40 Greatest Punk Albums of All Time
The riot-starters and two-chord wonders that blew rock wide open
Punk rock started in 1976 on New York’s Bowery, when four cretins from Queens came up with a mutant strain of blitzkrieg bubblegum. The revolution they inspired split the history of rock & roll in half. But even if punk rock began as a kind of negation — a call to stark, brutal simplicity — its musical variety and transforming emotional power was immediate and remains staggering. To celebrate the 40th anniversary of the Ramones’ toweringly influential self-titled debut, we’ve compiled a list of the 40 Greatest Punk Albums of All Time.
If Ramones was Year Zero for punk rock, it didn’t come without precedent, so we included essential forebears like the Stooges, the New York Dolls, Pere Ubu and Patti Smith, artists who were punk in spirit (if not always entirely in sound) before the style really had a name. We didn’t get too fussy about all the old “but really, what is punk?” debates either. Along with the Pistols and the Clash, Black Flag and the Descendents, Minor Threat and Hüsker Dü and the Bad Brains, and on and on, you’ll find the slashing Marxist disco of Gang of Four, the ice-storm goth of Joy Division, the warped rust-and-rubber new wave of Devo, the Mod revivalism of the Jam, the riot-born reggae of the Slits, the art-guitar revelations of Television and Sonic Youth and the 21st-century dervish-noise assault of White Lung. Anarcho-collectivists Crass spent their entire unimpeachably admirable existence trying to defend an ethical barricade against a corpo-goofball atrocity like Blink-182. But they’re both great, and they’re both here.
Because this is a list of albums and not bands, a lot of great punk acts didn’t make the cut. The Circle Jerks, Adolescents, Fear, the Big Boys, the Dickies, the Dicks and even the mighty Damned just didn’t have that one perfect LP statement that could inspire consensus among our editors. Ultimately, we found ourselves pulled toward records that embodied punk’s spirit, and even stretched it a little. “Punk rock should mean freedom,” said Kurt Cobain in 1991, just as Nevermind was exploding punk values across the middle American mainstream. Here’s a map to where that freedom has gone.
40. Dead Kennedys, ‘Fresh Fruit for Rotting Vegetables’ (1980)
Dead Kennedys' debut LP is the ultimate hardcore comedy album, with singer Jello Biafra playing Johnny Rotten as goofball satirist on songs like "California Über Alles" and "Holiday in Cambodia." Fueled by the band's technically sharp guitarist, "East Bay" Ray Pepperell, Fresh Fruit also had more musical fire than contemporary efforts by similarly over-the-top hardcore shock-rockers like Fear or the Adolescents.
39. Devo, ‘Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo!’ (1978)
As much performance-art collective as punk band, Devo screeched their way out of Akron, Ohio, with a brilliantly warped New Wave vision. Their first album explored obsessions like robotics, Ronald McDonald and cannibalistic apes, making devolution feel like the future.
38. White Lung, ‘Deep Fantasy’ (2014)
This Vancouver band comes on like Black Flag fronted by the bastard daughter of Patti Smith and Stevie Nicks, with each song going off like a nail bomb of desire. Standouts like "Drown With the Monster" and "Face Down" are splatter-noise anthems that feel amazingly fresh — highly impressive for a band operating four decades into punk's history.
37. Blink-182, ‘Enema of the State’ (1999)
Blink-182's third LP reimagined Green Day's Dookie as one big, undeniably catchy fart joke. This pop-punk smash stayed on the charts for 70 weeks. Dismissed as a bad joke at the time by tastemaking snobs, Blink have proven weirdly resilient as a touchstone for a generation of fans. You can hear echoes of the Descendents and Misfits, among other punk staples, within the polished tunes on their breakthrough album.
36. Crass, ‘Penis Envy’ (1981)
The furiously political British anarchist collective Crass lived their dogma with admirable rigor: Based out of a collective house that's still in operation today, they did everything themselves, including running their own Crass Records and designing their own multimedia presentations. The anti-sexist Penis Envy features radical rants to back up the politics.
35. Fugazi, ’13 Songs’ (1989)
Ex–Minor Threat and Embrace leader Ian MacKaye's amazing next act was an arty revelation: He and his Fugazi bandmates invented a body-moving post-hardcore sound — and with "Waiting Room," wrote American punk's finest karaoke banger. As a social force, Fugazi were huge enough to take advantage of what dueling lead singer Guy Picciotto called "the power of 'no,'" only playing all-ages shows with $5 tickets and refusing to license any merchandise (even if fans bootlegged T-shirts that read "This Is Not a Fugazi T-Shirt").
34. Joy Division, ‘Unknown Pleasures’ (1979)
No punk band ever displayed its alienation as grippingly as Joy Division. Ian Curtis' foghorn baritone and the music's ice-floe torpor inspired a goth-punk nation. Yet there was beauty in his keening voice and the band's silvery clang. Curtis hung himself less than a year after the LP's release.
33. The Slits, ‘Cut’ (1979)
The pioneering Slits fused reggae beats and punk guitars on joyously anarchic songs like "Shoplifting," with its awesome catchphrase, "We pay fuck-all!" The Slits followed Patti Smith in defining punk as feminist, implicitly and explicitly. And like U.K. comrades the Raincoats, they did it not merely by forming an all-woman band (itself a radical move), but with music owing little to punk-dude dogma.
32. The Misfits, ‘Walk Among Us’ (1982)
Glenn Danzig and his band of New Jersey mutants brought much-needed irony to the hardcore scene with anthems like "I Turned Into a Martian." Ditching hardcore's go-to politics to howl about B-movie stuff like zombies and seductive lady vampires, the Misfits' ghoulish full-length debut, Walk Among Us, was the height of horror punk.
31. Yeah Yeah Yeahs, ‘Fever to Tell’ (2003)
Yeah Yeah Yeahs were the finest product of the early-2000s "post-punk revival" that produced the Rapture and the Liars. Their debut LP was the work of three very smart New York art kids, starring a firecracker in a pink dress named Karen O. She howls like a cheetah in heat — until she bruises your heart in the surprise "Maps," which might be punk rock's greatest slow jam.
30. Sonic Youth, ‘Evol’ (1986)
With their third album, the New York crew set themselves on a course to becoming the most important noise band of the past three decades. Amp-torture clinics like "Starpower" and "Expressway to Yr Skull" explore what bassist Kim Gordon had called "the darkness shimmering beneath the shiny quilt of American pop culture."
29. The Replacements, ‘Sorry Ma, Forgot to Take Out the Trash’ (1981)
Definitive proof that Midwestern drunkards could be as fast, loud and sloppy as any New York junkie, with resident poet Paul Westerberg croaking about booze and despair over the band's "power trash." What truly set them apart was the humor that came through in lyrics like "I hate music!/It's got too many notes!"
28. The Germs, ‘(GI)’ (1979)
The Germs only released one album before waste-case singer Darby Crash killed himself in December 1980. But the Joan Jett–produced (GI) set a standard for spoiled L.A. nihilism, masking surprisingly nuanced lyrics in a hilariously sloppy blur.
27. Minor Threat, ‘Complete Discography’ (1989)
Minor Threat defined a new hardcore code with their anthem "Straight Edge" — down with drugs, down with booze, up with keeping your wits about you and fighting the power. The D.C. scene leaders didn't stay together very long, but they remain hugely influential thanks to Ian MacKaye's true-believer intensity, as he spread the straight-edge gospel of how to bring revolutionary values to everyday life.
26. Flipper, ‘Generic’ (1982)
Named after a dead dolphin their singer found at the beach one day while tripping on acid, San Francisco's Flipper had two bassists and played long, crushingly slow improv jams like the eight-minute "Sex Bomb," which caps off Generic. Their fuck-you freedom inspired Kurt Cobain, who often sported a homemade Flipper T-shirt.
25. Mission of Burma, ‘Vs.’ (1982)
"I think we're just a closet prog-rock act that happened during punk," Mission of Burma's Clint Conley once said. But the Boston avant-screech band pioneered an arty approach to punk with its 1980 debut indie single, "Academy Fight Song." Vs. is a complex headphone record, yet it's also a festering racket — with the anti-Reagan screed "That's How I Escaped My Certain Fate," and the throbbing tremolo trance of "Trem Two."
Dubbing himself "the Cappuccino kid," the Jam's Paul Weller channeled punk fervor into a Mod revival, inspired by the Kinks and the Who. Their third album is a snapshot of London life, from "'A' Bomb in Wardour Street" to "Down in the Tube Station at Midnight," a salvo against rightwing punkers.
As punk was heating up in New York and London, it was also percolating in Cleveland, where Pere Ubu created an "industrial folk" that sounded post-punk in 1975. This archival set peaks with the chillingly anthemic heartland noir of "Final Solution," where singer David Thomas yowls over Peter Laughner's rustbelting guitar. The hard-living Laughner drank his way into an early grave by the time he was 24, but the band he co-founded is still at it today.
Bikini Kill demanded "Revolution Girl Style Now" on their cassette-only debut in 1991, and delivered just that as leaders of the Nineties riot-grrrl movement. The highlight of this singles collection is "Rebel Girl," featuring riot foremother Joan Jett on guitar and vocals; when singer Kathleen Hanna hollers "in her kiss, I taste the revolution," thousands of rebel girls were ready to storm patriarchy's barricades.
Television co-founder Richard Hell pretty much invented what he called the "patchy raggedness" of punk fashion and hair care. When he went solo on Blank Generation, he enlisted Robert Quine, a Velvet Underground fanatic whose appropriately jagged guitar style was ideal for anti-love songs "Betrayal Takes Two" and "Love Comes in Spurts." And with the title track, Hell gave us what might be punk's ultimate anthem of liberation ripped from the void.
Teenage multiracial London girl Poly Styrene had braces on her teeth and wore Day-Glo rags, screeching anthems like "Oh Bondage Up Yours!" over saxophone blasts, and chanting, "I am a poseur and I don't care! I like to make people stare!" X-Ray Spex's explosive debut went criminally unreleased in the U.S., but it became a word-of-mouth cult classic, influencing Sleater-Kinney, the Beastie Boys and many others.
The African-American Rastas in Bad Brains had roots in jazz and reggae, yet they helped found the D.C. hardcore scene with their self-proclaimed "P.M.A." — positive mental attitude. Named after a Ramones song, they were already local legends by the time they dropped their 1982 cassette-only debut, with its terrifyingly fast thrash-dervish attack "Pay to Cum."
Green Day's major-label debut exploded across teenage America in the wake of Kurt Cobain's death like sweet, manic relief. Dookie was an irresistible paradox: 14 songs about despair detonated with Who-ish zeal and radio-tight pop craft. Singer-guitarist Billie Joe Armstrong called it his "journal about what it's like to live as a street kid" — desperate for connection and frustrated to an atomic degree.
18. Television, ‘Marquee Moon’ (1977)
Television spent years woodshedding at CBGB, to arrive at a sound as thrilling in its ambition as Ramones was in its simplicity. Marquee Moon drew on surrealist poetry and free jazz, connecting Sixties psychedelia with a more aggressive brand of derangement. The result was punk rock's first — and greatest — guitar landmark, making New York's mean streets seem like a mystic playground.
L.A.'s Descendents thought their debut would be their only record because singer Milo Aukerman was, in fact, heading off to school. He earned his degree in biology, but the Descendents still managed to become a pop-punk institution, turning stunted rage toward their miserable middle-class existence on "I'm Not a Punk" and "Suburban Home" to pave the way for Green Day and every Warped Tour band that followed.
"What the Dolls did to be influential on punk was show that anybody could do it," singer David Johansen said. Aggressive, sloppy, androgynous and loud, they blazed through the gutter glam of "Trash" and "Personality Crisis" like a demented Rolling Stones. The Dolls' Todd Rundgren–produced debut exudes sleazy swagger, one reason punk impresario Malcolm McLaren managed them before assembling the Sex Pistols.
When Sleater-Kinney's Corin Tucker and Carrie Brownstein proclaimed "I Wanna Be Your Joey Ramone" on 1996's Call the Doctor, they were laying down a dare to themselves and the Nineties indie-rock scene. The band's next album, Dig Me Out, made good on that promise. Adding powerhouse drummer Janet Weiss, the Olympia, Washington, trio's feminist punk hit hard — from the elated rush of "Words and Guitar" to the raw romantic torment of "One More Hour."
The Minnesota power trio broke all the rules of three-chord hardcore with this double-vinyl concept opus — the story of a young guy escaping a broken home and making his way in the city. Bob Mould and Grant Hart traded off spit-and-growl vocals in savagely emotional hardcore blasts, but the music expanded into psychedelia, acoustic-folk rage and the closing 14-minute feedback instrumental, "Reoccurring Dreams."
Before punk even existed, it already had its queen — a Lower East Side poet fusing Sixties garage rock and Rimbaud to create her own ecstatic vision. Working closely with guitarist Lenny Kaye, pianist Richard Sohl and drummer Jay Dee Daugherty (as well as CBGB buddy Tom Verlaine, who co-wrote the Jim Morrison tribute "Break It Up"), she made the New York scene's first major statement. Her record company hated Robert Mapplethorpe's classic cover photo, an image as boundary-shattering and beautiful as the music inside.
These Mancunians broke through pop-punk barriers with insanely catchy gems about hormonally charged angst, from "Orgasm Addict" to the remarkably mature breakup song "Oh Shit!" ("Admit admit you're shit you're shit"). Not-remotely-secret weapon John Maher, the ultimate punk drummer, crashes through "Ever Fallen In Love?" like he's leading a human-sexuality seminar gone horribly wrong.
"Punk rock should mean freedom," Kurt Cobain said in an interview just as he was becoming alt-rock's self-canceling messiah. Though he was embarrassed by its slick sound, Nevermind went off like a grenade in the American mainstream, turning junior-high dances into mosh pits with music that embodied Cobain's dream of punk rock that the metal kids he grew up around in rural Washington could love.
X were way too arty to fit in with the L.A. hardcore scene — married couple John Doe and Exene Cervenka sang about L.A. as a surreal nightmare full of psycho speed freaks and burned-out Hollywood directors, over Billy Zoom's junkshop rockabilly guitar. Their producer was the Doors' Ray Manzarek; they paid respects with a version of "Soul Kitchen" that would have scared Jim Morrison right out of town.
"We! Are tired! Of your abuse! Try to stop us! It's! No uuuuuuse!" Black Flag walked it like they talked it, perfecting the L.A. hardcore form, with Greg Ginn's demented guitar and Henry Rollins' muscle-bound toxic rage. Damaged got them mixed up with a major label, which refused to release it and denounced it as "an anti-parent record." Which it is — not to mention anti-cop, anti-TV, anti-beer and, what else you got?
Three blue-collar corn dogs from the port town of San Pedro, California, with zero pretensions and a gift for gab, and a hilarious taste for no-bullshit political analysis like the "The Roar of the Masses Could Be Farts." All over this sprawling, 45-song double-album classic, guitarist D. Boon and bassist Mike Watt spiel back and forth about a lifetime of friendship rooted in shared punk values — as Boon says in "History Lesson, Pt. 2," "Our band could be your life." They also stretch out into jazz noodling and folkie picking, along with Creedence Clearwater Revival, Steely Dan and Van Halen covers. The combustible eclecticism would have an impact on bands from the Red Hot Chili Peppers to Pavement. But just when they were starting to get some national attention, Boon was tragically killed in a 1985 car accident, just after the band's final album, 3-Way Tie (For Last), was released.
No album summed up the infinite possibility in punk's radical simplicity better than this 35-minute, 21-song debut. R.E.M., Spoon and Minor Threat are just a few of the bands that have covered songs from Pink Flag, which ranges from the hardcore Rubik's Cube "1 2 X U" to the 28-second tabloid nightmare "Field Day for the Sundays" to "Fragile," punk's first pretty love song. "A perfect album," said Henry Rollins of Black Flag.
Fusing James Brown and early hip-hop with the bullet-point minimalism of the Ramones, Gang of Four were a genuine revolutionary force in their pursuit of working-class justice. The Leeds foursome bound their Marxist critique in tightly wound knots of enraged funk and avenging-disco syncopation, slashed by guitarist Andy Gill's blues-free swordplay.
"The Stooges were the perfect embodiment of what music should be," said Sonic Youth's Thurston Moore. On the Detroit band's second album (produced by Kingsmen keyboardist Don Gallucci), that meant primal garage chaos nearly a decade ahead of its time. Guitarist Ron Asheton hammered as few chords as possible ("T.V. Eye" is just one), while Iggy Pop channeled bad-trip psychedelia and metallic R&B into hormonal meltdowns that inspired generations of pent-up noise fiends.
"If the sessions had gone the way I wanted, it would have been unlistenable for most people," Sex Pistols singer Johnny Rotten said. For millions, it was. But when the Sex Pistols' only official album made a frontal assault on the U.K. pop charts, Rotten's snarled lyrics about abortion and anarchy terrorized a nation. The result remains punk rock's Sermon on the Mount, and its echoes are everywhere.
On April 3rd, 1976, a London pub-rock combo, the 101ers, played a show with gnarly urchins the Sex Pistols. The future was "right in front of me," recalled 101ers singer-guitarist Joe Strummer. A year later, Strummer was the battle-scarred voice of the Clash and in the U.K. Top 20 with his new band's self-titled flamethrower debut, a brittle-fuzz volley of politicized rage and street-choir vocal hooks that transformed British punk from a brawling adolescent turmoil to a dynamic social weapon in songs like "White Riot," "London's Burning" and "I'm So Bored With the U.S.A." Strummer and his co-writer, guitarist Mick Jones, were not born debaters; manager-svengali Bernie Rhodes pressed them to go topical. But the effect — propelled by bassist Paul Simonon and original drummer Terry Chimes — was pivotal. CBS in America did not issue the album until 1979, adding later singles. The original remains the sound of a riot being born.
When the Ramones recorded their debut album for $6,400 in February 1976, the agenda was simple: "Eliminate the unnecessary and focus on the substance," as Tommy put it in 1999. But the brilliance of punk's most influential and enduring record — how four disparate outcasts from the American adolescent mainstream made such original single-minded fury — remains hard to define. Stork-like singer Joey was a pop kid chanting "Hey ho, let's go!" at the start of "Blitzkrieg Bop." Guitarist Johnny pared Dick Dale and Bo Diddley down to the airtight, bluesless staccato of "Beat on the Brat" and "Loudmouth." Bassist and primary lyricist Dee Dee wrote about what he knew (drugs, despair, hustling) with telegramatic wit. And drummer Tommy, a former recording engineer on Jimi Hendrix sessions, co-produced Ramones, guarding its brevity and purity. "We thought we could be the biggest band in the world," Johnny recalled. In a way, they would be. This is where it began.
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