This weekend, punk label Fat Wreck Chords is throwing a 25th anniversary bash in its home city of San Francisco. The two-day festival is the penultimate stop for the label’s celebratory run – I’ll be at the final show in LA on Monday (the tour will also reassemble in November for a show in Japan) – that features Fat Wreck Chords staples old & new, including NOFX, Lagwagon, Swingin’ Utters, Strung Out, toyGuitar, The Flatliners, & several others. Suffice to say, it’s a bit of a dream tour for me. In honor of the legendary label’s 25th, I decided to write up a Top 10 list of Fat records that have heavily influenced my life, which is also in its 25th year.
If it wasn’t for Fat Wreck Chords, I wouldn’t be who I am. I’m the youngest of four boys, & my brothers raised me on Fat bands since adolescence. My first Fat record was Swingin’ Utters’ Five Lessons Learned. There’s a picture of me (lost somewhere back in Pennsylvania) unwrapping the CD on Christmas morning, 1998. I was 8 years old, & my bucktoothed smile couldn’t have been wider. From an early age, my brothers made sure I didn’t turn into a “radio kid.” They would bring me into their rooms & play me songs, genuinely interested in whether I would like them or not. It was (admirably) important to them that I understood that mainstream culture wasn’t all that was out there. My brother Nick called me into his basement bedroom to hear NOFX & Propagandhi for the first time. Jon would make me mix tapes, aptly titled “Sam’s Cool Tapes,” with songs by Rancid, Bad Religion, Less Than Jake, & One Man Army. While not all of these are Fat bands, each spoke to the West Coast punk sound Fat Wreck Chords represents. Today, I own 95 of the label’s releases, not including the NOFX 7” box set. So yeah, this list was pretty tough. I restricted myself to one record per band, because otherwise you’d be reading about 3 None More Black records & at least 2 Utters records. It has some curveballs, as well. Trust me, it hurt when I had to cut out Dillinger Four.
10. Rise Against – Revolutions Per Minute (2003)
“I have an American Dream / but it involves black masks & gasoline.”
Every record on this list fell into place relatively easily except for this #10 spot. I’m honestly a little surprised to be writing about Revolutions Per Minute & not D4’s C I V I L W A R or Western Addiction’s Cognicide, but I couldn’t deny how crucial this record was during my formative years. Compared to much of what I listen to now, this second LP from the Chicago superstars is pretty tame, but when I was 13, this was the heaviest record I had. Songs like “Dead Ringer,” “Halfway There,” & “To the Core” paved the way for the hardcore bands I would eventually get into. Its politics were influential, too, teaching me not to accept everything authority has to say at face value. I remember when my oldest brother first showed me “Heaven Knows.” I would sit at the family computer with the music video (below) on repeat until my dad finally drove me to Chester County Book & Music Co. to buy a copy. While I may not still follow the band, Revolutions Per Minute will always be an important record to me.
9. NOFX – The War on Errorism (2003)
“The industrial revolution has flipped the bitch on evolution / The benevolent & wise are being thwarted, ostracized / What a bummer / The world keeps getting dumber / Insensitivity is standard, & faith is being fancied over reason.”
The War on Errorism was my first new NOFX record. Sure, my brothers had me well-versed on their crucial older records, but this was the first time I could share in their anticipation of fresh material from one of our collective favorite bands. I was 13. Before its official announcement, vocalist/bassist & Fat Wreck Chords owner Fat Mike joked that they were going to call it Our Second Best Record (he once cited So Long & Thanks for All the Shoes as his favorite), which makes sense, because this is some of the best NOFX material out there. George W. Bush’s incessant buffoonery sparked something in Fat Mike, whose newfound social conscience produced the band’s most intelligent and poignant content to date (well, okay, The Decline is the exception). Songs like “The Irrationality of Rationality” & “The Idiots Are Taking Over” bitterly lament American society’s dark truths (“Helen was living in her car trying to feed her kids / She got laid off of work, & her house was repossessed / It’s hard to think clearly when it’s 38 degrees / Desperate people have been know to render desperate deeds / But when she shot that family & moved into their home, the paper read she suffered from dementia”), while “Separation of Church & Skate” & “Medio-core” tackle the sorry state of the music scene (“Where is the violent apathy? / These fucking records are rated G / When did punk rock become so safe?”). “Franco Un-American” had me watching Michael Moore and reading Howard Zinn. Sure, I was young, naïve, & impressionable, but I’m lucky to have been impressed upon by intelligent, subversive ideas. I have NOFX to thank for that.
8. Smoke or Fire – Above the City (2005)
“While they’re working for a drug free world / they’re taking all the money from the working man / so the working man turns to drugs / Forget everything they said / Don’t let them into your head / Can’t you see that’s what they want from you?”
I fucking love this record, & it disappoints me that I haven’t seen Smoke or Fire on any other Top Fat lists. It’s unfortunate that they never really got the attention or following they deserved. Above the City was the band’s Fat debut (& first release under the Smoke or Fire name), & I still spin it monthly. Save for its solitary acoustic track (an enjoyable drinking song), every song on this record is dimed out. Vocalist/guitarist Joe McMahon is rarely not at the peak of his register. There’s just so much energy here. Above the City is blue collar punk focused on the plight of the working class & political society’s failure to bolster the country’s backbone. Unfortunately, the message is as prevalent today as it was then. Here’s hoping McMahon writes another. I’m drowning in student loans & could sure use it.
7. Banner Pilot – Collapser (2009)
“Something in the air makes me wonder / why the hell I’d care about tomorrow / when it’s all right here / the wine, the hope, & you.”
Banner Pilot has it all. If someone asked me to encapsulate the “Fat Wreck Chords sound,” I would just drop the needle on Collapser. Its driving, bouncy basslines, snotty, gravelly vocals, high degree of catchiness, & thick coating of drunken sentimentality make it one of the best Midwestern punk records I’ve ever heard. I downloaded “Greenwood” & “Skeleton Key” from Fat’s website & burned them onto their own CD so I could listen to them on repeat in the car until my copy arrived in the mail. I was 19, but I felt 12 again. I felt excited about punk. I felt affected. Even though I live in San Diego now, I can still feel a breath of early autumn wind when I listen to Collapser, & I hope that never fades.
6. Propagandhi – Potemkin City Limits (2005)
“Chalk it up to an overdeveloped sense of unbridled vengeance / Somebody fed me too much New Hope for breakfast / ‘cause as The Empire (preemptively) Strikes Back (again) / & the voice of Luke’s father baritones, ‘This is CNN’ / I recall Arab kids slaughtered, reduced to sand-niggers & rag-heads / & now I’m expected to mourn dead Americans? / The executioner’s willing citizens?”
Like with NOFX’s War on Errorism, this was my first new Propagandhi record. Thanks to my frequent visits to Fat Wreck’s website, I heard “America’s Army (Die Jugend Marschiert)” before my oldest brother, an already big Propagandhi fan. I called him upstairs to hear it & vividly recall him, dumbfounded, saying, “That’s the best song they’ve ever written.” To this day, I’m still blown away every time I listen to this record, & the fact that they were a trio at the time defies reason. I genuinely don’t understand how Chris Hannah can play these guitar parts while singing. It goes without saying that Propagandhi is the “smartest” band you could find. Hannah’s lyrics read like graduate-level political science theses, each a focused, logically sound takedown of the issue at hand, be it war profiteering, systematic racism, or the Vans Warped Tour (before it was cool to hate on it). He even calls out Fat Wreck Chords’ label owner Fat Mike. Yeah, the guy funding & distributing the record. Hannah’s soaring vocals and blistering guitar leave no stone unturned. Propagandhi has since released two more masterpieces, but Potemkin City Limits will always have a special place in my heart.
5. Swingin’ Utters – Poorly Formed (2013)
“The concrete bridges that span the highway are pretty / The concrete bridges that span the highway are ugly / I wanna live inside a house that’s a wilderness where no one goes / I wanna drink from a well, swim the lakes & rivers cut into the overgrowth.”
Picking a favorite Swingin’ Utters record is like picking a favorite friend. Sure, some edge out the others, but you don’t even want to. But I tried, & I’m near-certain it’s 2013’s Poorly Formed. Considering the Utters are one of my longest running beloved bands (17 years now, shit), it’s pretty remarkable that my go-to record is a recent one, & is surely a testament to how deliciously their songwriting has aged. They are a genre unto themselves, having blended folk, classical, & street-punk into an entirely unique sound. No band sounds like the Utters, not even the members’ other bands or solo endeavors. Poorly Formed is special to me because it was the first Utters record to showcase Jack Dalrymple’s stylistic contribution to the group (yeah, yeah, I know “Effortless Amnesiac” was on Here, Under Protest, but that’s one song). The addition of Dalrymple (ex-One Man Army, The Re-volts, Dead to Me, toyGuitar) has no doubt been a rejuvenating factor for the band, which was on hiatus from 2003 until 2011. They’ve already put out 3 LPs in the last 4 years & have no plans on slowing down, which frankly astonishes me, because if you’d have told me when I was 8 & rocking Five Lessons Learned that the Utters would still be killing it when I was 25, I may have had trouble believing you.
4. Dead to Me – Cuban Ballerina (2006)
“An overwhelming, resonating voice / second-guessing every single choice / Now I’ve gotta find a new escape / for this blood that itches & this head that aches / I’ve got no reaction / Every action is true.”
I can’t even begin to describe to you how excited I was when I read about Dead to Me on Punknews.org. One Man Army had been a favorite band of mine for years solely because of Jack Dalrymple’s raspy croon, & I think I cried when they called it quits (I was 14 & emo had made crying cool, okay?) When the first few Dead to Me demos showed up on Myspace, I ripped them onto a CD-R that I quickly wore out. Luckily, the band re-recorded those songs for their debut LP, Cuban Ballerina, which has since become a unanimous favorite among us Fatties. I was initially a bit bummed that Dalrymple wasn’t handling 100% of the vocal duties, but I quickly realized how important to the DNA of Dead to Me & the effectiveness of Cuban Ballerina the vocal interplay of Dalrymple & ex-Western Addiction member Chicken actually was, especially since much of the record’s subject matter deals directly with Chicken’s history with hard drug addiction. Cuban Ballerina is fast, loud, catchy, dark, & dynamic, & I couldn’t be more thrilled that Dalrymple recently rejoined the band. Now can we get a repress of this one, Fat?
3. Against Me! …as the Eternal Cowboy (2003)
“So can your pop sensibilities sing me the end of the world? / Turn gunshots and mortar blasts into a metaphor of how we are all the same / Well, there’s a lot of things that should be said, so we’re hammering six strings / Machine gun in audible voices / This is the party we came for.”
This was my first Against Me! record, & it led to an all-out obsession. I picked it up in anticipation of a 2003 Fat-centric tour featuring None More Black, AM!, Rise Against, & Anti-Flag. Holy shit, indeed. In a dark, indecent time when bands like Sum 41 & New Found Glory were considered punk, Against Me! was A New Hope. Led by Tom Gabel, who has since revealed herself as punk rock queen Laura Jane Grace, the four-piece were, for a time, unrivaled when it came to sing-along folk-punk, a genre that’s not easy to make your own. But with a tinny snare drum sound, a jangly Rickenbacker guitar tone, & Grace’s ability to sound gruff & still carry a vibrato, AM! pulled it off. …as the Eternal Cowboy’s details alone read like the perfect punk record – 11 tracks in 25 minutes, including 3 acoustics & an instrumental. Melodramatic anarcho-punk assholes were offended when Against Me! signed to Fat & put out this more “polished” record, but I guarantee you they felt like idiots while the rest of us were screaming along to “Sink, Florida, Sink.” I still tear my throat apart to this record, & I always will.
2. None More Black – File Under Black (2003)
“Sit down & let the feeling take control / Creepy, can’t hide it with a smile / I’m pretty sure I don’t believe in god / but I can pretend for a little while.”
Jason Shevchuk is, without a doubt, my favorite songwriter. No matter the project, be it Kid Dynamite, None More Black, OnGuard, or Lagrecia, Shevchuk’s punk sensibilities are untouchable. No one on this or any other planet knows better where to put a “woah-oh” or a “hey!” It’s just in his blood. None More Black rose from the ashes of Kid Dynamite (Shevchuk is rather infamous for ending projects), & File Under Black was their first full length record. There has since been two more LPs & an EP, & frankly, File Under Black isn’t necessarily my favorite. It’s just my most spun. It’s also inarguably the most straightforward NMB record. While follow-ups This is Satire & Icons upped the complexity level with varying paces & keys, File Under Black is lungs-to-the-wall, piss & vinegar-soaked punk rock. This is my “fuck off, everything” record, the one I put on during a heated bike ride when everything in my brain is flashing middle fingers. It also doesn’t hurt that the songs titles are mostly derived from Seinfeld (there’s an OFFICE SPACE one, too). Please, Mr. Shevchuk, make another record. I don’t care what you call it!
1. The Lawrence Arms – The Greatest Story Ever Told (2003)
“I’m tending the pyres of my frustrations / burning leaves on buried dreams, kneeling in to rake the ashes / I’m embering / You’re smoldered out / My hands are free / My lungs are proud / Your forgiveness is a fading fiction / These flames have never burned so high / I won’t be staring in your eyes.”
Not only is The Greatest Story Ever Told my top Fat record, it’s my favorite record of all time. For those unaware, The Lawrence Arms are 3 best friends from Chicago who had previously played in several quintessential Midwestern punk bands, such as Slapstick, The Broadways, & Baxter. This record is the trio’s 4th LP, & still stands as their most unique due to its romanticized circus theme, literary influences, & generally somber tone. I ordered the record off Fat’s website after hearing “On With the Show,” which features a breakneck pace & bassist Brendan Kelly’s rocks-in-a-blender vocal style, so imagine my surprise when I popped the CD into the stereo & heard guitarist Chris McCaughan’s crisp-as-an-autumn-night croon on “The Raw & Searing Flesh.” It’s this duality that makes The Greatest Story Ever Told. Kelly’s songs take care of the punk with high infusions of speed & attitude, while McCaughan’s tracks paint a dreamy portrait through melody & melancholy. The record is rife with literary & cultural references, including nods to Kafka, J.D. Salinger, & most prominently Mikhail Bulgakov. It’s a bit pretentious to say, but this is the record that made me want to be a writer.