In a year as strange as 2021, it seemed that for a song to stand out, it couldn’t be just one thing. It had to be anthemic and intimate at the same time; danceable yet incisive; playful but self-aware. Like most great things, great songs have bits of both the past and the future living in them, and this felt especially true in a year where time moved differently. Many artists were able to expertly capture this fog-like feeling over the course of a full-length album, but some of the most enduring musical statements came in the form of a single song. Whether they were accompanied by albums that were released this year or not, these are songs that had a unique impact on their own and helped us make sense of a world both rapidly changing and permanently changed. Here are the 25 best songs of 2021.
25. MUNA feat. Phoebe Bridgers, ‘Silk Chiffon’
‘Silk Chiffon’ treads a very fine line between being insufferable and irresistible, but no matter where you place it, it’s hard to deny the song’s addictive nature. More importantly in a year like 2021, it was also refreshing: a breezy and buoyant expression of queer love that remains just that for the entirety of its runtime, so much so that when Phoebe Bridgers – founder of MUNA’s new label home Saddest Factory Records – comes in to sing about feeling anxious inside the CVS, even she can’t help but be persuaded by the “Life’s so fun, life’s so fun” refrain. This collaboration is anything but lifeless, but the soft guitars and pillowy synths are such an apt evocation of the song’s titular metaphor that it almost has the effect of sucking any and all personality out of it – which somehow makes it resonate that much more. Love it or hate it, that’s how it feels.
24. Claire George, ‘Northern Lights’
Claire George has described the artwork to her debut album, which was inspired by the loss of a loved one to substance abuse, as “a portal to another dimension, which is how I like to think of the memories I’ve written into these songs.” ‘Northern Lights’, a heart-wrenching highlight from The Land Beyond the Light, channels treasured memories from the relationship – “videos of you dancing with your best friend’s mom,” being held in the rain during a mental breakdown – but begins as an expression of present longing: “I just want to joke around/ Kiss your mouth in the basement of your parents’ house.” As the minimal beat subsides, George zeros in on the moment that grief starts taking hold, the feeling of slowly losing someone before they’re gone. Then it kicks back into motion, as things have to, the memory of her ex “flickering like the northern lights” mirrored George’s aching, perfectly implemented falsetto. This isn’t melancholic pop as a means of escape, but a portal to a universe that seems just out of reach.
23. Silk Sonic, ‘Leave the Door Open’
It would take another eight months for Bruno Mars and Anderson .Paak to come through with their collaborative album as Silk Sonic, but debut single ‘Leave the Door Open’ was an early preview of the best that the R&B super-duo had to offer. There are a few things one has to bring up when discussing Silk Sonic – some variation of the words “’70s retro pastiche,” followed by a comment about the amount of technical detail with which the duo execute it. ‘Leave the Door Open’ recreates those sounds as meticulously as any other track from the LP, but it’s also one of the best examples of the duo’s infectious songwriting and sense of humour, a seduction ballad consumed by the subject of romantic infatuation more than its own retro aesthetic. It’s a pure rush, which makes the fact that it didn’t get old fast an impressive feat.
22. Pom Pom Squad, ‘Lux’
The music video for Pom Pom Squad’s ‘Lux’ pays direct tribute to Sofia Coppola’s The Virgin Suicides by recreating several shots from the film, channeling the song’s titular character – who becomes the main character in this retelling – while reflecting frontwoman Mia Berrin’s own experiences at the time that she wrote it, when she herself was a teenager. Although it serves as one of the shorter and more riot grrrl-inspired tracks on the band’s debut album Death of a Cheerleader, it stands out as one of its most potent statements: in striking a balance between nostalgia and personal expression, Berrin gives a voice to a point of view that remains invisible on-hscreen, condensing a novel’s worth of alternate narration into some of the year’s most incisive lyrics. “In a crowded high school dance/ In a cloud of peach alcohol/ I let myself get drunk on the idea that you loved me,” she sighs, nailing the film’s aesthetic before externalizing a hidden truth: “In here I’m suffocating/ But out there I feel so small/ What a wonder to be anything at all.”
21. Billie Eilish, ‘Happier Than Ever’
‘Happier Than Ever’ begins as the kind of wistful ukulele ballad Billie Eilish has excelled in from the start, evoking the quieter, more introspective corners of her abrasive 2019 debut. The title track to her sophomore full-length would be a highlight even if it stayed in this mode – so affecting is her expression of heartbreak – but the fact that her haunting whisper turns to a full-throated scream as the track builds to its soaring climax makes it the cathartic rock moment that Happier Than Ever teases for most of its runtime. As chaos erupts around her, Eilish doesn’t get swept up in the explosion, maintaining an incredible level of focus and vulnerability: “Always said you were misunderstood/ Made all my moments your own,” she sings, but this one feels entirely her own, and entirely heart-wrenching.
20. Squid feat. Martha Skye Murphy, ‘Narrator’
‘Narrator’ is thrilling because it encapsulates so many of Squid’s musical strengths, but the reason it worked so well as the lead single to their debut album was that it’s exhilarating all on its own, even removed from the context of the record or the experimental outfit’s prior material. Stretching over nearly nine minutes, the track is initially propelled by a tight, nervous rhythm reminiscent of the band’s post-punk influences, but as drummer and vocalist Ollie Judge sings lyrics like “Losing my flow and my memories are so unnatural,” that structure begins to dissolve and give way to frenzied chaos that becomes all-consuming. The voice of Martha Skye Murphy creeps in to rupture the main character’s unreliable point of view, claiming more space and offering an element of release before both voices fade to black, as if waking from separate dreams.
19. Beach House, ‘Superstar’
Beach House are experts at layering out each element of a song, as if recreating a dream, piece by piece, until it resembles the same sort of magic. But on ‘Superstar’, a highlight from the first chapter of their upcoming double album Once Twice Melody, that dream is already far behind: it’s the sound that loops in your mind during a long drive in the middle of the night, when a shooting star trailing across the sky becomes a metaphor for a failed relationship. “When you were mine/ We fell across the sky/ Backlit up against the wall,” Victoria Legrand sings, in a chorus that stands out as one of the group’s most hypnotic and immediately affecting yet. The only interest the singer shows in the present lies in a photograph that has now taken on a new resonance – “Something good/ Never meant to last.” As they attempt to stretch a moment of the past out into infinity, you’ll want to aid in the effort by playing the song over and over again.
18. Magdalena Bay, ‘Chaeri’
Magdalena Bay aren’t just interested in emulating the pop sounds of previous decades. Their ever-expanding DIY universe is equally rooted in vulnerability, which often means digging into your own emotional past; their debut album Mercurial World is filled with infectious bops, but none is as immediately affecting or resonant as ‘Chaeri’. “I’m sorry, did you feel lonely?” Mica Tenenbaum asks from the jump, reflecting on her relationship with a struggling friend. “I didn’t realise back then it was really that bad for you.” Atop a meticulous array of synths, her vocals become all the more wrenching, as if re-inserting herself in that situation ignites a long-simmering ache that has only now come to the surface. As it continues to grow, the singer fails to reach any direct resolution – but before the song cuts off, she has no choice but to embrace the uncertainty that surrounds her.
17. Lil Nas X feat. Jack Harlow, ‘Industry Baby’
In the lead-up to his highly anticipated debut LP, Lil Nas X followed up ‘Montero (Call Me By Your Name)’ and ‘Sun Goes Down’ with another chart-topping anthem, and an explicitly queer one at that. But in the context of an album that impressed for its emotional vulnerability and confessional moments, ‘Industry Baby’ is also a triumphant banger that boasts one of Lil Nas X’s catchiest hooks to date. With a memorable guest verse from Jack Harlow and colourful production by Take a Day Trip and Kanye West, Nas flaunts his success and snaps back at skeptics who dismissed him as a one-hit-wonder, reveling in his own self-mythology and remaining unapologetically authentic in what might be the most fun pop song of the year. “Funny how you said it was the end,” he raps, “Then I went did it again.”
16. Half Waif, ‘Party’s Over’
Half Waif’s Nandi Rose is comfortable writing from a place of solitude; so much of her catalog is about coping with your own aloneness. On ‘Orange Blossoms’, her first song since 2019’s The Caretaker, she reminds us that the process is ongoing: “Somebody make me think I might be worth something,” she sings, powerless and desperate. But she plants seeds of growth that blossom on the single’s B-side and a stand-out from this year’s Mythopoetics, ‘Party’s Over’. Not being invited to the party forces her to once again be present with herself, but this time, she doesn’t come up with some sort of fantastical escape; the music video simply shows her walking away from the center of the action. This vulnerability is reminiscent of Billie Eilish’s similarly titled 2019 single, although ‘Party’s Over’ shares its pop sensibilities more than its haunting tone of resignation. Building out from a stark electronic backdrop, Rose imbues the song with the kind of richness and fervour that makes self-acceptance seem not only possible, but liberating.
15. Strand of Oaks, ‘Galacticana’
When it came to channeling the cosmic, existential feeling that fuelled his latest Strand of Oaks record, Tim Showalter wasn’t quite satisfied with the word “Americana.” So he came up with his own term, one that encompasses all the different sounds and sentiments that pour out from his music. Written at the start of the pandemic, ‘Galacticana’ is not only a striking reintroduction to Strand of Oaks, but, fittingly, an anthem of togetherness: “I believe that ecstasy happens when we all get together,” Showalter sings, assuring listeners his aim is to uplift – even when faced with insurmountable loss. As much emotional weight and subtlety as there is to the song – most of which resides in Showalter’s outstanding vocal delivery – its atmosphere is warmly inviting and the hook infectious, and that guitar solo really drives the point home: whichever corner of the universe you come from, you’re welcome to join the party.
14. Indigo De Souza, ‘Hold U’
One of the most dynamic indie rock debuts of the year, Indigo De Souza’s Any Shape You Take has no shortage of cathartic moments. The sleek R&B of ‘Hold U’ might be the easiest to groove along to, but of all the different forms of all-consuming love that come to light on the LP, the single also serves as the purest expression of it. It might carry a lighter touch than some of the Asheville songwriter’s more visceral offerings, but the warm intimacy of the track helps to elevate its message of communal devotion, and De Souza delivers it in a manner that’s both sincere and infectious: “You are a good thing, I’ve noticed,” she sings, and it’s the feeling of being seen that’s more validating than the affirmation that precedes it. In promising to keep her loved ones close, De Souza makes the necessary act of self-love seem like less of a daunting task.
13. Lala Lala, ‘DIVER’
The myth of Sisyphus serves as a metaphor for eternal struggle, but Lala Lala’s Lillie West sees the romance in it. Inspired by Kate Bush and Jennifer Egan’s novel Manhattan Beach, ‘DIVER’, off her striking third album I Want the Door to Open, pulses with a universal kind of yearning: “I want it all, it’s palpable,” she sings against a simmering electronic backdrop. The production might sound skeletal at first, but the cinematic strings and dynamic drumming by Nnamdi Ogbonnaya thrum with possibility, a freedom that West embraces in the heady chorus, where she imagines herself “Swimming out towards my new life/ Dragged in by the undertow.” The narrator might be playing a character, but accepting that performance as a part of reality – a journey with no particular destination – makes the effort itself strangely rewarding.
12. illuminati hotties, ‘MMMOOOAAAAAYAYA’
Even for a track titled ‘MMMOOOAAAAAYAYA’, there is a lot going on here. On the first single from illuminati hotties’ latest album Let Me Do One More, the tone is one of unhinged euphoria, sneering derision, and playful irreverence, and Sarah Tudzin jumps between each mode with such speed it’s like she’s inhabiting all these voices at once. At all times, though, it’s clear the lyrics and the instrumental are speaking the same deranged language, one that only makes sense in the illuminati hotties universe but draws you in with hooks that are simply explosive. You might have trouble decoding lines like “Love me, fight me, choke me, bite me/ The DNC is playing dirty/ Text me, touch me, call me daddy,” but it all comes together into one of the most wildly exhilarating tracks of the year – and before you know it, you’ll be singing along.
11. Ethel Cain, ‘God’s Country’
‘God’s Country’ isn’t the most immediate song on Ethel Cain’s Inbred EP – for that, you’ll have to go to ‘Michelle Pfeiffer’ or ‘Crush’ – but split between the record’s lighter and darker sides, it serves as a shining example of her unrelenting vision. It took six months for Hayden Anhedönia – the Florida-born songwriter behind the project – to write the track, which went through at least ten versions before she settled on the eight-minute epic that appears on the EP. Although “emerged with” might be a more fitting term, as Anhedönia had to start over from scratch three days before the final mixes were due, lending the song a dramatic urgency that pervades its carefully crafted coming-of-age narrative. “I just want it to sound as big as possible,” she said in our interview earlier this year, “but it’s like, it’ll never be big enough, because how are you supposed to capture the expanse of human emotion and the world in a song?” Finding hope in letting go of the dream, and with a guest appearance from Wicca Phase Springs Eternal that embodies the sense of comradery that colours the song, ‘God’s Country’ comes tantalizingly close.
10. Olivia Rodrigo, ‘good 4 u’
No song better represented the sound of the pop-punk revival in the mainstream this year than Olivia Rodrigo’s ‘good 4 u’, as evidenced by the fact that more people talked about its similarities to the singer’s apparent influences and lesser-known contemporaries than the song itself. But while those same people will have most definitely lost interest in the debate of who owns the cheerleader aesthetic by now, there’s a reason this breakup anthem still sounds as ferocious and resonant as it did upon its release in May: Rodrigo treats the familiar stylings of the genre less as a vehicle for nostalgia than pure emotion and storytelling, existing in the same world as the melancholy ballads that preceded it rather than representing a departure from it. “Maybe I’m too emotional,” Rodrigo admits, her self-awareness quickly weaponized: “But your apathy is like a wound in salt.” It’s obvious she’s not afraid to channel her rage, and she’s not the only one – but few of her peers sound so joyously defiant doing it.
9. The War on Drugs, ‘I Don’t Live Here Anymore’
‘I Don’t Live Here Anymore’ started out as a bedroom recording in Adam Granduciel’s home studio, but in its final form, it offers a sweeping moment of transcendence made for the biggest arenas. When critics talk about the War on Drugs’ fifth LP being their most accessible and immediate to date, no song fits that description better than the title track, with vibrant synths, massive guitars, and gospel backing vocals from Lucius augmenting its magnetic hook. As anthemic as it is, the song captures the elusive feeling of things falling out of grasp, as Granduciel vacillates between memories of the past and the urgency that punctuates the chorus. “I’m gonna make it to the place I need to go/ We’re all just walkin’ through this darkness on our own,” he sings. That place never quite snaps into view, but the War on Drugs are ready for liftoff regardless.
8. Snail Mail, ‘Valentine’
Quiet-loud dynamics are an essential component of some of the best rock songs, but few implemented them with more urgency and intention this year than Snail Mail’s Lindsey Jordan. The title track and lead single to her sophomore album, Valentine, doesn’t so much represent a shift to a more expansive sound as it highlights the 22-year-old’s ability to control and release tension at just the right moment to amplify the conflict that sits at the heart of her music. The story she tells on ‘Valentine’ is non-linear yet heartbreaking, the creeping devastation of the verses and explosive directness of the chorus capturing a whirlwind of emotion and time, a broken relationship whose ghost still feels achingly present. “As long as it’s us two/ Fuck being remembered, I think I was made for you,” she confesses, her tone suddenly growing accusatory: “So why’d you wanna erase me?” As it crashes and burns, there’s nothing quite as thrilling as watching a world of bombast and intimacy collide.
7. Sharon Van Etten & Angel Olsen, ‘Like I Used To’
‘Like I Used To’ could have been purely symbolic, a collaboration between two of the most revered songwriters of the past decade that simply cemented their status in the indie world. But whatever expectations you might have brought to it, the song somehow lives up to every single one of them. ‘Like I Used To’ finds Sharon Van Etten and Angel Olsen at the height of their powers, delivering a triumphant anthem that brims with confidence but aches with longing for a kind of rebirth that’s never satisfied. No matter how big and expansive John Congleton’s production sounds, their voices sound raw and emotive as they drift through a fog of memories. Yet despite the elusive nature of the lyrics, which streak by like a flash of lightning through the dark sky, the song is full of heart, grandeur, and thunder, a swaggering moment that feels entirely earned.
6. Low, ‘Days Like These’
The first half of Low’s ‘Days Like These’ rings with a visceral and desperate kind of clarity, but the object of desire remains ever so slightly out of focus. Together, Alan Sparhawk and Mimi Parker sing with force as they strive towards some sort of unity, their voices dancing around a strikingly simple melody. But the space between them and their surroundings, so deftly captured by producer BJ Burton, is blurry and vast. The haunting, distorted hymn inevitably corrupts upon itself, giving way to a spectral ambience where any hint of emotion dissolves into abstraction. It may not exactly resemble transcendence, but it doesn’t come off as a form of surrender, either. “No, you’re never gonna be released,” they sing earlier, but the outro feels like just that: a release of tension, as transformative as it is ambiguous.
5. Porter Robinson, ‘Look at the Sky’
Putting out a genuinely life-affirming song in the middle of a pandemic might seem like a futile effort, but Porter Robinson was up to the task. First teased in May 2020 and released in full this January, ‘Look at the Sky’ is a soaring highlight off the Atlanta producer’s long-awaited sophomore LP Nurture, one that radiates hard-won optimism even as it confronts his struggles with writer’s block and depression: “Are you close?/ Shouldn’t it come to you naturally?/ And everyone knows/ You’re losing your gift and it’s plain to see.” But rather than clouding its message of hope, acknowledging the feelings of self-doubt – captured deftly through Robinson’s production tricks – makes it resonate on a more universal level. If it’s carried us all through the year, it can carry us into the next: “Look at the sky, I’m still here/ I’ll be alive next year.”
4. Japanese Breakfast, ‘Be Sweet’
Between her best-selling memoir, her fantastic third album, a video game soundtrack, and her first Grammy nomination, 2021 was a momentous year for Michelle Zauner. No single could have ushered in the new era of Japanese Breakfast more vibrantly than ‘Be Sweet’, an ‘80s-inspired dancefloor jam co-written with Wild Nothing’s Jack Tatum. Driven by buoyant synths and a funky bassline, it finds the singer-songwriter, who started the project as a means of grappling with grief, wholeheartedly embracing the pursuit of joy – and all the complications that entails. “Be sweet to me baby/ I wanna believe in you/ I wanna believe in something!” she urges, and it’s the shift from you to something that suggests this is less a portrait of a relationship at a vulnerable moment in time, which Zauner so intricately renders in the verses, and more of a poignant character study. Two years ago, she tweeted that the theme of Jubilee was shaping up to be “please just be nice to me” – ‘Be Sweet’ may not sound that far removed from that description, but by filling in the details, it makes the rush of euphoria sound utterly possible and infinitely arresting.
3. Lucy Dacus, ‘Thumbs’
On ‘Thumbs’, Lucy Dacus uses a simple premise – the narrator accompanies a friend to a bar where she meets up with her absent father – to invoke a universe of feeling. Although written during a 15-minute car ride, the Virginia singer-songwriter had to perform the song live for three years to master the chillingly unwavering performance she delivers on the studio version. “I would kill him if you let me,” she seethes, sounding both raw and stoic in her furious determination. So vividly does she lay out the scene that you wouldn’t hesitate to be her accomplice. We don’t learn much about the relationship in question, but there are clues (“Honey, you sure look great/ Do you get the checks I send on your birthday?”), and by the time she sings about her friend’s nails “digging into my knee,” you could cut the tension with a knife. Besides Dacus’ voice, the spare backdrop is more than enough to set the atmosphere, the tides of white noise mirroring the depth of her emotion. For all the anger that she weaves into it, ‘Thumbs’ is most visceral for its display of compassion: Letting go of her dark fantasy, she holds on to the person in front of her and spills out a truth that will resonate with anyone listening: “You don’t owe him shit even if he said you did.”
2. Ada Lea, ‘damn’
“Every year is just a little bit darker/ Then the darker gets darker/ Then it’s dark as hell,” Ada Lea sings on ‘damn’, the standout opening track from her second album one hand on the steering wheel the other sewing a garden. Over light guitar strums that propel the song forward, we follow the narrator’s train of thought as her mind wavers between observing the party she’s at and untangling the web of everything that’s wearing her down. She focuses her attention on someone grappling with substance use; “seeing them struggle brought out this other story that felt bigger than just that one person,” she explained in our interview. In a similar way, her list of grievances – which include things that would otherwise be a source of comfort, like “the song that’s spinning and trying to lift us up” – add up to a kind of existential frustration. But though catharsis comes later on in the album, if at all, ‘damn’ is a song that grips you rather than dragging you down, a sweeping ode to the wonder of being totally in the moment and out of it at the same time, completely alert and alone, grasping for something greater.
1. Cassandra Jenkins, ‘Hard Drive’
‘Hard Drive’ has all the markers of a great song, but in less capable hands, it could easily slide into the background or out of your mind entirely. Shuffling together spoken word, breezy saxophone, and a subtly uplifting groove, the centrepiece of Cassandra Jenkins’ An Overview on Phenomenal Nature documents a series of conversations that tell us as much about art, politics, and life as they do about the characters themselves – a security guard, a bookkeeper, a driving instructor, a healer – and the narrator’s own headspace. “Oh, dear, I can see you’ve had a rough few months/ But this year, it’s gonna be a good one,” one of them tells her; another advises her to “leave room for grace.”
Rather than making the song stiff or impenetrable, almost as evidence, Jenkins stitches these memories together in a way that feels genuinely revitalizing, softening around the edges and generously slipping a melody into the chorus. The result is a marvel of empathy and a testament to the power of music to shift the energy of whatever place you’ve found yourself in. You don’t need to be able to trace a line between Jenkins and someone like Laurie Anderson to appreciate what ‘Hard Drive’ has to offer: I’ve played this song to many people this year, and no matter the context, it never fails to fill the room with warmth, wonder, and indeed, grace. You catch each other’s gaze, fall into it, close your eyes, and move along: One, two, three.