Album of the Year: IDLES, Joy as an Act of Resistance

“Don’t Wanna Be Your Man”: The Best Punk Album in Years Seizes Joy as an Act of Resistance

Bristol rock outfit IDLES debuted in 2017 with the mercurial, clear-eyed Brutalism, a record widely hailed as the best punk album of the decade. As much as frontman Joe Talbot has insisted, as he did at a recent concert in Manchester, “for the last time, we’re not a fucking punk band,” it’s hard to think of a better term to classify the heady mix of pummeling rhythm, buzzsaw guitars, and puckish, socially-conscious lyrics that animates IDLES’ music. Genre quibbles aside, Joy as an Act of Resistance does everything great punk rock should do: it struts; it mocks; it tears down; it swaggers. It also echoes throughout with a truly radical cry for self-acceptance.

“Colossus” opens the album with a towering slow burn of mounting angst that builds to a laugh-out-loud, open-hearted climax—Talbot gleefully compares himself to Evel Knievel and Reggie Kray; he puts “homophobes in coffins” like “Stone Cold Steve Austin” over his bandmates’ schoolyard chants of “I don’t wanna be your man.” “Never Fight a Man with a Perm” playfully skewers the toxic elite “heathen from Eton” (“He hates me / I like that”) while evoking the impotent rage of a street fight in its anthemic chorus of “concrete and leather”—before ending with a surprising request to “hug it out.” “I’m Scum” is an upbeat tour of smartassed lyricism, and the pop-punk banger “Danny Nedelko” wears the album’s soaring, life-affirming heart on its sleeve.

The prickly “Love Song” introduces a new, raw register, while “June”’s surprise morphine drip infuses Joy with a dose of real pain as Talbot processes the loss of his stillborn daughter. “Television” offers words of kindness delivered with a guttural growl: “If someone talked to you / the way you do to you / I’d put their teeth through / love yourself.” “Great” provides a timely anti-Brexit jab, while “Gram Rock” is an endearing bit of nonsense that wouldn’t sound out of place snarling out of Mark E. Smith on a mid-‘80s release by the Fall. “Cry to Me” extends a compassionate, scraped-knuckled hand over throbbing toms and a bassline that’s downright slinky, before the rollicking “Rottweiler” kicks open the door to reveal “a vulture at my breakfast table.”

One of the real standouts is “Samaritans,” a howl of righteous rage against “the mask of masculinity / a mask that’s wearing me.” It’s earnest lyrics like these that have earned the album the mocking designation “soypunk” in some circles, showing that the band isn’t afraid of alienating fans who don’t share their unabashedly leftist politics.

Like Fred Astaire name-checked in “Colossus,” visions of alternative ways to be a man dance throughout the album. Just as the riot grrrl movement (popularized by Bikini Kill in the early ‘90s) reclaimed girlhood in a society that sexualizes young women and forces them into premature adulthood, Joy as an Act of Resistance creates a space for men to reject the narrow roles imposed on them. The effect is endlessly delightful.

The best punk album of 2018 strives across 12 lean tracks to elevate vulnerability and innocence as valid expressions of manhood, and does it grinning through teeth chipped in a barroom brawl. In these frightened times, IDLES’ boyish crow of joy is utterly infectious. What it lacks in subtlety, it more than makes up for in sheer, thundering catharsis—lyrics like “my blood brother is an immigrant” and “I kissed a boy and I liked it” land like a fist to the jaw of right-wing patriarchy on both sides of the Atlantic.

Ten points to Gryffindor, indeed.

RUNNER UP: Janelle Monáe, Dirty Computer

The one-time Electric Lady brings familiar Afrofuturist sci-fi sensibilities to her most fully realized release yet. Breakout singles “PYNK” and “Make Me Feel” helped a beleaguered nation get down this past summer, augmenting an album that is multifaceted, collaborative, and joyous–part pop confection, part social critique, all gloriously funky.