Henry Rollins Black Flag 1983
[Photo via Wikimedia Commons/UCLA Library Special Collections]

1981 was the year hardcore engulfed everything punk. Skanking pit warriors swarmed a stage at the Olympic Auditorium in Los Angeles. England had its own equivalent—the Exploited, GBH, Discharge. But none of the mile-high Mohican British bands could touch what was coming out of America. And we have the punk-rock records to prove it.

Yet, as good as much of early U.S. hardcore was, the best punk music of the day had nothing to do with 120 MPH thrash. Many of the best bands either recharged rootsier forms or plied a certain songwriting craft. And some of the best hardcore was already breaking the speed über alles rules already calcifying within the slam-dance scene. As certain standard bearers such as the Clash or Blondie seemed to be abandoning their punk roots, punk retrenched and took its own direction. Nonetheless, these are the best punk-rock records of 1981.

Read more: The top 15 punk-rock records of 1977 that undeniably defined the year
1. Black Flag – Damaged

Black Flag‘s debut LP, following three EPs featuring as many vocalists, laid out the blueprint: Be angrier/harder/faster/more aggressive than 1977 punk, in everything you do. Yet speed was hardly Black Flag’s be-all, end-all. Previous singer Dez Cadena set the amelodic, leather-lunged Black Flag vocalist standard. Cadena moved to second guitar, allowing leader/songwriter Greg Ginn to twist his six-string in evermore atonal free-jazz clusters. Henry Rollins voiced the broken-glass attitude of the cover beautifully.

2. The Replacements – Sorry Ma, Forgot To Take Out The Trash

As their friends/rivals Hüsker Dü broke the land speed records that inspired their debut album’s title, Minneapolis’ Replacements crafted a sloppy drunk rock that was as much the New York Dolls and Faces in a flannel shirt and torn jeans as it was Bob Dylan or Hank Williams. It was Paul Westerberg‘s heart-on-sleeve songwriting—full of passionate observations and snide humor such as “You’re in love, and I am in trouble”—and Bob Stinson‘s blustery guitar work that set them apart from their thrashomatic peers. A legendary ’80s punk-rock record begins here.

3. The Cramps – Psychedelic Jungle

Ghoulish guitarist Bryan Gregory was gone, replaced by Brian Tristan and now renamed Kid Congo Powers. The Cramps‘ punkabilly attack was intact but was now bolstered by fuzzbox-damaged ’60s garage psychedelia, best exemplified by opening track “Green Fuz” or Lux Interior/Poison Ivy Rorschach originals “Can’t Find My Mind” and “Beautiful Gardens,” complete with backward messages. A royalties battle with I.R.S. Records chief Miles Copeland commenced during the record’s making, ensuring that the Cramps would not make another record for a while. Good thing Psychedelic Jungle was so good.

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4. The Gun Club – Fire Of Love

Jeffrey Lee Pierce was an L.A. punk scene fixture, Slash magazine record reviewer and West Coast Blondie fan club president. He met Ramones fan club president Brian Tristan in 1979, tuned a guitar to an open chord and taught the future Kid Congo Powers to play one-finger chords. Their band Creeping Ritual became the Gun Club, a platform for Pierce’s neo-gothic mash of blues and three-chord punk. Ward Dotson replaced Powers for the debut album, and anthems such as “Sex Beat” and “She’s Like Heroin To Me” provided a sleazy bohemian alternative to hardcore.

5. X – Wild Gift

X‘s second LP saw the core John Doe/Exene Cervenka songwriting/vocal team grappling with being newlyweds in the no-roles/free-spirit atmosphere of Los Angeles’ boho-punk social whirl. “In This House That I Call Home” chronicles early marriage in a trashed-out 24-hour punk party pad: “A hundred lives are shoved inside/Guests arrive to dump their mess.” Meanwhile, Cervenka warbles after a fight on possible-best-X-song “Beyond And Back”: “I’ll go somewhere else/I’ll move to the couch/It’s darker in the dark/It’s darker in the day.” In the distance, Billy Zoom reels off his best Carl Perkins-meets-Johnny Ramone guitar work.

6. D.O.A. – Hardcore ’81

The record named neither the style or scene, but it’s definitive nevertheless. Guitarist Dave Gregg supplemented Joey Shithead (vocals/guitar), Randy Rampage (bass) and Chuck Biscuits (drums), and some of the tempos certainly accelerated on tracks such as “D.O.A.” and “Waiting For You.” Which meant Biscuits’ arms were working harder than ever, and he was already rivaling the Damned’s Rat Scabies for the title of Punk’s Greatest Drummer. But the key to Vancouver’s finest is in the jokey cover of Led Zeppelin’s protopunk moment, “Communication Breakdown”: At their (hard)core, they’re a rock ’n’ roll band.

Read more: 15 punk-rock records of 1979 that still rule four decades later
7. The Flesh Eaters – A Minute To Pray, A Second To Die

L.A.’s punk poet laureate Chris D. is joined by an all-star cast this time: X’s Doe and DJ Bonebrake, the Blasters‘ Dave Alvin and Bill Bateman and future Los Lobos saxophonist Steve Berlin. They churned out a raunchy garage punk as free jazz-damaged as it was swampy. As Hollywood revved punk to a slam-dance frenzy, the Flesh Eaters opted to rock, with only “See You In The Boneyard” coming closest to being “straightforward.” But the seven-minute-plus “Divine Horseman,” with its mantra-like riff, is the best cut.

8. Adolescents – Adolescents

From Fullerton, California—home of Fender guitars! Also known as “The Blue Album,” these 12-inches house some of the most melodic and musical hardcore that would ever be made, like Cheap Trick playing ceiling fans and chainsaws on top of a full-tilt locomotive. With Rikk Agnew‘s freewheeling octave runs, Tony Cadena’s gritty bawl and the best whoa-whoa choruses this side of the Buzzcocks, tunes such as “Amoeba,” “No Way” and “Wrecking Crew” have more hooks per square inch than your average fishing tackle. But the epic, chiming “Kids Of The Black Hole” rules.

9. The Psychedelic Furs – Talk Talk Talk

The initial eponymous Psychedelic Furs LP suggested the Sex Pistols mugging Eno-era Bowie, with Richard Butler‘s tubercular Johnny Rotten rasp, John Ashton’s thick Steve Jones chords, Duncan Kilburn’s asthmatic sax and the word “stupid” used maybe 62 times in killers such as “We Love You.” Talk Talk Talk introduced a brighter, poppier sound, although this was hardly happy music, as a song titled “All Of This And Nothing” might indicate. The real draw is the original recording of “Pretty In Pink,” resembling Phil Spector producing the Pistols, making the later film remake sound anemic.

Read more: These 15 punk records from 1980 were complete game-changers
10. Various – Let Them Eat Jellybeans!

Compiled by the Dead Kennedys’ Jello Biafra, side A pretty much surveyed the early hardcore canon: Flipper, D.O.A., Black Flag, Bad Brains, the DKs themselves, Circle Jerks, Really Red, the Feederz and Vancouver’s original Subhumans. Side B centered around more art-damaged outfits such as Geza X and the Offs, meaning that the first side likely got spun more often by the day’s Mohican youth. If nothing else, the presence of the debut Bad Brains 45 “Pay To Cum”—which resembled a Sex Pistols single at 78 RPM—turned every head who heard it. A perfect punk-rock record.

11. Minutemen – The Punch Line

What we have here is the album that set Minutemen‘s stall beyond San Pedro’s city limits. Eighteen songs in 15 minutes, essentially a set of haikus rarely breaking the one-minute mark, barked by rotund chanking guitarist D. Boon, although bassist Mike Watt—the four-stringer everyone thinks Flea is—sings a good chunk of these tunes. As funky and left-wing as Gang Of Four but less distorted and a whole lot faster, Minutemen proved that hardcore was at its best when it flaunted the thrash-o-matic conventions already becoming a cliché at that moment.

12. T.S.O.L. – Dance With Me

Earlier in the year, these SoCal thugs issued a self-titled Posh Boy Records EP full of blazing tempos and lefty stompers such as “Property Is Theft” and “Abolish Government/Silent Majority,” later covered by Slayer. For their first full-length for the sublime Frontier Records, T.S.O.L. got as dark and horror-driven as Misfits or the Damned. Morbid power chords blasters such as the necrophiliac “Code Blue” and “Funeral March” felt deeper than most ’core, and Ron Emory, punk’s most underrated guitar hero, sounded like the Damned’s Brian James blasting through PiL‘s backline. The birth of death rock.

Read more: Here are 10 new hardcore bands launching the genre into the future
13. Gen X – Kiss Me Deadly

Generation X lost three syllables along with drummer Mark Laff and guitarist Bob “Derwood” Andrews once the ’80s dawned. Singer Billy Idol and bassist Tony James carried on, with first LP Clash drummer Terry Chimes and a parade of guitarists filling in on their final album. Tracks such as “Untouchables,” “Triumph” and “Stars Look Down” displayed nuance and sophistication their previous glam-punk lacked. But “Dancing With Myself,” with its massive Jones chords, later launched Idol as a solo superstar.

14. Red Rockers – Condition Red

Red Rockers emerged from New Orleans in the heat of hardcore, offering the best Americanized take on the early Clash this side of the Dils. John Thomas Griffith had the right passionate bark, James Singletary‘s searing Strat oozed the right amounts of melody and feedback and tunes such as “Guns Of Revolution” and “Teenage Underground” slam in all the right places. A lost American punk classic.

15. The Birthday Party – Prayers On Fire

The Birthday Party migrated from their native Melbourne, starving in London, hating everything. This made both them and their music harder, uglier. They briefly returned to Australia to tour and record a set of songs that shredded everything they had done to date, and the whole of rock ’n’ roll. With Phill Calvert‘s tribal drums, Tracy Pew‘s sleazy bass, Rowland S. Howard‘s reverb abuse and Nick Cave‘s tonsil-shredding, the Birthday Party were now a law unto themselves.