1997: All media is declaring the alternative–rock explosion—for which Nirvana lit the fuse—over. This means the commercial pop-punk wave Green Day touched off was over in their eyes, too. That selfsame media could not have been more wrong. Green Day had just issued their fifth album, Nimrod. The Offspring, the band who made the catchphrase “gotta keep ’em separated” annoyingly omnipresent, dropped Ixnay On The Hombre. And if first-generation punks grumbled about those guys and Rancid watering down the sound to be palatable to the suburban kids buying their records and stretch jeans at Hot Topic? The generation they inspired were coming up: blink-182‘s second album, Dude Ranch, their first for major label MCA, was released. It sounded like Descendents watered down for frat boys. Yes, this way, something more annoying comes…
So, what did the music press think would be the new trend? Electronica, best represented by England’s Prodigy. Their hit video of ‘96, “Firestarter,” centered around new singer Keith Flint cutting a distinctly Johnny Rotten-like figure. Joining them onstage: spiky-haired, leather-jacketed guitarist Gizz Butt, formerly of U.K. hardcore outfit English Dogs. So, punk was dead again—was it…?
As usual, the punk world didn’t give a fuck what the media thought. Punk rock was doing quite fine, thank you. The Dwarves were back from the dead, ready to offend you more than ever with their pornographic snot-core. Sleater-Kinney were coming up with fresh directions for riot grrrl. The Humpers and U.S. Bombs were still flying 1977’s flag high, still sounding impeccably young, loud and snotty. Oblivians (on their final album), Guitar Wolf and a new Swedish export called the Hives were giving a sneak preview of a garage explosion waiting for the 21st century to arrive. And the Mighty Mighty Bosstones were about to have a massive hit record, “The Impression That I Get,” 14 years after forming. Here are the 15 best punk albums of 1997.
The Muffs – Happy Birthday To Me
Warner really unleashed melodic garage punks the Muffs for what turned out to be their final album with the label. The production is credited to the band, but it was really leader Kim Shattuck making all the sonic choices. Everything is clean and spare, every instrument clearly recorded and afforded its own space in the mix, and not an ounce of fat anywhere. By this point, the songs she was writing were really narrowing the gap between punk and power pop. “All Blue Baby” could have been Cheap Trick playing a stroll, while “My Crazy Afternoon” could’ve been Badfinger with Johnny Ramone on rhythm guitar. “Pennywhore” continued Shattuck’s knack for recreating that Beatles-playing-country-music sound, whereas single “Outer Space” could’ve been the Byrds gone punk. Every member of the Muffs has said Happy Birthday To Me was their favorite album. It’s easy to see why.
The Humpers – Plastique Valentine
Long Beach punk traditionalists the Humpers’ seventh full-length Plastique Valentine might have been the most punk-rock album of 1997. All 13 songs were tightly wound explosions, from the Jerry Lee Lewis-esque piano-bangin’ boogie-woogie of the title track and “Fable Of Luv” to ultra-distorted closing feedback-fest “Mongrel Train.” It was as if singer/leader Scott “Deluxe” Drake instructed the lads before entering the studio with returning producer Sally Browder, “Hey, let’s try to out-Raw Power Iggy’s Raw Power album.” The entire record is a raw guitar rampage from start to finish, with barely a second to breathe before igniting the next assault. Which is what a punk record should be.
Sleater-Kinney – Dig Me Out
The third album from Corin Tucker and future Portlandia star Carrie Brownstein post-riot grrrl outfit Sleater-Kinney was their most fully realized work to date. With new drummer Janet Weiss providing full-blooded beats that completely mowed over the band’s lack of a bassist, there was plenty of sonic fire to get the backs of Tucker and Brownstein’s abrasively creative guitar and vocal interplay. There was no standout vocalist or instrumentalist on Dig Me Out. John Goodmanson’s dense production ensured the entire band was the star. The result was a terse, modern rock ‘n’ roll record that owed much to 1979 British post-punk. It was exciting as hell.
Kenickie – At The Club
“They’re a big bunch of sex,” Courtney Love said of glitter-smeared U.K. pop-punk band Kenickie. “I hope this record’s huge and then the big labels will start sniffing around, and then those big fucking raw-boned sexy Newcastle [sic—they were from Sunderland] girls will be huge and have No. 1s, and there will be an Amazon planet the way I want it.” The Hole leader didn’t get her wish. But for a moment, Kenickie’s charming teenage feminist bubblegum punk really shook up Top Of The Pops, at least. Future TV host Lauren Laverne could charmingly deliver a lyric with a shiny surface hiding a dark heart, such as this gem from “How I Was Made”: “The good lord rubbed my face to give it shape/He formed a callus.” It was as if Manic Street Preachers’ Richey Edwards and Nicky Wire were 17-year-old women. At The Club was brilliant, but Kenickie’s reign was short-lived.
Green Day – Nimrod
According to the first Alternative Press piece on Green Day (“When I Come Around,” October 1997), Billie Joe Armstrong, Mike Dirnt and Tré Cool finally hit their wall, midway through the spring 1996 European leg of the Insomniac tour. They unplugged the amps, pushed them back into the cargo hold of the jet back home and adjusted to being new husbands and fathers for a bit. Then they went back to work on the fifth Green Day album, Nimrod.
The most immediately noticeable characteristic? Insomniac’s bleak lyrical viewpoint gave way to, as AP’s Steven Chean put it, “goofball anecdotes and confessions of vulnerability in relationships.” Plus, for every two-minute punk adrenaline blast such as “Nice Guys Finish Last,” you had a new stylistic wrinkle: the moody surf instrumental “Last Ride In,” “Hitchin’ A Ride”’s swing verses, the punky ragtime of “King For A Day.” This is where Green Day began experimenting in earnest a la the Clash, bringing in new influences without sacrificing their essential ethos.
The Hives – Barely Legal
One of the biggest acts of the millennial garage-punk explosion barely made a radar blip outside their native Sweden when their first album, Barely Legal, dropped in 1997. For all of their tall tales of being under the guidance of mysterious Svengali Randy Fitzsimmons, the truth was that Hives singer Howlin’ Pelle Almqvist and guitar-slingin’ brother Nicholaus Arson formed the band in 1993. It’s apparent from the matching uniforms, nearly parodic showmanship and total self-reinvention that they’d been paying close attention to Nation Of Ulysses and Rocket From The Crypt. But the grooves yielded a sloppy, loud, raunchy melding of high-speed early ‘80s American hardcore with the slashed-speaker stylings of early Kinks or Sonics. Fourteen songs in 27 minutes! A marvelous blitzkrieg from Your (future) Favorite New Band.
The Offspring – Ixnay On The Hombre
The other band who lit the torch paper on the 1994 pop-punk explosion, the Offspring issued their fourth studio album Feb. 4, 1997, guitarist Noodles’ 34th birthday. The title Ixnay On The Hombre combined the Pig Latin word for the ‘40s Hollywood movie slang “nix” with Spanish for “man”—essentially, “fuck the Man.” Despite this and guest Jello Biafra’s opening “Disclaimer” (“This album contains explicit depictions of things which are real!”), Ixnay was the least rebellious record the band made.
Though such speedy ’n’ crunchy tracks as “All I Want” and “The Meaning Of Life” sounded familiar to longtime fans, there wasn’t much for fans of “Come Out And Play” to latch onto. Interestingly, songs like “Me & My Old Lady” more sonically resembled Jane’s Addiction than the Orange County punk the Offspring had previously exemplified. This perhaps explains why Ixnay only went platinum, as opposed to Smash’s eventual sextuple platinum U.S. sales.
U.S. Bombs – War Birth
The fourth studio LP from Duane Peters’ ‘77-ish punk crew was their first for Hellcat Records, Rancid leader Tim Armstrong’s new Epitaph-distributed imprint. Finally afforded a substantial recording budget, War Birth sounded more like outtakes from Blue Öyster Cult producer Sandy Pearlman’s work with the Clash on Give ‘Em Enough Rope than the demo-ish quality of previous Bombs releases.
Kerry Martinez and Chuck Briggs’ twin Les Paul attack roared with plenty of midrange clarity, Chip Hanna’s drums pounded your solar plexus continually and Wade Walston’s bass possessed a nice thud. And Peters’ Rotten-meets-Strummer snarl? Front and center, clearly enunciating his anti-war diatribes (“Warstoryville,” the title track) and critiques of American life (“U.S. Of Hate”). It was albums like this and their barnstorming road shows that reinforced the theory that U.S. Bombs were possibly the last old-school punk band.
The Mighty Mighty Bosstones – Let’s Face It
So, why was it that Let’s Face It suddenly hit huge well after Boston’s formidable Mighty Mighty Bosstones formed in 1983 and released five albums? It’s perhaps due to their instrumental position in developing and promoting third-wave ska, just gone mega on the back of No Doubt and Sublime’s massive success. But really, you can point to one track: “The Impression That I Get.” The gruffly charismatic Dicky Barrett lays down a vocal of great warmth and vulnerability, over downbeat skank guitar verses suddenly elevating into soaring choruses full of roaring Sex Pistols-like guitar work. Most bands would kill for a song this great. It took the band all the way to the top of Billboard’s Modern Rock Tracks chart and forever pinned the Mighty Mighty Bosstones to the forefront of everyone’s memory banks.
Guitar Wolf – Planet Of The Wolves
Mega-distorted Japanese garage-noise trio Guitar Wolf—consisting of singer/guitarist Seiji, aka Guitar Wolf, bassist Billy, aka Bass Wolf, and drummer Toru, aka Drum Wolf—first blasted out of Tokyo in 1987. They’re dedicated to what they call “jet rock ‘n’ roll,” an extremely noisy, overdriven melange of ‘77 punk, garage, Link Wray, Ramones and Joan Jett. Their every release is recorded at speaker-shredding fidelity, jackhammered with vicious energy, the lyrics growled in an indecipherable mix of Japanese and pidgin English. Planet Of The Wolves, their fifth U.S. release and second for uber-indie Matador, is one of the finest examples of their crazed art. You should own this and every one of their 16 albums to date.
Down By Law – Last Of The Sharpshooters
Former DYS/Dag Nasty/ALL singer Dave Smalley’s Down By Law always possessed a lot more power than most commercial pop-punk outfits. Smalley also sang better than everyone in punk rock combined and distilled a more intelligent, thoughtful rebellion in his lyrics than anyone this side of Bad Religion. Last Of The Sharpshooters turned out to be DBL’s final Epitaph release before moving on to NYC’s Go-Kart Records. On tracks such as “Get Out,” “No One Gets Away” and “Question Marks & Periods,” they are sonically the American cousins of Stiff Little Fingers. How this could be anything other than desirable is utterly baffling.
Oblivians – …Play Nine Songs With Mr. Quintron
The final Oblivians album for 16 years was a result of a lack of new material, a demo tape the U.S. Postal Service failed to deliver and a single eight-hour recording session. “Greg [Cartwright, singer/guitarist] had been really into Black gospel music and wanted to try some gospel songs in Oblivians fashion, but only if they were kinda screwed up,” drummer Eric Friedl explained to Perfect Sound Forever in August 2000. “We didn’t want to try to come off as religious, but we didn’t want to make a joke out of the whole thing, either.”
Cartwright said he’d only record their sacreligious gospel album if New Orleans keyboard eccentric Mr. Quintron played the session. Quintron rode the bus eight hours to Memphis, scratching out impromptu arrangements of the gospel standards on the spot due to the missing demo tape, cut them in a hasty eight-hour session, then boarded another Greyhound bus bound for his home. The results are the most ragged, unsanctified “religious” recordings ever. The Lord’s displeasure must have led to the Oblivians’ dissolution the following year.
The Dwarves – The Dwarves Are Young And Good Looking
Four years after faking the death of guitarist He Who Cannot Be Named to “promote” Sugarfix and repulsing Sub Pop into dropping them, ballistic pornocore scallywags the Dwarves were back. The label welcoming them back? Epitaph—the record company primarily responsible for the proliferation of pop punk.
The new-model Dwarves were more melodic, recorded more cleanly and wrote songs that clocked in beyond one minute. This didn’t make them less speedy, distorted or scabrous than before. If anything, “Hits” was scarier than anything they’d ever unleashed, while “Everybodies Girl,” “We Must Have Blood” and The Dwarves Are Young And Good Looking’s other 10 speed bullets were a new phase in classic Dwarves-ism—one that wouldn’t get shut down after 10 minutes by the local SWAT team when they came to town.
The Make-Up – Sound Verite
The Oblivians weren’t the only garage-centric outfit to seek inspiration from gospel. Former Nation Of Ulysses fountainhead Ian Svenonius now used sanctified music, alongside soul and punk, to launch himself into the unknown in his new outfit the Make-Up. Bringing in Beat Happening/K Records supremo Calvin Johnson to produce, second album Sound Verite sounds largely improvised, Svenonius shrieking in falsetto over cooking grooves from the band, Steve Gamboa’s funky drumming the most prominent instrument. Relying on repeated, trance-like lyrics, Svenonius still sounds like he’s working from Ulysses’ classic manifesto 13-Point Program To Destroy America. Now he was hell-bent on destroying its music too, in the most stylish way he could find.
AFI – Shut Your Mouth And Open Your Eyes
For their first two albums, AFI were a joke-core outfit with a juvenile, frat-boy “sense of humor” on the level of a prank phone call. Opening track “Keeping Out Of Direct Sunlight (An Introduction)” indicates a shift in mentality: “We are the ones with the radiating eyes…” Davey Havok screams. “Suffered the ignorance, suffered the selfishness/Been pushed so far down, now comes our time to surface.” Now they had a message, and it was dark as fuck, if not quite the horrorcore that would soon become their stock-in-trade. Hunter Burgan played bass for hire here before joining full time. And while this would be founding guitarist Mark Stopholese’s final AFI album, Jade Puget provided extra guitar and backing vocals. Which makes Shut Your Mouth And Open Your Eyes the first record to feature AFI’s current lineup, a harbinger of their future in many ways.