Eloquence was never the Sex Pistols' forte. But their guitarist Steve Jones hit exactly the right note when he said, "Actually, we’re not into music, we’re into chaos." Punk was an entire genre running on fury, and the Pistols knew that music can be the food of emotions other than love. Rage, so often irrational and inexpressible, is a natural bedfellow for a good tune.
RAMONES My Brain Is Hanging Upside Down (Bonzo Goes To Bitzburg)
The Sex Pistols hated the Ramones—America’s nearest equivalent to them—and the Ramones hated Ronald Reagan (aka “Bonzo”), or at least the visit he made to Bitburg, a German cemetery where SS soldiers were buried. Never mind the squall of guitars and the sweaty drums; Joey Ramone (who was Jewish) alternates between sounding pissed off and genuinely hurt.
NINA SIMONE Four Women
Written in 1966, Simone’s ode to four archetypal African-American women was groundbreaking. A simple piano melody and subdued percussion keep her on an even keel as she sings of their suffering. Not until she comes to the last portrait does Simone begin to roar, but the climax is hair-raising.
BIKINI KILL Alien She
At 1 min 41, this song is extremely short, but Kathleen Hanna invests every second with energy. She wails, she screams, she riots. The lyrics, crowded out by ferocious guitars and manic drums, are often unintelligible. Listen closely, though, and you’ll hear a woman at war with herself: is she a passive innocent or a radical feminist? Which is the Alien She?
ICE CUBE The Nigga Ya Love To Hate
As a pioneer of gangsta rap, Ice Cube had his work cut out. The genre had a lot of haters, all confronted here. The P-funk samples turn up the tension even while undermining Cube’s brash lyrics with hints of fragmentation. It’s a rapper’s manifesto, sure to push you, as Grandmaster Flash had warned, close to the edge.
BILLY BRAGG Which Side Are You On?
One man and his guitar take a Kentucky protest song from 1931 (railing against union-busting stooges) and update it for Thatcher’s Britain in 1987. Bragg’s picking is steely and minimal without becoming bare, and his words are a cri de coeur.
ST VINCENT Grot
Annie Clark is a fan of diaphanous choral arrangements. It’s something of a jolt, then, to hear her butterfly chants laid over a cruel, hard voice, groaning, “Power doesn’t care what you feel, as long as you learn how to kneel.” With its slow, droning guitar chords, “Grot” is brutally Manichaean, as punishing as it is triumphant.
LOUIS JORDAN Hardhead
The bandleader who blazed the trail for rock’n’roll is a man of simple tastes. After a hard day’s work, he expects a cooked dinner and a bubble bath, not tepid beans and his wife’s cold shoulder. In this bluesy, brassy number, he rips into his recalcitrant wife with mock indignation. “They named a town in my home state from her head: Little Rock.
KING KRULE Noose Of Jah City
With his delicate features, Archy Marshall may look slight, but his voice tells another story. It’s strikingly deep and, even at the age of 19, it creaks, it has ridges. Here shimmering keyboards and flecks of guitar meld with reverb-drenched vocals. His is a muted anger, dubbed over in despair.
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