Folks, this is a good one.
To me, the last truly great year for music was 2016. 2017 and on have been solid, but more and more my decision to focus on the top ten for this annual feature instead of a top 25 like I used to seemed like the wiser and wiser choice.
Then, this year! After a wild decrease in music releases in 2020, 2021 is solidly the best year for music over the last five.
Here, we go over the best songs of the year. We begin with two songs that weren’t eligible for this year’s list but I missed last year for whatever reason (late 2020 release, pre-album single), and then dive into the top ten. In addition, I’ve ranked the entire top 25 below that and also list fifteen honorable mentions.
Tomorrow, I’ll be releasing my best albums of 2021 list (featuring well over 50 albums), and in the next couple of weeks I’ll be going over the ten best TV episodes and TV shows of 2021, something I’ve never done before.
PS, if you want more song recommendations, I give you a lot more tomorrow.
Here we go.
Ineligible But Worthy
Carly Pearce: “Next Girl”
On Valentine’s Day of 2020, Carly Pearce released her second album, partly inspired by her new marriage. Just half a year but many world events later, Pearce dropped this absolute scorcher warning anyone who finds themselves involved with Michael Ray. Co-written with Shane McAnally and Josh Osborne of “Merry Go Round” fame, to wildly understate their prolificness, it’s no real surprise that “Next Girl” is the best country song of the past few years, and an easy top five song of 2020.
Baby Queen: “Want Me”
I’m just not aware of many songs as infectious as this, a shameless embrace of unhealthy obsession (that’s actually about Jodie Comer). Its finale is unrivaled. Everyone should pay attention to the movements of producer King Ed, clearly a genius who’s just getting started. More on Bella herself later. Song of 2020.
10. Maisie Peters: “Psycho”
Yeah, it’s a lot. “Psycho” is aggressive as hell in its catchiness, Steve Mac’s production bringing out the manic glee on the other side of getting two-timed. Easily the best thing with Ed Sheeran’s name attached.
9. Kalie Shorr: “Amy”
Wronging Kalie Shorr seems like a preposterously poor idea. My goodness, this is the most thorough musical evisceration put to tape since “The Story of Adidon.”
8. WILLOW (ft. Travis Barker): “t r a n s p a r e n t s o u l”
Travis Barker continues his silent mission to bring back pop punk by lending his bonafides to preexisting superstars trying their hand at the genre, and while “running like the Flash” shows us the limitation of the lyric sheet, pop punk vocals fit Willow Smith like a glove. Kickass song, no two ways about it.
7. illuminati hotties: “MMMOOOAAAAAYAYA”
I’ve always found Sarah Tudzin slightly terrifying, here more so than ever. Listening to her effortlessly leap between her dozens of voices is like standing on shifting sands. Guessing which layer of irony she’s on always feels so uncertain. Do you reckon “the DNC is playing dirty” is an odd or even-numbered layer?
6. MUNA (ft. Phoebe Bridgers): “Silk Chiffon”
Naomi McPherson (guitarist, MUNA): “We should define queer music as music of longing.”
Josette Maskin (other guitarist, MUNA): “That’s literally the gayest thing ever.”
5. Billie Eilish: “Happier Than Ever”
I love Happier Than Ever but I sympathize with those that find it kinda sleepy. So when she sneaks up on you at the two minute mark with the most fun thing she’s ever done (saying something), you get that much more into it. Maybe she’s not talking shit about this guy on the internet, so here she is on record.
4. Olivia Rodrigo: “good 4 u”
SOUR made its bones on Olivia Rodrigo’s hyperspecific details, so it’s funny that its finest song is its broadest. She keeps things as simple as possible here, methodically outlining that her ex’s happiness is not only at her expense but in fact because of her in the first place, Rodrigo finding no consolation that her efforts to find him a therapist will make things smoother for the next girl. Rodrigo’s sour grapes kick tons of ass, her hair-raising backing vocals and “LIKE A DAMN SOCIOPATH!!!” should put the fear of God in this guy, however happy he was before this sucker dropped.
3. Baby Queen: “Raw Thoughts”
Not her best lyric sheet, but that’s because she’s so dedicated to the rawness of these thoughts, best expressed in the double somersault, “They’ll never get it unless they sat under my skin/And saw what I did/Actually fuck that god forbid/They see what I did.” But this is here for that big, big, big hook, an absolute monster of a refrain that makes you wonder why no pop song has punctuated “I got fucked up” quite like this. But what makes “Raw Thoughts” is that it really, really sounds like Bella had a truly awful night.
2. Indigo De Souza: “Hold U”
At no point this year did my ears perk up the way they did when I heard “Hold U” bloom. A celebration of romance and camaraderie and everything in between, De Souza’s band locks the fuck in for this one, thrilling with every dramatic strum of the guitar.
1. No-No Boy: “The Best God Damn Band In Wyoming”
Graduate student Julian Saporiti was making his way through a Wyoming museum when he came upon a picture of a band at Heart Mountain Relocation Center, a Japanese internment camp. He was so blown away to find such a thing existed that he tracked down singer Joy Teraoka, struck up a friendship, and wrote this song to help the history endure.
Saporiti’s songwriting and performing approaches are pretty simple, but he gets a lift from the tenderness with which he approaches his topics. Here, he gets into this one like it was the song he was put on this earth to sing. Indeed, the topic is particularly close to him, and set him on the path of writing these songs for his dissertation in American Studies.
And though this is a tale of finding joy in tragedy, it still can’t escape the dark conclusion underneath. The story ends with Yone going to fight for the country that just imprisoned him. Still, the epilogue finishes with the only line that could have ended this song: “Locked up in prison camps for no fucking reason, but they still found a reason to sing.”
At a time when hate towards Asian Americans and use of prison camps are again spiking in this country, “The Best God Damn Band In Wyoming” is at once essential history and eerily prescient.
The Next 15
11. Baby Queen: “Dover Beach”
12. McKinley Dixon (ft. Micah James, Gold Midas): “Never Will Know”
13. Kalie Shorr: “Love Child”
14. Dawn Richard: “Bussifame”
15. The Buoys: “Carpark”
16. Jazmine Sullivan: “Pick Up Your Feelings”
17. Lil Nas X: “THATS WHAT I WANT”
18. Tinashe: “Bouncin”
19. TORRES: “Don’t Go Puttin Wishes In My Head”
20. Japanese Breakfast: “Be Sweet”
21. Doss: “Strawberry”
22. Wet Leg: “Chaise Longue”
23. Olivia Rodrigo: “deja vu”
24. PinkPantheress: “Just for me”
25. Remi Wolf: “Liquor Store”
Adele: “Easy On Me”
Caroline Polachek: “Bunny Is A Rider”
Cassandra Jenkins: “Hard Drive”
Doja Cat (ft. SZA): “Kiss Me More”
Kacey Musgraves: “justified”
Low: “Days Like These”
Maisie Peters: “John Hughes Movie”
Mannequin Pussy: “Control”
MAY-A: “Time I Love To Waste”
Megan Thee Stallion: “Thot Shit”
Olivia Rodrigo: “brutal”
Snail Mail: “Valentine”
tUnE-yArDs: “hold yourself.”
Wet Leg: “Wet Dream”
First, here’s a playlist of all the songs in this article. Then, one of just the top ten.