For a long time, hardcore was my secret shame, a big red H sewed to my side of anti-modernist thinking, an albatross from my misspent youth. Its strictures, its anti-pleasures, its ugliness are very far indeed from what makes up the bulk of my “adult” listening. Yet, for the past few weeks, I’ve been increasingly drawn back to it, less out of a desire to “examine my youth” (that comes whether I want to or not) than a simple revived interest in these records as collections of sound rather than totemic items.

This was the first music I ever loved, but that’s not surprising really. It’s a music that encourages being Loved by its very modes and methods, which can’t survive without it, in fact. Hardcore, as a lifestyle or A Way of Life, is best viewed as a monastic order: daily penitence, reflection, reduction. It feeds on the fanaticism of its followers, uses its form to erect walls to protect it from outside intervention. Far from isolating me from other music, as I had feared, hindsight reveals that hardcore was actually a gateway to any number of outsider strains: free jazz, Swans, post-punk, No New York, minmalism…

In terms of the explosion of other genres between 1990-1999, hardcore was pretty low on the futurist role call, yes. But to say that an interest in hardcore was foolish when hardcore/jungle, hiphop, whatever was exploding into wider public consciousness is myopic if not a little chauvinistic. (Oh, the irony!) The 90s were far and away the most forward thinking years the genre has ever had.1

Unfortunately – perhaps – this was also its undoing. As people began to travel more and more frequently between hardcore and its contentious border regions – noise, industrial, metal, free improv, gabba/splattercore, no wave – the internal integrity it has always prided itself on began to splinter under the weight. More and more often bands were releasing records that fell into some area of unclassifiable intent. Naturally, though, these were some of the best.2

So I decided to do a rundown of 20(+1) hardcore records – singles, EPs, albums – from the 90s. The records were chosen basically at random, whatever I happened to have with me since most of my hardcore records are 2800 miles away in my parents attic. As such, they don’t necessarily represent my Favorites – and I’m too distanced now to remotely call them The Best – but somehow they do represent Me.

So you’re missing some important trends – I make no claims that this is in any way an impartial survey. There are no straight edge records, no mosh-metal (really quite a helpful predictor of nu-metal in its way), no arrpeggiated melodic emo, no Fugazi-alikes, no neo-glam, no Slint clones. I do have some standards. (I was going to include a Huggy Bear 7″ too, but riot grrl is too broad a subject to comfortably fit within this article.)

Listening to some of these records for the first time in two, three, even four years, I’m amazed at how fresh a lot of them sound. I can’t quite discern if that’s my own distance creating a new frission of excitement or something inherent in the records. In any event, I’ve chosen not to enforce any sort of master narrative on top of these records. I’m going to simply present them – the decade, my decade, in hardcore – and if any story develops, if anything is seen to have been “learned” or “lost” or hell even “gained”, so be it.

Born Against – Battle Hymns of the Race War 10″
Born Against began in 1989 in New York City. Originally peddling engaging, if very generic, political metalcore, they made an early name for themselves being ultra-strident defenders of old school values. In an infamous radio debate with Sick of It All, they passionately argued for hardcore as something More Than Music, a way of being in this world. SOIA countered, as boys are want to do, that hardcore was about power and speed and fucking shit up.

It’s telling that Born Against didn’t get really good until the po’face started to slip, the stridency lagged, and they turned that scalpel not only on hardcore but themselves. In an era where “self-examination” meant flailing into the stacked folding chairs at the VFW and bawling, Born Against cut like a knife and it felt so right. Battle Hymns… was their last major release and their most accomplished. “Poland” remains the best summation of the tedium and grind and struggle of this Get In The Van style touring I know: “We came to take over your one room or maybe displace your parents from their bed as the special guests of honor…what we know is from the world of sound-checks and gas money and maybe a few tales from warmer climates where we were once paid well and I can’t stand to think of all the bastards that are coming to sleep on your floor.” And of course, “Born Against Are Fucking Dead” where our heroes meet their demise Zeus vs. Cronos style at the hands of their ungrateful children: “Born Against are fucking dead that’s what the answering machine said looks like this is it! They talked one too many shit about the working class and the government! Did you hear what those faggots said in some fanzine someone else read?! I heard they’re a bunch of spoiled little rich kids who need to get their asses kicked! Fucking ingrates! Fucking pussies!”

Unfortunately, hardcore – like any number of already whipped dogs – will bite back when prodded too much. “Born Against Are Fucking Dead” opened with an actual answering machine message wherein a clichéd New Yawk tough guy voice ominously states: “Yo, Born Against, you better be extremely fucking careful about who you talk shit about.” Born Against were bitten by indifference; amongst the hardline politicos they were sell-outs, not arty enough to break out of the scene ghetto, frozen out by those they would rile and defame. They scrabbled on until 1994, increasingly despondent, running out of cash, trapped in a moment that had the foul luck to be one of those tectonic plate shifts in popular culture. They ended four hours and a couple hundred miles away in Virginia, succumbing to the normal internal tensions and apathy, the all-too-common whimper instead of a bang.

1. The appearance of three major bands/trends is to blame. The Hated: who, despite the trumpeting of Rites of Spring (or, god help us, Sunny Day Real Estate), are really responsible for emo, at least in MY definition of it as used here. (As well as a handful of other bands from the D.C./Virginia/Maryland area: Honor Role, Moss Icon, King Crimson.) Napalm Death: who introduced both the 15 second “song” and the slow grind, as well as “metal” in a broader sense. (Alternately: Carcass.) And new wave: which reunited hardcore with its long estranged step-cousin the keyboard.
2. The best way to gauge this was to see which records MaximumRock&Roll wouldn’t touch with a ten-foot cattle prod.