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.