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