Punk can be a rather messy topic (being both a musical genre and subculture probably doesn’t help). Questionable comments in recent years by punk icons (Johnny Rotten, Morrissey, Fat Mike, etc.) and cultural re-evaluations of certain subgenres (maybe hardcore is toxic and exclusionary? Maybe emo and pop punk are actually good…but also toxic?) have made the discussion even messier, while pulling punk in some interesting directions. Oh, and let’s not forget the countless memes asserting that Avril Lavigne invented punk. Regardless of the problematic tendencies of some of its more notable purveyors, the DIY mentality at the heart of so many punk bands remains just as relevant (and necessary) today as it did in 1977—even if mohawks and spiky hair have fallen out of style. Go off the beaten punk rock path (or start your punk rock journey) with some of these hidden gems ranging from emo to hardcore to garage punk to jazz punk—all available to stream and download on Freegal with your Library card.
If there were a contest to determine the most underrated emo auteur of the ‘90s, Blair Shehan would probably get my vote (although Braid’s Bob Nanna and Mineral’s Chris Simpson would be up there). While his band The Jealous Sound seemed to straddle the line between turn-of-the-century emo and alternative radio rock, those who saw them open up for the Foo Fighters might be surprised by Shehan’s earlier band, Knapsack. Unapologetically mid ’90s emo, Knapsack has all the trappings you’d expect: awkwardly candid lyrics, melodic power chords riffs, and vocals that can be a little too melodramatic—but in a good way. If you like Sunny Day Real Estate or The Get Up Kids, then you will feel right at home with Knapsack.
I used to view Refused as basically At the Drive-In light, but it’s clear that their penchant for bringing surprising influences to hardcore punk (like free jazz, electronica, and metal, among others) have made them one of the most interesting punk bands of the past 25 years. Refused’s standout album, the experimental and politically unwavering The Shape of Punk to Come, has cemented their place in punk history, but their early materialstill has moments of rage-filled brilliance.
Hot Rod Circuit never really seemed to get their due. Perhaps if they had peaked a few years later, they would be viewed on the same level as Jimmy Eat World or The All-American Rejects. Although HRC’s notoriety would increase a few years later with the album Sorry About Tomorrow (touring with Dashboard Confessional and New Found Glory probably didn’t hurt, either), try listening to “Irish Car Bomb” from 1999’s If I Knew What I Knew Then without singing along to “you know you taste like cancer!” during the chorus.
Last year, when Fiddlehead released their 2nd full length album, Between the Richness, I was initially underwhelmed. Fast forward to several dozens of listens later and it had become my favorite record of 2021. You can see the groundwork for Fiddlehead being laid in one of lead singer Pat Flynn’s previous bands, Have Heart, a group that is unapologetically hardcore. Fans of Flynn’s current work may find Have Heart to be a little rough-around-the-edges, but then again, we are talking about punk rock.
Much like Hot Rod Circuit, Elliott tends to get lost in the shuffle when reevaluating mid-to-late ‘90s emo. Which is unfortunate. Hailing from Louisville, Kentucky, Elliott would only release three full-length albums, the peak of which is arguably False Cathedrals. With dramatic, anguished vocals and a strong sense of melody, Elliott had perfected in 2000 all those things that would make bands like Dashboard Confessional and Something Corporate superstars a few years later.
Unabashedly lo-fi while still extremely melodic, Radioactivity fully commits to the garage rock aesthetic. A band that plays fast and has little concern for polished production, Radioactivity is a must-listen for Guided by Voices fans. If you like this EP, check out their self-titled record. The song “Don’t Try” is a fast, catchy delight.
Andy Falkousmakes some weird music. He made weird music when he was in Mclusky, and luckily for us, he continues to do so in Future of the Left. Here’s the formula: take the off the wall lyrical sensibilities of the Pixies (while pairing it with the aggressively matter-of-fact delivery of Against Me!), borrowsome guitar tone cues from The Jesus Lizard and the Melvins, and then sing over it in that sort of obnoxious JelloBiafra/Mojo Nixon/Dead Milkmen sort of way. So good. If we’re being honest, Future of the Left is an acquired taste, but if you get it, you really get it.
Few artists push the boundaries of punk (or jazz, for that matter) more than the brilliant saxophonist James Chance. He brought free jazz and an avant-garde mentality to punk rock, and in the process proved that the genre was more than just out–of–tune guitars played by those who only know three or four chords. Chance would appear on No New York, a noisy collection of songs compiled by Brian Eno, but his first album, Buy, is as good of a place to start as any. It also features his signature song, “Contort Yourself.”