This article is part of the In Defense of the Genre series. Previously, Motion City Soundtrack and the inadequacy of language.
In Defense of the Genre is about celebrating a much-maligned genre, which frequently takes the shape of in-depth personal reflections on songs, albums or bands. But we also want to zoom out a bit every so often, and take a more sweeping look at this music that means so much to us. So here are some of our favourite works in pop punk, ranging from concept-driven rock operas to gag songs about masturbating. This isn’t a list of the best pop punk albums ever, or a primer on getting into pop punk, or even a list of our definitive favourites. But it is a list of albums that we love and wholeheartedly recommend.
Dude Ranch (1997) – Blink-182
Ciara: “Nothing sounds like being a teenager to me more than Dude Ranch. Part of that is that lyrically it references such particularly teenage experiences – ‘Please, Mom / You ground me all the time / I know that I was right / All along’ – and part of it is the unabashedly juvenile sense of humour – that song about getting grounded is called ‘Dick Lips’ – but that stuff describes most of Blink’s work. But nothing else feels quite like Dude Ranch: it lacks the polished pop production of their later albums, sounding sloppier and rawer. It’s fast and loud and Tom DeLonge’s voice sounds strangled and scratchy, like someone who screams so much they don’t even get hoarse anymore. It has 15 tracks and exactly one of them is four minutes or more.
Dude Ranch is an album about self-pity and inadequacy, a celebration of teenage-boy-grossness that captures the ever-present underlying sadness there. The opening track – ‘Pathetic’ – is probably my favourite Blink duet, Mark and Tom’s voices playing off each other perfectly, a two-and-a-half minute mission statement: ‘Don’t pull me down / this is where I belong,’ Mark Hoppus sings, and Tom sings ‘I think I’m different / but I’m the same and I’m wrong’ back. Almost nothing captures the simultaneous bravado and crippling insecurity of teenagehood as well.
But the album’s centrepiece, one of the best songs Mark has ever written, is ‘Apple Shampoo’, the song that most vigorously casts off Blink’s affected permanent adolescence. It’s about a break-up, like a huge chunk of Dude Ranch, but a distinctly adult one: ‘It could never survive / With such differing lives / One home, one out on tour again.’ More than that, Mark’s refusal to grow up becomes a source of emotional pain, a longing for things to stay the same in a world where they never will be. He’s like Holden Caulfield in the history museum, and my heart clenches every time: ‘I never wanted to hold you back / I just wanted to hold on / But my chance is gone / I know / just where / I stand / a boy / trapped in the body of a man.’”
All Killer, No Filler (2001) – Sum 41
Dean: “All Killer, No Filler makes a big promise with its title, but it absolutely delivers. The songs are really tight – only a quarter break three minutes – and every one has a killer hook. ‘Summer’ and ‘Nothing on My Back’ are so good that it feels like a real shame they weren’t released as singles, but then again, most pop punk bands would give anything to write just one single as good as any of the album tracks on All Killer, No Filler.
It’s definitely on the more comic side of pop punk, especially with its bookends, the spoken-word prophecy of doom ‘Introduction to Destruction’ (‘The dark armies then will come, when the Sum is 41’) and the Iron Maiden tribute ‘Pain for Pleasure’, which ends with drummer Steve Jocz screaming ‘Satan is his name!’ in an ear-shattering falsetto. Lead single ‘Fat Lip’ shows the influence of the Beastie Boys in its joke-laden verses (‘Storming through the party like my name is El Niño’) and bridge, which ends with the line ‘The doctor said my mom should have had an abortion’ echoing on a delay.
But like much great pop punk, it’s both funny as hell and also a really great album about depression, self-loathing and bad relationships from a young adult perspective. ‘Heart Attack’ in particular has aged really well: ‘turn my head, it’s back to bed with no delay/can’t be bothered by the phone ten times today/why get up, my morning doesn’t even start ’til two/forget reality, waking up is hard to do’.”
Bleed American (2001) – Jimmy Eat World
Ciara: “Here’s the thing about ‘The Middle’: it should be the lamest, worst thing in the world, a condescending saccharine pile of shit that you can’t listen to without cringing. And I’m sure it is that for a lot of people, because, I mean, it sincerely tells you to try your best and just be yourself. Inspirational pop songs are quite possibly the hackiest thing there is, and even when they work as pop songs – like ‘I Will Survive’ – they’re basically never actually inspirational. And ‘The Middle’ is loaded with clichés, it’s not some kind of subversion of the trope. But what’s amazing about it is that it works anyway, somehow: if I hear it on the radio I grin from ear to ear, and it legitimately soars. It’s not because it does anything to try to elevate itself above inspirational pop – it just does what it is with a complete and total sincerity that is incredibly disarming.
But Bleed American is also so much more than ‘The Middle’. It’s a much more simple, direct record than its predecessor, Clarity: it’s a pop-rock album, ‘open-hearted [and] shiny-sounding,’ doing what it does sincerely and well. It opens with one of my favourite three-song runs on any album, going from the angsty rock of ‘Bleed American’ (AKA ‘Salt Sweat Sugar’) to the fuck-the-world-let’s-dance bittersweet nostalgia jam ‘A Praise Chorus’ to the pure perfection of ‘The Middle’. But there isn’t a bad song on the thing: every song works in some kind of lizard-brain way, like they must have existed forever because they could hardly be made by clumsy human hands. Bleed American is less the sound of selling out than the sound of a band with wisdom and scars deciding to make athematic pop-rock just because maybe we deserve to be happy every once and awhile.”
…Is a Real Boy (2004) – Say Anything
Dean: “Say Anything have one of the strongest discographies of any pop punk band, and it’s unfortunate that their output is often to reduced to …Is a Real Boy when albums like Hebrews and I Don’t Think It Is are so brilliant in their own right. It’s a tendency that frontman Max Bemis mocked on Hebrews (‘be nineteen with a joint in hand/never change the band/never ever be a dot dot dot real man’) and I always grin when I hear it, because the band’s bad fans do really suck. But, on the other hand, …Is a Real Boy is their best album, and one of the seminal musical works of the noughties.
It does an amazing job of navigating the tension between the inherent irony of pop punk as a genre – sad, angry lyrics over bright, jangly guitar – and the unabashed sincerity at the heart of its ethos. Bemis tosses off sarcastic quips in one line and then sings about wanting to die in the next, showing how irony functions as a defense mechanism, so it doesn’t feel hypocritical when he screams ‘go choke on you irony’ in ‘The Futile’. The songs are self-deprecating, tongue-in-cheek and really clever. I think often of how ‘Every Man Has a Molly’ deconstructs the traditional fuck-you break-up song by making clear that the singer brought his dumping on himself and is just misdirecting his own self-loathing outwards, then reconstructs it at the end by highlighting that his self-loathing is still painful and still matters.
Simply put, I’ve been listening to IARB for the bones of a decade and I’m still discovering new things to love about it. It’s truly peerless work.”
Three Cheers for Sweet Revenge (2004) – My Chemical Romance
Ciara: “How do I love Three Cheers for Sweet Revenge, let me count the ways, etc. It’s the ultimate example of that wave of hardcore-influenced pop punk from the middle of Bush’s presidency, with cleaner and more polished production than their first album but not yet the anthemic rock of The Black Parade. It’s pop punk in the most fundamental sense: punk rock with a pop sensibility. It’s sometimes angry, sometimes sad, and with the exception of a brief interlude, always loud.
The supposed concept for Three Cheers is the story of a man who brings the devil the souls of a thousand evil men to again be with the woman he loves. But it’s not really about that at all. It’s an album about grief and anguish, loaded with gun violence, Catholic imagery, and little twists of flavour from other genres, from the Morricone-esque whistle at the start of ‘Hang ‘Em High’ or the showtune vamping that opens ‘You Know What They Do to Guys Like Us in Prison’. ‘Thank You For the Venom’, a song that’s technically about a very narrow historically-specific subject (‘will MCR be the great white hope of emo?’) but from 2018 plays more like a mission statement for the band’s whole career, exemplifies the whole album: it might start out with ‘Sister, I’m not much a poet but a criminal’ but it’s ultimately about ‘You’ll never make me leave / I wear this on my sleeve / Give me a reason to believe.’
Who could give a shit that the concept never comes together when what you get is not just cohesive but so emotionally intense? It’s an album that feels equal parts like screaming out at the absolute top of your lungs and singing along to a pop earworm on the radio, like a way to release every bad feeling that’s also in itself an absolute joy.”
American Idiot (2004) – Green Day
Dean: “Pop punk is often dismissed, unfairly as it happens, for taking the politics out of punk. That’s true of many bands in the genre – no one’s gonna accuse Bowling for Soup of a political agenda – but just as many are grasping at the political through the personal, capturing the emotional reality of the young as a political subject. They give voice to the sorrow and rage of those who can see how fucked-up the world is, even if they can’t yet understand or articulate why, or what to do about it. And no pop punk band has ever done it as well as Green Day on their rock opera masterpiece, American Idiot.
The protagonist of the album, Jesus of Suburbia, is a familiar archetype of the genre, disaffected and depressed, baffled and frustrated at the state of the world, trying to numb the ache with whatever he can find. We follow him as he flees his drug-addled hometown in search of hope, first in the lights of the big city, then in the words of a charismatic radical, and finally in the arms of a woman, only for each to give way to despair when he finds they can’t heal the wound inside him.
It’s easily the band’s most musically complex work, especially ‘Jesus of Suburbia’, which flies through different tempos and instrument tunings across its nine-minute length, but the lyrics are what really shine. They’re dense with allusion and rich in feeling, effortlessly weaving religious iconography and brand names into an undeniable portrait of the crazy-making corporate theocracy that was, and is, the United States of America.”
Pretty. Odd. (2008) – Panic! at the Disco
Ciara: “I heard a recent Panic! at the Disco song on the radio the other day and it instilled in me more than ever how important it is to distinguish between the act currently recording as Panic! at the Disco – which consists of Brendon Urie and a revolving door – and my Panic! at the Disco, a band where Brendan Urie sang the songs Ryan Ross wrote. This era gave us two albums: A Fever You Can’t Sweat Out, an electronic pop punk album, and Pretty. Odd., which is, uh, not that.
I distinctly remember there being at least a slight backlash against Pretty. Odd. when it was released, but its reputation seems to have grown in the intervening decade. It’s hugely influenced by 1960s baroque pop, Pet Sounds-era Beach Boys, and The Beatles, and was even partly produced at Abbey Road Studios. Lyrically, it’s frequently strange or esoteric – sugarcane in the easy mornin’, weathervanes my one and lonely – and sometimes childlike in its simplicity, like on ‘When The Day Met the Night’, a song about the sun and the moon falling in love. But it’s always evocative, an album that makes me cry and makes me grin from ear to ear. But what I love the most are the moments when it’s so straightforward it pains me: ‘but who could love me? I am out of my mind’ and ‘things have changed for me and that’s okay’ and ‘I can’t prove this makes any sense, but I sure hope that it does.'”
Folie à Deux (2008) – Fall Out Boy
Ciara: “Folie à Deux is Fall Out Boy’s crowning achievement. From the moment the guitar kicks in after the piano-backed intro on ‘Disloyal Order of Water Buffaloes’, it sounds like a soaring epic even as its lyrics remain intensely personal, and intensely personal even as it tries to claw itself away from the all-consuming lens of self: ‘Imperfect boys with your perfect lives,’ Patrick sings, ‘Nobody wants to hear you sing about tragedy.’ It’s their bravest album, boldly experimenting with their sound in a swathe of new directions. It’s their most mature record, but it’s also one of their most fun.
There was some talk at the time about it being a political record, but listening a decade later, that stuff is barely there – ’20 Dollar Nose Bleed’ is the most overtly political, with lyrics like ‘Goes to the desert / the same war his dad rehearsed / Came back with flags on coffins and said / We won, oh we won.’ Moreso, it’s an album about Fall Out Boy, about the allure and pain of fame (‘America’s Suitehearts’) and what it means to process your pain so publicly and permanently: ‘You can only blame your problems on the world for so long / Before it all becomes the same old song.’ On ‘What a Catch, Donnie’, Fall Out Boy’s entire career is called back to, and long before they announced their hiatus, I recognised it as a bittersweet goodbye.”
Brand New Eyes (2009) – Paramore
Dean: “I’ve written before about my love of Brand New Eyes in the context of Paramore’s unapologetic defense of the virtue of feeling your emotions, however ugly or inconvenient they may be. But that only scratched the surface of why I adore it. It is, above all else, a great-sounding album, cohesive but never samey, developing its textures across eleven really solid songs. The dark, swampy timbre of Taylor York’s rhythm guitar in the opening tracks gives way to a lighter, but still crunchy, tone as it progresses, before culminating in a soaring, almost ethereal accompaniment to the piercing heights of Hayley William’s four-octave vocal range on the closing track ‘All I Wanted’.
Williams herself is a force of nature, alternately spitting the lyrics and leaving them dance delicately on the tip of her tongue. She deliberately veers into shrill at several points, playing with cultural expectations of the female voice similarly to punk predecessors like Poly Styrene (X-Ray Spex), Debbie Harry (Blondie) and Corin Tucker (Sleater-Kinney). She can go from furious to sunny to droll in the space of a single line and the lyrics are some of the most forceful of her career.
‘You don’t have to believe me/but the way I, way I see it/next time you point a finger/I might have to bend it back/and break it, break it off’ goes the chorus of ‘Playing God’ and it’s a perfect summation of the band’s whole deal. We may be tired and beaten down by the world, but we’ll never stop kicking back.”
The Greatest Generation (2013) – The Wonder Years
Dean: “The conclusion of a trilogy beginning with The Upsides and continuing with Suburbia I’ve Given You All and Now I’m Nothing, The Greatest Generation is, to my mind, the Wonder Years’ finest work. It uses historical references (‘it feels like nineteen-twenty-nine and I’m on the verge of a Great Collapse today’) and images (‘I’ve got my heart strung up on clothing line in tenement windows in mid-July’) as well as the ephemera of family history (‘the whole world smells like True Blue/the only brand my grandma smokes’) to place feelings of anxiety and depression in a larger context that never diminishes and actually enriches the urgency of those feelings.
‘The Devil in My Bloodstream’ and ‘Teenage Parents’ in particular deliver an incredible one-two punch at the album’s mid-point, discussing lead singer Dan Campbell’s fear that his depression will eventually kill him like it killed his great-grandfather and the judgement his parents faced while trying to raise their children in poverty. Throughout, he articulates how his mental illness has isolated from his family (‘the first thing that I do when I walk in/is find a way out for when shit gets bad’) and his desperate longing to reconnect (‘I wanted to know if I could please come home’).
The album concludes with ‘I Just Want to Sell Out My Funeral’, which transforms after the third chorus into a medley of almost every previous song that builds to a cathartic resolution when Campbell declares that even if ‘there’s no triumph waiting/there’s no sunset to ride off in’, he’s ready at last to live his life. Like ‘Adam’s Song’ before it, The Greatest Generation perfectly threads the needle of promising it can get better without relying on platitudes or false promises. It’s a really special album.”
Read our next list of pop punk album recommendations here.