Is Paramore the Best Popular Rock Band of the 21st Century? (Staff Debate)

Lindsey Byrnes


Last Friday (May 12th), alt-rock vets Paramore released their fifth album, the sparklingly miserable After Laughter. The LP sees the now-trio continuing to evolve its sound from the spiky pop-punk it first electrified fans with into a more mature and accessible, but no less effervescent or biting, synth-pop-influenced sound.

The record both continues Paramore's impressive run of great albums, and proves what their prior set -- 2013's stellar self-titled effort -- had previously suggested; that the group would be able to easily outlive pop-punk's moment in the sun, and stay relevant and vibrant well into their second decade as a band.

It's enough of an achievement that we here at Billboard decided it was time to take stock of the band's resume and ask: Are Paramore the best popular rock band of this century so far? We say "popular" just to be able compare them with bands on their commercial plane; meaning groups that are either a regular presence on radio, or at the top of the album charts and the festival bills. So if a band gets great reviews and has a large cult following but no major mainstream imprint, they're not really part of this discussion.

But when it comes to commercial rock's ruling class of the new millennium, where do Paramore -- who have been huge for a decade, since 2007's Riot!, and have topped both the Billboard 200 albums chart (Paramore, 2013) and the Rock Songs chart ("Ain't it Fun," 2014) -- now rank? We posed the question to five of our more rock-inclined staffers.

Chris Payne: Paramore is my number two on this particular list, and if you’re really emphasizing the word “popular” -- as in, your average consumer is likely to have heard of them -- they’ve got a stronger claim to the top spot than my number one, Vampire Weekend.

But seriously, don’t sleep on VW’s “popular” credentials. They haven’t had anything resembling a top 40 hit like Paramore, but consider this: each of their three albums -- released in 2008, 2010 and 2013  -- has sold more first week copies than the one before it. In the timespan between self-titled and Modern Vampires, album sales have eroded throughout the industry, even amongst otherwise successful artists, but Vampire Weekend’s music-purchasing demo continued to grow. Across three albums, they’ve crafted their own quirky version of rock music that’s deftly intertwined with prevailing pop and, later, hip-hop trends, while managing to score a Gold-certified plaque for each. Holy s--t.

Paramore, while also being the s--t, has made a career more out of mastering a pre-existing space in rock music. They were far from the first pop-punk band to break through the mainstream, but they eventually out-wrote, out-performed and out-sold almost all their contemporaries. Up until their 2013, self-titled album, leading the pack creatively was never really their calling card. But the way they’ve progressed from “Misery Business” to “Ain’t It Fun” to “Hard Times” proves they’re emerging innovators. Just maybe not quite on the same level as VW yet.

Jason Lipshutz: Paramore would have been at the top of my list if a certain indie-rock act had obediently stayed in their lane and not crossed over to the mainstream, but alas, Arcade Fire check more personal boxes for me than the wonderful Hayley Williams and co. Comparing Paramore to Arcade Fire feels foolhardy -- one laps the other in raw-energy pop tracks, the other unveils a full-length full of impressively well-rounded ideas every four years or so -- but give me the feeling of seeing “Wake Up” performed live over any other that Paramore has produced.

Lyndsey Havens: Where many bands fall into a sophomore slump, punk-rockers Paramore skyrocketed into the mainstream with their second album, 2007’s Riot! Hits like “Misery Business” and “That’s What You Get” established their blazing and brash persona -- setting the stage for what quite possibly could become the best mainstream rock band of the 21st century. But Riot!’s opening track, “For A Pessimist, I’m Pretty Optimistic,” revealed an alternative outcome, even if unintentionally.

The band’s following hit, “The Only Exception,” off 2009’s brand new eyes, sounds like a different group altogether with its vulnerable lyrics and primarily acoustic instrumentation. Then came “Ain’t It Fun” and “Still Into You,” two pop-driven tracks off 2013’s self-titled album. And now, Paramore have released their latest, After Laughter, which follows that path by trading its impassioned rock roots for crisp alt-pop, best illustrated on lead single “Hard Times” -- a catchy song, though one most easily categorized as rock.

While alt-rock acts like Arctic Monkeys, The White Stripes and others have gone on to create a catalogue of excellent albums that show their evolution -- just as Paramore has done -- but which keep their rock identity intact, that is exactly where Paramore falls short. On “Rose-Colored Boy” off After Laughter, vocalist Hayley Williams sings “I just killed off what was left of the optimist in me,” but the gleaming synth-pop production would suggest otherwise.

Kevin Rutherford: I mean, who else is there? For what other band can you sit here and make a well-reasoned argument that takes into account the entire 21st century and the 21st century alone, rather than relying on accolades from the ‘90s or before that made them incredibly commercially viable in the 2000s and on, but aren’t really considered 2000s-era bands?

Ah, wait, damn, am I really about to go to bat for Coldplay here?

Look. Paramore has been astonishingly consistent since the mid-‘00s. “Misery Business” and “Crushcrushcrush” are still those songs. This new album? Warm-weather perfection. There is also absolutely an argument to be made for their relevance to this discussion; don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.

The problem is that considering Paramore as the best implies that you’re looking at this from a taste standpoint rather than actual chart success. Which is fine; please, by all means, let’s drag subjectivity into the equation, otherwise you do questionable things like calling “Party Rock Anthem” one of the best songs of our or any generation. Except this should be about commercial success too, and here’s the thing: Paramore has one (1) top 10 on the Hot 100 and zero (0) No. 1s on Alternative Songs, arguably the band’s home base.

Meanwhile, Coldplay: four Hot 100 top 10s, including the No. 1 “Viva La Vida.” Three Alternative Songs No. 1s. Tied for the most Adult Alternative Songs chart-toppers in history (12!). Four No. 1 albums on the Billboard 200 to Paramore’s one. A Super Bowl halftime show. And all this occurred in the 21st century (though, bear in mind, Coldplay had a five-year head start).

It gives me no pleasure to say this. Coldplay’s got some… uh, not bangers per se, but yeah, good songs. “Fix You” for days. Paramore’s are, all told, better. It’s just hard to argue with Chris Martin’s resume. I’m so sorry.

Andrew Unterberger: I wouldn't have thought five years ago (or five months ago, for that matter) that my answer to this would be yes. But listening to After Laughter -- either the band's fourth great album in a row, or five out of five, depending on how generous you want to be to the group's splendid-but-less-exceptional 2005 debut All We Know Is Falling -- I started going through the checklist. Iconic breakout hit? Check. Unassailable classic album? Check. Decade-long winning streak? Check. Crossed over to pop but still respected in rock? Check. Defined a musical moment but then evolved way past it? Check.

These are the big questions, but what really sealed the deal for me was how the band has handled the little ones over the years. Things like their acoustic covers of Kings of Leon's "Use Somebody" and Foo Fighters' "My Hero" -- two signature hits by other bands who could conceivably be argued for in this debate -- which casually unearth new layers of depth and emotion in the overplayed smashes. Or things like "Decode," their stunning single from the first Twilight soundtrack, which took the assignment as seriously as the series' teen fans would have. Or like the ukulele interludes on Paramore, which could've come off self-indulgent if not downright obnoxious, but were instead used as essential mile-markers on what will likely endure as the group's best album.

There are some holes to poke in the band's claim to century's best -- mostly that the actual "band" part of it, despite the early T-shirts, has existed on slightly rocky footing, with a shifting lineup that's left frontwoman Hayley Williams the only totally consistent member since the group's inception. And as previously pointed out, other bands have arguably done more to push rock into the 21st century, while Paramore have mostly followed in the (highly successful) mold of some of their longer-lived pop-punk-plus predecessors. But if I was to point to one unquestionably mainstream, unquestionably 21st century group to prove that the millennium was still capable of producing a huge, capital-G Great rock band, it'd be these misery merchants.