33 Best Punk Songs That Define The Genre

Bands like the Sex Pistols helped to kick off the anti-establishment origins of what is now known as punk music. Many UK bands like The Ramones and The Clash created a wealth of recordings in the ’70s that would be viewed as timeless contributions to the young genre.

In the ’80s and ’90s, post-punk, riot grrrl (yes, you read correctly), and pop-punk subgenres took over, and bands like Green Day became mainstream successes.

From the ’70s to the present day, turn up the volume and check out the best punk songs below.

God Save the Queen – Sex Pistols

One of Sex Pistols’ signature tunes from their debut album Nevermind the Bollocks, frontman Johnny Rotten delivers an unapologetic critique of British politics with ‘God Save the Queen.’ The title directly calls out the British monarchy, which drew much criticism from the punk wave of the ’70s in the UK. Though many radio stations banned the song for fear of backlash, the single still rose to number 2 on the charts.

Related: Check out our royalty song list.

Blitzkrieg Bop – Ramones

When the Ramones came onto the music scene, the ’70s punk wave was just reaching its peak in the UK. ‘Blitzkrieg Bop’ was their first official single, and they wrote it for their high-energy fans who attended their concerts. Their signature “Hey-ho, let’s go” line in the song was thought up after the band decided they wanted their own chant because they loved the Bay City Rollers’ “S-A-T-U-R-D-A-Y Night” chant so much.

Related: This song is on our list of 70s songs everyone knows.

White Riot – The Clash

Classic minimalist punk is at its finest with The Clash’s ‘White Riot.’ Frontman Joe Strummer wrote this rocker in the band’s early days and released it as their first single. With an anthemic statement calling on disenfranchised blacks and whites to band together against the establishment, Strummer wrote the lyrics after getting caught up in the infamous Notting Hill riots, where both policemen and festival goers were injured when officers tried to arrest a “pickpocketer.”

Related: Enjoy these short songs, one minute at a time.

I Wanna Be Your Dog – The Stooges

Iggy Pop wrote this highly charged punk classic while wanting to push artistic boundaries within the movement more than ever. Sexually-suggestive lyrics accompany the tune’s memorable descending power chord guitar riff from G to E. A single piano note in the background gives the dark tune a haunting feel. If you listen closely, you can also hear sleighbells in the background. Part of Iggy Pop’s production process was constantly searching for unconventional sounds to add to tracks.

Related: Hear a cover of this song on our playlist of songs from Cruella.

Holiday in Cambodia – Dead Kennedys

This in-your-face 1980 track directly aims at American college students who, in frontman Jello Biafra’s opinion, take a hypocritical stance as they pretend to care about the world’s oppressed populations while hiding within the bubble of university life. Biafra also took the opportunity to criticize the US government’s lack of action against Cambodian communist dictator Pol Pot at the time. Despite its controversial take, or perhaps because of it, ‘Holiday in Camobdia’ remains the Dead Kennedys’ trademark single.

Related: Listen to more songs named after places.

Marquee Moon – Television

Metaphorical lyrics color this cross-genre Television single. After its ’77 release in the US and UK, critics couldn’t put the song in one box. It didn’t entirely fit into the punk or pop genres, though it contains classic elements of both. This was Television’s first single, and they perfected it over years of rehearsal at their resident spot at New York’s famous music club, CBGB.

Related: Take some time to enjoy our long songs list.

Last Caress – Misfits

Vocalist and Misfits founder Glenn Danzig delivered on-pitch, clean vocal lines for their American punk material, especially evident with their cult hit ‘Last Caress.’ Hints of 1950s early rock and roll can be found in his eerie melody lines. The song’s controversial content, told from the perspective of a serial killer, has earned the song a spot on Loudwire’s “50 Disturbing Songs People Love.”

Rebel Girl – Bikini Kill

In the 1990s, America got its first dose of the riot grrrl movement, a subgenre of punk that was female-focused. Female punk group Bikini Kill was instrumental in the movement’s rise, and their feminist track ‘Rebel Girl’ became an anthem for aspiring punk girls across the country.

Related: This song features on our playlist of good old 90s songs.

Rise Above – Black Flag

An early ’80s single with an anthemic theme, ‘Rise Above’ quickly became a go-to punk song after its release. Its instrumentation took on a heavier approach than previous punk bands associated with the ’70s minimalist style. The “hardcore” track focuses on triumph over society’s control of individuals.

Waiting Room – Fugazi

Though the punk genre features raw, in-your-face lyrics, the content of these simple messages can be deeply philosophical. Fugazi’s ‘Waiting Room’ is labeled as “post-hardcore” and uses medical symbolism like waiting rooms and patients to critique society’s generally accepted view of waiting for something good to come along or waiting for the next big thing.

Related: Waiting for something? Hold tight with these anticipation songs.

Ever Fallen in Love – Buzzcocks

Songwriter Pete Shelley penned ‘Ever Fallen in Love,’ a song exploring the complex emotions revolving around romance, in the band’s van while members were waiting in line at a post office to mail a package. The night before, Shelley and the rest of the Buzzcocks watched the musical Guys and Dolls while relaxing for a few hours between concerts. The line from the musical, “Have you ever fallen in love with someone you shouldn’t?” resonated with Shelley, and it served as inspiration for their track.

Related: Head over to our list of the best songs about someone you can’t have.

Alternative Ulster – Stiff Little Fingers

“There’s nothin’ for us in Belfast. The Pound’s old, and that’s a pity.” One of punk’s timeless releases comes from the Northern Irish band, Stiff Little Fingers. The ’70s track encapsulates the state of Belfast at the time. Amid the strife from The Troubles, economic hardships, and disenfranchised youth, vocalist Jake Burns captured young peoples’ expanding nihilistic view with ‘Alternative Ulster.’

Related: This song features on our playlist of Irish songs.

Teenage Kicks – The Undertones

Northern Ireland produced several bands that were key players in the ’70s punk trend, including The Undertones. Their debut single in ’77, ‘Teenage Kicks,’ got a lot of help from BBC radio host John Peel. After hearing it for the first time, it became his all-time favorite tune (a line from the song, “Teenage dreams, so hard to beat,” is engraved on his headstone). He put it in his music rotation, and the airplay helped the band gain much attention in the UK.

Related: Feel young again with our teenager songs playlist.

Gimme Brains – Bratmobile

The riot grrrl movement of the ’90s kept rolling right on in to the early 2000s, and Bratmobile was a big part of the feminist punk subgenre. Their tune ‘Gimme Brains’ debunks the myth of the sexy punk-rocker so many girls found themselves fawning over. The band advises girls to become “their own punk rock dream” and respect themselves.

Related: Build up your confidence with these songs about trusting yourself.

Basket Case – Green Day

Another subgenre to sweep across America in the ’90s was the pop-punk trend, with the mainstream band Green Day in the driver’s seat. Their hits like ‘Basket Case’ were highly relatable. Frontman Billy Joe Armstrong wrote the hit when he was a teenager and experiencing a wave of panic attacks. The music video features the band performing in a mental asylum, an ode to the cult classic ’60s novel One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.

Recommended: Our pick of the greatest Green Day songs.

Self Esteem – The Offspring

One of The Offspring’s most popular singles, ‘Self Esteem’ was written by frontman Dexter Holland from an autobiographical perspective. He tackled both his and his fellow bandmates’ complicated past relationships with girlfriends and not having enough confidence to stand up for themselves regarding toxic behaviors. The Offspring experienced their heyday in the ’90s as they came onto the scene at the height of the pop-punk obsession.

I Wanna Be Sedated – Ramones

Inspired by bands of the ’60s, such as The Beatles, The Kinks, and The Who, when the Ramones set out to record ‘I Wanna Be Sedated’ for their album Road to Ruin, they took on the bands’ minimalist approach in the studio. Bandmate Joey Ramone wrote the fast-paced track after seeking treatment for burns at the hospital due to accidentally pouring hot water on himself.

London Calling – The Clash

A career-defining single for The Clash, frontman Joe Strummer was once again able to capture a generation of disaffected youth with his moody song, ‘London Calling.’ Written in the ’70s before the invention of the 24-hour news cycle, Strummer was still a self-described “news junkie.’ Drawing from reports of nuclear war, mass starvation, and apocalyptic flooding, he wrote ‘London Calling’ as a doomsday piece for the times.

Related: You won’t want to miss our playlist of London music.

Time Bomb – Rancid

Punk-rock duo Rancid went off the beaten path a bit with their ’90s single ‘Time Bomb.’ While the song maintains classic minimalist punk themes, the rhythm adopts a ska feel with a syncopated, reggae-infused beat. The over-the-top story follows a young crime boss in the making who gets taken down by a rival gang.

Anarchy in the U.K. – The Sex Pistols

The debut single from The Sex Pistols made it through two record label abandonment and countless radio station and record store bans before charting all the way into the top 40 in the UK. The controversy over ‘Anarchy in the U.K.’ proved fruitful for the young group even though they were shunned by much of the industry. The use of the word “anarchy” in the title didn’t sit well with a lot of people, but songwriter Johnny Rotten had creative destruction within society in mind when penning the tune rather than violently doing away with an entire political system.

American Jesus – Bad Religion

The band name hints at the overall content of the early ’90s single, ‘American Jesus.’ After watching footage of a speech by former US President George H.W. Bush citing God as the reason the US would ultimately win the Gulf War, Bad Religion began writing what would become their second most popular single of all time. At its core, it’s a critique of religion in America and its use regarding nationalism.

California Über Alles – Dead Kennedys

With political satire as its central theme and plenty of pop culture references to enduring classic novels like George Orwell’s 1984, the Dead Kennedys embark on a harsh critique of the hippie counterculture they experienced when they recorded ‘California Uber Alles’ in the late ’70s. Though frontman Jello Biafra shared many political views of those who leaned liberal, he was an outspoken critic of the counterculture movement and held nothing back with this track.

Psycho Killer – Talking Heads

Lead singer David Byrne was in design school when writing ‘Psycho Killer,’ not exactly the setting you’d expect for such a sinister track. The Talking Heads tells the story of a homicidal maniac, with two distinct influences driving the song. Byrne purposely wrote the tune in the style of Alice Cooper, which greatly impacted his artistic tendencies at the time. The American film Pyscho a la Norman Bates also inspired the song’s main character.

Related: Find this song on our obsessive list of stalking songs.

Sonic Reducer – Dead Boys

The slang term “sonic reducer” refers to a musician who refuses to sell out. He creates music to keep it “underground” and doesn’t care about getting rich or famous. This is the heart of the Dead Boys’ track, released in ’77. The song’s lyrics focus on championing isolation and self-reliance instead of societal acceptance.

In the City – The Jam

When songwriter Paul Weller headed up The Jam, they scored 18 top 40 hits consecutively over several years. For their song ‘In the City,’ a young Weller daydreams about leaving his upbringing in suburbia to experience London’s live music and clubbing culture.

Personality Crisis – New York Dolls

“And you’re a prima ballerina on a Spring afternoon. Change on into the wolfman, howlin’ at the moon.” Glam rock fuses with punk rock for the New York Dolls’ ‘Personality Crisis,’ a multi-layer track highlighting society’s obsession with pop culture and the unhealthy personality traits many often adopt when consumed with celebrities and their lifestyles.

Los Angeles – X

L.A. punk band X developed a cult-like following during their tenure in the ’80s. While many bands of the time focused on the California city’s glittery side, X highlighted some of the area’s gritty underbelly many never talked about. Their controversial song ‘Los Angeles’ tells the uncensored story of a racist individual who chooses to leave L.A. due to its growing diversity.

Related: Listen to these great Los Angeles songs.

Blister in the Sun – Violent Femmes

At only 19 years old, frontman Gordan Gano released The Violent Femmes’ debut record. Much of his adolescent self-doubt came through with their early material, including ‘Blister in the Sun.’ Boasting open-ended lyrics and a beloved guitar riff, many have speculated the song’s meaning over the years. Eventually, Gano explained it’s about losing control due to drug use. For more of their work, see our list of the best songs by the Violent Femmes.

Related: Warm up your day with these songs with sunshine.

Minor Threat – Minor Threat

“Pay no mind to us. We’re just a minor threat.” An anthem for punk rockers everywhere, Minor Threat’s self-titled song embraces the chaos and gets loud with this track. Vocalist Ian MacKaye is as anti-establishment as ever as he belts his disdain for society. A disordered drum beat and heavy guitar err on the side of hard rock with this blistering fan-favorite.

Blank Generation – Richard Hell and the Voidoids

During his time with the band Television, Richard Hell took the lyrics to songwriters Bob McFadden and Rod McKuen’s ‘The Beat Generation’ and re-wrote them. This ultimately became ‘Blank Generation,’ the debut album by his post-Television band Richard Hell and the Voidoids. The tune had a lasting impact on the punk genre as a whole. The Heartbreakers performed a live version of the track, and the Sex Pistols’ ‘Pretty Vacant’ was inspired by it.

Neat Neat Neat – The Damned

When The Damned debuted ‘New Rose’ in 1976, the song became the first punk single ever to be released. Their follow-up, ‘Neat Neat Neat,’ was released the same year and maintained the high-energy performance crowds would experience at their concerts. This is credited to their original producer, Nick “Basher” Lowe, who packed them into a studio and had them tape the entire album live in three days.

Chinese Rocks – The Heartbreakers

When The Ramones passed on ‘Chinese Rocks’ written by founding member Dee Dee Ramone, he took it to The Heartbreakers to see if they wanted to record it. After some slight edits to the lyrics, the band cut the track, which details a protagonist and his friends’ drug use. Though The Ramones didn’t want to record it originally due to its material, they later added it to their ’79 album End of the Century.

Bastards of Young – The Replacements

“Unwillingness to claim us, ya got no warrant to name us.” Released amid an economic boom in the mid-1980s, The Replacements’ ‘Bastards of Young’ denounces the materialistic culture of the time and blames the baby boomer generation for producing children who grow up happy to become a part of “Corporate America.” Despite its intense lyrical content, vocal melodies and souped-up instrumentation keep an upbeat attitude.

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About Ged Richardson

Ged Richardson is the Founder and Editor-in-Chief of ZingInstruments.com. He has been featured in Entrepreneur, PremierGuitar, Hallmark, Wanderlust, CreativeLive, and other major publications. As an avid music fan, he spends his time researching and writing about new and old music, as well as testing and reviewing music-related products. He's played guitar in various bands, from rock to gypsy jazz. Be sure to check out his YouTube channel, where he geeks out about his favorite bands.

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