When Paramore released their first album, 2005’s All We Know is Falling, Hayley Williams was 16. Inspired by ’90s hardcore, the Nashville teenagers wrote earnest, emphatic emo, and quickly rode the wave of pop punk nostalgia that swept the 2000s. Across five albums, however, they went from Warped Tour stages to the Grammys, from a five-piece to a trio, and from pop punk to something undefinable.
How did we get here?
Paramore have always been more than the genre label thrust upon them. A zippy, energetic band with a fiery, earnest frontwoman drew them initial attention, but a darkness always lurked underneath the band’s singalong, Hot Topic-ready melodies.
Distrust of authorities and relationship drama colored the band’s early albums, released when its members were still in high school. As they aged, various members left, marriages formed and crumbled, and the darkness in Paramore’s lyrics grew more real.
By the time their most recent album, 2017’s After Laughter, rolled around, the era of “depression bops” was in full swing, and Williams’ newfound vulnerability regarding her own struggles with mental illness fit right in. In the last 16 years, we’ve watched Paramore rise, stumble, and experiment. Most importantly, we’ve watched them grow up.
In honor of Hayley Williams’ birthday — she turns 33 today (December 27th) — we’ve rounded up the songs that best exemplify this growth. Scroll to the end for a playlist of all 10 tracks.
The first song Williams wrote with Taylor York established the Paramore ethos right away. Inspired by emo like Thursday and alt-metal like Deftones, quiet, chiming guitar builds to chugging power chords in this suspicious All We Know is Falling track. “Please speak softly for they will hear us/ And they’ll find out why we don’t trust them,” Williams sings, looking over her shoulder.
Paramore’s had a tumultuous history, and the idea of finding lasting bonds through music became a central issue — especially as these bonds fractured. “Conspiracy” reveals Williams’ desire for kinship early on, as she asks, “When all security fails, will you be there to help me through?” Most importantly here, however, is Williams’ voice. With the belted “Tell me how I’ve lost my power” at song’s end, it becomes clear that the girl could sing, and she wouldn’t be confined to a nasally, pop punk whine or a hardcore scream. With this, “Conspiracy” laid the groundwork for Paramore’s success.
09. “Misery Business”
Paramore don’t play this song live anymore, with Williams citing its slut-shaming lyrics, written when she was 17. But a bop is a bop, and “Misery Business” became a hit for a reason. From its compressed horns and “Hit that, hit that snare!” opening to its signature staccato guitar riff, the song’s tale of finally getting the guy you want out from under his no-good ex is a perfect hit of pop punk bite and petty, adolescent snarl. “Second chances, they don’t ever matter, people never change,” Williams quips. Years later, it’s clear they do, but God, it just feels so good to sing that chorus.
08. “Ain’t it Fun”
“You’re not the big fish in the pond no more/ You are what they’re feeding on.” With that salty-sweet self-awareness, Paramore entered a new era. Concerns about the band’s future swirled for years when Josh and Zac Farro, the band’s founding guitarist and drummer, left the band in 2010, calling it “a manufactured product of a major label.”
But Paramore returned as a trio in 2013 with Paramore, a sprawling, 17-track album that saw them explore the worlds of pop, funk, new wave, and everything in between. With “Ain’t it Fun,” they take these changes in stride and deliver an impassioned anthem for growing up. “Ain’t it fun living in the real world? Ain’t it good being all alone?” Williams asks, as xylophone rings and funk bass thumps.
When a gospel choir takes the reins in the bridge, the transformation is complete; guess we should’ve known this band from Nashville had some soul in it.
07. “Rose-Colored Boy”
Paramore’s pop trajectory continued into 2017’s After Laughter, a glimmering new wave collection of depression bops. From the first notes of its “low-key, no pressure, just hang with me and my weather” opening chant, “Rose Colored Boy” initiated fans into the band’s new musical direction, and into Williams’ less-than-ideal headspace. “I just killed off what was left of the optimist in me,” she warbles, as syncopated guitar trills.
Bubbling synths make the song a contrarian anthem as the singer rejects her partner’s overbearing positivity. “I want you to stop insisting that I’m not a lost cause/ ‘Cause I’ve been through a lot,” Williams sings, unafraid of her darkness. “And really all I’ve got is just to stay pissed off/ If it’s alright by you.” With this, the skepticism always present in Paramore’s music comes to the fore, but with a synthpop instrumental, they evade maudlin melodrama in favor of singalong fun.
The soundtrack song to end all soundtrack songs. Catherine Hardwicke’s blue-tinted indie film Twilight kickstarted a cultural phenomenon, and Paramore’s contribution to its stellar soundtrack helped craft the vampy Pacific Northwest vibe that only the franchise’s first film perfected. Written from Bella Swan’s perspective, “Decode” revels in the uncertainty of a mysterious new love interest — particularly of the undead variety — with sweeping grandiosity.
From Williams’ belted “How did we get here?” refrain to the band’s head banging bridge, “Decode” goes all in with melodrama, just as Bella goes all in with the Cullen family. Williams sums up this angsty toxicity with the song’s closing line, which she sighs as the band pounds out a final breakdown: “There is something I see in you/ It might kill me, but I want it to be true.”
05. “That’s What You Get”
On the flip side of “Misery Business”‘ misguided anger was the punch-drunk love of “That’s What You Get,” the more wholesome summation of Paramore’s Riot!-era pop punk. Crashing guitar and stadium-size drum rolls fuel this 2007 single, as Williams kicks herself for letting her guard down. “Why do we like to hurt so much?” she asks, always one to cut her love songs with a little edge. Despite the pain, however, the infectious melody of “That’s What You Get” stands tall, a perfect snapshot of TRL-era rock.
Band infighting made Brand New Eyes Paramore’s most rocking album, and, with a crash, “Ignorance” entered as their heaviest song. Razor sharp guitar punctuates Zac Farro’s thundering drum rolls while Williams, once the peacemaker, finally blows up. “Don’t wanna hear your sad songs, I don’t wanna feel your pain/ When you swear it’s all my fault/ ‘Cause you know we’re not the same,” she spits, rapid-fire.
Backing vocals go off like sirens as she snaps, “Yeah, the friends who stuck together/ We wrote our names in blood/But I guess you can’t accept that the change is good.” Looking back, it’s probably for the best that Paramore’s founding members went their separate ways, but at least we got this song out of the drama.
03. “Playing God”
If you think about it, Brand New Eyes is sort of like Paramore’s Rumors — only exes Williams and Josh Farro were arguing over religion, not infidelity. Throughout the 2009 record, Williams attempts to keep the peace, but her snide remarks inevitably explode into unveiled indignation. With “Playing God,” then, a melancholy guitar lullaby explodes into a crunchy power pop chorus.
“I can’t make my own decisions or make any with precision/ Well, maybe you should tie me up so I don’t go where you don’t want me,” Williams sings — looking back, it’s not surprising that Farro would exit after this album cycle. Still, in a way, “Playing God” is one of Paramore’s prettiest songs, as it soundtracks the whole walking-on-eggshells vibe its members experienced at the time.
Just as its music crescendos, Williams’ diplomacy ultimately falters. “Next time you point a finger I might have to bend it back or break it, break it off,” she proclaims, once she’s lost her temper. “Next time you point a finger, I’ll point you to the mirror.”
02. “Still Into You”
Paramore’s clearest pop song — and out-and-out ode to Williams’ ex-husband, Chad Gilbert — bounces with a quirky guitar line and snaps with crowd-pleasing hand claps. To an off-kilter rhythm, the singer recounts first meeting her ex’s mother and the first time they said “I love you.”
Like “Ain’t it Fun,” Paramore single “Still Into You” signaled a change in direction for the band. But, like “Conspiracy” before it, when Williams belts out that final “Baby, not a day goes by that I’m not into you,” it serves as a reminder: Paramore has always been more than the pop punk least common denominator. And, hey: The change is good.