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
Read our end-of-year interview with Glass Animals here.
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
30. Brandi Carlile – “Right on Time”
Brandi Carlile’s “Right on Time” is easily in contention for having the most heart-wrenching note sung in 2021 during its indelible chorus. It’s just another demonstration of the seasoned singer-songwriter’s acuity for distilling the purest emotions into beautiful, melodic simplicity. Here, it’s her raw accounting of the uncertain early days of quarantine. — B. Kress | Listen on Apple Music
29. Manchester Orchestra – “Keel Timing”
“Keel Timing” gets the Atlanta rock quartet Manchester Orchestra’s sixth album, The Million Masks of God, off to racing speed. Soaring, razor-sharp harmonies, pavement-pumping bass, and a singular focus on turning toward a new direction keep the song closely in line with its car-chase music origins. — B. Kress | Listen on Apple Music
Read our end-of-year interview with Manchester Orchestra here.
28. Wet Leg – “Chaise Longue”
It’s not every day that a debut single like “Chaise Longue” comes along, equally funny as it is compelling. “Is your mother worried?” asks Rhian Teasdale with a cheeky, deadpan delivery. “…Would you like us to assign someone to worry your mother?” Wet Leg may have started out writing songs as a joke, but “Chaise Longue” is a sensational attempt to turn an older generation’s fear mongering about sex into a romp. — P.R. | Listen on Apple Music
27. Adele – “Easy on Me”
Adele returned in 2021 with “Easy on Me,” instantly reminding us all why she’s one of the best living vocalists. Not only is there a deep wisdom imparted in the lyrics about divorce and the breaking up of a family, but as always, Adele aches, flutters, and dances around her melodies. She finds a raw freedom that feels both expected and brand new at the same time. — P.R. | Listen on Apple Music
26. Paris Texas – “Situations”
Los Angeles duo Paris Texas burst onto the scene this spring with an approach to hip-hop that blurs the lines between rock and rap. Comparable to OutKast’s more experimental work, the funky, off-center “Situations” offers solace and motivation (“Just keep your patience”) for listeners doing whatever it takes to escape difficult circumstances. When it feels like there’s no time to waste, all you can do is stay low and keep pushing forward. — E.F. | Listen on Apple Music
25. Orla Gartland – “More Like You”
The undercurrent of jealousy on Dublin singer-songwriter Orla Gartland’s “More Like You” almost immediately gains strength as the unfiltered adoration for a friend’s friend spill out in breathlessly honest verses. It just goes to prove that Gartland’s ability to make unabashed openness so endearing is an enviable skill itself. — B. Kress | Listen on Apple Music
24. Mitski – “The Only Heartbreaker”
Juxtaposing peppy ’80s dance pop with wistful lyrics about being the designated Bad Guy in relationships, Mitski cuts even deeper on “The Only Heartbreaker” by questioning why that person is always taking the blame in the first place. Is it worse to make mistakes while trying to make things work, or not even make an effort in the first place? Capturing the realization of self-sabotage is Mitski at her best, and we can’t wait to hear the rest of Laurel Hell next year. — E.F. | Listen on Apple Music
23. McKinley Dixon – “make a poet Black”
Richmond, Virginia-based rapper and May Artist of the Month McKinley Dixon doesn’t miss a beat as he delivers a lyrical shadowbox over piercing strings, striking piano chords, and little else. Collectively, the fragments of memories Dixon pieces together after the loss of a childhood friend form a cinematic narrative that suits the song’s sweeping orchestral heights. — B. Kress | Listen on Apple Music
22. SZA – “Good Days”
SZA may have released “Good Days” on Christmas Day in 2020, but its impact in 2021 is undeniable. It’s an example of SZA’s relentless creativity and expressiveness; across a lush, blissful backdrop, she finds acres of space to narrate her fears and triumphs in a candid and unique way. SZA’s melodies and lyrics always feel a bit unexpected, and this is no different: Her style and her lyrical honesty are truly inimitable. — P.R. | Listen on Apple Music
21. The War on Drugs – “I Don’t Live Here Anymore (feat. Lucius)”
Literally invoking Bob Dylan while channeling every ’80s band you ever loved, the title track off The War on Drugs’ latest LP is the band fully realized. Undeniable psychedelic hooks flow under lyrics diving headlong towards self-actualization, a wondrous contrast that feels particularly uplifting given how this decade has started. It’s taken seven years, but TWOD have their new opus. — B. Kaye | Listen on Apple Music
20. Olivia Rodrigo – “good 4 u”
Olivia Rodrigo became an instant household name with “driver’s license” in early 2021, but it was “good 4 u” that demonstrated just how much the young artist was capable of. Borrowing (more than) just a bit from Paramore’s “Misery Business,” Rodrigo is furious on “good 4 u,” and the resulting anthem is a pop-punk masterpiece that immediately separated her from her Disney contemporaries. — P.R. | Listen on Apple Music
19. Billie Eilish – “Your Power”
Billie Eilish has perfected the art of exceeding everyone’s expectations by divorcing herself from them. “Your Power” is a prime example of how, even following a shattering level of debut success, Eilish is focused, present, and in tune with herself emotionally and artistically. A lot of Happier Than Ever explores toxic relationship dynamics, but the acoustic, intimate “Your Power” takes a unique approach in its ability to be compassionate and unforgiving at once. — L.D. | Listen on Apple Music
18. Big Red Machine, Fleet Foxes, Anaïs Mitchell – “Phoenix”
Big Red Machine’s “Phoenix” is collaboration at its most pure. Sounding at once like an amalgamation of all those involved (Fleet Foxes’ Robin Pecknold, Anaïs Mitchell, Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon, The National’s Aaron Dessner, The Westerlies) and yet something wholly its own, this country conversation is filled with the warmth of music as community. Its sum mirrors the greatness of its parts for a magical moment of rumination. — B. Kaye | Listen on Apple Music
17. Arlo Parks – “Black Dog”
Soft strums of guitar punctuate Arlo Parks’ soothing balm for a friend struggling with depression. “I would do anything to get you out your room,” she croons, warm with helpless empathy. “It’s so cruel what your mind can do for no reason.” Nonetheless, Parks, chiming keyboard in tow, is there for the ride. — Carys Anderson | Listen on Apple Music
16. Kendrick Lamar, Baby Keem – “Family Ties”
As of press time, Kendrick Lamar saved his only substantial verses of 2021 for his cousin and flagship pgLang signee Baby Keem. The first of two collaborations on Keem’s debut studio album, The Melodic Blue, “Family Ties” finds Kendrick issuing a stern warning to complacent rappers. Having merely been on a break, the Compton rapper describes himself as the vaccine needed to bring the game back to life. Armed with new flows, Kendrick’s ready to take on all comers — a scary thought for any MC who dares to stand in his way. — E.F. | Listen on Apple Music
15. Bo Burnham/Phoebe Bridgers – “That Funny Feeling”
Set in the back half of Bo Burnham’s Netflix special Inside is a song that feels almost alien to his frenetic, cheeky comedy synthpop, and it’s one of the most impressive songs he’s ever written. “That Funny Feeling” is a bewildered attempt to make sense of our modern capitalistic world a la Father John Misty. Only here, the curtain is down, and Burnham sounds vulnerable and afraid. Then there’s Phoebe Bridgers’ cover, which slows the song down to a churning lullaby. “A gift shop at the gun range/ A mass shooting at the mall” might be one of the best lyrics of the year. — P.R. | Listen on Apple Music
Read our 2021 Comedian of the Year essay on Bo Burnham here.
Ed. note: Both versions of “That Funny Feeling” tie for the 15th spot on this list.
14. Pom Pom Squad – “Head Cheerleader”
With a title like “Head Cheerleader,” we wouldn’t blame you for assuming June Artist of the Month Pom Pom Squad’s breakout single was a slice of sugary bubblegum pastiche. Instead, the Brooklyn-based band fronted by Mia Berrin subverts expectations with a grunge-inflected confection that perfectly channels the apathy, confusion, and unbridled adulation of suburban teenage love. Did we mention those backing vocals on the chorus from Tegan and Sara’s Tegan Quin? — G.R. | Listen on Apple Music
13. J.I.D. – “Skegee”
The 1932-72 Tuskegee Study of Untreated Syphilis in the African-American Male remains one of the most despicable acts of cruelty ever committed in the name of science. More than a hundred Black men were allowed to die, and the “experiment” continued even after researchers knew for certain that penicillin cured the disease. On “Skegee,” J.I.D takes time for a history lesson, spitting, “A scam into the plan to go recruit a group of stupid n****s/ And shoot them up with syphilis instead of shoot-to-kill ’em.” But his overall takeaway is one of warmth, encouraging the young and disadvantaged to acknowledge their obstacles to help them aim for the top. — Wren Graves | Listen on Apple Music
12. Doja Cat and SZA – “Kiss Me More”
If Doja Cat can do anything, it’s create a song that goes viral. Among the countless Doja sounds that littered the Internet this year, “Kiss Me More,” her bubblegum-bright collaboration with SZA, rises to the top. One of the most thrilling parts of seeing clubs and bars open up was the reaction in a crowd when this song hit the two-and-a-half minute mark — the power of a perfectly-placed bell. — M. Siroky | Listen on Apple Music
11. Caroline Polachek – “Bunny Is a Rider”
The protagonist of Caroline Polachek’s bass-thumping summer jam “Bunny Is a Rider” is a person of mystique who luxuriates in the bliss of being uncontactable. There’s a euphoria that comes to living with such a no-strings-attached attitude, if only for a moment. “Fireworks blazing,” Polachek sings on the chorus, “Heart is un-breaking.” “Bunny Is a Rider” proves she can be a full-fledged pop star — if the world is ready to find her. — Abby Jones | Listen on Apple Music
10. Silk Sonic – “Leave the Door Open”
With the combination of two of the most talented songwriters in modern music, fans had high expectations for Silk Sonic even before Bruno Mars and Anderson .Paak dropped their debut single together. With the silky smooth “Leave the Door Open,” the duo delivered an immediate contender for Song of the Year, putting their organic chemistry on full display with a sound best described as ’70s soul with a 21st century twist.
From the start, it was clear they weren’t just a cobbled-together supergroup, but shared a vision for their collaborative project. Reflecting a deep understanding of their influences (.Paak even has Aretha Franklin, James Brown, Miles Davis, Stevie Wonder, and Prince tattooed on his chest), the song immediately left fans wanting for more.
For a while, it looked like Silk Sonic was content to ride out the success of “Leave the Door Open” by teasing listeners with electric awards show performances, but before the year was out, the group delivered an album living up to the lofty standards they’d established. “Leave the Door Open” started it all, though, and it remains our pick for the best offering Silk Sonic has produced thus far. — E.F. | Listen on Apple Music
09. Little Simz – “Introvert”
Despite its title, Little Simz’s “Introvert” is anything but reticent. The cinematic lead single from the British-Nigerian rapper’s fourth studio album, Sometimes I Might Be Introvert, opens mid-climax with militaristic drumline and full-tilt brass-and-choral fanfare.
When the smooth yet skittering groove drops in, Simz’s verses weave intricate tensions between public persona and internal turmoil: “Parts of the world still living in apartheid/ But if I don’t take this winner’s fight, that’s career suicide/ Though I should’ve been a friend when your grandma died.”
The six-minute track, produced with longtime collaborator Inflo, swerves through movements — including a shimmering hook crooned by Cleo Sol and a spoken-word outro intoned by actor Emma Corrin, who plays Princess Diana on The Crown. With her ambition and bold vulnerability, Simz harnesses poetry with sociopolitical realities, and reveals the power of turning inward. — K.M. | Listen on Apple Music
08. CHVRCHES, Robert Smith – “How Not to Drown”
CHVRCHES returned in 2021 with Screen Violence, a dark and cinematic effort that featured some of the boldest tracks the Scottish trio have ever written. Atop them all is “How Not to Drown,” which features an excellent — and at times — chilling performance from new wave icon Robert Smith. What’s so striking about “How Not to Drown” is not necessarily in the horror-adjacent themes, but in the way the band sounds defeated throughout.
This was not meant to be a song about hope, courage, or strength; it’s about survival, a desperate but foggy foray into a deep and dissonant anxiety. “I will never escape these doubts,” Mayberry sings above Robert Smith’s unsettling, quivering harmonies, eventually landing on the command, “Watch as they pull me down…”
CHVRCHES are no stranger to strong emotions and darker themes, but “How Not to Drown” gains its power from its harrowing acceptance of anguish, unafraid to let the dissonance control the narrative. Sometimes, you can only focus on keeping yourself afloat. — P.R. | Listen on Apple Music
Read our 2021 Band of the Year interview with CHVRCHES here.