If you believe that history repeats, then we're likely on the cusp of another round of Green Day greatness. Lots of bands go through ups and downs over the course of their careers, but Green Day's peaks and valleys seem more dramatic than most. From the high of Dookie being followed up by the dark, less successful Insomniac, from releasing the huge single “Good Riddance” but not following up that success on Warning, from reigniting their career with American Idiot to the mess that was Uno/Dos/Tre, Green Day have always put out great music, even when it wasn't connecting with the masses.
The interesting thing about all of this, however, is how these peaks have created all these different entry points for fans of the band, and how Dookie fans view their catalog versus how people who knew them before they were famous view it versus people who only discovered them around American Idiot view it leads to some debate about what their best material is.
So let's solve all of that once and for all.
While there are very few bad Green Day songs, picking their very best isn't easy, and it meant many of their singles and fan favorites didn't make the list, even at 20 songs. That doesn't mean “American Idiot” or “Minority” are bad; it just means that Green Day's catalog is fierce.
Had they never had another major single, Green Day would still be out on the road doing shows because “Longview” is the type of song you can build a career on. That bassline remains a classic and will take you back to exactly where you were and how you felt the first time you heard it. And really, who doesn't like to sing about masturbation from time to time? Fun fact: “Longview” is the song they've played the most live.
19. “2000 Light Years Away”
Kerplunk has not exactly aged gracefully, but there will always be a spot at the table for “2000 Light Years Away.” Perhaps the last great love song the band wrote before they embraced their more bratty nature and yet another song where Billie Joe writes about being alone in his bedroom, which might explain why it's being paired with “Longview” in sets this year. If you've ever been in a long-distance relationship, you probably get this pick more than most.
Green Day have always known how to close out a record on a high note, and if this were a top 30 or 40 list, every single one of their album closers might have found a home on it. It's not easy to follow up a song like “Homecoming” and give American Idiot a satisfying conclusion, but Billie Joe is far too good a songwriter to fumble the ball ahead of the end zone. It might not have the epic length or bombast of other latter-era Green Day songs, but it's exactly what it needs to be.
Remember when Warning was supposed to be Green Day's big adult record? It makes sense that as an album it's a bit tighter, coming off what feels very much like a cleaning of the vaults with Nimrod. Warning is a bit of an afterthought these days since American Idiot came along next and changed everything for the band, but “Warning” is one of the catchiest songs in the Green Day canon thanks to its silly, memorable lyrics.
16. “Hitchin' a Ride”
As mentioned previously, Nimrod feels like the record where the band just tried out everything they had wanted to try previously. The result is a disjointed record that has a lot of diamonds in the rough, like “Hitchin' a Ride.” It's always fun to hear Green Day really rock out, and the way the song really explodes is one of their more shocking moments musically. Sure, it starts off as a Stray Cats throwaway, but when the energy kicks up, it's something special.
“Burnout” is the perfect song to start the album that introduced a good chunk of people to Green Day. Gone is the focus on love that dominated so much of their earlier material, replaced with a confident punk sneer that sets the stage for the rest of the album to come. If you've owned the album, you probably have all of the fills in “Burnout” committed to memory. Easily the best side one, track one in their history.
14. “See the Light”
To date, Green Day haven't exactly recaptured the magic that made American Idiot what it is, but that hasn't stopped them from taking swings at it. “See the Light” is one time where they connect and really knock things out of the park. Listen, and it's obvious why there was a period when they really felt like the biggest rock band in the world. Unfortunately it wasn't part of their musical, so it doesn't get its proper credit.
13. “Geek Stink Breath”
Hard to believe there was a time when you could film someone getting dental surgery, set it to a decidedly unpunk song and get it played on MTV. “Geek Stink Breath” was probably not the best way to sell Insomniac to the masses, as it feels so far removed from Dookie, but it does prove that not all songs about meth have to be deceptively happy. The song jams, though, and is catchier than it probably has any right to be.
“Homecoming” is, in a way, the underappreciated little brother of “Jesus of Suburbia.” Its transitions aren't as smooth, it doesn't feel as thematically satisfying, “Rock and Roll Girlfriend” comes out of left field, and yet for all of that, it's still a really great song. “The Death of St. Jimmy” is probably a top 10 Green Day song on its own, but maybe not; all the pieces of “Homecoming” are great, and were it not for its cooler older brother, feelings on it might be very different.
11. “Only of You”
There are about two albums' worth of “hopeless romantic” Billie Joe Armstrong, and while those songs might be a little rough around the edges, they all have a charm that is missing anytime he writes about love after 1994. Before they were playing arenas, they were playing clubs and wearing their hearts on their sleeves lyrically. “Only of You” is an early standout because of its über-catchy hook.
There really isn't a better moment in a Green Day song (aside from the ending to “Basket Case”) than when “F.O.D.” transitions from acoustic kiss-off into the beast it becomes in the second half of the song. It just sounds like getting covered with a wave while you're standing on a bridge. Is it a bit telegraphed? Sure, but it's also completely satisfying. They would try numerous times over their career (“Platypus” comes to mind) to recapture what worked here, but when it comes to vulgar, angry Billie Joe, this is his best.
It's easy to understand why people are so over the moon for “American Idiot,” but it's really all empty calories. “Holiday” is a song with some real meat to sink into, and has a much better hook too. While it does feel very much like a song of its time, that middle talky section can be – and has been – updated forever, meaning it'll likely always feel essential too, for those discovering it and the cruel world of politics at the same time.
Green Day isn't just a band of hits and well-known songs from their two big albums. A list of their best deep cuts would likely be stronger than many of their contemporaries' highlights. Written at the same time as Dookie, but not finding a home until Nimrod because of its weird verses, “Haushinka” is one of the most interesting-sounding songs in their entire catalog. It's a minor epic, and the way that it transitions from section to section almost telegraphs some of American Idiot to come. If the bridge sounds familiar, it's because they ripped it out and turned it into a completely different song, Insomniac closer “Walking Contradiction.”
7. “Basket Case”
That it shows up earlier on this list than you might expect is not a knock on “Basket Case” as much as it is a testament to the band's songwriting ability that there are six songs better than freaking “Basket Case.” This is Green Day at their mainstream rock radio AND subversive best, with a memorable video to go along with the whole package. Everyone can relate to anxiety, but that they got thousands across the country to sing about visiting a male prostitute is just fantastic.
6. “Stuart and the Ave.”
Likely the most obscure song on this list by virtue of being a non-single on one of their less essential records, “Stuart and the Ave.” is a perfect pop-punk song. There is nothing bad about it. It has a memorable intro, the music is awesome, the hook is amazing, it's the complete package in just over two minutes. There are songs that are more popular and better known than “Stuart And The Ave,” but they don't hit perfection.
5. “Good Riddance (Time of Your Life)”
This would be a Top 3, maybe even Top 2, pick if the only version of it that existed were the original acoustic b-side from the “Brain Stew/Jaded” single, but alas, most people only know the slower version with all those strings over it. So yeah, the version everyone knows and loves is a bit heavy-handed, but it's also one of the most popular rock singles released since the year 2000. Even if you've grown to hate it, you've got to at least acknowledge that it's a pretty great little song, unnecessary string section and all. Some themes are universal for a reason, and Billie Joe wrote a good-bye song for the ages.
It's a bit surprising that this didn't make the final cut for Dookie, because unlike some of the other songs that got shunted off to other projects, “J.A.R.” would have fit in quite nicely somewhere on the back side of the record. What it lacks in the overt aggression and alienation of Dookie it makes up for with heart and great bass and drum parts. It's melancholy, which is not really an emotion Green Day taps into a bunch, and “J.A.R.” will make you wish they did it a little bit more.
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3. “Jesus of Suburbia”
For a certain generation, “Jesus of Suburbia” will always be Green Day's watermark. Oh, they might go back and explore their back catalog and learn the old stuff too, but it seems like the general understanding for people who got into the band with American Idiot is that this is peak Green Day. In a way, Green Day's writing a nine-minute prog-punk track really shouldn't be that much of a surprise; it's not like they hadn't been experimenting with their sound over the past few records. “Jesus of Suburbia” is well constructed, none of the song feels excessive, and it remains dynamic throughout. The thing it does best is the thing that is hardest: It all sounds so natural. Even if it is five songs jammed together, you never get that impression. It is a masterwork in that regard.
2. “Going to Pasalacqua”
The first truly great Green Day song is one of the first they ever released. Their first two records have some really good songs on them, but they really aren't on the same planet that “Going to Pasalacqua” is. Few songs do as good a job as this one of capturing the anxiety of infatuation and young love, and while it would be folly to call the song “complex,” it is pretty dynamic for a young band. It's the song you expect a band older, with a little more seasoning, to write. It's a song that you hear and think, “I bet this band becomes something special.”
1. “When I Come Around”
A little under half of this list was either released on Dookie or was written during that period for the band. While they had written their share of good songs before and would release another masterpiece later in their career, Dookie was a creative watershed for the band that would make them superstars around the world. While it may lack the fire of “Burnout” or the fun lyrics to scream of “Longview” or the dynamics of “F.O.D.,” “When I Come Around” makes the case that at the end of the day, Green Day is best when they zero in on a catchy riff and a memorable hook, and turn that into three minutes of pop-rock perfection. No, it's not an anthem, and you wouldn't start or end a record with it, but you won't find three minutes of better Green Day music in one place.