This article originally appeared in 2014. We’re republishing in anticipation of Rancid’s new album, Trouble Maker, out this week.
Top Songs is a feature in which we definitively handpick the very best songs in an artist or band’s catalog. Sounds simple, right? Oh, if only.
“This is more difficult than I initially thought it would be,” my CoS colleague and fellow punk enthusiast Collin Brennan noted as we went about preparing this list.
He wasn’t kidding. Because Rancid has been my favorite band for almost two decades, having directly or indirectly pointed me in the direction of the wide swath of music I listen to today, I thought the task of narrowing down the band’s catalog to 10 essential tracks would be pretty straightforward. Then you sit down and try to rank and file everything only to find that beneath the tattoos, Mohawks, and bondage pants, Rancid have a lot of really great songs. Over the course of 26 years and eight full-length records, Tim Armstrong, Lars Fredericksen, Matt Freeman, Brett Reed, and most recently Branden Steineckert have proven that they’re not just a bunch of savvy, streetwise punk professors, but that they’ve also got a handle on what makes a good pop song sing better than perhaps any of their peers. To think that the same band that kicked down sonic walls on “Adrina” could also pull heartstrings without losing its edge on “Who Would’ve Thought”.
Having said that, this list went through more than a few revisions. We labored over our favorite tracks, which we found consisted of nearly all of them. But after much contemplation, we looked beyond our personal favorites to settle on 10 songs that best represent the East Bay legends’ mighty body of work. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, and you’ll probably passionately disagree in spots, but on the eve of the release of Rancid’s ninth full-length record, Trouble Maker, these are the 10 tracks we hoist a glass and give a hearty Oi! to.
See ya in the pit…
Senior Staff Writer
10. “Radio Havana”
Something of an outlier on the otherwise full-throttle Rancid (2000), “Radio Havana” is the least self-consciously “punk” song on an album that’s chock-full of them. Which isn’t to say the rest of Rancid is any less worth your time; “Antennas” registers a scathing indictment of California politics in just over one minute, and “It’s Quite Alright” navigates the choppy waters between aggressive and aggressively catchy with ease. Coming after those two songs and the 11 others that precede it, “Radio Havana” feels like a breath of fresh, tropical air. The song’s bouncy rhythms are a throwback to the ska-heavy sound of Life Won’t Wait, but here they’re employed as a foil to Armstrong’s vocals, which practically scratch at the listener’s eardrums. It’s easy to make fun of Armstrong’s slurred delivery, but he’s not totally incapable of nuance. A real pang of regret colors lines such as “‘57 Chevy with the radio on/ It’s a sad song that goes on and on,” hinting at the sense of nostalgia that resides among the song’s political undertones. The nostalgia in this case is multidimensional, being as much for a place (Havana, Cuba) as it is for a particular time. –Collin Brennan
09. “I Wanna Riot”
“Roots Radicals” Single (1995)
We’ll probably get burned for including the B-side to “Roots Radicals” at the expense of the lead single, so here’s the obligatory disclaimer: the entire Side A of …And Out Come the Wolves was in contention for this list, but that would have made for one hell of a boring read. Besides, “I Wanna Riot” is as definitive a Rancid tune as they come, right down to the unironic shouts of “Oi!’ and the surprisingly trenchant social commentary. Aside from the sing-along chorus, the song’s highlight is a recurring guitar riff that marries surf rock to something a bit more sinister. It’s a perfect example of what Rancid does best: finding new ways to traverse punk’s most well-traveled streets. –Collin Brennan
08. “Something in the World Today”
Life Won’t Wait (1998)
After cutting its teeth on ample amounts of purist punk on its first three outings, Rancid opted for a weightier, more diverse approach on Life Won’t Wait, coloring its sound with ska, rocksteady, rockabilly, and more straightforward singer-songwriter type material. Still, it’s a testament to how good the band is at crafting a hair-raising, meat and potatoes punk song that “Something in the World Today” is the most effective and resonant of Life Won’t Wait’s 22 tracks. It’s 2:34 of charged protest punk, and while being pissed off at the world is a pretty tired genre trope, the song gets by on pure liberty-spiked adrenaline. As enjoyable as it is to hear Rancid reach out and flash its songwriting chops, “Something in the World Today” is resounding proof that punk rock will always be the band’s home base. –Ryan Bray
07. “The Brothels”
Give’em the Boot (1997)
I know, picking a deep, deep cut off of a compilation for inclusion on a list of a band’s top 10 songs smacks at just a little bit of know-it-all hipster snobbery. But I swear that I’m not trying to flex my punk rock cred by throwing “The Brothels” into the mix here. The lead track off of Hellcat Records’ inaugural Give’em The Boot compilation, “The Brothels” sounds like everything you’ve come to expect from a Rancid song, complete with a melodic, East Bay street punk sound, tales of street walkers and other ghettoized characters on the fringe, a chantable “na-na na na-na” breakdown, and Lars and Tim trading off vocal duties between the verses and chorus, respectively. Don’t let its tucked-away, comp-only status fool you. “Brothels” is as good if not better than anything you’ll find on the band’s already impressive stable of studio records. –Ryan Bray
Life Won’t Wait (1998)
There’s roughly a 0% chance that Armstrong, Frederiksen, and co. would object to us using a Clash analogy, so here goes: Life Won’t Wait is essentially Rancid’s Sandinista!. Which is to say that the band’s fourth studio album is an eclectic collection of hits and misses; it’s probably not their best work, but without a doubt their most ambitious. As the first proper song on the album, “Bloodclot” sets a high bar with its anthemic chant of “Hey! Ho!” and a vocal track that ranks among Fredericksen’s best submissions. The brawny guitarist has never sounded more in his element than he does here, belting out lyrical allusions to Jamaican reggae producer Lee “Scratch” Perry without mitigating the song’s streetwise sense of urgency. When Frederiksen launches into the second verse with a hilariously frank self-assessment (“Well, I’m a bad motherfucker!”), we’re inclined to tap our toes and agree. –Collin Brennan
05. “Time Bomb”
…And Out Come the Wolves (1995)
As fun and certifiably punk as all fuck as Rancid’s self-titled debut and Let’s Go! were, it’s hard not to look at …And Out Come the Wolves as the band’s grand musical statement. It was unflinching in its odes to classicist ‘77 punk but also refreshingly contemporary and vital sounding, and it continues to sound that way almost 20 years later. A big part of the reason why AOCTW works as well as it does is because it brings ska, the perfect foil to punk rock’s surly aggression, into the band’s repertoire. And with all due respect to No Doubt, Sublime, Reel Big Fish, and other bands credited with igniting the ska revival in America in the mid-’90s, “Time Bomb” was the track that kick-started the fleeting movement. A skittering two-tone joint pulled straight from the playbooks of bands like the Specials, Madness, the Toasters, and others, the record’s lead single proved that Rancid had a little more dexterity to them than the band’s past records had led fans to believe. Considering how much the band’s next record, 1998’s sprawling Life Won’t Wait, leaned on its eclectic mix of influences, it’s easy in retrospect to look at “Time Bomb” as the start of something bigger for the band. –Ryan Bray
Let’s Go! (1994)
The fact that “Salvation” marked the start of Rancid’s critical and commercial ascent in popular music by itself makes the song a necessary addition to this list. But even if it hadn’t been the song that lifted the band into heavy rotation on radio and MTV, it’s an important statement of the band’s self-identity. A song about class warfare told through the perspective of a brood of street-smart punks, “Salvation” tells the tale of Rancid’s blue-collar, workmanlike backdrop. Between the catchy-as-hell chorus and Lars and Tim’s perpetual sliding down the fretboard, Armstrong talks openly about subsiding off of the charity of others, all the while shaking his head at the posh lifestyles led by those a few rungs higher up the social ladder. “I can’t believe rich people live likes this,” Armstrong wonders aloud, “Hidden Estates and diamond rings.” Even though the band has done quite well for themselves over the past two decades, Rancid still play “Salvation” with earnest conviction, more proof that at heart they’re still the same kids from the outlying hoods of Berkeley. –Ryan Bray
03. “Olympia, WA”
…And Out Come the Wolves (1995)
Side A of …And Out Comes the Wolves is about as good as punk got in the 1990s, and “Olympia, WA” represents its high-water mark. It’s a frankly autobiographical song that oscillates from desolation to triumph and back again as Armstrong recounts a particularly miserable episode that takes place in New York City. What might register as a fond memory in any other song (“Ran into three Puerto Ricans/ These girls took us to the funhouse”) is merely fodder for Armstrong’s post-breakup angst as he loiters on a dirty street corner wishing he were anywhere but there.
“Olympia, WA” deals with the disease of nostalgia — the disease of life never being here, always being elsewhere — but the song doesn’t wallow in its own misery. In Rancid’s universe, friendship acts as a bulwark against difficult times, and never is that more true than it is here. Armstrong’s inclusion of his friend Lars in the narrative is no accident; these guys have each other, if no one else, and that sense of brotherhood is reflected in the song’s anthemic chorus, which practically compels you to wrap your arm around the nearest shoulder and sing along. –Collin Brennan
02. “Ruby Soho”
…And Out Come the Wolves (1995)
If you attended high school at any point in the mid-to-late 1990s, you’ll recognize “Ruby Soho” as the anthem for the kids who weren’t invited (or, more accurately, didn’t care to go) to prom. Along with “Time Bomb” and “Roots Radicals”, it’s one of three enduring hits off …And Out Come the Wolves, all of which continue to receive consistent alt-rock radio play. It’s also the most compelling proof that — Minor Threat tribute artwork be damned — the band’s patron saint is not Ian MacKaye but Joe Strummer.
“Echoes of reggae coming through my bedroom wall,” sings Armstrong, and he’s not just talking about a physical bedroom. He’s also alluding to the space inside his head where songs take root and germinate, a space with thin walls that let in all kinds of noise. “Ruby Soho” is the most personal and least direct of Rancid’s hit singles, and that might go a long way in explaining its appeal. And, as if the song’s legacy weren’t secure enough already, it gets extra points for introducing a whole new generation of soon-to-be punks to The Clash. –Collin Brennan
Let’s Go! (1994)
Let’s Go! is full of micro-sized blasts of melodic street punk that motor their way through your eardrums, but “Radio” manages to stand head and shoulders above the other raging, punk rock bruisers in the set. Not only does it have all the hallmark ingredients of the classic Rancid sound, from Tim Armstrong’s gravelly slur to Matt Freeman’s rollicking bass lines, but in a lot of ways the song works as the band’s de facto mission statement. “When I’ve got the music, I’ve got a place to go,” Armstrong bellows in the song’s chorus. Catchy, sure. But there’s also a lot of hard truth baked into Armstrong’s words. More than a band, Rancid is the organizing principle of its members’ lives. It’s what they live for, something that’s saved its individual members from the perils of alcoholism, drugs, and homelessness, picked them up after messy divorces, and kept them on the straight and narrow. As a song that not only stands as one of Rancid’s very best tunes but also perfectly defines who they are as a unit, where else can you slot “Radio” but at number one? –Ryan Bray