Get in the van with 14 fast and loud hardcore punk tracks. Featuring Turnstile, Converge, Bad Brains, OFF!, Operation Ivy, Husker Dü, Misfits and more.
Hardcore emerged in the early 1980s as a faster, louder and angrier offshoot of the punk scene established in the late ‘70s, by bands like Ramones, the Sex Pistols, Television and Talking Heads.
By the ‘80s, the chances of landing a record deal as a punk band were less than zero. The music industry thought of punk rock as a blip on a screen. Despite spearheading the punk movement, the Ramones and many of their peers had failed to produce hit records, beginning a cycle of musical experiments that found them straying from their roots in search of elusive mainstream success.
The next wave of punk bands embraced punk rock as a lifestyle, not a genre. For every breakout band, there was an independent record label. Behind every label, a local scene. Spreading word-of-mouth through fanzines, mail order and endless miles of DIY touring, bands like Black Flag, Bad Religion, Bad Brains, Minor Threat and Minutemen connected with fans in sweaty, passionate, sometimes violent performances that nevertheless inspired thousands of artists to “get in the van.”
In recent years, groups like Converge, Turnstile and G.L.O.S.S. refreshed the old hardcore formula with blasting metalcore riffs, eclectic genre-bending compositions and forward-thinking lyrics.
Start a circle pit with our picks for 14 of the most essential hardcore punk tracks. And if somebody falls down, pick ‘em up.
Bad Religion — “Give You Nothing”
Bad Religion’s debut LP How Could Hell Be Any Worse? turns 40 in 2022. With furious power chord riffs, sharp production and vocalist Greg Graffin’s pessimistic, politically charged, multisyllabic lyrics that are still relevant enough decades later to read like this morning’s newsfeed, How Could Hell… kicked open the gates for the SoCal hardcore scene.
After taking a widely criticized detour into prog rock on their sophomore album, Into the Unknown—though the success of Coheed and Cambria suggests they were just ahead of their time—Bad Religion resurfaced in 1988 with Suffer, a leaner, meaner and more melodic collection of heavyweight hardcore whose influence can be heard across nearly every subgenre that ends in “-punk” or “-core.”
On “Give You Nothing,” guitarists Greg Hetson (Circle Jerks) and Brett Gurewitz (founder of the band’s label, Epitaph Records) open up with Fugazi-ish feedback swells over the precision-tuned fury of rhythm section Jay Bentley (bass) and Pete Finestone (drums). Over the next two minutes, Bad Religion predicts the future of hardcore and pop-punk one breakdown and sing (or shout) along chorus at a time.
Turnstile — “DON’T PLAY”
For over a decade, Baltimore hardcore act Turnstile toured behind five EPs and a pair of full-length albums before forming a love connection with the world upon the release of their third LP, 2021’s GLOW ON.
Since hitting number one on the Billboard Hard Rock chart and taking the 30th spot on the Top 200, Turnstile’s breakout popularity has ushered in a new wave of interest in the DIY hardcore underground, the local scenes where regional sounds and innovative new subgenres emerge—without external pressure from the music industry or streaming algorithms. In particular, the music distribution platform Bandcamp has been a champion of local scenes—publishing field reports from upstate New York, Boston and Ohio, among other locales.
On “DON’T PLAY," Turnstile flip the script while they fuse breakneck hardcore backbeats with syncopated samba rhythms and a massive bass drop right out of Sepultura’s “Roots, Bloody Roots” to set off one of the toughest breakdowns ever recorded by a band featured on NPR’s Tiny Desk.
Bad Brains — “Banned In D.C.”
Everything you need to know about “Banned in D.C.” is right there in the title. Bad Brains formed in Washington D.C. in 1976 as Mind Power, a jazz fusion act that changed their name in 1977, taking it from the Ramones song “Bad Brain.”
Unlike the rudimentary riffage of the early Dischord bands who followed Bad Brains’ lead, most of them still teenagers, Bad Brains traded youthful exuberance for finely tuned jazz fusion chops, using their musical experience to compose their genre-fluid blend of hardcore punk, reggae, metal and jazz, delivered with virtuosic precision at tempos so fast they ought to be impossible.
By 1979, Bad Brains’ electrifying take on punk rock—and the destructive urges it unleashed in local audiences who reportedly tore venues to pieces with out-of-control stage diving—had been banned across the nation’s capitol city.
In the early ‘80s, Bad Brains were a fixture at the Manhattan punk club CBGBs, where they fit right in with the city’s eclectic punk movement. In 2016, Bad Brains were nominated to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, but have not yet been inducted.
Converge — “Dark Horse”
Massachusetts metalcore pioneers Converge combine thrashy ‘90s hardcore matinee riffs with crushing weight room breakdowns, grindcore blast beats and the sweet sounds of Swedish melodic death metal on “Dark Horse,” kicking off their 2009 LP Axe to Fall at a full gallop.
With a sledgehammer snare roll, drummer Ben Koller lets listeners know its clobberin’ time. In Converge’s corner, Kurt Ballou supplies frantic, prog-influenced guitar riffs and his signature production style—clear but crushingly heavy, with the tone of each instrument carefully sculpted for maximum impact.
In support of Axe to Fall, Converge hit the road with both kinds of bands—human and cartoon—sharing stages with Mastodon, Thursday, High on Fire and Dethklok, the infamous animated melodic death metal anti heroes of the Adult Swim series Metalocalypse.
OFF! — “Now I’m Pissed”
As Black Flag’s original vocalist, Keith Morris could have recorded his tracks on the Nervous Breakdown EP, played a few gigs and enjoyed his position atop the annals of hardcore punk history. Instead, his lifelong commitment to the DIY “get in the van” work ethic helped produce some of America’s most vital underground music.
Morris co-founded Black Flag in 1976 with guitarist Greg Ginn, burning through rhythm sections with their merciless hours-long rehearsals until 1979, when Chuck Dukowski (bass) and Brian Migdol (drums) joined for the band’s first recording, Nervous Breakdown.
At the end of 1979, Morris suddenly left Black Flag to form the Circle Jerks, soon to be seen around the world via director Penelope Spheeris (Wayne's World) in her gritty documentary on the Los Angeles punk scene, aptly titled The Decline of Western Civilization.
For his third legendary hardcore act, Morris recruited drummer Mario Rubalcaba (Earthless, Hot Snakes, Rocket From the Crypt), bassist Steven McDonald (Redd Kross, Melvins) and guitarist Dimitri Coats to form OFF!, releasing slab after slab of slamming SST style hardcore, beginning with 2009’s First Four EPs. In 2022, Morris hit the road with a reunited Circle Jerks for a rescheduled tour celebrating the group’s 40th anniversary.
Minutemen — “Bob Dylan Wrote Propaganda Songs”
Singer and guitarist D. Boon plows through imposter syndrome on the anthemic (and often misunderstood) “Bob Dylan Wrote Propaganda Songs," from Minutemen’s 1982 album, What Makes a Man Start Fires?
Where their hardcore peers wrote about depression, poverty and despair, the Minutemen’s songwriting process usually involved stacks of books, multiple library visits and (one can imagine, given how often they toured) a lot of late fees. Like their music, which draws from hardcore punk, jazz, country, classic rock and funk, Minutemen lyrics combine historical facts and figures with literary references, political ideology, academic theory and inside jokes to piece together a puzzling patchwork of influences.
So what is “Bob Dylan Wrote Propaganda Songs” about? A punk rejection of hippie music? A diss track? Something else entirely?
In Tim Irwin’s 2006 documentary We Jam Econo, bassist and lyricist Mike Watt reflects on the song’s origin and initial reception:
I was feeling insecure about writing [political] songs that had intense ramifications that weren’t musical…I never knew what words were about… they were like some kind of lead guitar, except Bob Dylan. His words, I thought, were like your Pop talking to you, or something. So I thought, ‘it’s okay if I write [political] songs like that, because Bob Dylan wrote propaganda songs.’ Some people thought I was really angry at Bob Dylan.
Operation Ivy — “Knowledge”
Ska’s third wave comes crashing in at high tide on “Knowledge," a thrashy cut of catchy pop-hardcore by Berkeley, CA ska punk progenitors, Operation Ivy. On their 1989 debut, Energy, the East Bay quartet revived the hip, bass driven sounds of ska’s second wave (the Specials, Madness, etc.) minus the keyboards and horn section, but with revved-up guitar distortion and hardcore warp speed.
But as listeners of the full LP already know, before the sound system can bring you back up, “Knowledge” takes you to school. There’s little ska to be heard on the leadoff track from Energy, save for maybe drummer Dave Mello’s two-step, but plenty of East Bay thrash. Tim Armstrong (guitar) and Matt Freeman (bass) attack their instruments with heavy metal intensity—just listen to Armstrong’s palm-muted power chords—and Mello joins in with brutal choked cymbals at 0:52, a favorite trick of Bay Area metal drummers like Metallica’s Lars Ulrich.
Operation Ivy’s mixture of punk, hardcore and ska gained an audience almost immediately at Berkeley's all-ages non-profit DIY punk collective and venue, 924 Gillman St. Operation Ivy were regulars at the space, where by the early ‘90s a group of bands with a melodic (but still hardcore influenced) sound began to emerge—including The Offspring, AFI, and Green Day, who covered “Knowledge” on 1039 / Smoothed Out Slappy Hours. In 2020, Machine Gun Kelly licensed a lyric from “Knowledge” to include in his song “All I Know," from the album Tickets to My Downfall.
Husker Dü — “Never Talking to You Again”
Minnesota hardcore outfit Husker Dü unplug their guitars but amplify their angst on “Never Talking to You Again," a rare acoustic number from their concept double album Zen Arcade.
Though the idea of a concept album from an underground band was ambitious in 1984, the Dü still kept things tight in the studio, recording 23 songs—over an hour of material, every song a first take except for two—in a pair of marathon sessions: 40 hours to record, 40 hours to mix.
In the span of an average pay period, Husker Dü created a psychedelic, immersive hardcore masterpiece that Rolling Stone critic David Fricke compared to the Who, calling it “the closest hardcore will ever get to an opera... a kind of thrash Quadrophenia.”
With jangly yet aggressive acoustic guitar strumming plus stirring vocal harmonies throughout, “Never Talking to You Again” captures the adventurous spirit of hardcore, where even the unplugged songs are heavy.
Void — “Who Are You??”
From Columbia, Maryland, Void are among the few bands on the Dischord roster from outside the Washington, D.C. city limits—an honor they share with the minimalist Baltimore post-hardcore band Lungfish.
Kicking off the Void half of the 1980 Faith/Void split LP, “Who Are You??” is an uncompromising and unconventional hybrid of punk and metal, played with virtually no regard for typical musical conventions. Even when they do agree on pitch or tempo, the instruments sound like they’re engaged in combat, thrashing around a circle pit in a cartoon dust cloud of flying fists and spin kicks.
At 12 minutes, 15 songs and one-half of an LP, side B of Faith/Void leaves listeners wanting more—but that’s all there is. Void recorded a follow-up album titled Potion for Bad Dreams but broke up before it could be released. In his journals, Kurt Cobain listed Faith/Void as one of his top 50 albums of all-time.
G.L.O.S.S. — “Outcast Stomp”
During their brief two-year run, G.L.O.S.S. (Girls Living Outside Society’s Sh*t) sought visibility for anyone on the margins of society, in the hardcore punk scene or elsewhere.
At just over eight minutes, G.L.O.S.S.’s Demo 2015 is a heavy slab of relentless d-beat infused hardcore with savage circle pit-worthy riffs and shocking, socially-conscious lyrics centered around the perspectives and experiences of transgender people, women, disabled people and people of color.
“Outcast Stomp” opens up the pit with a heavy duty guitar and drums intro plus a shoutout from vocalist Sadie "Switchblade" Smith to the “outcasts, rejects, girls and queers”—a heartfelt show of solidarity with a slamming soundtrack that gives discrimination the boot.
Zero Boys — “Civilization’s Dying”
Living in the midwest is frustrating sometimes. Take it from Indianapolis, Indiana’s Zero Boys. Despite being active in hardcore’s early ‘80s heyday and touring with D.C. scene icons Minor Threat, Zero Boys remained largely unknown until 2009 when indie label Secretly Canadian reissued their debut album Vicious Circle to widespread praise.
On “Civilization’s Dying," Zero Boys thread the needle between catchy, Ramones-style pop hooks (an unfashionable maneuver for a punk band in 1982) and thrashing hardcore intensity, hitting a bullseye on this unforgettable lost-and-found hardcore punk rager.
When radio stations tossed Zero Boys records in the round file (aka “garbage bin”), poking fun at their humble roots in Indiana’s “flyover country," vocalist Paul Mahern, just 19 at the time, started Affirmation Records to release unheard music from underappreciated midwestern bands.
“Sure I get frustrated,” he once told Maximumrocknroll. “But I get much more pleasure out of what I do than frustration.”
Misfits — “Skulls”
Glenn Danzig and his Misfits—Jerry Only (bass), Doyle von Frankenstein (guitar) and Arthur Googy (drums)—lay the groundwork for horrorpunk on the visceral, gothic and totally terrifying “Skulls," from their 1982 debut LP Walk Among Us.
Easily one of the catchiest earworms in all of hardcore, “Skulls” is a love song done like only the Misfits can—in double time, with visceral lyrics and a tempo so fast it’ll make you lose your head.
The Misfits recorded and shelved two LPs before releasing Walk Among Us to ghastly success, selling by Danzig’s estimate upwards of 20,000 copies within its first year. Mix engineer Chris D., who also ran the Misfits label, Ruby Records, disputes Danzig’s figure, claiming that between 2500-5000 copies is probably more realistic.
But in This Music Leaves Stains: The Complete Story of the Misfits by Misfits biographer James Greene Jr., Minor Threat guitarist Brian Baker lends Danzig some credibility, noting that Minor Threat’s Out of Step sold 15,000 copies and the Misfits were likely a larger draw at the time.
Regardless of the accuracy of Glenn Danzig’s bookkeeping, the Misfits never mixed sinister lyrics with sugary melodic sweetness better than “Skulls.”
X — “Nausea”
Los Angeles hardcore quartet X—vocalist Exene Cervenka with John Doe (bass and vocals), guitarist Billy Zoom and drummer/percussionist DJ Bonebrake (not a stage name, believe it or not) get freaky with producer/keyboardist Ray Manzarek of the Doors, who infects “Nausea” with queasy Hammond organ licks, infusing X’s barebones hardcore sound with flashes of psychedelia.
In April 2020, X celebrated 40 years of Los Angeles with a surprise reunion album, Alphabetland, the first recording to feature the group’s original lineup since Ain’t Love Grand! in 1985. In the producer’s seat, Billy Zoom’s one-time nextdoor neighbor Rob Schnapf (Beck, Elliott Smith) captures X firing on all cylinders with their stripped down, hi-octane, rockabilly infused sound.
Along with their peers in Circle Jerks and the Germs, X also appeared in director Penelope Spheeris’ now-iconic documentary film The Decline of Western Civilization, preserved in the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry as being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.”
Minor Threat—“Salad Days”
Minor Threat sound all grown up on “Salad Days," giving listeners a glimpse at the shape of punk to come with an ambient bass intro, overdubbed acoustic guitars and ringing chimes taking the place of roaring Marshall stacks.
Released two years after the band’s breakup, this posthumous track from the Salad Days EP is anything but filler. From 1980 to 1983, Minor Threat—Ian MacKaye (vocals), Lyle Preslar (guitar), Brian Baker (bass/guitar), Jeff Nelson (drums) and Steve Hangsen (bass ‘82-’83)—helped establish the standard operating procedure for a new wave of DIY musician with relentless touring and stacks of self-released music issued on the group’s label, Dischord.
On “Salad Days," Minor Threat wrestles with the problem of growing up in a scene that prioritizes youth and aggression. Displaying a musical maturity that lost some of their fans along the way, Minor Threat look towards the future of emo, indie rock, grunge and post-hardcore with a song marking a turning point in the course of underground rock.