Jon Pareles’s Top 25
Many of the best songs of 2021 are on the best albums of 2021, listed here. But of course there are many more: peaks of other albums, onetime collaborations, singles, random streams. Here are 25 memorable songs, arranged partly as a ranking but mostly as a mixtape.
1. Prince, ‘Welcome 2 America’
Recorded in 2010 but shelved until 2021, Prince’s “Welcome 2 America” was all too prescient, contemplating disinformation, consumer distractions, celebrity, desperation and historical legacies: “land of the free, home of the slave.” The bass line skulks, women harmonize, and Prince just speaks, bleak and deadpan.
2. Yotuel, Gente de Zona, Descemer Bueno, Maykel Osorbo, El Funky, ‘Patria y Vida’
“Homeland and Life” turns around a slogan of the Cuban revolution in 1959, “patria o muerte” — nation or death — to protest conditions in Cuba six decades afterward. In a passionate crescendo of sorrow and resentment, rappers and singers — both expatriates and residents — criticize poverty, lies and repression. Maykel Osorbo, one of its songwriters and performers, has been jailed.
3. Lil Nas X, ‘Montero (Call Me by Your Name)’
Lil Nas X reigned as provocateur, songwriter, singer, video figure, memelord and self-promoter in this song: a coming-out statement propelled by flamenco handclaps, fully prepared to foment and then mock a moral panic.
4. Taylor Swift, ‘All Too Well (10 Minute Version)’
The double-length remake of this song from “Red” is the extended director’s cut, or the DVD packed with extras, for Taylor Swift’s reproach to an ex who was “so casually cruel in the name of being honest.” It’s a longer slow burn with new damning details, as well as a chance to hear Swift curse “the patriarchy.”
5. Lizzo featuring Cardi B, ‘Rumors’
A thoroughly self-satisfied Lizzo and Cardi B exult, over horn-topped funk, in the way misinformation only increases their visibility and clout. “I do it for the culture,” Lizzo insists, and she points out that “Black people made rock ’n’ roll.”
6. Half Waif, ‘Swimmer’
“I wanna know they can’t take this away from me,” Nandi Rose Plunkett sings in the dramatic “Swimmer.” Synthesizer tones appear and then speed up into arpeggios, pulsing and swarming around her as she turns herself into a choir and proclaims her love, need and uncertainty.
7. Irreversible Entanglements, ‘Open the Gates’
“It’s energy time,” intones Camae Ayewa (a.k.a. Moor Mother) over a springy jazz bass vamp and a quickly growing profusion of percussion and horns that only hints at where a live version might go.
8. Teddy Afro, ‘Armash’ (‘Stand Up’)
The modal, two-chord groove is steadfast; the vocals are quietly imploring. They address a critical situation, pleading for national unity amid civil war in Ethiopia.
9. Dawn Richard, ‘Bussifame’
Dawn Richard, formerly of Danity Kane, connects her futuristic funk to her New Orleans roots as she throatily raps and sings about pride, pressure and moving to the beat.
10. Yendry, ‘Ya’
A drumbeat that sounds like an ancient ancestor of reggaeton, a throbbing electronic bass and woozy swoops of soprano and synthesizer accompany the Dominican-Italian songwriter Yendry as she lays out ambitions she’s willing to die for. “I want it all,” she states, just for starters.
11. Loraine James, ‘Simple Stuff’
The English electronic musician Loraine James deadpans “I like the simple stuff” over a throbbing, clattering, ricocheting, elusive beat that’s minimal but by no means simple.
12. Jorge Drexler and C. Tangana, ‘Tocarte’
Quietly, teasingly, with a bare minimum of backup providing a lot of implicit syncopation, Jorge Drexler and C. Tangana whisper-sing about longing for physical contact.
13. Bella Poarch, ‘Build a Bitch’
The cute, tinkly sounds of toy piano and ukulele don’t hide the anger, as the Filipina-American TikTok star Bella Poarch points out that a girlfriend is a human being, not a set of parameters.
14. Yebba, ‘Boomerang’
Yebba contemplates murderous revenge on her cheating ex — the father of her child — over a spaghetti-Western backdrop that’s just retro enough.
15. Camilo, ‘Vida de Rico’
In a smiley, skeletal cumbia, the Colombian songwriter promises love on a non-luxury budget.
16. Hayes Carll, ‘Nice Things’
With a deep, foot-stomping twang, the Texan songwriter Hayes Carll sings about a visit from God. Unfortunately, she runs into polluters, drug laws and self-righteous believers, misusing all her gifts.
17. The Felice Brothers, ‘To-Do List’
Set to easygoing, guitar-strumming country-rock, the Felice Brothers’ to-do list starts out practical but soon turns metaphysical: “Defy all natural laws.”
18. Courtney Barnett, ‘Before You Gotta Go’
Courtney Barnett tries to patch things up after a lovers’ quarrel, with meditative guitar picking that carries apologies and practical suggestions: “Maybe let’s cut out caffeine.”
19. Wye Oak, ‘Its Way With Me’
Over a snaking, circling 7/4 guitar line and tremulous strings, Jenn Wasner sings about purpose, fate and acceptance.
20. Kacey Musgraves, ‘Justified’
Gently but decisively, Kacey Musgraves confronts the many mixed feelings of a divorce, in a track that repeatedly shrinks to a lone guitar before opening canyons beneath her voice.
21. Lucy Dacus, ‘Thumbs’
Tension seethes under stately keyboard chords and a calmly rising and falling melody, as the narrator accompanies her girlfriend on a fraught family visit, a meeting with her long-estranged father. “I would kill him if you let me,” Dacus offers.
22. Rod Wave, ‘Tombstone’
The R&B singer Rod Wave welcomes death as a relief from a hard life, in a track that starts as a plaint set to acoustic guitar and builds toward gospelly redemption.
23. Leon Bridges, ‘Why Don’t You Touch Me’
Sparse, leisurely guitar picking and impassive programmed drums accompany Leon Bridges as he bemoans the fading passion in his romance, trying to figure out who’s to blame.
24. Kasai Allstars, ‘Olooh, a War Dance for Peace’
Kasai Allstars, a multiethnic coalition of five Congolese ensembles based in Kinshasa, string together enough ideas for at least a dozen songs — for guitars, percussion, men, women, groups, even what sounds like a jaw-harp — in less than six minutes, a show of unity and inexhaustible diversity.
25. Jlin, ‘Embryo’
The electronic musician Jlin (Jerrilynn Patton) started out making Chicago footwork tracks and has constantly grown more daring. ‘Embryo’ has a relentless, buzzing quasi-melody in the midrange and a brisk mostly 4/4 beat that Jlin ceaselessly complicates with double time twitches, sudden gaps, furtive bits of percussion and other stray sounds. It’s the best kind of overload.
Jon Caramanica’s Top 28
Not all great songs are on great albums — we discussed those already. They’re on mediocre albums. They’re on TikTok. They’re on YouTube or television. They’re lurking in shaded corners of the internet, waiting to be unearthed.
2. Pooh Shiesty featuring Lil Durk, ‘Back in Blood’
A growl-worthy anthem underpinned by a piano line that hits like a round of jabs, this was a breakout hit for the Memphis rapper Pooh Shiesty, who raps just a tad behind the beat, as if he’s keeping an eye on things before committing.
3. SpotemGottem featuring DaBaby, ‘Beat Box 3’
The Florida rapper SpotemGottem had an unexpectedly viral hit with “Beat Box,” which was extended and remixed several times with different guests — this was the most pugnacious entry in the seemingly never-ending saga.
7. Kacey Musgraves, ‘Breadwinner’
The ruthless Summer Jam screen exposé of country-pop. The battles around Kacey Musgraves always seem to be about genre, but she’s far more interested in internal scuffles.
8. Drake featuring Rick Ross, ‘Lemon Pepper Freestyle’
The certified lover boy’s best song this year was a throwback to a hungrier era. The rapping is relaxed and lush, and the union with Rick Ross is pitch-perfect nostalgia for the arriviste arrogance of a decade ago.
9. The Linda Lindas, ‘Racist, Sexist Boy (Live at LA Public Library)’
What an assured, confident, necessary howl of pure punk pushback. A viral smash but more important, a directly effective grunge-y burst of frustration with American bigotry that seeps even into the minds of children.
10. Tems featuring Brent Faiyaz, ‘Found’
A woozy and cocksure R&B duet that sounds like it was recorded in the middle of a lovers’ quarrel.
11. The Kid Laroi and Justin Bieber, ‘Stay’
The heretofore unexplored middle ground between the Peloton and the pit, “Stay” was a colossal smash, a hi-NRG song that’s somehow completely particular to the pop-punk revival breakthrough moment and also could be 30 years old or a beacon from 30 years in the future.
12. YoungBoy Never Broke Again, ‘Toxic Punk’
And they say rock ’n’ roll is dead!
13. Fivio Foreign, ‘Story Time’
New York drill truly began to wildly, sonically diversify this year, so it’s notable that one of the stars of the first wave is beginning to find new pathways — this was the moment drill turned to narrative.
14. Lil Baby, ‘On Me’
Relentless rapping from the most sneakily intricate lyricist currently working on a song that’s flirtatious, resentful, immodest and, most indicatively, wary.
15. SZA, ‘I Hate U’
It’s never in doubt for a second — the hate is real.
… and 13 more good songs:
Adele, “Easy on Me”
B-Lovee, “My Everything”
Rebecca Black featuring 3OH!3, Big Freedia and Dorian Electra, “Friday (Remix)”
Kay Flock, “Is Ya Ready”
Coi Leray featuring DaBaby, “Twinnem (Remix)”
Lil Yachty, KrispyLife Kidd, RMC Mike, Babyface Ray, Rio Da Yung OG, DC2Trill and Icewear Vezzo, “Royal Rumble”
Parker McCollum, “To Be Loved by You”
Jensen McRae, “Immune”
Polo G, “Rapstar”
Pop Smoke, “AP”
Sasha Alex Sloan featuring Sam Hunt, “When Was It Over?”
underscores, “Everybody’s Dead!”
WizKid featuring Justin Bieber and Tems, “Essence”
Lindsay Zoladz’s Top 15
It was a year of taking stock, assessing damages and cherishing what still remained. Fittingly, many of the most striking songs of 2021 spoke to different varieties of loss, sometimes of rosily remembered relationships, and other times of things more elusive and existential — the blithe comforts of youth, worry-free moments taken for granted or a past in which the grass covering our planet seemed just a little greener.
1. Low, ‘Days Like These’
Something about this apocalyptic hymn captured, for me, what it felt like to be alive in 2021: openhearted, bordering-on-naïve optimism that was suddenly interrupted by gale-force blowbacks; the stubborn necessity, nonetheless, of keeping hope flickering like a dim flame. The melody is simple, but the bursts of distortion that char it are so visceral, and the repeated refrain that haunts its final minutes suggests no easy way out of this cycle of life: “That’s why we’re living in days like these again, again, again …”
2. Olivia Rodrigo, ‘Drivers License’
The best songs transform the most mundane aspects of the world around us just a little bit: Now I want to cry every time I hear a car’s seat belt-safety alarm chime. Olivia Rodrigo reunited the disappearing monoculture and stopped the world on its axis for a couple of miraculous weeks early this year — not with drama or TikTok challenges so much as razor-sharp, damningly intimate songwriting.
3. Tyler, the Creator, ‘Wilshire’
The eight-minute penultimate track on Tyler, The Creator’s great “Call Me if You Get Lost” finds him, “Aquemini”-like, mastering the art of storytelling. What makes “Wilshire” so heartbreaking is how vividly Tyler is able to evoke a rare, sparks-flying connection between two people doomed to meet each other at the wrong time in their lives.
4. Wet Leg, ‘Chaise Longue’
Do not be fooled by the sing-song-y melody and the opening invocation of Mommy and Daddy: This Isle of Wight duo’s debut single is wry and knowing, a deadpan, arched eyebrow of a song that uses faux-innocence to hilarious (and infectious) effect. Plus, you’ll never mispronounce it “chase lounge” ever again!
5. Kacey Musgraves, ‘Camera Roll’
Like Lorde’s “Supercut” before it, “Camera Roll” reanimates a banal digital-era concept with a heaping dose of human melancholy, creating an unforgettable lyrical meditation on The Way We Break Up Now. Unlike “Supercut,” though, this one is a genuine tear-jerker: Just Kacey’s plangent voice atop a few sad chords that sound suspended in motion — all the more powerful for its elegant simplicity.
6. Adele, ‘To Be Loved’
Specifically the version she casually belted out from her living room sofa on Instagram, which was kind of the perfect encapsulation of this era of Adele: regal as ever, but newly open to the world and unafraid to get a little messy. It will be known that she tried!
7. The Weather Station, ‘Tried to Tell You’
“I feel as useless as a tree in a city park/Standing as a symbol of what we have blown apart,” Tamara Lindeman sings, conjuring an image of environmental negligence as arresting and lyrical as Joni Mitchell’s paved paradise. Lindeman’s airy falsetto hovers above this song like an omniscient but gradually fading presence, its presence sorrowful with the inevitability of incalculable loss.
8. Lil Nas X, ‘Montero (Call Me by Your Name)’
Please allow him to reintroduce himself: He’s a man of wealth and taste. What a joy it was to hear this devilishly hypnotizing earworm everywhere in 2021, queering the most mainstream spaces (nationally televised sports promos!) and allowing the supernaturally charismatic Lil Nas X to prove that there was so much more to him than “Old Town Road.”
9. Rostam, ‘4Runner’
A perfect hazy-day driving song with atmosphere to spare and a rhythm that moves like smeary frames half-glimpsed out the windows of a fast-moving vehicle. It’s like some long-lost ’90s soft-rock radio hit, except the edges are sharpened with the vaguest hints of danger, or maybe just a daydream of escapism: “Sleeping behind the wheel, pulled over on the freeway/4Runner, stolen plates, long, long gone.”
10. Cardi B, ‘Up’
On her only solo hit of the year, it’s as if Cardi B were asked to distill her entire larger-than-life persona into two minutes and 30 seconds — a bouillon cube of Bardi that was strong enough to give sustenance for an entire year. Not a moment of “Up” is wasted, from its elastic tongue-twister of a pre-chorus to its savage invocation of pink eye and breath that (after all these months I still cannot even think about it without laughing) “smells like horse sex.” Hip-hop’s reigning comedian strikes again!
11. Aldous Harding, ‘Old Peel’
New Zealand’s Aldous Harding always seems to be moving to her own rhythm, and at times even speaking in her own idiosyncratic language. Spiky and stomping, “Old Peel” was a live favorite before she finally released a recorded version this year, and it’s a perfect (and wildly catchy) introduction into her strange universe.
12. Lana Del Rey, ‘White Dress’
A high point of Lana Del Rey’s staggeringly prolific two-album year, this pirouetting bit of skywriting cast an enticing spell and showcased an underappreciated aspect of her evolution, which is how much stronger and controlled a singer she has become over her unpredictable career. One ticket to the Men in Music Business Conference, please.
13. Snail Mail, ‘Headlock’
“Sorrow snuck into our secret place,” Lindsey Jordan keens — and you know you’re in trouble because that’s somehow only the fifth or sixth most heartbreaking line in this song. A devastating snapshot of the lowest point of heartbreak, made all the more affecting by Jordan’s penchant for gut-punch chords and throbbingly raw vocal delivery.
14. Jessie Ware, ‘Please’
Like a Thanksgiving dinner whose Friday night leftovers rival the real thing, the “Platinum Pleasure Edition” of Jessie Ware’s 2020 disco opus “What’s Your Pleasure?” was a follow-up feast of its own. “Please” was the undeniable highlight — a silky dance floor banger that nodded to Janet’s pleasure principle while conjuring the dazzling euphoria of ’80s Whitney.
15. Caroline Polachek, ‘Bunny Is a Rider’
Following that fabled white rabbit down all sorts of unexpected alleyways, Caroline Polachek’s mercurial sound shape-shifts nimbly, along with her digitally augmented voice. Polachek’s ear for hooks and open-ended imagination makes the whistling “Bunny” — an excellent stand-alone single that follows her underrated 2019 album “Pang” — feel like a space of infinite pop possibility.