Punk was never something that was meant to last, much less to be iconic and imitated. Punk was meant to die — it was meant to implode into violence like the Sex Pistols or live in semi-obscurity as a calling card for those who hated the mainstream. It wasn’t supposed to get lists of favorites more than a decade after the death of a founding member. The Clash are one of the reasons we still talk and still care about first wave punk to this day. They were called “the only band that mattered,” and they did everything possible to live up to that impossible expectation. With a fury and a conviction that’s rarely seen and with pure, aggressive force The Clash changed what it meant to be a punk. Everything from reggae to rockabilly was channeled in their impressive catalogue. As with all these lists, it’s impossible to distill a career of a group of such exceptional artists down to 20 songs, especially when that means you can’t include the entirety of London Calling, but we can still highlight the massively influential and eclectic songs they created.
20. Rock the Casbah
19. Police On My Back
18. English Civil War
17. Know Your Rights
15. Magnificent Seven
14. Police and Thieves
13. Brand New Cadillac
12. Rebel Waltz
11. Spanish Bombs
10. I’m So Bored with the USA
When you talk about the fury of early British punk, the first album to name check is The Clash’ self titled debut. It was in Britain that politics came front and center with punk, and no band better illustrated that than The Clash. With this track, they infuse the thrashing dissatisfaction of their genre with a searing political critic of the hypocrisy and dictatorial foreign policy of Cold War USA.
9. Tommy Gun
With drums that sound like a tommy gun and those acidic, distorted guitars, The Clash once again take a political stance, this time critiquing the “freedom fighters” that blindly throw lives away — all anchored by that quick snare that’s simply unforgettable.
8. White Riot
This is a perfect encapsulation of the fury that engulfed the political climate of the late seventies, especially in Britain where class warfare, race issues and a terrible economy all came to a head. Inspired by watching the race riots that were breaking out across the country, Joe Strummer tried to incite the working class to deal with their problems with the same ferocity and conviction. It’s a track that perfectly summarizes the climate at a very particular moment in time, and a damn fine punk song.
7. Death or Glory
As the band grew older, their music matured with them, which of course sounded a whole lot like angry punks selling out to make that sweet, sweet money. Listening to this giant middle finger to those critics, it sounds less like selling out more like being smarter than the rest. Remember: “he who fucks nuns, will later join the church.”
6. London’s Burning
The Clash is packed with absolutely classic punk tracks, and this is one of the most quintessential. Fed up with the staus-quo and filled to the brim with anger and boredom, they run through the city reeking absolute havoc on everything they can’t stand. All these years later, it’s impossible to hear this song and not want to set some shit on fire.
5. Rudie Can’t Fail
London Calling is, without hyperbole, one of the greatest rock records ever recorded. The Clash always had a fascination with the reggae music, and there’s no better example of their effortless melding of rock, reggae and soul, than this spectacular track about a rude boy who questions his elders. It’s a bright spot on an album of only bright spots.
4. The Guns of Brixton
Paul Simonon didn’t step in front of the mic often, but the first time he did made quite the impression. With it’s dark, punk swagger and ferocity, “Guns of Brixton” is one of the essential songs by the band and one of the best tracks on an album that’s wall to wall incredible. It’s angry, it’s vitriolic and it’s one of the most perfect punk songs ever.
3. Career Opportunities
The Clash’s debut self-titled album was, as stated many times, a perfect snapshot into an extremely difficult and tumultuous time in Britain, and in the world. “Career Opportunities” is perhaps the best illustration of the time’s lack of jobs, lack of hope and crushing apathy. It’s a song that takes the disillusionment of the youth and turns it into white hot rage at the system that they inherited — a feeling that seems completely understandable and relatable today.
2. Straight to Hell
Perhaps one of the most catchy songs to be about the absolute horrors of the world, “Straight to Hell” combines that exceptionally peppy riff — one that was made famous again by MIA — and pairs it with lyrics about the legions of forgotten and disenfranchised. From the English left behind by the modern economy to the Vietnamese children fathered by US soldiers, the track reminds us exactly what society thinks of them. It’s enough to make you feel ashamed for grooving to the track so hard, which is probably the most punk thing of all.
1. London Calling
It’s the most iconic song from the most iconic album from an iconic band, and for good reason. All these years later, and with so many artists ribbing it’s contraction and vibe, “London Calling” still seems completely fresh and different. Sounding exactly like the rickety unease of the Cold War, it confidently eschews the phony optimism of the dead flower-child movement and embraces the destruction that seemed so imminent. With it’s screams and mixture of genres, it goes fully into the apocalypse like no one had before and no one could ever even attempt again.