The 10 Best Hardcore Albums Of 2020
I had a new year’s resolution for 2020. For too long, I’d just been checking in on hardcore from the sidelines, subscribing to a bunch of Bandcamp feeds and going to the occasional house show. In 2020, I was gong to stop fucking around and dive all the way in. Richmond, one of the genre’s capitals, is just an hour from me, and every halfway-important band in hardcore stops through there. I was going to get over my laziness and my hesitance to DM strangers for directions to the shows. To make sure I would follow through on this, I was going to start up a monthly hardcore column.
For a couple of months, it worked great. I saw Integrity in a warehouse. I saw Restraining Order in a living room. I saw Nosebleed in a basement. Those shows were fun and physical and exciting. Being there made me feel like I was in a community, something that I haven’t felt at most other shows in recent years. I took a headbutt to the eye, a pair of glasses got bent up into some weird shape, and someone asked me what being 40 is like, and I was happy about all of this. Then the pandemic hit, the shows stopped, and my new year’s resolution was fucked.
More than virtually every other genre of music, hardcore depends on the live experience. Part of it is that the music sounds better when bodies are flying all around you, and part of it is that the music comes from a specific culture. You can’t participate in that culture in your house, unless your house is also a place where shows happen. And yet hardcore has continued on in the no-shows era, and a whole lot of great music has come out. Bands have figured out ways to make their music feel fresh and raw and exciting even without any possibility of this music existing within its proper context anytime soon.
I had a harder time putting this list together than I have for the past two years, though that’s not because hardcore was better in 2020 than in 2019 or 2018. I was just paying more attention. The albums on this list are pretty much limited to hardcore and its associated subgenres, and that meant filtering out a lot of hardcore-adjacent stuff that I really loved, including the new albums from Touché Amoré, Chubby And The Gang, Envy, Spice, Narrow Head, Nothing, Blood From The Soul, and even Coriky.
Also, EPs matter at least as much as LPs in hardcore. There might’ve been even more great EPs than full-lengths in the genre this year: Mindforce, Soul Glo, Initiate, Militarie Gun, Mutually Assured Destruction, Primitive Blast, Buggin Out, Zulu, Sunami, Pummel, End It, Pillars Of Ivory. But I’m a rock critic, which means that I put way too much emphasis on albums. I can’t help myself. So this list is albums only.
This is an entirely personal and subjective list, and it’s one made by someone who isn’t a full participant in the hardcore culture, so please don’t mistake it for anything definitive. But if you like what you hear on this one, I encourage you to check out the new records from bands like Infant Island, Sharptooth, Code Orange, Year Of The Knife, Entry, Terminal Nation, End, Three Knee Deep, FAIM, and Ecostrike, all of whom are doing cool things with hardcore.
This South Florida band is on some real knuckle-dragger shit, and their second full-length is music for gutwrench suplexing your friends and relatives. Seed Of Pain come from the birthplace of death metal, and you can hear some prime '90s-style black-sweatpants ferocity in their attack. But Seed Of Pain play heavy, not fast, and their thunderous groove-bounce hits like a kneestrike to the nosebone. There's no nuance to this shit, no subtlety, no experimentation. Instead, it's one berserker head-smash riff after another until you're waking up in a pile of broken glass, not sure if you're soaked in your own blood or someone else's.
Big Cheese come from Leeds, the city that's currently at the forefront of the UK hardcore revival, and they share members with bands like Higher Power and Blind Authority. Spiritually, though, Big Cheese come from an abandoned, freezing-cold Lower East Side squat in 1988. A whole lot of hardcore is indebted to classic East Coast goon music, but Big Cheese might be the only current band who sound like they could get in there and butt heads with the big dogs. The band's sound has all the force and simplicity of a battering ram, and singer Razor Hardwick sounds exactly the way you would hope a guy named Razor Hardwick would sound. The first 45 seconds of Punishment Park opener "Pennine Scrubs" make me want to crash through brick walls, head-first.
Eva Hall has had enough of this shit: "Your existence is an abomination! There's no justifiable reason that anyone should hoard this much! I have nothing but pure disgust for you and all your kind!" Hall isn't out to convince CEOs of multinational corporations to change their ways. That's not the point. Instead, she's looking at the late capitalist economy and reacting to it with pure, cleansing, seething rage. On their first album, the California band Power Alone matches Hall's fire-eyed rancor with an elemental stone-age bounce, a warlike guitar groove that recalls '90s titans like Snapcase and Helmet. It's scorched-earth music for an Earth that really is scorched, a deep-seated emotional fuck-you to a culture of death.
Is screamo a hardcore subgenre, or is it its own thing? I'm not sure. The screamo revival that's been raging for the past few years reached a fever pitch in 2020, and if I had the time, I probably could've come up with a list of the year's best screamo albums: Infant Island! Nuvolascura! Frail Hands! Record Setter! Crowning! Maybe a screamo album doesn't exactly belong on a hardcore list, but this music is hard, and it's close enough to my definition of hardcore to count. Of all the great 2020 screamo records, Respire's opus Black Line kicked me in the heart the hardest. The Toronto band cuts its black metal ferocity with heart-swelling grandeur, building an overwhelming catharsis that ultimately feels soothing -- maybe even beautiful.
Long before they released their debut album, Santa Cruz thrashers Drain had built a rep as one of hardcore's most purely fun live acts — the type of band where the stage-divers bring boogie boards. But Drain are plenty fun on record, too. The sound of California Cursed is a dizzy, almost euphoric take on the classic Suicidal Tendencies skate-metal blueprint. Drain joyfully launch into double-time sprints and mosh-part breakdowns, and you can hear frontman Sammy Ciaramitaro grinning, even as he screeches his lungs out. When live music starts up again, Drain shows are going to be fucking nuts. Prepare yourself by moshing alone in your living room to this.
Cruelty Of Heaven is the Pittsburgh band Unreal City's second album, but it's their first in 13 years. That lag time has everything to do with the difficulty of keeping a band together when nobody in that band is making any money from it, but it could've just as easily been that Unreal City were living in caves, cooking wild boar over open flames, worshipping the moon, and figuring out how to come back with the heaviest shit imaginable. Cruelty Of Heaven is a guttural roar of an album, a better Integrity album than Integrity themselves have made in a long time. Sometimes, when hardcore bands slow things down for the mosh pit, it feels obligatory, a clockwork part of a long-established format. When Unreal City do it, it sounds like the sky turning ash-grey before blood rains down.
Jimmy Wizard has a soaring whine of a voice, one that evokes hazy memories of Perry Farrell or Billy Corgan. On their second album, Wizard's Leeds band steers into that, working with Pixies/Foo Fighters producer Gil Norton and doing a remarkably accurate version of radio-ready mid-'90s alt-rock. But for all their sticky retro melodies, Higher Power haven't stopped being a hardcore band, and 27 Miles Underwater has a headlong energy that keeps them tied to the genre. The line between populist riffage and hardcore stomp isn't an easy one to walk, but Higher Power do it better than anyone this side of Turnstile.
Anytime you hear Walter Delgado laughing, it's a signal to your nervous system that shit is about to get really, really hectic. Delgado's laugh is a strained, evil cackle — like Vincent Price, if Vincent Price made a habit of screaming in people's faces. Rotting Out, the Los Angeles band that Delgado has led for a decade-plus, has a whole lot of Californian surf-punk in its sound; they're the rare modern hardcore band who sounds as much like Pennywise as they do Madball. But there's a feral, instinctive intensity to the band's big riffs and pummeling hooks. It reaches a new level on final track "Boy," where Delgado howls about being abused as a kid and then the rest of the band comes in with brute-force gang-chants about rootlessness and inner strength. Nothing funny about that.
Mil-Spec come on like a tender storm. The band draws inspiration from '90s bands that combined fury with melody — Turning Point, Quicksand, Moss Icon. But Mil-Spec also have a way of taking those influences, twisting them into new shapes, and transforming them into something urgent and vital and new. There are layers at work on World House, the band's debut full-length. Every so often, the Mil-Spec will downshift, going for a quiet and tingly guitar part or a soft harmony vocal. Those moments don't dilute the kind of frothing frenzy that Mil-Spec can work up. They're not the sound of a band too smart for its own good. Instead, those moments feel like the deep breath you take when you're freaked-out and overwhelmed — just before you blow up again.
There is so much happening in this wild 16-minute ride of an album. Mysterious Santa Cruz berserkers Gulch bring the icy grandeur of Mayhem, the erratic bloodthirst of Nails, the adrenalized speed of Infest, and a whole lot else. Over the course of seven belching, gurgling, muck-wallowing songs, Gulch find strength in anxiety and anger in fear, twisting generations of punk and hardcore and metal into one idiosyncratic personal blur. And then they push things even further, turning Siouxsie & The Banshees' primal dirge "Sin In My Heart" into a filthy, ritualistic scream for help. Gulch were born in the darkness, molded by it. In a world of chaos, they're right at home.
Listen to the playlist on Spotify.