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  • 13 Essential D.C. Hardcore Albums
Various Artists - Flex Your Head (Dischord, 1982): If you seek a Rosetta Stone not just for the DC scene but all of American hardcore, this is the place to start. Almost every niche of DC hardcore –- and a young performance from almost every crucial DC performer -- is covered in this must-own collection. The Teen Idles (featuring a young MacKaye) blaze in meat-and-potatoes songs like "No Fun." Henry Rollins (then Garfield) gives his first recorded performance with S.O.A. (State Of Alert) shouting about druggies and girl problems; crossover masters Void offer three tracks, and Government Issue lampoon Reagan with "Hey Ronnie." Iron Cross, Artificial Peace, Youth Brigade, and others also appear. In addition to Bad Brains' debut, this is the jumping-off point for everything that followed. At an original price of $5 for a vinyl LP, it seemed like the best deal ever.

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.)

Comments (36)
  1. i had to say at least something: how is minor threat not number one on that list?

  2. Michael_  |   Posted on Oct 17th, 2012 +3

    This is a really sexy list! I’m very happy that you also saw it fit to put Embrace that far up. There’s so much overlap in influential characters within the scene on most of these projects that you can’t really get it wrong, though (Jawbox might be one I wished to have pop up, but you got Government Issue, so whatevs.)

    • Sorry all, just to be clear: The list is in chronological order, not ranked from worst to best. Also, the chronology stops at 13 Songs, so Jawbox (and Nation Of Ulysses, etc.) were ineligible. Next time!

      • It would be enormously challenging if not impossible for me to rank these records but I can say the top slot would be a battle between Bad Brains and Minor Threat.

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  4. Nice list. Recently found that Embrace LP on vinyl and was quite excited. It’s a strange album – Mackaye still seems to have a foot in his Minor Threat mode – but it’s definitely good.

    Faith/Void is a stunner.

    What about One Last Wish. I know their album, recorded in 1986, wasn’t released until years later, but it is definitely a nice companion piece to the Rites Of Spring album.

    • Glad you enjoyed it.

      I love the One Last Wish record but I couldn’t remove any of these other records to make room for it. But it’s definitely worth checking out.

  5. The one that got away is Happy Go Licky the band that RoS reformed into. They are the missing link in DC’s music history, and spawned many bands that came after, from Soulside’s transition to GVSB, to Jawbox, Fire Party, Velocity Girl and many others. They were the band that everyone who saw them either started their own band, or immediately changed their current band’s direction. And of course, they never managed to make a proper record, just a collection of live recordings. Nice list, and extra props for including Marginal Man!

  6. All three Beefeater releases need to be there! 9353 two first releases as well. But there really aren’t too many weak DC hardcore releases.

  7. Point of fact, that isn’t Ian, but his brother Alec slouched over on the “Two Seven Inches” comp. And the song song “No Fun” is a Stooges cover….

  8. just one song. sorry.

  9. Hardcore, but giving you more and more.

  10. Well I was gonna listen to some relaxing baroque music tonight but fuck that

  11. I find it funny that more people agree with a list that’s ordered chronologically which they think is ordered by how good each item is instead of when it actually is a worst-to-best list.

  12. Putting them in chronological order gives us nothing to fight about!

  13. Hardcore started off in UK with GBH 1977 etc The DC scene was very good though.

  14. The lack of No Trend completely destroys any credibility.

    The best thing to ever come out of the Dischord scene was No Trend’s hatred of it.

  15. Great article/list, hits the nail on the head about the music that comes out of the Bible belt.

  16. No Soulside “Trigger” is a big miss. Released right before the 1st Fugazi record. Also GI Joyride is by far their best record.

  17. I’m sorry, but Bad Brains “I Against I” sucks. “Rock For Light” destroys that one. Giving it some thought, I would exclude GI for Black Market Babies and the great underrated United Mutation, for Scream, who were a total one trick pony. “Still Screaming” is great, but ugh! Diminishing returns on that band.

  18. Bad Brains and Minor Threat are no-brainers, but goddamn it’s good to see some love for Dag Nasty’s Can I Say, one of my favorite and often overlooked hardcore albums! I now feel that ebbing and flowing intangible warm embrace from Stereogum

  19. How is Can I Say an overlooked album?

  20. Minor (no pun intended) correction, but I’m fairly certian that the picture on the cover of ‘Minor Threat’ is not Ian MacKaye, but rather his brother Alec, taken while he was napping during one of those marathon HarDCore shows at Wilson Center. That’s the story I was always told anyway.

  21. already mentioned it!

  22. nobody listens to that scream record

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