2019 In Review

The 10 Best Hardcore Albums Of 2019

There have been long stretches this past year when I didn’t want to listen to anything other than hardcore — where music didn’t sound right unless it had volcanic mosh parts and I-just-ate-bad-curry-and-I’m-angry-about-it vocals. I could attempt to be cute and blame my hardcore fixation on the perilous state of the world or whatever. But it’s not that. It’s just that I started paying better attention to what was already happening.

Hardcore doesn’t make it easy for you. A lot of the best bands don’t have publicists. Live shows matter at least as much as records. There are scores of scenes and sub-scenes under the hardcore umbrella, and plenty of them have stringent disagreements about what even constitutes hardcore. There’s plenty of bullshit jockish metalcore out there, and plenty of virtually-unlistenable feral punk. (I like both of those things sometimes.) The music has its own ecosystem, and that ecosystem only rarely intersects with the indie rock ecosystem that’s historically been Stereogum’s bread and butter.

Personally, I didn’t really grow up with hardcore. Baltimore, where I grew up, was mostly a crust-punk town in the ’90s, and the Champion-hoodie youth-crew hardcore of the era didn’t really make a dent there. I’d read about that stuff in zines, and it seemed so weird. I never even saw anyone windmill in the pit until I went to college in Syracuse, where there was a whole lot of windmilling. Today, of course, Baltimore is a hardcore hotbed. Turnstile and Trapped Under Ice, arguably the two most important bands within the genre in the past decade, both come from there. Things change.

Last year, I made my first list of the year’s best hardcore albums, and I’d already change a whole lot of things about it. (Vein’s Errorzone should’ve been way higher.) This year, the list was harder to make, since I heard more great records. I thought about expanding this year’s list to take in punk and hardcore, so that I’d have room for things like Control Top and PUP and even the new Dark Thoughts. But then I’d have to get into goofy questions about, like, whether Rico Nasty qualifies as punk. And anyway, I’m just not as into sticky singsong pop-punk, and a lot of the records on the list are just as much punk as they are hardcore.

There was also the matter of EPs. A lot of great hardcore bands never even release albums, and short little bursts are more important in hardcore than they are in virtually any other genre. Most hardcore albums are already short; within this genre, the difference between an album and an EP can be, like, one song, or two minutes. It seems absurd to make a list of the year’s best hardcore records without acknowledging EPs like the ones from bands like Inclination, One Step Closer, Witchtrial, Tørsö, Vamachara, Portrayal Of Guilt, Dominant Force, or Vantage Point. The album/EP barrier is pretty arbitrary, but we’re sticking with albums for this thing.

This year, I’ve been diving in: Subscribing to a ton of Bandcamp feeds, filling in the historical gaps in my knowledge, getting out to shows when I can. Next year, I want to dive in deeper. The list below is entirely personal, based on the records I’ve been into. (There’s a whole lot of great stuff that’s not on there, either. Bands like SeeYouSpaceCowboy, Ithaca, Soul Glo, and Wild Side are doing very cool things with the genre; if you like what’s here, you should check them out, too.) Hardcore is an oddly personal thing. You will not agree with my list. You may not agree that all of the albums on my list even make sense as hardcore.

The main point here, just as it was last year, is to show that hardcore is in an amazing place right now, and that there are a whole lot of great records out there. You’ll find 10 of them below.

10  Dead Heat – Certain Death (Edgewood)

Right now, a whole lot of bands from the hardcore world have been taking inspiration from the sound of ’80s thrash crossover, the moment where speed metal and hardcore merged and became their own rabid beast. Present-day thrash kings Power Trip didn’t release a new album in 2019, but plenty of other bands did very cool things with that style: Enforced, Take Offense, Drain. Red Death’s new one Sickness Divine, which rules, is such an ’80s metal album that it almost isn’t even hardcore anymore. But my favorite take on the sound came from Oxnard, California’s Dead Heat. Their version of thrash has feverish aggression and knucklehead simplicity working for it. But Dead Heat are self-aware enough to attempt goofy Anthrax-style pseudo-rapping and to throw a rioting hesher skeleton on their album cover.
HEAR IT: Spotify | Apple Music | Bandcamp

Never Ending Game – Just Another Day (Triple B)

Sometimes, just listening to an album can be a physical experience. The debut from Detroit’s Never Ending Game is like that. Just Another Day is about as raw and simplistic and hard as hardcore gets. We could sit here and talk about the influences, mostly classic New York fight-starter bands like the Cro-Mags and Madball, or about how members of the band come from veteran Michigan groups like Free. But that’s not really interesting. What’s interesting about Just Another Day, what sets the album apart, is that it’s total fucking war music. It’s music for choking out whales, or for headbutting holes in brick walls. Never Ending Game’s sound is a knuckle-dragging groove-stomp that, when it hits right, makes you feel totally invulnerable. I haven’t seen NEG live yet, but I have to imagine that when I do, I am going to witness some people getting hurt.
HEAR IT: Spotify | Apple Music | Bandcamp

State Faults – Clairvoyant (No Sleep)

Look: I love screamo. Thanks to the Bring Me The Horizons of the world, the genre name is a dirty word in plenty of circles. But for the past 20 years, sensitive young men and women have been wrapping microphone chords around their arms and flinging themselves at basement floors to howl about their own internal battles. When it’s done right, that sound has lost none of its power. State Faults do that sound right. The Santa Rosa, California trio recorded Clairvoyant after coming off of a four-year hiatus, and there’s a rough, scrawled urgency to their ringing, jagged pain-whirlwind. The band plays screamo the same way that Deafheaven — another band that’s worked with Clairvoyant producer Jack Shirley — play black metal. State Faults build on post-rock and shoegaze influences, conjuring grand and glittering crescendos before hurtling back into the noise-maelstrom. Sometimes, it’s enough to punch you in the chest.
HEAR IT: Spotify | Apple Music | Bandcamp

Knocked Loose – A Different Shade Of Blue (Pure Noise)

Metalcore is back, baby! Knocked Loose are the latest band to follow the Code Orange/Turnstile path, leaping headlong out of the DIY scene and onto the radar of people who have never paid any attention to hardcore. They’re already getting themselves booked at the kinds of festivals that Metallica and Slipknot headline. These fresh-faced Kentucky kids pulled this feat off with a sophomore album that sounds huge — the bass tone is just disgusting — without letting up on the frenetic, off-kilter intensity that brought them to the dance in the first place. Bryan Garris howls his accusations with larger-than-life wounded passion, and the glorious crunch of the band’s breakdowns is a deeply satisfying thing. Close your eyes, and you can just see the whole floor erupt.
HEAR IT: Spotify | Apple Music | Bandcamp

Fury – Failed Entertainment (Run For Cover)

2016’s Paramount, the debut album from Orange County’s Fury, was a fasty, riotous, passionate blast. Fury were playing old-school loud-fast hardcore punk, but they were doing it with a level of ferocity that stood out in a crowded scene anyway. On their sophomore album, they slow their sound down and sludge it up, drawing as much on early-’90s post-hardcore noisemakers like Quicksand and Unsane as they do on the ’80s hardcore bands that prefigured them. Failed Entertainment keeps the drama and rigor of old Fury, but it adds a sense of fuzzed-out messiness that gives them a bleary danger. Instead of mosh-part breakdowns and gang-chant choruses, we get ugly-scrawl jet-engine riffs. It’s a cool sound, one we don’t hear much anymore, and Fury are sharp enough to nail it.
HEAR IT: Spotify | Apple Music | Bandcamp

Division Of Mind – Division Of Mind (Triple B)

Division Of Mind are scary. The Richmond beatdown band have a supremely ugly and colossal sound, a metallic stomp that sometimes speeds up in to a rapid blur and sometimes slows down into unrelenting face-stomp riffage. The vocals are inhumanly angry, and the guitars sound like they’re coated in a thick layer of garbage-slime. Their self-titled debut is full of murky, mysterious news-broadcast samples and industrial clanks. It’s brutal, disgusting music, like late-’90s Integrity playing in a cemetery in the middle of a winter night. The album is best heard extremely loud, possibly in a damp and dark warehouse space. It sounds like the world ending. I love it.
HEAR IT: Spotify | Apple Music | Bandcamp

Angel Du$t – Pretty Buff (Roadrunner)

You could make a strong argument that Pretty Buff does not belong on this list — not because the album isn’t great but because it’s not hardcore. All of the members of Angel Du$t come from the extended hardcore universe. Frontman Justice Tripp used to lead transcendent Baltimore bruisers Trapped Under Ice, and most of the members of the band come from TUI or Turnstile or both. But Angel Du$t’s sound is fast, breezy, catchy guitar-pop. They jangle like prime Lemonheads, and they riff like ’90s-vintage Foo Fighters. Still, the rhythm section keeps doing hardcore-specific things, and the song structures haven’t really changed; ’90s alt-rock, by and large, did not have mosh-part breakdowns. Pretty Buff is simply a supremely fun and catchy record, a melodic head-rush that never lets up. Hardcore can be a lot of different things. Maybe it can even have acoustic guitars and bongos and sha-la-la harmonies.
HEAR IT: Spotify | Apple Music

Judiciary – Surface Noise (Closed Casket Activities)

It takes a particular gift to take familiar sounds and to play those sounds as if your entire earthly existence depended on it. Judiciary come from Lubbock, Texas, and they play metallic hardcore. Hardcore bands have been kicking around metal influences for decades, and Judiciary don’t offer some previously unheard take on the fusion. But Judiciary play with an all-consuming passion and urgency and ferocity, and they sound enormous. Every sound on Surface Noise, their full-length debut, can crush your bones to dust. Even the album’s quietest moments — usually just a few seconds of ringing guitars before some even-more-brutal new riff kicks in — feel violent. When Judiciary play fast, they sound mean. When they play slow, they sound meaner. Surface Noise is a half-hour trip into the abyss, a cleansing bath in deep rage. I need that sometimes. You might need it, too.
HEAR IT: Spotify | Apple Music | Bandcamp

Abuse Of Power – What On Earth Can We Do? (Triple B)

Earlier this week, frontman Kaleb Purdue announced the impending breakup of his Atlanta melodic hardcore band Abuse Of Power. That sucks. Abuse Of Power showed enormous promise, but they were only around for long enough to release one album. Fortunately, that one album is pretty close to perfect. What On Earth Can We Do is the sound of a young band internalizing all their influences, blurring them together, and using those influences to unburden themselves of whatever’s been weighing them down. They play hardcore with a rare sense of lightness and grace. Even at their heaviest, they bounce. The rhythm section is among the best going; the bass just moves. Purdue barks with the fervent intensity of a true believer. It would be great to hear how future Abuse Of Power records might sound. But then, they absolutely nailed it on the first time out.
HEAR IT: Spotify | Apple Music | Bandcamp

Amygdala – Our Voices Will Soar Forever (Prosthetic)

I have a hard time imagining a punk band more ideal for this moment in history than Amygdala. Musically, the San Antonio crew is versatile and ambitious. They’re a screamo band, sort of, but their music also carries echoes of crust and doom and black metal and nerve-tingling post-rock. They never sound anything less than grand. Frontwoman Bianca Quiñones has a scream like a burning house outlined against a night sky. She has her reasons for screaming. Amygdala write songs about big things: Racism, immigration, homophobia, abortion, abuse, rape. Quiñones delivers those songs from a place of righteous and wounded indignation. For many of us, the constant news hellscape of 2019 has been numbing and overwhelming. But Quiñones and her bandmates don’t have the luxury of being numb or overwhelmed. And they push back with enough fire to remind you that you probably don’t have that luxury, either.
HEAR IT: Spotify | Apple Music | Bandcamp

Listen to a playlist of key tracks from each album on Spotify.