The year 2019 produced a staggering amount of punk and hardcore music. I tasked myself with listening to the majority of it, and the experience was essential in helping me get a decent grasp on where and how things were going in punk. Synthesizers, chorus pedals and noise punk influences felt ubiquitous this year. Although some bands definitely tried to emulate the sounds of the most popular punk bands, it was more common to see bands trying to find their own way around pale imitation of current trends and beloved classics.
Unsurprisingly, my favorite records were from the bands who had a confident grasp on their influences and were ready to experiment. Only three of the bands on the list were new to me; I found more promise in the ways bands could build on their bodies of work. The chances of my own taste dictating what flourishes in the many punk and hardcore scenes is very unlikely; however, it seems like longer EPs and LPs took the spotlight away from shorter records and demos in 2019. The lengthy releases shouldn’t suggest bloated ambitions, as the longest records on the list were capable of carrying and modifying their creative energies as well as any four-minute EP. The best punk of 2019 was defined by bands’ willingness to let ostensibly shaggy ambitions and energy supersede uncomplicated worship of the past.
1. 1981, “Acts of Rebellion”
The unfettered sincerity of “Acts of Rebellion” makes it a total outlier on the list; the artwork and lyrics strongly suggest anarcho, but the earnestness in the vocal deliveries and relative softness of the instrumentals are more reminiscent of the softer moments of early ’90s emo. The melodic and largely undistorted approach mirrors the controlled anger behind their sincere concerns about the world. The lyrical tone of “Acts of Rebellion” is most similar to the moroseness of “Let The Tribe Increase,” but the stripped down music lends everything a feeling of implicit hopefulness. It might feel slightly wrong to have music about the ails of the world feel somewhat comfortable, but I was ready for a little hopefulness. Above all of these values, “Acts of Rebellion” took me back to the years when I was most passionate about punk — something it accomplishes more than anything else on the list.
2. Antimob, “II”
It’s been seven years since the debut LP from Antimob, and “II” is worth every minute of waiting. There’s an effortless energy to the riffs’ ability to feel simultaneously indefinite and crushing. The boundless intensity is anchored by an unostentatious virtuosity and simple, yet anthemic choruses. “II” made just about every other hardcore album this year feel inadequate and flimsy.
3. Heavy Metal, “LP 4”
Calling this a post-punk album almost feels wrong; almost everything I saw labelled as “post-punk” in 2019 was content with a plodding baseline and a little chorus on their guitars, and “LP 4” is lightyears away from any kind of dull genre worship. Like many of the first bands who carried the post-punk genre, Heavy Metal looks at how a vast array of influences can work with and against punk music. “LP 4” was packed to the brim with sardonic humor and unorthodox genre play. Where so many bands this year failed to embody any sort of discernible form of attitude, Heavy Metal maintained their own singularly potent attitude across 24 tracks.
4. Hondartzako Hondakinak, “Bruiarta”
Honda Honda has always been the real deal, but their newest release firmly establishes them as the most commanding hardcore band today. The incomparable fury of the vocals complement the most pummeling performance on any record I’ve heard recently. Their singularly powerful guitar tone hits you like a stack of bricks in the intro; the way the guitar work weaves between mid-tempo riffs and its more scorching blitzes is just part of why “Bruiarta” was the most vital and exciting hardcore album of the year.
5. Ignorantes, “Con La Camiseta Puesta”
“Con La Camiseta Puesta” was the album I returned to most frequently when I needed something raw and scuzzy. If other favorites this year have impressed me with their ability to find new songs through experimentation, Ignorantes impressed me with their ability to stick to their guns. Each song on this album sounds pretty much the exact same, yet I love each of them wholeheartedly. Why experiment when your sound is perfect from the get-go?
6. Institute, “Re-adjusting the Locks”
Institute moved away from the post-punk sounds of their earlier albums for a sound more reminiscent of ’77 punk on “Re-adjusting the Locks.” Although they briefly experimented with this sound on “Prissy Things” from their last album, “Subordination,” the new influence still felt like a surprising turn for the band. After becoming more aware of the album’s lyrical focus, the reason for the change feels anything but arbitrary. The songs decry the powers who constantly make meaningful change feel like an impossibility. By going back to the building blocks of punk and experimenting, Institute suggests it’s possible to go back to the beginning and move toward something different. The poignant melding of musical and lyrical ideas on “Re-adjusting the Locks” made it one of the year’s most essential releases.
7. The Minneapolis Uranium Club Band, “The Cosmo Cleaners: The Higher Calling Of Business Provocateurs“
Shifting from the often surreal lyrics and tight dual guitar work, the newest album from The Minneapolis Uranium Club makes distinct changes so their sound can evolve. The bizarre lyrics of the band’s first two albums often express things through inscrutably weird turns of phrase and sharp shifts in tone. The new album has the amusing phrasing and dark tonal shifts of the first two albums, but the tendency toward the cryptic is traded in for an eerily mundane focus. The relatively grounded lyrics allow the social commentary of the approach to realize the band’s potential for expressing a visceral bleakness.
The guitar work initially seems unfocused, especially in comparison to the hard hitting interplay of their earlier works, but the band’s move away from more traditional punk riffs and rhythm proves to be a welcome one. The building intensity comes from how the noodling guitars slowly build to a more unified intensity. Like the lyrics, the guitar work disarms the listener in the way it feels capable of turning from mundane to the hair-raising in a moment. The impressive growth and experimentation from The Minneapolis Uranium Club on their latest project is the type of achievement that makes you feel like you’ve been underestimating them. If you only have the time to listen to one record on the list, it should be “The Cosmo Cleaners.”
8. The Natural M*n Band, “LIVING IN A CHEMICAL WORLD WITH THE NATURAL MAN BAND”
“Living in a Chemical World” was the most fun punk album I heard this year. The prominent sax work and unusual harmonies suggest post-punk, especially bands like The Raincoats or Girls at Our Best, but there’s an almost hardcore edge to the album’s more rambunctious moments. While so many bands in 2019 felt like they were straining to match up to their influences, The Natural M*n Band impresses totally with the way their most impressive moves feel uncalculated. The surfeit of earworm choruses on “Living in a Chemical World” will come back to me for a long time.
9. Pinocchio, “Self-titled”
Pinocchio starts off their first EP with an odd mixture of arena-rock stomp and art-pop vocal melodies. The offbeat quality of their opener feels like both a warning to the unprepared and a promise for the willing. The rest of the album finds success in the way it uses ’70s hard rock influence and uninhibited vocals in its wholly original take on punk. The beguiling quality of the band’s idiosyncrasies never wears off or makes for anything less than a totally spellbinding listen. Toxic State Records put out a truly impressive batch of records in 2019, so it’s all the more impressive how Pinocchio’s EP stands head and shoulders above all of them.
10. Purple-X, “Self-titled”
Purple-X followed up their demo with an album that feels like a lost classic from the ’80s. They move seamlessly between an eerie iciness and their fastest riffs, and this sense of control extends to the emotive grit of the vocals. Rather than sounding like any band or scene in particular, Purple-X feels a unique amalgamation of small sounds and idiosyncrasies from a lifetime of absorbing the genre.
I easily could’ve filled a list with 30 amazing punk and hardcore records from this year. Wading through hundreds of hackneyed projects won’t be what sticks with me — it’ll be the records that reignited my passion for the genre and encouraged me to seek out more. The greatest albums this year made me forget I was seeking out “the best.” They were the albums with performances and perspectives so distinct they made me abandon any attempts at critical judgements. If this list should serve any purpose, it should provide a few stepping stones toward kickstarting your own wade through the chaff.