From its very inception, punk was perfectly suited to be the kick in the arse heavy metal needed. While both genres thrived on pushing music boundaries to explore the most extreme facets of human nature and the cosmos, punk's no-nonsense attitude to achieving all-out bedlam was admirably direct: kick the listener in the face, and if they complained, kick them again.
Both genres claimed roots in the late-60s rock scene (metal from the mind-warping effects of psychedelic rock and proto-metal, while punk drew on the explosive energy of garage rock, proto-punks like The Stooges and MC5 and even art rock), but it was in the following decade that they truly began to take on an art-form and culture of their own. By the time 1980 rolled around the genres were freely intermingling, ultimately birthing scenes as diverse as hardcore, thrash, grindcore and even sludge as the lines became forever blurred.
While perhaps not a definitive list (can anything truly be?), these albums marked turning points in punk history, shunning all notions of commercial appeal to instead revel in the most extreme musical boundaries. With that in mind, here are the 12 punk albums that changed the shape of heavy to come.
1. Black Flag - Damaged (1981)
When LA punks Black Flag recruited new singer Henry Rollins in 1981, they stumbled on the final missing ingredient that would push their music away from the late-70s punk explosion and firmly into the realms of the nascent hardcore punk scene emerging in the US. Rollins attacked the songs on the band's full-length debut Damaged with all the physical force and ferocity of an angry bear, helping typify much of what became a baseline for hardcore, taking the sheer visceral intensity of contemporaries like Bad Brains, Minor Threat and Circle Jerks and giving it a sense of physicality that perfectly reflected the new slam-dance craze emerging in punk circles.
As their career wore on, Black Flag became ever more experimental – their experiments with slow, punishing low-end on 1984's My War helped to inspire sludge metal and grunge alike. But Damaged is the album that got the ball rolling, inspiring everyone from Slayer to Lamb Of God, Clutch and Nirvana.
2. Bad Brains - Bad Brains (1982)
The sheer hyperactive force of Washington DC's Bad Brains made them a force of nature, a galvanising entity that changed the mindset of anyone lucky enough to witness them live, effectively kickstarting DC's own hardcore scene when a young Henry Garfield (later Rollins) and Ian MacKaye watched the band annihilate a support slot with The Damned in 1979.
Bad Brains' 1982 self-titled debut (also known as The Yellow Tape) captures a sliver of the lightning bolt of brilliance that was early Bad Brains, its songs played so fast and hard that even later US hardcore punks that veered into thrash territory (like Suicidal Tendencies on their own self-titled debut LP, which in turn helped codify crossover) feel pedestrian by comparison. The inclusion of reggae jams like I Love Jah and Jah Calling highlight just how iconoclastic Bad Brains were, these moments of serenity heightening the absolute bedlam of their core sound.
3. MDC - Millions Of Dead Cops (1982)
Hardcore punk spread across the US almost as fast as the genre's blink-and-you'll-miss-it songs themselves, so much so that regional scenes popped up everywhere from Los Angeles and New York to Boston, Washington D.C. and Texas. Austin's own take on the form came in MDC (initially 'Millions of Dead Cops' but frequently changed over the years), the band putting out a 14-song full-length in 1982 that clocked in with a sub-21 minute run-time.
Fiercely political, MDC singer Dave Dictor picked up threads left by fellow hardcore punk legend (and Minor Threat singer) Ian MacKaye to create a furious treatise that railed violently against corporate America, capitalism and homophobia (among other subjects). Millions Of Dead Cops set a furious yet humorous tone that would later be picked up by grindcore (a genre which shared MDC's love for short, sharp blasts of noise) and bands like G.L.O.S.S. and The Muslims.
4. Discharge - Hear Nothing, See Nothing, Say Nothing (1982)
Discharge's contribution to punk was so seismic they effectively created a whole new school of hardcore punk named in their image: dis-core. Such bands could have easily populated this list, a raging litany of metal-punk hybrids who could give thrash a run for its money when it came to pure visceral brutality. The only dividing line seemingly came down to production values and a willingness to indulge in guitar solos.
Discharge's 1982 opus Hear Nothing, See Nothing, Say Nothing was a landmark moment in the development of UK punk's second wave, breaking loose from the still-largely 'classic' sound of punk plied by other second-wave acts like Anti-Nowhere League and The Exploited to instead open new lines of nastiness that would go on to inspire everyone from Napalm Death and Sepultura all the way up to Metallica.
5. The Exploited - Let's Start A War (1983)
Much like with the original punk explosion, hardcore wasn't limited purely to the States. Coming after the initial UK interest in punk had largely faded, The Exploited waved their flag proudly with their 1981 debut Punks Not Dead, but still existed on the fringes of a scene that was rapidly dwindling (though this didn't stop them from achieving the highest-selling UK independent album of 1981 for their efforts). By 1982, however, the band's dedication paid off, as a new scene took root in the UK that while not imaginatively titled (UK82 - get it?), provided a fresh sense of rebellion and fury to contest the Thatcher-led Conservative government of the 80s.
While The Exploited's 1982 record Troops Of Tomorrow saw them stray into the waters of hardcore punk, 1983's Let's Start A War (or Let's Start A War... Said Maggie One Day, to give it its full-title) was where the band's sound truly took off. The bleak nihilism of Let's Start A War matched the political landscape of Britain at the time, bombarding the listener with bile and hatred in ways that would inspire bands like Slayer and Anthrax back in the US. While the band's thrashiest song didn't come until 1996 (with Beat The Bastards), Let's Start A War's title-track is every bit as vitriolic as what would emerge from the San Francisco Bay at the birth of thrash metal itself.
6. Zouo - The Final Agony (1984)
Much like metal itself, hardcore punk was quickly growing to be a global force in the 80s as tape-trading networks effectively allowed for the birth of local scenes everywhere from South America to Australia and Japan.
Singer Katsunori “Cherry” Nishida founded the Japanese hardcore punk band Zouo in the early 80s and quickly became a torchbearer for Japan's nascent punk scene. In execution, Zouo closer resembled 80s extreme metal groups like Celtic Frost than they did Black Flag, MDC or Bad Brains, their sound decidedly taking on the characteristics of early black metal. Though dormant for almost 40 years, Nishida put out the freshly re-recorded release Agony 憎悪 Remains in 2021, shining a spotlight on an unsung part of Japan's musical heritage.
7. Sacrilege - Behind The Realms Of Madness (1985)
Drawing on both extreme metal and hardcore punk, crust punk bands like Amebix and Anti-Cimex helped further facilitate the melding of tribes throughout the 80s, while bands like English Dogs proved the USA wasn't the only place crossover could take root. But back in the birthplace of heavy metal, extreme metal was about to get a kick up the arse.
The West Midlands had already spawned the likes of GBH and The Varukers at the start of the 80s, but Sacrilege pushed crust punk to ever nastier realms and were entirely unabashed about their love for metal, even branching into doom in later years. The band's debut Behind The Realms Of Madness combined vocalist Lynda Simpson's brutish snarls with high-speed crust in a form that could easily be seen as proto-grindcore, its influence said to have created an impression on local acts Napalm Death and Bolt Thrower while laying the seeds for future crusties like Doom.
8. Amebix - Arise! (1985)
Listening to Amebix through the filter of the 2020s, its hard not to hear the clear similarities to the embryonic bands of 80s extreme metal. This is, of course, no coincidence. Formed initially as The Band With No Name, Amebix became a key player in the development of crust in the UK [while over in Scandinavia bands like Kaaos and Anti-Cimex took up the charge].
Known to have been involved in tape trading circles with Celtic Frost themselves, Amebix's sound isn't a million miles from Tom G. Warrior's genre-spawning behemoths, bearing more than a passing resemblance to first wave black metal in the process. Arise captures the hellish energy of the band's early years in a snarling package, a reminder that extreme metal didn't emerge from the void fully formed.
9. Big Black - Atomizer (1986)
Throughout the 80s the boundaries between noise rock and punk became increasingly blurred, more purist noise bands like Swans mingling with punk-inspired noise artists like Scratch Acid, Flipper and Sonic Youth to give rise to the sub-subgenre 'noise punk'. Formed in 1981, Big Black was the brain child of future producer-extraordinaire Steve Albini, fusing sludgy, low-end punk with abrasive industrial noise in ways that would later prove immensely influential on industrial metal.
Big Black's full-length debut Atomizer is a distillation of the pure sonic anguish and punishing endurance tests that Big Black revelled in, its lyrical content every bit as depraved and grotesque as would emerge from extreme metal in the decades since. Though Albini has more recently stated a regret for such shock tactics (particularly given the state of politics 40 years on), the fact remains it helped sell Big Black as one of the most punishing punk acts of the 80s.
10. Melvins - Gluey Porch Treatments (1987)
On the surface of it, what the Melvins were doing wasn't all that aesthetically removed from the likes of Flipper, Cows, Scratch Acid, Killdozer or countless other 80s noise punk artists. Where they differed was in slowing things right down, taking Black Flag's My War to its logical extreme, their lumbering hulk of hardcore punk providing a conduit for the birth of sludge metal in the process.
Unlike so many others on this list, Melvins weren't heavy because they sped things up to thrashtastic proportions; they were heavy in a very literal and physical sense, Gluey Porch Treatments leading with a near-incomprehensible sense of heft that had to coin a whole new genre just to accommodate itself. The fact the album also became a landmark in the development of a genre as chart-conquering as grunge is a miracle, as in 1987 Melvins were about as far from mainstream as any band could hope to be.
11. Deviated Instinct - Rock'n'Roll Conformity (1988)
By the end of the 80s extreme metal had fully burgeoned into its own distinct culture, the worlds of death metal, thrash, doom and even grindcore coming into their own and developing beyond their punk-inflected roots. That didn't stop a few late entries from kicking those walls through though, as demonstrated by Norwich's Deviated Instinct.
Signed to Peaceville, Deviated Instinct defied basic genre categorisation – after all, their sound owed fealty to death metal, grindcore, hardcore punk and crust alike, so why would the band limit themselves by picking any one form? Their full-length debut Rock'n'Roll Conformity remains a vision of frenzied, furious brilliance – testament to just how heavy a band can still be whilst still remaining under the wider punk banner.
12. Extreme Noise Terror - A Holocaust In Your Head (1989)
Truly, the perfect band name to match a sound which under any other circumstances could effectively be classed as torture. Much as with Melvins' inclusion on this list, Extreme Noise Terror is something of a contentious pick due to the band's significance to the development of grindcore, but considering their inclinations clearly put them closer in genetic make-up to the likes of Doom than it did to Repulsion or even Terrorizer, it feels entirely justified
Formed in Ipswich in the mid-80s, Extreme Noise Terror's debut A Holocaust In Your Head brought the full force of extremity to bear in a hardcore punk framework, letting loose with both barrels in a way that pushed punk to its breaking point.