One of the best moments I witnessed at this year’s Damaged City, the DIY punk festival in our nation’s capital, came when Wildhoney, a Baltimore shoegaze band, covered Sixpence None The Richer’s “Kiss Me.” There was no irony in that cover. There was only warm, nostalgic affection. And I didn’t see any irony in the way the crowd received the cover, either. People seemed surprised, and people seemed psyched. And then it was back to the mosh music.
In the mid-’90s, when I started going to punk shows, a moment like that never would’ve happened. But punk and hardcore are in a pretty amazing place in 2018. Thanks to Bandcamp, bands can get their music out to global audiences without interacting with any shitty corporations. Thanks to cheap gas prices, bands can more easily move around the world, playing basements and warehouses and noodle shops. The underground punk circuit has existed in this country for nearly 40 years, and I can’t remember ever it feeling quite so healthy.
It’s not just the underground network that’s healthy. It’s the music, too. Hardcore now draws on its own history, and on musical inspirations from across the map, to the point where it’s hard to delineate what is hardcore and what isn’t. A moment like that “Kiss Me” cover can happen at a festival like Damaged City. Nothing is off the table — even for a genre that, for so long, made big points about its own purity.
For a while, I planned to put Fucked Up’s spaced-out dance-rock odyssey Dose Your Dreams at #1 on this list, even though it’s not a hardcore album at all. I ended up deciding that it doesn’t quite fit the bill. (Amazing album, though.) I decided similar things about albums like Rolo Tomassi’s Time Will Die And Love Will Bury It, or Daughters’ You Won’t Get What You Want. But there are albums that I did include that won’t fit other people’s definitions of the genre. This is the first time I’ve tried making a list like this, so I’m still figuring it out. You will probably find yourself disagreeing more often than not.
Music is a subjective thing, and hardcore is an especially subjective thing, dependent on any one person’s own experiences with the music, on which records punched their way through their defenses at formative moments. Hardcore is a music without a center, and it doesn’t need consensus. These picks aren’t the right ones, and they could change depending on any number of factors. But I mostly wanted to illustrate one point here: Hardcore in 2018 is a music worth celebrating. Here are 10 reasons why. -Tom Breihan
10 Vein – Errorzone (Closed Casket Activities)
One of the first things we hear on this Boston band’s full-length debut is a skittering, rattling drum ‘n’ bass breakbeat — exactly the kind of retro-futuristic experimental touch that a late-’90s nu-metal band might’ve attempted. And as people have pointed out, there’s plenty of nu-metal in Vein’s scrabbling crunch and in the soul-stomped melodic vocals that they occasionally let in. But there’s also a ton of early Converge, which means Vein atomize every sound in their arsenal into a disorienting whirl of off-kilter noise, switching up time-signatures with feverish intensity. The result is frag-grenade mosh-music, a dangerous and unpredictable storm of blunt impacts and sharp edges.
9 Candy – Good To Feel (Triple B)
This Richmond band’s debut is the sound of violent, disgusted rejection. Candy draw on some of the rawest, nastiest source material that hardcore has to offer — early NYHC, Japanese burning spirits hardcore, Integrity — and they fricassee it all up into a ridiculously heavy seething blur. Candy sprint and lurch and hack and growl for 17 life-affirming minutes, and then it’s over, and your head is still spinning. The ugliness is beautiful. And when a tiny bit of melody does come in, on the queasily excellent final track “Bigger Than Yours,” even that sounds fucked and wrong.
8 Krimewatch – Krimewatch (Lockin’ Out)
These New Yorkers’ debut is so short — nine songs in 12 minutes — that it only qualifies as an “album” in the loosest possible definition. But those 12 minutes make an impression. Krimewatch play rudimentary fuck-you-up riffs with urgent force while singer Rhylli Ogiura sings so hard in both English and Japanese that it’s often hard to tell which is which. It’s a basic, elemental sound — Cro-Mags, but done with Ramones-style fast-bash purity. And in hardcore, simplicity can be a real virtue. Krimewatch don’t really fuck around with nuance, but neither does a cinderblock to the head.
7 Gouge Away – Burnt Sugar (Deathwish Inc.)
Their 2016 debut album, Dies, proved that these Fort Lauderdale hellions can do straight-ahead ripshit hardcore better than almost anyone. But with that in the books already, they moved onward and upward with their sophomore album. On Burnt Sugar, Gouge Away slow their attack down and fuzz it up. Taking inspiration from the seasick noise-rockers of the ‘90s and from band-name inspirations Pixies, they found room for churn and groan and, every once in a while, melody. Gouge Away can still drop the hammer with the best of them, but they’re adding new shades all the time, and Burnt Sugar is a vast and brave leap of an album.
6 War On Women – Capture The Flag (Bridge Nine)
“They don’t care if you live! They don’t care if you die! It’s only ever been about control!” That’s Shawna Potter, in full snarl mode, on the opening track of her Baltimore band’s triumphantly defiant sophomore album. War On Women play cleaner, hookier, more tangible music than any of the other bands on this list, and I almost wasn’t sure whether a genre tag like “hardcore” even fit them. But War On Women lace their virtuosic frenzy with an urgent righteousness worthy of any of the genre’s founders. There’s redemption in their fury, and that redemption is what hardcore, at its best, has always been about.
5 Closer – All This Will Be (Lauren Records/Conditions Records/Middle-Man Records)
On their debut album, this New York trio taps into everything that made late-’90s screamo sound so urgent and commanding and needed. Combining the hurtling rush of hardcore with the dynamic clangor of that period’s indie rock, Closer make emphatic, empathetic music — open-wound basement-rock that inflicts wounds of its own. Singer/drummer Ryann Slauson, an artist and a poet when they aren’t playing with this band, has a titanic feral yawp that sometimes boils down to a spoken-word simmer, which Slauson’s bandmates surround with a righteously seesawing cyclone. It’s dense, cathartic food-for-the-soul music, now as ever.
4 The Armed – Only Love (Throat Ruiner)
The noise never stops. All through the Detroit collective the Armed’s third album, there’s an unceasing, turbulent rumble, a sheer blast of sound that never lets up. To listen to it is to allow yourself to be knocked around from all sides. And yet within that maelstrom, there are melodies. There are hooks. There is beauty. Only Love works as a deconstruction of both noise and pop, and but also works as a hardcore album. Converge’s Kurt Ballou produced the album, and that band’s drummer Ben Koller adds his elephant-stampede drums. And yet the Armed sound nothing like Converge. Instead, it’s like discovering a hidden trove of triumphant ‘90s rock anthems buried beneath a mountain of jagged, treacherous boulders.
3 Drug Church – Cheer (Pure Noise Records)
It almost doesn’t make sense to talk about this Albany five-piece as a hardcore band. Frontman Patrick Kindlon is also in Self-Defense Family, and both of his bands push hardcore aesthetics into unpredictable, expressive melodic places. With Drug Church, he pushes especially hard on the grand, hooky ‘90s post-hardcore of bands like Seaweed, Quicksand, Jawbreaker, and Fugazi. It’s a grand, riffy sound, the kind of thing that could’ve gotten radio play in a different time. But Drug Church still play with the raw ferocity of their hardcore peers, grunting their hooks with intensity and determination. And with Cheer, they’ve made the kind of thing that can stick to your soul.
2 Turnstile – Time & Space (Roadrunner)
Years ago, when they were new to the DIY hardcore trenches, people were already making fun of these Baltimore knuckleheads for sounding like 311. Now that they’re recording for a big rock label and playing big rock festivals, with big rock production on their second full-length, you’d only expect that chatter to get worse. And sure, plenty of people still think Turnstile are corny. But what they’ve done on Time & Space is tough to deny. These are ‘90s alt-rock anthems, played in double time, with nods to soul and disco and easy listening and rap. But heard at the right volume, or at one of Turnstile’s room-wrecking live shows, those convulsive grooves become all-out fight music.
1 Jesus Piece – Only Self (Southern Lord)
This Philly wrecking crew opened its full-length debut by making the heaviest music that anyone made in 2018 — one solid LP side of brutalist knee-to-the-jaw stomp-crunch anthems. And then, on the second side, they did themselves one better by turning toward expressionist ambient doom and getting even heavier. In a year full of bands who found ways to push hardcore beyond its logical extremes, to find room for different genres and ideas and impulses, Jesus Piece won by finding two different ways to make you feel like there’s a steamroller wheel sitting directly on top of your face.