Words by Jim Testa
Jim Testa founded the highly influential zine, Jersey Beat in 1982 which he continues to edit to this day. Through writing for his own publication and a number of other outlets, including as a staff writer for Hudson County’s Jersey Journal, he has championed local, regional and national up-and-coming bands. Punk has always shunned credentials, but rest assured that Jim won’t lead you astray.
This year’s best came from grizzled veterans, brash newcomers, and a few hard-working lifers who have toiled for years under the radar. Presented more or less chronologically in order of release, here are my ten picks from a year of Scouting Reports.
New Orleans’ Pears not only put on a great live show – reminiscent of the sweat mosh pits of the Eighties – but combine the clobber of old-school hardcore with the catchy hooks and singalong melodies of classic street punk. Frontman Zach Quinn might channel Henry Rollins’ barechested rage but Pears also shares Black Flag’s sense of humor. Win/win.
These three women knocked around the Brooklyn underground for years before signing to Epitaph and releasing this eye-opening debut album. Their harmony vocals and head-bobbing melodies might write party songs the Bangles or Go Go’s, but their thrashy indie-punk also has a message. The explosive “Fake News” might have been written by Wire (if Donald Trump had been president in 1977,) while “Mansplain” skewers male clichés about women in bands with withering sarcasm. THICK don’t take crap from anybody, even if they do feel like their generation might be approaching its expiration date.
Marc Ruvolo helped invent the modern Chicago punk scene alongside bands like Screeching Weasel and the Bollweevils, and on the third album from his current project The Fur Coats, he proves that he hasn’t lost a step. Almost every one of these tracks takes a slightly different tack, from the catchy barroom rocker “Hey God Bone” to the funereal electronic drone of “Crown Shyness,” to the fist-pumping pop-punk romp “Anthem Of The Antropocene.”
THE CHALLENGED – Wallfighter (self-released)
These survivors of the Pop Punk Message Bored/Insubordination Fest scene continue to make underrated and consistently excellent records with energy and heart. Rob Suss’ melodic, expressive vocals remind me of Dan Vapid’s, although the roiling emotions on this album – regret, sadness, disgust – transcend pop-punk, scaling the same heights as the best of Jawbreaker or Husker Du.
Ian MacKaye and longtime musical collaborators Amy Farina (the Evens) and Joe Lally (Fugazi) team up here for a post-punk supergroup and one of the most distinctive and powerful releases of the year. The loping syncopation of reggae and dub looms large here, as does Fugazi’s predilection for furious bursts of staccato post-punk. But Coriky does so much more, as on the haunting uncertainty of “Have A Cup Of Tea” or the sense of tired resignation and disgust that informs “Inauguration Day,” which begins quietly erupts into a crescendo of guitar fury worthy of Sonic Youth.
WIRE – 10:20 (Pink Flag)
For a band that’s been breaking barriers and continually reinventing rock music since 1977, this “lost” EP (originally scheduled but never released for COVID-challenged Record Store Day) culls tracks from two sessions recorded in 2010 and 2020. You can trace – through the cerebral lyrics, motorik rhythms, jarring nervousness, or serene ambiance here – the evolution of post-punk that influenced dozens of your favorite bands. But there’s really nothing like the original.
Produced by Mike Watt, mixed by Bill Stephenson, and released by Less Than Jake’s Vinnie Fiorello, Round Eye’s Culture Shock Treatment delivers a caterwauling concatenation of squawking sax, gonzo vocals, noisy guitars, and anarchic rhythms that sound like Jello Biafra, NOMEANSNO, the Minutemen and Iceage jamming on Captain Beefheart songs in Iggy Pop’s basement. The band – a collection of international ex-pats nesting in Shanghai – rails against Xi Jinping’s policies of political oppression, human rights offenses, and the insidious policy of social crediting. This will blow your mind.
BLOODY YOUR HANDS – Sunday Scaries (self-released)
While elements of Bloody Your Hands’ Nineties guitar-rock attack might qualify as “punk,” the Brooklyn trio’s mix of melodic, heartfelt, and angst-ridden millennial indie-rock transcends genre labels, questioning the basic tenets of adulthood while grappling with loneliness and lost. Nineties grunge and early 21st century emo serve as templates, but Bloody Your Hands’sense of anxiety and loss tempered by hope sounds as current as the latest COVID death toll numbers.
Whether you’re a diehard fan or new to the Bouncing Souls, you’ll enjoy Vol. 2, a celebration of the band’s thirtieth (!) anniversary which reimagines some of the band’s most beloved pop-punk anthems with different tempos, beats, instrumentation, and arrangements. Stripped of the thundering electric guitars and drums, the poignancy and romanticism of the lyrics come to the fore. I said a long time ago that these guys were poets in torn jeans and denim jackets. Vol. 2 lets you discover the Bouncing Souls for the first time all over again.
PUP – “This Place Sucks Ass” EP (self-released)
These self-described “four dudes from Toronto” made a big commercial splash in Canada and had a critical hit in the U.S. with last year’s “Morbid Stuff.” This six-song EP of outtakes and leftovers from those sessions lacks a bit of that upbeat brio but still packs a meaningful punch, with its rousing gang vocals and trademark knack of writing ridiculously cheery songs about seriously depressing topics.