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Downtown Boys
Downtown BoysPhotography Miguel Rosario

Five red hot American ‘punk’ bands you need to know

They aren’t punk in the traditional sense, but these politically-charged artists are using the genre’s energy and anti-establishment ethics to transform what rock means today

After Donald Trump was elected, there was a peculiarly optimistic call that resonated across the music internet. It was a movement that Jessica Hopper termed “the silver-lining myth:” the belief that under Trump, music (more specifically, punk music) would flourish. The reasoning was simple enough: many vital, progressive protest musics developed under authoritarian or oppressive governments. But that impassioned cry, clearly a desire for something to lean on and believe in, was essentially misguided. Music is not immune to the mechanisms that reproduce and encourage oppression; to place our faith in it is to forget to look inward and critically examine our own role in restitution. Punk as a bloated, modern institution might not be capable of bringing about change. Thankfully, this year brings records by rock and roll bands run by punks to bring back agency and critical potential to rock itself. 

These bands aren’t necessarily punk. Lee Bains plays a style of southern guitar rock that sounds singed by the grit and kinks of punk energy and aesthetics. Downtown Boys play stripped-down, E-Street-style, horns-and-guitar rock and roll, ratcheted up to a frenetic pace that recalls the early days of hardcore punk. Benjamin Booker weaves gospel, blues, soul, rock and roll, and folk to create a genreless patchwork of sounds, sewn together with his impassioned, raspy vocals. Sheer Mag’s powerpop and boisterous riffs recall the easy-going glory of 70s stadium rock, while Priests’ complex, multiplicitous mosaic of sound and structure toy with associations to emphasise their points. The bands listed here subscribe to the egalitarian, anti-establishment ethics of punk’s initial form; those traits stopped being qualifiers for a band to be called ‘punk’ years ago, meaning that that word, form, and genre have been overcrowded and polluted to the point of inefficacy. What’s clear is the word means different things to different people: perhaps the word ‘punk’ simply isn’t a reliable tool anymore. 

What is generally true of these bands is that they play rock and roll, and in their own way, they’re challenging our understanding of that genre. The musicians in this list aren’t chart-toppers for a reason; they use their music to speak against the systems that silence and devalue anyone who isn’t a straight white male. These artists acknowledge and affirm that admissions of complicity, silence, and guilt in hegemonic oppression are the first, necessary step towards progress; without these, any aspirations for reparation or reconciliation are unfounded and, ultimately, hollow. These are the punks making rock and roll mean something in America for once.


Downtown Boys came storming out of Rhode Island in 2011, but it was with the release of 2015’s Full Communism that they started to turn heads en masse. It was an atypical, gripping, riotous sprint, hurdling at breakneck speed through a ten-track, 25-minute runtime. Perhaps the most direct route to understanding them is how they’re often described in the press: bilingual, queer, collective.

On that debut LP, they furiously indicted an intersectional laundry list of systems of oppression (including tall males: “Fuck you, tall boy!” Victoria Ruiz bellows), and provided slogan-ready mantras of empowerment (on “Monstro”, Ruiz testifies bluntly, “She’s brown! She’s smart!”). Downtown Boys have dedicated their platform to speaking against systems that erase and subjugate marginalised communities, and their upcoming release, Cost of Living, promises to be just as battle-ready: “A wall is just a wall, and nothing more at all,” Ruiz affirms confidently on the lead single. It’s that rejection of division that fuels Downtown Boys’ calls to disruption and solidarity.


More than anything, Lee Bains III & the Glory Fires is a product of its place. Had Bains, the group’s frontman and primary songwriter, grown up anywhere but Birmingham, Alabama, it’s unclear what his music would sound like. In the vein of explicitly local songwriters like John K. Samson and Greg Barnett, Bains’ relationship with his home is ambiguous, nuanced, complex. On the band’s third full-length record, Youth Detention//Nail My Feet Down to the South Side of Town, Bains applies a lacerating critical lens to his city and himself, dismantling the violently discriminatory socialization he experienced growing up. He rages against America’s prison-industrial complex, the criminalization and subjugation of black bodies, the objectification of women, and the moral dissonance of American rhetoric; these are all related in personal narratives, coloured by detail and reflection.

For Bains, progress is impossible without admission of this embedded prejudice: “Guilt is not a feeling, it’s a natural fact!” he shouts on “I Can Change!” Only once guilt and complicity is acknowledge can restitution or restorative justice be pursued. Like the work of Samson and Barnett, what resonates insistently on Youth Detention is that these stories and issues aren’t local; geography is just a tool for rooting the stories that exist across the globe. Bains uses Birmingham to illustrate that the white, male, heteronormative supremacy he was socialised to uphold is embedded everywhere. He uses his songs to confess and begin to undo that teaching, and to emphasise the need for us to do the same.


Benjamin Booker’s new record, Witness, finds the songwriter turning a lens inward, filing down the punk-blues fireworks of his self-titled debut to a more contemplative, soul-rock shuffle. But this shift is in step with the content on Witness; an exercise self-examination, spurred by a trip to Mexico, absurdist novelists, and, most importantly, late American writer James Baldwin. Booker extrapolates and converses with Baldwin’s idea of a witness, and the resulting record is an exploration of Booker’s relationship to America, and his role in confronting pervasive systemic racism amidst omnipotent police brutality against people of colour. He posed the following two questions in an essay introducing his record: “‘Am I going to be witness?’ and in today’s world, ‘Is that enough?’” Booker’s self-confrontation isn’t explicitly political; it’s couched in conversation with himself.

Of course, it’s contextualised in American politics, but he uses his experience and narrative as a locus for the conversations we’d seek to politicise. Booker asks of us what Baldwin once posed: “How precisely are you going to reconcile yourself to your situation here?”


Washington, DC quartet Priests, helmed by the brilliant Katie Alice Greer, have made a career of dissecting the perverse, binaried constructs that comprise so much of North American discourse. They have been blunt in this endeavor; their 2014 EP was called Bodies and Control and Money and Power. Under Priests’ lens, as under capitalism, there is no ethical consumption; Greer and her band eviscerate commodification, conspicuous consumerism, and the identity construction we’re bred to engage with.

Priests’ is a constantly evolving narrative, critiquing, recontextualising, and critiquing again in an effort to not just avoid the pitfalls of a commodified life, but to practice an existence that isn’t a filtered repackaging of some more essential truth. “If it’s nuanced and confusing to people, that’s cool,” Greer explained to the Washington Post in 2014. “It’s nuanced and confusing to us, too.” On this year’s Nothing Feels Natural, Priests use a breadth of sound and style not just as a sonic tool, but as a means of troubling and challenging our understandings of genre; from funk grooves to jazz improvisation to pop melodicism, Priests set castrating commentary to sounds that are typically incompatible. In a recent interview, Greer articulated the importance of delineating those genre constructs: “Genre is a tool of the marketplace.”


“When we walk together, it feels alright! Meet me in the street!” shouts frontwoman Tina Halladay over power pop riffing that seeks to undo half a century of that same genre’s misogyny. This is the first track on Sheer Mag’s upcoming record, Need To Feel Your Love, and it’s an invitation to dissent, to disorder, and, through engaging in those together, to union. The record functions as a rallying cry to upset and disturb oppressive political and social mechanisms that subjugate and restrain marginalised individuals.

To make clear the necessity of these actions, they remind us of the past: on “(Say Goodbye to) Sophie Scholl”, they recall the factual story of the title character who, at 21, was executed by guillotine for her role in disseminating anti-war propaganda in Germany in 1943. They speak of the Stonewall Riots of 1969 on “Suffer Me”, recalling a critical moment in the push for LGBTQ+ rights; the events at Stonewall, where members of New York City’s gay community resisted police aggression and harassment, were among the first instances of people banding together to push back against the state-sanctioned violence the gay community suffered (and, in many places, continues to suffer). It’s easy to blithely hand-wring and remark on how applicable these stories are to ‘modern times;’ it’s quite harder to absorb and reflect on the gravity of that fact, then implement an action plan around it. Sheer Mag have drawn up their plans, and want you to get in on it.