Rock is obvs not dead but it’s not hard to see why people always say it is, almost wishfully. For decades, the most commercially viable (and even critically bolstered) rock was dominated by white dudes, which is troublesome considering how many of its pioneers, including the dearly departed, radically queer genius Little Richard, were not. And considering how many boomers put the genre on a pedestal while finding creatively bigoted ends for disco and rap, it wasn’t exactly sad to watch visionaries of other genres, particularly R&B and hip-hop, inarguably revolutionized the 2010s more than any guitar-bass-drums unit. It was great, actually — a relief. A reckoning.
But that doesn’t mean we have to dismiss rock; if anything, giving the genre something to prove has only made its best practitioners hungrier. And while much of the best rock’n’roll has always been queer (from Hüsker Dü to R.E.M.), non-white (from X-Ray Spex to TV on the Radio), and non-cis male (from Bikini Kill to… I mean, we’re not gonna just list thousands of women), the landscape, amateur-hour dictatorship aside, finally seems primed to recognize it. Here are 50 mostly guitar-wielding innovators, barnburners, and eardrum-ruiners to help get you through this dogshit year. Please consume and love it all. And play loud, because they rip.
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Hometown: Champaign, IL
Why We Love Them: If Lush measures a 2 on the Swervedriver-O-Meter and My Bloody Valentine a 7, Hum is a solid 9. Unlike most American disciples of the shoegaze boom, this Illinois-based band delivered metallic riffs — riffs sludgy and heavy enough to earn fans like Deftones (Chino Moreno famously cited the band as an influence), Deafheaven, and possibly other metal bands beginning with the letter “D.” Hum’s appealing mix of fuzzy swirl, post-hardcore intensity, and interstellar imagery reached its peak on 1995’s You’d Prefer an Astronaut, which even produced a minor rock radio hit with “Stars.” The band’s brief major-label run concluded with 1998’s Downward Is Heavenward, which also seemed to be the end of the band’s recording career — until a month ago. Inlet, the band’s new, long-rumored fifth album, evokes cosmic expanse with lengthy, extravagantly textured burners like “Desert Rambler” and “The Summoning.” Welcome back.
Finest Moment: Hum has only made one album in Lil Nas X’s lifetime. So in terms of recent achievements, the wholly unexpected Inlet — surprise-released in June — takes the cake-disguised-as-a-delay-pedal-until-you-cut-into-it. — Zach Schonfeld
49. Spanish Love Songs
Hometown: Los Angeles, CA
Why We Love Them: Spanish Love Songs, a band much too sad to actually be from L.A., has taken the Springsteemo cocktail mastered by Philly stalwarts the Wonder Years and the Menzingers and spiked it with more concentrated Hollywood angst, courtesy of tormented frontman Dylan Slocum. Ravaging tracks like “Routine Pain” and “Loser,” highlights from the band’s killer February LP Brave Faces Everyone, smack you square in the sternum — hurtling pop-punk riffs and tales of depression, addiction and existential crises, born from the band’s rigorous pre-pandemic touring schedule. But as with all good emo-punk, it’s only fun if there’s some catharsis tucked away, too. And deep within the bleak, there are glimmers of redemption. Maybe we’ll all be okay. Probably not.
Finest Moment: The too-real opening verse of “Generation Loss,” where Slocum wails: “You 29-year-old panic attack / And not the fashionable kind / The kind where you wake up and say ‘Man, I just wanna survive.’” — Bobby Olivier
Hometown: Washington, D.C.
Why We Love Them: The Ex Hex to Fugazi’s Helium, you can tell Ian MacKaye’s new trio with wife Amy Farina (they were both formerly the Evens) and Fugazi’s Joe Lally is the most fun he’s had in years, with the simplest and most succinct tunes of possibly his career — dare you to not hear flickers of Grease’s “Summer Nights” in “Hard to Explain.” On their just-released self-titled debut, Farina’s pounding drums and Lally’s crawling bass are given roomfuls of atmosphere to walk around in; rarely has a power trio been perfectly content to not fill the audio space. The parity is refreshing, too: “Say Yes” and “Too Many Husbands” are almost entirely Farina’s show and absolutely the funkiest things MacKaye’s ever been part of. A best-case scenario for an artistic democracy in miniature.
Finest Moment: The most Fugazi thing on Coriky is “Inauguration Day,” which begins, “Forecast calls for an execution,” if you thought Mr. Straight Edge lost any of his political bite. — Dan Weiss
47. The Voidz
Hometown: New York, NY and Los Angeles, CA
Why We Love Them: Anything and everything can happen in a Voidz song. Acoustic blues, heavy metal, deep prog, funk, pop, the 8-bit Freon-chill a bank of synthesizers creates — sometimes individually, sometimes en masse. This three-guitar sextet firmed and led by Strokes frontman Julian Casablancas pursue this alchemy with true heart and enthusiasm, a go-for-broke gusto that makes 2014’s Tyranny, 2018’s Virtue, and a handful of 2019 one-off cuts a stoner’s sonic amusement park. Here, Casablancas has free rein to indulge his whims beyond the sleek, robotic rock-populism the Strokes are constitutionally mandated to champion. His accompanying sentiments — a mélange of Trustafarian contrarianism, personal philosophy, and passive-aggressive winks allegedly targeting different Strokes — complement a musical aesthetic inclined to melodic overload. This excess sidles to tender, epic life on the 11-minute “Human Sadness” and informs “Wink,” a roiling, cutting synth-pop bop that threatens to transform into reggae or an alternate 90210 theme. Theirs are consummate “older brother” records, arriving a couple of decades too late.
Finest Moment: The syncopated, Pacific Coast haze of 2018’s “Permanent High School,” complete with plastic falsetto. — Raymond Cummings
46. Bad Moves
Hometown: Washington, D.C.
Why We Love Them: The catchiest band ever to bear the honorable Don Giovanni legend on their product (and the least, uh, discordant punk-adjacent band to ever hail from D.C.) make cheerleader chants for Bill Barr’s guillotining. Bad Moves stack hooks like a cotton candy cone spun to the heavens, albeit on a 2020 sophomore album called Untenable that asks “You think that poverty’s a role-play, baby?” and laments the plight of the “the worker, the smothered, Dickensian sucker.” It’s more downcast than 2018’s excellent Tell No One, which for this band simply means “all-syrup Squishee” rather than “black-tar Pixy Stix.” But it also means between that between the “Hot Child in the City” palm-mutes and prerequisite whoa-oh refrains that you get snippets like “There’s a genocide of the poor” and “I got myself a SIM card, it’s prepaid / To tell me just what’s wrong with me.”
Finest Moment: “Spirit FM,” the best power-pop song of 2018, is more euphoric than catching the bouquet at a queer wedding, which is fitting for a song about realizing at church camp that your crush is the same gender as you. — D.W.
45. Body Count
Hometown: Los Angeles, CA
Why We Love Them: In gangsta rap’s early-’90s pomp, Ice-T was often the clearest about exactly what force had created this most natively Reaganite of genres’ volatile brew of social realism and sociopathic fantasy, class analysis and moral trolling. His clarity-first flow, cutting through mixes like a cold-hearted Chuck D, painted a blasted American landscape organized from elegant top to gory bottom on the principle of all-against-all. Since their 2010s revival, Body Count — formed on Ice’s own admission to “just to let one of my best friends, Ernie C, play his guitar” — has given our more-Reagan-than-Reagan era the more-gangsta-than-gangsta soundtrack it badly needs. (“Give me a fucking break,” he groans on “Black Hoodie,” “I’ve been talking about this shit for over 20 years.”)
So 2017’s Bloodlust didn’t so much “fuse” political paranoia (“Civil War,” featuring Megadeth’s Dave Mustaine in the role of Jello Biafra) with horrorcore violence (“Here I Go Again”) and straight-up Marxist agitprop (“No Lives Matter”) but reveal each to be an already-fused facet of life as a fully alienated economic monad for whom society is nothing but murdering gangs from the cops down and the cops up. And this year’s Carnivore opens by folding a goofy meat-eating anthem full of T-rex roars neatly into the band’s moral universe (what’s more capitalist than the food chain?) and closes with a diagnosis of medical precision: “The love is fake / But the hate is real.” The genuine Blackpill.
Finest Moment: Their remake of Suicidal Tendencies’ classic “Institutionalized,” because — again — the only thing more wanting a Pepsi than wanting a Pepsi is wanting to kill some motherfuckers on Xbox. — Theon Weber
44. 2nd Grade
Hometown: Philadelphia, PA
Why We Love Them: “We live in a punk-rock world / Oooh-oooh, oooh-oooh,” sings Peter Gill on 2020’s astounding Hit to Hit, which honors both sentiments by sounding like Big Star if Alex Chilton had Bob Pollard’s ADHD, across 24 tunes that only break the two-minute mark on a quarter of the record. Homemade-sounding music is often championed for its roughness-as-realism, but Gill’s band shows how gorgeous and pristine the DIY life can be, albeit by leading with the Beach Boys rockabilly of “W-2,” a tax-form lament for anyone just trying to get their fucking quarantine check. Treat their breakthrough album as a thought-experiment about what would happen if you straightened all the crooked lines in Wowee Zowee and marvel at how much fractured beauty is still there.
43. Otoboke Beaver
Hometown: Kyoto, Japan
Why We Love Them: On every track, Kyoto’s self-described “Japanese girls ‘knock out or pound cake’ band” unleash a delicious rage so compact you could dropkick it down the block. With relatable, pithy titles like “6-day working week is a pain” and this year’s astute Valentine’s single “Dirty old fart is waiting for my reaction,” each of their songs is a bomb shorter than its title that detonates on the micro absurdities of existing in the world as a woman. 2019’s Itekoma Hits compiled new tracks alongside older singles in 26 minutes, framing Accorinrin’s snarl among Yoyoyoshie’s, Hiro-Chan’s, and Kahokiss’s mind-boggling command of breakneck rhythm buttressing the demolition. The resulting album captures rage at its deadliest, most satisfying flashpoint.
Finest Moment: Their 18-second song “ikezu” (and its Naoyuki-Asano-directed music video), which hit with the efficiency of an aneurysm. — Stefanie Fernández
Hometown: St. Louis, MO
Why We Love Them: Foxing has become one of indie-rock’s most juiced-up alpha-sluggers, calling its towering shots and clobbering homers into the Busch Stadium parking lot. The valiant six-piece led by singer Conor Murphy swung big with their soaring 2018 LP Nearer My God, which landed somewhere between American Football’s disconsolate debut and Radiohead’s blinking Hail to the Thief. It’s a sincerely commanding effort; 90 seconds into the emphatic album opener “Grand Paradise,” as Murphy shrieks the unforgettable phrase “shock-collared at the gates of heaven!” and the full band kicks in, it’s an arena-worthy moment for a band that plays to hundreds, not thousands. Yet those live shows are teeming with the group’s unapologetic self-belief — Foxing plays like it wants to be the rock band that saves your life. If concerts ever return, you better believe those clubs will be full.
Finest Moment: “Nearer My God,” the title track, in all its triumphant, anguished, soul-affirming glory — the Hotelier-worshipping Missouri grandson of Queen’s “I Want to Break Free.” — B.O.
41. Pearl Jam
Hometown: Seattle, Washington
Why We Love Them: “Best album since Yield” is nearly as much of a Pearl Jam cliché as “best since Tattoo You” is a Stones cliché, but this year Pearl Jam really did release their best album in 20 years. No, it doesn’t quite match the band’s flannel-clad glory days. But Gigaton is a rare beast: a late-career album from a respected but quiet legacy band that manages to update their sound without losing the qualities that attracted fans in the first place. With a sense of urgency buoyed by Eddie Vedder’s avowedly anti-Trump fury, it’s certainly better than — Thunder Struck was it called?
Finest Moment: In recent memory? It’s got to be “Dance of the Clairvoyants,” an uncharacteristically funky spin on Talking Heads paranoia that consummates Gigaton’s stature as the most adventurous Pearl Jam album in two decades. — Z.S.
Hometown: Austin, TX
Why We Love Them: Texas runs metalpunk, and Skeleton runs Texas. The Austin trio exemplifies Texas’ style of just going harder than everyone else, merging early thrash and first-wave black metal’s frayed swagger. Drummer and vocalist Victor Ziolkowski is a tank snarling and pounding with firm command and killer intentions; his brother, guitarist David, slashes many ’80s styles through his own punky lens, efficient yet wholly expressive. Skeleton are youthful insurgents like Texas legends Iron Age and Power Trip before them, taking the best from the old Gods without aping them mindlessly. Every generation needs such a band. Victor also heads I Hate I Skate, which (in the before times) puts on shows unleashing the youngest, hungriest, and weirdest punks in Austin. He knows in Texas, real recognize real.
Finest Moment: “Ring of Fire,” no relation to the official anthem of clueless tourists gorging boot-leather brisket in downtown Austin, shows a wounded majesty to their rage with David eking mournful airs from Celtic Frost’s mid-paced grandeur. — Andy O’Connor
Hometown: Washington, D.C.
Why We Love Them: Imagine the Breeders covering XTC’s “Making Plans for Nigel” with Andy Partridge on guest vocals. That kind of comes close, but not really; Flasher knows who they are and don’t give a shit what you think. After signing to Domino Records, they released their 2018 debut, Constant Image, one of the most inventive post-punk records of the last decade made by three musicians who gel like conjoined triplets. (That’s the difference between a good band and a great band: the ability to sound effortless, like one freaky entity, not a bunch of people playing against one another.) Flasher’s lyrics are smart and, if you look for it, political, but not so direct that you can’t escape the references, if you just want to melt into the music and forget how polarized America is in 2020. These D.C. bubble-punks are infectious, anthemic, and easy on the eyes. We won’t be looking away anytime soon.
Finest Moment: The hilarious, fast-paced, chop-and-drop video for “Material” takes the piss out of YouTube, flash-dancing, the Illuminati, and, most close-to-home for these former Comet Ping Pong employees, #pizzagate. (Vocalist/bassist Danny Saperstein even appeared in the 2020 documentary, After Truth: Disinformation and the Cost of Fake News talking about the scandal.) Flasher confronts the homophobic pizza spazz by dressing up like Marina Abramovic, cock-punching, and lampooning conspiracy-theory Vloggers. — Mish Barber-Way
Hometown: Vancouver, British Columbia
Why We Love Them: Try to resist a unit that Brooklyn Vegan described as “a whole band made of Jimbos from The Simpsons.” If Danger Mouse was the last straw for you with Parquet Courts, here’s the Stooges to their Velvet Underground, an all-spikes sarcasm brigade formed around the holy mission to Make Indie Angular Again on 2018’s deliciously discordant Seeing Green and 2019’s slightly craftier Club Nites. Just check the Archers of Loaf grungebursts that punctuate Dumb’s “Submission” or the manic Beefheart-sliding-on-a-dessert-cart-into-a-wall spree of “My Condolences.” And they even mock their own revival with an anti-anthem called “Slacker Needs Serious Work.”
Finest Moment: The only time Dumb break g/b/d allegiance is to stick a gloriously honking sax solo at the end of “Beef Hits,” revealing their most furious song as their silliest, as most angry dweebs boil down to anyway. — D.W.
37. Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever
Hometown: Melbourne, Australia
Why We Love Them: Unlike the more pillowy Tame Impala who pivoted away from it, Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever stick with what they know best: Bringing out the anxious intensity of moody and melodic three-guitar jangle like some kind of upside-down-timeline Skynyrd. That in itself would please the graying rock fans in 2020, but it comes with immense hooks that that would make Miracle Legion steal their own songs back from Pete and Pete. Yep, RBCF can really do it all — at least for those shelves boast dusty “Radio Free Europe” seven-inches. And their festival-stealing live show (should they ever get to put on one again) ensures their best days will happen sooner than later.
Finest Moment: Following 2018’s assured Hope Downs, June’s Sideways to New Italy, showed not only a tremendous leap in lyricism (touching on their own individual histories and interconnectivity as a whole) but the intricate musicianship that made a triple-songwriter unit the most promising act to come from Down Under since, oh, you know who. — Daniel Kohn
Hometown: Atlanta, GA
Why We Love Them: “Yeah, yeah, I see,” nods an overbearing critic-fan-inquisitor on Algiers’ 2019 single “Can the Sub_Bass Speak?”, “it’s kinda like, gospel-punk. Soul-punk. Soul-rock. Doom-soul?” He doesn’t like it (though he does muse that it reminds him of every Black rock band he can think of, from Fishbone to TV on the Radio). But if you’re at all interested in hearing sharply political call-and-response gospel vocals filtered thru pop-punk songwriting and arranged by one of the best live bands on the planet into a smoldering, jittery roar, these guys are your only option. Each album starting with their eponymous 2015 debut has built on the last, further crystallizing that famous gospel-punk-soul-punk-soul-rock-doom-soul sound; in early 2020, they released not only the explosive There Is No Year but a flood of show-length live recordings on Bandcamp that show off their squall and wail in its essence.
Finest Moment: Live in Atlanta: The Last Show on Earth, on which the band returned to their hometown in March 2020 to tear up OutKast and Childish Gambino covers in front of an audibly rapturous crowd days before the city would shut down: The sound of gathering a last harvest of community before this strange, indefinite winter. — T.W.
35. L.O.T.I.O.N. Multinational Corporation
Hometown: New York, NY
Why We Love Them: L.O.T.I.O.N. Multinational Corporation were over 2020 before 2020 even began. Led by acclaimed punk artist Alexander Heir, the industrial punk quartet wage war against the future. Heir references Terminator’s unfeeling T-800s frequently in his art and L.O.T.I.O.N. is definitely human tissue over metal exoskeleton: d-beats are mechanized, guitars are noisy rail guns splattering what’s left of humanity, and Heir’s own vocals are primal yawps ensnared in digital servitude. They’re screaming that the future is a robotic wasteland out of our control, if we ever had control in the first place. Is there a band more made for our moment?
Hometown: London, England
Why We Love Them: Name a better Britrock band in 2020, we’ll wait. (The 1975 themselves would tell you they don’t count, though that only makes them more rock.) Wolf Alice’s Mercury Prize-winning breakthrough record, 2017’s uproariously good Visions of a Life, fused crunchy post-grunge, hypnotic shoegaze, and deliciously dissonant noise-rock into a project that was both ethereal and urgent — a banner leap from their 2015 debut LP, My Love Is Cool. Singer/guitarist Ellie Rowsell is a ferocious, era-traipsing acrobat — she could’ve easily jammed alongside Morrissey in ‘84, Bilinda Butcher in ‘91 or Shirley Manson in ‘98 — and has no trouble toggling between sonic maelstroms (“Yuk Foo”), Arctic-Monkeys-esque bar-rock (“Beautifully Unconventional”) and sweeping indie showstoppers (“Don’t Delete the Kisses”). Not to mention the band’s live show kicks your teeth in.
Finest Moment: The perfect back-to-back stack of “Yuk Foo” and “Beautifully Unconventional” — two songs, each precisely two minutes and 13 seconds, shooting an epic swirl of fury from a confetti cannon of melody. — B.O.
33. The 1975
Hometown: Wilmslow, Cheshire, England
Why We Love Them: From their early days churning out face-slap pop-punk basslines to their now-endless journey crafting highly-anticipated, everything-an-experiment albums that no critic can ever agreeon, Matty Healy and his boys have taken the Only Band That Matters
mantle from U2 and they’re not shy about it (they let us know). Their fourth album, Notes on a Conditional Form, throws away any sense of cohesion, with folk songs nobody asked for (that we’re still cool with) and period pieces that could’ve graced the Empire Records soundtrack or played Warped Tour in the early 2000s. For a year when nobody knows that hell is going on or if we’ll ever escape for that matter, we could always use a big-ass album and a band unafraid to overthink it.
Finest Moment: “(Tonight) I Wish I Was Your Boy” and that fire-ass, chipmunked Temptations sample. — Brenton Blanchet
32. Meet Me @ The Altar
Hometowns: Florida, Georgia, New Jersey
Why We Love Them: Meet Me @ The Altar so lovingly summon the cues of ‘00s-era pop-punk and emo with an emotional intelligence and maturity that the genre’s most visible (re: white) sad boys never really lived up to. Based in three different states after discovering each other on YouTube, singer Edith Johnson, guitarist and bassist Téa Campbell, and drummer Ada Juarez command their instruments with an attention to detail that belies the fact that they usually only get a day or two to practice in person before shows (and that was pre-pandemic). These three young women of color create with a care befitting internet friends, paying homage to and carving out their own place in a genre notorious for gatekeeping its sound and sadness from anyone who isn’t a suburban white boy, and hold Paramore as a sacrosanct influence. The challenges of social distancing during the pandemic are real for any band, and must be especially for these three, but they’ve already overcome separation with ease.
Finest Moment: The delicious, math-y first 20 seconds of their 2020 single “Garden” grow into one of 2020’s hardest, tenderest punk choruses. — S.F.
31. Vampire Weekend
Hometown: New York, NY
Why We Love Them: These guys don’t make mistakes. The deepening complexity of the tightly wound miniatures on their first three albums reached on 2013’s Modern Vampires of the City what felt like the absolute maximum allowable density, hanging the most intricately constructed pop-rock this side of the New Pornographers on the breeze and lightness of highlife and harpsichord like jet engines suspended in spiderwebs. It’s an apotheosis, but it was unsustainable, which is why Father of the Bride is a relaxed, guest-studded country-rock sprawl, a letting out of breath.
Or at least it seems so, before you go back and listen to the bridge of “Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa” or the chilled electronic burble of “Diplomat’s Son”, and remember this band has always known exactly how good space sounds — and that they were just as arch and undeluded on their first album about the rarefied life of Ivy League whiteness as they are on their fourth about the even further rarefied life of rock stardom. If you’re gonna have bards of privilege — and you’re gonna; that’s what privilege is — you’re about as lucky to have V-Dubz as you were to have F. Scott Fitzgerald. Be careful in Hollywood, guys.
Finest Moment: Probably this. — T.W.
30. High on Fire
Hometown: Oakland, CA and Portland, OR
Why We Love Them: Because not loving Matt Pike would be like not loving Santa Claus. (If Santa Claus was a beefy, bare-chested Godfather of stoner metal who was responsible for some of the best music of the last four decades.) Since forming in 1998, High on Fire haven’t stopped churning out iconic thrash albums accompanied by insanely loud and driving live shows that make you want to flip over every table in the bar. Though the trio has switched out members a few times over the years (longtime drummer, Dez Kesnel left the band last June), it hasn’t changed the band’s sound, speed, or intense tour schedule. With reliably esoteric lyrics atop steel-driving drums and sludgy riffs in latter-day sledgehammers like “God of the Godless” and “Carcoa,” High on Fire have become the premier cult favorite for metal fans, and Pike is possibly even the rightful successor to Motörhead’s Lemmy.
Finest Moment: When High on Fire accepted their 2019 Best Metal Performance Grammy for their late-career peak, Electric Messiah, onlookers noticed that Pike swaggered off with a cane and bubbly space boot on his foot, fueling rumors that he had a diabetes-related problem. But Pike clarified in an interview that the fucked-up toe that had been plaguing him for years had finally been cut off. After a grueling tour schedule with no off-days and even fewer cleaner showers, the injury turned into a serious bone infection leaving Pike on stage with a “fucking hotdog in my sock.” The podiatrist had to amputate the infected toe, to which Pike replied, “Fuck it, good riddance. That toe caused me nothing but problems, so fuck that thing.” — M.B.W.
Hometown: Kyoto, Japan
Why We Love Them: Because on 2020’s Makkuro they make math-rock sound not just cool and sleek but sexy and danceable, from the opening disco strains of “Unou Sanou (右脳左脳)” to the ferocious climax of “Mitete (みてて),” which begins as a jazzy Esperanza Spalding trifle. Because their compositions sound like they actually calculated π beyond its first few digits and took the care to ensure that all their abstract moving parts would find a cushioned landing. Because Ikkyu Nakajima has absorbed R&B in her singing. Because their song lengths are normal.
Finest Moment: Makkuro’s gorgeous and catchy title song sounds like a Dirty Projectors who’ve actually heard Paramore records. — D.W.
28. Big Thief
Hometown: Brooklyn, NY
Why We Love Them: If you don’t think Big Thief is a rock band full-stop, see them live. Or time-travel to 2019 when it was still possible to do so — when the band was touring behind a folk album containing some outstanding rock songs (U.F.O.F.) and a rock album containing some outstanding folk songs (Two Hands) and performing in venues bigger than once seemed possible for such a peculiar and fragile-sounding group. “Capacity” rattles and clangs like a lost Polvo b-side. “Jenni” makes a convincing case for a Big Thief/Boris split seven-inch. “Not” — increasingly the band’s signature song — morphs from breathless mantra to Martsch-worthy guitar heroics with impressive ease. The rare band that’s earned its hype, prolific output, celebrity fans, and a growing constellation of solo projects.
Finest Moment: Look, I’m not saying “Not” was the best rock song of 2019, but I’m also not saying “Not” was not the best rock song of 2019. — Z.S.
27. The Paranoid Style
Hometown: Washington, D.C.
Why We Love Them: Like irony-breathing critic-turned-rockers from Blue Öyster Cult to Pet Shop Boys, Elizabeth Nelson writes the kind of lyrics those of us still unturned just want to quote at you all day. “An icepick deep in Trotsky’s back — his last thought is that it’s understandable.” “U put the ‘u’ in ‘cruel and unusual’ / But u typically put urself first.” “He went to Julliard / Which isn’t as easy as it sounds.” “What in the world’s come over me? / Asking for a friend.” “They digitally removed the coke from Neil’s nose, you know / Or so the rumor goes. I don’t know.” “I’m pretty sure ‘Ana Ng’ is the best one / But ‘They’ll Need a Crane’ is certainly a close second.” And these are all from 2019’s A Goddamn Impossible Way of Life alone — their seven-year catalog keeps going back like this; may it keep going forward too. It may be healthier that Nelson and husband Timothy Bracy head up one of the most confident and muscular garage-rock bands going, threading all that deadpan text deftly through darting-needle melodies that stitch together hurtling hard-rock rave-ups. You’ll forgive them for being critical darlings because they’re also the goddamn life of the party.
Finest Moment: If all of the above didn’t sell you, “Turpitude”‘s “I smoke for the following reasons — the Contract With America / I smoke because of Pulp Fiction / I smoke because of Mojo Nixon” can’t, can it? — T.W.
26. Neighborhood Brats
Hometown: The Bay Area, CA
Why We Love Them: Neighborhood Brats are what the Go-Go’s would sound like if they lived at the shore and made lo-fi garage/surf punk overflowing with reverb and delay. Guitarist George Rager’s rich melodies vehemently rage against the elitism and wealth of “Late Stage Capitalism” — you can’t be a capitalist and a beach bum after all. In 2018, the band released two highly-anticipated EPs, marking their triumphant return to music after a long hiatus. They’ve spent the last two years touring all over the world, including playing with punk legends Subhumans and Adolescents. This year, they finished recording their new album, Nothing Changes If Nothing Changes, which will be released in the fall — if capitalists don’t fuck that up, too.
Finest Moment: “Dear Angelo”— the explosive opener from their 2018 EP Claw Marks — is fun enough to make you catch a California wave while flipping off the tech bros gentrifying its beaches. — Stephanie Mendez
25. Young Fathers
Hometown: Edinburgh, Scotland
Why We Love Them: Young Fathers are one of those acts you can’t categorize at all; they were briefly referred to as rappers because of their Anticon association, and they’re tight with Massive Attack and have a built-from-scratch sonic vocabulary that’s unquestionably reminiscent of Tricky, so why not throw trip-hop into the mix, along with gospel, which is heavily incorporated on their fourth straight amazing album, 2018’s Cocoa Sugar. But they have the feel of a band, which 2015’s outrageously titled White Men Are Black Men Too brought to the fore on the Latin Playboys-style fragmentation of “Old Rock n Roll” and the uncomplicated pop-punk rave-up “John Doe,” which features a whistling solo. Cocoa Sugar moved a little closer to turning their eavesdropped basement-jam improvs into something like Real Anthems on “In My View” and “Border Girl,” further crystallizing the thrill of hearing a trio that sounds like nothing else manage to succeed at traditional pleasures.
Finest Moment: In just two minutes, Cocoa Sugar’s beautiful opener “See How” will silence the room; good luck identifying or even describing any of the sawing, scraping sounds in it that don’t come from a human mouth. — D.W.
24. Low Cut Connie
Hometown: Philadelphia, PA
Why We Love Them: Low Cut Connie knows that Little Richard and Jerry Lee Lewis are pioneers for a reason. Frontman Adam Weiner is up to his elbows in the soil of rock’n’roll’s roots, stomping out barnstorming piano-powered songs that are the definition of truly classic rock. Weiner’s heartfelt (and at times, heart-wrenching) fascination with the fringes of American life leads him towards some dazzling bursts of light amidst the crushing reality. That same energy propels their legendary live shows, a party they’ve kept going with 2020’s must-see “Tough Cookies” livestream series, premiering new songs and covering everyone from Nirvana to Cardi B. It’s enough for America’s last actual president to include Low Cut Connie’s “Boozophilia” on his 2015 summer playlist alongside Aretha Franklin and Sly and the Family Stone. The pandemic isn’t stopping October’s upcoming Private Eyes either, which is charged up with thoughtful party anthems like “The Fucking You Get (For the Fucking You Got),” and on track to be the roots-rock album of the year. What Billy Joel circa Glass Houses would sound like if he came bearing hugs instead of rocks.
Finest Moment: Weiner cranks up the emotional intensity with 2018 single “Beverly,” a bittersweet melody of cruelly unrequited affection. Brutal rejection has never sounded so sweet. — Scott Sterling
Hometowns: Vashon, WA and Vancouver, BC, Canada
Why We Love Them: Aaron Turner has been changing the face of metal for the past couple decades: In the 2000s, his genre-agnostic label Hydra Head helped revive metal’s critical stature and he defined post-metal with his group Isis. His current focus, Sumac, takes doom metal to its outer limits of space and structure. If any band could be considered “free metal,” it would be them, as Turner loosens up his already spacious playing, and drummer Nick Yacyshyn holds control in his hands, sending the band to screechy, incomprehensible chaos or tightly wound, almost Neu!-like hypnosis at his will. For the avant-heads, they’ve released not one but two records with Japanese free music master Keiji Haino, locking down an unstoppable alliance between Wire and Decibel readers.
Finest Moment: Beginning your album with a 21-and-a-half minute track is how you filter out the nonbelievers in style, as 2018’s Love in Shadow does with “The Task.” — A.O.
22. Trap Girl
Hometown: Los Angeles, CA
Why We Love Them: Trans musicians have always existed in punk rock, but until recently, they’ve been denied entry into the genre’s exclusive and patriarchal canon. Trap Girl are changing that in the modern-day scene by taking up space and advocating for trans people in the band’s raucous, riot grrrl-inspired tunes — vocalist Drew Arriola-Sands writes about her experiences with equal parts angst and sass. In December 2019, Trap Girl released TransAmerican Chokehold, an EP about transphobia, violence, and Drew’s subversion, ingeniously represented with cover art paying tribute to the Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! poster. Earlier this year, the band toured the West Coast and performed at the annual DIY Transgress Fest, founded by Arriola-Sands in 2016 to celebrate and raise the visibility of trans musicians in punk rock.
Finest Moment: In “Silly Little Rabbit” from TransAmerican Chokehold, Drew calls out fake allies by including a voicemail sent to her by a shithead who said “that diva thing only works for women worth fighting for.” — S.M.
21. Not on Tour
Hometown: Tel Aviv, Israel
Why We Love Them: What could be more 2020 than a band called “Not on Tour?” These mayhem-mongers from the Middle East have already spent a decade churning out an overwhelming oeuvre of hurtling, hyperactive tunes, very few of which ever dare to cross the two-minute threshold. Led by perennially pissed-off frontwoman Sima Brami, the band reaches top speed on their fifth record, 2019’s Growing Pains, which sounds like the Interrupters mainlining triple espressos on a transatlantic flight. Touches of pop-punk, skate-punk, and hardcore all play nice under the polished banner as Brami’s raw vocal blasts through, touching on everyday struggles, politics and mental health — maybe they’re all the same damn thing: “I want to have a breakdown / Therapy, therapy, you never get the best of me.”
Finest Moment: The old-school punk frenzy that is Growing Pains — 17 songs, 23 minutes, zero fat. Don’t forget to breathe. — B.O.
20. Couch Slut
Hometown: New York, NY
Why We Love Them: While there’s a certain undeniable pleasure derived from loud and abrasive guitar music, Couch Slut tests the limits of that principle. It’s not that they lean much more on the noise end of noise rock — guitarists Kevin Wunderlich and Amy Mills believe if you skronk it, they will come — it’s that it’s in service of Megan Osztrosits’ caustic lyrics on abuse, drug addiction, self-mutilation, highways of poor decisions, and taunting the saddest, most impotent men out there. She sings as both victim and dominator, as someone who’s crawled up from filth and still consumed by it, because life is too messy for binaries. You can’t come away feeling relieved or happy from listening to them, even if you’re one of the most deranged masochists out there, an American with a conscience.
Finest Moment: In May, they surprise-released their latest album, Take a Chance on Rock n’ Roll, and nothing else you will listen in 2020 will have songs referencing under-the-table clit piercings or scumbag bikers named Captain America. — A.O.
19. Sheer Mag
Hometown: Philadelphia, PA
Why We Love Them: If you’re nostalgic for infectious twin-guitar licks and Thin Lizzy-style late ’70s rock —whose late singer Phil Lynott is literally tattooed on Sheer Mag vocalist Christina Halladay — Sheer Mag demands and exceeds satisfaction. The Philly five-piece pays homage to traditional rock‘n’roll but with postmodern lyrical concerns that extend to their extracurriculars: Guitarist Kyle Seely started offering guitar lessons last month to raise money for the Philadelphia Community Bail Fund. But Halladay and her soulful vocal range are the stars, toggling between aggressive grunts in the nearly Iron Maiden-reminiscent “Steel Sharpens Steel” and softer, higher-pitched crooning. The rare throwback act who revise history entirely for the better.
Finest Moment: 2019’s A Distant Call is their most polished and varied production to date, with a significant ‘80s influence compared to past releases, and a wider sonic spectrum than ever: “The Killer” manifests Brian Johnson-era AC/DC, while “Silver Line” maintains a shimmering Pretenders vibe. — S.M.
Hometown: Madrid, Spain
Why We Love Them: Fizzy power-pop duo Yawners are two hometown heroes crafting keen, thoughtful hooks in Madrid’s guitar rock renaissance. Elena Nieto writes her songs on her sleeve, matching earnest, hyper-self-aware lyrics with punched-up riffs and Martin Muñoz’s frenetic drumming. Yawners’ 2019 debut album Just Calm Down captured the manic energy and bone-tired comfort of long summer afternoons, as on “La Escalera,” the album’s only Spanish-language track, whose chorus Nieto wrote as her mom called her down the stairs for dinner. Yawners are the sugar high and the sugar crash and the limitless feeling of both.
Finest Moment: The opening riff of “La Escalera,” best heard while standing on a bed. — S.F.
17. The Goon Sax
Hometown: Brisbane, Australia
Why We Love Them: Because they’re the greatest teen band in the world, or at least they were when they dropped 2016’s jaw-dropping Up to Anything and 2018’s refined We’re Not Talking, the former a catalog of awkwardness from a world before incels weaponized it, and the latter an astoundingly arranged follow-up that matures (castanets! Motown strings!) without dulling out. Now in their 20s, Louis Forster, Riley Jones, and James Harrison — all of whom sing and write — probably know more about love than their parents, which is notable because one of Forster’s sang in the Go-Betweens. But that doesn’t stop them from agonizing over it on the horn-flecked “She Knows,” or for that matter their debut single “Sometimes Accidentally” (“I don’t care about much but one of the things I care about is you”).
Finest Moment: Harrison has a knack for nauseated anxiety anthems, but the unusually tense “A Few Times Too Many” duels against his own bassline and loses. — D.W.
16. Mannequin Pussy
Hometown: Philadelphia, PA
Why We Love Them: With the release of their chameleonic throat-crusher Patience last year, Mannequin Pussy are officially a punk band for all seasons. Need a group to rally the hardcore kids before, say, Knocked Loose or Code Orange hits the stage? Done; punishers like “Clams” and “F.U.C.A.W.” are all hellfire and bloodbaths. But how about a vulnerable, indie-influenced set that could sneak in between Phoebe Bridgers or Mitski? They got you there, too — try their equally hilarious and regretful lead single “Drunk II” and cresting showstopper “High Horse.” Patience revealed a far grander emotional palette for frontwoman Marisa Dabice who’s now just as capable painting with somber blue as fuck-you red.
Finest Moment: The audacious first verse of “Drunk II,” where Dabice is too smashed to remember she broke up with her ex and calls their phone, wailing: “I still love you, you stupid fuck.” Hold their (ninth) beer, Drake. — B.O.
15. Primitive Man
Hometown: Denver, CO
Why We Love Them: There is no band heavier than doom torturers Primitive Man in the simpler sense of ear-piercing tones and gigantic, subwoofer-toasting riffs, and there is also no band heavier in reflecting ugly realities. Ethan McCarthy’s pissed-beyond-pissed guitar is only matched by his bellowing growls, and his wracked words are largely informed by his experiences as a biracial man in America, playing music where racists have too much of a say (that is, they have a say at all). He’s lived the alienation and self-hatred that most metal dudes only think they have, and it makes their music that much more intense. System of a Down’s drummer would combust if he heard them, even with a blindfold on.
Finest Moment: “Disfigured” from 2017’s Caustic is a long, turgid, unforgiving look at McCarthy’s conflict of self: “Though light-skinned / I will never be free / But never a slave / A ghost and an alien / Eviscerated by race relations / and shame in my heart / From when they fucking spit on me.” — A.O.
14. Beauty Pill
Hometown: Washington, D.C.
Why We Love Them: This is the kind of band who makes themselves a museum exhibit; you could watch them record their masterpiece Beauty Pill Describes Things as They Are in the “Immersive Ideals” multimedia installation at local museum Artisphere. Producer/songwriter Chad Clark’s lyrics confront early 21st century issues with enough references to keep an English poetry seminar almost as busy as his stylistically fluid electronic-jazz-soul-indie-rock keeps music critics. The relentlessly layered and postmodern songs keep sampling details distinct (yes, that’s a metal dog bowl you hear before the hooky horns of “Afrikaner Barista” kick in) and the narratives unfold unexpectedly, but they breathe. In May 2020, the Please Advise EP, their first release in five years, was unveiled amidst the worldwide panic of living in pandemic times, featuring new vocalist Erin Nelson on, among other things, the otherworldly word collage “Pardon Our Dust,” at a time when the world needs advice.
Finest Moment: “What if the thing that will get you killed / Is also the thing that helps you live?” Clark asks in “The Damnedest Thing,” the peak of Please Advise, addressing oblivion with wry warmth (and Zorn-like horns). — Heather Batson
13. Generación Suicida
Hometown: Los Angeles, CA
Why We Love Them: Generación Suicida started out in L.A.’s backyard punk scene with the mantra, “Música del barrio, para el barrio” (Music from the hood, for the hood), yet even after branching out and achieving success, they’ve never forgotten their roots. The band’s breakneck melodic punk touches on the struggles of marginalized people with lyrics written in Spanish about police brutality, poverty, and other socioeconomic injustices. True to this stance, they recently used their platform to raise money for Black Lives Matter. In January, the band celebrated their 10-year anniversary with a gig that was so rowdy, fans climbed the venue’s chandelier to sing along to every song and frenetically dive into the sardine-packed pit. L.A. punk will do that to you.
Finest Moment: 2018’s Reflejos is the best album in their catalog — a melodious journey that showcases how much their sound has evolved since their first full-length, Con la Muerte a tu Lado. “No Existen” characterizes this growth with a resemblance to the Cramps’ distinct, surf-y style. — S.M.
12. that dog.
Hometown: Los Angeles, CA
Why We Love Them: Because they’re one of the best alternative rock bands of all-time, and 22 years after they bowed out with the back-to-back (and newly reissued) unsung masterpieces Totally Crushed Out! and Retreat from the Sun, that dog. returned with 2019’s Old LP, which nearly equals them. “Just the Way” and “If You Just Didn’t Do It” slash and burn like bands half their age, with no loss of this now-trio’s (violinist Petra Haden declined to reunite) famous multi-part harmonies. But they never could have made the title tune as 20-somethings, about hearing bassist Rachel Haden’s legendary late father Charlie being preserved at his most alive on wax. They brought in a full orchestra for that one and somehow the grandeur is just the right size. This band never got famous despite an arsenal of tunes every bit as indelible as their friends in Weezer; correct history’s mistake and canonize them immediately.
Finest Moment: First go back and soak up “Never Say Never,” “He’s Kissing Christian,” etc. the way you’ve internalized, say, “The Impression That I Get” or “Possum Kingdom.” Then throw on Old LP and marvel at the endless ingenuity and possibility of a song like “Just the Way” (which employs old friends Jack Black and Maya Rudolph for its tragicomic video) as if they never left. — D.W.
11. black midi
Hometown: London, England
Why We Love Them: For those still hungry for prog complexity and art-rock innovation in their post-punk, seeing the debut LP from London’s black midi, Schlagenheim, appearing on more than a couple of year-end lists in guitar-starved 2019 should offer a glimmer of hope. Singer/guitarist Geordie Greep rips the mic like the reckless demon lovechild of Mike Patton and Grace Jones, while his mates (guitarist Matt Kwasniewski-Kelvin, bassist/keyboardist Cameron Picton and eight-armed drummer Morgan Simpson) expand on time signatures straight out of Larks’ Tongues in Aspic for, like, tUnE-yArDs fans with a nostalgic affinity for Fugazi’s Steady Diet of Nothing. And this is just album one.
Finest Moment: “Of Schlagenheim” showcases just how much Simpson captains this band’s every maneuver from behind the kit. The quasi-title cut drives the descent into madness from Roxy Music cool to full-throttle Mr. Bungle chaos without hitting the brakes for over six minutes. — Ron Hart
Hometown: Toronto, Ontario
Why We Love Them: PUP’s ability to channel anxiety, depression, and generalized misanthropy into pummeling pop-punk hooks is an endlessly renewable resource. The band is also a good enough live act to justify the fact that half their lyrics seem to be about the exhaustion of touring. In 2019, the Canadian quartet followed up 2016 breakthrough The Dream Is Over with the equally great — and equally antisocial — Morbid Stuff. It helps that lead singer Stefan Babcock is one of punk’s great chroniclers of malcontent, even, and especially when he leans on self-deprecation: “Half the crap I say is just things I’ve stolen from the bathroom walls of shitty venues across America,” he snarls in “Full Blown Meltdown.”
Finest Moment: “See You at Your Funeral,” because there is simply no other song that bangs this hard while rhyming “produce section” with “making healthy selections.” — Z.S.
9. Charly Bliss
Hometown: Brooklyn, NY
Why We Love Them: POG-rock quartet Charly Bliss have an otherworldly knack at rendering certain playful images just as sinister: “cardboard cereal,” a bleeding snow cone, a mouth red with Gatorade. 2017’s Guppy established the band as masters of this subversion. Their crunching guitars and Eva Hendricks’ sweet, pointed vocals sliding through increasingly pop arrangements are the vehicle for a creeping dark that filters through each track’s observations of the mundane humor and horror of human affection. 2019’s stellar Young Enough polished its predecessor’s frayed, glittering edges for a slow burn of synthesizers and sharpened focal points; that cleaner sound also made room for a deeper emotional reservoir. Both are examples of kinetic and potential energy refined to an art.
Finest Moment: “We’re young enough / To believe it should hurt this much.” They’re old enough to recognize it. — S.F.
Hometown: Oakland, CA
Why We Love Them: These four raw and gritty straight-edge punks skillfully combine hardcore with d-beat to deliver a shock so aggressive and powerful, your body will just naturally start two-stepping and throwing hooks. TØRSÖ’s music is grounded in their feminist, anti-capitalist, and sober ideals, and they’re proudly unapologetic about it on bruising albums like Sono Pronta a Morire and Community Psychosis. In 2018, the band joined the lineage of Revelation Records — the same label that brought you icons like Judge, Youth of Today, and Gorilla Biscuits — to release an ear-splitting 2019 EP, Build and Break. They had a short SoCal tour earlier this year and were slated to play with Propagandhi before the pandemic ruined 2020. If that pisses you off, well, TØRSÖ’s just the band for that mood.
Finest Moment: “Repulsion” from Build and Break is simple old-school hardcore that will nevertheless leave your face in a bloody pulp. — S.M.
Hometown: Los Angeles, CA
Why We Love Them: No band fused punk and rockabilly with more apocalyptic fervor than X. The band’s 1980 debut, Los Angeles, is a skittering anti-fun house populated by junkies (“Sugarlight”), hateful ex-pats (“Los Angeles”), and sexual predators (“Johnny Hit and Run Paulene”); it remains a crucial punk document from its first riff to its last just 28 minutes later. The band dabbled in country flavor on 1982’s Under the Big Black Sun and fizzled out by the early ’90s, but 2020 has yielded an unexpected rebirth for the punk legends now in their 60s. Maybe fans expected the band to mark Los Angeles’s 40th anniversary with a celebratory tour (canceled by the pandemic) or a deluxe reissue (what’s the point of a deluxe expansion of an album that draws power from brevity?), but even X’s most fervent loyalists didn’t anticipate Alphabetland, X’s first album in 27 years. The record doubles as a careening return to the Los Angeles sound, as well as a reunion of the band’s long-dormant classic lineup.
Finest Moment: Some songs come together quickly. Then there’s “Cyrano DeBerger’s Back,” a 1980 X gem that surfaced on 1987’s See How We Are in inferior form and now emerges from obscurity on Alphabetland all dressed up with horns and a taut, surprisingly funkified groove. — Z.S.
Hometown: Detroit, MI
Why We Love Them: Nothing about Dogleg’s exhilarating debut Melee makes any goddamn sense. It’s just four guys from Michigan hammering the same post-hardcore or emo riffs we’ve all heard for 20 years. The album, named after the Super Smash Bros. game and peppered with further Nintendo nods, was self-produced and modestly recorded at the house of frontman Alex Stoitsiadis, who started Dogleg as a solo project in his parents’ basement. Yet somehow, these dignitaries of the University of Michigan frat party scene have carved a stone-cold classic — a stupefying encapsulation of all its predecessors’ aggression without an ounce of melodic sacrifice. From the opening chug of “Kawasaki Backflip,” Melee is a 35-minute waterslide plunge into chaos; all speedfreak guitars, incendiary drums, and Stoitsiadis’s best Stink-era Paul Westerberg impression. It’s proof that bombast should be a little bit ugly. The subsequent tour would’ve made Dogleg one of 2020’s most thrilling new live rock acts. Eat a knife, COVID.
Finest Moment: The vicious, ascendant guitar breaks in “Fox,” which deserve some serious Riff of the Year consideration in a surprisingly competitive time. — B.O.
5. Cloud Rat
Hometowns: Mt. Pleasant/Detroit/Grand Rapids, MI
Why We Love Them: Grindcore rather constrained for a genre bent on extremes: Is there only so much you can say in a limited time frame blasting away? Cloud Rat proves you absolutely fucking can. Rorik Brooks’ guitars, heavily influenced by melodic crust, are both charging and fragile, conveying fear, anger, and a will to live with breathtaking economy. They are beautiful without overtly declaring such, sneaking in the suggestion that grinders have feelings beyond mad and madder. Vocalist Madison Marshall unveils the contradictions and nonlinear paths to human existence, and is the only punk singer who could make a Grace Jones dance party a detail for a bigger mental hell. For grind, Cloud Rat may be the band who can cross over beyond the devotees and the burnouts and the subgenre tyrants, giving a new voice to an ever-growing collective rage.
Finest Moment: Last year’s Pollinator is a phenomenal record on its own, but Cloud Rat had to stunt on everyone with its companion darkwave(!) record Do Not Let Me Off the Cliff mere days before; together they are an unstoppable and precedent-setting body of music. — A.O.
4. Chubby and the Gang
Hometown: London, England
Why We Love Them: This five-piece led by Charlie “Chubby Charles” Manning-Walker is entirely built from other bands with names like Gutter Knife, Violent Reaction, Arms Race — and made a classic album that sounds like the punk bands who don’t have classic albums: Sham 69, the Adverts, countless oi and pub-hardcore outfits. Speed Kills is most pummeling rock debut of 2020 and maybe the best, with Dolls-style Chuck Berry riffs, barroom choruses, and even harmonica all transforming the stuff of dingy moshpit legend into classic-rock fodder. Their lone ballad, “Grenfell Forever,” is a sad one. More than any other band this year, they make us want live shows to return. Here’s hoping they go full-time.
Finest Moment: “Can’t Tell Me Nothing” is 89 seconds of pure-punk Action Park rollercoaster if you can hang on for dear life. It’s hardly alone. — D.W.
Hometown: Franklin, TN
Why We Love Them: Very few bands survive the fire that Paramore have been through, and the ones that do rarely get to follow the thread they stitched through the fabric of popular music for the next 15 years. It was 2007’s Riot! that cemented Paramore as an undeniable force in pop-punk and Williams as one of the best frontpersons of her generation, full stop. But it was After Laughter, released a decade later, that saw Paramore heal from the fractures that nearly ended their career — and dance all over them.
To survive also meant to wade out from the shallow confines of what “rock” has come to mean to create an album that was just as emotionally driven as any at their emo peak. Coming of age in the Warped Tour era meant this band, and most sharply, Williams, became a canvas upon which the music industry would project all of its cynicism, fantasy, and ire. Their output at every level was and remains driven by an uncommon empathy and a rejection of spite and artifice, from Williams’ support of the mental health organization To Write Love on Her Arms to their vocal, unusually inclusive Christianity. Yet the kids who grew up with Paramore got to see the band become more than the sum of their inconstant parts. Paramore are now a living cultural artifact whose music has always told a story of survival and hard growth, and their influence has probably reached more names on this list than any other contemporary. That’s what we got.
Finest Moment: After Laughter was a turning point for Paramore in a lot of ways, but it was the stripped-down letter-to-self “26” that preceded Williams’ most honest songwriting on her excellent, intimate solo debut this year, Petals for Armor. — S.F.
2. Control Top
Hometown: Philadelphia, PA
Why We Love Them: If Siouxsie Sioux decided to join the Yeah Yeah Yeahs to make frayed-edge dance-punk, it would probably sound like Control Top. Ali Carter’s voice maintains the ethereal and haunting style of her predecessors, but with a channeling a contemporary aggressive force when she commands: “Quit your job today!” Diligently releasing new music for the past three years has paid off with their 2019 breakthrough tantrum Covert Contracts, and they summarized early 2020 by releasing the one-off single “One Good Day,” as in wishing for one. In light of the recent national protests, they’ve spread awareness about Black issues and raised proceeds for the Philly Community Bail Fund and the Black and Pink Bail Fund. But it’s their feral tunes that make them Philly’s best contemporary punk band, so the Dead Milkmen better watch their backs.
Finest Moment: “Betrayed,” from Covert Contracts, sums up everything you want to scream at the top of your lungs in 2020: “Betrayed by the nation, betrayed by the fight / Betrayed by the cronies on the left and the right.” — S.M.
Hometown: Los Angeles, CA
Why We Love Them: We simply don’t deserve Haim. The world is far too broken to fully appreciate Women in Music Part III, the sister trio’s subtly spectacular third LP, which further establishes them as more than expert pop students-turned-teachers. Released in June, WIMPIII cuts to the center of a Fleetwood Mac and Sheryl Crow mix CD-R and extracts all its sun-kissed ‘70s soft-rock (“Don’t Wanna”), ‘90s California-pop (“Gasoline”) and a list of thrilling surprises — all courtesy of a band inadvertently shouldering a genre with their breezy brilliance. Though it isn’t just what the Haim ladies accomplish with their undervalued guitar, bass and drums that make them the year’s most vital band. It’s everything else; the psych-tinged Janet Jackson tribute that is “3 AM,” the pulsing exploration of “Now I’m in It,” which sounds like Savage Garden breathlessly dancing at a Robyn concert. Their songwriting has only become more dauntless since Days Are Gone put them on the map and they help rock transcend its perceived limitations in 2020 without declining to rock altogether. We bow down to Danielle, Este and Alana, our three-headed summer girl.
Finest Moment: Pick one: “Man from the Magazine,” a percussion-free middle finger to mansplaining journalists and their dumb-ass questions (“Do you make the same faces in bed?”) or the accidentally apt “I Know Alone,” whose opening line “Been a couple days since I’ve been out” has become a coronavirus quotable (despite being written months before the pandemic). Far too many people can relate to both. — B.O.
Listen to a Spotify playlist of our favorite rock bands right now below.
To see our running list of the top 100 greatest guitarists of all time, click here.