When you look at Fucked Up’s discography, it’s easy to force a certain narrative onto their career arc: they started as a hard-charging hardcore band terrorizing tiny Toronto shows and became genre-agnostic critical darlings, capable of comfortably sharing a bill with either Foo Fighters or Final Conflict and selling out venues with “Ballroom” in the name. The reality is less that Fucked Up evolved from the former band to the latter and more that they exist as both bands simultaneously, plus half a dozen more.
They’re still those basement hardcore heroes, as evidenced by their joy (and the response) when they play tracks off old seven-inches live. They’re critic-friendly rock stars, affable in interviews and happy to play festival showcases. They’re also art-rock weirdos who channel their least marketable urges in the 15-minute-plus A-sides of their Zodiac 12-inch series. They’re punk rock fanboys on an apparent Sisyphean mission to cover every obscure Canadian hardcore band ever. They’re aesthetes, drawn to symbology and the art of the sleek, simple record sleeve. Beyond all that, they’re first and foremost a live act. You can’t fully understand Fucked Up until you’ve seen Damian Abraham lope around an audience, sweating and shedding on grateful recipients, while the tightest band in punk looms onstage behind him like a circle of ambivalent monoliths.
The problem with constructing any kind of a definitive list of the best Fucked Up songs is that plenty of Fucked Up fans only identify with one or two of the coexisting versions of the band. There’s the hardcore lifers who are only interested in the old seven-inches, and there’s indie-rock fans whose first exposure to the band came when The Chemistry Of Common Life won the Polaris Prize and only like the LPs. Hell, I’ve got a friend who can only get into the Zodiac series, which might surprise even its makers.
Feel free to consider all that a disclaimer about the list that follows. It’s light on non-LP material because, to my ears, Fucked Up have always saved their best songs for their LPs. A big pile of singles does not a singles band make. Hidden World, The Chemistry Of Common Life, David Comes To Life, and now Glass Boys (which comes out today) are four of the best punk full-lengths — that is, all-killer-no-filler, front-to-back full-lengths — ever made, even when they barely resemble punk. That’s my perspective, and this list reflects that. The great thing about Fucked Up is how many dissimilar takes on this list would be completely valid. Now, by all means, let me have it in the comments.
10. “Year Of The Pig” (from Year Of The Pig, 2007)
Fucked Up’s Zodiac 12-inch series saw its sixth installment (and sixth record label) this year with Year Of The Dragon, and none of the six to date have sounded remotely like any other. What they have in common is how liberated they make the band sound. Each song gives Fucked Up 15 or 20 minutes to do whatever the hell they want, and that’s led to everything from out-there collaborations (Zola Jesus on “Year Of The Ox”) to Rushian prog-rock pomp (“Year Of The Tiger”) to what Abraham described to me before my last Fucked Up show as “straight-up Integrity worship” on “Year Of The Dragon.” The masterstroke in the series, though, is “Year Of The Pig.” Across 18 measured, lumbering minutes, it doles out its intensity like it’s been forced to ration it, releasing pent-up aggression in big swells that always come in a few beats later than you expect them. The song’s greatest pleasure is the vocal interplay between Abraham and Jennifer Castle. Guest vocalists are a grand tradition in the Fucked Up universe, and while they’re sometimes simply a necessity to help break up the bludgeon of Abraham’s growl, Castle’s spot on “Year Of The Pig” elevates the song to a level it couldn’t reach without her.
9. “Twice Born” (from The Chemistry Of Common Life, 2008)
It doesn’t find its way into many of their set lists these days, but “Twice Born” has always felt to me like the most stage-ready Fucked Up song. A lot of the credit for that goes to its infectious call-and-response: “Hands up if you think you’re the only one/ HANDS UP IF YOU THINK YOU’RE THE ONLY ONE!/ Hands up if you think you’re the only one/ WE ALL HAVE OUR HANDS UP!” The song’s secret weapon is the seduction of the rhythm section just pounding away at its insistent midtempo click, uninterested in switching up the bpm, lest that dampen the catchy assault. (You might find that your foot taps in time to the song not just while it’s playing but for several minutes after.) Abraham turns in a precise, almost melodic vocal performance, breathing life into a lyric strewn with Biblical allusions that hinges on the insignificance of humankind. It’s never a bummer, though; the band won’t let it be one. Fucked Up is the rare artist who can tell you your life is worthless with a convincing enough grin to make it sound life-affirming.
8. “Crusades” (from Hidden World, 2006)
If you buy that Hidden World represents Fucked Up’s first major split with their more straightforward hardcore roots, then “Crusades” was the perfect opening track for the record. For one thing, at nearly 7 minutes, it wouldn’t have even fit on a side of one of their early 45s. The length is justified by an epic feel that Fucked Up never really approached prior; the first voices we hear on the recording aren’t Abraham’s barked missives but those of an angelic choir, and the song gallops through multiple movements and tempos on its way to a killer call-and-response climax that works with the band’s resurrection motif (“We die/ Then we’re born again). “Crusades” wasn’t a clean break from the band’s past — nothing they’ve done has ever been quite that — but it did make evident myriad possibilities that weren’t obviously there before. Hidden World is a landmark moment in the Fucked Up discography, and “Crusades” is the track that best illustrates its audacity.
7. “Glass Boys” (from Glass Boys, 2014)
It’s easy to write about Damian Abraham, so music writers have mostly stuck to doing that. Fucked Up have consciously positioned him as the face of the band, which means he takes the most shit, but also gets the most praise. Glass Boys doesn’t necessarily undermine this axiom, but its world-owning title track shines the spotlight on a few other faces in an unusually big way. Mike Haliechuk, he of the crystalline guitar tone and devil’s advocate antagonism, provides some of the best lyrics Abraham has ever sung — “Who did I used to be before I was no one?” is pretty devastating to hear in the big guy’s mouth knowing the pen belonged to one of the guys onstage who no one looks at. Jonah Falco’s drumming has always been brilliant, but his contributions on “Glass Boys” (the song, and the album in general) are magnified by the production. Even Ben Cook, whose backup singing rarely displayed a big vocal range in the past, nails some tricky melodies on the track that create a kind of perverse harmony with Abraham’s yelp. Of course, Abraham still delivers a killer performance, but “Glass Boys” is one of the songs that best illuminates how much help he has making Fucked Up great.
6. “Turn The Season” (from David Comes To Life, 2011)
I’m going to use this space to write about “Turn The Season,” honest, but I also have to shout out David Comes To Life as a whole, and curse it for making this list so difficult to assemble. As with most great concept records, David works best listened to sequentially and in full, but it also has so many great songs that narrowing down which would make the cut was brutal. So my apologies go to “Running On Nothing,” “Remember My Name,” “Serve Me Right,” “Ship Of Fools,” “The Recursive Girl” and “Lights Go Up,” all of which are nearly as good as “Turn The Season,” but aren’t quite. This track gets the edge mostly on the strength of its chorus, which pits Abraham’s snarl and Ben Cook’s sunny vocal against each other in a gloriously counterintuitive way. “Never been as happy as I am today,” Abraham growls, to which Cook gleefully replies, “But then the seasons turned and the darkness came.” The tension created by putting the positive lyric in the harsh vocalist’s mouth and the foreboding one in a croon sets up the latter half of the record, which is clouded with far more darkness and uncertainty than its optimistic opening. It’s a small trick, but an effective and unexpected one, and it’s one of many musical decisions on David Comes To Life that are great when they stand on their own but are intensified tenfold by their narrative context.
5. “David Comes To Life” (from Hidden World, 2006)
The David character in David Comes To Life may or may not be the same one in “David Comes To Life,” but it’s clear that the latter inspired Fucked Up to write the former. The David of the song “was a boy, just a letch,” with aspirations of getting to a heaven that’s just out of his grasp. His narrative arc certainly isn’t as epic as the one on the concept album, but that he has a narrative arc at all is a telling detail about where Fucked Up’s interests were already leaning as early as 2006. Musically, “David Comes To Life” is the closest link to the band’s seven-inch era on Hidden World. It’s just over two minutes long, and Sandy Miranda’s simple, bobbing bass line is its primary melodic element. But it’s better than almost everything from those singles, and it’s the Fucked Up song that most consciously bridges the gap between the early days and the band’s eventual ambitiousness, right down to its title.
4. “Queen Of Hearts” (from David Comes To Life, 2011)
One of the biggest criticisms that people who hate concept albums like to bring up is how cramming character development and narrative storytelling into lyrics betrays the medium. Songs are snapshots, they’ll say, not novels, and using novel-like techniques in lyric writing undermines what lyrics can be at their best. These people should be forced to explain why “Hello, my name is David/ Your name is Veronica” is the best live shout-along in punk rock today. Fucked Up somehow figured out a way to make two people introducing themselves not just a device to further the plot of David Comes To Life, but a transcendent moment of human recognition. Madeline Follin of Cults gives the best guest vocal spot in Fucked Up history with her verse as Veronica, and the band’s triple guitar attack has never sounded more necessary than when all three players are pounding away at the main riff. The next 16 songs on David Comes To Life will complicate things for its main characters, but on “Queen Of Hearts,” love is a simple, almost automatic response to the meeting of two kindred souls. “Let’s be together/ Let’s fall in love,” Abraham sings, to the audience as much as to Follin’s Veronica, and it’s impossible to resist him.
3. “Police” (from the Police 7-inch, 2003)
I don’t know if the guitar riff at the beginning of “Police” is supposed to mimic a police siren. It probably isn’t; police sirens don’t really sound like that riff. All I know is every time I hear it, I think I’m hearing a police siren. “Police” is so good it elicits a Pavlovian response in a grown man that makes him forget what goddamn police sirens sound like. This song is without a doubt the mightiest document of Fucked Up’s pre-LP era, and the only track from those days that belongs in the set list every night. As politically charged rallying cries go, it’s not particularly nuanced — “I can’t stand the police in this fuckin’ city” is its most memorable line. Fucked Up aren’t Propagandhi, though, and “Police” isn’t great because it makes you think about the modern police state. It’s great because it makes you smash your face against the nearest stage and/or wall. That’s true of plenty of early Fucked Up songs, but none fit alongside the bigger, more daring stuff quite like “Police.”
2. “Son The Father” (from The Chemistry Of Common Life, 2008)
Let’s just get this out of the way now: “Son The Father” opens with a flute solo. Microcosmically speaking, that’s either what you love about Fucked Up, or why you don’t love them anymore. A flute solo is undeniably a bold thing for what’s still ostensibly a hardcore band to put on a record, but it doesn’t mean much if it doesn’t serve the song. On “Son The Father,” it effortlessly gives way to a riff that will become a leitmotif. That riff erupts into a full-band lurch after it’s kicked into gear by a throat-ripping scream from Abraham. The flute doesn’t define the song, but it sets it on its course and creates an appropriately epic atmosphere. And “Son The Father” is epic, even when put up against the conscious excesses of the Zodiac series. The lyrics are steeped in Biblical and classical references, with Cain and Abel, the Nile, Jerusalem and Oedipus Rex all making appearances. The big payoff comes in the form of a classic Fucked Up call-and-response, with Abraham stepping aside for the members of Lullabye Arkestra to howl that “It’s hard enough being born in the first place/ So who would ever want to be born again?” It’s the perfect couplet to summarize The Chemistry Of Common Life, simultaneously dismissive of resurrection and religion and obsessed with them. This band has spent so long openly speculating about their own demise and copping to their strained interpersonal relationships that I can’t help but read that lyric as a glance into their inner workings, and to draw conclusions of why they’re still at it after all these years. It wasn’t easy to form this band, but it would be even harder to end it. Everyone would realize they needed it, and they’d have to reunite, and really — who would ever want to be born again?
1. “The Other Shoe” (from David Comes To Life, 2011)
“We’re dying on the inside.” I’m tempted to leave this entry at that, since if you’ve ever heard the song before, reading that surely made the whole damn thing play in your head. That sickly, sweet refrain is the gateway to the rest of the track, which is pound-for-pound the catchiest and most concise embodiment of what Fucked Up is capable of when they’re at their best. The contrast of melody and aggression, the interplay between vocalists, the incisive lyrics — it’s all there, and all as good as it is anywhere in the band’s discography. Hardcore bands with swear words in their name don’t score “hits” in the traditional sense; that’s just not the musical ecosystem we live in. “The Other Shoe” makes that seem genuinely unjust.