12 Songs

February 6, 2012 at 9:10 am (People) (, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , )

A few weeks ago, my sister Becky asked me to do her a favor. She wanted me to make her a mix CD of 12 songs that I love and tell her why I love them.

It’s been a totally fun project but also really challenging in a lot of ways. To start with, there’s the sheer volume of music that I love and listen to – I don’t think she realized what an absurdly small number 12 is. So, I ended up making two CDs with a total of 24 songs, dividing them into punk/hardcore, and well, everything else.

I did my best to narrow it down by picking bands that have been important to me and then choosing one song from that band – which sometimes given five (or more) albums worth of material to choose from, was daunting. Literally every song I chose comes from an album that is on my list of all time favorite records. There are so many great bands that aren’t included here that pressing “publish” pains me a bit.  Maybe that means there needs to be a part two (and three and four….).

I spent a lot of time thinking about what bands have been truly influential in my life. And though the second CD includes some really important ones (like Billy Bragg, Casey Neill, The Mountain Goats, and the Avett Brothers), it’s the punk/hardcore CD that I spent the most time on.  All the songs I chose have been particularly meaningful because they define a certain formative period of my life, including where I developed many of my most important and lasting friendships and where from a young age I developed my politics and belief systems – that the capitalist system doesn’t work for everyone, that it can change, that we can make that change happen (as opposed to waiting for someone else to make improvements), and that there are better alternatives. Each song has a story (or many stories) associated with it,  so you’ll have to forgive me a bit with the authobiographical stuff. So much of this is truly the story of my growing up.

I have a few more comments at the end, but here are the songs. Keep in mind that much of this commentary was written for someone outside of the punk scene. If you want me to make you a copy of this CD, just email me with your address and I’ll send it right out, or I’ll send you a download link. The CD mostly is album versions, and links here are also mostly to album versions, the video clips are just for fun.

1. Inquisition “Strike Anywhere”
2. Strike Anywhere “Chorus of One”
3. Avail “Virus”

These three bands represent a particular type of melodic hardcore that centers around Richmond, VA. There are loads of examples of the Richmond sound, but these three are the most important to me.  Inquisition and Strike Anywhere in particular (those two bands have the same singer, Thomas), exemplify the kind of politically charged lyrics that I really go for. The Inquisition album is called “Revolution, I think it’s called inspiration” says it all – that we want/need change, that we can make a better life, and that we just need to be inspired to get there. Overwhelmingly I find their lyrics political yet very positive, which I love. I love that the music is really energetic and upbeat and makes me want to move.

It is a great regret for me that I never got to see Inquisition live, though I have seen Strike Anywhere a couple of times. I’ve always been inspired by Thomas’s dedication and humility, qualities I’ve come to recognize as essential in people I most admire.  One of the first issues of Clamor had a quote from this Strike Anywhere song on the back (“I will do everything to kill the sleeping cop in me.”).

I remember being instantly attracted to Avail’s sound when I first heard them, and this is one of their early songs. I first saw them live at a YMCA on the west side (I’m thinking Brecksville but I could be wrong on that) and just fell in love with their sound and their energy, particularly live. One of their first recordings is the “Live At King’s Head Inn” 10″ that I really loved.  I’ve probably seen them live more than another band aside from Hot Water Music.  The singer, Tim Barry, does solo stuff now and one of their roadies I met during that era, AC Thompson, is an amazing investigative journalist now, and another is part of 1984 Printing. I just love it that people I met a long time ago have grown up to do really amazing things (and so many of them have – there’s something to think about there, probably.).

4. Fugazi “In Defense of Humans”
5. Minor Threat “Out of Step”

When I first started listening to punk in 1990-ish, I thought that it all sounded like crap. It took me a long time to learn that there was a huge variety of music under the “punk” banner (and no, I still don’t like the Dead Kennedys). One of the first bands I heard that I truly enjoyed was Fugazi. They’re more melodic (and dare I say, palatable), than a lot of other “punk” stuff. This isn’t one of their hit songs, it’s off of a compilation called “State of the Union” that I had on cassette and I literally played to death. I loved the ultra-political lyrics, including one about street harassment called “No You Cannot Go”  by the female-fronted Broken Siren.  The whole album is full of bands that were indicative of the “DC sound” that was nurtured by the record label Dischord Records that is still around today.

Dischord and the related Positive Force DC are also part of this kind of positive “we can make change happen” attitude that really shaped me as a teenager. Dischord supported me directly, too. They advertised not only in Clamor (which made sense) but in my personal zine, Fucktooth, for many years, thanks to Cynthia Connolly and Juan Carrera – I’ll always appreciate that.

Recently Fugazi released an online archive of recordings of all of their live shows, and I heard this interview with Ian MacKaye on NPR while I was driving across the bridge one day. I loved it. They continue to amaze me after all of these years.

It was somewhat later that I started listening to Minor Threat, though they preceded Fugazi. Ian MacKaye has been a huge source of inspiration over the years, and he is in both of these bands. In all my interactions with him and interviews I’ve read over the years, I’ve always appreciated his thoughtfulness, integrity, and long term dedication to community. We printed an interview with Ian by Eric Zassenhaus in our special “5 Years of Interviews” issue of Clamor.

I remember buying a Minor Threat EP on vinyl at Record Rev on Coventry. I like Minor Threat for their raw-ness, and on this track I love the guitar sound at the start of the song. This was the beginning of me understanding that I liked particular sounds and styles within songs, not just whole songs, which was a pretty big step for me as a teenager. Later, Jeff Nelson (drummer for Minor Threat) moved a few blocks away from Jason and me in Toledo, Ohio. Jeff still lives there, and yes, I definitely miss Toledo.

 

6. Propagandhi – “Resisting Tyrannical Government”

Propagandhi is a Canadian band that I really appreciate for their humor and brashness, high-energy live shows, witty lyrics, and of course their unapologetic politics. They are just fun people. The lyrics to this song end with, “And yes, I recognize the irony that the very system I oppose affords me the luxury of biting the hand that feeds. That’s exactly why privileged fucks like me should feel obliged to whine and kick and scream until everyone has everything they need.” Yes, exactly.

7. Hot Water Music – “220 Years”

Hot Water Music is probably the band I’ve seen live the most, and I was hugely into them for years, until their sound changed a bit and they grew in a different direction. I got their first cassette tape from Carl Hirsch when I was living in Columbus, at the house we lived in together before we started the punk house called The Legion of Doom (with Mike Thorn, Scott Niemet and a few others), so this was maybe 1995? 1996?

I just love HWM’s melodic and complex sound from their first 6-7 years. Someone once described it having this kind of  “seething tension boiling just under the surface,” a quality I think can partially be attributed to the bass lines which are more complex than other bands of the same genre.

8. Against Me “What We Worked For”

Against Me has had this kind of trajectory that I think of as really typical. I love their early records (this is from their debut EP from 2001) for their energy and rawness, and then as the band got bigger and their sound more polished and produced, I hate them. One of the things I love about Against Me’s early sound is how the singer (Tom Gabel)’s voice cracks when he’s screaming the lyrics. The screaming urgency of punk (in general, not just this band) is really attractive to me. It’s not passive, it’s not calm, it’s exciting and participatory. 

9. Crass “Do They Owe Us A Living?”
10. The Clash – “Know Your Rights”

I guess these two songs could be called “Punk Roots 1978-1982.”  These bands were important in defining the genre in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, and I appreciate them for their sound as well as their political lyrics. Crass, in particular, is a UK band that really defined the anarchist/anarcho-punk genre, and this song is really considered a classic.  In a lot of ways they were really the progenitors of the political-punk scene that has been important to me. “Know Your Rights” has long been my favorite Clash song because of the lyrics.

11. Anti Product “It Festers In Their Hearts”
12. Acme “Ordinary”

A lot of people are surprised that I really like this kind of music, but there are tons of bands in this genre that I really love, especially if they have political lyrics. The sound – characterized by the fast pace, heavy guitars, screamy vocals, and a particular style of drumming – is all about power for me. And I literally mean the sheer amount of energy and passion that the people playing the music have to exert to create it.  The Acme LP “…To Reduce the Choir to One Soloist” is one that I listen to quite a bit, and I usually listen to it all the way through from start to finish as opposed to individual songs. I love Anti-Products’ politics and the contrasting vocals, and there are so few female singers in hardcore – this band is definitely one of my favorites.

* * *

Two things surprised me when I looked at the final list. First, almost all of the songs are from 1985-2000. There are tons of bands and songs that are important to me from 2000 onward, but when I had to narrow it down, the songs that I love the most and have continued to love over time were solidly from this particular decade or two. I still love music and go to see live bands a lot, but don’t really feel connected to the scene unless the people or bands also cross over into political activism, and there are plenty that do.

The other thing I noticed is how many of the bands include members that I know personally or are my friends. While I certainly attribute some of this to me being a relatively outgoing person, I think this is something particular to the punk/hardcore scene – that people in bands are accessible, that there is less of a division between “rockstars” and “audience” – that I really love.  Of course, my personal relationship with these people and this community adds an emotional depth to these particular bands and these songs. I feel lucky to know these people, and making this list makes me want to call up each of these individuals and gush over how important they have been to me. Maybe writing this is partly my way of doing that.

It makes me thankful for my community, and that I’ve had the chance to know and interact with so many great people, many who continue to be part of my life. The last couple months I’ve been thinking a lot about how community happens, how scenes change over time, what it means to be in community with others. I’d like to write more about all that in a future post.

* * *

1. I think this post should have been called “ode to hardcore” or something because I definitely feel all gushy.

2. The photo at the top of this page is of Hot Water Music, sometime in the ’90s, by Mark “icki” Murmann. I met him in the ’90s when we were both living in the Midwest, he’s the photo editor for Mother Jones now.

3. A few years ago, Chrissy Piper did this awesome project called “Three Records.” OK, I had to pick 12 instead of three.

4. I know I used the word “hugely.”

5. My friend Manjula does the whole music-writing thing way better than I do. I love her blog, “The Record Daily,” and wish she would update it more. It is just so remarkably good.

12 Comments

  1. Jen Angel said,

    Watching that Strike Anywhere video makes me really happy.

  2. s. wade said,

    inquisition played a house show on frambes (and possibly the neilhouse too) in columbus, you should have come!

    good list!

  3. Jen Angel said,

    Yeah, I don’t know how I missed it. I’m kicking myself!

    BTW, Mike Thorn swears I was at the Neilhouse show, but I really don’t think so. Though, it’s also possible that I just don’t remember, seeing as it would have been 15+ years ago.

  4. Anonymous said,

    Awesome post Jen. It’s striking to me how similar my list would have been to yours – I think it reflects the power of punk (or many other sub-cultural communities) to shape people’s lives so strikingly. Even though I never actually met you in person until ~5 years ago, our ability to click and be such good friends is in no doubt shaped by such a similar upbringing (even if we were 2,000 miles apart).

    And not just great choice in bands, but songs. (I might have picked Embrace instead of Fugazi), and good diversity in scenes and genres. Love that you through Acme in there (which is far more obscure and distinct from the rest of the bands – even if they were quite influential in a very different scene and style of music).

  5. Jen Angel said,

    Hey Matt –

    Embrace was a hard one to leave out. And I even love that album of Embrace covers!

    And I so love that Acme record, but it could easily have been His Hero, Catharsis, or any number of other bands of that genre.

  6. Chris Dixon said,

    Hi Jen,

    I really enjoyed this post. I listened to all the songs and read each of your explanatory notes in turn. For me, it was super fun to learn more about your musical trajectory and also, more generally, to reflect a bit on the various ways that people move through punk musically. Also, as you probably expected, I loved that you included one of my all-time favorite Fugazi songs.

  7. gordonedgar said,

    My list would be very different, but I loved reading yours.

  8. Jen Angel said,

    Gordon, I’d love to hear who would be on your list!

    And Chris, I’m glad you agree that’s the best Fugazi song!

  9. Mick Sweetman (@MickSweetman) said,

    This is a great post Jen. Really took me back to those days. Even though I didn’t like the same bands you did I was reminded of what it was like to be part of such an exciting youth subculture.

  10. Bria said,

    Great post Jen! As someone who doesn’t listen to punk, and didn’t come to my political community through that (or any) type of music, I found a lot of your descriptions of what you got out of the music and the community to be fascinating. I love learning how people discover community, particularly political community. While I have no interest in most punk aesthetically, I am always impressed at the way it brings together a radical community in places you wouldn’t expect it. (And I bet I would have loved your other cd :)

  11. Jen Angel said,

    Mick – I really wonder what makes it a “youth subculture.” I think i’ve always resisted it being something that we grow out of. Why does that need to happen?

    And Bria, I’ll post the other CD eventually.

  12. mattack said,

    Whoa… I might not have picked the same songs, but many of these bands (or the albums the songs came from) would be on my version of this; Avail, Fugazi, the Clash, Propagandhi…
    Makes me want to do one of my own.

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