Overrated, Underrated, Properly Rated: Green Day

When you sit down to write a little on every Green Day album ever, somewhere around Nimrod, you get hit with the burning question “Why?” The best answer I can give is that I think Green Day honestly gets a bum rap. If you want to knock them for being basic, entry-level pop-punk, then sure go ahead, but I’d argue that’s punishing them for what they’re designed to do as opposed to appraising how well or not they do it. When you look back on their career, Green Day has a consistency and stability you don’t find with most groups in their weight class; they’ve played at a higher level longer than like, The Offspring or NOFX, their bad stretches have never flailed as hard as fellow Alterna stalwarts Red Hot Chili Peppers or Weezer, and they’ve held the same line-up for 20+ years. That same consistency is, I’d say, something that gets held against them because Green Day’s never had a break-up/hiatus to serve as a referendum the same way that blink-182 or Fall Out Boy have.

So, this is me trying to reverse that somewhat. Instead of a straight ranking, I’m looking at how fairly “rated” each Green Day record is on the very serious and not at all wildly subjective criteria of my own impressions and observations over 12ish years of fandom. I’m not trying to argue whether or not Warning is actually better than Dookie, but more what deserves its rep, what needs a second look, and whether or not we’re right to avoid Dos! (spoiler alert: we are). Agree or disagree, let me know! So welcome to paradise, here we go.

39/Smooth (1990): Did you know Green Day had an album before Dookie? Either you didn’t, and you’ve never heard of 39/Smooth (or 1,039/Smoothed Out Slappy Hours if you own the more circulated version that comes with the band’s first 2 EPs stapled on), or you did, and you know that this one’s too underdeveloped for its own good. Either way, no one listens to 39/Smooth a bunch, which isn’t unfair; PROPERLY RATED.

Kerplunk (1991): Did you know that Green Day had two albums before Dookie? Kerpunk, in a lot of ways, feels like the Batman Begins to Dookie’s The Dark Knight: it’s good and got people’s attention, but also hard to see with fresh eyes because everything good about it crystallizes on the sequel. If Green Day imploded after Kerplunk, they’d still go down as an affable bunch of slacker Bay punks thanks to ramshackle songs like “2000 Light Years Away,” “Who Wrote Holden Caulfield?,” and “Christie Road.” There’s the argument that this one should be underrated because it’s the band’s authentic indie record, but truth be told, the only reason you’d ever reach for Kerplunk is if you’ve already worn out Dookie and Insomniac and refuse to believe this band’s existed for the last 20 years. PROPERLY RATED

Dookie (1994): Trying to render judgment on Dookie is like trying to appraise Nevermind or Empire Strikes Back: the material is so ingrained in cultural memory that you’re not sure you’re listening to “Longview” or your memories of listening to “Longview” whenever it comes on. “Longview,” “Basket Case,” “When I Come Around,” and “Welcome to Paradise” are still alternative radio staples, and “She?” is still as fine a song as Billie Joe Armstrong’s ever written. “Chumped” is solid, and Dookie has one of my all time favorite Green Day deep cuts. Maybe I just got to it too late–Dookie was one of the last Green Day records I got to as a teen–but despite the reputation, this one’s always seemed inconsistent and filler-y outside the classics. Your mileage may vary, but because of how it works as an end-to-end listen, I have to declare Dookie OVERRATED.

Insomniac (1995): Insomniac is Green Day’s Room on Fire/Antics/Favourite Worst Nightmare: the brief, bashed out, similar but not samey, quick turnaround follow-up to the landmark breakout record. Dookie and Insomniac are cut from the same no-frills, all-thrills musical cloth, but Insomniac’s heavier, crunchier sound is its own, and despite missing Dookie‘s highs, Insomniac is the stronger, more consistent record. That consistency is born of a glassy-eyed, giggling dread that permeates the album. You see it best on “Geek Stink Breath,” “Brain Stew/Jaded,” and “Panic Song;” cuts that play where the line between “dangerous” and “hilarious” blurs. For a lone album, that sort of churning dread a really good look for Green Day. Because of their close release proximity and because this is the last pure “punk” album Green Day would make, Insomniac is always going to have to spar with Dookie in a way that the band’s other albums don’t have to, which seems a little unfair, so Insomniac is UNDERRATED by my count.

Nimrod (1997): Honest question: does Nimrod even have a reputation? When I went to listen to it for this article, I could have sworn “Hitchin’ A Ride” was the opener, and not the actual first song “Nice Guys Finish Last;” that’s how much it’s disappeared from our cultural memory. Ironically, Nimrod feels the album that set up Green Day for long-term success: the songwriting matures somewhat, and it marks the first album where their de facto guitar tone–their distorted, particular version of “DUN-DUN-DUN”–comes up. At the same time, they started sounding less overtly punk with songs like the high-stepping “Hitchin’ A Ride,” the surf rock “Last Ride In,” arena number “Haushinka,” and of course “Good Riddance (Time of Your Life).” Nimrod’s also the first album where Armstrong wrote and sang like he wasn’t afraid of letting a melody develop. At a huffy 18 tracks with some redundancies (“Redundant” itself is excellent, however), it’s not a forgotten masterpiece, but Nimrod is UNDERRATED all the same.

Warning (2000): Frequently heralded as Green Day’s most underrated album, Warning is Green Day at their furthest in the weeds (39/Smooth, meanwhile, is Green Day at their furthest in the weed). Freeish of expectations, the band dabbled in more acoustic work here from affecting ballads (“Macy’s Day Parade”) to power pop (“Warning,” “Church on Sunday”), and the songwriting skewed toward social commentary and dirtbag relationship reflections. Somewhat to its detriment, Warning is low stakes in a way nothing else is in the band’s discography, and the only one of their records that could be described as pensive, maybe even warm. My one gripe with rating Warning is that it’s 16 years old, and been called “underrated” for the last like, 11, so it’s back in PROPERLY RATED territory.

American Idiot (2004): I mean, c’mon. This thing was everywhere for about 2 years, and still feels like one of the best mainstream rock albums of the ‘00s. PROPERLY RATED.

21st Century Breakdown (2009): So, Green Day didn’t plan on American Idiot taking off like it did, nor did they know how to follow it up aside from their usual “take previous album, recalibrate” approach. Thus, you get 21st Century Breakdown, which wants to be AI, but more: more powerful, more personal, more songs, more variety–gimme, gimme more (it’s Billie, bitch). You’d be hard pressed to argue that the album isn’t grasping and wheel-spinny at times–”21 Guns” just is a rewrite of “Boulevard of Broken Dreams”–but the middle is stacked with a potent mix of songs; the stretch from “Christian’s Inferno” to “Restless Heart Syndrome” feels like American Idiot with a health dash of Nimrod mixed in, and “American Eulogy” is a fine two-song suite. What sinks the record is Armstrong’s palpable strain for Importance on the album’s opening and closing salvos of songs. Sweeping Statement Cultural Messiah Billie Joe is the least appealing Billie Joe; he flails when it comes to making statements like “See The Light,” and sounds better in the thick of things like the claustrophobic “Murder City.” I’d agree that 21st Century Breakdown doesn’t quite make it as a whole–it’s hit/miss rate is less than ideal, and at times it feels too short or too long, but underneath the bloat is a sturdy enough 35-40 minute record, so it clocks in as UNDERRATED.

Uno! (2012): Oh, the trilogy.

In 2012, Green Day had the bright idea to release three full lengths a few months apart instead just culling the best of the best for one (hypothetically) really good album. Uno!, Dos!, and Tres!–known colloquially as “the trilogy”–mark the lowest point in the band’s almost 30 year career: a grave miscalculation of market demand matched only by an oversupply of so-so material and a PR bottom out. You can’t really talk about the band at this time without mentioning Armstrong’s “One fucking minute” outburst at the IHeartRadio festival, and his subsequent time in rehab for alcoholism and prescription pill abuse, all of which derailed the band around Uno!’s release and cast a grim shadow over the next two albums. It didn’t affect Uno! all that much, which got treated as an okay if underwhelming GD record, which is still about right; PROPERLY RATED.

Dos! (2012 again): Dos! has my single favorite song of the trilogy. It’s also handily the worst entry of the three, and that it isn’t universally seen that way is still irritating. OVERRATED. SOMEHOW.

Tres! (2012 again): Tres, Green Day’s third album in 3 months, is the one actual–hey, come back! UNDERRATED.

Demolicious (2014): For 2014’s Record Store Day, the band released a compilation of 18 studio demos of songs from the trilogy. The argument from Green Day obsessives (and one I’ve propagated before) is that Demolicious has the real versions of these songs, and not the corporate, overproduced ones that the man sold you. But, if I’m being honest with myself, the corrective nature of Demolicious is oversold. Rubbery overproduction was a problem with the trilogy, but it was also too overloaded with tracks that would have been the 5th or 6th best song on a normal mid-tier Green Day record. No stripping the studio lacquer off is going to fix that. Song selection works against the corrective narrative for Demolicious, too, since at an hour plus and lacking some of the more ambitious moments from the trilogy like “Brutal Love,” it doesn’t function as a tight best-of. As the fanatic’s cure-all for the UnoDosTrelogy, it’s OVERRATED, but as a listenable but inessential compilation, Demolicious is PROPERLY RATED.

Revolution Radio (2016): Revolution Radio has the unsexiest role of any album in Green Day’s discography: it’s their Competence Album. A Competence Album’s job is to prove that an act can still sound like itself after at least the last two records have fallen short, and other course corrections have failed. It’s not a full-fledged comeback, it just has to stop the bleeding with a single that sounds good on the late night TV circuit, and convince folks that you still know how to deliver on your best traits, even if you aren’t writing your best songs. Literally all it has to do is not make fans wince when you announce something. Semi-famous examples of Competence Albums include Interpol’s El Pintor, Weezer’s Everything Will Be Alright in the End, Pearl Jam’s self-titled, and Oceania by The Smashing Pumpkins.

To that end, Revolution Radio does its job: “Bang, Bang” is your heatseeker single, the title track calls the knee-deep politicking of ‘00s Green Day to mind, “Outlaws” is your ballad, “Youngblood” and “Still Breathing” are your down-the-middle power-pop cuts, “Forever Now” checks off the boxes as the “multi-part epic” the band just does now, and “Ordinary World” is your singer-songwriter acoustic closer. In fandom, RevRad is probably overrated right now (another Competence Album signifier: its reputation starts high with the fans and eventually levels out once the pleasant surprise of its okayness wears off), and I called it underrated within 2016, which feels like where a band like Green Day should be right now, leaving it PROPERLY RATED.

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About bgibs122

I enjoy music and music culture; I hope you do, too.
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