There was a brief time in the early 2010s where a band like AWOLNATION was possible. Led by Aaron Bruno, the California group was propelled into national attention with the backing of rock radio stations and the viral nature of their biggest song, “Sail.” While plenty of bands who made indie rock-adjacent music crossed over onto the Hot 100 in the early 2010s, there wasn’t anything like “Sail,” a downtrodden, orchestral electro-rock tune that was about struggling with mental health. With an ideally memable chorus that consisted of Bruno’s ragged voice yelling the song’s title, “Sail” carried an inherent bigness in style and a strange twee quality. It was precocious and unsettling, like a cute kid in a horror movie.
AWOLNATION came and went in most people’s consciousnesses. Aside from “Sail,” two other songs from their debut album, Megalithic Symphony, had minor success on rock radio. The band pushed forward to Run, Here Come the Runts, and Angel Miners & the Lightning Riders, a series of albums that saw the band doing what they do best—chunky rock instrumentation, strange synth tones, and Bruno’s odd combination of singing techniques—to varying levels of success. In the past months, it’s been clear that AWOLNATION is leading up to announcing their fifth album. So far, we’ve gotten singles like “Freaking Me Out,” which takes a tight groove and wastes it on one of their worst choruses (“You give me the heebie-jeebies”), and “We Are All Insane” which is less promising.
Late last year, I saw AWOLNATION in concert. In the days leading up to the show, I used it as a punchline for what I was doing with my Saturday night. There is something profoundly uncool about AWOLNATION and the whole collection of bands that bridged the line between car-commercial rock, AltNation-core, and pop radio in the last decade. But hidden somewhere between Bruno’s breathy falsetto and garish production choices, AWOLNATION is a project with truly killer pop songwriting instincts. The ambition behind songs like “Burn It Down” or “I Am” is often earnest and fun enough to sell the band’s goofiest ideas. Most surprisingly, they’re a credible live act, bringing classic-rock-sized energy and audience engagement to their shows.
Because Bruno thinks the next AWOLNATION record may be their last, let’s look at the best songs from their career so far and why they might be the most interesting group that you laughed off a decade ago.
10. “Jealous Buffoon”
On “Jealous Buffoon,” one of the standouts of AWOLNATION’s third album, Here Come the Runts, Bruno and co. manages to do the impossible by making a funky AWOLNATION song. Limiting himself to a few core thoughts, Bruno sings engagingly about desire and discontent, while still managing to undercut himself (“You can tell I’m the only elephant in the room”). While his narrator might come across as overbearing, Bruno takes time to make sure the audience knows that he’s no more than a dunce—just see the song’s title. With the laid-back guitar solo that manages to invoke country and the heavyweight drumbeat holding it all together, “Jealous Buffoon” easily finds its groove and sticks with it until the song’s ending.
9. “Not Your Fault”
If AWOLNATION was ever going to have a follow-up hit to “Sail,” it was going to be this. As the second single from Megalithic Symphony, “Not Your Fault” takes gaudy keyboards and ridiculous lines—”She was built with some brains and some swagger” has to be among Bruno’s worst—and carries that momentum into a thrashing, emo-adjacent chorus. Bruno’s belting, cracking vocals are what makes the song, but the sheer anthemic quality of the hey’s and na-na-na’s found throughout turn it into a monument to the pop-punk that influenced him. As he sings “Oh, it’s not that you should care / I just wanted you to know” for the last time, Bruno is surprisingly affecting. It’s the sort of moment that keeps “Not Your Fault” among AWOLNATION’s most memorable tunes.
As the title track for AWOLNATION’s sophomore album, “Run” could act as an easy introduction to the band’s favorite tendencies in songwriting. The clearest example is the nursery-rhyme simplicity of the verses, where Bruno sings “I am a human being capable of doing terrible things” on loop over the tentative combination of violins and a synths-bass. With a healthy sense of impending doom, the song starts building with eerie electric guitars and downright creepy background vocals. But the song’s hook is why “Run” is AWOLNATION’s most famous song aside from “Sail”: after that build up, Bruno coldly says the song’s title and tension gives way to a silly, crunchy guitar breakdown. Perfect for meme fodder, “Run” became known for its use in many Vines—clear proof that there’s something deeply capturing about the song’s looming atmosphere.
7. “All I Need”
As AWOLNATION’s first real ballad, “All I Need” has several purposes. It’s the first AWOLNATION song where their sonic and thematic darkness melts away. One of the few songs in their discography where Aaron Bruno’s disappointments and hardships are fixed because of the power of love. It’s the big kumbaya moment for Megalithic Symphony. But the clap-and-sing-along-simplicity is elevated by the inclusion of a choir, which conjures comparisons to The Rolling Stones’ “You Can’t Always Get What You Want.” Bruno’s not thinking about anything particularly unique—”All I need is life, love, with you” is how each chorus ends—but the thumping drum programming and soulful bass work turns the song into one of AWOLNATION’s most moving.
“Ah man, I can’t believe this is happening.” It’s a line that takes up the majority of the bridge of “Windows,” a perfect AWOLNATION Frankenstein of a song. For much of the verses, a rubbery, tech house synth backs Bruno’s shouted, paranoid lyrics, but for each chorus, the song opens up into breathy, Brian Wilson-esque harmonies, triumphant string hits, and big piano chords. Bruno, as always, is writing in big, general statements and allowing the instrumentation to fill in the blanks, but with “Windows,” the final chorus manages to seal the deal. The half-hopeful, half-paranoid resolve is fascinating: “I’m aware and I don’t care” is how Bruno leaves us, his shouting rising with the intensifying instrumentation.
5. “Table For One”
A deep cut from Here Come the Runts, “Table For One” opens unassumingly with reverb-heavy guitar melodies and plodding drums. Not 20 seconds in, you realize that this is Bruno in singer/songwriter mode. Out of nowhere, the song is saved by Bruno’s desperate, wonderful declaration that starts the chorus: “But I don’t want you to leave,” he shouts. His strong vocals coincide with distorted guitar chords and a grounding, colossal drum beat. All of these add up to seal the song’s fate as an excellent power ballad. The band thankfully doesn’t skimp on the power here, either, making each chorus feel as giant and melancholic as Bruno’s solid, anecdotal lyrics deserve.
4. “Kill Your Heroes”
From the Mr. Rogers-inspired music video to the song’s verses that vamp on a C-major chord, “Kill Your Heroes” is the deceptively upbeat third single from Megalithic Symphony. Eager to contradict the song’s cheerful nature, Bruno starts us off by singing “Well, I met an old man dying on a train/no more destination no more pain.” There’s a sickly, gripping dissonance between the song’s comfortable, behemoth pop instincts—the snare drums in this song sound truly too big to fail—and Bruno’s ill-fated self-help mantras. “Kill Your Heroes” is also an example of one of Bruno’s best choruses, where different lines are emphasized with harmonies at random times. It pays off during the song’s ending where his singing gets progressively more impassioned with each sentence.
3. “Knights of Shame”
Before I saw AWOLNATION live, I was unfamiliar with “Knights of Shame,” the band’s 15-minute opus that includes a tense pop opening, incisive synthbass, apocalyptic lyrics, a rap verse from CurT@!n$, and a barn-burning ending that comes across as AWOLNATION’s ambitious classic-rock statement. Thankfully, “Knights of Shame” is consistently fascinating or catchy. In fact, it often sounds as if Bruno had a dozen or so good ideas and lined them up with a confusing, incredible conviction. While the rap verse is befuddling (“Just party like it’s 1999/You know what Prince said/Girl, you my princess”), Bruno and co. stick the landing with the luck and confidence of a tightrope walker in a circus. “We’re waiting on a heartbeat/Is anybody listening?,” wails Bruno after a combined tempo-and-key-change, putting his entire heart and soul into a closing plea for Megalithic Symphony.
Throughout AWOLNATION career, unnerving violins, Bruno’s jagged and cutting vocals, and vague lyrics about paranoia have become commonplace. But if you’ve heard of AWOLNATION, then you heard it all first in “Sail,” the band’s masterful sleeper hit. In many ways, it’s a perfect one-hit-wonder song—catchy in a visceral sense, has an inkling of novelty to it, and manages to have an underlying greatness that comes through in the details. There’s also an instinctive creepiness to it that makes the song’s chart success even more confusing (or possibly inevitable); If “Sail” were to appear in a trailer for a horror movie, it would be too on the nose. Whether it’s the music-box-like piano melody that appears during the bridge, the stomp-clap drum machine, or the drum break after Bruno sings “Maybe I should kill myself,” “Sail” is chock-full of small characteristics that cohere into one of the more iconic hits of the 2010s.
1. “Hollow Moon (Bad Wolf)”
But ultimately, it wouldn’t feel right for “Sail” to be number one, as AWOLNATION is more than just their biggest song. Often, they’re a compelling swirl of genres, all awkwardly unified under Aaron Bruno’s reins. Sometimes, they just know how to write rock songs that sound cool. “Hollow Moon (Bad Wolf),” the lead single from 2015’s Run, is a stadium-sized rock classic that neutralizes Bruno’s weirdest tendencies and shapes them into a masterpiece. Buzzy synths cohere with electric guitars throughout the song, creating a wall of electro-rock sound that Phill Spector would be jealous of. We’re left with Bruno’s screaming “They will never find me here” and a halftime chorus that brings the house down. It is not AWOLNATION’s most famous song, but “Hollow Moon (Bad Wolf)” captures all of their strengths in one package. Best of all is the song’s hardest hitting line, which also might be the song’s silliest—an oxymoron that encapsulates what makes AWOLNATION so great: “Motherfucker, I’ll be back from the dead soon/I’ll be watching from the center of the hollow moon.”