If you asked a random person on the street what the best time period for music has been, you’d get a pretty wide range of answers. Maybe they’re a classical music aficionado, and their answer would be the late 1700s or early 1800s. Maybe they partied at Woodstock, and their answer would be the summer of 1969. However, most of them would probably not say the late 1990s or early 2000s. This period is regarded as something of an artistic wasteland, populated by Britney Spears and boy band flavors of the month.
However, there is one musical genre that I personally remember fondly (while also admitting that most of its output was objectively terrible). I am, of course, talking about the movement known as pop punk. It’s a hard genre to define exactly, but you probably remember it from kindergarten. They were all-male bands whose compositions featured quasi-edgy lyrics that also served as theme songs for kids movies. Smash Mouth’s “All-Star” (and theme for Shrek) is probably the gold standard. Since many of these songs are awful, I would like to save you the trouble of having to wade through sonic sludge to get your instant fix of elementary school nostalgia. So without further ado, I present you the best pop punk songs in existence.
“Flagpole Sitta” by Harvey Danger is a good place to get started. The band is completely forgotten, but the song is one that I guarantee you would remember. It’s the one with the lyrics that go, “I’m not sick, but I’m not well.” The song really is a pretty great pump-up anthem, and it’s fun to spot the obscenity in many of the references that you missed out on when you were six.
Next would have to be “All the Small Things” by Blink-182. Like almost every pop punk song, it has an up-tempo beat along with mindless, borderline nonsensical lyrics. But this song in particular is also special because I remember being seven years old and thinking that one particular line was the height of romance: “She left me roses by the stairs.” Maybe it’s nostalgia, or maybe my ideas about love truly haven’t evolved since I was seven, but that lyric still gets me.
Perhaps there’s no better example of the genre than Sum 41’s “In Too Deep.” Mindless? Check. Theme song for some Nickelodeon TV movie? Definitely. So simple a six-year-old could understand the lyrics? You betcha. But it’s still a fun song. Sure, no one at Pitchfork is ever going to admit to liking it, but it is an earworm.
“1985” by Bowling for Soup is a song that actually deserves a little more analysis. I’ve tried to avoid the lofty artistic proclamations I usually make in reviews because to think about these songs that much would be to think about them way more than any of the musicians ever did. But “1985” is surprisingly brilliant, lyrically speaking. Listen to the generically catchy beat, and you’ve got yourself any other brain-dead teen anthem from this period. But listen to the words, and you actually have a deeply melancholy take on life after the party has ended. The middle-aged female subject of the song, Debbie, is a modern-day Madame Bovary, longing for her youth and trapped in a life of quiet desperation. It’s less “Dawson’s Creek” than it is “Death in Venice.” For a more appropriately downbeat take on a similar subject, listen to “Laura” by Bat for Lashes, whose titular protagonist is a spiritual cousin to “1985”’s Debbie.
So there you have it, the four least-bad pop punk songs of the period. No one would ever accuse any of these songs of being great art, or even particularly good art (or even art), but they are all a part of our collective cultural childhood. There’s also something goofily enjoyable about them. These songs take us back to a time before people took pop seriously, and before people wrote think pieces about music videos. But then again, actually thinking about these songs would kind of defeat the purpose.