For many 20-somethings, Green Day was possibly one of the first rock bands to really matter. Between 2004 and 2005, the five mighty singles from American Idiot were in heavy rotation on FM radio, providing a semi-regular exposure to pop-punk. The album was a cultural force, moving close to 300,000 copies in its first week and earning the band two Grammy’s, a Tony award-winning musical and now, a full blown HBO film adaptation.
Those, of course, are only the isolated results of their second career phase. A full decade before tinkering their sound to explode like a heart hand grenade, the trio of Billie Joe Armstrong, Mike Dirnt and Tré Cool (arguably one of the best rock n’ roll name combos ever) managed to break through the grunge wall with songs about cross dressers, murderous girlfriends and, of course, masturbation.
The following list ranks Green Day’s album from least to most essential and showcases the worst tendencies and best characteristics of one of the last great globe conquering rock bands.
¡Uno! was the first record after Idiot and the bloated 21st Century Breakdown to see the band take a breather and attempt at playing back to their no frills rock n’ roll strengths.
Perhaps allergic to the idea of attaching the Green Day band name to anything less than epic, the trio decided that its return to form would be best spread extra-thin as a trilogy of records released only months apart from one another
What seemed like an already risky gamble looked especially grim after the release of ¡Uno!. What was marketed as effortless and revitalized instead sounds flat and lifeless.
On “Let Yourself Go,” the band squarely doesn’t. “Carpe Diem” claims to be a battle cry but opts for playing it safe and predictable. On “Kill the DJ,” the band frustratingly commits to an actual four-on-the-floor disco song.
The best of the bunch is opener “Nuclear Family” which teases toward an explosive launch for the rest of album. Instead, fans were handed 11 tracks of what later turned out to be a rock n’ roll mid-life crisis.
11. 21st Century Breakdown
While it’s a long stretch to say Green Day “grew up” on American Idiot, that album’s stabs at sharp political commentary and arena-ready material showed a band no longer interested in simply ripping through three chords and calling it a single.
Idiot’s successor, 21st Century Breakdown, is the worst extension of that instinct. The exhausting album sounds less like rock opera and more like punk-prog, an overstuffed Frankenstein’s monster delivered in three awful acts.
Producer Butch Vig inflated Green Day’s already large sound into something cartoonishly lumbering. The band’s appetite for ambition had simply eclipsed a concern for quality and clarity. There’s an abundance of genre-hopping (the mariachi inflected “Peacemaker,” the metallic lunge of “East Jesus Nowhere”) and numbers that act as set pieces than enjoyable songs (“Christian’s Inferno” both “¡Viva La Gloria!”s). While the singles got airplay, did anyone really fall for the weepy peaceful patriotism of “21 Guns,” or “Know Your Enemy”’s shamelessly vague anti-authoritarian sloganeering? With luck, the heft of Breakdown hopefully permanently satiated the band’s thirst for writing concept records and will continue its slow, dramatic fade from the spotlight.
A common trope in punk music is the DIY, off-the-cuff spirit of it all, especially when it comes to singing. From Joey Ramones’ classic bleat to John Lydon’s adenoidal snarl to the bullet-biting bark of Ian MacKaye, as long as the vocalist can keep pace with the genre’s signature breakneck speed, traditionally melodic singing is barely a requirement.
While Armstrong’s voice is no stranger to criticism and impersonations, it’s hard to argue against his raw technical ability as a singer.
That’s why it’s surprising that the biggest flaw on 39/Smooth, the band’s 1990 debut album, all rests on Armstrong’s ear-grating, brow-furrowing singing. Rather than properly sing or even revert to the mush-mouthed shouting present on some of the band’s later work, Armstrong sounds forced to yelp and hiccup through his lyrics in an attempt to keep up with the sprightly tempos of the music.
Vocals aside, the songs here lack the overall finesse and excitement of the band’s later output. While streaks of Dookie’s primordial DNA can be found in fan-favorite “Going to Pasalacqua,” the material here is worth a listen only for completionists.
In the long line of bands whose debuts marked their creative peaks, Green Day, thankfully, had a much longer road to go.
In describing the tragic trilogy of 2012, Armstrong remarked that, in terms of concept, ¡Uno! was classic Green Day, ¡Dos! a wild garage rock party and ¡Tré! the self-reflective, epic conclusion. While ¡Tré! certainly spends less time trying to sound wild, none of its songs seem particularly fresh or new for the band. Instead, the majority of its material sounds closer to b-sides from various eras of Green Day’s past.
“Amanda” could fit neatly on Nimrod and “8th Avenue Serenade” and “Sex Drugs and Violence” could be tagged as tolerable Breakdown b-sides. Sadly, those solid tunes don’t quite outnumber the weaker songs, especially the empty sloganeering of “99 Revolutions,” the dad-punk of “X-Kid” or whatever inner turmoil “The Forgotten” soundtracked for Bella and Edward in The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn-Part 2. With a carefully cherry-picked tracklist, ¡Tre! could’ve been a solid EP rather than the inconclusive conclusion to an already confusing trilogy.
An important disclaimer: ¡Dos! features a Green Day rap song. It’s called “Nightlife” and, yes, it’s god-awful.
Without it, ¡Dos! is easily the most rousing listen of the 2012 trilogy. Combining the energy of drunken garage project Foxboro Hot Tubs with the recording budget of a proper Green Day record, these are the back to basics rock songs the band initially promised. “Stop When the Red Lights Flash” is an absolute thrasher, the spot on result of an apolitical Green Day song with the gas pedal left duct-taped to the floor.
“Stray Heart” and “Wow! That’s Loud” offer charming takes on ‘60s influenced rock n’ roll. Closer “Amy” is a direct tribute to Amy Winehouse with a mid-fi, intimate recording matched with genuinely sweet lyrics, resulting in one of the most mature songs Armstrong has ever written.
7. Revolution Radio
The band’s latest release, while far from stellar, manages to meld together the two eras of Green Day’s career into a sound both immediate and epic.
That said, Revolution Radio still carries the baggage of the last decade of Green Day’s career. These songs will no doubt kill during their forthcoming world tour; fans might literally do what the title of “Bouncing Off the Walls” suggests. The ticket is, during shows, the overpowering volume will mask the cringe-inducing lyrics Armstrong managed to cram into his latest batch of songs. “I wanna hold you like a gun / we’ll shoot the moon into the sun,” from “Youngblood” and all of “Still Breathing” are the most immediate examples.
However, that doesn’t stop the rage of “Bang, Bang”, the sticky chorus of the title track and the threatening thud of “Say Goodbye” from hitting their intended marks. Revolution Radio is the result of a band suffering a heavy blow and getting back on its feet without much of a scratch to show for it.
The growth of the band we know as Green Day between the scrappy 39/Smooth and the tighter, angrier Kerplunk is perhaps best attributed to the ever volatile addition of permanent class clown Tré Cool.
With Cool on the drum seat, the overall finesse of the group as a punk rock band is noticeably better. While most Green Day songs aren’t particularly complex, their better cuts have a nervy, elevating energy to them that continually blast-off to greater heights rather than steadily keep pace over the course of a song.
The band debuted a rougher version of Dookie essential “Welcome to Paradise” on this record, which still features the steady full band build during the bridge. Deep cut “No One Knows” is one of the most affecting power-ballads Green Day have ever penned. The song begins with an absolutely gorgeous bass line from Dirnt that gently cycles throughout the track as Armstrong delivers vulnerable lyrics of isolation and alienation with a disaffected, exhaustive tone that recalls what “Boulevard of Broken Dreams” attempted years later.
“Christie Road” switches nicely from nostalgia pining power pop to snotty pop-punk and the goofy, Cool led “Dominated Love Slave” shows the darker side of the band’s humor.
Inspired by the freedom of Nimrod, Warning was Green Day’s first noticeable attempt at changing up its then decade deep sound. Compared to what would come after, it now seems more like a slight wardrobe change rather than full sonic reinvention.
Here, the band placed a heavier emphasis on lyrics and arrangement. As a result, the album features the first hints of Green Day as a political band, with the title track and barn-burning classic “Minority” railing against general authoritarian themes. Conversely, “Mercy” is by no means a great song, but its blatant theatricality also served as a sampler of what was to come only a few short four year later.
Like Green Day’s other mid-period work, it’s the deep cuts that shine. “Deadbeat Holiday” is a lost classic while “Blood, Sex and Booze,” “Fashion Victim” and “Castaway” are all lean, mean pop-punk done right.
Perhaps best known for the four chord stomp of “Brain Stew” segued into the manic panic of “Jaded,” this crotchety gem is best surmised by the chorus of “Armatage Shanks”: “I must insist on being a pessimist/I’m a loner with a catastrophic mind.”
On Insomniac, Green Day doused its Grammy award-winning punk rock formula with gasoline to cast a darker, heavier shadow. It’s the meanest, toughest record in the band’s discography, with a cryptic album art titled “God Told Me to Skin You Alive,” a reference to the Dead Kennedys’ “I Kill Children.”
While singles like the aforementioned “Brain Stew/Jaded,” “Stuck With Me” and “Walking Contradiction” are fantastic, the album boasts several criminally underrated deep cuts. “Bab’s Uvula Who?” is a contender for the most sweat inducing Green Day song ever, turning a simple riff into a train colliding off the tracks in two furious minutes. “Panic Song” features a tightly wound build coiled around lyrics that explore Mike Dirnt’s chronic panic attacks and “Brat” steeps the boyish themes of the band’s early output in parent-decaying cynicism.
Green Day’s fifth studio album is an 18-track journey through the many phases of popular punk rock. There’s standard pop-punk (“Nice Guys Finish Last”, “Redundant,” “Haushinka”), emo (“Worry Rock,” “Scattered”), hardcore (“Platypus (I Hate You)”, “Reject”), ska (“King For A Day”), grunge (“Hitchin’ A Ride”) and, for no discernible reason, screamo (“Take Back”).
While perhaps better known for a little acoustic ditty called “Good Riddance (Time of Your Life),” Nimrod is Green Day’s true ode to punk rock as a muse and stands quietly as one of the band’s finest, most consistent records. Fans long-burned on the ambition-starved sound of the band’s aughts output should reconsider giving it a revisit.
It takes a special kind of band to record a generation defining album literally titled “shit.” Green Day’s third was an album of firsts for the trio: their first on a major label, their first with legitimate singles, their first with pop-punk super producer Rob Cavallo and, later, their first to win Grammy’s.
History aside, Dookie is a speedy, fun-as-hell punk record about rebelling against an impossible adversary: age. The band first declares war on responsibility and maturing on the opening “Burnout,” later tackling the sweet release of apathy in “Longview” and the mental strain of the day-to-day in “Basket Case.”
Despite the hope found in “When I Come Around” and “She,” the boys decide to just nuke the whole damn thing in “F.O.D.” That is, until it’s revealed in the album’s signature secret track that it all may have just been a weird wet-dream fantasy by none other than Tré Cool, who was all by himself.
1. American Idiot
It could be their dumbest album. It’s a concept album with a nearly indiscernible plot (even with the help of a fleshed out Broadway musical). Sonically, it doesn’t break new ground as much as take the sound Green Day bashed out for over a decade and strap it to the classic rock jet fuel that is The Who.
As cornball as it can be, there is no denying that American Idiot rocks. The album thunders like no other Green Day album before it, and its echoing influence continues to loom large over their sound.
While Armstrong’s habit for cramming multiple songs into one is beginning to sag with time, “Jesus of Suburbia” and “Homecoming” stand as some of the most throttling, breakneck impressive nine-minute rock songs ever.
Outside of those pillars, “Holiday” is just as relevant in 2004 as it is today, with “I beg to dream and differ from the hollow lies” sounding more like the impassioned conclusion of a newspaper editorial on the confounding election cycle rather than the lyric to a rock chorus.
Still, no matter how often the band fails to conquer past heights, there are legions of devoted Green Day faithful from two separate generations who see this trio of California weirdos as the epitome of aging, defiantly kicking rock legends. They are far from the most influential or classically cool band of punk rockers, but for many music fans, they are the first to really, truly matter.
Reed Strength is a freelance writer and former Paste intern based out of Birmingham, Ala. He once saw Billie Joe play The Ramones’ “Judy Is A Punk” with The Replacements and hasn’t quite been the same since.