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.
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.
Finest Moment: “Dennis Hopper in Easy Rider” is “September Gurls” for a generation that first experienced “Little Honda” via Yo La Tengo’s I Can Hear the Heart Beating as One. — D.W.
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. — M.B.W.
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?
Finest Moment: Computers may not have a heartbeat, but they do have rhythm: “I.C.B.M.” is dance-punk for dancing on the graves of our futures. — A.O.
34. Wolf Alice
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 agree on, 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.