The Top 20 Best Punk Albums...EVER!

Like any great rock list, this one is hopefully going to take you down memory lane and maybe even force you re-think exactly what punk is. I mean, if punk was truly only those albums that came out in late '76/early '77, or that were sung by bands with spiky hair and a bad attitude, then someone might wanna break this news to the thousands of bands that have made great punk records over the last thirty odd years...such as most of the bands that made this list. Of course, the first two albums on this list will come as no surprise to anyone.

Three Chicago-area bands make the list!


Let's face it, anyone wearing a Ramones t-shirt today is, more than likely, a huge poseur. Ask them to name three members of the band and, more than likely, they have to try reading the names off of their t-shirt upside down without looking too obvious. Sadly, three members of this great band are no longer with us, not living long enough to see their music immortalized in movies, commercials, and video games.

When listening to Rocket To Russia today, I am struck by the energy and immediacy of songs such as "Cretin Hop" and "Rockaway Beach". Sure, there was a hard punk exterior, but underneath it was a chewy bubblegum center. How were these songs not hits?!


Yeah, it's an obvious choice, but it's an obvious choice for a very good reason: Bullocks a fantastic album from start to finish. Like the Ramones' Rocket To Russia, it is a pop album at its very core, but, again, the energy and the in-your-face immediacy of the tunes is distinctly punk.

Veteran producer Bill Price was smart enough to not try to push the band to be anything that it wasn't, choosing instead to multi-track Steve Jones' hard driving guitars and to place Paul Cook's pummeling drum work prominently in the mix.

What ultimately gave the Pistols their legendary punk edge, though, was Johnny Rotten's vitriolic vocal style, which served only to heighten the impact of his incendiary lyrics that challenged all cows, sacred and otherwise.


I honestly wish I'd been old enough to truly relish how crazy Iggy Pop must have been in 1973, when this album was released. Near as I can tell, the minute he hit a stage or recording studio, he ceased being human and turned into a rabid, cornered dog that saw the stage as his only sanctuary from injustice. I don't much get the Iggy that would later find himself rolling around in broken glass, but on Raw Power, this is 100% unbridled, uh, raw power. Of course, Iggy's great, but what makes this album snap, crackle and pop are the fookin' Stooges, man. To a man, these guys attacked each song with a vigor heretofore unheard.

Of course, the album was so far ahead of its time that, even today, it's considered a bit of an oddity to all but the most discerning rock fans. Admittedly, even those who dig the album seem to have a problem with Bowie's final mix. As a result, a bootleg version of the album featuring Iggy's original mixes was so legendary in bootleg circles that Sony paid Iggy to remix the album for re-release in 1997.

Regardless of which mix you may prefer, this is an album that more than lives up to its title.


Sure, many regard this as the blueprint for industrial music, upon which the likes of Trent Reznor have built an entire career, but this is also an album that proves quite convincingly that you don't need guitars to create a righteous punk racket.

Jourgenson, of course, paid his dues on the Chicago punk scene, so this wasn't disingenuous at all. In fact, only someone with a punk pedigree could have abused synthesizers to such an extent as to create a noise so wonderfully subversive.


Sure, there are few UK punk bands with members as hunky as Robin Zander or Tom Petersson circa 1977, but, thanks to Rick Nielsen's goofball nihilism, Cheap Trick's first album is an absolute punk masterpiece disguised as a mildly subversive pop record. It joined every other classic punk album by selling poorly in the US despite universally positive reviews from critics.

The genius of Rick Nielsen was to juxtapose songs about murder, suicide, and male prostitution with the pin-up good looks of Zander and Petersson. If everyone else in the band looked like Nielsen or certified public accountant, er, drummer Bun E. Carlos, there'd have been no mistake about this band's twisted intent.


Take Dead Boys singer Stiv Bator(s), ex-Damned guitarist Brian James, and the righteous rhythm section of Nicky Turner and Dave Tregunna and you have punk's first (and perhaps only) supergroup. Whereas the sum of most other supergroups never quite adds up to their individual parts, the Lords' first album is an absolutely inspired first effort. Sure, punk was supposed to be dead, with new wave was becoming all the rage, but that didn't stop the Lords from stirring up as much controversy as possible. Stiv, of course, has always worn his adoration for Iggy Pop on his sleeve and teaming up with James was a stroke of genius. Punk finally had its own Mick and Keef and the result was an album that out-shined anything they'd done prior.


Don't think this is a punk album? Jett had been left penniless by the breakup of the Runaways and was sleeping on the floor of manager Kenny Laguna's house while recording this album. Upon completion, Jett and Laguna shopped the record to major labels and were turned down repeatedly by every label they approached. They eventually caught a break in the form of Boardwalk Records' executive Neil Bogart, who took a shine to Jett and signed on to release the album. Jett & Laguna, of course, made sure to retain rights to their masters, which, in hindsight, was a stroke of genius. Otherwise, this album (and Jett's career) would have no doubt been tied up in tons of red tape when the label began to falter following Bogart's death in 1982.

All business aside, this is an album that the Ramones would have been proud to have made, showing a supreme love for sixties pop performed at top volume and with more energy than a "runaway" freight train.


Following the template set by bands like the Pistols and Joan Jett, the brothers Reid took their love for bubblegum hooks and meshed them with a sound that others have tried, but ultimately failed to replicate over the years. On first listen to Psychocandy on that fateful rainy day (how apropos) in the fall of 1986, I literally thought there was something wrong with either the record, or my stereo. The quality of songs like "Just Like Honey" and "Never Understand", though, drew me in and I couldn't stop listening. Before long, I came to adore the irreverent anti-production of the record and, when I caught the band live later that year, they proved their punk-ness by playing for a whopping twenty minutes before leaving the stage in a haze of distortion and spilled beer.


The thing that bugs me the most about the original UK punk phenom is that the scene was soon littered with bands that all sounded alike. It was as if they got the energy of the Ramones and the Pistols, but hadn't been paying attention to how truly original those bands were. They thought all they had to do was spike their hair and be pissed off about who-knows-what.

Wire, on the other hand, unleashed their debut album upon a nation that had embraced punk, but was still challenged by what these four lads from London had to offer.

Containing 21 songs, with six under a minute in length, the album adheres to an ultra-punk aesthetic while, at the same time, using these concise blasts of fury to create a cohesive statement akin to that of a concept album. This isn't merely an album, though, this is a manifesto.


The debut album from England's Gang Of Four was a cold, calculated car-crash of detachment that flipped conventional song structure and melody on its ear. Additionally, the band's themes aren't so much personal as global in nature, giving their songs an energy of being sung not by just one person, but an army. This is an essential album that will alter your reality even some thirty years later.


How can a post-punk album be more punk than most so-called UK punk albums? It can't. That's why I refuse to classify this album as a post-punk record. Siouxsie Sioux had been such an integral cheerleader of the original punk movement that her first foray into the music world could not escape such classification. And thus, The Scream more than lives up to its name by delivering an onslaught of buzz-saw guitars, throbbing bass lines and hypnotic drumming, all combining to create a musical sound that was as much fury and rage as grace and poetry. The band gets bonus points for stealing "Helter Skelter" back from Manson a full decade before U2 claimed to do the same thing.


For a moment, forget the fact that the members of this band have completely lost touch with their roots and not made a truly great record in almost twenty years. Forget that Michael Stipe himself has turned into someone almost unrecognizable from the man who beautifully mumbled his way through this, R.E.M.s, first EP.

What made this and other early R.E.M. records punk was their complete disregard for the unwritten rules that so many other band choose to play by, resulting in a record that lacks any originality whatsoever. The result was a sound comprised of deceptively simple elements that was entirely their own. As a result, the rock world had no other choice but to stand up and take notice. Sure, the masses couldn't be bothered, but discerning rock fans and critics knew that what they were listening to was history in the making.


I reserve a fully extended middle finger for anyone who doubts the punk pedigree of this all-female L.A. band. That they were teamed with sixties bubblegum producer Richard Gottehrer was an absolute stroke of genius, as he was able to work with the band's musical limitations to create an album that played so perfectly upon their strengths.

Signing to Miles Copeland's IRS Records label was as punk a move as any band could make circa 1981. Up to that point, IRS had been unsuccessful at breaking any band in the US. That Beauty & The Beat would become their first #1 record was a feat nobody on earth could have seen coming. Of course, the band would quickly adopt a more clean-cut, wholesome image in order to maintain their popularity, forever leaving behind the band that created this American punk masterpiece.


So-called punk purists consider original singer Jack Grisham to be the punk heart of this Orange County band, but, to my ears, TSOL only became a contender after his departure. The proof, of course, is in the pudding and, in the case of Flowers, this is some tasty, albeit jagged pudding.

While Grisham certainly had the nihilistic punk act down pat, the songs themselves never seemed to be anything more than a mere afterthought. By contrast, Change Today? is the work of an entirely new - and focused - band that creates tale upon tale of teenage rage and alienation.


While I personally found this band unlistenable and hard to look at, it would be selfish of me to deny just how influential the Minutemen were. Truth be told, there are many whose idea of punk begins and ends with the Minutemen, whereas I have always seen them as a flannel-sporting jam band, albeit one who plays most tunes at breakneck speed as if eager for the song to end.


While the drumming of Bill Stephenson keeps this album from being an all-out stunner, this was Black Flag at their absolute creative peak. The band had so much material from these sessions that another album, In My Head, was released a mere six months later. With songs like "Now She's Black", "Annihilate This Week" and the anthemic title track, Black Flag seemed poised to jump to the next level, which would have no doubt caused many of their fans to cry "Sell out!". Sadly, a mere year after this album's release, the band would cease to exist.


While spawned as a reaction to the bloated excess of rock in the early-to-mid 70's, the best punk records have always drawn from sixties pop, In the case of L.A.'s Three O'Clock and their debut EP, Baroque Hoedown, the source wasn't so much bubblegum as psychedelia, giving the band their own private corner of the punk rock pie. Of course, this wouldn't last long, as their sound would inspire an entire L.A. movement that Three O'Clock singer Michael Quercio would later dub the Paisley Underground.

They'd later go on to cut two record for IRS and one for Prince's Paisley Park label, but none were as furiously inspired as this supersonic storybook of a debut.


I'm gonna be completely honest with you, readers, I initially spaced on The Clash. I have adored this band for so long. Heck, I even got to spend a couple hours in an airport lounge with Joe Strummer, during which time he turned me from someone who merely respected the man to someone who would have donated my doggone heart to save the guy. London Calling is one solid mother of an album, so full of ace songs that you almost forget that the band pounding out the jams is one of the defining bands of the entire punk movement. One of the things Joe told me was that they distanced themselves from the word "punk" as fast as they could because they knew they had to do so if they wanted to make it in America. They, of course, went on to make it in America and the rest as they say is history.


Many so-called punk purists seem to severely underestimate Chicago's contribution to the punk pantheon. In the mid-80's, though, there was no place on earth doing it better than the Windy City. To this day, bands such as Naked Raygun, Jesus Lizard, the Effigies, and Big Black remain some of the most sorely overlooked punk acts of all time.

Atomizer, Big Black's first full-length (which, quite sadly, is now available only as part of The Rich Man's Eight-Track Tape compilation, dropping one song), is as abrasive and confrontational as punk gets. Steve Albini, all 85 pounds of him, is a railing presence who gets off on challenging your preconceptions. Song subjects range from molestation ("Jordan, Minnesota") to pyromania ("Kerosene"), presented in such a manner that even the most brazen listener is left shuddering in their shell if they dwell on the lyrics too long. The pile-driver assault of the band's music finishes you off like a fist through concrete.


There are few bands more uniquely familiar yet altogether original than The Cramps. Blending high-octane rockabilly with songs about werewolves, zombies and outerspace, they were an integral part of the mid-70s CBGB punk scene and created a gem of a punk statement on their debut effort, produced by the legendary Alex Chilton.

In the letter Chilton's widow wrote to be read at the Chilton tribute/Big Star show at 2010's SXSW Music Festival, she stated that, for all of his musical accomplishments, he remained truly proud of his work with the Cramps. Just as Gottehrer had done for the Go-Go's, Chilton embraces the band's many idiosyncrasies and somehow finds a way for them to congeal into one wonderfully gloppy mess of rockabilly, psychedelia and just plain madness.

Sadly, singer Lux Interior passed away in early 2009, thereby bringing to an end one of the more delightfully raunchy punk bands of all time.

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1 comment:

  1. Finally a list that includes T.S.O.L's Change Today! Truely one of the greatest punk albums