To build a subcollection of records focused on any genre of music will always feel daunting at first—and with hardcore punk even more so. In some ways, starting a hardcore-punk band in the early 80s might have just meant finding a couple of shit guitars and amps that can conduct electricity, some whooped and mismatched drum set (along with a whooped and mismatched drummer who played fast and steady-ish), and a very good screamer. Gall would often trump talent, and as punk mutated and rapidly reinvented itself throughout the decade, hardcore-punk bands began to assemble en masse. That might sound pretty reductive but it’s actually more glorious in that the proliferation of bands in any subgenre ultimately helps the foundational ones gain traction. And in hardcore-punk that hierarchy feels even more severe. Below find five canonical records from the early part of the decade that helped establish the hardcore-punk narrative.
Greg Ginn’s gnarled guitar rants, Henry Rollins’s confrontational sarcasm, and Robo’s surging rhythms together make Black Flag’s 1981 debut full-length Damaged one of the (if not the) most quintessential hardcore-punk records of all time. And none of that even makes mention of the album cover—an album cover that’s as tough as they come. Featuring derisive classics like “Rise Above,” “Six Pack,” “TV Party,” and “Gimmie Gimmie Gimmie,” Black Flag symbolizes what Everyday Joe probably understands hardcore-punk to be as he stomps on the floor of his apartment to tell the derelicts downstairs to turn down their stereo. Which makes perfect sense. Black Flag abide by what is better understood as the definition of hardcore-punk because they helped write that definition. Sneering at the banalities of American life never sounded so fresh, even some 35 years later.
While hamfisted hardcore-punk bands of the decade hammered and beat at their instruments to create blasts of noise that resembled songs, D.C.’s Bad Brains were tight and talented to an almost uncommon degree. A band of black musicians, Bad Brains brought diversity to a very white-male hardcore-punk scene while also refusing to adhere to any sort genre formula. Reggae was part of Bad Brains’ repertoire on their 1982 self-titled classic and continued to be as they blossomed and splintered and reunited and splintered some more into the 90s. During pummeling tracks like “Attitude” and “Banned in D.C.” you can imagine eccentric vocalist H.R. darting all over the stage, while jams like “Jah Calling” and “Leaving Babylon” offer chill respites from the commotion. Bad Brains is an innovative hardcore-punk record that’s the first of its kind.
British band Discharge pioneered (and lended a name to) the brand of hardcore punk known as D-beat. Essentially D-beat is the equivalent to flailing forward at a full sprint while keeping your balance in perfect line. Think Motorhead but more savage. On their 1982 debut album, Hear Nothing See Nothing Say Nothing, Discharge’s guitars grind like chainsaws cutting through wet cement while Kelvin “Cal” Morris’s baleful vocals explore anarchist and hyper-political themes. Where hardcore-punk bands like Dead Kennedys and Circle Jerks occasionally show off their wry senses of humor, Discharge stay dead serious, blending dark elements of metal and crust punk as they proselytize about the despicable wrongs committed by demons in power. Hear Nothing is hostile and unrelenting in its attack and an early example of how heavy hardcore punk can be.
As innovators of the Youth Crew movement, Reno’s 7 Seconds—who just officially split up this March after 38 years as a band—promoted positivity and camaraderie in hardcore. And like D.C.’s important Minor Threat they did it via a straight-edge lifestyle. Their 1984 album The Crew remains one of the the tenets of early Youth Crew-style hardcore, featuring 18 tracks of fierce, scorching punk during which vocalist Kevin Seconds almost defyingly crams as many lyrics as he can into each short verse. “Clenched Fists, Black Eyes” and “Young ‘Til I Die” are spirited anthems about fighting your battles while smart, clear-headed, and sober rather than succumbing to pressures that could potentially rob you of your youth. It’s a message that has aged well with time—thanks in part to how it was spread during the latter part of the decade via bands like Youth of Today and Gorilla Biscuits.
Funky, disjointed, jammy, and artfully bizarre, Minutemen’s double-LP opus is an album like no other—and it shows off just how malleable hardcore punk can be. Fronted by the sometimes-gravelly, sometimes-elastic voice of D. Boon, Minutemen strut the line between punk band and stream-of-consciousness slam poet. Double Nickels (1984) is enormous and unwieldy—hitting around 80 minutes in length—but it’s also an adventure to which you can set your needle down at any groove and discover something you hadn’t heard prior. One track will chug and stomp along (“Political Song for Michael Jackson to Sing”) while another will tweak out and shoot off every which way (“Maybe Partying Will Help”). Eventually you have no choice but to just settle into the maze and feel privileged to be there.