Welcome to the latest edition of Difficult Fun! Each month, SPIN will spotlight the best punk on the planet and discuss it here, with the ambition of challenging preconceived notions of what the four-letter word actually means and, ideally, entertaining readers in the process. Purists, piss off! Everyone else, enjoy.
There was hope at the beginning of 2021, and then there was a slap in the face. We have languished; we have endured an ever-mutating and unforgiving plague; we have survived insurrections from domestic terrorists; the Gulf of Mexico caught on fire. I’d say humanity has proven resilient over the course of the last 12 months, but that’s a word utilized to cast meaning on the meaningless, to make suffering some patriotic endeavor. You could call Sex Pistols’ “No Future” a revelant battle cry, but Johnny Rotten went MAGA. To him we say, “The fascist regime / They made you a moron.”
Yet – and this is the most shallow transition of all time, but there’s no way around it – solace could be found on record. Some turned to pop music to exercise their demons, others found their way back to the pit, resolute to contort their vaccinated bodies because hell, who knew if they’d ever get the chance to do so again. There’s a reason even the most punk averse fell for the Turnstile record in 2021; it’s a wonderful time to become hardcore-curious. The bands are alright.
And so, December 2021’s edition of Difficult Fun is dedicated to 30 releases that made this shit bearable. In an unusual decision, I’m keeping it as close to punk and its many subgenre offshoots as possible (like, I skipped out on Dark Entries Records’ Back Up: Mexican Tecno Pop 1980 – 1989 knowing full well it is one of the year’s best releases, but when we get into the reissue space… that’s likely a second list.) I’ve also elected not to rank these. Flattening art into numbers – and pitting those numbers against one another – only serves to highlight the patriarchal nature of canonical systems, and I ain’t about that. In the music writing business, it is often considered a necessary evil, but this is my party and I’ll piss on tradition if I want to. Enjoy, freaks!
SPIN’s artist of the year is the Baltimore hardcore band Turnstile and their life-affirming Glow On, and as such, you should already be well-aware of the release’s greatness and its surprises: long breakdowns, Latin rhythms, go-go influence, drum machines. But everyone who has told you this album eclipses the hardcore genre is wrong: instead, it takes familiar sounds into new territory, like all the releases on this list.
Let’s get the obvious picks out of the way first. ULTRAPOP was featured heavily in the first edition of Difficult Fun. I was enamored with the Detroit collective’s combination of strenuous feedback, chiptune-like MIDI, math-y shredding, and delicate and unrestrained melodies. I still am.
Groovy, saxophone heavy hardcore fronted by the effortless toxicity (and at times, melodic) Kat Moss. If you don’t love them now, you will. And soon.
The next block of bands hail from New York City – NYHC will never die. Dollhouse’s The First Day of Spring marries biting, steel wool hardcore with bright and shiny acoustic guitar melodicism. It’s frustratingly good and it offers a language for these times: “Not caring about yourself isn’t hard / It’s an art.”
Hüstler is death rock x hardcore punk for people who pledge allegiance to nothing (except maybe, like, Rudiementary Peni and Christian Death.) Goths rise up.
Spanish-language anarcho-punk that jolts up the spine, NYC’s Porvenir Oscuro’s Asquerose Humanidad is a snarling debut – 25 minutes of addictive hardcore venom.
The world needs Walker Behl’s acidic tongue – formerly the frontman of the defunct Crazy Spirit – so thank god for his new band, Anti-Machine, and their grinding demo.
I said I wasn’t going to rank any of these releases, but if I did, Taqbir would be near the top. The Moroccan band’s Victory Belongs to Those Who Fight for A Right Cause is brilliant, static-y synth hardcore – critical of religion, of politics, of those who oppress in the name of their own power.
The best English post-punk record of the year, bar none. (Sorry, Dry Cleaning stans, but you’re wrong.)
Art-y, motorik post-punk from the Bay. Dissonant and delightful. For fans of Wire’s Pink Flag – which is to say, everyone.
We Hate You Please Die’s Can’t Wait to Be Fine is smiley, ADHD-informed French garage punk that I missed this summer and am correcting right now. The songs are written from a place ever aware of its own mortality, but like, in a fun way.
They’re built different in the Pacific Northwest – Soup for My Family makes me miss Brown Sugar – this is Seattle/Olympia excellence (reverbed to hell rock n roll, garage punk, moments of fiery hardcore) – complete with skronking sax courtesy Milk Music’s Dave Harvey.
Scream it with them: “DON’T WANT OUR BAD BLOOD / DON’T WANT IT CAUSE WE’RE GAY / BUT YOU’LL TEST IT ANYWAY / TAKE ONLY FROM STRAIGHT VEINS / IS ALWAYS SOILED WITH SHAME.” Dublin’s gay hardcore heroes are out to kill and these weapons are sharp.
No wave indie art-punk from Glasgow, Nightshift’s sophomore album is too smart for its own good; meditatively minimal with moments of free jazz.
Many of you come here for hardcore that does what other hardcore does not. For you select few, I offer Richmond, Virginia’s Black Button and their squalling no wave distortion and static-y spoken word record, I Want to be in Control.
Because this list is an attempt to stay as true to capital-P punk as possible, Lily Konigsberg’s Lily We Need To Talk Now, and its whimsical poppy-indie punk with Arthur Russell flourish, did not make the cut. Instead, her avant-punk trio Palberta, and their math-y record Palberta5000, is here and worth your appreciation. People like to say the band sounds like early Sleater-Kinney, informed by mainstream pop. In this very narrow and specific example, people are right.
St. Louis, Missouri’s The YeAsTies, and their HERE FOR FLESH release is such playful punk you might call is pop – deranged pop, but with an enthusiastic sense of melody.
Ms. Machine is ice cold Scandinavian-style industrial post-punk as performed by three Japanese women, one of which was part of Tokyo’s Harajuku street snap community around the same time as Kyary Pamyu Pamyu. Outrageously good.
Chicago’s Spread Joy does a mean Kleenex, among other yawping pleasures. You can’t have enough, so fill your plate.
Dumb good Aussie indie punk. “I don’t want to fight because I’m a fucking coward,” is the greatest self-aware lyric of the year. I don’t make the rules. Bring them to America, we need them.
Everything La Vida Es Un Mus released this year is worth your cash, but if you only have space in your heart and record shelf for one, Rata Negra’s pop-infused dreary punk Una Vida Vulgar is it. Clock the Ronnette’s “Be My Baby” echoes on “Cuando Me Muera” and tell me I’m wrong.
The best post-punk record in recent history; Los Angeles’ Cemento is early 1980s worship, the sound of gray stormy skies, industrialized work; no future, all future.
Austin, Texas doom and gloom, this Altar of Eden tape sounds like it was recorded in a glass box, and god bless that tense bass.
Another example of Austin supremacy: Mujeres Podridas (featuring members of Criaturas, Vaaska, Kurraka, Crooked Bangs, every good band of the last decade or whatever) is the movement; Muerte en Paraíso (“Death In Paradise”) is melodic head-banging hardcore for everyone.
I’ve said it once, and I’ll say it again: Brutal spice from New Orleans, PAPRIKA’s self-titled debut is a straight-to-the-jugular assault on greed and all the villainous systems upheld by the amoral plutocrat class.
My favorite Australian sludgy, tough guy post-punk band that just so happens to criticize macho bullshit at every turn, Low Life, released a new one this year. There’s new restraint here, Iggy Pop worship, and, well, agony. View instructions on how to listen to it here.
A ripper with purpose: this is a 36-track compilation released by Bristol, U.K. label Avon Terror Corps in collaboration with Ramallah, Palestine’s Exist Festival—a collaboration with Western and Arabic acts to benefit the Palestinian Medical Relief Society. It’s also an experimentalist’s dream.
Erste Theke Tontraeger Records put out some bangers this year, and Byron Bay Aussie punks Mini Skirt’s Casino LP is unimpeachable: raspy riffs and vocals that siege an attack on British colonialism; a rallying cry for a working class.
Introducing the best skate pop-punk you will hear all year. Daegu, South Korea’s Drinking Boys and Girls Choir understands the exhilaration and scourge of youth, and it sounds so, so good.
Athens, Greece’s Dramachine is more of a project than a band – the ΣΥΓΚΙΝΗΣΙΑΚΗ ΠΑΝΟΥΚΛΑ LP, which they label “devocore,” is an amalgamation of synth-y post-punk, and rap via Greek emcee Sci-Fi River, and coldwave. Deliciously complicated, and not for the faint of heart. Happy listening.