First, some background about the motives of punk albums of 1984. Jello Biafra, in the Dead Kennedys‘ masterly 1979 debut single “California Über Alles,” predicted 1984 as the year presidential hopeful Jerry Brown‘s “suede/denim secret police” would be “knock-knock(ing) at your front door” to haul “your uncool niece” to a reeducation camp because “Zen fascists (would) control you.” He couldn’t have been more far off from reality because it was another, earlier California governor who was far more fascistic in the White House, Ronald Reagan.
The American underground was getting increasingly agitated with what seemed as obvious as the dye job atop Reagan’s skull: He didn’t give a fuck about anyone who wasn’t a rich Republican. The rest of us could eat an increasingly nutrient-deficient cake. Somehow, he conned a larger number of middle Americans to vote for him over the admittedly uncharismatic Walter Mondale that November. Hardcore’s reaction? Get more extreme. The records got angrier. Some bands, as they became more proficient at their instruments, learned to play the heavy-metal sounds they grew up with. A few worked at their songwriting, getting more sophisticated. Others got weird.
Punk, hardcore and indie retrenched and produced some of the most prime records it would be responsible for. These are the best punk albums of 1984.
Hüsker Dü – Zen Arcade
Starting off the best punk albums of 1984 list is the world’s first punk opera, 20 years before Green Day‘s American Idiot. Hüsker Dü’s 1983 already was jangly and melodic without sacrificing punkiness. Witness guitarist/vocalist Bob Mould’s title track to the previous LP Everything Falls Apart and drummer/vocalist Grant Hart’s “Diane” on Zen’s EP antecedent Metal Circus. Now came this double-album narrative of a troubled teen leaving an abusive home, joining the military, finding love, losing her to drugs and then discovering it’s all a dream. It encompassed psychedelia, folk, ’60s jangle pop and hardcore. ’Twas the Huskers’ ticket to greatness.
Minutemen – Double Nickels On The Dime
Meanwhile, San Pedro, California’s punk-funk unit Minutemen decided they’d get a double album, too. There’s no coherent storyline—just 45 songs in 81 minutes, recorded with new producer Ethan James. But this was hardly a toss-off. Some of Minutemen’s most deathless music is spread across these sides, such as the Jackass theme song “Corona” and the autobiographical “History Lesson Part 2.” CD and digital streams miss key tracks (“Little Man With A Gun In His Hand”), but this is still Minutemen’s definitive work.
The Replacements – Let It Be
Every Replacements release was going from strength to strength, as was seemingly every record-of-the-day originating from Minneapolis. Paul Westerberg wrote possibly the best songs of this (or any) time in “Answering Machine,” full of emotional, lyrical depth. Who else pens lines such as, “How do you say I miss you/To an answering machine?” Or the dare of a hook from “Unsatisfied”: “Look me in the eye/Then tell me that I’m satisfied…” Lead guitarist Bob Stinson, his teenage brother Tommy on bass and drummer Chris Mars supplied more rock ’n’ roll swagger than the entire hardcore scene could muster. Let It Be was sublime. Still is. Since this writer can’t find locate Stinson-era live footage of “I Will Dare,” here’s some nice ‘n’ raw live audio with a great pic of Bob in a mini-skirt.
Black Flag – My War
A legal dispute with Unicorn Records kept Black Flag from releasing anything for over two years. So they worked on material with new drummer Chuck Biscuits (ex-D.O.A.), emphasizing the heavy-metal/free-jazz influences emergent on Damaged. That and the band having grown their hair long before embarking on My War‘s accompanying tour puzzled the fuck outta Mohican youth, who could no longer slam to molten jams such as “Scream.” But the title track was as punk as anything Black Flag had ever released. And HC outfits across the world wondered if metal was now an option.
Ramones – Too Tough To Die
The band who defined punk to the world early on appeared increasingly irrelevant through the ’80s. Their last three albums saw them teamed with ill-fitting producers (Phil Spector, 10cc’s Graham Gouldman), a desperate drive for radio hits now motivating proceedings. Hardcore must have made them feel redundant. Teaming up with early producers Ed Stasium and Tommy “Ramone” Erdelyi (their original drummer) and installing new drummer Richie, Joey and Dee Dee provided some of their toughest material, such as “Wart Hog” and “Mama’s Boy.” It turned out serious Ramones was great Ramones. And another killer punk album of 1984.
Various – Repo Man soundtrack
Two compilation albums made it onto our best punk albums of 1984 list. This was the opening salvo of an incredible filmography for indie director Alex Cox. Repo Man starred Emilio Estevez as angry suburban punk rocker Otto, who falls into a job as an automobile repossession agent trained by crusty vet Harry Dean Stanton. Wacky high jinks ensue involving radioactive isotopes, aliens and the U.S. government. Cox curated a soundtrack that served as an incredible U.S. punk primer, with a title track from Iggy Pop, plus modern classics from Black Flag (“TV Party”), Fear (“Let’s Have A War”), Suicidal Tendencies (“Institutionalized”) and the Circle Jerks turning in a hilarious lounge parody of their own, “When The Shit Hits The Fan.” It became a staple of any trashed-out ‘’80s punk house or apartment.
Various – International P.E.A.C.E. Benefit Compilation
Assembled by MDC’s Dave Dictor and the staff of left-leaning punk zine Maximum RockNoll, P.E.A.C.E. stood for “Peace, Energy, Action, Cooperation, Evolution.” The cast compiled showed the international scope of left-wing punk/hardcore, with over 50 bands from across the globe spread across two LPs. Though it featured some of the scene’s major bands (The Dicks, Dead Kennedys, D.O.A., Crass and even Butthole Surfers, whose content rarely reflected their politics), —P.E.A.C.E. was effective at showing how punk had invaded far-flung corners such as Italy, Japan, West Germany and more.
Agnostic Front – Victim In Pain
This is the record that would define New York hardcore. Agnostic Front began as a skinhead outfit, helmed by guitarist Vinnie Stigma and singer Roger Miret (who became the permanent frontman after several predecessors). This led to antagonism from fanzine press, accusing them of the same racism and nationalism that characterized U.K. skin culture, belied by this album’s anti-racist “United And Strong.” The raw power, velocity, thick guitar tone and unbridled AF anger exuded was a potent force, inspired by survival in NYC’s dangerous street life.
Butthole Surfers – Psychic… Powerless… Another Man’s Sac
Dead Kennedys singer Biafra already issued a debut EP on his Alternative Tentacles label by these drug-crazed Texas weirdos. With their debut LP finally unleashed via Detroit hardcore imprint Touch And Go, the core of singer Gibby Haynes, guitarist Paul Leary and drummer King Coffey found a connection between psychedelia, black comedy and punk. The results felt infinitely more dangerous and subversive than your average anti-Reagan thrash band, usually named something like ATI (Any Three Initials). Tracks such as “Gary Floyd” felt like they could destroy the universe at will.One of the best and weirdest punk albums of 1984. And beyond.
Thee Milkshakes – Thee Knights Of Trashe
We finally meet Billy Childish, despite his self-issuing raw, crude punk records since 1977, beginning with the Pop Rivets. A dyslexic poet with over 50 volumes, the Rochester, Kent polymath has released over 100 LPs under various names. In 1984, he released his last LP with Thee Milkshakes, who resembled the early Clash recorded live at the Star Club in 1964—the intersection of Merseybeat and early Britpunk, a signpost toward the coming garage-rock revival. And one of the best punk albums of 1984.
Poison 13 – Poison 13
Austin’s Big Boys dissolved earlier in the year, ending one of the most celebrated and unique bands of early hardcore. Guitarist Tim Kerr and bassist Chris Gates rallied with Big Boys roadie Mike Carroll, a huge fan of ’60s garage punk/blues/rockabilly, plus rootsier punk a la the Cramps and the Gun Club. Poison 13‘s grungy debut was brought home by touring Seattle punk bands. It would greatly influence what happened there next.
Hanoi Rocks – Two Steps From The Move
This Finnish five-piece inadvertently inspired the entire Sunset Strip hair-metal scene. They’re more noted for Mötley Crüe singer Vince Neil’s vehicular manslaughter of their drummer Razzle during their first U.S. tour. The reality? Hanoi Rocks had not one metallic bone in their body. They looked like the New York Dolls and rocked like early Clash, making their debt to Mott The Hoople more explicit. And Hanoi Rocks were punk AF.
The Celibate Rifles – The Celibate Rifles
The greatest band of ’80s Australian punk now raced miles past any other contemporaries. Their second LP is also known as 5 Languages for depicting the group’s name in French, Arabic, English, Chinese and Spanish. Some of the tracks sounded like they’d learned several new musical languages, such as the back-to-back avant-jazz/Velvet Underground homages “Darlinghurst Confidential” and “Thank You America.”
Decry – Falling
Decry’s debut LP (produced by Social Distortion producer Chaz Ramirez at his Casbah Studio in Fullerton) is sufficient evidence that the 1977 punk sound remains vital in Southern California. They took an ill-advised hair-metal detour on the follow-up Japanese, likely influencing bassist Todd Muscat’s defection to ex-punks-gone-hesher Junkyard. But singer Farrell Holtz has a snarl that can cut diamonds, and Decry cut one of the best covers of the Dead Boys’ “Sonic Reducer” ever.