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.
As I’m writing this in April of 2019, my friend Stu and I are simultaneously writing about the singles of INXS. There’s a few weird-ish parallels between the two bands (which makes me suspect there would always be weird parallels between any two bands one chose to compare) which I’d like to draw some attention to. First, both Green Day and INXS collaborated with Bono – Green Day in the form of their cover of “The Saints are Coming” (#34) and INXS on their song “Beautiful Girl” (#33). Second, both bands had hit songs that were played on the radio with other songs from the album – INXS’s famous example was “Need You Tonight” and “Mediate,” while Green Day’s was “Brain Stew” and “Jaded.” Finally, both bands had somewhat tumultuous moments with Oasis – Noel Gallagher famously dissed INXS and also took issue with Green Day’s “Holiday.” I mean, Bono has collaborated with a lot of people and Oasis has had feuds with many people, so this isn’t like a major thing, but I found it interesting and am sharing it with you here. Now.
10 . Wake Me Up When September Ends
Fourth single from American Idiot (2004), released as a single in 2005
Has it really been 15 years since American Idiot came out? I admittedly didn’t listen to it until a bit later (I think I told this story, but, in brief, people told me I’d like this album and since I’m stubborn I refused to listen to it until I did and I inevitably loved it) but this still feels like the “new” Green Day album to me. I talk sometimes about how, in my job working with high school students, I can remember pretty clearly who graduated from 1996-2003, but from 2004 onward it feels to me like they all graduated the same year. Maybe my brain stopped processing chronological time in 2004. I remember having mixed feelings about “Wake Me Up When September Ends” in 2004 because I wanted it to rock out but I also liked it just the way it is. The song isn’t specifically connected to the overall narrative of American Idiot but, you know, concept album! We make our own connections. The lyrics are about the death of Armstrong’ father when he was a child and, as you can imagine, it’s difficult emotionally for him to perform. And then, of course, it became a huge hit and he has to perform it all the time. Great art hurts.
9. Still Breathing
Second single from Revolution Radio (2016), released as a single in 2016
Billie Joe Armstrong is 47. I’m 51. He’s in rock. I’m in education. I’m a relatively normal age in my job. He’s now one of the seasoned, grizzled survivors of his generation of rock musicians. Indeed, in 2019, rock music seems like an increasingly grizzled survivor. “Still Breathing” is a song about resilience in the face of some of the bad stuff life throws at you. You’re old, you’re down, but you’re still breathing. Is there hope? I don’t know. When I go jogging, sometimes it’s for the purpose of just demanding that my body keep moving after it doesn’t want to anymore. I might not have control over most of my life, but I can make myself run another half mile when I totally want to stop. That makes me feel powerful for a few moments. I imagine that sentiment is similar to what Green Day is singing about here. It’s one of the most inspiring (and serious) compositions of their career and one of the best. Yeah, Green Day are still breathing and they’re still rocking and yes there is some hope in that.
Second single from Warning (2000), released as a single in 2000
As I’ve written several times while ranking Green Day’s singles, I think 2000’s Warning is their most underrated album. I’ve placed two songs from it in my top ten which I hope stands as evidence that I’m not joking about this. The lyrics for “Warning” are built out of street signs and warning labels, though I think the choice of the opening line (and closing line) is a reference to “Know Your Rights” by The Clash. The bass and drum work are just great. What makes me love this song so much, though, is that whenever the chorus comes around while I’m driving, I can attempt to sing harmonies with Billie Joe. I rarely succeed, but it is a complete joy for me. These rankings are about how much I look forward to hearing any given song and I have to admit, I’ve so looked forward to this song every time I’ve listening to my ranking list. I also love the moment where the music cuts out and he sings “or shut up and be a victim of authority.” Armstrong knows what I like.
7. Walking Contradiction
Fourth single from Insomniac (1995), released as a single in 1996
There are two songs from Insomniac in my top 10. Well, three. “Walking Contradiction” is another song that I love singing along with, not in least because the lyrics are fantastic. As with “Warning,” there’s some specific spots in the chorus that one can attempt to harmonize with, often to the song’s detriment but to the amateur singer’s joy. Furthermore, it is built on a fantastic riff and a killer Tre Cool drum line. (Dirnt’s bass work is, as always, impeccable and is particularly excellent on the turn-arounds between the chorus and verse. I’ve been listening to this song regularly for 23 years now and I’ve not grown sick of it once, which is a good indication that I probably will never get sick of it.
Third single from American Idiot (2004), released as a single in 2005
I’ve included 4 (actually 8) songs from American Idiot in my top 10. The lyrics of “Holiday” are a pretty pointed attack on President G.W. Bush and the Iraq War. If you are too young to remember all the talking points, stupidity and misguided patriotic fervor that led up to the Iraq War, let me know and I’ll do my best to translate for you. Suffice to say that in 2004-05, this song was a pretty accurate summary of what was going on in the world. It felt like the majority of the United States was indeed on holiday from taking any action or responsibility. The titular “American Idiot” was not GWB but the sort of person who mindlessly supported him. I’ll let you extrapolate the rest of my thought vis a vis 2019. Having strong, pointed lyrics isn’t enough to get a song into my top ten (it helps) – “Holiday” is also sick with hooks. Great individual lines from all musicians, sing along moments, and an anthemic chorus all contribute to this song’s greatness. Listening to it again in 2019 with everything going on in America (and the world where many countries are demonstrating that they have no shortage of their own idiots) has made me feel a bit like we’re in the upside down, but at least there’s some good tunes here.
Third single from Warning (2000), released as a single in 2001
“Waiting” was the last single released from Warning and was a low charting hit. I suspect this is going to be my most controversial pick (assuming anyone cares – I’ve been surprised that I haven’t relived the controversy (on my original Facebook posting) surrounding my low ranking of Madonna’s “Cherish” (#84) at any point during this list. Green Day fans must be made of sterner stuff or maybe nobody is actually reading these paragraphs. It’s cool to just look at the rankings and move on – that’s what I do on most other ranking lists. “Waiting” has one of Billie Joe Armstrong’s most positive lyrics – he urges himself and his listeners to stop waiting for things to happen and to take action. You’re close to making it happen, whatever it is. Stop waiting. Wake up. The song opens with just Armstrong’s voice and guitar (a thing I love) and then the whole band snaps in on the second half of the opening verse (another thing I love). Tre Cool gets a few drum breaks by himself on this one and, in those little moments, claims the song as his own. He’s waited to come in at the start but he’s not waiting anymore. Be like Tre.
First single from Dookie (1994), released as a single in 1994
Oh, that bass line. Thank you, Mike Dirnt. It’s just so perfect. The bass is why this song is top 5 instead of just top 10 or 20. Apparently, Mike Dirnt discovered it while on LSD. The lyrics are about being a bored, lonely loser whose only joy is self-pleasure. It’s hardly a description of triumph, just of escape from boredom. When I started this list, I didn’t realize that the song was their first single. I’d imagined that there were singles from their first two albums (there weren’t). I’m kind of blown away that Green Day built a whole career on songs about being alienated, bored and too unmotivated to be desperate. Back in 1994, I was a graduate student still and while I didn’t jump on the bandwagon right away, I recognized that they both were and weren’t singing about me. I wasn’t in the same dire situations they were in terms of poverty or drug use, but when I wasn’t working on a show, I often felt consumed by the tedium of day to day life. And, I mean, there were days when I had to choose between lunch and caffeine, but that was entirely my fault. Caffeine. Drug of choice of MFA candidates.
3. Jesus of Suburbia
Fifth single from American Idiot (2004), released as a single in 2005
This would probably be my number one choice, but I am annoyed by the use of the “R” word during the “Dearly Beloved” section.
“Jesus of Suburbia” (no relation to Bowie’s “The Buddha of Suburbia” – #39) is an epic song suite and the heart of American Idiot. It consists of five parts – you can see how they break down in the lyrics description at Genius – that are all distinct musically. Green Day drew inspiration from The Who (they covered the early Who suite “A Quick One While He’s Away” as they were working on their next album) and you can hear Tre Cool emulating Ginger Baker, Keith Moon, Alex Van Halen and Charlie Watts during different parts of this suite. “Jesus of Suburbia” is a powerful expression of angst and boredom, a social critique and a history of rock music in just-under-10 minutes. To really delve into it would take pages and pages of writing and I am trying to push us through to the top, so suffice to say this is Green Day’s most impressive piece of music and if that one word choice didn’t eat at me every time it pops up, it would be #1. But you know, these lists are more about me than about the artists, so there you go.
2. Brain Stew/Jaded
Third single from Insomniac (1995), released as a single in 1996
By itself, “Brain Stew” is top 10 material in my book. Along with “Jaded,” it is #2. I did not realize that the song was about drug induced insomnia but I’ve recognize that it was about insomnia since I first heard it. Here’s the amazing thing – it’s both about insomnia in terms of lyrics, but it also captures how insomnia feels in it lethargic pace and bursts of energy followed by returns to lethargy. It makes sleeplessness to be much more romantic than it actually is. I went seven days without sleeping once by choice and it was a disaster on every conceivable level. I’ve also gone years without having a full night sleep because anxiety keeps me up. Kids, don’t do insomnia. Go to sleep. Stay in school. Anyhow, this is all part of what makes the inclusion of “Jaded” as part of the single all the more joyous. When you’ve not slept and you wake up, you make yourself move with more energy than maybe you would have otherwise. I can recall many sleepless nights followed by days that were alternately manic and useless. A newspaper article in the Honolulu Weekly referred to me in fawning terms as a zombie who did his best work while sleepwalking through life. I mean, they weren’t wrong. I used to fantasize about going to sleep in empty parking spaces. This song is me at 25.
1. Boulevard of Broken Dreams
Second single from American Idiot (2004), released as a single in 2004
Is this song ripped off directly from Oasis’ “Wonderwall?” They’re close enough that this mash-up became pretty popular after “Boulevard of Broken Dreams” came out (Party Ben – using the name Dean Grey – had such great success with that one that he released a whole mash-up version of American Idiot titled American Edit and Green Day’s record label flipped out). While the chord progression is similar (identical?), they’re still very different songs with different shapes and purposes. Over at Genius, the writer there takes a literal reading of the lyrics – in context of the whole concept album, perhaps the main character is just walking down a street. I, of course, beg to differ and suggest that the deeper meaning of this song is that we all metaphorically walk alone. Our dreams are dashed no matter our level of relative success and ultimately we have to choose to keep on walking forward whether we want to or not. Or perhaps sometimes – to do the right thing or to discover our purpose or just escape from the boredom of existence – we have to walk alone. Sure, it could be about a dude walking down a street by himself. That too. Whatever.
“Boulevard of Broken Dreams” uses many composition elements that I love. The loud/soft thing pioneered by The Pixies (and cemented in the public mind by Nirvana), the relentless chugging rhythm and distorted guitar line, the places where most of the instruments drop out and then come back in, and an epic build to the conclusion. It’s like Billie Joe Armstrong came to my apartment and polled me on everything I would want to hear in a song and then wrote that song. “Jesus of Suburbia” might be the heart of American Idiot, but for four and a half glorious minutes, this song made me want to buy the album and ultimately is responsible for me moving from casual Green Day fan to obsessive Green Day fan. For that, and all the other reasons mentioned, this is my ranked at the top of my list. Thank you, as always, for reading.
Coming Soon: Finishing up INXS, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Elvis Costello