The 2021 edition of our Annual Report continues with our Top 50 Songs of 2021 list. As the year winds down, stay tuned for more awards, lists, and articles about the best music, film, and TV of 2021. You can find it all in one place here.
While 2020 felt like the year that didn’t happen, 2021 has felt like the year that just… kinda did. As the calendar pages flipped by, we cautiously began searching for a semblance of a familiar life, culminating in a summer-fall explosion as festivals returned and venues reopened. But for so many reasons, we were always looking over our shoulders, waiting for the other shoe to drop.
Even as the world proved ever stubborn, we were desperate to put the worst behind us. The term “post-pandemic” entered the lexicon, a fallacy we were all fully aware of as we booted up yet another Zoom meeting. Take it as a sign that while it was still another incredibly weird 365, it was less shaded by uncertainty this time and more spattered with hope.
Which is likely why so much of the music that accompanied us wasn’t about the misery. Last year, we needed someone to remind us that we weren’t alone; this year, we were looking for company to show us a good time — to “be sweet” to us, as Japanese Breakfast might say.
Artists felt the same way, as you heard them over and over in interviews talking about not wanting to write “a pandemic record,” because why cut into wax the hard feelings we want to get past?
No, 2021 needed songs of joy, of empowerment, of self-actualization. It needed pop perfection and energetic nostalgia. It needed resilience pulled from the clenches of sadness, strength gained from absorbing the blows. As always, the musicians we love were there for us, ready to give form to our needs without us even knowing what those were.
These are the songs that helped us turn the dark page on the previous year. Brighter days are always ahead, and these tracks prove it. Here are the 50 best songs of 2021.
— Ben Kaye
50. Lana Del Rey – “Chemtrails Over the Country Club”
Naysayers can argue and detract until they’re blue in the face, but it’s simply the truth: Lana Del Rey is still the queen of melancholy pop. Miss Del Rey carved out her own niche in the musical landscape with her distinct brand of tragic romance and aspirational glamour, all shrouded under an undeniable air of sadness. With the title track of her seventh studio album, the best of her 2021 offerings, she didn’t have to break the mold to make an impact. — Mary Siroky | Listen on Apple Music
49. Glass Animals – “I Don’t Wanna Talk (I Just Wanna Dance)”
With “I Don’t Wanna Talk,” the followup to their 2020 album Dreamland, Glass Animals confirm what most fans already knew: They’re more than just “Heat Waves.” “I Don’t Wanna Talk” is similar to their breakout hit in that it is insanely catchy — but it’s not without melancholic undertones, as frontman Dave Bayley laments, “There’s a warning written in the corners of your face/ Whiplash and you left me in a vapour trail.” — Gab Ginsberg | Listen on Apple Music
48. Maxo Kream – “Cripstian”
Maxo Kream’s “CRIPSTIAN” gives a glimpse into the immeasurable loss that has the Houston rapper carrying the WEIGHT OF THE WORLD on his shoulders. While still grieving the loss of his brother, Maxo’s grandmother was hospitalized due to COVID, and he had a cousin die by suicide — not to mention a friend whose bail was set at a million dollars. Rapped in painstaking detail, “CRIPSTIAN” distills Maxo’s pain and trauma into lyrics that are raw, even by his lofty standards. — Eddie Fu | Listen on Apple Music
47. Kacey Musgraves – “justified”
The sun in her golden hour has set, and Kacey Musgraves has entered a new era. Musgraves’ gift as a songwriter has always been in her ability to tell the truth, often in such a heartfelt and honest way that the poignancy steals the listener’s breath. Though star-crossed may not have the lasting impact of Golden Hour, the reminder in “justified” that “healing doesn’t happen in a straight line” is Kacey through and through. — M. Siroky | Listen on Apple Music
46. Slothrust – “Once More for the Ocean”
“Once More for the Ocean,” from Slothrust’s exceptional 2021 album Parallel Timeline, sees frontwoman Leah Wellbaum filing a universal complaint over frantic guitar: “I am getting sick/ Of people talking so much!” A YouTube commenter summed it up nicely: “Is it me or are all of their nautically themed tracks bangers?” Aye. — G.G. | Listen on Apple Music
45. alt-J – “U&ME”
“U&ME,” the feel-good first taste of alt-J’s fourth album The Dream, is “simply a song about good times in the summer sun,” as the English indie rockers have noted. The track follows a love story and a drug trip, all wrapped in that woozy alt-J sound. When The Dream arrives in 2022, here’s hoping for more such sunniness. — G.G. | Listen on Apple Music
44. Bartees Strange – “Weights”
After his debut album Live Forever became one of the Top Albums of 2020, Bartees Strange celebrated its one-year anniversary with a deluxe edition featuring the vibrant “Weights.” The earnest, guitar-driven track puts his songwriting abilities to the forefront, as he covers the all-too-relatable topic of the ones that may have gotten away. Strange discovers hope in deciding to let go of the weight of it, a lesson that can be applied to all aspects of life. — E.F. | Listen on Apple Music
43. Torres – “Don’t Go Puttin Wishes in My Head”
Torres is stellar at finding power through emotional honesty, which is what’s so singular about her comet of a rock song, “Don’t Go Puttin Wishes in My Head,” and what pulls it off. The tracks puts the decision of whether to stay on the other person, since the speaker already knows, with complete certainty, how she feels and what she wants. “I’m calling for a hitching,” Torres promises, in a full-bodied voice you can’t help but believe, leaving her companion to decide whether she’s up for it. — Laura Dzubay | Listen on Apple Music
42. Foxing – “Go Down Together”
St. Louis post-rock group Foxing shows their sturdiest resolve and tightest songwriting yet in the face of certain doom on “Go Down Together” from their fourth LP Draw Down the Moon, which is elevated beyond the song’s Bonnie & Clyde aspirations with its anthemic rallying cry and relentlessly earnest dedication to loyalty. — Bryan Kress | Listen on Apple Music
41. Haviah Mighty – “Good on My Own Tonight feat. TOBi”
Toronto rapper Haviah Mighty embodies the self-sustaining titular refrain “I’m good on my own tonight” with a defiantly confident track that she also co-produced. She holds court “with a podium spirit” before ceding the floor to fellow Canadian singer TOBi, who delivers the song’s unshakably catchy hook. — B. Kress | Listen on Apple Music
40. Taylor Swift – “All Too Well (10 Minute Version)”
As soon as “All Too Well (10 Minute Version)” dropped, hard-working Twitter detectives immediately dedicated themselves to decoding every single not-so-veiled alleged reference. But beyond fueling the gossip mill for days, this tale of a young woman and her much older lover captured the magic that comes with a hyper-specific story: Everyone finds themselves in the details. That, combined with a powerful self-directed music video and electrifying SNL performance, cements “All Too Well” as a landmark moment in Taylor Swift’s career — a career that she now completely controls. — Liz Shannon Miller | Listen on Apple Music
39. Big Thief – “Time Escaping”
From the first syncopated plucks, Brooklyn quartet Big Thief’s latest single “Time Escaping” follows a rhythm loop that seems to be constantly slipping out of sync. Yet the band’s broadening dimensional sound and Adrienne Lenker’s discerning pen have never been more firmly in their grasp. It sounds like we’re in for another masterful record with the band’s upcoming fifth album, Dragon New Warm Mountain I Believe in You. — B. Kress | Listen on Apple Music
38. Geese – “Disco”
The members of November Artist of the Month Geese may only be fresh out of high school, but the musicianship demonstrated in “Disco” suggests they’ve been playing their whole life. The peak of the single off their Projector debut comes in the later half, where several style and tempo changes lead to a cathartic climax — but not before the band returns to a fuzzed-out, chaotic version of the song’s thumping opening groove. — Paolo Ragusa | Listen on Apple Music
37. Amythyst Kiah – “Wild Turkey”
Music can be therapeutic, but therapy can also lead to some powerful music: Only after five years of professional help could 34-year-old Amythyst Kiah finally write “Wild Turkey.” It’s a haunting farewell to both her mother, who died of a suicide when Kiah was 17, and the emotional cage the singer-songwriter had locked herself in afterwards. Built up over half her life, it’s a stirring moment of personal catharsis that resonates through every note. — Ben Kaye | Listen on Apple Music
36. glbl wrmng – “504”
New Orleans rapper Pell’s hip-hop collective glbl wrmng celebrate their hometown on “504,” and their pride and enthusiasm is infectious. Atop a hazy, driving beat and complete with Bourbon Street-style jazz horns in the end, “504” is a rallying cry for everyone in New Orleans and beyond. — P.R. | Listen on Apple Music
35. Meet Me @ the Altar – “Brighter Days (Are Before Us)”
By the time our recent Artist of the Month Meet Me @ the Altar dropped their major label debut EP in August, the year’s pop-punk revival had well taken off. But on pre-release single “Brighter Days (Are Before Us),” the trio eschew any sneering sarcasm typical of the genre, instead delivering a hopeful message so optimistic and guileless, it’s practically downright sunny. — Glenn Rowley | Listen on Apple Music
34. Sufjan Stevens and Angelo De Augustine – “Back to Oz”
What’s better than a devastating song with a technicolor groove to soundtrack a party about falling apart? This stunning collaboration between Asthmatic Kitty labelmates Sufjan Stevens and Angelo De Augustine, inspired by childhood-wrecking film Return to Oz, features the layered falsetto harmonies, dreamy and soulful instrumentation, and chiming chorus that boost us over the rainbow. — Katie Moulton | Listen on Apple Music
33. Faye Webster – “Cheers”
Faye Webster’s “Cheers” moves at a patient trot, but her candid lyrics, fuzzed-out guitars and slow-burning “Cheeeeeeeeeers” refrain provides a charged, tense feel to the song. One of the highlights of Webster’s album I Know I’m Funny haha, “Cheers” seems to oscillate between adoration, celebration, contempt, and confusion, and it’s Webster’s subtlety and originality that makes it one of 2021’s indie rock gems. — P.R. | Listen on Apple Music
32. Angel Haze – “Weight”
A prelude to Angel Haze’s official return from a nearly six-year hiatus, “Weight” finds the rapper in top form, channeling a lifetime of trauma with a fiery delivery. With lyrics like “Yeah, silly n****s you was thinking I was buried/ But I soared/ Now y’all gon’ wish that I died in the psych ward,” the track serves as a clear sign our former Rookie of the Year is stronger than ever and ready to take over the game on her own terms. — E.F. | Listen on Apple Music
31. Charli XCX – “Good Ones”
Charli XCX may be dressed in black, but that hardly means she’s in mourning, dolls. With “Good Ones,” the British pop chanteuse conjures up what’s arguably her biggest earworm bop since 2017’s “Boys,” and in the process turns out the campiest funeral procession anyone’s ever seen for the delightfully choreographed visual. — G.R. | Listen on Apple Music