When punk began in New York City, the only connecting thread in a cacophony of disparate sounds from the likes of Television, Blondie, The Ramones, and the Talking Heads was weirdness. They were outcasts: art school kids, glam-disco-vampires, self-anointed street poets, greasers in leather jackets who longed for the bygone days of Elvis Presley, not particularly concerned with being punk bands with the best lyrics. The scattered freak-flag nature of punk forever changed with the first wave of British bands to adopt the moniker, notably the Sex Pistols and The Clash.
Far from the wide-eyed, weirdo positivism and poetry of the New York bands, London kids who adopted punk lived in a socially conservative nation struggling with its post-war identity, a social condition that gave birth to punk bands with political lyrics. There was a brutal campaign of sectarian violence happening a few hundred miles away in Northern Ireland, American commercial influence was expanding throughout the UK, many young people had trouble finding work, and the Thatcher years, lurking just around the corner, promised even worse conditions.
All the frustrations of these bands, from Londoners like Sex Pistols and The Clash to Northern Ireland's Stiff Little Fingers, came out through incendiary, sardonic, profane, politically and socially engaged lyrics. The first Pistols and Clash albums are cultural snapshots of England and its youth culture, with song titles like "I'm So Bored with the USA," "Career Opportunities," "Anarchy in the UK," and "God Save the Queen."
Since this first wave of British punk bands, the genre has been all about lyrics. Bands from the Dead Kennedys through to Against Me! have touched up issues ranging from nuclear war to police brutality, Reaganomics, and race, gender, and sexuality-based equality, often times with a wicked sense of humor. The likes of Rancid address political and social issues through personal narratives about life in the San Francisco Bay area, while Crass put so much effort into the lyrics it eclipses the relatively pedestrian music and has fans staunchly defending the group with cries of "It's about the lyrics, not the music!"
Punk bands with the best lyrics span multiple generations of punk, from bands who were banging it out in abandoned British warehouses in the mid-70s to hardcore and folk influenced American bands that headline ballrooms in the 2010s. There are feminist indie-crossover bands, anarchist punks, Bay Area crust kids, Midwestern goth punks, anti-war ex-soldiers with dayglo mohawks.
As any punk worth her salt would tell you, don't forget to vote. So vote up the punk bands you think have the best lyrics.