard on tracks like album opener “Applause” and “Caution,” the latter of which also has an unbelievable video. Though they started just five years ago as a twinkly bare-bones emo band, Tiny Moving Parts have expanded their musical repertoire to fill out their sound on Swell, incorporating synth lines and strong melodic vocal hooks to supplement the incredible instrumental intricacies. Each subsequent release from this midwestern group since their 2013 debut has undoubtedly been their strongest delivery to date, and Swell is another entry in a trajectory that doesn’t seem to be slowing anytime soon.
8. Kississippi, Sunset Blush
For Kississippi, the process of Sunset Blush was a long one. The first full-length effort from the Philadelphia band, the album was finally released nearly two years after work began on the project. The final product is an intensely personal document of a songwriter at their most vulnerable, with very impressive results. Tracks like “Cut Yr Teeth” play offense in the game of standing your ground, while “Easier To Love” turns the focus inward, allowing songwriter Zoe Reynolds to examine herself through the reflection in a waterfall of lush harmonies. Sunset Blush is especially interesting because it is not a strictly guitar-driven collection of songs: Reynolds also incorporates electronic drums and synthesizers to elevate her vocal style. Whether conscious or not, these songwriting choices emphasize the fact that Kississippi is not just another rock band, and that Reynolds has something to say and she is ready to say it.
7. Oliver Houston, Mixed Reviews
Last year, we named Oliver Houston’s debut album Whatever Works to be our second-best underground indie release of 2017. In the time since, the members unfortunately went their separate ways, marking the end of one of the modern midwestern emo scene’s staple acts. But the band’s dissolution didn’t come without the release of fresh tunes in the form of Mixed Reviews, a wonderful collection of tracks that serves as a fitting swan song for the Michigan four-piece. The highlight of the record comes at its center “Waste,” which sees the band experimenting with tempos. Brief shifting in the drumming patterns leads the band in several different directions, making for a constantly-evolving track that moves seamlessly throughout several different paces and moods, before breaking into an acoustic outro accented by claps from the band. Sonically, Mixed Reviews continues where Whatever Works left off, showcasing the band’s musical versatility, accented by Kyle Luck’s faltering, yet emotive vocal melodies, resulting in a beautiful farewell note from a beloved group.
6. Joyce Manor, Million Dollars To Kill Me
When I spoke to Joyce Manor frontman Barry Johnson in the wake of their 2016 album Cody, he told me that the band had no interest in breaking into the mainstream. But the band’s latest output Million Dollars To Kill Me tells a different story, revealing a group really hitting their stride as songwriters with a growing knack for pop-rock structures. Sure, there are a few tracks that harken back to the band’s scrappier days (album opener “Fighting Kangaroo” sounds like it could have been taken from 2014’s Never Hungover Again), but for the most part, Million Dollars To Kill Me is filled to the brim with anthems perfectly fit for popular rock radio. Of course, some of Joyce Manor’s early fans might — and have/will — take issue with the band’s growing mainstream appeal, but Johnson and co. are fully aware of this reality, hence the tongue-in-cheek, extra-melodic take entitled “Up The Punks.” When debates over Joyce Manor’s current holdings in the Punk Rock Stock Exchange (PRSE) fade to just background noise, there is no denying that tracks like “Think I’m Still In Love With You” and “Big Lie” are representative of some of the band’s tightest and most all-around impressive performances to date.
5. COMPs, Life As A Baller
When I included COMPs’ I Love My F*cking Pets EP on my list of underground indie releases last year, I noted the EP’s highlight as its closing track “Fast Hands.” A year later, a remastered version of same track is now the centerpiece of Life As A Baller, the debut full-length from Geoffrey Webb’s bedroom pop effort (aren’t these project titles amazing?!). Where the EP is an exercise in musical restraint with its minimalist instrumentation and vocal stylings, Webb gave himself more space to breathe on Life As A Baller. Throughout the record are subtle, but impressive, songwriting choices, most notably on a track like “Satan,” which features a distorted lead guitar line over a muted breakdown in the bridge. The same can be said for “Backbone,” which sounds like a fun children’s track in the best way, before bursting into an infectious chorus melody. Clocking in at under thirty minutes, the eight tracks that make up Life As A Baller work together in harmony to create a lo-fi punk masterpiece that will satisfy the needs of any music fan that falls along the spectrum between Alex G and The Cure.
4. Petal, Magic Gone
Petal’s sophomore full-length Magic Gone is the result of several years of self-reflection that ultimately saw Kiley Lotz seeking out self-help to get stronger — not just for herself, but for the people around them that were being affected by her distancing herself. Across its ten tracks, Lotz bravely gives a glimpse into her internal struggles, baring her soul for the world to see. To that end, the record reaches its peak when she steps into the spotlight solo with just a guitar or a piano on tracks like “Comfort” and “Something From Me,” allowing their classically-trained vocal cords to truly shine and encouraging listeners to dive into the world created by her lyrics. Magic Gone is a very brave release, a collection of deeply personal and intimate songs that almost come off as journal entries.
3. Slow Mass, On Watch
It’s clear from the abrupt transition between “On Watch I” and “Gray Havens” that On Watch, the debut full-length effort from Chicago’s Slow Mass, is going to be unlike anything you’ve heard before. There is a lot to unpack in its thirteen tracks, and the band gives you the opportunity to choose your own adventure. You could focus on the perfect trade-offs and harmonies between co-vocalists Dave Collis and Mercedes Webb, or try to dissect every drum and cymbal hit on “Like Dead Skin,” or even get lost in the fantastical flute flourishes in the final seconds of “Tunnel Vision Quest.” With its wide array of different influences and sonic exploration, Slow Mass has delivered a hard rock album that is as enticingly experimental as it is head-banging with On Watch.
2. The Beths, Future Me Hates Me
Punk rock started out as a pushback against the virtuosity of the classic rock and psychedelic scenes of the late ’60s, early ’70s. This allowed — and encouraged — a lot of bands to hit the studio before fully learning how to play their instruments, largely demonstrating their power through the catharsis of the live show and the mosh pit. It’s for this reason that a band like The Beths, who are classically trained musicians, feels like a revelation. Future Me Hates Me is the New Zealand quartet’s debut album and arrives in the form an onslaught of inescapable melodies and addictive hooks, all packed with undeniably impressive lyricism.
Case in point: the album’s centerpiece (which could be my single favorite song of the year) is a sappy love song disguised as an epic power pop anthem. From the track’s first notes, the intensity of singer/guitarist Elizabeth Stokes’ lyrical delivery builds dramatically until we hit the chorus, where she declares “I die, I die a little death,” after her crush finally says her name. Everything about Future Me Hates Me feels carefully composed, even down to the sequencing: Every fast song is typically followed by a slower number that allows the listener to take a breath and appreciate the utter beauty that is filling their headphones. In ten tracks spanning forty minutes, Future Me Hates Me very succinctly proves itself a truly staggering piece of work.
1. The Wonder Years, Sister Cities
The Wonder Years have been a band for thirteen years. In that time, the band has gone through a few small lineup changes but countless sonic evolutions. All of these musical twists and turns over the course of their career seem to be leading here: Sister Cities feels like the culmination of years spent writing records and touring relentlessly, featuring frontman Dan Campbell’s best lyricism to date and a band unwilling to compromise their shared vision.
The record opens with a vivid description of coping with loss and yearning for family, all from oceans away (“Raining In Kyoto”), while its title track recounts a group of fans in Chile that came together after the band’s scheduled show was canceled and welcomed them into their local community to throw together a makeshift gig.
Finally, a decade-plus of constant travel, eye-opening culture shock, and worldly information overload comes together in the album’s closing track “The Ocean Grew Hands To Hold Me.” Across its nearly seven-minute runtime, Campbell examines the large bodies of water that are often used as a measure of separation, but he instead shifts the paradigm to understand them as the ties that bind everyone on the planet together. “I miss everyone at once,” he sings in a broken voice as he returns home to Philadelphia for the first time in nearly two years. “But most of all, I miss the ocean.” Enter a cinematic instrumental that builds to a swell, then a cacophony of silence.
When all is said and done, the sextet’s 11-track masterpiece exists as a document of a group of friends searching for love and finding it in the most surprising places. More than just a collection of songs, Sister Cities is an expansion of worldview. It is a testament to humility. But most importantly, it is a timely explanation — from a group of individuals with thirteen years of relevant experience and a platitude of wisdom to dispel on the topic — that a different culture doesn’t mean a different humanity.