Ask any punk rock record store clerk to tell you what album they believe to be the most underappreciated in punk, and none will give you a straight answer. “All of them,” someone said in the back of Extreme Noise in Minneapolis, getting laughs from his fellow clerks.
True, the genre probably gets as little attention as any from radio stations. Since most punk bands are trying desperately to be anything but pop (even country, rockabilly, stoner rock, funk, metal and, sometimes, ska), punk’s relative unpopularity makes some sense. Try as bands might, certain punk can become popular, and it’s a wonder why more hasn’t.
Some will misconstrue this as a list of pop punk albums that weren’t quite pop enough to be popular, but that’s not its intent. The bands on this list were never pop enough to be the next Green Day or Blink-182 or they would have been the next Green Day or Blink-182. Blink-182’s most popular albums are decidedly pop punk. Both Enema of the State and Take Off Your Pants and Jacket sound like what anyone would imagine pop punk would sound like. Both sold more than 14 million copies, but Dude Ranch, a decidedly un-pop album, sold just a million.
So staying punk and going platinum is a goal to which punk bands can aspire, and how the following records missed hitting big, we can only speculate. So here are some of the most underappreciated albums from the most underappreciated genre.
Big Boys’ Lullabies Help the Brain Grow was recommended by Extreme Noise clerk Abraham in Minneapolis, who is incredibly helpful and knowledgable. But it was the second album of the double-disc set that best fits the underappreciated album moniker because of how radio-friendly it is. There isn’t any language unfriendly to radio and two songs on each side of the record had the legs to be hits had they gotten any radio play whatsoever.
For some reason, Red Hot Chili Peppers got the radio play their biggest influence didn’t. RHCP used to open for Big Boys and were known to some as the Little Big Boys due to their similar sound. They released their debut in 1984 and sold about 300,000 records while the Big Boys were riding off into the sunset as a pioneer in hardcore punk rock. RHCP just missed the Billboard Top 200 that year, while Big Boys never came close. But Big Boys’ No Matter How Long the Line… was better than RHCP’s debut then and now.
After opening the record with perfect representations of their hardcore punk sound in “No” and “Narrow View,” Big Boys’ start experimenting, blending genres.
“I Do Care” is more funk than punk, featuring a bass line that’ll make you move and think RHCP’s Flea wasn’t all that innovative. Big Boys come back with a classic punk track with “Listen” before getting funky again with “What’s the Word,” which should have been all over the radio in 1984. It’s the perfect summer party song that put Randy “Biscuit” Turner’s vocals on display, which are Steven Tyler-like in their sexy raspiness.
On Side B, Big Boys provide a hip-hop interlude with “Common Beat” before returning to the hardcore punk for which they’re known with “No Love.” They follow it with what should have been a third hit on the record -- “Which Way To Go” -- and provide another funky, punk interlude called “Killing Time” before closing with a fourth radio-ready hit with which everyone can relate.
“Work” is the perfect workers’ rebellion song about workers who can’t afford to rebel after recovering from the Reagan Recession. “I work and slave for my pay / Do things I hate for a living / I want my freedom before it’s too late / Economic circumstances cause misgivings.”
The economic circumstances of the music business in 1984 certainly contributed to Big Boys’ misgivings. It turned out 1984 was a really tough year to be anyone but Michael Jackson or Prince, who owned the top album spot for a combined 37 weeks. The other 30 percent of the year was divided amongst just three other albums, one of which was Huey Lewis and the News’ Sports, which was number one for a week. Most everyone was listening to the same stuff in 1984, and it wasn’t punk.
This is an easy one. The departure of Descendents lead singer Milo Auckerman to pursue a graduate degree in biochemistry put All behind the eight ball from the start. And despite a fantastic replacement in the form of Dag Nasty’s Dave Smalley, Allroy Sez, nor any All record, could overcome the absence of Auckerman when it came to record sales and popularity. His return to the band in 1996 lifted the Descendents into the Billboard Top 200 -- and as high as twentieth with their latest record, Hypercaffium Spazzinate (2016).
Allroy Sez might not be a Descendents’ record, but it deserves more listens and buys than it gets. Three of the 12 tracks appear on All’s greatest hits compilation. The opener, “Pretty Little Girl” is like a 1950s pop, love song played on fast forward, and the fantastically funky baseline of “Hooidge” follows.
“Sex in the Way” has a chorus that should have been blasted from radio stations and bellowed by teens everywhere in 1988. “With sex in the way, I can’t see a thing” speaks to anyone who’s not a virgin, but reserved radio DJs of 1988 must have had a problem with the word “sex” or something.
The fun “Alfredo’s” contains some explicit language, so while it might not be radio-friendly, any All fan would likely tell you it’s one of their favorites. “Just Perfect” is just that -- another 1950s pop, love song played a bit faster and harder than The Monkees were willing to play. The same goes for the impressively fast bass line of “Paper Tiger.”
“#10 (Wet)” is another radio-ready song that got no love from radio, and after the metal-like “A Muse,” All closes the record with yet another hit that never was with “Don Quixote.” All in all, All’s debut is a solid album, beginning to end, that was never fully appreciated. Worse yet, it wasn’t appreciated at a time when Bon Jovi, U2 and Def Leppard albums (not even their best albums) were topping the charts. Guns ’n Roses’ Appetite for Destruction was the top album of 1988 for four weeks, and George Michael’s Faith was the top overall seller for 12 weeks.
The Suicide Machines obviously didn’t care if they ever heard themselves on the radio, or they might have reconsidered their name. But the band is responsible for some of the best “skacore” albums of the late ’90s. Because The Suicide Machines’ debut, Destruction by Definition, is more ska-infused than their more hardcore followup album, Battle Hymns, it makes this list because it might have fared better on the radio, despite the lyrics being a bit more explicit.
The first three songs of Destruction by Definition all had the legs to be radio hits. “New Girl,” “S.O.S.” and “Break the Glass” are all fantastic party songs with pace and radio-friendly lyrics. “S.O.S.” says a lot about humanity people might not like to hear, but paired with the reggae-like rhythm, it delivers the band’s somber message in a most effective manner. That message is more true today. “Man's inhumanity towards another man / It's man's insanity and ignorance again / And now the time had come to stop what's going on / The hatred's building up, exploding like a bomb / It's a bomb with a short fuse / And I know it seems like no use / The tension's building a reaction / This is a call to action / S.O.S. we need help.”
“No Face” continues the fun with a fantastic keyboard riff that you’ll find yourself whistling for days. The Suicide Machines go a bit more hardcore with the intro to “Hey,” but the menacing horns quickly go ska, making for another song perfect for parties but with one f-word that would keep it off the radio.
The pace picks up immensely with “Our Time,” “Too Much” and “Islands,” tracks that display the hardcore punk sound more utilized on Battle Hymns. “Real You” might have been a hit had it not been for the final verse before the chorus, which is basically just screamed obscenities. The same could be said for “Face Values” had the song been longer than 1:22. Besides one f-word, “Punk Out” doesn’t have either of those issues, and an edited version of the song probably should have gotten more radio play than it did. “And God only knows what'll keep us from dying / Because every time I look around I see life as a big lie / Yeah, everybody's saying ‘Yeah, I'm the one,’ yeah / ‘Everybody come running to me’ / But that's not how it works and it never did.”
The Suicide Machines follow “Punk Out” with a hardcore song about shoes, “Vans Song,” but with “fag” being the seventh word of the song, it’s understandable why it wasn’t all over the radio. “Who the hell would write a song about shoes?” lead singer Jason Navarro asks at the end of the track. Answer: only a punk band. Hell, The Dickies wrote a song about Pep Boys, so what’s wrong with writing about shoes?
“Insecurities” keeps the pace coming, and despite the song’s lack of lyrics, it sounds like a hit. Nothing holds back “Inside/Outside,” though. It’s one of the best songs on the record, and too good for one s-word to keep it off the radio. “If you wanna know the answers, then you've gotta ask the questions / ‘Who am I?’ and ‘who is she?’ / And ‘does it matter anyway?’ / You've got to look for love on the inside man / Don't look for love on the outside / Doesn't matter what the others say, 'cause all that shit gets in the way.”
The record closes with pace. “Zero” and, eventually, “So Long” get the toes tapping. “So Long” has all the elements that make a hit, with relatable lyrics and a catchy hook: “You know you make me want to say so long / You know you make me wanna say goodbye....(goodbye).” A hidden cover of Minor Threat’s “I Don’t Want to Hear It” closes the album just perfectly.
All but one song on Keep Your Heart received five stars on iTunes from my 22-year-old self. After seeing Dave Hause as part of the Revival Tour, I became addicted to the record for a little over a month.
The record opens with “Suture Self,” a pure punk track fueled by pace, thick electric guitar riffs and the lovely voice of Hause. Following that might be The Loved Ones’ most recognizable guitar riff from, “Breathe In,” and then quite possibly the band’s best song, “Jane.” “Jane” has the anthem-like chorus and pace fit for a hit, making for a great song to see live in concert -- whether it’s played acoustically or electrically. It gets the crowd hopping.
“Over 50 Club” was the only song that didn’t receive five stars on iTunes from my 22-year-old self, but “Please Be Here” continues the near-perfect production of Keep Your Heart. “Hurry Up and Wait” should appeal to just about anyone: “Hurry up, get in here now, oh no, you'll have to wait / Did you sanitize your hands? Oh that's the part I hate / To be told it's so helpless / If we get out of here in time / Maybe we'll pinch ourselves / And this nightmare could just work out fine.”
The Loved Ones prove you don’t need pace to make great punk songs with “Sickening,” another one that’s great live and acoustic. I would consider “Living Will Get You Dead” the fourth hit on the record along with the first three tracks. The chorus is hard to forget: “If that's how it's gonna be / Wake me up wake me up / Pump me full of meds / Don't let me drink from that cup / Slide a little pill down my throat / I'll try to keep it down / Or pull my plug and don't be frightened by the sound.”
Hause’s songwriting ability shines through again on “The Odds,” and the pace of “Benson and Hedges” gets the toes tapping and head banging -- a song Hause did with his previous band, The Curse. “Arsenic” continues to deliver pace and the auditory pleasantries of deep riffs and Hause’s voice. “100K” is another hit that wasn’t for whatever reason, despite it being released on an EP prior to being included on the album. “Player Hater Anthem” aptly closes out the record, another hit in my opinion, which brings the total to six or seven. I’ve lost count.
The Loved Ones released just one more record in 2008, produced by members of The Bouncing Souls. They never officially disbanded, but didn’t get the recognition they deserved then or now. Why? Well, RHCP finally had an album reach number one in 2006 with Stadium Arcadium, but rap ruled the charts just over a decade ago, with T.I., Busta Rhymes, Jay-Z, Rick Ross, The Game and Young Jeezy all reaching number one on the Billboard album chart.
The Flatliners’ third album was the Toronto band’s second attempt at a more intense punk rock sound as opposed to the ska sound that frequented the songs of the band’s youth. It was mostly well-received and ranked as the fourth-best punk album of 2010 by Exclaim! and considered another step in the right direction for the band.
The PunkNews.org staff review says the second half the of the record “drops off,” but I disagree vehemently. Maybe because I like a little pop punk mixed in with my punk rock, but regardless of my biases, nothing about the pace and intensity drops off. “Monumental” monumentally kicks off side B, which just continues with pure hardness all the way through, peaking with “Sleep Your Life Away” and providing a pop interlude with “Count Your Bruises,” a song appropriately used to close shows, before taking a turn back to speed and anger with “New Years Resolutions,” which has it’s own pleasant interlude and crescendo to end the record.
Why Chris Cresswell’s voice isn’t all over the radio should be a surprise to anyone who’s heard him -- especially with the even more radio-ready Inviting Light now out. On the bright side, it’s why I got to see him and The Flatliners at The Triple Rock in Minneapolis instead of at a bigger venue for three times as much.
But why didn’t Cavalcade provide The Flatliners a path to superstardom? Well it was 2010, which meant it was 2008 on rock radio. Shinedown’s The Sound of Madness, released June 2008, had two songs in the Billboard top fifteen in 2010, and 2010’s top song was also from 2008. Rise Against’s “Savior” was still ruling the radio, and people were just getting to know London’s Mumford & Sons -- a British invasion of sorts.
Sandwiched between all of that and a Foo Fighters record responsible for two of the top three songs of 2011 made for a short shelf-life for Cavalcade.
So given my research and the assistance of Extreme Noise Records, those are the five most underappreciated albums in punk rock. Your list is probably different than mine, but I’d venture to bet at least one or two of mine are also on yours.