The 10 Most Essiential Punk Rock Songs
The Songs That Made Punk
Punk rock is a music form that was supposed to be a rebellion against everything- old-school convictions of adults, corporate greed, and government failings; anything that’s ever gone wrong in the world has had a punk song written about it. But at its core, punk is a reaction not to government or establishment, but to rock music itself. Punk came about at a time when Led Zepplin, Pink Floyd, disco, and arena rock were ruling the radio. When the Ramones bashed out their first three chords, it was a reminder of the simpler days of early rock and roll, and that music could be both simple and highly artistic.
Today however, punk has become tied to much of the music it rebelled aginst in one critical similarity- it’s regard for its own history. Both punk and rock and roll are deeply rooted in the past, and artists today face the challenge of being true to the art form while making it their own. And often times, the slightest change is seen as selling out. But what does a new punk listen to to understand the basics? These ten songs, culled from the earliest eras of punk and it’s resurgence in the 80’s and 90’s are ground zero for all new punks.
10. Color Me Impressed- The Replacements
Perhaps one of the most underappreciated punk bands, the Replacements had only a single top 40 hit (“I’ll Be You”), yet their influence was the catalyst for a host of 90’s alternative rock and punk bands. Their first record, “Sorry Ma, Forgot To Take Out the Trash” was an eighteen song collections of two minute and often less, speed punk songs that painted them as standard punks, but it was their second album “Hootenany” that showed what they could truly bring to the table. And no song does it better then “Color Me Impressed.” A fast paced, sloppy, rock song that manages to be snotty enough for punks, singer Paul Westerberg demonstrates a true melodic gift, as he sings his way though a kiss off to hypocritical suits he fails to be impressed by. A sign of Westerberg’s genius, as well as his pop and punk sensibilities, “Color Me Impressed” remains a gloriously messy blend of pop chords and punk attitude.
9. Longview- Green Day
Green Day’s punk credibility has taken more then a few hits over the years, with their albums becoming Grammy winners and Broadway musicals, but in 1994, they were snot-nosed kids singing about that most common of teenage issues, masturbation and boredom, on their breakthrough single, “Longview.” While the quiet loud structure does resemble Nirvana, the cheerful hook and Billie Joe Armstrong’s mumbling verse makes it easy to ignore the lyrics, which no doubt helped it get played on radio. And while Nirvana’s music ushered in grunge, "Longview" helped create a launching pad for the punk-pop of the 90’s, with bands like Rancid, The Offspring, Blink 182, and No Doubt coming along for the ride. And like all great songs, “Longview” has aged well, staying relevant for teens today, as they sit in their rooms, bored and alienated with only one thing to amuse them.
8. Smells Like Teen Spirit- Nirvana
It’s easy to label Nirvana with the grunge movement, but at their core, they were an excellent punk band, and while their greatest song is ironically what catapulted them into the mainstream, it retains the grandest of punk elements. Kurt Cobain had a deep love of both Black Flag and the Beatles, demonstrated in the song’s heaviness and its hum ability. Driven by a simple, pounding beat, the lyrics alternate between tones of boredom and alienation to frustration and anger, delivered in Cobain’s singing if not directly through his murky lyrics. And despite the production, the DIY (Do It Yourself) ethic is still very much alive here, especially in the era of hair-metal production that Nirvana helped bury. Indeed, it’s unlikely that punk would have it’s resurgence in the 90’s if not for this song, which may be Cobain’s greatest gift to the music he loved.
7. Los Angeles- X
L.A. is a city best known for the music of the Sunset Strip, but the city has also produced some excellent punk rock, including one of the most legendary punk groups ever, X. Bringing a unique appeal with dueling male/female lead vocals and occasionally dips into rockabilly, X made a grand entrance with their debut album, Los Angeles, and its title track. A biting shot at the fakeness and false promises that seduced so many into Hollywood, it tells the story of a girl at the end of her rope, lashing out at everyone from the wealthy, the bullshit artists, and even the foreign minorities, but in a way that screams of alienation rather then hatred. X would go onto make many more excellent records, but never one that captured such punk rock fury as this one.
6. Search and Destroy- The Stooges
One of the great proto punk bands, the Stooges are best remembered for their wild live shows (which involved Iggy Pop dancing wildly and often cutting himself onstage) and their lack of real technical skill. However, it was that combination of wildness and simplicity that led to the pounding simplicity of their work, including their best album, Raw Power and their hardest song, “Search and Destroy.” With apocalyptic lyrics sung with ragged glory by Pop and pushed along by raging guitars and drums, the song was the basis for every angry young punk band that would come to follow. Raw, careening, and threatening to fall apart at any moment, it is a seminal moment in punk that has yet to be equaled; even today, many groups cover the song live, but none would dare change its presentation, nor attempt to match its wild sense of destruction.
5. Kick Out the Jams- The MC5
The MC5 came onto the scene at the same time and place as the Stooges, but were far more skilled then their Detroit brethren. While the Stooges laid the groundwork for bands like the Sex Pistols and some of the Ramones’ style, the MC5 managed to reach this level of wild revival while skillfully taking influence from power pop and hard rock. Nowhere is this better shown then on their signature song, “Kick Out the Jams.” First presented as a cut on the 5’s live debut, it builds on a single guitar riff that thunders down as Rob Tyner sings/screams his lyrics wildly. It became a predecessor to the punk mosh pit songs that would get audiences bouncing together wildly, and reminded listeners that punk could be wild and dangerous, but it could still be fun.
4. Personality Crisis- New York Dolls
The New York Dolls are widely created for laying ground for galm rock, but their influence in punk cannot be denied, especially on “Personality Crisis.” Coming across as a sped up Rolling Stones song, it mixes the Stooges, Mick Jagger, and Chuck Berry with energy that bands like the Ramones would attempt to capture in later years. Even years after the Dolls broke up, frontman David Johansen would open his solo sets with this song, proving it’s relevance as a true classic not only of punk, but of rock and roll.
3. Anarchy in the U.K.- The Sex Pistols
While the Sex Pistols history is an odd contradiction (a punk group created by a businessman to destroy the world because of a popular craze that is only remembered for a single album), the impact of the group is staggering. This was a band that embodied everything that was feared about punk, and nowhere more then their signature song, “Anarchy in the U.K.” This song mocked the weakness in British politics, and threatened rebellion in the streets, which Johnny Rotten gleefully sang in his off kilter, snotty voice, as the Pistols laid down a basic, but powerful wall of thunder behind him. This was the first real sign that punk could be something dangerous, and that it had an attitude with serious power behind it. It was this attitude that carried punk over in England and all over the world, and is what modern punks strive for to this day.
2. Blitzkrieg Bop- The Ramones
The first punk rock song from the first punk rock band. There is truly nothing new that can be said about the impact of the Ramones, and their signature song. A gloriously pointless, two minute song in the age of rock epics, it was a reminder that rock can be at its best when it’s just fun. The chords are basic, the melody simple, even the lyrics are meaningless- declarations of revving it up and wild dancing that harken back to the Fifties. But that only shows the talent of the Ramones, who barely knew anything about playing music, but became legends in an era of technical supremacy. And by doing so, they inspired a generation of punks to go into their garages and start playing- because anyone can do it.
1. London Calling- The Clash
The Clash called themselves the only band that mattered. And on their landmark album London Calling, it was impossible to disagree. And no track proved it more then the title song. Built on slashing guitars and bashing drums, the song melded together punk influences from across the years. It had the passion and anger of the Sex Pistols, the barely controlled power of the Stooges, the wit and simplicity of the Ramones, all filtered through the Clash’s political world views and fused together in a call to arms for a new generation of punks. While other songs brought different elements of punk to the forefront, it was this song that became everything that punk should be, and inspired anyone that wanted to pick up a guitar and scream something out to the world. Because at the end of the day, that’s what every punk rocker has to do, no matter their style- they have to mean it.