Since The Sundae’s infancy in 2017, we have been committed to taking pop punk seriously, whether writing deep-dive examinations of car imagery in the genre or emoting about Fall Out Boy and My Chemical Romance saving our lives. We’ve even been cited in The Atlantic for it, somehow. In all the upheaval of 2020 and COVID, our pop punk series fell by the wayside. To an outside observer, it might have appeared that we said all we had to say.
That couldn’t be further from the truth. We’re just getting started. And so we’re relaunching the series with a look at some of our favourite pop punk albums, running the gamut from the genre’s biggest stars to obscure indie kids, spanning from the genre’s Big Bang in 1994 through to just before The Sundae came into being. We’ve renamed the series In Defense of the Genre, in tribute to the greatest pop punk scholar of our time, Max Bemis. We only hope to contribute as much to the cause.
Smash (1994) – The Offspring
Dean: “It’s honestly tragic that The Offspring doomed themselves to be remembered for the actually quite bad ‘Pretty Fly for a White Guy’ because their early records are a treasure trove of first-wave pop punk, none more so than their third album, Smash. The core elements of their sound – Dexter Holland’s raspy, wailing vocals, Noodles’ growling guitar riffs and Greg K.’s sinewy bass – are firing on all cylinders throughout. It moves with relentless skate punk speed, broken up only by the occasional interjection from its smarmy narrator (who sounds weirdly like, but is not, the narrator of Eminem’s ‘Guilty Conscience’).
The centrepiece of the album – literally the exact middle tracks – is the one-two punch of ‘Come Out and Play’ and ‘Self Esteem’. The former was their breakout hit, a bouncy, high-energy, danceable song about gun violence built around a whimsical Arabian guitar riff, with Dexter singing in a dry deadpan on the verses. But nothing quite captures the greatness of their early work like ‘Self Esteem’. It opens with the whole band singing ‘la la lalala’ in a stupid voice, then turns out to be an astonishingly sad, self-deprecating song about domestic abuse. Dexter sounds totally resigned from start to finish, even while singing ‘oh yeah yeah-yeah-yeah’ on the chorus. The syncopated bassline creates this feeling of unsteadiness, like the music is stopping and starting in time with the singer’s stumbling, half-hearted attempts to stand up to his girlfriend. It’s lyrically reminiscent of mid-00s ‘emo’ pop punk, but musically of its time, a unique song that moves me very deeply.”
Everything Sucks (1996) – Descendents
Dean: “I usually hesitate to describe the work of the California punk bands who inspired the first wave of pop punk as pop punk themselves. Bad Religion certainly take a pop turn on lots of their albums, but even one as foundational as Suffer is clearly the blueprint for pop punk, not the thing itself. But then there’s Everything Sucks. Descendents’ breakout album Milo Goes to College is a punk album that’s obviously been a huge influence on pop punk, but their 1996 reunion record Everything Sucks is a pop punk album through and through. It’s like they returned from hiatus just to show all the young bucks who picked up a guitar after listening to Milo Goes to College how it’s done.
Everything Sucks is a tight thirty minutes with fifteen tracks: fewer than half break two minutes and only one breaks three. (‘Thank You‘ is technically four thirty, but the song itself is only two fifteen, followed by an instrumental hidden track.) Lots of bands, including bands I like, can struggle to craft a song that feels complete in such a short length, but not Descendents. Even the frantic thirty-four-second sprint of ‘Coffee Mug’ packs a surprisingly rich portrait of caffeine addiction into the same timeframe plenty of songs fit their opening chords. The whole album is filled to bursting with banger after banger, from the platonic ideal of a friendzone lament, ‘I’m the One’, to the melancholic rage against aging of ‘When I Get Old’, to one of the genre’s most sweetly self-effacing love songs, ‘I Won’t Let Me’.”
Four Minute Mile (1997) – The Get Up Kids
Ciara: “’There should be a How To Be a Pop-Punk Kid starter kit with bands like Get Up Kids,’ Pete Wentz said in 2005, ‘so kids would know whose shoulders bands like us are standing on.’ The Get Up Kids were (sometimes to their own chagrin) incredibly influential on the next decade of pop punk and emo, and nowhere is that clearer than on their debut album Four Minute Mile. It’s a much rougher, sloppier album than their acclaimed follow-up, Something To Write Home About, not least because it was recorded in a weekend so their youngest member wouldn’t miss high school. But that is precisely its charm. The rawness of the audio feeds into the record’s emotional rawness, making it seem even more painfully vulnerable and earnest.
Which is not to suggest, of course, that Four Minute Mile isn’t a good time. In 1997, lead singer Matt Pryor once called the album ‘swinging dance numbers about crying,’ which is both a great description of Four Minute Mile and of all the pop punk I love. At times it’s devastating – Pryor repeating ‘I shoulda done something’ over and over on ‘Better Half’ – and at times it’s delightful: the unexpected synths on the chorus of ‘Don’t Hate Me’ are just chemical joy. But the devastation and the joy aren’t in contrast, they’re weaved together, part of the same landscape of intensely felt, sincerely expressed emotion. And if that’s not a How To Be a Pop Punk Kid starter kit, I don’t know what is.”
Maybe I’ll Catch Fire (2000) – Alkaline Trio
Dean: “I always think of Alkaline Trio as a real songwriting band: no high-concept albums, not even a ton of singles hits, but pretty much every song on their first three albums is a well-crafted bop. Their first, Goddamnit! is probably my favourite and their third, From Here to Infirmary, is probably their best. But, in making this list, I kept coming back to Maybe I’ll Catch Fire. Like Blink-182’s Dude Ranch, it’s a transitional album, halfway between the raw, youthful sound of their debut and the clean pop production of its successor. But where Dude Ranch is a ton of fun even as it probes more emotional territory, Maybe I’ll Catch Fire is a long dark night of the soul in 4/4 time.
The tone is established in the opening lines of ‘Keep ‘Em Coming’: ‘fourteen hours ahead / a head that’s heavier than lead / I’ve got toothpicks in my eyes / a smile more yellow than the sky’. Maybe I’ll Catch Fire is shot through with melancholy, fury and despair, but the overwhelming feeling is of exhaustion. The lyrics return again and again to the notion that things are already too fucked up to come back from and have been for a while: ‘all these ‘I’m sorry’s and ‘I miss you’s are useless / I fucked this one up long ago’ from ‘Fuck You Aurora’ or ‘my skin went sour long ago / I knew it had no place left to go’ from ‘Tuck Me In’.
It all culminates in probably the finest ‘fuck you, I hope you die’ song in a genre full of them: ‘Radio’. ‘Shaaaakin’ like a dog shittin’ razor blades’ is an absolute masterpiece of a first line and few spiteful death fantasies are as vividly realised as ‘I wish you / would take my radio to bathe with you / plugged in and ready to fall’. God, I love Alkaline Trio.”
Warning (2000) – Green Day
Ciara: “Twenty years of every thinking person calling Warning underrated has somehow not gained it the reputation it deserves. As fun as Dookie and presaging the political bent of American Idiot, it spirals out in a dozen other musical directions, all of them wonderful.
‘Good Riddance (Time of Your Life)’ had been such a big hit in 1997 that knowing Green Day used more acoustic guitars on Warning makes it sound like a record of soppy acoustic ballads. Then you hear the title track and all your fears are instantly assuaged. The acoustic guitars are driving, percussive ones, totally unfit for soppy ballads. Billie Joe Armstrong repeatedly listened to Bob Dylan’s Bringing It All Back Home while writing Warning, and the album as a whole draws a lot from sixties folk rock and some British Invasion bands. It folds those influences into Green Day’s pop punk sound in a way that feels like they cracked the code on the often messy genre-hopping on Nimrod. ‘Warning’ borrows the riff from ‘Picture Book’ by the Kinks, ‘Hold On’ has ‘Love Me Do’ harmonicas, ’Jackass’ has a saxophone break. It’s the first album I’d recommend to Green Day sceptics and an album I can’t imagine any Green Day fan not loving.
And that’s not even mentioning ‘Waiting’, the best song on the album and the best song Green Day have ever recorded: in a just world, it would be the crossover hit so big it became a pop standard, with ‘Time of Your Life’ a distant memory.”
Tell All Your Friends (2002) – Taking Back Sunday
Ciara: “Tell All Your Friends is both the distillation of the Bush-era emo sound and one of that sound’s undisputable peaks. It’s music to scream along to and it’s the soundtrack to crying in your room. Inspired in part by John Nolan’s falling out with Jesse Lacey of Brand New, it is also one of the best friendship break-up albums of all time. ‘Best friends means I pull the trigger,” Nolan and Adam Lazzara scream-sing at the end of ‘There’s No I in Team’, ‘Best friends means you get what you deserve.’ Rolling Stone were absolutely right to call it ‘an emo LP that sounds like someone’s heart being ripped out while still beating.’
Nolan left the band shortly after Tell All Your Friends was released, and his involvement is part of what makes it such a special record in Taking Back Sunday’s discography. The shared vocal duties give the songs the feel of a rapid-fire conversation. Most songs on it feature a breakdown where Nolan and Lazzara’s separate vocal parts intertwine and layer over each other, and no matter how many times they pull the same trick, it feels urgent and emotional and desperate and overwhelming in all the best ways, like the song is pulling itself apart. Add to that the album’s wit – ‘The truth / Is you could slit my throat / And with my one last gasping breath / I’d apologise for bleeding on your shirt’ – and you’ve got one of the best emo albums of the 2000s.”
Deja Entendu (2003) – Brand New
Dean: “Deja Entendu is a huge shift in sound from the pure pop punk of Brand New’s debut album, Your Favorite Weapon, heavier and screamier, but not yet the dense hardcore of their follow-up, The Devil and God Are Raging Inside Me. It’s dark, melodramatic and emotionally intense, agonisingly so on songs like ‘The Quiet Things That No One Ever Knows’ and ‘The Boy Who Blocked His Own Shot’, but still built around the big hooks, gang vocals and driving pop punk rhythms that keep the album moving at a fair clip. The songwriting is still tight even as it sprawls a bit lengthwise, revelling in the cacophonous guitar melodies of its choruses. It has both some of the prettiest lyrics of Brand New’s discography (‘another week away, my greatest fear / I need the smell of summer / I need its noises in my ears’) and some of the most disturbing (‘please use my body while I sleep / my lungs are fresh and yours to keep / kept clean and they will let you breathe’). It also features possibly the best song Brand New ever recorded, ‘Okay I Believe You, But My Tommy Gun Don’t’, a song that’s alternately spiteful in the extreme (even for pop punk) and desperately gasping for catharsis.
I appreciate that, for a lot of fans, the exposure of Brand New frontman Jesse Lacey as a sexual predator has made their music permanently unlistenable, and I would never insist anyone who feels that way feel any different. But, for me, my relationship with the work is what matters, not the artist. Deja Entendu doesn’t belong to Brand New, it belongs to me, and the way I feel when I listen to it has nothing to do with who recorded it. I don’t even let people I respect dictate how I feel about their work. I’m certainly not going to let Jesse Lacey.”
I Am the Movie (2003) – Motion City Soundtrack
Ciara: “Motion City Soundtrack are the most underrated pop punkers of the 2000s, and their debut album, I Am the Movie, is as charming and clever as anything they’ve recorded. Originally self-released packaged inside a floppy disk, I Am the Movie was re-released when the band signed to a label, adding four new songs as well as doing new mixes on the existing ones. Bright and shiny pop punk with a smattering of Moog synthesiser, it bursts with irresistible pop hooks and amusing pop culture references. ‘Perfect Teeth’ is an insanely catchy song about watching Night Court reruns.
It’s a much less melancholy album than their follow-up, Commit This To Memory, but there are the same shots of darkness throughout. ‘The Future Freaks Me Out’ is so upbeat that it takes a couple of listens to register that it’s about the existential terror of being alive. ‘Perfect Teeth’ does end with an admission to ‘barely, barely holding on’. This strain of darkness comes to a head with ‘Modern Chemistry’, an ode to doing all the things that are supposed to help your mental health and still feeling like shit: ‘I believe in medication / And I believe in therapy / And I believe in Crystal Light / ‘Cause I believe in me, yeah.” It’s sarcasm, obviously – comparing medical help to an ad jingle – but also a kind of desperate wish, repeated like a mantra, like repeating it might make him believe it. It’s the most mid-2000s pop punk thing in the world.”
Hebrews (2014) – Say Anything
Ciara: “Say Anything are one of the best pop punk bands of all time: Max Bemis is to pop punk what Martin Scorsese is to film, an incomparable artist-scholar. Hebrews, released ten years after Say Anything’s debut …Is a Real Boy, is a serious contender for their best album. It’s about being a new father, being in love with your wife, being bipolar, and of course, being Jewish. The title track is incredibly powerful in ways that still take me off-guard, both placing antisemitism in the context of other forms of oppression – ‘I’m just a sick little injun… I’m just an African import… I’m the Hebrew” – and Bemis’s neurosis from generational trauma: ‘I am a waste of a Bar Mitzvah.’
What easily could have been a gimmick – there are no guitars on the album – is anything but. It expands Say Anything’s sound in a way that is often astonishingly beautiful. If that all sounds a bit serious, Hebrews is also an album that has a whole song of Max threatening his baby daughter’s hypothetical future boyfriend (‘You better get her home / By eleven thirty’), another song about a hypothetical future where his wife leaves him for Johnny Depp, and a lovely love song about being the Ripley to your John McClane. A particular highlight is ‘Judas Decapitation’, a fuck you to the hypocrites and posers who think Say Anything suck now (‘I hate that dude now that he’s married / He’s got a baby on the way, poor Sherri’), which acts a a better sequel to ‘Admit It!!!’ than ‘Admit It Again’ could ever dream of.”
How the Moon Shines on the Shit (2016) – SOMNIA
Dean: “The now-sadly-defunct indie punk label Rumbletowne Records put out some great quirky pop punk records in its decade in operation, from the soaring Springsteenian hooks of Divers’ Hello Hello to Shorebirds’ stripped-down garage-influenced It’s Gonna Get Ugly. But nothing sticks with me quite like How the Moon Shines on the Shit, the sole release (to date!) of SOMNIA, formed by indie punk veterans Erica Freas (co-frontwoman of RVIVR, as well as Rumbletowne’s founder) and David Combs (currently of the great DC punk band Bad Moves).
Inspired in part by shared lucid dreaming sessions, How the Moon Shines on the Shit is a slippery, elliptical, evocative little album. Freas and Combs both take lead vocals, sometimes singing together, sometimes taking turns, sometimes abruptly swapping back and forth mid-verse. Some songs build overtly on the project’s themes of sleep and dreaming, like ‘Crazy Ocean’, a hectic track about sleep paralysis that ends with the whole band yelling ‘RUN AWAY, RUN AWAY, FROM WHAT’S COMING AFTER YOU’ over and over. But most of them are simply dreamlike, with softly surrealistic imagery running together in free association (‘faceless neighbours shuffle to close doors / empty newspapers struggle to find words’). There are a lot of personal hooks for me in this album, as a longtime fan of both Freas and Combs and as someone who suffers from a sleep disorder that often results in pretty intense dreams, nightmares and sleep paralysis. But what really grabs me is the sound of the thing, the muted guitars, the fuzzy production, the little flickers of piano. It also has my favourite version of Freas’s song ‘Silver’. She’s recorded it in a number of styles, but nothing suits it quite like the pop punk bounce of How the Moon Shines on the Shit.”