"Top Contenders:
The Best of Strung Out"
by James G. Carlson
A few weeks back, Fat Wreck Chords sent me a copy of one of the label's latest releases, Top Contenders: The Best of Strung Out. Being that Strung Out was one of the bands I grew up listening to, I was stoked, to say the least, and couldn’t wait to get it in my stereo. When I did listen to it for the first time, however, it quickly became apparent that the songs chosen were decidedly not “The Best of" Strung Out’s repertoire to date; in fact, if I as a fan were to compile a list of songs from their long career in the punk scene, I would chose a much different selection. Well, that’s not entirely true, since the album starts off perfectly with a track from the band’s Suburban Teenage Wasteland Blues album, which in my opinion is their very best album apart from Another Day in Paradise. From there, the listener's experience in going through the twenty-six songs on Top Contenders is much like the little metal ball in a pinball machine, bouncing violently from bumper to bumper, at times falling prey to the traps and hidden gadgets, and at other times lighting the whole thing up and spiking the score.
None of this is to suggest that Top Contenders isn't a superb album, since everything Strung Out has done over the years is far superior to that of many other punk bands, and it continues to be so today. That's right, the fellas in Strung Out are still doing their thing. The band even contributed three previously unreleased songs to Top Contenders, each of them good in its own way. Though I think highly of “City Lights,” it was the twentieth track, "Saturday Night," that really made an impression on me, no doubt because it brings to mind the early days of Strung Out when their punk rock energy, metal riffs, thundering bass and pummeling drums were wholly unique to the scene.
As with any great band, there are those who eventually attempt to walk in their footsteps, emulating their sound to the extent that they are capable, but only one of those bands that I have come across has been worth a damn -- California's Pour Habit, whose sound is clearly influenced by Strung Out but manages to stand on its own as something separate and impressive. To be sure, the songs I appreciate most out Top Contenders' extensive list are “Firecracker,” “Velvet Alley,” "Too Close to See," “Bring Out Your Dead,” "Ashes," "Monster," “Population Control,” “Exhumation of Virginia Madison,” and "In Harm's Way." Of course the reason I favor these songs is admittedly out of my bias for the band's early material, most notably the songs from Another Day in Paradise and Suburban Teenage Wasteland Blues. You see, each of those albums are brilliant the entire way through, while Strung Out's later albums must be appreciated in select pieces, the best of their material scattered through the tracklistings. And regardless of whether that is so or not for other fans, Strung Out remains an exceptionally talented punk band with a legendary sound, and with a history to be more than a little proud of.
Speaking of the band's history, it is indeed a long one in comparison to all the ephemeral punk bands that come and go in today's scene, having seen its first incarnation in 1991. Some of the members that were in the band then are still among those in the current lineup. Even though they had already released an album and a demo by 1993, it was their first release on Fat Wreck in 1994, Another Day in Paradise, which most consider their debut. By that time they had not only shared the stage with some of the most respected and admired bands in the scene, such as Nofx, Lagwagon, Jughead's Revenge, and Pennywise, they had also toured the U.S., Canada and Europe. In 1996, much to the delight of their growing fanbase, Strung Out released what is still widely considered to be their finest album, Suburban Teenage Wasteland Blues. After that point they were an unstoppable force, sharing stages with the likes of Bad Religion, Mad Caddies, Dancehall Crashers, Hi-Standard, Wizo, Bigwig, Snapcase, Death by Stereo, Rise Against, Dropkick Murphys, and many others; during which time they also continued writing and recording, releasing a handful of studio albums on Fat Wreck, with titles such as Twisted by Design, An American Paradox, Exile in Oblivion, Blackhawks Over Los Angeles, and Agents of the Underground. Strung Out is of a breed of animal nearly extinct, sadly enough, which is one of the reasons their longevity is so very important to a scene whose only hope is to learn from their predecessors. They need to be reminded of Strung Out's glory days, when Propagandhi was teaching punks "how to clean everything"; when Lagwagon's album titles proved they had watched too many '80s television shows; when Bad Religion was had "no control"; when Pennywise was the featured band in so many skateboarding videos; when Nofx were "sucking live"; and the Fat Wreck artists were dedicating themselves to "physical fatness" and living "life in the fat lane," among a number of other large and in charge things.
To be sure, Strung Out is one of those rare punk bands that is indispensable to both the history and future of the scene. If nothing else, Top Contenders: The Best of Strung Out proves just that.