This article is part of In Defense of the Genre, a series of critical and personal essays in praise of pop punk. Previously, a history of pop punk in seven ages.
Breaking news: we still love pop punk! It’s been five years since we started this series and two years since we did one of these album roundups, and we’re very pleased to say we still love pop punk. More, if anything. And after all these years, the rest of the world is finally getting on our level. The pop punk revival is here, it’s queer, and we both had very different reactions to it that are somewhat reflected in this list.
Ciara ventured into the mists beyond Obama’s first term and found so much great pop punk there, she was able to achieve a long-term ambition of this blog by periodising the history of the genre. Dean listened to SOUR a lot and then got really into noughties New Jersey pop punk for some reason. Please enjoy this selection of albums based on both our recent findings and also our many, many years of listening to pop punk.
Ghostown (1979) – The Radiators from Space
Dean: “In the spirit of the blueprint section of Ciara’s Seven Ages of Pop Punk, I want to start off the proceedings with an album that isn’t pop punk, but prefigures its development in musical history. The Radiators from Space are one of two candidates for Ireland’s first punk band, alongside the much more famous Boomtown Rats, and their frontman Philip Chevron later became guitarist of The Pogues. Somehow, they’ve been allowed to fade into obscurity even though their sophomore album, Ghostown, is a masterpiece of first-wave punk. It may actually be the best album ever recorded on this island and you should listen to it even if you don’t like pop punk.
But also, it anticipates so much of what I love about pop punk it continuously blows my mind. It’s an album about being young, angry and depressed, hating this town, but only because you love this town, driven by the push and pull between irony and sincerity, lyrics full of Wentzesque wordplay and literary references, music to swing and bounce and dance your way through the long dark night. Listen to ‘Kitty Ricketts‘ and tell me you don’t hear ‘Mama‘. Listen to ‘Song of the Faithful Departed‘ and tell me Chevron doesn’t sound eerily like Gerard Way when he snarls ‘whiskey in the jar’. Most of all, listen to Ghostown and tell me it doesn’t deserve to be in the pantheon of great punk albums.”
Anywhere But Here (1997) – The Ataris
Dean: “I generally don’t accuse people of lying when they say they like a piece of art I don’t. I think it’s hacky as a joke and condescending as a serious suggestion. But I’m sorely tempted when I see The Ataris’ So Long, Astoria on yet another listicle of the greatest pop punk albums ever that seems suspiciously like half the entries were lifted from other listicles. If there was ever a pop punk band who got reliably worse with time, it was The Ataris, and So Long, Astoria is their fourth album. Yes, it features their cover of ‘The Boys of Summer’, and yes, that is one of the best tracks a human being has ever recorded, but that doesn’t make it a good album.
Anywhere But Here is a good album. It’s a great album. 20 songs in 32 minutes, most under two minutes and just one over two and a half. It’s pure, unreconstructed ‘life sucks, girls suck, this town sucks’ pop punk, all broken hearts and bouncing guitars, full of spite and self-pity and sweetness. The lyrics sound like they came straight from the margins of frontman Kris Roe’s high school notebooks and I mean that as high praise. I can imagine myself in 1997, listening to its frantic, compressed songwriting and thinking I’d found the next Descendents. I’d have been wrong, but with a song like ‘Alone in Santa Cruz‘, could you blame me?”
Leaving Through the Window (2002) – Something Corporate
Ciara: “Andrew McMahon wrote Something Corporate songs on piano rather than guitar, bringing different kinds of song structures to a typically guitar-driven genre. Leaving Through the Window ends up with a kind of split sensibility, both deeply part of early-2000s pop punk and an oddball among its peers. It namedrops New Found Glory and has an obvious debt to bands like Jimmy Eat World, but also has string arrangements with a 26-piece orchestra.
‘I Woke Up in a Car’ is one of the best songs about the conjoined exhilaration and loneliness car travel represents – ‘I’ve never been so lost / I’ve never been so much at home’ – in a genre built in no small part on that specific conceit. ‘The Astronaut’ – written during the album’s recording while Tom Petty was working in the next room – pulls the same trick across the vast emptiness of outer space. ‘Straw Dog’ was one of the tracks on the mix tape my best friend made when I was thirteen for the good of my musical education, and it still thrills me to this day.
‘Punk Rock Princess’ exemplifies the record as a whole: in my memory, it was a pretty straightforward, unremarkable early 2000s pop punk song, somewhere along the spectrum between the sugar rush of Blink-182’s ‘The Rock Show’, the sweetly simple high-school storytelling of ‘Sk8er Boi’, and the suckitude of Bowling for Soup. But when you sit down and listen to it, it’s something much darker and much more interesting: it’s a heavier song than I remembered, sonically and lyrically, and has moments of orchestral lushness nestled among the driving punk drums. If ‘if you could be my punk rock princess / I would be your garage band king’ sounds cutesy, ‘if you could be my punk rock princess / I would be your heroin’ moments later is anything but.”
Ocean Avenue (2003) – Yellowcard
Ciara: “Since the dawn of time, mankind has yearned to know the answer to one simple question: what would it be like if a pop punk album from the early 2000s prominently featured a violin? Ocean Avenue boldly answers: pretty good, actually.
It’s remarkable how quickly into Ocean Avenue Sean Mackin’s violin stops feeling like a gimmick and starts to seem so integral to their sound that it’s vaguely weird that every pop punk band doesn’t have a violinist in their standard line-up. It gives the songs greater depth and complexity, but more than anything, kicks ass: the violin parts on ‘Breathing’ are the hook, after all.
The album’s standout is the title track: its teenage aching makes a pretty solid case for being the one essential pop punk song, the ultimate distillation of the genre’s strengths. The bridge – the raw vulnerability of it, its rough-and-tumble simplicity – threatens to make me cry if it catches me just right: ‘I remember the look in your eyes / when I told you that this was goodbye / you were beggin’ me, not tonight / not here, not now.’
But that’s not to denigrate the rest of the album by comparison. ‘Life of a Salesman’ is that rarest of flowers, a pop punk song thanking your dad for being great, and features some quite lovely synth as well as cool fades and echoes. ‘Only One’ is a jewel in the crown of Bush-era emo. ‘Twentythree’ is easily my third favourite pop punk song that mentions being twenty-three. Mackin busts out some dope fiddle-playing for ‘View from Heaven’. It’s a great little album.”
Forget What You Know (2004) – Midtown
Dean: “When Gabe Saporta of Cobra Starship retired from making music in 2015 to focus full-time on talent management, he’d not only been managing other acts for fifteen years, he was on his second band with a devoted cult following. I like Cobra Starship just fine, but his first band, Midtown, are a strong contender for the most important and influential pop punk band you’ve never heard of, and also fucking rule.
I could have picked any of their three albums for this. Their debut, Save the World, Lose the Girl has the anarchic inventiveness of a band too young to know you’re not supposed to write songs like that, while their follow-up, Living Well Is the Best Revenge, has the polished hooks and dense arrangements of a band who’s done their goddamn songwriting homework. I went with their last, Forget What You Know, because it synthesizes both sensibilities into their most ambitious work, an album about death and despair and disillusionment that feels huge without feeling sprawling. The harmonies are never better, but they still have that hardcore sharpness, ringing in your ear a little. A form-perfect Bush-era emo punk track like ‘Give It Up‘ is immediately followed by the dizzying experimentation of ‘Is It Me? Is It You?‘, and it ends with, no shit, a ten-minute loop of the lyric ‘you don’t listen’ over the chorus of the final song that is both unironically an amazing close to the album and also a hilarious bit.”
When Your Heart Stops Beating (2006) – +44
Ciara: “After Blink-182 broke up (the first time) in 2005, Mark Hoppus and Travis Barker formed +44. While the press and fans generally framed +44 as continuity Blink – in contrast to Tom Delonge’s more experimental and ambitious Angels and Airwaves – the reality is a little thornier. Initial demos were based around electronic instruments and featured Get the Girl’s Carol Heller sharing vocals with Hoppus, but the ultimate direction of the band’s only record mostly shed both. (Heller appears on one track on the album, the pretty heartache of ‘Make You Smile’.) As far as being continuity Blink went, it was a commercial flop.
If that makes it sound like When Your Heart Stops Beating missed the mark, let me assure you that what actually happened was a bunch of idiots didn’t appreciate a good thing when they got it. Hoppus has always had a dark streak – he is the guy who wrote ‘Adam’s Song’, after all – and When Your Heart Stops Beating is his darkest, most depressive work, forged in the fire of Blink’s break-up. I can’t say for certain that every song on it is about Tom, but it feels like it: the melancholic self-loathing of some of Hoppus’s best Blink songs – ‘I never wanted to hold you back / I just wanted to hold on’ – played out on its biggest canvas. In the tradition of Brian Wilson, songs about having fun in the summer ache with desperate yearning: to return to a joyful past, to have the chance for a do over, to be anywhere or anything other than me, here, now.
Hoppus has said that ‘Baby, Come On’ – this album’s second track – is the best song he’s ever written. And he’s wrong, because he wrote ‘Going Away to College’, but, you know, ‘Baby, Come On’ might be a strong second.”
Upstairs/Downstairs (2007) – The Ergs!
Dean: “I got into New Jersey pop punk because I like garage punk and the New Jersey pop punk scene emerged from garage punk the same way California pop punk emerged from skate punk. I like garage punk because I like scrappy, hectic, lo-fi songs by people who can’t really sing, but boy, have you heard how good they are at not really being able to sing? I found what I was looking for basically straight away in The Ergs! and their debut album, dorkrockcorkrod.
But this isn’t about dorkrockcorkrod, this is about their final album, Upstairs/Downstairs. Like dorkrockcorkrod (and Anywhere But Here, and Everything Sucks), Upstairs/Downstairs mainly consists of snotty, energetic songs around or well under the two-minute mark. Its opening track, ‘Your Cheated Heart‘ is better in 55 seconds than most songs are at any length, and every time I listen, I’m excited to see whether the refrain from ‘See Him Again‘ (‘I guess it’s slightly better than being alone’) sounds funnier or sadder this time. (Sadder, as I listen to it writing this.)
However, unlike those other albums, Upstairs/Downstairs goes a step further and asks: what if we ended this album – and our entire career as a recording group – with a fourteen-minute guitar solo while the rest of the band very gradually goes ape shit? The answer is the title track, one of my favourite songs over ten minutes and about as good an ending as any band ever got. I love the Ergs!!”
Save Rock and Roll (2013) – Fall Out Boy
Ciara: “Save Rock and Roll came out just when I needed it. I got back into pop punk in my first year at college, an instinctual survival mechanism to cope with my misery, and right on cue, Fall Out Boy came back from their hiatus with Save Rock and Roll. I listened to it veraciously, on a loop, until it was buried deep inside my skin.
Nearly a decade later, there are nit-picks I could imagine making in a cynical mood – that the stomp-clap indie pop of ‘Young Volcanoes’ is trend chasing, or something – but I honestly can’t bring myself to make them. Save Rock and Roll is the ultimate culmination of Fall Out Boy’s career in a way that makes you wonder why they kept making music afterwards. It’s an album about coming to a cliff edge and staying to the bitter end, about getting older and staying young forever. About being the last of your kind. ‘Doesn’t it feel like our time is running out?’ Patrick sings on the opening track. Maybe it does.
Save Rock and Roll both pulls from and pulls apart Fall Out Boy’s discography: ‘are you ready for another bad poem?’ on ‘Rat a Tat’ is a tongue-in-cheek mockery of Pete’s spoken word on From Under the Cork Tree and Folie a Deux; ‘My Songs Know What You Did in the Dark’ repurposes the title of an old leaked demo; lyrics like ‘I know I expect too much / and not enough all at once’ are pure, uncut FOB. But where Folie a Deux referenced their past to make for an elegiac goodbye, Save Rock and Roll is about how goodbyes don’t matter.
Everything culminates – every contradiction resolves itself – in the title track that closes the record. It opens with a sample from ‘Chicago Is So Two Years Ago’, recontextualised from a spiteful death wish to something like a promise: ‘Until your breathing stops, stops, stops … Forever.’ Elton John shows up to add some depth and gravitas to a ‘Sugar, We’re Goin’ Down’ reference: ‘I will defend the faith going down swinging.’ In the end, all that matters is Patrick singing ‘I’m the last damn kid still kicking that still believes,’ and knowing as sure as anything that he’s wrong.”
You’re Gonna Miss It All (2014) – Modern Baseball
Ciara: “My dearly missed Modern Baseball combined emo and indie folk in ways both part of a pop punk tradition – referencing Motion City Soundtrack of all bands on their first record – and pushing the genre in new directions during a period of relative stagnation. Their middle release, You’re Gonna Miss It All, feels indebted to the ultra-personal, often snarky lyrical styles of Say Anything or their fellow Pennsylvanians The Wonder Years, and to the indie folk rock of The Front Bottoms. Caustic wit and complaining about girls. Bren Lukens and Jake Ewald trade off vocals like prime Taking Back Sunday. The Get Up Kids are definitely in there somewhere. But it is emphatically the sound of a new, fresh voice, combining their pop punk influences with indie folk in all new combinations and arrangements.
‘I hate worrying about the future / ’cause all my current problems are based around the past,’ Bren sings on opener ‘Fine, Great’. You’re Gonna Miss It All is very much an album about young adulthood, about late- and post-college malaise and the aimless, frustrated longing that goes with it. It is also, like so many great pop punk albums, a study in mental ill-health: its bright melodies and sarcastic punchlines do nothing to offset the anxiety thrumming through every second. ‘Trying hard not to look like I’m trying to hard,’ Ewald sings on the exquisite ‘Two Good Things’, ‘Failing miserably at everything including that.’ To which what can I say but: same.”
After Laughter (2017) – Paramore
Dean: “I will never feel any kind of objective about this album. When it dropped, I was in the grip of maybe the worst mental health crisis of my adult life. I listened to this album obsessively all summer. Four months later, I started seeing the best therapist I’ve ever had, and every week, as I walked to her office, I listened to this album. Five years later, I hear Hayley smile as she sings ‘and everybody here / is just as insincere’ in the intro to ‘Fake Happy‘ and it’s still so infectious that I have to smile too, and then I’m smiling through a song about fake smiling and agggh!
After Laughter is a work of genius. How is it that Paramore never felt as pop punk as when they went new wave? It’s an album about desperately clinging to life when your mind wants to kill you, and it’s funny as hell. ‘I’m right at the end of my rope / a half-empty girl / don’t make me laugh, I’ll choke‘ may well actually be my favourite lyric ever and every time I hear it, or even remember it, I am blown away all over again that anyone has ever written a line that good. If the jittery riot grrrl rant of ‘Idle Worship‘ isn’t the greatest vocal performance of Hayley Williams’ career so far, that is merely a testament to how definitively she is the greatest rock singer of her generation.”
Skinny Dipping (2018) – Stand Atlantic
Ciara: “Stand Atlantic’s first album is fizzily addictive, so hooky and fun that it thrills. Hailing from Sydney, they couldn’t be geographically further from pop punk’s California origins, not that you’d know it. Lead singer Bonnie Frasier, who, along with bassist-turned-guitarist David Potter, is one of the band’s constant members, was raised on Good Charlotte and Avril Lavigne, the latter of whom she particularly cites as inspirational as a fellow tomboy. The result on Skinny Dipping is pure pop punk delivered with propulsive energy. It’s endless fun with vulnerability poking through underneath.
That clandestine vulnerability forms the central metaphor of the title track. ‘It’s like skinny dipping in my jeans / you get wet but you don’t get clean,’ Frasier sings, longing to share her emotions without being willing to be vulnerable. Wanting the reward of being loved without being willing to submit to the mortifying ordeal of being known. Going skinny dipping without being willing to take off your jeans. I listened to this song roughly a billion times at one point, hardly able to stop myself. It’s what I love about pop punk, what makes pop punk great, in ways I’ll never be able to articulate. As distilled and perfect an encapsulation as ‘Ocean Avenue’ a decade and change and half a world away.
The whole album is kind of like that. When I was a teenager, pop punk was dominated by all-male bands: Paramore were special to me before they were truly great just because Hayley Williams made me feel a little bit more like I belonged. Lots and lots of pop punk is female-driven these days, and it makes my heart swell. But I love Stand Atlantic most of all.”
Wake Up, Sunshine (2020) – All Time Low
Ciara: “All Time Low have a frustrating discography, because from inception, they have been consistently mixed. Every All Time Low record alternates between great songs and the worst shit you’ve ever heard. 2009’s Nothing Personal has tracks as perfectly formed and instantly iconic as ‘Weightless’, ‘Damned If I Do Ya (Damned If I Don’t)’ and ‘Stella’ – three of the best pop punk songs ever produced, probably – and still manages to even out to mediocre, because ‘Hello, Brooklyn’ is just that awful.
So what a relief that in 2020, nearly two decades into their history, All Time Low finally fulfilled their potential. After the solid pop experimentation of Last Young Renegade, the band returned to pop punk with an album that’s Nothing Personal if it was just the good songs. And it rules. A sugar rush I never want to crash out of. Britney Spears references in one ear and Fall Out Boy in the other. It’s an album about seasonal depression that nevertheless sounds, appropriately enough, like sunshine.
All these years later, there’s an added doubled-edged nostalgia that wasn’t there even at Nothing Personal’s highest heights: they’re making a bright and hooky pop punk album for the pop punk revival, and they’re also reaching a point of self-reflexive coming-of-age. When I reach for comparisons, it’s the genre’s bold experiments: Blink’s untitled album, say, or Fall Out Boy’s Folie a Deux. But there’s nothing out there about Wake Up, Sunshine. It’s the sound of a band with no pretentions above doing what they do sincerely and well: ‘They’re just stupid boys making basement noise.’ And God bless them for it.”
SOUR (2021) – Olivia Rodrigo
Ciara: “SOUR came out twenty years after Sum 41 released All Killer, No Filler, and it bears no particular relationship to that album besides this: SOUR is all killer, no filler. It’s eleven lovingly crafted slices of teen angst, heartache and envy. If a part of me resents Olivia Rodrigo getting critical acclaim for making this album while the pop punk giants whose shoulders she stands on were treated with sniffy dismissal, it is thoroughly drowned out by the much bigger part of me that loves SOUR more than anything on earth.
It’s Jagged Little Pill for generation Z. A love letter to Paramore and Avril Lavigne and Hole and Garbage and every girl who ever picked up a guitar and started screaming. In anguish, in rage, in blistering joy – but always catharsis. A time machine to your first heartbreak. The lodestar of the pop punk revival. As definitive a statement as Green Day’s Dookie was for pop punk’s big bang.
Rodrigo’s lyrics never hide behind abstraction. She wears her spite and sadness on her sleeve, alternately lashing out at the ex who broke her heart (or the girl he moved on with) and mired in self-pity. It’s unabashedly teenage, like so many great pop punk records, but with a distinctly modern twist that elevates it beyond pastiche of her pop punk forebearers. The obviously modern stuff, like the strain social media puts on her self-esteem in ‘jealousy, jealousy’, but something broader and more elusive, too. It sounds like 2020s pop punk: inventing a new generation of the genre as it goes.”
Love Sux (2022) – Avril Lavigne
Dean: “I distinctly remember the moment I realised pop punk was back. I was walking out of a Golden Discs after perusing their selection of British sitcom boxsets when a new song playing on the radio caught my attention. ‘God,’ I thought to myself, ‘but that singer sounds so much like Avril Lavigne, it’s crazy.’ I stopped right at the entrance to the shop. ‘Unless…’ I turned around and there she was, among the charting albums. Avril Lavigne dressed all in black in a red room, wearing massive boots with massive heels, clutching a bunch of black balloons in one hand. A queen returned from a long exile abroad.
You might think someone coming back to pop punk after a decade and a half away from the genre would be all about showing their maturity and evolution or whatever, but what I love about Love Sux is that it rejects maturity. It’s an album that exists to be fast and fun and a little childish and stupid, a big fuck you not only to Avril Lavigne’s ex-partners, but to anyone who would even think to scoff at a woman in her late thirties singing the same kind of songs she sang when she was eighteen. The new Avril can’t come to the phone right now. Why? Oh, ’cause she travelled back in time and stopped herself going full pop. Love Sux, but this album rocks.”