The Interrupters, Twenty One Pilots & Snail Mail
The Interrupters, Twenty One Pilots & Snail Mail
Courtesy Photos; Design by Jessica Xie

The 25 Best Rock Songs of 2018: Critics' Picks

by Billboard Staff
December 20, 2018, 1:38pm EST

This past year, pop's stranglehold on the top 40 loosened considerably, and thanks largely to hip-hop and dance's heavy lifting, a handful of pop-rock artists squeezed through the opening in ubiquity's door. You'll find a few of them below, alongside some indie mainstays, some under-the-radar discoveries, some rappers who love guitars, guitarists with a thing for rap, and a ska-punk song that became huge on alternative radio.

We're still not quite sure how that happened, but we're glad it did, just as we're glad to present our staff's picks for rock's best songs of 2018.

25. nothing,nowhere., "Hammer"

"Play the guitar like a young Santana/ reppin' VT like my name Bernie Sanders/ living two lives like my name Danny Phantom/ all my shit bang like a motherfuckin' hammer."

One of the year's stickiest and most absurd choruses came from the Vermont-based artist nothing,nowhere. (and his frequent co-producer Jay Vee), who's built a cult following with his blending of trap beats and emotive punk textures. Much of this year's ruiner -- a dire, deeply personal album -- lingers in the air like a bed of American Football guitars; "Hammer," on the other hand, is the first nothing,nowhere. song that just goes in. That's an exciting step forward for the project, as well as the myriad artists mining the territory between emo and rap. And if Travis Barker remixes your track, there's a good chance it does, indeed, bang. -- CHRIS PAYNE

24. Hozier feat. Mavis Staples, "Nina Cried Power"

If fans were hoping for more of the intense soul-searching (and soul inflections) that came with Hozier's breakthrough single, "Take Me to Church," they found it in "Nina Cried Power," the Irish singer-songwriter's first breath of new music since 2016. Andrew Hozier-Byrne teamed up with gospel and soul queen Mavis Staples for his take on a modern civil rights anthem, and the soaring instrumentation and heavy subject matter -- which pays tribute to Nina Simone, James Brown, Staples and other talents who sang truth to power -- make it a worthy successor to his biggest hit. -- HILARY HUGHES

23. Hurry, "Waiting For You"

The finest of the ten shimmering gems on Philadelphia power-pop power trio Hurry's dreamy fourth album Every Little Thought, calling back to classic '90s janglers like Teenage Fanclub and the Gin Blossoms. "Waiting for You" stands out not only for its soaring guitars and intermittently falsetto'd vocals roundly out-swooning the competition, but because its throwback sound belies an exceedingly recognizable form of alienation -- distinctly modern and essentially timeless -- in its yearning chorus: "Do you really feel fine when you're at home?/ Always looking at your phone/ Spending all your time alone."  -- ANDREW UNTERBERGER 

22. FEVER 333, “Made an America” 

Rap-rock’s having a bit of a moment again on rock radio, and California’s FEVER 333 are leading the charge with fare like “Made an America,” which fuses the political vitriol of Rage Against the Machine with post-hardcore guitars and call-and-response vocals. The result is a pummeling criticism of American injustice, particularly the murders of black men by police. Added bonus: it's the second song on our list with a remix featuring Blink-182's drummer: Barker, an early champion of the track, drummed on its official reworking alongside a verse from Vic Mensa. -- KEVIN RUTHERFORD

21. Meg Myers, "Numb"

Even with a trio of alt radio hits to her name, Meg Myers was dropped by Atlantic Records following her 2015 debut album Sorry. “We were on different paths,” the Tennessee native told Billboard over the summer, remembering the general response to her new music: “This doesn’t sound like anything right now. Is this going to be a number one? It might not end up in top five.” That creative claustrophobia fueled this chugging rage-rocker; it's indeed heavier and grungier than most anything on Billboard's Alternative Songs chart, a welcome outlier if we're being honest: When the "Numb" chorus hits, you'll feel anything but. As for those top five demands -- "Numb" peaked at No. 32, but stayed on the chart an impressive 18 weeks. Myers followed her heart and delivered a crushing rock song, one that exalts the genre's cathartic core. -- C.P.

20. Dead Sara, "Anybody"

L.A.-based grunge rockers Dead Sara released the more pop-leaning EP Temporary Things Taking Up Space this year, and with it came “Anybody,” a high-energy track about wanting to belong. Maybe it’s the Haim-esque pre-chorus, the claps that follow, or vocalist Emily Armstrong’s ability to draw out “anybody” into a five-syllable word; either way, it is an undeniable earworm. “Anybody” is, as Armstrong has said, “essentially about coming out -- about realizing that it’s okay to just be yourself.”  -- GAB GINSBERG

19. Weezer, “Can’t Knock the Hustle”

A quick recap of what Weezer has done in 2018: covered Toto’s “Africa” (and with that, returned to the Billboard Hot 100 for the first time since 2010), toured arenas with the Pixies, inspired a viral Saturday Night Live sketch, and released a video featuring Pete Wentz as a rideshare app driver for the track “Can’t Knock the Hustle,” marking the start of the long-awaited Black Album era. While the lyrics can be somewhat exasperating (“I'm an ugly motherf--ker but I work hella’ harder/And you can write a blog about it”), “Hustle” proves that frontman Rivers Cuomo can churn out pop songs like the best of ‘em: Whatever your qualms are, by the second listen, you too will be chanting, “Hasta luego, adios.” -- G.G.

18. James Bay, “Pink Lemonade” 

English singer-songwriter James Bay crashes through a delicate conversation with a newfound electricity on “Pink Lemonade,” a propulsive track that serves as a preemptive warning about his disengaged demeanor instead of a conventional break-up song. Bay uses gruff vocal intonations reminiscent to his past work in the folk-n-B sphere to add a sympathetic sincerity to his well-meaning-but-direct pleas, which somehow manage to leave an an aftertaste more sweet than tart. -- BRYAN KRESS

17. Mitski, "Nobody"

“My God, I’m so lonely,” is the first line on “Nobody” -- a disco ballad tucked deep within the tracklist on Mitski’s acclaimed Be The Cowboy. That declaration, though plain, affirms why the 28-year-old singer-songwriter-guitarist has been called (by Iggy Pop, no less) one of the “most advanced” American songwriters. And while much of her music is rich with such confessionals (which may not actually be confessions at all), “Nobody” finds the sweetest spot between dejected lyrics and dancefloor-ready production -- even if you have nobody to dance with.  -- LYNDSEY HAVENS

16. Panic! at the Disco, "Say Amen (Saturday Night)"

Ever since Brendon Urie became the main creative force behind Panic! at the Disco, he's been hinting at an unquestionable, unstoppable hit song, lying somewhere between his beloved Queen and his unabashedly extra brand of maximalist arena-pop. "Say Amen (Saturday Night)" is that validating moment, and the follow-up success of "High Hopes" (an even bigger hit) speaks to the cultural headway a resurgent Panic! made with a single this mighty. It's a sonic parade procession of marching band horns and backing chants, the intensity of its chorus growing with each take (and if we're picking favorites, the hook is a liiiitle better than "High Hopes"). It's not Tuesday night. It's probably, most likely, some time over the weekend. But you don't truly know what Saturday night entails until Urie unleashes his extended falsetto belt in the closing seconds. -- C.P.

15. Low, "Disarray"

This year often felt like an exercise in mining nuggets of beauty from an atmosphere of fear and dysfunction, and Low’s Double Negative coda “Disarray” felt like an ultra-compressed version of this experience. Beneath the disorienting throb of the production emerges a gorgeous vocal harmony, slicing through the oppression and wailing about the “evil spirit” testing its humanity; it’s a visceral conclusion to a career-high Low project. -- JASON LIPSHUTZ

14. Sharon Van Etten, "Comeback Kid"

Sharon Van Etten hasn’t released an album since 2014’s quiet, thoughtful Are We There. In her time away, she had a kid, went back to school, and managed to write a new LP -- the forthcoming Remind Me Tomorrow -- somewhere in between. The first single from the album, “Comeback Kid,” finds Van Etten enthusiastically jumping back into the ring with a punching beat and her most forceful vocal delivery yet. Produced by John Congleton (Angel Olsen, St. Vincent), the song features a grumbling, so-low-you-might-miss-it synth line, a haunting organ, and propulsive drums. If Van Etten ever struck you as too sleepy in the past, this one will wake you up. -- CHRISTINE WERTHMAN

13. John Mayer, “New Light” 

The evolving enigma of guitar virtuoso John Mayer should have left little room for shock at this point in his career, and yet the pop-R&B pivot of his No I.D.-assisted single “New Light” was the perfect harbinger for the Instagram Live hosting, meme-producing music video creator we witnessed in 2018. The tune demonstrates a self-aware maturity in Mayer as a songwriter as well as an economic musical approach with small, spare guitar flourishes and a solo that's succinct, yet effective. “New Light” proves even when he’s “pushing 40 in the friend zone,” Mayer hasn’t lost a step. -- B.K.

12. Now, Now, "AZ"

A sepia-toned family photograph in song form. An electro-inflected, acoustic ballad your brain recognizes as a pop song you've known since your teens, despite the fact you first heard it less than a year ago. The Minneapolis duo's masterstroke single is all of this, and for frontwoman Cacie Dalager, much more. "I don’t know how into detail I want to get, but that song is about my grandparents," she told Billboard in April. "They used to live in Arizona. It’s a super nostalgic and important song it me in my childhood. My grandpa passed away, so it’s a very special song to me." -- C.P.

11. Slipknot, “All Out Life” 

It’s a testament to the esteemed elder statesmen role of Slipknot that the band can release a song like “All Out Life,” sans a lick of melodic singing from frontman Corey Taylor, and still have mainstream rock radio bowing down at the altar. Here, the rockers decry the state of music consumption and how, as Taylor put it to Beats 1, “This toxic idea that unless something came out 10 minutes ago, it’s not any good.” Fittingly, the track melds the abrasive Slipknot of yore with modern sensibilities and updated production, setting the stage for a fierce new chapter in the band’s two-decade-plus career. -- K.R.

10. Lil Peep, "Cry Alone"

Lil Peep died of a drug overdose in Nov. 2017 at age 21; at the time, his music -- a mixture of sing-song rap and emo affectations -- was among the most convincing marriages of hip-hop and rock out in the wild. Come Over When You're Sober, Pt. 2 dropped almost exactly a year later, allowing fans to posthumously experience new, unreleased music from Lil Peep, like this boisterous ball of hooks and guitar samples. "Cry Alone" opens sounding like a Taking Back Sunday song and finds Peep pondering burning his Long Island high school into the ground. But this is no nostalgia tour; over a swirling Smokeasac beat, Peep and his frequent collaborator stunt circles around his old tormentors with melodies spun out of Lil Uzi Vert and iLoveMakonnen's leads. It's especially vexing in reminding us what could have been, if Peep was able to continue living and creating with us. -- C.P.

9. Underoath, "On My Teeth" 

The once-spiritually driven sextet rejected religion before releasing its first music since 2010, but its first song back still hit like a come-to-Jesus moment. His scream scathing as ever, lead vocalist Spencer Chamberlain addresses the torment of being a "Christian band" ("I'm fine without you / I'm not your fucking prey") and how his torment contributed to his past drug addiction ("I taste you on my teeth"). Aaron Gillespie drums like he's fending off every Biblical plague, simultaneously. The whole comeback album delivered on this promise. This song just got nominated for a Grammy. Here's to salvation.  -- C.P.

8. Jade Bird, "Uh Huh"

If Jade Bird’s debut single “Lottery” was a bright, soaring, all-in take on love, “Uh Huh” is its bitter, cynical sister. The seething, guitar-shredding takedown finds the British singer-songwriter scolding a clueless boy who’s getting played by a deceitful “pretty blonde,” with biting, witty verses about her “short skirts” and “European accent” that culminate in a slap-in-the-face of a chorus: “She's got you on your knees like a little boy!/ Everybody sees that you're just a little toy.” Bird is funny, too, alternating her mocking jabs with a toned-down pre-chorus where she drolls, “I don’t want to get involved,” before promptly losing her cool. All this makes “Uh Huh” irresistible to jump, head-bang and -- go ahead -- scream your lungs out along to. -- TATIANA CIRISANO 

7. Tonight Alive, "Temple"

Not just alive, but thriving -- that's the Aussie rockers' vibe on Underworld, their emotive hurricane of a fourth LP and first outside the major label ecosystem. Leading up to it, Tonight Alive lost a founding member, guitarist/co-songwriter Whakaio Taahi, and frontwoman Jenna McDougall had grappled with chronic illness -- mental and physical -- while striving to shake the crushing conventions often heaped upon teenage women entering the music biz. “If my body is a temple, why does it hurt like hell?” blasts McDougall, now 26, exercising her demons through an eye-of-the-storm chorus. "Temple" rocks like Riot!-era Paramore, swapping the misery for all of the business. -- C.P.

6. 5 Seconds of Summer, "Youngblood"

Imagine bursting onto the pop scene, as 5 Seconds of Summer did, with a daunting, unfairly catchy top 40 hit whose hook hinges on the words "American Apparel underwear." Two, three years later, it appears inevitable that'll go down as your song, the first track that's on the average person's mind when they hear your band's name. Four years later, on your third album, with a decidedly more grown-up sound no less, you manage to replace the "American Apparel underwear song." And you really replace it: not only is this new one the first that people think of, it blows the old one out of the water on the charts. 

That's the story of "Youngblood," one of 2018's biggest rock songs.  It opens unassumingly enough, with lonesome guitar strokes and Luke Hemmings' lovesick vocals lingering in the atmosphere like falling feathers. Then - boom - it's that irresistible beat, the bleacher-rattling rhythm, and shout-along chorus, the band members yelling in unison how badly they need it, need it, all of the time, regardless of what corner of the globe their flame is at in the given moment. You know what they're feeling, at least with the travel radius a bit closer. At least you know this chorus is sticking around. -- C.P.

5. Dominic Fike, "3 Nights"

Florida singer-songwriter and Columbia signee Dominic Fike seemed to materialize out of thin air back in October, when his debut EP Don’t Forget About Me appeared across numerous Spotify playlists with nearly zero promo. But standout track “3 Nights” suggests the 22-year-old (who’s rumored to have sparked a label bidding war) won’t stay unknown for long. With its laid-back lyrics about a motel “in the city of palms” and faintly tropical melody, the track establishes Fike’s easy-going brand of guitar-based rock-rap in the vein of a softened Sublime (or, hell, a face-tatted Jack Johnson), its swinging verses resting on the catchiest of hooks: “Call me what you want, when you want, if you want/ And you can call me names if you call me up.” He may be selling a carefree character, but the kid’s got serious potential. -- T.C.

4. The 1975, “Give Yourself a Try”

                                      Where their previous LP opened (minus the self-titled intro) with the pleasantly angular “Love Me,” A Brief Inquire Into Online Relationships (again, minus the self-titled intro) kicks off with “Give Yourself a Try,” a warped inversion of that new wave riffing. The guitar tone rings out like an alarm clock that won’t shut off while Matty Healy ponders the personal and the political (“I found a grey hair in one of my zoots / Like context in a modern debate, I just took it out”) and brutally sums up Los Angeles fame (“Cause you'll move somewhere sunny and get addicted to drugs”). -- JOE LYNCH

3. The Interrupters, "She's Kerosene"

The titular "She" could very well be frontwoman Aimee Interrupter, whose scratchy, insidious vocals on the song's punch-out chorus provided the necessary flammable additive to allow this song to spread like wildfire. In a year where the definition of alternative feels broader than it did since the genre's very beginning as a radio format, "She's Kerosene" was still the most surprising hit, a ska-punk rager without precedent on the airwaves this millennium. It became undeniable through sheer force: The song drops you immediately into Aimee's chorus, hooking you before you even have time to process why your feet are already skanking. Here's hoping for many more such burns to come in 2019. -- A.U.

2. Snail Mail, "Pristine"

The way in which Snail Mail’s Lindsey Jordan enunciates “pristine” -- the first word of the song -- makes it hard to tell if its a dig or a compliment. And that’s what first draws you in to the 19-year-old’s world. Accompanied by little more than her driving guitar (she learned from indie-punk trailblazer Mary Timony) and steadying drums, Jordan’s sharp, spoken-sung lyrics -- “And I know myself and I'll never love anyone else," for instance -- are front and center, since they’re too strong to be anywhere else. And when she ends by declaring, “I'll still love you the same,” you just can’t help but feel on the inside of the joke. -- L.H.

1. Twenty One Pilots, "Jumpsuit"

Tyler Joseph and Josh Dun are known for their alternate universe-crafting concept albums, but listen to Trench's opening track and it's suddenly, "What if they did an entire album around this sound?" Specifically, the heavy, guitar-free, bass riff-driven propulsion that crescendos with Joseph screaming the song's title in its closing breakdown: "Jumpsuit, jumpsuit, COVER ME!". Trench doesn't turn out to be Twenty One Pilots' hardcore album, though "Jumpsuit" does make for a fitting intro to the dystopian rap-rock fantasy world ahead. 

It's also part of an extended universe, one that's very real. Where "Jumpsuit" is nominated for a Grammy. Where it's a No. 1 song. Where it's the only remotely heavy rock song played at the 2018 American Music Awards (in between Taylor Swift and Mariah Carey) and actually goes over... pretty well! It proves that rock can still innovate and prosper at the same time. When they say stay in your lane, do as Joseph says. -- C.P.