Consequence’s Punk Week continues with a staff list of the genre’s Top 50 songs. Keep checking back throughout the week for interviews, lists, editorials and videos — it’s all things punk, all the time.
Three chords and a bit of attitude can go very far in terms of writing a decent punk song. But the greatest punk tunes stand out among the rest for a myriad of reasons — from historical significance to sociopolitical importance to undeniable catchiness.
Punk isn’t just a genre of music. It’s a way of life. It can very well be argued that the Ramones were the first true punk band, but there were certainly elements of what would eventually be termed punk rock on records that came before Joey, Johnny, Dee Dee, and Tommy offered up their iconic 1976 debut album.
For the most part, this list of the Top 50 Punk Songs of All Time eschews the proto-punk that preceded the Ramones, though we included a couple of exceptions (namely Iggy & The Stooges and The Velvet Underground).
While the Ramones’ songs provided a soundtrack for outcasts and misfits, UK acts like Sex Pistols and The Clash would soon emerge with tunes that challenged authority and governmental policies. From there, a hardcore movement would emerge in the U.S, as bands like Minor Threat and Bad Brains recorded songs that brought heightened speed, aggressiveness, and consciousness to punk rock.
Punk has continued to evolve over the past few decades (we also avoided pop-punk, for the most part, for this particular list), but the essence of a great punk song remains intact: fast-paced music, lyrics rooted in anti-establishment, and a welcome sense of danger.
So, hey ho, let’s go … with our sure-to-be-scrutinized picks for the Top 50 Punk Songs of All Time. Scroll to the end for a full playlist of all 50 tracks.
— Spencer Kaufman
Managing Editor, Heavy
Editor’s Note: Celebrate Punk Week by picking up our Punk Is Dead, Long Live Punk! T-shirt via Consequence Shop.
50. Johnny Thunder and the Heartbreakers – “Chinese Rocks”
Few songs have as much punk pedigree as “Chinese Rocks,” written by Dee Dee Ramone and Richard Hell. It was intended to be a Ramones song, but the band rejected it due to the overt heroin references. Instead, Hell took it to the Heartbreakers, his band with Johnny Thunders. It would become a staple of the latter’s career, even after Hell left the Heartbreakers in 1976. — Jon Hadusek
49. Against Me! – “I Was A Teenage Anarchist”
Is there anything more punk than an anti-punk punk song? Against Me! were already getting slack for “abandoning” (read: progressing from) the thrashing sounds of their earlier releases when they dropped “I Was a Teenage Anarchist,” a melodic cut that calls into question the rigidity of punk’s “bloodless ideology.” The line “the revolution was a lie” is screamed out as the music drops away, drawing a rebuttal from Rise Against on “Architects.” But damn if Laura Jane Grace didn’t have a point. — Ben Kaye
48. Misfits – “Last Caress”
The demented mind of Misfits frontman Glenn Danzig brought a new subgenre called horror punk into the world, and the song “Last Caress” contains some of the most infamous lyrics in rock history. Hearing Danzig sing “I got something to say/ I killed your baby today” on top of an upbeat, ’50s-inspired rock instrumental is one of punk’s most disconcerting moments, but, hot damn, it’s catchy as hell — so much so that Metallica famously covered it, as did a bevy of other bands. — Spencer Kaufman
47. The Jam – “In the City”
Punk is often seen as a rejection of the status quo. Fittingly, The Jam’s 1977 debut single celebrates the power of youth rebellion — with some exasperation, vocalist Paul Weller pleads, “I wanna tell you about the young ideas/But you turn them into fears” — while incorporating nervy, mod-influenced sounds. — Annie Zaleski
46. Black Flag – “TV Party”
Damaged is Black Flag’s strident hardcore masterpiece, but it just wouldn’t be the same without a goofball novelty song with handclaps and references to “Hill Street Blues” and “Dallas.” In a way, “TV Party” foreshadowed Henry Rollins’s eventual fate as a television star, acting on shows like Sons of Anarchy and booking talking head appearances on VH1. — Al Shipley
45. The Replacements – “Unsatisfied”
Don’t let its gentle score distract you: “Unsatisfied” is brimming with a bona fide punk attitude. The genre’s history is rooted in an expression of disaffection, and Paul Westerberg’s lyrics about disillusionment and, well, feeling unsatisfied encompass this fully. While punk’s sonically heavy origins are important, tracks like “Unsatisfied” prove that the genre’s essence can prevail without them. — Lindsay Teske
44. Rancid – “Time Bomb”
Helping to fuel the rise of punk rock to the mainstream in the mid-’90s, Rancid stood apart from bands like The Offspring and Green Day for the ska influences of songs like “Time Bomb.” Released as the second single from their breakout album, …And Out Come the Wolves, the story of a gang member’s rise and fall was a mainstay on MTV and rock radio, peaking at No. 8 on the Modern Rock Tracks (now Alternative Airplay) chart. — Eddie Fu
43. The Clash – “Complete Control”
By 1977 in England, punk was perceived as something to be tamed — and that didn’t sit right by The Clash. “Complete Control” was released shortly after the band had participated in the widely-cancelled Anarchy Tour alongside the Sex Pistols, which conjured up a hefty amount of scaremongering about punk in the media. The track is The Clash’s response to the leash subsequently being tightened over everything from their music to their behavior, and it expertly taps into the feeling of being a cog in the wheel — a feeling that drives many to turn to punk as a catharsis. — L.T.
42. PUP – “If This Tour Doesn’t Kill You, I Will“
Playing over 240 shows in the span of just one year can entice your ugly side. Canadian band PUP indulge in their close-quarters traveling woes on the ripper “If This Tour Doesn’t Kill You, I Will,” which disses a bandmate in a record number of kiss-offs per minute. “I don’t wish you were dead; I wish you’d never been born at all!” singer Stefan Babcock howls. You needn’t be concerned, however — the song is meant to be taken sarcastically. (Required additional listening: The transition between “If This Tour…” and “DVP,” a staple of PUP’s live shows.) — Abby Jones
41. Wire – “12XU”
Of all the punk bands who debuted in 1977, arguably none were further ahead of their time than Wire. With 21 brief songs sprinting through a wide range of sounds, their debut album Pink Flag was a blueprint for post-punk to come, but the catchy closer “12XU” became a hardcore standard, covered by Minor Threat, Bad Brains and Dag Nasty. — A.S.
40. The Velvet Underground – “I’m Waiting for the Man”
The Velvet Underground is arguably one of the first punk bands — or proto-punk bands, if we’re being precise. However, between the song’s jittery guitars, propulsive rhythm section and Lou Reed’s defiant sneer, you can draw a straight line between 1967’s “I’m Waiting for the Man” and the next decade’s punks. — A.Z.
39. Stiff Little Fingers – “Alternative Ulster”
Released during the thick of The Troubles in Northern Ireland, “Alternative Ulster” taps into the restlessness that locals at the time felt over living alongside ongoing conflict and having minimal means of escape from it. The track not only proves that punk can be a fascinating lens through which to explore history, but carries the important message that anyone has the power to work to create change. Lyrics like “grab it and change it, it’s yours” and “alter your native land” highlight just how emboldening punk can be. — L.T.
38. Bratmobile – “Gimme Brains”
The riot grrrl stalwarts Bratmobile didn’t suffer fools gladly — especially if those fools happened to be lame dudes. The uncompromising 2000 single “Gimme Brains” eviscerates an ex (“A girl could starve on a boy like you”) atop surf-kissed punk riffs, making it clear that their relationship is over. — A.Z.
37. Television – “Marquee Moon”
Although Television’s breed of punk veered more towards the artsy side, the epic, shapeshifting “Marquee Moon” evidences why the quartet are considered some of the most prominent and iconic acts of New York’s underground scene in the 1970s. With its chugging beat and frenetic, jazzy riffs, the epic track makes 10 minutes and 40 seconds feel oh-so short. — A.J.
36. X – “Johnny Hit and Run Pauline”
Punk is about standing up to society’s ills, and “Johnny Hit and Run Paulene” does just that by unfurling a chilling cautionary tale about sexual assault culture. The narrative plays out against the backdrop of jaunty ‘50s style riffs, creating such a stark contrast between the music and lyrics to the point where the true meaning is almost masked. Whether intended or not, this mirrors how frequently the type of crimes described in the track prevail unnoticed. — L.T.
35. Bad Brains – “Banned in D.C.”
Bad Brains’ “Banned in D.C.” is an early example of hardcore punk, albeit with some clever twists and turns. The track starts a rapid clip before a heavy breakdown — a staple of hardcore hereafter — triggers a change in tempo. Guitarist Dr. Know then rides out on a tasteful solo that would have been at home on a prog album. — J.H.
34. Germs – “Forming”
Darby Crash was one of early hardcore’s most intelligent lyricists, penning couplets like “Saturation, we want in taxes/ Flagellation, we’ve got gashes.” But you might never know what Crash was snarling without a lyric sheet, as punk legend Mike Watt once noted: “I’d seen them like 50 times, I never knew he said any of those things! But there was all this literate poetry.” — A.S.
33. Bad Religion – “American Jesus”
Instead of sanding down their intellectual edge for the mainstream, Bad Religion sharpened their political commentary on their MTV breakthrough, which featured Eddie Vedder on backing vocals. Greg Gaffin was inspired to write “American Jesus” after President Bush’s Gulf War declaration that “We’ll win because God is on our side.” — A.S.
32. Green Day – “Longview”
Green Day’s “Longview” continues in the punk tradition of analyzing base instincts in a rather raucous way. Built atop an iconic bassline from Mike Dirnt — who famously constructed it high on LSD — “Longview” explores isolation and boredom with a sense of apathy so supreme, you can almost feel the stick of the humidity and the lack of sunlight in the room when you hear it. It’s a stoner anthem that’s insular in its nature, and yet, as we all know from being in lockdown over the past year or so, it’s more relevant than ever. — Paolo Ragusa
31. The Stooges – “Search and Destroy”
Punk’s kickoff is more closely associated with the late 1970s, making 1973’s “Search and Destroy” a key track of influence on what would become the genre’s most defining characteristics: it combined fuzzed-up and ferocious riffs with lyrics that drew power from an outsider status. The track took the idea of a misfit and shaped it into something intriguing and compelling. This made “Search and Destroy” the amuse-bouche of the first wave of punk, paving the way for anyone who saw themselves in the “forgotten boy” protagonist to form a new kind of collective cultural identity. — L.T.
30. Sham 69 – “If The Kids Are United”
Those who came of age in 1970s England got the short end of the stick. Ongoing postwar fallout was worsened by a recession that made locking down a stable job a Herculean task. Disproportionately impacted by the chaos was working class youth, who became key mobilizers of the nation’s punk movement. “If The Kids Are United” was released after the British media had spent two years demonizing punk on top of everything else, which only served to emphasize its message about sticking together in the face of adversity — a message that would go on to become a core fixture of punk’s ethos. — L.T.
29. The Replacements – “Bastards of Young”
The Replacements song “Bastards of Young” is inextricably tied to its video: a black-and-white clip featuring a close-up of a speaker, which is subsequently destroyed. That same spirit of destruction permeates the 1985 song, a ragged howl of youthful abandon (and frustration) that eventually devolves into a blast of hardcore fury. — A.Z.
28. Bad Brains – “I Against I”
Bad Brains have always been one of the most sonically diverse purveyors of punk, and “I Against I” is the peak of their prowess. The speed punk of the verses, the ska melodies of the bridge, the metal of the hook and the bridge, H.R. stretching his vocals in all directions — it’s easy to see why such a variety of bands found influence in the DC greats. — B.K.
27. Joyce Manor – “Constant Headache”
It’s easy to see why this song once manufactured a fan theory that it was penned from the perspective of a dog — the narrator “hid by the couch” and was “disguised in your sheets.” That, however, was debunked via a Reddit AMA with lead singer Barry Johnson, who revealed it was from the perspective of someone younger observing an older group hanging out. (The dog theory arguably made it a little more fun.) Still, the pop-punk anthem stuck with listeners for its blistering guitar riffs and repetitive, sticky melody that drew allusions to Jawbreaker. But its lyrics, which detail a coming-of-age snapshot in time full of naivete, are what have perhaps resonated the most: ”You were drunker than high school, self-conscious and sweet.” Oh, to be young again. — Ilana Kaplan
26. Rancid – “Ruby SoHo”
Rancid, along with Green Day and others, helped revive punk rock in the early ‘90s with an infectious brand of music that both paid tribute to their heroes and introduced the genre to a new generation. Led by the raspy voice of Tim Armstrong and one of punk’s greatest sing-along choruses, “Ruby Soho” is one of many standout tracks on 1995’s …And Out Come the Wolves. Just one listen is all it takes for this ode to punk romance to get stuck in your head, and it continues to remain a highlight at Rancid shows to this day. — S.K.
25. Black Flag – “Rise Above”
“Rise Above” could essentially act as the liner notes of punk as a genre. The universalism of the lyrics — which, per the title, are about “rising above” an oppressive person or system — meant that anyone could apply them to their own life. That said, the track’s 1981 release caused the flames of punk to be fanned by underscoring that the genre’s sentiments were something that everyone, even those who may not have associated with the punk scene prior, could find a connection to. — L.T.
24. Richard Hell and the Voidoids – “Blank Generation”
Arguably the ultimate anthem of the ’70s New York punk lifestyle, “Blank Generation” is Richard Hell’s unhinged masterpiece. This slab of scuzzed-out rock n’ roll is rife with dark sarcasm (“I was sayin’ let me out of here before I was even born”) and spastic guitar work. There’s a reason Malcolm McLaren based the Sex Pistols’ image on Hell: He defined punk before there was a name for it. — J.H.
23. Sex Pistols – “God Save the Queen”
The go-to anti-establishment anthem of punk, “God Save the Queen” was the target of the very sort of totalitarian ploys the song decried. The song hit No. 2 on the UK Singles Chart despite a near-universal ban from the BBC and the Independent Broadcasting Authority, only kept out of the top spot because of a rumored BMRB conspiracy to not count certain sales out of fear the song was “offensive.” Of course, when you try to keep a punk down, you only give them more power. — B.K.
22. Dead Kennedys – “Holiday in Cambodia”
Dead Kennedys, in many ways, were America’s answer to The Clash. While Ramones spearheaded punk in the US, Dead Kennedys embraced the sociopolitical aspects of the movement. That is especially evident on their iconic song “Holiday in Cambodia,” in which singer Jello Biafra details the horrific genocidal actions committed in the Asian nation by dictator Pol Pot while also highlighting the oblivious behavior by Westerners who enjoyed vacationing in Third World countries as atrocities took place around them. — S.K.
21. Patti Smith – “Gloria”
An androgynous reimagining of Them’s 1964 song (of which only the chorus survived in Patti Smith’s take), “Gloria” came just five months before punk was “born” with Ramones. Yet Smith’s snarling poetry, overtly sexual and critical of ecclesiastical sovereignty, backed by minimal instrumentation and a gang chant on the hook, is only proto due to its timeline. As the opening track on Horses, it was not only our introduction to Patti Smith, but to the punk to come. — B.K.
20. Social Distortion – “Mommy’s Little Monster”
Epitomizing Social D’s early ’80s suburban California punk sound, the title track from their 1983 debut demonstrates why the band was such an inspiration for groups like The Offspring and Rancid. Mike Ness and company touch on a common theme in the scene — challenging traditional American values — while pitting a mother against her rebellious son. Twenty years later, the song was immortalized for the new generation, too, with its inclusion in the soundtrack for Tony Hawk’s Underground. — E.F.
19. Descendents – “Suburban Home”
In the late 1970s, culture began to put its finger on the pulse of suburban angst. While bassist Tony Lombardo’s lyrics about wanting to be “a clone” in suburbia were reportedly intended to be unironic, the 1982 Milo Goes to College track became an anthem for scores of people stuck in the suburbs who itched to escape the banal fate the song described. Punk has been a longstanding lifeline for those unhappy in the manicured monotony of suburbia, and “Suburban Home” vindicated many a dream to leave small town life in the dust. — L.T.
18. Ramones – “I Wanna Be Sedated”
Here the Ramones flex their pop genius, slamming ear-worm hooks together not unlike a children’s nursery rhyme. Ironically, Joey Ramone wrote the upbeat and catchy song about the grind of touring and the deadening malaise of the road. An iconic promotional video for the song was released in 1988 to support the Ramones Mania compilation, cementing the track’s popularity. — J.H.
17. The Clash – “White Riot”
The Clash came out swinging with their first-ever single, the rousing “White Riot.” While the band would evolve musically, the track has stood the test of time as one of the most important songs from one of punk’s most important bands. The fiery anthem was initially a misunderstood tune, with some perceiving the title as a call for a race war. In fact, singer-guitarist Joe Strummer was inspired by witnessing Caribbean youths clashing with police at the 1976 Notting Hill festival, explaining that white people were “too cozy” to fight for their own rights. — S.K.
16. X-Ray Spex – “Oh Bondage Up Yours”
Before there was Carly Rae Jepsen’s “Run Away With Me,” there was the instantly-recognizable saxophone riff of X-Ray Spex’s “Oh Bondage Up Yours!” “Some people think little girls should be seen and not heard,” singer Poly Styrene coos in the introduction, before her bellowing battle cry: “But I think, oh, bondage — up yours!” “Bondage,” in this case, refers to the inescapable grip of consumerism, a foreboding message if we’ve ever heard one. — A.J.
15. Iggy Pop – “Lust for Life”
Written by David Bowie, “Lust for Life” ended up being a signature tune for original punk rocker Iggy Pop. Between the inimitable rolling drums, burbling bass and almost conversational vocals, the 1977 song sounds like a bridge between Iggy’s wild-child Stooges days — and punk’s even more anything-goes future. — A.Z.
14. Fugazi – “Waiting Room”
Although Fugazi made six great albums, they never wrote another song as enduring as the first track on their debut EP. Their sense of groove and the contrast between Ian Mackaye’s drill sergeant shout and Guy Piccioto’s melodic bray were present on day one, and the song’s singalong appeal made it an unlikely staple of Washington, D.C. sporting events. — A.S.
13. New York Dolls – “Personality Crisis”
Before bands like Ramones, Television, Blondie and others became fixtures at CBGB, the New York Dolls paved the way for the New York punk scene. Whether you call them glam-rock or proto-punk, the New York Dolls embodied the punk spirit before “punk rock” was a term. Furthermore, everything about the song “Personality Crisis” — from singer David Johansen’s snarky vocals to Johnny Thunders’ infectious guitar riff — is punk rock to the core. — S.K.
12. Dead Boys – “Sonic Reducer”
At a time when punk was still a burgeoning cultural movement, the Dead Boys dropped the genre-defining single “Sonic Reducer.” Taking cues from the Stooges, the Dead Boys — a notoriously raucous outfit of ne’er-do-wells — sped up the tempo, turned up the volume, and snarled out a song as grimy as a Cleveland gutter. The Boys weren’t long for the Midwest, however, eventually making their way to New York City where they were embraced with open arms by the clientele at CBGB. — J.H.
11. Talking Heads – “Psycho Killer”
The Talking Heads famously played their first gig opening for the Ramones at CBGB in ’75, and quickly racked up cred in the scene. While “Psycho Killer” doesn’t sound like a prototypically punk-with-a-capital-P song, the endless and spirited debate around the Talking Heads’ categorization as a band — are they new wave? Post-punk? Art-rock? Art-punk? Avant-funk? All of the above? — earns them a place on this list. In other words, you can’t be punk without there being an argument about whether the hell or not you’re punk. (Sonically, their early work, as exhibited by their first charting single “Psycho Killer,” falls into the art-punk category at the very least.) At the end of the day, if you’re still asking qu’est-ce que c’est when it comes to the Talking Heads? Very damn good, that’s what. — Gab Ginsberg