This edition of 'In Defense of the Genre' looks at the 20th anniversary of one of the most important pop punk albums of the early 2000s, New Found Glory's mainstream breakthrough 'Sticks and Stones.'

It's been a long time coming, but it's now generally accepted to consider pop punk a valid genre of its own, not a bastardization of one. It's weird that it took so long -- the Ramones were arguably the first true punk band, and they were influenced by bubblegum pop -- but it did, and it probably never would've happened without New Found Glory. They're probably the most widely influential pop punk band of the early 2000s outside of blink-182, but unlike blink, they've made pop punk their entire personality. After a semi and very brief foray outside of genre with 2006's Coming Home, New Found Glory proudly returned to pop punk and started naming their tours things like The Easycore Tour and The Pop Punk's Not Dead Tour -- the former helping to popularize the easycore genre that NFG are massively influential on -- and their renewed commitment to pop punk coincided with a new generation of pop punk defenders, just about all of whom owed a lot to New Found Glory's music. Like their recent acolytes, they saw pop punk not as a watered-down version of punk, but as an avenue to innovate and create something new. They're probably the most popular band to ever ride for both Britney Spears and Madball, and even if their fandom wasn't vocal, you'd be able to hear the impact of both on their music. It's a formula they've used time and time again, and the album that perfected it and brought it to the masses was Sticks and Stones, which came out 20 years ago this Saturday (6/11).

To backtrack for a second, New Found Glory formed in 1997 with members who had played in a few little-known Florida punk bands, as well as guitarist/backing vocalist Chad Gilbert, who previously fronted Shai Hulud and left the band after recording their now-classic debut album Hearts Once Nourished with Hope and Compassion, securing New Found Glory hardcore cred that lasted even after they signed to a major, appeared all over national television, and became one of the biggest bands in the world. (They'd later release a hardcore-inspired EP for the beloved hardcore label Bridge 9 Records, including three originals plus covers of Gorilla Biscuits, Lifetime, and Shelter, and earlier this year Sticks and Stones was given a 20th anniversary vinyl reissue by one of the best hardcore labels around, Triple B Records.) The pop punk of the time was largely derived from SoCal skate punk, but New Found Glory pulled from the tougher sounds of East Coast hardcore, as well as poppy second wave emo bands like The Get Up Kids, and it gave them a sound that sat nicely next to the blink-182s and Green Days of the world but also worked with the soon-to-explode early 2000s emo scene. They debuted with 1997's It's All About the Girls EP and then arrived almost fully formed on their 1999 debut album Nothing Gold Can Stay, an emo-ish pop punk album that's not unlike other class of '99 favorites like Through Being Cool and Something to Write Home About, but as those bands began shying away from mainstream accessibility, New Found Glory leaned into it. Nothing Gold Can Stay birthed the song "Hit or Miss," which caught the attention of Drive-Thru Records, who quickly signed the band and re-released the album later that year. When it came time for New Found Glory to release a second album, Drive-Thru's upstream deal with MCA landed NFG on a major label, they linked up with producer Neal Avron (who previously helped Everclear clean up their sound on So Much for the Afterglow and later produced Fall Out Boy, Yellowcard, and more), and they re-recorded "Hit or Miss," which became the band's breakthrough song. That album, which is self-titled, was a near-perfect fusion of the sugary pop and chugging hardcore that New Found Glory loved. It was less yearning and scrappy than Nothing Gold Can Stay, and more polished and to the point. It famously won over Mark Hoppus and landed the band a slot opening on a tour with blink-182, and as far as punk bands in 2000 were concerned, it was a huge hit. But New Found Glory had their eyes set on something bigger than punk; they were ready to take over the world, and with Sticks and Stones, they'd do it.

New Found Glory "were wondering if [they] could ever write another song to live up to ['Hit Or Miss']," Chad Gilbert told Louder Sound in 2016, and with lead Sticks and Stones single "My Friends Over You," they did it. "Hit Or Miss" may have namedropped "Thriller," but "My Friends Over You" took what NFG learned from the kings and queens of pop and perfectly fused it with their punk upbringing. Kicking off with a bouncy main riff that pulled equally from New York Hardcore rhythms and Tom DeLonge's melodic leads, it goes into a hooky verse that leads into a hookier pre-chorus that leads into an even hookier chorus, and a perfectly suspenseful bridge that leads into one last chorus, but let's sing it twice this time. It became the band's first song to crack the Billboard Hot 100, and it made them a household name. It was followed a few months later by another single, the slower "Head On Collision," which practically counts as a power ballad as far as pop punk is concerned, and even 20 years later, both singles remain signature tracks for NFG, and crucial documents of pop punk's mainstream era. But we're not talking about Sticks and Stones 20 years later just because it had two big singles. Those are just the tip of the iceberg of an album that holds up exceedingly well, and maybe it's just that they're overplayed, but I'd say they're far from the best that Sticks and Stones has to offer.

As on the self-titled LP, New Found Glory worked with producer Neal Avron, and their chemistry was even greater this time around than it was on the self-titled. The album sounds warmer, cleaner, bigger, and more spacious, and, crucially, Neal encouraged drummer Cyrus Bolooki to let loose, after insisting that he take a "less is more" approach on the self-titled album. Travis Barker may be the reigning king of pop punk drummers, but Cyrus is up there, and his busy-yet-in-the-pocket playing is no small part of what elevated Sticks and Stones above the fast-growing crop of dime-a-dozen pop punk bands. The band members were also growing as songwriters; there was a lot more variety in the music, and the lyrics were still usually about girls but the sentiments expressed within them were deeper and more introspective than they'd been on previous albums. All of this is clear within the first 30 seconds of the album; "Understatement" kicks things off with one of the most badass intros in New Found Glory history, and then vocalist Jordan Pundik enters with an inward-looking admission: "I'm sick of smiling, and so is my jaw." And later: "I'm sick of being someone I'm not, please get me out of this slump." These once-goofy kids were starting to look like world-weary adults, and "Understatement" wasn't the only sign of it. Jordan grappled with the death of his grandfather on "Sonny," a downright pretty-sounding song that could come off as New Found Glory's answer to "Adam's Song" or "Stay Together for the Kids." It offered up just the right amount of maturity and depth without drifting too far from the radio-ready sound of the band's biggest hits.

Sticks and Stones pushed the band in multiple directions; it had softer songs, but it had harder songs too, like "Something I Call Personality," a two-minute, 40-second circle-pitter with backing vocals from members of Bane (and Mark Hoppus on bass) that could've fit on the Revelation Records roster. (Other guests on the album included backing vocals from members of H2O on "Understatement" and members of Alkaline Trio on "Forget My Name.") Some songs embraced multiple different extremes at once, like "Singled Out," which opens up with lo-fi beats to relax/study to before turning into revved-up pop punk verses, a soaring pop chorus, and a heavy bridge with chugged guitars and Shai Hulud-esque screams from Chad Gilbert. Other songs stuck to a tried-and-true pop punk formula, but worked in little hints of growth, like "Forget My Name," with its somber intro and Jordan insisting an on-and-off lover to "tell all my friends I'm dead," or "Never Give Up," where Cyrus' mile-a-minute punk beats are matched by warm melodies and lush harmonies that wrap around you like an old sweater. And just as Sticks and Stones opens with a bang, it closes with the album's most expansive song, "The Story So Far." It's a climactic slow-burner full of unpredictable dynamic shifts, twitchy drum fills, angelic harmonies, and sugar-rush hooks. It's what happens when you approach pop punk like it's an art form.

Sticks and Stones represented a lot of growth for New Found Glory, but it also had a yearning, youthful nostalgia that was a key part of early 2000s pop punk and emo. From referencing a popular children's rhyme with the title, to the album artwork, which shows two kids wrestling in the grass, this album evokes feelings of childhood from the minute you hold it in your hand. It doesn't always have the most profound lyricism or the most groundbreaking arrangements, but the emotion it delivers is fresh and sincere, and it's wrapped in catchy melodies and welcoming production that endure to this day. Whether you prefer the scrappier Nothing Gold Can Stay, the no-frills self-titled, the heavier Catalyst, or the softer Coming Home, it's hard to deny that Sticks and Stones hits a sweet spot that falls neatly between all of the albums from that first era of the band's career. It touches on a little bit of everything that the band is capable of, it helped define the new wave of pop punk that took over in the early 2000s, and it cemented New Found Glory as one of the genre's flagship bands. There's a reason that two of the biggest pop punk bands around were named after song titles and lyrics from this album (The Story So Far and All Time Low, respectively); pop punk was a crowded place in 2002, and with Sticks and Stones, New Found Glory steered the genre towards places it might've otherwise never gone.



Read past and future editions of 'In Defense of the Genre' here.

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