10 songs from the 2021 pop punk revival you need to know
From hitmakers like Machine Gun Kelly and Olivia Rodrigo to comparatively under-the-radar bands, pop punk is having a big moment right now. This edition of 'In Defense of the Genre' looks at 10 of the best recent songs that pop punk has to offer.
Pop punk has never gone away, but it's in the air right now and it's more popular than it's been in a very long time. You can really argue that pop punk has existed as long as punk itself, as pioneering punk bands like the Ramones and the Buzzcocks were writing songs with pop melodies since day one, but I would say pop punk as we know it began to take shape in the 1980s with bands like Descendents and Bad Religion, exploded in the mid '90s with bands like Green Day, The Offspring, Rancid, and NOFX, exploded even more at the turn of the millennium with blink-182 and the bands who blew up in their wake like Sum 41 and New Found Glory, and hit one last commercial peak in the mid 2000s with bands like Fall Out Boy, Paramore, and All Time Low. As pop punk receded from the mainstream in the late 2000s, it became an underground phenomenon thanks to defenders like The Wonder Years, The Story So Far, and Man Overboard.
Even as pop punk became a thing of the past to the general public, the genre lived on as an influence on many of the past decade's critically acclaimed indie rock bands, and it began re-entering the mainstream in the late 2010s as hip hop, pop, and electronic artists began interacting with it, and subgenres like emo-rap and hyperpop gained steam. It's no exaggeration to say that we wouldn't be talking about a mainstream pop punk revival today without the influence of emo-rap trailblazers like Lil Peep and Juice WRLD, both of whom had their lives tragically cut short at 21 years old. Hip hop and pop punk had interacted before -- Travis Barker's rap album, Fall Out Boy's song with Lil Wayne, the entire existence of Gym Class Heroes -- but now-iconic songs like Peep's "Witchblades" and Juice WRLD's "Lucid Dreams" blurred these genre lines more effectively than their forebears, and they did so with a fresh perspective that appealed to a generation who only experienced Enema of the State as a historical document.
In the past year or so, pop punk's presence in the mainstream has gone from a lingering influence to a full-blown revival. It's been aided not just by the new genre-fluid versions of pop punk, but also by TikTok, where nostalgic millennials and music-hungry Gen Z-ers can all agree that "Dear Maria, Count Me In" slaps. There's been a rapidly-growing number of breakout songs, including one that topped the Billboard Hot 100, and there's also been an exciting new wave of comparatively underground pop punk bands. Some of those bands may not remain underground for long, especially if the increased attention on the genre creates a demand for small punk bands to take the mainstream leap like it once did.
With the pop punk revival in full effect, I've picked 10 songs from the past year or so that prove the genre is alive and well. Some of these you've probably heard just from walking out your front door or opening TikTok, and others are a little more under the radar. Regardless of the differences in popularity, they're all equally worth hearing. Read on for the list (in no particular order) and let us know your favorite new pop punk songs in the comments...
Pinkshift - "Rainwalk"
As we said when we profiled them last year, Baltimore's Pinkshift sound like a cross between Three Cheers for Sweet Revenge-era My Chemical Romance and Riot!-era Paramore, but with a modern indie-punk production style and a unique outlook that makes them much more than a product of their influences. They were already quickly rising in 2020, and that's escalated ever since the release of their 2021 debut EP Saccharine. The whole EP is a great, brief listen, and the revved-up "Rainwalk" is a major highlight.
Meet Me @ The Altar - "Hit Like A Girl"
Back in 2008, New Found Glory helped popularize the term "easycore" with The Easycore Tour that featured likeminded pop-chuggers like A Day To Remember and Four Year Strong. (If you're unfamiliar, "easycore" is basically pop punk with chugga-chugga parts.) That sound kinda disappeared after a while, but Meet Me @ The Altar's new Fueled by Ramen-released single "Hit Like A Girl" makes it feel really exciting again. They sound as heavy-yet-saccharine as NFG did on Catalyst, and -- as you may have guessed from the song title -- they're also singing about topics with a little more weight to them than "girls don't like me." It's uplifting, inspiring, and it rips.
Update (6/16): the day after we published this list, MM@TA announced a new EP.
Olivia Rodrigo - "good 4 u"
Olivia Rodrigo isn't a pop punk artist, but her debut LP SOUR embraces the genre on "brutal" and even more so on "good 4 u," the first pop punk song to debut atop the Billboard Hot 100 in a long time. It doesn't always work out that the most popular songs are also the best, but that's exactly what happened with "good 4 u." Not only is it a chart-topper, it's also got the single most undeniable pop punk chorus I've heard in 2021. It's in my head constantly, and every time I hear it I picture a festival-sized crowd jumping up and down and yelling every word. It's as attitude-driven, explosive, and shamelessly catchy as all the best pop punk hits of yesteryear. When it comes to this kind of music, "good 4 u" does everything right.
Machine Gun Kelly - "my ex's best friend" (ft. blackbear)
One of the major players in the current pop punk revival was also a pioneer of the genre's Y2K era, Travis Barker. As both a producer and a drummer, Travis has been helping a slew of modern artists fuse pop punk with hip hop, pop, and/or electronic music, and his recent collaborations have been a lot more exciting and innovative than the ones on Give the Drummer Some. Travis will appear a few more times on this list, but first up is the song that really kicked the 2020s mainstream pop punk revival into high gear, Machine Gun Kelly's "my ex's best friend." MGK, who began his career as a rapper, went full pop punk on his Travis Barker-produced 2020 album Tickets to My Downfall, which, among other things, includes an interpolation of Operation Ivy's "Knowledge" on the Trippie Redd-featuring "All I Know," as well as a Paramore cover and an appearance by The Used frontman Bert McCracken on the deluxe edition. He wasn't a very likable rapper, and I was fully ready to hate his pop punk phase too, but, as hard as I've tried, I have not been able to deny this album, especially its big hit "my ex's best friend." On the surface, it's a straightforward pop punk song about a girl that Travis Barker's main band has released way better versions of, but there's also something about it, something that feels new and different and keeps you coming back for more. Maybe it's replacing Travis' usually-manic drumming with electronic trap beats, maybe it's MGK's flat, apathetic singing style. But whatever it is, I have given in.
Action/Adventure - "Barricades"
Action/Adventure's razor-sharp, Pure Noise-released EP Pulling Focus joins the lineage of hardcore-informed pop punk that blew up in the Drive-Thru Records era and lived on with The Wonder Years and their ilk, and it's one of the best records of its kind that I've heard in years. The whole thing is worth listening to, but a clear standout is opening track "Barricades." It's only 59 seconds long, and it achieves more in that time than songs three times its length. The band said that, while writing the song, they asked themselves "How can we represent what our band stands for both lyrically and instrumentally in under 60 seconds?," and "Barricades" just does that. In it, the band -- made up of five BIPOC members -- ask "Would you listen if we looked any different?", challenging the stereotype that pop punk is a "white" genre of music and writing some of the best pop punk in recent memory in the process.
KennyHoopla & Travis Barker - "inside of heaven's mouth, there is a sweet tooth//"
Machine Gun Kelly's upcoming tour is being opened by two other Travis Barker collaborators, jxdn and KennyHoopla, the latter of whom just released an entire collaborative mixtape with Travis, Survivor's Guilt. Unlike Machine Gun Kelly, Kenny does have Travis go absolutely nuts behind the kit, and the nuttiest song on this tape is "inside of heaven's mouth, there is a sweet tooth//." If you want a more straight-up pop punk song, try "hollywood sucks//," "estella//," or "smoke break//," but the less generic "inside of heaven's mouth, there is a sweet tooth//" makes it clear that Kenny is much more than a blink-182 acolyte. It starts out as accessible emo-pop, before Kenny goes into full 2000s screamo/metalcore mode and Travis matches the intensity of Kenny's screams with truly explosive drumming. It's been a while since pop punk had a moment like this, and it’s been even longer since screamy songs like “inside of heaven’s mouth” were part of the pop mainstream
WILLOW - "t r a n s p a r e n t s o u l" (ft. Travis Barker)
One last Travis Barker-aided song for this list (and definitely not least): Willow Smith (who now just goes by WILLOW) tapped the blink-182 member to co-write and drum on her latest single, "t r a n s p a r e n t s o u l." The influence of the blink era and the Fueled by Ramen era is undeniable, but Willow really makes it her own and she's got the soaring, sneering voice needed to drive a song like this home. Willow and producer/partner Tyler Cole already showed off a punky side on their 2020 album as The Anxiety, but the melodies, lyrics, attitude, and cleaner production take "t r a n s p a r e n t s o u l" to another level, and it doesn't hurt that she's backed by the best drummer in pop punk.
Glacier Veins - "Feel Better Now"
I named Glacier Veins' 2020 Common Ground/Equal Vision-released debut album The World You Want to See one of the best punk albums of 2020, and it's been around a little longer than the other songs on this list, but if you're into the new wave of pop punk and you haven't given it a listen yet you should definitely change that. The most immediate song is "Feel Better Now," which puts a dreamy, atmospheric spin on the kinds of anthems that dominated Fuse countdowns in 2005. Malia Endres' powerhouse pipes rival any of Fueled by Ramen's heaviest mid 2000s hitters, and the hook gets stuck in your head on first listen and stays there permanently.
Doll Skin - "Control Freak"
Phoenix's Doll Skin signed to legendary pop punk label Hopeless Records for their 2019 album Love Is Dead and We Killed Her, and since then they've downsized to a duo and written a song that they call "just a little darker, warmer" than their earlier music. Darker and warmer aren't always shifts that happen at the same time, but it's the perfect way to describe "Control Freak" compared to Love Is Dead. It's a little more haunting and biting, but it's also bigger, cleaner, and more welcoming. It sounds like pure mid 2000s style pop punk, and it's one of the best songs of its kind in 2021 too.
Closure - "Sink"
The Sydney, Australia pop punk scene is really exploding right now with bands like Stand Atlantic and Yours Truly, both of which are worth checking out if you haven't already, but I wanted to highlight a slightly more under-the-radar Sydney band, Closure. Setting aside the fact that at least three other notable bands have the same name, Closure really stand out from the current pop punk pack with a sound that owes as much to the popular 2000s pop punk bands as it does to pop punk-adjacent 2010s emo bands like Balance & Composure. (And there's a nice little easycore breakdown in "Sink" too.) Similar to Glacier Veins, Closure are a little more modern and indie-friendly than the Olivia Rodrigos and Machine Gun Kellys of the world, but Lucy May's ability to sing for the people in the cheap seats gives them just as much potential star power.
Listen below or subscribe to a playlist of all 10 songs:
Read past and future editions of 'In Defense of the Genre' here.
top photo: Pinkshift (photo by Leigh Ann Rodgers), Willow (photo by Dana Trippe), KennyHoopla & Travis Barker (photo by Brittany Young)