The Best Songs of 2021
10 tracks that made the year feel a little brighter.
Even just a year later, the thought of living in a world without TouchTunes or shared aux cords or friends getting mad at you for bringing the mood of the party down by adding a somber banger to the party playlist sounds like a fairly bleak dystopia. While 2020 certainly had its fair share of singles worthy of any of these social encounters, they were mostly enjoyed in isolation as we tweeted out fantasies of hearing them for the first time in a sweaty nightclub, or emptying out the local bar with the exact wrong mobile jukebox pick.
Yet here we are in 2021 with the ability to publicly alter each other’s moods, for better or for worse, with our individual caches of pop song recommendations that range from romantic to goofy to life-giving to Black Mirror-esque. Feel free to yank that aux out of your friend’s phone and queue up the 10 tracks we’ve rounded up from the past 12 months which approximately sum up our current mental states. Just don’t tell them we told you to.
I’m really liking this new schedule rap functions on where artists drop a strong AOTY contender at the beginning of the year, play festivals in support of it during the summer, and then as a sort of victory lap they casually hop on a verse for what quickly becomes a SOTY contender. Tyler did it this year, and on a different tier of rap royalty, Armand Hammer threw down on an uncharacteristically large number of tracks post-Haram. Perhaps more than anyone else, though, slowthai bolstered cuts by Shygirl, James Blake, Pa Salieu, and IDLES after releasing Tyron, not to mention his verse on “SLUGGER” (which, as he tweeted, he recorded under a duvet next to his sleeping kid) alongside Kevin Abstract, who—you guessed it—released a strong AOTY contender early in the year with his group BROCKHAMPTON. With $NOT rounding out the trio, this single is a powerful introduction to what’s in store for the next solo Abstract LP—bold, playful, and confrontational, it’s hard to know whether to look forward to that new album more or the guest verses he doles out afterwards. — Mike LeSuer
9. Magdalena Bay, “Secrets (Your Fire)”
Any description of “Secrets (Your Fire),” a highlight from Magdalena Bay’s debut album Mercurial World, is going to severely undersell it. Here’s the band giving it a shot: “‘Secrets (Your Fire)’ is about interconnectivity, privacy, and digital anxiety,” as well as “the need…to keep giving up more and more of yourself to faceless strangers in the hopes of making friends or fans.” Sounds bleak, right? But if the song’s elevator pitch (Black Mirror–core electro-pop) sounds less than appetizing, its execution is surprisingly efficient and light on its feet. The LA-based duo lace the song with a smooth, sultry groove in the lineage of Art Angels–era Grimes. They frame the concept of digital interconnectivity as alluring and alive with possibility, which of course, at first, it is. “Secrets (Your Fire)” is a masterclass in crafting pop music bursting at the seams with ideas, but also simple enough to claw its way to your pleasure centers almost instantly. — Alex Swhear
8. Wet Leg, “Chaise Longue”
For the past couple years, it’s been hard to straddle the line of empathy and apathy as we try to be considerate of the tragedy around us while not internalizing everything due to inevitable self-combustion. So when the post-punky group Wet Leg introduced themselves with their irreverent debut single over the summer, it was like waking from some sort of restless slumber, remembering what it felt like to want to laugh and dance simultaneously. On “Chaise Longue,” Wet Leg are having fun, something the world at times feels extraordinarily deprived of as of late. We’re greeted immediately with a sharp kick drum–led beat and a bass line on a sugar high. But it all comes together with Rhian Teasdale’s nonchalant affect over nonsensical lyrics. “Mummy, daddy, look at me / I went to school and I got a degree / All my friends call it the big D / I went to school and I got the big D,” goes the opening line. Later there’s an interpolation of an infamous Mean Girls reference about buttered muffins, then enticing someone with a post-show warm beer. It’s so extremely unsexy that at times it almost feels sexy. Not only does “Chaise Longue” point out the absurdity of young adulthood, it’s a song that reminds us that we’re all a bit horny, and sometimes it helps to laugh about it. — Margaret Farrell
It’s hard to find a proper love song right now, when all of the best pop singles are about pills, luxury brands, and sexual obsession. But “Right Track” captures the ecstatic rush of catching feelings for someone—and finding out they feel the same way in return—on a visceral level in a way that few songs this side of “Raspberry Beret” ever have. Put it on and you might find butterflies in your stomach, even if your love life is actually in shambles at the moment. Its purity of purpose and relatively wholesome subject matter are part of what makes it feel so timeless, along with Atlanta producer ForteBowie’s effervescent beat and the zero-gravity melodies that Syd floats over it. (A charming verse from Smino pins it a little closer to the here and now.) Send a copy back in time to 1969 and they’d know what to do with it. And it’ll still sound fresh the next time you fall in love. — Miles Raymer
6. Remi Wolf, “Liquor Store”
Remi Wolf makes music in squiggles and bursts, and her bouncing freestyles and spontaneous vocal tricks reinforce her raunchy bars. So when the 25-year-old gets more serious on “Liquor Store,” which opens her sprightly, careening debut album Juno, the difference is palpable. Sure, there are fish kissing on clits and a character who likes having sex like an animal, but Wolf intersperses her wisecracks with sneers of “I always want more walking into the liquor store.” It’s a moment of clarity amid a hook-filled maze of gummy worms and trick mirrors: Wolf’s excess is a trojan horse for the issues that previously sent her to rehab. “I keep running away from me,” she sings, and here, amid gingerbread rainbows, she finally faces herself. — Max Freedman
5. Halsey, “Honey”
While it’s not officially a single (at least not yet), “Honey” is one of the standout tracks on Halsey’s fourth studio album If I Can’t Have Love, I Want Power. The slick, sapphic ode to a wildly addictive ex-lover is sticky—not just because of its name—because of how impossibly catchy the pop-punk chorus is: “She was sweet like honey / But all I can taste is the blood in my mouth / And the bitterness in goodbye.” None of that matters at all to Halsey: The sting is worth it. — Ilana Kaplan
4. Turnstile, “BLACKOUT”
It’s a rarity for any band to capture both the euphoric feeling of listening to your favorite song for the first time and the free-floating experience of being in the pit at a concert in just three minutes, but “BLACKOUT” does just that. The versatility of genres that influence the album it appears on, from punk and dream-pop to hip-hop and R&B, can be felt all over GLOW ON, including this standout track. “BLACKOUT” lures you in with the iconic hardcore-punk sound Turnstile is associated with, from the aggressive guitar riffs and skipping drums to Brendan Yates’ vocals passionately reeling you in as he screams, “And let the spotlight shine on me.” This track only offers a glimpse of the album’s overarching existentialist questioning, but the seamless blend of all these elements are intentionally made to make you feel alive—and if it does, Yates did his job: “And if it makes you feel alive / Well, I’m happy I provide.” — Michael Izquierdo
When alt-pop trio MUNA signed to Saddest Factory—the label recently launched by Phoebe Bridgers—in May, it was clear something amazing was coming. When “Silk Chiffon” did finally arrive in September, it did not disappoint. No one sings about infatuation like Katie Gavin, and the evocative imagery of a material as luxurious as chiffon combined with the longing in Gavin’s voice as she describes this woman she’s drawn to makes for a track that’s charming, romantic, and fun. The buildup of acoustic guitar into the poppier chorus delivers one of the catchiest hooks you’re likely to hear, which, combined with the grit added in during Bridgers’ verse, keeps the track fresh and catchy on repeat listens. Bridgers also gives us one of the most relatable lyrics of 2021, as who among us hasn’t been high and feeling anxious at some point this year, within or outside of a CVS? — Gabriel Aikins
2. Caroline Polachek, “Bunny Is a Rider”
It takes a few listens before you start to realize what a strange song “Bunny Is a Rider” is. First you have to let the big-ass hooks sink in, the instantly sing-along-able titular vocal riff, the cute little whistle-y part. But then, slowly, the song starts to reveal itself to be a cryptic riddle, spilling over with provocative questions that Caroline Polachek has no intention of answering. Who is Bunny? Why is she riding? Where are the drums? And is that a Pusha T reference embedded in the second verse? In the end it doesn’t matter—you don’t know, and you never will. Let it go. Follow the beat out to the dance floor. Bunny doesn’t want to be found. — Miles Raymer
At a time when melody in pop music is reduced to increasingly fewer chords of similar length repeated in a loop, stuck in a sonic Groundhog’s Day, Sharon Van Etten and Angel Olsen—heroines of 21st century alternative rock, divided by modish, folksy punk from the former, and gothic dream pop from the latter—found their way into lush tonal patterns on “Like I Used To.” Gorgeously orchestrated in a manner befitting Jimmy Webb cosmopolitan classics such as “Wichita Lineman,” and rivetingly contagious without being cloying, stringy, or fluffy, Van Etten and Olsen subtly ape the anthemic girl-pop traditions of Phil Spector and his Wall of Sound (loathe the man, love the music he made with The Ronettes, etc.) with their own subtly rousing and clearly delineated verses, choruses, and bridges. Hear their slow tune once and you’ll recall it forever.
Beyond the mechanisms of musical mood, the rarely delicate and never-dainty pair, separately and equally, send out a freshly filled message-in-a-bottle of hope and romance in this time of cholera with Olsen pumping up her Stevie-Nicksian edge and Van Etten amping up her usual swagger. For anyone lone and lonely, or for anyone just looking to put the pandemic behind them, “Like I Used To” is your song. — A.D. Amorosi