What is rock music in 2020? The question gets stickier every year, and the introduction of Billboard‘s Hot Rock & Alternative Songs chart this year just shows how far-flung the potential answers have gotten — as Taylor Swift, Billie Eilish, Marshmello & Juice WRLD and 24kGoldn & Iann Dior all topped the wide-spanning listing in its inaugural run.
It’s an unsettling time for rock music, perhaps, but also an incredibly exciting one — the genre feels younger and fresher than it has in ages, while a number of its most esteemed veterans are still putting out satisfying, vital work. And who would’ve expected the year’s biggest rock release to come from a guy who’d been a star rapper for most of the previous decade (and for that rapper-turned-rocker not to be Post Malone)?
Here are our 25 favorite songs from the rock world in 2020 — with a playlist of all 25 at the bottom — and here’s to even wilder times in the genre to come.
25. Harry Styles, “Golden”
The world’s biggest rock star still doesn’t get a ton of airplay or respect in the rock world — but from the sound of it, he’s not exactly letting it get him down. Fine Line kickoff “Golden” has spent 12 months in our lives as an impossibly joyous guitar-led rave-up, and upon its release as a single (with its escapist-even-by-Harry-standards music video) in October, it officially became the fist-pumpingest radio hit of any genre that your older brother might still feign embarrassment at loving. — ANDREW UNTERBERGER
24. Pop Evil, “Work”
An accidental quarantine anthem for those of us who’ve (permanently?) lost any sense of home life and office life balance. Following a pounding instrumental lurch that Imagine Dragons probably could’ve used for their next album, Pop Evil frontman Leigh Kakaty spends the chorus lamenting “ALL I DO, ALL I DO IS WORK!,” triggering a cacophany of grinding beats and hooks in the process. It probably sounds something like the inside of your head this year, after you roll out of bed in the morning to find yourself instantly on the clock again. — A.U.
23. Nothing, “Say Less”
Few of the shoegaze revivalists of recent years carry the instrumental brawn of Philly-based Reprise Records quartet Nothing, whose crushing gauzefests owe as much to cloud-pop industrialists HEALTH and alt-metal deep divers the Deftones as to Slowdive and My Bloody Valentine. “Say Less” is maybe their most propulsive single to date, particularly as they take the track’s advice on the song’s late instrumental break, for what might qualify as the first true beat drop in dream-pop history. — A.U.
22. Porridge Radio, “7 Seconds”
This banger sounds like CRISPR technology was used to splice together DNA from Gang of Four and the Go-Go’s to create a song as dark as it is danceable. Frontwoman Dana Margolin has said “7 Seconds” is about “the end of something that was never right,” but she doesn’t sound like she’s kicked her addiction when she sings, “I can’t tell you that I am wasted on you.” The line has double meaning though, and as pounding drums and sludgy guitars battle with uplifting ‘80s-style synth curlicues and rim rolls, Margolin breaks free of her Kraken-like lover. Or does she succumb one more time? “Sink into it, rise above it/ Climb into the sky, I love it,” she sings on the bridge — finding release, one way or the other. — FRANK DIGIACOMO
21. Claire Rosinkranz, “Backyard Boy”
Five, six, seven, eight: young artist uploads song to the internet; song goes viral on TikTok thanks to an eight-second dance challenge; artist inks major label record deal. It’s a familiar story by now, and it’s exactly what happened to 16-year-old California native Claire Rosinkranz, except that her summery “Backyard Boy” has proven to have legs outside of a few-seconds byte on the platform. It has taken many forms over the course of 2020 — it’s fun with or without the addition of Jeremy Zucker, and stripped down or not — and sounds as great in December as it did in June. — GAB GINSBERG
20. Bob Mould, “American Crisis”
Over the past 40 years of American rock music, few things have proven as reliably cathartic as the sound of alt-rock legend Bob Mould trying to get the bile out. Unsurprising that an election year proved grounds for his most recent return, with a track that starts mid-scream and leaves you like the Maxell blown away guy for the entirety of its 2:28 runtime. “I never thought I’d see this bullsh–t again/ To come of age in the ’80s was bad enough!” Mould laments. Sorry dude — maybe just give it another 40 years. — A.U.
19. Deftones, “Ohms”
As one of the most consistent bands in hard rock, Deftones reliably release very good albums with moments of transcendence every four years or so. On this year’s Ohms, that apex comes at the end, with a closing title track that tethers Chino Moreno’s vocal grandeur to a riff that takes a few seconds to show its teeth. Melodic and face-melting, “Ohms” helps explains why Deftones’ new LP should be counted among their best. — J. Lipshutz
18. Maggie Lindemann, “Scissorhands”
Lindemann may have broken out with the optimistic “Pretty Girl” in 2016, but before that, she was making dark and gloomy indie music, and we’re pleased to announce the singer-songwriter’s return to form. Starting with the ska-tinged “Friends Go” in 2019, Lindemann has consistently unleashed pop-punk-rock bangers, and “Scissorhands,” a nod to Tim Burton’s 1990 cult classic, is some of her best work. — G.G.
17. Wallows, “OK”
Dylan Minnette, Braeden Lemasters and Cole Preston’s infectious first offering of 2020 was written before the pandemic (and is about feeling insecure in a relationship), but the line “Can we get up and try to feel okay again?” does resonate in a certain way at the moment. The accompanying video sees a blue-haired Minnette and his pals embark on a ’90s road trip, serving Nickelodeon Movies vibes. — G.G.
16. Bleachers feat. Bruce Springsteen, “Chinatown”
Bruce Springsteen isn’t just a featured singer on “Chinatown.” He — and New Jersey, Bleachers mastermind Jack Antonoff’s birthplace as well — serve as true North on a heavily meta track that has more to do with the Roman Polanski film than the Manhattan neighborhood. Antonoff dropped “Chinatown” in tandem with another single, “45,” which ostensibly recalls his move to New York to make it in the music business — “while you’re praying at the ‘90s, they’re carving up anything that lasts,” he sings, perhaps referencing both his own experiences in the music business and a similar line in Bruce’s classic “Dancing in the Dark.” Cut to “Chinatown” where Antonoff yearns, over a mix of foreboding synthesizer and acoustic guitar, to take his lover “out of the city/ Honey, right into the shadow” — shorthand for Jersey — “Because I wanna find tomorrow.” A happy ending is far from guaranteed, but when he and Bruce take the endorphin-boosting chorus together, Antonoff sure sounds like he’s on the road to the promised land. — F.D.
15. girl in red, “Rue”
“She is a drug addict, which I’m not,” the singer-songwriter born Marie Ulven said about this hissing 2020 thumper named after the Zendaya-portrayed Euphoria lead. “But a lot of the stuff she’s felt and is trying to escape from is s–t I’m dealing with all the time… That’s some heavy ass work.” True story, and girl in red’s “Rue” captures the futile sensation of trying to escape from your own racing thoughts (“Can’t trust my brain, it’s such a liar”) — at a locked-down time where there’s literally nowhere to run to — with unnerving clarity. — A.U.
14. Pale Waves, “Change”
British indie-pop troupe Pale Waves released “Change” as the lead single to their second album over a month ago, but its wondrous, Avril-indebted attitude has yet to fade in the slightest. The track leans into its feelings of teen angst, with singer Heather Baron-Gracie lamenting, “My mother didn’t prepare me for this heartache”; “Change” can resonate with listeners of any age, but if early-’00s pop-rock soundtracked some of your most melodramatic diary entries, this one hits a little harder. — J. Lipshutz
13. All Time Low feat. blackbear, “Monsters”
The rock charts were quietly dominated by pop-punk veterans All-Time Low this year with the stomping “Monsters,” gifting alternative radio one of its most bombastic productions and undeniable singalong choruses in ages — even with the F-bomb dropped unavoidably at the end. (It’s cool, “mess” works well enough too.) Your blackbear mileage may vary, but the song’s exhilarating enough a ride that it sounds as if he’s basically strapped in and holding on with his guest verse, just like the rest of us. — A.U.
12. Dogleg, “Fox”
“Are we good to just play through this?” Dogleg ask at the beginning of a technical difficulty-besot live gig at the outset of the “Fox” music video. “I think we’re loud enough.” If they’re not, the audience will give ’em whatever boost they need, as the indie-punk quartet’s pulse-blasting Melee highlight is the exact kind of rager it’s almost impossible to listen to without filling in the inevitable hundreds of backing crowd vocals in your head. Matter of fact, maybe don’t watch the video at all, lest it send you wandering into random neighborhood basements and event halls, hoping that a 100-cap rock show might happen to spontaneously break out. — A.U.
11. Haim, “The Steps”
“The Steps” breezes along like a warm Los Angeles summer breeze, with Este Haim’s easy-going bass cleverly belying the conflicted emotions at the song’s core. Bemoaning a lover who can’t quite get on the same page as her, Danielle’s voice is a mixture of determination and yearning, while Alana’s bright, clean guitar riff backs her up with a lovelorn wail after each chorus. — JOE LYNCH
10. KennyHoopla, “How Will I Rest If I’m Buried By a Highway”
With new wave bounce and emo catharsis, KennyHoopla gave alternative radio one of its most indelible shout-alongs this year with the don’t-you-dare-abbreviate-that-title breakout hit “How Will I Rest in Peace If I’m Buried By a Highway?” Frankly, that this is even got to the FM dial is something of a marvel — the Cleveland-based rocker leads with the voice-cracking yelp, “SHE’S GONNA CUT MY HEAD OFF/ BUT I DON’T CARE!” and only gets more intense from there — but a massive chorus will always win out, and Peter Hook-style bass goes a long way too. — A.U.
9. Elvis Costello, “No Flag”
Playing like a warped dispatch from late ’80s college radio, Hello Clockface standout “No Flag” proves that detours into Bacharach Land haven’t blunted Elvis Costello’s peculiar knack for thumbing his nose at the world with an anxious guitar lick and suffer-no-fools sneer. Toss in a spaced-out bridge of Raymond Scott-styled electro bloops and lyrics about detaching from society (“No sign for the dark place that I live/ No God for the damn that I don’t give”), and you have Costello’s most roaring rocker in ages. — J. Lynch
8. Soccer Mommy, “Circle the Drain”
Despite being released a couple months before pandemic shutdown, “Circle the Drain” took on obvious resonance for the remainder of the year as the too-honest email we didn’t have the heart to send our loved ones. You know, the one that starts “Hey I’ve been falling apart these days” and goes on to describe the growing aches in our bodies and mold in our brains as we see ourselves spinning round and around, rooouund and arooouund. In one more cruel irony, the song vividly evokes the acoustic melancholy of Feeder’s late-’90s alt-rock hit “High,” whose then-bittersweet chorus — “I’m going out for a while/ So I can get high with my friends” — feels like a smug friggin’ boast in 2020. — A.U.
7. Yves Tumor, “Gospel For a New Century”
Yves Tumor’s psychedelic soul opus Heaven to a Tortured Mind contains extended jams, unexpected swerves and head-on collisions into walls of sound… but before any of that, the album presents its clearest instance of pop genius up front. Opening track “Gospel For a New Century” packs funk, sexuality, blaring horns and crisp harmonies into three minutes and change, recalling Prince’s virtuosity and abiding by a structure that would make sense at alt-rock radio — something that the auteur hasn’t done before this year. — J. Lipshutz
6. The 1975, “Me & You Together Song”
Matty Healy doesn’t do sappy, but if he did, it’d sound a lot like “Me & You Together Song” — a throwback lovefest where the 1975 leader’s longtime crush on a female friend is outdone only by his longtime affection for the baggy grooves and chiming guitars of Manchester hometown heroes like The Stone Roses. It’s a winning blend from its opening rush, and by the time the song hits its emotional peak in the second verse (“We went to Winter Wonderland, and it was s–t, but we were happy”), you might even find yourself tearing up at a backing repetition of “nappies.” — A.U.
5. The Strokes, “Ode to the Mets“
Did you ever wonder what Strokes frontman Julian Casablancas’ take on “My Way” might sound like? Probably not, but you got your answer with this seven-minute New Abnormal closer, a rousing, slow-building epic that feels like a deeply personal statement of intent from the New Rock Revolution survivors, even as it says nothing of particularly obvious meaning (“It’s the last one now, I can promise you that/ I’m gonna find out the truth when I get back”). The fact that it’s titled “Ode to the Mets” — after the New York team of occasionally lovable losers who happen to find their way to transcendence once every decade or two — is almost too perfect. — A.U.
4. Phoebe Bridgers, “Kyoto”
In a press statement upon the release of “Kyoto,” Phoebe Bridgers explained that the song is about “impostor syndrome” — about being in Japan, playing her music half a world from where it was conceived, and dissociating with that positive experience. The fact that Bridgers strayed from the sparse, delicate production from the rest of Punisher helps underline the thematic intent of “Kyoto,” but even divorced from Bridgers’ sophomore album and overlooking that sense of alienation, the song rips. The singer-songwriter sounds commanding while operating over a muscular guitar riff, enough to hope that “Kyoto” eventually won’t be an outlier in Bridgers’ discography. — J. Lipshutz
3. 24kGoldn feat. iann dior, “Mood”
Call it rock, call it rap, call it pop — all true, and all insufficient at capturing the energy and jubilation that the opening guitar scrapes of “Mood” produced across seemingly every radio format in 2020. As much as any song could be ubiquitous at a time when nobody goes anywhere, “Mood” was ubiquitous — you’ll probably be hearing it soundtracking Hallmark Christmas movies by the end of the month — and it never sounded out of place, a best-case scenario for a couple young artists and producers just throwing cool sounds and big hooks together for two minutes and not caring where the results take them. If Guitar Center can survive filing for bankruptcy, it can expect to hear that opening riff popping out of every one of its stores on the daily for the remainder of the decade. — A.U.
2. beabadoobee, “Care”
Carefully constructed but delivered with joyful relish, Beabadoobee’s “Care” is a piquant blast of ’90s alt-rock, finding the 20-year-old singer-songwriter brushing off someone’s performative sympathy and opting to find solace in a swirl of jangly guitars and Paisley tones. The quiet-LOUD-quiet pattern tips to her affection for the grunge era, but thanks to her sweet-yet-biting vocal tone, “Care” is the rare throwback that doesn’t make you yearn for the real thing – what beabadoobee is serving is all we caaare, caaaare about right now. — J. Lynch
1. Machine Gun Kelly, “Bloody Valentine”
Nope, it’s not the simulation going bad — Machine Gun Kelly did indeed release the best rock single of 2020. “Bloody Valentine” hushed any remaining doubts about MGK’s career pivot and eventually brought him to pop’s biggest stages, both figuratively (topping the Billboard 200 with his Tickets to My Downfall album) and literally (playing both the VMAs pre-show and the AMAs main show). An explosive 3:30 of galloping bass, chugging guitars and siren synths — plus hyperkinetic drums from the one guy you definitely want on your side for a pop-punk reboot — “Bloody Valentine” still mostly works because of Kelly’s pitch-perfect vocals, a brilliantly sneering and hard-lived delivery of the toxic love song his entire career now seems to have been building towards. “You’ll be my bloody valentine,” he howls — dreamy like the band of the same name and schlocky fun like the movie, but still entirely his own creation. — A.U.