30 punk songs with great acoustic versions
The acoustic punk song is a time-honored tradition that has seen a rise -- due to necessity -- during this year of isolation. This edition of In Defense of the Genre looks at 30 songs from throughout punk history with great acoustic versions.
The entire music world has taken a huge hit during this pandemic, but it's an especially rough time for punk, a genre that thrives off of people cramming together and jumping all over each other. Still, plenty of punk bands have found ways to make the best of it, and perhaps not surprisingly, acoustic punk has been very prominent this year. It's a natural thing to resort to if you're doing a livestream and can't get the band in a room together, and doing acoustic or other reworks of old songs is a good way to put out some new content even when you can't get together to write entirely new material. That's presumably why we've seen a handful of punk bands release reworkings of that sort this year, from one-off songs (like Bad Religion and NOFX) to entire albums (like The Menzingers and The Bouncing Souls). It's been an especially prevalent phenomenon this year -- and we've been treated to a lot of cool music in this realm lately -- but it's one that's existed within punk for decades. Though punk is a genre that's known for being the shorter, the faster, the louder the better, the history of punk has been full of genuinely great songwriting, and sometimes a great acoustic version of a song can bring those melodies and lyrics out even more so than the original. It's also just nice sometimes -- especially if you're stuck at home in a pandemic and maybe have family members or roommates who don't want to hear you blasting punk all day -- to get to enjoy your favorite punk bands in a calmer manner.
There are probably thousands of acoustic versions of punk songs out in the world, but to narrow down this phenomenon to some of the very best, I've put together a list of 30 punk songs with great acoustic versions. Some ground rules for this list: the song had to be recorded acoustically by the original artist/songwriter, so for example, as fantastic as Brendan Kelly's acoustic cover of Jawbreaker's "Kiss The Bottle" is, that's not eligible. I also tried to keep it to either studio recordings or official live recordings; there are plenty of cool videos on YouTube of punk bands doing acoustic in-stores and live sessions and the like, but I wanted this to be more about the artist having the intention to create an alternate version of their own song. The acoustic version does not, however, had to have come after the electric. As long as multiple versions exist, it qualifies for this list.
With that out of the way, read on for the list, unranked, in alphabetical order...
Against Me! - "Pints of Guinness Make You Strong"
Before Against Me! released their classic 2002 debut full-length Against Me! Is Reinventing Axl Rose, they released versions of some of those same songs on their early EPs, including their entirely acoustic, drum-less 2001 self-titled EP (aka The Acoustic EP). And one of the major highlights of that EP was the song that eventually opened Reinventing Axl Rose, "Pints of Guinness Make You Strong." As a song that tells the story of how Laura Jane Grace's grandmother Evelyn lost her husband James to alcoholism, it's one of the best and most powerful songs on Reinventing Axl Rose, and it's perhaps even more heart-wrenching in this emotionally bare form, with less noise to drown out the song's spine-tingling message. Laura still plays this one live a lot -- both with Against Me! and solo -- and she says it's taken on a new meaning to her, being on tour away from her daughter, who she named Evelyn after her grandmother. "The sentiment in the lyrics of, 'Evelyn, I'm not coming home tonight,' in the chorus, singing that nightly on stage when, you know, when your daughter's at home and you're away from her is still completely relevant to me."
Alkaline Trio - "Mercy Me"
Alkaline Trio released the "semi-unplugged" album Damnesia with new versions of songs from throughout their catalog (plus two new songs and a Violent Femmes cover) in 2011, and included on that album is a mostly-acoustic version of one of their biggest songs, "Mercy Me." It was tempting to pick one of the lesser known song for this list, but "Mercy Me" really lends itself to this format, and might even sound better this way. For a band who always had a dark side, "Mercy Me" is one of the brighter songs in their catalog, and this warm, jangle pop-inspired version really opens the song up and adds in spaciousness and breathing room that the heavily-palm-muted original only hinted at.
Anti-Flag - "Bradenburg Gate"
It's no surprise that a punk band with a strong love for Woody Guthrie would be naturals at having an acoustic folk side, and Anti-Flag have embraced that side of them over and over again, with numerous acoustic shows, an acoustic live album, and the 2018 acoustic studio album American Reckoning, that was comprised of acoustic versions of songs from 2015's American Spring and 2017's American Fall, alongside three covers. The American Spring version of "Brandenburg Gate" (which features Rancid's Tim Armstrong) is a fist-pump and shoutalong-inducing, stadium-sized anthem, but the American Reckoning version turns it into a somber, melancholic slow-burner and it sounds just as great for totally different reasons. It starts out bare bones, with just acoustic guitar and voice, and it builds to a lush, gorgeous climax, fleshed out by string (or string-like?) arrangements and rumbling percussion. Less fist-pumping but more breathtaking.
Bad Religion - "Sorrow"
Bad Religion's 2007 album New Maps of Hell is one of the hardest, fastest albums in the band's discography, but to balance that out, the deluxe edition came with seven acoustic songs. One of them is of "Sorrow," one of the highlights of their great, career-rejuvenating 2002 album The Process of Belief, and a song that very much prospers in an acoustic environment. The original version starts out as a reggae-punk song before doing a 180 and turning into a straight-up punk song, but even at its fastest moments, "Sorrow" is fueled by warm melodies, rich harmonies, and a sense of beautiful exhaustion that really come to life in the acoustic version. With no rhythm section at all to lean on, "Sorrow" has to get by off the strength of pure songwriting alone, and Bad Religion pull it off masterfully.
The Bouncing Souls - "Gone"
After playing some acoustic shows for their 30th anniversary in 2019, The Bouncing Souls decided to record a full acoustic album, this year's Volume 2, but it quickly became more than your average "acoustic album." "We initially wanted to recreate some of the stripped-down vibe of the acoustic sets," guitarist Pete Steinkopf said, "but if anything, these versions are much more involved than the original versions." That's very true, as you can hear on one of my personal favorites, "Gone." The How I Spent My Summer Vacation version is a driving punk song, but it always sounded a little more soaring than the band's usual pogo-inducing rippers, which made it a perfect contender for a slower, more tender version. You can also hear on this version just how lived-in the song feels for the Souls, as singer Greg Attonito touched on in our recent interview: "We must have played 'Gone' thousands of times so I know the vocal inside and out. It was so satisfying to put all those years experience into this version of the song." Fleshed out by gorgeous string (or synthetic string?) arrangements, it sounds like the song playing during the climax of a '90s coming-of-age movie. And I very much mean that as a compliment.
Catch 22 / Bandits of the Acoustic Revolution - "Dear Sergio"
In between the time Tomas Kalnoky released Catch 22's 1998 ska-punk classic Keasbey Nights and formed Streetlight Manifesto, he released an EP with his acoustic collective Bandits of the Acoustic Revolution that included a new version of Keasbey Nights standout "Dear Sergio." The non-stop energy of the original is replicated with this version, which shares a fast-paced rhythm section, fleshed-out horn section, and breathless vocal delivery with the Keasbey Nights version, but it also works in other instrumentation like strings and hand drums, as well as an entirely new verse. It's a total reinvention, and just as cool as the Keasbey Nights version.
Descendents - "Hope"
Descendents' 1982 debut album Milo Goes to College is arguably the blueprint for pop punk as we know it, as short, fast, and loud as all the hardcore albums Descendents' peers were putting out, but with a sense of melodicism that looked beyond the limits of punk. "Hope" is a song that's proven to be especially influential and ahead of its time -- and later covered by both Sublime and blink-182 -- and for the new benefit/tribute album to the late Sublime frontman Bradley Nowell, Descendents frontman Milo Aukerman contributed a solo acoustic guitalele version of the song. In this quieter version, it really comes through how strong the melodies of the original are, and how timeless it remains after nearly 40 years. (He also then launched a full-fledged solo uke project, RebUke.)
The Distillers - "Dismantle Me"
When The Distillers released their classic 2003 album Coral Fang (their final album before breaking up, though now they're reunited and have been working on a new one), they accompanied it with an internet-only single featuring acoustic versions of two of its songs. One of those is "Dismantle Me," which features nothing besides Brody Dalle and an acoustic guitar, and which sounds like it was recorded in one take with no overdubs, speed-ups, laughter, and voice cracks included. Brody pretty much played as hard as she did on the electric version, and the result is a fine offering of fired-up acoustic punk.
Face To Face - "Bill of Goods"
After getting gobbled up and spit out by the major label punk feeding frenzy of the mid '90s, Face To Face inked a deal with Vagrant in the early 2000s and found themselves reinvigorated and peers of a new generation of punk bands who were starting to rise up from the underground. 2002 saw the release of the great How to Ruin Everything, followed by a slot on the Vagrant America tour (alongside soon-to-be-famous labelmates like Dashboard Confessional and Saves The Day), and the next year they played Warped Tour for the first time since 1997. It was a definite comeback moment, and it produced one of their best songs, "Bill of Goods." Unfortunately, the comeback was cut short by a hiatus that started in 2004, but Face To Face regrouped four years later, and they've since released three more albums and the 2018 acoustic album Hold Fast: Acoustic Sessions. Included on that album is a great rendition of "Bill of Goods." The electric version finds Face To Face at their most furious, but underneath all that fury is some of Face To Face's strongest and most distinct songwriting, and that really comes through on this more tender rendition.
Flogging Molly - "Drunken Lullabies"
Perhaps more than any of the other popular Celtic punk bands of this century, Flogging Molly may actually be more immersed in folk music than in punk, so it's only natural that they'd do some entirely acoustic material. 2006's Whiskey On A Sunday is a mix of live material, acoustic recordings, and one new song, and one of those acoustic recordings is of the band's most widely-loved song, "Drunken Lullabies." The version on their 2002 album of the same name finds Flogging Molly at their fastest, but this version slows it down and turns it into more of a traditional folk song, and it's just as great in this form. When you're more in the mood for melancholy than dancing, this is the version you want.
Gameface / Jeff Caudill - "My Star"
Orange County melodic emo-punks Gameface never got as big as they deserved, but it's safe to assume the bands who did blow up in the early 2000s were listening to records like Gameface's 1999 Revelation Records-released classic Every Last Time and its fan fave "My Star." That's one of the most iconic songs to come out of '90s emo, and ten years after its release, frontman Jeff Caudill reworked it as a gorgeous, delicate acoustic song on his Had To Be There EP. It's drastically different than the original -- closer to Dashboard Confessional than to Gameface -- but it totally works like this too, and Jeff breathed new life into it. If you didn't know any better, you'd never guess it was a decade-old punk song.
The Gaslight Anthem - "Great Expectations"
New Brunswick heartland punks The Gaslight Anthem have incorporated acoustic songs into their catalog since their first album, and over the years they also recorded acoustic versions of their electric songs as B-sides. One of the best is "Great Expectations," the opening track of their classic 2008 sophomore album The '59 Sound. The album version is a triumphant, rollicking song that's built to get stadiums of fans going nuts, but not this acoustic version. Brian does it solo, slows it down a lot, and proves it can sound just as good as a hushed, mournful acoustic song. It's the kind of song where you could picture Brian playing it in a room un-mic'd, and the whole place would be so mesmerized that they'd have no choice but to shut up and listen.
Hot Water Music / Chuck Ragan - "God Deciding"
At this point, Chuck Ragan has as much of a career as a folk singer as he does as the co-frontman of Hot Water Music, and those paths don't cross very often. Every once in a while, he breaks out a Hot Water Music song at a solo show, but he generally keeps his solo shows for his solo music, which he's got plenty of. One of those Hot Water Music breakouts happened in 2007 when HWM was on hiatus, and Chuck played "God Deciding" from HWM's great 2002 split with Alkaline Trio at an LA show that became the live album Los Feliz. (According to Setlist.fm, it's the only time Chuck ever performed the song solo.) The original is a post-hardcore rager and one of Hot Water Music's best songs, and it's also a fairly complex song that relies a lot on a full band coming together to pull it off. For his solo version, Chuck had to reshape it pretty significantly or it never would've worked, and he pulled it off. It might be the same general chords, lyrics, and melodies, but it feels like an entirely different song, and we're lucky to have both versions.
The Interrupters - "Gave You Everything"
The Interrupters helped put ska-punk back on the charts and the radio with their 2018 single "She's Kerosene" from that same year's Fight the Good Fight, and their success didn't stop there. The following year, "Gave You Everything" became a hit too, and when it did, they also gave it an acoustic version. Instead of the fast, driving pop punk of the album version, this one takes things in a softer direction, and when the piano comes in on the chorus, it turns into a downright beautiful ballad. The Interrupters usually get by on undeniable catchiness and danceability, but it turns out they excel in this realm too.
Jeff Rosenstock - "Nausea"
After years of leading the bands Arrogant Sons of Bitches and Bomb the Music Industry!, Jeff Rosenstock turned his focus towards his solo career, and he's now released four great solo records in the past five years. He can't be stopped. Two years before he released his 2015 album We Cool?, home of fan fave "Nausea," he put out an acoustic version of that song on Summer+, an expanded edition of his Summer 7" (including covers of Fiona Apple, Neil Young, and Throwing Muses). The version that ended up on We Cool? is an anthemic fusion of indie-punk and piano pop, but this acoustic version is more straightforward, has a Neil Young/Bob Dylan-esque harmonica solo, and is just as great. When Jeff yells so loud that the mic distorts a bit, it only adds more charm.
Joyce Manor - "DFHP?"
Before Joyce Manor released their now-classic 2011 self-titled debut album, they put out a 2010 split with Summer Vacation (a band Joyce Manor themselves were influenced by early on), and that split contained the 50-second song "DFHP?," an early example of Joyce Manor's ability to make impactful indie-punk with absolutely zero fat. They also had an acoustic version sitting in their vaults somewhere, which finally got an official release on 2020's Songs From Northern Torrance compilation, and this version is great too. If you like the weirder, non-punk songs of their underrated 2012 record Of All Things I Will Soon Grow Tired, you'll like the acoustic "DFHP?" too.
Lagwagon / Joey Cape - "May 16"
Lagwagon have always brought a sense of traditional songcraft to their snotty skate punk, so it's no surprise to hear frontman Joey Cape loves stuff like The Byrds, Belle & Sebastian, Neutral Milk Hotel, Love, XTC, Teenage Fanclub, Elliott Smith, and Echo & the Bunnymen, or that he's led a folky solo project for over a decade. In addition to his solo albums of new original music, he also does lots of acoustic versions of Lagwagon songs, like on his two Acoustic split albums with the late Tony Sly (of No Use For A Name) and on 2010's Don't Wake Up The Kids!!, a Japan-only split with Hi-Standard's Ken Yokoyama and Snuff's Duncan Redmonds. It was on that split that Joey did a solo acoustic version of Lagwagon's most-loved song, "May 16," which sounds especially lovely in this form. When you strip away the double-time drumming and brattiness of the Let's Talk About Feelings version, it becomes even clearer that "May 16" was in the same classic pop tradition as Belle & Sebastian and The Byrds all along.
The Menzingers - "High School Friend"
The Menzingers' newly-released From Exile is a reworked folky version of 2019's Hello Exile, and the versions of these songs sound so great and so natural that it's almost hard to believe they were punk songs first. The Menzingers make a pretty damn good Americana band, and that very much comes through on "High School Friend," which finds them incorporating some Bob Dylan/Neil Young-esque harmonica, gently rollicking rhythms, and soaring countrified harmonies. This album was born out of the inability to tour during the pandemic, but let's hope The Menzingers do more stuff like this. It suits them perfectly.
No Use For A Name / Tony Sly - "Justified Black Eye"
Like Joey Cape, the late Tony Sly brought classic pop sensibilities and detailed lyricism to his skate punk band (No Use For A Name), so it's no surprise that he and Joey were so close and released two split albums together. The first of those, from 2004, includes this hauntingly beautiful, string-laden rendition of "Justified Black Eye," the classic opener of 1995's ¡Leche con Carne!. The original is such a ripper that you almost don't notice the melancholy in it, but this version is damn near heartbreaking.
NOFX - "Just The Flu"
NOFX had their big breakthrough with 1994's Punk In Drublic, but they'd already established their beloved snot-nosed sound a few years before that and they'd already released some landmark albums within the punk community, like 1991's Ribbed. One song on Ribbed, "Just The Flu," has lyrics that are eerily prophetic now that we're living through a pandemic 29 years later. And while stuck at home during this pandemic, Fat Mike & co decided to record an acoustic version of this song, which feels like it could've been written yesterday. On the Ribbed version, NOFX sound like brash, DGAF punk kids, but on the 2020 version, they sound mournful and exhausted. Who could blame them?
+44 - "Baby Come On"
When blink-182 were on hiatus in the mid/late 2000s, Mark Hoppus and Travis Barker released the sole album by their underrated side project +44, which remains home to some of Mark's best songs. He showed off a more somber side of his songwriting than usual on that album, like on "Baby Come On," which was more like an emo power ballad than like the juvenile pop punk blink-182 were best known for. For the second volume of Fearless Records' Punk Goes Acoustic series, +44 contributed a version of that song that stripped it down to just acoustic guitar, piano, and Mark's voice, and in this form, it's even more of a show-stopper.
Ramones - "Don't Come Close"
The Ramones always had affinity for pop ballads, but they were usually masked in the band's fuzzed-out exterior, like on "I Remember You" and "Here Today, Gone Tomorrow," but by 1978's Ed Stasium-produced Road to Ruin, they allowed themselves to go full jangle pop on "Don't Come Close." It's one of the band's sweetest sounding songs and it rivals just about any of their punk rippers, and it was the perfect song for an acoustic version. They actually recorded one back in the day, and when the album got a deluxe 40th anniversary reissue in 2018, that acoustic version was included. It's just Joey singing over an acoustic guitar with no bells and whistles or anything, and even in this bare-bones form, it still feels like a stone cold classic.
Rancid / Tim Timebomb - "Fall Back Down"
Tim Armstrong does lots of acoustic versions of Rancid songs under his Tim Timebomb moniker. It was hard to pick just one for this list, but I had to go with "Fall Back Down," the band's most straight-up pop moment. As big as ...And Out Come the Wolves was and still is, "Fall Back Down" is the song that introduced Rancid to non-punk listeners, which makes it very conducive to being reworked in a non-punk fashion. The iconic organ, gang vocals (here provided by The Interrupters), and rockabilly solos of the original are intact on this one, but Tim and his acoustic guitar do the bulk of the heavy lifting, and the result is a version of the song that's just as essential as the one Rancid released a decade before this came out.
Rise Against - "Everchanging"
Despite being a largely a melodic hardcore band, Rise Against's breakthrough song was the acoustic "Swing Life Away," so it should come as no surprise that Rise Against were pros at embracing a more tender side. That's exactly what they did when they recorded an acoustic version of "Everchanging," a rippin' highlight of their 2001 debut LP The Unraveling, and the song took on a whole new life with this version. It works so perfectly this way that you almost forget it was ever a fast-paced punk song.
Saves The Day - "Jesse & My Whetstone"
In between their 1998 debut LP Can't Slow Down and their 1999 sophomore LP Through Being Cool, Saves The Day released the fully acoustic I'm Sorry I'm Leaving EP. One of its songs, "Jesse & My Whetstone," became an electric full-band live band staple, and that version was eventually immortalized with a 2003 live recording on their 2004 compilation Ups & Downs: Early Recordings and B-Sides. It's also a song that -- even in its acoustic form -- always sounded like it begged to be fleshed out as a full-band pop punk song (and when Saves The Day's pals Say Anything covered it, that's how they did it). But regardless, the song in its original form was just Chris Conley with his acoustic guitar, and over 20 years later, it still sounds classic and timeless this way.
Social Distortion - "Story Of My Life"
After starting out as a hardcore band, Social Distortion got increasingly melodic and increasingly countrified, and by their 1990 self-titled major label debut, they were writing straight-up folk songs with a punk exterior. At some point (I'm not sure when or where this recording is from), Mike Ness decided to play this song as an actual folk song, and it works out as just as well in this form. If anything, the melancholy only comes through more strongly.
Strike Anywhere - "Chalk Line"
Strike Anywhere have always been a band who pulled from real-deal hardcore as well as from more melodic music, making them very good candidates to appear on Fearless Records' first Punk Goes Acoustic album. They ended up contributing an acoustic version of "Chalk Line" from their now-classic 2001 debut album Change Is A Sound, and even though the original is pretty melodic as is, this is far from a straightforward "acoustic version." Strike Anywhere totally reinvented the song, slowing it down, adding in some atmospheric keyboards, and turning the melodic hardcore rager into something glistening and delicate.
Tigers Jaw - "I Saw Water"
Tigers Jaw had their big breakthrough just as three longtime members were leaving the band, and at this point, the more polished, "mature" sound they've been honing since the classic lineup's final album (2014's Charmer) is what they're best known for. But in certain underground punk/emo circles, the Tigers Jaw fan fave will always be their scrappy self-titled 2008 album (which got a 10th anniversary tour at smaller venues than Tigers Jaw normally play these days, further proving its status as a cult classic). If you can't pick a side, or you just like both, the perfect middle ground is their 2015 acoustic album Studio 4 Acoustic Session. Recorded by the remaining core duo of Ben Walsh and Brianna Collins, the album features highlights from the s/t like "I Saw Water" and "Plane vs. Tank vs. Submarine" reworked in a manner that's closer to the music Tigers Jaw make now. There's no drums and the moshable energy of the album version is gone, but I might actually say this version suits the song even better. It really brings out the passion in the lyrics, and Ben and Brianna's harmonies really shine.
War On Women - "Predator In Chief"
One of the great anti-Trump punk songs is War On Women's "Predator In Chief" from their 2018 album Capture The Flag. In its original form, it's a thrashy double-time punk ripper, but for the band's acoustic Live From Magpie Cage EP, they reworked it in a way that's warmer and more tender but without losing the charm and the bite of the original. Shawna Potter is a punk vocalist who really knows how to sing, and she puts those chops to the test on this rendition, replacing the shouts of the Capture The Flag version with a delivery that really shows off her range. And when she gets to the "fuck this fucking rapist" line, it's just as goosebump-inducing as when she scream-sings it on Capture The Flag.
The Wonder Years - "Passing Through A Screen Door"
Modern-day pop punk greats The Wonder Years have now released two acoustic EPs in their Burst & Decay series, the latest being Burst & Decay, Volume II from 2019. Most of the songs on that EP were slower/softer Wonder Years songs in the first place, but my favorite song on it was the version of "Passing Through A Screen Door," which originally appeared as one of the hardest hitting rippers on 2013's The Greatest Generation. This one had to be majorly reinvented, and the band pulled it off expertly, adding in a string quartet and piano and totally restructuring the song. It's also one of the more personal, vulnerable songs Dan Campbell has written, and that emotion is even more intense on this version.
You can also listen or subscribe to a Spotify playlist featuring almost all of the acoustic versions included above (except for a few that aren't on Spotify):
Read past and future editions of 'In Defense of the Genre' here.