5 - 1
While “Longview” got Generation X to notice Green Day, it was “Basket Case” that convinced ‘90s teens that it was the next big thing after grunge. Its opening lines (“Do you have the time / To listen to me whine / About nothing and everything all at once?”) is the sort of instantly-quotable disaffection teenagers scrawl into their notebooks during class, and it only gets better from there. The isolated palm-muted guitar strumming that accompanies those words is a perfect model of restraint, holding steady until the lid pops off (“I think I’m cracking up!”) and the song blossoms into heady rush of nervous excitement. As long as kids are wracked by uncertainty and anxiety, “Basket Case” will be beloved.
To clear up any potential confusion, know that this is explicitly the version of “Welcome to Paradise” recorded for Dookie, not the first incarnation featured on Kerplunk! The song’s composition is virtually identical between records—what earns the Dookie version a place on this list instead of the original offering is its superior production and better realized performance. In either case, “Welcome to Paradise” is yet another demonstration of the trio’s formidable interplay. The song’s shift into its ominous surf-rock bridge, where it builds up tension in a minimalist fashion so brilliantly before exploding into the last verse, is one of Green Day’s most compelling moments, no matter what record it appears on.
(American Idiot, 2004)
In 1996, double a-side mates “Brain Stew” and “Jaded” showed the increased potency Green Day’s output could manifest when two different musical tacks were juxtaposed with one another (indeed, if I had counted those joint singles as one track, they would’ve easily landed in the top ten of this list). The multi-part song suite “Jesus of Suburbia” is the full realization of what “Brain Stew”/“Jaded” only hinted at, a nine-minute tour de force that doesn’t undercut Green Day’s chief strengths (namely, writing clever lyrics and concise three-chord pop-punk gems) but instead plays to them and expands them to super-sized proportions by stringing several viable-in-isolation-already ideas together back-to-back in service of a grander purpose. Unlike its American Idiot antecedent “Homecoming” (the genesis of which convinced Green Day that a song suite in the vein of the Who’s “A Quick One, While He’s Away” was the way forward during the album’s formative stages), never once does it lose the metaphorical plot. The transitions are seamless, logical, and serve the overall song, building up to a triumphant fanfare of freedom and uncertain possibilities as the Jesus of Suburbia finally declares he’s leaving home for the vast unknown. I’m of the opinion that Green Day isn’t quite suited to the sweeping gestures and rock star classicism it has adopted during the last decade, but here they are undeniably warranted and are harnessed wonderfully.
In marked contrast to the expansive rock opera ambitions of “Jesus of Suburbia”, “Burnout” is condensed punk discontent to the bone, making expert use of every single second of its short runtime. “I declare I don’t care no more”, Armstrong sings in a totally valid mangling of proper English grammar, going on to detail in exactly in which respects he no longer gives a fuck. Lyrically, “Burnout” is the ultimate Green Day manifesto, as succinct and definitive an expression of ennui and dissatisfaction as anything Mr. Spokesman of a Generation Kurt Cobain ever uttered into a microphone. On top of that, the bridge section features a ripping four-part drum solo courtesy of the irrepressible Tre Cool that I dare anyone not to bash the air along to.
“When I Come Around” should be nothing special. A mid-tempo verse-chorus-verse number, it alternates between a four-chord main riff and a two-chord chorus, slipping in a non-showy guitar solo two-thirds of the way in to spice the arrangement up. Yet it’s not only the single best song Green Day has ever written, but it’s a punk standard for the ages. Its riff puts a clever spin on a well-worn chord progression that makes it unmistakable, and Armstrong takes a stand in one verse and refutes it in the next, all while completely honoring the refrain “No time to search the world around / ‘Cause you know where I’ll be found / When I come around”. If you ask me, even in its simplicity it’s just about as perfect a song as you could hope for.
We all know how critical it is to keep independent voices alive and strong on the Internet. Please consider a donation to support our work as independent cultural critics and historians. Your donation will help PopMatters stay viable through these changing and challenging times. Thanks everyone.