The 20 Best Rock/Alternative Radio Hits of 2017

The word 'alternative' has been overused to the point of meaninglessness in the context of rock music since the early '90s. And in 2017, it took on a new, more malevolent level of nonsense as 'alt-right' became a popular term for laundering white nationalism as a mainstream American ideology (and the even more inane 'alt-left' was pushed for good measure as a false equivalent). With that context in mind, there's nothing I'd like to do more with this list than drop the word and just call this 'rock.' But the 'rock/alternative' tag I've used for the last 5 years is somewhat useful for lack of a simpler header: not all of these songs are strictly rock, and some of the rock songs aren't alternative in even to the degree that the world makes any sense to describe music.

Here's the Spotify playlist, and my previous rock lists for 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015, and 2016. And I already did this year's R&B list.  

1. Alice Merton "No Roots"
#9 Alternative Songs#9 Rock Airplay
Alice Merton was born to Irish and German parents and spent her youth moving around England, America, and Canada before kicking off her musical career with an ode to placelessness that went top 10 in several countries across Europe. Here in America, it's contained to alternative radio, which I think is unfortunately a classic example of how catchy, relatable songs often get siloed into specific radio formats here even though they have pretty proven broad appeal.

2. Lorde - "Green Light"
#9 Alternative Songs#9 Rock Airplay, #19 Hot 100
Back in 2013, Lorde came out of New Zealand with "Royals" and it made that long trip around the world that songs from unknown singers occasionally make, and briefly was only on alternative radio in America. Then it became a rare multi-format smash, getting heavy rotation spins on pop and R&B radio as well, which left me wondering exactly what kind of career Lorde had ahead of her. When she returned with her sophomore album nearly 4 years later, I was impressed that she seemed to be reaching for the brass ring with "Green Light" and its massive chorus and pulsing piano-driven dance beat. But only alternative radio played it, so what do I know.

3. The Killers - "The Man"
#2 Alternative Songs#4 Rock Airplay
The Killers came storming out of the gate at the beginning of their career with a big stupid blockbuster and a lovably wrongheaded follow-up, but the decade since then has been pretty blandly uneventful. So it was fun to hear the band get some of its ditzy swagger back, with Brandon Flowers declaring himself "USDA certified lean!" over a Kool & The Gang sample and the sounds of cash registers and popping bottles.

4. Greta Van Fleet - "Highway Tune"
#1 Mainstream Rock Songs, #39 Alternative Songs#12 Rock Airplay
If you look at some of the Billboard chart peaks I included in this list, you might notice a pattern: the songs that are hits on the Alternative Songs chart generally peak about as as high on the broader Rock Airplay chart as well. But songs that top the Mainstream Rock Songs chart like "Highway Tune" often miss the top 10 of Rock Airplay entirely. So that's another reason that popular conceptions of what rock music is considered 'alternative' and what is considered 'mainstream' are dated and useless: there are very few 'mainstream' rock stations playing new music anymore. Even my stalwart local active rock station, Baltimore's 98 Rock, is so reliant on old favorites that "Highway Tune" was one of the only new songs I heard them play heavily this year, and it sounds exactly like 1971 vintage Led Zeppelin. But the members of Greta Van Fleet are a bunch of photogenic 18-to-21-year-olds, so the music industry's got its hopes pinned on them to make rock cool again.

5. Paramore "Hard Times" 
#13 Alternative Songs#17 Rock Airplay, #90 Hot 100
Coming off of the biggest pop hit of their career, "Ain't It Fun," it probably seemed like a commercially savvy move for Paramore to further mine a neon-tinted '80s aesthetic. But After Laughter and its lead single took a darker, more idiosyncratic approach to that sound, more in step with rock radio than Top 40 radio but still a hard sell for both.

6. The Revivalists "Wish I Knew You"
#1 Alternative Songs#2 Rock Airplay, #84 Hot 100
The name The Revivalists almost seems too laughably on-the-nose for a rootsy New Orleans retro band, but "Wish I Knew You" grew on me with its easygoing charm and surprisingly textured arrangement.

7. Nine Inch Nails "Less Than"
#10 Mainstream Rock Songs, #22 Alternative Songs, #21 Rock Airplay
The first of Trent Reznor's planned trilogy of EPs, last year's Not The Actual Events, didn't feature anything particularly radio-friendly. So it was a pleasant surprise that this year's Add Violence EP boasted perhaps the band's most anthemic single since "The Hand That Feeds." 

8. Bleachers - "Don't Take The Money"
#3 Alternative Songs#8 Rock Airplay
As far as Antonoff/Yelich-O'Connor compositions on this list, "Don't Take The Money" obviously takes a distant backseat to "Green Light." But I really enjoyed this track, it was a rare bright spot in the otherwise disappointing second Bleachers album. 

9. J. Roddy Walston & The Business "The Wanting"
#22 Alternative Songs#32 Rock Airplay
J. Roddy Walston & The Business have been one of my favorite live bands for about a decade, and I spent much of the last couple years sharing a practice space with Business drummer Steve Colmus, so I feel a swell of pride anytime I've heard one of their three nationally charting singles on the radio. I miss the piano-driven sound of their early records a little, but "The Wanting" makes an argument for how great they can be as a straight up guitar band.

10. X Ambassadors - "Ahead Of Myself"
#12 Alternative Songs#15 Rock Airplay
I used to dismiss X Ambassadors as the Theory Of A Deadman to Imagine Dragons' Nickelback, but my wife played their first album nonstop and it really grew on me, Sam Harris has one of the few really impressive voices in alt rock radio these days. It's a shame that their second album seems to be waiting in the wings after this song's so-so chart performance, I thought it was one of their best yet.  

11. Cold War Kids "Love Is Mystical" 
#3 Alternative Songs, #3 Rock Airplay
Another shout out to my wife, she loves this song and it wound up growing me whereas their previous big hit "First" just wore on my nerves over time. The follow-up "So Tied Up" with Bishop Briggs was really good too. 

12. Biffy Clyro - "Howl"
#16 Mainstream Rock Songs, #33 Alternative Songs, #32 Rock Airplay
I used to always get them confused with Canadian pop-punk singer Bif Naked, but Biffy Clyro are a Scottish trio who've enjoyed success at home for over a decade with a handful of minor U.S. hits. "Howl" was the 4th biggest single from their latest album on the U.K. charts but the record's biggest hit in America, which I think is justified, it really grew on me over the course of the year. 

13. Red Sun Rising - "Amnesia"
#6 Mainstream Rock Songs, #24 Rock Airplay
Red Sun Rising pretentiously uses the hashtag #WeAreThread to describe their music as if no existingenre suits them, which is hilarious because they sound even more like Alice In Chains than the other neo-grunge bands that have dominated hard rock radio for the last 20 years. I really dug this song after hating their first couple singles, though. 

14. Walk The Moon "One Foot" 
#7 Alternative Songs#11 Rock Airplay
Walk The Moon's handful of other alt-rock hits are not hugely different from "Shut Up And Dance," but it really feels like they just made a big play for pop immortality that one time and it worked but they're not trying that hard to repeat it. So "One Foot" will probably continue on its current trajectory of being maybe 1/10th as popular as the band's previous lead single, but it's pretty catchy in its own right. It's pretty weird that the second verse quotes Sean Paul's "Get Busy" out of nowhere, though.

15. Incubus - "Nimble Bastard"
#4 Mainstream Rock Songs, #22 Alternative Songs#16 Rock Airplay
Incubus built a pretty successful career out of alternating hard rock anthems with what one local radio DJ has called their "panty-melters." But their last couple projects, 2015's "first half of an album" EP that never go a companion piece Trust Fall (Side A) and this year's 8 each only had one single apiece, and both returned Incubus to their aggressive early sound to great effect. 

16. Royal Blood "Lights Out"
#1 Mainstream Rock Songs, #21 Alternative Songs#8 Rock Airplay
British duo Royal Blood are I think one of the few really consistently enjoyable young bands on hard rock radio, even if 'more polished Jack White acolytes' is an inherently unexciting premise for a career. 

17. Nothing More "Go To War"
#1 Mainstream Rock Songs, #12 Rock Airplay
I wasn't really a fan of this recent article that expressed exaggerated befuddlement that Nothing More, a band known to hard rock radio listeners and nobody else, was nominated for a few rock Grammys. Isn't it perfectly fine, maybe even commendable, for newer acts who haven't crossed over the more general audiences, to be up for those awards? Anyway this song is pretty ridiculous but I like it. 

18. Foo Fighters - "Run"
#1 Mainstream Rock Songs, #9 Alternative Songs#3 Rock Airplay
Foo Fighters have enjoyed remarkably consistent rock radio success over the course of 9 albums, but I think even they know that the formula can get a little stale, and really tried to get out of their rut by hiring pop producer Greg Kurstin for the ambitious Concrete And Gold. For better or worse, though, "Run" didn't stray that far from previous soft/loud lead singles like "The Prentender" and "All My Life." Queens Of The Stone Age shook up their sound similarly with a Mark Ronson-produced album this year, and it's been interesting to see our hard rock standard bearers try to stay current

19. The Pretty Reckless f/ Warren Haynes "Back To The River"
#12 Mainstream Rock Songs, #37 Rock Airplay
Onetime Gossip Girl star Taylor Momsen pivoted from TV to music years ago, and her band The Pretty Reckless have thrived as one of the few bands on hard rock radio fronted by a woman. And their music has taken an interesting southern rock turn at times, with their latest single featuring lead guitar from Warren Haynes of Gov't Mule and the Allman Brothers Band.

20. Portugal. The Man "Feel It Still"
#1 Alternative Songs#1 Rock Airplay, #4 Hot 100
Portugal. The Man have long been the dark horse of the "[blank] The [blank]" bands, trailing far behind Foster The People, Cage The Elephant, Walk The Moon, and Young The Giant. But in 2017, they finally scored their own big shiny crossover hit and performed alongside pop acts at award shows. I'm still kind of puzzled by this band and this song, and got sick of it pretty early into its streak as the longest running #1 in the history of the Alternative Songs chart. But it's catchy, no doubt about it.

The 10 Worst Rock/Alternative Radio Hits of 2017:
1. Dreamers "Sweet Disaster" 
2. Thirty Seconds To Mars "Walk On Water"  
3. Imagine Dragons "Believer"
4. Imagine Dragons "Thunder"
5. Weezer "Feels Like Summer"
6. Arcade Fire "Everything Now"
7. Theory Of A Deadman "Rx (Medicate)" 
8. Foo Fighters - "The Sky Is A Neighborhood"
9. Stone Temple Pilots - "Meadow"
10. Muse - "Dig Down" 
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