The 10 essential post-hardcore albums

Refused's Dennis Lyxzén leaping into the air onstage
Refused's Dennis Lyxz\u00e9n (Image credit: Getty)

Punk and hardcore are all well and good, but there came a point in the mid-80s when punk’s stylistic constraints and hardcore’s increasing meat-headedness started to lose their appeal for many musicians. Various bands began to turn away from the macho bravado of the pit to open themselves up to greater creative expression, experimenting with their sound to bring in melodies, indie rock subtlety, great waves of earsplitting noise or in some cases even jazz. With a more emotional outlook, it became the genre of choice for those who like brains and thoughtfulness in their music as well as brawn. These are 10 of the best bands who screamed from the heart…

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1. Glassjaw – Everything You Ever Wanted To Know About Silence (2000)

Having gone through a difficult break-up, lovesick frontman Daryl Palumbo pulls no punches here with some highly questionable lyrics about how horrible he thinks girls are performed with unquestionable sincerity. Produced by Ross Robinson, famed for painfully ripping raw emotion from the frontmen he works with, it finds Palumbo screaming, clawing at his skin, sobbing and raging, while the band takes the rock-solid basis of New York hardcore and pushes it through a metal meat grinder. There’s some unpleasantly misogynist stuff here, but pretty much every break-up song that followed in the emo boom of the early 2000s had a debt to pay to this album.

2. Touché Amoré – Stage Four (2016)

We’d be remiss if we didn’t include one of the newer kids on the block, because there’s still plenty of life left in post-hardcore if you know where to look. The title of Touché Amoré’s new album is a reference to the final stages of cancer – frontman Jeremy Bolm’s mother succumbed to the disease in 2014, while the band were away on tour – and as such his vocals are understandably raw and cathartic, while their music shares the cantering pace of AFI and the melodic, pop edge of bands like My Chemical Romance.

3. Rites Of Spring – Rites Of Spring (1985)

The grandaddy of them all, Rites Of Spring arguably kicked off the entire movement with their sole album. With the hardcore scene in their hometown of Washington DC flourishing but becoming increasingly thuggish, they stepped away and changed things up, keeping the breakneck punk pace but displaying their own vulnerability and fears in the lyrics and whipping in something the genre was sorely missing: proper tunes.

Afterwards, frontman Greg Picciotto and drummer Brendan Canty went on to form the incomparable Fugazi with bassist Joe Lally and Dischord label boss and former Minor Threat frontman Ian MacKaye, and turned punk rock completely on its head again just a few years later. Just don’t call them emo – they hate the term.

4. Shudder To Think – Get Your Goat (1992)

Another band from the Dischord stable, and an influence on everyone from Deftones to Omaha indie rock supremos Cursive. There’s a fuzz-drenched, arhythmic groove to it all that screams of art-rock ambition. It’s wilfully disjointed, it’s dark and lush and tinged with spiky psychedelia, and it’s brilliant.

Their next album and major-label debut for Epic, the fabulously sleazy Pony Express Record, moved even further away from their roots and abandoned the post-hardcore sound entirely in favour of the weirdest alt-rock crooning this side of Mike Patton.

5. Nation Of Ulysses – Plays Pretty For Baby (1992)

Before Refused and At The Drive-In followed a similar path, Nation Of Ulysses were up on stage as a gang of left-wing political revolutionaries, complete with a manifesto and the sharpest threads in all of Washington DC. Plays Pretty For Baby – the follow-up to the also excellent debut 13-Point Program To Destroy America – celebrated rebellion, intellectualism and a healthy dose of sarcasm, stirring irreverent spoken-word dogma and free jazz into the noise-rock mix. And it still sounds nuts today.

6. The Jesus Lizard – Goat (1991)

Speaking of nuts… Much of The Jesus Lizard’s towering reputation comes from the utterly batshit live performances frontman David Yow has turned in over the years, and his barked/howled/gibbered vocals surely influenced the likes of Clutch’s Neil Fallon. But they were equally mesmerising on record, and never more so than on Goat, in which the vocals are fighting their way to the surface from several leagues under a sea of filthy, nosebleed noise. Never has an album sounded more likely to start a fight with a bus stop, particularly on the gloriously disgusting Mouth Breather.

7. Jawbox – For Your Own Special Sweetheart (1994)

In the wake of the grunge explosion, the major labels went on a feeding frenzy for anything alt-rock, which is how Jawbox ended up on Atlantic after spending their previous two records on Dischord. But it was always too abrasive for a real breakthrough, which means this chugging beast remains a much-loved gem for those who did manage to seek them out. The single Savory is a particular high point, cramming in a bunch of killer guitar lines that help build its oppressive atmosphere. Frontman J Robbins went on to form Burning Airlines, who are also well worth a listen.

8. Quicksand – Slip (1993)

Frontman Walter Schreifels, previously of punk bands Youth Of Today and Gorilla Biscuits, went for a more metal-influenced take on post-hardcore when he teamed up with guitarist Tom Capone, bassist Sergio Vega and drummer Alan Cage for this astonishing debut. Heavy as lead but – thanks in no small part to Schreifels’ throaty vocals, catchy melodies and smart lyrics – perfectly crafted for a crowd singalong, it’s crammed with gleaming solos and basslines that could flatten the Hulk. Schreifels went on to form Rival Schools, which proved he was a dab hand with the more radio-friendly end of rock too. Clever bastard.

9. At The Drive-In – Relationship Of Command (2000)

The Texans’ swan song (until their live reunion in 2009) was their masterpiece, and remains one of the greatest rock albums of the 21st century so far. Brain-meltingly abstract lyrics are shrieked by Cedric Bixler-Zavala like a man possessed by devils of his own making, over riffs which are so violently aggressive but so perfect you start to wonder if Omar Rodriguez Lopez is really a robot in skinny jeans. To this day One Armed Scissor sends out a jolt of electricity that could rouse the dead, while the quieter moments, such as the start of Enfilade with its Iggy Pop ransom call and unholy squeals, are as creepy as all living shittery. If you’re going to go out at all, this is the kind of high to aim for.

10. Refused – The Shape Of Punk To Come (1998)

Refused only reached their creative peak when they hit the skids. By 1998 – as portrayed in the documentary Refused Are Fucking Dead – this fine but fairly unremarkable Swedish hardcore band were burnt out and disillusioned by months on the road playing to tiny audiences. And so, as a final raised finger to the world before they broke up, they created the thrillingly audacious The Shape Of Punk To Come, smashing together smart political polemic, punk rock, metal, poetry, jazz (the title is a nod to Nation Of Ulysses’ The Sound Of Jazz To Come, itself a reference to Ornette Coleman’s The Shape Of Jazz To Come), earsplitting noise, techno and a whole lot of righteous fury. It was, at the time, a truly unique game-changer. It’s a testament to its brilliance that, after the band split, its legend grew until they eventually returned in 2012 to a worldwide hero’s welcome. Utter genius.

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Emma has been writing about music for 25 years, and is a regular contributor to Classic Rock, Metal Hammer, Prog and Louder. During that time her words have also appeared in publications including Kerrang!, Melody Maker, Select, The Blues Magazine and many more. She is also a professional pedant and grammar nerd and has worked as a copy editor on everything from film titles through to high-end property magazines. In her spare time, when not at gigs, you’ll find her at her local stables hanging out with a bunch of extremely characterful horses.