In Defense of the Genre is a new pop punk/emo/etc column on BV (5 best songs of January included)
Last decade we saw once-maligned punk subgenres like pop punk and emo make big comebacks within "cooler" music (like, y'know, "indie rock") and really reach a point where critics couldn't pan, laugh at, or simply ignore those bands like they did in the previous decade. Many of those previously out-of-fashion bands made some of the best punk & emo albums of the 2010s, a decade so full of great punk -- across all its subgenres -- that I had trouble narrowing it down to just 100 great albums. This theme is something I’ve been exploring for a while. Earlier in the decade, I took a look at pop punk's complicated relationship with indie rock and the enduring influence of pop punk. I also spent a lot of time thinking about the often-blurry lines between maligned emo (which you're supposed to grow out of) and critically acclaimed indie rock (which you're not), and looked at some highly respected bands who escaped getting pigeonholed into emo and some emo bands who didn't even sound that different from Nine Inch Nails or U2 or Radiohead. I also wondered why any of this even matters that much. The life of a music nerd is just an endless food chain of people telling each other whatever music they like isn't as cool or as important or as original as something else, and eventually it all just starts to look like the Spiderman pointing at Spiderman meme. Especially in the age of poptimism, which posits that all art forms are valid art forms and should be evaluated for what they are rather than in opposition to theoretically superior art forms, the continued stigma attached to this type of music -- which does still exist, just less than it used to -- just feels outdated and boring.
Times have also changed since this music first began making its comeback and getting its critical reappraisal. When the "emo revival" began, it was about bringing emo back to its underground '90s-era roots, and bands and fans would say things like "emo, but not like, the My Chemical Romance kind." Now, My Chemical Romance are reunited, and it feels like one of the most exciting, most talked-about reunions in a year that also includes Rage Against the Machine, Pavement, and Mr. Bungle reunions (all bands who, for what it’s worth, had been broken up for more time than My Chemical Romance). And maybe I'm biased, but it feels like there's nothing uncool about the MCR reunion. It just seems like one of the biggest deals in music right now. Certainly a bigger deal than when Braid reunited.
As the emo/pop punk/etc comeback goes on and continues to change shape, we're starting to see the influence of even the really maligned stuff manifest itself in interesting ways. We're fresh off the 20th anniversary of a very pivotal year for both pop punk and emo, 1999, and last year it was as valid to look back fondly on American Football as it was to do so for Enema of the State. These are the reasons I was inspired to start this new recurring column on BrooklynVegan called In Defense of the Genre, where I'll be looking at the long history of punk and its many offshoots, including and often especially the bands and albums and trends and subgenres that haven't already long been canonized. The column is named after Say Anything's 2007 album of the same name, and like that album -- whose many guests include members of Paramore, Dashboard Confessional, My Chemical Romance, Saves The Day, Alkaline Trio, Taking Back Sunday, Rainer Maria, Bayside, New Found Glory, Hot Rod Circuit, Circa Survive, Underoath, Face To Face, and The Starting Line -- "the genre" just means all the various forms of punk, emo, hardcore, etc that were never taken seriously enough. A lot of the artists I'll talk about in this column are artists we regularly talk about on BrooklynVegan, but some will fall outside of our usual coverage. It's not "Defend Pop Punk," which was an early 2010s trend that argued it would be okay if every band sounded like New Found Glory, but it is a place where I'll take a band like New Found Glory as seriously as their heroes Gorilla Biscuits. It's a place where I'll often try to look at the ways that classic hardcore and TRL-era pop punk and modern-day indie rock connect, rather than draw lines to separate them.
The column is going to have a heavy focus on retrospective pieces about older music, but I'll discuss exciting stuff going on today too, because nostalgia's a hell of a drug and it's important to keep looking forward and not get too sucked into reliving the past. I wanted to start a column where I could dedicate a lot of space to older music because 1) as much as I love constantly talking about new albums (which I do weekly in Notable Releases), sometimes you need that palate cleanser of diving back into some old music you love or haven't even discovered yet; 2) it's fun and exciting and worthwhile to look at older music with a new perspective, as a person's take on a certain band or album or song constantly changes; and 3) since so much of this music was ignored by critics in real time and not really canonized after the fact, I feel like there's more to be said about a lot of it. With all due respect to all the Kid A 20th anniversary pieces that are coming this year, I just can't imagine what's possibly left to say about that album. But a current-day take on the stuff you'd find on Punk-O-Rama or Hopelessly Devoted To You comps? I think there's still a void there and I hope to bring something to the table for whoever else still cares -- or is just starting to care for the first time -- about this kind of stuff. To bring Say Anything back up, Max Bemis already wrote a better takedown than I could ever write of the snobby music critic culture that stuck their noses up at this kind of music three years before writing In Defense of the Genre, so I'll try not to harp too much on the "cool"/"uncool" divide that got us here in the first place. My "defense" will mostly be giving these guilt-free pleasures the guilt-free deep dives they deserve.
Right now, the premise of the column is that even when it’s a retrospective piece, at the end I'll recommend some newer songs to balance out the nostalgia fest. Part of the idea here -- and maybe it's just wishful thinking -- is to possibly use the retrospective-review angle to connect older and newer music fans. I know people who would go see Hot Water Music play classic albums on their 25th anniversary tour but don't know their Higher Power from their Highly Lonely Power and are probably too caught up living their real adult lives to care about changing that. (Weird, right?!) If some aging punks check this out and get into some newer bands because of it, or vice versa, then this column just might serve a purpose beyond looking like an extension of the "10 albums you loved in high school" meme.
For an idea of what kinds of pieces to expect, I've done some on BV before -- like ranking Rancid albums, ranking blink-182 albums, and a look back on Saves the Day's Through Being Cool (see more at the bottom of this post) -- but now things will just be a little more organized with all those kinds of pieces in one place. The second edition of this column will be the first "real" edition -- consider this one more like a prelude -- but before I go, let me leave you with some music. For this first edition, here are my picks for the five best songs of January 2020 that fall somewhere under the umbrella of “The Genre.”
Anti-Flag - "Un-American"
Anti-Flag's new anti-Trump album 20/20 Vision is a blast to listen to, despite being all about the sad state of the world we're currently living in. It's heaviest on the kinds of melodic punk anthems that Anti-Flag have excelled at since the '90s and still excel at today, but my favorite song on it is one that changes the pace a bit. "Un-American" finds Anti-Flag giving their unique twist to 1960s-style protest folk (without necessarily sounding like "folk punk"), and simultaneously coming out with an incisive critique of America and one of the album's most memorable choruses.
(Would be remiss not to mention that Anti-Flag also added tour dates today.)
The Suicide Machines - "Awkward Always"
Well this was unexpected! The Suicide Machines announced their first new album in 15 years and dropped a new single that finds them sounding just as impassioned as they did when they last left off. With ska-punk making a bit of a comeback, it's a good time for the return of The Suicide Machines, and if you're only cautiously ska-curious, these guys -- who always leaned more on the punk/hardcore side of the ska-punk fence -- are a good entry point. And the infectious "Awkward Always" is just as good a taste of this band's sound as their classics. New album Revolution Spring arrives March 27 via Fat Wreck Chords... let's hope it's got more where this came from.
Hayley Williams - "Simmer"
This song isn't pop punk or emo or anything like that at all, and Paramore already made the transition from Warped Tour regulars to critically acclaimed veterans on 2017's new wavey, decade-list-dominating After Laughter, but Hayley (who sang on an American Football album last year) is still loyal to the emo world and we emos are prone to getting excited about just about anything she does. Her latest endeavor is her first solo album (called Petals for Armor, due May 8 via Atlantic), and lead single "Simmer" is already enough to get excited about. It finds Hayley going in a dark, atmospheric art pop direction, and she's as good at this kind of thing as she is at songs like "That's What You Get."
Higher Power - "In The Meantime"
UK band Higher Power's great sophomore album and Roadrunner debut 27 Miles Underwater is like '80s/'90s NYHC, Jane's Addiction, Smashing Pumpkins, Glassjaw, and Deftones in a blender. It's the modern-day equivalent to when bands like CIV and Shelter polished up their hardcore enough for MTV to play it, and in a just world, we'll soon start seeing Higher Power on whatever the modern-day equivalent to MTV is. 27 Miles Underwater is too good and too accessible to be stuck in the niche hardcore scene, and that's never clearer than on "In The Meantime," an acoustic alt-rock ballad that isn't a Helmet or a Spacehog cover but kinda sounds like an emo version of "Jane Says" and "Disarm."
Drug Church - "Bliss Out"
As we speak, Drug Church are on tour with the very "In Defense..." friendly lineup of Thrice (playing Vheissu in full), mewithoutYou (one of their last tours before hiatus), and new Triple Crown band Holy Fawn, and right before the tour began they dropped this killer little under-two-minute nugget. It's a song from the sessions for 2018's great Cheer, and it kinda sounds like if someone took the guitar riff from Say Anything's "Spidersong," sped it up, and gave it a raspy, hardcore twist. Like the rest of Cheer, it's pure ear candy for anyone who likes '90s / early 2000s punk and it manages to sound fresh today too.
And now to recap, here's some further related reading if you haven't read already:
And see you soon in the second edition of In Defense of the Genre.