I’m not a person who delights in the misfortune of others, but I’ll say Green Day sure knows how to make it fun to point and laugh. Be it gleeful teasing of some poor sap or astute self-loathing, “Nice Guys Finish Last” hits straight between the eyes, never relenting in its snide putdowns or its pummeling guitars. Blessed with a driving insistency and an acerbic, infectious chorus, “Nice Guys Finish Last” should’ve been way bigger than it actually was.
(Angus soundtrack, 1995)
In a just world, Green Day’s fourth Modern Rock Charts number one would’ve been the triumphant lead single from Insomniac, the group’s merely okay follow-up to the mega-smash Dookie. Instead, “J.A.R.” (short for “Jason Andrew Relva”, a friend of the group who died in a car crash in 1992) anchored the soundtrack to the now-forgotten teen comedy Angus. “J.A.R.” didn’t dominate rock radio in 1995 because of Dookie’s lingering afterglow. It’s a winner in its own right, and in a sense, its bubbling bass, buzzing chord crashes, and Tre Cool’s killer chorus drum beat is the Platonic ideal of a Green Day song.
Green Day knocks out superb pop-punk love songs like Meryl Streep racks up Oscar nods. “She” is stripped down to a pulsating bassline, a basic yet urgent drumbeat, and Armstrong’s pining at the outset before reviving up into yet another blistering three-chord moshfest. “She” is sensitive without being soft; in between Armstrong’s empathetic declarations of “Scream at me / Until my ears bleed / I’ll take heed / Just for you”, the band is hammering away at its instruments with amped-up intensity. Someone once said that while Hüsker Dü (one of Green Day’s primary influences) played pop music, it played it as if its members’ lives depended on it—a lesson Green Day obviously learned well.
And lo, the song and video that launched a thousand pop punk bands. The legendarily profane single that introduced Green Day to the masses is content for most of its duration to lean upon Mike Dirnt’s lazy, loping bassline (surely one of the all-time great punk riffs) for support. Here and there it gets fed up, and the undercurrent of self-loathing that’s been simmering throughout the verses erupts into hard-bashing three-chord choruses where Armstrong sneers “Bite my lip and close my eyes / Take me away to paradise / I’m so damn bored I’m going blind / And I smell like shit” before collapsing back into his torpor. This song didn’t become an instant classic of its genre merely because Armstrong said the word “masturbation” on the radio—it’s all in the delivery, and “Longview” knows precisely when not to give a fuck and when to give several.
The lead single from Nimrod—Green Day’s first LP-length stab at broadening its established sound—belongs to the trio’s elite stable of awesome a-sides boasting a shuffle beat, alongside “Longview”, “Minority”, and “Holiday”. Instead of sticking to a strictly punk framework, the band adds a smoky violin flourish to the start and couches the shuffling groove in a seedy vibe that’s part dive-bar despair, part Roaring Twenties devil-may-care. When the suitable time for rocking out arrives, Armstrong, Dirnt, and Cool take full advantage, banging out the descending main chord progression like frustrated cavemen. In the third verse the group pauses after a well-timed “Shit!”, only for Armstrong to ramp the music up to maximum raucousness by unleashing a dissonant guitar solo. Suiting its falling-off-the-wagon subject matter, “Hitchin’ a Ride” is a hellish yet exhilarating track that makes picking up a bottle look like probably not wisest idea one could have.