I wish it was a bigger compliment to call Hayley Williams the best thing to happen to arena-rock in the last decade and a half. But even if you like Kings of Leon (I do), or listen to entire Killers albums (they have their moments, but really, see them live), there’s just not too much competition. The 1975 get more critical than commercial love, and the interesting paths they’re taking aren’t usually rock ones. Even more than them, Billie Eilish opens up a lot of questions about what rock actually is. And I’ll leave Imagine Dragons and Twenty One Pilots for other people to defend. I don’t think it’s a contest.
Immensely popular, likable, empathetic, and astoundingly musically adaptable, Paramore’s frontwoman started out as the class of the emo kids and ended up stealing the show on a Loretta Lynn tribute album and doing the ‘80s pop deep-dive as well as any of her peers. Here are 25 of her greatest songs, which were not the easiest to narrow down. Apologies to “Miracle” and “Hate to See Your Heart Break,” some people were just born to rock.
25. “Pressure” (All We Know Is Falling, 2005)
If we wanted to play a dangerous game, we’d say that Paramore’s debut album is better than Pablo Honey. Let’s just say it’s more fully-realized. They already knew how to construct an anthem, and this one has real guitar: a hook bedazzled with circular harmonics and bendy squeals that would turn James Iha green.
24. “Idle Worship” (After Laughter, 2017)
In rock, impostor syndrome can be a positive; doesn’t matter if her Christianity got her to this realization. It’s a net good that Hayley Williams doesn’t think she’s a God. “I hate to let you down,” she chirps rather joyfully to adoring fans who probably couldn’t be happier that she’s not Kanye West. Also, couldn’t be happier that her rhythm section’s gotten about 78% better at downright nasty syncopation.
23. “Crushcrushcrush” (Riot!, 2007)
We knew we had a smarty on our hands when she took it upon her most presciently danceable tune back in 2007 to extol the virtues of “a quiet evening alone.” The best confluence of emo and La Bouche’s “Be My Lover” since “Bigmouth Strikes Again.”
22. “Monster” (Transformers: Dark of the Moon OST, 2011)
The ultimate soundtrack hit, taking actual inspiration for once from the big-screen, big-emotions, big-sound that a blockbuster franchise like Transformers demands and bending it to the singer’s cathartic needs like Magneto on a gated entrance. “I’ll stop the whole world from turning into a monster,” is a pretty big promise! Williams’ huge-voiced delivery harbors no doubt at all in her ability to keep it, and therein lies her genius.
21. “Fences” (Riot!, 2007)
Someone had to do something good with the 3 Doors Down “Kryptonite” beat.
20. “Anklebiters” (Paramore, 2013)
Paramore’s most blistering rocker also happens to be two minutes of bubblegum pop, augmented by glimmering glockenspiel and the brilliant idea to have her backup boys yell the title along with Williams every single time it comes back around. As usual, you’d never even know it’s a complaint.
19. “When It Rains” (Riot!, 2007)
Paramore’s breakthrough album Riot! established many things for the next generation of radio-rock’s standard-bearer and its big killer-ballad moment confirmed exactly what kind of monster we’re dealing with: A Stevie Nicks who was weaned on Jimmy Eat World’s Clarity.
18. “In the Mourning” (Singles Club, 2011)
Speaking of Fleetwood Mac, you have to love a Paramore song that asks “Landslide” to hold its beer. “In the Mourning” doesn’t improve on the soundalike Nicks classic but it writes entertaining “Landslide” fanfic that brings out some of the melody’s Gaelic color. In a class with Prince’s James Brown tribute.
17. “Proof” (Paramore, 2013)
Hayley Williams is the kind of person who shouts her love from the rooftops. At least if she believed in it, anyway. But she has her moments, like the lighter-waving hit “The Only Exception” which deserved a spot on this list along with several more stunners that mathematically breach the boundaries of the number 25. Even better is this explosive valentine, sung almost entirely in self-harmony so Williams’ two halves can serenade each other, perform call-response (“Do you love me? Yeah! Then all you gotta do is say yes”) and even try on some different gender roles in the chorus. For a pessimist, she’s pretty optimistic.
16. “Watch Me While I Bloom” (Petals for Armor, 2020)
People have been awaiting a Williams solo album for so long that Paramore had to begrudgingly sell “Paramore Esta Una Banda” apparel at their shows. Yes, the Nicks-onian lineup changes and all-around star-power of their frontperson made it hard to believe this day would never come. But I have a good feeling that she still really likes being in a band; Petals for Armor was co-produced with Paramore guitarist Taylor York. It’s not hard to see why this material begged for a rebranding, though; look no further than the highlight that makes you think both “Björk” and “Paula Abdul” in the first 60 seconds. Bruno Mars owes us a remix.
15. “Rose-Colored Boy” (After Laughter, 2017)
A.K.A. “For an Optimist, I’m Pretty Pessimistic.” So you get an oblique cheerleader chant about mental health, guitars twice-removed from Congolese soukous, and a depth of disco appreciation that exceeds, oh, Todd Terje’s.
14. “Misery Business” (The Final Riot!, 2008)
It’s to her credit as a person that Williams disowned her most problematic song, but it slaps forever. Even Taylor Swift turned up the amps to pay tribute to it. Memorialize the tricky, slut-shaming wordplay, cat-skidding-on-linoleum rhythm shifts and locker-room-evil “it just feels so good” ending with the bracing version that closes The Final Riot!, a premature live package that begs for an update. Except Paramore’s next live album won’t have this, so dig in.
13. “Where the Lines Overlap” (Brand New Eyes, 2009)
“I’ve never been happier,” “No one is as lucky as us,”…what the fuck kind of emo band was this to supposed to be? A great one, apparently. You know a band is high on their own excellent choruses when they stick a breakdown right there in the studio version that goes, “I’ve got a feeling if I sing this loud enough / You will sing it back to me,” so droves of future audience components can practice at home. If only they waited ‘til after Brand New Eyes to release their live album.
12. “Sugar on the Rim” (Petals for Armor, 2020)
It’s not 1991 anymore. We expect rock stars to dabble in club music. What we don’t expect is for the best Lady Gaga song of the last half-decade to come out of Hayley Williams.
11. “Still Into You” (Paramore, 2013)
The authors behind that analysis of “Call Me Maybe” that traced how the ascending and descending melodic contours mimic the up-and-down heart flutters of an actual IRL crush would have a field day with this one. In one of those propulsive arrangements that never seems to stop lifting higher, sequencers collide with pop-punk-disco-roller-rock to infinity. But more simply, has a popular rock band produced a better love song in the last 10 years? And no, the 1975’s ode to heroin doesn’t count.