Playlists Before Playlists: A Guide to Punk Compilations
By Kerry Cardoza April 22, 2022
Before the ubiquity of the internet, discovering new music outside the mainstream was child’s play, at least for anyone who didn’t have regular access to independent radio stations or knowledgeable underground friends.. Dischord Records co-founder Ian MacKaye summed up this feeling perfectly when he recalled his first punk gig in Michael Azerrad. book Our Band Could Be Your Life: Scenes from the American Indie Underground, 1981-1991: “It blew my mind because I saw for the first time this huge totally invisible community that came together for this tribal event.”
Labels and other trendsetters understood this and therefore exploited compilation as a way to spread the gospel of new bands. There are a number of punk and hardcore compilations – many of which are now nearly impossible to find – that are considered canon: Flex your head; International Compilation of the Benefits of Peace; It’s Boston, not LA
Below is a sampling of some of those essential early compositions, all of which date from before the dawn of the internet. Most of the selections here serve as de facto introductions to a particular scene, depending on location or genre. The early days of punk were also a golden age for labels, many of which popped up in the US in a rush to document the nascent movement – although there were also plenty of songs released by enthusiasts. or through fanzines like maximumrocknroll. No matter how passionate you are about punk, there’s definitely new music here to discover or rediscover as you follow the genre’s progressions and trends.
In the 90s, Kill Rock Stars were the arbiters of weird punk and its many offshoots: bands that weren’t necessarily punk in sound, but rather in spirit. Founded in 1991, the label released three extraordinary compilations in its early days, each track a reconfiguration of the label’s name. rock stars kill was the second installment in the series, featuring contributions from bands as diverse and crucial to punk as Rancid, Team Dresch and Fifth Column. Although most of the acts here are from the Pacific Northwest, where KRS is based, or the West Coast in general, this is not a regional sampler. Instead, it functions as a sequel recording of a certain moment in underground music, featuring hard-to-find tracks from short-lived acts like Tobi Vail’s Severed Lethargy and the Berkeley band Tourettes.
The Old Lookout! Records was a critical punk label for over twenty years, helping to cement the importance of East Bay’s punk sound by releasing early records from Green Day, Operation Ivy and Rancid. This eclectic compilation, originally released as a double LP in 1988, has fortunately been remastered and reissued in 2021 by Lavasocks Records. The vast majority of these acts had Bay Area ties, though the sound ranged from the hardcore of No Use for a Name to the poppy punk of Kamala & the Karnivores to the nerve-wracking college rock of Vomit Launch. Proceeds from the reissue go to the revered 924 Gilman venue, a more than fitting move considering most, if not all, of these bands have passed through its doors.
ROIR occupies an announced place in the canon of the punk label; he released Bad Brains’ debut album, as well as the seminal compilation New York Thrash (featuring the fledgling Beastie Boys), alongside bands from countless other talented early artists. Basically, ROIR also captured the sound of a diverse coterie of international bands. the World class punk compilation, originally released on cassette in 1984, features bands from across Europe, the Americas and New Zealand. Bands as well-known and polished as Icelandic post-punk Purrkur Pillnikk (whose members would later form The Sugarcubes) and reckless Polish Dezerter are juxtaposed with ephemeral and rambling outfits like Czech band A-64 and Colombian Warrior of the Last Days.
In 2002, Dischord Records released this compilation as a three-CD set, intended to follow the evolution of the influential DC label’s sound. These tracks make up the set’s third disc, featuring seldom-heard songs from Dischord’s vault. Here are some of the early recordings of Henry Rollins, Ian MacKaye and Guy Picciotto, among other punk heavyweights, as well as the only track ever recorded by joke band Rozzlyn Rangers. While it’s disproportionately made up of the early hardcore acts that helped put DC punk on the map, there’s also plenty of post-hardcore representation, like a live rendition of Fugazi’s “Burning” and a slow cover of “We Are the Un” by Circus Lupus.
Dangerhouse Records released just over a dozen recordings during its brief tenure; this 1991 compilation brings together Dangerhouse hits from the first wave of Los Angeles punk. This record wastes no time getting to the goods, opening with the fiery and glamorous “Let’s Get Rid of NY”, from the short-lived Randoms. There are well-known bangers, like the Avengers anthem “We Are the One,” as well as bizarre tracks like Deadbeats’ “Let’s Shoot Maria” (an eerie take on West Side Story), and “Disneyland” by Eyes, a carnival song about the theme park explosion. Fortunately, there are significantly more female musicians on this composition than on many other early punk releases, although the inclusion of X’s controversial “Los Angeles” is a reminder of punk’s troubled racial history.
Love the tough, invigorating sound or hate the badass reputation and dodgy politics, there’s no denying that the second wave of New York hardcore had an outsized impact on punk. This concise compilation, from 1988, deftly captures the city’s late ’80s male-dominated hardcore scene – from the signature squealing voices of Gorilla Biscuits to the progenitors of the Youth of Today youth squad (who are technically from suburban Connecticut) with a more progressive Supertouch voice. The tracks here are on the whole tight, technically proficient, full of heavy breakdowns and gang vocals. Early hardcore was known for wanting to separate from what punk had become, it was harder. Groups like the Youth Defense League, which appear here, have taken this violent urge and turned it into a toxic brand of xenophobia. I’d like to think that YDL doesn’t represent the spirit of punk, but indeed there have always been racist elements to the genre, and it’s best to face them head on, not pretend they don’t exist .