From bratty punks to stadium-conquering political rockers and Broadway producers, Green Day have had quite a career so far and showed just how diverse you can be with just three power chords. So here’s my reviews of their albums so far.
Green Day’s debut album is the only one to feature a different line-up to the classic Billie Joe/Tre Cool/Mike Dirnt one we all know and love, with John Kiffmeyer on drums. Other than that, it’s a very famous, if rougher, sound and all of the ingredients for world domination are there already. At The Library, Going To Pasalacqua and Disappearing Boy are all as good as almost anything they’ve released, and Armstrong’s knack for a pop hook is obvious. A year later it was merged with their early EPs into 1,039/Smoothed Out Slappy Hours, adding a whole load more tracks and this is the version that is most available now and helps fill it up with even more great tunes. Not a critical darling, but an album that’s close to my heart anyway.
Tre Cool was onboard by their second album, by which time they were already getting quite popular, despite the limited resources of their indie label to promote them. It’s another really good collection of raw pop-punk songs, and the highlights are obvious – Christie Road, 2,000 Light Years Away and an early version of Welcome To Paradise. Cool adds a light touch to proceedings by writing, singing and playing guitar on the ever-popular Dominated Love Slave, but again it’s all about Billie Joe Armstrong’s yearning lyrics and catchy tunes, and while the production still sounds a little unfinished compared to the muscular edge Green Day would get two years later, Kerplunk was a big step in that direction and still stands up well.
Ditching Lookout Records for Warner Bros subsidiary Reprise was not a popular move with the punk community, but it paid off big-time for Green Day. To compare the difference between Dookie and Kerplunk, you’ve only got to listen to Welcome To Paradise, which gets re-done major label style here and is all the better for it, not matter what the snobs might say. Dookie is one of those albums that really doesn’t have a weak track and deservedly threw them into the mainstream, with so many classic songs, none of which are remotely ‘sell-outs’, just more professionally made and with the benefit of a few more years of experience. You can argue until the cows come home about whether it’s ‘punk’, but that shouldn’t really matter when an album is as flawlessly entertaining as this is, and it’s still the best thing they’ve done.
Like so many follow-up albums after a big smash hit, Insomniac sounds like a negative reaction to new-found fame. It’s a lot darker and more aggressive than Dookie and has far fewer radio friendly unit shifters, resulting in a lot less sales. But it’s also not different enough to avoid accusations that the band were just treading water rather than pushing on and trying new things. It’s certainly not a big leap, but the likes of Brain Stew and Panic Song do show more diversification than they get credit for, and there’s nothing actually wrong with any of the songs here, and the likes of Geek Stink Breath, Stuck With Me and Walking Contradiction are all classics. Insomniac has aged very well, despite the lukewarm reaction it received and is still a really good addition to their back catalogue.
Perhaps stung by the criticism they got, Green Day returned with their most diverse album yet two years later. Nimrod sees them spreading their wings and really showing what they can do, with Good Riddance (Time Of Your Life) the first real evidence of an acoustic balladeer hiding behind Armstrong’s punk sneer, while Last Ride In is a slow surf-country instrumental and King For A Day is a ska-infused tale of cross-dressing. Alongside them, there’s just plenty of really good Green Day songs, like singles Hitchin’ A Ride and Nice Guys Finish Last, and while Nimrod is quite a long album, it’s a remarkably consistent one. Even album tracks like Worry Rock, Platypus (I Hate You) and Uptight are memorable and infectious and it’s a wonderful record as a whole.
After the exuberance of Nimrod, Warning came as a bit of an underwhelming disappointment. Clearly Green Day were going to want to mature and be taken more seriously, particularly after the success of Good Riddance, but this album wasn’t the way to go about it. It’s not like it’s an acoustic folk record, of course, there’s still familiar tunes in the shape of Minority, but the pace is definitely slowed down and the lyrics attempt to be more thoughtful and reflective. A lot of it does work very well, and I’m a big fan of closer Macy’s Day Parade, but the main problem with Warning is how unmemorable so much of it actually is, and for the first time, there’s real filler on a Green Day album. It’s far from bad, but it’s not great either, and its sales were pretty poor too. Clearly a rethink was needed.
American Idiot (2004)
That rethink took them four years to follow up on Warning, but it was worth it in terms of the success it brought them. American Idiot took their increasingly political mindset and took it to the next level as well as pitching them in a ‘rock opera’ style concept that The Who would be proud of, especially as it’s very hard to work out what the heck is going on or why. This could have been a recipe for disaster, but Armstrong pulls it off with some of his strongest songs, like the title track, Holiday, Boulevard Of Broken Dreams and Wake Me Up When September Ends. Unfortunately, it’s not perfect, and some of the songs that advance the ‘story’ aren’t exactly of the same quality as the singles and as it moves towards its finale, if you’re not on-board with the concept, it’s a little tedious. However, overall, it’s a triumphant comeback and reinvention, with some amazing songs.
21st Century Breakdown (2009)
How do you follow up an album like American Idiot? Well, Green Day came up with the best solution and recorded a fantastic album, but this wasn’t it. That album came out a year earlier and was called Stop Drop And Roll!!!, by Foxboro Hot Tubs, basically Green Day by a different name and with their touring musicians also involved. Recorded as a diversion during the sessions for 21st Century Breakdown, it’s fresh, fun and both a step forward from American Idiot and a step back from a direction they didn’t seem suited to go. That wasn’t an indication of where the band were heading though, and this actual album turned out to be more of the same, but less successfully. Split into three acts and with a narrative even more confusing than its predecessor, it’s too long and too dull, while it lacks the focused target of George Bush, leaving them sounding like they are flailing at ‘the man’ and ‘the system’ for no good reason. There’s still some good here, but it’s overwhelmed by the sound of a band caught between their past and a possible future as the new U2. Hopefully their follow-up will make the right choice in direction.