Singer/guitarist Gordon Gano, bassist Brian Ritchie and drummer Victor DeLorenzo formed Violent Femmes in 1981, developing their unique folk-punk sound in the coffee shops of Milwaukee and busking on street corners. The band’s self-titled 1983 debut was an unlikely college radio sensation thanks to songs such as “Blister in the Sun” and “Add It Up,” eventually selling more than a million copies. Across nine more albums, Gano and Ritchie proved to be restless and omnivorous musicians, incorporating free jazz, avant folk and gospel into their sound, while occasionally coming up with more irresistible anthems like “American Music.”
Earlier this year, the Femmes’ debut album turned 40, and the city of Milwaukee declared the first “Violent Femmes Day” on the April 13 anniversary of its release date. This month, Craft Recordings celebrated the milestone with a new deluxe edition of Violent Femmes as a double CD or three-LP boxed set with B-sides, demos and live tracks. Indeed, Violent Femmes have proven to be a far more versatile band than “Blister in the Sun” fans give them credit. Where do the band’s more experimental efforts such as Hallowed Ground and Hotel Last Resort rank alongside their classic debut?
10. Freak Magnet (2000)
Interscope Records was founded in 1990 and quickly became an insurgent music industry powerhouse thanks to a series of gangsta rap and alternative rock hits. Signing to the label in the late ‘90s probably seemed like a great idea for Violent Femmes, but when Interscope’s parent company merged with PolyGram, the band was dropped alongside dozens of other low-priority acts. The album they’d already recorded, Freak Magnet, took two years to finally come out on the British indie Beyond Records. Their schtick-iest record, thanks to fast and obnoxious songs such as “Mosh Pitt” and “I’m Bad,” Freak Magnet is currently out of print, but not necessarily worth hunting down. “The band is still doing pretty much the same thing that they were in 1982,” wrote Ken Lieck in the Austin Chronicle.
9. We Can Do Anything (2016)
The 16 years between Freak Magnet and We Can Do Anything were filled with drama. Gano released his debut solo album in 2002, and DeLorenzo rejoined Violent Femmes that year for a farewell tour, which turned into several more years of steady roadwork. Ritchie sued Gano over the decision to license “Blister in the Sun” for a 2007 Wendy’s commercial, and the band finally split up for real for half a decade. The original trio reunited for a performance at Coachella in 2013, although DeLorenzo left the band again when they recorded their next album. We Can Do Anything marks the studio debut of the Violent Femmes’ present-day quartet lineup with saxophonist Blaise Garza, who leads the band’s in-house brass section, the Horns of Dilemma. “Issues” and “Traveling Solves Everything” epitomize Gano’s droll sense of humor, but only “Holy Ghost” really conjures the spirit of Violent Femmes at their very best.
8. Rock!!!!! (1995)
Australia has long been a hearty secondary market for American alternative bands, and Violent Femmes have a particularly strong following in Oz, frequently charting higher there than in the U.S. The band signed to the Melbourne-based Mushroom Records for their seventh album, but without wider international distribution in place, Rock!!!!! was only released in New Zealand and Australia, where the single “Tonight” was a hit. Rock!!!!! isn’t quite a lost classic, but true to its title, the album features some of the band’s best electric songs such as “Bad Dream” and “She Went to Germany.” It certainly deserved to be released in the band’s home country.
7. 3 (1989)
Violent Femmes briefly split up for the first time after The Blind Leading the Naked, with Ritchie releasing the solo album The Blend and Gano forming the gospel/punk band the Mercy Seat in 1987. The fourth Femmes album was titled 3, presumably in reference to the album’s emphasis on the core trio after a couple of albums heavy on additional instrumentation. Alternative rock was such a growing commercial force that Billboard began publishing a Modern Rock singles chart in 1988, and “Nightmares” became the band’s first hit there, peaking at No. 4. Unfortunately, Warren Bruleigh’s cavernous production was an awkward fit for the band’s back-to-bassics arrangements. 3 sounds like an artifact of its era, when many of the American rock underground’s most original and idiosyncratic bands (Meat Puppets, Bad Brains) were making unflatteringly overproduced albums.
6. New Times (1994)
DeLorenzo left Violent Femmes in 1993, partly to pursue a career in the theater. Gano also did some acting in the mid ‘90s, appearing in episodes of The Adventures of Pete & Pete and Sabrina and the Teenage Witch, as well as voice work in The Rugrats Movie. The band’s first album without DeLorenzo, New Times, did not sincerely announce a new era for Violent Femmes, but its sound is a bit of leap into ‘90s modern rock. Gano plays more electric guitar on New Times than on any other album, new drummer Guy Hoffman plays a bigger, more conventional kit and there are some Lollapalooza-friendly quiet/loud dynamics. A drum machine even pops up on a couple tracks, including the band’s last Modern Rock chart entry, the No. 12 hit “Breaking Up.”
5. Hotel Last Resort (2019)
If anybody was singing like Gano before Gano, it was Television frontman Tom Verlaine. The New York punk legend, who died in 2023, made one of his final on-record appearances on the title track to the most recent Femmes album, 2019’s Hotel Last Resort. It’s not an uncanny duet between two similar voices, though – Verlaine plays distinctive lead guitar all over the track. The album’s other guest is far more unexpected: pro skateboarder Stefan Janoski sings backup on a new version of “I’m Nothing,” which first appeared on New Times, and collaborated with Violent Femmes on a Nike sneaker that was released alongside Hotel Last Resort. “There’s one sublime moment: ‘Paris to Sleep’ is a Jonathan Richman-esque reflection on the marvels of that city, with a delicate and stately arrangement that’s shiveringly good,” wrote Michael Hann in the Guardian‘s review.
4. The Blind Leading the Naked (1986)
On paper, Jerry Harrison must have seemed like a perfect choice to produce the third Violent Femmes album. Like the band, Harrison was from Milwaukee and was a member of two trailblazing alternative bands to whom the Femmes had often been compared, Talking Heads and the Modern Lovers. However, his more commercially savvy production was at odds with the experimental direction led by Ritchie, who sang lead for the first time on “Love & Me Make Three” and invited avant folk guitarists Fred Frith and Leo Kottke to play on the album. Harrison proved to be a better foil for more conventional alt-rock bands later in the ‘90s, producing platinum albums for Live, the Verve Pipe and Crash Test Dummies.
3. Why Do Birds Sing? (1991)
Violent Femmes’ 1983 debut was finally certified platinum in February 1991, which may have put a spring in the band’s step when their fifth album was released two months later. The lead single “American Music” is easily the band’s most popular song since their early days, peaking at No. 2 on the Modern Rock chart (blocked from the top spot, oddly, by the forgotten Simple Minds single “See the Lights”). Why Do Birds Sing? is a crowd-pleasing album in the best sense, full of the kind of acerbic anthems that made teenagers fall in love with Violent Femmes in the first place, as well as a surprisingly good cover of Culture Club’s “Do You Really Want To Hurt Me?”
2. Hallowed Ground (1984)
In classic DIY band tradition, Violent Femmes developed multiple albums’ worth of material before setting foot in a studio, picking their catchiest material for their 1983 debut. Darker, stranger compositions like “Country Death Song,” “I Hear the Rain” and “Never Tell” were part of the band’s earliest setlists in 1981, but weren’t released until 1984’s Hallowed Ground. Gano is a devout Baptist and the son of a minister, but critics and fans weren’t sure what to make of gospel songs like “Jesus Walking on the Water” or the collaboration with experimental jazz icon John Zorn on “Black Girls.” Hallowed Ground is the band’s favorite Violent Femmes album, often misunderstood as a sophomore slump rather than the album that displayed the depths of their creativity and roots in a wide variety of American musical traditions. “First time out they sounded so original musically that I made it a spiritual exercise to forgive Gordan Gano for his bad personality. But everything you might hum along with on the sequel was invented generations ago by men better than he,” Robert Christgau wrote in the Village Voice.
1. Violent Femmes (1983)
Slash, an L.A. punk fanzine, became a label in the late ‘70s, releasing classic debut albums by the Germs and X. It signed a distribution deal with Warner Bros. in 1982, one of the first of its kind for an American punk label, but its first serious best seller came from far outside Los Angeles. Three guys from Wisconsin, two still teenagers, recorded Violent Femmes in a week, often capturing songs on the first take. The lack of distortion pedals or typical rock bombast is made up for by the sheer nervous energy of the young trio, and the disarmingly tremendous hooks of some of ‘80s college radio’s most enduring songs: “Blister in the Sun,” “Gone Daddy Gone,” “Add It Up” and “Kiss Off.” The album is more than the sum of its hits, though, with charming curveballs like the reggae groove of “Please Do Not Go” and the vulnerable ballad “Good Feeling.” “There’s a genuine dynamism to this music, a raw, gutsy power that is as enlivening as the best garage rock,” J.D. Considine wrote in the Rolling Stone of Violent Femmes.