Everyone born this side of the mid-‘80s blanketed themselves in pop-punk and power-pop music.
Everyone born this side of the mid-‘80s—no matter how much some may deny it—at one point or another blanketed themselves in pop-punk and power-pop music between the ‘90s and early 2000’s. Many may refer to that time as a phase, or a guilty pleasure, but there are some who look back and recall times of fun, growth and blustery teenage arrogance and angst. We here at Spectrum Culture have decided to take a look back at the songs that not only defined the genres of pop-punk and power-pop, but have continued to influence listeners, musicians and the airwaves in countless ways to this day. In doing so, we’ve come up with a de facto-definitive Top 10 list of the most influential pop-punk & power-pop songs of the modern era. Sit back, relax and take a trip down that proverbial memory lane to re-experience all of the sugary, distorted deliciousness.
10. Taking Back Sunday – “Cute Without the ‘E’”
The classification of what is or is not emo will forever be a moving target, but there’s no fighting that Taking Back Sunday’s Tell All Your Friends became the godfather to a style of punk music that only now is beginning to fade. “Cute Without the ‘E’” was the doorway into a brave new world. A world where the journal scribbles of the world’s beta-males were screamed from the mountain tops. A world where girls (never women, mind you, always girls) were elevated above humanity to a demi-god status that could never be understood, only pined for from afar. And all of that was harnessed through a dual-vocal howl that let listeners know just how serious the whole thing was.
Listening to “Cute” is like watching The Breakfast Club or reading The Perks of Being a Wallflower. It perfectly describes a very specific teenage experience; one that is as dramatic as a soap opera (“Your lipstick/ His collar/ Don’t bother angel/ I know exactly what goes on”), with life-or-death stakes as real as war (“Just so long as this thing’s loaded”) but devoid of any actual danger. Sure, it’s a little embarrassing to revisit as an adult, but you understand why the song became such an anthem—for a long time, kids couldn’t feel anything with anyone without Taking Back Sunday.
Plus, that lead guitar part in the verses still rips.
9. All-American Rejects – “Swing Swing”
Stillwater, Oklahoma’s All-American Rejects emerged during the pop punk glut of the early aughts, joining the swelling ranks of pretty young men with guitars writing sugary melodies as a balm for teen angst. Their 2002 self-titled debut helped them break out ahead of the pack thanks in no small part to its lead single, the bitter kiss-off anthem “Swing Swing.” A model of millennial punk’s ruthless efficiency and weaponized catchiness, the song also boasted the slickest studio production courtesy of Tim O’Heir (who’s also operated the nobs of such likeminded artists as Say Anything and The Starting Line). The brick-thick vocal layering renders singer/bass player Tyson Ritter legion; you could close your eyes and imagine a thousand Tyson Ritters, each one immaculately coifed, each one pining after the same girl, all singing in heavenly unison. Turns out, a lot of people were getting over bad breakups that year, as All-American Rejects would provide a template for what pop-punk should sound like in a post-Blink-182 musical landscape. You can hear reverberations of their squeaky-clean tunefulness from the harder-rocking work of contemporaries Red Jumpsuit Apparatus, to the club-ready fare of followers Metro Station and beyond.
8. Sum 41 – “Fat Lip”
By 2001, “punk rock” in the popular consciousness was largely synonymous with sweet, sad-sack paeans to teen love and heartbreak. Sum 41’s break-out and, to this day, highest-charting single, “Fat Lip” was notable for its attempt to connect back to punk’s crude, rabble-rousing roots. The song was a three-minute celebration of trashy Americana (or is that Canadiana?) that built to a shout-along chorus aimed squarely (if nonspecifically) at rejecting society’s demands. While its defiant attitude may have been a throwback to a more confrontational era of punk, the song itself was totally of its time. The hip-hop cadence of the verses, as well as shout-outs to metal stalwarts Iron Maiden and Judas Priest, reflected the omnivorous appetites of its audience and proved the tribalism that once dominated the subculture had become a thing of the past in the face of its broader penetration into the world at large. Lead singer Deryck Whibley would go on to date and eventually marry fellow Canuck (and self-proclaimed “Sid Vicious” of her generation) Avril Lavigne in the years to follow. Though short-lived, this union of Capital-P Pop and its snottier, spikey-haired analogue sent out the signal that punk had completed its slow migration through the ‘90s from the outskirts of popular culture to becoming the establishment itself.
7. Yellowcard – “Ocean Avenue”
Many people write Yellowcard off as a gimmick. The Florida quartet’s central conceit, of course, has been Sean Mackin’s violin nestled among the band’s admittedly standard pop-punk sound. And yeah, upon initial consideration, it sounds pretty lame. Violins aren’t punk. But when you hear the music in action, it’s a different story. “Ocean Avenue”—the band’s biggest hit that best encapsulates their 20-plus year existence—is an aching and nostalgic ode to lost young love, emotions that are underlined by the sweetly sweeping strings. Despite its prominent presence throughout Yellowcard’s discography, Mackin’s violin has never been afforded sole focus. Where another band might capitalize on the ironic incongruity of a string instrument in punk music, Yellowcard was simply earnest, and their earnestness packed a punch. If you removed the violin from “Ocean Avenue,” or any of Yellowcard’s strongest songs, it’s probably just as catchy, but it’s nowhere near as memorable. With its rollicking chorus and punchy rhythms, the song has endured as both a perennial radio jam and a high watermark of early-aught rock, but in its own small way, it also changed what pop-punk music could sound like, and more importantly, how it could feel.
6. Lit – “My Own Worst Enemy“
The story is simple: Boy meets girl, boy falls in love and they end up together. This isn’t always the case, and Lit, one of pop-punk’s late ’90s mainstream success stories, demonstrates the adolescent fallouts that can occur from a post-high school life. The narrative changes by the end, where this prospective couple is ripped apart because one party was acting completely off the wall. And instead of pitting the blame on the girl, lead vocalist A. Jay Popoff sings of his mistakes and mishaps—like his car ending up on someone’s front lawn. What can be heard as childish whining can also be seen as one person’s attempt at trying to get things together yet failing miserably.
“My Own Worst Enemy” finds its shine in its themes. It dresses the cool kid, or at least the one who perceives himself as such, as the one you root for despite hating such a person. He looks like he’s got it all together until he looks at himself in the mirror. He’s massively screwed, but songs of redemption are paved in such a way that this doesn’t feel like a total loss. Ultimately, Lit allows listeners to beat themselves up, while allowing the guitar-laden melodies of “My Own Worst Enemy” to force them to fight on. Cue the “10 Minutes Later” card to show our protagonist black and blue but ready for another bout.
5. Jimmy Eat World – “The Middle”
Of all the songs on this list, “The Middle” stands out the most for its unbridled positivity. That emotion typically isn’t what you think of first when discussing pop-punk, a genre better known for unrestrained teenage angst. But Jimmy Eat World did something unthinkable on the second single for Bleed American: They grew up a little bit. The key to why “The Middle” works so brilliantly isn’t that it’s a mindlessly happy song; there’s darkness implied in the lyrics, which address some bad occurrence in the past. The band acknowledges this, but where a lesser songwriter would let the wound fester and relish in the pain, Jimmy Eat World set about at healing things.
While the band has admitted that “The Middle” was written partially about their fallout with Capitol Records, there’s no hint of record label skullduggery anywhere in the song. “The Middle” is simple, catchy, affecting pop-punk, a song that follows a fairly well-established formula to perfection. This is arguably why the song became such a hit and how it has managed to endure for so many years since. Its fist-pumping chorus (“Everything, everything will be just fine/ Everything, everything will be all right”) may eschew subtlety, but pop-punk was never much about subtlety to begin with. No, pop-punk has always been about oversized, dramatic emotions, about taking what’s inside and shoving it in the face of everyone around you. With “The Middle,” Jimmy Eat World reminded us that what’s inside doesn’t always have to be pain and despair. Things do get better.
4. New Found Glory – “My Friends Over You”
There’s bubblegum flavor throughout “My Friends Over You,” the breakup anthem by Florida’s New Found Glory that’s up there with anything written by fellow pop-punk giants like blink-182 and Green Day, but look beneath the catchy hooks and syrupy lyrics and you’ll find the band’s serrated, hardcore bona fides. Indeed, the band never quite became MTV darlings like their contemporaries. Even at their catchiest and sweetest, NFG has an edge—the kind of edge that’s sharpened by cramped VFW halls and lengthy tours spent in smelly vans. You can hear it in the way the song’s chorus revs up, as drummer Cyrus Bolooki and bassist Ian Grushka pound out a surging rhythm and singer Jordan Pundik urges us that “Just maybe you need this.” As the music swells before suddenly dropping off, Pundik belts out that nasally, elongated “You” of “You were everything I wanted,” you immediately feel all the joyful, dizzying circle pits it both inspires and was inspired by. The song appeals to living in the moment and looking to the past, a rare sort of combination that makes it both a contemporary pop classic and a scene standard. Such a quality exists in all of the band’s best songs. You could just as easily slot “Hit or Miss” or “All Downhill from Here” in this spot, but there’s something undeniable about “My Friends Over You.” Maybe it’s because when they refer to friends, they really mean it. Aside from guitarist Steve Klein, who left the band in 2013 and was subsequently charged with child sex crimes, NFG has retained each of its founding members, a testament to the band’s commitment to their legacy. More than 10 years and five albums later, and they have yet to waver.
3. Blink-182 – “Dammit”
It’s the riff that launched hundreds of crappy bands, the riff that young teenagers banged out on out-of-tune Epiphone guitars until they eventually realized that this rock ‘n’ roll thing wasn’t as difficult as it was made out to be. According to Mark Hoppus, “Dammit” appeared almost instantaneously during the recording of Dude Ranch. That’s not necessarily hard to believe from a technical standpoint—the song is incredibly simple, and much of Dude Ranch sounds like it was recorded in a day or less—but it is remarkable how much “Dammit” doesn’t sound tossed off. If anything, the song is almost instinctual, as if Hoppus was trying to summarize everything that Blink-182 and the wave of pop-punk bands that followed them were trying to say. For all its simplicity, though, “Dammit” is one of those songs that is impossible to replicate, and any attempt to imitate it ends up seeming, well, half-assed.
When pop-punk entered the mainstream consciousness in the early ‘90s, it did so while holding on to the “slacker” attitude attributed to Generation X at the time. With “Dammit,” the genre took an incremental step toward maturity. Sure, the song is on an album that contains an ode to Princess Leia and a song called “Dick Lips,” but “Dammit” finds its speaker shedding that “fuck-it-all” attitude upon having to grapple with real emotion for once. The story is a common one—facing rejection and moving on—but there’s a growth that comes from the epiphany the song reaches. The speaker, presumably a skate rat not unlike Blink’s fanbase, has to not only grapple with being rejected but also with the fact that he isn’t all that important. His ex can move on from him and find companionship with someone else. It’s not just about romantic rejection; “Dammit” is about the realization that, sometimes, there isn’t anything special about you. You’re just another person dealing with the same shit as everyone else with no one there to walk you through it or take care of things for you. It’s apt, then, that the song ends with repeating, “Well I guess this is growing up.”
On “Dammit,” Blink-182 and pop-punk as a whole were dragged kicking and screaming into adulthood. While the band may have struggled with this over the years (particularly Tom DeLonge, whose forays into mature songwriting are regrettable at best), they upended the preconceived notion of what this sort of snotty skater-punk was supposed to be about. Surprisingly, Blink-182 may have been the first pop-punk band with an adult take on things, and it all really started with “Dammit.”
2. Weezer – “Buddy Holly”
Without Weezer, this list you’re reading wouldn’t exist.
Alright, that’s dramatic; grunge exhaustion was going to happen one way or another, and you’d have to be a pretty big believer in the messiah complex to think that another band wouldn’t have risen from a haze of weed smoke and guitar scale books to bring the idea of “power-pop” back to a thirsty nation dressed in grey flannel. But here on Earth Prime, Weezer is the band that rolled out the blueprint for how the next 22 years of hook-focused guitar pop were going to go. “Buddy Holly” is that blueprint.
There’s a quality that great pop songs have—they seem effortless, like anyone could have written them, until you sit down and really listen to how involved they are, how many little, smart decisions had to be made to make them work. Any slob can pick up a guitar and chug out an E chord, but not everyone thinks to double-up a guitar riff with a keyboard, or switch from a falsetto to a grunt in the second pre-chorus, or change the tenor of the song from major to minor in the first half of the bridge, or to include handclaps in the last chorus. The only people who bother with those kinds of things are dorks who know the fuck out of their music history, or stone-cold geniuses. It’s up for debate which one Rivers Cuomo and company are, but it probably doesn’t matter at the end of the day.
What does matter, though, is that Weezer, through “Buddy Holly,” were able to remind the listening public that rock music could be fun and edgy without having to be a train ride into oblivion. The 10 years before “Buddy Holly” were consumed with binary options; your pop rock could either be sneered at by rock snobs and embraced by people looking to dance and have sex with each other (INXS, Duran Duran), or it could be one of two sides of a male domination fantasy (the live-forever, literally-fuck-everything excess of hair metal or the everything-is-meaningless, figuratively-fuck-everything mope of the Nirvana wave). I’m not saying that there weren’t pop songs that appealed to both rockers and normies before or after “Buddy Holly,” but it’s not a coincidence that people can play this stuff at a family reunion and no one complains. It is said that you can’t please everyone all the time. Weezer’s second single is the exception to that rule.
Rock bands spent the next two decades trying to rewrite “Buddy Holly,” trying to be their own version of Weezer, with varying degrees of success. The ‘90s were awash in alt-rock groups trying to capture the populist cock-power of KISS and make it something smaller-scale and safe for humans. The pop-punk and screamo bands spawned themselves off Weezer’s lyrical vulnerability and beta-male balladry. It ended up meaning different things to different people, got distorted and evolved in a dozen different ways, both large and small. Pick any band you’ve heard on the radio in the last 24 months and you can draw a straight line back to “Buddy Holly.” Why do they gotta front?
1. Green Day – “Basket Case“
“Do you have the time/ To listen to me whine/ About nothing and everything/ All at once” “Basket Case,” in several lines, lists the disorientation of youth, the struggle to find sure footing in a world that is never stable. The track pulls at the guts of someone trying to rage despite being positioned in life as a tiny soul. This soul is ragged and angry, dazed and confused, and the only thing that makes sense is that nothing makes sense.
Mental health and well-being had been previously broached by Nirvana’s famed Nevermind. But what Green Day brought to the table was a response to smug, rich individuals’ indifference to a world full of uncertainty and instability in all its forms. “Basket Case,” through its candid lyrics, builds the life of someone who feels like they’ve been hurled out of J.D. Salinger’s universe. A person can talk to shrinks about everything and still feel like nothing works, they can hire prostitutes while experiencing nothing in the process and a lackluster social life can degrade into utter hopelessness.
“Basket Case” is a practical response that addresses the complexities that pop-punk would later touch on in shallower doses. When love is center-stage in the genre’s songs it can be either a call for a genuine shared connection, or a statement about the conscious decision to block out how surreal life’s demands can become. Perhaps the endearing part of the track is its sarcastic announcement that the band is holding on to whatever they can while being rattled around in the washing machine called life. With Tré Cool’s agile drumming, Billie Joe Armstrong’s effective upbeat power chords and vocals and Mike Dirnt’s basslines “Basket Case” tackles sentiments based on the extreme paranoia youth can face while staring down adulthood.
“Basket Case” doesn’t justify whining; it revels in genuine unrest. No matter what or who we vent to, problems rarely change and it’s that acknowledgement of hopelessness wrapped in a pop sheen makes such a song cathartic. It made Green Day a mainstay, and made “Basket Case” not only a classically influential pop-punk/power-pop tune, but a song that continues to defy its age and inspire legions of people to write, sing, play and record music. In that, it’s entered into American music canon and it’s earned its immortality.