Punk rock started in 1976 on New York’s Bowery, when four cretins from Queens came up with a mutant strain of blitzkrieg bubblegum. The revolution they inspired split the history of rock & roll in half. But even if punk rock began as a kind of negation — a call to stark, brutal simplicity — its musical variety and transforming emotional power was immediate and remains staggering. To celebrate the 40th anniversary of the Ramones’ toweringly influential self-titled debut, we’ve compiled a list of the 40 Greatest Punk Albums of All Time.
If Ramones was Year Zero for punk rock, it didn’t come without precedent, so we included essential forebears like the Stooges, the New York Dolls, Pere Ubu and Patti Smith, artists who were punk in spirit (if not always entirely in sound) before the style really had a name. We didn’t get too fussy about all the old “but really, what is punk?” debates either. Along with the Pistols and the Clash, Black Flag and the Descendents, Minor Threat and Hüsker Dü and the Bad Brains, and on and on, you’ll find the slashing Marxist disco of Gang of Four, the ice-storm goth of Joy Division, the warped rust-and-rubber new wave of Devo, the Mod revivalism of the Jam, the riot-born reggae of the Slits, the art-guitar revelations of Television and Sonic Youth and the 21st-century dervish-noise assault of White Lung. Anarcho-collectivists Crass spent their entire unimpeachably admirable existence trying to defend an ethical barricade against a corpo-goofball atrocity like Blink-182. But they’re both great, and they’re both here.
Because this is a list of albums and not bands, a lot of great punk acts didn’t make the cut. The Circle Jerks, Adolescents, Fear, the Big Boys, the Dickies, the Dicks and even the mighty Damned just didn’t have that one perfect LP statement that could inspire consensus among our editors. Ultimately, we found ourselves pulled toward records that embodied punk’s spirit, and even stretched it a little. “Punk rock should mean freedom,” said Kurt Cobain in 1991, just as Nevermind was exploding punk values across the middle American mainstream. Here’s a map to where that freedom has gone.