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 columnist for Off Shelf with the Punk Rock Scouting Report and 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. Here are his top ten albums in no order.
Toronto’s PUP delivers a concept album about the futility of trying to earn a living from doing the thing you love. Along the way they enchant us with celestial-choir harmonies, skewer AI (“Robot Writes A Love Song,”) wax heavy (“Waiting”) and sardonic (“Relentless,”) and wrap things up with an anthemic banger that lets us know they were actually just kidding. “I’m truly grateful for the life I’ve led,” wails frontman Trevor Babcock. “I’m just being dramatic.”
Minibeast – On Ice (self-released)
Peter Prescott (of Mission Of Burma, Volcano Suns, Kustomized) never disappoints. Here, he plays guitar and keyboards, backed by Keith Seideland on drums and bassist Niels LaWhite. While there’s some declamatory shouting, Prescott’s vocals here serve more as one of the instruments than as a singer per se. “This is liquid music,” the band states on its Bandcamp page, “always moving.” And move it does, from down ‘n’ dirty punkola to tribal funk to futuristic synth tracks, the magnificent rhythm section locking into a groove while other instruments (including sax on a few songs) launch into what sounds like improvised jams. Other tracks quite deliberately evoke specific emotions and environments. With over an hour of music, “On Ice” is a record to be savored, not gobbled in small bits.
This riot grrl supergroup – Janet Weiss (Sleater-Kinney, Quasi, Wild Flag), Drew Grow (And the Pastors Wives, Careen), Kathy Foster (The Thermals), and Anita Lee Elliot (Viva Voce) – up its 90s cred with guest appearances from Stephen Malkmus (Pavement) and Mary Timony (Helium). A cinematic sweep and air of melodrama inform some tracks, while other reference glam and No Wave. The band consistently defies expectations, with a Bowie influence running throughout the album. Slang keeps you guessing, but will also keep you listening.
Punk rock lifer Mikey Erg checked a few things off his bucket list with this album, recorded with Steve Albini at his Electrical Audio Studios in Chicago with DIY hero Jeff Rosenstock (Bomb The Music Industry!, Quote Unquote Records) on guitar. Albini gives the album a live feel – you honestly feel like you’re in the room with the musicians – and Mikey’s cranked out another batch of terrific, fast-paced pop-punk bangers. He balances the album with a few slower, angstier numbers (“Always Like This,” “Landmines,”) but regardless of tempo, the lyrics pretty much stick to broken hearts and regrets, which have always been this guy’s forte. And that voice – part sneer, part snarl, part puppy-dog yelp – gets you every time.
Joyce Manor’s first new release in four years does what this band has done best for well over a decade. Frontman Barry Johnson remains a prickly SOB who only sings love songs with a jaundiced eye toward the whole commitment thing. But Johnson’s curmudgeonry comes wrapped in those big hearty singalong melodies and arch, well-crafted lyrics, which this time include a pointed putdown of bands who haven’t enjoyed JM’s durability (“You’re Not Famous Anymore”) and a cadre of ridiculously catchy anti-love songs (“Gotta Let It Go,” “NBTSA”). The nine songs here literally fly by, each one fun and fast and to the point; nine songs, 19 minutes, and not a wasted second.
Venomous Pinks – Vita Mors (SBAM Records)
This Mesa, AZ trio might singlehandedly make you believe that the power of feminism, whoa-oh gang vocals, and punk pride can change the world. With notable guest vocalists and co-songwriters along for the ride, the V’Punks deliver nine killer in-your-face tracks, with production by Bad Cop/Bad Cop’s Linh Le that maximizes the impact of a throttling rhythm section and powerful, surging guitars. This isn’t just poppy punk; the Venomous Pinks have something to say, and you need to listen. And sing and dance and shout along with them.
When the 3-piece lineup of Kal Marks imploded after the release of 2018’s “Universal Care,” frontman Carl Shane faced an existential dilemma: Go in a new direction, or reconstruct the project that proudly earned the accolade “loudest band in Boston” over a decade and a half. Happily for us, a new four-piece, two-guitar lineup is here, tracing its sonic lineage to the SST and Touch & Go bands of the 80s but delivering its blunt force trauma mindfucks with state of the art production as well as a sharp sense of social satire. Kal Marks may be noisy but powerful melodies, intricate shadings, and intriguing lyrics about topics ranging from economic insecurity to televangelism make this much more than mere noise-rock.
Whimsyland – self-titled (self-released)
From the infinite wellspring of childlike wonder that is the mind of Chadd Derkins comes the best pop-punk album of… the decade? Derkins assembled an all-star pop-punk lineup to record a whimsical tribute to an imaginary amusement park, where every ride has a theme song and every moment is filled with joy. The core band includes Mikey Erg, Grath Madden, Chris Grivet, Charles Vorkas and Andy Conway, along with a small army of guest contributors (Dan Paquin, Adam Rabuck, Azeem Sajid, Erin Hays, Jonnie Whoa-Oh, Kelly Sullivan, Adam Fletcher, Kait Eldridge, and lots lots more). The basic 15-track album concludes (of course) with a fireworks spectacular as we leave the park, but there are nine more tracks available including demos, remixes, and alternate takes available digitally as well as vinyl and CD.
The music of Oneida – 25-year veterans of NYC’s experimental rock scene, who forged their own DIY scene and watched gentrification steal it away – has never been categorizable, ranging from dub to noise-rock to krautrock to abstract minimalism. And now, after a 4-year hiatus, they’ve done the one thing no one would have expected: Success is a 7-track rock ‘n’ roll record that mimics the Velvet Underground, from thudding 4/4 Mo Tucker beats to spastic guitar solos to extended drones. The last few Oneida albums have been rambling affairs that – like their legendary eight-hour concerts at their former studio Ocropolis – required true effort to get through. Success is short, fun, and at times even funny, from the 10 minute-plus “I Wanna Hold Your Electric Hand” to the two-minute rager “Opportunities.” Put this on at your next party and people will not only be dancing but wondering what the heck it is and how you got so cool.
Dan Vapid has been a pop-punk songwriting machine through four decades, in bands as diverse as Generation Waste, Sludgeworth, Screeching Weasel, the Methadones, the Mopes, the Riverdales, and Noise By Numbers. Since 2011, Dan Vapid & The Cheats has been his primary focus, but “Welcome To Dystopia” goes somewhere new: Politics. The 16-track opus could have been split into two albums, really, the first a collection of enjoyable pop punk. But a good half of the album lets Vapid vent on the state of America and everything that’s wrong with it, from the Green Day-tinged “Pacify Me” to angry rants against disinformation (“Fact And Fiction,” “Anti-Science”) and economic injustice (“Junk Bonds”). The title track channels Bad Religion, whiles others let us know how pissed off Vapid feels about the mess we’ve made of our country. The band follows Vapid’s lead, sounding angry or whimsical as the lyrics demand, but always bringing melody and urgency.
Honorable Mentions: Reminders – Best Of Beach Punk (Wiretap), Vista Blue – Stay Gold (Outloud! Records / Radiant Radish), The Ergs! – Time & The Season EP (Dirtnap), Martha – Please Don’t Take Me Back (Dirtnap), Vortis – The Miasmic Years (Cavetone Records)