It’s now been about 20 years since the start of the garage-rock revival, a halcyon period in which young men and women — mostly men — grabbed guitars and drums and made music that flaunted its primitive sound. Spearheaded by the Strokes (New York kids in love with the Velvet Underground) and the White Stripes (a Detroit duo whose frontman worshiped the blues), the movement was a reaction to nu-metal and rap-rock, pillaging the purity of rock’s past to distinguish itself from the faddish electronic rock that was all the rage. The music seemed so simple that anybody could do it, which was a huge part of its appeal.
A lot of bands rode the wave of those two groups’ success, some of them becoming big deals in their own right, some fading from view in a couple years. Two decades later, here’s a handy cheat sheet so you can differentiate between the Hives and the Vines — or Alison Mosshart and Karen O. So many of these groups loved rocking leather jackets — we’ll help you tell one from another.
Wait, Which One Were They? Sweden’s contribution to the garage-rock revival boasted a punk-ish swagger, happily declaring that most modern music sucked. “The state of music has always been crap,” Hives lead singer Howlin’ Pelle Almqvist said in 2002. “So we’ve learned that how popular we are has nothing to do with how good the music is.” On Veni Vidi Vicious, Almqvist sneered his way through short, snotty songs that were meant to sound like they only cost about 40 bucks to record. The Hives haven’t put out an album since 2012’s Lex Hives, but you gotta love a group that releases a compilation immodestly titled Your New Favourite Band.
What Song of Theirs Would I Remember? Outside of the White Stripes’ “Fell in Love With a Girl,” the Hives’ “Hate to Say I Told You So” probably had the best garage-rock guitar riff of the era. If the Ramones were a new band in the early aughts, they might have sounded like this.
Black Rebel Motorcycle Club
Wait, Which One Were They? Imagine the Jesus and Mary Chain joining a biker gang and flashing switchblades — that’s basically Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, who married hard rock, moody post-punk and some goth influences. You’d swear these guys were from the U.K., but they formed in San Francisco, evolving their sound over the years to make room for a more stripped-down rock vibe over time. As a result, BRMC escaped the garage-rock-revival niche that ultimately pigeonholed (and doomed) some of their compatriots. The band’s first three records were their biggest — especially in the U.K. — but they’ve developed enough of a fan base that they’re still going strong after 20 years.
What Song of Theirs Would I Remember? Off 2001’s B.R.M.C., “Spread Your Love” is all distorted guitars and groovy reverb, oozing attitude and sex appeal in equal measure.
The Von Bondies
Wait, Which One Were They? The Von Bondies were the “other” promising Detroit garage-rock band, but the White Stripes would soon eclipse them. (Jack White even produced their 2001 debut, Lack of Communication.) Led by frontman Jason Stollsteimer, the group offered raw, bruising songs that were thick with melodramatic fervor. Unfortunately, the Von Bondies (who broke up in 2011) will probably always best be remembered for the fact that Stollsteimer got into a bar fight with White in 2003, a violent escalation of the simmering tensions between the two musicians. Stollsteimer received a bloody nose and a bruised eye, and White had to go into anger management. “The two of us did have an argument, and I did spit at him,” White later said. “But what he doesn’t say is how he then grabbed me to pull me down and pulled out a good deal of my hair. My retaliation was to hit him to get him off of me.”
What Song of Theirs Would I Remember? “C’mon C’mon,” off 2004’s Pawn Shoppe Heart, was as close as the Von Bondies got to a hit — it’s a pretty standard rocker.
Wait, Which One Were They? This U.K. group featured the most notorious figure of the garage-rock revival, Pete Doherty, who alongside bandmate Carl Barât served as the Lennon-McCartney (or was it Jagger-Richards?) of the early 21st century. A decade earlier, Britpop had dominated the country, but the Libertines were more into punk, giving their angry songs a Clash-like intensity. (It no doubt helped that Clash co-founder Mick Jones was their producer.) Sadly, Doherty’s drug problems often threatened to overshadow the band’s acclaimed albums, and after their second record, 2004’s The Libertines, their short, explosive run was over. (They reunited in 2015 for Anthems for Doomed Youth.)
What Song of Theirs Would I Remember? Once described by the band as “a song about the rough seas you sometimes have to weather with the people you love,” “Can’t Stand Me Now” was widely seen as Doherty and Barât’s acknowledgment of their rocky relationship. Catchy and bittersweet, this was a big hit in the U.K. — and an indication that the Libertines were on their last legs.
Wait, Which One Were They? Where other bands of the era pledged allegiance to garage or post-punk, the Vines were deeply enamored with Nirvana’s buzzy guitars. (Frontman Craig Nicholls could even scream like Kurt Cobain.) This Australian trio got a ton of attention thanks to their 2002 debut, Highly Evolved, which featured soft-verse/loud-chorus standouts, making them momentarily seem like the next big thing. “Our next album will be a hundred times better,” Nicholls bragged around that time, later declaring, “I wanna go in and do hundreds and hundreds of tracks — violins and cellos and everything.”
But the follow-up albums failed to impress, and Nicholls began dealing with the effects of Asperger’s, which hampered his career. “I have been out of my mind a couple of times in my life,” he said in 2014. “To me, that’s just what I’m like. When I was younger, it seemed cool to be crazy. I’m not trying to be crazy now. I’m trying to be normal. What’s important to me is my family and making the albums.”
What Song of Theirs Would I Remember? “Get Free” channeled grunge and the sound of mainstream alt-rock of the 1990s. However, it’s not nearly as memorable as the music from the bands that influenced the Vines.
Wait, Which One Were They? Hailing from Melbourne, this quartet specialized in rowdy, catchy songs that bristled with teenage energy. “I was between the ages of 17 and 19 when I was writing most of that stuff,” frontman Nic Cester said recently. “Obviously I didn’t know too much beyond the small town I was living in at the time, and the little things that were happening in my life, like my parents’ divorce and trying unsuccessfully to shag as many girls as possible! All of the usual stuff, I guess. The thing that really stands out when I look back at that time is how young I was.”
Their 2003 debut Get Born was full of leather-jacket attitude and, like Cester suggested, rock songs about trying to get laid. (Sometimes, they did ballads, like the piano-driven “Look What You’ve Done,” but those were also about getting laid.) It was clear these guys listened to a ton of Beatles and Stones, with a little AC/DC added for seasoning.
What Song of Theirs Would I Remember? “Are You Gonna Be My Girl” was a hit on alt-rock radio, but its visibility really shot up after it was featured in one of those colorful iTunes ads that were big back then.
Yeah Yeah Yeahs
Wait, Which One Were They? Karen O was one of the few female vocalists in what was a very male-centric rock revival, and she proudly parodied rock-god posturing on stage. On their 2003 breakthrough Fever to Tell, Yeah Yeah Yeahs balanced a pop sensibility with punk swagger, as if they were trying to see how much abrasiveness you could stick in a sing-along song. “That’s been our M.O. since the beginning,” Karen O said in 2002. “It’s putting those hooks in places you wouldn’t expect, pairing very discordant and very catchy stuff.”
The band moved out of the garage with 2009’s It’s Blitz!, which sported a more danceable, New Wave-y sound, and Karen O has further branched out by collaborating with everyone from filmmaker Spike Jonze to eclectic hip-hop producer Danger Mouse.
What Song of Theirs Would I Remember? “Maps” starts off with anxious guitar strumming before the big drums kick in, followed by Karen O’s urgent vocals to a lover. In case you don’t recognize that song title, you’ll know it from its unofficial name, “Wait, They Don’t Love You Like I Love You,” which is what she sings again and again on the chorus.
Wait, Which One Were They? Kills singer Alison Mosshart would later team up with Jack White in the Dead Weather, which isn’t surprising since they share an affinity for stripped-down, ragged rock. Whether other bands of the garage-rock revival were moody or tough, the Kills were straight-up terrifying, delivering angry anthems like “Fuck the People” and “I Hate the Way You Love.” “[Kills bandmate] Jamie [Hince] and I talked a long time before we actually wrote any music,” Mosshart said of the Kills’ early days. “We had this whole mentality more than an idea, but we talked about what we loved. We wanted it to be about life, and art, and music. We spent a long time getting to know each other before we got to go into a studio, and so, it does feel like it’s a lot more than the band.” Often, the Kills sound like they’re a badass gang you wouldn’t want to mess with.
What Song of Theirs Would I Remember? In recent years, the Kills have made some commercial inroads, but 2005’s “No Wow” is the band at their snarling best. The song starts out all quiet and tense, but eventually the fireworks come out.
Wait, Which One Were They? Much like Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, this Danish duo paraded its leather-jackets-and-Harley attitude, making loud, heavy, dreamy rock songs that were simple but hypnotic. Sune Rose Wagner and Sharin Foo’s interwoven vocals had the innocence of early rock ‘n’ roll, and the band’s name is an homage to Buddy Holly’s hit “Rave On.” (“I remember when Sune [first reached out to me about forming a band], we specifically talked about the Everly Brothers as an inspiration for the vocals,” Foo said in 2012. “And right away, our voices sort of blended really well. It was a very natural sound that we created.”) But that backward-looking approach is smartly juxtaposed with clattering guitars that cut through the music’s romantic sweetness.
What Song of Theirs Would I Remember? On 2005’s Pretty in Black, which included a cover of the 1963 smash “My Boyfriend’s Back,” the Raveonettes unleashed “Love in a Trashcan,” with its killer surf-guitar riff. It’s playfully nostalgic but also insanely catchy.
Wait, Which One Were They? Where other bands tried to bring their own spin to garage rock, this New York quintet were refreshingly straightforward, producing good ol’ fashioned rock songs full of tight rhythms and Hamilton Leithauser’s raw vocals. The Walkmen appeared on The O.C., and they landed a song in a Saturn commercial, which they debated doing. (“It’s not something we’re particularly proud of,” Leithauser said in 2004, “but you gotta do what you gotta do. It paid our rent while we were recording this record.”) Still, they never found the same success as other groups that were part of this scene, and in 2013, the band went on permanent hiatus. “It’s been almost 14 years now,” bassist Peter Bauer said at the time. “I think that’s enough, you know?”
What Song of Theirs Would I Remember? “The Rat” chronicles an on-again/off-again relationship with frenetic guitars as Leithauser shrieks, “You’ve got a nerve to be asking a favor / You’ve got a nerve to be calling my number.”
The Black Keys
Wait, Which One Were They? You know who the Black Keys are. But long before their mainstream success with 2010’s Brothers, they were a prototypical blues-rock duo that was very much part of the early-2000s garage revival. On records like The Big Come Up and Thickfreakness, there’s no pop polish: just loud, distorted guitars and Dan Auerbach’s hoarse vocals. Covering heroes like Junior Kimbrough, the Black Keys in those initial days felt a million miles removed from the platinum-selling likes of the White Stripes and the Strokes. “We’re not really friends with a whole group of musicians,” Auerbach said in 2005 about the group’s off-the-beaten-path Akron roots. “There’s not like a giant scene that we’re part of, it’s just a do-it-yourself kinda thing here. … It’s better to be isolated. You come up with something on your own.” Eventually, they’d be embraced by radio when they went for a more accessible sound.
What Song of Theirs Would I Remember? Let’s skip all their later hits and focus on 2003’s “Set You Free,” which was featured in School of Rock. This might be the apex of the bluesy, no-bullshit aesthetic that dominated their first records before the major labels came a-courtin’.