20 Greatest Punk Rock Bands

Punk Rock collage

Like the alternative era that came after it, the punk era was as much about intent as it was music.  It was a rejection of the mainstream, of polite society and the rampant commercialization of rock music.  Often borne of economic frustration and distrust of the ‘establishment’, punk rose out of the ashes of the flower power and Vietnam sixties.  It was loud and aggressive, meant to piss off your parents and anyone else within earshot.  The greatest punk rock bands didn’t care if you liked them.

Early punk was a rallying cry against the bloat and pomposity of much of the rock and pop of the day, with a stripped down aesthetic, both in sound and look.  Ripped jeans, t-shirts and worn leather jackets replaced frilly shirts and velvet pants.  Instrumental virtuosity was not a requirement to start a band.  Defiantly low-fi and loud, the music usually featured slashing guitar noise over frenetic staccato drum beats.  The bands played out of any venue that would have them, usually dive bars and basements.  It wasn’t until the early bands established some notoriety that record labels showed any interest.

Must Have Classic Vinyl For Any Collection

The turning point came in the late 70’s.  Although bands like the Ramones, New York Dolls and the Damned had established ‘scenes’ in New York and England, it was the Sex Pistols and the Clash that really broke things wide open.  Suddenly, punk was cool, while still being edgy and dangerous.  This was a strange dichotomy for a scene that at it’s core celebrated being the outcasts.  But punk survived by spawning groups that diversified their sound while remaining true to the DIY principles of the early influences.


When attempting to list the 20 greatest punk rock bands, quandaries arise.  What is ‘real’ punk?  Is it only the “three chords, two minutes and a sneer” bands?  When does it become ‘too melodic’ or ‘too electronic’?  Is Blondie punk?  There may be no more diverse and splintered genre of music in existence.  Which is right in line with a punk principle – do whatever you want.  But it makes it pretty difficult to define as well.

But in an attempt to put some order to this review, I put the punk timeline into a few ‘mini-eras’.

  • The roots – the late 60’s and early 70’s ‘godfathers’ of the emerging scene.
  • 1976-The first wave, the groundbreaking first offenders – most of my 20 greatest punk bands come from this era.  They paved the way for all the noise to follow.
  • Punk spreads, like a bad rash.  Diverse forms of the genre emerge.  The seeds of alternative are planted as many bands evolve into more complex and melodic forms of hard rock and pop.
  • The mainstreaming (somewhat) of punk as it starts to appear more often as an acceptable radio presence, and more importantly, MTV.  Also known as the Green Day era of pop-punk.

As in my previous album or band reviews, I won’t spend a lot of words on trying to fully describe each band’s history and impact.  Wikipedia is your friend.  Instead, thanks to the miracle of online music (BUY VINYL), the reader can decide for themselves whether they agree with my choices.  My purpose here is simply an attempt to summarize some important voices from one of the most important periods of rock history.

Top Alternative Rock Albums of the 90s


The genesis of punk music, like most new rock genres, began with a few pioneers trying something new and subversive.  In the case of punk, the early breakouts were as much a case of attitude and intent than groundbreaking musical innovations.  They ranged from artsy and cerebral to snotty and chaotic.  What they had in common was a desire to break new ground and separate themselves from the mainstream.  They laid the groundwork for the explosion to come.

The Velvet Underground

VU Band picBorn in the early days of the New York avant-garde movement, this band appeared as be as much about art and experimentation as it was rock music.  Led by Lou Reed, mentored by Andy Warhol, it would not create music that would resemble anything recognized as “punk” today, but they are still often cited as one of the key influences on the later evolution.  Not a commercial success at the time, they released five albums, the last in 1973.  They were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1996.


MC5 BandRoaring out of Detroit during the summer of love, the MC5 (Motor City 5) was politically outspoken and loud.  They played a jazz and soul influenced version of hard rock that laid much of the groundwork for the subversive punk scene to come.  They were a garage band on steroids with a dual guitar attack and the howling vocals of Fred “Sonic” Smith.  Another early band that proved more influential than commercially successful, the band broke up in 1973.  They reformed a couple times before disbanding permanently in 2012.

The Stooges

The Stooges bandAlso emerging from the state of Michigan (Ann Arbor) at the end of the era of flower power, The Stooges were lead by singer Iggy Pop and guitarist Ron Asheton.  Playing a primitive form of avant-garde proto-punk, they were known for confrontational and outrageous live shows.  Never a commercial or critical success, the band first three albums were more highly regarded in retrospect, and had a big impact on bands like the Ramones.  They were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2010.

New York Dolls

New York Dolls bandAs implied by the name, the Dolls came out of the Big Apple in the early 70’s. They were considered the first glam punk band, although nobody could really categorize them at the time.  The band performed in androgynous clothing onstage, led by singer David Johansen and guitarist Johnny Thunders.  The result was a less accomplished version of the Rolling Stones in drag, with hints of David Bowie and the harsh poetry of Lou Reed.  Their aesthetic impact was clear in later years as metal and pop bands mimicked the heavy makeup and snarky attitude of the band.

The Saints

The Saints bandThe Saints have the distinction of being one of the first true “punk” bands that originated outside of the United States.  Coming out of Brisbane, Australia, the band featured some of the first incarnations of the buzz saw guitar and staccato drum beats that became a prime feature of much of the later punk sound.  They resisted being molded into the English punk image and pushed back against the commercialization of the sound they helped create.  They continue to record and tour to the present day.

The Weirdos

the weirdos bandOne of the earliest punk bands out of the West Coast, the Los Angeles band helped create a scene, sound and look that veered from the New York and English versions of the genre.  With an undercurrent of humor throughout, they helped pave the way for future funk-punk bands like the Red Hot Chili Peppers. The band only recorded two studio albums and broke up in 1981, but their influence far outweighed their longevity.


Television bandYou would be hard-pressed to really pigeonhole Television as a punk band.  More experimental and technically proficient than most punk bands, they came out of the fertile New York / CBGB scene of the mid-70s.  Their songs were longer, cleaner and melodic than most of their peers, more aligned with bands like Talking Heads.  The interlocking guitars of Tom Verlaine and Richard Lloyd produced some of the earliest versions of art-rock, and the band received significant critical acclaim.  The bassist and founding member, Richard Hell, would go on to form another seminal punk band, the Voidoids.  The band is still active today.


Wire bandA seminal English rock pioneer, Wire’s 1977 debut album “Pink Flag” is considered one of the most highly acclaimed early examples of minimalist art-punk.  The band evolved into longer form and more experimental sounds in following albums.  Although never commercially a success, they inspired countless later bands in multiple genres.  They have released 18 studio albums up to 2020.



This is the first wave of the punk bands that truly put the genre on the rock music map.  Starting in the mid-1970’s, it was a response to the explosion of disco and some of the schlocky mainstream pop of the era.  It also had it’s roots in the economic and political malaise of the day.  The music was loud, fast and mostly angry, although there were often layers of irony and humor.  Much of the fashion and anarchic lifestyle originated with these bands.  Some of these bands had short but influential careers, while others carried on despite band chaos and changes in musical trends.

Trying to list these bands in order of importance or impact would be mostly meaningless, therefore I have put this summary in semi-chronological order.  The overlap in timelines and musical styles render any attempt at ranking an exercise in futility.  This is my summary of the 20 bands that led the first wave of true punk bands to a prominent place in the rock pantheon.  The are the greatest punk rock bands, in my opinion, because they were the key players in the ‘golden age of punk’ – the late 70s through the late 80s.

The  Ramones

Ramones band

What is their sound :  Iconic pop-punk before such a thing really existed.  Simplistic three (or two) chord rhythms played at a frenetic pace over a trademark staccato beat.  The songs were typically short, many under two minutes, and to the point.  The songs were often very hooky, with Joey Ramones unique hiccupy vocals emoting lyrics of love and anger.

Why are they important :  They set the blueprint for many of the bands that followed, both in the US and England.  Their unique and basic sound eschewed the musical pyrotechnics of the ‘big’ bands of the time, encouraging other bands to get out and play despite their limitations.  Much like the music, their visual simplicity – jeans, t-shirts, black jackets – spoke to the economically challenged youth of the day, and presaged the dressed-down grunge era to come.  The influence of their 20-plus years on the road cannot be over-estimated.

The Damned

The Damned band

What is their sound :  The early recordings, through 1979, were prototypical UK punk, hard and fast. However, the band started incorporating increasing gothic overtones, becoming one the first goth-rock groups. This also became a key feature of their live shows. The dark lyrical tone and more complex musical arrangements than most of their contemporaries in the punk scene set them apart as they moved past the early stages of their career.

Why are they important :  They were the first UK punk band to release a single and album in the “second English invasion”. They toured with the Sex Pistols and The Clash in 1976, although they got kicked off the tour eventually. They were the first band to tour the West Coast, influencing many of the LA punk bands to follow. Through several iterations of the band, and shifts in musical style, they marched on to the present day, continuing to record and tour.


buzzcocks band

What is their sound :  With strong elements of mod and new wave, the band differentiated themselves from contemporaries like the Sex Pistols and the Damned.  Pete Shelley’s quintessentially English vocals rode over the ‘buzzy’ guitar sound in an often poppy but still hard-edged vibe.  Although over the years the music has matured in tone, the band still retains the snarky, cheeky lyrical content.

Why are they important :  As one of the progenitors of the early Manchester scene, they were a big part of the early wave of UK punk bands that created a ‘buzz’ (sorry) around the world.  Along with other contemporaries like Siouxsie and the Banshees, The Vibrators, and The Clash, they introduced the world to the English version of the New York punk scene.

Sex Pistols

Sex Pistols band

What is their sound : It’s hard to imagine anyone with any knowledge of rock history that hasn’t heard their music.  It is iconic punk – snotty, sloppy, loud.  Almost every song off their debut (and only) album burrows into your head like an unwanted ear worm.  Although their chaotic live shows, antagonistic attitudes and drug use got them noticed as much as the music, there was no denying the importance and validity of the songwriting.  The lyrics spoke to the frustrations of UK youth, presented in a hard, fast but often surprisingly melodic howl.

Why are they important :  For a band that had only one album and self-destructed almost instantaneously, the impact of this band was immense.  One could argue that without them the punk movement would have never reached new heights or influenced bands worldwide to adopt their style, both musically and stylistically.  Their debut, “Never Mind the Bullocks”, hit with the explosive force comparable to Nirvana’s “Nevermind” almost 15 years later.  The Pistols have become synonymous with English punk music, and have to be considered one the the greatest punk rock bands if for no other reason than the doors they broke down.

Dead Boys

Dead Boys band

What is their sound :  Much like Iggy Pop or Johnny Rotten, Stiv Bators was the quintessential punk front man.  Snarling and ‘snotty’, Bators was confrontational and loud, shouting out songs of alienation and boredom over a driving rhythm section and slashing guitars. The single “Sonic Reducer” is considered a punk classic.  As much hard rock as simple punk, the band had the musical potential to further develop, but never had the opportunity.

Why are they important :  Originally from Cleveland, they moved to the burgeoning New York scene in 1976.  Part of the early CBGB punk lineup, they were known for their chaotic and often violent live shows.  However, the music they created was surprisingly tight and sonically interesting, demonstrating the potential of the form.  Although they released only two full-length albums, they claimed their place in establishing punk as a relevant art form and influenced many to come.

The Clash

The Clash band

What is their sound :  The Clash were always much more than basic punk, incorporating many other styles and sounds into their music over the years.  Their first three releases in the late 1970’s were considered ‘classic’ punk, with the 3rd album ‘London Calling’ a double disc with elements of reggae, ska, rockabilly and new wave incorporated into a base of hard rock and pop-punk.  The breadth of their musical influences made them pioneers in the early day of the UK punk movement.

Why are they important :  Once called the “only band that mattered”, the impact the band had throughout the following decades was immense.  Many bands not considered ‘punk’ cited them as influences.  They were outspoken and politically inspired, while being one of the few early punk bands that was at home on the pop charts and in stadiums.  Along with the Ramones, it is impossible to chart punk, and indeed rock, history without them.

The Cramps

The Cramps band

What is their sound : Utilizing a basic drum kit with no bassist (although one was added later) and two guitars, the sound of the band was spare, punctuated with Lux Interiors dramatic gothy, campy vocals.  The buzzy, rockabilly guitar sound was characterized as ‘psychobilly’, ‘goth punk’, or any combination of descriptors signifying a 50’s surf blues-rock sound twisted into a punk sensibility.  It was unique and weird, and was a key part of the New York CBGB scene of the late 70s.

Why are they important : Their stylistic mish-mash had a big influence on later goth-rock, horror punk and rockabilly inspired bands.  They were innovators and experimenters, key elements in the broadening of the ‘punk-inspired’ groups that came after them.


Crass band

What is their sound :  True to their anarchistic roots, the music of Crass could be classified as chaotic anger set to a punk beat.  UK punk at it’s most outspoken, the band initial two releases were controversial for their lyrical content, but aligned in sound with bands like the Sex Pistols.  Subsequent releases more heavily featured female lead singers and more complex musical structures.

Why are they important :  Politically driven and relentlessly DIY, only releasing music on their own label, Crass was as much a like-minded community as a band.  Also considered an art-punk and avant-punk originator, the band railed against authority, fascism, government hypocrisy, misogyny and often, punk culture itself.  It was often a mass of contradictions, but they lived their beliefs, sincere in their anger – what is more punk than that?

U.K. Subs

U.K. Subs band

What is their sound : The Subs hit all the core punk musical elements – frenetic rhythm, punchy beat, shout-along lyrics – with most songs clocking in at around two minutes or less.  Some of the guitar work as the band evolved became more hard rock in tone and texture, but at heart the band always remained defiantly street punk.  Despite this, many of the songs were surprisingly accessible and the band had many chart hits in the UK.

Why are they important :  If for no other reason, the U.K. Subs longevity alone might put them in many lists of the greatest punk rock bands of all time.  But they also wrote good songs and influenced generations to come.  Oh, and they are still around to show the youngsters how it’s done.  They have released an astonishing amount of material.  Although their earlier work during the ‘punk era’ was more commercially successful, their perseverance and dedication to their core musical principles is to be admired, and emulated.

Stiff Little Fingers

Stiff Little Fingers band

What is their sound :  Prototypical punk with a harsh(er) edge – inspired no doubt by the political unrest of the UK in the late 70s.  The songs were typically longer and often more pop-rock oriented than some of their peers on later recordings.

Why are they important : The first UK punk band from Ireland that crossed over to relative fame, the Belfast group emerged during ‘The Troubles’ of Northern Ireland.  In many ways, the period was ripe for the angry political expressions of punk music.  After acrimoniously breaking up in the 80s, they reformed and continue to record and tour.

Dead Kennedys

dead kennedys band

What is their sound : Described by many as one of the original ‘hardcore’ American punk bands, they certainly played fast, loud, and sometimes sloppy.  However, they also threw in elements of rockabilly, new wave and pop, although often in a sardonic manner.  Singer Jello Biafra spit out his mostly satirical and obscene rants in a quivering, almost cartoonish vocal style.  Confrontational and non-apologetic, nothing was sacred.

Why are they important : Emerging from the liberal haven of San Francisco, the band skewered all sides with their sardonic and often controversial subjects.  As one of the first northern California punk bands, they influenced bands like Bad Religion, Green Day, System of a Down, and others with their combination of dark humor and political themes.  No list of the greatest punk rock bands would be complete without the DKs based on their impact on the West Coast music scenes to follow.

Black Flag

Black Flag band

What is their sound : The band had 3 lead singers by the time their debut album was recorded.  The early versions of the band would be considered their most ‘punky’ phase, with characteristically short songs featuring a frenetic beat and sharp atonal guitar slashes.  They also were considered one of the first ‘hardcore’ bands, with dark, buzz-saw tone matching the raspy, raw shouted vocals of Henry Rollins (the 3rd vocalist and longest lasting).  Later recordings moved into longer more complex song structures, incorporating blues hard-rock and metal.  Their chaotic and sometimes violent live shows became legendary, mostly played out of garages and grungy basements.

Why are they important : Besides their musical influence, which presaged grunge and hardcore coming of age a decade later, Black Flag had an impact on how bands recorded their music.  Band leader Greg Ginn formed SST records specifically to record the band’s music.  The independent label would later host a number of the critical early alternative bands – Sonic Youth, Soundgarden, Dinosaur Jr., and Husker Du.  Despite the anarchic stance of the music and visual style, the band was more nuanced than credited by outsiders.  Black disbanded in 1985, but has reunited for reunion shows and other live concerts, releasing an album in 2013.

Circle Jerks

Circle Jerks band

What is their sound :  Along with fellow LA punk rockers Black Flag, Circle Jerks help firmly establish the hardcore punk scene on the West Coast.  The blueprint remained familiar – short, frenetic shout-alongs about political anger, sex and anarchy.  They did not vary too far from this style throughout their six albums, remaining true to this hard-fast approach regardless of the trends of the time.

Why are they important :  Vocalist Keith Morris left Black Flag after one album in 1979 to form the Jerks with guitarist Greg Hetson.  Although there were many conflicts with members of that band throughout the years, these two bands have remained intertwined in their influence on the LA punk scene to this day.


Minutemen band

What is their sound :  Well, first of all, not all their songs are over in a minute – although most are under 2 minutes, it is true.  A true power trio, their low-fi, bass-heavy was sometimes jagged, sometimes funky, experimental and often a little weird.  All of which are good things.  Punky in the vocal delivery and some of the rhythms, the sound was eclectic and snarky-cool.

Why are they important :  While they were part of the California punk explosion of the early 80s, they were one of the bands that bridged the gap to the ‘alternative’ era of the 90s.



Misfits band

What is their sound : Though often credited with originating the ‘horror punk’ genre, utilizing goth and often campy horror iconography, Misfits veered from hardcore punk to hard rock.  Multiple lineup changes have led to frequent style shifts.  With original singer Glenn Danzig, the early incarnation of the New Jersey band emphasized punk, although his baritone vocals were more in line with howling metal singers of the day.  Later versions of the band leaned even farther to the heavy metal sound, with much less punk influence.

Why are they important : Although it would be a stretch to call Misfits a pure punk band at any stage, they set a path for a more theatrical versions of the genre.  Along with the earlier Cramps, they utilized a B-movie visual style that differed greatly from many of their stripped-down peers.  They have become iconic in the punk and rock scene due to as much to this aesthetic as their often hyper-speed music.


The Descendents

What is their sound : Part of the early 80s LA punk scene, Descendents were one of the early ‘skate punk’ bands, utilizing a surf-rock guitar style over a punk beat.  Short, fast songs fit a punk style, but were more pop-sounding than many of their peers.  Along with similar sounding brethren like Bad Religion, they laid a musical blueprint adopted by many later pop-punk acts.

Why are they important :  You only have to listen to the punk revival bands of the 90s like Green Day, Blink-182, Rise Against or NOFX to hear echoes of the Descendents.  Not that they ever went away completely – their latest album was in 2016.  Their original sound remains intact.

Bad Brains

Bad Brains band

What is their sound :  Frantic, ferocious.  Often surprisingly melodic, in a heavy metal way.  Then some raggae punk.  And hardcore, back to frantic.  Unlike many of their punk peers, they often featured guitar solos and displayed significant musical chops, mixing up rhythms and styles at will.  With roots as a jazz band, their experimental side came through clearly and often.  There was perhaps no more inventive and accomplished band of the genre.

Why are they important : Originating from the D.C. punk scene (Minor Threat, Black Flag), they were also part of the early CBGB punk scene of the early 80s.  With a dynamic and mercurial frontman, known as H.R. (Human Rights) machine gunning raprock, the live shows were explosive.  As one of the few black punk bands, they blazed trails with a musical intensity that came from a different perspective than the majority of the hardcore bands of the era.


Minor Threat

Minor threat band

What is their sound : Minor Threat was pretty straightforward hardcore punk – they were more notable for their lyrical content. Leader Ian McKaye was unique in being outspoken about his no drinking or drugs life-style, which came to be known as ‘straight edge’.  Later with Fugazi, McKaye would experiment more with funk rhythms and hard rock – Minor Threat was the punk basis for this later transition.

Why are they important : As one of the first bands from Washington D.C., they helped lead a scene that had thus far been dominated in America by West Coast and New York scenes. They were also relentlessly DIY, releasing all their music on their own independent label, Dischord Records. This label was also home to other D.C. punk bands. Although they released only one full-length LP and several EPs, the band had an impact well beyond their recorded output.



NOFX band

What is their sound :  One of the earliest ‘skate punk’ bands, they incorporated hardcore guitar, ska, and pop-punk.  Their influence is clear in many of the pop-punk bands of the 90s like Blink-182 or The Offspring (bands they were known to mock).  Emerging from the LA punk scene during the height of the West Coast hair metal heyday, they provided a clear counterpoint both in sound and attitude.  Lead singer Fat Mike sneered satirical diatribes that were sometimes political, sometimes snotty and mocking, and often humorous.

Why are they important : Unlike many of their peers that rose to fame in the 90s, NOFX managed to sell millions of records as an independent band.  In the age of MTV they made few videos, preferring to build their fan base through the music.  They maintained their independence and continued to record and perform through the dip in punk’s overall profile during the late 80s.  With the resurgence in pop-punk interest on the heels of Green Day’s breakthrough, NOFX also rose in profile, although they often poked fun at other punk bands of the pop-punk era.  They continue to record and perform 37 years into their career.


Fugazi band

What is their sound : Although grounded in punk, Fugazi melded multiple other influences into a more experimental and varied musical soundscape.  They were not afraid to utilize some funk and raggae rhythms into a hardcore guitar-rock sound.  Gritty and artful at the same time, it is easy to see the seeds of alternative/grunge rock being planted.  They would have to be considered one of the greatest punk rock bands if for no other reason than the influence they would have on the tidal change to come.

Why are they important : Although Ian McKaye was the founding member and singer of both Minor Threat and Fugazi, they were significantly different in style.  What wasn’t changed with McKaye’s ‘straight edge’ ethos, his disdain for the music industry, and the band’s go-it-alone mindset.  They played hundred’s of live shows, creating a large following despite little industry support.  As punk faded in the late 80’s, they bridged the gap to the revival of the form in the mid-90s, although they weren’t exactly a part of the pop-punk scene.


Of course, listing every band that made their presence felt in the punk scene would not be possible.  I left out a number of bands that many would consider key players in introducing and disseminating the punk genre.  It would not be right to publish this list without at least noting their immense contribution.

The reason I didn’t list many of these groups is that I didn’t really consider them as only ‘punk’ bands.  While they certainly had an impact on the overall punk musical landscape, they (in my opinion) fell more into other musical genres.  Take, for example, Blondie or Talking Heads.  Certainly they were a huge part of the early New York / CBGB scene that was fertile grounds for many of the emerging punk bands of the late 70s.  But while they certainly had punk tendencies, they were much more grounded in other forms like new wave, pop, even funk.

I believe this also to be true for other arty, experimental bands like Devo or Cleveland’s Pere UbuX is often cited as a significant influence on punk bands, but they were rooted in pop-rockabilly, Americana, and folk.  Their early releases were definitely punk-based, but they were mostly ‘punk adjacent’.  Another LA outfit, Suicidal Tendencies, was nominally also punk-based band, but in a much different way.  They were mostly known as one of the primary originators of ‘thrash metal’.

Typical girls : The story of the SlitsSpecial mention should be made of the trailblazing efforts of the The Slits, one of the few female punk band’s of the early punk wave.  Although they released only two albums in their heyday and broke up in 1982, the had an impact well beyond their musical success.  Although they may not have directly inspired the ‘riot grrrl’ punk-based bands to follow in the late 80s and early 90s, they certainly showed that the punk was not restricted to the dudes.

Trouble Boys : The True Story of the ReplacementsI couldn’t be complete without mentioning two of my favorite hometown bands, Hüsker Dü and The Replacements.  As part of the fertile Minneapolis scene of the 80’s, these bands, along with Soul Asylum, all began as punk bands but had aspirations that led to more melodic hard rock and pop-rock forms.  Hüsker Dü in particular kept a punk aesthetic until the end, but both Bob Mould and Grant Hart’s later projects continued the evolution of the original sound into more accessible rock territory.



The decade of the 90s saw major upheavals in the rock world.  Even before the Nirvana / grunge domination began, the winds had started to shift.  The cartoonish, over-the-top qualities of much of the hair metal of the time began to overstay its welcome.  Hip hop began to become a major force.  MTV had changed the presentation of music, bringing a visual aspect to rock that became almost as critical to success as the music itself.

Punk music was not immune to these shifts.  Although there were occasional bright flashes like the Sex Pistols or The Clash, for the most part punk had faded back to a mostly underground scene by the late 80s, limited to grungy clubs and basements.  With the explosion of “alternative music”, punk, or a cleaner version of it, was dragged into the mainstream by bands like Green Day, Rancid, and the Offspring.  There was eventually the inevitable backlash, as many of these bands were seen as posers, overly polished versions of the originals who came before them.

Whether this was fair or not, it was clear that the commercial success of these bands was an order of magnitude greater than the earlier bands.  As the 90s progressed, pop-punk seemed to become the dominant force, as the more radio and video-friendly bands appealed to a much greater audience.  I am listing some of the bands that managed to straddle the divide between punk authenticity and popular acceptance – several of these are among my all-time favorite groups.

Green Day

Green DayFor their commercial success and impact instigating a new wave of punk interest in the 90s, Green Day would be considered by many to be one of the greatest punk rock bands ever.  One of the first bands to capitalize on power of the music video, they are undisputed as the first pop-punk bands to truly cross into the mainstream.

That being said, they did not really stay a punk band for very long, transitioning quickly into a stadium-filling politically outspoken pop-rock power house.  They are an immensely creative and important rock band, but they were not fundamentally a punk pioneer, they built on the foundations of punk to create a more accessible and popular form of the music.

Social Distortion

Social Distortion Heaven and HellFull disclosure – this is one of my favorite bands, both on record and live.  Their early recordings were jagged blues-punk, mixing a 50s ethos with guitars cranked to 11.  These guys were the trailer park garage band who loved country music but liked to piss off the neighbors.

Similar to Green Day, Social D moved beyond punk in the 90s.  Although still hard and fast most of the time, the became more melodic and introspective.  They moved farther to rootsy hard-rock tinged with cowpunk.  They developed more radio and video appeal, while still retaining their angry snarl.

Bad Religion

Bad Religion SuferBad Religion is one of the early LA punk bands and could be argued that they belong in the greatest punk rock bands listed above.  They certainly helped usher in the skate-punk and hardcore scenes of the West Coast in the early 80s.  They are often cited as influences on other punk bands, and also as one of the best-selling acts..

So why aren’t they in the list?  Mainly because I consider them a hard rock band with melodic tendencies often outside of the punk playbook.  Most of their impact came in the 90s, helping to usher in the revival of pop-punk with a hard rock feel.


Rancid Out Come the WolvesAs one of the most successful independent bands of the punk genre, Rancid was a significant reason for the resurgence of interest in punk in the mid-90s.  The 1995 album ‘….And Out Come the Wolves’ was a big success, incorporating reggae and rockabilly into a ska-punk classic.  “Ruby Soho” could be a lost Clash classic.

Rancid has carried the punk rock banner into the new millennium, although with a little more pop-rock accessibility than first-wave punkers.

Bikini Kill

Bikini Kill YeahAs a feminist punk band, Bikini Kill helped instigate the riot grrrl label, although the term may be somewhat diminishing.  They performed punk rock with a message, and they did it with fire and fury.  Singer Kathleen Hanna was not afraid of confrontation.

Although the band competed with the male-dominated 90s era of grunge and pop-punk, they established a female-lead beachhead in the punk landscape.

The Offspring

Offspring SmashFew bands have elicited the love-hate response as much as The Offspring.  Except maybe Green Day.  Both bands were hugely successful in the punk resurgence of the 90s, selling millions of records.  In the MTV era, they were also video stars.

They were also accused of being sell-outs and not really a punk band.  They were probably always more of an alternative rock band than a punk band anyway, so criticisms seem a little misplaced.  Regardless, they helped rekindle an interest in punk music in general, so they don’t really have to apologize for anything.


Blink 182 Enema of the StateIt was always a little hard to take Blink-182 seriously as a ‘punk band’.  Far more pop-oriented than even most of their skate-punk peers, they certainly knew how to write a hook.  The comedic lyrics and clownish antics fit right in to the MTV video lineup of the time.  For a punk band, they had a lot of fun with the music and sold a lot of records.  They were the updated and more musical version of The Dead Milkmen.  The band made their mark ushering in the ‘suburban skate punk’ era.


Sleater-KinneyFollowing influences such as Siouxsie Sioux and Bikini Kill, Sleater-Kinney was formed in Olympia, Washington in the mid-90s.  Also included in the ‘riot grrrl’ feminist rock movement, their punk roots were clear in the low-fi hard-fast style and howling vocals.  More indie-rock than punk, they were influential in the late 90s and early 2000s for their political stances and uncompromising ethics.



There you have it – the 20 greatest punk bands (and more) – in my opinion.  Or maybe not.  Up to you.  Obviously there are many more great bands that are deserving of recognition.  Punk rock was never supposed to be ‘popular’, although as with any form of music, some acts stand out more than others.  Trying to pin down the greatest punk rock bands is elusive.  Many of them would probably tell me to f-off for even trying.  Screw them, it’s my list.   

Hopefully you enjoyed this listing, or at least appreciated the effort.  We have a lot of other recommendations for music worthy of your listen, feel free to browse our site.  Once again, we encourage you, whenever possible, to BUY VINYL.  It’s the best listening experience, in our opinion.

Please note that we have linked some of these artists to vinyl available on Amazon. If you feel Jeff Bezos already has enough of your money, please consider the sites below if you are looking to purchase these LPs or others for your collection:

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Buy Music CDs at CD Universe. Audio Samples and Reviews Available on Music New Releases

Stay safe and put on a loud punk record!  Careful about the slam dancing in your living room though.

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