Photo-Illustration: Vulture; Photos by Mat Hayward/Getty Images for iHeartMedia, The War on Drugs/YouTube, Lil Huddy/YouTube, Rosalind O’Connor/NBC, Lloyd Bishop/NBC
Given the undeniable commercial success of “good 4 u,” it’s already easy to forget what a shock the song was when it arrived. On the heels of her make-or-break debut album, Olivia Rodrigo hadn’t released another breakup ballad, like runaway hit “drivers license” and follow-up “deja vu,” for the third single. She hadn’t even stuck to the spare pop palette that made both her previous songs, particularly “drivers license,” so widely popular. No, she released a rock song — and a confident, angsty one, with shredded guitars and a shouted chorus. “We may someday look back on it as the symbol of [rock]’s early ’20s mainstream resurgence,” Stereogum wrote in a review of SOUR. Days later, the song debuted at No. 1, before spending 11 more weeks at No. 2, tying the record for most weeks in the runner-up spot. It ends the year as Rodrigo’s most popular song, above even “drivers license,” never mind the most popular rock song of 2021. After critics and musicians alike, often among those most invested in the genre, had spent the past decade checking rock for a commercial pulse, in “good 4 u,” the genre hadn’t just been resuscitated — it was up and walking around, no signs of atrophy.
The last time a guitar-driven song topped the charts was 2009, when Kelly Clarkson hit No. 1 with “My Life Would Suck Without You.” It wasn’t surprising, by that point, to see pop stars testing the waters of this world — the year before, Katy Perry and P!nk had similarly guitar-driven No. 1 hits, after Clarkson herself had already refined the formula with her 2004 No. 2 hit “Since U Been Gone.” At the same time, there was a thriving mainstream-rock scene in the form of pop-punk and a thriving indie-rock scene, off the heels of the early-’00s rock renaissance prompted by the Strokes. But as streaming took hold in the 2010s, rock’s popularity fell to hip-hop, pop, and EDM — three genres that had accepted and adapted more quickly to the streaming age — giving way to the latest chorus that rock is dead. Across the many eulogies for rock in the latter half of that decade, some critics wondered if the genre could ever fully, properly return to the mainstream: that is, the upper echelons of the charts, not to mention the cultural visibility that comes with that success, like TV performances and high-profile live sets. In 2016, critic Carl Wilson suggested in Billboard that rock might become “like jazz, as a heritage form still thoughtfully practiced and influential, but past its heyday”; in 2018, Vice’s Dan Ozzi considered a future where rock would “exist on the fringes as a mere touchstone that popular artists pay homage to.”
The title of Ozzi’s essay boldly declared, “Rock Is Dead, Thank God.” And yet, a year after its publication, the groundwork was already being laid for a popular rock resurgence. In June 2019, Machine Gun Kelly, who’d worked up until that point as a largely unremarkable rapper, released a straightforward pop-punk song, the closer off his fourth album. That song, “I Think I’m OKAY,” kicked off a new wave of pop-punk that crested in 2021. Artists from former TikTok stars to Willow Smith released pop-punk albums this year — mostly under the mentorship of Kelly and Travis Barker, the drummer of ’00s pop-punk heroes blink-182, who’d helped Kelly finesse his own pivot on his fifth album, 2020’s Tickets to My Downfall. The lyrical directness and musical catharsis appealed to a generation that had grown up with the internet as an outlet for unfiltered feelings, where the sounds of rock’s recent heyday were just a few clicks away. “It’s just the raw emotion of it that people [connect] with,” Lil Huddy, one of those TikTok stars, told the Los Angeles Times of rock’s renewed relevance earlier this year.
SoundCloud rappers had been drawn to that same factor in rock, and specifically punk and emo music, long before then. In the latter part of the 2010s, rappers like Lil Peep and Juice WRLD took influence from emo musicians and their predecessors like Kurt Cobain, making a fusion of music dubbed emo-rap. At the same time, hip-hop stars like Post Malone, another born-and-bred rock fan, were bringing rock-star imagery to the genre. Malone first hit No. 1 in 2017 with a trap song called “rockstar,” before his career would prophetically travel further from rap. Less than three years later, another rap song called “ROCKSTAR,” by DaBaby and Roddy Ricch, hit No. 1, this time actually built around a looped guitar riff. It proved to be one of the first defining trends of hip-hop in the 2020s: Vice declared that “hip-hop reached peak guitar” earlier this year, owed in part to Polo G’s third album Hall of Fame and its guitar-looping single “RAPSTAR” putting its own spin on rock culture. Rap’s romance with rock directly influenced its live shows too, where mosh pits at rap concerts and festivals became as mandatory as they had been at punk gigs and further mutated into “raging” with hype men like Travis Scott. (This was grimly evidenced by the recent tragedy during Scott’s set at Astroworld, which left ten dead by crowd crush and many others injured.)
Flickers of rock crept into the mainstream elsewhere. In late 2020, Miley Cyrus dug into the ’70s and ’80s rock she’d long enjoyed on her latest, Plastic Hearts, even featuring Joan Jett and Billy Idol on duets. Justin Bieber tapped into the synth-y arena rock of the ’80s to great results on his album Justice, while performing live with a full band for the first time in his career. Although Billie Eilish’s sophomore album Happier Than Ever was a largely quieter affair, she did slip into a newfound rock-star mode on the title track, which climaxes in a mammoth, full-band rock breakdown. One of the defining producers of the past 12 months, Omer Fedi, made his name off reintroducing guitars to pop music with 24kGoldn and Iann Dior’s No. 1 single “Mood,” and has since worked with Lil Nas X, MGK, and rap-rock alchemist the Kid LAROI. And one of the newest international stars of 2021 was, yes, a rock band: Måneskin, an Italian quartet that won the year’s Eurovision Song Contest (complete with rock-star scandal) and broke through in the U.S. afterward thanks to the power of TikTok.
None of that could’ve predicted one of the biggest rock gambles of 2021. Halsey had long insisted she was not a pop star, and in recent years collaborated with hard-rock band Bring Me the Horizon and pop-punk era MGK. She made good on that promise on her fourth, far-and-away best album, If I Can’t Have Love, I Want Power, earlier this year, produced by her longtime influences Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross of Nine Inch Nails. That music didn’t hew to any of the popular rock trends, instead trying on industrial, metal, grunge, and shoegaze in service of the album’s overarching pregnancy-horror concept. “I was willing to take the risk, and I also felt like I had earned it at that point,” she told Apple Music’s Zane Lowe of the album’s sound.
Ozzi buried some hope for rock’s future in his essay. “The more [rock’s] popularity shrinks, the more it attracts freaks and weirdos — those with something to prove and nothing to gain,” he wrote. “The more the traditional rock star career path crumbles, the more it draws in the true, inimitable visionaries making groundbreaking work for the sake of art and not money.” Rock’s death has always been more of a commercial concern than a qualitative one, and few have genuinely or convincingly tried to argue that rock’s popular decline meant the genre’s less mainstream and indie output was getting worse — especially not as some of the best rock music in recent memory found ways into the mainstream. Two of 2020’s most beloved artists were Fiona Apple and Phoebe Bridgers, rock singer-songwriters who not only released widely lauded albums, but parlayed those into Grammy nominations and major media attention, (re)assuming a certain degree of celebrity. What feels unique to 2021, though, is that as rock music crept back onto the charts, Ozzi’s prediction came true away from the charts anyway. This year saw a movement of ambitious, unapologetic rock music bubbling under the mainstream — evidently fueled by the same audacious spirit that led stars like Halsey to turn toward rock music too. Two things can exist at once, it seems.
Hard-core and emo bands, always some of the truest believers in their broader genre, led this moment, making uncompromising albums that aimed past their respective scenes. The hard-core band Turnstile recruited hip-hop producer Mike Elizondo and Dev Hynes, a.k.a. Blood Orange, for third album GLOW ON, a brutal and beautiful record that led Billboard to sincerely wonder, “Can a hardcore punk band impact the U.S. mainstream in 2021?” Just months later, GLOW ON has become one of the year’s most acclaimed albums, culminating in Turnstile’s late-night debut with a performance on Late Night With Seth Meyers — a massive feat for a hard-core band. After releasing the arena-size emo masterpiece Nearer My God in 2018, Foxing broadened its horizons on this year’s Draw Down the Moon, trying for radio-ready songs without diluting the band’s grandiose vision of rock. And the Armed, a semi-anonymous hard-core collective, made no secret of its own ambitions by cheekily titling its challenging, dazzling fourth album ULTRAPOP.
That enthusiasm for rock reverberated through all corners of the genre. The toast of the year was Michelle Zauner, who performs lush, dream-pop-inspired rock music as Japanese Breakfast. Not only did she infuse her sound with a newfound energy on third album Jubilee, she also released the memoir Crying in H Mart and scored the video game Sable, making her one of the year’s busiest and most visible musicians in any genre. (One of the only musicians to rival her bookings this year came from rock’s older guard: Dave Grohl, who released a Foo Fighters album, memoir, and documentary on top of being inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame for a second time, after previous honors for Nirvana. The same could easily be said of the Beatle who inducted him.) More interior singer-songwriters like Tamara Lindeman, who performs as the Weather Station, and Julien Baker bulked up their sounds, releasing their first albums with full bands, the equally stirring Ignorance and Little Oblivions. Baker’s boygenius collaborator Lucy Dacus continued to use weighty guitars to underscore the emotional heft of her music on third album Home Video, while Lindsey Jordan, already an underrated guitar virtuoso as Snail Mail, went louder on her second album, Valentine, by incorporating synthesizer and string arrangements. To other singer-songwriters, that ambition, or magnitude, manifested via collaboration: Indie torchbearers Angel Olsen and Sharon Van Etten released the monumental duet “Like I Used To,” and Jay Som’s Melina Duterte and Palehound’s Ellen Kempner found themselves newly inspired through their super-duo Bachelor. Americana music clarified its historic ties to rock, with singer-songwriters like Yola, Amythyst Kiah, and Brandi Carlile blending the genre with soul, blues, and country on their respective albums from this year.
Even the bands that had always made some of indie’s most unabashed rock music found ways to dig their heels. Danish art-punks Iceage released the arena-rock opus Seek Shelter, which opens with a full-choir sing-along à la U2. The Killers, on the momentum of 2020’s return to form Imploding the Mirage, followed up with Pressure Machine — a concept album with a small scope, focusing on leader Brandon Flowers’s hometown of Nephi, Utah, but a bolder sound, more textured and emotional than anything the band had made in easily a decade. As the slow-core giants Alan Sparhawk and Mimi Parker closed in on their third decade of making music as Low, they continued to push themselves, further exploring the sonic and emotional powers of distortion on 13th album HEY WHAT. Even the War on Drugs, some of rock’s leading apologists, made its mission sound more urgent on the band’s fifth and best album I Don’t Live Here Anymore, a record overflowing with classic-rock allusions, piercing guitar solos, and some of the band’s most anthemic choruses.
Rock and bands are synonymous, and while many of the best new indie-rock talents of the 2010s were solo acts, the future of the rock band looked equally bright this year. Some of the most exciting new faces came from outside the pop-punk mainstream, like Pom Pom Squad, Pinkshift, and Meet Me @ the Altar, three bands that released visceral and lively music that doubly challenged expectations of women and people of color in their scene. So did the Linda Lindas, a quartet of middle- and high-school-age girls who went viral thanks to a fiery library performance of their song “Racist, Sexist Boy,” which gave way to a Jimmy Kimmel Live! performance and an Epitaph Records signing. As they built on the traditions of punk and riot grrrl, the Chicago teen trio of Horsegirl continued to turn their omnivorous obsessions with indie-rock history into a fresh perspective on the genre, as single “Ballroom Dance Scene” became an unlikely radio hit and earned the band slots like Pitchfork Festival. Wet Leg, a playful post-punk duo from Isle of Wight, England, crossed the pond to even more buzz. Since the beginning of December, the band has played six sold-out shows across New York and California, performed on Late Night With Seth Meyers and for NPR’s Tiny Desk, and appeared on a number of year-end lists with its song “Chaise Longue” (also a minor TikTok hit) — all before even releasing a debut album, out next April.
Wet Leg is the latest band in an exciting rock subgenre coalescing in the U.K.: a new wave of witty, talk-sung post-punk, buoyed by good to stellar releases by bands including Dry Cleaning; Squid; Black Country, New Road; and black midi. Surveying the unnamed genre for NPR in May, Matthew Perpetua wondered if it could be a response to worries about rock’s downfall: “The energy of these songs feels startling in the context of the past 10 to 15 years of indie rock,” he wrote. Over half a year later, after many of these bands logged sold-out runs Stateside, the subgenre has graduated from a response to a factor in rock’s future. Wet Leg is just the freshest evidence.
As rock crossed existing borders in 2021, it crossed languages just as well. The Japanese pop-rock band CHAI continued to shed the kawaii expectations of Japanese girl groups on third album WINK. The anonymous Korean musician Parannoul, meanwhile, built on the lo-fi music they remembered hearing growing up with the solo album To See the Next Part of the Dream and the collaborative album Downfall of the Neon Youth, alongside Seoul’s Asian Glow and São Paulo’s sonhos tomam conta, together confirming Parannoul as a keeper of the shoegaze flame. And one of the best and most acclaimed rock albums of the year came from Niger, where the singer and guitarist Mdou Moctar released the masterful Afrique Victime, which both showcased and innovated on Tuareg rock music.
All to say, you didn’t have to look far to find bright, exciting rock music this year. As for the boring stuff? Imagine Dragons and twenty one pilots, two of the dominant mainstream-rock bands of the 2010s, returned in 2021, and you may not have even noticed it. The last time both bands released new albums, in 2018, Vulture’s music critic, Craig Jenkins, suggested that “rock and roll seems bored with itself.” Each band’s record debuted at No. 2 and stayed on the charts for over a year, but the electronicized pop-rock that had taken them from radio to streaming titans was growing stale, little more than playlist filler. Neither reinvented much on their 2021 follow-ups: twenty one pilots’ Scaled and Icy debuted at No. 3, and Imagine Dragons’ Mercury — Act 1 debuted at 9. What’s really telling, though, is that both albums dropped off the charts entirely after 11 and seven weeks, respectively. (Machine Gun Kelly’s Tickets to My Downfall, by comparison, is about to log its 64th week.) They’d lost cultural staying power, not just on the charts, but on TV performances and festival lineups, which neither band had as much success pulling as before. That changing of the guards may have been the best evidence that a new moment in rock has taken hold.
Imagine Dragons and twenty one pilots succeeded for a period by tempering rock with pop elements. Meanwhile, Coldplay found another way to extend success into 2021 — by fully belly-flopping into pop, after occasionally dipping toes, on latest album Music of the Spheres, with the help of master hitmaker Max Martin. The band earned a No. 1 single with the (surprisingly fun) BTS collaboration “My Universe,” echoing the pop turn of their 2000s pop-rock counterparts Maroon 5. Despite what Adam Levine may say, his band now functionally operates as his own pop project, in the same way that Chris Martin is the most visible member of Coldplay. (Did you even know that the Grammy-winning R&B musician PJ Morton also plays keys in Maroon 5?)
Rock’s rearrival to the mainstream feels like a reversal of that trend, with musicians in the pop world, from Olivia Rodrigo to Machine Gun Kelly, indulging their own passions for rock. It’s clear how that would inspire skepticism; it already has. But dismissing a musician like MGK as just an interloper in rock (as he actually was to rap) not only neglects his long-stated interest in rock, but his fruitful apprenticeship under Barker, a genre elder committed to keeping rock rooted and expanding. Indeed, while this current moment could seem like rock tourism at a glance — especially from the independent artists who could be, and have been, hurt by such a thing — it’s actually motivated by a remarkable awareness of genre history. Willow collaborated with Avril Lavigne and her own mother’s rock band Wicked Wisdom, while Olivia Rodrigo created SOUR with former indie rocker Dan Nigro in the producer’s chair and credited a Paramore interpolation on “good 4 u.” As much as those votes of confidence from people like Barker and Nigro lend credence to new mainstream rock, they shouldn’t overshadow pop’s salience in the equation. Concerns about authenticity in rock are still poorly entrenched in “rockism,” the school of thought characterized by the critic Kelefa Sanneh in 2004 as “idolizing the authentic old legend (or underground hero) while mocking the latest pop star.” Poptimism came later as a response, arguing that there was merit to those pop stars too. Now, that authenticity policing is breaking down: Not only are pop stars the new rock stars, but rock as a whole, and specifically its fans, is less hung up on shunning pop elements to play into some false binary.
This gives way to some hope for the future. Yes, there will be a glut of new pop-punk in the next few years, and a lot of it will likely sound pretty derivative. But in the best-case scenario, there will also be more artists like Halsey, taking big swings with genuinely interesting rock music and hitting. Some of the most anticipated music of 2022 is already set to build on the ambitions of indie rock from this year, with critical darlings like Mitski and Big Thief looking to release some of their most experimental music yet.
The greatest cause for hope, though, is the simplest: that people, specifically young audiences, are still listening to rock music, as they have been all along. Label executives and other industry bigwigs, like the Recording Academy, have taken to the idea that rock is music for old white men, which couldn’t be further from the case in 2021 (except if you’re looking at the 2022 Grammy rock field nominations). It’s not hard to see this on TikTok, where young people haven’t just helped launch new rock music, but have made rock artists from Fleetwood Mac to the Scottish art-rockers Life Without Buildings to a Belarusian post-punk band trend. For the past few years, everyone from emo rappers to Rihanna has been trying to tell us that yes, people do still listen to rock music. Olivia Rodrigo herself has said she grew up idolizing ’90s rockers like Alanis Morissette and that they inspired the rock songs on SOUR. “I didn’t want the entire record to be sad piano songs,” she told Variety earlier this year. And she made it clear that millions of others didn’t, either.