The story of pop-punk in 16 songs
Admitting to loving punk rock’s smilier, happier, dweebier cousin won’t earn you much in the way of cred among sneering musical snobs, but who cares when you’re grinning from ear to ear and screaming along to choruses so catchy they literally stay with you for decades? Few genres fall victim to as much apparent punching down as pop-punk yet continue to deliver so much genuine pleasure to its truest true believers.
Just so we’re clear, we’re not referring to the Ramones, Descendents or bands of that ilk here. They’re punk acts who played fast, had a thing for melody and stood out because they weren’t as pretend-tough as their peers. Maybe they sparked the germ of an idea, but it’s more accurate to think of them as a footnote in the pop-punk story than outright headline stars. Truthfully, the term is a bit of a misnomer, as it’s got little to do with either element of its portmanteau’s origins. Sure, pop-punk might borrow the economy and democratisation of punk, but it kicks the politics out, swapping fury for feelings and replacing songs about The Man for romantic misadventures. Instead of lashing out at the world, proponents tend to shine a mirror up to themselves and generally draw conclusions about their own faults and failings. When it’s really on it, pop-punk can capture what it feels like to be a loser in a world when all around you seem to be winning… all while simultaneously having a laugh and sounding like life is one big party. It’s a unique skillset, often made to look easier than it is.
These days you have avowed genre purists championing the cause in the likes of State Champs and Neck Deep. Machine Gun Kelly has recently been seen slumming it in the pop-punk pool and Avril Lavigne seems to be getting (back?) in on the act, too, signalling a possible mainstream mini-revival on the horizon. Or not. There have been a few false dawns over the years. But despite being the runt of the rock music litter, pop-punk has stuck around a long time, launched a lot of successful artists and continues to thrive, regardless of whether it’s in vogue or not.
This then, is its story, as told through its soundtrack’s highest highlights…
1. Green Day – Basket Case (1994)
For reasons difficult to articulate without wasting a lot of words, Basket Case doesn’t necessarily feel like a pop-punk song, nor do Green Day really belong in the conversation on the whole, but it’s undeniable that this particular track set off a chain reaction, creating a blueprint that blew young, impressionable minds back in 1994. Good luck finding one single pop-punk band since then who don’t owe everything to it. ‘Do you have the time, to listen to me whine / About nothing and everything all at once?’ is an iconic opening line and a neat, if inadvertent, summary of pop-punk’s whole modus operandi.
2. blink-182 – What’s My Age Again? (1999)
Some might argue that no story of pop-punk is told in its entirety without including Dammit, the big moment on blink-182’s 1997 album Dude Ranch, and they might have a point. But in terms of sheer scale and success, when the Californian veterans first broke through and became household names worldwide, it was thanks to a clutch of singles from 1999’s Enema Of The State, probably best exemplified by this cheeky (literally, when it came to the music video) earworm, kick-starting a whole new wave of interest in the genre and sparking inspiration among the generation who would follow in their Vans-shaped footsteps.
3. Fenix TX – Phoebe Cates (2001)
A hormonal, fnarr fnarr ode to pining for a movie star from the ’80s, daydreaming about how great life would be if only Fenix TX frontman Will Salazar and her could get it on. The grubby male gaze is not the most right-on of songwriting vibes in retrospect, but it’s a common pop-punk trope and unlike in other genres, here the protagonist at least seems to come to a tacitly self-effacing admission about how sad, pathetic and lonely he is. High-minded pop-punk most definitely is not. At least not at this point in its story…
4. Sum 41 – Fat Lip (2001)
In actual fact, pop-punk is mostly at its best when it revels in its own stoopidity. Hijinks and hard partying were always at the top of the agenda for Canadian goofballs Sum 41 (until it famously caught up with Deryck Whibley, of course) and when they blasted onto the scene in 2001, full of youthful exuberance and the bounciest tunes on the block, they rode a wave of mainstream success that’s ensured they still do decent business today – even if they have traded in far more conventional rock fare since. As this mega-hit from their debut album All Killer, No Filler proves, that success was built on the solid foundations of an undeniable hook and a chorus.
5. New Found Glory – My Friends Over You (2002)
A hook and a chorus, you say? Those are the tricks of the trade for Florida’s finest, New Found Glory, here perfecting the pop-punk art on their signature song, My Friends Over You. It confirmed that their equally boisterous breakthrough on the self-titled debut two years previous was no fluke, as the song became ubiquitous on music television (back when that was how you became a big deal) and lives on as a staple at every rock club night on the planet. Again, its frat-boy, bros-first spirit is hardly sophisticated, but in this game, that’s pretty much the point.
6. Good Charlotte – The Anthem (2002)
C’mon, this one goes out on a refrain of ‘another loser anthem’ which is painfully, perfectly pop-punk to its core. The Madden twins caught a lot of flak when their second album The Young And The Hopeless struck gold in 2002, likely pushing buttons thanks to their adoption of postcard punk fashion, but eschewing the outdated musical trappings that usually came with the look. Instead, they favoured a radio-friendly sound forged on relatable words and simple yet catchy choruses. It’s fair to say, given the empire they built upon those battlegrounds, that they’ve had the last laugh.
7. The All-American Rejects – Swing, Swing (2002)
If pop-punk does anything perfectly, it captures the feeling of romance gone wrong; when your heart’s been trampled into the dirt and you’re left to pick up the pieces all by yourself. Tyson Ritter and co. nailed that sentiment on this charming, hooky-as-hell debut single. It didn’t harm that their frontman used his poster boy good looks to stare down the camera in the video, propelling his band onto constant MTV rotation and providing a launchpad for success that they too have made the most out of, still fit and firing as they are to this day.
8. The Ataris – In This Diary (2003)
Nostalgia, summer, sing-alongs and shunning the harsh realities of being an adult in favour of endless adolescence? That’s the spirit of pop-punk once more perfected to a tee, which is what The Ataris achieved on their fourth record, So Long, Astoria. A lot happened before and since for Kristopher Roe’s ever-changing unit – some of it good, some of it not-so-good – but for this one brilliant moment they shone like stars and peaked in a way that few will ever get to.
9. Yellowcard – Ocean Avenue (2003)
Pop-punk has a love-hate relationship with the towns, suburbs and small communities its bands tend to spring from. Here, Florida natives Yellowcard indulge the allure of that often-intoxicating yet unhealthy nostalgia for a time and a place in life when things seemed so much simpler and retrospectively special. Even if you aren’t from Ocean Avenue (or Ocean Boulevard as it’s actually called, in Jacksonville’s Atlantic Beach), you’re probably from somewhere just like it, at least in theory. It’s a classic songwriting idea that taps into something everyone can relate to: growing up is hard, romanticising the past is easy, and pop-punk would be lost without it.
10. All Time Low – Dear Maria, Count Me In (2007)
Fundamentally, instinctively understanding what it was that made pop-punk such a hit with fans because that’s what they were themselves, All Time Low were among the first students of the genre. It might have been the only thing they studied, mind, as few bands had as much fun and enjoyed themselves as the Baltimore quartet did in the mid-2000s. They’ve grown up a lot since the faux-dumb days of their first wave of success, and with a genuinely talented songwriter such as Alex Gaskarth leading the charge they were always going to evolve, but this 2007 hit is still their standout song, a favourite among diehards and even beloved by casual genre-curious fans.
11. Man Overboard – Love Your Friends Die Laughing (2010)
When more people know you for your infamous T‑shirt slogan than your songs, it probably says something about where the genre is at in the wider rock conversation. But that’s to deny that one of pop-punk’s most unashamedly wed-to-the-genre bands (named after a blink song, no less) also contributed one of the scene’s latter-day musical highlights. ‘Defend Pop-Punk’ might have become a somewhat cruel, Hard Times-shaped stick to beat the band with in the years since, but for a fleeting moment, Man Overboard were flying the flag loud and proud, at a time when it wasn’t always easy to.
12. Four Year Strong – Wasting Time (Eternal Summer) (2010)
It may not have been the easiest time to pledge allegiance to pop-punk, but there were more than a few patriots paving a way for its oncoming mini-resurgence in 2010, and none were as reliably fun and hook-laden as this lot. Four Year Strong burst out of the gates strong on their fourth album Enemy Of The World, finding their stride at the perfect time with songs like this caffeinated banger. It’s daisy-fresh even still, thanks to the old faithfuls of melody, boundless energy, and bittersweet reminiscence about the best damn summer of your life.
13. The Story So Far – Quicksand (2011)
Pop-punk that not-so-secretly wishes it was hardcore but doesn’t quite commit is nothing new exactly, yet few have teetered on that tantalising edge as expertly as The Story So Far. So much so that they spawned a new wave of bands who wanted to sound exactly like them and in turn made them reassess who they were, somehow landing upon a love for Oasis. But that’s by the by, because at this point they were arguably pop-punk’s next big thing, thanks to their fusion of speed, defiance and ever-present, all-important melody. Quicksand could be about a relationship, it could be about a place or it could be about your life. And that right there is the pop-punk sweet spot.
14. The Wonder Years – Came Out Swinging (2011)
Just as swiftly as pop-punk seemed to return to the spotlight, it would soon shuffle off towards the margins again as other genres enjoyed their flavour of the month status. As demonstrated by the genre’s most daring band The Wonder Years, what it sounded like, what it had to say and the way it existed in the world was changing and becoming a much more multifaceted umbrella term than ever before. In retrospect, this feels like something of a swansong, for the genre as we knew it, and from The Wonder Years to it, as they explored and stretched beyond its limits to defy simple definition. This was pop-punk with ideas, well-read and saying something about life, with ambitions beyond old skool or simple, onanistic pleasures. The Philly gang drafted a whole new blueprint for genre, then promptly set it on fire.
15. Neck Deep – In Bloom (2017)
…And then along came Neck Deep. On 2014 debut Wishful Thinking and 2015’s Life’s Not Out To Get You the Wrexham gang emphatically put the UK scene on the map and inspired a new generation of locals to follow suit, while 2017’s The Peace And The Panic brought the genre forwards further as the band threw in a more sophisticated – but no less compelling – edge to their songwriting. In Bloom in particular (which scooped the Kerrang! Award for Best Song in 2018) really demonstrated Ben Barlow and co.’s pop-punk powers, with Neck Deep themselves even calling it “such an important song to us, and such an accessible, catchy, beautiful song” (not in an arrogant way, though, obvs).
16. Machine Gun Kelly – Bloody Valentine (2020)
To the present day, then, and the genre’s biggest – and perhaps most surprising – current success story. blink-182-loving rapper Machine Gun Kelly told Kerrang! that he’s very much aware “that just my face alone pisses people off”, but it hasn’t stopped that shaggy blond head popping up everywhere as he catapults pop-punk into genuine mainstream status for the first time in a hot minute. And last year’s Travis Barker-produced Tickets To My Downfall LP not only proved he’s got the credentials, it’s pushed the door wide open for the next wave. “I would like to send good energy and appreciation to people doing things that go against what is an imaginary box that someone too scared to break out of puts around you,” he told K! in 2020. “I would like to project creativity and love, rather than limitations.” Clearly, pop-punk’s story isn’t even close to coming to an end…
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