This edition of 'In Defense of the Genre' looks at 18 early 2000s punk albums that were too gritty for the bubblegum pop punk TRL was playing but too tuneful for the depths of the hardcore underground, and still sound vital today.

The first major mainstream pop punk explosion happened in 1994 with the release of landmark albums like The Offspring's Smash and Green Day's Dookie, and it only got bigger from there with the 1999 release of blink-182's game-changing Enema of the State, which helped make punk bigger than ever throughout most of the 2000s. As the genre reached new mainstream heights, a lot of really interesting stuff was happening just beneath the surface. There was a real spotlight put on punk overall, and with the increasing popularity of Warped Tour and punk compilation CDs, smaller bands were often able to be right there alongside the giants of the genre. Punk labels could also presumably give their bands a little more money for recording in the 2000s than in the previous decade, so it's no surprise that some of the best sounding punk records came out of this era.

Among the many prevailing trends in punk at the time was a new wave of melodic punk and hardcore that was too gritty for the bubblegum pop punk TRL was playing but too tuneful for the depths of the hardcore underground (and usually released on labels like Epitaph, Fat Wreck Chords, No Idea, Asian Man, Jade Tree, etc). There's not really a widely agreed-upon word for this sound (though you may know it as Orgcore, which gets its name from punknews.org favoring a lot of these bands), and even "melodic punk" and "melodic hardcore" are vague descriptors with definitions that differ depending on the era or the person you're talking to, but whatever you call it, there's a definite thread that ties together Against Me! to Hot Water Music to Strike Anywhere to The Lawrence Arms, and this article is about the bands tied to that thread.

Of the hundreds of good records in this realm that came out in the early/mid 2000s, I've picked 18 essential ones from the years 2000-2005 that hold up especially well today for this edition of In Defense of the Genre. A lot of these bands have great new music out this year or in recent years, so several of these classics are by bands who are still shaping punk today. And even for the ones that haven't released music in a while, every album on this list is an album that still sounds impactful in the year 2020. Whether it's because of a message that resonates right now, or a sound that remains influential, or both, there's a lot to be gained from revisiting (or discovering for the first time) all of the albums on this list.

The list is in chronological, unranked order, and I stuck to one album per band. Read on for my picks and let us know your favorite early/mid 2000s melodic punk and hardcore albums in the comments...

Kid Dynamite - Shorter, Faster, Louder (2000)

After the 1997 breakup of Lifetime -- who were a huge influence on a lot of the bands on this list -- guitarist Dan Yemin formed Kid Dynamite, whose 1998 self-titled debut remains one of the finest melodic hardcore albums of the '90s. In 2000, they got ahead of all the fans and critics who would've surely called their sophomore album "shorter, faster, louder" by naming the album that, and this 18-song, 24-minute collection very much lives up to its title. Their label Jade Tree called it an "album so straightforward, precise, and skillfully executed, it probably had to be their last," and it's hard to disagree with that too. Dan Yemin would go further in a hardcore direction with his next band Paint It Black, while vocalist Jason Shevchuk would get even more melodic with his next band None More Black, but Shorter, Faster, Louder sat right on top of that fence between pop punk and hardcore, leaning over towards one side and then back to the other but never jumping fully onto one side. It has all the grit and attack of a true-blue hardcore record, but within Jason Shevchuck's gravelly shouts were bright melodies that any of the major label bands would've been jealous of.

Alkaline Trio - Maybe I'll Catch Fire (2000)

These days, Matt Skiba has a bigger platform than ever as Tom DeLonge's replacement in blink-182 (though Alkaline Trio also have a solid new EP out), but back when the "All the Small Things" video was ruling TRL, Matt was the co-frontman of the burgeoning Chicago punk band Alkaline Trio, who made good on the promise of their 1998 debut album Goddamnit with their 2000 sophomore LP Maybe I'll Catch Fire. It was their last album with original drummer Glenn Porter and last for Asian Man Records before the Trio signed to Vagrant, polished up their sound, and released 2001's breakthrough From Here to Infirmary (their sole album with drummer Mike Felumlee before recruiting Derek Grant). As good as the Vagrant era is, there's a charm to the rawer Maybe I'll Catch Fire that you can't get from any of the Trio's other albums. Compared to the rougher, faster Goddamnit, Maybe I'll Catch Fire saw Skiba and bassist/co-frontman Dan Andriano getting more dynamic, experimenting with slower tempos, and writing catchier songs, but they were still in much less radio-friendly territory than they'd be a year later. With dark lyricism, imagery, and tones, but anthemic, irresistible hooks, it's not easy to pigeonhole Maybe I'll Catch Fire. It's too grim for pop punk, too punk for emo, and too ambitious for straight-up punk. Really it just sounds like Alkaline Trio; distinct within their discography, but not mistakable for any other band.

Rancid - Rancid (2000)

1998’s Life Won't Wait was Rancid's big, genre-defying, statement-making, and least punk-sounding album, but after that one came out it appeared they had another statement to make: that they could still be a punk band. A no-bullshit, hard-as-hell punk band. Their second self-titled album (following their 1993 debut) is the closest Rancid ever came to making a hardcore record, and it's real-deal hardcore. It wasn't a put-on at all; it was just proof that Rancid could've been a hardcore band this whole time if they wanted to. Following the more ambitious ...And Out Come the Wolves and Life Won't Wait, Rancid reunited with Bad Religion's Brett Gurewitz (who also produced the more traditionally punk 1994 album Let's Go), and Rancid 2000 was very much a return to the band's more traditional punk roots. But even Rancid's earliest work wasn't as whiplash-inducing or as gut-busting as this. (Rancid have often had intimidating-looking artwork, but the black, skull-and-cross-bones art of Rancid 2000 was yet another indicator that this was a meaner Rancid than we'd ever seen before.) Matt Freeman took lead vocal turns for the first time since Let's Go, and his rasp is perfect for a more aggressive punk record, though it's often Lars Frederiksen's songs that are the most overtly hardcore. His bark on songs like "I Am Forever" and "Loki" are as punishing as anything that came out on SST or Dischord or Revelation in the '80s. And the album's razor-sharp, full-throttle power chords rival the great bands of that era too. Most of the songs are under two minutes and some are even under one minute. There's no ska, reggae, organs, production tricks, or anything fancy going on: just balls-to-the-walls punk rock with all the anger, attitude, and precision in the world. [Read more at Rancid Albums Ranked Worst To Best.]

AFI - The Art of Drowning (2000)

Black Sails is usually the AFI album that's considered "the one that's cool to like," and Sing the Sorrow is usually the one that's considered the biggest musical and cultural achievement. Coming right in between them, The Art of Drowning is loved by longtime fans but might get overlooked by casual listeners or newcomers for not having much of a defining narrative beyond "the one after Black Sails" or "the one with 'The Days of the Phoenix.'" "Days of the Phoenix" is a milestone in AFI's career; it's the song that most predicted the sound of Sing the Sorrow, helped gain the band major label interest, and it's the one Nitro Records era song you're guaranteed to hear at an AFI show today. No matter how many times I hear that song, it never ceases to feel like the first time. It's a true classic, but it shouldn't overshadow the rest of The Art of Drowning, which is a much clearer progression from Black Sails than it sometimes gets credit for being.

"Days of the Phoenix" is also the one song on The Art of Drowning where AFI realize that if they settle into a mid-tempo alternative rock pace, they sound like they could be the biggest band in the world (and they'd do this for most of their career afterwards), but it's far from the only song on the album with masterful songwriting. Much more so than on Black Sails, Davey shows off his singing voice on The Art of Drowning, and the album’s got hooks for days -- not just from Davey but also from all the gang vocals and group whoa-ohs that are just about as perfect here as they would be on Sing the Sorrow. It'd probably be easier to list the songs that don't have cathartic choruses, but here are some of the ones that very much do: "Sacrifice Theory," "The Nephilim," "A Story At Three," "Catch A Hot One," "Wester." All of those are played at Misfits speed, but they come with blissful melodicism that proved AFI were just too good to remain in the punk underground for much longer. It's pop and punk without being "pop punk" -- it's still too dark and heavy for that -- and its combination of darkness, intensity, and remarkable melodies still feels innovative twenty years later. [Read more in our AFI album guide.]

The Movielife - This Time Next Year (2000)

One of the many projects that Movielife frontman Vinnie Caruana is involved with these days is Constant Elevation, a collaborative project with NYHC legend Sammy Siegler, whose contributions to Youth of Today, Judge, and other bands helped define the youth crew sound and attitude of the late 1980s. Constant Elevation hearkens directly back to that era, and Vinnie's the perfect frontman for the job which should come as no surprise. Following in the footsteps of Lifetime and Silent Majority, The Movielife put a slightly more melodic spin on the '80s youth crew sound and brought it into the 21st century with their Revelation Records-released sophomore album This Time Next Year. After this album, The Movielife would expand their sonic palette, sign to Drive-Thru, and release the early 2000s emo classic Forty Hour Train Back To Penn, but on This Time Next Year they were still a melodic hardcore band, and when you're in the mood for this kinda Gorilla Biscuits/Lifetime-inspired stuff, few early 2000s albums scratch the itch as well as This Time Next Year. It wears its influences on its sleeves but it never really sounds derivative, mostly because the songwriting is so good. Vinnie's a natural-born frontman who can write hooks for days, and Brandon Reilly's deceptively simple guitar work shook things up just enough to make The Movielife stand out in the overcrowded world of melodic hardcore. They both went on to write great songs separately (with I Am the Avalanche and Nightmare of You, respectively), but together, they had a chemistry that resulted in a punk rock songwriting partnership for the ages.

Propagandhi - Today's Empires, Tomorrow's Ashes (2001)

After two albums (and EPs/splits/etc) in the '90s with bassist John K. Samson (who left in 1997 to form The Weakerthans), Propagandhi came back faster, louder, and more political than ever on 2001's Today's Empires, Tomorrow's Ashes. Its 1996 predecessor Less Talk, More Rock put them on the path towards heavier music and bluntly political lyrics and song titles, but Today's Empires solidified it and turned Propagandhi into the band they still are today. (It also solidified the lineup of Chris Hannah, Jord Samolesky, and then-new bassist Todd Kowalski, who are all still in the band today.) Songs like "Fuck the Border" and "Bullshit Politicians" (sadly) sound like they could've been written in response to the Trump administration, and while we wish songs like these didn't seem so relevant 20 years later, it's been cathartic to listen to a record like this one during a time like this. Today's Empires, Tomorrow's Ashes also holds up musically as well it does lyrically. It's got a timeless production style that ignored the major trends of the era and its balance of precise musicianship, anthemic choruses, and uncompromising political protest makes it feel just as fresh now as it did then. Propagandhi were (and still are) more than an anarchy patch on your leather jacket; their music is driven by real passion and real emotion, and it doesn't hurt that they're all exceptionally good players. They're the real deal, and Today's Empires, Tomorrow's Ashes is just one of the many times they've proved it.

Anti-Flag - Underground Network (2001)

Equally as politically outspoken as Propagandhi were (and still are) their early 2000s Fat Wreck Chords labelmates Anti-Flag. They're also very prolific, and it's hard to pick just one album, but 2001's Underground Network finds the middle ground between their rawer '90s classics Die for the Government (1996) and A New Kind of Army (1999) and their more accessible crowdpleasers The Terror State (2003) and For Blood and Empire (2006) and offers the best of both worlds, so it's always a good one to go back to. Anti-Flag clearly take a ton of influence from first-wave '70s punk and '80s hardcore, but they're also a little like Rage Against the Machine (whose Tom Morello has collaborated with them) in that they know their message will reach more people if their songs are super catchy, and that tunefulness really started to take shape on Underground Network. These days, you can see Anti-Flag play "Fuck Police Brutality" to thousands of people at huge festivals, and it's genuinely goosebump-inducing to watch them unite such huge crowds against bigotry, but none of it would be happening without the unstoppable run of great early/mid 2000s albums that Underground Network kicked off. It's an adrenaline rush of a record that seamlessly fuses ruthless hardcore with radio-friendly pop punk, and uses addictive melodies to deliver takedowns of the genocide of indigenous peoples, conservative news stations, sexism, the rich, whitewashed public school curriculums, and other injustices. And bonus points for having an amazing bass tone.

The Bouncing Souls - How I Spent My Summer Vacation (2001)

New Brunswick, NJ's The Bouncing Souls had already spent the bulk of the '90s putting an increasingly melodic spin on New York-style hardcore, and by the early 2000s, they were already legends to a new generation of bands like Saves The Day, Thursday, and My Chemical Romance who all had roots in the NJ basement show scene that bands like the Souls and Lifetime helped shape. Still, The Bouncing Souls weren't done leaving their mark, and -- armed with new drummer Michael McDermott (Murphy's Law, Skinnerbox, Mephiskapheles) -- they released what is now widely considered one of their best albums, How I Spent My Summer Vacation (Epitaph). The Bouncing Souls had already put out catchy, anthemic songs like 1997's "Kate Is Great" and 1999's "Hopeless Romantic," but Summer Vacation made an entire album out of it. With the cleanest, most streamlined production they'd had yet, Summer Vacation churned out instant-classic after instant-classic. I don't know what got into them that year, but they got "That Song" and "Private Radio" and "True Believers" and "The Something Special" and "Manthem" and "Gone" all on the same damn record. That'd probably be half their greatest hits if they ever released one, and that's more genuinely classic punk songs than some bands release in an entire career. This new batch of anthems influenced yet another generation or two of bands, and you can still hear their direct influence on anyone from The Gaslight Anthem to Titus Andronicus to The Menzingers and beyond. There's a good chance that pretty much anyone writing big-hearted, catchy songs at punk speeds is taking notes from The Bouncing Souls.

Strike Anywhere - Change Is A Sound (2001)

As I write this in 2020, Strike Anywhere released perhaps the best melodic punk/hardcore album of this year so far with Nightmares of the West. It closed an 11-year gap between Strike Anywhere albums, and it continued a trend they'd established long ago: that each record would be a noticeable progression from the last without abandoning the sound their fans know and love. Strike Anywhere have built up a type of longevity that you don't see everyday within punk, but they also started on a very high note, as evidenced by their 2000 debut EP Chorus of One (No Idea/Red Leader) and their 2001 debut album Change Is A Sound (Jade Tree). They're a little rawer, looser, and screamier on Change Is A Sound than they'd be on later albums, but their sonic blueprint was fully written and Change Is A Sound is still home to some of Strike Anywhere's best songs. It nails the balance between unfiltered aggression and masterful melodic work, and its messages are as potent today as they ever were. "You can't feel proud about that," vocalist Thomas Barnett said in our recent interview with him. "You write a song about like, police brutality and then it's like, it's somehow even more awful and horrible after that song." It's true -- that's nothing to celebrate -- but blasting "Sunset on 32nd Street" and hearing Strike Anywhere yell "I wish the good cops, if they exist, the very best/And a bullet for all the-" while scrolling through 2020's timeline feels like tossing gasoline on your internal fire and makes you wanna get out there and do something. Change truly is a sound.

The Lawrence Arms - Apathy and Exhaustion (2002)

Speaking of punk bands with longevity, The Lawrence Arms (whose own very good new album came out the same day as Strike Anywhere's) released many great albums over the years, and one of their very best is 2002's Apathy and Exhaustion, their third album and first for Fat Wreck Chords. They were firing on all cylinders for this one, with a great set of songs, great production (by Matt Allison, who was also a frequent Alkaline Trio producer), great chemistry between co-vocalists Brendan Kelly and Chris McCaughan, and a real momentum to the album that keeps you on your toes the whole time. Coming off their rawer, faster, Asian Man-released debut LP (1999's A Guided Tour of Chicago) and sophomore album (2000's Ghost Stories), Apathy and Exhaustion saw The Lawrence Arms getting a little cleaner, more melodic, more mid-tempo, and taking some noticeable influence from Jawbreaker's then-still-divisive Dear You, and it's because of the positive reception of albums like this one that Dear You was eventually re-evaluated as a classic. Jawbreaker comparisons aside, though, The Lawrence Arms really had their own sound, and they continue to prove that. Now over 20 years and seven albums into their career, no one sounds like The Lawrence Arms. Their knack for bright, direct melodies comes through loud and clear even when Brendan Kelly sounds like he's gargling gravel, and their songs are as tight and punchy as can be. They sound pretty damn sprightly for an album titled Apathy and Exhaustion.

Against Me! - Reinventing Axl Rose (2002)

In 2014, Against Me! gave their career a second life with the generation-defining Transgender Dysphoria Blues, an album that coincided with singer Laura Jane Grace publicly coming out as transgender, tackled many of the issues that accompany living with gender dysphoria, and positively altered the path of Against Me!'s career (and Laura Jane Grace's solo career) forever. It helped make Against Me! peers of much younger acts and introduced them to a lot of new fans, but it was actually the second time that Against Me! had released a generation-defining album. The first time was 12 years earlier, with their first full-length, 2002's No Idea-released Against Me! Is Reinventing Axl Rose. Whether you're a longtime fan who misses the Reinventing Axl Rose days or a newer fan who wants to get more into that era, you've been in luck (pre-pandemic), as Against Me! gave it a cool reissue on Fat Wreck Chords last fall and performed it in full at several shows and festivals. (We recently posted full video of when they played it at The Fest in their hometown of Gainesville with Axl Rose era bassist Dustin Fridkin.) As evidenced at those shows, these songs hold up extremely well. As great as it is to watch the current Against Me! lineup deliver loud, crisp performances of these songs today, though, nothing beats the raw charm of the original album. It exists somewhere between folk punk and anarcho-punk, and Laura screams on like half the record, and even on a gritty, shambolic album like this one you can hear that Against Me! were destined for the big breakthrough they eventually got. The songs get introspective and personal as much as they get bluntly political, and in both cases, Laura sings with so much conviction that you hang onto every word. Against Me! started embracing bigger, cleaner sounds after this album and went on to release a whole slew of great albums over the years, but it's no surprise that this album holds a special place in so many fans' hearts. If you're looking for Against Me! at their roughest, the destination will always be Reinventing Axl Rose.

Dillinger Four - Situationist Comedy (2002)

When it comes to punk that's gruff, gravelly, and bursting at the seams with radio-friendly melodies, it rarely gets better than Dillinger Four. (And despite never having much mainstream success of their own, their melodies are radio-friendly, as evidenced when Green Day scored one of their biggest hits by ripping off D4.) D4 came out swinging with their now-classic 1998 debut album Midwestern Songs of the Americas, and they never really stopped scoring home runs. The three albums that followed are all great, and it's never easy to pick just one, but you can't go wrong with 2002's Situationist Comedy, the Minneapolis band's third album and first for Fat Wreck Chords (following two on Hopeless). They hit the ground running, opening the album with one of their most irresistible songs, "Noble Stabbings!!," and it really never lets up from there. Every song sounds like they're trying to blow out their amps and their voices, and somehow the louder and more aggressive they get, the catchier they get. On paper, it might just sound like pop punk, but nobody really pulls off the balance of poppiness and abrasion the way D4 do. (Not even the many, many bands who try to sound like D4.) They clearly have a tongue-in-cheek sense of humor (with song titles like "A Floater Left with Pleasure in the Executive Washroom" and "D4=Putting the 'F' Back in 'Art,'" and their stage banter), but their music is no joke. Underneath the silly exterior are dark, poetic songs and D4 yell-sing them with the kind of unbridled passion that you just can't fake.

Hot Water Music - Caution (2002)

With their rugged blend of punk, emo, and post-hardcore, Hot Water Music had established themselves as a force to be reckoned with as far back as their 1997 debut album Fuel for the Hate Game. At first they had a loose, spindly sound, but they started to tighten things up on 2001's A Flight and a Crash (their first for Epitaph and first with producer Brian McTernan) and then they fully streamlined things with the following year's Caution (also on Epitaph and with Brian). All eras of Hot Water Music are good in their own ways, but there's a reason that Caution (which the band played in full in 2019 on their 25th anniversary tour) remains a favorite for so many fans. This is the album where they had bottled up all the great ideas they'd had previously, and spit them back out into the most focused batch of songs they've ever released. It opens with the one-two punch of "Remedy" and "Trusty Chords" -- two of the most iconic punk songs of the past 25 years -- and it's hard to go anywhere but down after that, but Hot Water Music keep the energy and the great hooks coming. Caution sneaks in the more intricate aspects of the band's earlier work, but for the most part, this is Hot Water Music at their most direct and least frilly. These are fist-in-the-air, screamalong ragers that light up the crowd every time Hot Water Music break one out at their shows. The album is so urgent and inspired that, no matter how many times you listen, it always feels like the first time all over again.

Rise Against - Revolutions Per Minute (2003)

If you've read this far, you know that melodic hardcore was already well-established by 2003, but it was Rise Against that took the genre out of the underground and onto MTV, the radio, and the charts. For Rise Against, "melodic hardcore" meant taking the sounds of Black Flag and Minor Threat and turning them into something the KROQ crowd could hum along to, and Tim McIlrath had both the gnarly scream and the well-trained singing voice to pull it off. They'd leave their mark on the mainstream with their 2004 major label debut Siren Song of the Counter Culture and its massive acoustic single "Swing Life Away" (and before you call that one their sell-out record, as a lot of people did, listen to the blistering political hardcore of opening track "State of the Union"), but the reason the major labels were interested in the first place was their rock solid, Fat Wreck Chords-released sophomore album Revolutions Per Minute. Rise Against kind of had to get big -- Tim was too good at singing and songwriting for them to stay underground -- but there's no mistaking Rise Against as some radio-rock band when you listen to RPM. The seeds for stardom were there on ultra-catchy fan faves "Heaven Knows," "Like the Angel," and "Broken English," while "Dead Ringer" and "To the Core" rivaled any number of straight-up hardcore bands. It's an impossibly tight album fueled not just by Tim's versatile voice but also by crisp production (by Descendents' Bill Stevenson and his Blasting Room partner Jason Livermore) and an onslaught of double-time punk beats and metallic riffs. From themes of depression and suicide to political critique, it's a record that feels informed by true emotion, and it's open-ended enough that you can relate to it no matter what year you're listening to it. "I like to deal with stuff that is more timeless," Tim told Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in 2006 about his songwriting style. "I think that a lot of the problems we deal with today in the world are the ones that have been plaguing society for centuries and probably will be here a hundred years from now -- hopefully not, but probably will be... I want people to relate to that, even if they're listening to it 10 years from now." We're almost 18 years removed from Revolutions Per Minute, and we're still listening and relating.

The Distillers - Coral Fang (2003)

By the early 2000s, whatever was left of grunge was mainly showing up in the music of fame-hungry hard rock bands who were very far removed from the genre's punk roots, but it wasn't gonna stay that way if The Distillers had anything to say about it. After two very punk albums and an EP on Epitaph/Hellcat, Brody Dalle & co signed to a major and hooked up with Pixies/Foo Fighters producer Gil Norton for 2003's Coral Fang, a front-to-back classic that sounded like Nirvana and Hole at their punkiest. Sometimes it was especially obvious, like on "The Gallow Is God," which sounds like an homage to Kurt Cobain's guitar style, but mostly The Distillers made it their own, which is why Coral Fang not only recalls the early '90s grunge era but rivals it. Their first two albums are more in straight-up punk territory, but Coral Fang far and away has their best songwriting and it perfectly nailed the balance between hardcore rage and anthemic hooks. It produced three singles ("Drain the Blood," "The Hunger," "Beat Your Heart Out"), but it's one of those albums where it feels like almost every song could've been the hit. "Dismantle Me," "Hall of Mirrors," the title track, and especially the show-stopping "Die On A Rope" are all at least as good as the singles, all perfect balances of punk realness and pop songcraft. And they didn't only revive grunge's accessible side; album closer "Deathsex" is 12 minutes of screeching noise rock. Today, there's a whole crop of bands reconnecting grunge with its punk roots, and The Distillers -- who broke up after touring in support of Coral Fang -- are back to reclaim their status as grunge-punk heroes. They started touring again in 2018 and they have a new album in the works.

Bad Religion - The Empire Strikes First (2004)

Bad Religion never really went anywhere so don't call it a comeback, but after two less-well-received major label albums without original guitarist/songwriter Brett Gurewitz, Brett rejoined the band in 2001, the band re-signed to his label Epitaph Records, they welcomed the insanely hard-hitting new drummer Brooks Wackerman (previously of Suicidal Tendencies, currently of Avenged Sevenfold, among many other projects), and they released the excellent 2002 album The Process of Belief. It rivals their classic late '80s/early '90s run and it's home to songs that are still live staples and fan favorites today. It can't be easy to follow up a big comeback like The Process of Belief, but Bad Religion did it by getting harder and faster than ever on The Empire Strikes First. With the metal chops of Brooks Wackerman behind the kit, Bad Religion could now write menacing songs like "Sinister Rouge," which seems to answer the question: "what if Slayer were a pop punk band?"

Pop punk as we know it wouldn't exist without Bad Religion, whose 1988 LP Suffer was one of the '80s punk albums that shaped the '90s pop punk boom, and when Green Day and The Offspring were bringing punk to the masses with 1994's Dookie and Smash, Bad Religion were right there with 'em with their popular 1994 major label debut Stranger than Fiction. But a decade later, mainstream pop punk was very bubblegummy and Bad Religion went in a more aggressive direction, all while retaining the melodies, harmonies, and whoah-ohs that made people fall in love with Suffer. Like The Process of Belief, The Empire Strikes First is home to some of the band's most classic songs, and that's no small feat for an album released by a punk band who were then 24 years into their career (now 40). Coming at the height of George W. Bush backlash and the Iraq War, The Empire Strikes First tackled the capitalist greed that accompanies war ("Let Them Eat War"), religious conservatives ("God's Love"), California wildfires ("Los Angeles Is Burning"), and other then- (and now-) relevant topics that made The Empire Strikes First rank among the most incisive Bush-era protest music. It sounds lyrically urgent and musically thrilling in the Trump era too, and here's to hoping one day it only sounds the latter.

Latterman - No Matter Where We Go​.​.​! (2005)

Latterman hailed from Long Island's fertile hardcore scene, and I'm sure they liked Silent Majority as much as the next LIHC band, but they were more similar to Against Me!, Hot Water Music, and Dillinger Four than to the "Long Island sound," and they've gone on to amass a cult following and inspire a ton of bands to follow in their gruff, melodic, socio-politically conscious path. (Members also went on to form Iron Chic and RVIVR, two of the past decade's most-loved punk bands, as well as the Latterman-like Tender Defender.) Latterman first made their mark with their essential 2002 debut Turn Up The Punk, We'll Be Singing, but if we're picking one album for this list, it's their 2005 sophomore album (and Deep Elm debut) No Matter Where We Go..!, which solidified Latterman's status as the uniquely, cultishly loved band that they still are today. The songwriting is next-level, the hooks are built to be shouted by an entire room in unison, and the lyrics are written for communal moments like those too. So many punk and emo songs rely heavily on "I" and "you" pronouns, but the pronoun you hear most on this album is "we." Latterman write songs with the community in mind, and you can tell they really care about the community too. This album doesn't point fingers at the government so much as it encourages you to examine yourself and the people around you on a more micro level (see: "We're Done For!"). It's the kind of songwriting that became more prominent during the 2010s emo revival and it makes sense that some of those bands ended up opening the shows when Latterman finally reunited, and that Iron Chic and RVIVR fit right in with that era of punk bands. This album may be 15 years old, but it won't be surprising if it gets even more influential in the years to come.

The Suicide Machines - War Profiteering Is Killing Us All (2005)

The Suicide Machines' 1996 debut album Destruction by Definition is one of the all-time great ska-punk albums, and though melodic hardcore was in their DNA from the start, TSM really brought that sound to the forefront on their Bush-era rager War Profiteering Is Killing Us All (SideOneDummy). With that album and song titles like "Capitalist Suicide," "17% 18 to 25," "Capsule (AKA Requiem for the Stupid Human Race)," "All Systems Fail," and "95% of the World Is Third World," you know what you're getting from this album, and The Suicide Machines delivered it with the kind of conviction these topics require. Gone was the fun-sounding Suicide Machines of "New Girl" and in its place was the angriest, heaviest version of this band we've ever heard. It was their last record before breaking up, reuniting, and releasing 2020's very good Revolution Spring -- which also tackles the world of unrest it was released into ("Bully In Blue" is among the year's most powerful anti-police brutality songs) -- but the ferocity of War Profiteering Is Killing Us All is unique to that record. Some of the ska is there too, but even ska haters would have to agree these songs rip.

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Punk's Not Dead Yet. Here's Five Newer Songs To Check Out

Nostalgia is fun but don't get too caught up in it. If you like the 18 early 2000s albums on this list, here's five songs released in 2020 by newer bands you might like too.

Teenage Halloween - "Stationary"

Teenage Halloween hail from Asbury Park, and not to just assume that every musician in Asbury Park likes Bruce Springsteen, but they embrace The Boss' reach-for-the-sky anthemicism, and they wrap it in the lo-fi aesthetic of the DIY punk scene Teenage Halloween have been part of since 2014. (For more modern comparisons, they also remind me of Restorations and The Hotelier, but with Lawrence Arms-y production.) This all comes across on "Stationary," the lead single off Teenage Halloween's upcoming self-titled debut album, due September 18 via Don Giovanni. "'Stationary' is about the feelings of existential dread and how the human brain processes change and being perceived as male as an AMAB non-binary person can slowly make a person more bitter with the world around them," vocalist Luke Henderiks told Paste. You can hear all of that emotion pouring out of Luke's voice on every strained note of this song, which is as lyrically powerful as it is catchy and musically ambitious.

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Bad Cop/Bad Cop - "Simple Girl"

Fat Wreck Chords remains as much of a reliable hub for '90s-style skate punk as it was in the '90s, sometimes because of veteran bands who still make good music like The Suicide Machines and Good Riddance, but also because of newer bands who do a great job of carrying the torch for that sound. Bad Cop/Bad Cop are an example of the latter. Their new album The Ride comes out on June 19, and if the rest of it is as good as lead single "Simple Girl," we're gonna be in for a real treat. Stacey Dee's voice is the perfect mix of gritty and melodic, and this song's got hooks for days. It sounds like it could've come straight out of 1995, but it's so refreshing that it never feels overly retro.

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Power Alone - "All We've Got"

Power Alone is the new band of Eva Hall (Gather, Rats In The Wall), and their debut album Rather Be Alone has clear-as-day but still gritty and unpolished production courtesy the great Paul Miner (Kill Your Idols, Curl Up and Die, Thrice, etc), and it's a straight-up, little-to-no-frills hardcore record and about as ferocious as they come. Rather Be Alone's got big, chunky, heavy-as-all-hell riffs and killer grooves, and Eva tops it all off with a venomous bark and cutthroat lyricism that straddles the line between personal and political and sticks a middle finger in the face of anyone who gets in her way. It's mainly a straight-up hardcore album, but 40-second standout "All We've Got" takes the band into melodic hardcore territory and fans of that genre need to hear this.

PUP - "Anaphylaxis"

Not only did PUP's Stefan Babcock debut a new acoustic song in a quarantine performance video (with help from PUP drummer Zack Mykula and french horn player Rachel O’Connor) and not only did PUP guitarist Steve Sladkowski take part in that quarantine Weakerthans cover (with Jeff Rosenstock, Worriers’ Lauren Denitzio, and others), PUP released their first proper single since 2019's Morbid Stuff, which we not only called one of the best albums of 2019 but one of the best punk/emo albums of the 2010s. "Anaphylaxis" is the kind of melodic punk rager that PUP do so well, instantly catchy and familiar-sounding but always with an off-kilter side that keeps it too weird to qualify as "pop punk."

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One Step Closer - "Lead to Gray"

One Step Closer's From Me To You was one of the best melodic hardcore EPs of last year, and going by new single "Lead to Gray," it sounds like these guys are leaning even more into the "melodic" tag and I for one am a fan of their newfound knack for big hooks like the one on "Lead to Gray." There's just something so great about a real-deal hardcore band doing pop-friendly choruses, and if One Step Closer's upcoming debut album has more like this, I think we're in for a real treat.

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Read past and future editions of 'In Defense of the Genre' here.