Start Today: Bad Religion
It’s been a long-running joke amongst the POZ staff that Zack has no knowledge of musical history. That’s understandable, though: it can be intimidating to work your way through a long-established band’s large back catalog if you don’t know where to begin. Start Today is a new weekly column aimed at giving Zack (and you) an entry point into those essential artists’ catalogs. No more excuses: start today!
This week’s subject: venerable California punk legends Bad Religion.
Who are these guys? Formed in 1979, Bad Religion are one of the O.G. SoCal punk rock groups. Combining the breakneck speed of skatepunk with aggressively intellectual, politically charged lyrics courtesy of Dr. Greg Graffin (an Anthropology professor in his spare time), pop melodies and soaring vocal harmonies (the trademark “oozin ahhs”), Bad Religion created a sound all their own, one that’s become a template for everyone from NoFX to Anti-Flag. Unlike virtually all their peers, they’re still making vital, exciting music worth listening to today. And guitarist/co-songwriter Brett Gurewitz remains one of the most important figures in the punk scene today as the owner and founder of Epitaph Records, a label he originally created as an outlet for his own band’s music.
Where to start? Over the last 35 years, Bad Religion have released sixteen studio albums, along with a handful of EPs, compilations, live discs, and even a Christmas album. Remarkably, most of that material falls in the “very-good-to-excellent” category – Bad Religion might be the single most consistent punk band as far as songwriting goes. Still, there are a few distinct eras of Bad Religion, and each has its highlights.
- The Early Years: The period spanning 1982’s debut How Could Hell Be Any Worse? through 1985’s Back To The Known EP was a formative one – the band was still finding their sound and learning how to write proper songs, and the recordings are shaggy at best.
Recommended: No essential albums here, though a few songs from this era remain fan favorites today (we’ll get to that later).
- The “Golden Age”: Bad Religion’s sterling five-album run from 1988’s Suffer to 1993’s Recipe For Hate established their reputation as one of the US’s great punk bands; had they disappeared in 1993, they’d still be remembered today. You can’t go wrong with any of these albums, but for my money, the best of them is 1990’s scorching statement-of-purpose Against The Grain – it’s a 34 minute, 17-track declaration of warfare, one band taking a stand against a world slowly being consumed by willful ignorance, magical thinking and oppressive small-mindedness.
Recommended: Against The Grain
- The Atlantic Era: Nirvana’s mainstream breakthrough in 1991 launched a feeding frenzy amongst the major labels, as they rapidly signed any underground act with the potential to generate a hit. So, in 1993 Bad Religion got a shiny new contract and a big promotional push from Atlantic Records. The result was the band’s best-selling album to date, 1994’s gold Stranger Than Fiction. Clearly influenced by grunge’s slower tempos and characteristic stop-start songwriting, a few tracks here now feel dated, but for every miss, there are two or three essential cuts. Unfortunately, the same forces that carried Bad Religion to a major label pulled Gurewitz away from the band, as running Epitaph suddenly became a full-time job. The remainder of the band’s tenure on Atlantic, running from 1996’s The Gray Race to 2000’s The New America, marks a period of diminishing returns.
Recommended: Stranger Than Fiction
- The 21st Century: 2001 saw a major upheaval for Bad Religion. Their contract with Atlantic completed, the band returned to Epitaph; simultaneously, Gurewitz returned to the band. And when a chronic injury forced drummer Bobby Schayer into retirement, the band brought young, mega-talented Brooks Wackerman into the fold. The changes injected new life into the band just as they needed it, and the impact of those moves is apparent on 2002’s steamroller of an album, The Process Of Belief. Since then, the band has churned out consistently solid work, up to and including 2013’s True North.
Recommended: The Process Of Belief
All of that said, while Bad Religion have a number of start-to-finish-great albums, they aren’t really an “album” band – they don’t write concept albums (I’m ignoring 1983’s Into The Unknown here, and you should too), and while they generally do a fine job of sequencing their records, there’s not much lost by picking and choosing individual songs. Here’s a playlist of ten essential Bad Religion tracks that span the band’s career. Start with these, then dig into the albums above for a fuller picture of one of punk’s longest-tenured titans.