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The 25 Best Rock Songs of 2017: Critics' Picks
Rock enjoyed a handful of crossover hits in 2017, but these Top 40 staples certainly didn’t sound like your parents’ buzz ballads. Top 5 smashes on the Hot 100 like Portugal. The Man’s “Feel It Still” and Imagine Dragons’ “Believer” and “Thunder” scanned as “rock” but used hardly any guitar in their rhythm-heavy structures.
And even far below the mainstream, in punk, D.I.Y. and experimental circles, many of the best rock songs embraced electronic heartbeats, bubblegum pop, laptop-friendly sampling, or on the flipside, chillingly sparse production. Some even dropped a signature instrument, as you’ll also find both bass-less and drum-less songs on the list below. Then again, we’ve also got a few songs that sound lifted straight out of 1975 -- including one from a former boybander’s debut solo album, no less.
Rock is no doubt in flux, and we did our best to track its evolution across its finest tracks of 2017. Here are our 25 favorites.
25. Ren Farren, "Good Girl"
It's been a bad year for supposed Nice Guys, so it was refreshing to hear a captivating new voice in rock declare them over in favor of a less-recently championed (but more traditionally reliable) archetype: "I want a bad boy with a heart of gold." Even more of a welcome surprise is the sound of "Good Girl," a combination of melancholy '80s new wave and explosive early-'00s pop rock that hits an emotional nerve we didn't even know existed yet, piercing with every sweet-and-sour harmony and chiming guitar stab. -- ANDREW UNTERBERGER
24. The Movielife, “Mercy Is Asleep at The Wheel”
2017 just happened to be the year a handful of Long Island post-hardcore standbys released their first albums in forever, so the Movielife’s first LP in 14 years often felt overshadowed by the same hype-magnets that hogged headlines in the early 2000s. But comeback album Cities In Search of a Heart was a resounding triumph, led by this fiery salvo -- a clash between both compassion and cruelty, and, like the Movielife’s classic sound, the gritty voice of frontman Vinnie Caruana and Brandon Reilly’s scorching guitar work. -- CHRIS PAYNE
23. Turnstile, “Generator”
Modern-day hardcore idols Turnstile have a major label debut on the way, and the Baltimore quintet shot the hype into the stratosphere with this shape-shifting single. What begins as a brawny, straightforward chug-chugger passes through a sonic wormhole around at its two-thirds mark and emerges a spit-shined, melodic marvel, with flourishes of Black Album-worthy shredding. Frontman Brendan Yates says the song is about “near-death experiences; out-of-body happenings that really open you up to see your true self without the noise of the world." Forget crowdsurfing; let's open this pit and levitate the fuck out! -- C.P.
22. Incubus, “Nimble Bastard”
Rock radio saw its share of change in 2017 -- increasingly less guitar, a DJ Shadow/Run the Jewels song that’s charted for 13 weeks -- but then again, some things don’t seem to change: an Incubus single got played, and man, it just rocked. On the L.A. standbys’ 8th LP, Brandon Boyd and company poured the creative juices they neglected on its title and artwork into its lead single, a hooky joyride featuring the frontman's vocals playing catch-me-if-you-can with drummer José Pasillas’ runaway percussion. -- C.P.
21. Foo Fighters, “Run”
When a Foo Fighters song begins with a gently strummed guitar and Dave Grohl whisper-singing, you know it won’t last long -- a sonic burst is inevitably on its way. Within 30 seconds of "Run," the drums kick in and Grohl’s softly-spoken words are turned to guttural growls. Off this year's Concrete and Gold, this one stands out for its cross-generational feel, straddling the explosive energy of the band in the late '90s and building off its renewed sound, best heard on 2014’s Sonic Highways. Who knows what they’ll run to next, but with this song as proof, they’ll always be full-speed ahead. -- LYNDSEY HAVENS
20. PVRIS, “What’s Wrong”
“Two years gone, came back as some bones” -- that’s PVRIS frontwoman Lynn Gunn opening “What’s Wrong,” owning up to being a little worse for the wear coming home from a whirlwind of touring behind her band’s 2014 debut White Noise. The singer-guitarist confided in Billboard about prioritizing her mental health before album number two, and on All We Know of Heaven, All We Need of Hell’s standout track, she turns her demons into a propulsive dance-rock cyclone that blends Depeche Mode’s darkness with CHVRCHES’ primary-colored shimmer. -- C.P.
19. Phoebe Bridgers, “Motion Sickness”
The poppiest track on September's Stranger in the Alps is also one of its best -- and the one to introduce the Ryan Adams- and Conor Oberst-cosigned 23-year-old to radio airwaves. Strong introduction, too; Bridgers' easygoing vocal fits perfectly among warm guitar strums and intimate melodies about clearing the post-breakup hurdles. "There are no words in the English language/ I could scream to drown you out" might be one of the most relatable lyrics of the year. -- KEVIN RUTHERFORD
18. Imagine Dragons, "Thunder"
"Believer," Imagine Dragons' first single from Evolve was a bold reminder that they're arena rockers at heart. Following that up with a more lighthearted, radio-friendly jam like "Thunder" was a declaration that they're pop staples, too. The undulating verses are as much of a hook as the sing-songy chorus, making the entire jam one that's irresistible to hum along to. The masses clearly appreciate their poppier side: "Thunder" has hit No. 1 on the Mainstream Top 40, Hot Rock Songs, and Radio Songs charts, marking the first time Imagine Dragons have topped all three with one song. -- TAYLOR WEATHERBY
17. The Killers, “The Man”
The Killers' answer to how to return after a five-year absence was instantly clear from comeback single “The Man,” a thumping disco jam that backs up its boastful lyrics with its swaggering stomp. And aside from the synth shimmy and Brandon Flowers' cocky falsetto, "The Man" stood strong on the charts, too. The single was the Killers' first top five hit on both Hot Rock Songs and Rock Airplay, the hype helping parent album Wonderful Wonderful earn them their first-ever No. 1 debut on the Billboard 200. -- T.W.
16. All Time Low, “Dirty Laundry”
“I think we sold out a really long time ago,” All Time Low frontman Alex Gaskarth joked on Billboard’s #AlternativeFacts podcast earlier this year. Over a decade in the game, the self-aware quartet knows its pop-leaning strengths, and on the lead single from 2017’s Last Young Renegade, they struck a well-fitting balance. Guitar-driven power pop with eletro-laptop vocal effects that sound like they were lifted from a Kygo single? Spot on, but still -- not as perfect as the crushing key change in the closing “Dirty Laundry” chorus. -- C.P.
15. Greta Van Fleet, “Black Smoke Rising”
Michigan foursome Greta Van Fleet dropped jaws this year with debut EP Black Smoke Rising, a collection of ‘70s-indebted, rowdy rock songs that could -- gulp -- almost pass for Led Zeppelin. Even now with a second double-EP From the Fires under their belts, the former’s title track remains Greta's year-end standout. Here, a jangly guitar hook anchors lead singer Josh Kiszka’s husky howl, leading up to an anthemic chorus that pays tribute to the group’s rural hometown. -- TATIANA CIRISANO
14. LCD Soundsystem, "American Dream"
Though the recycled and largely unconvincing urgency of "Call the Police" provided the A-side for LCD Soundsystem's long-awaited comeback, it was B-side (and eventual return-LP title track) "American Dream" that actually established their continued vitality. A cavernous synth-pop waltz with impressively patient vocal delivery from the normally frenzied James Murphy, "Dream" was both mesmeric and nauseating, comforting and alienating, proving that it's much harder to recapture the highs of "All My Friends" a decade later than it is to approximate the everlasting morning after. -- A.U.
13. Charly Bliss, “Westermarck”
Exes and emotional turmoil figure prominently in Charly Bliss’s firecracker of a power pop debut album, but “Westermarck” is the track that takes those themes and adds a special twist to this year's Guppy. In the song, lead singer Eva Hendricks describes a tumultuous relationship of hers that came to an abrupt halt when her boyfriend fell for his long-lost second cousin: “From across your room, I saw/ Second cousins kissing on the lawn/ We will never speak again.” The song came together right before the band entered the studio to record the album, with drummer Sam Hendricks writing the blistering, guitar-forward music and dropping it with Eva to add her bizarre betrayal narrative after the fact. Breakups are never easy to wrap your head around, but this one is a real doozy. -- CHRISTINE WERTHMAN
12. Alice Merton, "No Roots"
“No Roots” sees a perfect pairing of strong, inviting production -- complete with a steady bassline, heart-pounding drumbeat and quick-hitting guitar riff -- and vigorous vocals delivered with such intention, it can make even the most settled homebody a nomad. Alice Merton, however, needs no convincing: The pop-rock rookie was born in Germany, and has since lived in Berlin, London, New York, and Ontario (amongst other locales), making the song's titular salvo uniquely her's. It's caught on with others, too; "No Roots" currently sits at No. 6 on Alternative Songs, its peak position in 17 weeks on the radio play chart.. -- L.H.
11. The War on Drugs, “Strangest Thing”
Adam Granduciel, guitar god? Not exactly (at least not to the masses), but "Strangest Thing" makes a strong case for it. The War on Drugs is one of the best guitar-led bands on the market and arguably the best-sounding. The production on this year's major label debut A Deeper Understanding was exceptionally rich (again, thanks to Granduciel) and of its ten tracks, "Strangest Thing" was the most stop-in-your-tracks gorgeous. The transcendent first solo comes this close to melting off your face. The second just finishes the job. -- K.R.
10. Arcade Fire, “Everything Now”
Arcade Fire’s deep dive into dance was solidified on this pulsating track. What starts as an alternative rock song with Win Butler singing low and slow soon erupts into a chorus of harmonies, glimmering keys, and a warmly welcomed ABBA influence. The self-aware song is capable of more than just starting a party: It's an incessant reminder of how wanting and needing “everything now” feeds into an age of instant gratification and social media excess, while the communal chant at the end assures the phenomenon is widespread -- whether that’s comforting or not. -- L.H.
9. Maddie Ross, “You’re Still My Sugar”
The last year saw the Josie and the Pussycats soundtrack become an increasingly popular touchstone for garage-punk bands, but this L.A. power-popper’s standout single was the biggest flex of all. We called it a “bubblegum bulldozer” when we profiled Ross back in April, and though the self-released track remains under the radar (only a few thousand SoundCloud and Spotify spins to its name) we’re happy to report it still goes hard. Massive guitar-synth hooks! Candy-coated vocal layering! Samplings of cash register ch-chings and cars crashing! Sixteen years post-Pussycats, this ain’t your basic re-boot. -- C.P.
8. MUNA, “I Know a Place”
MUNA’s stunning debut LP About U delivers everything from sob soundtracks to empowering anthems. None is more rallying, though, than the spirited and unifying “I Know a Place.” In a time when so many feel unsafe -- threatened by natural disasters or the government -- the unnamed place vocalist Katie Gavin sings of is an idealistic escape. And when she declares, “You think being yourself means being unworthy/And it's hard to love with a heart that's hurting/ But if you want to go out dancing/ I know a place,” it’s instinctual to reach out your hand, willing her to take you far away. -- L.H.
7. Future Islands, “Ran”
To the casual fan, Future Islands might amount to “Seasons (Waiting on You)” and a pile of other like-minded tracks that just don’t happen to be their sentimental breakthrough single. But just as the North Carolina trio existed long before that legendary Letterman performance, there’ve got more slappers in their repertoire than most realize. They led off their fifth LP, 2017’s The Far Field, with this glistening example of how to make a synthpop song sound gut-wrenchingly human. Entrancing, lockstep drumming and luminous, watercolored keyboards serve as the backdrop for frontman Samuel T. Herring’s howling, breakup-inspired soul-search: “What’s a song without you, when every song I write is about you?” -- C.P.
6. Portugal. The Man, “Feel It Still”
Blah blah blah, Portugal. The Man got a top five hit and it's 2017, yadda yadda yadda. In an alternate reality where this didn't blow the heck up, it's still a killer song from the first notes of its earworm bassline. John Gourley and co. always had it in them, they just needed to find the right hook. They ended up finding about a half dozen littered all over Woodstock, and if "Feel It Still" and follow-up "Live in the Moment" are any indication, alt rock may have found its new radio staple. -- K.R.
5. St. Vincent, "Los Ageless"
Not a lot of pop/rock auteurs out there are capable of finding the sonic midpoint between Trent Reznor and Lady Gaga, but St. Vincent locates it while rummaging for change in her studio sofa cushions, capturing entire universes of glitz and grime with each echoed guitar slide. Remarkably, the lyrics are just as sharp and evocative, brilliantly capturing the faded glamour of the titular-pun locale -- and its denizens' refusal to let go -- particularly on the year's best slow-rolled chorus: "How can anybody have you?/ How can anybody have you and lose you? / How can anybody have you and lose you and not lose their mind too?" -- A.U.
4. Japandroids, “North East South West”
Let’s hear it for Canada. Japandroids have always repped their homeland, but never as shout-it-out emphatically as on their third album’s catchiest song. This electric-acoustic rollicker hits numerous North American locales where the duo’s caused a ruckus, particularly Toronto (frontman Brian King’s home) and Vancouver (drummer David Prowse's). It’s a rock ’n roll trope that’s been done to death with the U.S., but something about the land up north and all its public healthcare and whatnot makes the concept a total singalong. Shouting out cities and wailing, “North, east, south, west, coast to coast!” like the garage punk version of Rockapella on Carmen Sandiego; try not raising your Molson up high when King yells unironically, “Canada always answers when I call her name!” -- C.P.
3. Julien Baker, “Turn Out The Lights”
At just 22 years old, Julien Baker conveys the harrowing feelings of loneliness and depression like few other artists. On the title track from her sophomore album Turn Out The Lights, Baker describes the struggle of dealing with problems on her own, and how relying on your support circles to fix your problems is easier said than done. She uses a hole on the drywall of her bedroom as a metaphor in the first verse: she has yet to patch up the hole, something she admits needs to be fixed, but she’s “starting to get used to the gaps.” Why fix something when you can learn to accept it?
But there’s a light at the end of the tunnel. Coming in well past the two-minute mark, the eruptive chorus -- one of rock's most powerful in recent memory --makes the journey wholly worth it. It not only proves what a powerful, otherworldly voice Baker has, but that she can find solace when she's alone: “There's no one left/ Between me and myself.” -- X.Z.
2. Paramore, “Hard Times”
First, light some incense and say a prayer to get past the travesty of “Hard Times” not ruling rock radio, and eventually Top 40, from Summer ’17 through the present day. That out of the way, crank up the volume on Paramore’s neon-colored, marimba-laced single and dive in -- or crawl down, as Hayley Williams sings, into her personal “hole in the ground.” Beneath its flashy exterior, “Hard Times” tackles depression -- specifically, Williams’ struggles with litigious ex-bandmates and her own public persona. In 2016, Paramore almost broke up and we almost never got After Laughter and its masterstroke of an opening track. “Hard Times” didn’t bring the payday of a “Misery Business” or an “Ain’t It Fun” but for Williams, guitarist Taylor York, drummer Zac Farro, and legions of Paramore fans, it was a priceless therapy session. -- C.P.
1. Harry Styles, “Sign of the Times”
Only in the real-life Upside Down that is 2017 would the year’s best rock song come from a singer made famous by a boy band formed on a reality TV show. One Direction’s breakout heartthrob Harry Styles always had a habit of flaunting classic rock tees, but unlike the vast majority of teens in vintage apparel, Styles’ interest in the genre’s forebearers goes far beyond cloth. The ‘70s are alive and well on his self-titled debut, with the glistening “Sign of the Times” serving as the LP’s mission statement and finest moment. Combining the sonically pristine theatrics of Freddie Mercury with the gentle grandeur of Hunky Dory-era Bowie, Styles makes it clear on “Sign of the Times” that he’s not a pop star playing rocker -- he’s been a classic-rock kid hiding in boy band clothes all along, and with this piano-ballad-meets-outer-space anthem, he’s finally arrived as a worthy keeper of the flame. -- JOE LYNCH