This edition of ‘In Defense of the Genre’ looks at 10 of the biggest pop punk hits that turn 20 this year, ranked from “keep that shit in 2002” to “holds up!”
20-year anniversaries always spark tons of nostalgia, and the sound of early 2000s pop punk is in the air right now — from the very fun Avril Lavigne comeback album to the chart-topping Machine Gun Kelly album to nostalgia-baiting festivals like When We Were Young, Emo’s Not Dead, and Hawthorne Heights’ Is For Lovers, to 20th anniversary album tours from New Found Glory and Simple Plan & Sum 41 — so I assume I’m not the only one with pop punk’s banner year of 2002 on the mind lately. As I was recently saying when discussing the 20th anniversary of Atticus: …Dragging the Lake, 2002 was the first year since 1998 that blink-182 didn’t release anything, but their influence was everywhere. They had just released punk rock’s first chart-topping album a year earlier with Take Off Your Pants and Jacket, and that level of success opened the floodgates for 2002 to have more pop punk competition in the mainstream than any year prior.
With bands watering down the genre in the hopes of achieving crossover success, it wasn’t all good stuff, but it was undeniably a pivotal year in punk history and arguably an exciting one too. It was one of those years like 1994 (Dookie, Smash, etc), 1999 (Enema of the State), and 2005 (From Under the Cork Tree, A Fever You Can’t Sweat Out, All We Know Is Falling) where the genre reached a new level of mainstream prominence, and inspired a new generation of kids in the process. Some of the biggest pop punk songs of all time were released in 2002, so to celebrate this anniversary, I’ve put together a list of 10 of the most dominant pop punk hits of 2002, ranked from worst to best.
Some caveats: The song had to be released in 2002, not first promoted as a single or first charted in 2002, so no “Stay Together for the Kids” or “Sweetness,” for example, and one of the songs on the list came out in 2002 technically wasn’t pushed as a single until early 2003. The song had to be on the radio or had to have a video on cable television (we’re talking about the hits). Genre is subjective, but I only went with songs that I strictly considered pop punk, no emo-pop (Taking Back Sunday), pop-screamo (The Used), regular punk (Bad Religion, The Distillers, Dillinger Four, etc), power pop (Weezer), and none of the blink-182 side projects (Box Car Racer, Transplants), because neither of them are actually pop punk. Also: one song per band.
Okay! Enough talking. Read on for the list…
10. Bowling For Soup – “Girl All the Bad Guys Want”
Bowling For Soup had been releasing commercially unsuccessful and critically ignored pop punk as far back as 1994, but after blink-182 brought the genre to the top of the charts, they hired co-writer Butch Walker and came out with the first hit of their career, “Girl All the Bad Guys Want.” Its riff was straight out of the blink-182 playbook, and its subject matter was perfectly (and unfortunately) on trend: cool girl doesn’t notice boy, and all he wanted was to see her naked. (That the song was memorably featured in a movie about a high school loser made sense; that it was written by two men in their 30s makes it even more eyeroll-inducing than it would’ve been if actual high school kids wrote it.) If you can get past all that, it’s easy to see why it became a hit; it’s as catchy, memorable, snotty, defiant, and self-deprecating as just about anything in the pop punk zeitgeist of the time. And at a time when mainstream music felt as cliquey as a high school cafeteria, this song fit right in, with a line about how “she likes the Godsmack and I like Agent Orange” and a video that, in addition to being super male-gazey, spoofed a couple of popular nu metal videos. I’d probably be fine with going the rest of my life and not ever hearing this one again, but if it ever does come on, I get reminded that those melodies still live in my head rent free.
9. Simple Plan – “I’m Just A Kid”
“Girl All the Bad Guys Want” wasn’t the only 2002 hit that was straight out of the blink-182 playbook, nor was it the only one memorably featured in The New Guy. Simple Plan’s debut single “I’m Just A Kid” opens with a clean guitar arpeggio that sounds like a slowed-down “What’s My Age Again?,” and both the title of their debut album No Pads, No Helmets…Just Balls and its artwork had the same horny high school boy energy as blink too. Its video features The New Guy stars DJ Qualls and Eliza Dushku and directly ties in to the movie’s storyline. (And it probably didn’t hurt Simple Plan’s surefire shot at success that Mark Hoppus himself sang on their second single, “I’d Do Anything.”) Before forming, singer Pierre Bouvier and drummer Chuck Comeau played in the much less successful Montreal skate punk band Reset, but — presumably inspired by Enema of the State — they put together this watered-down, tidied-up version of pop punk that largely stripped away the “punk” portion but still had the snottiness and the aesthetic to scratch the itch for thousands of fans. And they tapped right into the genre’s typically youthful subject matter with a song about the loneliness and alienation of your preteen and teen years. None of it’s very substantial, but the song has endured and I’m sure there are plenty of “more authentic” bands kicking themselves for not coming up with “I’m just a kid and life is a nightmare” first. As sophomoric as it may seem, it tapped into a feeling that kids relate to when they’re searching for solace at the racks of Sam Goody’s, and love ’em or hate ’em, they wrote a damn catchy hook.
8. Good Charlotte – “The Anthem”
Good Charlotte latched right onto the fast-growing mainstream pop punk craze with their 2000 self-titled debut album and its single “Little Things,” but they really blew up with their 2002 sophomore LP The Young and the Hopeless, which birthed three massive crossover singles: “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous” (co-written by Rancid’s Tim Armstrong), “The Anthem” (co-written by Goldfinger’s John Feldmann), and “Girls & Boys.” “Lifestyles” was technically the only one promoted as a single in 2002, but their spot on this list has to go to the more popular and far superior “The Anthem,” which made its radio debut in January of 2003. Outside of being friends with Tim Armstrong, Good Charlotte had no real punk cred, their albums were padded with filler, and they’ve failed to maintain the lasting legacy that many of their peers have, but if you forget everything you know about them, “The Anthem” holds up as one of the best pop punk singles of its era. However surface-level its lyrics may be, all the references to not wanting to “be like you” and not getting a “real job” struck a chord with kids who felt like outsiders, and the solution to it all tapped into the primal instincts of any concertgoer: “This is the anthem/throw all your hands up!” This band and their mohawks, chains, and piercings were practically the definition of the much-loathed “mall punk” stereotype, but with rhythms this punchy and melodies this irresistibly catchy, even Real Punks had to admit “The Anthem” was the song you hated to love.
7. Avril Lavigne – “Sk8er Boi”
Avril Lavigne’s pop punk reputation came more from her image and attitude than her actual music — her new album Love Sux is arguably her first actual pop punk album — but Avril did have one real-deal pop punk song on her blockbuster debut album Let Go: “Sk8er Boi.” The subject matter was familiar to anyone listening to pop punk — punk/skater dude likes popular pretty girl who turns him down even though she secretly likes him — but this time the boy wasn’t the narrator. Avril was, and she ends up with the guy in the end, ’cause she’s into skater/punk fashion too. The song’s revved-up energy and bottle-rocket riffs were also tailor-made for the Warped Tour crowd, proving that Avril could walk the walk too. “Complicated” was her biggest single, “but “Sk8er Boi” is really the one that solidified Avril as a pop punk icon for the last 20 years. Anytime she gets namedropped as being a young artist’s gateway into punk, we have “Sk8er Boi” to thank.
6. Something Corporate – “I Woke Up In A Car”
Drive-Thru Records’ upstream deal with major label MCA Records gave a lot of emo/pop punk bands a shot at mainstream success, and one of those bands was the piano-fueled Something Corporate, whose first release for Drive-Thru was 2001’s Audioboxer EP. That EP convinced MCA to move Something Corporate up to the big leagues, and their major label debut Leaving Through the Window came out the following year. It included the three best-known songs from the EP (“Punk Rock Princess,” “If You C Jordan,” and “Hurricane”), and a new single, “I Woke Up In A Car.” It starts out as a piano-pop song that wouldn’t be off-putting to fans of the big Vanessa Carlton single from that year, and once the chorus hits, it makes sense why this band toured with New Found Glory. From its wistful subject matter to its hooks, “I Woke Up In A Car” toed the line between sugary pop punk, sappy emo, and equally sappy piano-pop, and it’s no surprise that it helped launch the band (and frontman Andrew McMahon, who’s had continued success with Jack’s Mannequin and Andrew McMahon in the Wilderness) into the mainstream. 20 years later, its chorus still sounds explosive.
5. The All-American Rejects – “Swing, Swing”
Some of the bands on this list seemed like they were making calculated attempts to latch onto an increasingly popular trend, but The All-American Rejects’ path to stardom was a little different. They started out more in the emo-infused pop punk realm with two self-releases, a self-titled demo and the Same Girl, New Songs EP, the latter of which was sent to notable emo label Doghouse Records, who signed the band and released their self-titled album in the fall of 2002. The album was a massive leap from the self-released material, maintaining the band’s emo/pop punk roots but embracing clean production, jangly acoustic guitars, electronics, falsetto vocals, and carefully constructed vocal harmonies. It was all so palatable than the band quickly got picked up by major label DreamWorks, who gave the album a wider re-release the following year, but not before AAR could land its defining single on the charts, “Swing, Swing.” This song was entirely indicative of AAR’s new direction, with organs, pianos, and (possibly fake) strings fleshing out one of the most radio-friendly emo/pop punk songs released that year. It’s a song about heartbreak, but sweeter and less calculated, cynical, surface-level, and cringeworthy than the high school loser movie soundtrack type stuff. And the video showed the joy and dissolution of a former relationship, not just a bunch of male-gazey footage of an It Girl. For those who were looking for something more serious than the skate punk stuff but easier to digest than basement-dwelling emo, “Swing, Swing” was the perfect middle ground.
4. The Donnas – “Take It Off”
Having started out in the ’90s as a Ramonescore band signed to Lookout! Records, The Donnas started incorporating glammy hard rock on 2001’s The Donnas Turn 21, which caught the attention of Atlantic Records, who signed them for 2002’s Spend the Night, making them the second band to go from Lookout! to a major since Green Day in 1994. And their first single for Spend the Night was the infectious glam-pop-punk of “Take It Off.” It’s fueled by all-time great guitar riff — tougher and catchier than half the bands on rock radio in 2002 — and Donna A’s swaggering come-ons kicked loser anthems to the curb. (Also: a shredding guitar solo without an ounce of irony.) Its video found the band dominating at a high school battle of the bands, which suited it well; they had a bigger budget and a bigger production style, but they were still the same no-frills rock band that they were on Lookout!, kicking ass and then walking out the room like it’s nothing.
3. New Found Glory – “My Friends Over You”
A lot of pop punk bands have hardcore cred, but few can compete with New Found Glory, whose guitarist/backing vocalist Chad Gilbert fronted the legendary Shai Hulud and sung on their classic debut LP Hearts Once Nourished with Hope and Compassion before leaving that band to form NFG. It comes through in their music too; as poppy as they are, you can hear the toughness of East Coast hardcore in their power chords, and when they covered Gorilla Biscuits, Lifetime, and Shelter for an EP on Bridge 9, they played ’em straight and they still ended up sounding like New Found Glory songs. They also linked up this year with one of the current leading labels in hardcore, Triple B Records, for a 20th anniversary reissue of their 2002 mainstream breakthrough Sticks and Stones.
NFG had put out their debut album Nothing Gold Can Stay in 1999 on the independent Florida label Eulogy Recordings, and it quickly caught the attention of the fast-growing Drive Thru Records, who signed the band and re-released it a few months later. For their 2000 self-titled sophomore album, they teamed up with producer Neal Avron (who had helped polish up Everclear’s sound for So Much for the Afterglow and went to produce Fall Out Boy, Yellowcard, and more), it came out as a joint release between Drive-Thru and their parent major label MCA, and it featured a cleaner re-recording of Nothing Gold Can Stay‘s single “Hit Or Miss.” That song gave the band their first breakthrough, but they really entered the mainstream with 2002’s Sticks and Stones, which peaked at No. 4 on the Billboard chart and birthed the first New Found Glory single to crack the Billboard Hot 100, “My Friends Over You.” “My Friends Over You” isn’t the best (or second best or third best) song on Sticks and Stones, but it’s the one that mastered the pop appeal they’d be going for ever since they realized “Thriller” was their favorite song, and it’s no surprise that this is the song that pushed them over into the actual pop space. It’s almost too perfect; a bouncy main riff that pulled equally from New York Hardcore rhythms and Tom DeLonge’s melodic leads, a hooky verse that leads into a hookier pre-chorus that leads into an even hookier chorus, and a perfectly suspenseful bridge that leads into one last chorus, but let’s sing it twice this time. From the chugged verses to the driving choruses, “My Friends Over You” never abandoned New Found Glory’s punk roots; it only embellished them with the kind of melodies and harmonies you expect from Top 40 radio. Some snobby punks still don’t think those two things can ever go together, but New Found Glory’s approach to songwriting spawned an entire subgenre and influenced tons of other bands whose diehard fanbases outweigh the cynics and purists. It’s possible that none of it would have happened without the big bang of “My Friends Over You.”
2. Sum 41 – “Still Waiting”
Many of pop punk’s biggest bands had already established themselves within thriving independent punk scenes before hitting it big, but Sum 41 were no such band. They’d been on Island Records since their 2000 debut EP Half Hour of Power, and they didn’t seem like they were channelling the sounds of the unsung punk underground. As they told you on their biggest song, Maiden and Priest were the gods that they praised. They were metalheads at heart, and their interest in pop punk was genuine, but it seemed a little opportunist. For their 2001 debut album All Killer No Killer, they linked up with Enema of the State producer Jerry Finn, the perfect candidate to help Sum 41 become pop punk’s Next Big Thing. Most of the album offered up the kind of formulaic, easily digestible pop punk that was guaranteed to be a success, and its aforementioned huge single “Fat Lip” combined pop punk with rap rock, the other biggest mainstream rock trend in 2001. They’re good players and Deryck Whibley’s a good songwriter, but in hindsight, All Killer No Killer seemed a little dishonest. It did, however, make them predictably huge, and more success tends to allow for more creative freedom, which Sum 41 embraced on 2002’s much better Does This Look Infected?.
Does This Look Infected? is a darker, heavier record than its predecessor, and it openly embraced Sum 41’s love of metal and other heavier forms of rock, with just enough of their usual pop punk appeal still left intact. No Jerry Finn this time — longtime collaborator Greig Nori produced — and the band employed thrash riffs, screamed vocals, and other antagonistic traits while writing about far more serious topics than they had previously. Sum 41 might not have had cool kid cred, but they were an increasingly good band that loved heavy metal, punk rock, hip hop, and other angry subgenres, and their influences came together more naturally than ever on Does This Look Infected?. To help introduce the world to their new sound, they promoted the album with lead single “Still Waiting.” Its video poked fun at the trendier rock bands that the hype machine said were saving rock from bands like Sum 41, opening with a scene where Sum 41 meets with Island Records who tells them that “number” bands are out, and “the” bands like The Strokes, The Hives, The Vines, and The White Stripes are in, and that Sum 41 should change their name to The Sums. The video fit right in with the cliquey shot-throwing of the TRL era, but the song felt like something totally new. It opens with a vocal hook and matching guitar riff that sounds straight out of The Offspring’s playbook, before upping the aggression exponentially for a verse where Deryck screams his head off over a riff that borrows from “Masters of Puppets.” In the video, the Island Records guy says he’s sure the new album has “all sorts of songs about skateboarding and getting dumped,” but in reality, the song was inspired by the war and terrorism that dominated the news cycle in the early 2000s. Nothing felt cynical, dishonest, or opportunist about this; “Still Waiting” sounded like the exact kind of music that Sum 41 always wanted to be writing, and their fusion of aggressive tendencies and pop smarts was seamless.
1. The Starting Line – “The Best of Me”
The Starting Line were the new kids on the block when they dropped their debut LP compared to the pop punk giants of 2002 (literally; lead singer Kenny Vasoli was 17 when they recorded it), but if you look at the more recent waves of pop punk, there’s a good case to be made that no band has been more influential than The Starting Line. Almost everybody in the genre takes cues from blink and Green Day and NFG, but when pop punk went back underground in the early 2010s, The Starting Line’s emo tendencies and Kenny’s yelpier voice felt like ground zero for the genre’s new wave. And as a result, The Starting Line’s debut LP Say It Like You Mean It has aged incredibly well; some of the pop punk from that era sounds extremely 2002, but this album somehow sounds even fresher now than it did back then.
The Starting Line were one of the many bands that got scooped up by Drive-Thru during their post-New Found Glory gold rush, and they had released their debut EP With Hopes of Starting Over on the label the year prior. For their debut full-length, they teamed up with producer (and former Drive Like Jehu drummer) Mark Trombino (Jimmy Eat World, blink-182, etc), adopted a much more polished sound, and entered into a joint deal with both Drive-Thru and their parent major label MCA. The album included re-recordings of two With Hopes of Starting Over songs, along with a new single that would become their most enduring song, “The Best of Me.” The song and its iconic Say Anything-inspired music video was instantly unavoidable in the pop punk scene, and it wasn’t hard to see why. The song was tailor-made to be a hit, with carefully-placed bridges and reprises and a hook that Max Martin probably wishes he wrote. Like a lot of emo/pop punk songs from that era, it’s a love song, but what really made it click was the sentiment at the end of the chorus: “We got older, but we’re still young/We never grew out of this feeling that we won’t give up” (which, again, Kenny was a teenager when he wrote). It’s just the right amount of simplicity, sappiness, and hopefulness, and the song lives on because, 20 years later, we still never grew out of that feeling.
Read past and future editions of ‘In Defense of the Genre’ here.