Punk rock isn’t really known to be a genre of music that trades in “moving” songs. But a big part of what I love about the genre is the tendency to subvert expectations. The single biggest aspect that draws me to any type of music (or any form of art for that matter) is honesty, or at the very least, perceived honesty. I feel like there’s a lot of honesty in punk music, and it’s that honesty that makes the songs on this list what they are.
If there’s one major thing all these songs have in common, it’s that they were all written by bands that weren’t known for (and maybe still aren’t known for) writing songs you’d describe as “moving”. It’s not that they lacked honesty or passion, far from it, but they were all bands that traded more in traditional, raw punk rock sounds. By recording these songs they subverted my expectations in a meaningful way, and I think that nearly any listener can hear these songs and feel what the band was trying to get across. Indeed, “feeling” is what makes these songs stand out so much.
Bad Astronaut – Minus
Sample lyric: Minus her fears she is outspoken, minus a hand she is clean
Bad Astronaut is one of Joey Cape’s many, many bands, but he is most famous for the 90’s skate punk act Lagwagon. Of all his numerous projects Lagwagon is my least favorite, Bad Astronaut my most. They take the punk rock foundation and add a layer of indie rock experimentalism and a layer of ambition. On this track however, most of that is stripped down to plain acoustic guitar and vocals, reminiscent of Cape’s forays into solo singer-songwriter territory. However, the piano and strings work their way in and take the song to a new level.
Against Me! – Even at Our Worst We’re Still Better Than Most
Sample lyric: Feels like you’ve already said so much, feels like you can never say enough. Let someone else take our place, let ’em be your entertainment
This is an interesting one. Against Me! had developed a pretty devoted following as a strongly DIY, anarchist punk band in their early years, only to face a rather absurd backlash when they signed to “large indie label” Fat Wreck Chords in 2003. Searching For a Former Clarity was their second album on Fat, and on this song Tom Gabel (now Laura Grace) belts out the most sincere and gut-wrenching statement he’d ever made about his feelings occupying that particular place in the music scene. All the anger, frustration, “total exhaustion”, disappointment and resignation he’d been feeling comes at you with extreme fidelity. And while the song is certainly bitter in content, it’s backed by music that is simultaneously triumphant. Knowing that after this record the band would sign to a major label and willfully leave behind the entire “indie” mentality that never accepted them, this song becomes a watershed moment.
Murder by Death – The Big Sleep
Sample lyric: When they pull the switch, please, do not stay. I cannot bear for you to remember me this way
This one may not be totally fair. Despite their comically aggressive name Murder By Death is, in fact, a Western/punk rock/gothic band known for writing theatrical songs about morbid subjects. In this case, the song is sung from the perspective of a convicted criminal waiting to be executed and lamenting the legacy he’ll leave behind. It’s fairly melodramatic, but what makes the song so moving is how it very slowly builds as the subject describes how he managed to find himself in the electric chair, then crescendos with thundering drums, cello, and trumpet in another darkly triumphant yet melancholy climax. As the crescendo fades the lyric above closes the song, along with low guitar feedback that mimics a heart monitor flatlining.
Andrew Jackson Jihad – Big Bird
Sample lyric: It’s harder to be yourself than it is to be anybody else
This might be one of the most surprising turns into “emotional/moving” territory of any of these bands. Andrew Jackson Jihad are local boys from Phoenix, and traditionally a two-piece acoustic folk/country/punk act. Their first few records traded in low-fi, jangly folk-punk with comically macabre lyrics, but lately they’ve begun experimenting with more full instrumentation, and this song is the culmination of that movement. I don’t hesitate to describe this song as “epic”, which is pretty funny when you look back at where this band started. Their lyrics are still acerbic, but now there’s an edge of bombastic sincerity as well. This song will give you goosebumps.
NOFX – The Decline
Sample lyric: Father, what have I done? I took that 22, a gift to me from you to bed with me each night, kept it clean, polished it well, cherished every cartridge, every shell
I’m not embedding this song, because as you may or may not know, it is more than 18 minutes long. For a band most famous for writing sophomoric lyrics well into their 40’s, with a heavy reliance on puns, NOFX actually has quite a few earnest songs in their catalog. Scavenger Type, Drop the World, and My Orphan Year could have all made this list, but I don’t think any of those other songs quite combine the lyrical and musical complexity (and of course, epic scope) with such precision as this one. I actually had a pretty difficult time picking out a sample lyric, there are so many good ones. If you have any interest whatsoever in an 18-minute punk rock opera, I’d imagine you’re already well familiar with this one. And if you don’t have a vested interest in that kind of thing you’d be easily forgiven for not investing the time. But if by some chance you like NOFX, or punk in general, and haven’t heard this song, please do yourself a favor and seek it out. It’s not hard to find. I’d check YouTube.