This edition of In Defense of the Genre looks at 20 bands from the mainstream pop punk era paying tribute to the comparatively underground legends who influenced them, through the lens of cover songs that still sound great today.
The mainstream pop punk era gets a lot of shit, but one of its truly invaluable traits is that it acted as a direct passageway from the classic, groundbreaking punk and hardcore bands of the '70s and '80s to the people coming of age 15, 20 years after those bands had left their often-under-appreciated mark. Without the genre's mainstream boom in the '90s and early 2000s, we wouldn't have things like the Misfits headlining arenas today. Maybe you want punk to stay underground forever, but these tiny, often-short-lived bands changed the world, and they deserve wide audiences and renewed exposure amongst new generations. 1) It's kind of a miracle that any band influenced by the likes of Descendents and Gorilla Biscuits would ever become famous, and 2) it was admirable to see so many famous bands in the '90s and '00s use their platforms to shine a light on the under-appreciated legends that came before them. One of the ways of doing that was with cover songs.
Especially within punk -- a pretty simple, timeless, and often-unchanging style of music -- it's easy to hear your favorite childhood band cover one of their favorite childhood bands and then get into the latter immediately. When the pop punk bands of the '90s and '00s covered first-wave '70s punk and '80s hardcore songs, they didn't really have to change the song all that much to make it fit right in with their own music; all the cover needed was a familiar voice singing it, and thousands of kids would get turned on to a band who broke up before they were born. I'm sure some new version of this same idea is still happening, but this particular era of cover songs remains unique, because these were genuinely mainstream bands covering highly influential music that (mostly) hadn't gotten mainstream attention itself. So this list is about those songs: 20 great covers of classic punk songs by popular '90s/'00s punk and pop punk bands. On one hand, these covers are just fun to listen to, but on another, they really do tell a story and show the evolution of a genre from small regional scenes to an international phenomenon.
The definition of "punk" gets stretched two or three times, but that (hopefully) just keeps things interesting. The majority of these are studio-recorded covers, but a few live ones made the cut as well. Scroll down for the list (in a mostly random order) and tell us what we missed in the comments...
blink-182 - "Hope" (Descendents cover)
When blink-182 brought snotty pop punk to the masses and influenced an entire generation of Warped Tour regulars, there was one band who they were always compared to, and that band is the Descendents. Descendents were part of the SoCal hardcore scene, but by the time they got around to writing their first full-length album, 1982's Milo Goes to College, they had injected a little bit of a pop side into their sound and they basically wrote the blueprint for the late '90s / early '00s wave of pop punk. blink-182 worshipped them, and this cover of "Hope" (recorded live but with perfectly fine sound quality) stays 100% faithful to the original while also sounding like something that could've been on Enema of the State.
New Found Glory - "No Reason Why" (Gorilla Biscuits cover)
There's possibly no band as influential on extremely popular pop punk bands yet as eternally underground as Gorilla Biscuits. Even Fall Out Boy have covered them, but I had to go with the cover by New Found Glory, who were really the first major pop punk band whose sound could be traced back to East Coast hardcore. Gorilla Biscuits were too hardcore to be "pop" anything, but they were not afraid to flirt with melody and all it took were bands like Lifetime and later Saves the Day and New Found Glory to push those flirtations over the edge and come out with songs like "Hit Or Miss." After NFG's final major label album, 2006's more "mature" Coming Home, they released the Tip of the Iceberg EP on hardcore label Bridge 9 with covers of GB, Lifetime, and Shelter, and three original songs written generally in the style of bands like that. It wasn't posturing at all; NFG really meant it, and this EP's excellent cover of "No Reason Why" was a fine way to give back to the community that they wouldn't be here without.
Rise Against - "Fix Me" (Black Flag cover)
Rise Against were always sort of part hardcore, part alternative rock, both sides of which were represented on their third album, 2004's Siren Song of the Counter Culture. Opener "State of the Union" is straightup hardcore, while smash hit single "Swing Life Away" was barely punk at all and it turned Rise Against into stars. If you bought the bonus tracks edition of Siren Song, you wouldn't just be treated to the band's own hardcore leanings, but also to this faithful cover of "Fix Me" from Black Flag's iconic 1979 debut EP Nervous Breakdown. That EP was one of the most essential releases in the development of hardcore, and without it, a band like Rise Against might have never existed.
The Distillers - "Ask The Angels" (Patti Smith cover)
Patti Smith is more punk than most musicians will ever be, but her music was often more punk in spirit than it was performed in the style we associate with "punk" today. That is, except for in the case of "Ask The Angels," the opening track off Patti's 1976 sophomore album Radio Ethiopia, which still sounds as punk as can be, even by today's standards. The Distillers must have taken a few cues from this song, as they did a faithful rendition on their 2000 self-titled debut album and it fit right in with the originals. It's not easy to sing like Patti Smith, but Brody Dalle's rasp is perfect for this one.
AFI - "Halloween" (Misfits cover)
As discussed in my recent AFI album guide, AFI owed a lot to the Misfits and they covered them a lot, and the best of those covers is their take on "Halloween." They included it on 1999's essential All Hallow's E.P., and this cover is no less important than the original songs on the EP. It's one of those covers where the band really doesn't mess with the original at all, but still manage to make it their own.
Green Day - "Don't Want To Know If You Are Lonely" (Husker Du cover)
When alternative rock and punk hit it big in the '90s, one of the bands that a lot of the major players pointed to as an influence was '80s hardcore punks turned proto alt-rockers Husker Du. Krist Novoselic said "What Nirvana did was nothing new; Husker Du did it before us," and anyone who had heard Husker Du's poppier songs like 1986's "Don't Want to Know If You Are Lonely" might've thought, "hey, Green Day sound a little like those guys." Well, certainly not by coincidence, as Green Day did their own version of this song. They didn't change a single thing about it, and still, it sounds... exactly like a Green Day song.
Rancid - "Can't Forgive" (Embrace cover)
One of three Ian MacKaye bands covered on this list, Embrace came right in between Ian's more well-known bands Minor Threat and Fugazi and only lasted for about a year, but their more melodic, more impassioned sound helped pave the way for another genre that blew up in the '90s and '00s: emo. Emo bands weren't the only bands influenced by Embrace, though. The same year Rancid released their breakthrough album Let's Go, they recorded this cover of "Can't Forgive" for Trustkill Records' 1994 Embrace tribute Land Of Greed... World Of Need. In Rancid's hands, this song sounds like more like the East Bay than the Revolution Summer, but Rancid knew how to change up the song without stripping it of its original appeal. And Ian MacKaye's influence on Rancid didn't stop there; just look at the artwork for ...And Out Come the Wolves.
Against Me! - "Here Comes A Regular" (The Replacements cover)
In 2009, Against Me! were a major label band, and their label (Warner Bros) was celebrating its 50th anniversary with a covers compilation featuring Warner's current roster covering the label's legacy acts. Against Me! picked The Replacements, who -- like Husker Du -- started out as a punk band and then helped invent alternative rock as we know it, and influenced thousands of bands in the process. Laura Jane Grace did a solo acoustic rendition "Here Comes A Regular," the ballad from 1985's Tim, and it's the kind of impassioned cover where she sings it like she wrote it.
The Offspring - "Smash It Up" (The Damned cover)
The year after 1994's Smash made The Offspring stars, they got asked to be on the Batman Forever soundtrack alongside U2, PJ Harvey, Massive Attack, Mazzy Star, Nick Cave, Method Man, Sunny Day Real Estate, The Flaming Lips, Brandy, Seal, and more, and their contribution was a cover of "Smash It Up" (pun intended?) by UK punk OGs The Damned. The original is from The Damned's 1979 third album Machine Gun Etiquette, which saw them going in a more post-punk direction, but The Offspring's version brought the song back to The Damned's fast-paced punk roots, and also made it fit right in with the American pop punk boom that they had helped start.
Saves The Day - "Sonic Reducer" (Dead Boys cover)
The soundtrack for Tony Hawk's American Wasteland featured 2000s punk and emo bands all covering classic punk songs, and one of the soundtrack's standout covers is Saves The Day's take on the Dead Boys' way-ahead-of-its-time "Sonic Reducer." The original is one of the early punk songs that heavily informed the development of hardcore, and though it's more on the garagier, shoutier side than Saves The Day's emo and hardcore-tinged pop punk, Saves The Day really managed to pull this one off and make it their own. It really sounds like it could be a Saves The Day song, while unmistakably remaining the "Sonic Reducer" that Dead Boys fans know and love. No easy feat.
Pennywise - "Minor Threat" (Minor Threat cover)
During the set that became their 2000 live album Live @ the Key Club, Pennywise shouted out some of the bands they grew up on: Black Flag, Circle Jerks, Descendents, T.S.O.L., Bad Religion, and of course, Minor Threat. Just as they said that last one, they launched into a cover of Minor Threat's eponymous song. Pennywise make the "WE'RE JUST! A MINOR THREAT!" gang vocals just a little bit more melodic, making it fit right in with their own melodic hardcore, but otherwise they play it straight, and their version rips.
The Queers - Rocket to Russia (Ramones cover)
It kinda feels like a copout to include the Ramones on this list. I also left off covers of The Clash, The Sex Pistols, and the Buzzcocks, all of whom -- like the Ramones -- felt a little too obvious to include. But the Ramones were and are so influential that bands didn't just cover Ramones songs; Selfless/Clearview Records had a series where bands covered entire albums by the Ramones, and that's special and non-obvious enough to include. The first entry in the series came in 1994 from Screeching Weasel, and the second came the following year from The Queers. Every punk band in the history of the world was either directly or indirectly influenced by the Ramones, but The Queers' entire career has been an homage to them (and to The Beach Boys, by way of the Ramones also worshipping The Beach Boys). Since every Queers album already sounds like a full Ramones album, it probably goes without saying that The Queers were the perfect band for the job, and it's as fun to listen to this as it is to listen to Queers originals.
No Doubt - "Sailin' On" (Bad Brains cover)
No Doubt's punk-adjacent, pop-friendly ska had made them stars by the time 1995's Tragic Kingdom came out, and though No Doubt were more directly influenced by The Skatalites and 2 Tone bands like The Specials and Madness than by hardcore punk bands, they did offer up a take on this hardcore classic for 1996's MOM: Music for Our Mother Ocean benefit compilation. They slowed down Bad Brains' whiplash-inducing song and turned it into a ska song, and the unmistakable voice of Gwen Stefani made this clearly the work of the band who had released "Just A Girl" and "Don't Speak" a year earlier. It's way more accessible than the original, but Gwen really brings out how much of a pop-friendly chorus Bad Brains had already written.
Strike Anywhere - "Values Here" (Dag Nasty cover)
After Minor Threat broke up and Ian MacKaye formed Embrace, guitarist Brian Baker formed Dag Nasty, and their 1986 debut album Can I Say remains one of the most important and still-sometimes-overlooked albums in the development of melodic hardcore and emo. It's catchy but still dark and aggressive, like several of the genre's definitive late '90s / early '00s bands, such as Strike Anywhere. Strike Anywhere recorded Can I Say opener "Values Here" during the sessions for their 2001 debut album Change Is a Sound, and it eventually got released on their 2005 compilation To Live in Discontent. Strike Anywhere's production is a little crisper and Thomas Barnett's voice is a little more snarling than Dave Smalley's, but otherwise they mirrored the original, which sounds like it could've come out in 2005 in the first place.
H2O - "Not Just Boys Fun" (7Seconds cover)
Not only was 7Seconds' 1984 song "Not Just Boys Fun" ahead of its time for its critique of the male-dominant punk scene -- a critique that sadly still resonates today -- it was also musically ahead of its time thanks to its melody-infused hardcore that helped pave the way for the genre's bigger '90s and '00s bands. One of the many bands it paved the way for was H2O, whose own music straddled the line between melodic hardcore and pop punk. H2O covered the classic "Not Just Boys Fun" for Reflections Records' 1999 7Seconds tribute album, and they made it a little harder and faster but otherwise stayed true to the original.
Face To Face - "Merchandise" (Fugazi cover)
Face To Face seemed like they had a shot at being the next mainstream punk success story when their early '90s single "Disconnected" became an alternative rock hit and led to a major label deal. They never ended up getting that famous (and quickly retreated to independent labels), but they stayed a consistently great band with really no duds in their discography. That discography includes their 1999 covers album Standards & Practices, which includes renditions of a bunch of songs that influenced them, including this cover of "Merchandise" by Fugazi. Fugazi influenced just about every punk-adjacent band to come after them, and "Merchandise" sounds as fresh in 2020 as it did when it came out in 1990 as it did when Face To Face covered it in 1999. Face To Face's cover is pretty straightforward, but they did a killer job with it and helped give it some new life in '99, a year punk reached very high heights.
Jimmy Eat World - "Game of Pricks" (Guided by Voices cover)
Jimmy Eat World had already released their debut album a year prior to Guided by Voices releasing "Game of Pricks" on 1995's Alien Lanes (which, coincidentally, is getting a 25th anniversary reissue this year), but when you compare "Game of Pricks" to the very famous Jimmy Eat World of 2002 who recorded this cover, I think it fits the premise of this list. GBV were indie rock back when indie rock hadn't yet separated from its punk roots, and their hard-hitting but power pop-friendly songs were clear predecessors to early 2000s hits like "The Middle." So it was a nice hat-tip when Jimmy Eat World recorded this for 2002's Good To Go EP and proved that, with slightly cleaner production, "Game of Pricks" could basically sound like a Jimmy Eat World song.
Lagwagon - "Freedom of Choice" (Devo cover)
There are still a lot of people who mainly think of Devo as the band who wore funny hats and wrote "Whip It," but they had been releasing great punk/post-punk/new wave records for years before that song came out, so it's no surprise that a bunch of punk bands teamed up for the Devo tribute album We Are Not Devo in 1997. One of those bands was Lagwagon, who turned Freedom of Choice's new wavey title track into a loud, raw skate-punk song. This isn't Punk Goes... or anything, though. You can hear the conviction in Joey Cape's voice and tell that this impassioned cover came from a place of admiration.
Alkaline Trio - "Metro" (Berlin cover)
Sticking in the post-punk/new wave world for a second, Berlin were one of the greats within those genres years before the cornballness of "Take My Breath Away," so it was well deserved when Alkaline Trio put a modern punk spin on "Metro" from 1982's Pleasure Victim. The synths of the original are replaced by distorted guitars, and Alkaline Trio basically make it sound like an Alkaline Trio song without touching the pace or the melodies of the original. If there was any doubt about how much Alkaline Trio's morose pop punk pulled from goth and new wave, this cover erased it.
Paramore - "Stuck On You" (Failure cover)
Okay, this is kind of another stretch because Failure aren't really a "classic punk" band, but compared to the polished pop punk world of 2006 that Paramore released this cover into, the premise sort of fits? The band's spacey, heavy 1996 album Fantastic Planet remains an underrated yet highly influential album on a lot of punk-adjacent music today, and I am pretty sure a lot of younger people were introduced to this song by Paramore. Paramore's version replaces the jangly acoustic guitars with palm-muted power chords, and when Hayley Williams belts the chorus, she makes it sound like it could've been one of Paramore's own hits from that era. It makes sense -- the spacey/heavy chorus of Paramore's breakthrough song "Pressure" sounds as indebted to Failure as blink-182's hits did to the Descendents.
Read past and future editions of 'In Defense of the Genre' here.