Punk rock is a rich and expansive genre with a catalog so full of extraordinary music that it’s practically bursting at the seams. In light of this (and in light of the subjective nature of musical analysis at large), it is impossible to put together a definitive list of history’s best punk rock songs.
But that won’t stop us from trying!
Here are 10 of the most important, iconic, or otherwise noteworthy punk rock songs of all time.
10.“Ever Fallen in Love” by the Buzzcocks
The 1978 Buzzcocks hit, “Ever Fallen in Love (With Someone You Shouldn’t’ve)” merges the drive and urgency so common in punk music with poppy elements like a catchy melody and romance-centric lyrics. It is easily one of punk rock’s most accessible songs, and has gone down in history as the paradigmatic pop-punk blueprint.
9.“Rebel Girl” by Bikini Kill
Produced by certified icon, Joan Jett, “Rebel Girl,” by Bikini Kill, is a quintessential punk song that is emblematic of the riot grrrl movement. Kathleen Hanna’s lyrics, bolstered by her energetic vocal performance, perfectly capture the euphoria of feminist solidarity paired with the rejection of heteronormativity.
8.“Holiday in Cambodia” by Dead Kennedys
Punk is as much a social movement as it is a music genre. “Holiday in Cambodia” by Dead Kennedys is a prime example of punk rock politics. This song, which addresses the Cambodian genocide, levels harsh criticism at oblivious and performative Westerners who are happy to ignore atrocities in developing nations as long as they don’t interfere with their vacation plans.
7.“The Passenger” performed by Siouxsie and the Banshees
“The Passenger” was originally written and recorded for proto-punk legend Iggy Pop’s 1977 Album, Lust for Life, but was given a second shot at the spotlight when Siouxsie and the Banshees put out a cover in 1987. The band’s new brass-forward arrangement paired with Siouxsie’s haunting vocals made for a punchy, gothic masterpiece that was praised as an improvement over the original by Iggy Pop himself.
6.“I Wanna Be Your Dog” by The Stooges
If the Stooges didn’t write the book on punk rock, they were at least major contributors. Their debut single, “I Wanna Be Your Dog,” was released in 1969, well before punk rock rose to prominence. This song’s strikingly vigorous sound paired with its unconventional subject matter would inform the burgeoning genre for decades to come.
5.“Anarchy in the UK” by the Sex Pistols
Though they only ever released one studio album, the Sex Pistols are frequently cited as one of the most legendary punk rock bands of all time. Their 1976 debut single, “Anarchy in the UK,” makes it easy to see how they earned such a distinction. Between its harsh and biting musicality, and its gleefully anarchistic lyrics, this song effortlessly captures the punk rock ethos.
4.“Psycho Killer” by Talking Heads
The Talking Heads have always been a difficult act to categorize. Their music is generally more mellifluous than that of their contemporaries, and though their punk rock credentials are as authentic as any — their first gig was opening for the Ramones at CBGB, after all — they are also considered new wave pioneers, art-pop performers, and avant-funk musicians, among other things. For the sake of this list, though, we’re going to call them punk rockers, as their 1977 song “Psycho Killer” has undoubtedly become an important part of the punk rock canon.
3.“Gloria” by Patti Smith
When Patti Smith released her album Horses in 1975, punk rock was still a few short months from becoming a codified musical genre. However, the album’s opening number, Smith’s revamped version of the Van Morrison song, “Gloria,” is punk through and through, despite chronological complications. Patti Smith isn’t called the Godmother of Punk Rock for nothing.
2.“London Calling” by The Clash
By the time The Clash released “London Calling” in 1979, they had already established themselves as punk rock royalty, and were known for tackling complicated social issues in their songs. “London Calling” exemplifies the band’s ability to deftly marry poignant political critique with compelling musical composition.
1.“Blitzkrieg Bop” by the Ramones
“Blitzkrieg Bop,” released in 1976, is widely considered to be the first true punk rock song, and the Ramones, in turn, are often regarded as the progenitors of the genre. This chaotically simple, brutally electrifying musical masterwork launched punk rock into the public conscience in a big way. If you look closely, you can still observe its cultural impact to this day.
Are you looking to further explore the vast and fascinating world of punk rock? Now is your chance! Check out distinguished photographer Michael Grecco’s punk rock book, “Punk, Post Punk, New Wave: Onstage, Backstage, and In Your Face,” to get up close and personal with some of history’s most iconic punk rockers.