No matter what anyone else says, or where my personal musical evolution leads me or which directions this band embarks upon, I will always be a Green Day fan. Ever since the junior high-aged me first saw a tape-recorded airing of the “Hitchin’ a Ride” video on MTV back in 1997, I knew this band was for me. Even now, after I have grown up and devoured so many records in so many styles and flavors, and as I accept that Green Day has turned out material I have on more than one occasion found less than palatable (21st Century Breakdown, anyone?), I still consider Billie Joe Armstrong, Mike Dirnt, and Tre Cool to be solid instrumentalists, hook-savvy songwriters, and hilarious personalities. The group’s first four albums for Reprise soundtracked my adolescence, and in my adulthood I find the brash, adrenalized music and Armstrong’s cheeky (and vastly underrated) lyrics still resonate with me. For those reasons, the California pop punk trio will forever be my second-favorite group.
Sniff all you want at my fannish rhapsodizing, but before you immediately post “What good Green Day songs?” or question the trio’s punk credentials in the comments section without a second thought, I would hope you would at least read some of what I’m about to write. Beyond punk’s holy trinity of the Ramones, Sex Pistols, and the Clash, Green Day is probably the most influential group the genre has ever witnessed, and certainly is its most well-known and best-selling act. For purists and detractors, that was (and remains) Green Day’s cardinal sin. As punk’s horizons became more limited and its dogma ever more rigid during the DIY 1980s, it was possible to view being on a major label and having your songs heard on commercial radio as a (supposed) affront to what the genre and movement stood for. To this day, no matter how much one points out that first-wave punk actively sought out major label muscle, or how many respected scene veterans hold a decent opinion of the band (Jello Biafra is a fan, for chrissakes), or how its working-class-bred members thoroughly paid their dues by touring the United States in junky vans and sleeping on floors as self-sufficient, barely-educated teenagers, or—most basically—how fantastic the music made by Armstrong, Dirnt, and Cool is, there’s bound to be someone murmuring about how the group is lightweight, inauthentic, “not punk”.
Me, I’d place Green Day against any of punk’s heavyweight any day. Ramones, Clash, Pistols, Damned, Buzzcocks, Jam, Kennedys, Black Flag, Minor Threat, Bad Religion—bring ‘em. The band may not in singular moments be the finest purveyor of poppy three-chord punk (Buzzcocks will always be the most formidable of opponents for that claim), nor has it been the hardest, the fastest, or the most outrageous. It is on the balance, though, that Green Day proves its mettle. Its music is of a consistently solid caliber, its ability to turn any three or four chords into tuneful moshpit anthems—laced with lyrics that are in turns caustic put-downs and impassioned romantic declarations you wish you could’ve written—routinely remarkable. That consistency has meant that albums like Dookie, Nimrod, and American Idiot have impressive gold-to-filler ratios, with their strongest tracks being not only some of the finest punk ever spat out, but legitimate classics that have enlivened the past two decades of rock music, and will continue to do so for decades to come.
Alright, enough talk, more rock. In honor of the impending arrival of the band’s latest studio album ¡Uno! mere days from now, below I have ranked the top 15 Green Day songs in as objective an order as I could muster. Voice your objections or rave about your faves in the comments section. In any event, I hope you can leave this article with even a smidge of the admiration and love I carry for this trio of 40-year-old goofballs that named itself after a lame slang term for smoking pot. Trust me, they hate the name, too.
Yep, we’re starting with the introspective acoustic ballad here. No one ever refers to this song as “Good Riddance”, but being aware of the full title helps key otherwise unwitting listeners (read: adult contemporary DJs and whomever assembled the playlist for your high school senior prom) into the sentiment that shapes the number. As Armstrong has explained, it’s a song about breaking up but trying not to be bitter about it, and it’s that part-resentful/part-rueful lyrical sensibility he excels at. And while the strings in the bridge could have turned “Good Riddance” into pure schmaltz, their understated and slightly rickety nature (Armstrong instructed the performers to sound more “fiddley”) ensures that the track is never out of place when slotted alongside the band’s more boisterous fare.
Judging by the sales figures, not many people have heard Warning, Green Day’s pre-comeback dark horse record. It’s a shame, as the concerted palette-expanding undertaken on the album led to some gems worth digging for. Yet despite the acoustic guitars and the stylistic eclecticism, the top track on Warning is vintage Green Day: a roaring trio bashing out a Ramones-style bedrock of strummed barre chords and pounding beats as Armstrong lyrically flagellates himself for his shortcomings. For a supposed snot-nosed manchild, Armstrong is laudably mature here, as he mans up, acknowledges his screw-ups, and bears the responsibilities that come with being in a relationship (“If I promise to go to church on Sunday / Will you go with me on Friday night? / If you live with me I’ll die for you and this comprise”). The song is sold chiefly by Armstrong’s turn at the mic—having stretched his partner’s patience once again, Armstrong admits that “‘Trust’ is a dirty word that comes / Only from such a liar”, yet the way he utters “But respect is something I will earn / If you have faith” radiates such sincere conviction that his word becomes incontrovertible.
There are those who believe that 39/Smooth is where Green Day burned brightest, and that it was never again as good as on that first album. The reality is that 39/Smooth is very much a formative record, the tentative and basic nature of its songs belying its authors’ inexperience and youth. The band’s debut does offer one enduring standout in the form of the soaring “Going to Pasalacqua”, an oldie that’s always welcome amongst the major label hits. The verses have a build-and-release dynamic that only ratchets up further anticipation inside the listener so when the chorus arrives and Billie Joe just belts heart out (“Would I last forever? / You and I together, hand and hand we run away / I’m in for nasty weather / But I’ll take whatever you can give that comes my way”) it feels like he’s singing the most important words anyone could ever say. And in that moment, they are.
(American Idiot, 2004)
Prior to American Idiot Green Day’s anger manifested itself as mean-spirited name-calling, never concerned with anyone more offending than the nearest hapless idiot. Following the instigation of President Bush’s War on Terror, Green Day nurtured a more blatant political consciousness which allowed for a refocusing of that anger towards less-juvenile purposes. Though “Holiday” is the band’s fiercest invective, it is also its most measured, tingeing its outrage with a palatable sadness and dismay at the state of post-9/11 America. When it’s time for the breakdown, Armstrong holds nothing back, grabbing a bullhorn and sarcastically admonishing the “president gasman” for what he has wrought.
Another heartsick tossing-and-turning lament, the leadoff track to Green Day’s sophomore album is two minutes-plus of unbridled teenage restlessness set to power chords. Joined for the first time by Tre Cool in the place of original drummer John Kiffmeyer, the band launches into the song with no hesitation whatsoever, bounding away as Armstrong cries “I sit alone in my bedroom / Staring at the wall / I’ve been up all damn night long / My pulse is beating / My love is yearning” as if the girl of his dreams could hear him across the vast distance (it must’ve worked, as he’s been married to that very girl since 1994). “2000 Light Years Away” annihilates anything found on 39/Smooth, and like Nirvana hooking up with Dave Grohl before conquering the world with Nevermind, it’s persuasive proof of how the right combination of players can dramatically alter a band’s chemistry for the better.
// Notes from the Road
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