blink-182 and Descendents’ comebacks, and the enduring influence of pop punk
Love 'em or hate 'em, one of the biggest music stories of the year is the comeback of blink-182. The recently-released California isn't their first reunion album -- that would be 2011's Neighborhoods -- and it doesn't even have founding co-frontman Tom Delonge, but, musically speaking, it has helped put this band more in the spotlight than they've been since their 1999-2003 era. Lead single "Bored to Death" is the band's first #1 single on the Alternative Songs chart since "I Miss You" in 2004, and the album booted Drake out of the #1 album slot. There's also a good chance your favorite music website published a lengthy article on the band this year, even if they never had before. (I guess we're now also guilty.) It's all pretty unexpected and impressive for a band with a sound that hasn't been largely popular in over a decade.
There was no guaranteeing a blink-182 album in 2016 would have this effect though. Weirdly enough, one of the same things currently holding the band back is also allowing them to move forward: the departure of Tom Delonge. Tom got fed up with his band being considered juvenile and wanted to be taken seriously. According to Travis Barker, he wanted the band to sound like Coldplay and U2. Tom's initial experiments with the band's sound actually helped blink-182. One of the reasons they live up better than the other bubblegum pop punk bands they were grouped with on MTV -- Sum 41, Simple Plan, Good Charlotte, The All-American Rejects, etc -- is that they took their sound into different, interesting territories with 2003's self-titled/untitled album. Tom got into heavier post-hardcore and '80s alterna/arena rock, Mark got into indie rock, and Travis got into hip hop. Enough of the band's trademark sound remained that the result was a genre-defying expert rock album that didn't alienate old fans. Not to mention it had a guest spot from Robert Smith. (Another main reason blink-182 live up is that before their 1999 breakthrough Enema of the State, they released two real-deal punk albums. 1995's Cheshire Cat is a good album with some classic songs ("Carousel," "M+Ms," "Wasting Time") and 1997's Dude Ranch is front-to-back about as good as pop punk gets.)
As Tom's other band Angels and Airwaves makes pretty clear, he went full U2 a while ago and the results are not too hot. On Neighborhoods, Mark and Travis tamed Tom's bombast with their own idea of how blink-182 should sound, and that clash of sounds is often interesting ("Up All Night" is still the band's best reunion-era song). This time around, Mark and Travis made it pretty clear that they know the reason blink-182 is taken seriously is entirely because of albums like Enema of the State, and that a lasting legacy would come from embracing that, rather than fighting it. They're not wrong -- you can hear the sounds of blink's late '90s/early '00s era in Best Coast, Wavves, Japandroids, Joyce Manor, FIDLAR, Cloud Nothings, Colleen Green, and plenty of other current acclaimed rock bands. So they enlisted the help of Alkaline Trio's Matt Skiba and set out to party like it's 1999.
Opener "Cynical" is the first time blink put a fast pop punk song on a record since 2001, and it's great to hear them doing that kind of thing again. ("The Only Thing That Matters" is another one of these.) Mark's opening line could be read as the thing motivating him to make this record: "There's a cynical feeling saying I should give up / You said everything you'll ever say." When the drums kick in and the song picks up speed, it's clear that he's fighting the feeling. "Cynical" is followed by the aforementioned "Bored to Death," and that one-two punch is actually a pretty strong way to kick off the album. I hated "Bored to Death" when I first heard it, mostly due to the over-production work of John Feldmann. Feldmann normally works with bands that pull from blink-182 but strip away about 90% of the "punk" in their sound, like Good Charlotte, All Time Low, and most recently, 5 Seconds of Summer. His touch is most offensive in the overly-tuned vocals and computerized harmonies, but the sometimes-artificial sounds he applies to the guitars and drums don't help much either. If you can get past it though, it's pretty clear that "Bored to Death" and a handful of other songs here have that same magic that made their prime-era hits so memorable.
Production aside, the album is also too long, too samey, and too often recycling old blink-182 songs. "Bored to Death" almost entirely lifts a riff from "Adam's Song." "No Future" starts out sounding like the beginning of "Anthem Pt. 2" and "She's Out of Her Mind" starts out sounding like the 11-second mark of that same song. The joke songs ("Built This Pool" and "Brohemian Rhapsody") are unnecessary if not embarrassing, the acoustic ballad ("Home Is Such A Lonely Place") could go, and so could the head-scratching "Los Angeles." Even on the best songs, the band sounds like they're over-simplifying their sound. But the biggest crime, which should come as no surprise, is the absence of Tom Delonge. His departure may have made this album possible, but without his and Mark's interplay, it never truly feels like blink-182. Of course Mark Hoppus, Matt Skiba and Travis Barker could get in a room and write a good pop punk album, which they did. But blink-182 were always more than good pop punk. Take Mark and Tom's overlapping vocals at the end of their massive hit "What's My Age Again?" Like all the best songs that you've heard a million times, those repeated listens reveal an attention to detail that isn't always apparent when the radio's on in the background. California needs that.
blink-182's comeback album comes the same month as a comeback album from one of the band's biggest influences, the Descendents. (On a side note: Matt Skiba got Descendents drummer/producer Bill Stevenson to helm their last LP. Why couldn't he have done California instead of John Feldmann??) Descendents are almost solely responsible for creating the sound of blink's early records (just listen to blink's faithful cover of "Hope" and try to say it doesn't sound straight off Dude Ranch), which, given blink's enduring popularity/influence, makes Descendents godfathers of the past decade and a half of popular rock. California may be tearing up the charts this year, but Hypercaffium Spazzinate, the first Descendents LP in 12 years, is the best pop punk album of 2016 (so far?). The spirit they have here is impressive for any band, but especially for one whose first album came out 34 years prior. They've mastered the art of aging gracefully in pop punk, not going with a U2 influence or a pop-minded producer. They realize that good pop punk can be timeless, that "maturing" doesn't have to mean slowing down. Besides cleaner production and sharper vocal chops, it doesn't really sound like there's 34 years between this and their landmark album Milo Goes to College. In this case that's a good thing. The latter still has an effect on music today, and remains a must-hear for fans of punk and indie rock. The new one should please those same fans and longtime punks alike, and hopefully snag them some new fans too.
Descendents always manage to pop up every time their influence is being felt. 1996's Everything Sucks, released when Green Day, The Offspring and Rancid were becoming genuinely big bands, remains one of the Descendents' best albums. 2004's Cool To Be You, released the same year as blink-182's last #1 song (before this year's "Bored to Death"), is quality work as well. Now they're here as blink are claiming their throne as an influential and important band, and as pop punk gets to shine once again.
Pop punk's mainstream era is mostly over (which, again, makes California's popularity all the more surprising), but it's having a major moment within indie rock. PUP wrote one of the most well-received indie rock albums of 2016 with The Dream Is Over, an album that sounds built for a '90s Warped Tour. (It was also released on SideOneDummy, home of the excellent blink-182-curated Atticus... Dragging The Lake compilations.) Modern Baseball, whose Holy Ghost is another of the year's most acclaimed rock albums, blur the lines between pop punk and indie rock until you stop believing they even exist. (They're also touring with the Descendents this year.) Christian Holden of The Hotelier, who picked up even more acclaim for the fantastic Goodness, considers Enema of the State the reason they wanted to be in a band. Their upcoming tour with massive blink fans Joyce Manor doubles as one of the year's best rock tours and more proof that this sound is alive and well. Even artists that aren't pop punk like Pinegrove or Mitski -- makers of two of 2016's best indie rock albums -- owe more to the sound of Descendents or blink-182 than to traditional indie influencers like Pavement or Joy Division or The Velvet Underground.
This musical climate is also giving some pop punk veterans a chance at a second coming. Beach Slang, who are also on part of the Descendents tour this year, is the new focus of James Alex Snyder of '90s/'00s pop punks Weston, and they're already bigger and more talked-about than that band ever was. Last year's The Things We Do To Find People Who Feel Like Us was one of the best albums of 2015 and they're already set to follow it with A Loud Bash of Teenage Feelings this September. Going by lead single "Punks in a Disco Bar" (which just got a video), they haven't lost their spirit. Beach Slang's popularity also gave Weston a chance to reunite for a tour with another sadly-forgotten pop punk band, Digger, and Mikey Erg -- of cult band The Ergs! -- whose new solo album is another highlight of 2016 pop punk.
Against Me! have also entirely reinvented themselves after DIY folk punk beginnings followed by a major label pop punk phase. After singer Laura Jane Grace came out as transgender and revamped the band's lineup, they released 2014's Transgender Dysphoria Blues to universal acclaim. It's arguably their best album yet, and definitely their most powerful. They're finally ready to follow it with the highly-anticipated Shape Shift With Me in September, and lead single "333" hints that the anticipation will likely be justified. They're hitting the road this year with another crew of pop punk godfathers, Bad Religion.
It won't be surprising if these tours help introduce some of Against Me! and Beach Slang's younger fans to the power of Bad Religion and the Descendents. Especially those fans whose alternative rock history comes from the Pitchfork '80s albums list or Our Band Could Be Your Life. Both Beach Slang and Against Me! are not subtly in the lineage of The Replacements, or The Replacements' fellow Minnesota punk-turned-alt-rock-progenitors Husker Du. But they also serve as a needed reminder that "Clean Sheets" predicted '90s alternative rock as much as "Color Me Impressed" and "Don't Want To Know If You Are Lonely" did.
The once-maligned genre has plenty of other bands that kept chugging away during pop punk's many phases and periods of popularity or lack thereof. They're still here, and many of them haven't lost it. This year we've gotten quality records from Face to Face, The Bouncing Souls, Useless ID, supergroup The Falcon (The Lawrence Arms, Alkaline Trio, The Loved Ones), Toys That Kill, and we've got seemingly-promising NOFX, Flogging Molly and Pansy Division albums on the way. Recent years have given us welcome returns from The Muffs, Good Riddance, H2O, Millencolin and Rancid. Epitaph and Fat Wreck Chords remain powerhouses for this kind of stuff, with both labels signing new bands that keep the sound alive. The former is responsible for recent LPs by Joyce Manor and The Menzingers, and the latter has given us Night Birds, Mean Jeans, and PEARS. Asian Man is still alive with solid bands like Dog Party. The aforementioned SideOneDummy has that PUP album, Jeff Rosenstock, Timeshares, and Iron Chic. It'd be a good time for another of those Atticus comps or a Punk-O-Rama.
Most of these are still killer live bands too. If it feels to you like this world is over, you just haven't attended a recent Riot Fest or Punk Rock Bowling. They're thriving worlds where I've seen Descendents and Rancid excel as genuinely huge headliners, and people go hard early in the day for bands like Millencolin, H2O and The Lawrence Arms. I was even a little surprised to see how well Flogging Molly and blink-182 went over at this year's mindie-focused Firefly Festival. You don't have to go to a festival to witness this though. I recently went on a kick where I tried to catch a bunch of these bands touring through NYC -- including Bad Religion's "centuries" tour, Face to Face playing full albums, and yes, even ska-punks Less Than Jake doing the same. These shows were packed, the bands were tight as can be, and the crowds were beaming with enthusiasm. It's easy to think of this kind of music as something you "used to listen to," but it's hard to walk into one of these shows and feel like this type of fun is something you've grown out of.
UPDATE: A day later, a new Bracket album came out.