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.
15. “Good Riddance (Time of Your Life)”
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.
14. “Church on Sunday”
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.
13. “Going to Pasalacqua”
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.
11. “2000 Light Years Away”
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.
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10. “Nice Guys Finish Last”
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.
6. “Hitchin’ a Ride”
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.
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5. “Basket Case”
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.
4. “Welcome to Paradise”
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.
3. “Jesus of Suburbia”
(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.
1. “When I Come Around”
“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.