Sometimes a song says it all. Sometimes an artist produces a few minutes that provide a window into their lives – one that might turn out to be a mirror on your own. Sometimes a song captures a specific period or feeling. Sometimes a song gets irreversibly stuck together with a memory, forever attached in your mind as a sixth sense of a certain place at a certain time.
Bodies of work are wonderful, but emotions usually bubble up at specific moments and are only intense for a brief time. That’s what a song can encapsulate, the rise and realisation that – no matter if its sadness, happiness, anger, euphoria, or any of the much more complex emotions – this is living.
Every year that passes, we all change, and the world changes even moreso. So we always need new songs to help us through, and to be memory markers of what happened in that period. 2021 has been a strange year with a million conflicting feelings, but music provided and been there for us as it always is. It’s furnished us with infinite soundtracks for our infinite feelings.
Out of those, here are our 50 favourite cuts of the last 12 months.
There were few duos in hip hop that felt as naturally in sync, as genuinely close, and perfectly on par with one another as Young Dolph and Key Glock. The empty space that Dolph’s death leaves in Memphis – and rap in general – will be a very hard one to heal, but at the least we’re left with his body of work.
This year’s Dum and Dummer 2 saw him and Glock at their absolute best, and “Buddy Love” was one of several standouts (also see “Case Closed”). Over a chilling, slowly churning beat, the two rappers weave their narrative, their verses are short and punchy, with them largely letting the justly paranoid hook do most of the work. It stands as a testament to just how much Dolph could do with very little. He will be more than missed. – Chase McMullen
Poppy – “As Strange As It Seems”
On an album rich in 90s-nostalgia texture, this gently powerful shoegaze ballad stands out. Using the symbol of an ill-fated car ride, Poppy confronts her struggle within an abusive relationship. With the drums referencing classic 50s girl-group aesthetics and the gentle vocal melody nodding to the likes of Lush and Cranes, the song contrasts with the mostly more pop-oriented material surrounding it, but manages to outdo the rest in terms of memorability and atmosphere. Is this Bubblegrunge? Perhaps – but it’s certainly proof that Poppy is playing in a league all of her own. – John Wohlmacher
Jessi – “Cold Blooded”
No year is complete without at least one moment in which Korean rapper Jessi stomps on everything in her path. While 2021 saw her largely focused on other ventures, “Cold Blooded” finds her at her absolute delightfully egotistical best. She isn’t arrogant: she simply knows just who she is and what she can do. It just so happens that she’s better at it than just about anyone else in her lane.
Conversely, its video shows her generosity: she hardly appears, ceding the spotlight to contestants of a recent smash competition show. It’s vivid, brash, and so full of energy it feels on the verge of imploding. In other words, it’s pure Jessi. She’s, “got it goin’ on.” Here’s hoping she chooses to pop out more often in 2022 (and simply as an act of manifestation: the world needs a Jessi/Cardi B collab). – Chase McMullen
Armand Hammer & The Alchemist – “Falling Out The Sky” (feat. Earl Sweatshirt)
Haram is easily one of Armand Hammer’s best releases to date, and while Elucid and billy woods are impressive throughout, it’s elevated by its various features. In front of a veil of sweet melody and radio samples courtesy of The Alchemist, “Falling Out The Sky” finds Earl Sweatshirt, billy woods, and Elucid trade bars like kin, neither outshining the other, even if Earl’s verse is moderately gut-wrenching. The title is a reference to the helpless falling one feels during a period of loss, and the trio spare us any fluff, harnessing their collective powers for the album’s stark centerpiece juxtaposition of pain and hope. Elucid and woods only do things this way, and the winning streak of this collaboration persists because of it. – Tim Sentz
Westside Gunn – “Hell On Earth Pt. 2” (feat. Benny The Butcher & Conway the Machine)
You don’t name your song after a Mobb Deep classic unless you’ve come to burn it all down. You just don’t. Naturally, Griselda don’t disappoint.
Grimy’s an overused word in describing hip hop, but it simply must be deployed here: this is the trio at their absolute grimiest. Over a beat that’s appropriately Havoc-esque, driven by a thudding drumbeat, the three viciously chew everything up. Dishing out quotables from the song is a pointless affair as just about every bar is Tweet worthy, but Conway sums up their rise perfectly: “Griselda, we took shit over like how long it really took?” It’s perhaps the strongest link up between the three to date, and that’s more than saying something. – Chase McMullen
Home Is Where – “Assisted Harakiri”
Emo music has undergone a seismic shift with its adjacent subgenres, scenes, and overall culture. This collective world is beginning to embrace the undefined and unrefined, as it should, in large part thanks to bands like Florida’s fifth wave flag bearers, Home Is Where, whose undefinable nature and drive embodies the new guard like few others.
Having released the brisk but striking I Became Birds early in the year, no song captures their own art’s nebulous and boundless nature and the genre’s future like “Assisted Harakiri”. A righteous, cataclysmic exorcism of boundaries and binaries, mutilating the defined and definitive, “Assisted Harakiri” possesses IMAX-sized dynamics but retains the disheveled emotion of the most quaint indie film. With frontperson Brandon MacDonald delivering a vocal performance to end all, the goosebump-inducing rush of “Assisted Harakiri” leaves listeners deluged by a feeling of triumph, even amidst its striking imagery of disembowelment, death, and decay. – Kyle Kohner
Injury Reserve – “Knees”
In the hailstorm that is Injury Reserve’s By the Time I Get to Phoenix, the most affecting and effective song is the one marked by paralyzing stasis. It’s in the tasteful, but continually anti-climactic Black Midi sample that constructs its backbone. It’s in Ritchie’s pained vocals, when he resigantingly concludes “I don’t think I’ll grow no more / I don’t think it’ll snow no more / Don’t feel it in my bones no more”. And – most of all – it’s in the haunting, eerily prescient lines of the departed Groggs, who faces his alcoholism and physical boundaries head on. As the sample gradually disintegrates and only a shadowy outline of it remains, only an abundant sense of sadness remains. It’s beautiful, pure and honest. – John Wohlmacher
IU- “Empty Cup”
An outlier on Lilac, an album that’s generally Korean sensation IU’s tidiest and slickest album to date, “Empty Cup” is all bruised emotions, muted and wounded. Driven by simple guitar, it tells the tale of that moment when you just can’t keep going, when you’ve given up on the person next to you. It tells of the time in which you’ve been together too long to simply end it, so you coast along, unhappy, even resentful: you’ve become a prisoner. She says it best: “I’m sick of this love”. It’s one of her starkest songs to date, and it lingers long after its short run time. – Chase McMullen
Portrayal of Guilt – “Garden Of Despair”
[Closed Casket Activities]
Across two albums released in 2021, Austin, TX noise-merchants Portrayal of Guilt well and truly came into their own. Filled with horror and loathing of self and the wider human race alike, We Are Always Alone and CHRISTFUCKER represent hellish descents into a nightmare funhouse hall of mirrors, where every conceivable sub-genre of metal has had its eviscerated guts strewn across every surface.
If anything, CHRISTFUCKER is even more extreme than We Are Always Alone, but the template for that album’s approach to melding noise rock’s nihilistic petulance with post-metal’s impossibly epic heft streaked with black metal’s viciousness and a rich vein of horror film aesthetics, can be found in “Garden of Despair”, whose discrete sections somehow coalesce into one heaving, shapeshifting beast of a track. Matt King contorts his voice into myriad gruesome, inhuman forms as he and his bandmates unleash absolute bedlam around him, and it’s never less than an absolute fucking blast to listen to.
Many of the trio’s tracks could have been selected for this list, but this one will likely go down as the one that marked Portrayal of Guilt’s from being a great band to being an essential one. Plus, which other song this year had the schutzpah to end with 30 seconds of nails-on-a-blackboard horror-score strings? – Andy Johnston
Pearl Charles – “What I Need”
Pearl Charles’ third album Magic Mirror spotlights the Los Angeles-born singer-songwriter’s crystalline voice and brims with gratifying hooks. On the superbly catchy “What I Need”, Charles’ pop craft is exemplified. Her lead and back-up vocals shimmer, the overall mix lush with synth-y textures and danceable beats – a seamless integration and contemporization of disco, soft rock, and 70s folk. “Oh baby, I don’t wanna lose you / maybe that’s what I need,” Charles sings, reflecting on and perhaps reveling in the uncertainty of her love life, how what we cling to is so often the very thing we need to let go of. – John Amen
Mdou Moctar – “Tala Tannam”
Rich, panoramic psych-rock that triggers a sense that you didn’t know you had, “Tala Tannam”, Mdou Moctar‘s second single from Afrique Victime, might be the most beautiful and sublime musical moment of 2021. Much has been said about Mahamadou Souleymane’s inimitable guitar-playing, but this track happens to exemplify the Tuareg artist’s equally captivating voice as he sings endearingly and adoringly of another, whether that be his homeland or another person.
Of course, the song is written and sung in his native tongue of Tamasheq, but the English translation of lyrics will still cause one to swell with tears without fail: “I used stones to write your name in a heart / Water can never wash it away because it’s surrounded by trees / You know I never want to see you in tears / You know I never want to see you in tears.” “Tala Tannam” is far from the most musically mind-boggling moment from Moctar’s latest album. In fact, it’s a modest and hypnotic folk song that rests in its own enchanting sway without worry of what was, is, and will be. It is, above everything, the most revealing of how special and transportive Mdou Moctar’s music can be. – Kyle Kohner
Tyler, the Creator – “Rise!” (feat. Daisy World)
Tyler Okonma’s been doing this a long time – over a decade – and the most reliable constant for him is his intensity. Tyler’s rarely shy – on the raw analysis of IGOR he was an open book and took countless risks.
That’s the thing about “RISE!” – the barely three-minute banger that hangs on the second half of Call Me If You Get Lost – it’s unrefined energy that allows Tyler to strike hard. It leaves his prey vulnerable for the serene bridge, where he’s assisted by newcomer Daisy World, and a chorus that begs for foot stomping. A long way on from his teens, Tyler’s still got it, and can still bring that same intensity that garnered him attention with Odd Future at the beginning. – Tim Sentz
Grouper – “Kelso (Blue Sky)”
It’s almost startling to hear Liz Harris’s voice come through the speakers clearer than ever, but that is in fact what happens time and again on her newest record as Grouper, Shade. On the closer, “Kelso (Blue Sky)”, Harris’ sonic world opens up into a sunlit morning, the acoustic guitar strumming out a simple and bright chord progression, resonating like a sunbeam. Most striking of all is that Harris’s voice and lyrics are shockingly intelligible, the melody pretty and clean. But all the sunniness masks what is truly a gutting lyric, as it becomes clearer that Harris is singing about losing a loved one, possibly to suicide. It’s heavy stuff, made all the heavier by Harris’ choice to have this song be one of her most uplifting-sounding and sonically direct yet. – Jeremy J. Fisette
CL – “Spicy”
After years of being made to linger in wait for an American takeover that never happened (thanks, Scooter Braun), 2NE1 legend CL surely had cabin fever. “Spicy” is an exhalation, a grateful, glorified gasp. She practically explodes out the gate, absolutely dominating a beat by none other than Baauer. Not enough mind has been paid to just how challenging a soundscape it surely was to flow over, the track genuinely careens, feeling as if it could lurch into absolute chaos at any moment, but CL makes it look easy, gliding over it with charisma and sheer wrath.
It’s a return home, with the artist putting on for her home country, but above all it’s just (yes, it must be said) a damn banger. It’s frenetic, it’s prideful, it’s inspiring: it’s everything that’s fantastic about CL as an artist. If she ever puts together an album of songs like this we’ll have a classic on our hands, but in the meantime we can just appreciate a simple fact: “you’re rockin’ with the most fly Asians.” – Chase McMullen
Mandy, Indiana – “Alien 3”
With only a few singles under their belt, Manchester’s no wave four piece Mandy, Indiana have quickly risen to be one of the most exciting bands operating. Deconstructing melodies, their concentrated sharp dance beats, distorted punk guitars and blasts of overwhelming noise feel organic but also wholly original and unrehearsed. There is something rewarding in following the geometrical figures of their brutalist sonic architecture, as if New York’s Mars teamed up with a group of French futurists to devise an alien language. Speaking of – Alien 3 is better than Aliens: sue me! – John Wohlmacher
Japanese Breakfast – “Posing In Bondage”
Has there been a more sensual and stimulating example of forlornness this year than Japanese Breakfast‘s “Posing In Bondage”? The swirl of toybox melodies, pulsating synths, and, most importantly, Michelle Zauner’s silky-yet-detached delivery says there hasn’t. Single words are weapons of devastation she unleashes with a tired exhale. “Closeness / proximity / I needed / bondage,” she pleads, waiting alone in a room for someone to join her.
A stirring song of longing, “Posing In Bondage” calls from another room, and as much as we want to help, the door is always locked. Zauner remains out of reach, but her siren song is enough to keep us transfixed from the other side. – Ray Finlayson
Iceage – “Dear Saint Cecilia”
On the rollicking “Dear Saint Cecilia”, Denmark’s Iceage embark down a path in praise of the patroness of music, following the steps of David Bryne, Brian Eno, and even the Foo Fighters before them. Here, the band plays to their strengths, offering up a road-trip rocker in the vein of classic 70s guitar hits from the likes of the Rolling Stones. Iceage have moved their sound closer and closer to the warm center of accessible garage rock over the years, but with the help from Sonic Boom on Seek Shelter they’ve managed to slowdown their dive-bomb. “Dear Saint Cecilia” boasts the benefits – it can be both a bar room rager and a psychedelic acid trip at the same time. – Tim Sentz
LIL UGLY MANE – “BENADRYL SUBMARINE”
On “Benadryl Submarine”, the third track on the grossly underappreciated Volcanic Bird Enemy and the Voiced Concern, Travis Miller, a.k.a. Lil Ugly Mane, blends lo-fi beats, a wiry guitar riff, and classically intoned string and synth parts. Miller’s vocal tone and timbre vacillate between narcotized disinterest and palpable despair. Lyrics are oblique and fatalistic (“I’ll pretend I paid attention / then I’ll paddle out and drown”). Atmospherics are at once dreamy, quasi-industrial, and coldly psychedelic. The result is a glitchy and subtly disturbing manifesto, a surreal yet hook-y take on isolationism, heartache, and repressed anxiety. – John Amen
Vince Staples – “The Shining”
[Blacksmith / Motown]
Vince Staples may have enough money in the bank now to leave his ‘hood, but he won’t. Even if he tried, the ghosts would follow him. Growing up surrounded by gunfire and bad blood, it’s no surprise that violence is a constant in his raps – and never more so than on his stark self-titled record from this year.
“The Shining” is one of several high points on the brief but brutal album, with Kenny Beats providing an aquatic, almost dreamy beat that belies the grimness of the words. Staples leans into that horror-fantasy dynamic; on the one hand he laments the tragedy of his peers (“They rather be flipped than go flip burgers”), on the other he admits he’s just as embroiled as anyone else (“I cannot be perturbed / I live out every word I put inside my verse”). Without sensationalising or even really emoting at all – just loquaciously observing – Staples uses “The Shining” to give us a vivid snapshot of the violent life he and thousands of others in South LA are bred into. “I could be gone in a blink / I don’t wanna leave.” – Rob Hakimian
Nilüfer Yanya – “Stabilise”
Nilüfer Yanya always finds a way to trail-blaze ahead of the latest pop trends, able to render just about any genre into her songwriting quirks. The lead single off her upcoming album PAINLESS definitely summons that same pierce-through-the-mob mentality. “Stabilise” expresses the eternal grind urgently with its nervous, fleet-footed indie rock cadence, reminiscent of Bloc Party or TV On The Radio.
“We’re going nowhere,” Yanya underlines, resolute within the thought that waiting on “the one to save me” is pure folly. The only choice is to keep moving for the sake of that and see who treads into your trajectory. Yanya’s mesmeric, deadpan delivery alone keeps the song from sounding bitter and cynical: through the filter of this song, it feels cool and empowering to prioritize your mental health over all else. – Jasper Willems
Indigo De Souza – “Darker Than Death”
“Was it something I said?” Indigo De Souza asks at the start of “Darker Than Death” over a cymbal and glistening yet tame guitar plucking. The song slowly builds, eventually evoking 1980s glam with power chords and punching drums. Yet the true power that drives the second song from the excellent Any Shape You Take is one of uncertainty. The song implies a breakup (“And did you feel it, too, when we both went blind?”), but what, or who, is to blame?
De Souza admits fault one moment (“I’m sorry, I never meant to / Stay out so late, I got carried away”), then refuses the next (“Were you losing your head over something that you lost?”). By the song’s end, she sings her initial question again and again with all her might. Yet, despite the song’s dramatic buildup – culminating in a climactic outro that cuts to silence – her question remains unanswered. “Darker Than Death” is De Souza’s confession that it’s the unknown that eats us from the inside. – Carlo Thomas
Horsey – “Lagoon”
In a year overflowing with exciting post-punk, Horsey almost fell by the wayside. But the strange mixture of their debut album Debonair – which at times feels as if Paul McCartney, 10CC, Palais Schaumburg and Magazine had a project together – deserves attention!
While “Lagoon” doesn’t offer their characteristic late-night film noir atmosphere, it feels like a re-discovered mid-70s radio hit, rich with island rhythms and jazzy piano lead. Lyrically, it confronts the familiar British struggle of daydreaming escapism – leaving behind one’s body and class obligations. Vocalist Theo McCabe delivers the grotesque imagery (“my body like a disrepaired and poorly made punk statue of a pear / We could go anywhere”) with such wild abandon, it becomes a timeless hymn. These lads deserve your time – just give it to them! – John Wohlmacher
Little Simz – “Woman” (feat. Cleo Sol)
[AGE 101 MUSIC]
With Sometimes I Might Be Introvert, Little Simz moves between free-style rants and well-crafted critiques, focusing frequently on the injustices experienced by women. With the confrontational and lyrically ambitious “Woman”, Simz contrasts staccato beats and languid synth sounds, offering vivid portraits of women from various parts of the world, all of whom command respect in their own ways. Cleo Sol offers an R&B-soaked chorus, affirming feminine resilience and ingenuity.
One of the centerpieces of a stellar sequence, “Woman” stands as Simz’s anthemic tribute to women and how they have, for generations, defied and overcome the numerous cultural, religious, and legal limitations placed upon them. – John Amen
Billie Eilish – “Happier Than Ever”
“Happier Than Ever” is peak Billie Eilish and stands as one of the greatest assertions of personal worth and fuck-you-ness of 2021. She’s never had an issue with plastering the walls of her songs with devastating sentiment and wryly humorous anecdotes about the terrible ordinary things that happen every day to everyone, but this song is different. There are more than just sharp edges here. There’s a righteous indignation that bubbles to the surface and explodes after being contained for roughly two and a half minutes.
As with any of her work, there’s a physical presence residing within the track, a corporeal weight that must be addressed and appeased through proper investigation and resolution. And in the case of “Happier Than Ever”, that resolution is a cacophonous mix of thick guitars, howling vocals, and personal insight doled out in her typically sardonic fashion. Toward the end of the track, there is a chorus of screams buried in the mix, a nebulous agony that hints at an internal catharsis beyond our understanding. – Joshua Pickard
Maximo Park – “The Acid Remark”
Regret is a bitch, and it can be surprising how even the smallest action (or inaction) can follow us forever. Enter in the story that drives “The Acid Remark”, from Maximo Park’s latest album Nature Always Wins, where single Paul Smith (an Englishman) passes on a potential lover he meets in Germany. He tells the episode through poetic imagery (“It was a midsummer evening / Under blood red bridges”) over bright guitar shreds. The song builds to Smith’s solemn admission: “And my restraint meant we were doomed.”
Despite the melancholic lyrics, “The Acid Remark” is anything but a downer. The song, like most of Nature Always Wins, never ceases in its youth-like energy. The ska-inspired guitar interlude injects an air of levity that helps frame the song not as a tragedy but as a parable. “On a side street in a German town / My lack of bravery let me down,” Smith sings – he hopes whoever’s listening will heed his words. – Carlo Thomas
Lily Konigsberg – “Owe Me”
Lily Konigsberg once again showed her myriad talents as an artist this year: her punk rock impulsiveness, her ability to sing sad songs with joyous naivety, her unique chops as a producer and composer, and so on and so forth. The prolific Brooklynite dropped her biggest banger yet in “Owe Me”, a synth-pop song that measures up to all the chart-topping heavy-hitters in terms of inventiveness, catchiness, and sheer levity. With its trotting midtempo pulse and lush synths, “Owe Me” feels like Konigsberg channeling eighties icons like Eurythmics and Blondie within her own idiosyncratic, fourth-wall-breaking wit right at the fore. – Jasper Willems
Aimee Mann – “Suicide Is Murder”
Every once in a while we tend to shamelessly forget the songwriting genius of Aimee Mann, but thankfully she never fails to punctually remind us. Nobody tackles poignancy and contemplation quite like her, a superpower she brilliantly showcases in the first single from her most recent album, the Girl, Interrupted-inspired Queens of the Summer Hotel. “Suicide Is Murder” evokes the happy-sadness Mann has gotten us used (and addicted) to, with her gentle and unique melancholy often leaving an aftertaste that is both bitter and familiar. And what better way to swim (and sink) in heartwarming gloom than through Aimee Mann’s songs? – Ana Leorne
Deafheaven – “Mombasa”
Even after all these years, it seems that Deafheaven still have to prove themselves to some people. While some artists are given leeway to experiment with the sounds that have made them so popular in the first place, it doesn’t seem as though Deafheaven are afforded that luxury. Their latest record, Infinite Granite, was a fascinating detour into shoegaze and (gasp) dream pop textures and found the band playing around with the amplitudes and dynamics for which they’ve become so beloved. It was still LOUD at times, but there was more emphasis on connecting different musical histories – and it absolutely worked.
On album closer “Mombasa”, the band brings the waves of volume and crushing weight down across a dense pop theatricality. The vocals are gentle, inviting, as drums shuffle and guitars tangle and lope around in shimmering lines. There’s even the odd electronic warble to fill in the gaps. And then everything is obliterated. Howls are thrown against the darkness, and guitars wash over you in torrential sheets of sound. There is nothing left but devastation and the desire to experience it again as soon as possible. – Joshua Pickard
The War On Drugs – “I Don’t Live Here Anymore”
I never thought I’d want to fist-pump to a song about displacement. But, like the rest of The War On Drugs’ fifth album, the title track’s energy belies the depth of Adam Granduciel’s mind. At age 42, he’s still figuring out who he is and understands it’s a mission he needs to undertake alone. “I never took our love for granted / You never left me wanting more,” he admits to a former lover, yet admits his truth today: “But you’d never recognise me, babe.” Who knew a rock song could feel so relevant in 2021?
When this single dropped in September, it confirmed the band’s evolution into full-blown arena rockers. “I Don’t Live Here Anymore” is expansive and anthemic, the kind of tune that could have blasted from stadiums 40 years ago. This is far from a slight – listen to the chorus, Lucius’ euphoric backing vocals, the uplifting guitar riffs and synth progressions. “But you’d never recognize me baby,” Granduciel declares, knowing that he’s meant for something better, or at least different. He’s right on both counts. – Carlo Thomas
Black Country, New Road – “Bread Song”
London breakthroughs Black Country, New Road had a banner year in 2021 with their debut album, and have lined up an almost-immediate follow-up in Ants From Up There set for February. To up the ante, “Bread Song” deviates from the script of For the first time, sidelining the hallmarks of bangers like “Sunglasses” and instead choosing a morose start. “Bread Song” is a humble transcendence that ditches the largely post-punk nature of their previous work in favor of slow-building, almost prog elements. BC,NR are priming their audience for a brand new experience in 2022, and “Bread Song” takes their formula up several notches. It’s a slow-burning forest fire of elemental rock that won’t go out. – Tim Sentz
Spellling – “Always”
Sneaky but alluring, the incantations of art-pop provocateur Spellling have always fumed with deceptive potency, suggesting something more sinister beneath or within. But on “Always”, the heart behind Chrystia Cabral’s spells present true and clear — crooning, lustful, and even tragic as she cries out, “Please, don’t hurt my pride / Don’t make me hide my loving away.” But even with its downcast and desperate milieu, a sense of triumph sprouts from the song’s frosty fields of overt baroque pop otherness and sedative fog. An understated groove emerges while Cabral qualms her own desperation with the self-guided heft behind her haunting yet elegant voice. Through her yearning and desperate cries, grasping at love gone dormant, Spellling remains soulful and fearless, enchanting the track with her beguiling presence through its every second. – Kyle Kohner
Spirit of the Beehive – “The Server is Immersed”
It’s incredibly weird that some insist that Spirit of the Beehive is a shoegaze band. “The Server is Immersed” proves that the odd Saddle Creek act has more in common with the warped psychedelia of The Olivia Tremor Control or Melody’s Echo Chamber. As the tones slowly shift and synthesizers turn to fuzzed-out bass tones, a kaleidoscopic feeling of crystalline aesthetics sets in – in other words: the sound fractures like light shone through a beautiful ruby. The echo of John Lennon close by and Animal Collective squatting behind a nearby boulder, those red rays of light illuminate a face, somewhere, as long as the sun’s rays manage to hit it: 2 minutes and 49 seconds. – John Wohlmacher
CHAI – “Action”
This is how you imbue punk spirit within the pop idiom: deliberately skip a beat just a few seconds into the first verse. This hiccup feels practically like a dare from Japanese outfit CHAI: either way, this song’s spastic joy will possess both body and brain whether it’s there or not. A pop song shouldn’t be this criminally funky, hook-filled – the cheerleader-like “A-C-T-I-O-N” is a can’t-miss – and still bear so many eyebrow-raising twists and turns.
For instance, the song dissipates into a more overcast breakdown about a minute and a half in, but CHAI reassure you “everything is okay / because I believe in you and me”. This is pop performed with spiritual conviction, each sticky synth stab and gloriously-out-of-tune ad-lib raising the euphoria higher and higher to a critical mass. – Jasper Willems
Lorde – “Stoned At The Nail Salon”
It takes a certain amount of courage to be as much of a megawatt star as Lorde and truly give your audience something unexpected. After two albums of synthy, nocturnal, slightly minimalistic pop music, the New Zealand artist gave us what essentially amounts to a kind of folk album in Solar Power.
It was a bit hit or miss as a whole project, but she hit gold at least once, on the tender, quiet ballad “Stoned at the Nail Salon”. Over gentle guitars and simple, slick bass, Lorde gives us an imagistic song about growing up, change, and the passage of time. Writing the whole thing off in the chorus by shrugging “I don’t know, maybe I’m just stoned at the nail salon” is the perfect foil to the rest of the lyric. It’s reminiscent of someone pretending they don’t actually care about the thing they’re going on and on about in order to seem cooler or less sensitive. But we know the thoughts in this meandering and still song are sincere, and it’s all the more beautiful for that. It’s organic and warm in a way her music often isn’t, and it’s the best defense for her change in style in the 2020s. – Jeremy J. Fisette
Big Thief – “Certainty”
With their upcoming fifth album, the awesomely titled Dragon New Warm Mountain I Believe You, indie darlings Big Thief have set the stage for a colossal record ripe with various genres. All of the songs we’ve heard so far are great, but “Certainty” stands out as the most alluring thanks to the subtle twang highlighting the Buck Meek and Adrianne Lenker duet. It has the nature of a classic folk song, porch rocking with lemonade at sunset after a long day, each blade of grass briskly fluttering from wind that flows through Lenker’s hair. Its wholesome façade unravels slightly for the expressed reservations for which the title refers, “My certainty is wild,” Lenker sings, indicating that just like the rest of us, she can be fickle and unpredictable. – Tim Sentz
Baby Keem – “Family Ties” (feat. Kendrick Lamar)
Only Kendrick Lamar could hardly say a thing all year and still feel like he said more than most. “Burn that hard drive. Burn that shit.” Lest we forget this isBaby Keem’s song – nepotism accusations be damned, bringing along the family has been a thing since just about hip hop’s inception – and he does his best to keep up. But this is clearly Lamar’s show.
The song knows it, too, with the beat growing more ominous the moment he enters. It’s his return, his chest-thumping warning to just about anyone and everyone. He frantically switches between flows, some of them bizarre, displaying just how willing hip hop’s King still is to simply try things. Naturally, it all works. Consider yourself on notice. – Chase McMullen
Dry Cleaning – “Leafy”
Many of us who’ve been entrenched in London for a long time have a natural distrust of the countryside and seaside, what with all that fresh air, vegetation and open space. Unfortunately, there’s always some friend who thinks it’ll be great to go on a hike in the woods or some shit, which is where we find Dry Cleaning and their vocalist Florence Shaw on “Leafy”: “An exhausting walk in the horrible countryside / Tiresome swim in a pointless bit of sea / Knackering drinks with close friends,” she huffs. “Thanks a lot.”
“Leafy” is by no means the flashiest Dry Cleaning song instrumentally, but Shaw’s bandmates know perfectly well how to best support her musings. Here the bass plods like trudging through mud, the guitar wisps around like a cold breeze and the drums stay steady and resolute – like gritted teeth as you focus on making it to the end of the walk. By the time Shaw signs off with one final terse “thanks a lot,” we feel the weariness in her bones and that yearning for the city’s artificial lights and expensive takeaways. Just another few miles to go. – Rob Hakimian
Helado Negro – “There Must Be A Song Like You”
Roberto Carlos Lange’s latest album as Helado Negro, Far In, is a delectable set of wondrous and wondering funk-pop songs, filled with love and compassion. “There Must Be A Song Like You” is one of the most caressing and hypnotic, its boom-bap beat holding together various wisps of synth and bass, before diverting into a steel drum aside, all while Lange continuously meditates on the song’s title.
But what does “There Must Be A Song Like You” actually mean? Lange’s impressionistic lines certainly leave plenty of room for your imagination to imbue them with your own memories; “Warm, dreaming yellow sky / endless open sigh / People move their life / Night eats the sky.” But then it comes back to his gently repeated insistence “there must be a song like you”. It seems like Lange trying to understand the wondrousness of a person, a thing – everything – in the universal language of music. Sometimes something or someone is so grand, so overpowering, that there are no words to fully capture how it makes you feel – but, as Lange asserts, there’s probably a song that can achieve that same precise combination of feeling. It’s a simple but divine thought, and one that subtly re-orients the way you perceive the uncontainable. – Rob Hakimian
Xenia Rubinos – “Sacude”
I don’t speak Spanish, so until now I hadn’t realised what the mantra “Sacude, sacude y Dios que me ayude” actually meant. Translation isn’t necessary though, as Xenia Rubinos tells you all you need to know on “Sacude” through her intonation and arrangement alone. Transforming from a quiet bed of clave clacks into electronic beats, Rubinos surrounds herself with icy stabs of electronic synths as her multi-tracked voices align to become hypnotizing. A self-made rumba of anguish and despair (“I try to hear myself but you’re screaming too loud,” she sings in the song’s English-sung front section), Rubinos calls out to the powers that be, to memories of those lost, and to you the listener: “Shake, shake, and God help me” goes that mantra in English. It’s rare to want to move to so much of this kind of despair, but Rubinos’ instructions are impossible to ignore. Sacude, sacude. – Ray Finlayson
Snail Mail – “Ben Franklin”
Living in Philadelphia, the spectre of Ben Franklin looms large: his name is on the Parkway, the bridge, his face on the museums and ads and subway stations. Basically, he did a lot of shit, but I doubt the guy ever got his heart hurt the way Snail Mail did.
Lyrically, Snail Mail’s Valentine captures the most difficult elements of full-on heartbreak: depression, pain, jealousy and grieving. But dysphoria rarely sounds as, well, euphoric as “Ben Franklin”. Lindsey Jordan’s pre-chorus falsetto adds the addictive touch to an otherwise dark hit, a song about how living sober leads to personal reflection that reveals some serious mistakes. – Ethan Reis
serpentwithfeet – “Same Size Shoe”
“Me and my boo wear the same size shoe” is certainly a cute admission from serpentwithfeet, but it carries with it much more than sweetness. “Same Size Shoe” is a song about what it’s like to be a gay Black man in America, and serpent’s decision that he only wants to date Black men as they’ve had the same experiences – walked a mile in his shoes, as it were. What’s more, any prospective partner has to be proud of his African heritage: “It ain’t no date if he walk behind me.”
Being able to package a message like this within a song that is just so delectably catchy and uplifting is a real feat. He admits that he’s found his one to spend his life with, share his barber with, sing old songs with, and we can hear and feel the love bubbling up within the song. It’s a joy that overflows when he cornily sings the trumpet solo at the end – but it works, because it’s just so earnestly happy. – Rob Hakimian
Circuit des Yeux – “Neutron Star”
There are approximately 100 million neutron stars residing in the Milky Way Galaxy, and they have a gravitational field that’s about 200 billion times stronger than what the Earth possesses. Under the guise of Circuit des Yeux, musician Haley Fohr is able to find the musical equivalent of all this collected gravity and compress it into dense works of absolute wonder. Through an almost operatic approach to experimental pop, she finds refuge in inexpressible emotions, the kind of overwhelming sensations which can only be experienced and can never be properly described.
This is certainly the case with “Neutron Star”, a standout track from her latest record, -io. Ambling along with a subdued country gait, the song echoes the early work of Calexico and Califone, but then Fohr’s mesmerizing voice strolls from the woods and transports us to an entirely different reality. Strings strike and retreat, dancing upwards, dense and expansive as they help to construct this awe-inspiring world. The brass accents add support as she continues to trek heedlessly through a mire of unknowable emotional excess, reveling in an eruption of sound as liberating as it is welcoming. If ever a song properly soundtracked revelation, then “Neutron Star” is that song. – Joshua Pickard
Black Midi – “Dethroned”
Who would have thought that my favorite song of the year would end up a wild mix of jazz rock with King Crimson guitars and Scott Walker-level abstract lyrics? “Dethroned” is the shining crown jewel of Black Midi’s second album, majestic and howling, caught in a whirlwind of duelling instrumentation at levels usually reserved for peak-era Mars Volta, with a bass line that is insanely infectious and singer Geordie crooning at the top of his game. It’s so unlike anything we’ve heard in recent years, or have been taught by the music press resembles the Zeitgeist. It’s like an ice cold shot of mixed citrus fruit juice. It’s psychedelic, but controlled and orderly. It expands on the sonic tapestry Bowie claimed on Blackstar and moves forward with brevity and delight. God, I love this song!! – John Wohlmacher
Self Esteem – “I Do This All The Time”
If you need any advice, please refer to Self Esteem. Specifically (and especially) “I Do This All The Time”, the stunning centrepiece to her latest album Prioritise Pleasure, which offers insight to what feels like every aspect of modern life: social obligations (“If I went to your barbecue, I’d feel uncomfortable and not be sure what to say anyway”), societal pressures (“Getting married isn’t the biggest day of your life”), texting (“Don’t send those long paragraph texts / Stop it, don’t”), and, of course, heartbreak (“It was really rather miserable trying to love you”).
Rebecca Lucy Taylor is a powerhouse of conviction and giving no fucks; a testament to living life in a way that makes sense to you. (Let’s just revisit that album title again, shall we?) “I Do This All the Time” has Taylor narrating own life directly at points, but with the rain-soaked percussion, magnificent swirling strings, an emboldening female choir behind her, you get so swept up in the half sung/half spoken word combo you feel like she’s singing about your own years on this earth. There really isn’t a song out there that can inspire, devastate, advise, provoke, and rouse the spirit quite like “I Do This All The Time”; it fits that Taylor would be the one to bring a song with everything to the table. Happy, sad, dour, depressed, and/or dejected: it’s a song for all occasions. – Ray Finlayson
Lucy Dacus – “Thumbs”
Lucy Dacus first shared Home Video centerpiece “Thumbs” with her fans in a live setting, where she asked them not to record it. It gave the song a mythology of sorts among fans and even inspiring a Twitter account dedicated to its impending release. But anyone who might’ve been moved to defy Dacus’ request and try to record a shaky, vertically-filmed video for their Instagram story would only be depriving themselves of experiencing the complete breadth of its impact. If you’re not listening to “Thumbs” with your full attention, you’re not listening to it at all.
Dacus makes it easy to be drawn into her world, painfully so, in fact. The musical aspect of this song is a bit of a formality, with little more than melancholy synths to backdrop Dacus’ wrenching story of visiting a friend’s estranged father with them. “I would kill him, if you let me” goes the most painful earworm of a chorus all year. The full-band “Thumbs Again” showed the song’s ability to fit into different contexts while still maintaining its crushing power, but the sparse album rendition is the one that really presses into you, much like how Dacus yearns to press her digits into the eyes of a certain deadbeat. – Mimi Kenny
Backxwash – “I Lie Here Buried With My Rings and My Dresses” (feat. Ada Rook)
Backxwash has a lot of grievances with the world, and justifiably so. As a black trans woman, she’s walked a difficult path in life, but she continues to tread it, her steps echoing like beats over which she breathlessly raps. Her targets are personal, but encompass historical ills, as evidenced here on “I Lie Here Buried With My Rings and My Dresses”, where she embodies the spirit of the African diaspora and vows to get back everything that was stripped from it – pride, freedom, history and life itself.
She glides through a beat that could level buildings and blasts of guitar that outshine the explosion of an A-bomb, her tongue the most vicious weapon of all. “The colonies and their vision / Robbing me of my diction / I feel love and betrayal / The prophecies will be livid,” she raps in the mesmeric first verse. It’s a fire that keeps rising until she doubles speed for the razor-breath second verse; “And if the devil calls me, it will be end of story / I’ll be bled for glory in this purgatory,” is just one small sample of the deadly emission.
But will she lay down and just die? Fuck no. The guest hook provided by Ada Rook, who sounds like a reanimated corpse with locusts pouring out, puts a fine point on it: “Empty, alone, waiting / Everything that didn’t kill me / Set me adrift between / Run away, no destination / Greyhound station, release me abomination / Not again / My demons have populations.” This is a warning: get behind her or get ripped apart. – Rob Hakimian
Lingua Ignota – “I Who Bend The Tall Grasses”
It is impossible to discuss Lingua Ignota’s Sinner Get Ready, or any of its songs, without acknowledging the horrifying (but sadly, unsurprising) revelations about the abuse Alexis Marshall inflicted upon Kristin Hayter. In a 7000-word ‘Impact Statement’, Hayter recounted in painstaking and painful detail, the trauma she endured during their two-year relationship. She also made it clear that she wrote Sinner Get Ready about that experience. “I’ve been called a sinner,” sang Marshall on the opening song of Daughters’ second album. It is clear now that he is the sinner of Sinner Get Ready, and that the album’s title could be read, retroactively, as a portentous omen for him.
That is not to say that this is Hayter’s retribution, her righteous vengeance writ in song; she has been transparent about her hope that Marshall does the right thing going forward, and is not interested in ‘cancelling’ him or Daughters. Even so, the Lingua Ignota project has always been an expression of extreme emotions, and whilst Sinner Get Ready is superficially less abrasive and alienating than her previous work, it still has its moments; none more chilling than “I Who Bend The Tall Grasses”. This was always a song about beseeching God to smite someone, but now it has the added sting of concrete autobiography behind it.
Producer Seth Manchester and multi-instrumentalist Ryan Seaton work together with Hayter to create a suffocatingly foreboding atmosphere. Hayter’s church organ is thick with dread, whilst anxiety-inducing percussion skitters and shakes in the background. The focal point is Hayter’s vocal performance, purportedly completed in one take, which runs the gamut from operatic to quiveringly vulnerable to outright terrifying. Her voice cracks in raw, unfiltered ways, lending the song a sense of in-the-moment danger, of nervous electricity.
As with most Lingua Ignota songs, “I Who Bend The Tall Grasses” is steeped in Christian iconography, which makes the sudden pivot into the immortal lines, “I don’t give a fuck / Just kill him / You have to / I’m not asking” wholly startling and disturbing. The sacred mixes with the profane in a truly shocking and affecting exploration of the nature of violence and sacrifice, of the relationship between abuser and victim, all cast in the light of divine retribution. It casts an unflinching eye on the apparently contradictory emotions raised in such a relationship (“I have never loved him more than I do now / But I can’t do it again”), acknowledging weakness as well as strength. Ultimately, it feels like an empowering song, which simultaneously imparts the feeling of being trapped. Even as it makes next to zero concessions to accessibility, it remains memorable to point of being iconic. No single musical moment this year has hit me as hard as when Hayter recognises her own power, seizing it from God Himself: “You understand? / It is my voice that bites the back of a cold wind / And I, it is I who bends the tall grasses.”
All she wants is boundless love. All she knows is violence. – Andy Johnston
Sharon Van Etten & Angel Olsen – “Like I Used To”
Sometimes, things just fit. No one realized they needed a collaboration between two of indie rock’s behemoths, and yet when it came, we realized it’s all we wanted. A true meeting of talents, “Like I Used To” sounds equal parts like a Sharon van Etten and an Angel Olsen song, and their voices intertwine gorgeously, each giving the other room when they need it. Their harmonies are tight and potent, and the melody soars with a rustic, anthemic swagger.
“Like I Used To” is one of those rare moments where every single piece aligns just perfectly, and makes complete sense. Not a hair out of place, the song never feels labored, just natural, powerful, and moving. It’s a titanic piece of pop songwriting, an instant classic, and there were not many other songs this year that come close to capturing its blissful magic. – Jeremy J. Fisette
Low – “Days Like These”
When I was 10, I had a dream that I could fly. The details were so vivid, the world so physical. But the thing I remember most is the way the wind sounded as the sky opened up ahead of me. There was this beautiful roar, a gorgeous distortion of sound that seemed to fully envelop me within its boundaries. I never thought I would experience that feeling again.
And then Low went and released “Days Like These”, a song that feels so unbound by the demands of our physical spaces that it practically carries you aloft on the strength of its overwhelming resolve. Working with producer BJ Burton, the band breaks apart the details of our lives, welcoming us into an ever more fractured perspective on the emotional connections that exist between us all. Their voices possess an unnerving clarity even as they are eventually broken down and deconstructed past the point of recognition. I have never heard such beautiful devastation, and the calming denouement fittingly allows us time to reacclimate to our individual realities. – Joshua Pickard
Cassandra Jenkins – “Hard Drive”
[Ba Da Bing!]
Life is just a series of events strung together into one endless experience. It’s filled with highs and lows, some we remember, some we don’t – and often we don’t get much choice about that.
Cassandra Jenkins relays a simple explanation of existence and memory that she heard from a bookkeeper in a bar, one that’s perfectly attuned to the tech-fueled society of today: “the mind is just a hard drive”. Is it nihilistic? Is it freeing? It’s a bit of both. Either way, it’s not stopping Jenkins from savouring every facet of life.
“Hard Drive” is like an audio scrap book of a period of time in the songwriter’s life, filled with specific memories of people and activities, some special, some mundane. Whether speaking to a security guard, learning to drive or running into a compassionate friend, they’re all prized for having been part of the tapestry that is her life.
Jenkins isn’t here to preach, she’s here to share, and perhaps give you something to take away with you: a new appreciation for the every day. As “Hard Drive” sails out into the blue with glistening piano chords and sparkling whisps of sax, her soothing voice asks you to take a deep breath and count with her. “One, two, three,” she softly repeats. Close your eyes. Breathe. You’re centred again. You’re back in your body. Now go out and experience every new moment. – Rob Hakimian
Catch up with the rest of our Best of 2021 content here.