Kerplunk (Lookout! Records ’92) Rating: B+
Green Day's second studio album but first with drummer Tré Cool, Kerplunk isn't quite at the level of the band's best albums but is certainly worth hearing if you like their subsequent records. The band's energetic punk-pop sound is already in place, albeit recorded in a rawer, more lo-fi manner due to having a smaller budget. Lyrically, what would soon become common Green Day themes (sexual frustration, loneliness, teenage confusion and anxiety about growing up) also appear, and the album is consistently entertaining even if it has few songs that I consider to be Green Day classics. The best tracks here are probably "2,000 Light Years Away," which is catchy, touching, and rocking in the best Green Day style, and "One Of My Lies," which has good riffs and questioning coming of age lyrics. Although most of these songs go by the "loud fast rules" ethos of most punk bands, variety comes in the form of "Christine Road" and "No One Knows" a pair of very good, melodic semi-ballads that showcase the group's underrated harmonies, while "Words I Might Have Ate" provides a more low-key sing along than the norm, and "Dominated Love Slave" is a hilarious (yet still tuneful) country spoof written and sung
by Cool. Of course, Billy Joe Armstrong sings, plays lead guitar, and writes the lyrics to the rest of these tracks, while sturdy sidekick Mike Dirnt plays bass and co-writes the music along with the rest of the band. Green Day was a very young band at this point, so there's something of an unseasoned charm about the record, but this is also why it's not as good as their classic next album, Dookie: the band would gain experience and get better at writing and playing, period. This album's version of "Welcome To Paradise" pales when compared to the Dookie version, for example, but a song title like "Who Wrote Holden Caulfield" showed that the band was already more clever and thoughtful than your typical punks, plus it's a good tune, as is "One For The Razorbacks," which shows a less serious side to the band and even has a guitar solo! On the whole, this is a consistently entertaining album by a talented band who were not quite yet ready for the big time, and Kerplunk is all the more sought after since none of its songs appear on the later International Superhits compilation.
Dookie (Reprise ’94) Rating: A
Question (posed by Green Day): “do you have the time, to listen to me whine, about nothing and everything all at once?" Answer: Yes! Question (posed by too many people - the "sellout police" - after the surprising multi-platinum success of Dookie): “is a punk band still a punk band if they sell millions of records?” Answer: Who cares! Rarely has teenage angst been so much fun, and though there’s nothing original about these guys musically (a little Ramones and X here, a lot of Buzzcocks there), they’re excellent at what they do, which is producing short, fast songs with great melodies and singable (often harmonized) choruses. And though they dish out plenty of snot nosed attitude, there’s nothing malicious at all about these guys, as they snarl with a knowing wink and have a good sense of humor. Also, this is a very tight little trio whose three instrumentalists stand out as being top notch, which may be one reason why they made it big while many of their more punk contemporaries didn’t. Plus, lead singer Billy Joe has a nice voice, which is something that most punk bands lack, and his fake British accent is almost as amusing as the band’s clever lyrics (about being a bored, miserable, sexually frustrated teenager, mostly). True, not everybody will be able to relate to this album lyrically since their focus is on awkward adolescent alienation and angst, two topics that even us “young at heart” rock fans tend to outgrow eventually. However, that shouldn’t stop you from “Having A Blast” enjoying these immensely catchy and energetic songs. The songwriting here is truly outstanding, especially on the big singles which can't help but stand out, including "Longview" with its famous bassline, undeniable pop hooks, and lyrics about masturbation among other topics, "Basket Case," another catchy, hard rocking anthem (about Billy Joe's panic disorder) that's probably the album's most famous song, "Welcome To Paradise," a much punchier version than previously which shows off the band's more polished major label production (courtesy of Rob Cavallo), plus its instrumental mid-section really shows off their musical chops and tightness as a unit, "When I Come Around," another bouncy sing along winner, and "She," which mixes mellower and more rocking sections and which wasn't as big a hit at the others but which was and still is a popular radio track. There are plenty of quality album tracks too, such as "Burnout," "Having A Blast," "Pulling Teeth" (a rare mellower entry), "Coming Clean," and "Emenius Sleepers," and though the album has maybe 2 or 3 songs too many, there's a reason why this classic album (with an assist from The Offspring) helped usher punk rock music back into the mainstream. Certainly it was the bible for lesser later bands like Blink 182, Sum 41, and Good Charlotte, and even today it sounds fresh, fun, and exciting, and even the album title is amusing if you know the back story. P.S. In addition to Dookie 1994 was notable for the band because they were among the lone standouts (albeit for slinging mud, mostly) at the money grubbing disgrace that was Woodstock '94.
Insomniac (Reprise ’95) Rating: B+
This somewhat underrated album has grown on me over time, but there's still no getting around the fact that it was a far cry from the high overall quality of the instant classic that was Dookie. This angry, cynical album reminds me a bit of Nirvana's In Utero in that it's an obvious attempt to be less commercial, an overreaction to the massive success of their prior album (I still think In Utero is a great if seriously flawed album though, certainly much better than this one). A punk band isn't supposed to sell 10+ million albums, after all, so if they do they're obviously "sell outs," right? Seemingly trying to re-prove their punk credentials to the Gilman Street (the Southern California club that the band outgrew) hypocrites who shunned them because they had the nerve to pursue and actually achieve widespread mainstream success, these primarily short, fast-paced, significantly darker songs are decidedly more punk and less pop. They're also less good; though there are few outright duds there are also too many samey sounding songs that fail to separate themselves from the pack. So in the end nobody really won, as this album sold "only" 2 million copies and the Gilman crowd weren't interested in anything that band did anymore regardless of what they put out. Which isn't to say that this isn't an enjoyable album, because it is, at least after you've lived with it for a while, but it didn't further the band's career much, though maybe that wasn't such a bad thing as success and money obviously hadn't bought the band happiness. Rather, the lyrics here are jaded and less humor-filled, while the raw sound is heavier but less hooky. Ask me tomorrow and I might list different highlights, but some of the songs that stand out to me include the self-loathing anthem "Brat," the fast but catchy "Bab's Uvula Who?," the anti-Dookie first single "Geek Stink Breath" (about crystal meth abuse), and "Panic Song," whose extended instrumental intro is especially outstanding. Even better are "86," about being rejected (or "86'd") by the Gilman crowd, and "Walking Contradiction," a poppier number that was released as a single but didn't have nearly the success that it should have (the also-good "Stuck With Me" also underperformed). Still, fine though these songs are, the only really classic track here, the one that still gets played on alternative rock stations like Sirius' "Lithium" and NYC's "The Shark," is the brilliant "Brain Stew" (all together now: "on my own here we go..."). Starting with descending chords reminiscent of Chicago's "25 or 6 to 4" (a song that kicks more ass than 99.9% of all punk songs, by the way), this one is very heavy and quite catchy and for my money is one of their best songs ever. It's a shame that no other song here (including the short, aptly titled "Jaded" which always follows "Brain Stew" and which isn't nearly as good) attains this rarefied level, and I think that the album would've been strengthened had they included the excellent non-album track "J.A.R. (Jason Andrew Relva)," which was recorded around the same time but was relegated to the Angus soundtrack instead.
Nimrod (Reprise ’97) Rating: B+
Interestingly, I once heard a writer remark that the relative commercial failure of Insomniac was a blessing in disguise, because "it gave Green Day a career." Free from the expectations of following up a massive hit, Green Day decided to move away from their punk rock roots and experiment with different styles. Not that there aren't both punk and punk pop songs here, there are plenty of both on an album that is admittedly over-long at 18 songs, but the band attempts to push the envelope and move outside their comfort zone. The results of this more mature style are somewhat mixed, and the album definitely lacks the unified sense of direction of their best albums, but there are still many good songs on this transitional effort, only one of which is over-familiar unlike Dookie whose biggest songs have been played to death over the years. The album starts strongly with two singles that should've been bigger hits, the catchy, energetic, Dookie-like "Nice Guys Finish Last" and the stomping groover "Hitchin' A Ride," which shows off the band's excellent rhythm section and which flat-out rules, simple as that. The other singles are the even less successful but still excellent "Redundant," a melodic jangly pop song, and the extremely successful "Good Riddance (Time of Your Life)," probably the band's most famous song ever (along with "Basket Case" and "American Idiot") and certainly their mellowest, most atypical hit ever. A simple acoustic ballad with strings, sorta reminiscent of how Paul stepped out in front of The Beatles on "Yesterday," this gorgeous song is simply a timeless classic that always pulls on the 'ol heartstrings. Strings appear elsewhere as well, if not as effectively, and the group adds instruments such as mariachi horns on the ska-like "King For A Day" (not so good) and harmonica hooks to "Walking Home" (much better). Sure, there are some throwaway punk thrashers like "Platypus (I Hate You)," whose best attribute is its title, and "Take Back," which actually has awful thrash metal vocals (!), but most of the other songs are good to very good even if some of them sorta blend together for me and there are certainly too many of them. "Uptight" bouncily looks back by reminding me of "She," "Worry Rock" looks forward by sounding a bit like a test run for "Boulevard Of Broken Dreams," and the strange but compelling surf instrumental "Last Ride In" is simply unlike any other Green Day song. You'll probably have other songs that stand out for you ("The Grouch" and "Scattered" are other strong album tracks, for example), there are certainly enough of them to come to different conclusions, and if you're one of those annoying punk purists you'll probably complain about the band branching out and further embracing pop, particularly on that yucky ballad. Then again, wasn't punk rock supposed to stand for an anything goes mentality above all else? Anyway, Nimrod is too unfocused and all over the place for its own good, but it also has plenty of the primary things that have always made Green Day stand out from rest of the pack, in particular strong songs and performances.
Warning (Reprise ’00) Rating: B+
Coming before their popular hits compilation and then their spectacularly successful comeback album/reinvention, Warning is something of a forgotten Green Day album, and it remains an underrated work of consistently strong if rarely truly inspired songcraft. On this cohesive album of catchy songs, Green Day are less pissed off as they deliver a more lyrically mature and musically slicker and slower paced pop record, though "punk-pop" is still an apt description for the majority of these songs. In addition, the band continues to expand their sound, with an increased use of acoustic guitars in addition to saxophone, harmonica, accordion, mandolin, horns, and strings. My main complaint about this album, which the band self-produced with assistance from Cavallo, is that its best songs, while very good, failed to achieve instant classic status like on prior albums, and as such the album received a lukewarm commercial and critical response (remember, this was when their followers like Blink 182 were outselling them, and nu metal (ugh!) was all the rage). I mean, the title track is catchy enough but it's also a bit bland; I prefer the other three singles: "Minority" is an easily singable message song that showed the band's then-emerging political bent, "Waiting" is an excellent, eminently tuneful mellow-ish pop rocker, and "Macy's Day Parade" is a superb semi-ballad with something of an epic feel. Oddly enough, whereas most albums are frontloaded, these last three songs appear at the very end of the album, so if anything Warning is backloaded. Anyway, as per usual, Green Day did a good job of picking the right (i.e. best) songs as the singles (aside from "Warning"), but this album has consistently good album tracks as well, such as "Church On Sunday," a stellar fast-paced melodic groover, "Castaway," with its simple yet catchy chorus and bouncy basslines, "Deadbeat Holiday," another catchy upbeat pop number, "Hold On," a melodic pop rocker with acoustic and electric guitars and hooky harmonica, and "Jackass," notable for its mandolin intro and sax solo. The strange, waltz-like "Misery" is certainly ambitious with its strings, horns, and Spanish flavor, and it's also by far the albums longest song at over 5 minutes, but on the whole this isn't one of Green Day's most ambitious albums. Rather, Warning is just a good collection of good (sometimes very good) songs, nothing more and nothing less, which suits me just fine while I'm listening to it, though the band has more important and better albums overall.
International Superhits (Reprise ’01) Rating: A
In many ways this album marked the end of the second Green Day era (the first being their indie era before signing with a major label and hitting the big time with Dookie), before they embraced politics and concept albums and instead simply delivered terrific punk-pop tunes. Although Green Day are album oriented artists with a track record of consistent quality, their singles have almost always provided the highlights to their albums, so needless to say an album that compiled all the band's singles from Dookie through Warning in one place is a can't miss proposition, right? Pretty much, though the two new songs that start the album are solid but not top-tier (as is usually the case) and it would've been nice had a couple of songs from Kerplunk been included as well ("2,000 Light Years Away" and "One Of My Lies" perhaps). Still, this chronologically sequenced, generous (but not too generous) 21-track collection is flat-out fun to listen to, and it's nice to have the great "J.A.R. (Jason Andrew Relva)" available on a proper Green Day album at long last. If you're new to the band, International Superhits is a great starting place to get acquainted with them, and if you're already a fan of the band, this album is worth having for the terrific quality of the tunes, plus this is a convenient way to get great songs (like "Brain Stew" and "Good Riddance (Time Of Your Life)") from merely good albums. Note: 2002 saw the release of the b-sides and rarities compilation Shenanigans, which is inessential but worthwhile for big fans of the band.
American Idiot (Reprise ’04) Rating: A
Supposedly the band recorded a complete album that was very punk rock called Cigarettes and Valentines but the tapes mysteriously went missing (the band later admitted it wasn’t their best work anyway). After recording a side project new wave album with other musicians as The Network (which is not a Green Day album, not that I've ever heard it), the band came back with American Idiot, which nobody, I mean nobody, expected. Influenced by albums like The Who’s Tommy and Quadrophenia, and also inspired by their disgust with the dishonest George W. Bush regime to get angry and political, American Idiot was an ambitious rock opera that screamed “artistic maturity!” Don’t get me wrong, I thoroughly enjoyed the snot-nosed brats who delivered Dookie, but this more adult album was equally great, probably more so because it also has great songs but is more ambitious and multi-layered. The band’s new look (suits and heavy on the black eyeliner) was also meant to signify a new beginning, and the simple album cover was brilliant in its stark effectiveness. Now, I’m not going to get into the details about the storyline beyond saying that it concerns three main characters (Jesus of Suburbia, St. Jimmy, and Whatsername), because like the grand Who opuses the songs are ultimately what matter most (as always, feel free to surf the web for more details about the storyline). The album starts with the first of several spectacular singles, and the title track is one of their greatest (and most famous) songs due to its incredible energy, hooks a mile high, and biting political commentary. “Jesus Of Suburbia” is one of two 9-minute, multi-sectioned song “suites,” and both this Beach Boys/Ramones flavored effort and the later arguably even more epic (if not quite as great in my opinion) “Homecoming” are among their most ambitious and rousingly successful songs ever. “Holiday” was another extremely catchy and all around superb single that flat-out rocks, plus comparing Bush to Hitler was audacious to say the least. The other two major singles from the album, “Boulevard Of Broken Dreams” and “Wake Me When September Ends,” I always tend to think of together because both melancholic “power ballads” share similar virtues of being timeless and deeply affecting, plus they’re good examples of how the band embraces a fuller, more ornate (but still plenty powerful) sound at times on this album. So, as usual the singles are obvious standouts, but American Idiot also has little in the way of filler and plenty of very good album tracks, such as “We Are The Waiting,” with its big drums, bright uplifting guitars, and anthemic sing along chorus, the catchy pop punk of “She’s A Rebel,” and the explosive, passionate “Letterbomb,” on which Kathleen Hanna guests. I could describe other songs and/or provide more details, but I think you get the point, right? Simply put, without abandoning their roots or their core punk-pop sound, this spectacularly successful (in every way) album reinvented Green Day and defined the 2000s every bit as much as Dookie had helped define the ‘90s. It’s rare when a band can capture the zeitgeist of an era once, but this band did it twice with two totally different albums, which is a monumental accomplishment, even non-fans should admit as much. In addition to taking the band’s excellent live shows from theater’s into stadiums, American Idiot was improbably made into a successful Broadway play, and it cemented the band’s status as worthy Rock and Roll Hall Of Famers when that time inevitably comes.
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