13 Essential DC Hardcore Albums

By / October 17, 2012

Hardcore was regional music that reached and changed the world. The local references, in-jokes, and our-scene-is-best boosterism are part of what makes it so compelling. Like the best American detective fiction, it has a strong regional flavor; you can walk the streets, mosh with locals, and live vicariously through art. You could learn about Orange County by listening to the Adolescents or T.S.O.L.; visit San Francisco via the Dead Kennedys or Millions Of Dead Cops, or get a taste of New York from Agnostic Front and Cro-Mags. Each scene was a small hub in a larger network of music that collectively rewrote the sound and rules of American music in the ’80s.

Of all the hardcore scenes, the one birthed in Washington, DC and its suburbs in the early ’80s remains perhaps the most influential. The scene seems like a strange accident. The city and its bedroom communities are largely conservative, run by political movers and lobbyists in ties and wingtips. White-collar scions are better candidates for lacrosse and the Junior League than hardcore.

Alas, the most tranquil and unexpected communities are fertile ground for rebellion (witness the metal that comes from evangelical communities and the Bible Belt). I grew up outside of the city in the late ’80s and this music was a bedrock, an enormous point of pride, a rallying cry and a crutch when teenage life seemed unbearable. There was always the possibility that you could go to a show and see one of your musical idols mingling with the locals, because they were the locals.

Many of the kids who populated the early-’80s scene grew up with parents who worked in or around the government. Henry Rollins attended the privileged Bullis School in Potomac, Md., fell in love with punk after graduation, and eventually joined Black Flag. His childhood friend Ian MacKaye built a label (Dischord) that provided a framework and example for many of the independent labels that followed, and later made the best music of his career with Fugazi. Dischord soldiers on today when many other labels have folded after the digital music revolution.

The bands played at the old 9:30 Club, the Hung Jury Pub, the DC Space and others. Many recorded at Inner Ear Studios in Arlington, Va. Rock Against Reagan was held in 1983 in the capital city. The ’80s were as much about hardcore in DC as they were about the conservative revolution. Here is a chronological snapshot of records that defined DC hardcore. There are 13 albums included here, just as there are 13 songs on Fugazi’s first full-length release (technically a collection of two EPs); the albums here all precede and lead into that one, Fugazi’s 13 Songs (1989), a crucial turning point in American musical history and the beginning of a band that redefined the very scene from which it had been birthed. (For a comprehensive look at the career of Fugazi, start with our own Counting Down: Fugazi Albums From Worst To Best.) These are the essential releases from the scene that rebelled against the Reagan establishment, pressed their own records, booked their own shows, and in doing so created a music that still inspires. (The list starts here.)