Crate Digging is a recurring feature in which we take a deep dive into a genre and turn up several albums all music fans should know about. For this special edition of the series, we usher in Punk Week with a list of can’t-miss debut albums in the genre. And for a T-shirt every punk fan should own, check out our new “Punk Is Dead, Long Live Punk!” tee at the Consequence Shop.
You only make your first record once, and for most bands, there’s no guarantee they’ll be able to make a second. That’s why the best debut albums lay everything on the table and leave nothing to chance. Sometimes music is best made outside the spotlight, absent of any outside pressure to produce hit singles or play to type. When largely ignored by the eyes of the rest of the world, bands have infinite power to catch listeners by surprise. Sometimes they can change the world and the scores of bands, songs, and records that are made in their wake.
But while every genre boasts its share of incendiary debuts, a staggering number of punk bands have made indelible marks on the musical landscape with their first records. The music’s natural energy and aggression have always given punk an intoxicating if wayward allure, like a sugar rush for the ears. But there’s also a fearless, go-for-broke attitude that propels the genre’s best records, many of which were written by those relegated to society’s narrow margins.
From England to the US, legendary powerhouses to underground heroes, if you’re looking for the best punk debuts of all time, we’ve got you covered. The records outlined on this list span geography, era, color, and gender. They were crafted by people of different backgrounds set against different cultural backdrops. And yet they share some important commonalities, namely an indifference to rules and expectations and a bone-bred instinct to provoke and incite.
— Ryan Bray
Ramones – Ramones (1976)
It starts here.
Those sparse three words more or less say everything about the incalculable influence of the Ramones’ 1976 debut, but when you stop to actually pick apart the record’s legacy, it’s all the more amazing. Ramones saw further into the future of popular music than just about anything produced before it, with noticeably few exceptions. Born at a time when big, glossy anthemic guitar rock was reaching an almost nauseating peak, four hoods from Forest Hills, Queens, set out to parse rock and roll down to its essence.
In doing so, Joey, Johnny, Tommy, and Dee Dee gave guitar rock the kick in the ass it desperately needed and birthed punk in the process. In many ways, much of what came before Ramones remained in the past, while almost everything that followed continues to owe an indelible debt to it. Pick a subgenre, be it goth, industrial, new wave, indie, or anything touching the spaces in between, and you can find this record’s grimy mitts all over it.
The only thing more wonderful about Ramones than the songs therein is how breathtakingly simple the formula for such wild reinvention was. The band took its love of bubblegum, girl groups, surf and ‘60s pop and made it louder and faster. Lyrically, the record bursts with an understated, almost base charm that perfectly compliments the simplicity of the music. Ramones isn’t just the record that kick-started the punk movement, it’s a reminder of how music’s biggest surprises can sometimes be birthed by the least likely of creative culprits.
Essential Track: Shiiiiit, just one? Listen to them all. — R.B.
The Damned – Damned Damned Damned (1977)
The Damned occupy a strange place in punk rock history. Its members were among the forefathers of the British punk scene, rubbing elbows with the likes of Malcolm McLaren (more on him in a moment) and future Pretenders frontwoman Chrissie Hynde. They scored some critical milestones, becoming the first British punk band to release a single, drop an album, and tour in the US. But the Damned’s legacy pales in comparison to that of their compatriots — neither as controversial as the Sex Pistols nor as political as The Clash. In fact, despite the Damned’s firsts, the history of punk might not be radically different without them.
This is not at all to say that Damned Damned Damned isn’t a great record, because it is. The Damned may not have been as influential to England’s punk movement as the Ramones were to America’s, but Damned Damned Damned hits all the same beats as Ramones: breakneck tempos, buzzsaw guitars, pummelling drums, howled vocals. It’s just a simple, no-nonsense rock ‘n’ roll thrill ride that doesn’t let up for half an hour. So if this is the first you’ve heard of The Damned, take our word for it: Put Damned Damned Damned on in the morning and it’ll wake you up faster than a cup of coffee.
Essential Track: Forty-five years later, the Damned’s “New Rose” is still as good as punk gets. Shedding rock’s bluesy roots as well as its proggy pretensions, it’s a tightly-coiled blast of a song that doesn’t feel as tied to its moment as, say, “Anarchy in the U.K.” or “London Calling.” Strange as this may be to say, “New Rose” almost sounds closer to Green Day and blink-182’s pop punk than its contemporaries. — Jacob Nierenberg
The Clash – The Clash (1977)
Given how their later albums dabbled in reggae, funk, and even hip-hop, it feels reductive to call The Clash just a punk band. If they ever could be called just that, it was on their first outing, arguably the finest punk record of 1977. Frontman Joe Strummer and lead guitarist Mick Jones were as tight a songwriting duo as Jagger and Richards or Page and Plant: Strummer sang about the political and economic issues roiling England in the 1970s, but it’s striking how many of his words remain relevant today, on either side of the Atlantic.
Songs like “White Riot” and “(White Man) in Hammersmith Palais” are loaded with social commentary, while “Remote Control” and its follow-up “Complete Control” offer pointed rebukes to big business and bureaucratic overseers, including The Clash’s own label. “I’m So Bored with the U.S.A.” is another standout, skewering American imperialism as well as the country’s affinity for cop dramas.
It would be another two years before The Clash received a stateside release — featuring several newer tracks and previous singles — and by that time, Strummer, Jones, and co. were well on their way to becoming “the Only Band That Matters.” But the strength of the songs and performances on their debut established The Clash as a band that mattered, right from the get-go.
Essential Track: The Clash features two of the band’s earliest flirtations with reggae: a cover of Junior Murvin’s “Police & Thieves” and the original “(White Man) in Hammersmith Palais.” The latter’s lyrics take aim at violence and economic inequality, and its fusion of Black and white music demonstrated The Clash’s willingness to color outside the restrictive lines that other punk bands had drawn for themselves. — J.N.
Sex Pistols – Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols (1977)
There are several reasons to consider revoking the Sex Pistols’ punk credentials. For starters, manager Malcolm McLaren — not long after running the New York Dolls into the ground — assembled a band from patrons of his London clothing store, SEX, seeking to emulate the sound and style of the Ramones and Richard Hell.
The Clash’s debut, released several months before the Sex Pistols’, took aim at all kinds of social and political ills; beyond its two most notorious songs, Never Mind the Bollocks just doesn’t have as much to say, its bad attitude and bad words coming off as more posturing than profound. And then there’s Johnny Rotten, who’s spent his post-Pistols years hawking butter, appearing on reality TV, and embracing Trumpism. If there’s anything less punk than selling out, it’s wearing a goddamn MAGA shirt.
And yet, we couldn’t not put the Sex Pistols on our list. Leaving Never Mind the Bollocks out of an overview of punk rock would be like leaving Tim Burton’s Batman out of an overview of comic book movies: It’s neither the first nor the best artifact of its era, but it’s almost certainly the most recognizable, the one that’s credited with starting a movement.
Never Mind the Bollocks would soon be followed by debut albums from the Buzzcocks, The Fall, and Joy Division, and 14 years after its release, Kurt Cobain — who once claimed that the Sex Pistols were “one million times more important than The Clash” — would swipe its title for Nirvana’s landmark Nevermind. At the time, Never Mind the Bollocks was lauded for the way it cut through the bullshit of highfalutin progressive rock and flacid hippie (counter)culture. Listening to it now, it’s a testament to its own enduring power for the way it cuts through the Sex Pistols’ own bullshit.
Essential Track: You’re no doubt already familiar with “God Save the Queen” and “Anarchy in the U.K.,” so let’s instead go with “Holidays in the Sun.” Johnny Rotten’s idea of a relaxing vacation begins with the sound of marching jackboots and peaks with his paranoid sputtering about climbing over the Berlin Wall, while guitarist Steve Jones’ chaotic power chords slash like switchblades. — J.N.
X-Ray Spex – Germfree Adolescents (1978)
X-Ray Spex were pushing up against punk rock’s boundaries even as the then-nascent genre was still trying to define itself. Germfree Adolescents, the English band’s lone offering, is a snotty, insubordinate kick, meshing punk, new wave, and a soulful one-horn sax section for one of the most accessible records of punk rock’s first wave.
Led by frontwoman Poly Styrene, who eviscerated the status quo to make room for both women and people of color in an early punk scene that was quickly shaping up to be predominately white and male, Germfree Adolescents is a smart, angry and infectious collection of songs. Its targets are many, but Styrene takes most pointed aim at mindless consumerism and the disingenuity of modern living. You don’t have to dig too far beneath the surface to get to the bottom of songs like “I Am a Poseur” and “Art-I-Ficial.”
But the Spex don’t let their anger submerge the record. At its heart, Germfree Adolescents is blisteringly catchy and loads of raucous fun. Even when taking pointed shots at the prefab world around them, the band left behind a record’s worth of solid jams destined to move your feet. The X-Ray Spex were unfortunately short lived, but their lone masterstroke still looms large in the punk rock canon.
Essential Track: “The Day the World Turned Day-Glo” is a perfect introduction to the Spex’s high strung, punk/new wave cross pollination. Styrene’s voice shimmers with wild, nervous energy while Rudi Thomson’s sax gives the track an extra kick of soulful attitude. — R.B.
Stiff Little Fingers – Inflammable Material (1979)
Like The Clash’s 1977 debut before it, Inflammable Material is a record that’s impossible to divorce from the historical backdrop against which it was created. Born in the thick of The Troubles, Stiff Little Fingers’ debut cuts with razor hooks and even sharper sociopolitical commentary that pinned punk rock’s proud anti-authoritarian leanings to something tangible.
Far from sloganeering, Inflammable Material bristles with hard, street-born truth, documenting life in a war-torn corner of the world bereft of hope. Jake Burns’ haggard growl aptly captures the record’s anger and desperation, and the band’s marriage of punk rock and early American rock and roll made for songs that were both cathartically fierce and catchy as hell. There’s no fat or extraneous filler to be found anywhere on the 13-track outing, which teems with almost feral political urgency.
Many bands readily act the part, but Stiff Little Fingers live out the strife and blue collar frustrations they sing about. Inflammable Material walks the walk, and no record to date has come close to matching its tried-and-true brand of incendiary street punk.
Essential Track: “Suspect Device” remains an anthem of disenfranchisement more than 40 years on. Has Burns’ paranoia taken him off the deep end or have the powers that be truly made life this bad? Maybe both? — R.B.
Germs – (GI) (1979)
Darby Crash’s ghost looms over The Decline of Western Civilization. That’s him on the poster for Penelope Spheeris’ documentary on the Los Angeles punk scene, lying on his back with his eyes closed, streaks of… something running down his face. It’s an image that’s as sickening as it is compelling, and it only became harder to look at after Crash intentionally overdosed on heroin several months before the film was released. Even so, it crystallized the now-nonexistent Germs as one of the most essential groups of both Los Angeles punk and hardcore punk.
Still, it’s something of a miracle that their lone studio album, (GI), even exists. Germs’ gigs were notorious affairs, more known for Crash’s (self-)destructive antics — slathering his microphone with peanut butter, verbally abusing the audience, rolling across broken beer bottles until he bled — than the band’s actual songs, which they could barely even play. (They’d been blacklisted from numerous clubs, with one show at the Roxy Theater ending in a food fight.)
In the studio, however, Germs became their best selves, playing faster and tighter and harder than anyone else on the West Coast, while Crash ditched the drunken slurring of his onstage persona and revealed himself to be a surprisingly sharp lyricist. But just as it looked like Germs were getting their act together, it all fell apart; Crash’s antagonistic relationships with his bandmates and fans (as well as the LAPD) led to the group’s dissolution in April 1980, and before the year was over, Crash would take his own life. He was 22 years old — gone far too soon, but here just long enough to leave a legacy.
Essential Track: “Richie Dagger” is no more real of a name than “Darby Crash,” but “Richie Dagger’s Crime” is indisputably an origin story for the singer — at once “a child despised” and a mesmerizing figure who “could set your mind ablaze/ With sparkling eyes and visionary case.” — J.N.
X – Los Angeles (1980)
Germs cast the bigger shadow over The Decline of Western Civilization, but X might be the band that sticks with you the longest after watching the film. In addition to looking like the most sophisticated of the bunch — they were as much into poetry as they were partying — they were the most accomplished, having two classic albums under their belt by the time The Decline of Western Civilization hit theaters. The first of them, Los Angeles, is intense and unsettling, but also melodic and dynamic, its punk aggression colored by the sounds of rockabilly and The Doors, whose Ray Manzarek produced the record and played keys on several tracks. (X even covered the Doors’ “Soul Kitchen” — not a very punk move in theory, which made it all the more punk in practice.)
X are on this list because of Los Angeles, but when you consider how many of their contemporaries in LA (and beyond) flamed out after their debuts, it makes the fact that X cranked out four stellar albums in as many years all the more remarkable. Add 2020’s Alphabetland — X’s first outing with the original lineup in 35 years — and you’ve got a solid case for X as America’s finest punk band.
Essential Track: “Sex and Dying in High Society” is such a perfect encapsulation of Los Angeles’ themes that it could’ve been the album’s title track. Its depiction of sex is nihilistic, transactional, and forbiddingly bleak — even before a hot curling iron enters the picture. — J.N.
Dead Kennedys – Fresh Fruit for Rotting Vegetables (1980)
As provocative as the name “Dead Kennedys” is, it’s probably one of the least offensive things about the band. Though the pornographic artwork included with their third album was what got them sued for obscenity, former frontman Jello Biafra had been courting controversy with his vicious, satirical lyrics since the band’s earliest singles. On Fresh Fruit for Rotting Vegetables, Biafra comes across as a punk-era Jonathan Swift whose modest proposals include dropping neutron bombs on homeless encampments (“Kill the Poor”) and taking the piss out of feckless college activists and self-righteous voluntourists (“Holiday in Cambodia”).
The problem with satire is when your audience takes what you’re saying at face value, but Biafra is so outrageous that it’s hard to imagine anyone taking him seriously when he sings gleefully about murdering children and gassing country clubs. That being said, how many people in 2021 have fantasized about overthrowing their landlord? Befitting an album whose cover features a cop car on fire, Fresh Fruit for Rotting Vegetables is the sound of punk’s id.
Essential Track: Two years before the immortal “Nazi Punks Fuck Off,” Dead Kennedys took aim at a different kind of totalitarianism on “California Über Alles.” Instead of jackboots, Biafra envisions a state (and eventually a country) ruled by “Zen fascists” and “suede denim secret police.” The lyrics are admittedly over-the-top, but it’s still a ruthless swipe at the kind of complacent hippie-dippy liberalism that would soon give way to a more reactionary conservative movement. — J.N.
Bad Brains – Bad Brains (1982)
The cover of Bad Brains’ debut isn’t just an iconic image of punk, it’s a fuck-you to the city that made it impossible for them to stay. Washington, D.C. was a majority-Black city when Bad Brains formed in 1977, but nearly all of the groups that emerged in their wake were white. Never mind that they were the most aggressive band in the city’s fledgling hardcore scene, they were also the most ambitious, drawing from jazz fusion and reggae. By 1979, Bad Brains were banned from nearly every venue in their hometown, forcing them to move to New York City, where they kick-started another hardcore scene. It was also where, in between performances at the fabled CBGB, they began laying songs to tape.
To this day, punk remains a genre that is primarily colored by white (male) rage. But even if this weren’t the case — even if there were more bands that looked like Bad Brains — Bad Brains would sound every bit as bracing as it did four decades ago. Words fail to describe just how fast these songs are, with Dr. Know’s guitar riffs practically blurring together into a sustained torrent of distorted chords. Amazingly, frontman H.R. keeps up the pace, his versatile singing conveying anger and disgust and even warmth. And sometimes, as on the sunny, Bob Marley-esque “Leaving Babylon” and “I Luv I Jah,” the noise falls away, and you can hear H.R.’s voice in plain view, his croon as inviting as his bark is intimidating.
Essential Track: “Banned in D.C.” is a defiant response to Bad Brains’ exile from their hometown, but opener “Sailin’ On” is a disconsolate look at a different kind of breakup. It’s downbeat — “I trust you, you use me, now my life’s all torn apart,” H.R. sings — but by no means downtempo, with the band playing at such a frenetic pace it’s as if they’re running down a hill. — J.N.