Ten years ago, the thought that a bunch of cheeky skatepunks like NOFX would last more than 20 years would have been incomprehensible. After all, how could a band who relies so heavily on the same three chords, the same snarky humor, the same simple melodies that combine punk, pop, and ska, become as much of a punk institution as fellow Los Angeles natives Bad Religion? Well, for one, they’ve been doggedly persistent over the years, riding the crest of the punk revival wave in 1994, and soldiering on as punk rock ebbed and flowed; for every Blink 182, there was a Good Charlotte to drag punk rock down again, but all the while, NOFX have released record after record, touring constantly, despite the fact that each release since 1994 has sold fewer copies than the previous album.
The most important factor that has completely revived the band, not to mention completely recharging their creativity in the process, was the sudden development of a social conscience. After years of charmingly goofy songs about party enemas and green corn, lead singer/bassist Fat Mike witnessed the controversial 2000 federal election, and decided he’d try to spend the next four years doing something about it. The band’s 2003 album The War on Errorism, while not perfect, was one of the more energetic and passionate anti-Bush records in the last couple years, while Fat Mike helped co-found the great website punkvoter.com, which explained very clearly and simply to young fans just how much trouble the band and their peers thought their country was in. Most effective, though, were the two highly successful 2004 Rock Against Bush! compilations, both of which released on the band’s own Fat Wreck label. For a bunch of guys who were once considered a one-trick gimmick, in a few short years, they’ve become one of the more highly regarded bands in punk rock today.
Now that it’s more than 21 years after the band first formed, what better time than now to release a career retrospective? Ever the comedians, even in these deadly serious times, the facetiously titled The Greatest Songs Ever Written by us offers a highly enjoyable look back at their last dozen or so albums, cramming 27 tracks into an energetic, ebullient, often hilarious 61 minutes.
After the token early selections of “Shut Up Already” (from Liberal Animation, released in 1991, but recorded in 1988) and “Day to Daze” (from 1989’s S & M Airlines, both of which are rather ordinary exercises in metal-tinged punk, you can hear the band settling into their own identifiable sound as the 1990s roll around. Starting with 1990’s clever “Green Corn”, an homage to the great Charles Bukowski film Barfly, and continuing through the 1992 The Longest Line EP, you can hear the band getting tighter and tighter, their lyrics becoming more and more savagely witty, namely on the EP’s satirical “Kill All the White Man”, which veers from straight-up reggae to a snarky punk rave-up. The breakthrough 1992 album White Trash Two Heebs and a Bean was a massive leap for the band, highlighted by the surprisingly effective tale “Bob”.
If there’s one NOFX album that most people will remember, it’s 1994’s Punk in Drublic, which, along with Bad Religion, Rancid, and The Offspring, was a key part of Epitaph Records’ huge renaissance that year, and is represented by “Linoleum”, a rare tribute to, erm, flooring, the highly catchy “Leave it Alone”, and the dreary-eyed “Reeko”, with its memorable descriptions of a party’s aftermath (“The Ex Lax lines the dog bowl/The toilet’s overflowed”). Meanwhile, “What’s the Matter With Kids Today”, from 1995’s Heavy Petting Zoo, is a silly, but well-meaning satire of suburban life (“There’s something wrong with the kids in my neighborhood/They always listen to Mom”), and 1997’s So Long and Thanks For All the Shoes has the band sounding downright exhausted on “It’s My Job to Keep Punk Rock Elite” and “All Outta Angst”. Three of the collection’s best moments spring from The War on Errorism, as the impassioned “Separation of Church and Skate” is a great State of the Punk Nation Address, and “The Idiots Are Taking Over” and the memorable single “Franco Un-American” feature the band’s new approach to politically-conscious songwriting.
As always happens when a veteran band releases a best-of compilation, there’s no way they can please all fans, as everyone will have gripes about what songs were not included. Granted, it would have been great to see 1992’s brilliant “Please Play This Song on the Radio”, or 2003’s “We Got Two Jealous Agains”, one of the sweetest punk love songs anyone’s written in the past five years at least, but for the most part, the band has done an admirable job assembling the tracklisting (this, despite the mildly annoying fact that the songs aren’t in chronological order). Closing out the set is “Wore Out the Soles of My Party Boots”, a very good new tune that has Fat Mike confronting the fact that he’s been playing this music longer than some of the bands on the Warped Tour have been alive. It’s clear he and his band are comfortable with the prospect of becoming punk’s elder statesmen; “So call me Fat Fuck, geriatric punk rock,” he sneers, concluding later on, “We’re all getting older, not better.” Judging by their recent output, many would tend to disagree.