1998’s top 15 punk albums simultaneously changed and preserved the form
Top 15 punk albums of 1998? You’d be forgiven for thinking that there weren’t any in the year the Bill Clinton/Monica Lewinsky scandal dominated the news. A quick perusal of Billboard’s Hot 100 singles of the year sees domination by several R&B (Destiny’s Child, Janet Jackson, Usher, Mariah Carey) or hip-hop (Puff Daddy, Master P, Busta Rhymes, Missy Elliott) acts. Neo-country artists Shania Twain, Faith Hill and LeAnn Rimes also featured, as well as such stars as Celine Dion and the eternal Madonna. Then there’s the rise of British sensations Spice Girls, offering a sort of riot grrrl-lite philosophy couched in modern dance pop, and the ascension of the prefab boy band—Backstreet Boys, *NSYNC. Oh, and a 16-year-old future juggernaut called Britney Spears emerged from Louisiana with her first hit, “...Baby One More Time.”
Read it: You can’t even find a note of Green Day. The closest thing to punk on that list? Former anarcho-punks-turned-anarcho-poppers Chumbawamba from the U.K. with their enormously successful, vicious parody of pub singalongs, “Tubthumping.” But its loud electro-dance groove was far from their Crass-inspired origins.
Punk didn’t need gargantuan record sales or MTV and radio saturation play. It hardly had any of that before Green Day hit so massively four years earlier. Mind you, two prime movers of that commercial punk boom—Rancid and the Offspring—put out key releases this year. Scandinavia was churning out some records from Turbonegro, Backyard Babies and especially Refused that would revolutionize the punk-rock underground. There’d be flashes of classic punk from the Humpers, Turbo A.C.’s, Swingin’ Utters and New Bomb Turks. NYHC standard-bearers Agnostic Front issued probably their definitive album. And Fugazi continued to push musical boundaries. Alternative Press proudly presents the 15 best punk albums of 1998.
Turbonegro – Apocalypse Dudes
Suddenly, the glam and ‘70s metal elements in Norwegian “death-punk” kings Turbonegro got turbo-boosted. It can be firmy laid at the feet of new guitar hero Euroboy (Knut Schreiner), who looked and played like Mick Ronson’s corpse reanimated by a 50,000-watt hotwire jammed up its butt. The record featured the biggest, most FM radio-friendly production the band had received. It highlighted advanced songwriting couching their anti-social sense of humor within their shiniest pop hooks. Arrangements sported new frills such as congas, piano and acoustic guitar. Apocalypse Dudes made huge stars out of Turbonegro in Europe and took them just above the underground in America. But internal pressures still mounted, including singer Hank von Helvete’s heroin addiction struggles. The band broke up that December, 10 months following the album’s release.
Refused – The Shape Of Punk To Come
Swedish hardcore outfit Refused threw down a gauntlet with their third LP. The title alone should have held a clue—avant-jazz saxophonist Ornette Coleman issued a revolutionary 1959 album called The Shape Of Jazz To Come. But Refused asked a pertinent question, across Shape’s liner notes and in the lyrics to several songs, especially “New Noise.” Basically, how could punk and hardcore call itself “anti-establishment” when the sound was getting increasingly co-opted by the mainstream? Those “revolutionary” lyrics weren’t sounding so threatening anymore. Refused applied drum-and-bass production techniques, gene-splicing in post-hardcore, post-punk, techno and jazz elements. The combinations, alongside the widened dynamic range, were endlessly explosive, continually surprising. You could not map out what Refused were doing. Still, its heightened emotionalism birthed screamo. It destroyed the band from the inside out on the road in the U.S. as they struggled to promote an album that changed everything.
Backyard Babies – Total 13
“Rock Chaos” advised a blurb in the jacket’s corner. It’s absolute truth in advertising. The Hellacopters’ flash guitarist Dregen opted to leave that Stooge-rock outfit after their 1997 Payin’ The Dues album. He wanted to reactivate Backyard Babies, the band he formed in high school. Total 13 made them stars in Sweden and brought them to the rest of the world. Their precision with melding metallic bombast, punk simplicity and attitude and glam flash was like a New York Dolls/Motörhead jam session. Between the caveman pounding of the Johan Blomqvist (bass)/Peder Carlsson (drums) rhythm section, Dregen’s bazooka/Thunders lead work and Nicke Borg’s sore throat Mike Ness-isms? It’s no wonder that tuneful blasters such as “Look At You” and “Made Me Madman” grabbed the rock ‘n’ roll world by the shorthairs.
Rancid – Life Won’t Wait
Rancid came off the road promoting ...And Out Come The Wolves wishing to fuck with the format a bit, though maybe not as drastically as Refused. They went almost immediately into the studio from the road. However, the studio changed locations several times, from San Francisco and L.A. to NYC and New Orleans. Hell, they even recorded in Kingston, Jamaica. All manner of special guests spice up the 22 tracks, from Billie Joe Armstrong to the Mighty Mighty Bosstones’ Dicky Barrett and members of Agnostic Front, D Generation, the Specials and reggae legend Buju Banton. The reggae influence was especially pronounced on the title track, though there were still plenty of old-school Rancid punk bashers, such as “Bloodclot.” Life Won’t Wait would be the last Epitaph Rancid release for a while, with the band moving to Tim Armstrong’s Hellcat sub-imprint.
Bad Religion – No Substance
Los Angeles’ originators of melodic thesaurus punk Bad Religion were now two albums away from Epitaph Records and founding guitarist/songwriter Brett Gurewitz, who left in 1994. Stranger Than Fiction and The Gray Race had both been successful worldwide under their Atlantic Records deal. Tenth full-length No Substance was highly anticipated as a result. It instead hit fans’ and critics’ ears like a damp squib. Hard to say why—BR still had plenty of guitar power, thanks to ex-Minor Threat/Dag Nasty hero Brian Baker. The production was top-notch, especially Chris Lord-Alge’s mix job. But songs such as “The State Of The End Of The Millennium Address” weren’t up to Bad Religion’s gold standard. Tellingly, no song here has remained in their live sets.
Dropkick Murphys – Do Or Die
Dropkick Murphys came barreling out of Boston in the mid-’80s with a loud, testosterone-pumped mixture of Cockney Rejects-style street punk with the Pogues’ Irish folk-punk stylings. Opening for the Mighty Mighty Bosstones across the U.S. as they promoted their breakout Let’s Face It certainly helped spread word about this mob. By the time they inked with Hellcat and Rancid’s Lars Frederiksen got them in the studio for their debut album, all of Do Or Die’s songs were locked-in and tighter than a snare drum. De-emphasizing bagpipes and tin whistles in favor of sky-punching power chords steered this from becoming a novelty. This would be vocalist Mike McColgan’s sole full-length with Dropkick Murphys. He’d resurface later in Street Dogs.
Fugazi – End Hits
D.C.’s post-hardcore kings Fugazi were now five albums old. Previous album Red Medicine from 1995 resulted in a grind of a world tour. Following an extended break in which they also wrote new songs, the band reconvened at Inner Ear Studios with Don Zientara to record what became End Hits. Taking their time with it, they experimented. with new recording techniques. Ultimately, Fugazi emerged with an LP as different from the rest of their discography as they were from the rest of the rock world. To hear, say, “Recap Modotti” barely utilize any guitar and continually build quiet tension that never quite releases was remarkable.
The Humpers – Euphoria, Confusion, Anger And Remorse
Eight albums in from their 1989 formation, all seemed all right on the surface these explosive Long Beach trad-punks. Euphoria, Confusion, Anger And Remorse was chock-full of such ballistic snot rockets as “Steel-Toed Sneakers” and “Devil’s Magic Pants.” There were even a few stylistic detours, such as the Spector-esque “Fucking Secretaries” and the ‘50s-styled “Peggy Sue Got Buried.” A Los Angeles Times profile saw the band and Epitaph Records mutually frustrated at their lack of career advancement, with the band refusing to reform waywardness that repulsed some club owners. Euphoria proved to be the Humpers’ final studio LP.
New Bomb Turks – At Rope’s End
Columbus, Ohio’s kings of grad-school garage punk were now four albums and countless singles into their loud and crunchy reign. Only the most casual of listeners would dig their union of ‘60s garage with hardcore overdrive and think of it as simplistic bashing. A careful audit of At Rope’s End would reveal the clever subtleties embedded within their caveman roar. Opening track “Scapegoat Soup,” for example, features a guitar lead buried in its mix utilizing a distortion box with dying batteries. The notes sputter and get severely truncated. It works. No one other than New Bomb Turks would’ve imagined that.
The Offspring – Americana
"The idea wasn't to reinvent the wheel,” Offspring singer Dexter Holland explained to Guitar World magazine about the business-as-usual sound of fifth studio album Americana. “We expanded our horizons on our last record [Ixnay On The Hombre], and that's OK, but I don't feel like you have to be a completely different band on every record." Which might explain why Ixnay hardly did the business Smash had. But Americana produced the band’s biggest hits, probably because it was more of the same. Seriously, the differences between 1994 breakthrough hit “Come Out And Play” and this album’s “Pretty Fly (For A White Guy)” were damned near negligible. Americana became their second biggest-selling album and their highest charting album at No. 2 on Billboard’s Hot 100.
Alkaline Trio – Goddamnit
Future Alkaline Trio fans may not have been all that surprised when listening to the Chicago trio’s 1998 debut album. It was certainly not as lushly produced as such later hits as Good Mourning, nor were the themes as macabre as later material. But longstanding singer/guitarist Matt Skiba and bassist/vocalist Dan Andriano and then-drummer Glenn Porter were mining that same infusion of Superchunk’s quirky pop structures with Ramones/Misfits power drive that remains their trademark. Gentle acoustic ballad “Enjoy Your Day” is a pleasant surprise, however. It was a promising start for what became one of the finest punk bands of the ‘00s.
Dillinger Four – Midwestern Songs Of The Americas
There was nothing like Dillinger Four or their debut album when Midwestern Songs Of The Americas was issued. It was punk-pop, but it was brutal as Motörhead. The result was a sort of trashy version of Hüsker Dü as they transitioned from their early hardcore to their Midwestern Buzzcocks mode. It roared yet sounded cheaply recorded all the same. They were righteously political yet had this absurdist humor. The latter led them to sampling a thrift store stereo sampler record. It’s their overall intelligence that ultimately dazzles. It led to song titles like “Super Powers Enable Me To Blend In With Machinery” and lyrics like, “But it’s the slow decay of the day-to-day/That says take your paycheck, accept your place and fade away.” This record should be in every home.
Swingin’ Utters – Five Lessons Learned
The fourth album from Santa Cruz’s old-school punks the Swingin’ Utters was a school in repurposing classic pogo-rock riffs. “The Stooge” dumbed down the chord progression from the Buzzcocks’ “Harmony In My Head.” Meanwhile “I Need Feedback” modified changes from the Stooges’ “I Got A Right” and the Damned’s “Neat Neat Neat.” But a bunch of new musical wrinkles got stitched into their sound, from “A Promise To Distinction”’s country touches to the minor-key ska of “Unpopular Again” and the Irish folk tinge to “Fruitless Fortunes.” Not quite the Swingin’ Utters’ London Calling but a definite sign of growth.
The Turbo A.C.’s – Winner Take All
If punk rock were a drag strip, New York City’s Turbo A.C.’s would be a nitro-burning rat rod. They were formed in 1995 by singer/guitarist Kevin Cole, bassist Mike Dolan and drummer Kevin Prunty as an amalgam of rockabilly, surf instrumentals, the Ramones and hardcore’s energy. The name was derived from the Turnbull AC’s, one of the fictitious gangs mentioned in the 1979 film The Warriors. Winner Take All was their third LP and might be their most representative. With ripping burners such as “Thunderbolt,” “Hit The Road” and “Mean Mistreater,” there’s no way it could lose.
Agnostic Front – Something’s Gotta Give
The longtime standard-bearers of NYHC, centered around guitarist Vinnie Stigma and vocalist Roger Miret, Agnostic Front had also been key to hardcore’s crossover metal sound. Miret and Stigma reformed AF in 1996 after a four-year absence with bassist Rob Kabula and drummer Jimmy Colletti. Now signed to Epitaph, the potent Something’s Gotta Give marked a return to their early hardcore sound. They had not lost an ounce of brutality nor locomotion over time. However, tracks such as anthemic single “Gotta Go” proved they were also capable of hard-bitten old-school punk rock. It was a fine return from the veteran warlords.