Scoring a number one album in both the UK and US with Blink-182’s California must be something of a bitter-sweet triumph for vocalist/guitarist Matt Skiba, given that Alkaline Trio, the infinitely superior pop-punk band he has fronted since 1996, have never achieved even a Top 10 chart placing on either side of the Atlantic. Check out the Chicago trio’s videos on YouTube now, however, and you’ll spot a ton of new ‘Blink-182 brought me here/OMG, how did I never hear this band!!!’ style comments, suggesting that’s Skiba’s stint alongside Mark Hoppus and Travis Barker is drawing attention to his ‘main’ band as never before. This can only be a good thing. Here’s 10 Alkaline Trio songs which prove they can go toe-to-toe with anyone in their field.
10. ’97 (1996)
One of Alkaline Trio’s earliest songs, dating back to their 1996 demo tape (on which it was titled Ninety-Seven), on the surface, ’97 sounds like a desolate teenager lamenting being separated from a lover, with lyrics such as ‘When I was with you I forgot about everything’ and ‘Eighteen months seems like fucking eternity.’ In actual fact, Matt Skiba wrote the song after being busted for smoking marijuana, and placed on an 18-month probation period during which he was forbidden to go near his drug of choice. “As I was writing it, I was kind of chuckling to myself because I knew people were going to think it’s about a girl and I wanted them to believe that,” Skiba finally admitted in 2013.
9. I, Pessimist (2013)
Growing up together in the Chicago punk rock scene, the members of Alkaline Trio and Rise Against were close friends, and bassist Dan Andriano wrote this punchy, powerhouse track from 2013’s My Shame Is True with the express intention of recording it alongside RA vocalist Tim McIlrath. Matt Skiba later revealed that McIlrath flew out to join the band in the studio in Colorado on his own dime and supplied his guest vocals for the price of a vegan dinner: what a guy.
8. Maybe I’ll Catch Fire (2000)
Another Dan Andriano-penned song, the title track from the band’s second album is dark even by the Alkaline Trio’s standards, with a bored, disillusioned and alienated protagonist musing upon various ways to die, and welcoming the prospect of death’s sweet release. When the bassist sings of wanting ‘something sharp to rip into my insides and bleed out all that pain’ you might want to give him a little hug. Either that, or a good slap.
7. Stupid Kid (2001)
Punk rock etiquette dictates that any song which brings a band to a new audience must automatically be denounced as the exact moment that [insert band name here] sold out, so Stupid Kid – the excellent first single from the Trio’s Vagrant Records debut From Here To Infirmary – will never find much favour from AK3 purists. Their loss, for with its biting lyrics (‘Remember when I said I love you? Well, forget it, I take it back’) and staccato guitar riff, it’s among the finest pop-punk ‘hits’ of the decade.
6. My Little Needle (1998)
As with ’97, Goddamnit standout My Little Needle isn’t quite what it seems, with its opening line (‘I’ll come down and get you high’) and images of withdrawal making it initially appear to be a song about drug addiction. In reality, the ‘little needle’ referenced in the song’s chorus is a nod towards the expression about finding a needle in a haystack, and is used here as a metaphor for the difficult quest for true love. Awwwwww. One for the youthful emo crowd then.
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5. This Could Be Love (2003)
The fierce opening song on 2003’s Good Mourning album is another Alkaline Trio love song… of sorts. A truly twisted little tale of obsession and lust, torture and murder, it reads like a particularly harrowing film noir script: it’s hard to imagine any other pop-punk band delivering a chorus beginning with the words ‘Step one – slit my throat. Step two – play in my blood’ or indeed with an opening verse stating ‘I shat the bed and laid there in it, thinking of you, wide awake for days.’ That chorus is a belter though, and this is one of the songs that turned the band into magazine cover stars.
4. Fuck You Aurora (2000)
For the longest time, Alkaline Trio mythology interpreted this emotional, lyrically heavy song from Maybe I’ll Catch Fire as Matt Skiba’s dedication to a friend who died in a car crash, largely because of the chorus, which runs ‘Fuck you Aurora, you took my only friend. You won’t catch me behind the wheel of a Chrysler ever again.’ Turns out that the truth was rather more prosaic, with Skiba explaining that it was actually an ode to a lost friendship, inspired by a female friend named Jess who lived in Aurora, Illinois who the singer used to “make the sex with.” Sorry it that’s spoiled it for anyone.
3. Private Eye (2001)
The second single from From Here To Infirmary is another masterclass in dark story-telling from Skiba, with its grim images of alcohol abuse and loneliness, not least in the memorable second verse lyric ‘New Year’s Eve was as boring as Heaven, I watched flies fuck on Channel 11.’ For those drawn in to the Trio’s third album by gateway single Stupid Kid, here was proof that Skiba’s band were a rather different proposition to the likes of New Found Glory or indeed Blink-182.
2. We’ve Had Enough (2003)
Featuring backing vocals from former Black Flag/Circle Jerks frontman Keith Morris (a cameo described by Skiba as “a dream come true” for his band), this thrillingly direct punk rock song from Good Mourning will resonate with anyone who’s been forced to listen to commercial radio at home or work. ‘Please turn that fucking radio off’ pleads an exasperated Skiba, asking instead that someone ‘Put [Misfits album] Walk Among Us on and turn it up!’ Noble sentiments, I’m sure we can all agree.
1. Radio (2000)
For the first 30 seconds of Alkaline Trio’s finest song, with it’s chiming arpeggio guitar line, you could be fooled into thinking this is going to be a pretty punk rock ballad, and then Matt Skiba sings the opening lyric ‘Shaking like a dog shitting razorblades…’ and it all goes downhill from there. A brutal dissection of a toxic relationship, with all the standard finger pointing, tears, arguments and rage bound in, this quietly seething track explodes into a brilliantly bitter, vicious chorus which concludes ‘I wish you would take my radio to bathe with you, plugged in and ready to fall.’ Not a song ever likely to be played as a wedding first dance then.