45 Best Punk Albums of 2020
I think it goes without saying how insane of a year 2020 was, but there were things to be grateful for too, and one of those things is the incredible amount of great punk records that came out this year. Aside from the fact that so many of these albums had messages that resonated strongly this year, it was inspiring to see how the punk community came together during some of the toughest times, even in a year where we couldn't get together physically. Throughout the whole year, this vast community protested, amplified voices, launched fundraisers, and helped support so many people, and released a lot of great music in the process. I tried to narrow down the best of it to 45 albums and EPs, but it wasn't easy. Countless great records came out this year under the punk umbrella, and even stopping at 45 meant leaving out some great ones.
This list includes a handful of different punk subgenres, including hardcore, post-hardcore, emo, screamo, ska-punk, folk punk, pop punk, metalcore, indie-punk, and more, and even with all those subgenres included, there were still some punk-adjacent albums that I decided weren't necessarily right for this list, like Hum's Inlet, Code Orange's Underneath, and Napalm Death's Throes of Joy in the Jaws of Defeatism (all three of which are excellent). We also have subgenre lists on ska and screamo that dive even deeper into those styles, but these are the 45 I felt strongest about from all across the punk board.
Read on for the list. What were your favorite punk albums of 2020?
The legendary Bob Mould (Husker Du, Sugar) has been on a roll since forming his current trio with bassist Jason Narducy (Split Single) and drummer Jon Wurster (Superchunk), and his fifth record with them is the most fired-up punk record he's released in decades. The songs are shorter and faster, and the words are angrier and more political. "I'm not going to sit quietly this time and worry about alienating anyone," he says.
From Exile is a full-album acoustic reworking of 2019's Hello Exile, but don't call it "stripped down"; these versions are more involved than the original album, and they just might be even better. The Menzingers' heartland rock-infused punk songs are perfect for this warmer, more rustic approach, and it turns out this band has a real knack for twangy fiddles and bluesy harmonicas. It might not get the crowd pogoing when concerts return, but I hope we hear more stuff like this from The Menzingers in the future.
One of the most unexpected comebacks of 2020 was X, who surprise-released Alphabetland, their first album in 27 years and first with the original lineup in 35 years. Alphabetland would be a big deal just for existing, but it also sounds impressively like classic X. The production is on point, the Exene Cervenka/John Doe harmonies are as tight as ever, and the songs are as blazing as they were four decades ago.
We may never get a Fugazi reunion, but this was kinda close. Half of Fugazi (Ian MacKaye and Joe Lally) and all of The Evens (Ian and Amy Farina) joined forces as Coriky, and the result is some of the most Fugazi-esque music that Ian MacKaye has released in years. With the interplay between his guitar and Joe Lally's basslines back intact, Coriky captures some of those classic Fugazi grooves, and Ian brought back some of his vocal grit from that band too. And beyond the Fugazi comparisons, Coriky succeeds as its own band. Ian and Amy's chemistry is undeniable at this point too, and there's some great Evens-style material on here as well.
After over a decade of self-recording and self-releasing music, folk punk (or "thrashgrass") band Days N Daze signed to Fat Wreck Chords and made their new album Show Me the Blueprints in a studio with Fat Mike's production team the D-Composers. Not that it's polished or anything, but Days N Daze clean up pretty good. The ability to use studio tools only helped them flesh out their sound for the better, and they came out with one of their most irresistible batch of songs yet.
The elusive Jesse Michaels (who mostly famously fronted Operation Ivy) returned in 2020 with his first new music in eight years, and it's some of the gnarliest stuff he's released yet. He re-activated his band Classics of Love with a new lineup (Sharif Dumani of Alice Bag/Exploding Flowers and Peter John Fontes of Los Nauticals/Surf Front) and released the World of Burning Hate EP, which is one of the most straight-up old school hardcore style releases he's ever put out. Not even Operation Ivy was this whiplash-inducing.
The pandemic put a stop to several musicians' 2020 plans, but it also gave birth to some new ones. Laura Jane Grace wasn't going to make a solo album this year (Against Me! was going to make an album), but she ended up with a batch of songs and nothing to do with them, so she headed to Electrical Audio studio with Steve Albini at the boards, and she laid down 14 new songs with just her voice and acoustic guitar and sometimes a drum machine and a little distortion. Not only was the bare-bones approach caused by the pandemic, but a lot of the lyrics directly reflect this hellish year too. It's a raw, personal record unlike anything else Laura ever recorded, and it's a real gem in her discography.
The metalcore revival continues to grow, and one of the genre's brightest new voices is Pittsburgh's 156/Silence. If you haven't heard of them yet, you'll be hearing more and more about them soon; Irrational Pull was one of those records that felt like it came out of nowhere and anyone who heard it was instantly won over. With a frantic mix of tech-y leads, bludgeoning chugs, and a passionate bark, comparisons to classic bands like Poison The Well and The Dillinger Escape Plan are easy to make, but 156/Silence do that sound so well that it never feels too revival-y or too indebted to other bands.
PUP's 2019 album Morbid Stuff is one of the best melodic punk records in recent memory, so it should come as no surprise that this year's This Place Sucks Ass EP rips too. It's an odds-and-ends collection with Morbid Stuff outtakes, a new song, and a Grandaddy cover, and it's a reminder that everything PUP touches right now turns to artistic gold. PUP know just how to balance aggression with pop smarts, off-kilter song structures with traditional ones, and it results in insanely catchy songs that sound like no other band in the world.
Following three EPs and a compilation, Delaware metallic hardcore crew Year of the Knife finally issued their first full-length and it very much lives up to the anticipation that this band has been building up over the past few years. It was produced by Converge's Kurt Ballou, who's the perfect fit for a pummeling record like this one. While many of YOTK's metalcore peers are toying with studio tricks and electronics, YOTK go for a rawer, barer approach to hardcore that flirts with old school death metal more than it flirts with industrial or nu metal. Lyrically, the record largely takes on loss and grief, and music this coarse is perfect for stories this devastating.
Rotting Out are back after a seven-year gap between albums, and they just might be better than ever. Nobody screams like the unmistakable Walter Delgado, and if he sounds even angrier than ever, that might be because this is Rotting Out's first album since he served an 18-month prison sentence after pleading guilty to charges of possession of marijuana. In a time where we're seeing increased awareness about the racist tactics that fuel the war on drugs (and slowly making more steps towards decriminalization), Ronin hits especially hard, but this isn't opportunistic political music. These are deeply personal stories about living in a world of white supremacy as a person of color, and growing up with an abusive father. It's all set to a backdrop of energized '80s-style hardcore, vital enough to rival the genre's pioneers.
The shapeshifting San Francisco punk band Get Dead are constantly bringing new elements into their sound, and on their excellent fifth album Dancing With the Curse they incorporate folk punk, ska, street punk, hardcore, hip hop, and more. It might sound messy on paper, but Get Dead always find the common ground between these styles of music. Dancing With the Curse takes after albums like London Calling and ...And Out Come the Wolves (and Sam King's voice has all the attitude and grit of the latter), albums that embraced all kinds of music and saw it all through the lens of anthemic punk. It can be a little hyperbolic to namedrop classics like those, but Dancing With the Curse earns it.
Power Alone is the latest band of Eva Hall (Gather, Rats In The Wall), and their debut album Rather Be Alone is one of the nastiest hardcore records of the year. Save for one melodic song (the super catchy "All We've Got"), Eva delivers a ferocious bark over cement-shattering chugs, and it's the perfect vessel for her cutthroat lyricism, which tackles corporate greed, abuse, mental health, and other real-world issues with an unwavering determination to create change.
Drain's debut album California Cursed is jam-packed with enough evil thrash riffs to get any Slayer or Pantera fan throwing up devil horns, but this Santa Cruz band manages to turn that evil into something as bright, warm, and colorful as the album artwork. And for how metal their riffs are, Drain feel entirely punk. Their songs are short and sweet like a punk band (and they play 12-minute live shows), and their attitude is entirely punk. Obviously they're not the first band to straddle that line, but something about Drain separates them from your run-of-the-mill Suicidal Tendencies/Cro-Mags-worshipping crossover thrash band. They just feel like a breath of fresh air.
If La Dispute went in a more screamo direction after Somewhere at the Bottom of the River Between Vega and Altair instead of an indie rock one (and sung in Spanish), it might've ended up sounding something like Viva Belgrado's new album Bellavista. They nail the proggy post-hardcore passages and talk-singing that LD were known for in the early days, but they also embrace European screamo bands like Daïtro and they swirl these influences into something they can call their own. (They also work in some hip hop cadences in a way that fits right in.) The songs are as tech-y and complex as they are undeniably catchy, and they don't really sound like much other music that came out this year.
One of the most thrilling debut albums I've heard from this whole metalcore revival we've been having is Cost of Sacrifice by Nashville's Chamber. They combine the utter chaos of late '90s Botch, Converge, and Dillinger Escape Plan with the cleaner production of 2000s metalcore, but they never fall victim to the cheesier radio-rock side that those 2000s bands often embraced. They also work in a little of the dark atmosphere of Deftones and the frenzy of early Slipknot without going full "nu." It reminds me of a whole slew of things from roughly 1997-2003, but it's all packaged together in a way that feels like it could only have come out now. It taps into the best parts of that era's heavy music while avoiding the cringier ones, and it's just an onslaught of killer songs that rip from start to finish.
NØ MAN is the current band of all three members of the classic screamo band Majority Rule (Matt Michel, Kevin Lamiell, and Pat Broderick), and their vocalist is Maha Shami, who sang guest vocals on Majority Rule's "Packaged Poison" from their 2002 split with pg.99. Maha is a vicious, ear-piercing screamer and a vivid lyricist in her own right, and NØ MAN's sophomore album Erase is a force to be reckoned with. It's as much of an essential album today as Interviews with David Frost was in 2001, and NØ MAN avoid living in the shadow of their former band by just living in the present and being themselves. Erase doesn't really sound like Majority Rule; it's its own beast, and it's some of the most exceptional screamo/hardcore of the year.
Brian McTernan hadn't written songs or sung in a band for about 20 years until his old band Battery reconvened for a new song in 2017 (in the time in between, he produced classic albums by Converge, Cave In, The Movielife, Strike Anywhere, Thrice, Hot Water music, Circa Survive, and much more), but after realizing how much he missed singing, he got a new band together featuring the incredible lineup of Fairweather members Peter Tsouras (guitar) and Shane Johnson (drums), Darkest Hour's Mike Schleibaum (guitar), and Bane/Converge's Aaron Dalbec (bass). They're called Be Well, and their debut album The Weight and the Cost is one of 2020's finest melodic hardcore records. When producing, Brian always had a knack for making bands sound huge but still real and raw, and that's exactly what The Weight and the Cost is. It's influenced by bands like Turning Point, 7Seconds, and Gorilla Biscuits but has the cleaner production style that Brian perfected with bands like Hot Water Music and Strike Anywhere, and Brian uses these rippin' songs for some of his most personal songwriting yet. The whole album is great, but it all builds to the climactic, closing track "Confessional," a song where Brian hopes his daughter doesn't have to face the same mental health struggles that he did. It's genuinely chill-inducing.
On their debut album, Portland's Glacier Veins have bundled ultra catchy mid 2000s pop punk-style hooks with atmospheric, post-rocky guitars and a more modern indie-emo vibe, and the result is one of the most irresistible punk debuts of the year. It's as nostalgia-inducing as it is fresh and new, and it's an album I just could not stop coming back to. Songs like "Feel Better Now" and "Everything Glows" would've been huge alt-rock hits if they came out in 2005, and they sounded pretty damn great in 2020 too.
Sharptooth made a case for themselves as one of the most promising new metalcore bands around on their 2017 debut LP Clever Girl, but Transitional Forms raises the bar in every single way. The production, songwriting, and performances are all a huge step up from their debut, and the music is more varied. Transitional Forms finds Sharptooth navigating between bludgeoning metalcore, atmospheric post-metal, melodic hardcore, and more, and Lauren Kashan proves to be both a piercing screamer and a soaring singer. She's also a powerful lyricist, and uses this album to tell the "story of my personal struggle with the societal, interpersonal, and internal constructs that have left me feeling small, afraid, broken, and utterly hopeless." It's personal and political at the same time, in a way that's totally and utterly ruthless.
Chicago punks The Lawrence Arms have been going strong since the '90s, and though they don't release albums as frequently as they used to (Skeleton Coast is their first in six years), every one they do put out is worth it. They're a rare punk band who have figured out how to progress and mature their music without abandoning the sound fans know and love, and they manage to make it feel fresh every time. Skeleton Coast feels wiser and wearier than The Lawrence Arms' '90s/'00s classics, but it rips just as hard. As ever, they nail a balance between singer/songwriter intimacy and punk fury, and the impact of their songwriting is undeniable. These songs really drill their way into your head and stay there.
With their sophomore record, LA's Nuvolascura have written one of the most in-your-face screamo albums of the year. A lot of the genre's best albums this year leaned post-rocky and atmospheric, and not that Nuvolascura don't have atmosphere, but As We Suffer From Memory and Imagination is blunt and forceful in a way that a lot of Nuvolascura's most talented peers are not. It was expertly produced by Jack Shirley (Deafheaven, Loma Prieta, State Faults, etc), and Jack helped them achieve a sound that's crisp and clear but without a single frill. It feels like you're right there in the room with them, and in a year where that was completely impossible, it's worth treasuring an album that gives you that same feeling.
It's been over 20 years since Mike Kinsella's band American Football released what many consider the greatest emo album of all time, and he refuses to slow down. American Football's last album -- 2019's LP3 -- may actually be better than their legendary debut, and this year Mike kept the momentum going with The Avalanche, the first album in four years by his solo project Owen. The 2016 American Football and Owen albums were born out of the same writing sessions and felt like two sides of the same coin, but The Avalanche and LP3 feel like two distinctly different beasts. Not that LP3 isn't personal (it is), but The Avalanche is some of Mike's most personal songwriting yet, and some of his most devastating. It's a light sounding record, but it's emotionally one of the heaviest releases of the year. Like the 2016 Owen album, Mike made this with help from Bon Iver's S. Carey and frequent S. Carey collaborator Zach Hanson, and the three of them really have undeniable chemistry at this point. S and Zach have helped Mike turn Owen from the noodly acoustic emo of his early 2000s days into a warmer, folkier project, and the more simplistic backdrop gives the lyrics even more room to take center stage. With songs this detailed and heartbreaking, it's the perfect approach.
Bad Cop/Bad Cop have been around for less than a decade, but they quickly found themselves at the forefront of a new wave of Fat Wreck Chords bands. They embrace the label's classic '90s sound, and Fat Mike's D-Composers team produce their records, but BC/BC write urgent, powerful songs that are too vital to feel retro or nostalgic. Their third album The Ride lashes out at the Trump administration's immigration policies on "Certain Kind of Monster" and "Pursuit of Liberty," it addresses Stacey Dee's battle with breast cancer on "Breastless," and it has a handful of songs that look at self-worth, mental health, and self-examination. "These are political statements—self-love is a huge fucking statement," said Stacey Dee. It's true, and at a time when sexism and transphobia and white supremacy runs rampant, from the streets to social media to the White House, the songs about embracing yourself for who you are felt as radical as the overtly political ones.
The word "screamo" was widely misused in the early/mid 2000s to describe a lot of pop punk/emo bands who screamed sometimes, but there were bands (like Thursday) in that era who wrote catchy, anthemic emo songs that really were indebted to screamo. Madrid's Boneflower are another of those bands, and their sophomore album Armour is the best thing they've done yet. It owes as much to the raw sounds of '90s screamo as it does to the earworm hooks of '00s emo as it does to soaring post-rock (and there's a little black metal too). It has the raw intimacy of a band playing a basement show with the crowd huddled around them, but these songs sound huge, and Boneflower sound like they should be huge. Maybe they will be one day, but for now, Armour remains one of the more special post-hardcore gems in recent memory.
A lot of classic screamo bands were short-lived, but Tokyo's Envy are a rare one who have maintained longevity and everlasting relevance. They helped shape the genre in the '90s, released splits with Thursday and Jesu in the 2000s, toured with Deafheaven and La Dispute in the 2010s; their influence is felt on so many screamo and post-rock adjacent bands, and they continue to put out new music that keeps them as interesting as all the Envy-influenced bands who have risen to prominence over the years. This year's The Fallen Crimson -- the band's first album in five years -- is up there with the band's best work, and it feels as fresh as any of today's newer screamo bands too. The Fallen Crimson finds Envy continuing to explore the prettier post-rock side that they've embraced in later years, and it does so without losing the intensity and the ferocity of their earlier work. It can be easy to take a band for granted after 25 years, but when they keep churning out music this compelling, it'd be a crime to stop paying attention.
War On Women are the kind of band who will write fired-up punk songs about systemic injustice no matter what the political climate looks like, so we're lucky to have gotten a new War On Women record in the most politically tense year in recent memory. At least one of these songs sounds like it was written directly in response to the chaos of 2020 ("Seeds"), but even the songs that aren't explicitly about current events landed with an impact that hit especially hard this year. Shawna Potter remains a masterful vocalist who can mix stadium-sized choruses, hardcore punk grit, and unflinching lyricism, and she's matched in intensity by guitarist Brooks Harlan, who nails the balance between punk simplicity and metal riffage. Throughout the album, they take on police brutality, mistreatment of indigenous peoples and immigrants, sexist remarks about female politicians, and more, and the answer to all of it comes in the chorus of the title track: let's raise some wonderful, beautiful hell.
With an album title like Revolution Spring and the searing indictment of police brutality on opening track "Bully In Blue," you'd think The Suicide Machines wrote this album after witnessing all 50 states protest George Floyd's murder at once in May, but it came out two months before that, and frontman Jason Navarro says the album title is referencing something more personal than it may seem. Still, these veteran ska-punks have been a political band for decades, and having not released an album since the fired-up, Bush-era War Profiteering Is Killing Us All, this was a band who needed to come back and leave their mark on the Trump era. Like The Suicide Machines' '90s classics, Revolution Spring owes as much to real-deal ska as it does to real-deal hardcore, effortlessly dismantling the stigma that '90s ska-punk is too cheerful or too far removed from both ska and punk's roots. The songs are as refreshing and impactful as TSM's classics, and they're among the band's most lyrically intense work, with songs that tackle not just police brutality but also the Flint water crisis, climate change, and more personal topics like the suicide one of Navarro's close friends on "Trapped in a Bomb" and the introspective, self-examining "Awkward Always." Whether he's looking inwards or outwards, Navarro's storytelling is as incisive as it is fun to listen to.
On their third full-length, Bristol's Svalbard have evolved from a pummeling hardcore band into a band that swirls together anything from dream pop to black metal. It's not just post-hardcore but also post-rock, post-metal, post-everything. It's a gorgeous, futuristic rock record, and though it might shimmer sonically, its lyrics are full of scars. The songs address domestic abuse, sexual assault, depression, and other real-life issues, and Serena Cherry tackles them with incisiveness and fury.
Before World House, Toronto hardcore band Mil-Spec had only released EPs, singles, and a demo, but for their first full-length, they were intent on making something that was more immersive, varied, and ambitious than their earlier releases, not just longer. And they very much succeeded. World House still embraces the Revolution Summer and Turning Point influences that Mil-Spec always embraced, but they push that sound to the limits, making something cleaner, more modern, and sometimes even catchier than the bands who paved the way for them. They also make some unexpected moves, like on the melodic post-hardcore of "Parade" and on the dark, brooding "Colony." It's an album that doesn't fully reveal itself until you've heard the whole thing, and once you do, you won't look back.
Call Me Malcolm have been quietly making some of the most special, unique, ambitious music in the punk underground for a few years now, and with their third album My, Myself and Something Else, they've written their most rewarding music yet. It's sort of a sequel to the UK ska-punk band's excellent 2018 album I Was Broken When You Got Here, a concept album about battling mental health struggles, only this time Call Me Malcolm are looking outwards and discussing dealing with those struggles while living in a world that's filled with mass hatred. Throughout its 15 tracks, My, Myself and Something Else delivers recurring lyrical themes and musical motifs, voiceovers by actors Elisabeth Hopper and James Northcote (the former of whom was also on I Was Broken When You Got Here), and an all-killer batch of ska-punk songs. Call Me Malcolm have mastered the genre as much as the great '90s bands who influenced them -- with vibrant horns, inviting choruses, and boundless energy -- but they don't really sound like any other band in particular. They fuse ska-punk with the darker tones of early 2000s post-hardcore and emo, ending up with a sound that's not entirely out of left field but that's hard to put your finger on. It's fresh, exciting music, and when these songs hit their emotive climaxes, it's downright cathartic.
Soul Glo have quickly become one of the most vital punk bands around, and their Songs to Yeet at the Sun EP -- while short -- is one of the best things they've done yet. Across its five songs, it offers up a chaotic cross between hardcore and screamo that sounds like it's gonna boil over at any second, and they seamlessly work in industrial rap too. On top of it all is a furious, stream-of-consciousness vocal delivery that tackles both personal issues and systemic ones, and points a middle finger at anyone who gets in their way.
Toronto's Respire have been making boundary-pushing heavy music since debuting a half-decade ago, and their third album Black Line just might be their best yet. Previously a band known for introspection, this record looks outwards at "a world growing increasingly ill... a world that abets the rise of fascism and drives climate catastrophe," and it's also their most musically ambitious. It's got melodic black metal blasts that nail the heavy/beautiful divide as well as anything by Deafheaven or Alcest, orchestral post-rock that's towering enough to rival Godspeed You! Black Emperor, and shouty screamo that brings to mind the emotive yet experimental sounds of bands like Circle Takes The Square and City of Caterpillar. It also works in an array of other sounds, from clean-sung emo to roaring sludge metal, and it does all of this in a way that's entirely seamless. This is an album where you don't know if you should call it screamo or metal or none of the above; it can't be pigeonholed. It's also an album that feels like heavy music's answer to Broken Social Scene - like on that band's classics, almost every individual song on Black Line is a mini epic of its own, and they're so climactic that almost any of them sound like they could be the grand finale. When do you finally get to the closing crescendo of final track "Catacombs Part II," though, you'd never argue with Black Line's sequencing. There's no better way this intense journey could have ended.
In 1998, Mike Park put on the Ska Against Racism tour with the goal of bringing back the anti-racist politics of ska at the height of the genre's mainstream success in America. "I felt like [ska] was becoming so manufactured as this fun wacky circus music and the original politics were gone from the 2 tone movement," Mike told us earlier this year. "The whole 2 tone idea is black and white equality. Did kids even know that?" Now, 22 years later and with the help of Bad Time Records and Ska Punk Daily, the Ska Against Racism name was revived for a new 28-song compilation featuring some of the bands from the original tour (Less Than Jake, Mustard Plug, Five Iron Frenzy, and MU330) alongside other veterans (Tim Armstrong/Jesse Michaels, The Suicide Machines, The Chinkees, Hepcat, Buck O' Nine, Left Alone, Big D and the Kids Table, etc) and a slew of newer bands who are keeping ska alive today (Kill Lincoln, We Are The Union, JER, Catbite, The Best of the Worst, Omnigone, The Skints, The Interrupters, Half Past Two, Bite Me Bambi, etc). It not only connects the established veterans with the new guard and functions as a who's who of the current ska scene, it's also a mission statement for today's ska scene and a declaration of the values that these bands stand for. "Mike [Park] wanted to bring [the politics] back for his generation, and I feel like now we need to make that statement again," Mike Sosinski from Bad Time Records/Kill Lincoln told us. "It's almost like a waypoint that people can look to in time and be like, alright, ska in this generation, this is where we're at, and it's no longer just anti-racism, it's anti-homophobia, anti-transphobia, anti-sexism, it's just acceptance of everything but hate."
The compilation will benefit The Movement for Black Lives, The NAACP Legal Defense Fund, The Alpha Institute, The Conscious Kid, and Black Girls Code in perpetuity, and the anti-racist, anti-bigotry message lies not just in the benefit aspect but also in a lot of these songs. From covers of classic anti-racist ska anthems that remain depressingly still relevant today (Kill Lincoln doing Skankin' Pickle's "David Duke Is Running For President," The Doped Up Dollies doing The Specials' "Racist Friend") to newly-written protest songs (JER's "Breaking News! Local Punk Denies Existence of Systematic Racism," The Best of the Worst's "Illusion of Choice," Omnigone's "Swallow Poison," Mustard Plug's "Unite and Fight," etc), the message of Ska Against Racism goes much deeper than just the album title. And with so many genuinely great songs that are exclusive to this comp, Ska Against Racism is just as essential as the albums by all the bands featured. Comps aren't as popular in the streaming era as they were in the CD, cassette, and vinyl eras, but Ska Against Racism is poised to become one of those scene-defining comps like Mike Park curations Misfits of Ska and Plea For Peace were two decades ago.
Anti-Flag knew that 2020 was going to be a pivotal year, one in which we had the chance to vote out Donald Trump (and succeed in doing so), but I don't think they or anyone else could have predicted the total chaos of this year when 20/20 Vision dropped back in January. The album opens with a sample of a blatantly racist Donald Trump speech, and it goes on to directly attack the neofascism, racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, and other forms of bigotry that Trump and his administration fanned the flames of since he ran for president in 2016. Anti-Flag have been fighting against these issues for 25 years with boundless energy and extreme consistency, and they don't seem like they'll be slowing down anytime soon. They're fully aware that these issues predate Trump and won't go away when Trump leaves office, which is why they've stayed away from putting a specific president at the center of an album in the past, "but this record in particular, we kind of said, well fuck that, we need to be on the record in opposition to the policies of Donald Trump and Mike Pence," bassist/vocalist Chris #2 said.
As 2020 unfolded, 20/20 Vision only became a more and more relevant soundtrack to this year -- especially "The Disease," which, though metaphorical, is still eerily prescient -- and four days before Election Day, Anti-Flag put out the expanded edition 20/20 Division with five new songs that are on par with the other 11. (And the day after Election Day, they put out the standalone guest-filled benefit single "A Dying Plea Vol. 1.") Trump won't return to office in 2021, but the songs on Anti-Flag's Trump-era will continue to hold up, just as Anti-Flag classics like Underground Network still hold up today. Anti-Flag convey their messages on these 16 songs with rigor and conviction, and this is some of the strongest, most accessible, most replayable songwriting in their already rock-solid discography. The album goes from anthemic stadium punk ("Unbreakable") to whiplash-inducing hardcore ("A Nation Sleeps") to rustic folk punk ("Un-American"), and the onslaught of hooks never stop. Anti-Flag remain as intent on releasing fiery punk songs with urgent messages as they were when they wrote "Fuck Police Brutality" in the Clinton era. How do you achieve longevity in punk? Ask Anti-Flag; to them, it's damn near second nature.
Teenage Halloween may sound like a raw, scrappy punk band on the surface, but the songs on their self-titled debut album are bursting at the seams with ambition, ready to be played at stadiums despite maintaining the aesthetic of a small DIY space. The album's a seamless fusion of heartland rock, folk punk, emo, and skate punk, and it finds time for everything from classic rock solos to triumphant horns, all while singer/guitarist Luke Henderiks tells real-life tales of growing up queer in the New Jersey suburbs. The album is so personal that it feels like Luke is speaking directly to you, and it's so catchy that you feel like you've known it your whole life after just a few listens.
A lot of bands try to recreate the sounds of '90s ska-punk, but few get it as right as Kill Lincoln. They lie somewhere in between The Suicide Machines' ska/hardcore crossover and Less Than Jake's euphoric pop hooks, and their new album Can't Complain sounds as fresh in 2020 as Destruction by Definition and Losing Streak did in 1996. (And like Destruction by Definition has a ska cover of Minor Threat, Can't Complain has one of Paint It Black's "Womb Envy," a song that's actually slightly older now than "I Don't Wanna Hear It" was when TSM covered it.) If you're a longtime ska-punk fan, Can't Complain will fill you with warm feelings of nostalgia, but this album succeeds because it goes beyond reminding you of your favorite '90 bands. Kill Lincoln don't approach ska-punk as a faded trend that needs reviving; they approach it as a valid genre of music with something to say right now. And on Can't Complain, Kill Lincoln use their fast-paced, adrenaline-rush-inducing songs to address the state of the world in 2020. It's fun, exhilarating music, but don't ever mistake the bright hooks for a lack of purpose.
On their sophomore album and major label debut, UK hardcore kids Higher Power fully embraced the Jane's Addiction and Smashing Pumpkins influences that they only hinted at on their 2017 debut Soul Structure, and it resulted in the crossover hardcore record of the year. These songs are stuffed with huge hooks that sound built to dominate the alt-rock corners of '90s radio and MTV, but Higher Power still have the attack of a hardcore band, and they always make sure to balance out the soaring choruses with chugging breakdowns. It ends up echoing other Roadrunner debuts like Glassjaw's Worship and Tribute and Turnstile's Time & Space (or sometimes Deftones), but mostly it just establishes Higher Power as the latest Roadrunner-core band to be reckoned with. You can spend all day picking apart who Higher Power sound most like on 27 Miles Underwater, or you can just give in to the charms of these extremely well-written songs. Not only is this a band that would've scored a hit in the Headbangers Ball era, but every song on this album could've been the hit.
A lot's changed since Touche Amore first hit the scene just over a decade ago. Once part of the "new wave of post-hardcore," Touche are now elder statesmen themselves and influential on a ton of the younger post-hardcore bands that have emerged in recent years. They could easily have started plateauing and coasting on past successes, but instead they've pushed the envelope once again. Lament is their most musically varied album, with longer, more climactic songs, slower tempos, twangy pedal steel, melodic choruses, dual vocals with Manchester Orchestra's Andy Hull, piano ballads, and more, and Jeremy Bolm continues to expand the scope of his vocal delivery, making his most drastic departure yet on the hushed talk-singing of album closer "A Forecast." There are still plenty of classic Touche Amore rippers nestled within the album too, making for a record that draws you in with familiar sounds and then takes you into the unknown.
Denton, Texas' Record Setter have been gradually rising and expanding their sound since their 2014 debut Dim, and their Topshelf debut I Owe You Nothing is their best and most honest record yet. It fully embraces the screamo direction that Record Setter began going in on 2017's Purge without fully abandoning their more melodic emo roots, and it's a towering, intense album where almost every song segues directly into the next, making for an ambitious piece of art that needs to be listened to from start to finish. Judy Mitchell's scream is as throat-shredding as it is emotive and accessible, and her powerful lyrics touch on themes of gender dysphoria and self-worth in a way that leaves you hanging on every word.
If you've heard anything about Gulch, you've probably heard that they're known for quickly selling out of limited-edition merch -- designed by guitarist Cole Kakimoto, who's responsible for their artwork, songwriting, and overall vibe -- which then gets flipped online for insane prices like a Supreme hoodie. It's a strange phenomenon that the band aren't even necessarily proud of, and it caused some people to criticize the Gulch hype for being more about merch than music, but when Impenetrable Cerebral Fortress came out, it silenced the haters. You don't need to know a thing about Gulch to know that Impenetrable Cerebral Fortress is one of the most adrenaline-rush-inducing albums of the year. Drummer Sam Ciaramitaro always sounds like he's about two beats ahead of the rest of the band, vocalist Elliot Morrow's scream is nasty as all hell, and Cole Kakimoto shakes up their hardcore sound with the evil riffage of black and death metal. Part of what makes Gulch so refreshing, though, is that when so many other bands turn music into homework, Cole will be the first to tell you he doesn't actually listen to the bands people think Gulch sound like. "I didn’t listen to Madball or Terror or Breakdown or any of the staple hardcore bands, and I also didn’t listen to Entombed or Obituary, and I also didn’t listen to Darkthrone or any of that stuff," he told Bandcamp. "It’s funny, because some guy will be like, ‘This is total Repulsion worship,’ and I don’t even listen to that fuckin’ band." The similarities exist for one reason or another, but Gulch sound so fresh because they weren't trying to emulate their heroes, they were trying to recreate the music they were hearing in their heads. Judging by how distinct Impenetrable Cerebral Fortress sounds, it worked.
Strike Anywhere were in the right place at the right time when they arrived fully formed on their 2001 debut album Change Is A Sound. Melodic punk and hardcore was in, and Change Is A Sound and its 2003 followup Exit English became instant classics of the genre. That type of music eventually started to fade in popularity as many of its bands broke up or went in other directions, but Strike Anywhere just kept getting better and better at what they do. They left off on an extremely high note with 2009's Iron Front, and then they finally closed an 11-year gap of no music with this year's Nightmares of the West, which picked up right where Strike Anywhere left off and continued to push them forward. The band's return was partially inspired by the death of their friend Marc Maitland, drummer of Blocko, whose "Opener" they cover on Nightmares of the West, but it became something even more than that. Strike Anywhere have been writing ultra-catchy songs that rail against oppression and injustice since day one, and when they returned with a fiery new batch of them in the midst of nationwide protests against police brutality and the toppling of confederate statues, it was the perfect punk protest album to soundtrack this revolution.
We're over a decade into the "emo revival," and just when you might think the genre's latest wave has reached its saturation point, a band like Stay Inside comes along and breathes new life into it. They pull from all throughout emo's history, from raw '90s screamo to the cathartic choruses of the mid 2000s to the indie rock-adjacent vibe of the "revival" era, and they stir it all together and deliver it in a way that could only happen right now. They make connections between all of the various eras and subgenres of emo that you can only see with hindsight, and they write undeniable songs in the process.
Virginia's Infant Island put out two records this year, the mini-LP Sepulcher and the full-length Beneath, both of which are very good, but it's Beneath that turns Infant Island from a great band into an extraordinary one. It's the kind of album that you can only hear start to finish, as it functions more as one grand piece of work than as a collection of songs. Each individual song is so different -- throughout the record, Infant Island touch on screamo, black metal, sludge metal, post-rock, noise, ambience, and more -- and they make the most sense when you hear them in succession. At various points, the album finds Infant Island at their most metallic ("Here We Are"), their catchiest ("Stare Spells"), and their most avant-garde ("Signed In Blood"), really scratching every itch you could've thought of this band scratching, and a few you'd never expect them to. It's a record that doesn't fit easily into any pre-established category, while being able to appeal to fans of all different types of punk, metal, and experimental music at once. That's a sign of a genuinely great record.
Jeff Rosenstock's a true punk lifer who's been writing and releasing great music for over two decades, and each album he puts out feels as new and exciting as the last. He sounds as hungry on NO DREAM -- his fourth proper solo album -- as a young band who's vying for the world's attention, and the songs are as thrilling and fired-up as any good punk record should be. It's the fastest, most straight-up punk album of his solo career thus far, but Jeff remains a musician who can casually and expertly defy genre, and NO DREAM incorporates bits of indie pop and acoustic folk as naturally as it incorporates hardcore and pop punk. It's a blast to listen to, and it's as purposeful as Jeff's music has always been. Some songs are personal and mental health-conscious ("The Beauty of Breathing") and others look outwards, like the title track - a lament for the families that were separated at the border by the Trump administration. In a year that will be remembered for both civil unrest and widespread anxiety, NO DREAM was an album that mirrored real life at every turn.