CJ Baker is a published writer who recently started the podcast "Ongoing History of Protest Music."
10 Albums From the '80s That Helped Shaped Punk
Punk rose to prominence in the '70s, but it continued to evolve in the '80s. The '80s gave rise to several different subgenres and scenes. Hardcore rose into prominence, while California and Minnesota were challenging the UK and New York with their emerging punk scenes. Punk music was becoming more diverse.
Right now, we are going to examine the 10 best punk albums of the '80s. Of course, best may be a bit of a misnomer because that is subjective. It was also a next to impossible feat to narrow this list down to ten. But, each of these 10 albums was historically significant in the evolution of punk. Each of these albums represented important strands in the punk DNA.
1. Songs the Lord Taught Us: The Cramps
Released on March 7, 1980, Songs the Lord Taught Us was the debut album of garage punk band The Cramps. This album was considered important in the development of psychobilly.
The tunes on Songs the Lord Taught Us are a lot of campy, tongue and cheek fun. The band blends a variety of different forms of '50s & '60s rock, including rockabilly, surf, and garage rock. This was all infused with a punk attitude to create something that was fresh and retro at the same time. Listening to this album is still a rollicking good time.
Also, as a note, the album was produced by Alex Chilton (formerly of the Box Tops & Big Star).
2. Los Angeles: X
Released on April 26, 1980, Los Angeles was X's debut album. One of the unique aspects of X, is while most punk was based partly on the musician's limitations, X possessed an elevated level of musicianship. Guitarist Billy Zoom was an established rockabilly guitarist who had previous session work playing with Gene Vincent and Etta James (among others).
The song lyrics composed by bassist and co-lead vocalist John Doe and co-lead vocalist Exene Cervenka featured a level of poetry rarely seen in punk rock. The album was pivotal in the development of the Los Angeles punk scene (highlighted in the documentary Decline of Western Civilization).
The album was also produced by The Doors' Ray Manzarek. Appropriately the album also features a cover of The Doors' "Soul Kitchen."
3. Fresh Fruit for Rotting Vegetables: Dead Kennedys
Released on September 2, 1980, Fresh Fruit for Rotting Vegetables is the debut album by hardcore punk band Dead Kennedys.
The songs feature Jello Biafra's highly politicized lyrics combined with a biting satirical humor. The aggressive, all-out musical attack suits Biafra's spastic vocal warble. This is truly one of the defining albums in the development of the hardcore punk scene.
4. Damaged: Black Flag
Released December 5th, 1981, Damaged is the debut album by Black Flag. Damaged has become an important part of the evolution of hardcore punk.
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Damaged was the band's first recording featuring Henry Rollins as lead vocalist (they previously released three EPs with three different lead vocalists). Rollins was the missing piece of the puzzle. His vocal ferocity was the perfect counterpoint to the band's aggressive musical attack. The album possessed the right blend of fist-pumping indignation and satirical humor.
5. Milo Goes to College: Descendents
Milo Goes to College was the full length debut for the Descendents. Milo Goes to College was a unique album in the development of hardcore punk, because the songs where melodic and added a sense of pop sensibility which was lacking with most hardcore bands of that time period. As described by lead singer Milo Auckerman the band developed a sound which could be labeled as "melodic hardcore."
The album also was important in the development of pop & skate punk, influencing bands such as Blink 182, Green Day, NOFX, The Offspring, and countless others.
The album title refers to lead singer Milo Ackerman who left the band to pursue his PhD in biochemistry.
6. Bad Brains: Bad Brains
Released in 1982, the Bad Brains' self-titled debut was originally released only on cassette. It has since been released on CD and vinyl and is available digitally.
The Bad Brains stood out from their hardcore punk peers for several reasons. For example, there was the fact that they were African American devout Rastafarians. They also started as a jazz fusion band. They were also proficient at reggae and included a couple of full on reggae songs on their debut band. Despite the high level of musicianship (or maybe because of it) their brand of hardcore was faster and harder than most of their peers. The ferocity of the music was also matched with the equal vocal ferocity of lead vocalist H.R.
The album ended up being influential in the development of other reggae influence fusion rock groups such as Fishbone, Sublime & 311. Adam Yauch of Beastie Boys has been quoted as saying that the Bad Brains' debut album is "the best punk/hardcore album of all time."
7. Double Nickels on the Dime: Minutemen
Released July 1984, Double Nickel on the Dime was the third full-length album released by the Minutemen. The album was an ambitious and eclectic double album, which was a departure from the band's hardcore roots.
Musically the album featured elements of funk, country, and jazz, among others. Even though it could be argued whether the album meets the definition of punk in a musical sense, there is no denying that the album is punk in attitude. The anything-goes attitude and the refusal to be confined by established rules is the essence of punk.
D. Boon, who was the band's lead guitarist and lead vocalist (and who shared songwriting duties with bassist Mike Watt), died December 22, 1985, in a tragic van accident, at the age of 27.
8. Zen Arcade: Hüsker Dü
Released in 1984, Zen Arcade was an ambitious double concept album for Hüsker Dü. The concept of the album revolved around a young man seeking escape from his terrible home life. He tries to seek escape through the military, religion, and through other means as well. In the end, he comes to the realization that everything that took place happened in his self conscious while he was sleeping.
Like most concept albums it bordered on self indulgent and convoluted. But for the most part the band succeeds in their ambition by creating an eclectic masterpiece. Just like with the Minutemen, they evolved beyond their hardcore roots. By including elements of jazz, psychedelia and folk they showed that they were not going to allow themselves to be restricted by any genre rules. Because of its diversity, ambition and scope, Zen Arcade was very important in the development of both punk and alternative music.
9. Tim: The Replacements
This was a coin toss between The Replacements' 1984 album, Let It Be and their 1985 album Tim. I ended up opting for Tim. I was also debating whether to include either album because, by this point in time, The Replacements were starting to distance themselves from their initial hardcore punk roots. Both albums still had clear elements of punk. But the albums also had their share of more melodic and acoustic tunes as well.
The style spectrum displayed on Tim, was best summed up by Paul Westerberg: "Sometimes you just love the little acoustic songs, and other times you want to crank the goddamn amp up, and those two parts of me are forever entwined."
Just like with the Minutemen and their Minnesota compatriots Hüsker Dü, what made The Replacements so important was that they did not allow themselves to be confined by the traditional rules of hardcore. Punk was all about rebellion and no rules. So, in a sense this album was punk by not being punk.
10. Energy: Operation Ivy
Released in March 1989, Energy is the only full-length album released by Operation Ivy. The band and this album were key factors in the development of ska punk (their sound has also been defined as skacore).
Energy is an apt title because the songs possess no shortage of energy. Even though the music is catchy and fun, the lyrics provide insightful social commentary.
Operation Ivy featured Tim Armstrong (who went by the name Lint) and Matt Freeman (who went by the name Matt McCall) who both went on to greater fame as part of Rancid.
Energy was also released in 1991 with their 1988 EP Hectic and two songs from the 1987 Maximumrocknroll compilation album, Turn It Around.
© 2013 CJ Baker
Brandon on April 19, 2019:
Bad Religion - How Could Hell Be Any Worse, Suffer or No Control?
Straps from Chapel Hill, NC, USA on January 05, 2017:
love this! must have been a ball to write, although i'd find it impossible to narrow down to 10! looking forward to reading more of your work really enjoy both the subject matter and your writing style
CJ Baker (author) from Parts Unknown on March 08, 2013:
I agree, it was really tough to narrow down a list like this. The 80s truly was an important decade in the development of both punk and alternative rock. Thanks for the read and comment!
Christopher Davis from New Port Richey, Florida on March 08, 2013:
Nice! I'd have a difficult time narrowing an 80's punk album list down to twenty records. The 80's was a great decade for the evolution of punk rock.