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Top 10 Punk Rock & Hardcore Bands of the '80s

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Though punk rock's first wave was a strictly '70s phenomenon, the form most certainly bled into the '80s, primarily on America's West Coast, where scores of bands forged a more concentrated, speedy and aggressive form of punk called hardcore. Many bands used punk as an inspiration to create their own unique post-punk blends, but I believe these 10 artists best and most faithfully raised the punk rock flag and held it aloft for a new generation. Here's a look - in no particular order - at some of my favorite '80s representatives of these genres.

1. Bad Religion

Album Cover Image Courtesy of Epitaph

This solid, ever-reliable L.A. punk band may have gotten a later start than its forerunners (forming in 1980), but more than 30 years later the group continues to churn out driving, angry and political punk rock with the best of them. Arguably one of punk's most consistent and long-lasting bands, Bad Religion has for most of its existence been led by the powerful vocals of Greg Graffin alongside guitarist and fellow founding member/songwriter Brett Gurewitz. During the '80s, the band remained fiercely independent in its commercial as well as artistic directions, even releasing an album that verged on '70s hard rock, 1983's Into the Unknown. Also, the band served as a vital link between punk's first wave and the '90s punk revival.

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2. Dead Kennedys

Album Cover Image Courtesy of Cherry Red Records
Few punk or hardcore bands left a more distinct mark on '80s pop culture than San Francisco's wonderfully acerbic Dead Kennedys, which embraced revolutionary, equal-opportunity offensiveness and controversy all the way from its name to its exhausting demise. Lead singer and lyricist Jello Biafra has long been a cult figure of tremendous influence, skewering all layers of American authority and cultural stagnation through his glowering wit. But the original band itself was a musical marvel, featuring the incendiary guitar of East Bay Ray and a wonderful blend of surf rock styles with abrasive yet anthemic punk. In many ways, the Dead Kennedys both invented and perfected hardcore, and the music continues to resonate as troubled times persist.
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3. Minor Threat

Album Cover Image Courtesy of Dischord Records

Another seminal, pure hardcore outfit sprang up on the East Coast at around the same time as the Dead Kennedys, and though much shorter-lived, Minor Threat may just be the most independent rock band of all. Led by the often syncopated, shouted vocals of Ian MacKaye, the group sported a fierce sonic attack but may be best-known for its introduction of the clean and sober "Straight Edge" philosophy that remains valid today among a fair number of punk and alternative rock fans. Beyond that, however, the band championed art at all costs over the often cynical demands of commerce, refusing to exclude fans typically viewed as underage from its concerts and maintaining stubbornly affordable record prices through MacKaye's label, Dischord Records.

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4. The Misfits

Album Cover Image Courtesy of Caroline Records

Serving as a highly unique and vital link between heavy metal and hardcore punk, this New Jersey band featured horror-show lyrics and a burly, intimidating frontman with pipes to match in Glenn Danzig. The earliest incarnation of the band may have dissolved by 1983, but music fans throughout the '80s continued to discover the legend of the group, probably influenced often by pure reputation and word-of-mouth with only a few recordings in print. Ultimately, the band's brand of hardcore may be crude and muddy, but Danzig's vocals and keen sense of melody truly elevate songs like "Last Caress," "Attitude" and "Where Eagles Dare" to hard rock anthems for the ages. I bet Danzig could still kick anyone's ass still today.

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5. Circle Jerks

Album Cover Image Courtesy of Relativity
This great punk band, another rare representative of the genre that has demonstrated a fair amount of longevity, became a major force during the '80s. Rising from the splintering of the first incarnation of American punk legends Black Flag, the Circle Jerks' irreverent and aggressive brand of hardcore dabbled in humor more often than its predecessor, an approach that said a lot about the boundless energy of frontman Keith Morris. Of course, the singer had gotten his start as the first lead vocalist for the original Black Flag, back when that band was a far purer example of hardcore punk. Eventually the Circle Jerks delved into slowed-down hard rock just like Black Flag, but the former's sound was always more straightforward.
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6. T.S.O.L.

Album Cover Image Courtesy of Nitro Records

Another Southern California punk band that exhibited daring experimentation without compromising its sound (at least until the group went sickeningly and shamelessly hair metal during the late '80s after major personnel changes), T.S.O.L. began with somewhat Goth rock overtones. Still, at heart the attack spearheaded by lead singer and frontman Jack Grisham achieved a quintessence when it comes to the necessary elements of great punk rock. That is, the band's sound during the first half of the '80s always flirted with danger and menace, from uniquely slashing guitars to Grisham's one-of-a-kind punk crooning. Like Orange County kindred spirits the Vandals, T.S.O.L. was never the same after the departure of its initial lead singer.

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7. Angry Samoans

Album Cover Image Courtesy of Triple X Records
It took me a while to warm up to this L.A. band that perfected punk rock offensiveness, but beyond the band's definite nasty edge (particularly displayed in a somewhat consistent homophobia), this is one of hardcore's most original groups. With a satirical bent that was generally as often applied to themselves as to outside forces, the group's creative ringleaders, "Metal" Mike Saunders and Gregg Turner, absolutely produced some of the best assaultive yet nuanced punk rock of the '80s. "My Old Man's a Fatso," "Inside My Brain," and "I'm a Pig" have far more intelligence than the Samoans ever got credit for, especially evidenced by the band's ability to direct its anger in all directions nearly at once, especially inward.
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8. MDC

Album Cover Image Courtesy of Boner Records
This lesser-known but wonderfully representative hardcore band raised to a new level the art of in-your-face, muscularly presented musical provocation. With a sound more akin to the brutal assault of Agnostic Front than other more typical punk bands, lead singer Dave Dictor and Company targeted and succeeded in lambasting some of the most treasured icons and symbols of American culture, from the brilliance of "John Wayne Was a Nazi" to one of its many revolving names (Millions of Dead Cops) derived from its acronymous moniker. The band's music was ultimately somehow both tuneful and pulverizing, making a point to spotlight and condemn various forms of conformity at every possible turn.
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9. Fear

Album Cover Image Courtesy of Rhino
Where the confrontational tactics of Angry Samoans and MDC, respectively, often came off somewhat silly or intellectually distant, the exploits of the aptly named Fear closely fit the band's primal name and represented what seemed like genuine menace. To be sure, lead singer Lee Ving ran a tight but nasty ship in terms of stage performance, as violence became reality at the band's shows as often as it lingered merely as suggestion. But ultimately Fear's music went far beyond the concentrated anger of "I Don't Care About You" to break ceaselessly interesting ground on brilliantly odd tracks like "New York's Alright If You Like Saxophones." A tussle between Ving and Glenn Danzig would have been quite a match-up.
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10. Social Distortion

Album Cover Image Courtesy of Timebomb Records
If my omission from this list of some of my personal favorites (the Minutemen, Descendents and Black Flag) may cause discomfort for readers as well as myself, at least the bands that made the cut deserve their places. That goes also for Social Distortion, an initially hardcore band that matured throughout the '80s before emerging as one of the most successful alternative rock acts of the early '90s. Distinguished by the uniquely low-pitched lead vocals of frontman Mike Ness as well as his across-the-board Johnny Cash fixation, Social D both exemplified and expanded the possibilities of punk rock. And when Ness emerged from heroin addiction to guide the band into the next decade, he added survival to the genre's internal lexicon.
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