AFI album guide – the essentials, the underrated & more
This edition of 'In Defense of the Genre' takes a look at the rich discography of AFI, a highly unique band who evolved in interesting ways and defied easy categorization for nearly three decades. Stick around at the end for five newer bands recommended for fans of AFI.
It was the mid 2000s, and words like "goth" and "emo" were getting tossed at a bunch of bands in eyeliner that weren't really goth or emo in the traditional sense (but were usually pop punk). The Used had released their instantly-huge self-titled debut in 2002, My Chemical Romance had started taking over the world with their sophomore album and major label debut Three Cheers for Sweet Revenge in 2004, and right smack in the middle of those was another landmark album, AFI's 2003 major label debut Sing the Sorrow. Its singles "Girls Not Grey," "The Leaving Song Pt. II," and "Silver and Cold" were nearly unavoidable on alt-rock radio and MTV2 rock countdowns, and they skyrocketed AFI into the mainstream and got them lumped right in with the whole goth/emo thing. The huge difference, though, between AFI and just about every eyeliner-wearing band in the AltPress/Warped Tour/Hot Topic world that they were all of a sudden associated with, is that AFI had already grinded in the underground punk scene for over a decade and had a massive, rewarding back catalog that pre-dated Sing the Sorrow. If you already knew the band, you might've called Sing the Sorrow selling out, but that'd be a disservice to how much of a musical evolution it was. It wasn't a polished-up, watered-down version of what AFI had already done previously; it was a gargantuan leap forward and one of the most outrageously ambitious alternative rock records this side of Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness. And if it was your introduction to AFI -- as it was for many, many young people at the time -- you wouldn't have been disappointed when you went backwards and realized this band had already spent years churning out top tier goth-punk that sounded like virtually no other band in the world.
They started out as a straightforward but genuinely awesome and real-deal hardcore band in the early '90s, long before they were associated with the kind of pop-screamo you'd find on MTV in the early 2000s, and they slowly and gradually went through lineup and stylistic changes before solidifying their classic lineup in 1998 (that they impressively still have today) and crafting the sound that would define them. AFI's classic lineup -- original vocalist Davey Havok, original drummer Adam Carson, bassist Hunter Burgan (who filled in with the band live before officially joining for 1997's Shut Your Mouth and Open Your Eyes), and guitarist Jade Puget (whose old band Loose Change released a split with AFI in 1993 and who guested on various AFI songs over the years before officially joining the band) -- are one of those lineups where every single member of the band is absurdly talented and noticeably crucial. Davey Havok had a badass yell/scream since the early days of AFI, but by the time he started revealing his singing voice, it was clear that AFI had a powerhouse vocalist who could belt his heart out and sound like almost no other singer. Adam Carson is a subtly inventive drummer who messes with the traditional punk beat and puts an extra hop in AFI's step. Hunter Burgan is a fretboard wizard who can go nuts without overplaying and he's got one of the best bass tones in punk. Jade Puget brings classic metal chops and soaring melodicism to his guitar work that manages to sound definitionally punk without overly relying on stereotypical power chord punk structures. And with all four members doubling as capable vocalists, AFI came up with their trademark gang vocals that still sound nothing like any of the thousands of gang-vocal-utilizing punk bands. And it was that lineup, which made its proper debut on 1999's Black Sails in the Sunset (AFI's fourth album), that AFI built the sound they're now best known for. Unlike most of the mainstream 2000s bands who just looked goth, AFI had the original wave of goth rock in their musical DNA for years before a lot of the MTV-era bands even released a record. Their 1998 A Fire Inside EP had one Cure cover and one Misfits cover, and if you could somehow fuse those two bands into one, it'd probably come out sounding a lot like AFI. (Though actually I'd argue that AFI's metal-tinged horror punk sounded more like Danzig's post-Misfits band Samhain than the Misfits, and I'd be remiss not to mention that Davey was the singer on the debut album by Son of Sam -- who were formed after Samhain's 1999 reunion tour with AFI by then-Samhain members Todd Youth, Steve Zing, and London May [aka everyone but Danzig] -- but I digress.)
After Sing the Sorrow made AFI stars, its followup Decemberunderground (home to the band’s gigantic single "Miss Murder") made them even bigger and made their love of The Cure and Depeche Mode and other goth rock/synthpop even more obvious. (Davey Havok and Jade Puget also released the debut album by their goth/synthpop side project Blaqk Audio a year later.) As cool as it was to watch AFI experiment with those sounds and presumably introduce that music to younger audiences who maybe never heard Power, Corruption & Lies or Violator, Decemberunderground also veered a little too close to the milder mainstream rock that Sing the Sorrow was such a welcome break from. It's a pivotal album in AFI's career, even if it's not necessarily one of their strongest. And it marked the height of their mainstream presence, which -- like many punk/emo/screamo/post-hardcore/etc bands who hit it big in the early 2000s -- started to dwindle by the end of that decade. In the time since then, AFI's material has wavered between the songs that seem like radio bait and the occasional exciting return to form, and though they aren’t omnipresent stars anymore, they -- like a handful of their former peers -- have benefitted from the renewed interest in punk, emo, and hardcore on a less mainstream but more critically acclaimed level. They've retained relevance by taking acclaimed newer bands like Touche Amore and Nothing (both of whom probably take some influence from classic AFI) on tour, and a handful of positive critical re-evaluations of their classic work have been written in recent years. They haven't returned to the heights of their late '90s / early '00s prime, but they've proven to be lifers who are still capable of churning out some great songs and who still put on larger-than-life, tight-as-fuck live shows.
They're going on 30 years at this point -- and over 20 years with the current lineup -- and they're still a force to be reckoned with. If you're new to the band, they've got a long, often-rich discography that isn't the easiest thing to approach, so here's a guide to their massive catalog, including the most essential albums, the underrated ones, the curios, and some other great songs from throughout their career that are not to miss. AFI probably aren't done releasing music, but their classics are most likely set in stone, so it feels like as good a time as any to dive head-first into this band's uniquely thrilling body of work.
Black Sails in the Sunset (1999)
Black Sails in the Sunset is the first album by AFI's current and classic lineup, and it's also the first time they finally fused their punk, metal, horror, goth, and pop influences into one seamless thing. It's still overall a whiplash-inducing hardcore punk record, but you can also hear the seeds being sewn for the massive breakthrough AFI would have on Sing the Sorrow. They previously started exploring darker tones and themes on 1997's Shut Your Mouth and Open Your Eyes and 1998's A Fire Inside EP, but with the addition of Jade Puget on guitar, they finally mastered it for the entirety of a near-flawless record on Black Sails. Davey is still yelling and screaming a lot more on this record than on later releases, but it's also the first time he comes into his own as a singer. And it's still far from a radio-friendly album, but AFI's got hooks on this one. The gang vocal chorus of "Exsanguination" and Davey's refrain on "No Poetic Device" are impossible to get out of your head after you've heard them a few times, and "The Last Kiss" is as catchy and cathartic as any of AFI's biggest hits. And for all its whiplash-inducing glory, some of Black Sails' best moments come when AFI embrace the slower, more somber side of their sound that would really come to life on Sing the Sorrow. The mournful closer "God Called In Sick Today" and the sludgy punk ballad "Clove Smoke Catharsis" (one of two songs on this album featuring guest vocals by The Offspring frontman Dexter Holland, whose Nitro Records AFI were signed to for most of the '90s) established AFI as a band capable of looking far beyond the confines of punk and making great music that defied easy categorization.
Essential b-sides/rarities from the Black Sails era: "Lower It," "Who Knew?"
All Hallows EP (1999)
Like most punk bands, AFI have released a handful of EPs throughout their career, and though it's only got three original songs and a cover, All Hallows EP is the one that's as crucial as any of their full-length albums. It deserves a spot in the "essential" section just for "Totalimmortal" alone. As much as Black Sails is AFI's first classic and near-perfect album, "Totalimmortal" is the first song that proved they were a punk band who had enough hooks in their arsenal to one day compete with pop stars on MTV. "Totalimmortal" pretty much has everything: a hooky verse that leads to a hooky pre-chorus that explodes into a whoa-oh fueled chorus, killer basslines from Hunter, infectious rhythms from Adam, and riffage from Jade that strikes a perfect balance between raucous and hummable. But that's not all this wall-to-wall great EP has to offer. Both other original songs -- "Fall Children" and "The Boy Who Destroyed The World" -- showed a clear progression from the album AFI had released just five months earlier, and found them even further fusing their many influences into something dark, vicious, and absurdly catchy. And then there's the cover of the Misfits' "Halloween.” It’s one of many times that AFI tipped their hats to one of their biggest influences and helped that influence gain a bunch of younger fans in the process, and it's one of their best.
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.
Essential b-sides/rarities from the Art of Drowning era: "Dream of Waking," "A Winter's Tale"
Sing the Sorrow (2003)
Made with the alt-rock production dream team of Butch Vig (who helped Nirvana skyrocket to fame on Nevermind) and Jerry Finn (who did the same for blink-182 on Enema of the State), AFI's Dreamworks debut arrived three years after The Art of Drowning -- marking the band's longest break between albums by far -- and it was like the shot heard 'round the alternative rock world. AFI were still a punk band on this album -- most overtly with the breakneck speed of "Dancing Through Sunday," which also happens to be the first time Jade Puget let AFI fans know he can dish out shred-metal solos -- but they were also alternative rock, post-hardcore, industrial rock ("Death of Seasons"), and so much more. They had mastered mosh parts as well as weepy balladry as well as the kind of pure pop songs that helped fully position Robert Smith as a key influence on modern punk (like blink-182's Jerry Finn-produced, Robert Smith-featuring untitled album would also do a few months later). Like blink-182's Jerry Finn era albums did for that band, Sing the Sorrow took AFI from being a real-deal punk band to being a band who could rival anything on MTV. And AFI did it not by softening or simplifying their sound but by expanding it. Punk purists might have scoffed at it, but anyone who likes to see rock bands make grand statements would have to admit that Sing the Sorrow was a triumph. It took influence from all over the place -- The Cure, Joy Division, Nine Inch Nails, Misfits, Black Flag, Slayer, Metallica, Tim Burton -- but fused those influences in a way that really hadn't been done before and has rarely been done effectively since. It may not be AFI at their most punk, but it's AFI at their most startlingly original.
Essential b-sides/rarities from the Sing the Sorrow era: "Rabbits are Roadkill on Rt. 37," "Synesthesia," "Now the World," "Reivers' Music"
Very Proud of Ya (1996)
Before AFI became the horror/goth-inspired band we know them as today, they were more of a straightforward hardcore band in the vein of early Black Flag, Descendents, Minor Threat, etc (who caught their NYC show with Sick of It All, H2O, VOD and Snapcase after this album came out?), and after working out the kinks with a couple EPs and their 1995 debut album Answer That and Stay Fashionable, they tightened up their sound for their sophomore album and Nitro Records debut Very Proud of Ya. The only "classic lineup" members in the band at this point were Davey Havok and Adam Carson (though Jade Puget guested on this record), and it's nearly unrecognizable from the version of AFI that got famous, but it's a great record in its own right. Opener "He Who Laughs Last" remains one of the most badass hardcore songs of the '90s, and it's as good at being straightup hardcore as Sing the Sorrow is at being whatever exactly Sing the Sorrow is. Very Proud of Ya doesn't reach the towering heights of its opening track again -- and I don't know why so many punk bands in the CD era thought albums had to have 20 songs -- but it comes close plenty of times ("File 13," "Wake-Up Call," "Advances In Modern Technology," "This Secret Ninja," the re-recording of "Yürf Rendenmein" from their debut) and it's a rock-solid punk record. It wouldn't be long before AFI revealed a more original, more complex sound, but Very Proud of Ya is more than just a look into the early days of a soon-to-be-great band. It stands tall on its own.
FOR THE CURIOUS
Shut Your Mouth and Open Your Eyes (1997)
Very Proud of Ya was the fullest realization of AFI's more trad-hardcore sound, Black Sails in the Sunset was the beginning of their classic era, and in between was the more transitional album Shut Your Mouth and Open Your Eyes, AFI's first with bassist Hunter Burgan (and featuring guest contributions from Jade Puget). AFI were clearly branching out into darker, heavier, Danzig-inspired territory on this album -- it's probably the overall meanest, nastiest album in their discography -- but in hindsight it sounds more like a dry run for the band's classic era than a classic in and of itself. It has moments that find AFI nearing the sound you know and love (like "A Single Second"), but unlike Very Proud of Ya which is in a totally different ballpark, this album is kind of just a look into the early days of a soon-to-be-great band.
A Fire Inside EP (1998)
Even more so than Shut Your Mouth and Open Your Eyes, the A Fire Inside EP -- released a year later on Billie Joe Armstrong's Adeline Records -- found AFI honing the darker, heavier sound that they'd fully flesh out once Jade Puget joined the band, especially on the song "Over Exposure," which is ever so slightly removed from sounding like it could've fit on Black Sails in the Sunset. The EP's got another Misfits cover, but more important is its cover of The Cure's "The Hanging Garden." When AFI give their horror punk twist to that 1982 goth-rock classic, you can almost hear the sound of the Black Sails - Sing the Sorrow era dawning on them in the process.
OTHER STANDOUT SONGS
"I Wanna Get a Mohawk (But Mom Won't Let Me Get One)" (from Answer That and Stay Fashionable, 1995)
A far cry from the dead-serious songs AFI wrote in their prime, the highlight of AFI's debut album Answer That and Stay Fashionable is tongue-in-cheek hardcore in the vein of "Six Pack" and "Suburban Home" and it’s about exactly what you think it's about from the song title. It doesn't take itself too seriously and it's not trying to be anything that it's not, but it's also AFI's first signature song and it's a hell of a fun one.
"Hearts Frozen Solid, Thawed Once More By the Spring of Rage, Despair and Hopelessness" (from Short Music for Short People, 1999)
AFI were one of the 101 punk bands to contribute a 30-second-ish song to Fat Wreck Chords' ridiculous yet must-hear Short Music for Short People compilation, and even if it might take you longer to read the song title than to listen to the song, "Hearts Frozen Solid, Thawed Once More By the Spring of Rage, Despair and Hopelessness" packed just about everything great about AFI's prime era into its 33-second running time. Great basslines, great whoa-ohs, a catchy hook... who needs intros and bridges?
"Rabbits Are Roadkill on Rt. 37" (2005)
The Sing the Sorrow sessions were so fruitful and produced plenty of non-album songs that were on par with just about anything on the album (20th anniversary deluxe reissue in 2023???), and the most essential of them all was "Rabbits Are Roadkill on Rt. 37," which got released as a single in 2005 and kept AFI's momentum going as Decemberunderground was in the works. With a riff that kinda sounds like U2's "Sunday Bloody Sunday" and a driving post-punk pace that explodes into a catchy post-hardcore chorus, it acted as the perfect middle ground between Sing the Sorrow and the more overtly '80s-inspired songs that were soon to come.
"Love Like Winter" (from Decemberunderground, 2006)
AFI were working influence from '80s goth into their punk/hardcore/etc sound since the '90s, but eventually Davey and Jade also started diving headfirst into the synthpop side of '80s goth with their Blaqk Audio side project, and sometimes those sounds popped up in AFI songs too, like "Love Like Winter" (which actually apparently originated as a Blaqk Audio song). There's no questioning what era and what group of bands inspired the saccharine synth lines in this song, but AFI really made it their own with a shouted, gang vocal chorus that couldn't be mistaken for any other band.
"Medicate" (from Crash Love, 2009)
If you were missing a little of AFI's aerodynamic goth-pop-punk songs after the more arena-ready Decemberunderground, you might've felt some satisfaction when the first single off 2009's Crash Love was an instant-classic cut from the cloth of "The Days of the Phoenix" and "Girls Not Grey." It's got everything: a punchy rhythm section, an earworm riff from Jade, an "oh!" from Davey just as the song kicks in, and a hook that still feels timeless over a decade later.
"Heart Stops" (from Burials, 2013)
Goth was always an influence on AFI, but they rarely committed as fully to Cure/Joy Division/New Order worship as they did on Burials highlight "Heart Stops." Jade's bassline-like guitar lines and Davey's morose baritone would've made "Heart Stops" fit right in with the post-punk revival, but unlike a lot of today's post-punk impressionists, AFI knew how to make the song burst into a euphoric chorus.
"Hidden Knives" (from AFI [The Blood Album], 2017)
"Hidden Knives" isn't the only stylistic return to form that AFI have released in recent years, but more than most of them, it comes jam-packed with a chorus (and guitar riff) as ultra-catchy as the hits AFI were churning out in the Sing the Sorrow era.
"Trash Bat" (from The Missing Man EP, 2018)
The latter half of AFI's career has seen them experimenting with slower tempos and various styles of music, but sometimes you just want them to go for a full-on punk banger, and the opening track of 2018's The Missing Man EP proved they can still do that just fine.
FURTHER LISTENING: SIDE PROJECTS
* Blaqk Audio (Davey and Jade's synthpop band)
* XTRMST (Davey and Jade's straight edge metalcore band)
* Son of Sam (Davey's Samhain-like band with all of Samhain's 1999 lineup except Danzig, though Danzig did contribute some guitar/keys to the record)
* Dreamcar (Davey's new wave band with all of No Doubt except Gwen)
EVEN FURTHER LISTENING: FIVE NEW BANDS/SONGS RECOMMENDED IF YOU LIKE AFI
AFI's a unique band and there aren't a ton of new bands who do what they do, but I like to end 'In Defense of the Genre' with new music whenever possible, so here are some new-ish songs by new-ish bands that I implore any AFI fans to check out...
Blood Command - "S01E02.Return.Of.The.Arsonist.720p.HDTV.x264"
If there's any band carrying the torch for AFI's over-the-top ambitious dark-pop punk, it's probably Norway's Blood Command. They dropped the killer Return of the Arsonist EP last year, and its sorta-title track "S01E02.Return.Of.The.Arsonist.720p.HDTV.x264" is to classic AFI what classic AFI is to Danzig.
Brutus - "Cemetery"
One of our favorite albums of last year came from Belgian trio Brutus, who don't necessarily sound like AFI (or any one band in particular) but whose musically adventurous and pop-friendly version of post-hardcore is a least in the same ballpark. For a good example, look no further than this rager.
Dying Wish - "Autumn's Final Sun"
Dying Wish are way more metalcore than AFI (though not too far removed from XTRMST), but when this insanely promising band explode into a clean-sung chorus on "Autumn's Final Sun," it reminds me of those moments on Black Sails when AFI realized hardcore songs could also be pop songs.
Turnstile - "Generator"
AFI loved the Misfits, Turnstile love Bad Brains and NYHC, but both bands figured out hardcore and radio-friendly hooks could co-exist in non-cheesy ways.
War On Women - "Anarcha"
Real-deal punk bands don't have songs on the radio like they did in 2003, but if that did still happen, I think War on Women's great 2018 album Capture The Flag would've had a pretty great chance. Like AFI, War On Women toe the line between dark, heavy hardcore and catchier alternative rock, and like AFI, they've got a beastly rhythm section, a punk guitarist with '80s metal chops, and a singer who can go back and forth between throat-shredding screams and stadium-sized belting.
Read past and future editions of 'In Defense of the Genre' here.