For many people around the world, 2020 has been a year like none other—a year of ever-shifting norms and realities. And for us in the U.S., it’s been a year with almost no live music. So being able to experience new albums virtually has at least been something—a relief, a release, a welcome distraction. Many of the best punk releases of 2020, which were by-and-large written and recorded well before the pandemic, seem strangely prescient now, warning of awfulness to come: isolation, desperation, political horror. Special Interest and Straw Man Army tell brutal tales of colonial legacies, while bands like Muro, Cold Meat, and Fried E/M spew utter disdain for the injustices of contemporary society. Let these albums guide your fury into the new year.
The Passion Of
The sophomore album by New Orleans’ Special Interest, full of cacophony and cryptic beats, was an apt soundtrack for 2020. Like all great visionary artists, Special Interest have the uncanny ability to conjure the future, both the ugly and the beautiful. Their version of industrial-laced techno-punk is gritty and raw, dark and haunting. But it isn’t all doom and gloom—vocalist Alli Logout also lets loose with real moments of vulnerability, where they ache for a lover, a dancefloor, a chance at an equitable future. Album closer “With Love” is the best example; it dares to dream of “a life more than service,” of a tomorrow where “the people take all.”
Hungry for a Way Out
Cassette, Compact Disc (CD), Vinyl LP
This debut from Boston trio Sweeping Promises starts off with a bang. The title track is poppy and infectious, driven by a steady bass riff and dotted with lo-fi synth bursts; but it’s vocalist Lira Mondal who steals the show. The non-linearity of the song works to her advantage, and her outbursts of “Hunger for a way out” command attention every time. Minimal post-punk is definitely in the middle of a renaissance, and Sweeping Promises are one of the strongest practitioners. The record dips its toes into new wave (“Safe Now”), proto-punk (“Out Again”), and more experimental art-punk (“Trust.”) Catchy, cohesive, and easy to dance to, it’s hard to find fault here.
“This burden I’ve carried, I’m casting it off/ I banish it now,” Canadian punk Rosie Davis sings on the opening track of this masterful EP. Incorporating elements of jammy shoegaze, moments of raucous, tinny peace punk, and artful experimentation, the songs here are unified by their desire to turn the page on bullshit. Cry Out was the late Davis’s solo project; this EP was released posthumously, and it demonstrates the breadth of her talent. Its power is hypnotic. The tracks show a musician clearly in control of their art, and of themselves. But a close inspection of the lyrics reveals pointed expressions of pain, particularly in closer “Garden Song,” which echoes later Bikini Kill tracks like “False Start,” or “R.I.P.” The protagonist in “Garden Song” is lost and distraught, even though the lo-fi mellowness of the song seems to offer a sense of calm. “I sit on frozen ground and watch the clouds go by,” Davis sings. “Please come find me, show me the way back home.”
New York duo Privacy Issues, featuring journalist Liz Pelly and longtime shredder Pier Harrison, are part of a rich lineage of feminist musicians who are spare in instrumentation but rich in analysis. They land somewhere between the no-wave absurdity of Disband and the tunefulness of Hilly Eye. Apropos of their band name, Privacy Issues are concerned with how much of our lives we live online, and how Big Tech worms their way into every aspect of it. Their lyrics amplify these concerns—they hope to “delete what deletes the light in me” on “Delete,” and bemoan the “tools that make us all feel free, but set the scope of what we see,” on “Managed World.” Between psychedelic riffs, vocals sung in tandem, and minimal drum beats, Privacy Issues long for a chance to disconnect from the constant nuisance of our devices and, instead, find a real sense of connection.
CB Radio Gorgeous
With EP, Chicago group CB Radio Gorgeous (featuring members of CCTV, Forced Into Femininity, and Negative Scanner) delivered another perfect release. Vocalist Anna Kinderman vacillates between bratty squeals and more conversational delivery. The instrumentation keeps pace, with surfy riffs and bouncing bass lines punctuating each measure. While each of these frenzied tracks rip, closer “Babylon,” which also appeared on the band’s 2018 LP, is pure gold. The version here is more polished, Kinderman building intensity with each verse, and the music expertly building up and falling apart before suddenly dropping out in a single hopeless burst.
All or Nothing
Compact Disc (CD), Vinyl LP
On their latest full-length, Shopping take a more accessible, softer tack, while still playing the sort of angular post-punk for which they’ve become known. The songs here are poppy in a New Wave sense, with hints of ‘80s electronica and funk-influenced rhythms. Like their forebears Gang of Four or Delta 5, the instruments here don’t follow a rote pattern; they’re seemingly at odds, making for a fascinating dynamic—infinitely more interesting than verse-chorus-verse. Vocal lines interrupt and overlap, with a dominant bass line often leading the charge. “Expert Advice” is particularly infectious, a dance track full of vapid corporate-speak, the dueling vocals illustrating the tension between the human and the machine.
Human Snake opens with an ominous string medley, which gives way to eerie noise, deadpan spoken word, and, finally, machine-gun-burst drumming. The songs on this album don’t make any sense—nor are they meant to. L.A.-based quartet P22 can go hard, as on “The Manger,” which flows perfectly into the unwieldy “The Industrialist Heartthrob.” Sonic Youth’s noisier, more experimental work is an obvious reference; P22’s lyrics are so obscure they could appear in a Denis Johnson novel. “Ode to Rio Arriba” is a standout, its dissonance descending into a tense, energetic ending.
Sniffany and the Nits
The Greatest Nits
Sniffany and the Nits play perfectly scummy hardcore punk. The EP opens with the grotesque “Girl Factory,” where vocalist Josephine Edwards’ out-of-breath pleas are on par with any horror-movie scream queen. In keeping with the band’s medical theme—Edwards often performs onstage in a nurse’s uniform—the song tells a horrific tale of a girl locked up in an institution where she’s bred for meat and “milked like a sow.” The songs are urgent; all of them proceed at a steady clip, Edwards’ voice growing increasingly frantic. “Rotten Tomato Planet” is plenty dystopic, detailing the ways we’ve spoiled the earth, encouraging us to “drink your water and drink your oil,” knowing full well how finite resources are carelessly wasted. Closer “Spider Planet” is equally grotesque, imagining the relationship a tapped fly would have with the spider about to eat it. The music slows down and speeds up, building into a frenzy, as Edwards counts down the seconds until dinner is done.
Hot and Flustered
Leaning hard into ’70s punk (à la Crass), Cold Meat play it tough and fast on their debut full-length. “Industry Sleaze” is incredibly tight, as singer Ashley Ramsey sets fire to debased music-industry types, wailing, “No more industry, sleazy industry.” (It also features the memorable chorus, “You’re shit and you should quit.”) Ramsey’s scratchy vocal style is captivating, and her lyrics are both tongue-in-cheek and righteously pissed off. The fierce, quick “Squirm” rails against modern conveniences and the lie of home ownership. The creepy “Crawlers” is another standout, while the surfy “Women’s Work” weaves a tragic tale of a taken-for-granted housewife who works harder than her husband. In Ramsey’s care, the topic never feels trite—no easy task. In fact, Ramsey sounds ready to fight the offender herself, yelling, “A woman’s work is never done, goes on and on and on.”
White Boy Music
Brontez Purnell has been steeped in punk rock since high school, playing hardcore in Social Lies and poring over the pages of Maximum Rocknroll from his tiny Alabama hometown. (You may also know him from Gravy Train!!!, The Younger Lovers, or the zine Fag School.) That’s probably why he’s so good at synthesizing decades of punk into this three-song EP, his first-ever solo release. There are sax flourishes that feel very 2020, bright keys and beats straight out of the mod playbook, understated guitar that would be at home on a ‘90s Sub Pop release, and a simple, DIY production style that expertly ties it together. An almost twee, upbeat vibe underscores it all—made all the more plain by a cover of Beat Happening’s “In Between.”
Though they’re based in Olympia, Gen Pop have a distinctly UK sound, harkening back to the psychedelic energy of Powerplant or the twee pop of Sarah Records. Their first full-length, named for its catalog number on Post Present Medium, has a dreamy, loose sound. Several tracks, like the snarky “Bright Light People,” feature dual vocals, which can have an almost choral quality. Tracks like “Hanging Drum” offer to-the-point, angular post-punk, and “Personal Fantasy” is like a tribute to SoCal ‘80s hardcore. “My Apartment” is the standout, a nonlinear post-punk jam with an almost post-hardcore bridge.
After months of living in isolation, the only music I crave is either chill and ambient, or full of nihilism. Fried E/M is the latter. Indeed, “I don’t want none of your peace and love” (from opener “Peace And Love”) scans as the perfect response to mainstream media parroting politicians’ vacuous calls for unity after the U.S. presidential election. This St. Louis, Missouri group conjures the energy of early hardcore, the singer screaming about the void like a young Henry Rollins over bouncing drums and riffs that are as sharp as an axe. The music is just raw enough to feel urgent, with plenty of off-the-cuff vocal outbursts (See: “Pleasure OD”). The deliberately absurd “Die Laughing” is the highlight, with a killer guitar solo and an ending of faux-maniacal laughter that bounds out to an eerie sudden stop.
São Paulo’s Futuro are deeply interested in reflecting the realities of the modern world. On this EP, their first new music in three years, the four-piece returns again and again to a feeling of powerless isolation, of living in a hole of desperation. “Concessions to freedom in a race for identity/ Socially, we disguise more and more truths,” vocalist Camila Leão sings on the incredible opening track “Gestalt.” Futuro manage to combine elements of American hardcore, as on the thrashy “License to Fail,” and effects-heavy ’60s psychedelia. That trippy influence comes through clearest on the Dovers cover “The Third Eye.” Against a droning, repetitive verse, Leão delivers the lyrics like a mantra spoken from the bottom of a well. The song’s message is in direct contradiction to the five songs that precede it—here, the protagonist’s eyes are open to the truth, “understanding the secrets of space and time.”
Colombian punks Muro are as fired-up as ever on their new LP, a testament to their staying power. Featuring the same rawness and hyperspeed instrumentation of their 2017 debut Ataque Hardcore Punk, more than one song devolves into exhausted chaos—a total breakdown of form. “La Ciudad Es Hostil” is enthralling, punishing the listener with unexpected tempo changes and pounding drums. Muro’s singer pours himself into each song, perpetually straining and hoarse. On the powerful opening track, “Fantasia Del Progreso,” he shouts the title again and again, so that the ridiculousness of the titular fantasy fully penetrates. Muro bring plenty of hardcore elements to their music—the consuming noise of Japanese hardcore, doomy breakdowns, D-beat drumming, thrashy guitar—but make it all into something new and irresistible.
Straw Man Army
Age of Exile
Age of Exile opens with a beat-scene-esque instrumental, easing us into the record’s doomy punk/free jazz melange. Straw Man Army (featuring members of Kaleidoscope) are interested in breaking down the lies of America, the failure of a colonial project that mostly seems hell-bent on destroying itself. Dual vocals, delivered mechanically, overlap on certain lines, serving to underscore the importance of their point. “The actions of the past often masquerade as fate,” they announce on “Option Despair,” a line that should serve as a disclaimer in any textbook of U.S. history. The sounds on the album vary widely, from the soft ambient noises that open “Straw Man Army” to instruments that seem to be doing double duty. I couldn’t quite tell at times if I was hearing horns, or synths, or a drum track, as on “Common Shame,” which shares an ominous beat with Le Tigre’s “Phanta.” Though hard to pin down, this album is ripe for repeated listens. And to add credence to the band’s stated politics, all proceeds go to The Red Nation’s pandemic relief efforts.