This article originally ran in 2017, but we’re dusting it off for Punk Week.
Where does the story of punk rock begin? Wash away the blood and spit and piss and vinegar of half a century, and you’ll end up … well, nowhere in particular. You might land inside a cramped Midwestern garage with The Kingsmen’s “Louie Louie” crackling through the radio, in a gutted London loft reverberating with the clash of drum and guitar, or in any number of other places that can rightfully claim to be punk rock’s Eden.
The fact of the matter is, punk is a pretty shapeless thing. It has a beginning, a middle, and maybe an end, but things get murkier from there. The genre’s most celebrated practitioners can’t even seem to agree on the outlines of a common ideology. To Joe Strummer of The Clash, punk rock eventually came to mean showing “exemplary manners to your fellow human beings.”
Fugazi’s Ian MacKaye could probably go along with that, but good luck getting the provocateurs of Crass on board. And then there are those who would define punk by its musical freedom, but do three-chord songs completed in two minutes really sound any freer than, say, the expansive soundscapes of prog rock? Like we said: It’s complicated.
With that said, punk rock does have a story, and that’s what we’re here to tell. Our version may be incomplete, and there may be other, equally valid versions out there, but we think we’ve done right by punk by letting the music speak the loudest. What follows is the story of punk in 50 albums, each serving as a different chapter in the evolution of the genre and subculture.
Take note that we aren’t calling these the greatest punk albums of all time (though some of them certainly qualify). We’re simply saying that, without these 50 records, punk wouldn’t be where it is today: confused, chaotic, and contentious as ever.
Here are the 50 albums that shaped punk rock.
— Collin Brennan
Kinks – The Kinks (1964)
When The Kinks released their self-titled debut album in 1964, plenty of critics dismissed them as just another cheap coin in the Mersey Beat jukebox. What they failed to see is that tracks like the rollicking “So Mystifying” and the smarmy, sarcastic “I’m a Lover Not a Fighter” are cut from a leaner, meaner cloth than the rest of the British Invasion. It all started with lead guitarist Dave Davies, who ingeniously (or insanely) sliced his amp with a razor blade to create the crunchy riff on “You Really Got Me.” Somewhere in that ear-splitting sound were the seeds of everything from Raw Power to Ramones. They may have worn suits instead of leather jackets, but The Kinks were punk rock before such a thing even existed. — Collin Brennan
The Velvet Underground – The Velvet Underground & Nico (1967)
While punk would for many come to be known for tight song structures and simple chord progressions, Velvet Underground & Nico embraced a messy maximalism unlike any other album — either of its era or since. With its droning structures, rough-hewn guitar, and songs detailing drug abuse, prostitution, and sadism, The Velvet Underground embraced the then ignored sides of modern life.
But at the same time, they were managed by Andy Warhol and warmed on the glow of the mysterious allure — along with the chilled mysticism of German vocalist Nico, whom Warhol had introduced to the band. The Velvet Underground’s massive, messy instrumentals stand tall in the world of noise rock, grunge; their layered guitars work with Nico’s icy tones over top set the tone for shoegaze and goth rock; and that iconic album cover proved plenty influential as well. — Lior Phillips
MC5 – Kick Out the Jams (1969)
It takes quite a bit of confidence to record a debut album live, but when you have the raw power of MC5, you don’t worry about messing around. That’s especially true when you’re living the grit and grind of Detroit while the rest of the world is focused on the flower power movement out on the West Coast. Iggy Pop took his stage name after witnessing an MC5 show, which should tell you all you need to know: If it’s good enough to influence Iggy, it’s punk royalty. Between Rob Tyner’s screams and Wayne Kramer and Fred “Sonic” Smith’s guitars, the MC5 laid out a blueprint for blue-collar punks everywhere. — Lior Phillips
Iggy and the Stooges – Raw Power (1973)
Raw Power is a total absolution. For 34 minutes, Iggy Pop pummels you with unadulterated human rage, painting the loudest and most succinct portrait in his career. It’s the voice of an uncontrollable artist, one who’s fighting a brutal war against rejection and addiction, and it’s through that fight that he went on to define himself to the world. Because, at this point in his career, very few people outside of soothsayer David Bowie believed in the Detroit rock ‘n’ roll statesman. Though, that miserable sense of marginalization is what wound up fueling the album, starting with the nuclear opening salvo of “Search and Destroy” and ending with the napalm drop of six-minute closer “Death Trip.” By then, everyone who was anyone was listening. — Michael Roffman
New York Dolls – New York Dolls (1973)
From fashion sense alone, the New York Dolls set a unique tone, inspiring glam rock and hair metal artists alike. However, their influence doesn’t just end at their choice of women’s attire and big-screen drama. Their sharp-tongued alienation and jigsaw guitars get at the wild energy and “anything goes” intensity of kids escaping their family lives and finding freedom in the big city. That could mean pushing deeper into hard rock or embracing pop, as long as it was done with the smirking power of David Johansen. The opener to the Dolls’ self-titled debut has been covered by everyone from Sonic Youth to Scott Weiland, Teenage Fanclub to Todd Rundgren, showing their ability to appeal to anyone, even though they refused to play by anyone’s rules. — Lior Phillips
Patti Smith – Horses (1975)
Patti Smith knows what it is to be an outsider. Scraping by in New York City in the ‘70s as a painter, writer, and performer, she balanced life on the margins with understanding the need for connection. As a sort of artistic polymath, Smith grabbed bits and pieces of genres ranging from reggae to garage rock, played them with a righteous fury, and delivered lyrics that fought for a place of their own, inspired by fellow outsiders like French poet Arthur Rimbaud, Doors vocalist Jim Morrison, and the then-recently deceased Jimi Hendrix.
The minimalist fury and fiery vocals matched the tone of the emerging punk world, but Smith’s unique perspective drove home the genre’s potential salvation for thousands of young outsiders the world over, Horses becoming a beacon for those struggling on city streets and the little girls who never thought they could be rock stars. — Lior Phillip
Modern Lovers – Modern Lovers (1976)
While the Ramones were playing tough in their leather jackets in New York, Jonathan Richman kept his polos and stayed in Boston — and still wound up making a massive impact on the history of punk rock. Whether celebrating his home state of Massachusetts in “Roadrunner” or letting his voice crack when he wishes for a partner to take to the art museum on the lovely “Girlfriend,” Richman remains unabashedly himself, while the rest of the Modern Lovers put together warm and fuzzy two-chord punch. The willfully geeky, social-outcast style set the stage for the upcoming emo movement, while their simple, driving song structures fit in line with The Velvet Underground and the garage rock ahead. — Lior Phillips
Ramones – Ramones (1976)
When the Ramones’ landmark 1976 self-titled debut turned 40 last year, our own Ryan Bray noted just how ubiquitous the album’s no-bullshit sound had become, comparing it to a genetic imprint that “defined punk the same way The Beatles did pop or Black Sabbath did metal.” But Ramones did more than just pave the way for the rash of young, dumb, and gleefully defiant bands that would follow in their path. Songs like the mighty “Blitzkrieg Bop” and the screeching “Chain Saw” rewrote the rules of rock and roll, stripping every trace of pretense from the genre until all that was left was a boundless sense of energy and an aimless sense of purpose. In the decades following, bands ranging from Misfits to Green Day would take Ramones’ three-chord gospel to heart. — Collin Brennan
Suicide – Suicide (1977)
Nothing like the sound of immortal pain and suffering for the future of music. With their 1977 self-titled debut, Suicide’s Martin Rev and Alan Vega officially became punk rock’s H.P. Lovecraft, opening up a portal into an eternal abyss that was dark, disturbing, and absolutely hopeless. But, and this is a very important “but,” the record was also hypnotically paralyzing, and the duo’s haunting use of bass, synthesizers, and repetition proved perplexing enough to warrant whatever nightmares spawned from unnerving jams like “Frankie Teardrop” or “Girl.”
It felt “worth it,” as they say, which is why the two have gone on to spawn ultra-creative super fans like Bruce Springsteen, The Fleshtones, Sunn O))), and Lydia Lunch. — Michael Roffman
The Damned – Damned Damned Damned (1977)
The first punk single to come out of Britain was not the Sex Pistols’ “Anarchy in the UK” but the The Damned’s “New Rose.” This seems not only chronologically but thematically correct, as “New Rose” is less of a break from Britain’s pop past than its blown-out guitar riff would have you believe. In fact, there’s not all that much separating the songs on Damned Damned Damned from what the country’s radio jockeys were high on at the time.
Rather than abandon pop tropes entirely, singer Dave Vanian and his merry band of mischief-makers played around with them, coating them with mud and blood (and plenty of cream frosting, to boot). The Sex Pistols may have changed punk forever, but not before The Damned gave it this enduring blueprint: old melodies, new attitude. — Collin Brennan
Sex Pistols – Never Mind the Bollocks (1977)
It’s no exaggeration to say the Sex Pistols reinvented punk rock with Never Mind the Bollocks, stripping the genre of its nostalgia for ‘50s rock ‘n’ roll and replacing it with a razor-edged nihilism that has no home but the here and now. (Johnny Rotten said it all in those first two words of “Anarchy in the UK”: “Right … now!”). Whereas the Ramones made punk rock manic and playful, the Sex Pistols made it into something downright dangerous, a weaponized force of nature aimed directly at the Queen’s precious head.
Speaking of the Queen, Never Mind the Bollocks was the first punk album to truly politicize punk, forging an inextricable connection between grimy power chords and the goings-on of modern governments. As such, it is perhaps the most important album in the history of punk rock, and its seismic impact on the genre is impossible to overstate. — Collin Brennan
The Clash – The Clash (1977)
By the mid-’70s, Britain was an avalanche of noise, no doubt inspired by the echoes of New York City’s punk rock scene that were ostensibly funneled through luminary figureheads like Malcolm McLaren. Much like any avalanche, that sound splintered off into a multitude of rich and compelling voices, and among those voices were Mick Jones and Joe Strummer of The Clash. Yet, unlike their peers, the two sounded less like bashful brats and more like hyper-literate smart alecks who knew how to break windows without getting caught.
They proved that right from the get-go with their 1977 self-titled debut. Punchy songs like “Janie Jones” and “Remote Control” tell well-articulated stories while seemingly boozy anthems like “I’m So Bored with the U.S.A.” and “White Riot” fully grasp the political themes they’re lambasting. This scholarly approach to the genre is what would inevitably push punk to not only shape its own scene but the world at large — and The Clash did just that. — Michael Roffman
Television – Marquee Moon (1977)
It would be criminally reductive to claim Marquee Moon solely in the name of punk, as Television’s 1977 magnum opus permanently altered the course of genres ranging from new wave to noise rock. And yet! Is there not something intrinsically, undeniably punk about the album’s complete lack of regard for precedent? Frontman Tom Verlaine saw no meaningful separation between French poetry and his own Manhattanite mythologies, nor did he draw a musical line between abrasive power chords and avant-garde jazz melodies.
It’s too easy these days to pin punk rock down to a relatively simple formula. But Television set the stage for a few glorious decades of experimentation within the genre, paving the way for a bunch of weirdos (Joy Division, Talking Heads, Sonic Youth, etc.) whose main attraction to punk was the chance to be anything but boring. — Collin Brennan
Wire – Pink Flag (1977)
Who says you don’t learn anything from art school? Tell that to Colin Newman and see how long it takes you to get a fist to the face or a mouthful to the ear. As singer, songwriter, and guitarist of Wire, the art-school graduate opted for the six-string over the easel, but he didn’t stop painting. No, as the wildly subversive Pink Flag suggests, his art was in taking a minimalist approach to punk rock and hitting the genre with broader strokes.
Like his contemporaries, there’s volume to his sound and angst to his songs, but it’s splattered across every facet to the music in wildly unpredictable ways. That’s why you can leap from the crunchy pop of “Ex Lion Tamer” toward the plodding psychedelia of “Strange” and over to the doo wop bliss of “Mannequin.” Basically, you never get the sense that they’re leaning on any one thing in particular, and that’s one of the many distinctions of post-punk. — Michael Roffman
Buzzcocks – Another Music in a Different Kitchen (1978)
“You’re a bloody swine,” Pete Shelley seethes on “You Tear Me Up,” one of 11 rip-roaring tracks on the debut album from English outfit the Buzzcocks. Throughout Another Music in a Different Kitchen, the quartet charge forward at full speed, recorded in pristine condition. Shelley warbles and wobbles like Bowie, but drummer John Maher’s insistent, muscular rhythm keeps everything on piece even at their wildest — inspired by an obsession with Krautrock.
The haunting transitions between album sides stands out as well, a chopped experimentation unlike its surroundings. And in case you didn’t know their involvement in the Manchester scene, get one listen to Steve Garvey’s bass on “Fast Cars” and note its uncanny connection to the same school as Peter Hook. — Lior Phillips
Devo – Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo! (1978)
It’s easy to get distracted by the yellow jumpsuits, red energy domes, and “Whip It,” but Devo are one of the most intriguing punk bands of all time — and a fascinating art project and philosophical statement, at that. The Akron, Ohio, outfit became the champion of nerds, geeks, dweebs, and spuds everywhere following their excellent debut, Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo! They start out by expressing their “Uncontrollable Urge,” the champions of de-evolution chugging away.
Next they show not only the gall to cover The Rolling Stones but to take the excessively swaggery “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” and flip it into a spastic mechanical anthem. Throughout, they analyze the potential that we’ll all devolve into mongoloids and the meatheads that surrounded them at home. Devo took Jonathan Richman’s nerd punk and quintupled down on it and somehow still helped usher punk into the mainstream. — Lior Phillips
Blondie – Parallel Lines (1978)
Blondie didn’t just leap with 1978’s Parallel Lines; they went into hyperdrive. As one of the early progenitors of the highly influential NYC punk scene, singer Debbie Harry and guitarist Chris Stein ditched the grime and grit and embraced what would become their own signature brand of glossy power pop and disco-tinged new wave — you know, the stuff that wound up shaping the next decade. “Heart of Glass,” the album’s state-of-the-art third single, was a total game-changer for the outfit, welding European electronica with Harry’s natural falsetto.
Every left turn felt like a natural extension of their late-night sound, and the way it blazed a new trail kept them in line with their pioneering roots. As such, it’s the kind of transformative album that artists and bands, both inside and outside of the punk rock genre, continue to study, emulate, and execute for themselves. Spoiler: It’s not easy. — Michael Roffman
Siouxsie and the Banshees – The Scream (1978)
There’s a sort of near-impenetrable, mystic cohesion to the music of Siouxsie and the Banshees, even on their debut record, The Scream. The album pushes and challenges, yet somehow simultaneously allures and engages in its icy darkness. Even while punk was still being formed, Siouxsie and Co. were helping establish the language of post-punk. And rather than merely reflecting the chaos and grime of the city, the banshees find the cold emptiness of the suburbs. And throughout it all, Siouxsie Sioux is the magnetic presence at the core, their propulsive drone pushing punk further into wild, artistic territory. — Lior Phillips
Crass – The Feeding of the 5000 (1978)
Is there a more important band to punk than Crass? This English art collective set fire to the movement just as it was beginning to take shape, rejecting the Sex Pistols’ commercialization of punk subculture in favor of, you know, actual ideals. Their debut album, The Feeding of the 5000, is notable for its impressive profanity as well as for its revolutionary means of production. A controversy over the lyrics of opening track “Asylum” (probably the most offensive tract ever written against Christianity) prompted the group to set up their own record label and self-release an uncensored version of the album. This uncompromising DIY ethic would eventually become a core aspect of punk’s ideology, paving the way for similarly minded record labels like Dischord and SST. — Collin Brennan
Joy Division – Unknown Pleasures (1979)
The cover to Joy Division’s Unknown Pleasures is both immediately familiar and entirely mysterious — much like the music within. The only album from the band to be released during frontman Ian Curtis’ lifetime, he undeniably drives their debut, whether with an aggressive isolation or a hand reaching out hopefully. But that’s not to say this is a one-man show. The rest of Joy Division do their fair share of heavy lifting, producing cavernous, eerie sets to surround his tortured mental explorations. A touchstone for post-punk, new wave, electronic music, and indie as a whole, Unknown Pleasures feels like listening to the deep breaths and mumbled self-analysis of an astronaut as he drifts out into space. — Lior Phillips
Stiff Little Fingers – Inflammable Material (1979)
Belfast was not a lovely city to call home in 1977 when bombs and bloodshed lingered in the background of every interaction. Stiff Little Fingers came of age in the charged environment of the Troubles, so is it really a surprise that their sound had more of a bite to it than that of their English peers? Inflammable Material remains perhaps the defining musical document of that time period, filled with piss and vinegar but also with rallying cries to make the best of a grim situation.
Songs like the searing opener “Suspect Device” and the punk anthem “Alternative Ulster” gave a voice to Northern Irish youth immediately upon its release, but Stiff Little Fingers’ influence would also reach forward in history and touch early pop punk bands ranging from Jawbreaker to Green Day. — Collin Brennan
Dead Kennedys – Fresh Fruit for Rotting Vegetables (1980)
If punk rock had its own Mount Rushmore, one of the sneering faces carved in stone would likely belong to Dead Kennedys frontman Jello Biafra, whose shrill voice and sardonic political takedowns have made him into one of the iconic figures of American punk. Both qualities permeate every aspect of Fresh Fruit for Rotting Vegetables, an album that somehow turned “Kill the Poor” into a punk rallying cry while drawing a crooked (albeit hilarious) line between Nazi Germany and hippie California. Not only did Dead Kennedys give political punk a much-needed sense of humor, but with Fresh Fruit they planted the seeds for a hardcore movement that would blossom just a few months later down the I-5. — Collin Brennan
Adolescents – Adolescents (1981)
Few places contradict the punk ethos more thoroughly than California’s Orange County, a conservative stronghold that went hard for Reagan in 1980. But look past all the waving flags and Mickey Mouse ears and a different narrative emerges: one of boredom, listlessness, and all those other qualities that make youth culture explode like a firework over Disneyland. Adolescents were among the pioneering wave of OC’s hardcore crop, and their self-titled debut album helped found “suburban punk,” a genre fueled by power chords and the raw energy of having nothing better to do than make a lot of noise. Not only did Adolescents speak directly to their fellow “Kids of the Black Hole,” but they helped bring an entire scene out of the red-stained woodwork. — Collin Brennan
The Exploited – Punks Not Dead (1981)
In punk rock, as in physics, every action has an equal and opposite reaction. Such was the case when Crass penned the scene’s obituary with 1978’s “Punk Is Dead,” and The Exploited shot back three years later with Punks Not Dead [sic]. But rather than respond to Steve Ignorant’s trenchant point about the scene’s commercialization with an intellectual argument of their own, the Edinburgh punks simply doubled down on noise and nihilism.
“Punk’s not dead I know!” screams vocalist Wattie Buchan on the track, as if that alone is enough to make it true. While it would be a stretch to say The Exploited single-handedly resuscitated UK punk, their appeal to working-class loyalties helped to bridge the gap between punks, skinheads, and blue-collar Scots with concerns outside the genre’s traditional sphere. Punks Not Dead isn’t high art but does represent an important chapter in the perpetuation of the Oi! subculture. — Collin Brennan
Black Flag – Damaged (1981)
It’s still unbelievable that Black Flag ever made an album. Everything about the band — from their rotating lineup to their ramshackle lifestyle to their barely-there songs to their ensuing lawsuits — screams of instability, both literally and metaphorically. Which is all the more reason to appreciate something like Damaged, the grimy 1981 debut album from the hardcore bastards of Hermosa Beach, California.
Call it a stroke of luck, or maybe a deal with the devil, but some crazy bastard at Santa Monica’s Unicorn Studios managed to capture the band’s frenzied adrenaline and testosterone without sacrificing a single thing. Instead, the album worked like a sonograph of their lifestyle, broadcasting far beyond their California backyard, connecting with countless youths who also felt like putting a brick through their television … or a cop’s face. — Michael Roffman