Sum 41 albums
Photo: Stefan Brending, 2017 / Wikimedia Commons

Ranking the Sum 41 Albums: From Pop-Punk to Thrash Metal

With eight records across a 27-year discography, each of Sum 41’s albums have ranged widely in style from pop-punk to thrash metal.

On 8 May 2023, Sum 41 announced they would break up following a 27-year musical career. From making a name for themselves as one of the most immature pop punk acts of the early 2000s on All Killer No Filler to chronicling the stages of recovering from addiction on 13 Voices, their music has weaved in and out of pop-punk, flirted with metal and fully embraced it, with each record creating a distinct sonic template from the last. With the upcoming release of their ninth and final studio LP Heaven :x: Hell, which Sum 41 tout as the meeting of their early pop-punk sound and more recent metal sound, this list explores the highs and the lows.

8. Half Hour of Power (2000)

Half Hour of Power

Half Hour of Power falls into the trap of many debut albums in that it doesn’t feel like a fully-fledged release. Instead, it’s more like a collection of very different songs which don’t fit together. It ranges from traditional heavy metal to hardcore to rap rock. However, more than anything, this record is NOFX indebted, filled with their particular interpretation of melody, harmony, and structure, but that only accounts for four and a half songs. Furthermore, many of its tracks aren’t entirely fleshed out.

The duo of traditional metal “Grab the Devil by the Horns and Fuck Him up the Ass” and “Ride the Chariot to the Devil” are practically instrumentals, save for a few shrill screams. They serve their purposes as an introduction and interlude, respectively. However, they’re longer than “T.H.T.”, an actual, realized song. Furthermore, from both its title and sound, “Dave’s Possessed Hair/What We’re All About” is two parts of songs mushed together. There’s a discordance between its halves, from skate punk to rap rock, that ends up feeling incomplete.

Half Hour of Power‘s poppier songs are its highlights: “Makes no Difference” and “Summer” are well-written and catchy, showing a glimpse into the sound that Sum 41 would become known for. “Another Time Around” and its merger of skate punk and dirge-y metal foreshadows the direction they would go in after that. Additionally, “What We’re All About” is a fun merger of styles, and when it was rewritten for the 2002 Spiderman soundtrack, it became one of the highlights of the band’s early output.

7. 13 Voices (2016)

This is Sum 41’s first record, not to include drummer Steve Jocz while also being the first in nine years to have guitarist Dave Baksh. This return was a large part of the hype surrounding the release. However, the album was entirely written prior to his return. The only creative input he had was in writing guitar solos. While heavy riffing is present throughout, they’re in a style far more reminiscent of what Whibley and Tom Thacker wrote on Screaming Bloody Murder than during Baksh’s previous period with the band.

One thing that’s evident is that Whibley developed a particular affinity for writing power ballads. 13 Voices only consists of ten tracks, one of which is an introduction, yet spread across its runtime are three power ballads: “Breaking the Chain”, “War”, and “Twisted by Design”. Their discussions of Whibley’s alcoholism and recovery are inspiring, however, making up a third of 13 Voices‘ songs feels excessive. Furthermore, this record’s quality is inconsistent: “Fake My Own Death”, “Goddamn I’m Dead Again”, and “13 Voices” are some of the highlights of Sum 41’s entire discography and feature some of their catchiest melodies of the past decade. Although, the same cannot be said for “There Will be Blood” or “God Save Us All (Death to POP)”.

6. Order in Decline (2019)

Order in Decline is a more realized version of 13 Voices. By this point, it’s no longer bogged down by the excessive use of ballads, and the riff writing is far more interesting. Baksh’s return to writing rhythm guitar parts is evident through the incorporation of thrash riffs in the verses of “A Death in the Family” and harmonized tremolo picking in the introduction of “45 (A Matter of Time)”. Additionally, “The People Vs…” is the heaviest emphasis they’ve put on the melodic hardcore side of their sound since Chuck.

The weakest link is “Heads Will Roll”. The chorus builds gratingly because it feels like a pre-chorus and, for most of the song, only contains one line. Additionally, its main riff and verse melody are so foreign to what’s on Order in Decline that it sits awkwardly in the tracklisting. It feels more like one of the garage rock songs on Screaming Bloody Murder than anything.

Another fault of Order in Decline is how plodding some songs are. This is most obvious in “The New Sensation”, with its verses having an aimless rhythm that makes it particularly reminiscent of “There Will Be Blood”, the weakest track on 13 Voices. Aside from the occasional flashy riff and catchy chorus, there isn’t much compelling enough about Order in Decline to form an opinion. It isn’t bad; its highs are very impressive for a band this far into their career, but, for the most part, it’s just the middle of the road.

5. All Killer No Filler (2001)

All Killer No Filler is the album most people think of when they think of Sum 41. It’s the one that made them blow up and contains two of their flagship songs: “Fat Lip” and “In Too Deep”.

The band’s strongest aspect is being able to combine styles. “Fat Lip” is the best example of this anywhere in their career. Its method of switching from a groovy metal-influenced intro to a rap-rock verse to a pop-punk chorus, with all those elements present in the verse, is borderline progressive. Especially as they did so without making it feel grating. Additionally, this song’s reference to Iron Maiden and Judas Priest makes All Killer No Filler‘s traditional heavy metal outro “Pain for Pleasure” fit. “In Too Deep”, with its reggae guitars in the pre-chorus and metal guitar solo, in addition to the merger of hardcore and pop punk on “Never Wake Up”, continue this trend.

However, with the exception of the aforementioned tracks, every song follows a pretty basic formula for the pop-punk of the time, with obvious reference points. “Nothing on My Back” is particularly reminiscent of late 1990s Green Day; “Heart Attack” overall recalled Blink-182‘s Enema of the State. Amongst the purely pop-punk songs, the strongest tracks are the ones where Whibley uses more aggressive vocal tones. Specifically, “Rhythms”, “Motivation”, and “Summer” use this to make it feel more punk than the nasally vocal style that was consuming the genre at the time.

4. Underclass Hero (2008)

Underclass Hero has long seemed to be a blind spot in casual listeners’ understanding of Sum 41. It was released when their mainstream popularity had dipped following the departure of Baksh but before they had solidified themselves as a group with a dedicated cult fanbase. Baksh’s absence is pronounced in the writing of this album. For the first time in the band’s discography, there is no discernible metal influence. It’s often praised as the revival of their pop-punk sound. However, it’s not a return to form. Underclass Hero and All Killer are as different as pop-punk albums can be: this album is a dark and political slice of emo pop punk. Heavily indebted to My Chemical Romance‘s The Black Parade, this record is more theatrical than its predecessors, even incorporating elements of old-timey show tunes, prominent on “Ma Poubelle” and interpolating My Chemical Romance’s “House of Wolves” on “The Jester”.

The way that Underclass Hero layers pianos, acoustic guitars, vocal harmonies, and ambient synthesizers easily makes it Sum 41’s prettiest-sounding record to date. “Speak of the Devil” switches between different textures and incorporates piano parts into its hook, and “Confusion and Frustration in Modern Times” uses dissonant organs and faux choral vocals. This approach is refreshing in a generally distortion-heavy discography. The soft-loud contrast has always been a part of Sum 41’s sound, but I’d go so far as to say Underclass Hero is based around dynamic structuring.

3. Does This Look Infected (2002)

From accessible pop-punk songs like “The Hell Song” and “Hyper-Insomnia-Para-Condrioid” to melodic thrash metal songs like “Still Waiting” and a lot of material in between, Does This Look Infected is the band’s most varied album. The way songs like “No Brains” and “Mr. Amsterdam” switch seamlessly from metal parts to pop-punk ones isn’t seen much outside this record. From the get-go, Does This Look Infected grounds itself as lyrically different from its predecessors. The opener, “The Hell Song”, is the genuine story of a friend of Sum 41 who contracted HIV, an incredibly foreign topic compared to the immature lyrics of their prior work. This continues with tracks covering the War on Terror (“Still Waiting”), mental health (“My Direction”, “Hyper-Insomnia-Para-Condrioid”), and personal vendettas (“No Brains”).

Does This Look Infected‘s most significant fault is that it’s a transitional record. They have such a clear want to be the metal group they would become on Chuck, but they just aren’t there yet. Guitar harmonies, thrash metal riffs, and shouted vocals clutter this album, but so do pop-punk melodies and the general silliness of All Killer. This becomes an issue because the production still caterers to the pop-punk side: the vocals are mixed much louder than the instruments, and there’s little depth to the guitar tones. This makes certain compositional elements not have the impact that was likely intended.

For example, the breakdowns in “No Brains” and “Thanks for Nothing” feel more like breaks of rhythm rather than the summit of modern metal as they do on “88” and “I’m not the One” from Chuck. The primary loss in this department is “A.N.I.C.”, a 37-second track of hardcore rage. If you listen to live recordings, it can pass as a Municipal Waste or Ona Snop song, but in this context, it doesn’t sound complete.

2. Screaming Bloody Murder (2011)

Screaming Bloody Murder is unique-sounding. The Black Parade-isms cultivated on Underclass Hero are still present, most evident in the three tracks that comprise the progressive 11-minute “A Dark Road Out of Hell”. However, this influence has been primarily side-lined in favor of the returning metal elements. To the extent that Screaming Bloody Murder marks Sum 41’s second departure from pop-punk. It is a metal album but with a heavy emphasis on the sound of the early 2000s garage rock revival. Pianos, indie rock melodies, and artificially distorted singing lace this album.

To the extent that “Time for You to Go” and “Baby You Don’t Wanna Know” sound like reworked songs by the Strokes. However, this is Sum 41’s darkest effort to date. From the discussion of Whibley’s divorce (“Blood in My Eyes”, “What Am I to Say”, “Back Where I Belong”), to general mental illness (“Screaming Bloody Murder”), addiction (“Skumf*k) and the death of a partner (“Crash”). The sharp turn from the brooding of these songs to the more upbeat garage rock songs is jarring, although the level of songwriting throughout makes up for it. “Jessica Kill” and “Screaming Bloody Murder” have earworm choruses, and “Skumf*k” and “A Dark Road Out of Hell” have sprawling scopes of structure and are easily some of the most compelling lyrics Whibley has ever written.

1. Chuck (2004)

Chuck is the climax of Sum 41’s three-record transition from pop-punk into metal. No songs on this album could be described as pop-punk by any stretch of the imagination. Instead, it’s primarily defined by a merger of heavily Metallica-indebted thrash with the kinds of alternative metal closest to System of a Down or Breaking Benjamin depending on the song. However, the way that the band forms their tracks around large choruses is also structurally reminiscent of the melodic hardcore albums from the same period, namely No Warning’s Suffer, Survive and Rise Against‘s Siren Song of the Counter Culture.

This combination makes for some of the most memorable choruses in metal on “We’re All to Blame” and “No Reason” and broadens the record’s scope significantly and allows it to bring in more outside inspirations. “Some Say” and “Pieces”, for example, two of its softer tracks, don’t feel out of place anymore because their style of dark alternative rock is adjacent to the alternative metal-learning songs like “Angels with Dirty Faces”. This is also seen on the opposite side of the spectrum with the thrash song “The Bitter End” and the 1980s hardcore track “Welcome to Hell”.

Anybody who has spent enough time listening to Sum 41 understand how captivating “Pieces” is as a ballad with its vulnerability and emotion coupled with the fetching bass hook in the verse. To have both it and a song as heavy as “The Bitter End” on the same record while maintaining consistency illustrates the quality of thought and songwriting that went into this album’s composition.