Correction: this article previously credited Fortino Ybarra for vocal contributions on “Mas Fuerte.” The correct credit is Rolando Ybarra.
Whether it be the relation between mass incarceration and hip hop (which NPR’s new podcast, Louder Than A Riot, explores) or the recent arrests of members of Pussy Riot in Russia for hanging pride flags in Moscow, music and politics are inherently tied together.
At the intersection of these two things is punk music — an ideological art composed of bold and brash songs as diverse sonically as the people making it.
This edition of Phoenix Playlist Picks contains some of The Phoenix editors’ favorite punk releases from the last year in honor of the upcoming election.
Short Fictions – “Fates Worse Than Death”
Pittsburgh-based Short Fictions’ debut album has a central theme of climate change, making it more relevant than ever as the West Coast continues to battle record wildfires and 25 named hurricanes formed in the Atlantic this year — just short of the 2005 high of 28.
In fact, the group’s vocalist and lyricist, Sam Treber, hyper-focuses on water-based natural disasters throughout the eight-track record. In the song “Cities Under Water,” he begs the question, “Who favors profits over sustainability?” before painting a vivid picture of heat waves, infectious disease, and of course, cities under water — the last of which is followed by a rollercoaster of instrumentals.
Accompanied by less frantic music, Treber later narrows his scope on the last track with original lyrics by focusing on the gentrification of Pittsburgh and its effects on his home.
“Everything that I love in Pittsburgh is quickly vanishing or getting gentrified / And I can’t live here anymore,” Treber sings on “Living In Places Like These Can Be Bad For Your Health (Can’t Live Here Anymore).”
David Strickland – “Spirit of Hip Hop”
First Nation producer David Strickland may be well known for his engineering contributions to Drake’s “Thank Me Later,” though his musical efforts stretch far beyond that. His debut album, “Spirit of Hip Hop,” focuses around featuring a variety of lesser-known Indigenous artists.
“Most people don’t know the amount of incredible talent we have in Indigenous communities because we’re not exposed to it and a lot of times we get put in the Indigenous category,” Strickland said in an interview with Complex.
The track “Rez Life” has six of the album’s three dozen artists contributing verses, each of which speaks to different hardships faced by the rapper or their community.
Drezus uses his verse to rap about police brutality toward Indigenous people, rapping, “Remind me of the popos / When they beat my ass that night / And threw me in a chokehold / You can’t choke the life out me,” before finishing off his verse by asking, “Oh Canada, why so hard on a native?”
Hellnback finishes off the song with the final verse where he touches on the increased suicide rates and substance abuse seen in Indigenous communities because of the racism they face, though he ends it on a more hopeful note.
“Change will come, I was told to stay strong and leave it all in a song.”
Grey Matter – “Climbing Out”
Grey Matter kicked off the year with their debut record, “Climbing out,” March 13. The 13-track album’s lyrics touch on several subjects from consent to debt — and just about everything in between.
The group’s vocalist, Mack Doyle doesn’t just cover the topics, though, instead calling listeners to action. “Call out your racist friends / It’s not just a joke when they actually believe it,” Doyle sings on the song “Not My Friend.”
The eight-member ska-punk group are joined by their fellow Michiganders in the mariachi-punk duo Pancho Villa’s Skull for the two-part track “Mas Fuerte.” The tracks focus on police brutality toward minorities, which was the cause of national protests in late May.
One half of the duo, Rolando Ybarra, takes the reins for the song’s vocals for the second part as it descends into a heavier, hardcore sound conveying a message of hope — the perfect representation of Grey Matter’s heavy sound and (mostly) positive messages.
Jeff Rosenstock – “NO DREAM”
Seth Meyers was right when he introduced Jeff Rosenstock on his show by saying, “The least we deserve in trying times like this is great punk music. Punk music that stands for something.”
Rosenstock returned to his criticism of the government in his first album since 2018, “NO DREAM.” It comes at a time where life may seem like a dream — or more like a nightmare, hence the title.
The album’s titular track takes on the Trump administration’s family separation policies for immigrants at the Southern border, with Rosenstock singing, “They were separating families carelessly / Under the guise of protecting you and me” before taking shots at corrupt politicians and capitalism as a whole.
“The only framework capitalism can thrive in is dystopia / Fuck all the fakers acting like they’re interested in hearing us / When we yell, ‘Hold accountable the architects of hopelessness and never ending violence.’”
All of these albums are available on Spotify and other streaming services.