The Top 10 Songs of 2021
A note before beginning: 10 is an arbitrary number, so if you’re annoyed that your favorite songs of the year are not included in this list, feel free to assume that they were the next to be included if 10 wasn’t the standard.
10. glaive & ericdoa — “f**k this town”
It’s an odd thing to praise someone for, but the best thing about glaive is that he’s annoying. A 16 year-old hyperpop wunderkind, glaive manages to singularly capture the pubescent high school experience in a way that few have ever achieved. He throws every sound he can manage at the wall, and then doesn’t bother to see what sticks. “f**k this town,” in particular, captures the bleakness of smalltown high school life by being as loud as possible, both literally and figuratively. It’s not nice to listen to, but that’s the point: it’s also not nice to feel stuck in your hometown; it’s not nice to be a teenager.
9. Bartees Strange — “Weights”
No song rocked harder this year than “Weights.” Strange is known for bringing indie-rock and rap together into one whole, uniting rap with a genre that has long denied its own aesthetic influence from Black culture. “Weights” doesn’t necessarily feel rap-influenced in the way Strange’s previous masterworks like “Boomer” do. Instead, it proves Strange’s worth outside of the rap and indie tagline that is easily pinned to him. “Weights” rocks hard and fast, with hooks on top of hooks and an unflinchingly die-hard performance from Strange. When he sings that “we can get out tonight,” you’ll want to go with him.
8. Japanese Breakfast — “Be Sweet”
Did anyone have a better 2021 than Japanese Breakfast’s frontwoman Michelle Zauner? She released a bestselling memoir, got a Grammy nomination for Best New Artist, and released one of the best indie-rock records of the year in ‘Jubilee.’ “Be Sweet,” the lead single from that record, is one of the most buoyant songs 2021 has to offer. The bassline thumps and pumps like a runaway train, and Zauner’s voice is bright as can be. The song, which is pleading with a lover to “be sweet,” isn’t happy, but something better: invigorating.
7. Tyler, the Creator — “Lumberjack”
Two years ago, Tyler, the Creator released his album ‘Igor,’ won a Grammy for it, and then correctly decried the fact that he was slotted into the “Urban” category solely because he’s Black, instead of the pop category where ‘Igor’ would fit better. This year, he released ‘Call Me If You Get Lost,’ one of the year’s best rap records. Of course, he didn’t create an album just to troll the Grammys, but that narrative points to the fact that Tyler always seems to create his work with a smirk. “Lumberjack,” one of the album’s hardest hitting songs, is bracing and exciting. Especially when taken in the context of ‘Igor,’ this song is the biggest flex possible. Whatever you want Tyler to do, he can do it. In a year when Kanye and Drake, two of rap’s household names, produced sprawling, unedited albums that went nowhere, it’s nice to look over the year and see this rap superstar showing off his range and knowing it worked.
6. SZA — “Good Days”
The best Billboard hit of the year, “Good Days” is a perfect daydream. SZA’s been knocked online for her imprecise diction, but here it’s perfectly suited to her material. The way she sings allows her to float through “Good Days,” wishing to be in a better moment than the one she finds herself in. Though it sounds blissed out, “Good Days” is, in the tradition of much of our best music, deceptively depressing lyrically. The masking of that depression through soft instrumentation and SZA’s vocal sensibility perfectly suits the themes of the longing for the time when you’ll be over a bad relationship. During a difficult year like 2021, “Good Days” gave voice to the many of us wishing to be just a little further ahead in time.
5. Little Simz — “Introvert”
The song might be called “Introvert,” but it’s one of the most audacious of the year. “Introvert,” the opener of Little Simz’s album ‘Sometimes I Might Be Introvert,’ is a song of epic proportions. It’s six minutes long, has gigantic horns and a chorus section, and toward the end, Emma Corrin, known for her role as Princess Diana on “The Crown,” does a spoken word section in character as Diana. Somehow, Little Simz holds it all together with a confident yet loose rap that feels both up to the challenge of everything around it yet never worried with over-precision. This song is one of the year’s most impressive balancing acts.
4. Yves Tumor — “Jackie”
“Jackie” is the year’s most seductive song. Yves Tumor sings with a prowl in their voice, pleading and sexy. While a lot of our most popular indie-rock artists (Stevens, The War on Drugs) are talented eunuchs, Tumor is breathtaking in their deployment of sexuality. The song is sexy in a way that never feels related to this world — “Let’s Get It On” this is not — but also seems to be working within rock tradition — there’s more than a note of “Smells Like Teen Spirit” in the hook. “Jackie” is about obsession, desperation and deep rumination, and all of that follows through into the instrumentation and the performance. As the guitars thrum and Tumor growls, it’s hard not to fall prey.
3. Indigo De Souza — “Hold U”
With due respect to the efforts of super-talents like Snail Mail, MUNA and Phoebe Bridgers, the best moment in queer-girl indie rock of the year is the music video for Indigo De Souza’s “Hold U.” As De Souza’s blissful ode to interpersonal connection plays, a group of queer people parties with such force that the audience can’t help but want to join. It’s joyous, it’s gay, it’s excited. Luckily, the song they’re partying to more than holds up to the force of its video. The way that De Souza lightly touches the notes of her hook without committing to any individual one is simply impossible not to smile at, and when she breaks into a full belt toward the end of the song, the release is all the better for her earlier restraint. No song this year was less self-consciously ebullient and in 2021 unabashed ebullience is exactly what we needed.
2. Caroline Polachek — “Bunny is a Rider”
“Bunny is a Rider” seems expressly designed to avoid any answer to the question “what’s this song about?” It also avoids answering “who is Bunny?” and “what does it mean that she’s a rider?” Trying to decode all that is not the point. The point is how this song eludes any attempt to pin it down: the lyrics are impossible to follow and Polachek performs them as if each word is slippery, flying out of her mouth without any thought given to what she’s saying. “Bunny is a Rider” forces itself to wash over you, eschewing the very 2021 desperation for analysis (Lyric Genius won’t help you here). Polachek’s voice seems to operate on a different frequency from normal human, her opera training creates a tension between the pop production and her high-flying vocal performance. When Polachek performs the song, her movements are uncanny, just slightly removed from the reality we live in, just like the song, just like Bunny.
1. Jazmine Sullivan feat. H.E.R. — “Girl Like Me”
“Girl Like Me,” the final song on Jazmine Sullivan’s recent EP ‘Heaux Tales,’ is not one that’s particularly easy to listen to — in fact it’s brimming with Sullivan’s worst moments of introspection. Over the course of one song, she gives into internalized misogyny, hopelessness and self-judgement. Her voice powers through those emotions, continually building in desperation until it hits climax where she’s basically screaming. Yet, somehow, her vocals never seem strained except when she needs them to. It can be vulnerable to be sad, but there’s a pride in righteous sadness; it’s even more vulnerable to show yourself feeling what you’re not proud of. Sullivan has been singing about failed relationships since 2008, but here she hits a new peak of soul-baring work. H.E.R. matches Sullivan’s energy, her parts changing the song from aria to a moment of commiseration. It’s an artful song, modern in its details (Fashion Nova) but classic in its themes (feeling incapable of being loved). “Girl Like Me” is a difficult song, but it’s all the better for it.