10. Minutemen - Buzz or Howl Under the Influence of Heat
Minutemen had always been a pretty unorthodox punk band, but this late 1983 EP showed the San Pedro trio starting to go way out there. All three band members really start stretching the definition of what constitutes punk rock music. If it’s still fast and rebellious, but has funk guitars and unusual and dynamic composition concepts, is it still hardcore? Does feeling and attitude have more to do with the genre than actual musicianship? Whether or not the Minutemen actually consciously asked themselves these questions while recording the album I don’t know, but they’re certainly questions the listener ends up having to ask themselves the first time they’re confronted with the unique challenge of making sense of a Minutemen record, and I believe these ideas really took hold on this EP, with songs like “Little Man With A Gun In His Hand” and “I Felt Like A Gringo”. It’s forward thinking like this that saved America’s number one medium of passionate and direct self-expression, which by 1983 was already showing signs of fatigue and a lack of creative motivation.
9. Jerry’s Kids - Is This My World?
Jerry’s Kids was a short-lived group from Boston, partially responsible for their town becoming a pretty major region for hardcore punk in America. Before splitting, they released one LP called Is This My World? This record is 80’s hardcore at its fastest and most raw, at times even overshadowing some of the crazier DC bands like Void. For 25 minutes it just blasts your damn old face with awesome chaotically speedy riffs and some of the most fantastic hardcore drumming you’ll ever hear. It’s appropriate that this album was released just before the original wave of hardcore started to decline, as it is really one of the shining examples of the genre’s pinnacle.
8. Naked Raygun - Basement Screams
Though Naked Raygun had been a staple of the Chicago punk rock scene for about four years at this point, Basement Screams was their first studio record. This is really the only record (other than their brief appearances on Busted At Oz) that really shows off Naked Raygun’s experimental approach to punk, before Santiago Durango would leave to join Big Black, and Raygun would start to develop a more accessible and traditional sound. While tracks like “I Lie” foreshadow Naked Raygun’s future, the intricate jungle rhythms and overall messy and passionate presentation of “Bomb Shelter” and “Mofo” perfectly exemplify that weird Chicago sound that Raygun developed along with bands like Silver Abuse and DA in the early 80’s. Basement Screams is a rare gem of extremely creative and unconventional songwriting within a genre that too many people associate with samey power chord compositions, and it stands as an important work in the career of arguably the most important punk band to come out of Chicago.
7. Hellhammer - Satanic Rites
6. Swans - Filth
Swans’ early career could rightfully be considered one of the most vile things in the history of whatever. Their debut album Filth is probably their most “musical” from this period in their existence, but it still stands as something wholly brutal and unsavory to listen to. “Noise” is the key word to this record, with the bludgeoning down-tuned bass, the metallic double drums lineup, and the grating guitars. Michael Gira’s songs are typically slow and plodding, with some masterfully dark and austere lyrics. They usually consist of short three word sentences repeated throughout the song, lending a hypnotic chant-like quality to the experience. A lot of what’s here was very important in establishing the ideas and tropes that other bands would pick up on in the fast-growing noise rock movement. This isn’t an album to just listen to for fun on a Saturday afternoon, but it’s not like anything you’re likely to ever hear in your entire life, and it will pretty much slay you emotionally, making you feel like a naked man in a dark hole getting berated by the growls of demonic spirits above.
5. Hüsker Dü - Metal Circus
Choosing between this and Hüsker Dü’s early 1983 release Everything Falls Apart was an exercise in torture. While tracks like the thrashcore-esque “Punch Drunk” and “Bricklayer” placed EFA a good ten years ahead of its time, it’s hard to deny that Metal Circus is the better of the two. Bob Mould’s presentation is still very much rooted in hardcore punk, with vocals that sound remarkably like a very angry and perhaps rabid dog. This is far from a bad thing, as his singing is some of the most passionate and honest of his career. In contrast, Mould’s guitar playing is markedly more complex and melodic, even on some of the more aggressive tracks. Grant Hart also emerges as a significant creative force on this record, contributing the much more mid-tempo and poppy “It’s Not Funny Anymore” and “Diane”, the latter being a beautiful and anguished telling of the real-life murder of St. Paul waitress Diane Edwards. The evolution from their earlier records to Metal Circus clearly show Hüsker Dü experimenting with different melodic ideas, slowly expanding and breaking through the confines of hardcore punk (much like their west coast brethren Minutemen, though two sounded very little like one another), an idea which would become the linchpin of their 1984 masterpiece Zen Arcade.
4. Minor Threat - Out of Step
After releasing In My Eyes in 1981, Minor Threat split up so guitarist Lyle Preslar could go to college. On the insistence of Bad Brains vocalist H.R., Minor Threat reformed in late 1982, and recorded their third EP. Out of Step shows MacKaye being a little less message-heavy and a little more introspective and personal; a hint at things to come in his career. His vocals, while still consisting mostly of rage yelling, sometimes unwind into pensive conversational asides. The writing is also different from their first two seven inches, with longer songs, actual melodies, and an honest-to-goodness mid-tempo track or two. Make no mistake: Out of Step isn’t a sterile or sold out Minor Threat. It’s still fast, loud, and very passionate, but noticeably different than their earlier releases. It is a Minor Threat that is less indignant about social ills, and more anxious and frustrated with the looming realities of adulthood and the people around them.
3. The Birthday Party - The Bad Seed
Before forming the non-coincidentally named Bad Seeds, Nick Cave fronted the Australian group The Birthday Party, who spent most of the early 80’s experimenting with post-punk no wave sounds to limited success. Before splitting up, they put out two EPs to great critical acclaim. I might as well have just included both of them, as they’re both pretty great, but The Bad Seed edged out Mutiny mostly because of the album opener “Sonny’s Burning”, a track that is unusually exuberant considering the group’s generally funereal style. It’s clear that The Birthday Party were at least partially influenced by some of the more gothic bands coming out of England at the time, but to say that they were playing gothic rock would be a gross oversimplification. This record is like a bizarre marriage of goth and noise. The result is something dark, sinister, and unsettling. Cave’s vocals are nothing short of incredible, and occasionally refreshingly playful considering the lyrical content and pounding gloomy percussion. The Bad Seed is the perfect swan song to The Birthday Party’s career, as well as a sign of things to come in the long and eventful career of Nick Cave.
2. Suicidal Tendencies - Suicidal Tendencies
Suicidal Tendencies were a hardcore punk outfit from Los Angeles, who were big fans of the thrash metal scene that was developing in the early 80’s thanks to local groups like Metallica and Exodus. So when they finally released their debut self-titled LP, the influence these metal bands had on them was obvious, and the result was an unheard of mixtures of hardcore and thrash, which would go on to be called “crossover thrash”. Today, these kinds of bands are a dime a dozen, but considering Metallica had just barely released their first LP when this record was put out, it’s pretty easy to see how Suicidal Tendencies were ahead of their time. This album rips hard with some fantastically intense hardcore punk songwriting, and some truly impressive thrash guitars, especially considering that they weren’t a metal band primarily at this time. The lyrics are fairly political and often satirical, like on the ever popular track “Institutionalized”, a song told through the point of view of a confused teen whose parents think his behavior is evidence that he may be crazy. With its incisive (though occasionally dated) lyrics, face melting musicianship, and passionate punk songwriting, Suicidal Tendencies’ S/T is still better than most hardcore/thrash records being put out today.
1. Tom Waits - Swordfishtrombones
A complex masterpiece that is hard to explain with words. Prior to recording this album, Tom Waits decided to get actively involved in his fairly luckless career by firing his manager, ditching his record label and producers, and doing shit the way he wanted to. This new sense of artistic freedom resulted in a very strange, dark, and experimental record that sounds nothing like Waits had ever done before. Rather than a very piano-based sound with string arrangements, Waits used some pretty stark arrangements consisting mostly of unusual percussion, bass, low brass instruments and muted guitar, with his vocals less classically gravelly and weird and more freakishly gravelly and weird. The lyrics are a fantastic, especially on tracks like “Town With No Cheer”, about a town in the outback of Australia that civilized society seems to have forgotten about. Quite a fantastic change from his songs about lonely drunkards. Swordfishtrombones defines, practically in every way imaginable, a great creative reawakening in an artist. It’s such an artistic turnaround from the tired and unexciting to the unusual and compelling that came practically out of nowhere, and stands as one of the greatest albums ever recorded by a singer-songwriter.
Honorable mentions: “Pick Your King” by Poison Idea, “Over the Edge” by Wipers, “Death Church” by Rudimentary Peni, “Murmur” by R.E.M, “Everything Falls Apart” by Hüsker Dü, “What Makes A Man Start Fires?” by Minutemen, “Melissa” by Mercyful Fate, “Bulldozer” by Big Black