I got into left-wing/leftist/liberal/progressive punk band Anti-Flag in high school. Honestly, I don’t think the group’s politics and lyrics were what drew me in. I just heard in their sound an angry rawness, increasingly channeled into catchier hooks, that resonated with me. As time went on, I came to recognize and appreciate Anti-Flag’s intent. Then, up to and including this very moment, I got a little “cringed out” by the group’s attempts to continue their past electricity.
So as you may figure, I’m not a huge fan of the latter period of the band, which has released 13 albums in the nearly 27 years since 1996 (although Anti-Flag was formed in 1988). But I came back to the group with relatively fresh ears, as their music hasn’t really been in my rotation for years, and I was pleasantly (re-)surprised by what I found in their past. I rank their 13 albums below, omitting the various EPs, splits, live albums, demo compilations, and more.
#13–20/20 VISION (2020)
Favorite track: “Resistance Frequencies”
There’s something about aging punk rockers, specifically the financially successful ones, that doesn’t always sit right with me. I often ask myself “Why are you still angry?” Of course, age doesn’t always diminish one’s rage and anyone is entitled to be critical of their surroundings. But it’s undeniable that especially successful musicians get lifted out of the circumstances that made their initial rawness so appealing. That dynamic is illustrated by 20/20 VISION, Anti-Flag’s anti-Trump record. Their disgust with the man is understandable and agreed with by me, but that emotion distilled into the album’s poppy sound and straining anthems is more often embarrassing than it is powerful. It at least dovetails into some optimism and I have to imagine that much of my negative reaction to the album can be attributed to how much terrible art the Trump era gave us (in spite of hopes to the contrary). But even evaluated purely on musical rather than lyrical lines, 20/20 VISION is hard to listen to.
#12 — AMERICAN SPRING (2015)
Favorite track: “Without End”
The deterioration of Anti-Flag as represented by 20/20 VISION didn’t start with that album, however. Coming after their biggest gap between records at just over three years, AMERICAN SPRING also represents the biggest quality differential jump in the band’s history. Over the course of the late 2000s and early 2010s, Anti-Flag had softened their sound into soaring choruses that was inching ever closer to arena rock than staying within the realm of intimate punk. Much of AMERICAN SPRING just feels rudderless, ambling about with a sheen of the hardness that amounts to straight ahead rock then and now.
#11 — AMERICAN FALL (2017)
Favorite track: “When the Wall Falls”
AMERICAN FALL, AMERICAN SPRING’s follow up and “sequel,” as it were, focuses much of its rhetoric on Trump and the culture the then-president represented. You can immediately see it in the cover and song titles like “When the Wall Falls.” But unlike 20/20 VISION and AMERICAN SPRING, there are quite a few more interesting musical concepts running through AMERICAN FALL. Take that aforementioned favorite track: it hits a bouncy chorus full of pop cheese, but the whole song moves with a verve that recalls Anti-Flag’s proximity and occasional embrace of the ’90s ska movement. Anti-Flag’s best albums are able to maintain a sense of fun and out-and-out abandon, sometimes in conflict with their lyrical aspirations. And while AMERICAN FALL comes nowhere near close to the peak of that ability, its few compelling echoes make it a vast improvement over its predecessor and successor.
#10 — LIES THEY TELL OUR CHILDREN (2023)
Favorite track: “Imperialism”
After the back half of the 2010s washed out as the nadir of Anti-Flag’s output, they returned in the 2020s with LIES THEY TELL OUR CHILDREN, their latest record at the time of this writing and the impetus for this piece. This feature-studded work does not represent a brainless detour for Anti-Flag and its song titles and lyrics would not lead one to believe they’ve abandoned their progressive focus. But LIES THEY TELL OUR CHILDREN seems to challenge the earnest and texture-less qualities of the band’s previous few albums with an upbeat energy. Its production style still obscures the rawness of the band’s best work, but the album sounds at worst like a dreaded “maturation” rather than a total “blandification.” LIES THEY TELL OUR CHILDREN isn’t a momentous return to form, but things are trending up for Anti-Flag.
#9 — THE GENERAL STRIKE (2012)
Favorite track: “The Ghosts of Alexandria”
THE GENERAL STRIKE was my first new Anti-Flag album and its release coincided with my cooling on the band. In their prior mainstreaming era, the band had made more and more “anthems,” punk songs that layered the sonic aesthetic on top of pop conventions and more accessible production qualities. With THE GENERAL STRIKE, that transformation had taken root across an entire record, not select songs. The result is an album with political ambitions hobbled by plain old boring songs. Its greatest sin is its inoffensiveness. Anti-Flag would make records that were more inane or cringe-y, but THE GENERAL STRIKE just dilutes their previously electrifying sound.
#8 — A NEW KIND OF ARMY (1999)
Favorite track: “No Apology”
We move out of the past decade or so to get to Anti-Flag’s sophomore slump. But to be clear, from this point on, the albums on this list are essentially good or better. A NEW KIND OF ARMY isn’t some kind of bitter disappointment after the the band’s debut, but there’s something missing in their continuation of an abrasive style. The approach isn’t too far off but much of the album lacks a kind of hook, a groove or thrash that sets verses tumbling through my brain or my head nodding, at the very least. A NEW KIND OF ARMY isn’t a bad album, but it is in the middling range of Anti-Flag releases.
#7 — UNDERGROUND NETWORK (2001)
Favorite track: “Underground Network”
In spite of my criticism of late era Anti-Flag, it’s not like I totally enshrine their earliest work as perfect punk. UNDERGROUND NETWORK, the follow up to A NEW KIND OF ARMY, brought the band greater fame and I think I understand why. There was a little bit of a sound expansion happening on the album, slowing things down just a tad, making Sane’s vocal delivery a little more palatable here and there, and all the while maintaining a defiant, harsh sound that didn’t betray the group’s roots. UNDERGROUND NETWORK was a necessary exploration for the punks, who wailed on their guitars in protracted solos a bit more alongside repetitive chord progression. As ever, Anti-Flag’s political message was crystal clear on the album, although the title’s central thrust, calling for an alternative to mainstream news, is something that ironically has been twisted into conspiracy theory mongering by others. Ultimately, though, UNDERGROUND NETWORK is a good bit of punk, never riffing into top-tier angsty energy, but always cruising with solid genre offerings.
#6 — MOBILIZE (2002)
Favorite track: “What’s the Difference?”
One half of MOBILIZE featured brand-new Anti-Flag songs while the other carried live renditions of past tunes; what I’m evaluating here is the former. In that regard, MOBILIZE is a brief little ass-kicker of an album. Featuring one of the most potent political screeds in the band’s history in the form of “Anatomy of Your Enemy,” the record also just moves with a hardcore energy that reversed a bit of the loosening up that had happened with UNDERGROUND NETWORK. But as you may note, that is to MOBILIZE’s credit, a middle-of-the-list Anti-Flag album that nevertheless hums with vital energy.
#5 — THE PEOPLE OR THE GUN (2009)
Favorite track: “Sodom, Gomorrah, Washington D.C. (Sheep in Shepherd’s Clothing)”
By the end of the first decade of the 21st century, Anti-Flag had made concessions to the effects of mainstream “hard rock” music. It is to the band’s credit, however, that they were able to integrate those influences to mostly entertaining results. Furthermore, those efforts lived alongside bangers that would have fit into the band’s earlier era, such as “Sodom, Gomorrah, Washington D.C. (Sheep in Shepherd’s Clothing),” perhaps my favorite Anti-Flag song. As the opening to THE PEOPLE OR THE GUN, the standout track offers more than the rest of the record’s tunes can match, but it’s not like what comes after is utterly disappointing. Indeed, in transitioning from true-blue punk songs like “Sodom” to relative crooners like “The Old Guard,” Anti-Flag kind of had their cake and ate it too with this album. That does mean, however, that THE PEOPLE OR THE GUN isn’t as cohesively powerful as other top-tier records from the band.
#4 — THE TERROR STATE (2003)
Favorite track: “Rank-N-File”
Produced by Rage Against the Machine’s Tom Morello, THE TERROR STATE advanced Anti-Flag’s polish. I’ve used some variation of the term “anthem” a few times already in this piece, but the way the band utilizes the chanting chorus convention to hit collective energies can be great, as on “Rank-N-File.” And weirdly enough, for all its grim imagery on the cover, THE TERROR STATE has a more optimistic sound. Nevertheless, the record doesn’t sacrifice an angry spirit. THE TERROR STATE harnessed the band’s earlier instincts and channeled it into a catchy conduit, making it a success in its own right even as it set Anti-Flag down a different path.
#3 — FOR BLOOD AND EMPIRE (2006)
Favorite track: “This Is the End (For You My Friend)”
That path took the band to FOR BLOOD AND EMPIRE. This RCA Records release caused many to question Anti-Flag and their anti-corporate stance; accusations of selling out, in addition to a perceived weakening of their sound, ensued. And honestly, I get it. FOR BLOOD AND EMPIRE hits mainstream notes for much of its runtime, seeming to take lessons from nu-metal and pop punk outfits. But once again, I was impressed by Anti-Flag’s ability to fuel their rise with early 2000s musical elements I often find annoying and make pretty good music in the process. “This Is the End (For You My Friend)” swirls around with more plaintive than screaming tones, but when it enters the bouncing chorus I just can’t resist its charms. And fellow tracks on the album aren’t uniformly built to sell. FOR BLOOD AND EMPIRE succeeds in slyly smoothing out Anti-Flag’s oldest instincts.
#2 — THE BRIGHT LIGHTS OF AMERICA (2008)
Favorite track: “No Warning”
THE BRIGHT LIGHTS OF AMERICA is a bit more of a guilty pleasure than FOR BLOOD AND EMPIRE. But then hey, why even have guilty pleasures? The fact is that THE BRIGHT LIGHTS OF AMERICA was the furthest Anti-Flag was able to diverge from their original sonic ethos without crossing over into ineffectual territory. Fittingly enough, the album is bright and at times just a bit too facile in its production. But that doesn’t prevent an urgency from striking through, as best shown by “No Warning.” THE BRIGHT LIGHTS OF AMERICA’s strength, however, lies not in carrying a lot of the best Anti-Flag songs, but instead offering varied yet consistently moving experiences within the punk band’s broadened style.
#1 — DIE FOR THE GOVERNMENT (1996)
Favorite track: “Die for the Government”
For all my sellout status praise, I can’t shake the impact of Anti-Flag’s debut album DIE FOR THE GOVERNMENT. The band would be more lyrically complex, politically cogent, instrumentally proficient, and catchy. But fuck all that: DIE FOR THE GOVERNMENT is a great punk album because it’s so raw. Its mix is just savvy enough so as to translate Andy Flag’s great bass (something I feel gets subsumed on some releases in the genre). Most of its songs are repetitive in the best way, constantly hammering home one anti-authoritarian message as well as the same strong guitar riffs. But most of all, it feels sincerely angry. DIE FOR THE GOVERNMENT, Anti-Flag’s best album, pulses with a caustic energy that, even at this early stage, is supplemented by an ear for what the people want to hear.