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American Idiot

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Before, during, and after its bout with mid-'90s superstardom, Green Day has spent little time deviating from its well-worn sound and style. Its stock in trade generally entails little more than simple, snotty, dubiously accented two-and-a-half-minute pop-punk songs: Even its immediate follow-up to the 1994 sensation Dookie found the band using the spotlight as a license to essentially remake its biggest hit.

After a four-year break between new studio albums, Green Day emerges from cultural invisibility with far and away its most ambitious recording to date. Given its predecessors' brevity, American Idiot feels overstuffed at 57 minutes, with 13 tracks—really 21, given the disc's two surprisingly effective five-song, nine-minute medleys—covering subject matter ranging from American politics to the more picked-over likes of suburbia and self-flagellation. The observations don't always dig as deep as they're meant to, and buzzwords occasionally stand in for insights, but American Idiot finds Green Day both shaking up its formula and applying it in novel and unexpected ways.

Given the group's place in the pop-music universe—elder statesmen to the kids, umpteenth-generation followers to the actual elder statesmen—Green Day needed to make a smarter, better, more inspired pop-punk record this time around. American Idiot, in all its messy sprawling, is just that, functioning better as a whole than as a collection of would-be hit singles. It's tempting to chalk Green Day's newfound vitality up to backhanded compliments like "maturity" or "aging gracefully," but really, the band just sounds refreshed and inspired, for the first time in ages.