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.
What is punk? Mostly, at least for this column, it’s an attitude more than a sound. In no particular order, here are my favorite ten albums of the year. Stay punk, and we’ll see you next year.
Marissa Paternoster ranks among the most gifted guitarists of her (or any generation), backed by a
rhythm section that seems almost telepathic in its precision. When “Desire Pathweay” dropped, no one
imagined it would be the group’s swan song, but the hardscrabble and resolutely DIY trio goes out at
the top of their form. The band rocks out so effortlessly that you might almost wish for a misstep or
crappy song just to break up the monotony of sustained excellence.
Five years ago and barely out of high school, Shame emerged from the Britpunk underground amid a pack of young bands recycling the staccato riffs and declamatory spoke/sung vocals of 90s post-punk. On their third (and arguably best) full-length, the lads sound more like one of the keynote alternative bands of the 80s. Voice lessons and growing confidence have imbued perennially shirtless frontman Charlie Steen with the balls to actually sing, and while the overall theme here – hangin’ ‘bout wif’ yer mates – doesn’t exactly qualify as mature, the songs suggest that these now-midtwentysomethings have thought a bit about life and the bigger picture and transcended that youthful obsession with whatever’s happened in the last half hour.
The first Bouncing Souls album in eight years find that the 30-year old quartet hasn’t lost a step, using stories and song ideas provided by their fans during COVID for inspiration. Usually, sticking to a songwriting formula becomes a liability after time, but the Bouncing Souls have perfected Bouncing Souls songs to a science, and every track here boasts those big anthemic singalong choruses and a feel-good energy the band should patent. Lead singer Greg Attonito has never been in better voice, Bryan Kienlen’s bass throbs and percolates through these songs like a lead instrument, and guitarist Pete Steinkopf delivers riff after catchy riff, bringing the energy of a teenage hardcore band but filtered through a deep sophisticated understanding of the genre gleaned from decades of hard work. Remarkably, for a band with a dozen albums to their credit, this one’s a keeper.
COVID inspired these 90s stalwarts to reunite and make a new record and now they’re back with a second, crowdfunded by fans eager for more of the band’s sincere goofiness. As the title suggests, this album has a theme: Pent-up frustrations (“We Yell At 8,”) guilt and regrets (“What Pricks We Were,”) the downside of nostalgia (“Old Friends Make Me Sad,” “Normal Never Was,”) even suicidal ideation (“The Call Of The Void”). All of it, thankfully, is played for laughs – yes, even suicide – and it’s all catchy and jangly, deftly arranged and impeccably performed. If “punk” means skewering sacred cows, giving the finger to polite society, and serving up our failures, hypocrisies and faults as fodder for catchy tunes, then Too Much Joy is plenty punk for me.
The Van Pelt made a brilliant debut in 1996 and reacted to the post-Nirvana major label gold rush by making a followup that no one liked and then broke up. But in 2014, the band reunited to promote a reissue and found that time, wisdom, and a bit of financial independence had healed old wounds. Nine years later (thanks to the time off afford by the pandemic), here it finally is. “Artisans And Merchants” arrives at a time when quite a few popular and trendy British bands have reignited interest in Chris Leo’s style of spoke/sung vocals, which ironically makes this angular, edgy post-punk seem fresh and new and not like a cake that’s been left in the oven for nearly a decade. Also, Chris Leo (Ted Leo’s kid brother) is a funny guy and the lyrics bear witness to that.
Rabbit Rabbit, Speedy Ortiz’ first album since 2018, completes the evolution of Sadie Dupuis’ lo-fi bedroom project into a full-fledged band, with longtime touring members Audrey Zee Whitesides (bass, piano, vocals) and drummer Joey Doubek joining Dupuis and guitarist/keyboardist Andy Moholt in the studio. The sonic template comes from 90s grunge and Liz Phair; it’s loud and roiling and emotional but never emo. Dupuis boasts a master’s degree in poetry and if ever an album called out for a lyric sheet, it’s this one. But as with most of Speedy Ortiz’ catalog, listeners will have to be satisfied with gleaning tasty bon mots whenever Dupuis’ vocals rise above layers of squalling guitars and clattering percussion. “How to grow up?” Dupuis asks on the set-closing “Ghostwriter.” “Mostly I don’t push much. I’m tired of anger. How do I let it go?”
The problem with a lot of earnest singer-songwriters is that they’re boring. Not a problem with Jeff Rosenstock. The former Bomb The Music Industry and Arrogant Sons Of Bitches frontman has earned “voice of his generation” accolades for a string of excellent solo albums, and Hellmode proves he’s still got something to say, and a consistently entertaining way to say. There’s no better example of his modus operandi than “Future Is Dumb,” which transforms existential dread into a poppy banger worthy of the Mr T Experience (the little ska break brings a smile too). He also nails 2024 in a nutshell: “The future is gone, the present’s insane.”
These three young women, just out of college, left their small Indonesian town to Jakarta and were magically discovered by Kill Rock Stars. The true story is a bit less glamorous; Grrrl Gang have been rocking since 2016 and paid more than their share of dues in the indie underground. But at least we get to delight in these rocking affirmations and anthems. They can rock out, they can harmonize, they can write songs, and I daresay they can be bigger than the Spice Girls if they keep making records this good.
WORM QUARTET – Carpe Tedium (self-released)
Tim “Shoebox” Crist has been a darling of The Dr. Demento Show for decades, and on his first new album in 12 years, he delivers 32(!) tracks (and snippets) of wacky, spazzy, satirical, nonsensical, and frequently hilarious inventiveness, recorded in a home studio using synths, keytar, and drum programming. If Monty Python, Lewis Carroll, and Weird Al had a baby, it would rewrite the laws of human biology, but it might sound a bit like Worm Quartet.
It’s been a while since these Hasselhoffs were “young;” they’re nearing their silver anniversary as a band, but happily remain a reliable conduit of adult pop-punk (and yes, that’s a thing). While the catchiness and harmonies hit familiar notes, “Dear Departed” benefits from grander production and ambition, with piano, synth, horns, and strings adding complexity and texture. There’s a wisdom and ruefulness earned by experience here, as well as a literary quality, in some cases drawing inspiration from Ray Bradbuy and Edgar Allan Poe. “You Belong To Me” could find a home on Classic Rock radio, and the elegiac “Still Got Time” is the cocktail you get from mixing Green Day with The Beatles.