In 2004, the world was in turmoil. And America was at the root of it. The administration of President George W. Bush had misdirected the nation into a war with Iraq, waving erroneous reports of “weapons of mass destruction” as “evidence” that Saddam Hussein spearheaded the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks on The Pentagon and the World Trade Center. He rode the corrupted wave of patriotism into a second White House term in the fall.
Many scratched their heads at this development. Dissent had been building across the war. The punk scene, as is its wont, responded in kind. NOFX’s Fat Mike, displaying a long-hidden social conscience, organized a drive called Punk Voter along Rock Against Racism lines — festival-style concert tours with voter registration booths in the lobby, as well as compilation albums and a website working toward the goal of removing Bush from the Oval Office. A number of the year’s best LPs also dealt with the war, including the biggest album of the year. Check them out below.
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Green Day – American Idiot
What began as an album called Cigarettes And Valentines was scrapped when the master tapes were stolen. The band retooled it as the socio-politically charged American Idiot, Green Day’s second biggest-selling album and the record that pulled them back from the brink. The more subdued Warning was considered a commercial disappointment — odd, for an LP that sold 3.5 million worldwide. The response was crafting a “punk-rock opera” a la the Who’s Quadrophenia, a response to 9/11, the Iraq war and George W. Bush’s presidency. Musically, it was both their most ambitious, theatrical yet and a return to gut-busting punk rock. It was also their gutsiest album, one that owned 2004 and endures as a modern classic.
My Chemical Romance – Three Cheers for Sweet Revenge
Behold the other record that made a mark on 2004 and owned what turf American Idiot hadn’t already claimed. My Chemical Romance’s second studio full-length featured significantly more polished production from Howard Benson and MCR’s strongest songwriting to date. What mainspring Gerard Way termed in these very pages a “pseudo-conceptual horror story” synthesized pop punk, emo/screamo and metal in a theatrical manner. But really, the best concise summation of MCR? Imagine if every song Queen wrote was “Sheer Heart Attack,” Not that those millions of black-clothed teens singing along with the enormous chorus of “I’m Not Okay (I Promise)” gave a damn. They just knew it sounded good.
The Libertines – The Libertines
The Libertines, who spearheaded the British wing of the garage-punk revival, were in trouble. Pete Doherty’s drug use was spiraling out of control, fracturing his relationship with co-captain Carl Barât. Doherty didn’t help by missing some tour dates, then reacted by burgling Barât’s flat. The duo reunited after Doherty served six weeks of his six-month prison sentence. But nothing about the recording of their self-titled second album was easy. Hired security guards kept the co-leaders from fighting. Yet the music and songwriting were some of the Libs’ strongest to date, particularly the two singles, anthems of estrangement whose titles say it all: “Can’t Stand Me Now” and “What Became Of The Likely Lads.”
Descendents – Cool To Be You
It’d been eight years since pop punk’s fathers Descendents last issued an album. Singer Milo Aukerman went back to his biochemistry career, while drummer Bill Stevenson, guitarist Stephen Egerton and bassist Karl Alvarez went back to ALL for a moment. Aukerman decided to take a break from science to reactivate Descendents, cutting their sixth studio album in 2002 at the band’s Blasting Room recording compound in Fort Collins, Colorado. It came out two years later on Fat Mike’s Fat Wreck Chords. Clean, clear production and a streamlined version of the classic Descendents sound, minus 30-second goofs such as “Weinerschnitzel.” What was there was some of their first political songs, including the excoriating “‘Merican,” relationship odes such as “Talking” and “One More Day,” an emotional post-mortem for Stevenson’s toxic relationship with his recently deceased father. The latter may be the most important song he’ll ever write.
Bad Religion – The Empire Strikes First
Bad Religion’s 13th studio album, The Empire Strikes First, was an even harder-hitting examination of America’s toxic political climate than American Idiot. Much of it, such as “Social Suicide,” felt like a return to the early hardcore sound of How Could Hell Be Any Worse? Mostly, it was their now-classic popcore sound given a more brutal kick, bolstered by the band’s obvious anger at Bush’s presidency and the misguided Iraq War. In some ways, BR’s musical ambition was being given a freer reign than ever: Tom Petty And The Heartbreakers guitarist Mike Campbell drops a solo on “Los Angeles Is Burning,” while a “goth choir” appears on “Sinister Rouge.” All in all, one of their strongest albums.
Le Tigre – This Island
“I was bored doing the same thing over and over and kind of exhausted from 15 years of touring with no help,” former Bikini Leader leader Kathleen Hanna explained to Pollstar of her electro outfit Le Tigre’s move to major label Universal. “It was like, ‘We have to make a big change or we’re going to break up.’” Which meant Hanna, Johanna Fateman and JD Samson moved away from their lo-fi electronica with individual Pro Tools setups at their Manhattan residences, exchanging hard drives as they worked on tracks. This resulted in a cleaner version of their B-52’s-shouting-protest-slogans new wave on such This Island tracks as “Don’t Drink Poison” and “On The Verge,” and even two straight-up punk tunes in “Seconds” and “Punker Plus.” It would unfortunately be the final Le Tigre album, though the band are reuniting to play this year’s This Ain’t No Picnic Festival.
Social Distortion – Sex, Love And Rock ‘n’ Roll
It had been eight years since Social Distortion’s previous studio album, White Light, White Heat, White Trash. Blame it on a relentless tour schedule, a pair of Mike Ness solo albums and the singer/guitarist’s own exacting songwriting process. But with former Plugz drummer Charlie Quintana replacing Chuck Biscuits and OC guitar legend Jonny Wickersham stepping into deceased founding member Dennis Danell’s shoes, SD seemed poised to return to their glam-punk roots. The resultant Sex, Love And Rock ‘N’ Roll was their least country-inflected album since Mommy’s Little Monster, filled with ballsy rockers such as the Clash-esque instant classic “I Wasn’t Born To Follow.” It was good to hear them rock this hard again.
The Methadones – Not Economically Viable
The Methadones were a side project started by Screeching Weasel’s Dan Vapid, which became his main band after both SW and their Ramones clone adjunct the Riverdales wound down in the late ‘90s. Vapid was soon pouring all of his power pop-based punk rock songs into the Methadones, enough to fill three albums by this point. Not Economically Viable was filled to the rafters with taut, aggressive rockers such as “Turning Inside Out” and “Mess We Made,” filled with turgid guitars and Vapid’s phlegmatic vocals. This entire album is achieving saturation airplay on an alternate universe AM radio station that’s programmed by Joey Ramone as we speak.
Flogging Molly – Within A Mile Of Home
Three studio albums in and Flogging Molly still resembled a thrash-rock version of the Pogues on Within A Mile Of Home. But they were displaying some signs of, er, maturity? For instance, respected country star Lucinda Williams duets with singer Dave King on the relatively relaxed “Factory Girls.” Opener “Screaming At The Wailing Wall” excoriates U.S. foreign policy (fitting, for an album dedicated partly to Joe Strummer), while “The Seven Deadly Sins” sounds like an out-of-control house party in County Cork with electric guitars and drums. It was the tightest, most diverse Flogging Molly full-length yet.
Dwarves – The Dwarves Must Die
On The Dwarves Must Die, notorious punks the Dwarves refuse to die. And as they go along, the lyrics get filthier as the songs get more and more crafted and the production gets increasingly radio-friendly. Such is the contradictory world of the Dwarves. Tracks such as “Dominator” are typically brutal speed bullets. But other tunes such as “Demented” drop hip-hop beats behind corrosive hard-rock guitars, while opener “Bleed On” is a bit of minor-key surf-rock filled with splashy reverb and a guest appearance by Laugh-In announcer/Space Ghost’s voice Gary Owens. All in a day’s work for Blag Dahlia and crew.
Taking Back Sunday – Where You Want To Be
Taking Back Sunday helped firmly place emo on the commercial map with Where You Want To Be, their second LP. Only singer Adam Lazzara and drummer Mark O’Connell remained from their original lineup, bringing in Fred Mascherino and Matt Rubano. But what they wrought under the guidance of veteran producer Lou Giordano was a detailed, manicured sound, brimming with emotion. It was anything but straight ahead. Few in punk would’ve attempted anything like the Left Banke-esque ballad “New American Classic,” replete with chamber quartet strings. But when they did hammer down, such as the relentlessly rocking single “A Decade Under The Influence,” they shone.
The Dollyrots – Eat My Heart Out
Dismayed while watching the 2004 American presidential election results roll out on their TV screens, two members of a Floridian punk band called No Chef – guitarists Kelly Ogden and Luis Cabezas – went pro. “Luis and I were like, ‘The world’s probably gonna end anyway, and I don’t want to go to med school,’” Ogden recalled. “We had no future anyways, so let’s just be in a rock band!”
Switching Ogden to bass and lead vocals, replacing the drummer and one move to Los Angeles later, the Dollyrots were born. Their rowdy yet polished garage-punk sound, wed to such stellar pop nuggets as “Penny,” immaculately forwarded the Ramones’ legacy. They became an instant local radio sensation, leading to a deadly international cult audience and appearances on hit TV shows ranging from CSI: NY to The Price Is Right.
Amen – Death Before Musick
The 2003 work that Casey Chaos had done with Daron Malakian led to his exterminationist punk-metal band Amen’s inking with the System Of A Down leader’s EatUrMusic label. The following year’s Death Before Musick was the first fruit of the compact. The 15 tracks were the most committed extraction to date of Amen’s aggro riff logic, at its punkiest on “Oblivion Stereo” and the single “California’s Bleeding.” The latter’s gory, slogan-filled video caused such a stir, an alternative edit featuring less carnage was offered. Amen made a splash, becoming the darker side of the polished rebellion MTV2 and VH1 viewers now ate on a regular basis.
Zeke – ‘Til The Livin’ End
Zeke, Seattle’s Motörhead analog, have been advancing their shit-kicking metallic hardcore agenda since 1992. ‘Til The Livin’ End was their seventh studio album to date. With a loud, clean Jack Endino production, these 15 tracks bullet by in about 30 minutes, pausing only for heavy stompers such as “Little Queen.’ The tubercular rasp of singer/guitarist Blind Marky Felchtone, the band’s sole constant, rests squarely inside a 10-foot-tall wall of Marshall-boosted guitars. Livin’ End secures Zeke’s place as America’s cheap beer and Camaros hardcore kings.
The Used – In Love And Death
Tragedy was stalking the Used. Two friends of singer Bert McCracken died during the second album In Love And Death’s production. Chief among them: former girlfriend Kate, who was bearing his child. This was a lot to process. All the grief poured into the music. The angst and bone-deep sadness burst through tracks such as “Let It Bleed.” Singles such as “Take It Away” made the Used huge with teens with asymmetrical haircuts and black wardrobes, dragging the LP to the sixth position on the Billboard 200 and selling its way to a platinum certificate.
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