In 1997, CD Warehouses proliferated across suburban strip malls, sterile repositories of cheap, hard-plastic media where Joe Hedgetrimmer could methodically click-click-click through Eagles and Beatles greatest-hits albums in hope of making his 15-minute commutes easier to digest. It was an era of accessibility in physical music that verged on over-convenience, epitomized by pre-packaged CD compilations that flooded the system in the same way needless $25 vinyl reissues do now. Before Spotify came along, these comps introduced you to new, recommended-if-you-like artists in a way that fit conveniently inside the 224-disc Case Logic books under the passenger seats of Plymouth Sundances. And for budding teenaged punks, their shrink-wrapped primer was Punk-O-Rama.
Launched in 1994 by Epitaph Records—the acknowledged arbiter of the sort of melodic, SoCal punk that exploded in popularity in the mid-’90s around Green Day, Rancid, and The Offspring—the Punk-O-Rama album series acted chiefly as promotion for the label’s artists, but it also encapsulated that genre’s rigorously cultivated sound. Although there were slight variations from band to band, it all boiled down to a combo of beefy guitar power chords, snotty vocals that could also harmonize very well, and most importantly, a well-oiled, skate-punk gallop held steady by a one-two beat on the kick drum. (Surprise! I just described NOFX. It sounds like NOFX.) Punk-O-Rama compiled these into one reliable, seamless stream of sound that became briefly ubiquitous among Manic Panic-dyed, hoodie-clad suburban kids—ostensibly opening them up to new sounds, but mostly from bands working the same template ad nauseam.
For the first few volumes, at least, it was a reliable rush. Both 1996’s Punk-O-Rama Vol. 2 and its 1997 Vans Warped Tour reboot counterpart, Punk-O-Rama 2.1, could easily be spun front to back in your car’s CD player in between pizza deliveries. Before the series got especially bloated—with the number of tracks jumping to 25 in 1998, then to 28 in 2000—Epitaph kept it tightly focused, aided by every band keeping its songs well under three minutes. And while the various artists featured may have always been something of a mixed bag, especially by the standard of Epitaph’s incubator, the comp smartly sequenced its roster according to a sort of loose algorithm.
The flagship bands—Pennywise, NOFX, Bad Religion—are obviously what sell, so their contributions are scattered throughout, impelling you to listen to The Humpers’ “Mutate With Me” so you can get to Rancid’s “Side Kick.” Epitaph owner Brett Gurewitz, a.k.a. Mr. Brett, a.k.a. guitarist/founding member of Bad Religion, also used Punk-O-Rama to pay tribute to legacy acts he admired, because he’s the boss. On Vol. 2, those included T.S.O.L. and Poison Idea, each of which contributed a hardcore-punk classic (“Code Blue” and “Just To Get Away,” respectively). And then there are the second-tier, middling acts, the ones that traffic in the same sounds that lord over the rest of the label, but somehow their version panders to the formula in a way that only exacerbates their anonymity.
Superficially, they’re the ones who would benefit most from being included on a comp like Punk-O-Rama, but mostly they just end up getting swallowed. You owned albums by these bands 20 years ago, yet you can’t immediately recall their names when their comp tracks are played. It only clicks when paired with some random piece of trivia, like “The frontman was a relief pitcher in the majors.” Oh, right. That was Pulley.
If Punk-O-Rama was the meaty salisbury steak of the prepackaged-punk TV dinner, then Fat Wreck Chords’ Fat Music series was the mashed potatoes (with ska-punk comps like 1994’s Skarmageddon being hundreds of tasteless corn niblets). Still, Fat Wreck founder and NOFX frontman Fat Mike actually rolled out his fledgling label’s series a year prior to Punk-O-Rama, initially through mail-order only. The first, Fat Music For Fat People, was a thrifty $3, and offered a similarly condensed look at the Fat Wreck lineup, which was even more uniform than Epitaph’s.
On the series’ arguable pinnacle, 1997’s Physical Fatness: Fat Music Vol. III, bands like Lagwagon, No Use For A Name, Strung Out, 88 Fingers Louie, Good Riddance, and, of course, NOFX ply a consistent formula of uptempo, kick-drum-heavy songs—most of this courtesy of shared producer Ryan Greene—layered with hyper-polished, nearly passive vocal melodies. This became the readily identifiable “Fat Wreck sound.” (Except for Snuff. Snuff was bad in its own special way.)
The success of these spawned a flourishing industry of branded punk comp CDs from the likes of Nitro Records (owned by The Offspring’s Dexter Holland), Hellcat (which gave us Give ’Em The Boot), Asian Man (boosted by the Plea For Peace series), etc. Meanwhile, both Epitaph and Fat Wreck Chords kept at it through the mid-2000s, putting out a new comp for nearly every single year. Fat did get a bit more experimental along the way—1999’s Short Music For Short People, featuring 101 bands playing songs that are less than 30 seconds long, remains a treasure trove of stupid excess—but primarily they stuck to their loud, fast, shiny guns.
As for the smaller bands these compilations featured, while they gained crucial exposure, most of them, again, ended up becoming indistinguishable entities of the label, rather than individual organisms. A band like Bracket, for example, was completely gobbled up by the Fat content mill—and sure, I probably owned one of its records because of it. But I couldn’t begin to tell you what the band sounds like, outside of a few very educated guesses. Same with, say, Osker on Epitaph. These bands are their labels; they are forever blurred into one long, seamless comp CD.
And as for the few outliers to that same gloopy thrum—like rowdy punk rock ’n’ rollers New Bomb Turks or ragged hardcore-punk band Dead Fucking Last—their presences mostly just ended up feeling confounding, rather than exciting. You just ended up skipping the offbeat track to get to the one that felt familiar. And so on to the next one, a row of identical pop-punk cookie-cutter houses lined off into the horizon, until you’re totally burned out. So it went for most of the suburban kids who had briefly gotten into pop-punk in the first place.
As the compact disc waned—and all the CD Warehouses, Camelot Musics, and Media Plays et al. closed—so, too, did the luster of the compilation. Epitaph finally did away with Punk-O-Rama in 2005, right as it began to pivot toward post-hardcore and emo. Fat Wreck Chords endures, though its compilation output has become more sporadic over recent years.
Today all those 1990s punk comps feel like time capsules—not just of a pre-streaming age, but of the era when CDs reigned and even punk bands happily catered to the format’s high gloss, offering sounds that were cleaner, crisper, and more compressed. With all the fat trimmed to the bone, there’s not much room for lasting flavor: Progenitors like NOFX still sound fresh today, but especially in such close proximity, its surrounding imitators and disciples can’t help but sound stale. In the end, the punk comp CD only hastened their journey to that proverbial Case Logic in the back of the closet.