By Andrew Stankaninets
There’s been a lot of buzz in certain circles about the new wave of pop-punk that’s seemingly all the rage – the snarling guitars, soaring melodies and instantly identifiable snotty SoCal accent. But this style didn’t pop up out of nowhere; the subgenre is basically as old as punk itself. Using the simplicity of both styles of music as a starting point, pop-punk mixes pop hooks and choruses with punk speed and combativeness to create something distinctly new. If you’ve been interested but don’t know where to start, I’ve decided to revisit and spotlight five albums that are great entries for curious listeners, from the very inception all the way to the present.
1. Buzzcocks // Singles going Steady (1979)
In the same British first wave as of the self-destructive nihilism of the Sex Pistols and righteous political anger of The Clash comes the lovesick goofy fun of Buzzcocks. Originally fronted by Howard Devoto, he left after arguing with co-founder Pete Shelly that “[Devoto] wasn’t stupid and refused to pretend to be.” And he’s not necessarily wrong for calling pop stupid, but it’s about using that simplicity to your advantage. Pop can also be derided as a singles format – the individual songs are great but the rest of the album is usually boring. Buzzcocks are most definitely a singles band, but they found a loophole by making the entire album nothing but singles, and therefore the entire album is great.
Contrasted with the thrashing and bashing of most of the scene, Shelly broke new ground by being one of the first punk singers who actually knew how to write a proper song with, you know, hooks and a chorus, as well as sing about new topics in the scene… like love. His warbly voice adds a new layer to the old tracks, selling the fragility and volatility of his dates and hook-ups. Again, compare the machismo of the Pistols’ ‘No Feelings,’ pushing away all girls chasing after Johnny Rotten, versus the hopeless romanticism of Buzzcocks’ ‘Lipstick,’ regretting how Shelly got the equivalent of being dumped via text. All I’m saying is that one of these is much more relatable.
Another overlooked secret to Buzzcocks’ universality was the band’s use of gender-neutral pronouns. Shelly was openly bisexual and inspired by all his relationships. Wanting to let everybody sing along (and trust me, you always want to sing along), he cleverly used ‘you’ and ‘I’ in his songs to include every demographic. I think the power of the bridges in songs like ‘I Don’t Mind’ would have caught the attention of most people anyways, but surprisingly, this album wasn’t very popular when it was released. Buzzcocks were simply too ahead of their time, influencing so much classic pop-punk down the line and still sounding fresh forty years later.
Best Moment(s): ‘What do I get?’ // ‘Ever Fallen in Love (with Someone you Shouldn’t’ve?)’ // ‘Harmony in my Head’
Worst Moment(s): ‘What Ever Happened To?’ // ‘Noise Annoys’ hits the nail on the head in terms of describing the song
2. Descendents // Milo Goes to College (1982)
Descendents are a bit of an outlier in California punk. While still taking influence from hardcore music, they weren’t ashamed of their pop influences, name-checking The Beatles and The Doors. This was contradictory to other punk bands’ ethos at the time, think about The Clash’s proclamation of “No Elvis, Beatles, or The Rolling Stones / In 1977”. Musically, the rhythm section is holding down the fort with speedy melodic bass lines that leave your arms searing while you play along and even faster drum breaks. Lead singer Milo Aukerman’s vocals are more throaty and less nasally, a gritty delivery that is more yelling than crooning about song topics that include being mad at your parents (‘Parents’), your girlfriend leaving you for another guy (‘Hope’), and wanting to be a bear (‘I Wanna be a Bear’). Standard stuff, really.
Speaking of lyrics, as shown by the title, Descendents are a lot more nerdy than your average pop-punk band, the group went on hiatus after this release because Aukerman actually did go to college to receive a Ph.D. in biochemistry. This means he doesn’t try to put on any tough-guy persona and even takes shots at it on tracks such as ‘I’m not a Loser.’ He treats the listener with respect, singing with the audience instead of down to them. Even if the average college student doesn’t worry about buying a suburban home, they can still relate to the metaphor of selling your values for stability. The one issue is that this underdog outlook can manifest itself in occasionally ugly ways, reminiscent of angry self-pitying guys who think the world owes them something. But these moments are rare and speed by on this 23-minute blaze of glory either way.
Best Moment(s): The last four song run of ‘Marriage’, ‘Hope’, ‘Bikeage’, and ‘Jean is Dead’ which close the album off perfectly
Worst Moment(s): ‘Parents’ // ‘M-16’
3. Green Day // Dookie (1994)
I don’t really need to introduce Green Day, do I? They’re practically an institution at this point, all the controversy and danger of punk had been sanded down to a marketable edginess to the point where ‘Longview’ and ‘Basket Case’ could get played on MTV. My dad gave me his copy of Dookie when I was thirteen. Despite my seemingly disparaging comments, I actually think Green Day made a bonafide classic with their cleaned-up major label debut. Compare the two versions of ‘Welcome to Paradise’ from Dookie and Kerplunk, their previous album – polishing the rust off allows Billie Joe Armstrong’s melodies to shoot above the instrumentation, the snare to have the proper amount of punch, and the bass to really muscle its way into the low end.
I want to highlight the harmonies as well, popping up in tracks like ‘Pulling Teeth’ and ‘She’ because they’re the key to the catchiness of the record. It’s easy to overlook them, quiet and seemingly a small embellishment, but they fade in at the perfect moments and shift the weights in favour of pop over punk. Details like these were only possible with proper professional studio production back in the day. For the longest time, up until last week, actually, I thought they brought in a female vocalist to do overdubs, but apparently, that’s bassist Mike Dirnt. In general, Dirnt’s playing is incredible all over this album, ‘Longview’ and ‘When I Come Around’ made thirteen year-old me decide to learn the bass after hearing those basslines for the first time.
Retrospectively, Dookie can definitely be seen as a turning point in music as a whole, steering pop punk into a collision course with pop culture. Just as Nirvana began the grunge and alternative rock boom in the beginning of the decade, by 1994 they had passed the baton over to another power trio, Green Day, to shape the musical landscape. Major labels scrambled to find their own equivalent moneymaker, opening the floodgates for derivative acts and less talented runoff. But are Billie Joe & Co. to blame for the race to the bottom that culminates in Blink-182 and the borderline self-parody of singles from Enema of the State? I’d argue that they shouldn’t be, because even without the somewhat exaggerated historical importance, Dookie holds up as a clean collection of songs and a definitive staple of the genre.
Best Moment(s): ‘She’ and ‘Coming Clean’ are two surprisingly heartfelt songs from Armstrong and round out the emotional core of the album
Worst Moment(s): Overplay
4. My Chemical Romance // The Black Parade (2006)
Taking a decidedly more theatrical and melodramatic approach, The Black Parade was envisioned as a punk rock opera. A somewhat oxymoronic term considering the original short-form point of punk was to push back against the long-winded bloat of prog rock and their overproduced double albums. But this wasn’t an entirely new concept – the year before, Green Day had managed to revitalize their careers with the admittedly loose concept album American Idiot. Teaming up with the same producer, MCR told the tale of the last days of The Patient, suffering from cancer and his confrontation with mortality, all surrounded by the appropriate amount of angst and gothic flair.
‘The End’ sets the stage perfectly, sounding like a eulogy delivered by a ringmaster. “Now come one, come all to this tragic affair” he cries out, piquing the interest of those with a morbid curiosity. The heart monitor which began the track suddenly flatlines, transitioning seamlessly into ‘Dead!’, one of my favourite tracks. It pulls out all the stops, from Gerard Way playing the role of a doctor announcing the patient’s diagnosis to a speedy arpeggiated guitar solo straight into a mid-tempo breakdown. For all the assets I could list, the one standout track and centrepiece of the album remains the eponymous ‘Welcome to the Black Parade’. The opening piano line alone is one of the most iconic musical moments for a certain generation of kids; the rolling toms and thematically appropriate marching band snare building up the drama alongside the clean Brian May style guitar embellishments until it climaxes into a double-time blitz of hope.
Some of the continual success of The Black Parade is My Chemical Romance’s aforementioned lean into classic rock tropes, Queen has already been mentioned with Frank Iero’s solos but also the more piano-led tracks such as ‘Cancer’. The theatrics all over the record are heavily indebted to Bowie’s Ziggy era and glam rock in general. The album’s genre may even be a contentious topic for some, considering how some like to deride it with the dreaded emo label; as if it’s a dirty word, bringing back memories of bangs and baggy all-black outfits. It’s understandable that we’ve all had certain phases we might regret, but I refuse to get stuck in the weeds of distinctions between ___-core punk and nth wave emo. That’s missing the forest for the trees, this is simply enjoyable music, embrace it, nobody’s too cool for a little Black Parade.
Best Moment(s): My Chemical Romance really decided to just put a cabaret song on here? With Liza Minnelli? And it works?
Worst Moment(s): In certain songs Gerard Way’s vocal processing makes him sound like he’s singing into a tin can
5. PUP // Morbid Stuff (2019)
Allow me to indulge my interest in linguistics for a moment, most signature traits of what we think of as the pop-punk accent actually have a name: The California Shift, a combination of trap-backing, oo-fronting (yes, these are real words), and The Low Back Merger. An article on Atlas Obscura delves more into detail, a great quick read, but it also mentions that this regional dialect goes by another term: The Canadian Shift. It probably explains why Toronto’s very own PUP have taken so naturally to the genre, making some of the best pop-punk of the decade, or at least leagues ahead of the old guard. Morbid Stuff continues their upward trajectory, a searing, catchy, sometimes caustic, exorcism of antagonism.
More likely, The Canadian Shift has nothing to do with PUP’s quality; lead single ‘Kids’ verses are more barked than sung, cramming in as many syllables as possible into each bar. A lot of the deep cuts have what I hesitate to call a “choir” shouting along during the choruses, leaving the guitars to take on the main melodic role. The lead is clean without sounding sterile while the rhythm has the right amount of fuzz and the drums have a proper heaviness. Zach Mykula sounds like he’s close to ripping a hole through the snare. At certain points it seems like the band is tipping over into thrash metal. Listen to ‘Full Blown Meltdown’ and tell me it doesn’t slot right into a Motörhead setlist.
Lyrically as well as musically, this album is heavier than others on this list, dealing with topics such as depression, the feeling of inadequacy, and crumbling romantic relationships. It’s not the cutting edge of storytelling, but Stefan Babcock does have a very honest and blunt approach. ‘Scorpion Hill’ is one highlight that feels very raw, I didn’t even realize how much he lays out on the table until my fourth listen. At the same time, there is definitely a sense of humour mixed in, like the hyperbolic ‘See You at Your Funeral’ where the singer hopes the world explodes just because he saw his ex in a grocery store. At least I hope Babcock isn’t serious with lines like “These past few weeks in a hell of my own creation / I try vegan food, I take up meditation”. Just as I’m excited to see their musical evolution, hopefully, PUP doesn’t fall into a state of arrested development, as seems to be the case for most youth-oriented bands. As they said themselves “I’m just surprised the world isn’t sick of men whining like children”.
Best Moment(s): ‘Kids’ // ‘See You at Your Funeral’ // ‘Closure’
Worst Moment(s): ‘DVP’ is objectively their best song, and it’s not on this album