Green Day

    1,039/Smoothed Out Slappy Hour (Lookout, 1991)
    Kerplunk (Lookout, 1992)
      Dookie (Reprise, 1994)
     Insomniac (Reprise, 1995)
     Nimrod (Reprise, 1997)
     Singles Box (WEA, 1999)
     Warning (Reprise, 2000)
    Take 2 (WEA, 2000)
    Tune in Tokyo [live] (Reprise, 2001)
      International Superhits! (Warner Bros., 2001)
    Shenanigans (Reprise, 2002)
     American Idiot (Reprise, 2004)
      21st Century Breakdown (Reprise, 2009)

In 1994, when a green-haired, snaggle-toothed Billie Joe Armstrong burst onto MTV, ripping up the furniture, dancing with a monkey, and singing about the joys of masturbation, even the most charitable observer could not have imagined that his band would become rock and roll statesmen. And yet, with the back-to-back releases of American Idiot and 21st Century Breakdown—a pair of epic, politically charged rock and roll operas that chronicled the confused reality of life in the first decade of the new millennium—Green Day proved to be one of the most ambitious bands of its generation.

Birthed from the colorful, politicized Bay Area punk scene, Green Day earned a small but dedicated following with a pair of releases on Seattle indie Lookout. Although 1,039/Smoothed Out Slappy Hour and Kerplunk lacked the production value of later releases, they demonstrated the band's uncanny ability to meld irresistible pop hooks and charming, disarmingly honest lyrics with punk grit.

In April 1994, just weeks before Kurt Cobain killed himself, Green Day released its blockbuster major-label debut, Dookie, which countered grunge's increasingly gloomy outlook with a more upbeat, funny racket that affirmed life, not death. The three East Bay stoners—snotty-not-snooty singer/guitarist Armstrong, fleet-fingered bassist Mike Dirnt, and flailing-armed drummer Tre Cool—played peppy pop-punk, uncomplicated by heavy metal or deep thoughts. It lodged on radio, where it still stands today.

"I got no motivation," Armstrong declared on the perfect pop confection, "Longview," in a way that suggested brattiness, boyish innocence, adult anxiety, and (rarely noted) guileless flirtation. The rest of the album would be spent wringing exuberance out of aimlessness, finding the sweet spot in moments. Any cut here could light up a room: "She," which echoes the feminist angst inherited from the Bay Area scene carried throughout the band's career, whips around like a severed power line; "When I Come Around" slinks with a naked soulfulness; and the exuberant "Welcome to Paradise" is punk's snotty, sarcastic answer to "Welcome to the Jungle."

According to the numbers—about 2 million to Dookie's 8 million sold Insomniac absolutely qualified as a sophomore slump. And indeed, if up until then Green Day had been fueled by speed and weed, it seems that post-high paranoia had set in. "I'm blowing off steam with/methamphetamine," Armstrong sings in "Geek Stink Breath," his voice edged with desperation and a weird, almost fatalistic excitement, his guitar tone tighter and blacker than before. It sounds as if he's got more bottled up than he can blow off.

But while not entirely successful, Insomniac showed that the poster boys for the punk revival had more in their repertoire than snotty Ramones- and Buzzcocks-style stomps. The album's best song and biggest hit, "Brain Stew," sometimes played on radio along with the tacked-on tantrum "Jaded," delivered slivers of silence between bursts of lead-heavy sound, while Armstrong, "past the point of delirium," stretched his vocal chords over the changes. Gloomy but crackling with energy, Insomniac resembles—even rivals—Nirvana's bleak response to sudden fame, In Utero. But, squinting in the spotlight or not, Armstrong wasn't about to disappear underground.

With Nimrod, the band built an arsenal of musical and emotional tools but still not crafting the kind of complete package they would in years to come. The band, as tight as they were on the extraordinarily wound-up Insomniac, nail the syncopated bounce of "Hitchin' a Ride" like a bleached-blond John Henry, set a rock land-speed record on "Nice Guys Finish Last," convincingly spice "Walking Alone" with harmonica, and blast through the near-ballads "Redundant" and "Worry Rock." And then, Armstrong steps out for the effortlessly gorgeous acoustic ballad "Good Riddance (Time of Your Life)."

On Warning, Billie Joe Armstrong began to diversify his lyrical repertoire to match the band's more expansive textures and its members' more complicated lives. "Fashion Victim" is a parent's lament about relentless marketing, while album's first single, "Warning," complained about having to adjust to the rules of the adult world. The template of rich musical exploration and inspirational lyrics that would dominate albums to come is foreshadowed on "Macy's Day Parade," in which Armstrong pines for "a brand new hope."

It would be four years before Green Day returned with American Idiot, a fully-realized rock opera and great leap forward in the band's musical capabilities and cultural importance. Released four years into the administration of George W. Bush—the titular idiot—and two months before the 2004 election in which he won re-election, the album depicts an American dream thwarted. "Jesus of Suburbia," a nine-minute, five part suite, is the centerpiece, moving seamlessly from thrash to balladry to delicate harmonies and country shuffles while maintaining a narrative. "Holiday," "Boulevard of Broken Dreams," and "Wake Me Up When September Ends" each stormed the charts. The band had learned to fuse its pop sensibilities with a propensity for album length storytelling in way that none of its contemporaries had.

Remarkably, Green Day returned five years later with an even more ambitious conceptual project, 21st Century Breakdown. Full of religious overtones, the 18-track epic tells the story of two young punk lovers, Christian and Gloria, adrift in the broken post-Bush era. Divided into three sections—"Heroes and Cons," "Charlatans and Saints," and "Horseshoes and Handgrenades"—the mostly short, sharp songs attack Christian hypocrisy on "East Jesus Nowhere," government on "21 Guns," and parents, teachers, and everyone else the band have ever looked up to on "21st Century Breakdown": "We are the desperate in the decline/Raised by the bastards of 1969."

Portions of this album guide appeared in The New Rolling Stone Album Guide (Fireside, 2004).

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