After more than 20 years since they released their first single, Me First and the Gimme Gimmes finally put out their “greatestest” hits album earlier this month (and stopped by the Paste Studio to banter and jam). Racking up two decades’ worth of music is certainly no small feat for any group, but it’s even more impressive that the Gimme Gimmes have done it exclusively as a punk-rock cover band.
On the surface, punk covers are incredibly fun and energizing, but they don’t always have the longest shelf life. When done well, they can revitalize (and even transcend) the original. When done poorly, they can be some of the stalest and most cringe-worthy nonstarters in all of pop music.
While the Gimme Gimmes are unique in taking the cannonball plunge of making an entire career out of punk covers, a lot of other great bands have gone beyond just a B-side or soundtrack cut and made a full album or two of amped-up homage. There are also a few multi-artist compilations and tribute albums out there made up exclusively of stellar punk covers. To be considered for this list, the original songs/artists didn’t have to be punk, only the cover songs on the album. Of course, the inverse doesn’t apply, so We’re a Happy Family and Burning London—while among the better Ramones and Clash tribute albums—are not punk cover albums by any stretch of the “no rules” genre.
So without further ado, here are 10 (or so) of the best punk cover albums of all time. Take it, Dee Dee. 1-2-3-4!
With over two decades of genre-themed cover albums and artist-dedicated singles under their belt, it’s almost impossible to pick the best Me First and the Gimme Gimmes release. But we’ll at least narrow it down to just two. Their tackling of ‘60s and ‘70s hits (Have a Ball, Blow in the Wind, Turn Japanese), R&B (Take a Break), country (Love Their Country), and Australian pop (Go Down Under) are all fine fare on their own terms, but it’s their Are a Drag showtunes album from 1999 and their diva-fueled Are We Not Men? We Are Diva! album from 2014 that capture the Gimmes at their best. “Science Fiction/Double Feature” and “Cabaret” from Are a Drag are absolute knockouts, and “Straight Up” and “My Heart Will Go On” from Are We Not Men? We Are Diva! highlight the band’s incredible range. Occasionally, they even double down on their punk cred by injecting snippets of classic punk songs into the mix, like adding The Dead Boys’ “Sonic Reducer” riff to their cover of Lady Gaga’s “Speechless” or Bad Religion’s “Generator” to their cover of “My Favorite Things.” It’s worth the tumble down the rabbit hole to discover each and every magical element of their punk-cover wonderland.
MxPx’s first all-covers album in 1995 turned out to be a fairly diverse affair. The eight-track CD featured covers of Buddy Holly, Bryan Adams and The Blasters, with the double 10-inch vinyl version housing additional covers of Social Distortion and Ritchie Valens. Most notably, On the Cover included an inspired version of A-ha’s “Take On Me” a couple years before it became one of the de facto pop-punk covers of the late ‘90s. Fourteen years later, the Bremerton-based trio delivered a sequel of sorts with their ‘80s-heavy On the Cover II album. Once again, MxPx covered various genres to keep things interesting, including new wave (The Go-Go’s, Kim Wilde), glam metal (Poison), rock (Queen, U2), punk (Dead Milkmen, Descendents) and whatever genre The Proclaimers fall into. Nailing one punk covers album successfully is tough enough, but MxPx managed to do it twice in true “must-hear” fashion.
While The Ramones sprinkled a few cover songs throughout their early albums (“Let’s Dance,” “California Sun,” “Do You Wanna Dance?”), they decided to go all the way with the concept in 1993 for their 13th studio album Acid Eaters. Focusing on many of the ‘60s bands that influenced them, they split the 12-song tracklist between some of the decade’s most iconic songs (“Somebody to Love,” “Have You Ever Seen the Rain?,” “Substitute”) and some of its more obscure gems (“Can’t Seem to Make You Mine” by The Seeds and “I Can’t Control Myself” by The Troggs). In true Ramones fashion, they make each cover sound like one of their own songs and they deliver all 12 tracks in less than 31 minutes. As a bonus note, the Ramones had a trio of interesting guest vocalists on the album—Pete Townshend on “Substitute,” Sebastian Bach on “Out of Time” and Traci Lords on “Somebody to Love.”
When country icon Johnny Cash passed away in 2003, it didn’t take long for the tributes to start pouring in. He always had an interesting co-conspirator relationship with punk rock throughout his career, so it’s fitting that one of the most stirring Cash tribute albums, 2008’s All Aboard from Anchorless Records, came from the punk community. From the explosive opener of The Bouncing Souls’ “The Man in Black” to Good Riddance frontman Russ Rankin’s acoustic-driven closer “I Walk the Line,” All Aboard vacillates wonderfully between electrified barnburners (MxPx’s “Hey Porter” and The Flatliners “Cry! Cry! Cry!”) and stripped-down howlers (Chuck Ragan’s “Wreck of the Old 97” and The Gaslight Anthem’s “God’s Gonna Cut You Down”). The most compelling track on the album might be the haunted carnival sashay of “Ballad of a Teenage Queen”, from Amanda Palmer’s Dresden Dolls featuring a little help from The Hold Steady’s Franz Nicolay. Thanks to the strength of the source material and the caliber of musicians involved, there’s not really a skip-worthy track to be found on All Aboard.
There’s a plethora of single-artist tribute albums to The Ramones, so many that you could probably do an entire list on just that criterion alone. You can even decide between hearing a band cover a variety of different Ramones songs (File Under Ramones by the Huntingtons), or a band covering an entire Ramones album in full (Ramones by Screeching Weasel, Leave Home by The Vindictives, Rockets to Russia by The Queers, Road to Ruin by Mr. T Experience, and so on). Osaka Ramones falls into the former camp, with Japanese pop-punk girl-group dynamos Shonen Knife taking a stab at 13 of their favorite Ramones cuts. What makes this album so unique (and what designated it the representative stand-in for all of the other single-artist Ramones tributes), is how incredibly cool it is to hear the Ramones—a band synonymous with prototypical testosterone-driven, American punk—reinterpreted through the seemingly (but, as it turns out, not really) contrasting lens of three Japanese women. Osaka Ramones is a beautiful testament to both the universality of The Ramones’ catalog and the transcendency of Shonen Knife’s performances.
Social Distortion’s Mike Ness released two solo albums in 1999, Cheating at Solitaire and Under the Influences. The former contained mostly original numbers and the latter was exclusively covers of some of Ness’ favorite classic country and folk songs. Ness has always had good taste in selecting covers for Social Distortion, and his Under the Influences reinterpretations of Hank Williams’s “Six More Miles,” Wanda Jackson’s “Funnel of Love” and The Crickets/Bobby Fuller Four’s “I Fought the Law” sound like they would’ve been right at home on any Social D album. However, it’s the gritty heartbreak that Ness brings to acoustic ballads like “House of Gold” and “Wildwood Flower” that really make Under the Influences so special. Plus, Ness pulls the total punk move of covering himself, closing the album out with a “honky tonk” version of “Ball and Chain” from Social D’s 1990 self-titled album.
There may not be another band that has had as many tribute albums devoted to it as the Ramones. While Gabba Gabba Hey may not be the best of the bunch overall, it does get major points for being the first out of the gate. Released in 1991 by Triple X Records (which released early albums from Jane’s Addiction and Social Distortion), what Gabba Gabba Hey lacks in album cohesion it makes up for with some really nice individual tracks from Bad Religion (“We’re A Happy Family”), Mojo Nixon (“Rockaway Beach”), Groovie Ghoulies (“Pet Sematary”) and L7 (“Suzy Is a Headbanger”). At 22 tracks, there are understandably a couple of duds in the mix. But as punk tribute albums go, Gabba Gabba Hey is certainly worth your time.
The Clash haven’t had nearly as many tribute albums devoted to them as The Ramones, but the legendary U.K. punk rockers still have had a few choice ones recorded to honor their legacy. It may be a bit easier for a punk band to put its own spin on a song by The Clash—as opposed, say, to The Ramones—because the Clash had so many different sonic flavors mingling together in most of their songs. By stripping back or swapping out one or two of those layers, a band has more room to self-stamp their own cover. This is what happens in the standout tracks on City Rockers, where Dropkick Murphys trade the reggae swagger of “Guns of Brixton” for their trademarked in-your-face bombast, Hot Water Music turns “Clampdown” inside out via an interesting stop-start groove, and Saves the Day manages to ratchet an already brisk “Clash City Rockers” up a few notches without losing any of the original’s bounce.
Ghoti Hook made a career of infusing their brand of Christian pop-punk with a healthy dose of humor, so it’s no surprise that farcical playfulness is a defining characteristic of their cover album, Songs We Didn’t Write. As with other successful punk cover albums, they did a great job of diversifying the genre portfolio, touching on doo-wop (“Earth Angel”), early rock (“Burning Love”), new wave (“Just What I Needed,” “True Faith”), country (“On the Road Again”), alternative (“Where Is My Mind?”) and some punk songs from X, The Vindictives and Dead Milkmen. They even took a crack at covering a couple of Christian artists from opposite ends of the sonic spectrum: Stavesacre and Michael W. Smith. Songs We Didn’t Write comes across as equally adventurous and tongue-in-cheek, which is quite the combination for an entertaining listening experience.
Vagrant Records had only been in business a couple of years when it released the first Before You Were Punk compilation in 1997, borrowing almost all of the artist contributions from other labels. While it’s certainly a fun, respectable listen, the follow-up, 1999’s Before You Were Punk 2, is the real standout. The second time around, there were far more Vagrant bands represented in the tracklist, including The Get Up Kids (covering The Cure’s “Close to Me”), Rocket From the Crypt (covering Wall of Voodoo’s “This Way Out”), No Motiv (covering Flock of Seagulls’ “Space Age Love Song”), The Hippos (covering The Go-Go’s “Our Lips Are Sealed”) and more. Of the non-Vagrant bands on Before You Were Punk 2, some of the best tracks are NOFX’s take on OMD’s “Electricity” and MxPx’s romp through Elvis Costello’s “No Action.” You can’t really go wrong with either volume, but start with Before You Were Punk 2 and work backward for maximum enjoyment.