Sublime: It's Complicated

2020 was a slow-motion disaster, the result of decades of steady decline and instability and contradictions within the American empire before a fuse was lit anew in January of 2017, and so far 2021 seems to be a time-lapse video of melting, twisting plastic curdling in a pit of oppression and anguish. I don’t know what to do or what to say, my thoughts and feelings about the state of the world colliding with inevitable post-holiday malaise to produce a profound feeling of lost and lonely confusion. So in lieu of offering any insight or comfort, I will instead divert my attention to the band Sublime, because the only way I know how to cope with this much restlessness and chaos and uncertainty is to talk about the trashy dregs of 90s pop culture.

You may be asking, “Ellie, of all the garbage 90s bands to flirt with social rehabilitation, why pick the flag-bearer of white-boy dreads and bong-smoke-smothered dorm rooms? Why not write about Eve 6? The chap in that band has been making the rounds on twitter dot com and the world is surely begging for a lengthy thinkpiece on his internet presence.” Unfortunately, I only have so much attachment to the heart in a blender song and I can’t pretend like I spent any of my formative years delving deeply into the back catalog of that particular band (although I’m sure it’s packed with power pop gems!). I would much rather talk about a band whose discography I actually know in detail, and better yet, one that presents a greater challenge to my critical faculties than literally any of the bands I wrote about in the Bands You Weren’t Supposed to Like series.

Make no mistake, talking about Sublime is messy. Thorny conversations abound here, whether they be about artistic intent, misogyny, homophobia, sexual assault, addiction, the nature of cultural exchange vs. cultural appropriation, writing realistic fiction from a first-person perspective without making any clear moral judgments, or “Are you seriously telling me they made that dog go deaf?” So consider yourself warned. I’m neither the first nor the most qualified person to wade into any of these waters, either— Philip Cosores excoriating the band for Consequence of Sound, Evan Rytlewski’s scathing Pitchfork piece on 40 Oz. to Freedom, Kate Knibbs proclaiming a Sublimaissance for The Ringer, and Marty Garner’s response to the latter two in the AV Club should all be synthesized within the Sublime Dialectic, as it were.

But when I was in sixth grade, I wasn’t thinking about any of that. Although my cousin Rachel has told me that she was bumping Sublime in the car with me as an infant, my first conscious memory of Sublime is hearing “Date Rape” on the radio between Cake’s “Sheep Go to Heaven” and Dramarama’s “Anything, Anything” (I don’t know what that particular radio programmer was thinking, either). This was before I really knew what ska-punk or third-wave ska even were, let alone before I became horribly burned out on them (although in recent years I’ve softened my stance on the subject considerably, mostly because now that I live in the Real World— where people stop being polite, and start getting real— I no longer have the painful associations between Reel Big Fish and annoying marching band kids in high school, or between Tomas Kalnoky and fedorable Reddit atheists in college). I had some vague awareness of Lee “Scratch” Perry, the Specials, and Madness via reading books about punk rock but was still mostly ignorant to the rich history of ska, reggae, rocksteady, dancehall, dub, and all that good stuff, even though it was a huge touchstone for much of the hip-hop I was also into at the time, like Busta Rhymes and KRS-One (see where this is going?).

Another thing about being eleven years old and hearing “Date Rape” for the first time is that neither the explicit homophobia (“I can’t take pity on men of his kind, even though he now takes it in the behind”) nor the implicit misogyny (there’s literally a pause for laughs between “If it wasn’t for date rape, I’d never get laid” and the guitar solo) really registered with me the way it should have. I just took it at face-value as a well-intentioned anti-date-rape song— and it is, even if it is extremely clumsy and misguided in execution. If anything, the bits of smarmy humor only made me pay more attention to the overall message, and to be fair, of all of Sublime’s storytelling-scumbag songs, “Date Rape” is the most straightforward in intent. What I was hearing was the skittering drums, the subdued yet impossibly flexible bass, the addictive rush of the horn section, and a singer with a gorgeous voice telling this extremely compelling story at a rapid-fire pace. It was just begging for repeated listens.

What else do you do when you’re a middle-schooler and you hear a song on the radio that you like? You attempt to consume as much of that band’s material as possible. Several burned CD-Rs and broken pairs of Walkman headphones later, I was about as intimate with the catalog of the defunct Long Beach band as you could reasonably expect a kid to be. Much like with my Nirvana obsession, which had sprouted shortly prior, I was realizing that I had been hearing songs like “What I Got” and “Santeria” and “Smoke Two Joints” on the radio for my entire life, but without them being background music, it felt like I was hearing them for the first time. Also like Nirvana, I was struck by the tragedy of Sublime’s singer, a punk-scene-rooted talent whose life was cut short by poor decisions and heroin addiction. (Man, even when I was a little kid who claimed edge, heroin seemed like the absolute shit and pop culture never even attempted to dissuade me of that notion, instead making it seem like heroin was the key to creative genius, an everlasting legacy, and a sad yet beautifully neat and clean narrative arc. There should be a lot more pop culture that talks about not being able to take a shit or cum to save your life.)

At a time when I was listening to the most aggressive music I could get my hands on, Sublime fulfilled an important function in that, while they did absolutely have hip-hop and hardcore in their DNA, they were probably the first band in my formative years that told me it was okay to listen to something… chill for once. I wasn’t smoking weed or drinking, but listening to a Sublime album offered me the chance to lay back and, like, just vibe, man, even amidst the ADHD approach to influences and sequencing as well as the faster or heavier moments.

On the level of pure musicianship, Sublime were also nigh-unimpeachable: Bud Gaugh never indulged in anything too flashy behind the kit, instead controlling tone and tempo with a careful finesse; Eric Wilson’s bass lines never strayed too far from the band’s reggae influences, but with his supple touch, he managed to make it sound appropriate no matter what other genres the band was throwing into their stew, in addition to occasional moments of inspired melodic improvisation; Marshall “Ras MG” Goodman’s turntable work was essential to the band’s sonic identity, applying splashes of texture wherever necessary and helping to flesh out the band’s wide array of influences with ace choice in samples; and of course, no one would have given a fuck about Sublime if it weren’t for Bradley Nowell, whose deeply sincere and elastic voice— powerful yet vulnerable, stained with hints of both gritty pain and haunting beauty— and magnetic charisma grounded all of their songs in an arena of affability (even if it wasn’t always warranted) and realism (for better or for worse), while his guitar work soaked up the widest array of sonic influences in popular radio history, snaking through them all with both a voracious appetite and a level of competence and natural fluidity that would border on virtuosic if not for his inherently charming sloppiness. In fact, I’ll just say it: Sublime with Brad Nowell at the helm was better at mashing genres together than Mr. Bungle could ever hope to be. I’ll also go out on a limb and say that their obvious love and respect for all the genres they mixed and bent comes off far more honest and lacking in cynicism than, say, Vampire Weekend doing the same and getting critically acclaimed for it.

And while I keep harping on influences and genre fluidity, it’s worth running down the vast list of genres that Sublime’s three LPs dabbled in at one point or another: early 80s West Coast hardcore, post-punk, reggae, rocksteady, dub, dancehall, hip-hop, trip-hop, funk, blues, country, surf, lounge, jazz, Latin rock, folk, folk-hip-hop fusion (!), lo-fi, psychedelic rock, ska (although in my opinion their ska influence is a lot smaller than is usually attributed to them, and although they rose to fame on the back of the late 90s third wave ska movement, they encompassed much more than that), and even post-hardcore and noise rock. With so much going on, it’s no wonder that they were never able to make a cohesive record at any point— even with major-label backing— but we’ll get to that in a little bit. From an aesthetic standpoint, there’s so much to love in their anarchic, carefree approach to genre and stylistic variation, even if that very strength is part and parcel with one of their most striking weaknesses.

Sublime is one of those weird bands that have somehow gotten both better and worse with time in my estimation. At some point— sometime in high school— I took an extended break from listening to them that lasted for years. I was getting really into contemporary and past DIY hardcore/adjacent music, of course, but I also made a concerted effort to expand my sonic palette and get into music that I didn’t really have any background in. In particular, using early hip-hop as a springboard, I did a lot of research on Jamaican sound system music and culture, and exploring the surrounding world led me to a lot of places I wasn’t expecting— I knew Fugazi was deeply indebted to reggae, for example, but I didn’t know know, yknow? Similarly, while I knew that Sublime’s love for Jamaican music and culture ran deep (their track “Thanx” on 40 Oz. to Freedom does a lot in the way of shouting out specific artists and songs that they referenced or covered throughout that record in particular), I didn’t realize just how much they versioned and interpolated classic tracks. (This is your weekly Ellie-is-painfully-white alert.) Websites like SublimeSTP went to great lengths to run down every single reference and melodic inspiration, but it wasn’t until I was really exploring that world on my own that I was hearing stuff like Half Pint and Barrington Levy and I was like “Oh, so that’s where they got that from.”

On the one hand, such a diverse world of music to pull from makes for an exciting game of spot-the-reference— much in the same way as their covers of Bad Religion or Descendents, or their Just-Ice or Mobb Deep or Eazy-E samples, gave the listener a lexicon to work within and a road map to explore, their shout-outs to Alton Ellis or Yellowman or Tenor Saw offered an inroad to music that I was less familiar with. It’s one thing to notice samples of the Minutemen and the Beastie Boys, or lyrical references to Ice Cube and Public Enemy, but Sublime showed love to Chuck Turner, Joe Higgs, Toots & the Maytals, the Toyes, the Melodians, Aswad, the Wailing Souls, and Frankie Paul among seemingly hundreds of others. They’d bounce from alluding to Bob Marley’s “Buffalo Soldier” in “Don’t Push” to blatantly aping the horn section from “Tequila” by the Champs just a few songs later in “What Happened?”; they interpolate, reference, and partially cover George Gershwin multiple times; they quote Smokey Robinson; they crib from and shout-out classic rock artists ranging from the Grateful Dead to the Doors to Steely Dan to the Jimi Hendrix Experience to the Beatles; they name-check (and, in an unreleased song, cover) Bad Brains in the same breath as Eek-A-Mouse; they’ll throw samples of Primal Scream next to samples of Guru; they’ll quote fucking Jack Owens and then cover or reference peers like the Ziggens or obscure Long Beach punk forbears like Secret Hate and Falling Idols with the same mix of reverence and playfulness that they approach all the other musical legends listed here (again, among many others).

So, with all this mind, it follows that Sublime are, essentially, a really famous cover band. They avoid this characterization by blending everything together with unceasing fervor, enthusiasm, and unpredictability— and when I say everything, I mean everything. For instance, in Robbin’ the Hood standout “All You Need,” they pivot from a barely-controlled ska-centric verse to a stomping punk chorus before the bridge regurgitates a guitar line from their own cover of “Smoke Two Joints,” which pivots into a quote from “Fight Like A Brave” by the Red Hot Chili Peppers, before the song barrels towards an implosive end. And against all odds, this frantic post-modernist approach to composition works admirably a lot of the time.

Less admirable is their complex relationship with cultural appropriation. It’s not that Sublime ever treat their source material with anything less than respect and affection— it’s that their faithfulness and deference to the source material, even amid the genre-blending and wild arrangements, is a literal fault. Like I said, “Don’t Push” references Bob Marley’s “Buffalo Soldier,” but it wasn’t especially necessary to hear the lily-white Nowell croon about being “stolen from an African land,” let alone claim to have a “face like Bob Marley.” Worse still are the occasional moments early in Sublime’s discography when he evinces a Jamaican patois— in the 90s, it was probably read as a play at authenticity (and it does not come off as mocking or malicious in any way), but in 2021, it reads as a not-particularly-tasteful play at imitating the quirks and style of an entire culture and history that the members of Sublime had no claim to. Similarly are the mixed results when Nowell sings in Spanish— it comes off genuine and soulful in, for example, “Chica Mi Tipo” (even though the lyrics are basically chock-full of dirty jokes), but the results are much more hit-or-miss in “Caress Me Down” (the beginning of the song is borderline-caricature before Nowell integrates it much more smoothly later on— it’s still a measure less grating than when Black Francis of the Pixies does it).

These aren’t things that Nowell was simply unaware of— Sublime’s home base of Long Beach is, as Marty Garner points out, one of the most diverse cities in America. Garner goes on:

Cultures tend to blend when people come together like this. Nowell was well aware of that, and of how it looked for someone who looked like him to sound the way he sometimes did. “I have a lot of self-criticism when I sound like a [B]lack person or when I accidentally find myself singing like a damn Jamaican,” he told an Orlando alt-weekly in 1995. It’s noteworthy that that didn’t always stop him. But Long Beach’s cultural melee, and the band’s genuine proximity to the streets and depth of appreciation for reggae history, make Sublime’s style-shifting feel less like a pose and more like the natural outflow of three guys who were absorbing their surroundings.

Sublime rides the line between cultural exchange and appropriation uncomfortably and often slide onto the wrong side of it, even in spite of their Beastie Boys quote in, once more, “Don’t Push”— “Racism is schism on a serious tip.” On this subject, as on so many others, Nowell comes off as good-faith in intention but misguided in execution. No one doubts his love for KRS-One for even a second— and the band’s tribute to the legend is one of the brightest, most sincere, and most sonically-inspired moments in their entire discography— but many would doubt if it was a good idea to crib his signature “Bo! Bo!” shotgun ad-lib, and Pitchfork’s Evan Rytlewski isn’t wrong to scrutinize it. Is their use of the word “overstand” or the decision to name their demo Jah Won’t Pay the Bills a genuine paean to the culture that informed so much of their musical identity, or flippant jokiness? The answer, as it is with so many questions you can ask of Sublime’s intent, depends on the person— it could be one, or the other, or neither, or both all at once.

One of the messiest questions to ask of Sublime is the question of class— Nowell grew up middle-class with solidly blue-collar parents (in an admittedly dysfunctional family), his first exposure to reggae music coming from a sailing trip to the Virgin Islands that his father took him on when he was eleven. He even went to college for finance before eventually dropping out (one semester short of graduation) to pursue music as a career. But before long he was using crack, meth, and heroin, getting in trouble with the law, living in a tweaker pad, getting yelled at by his dad— it’s up to individual interpretation whether this downwardly-mobile trajectory constitutes annoying poverty tourism, but either way, Nowell was living a pretty roughshod life and embedded himself deeply in the people and culture surrounding him in economically-depressed neighborhoods. (For clarity’s sake, I want to emphasize that I’m not saying drug addiction, problems with the law, and living in dilapidated circumstances are things that are inherent to people in poverty— they are just issues that systemically plague the underclass with far more statistical likelihood, because capitalism relies on the punishment and exploitation of said underclass.) He lived poor and, having overdosed two months before the release of Sublime’s breakthrough album, died poor as well.

Sublime’s 1996 self-titled album is, by traditional standards, their least inchoate and most mature record. It’s also home to one of the most divisive Sublime songs in ethical terms, “April 29th, 1992 (Miami).” The song is about the 1992 LA riots— hopefully my readers are aware enough of the Rodney King verdict for me to not have to explain that. The first half of the song is mostly a description of various crimes that the band purports to have participated in during the riots (including robbing a music shop that they actually shouted out on 40 Oz. to Freedom) and leaves a bad taste in the mouth, with visions of white boys capitalizing on the uprising of the Black and Latino Los Angeles communities to materially enrich their own lives. But midway through we get hit with this switch-up:

Cuz everybody in the hood has had it up to here
It’s getting harder and harder and harder each and every year
Some kids went in the store with their mother
I saw her when she came out, she was getting some Pampers
They said it was for the Black man
They said it was for the Mexican
And not for the white man
But if you look at the streets, it wasn’t about Rodney King
It’s this fucked up situation and these fucked up police
It’s about coming up
And staying on top
And screaming 1-8-7 on a motherfuckin’ cop
It ain’t on the paper, it’s on the wall
National guard
Smoke from all around

And then the song proceeds to call for more riots everywhere in America— from Eugene, Oregon to Cleveland, Ohio to Tuscaloosa, Alabama. Let it burn.

So which is it? Is this erasure of the racial oppression that led to the riots? Or is it a call for cross-racial solidarity and class-consciousness in the face of extreme economic inequality and an abusive, authoritarian police state? Again, it’s one or the other, or neither, or both. That’s up to you. Sublime had no interest in walking you through it, and though Nowell was very clearly a smart and well-read guy if you go off interviews, his lyrics very rarely allow the listener to arrive at clear, pre-prepared clean moral judgments.

(That same intelligence is also what loses Nowell a pass on his treatment of Sublime’s de facto mascot, Lou Dog the Dalmatian. By all accounts Nowell loved that dog with every fiber of his being and he lived in comfort after Nowell’s passing, but allowing the dog onstage while they played drove him to go deaf, which caused him to become aggressive and bite at people. Depressing, arguably abusive, at the very least objectively negligent, and something that Nowell absolutely should have had the sense not to do.)

So I’m not saying there aren’t valid reasons to dislike Sublime— there’s clearly several. But they’re very rarely the reasons that people choose to hate Sublime. I like the AV Club and I like Jonah Ray, but one of my least favorite things I’ve ever seen in a major publication is their Hatesong feature where Jonah Ray talks about “What I Got” (well, the idea is that he’s supposed to talk about “What I Got” but mostly he talks about how much he hates Sublime fans while simultaneously being self-aggrandizing over the most mundane bullshit and also being bizarrely and needlessly cruel about Nowell’s death). Jonah Ray’s remarks here are actually a pretty decent overview of the stock reasons people use to shit on Sublime (Brian Posehn also has a Hatesong about “Santeria,” but it’s a lot less obnoxious), so I’ll go over them here:

1. THE FANS

This is actually the criticism I understand the most because shitty fans can definitely have a negative impact on your enjoyment of any piece of entertainment, and there is absolutely no shortage of, in one of the only actually funny remarks Jonah makes here, the type of people in Sublime’s fanbase who think that Bob Marley’s Legend is an actual album. The problem with this particular instance is that Jonah is not in high school anymore and therefore has no reason to interact with these people ever again, so relying on some weird sense of nerd-superiority for having been into Minor Threat and Black Flag instead in high school is, well, kind of embarrassing. I was into Minor Threat and Black Flag and I was straight-edge in high school too, dude. You weren’t an oppressed minority on the basis of your music taste then and it sure as fuck wouldn’t make you one today.

2. “DATE RAPE” IS A REALLY OBNOXIOUS AND MISGUIDED SONG

The other understandable criticism, and one the band themselves actually agreed with; KROQ decided to put it into rotation a few years after it actually came out and Sublime had retired it from their set lists by then. When they play it on their live album it’s because they allowed the crowd to hector them into it— there’s a few bootleg live recordings where the hecklers ask for it, Brad starts to play it, and then he just abruptly switches to another song. I think to be actually outraged or offended by this song almost a full 30 years on you probably don’t have a lot going on in your life, but I’ll grant that there is a leery quality to some of it and that taking umbrage with the prison-rape-as-karmic-justice trope is a more than fair criticism.

3. BRADLEY NOWELL DIED OF A HEROIN OVERDOSE

This is just kinda shitty. “He died in San Francisco, which is pretty cliche.” If even Brian Posehn will acknowledge that Nowell’s death sucked then you’re gonna come off as even more of an insensitive prick. Sometimes the straight-edge mentality turns into this disturbing disdain for addicts, which I find to be one of the most unproductive attitudes in society. Don’t be a cunt, Jonah.

4. THE NARRATOR OF “WRONG WAY” MAKES HIMSELF OUT TO BE A HERO

There are a lot of questionable narratives in Sublime’s storytelling songs, but “Wrong Way” makes its intentions and social commentary more clear than most of them in its repeated refrain, which also happens to be the name of the song. This isn’t shitty and insensitive but it is deliberately lazy and misleading.

5. THEY OPENED 40 Oz. TO FREEDOM WITH A MINUTEMEN SAMPLE

How lame do you have to be to try and protect your little pet band from being an influence on a band you don’t like? This is ahistorical because, as the interviewer points out, the Minutemen were from San Pedro which isn’t very far from Long Beach, so the geographical proximity makes the influence pretty easy to understand. This is silly because the dudes in the Minutemen weren’t shy about their deeply “uncool” love for then-cliche classic rock acts. And this is dumb for the same reasons it’s dumb to shit on nu metal bands for being influenced by Rage Against the Machine.

6. THEY PLAYED REGGAE WHICH IS UNCOOL AND UNPUNK

This is just rockism, which will always come off as just a smidge racist to me. Heaven forbid someone takes influence from something besides the Rolling Stone or Creem canon of white-as-fuck “alternative” guitar acts. Plus even just a mild understanding of punk’s history and social milieu would give you insight on just how many punk bands, especially the first wave of English punk bands that dudes like this jerk off over all the time, were heavily influenced by ska and reggae. Get over yourself— Peter Tosh and Mikey Dread are just a click away and you can look up all the records that King Tubby did work on in about 15 seconds, so there’s really no excuse.

7. THEY ARE INDIRECTLY RESPONSIBLE FOR JACK JOHNSON AND A MYRIAD OF OTHER INDEFENSIBLE ACTS

Too fucking bad. Correlative to the point I made earlier, it’s also not Rage Against the Machine’s fault that they led to Disturbed. One thing that I find particularly funny about this is that Jonah remarks that he heard that Jack Johnson went to a Fugazi show once which makes him cool— for one thing, neither me nor Jonah nor Jack Johnson are special for enjoying Fugazi, an act that has been played at major sporting events for decades now; for another, Sublime also specifically name-checked Fugazi as a major influence, which makes sense especially because Fugazi were also heavily influenced by reggae, that super “uncool” genre that Jonah hated on earlier in this piece. His opinions are literally incoherent at this point.

8. IN “WHAT I GOT” HE SAYS THAT LIVING WITH HIS DOG IS THE ONLY WAY TO STAY SANE, SO WHY DOESN’T HE CRY WHEN HIS DOG RUNS AWAY?

It’s the interviewer who makes this point, but I wanted to zero in on it because this is something I hear a lot, and the reason it’s so annoying is because here is the context for that line:

I don’t cry when my dog runs away
I don’t angry at the bills I have to pay
I don’t get mad when my mom smokes pot
Hits the bottle and goes right to the rock
Fuckin’ and fightin’, it’s all the same
Livin’ with Louie Dog’s the only way to stay sane
Let the lovin’, let the lovin’ come back to me

This verse is about not being able to feel emotions the way that you should because you are numbed by being knee-deep in depression and addiction. This is pretty damn obvious (although to be fair, Nowell expounds on this theme much more explicitly in both “Garden Grove” and “Burritos” on the same album). Aren’t writers and comedians supposed to have an understanding and command of language and narrative techniques? But Sublime is a dumb stoner bro band, so taking them seriously juuuust long enough to analyze a set of lyrics would be giving them too much benefit of the doubt.

So, again, while there are myriad understandable reasons for someone to dislike Sublime, these are some of the most prominent ones, and they are all pretty bad and dumb. I am also sure that very few people who count themselves as Sublime fans do so because it nets them any sort of goodwill or credibility. There is also a very specific subset of Sublime fans (in modern parlance we would refer to these people as “old”) who followed the band’s live shows and regard them as a regional phenomenon that should never have ascended to national fame. This is a pretty selfish and reductive take on any band, let alone one whose appeal is as broad as Sublime’s. Las Vegas, where I grew up, is closer to Sublime’s base of operations in both demographics and proximity than a lot of places in America, but it’s definitely not the stretch from Long Beach to Costa Mesa that defined Sublime’s early borders. Still, by the time I was in, like, seventh grade, I had discovered an entire cult of Sublime fans in my age group— I specifically remember a loud girl named Grace because we both called each other “Badfish” as an inside joke, and she moved away after middle school but we ran into each other at a show years later and yelled “Badfish!” and embraced in joy, which is a pretty treasured memory for me and an example of how loving Sublime brought (and, I don’t know, probably still brings) extremely disparate people together in appreciation for, yknow, chill vibes and whatnot.

So with all this speechifying out of the way, what we’re left with is the music. Sublime, despite only existing for eight years, produced a metric fuck-ton of music, much of which is compiled in posthumous collections like Second-hand Smoke and Everything Under the Sun. Getting into all their poorly-recorded demos and bootlegged live performances is kind of like finding a water-logged and ripped-up copy of the Silmarillion— for hardcore fans only— and I’d prefer not to even touch the Sublime with Rome fiasco with a twenty-foot pole, so let’s go through the “main Sublime canon,” which consists of three albums released between 1992 and 1996.

40 Oz. TO FREEDOM

This is probably considered the definitive Sublime album, which makes sense: that iconic sun on the cover, designed by tattoo artist and friend of the band Opie Ortiz and later tattooed on untold millions, captured the band’s slightly cholo-influenced, post-punk-post-hippie-SoCal aesthetic— sunny in spite of, or perhaps because of, the grim reality of their surroundings— perfectly. The music on 40 Oz. to Freedom is also some of the band’s best-known, and there is a marked difference in feeling when comparing 40 Oz. to their later albums; they hadn’t yet bottomed out on drugs and misery like they would on Robbin’ the Hood, and they also didn’t have the pressure of writing a hit record to recoup expenses like they would when crafting their self-titled. 40 Oz. sounds like the culmination of the four years the band spent playing parties and touring just to make beer money and skate in new places— jokingly misanthropic in some places but vibrant all the same, and sonically it seemed to be scooping everything into its maw with little discernment.

Still, good-time party sounds aside, 40 Oz. does have a blackness to its soul, a tint of hurt that finds its way into every song. Sometimes it hovers at the edges, nudging its way deeper into the song’s heart— “What Happened?” appears on the surface to be about over-the-top partying, but the implication that every day of Nowell’s life feels like this as well as sneakily dark references to the fact that “all my friends hate me” darken the celebration. Other times, the self-destructiveness is made far more explicit, as in the title track’s off-handed remark that “a 40-ounce to freedom is the only chance I’ll have to feel good even though I feel bad,” “Don’t Push”’s assertion that “If rhymes were Valiums I’d be comfortably numb,” and the entirety of “Badfish,” an original reggae composition that sounds all jolly and good until you realize it’s entirely about the toll that addiction was already beginning to take on Nowell. In fact, “New Song” is blatantly about the beginning stages of Nowell’s addiction to heroin— here, he’s telling himself that he does it because it’s his job as leader of the band to boost his creativity and maintain a larger-than-life persona, but by the end of the song, an acknowledgment that he’s “used too much” starts to creep in. Listening to “New Song,” in contrast with the directions his drug use would take his songwriting and personal life on later records, is genuinely unnerving in ways that more explicit admissions of drug problems in song form rarely are.

40 Oz. to Freedom runs for over 70 minutes and contains some of Sublime’s most-inspired musical moments, but although it’s never a difficult listen, it also feels somehow less complete than their other two albums (even the erratic and challenging Robbin’ the Hood). Maybe it’s because of the inclusions of songs like rappity-rap “Live at E’s” or the redundant, half-experimental, half-intense-as-fuck “New Thrash” that feel like they were haphazardly constructed and left unfinished; simultaneously, they also add to the “group of friends jamming” aesthetic of it all. Even some of the more coherent and accessible tracks— “Waiting for My Ruca,” “DJs,” “Chica Mi Tipo”— often throw in amateurish jammy elements, which actually often works to their benefit. The title track (which also features an absolutely overwhelmingly emotional chorus) and conversational closer “Thanx” in particular thrive on the intimacy and occasional interjections of Seinfeldian discussions into the mix.

40 Oz. is also the Sublime record with the highest quotient of explicit covers; in particular, their combined arrangement of “54-46 That’s My Number” and “Ball & Chain” feels inspired and rangy, and the live recording of the Melodians’ “Rivers of Babylon” sounds as genuine and reverent as anything else they ever did, while their cover of the Grateful Dead’s “Scarlet Begonias” feels like their dirtbag SoCal take on trip-hop, fuzzy 808s and impromptu rap and all. There are also two hardcore covers— while their cover of the Descendents’ “Hope” is the most straightforward of all their covers, their breathlessly maximalist version of Bad Religion’s “We’re Only Gonna Die” is fascinating. Perhaps it was unintentional, but the incorporation of reggae, a genre born of anger and rebellion against colonialism, adds weight to the song’s themes of imperialism and humanity’s greed, while the gradual introduction and give-and-take of more traditional punk elements are excellent dynamic decisions that build tension quite well.

40 Oz. to Freedom is a pretty good litmus test for whether people will be into Sublime— if you can stomach their Hendrix-ified version of “Smoke Two Joints,” you’ll be treated to “Right Back”’s potent mixture of reggae, thrash, and melancholy wit, or the exuberant garage-lounge-surf-jazz-punk indignation of “Ebin,” or the turntablism-by-way-of-acoustic-folk-tribute “KRS-One,” which are three of the strongest songs in the band’s entire catalog. Similarly, “Let’s Go Get Stoned” rewards the patience of the listener as the hazy weed vibes give way to a full-on psychedelia freakout that made me, a kid who had never done drugs, feel high as fuck. Either way, listening to 40 Oz. is rarely a boring experience, if only for the band’s ravenous appetite for new sounds and seeming inability to stay in any one lane for too long.

ROBBIN’ THE HOOD

If 40 Oz. to Freedom is the litmus test for if people will be into Sublime, then Robbin’ the Hood is a litmus test for if you can love Sublime for what they actually were. Sublime was an inherently grimy and gross band, and while the glossy production of the self-titled record or the cheeriness of 40 Oz. can serve to mask a lot of their dark core, Robbin’ is an album that is an hour straight of nothing but that grit and effluvia. Mostly consisting of four-track home recordings made in the crack house that the band was living in at the time, Robbin’ is poorly-produced, poorly-sequenced, and consistently aggressive in its antisocial tendencies. This is an album where not once but three times the flow is interrupted by fuzzy and uncomfortably candid recordings of an institutionalized paranoid-schizophrenic’s ramblings. If you’re predisposed to hate Sublime, I’m sure this can come off as exploitative and in poor taste, but if Robbin’ the Hood clicks for you, then it becomes part of the band’s mission to be as authentic to the surroundings that informed them as possible, regardless of if the ugliness of society’s ignorance of those living on its margins is too upsetting for most to sit with and consider. Perhaps too high-minded an approach to give Sublime the benefit of the doubt on? Again, Robbin’ the Hood is so relentlessly scuzzy and confrontational, wallowing in its own dark vibes, that it’s the only approach I can think of to apply.

Robbin’ the Hood is definitely the Sublime album that I was most taken with upon returning to the band after several years of making poor, self-destructive decisions that only served to make me a sadder person. Robbin’ the Hood is a snapshot of the absolute nadir of that particular sine wave. Cleaner production might have made a song like “Greatest-Hits” or “S.T.P.” (which stands for Secret Tweaker Pad) sound far more palatable, but the suffocating squalor and claustrophobia of the situations described bleeds in through the bottom-of-the-barrel production values, making them sound like the tragicomedies they are.

The self-perpetuating obscurity also extends to decisions like their cover of Falling Idols’ eponymous instrumental jam, which is actually one of Sublime’s more arrangement-faithful covers and succeeds in placing them within the legacy of micro-sized SoCal acts with little upward trajectory. It’s of a piece with many of the original compositions on the record as well, which often alternate between foreshadowing later developments (like the “Santeria” prototype that surfaces for a minute or so) and reflecting the band’s state of arrested development (their “reworking” of “Don’t Push” that descends into sampledelica and jamming).

A significant portion of the album is dedicated to lengthy jam sessions and loops that presage much of the modern lo-fi hip-hop movement, if indirectly, and the approach peaks in focus and creativity with the bleak and acidic “Cisco Kid.” This makes the more focused and traditionally accessible songs stand out more, giving them weight and substance that they might not have otherwise had if the album was shorter, and making the whole experience as rewarding as it is eerie. The stand-out songs themselves also have a wide range— for every burst of unabated energy like “All You Need” or the Gwen Stefani-assisted “Saw Red” (one of the finest ska-punk tracks of the 90s), there’s the gloominess of their arrangement of “Steppin’ Razor” or the near-suicidal blues of “Freeway Time In LA County Jail.”

Robbin’ the Hood is also home to some of Nowell’s most intimate acoustic recordings— “Mary” is the weakest of them, which is saying something when considering that song’s pained portrait of a dysfunctional relationship feels so authentic and evocative. The catchiest is, of course, “Boss DJ,” which sounds like if Jack Johnson was a poor person with an actual soul, but even people who hate Sublime with every fiber of their being will often extend an olive branch for “Pool Shark,” by far the most open and resigned Nowell has ever been about his heroin addiction. There are two equally-strong versions of “Pool Shark” on the record— the acoustic version and the hardcore version that functions as the first “real” song of the album— and its power lies not necessarily in Nowell’s declaration that “one day I’m gonna lose the war” (since most addicts are pretty conscious of the dire consequences their vice can have) but in its transparent, almost to the point of being graphic, description of the moment where you realize that you’re no longer using to get high but just to stay well. It’s a remarkably humble and self-possessed moment of clarity, and is part of what makes Robbin’ the Hood such a poignant and personal listen.

SUBLIME

Sublime’s self-titled record, and their posthumous breakthrough, is both their most accessible and their most frustrating outing. While both 40 Oz. and Robbin’ felt like you were peering in on a group of friends making music out of their sheer love for it, mish-mashing their original ideas with their inspirations in unique ways because of the freedom and privacy granted by obscurity, Sublime is a record that both flourishes and collapses under the weight of its own ambitions. Gone are the for-the-fuck-of-it stylistic detours and lengthy anti-song digressions of the previous records— Sublime does have its tangential moments, but it is for the most part a record focused on songcraft, to both its detriment and its success.

You have Sublime’s best-known, and most-mocked, songs here: “Caress Me Down” is a garish approximation of 311 white-boy-groove that succeeds (if it does for the listener) on Nowell’s charm and the clean production obscuring the noxiousness of the subject matter, in contrast to earlier songs which would both revel in and interrogate it; “Santeria” is a riff on Don Quixote (perversely appropriate, as I can think of few bands more quixotic than Sublime), more melancholic and self-aware than it’s given credit for, whose prettiness and catchiness has resulted in criminal over-saturation; “April 29th, 1992 (Miami),” which as previously discussed is extremely messy and potentially offensive, even beneath its darkly addictive alt-rap trappings; and the speedy Specials homage “Wrong Way” rides woozily on the dividing lines of irritation, pitch-black comedy, and delirious, blissful catchiness with little regard for the listener’s comfort level.

However, even constant airplay can’t smother the two best singles on the record: “Doin’ Time” reimagines George Gershwin’s jazz standard “Summertime” for a new, scummier milieu and succeeds wildly as it careens between the blurry, trippy soundscapes and Nowell’s incongruously gorgeous voice and sleazeball storytelling; both versions of “What I Got” capture the skate/surf/smoke lifestyle with such veracity and verisimilitude that the sleazy fun and abject depression blend together into a singularly compelling and compulsively re-listenable brew. Granted, though, the band’s bid for commercial viability suffocates some of their experimental approach to genre-mixing. While “Under My Voodoo” does manage to psychedelic rock and even a bit of metal into a pretty powerful concoction, the surf-isms on “Paddle Out” actually water down what could have been a pretty dynamic and propulsive hardcore song, which is unfortunate, considering how often the band shined when they committed to the hardcore punk approach. Even the two most (relatively) straightforward interpretations of reggae standards, “Jailhouse” and “Get Ready,” stand as two of the weakest in the band’s history, ambling around even more aimlessly than usual.

I must admit, what the album lacks in casual recklessness, it has a tendency to make up for in Nowell’s refined approach to lyricism and sharpened sense for song structure. “Same In the End” and “Seed” form a pair of fiery ska-punk powerhouses containing some of Nowell’s most-convincing screaming, both of which analyze white-trash dysfunction with a mixture of anger, desperation, and empathy that still feels relevant in 2021, while “Garden Grove” is a haunting self-diagnosis of emotional atrophy and sickness of both the dope and soul variety that eventually oozes into an Ohio-Players-by-way-of-Butthole-Surfers-by-way-of-reggae swampy finish. “Burritos” fuses bluesy guitar licks and ska into one of the most fun dissections of depression this side of Less Than Jake, and “Pawn Shop” is a distorted deconstruction of “War Deh Round A John Stop” by the Wailing Souls that also functions as a self-deprecating admission on Nowell’s part that he would often pawn the band’s equipment for drug money. Speaking of covers, Nowell also rearranges Secret Hate’s Clash-aping jam “The Ballad of Johnny Butt” to include new lyrics that frankly examine his own struggle to get clean— one which rings especially sad in retrospect when you know that he had actually gotten damn close right before his death.

Overall, the most difficult thing about Sublime isn’t that it feels like a missed opportunity— it’s that there is still so much potential here, and it will never be fulfilled. All of Sublime’s records hover around the hour mark and are absolutely stuffed with ideas, and I fully believe that a fourth record— written by a sober Nowell, with the confidence of a hit record behind him— could have been the best thing the band ever did. Alas, we’re left with a record that’s as Sublime as they come: messy, sometimes misguided, but absolutely brimming with fresh inventiveness and catchy melodies, even if it doesn’t all quite cohere like it should.

CONCLUSIONS

Above all, I apologize for forcing you to read this treatise on a band that, by rights, shouldn’t matter at all in The Current Year. Still, I don’t write anything without feeling like I absolutely need to, so I hope this was as cathartic for you as it was for me. I made some bold claims and assertions here, so I also welcome any negative commentary. It will only make my already-conflicted adoration of this band feel stronger.

TOP 10 SUBLIME SONGS

10. “Saw Red”
9. “Garden Grove”
8. “What I Got” (either version)
7. “Greatest-Hits”
6. “40 Oz. to Freedom”
5. “Pool Shark” (either version)
4. “Right Back”
3. “All You Need”
2. “Same In the End”
1. “Ebin”

-xoxo, Ellie

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I Consumed Too Much Batman Media

and it has ruined my brain

As I mentioned in my Calvin & Hobbes Patreon post, my dad had an enormous collection of Marvel comics and trading cards when I was a kid (although his collection seemed to have stopped in about 1993), most of which I was intrigued by, but save for Spider-Man, who is still my favorite superhero of all time (and whom I could probably do a lengthy leftist analysis of), I just didn’t really connect with a lot of superhero comics very much when I was young, which would eventually lead to my discovery of the indie comics scene later on. But there was one other superhero I was deeply obsessed with as a child, one that I find myself coming back to and analyzing constantly as I get older, who kind of inadvertently forced me to keep up with comics for years to understand what was going on with him, and one who I think has been at the center of some of the most thematically rich storytelling in comic book history. Yes, I’m talking about everybody’s favorite fascist, Batman. (I say fascist, which has become a popular interpretation of the character as of the last thirty or so years, but I will talk about why that characterization has become so popular and my problems with it momentarily.)

On Christmas, Deanna and I decided that we would watch Tim Burton’s Batman Returns, which was, in its own way, a pretty perfect Christmas movie to close out 2020, with its themes of hatred for corporate-bourgeoise robber-barons and all of its goofy black comedy and gleeful perversity. But here’s the thing: after a few years of kind of disconnecting myself from Batman and my love for him— especially in the aftermath of cinematic disasters like Suicide Squad, Batman v. Superman and Justice League— watching a Batman movie again proved to be extremely joyful and even addictive as Deanna and I gladly spent the rest of the holiday break binging a shit-ton of Batman (and some Batman-related) media. I even picked up some used Batman games at Half-Price Books (because the most up-to-date console we have in the house is an Xbox 360, lol) just because I was really enjoying the time I was getting to spend with the character. And, since you all know me well at this point, I’m sure you’ve seen where this is going, so let’s get into some of my Deep Thoughts on Bruce Wayne, the Caped Crusader.

OKAY SO IS BATMAN ACTUALLY A FASCIST?

Good question! The answer obviously varies by who is writing this particular iteration of Bruce. The comics have gone much, much further in portraying him as a violent psychopath with a god complex than any of the movies (although as I’ll bring up eventually, there’s a lot of fascism/fascist-adjacent shit that goes on in the Nolan flicks). The original iteration of the character (adorably called Bat-Man) took much more inspiration from the expressly violent pulp heroes that patrolled Depression-wracked America throughout the comics of the 30s, and he had zero qualms about just snuffing mooks’ lives out with guns (this was obviously before his origin story and, correspondingly, his famous hatred for using guns was introduced). But the idea of someone whose wealth goes beyond conventional capitalism (Bruce is heir-apparent to such a massive fortune that he is essentially an aristocrat, and he has little to no regard for commodifying anything into profit in most versions) using that wealth to dole out violent justice on his own terms, outside of any system, absolutely is, uh, pretty fash— even if he doesn’t kill, he certainly breaks a lot of bones and fucks people up on a mental level.

The standard argument that Bruce should pump much of his wealth back into the systemic issues that plague Gotham has actually been addressed in a wide variety of comics (most confusedly in the Batman, Inc. series, which offers both critique and justification for, uh, gentrification) but the nature of comic books and their storytelling dictates that the sickness of Gotham City goes beyond what money can and cannot fix. There is also the fact that Wayne Enterprises and Bruce himself are often portrayed as the least bad of the corporations that rule Gotham, which smacks pretty hard of lesser-evilism. The most charitable interpretation of Bruce’s politics is probably that he tries really hard to improve material conditions for the beleaguered population of Gotham City but that he is too addicted to the nighttime violence of Batman to truly give up all his wealth in the process of putting the means of production in the hands of Wayne Enterprises employees, and his friendship with Commissioner Gordon makes him far too forgiving of the militarization of the police (despite the fact that it’s pointed out, over and over, how corrupt the Gotham City Police Department is).

THE FRANK MILLER PROBLEM

I’m not one of those cognitively-dissonant losers who demands that fiction conform to my ideas of what a perfect world or superhero should look like. In my opinion, it’s totally okay to enjoy Batman for who and what he is without wanting his stories to become some sort of reflection of what a justice system would look like in a Marxist society. Superhero stories just… aren’t for that purpose. However, there are some mitigating factors to keep in mind if the whole Batman concept offends you on a moral level like some sort of baby— for instance, the fact that Batman seems to truly believe in the capacity for rehabilitation. People who parrot the hoary old “Why doesn’t he just kill the Joker?” line are missing a huge part of the character.

For instance, even in the belly of one of the most violent stories during the Dark Age of Comics, Alan Moore’s The Killing Joke, even after knowing the lengths that Joker has gone to in order to torture and humiliate Barbara and Jim Gordon, the comic ends with Batman genuinely pleading for the Joker to try and get help. Even most leftists would probably be fine with Batman just fucking murdering Joker here— especially considering that he not only paralyzed Barbara but sexually humiliated her for the purposes of driving her father insane— but Batman has never thought of even the fucking Joker as beyond redemption.

But Alan Moore was not the only person who sculpted an image of Batman during the Dark Age of Comics. If you’re interested in comics at all, you’re probably aware of Frank Miller, the guy behind Sin City (garbage), Daredevil: Born Again (a masterpiece), and, most crucially for what we’re discussing here, The Dark Knight Returns. The Dark Knight Returns came out in 1986 and is generally agreed to be the beginning of the Dark Age of Comics, which completely rejected the black-and-white morality of the Comics Code-ruled Silver Age and pushed even past the psychological complexities of the Bronze Age (the era which heralded the death of Gwen Stacy) to present a vision of comics as a medium through which to convey truly fucked-up stories about fucked-up people in the context of, yknow, superheroes. It also popularized the idea of Batman as a violent obsessive who visits impossibly gory punishments upon criminals because he likes it. I mean, the story itself is much deeper than that and I encourage you to read it yourself because making Ronald Reagan the mastermind villain of a Batman story fucking rules, and the conclusion of the comic is basically that a better future is possible and that Batman-as-fascist is a bad thing, but the aesthetic was immensely influential on an entire generation of comic book writers and artists who missed much of the actual underlying irony of the original story and lacked the emotional intelligence to expand upon it (see also: Watchmen). It certainly doesn’t help that Frank Miller has spent the last several decades essentially losing his mind and post-9/11 becoming a bigoted quasi-fascist himself and losing the plot of his own previous work (see works of his like Holy Terror, which is deeply racist), culminating in All-Star Batman & Robin, which features the immortal line “What are you, dense? Are you retarded or something? Who the hell do you think I am? I’m the goddamn Batman!” (Contrast this with Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely’s concurrent run on All-Star Superman, issue #10 of which shows Superman talking down someone attempting suicide in what is perhaps the best writing of a Superman story ever.)

I mean, the late 80s and early 90s saw plenty of extremely influential Batman stories with an unremittingly dark tone, such as Grant Morrison’s symbolism-as-means-to-a-mindfucky-end Arkham Asylum: A Serious House On A Serious Earth, the Knightfall storyline, Death In the Family, and so on, but seemingly none have influenced the way that Batman is thought of in pop culture as much as The Dark Knight Returns. Even when Morrison took over writing duties for Batman and decided that all the goofy pre-Crisis On Infinite Earths stuff like Bat-Mite and Ace the Bat-Hound was canon, people (read: Zack Snyder) can’t seem to get enough of the grimdark, hyperviolent Batman. It’s just not fun. And superhero comics should be fun.

But I know not all my readers are, yknow, comic book people. I could go on and on listing my favorite Batman stories (The Long Halloween, Death of the Family, Hush— all of which are dark as fuck and still avoid the Milleresque interpretation of the character and, in The Long Halloween’s case, truly lean into the “World’s Greatest Detective” angle of the character) but let’s dig into some of the Batman media that I have spent the last week or so completely immersing myself in.

Batman (1966)

In my opinion, the reason that the darker interpretations of Batman can be so cool is because the lighter interpretations of the character are so markedly ridiculous that the contrast is both comical and provides desperately-needed fleshing out and duality of who Batman is and what he represents. We’re sorely lacking in Silver Age absurdity these days (Batman: The Brave & the Bold has been off the air for… quite a while) which is why this movie felt so compelling and fun. I mean, it’s kinda bad, obviously, but very self-consciously so in that mid-60s way. Everyone harps on the Bat-Shark-Repellent but the funniest shit in the world to me is Adam West, almost deadpan, deducing the answers to clues from the Riddler in an almost Monty Python-esque surreal stream-of-consciousness sort of way. In the show, his riddles were more like puns that were funny specifically because of how complex the set-ups were, but like, look at this:

Robin [pointing toward the sky]  That crazy missile! It wrote two more riddles before it blew up!

Batman [reading a skywritten message]  "What goes up white and comes down yellow and white?"

Robin An egg!

Batman [reading another skywritten message]  "How do you divide seventeen apples among sixteen people?"

Robin Make applesauce!

Batman [thinking out loud]  Apples into applesauce - A unification into one smooth mixture. An egg - nature's perfect container. The container of all our hopes for the future.

Robin A unification and a container of hope? United World Organization!

Batman Precisely, Robin! And there's a special meeting of the Security Council today. If what I fear is true...

Robin Wow! Let's commandeer a taxi!

Batman No, Robin. Not at this time of day. Luckily, we're in tip-top condition. It'll be faster if we run. Let's go!

And compare it to the word-association-game scene in Wet Hot American Summer (“Human League… League of Nations”). It’s comedy-as-art, in my opinion.

THE BURTON MOVIES

Tim Burton’s adaptations of Batman are notable for several reasons, not least because Michael Keaton is near-peerlessly the best live-action Batman and Bruce Wayne there’s ever been (casting Keaton was famously a controversial decision at the time, but reading the script and seeing how much of Bruce’s dry humor Keaton had to deliver, I think it was an exceedingly natural fit). Of the two movies, I think Batman Returns is superior to the 1989 flick, even if it’s even less faithful to the source material— it’s one of Burton’s least-compromised artistic visions in a time before he crawled all the way up his own ass, Danny DeVito’s Penguin, Christopher Walken’s Max Schreck, and Michelle Pfeiffer’s Catwoman are all operating at the absolute peak of their capabilites, and it was written by Daniel Waters, who also wrote movies like Heathers and Hudson Hawk, and saw both the opportunities for absurd satire and black comedy in the Batman mythos, allowing the movie to function as self-commentary and ruthless critique. I think Batman, Penguin, and Schreck all function as different types of masculinity for Catwoman to bounce against, and the result is much richer and more incisive than it’s often given credit for. Plus, in the 1989 movie, they made some pretty stupid decisions regarding the Joker— giving him a pre-existing identity and then making him the murderer of Batman’s parents as opposed to Joe Chill, for example— and although Jack Nicholson gives a bravura performance, I can’t shake the feeling that he’s not the Joker, he’s just, yknow, Jack Nicholson. Also they make Batman use guns, which is always a huge no-no in my book. Still, they’re great movies, much better than they had any right to be, considering their place within the history of superhero movies (smack in between the decline of the Superman movies and the era in which Captain America and Fantastic Four would receive some of the worst adaptations of all time).

THE ANIMATED SERIES AND MASK OF THE PHANTASM

It is pretty useless for me to say anything about these, right? Everyone knows they fucking rule and that Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill are the best actors to every portray Batman and the Joker? We all know how many excellent, long-lasting contributions this show made to the Batman mythos, including Mr. Freeze’s backstory and Harley Quinn? And everyone is familiar with their startling maturity and the seamless way they bounce between tragedy, action, and a muted-yet-droll comedic sensibility, all of which add up to one of the most complex and impressive portrayals of the Dark Knight ever? Okay, cool, good. If you’ve (somehow) never dived in here, Mask of the Phantasm is the best theatrically-released Batman movie ever, so obviously start with that, and some good episodes to check out of the show include “Heart of Ice,” “Baby Doll,” “Trial,” “Mad Love,” “Over the Edge,” and “Almost Got ‘Im” (although all of these benefit from a familiarity with the characters so really you should just go watch the whole damn thing. Honestly, the Batman content alone is enough to justify an HBOMAX subscription, in my opinion).

THE SCHUMACHER FILMS

These movies get an extremely unfair rap, in my personal opinion. I genuinely loved them as a kid and going back to them after decades of horrible “gritty” Batman takes I’ve gotta say, I’d rather watch them than a lot of the homogenous Marvel movies, let alone the bullshit DCEU flicks. Jim Carrey fucking rules as the Riddler in Batman Forever— he understands the explicit comic book vibe Schumacher was going for implicitly— and while both movies are gay to the gills, I think Poison Ivy’s drag-derived aesthetic adds a lot to the camp entertainment value of Batman & Robin (although I also love Arnold Schwarzenegger conducting his freezing-cold goons’ sing-alongs). Honestly, where these movies really stumble into mixed-bag territory are the moments where they take themselves seriously— Val Kilmer’s dead-fish performance renders his psychological-background story in Batman Forever completely toothless, and there are approximately zero people who wanted to see Alfred dying of a terminal illness. These movies are not great, but they’re fun, and just as much distinct artistic visions as Burton’s and Nolan’s takes.

BATMAN BEYOND

Again, this is on HBOMAX, so if you have that service, go watch it immediately. This show has something of a cult following but deserves a lot more— the pilot episodes are remarkably moody and psychologically complex (the opening scene where an aging Bruce Wayne is forced to threaten a goon with a gun and as a result is so disgusted with himself that he hangs up the cape forever is incredible) but part of why I love this show so much is that it combines the Batman aesthetic with the idea behind Spider-Man, vis-a-vis a witty, angry teenager struggling to balance crimefighting with school and a home life. But the real ace in Batman Beyond’s hole is the direct-to-video movie, Return of the Joker. It was originally released under a PG edit, but thankfully the uncut, PG-13 version is the more widely available release now, and it’s absolutely incredible. I don’t want to spoil too much, but the flashback sequence that shows Batman’s final confrontation with the Joker is truly, honest to goodness, one of the best things that the Animated Series team ever did, and if it had been fleshed out into a full movie, would probably overtake Mask of the Phantasm as the best Batman flick, but it also gets points for younger Batman Terry McGinnis turning the Joker’s taunts right back at him in the climax in an absolutely fantastic scene— again, in a very Spider-Man way, without sacrificing the Batman-ness of the whole endeavor, if that makes sense.

THE NOLAN MOVIES

On a purely aesthetic level, Batman Begins and especially The Dark Knight are very good, tense, compelling movies, but the ideological underpinnings and the fundamental ways they interpret Batman as a character really come to a head in The Dark Knight Rises, an overlong, muddled mess of a movie that is honestly one of the worst ones I watched during this journey. Although TDKR very vaguely insinuates that it was a bad move, you can’t escape the fact that at the end of The Dark Knight— in one of its most glaring writing missteps— Jim Gordon rewrites history in order to preserve Harvey Dent’s iconography, and using what he represents to justify the increased militarization and power of a police force that, again, has been shown to already be stacked to the gills with corruption. That is actual fascism. That is doing a fascism. Add to this these films’ bizarre streak of neocon hawkishness— everything from arguably justifying the Patriot Act to the popular interpretation of TDKR as an anti-Occupy statement— and you have a pretty ugly picture, especially since Gotham in these movies is seemingly specifically meant to evoke Chicago. Still, you know, I really love the first two on a purely cinematic level. TDKR suffers from a truly horrible depiction of Bane in addition to its reactionary messaging, but the ending is particularly confused and silly. No spoilers if you haven’t seen it, but— it’s just really not who Batman is.

THE ARKHAM GAMES

Full disclosure— I have only played Arkham Asylum and Arkham City, so I feel like I’m missing part of the story. That being said, these are two of the best games I have ever played in my life. I mean, yeah, you really do feel like Batman, especially during the stealth-predator sections and in the glide-and-grapple traversal that City revels in, not to mention the absolutely wonderful free-flowing and rhythmic combat system, but also because these games seem to really understand who the characters are and make time to explore them as much as possible. Asylum’s glitchy fuckery whenever the Scarecrow shows up and the extremely long, unbearably intense escape from Killer Croc’s lair are maybe the best depictions of those characters anywhere, while City does the impossible and crafts an arc for the Joker that feels human and, in a weird way, almost touching. The two games have their differences— the Detective Mode in Asylum is so useful that it forces you to miss a lot of the game design, but looks a lot uglier and unpleasant in City; Asylum is much more tightly-plotted than the sandboxy City but in the process doesn’t allow for as much depth and exploration— but they are both towering achievements especially in the world of licensed games. Also, fuck the bros— playing as Catwoman is insanely fun and in my opinion her combat is even smoother and more effective than Batman’s (and certainly more fast and fluid than the awkward approach that Robin’s combat takes).

THE DCEU FILMS

Much like The Animated Series, I’m sure you don’t need me to talk much about these. They are bad. Like, laughably bad. Suicide Squad is famously a two-hour trailer, Batman v. Superman gains nothing in the three-hour Snyder cut besides becoming an even more sluggish and painful slog, and Justice League is just… horrible. My buddy Josh made me watch it with him in theaters and I was high out of my mind on painkillers and it was still so bad that he felt the need to apologize to me after. On the positive side, though, I actually liked Joker. I mean, yes, as everyone has pointed out it’s almost embarrassing how much it cribs from The King of Comedy, and at the end of the day, I think it could have been about a character completely unrelated to the Batman mythos, but as a desperate cry for class-consciousness and compassion (it is basically Healthcare Pls: The Movie) I think everyone involved could have done a lot worse, especially Joaquin Phoenix who, yes, rivals Heath Ledger as far as live-action Jokers go, especially in the film’s final act when he just full-on loses his mind. (His knock-knock joke is genuinely really fucking funny.) I also was surprised at how much I genuinely liked Birds of Prey— Margot Robbie taking full control of Harley Quinn allowed for an effortlessly fun and subtly inventive approach to an antihero movie that reminds me of how brutally the Deadpool movies subverted and satirized superhero flicks while still maintaining their own identity. Plus Ewan McGregor is clearly having an absolute blast, which is a joy to see. Two out of five ain’t terrible.

THE LEGO BATMAN MOVIE

I can’t think of a more perfect way to cap off this Batman journey than with The LEGO Batman Movie, which is almost as good as the first LEGO Movie (which is high praise coming from a Clone High fan as dedicated as I am). It’s a postmodern jab and earnest celebration of everything Batman all at once, packed with near-psychedelic animated creativity and rapid-fire jokes of every possible variety. Does it have substance? Surprisingly, amid all the self-aware goofs, yes— this movie does have a compelling emotional arc and a big heart in the center of it. I genuinely forgot that I was basically watching an ad the whole time, which is the highest possible compliment I could pay to a movie as blatantly commercial as this. It’s a labor of love and the genuine appreciation and respect for Batman runs deep no matter how much clowning it does. Plus Michael Cera as Robin is just absolutely inspired casting.

What else can I say? I really, really love Batman.

-xoxo, Ellie

If you’d like to submit a question to be answered in the newsletter, consider contributing to my Patreon. If you’d just like to read dumb jokes, follow me on Twitter on my personal account and on my podcast’s account (you can listen to that podcast here). Or (and I realize this is a risky proposition) just friend me on Facebook if you wanna see all my bullshit “life” stuff. I’ll see you all next time.

QUICK HITS: EMO ICEBERG EDITION

MIRANDA REINERT DISS TRACK

So my homie Miranda did a great and very funny newsletter where she dived into the first two tiers of the emo iceberg meme. In the process I was reminded of how severely internet-hardcore-nerd-poisoned I have become over the last 12 or so years, because I have (and this is not a brag and should in fact reflect very poorly upon me as a person) listened to every band in that meme at some point or another. I was originally gonna take this week off the newsletter but I thought I would just do a real quick hit running over my favorite/most underrated artists from the tiers that Miranda covered, and I might follow along as she continues in a very response-track sort of way. In these quick hits I think I will try to imitate Miranda’s style (read: “bite” her “steez”) because I think that would also be pretty amusing.

The first tier is very funny because, as Miranda pointed out, any normal person would rightly consider you insane if you consider Brand New and Orchid to be comparable in terms of accessibility and popularity. Generally, these tier-one bands tend towards early emo pop (The Promise Ring, the Get-Up Kids) to very entry-level screamo (Envy, Saetia) to seminal Midwest/indiemo (Mineral, Cap’n Jazz) although, as Miranda again pointed out, the inclusion of Cloud Nothings here is fucking hysterical. However the inclusion of Cloud Nothings does serve to drive home the fact that tier one of this meme is extremely /r/emo, a fact that I am not just ashamed of but that actively makes me want to slit my wrists. Also, Texas Is the Reason is, very puzzlingly, in tier two, which is odd as I think of them as one-third of the Holy Triptych of 90s indiemo that influenced 99% of “underground” emo to come after it (the other two being Cap’n Jazz and Sunny Day Real Estate).

Tier two is where things actually begin to get interesting because this is about the level that I was at in middle school/freshman year of high school and therefore I have a whole lot of nostalgia attached to a lot of acts, although these acts in particular and really this entire list just reminds me of how much my love for emo/skramz comes from the fact that it was something extremely obscure I could spend hours staying up all night reading about on the computer whenever no one wanted to hang out.

Anyway City of Caterpillar and pageninetynine are Richmond screamo bands related through members (and if you like either or both of them, I would very much recommend that you check out Malady, which is basically late 90s/early 00s screamo filtered through the lens of that very alt-rock-y sort of post-hardcore that was popular throughout the 90s a la Shades Apart, Farside, etc. Almost anthemic but still very elliptical and aggressive) and pageninetynine is one of my favorite bands of all time, being one of the few artists that I own multiple pieces of merch for. The Man Overboard/pageninetynine connection is very very funny to me principally because it only proves that Man Overboard were much bigger hardcore kids than anyone gave them credit for (see: Defend Pop Punk being a parody of the Effort “Destroy Pop Punk” and Most Precious Blood “Defend Hardcore” shirts).

Loma Prieta and Lord Snow being right on top of each other is also very funny because members of those bands are now working together in Stormlight (whose LP this year was stellar by the way) but also because I 100% believe that no band was a bigger stepping stone from Touche/La Dispute/The Wave type stuff to “true” screamo than Loma Prieta in the 2010s, and once that band started going into a more “post-hardcore”/very-self-conscious-of-being-on-Deathwish sort of direction Lord Snow really picked up their torch and ran with it.

The indiemo stuff in tier two is honestly some of the best and, if not necessarily underrated, relatively overlooked indiemo. Penfold is a particularly great pick. I resent that Christie Front Drive and Boys Life are so far apart from each other because their split LP is, in my opinion, the absolute greatest representative of the mid-late90s indiemo sound and imo has aged far better than similar stuff that everyone dickrides (for example I love both Mineral records but Power of Failing’s production feels like chewing on tinfoil and EndSerenading is admittedly closer to the American Football/elevator-music-emo stuff that I usually use to help me go to sleep).

Everyone Asked About You is a really great pick because their sole LP was originally supposed to come out in 1998 but just never did and so now they have attained kind of a retroactive legend status. Lots of people like to tokenize 90s Midwest emo bands with women in them (largely because the only band with women in it that is still well-known/highly-regarded is Rainer Maria) but Everyone Asked About You are a very pleasant listen. If you enjoy that sort of half-twinkly, very driving indie-meets-hardcore sort of sound with women doing vocals I would definitely recommend that you check out Pohgoh and Dahlia Seed (the latter of whom is slightly more hardcore-oriented) and also Ashes (who are a lot more EMOTIVE HARDCORE proper) and they are all great and deserve to be more than just a sprinkling of “diversity” in an odd tier list like this.

City of Caterpillar being on top of Funeral Diner is interesting because imo Funeral Diner is kind of the next level of the screamo-post-rock fusion (and The Underdark is a very very deeply geeky record) but along with those two I love that Gospel is here because that band’s The Moon Is A Dead World contains the literal best drumming I have ever heard in my life beneath a very fuzzy and trebly mix of sounds that evokes Yes or ELO except with screaming and whitebelts.

Vitreous Humor were an interesting post-punk band from Kansas that got kind of lumped into emo via doing a split with Boys Life (another band whose swan song masterpiece Departures & Landfalls presaged a union between post-rock and emotive hardcore that wouldn’t really see fruition for another ten years or so) and just generally having a lot of friends in that world but really they are more post-punk than anything hardcore-adjacent. However their song “Why Are You So Mean to Me?” is an absolute masterpiece and I would recommend it to anyone/everyone who has ever felt uncomfortable around their family/after losing their virginity.

Indian Summer and Portraits of Past and Moss Icon are probably the three best, most influential, and most important Real Emo bands of all time, to be honest, but I find it interesting that they are here next to Embrace (not least because imo Embrace should have been in the first tier next to Rites of Spring). I would slot Heroin just a smidgen below them. Googling “Heroin band” is indeed difficult but it’s worth it because aside from pageninetynine they are probably my favorite artist here. There was a kerfuffle around them recently because all the members reunited for a picture together and it was discovered that their drummer Aaron Montaigne (who is also the vocalist of Antioch Arrow, a very seminal screamo-adjacent/proto-sass band) had a Sonnenrad tattoo on his leg. There is some speculation as to whether it is there for racist reasons or if it’s just there because in the years since he has evolved into a darkwave/neofolk kinda cat who is obsessed with the occult. If that is too problematic for you to deal with feel free to stop listening to Antioch Arrow (I will not because I also still listen to Brand New, el oh el) but he was only the drummer and not even close to the primary songwriter of Heroin and they are one of the best emotive/hardcore/whatever bands of all time and if there is an argument to be made about who invented screamo I think that Heroin have the strongest claim to it. Matt Anderson’s vocals were extremely influential on Geoff Rickly from Thursday in particular and his label Gravity put out a ton of my favorite weirdo 90s hardcore-and-adjacent bands (Mohinder, Angel Hair/The VSS, Tristeza, Clikitat Ikatowi, etc).

I really like the little group of Good Screamo Bands towards the bottom-middle that consists of iwrotehaikusaboutcannibalisminyouryearbook, Jeromes Dream (even though it’s spelled wrong— there is no apostrophe) and Off Minor (who are basically Saetia but simultaneously heavier and jazzier— it’s kind of weird that Hot Cross is not next to them?? In fact I think Hot Cross might be significantly more popular than Off Minor considering Risk Revival— a fantastic album— came out on Equal Vision). Right next to them is Circle Takes the Square. I was just listening yesterday to their album As the Roots Undo which is probably my most-listened-to screamo album of all time, a very daring mixture of Richmond/pageninetynine/Majority Rule-esque heavy screamo with avant-grindcore and sinewy post-rock passages that makes its 45-minute runtime fly by in mere moments due to its sheer thematic, conceptual, and sonic tightness. Good pick.

I know a lot of people are extremely excited that The Newfound Interest In Connecticut (whose name is a reference to the Get-Up Kids song “A Newfound Interest In Massachusetts” btw) is finally doing a repress of their album The Long Dark Path Home but if I’m being completely honest the post-rock-emo fusion stuff was done better before and after that record and it’s a little boring and I’m willing to bet the majority of its current fame is largely due to nerds on Rate Your Music hyping it up to an absurd degree. Good band but not necessarily the legends that people keep pretending they are.

It is absolutely nonsensical that Foxing is in the second tier, not only because they are objectively more popular than a solid chunk of bands in the first tier but also because an astonishing amount of their output is just absolutely unlistenable and makes my ears feel sad (apologies to Miranda, Ian Cohen, and approximately 70% of my readers).

And because I don’t want to end this section on a negative note, Lync. This band was a huge influence on early Modest Mouse and were also an early K Records band which might make you think that their sound is very twee and cutesy but although it has a smidgen of that it is mostly just very carefully and artfully constructed but very emotionally performed post-hardcore. These Are Not Fall Colors is not on streaming but it is on Bandcamp and it is worth every damn penny. Rest In Power Sam Jayne.

And that is it! Apologies to Miranda for just completely stealing her format and style but this was a fun tiny thing to do right before Xmas and I hope that it is fun for you all to read and again I will probably follow along with Miranda’s exploration of the tiers because the weirder and more unsafe for the outside world these bands get the more likely it is that I copped a rip of their 7” from some half-English half-German blogspot linking to a 4shared or rapidshare upload of it. I’m excited.

-xoxo, Ellie

If you’d like to submit a question to be answered in the newsletter, consider contributing to my Patreon. If you’d just like to read dumb jokes, follow me on Twitter on my personal account and on my podcast’s account (you can listen to that podcast here). Or (and I realize this is a risky proposition) just friend me on Facebook if you wanna see all my bullshit “life” stuff. I’ll see you all next time.

while you were sleeping 2020

i didn't listen to anything here as much as i listened to "Iris" by the Goo Goo Dolls

This piece is dedicated to Wade Allison and Riley Gale. RIP.

I am not a very smart person, but luckily, what I lack in intelligence I make up for in raw anger. Today’s nightfall will mark the end of Chanukah and I’ve become acutely aware that it’s very weird that this is the year of all fucking years that I’ve decided to care about Chanukah even though as a generally anti-Israel and pro-Palestine person and non-practicing ethnic Jew I don’t actually give much of a fuck about Jerusalem or any of the “religious” reasons for celebrating Chanukah (although I would venture to say that neither do most Jews, considering that it’s one of the least religiously-significant holidays in the Hebrew calendar). In fact, as I outlined in my Patreon post about Calvin & Hobbes, my family celebrates Christmas! So why do I give a fuck about Chanukah at all this year? I don’t care much, granted; just enough to use the E Word’s Twitter to shout out a Jewish emo or hardcore band every day, beginning with the pre-Glassjaw band Sons of Abraham and concluding tonight with, obviously, Say Anything.

Again, I’m not smart enough to really explain it, but I guess it’s anger, right? Just a sublimation of anger that over the last four years being a Jew has felt a little bit like a source of alienation after the 2016 election when anti-Semitic activity experienced a marked rise and the years since have seen minimization and dismissal, or alternately, weaponization by the ruling class against the campaigns of Jeremy Corbyn and, bafflingly, Bernie Sanders? (Don’t get me wrong— months removed from the primaries, I am not all that concerned about Bernie anymore, for a wide variety of reasons I’d hope are obvious.) And this anger isn’t exactly special or unique; if anything, my anger about anti-Semitism pales in comparison to the righteous anger that has fueled the protests throughout 2020 in response to police brutality and the systemic oppression of people of color in America. So rest assured that I’m fully aware in the grand scheme of things that in the face of racial inequity, the erosion of rights for the LGBT community and people with uteruses in America, and above all, class struggle, my complicated Jewish feelings are but a pet peeve in comparison to the overwhelming anger I and countless others feel about everything else happening in this sordid assfuck of an annum. If Anger In 2020 were a comic book, anti-Semitism would be the inker (read: tracer).

And if there’s any genre of music that is defined by anger as an all-encompassing emotion, it’s my truest musical love: hardcore. More than any other genre, hardcore felt like it was there for me this year. But we’ll get to that in a second, because there was just an onslaught of quality music this year. There was definitely some stuff I loathed and actively resent the thought that people expected me to like it— Ultra Mono by IDLES, for example. There was also some stuff I was expecting to like but came away from kinda sleepy and wishing it would grow on me, like Ways of Hearing by Goalie’s Anxiety at the Penalty Kick. But the plethora of stuff I actually enjoyed far outweighs those.

Although I think it was just a bit of a down year for the genre, there was a smattering of great releases from the vague spheres of emo and pop-punk: Teenage Halloween put out a ripper of a self-titled album that sounds like if Jeff Rosenstock were a zoomer; Jeff Rosenstock himself never fails to clear the increasingly high bars his previous albums set, and No Dream is no exception; Barely Civil’s I’ll Figure This Out and Dogleg’s Melee are both records that see each band aging gracefully into their sounds; up-and-comers closure. and Ogbert the Nerd took their rough-and-tumble, twinkly indie-power-pop to increasingly polished and effective places with I Don’t Mind and I Don’t Hate You, respectively; Floral Tattoo released an album of genre-melting post-emo in You Can Never Have A Long Enough Head Start; KennyHoopla put out some ridiculously catchy singles for How Will I Rest In Peace If I’m Buried by a Highway? while collaborating with both scene contemporaries like nothing,nowhere. (on “Blood”) and stalwarts like Travis Barker (on “Estella”); Bartees Strange released a shapeshifting behemoth of a debut with Live Forever; Stay Inside expertly straddled the line between soft, lush emo and shrieking post-hardcore on Viewing; new releases from Nothing (The Great Dismal), Clearbody (One More Day), Gleemer (Down Through), Terminal Crush (Columbus), Fake Eyes (A Drip Is All We Know), cursetheknife (Thank You for Being Here, parts I & II), and Modern Color (From the Leaves of Your Garden) show the shoegaze/slowcore revival at full creative capacity; Nailpolishh’s Hollows is the best-constructed and best-produced emo trap record of the year, especially impressive as this year also had great releases by heavyweights in that field like The Moments I Miss by Wicca Phase Springs Eternal and Sofubi by 93FEETOFSMOKE; Taking Meds took another incredibly strong step forward with the EP The Meds You Deserve, a typically witty and pop-savvy update on their LP from last year; I unreservedly love the restrained, earnest guitar rock of the self-titled LP by Ways Away; Guitar Fight from Fooly Cooly’s Soak triggered my inner “go out and skate” energy; Home Is Where put out an incredible single in “The Scientific Classification of Stingrays” and their forthcoming material shows them really coming into their own. There was also the California Cousins/Floral Patterns split, which showed both bands at the absolute peak of their powers, particularly California Cousins— they’ve pushed their hyper-technical yet dancey yet ferocious screamo-pop-punk into the hottest territory yet. Windbreaker’s Long Time Caller, First Time Listener is a wonderful Kid Dynamite-indebted piece of beautifully rowdy pop-punk that deserved to be a breakthrough record in its own right.

Hip-hop produced a landslide of material as cutting and vital as it was catchy and varied: BIG $ILKY’s Vol. I and II are beautiful showcases of the unique chemistry between Psalm One and Angel Davanport as they spit and spasm their way through punchlines and condemnations of fence-sitting moderates; the production on Navy Blue’s Àdá Irin could best be described as “skate-jazz,” and his flows are just as fluid and dexterous as that combination implies; Westside Gunn’s Who Made the Sunshine, Benny the Butcher’s Burden of Proof, and Statik Selektah’s The Balancing Act form an unofficial trilogy of sharp, smart, hardened hip-hop that sounds as old-school as it does thrillingly modern, like if the members of Mobb Deep had been born in the 90s; The Koreatown Oddity’s Little Dominiques Nosebleed is as idiosyncratic as it is unflinchingly autobiographical; I am pretty sure everyone loves the fourth Run the Jewels record, for obvious reasons; Oddisee’s The Odd Cure artfully and faithfully reproduces all of the conflicting emotions triggered in the early days of the pandemic; Alfredo by Freddie Gibbs & The Alchemist is another flawless blast of perfection from Freddie, equalling even his incredible collaborations with Madlib; Innocent Country II by Quelle Chris & Chris Keys shows them becoming the up-and-coming alt-rap duo to watch, with incredible synchronicity between rapper and producer; the recent collab between Billy Woods and Moor Mother, Brass, is unfortunately not streaming, but is well worth the money; Armand Hammer’s Shrines, a less-recent collaboration between longtime duo Billy Woods and Elucid, solidifies both rappers as being at the center of some of the most creative and exciting shit in the rap underground; Denzel Curry and Kenny Beats both continued their hot streak with the absolutely stellar UNLOCKED; Rico Nasty’s Nightmare Vacation might have been the most punk rock album of 2020; Fat Tony & Taydex’s Wake Up combines the stream-of-consciousness grit and fury of Ghostface Killah’s best solo material with the silky vocals and sampledelica aesthetics of the early Soulquarians neo-soul artists; and X. Kubrick’s The Seven Levels of Happiness is an intriguing, fun-as-fuck exercise in reproducing 90s rap with painstaking verisimilitude (for those unaware, X. Kubrick is hardcore kid Xavier Wilson, who has played guitar in bands like Simulakra, Vicious Embrace, and Year of the Knife, has done a shitload of art and design within the scene— perhaps most notably the Serration/Dying Wish split— and did everything on his debut EP here completely solo, from rapping to producing to art).

I’d also be remiss not to mention some of the sick-ass pop artists I’ve really been digging this year, from newcomers like Food House to big names like 100 Gecs (for real, that “Hand Crushed by a Mallet” remix is still on weekly rotation for me) to Nnamdi, whose avant-garde approach to pop music reached a career-defining high this year, as well as great releases from the metal world by bands like Internal Rot (shit-kicking grindcore with a disgusting guitar tone) and Afterbirth (psychedelic slam)— tip of the hat to David Anthony on both of the latter.

But it was hardcore that captured my attention this year, and not for the reasons I initially thought.

I thought 2019 was a truly stunning year for hardcore, a leap forward in both the genre’s relevance and its sheer density of quality releases. For this reason, it’s been surprising to me to see how much of that momentum carried through into hardcore throughout 2020. Even with the obvious roadblock of not being able to play shows, so many of these releases managed to stick in my craw. I’ll be taking the longview on what records I’m considering to be within the world of hardcore (and, in a few cases, hardcore-adjacency) in this newsletter, simply because the wide variety of sounds all, in my opinion, can comfortably sit alongside each other at a show and that’s all that really matters. But although there was no shortage of completely furious records released this year, one thing I want to point out as I run through these releases is how many of these records seem to hinge on an unspoken-yet-visceral sense of hope in the face of trauma.

I’ve always felt like you have to be a specific type of angry person to be into hardcore; angry in a way that’s as hard to define as it is easy to identify. It’s not so specific as to be exclusive, but not so broad as to be inclusive— it’s the dividing line between punk and hardcore, maybe. But one thing that 2020 did was turn anger in general into a virus, worming its way through the country and the world until it suffocated all of us like so many kittens on a baby’s face. And the specific type of anger that informs hardcore in turn flourished, in tandem with its central tenets of tenacity and community and restlessness, against all odds.

You’d be forgiven if, as a casual observer, you didn’t notice much of hardcore at all this year. Recent big-name heavy-hitters like Vein and Code Orange released a thoughtful remix album and a restrained acoustic set, respectively— Vein as a snack between full-lengths, and Code Orange as a companion piece to their latest studio effort, Underneath, which saw them leave the sonics of hardcore further and further behind them in search of more melodic hard rock as heady as it is ignorant. Meanwhile, other hardcore/hardcore-adjacent musicians were focused on side projects— the Ceremony/Creative Adult/Sabertooth Zombie supergroup Spice released their debut LP this year, a sinewy, stressed-out blend of post-punk and shoegaze, while Title Fight’s Ned Russin recently released a very strong single for his 80s-new-wave-informed indie/power pop project Glitterer.

However, this perception belies a surprising wealth of activity. The metalcore revival scene, despite its reliance on the chaos and aggression of live shows, saw no shortage of releases— Chamber kicked out a member in advance of their proper debut LP, Cost of Sacrifice, an engaging combination of clean tech riffs and bilious fury, while Year of the Knife finally unveiled Internal Incarceration, a scathing, smart, and unremittingly heavy derivation of death metal and hardcore fusion that’s also surprisingly hooky. My babies Eighteen Visions released Inferno, an EP that shows them embracing both the blistering metalcore and yearningly catchy hard rock of their past into a surprisingly fresh package. Your Spirit Dies released The Process of Grief, the purest distillation yet of the band’s precision-strike combination of mid-2000s melodeath-inspired metalcore and 90s metallic hardcore bruising. Literally, while I was writing this, I was made aware of the Threat EP by Pittsburgh’s Blood Menace, the solo project by Jake Yencik from rising hardcore superstars Shin Guard, and it’s so heavy it made me feel like I was going to puke (which is a great thing). I’m pretty bummed that Fall from Grace Face First ended up being Binary’s swan song, but it’s fitting that they went out with the most tightly-focused and devastating material of their tragically short career.

The Zao-influenced cats in Thirty Nights of Violence experienced a songwriting breakthrough with You’ll See Me Up There, which is complemented well by the piercing assault of 156/Silence’s Irrational Pull. Behindcoloredglass’s Divine Visions of Remiel, Methwitch’s Indwell, buriedbutstillbreathing’s Exhumation, Serration’s Shrine of Consciousness, Cauldron’s Last Words: Screamed from Behind God’s Muzzle (which is borderline MySpace deathcore), Bloodbather’s Silence, and Rain of Salvation’s In Times of Desperation all also made strong showings in the metalcore realm, though in my opinion, the peak was indisputably Typecaste’s Between Life, a ferocious four-song assault that weaponizes that classic clicky-typewriter drum tone along with animalistic vocals and some of the gnarliest guitar and bass tones in the game to produce something truly impressive in an admittedly oversaturated field. It’s joined at the absolute top of the heap by the skull-cracking misanthropy and effluvia of Splinters from an Ever-Changing Face by END, the brainchild of Brendan Murphy of Counterparts and Fit for an Autopsy guitarist/producer extraordinaire Will Putney. (I’m not sure if Boundaries are canceled or not, but regardless, their new record was okay too.)

Speaking of oversaturation, the more straightforward, beatdown(ish) variant of hardcore also had a pretty good year— although it peaked early with Three Knee Deep’s full-length, which is danceable and hooky while also feeling like you’re being pummeled in the head repeatedly. That said, don’t discount other contenders; if you thought Pain of Truth’s No Blame…Just Facts and Seed of Pain’s Flesh, Steel, Victory were full of wonderfully dumb caveman riffs, Gridiron’s Loyalty at All Costs, Sector’s The Virus of Hate Infects the Ignorant Mind, SF METAL by Foghorn, and Out for Justice’s Northeazt Takeover are downright protozoan in their primitive ignorance. (To be clear, I think that rules.) If you didn’t hear the World of Pleasure EP, you missed out on some of the dirtiest-sounding and most savage heavy hardcore I’ve heard in years, all ass-beater riffs and emotionally ragged yet completely unfuckwithable vocals. And to be perfectly honest, no discussion of ignorant hardcore in 2020 is complete without a shout-out to the absolute kings of ridiculously stupid and stupidly incredible Your-A-Bitch-core, motherfucking SUNAMI.

I didn’t even hate all the nu-metalcore this year; the Orthodox LP was better than I expected, if a bit overlong, and the self-titled release from Victim of Your Dreams forecasts great things to come. But the real curveball was Omerta’s Hyperviolence, one of the weirdest things I’ve heard all year, a fiendish, fucked-up deconstruction of hardcore tropes through the lens of nu metal with a sinister and genuinely uncomfortable emotional edge to it.

And of course, if we’re speaking in terms of pure heavy shit, 2020 was particularly good to us: Xibalba’s Años en Infierno is yet another step in that band’s endless quest to somehow turn their music into a nuclear bomb, Fuming Mouth’s Beyond the Tomb is a stellar metalcore EP (and I know the people in that band wouldn’t take kindly to that label, but too fucking bad, I know what my ears hear), and Piles of Festering Decomposition, the debut EP by Ohio’s 200 Stab Wounds, is one of my favorite Maggot Stomp releases yet, a Pyrexia-esque combination of 90s-style NYDM riffs with just enough hardcore groove and intensity to make it extremely addictive.

Moving onto the world of slightly more underground hardcore, Initiate’s Lavender was a clever re-contextualization of late 90s California hardcore a la Carry On with just a touch of intricate melody. Buggin’s Buggin Out takes a deeply NYHC-indebted base and adds invigorating stomp riffs and infectious gang vocals that put it well into memorable territory. Soul Glo’s Songs to Yeet at the Sun has been written about to death at this point but it’s still worth noting just how fucking sick it is. Spy’s Service Weapon is one of the most violent, scuzzy, and misanthropic hardcore offerings I’ve heard in years, and it all goes by in less time than it takes to smoke a cigarette. En Love’s Love Will Drown the Nest is an atonal, dissonant, and wholly bracing take on hardcore-meets-post-hardcore that establishes the band as one to watch from Ohio (and to my ears they form a kind of less-outwardly-chaotic but no less abrasive counterpart to For Your Health, whose In Spite Of is already set to be one of my favorite LPs of 2021).

Gumm’s Piece It Together is a unique and engaging hardcore record hiding beneath the veneer of a 90s fuzz-rock guitar tone, while Gadget’s Spreading the Love shows that band’s straightforward, slightly metallic-tasting hardcore coming into its own (if you can get past the Fozzy Bear vocals). I’m a fan of neither chain punk nor egg punk, but even I have to admit that Bib’s Delux takes the egg punk style to new, catchy, thrashy heights while sacrificing none of their fundamentally nerdy energy, while Geld’s Beyond the Floor does the same for chain punk (with a dash of bracing psychedelia for good measure). Stepping Stone’s Escape from the Junkyard is one of the most engaging crossover thrash records I’ve heard in years, both feet planted firmly in the hardcore side of territory with the pugnacious vocals and groovy slowdowns, but with some tasteful solos and just enough choppa-choppa, along with a self-aware 80s aesthetic that somehow turns the whole affair into something that already feels nostalgic.

Choice to Make’s Vicious Existence expertly splits the difference between the youth crew and NYHC revival sounds without sounding like dated cosplay in the least, while End It’s One Way Track avoids what could be a cliche update of the No Warning/Backtrack school of hardcore with sheer conviction and charisma. Speaking of No Warning and Backtrack worship, Struck Nerve’s Rattle the Cage is one of the most gloriously pissed-off records of the entire damn year. And if you miss Title Fight and you’ve already played the shit out of bands like Anxious and One Step Closer, I cannot recommend Long Island’s Koyo more highly; their Painting Words Into Lines EP is basically a melodic hardcore clinic in the best way possible.

Regular readers of this newsletter are probably already well aware of powerviolence godheads Regional Justice Center, so reiterating how fucking great their releases this year were would be redundant, but that’s too bad, because both “KKK Tattoo” and the material they did Justice Tripp were fucking incredible. Also on the powerviolence front was Zulu’s My People… Hold On, the side project of DARE drummer Anaiah Lei, which converts trauma and exhaustion into pure emotional devastation and catharsis as well as furious sonic viscera— and the fact that it was all written and performed by one person (with a guest spot from Aaron of Jesus Piece and a co-writing credit from up-and-coming rapper/producer Tony Bontana) makes it one of the most purely impressive releases of the year. (I wonder if this turned any kids on to People… Hold On, a fucking incredible soul record from 1972 by Eddie Kendricks, formerly of the Temptations. Shouts out to my dad on that one.) The most underrated powerviolence record of the year, though, is probably Domestic Scene by Tourist, a band from Chula Vista that expertly channels the disturbing, fucked-up, marginal vibe of the original SoCal powerviolence bands from the 90s a la No Comment and Despise You.

And on the lower-key front, there were a ton of melodically-inclined EPs this year from bands that seemed to be channeling the off-kilter, unconventionally melodic strains of Revolution Summer harDCore. Militarie Gun’s My Life Is Over is one of the best and brightest of these, but Memory Screen’s To Nowhere feels like the long-lost dumpster baby of Lungfish (in a good way), while Forgotten Favorite’s self-titled debut EP sounds like Embrace if they’d overdosed on 90s Olympia twee (I also mean that in a good way).

In addition to a ton of new-school prospects, the older kids are getting in on the fun too. After the post-punk digression a few years ago, Trash Talk are back in fine form with the Kenny Beats-produced EP Squalor, which shows the band at their most vicious since Eyes & Nines. Speaking of “back in fine form,” Terminal Bliss is the newest project from members of pg99 and Mammoth Grinder, and it’s the most straightforward hardcore any of the members has produced yet, while simultaneously being more aggressive and sharpened than it has any right to be.

But the reinvigoration of hardcore elder statesmen doesn’t end there. This year I completely fell in love with Freedom Beach by Constant Elevation, the collaboration between legendary NYHC drummer Sammy Siegler and Movielife/I Am the Avalanche frontman Vinnie Caruana— it’s the best stuff either of them has done in probably 15 or so years, a totally speedy and rough-hewn ode to the old days of youth crew with a heavy dose of melody. I also completely adored the Every Scar Has A Story EP, the collaboration between Rob Fish of 108 and Tom Schlatter of You & I/The Assistant/Hundreds of AU/a million other amazing screamo bands, which is just as emotionally devastating, sonically fierce, and melodically on-point as you’d expect from those two names. Dropdead and Racetraitor both had extremely strong showings in 2020, the latter even doing a split with /leftypol/ provocateurs Neckbeard Deathcamp and emotive grind (? they’re completely unclassifiable but totally fucking amazing) act Closet Witch. Unreal City, a monstrous riff machine composed of members of heavyweight championship bands like Eternal Sleep and Integrity, upped their game again with Cruelty of Heaven, which makes the 13-year gap they took between records sound like less than a day.

Tim Singer of Deadguy/Kiss It Goodbye fame roared back into action with the debut EP from Bitter Branches, This May Hurt A Bit, which is an absolutely punishing combination of Singer’s trademark terrifying-emotional-battery-ram vocals, incredibly lithe and dark bass-driven progressive song structures, and guitar work that completely forgoes riffs for an overwhelming and earth-shaking yet completely fluid textured approach; Singer also reunited his old band No Escape for a fine new track that stays completely true to that band’s haggard, traditional-hardcore-with-a-touch-of-artsy-dissonance approach. It was also a big year for Scott Vogel of Terror; not only did his primary band drop a solid surprise release, but he revived both 90s metalcore bruisers Buried Alive and melodic hardcore supergroup (also featuring members of Strife, Berthold City, Gorilla Biscuits, CIV, Judge, Rival Schools, Fadeaway, and one of Vogel’s very first bands, Despair) World Be Free, who dropped some of the strongest material of both bands’ careers yet with Death Will Find You (a mixture of new songs and re-recorded old ones) and One Time for Unity, respectively.

And of course, we have to talk about The Weight and the Cost, the debut LP of Be Well, which features Battery vocalist/super-producer Brian McTernan in an emotionally-charged return to form that trades in some of the most revealing and vulnerable lyrics I’ve ever heard on a hardcore record as youth-crew-oriented as this one. The band’s pedigree is insane— members have played in Ashes, Bane, Converge, Darkest Hour, Fairweather, and more— but this project is singular and incredible for what it is.

The latest (I think fourth?) wave of melodic youth crew revival was at its absolute strongest this year, with genuinely stellar records like Change’s Closer Still and Mil-Spec’s World House proving that even a genre as well-trodden as youth crew still has artistic vitality and innovative juice left inside of it. Even Ecostrike, who have previously (and wrongly) been dismissed as Earth Crisis copycats, leaned into the sound for this year’s A Truth We Still Believe, and it’s their best yet— completely energized and fat-free.

Even more interesting were the bands who sound like the post-hardcore cousins to the youth crew revival— Tuning’s Defining the Purpose is a delightfully offbeat yet still endearingly catchy and melodic piece that genuinely excited me (and you know how jaded I am), while Winds of Promise and Truth Cult unleashed Cut. Heal. Scar. and Off Fire respectively, both of which are completely twisted and off their rocker in their own special ways while remaining hooky and undeniably compelling the whole way through; Winds of Promise have a bit of a spoken-word/Single Mothers kind of snotty delivery thing going on, while Truth Cult just sound completely fucking unhinged. There was also the invigorating traditionalism of Crow by Old Ghosts, which just reminds me why hardcore can be some of the best music in the world even when it’s staying strictly formula.

Post-hardcore itself experienced an absolutely fantastic year. Newcomers like Somerset Thrower and Entropy both traded in a warm, polished, and extremely enjoyable throwback to the 90s school of post-hardcore (with influences ranging from the power pop of Sugar to the locked-groove borderline-grunge of Handsome), while Moonkisser’s Summer’s Fleeting Majesty channels Jupiter-era Cave-In to produce some truly powerful and affecting guitar rock and GILT’s Ignore What’s Missing is some of the most painstakingly well-structured and heartrendingly performed stuff in the post-hardcore vein since Brand New’s The Devil & God Are Raging Inside Me (only not canceled). Meanwhile, space-rock-cadets Hum unleashed Inlet, which deserves to stand among their best work while sounding as ahead-of-their-time now as they did back in the 90s before everyone started jacking their steez, and Ian MacKaye, Joe Lally, and Amy Farina regrouped for the self-titled debut album from Coriky, which sounds like if Fugazi kicked out Guy Picciotto but never broke up after The Argument.

As much as it warms my heart to see oldsters like MacKaye still having fun, I still think that perhaps the definitive post-hardcore record of the year was Record Setter’s I Owe You Nothing. Even though I’ve been following my homies in that band for a while, I was still absolutely gobsmacked by the stratospheric leap in quality this already-great band experienced with this record— some of the most well-composed, visceral, anthemic, and achingly intimate, vulnerable, and personal songs of the year are to be found on this release, which is best experienced as a complete entity. Don’t even look at the tracklist— it’s an enveloping experience all to itself.

If post-hardcore has its own cousin, it’s screamo, and that genre in and of itself experienced an absolutely banner fucking year in 2020. The year was uniquely bookended by Envy’s The Fallen Crimson in February and Respire’s Black Line in December, both of which are records that sought to expand the boundaries of an already boundary-pushing genre with unconventional instrumentation, increasingly complex song structures, and most daring of all, genuinely hopeful and beautiful melodies that balance against the desperately shrieking heart of the subgenre in order to give its listeners something to hold onto in a year that felt especially hopeless. Spattered throughout the middle were masterpieces like Svalbard’s blackgaze-inflected When I Die, Will I Get Better? and two gargantuan releases from Richmond’s Infant Island, Sepulcher and Beneath, both of which cement that band as one of the most forward-thinking and exciting bands in the entire genre.

Other screamo highlights of this year included Madrid’s Boneflower, who combine influences both from “true” screamo and the 2000s variety of pop-screamo a la Thursday and Glassjaw to effervescent effect on Armour, and Baltimore’s No Note, who add a dash of sassy flavor to their bleak and hopeless concoctions on If This Is the Future Then I’m In the Dark. Annakarina recently unleashed Always Moving Forward, a riveting blend of deeply personal songwriting and bracing art-punk. Mouthing’s self-titled debut was one of the most uncomfortable, chaotic, and unnerving releases of the year, even in a genre as discomfiting as screamo, while Dianacrawls advance their blend of addictively experimental “funkviolence” weirdness with A Glitter Manifesto, and Houston’s own It Only Ends Once contributed their characteristically heartbreaking brand of blackened screamo on standout Lost In My Own Hollow (which opens with a track that’s literally 20 minutes long and flies by in goddamn moments).

Screamo also has its own elder statesmen who put out ridiculously good material this year, from parted/departed/apart by Frail Hands and Survival/Sickness by Crowning to Shawn Decker’s always-reliable powerhouse Coma Regalia, whose Marked ups the already-impressive ante of their previous records. Nuvolascura’s As We Suffer from Memory and Imagination is a polished-yet-impossibly-savage-and-inchoate improvement of the formula they established with their last LP, while the members of Majority Rule reconvened for a punishing piece of progressive hardcore with NØ MAN’s Erase. But one of the most exciting pieces of old-guard screamo comes from Stormlight, which sees members of Loma Prieta and Lord Snow putting together the most intricate blends of cutting coarseness and breathtaking melody I’ve heard a screamo band pull off in a long time.

Pivoting back to more straightforward hardcore, the new school of bands just continues to impress me. Life Force and Vanguard are two Texan vegan straight-edge bands who were both signed to New Age this year and blew me away with their respective debut records, Hope and Defiance and Rage and Deliverance, with both their unabashed heaviness and their undeniable commitment to their ideals. I also always want to give love to great bands coming from my hometown of Las Vegas, and The End of Everything’s debut EP Things Are About to Change is an emotionally and sonically brutal piece of music that draws from the same poetic well as American Nightmare and the same musical well as heavy East Coast bands like Turmoil and Snapcase. UK’s Big Cheese released their debut record Punishment Park, which is some of the most tightly-written and well-executed heavy hardcore I’ve ever heard from that side of the pond (as regular readers of the newsletter know, I’m infamously racist against the Brits); the Great British Empire also produced the solid, gritty metalcore of Climate of Fear’s Stained with a Dismal Beauty. Another UK band I was extremely impressed by was Higher Power, whose latest, 27 Miles Underwater, alternately summons the spirits of Glassjaw, Alice In Chains, Helmet, and Into Another into an intoxicatingly catchy and hard-hitting stew of bouncy fun.

Other records by up-and-coming hardcore acts I was particularly impressed by: Power Alone’s Rather Be Alone, which sounds like smacking face-first into a brick wall and loving every minute of it (with the blissfully short melodic hardcore standout “All We’ve Got” sweetening the pot just enough to make it through); Drowse’s Dance In the Decay, which takes everything I loved about Mysterious Guy Hardcore and strips away the corniness for an exhilarating, under-twenty-minute run of bracing, unremittingly fast hardcore; Tilted’s Corner of an Empty Room, which sounds like Hot Water Music by way of early Title Fight with gloriously lo-fi, gruff production and an incredible sense for dynamics; Blind Idol’s Town & City, which is the most bullshit-free hardcore record of the entire year; Excide’s Two of a Kind and “Actualize/Radiation Reel,” both of which sound like ass-kicking hardcore discovering 90s alt rock in the most exciting way; and FAIM’s Hollow Hope, which brought me back, sense-memory style, to the late 2000s when I was first discovering bands like Punch and knew instantaneously that hardcore was going to be a part of me for the rest of my life.

This isn’t even mentioning some of the second-tier releases that I was fairly pleased by but didn’t outright adore or return to much— Mindforce’s latest EP is good even if it fails to live up to the insane expectations set by Excalibur, Gag turned in another solid performance on Still Laughing, Slap’s self-titled EP is straightforward Floridian metallic hardcore goodness, Heavy Discipline’s self-titled is a stripped-down straight-up shot of old-school-styled hardcore punk, Richmond’s Nosebleed have one track out but it rules, Vile Spirit’s blackened hardcore shines through on Scorched Earth, the new songs on the Mortality Rate reissue are great, the neanderthal crossover thrash of Pummel’s Our Power is appealingly over-the-top, Highway Sniper’s Greatest Hits is a fun piece of antisocial fuck-you-core from Skylar Sarkis of Taking Meds and Eric Egan of Heart Attack Man— though I hope to look back on them fondly throughout the next year. Spine’s L.O.V. EP comes out today and from the available tracks it already seems like a fucking ripper. And of course, if you’re really into the DEMO-CORE scene, here’s some of my favorites from that world:

GLEAN- Demo 2020: Jangly, fuzzy, deeply emotive and propulsive guitar rock that reminds me of both power pop and hardcore at the same time. RIYL Pretty Matty as much as I do.

Bent Blue- Between Your and You’re: Absolutely phenomenal San Diego band that sounds like if, say, Rule Them All got really into Revolution Summer. RIYL Gray Matter, One Last Wish, One Step Closer, Restraining Order, Lifetime.

G.I. Bill- Demo 2020: If you still have Title Fight’s Floral Green on repeat, you’ll probably fall in love with this.

Fleshwater- demo2020: I know a member, or maybe multiple members, of Vein are in this band, but I don’t know who. It’s driving 90s-style alt rock with just the perfect amount of metallic edge. RIYL: mid-era Deftones, the better/heavier Smashing Pumpkins songs, trying to remember your dreams.

Pillars of Ivory- Genesis Demo Twenty Twenty: If you only listen to one of these demos, please make sure it’s this one. I love it so much and I don’t even really know how to describe it? The songs aren’t separated, so it flows like a 13-minute mini-mixtape, and it touches on pretty much every aesthetic I dig. RIYL: DJ Screw, Subzero, Mindforce, The Stretch Armstrong & Bobbito Show, Ego Trip magazine

And, if you’ve somehow managed to make it this far, I want to congratulate you. You’re clearly a sibling-in-arms, and I hope that you A) found your band name-dropped, B) are impressed at how few releases I missed (although I’m positive I missed a shit-ton), or C) discovered something new that you really loved. But there’s still a few more records I want to talk about before I let you go.

I love Every Time I Die. If you put a gun to my head and asked me to name my 5 favorite hardcore lyricists, Keith Buckley would certainly be in there, and I think they’re a remarkably consistent band— the singles they dropped recently are some of their best work yet. They are indisputably the pride of upstate New York hardcore, maybe second only to luminaries like Earth Crisis and Snapcase. But as much as I love them, and hardcore from all over the country— and, indeed, the world— hardcore in 2020, and, in a way, 2020 for me in general, belonged to the Best Coast, the West Coast.

DRAIN and Gulch are Northern California bands who share members, but could not have more drastically different approaches to music. DRAIN’s absolute ripper of an LP, California Cursed, synthesizes every strain of West Coast crossover thrash into a succinct beast of an album— from Suicidal Tendencies to Cryptic Slaughter, you can see an entire lineage in them, and yet they sound explicitly modern and free of any elements of cosplay or Nostalgia Poison. Meanwhile, Gulch’s Impenetrable Cerebral Fortress takes aspects of Japanese hardcore, noise, first-wave black metal, and gutturally primitive death metal riffs and mixes them together into one of the most violent musical soupcons of the year, if not the most violent; they managed to make the already bitterly caustic sound they fermented on their demo sound soft in comparison, and yet when the LP culminates with a completely earnest yet completely iconoclastic take on Siouxsie & the Banshees’ goth classic “Sin In My Heart,” you take it completely seriously. Both records are more than worthy of the cavalcades of acclaim they’ve received this year.

Then, from Southern California, you have Rotting Out, who have in previous years genuinely sounded like the lost, hardcore-oriented follow-ups to the first Suicidal Tendencies LP. They’ve always been a great band, but never quite exceptional. That changed with this year’s Ronin, an LP that comes in the aftermath of frontman Wally Delgado’s eighteen-month prison bid. It’s not that their sound has changed all that much— the basic songwriting conceits are still the same, although the band is, on a technical level, at the absolute peak of their powers, and the production is absolutely flawless, which helps a lot— but Ronin shows Rotting Out, and Wally in particular, at their absolute most vulnerable. An album-length examination of institutional oppression, childhood trauma, and unflinching self-reflection, Ronin deserves to go down as Rotting Out’s masterpiece.

And now we come to the end of this monstrously-long missive. If you know me at all, then you know that I am an enormous fan of Touché Amoré— I’ve seen them live more than any other band, and I’ve followed their career feverishly for a bit over a decade now; from the screamo-oriented excoriation of To the Beat of a Dead Horse to the self-examinations of creative pressure and social anxiety on Parting the Sea Between Brightness & Me and Is Survived By to the tragic and revelatory beauty of Stage Four, I’ve felt like the band has grown up with me and mentored me all at once, and there’s nary a song less than incredible in their entire discography. Lament is no exception; I thought the band’s sonic evolution had reached its apex on Stage Four, but Lament finds ways to throw curveballs at the audience without ever completely departing from their bread and butter of melodic hardcore. There’s the discordant pop-punk-gone-wrong-gone-right of “Reminders,” there’s Andy Hull lending his malleable pipes to “Limelight” (in the process making me forget that I actually loathe Manchester Orchestra), and there’s the emotional climax of the album, “A Forecast?” At first almost sounding like an update to the band’s previous piano-driven mini-epic “Condolences,” “A Forecast?” is absolutely heartbreaking, and I try not to use cliche adjectives like that often. Jeremy Bolm’s lyrics are as acerbic, witty, and self-aware as ever, and in the process he manages to sketch a tragicomic portrait of himself laid bare for the listener, analyzing his emotional response to the emotional response of his fans while also processing the aftermath of the grief that Stage Four spent its runtime analyzing, and still finding time for lovably pithy toss-offs like “I’ve lost more family members/Not to cancer, but the G.O.P.” which are as cuttingly specific and intimate as they are relatable. Lament is the best album of 2020, and thank the hardcore deities that Touché Amoré were around to write it.

-xoxo, Ellie

UPDATE: Today I also listened to Scalp’s Domestic Extremity and You Lose’s Mental Warfare. Shit is fuckin nutso.

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my favorite music of the year... in 2010

December is going to be a weird on-off month for this newsletter if you can’t already tell. It’s not that I want to write less, it’s that I’m finally doubling down on pitching to outside sources in an attempt to get that bread and it’s taking some time/attention away from this newsletter. But I promise I’m not forgetting about you guys. It’s also worth mentioning that it’s now been a full year since I announced this project, and although I’m still a relatively small project, it means the world to see that I’ve grown literally 600% in Patreon subscribers and like 3000% in newsletter subscribers. I can’t express enough how much that humbles me and makes me feel so much less like I’m shrieking into the void. (For the record, feel free to subscribe to my Patreon for monthly exclusive posts, and to have access to a bonus tier for suggesting what you want to see me write about!)

I’ve always been fucking horrible at writing year-end lists. For one thing I always feel like no matter how honorable mention slots I introduce, I always forget something, and in ranking my top 10 I always feel like I’ve unforgivably left something else off. It’s ridiculously frustrating. I will be crunching the numbers and coming up with a list for the E Word year-end episode, as always, but for this edition of the newsletter I wanted to do something different and indulge in some more nostalgia (what else is winter for?).

I’m only 24, but it feels like I have been listening to underground/hardcore/adjacent music for millennia. In actuality, it’s only been about 15 years, and I’ve only been going to shows for 12 or so years, but in a lot of ways, I see 2010 as the year that I truly got into the scene, as it were. That was the year when my tumblr (which has been scrubbed completely from the Internet) usage really popped off, as well as when I began to reach a peak level of investment in my local hardcore scene and started making the friends who would stick with me my whole life (shout-out to Spencer and Garrett, as always).

So I thought it would be a fun little idea if I looked back at the records that I thought were the absolute shit in 2010 and see how my opinion of them stacks up now. You ready? Me too. Let’s do it.

CEREMONY- ROHNERT PARK

Was it at all going to be a surprise to see the album almost-universally regarded to be Ceremony’s best here? Ceremony, along with a few other California bands like Loma Prieta and Punch, were instrumental in getting me into what was then contemporary hardcore in the late 2000s. For whatever reason, the West Coast scene at that time was producing some of the gnarliest and most pissed-off sounding hardcore in the world. Ceremony, from the moment they released their Ruined EP, were poised at the top of that heap— combining the furious, unpredictable rhythms of powerviolence with a somewhat screamo-influenced desperation in Ross Farrar’s vocals, it seemed like nothing, not even Farrar’s sometimes-mildly-corny wiry-kid-with-glasses-writing-in-a-composition-book approach to lyricism, could stop them, and both 2006’s Violence Violence and 2008’s Still Nothing Moves You felt like visceral sonic assaults in the best possible way. So when they dropped Rohnert Park in 2010, I took one look at the cover— a lonely skater carving down a quiet, suburban street— and grew excited at the thought of the most anguished material from the band yet.

And it was their most emotionally-raw material captured on tape to that point, but I was surprised to hear the record open with something more akin to an interlude written by East Bay Ray of the Dead Kennedys. Ceremony taking their feet off the gas and incorporating more influences from bare-bones 80s hardcore and nervy post-punk was a shock at the time, but seeing where they’ve taken that sound in the decade since, it’s even more impressive that Rohnert Park managed to maintain so much of the band’s initial exuberance and rage. The agonizingly drawn-out build-up that kicks off “Sick” has grown to be one of the most iconic in the history of hardcore, not least because the whiplash-inducing jolt when the song kicks into gear is accompanied by some of the most misanthropic lyrics in the already-misanthropic band’s milieu. There is some irony in Farrar’s cat-like yowling of “Sick of Black Flag, sick of Cro-Mags” when so much of the record is couched in Black Flag-isms— the bassline of “Moving Principle” sounds particularly indebted to, say, “Six Pack” or “Nervous Breakdown”— but in 2010, their anachronistic 80s-isms were somewhat iconoclastic when so much of their brethren seemed to be rehashing the 90s.

Rohnert Park also avoids the cosplay tendencies of even other hardcore bands who were more openly indebted to the throwback 80s sound— say, Government Warning or Double Negative— because of how intimate, personal, and weird their approach to songwriting was. Songs like “Open Head” and “Back in ‘84” bring in more mid-tempo grooves that allow the grit and grue to worm its way into the listener’s skull, and attain anthemic status because of it. There’s also hints of more progressive, experimental tendencies, like the droning and delightfully cumbersome “The Doldrums (Friendly City)”, but the real masterstroke is the record’s centerpiece, “Into the Wayside, Pt. II.” Beginning as an eerie acoustic interlude, with lo-fi samples of people talking about witnessing death laid just beneath the middle of the mix, the discomfiting atmosphere crescendoes as Ceremony leans into a display of guitar pyrotechnics that would seem perfectly at home in the back end of a late-80s Dinosaur Jr record. It’s a complete departure in a record full of complete departures, and they’ve only kept subtly defying expectations since.

THE WONDER YEARS- THE UPSIDES

Everything I would say about this record, I said here. If you, like me, enjoy a few doses of pop-punk in between your hardcore wallowing, you’ve probably already read that piece.

MAN OVERBOARD- REAL TALK

Speaking of enjoying a few doses of pop-punk in between your hardcore, this rivaled even Rohnert Park in sheer amount of spins in 2010. What can I say? I was 14 and I saw no shame in being equally obsessed with gritty hardcore and hyper-polished pop-punk. I still see no shame in it, for the record.

Man Overboard went through such a heavy period of over-saturation, especially in the wake of the success of their iconic Defend Pop-Punk merch, that they swiftly became one of the most-hated bands in the scene. Part of this has to do with the fact that much of the work they produced throughout the early-mid-2010s was hot garbage (seriously, Heavy Love might be the most boring album I have ever heard in my life), but in the late 2000s, Man Overboard was on a relentless hot streak of sappy, sickly sweet pop-punk that bypassed my corny-bullshit detectors and dug itself rather happily into my bloodstream. You can find most, if not all, of their best material from this era on the compilation records Before We Met and The Human Highlight Reel— including “Decemberism,” which is one of my favorite noxious-bullshit Christmastime ballads, right up there with Fall Out Boy’s “Yule Shoot Your Eye Out”— but in my humble opinion, the band reached the apex of this sound on Real Talk.

The album opens with the title track, which is maybe the “heaviest” that Man Overboard ever got— there is a noticeable indulgence in AutoTune throughout the entirety of this record, but “Real Talk” features some genuine scratchy strain in the vocals that I still find cute and endearing even though it’s clear the band is trying to “rawk.”

I don’t have any sophisticated critique or lavish praise to pair with this album’s appearance here. It is dumb, straightforward, propulsive pop-punk with nasally vocals and some of the most dogshit lyrics (“Fantasy Girl” is about porn, right? Not to mention “looking hot in your bed smoking pot”). But it fucking bumps, front to back. “Montrose” turns cascading, borderline-tremolo guitar work into a relatively restrained and sweet song, while “Al Sharpton” is a speedy bop. “World Favorite” and “Darkness, Everybody” and “FM Dial Style” dig their hooks into your skull with no remorse. These songs are embarrassing in so many ways, and the lack of effort in the lyricism is palpable, but the pop songcraft is so meticulous and the performances so driven and compelling that it’s an undeniable little piece of pabulum. Does it have the substance of, say, Transit’s release from the same year, Keep This To Yourself? Hell no. But it’s fun and catchy and I revisit it more often than anyone would care to admit.

NAILS- UNSILENT DEATH

It’s hard to imagine, in a post-Abandon All Life and You Will Never Be One of Us world, that this, the first Nails “full-length,” felt like the epitome of heaviness. But increasingly polished songwriting and dry, tight, more overtly “metal” production aside, Unsilent Death is still, in my opinion, the most unbearably heavy and grungy record in Nails’s formidable (and far-too-short) catalog. If this year truly is the end of the road for Todd Jones’s paean to sonic nihilism, then Unsilent Death deserves to be their legacy.

In the early 2010s, there was an epidemic of what many referred to as Entombedcore— bands like Trap Them and All Pigs Must Die who reveled in the gnarly HM2 amp sound of the 90s Scandinavian death metal scene— but none were as concise and ruthlessly calculating in their approach to punishing riffs than Nails. Vocalist/guitarist Todd Jones was, at that point, best known for his more conventional hardcore work in Terror as well as the more melodic leanings of youth crew revival bands like Carry On and Betrayed, threw away any sympathies for conventional or accessible songwriting conventions and focused on producing only the scuzziest, most vile riffs that he could dredge from the depths of his soul. “Scum Will Rise” is the obvious “hit”— lord knows how Jones managed to make riffs this ugly also this catchy— but the record is so short and sweet that any attempt to pick it apart on a track-by-track basis will fall apart, at least until you get to the relatively gargantuan (three whole minutes!) and corrosive closer, “Depths.” In my opinion, the best disgustingly-slow-and-oppressive Nails closer is still Obscene Humanity’s “Lies,” but “Depths” comes damn close and helps to define the identity of the most scorching and promising debut LP of the 2010 class of hardcore freshmen, and helped tide me over until Weekend Nachos and Harms Way released Worthless and Isolation respectively the following year and raised the bar on heaviness in hardcore yet again.

KANYE WEST- MY BEAUTIFUL DARK TWISTED FANTASY

For me, hip-hop in 2010 was about mixtapes, and I’m still not sure if they qualify for year-end album lists. For the sake of cohesion, I’ve decided not to include them, but rest assured that Wiz Khalifa’s Kush & Orange Juice and J. Cole’s Friday Night Lights are still the best— and in Cole’s case, only good— things that those artists ever did, and that Earl topped even Tyler the Creator’s Bastard as far as defining the deeply transgressive and oddly-addictive sound of the blossoming Odd Future collective, and that Kendrick’s Overly Dedicated was tightly-focused foreshadowing of the dizzying heights he would achieve with his first three studio efforts.

But as far as proper albums go, at the time I felt like 2010 was a weird year for cohesive hip-hop projects. Danny Brown’s The Hybrid was an odd misstep that showed Danny sacrificing his idiosyncratic lyrical obsessions and aggressively unorthodox flow before he reclaimed and refined his identity with XXX, Old, and Atrocity Exhibition. Rick Waka Flocka Flame’s Flockaveli was a massive achievement in production, and chock full of bangers that, if I hadn’t been straight-edge at the time, I probably would have gotten real fucked-up to at parties (that I wasn’t invited to). The Roots released How I Got Over, a late-career masterpiece, but one that only showed how much they had transcended the concept of genre, and one that I didn’t properly appreciate until a few years later. In my eyes, Ghostface Killah can do no wrong, but even though I loved Apollo Kids, it felt like just another entry in his solid-but-not-revolutionary middle era. With all of this in mind, including the successes of the mixtape era, it was hard not to feel like mainstream hip-hop was in a bit of a holding pattern between the explosively fun party-rap of the late 2000s and its period of commercial and creative domination throughout the last decade, and it was equally hard not to feel that underground hip-hop was struggling to find a new identity in the wake of the death of Eyedea and the advent of new modes of music distribution changing the entire mode of marketing and networking in the underground.

So leave it to Kanye West to show everyone the way. In the year of Pink Friday and Teflon Don, both fine albums in their own right, he coaxed the best performances out of Rick Ross and Nicki Minaj ever in their careers (and Nicki’s verse in “Monster” is, in my opinion, the best moment on this entire goddamn album). The recent anniversary of this record ignited a metric fuckton of thinkpieces and retrospectives to the point where anything I could offer is redundant, but I think it says something on its own that My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy still holds so much currency among so many different types of music fans— casual listeners, real heads, fans of experimental music, poptimist critic dorks— and in a lot of ways it’s the true opening salvo of hip-hop in the 2010s. I may not have anything new to say about this album, or even Kanye himself (check my essay on The College Dropout for what I do have to say about him), but I’m comfortable echoing the takes of almost all of my peers when I say that it’s Kanye’s truest realization of his musical ambitions.

DANGERS- MESSY, ISN’T IT?

As I’ve discussed, 2010 was a massive year for West Coast hardcore. I debated with myself as to which albums from this scene to include on this list, and while I had to ax a few— among them, Trash Talk’s Eyes & Nines, an odd middle point between the vicious, bloodied battle cries of their early work and their spotlighting of the connection between hardcore and hip-hop and more polished experimentation with off-kilter sludginess on 119— there was no question in my mind that Messy, Isn’t It?, the sophomore LP by the fitfully-active Los Angeles crew Dangers, was going to find its way to this list.

A near-miss for album of the year in 2009— being released at the very top of January 2010— Messy, Isn’t It? expands on the fits of angst and venom that made their debut, Anger, one of the most cathartic and memorable hardcore records of the 2000s. On Anger, Dangers’s cleverly deconstructionist hardcore song structures functioned almost like a critique of the genre from within, but on Messy, they held a lighter to the already-mangled traditional conventions of hardcore songwriting techniques in their own music, resulting in a record that’s as post-hardcore as it is hardcore proper.

I’ve long championed Al Brown as my favorite lyricist in hardcore, and although his unique combination of charming wittiness, disarmingly personal exhortations, and forthright confrontation had informed many of the best cuts on Anger (“Half-Brother, All-Cop,” “My Wonder Years Never Got Canceled/Break Beat,” “War? What War?”, “(D)anger(s)/We Have More Sense Than Lies”) it was occasionally bogged down by an impish desire to offend and a self-conscious rebellion against hardcore orthodoxy. On Messy, Brown refined his lyrical approach into an effervescent blend of the caustic and the comforting that spoke truth to power as much as it excoriated the worst impulses of Brown himself and those around him.

This combination of musical and lyrical inventiveness has made Messy into not just one of my favorite records of 2010, but one of my favorite hardcore records of all time. From the opening rhetorical hack-and-slash of “Why didn’t you kill yourself today?” in the absolute barnburner that is “Stay-At-Home Mom” to the dissection of humanity’s supreme arrogance in “Opposable” to the tragicomic sermon of “The El Segundo Blue Butterfly Habitat Reserve,” Messy, Isn’t It? is a sociopolitical screed that satirizes American culture as it failed to learn any lessons from the embers of the disastrous Bush administration and turned a blind eye to atrocities of the Obama administration. Every track is catchy, every track is pointed, and the frenetic fury of Brown’s desperate and broken, yet still cocky as all shit high-pitched yawp of a voice and the by-turns deeply-melodic and crushingly off-kilter performances of the band— special mention to the Cirque du Soleil-level acrobatics of the bass work— make the whole endeavor feel as vital and necessary in 2020 as it did in 2010.

SNOWING- I COULD DO WHATEVER I WANTED, IF I WANTED

What more can I say about this album that wasn’t covered in the big Snowing reunion episode of the E Word? I still feel immensely honored that frontman John Galm felt like he could let his guard down enough with Kyle and I to be as forthright and honest as he was with us about the deeply personal lyrical content of this record— I did not realize at all how close this album is to being like a diary. My appreciation to all the band members, and to Keith Latinen for putting us in touch with them, is bottomless.

2010 was a pivotal transition year for the emo revival, as it picked up steam from being a favorite in the sphere of tiny blogs and tumblrs— the places where I initially picked up on Snowing’s Fuck Your Emotional Bullshit and Algernon Cadwallader’s Some Kind of Cadwallader— and into the slowly-snowballing phenomenon that seemingly touched every branch of DIY music as it coalesced into the explosion that was 2013 and 2014. To summarize, in 2010, modern emo still felt like a secret, and none of us had any idea that it was a secret that was on everyone’s lips. (That tight-knit quality is why, for the record, Just Got Back from the Discomfort by the Brave Little Abacus isn’t on this list— I didn’t discover it until, I think, the following year, while I vividly remember stumbling on a mediafire link to this Snowing album sometime in late December and obsessively listening to it every day leading up to the new year.)

I Could Do Whatever I Wanted revels in that intimacy. While there were other truly fantastic albums in the twinkly Cap’n Jazz tradition in 2010— like More Songs by Grown-Ups or Nothing Was Missing Except Me by Hightide Hotel— Snowing’s sole LP pushes past them in that it is defined by its complete vulnerability, an unguarded intimacy that put other emo acts to shame. I Could Do Whatever I Wanted is not a Shakespearean tragedy— it is a Seinfeldian tragedy, in that the mundane absurdities of everyday life are magnified and scrutinized with a biting wit that railroads any worries that the record may sink too deeply into self-pity.

It helps that the band’s influences are as eclectic as their performance is joyously unpolished. I maintain that there is a smidge of Hot Water Music in their churning, overwhelming approach to songs like “Damp Feathers,” but the whole record is bathed in the sloppy/intricate twinkly guitar dynamic of bands like Make Me, and Galm’s nigh-inaccessibly-scraggly vocals fit as neatly into the pop-punk-isms of “You Bring Something… No” as they do into the woozy, unconventionally angular “So I Shotgunned a Beer and Went to Bed.” If Snowing was going to implode almost as soon as this record was finished, then it’s fitting that the malcontent chaos, melancholy humor, and irrepressible dissatisfaction of I Could Do Whatever I Wanted, If I Wanted functioned as the snapshot of both their dissolution and apotheosis.

V/A— AMERICA’S HARDCORE

I must have spun this record something like a million times when it came out. One of the earliest Triple B releases— their 19th in the catalog, years before they became known as the hardcore record that everyone is on— America’s Hardcore is the most succinct snapshot of hardcore in 2010, from bands both upcoming and established, that anyone could have put together. There’s diametrically-opposed interpretations of crossover thrash— compare Rotting Out’s distillation of what made the first Suicidal Tendencies LP so perfect to the incandescent, overwhelming power and confidence of Power Trip’s “Hammer of Doubt,” this version of which is still, in my opinion, the best Power Trip song. There’s Pat Flynn briefly departing from his position as straight-edge’s most prominent poet laureate to moonlight as a maniacal powerviolence miscreant with Wolf Whistle’s “Ma Glory.” You have Foundation’s earth-flattening, catatonia-inducing streamroller of ungodly heaviness, “Devotion,” paired together with the brisk, hardened, subversively clever NYHC traditionalism of Backtrack’s “Soul Sucker.” You have solid blasts of affirmation from established bands like Bitter End and Fire & Ice. You have the perfect snapshot of Cruel Hand only a scant four years before they decided to try and become Metallica. You have the perfect snapshot of Rival Mob only a scant three years before they became every hypebeast’s default namedrop. And the whole record closes with the most underrated Title Fight song, “Dreamcatchers,” the secret bridge between the blink-182-by-way-of-Lifetime worship of their early work and the Quicksand-by-way-of-Gorilla-Biscuits of Shed. For all intents and purposes, America’s Hardcore almost singlehandedly provided a road map for the next five years of hardcore, and is probably a million times more influential than it’s ever been given credit for.

CONCLUSIONS

First of all, don’t get mad at me for not doing a top 10 list— how can you fuck with a good ol’ Top Eight? Secondly, all this list proved to me was that I probably had better taste in music a decade ago.

-xoxo, Ellie

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