By Jackson Anderson
There are already talks in the punk circles of the decline of the genre and how a recent outcome of a presidential election is the only thing saving it from utter collapse. 2015 and 2016 are being heralded as some of the most boring and disappointing years in punk music. It always frustrates me when I, an eighteen-year-old Utah native who has never been to a punk show, have consistently been able to find a plethora of punk releases that genuinely send shivers down my spines during these supposed end times. The very people who are instrumental in the sustenance of the genre are those who seem to be unwilling to look for the music out there that is actually good. As a counterpoint to those crying, “The end is near,” and because I enjoy making lists, here are my top 10 punk albums of 2016.
10. The Falcon – Gather Up The Chaps
As perhaps the world’s biggest The Lawrence Arms fanboy, the inclusion of The Falcon’s much anticipated sophomore effort is most likely of little surprise. Its location at the bottom of this list, however, speaks volume to the fact that there is that much out there that I couldn’t justify saying I liked less. Gather Up The Chaps features one of the most fitting album covers in existence, a mockery of a tribute, a vulgar BDSM parody of Rancid and Minor Threat’s striking album covers of yesteryear and yesterdecade that helped define the punk genre, which The Lawrence Arms promptly acquired a cult following in for espousing the same DIY ethic and individualistic song-writing whilst being thematically very different than their inspirations.
The Falcon features The Lawrence Arms’ vocalist/bassist Brendan Kelly and Drummer Neil Hennessy, Alkaline Trio’s vocalist/bassist Dan Adriano, and The Loved Ones’ vocalist/guitarist Dave Hause. All semi-famous punk musicians in their own right in their own bands, all four of these men have reached a stage in their lives and careers where their age has began to show, and their status in their various bands is ambiguous. Alkaline Trio’s own Matt Skiba has been getting his share of the spotlight in Matt Skiba and the Sekrets as well as filling in for blink-182’s Tom DeLonge, leaving his band mates the dust. The Lawrence Arms’ Chris McCaughan has begun to see what was originally a side project in Sundowner as a full-time gig, and while the band still tours it seems uncertain as to whether we will ever get another album. The Loved Ones last release was in 2008, and they have, for all intents and purposes, disbanded.
Yet these four life-long musicians didn’t give up. While their time in each of their most successful bands may have been over this super group that refuses to acknowledge themselves as such reconvened to create a second album. And they wanted to expose the darker sides of life. Brendan Kelly reportedly threw out Dave Hause’s original guitar parts because they were too clean, and took the drivers seat as the group’s frontman. What followed was a markedly gritty, lo-fidelity effort about the dregs of society, featuring tales of drug abuse, cat calling, shady deals, social isolation, suicidal thoughts, and pointless ends to pointless lives. It’s grim, but its told with a in-your-face, tongue-in-cheek enthusiasm fit with Adriano and Hause audibly laughing in the background of various songs at the sheer ridiculousness of some of Kelly’s lyrics. Gather Up The Chaps manages to highlight the agonizing nihilism of life while simultaneously existing as a way of saying “this is what we do.” It’s far from perfect, but I think The Falcon accomplished exactly what they set out to do.
9. Signals Midwest – At This Age
I kind of have a thing for the American Midwest. I’ve never been there. The easternmost U. S. State I’ve been to is Texas. Wordsworth was disappointed when he finally laid eyes on Mont Blanc. Having a “capital r” Romantic ideal about a place and never having gone there go hand in hand. Anyway, bands like Signals Midwest are the largest perpetrators of the reason why I idealize this area. It always imagine it being both capital and lower case “r” romantic. I imagine endless summers and fields, and not being able to see mountains, and big cities with nothing in between them.
At This Age takes a page out of The Wonder Years’ book of being a concept album about some guy’s everyday life that drags you in and won’t let you go. Instead of suburban Pennsylvania, we get the endless expanses of the American Midwest, stretching all the way from Nebraska to Ohio. The album takes us to both those places, and everywhere in between. It’s a slice of life, and just like that, it doesn’t resolve itself like your life or my life has resolved itself. We get little snippets and anecdotes about the speaker’s life, their successes, their failures, their dreams, their aspirations, their regrets, but we don’t really know how it all ends because it hasn’t.
Contrary to The Wonder Years, At This Age feels less melodramatic. I do think The Wonder Years earn their emotion, but they also really emphasize the struggle of the suburban white college student by telling you how much it sucks. Signals Midwest just say what happens, now how it feels. My storytelling philosophy has always been show, don’t tell. Thoughts are great, I love to share them, as one can probably tell, but it feels much more earnest to have things stated more objectively. Either way, it’s a nice change of pace that differentiates them from bands like The Wonder Years. I do really think this one is perfect, but there were a lot of those this year.
8. Joyce Manor – Cody
Cody is definitely not perfect, but I liked it more than the previous two albums. In fact, I’m probably one of the few in the punk scene holding that opinion. This album was largely considered a disappointing albeit a serviceable effort from a band that had the task of following up an album with near-universal acclaim. It seems like bands either change after their big album by trying harder or trying less hard. The Menzingers tried less hard and it worked out great. The Wonder Years tried harder and it worked out great. Joyce Manor took the latter approach and their results were mixed. Lost was some of their teenage spunk and attitude, (granted they are teenagers no longer; people really get worked up about people faking it in the punk scene, anyway) but gained were a greater deal of maturity and range in songwriting.
Joyce Manor were known for their catchy hooks, short song length, infectious riffs, and campy songwriting. In Cody they challenged pretty much each of these while keeping all of them. Cody is doubtlessly Joyce Manor’s most diverse record to date. Songs like “Fake ID” are just as catchy and corny as everything the band has ever written, with tongue-in-cheek lyrics equating Kanye West to John Steinbeck in order to impress a girl. From a punk band. I laughed. Then they turn around and feature the controversial acoustic track, for which I am a sucker, but as a consequence lose any hope of earworm. I’ll defend acoustic tracks in punk music, especially punk rock, until the end of time, but they don’t stick in your head. They also discard most of their infectious riffs that were so prominent in previous albums. Maybe they just ran out of ideas. “Reversing Machine” has a pretty good one, though, so I think it was an intention choice. Why? While I love a good riff as much as the next guy I think they convey emotions of either 1. frivolity or 2. anger, neither of which was something that Joyce Manor were going for in many of their songs on Cody. Joyce Manor also wrote a songs that are 3 and 4 minutes long, the latter of which is surely a personal record. While their songwriting maintains their distinct naive and campy tone, it has also matured. “Stairs” is a contender for 2016’s tearjerker. “This Song Is A Mess But So Am I” is frivolous in appearance, but has underlying tones of despair and anguish that I honestly didn’t think Joyce Manor were capable.
Cody feels like a transition record, and I think both the before and after are going to be heralded as something great. While I was initially disappointed I found myself returning to this record more than any other on the list. The simplicity of the songs juxtaposed with the complexity of their contents so easily allowed me to turn off my brain, and I realized that while the album may be lacking somewhat in cohesion it still features 10 great songs.
7. PUP – The Dream Is Over
I like PUP, everyone in the punk scene seems to like PUP, hell, even you probably like PUP. They combine the energy, spunk, and anger of their hardcore forefathers such as Dead Kennedys, Bad Religion, and Black Flag, but instead of talking about politics or The Man, they talk about, well, normal stuff. They talk about happy stuff, they talk about sad stuff, they talk about silly stuff, and they maintain a driving intensity the whole way through it. A few days ago I said one of my favorite things about Minutemen was D. Boon’s enthusiasm and heart, and PUP absolutely nail that on all fronts.
Zack Myulka probably holds the prize as modern punk’s greatest drummer, which goes a long way for a band that deserves to be listened to loudly as you sing along. Steve Sladowski once again makes a case for himself as the punk guitarist to look for, with his aggressive, metallic chords substantially adding to the energy of the band. Bassist Nestor Chumack similarly achieves a clangy and metallic sound on his instrument. This is a band that has their sound nailed down. Vocalist Stefan Babock’s vocal intensity and prowess was at such a level that he shredded his vocal chords, leading a doctor to tell him “the dream is over.” The album of the same name is his way of showing just how wrong that doctor was.
I feel like there isn’t much more to say about PUP. They’ve only existed for two years, and everyone has only said, “by God, they’ve done it again.” I’d say they’re going places, but they’re already there. It’s hard to argue the death of punk music while bands like PUP show up and seem to be completely incapable of producing anything short of perfection. It’s also a refreshing bit of novelty to have one of punk’s biggest posterboys hailing from the great white north, with their songwriting frequently referencing the bitter cold and the expansive valleys that they call home.
6. Direct Hit! – Wasted Mind
All of these albums have excellent cover art, but I think Wasted Mind is my favorite. It lets you know what you’re in for without having to know anything. Whether you make the last supper connection or not, the prospect of balls to the wall, unadulterated insanity is apparent. Wasted Mind opens with a bizarre spoken word intro declaring the album as a message to young people, before vocalist Nick Woods chimes in with his customary intro to every album: FUCK YOU! GET PUMPED!
What follows is a twelve track concept album about the world’s biggest drug binge. At first, I was tempted to keep my love for this album a secret, but the more I listened to it, the more I realized how self-aware and tongue-in-cheek Direct Hit! were. Wasted Mind is simultaneously a celebration and an indictment of the lifestyle that it describes. There are tracks that make doing all of the drugs pretty sweet, but the few that utterly destroy tthe lifestyle are the ones that stand out most to me. Direct Hit! tend to lean towards the lower end of the pop-punk scale of saccharinity; they like to use keyboards, group choruses, catchy hooks, and sugary-sweet vocals. But Wasted Mind features two completely screamed songs that may be found on crust punk albums, both of which point out the dangers of the rampant drug abuse of the speakers in the album. Even a few of the sugary “drugs are awesome” songs have a few lines that are spoken in such a sarcastic manner that makes me believe that their intention may have been to create a scathing indictment of drug abuse in the punk scene in the first place. That definitely is not what I was expecting from Direct Hit!
Anyway you slice the subject matter of Wasted Mind, it sounds oh-so-good. Wood’s sugary sweet vocals juxtaposed with the screamed backing vocals and treble-heavy chip-tuney guitar work guitarist Devon Kay create a psychedelic pop-punk experience that turns it up to eleven from track one and doesn’t let up until the end, where Woods screams at the top of his lungs “we know damn well we’re fucked.” It’s another weird album from a weird band, and I can’t put my finger on if its genius is accidental or not, but either way it’s fun to listen to and they have me thinking about it time and again.