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The 15 best punk albums of 2002, from Sleater-Kinney to the Used

Starring the Libertines, Good Charlotte, Bad Religion, the Used, Against Me! and many more

December 20, 2021
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The most notable aspect of punk rock in 2002 was the mainstream ascension of garage for the first time since the ‘60s. But all those albums by the Strokes, the White Stripes and the Hives that went mega this year were all recorded and released in 2002. Which explains their inclusion on this list, rather than the one you are reading.

The most intriguing and dismaying aspect of the year was the lack of protest against President George W. Bush’s war in Iraq. He misguided America into thinking Saddam Hussein was responsible for the 9/11 attacks, with his talk of “weapons of mass destruction.” Punk rock had always been a particularly belligerent voice of dissent. It would be easy to think the government had finally cowed punk-rock rebels into submission, were it not for Green Day’s blistering American Idiot two years later. There was also the PunkVoter drive organized by NOFX that same year. Otherwise? Where were 2002’s equivalents of the Clash or Crass, screaming against this massive con atop crashing guitars?

Otherwise? 2002 was the year a number of positive voices emerged who would mold punk’s direction for years to come. We’re all the better for it. Please enjoy our custom Spotify playlist as you enjoy this survey of the year’s best punk albums.

The Distillers – Sing Sing Death House

The second LP from the band that gave Brody Dalle her name was the first real refinement of the Distillers’ strengths and aesthetic. On the surface, Dalle flashed the influence of her then-husband, Tim Armstrong. Both shared a certain gravelly, mush-mouthed vocal delivery, and there were times the Distillers’ music flashed hallmarks of Rancid’s, minus the reggae and ska seasoning. Then there are the moments where Dalle and her bandmates opened a vein and poured out pure inspiration, such as “City Of Angels,” their Ramones-meets-Black Flag reimagining of “Welcome To The Jungle.” This was when Dalle became a Joan Jett-like inspiration to the next generation of punk women.

The Libertines – Up The Bracket

Pete Doherty and Carl Barât were a pair of English chancers with poetic gifts, living in a romanticized Britain of their own devising dubbed “Albion.” They folded this world into their ramshackle indie band the Libertines, which never saw much success until the Strokes inspired them to get tougher, garage-ier. What oozed from the 0’s and 1’s comprising their debut, produced by the Clash’s Mick Jones, welded the articulate, very British songwriting of Ray Davies with a sloppy take on Clash/Jam-style late ‘70s punk. England finally had their own version of the Replacements. And they sold a lot of electric guitars to U.K. millennials.

Against Me! – Is Reinventing Axl Rose

Against Me!’s first full-length was an almost total rethink of punk-rock norms. Is Reinventing Axl Rose is almost a folk record in many ways. The guitar work is less distorted downstroked power chords and more clean, strummed open chords. And what Laura Jane Grace is screaming across this amplified folk backing could have been taken straight from the Crass songbook. Then there’s the Latin/spaghetti Western melodies of songs such as “Pints Of Guinness Make You Strong.” It’s probably the unique nature of this music that enabled Against Me! to connect with the large audiences they began drawing around this time on such a deep emotional level. 

Dillinger Four – Situationist Comedy

Quietly, Dillinger Four became America’s greatest active punk band. The only problem was, only a handful of people knew it. One of those was MTV’s pop-punk queen of 2002, Avril Lavigne. As “Complicated” burned up the worldwide pop charts, Rolling Stone magazine asked her what she was listening to: “Dillinger Four, do you know them?” she replied. “They’re punk.” Weeks later, Lavigne attempted to visit them backstage when they played Los Angeles’ Troubadour Club. “Who’s Avril Lavigne?” bassist Paddy Costello asked the security guard knocking on the dressing room door. The band preferred to issue their noisy, catchy, hilariously and intelligently punk albums, filled with such cleverly titled songs as “A Floater Left With Pleasure In The Executive Washroom,” without hoopla and play low-key gigs. It’s endearing, in a way. Situationist Comedy was their third album, and one of their finest. 

Good Charlotte – The Young And The Hopeless

This is it, the album that made Waldorf, Maryland’s own Good Charlotte megastars, on the back of massive hit single “Lifestyles Of The Rich & Famous.” Was it the smirking lyric slashing to bits the overdriven celebrity culture on which America is still obsessed with? Was it the mutated Iggy Pop “Lust For Life” beat that the album’s guest drummer Josh Freese drove through the song like a Mack truck hauling lit dynamite? Really, it was the everyman viewpoint Benji and Joel Madden invest in every song they write. They understand high school outcasts (“The Anthem”), those with drunken absentee fathers (“The Story Of My Old Man”) and the complicated balance between the sexes (“Girls & Boys”). This was ultimately what propelled Good Charlotte and The Young And The Hopeless to the top. 

Joey Ramone – Don’t Worry About Me

Obviously the Ramones’ iconic singer, Joey Ramone was recording his first solo album as quietly as he’d been battling lymphoma. The disease finally claimed him April 15, 2001. Don’t Worry About Me was unveiled posthumously 10 months later. Aside from the uncharacteristically cynical “Venting (It’s A Different World Today),” the album’s tone is delightfully upbeat. The opening rave-up of Louis Armstrong’s “What A Wonderful World,” featuring a borrowed guitar hook from the Sex Pistols’ “Pretty Vacant,” became an instant classic more beloved than the original. Produced by Daniel Rey, who’d worked on the last few Ramones albums, Don’t Worry was a more solid effort than anything from the Ramones final decade. Which made it a fitting memorial for the much-missed singer.

The Hellacopters – By The Grace Of God

The architects of what they called “action rock,” Sweden’s the Hellacopters were five albums in with By The Grace Of God. They went from lo-fi, ultra-distorted, ‘69 Detroit power punk to an ultra-clean and hi-fi ‘70s AOR sound with this LP. Tracks such as “Carry Me Home” could even put one in mind of Lynyrd Skynyrd remodeling Boston’s “Don’t Look Back,” complete with harmonized guitar solos. Was it still action rock? Sure, it was. But it was just really well-groomed and manicured. Which is likely why Grace was the most commercially successful of the Hellacopters’ albums in their native land.

Bad Religion – The Process Of Belief

Bad Religion, the fathers of hyper-intelligent pop punk, left Atlantic Records in 2001. They returned to Epitaph Records, and brought founding member Brett Gurewitz back as well. They were now an expanded six-piece, with new drummer Brooks Wackerman replacing Bobby Schayer. This was the form of Bad Religion that entered production on The Process Of Belief, their 12th studio LP. Also making its return was the melodic hardcore sound that marked their classic period, from Suffer through Stranger Than Fiction. The upshot? The sins-of-the-father classic “Sorrow,” Bad Religion’s first U.S. charting single in six years, a live staple to this day.

My Chemical Romance – I Brought You My Bullets, You Brought Me Your Love

A legend begins. New Jersey’s My Chemical Romance inaugurated the intense devotion of their incrementally expanding following with this Eyeball Records release. The entire MCR vision arrived with I Brought You My Bullets, You Brought Me Your Love: the near-operatic mix of punk/emo/screamo and classic rock, especially Queen; the deep roots in horror comics; and a revival of the ancient ‘60s/’70s rock conceit, the concept album. The debut storyline: a pair of outlaw lovers eventually gunned down in the desert. Guitarist Frank Iero guested, joining after Bullets’ release. Stay tuned, as our heroes net the attention of Reprise Records and go massive in 2004. 

The Donnas – Spend The Night 

Palo Alto’s punk-metal queens the Donnas bit the major-label bullet in December 2001, signing with Atlantic Records after many years with Lookout! Records. Which meant they could finally afford the slick AOR rock production befitting the heavy-metal status they always desired. It enabled singer Brett Anderson, guitarist Allison Robertson, bassist Maya Ford and drummer Torry Castellano to finally hit the Billboard 200 with their fifth studio album, Spend The Night. It peaked at No. 62, selling 450,000 copies as of 2005. With single “Take It Off” taking off, TV shows ranging from Total Request Live to SNL, The Tonight Show with Jay Leno and The Late Show with David Letterman booked appearances. The Donnas arrived. 

Sleater-Kinney – One Beat

One Beat…was a much more strident and pointed political record, in terms of the lyrics,” founding Sleater-Kinney singer/guitarist Carrie Brownstein reflected to Verbicide in 2005. The band have noted they conceived their sixth studio effort as a post-9/11 “voice in the silence.” The martial-rhythmed “Far Away” alone is pointedly critical of President Bush’s response to the terrorist attacks. The material, developed organically in unhurried practice sessions in drummer Janet Weiss’ basement, was the most intricate and complex of their career. Longtime producer John Goodmanson worked with Sleater-Kinney to shake up their normal work modes in the studio. Co-singer/guitarist Corin Tucker opined that the outcome was their discography’s most fully formed entry.

Henry Rollins and Friends – Rise Above: 24 Black Flag Songs To Benefit The West Memphis Three

The case of the West Memphis Three was the most savage indictment of a broken American justice system. In 1994, three men — Damien Echols, Jessie Misskelley Jr. and Jason Baldwin — were wrongfully convicted as teenagers of the murder of three West Memphis, Arkansas boys the previous year. The trial was an emotional, sensationalized affair misrepresenting the teens as Satanists, murdering the children as part of some rite. A pair of documentaries focussed a white-hot spotlight on the case, leading to the 2011 release of the WM3 for time served. It was the result of a concentrated fundraising effort by celebrities and musicians to process and submit new DNA evidence, indicating the teens did not commit the crime.

Among those fundraisers: This Black Flag tribute album, conceived by best-known BF singer Henry Rollins, using Greg Ginn’s powerful odes to defiance in service of this larger cause. The Mother Superior-staffed lineup of Rollins Band ably recreated — sometimes improving upon — these 24 Black Flag classics, mostly resung by Rollins, or performing in duet with different singers. Some of the highlights come from completely different singers entirely: Original BF vocalist Keith Morris outstripping his performance on debut single “Nervous Breakdown”; punk godfather Iggy Pop’s rethink of “Fix Me”; Lemmy’s growl through “Thirsty & Miserable”; and Slayer’s Tom Araya’s paint-peeling “Revenge.” The subsequent tour featuring a set divided between Morris and Rollins fronting Rollins Band was a marvel. Suddenly, Ginn’s groundbreaking songs gained a higher purpose, one that eventually paid off. 

The Used – The Used

Orem, Utah screamo specialists the Used never served the usual indie apprenticeship of other punk scenesters. Their first record deal was with Reprise, and their self-titled debut album was an instant success story upon its June 2002 release. This isn’t to say this band did not pay dues. They suffered a harder gestation than most: Homelessness, poverty, drug addiction and panhandling for food marked the writing of these songs. Goldfinger’s John Feldmann took a real gamble in flying the band to Los Angeles and showcasing them to record companies. Reprise joined in the chance, installing Feldmann and the Used in Marina Del Ray’s Foxy Studios. The overwhelming emotional toll of the band’s backstory poured out of Bert McCracken’s throat as he stepped into the vocal booth. It created a deep connection with all 500,000 people who bought the album by July 2003. It has since been certified platinum.

The Mighty Mighty Bosstones – A Jackknife To A Swan

2000’s ironically titled Pay Attention failed to perform as spectacularly for Boston ska-punks the Mighty Mighty Bosstones as 1997’s breakthrough Let’s Face It. Maybe it was because it didn’t have a monster track a la “The Impression That I Get.” More likely, the Bosstones got lost in the shuffle as Mercury Records folded into the megalithic Universal Music Group. They got the requested release to sign with Side One Dummy, returning to the indie leagues with their seventh studio LP. A Jackknife To A Swan emphasized the Bosstones’ more roaring power chord punk side, in anthemic tracks such as the opening title track. Which didn’t mean their power-ska was gone — it’s there in spades in such tunes as the mobster drama “Mr. Moran.” It was a strong album, which was puzzling in wake of the four-year hiatus began in 2003.

Flogging Molly – Drunken Lullabies

L.A.-based Celtic punks Flogging Molly came by their Irish-inflected sound naturally: Leader/frontman Dave King is a Dublin-born immigrant, previously singer for guitarist Fast Eddie Clarke’s post-Motörhead hard-rock band Fastway. Drunken Lullabies was the more successful follow-up to their 2000 debut, Swagger. Like that one, these 12 tracks reeked of the Pogues’ punk-up of traditional Irish music, with the addition of crashing electric guitars. It took Flogging Molly as high as No. 104 on the Billboard 200, and netted them a gold record. Certainly placing the banjo-rocking title track on Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 4 didn’t hurt any.

Written by Tim Stegall
Written by Tim Stegall