Grind. Skronk. Pigfuck. Seemingly every word associated with noise rock sounds incredibly unflattering out of context, and even in context doesn’t fare much better. Before noise rock had a name, rock critics such as Lester Bangs and Robert Christgau came up with their own suitably unpleasant ways of describing the tortured sounds of music oozing out of the American underground in the late ’70s and early ’80s. Out of the roots of hardcore and punk slithered something much nastier and much noisier. That vile beast is the sound we now know as noise rock.
It’s hard to pinpoint exactly when the term “noise rock” was coined. It’s not a buzzy catchphrase like “shoegaze” or “krautrock.” It’s simply two ideas smashed together — noise and rock, the marriage of conventional rock structures and melodies with the techniques of experimental noise music. It’s arguably an oversimplified, generic way to describe a style of music, but after decades of eardrum trauma, notoriety and musical stunts, “noise rock” speaks volumes.
While noise rock’s heyday was in the ’80s and early ’90s, exploding in activity and influence through independent labels such as Touch & Go and Amphetamine Reptile, its roots go back to the weirder sounds of the 1960s: primitive garage rock, provocateurs like Cromagnon and, most importantly, the Velvet Underground. The Velvets, founded by classically trained violist John Cale and professional songwriter Lou Reed, deconstructed rock music and cranked the distortion way up. Their 1968 album White Light/White Heat became a template for later noise rock experiments, even its most melodic moments blown out with fuzz or engineered to disturb, like the sprawling closing track “Sister Ray.” As Jon Spencer declared on the Blues Explosion’s 1994 song “Full Grown,” “My father was Sister Ray!”
Just as artists such as the Velvet Underground and the Stooges influenced what became punk rock, they played a similarly crucial role in helping to shape the mutants formed in punk’s wake: the primitive anti-music of Half Japanese, the brutal sludge of Flipper, the industrial grind of Big Black, and the heavy throbs of the Jesus Lizard. And then of course there was Sonic Youth, whose own catalog is a noise-rock essentials list of its own, and whose album Daydream Nation just turned 30. Noise rock’s sphere extended well beyond the shores of the United States and into Japan (the Boredoms, Melt-Banana), the UK (Mclusky), and Australia (the Birthday Party), but there’s something uniquely American about noise rock at the heart of it. Something this violent and rude could only come from the good ol’ US of A.
In his book Gimme Indie Rock: 500 Essential American Underground Albums, Andrew Earles says that “To outsiders, neophytes and non-fans, the noise-rock subgenre of post-hardcore/indie rock appeared to be a rather one-dimensional, testosterone-fueled boys’ club.” That, of course, isn’t true — which Earles acknowledges. By the nature of being a style of music embraced by outcasts and miscreants, rather than privileged insiders, noise rock has seen a wildly diverse parade of musicians over the years from all corners of the world. And it doesn’t hurt that making noise doesn’t require a major label budget. “It’s easy for anyone to strum open strings while turning a tuning peg or stick screwdrivers under the guitar’s bridge to find an interesting sound,” Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore told The Guardian in 2017. “You can be experimental without having money.”
This playlist of essentials focuses specifically on noise rock and not noise pop, its more approachable, shoegaze-adjacent sibling. And as such, readers won’t find indie darlings like Dinosaur Jr. or Yo La Tengo, proto-shoegazers like the Jesus And Mary Chain, or more mainstream-friendly, genre-fluid artists such as the Flaming Lips. What’s here is visceral, messy, and weird, presented in chronological order, and sticking to a one-song-per-artist rule (just because we can do Sonic Youth’s 30 best noise rock songs doesn’t mean we will).
Guard your ears, and possibly your ribcage, and enjoy.
The Velvet Underground – “Sister Ray” (1968)
The old saw about the Velvet Underground’s debut was that everyone who bought a copy started a band. It’s cliché for a reason — its influence extends well beyond sales figures. But its follow-up helped push rock music further toward its nastiest, most provocative instincts, drawing up a roadmap for how to make distortion and volume even more abrasive and uncomfortable. It’s telling that in Joy Division’s considerably shorter cover version on the singles and live tracks compilation Still, Ian Curtis ends their cover of “Sister Ray” by saying, “You should hear our version of ‘Louie, Louie.'” Just like that unintelligible, infamous FBI target, “Sister Ray” is rock ‘n’ roll at its most primitive, messy, and depraved.
The closing track on the Velvet Underground’s White Light/White Heat is loud, fun, and debauched, and it sounds utterly filthy. The same can be said for at least half of the songs on the album, though this is the only one that keeps on squeaking, skronking, and screeching for 17 minutes and change. Recorded in a single take while the band’s engineer hit record and then promptly left the studio, “Sister Ray” is heavy on improvisation, the sound of the gnarliest organ in New York colliding with scratchy major chords while Lou Reed narrates one increasingly fucked-up scene after another (“I’m searching for my mainline,” “She’s busy sucking on my ding-dong,” “He shoots him down dead on the floor”). If you don’t come away from the song feeling dirty, you’re probably not listening closely enough.
The Stooges – “L.A. Blues” (1970)
The Stooges spent much of their brief career provoking audiences and listeners, creating an outrageous spectacle that frequently ended violently. If beer bottles weren’t flying into their guitar necks — as can be heard on the infamous live document Metallic K.O. — then Iggy Pop would be using those bottles to slice up his own shirtless torso. Most of their second album, Fun House, captures that sense of danger and horror, though its closing track “L.A. Blues” is where the bottom drops out. A free-form psychedelic freak-out inspired more by the likes of free-jazz recordings like John Coltrane’s “Ascension” than early rock ‘n’ roll, “L.A. Blues” is a trip gone horribly wrong. In Robert Christgau’s initial review of Fun House, he questioned whether it was healthy to repeatedly subject himself to something so confrontational, and no point on the album sounds more damaged than “L.A. Blues.” It’s a violent primal scream, with additional bass groove.
The Residents – “Satisfaction” (1976)
More than simply noise in the sense of feedback or dissonance, the Residents’ entire existence was noise. The Bay Area-based performance-art troupe and avant-rock group created an entire identity based around upsetting standards and norms, performing something that sounded vaguely like pop music while hiding their faces behind giant eyeball helmets. Their take on the Rolling Stones’ “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” is a microcosm of their deconstructivist tendencies, changing the key, lyrics, chords, fidelity, and basically every element of the song until it sounds like a rock hit dredged through a river of toxic waste — the rock canon, disassembled and then put back together by surrealists.
Half Japanese – “No Direct Line From My Brain To My Heart” (1980)
Half Japanese’s Jad Fair said in documentary The Band That Would Be King that all you really need to play guitar is a cord to plug it in. He puts that idea into practice perfectly in “No Direct Line From My Brain To My Heart,” the leadoff track from the band’s sprawling triple album Half-Gentlemen/Not Beasts. A primitive, anti-rock expression that seems to stand outside the basic tenets of music itself, “No Direct Line” is two minutes of scratching, barking, lo-fi, tuneless hiss and scrape with no discernible melody to speak of. Compared to, say, the Shaggs, it feels more primal and punk rock, but it’s the kind of music that’s simply too odd and abrasive to actually be written. In the case of Fair, it simply comes out of him.
Glenn Branca – “Lesson No. 2″ (1981)
No-wave, on some level, is synonymous with noise rock. Not the heavier, beefier, Amphetamine Reptile-style of knuckle-bleeding pigfuck, but a more primitive, post-punk permutation of it. Avant-garde composer Glenn Branca took the idea of no-wave — a movement based in part on the rejection of the commercial norms of popular music — and built it up into something bigger and eventually more “orchestral,” his performances often featuring a vast ensemble of players performing in odd tunings (including some of the artists featured on this list). “Lesson No. 2″ is a compact, miniature idea of Branca’s compositional style, as well as one with a compelling groove at the center of it. The ascending bassline pound might even pass for Gang Of Four for a brief moment, just before the eerie, oozing, wobbly guitars begin to cloud the space in a wave of dissonance and disorientation.
Massacre – “Killing Time” (1981)
Bill Laswell, Fred Frith, and Charles Hayward all came from disparate musical worlds in the early ’80s, Frith a veteran of rock-in-opposition iconoclasts Henry Cow, Hayward a member of post-punk group This Heat, and Laswell with various fingers in jazz, no-wave, and funk pies. It’s not an exaggeration to say Massacre was the result of seeing what happened when their different musical tendencies were each explored simultaneously. “Killing Time,” the title track from their debut album, is at once mutant funk, Beefheart-ian skronk blues, and guitar exorcism. It twitches and jangles and writhes infectiously, deriving accessibility from a persistent momentum rather than melody — of which there’s not that much here. Frith’s UFO-signal string scratches are a weirdly fun and animated sonic delight, an exercise in bonkers cartoon improv that never abandons the groove.
The Birthday Party – “Big Jesus Trash Can” (1982)
It makes perfect sense that noise rock’s roots are largely American. The United States is a noisy country — it’s chaotic and violent, rude and seemingly always at war. And yet pop culture is one of its biggest exports, which appealed to Australian post-punks the Birthday Party. Newly relocated to London in the early ’80s, Nick Cave and company grew disappointed with the lackluster sounds of the UK scene at the time, instead taking inspiration from lowbrow Americana, creating a trash-culture caricature of a “Big Jesus oil king down in Texas” with this brutal vamp. Cave screams like a man possessed, Rowland S. Howard dials in a guitar tone that’s something like a file scraping against sheet metal, and the sickliest saxophone in the world cuts through the punk-blues spar session like a tainted syringe through a blow-up doll. It’s wretched and raucous, just like America.
Flipper – “Sex Bomb” (1982)
It might be called “Sex Bomb,” but there’s nothing particularly sexy about it. San Francisco’s Flipper made music that sounded like the opposite of what most would consider sexy. And for that matter, it didn’t even sound like what most of us would associate with punk — where loud and fast once ruled, Flipper played slow and sludgy. Black Flag would do likewise in just a couple years, but in 1982 there was little that sounded like Flipper, and even less that sounded like “Sex Bomb,” a drunken mess of a punk song that took the template of early garage rock from the ’60s and stretched it out over seven minutes, simplified the lyrics (“She’s my sex bomb baby! Yeah!” are the only words in the song) and blasted lots of gnarly sax all over it. It feels nihilistic — the same thing over and over again, gradually becoming messier and messier, with no narrative or point to speak of. And yet, what looks on paper like the most annoying song on the planet ends up sounding infectious beyond the sum of its parts. That’s probably because, for all of its idiosyncrasies and obnoxiousness, “Sex Bomb” simply sounds like the band is having way too much fun.
Scratch Acid – “Mess” (1984)
Scratch Acid: A band couldn’t have possibly come up with a more fitting name for the kind of sandpaper-and-sludge mixture that this Austin foursome stirred up. Something like the Birthday Party with a proper American pedigree or the Cramps after diving into a pile of garbage, Scratch Acid turned out a couple of records’ worth of fucked-up punk blues in the mid-’80s, undercutting accessible melodies with bilious vocal performances and trebly guitar shrieks. “Mess” is heavy on both, a twisted rhumba guided by David Yow (later of the Jesus Lizard) at his most disgusting and disgusted, punctuating each chorus with the sounds of coughing, vomiting, and all manner of unpleasantness. It’s a rare talent.
Swans – “A Screw (Holy Money)” (1986)
Listeners who have discovered Swans through their second act were treated to a vastly different band than the one that carved out their niche in the ’80s. Aside from Michael Gira, the sole permanent member of Swans, there was literally a completely different lineup of people behind their sprawling post-rock soundscapes. But this latest version of Swans also has moved away from the direct application of sledgehammer rhythms and assembly-line abrasion of their earlier, industrial-noise creations. By the mid ’80s, Gira and company refined their sound somewhat, having reshaped the no-wave noise of their first two LPs into the kind of grinding filth that might actually compel someone to dance — maybe not the average person, but someone. “A Screw (Holy Money),” in both its album version and remixed 12″ version, put that idea to the test, Gira’s menacing mutter largely overshadowed by the tuneless drone and thumping percussion. It’s Branca disco, a hit single for and from people that don’t acknowledge such things.
Big Black – “Bad Penny” (1987)
Big Black had noise-rock down to a science. The band essentially had no midrange. Bassist Dave Riley held down the low-end, while Steve Albini and Santiago Durango opted for extreme treble, which was made all the more piercing thanks to a penchant for playing with metal picks. With the industrial thump of drum machine “Roland” keeping rhythm, and a habit of setting off firecrackers on stage before playing, Big Black essentially created misanthropy you could sing along to. “Bad Penny” isn’t just an example of that, but a celebration of it, Albini’s narrator depicting himself as the worst kind of person to have in your life: “Think I fucked your girlfriend once…then I fucked all your friends’ girlfriends/ Now they hate you.” It’s a mean, nasty son of a bitch, and it’s also one of the best examples of how well their sonic assault could translate into a great rock song.
Butthole Surfers – “Graveyard” (1987)
The familiar refrain of “Keep Austin Weird” is a bit misleading in 2018. The Austin of today is nowhere near as weird as Austin in the ’80s. That has a lot to do with the Butthole Surfers, whose bizarre, druggy sound reached peak nightmare on 1987’s Locust Abortion Technician, an acid-fried mixtape of punk rock, tape experiments, mangled Black Sabbath pastiche, and horrific found audio. “Graveyard” is one of its closest things to a proper song, which is to say it’s still pretty messed up. It’s full of tortured, out-of-tune guitar riffs, Gibby Haynes’ distorted vocal croaks pitched down an octave or two, and an increasing sense that something is just not right. It’s unpleasant and deeply upsetting, like something you’d hear right before getting stabbed. And to prove how twisted the band truly is, the Butthole Surfers include another version of it eight tracks later. Not that musician-dispensing giant Doritos vending machines at SXSW aren’t weird, but still nowhere near the level of the Buttholes’ off-putting antagonism.
Sonic Youth – “Silver Rocket” (1988)
No artist did more for noise rock’s reputation — or for that matter noise’s reputation — than Sonic Youth. They brought it to a wider audience, made a handful of hit alt-rock singles out of it, crashed grunge as it was happening, and became a beloved institution, despite the fact that the bulk of their catalog features some pretty weird stuff. Throughout the ’80s, Thurston Moore and Lee Ranaldo amassed an arsenal of cheap guitars that they modified and through which they employed bizarre tunings as well as techniques like playing the strings with drum sticks. Their noise wasn’t just unique — no other band could replicate it.
Their 1988 album Daydream Nation has long been regarded as their biggest breakthrough, a double-album-length exploration of noise and melody in equal measure that made a college radio anthem out of “Teen Age Riot.” But “Silver Rocket” is a better example of why Sonic Youth are noise-rock royalty. With its driving rhythms, opening arpeggios, and Moore’s catchy chorus sneers, it sounds initially like punk rock. Then at 1:32, the bottom drops out — the structure collapses, the melody disintegrates, and what’s left is the sound of music itself melting into a flaming wreck. It’s pure, expressive chaos — and a little over a minute later, with precision and elegance, Steve Shelley’s rollicking beats bring the band right back into the punk anthem they started off with. It’s a glorious marriage of disruption and accessibility: the band — and by extension noise rock itself — at its absolute best.
Royal Trux – “Solid Gold Tooth” (1990)
Chicago’s Royal Trux have found their music in major motion pictures, their song “The Inside Game” used as the song on the demo tape by teenage delinquents the Kinky Wizards in High Fidelity. And in the mid-’90s, they released two albums through a million-dollar contract with major label Virgin Records, including the amazing but remarkably uncommercial Sweet Sixteen. The band’s Jennifer Herrema even appeared in Calvin Klein ads in the ’90s. Absolutely none of this information squares with the what-in-the-actual-fuck sound-collage chaos of their 1990 album Twin Infinitives. An album of such distorted fidelity, rife with bizarre noises, indecipherable rhythms, and a persistent sense of vertigo, Twin Infinitives is arguably a collection of rock songs, though where they begin and end is up for debate — Drag City even initially released it on vinyl and cassette only, as if to completely remove the possibility of starting from any specific track. “Solid Gold Tooth” is where it actually starts, a track that’s arguably structured like a song but mixed to sound like a cacophony of lo-fi sounds all fighting to be the loudest, from Casio laser noises to Herrema and Neil Hagerty’s own overlapping vocal yelps. Royal Trux never again made anything that sounded like this, or the rest of Twin Infinitives, making this by far the most difficult entry point in their catalog, but arguably its most impressive piece of aural performance art.
Helmet – “Sinatra” (1990)
Much like Royal Trux, Helmet signed a million-dollar major label contract in the ’90s. But unlike Royal Trux, they actually made something marketable, if briefly; their 1992 album Meantime went gold, while “Unsung” became an alt-rock staple. The Helmet of debut album Strap It On is a bit less polished, however, their rough-hewn post-hardcore more aligned with their Amphetamine Reptile labelmates Cows and Halo Of Flies. While that album had its share of earworm moments (“Make Room,” “Blacktop”), its centerpiece is the odd, avant garde “Sinatra.” Moving away from the groove-metal sound that comprises most of the album, the band taps into a feedback-laden atmosphere more aligned with frontman Page Hamilton’s past work in Band Of Susans as well as his time spent wrenching beautiful dissonance as part of Glenn Branca’s guitar orchestra. Henry Bogdan’s bassline is a sinister backbone for the song beneath Hamilton’s haunting layers of guitars and sneer of “It’s Sinatra’s world, she just lives here.” It’s the least directly pummeling track on Strap It On, but easily the most ominous.
The Jesus Lizard – “Monkey Trick” (1991)
The centerpiece of Chicago band the Jesus Lizard’s second album, Goat, is a masterclass in noise-rock majesty. It’s not a conventionally catchy or pretty song, necessarily, but by the standards of feedback-loving ’90s Marshall stack wreckers, it’s a goddamn symphony. The rhythm section of Mac McNeilly and David Sims creates a raw, pummeling, and ominous backdrop for what’s ultimately a showcase for both vocalist David Yow (formerly of Scratch Acid) and guitarist Duane Denison at their best. Denison shows his share of restraint in the song, playing a melancholy arpeggio riff that stands out among the band’s most melodic moments. That sense of relative calm is pierced with a blood-curdling scream around 1:08, and it’s right here that the song proves to be more than it initially appears, a blend of beauty and horror, menace and mastery, climaxing with some of the most intense yet strangely beautiful sounds Denison ever wrung from his guitar. Much has been made of how wild the Jesus Lizard’s live shows were, which isn’t wrong. But “Monkey Trick,” which even Yow said was the band’s best song, is proof of how much artistry went into those drunken, pants-dropping orgies of chaos.
Cows – “Heave Ho” (1992)
Cows descended from the same Twin Cities punk scene that yielded underground legends such as Hüsker Dü and the Replacements. And while the latter set the standard for both indie rock anthems and audience-baiting self-sabotage, Cows made reckless and raucous sounds their focal point. “Heave Ho,” a fairly straightforward two-chord punk rocker from their charmingly titled Cunning Stunts doesn’t reinvent punk so much as make it more obnoxious, with vocalist Shannon Selberg trading off between barking verses and an increasingly grating one-note trumpet riff that makes the scratch-heavy guitars sound polished by comparison. It’s a fun song regardless of the band’s agenda to annoy, and proof that even a band with a yen for chaos could write a catchy anthem.
Unsane – “Body Bomb” (1994)
New York trio Unsane have a discography full of blood-spattered album covers designed to trigger gag reflexes, which is a fair warning to all who dare venture into their unforgiving din. On the suitably titled “Body Bomb,” Unsane present their M.O. pretty clearly: simple, even bluesy riffs and basslines performed through several layers of distortion, and vocalist Chris Spencer wailing through a C.B.-quality mic like his fingernails are being ripped off. (Which, admittedly, would suit their vehicular-homicide-and-bathtub-full-of-blood aesthetic.) Their songs are melodic, and even carry a good groove at the heart of it all, but they certainly don’t make it easy. Music this brutal takes a certain level of desensitization, or at least a good pair of earplugs.
Melt Banana – “It’s In The PillcaSe” (1995)
Ichirou Agata’s guitars don’t really sound like guitars. Dentist drills, rayguns, belt sanders? Sure. But guitars? Rarely. In the early days, I’m not convinced they were even played in an actual key. Even on the band’s more stripped-down recordings, there are few moments in which he plays a basic chord. There are couple of those on “It’s In The PillcaSe,” one of the most direct, urgent blasts of noisecore on the band’s 1995 album Scratch Or Stitch, but they’re fleeting, mostly overwhelmed by high-pitched tremolo-picked riffs, pickslides, and high-on-the-neck fretwork. Vocalist Yasuko Oniki holds her own, however, her vocals a fast-moving staccato chant more than actual singing and a piercing counterpoint to the guitars. Taken at face value this might not be too far removed from vintage Napalm Death — whose debut was only released seven years before this track — though Melt-Banana’s interpretation is much weirder and more alien.
US Maple – “Letter To ZZ Top” (1995)
There’s something almost ironic about Chicago’s US Maple invoking the name of one of Texas’ great rock ‘n’ roll bands. If they resembled any rock icon, it was Captain Beefheart (through a Daydream Nation filter) and all of the dadaist blues-jam sensibilities of His Magic Band. On “Letter To ZZ Top,” one of the relatively approachable songs in their catalog (which gets quite a bit weirder), the band stretches their guitar strings like taffy over a steady stream of fuzz and punchy rhythms. It’s in the deciphering of lyrics like “give my bones to Billy Gibbons” where US Maple’s twisted perspective falls into a certain sort of logic. This is irreverent music; its referentiality should skew no different.
Brainiac – “I Am A Cracked Machine” (1996)
Ohio’s Brainiac were a weird bunch, even by the standards of the Buckeye State, home to both Devo and Pere Ubu. Rare was the song in their repertoire that didn’t employ synthesizers gone haywire, freakish vocal effects, or peculiar space noises. “I Am A Cracked Machine,” the closing track from their third and best album, Hissing Prigs In Static Couture, is the heaviest track they ever recorded, bolstering their Moog-driven blips with a dose of hardcore muscle. Yet the most unsettling element of all is frontman Timmy Taylor’s own vocals, filtered through a menacing robot-voice effect to give the effect of some Asimov sci-fi yarn gone horribly wrong. Sadly, after the release of this album — and just before the band were set to sign with Interscope — Taylor died in a car accident, the band dissolving thereafter. Yet the brief legacy he leaves behind is one of the most bizarre sounding in indie rock.
Oxbow – “The Last Good Time” (1997)
About three and a half minutes into “The Last Good Time,” Oxbow vocalist Eugene S. Robinson seems to screech “What the fuck?!” That’s a natural reaction to some of the band’s material — they built their reputation on being one of the most peculiar and avant-garde bands in noise rock, incorporating elements of jazz, blues, and contemporary classical composition among their terrifying dirges. But they’re also a highly entertaining band at that — their live shows involve incense-lighting rituals and amateur MMA fighter Robinson’s gradual removal of clothing. Their Steve Albini-recorded album Serenade In Red is a conceptual punk-blues noir album that even features a spoken-word guest appearance from Marianne Faithfull. “The Last Good Time,” however, is the band at their most giddily manic, a wild, blazing, slide-driven ride of a track that sounds like it’s going to come off the rails at any moment.
Today Is The Day – “Kill Yourself” (1997)
Today Is the Day — a band that comprises Nashville-based musician Steve Austin and whoever happens to back him at the time (including members of Mastodon at one point) — have long bridged the gap between metal and the rusty lead-pipe subtlety of Amphetamine Reptile-style noise rock, and in fact have released records through both AmRep and Relapse. Naturally, their sound always felt considerably heavier than the former, but much too weird to fit in with the latter. “Kill Yourself,” a standout among the many tracks on the band’s peak, Temple Of The Morning Star, is rife with ugliness and misanthropy, as well as Austin’s penchant for prog-influenced Fripp-ery and effects-pedal pranksterism. The sound is wild and slightly disorienting but ahead of its time, the sounds showcased here predicting similarly intense experiments from the likes of Botch and Daughters.
Boredoms – “Super Are” (1998)
For evidence of just how strange the ’90s were, look no further than the Boredoms’ short-lived tenure on major label Reprise. Not that Royal Trux and Butthole Surfers weren’t similarly baffling as commercial prospects, but at least the latter had “Pepper.” Japan’s Boredoms never had anything close to a radio-friendly song, instead preferring a constantly rotating carousel of absurdity. Yet their best moment still arrived well after that flirtation with commercialism. Their Super æ album redefined Boredoms as a heavier, more psychedelic and powerful group, balancing noise with motorik rhythms, space-rock freak-outs, minimalist pulses, and a more spiritual center of gravity. “Super Are” smashes together their meditative side with their more chaotic side, two complementary halves that add up to a climactic and glorious whole. The band draws out a hushed drone, but the payoff is four minutes of percussion-heavy pounding, guitar squeal, and an unlikely infectiousness.
Mclusky – “To Hell With Good Intentions” (2002)
Welsh trio Mclusky were probably best known for their maxed-out snark factor, having released a debut album titled My Pain And Sadness Is More Sad And Painful Than Yours and ending their catchiest song by singing “Our old singer is a sex criminal” in a round. “To Hell With Good Intentions,” the lead single from their flawless Mclusky Do Dallas, is no exception, turning a well-worn aphorism into a misanthropic punchline and delivering lines like “My love is bigger than your love/ We do more drugs than a touring funk band.” But even vocalist Andy Falkous’ sardonic humor doesn’t overshadow the sheer muscle of the song, anchored by a bassline that croaks and belches more than grooves. And eventually that belch rises up into an imposing, menacing roar, Falkous screaming above the din, “We’re all going straight to hell!” SING IT!
Lightning Bolt – “2 Towers” (2003)
Descended from a line of avant-garde composition that extends from minimalists such as Terry Riley on down through the psych-noise freakouts of Boredoms, Lightning Bolt’s music isn’t just overwhelming and intense, but proficient and impeccably executed. That’s maybe not apparent from the first listen to any track on their best album, 2003’s Wonderful Rainbow. But keep this in mind: All of that sound is coming from just two guys — bassist Brian Gibson and drummer Brian Chippendale. On “2 Towers,” the Rhode Island duo crafts an awe-inspiring epic that thrives on both repetition and heavy doses of fuzz. At first it’s disorienting. Then it’s hypnotic. Then it’s playful. In the end, however, it’s triumphant, pummeling and throbbing its way into an expression of pure joy.
The Locust – “Listen, The Mighty Ear Is Here” (2003)
A friend once introduced me to the Locust’s music by commenting, “I’m pretty sure you’re supposed to feel violated.” That sentiment carries over to thei band’s intense, chaotic live shows, the San Diego noisecore icons draped in strange outfits with bug-eye masks. It’s damn entertaining though, and the same can be said for their minute-long bursts of obnoxious energy, like “Listen, The Mighty Ear Is Here,” from their Anti- Records debut Plague Soundscapes, which is all too perfect a warning as far as album titles go. Constantly chasing an ever-changing time signature, it’s a frantic sprint that reconstructs the tropes of hardcore into a mutated, virulent form. When the band finds a hook, even if for a second, the Locust offer the suggestion that they could stretch “Listen” into something more accessible or anthemic, but it’s fleeting. Every false sense of security gives way to more shrieking, more scraping, more breakneck rhythmic fuckery. Violation confirmed.
Deerhoof – “Milk Man” (2004)
There’s a sweetness to Deerhoof’s music that sometimes makes their manic bursts of distortion and volume feel like a left-field surprise, no matter how often they’ve gone there before. By the time the San Francisco band had released 2004’s Milk Man, they had developed a solid reputation of playful indie rock undercut with twisted outbursts, only they were getting even stronger at the melodic half of the equation. This psychedelic lullaby doesn’t initially seem so confrontational or caustic, which is part of what makes it so interesting — when guitarist John Dieterich commences launch sequence with his distortion thrusters, they’re already woven into the melody. It’s a series of exclamation marks on an otherwise serene and intricate piece of indie pop, the sublime and the absurd intertwined in perfect harmony.
HEALTH – “Die Slow” (2009)
HEALTH have released no fewer than three remix albums titled DISCO, a fact that now makes their self-titled, Boredoms-inspired debut album the truly anomalous one. Yet HEALTH, a band capable of using sound as a weapon even at their most dancefloor-oriented, came up in the same D.I.Y. underground punk scene as bands like punk duo No Age. So when they released a bona fide industrial disco anthem in “Die Slow,” it signaled a significant shift. With synths sharpened like shards of glass and a relentless, compulsive thump, “Die Slow” doesn’t ease up on HEALTH’s most abrasive elements, they’re just reorganized into a more listener-friendly structure. It turns out that the band had a lot more than just the one fucked-up party jam up their sleeve, though this cybernetic mutant remains their best to date.
Metz – “Rats” (2012)
Feedback, distortion, volume, and speed somehow never manage to lose their appeal. Even decades after the bands that influenced Metz laid down the template — quite a few of which can be seen above on this list — the Toronto trio still manages to funnel those influences down into a furious, string-bending one-chord wonder. Everything about “Rats” is simplified and streamlined; Metz distill the essence of noise rock down to a direct, potent form. But they make up for that simplicity by washing it through a few extra layers of distortion, so while “Rats” on its own would have been plenty heavy, the finished product is all the more acidic. It’s model noise rock for the ’10s: compact, potent and efficient.
We compiled all of the available songs on this playlist on Spotify. Listen here.