Punk as Fuck is a monthly column in which Associate Editor Collin Brennan discusses issues in punk music and culture. As part of our 2016 Annual Report, this month’s column dives into the 10 best punk songs of 2016.
First, an admission: Compiling a list of the 10 best punk songs of any given year is an absurd challenge, if only because punk’s relatively crude means of production ensures that there’s still so much out there left to be unearthed. Online streaming sites like Soundcloud, Bandcamp, and even YouTube present a steady flow of singles and practice demos from such far-flung locales as Morocco and Northwest Indiana, the sum total of which cannot be calculated nor consumed in the span of 365 days. Choosing to highlight just 10 songs from this vast and largely untapped library also seems a little counterintuitive, as punk rock has always stood apart from the mainstream forces of music that would seek to rank and reward records according to their sales figures, media hype, and other imperfect barometers of quality.
Alas, I can’t help myself. Talking about punk rock in any capacity seems like an important way to recap the dominant trends of 2016, a year dominated by political upheaval, the ongoing perpetuation of systemic injustices, and the promise that the worst is yet to come. These elements have combined to create a sense of anxiety that seems to permeate every aspect of our modern discourse, and anxiety happens to be the fuel that has powered punk rock’s three-chord engine for the last 40-odd years.
Punk and anxiety have always had a symbiotic relationship, the former giving sound and voice to the latter in the form of the Sex Pistols’ calls for anarchy, the Dead Kennedys’ fear of secret police, and any number of other instances over the decades. This year alone brought us examples of anxiety expressed through self-hate and vitriol (PUP), frustration with millennial apathy (SLØTFACE), and outright violence against cops (G.L.O.S.S.). One of the year’s very best records, Jeff Rosenstock’s WORRY., took up anxiety as its central theme.
With that in mind, here are 10 songs that express, in some small but vital way, what the hell was going on in punk in 2016. These are anxious and messy and heartbreaking songs for an anxious and messy and heartbreaking year, a year in which our faith in each other and in our own ability to effect change was tested. None of that goes away when we throw out the old calendar, but at the very least we can take stock and celebrate some of the scene’s successes before sizing up the next fight.
10. Mannequin Pussy – “Emotional High”
Mannequin Pussy’s “Emotional High” gets its footing from a familiar place, kicking off with a pair of seesawing power chords that immediately recalls Jawbreaker’s “Boxcar” or any number of other punk tunes intent on taking the straightest, surest path to pop’s melodic core. The verse, arriving after a succession of heavy snare drum hits, doesn’t change the formula so much as amplify its dissonance, with Marisa Dabice’s not-quite-tuneful yelp transforming the song into either a deranged version of ’80s bubblegum pop or a shamelessly poppy blast of hardcore, depending on your vantage point.
Even more disconcerting are the lyrics, which read like a “Thank You” note typed out late at night, presumably via text or social media. “Whenever you need me, you know that I’d be there,” Dabice shouts. “You’re my best friend!” It’s a fiercely positive sentiment that draws attention to itself in a scene — an entire world, really — that deals too often in irony and pessimism. 2016 wasn’t short on aggression, but “Emotional High” shows that gratitude can have teeth as sharp as rage.
09. Turnstile – “Move Thru Me”
Move Thru Me
Rage Against the Machine’s pseudo-reunion as Prophets of Rage notwithstanding, no band made 2016 feel more like 1996 than Baltimore’s Turnstile. The group’s gleefully groovy Move Thru Me EP contains some of the year’s best (and least fashionable) hardcore riffs, the kind focused more on opening up the pit than on catering to some shithead critic’s notion of what cool means. The EP’s title track encompasses everything that is good and unabashed about American hardcore, the crude simplicity of the chanted three-word chorus (“Move… Thru… Me!”) offset by the freewheeling quality of a verse that spins and lurches with the structured chaos of a tilt-a-whirl. Turnstile recently signed a deal with Roadrunner Records and will be a band to watch in 2017, but here’s hoping they keep one foot planted in the sweaty, humid basements that birthed “Move Thru Me”.
08. Haram – “What Is This Hell?”
What Do You See?
New York City’s Haram chose a tragically fortuitous time to unleash their “What Do You See” 7-inch on the world. The band’s blistering document of Arabic hardcore arrived on September 19th, just two days after a bomb allegedly planted by 28-year-old Ahmad Khan Rahami exploded on West 26th Street in Chelsea, putting their home city on edge. Young Arabic men like Haram frontman Nader Habibi, a Lebanese-American from Yonkers, are no strangers to distrust and suspicion, but songs like B-side closer “What Do You See?” represent a new and forceful way of confronting fear. In a racially charged era where the subtext seems to always be “assimilate or else,” Haram forcefully call attention to their differences with lyrics sung entirely in Arabic and squealing, hypnotizing guitar riffs that blend influences from Japanese and Middle Eastern hardcore. It’s a celebration of difference in one sense, though there’s little joy to be found in Haram’s dystopian vision of the world.
07. Sheer Mag – “Can’t Stop Fighting”
Somewhere along the line, punk forgot how to be shitty. Bear with me, because I’m not talking about a lack of technical prowess. I’m talking about the cool kind of shitty, reflected in an attitude that it’s perfectly fine to wear sunglasses on stage and interrupt every other line in a verse with an extended guitar solo. Philadelphia’s Sheer Mag are gloriously, undeniably shitty, taking their most obvious cues from ’60s proto-punks MC5 and ’70s hard rockers Thin Lizzy. In doing so, they’ve shown that a band can embrace the cheese without compromising an ethos rooted in DIY punk.
This is how a song like “Can’t Stop Fighting”, which stacks up dueling power pop riffs like it’s going out of style, can still sound vital in 2016. Competing with those guitars at the front of the mix, frontwoman Christina Halladay sing-screams about violence against women and how it’s time to strike back. But she squeezes a “baby” into the end of that line, leaving the door open to a party where everyone’s invited so long as they bring a conscience and a pair of dance shoes.
06. SLØTFACE – “Sponge State”
Sponge State EP
Like Sheer Mag, Norwegian punks SLØTFACE seem equally interested in changing the world and giving it better music to dance to. The quartet released two fantastic EPs this year, parts of which reside in a daydream of the ’90s (“Empire Records”) and parts of which seek to subvert and overturn male expectations of femininity (“Shave My Head”); add both strains up and you arrive at a pretty good idea of what SLØTFACE is all about.
In their young life, the group have never recorded a more complete song than “Sponge State”, which pairs anxious, frustrated verses about millennial apathy with a euphoric chorus that name-drops Bon Iver, of all people. If all that sounds a bit disjointed and contradictory, well, that’s likely the point. Vocalist Haley Shea is shaping up as one of the more honest lyricists in punk rock, that rare voice who can make a reference to IKEA or, yes, Bon Iver sound compelling rather than cringe-worthy. “Sponge State” — her own term for “the feeling that something needs to change” — finds her and the rest of the band at the top of their game.
05. Naked Lights – “New Carrion”
Oakland five-piece Naked Lights don’t write songs so much as build leaning towers of noise, stacking up atonal parts until the structure begins to sway in the wind and threaten total collapse. There’s no denying the influence of post-punk groups like Wire and Gang of Four on their single “New Carrion”, but Naked Lights take the concept of dissonance to a more dizzying extreme than their forebears. The first half of the song succeeds in creating a heightened state of anxiety akin to what one might experience in a crowded subway car when the walls suddenly, surrealistically begin to cave in. Relief comes in the form of an unpredictable halt about two-thirds of the way through, at which point drummer Josh Lindenfelzer leans heavily on his toms and vocalist Aurora Crispin can finally be heard over the cacophony. The sudden transition — from panic attack to fever dream — is truly unpredictable, catching the listener off guard in a way that punk rarely does anymore.
04. PUP – “DVP”
The Dream Is Over
Very few things got me more pumped in 2016 than hearing PUP vocalist/guitarist Stefan Babcock shout phrases like, “Nothing’s working and the future’s looking bleak,” which is funny because that’s pretty much what everyone was shouting in 2016. The difference between Babcock and the talking heads on CNN, however, is that his embittered takes on the world are most often accompanied by a drunken choir of dudes ready and willing to get as messed up as he feels.
“DVP” is both the best and most straightforward song on PUP’s excellent sophomore album, The Dream Is Over, its pessimism masked and tempered by its euphoria and vice versa. Though it never slows down, “DVP” encompasses the Toronto quartet’s most important dynamic, which finds them lurching back and forth between feelings of crippling loneliness and fraternal companionship. Babcock may be down and out, but every “Woooooooh!” that stands in for a chorus props him up for the next verse and reminds him — and us, as well — that punk is about establishing a sense of community in the face of cynicism.
03. Martha – “Ice Cream and Sunscreen”
Blisters in the Pit of My Heart
Practically everything about emo punk band Martha is charming, whether it’s the fact that they’re from a suburban hamlet of England called Pity Me (seriously) or the relentless stream of empathy and positive energy that gushes forth from their sophomore album, Blisters in the Pit of My Heart. That name alone may be enough to drive a good number of punks away from this project, but it starts to sound a lot less silly when heard in the coda to lead single “Ice Cream and Sunscreen”.
One of those rare candidates for “song of the summer” that also makes sense in the darkest stretch of winter, “Ice Cream” opens with some quietly melancholic lines that, appropriately, reference the seasons (“The autumn forecast is looking dismal again/ This year I’ll spend November in the house”). Then, euphorically and unexpectedly, it bursts wide open, contorting itself into a pop-punk sing-along within the span of just a few seconds. As I wrote in my review of the album, it’s hard to tell whether to be devastated or elated when all of the band members join together and sing “Blisters in the pit of my heart!” So much for that line being a turn off.
02. G.L.O.S.S. – “Give Violence A Chance”
Trans Day of Revenge
The gross systemic injustices perpetrated in 2016 offered ample cause for protest and political resistance, but they also reopened a question that’s bounced around activist circles for decades: Is nonviolence really the most effective tactic? The now-defunct Olympia punk group G.L.O.S.S. (Girls Living Outside Society’s Shit) offered up their own answer in the form of blistering hardcore track “Give Violence a Chance”.
“Fuck the peacekeeping! Fuck the calm!” shouts frontwoman Sadie Switchblade in the song’s chorus, advocating for a more aggressive approach to the only fight that matters. Some might be turned off by the message and its implications, but G.L.O.S.S. are merely giving society a taste of its own medicine, holding up a mirror to the rage and spite directed towards trans women, black people, and any number of socially oppressed groups on a daily basis. This is the sound of a culture that has reached its boiling point and of a band that isn’t afraid to search for answers on the less sightly side of justice.
01. Jeff Rosenstock – “Festival Song”
I will admit to having slept a bit on Jeff Rosenstock’s latest solo album, WORRY., not because I was unfamiliar with the DIY veteran’s vast body of work as the frontman of ska band The Arrogant Sons of Bitches or punk collective Bomb the Music Industry!, but perhaps because I’d grown too familiar with it. Rosenstock has given his heart and soul to punk rock for the last 18 years, which leaves him straddling the boundary between the scene’s thirtysomething old guard and its current crop of teens — not exactly prime territory for relevancy. Which is why I was both shocked and pleasantly surprised that, when I finally got around to giving WORRY. a spin, I was confronted with one of the most glaringly, searingly relevant album of 2016, punk or otherwise.
WORRY. is the work of a songwriter engaged in a desperate struggle with the world around him, trying to process its random ironies and cruelties as the product of something other — something greater, one would hope — than a living hell. In this task, Rosenstock fails time and time again, succumbing to the sublime despair of one who has seen his beloved movement transformed into “careful entertainment/ For an easy demographic in our sweatshop denim jackets,” as he laments in “Festival Song”.
And yet, “Festival Song” is also a kind of perverse celebration of life, its name both ironic (a shot at corporate-sponsored festivals promoting branded concepts like “unity”) and sincere (this is a song that makes you want to sing and dance with friends). How else to explain a chorus that bitterly comments, “Oh, they wouldn’t be your friend if you weren’t worth something,” while also wrapping its arms around you in a tight embrace, as if to reassure you that music may be the only friend you have, but it’s also the only friend you need. “Festival Song” takes us on a tour of punk rock’s many failings, from its cooption by department stores to its limp response to real-world social issues. The fact that we emerge from this tour more invigorated than ever — willing to fight the good fight — is a testament to Rosenstock’s infectious fortitude. We may all be doomed to drown in society’s unsightly excesses, but that doesn’t mean it’s time to stop thrashing.