If you’re just joining us, check out the About This Project link for details. Basically, I make playlists of all the singles by certain musical artists and then try to order them using the guiding principle “do I like each song more than the last song.” I define “single” in a broad enough way to include any song that was released as a purchasable single in any format in any country; as a promotional single in any country; as a video; or generally any song that I know charted anywhere. My main sources are Wikipedia (mostly reliable) and Discogs (reasonably reliable). I welcome editing feedback since sometimes I favor speed over spelling.
Third single from Nimrod (1997), released as a single in 1998
Sometimes, it’s hard for me to recognize how I feel about a song until I’ve lived with it for a while. Case in point, when I first started working on this list, I placed “Redundant” in the bottom ten. The way I work on these lists is I make an playlist in iTunes (for my iPod Classic, the greatest piece of technology ever invented) of all the singles by the artist I’m working on. Then, I order them from worst to first. Then I listen to each segment of ten in preparation for writing about that segment. When there’s a song I feel I’ve ranked too low, I kick it up into the next 10 song segment. I’ve been doing that with “Redundant” the whole time I’ve been working on this list and now here it is at #20.
The follow up single to the smash hit “Good Riddance (Time of your Life,” (#24) “Redundant” is relationship song (written during a difficult period in Armstrong’s marriage) about how sometimes you get caught in patterns with your partner and words (like “love”) lose their meaning and power through rote repetition. I think it’s one of Armstrong’s best set of lyrics, but the thing that really sells me on the song is the chorus – it kicks up like half a notch (instead of a full notch) and is centered on a deliberately weary hook (that “I cannot speak – I’ve lost my voice” part in particular) that communicates the way the singer is feeling. There’s also a great (to my ear) Byrds-esque guitar hook and Cool’s drumming sounds a bit like he’s playing the rhythm track backwards. It’s a weird, catchy song and one that – as I’ve suggested – grows on me with each listen.
19. Know Your Enemy
First single from 21st Century Breakdown (2009), released as a single in 2009
I just described how, as I work on these lists, I sometimes kick a song up a few notches as I prepare to work on different segments of this list. Sometimes, I slide a song down a bit. “Know Your Enemy” had been in my top 10 for the longest time (whoa whoa whoa, for the longest time). While it’s not my favorite song from 21st Century Breakdown (my favorites are the non-singles “Last Night on Earth,” “Peacemaker” and “Horseshoes and Handgrenades” – all of which would be top ten candidates had they been singles), it’s a strong, catchy single with anthemic lyrics. Indeed, it’s the sort of song that you’d raise a fist to during the concert and chant along with the rest of the crowd when you’re 22 and that seems like a wise sort of thing to do. I’m 51 at this writing and I can feel the young man in me wanting to go “right on, down with corporate media and right wing brainwashing.” I mean, I think that now, too. Slogans are powerful but they can ring hollow and now – ten years after this song was released – I feel like it’s time to stop chanting slogans and start dismantling televisions sets in waiting rooms and gyms when they broadcast corporate lies. To whit, if looks could kill, I’d kill your television.
18. Basket Case
Third single from Dookie (1994), released as a single in 1994
I think this might be the first Green Day song I remember hearing. I’m not 100% sure, but it would kind of make sense if it was. It was, in fact, their third huge hit on the alternative charts in the U.S. and while both “Longview” and ‘Welcome to Paradise” (#33) were hits first (and were surely getting a ton of airplay on Radio Free Hawaii), this was the first song I actually associated with a band called Green Day. The earlier two, at the time, were probably just “songs I heard all the time” and not songs that I specifically listened to. “Basket Case” is a great song to use to discuss Green Day’s place in the punk firmament and my hypotheses regarding punk music in the U.S.
The idea that “punk” was strictly underground or alternative music was largely a U.S. construct. It’s important to remember that in the UK, from 1977’s “God Save The Queen” through 1978’s “C’mon Everybody,” the Sex Pistols had seven consecutive top 10 hits in the U.K. While they never went top 10, The Clash had 12 top 40 U.K. hits. Punk in the U.K. made the charts. Meanwhile, to perhaps stave this off, U.S. record companies packaged somewhat challenging music under the “New Wave” banner and managed to wield their corporate power to stave off the rise of financially profitable punk until grunge broke. Since neither U.K. nor U.S. punk broke in the states (setting aside, for the moment, that Blondie was on many punk bills in NYC before they broke), I think many of the gatekeepers of cool got to spend a decade deciding what was punk and what wasn’t punk. One of the hallmarks of U.S. punk was that it couldn’t be widely popular – because it hadn’t been. Falling into the old “art for art’s sake trap,” the punk aesthetic was centered around staying poor, not “selling out” and having a somewhat narrow musical and lyrical palette.
Thus, when Nirvana broke (and many bands followed), the purists were able to exclude them from the Venn diagram of “all things punk” on the basis of their success. Green Day was banned from the club they’d originally played in, endless think pieces were produced about why NIrvana wasn’t really punk, etc One of the charges presented against Green Day was that their lyrics in 1994 were more personal and less political or socially charged. I want to counter that mid-90’s argument 25 years too late with the entire oeuvre of the The Buzzcocks. Led by the late Howard Devoto, The Buzzcocks had a string of catchy punk songs that went top 40 in the U.K. that were largely about being a teenager and life sucking. There is no real debate about whether The Buzzcocks were true Scotsmen or not despite their commercial success and personal focused lyrics. To whit, suck it haters.
This, of course, avoids the whole issue about whether punk was a spontaneous youth movement or just something that the Malcolm McLaren’s of the world constructed to sell cool clothes. Furthermore, it avoids the whole “is punk a sound, an aesthetic, a pose or what.” Getting back to Blondie (and, for that matter, Talking Heads), late 70’s New York punk (pre-loud guitars played sloppily codification of the sound) was defined more by a sort of an agreement that you didn’t actually have to have skills to be in a band no matter what kind of music you were playing. Then they all got pretty good at playing their instruments. Green Day started their career not knowing how to tune their guitars properly. So. Punk. Or maybe not because who knows what punk actually is? Not new wave, to be sure.
Oh, the song. I love the little bits of harmony on this one and the gender bending in the lyrics. Also, the song is catchy as heck. An absolute classic. I mean, all the songs in this section are classics in my ears.
17. Kill the DJ
Second single from ¡Uno! (2012), released as a single in 2012
My favorite song from the ¡Uno!, ¡Dos! & ¡Tré! trilogy is Green Day’s foray into dance music, “Kill the DJ,” a four-on-the-floor delight. The lyrics are less about actual dj-icide and more of a statement about information overload, but I have a soft spot for any songs about DJ’s whether we’re hanging them (#6) or just recognizing that they are what they play (#11). When I’m listening to my music library on shuffle and this song comes up, my first reaction is sometimes “Oh, the great 21st century rock/dance band Franz Ferdinand” (see “Ulysses”) until Billie Joe Armstrong starts singing. You know, with a great rhythm section like Mike Dirnt and Tre Cool, it’s a wonder the band didn’t record anything more dance oriented sooner – the thing that elevates this song from good to great is the groove the two of them get going. Also: Billie Joe sings falsetto a couple of times here, a thing I think he should do more often.
16. Say Goodbye
Charted single from Revolution Radio (2016), charted in 2016
Three songs from Revolution Radio are in my top 20 and one of them – this one – is only here because it was a low charting U.K. hit. It was never released officially as a digital or actual single. Life is funny. “Say Goodbye” was written as a reaction to the rise in violence (particularly the use of militarized police vehicles in Ferguson). Troubled times tend to produce great art, which is hardly an argument in favor of troubled times. What I dig is the crunching back and forth swing between the “say goodbye” sections and the chorus, the absolutely expertly written and played classic rock chorus and the various deliveries of “this is how it goes” (particularly the whispered one).
15. Blood, Sex & Booze
Germany only promo single from Warning (2000), released as a single in 2001
Proving again that I’m the only person who loves Warning, here is another of their songs ranked way higher than I suspect most people would rank it. I care not! I shun all other opinions! Warning is terrific and this song kicks. I guess it makes a sort of stereotypical sense that a song about dominatrix was only released as a single in Germany. All appreciation of the lyrics aside, what I love about this song is how the chorus and verses are structured – specifically, the music of the chorus resolves into the verse before the chorus’ lyrics complete. I mean, listen to it and you’ll hear what I mean. It’s a brilliant structural conceit and I love it more every time I hear it.
14. When I Come Around
Fourth single from Dookie (1994), released as a single in 1995
Is this my favorite song from Dookie?
No, there’s another.
Green Day’s fourth single was the first one to feature their mid-tempo slow-march mode. I’m not sure what else to call it. “When I Come Around” was their second biggest hit of the 90’s. The lyrics seem to be about a dude who is playing the field and encouraging his partner to do the same. The thing I love about this song beyond everything else is Mike Dirny’s bass work. I encourage you to listen to the song and just focus on his bass paying (assuming you can’t already hum the whole line to yourself). I swear, he takes you on a whole musical journey that may be going somewhere different than the rest of the tune but it really works.
Unreleased video from American Idiot (2004), video scheduled to be released (but not released) in 2005
This was not released as a single and though a video was made, no video was ever released. Does it belong on my list? Yes because no backsies. The woman Billie Joe Armstrong dated before his wife inspired a slew of Green Day tunes including “She” (#40), “Good Riddance (Time of Your Life)” (#24) and this one. Brief, intense relationship that informs the rest of your life? Have we all been there? I mean, I have. The titular “Whatsername” is one of the heroes of the American Idiot story (particularly in the musical) and this song closes the album beautifully. I adore singing along with the climactic “remember whatever” portion of the lyrics (which both hearkens back to being a 90’s young adult and also sums up the attempt of the album’s other main character to try and mask his lingering pain) and can sometimes find harmonies with the earlier verses. The band’s musical work is top notch across the board. I’m not sure I can listen to this song without hearing it in context (sort of like how I can’t hear “Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story” from Hamilton without hearing every other song from that musical in my head, but in a different way). Am I ranking the song at #13 or my overall impression of the entire album here? I’m going to say the song because I still have (*checks list*) four more singles from American Idiot coming up.
12. Hitchin’ a Ride
First single from Nimrod (1997), released as a single in 1997
The lyrics for “Hitchin’ a Ride” are just so smart and well written. Between the violin intro, the chugging bass and guitar and the “recovering alcoholic can’t quite recover” theme, I wonder if this song put off some of their fans in 1997. It was a hit, but it was completely overshadowed by the enormous success of the next single “Good Riddance (Time of Your Life)” (#24). I think it’s the superior song, but I also put “Blood, Sex and Booze” in my top 20, so your mileage may vary. Green Day as a unit became restless musically after Insomniac and you can hear them pushing at their genre imposed boundaries on this song (a restlessness that became even more pronounced as they entered this century). Anyhow, it’s the lyrics that lands this at #12 for me, but the whole song is great and you can have great fun singing along with the backing vocals at the songs climax no matter where you are when the song comes on. Ask me how I know.
11. Revolution Radio
Third single from Revolution Radio (2016), released as a single in 2017
Regarding “We will be seen but not be heard,” Billie Joe Armstrong said:
“I think my role is to shut up and listen,” he said. “A lot of white people should shut up and listen. They really don’t know what the African-American experience truly is. When you have people getting shot in their cars for no reason and being put in fucking jail cells and it’s for profit, we have a serious problem, and the first thing you need to do is get educated. Don’t try to do this, like, ‘Blue lives matter.’ Don’t try to do the ‘All lives matter.’ Just shut up and listen to the experience. And then move forward after that.”Rolling Stone, September 2016
Basically, the title track from Revolution Radio is one of Green Day’s great classic (sic) punk rock (sic) tunes (yes), filled with great hooks, great musicianship and powerful lyrics. I listen to it in the same way I listen to great Clash tunes. One of their finest and just outside my top ten.
Coming Soon: My top ten Green Day singles consists of 15 songs.