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“Exit out the back / And never show your head around here again.” Going from indie label-level buzz to multi-Platinum sales (and accusations of selling out by an overly judgmental punk community) in less than a year was a head-spinner for young men of Green Day, and like fellow Generation X idols Nirvana and Pearl Jam before them, they reacted by entrenching. Intentionally harder and more angry than Dookie, Insomniac is also less catchy, which explains why today it is separated from its predecessor by domestic sales of eight million records. It’s steady and reliable as Green Day full-lengths go, with some above-average ditties—“No Pride”, “86”, “Stuart and the Ave.”—yet only one outright classic in the form of the whiplash-inducing double a-side single “Brain Stew”/”Jaded” (about the only cuts from the record still heard on radio). Aside from the metallish lethargy of “Brain Stew”, Insomniac is fairly one-dimensional, and is distinguished primarily by Armstrong’s lyrics, which are an illuminating window into the mind of a confused 23-year-old forced to grapple with marriage, fatherhood, rock stardom, and rejection by the community he grew up in all at once. Still, at an easily-digestible half-hour in length, Insomniac’s bristly nature never overstays its welcome
Not so much a dry run for Dookie, Kerplunk! was still a quantum leap for Green Day. Joined for the first time by Tre Cool (who contributed the puckish “Dominated Love Slave” to the collective songbook), the band has lost much of its teenage sweetness and aged into the smart-aleck brats that the world came to love. It’s stylistically more diffusive than 39/Smooth, and Armstrong has grown by leaps and bounds as a lyricist, even if he does rely on some lazy rhymes here and there. “2000 Light Years Away” is a hell of a start, “One for the Razorbacks” and “80” turn puppy love pining into slam-dance-worthy fare, and “Welcome to Paradise” was so good it became a rock radio hit two years later when it was re-recorded for Dookie.
The story goes that when the tapes for Green Day’s lost LP Cigarettes and Valentines were stolen, Rob Cavallo asked the band if they could honestly say that it was their best album; Armstrong, Dirnt, and Cool had to admit it wasn’t, and subsequently crafted what would become their second highest-selling record. Rock operas are a tricky thing to pull off, but Green Day does it in spades with American Idiot. Motivated by the impulse to comment on the contemporary American socio-political climate, the trio sounds more focused and intent than it had in ages, and that strength of conviction sells everything from punk rave-ups to multi-part song suites and introspective ballads. Though its political content will forever tie it to the days of the Bush Administration, the quality of American Idiot will ensure it endures for decades to come.
Before Warning and American Idiot, the fifth Green Day LP was the trio’s first concerted effort to broaden its palette. Unlike Warning, it’s not an evolution that’s only intermittently successful, and unlike 21st Century Breakdown, its 18 tracks are not a sober slog through large stretches of bombastic wheel-spinning (not to mention that it’s shorter than that record). No, Nimrod works when other wing-spreading attempts haven’t because Green Day is always at its liveliest and most tuneful, be it on snotty punk bashers (“Nice Guys Finish Last”, ‘The Grouch”), tasteful mid-tempo pop-rock (“Redundant”, “Worry Rock”), or wildly divergent stylistic departures (the dark, jazzy shuffle of “Hitchin’ a Ride”, the horn-blaring silliness of “King for a Day”, the rueful acoustic break-up anthem “Good Riddance (Time of Your Life)”). All four Nimrod singles are among the band’s worthier a-sides, and the deep cuts are often just as indelible.
Aside from being stocked with no less than six of Green Day’s best songs, Dookie deserves to be at the top of the heap for being the right album for the right time. No, I don’t mean being the record to give rock music direction after Kurt Cobain’s suicide sent alternative’s dalliance with the mainstream into a slow death spiral. I mean that more than any album I can name—yes, more than Nirvana’s Nevermind—Green Day’s major label debut is the perfect—nay, essential soundtrack for adolescence. Every fiber of Dookie’s being is concerned with the anxiety, frustrations, and epiphanies of youth, and the album’s uncanny ability to commune with the eternal teenager inside all of use is facilitated by an inexhaustible supply of sugar rush power chording, unforgettable hooks, and Armstrong’s bratty (and masterful) broadsides. While American Idiot receives all the plaudits for being Green Day’s “statement”, the group’s resonance is never as universal as it is on Dookie and its lyrics about panic attacks and being so bored out of your mind that masturbation has lost all appeal. A mandatory addition to any modern rock record collection.