A beginner's guide to hardcore in five essential albums

Henry Rollins, Bad Brains and Brendan Yates
(Image credit: Getty)

Whoever would have thought that, 45 years since The Middle Class released what is considered the first ever hardcore song with Out of Vogue, hardcore as a genre would still be going as strong as it currently is? As punk rock turned to New Wave and ran out of ideas in the late 70s, a group of bands decided to channel the genre’s anarchic spirit into a faster, harder, more aggressive and more uncompromising version of everything that had come before it. Over the years, hardcore has veered into all manner of different musical directions, splintering into various sub-genres of a sub-genre, and with the likes of Code Orange, Turnstile, Zulu, Soul Glo and more still doing their best to keep that musically explorative ideology alive, we can’t see it going anywhere anytime soon. Here are the five albums that have defined hardcore's wild ride so far.

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Black Flag – Damaged (1981)

They may not have been the first hardcore band (we’ll get to them in a second), but Black Flag remain the first thing that comes into most people’s heads when the genre is brought up. Everything about the entire package of the LA quintet is iconic these days; the stories of war on the road, their prison riot-esque live shows, their inescapable four-bar logo and the rabid, nihilistic attack of their music on debut full-length, Damaged. The genius of Greg Ginn’s ugly, relentless riffs and Henry Rollins' sandpaper bark still sounds utterly terrifying to this very day. The sheer intensity of songs like Rise Above, Six Pack, Depression and Police Story raised the bar for heavy music, in the process, influencing every hardcore band and beyond, all the way to Slayer, The Dillinger Escape Plan, Slipknot, Nirvana and more. Unquestionably, Black Flag are hardcore’s most definitive godfathers. 

Bad Brains – Rock for Light (1983)

They may have missed out on releasing the first ever hardcore song, but Washington quartet Bad Brains are generally thought of as being the very first full hardcore band. 1980’s Pay To Cum single was incredibly influential, their 1982 self-titled debut album a classic, but it was on their second album, 1983’s Rock For Light, that Bad Brains sprinted away from the chasing pack. Much of this is down to the production job from The Cars' Ric Ocasek, who gives the wide breadth of BB’s influences the dynamic range it desperately needs, but really it’s down to the wild ambition of the band, who can nail speed-of-light hardcore punk on Big Take Over and Supertouch while bringing in those reggae and funk stylings on I And I Survive and Rally Round Jah Throne. It proved that there was so much more the genre could do than just speed and aggression, and the influence on artists such as Faith No More and Beastie Boys proves just how important a record Rock for Light is. 

Gorilla Biscuits – Start Today (1989)

By the time the late 80s came around, hardcore had become an inhospitable, chaotic scene, dominated by violent deeds, one-note aggression and dogmatic attitudes toward what and who could be considered part of the genre. Youthful New York quintet Gorilla Biscuits almost single-handedly steered the genre into more positive and melodic waters with their legendary debut album, Start Today. The album helped in kickstarting the youth crew movement, with skinhead, straight-edge kids taking a greater interest in moralistic and enlightened ideas. The pace, power, energy and sense of purpose was still present and correct, but the superb songs, penned by future Quicksand and Rival Schools man Walter Schreifels, and the empowering and optimistic lyrics from future CIV frontman Anthony Civarelli, proved that hardcore could have way more dynamic range. Gorilla Biscuits would split soon after, but their impact paved the way for at least three generations of melodic, posi-hardcore; Shelter, H20, Strike Anywhere, Avail, Touche Amore, Basement, Title Fight and many more owe them a huge debt.

Converge – Jane Doe (2001)

Is Jane Doe strictly a hardcore album? It’s hard to say; metalcore, noise-rock and no wave influences all permeate the Boston band's 2001 masterpiece. Ultimately, though, it belongs here as Converge are, unquestionably, a band born from the hardcore scene, whose ethics and ideology played a huge part in the creation of this record. Although the metallic hardcore of Earth Crisis, Cave In or Integrity had been pushing the genre in heavier directions ever since the crossover big bang of Agnostic Front’s 1984 game-changer Victim in Pain, it’s undeniable that no one had ever heard anything as extreme in this scene as Jane Doe when it dropped in 2001. Musically, it’s nightmarishly heavy and dizzyingly, unpredictably scattershot, with riffs and drum fills dismantling your hearing at every twisted turn, but it’s frontman Jacob Bannon who gives Jane Doe that special something extra. His tortured, heartbroken performance is both pained and painful, as he details the downfall of a relationship in the most starkly honest way. Jane Doe essentially ushered in a new era of hardcore much like Black Flag, raising the bar of musical intensity to previously untouched heights. It also gave us one of the most iconic pieces of album art of the millennium so far (you know, the one seemingly tattooed on every hardcore kid over the age of 30).

Turnstile – Glow On (2021)

The one thing that hardcore never got in its first few decades was a truly massive, mainstream breakthrough band. Sure, there have been plenty of folks from the hardcore scene that have gone on to strike it big with emo, post-hardcore or metalcore bands, and Hatebreed’s acceptance into the metal scene in the early part of the 2000s was great to see. None of them have done what Turnstile have managed to achieve with Glow On, though. Purists may scoff at the Baltimore youngsters' inclusion here, as there is far more to Glow On than just hardcore punk, but we’ve already established that both Converge and Bad Brains were happy to deviate away from the genres core values. Turnstile are a hardcore band, that’s a fact, and even though they might not sound like Judge or Minor Threat, what they have done for the genre over the last few years has been remarkable. Songs like Don’t Play and Turnstile Love Connection have plenty to connect them to the likes of Gorilla Biscuits musically, but it’s their expertly pitched flirtations with pop and hip-hop that have made Turnstile such an exciting band, and the reason why they are crossing over to so many people outside of the scene. A hardcore band being so good that they are invited to play US chat shows and last year's Glastonbury is a beautiful thing, opening the door to the raft of fantastic peers waiting in the wings behind them. That’s the legacy of Glow On, and it’s a great one.

Stephen Hill

Since blagging his way onto the Hammer team a decade ago, Stephen has written countless features and reviews for the magazine, usually specialising in punk, hardcore and 90s metal, and still holds out the faint hope of one day getting his beloved U2 into the pages of the mag. He also regularly spouts his opinions on the Metal Hammer Podcast.