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Hits & Giggles

 

Green Day: International Superhits

Reprise, 2001

Rating: 4.3

   

Green Day: Shenanigans

Reprise, 2002

Rating: 3.9

 

 

Posted: July 15, 2002

By Kevin Forest Moreau

When Green Day's bratty pop-punk manifesto Dookie began making waves back in 1994, few could have predicted that the band would become one of alternative rock's most bankable hitmakers. But that's just what happened. Future releases never did match Dookie's phenomenal sales, but the San Francisco trio nonetheless emerged as one of the most influential bands of the '90s. Not in terms of a single, identifiable sound, per se (overlooking the obvious debt owed by Blink-182 and Sum 41), but definitely in terms of paving the way for many bands with more overt punk-rock influences to make their mark upon the mainstream. Just as Green Day's initial success wouldn't have been possible without the doors that Nirvana opened, neither would steadily-touring bands huddled under punk's ever-expanding big tent enjoy radio play today without Green Day's trailblazing. That influence is still felt, at least on the fringes of "modern rock" radio, even today, as bands like Unwritten Law and Newfound Glory begin to generate singles and buzz.

But the more success Green Day enjoyed on radio and MTV, the easier it became to question the band's punk-rock credentials. We don't have nearly enough space here to open the whole can of worms about just what constitutes punk music, what classifies as "selling out," and where the twain can (or should) meet. Like religion (and for some, punk rock certainly is a religion), it's a topic that incites all manner of chest-beating from the rank and file. Still, when a band filters the reckless enthusiasm and sloppy artistry of classic '70s and '80s punk through the prism of power-pop, and when that band garners enough hit singles to release a greatest hits record with a cheeky (but not entirely inaccurate) title like International Superhits, it's natural to wonder whether punk has won its battle against the mainstream by infiltrating it, or has been corrupted by it.

Enough philosophizing. Listening to Green Day's two most recent releases back to back (or head to head, as it were) proves instructive, especially given the nature of those releases. International Superhits, as the name implies, is a collection of all of the band's identifiable hits to date, as well as, to be honest, some recent singles that probably don't quite qualify as "superhits." Shenanigans, meanwhile, is a collection of B-sides and other rarities. It's amusing to contemplate the notion that a band so rooted in the up-yours ethos of punk rock should get to release such compilations, both of which forms have often been regarded as cheap and cynical moneymaking ploys more suited to the musical heirs of, say, the Eagles rather than those of the Ramones. It's also amusing to contemplate such a band releasing two such compilations back to back, a move that would usually portend creative and economic bankruptcy.

But based on the evidence of the two albums, taken both separately and together, rumors of Green Day's creative demise would appear to be greatly exaggerated. The track listing for International Superhits speaks for itself. It's likely that the casual listener, hearing these songs grouped together for the first time, will be struck by their familiarity: "Oh, yeah, I know that song! Oh, and that one, too!" The bored, fuck-it-all masturbatory loping of "Longview" gives way to the intricate middle passage of "Welcome to Paradise," the unabashedly joyous power-chord abuse of the incessantly catchy "Basket Case" and the spare, ever-building snot-nosed menace of the choppy "Brain Stew."

Those indelible singles prove that Green Day mastered the deceptively simple art of power-pop punk rock early on, marrying nagging singalong choruses with punk's toss-it-off attitude and Billie Joe Armstrong's (quintessentially punk) nasal, garage-band vocals. But that same listener will then also be struck by just how fertile this familiar territory is. First, of course, there's the populist power-balladry of the string-laden "Good Riddance (Time of Your Life)," a melancholy kiss-off that, like the Police's "Every Breath You Take," has since been misappropriated by a populace completely missing the song's darker core. But there's also the subdued rockabilly foundation beneath "Hitchin' A Ride," the stirring Romantics-meet-Kinks stomp of "Walking Contradiction" and the minor-key Damned-Pixies collision of "Redundant." Green Day's best-known songs might have been born of a formula that was showing wear when the Knack got a hold of it, but the incisive lyricism and confident expansion of the band's core sound display a depth and (dare we say it?) maturity that the meaty melodies often camouflage.

It is, of course, grossly unfair to compare a leftovers collection like Shenanigans to a platter of proven hit singles, but the surprising thing is just how much Shenanigans sounds like a regular Green Day album. Such castoffs as "Suffocate," "You Lied" and "Scumbag" might stick pretty close to formula conventions, but they're sturdy pieces of punk songcraft nonetheless, and would easily fit in nestled amongst the songs on, say, Nimrod. The precise stop-start dynamic of "Desensitized" adds a layer of punchy garage-rock fury to a patented Armstrong singalong, while the aforementioned "You Lied" shambles on a slow-burning riff spawned from Brownsville Station's "Smoking in the Boys' Room." "Rotting" drapes a languorous vocal and lyric over a chugging rhythm that's nicely understated, shorn of the bottom-heavy crunch one expects to hear girding the track. And a shotgun-scattered cover of the Ramones' "Outsider" acknowledges Green Day's most obvious stylistic debt.

But the disc's envelope-stretching moment, its "Good Riddance," doesn't come in the form of a poignantly snarled ballad like "Rotting." "Espionage," easily the album's standout track, channels Dick Dale and Junior Brown in a "Peter Gunn" surf-spy guitar instrumental braced with ingeniously placed horns. (A slightly shopworn cover of the Kinks' "Tired of Waiting for You" doesn't quite offer any surprises, except that it's surprisingly more listenable than one expects.) It's during such moments that one realizes just why the whole punk-versus-hit-singles argument becomes irrelevant: By releasing an album of hand-me-downs that are for the most part every bit as vital (and often as experimental) as its most well-known hits, the band manages to outmaneuver expectations and dispel assumptions about its creative talents -- which is, after all, a very "punk" thing to do.

Ultimately, of course, Superhits stands taller because, well, it's got the hits, and Shenanigans -- laudable as it is -- does come with its share of filler. But both compilations are strong works, indicators of an often-undervalued band flexing its creative muscles. That both have been released within less than a year might, for all this writer knows, be a move to clear the decks of contractually-obligated product before, say, jumping to another label. But the one-two punch feels like an uncharacteristically cocky move from a band indulging in a rare moment of "I told you so" to those who've written it off. And that's the most "punk" act of all, isn't it?

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 3.0-3.9: Worthwhile effort
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 0.0-1.0: Total disaster

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