The Best Songs of 2021

best-songs-2021-splash

You can view our list of The Best Albums of 2021 here.

There were so many great songs this year that we honestly had a hard time narrowing it down. Tracks that put the finishing touches on some of our favorite albums (“traitor”, “Justified”, “That’s What I Want”) and songs that stood alone as brilliant moments of hope, pain, and resolve (“Silk Chiffon”, “All Too Well (10 Minute Version) (Taylor’s Version)”. We even had our first track from a comedy special crack the list. Although it’s admittedly hard to have a laugh while listening to “That Funny Feeling”.

While we wait on a new year of tracks to fill our playlists, we’ll finish out the remainder of 2021 jamming along to these. Take a look at our list below and let us know what songs stood out to you.

15. Royal Blood – “Typhoons”

One of the lead singles from the UK rock duo’s album of the same name, “Typhoons” is a dance-ready track that explores the damage of living with thoughts constantly swirling in your head. As someone who lives everyday reliving scenarios and ideas and hoping for better outcomes, Royal Blood manage to find the hopelessness and ecstasy of the situation against a steady beat and garage rock guitars (“I need waking up, I should face the truth / I could calm the storm if I wanted to”). – Kyle Schultz

14. Bo Burnham – “That Funny Feeling”

I would consider anyone who says they didn’t like Inside by Bo Burnham to be lying a little. It was an incredibly versatile representation of how crazy everyone went in quarantine, and offered a fresh take on almost any genre we could think of, including the campfire song with “That Funny Feeling”. When the theaters opened up again, a friend and I saw Inside on the big screen, and what could be a better example of the song than seeing the Netflix logo at a theater? Every track in the special is devastating in one way or another, but somehow the juxtaposition of “A gift shop at the gun range / A mass shooting at the mall” hits so much closer than any of us want it to. Top it off with the Phoebe Bridgers cover and you have not only a perfect picture of both how timeless singing songs about how messed up and sad society is, but also how deeply Inside touched culture this year. – Nadia Alves

13. Holly Humberstone – “Scarlett”

I first heard Holly Humberstone while driving alone at night, which turns out to be the perfect setting to experience her latest EP, The Walls Are Way Too Thin. “Scarlett” is Humberstone’s best track to date, tapping into a soft but serious indie rock sound that lets her explore themes of hurt and heartbreak with  a sense of melancholy and resolve. “‘Cause I cried all the summer away / Oh, you left me waiting on a heartbreak”, she sings to launch into one of the year’s most memorable choruses. But “Scarlett”, and the EP as a whole, aren’t meant to wallow in the pain so much as use the songs as a way to process and move forward, made ever so clear by the track’s final line: “I don’t need you now”. – Kiel Hauck

12. Graduating Life – “Crushed & Smothered”

On a base level, “Crushed & Smothered” is a standard emo rock song from Graduating Life. What sets it apart from the genre is the raw, excruciating energy behind it. The song demands the listener unleash their inner torments (“Show me what angers you / Ball up your fist show me why you exist, fight back / Don’t be defined by the cuts on your wrist / Go!”) before unleashing an orgasm of sound and guitar solos at differing tempos. “Crushed & Smothered” is a melodic release of emotion, rage and angst that pull the lyrics describing an anxiety attack under the rug, if only for a moment. – Kyle Schultz

11. Silk Sonic – “Leave the Door Open”

I would call this the yummiest song of 2021. When this song came out I was instantly enamored. It brought me back to a time i wasn’t even around for. The way it equally brings us back to Motown and keeps us in the modern age is not an easy feat, and only doable by artists with an intense knowledge of music history. Enter Bruno Mars and Anderson Paak. Every song on An Evening With Silk Sonic deserves to be on top lists this year, simply because of how smooth they are. The hardest part of ranking them would be picking the best song on the album. For me, this single perfectly encapsulates the album as a whole, and ushers us into another era. – Nadia Alves

10. Kacey Musgraves – “Justified”

“Healing doesn’t happen in a straight line”. That simple, yet powerful line that serves as the heartbeat of Kacey Musgraves’ Star-Crossed is what sparked an hour-long podcast we recorded on why the album is the perfect encapsulation of the experience of divorce. “Justified” is inarguably the best track from Star-Crossed, in part because it most closely resembles the sonic excellence of Golden Hour, but also because it reveals the thematic and artistic next evolution of Musgraves, both as a musician, and more importantly, as a human. Throughout the album, she mines the feelings of grief and confusion that accompany such a traumatic event, but a track like “Justified” offers Musgraves the space to explore the sometimes prickly feelings and motivations that are necessary to move on. – Kiel Hauck

9. Real Friends – “Storyteller”

Real Friends’ stellar Torn in Two EP blasted an impressive lineup of songs that were stronger than they deserved to be, but amongst those jams was “Storyteller”, a song that duels with itself whether to be a soft emotional ballad or a hard rock emo anthem. “Storyteller” speaks to the animalistic instincts we have when someone we love lies to us, and the painful ways we it eats at us late at night (“212 degrees rushing forcefully through my veins and arteries / No chance of getting sleep, as you soundly rest”) and the cleansing way release of anguish and anger (“You’re a storyteller / What you buried deep resurfaced / You’re a liar, liar, liar”) that comes from calling this person out for how they’ve hurt us. – Kyle Schultz

8. girl in red – “Serotonin”

I had a tough year mentally. An unexpected loss at the end of 2020 basically took me out of the game emotionally all year. I’ve felt like I was just kind of existing and surviving, and one of the tracks that brought me back to myself a little bit is ”Serotonin” by girl in red. It’s fun and truthful, and doesn’t make me feel bad for the way I feel, the way a lot of songs try to make me squash the things I’m dealing with down deep inside. This is probably the song I’m most grateful for this year. Produced by Billie Eilish’s half brother FINNEAS, this is a track that will stay in the indie pop circles for years to come.– Nadia Alves

7. Lil Nas X – “THATS WHAT I WANT”

After opening track and first single “Montero (Call Me By Your Name)”, the next track on Lil Nas X’s brilliant debut to cause your ears to perk is “That’s What I Want”. It’s the kind of infectious and instantly memorable moment that “Old Town Road” promised us when he arrived on the scene two years ago. But what makes “That’s What I Want” so brilliant is its subversive nature. As easily as you can roll down your windows on a sunny day and sing along, you could also curl up into a ball and cry. “These days I’m way too alone / And I’m known for giving love away”, he sings right before his pleading chorus of, “I want someone to love me”. To experience Montero, and Lil Nas X in general, is to turn the prism in your hand, taking note of every angle and color. “That’s What I Want” showcases the brilliance and promise of one of the most important new pop artists on the planet. – Kiel Hauck

6. Olivia Rodrigo – “traitor”

Though her debut album, SOUR, spanned across genres, one song stood out among the pack: the quiet and somber “traitor”. Consisting of mostly sober synth, exhausted drums, tired acoustic guitar and Rodrigo’s exasperated vocals, “traitor” is the epitome of the frustration and pain of a dead relationship.

The song itself is a quiet affair, but it speaks to the raw emotion of lost love. From the almost whispered, “Ain’t it funny? / All the twisted games, all the questions you used to avoid”, to the pointed emphasis of, “Don’t you DARE forget about the way / You betrayed me”, Rodrigo hammers each word with a new form of heartbreak that nails the most innate and intimate emotions for what is a shared experience among almost everyone who experiences love. – Kyle Schultz

5. Willow feat. Travis Barker – “t r a n s p a r e n t s o u l”

Ah yes, Willow Smith. The biggest surprise for me this year both in albums and in singles, is the jump Willow made into the sea that is alternative music. And if that jump was in the Olympics, she would win gold. I am literally in love with this song. Travis Barker is only a crutch left to the side for her. He’s there if she needs him, but everyone can see that she’s able to stand perfectly fine on her own. It’s been a while since Willow Smith has released music, but when I bought  “Whip My Hair” from the iTunes store in 2010, it wasn’t hard for me to see that she has something special musically. Not only is the video (stylized as a “performance visual”) the perfect companion piece, it affords us a view of Willow as she should be seen: a strong, young woman full of talent. – Nadia Alves

4. Stand Atlantic feat. nothing,nowhere – “deathwish”

When I handed out a perfect score to Stand Atlantic’s Pink Elephant last summer, I certainly didn’t expect that the next song they would release would be the best thing the band has ever done. “Deathwish” hit just in time for summer and further blurred the band’s lines between pop and punk, which they so excellently began smearing on Pink Elephant. A song that’s just as easy to dance to as it is to mosh to, “deathwish” finds Bonnie Fraser tapping into a new level as a vocalist. Her pre-chorus, which crescendos with the line, “If you’re leaving, could you quit saying ‘bye’” right before the guitars and synths crash through your speakers is one of the highlights of 2021. Of course, the punk elite arrived right on cue to dismiss the track as too glitzy. The band responded with the raucous and ferocious “molotov [OK]” in November, which could’ve easily made this list as well. – Kiel Hauck

3. Taylor Swift – “All Too Well (10 Minute Version) (Taylor’s Version)”

Of all the music released in 2021, one song has seemed to stand tall amongst the competition. Taylor Swift’s 10-minute version of “All Too Well” is a behemoth of a song. While on a base level, it seems like an extended version of a single from almost a decade ago, this version of “All Too Well” is closer to what Swift originally intended the song to be.

What makes it stand out again after all this time is the fact that not only are there additional lyrics, it somehow hits and hurts more than it did upon original release. This is a feral pain that not only never quite healed, it embodies the heartbreak we all feel from our first broken love.

The 10-minute version of “All Too Well” would be easy to write off as a “cash grab” for the rerelease of Red, but the song was an overnight phenomenon. Accompanied by a short film and smashing the time limit for an SNL performance, Swift indulged her artistry in its purest form. While the original release may have been forced to scale back to a five-minute ballad, the 10-minute version not only adds more lines (“Check the pulse and come back swearing it’s the same / After three months in the grave / And then you wondered where it went to as I reached for you / But all I felt was shame and you held my lifeless frame”), it managed to hit a nerve of our collective consciousness that it may not have when she originally released it all those years ago. – Kyle Schultz

2. Greta Van Fleet – “Heat Above”

TikTok’s greatest success story this year (other than Noodle the Pug) is definitely Greta Van Fleet. A band once ridiculed for being an almost identical, albeit younger, Led Zeppelin is now at the forefront of modern rock. With “Heat Above”, the band comes into their own sonically and stylistically, and is the perfect opening track to their latest album The Battle At Garden’s Gate.

Josh Kiszka’s vocals are unmatched, only closely followed by the harmony he and his siblings have musically. It’s no wonder I can’t stop listening to it. Before the release of the music video, which is simple and allows the song to do the legwork, the band said, “Thematically, we are dead center in the cult of Heaven, surreal, strange, alive, and free.” And the video does just that. It elevates what is already an incredible piece of craftsmanship and provides the perfect visual to get lost in.

I never considered myself a real Greta Van Fleet fan; the hair metal of the 70s and 80s has never appealed to me like the folk and pop of those eras do, but “Heat Above” packs just the right amount of punch to make me a believer. – Nadia Alves

1. MUNA feat. Phoebe Bridgers – “Silk Chiffon”

From the opening moments of “Silk Chiffon”, as Katie Gavin croons, “Sun down and I’m feeling lifted / Downtown, cherry lipstick” over the strum of an acoustic guitar, there’s a sense of bliss that washes over you in the way that only the most perfect of pop songs can do. The track is an anthem of queer love, full of warmth and whimiscal imagery that captures those all-too-familiar feelings of innocent and exciting love on fleeting summer nights. 

I first heard the song on the night it was performed for the very first time, as MUNA opened for Phoebe Bridgers in Indianapolis. The band’s previous work, most notably their breakthrough 2019 album Saves the World, is marked by energetic synthpop – something the band does as well as anyone. But “Silk Chiffon” feels like the opening of a new chapter in which you could envision MUNA fully crossing over into the mainstream. 

It’s a track that seems to perfectly capture the trio’s personality while grafting in Phoebe’s as well. Just listen to the crunch of the guitar as she enters the second verse with her lines of, “I’m high and I’m feeling anxious / Inside a CVS”. For all of its brightness and charm, my favorite thing about “Silk Chiffon” is that it simply makes me feel happy. And I’ll be damned if that’s not just about the best feeling a song can inspire right now. – Kiel Hauck

Honorable Mention:

Baby Keem and Kendrick Lamar – “family ties”
Olivia Rodrigo – “good 4 u”
Spiritbox – “Circle with Me”
CHVRCHES – “Final Girl”
Architects – “Black Lung”

Posted by Kiel Hauck

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