This article originally ran in 2016, but we’re dusting it off in celebration of Billie Joe Armstrong’s birthday on February 17th. Top Songs is a feature in which we definitively handpick the very best songs in an artist or band’s catalog. Sounds simple, right? Oh, if only. Also, check out the new “Punk Is Dead, Long Live Punk!” T-shirt at the Consequence Shop.
Billie Joe Armstrong and Mike Dirnt formed Green Day in 1986 — that’s over 35 solid fucking years of punk, pop punk, punk rock, rock, pop rock, and all the strange detours in between. They’ve scaled not one but two commercial peaks in a storied, 13-album career that’s experimented with form (rock operas, album trilogies, Broadway musicals) and subject (love, politics, masturbation). I think I speak for everyone who pitched in on this list when I say narrowing down their best songs was nearly as painful as (ahem) pulling teeth.
The breadth of their catalog aside, this ranking was difficult because the line between “best song” and “favorite song” quickly blurs when it comes to this band. Green Day is a formative band for many of us, whether you were there when they were still called Sweet Children or whether you were captivated by their grand middle finger to George W. Bush in 2004.
A band that’s been around for so long has unavoidably soundtracked different parts of your life, and with strong personal attachments, it can be unthinkable when the band takes a left turn. A new album can become as much a cause for apprehension as enthusiasm when you’ve so cherished what has come before.
So take a ride with us through Green Day’s prolific discography as we narrow it down to a definitive list of the band’s 20 best songs.
— Karen Gwee
20. “Wake Me Up When September Ends” – American Idiot (2004)
Pretty much every fall, Twitter becomes awash with jokes about Billie Joe Armstrong’s sleep habits. And isn’t that one measure of a successful song? That it can be effectively memed a dozen years after its initial release? But “Wake Me Up When September Ends” is more than just a yearly punchline. At the time of its release, it provided an emotional gut-punch on Green Day’s most ambitious album to that point, American Idiot.
And while the song holds the unfortunate distinction of ending Green Day’s three-song streak of number-one songs on alternative radio (it peaked at number two, fended off by Gorillaz’s “Feel Good Inc.”), it was also notable for its success on the pop charts, hitting number six on the Billboard 200. Its release as a single just ahead of Hurricane Katrina (which reached land during the final days of August 2005) only added to the song’s legend, giving it an extra bit of significance to the people of a devastated New Orleans. — Philip Cosores
The Armstrongest Lyric: “Summer has come and passed/ The innocent can never last/ Wake me up when September ends”
19. “21st Century Breakdown” – 21st Century Breakdown (2009)
Bless Green Day for following up a political rock opera with … another political rock opera. 21st Century Breakdown never detonated with the impact of American Idiot, but it did serve up some thumping tunes, like the album’s title track. This dramatic and occasionally flowery “fuck the man” anthem is a journey in itself, its stately first half giving way to a blood-pumping scramble away from the “bastards of 1969” towards a majestic, arm-waving conclusion. — Karen Gwee
The Armstrongest Lyric: “The scars on my hands/ And the means to an end/ Is all that I have to show”
18. “Church on Sunday” – Warning (2000)
Warning was the album where Billie Joe grew up, and nowhere is that incremental maturity more evident than on “Church on Sunday,” an upbeat, jangly ode to marital compromises and the little trade-offs every couple acquiesces to in order to stay together. It’s a tender song where Armstrong tempers his fondness of cliche – “Tomorrow is the first day of the rest of our lives,” “I solemnly swear to tell the whole truth” – with gentle affection. Put this one on when you renew your wedding vows. — Karen Gwee
The Armstrongest Lyric: “I’m not getting any younger as long as you’re not getting any older”
17. “Murder City” – 21st Century Breakdown (2009)
There comes a point in every pop punk band’s career where they learn to love power chords. Green Day just so happened to perfect them at the same time they perfected descending harmonies. “Murder City” is a quick one, yet it stuffs an enormous sound into its entire runtime. 21st Century Breakdown has its fair share of sub-par lyrics (“21 Guns”) and underwhelming guitar riffs (“Know Your Enemy”), but its second act picks things up and shows no mercy.
“Murder City” speaks on behalf of a generation that’s desperate but not hopeless for improvement in the wake of murder-incited riots — which, unfortunately, still rings true in today’s Black Lives Matter climate — even if “we are the last call and we’re so pathetic.” As it charges on musically, so does its sentiment, each stacking of notes giving listeners a second burst of energy. Some power chords just feel right. This song employs plenty of ’em. — Nina Corcoran
The Armstrongest Lyric: “I’m wide awake after the riot/ This demonstration of our anguish/ This empty laughter has no reason”
16. “Holiday” – American Idiot (2004)
Green Day didn’t emerge in the ’90s as a particularly political band, but their punk rock roots infused their DNA with rebellion, making American Idiot less of an outlier than an eventuality. And even more than that collection’s title track, “Holiday” represented a commitment to a concept, going beyond the disenfranchised lyrics to create an entire tableau that echoed the ideals of Woody Guthrie and Bob Dylan before them.
But what makes “Holiday” special is how the band incorporates a “message,” a faux politician’s speech in the bridge, and call-and-response verses to fit neatly within a Green Day song. Propelled by Tre’s galloping drumbeat, the song wasn’t too serious for mass consumption, becoming a massive hit across radio formats. — Philip Cosores
The Armstrongest Lyric: “I beg to dream and differ from the hollow lies/ This is the dawning of the rest of our lives”