The first time I ever heard of Hüsker Dü was on some VH1 special where they and fellow Minneapolis legends The Replacements were cited as influences by Green Day.
As an angsty 16-year-old, I was naturally fiending for punk music. At that point in time, I had a ways to go before I really got into it, but this felt like the right first step. I loved Green Day and wanted to hear more bands that sounded like them, so I searched up “Don’t Wanna Know If You Are Lonely” online, and my ears weren’t quite the same.
The drums had this weird kick to them than anything I had ever heard, the guitars were fuzzy, noisy, melodic – sunkissed in reverb. Their lyrics were relatable, having recently gone through a break-up, I shared the song’s paranoia of her friends calling his phone to talk about it (but that never happened.)
The phone is ringing and the clock says four A.M
If it’s your friends, well, I don’t want to hear from them
Please leave your number and a message at the tone
Or you can just go on and leave me alone
I fell in love with their sound. It was fast punk music with an ethos different from the “fuck everything” so easily found in bands like Black Flag, Bad Brains, the Cro-Mags, and Minor Threat.
Even their often overlooked logo had an interesting meaning. Designed by the late great Grant Hart, the circle symbolized the band’s unity as a group, each horizontal line represented each band member, and the vertical line that intersects them as the creative connection that drives the band’s music. Ironically, they broke up because of creative differences.
Both drummer/vocalist Grant Hart and guitarist/vocalist Bob Mould went on to make great music apart. Hart formed Nova Mob in 1989 and Mould formed Sugar in 1992.
In many ways, Bob Mould was the better musician. He had a way with melodies that gave Hüsker Dü an edge over most punk bands in terms of song structure and the inflection in his vocals that gave their sound its edge. However, Grant Hart had the groove and the songwriting sensibility that gave the band its heart (get it). His singing, soft and powerful, could also scream his heart out on a moment’s notice. This perfectly complemented to Bob Mould’s raspier singing.
If you’re unsure of where to start, here’s a breakdown of their best albums:
Candy Apple Grey
Their first album with major label Warner Brothers and the one to completely hone in on the college rock sound. Here, Hüsker Dü lost the aggression found on earlier records and instead madee great rock music on their penultimate record. Hüsker Dü had gradually begun this change on New Day Rising, but it was on Candy Apple Grey where they abandoned their hardcore punk roots in favor of a more alternative sound.
The album’s greatest strength is establishing a time and place for both the high-energy punk-infused songs such as album opener “Crystal” and their biggest single in “Don’t Want To Know If You Are Lonely”, as well as the more tender and slower moments on songs like “Sorry Somehow” (a personal favorite), “Dead Set On Destruction” and “No Promise Have I Made”.
The guitar tones here are cleaner than past records, the drums have a more distinguished kick to them due to production, and the tempo wasn’t as fast as their other songs. If you’re not a fan of punk music, this is the band’s most accessible album. Definitely worth a listen. However, if you have the drive for something with a little more bite to it, then let’s dial it back a few years…
New Day Rising
Widely-considered as their best album, New Day Rising holds some of the band’s best songwriting, with songs like “The Girl Who Lives on Heaven Hill” and “Celebrated Summer” cemented in punk canon. This album shines is in its musicianship, with its various elements of noise, hardcore punk, and pop melodies seamlessly blending together.
This. This album is their best. Without even going into songwriting, this record introduced many elements that were extremely rare to find in hardcore punk music. Hints of folk (“Never Talking To You Again”), jazz (“What’s Going On”, “Indecision Time”), and psychedelia (“Hare Krsna”, “Reoccurring Dreams”, “The Tooth Fairy and The Princess”) can be heard throughout the record’s length. None of these genres ever saw the kind of experimentation with punk music that Hüsker Dü gave them.
Zen Arcade is fast, aggressive, melodic, and experimental in ways most bands could barely pull off like they did. The songwriting is also unparalleled, with Zen Arcade telling the story of a man who runs away from abuse at home, joins the military, finds love, loses her to a tragic drug death, gets severely depressed, accepts everything that’s happened to him, then wakes up from it all and realizes it was all a dream in the back of his head.
You could hear this album in fragments, but the entire story only comes together by listening to it altogether – an experience one should do at least once. “Pink Turns to Blue” is one of the most devastating songs of the ’80s, period.
But still, if you need a couple of songs to get to know the band, here’s a playlist of some of their essential listens: