1. Joyce Manor
The California punk group is one of the closest throwbacks to The Ramones I’ve ever heard, with a killer combination of catchy melodies, loud guitars and brief songs. As The Ramones sped up girl-group and surf-pop sounds and ran them through a darker, New-York-nightclub filter to create bizarre guitar music, Joyce Manor slices up the last few decades of SoCal pop-punk, turning the snotty stylings of Billy Joe Armstrong and Tom DeLonge into breakneck surf-and-skate songs that can barely be contained.
The band’s most recent album, Cody, is its most focused and evolved work yet. The band’s longest release to date at 25 minutes, it features full-fledged character sketches, more developed (and poppier) songwriting and Barry Johnson making references to Kanye that may be ironic or may be completely sincere.
While they seem interested in artistic change, Joyce Manor realizes that what you leave out of your work is just as important as what you put in. The band knows exactly what makes a good song, and they won’t add any BS to an already-perfect formula.
2. Car Seat Headrest
Will Toledo’s prolific DIY project is pop-punk for grad-school students, delivering wry, introverted observation to those who are wild rulebreakers on the inside, even if they wear thick glasses and like Wes Anderson movies.
Toledo, only 24 years old, has been self-releasing albums under the name Car Seat Headrest for over five years now, delivering almost a dozen records to a small-but-devoted online following before being signed by indie giant Matador Records and becoming a name to know in the alternative mainstream. His low, mostly monotone voice and sometimes inscrutable, sometimes snarky lyrics call to mind ’90s slacker god Stephen Malkmus, while Car Seat’s simple instrumentation bely an intellectual bent familiar to any anxious person who can’t help but constantly read multiple layers in every sight and situation.
“Drunk Drivers/Killer Whales,” off this year’s Teens of Denial, takes a few chords and an old-school loud-quiet-loud dynamic and sets the stage for an intense yet thrilling meditation on parties, discomfort and the desire to make destructive decisions. “Here’s that voice in your head / Giving you shit again / But you know he loves you / And he doesn't mean to cause you pain,” sings Toledo, who somehow manages to turn this subject into the most epic indie-rock anthem of the year.
3. Hop Along
Frances Quinlan’s voice is entrancing. The singer of freaky Philadelphian folkers-turned-rockers Hop Along is the star of every track, in full command even when she pushes her voice over the brink. Sometimes, she sounds like a nervous breakdown over a string section. Other times, she’s telling stories with weirdly specific details over post-punk guitars. Every time, you want to strain your ears to make sure you’re hearing every syllable.
Even with though they’re just now getting notices from mainstream press, Hop Along have already recorded some perfect, instant-classic songs. The brilliantly crafted build-up and witty lyrics of “Tibetan Pop Stars” make it a flagship song and easy intro point for the Philly rock scene, while “No Good Al Joad” is a chilling, disjointed meditation on death in which Quinlan’s has never sounded better or more unhinged. Contemporary alternative rock hasn’t produced many icons of late, but Quinlan has the singular voice to haunt teenage bedrooms for decades to come.
4. Modern Baseball
MoBo started as a guilty pleasure band, one that whined about women who didn’t like them in the most annoying yet undeniably infectious ways. Their choruses forced you to sing along even if you disagreed with the underlying message behind lines like, “That girl who's next to me, she's friendly and thoughtful and quite awfully pretty / But all she has to say is a meathead-themed monologue on why Brad ran away.”
But Modern Baseball has grown up. First, it was with 2014’s You’re Gonna Miss It All, which still explored romance and relationships, but did so with a more balanced point of view and even more anthemic choruses. Now, MoBo has gone even further with this year’s Holy Ghost, the band’s most complex and thought-out work yet.
The most recent chapter of Modern Baseball, a band whose every lyric feels like it was lifted from a private diary, is intertwined with co-singer/co-songwriter Brendan Lukens’s battle with mental illness, which he has talked about at length during the promotional tour for Holy Ghost.
These interviews and Lukens’s honesty serve as a way to destigmatization of mental illness, and they showcase rock music not just as a venue for escapism and shared emotion, as it often is, but also as a tool for social activism and a means for improving the world.
5. Against Me!
Against Me! is by far the oldest band on this list, with recordings dating all the way back to the late ’90s, but you could say the band had never existed in its best, most authentic form until its 2013 creative breakthrough Transgender Dysphoria Blues. Between the group’s previous album and TDB, singer Laura Jane Grace, then known publicly as Tom Gabel, came out as transgender in a Rolling Stone interview.
Since her coming out, Grace has become a prominent LGBTQ activist and written a memoir, and she remains the most widely known and beloved figure in the still-very-underground LGBTQ punk scene. Meanwhile, the band she leads is enjoying some of its greatest success yet, most recently with last month’s Shape Shift With Me.
While Against Me! isn’t the most musically adventurous band, Grace’s personal voice adds a new dimension to the old punk canon. Her shouted vocals are a window into pain and perseverance, a lengthy, terrifying journey into her own soul. Her words penetrate deeper than any chord can, and they’ve broken down barriers and opened doors that, until very recently and even now in many cases, remain locked shut for a lifetime.
Honorable Mention: Japandroids
Japandroids were rock’s Frank Ocean, an artist with a cult following who tantalized fans by withholding for years a follow-up to a beloved album. But this week, they finally announced a new record: Near to the Wild Heart of Life, which comes nearly five years after Celebration Rock.
Celebration Rock is the most up-front, honest album title in music history, and Japandroids’ new single — the title track to Wild Heart — delivers more of the exact same. It’s pounding, loud and simple, a song that mixes Springsteen’s highway anthems and Oasis’s fist-pumping, beer-drinking fun with the lo-fi aesthetics of a scrappy, close-knit indie community.
These six bands (and the countless more who tour and release records alongside them) aren’t just separate, cool entities — they’re part of a movement that could change the way we think about rock music. What often gets classified as old, white, conservative male music could become a new frontier for energetic change, beauty and experimentation. Right now is one of the best times in history for rock fans, and with Japandroids already lined up for a release in January, the future is just as bright.