Never underestimate the power of a scream. Nashville singer/songwriter and guitarist Alicia Bognanno has a distinct scream, and she’s used it over the course of three albums for her band Bully. Her raspy roar is frequently likened to Kurt Cobain’s, but there’s something special about it that separates her from the Nirvana frontman. Her off-the-cuff delivery lacks clear enunciation, and it makes nearly every line sound like a pouty snarl. Even when she isn’t utilizing the most powerful, gravelly aspects of her voice, she sounds incredibly passionate. But when she does decide to go for the kill, her yell resonates like few others—it’s the kind that makes you want to launch yourself into a mosh pit and scream along until you’re covered in sweat and your voice is shot. Her serrated reverberations aren’t deranged or grating, but rather, she commands a melodic, rough-throated voice very skillfully, resulting in maximal exhilaration.
The band’s alt-rock journey began with their 2014 self-titled debut EP, which contained slightly poppier versions of songs from their eventual debut, 2015’s Feels Like. It was a scrappy debut full-length with spring-loaded, ’90s-indebted grunge tunes, and it propelled them to cult status. Next came 2017’s Losing, when they signed to Sub Pop (bringing them even closer to their sonic forebears) and mustered a collection of songs even more ferocious and vulnerable. This Friday (Aug. 21), Bully are sharing their third album SUGAREGG and second for the classic Seattle rock label. Bognanno teamed up with renowned producer John Congleton this time around, and it’s her best record yet—picture more dynamic song structures and some of their snappiest hooks to date alongside Bognanno’s unrelenting, intoxicating vocals. To bask in the glow of one of today’s best rock bands, we’re sharing 10 of our all-time favorite Bully songs, which include a generous amount of SUGAREGG tracks.
Bully are known for barreling rock songs, but their downtempo tunes are by no means side dishes or throwaways. This Losing track shows off their more subtle melodies, and its particularly slow, confident groove is an amusing juxtaposition between the scattered emotions in the lyrics. “On the weekends / I’ve been taking it easy / No, I swear it’s my choice / I got a ton of things to keep me busy / And the truth is / That unproductivity haunts me,” Bognanno sings.
“Milkman” is possibly Bully’s most full-on indie-pop song so far. Its peppy hook is so wonderfully succulent, and though it might be slightly too brisk to hum, you’ll find yourself miming the words or headbanging along instead. It also joins a great lineage of milk-related tunes, alongside Dr. Feelgood’s “Milk and Alcohol,” Garbage’s “Milk” and Blur’s “Coffee and TV.” Plus, what other song climaxes with the line, “I used to be a shark”?
Bully choruses almost always cut deep. The throaty roars in the “Running” refrain are so powerful they should almost come with a warning for listeners who want to attempt the part themselves. Couple that stony vocal forcefulness with the vulnerability of the lines, and you’ve got something so incredibly resonant it’s impossible to deny: “You say I’m running / But I don’t care / I’ll admit it / I get anxious too.”
I don’t envy Bognanno or Sub Pop for having to choose the singles for the new Bully album SUGAREGG because there isn’t a bad song on here. Although “Stuck in Your Head” wasn’t a promo single, it’s one of the punchiest songs on the record. Bognanno exudes complete reckless abandon as she sings about ugly realities: paralyzing shame and disconnect and the times we put on a happy face to mask our burning insecurities. It’s a bear-all-scars type of song, something Bognanno continually delivers on.
“Either Way” rips so hard because it captures the painful, temporary nature of love that makes one want to scream anyway, regardless of whether those screams are backed by earth-shattering punk. In the first verse, Bognanno lays awake envisioning tragedy (“I stayed up last night, I was tearin’ up in bed / Thought of your death was overwhelming / I could’ve talked but I just rolled over instead”), but the feisty chorus affirms that she’s willing to accept everything that comes with love, even the adversity (“Even if you can’t stay / I want you either way”).
For many Bully fans, the highlight of Feels Like is “Trying.” It may be a mid-tempo tune, but it harnesses just as much angst and vigor as their more breakneck songs. The chorus is perfect for the leisurely, unified bounce of a crowd. Here, Bognanno also highlights the dynamism of her voice—the first few chorus lines (“I’m trying, I am”) read like an alluring, classic indie-pop song, but the further she goes, she breaks out her sawtoothed punk vocals.
“Let You” has one of the best choruses in any Bully song—the melodies are simple but Bognanno pumps them with so much life. Her vocal delivery is filled with playful swagger, but the lyrics reveal an earnest compassion: “But why would I have called you if I didn’t want to / Stumbled through your door because you know I want to / Argued you to bed I couldn’t help I had to / Question what you said I wanna understand you.” The empathy that Bognanno brings to her already catchy rock songs makes Bully a next-level band.
Track one of album one has both a ramshackle side and a nimble one. Bognanno comes wailing right out of the gate, but the accompanying indie rock guitar hook grounds her rough tone in a really satisfying way. Hearing Bognanno scream about memories of “getting too fucked up,” “a box of letters” and “the way your sheets smelt” over bouncy guitars is a powerful energy source, best witnessed at a Bully live show.
“Come Down” is the mid-tempo, mid-album slow burn of SUGAREGG, and it has a subtle yet intense payoff. There’s no definitive moment of explosion, but Bognanno wrings so much emotion out of this song that the whole thing feels like an eruption. “I hate to hurt you but I had to / I peel my skin off, hit the ground,” she sings of a painful, isolating breakup. “I was just so frustrated writing that song,” Bognanno told Spin. “I remember I was just on the floor in my music room, just wanting to pull my hair out of my head. I just felt like I was burning inside.”
“Where to Start” is the perfect collision of Bully’s pop and grunge tendencies. It opens with rollicking guitar lines and a couple of Jonny Pierce-esque vocal melodies until her rugged voice steals the show. She frequently layers her poppier vocals with grunge vocals, which she does here to satisfying effect, but the moments where she’s leaning fully on her raspy side are the most life-affirming. SUGAREGG is a crash course in exorcising toxicity and putting yourself back together, but in order to achieve this, Bognanno had to wrestle with hard truths. “Where to Start” is full of these not-so-pretty, crucial realizations (“I live for you to tear me apart / Relics of a dream survived by you”) and failures (“Settling, caving in, stuck again / Breathe it in, fake the win, and break again”). If this song isn’t the meaning of catharsis, I don’t know what is.
Lizzie Manno is an associate music editor, Coldplay apologist, bread obsessive and lover of all things indie, punk and shoegaze at Paste. Follow her on Twitter @LizzieManno