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 Lives 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