The 20 Best Rock/Alternative Hits of 2015

[Editor's note: This post remains one of the most visited posts on this site in 2020, 5 years after its publication, for reasons I do not understand -- I would love to hear from you about how you ended up here! Also, I recently posted a large The Top 100 Rock/Alternative Singles of the 2010s list.]

Commercial rock radio is an easy target for derision for most 'serious' music fans, who might've listened to it as a teenager but have largely moved on to more obscure and/or diverse musical interests. And while alt-rock radio still leans heavily on recurrent '90s hits, and will incessantly play any new song from the handful of big '90s bands still going, I have been impressed in the last few years by the number of new acts that have broken through. Even some bands I don't really like have made some killer singles. And things were really good in 2015 -- there was a week, in late May, where I liked every single song in the top 10 of Billboard's Alternative Songs chart. But then, this week, I don't like much of anything, so it's unpredictable like that. Imagine Dragons sophomore slumped faster than you can say Fairweather Johnson, but then we got X Ambassadors, who are practically the same band. That's the kind of year it was. Here's the lists I did in 2012, 2013, and 2014, and the Spotify playlist for this year's list. 

1. Walk The Moon - "Shut Up And Dance"
#1 Alternative Songs, # Mainstream Rock Songs, #1 Rock Airplay, #4 Hot 100
The Ohio quartet Walk The Moon had their first alt-rock radio hit, the pleasantly upbeat "Anna Sun," back in 2012, but I had no clue that they'd return with a monster crossover hit on their second album. And since I don't really care for the other alt-rock hits that crossed over to pop radio this year (X Ambassadors and Elle King), this was an easy favorite for me. In one sense, it's kind of an on-the-nose homage to the '80s that seemed to blow up in part by reminding us of a time when rock bands made Top 40 records, not unlike "Stacy's Mom" by Fountains Of Wayne. But I also just loved the energy and the arrangement of the song, and the way they took the "Hit Me With Your Best Shot" chords and altered them just enough to make it a song of its own. All the "I said"/"she said" dialogue stuff in the chorus is a little Deep Blue Something-esque, but it's still a killer hook. 

2. BØRNS - "Electric Love"
#15 Alternative Songs, #22 Rock Airplay
Given the name and the androgynous voice, when I first heard "Electric Love" I thought that BØRNS was probably, like, a Swedish woman. Turns out it's a guy from Michigan. This song is just gorgeous, though, I was disappointed that it didn't get bigger on alt-rock radio. But the other day, I heard a DJ on a pop station introduce the song as "new music," so I'm hopeful that it'll get a run at Top 40 radio in 2016. 

3. Robert DeLong - "Long Way Down"
#3 Alternative Songs, #9 Rock Airplay
Indie pop guys who start making music with synths and drum machines tend to make some limp wack beats, but this song really jams, lot of interesting textures and a real swing in the drums. 

4. AWOLNATION - "Hollow Moon (Bad Wolf)"
#1 Alternative Songs, #12 Mainstream Rock Songs, #4 Rock Airplay
AWOLNATION's 2011 debut single "Sail" is one of my favorite songs of the decade, and easily one of the weirdest songs to go 6 times platinum. The lead single from the band's long-awaited second album, "Hollow Moon," doesn't quite live up to that high standard, but it's still an intriguing fusion of synth pop and angsty rock that somehow works better than it should. The part where Aaron Bruno sings "I run away every couple years just to prove I've never been free," the beat drops out, and then things come charging back in with a scream of "THEY WILL NEVER FIND ME HERE!" is really one of my favorite moments on any song this year. 

5. Foo Fighters - "Congregation"
#5 Alternative Songs, #1 Mainstream Rock Songs, #1 Rock Airplay
It's easy to take Foo Fighters for granted as the most consistently ubiquitous band on rock radio for the last couple decades. But in my opinion they still manage at least one killer single off of every album, and this was the one for the admittedly lackluster Sonic Highways. I always love getting the chance to hear someone perform their current hit in concert, and "Congregation" sounded fantastic at the band's 20th anniversary concert over the summer. 

6. Mumford & Sons - "The Wolf"
#4 Alternative Songs, #17 Mainstream Rock Songs, #3 Rock Airplay
I like to imagine that in some pompous corner of Mumford & Sons' folkie revival, someone yelled "Judas!" when they plugged in and inevitably made a modern rock anthem with electric guitars. It sure as hell sounded better than their old timey songs, though. 

7. The Struts - "Could Have Been Me"
#5 Alternative Songs, #12 Mainstream Rock Songs, #4 Rock Airplay
U.S. rock radio has been full of U.K. acts the last few years, including over 1/3rd of this list. And most of them are popular at home, too, but The Struts seem to have little commercial profile in England, while this song blew up on American radio and got used in a trailer for a Bradley Cooper movie and shit. It's a really theatrical scenery-chewing anthem, but it works for me. 

8. Twenty One Pilots - "Tear In My Heart"
#2 Alternative Songs, #2 Rock Airplay, #82 Hot 100
Twenty One Pilots had a couple of minor hits a couple years ago, and in 2015 they kind of became a big deal, with a #1 album, an appearance at the VMA's, and two huge radio hits. There's some cringe-inducing rapping on a lot of their songs, including the hit "Stressed Out," but "Tear In My Heart" is a pretty charming piano pop song. 

9. Wolf Alice - "Moaning Lisa Smile"
#9 Alternative Songs, #19 Rock Airplay
Another British band, one that did get a lot of breathless hype from the typically hyperbolic British rock press, basically for sounding like Veruca Salt or something. A decade ago, the word "wolf" had a weird ubiquity in indie rock, and in 2015 it seemed to finally seep into mainstream rock, between this band, the AWOLNATION and Mumford & Sons songs on this list, and a handful of other minor hits (“Wolves” by Dreamers, “Big Bad Wolf” by In This Moment,” and “Rabbits Foot” by Turbowolf)

10. Bleachers - "Rollercoaster"
#3 Alternative Songs, #11 Rock Airplay
I was pleasantly surprised when a member of fun. spun off into Bleachers with one of my favorite alt-rock singles of 2014, "I Wanna Get Better," And their solid album Strange Desires notched another great single this year, as well as the interesting Terrible Thrills, Vol. 2 project, in which female vocalists sang the band's, and Charli XCX did a good job with "Rollercoaster. 

11. Royal Blood - "Figure It Out"
#10 Alternative Songs, #3 Mainstream Rock Songs, #5 Rock Airplay
"Figure It Out" is another great follow-up to one of 2014's more promising breakthroughs, Royal Blood's first American hit, "Out Of The Black." Bluesy hard rock duos with one drummer and one guitarist are kind of a thing now, but at least they don't really sound like the other well known bands with that kind of lineup. 

12. Nothing But Thieves - "Trip Switch"
#13 Alternative Songs, #40 Mainstream Rock Songs, #17 Rock Airplay
There have been countless Jeff Buckley wannabes in British rock over the last couple decades, but the singer in Nothing But Thieves really sounds more like Buckley, down to the tiniest vocal flourishes, than any of them. But musically, "Trip Switch" is doing something more unique and has really hooked me as my favorite song on the radio lately. 

13. Meg Myers - "Lemon Eyes"
#23 Alternative Songs, #42 Rock Airplay
Meg Myers released her major label debut Sorry this year, and has now had 3 minor radio hits and several entertainingly creepy videos. I feel like she still has the potential to be a pretty big deal, but right now she's just underrated and "Lemon Eyes" deserved to be much more of a hit than it was. 

14. Andrew McMahon In The Wilderness - "Cecilia And The Satellite"
#5 Alternative Songs, #4 Rock Airplay, #96 Hot 100
Since 2002, Andrew McMahon has been occasionally grazing the alt-rock charts with his bands Something Corporate and Jack's Mannequin. And this year, he finally got into heavy rotation with a bittersweet song that crossed over to pop radio (and, amusingly, seems to refer to Something Corporate as "a punk rock band"), By the way, my car died this week, and her name was Cecilia. She was named after Simon & Garfunkel's "Cecilia," but this song reminded me of her too.  

15. Catfish And The Bottlemen - "Kathleen"
#17 Alternative Songs, #21 Rock Airplay
Another British band with a stupid name and a stubbornly catchy single. See what I mean? There's just a ton of them lately. But wouldn't you rather I talk about some of these new bands instead of the so-so singles Muse released this year? 

16. Florence & The Machine - "What Kind of Man"
#8 Alternative Songs, #7 Rock Airplay, #88 Hot 100
I kind of figured that Florence & The Machine had kind of a trajectory that had them headed for more polished, mellow music, so I was surprised when the first thing they released from their 3rd album was this big, ominous, guitar-driven thing that really put Florence Welch's voice in an interesting new light. 

17. Zac Brown Band f/ Chris Cornell - "Heavy Is The Head"
#1 Mainstream Rock Songs, #11 Rock Airplay
Zac Brown's been dominating country radio since 2008, but he made a successful play for rock radio in 2015, first guesting on Foo Fighters' "Congregation," and then releasing a sing featuring another grunge icon. They're mostly doing a Soundgarden pastiche here, but it works about as well as anything off of Soundgarden's last album. 

18. Beck – “Dreams”
#2 Alternative Songs, #39 Mainstream Rock Songs, #3 Rock Airplay
In February, Beck's Morning Phase won the Grammy for Album of the Year. And a few months later, he released the Greg Kurstin-produced "Dreams," a single that seemed to vaguely promise that an upbeat radio-friendly album, his first in a long time, was on the way. Instead, no album came, and "Dreams" dominated radio anyway, and standalone singles are pretty rare in mainstream rock. 

19. Halestorm - "Amen"
#1 Mainstream Rock Songs, #19 Rock Airplay
An interesting thing in the last couple years is that hard rock radio seems more open to female-fronted bands than alt-rock radio -- Halestorm and The Pretty Wreckless have both notched multiple #1s on the Mainstream Rock chart with their latest albums, and there's really no equivalent on the Alternative chart. Jay Joyce, a producer who's all over my country countdowns every year and made his mainstream rock breakthrough a couple of years ago with Cage The Elephant, makes some of the best-sounding records with live instrumentation in any genre these days, and he made Halestorm sound fantastic on their third album Into The Wild Life

20. Saint Motel - "My Type"
#9 Alternative Songs, #11 Rock Airplay
A goofy horn-driven song by an L.A. indie pop band that never quite got big enough to lead them to release more than an EP this year, but it really grew on me over the course of 2015. 

The 10 Worst Rock/Alternative Hits of 2015: 
1. X Ambassadors - "Renegades"
2. Imagine Dragons - "I Bet My Life"
3. Elle King - "Ex's & Oh's"
4. Modest Mouse - "Lampshades On Fire"
5. Halsey - "New Americana"
6. Twenty One Pilots - "Stressed Out" 
7. George Ezra - "Budapest"
8. Theory Of A Deadman - "Angel" 
9. Shinedown - "Cut The Cord"
10. Breaking Benjamin - "Failure" 
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