best of 2021

The Best Songs of 2021 (So Far)

Photo-Illustration: Vulture; Photos by YouTube

Good songs thrive in any setting, with anyone or no one, and many born of the pandemic or at least released during it proved their ability to shake and shock us out of the day-to-day monotony of isolation, not unlike the way a well-executed beat drop on a night out once did. The same has been true of the standout music of 2021 so far: They’ve each offered moments of escape, reflection, and just plain old joy. We’re starting to hear some of these songs with others, either live in concert or out and about, as the world (gradually) reopens in certain countries and we’re able to get the full experience, but their just-as-great job of soundtracking neighborhood walks and Friday-night Twitter doomscrolls won’t go unthanked. Below, the best songs of 2021, as we’re somehow halfway through.

April-June

“Chaeri,” Magdalena Bay

Don’t let their delightfully bizarre music videos and TikToks fool you: Magdalena Bay is one of the most genuine artists in pop right now. The former prog-rockers come to pop with a true love and fascination for the genre (their 2020 song “How to Get Physical” alluded to Olivia Newton-John, while their upcoming debut album, Mercurial World, references Madonna), and their poignant lyricism places them alongside soul-baring left-field pop performers like Carly Rae Jepsen, Charli XCX, and Christine and the Queens. Nowhere on Mercurial World is that more apparent than “Chaeri,” a slow-burning anthem on which singer Mica Tenenbaum reaches out to a struggling former friend. “It’s only that bad if you tell yourself you’ll never get out of bed,” Tenenbaum assures, her trademark soprano cracking with emotion. The song builds toward an awesome, larger-than-life climax, the textbook definition of earning a drop. It’s a crying-on-the-dance-floor marathon that reaches toward “Dancing on My Own” or “All My Friends” — both begging to be screamed in a crowd of thousands and to be blasted alone in one’s bedroom. —J.C.

“CORSO,” Tyler, the Creator

Tyler, the Creator’s new album, CALL ME IF YOU GET LOST, is trying to be many things: a throwback to the heyday of mixtapes modeled after DJ Drama’s Gangsta Grillz series, an often self-critical reflection on Tyler’s failed relationship with a friend’s girlfriend, a strong case that Tyler is still one of the best rappers out there after 2019’s experimental IGOR. He succeeds at all three from the jump on “CORSO,” blending pitch-perfect flexing (“She say she like the Royce and I’m like, ‘Which one?’ I got two, hon,” the car-lover boasts) with raw emotion through an array of flows, punctuated by Drama at his liveliest. The track builds toward a key moment when Tyler ties it all together, pulling back the curtain to show what those brags are hiding: “Remember I was rich, so I bought me some new emotions,” he raps. “And a new boat ’cause I’d rather cry in the ocean.” It’s a perfect introduction to Tyler Baudelaire, from the Tyler the world has grown to love. —J.C.

“Need to Know,” Doja Cat

It’s hard to argue with “Kiss Me More” as a song-of-summer contender. But there’s an even better hot-vaxx summer anthem on Doja Cat’s great third album, Planet Her: “Need to Know,” a playful, R-rated romp of a song. “I just can’t help but be sexual,” she declares, then goes on to prove it, rapping about ten-out-of-ten dicks and begging a partner to “spank me, slap me, choke me, bite me.” She does it all with the overflowing panache that made her go viral in the first place — you simply have to be confident to make a line like “Need it in me like a Chuck E. need cheddar” work, and Doja sells it. The run-of-the-mill trap beat holds the song down, but what carries the song sonically is Doja’s underrated knowledge of her voice as an instrument, both in singing and rapping; she moans and squeals with abandon in between some of her tightest bars to date. That’s her making good on another promise in the song: She’s got a lot of new tricks for us. —J.C.

“Amazing Grace (West Texas),” Jack Ingram, Miranda Lambert, and Jon Randall

The closing track to Jack Ingram, Miranda Lambert, and Jon Randall’s acoustic album The Marfa Tapes is a reminder of what drew the trio — all accomplished musicians and songwriters on their own — to west Texas in the first place. The lyrics make simple sketches of the west Texas scenery, from mooing cows to nights drinking at sunset. But by invoking “Amazing Grace” in the chorus, the song also becomes about the power of music itself too. “The people come from miles and miles around / Just to hear that old piano and feed their faith,” Randall and Lambert observe, their voices warm and steady. After the previous 14 songs, they don’t need to say much more: It’s clear the musicians found a similar sort of connection among the fields out in Marfa. And like any great country song, on “Amazing Grace (West Texas),” they try to make you feel the same way. —J.C.

“Swimmer,” Half Waif

Half Waif’s 2020 album, The Caretaker, confronted isolation before the world experienced it, coming out in the early days of the pandemic. The songs Nandi Rose has released off her follow-up, Mythopoetics, focus on relationships — especially the captivating single “Swimmer.” “Come a little closer / Give me something I can hold,” she pleads in the chorus, chasing a connection. It’s as high stakes as Half Waif has ever sounded, over a crescendo of glistening synthesizers. (Even the album and single art capture her mid-scream.) It makes sense, then, for the song to be one of Rose’s most personal, inspired by a memory of her aunt, who has Alzheimer’s, and coming with a music video starring her mother. Rose has said music is now her main connection to her aunt, describing in the lyrics how she sings for her. “Swimmer” is the spectacular result of Rose trying everything to be heard. —J.C.

“4 Da Gang,” 42 Dugg featuring Roddy Ricch

It takes a few listens for “We Paid,” the 2020 linkup between Lil Baby and his Detroit acolyte 42 Dugg, to click. That couldn’t be further from the case with Dugg’s biggest follow-up since, “4 Da Gang.” It’s a rush from the opening seconds: a sample of Scorpions’ 1982 hair-metal hit “No One Like You,” which the nasally trap whiner wastes no time stomping right into the ground. (The genius behind the beat is TayTayMadeIt, a go-to of NBA YoungBoy’s.) 42 Dugg plays best with others, whether that’s Lil Baby; Tyler, the Creator on LEMONHEAD”; Meek Mill on QUARANTINE PACK standout “GTA”; or a slew of Detroit rappers on Big Sean’s “Friday Night Cypher.” “4 Da Gang” lets him bounce off fellow trap showman Roddy Ricch (along with Scorpions), who has little trouble keeping up with Dugg’s high-energy antics. It’s 155 seconds of pure adrenaline, a banger that sounds best looped on repeat — because what else can follow that energy? —J.C.

“THE LIGHT,” Brockhampton

Joba feels things at a fever pitch. It’s what gave the rapper the reputation as one of “boy band” Brockhampton’s loosest cannons, and it’s what can make his most dialed-in moments so devastating. That’s precisely the case on “THE LIGHT,” the centerpiece of new album ROADRUNNER: NEW LIGHT, NEW MACHINE. Joba reflects on his father’s recent suicide, opening on a couplet that cuts deep — “When I look at myself, I see a broken man / Remnants of my pops, put the Glock to his head” — and only plowing ahead from there, wrestling with the song’s winding guitar track. It’s a hard verse to follow up, but Kevin Abstract is up for the task, cataloguing his own demons with a stinging line about homophobia to top it off. Brockhampton has often found powerful catharsis in facing darkness head-on, but the difference with “THE LIGHT” is how it aspires toward something brighter. As Joba’s introduction frames it, the song is an essential parting of the clouds. —J.C.

“Please,” Jessie Ware

Jessie Ware’s marvelous club outing What’s Your Pleasure? was pure polish — every beat, line, and note arranged into a precise house of cards. On “Please,” which leads off the album’s deluxe The Platinum Pleasure Edition, Ware starts to loosen up. That’s not to say she’s cutting corners; “Please” still has the requisite elements of a Ware banger, from that pulsing house-pop beat to those playfully sexy one-liners. (“Don’t you be too good to believe,” she teases a lover in an effortless flip.) But “Please” is the most human song she has made in this new era — literally full of life, from the backup singers to the chatting partiers in the background. It sounds sweaty and crowded in the best way, brimming with the gloriously haphazard energy of a 3 a.m. second wind. “I want a place where golden moments last forever,” Ware opens the song. Over the following minutes, she argues that you don’t find that place; you create it. —J.C.

“Gold,” Ashley Monroe

“Gold” is the most sun-kissed, straightforward pop song on an album full of them. Here’s the catch: It’s by one of country music’s best traditionalists. The way Ashley Monroe tells it, “Gold” was the song that made her left-turn new album, Rosegold, click, and it doesn’t take much to hear why. The song — a reliable recipe of strings, vocals, and a drum track — toes the line between crisp spring day and grand cinematic introduction. It’s a line that suits Monroe, who helms the whole thing with that cool pop-star swagger you just can’t teach. Like Madonna’s Ray of Light, also fueled by the confidence of new motherhood, Rosegold feels like a rebirth, like Monroe is arriving somewhere. “Gold” makes that feel like the place she was meant to be all along. —J.C.

January-March

“Good Days,” SZA

SZA has exactly one full album to her name, yet there’s never much worry that she won’t deliver; it’s just always a matter of when. During the wait for the follow-up to her 2017 masterpiece CTRL, she dropped off a taste of the new in last year’s “Hit Different,” an exceptional radio single that seemed to serve as a bit of a gut check for her; it also teased another new song at the very end. That song, “Good Days,” didn’t come until the last dying breaths of 2020, but it is the heart of SZA’s path forward a mid-tempo ballad that no longer gives as much time to the people who’ve taken from her as it does to the only person who’s going to continue to offer something to her core. “I don’t miss no ex, miss no text, I choose not to respond” has been the punch line for a thousand tweets, but the line that precedes it, “Gotta get right, tryna free my mind before the end of the world,” should probably be the larger takeaway. For SZA, life doesn’t seem to be all about fight or flight anymore. What will control look like for her now? —Dee Lockett

“Anyone,” Justin Bieber

The idea of Justin Bieber making ’80s–inspired rock music should elicit as much of a cringe as Justin Bieber making R&B or gospel-pop. But against all odds, “Anyone” arrived at the top of 2021 as not only Bieber’s best song in years but his most convincing love song since his marriage to wife Hailey. That’s not thanks to the lyrics or the production as much as to the heart in Bieber’s performance, which is even stronger in the song’s live takes. (Okay, and that drum breakdown is pretty great too.) When the song first came out, it sounded as if it could have been a fluke; turns out it was a taste of the best moments to come on Bieber’s best album, Justice. —Justin Curto

“Pick Up Your Feelings,” Jazmine Sullivan

Jazmine Sullivan made her name writing scorching songs about falling in love and losing love, and for singing them with even more fire than what’s on the page. So many of those songs were autobiographical, mined from her own life experiences and traumas, but often the best source material for songwriting is the lives of those around us. Heaux Tales, Sullivan’s splendid first album in too long, marries her gift for storytelling with the stories of the women she knows, whether it’s a peer like Ari Lennox waxing poetic about some dude who dickmatized her, or a close friend struggling with self-worth. That said, who knows who or what real-life event inspired “Pick Up Your Feelings,” but whoever the subject of this song is, sorry to that trash man, your time is up. Flipping from falsetto to the deepest depths of her register, she spends three minutes and seven seconds eviscerating a man who should’ve known better. “You need to hurry and pick up your feelings while I’m up cleaning” is a lyric you hear and can immediately sense Beyoncé seething for not having come up with it first for “Irreplaceable.” Jazmine’s just that good. —D.L.

“Oversharers Anonymous,” Wild Pink

“Oversharers Anonymous” could have earned its spot on this list based on one lyric: “You’re a fucking baby, but your pain is valid too,” which is all the more potent coming from Wild Pink’s soft-spoken leader, John Ross. But that would have neglected the other wonders of this gem off the New York band’s heartland-rock opus A Billion Little Lights. Ross is a meticulous narrator, and nowhere on the record is his attention to detail more apparent than on the road trip of “Oversharers Anonymous.” The song finds him fixating on everything from corporate ad copy to the reverberations of American Colonial history. It all drifts off into a minutes-long instrumental outro — a landscape more sweeping than even Ross could depict in his lyrics, colored by deliberate strokes of pedal steel, strings, and synthesizers. —J.C.

“Skin,” Sabrina Carpenter

Every love triangle has to have a villain, the story goes, and while that third person out should logically be the one who’s been trifling rather than the two just along for the ride, where’s the fun in logic? And so in the off-camera saga of the trio at the center of the Disney Channel gift that is High School Musical: The Musical: The Series, our villain is famously “that blonde girl.” Welp, Sabrina Carpenter is doing her damndest to make people know her name. The Girl Meets World actress might not have the chart or Taylor Swift bump of an Olivia Rodrigo or the raw talent of a Joshua Bassett, but she’s been at this music thing professionally longer than those two co-stars, and her entry into their trilogy of songs about the gossip, “Skin,” is the breath of fresh air and perspective the rest are lacking. “Maybe you didn’t mean it. Maybe ‘blonde’ was the only rhyme,” is about as direct as Carpenter gets in addressing the subtext (and addressing Rodrigo directly), but closer attention to her lyrics and delivery reveals a song less concerned with the optics of Disney Channel dating and more with that world’s damaging history of young women pushed to villainize one another. “I just hope that one day we both can laugh about it when it’s not in our face,” she sings, “won’t have to dance around it / don’t drive yourself insane.” The stakes in these songs are low, but the stories of Britney, Demi, Selena, etc. should tell us that the pain will always be heightened. —D.L.

“Wilder Days,” Morgan Wade

Morgan Wade has said in interviews that people made fun of her voice when she was growing up. That’s baffling to consider upon hearing any of the songs on her debut album, Reckless, especially the standout single “Wilder Days.” Wade pairs her commanding, gritty rasp with a straightforwardly huge pop melody on the song; if we’re not getting another Miley Cyrus country album soon, Wade could be the next best thing. Not that Wade is firmly a country singer either — “Wilder Days” sits somewhere between country, Americana, and rock thanks in part to the 400 Unit’s Sadler Vaden, who produced Reckless. (It’s all the more impressive that the pair struck gold on “Wilder Days,” the first track they worked on together.) The song’s confident sexuality won’t do it any favors when it comes to country radio either, but that doesn’t make the chorus any less perfect for evening drives with the windows down. —J.C.

“Look at the Sky,” Porter Robinson

“I’ll be alive next year” is a defiant line to be singing after 2020. But the declaration from the chorus to Porter Robinson’s “Look at the Sky” has less to do with the chaos of the past year than it does with the few that came before it, during which the EDM producer grappled with writer’s block and depression as he struggled to follow his 2014 debut album, Worlds. Much of Robinson’s eventual April 2021 follow-up, Nurture, confronts that struggle: “You’re losing your gift, and it’s plain to see,” Robinson sings elsewhere on “Look at the Sky,” voicing his doubts. But the magic of “Look at the Sky” is Robinson’s ability to spin his struggle into an uplifting, victorious electro-pop anthem. It’s not just wildly life-affirming — “Look at the Sky” is music that sounds like Robinson poured life into it; listening to the song’s drops feels like watching a flower burst into bloom all at once. “I can make something good,” goes the following line of Robinson’s chorus. “Look at the Sky” doesn’t just speak that into existence; it’s proof of concept. —J.C.

“Narrator,” Squid featuring Martha Skye Murphy

Once you find out that Ollie Judge, lead singer and lyricist of Squid, also plays drums, it makes sense. Judge’s voice itself is percussive — he can put enough force behind a single syllable to cut through the mind-bending post-punk chaos on English rock outfit Squid’s debut LP, Bright Green Field. He’s an urgent singer, and watching Squid perform, you get the sense that he needs that drum set to hold him back from destroying an entire stage. Nowhere is that truer than in “Narrator,” the album’s imposing centerpiece. As erratic as Squid sounds, “Narrator” is a technical stunner, with Squid twisting knots out of guitars, synths, and horns, only to unravel it all in the final minutes. The song takes on the idea of the unreliable narrator, inspired by the 2019 film adaptation of Long Day’s Journey Into Night; Martha Skye Murphy contributes guest vocals to counter Judge’s perspective, with her whispers standing against his yelps. Yet as “Narrator” starts to devolve across its eight and a half minutes, Judge’s voice becomes a steady beat, repeating “I’ll play mine” as Murphy’s screams overtake the song. It’s a visceral descent into madness that’s impossible to turn away from. —J.C.

“Up,” Cardi B

As Cardi B graduates from rap newcomer with something to prove to a highly decorated artist with several titles to defend (not to mention her honor, if her Twitter correspondence tells us anything), much has changed: Her budget is bigger (the “WAP” video was an embarrassment of her riches) and so is her audience, which would typically trigger the kind of balancing act between pleasing everyone and no one that sets most artists up for failure. In taking her time with her sophomore record, though, Cardi has turned more Teflon. “Up” is the kind of song you release as a solo follow-up to a massive hit that sparked mass moral panic, when you understand that discourse of all types is just a hazard of the job, so let ’em talk. Her delivery is more taut; her insults are better barbed; and her self-aggrandizing is both believable and contagious. I wouldn’t try to stand in Cardi B’s way this year, or any other. —D.L.

“Rainforest,” Noname

Although some fans and followers have crowned her an authority on revolutionary politics, Noname has been quick to note that she’s still learning herself, just like those fans. On “Rainforest,” an offering from her forthcoming album, Factory Baby, the Chicago rapper works through her thoughts in real time: “How you make excuses for billionaires, you broke on the bus?” she wonders in the hook. Rather than directly answering her questions, Noname outlines what she does know, making for a stunningly powerful second verse that connects the dots between everything from anti-Black police violence to environmental degradation. It all happens over one of Noname’s grooviest beats, leaving you to contemplate a line like “You ain’t seen death, I can hear the blood on the moon” as you’re dancing. —J.C.

“Be Sweet,” Japanese Breakfast

Soft Sounds From Another Planet was the perfect name for Michelle Zauner’s second album as Japanese Breakfast, an ethereal dream-pop odyssey. But Zauner’s follow-up, Jubilee, may have an even more fitting title — at least based on its infectious lead single, “Be Sweet.” It’s the easiest Japanese Breakfast music to dance to thanks to the funky guitars and buoyant chorus, but it’s also deceptively intricate, especially in moments like the perfect lockstep of the pre-chorus. Lyrically, it marks a shift for Zauner. “After writing two albums and a book about grief, I feel very ready to embrace feeling,” she told Pitchfork. Zauner has become a master of looking inward (see also her upcoming book, Crying in H Mart), and “Be Sweet” finds her stretching herself to do so even more. —J.C.

“Leave the Door Open,” Silk Sonic

At this point, Bruno Mars and Anderson .Paak have their musicianship and showmanship down to a science, so much that it makes sense for them to form a duo that could just as easily count as a supergroup. Between the two and a murderer’s row of session musicians, courtesy of .Paak’s band the Free Nationals they are Silk Sonic, an act aesthetically suspended in the time of Motown but with cues taken from present-decade rap. Or at least that’s the introduction they’ve offered in “Leave the Door Open,” a distant cousin to Mars’s previous “Versace on the Floor” that borrows less from Boyz II Men and more from the Isley Brothers twin ideas separated only by era. Mars has always been something of a human karaoke machine; he got his start as a kid performing in Elvis Presley drag. .Paak tries on a million hats as well, but his references are often just less obvious. Neither is going about musical curiosity the wrong way. Together, they’re next to impossible to creatively beat. (Enjoy their 2021 Grammys performance for further evidence.) —D.L.

“Control,” Mannequin Pussy

“Control” is Mannequin Pussy at its most whiplash inducing. The song shifts from whispery rock ballad to pummeling punk track in a single minute; few things are more exciting than hearing lead singer Missy absolutely howl the final line of an otherwise delicate chorus. “Control” continues to push the Philly band in the direction of 2019’s Patience, which polished its sound and refined its hooks to outstanding results, so it’s no surprise the band has been playing the song live since 2019, shortly after releasing Patience. It grapples with some of the same ideas as Patience, too, namely asserting agency and independence. Fittingly, then, it presents the band in perfect control of its own powers, wielding them to electrifying results. —J.C.

“Shelter Song,” Iceage

Every Iceage album feels like the biggest yet from the Danish art punks. So what to do after the messy orchestral masterpiece that was 2018’s Beyondless? “Shelter Song,” the third offering from the band’s upcoming fifth album, Seek Shelter, is the best answer: an arena-size anthem of resilience with a choir to boot. As terribly cheesy as it sounds on paper, it’s that undeniable in practice. Singer Elias Bender Rønnenfelt leads the long, winding trudge toward the chorus, where everything finally clicks into place. The guitars suddenly sound straighter, Rønnenfelt’s vocals clearer. It’s a glorious moment of Oasis-esque uplift: “Come lay here right beside me / They kick you when you’re up, they knock you when you’re down,” Rønnenfelt sings. The lines just beg to be echoed by a crowd in some baptism of sweat and cheap beer. —J.C.

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