20 Best Punk & Emo Albums of 2018
The end of 2018 is almost here. We already ran our list of our 50 favorite, non-genre-specific albums of the year, and here's a list of the best punk and emo albums of the year. All falling somewhere under that umbrella, the albums on this list range from hardcore to screamo to post-hardcore to pop punk to ska-punk and more, and the bands range from reunited vets to brand new acts to supergroups to new solo projects and more. There was so much good punk released this year, plenty of which didn't end up on my list, but I managed to narrow things down to my 20 favorites (with 12 honorable mentions at the end).
I recently published a list of my favorite metal albums of 2018, and to avoid overlap, I left the punk/hardcore-leaning albums on that list like Vein, The Armed, and Pig Destroyer off this one. There is some overlap between this list and the main BV top 50 though, and blurbs from that list have been repurposed for the albums that appear on both lists. Blurbs were written by me unless otherwise specified, and ranking is also by me so the order may not coincide exactly with BV's main Top 50.
Read on for my picks. What were your favorite punk/emo/etc albums of 2018?
Three albums in, and NYC's Hank Wood and the Hammerheads are still the masters mixing rawness and melody. They've got the production quality and the attitude of a hardcore band, but they don't write songs like one. At their core, the songs on S/T are sugary garage pop tunes with sticky choruses and wailing organs. And while hardcore bands make you wanna stalk the pit, Hank Wood's songs make you wanna dance. They've got swaggering rhythms and they sound like the most hip-shakin' rock n' roll band played at punk speed and wrapped in steel wool. They might be tough, booze-and-sweat-drenched punks on the outside, but Hank Wood and the Hammerheads can't deny that they're pop softies at heart.
Do you miss '90s Lifetime? Do you also like Minor Threat, Dag Nasty, Bad Religion, and The Bouncing Souls? Then I hope you heard punk supergroup Beach Rats' debut EP Wasted Time. Lifetime's Ari Katz fronts the group -- which also includes Brian Baker (Minor Threat, Dag Nasty, Bad Religion) and two Bouncing Souls members -- and these are the rawest, most ripping songs Ari has sang on since Jersey's Best Dancers. It's five songs of short, fast, and loud punk, all clocking in at under two minutes, all completely void of frills. These guys are masters, and it's so refreshing to hear them coming together to make classic-sounding stuff like this. They don't do anything new, but it's a sound that will never get old, and as soon as you hear Ari Katz's voice you're reminded that none of the dozens of Lifetime copycats have ever done it like he did.
It wasn't until I saw awakebutstillinbed live that they really clicked for me, but once I did, it became insanely obvious how talented this young band is. Singer/songwriter Shannon Taylor is a force who can bring her voice from a whisper to a scream at the drop of a hat, and she'll blow the skin off your face once she does. She kinda reminds me of Hop Along's Frances Quinlan if Frances was channeling '90s screamo instead of folk and indie rock. And like a lot of the best singers, Shannon's voice can be off-putting at first. It's so raw and untamed and not always 100% on key that some may find it jarring at first, yet it's impossible to turn away from and it quickly becomes addictive. Their debut album what people call low self-esteem is really just seeing yourself the way that other people see you has a clear '90s emo/'90s screamo influence, but they're far from just another "emo revival" band. I can't remember the last time an emo band this new felt this original.
Laura Jane Grace's career started a distinct new chapter after she came out as trans and Against Me! wrote the stunningly powerful Transgender Dysphoria Blues about the process, and all the anxiety that accompanied it and led up to it. It's only been out for four years, but it already feels like a classic. This year she started yet another distinct chapter with her first proper solo album, Bought To Rot, and it was another welcome change. As good as 2016's Shape Shift with Me is, it still lives in Transgender Dysphoria Blues' shadow, but Bought To Rot allowed Laura to write an album without the pressure and expectation that would come with a new Against Me! album, and it sounds freeing. Whether it's the fiery punk of "China Beach," the spirited folk rock of "Apocalypse Now (& Later)," or the hilariously tongue-in-cheek, deep dish and Wilco-dissing divorce anthem "I Hate Chicago," Laura sounds refreshed and at the top of her game on this album. She's said that she modeled the album after Tom Petty's solo debut Full Moon Fever, which reinvigorated Petty's career and scored him his biggest hit, and the parallels to that album are plentiful. Laura Jane Grace may not have a song as omnipresent as "Free Fallin'" on her hands, but I have a feeling that we'll look back on Bought To Rot as a crucial turning point in her career for years to come. From here, it feels like she can go anywhere.
Glasgow's The Spook School are on the classic indie pop label Slumberland, and they take a lot of influence from classic indie pop, but they've got a real punk edge that could appeal to fans of '90s blink-182 as much as it appeals to fans of Velocity Girl. Could It Be Different? is packed to the brim with crunchy, chunky pop punk hooks, and the bold defiance in its lyrics is punk as fuck. Could It Be Different? is a soundtrack to the resistance, taking on things like Brexit as well as having a strong sense of queer and trans pride. "Fuck you I am still alive!" they shout in the faces of bigots on album opener "Still Alive." And on a song like late-album highlight "Body," they open up about body image anxieties while dishing out zippy pop punk bliss. It's an album that battles the widespread injustice that we see people perpetuating every single day, but The Spook School keep their spirits high. These songs may be about some very tough stuff, but they're fun as hell to listen to.
Svalbard's bright, modern, and passionate blend of screamo and post-hardcore kind of makes them sound like the UK answer to Touche Amore, but where TA's songs tend to be personal and introspective, Svalbard's are political and rightfully angry. See song titles like "Unpaid Intern," "Revenge Porn," "Feminazi" and "Pro-Life" to get an idea of what they're tackling on It's Hard to Have Hope. And screamers Serena Cherry and Liam Phelan address those topics with an earth-shattering delivery and utter contempt. They're truly ferocious, both lyrically and sonically, and sealing the deal is the razor-sharp musical backdrop. Svalbard play fast, but there's a post-rock quality to how bright and melodic their guitars are and how the instrumentation tells a story of its own. It makes for a record that's equal parts brutal and beautiful, and it's a tug of war that Svalbard pull of expertly.
Since you don't exactly have to be a virtuoso to play in a hardcore band, hardcore is largely about the vocals, and there aren't many better vocalists in modern hardcore than Christina Michelle. She's got a truly piercing scream, and on Burnt Sugar she sounds even more pissed-off than she did on Gouge Away's great 2016 debut. Her words nail a balance between personal, political, and poetic, and she delivers them with such a natural fury. You can't make good punk unless you really mean it, and she really means it. The rest of the band have upped their game on this album too, branching out from the pummeling hardcore of their debut and incorporating slower tempos, dissonant noise rock, and more complex arrangements. Gouge Away also dip their toes into indie rock with "Ghost" and "Stray/Burnt Sugar," and they do it better than half the bands who devote their careers to this kind of thing (and Christina's got a great natural singing voice). It's obvious that Gouge Away are pushing forward and not content to make the same record twice, and it already feels like it's gonna be really exciting to see where they go next.
American Nightmare were ahead of their time. They put out just two albums in the early 2000s, blending the mood of the metallic hardcore of bands like their then-labelmates Converge with the raw brevity of '80s hardcore, and a few years after they broke up, that became one of the dominant sounds of modern hardcore. So this comeback they're now having has been long overdue, and their self-titled album -- their first in 15 years -- makes their legacy even stronger. It's an album that's rooted in the best parts of their classic material, but that ultimately looks forward rather than reveling in nostalgia. It's easily their most accessible album, and there's an argument to be made that it's their best. American Nightmare is still a heavy, breakneck-speed hardcore album, but the production's a little warmer than anything they'd done before, and Wes Eisold's scream has developed into an ever so slightly melodic shout that gives these songs a little more range than AN's classics had. Not to mention there's a more overt dive into goth/post-punk territory on songs like "Colder Than Death" and "Crisis of Faith" than American Nightmare ever had. American Nightmare is the sound of a punk band that knows how to evolve without losing sight of what made people love them in the first place, and we could really use more of those.
Texas hardcore band Portrayal of Guilt aren't entirely new faces (two members previously played in Illustrations) and they had some assistance from a legend (Majority Rule's Matt Michel produced this album), but still, Let Pain Be Your Guide is astonishing for a debut. It's astonishing for any album for that matter; it's a thrilling blend of genres that pulls from screamo, hardcore, black metal, death metal, grindcore, powerviolence, and more and comes out with something that sounds comfortingly familiar yet entirely new. The more screamo parts sound as uplifting and passionate as bands like pre-mainstream-emo greats Saetia, while some of the more metally stuff is more brutal and gruesome than some of year's best metal albums. The album's over and done with in 22 minutes, and it covers more ground than some hardcore bands do in an entire career. In true hardcore fashion, they say what they need to say and get out, and Portrayal of Guilt have a lot to say.
The leap from Pianos Become the Teeth's early screamo work to 2014's breathtaking, clean-sung Keep You was so drastic that it might've felt underwhelming at first that this year's Wait for Love is more or less in the same realm of Keep You. But further listens reveal the subtle differences, and taken on its own, it's a powerful, beautiful record whether it sounds a little like Keep You or not. It's a brighter sounding album than Keep You and that's reflected in the lyrics too. While the overarching theme of Keep You was death, on Wait For Love it's birth. Singer Kyle Durfey became a father before the making of this album, and the joy of welcoming his son into the world is reflected in Kyle's lyrics and the album's more hopeful tone. There's still a dark side too, but the lightness prevails. As on the last album, Wait For Love is full of lush post-rock guitars, beastly drumming, and the dazzling voice of Kyle Durfey that was hidden on PBTT's earlier material. With both the passion in his voice and the poetic detail of his words, Kyle's delivery can cover you in goosebumps every time.
It took French screamo band Birds In Row six years to release a second full-length, but the wait was worth it. We Already Lost the World is bigger and better in every way. It's a more spacious sounding album than anything they've done; everything sounds just a bit cleaner (but still unpolished) and has more room to breathe. And there's more melody all around but especially in the vocals on clean-sung songs like "15-38" and "We vs. Us," which gave Birds In Row their biggest crossover appeal yet. Those songs are the the catchiest, but plenty of other songs on We Already Lost the World are just as good or better. Even on the more abrasive songs, Birds In Row are always favoring strained emotion over forceful aggression. The best hardcore/screamo bands are the ones where you can feel all the pain or anger or sadness or frustration in their voice, and that's very much the case with this album. The instrumentals are at times groovy and at times furious, and it works as the perfect backdrop for the impassioned shouts. For 2018 albums that'll kick your ass but still show a sensitive side, there weren't many that rivaled this.
Drug Church seriously stepped their game up for this one. Their third album Cheer is easily their best yet and one of the most fun punk records of the year. Patrick Kindlon (who also fronts Self Defense Family) & co. find the perfect middle ground between punk energy and alternative rock hooks, and they never let up on delivering blasts of catchy aggression on Cheer. It's easy to pick up on a handful of '90s alt-rock, punk, post-hardcore, and emo influences, but it never really sounds like one thing in particular. Cheer sounds like it could've been the best punk record of 1997, and Drug Church don't shy away from hitting all the pleasure points you want this kind of music to hit, but it's not overly nostalgic or going after cheap thrills. Drug Church sound very genuine, like they just wanted to make a record they'd wanna hear, and they wanted to make it really, really well. And I'm glad they did. As fun as it is to watch punk go off in shoegaze or indie rock directions, sometimes you just want a pure adrenaline rush like Cheer gives you.
Sister Cities is the album where the best band in modern pop punk leaves the genre behind for good and comes out with just a killer alternative rock album, the kind we all know they were capable of making for years. I hesitate to praise them just because they left pop punk behind -- there's nothing wrong with pop punk when it's done right, and The Wonder Years have done it right again and again -- but The Wonder Years have been drastically evolving with each album and it was only natural that at some point that would mean a slight genre shift. And while Sister Cities is indeed a drastic evolution, it's also sort of TWY doing what they've always done: making cathartic, diary-like rock songs that swing for the fences and tug at your heartstrings while doing so. It's the perfect balance between satisfying old fans and opening their arms to new ones. And as you'd probably expect from The Wonder Years, Sister Cities does not hold back. It's extreme in opposing directions; it's got the band's heaviest songs yet and it's also got their lightest. It's still got the kind of personal, brutally honest lyrics for passionate fans to latch right on to, but the concerns are different. The album is still haunted by death like their last two were, but more than ever, The Wonder Years are looking outside of their South Philly basement and into the world. The album opens up with Dan Campbell singing to his late grandfather from Japan, and the travels continue from there. The journeys are often rough, but Campbell finds time to look at the positives too, like on the ode to love "Flowers Where Your Face Should Be." Even all these months later, there's still a lot to pack on Sister Cities; it's a complicated, multi-faceted album from a band who proved themselves several times before and are now determined to do so once again.
Diss ska-punk all you want, but The Interrupters do it right and they're here to stay. Their single "She's Kerosene" was one of the most addictive songs of the year in any genre, and I'm not the only one who thinks so; it made The Interrupters the first female-fronted ska band with an alternative radio hit since No Doubt. But "She's Kerosene" isn't just good because it's a relief from Imagine Dragons and Twenty One Pilots on what's left of rock radio; it's good because it's one of the finest blends of pop smarts and punk attitude released in years. And Fight the Good Fight is one of those albums where if you bought it because of its One Big Single, you'd instantly be pleasantly surprised to find that every single other song provides the same thrill. It's one of those albums where every song is cut from the same cloth, but each is distinctly different enough that the LP never feels too samey. And each song has a chorus that drills its way into your brain by the second listen. Yes, they sound a lot like classic Rancid, and yes Rancid are featured on one of Fight the Good FIght's songs and Tim Armstrong has been producer and co-writer on all of their records, but Tim doesn't deserve all the credit. With all due respect to Rancid, they haven't written songs this catchy since Indestructible, and if they could they probably would. Aimee Interrupter is clearly a star in her own right, and her snarling delivery is what makes these songs stick.
Here's what we said about 'POST-' in BrooklynVegan's Top 50 Albums of 2018 list:
Going to a Jeff Rosenstock show is a bit like attending the afterparty of a DSA meeting. At his Pitchfork Festival performance in 2017, Rosenstock, the punk lifer who founded his own pay-what-you-want imprint, Quote Unquote Records, way back in 2006, shared exactly how much the corporation-laden festival had paid to get him on the stage ($7,500). His music has always been drenched in the precarity and economic uncertainties of being a touring musician -- his old band Bomb The Music Industry!, blatantly listed their day jobs as one reason for their dissolving. On POST-, Rosenstock takes those latent late capitalist anxieties and makes them explicit: “Dumbfounded, downtrodden, and dejected,” he shouts on album opener “USA.” In a year like 2018, it’s comforting to scream “F U USA,” even if the intended lyric was a winking reference to Julius Caesar. POST- finds Rosenstock growing up sonically as well. Sure, there are super fun shout-along refrains and Jeff’s usual high-energy punk. But there are also experiments with Motion City Soundtrack-esque synths, so much so that the last song on the record, “Let Them Win,” ends with a five minute ambient fade out. It’s a sign, perhaps, that Rosenstock, like the rest of us, is learning to balance rage with relief. [Arielle Gordon]
Here's what we said about '[Untitled]' in BrooklynVegan's Top 50 Albums of 2018 list:
It's always exciting to watch a veteran band take an unexpected leap forward late in their career, and that's exactly what genre-defying underground rock band mewithoutYou did on their seventh album, [Untitled]. Their 2015 album Pale Horses was sort of a new breakthrough for mewithoutYou and helped introduce them to a lot of new fans, but as excellent as it was, it was mostly a culmination of everything they had done up until that point -- a return to form to the classic Catch for Us the Foxes/Brother, Sister era while incorporating some of the folky sounds they further explored on 2009's It's All Crazy! It's All False! It's All a Dream! It's Alright and 2012's Ten Stories. But [Untitled] wiped the slate clean and started fresh, looking nowhere but forward. It's their best album since Brother, Sister, and the jump they made from Pale Horses is the most drastic jump mewithoutYou have made as a band since the one from their 2002 debut [A→B] Life to Catch for Us the Foxes. mewithoutYou's best albums have always been carefully constructed from the start, but the process for [Untitled] was more to throw shit at the wall and see what sticks, and when you listen to the album, it sounds like the process was very freeing for mewithoutYou. They've written heavy songs before, but never in the way they did on this album. They've got blasts of dissonant post-hardcore/noise rock, they've got the wall-of-sound sludgegaze of the album's best song, "Julia (or, 'Holy to the LORD' on the Bells of Horses)," and Aaron Weiss' screams have never been more piercing. At the same time, they've got ambient post-rock stuff worked in, and "Winter Solstice" is one of the strongest folky songs of their career. There's no easy way to pigeonhole this album, no easy way to sum it all up. And on top of all the clashing musical directions are lyrics with literary, religious, and historical references that could take you years to unpack. By the time you've cracked every lyrical code and wrapped your head around every inventive guitar riff, mewithoutYou will probably have already written another classic to consume you with.
Here's what we said about 'How to Socialise & Make Friends' in BrooklynVegan's Top 50 Albums of 2018 list:
Australia’s Camp Cope solidified their position as one of our favorite new bands with the release of their self-titled debut in 2016. Those first eight songs introduced us to Georgia "Maq" McDonald’s world, her catchy pop punk songwriting, and chills-inducing voice. The power of that album caused the trio -- rounded out by like-minded ladies Kelly-Dawn Hellmrich (on bass) and Sarah Thompson (on drums) -- to very quickly become known around the world, as did their forward-thinking and no-nonsense activism. This year’s debut full length was undoubtedly one of our most anticipated releases of this year, but if upon its release it wasn’t clear that it would also be one of 2018’s most important releases, it became clearer and clearer with countless repeated listens, which not only brought musical joy and sometimes tears to more than one BV staff member, but provided the most fitting soundtrack for what was a very turbulent year.
#MeToo was accused of going too far or running its course, festival and package tour lineups continued to be overwhelmingly, exclusively male, and Camp Cope's vital sophomore album How to Socialise & Make Friends arrived not a moment too soon. Fearlessly tackling music industry sexism and gender disparity on opening track and call to arms "The Opener," Camp Cope are a force of nature from the first bassline, pushing back against inequality with strength and rage. Georgia's voice comes in a raw blast, cutting off hypocrisy and gaslighting at their source. Two songs later, "The Face of God," a haunting recollection of sexual assault and its aftermath, has the intensity of a punch in the gut. Its most wrenching lines are a stark reminder of the toxicity of victim-blaming: "I saw it, the face of god, and he turned himself away from me and said I did something wrong." This plain-spoken acknowledgement of an almost unspeakable shame far too many people feel after surviving rape chilled me to my core. "The Face of God" presents a situation that will ring all too familiar to many, not only because of the epidemic of sexual assault, but because the perpetrator is a musician. "Could it be true?" Georgia sings, "you couldn't do that to someone. Not you, nah your music is too good." The continued success of alleged abusers like R. Kelly proves the music industry has a long way to go towards not just looking the other way.
Life goes on in spite of everything; there is hope and healing, or attempts at both. There is also further grief: the loss of Georgia's father, folk musician Hugh McDonald, to cancer, is touchingly portrayed in album closer "I've Got You," a genuine tear-jerker and loving tribute that sticks with you long after the album is over. As does Georgia's voice, ringing more cathartically than ever on "Anna," singing, "just get it all out, put it in a song." It's a battle cry towards moving forward, surrounded by various light-hearted slice-of-life sketches throughout the album that shine with genuine feeling: the "rescue dogs in a house by the sea" in "The Omen," and "riding my bike with no handlebars through empty streets in the dark" on the its title track. These slightly messy but honest songs may not have made for the most ambitious or experimental music this year, but they were among the most powerful and heartfelt. This is the kind of music worth returning to long after trends fade and move on, the kind of music where new details pop out at you on each listen and will continue to do so for years to come. How to Socialise & Make Friends still feels as fresh and relevant as we hoped it would the day "The Opener" dropped over a year ago, and we're already full of anticipation for whatever Camp Cope do next. [Amanda Hatfield]
Here's what we said about 'Capture The Flag' in BrooklynVegan's Top 50 Albums of 2018 list:
It was never really enough of a silver lining to say that the Trump era would be "good for punk." Punk alone isn't nearly enough to combat the unrest and injustice caused by the Trump administration, and bands like War On Women were writing powerful, passionate protest songs before Trump was elected and they'll surely continue to do so when his term finally ends. Still, very few things in the Trump era have felt better than hearing Shawna Potter yell "I don't care who's in office / There's more of us so you already lost, so fuck this fucking rapist, this flag does not make a patriot!" right before a fiery guitar solo takes it away. Capture The Flag, War On Women's second album and first since Trump's election, is full of moments like those, where pure punk aggression meets stunning melodicism and a powerful message. As on their debut, band's self-described "Bikini Kill meets early Metallica" sound is in fine form (and this time they got actual Bikini Kill singer Kathleen Hanna to contribute guest vocals), and Shawna's delivery is as fired-up as can be, but everything is better this time around. The riffage is sharper, the lyrics are even more potent, and the songs are catchier -- way catchier (back when rock radio played punkish music, this album might've produced a few hits). Aside from addressing Trump himself, Capture The Flag also offers up incisive criticism of gun control, reproductive rights, and other unfortunately relevant topics, but it's not all current events. One of its best songs, "Anarcha," is about the enslaved women who were experimented on by the controversial and now-oft-protested "father of modern gynecology" J. Marion Sims in the 19th century. Having this sense of history is just one reason why Capture The Flag won't merely remain a document of its era. As long as there's activist work to be done, and as long as there's an interest in explosive punk rock, Capture The Flag will feel timeless.
Here's what we said about 'TIME & SPACE' in BrooklynVegan's Top 50 Albums of 2018 list:
2018 was a great year for heavy music, but almost no heavy album made me wanna bash my head through a wall every time I heard it like TIME & SPACE. And even less were this simultaneously catchy and psychedelic in the process. As one of the biggest bands in modern hardcore for a while, Turnstile were already an accessible band, but there was a time when they were still a relatively straightforward one, one you could easily boil down to its influences. TIME & SPACE put a firm end to that time and also took a gigantic leap forward. You can still hear hints of other music (from floor-punching NYHC to melodic alt-metal to the hammering piano of Stooges-y garage punk to the rhythmic post-hardcore of Fugazi to Slayer's punked up thrash to Bad Brains' hardcore frenzy and beyond), but TIME & SPACE puts all of those sounds in a melting pot and comes out with something that never sounds like one particular band besides Turnstile. They've stepped up their singing about nine notches since their last record, and now they've got big choruses, airtight harmonies, and the fully clean-sung "Moon" that would've dominated rock radio in 1996. They've also really figured out how to be an experimental band without losing the short, fast, and loud thrill of hardcore. The album's got R&B interludes, psychedelic sound effects, and polyrhythmic auxiliary percussion for days. It makes for music that isn't just an adrenaline rush, but genuinely weird too. It's exciting to hear a hardcore band this modern and innovative, but who can also whip out the Headbanger's Ball riff of "Real Thing" or the circle pit screamalong of "Big Smile" and bring you right back to the reason you got into punk in the first place.
Here's what we said about 'Nearer My God' in BrooklynVegan's Top 50 Albums of 2018 list:
For the first minute and a half, Nearer My God sounds like a lot of indie music that comes out nowadays. There's a pulsing synth, electronic handclaps, an R&B-inspired falsetto -- you know, the kind of thing you're basically guaranteed to hear if you turn on Alt Nation or show up to some band's set at Lollapalooza. And then Conor Murphy screams "I'M SHOCK COLLARED AT THE GATES OF HEAVEN," live drums come in, and all of a sudden you're listening to some of the most crushing post-hardcore to be released this year. It's a sudden 180, but it's also the same kind of post-genre experience that many internet-era listeners arrange for themselves anyway. Do you like The Blood Brothers, but also TV on the Radio, but also Radiohead, but also M83, but also Frank Ocean? It's not that weird to answer yes, and if you did, then Nearer My God is for you. The level of ambition it takes to pull something like this off, and getting it right nearly destroyed Foxing. But, with help from producer and former Death Cab For Cutie member Chris Walla (who called Nearer My God "one of the bravest and best records I've ever been a part of"), they pulled it off like experts. It's an innovative, risk-taking album that cares about accessible pop appeal as much as it cares about schizophrenic prog-punk fury ("Gameshark") and long stretches of meditative ambience ("Five Cups"). It's an album you can rock out to and scream your lungs out to as much as it's an album you can spend alone time with and really pay attention to the many intricate details. It's less common than it used to be to get indie rock albums with this level of masterful ambition, but it doesn't feel right to tie this album in with a past era. Nearer My God is looking nowhere but forward, and there's hardly anything else like it.