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 pop punk. 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.
The history of pop punk is something this series frequently gestures towards but has never really sketched out in any detail. Partly this is because discussing pop punk’s relationship to punk itself is usually aimed at dismissing pop punk as punk’s poser kid brother, and the founding concept of this series is taking pop punk seriously when no-one else will. Partly it’s because – even if Green Day’s ‘Basket Case’ is as old as I am – pop punk still feels like a baby of a genre, so that it kind of takes me by surprise that it has history enough to be worth explaining. Partly it’s because it never occurs to you whether someone might need or want a map to your hometown. Isn’t everyone born knowing those particular twists and bends, the shortcut to the cinema and the best place to cross the street?
We are in the midst of an improbable pop punk revival. It’s incredibly exciting. But too many people who try to write about that revival don’t have that bone-deep sense of the genre’s history and themes and conventions. “Today’s pop punks go to therapy,” The Guardian writes in the latest of their triennial articles on how a new generation of pop punkers break new ground by writing songs about feeling shitty. It makes me feel insane. It betrays a depth of knowledge that doesn’t extend to the biggest bands’ biggest singles. Today’s pop punks might go to therapy, but pop punk has always been about being depressed.
So: I’ve invented seven eras of pop punk from whole cloth and made playlists for each of them. I hope they can guide you through the history of the genre, but as more of a sketch map than a satellite photograph. Each playlist is somewhere between ninety minutes and two hours long, and, hopefully, acts as a launching pad, and at the very least, a fun listen. These are my playlists, so are informed by my own blind spots, biases, and tastes. So, you know: sorry to Bowling for Soup for not including you, maybe try sucking less next time.
This year I entered a truly unprecedented third emo phase. My first was the usual one, in my early teens, sad and lonely and ready to burst out of my skin. My second was in college, an instinctive reaction to a mental health crisis that had me climbing out windows so I wouldn’t have to see my roommates. It’s odd, then, that my third came this year, when – despite living in the apocalypse – things have mostly been fine for me. The overwhelming panic that would have me hiding in bathrooms, the worry worry fluttering in my stomach that made it so hard to speak, has, if not subsided, then become something I can cope with.
But I listened to more pop punk than I have in years. I listened to all of All Time Low, a band with a consistently mixed discography who finally fulfilled their promise with 2020’s Wake Up, Sunshine. I had my triennial Blink-182 hyperfixation, so deep that I happily watched livestreams of Mark Hoppus doing the Sunday crossword. I got into Modern Baseball, Stand Atlantic and Something Corporate. I listened to this one Good Charlotte song five million times.
It wasn’t the lightning strike epiphany moment I had back in 2012: after pop punk got me through my first year at college, I don’t think I could ever turn my back on it the way I did in the back half of secondary school. It felt like “it’s not a phase, mom” had finally reached the fullness of truth. It felt like it was pointless still delineating waves in the face of the tide.
I found The Summer Set the same way everyone found their favorite band in 2007: on MySpace. Coincidentally, it was also MySpace that would lead to the formation of The Summer Set.
Formed in Scottsdale, Arizona, The Summer Set was born from remnants of Last Call for Camden. After releasing one album, Last Call for Camden disbanded and drummer Jess Bowen, bassist Stephen Gomez, and guitarist John Gomez put an ad on MySpace for a lead singer. Enter Brian Dales. Together with guitarist Josh Montgomery, they formed the lineup of The Summer Set from 2007 to when they took a hiatus in 2017.
Most of the time when talking about the heavy hitters of pop punk, The Summer Set aren’t included in the conversation. They have spent their entire career trying to bridge the gap between the two worlds. Sure they were staples on Warped Tour for a few years, but they were also crowned the winner of Macy’s iHeartRadio Rising Star Award. It was a combination that didn’t make much sense. One day, they’d be sharing a stage with Sleeping With Sirens or All Time Low and the next, they’d be opening for The Backstreet Boys.
They were both pop punk, but they summed it up best in “Figure Me Out” with the opening lines: “I’m a bit too pop for the punk kids / but I’m too punk for the pop kids / I don’t know just where I fit in / ‘cause when I open my mouth / I know nobody’s listening / to the words of a prophet / who still can’t turn a profit.”
It’s frustrating to be in that position of not fully existing in either world. Part of this conflicting pop punk personality comes from their plethora of musical inspirations. They would list off New Found Glory, Blink 182, Jay-Z, Bruce Springsteen, The Last Five Years Broadway musical, Sarah Bareilles, Bright Eyes, Green Day, A Goofy Movie soundtrack, Something Corporate, Taylor Swift…and somehow all of that came together into their ultimate style of ‘80s-twinged arena anthems with pop punk energy. As someone who grew up loving ‘80s power ballads and pop punk, The Summer Set felt they were made especially for me.
Instead, we wrote what we’ve always written: deep dives into movies and shows that stick in our brains for months or years, screeds against the state of the entertainment industry and essays about the way we understand and misunderstand art. We also published great pieces from guest contributors and started our very own podcast, The Sundae Presents, where we take turns showing each other favourite films of ours the other hasn’t seen.
For long-time readers, this is our year in review. For newer readers, this is our sizzle reel. And if you’re here for the first time, this is a pretty good look at what we’re all about, as are the previousfourtimes we’ve done this, so check them out.
Here’s the best of The Sundae so far since last so far.
“To get a little academic for a second, the primary emergency of gay history in its first decades was to uncover and to restore histories of gay movements and of gay heroes. And while the culture of academic research has certainly moved on from that, the public conversation really hasn’t.”
Say Anything are a strange band in the history of pop punk, not least because, well, are they a band? Max Bemis, lead singer and sole constant member, wrote all their lyrics and most of their music, and his work is, if not autobiographical exactly, then certainly confessional, in a way that reminds me alternately of Sylvia Plath and Eminem. He mentions people in his life by name in his songs a lot, particularly his wife and children in his later career, and usually without bothering to explain who they are for the unfamiliar listener. But other members of Say Anything have co-written music on most of their records, and many of them just credit Say Anything, rather than breaking down who did what. On the sliding scale between a solo project with a band name and a regular band with a primary songwriter, I tend to file Max Bemis and Say Anything in the same folder as Robert Smith and The Cure, Trent Reznor and Nine Inch Nails or John Darnielle and The Mountain Goats: bands that consist of one person and whoever they’re making music with at the time, too collaborative to be solo projects, but too mercurial to feel like a regular band.
Their sophomore album …Is a Real Boy is widely acclaimed as one of the best pop punk albums of all time and particularly regarded as one of the crown jewels of Bush-era emo, but they’ve pretty much never had a major hit. Not even …Is a Real Boy, which didn’t chart in a year when Blink-182, Green Day, Good Charlotte, Simple Plan, New Found Glory, Taking Back Sunday and even The Offspring (on their seventh album!) made the Billboard Year-End 200. Good Charlotte had two albums on it, and Green Day moved from #86 in 2004 to #2 in 2005 as the worldwide success of American Idiot turned it into one of the best-selling albums ever. My Chemical Romance released their sophomore album, Three Cheers for Sweet Revenge, in 2004 too, and also missed the year-end chart, but in 2005, they joined Green Day in the top 200 with Fall Out Boy, Simple Plan, Good Charlotte, Bowling for Soup and Jimmy Eat World. Say Anything had no such luck.
…Is a Real Boy had by far the biggest single of Say Anything’s career, “Alive with the Glory of Love”, a staple of alternative rock radio then and of alternative rock playlists now, but not a song that caused much of a ripple in the zeitgeist: it peaked at #28 on the alternative chart. Every subsequent Say Anything album has charted, but every subsequent Say Anything album except In Defense of the Genre, their sprawling double album full of collaborations with other pop punk and emo artists, also sold fewer copies than …Is a Real Boy. Almost twenty years later, …Is a Real Boy is still the album they’re primarily or even exclusively known for. They’ve had two other singles chart – “Baby Girl, I’m a Blur” and “Hate Everyone” – but “Alive with the Glory of Love” is still the closest they’ve come to a hit song. It’s not an uncommon story, really, but it just feels kind of ridiculous that a band this influential and iconic within the genre, who’ve collaborated with Gerard Way, Hayley Williams, Tom DeLonge, Matt Skiba and dozens of other beloved pop punk, emo and indie artists, have never really been that popular. It’s not like they’re critical darlings either: the reception for most of their albums after …Is a Real Boy skews positive, but it’s usually mixed and frequently polarised. I guess they’re kind of a love-it-or-hate-it thing, but even Marmite sells, for God’s sake.
…Is a Real Boy is a masterpiece, possibly the best pop punk album ever, and certainly my favourite, but it’s also been a bit of an albatross around Bemis’s neck. A lot of the band’s later experimentation is a fairly transparent effort to escape the shadow of …Is a Real Boy by refusing to even have a core sound. The second verse of “Judas Decapitation”, from their 2014 album Hebrews, is a screed aimed directly at the archetypal bad Say Anything fan who venerates …Is a Real Boy and hates the work the band has done since Bemis became happier, healthier and met his wife, Sherri DuPree of Eisley: “I hate that dude! / now that he’s married / he’s got a baby on the way / Poor Sherri!” Bemis is open about suffering from bipolar disorder and famously experienced a severe manic episode from the stress of making …Is a Real Boy, so there’s always been a dark undercurrent to the idea he needs to “go back” to making albums like it, as if he can’t make good music unless he’s untreated. You can hear the venom in his voice as he spits out the last lines of that verse: “be nineteen with a joint in hand / never change the band / never ever be a dot dot dot real man”, with the “dot dot dot” in the wrong place, just to piss them off even more. It was a bit of a surprise, then, when Bemis announced a sequel.
Oliver Appropriate, released in 2019, is the band’s presumptive final album, released a few months after a lengthy statement in which Bemis came out as queer, revealed he was retiring from touring for health reasons and announced the end of Say Anything as a recording project (though the third paragraph promises they’ll “return one day to play festivals and scoff at our career”.) Like many concept albums, the concept “lore” is almost entirely secondary to the experience – I’ve never read the liner notes of any concept album ever – but unlike, say, The Black Parade or the concept albums of Cursive (one of Bemis’s more transparent non-pop punk influences), it has a fairly clear narrative, even clearer than pop punk’s definitive concept album, American Idiot. Oliver is a washed-up, single, middle-aged, ex-punk rocker punching the clock at a marketing job and spending all his free time and money on drink and drugs, drifting from bar to bar, club to club, party to party, falling into bed at the end of the night with whatever woman will have him.
Then he sees Karl at a bar, and it’s like a bolt of lightning right into the darkest part of his heart, the secret place he’s been hiding his attraction to men from himself and everyone else. It’s a beautiful album about the misery of alienation, the agony of the closet and the thrill of first love. It’s also a very dark horror story: the album ends with Oliver drowning himself in the San Francisco Bay with Karl’s body.
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.
McFly – guitarist and singer Danny Jones, guitarist and singer Tom Fletcher, bassist and singer Dougie Poynter, and drummer Harry Judd – had seven number ones in the UK. With their 2004 debut Room on the 3rd Floor, they became the youngest band to ever have a number one album, a title previously held by the Beatles. And I hated them. I hated them in the shallowest way imaginable. I was a Kerrang! kid, dressed in black, listening to pop punk and emo and nu-metal. Genres were much more stratified then, and I thought pop music was more or less inherently suspect. I thought McFly were a boy band, so I turned my nose up at them on principle.
I was a dumb kid, but I wasn’t alone. “[A]ll the usual credibility-gap closers – numerous Beatlesque albums, gigging at the Barfly, releasing on an indie label – still haven’t quite shifted the perception of McFly as Busted Club Juniors,” Iain Moffatt wrote for the BBC in 2010. McFly were a punching bag, more often than not: dissing McFly was a shorthand to credibility. Kasabian went after them, calling them a “pop band for kids”. An extremely young Daniel Radcliffe went after them, lamenting that the kids at his school like McFly instead of The Libertines. Someone who came fifth on RTÉ’s talent show You’re A Star in 2005 went after them. They were nominated four times at the NME Awards… for Worst Band and Worst Album.
All these years later, pop music is taken seriously by default. Rock is basically dead, and everybody listens to everything now. Calling something “pop” as a way to dismiss it seems like a relic of a time long past. No-one would claim that Beyoncé, Taylor Swift, Rihanna or Ariane Grande aren’t serious artists, even when they’re criticising them. Rolling Stone declared One Direction one of the greatest rock bands of the century this year, tongues barely in their cheeks.
Yet McFly have not gotten the re-evaluation they deserve. I got into McFly as an adult, basically by accident, and discovered a yawning gap between the band McFly are and the band they were, and still are, perceived to be.
Part 1 – the boys in the band
McFly have spent pretty much their whole career being referred to as a boy band. But were they ever one?