If a lot of what made our year-end rock songs list sounds frenzied and ferocious, perhaps it’s because we’ve endured (yet another) year of public racism taboos stripped away, our planet plundered to the brink of destruction, and a small, male-dominated cohort pushing for control over the bodies of women.
If some of what made our list comes from artists not necessarily considered “rock,” perhaps it’s because the genre gave them the best opportunity to vent their frustrations. On the brighter side, it definitely has to do with the continued breakdown of genre barriers that’s left list makers a bit confused, but artists free to experiment more than ever.
Here are Billboard‘s picks for its top 25 rock songs of 2019.
25. Post Malone feat. Ozzy Osbourne and Travis Scott, “Take What You Want”
Post Malone has repeatedly made it clear that he wants to be seen as more than just a rapper, and Hollywood’s Bleeding found him exploring outside genres deeper than ever. The album’s standout track “Take What You Want” is the embodiment of this as Malone channels his inner, well, rockstar. He called upon the Prince of Darkness himself, Ozzy Osbourne, to add a jolt of authenticity, while fellow Texan Travis Scott floats above the melancholic production. It’s a killer metal-trap fusion that most didn’t see coming (and which landed Ozzy his first Top 10 hit in three decades), but let’s hope there’s more in store from Posty in the rock realm. — BIANCA GRACIE
24. Mandy Moore, “When I Wasn’t Watching”
Mandy Moore’s teen pop career happened a lifetime ago — it’s been 20 years since “Candy,” and Moore is now the matriarch of the hit drama This Is Us — yet her musical sensibility has never left her, simply morphed into something more seasoned. Take “When I Wasn’t Watching,” a chilled-out alt-rock single with a charmingly oversized chorus. The song showcases Moore’s beguiling voice, and will hopefully lead to a more substantial comeback in 2020. — JASON LIPSHUTZ
23. Halsey, “Nightmare”
Sure, “Nightmare” might recall the 2002 t.A.T.U. hit “All The Things She Said,” but it’s far removed from Halsey’s early releases. On the track, she explores the realm of grungy alternative-rock, even letting a growl out at the top of the chorus. More importantly, though, “Nightmare” makes a statement about being a woman in 2019 — best evidenced on the line, “I waited a while for a moment to say I don’t owe you a goddamn thing.” What’s more rock ‘n’ roll than that? — LYNDSEY HAVENS
22. Jimmy Eat World, “555”
While Jimmy Eat World delivered millennial rock anthems like “The Middle” and “Sweetness” during the early 2000s, few realized singer-guitarist Jim Adkins was doing his best to cope with mental health struggles compounded by the amount of attention suddenly fixed on the Arizona band. Adkins, 44, reflects on nearly seven years of sobriety and a lifetime of resilience across Surviving — an adventurous 10th studio album that’s more eclectic than most bands’ sophomore efforts. Its high water mark is this moonlit synth-rock hymn, in which Adkins salutes his hard-earned wisdom as the final handclaps and guitar missiles ring out: “I keep my focus on the simple things, trying to find some peace along the way.” — CHRIS PAYNE
21. Gary Clark Jr., “This Land”
“Paranoid and pissed off / Now that I got the money,” Gary Clark Jr. sneers on the opening line of his third album’s title track, spiraling Woody Guthrie’s feel-good folk classic “This Land Is Your Land” into a grim descent. This throaty, near-tangible rage that runs through “This Land” is the result of America’s ongoing issue with racism, which not only serves as the base of socio-politics, but the very genre that the blues-rock singer frequents. Opting to rap in a biting manner while dropping N-words left and right instead of soulfully crooning, Clark Jr. recalls his harsh childhood growing up in Texas, and the steadily increasing racial tension since the 2016 election. It’s an incredibly harsh and raw insight into his country’s downfall that shouldn’t be ignored. — B.G.
20. Simple Creatures, “Drug”
Call it a pop-punk dream come true: Blink-182 singer Mark Hoppus and All Time Low frontman Alex Gaskarth joined forces in 2019 for the mini supergroup, Simple Creatures. The pair unleashed their side venture in January with “Drug,” an upbeat lovestruck tune with a roaring guitar lick and a chanty “na na na” hook; both are staples of Blink and ATL’s catalogs, but the song features slightly heavier production that helps Simple Creatures avoid becoming a rip-off of either group. While Gaskarth and Hoppus’ voices pair seamlessly (no surprise, as Blink heavily influenced ATL), “Drug” represents the uniting of more than a guy and his hero. It was the beginning of a project that brought together two generations of pop-punk fans, while also attracting a new generation — a brilliant business move, but more importantly, a passion project that’s simply a good time for all. — TAYLOR WEATHERBY
19. Whitney, “Giving Up”
The melancholy nature of Whitney’s music is unparalleled, thanks to Julien Ehrlich’s steadying drumming and sky-high falsetto, paired with Max Kakacek’s enveloping riffs — all of which are on full display here. “Giving Up” is Whitney at its best, a soothing song that says a lot about love lost with so few words. And even though the band’s second album delivers more of the same as its acclaimed 2016 debut, you can never have too much of a good thing. — L.H.
18. Weezer, “End of the Game”
Commence the Van Weezer era. The alt-rock vets get ready for next year’s Hella Mega trek here by matching crunchy EVH riffs with Michael Anthony-worthy harmonies and… well, OK, neither David Lee Roth nor Sammy Hagar have ever made references to crying over dead Chronicles of Narnia characters, but you should never go full 5150, anyway. With its sentimental throwback melody and fatalistic chorus, there’s an air of finality to the single, but after a quarter-century of hits — and “Game” hitting No. 2 on Billboard‘s Alternative Songs chart — Rivers Cuomo understands as well as Dr. Manhattan: Nothing ever ends. — ANDREW UNTERBERGER
17. Tool, “Fear Inoculum”
One listen to “Fear Inoculum” and it’s like Tool never left, rather than waiting 13 years to put out new music. That’s because the song — and its namesake album — doesn’t exactly reinvent the wheel when it comes to Tool’s catalog, but then, did it even need to? “Fear Inoculum” is still a feat of strength among metal in the 2010s, unfolding slowly over 10 minutes of tribal percussion, brooding bass, hammering guitar riffs and Maynard James Keenan’s alternating vocals, shifting from hushed and contemplative to expressive and forceful. Even if Tool taks another decade and change to put out another album, there are enough movements and intricacies in “Fear Inoculum” to tide you over until then. — KEVIN RUTHERFORD
16. Illuminati Hotties, “I Wanna Keep Yr Dog”
In between jobs like working as an assistant engineer with Lady Gaga and Logic and a sound designer on the Hamilton soundtrack, LA-based studio whiz Sarah Tudzin fronts the indie rock outfit Illuminati Hotties. Following 2018’s rip-roaring debut Kiss Yr Frenemies, Tudzin and company dropped thier hookiest song yet in the early months of 2019. Sounding like Superchunk meets the Supremes, the exuberant one-off single zeroes in on the silver lining of a string of mediocre dates: “This is the last night unless you let me keep your dog/ I know you want me close/ But when you’re gone, it’s her I miss the most.” — C.P.
15. The Black Keys, “Lo/Hi”
After five years of embarking on their own solo journeys, the Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach and Patrick Carney finally reunited for the oh-so groovy “Lo/Hi.” Serving as the lead single to the duo’s ninth album Let’s Rock, it was a grand return to the fan-adored fuzzy guitar rock that embodied their early work, and a departure from the psychedelia of 2014’s True Blue. As they got back to their roots, the guys ended up making history along the way, becoming the first act to top all four of Billboard’s rock airplay charts (Alternative Songs, Mainstream Rock Songs, Adult Alternative Songs and Rock Airplay). Now that’s what you call a comeback. — B.G.
14. Doll Skin, “Mark My Words”
Seasoned by a marathon of dates on the Warped Tour’s farewell 2018 run, Arizona’s Doll Skin came out swinging in 2019. At the heart of their livewire sophomore LP Love Is Dead And We Killed Her is this brass-knuckled pop-punk ode to Girl With The Dragon Tattoo heroine Lisbeth Salander, a vigilante with a particular hatred for male abusers. “These lyrics were influenced by Salander and how she took her power back,” the band explained. “It’s about the anger that a person can hold inside after being assaulted by another.” On “Mark My Words,” Doll Skin bottles that rage into one of the most cathartic rock choruses in recent memory. — C.P.
13. Jay Som, “Superbike”
Jay Som architect Melina Duterte is cruises past the bedroom indie rock sound that defined her acclaimed 2016 breakthrough record Everybody Works for a souped-up, full-band experience on “Superbike,” the debut single from her 2019 effort Anak Ko. With its hurried pace and chorus-less, almost weightless structure, Duterte blurs the lines between lo-fi, alternative, dream pop, and strains of 90’s shoegaze and slacker rock as she gives a lyrical parting glance to the ones she’s leaving in the rearview. As she speeds away, there’s a liberating triumph underlying the song’s grinding guitar farewell. A getaway can make for quite the ride. — BRYAN KRESS
12. Sleater-Kinney, “Hurry on Home”
This year surely did not play out as Sleater-Kinney imagined it entering 2019, as longtime drummer Janet Weiss abruptly left the band, leaving Corin Tucker and Carrie Brownstein to scramble in the weeks ahead of The Center Won’t Hold’s album release. Yet “Hurry on Home” contains the ferocity and searing hooks of the group’s best tracks, much like the rest of its parent album; the context around The Center Won’t Hold was difficult to ignore, but when removed from the tumult, “Hurry on Home” makes for a top-notch rocker. — J.L.
11. Sam Fender, “The Borders”
In Sam Fender’s world, “Thunder Road” runs through northeast England. The crown jewel of the Newcastle native’s debut album excavates the chaos of his adolescence, speeding towards the sunset as if a moment spared would be a moment lost. “The Borders” conjures Bruce Springsteen’s smiling face before it even gets to the sax solo, but Fender’s performance is so mighty that by song’s end, the mythology is all his. — C.P.
10. Yonaka, “Rockstar”
It’s been a big year for English rockers Yonaka (pronounced yawn-uh-kuh), who signed with Fueled By Ramen in May, and grabbed Taylor Swift’s attention this summer. Curious ears will want to dive into their discography starting with “Rockstar,” from the group’s debut album Don’t Wait Til Tomorrow. The single is an absolutely perfect storm of energetic pop melody, yearning lyrics (“Oh, wouldn’t it be special to live forever eighteen?”) and window-shattering vocals, courtesy of lead singer Theresa Jarvis. — GAB GINSBERG
9. Brittany Howard, “Stay High”
The first single from the Alabama Shakes leader’s debut solo album, “Stay High” is warm and delightful: An ode to hard work but also to its reward of play, when “we smile and laugh and jump and clap.” Twinkling keys and airy guitar strums add levity to the song’s thumping, rootsy beat, while Howard’s soulful, blues-rock vocals — as usual — are the star of the song. It’s the feel-good final verse that hits her message home: “So don’t question my state of mind/ I’m doing wonderful, just fine, thank you.” — TATIANA CIRISANO
8. Jenny Lewis, “Red Bull & Hennessy”
“I’m about to get wicked,” Lewis drawls to kick off “Red Bull & Hennessy,” a rollicking, velvety Americana anthem about desire, welcomely reminiscent of Fleetwood Mac’s “Dreams.” There’s a certain swagger to Lewis’ heartache: “I’m wired on Red Bull and Hennessy/ Higher than you,” she gloats, pleading, “I”m on fire, c’mon and get next to me/ I wanna ride with you.” The track — the first single from her album On The Line — concludes with a wailing guitar solo, as dramatic and passion-fueled as you’d imagine this love deserves. — T.C.
7. Tegan and Sara, “I’ll Be Back Someday”
After releasing Love You To Death, one of 2016’s smartest pop albums, Tegan and Sara were ready to change things up yet again. For 2019’s Hey, I’m Just Like You, they took their sound in a different direction (or returned to their original one, depending on how you look at it). Lead single “I’ll Be Back Someday” set the mood perfectly, as the Quins brought back the electric guitars along with a healthy amount of teenage angst, all while owning up to all the lies they told back then (“If I could pretend, if I could lie/ But I can’t stay”). Naturally, there were some choice ‘90s staples in the music video — colorful clothing, edgy boots — to complete the vibe. — G.G.
6. Higher Power, “Seamless”
The U.K. hardcore quintet scored a deal with Roadrunner Records off the strength of its self-released 2017 debut Soul Structure and came out swinging on its first major label single. “Seamless” is hooks, havoc, and little else, blistering verses punctuated by a mountainous, clean-sung chorus that’s pure White Pony-era Deftones. Having the guy who produced Doolittle and The Color and the Shape behind the boards could’ve been daunting for a band of 20-somethings, but alt-rock legend Gil Norton’s presence has the Leeds band en route to something special. — C.P.
5. Slipknot, “Nero Forte”
The words “watch this” are spat at the top of “Nero Forte,” and if they haven’t caught your attention before that, Slipknot proceeds to do so with one of the most intense songs in their entire catalog. “Nero Forte” is mesmerizing in its implacability: the first half of the song does not yield whatsoever, and when Corey Taylor hints at a lower gear, he quickly dials up a bridge that would make the veins pop of anyone who dares to try and sing along with it. “Nero Forte,” which delves into the inescapability of the depressive state, not only finds Slipknot at the top of their game, but adds on to a metal legacy that was already well-secured. — J.L.
4. Lil Peep & iLoveMakonnen feat. Fall Out Boy, “I’ve Been Waiting”
The world lost Lil Peep before it got to see the full breadth of his genre-mixing genius, but across his 21 years and numerous releases, Gustav Åhr’s knack for marrying rap with emotional punk rock was well-documented. ILoveMakonnen, another purveyor of clever, sing-songy alt-rap, struck up a friendship with Peep and invited him on the 2017 demo of what would eventually become “I’ve Been Waiting.” After Peep’s death in Nov. 2017, Makonnen enlisted Fall Out Boy hook-slinger Patrick Stump to fill in the blanks, on what would become one of 2019’s most irresistible, genre-defying hits. — C.P.
3. Vampire Weekend, “Harmony Hall”
When Vampire Weekend dropped Modern Vampires of the City in 2013, Ariana Grande had yet to release a studio album. By the time Father of the Bride appeared in May 2019, she had five. The point being, quite some time has passed since the public got a new VW single, and it was anyone’s guess as to how the Ezra Koenig-led group’s sound would adapt to a music industry that has gone through numerous twists and turns during its absence.
Rather than transform its sound into something that neatly fits the 2019 model, VW did precisely what it does best: make a well-rounded indie rock song so undeniably enjoyable that it’s almost suspicious. Its chipper piano and easygoing guitar picking combined with breezy post-chorus ooh-ing instantly ready for major festival singalongs; its Koenig-penned lyrics precise and eager for the dissecting. Listeners latched on to the sticky “I don’t wanna live like this / But I don’t wanna die,” recontextualized from Modern Vampires‘ “Finger Back,” but nearly every line in the lead single is deftly packed with social commentary and worthy of further exploration. It’s a single that was impressively worth the wait — let’s just hope we don’t have to sit patiently for that long for the next one. — JOSH GLICKSMAN
2. Fontaines D.C., “Boys in the Better Land”
From first listen, Fontaines D.C.’s Dogrel centerpiece rattles you to the core. Frontman Grian Chatten isn’t a just singer here — he’s an evangelist, a carnival barker, a swaggering dispenser of deadpanned musings on the identity of Northern Ireland, based on a conversation he had with a Dublin cab driver who “only smokes Carrolls.” But perspective isn’t necessarily important here; on its own, the instrumental of “Boys in the Better Land” undulates forth with a bone-shaking intensity, slowing only for the shoutable, simple chorus complete with head-banging guitar and drum stabs. The song affirms the Irish five-piece as one of the new rock bands of the late 2010s with the most outward potential. We can’t wait to see where they steer the ship next. — K.R.
1. PVRIS, “Hallucinations”
In the heat of August, PVRIS dropped “Hallucinations,” the triumphant statement of an established electro-rock group realizing its pop instincts while maintaining the vicious edge that earned them a fervent fanbase throughout the 2010s. Frontwoman Lynn Gunn recently made the move from Brooklyn to Los Angeles, sure, but don’t expect sunshine. This is still PVRIS, after all, just bigger and better than you’ve ever heard them. Gunn’s vocals are ethereal as are the harp flourishes that sew the song together (a nod to her longtime muse Florence Welch) but this time, it all bulldozes towards a bone-rattling chorus of biblical proportions. The word “banger” is tossed around a lot these days, but damn if this isn’t it.
The single also foreshadows what we can expect from PVRIS in 2020, as the trio prepares to make its major label debut with an album on Reprise/Warner Records. Most importantly, Gunn and her bandmates — guitarist Alex Babinski and bassist Brian MacDonald — are crafting the type of music they’ve long yearned for. “We’ve always wanted to go in this direction, and we’re finally being supported to do that. I think the stars have aligned,” the frontwoman previously told Billboard. Indeed, at one point in the “Hallucinations” video, a figure is being buried alive in potting soil — or is he being uncovered as he sprouts from it? As always with PVRIS, that intrigue is sort of the whole point. We can’t wait to see where they grow next. — G.G.