Edit: Here is a link to the updated version of this same guide.
By Jackson Anderson
Why haven’t I done this before? I have spent three months attempting to talk about my life in relation to my greatest passion, and only hand waving the fact that this passion in question is a fairly obscure one that most people will have little knowledge about. I would like to remedy this situation a bit. Punk can be an unruly beast to tame; it’s in its nature, but with a bit of finess and perseverance, I am confident that everyone will find something that they like in the broad depths of the oft-misunderstood genre that is punk rock.
First let me address this flip flopping issue I have between saying “punk” and “punk rock.” These really don’t mean the same thing at all. One is an ideology, the other is a type of music. The ideology has come to describe the type of music that sprang from what is called “punk rock,” a movement that sprang from bands such as Ramones and Minor Threat in the 70’s and 80’s. Sonically, however, punk music, as I will refer to the broader genre that I will be discussing in the guide, is incredibly diverse. Nearly everything under the sun fits into the genre of punk, but isn’t necessarily punk rock. Folk punk, for instance, takes to heart the ideals of individuality, protest, and a desire to tell an uncompromising truth, but is a far cry from the sound of Ramones or The Clash. Similarly, crust punk has the same individualistic spirit of telling cold, hard facts that may be uncouth at times, but vocals tend to be incredibly abrasive, and “screamy.” This is a bit closer to what people think of when they think of “punk,” but this is still vastly different from the sound of the forefathers of the genre.
So, what makes something punk? To save some precious white space, I’m going to redirect you to an essay I wrote on exactly that. If you don’t want to read that, I’d quickly summarize the punk ideology as a desire to tell true stories. It’s real people writing about real things, with the desire to communicate details about the world taking precedence over the desire to make it big as a musician. Generally speaking, punk musicians write their own songs, are on independent record labels, and aren’t afraid to shy away from discussing issues that might be a little awkward at dinner. Basically, any band can be a punk band, and many famous musicians had very punk ideologies even if they were far away from the punk scene.
If you’re still interested in exploring the vast plains of punk music, here is my extensive guide on how to do just that.
The Big Ten
These are 10 classic punk albums that everyone should hear not only from a punk music standpoint, but from a musical standpoint in general. These are the required listening of the genre that all fans will have heard, and nearly everyone loves.
- Rancid – …And Out Comes The Wolves
I’m sure most punk rockers would put this on their list of favorite albums, but probably not on the number one spot. It’s definitely not on mine, but it’s a great introduction record. It’s just fun to listen to. It’s got great musicianship: fun guitar parts, pounding bass lines, entertaining drumbeats. Tim Armstrong’s voice might be offputting to some, –I would recommend skipping the album if it starts annoying you– but he and Lars Frederickson also sing their hearts out.
2. Descendents – Milo Goes to College
Genre: Melodic Hardcore
This record is corny as hell, and it’s a blast. Three out of the four band members were still in high school during the recording of this album, and it shows. You might have to transport yourself into the mind of a teenage boy in 1981 to fully appreciate this album, but when you do, I think it’s an entertaining listen. Even if you find the songwriting to be on the immature side, Descendents were top notch musicians even during their younger years, and bassist Tony Lombardo in particular shows off his technical prowess.
3. Fugazi – 13 Songs
This is definitely the most technical album on this list. Fans of Pink Floyd or Joy Division should enjoy Fugazi’s 13 Songs, an impressive, jammy effort that possesses the energy and quickness of the punk spirit. Both Ian MacKaye and Guy Picciotto show off their songwriting capability on this album, if you can manage to figure out what they’re talking about (I haven’t.)
4. Operation Ivy – Energy (or Operation Ivy) They only released one album and depending on how you listen to them they may have their entire discography available instead of their album. This is simply titled Operation Ivy.
This is very similar to …And Out Comes The Wolves. It might have something to do with the fact that half of the band is the same! They share many of the same positive qualities: ear-catching distorted guitars, punchy bass lines, and an overall air of jocundity to the listening experience. You’re probably going to be saying pick it up a couple of times after listening to this.
5. The Clash – London Calling
Genre: Punk Rock
My friend Max described The Clash as “objectively good music.” That’s a nice, succinct, description of one of punk’s forefathers. Fans of classic rock should enjoy London Calling, but, then again, you’ve probably already heard it. London Calling was one of the pioneers in expanding punk rock from “punk rock” to “punk music.” There are ska, reggae, rockabilly, jazz, and so many other musical influences on this record, and it made a lot of punk musicians realize that they didn’t all need to sound the same.
6. NOFX – Punk in Drublic
This is the only album on this list that I included because I felt obligated to and not because I like it. It was incredibly influential on modern pop-punk –an incredibly broad sub-genre of punk music that really needs to be further divided to better describe what is actually going on sonically– that a ton of punk rockers rave about being the best thing ever. It’s not my favorite NOFX album by a long shot, but it has some good songs on it. It’s accessible, and the only thing off-putting about Punk In Drublic should be Fat Mike’s obscene lyrics.
7. Ramones – Ramones
8. Bad Religion – Suffer
Genre: Hardcore Punk
It’s hardcore, but not that hardcore. Suffer is more accessible than you might think. I know hardcore sounds scary, but give it a chance. It’s fast, angry, short, and pretentious, but Suffer has a certain charm to it. It has surprisingly clear vocals, intelligent lyrics, vocal harmonies, and the guitar parts became the defacto structure for wanna be hardcore bands for decades.
9. Minutemen – Double Nickels on the Dime
A quadruple album that is under 75 minutes long, Double Nickels On The Dime sees London Calling and declares it too narrow-minded and samey. It manages to both stay within the conventions of melodic hardcore, while completely jumping outside the box. There are songs on this album that could be found on any of the other albums on this list, and there are songs on this album that are just the sound of water flowing. It’s totally weird, but some people love that stuff. Sometimes I do, and sometimes I don’t have the mental capacity to deal with Double Nickels On The Dime.
10. The Bouncing Souls – How I Spent My Summer Vacation
Sadly, this is the first time that I have mentioned The Bouncing Souls aside from mentioning that I haven’t mentioned them. This is by far and a way the newest album on the list, but I think it has a place on here. It nicely typifies the sort of fun, apolitical pop-punk in which, armed with only four chords and a truth, simple, well-crafted songwriting comes to the fore while still preserving the punk spirit.
I often decry the use of subgenres due to the fact that the overuse of them can quickly devolve into semantic discussions about whether something qualifies as powerviolence or d-beat, while they are sonically near-indistinguishable. However, when dealing with genres as broad as punk music, they come in handy. There are a lot of subgenres in punk music, but I’ll go over a few of the more common ones, describe them, say who will probably like them, and name drop a few bands. Also, I’m going to tend to stay away from blanket terms like pop-punk in order to get as specific as possible.
For fans of: ska, jazz, reggae, indie rock, alternative rock, classic rock
What it is: People will fight me over the definition of ska. I’m just going to say sometimes it’s melodic hardcore bands with a horn section, sometimes it’s pop-punk bands with a horn section, sometimes it’s a melodic hardcore band with walking bass lines and palm-muted down-up-down-up guitar techniques. Wars have been started over the definition of ska. I think of it as a fusion between jazz and reggae. So ska-punk is like a fusion between jazz, reggae, and either melodic hardcore or pop-punk. It’s usually pretty cool. So then we have to branch off in two directions we have:
For fans of: ska, jazz, reggae, hard rock, metal, hardcore
What it is: A fusion between hardcore punk and ska; pretty simple.
The Suicide Machines – Destruction By Definition
Operation Ivy – Energy (some people might disagree with this classification)
Against All Authority – All Fall Down
Voodoo Glow Skulls – Firme (they have this record in two languages, which is pretty cool. If you’re feeling adventurous, try Firme en Espanol)
Citizen Fish – Life Size
If hardcore sounds too scary some mellower ska-punk bands are:
Slapstick – Slapstick
Less Than Jake – Hello Rockview
Streetlight Manifesto – The Hands That Thieve
Goldfinger – Hang-Ups
Catch-22 – Keasbey Nights
For fans of: folk, indie rock, indie folk, country
What it is: If you like acoustic instruments then this is probably your genre. There are subgenres of subgenres, so if you like the whole anarchy thing, there are plenty of folk-punk bands out there to suit your needs, but a lot of folk-punk bands tend to shy away from that. A lot of folk-punk bands tend towards depressing, vulnerable, and introspective lyrics, and have clean vocals (as in they don’t scream; if language is an issue, then punk probably isn’t your genre, sorry.)
Andrew Jackson Jihad (recently rebranded as AJJ) – People Who Can Eat People are the Luckiest People in the World
Mischief Brew – Songs From Under The Sink
The Taxpayers – To Risk So Much For One Damn Meal
Ramshackle Glory – Live the Dream
Pat The Bunny – Probably Nothing, Possibly Everything
For fans of: zombies, vampires, hard rock, metal, classic rock, elvis
What it is: This subgenre is weird, and I love it. I forget about it, and then sometimes it dawns on me how strange it’s existence is. Largely due to the success of a seminal punk band that I have yet to mention and subsequent semi-successful copycat acts, there is a whole subgenre of punk in which people dress up in Halloween costumes, sing about zombies and stuff, and all of their singers seem to be doing their best Elvis impression. You want to check it out, don’t you?
Misfits – Static Age (What started it all)
Calabrese – The Traveling Vampire Show (I think this is better than Misfits, seriously, these guys have no right to be as good as they are. Listen to “Voices of the Dead”)
Balzac – Beyond the Darkness (You can learn Japanese at the same time!)
The Murder City Devils – In Name And Blood
Cancerslug – Seasons of Sickness… (NOT FOR THE FAINT OF HEART, that being said, this record is really fun)
For fans of: alternative rock, indie rock, classic rock
What it is: This is my favorite subgenre of punk, and it’s basically a joke. It’s essentially a sub-classification of pop-punk that pretentious people like me listen to, and then go and talk about it on the internet. If you remember that pop-punk scale of saccharinity that I made, these bands tend to have high numbers, meaning low saccharinity because I designed the scale poorly.
The Lawrence Arms – The Greatest Story Ever Told
The Menzingers – On The Impossible Past
Elway – Delusions
Iron Chic – The Constant One
Captain, We’re Sinking – The Future Is Cancelled
Off With Their Heads – Home
Banner Pilot – Collapser
The Loved Ones – Keep Your Heart
For fans of: alternative rock, indie rock, classic rock, beards, attractive men
What it is: Pop-punk with gruff vocals. The name is a joke, but the bands sound similar, and I like it. This is an excuse to recommend more of my favorite bands.
Hot Water Music – A Flight and A Crash
Nothington – Roads, Bridges, and Ruins
Red City Radio – Titles
Arms Aloft – Sawdust City
The Sidekicks – So Long, Soggy Doggy
For fans of: Indie rock, alternative rock, metalcore (bit of a stretch), hard rock, metal
What it is: Emo is short for emotional hardcore, which is a stupid name for a genre that I used to think was stupid. A cool band called Rites of Spring was dubbed “emo” for singing about depression and suicide instead of “the man” during the 80’s. The band’s own frontman hated the term, and said that other hardcore punk bands at the time were just as emotional as Rites of Spring, and the term died off for a number of years. Recently it’s come back, and it doesn’t really sound like Rites of Spring at all. It tends to be well-produced music that lacks a lot of the distortion and effects that are characteristic of a lot of punk music. Emo tends also tends to be fairly dark thematically, although there are plenty of emo bands that are fairly light hearted, such as Modern Baseball. Emo tends to get somewhat of a bad rep, and is mocked sometimes, but I kind of dig it. It’s not everyone’s cup of tea, but I’m big on the transference of emotions. That’s kind of emo’s thing.
The Hotelier – Home, Like NoPlace Is There
Joyce manor – Never Hungover Again
Modern Baseball – You’re Gonna Miss It All
Tigers Jaw – Tigers Jaw
Cold Wrecks – Breaking
For Everest – We Are at Home in the Body
The latter two of these recommendations are both obscure and current, but they’re two of my favorite emo albums, so what the heck?
For fans of: Hard rock, metal, metalcore, alternative rock, classic rock
What it is: Don’t count this one out; you might be surprised. It sounds scary, but regular old hardcore punk is fairly tame in the greater scheme of things. Songs are short, angry, and fast. There’s a lot of screaming, but it’s not usually the harsh sort of metal screaming, it’s just that they’re singing loudly and enthusiastically, but there’s still a melodious quality to it. It’s good, trust me.
Bad Religion – No Control (Yeah, a different album than the big ten, both for variety’s sake and because I like it more)
Dead Kennedys – Fresh Fruit for Rotting Vegetables (this album is partially responsible for the creation of the PMRC; it’s awesome)
Minor Threat – Complete Discography
Bad Brains – Bad Brains
Adolescents – Adolescents
For fans of: Hard rock, metal, metalcore, alternative rock, classic rock
What it is: It’s like hardcore punk, but melodic. What this actually means is the songs are a little bit longer, a little bit slower, and a little bit less angry. If you lean towards the proggier sides of metal, melodic hardcore might be more up your alley. It tends to be more technical and refined as well as having cleaner vocals. It’s a bit harder to distinguish from some of the mellower subgenres of metal, but I don’t pretend to know anything about that, so I won’t comment on it.
Ignite – Our Darkest Days
A Wilhelm Scream – Partycrasher
Strung Out – Exile in Oblivion
Rise Against – Siren Song of the Counter-Culture
H20 – Nothing To Prove
True Pop Punk
For fans of: high fidelity rock? indie rock, pop,
What it is: Pop-punk is a term that keeps me up at night. It doesn’t mean anything. It’s catch-all term for so many different types of music that further sub genres have cropped up that are all jokes and make people upset, like orgcore, beardcore, easycore, and things like that. I’d like to typify “true pop-punk” as music that is extremely well-produced, high budgeted, and tends to have a low rating on my saccharinity scale. These bands tend to be the most well-known pop-punk bands, and those that make the people in the leather jackets and mohawks upset.
The Wonder Years – No Closer To Heaven
The Wonder Years – The Greatest Generation
The Wonder Years – Suburbia I’ve Given You All and Now I’m Nothing
The Wonder Years – The Upsides
I haven’t really explored this genre that much, these are the only albums that I can recommend because I have listened to them.
If you like The Wonder Years, other bands that people have told me are similar are The Story So Far, Set Your Goals, Four Year Strong, and Man Overboard, but I’m going to divorce all liability of them being good (that’s not a band name.)
Street Punk (Also known as Oi!)
For fans of: alternative rock, classic rock, hard rock, metal
What it is: Street punk is a bit of a weird one, because it is in and of itself more of an ideology than a description of sonic quality. These are the working class, leftist, political-tinted punk bands that are responsible for a lot of the stereotypes in the genre. They keep up the whole tough guy act, they wear the leather jackets, they have mohawks. Sonically, they’re a bit more easygoing than hardcore. It’s a sort of happy medium between hardcore and pop.
Swingin’ Utters – Poorly Formed
Sham 69 – Adventures of the Hersham Boys
Lars Frederiksen And The Bastards – Lars Frederiksen And The Bastards
The Casualties – For the Punx
The Unseen – State Of Discontent
90’s Pop Punk or Unpop Punk or Skate Punk
For fans of: hard rock, alternative rock, indie rock, metal
What it is: Another unfortunate product of the umbrella term that is pop-punk, 90’s pop-punk has another fairly unique sound to it that is different from the the high-fidelity pop-punk of The Wonder Years or the low-saccharinity everyman tales of Orgcore. 90’s Pop Punk is closer to melodic hardcore than those genres, but tends to have vocals that are a bit sweeter, catchier choruses, and a little bit of added cheesiness for good measure. This is another subgenre that doesn’t really exist, but all of these bands sound similar, and I think this is one of the better places to start on here.
No Use For A Name – Hard Rock Bottom (I felt the need to point out how good this record was in parentheses, so there’s that. If you’re feeling overwhelmed by the sheer number of options in this guide, start with Hard Rock Bottom.)
NOFX – War on Errorism (“But this album came out in 2003,” I hear you cry. Yeah, it did, but NOFX pretty much wrote the book on 90’s pop punk, and War on Errorism is their best.)
Lagwagon – Hoss
Millencolin – Pennybridge Pioneers (see above parenthetical)
Dillinger Four – C I V I L W A R (see above parenthetical)
I think that’s where I’m going to call it. There are some notable subgenres that I didn’t include, but I don’t think any of my readers here would like them. I might update this in the future, but for now, this should be a pretty decent and broad list of places to start in the exploration of punk rock.