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”
15. “Macy’s Day Parade” – Warning (2000)
“Macy’s Day Parade” is one of the most overlooked Green Day songs ever. It’s definitely one of their simplest tunes, but that’s why this Warning cut shines. A lamentation of childhood naivete and an earnest, yet melancholy, look to a better future, “Macy’s Day Parade” sneers at American consumerism and gives voice to the band’s working-class backgrounds. Billie Joe’s voice is steady, but he snakes through emotions, jumping from pessimism to desperation, realism to hope, in the span of a simple song. — Karen Gwee
The Armstrongest Lyric: “Give me something that I need/ Satisfaction guaranteed to you/ What’s the consolation prize?/ Economy-sized dreams of hope”
14. “Christie Road” – Kerplunk (1992)
Camping out on train tracks to pass a blunt combats life’s biggest cause of insanity: boredom. For most kids, things get crazy between school and home life, so the need to get away rides high, and “Christie Road” was Green Day’s ode to such. Read a little closer, however, and Armstrong’s lyrics unveil a little more. Skipping over to Christie Road was the act of someone looking for a place of solace, where loneliness switches to intentional solitude and the drone of daily life complements the sunset. Drugs won’t save you, but you can pretend they will for as long as teenagerdom lasts or for all three and a half minutes of this song. — Nina Corcoran
The Armstrongest Lyric: “Take me to that place that I call home/ Take away the strains of being lonely”
13. “Waiting” – Warning (2000)
Listen to enough Green Day and you’re bound to make the connection that they’re more or less a punk rock version of The Beatles. Case in point: “Waiting.” From the poppy chords to Armstrong’s clap-along lyrics, you’d think this was a cheeky cover of something off Please Please Me. Nope, it’s just one of the many oft-forgotten non-hits that fills out 2000’s Warning, but that’s okay because it simply means the song was never drilled into the ground by rock radio.
Which is strange, since, like every song by The Fab Four, it seems pre-destined for the radio waves. It’s even optimistic, something of a rarity for Armstrong, who would spend the next decade rallying against a political system that had tragically failed us. In hindsight, we probably could have used this one on the air. — Michael Roffman
The Armstrongest Lyric: “Dumbstruck/ Color me stupid/ Good luck/ You’re gonna need it/ Where I’m going if I get there/ At all”
12. “Westbound Sign” – Insomniac (1995)
Wanna know how good Armstrong is at melody? Zero in on “Westbound Sign,” where he takes three words and sells a chorus: “She’s taking off.” It’s that easy for him. Of course, that’s negating the fact that he’s also an enviable singer-songwriter, an orator of accessibility, who can turn most stories into crunchy power pop. He’s even able to assume the role of an omniscient narrator as he does with this jagged shard off Insomniac, which follows a troubled girl who’s making a move to California.
Oh, did I say troubled? I meant totally bonkers, delirious from Xanax, beer, and way too much sun on the road. Not all of us have been there — don’t look at me, I at least have a prescription for the stuff — but Armstrong makes us feel like we have (and in some respects, makes it feel like we should) and that’s some power. — Michael Roffman
The Armstrongest Lyrics: “Will she find her name in the California cement?/ Punched out of the grind that punched her one too many times…”
11. “Redundant” – Nimrod (1997)
If you think saying “I love you” to your parents loses its meaning as a kid, wait until you bicker with a spouse as an adult. Billie Joe Armstrong watched his marriage with Adrienne Armstrong deteriorate slowly over nonsensical fights and sparked emotions in the mid-’90s, and their tensions hit an all-time high right before entering the studio for Nimrod. With a little help from a rarely used effects pedal, Armstrong got to work writing “Redundant,” a track that mirrors his own difficulties with his wife.
First comes the passion, the whole reason he fell in love with her to begin with, but it’s soon followed up by the monotony of their fights. He builds a chorus that feels melancholy despite its relatively uptempo beat. It’s a dreary emotion captured with painstaking detail, in tone and words, though not nearly as detailed as its music video where a handful of people make their way through a house as the band stays put. It raises the question: Why the hell is love, and the rest of life, so painful? — Nina Corcoran
The Armstrongest Lyrics: “I’m speechless and redundant/ ‘Cause I love you’s not enough”