Hardcore can be kitschy, outlandish even, but it’s often humorless. NASA Space Universe (yes, they are aware of the redundancy of “space” in their band name, thank you very much) are brilliant comedians, but their band is very much not a joke. The lyrics from frontman Kevin Rhea are fictional science terms, sci-fi poetry even, screamed with the conviction of even the most activist bands. Oh, and Nardwuar, the internet’s most eccentric music personality (and talented researcher) is a avid fan. Take his word for it.
2013 was an excellent year for Canadian hardcore, with Toronto’s own Kremlin at the forefront of the pack. Drunk in the Gulag (yup that’s the actual album title) brings to mind the best of early ’80s U.K. hardcore, and comparisons to Bristol’s Disorder or Discharge are not far off. The majority of the vocals are completely incomprehensible with the exception of a chorus of “Tomorrow’s gone, no hope for you,” from the track of a similar name, “No Hope for You.” There’s nothing terribly innovative here: It’s just a kick-ass hardcore 12”. Sometimes that’s all you need.
Translating to “Creatures” in English, colloquially a term of endearment, Criaturas are an Austin-based female-fronted hardcore act. They’re one of the best in the game. They actually know how to play their instruments — a feat in and of itself — and showcase their abilities liberally. I’m talking guitar solos, and lots of them. The band’s 10-track debut, Esperita De Libertad, clocks in around 15 minutes and sustains the highest level of intensity. Listening is far from exhausting. “Anti Autoridad” is a good place to start: traditional, unsympathetic hardcore.
Kathleen Hanna can do no wrong. That’s a grandiose statement, sure, but a truthful one nonetheless: From Olympia fem punk to professional lecturer, the woman has spent decades inspiring other women and men alike to be the best they can be — just don’t idealize her past. The Julie Ruin, and their first album since Hanna’s 1998 LP of the same name, is not a revisionist history; this is not a riot grrrl album. In some ways, it’s better. Run Fast is purely energetic electro-punk; fun nods to Le Tigre can be found in the single “Girls Like Us,” an ode to an individualist feminism. Run Fast is noisy and fun, and sometimes that’s the best thing you can be.
Priests are a D.C. band. In 2013, that’s a confusing identity: Do you live in the shadows of an antiquated Dischord Records past, recounting Ian MacKaye’s straightedge virtues of abstaining from drugs and alcohol, or do you fight to rid yourself of formulaic tropes? For Priests, it comes naturally: They are political, that’s a given. They’re socially conscious to the point where every live show (and song) requires shutting up and learning. They’re the kind of band where musicians switch instruments midway through a set. Their success is in their democracy. The best song on the tape is the first one, the take-no-bullshit anthem of “Leave Me Alone,” with the biting lyricism of “Maybe you kiss a lot of girls / Maybe you have a lot of boyfriends” into “You won’t leave me alone” and “You want to know what I think? / I think you look like a creep!” Yikes!
Someone got their heart broken in a big way. Radiator Hospital is the project of former Waxahatchee bassist Cook-Parrott, a heart-on-your-sleeve endeavor that’s almost too earnest. “Our Song,” Something Wild’s crowning achievement and lead single, is one of the best power-pop-punk anthems of the last decade, with the opening line: “Dreaming of the last time that you said you wanted to dance / No you don’t ask me anymore,” delicately illustrating disappointment and longing free of obnoxious sentimentality. You’re set up to be let down. It’s OK, you can still dance on your own.
Don’t stare: The album cover itself is a trip. A deep one, as the Tempe, Ariz., band would like you to experience. Destruction Unit is the brainchild of frontman Ryan Rousseau, formerly of Jay Reatard’s band the Reatards, formed from the Ascetic House art collective. Their identity can be found in their geography: think desert distortion, psychedelic drugs, impossibly hot heat. Music for desert haze, the reverbed grogginess of dropping acid, and experiencing new extensions of your body. “Slow Death Sounds” takes that welcomed lack of control and filters it through articulate aggression; it’s heavy, but it goes down smooth.
“What happened to you to make you wear black and studs? / What happened to me to wear them just because?” Abby Weems sings in the chorus of “Black and Studs,” the second single off of Potty Mouth’s debut full-length Hell Bent. She’s self-aware to the point where she’s mocking the culture that birthed her band: Punk stuff can often be totally ridiculous. An interesting narrative when considering the rest of the album is full of greater cultural observations and a certain sense of self-security. Potty Mouth lean more toward pop punk than the heavy bands on this list, and allow their understanding of melody to speak their narratives for them.
First things first: This band met in anger management. Yes, anger management. That should be enough to justify why this noisy indie pop band from Wales is on this list. They’re also super-young and showcase remarkable musical proficiency: think violent lyricism (the second single, “Secret Surprise,” might host the best lyrics of the year, for any genre: “You want me so bad you can’t breathe / I dream of pulling out your teeth”) and ascending melodies. It’s as if hardcore and twee decided to have a beautiful and incredibly dysfunctional marriage. But at no point does their debut, Weird Sister, feel demoralizing or outstandingly angry: If anything, frontwoman Alanna McArdle is adamant on addressing injustices and does with feminist empowerment. Just don’t call them riot grrrl revivalists.
Don’t let the name fool you, there’s nothing springtime fresh about this band. Perhaps not classically punk (what does the word mean, anyway?), Raspberry Bulbs are all over the place in the best way. Scandinavian black metal-tinged, post-punk-influenced, with experimental electronics and American punk — a laundry list that comes together in Deformed Worship, the band’s sophomore LP and first for Blackest Ever Black. The record’s apex is its single, “Groping the Angel’s Face,” with cadence-like percussion that pauses, begins, pauses again, promoting the same sort of anxiety frontman Marco del Rio (formerly of Bone Awl) must feel before launching into indecipherable screams.
Hoax is monstrous. Synonymous with the fertile music scene in Western Massachusetts (think Sonic Youth, Dinosaur Jr.), Hoax sound nothing like the place they inhabit (or I should say, inhabited, as half of the band has since moved to Los Angeles). Hoax’s self-released full-length is equally as monstrous, a gripping release of pure adrenaline. Frontman Jesse Sanes’ death growls are as recognizable as his open head (those lucky enough to see the band live know of his tendency to bash the microphone against his skull, not to the chagrin of sound guys and venues everywhere). One of the best songs on the album, “Anesthetize,” has Sanes bellowing, “How could I die / I’m already dead.” A sentiment for the downtrodden, and somehow a warranted one.
Framtid are one of the best d-beat crust bands of all time, even if the name is misleading (framtid is Norwegian for “future”). Defeat of Civilization is the band’s first album in nine years, following 2002’s incredible Under the Ashes. There’s no nuance to be found here, just straightforward, callous, and caustic punk. Those lucky enough to have attended the Chaos in Tejas festival in Austin — this ain’t South by Southwest — saw the Japanese band live in the U.S. for the first time ever. Easily the heaviest band on this list, those looking to dive into the depth of abrasion can look no further.
It should come as no surprise that one of the best releases of the year came in the form of a cassette. DIY music for everyone and anyone. These recordings are usually low-quality and temporal, something that makes the listening experience timely and moments precious. Perfect Pussy came from seemingly nowhere: Syracuse, a town ultimately unknown for its creative output. The best song on the four-track cassette, I Have Lost All Desire for Feeling, is largely the first one, “I.” In it, guitarist Ray McAndrew launches into the controlled distorted riff that carries the song, vocalist Meredith Graves perfecting it with abrasive kindness: “I am full of light / I am filled with joy / I am full of peace / I had this dream that I forgave my enemies.” Perfect Pussy are the kind of band that are happy to inspire you to become a better person.
Vancouver punks White Lung released the single “Blow It South” in November of this year, a controlled effort following 2012’s sophomore LP Sorry. The track has vocalist Mish Way at her most Courtney Love, this time her howls directed with poignancy, used deliberately, only when necessary. Guitarist Kenneth William delivers the song with melodic brutality, a feature of White Lung that has made them popular even outside the most insular of hardcore circles. If Blow It South is any indication, 2014 will be an even bigger year for White Lung. Let’s hope they keep us along for the ride.
In 2012, young Danish band Iceage appeared from seemingly nowhere with an impressive debut album New Brigade. Model-esque and fuming, the quartet managed to beat their anxieties and frustrations into submission: music that was punk but also hardcore, post-punk, and cadence-like. If punk bands like to flirt with militaria, Iceage were dedicated to making it their own with guitars like marching infantrymen. Fast-forward a year and we have the aptly titled You’re Nothing, an album of internal struggle instead of their previous external ones. Vocalist Elias Rønnenfelt wails of meaningless sex in “Ecstacy,” demands existential sincerity in “Morals,” questions isolation in “Coalition.” The entire record takes an incredible energy to bleak reality: Therein lies their genius. Like any genre, innovation is complicated, necessary, and immediately identifiable. This is Iceage’s reality — they’ve just done it better (while younger) than everyone else.