Consequence’s Punk Week continues with a staff list of the genre’s Top 50 songs. Keep checking back throughout the week for interviews, lists, editorials and videos — it’s all things punk, all the time.
Three chords and a bit of attitude can go very far in terms of writing a decent punk song. But the greatest punk tunes stand out among the rest for a myriad of reasons — from historical significance to sociopolitical importance to undeniable catchiness.
Punk isn’t just a genre of music. It’s a way of life. It can very well be argued that the Ramones were the first true punk band, but there were certainly elements of what would eventually be termed punk rock on records that came before Joey, Johnny, Dee Dee, and Tommy offered up their iconic 1976 debut album.
For the most part, this list of the Top 50 Punk Songs of All Time eschews the proto-punk that preceded the Ramones, though we included a couple of exceptions (namely Iggy & The Stooges and The Velvet Underground).
While the Ramones’ songs provided a soundtrack for outcasts and misfits, UK acts like Sex Pistols and The Clash would soon emerge with tunes that challenged authority and governmental policies. From there, a hardcore movement would emerge in the U.S, as bands like Minor Threat and Bad Brains recorded songs that brought heightened speed, aggressiveness, and consciousness to punk rock.
Punk has continued to evolve over the past few decades (we also avoided pop-punk, for the most part, for this particular list), but the essence of a great punk song remains intact: fast-paced music, lyrics rooted in anti-establishment, and a welcome sense of danger.
So, hey ho, let’s go … with our sure-to-be-scrutinized picks for the Top 50 Punk Songs of All Time. Scroll to the end for a full playlist of all 50 tracks.
— Spencer Kaufman
Managing Editor, Heavy
Editor’s Note: Celebrate Punk Week by picking up our Punk Is Dead, Long Live Punk! T-shirt via Consequence Shop.
50. Johnny Thunder and the Heartbreakers – “Chinese Rocks”
Few songs have as much punk pedigree as “Chinese Rocks,” written by Dee Dee Ramone and Richard Hell. It was intended to be a Ramones song, but the band rejected it due to the overt heroin references. Instead, Hell took it to the Heartbreakers, his band with Johnny Thunders. It would become a staple of the latter’s career, even after Hell left the Heartbreakers in 1976. — Jon Hadusek
49. Against Me! – “I Was A Teenage Anarchist”
Is there anything more punk than an anti-punk punk song? Against Me! were already getting slack for “abandoning” (read: progressing from) the thrashing sounds of their earlier releases when they dropped “I Was a Teenage Anarchist,” a melodic cut that calls into question the rigidity of punk’s “bloodless ideology.” The line “the revolution was a lie” is screamed out as the music drops away, drawing a rebuttal from Rise Against on “Architects.” But damn if Laura Jane Grace didn’t have a point. — Ben Kaye
48. Misfits – “Last Caress”
The demented mind of Misfits frontman Glenn Danzig brought a new subgenre called horror punk into the world, and the song “Last Caress” contains some of the most infamous lyrics in rock history. Hearing Danzig sing “I got something to say/ I killed your baby today” on top of an upbeat, ’50s-inspired rock instrumental is one of punk’s most disconcerting moments, but, hot damn, it’s catchy as hell — so much so that Metallica famously covered it, as did a bevy of other bands. — Spencer Kaufman
47. The Jam – “In the City”
Punk is often seen as a rejection of the status quo. Fittingly, The Jam’s 1977 debut single celebrates the power of youth rebellion — with some exasperation, vocalist Paul Weller pleads, “I wanna tell you about the young ideas/But you turn them into fears” — while incorporating nervy, mod-influenced sounds. — Annie Zaleski
46. Black Flag – “TV Party”
Damaged is Black Flag’s strident hardcore masterpiece, but it just wouldn’t be the same without a goofball novelty song with handclaps and references to “Hill Street Blues” and “Dallas.” In a way, “TV Party” foreshadowed Henry Rollins’s eventual fate as a television star, acting on shows like Sons of Anarchy and booking talking head appearances on VH1. — Al Shipley
45. The Replacements – “Unsatisfied”
Don’t let its gentle score distract you: “Unsatisfied” is brimming with a bona fide punk attitude. The genre’s history is rooted in an expression of disaffection, and Paul Westerberg’s lyrics about disillusionment and, well, feeling unsatisfied encompass this fully. While punk’s sonically heavy origins are important, tracks like “Unsatisfied” prove that the genre’s essence can prevail without them. — Lindsay Teske
44. Rancid – “Time Bomb”
Helping to fuel the rise of punk rock to the mainstream in the mid-’90s, Rancid stood apart from bands like The Offspring and Green Day for the ska influences of songs like “Time Bomb.” Released as the second single from their breakout album, …And Out Come the Wolves, the story of a gang member’s rise and fall was a mainstay on MTV and rock radio, peaking at No. 8 on the Modern Rock Tracks (now Alternative Airplay) chart. — Eddie Fu
43. The Clash – “Complete Control”
By 1977 in England, punk was perceived as something to be tamed — and that didn’t sit right by The Clash. “Complete Control” was released shortly after the band had participated in the widely-cancelled Anarchy Tour alongside the Sex Pistols, which conjured up a hefty amount of scaremongering about punk in the media. The track is The Clash’s response to the leash subsequently being tightened over everything from their music to their behavior, and it expertly taps into the feeling of being a cog in the wheel — a feeling that drives many to turn to punk as a catharsis. — L.T.
42. PUP – “If This Tour Doesn’t Kill You, I Will“
Playing over 240 shows in the span of just one year can entice your ugly side. Canadian band PUP indulge in their close-quarters traveling woes on the ripper “If This Tour Doesn’t Kill You, I Will,” which disses a bandmate in a record number of kiss-offs per minute. “I don’t wish you were dead; I wish you’d never been born at all!” singer Stefan Babcock howls. You needn’t be concerned, however — the song is meant to be taken sarcastically. (Required additional listening: The transition between “If This Tour…” and “DVP,” a staple of PUP’s live shows.) — Abby Jones
41. Wire – “12XU”
Of all the punk bands who debuted in 1977, arguably none were further ahead of their time than Wire. With 21 brief songs sprinting through a wide range of sounds, their debut album Pink Flag was a blueprint for post-punk to come, but the catchy closer “12XU” became a hardcore standard, covered by Minor Threat, Bad Brains and Dag Nasty. — A.S.
40. The Velvet Underground – “I’m Waiting for the Man”
The Velvet Underground is arguably one of the first punk bands — or proto-punk bands, if we’re being precise. However, between the song’s jittery guitars, propulsive rhythm section and Lou Reed’s defiant sneer, you can draw a straight line between 1967’s “I’m Waiting for the Man” and the next decade’s punks. — A.Z.
39. Stiff Little Fingers – “Alternative Ulster”
Released during the thick of The Troubles in Northern Ireland, “Alternative Ulster” taps into the restlessness that locals at the time felt over living alongside ongoing conflict and having minimal means of escape from it. The track not only proves that punk can be a fascinating lens through which to explore history, but carries the important message that anyone has the power to work to create change. Lyrics like “grab it and change it, it’s yours” and “alter your native land” highlight just how emboldening punk can be. — L.T.
38. Bratmobile – “Gimme Brains”
The riot grrrl stalwarts Bratmobile didn’t suffer fools gladly — especially if those fools happened to be lame dudes. The uncompromising 2000 single “Gimme Brains” eviscerates an ex (“A girl could starve on a boy like you”) atop surf-kissed punk riffs, making it clear that their relationship is over. — A.Z.
37. Television – “Marquee Moon”
Although Television’s breed of punk veered more towards the artsy side, the epic, shapeshifting “Marquee Moon” evidences why the quartet are considered some of the most prominent and iconic acts of New York’s underground scene in the 1970s. With its chugging beat and frenetic, jazzy riffs, the epic track makes 10 minutes and 40 seconds feel oh-so short. — A.J.
36. X – “Johnny Hit and Run Pauline”
Punk is about standing up to society’s ills, and “Johnny Hit and Run Paulene” does just that by unfurling a chilling cautionary tale about sexual assault culture. The narrative plays out against the backdrop of jaunty ‘50s style riffs, creating such a stark contrast between the music and lyrics to the point where the true meaning is almost masked. Whether intended or not, this mirrors how frequently the type of crimes described in the track prevail unnoticed. — L.T.
35. Bad Brains – “Banned in D.C.”
Bad Brains’ “Banned in D.C.” is an early example of hardcore punk, albeit with some clever twists and turns. The track starts a rapid clip before a heavy breakdown — a staple of hardcore hereafter — triggers a change in tempo. Guitarist Dr. Know then rides out on a tasteful solo that would have been at home on a prog album. — J.H.
34. Germs – “Forming”
Darby Crash was one of early hardcore’s most intelligent lyricists, penning couplets like “Saturation, we want in taxes/ Flagellation, we’ve got gashes.” But you might never know what Crash was snarling without a lyric sheet, as punk legend Mike Watt once noted: “I’d seen them like 50 times, I never knew he said any of those things! But there was all this literate poetry.” — A.S.
33. Bad Religion – “American Jesus”
Instead of sanding down their intellectual edge for the mainstream, Bad Religion sharpened their political commentary on their MTV breakthrough, which featured Eddie Vedder on backing vocals. Greg Gaffin was inspired to write “American Jesus” after President Bush’s Gulf War declaration that “We’ll win because God is on our side.” — A.S.
32. Green Day – “Longview”
Green Day’s “Longview” continues in the punk tradition of analyzing base instincts in a rather raucous way. Built atop an iconic bassline from Mike Dirnt — who famously constructed it high on LSD — “Longview” explores isolation and boredom with a sense of apathy so supreme, you can almost feel the stick of the humidity and the lack of sunlight in the room when you hear it. It’s a stoner anthem that’s insular in its nature, and yet, as we all know from being in lockdown over the past year or so, it’s more relevant than ever. — Paolo Ragusa
31. The Stooges – “Search and Destroy”
Punk’s kickoff is more closely associated with the late 1970s, making 1973’s “Search and Destroy” a key track of influence on what would become the genre’s most defining characteristics: it combined fuzzed-up and ferocious riffs with lyrics that drew power from an outsider status. The track took the idea of a misfit and shaped it into something intriguing and compelling. This made “Search and Destroy” the amuse-bouche of the first wave of punk, paving the way for anyone who saw themselves in the “forgotten boy” protagonist to form a new kind of collective cultural identity. — L.T.