Time to mark a decade of this annual tradition by inducting another 50 into the annals of history.
Even before I received statistical evidence of this being the case, I was fairly certain that I’d listened to less new music in 2021 than I had in 2020. Not to say that I haven’t still been checking out a whole heap of new records this year, enough to confidently fill out a Top 40 Albums list if needed, or that I haven’t taken in way more new records than most “normies” or lapsed audiophiles do. But it definitely felt like I sought out and listened to less music this year than I did in 2020. You could put that down to a few factors. I had a bit of a turbulent transitory year that saw my living situation change again and my brain have an all-about-the-place fry-out effort to work, hence the infrequent retreat to comfort records. I got my vinyl collection back, as a result of said move, so I’ve also been centring my listening on those. Then, outside of my brain-farts, there was the fact that 2021 didn’t have the same relentless supply of exceptional records as the previous 12 months, at least to my ears. Statistics back me up: I have 614 songs from this year in my iPod library, compared to almost 1,100 from 2020.
Still doesn’t mean this list was at all easy to put together, mind. In fact, if you go by amount of time spent whittling down and then ordering the list, rather than raw number of potential candidates, then this might be the most tightly-contested countdown I have yet put together. Normally, the whittling is what takes several hours and the actual ordering of those who make it is relatively painless; it usually very quickly becoming apparent where many tracks top out and even which one rules high and mighty above the others in my heart. Instead, this might be the first year where the ordering process took longer than the cutting. Only slightly longer, mind – three and a half hours for the culling compared to just under four for the ordering – but still. That’s indicative of something. I choose to believe it’s indicative of how much I love the songs that did make the list, to an extent where so many of them forever felt like they were in the wrong slots until I finally had this list fully locked in.
Today marks a full decade of my making and posting Top Songs of the Year lists onto the Internet in some capacity. That’s EXISTENTIALLY TERRIFYING! But it’s also pretty cool from a growth perspective! I might post a thing in a week or so analysing the last decade of results as a fun little howdie-do. As for this list, it’s the first time in a while (to my knowledge) that returning artists upstage new additions; 27 of the main credited performers have recurred in this series at least once before. I think it’s the poppiest list I’ve ever put together, albeit bear in mind that we’re talking Stereogum-levels of pop; I’ve not gone and put Ed Sheeran or The Kid Laroi on here cos my senses are still intact. If the mood last year was gay and sad with bursts of dancing, this year’s is… well, still gay and sad, but leaning a little more on the dancing side of the equation and with further room for noisy angry music designed for cathartic release (can’t possibly imagine why). Most importantly, there’s technically the debut of K-Pop on this countdown which means I am now officially beyond salvation and I love it (as if my being a queer non-binary wasn’t already barring me from pearly gates).
Before we blast off, the usual rules. First and most importantly, one song per artist. Repeating by features is allowed, that’s a very important loophole for this chart’s climax, but the lead artist only gets one shot by themselves; we are looking for that one killer track even if it stunts their position on the eventual list. Remixes of non-2021 tracks are not allowed unless they significantly alter the base track; hence why yet again Róisín Murphy’s “Simulation” is denied entry. Lastly, only songs originally released between the 18th December 2020 and the 16th December 2021 are eligible for this countdown. Normally, I restrict to the calendar year rather than including late December of the previous year, but I’ve grown to realise that I don’t like inadvertently casting out songs which release in the dead-zone between list-filing and a new year starting, so we’re opening it up a bit from this point forward. Any single included on a 2021 album which released before the 18th December 2020, though, is still ineligible; e.g., “Robber” by The Weather Station.
Finally, a refresher on the past winners. What a lineage our victor shall be joining!
2011: Florence + The Machine – What the Water Gave Me
2012: Tame Impala – Elephant
2013: Yeah Yeah Yeahs – Sacrilege
2014: The Juan MacLean – A Place Called Space
2015: Jamie xx – Loud Places (Feat. Romy)
2016: David Bowie – I Can’t Give Everything Away
2017: Gorillaz – Strobelite (Feat. Pevan Everett)
2018: Florence + The Machine – No Choir
2019: Charly Bliss – Young Enough
2020: Phoebe Bridgers – I Know the End
Can I stop being a sad gay teenaged girl with this year’s winner? Probably not, but let’s go on this journey together anyway. Today, #50 – #31; tomorrow, #30 – #11; Sunday, #10 – #1, plus a Spotify playlist of almost everything for those New Year’s quarantine parties.
50] Kings of Leon
“When You See Yourself, Are You Far Away”
When You See Yourself
Once upon a time, I loved me some Kings of Leon. Those first three-and-a-half records? Great Southern-inflected indie rock with grit, hooks, and sometimes even atmosphere to spare. Then they got really bad, then they got really boring, and this year they got into NFTs which is somehow worse than both of those prior sins. But, for the opening six minutes of their latest really boring album also available as an NFT, they were briefly better than they’d been in almost a decade. If you catch me on certain days, and especially if you caught me when I was 15, I might insist to you that the band’s best song is “Knocked Up.” The sprawling atmospheric opener from Because of the Times has a killer groove, memorable melody, and relaxed pace whilst remaining engaging thanks to a constant contrast in dynamics and some quietly stellar drum work from Nathan Followill. It probably doesn’t say a whole lot good about them or me that their best song in ages is a blatant rewrite of “Knocked Up,” where all of the virtues for “When You See Yourself…” are basically the xeroxed virtues of that prior track, but the results work so I’m not about to judge. Love the hi-hats on the outro, especially.
49] Laura Mvula
Last time I paid attention to Laura Mvula, she was making Radio 2-core music on her debut album. Nothing wrong with that, to be clear, but it wasn’t for me and therefore easy for her to fall off my radar. So, when my friend Kelechi breathlessly DM-d me in the Summer about Mvula’s new album, I put a mental pin to check out later. ‘Later’ turned into ‘early December’ but it only took until the forceful blast of the chorus of “Conditional” for me to regret not giving the album a shot before then. Like, holy hell, where did this come from?! Not just the album at large, but the song specifically. Those verses are great, don’t get me wrong – the burble of that bass intertwining with the thick processing of Mvula’s monotone vocal melody, plus the occasional usage of held beats to enhance the drama. But the chorus shoots the entire song into the stratosphere. Almost literally with those dynamics, too, it’s been a while since I’ve heard synths in an out-and-out mainstream-gunning pop song that forceful and ecstatic. Make no mistake, had I been able to sit with this for longer than two weeks then it probably would’ve been much higher.
48] Jessie Ware
What’s Your Pleasure? (The Platinum Pleasure Edition)
Goddammit, Mrs. Ware! Making me quadruple-dip on What’s Your Pleasure? by having to offload both my CD and vinyl copies of the standard version to upgrade just because you decided to supplement my 2020 Album of the Year with six more brand-new effortlessly smooth disco-pop bangers (plus a v. good “Adore You” remix and shoulda-been-on-the-album loosie “Overtime”)! How dare you play with my trust issues like this! You’re lucky that “Please” continues the classy, up-tempo, immaculately-produced club sound of main album standout “Mirage (Don’t Stop),” with a pre-chorus catchier than 80% of the actual choruses churned out this year and infectious near-gospel harmonies, otherwise I’d be properly upset at you! Anyways, let me know when you need the three funny-looking numbers on the back of my credit card…
47] Magdalena Bay
Some songs sneak up on you. Sometimes, it can take until literally the last 30 seconds before one realises that ‘oh, shit, this slaps!’ Sometimes, it can take a few months of living with a song as an occasional presence in the background of one’s life before they fully realise precisely how much it slaps hard. These are usually isolated sensations, one or the other. “Chaeri,” the lead single from hyperpop-adjacent duo Magdalena Bay, managed to trigger both of those sensations. On my first stream, I was digging those synthwave sonics and sapphic-as-hell chorus delivery, but it took until the outro when the wave fully crests into a towering crash with the staccato chant and layers upon layers upon layers of swimming synths for me to go ‘no, this doesn’t slap, this slaps!’ Months later, after having that chorus repeatedly infect my waking hours – with it mental health affirming hook “it’s only that bad if you tell yourself you’ll never get out of bed;” no idea why that line stuck with me – I entered the deliberations process of the Top 50 and it took one full play for me to immediately understand the extent to which “Chaeri” slaps hard. From there, its place was assured.
46] Baby Keem
“family ties (with Kendrick Lamar)”
The Melodic Blue
Let’s make something clear. “family ties” is already a great song before Kendrick shows up. Keem is an undeniable vocal presence. An acquired taste but one which works for me, especially when his pitch settles on one note in a near-breathless barrage towards the end of his verse, with some solid-ass bars I still remember even with what’s to come. “N***as wanna play both sides/That’s a red-dot/Don’t get on the wrong red eye/It’s a headshot.” Those horns instantly get me hyped the way that a good shit-talk anthem should, and the now-standardised trap drums don’t detract from the vibe. “family ties” is already great in its first half. Then Kendrick shows up and it becomes amazing. “I’m not a trending topic, I’m a prophet.” “The Al Green offspring, guns and the melody.” “Soon as I press that button/N***a better get right like the ambulance comin’.” “Show my ass and take y’all to class/I can multitask like Megan.” “Motherfuck that album/Fuck that single/Burn that hard drive.” Even the beat knows it; that switch is the song equivalent of ‘why do I hear boss music?’
The STRINGS! I promise that my appreciation of SAULT also extends to their heady genre fusion of decades of Black music, their affecting lyrical portrayals of Black life and injustice and trauma, the multitude of voices this largely-anonymous collective incorporates, the lusciousness of the production in general, the sumptuous grooves… All of that, I get and I love them for. …but THE STRINGS!! Guys, folks, those STRINGS! Few musicians right now are getting as much out of their string arrangements as Inflo does across his prolific work. The transcendent release the string arrangement here provides after vocalist Cleo Sol – not officially credited but, c’mon, I’d recognise that voice anywhere by now – laments losing a best friend to the cycle of poverty-stricken gang violence in North London is goosebump levels of good. Even better is how, after a couple of passes, the production has them sort of glitch out rather than keep looping cleanly (you can even hear the pop of residual audio from where they’ve been cut in), reflecting the bittersweet reminiscence of the narrative.
44] Courtney Barnett
“Before You Gotta Go”
Things Take Time, Take Time
There’s something about the low-energy bouncy indie folksy delivery of “Before You Gotta Go” which makes it linger so much more than if it were a charging rocker or a melodramatic ballad. Barnett’s second single is a break-up song that sounds… not exactly apathetic, since the chorus’ desire that “if something were to happen, my dear/I wouldn’t want the last words you hear/to be unkind” has a civility, if not a fully convincing well-wishing sentiment. There’s a very quarantine type of tiredness to the song, an exhaustion where both people depicted in this failing relationship are just physically incapable of any bitterness or desperation or energy that cannot be conveyed in a passive-aggressive end-of-it manner. The cyclical guitar progression that keeps the song running in place adds to that, as do drums which lack any toms or snare hits to such a noticeable extent that their occasional presence is mildly disarming, like they’re disrupting the intimacy.
43] Tigers Jaw
“Can’t Wait Forever”
I Won’t Care How You Remember Me
Another ultra-last-minute discovery brought about by my Soundsphere editor pushing the album hard enough during early Listmas that I felt like I had to check it out. And YEP! Despite now being 27 years of age, I am very much still a basic bitch who has Pavlovian reactions to melodic emo with sensitive boy-girl harmonies, just enough processing on the chorus vocals to go down smoother than butter, those moments where the drums go from a simple 4/4 charge to a slightly irregular breakdown to indicate a cathartic chorus, and a brief tasteful overdriven solo heralded by a smidge of mix-crowding feedback. There is a reason why I went head over heels for that I’m Glad It’s You album from last year, and this Tigers Jaw track fits exactly within that lane. It also would’ve fit perfectly on the Burnout 3 soundtrack which is the defining factor that takes all songs from good to great.
42] Duran Duran
“GIVE IT ALL UP (Feat. Tove Lo)”
Alright, who gave Duran Duran permission to go this hard in 2021? By all rights, this should be a legacy act completely past their prime making anonymous bids for mainstream relevance that everybody politely tolerates as a bathroom break at the live shows before “Rio” gets busted out. Instead, “GIVE IT ALL UP” legitimately no qualifiers rules and, crucially, still feels like a Duran Duran song. Even with most of the instrumentation here being digitised in ways that should cause the band to sound overridden by producer Errol Alkin’s club fingerprints, I can still tell Roger Taylor is behind that four-on-the-floor drum kit with those skittery slightly-motoric hi-hats, and the bass has that signature John Taylor fullness which anchors proceedings. I’m rarely a fan of Simon Le Bon’s upper-upper register – this is why, controversial opinion, I can’t stand “Wild Boys;” he sounds awful there – and yet it works brilliantly on the chorus of this, whilst his verses have that same sensual profundity of something like “Ordinary World.” And then you add Tove Lo to the mix for a true duet? Seriously, what right do this band have to be putting out an actual near-classic of their discography 40 years in?!
41] Pom Pom Squad
Death of a Cheerleader
You’re gonna see a number of 90s-reminiscent riot grrl/pop punk/pop rock tracks on this year’s countdown, cos I am belatedly trying to make up for the lost queer teenaged girl self I wish I could’ve been. Honestly, when also including some of the almost-maybe cuts, I can near-enough make a Top 20 purely off the back of this subgenre. “Lux,” one of the shortest and spikiest tracks from Pom Pom Squad’s adventurous and bratty debut, possesses maybe the knottiest set of vocal melodies I’ve heard all year. The song is, meaningfully, just two chords alternated back and forth, with contrasting loud-quiet-loud dynamics, for 99 seconds; how it crashes in is how it resolves. Yet, Mia Berrin’s snotty delivery keeps sliding around what should be a simple melody in ways that grip the attention and destabilise to a degree which reflects the world-caving-in instability of the song’s protagonist. Holding off on rhymes a few measures, an idiosyncratic arrangement of words, and a vivid picture painted.
“Meanwhile (Feat. Jelani Blackman & Barrington Levy)”
Meanwhile – EP
Damon Albarn just makes Gorillaz songs look completely effortless, at this point. A track like “Meanwhile,” with its glitchy electronics, dubby bass, and relaxed flow from Jelani Blackman, can unspool with such undeniable ease. Evoking a nostalgic vibe for the multicultural vibrancy of both Notting Hill carnival and the area of London itself, gentrified almost beyond recognition after Richard Curtis’ rom-com made the place en vogue. Blackman’s lament for what once was – even at one point confessing “that’s why I get in my feels and I know that I can’t fucking live here still,” a f-strike which sticks so effectively from its pained casualness – is provided a hopeful counterpoint from 2D’s bridge, accentuated by reverbed steel pans. (Why have so many artists stopped writing bridges, nowadays? Answers on a postcard.) I could sit here and examine all of the many ways in which this song has been meticulously fussed over, the slight elements which if removed would break the whole, but I love the magic illusion in Gorillaz songs nowadays. Albarn really does just make it all look effortless, by now.
39] Lana Del Rey
“Not All Who Wander Are Lost”
Chemtrails Over the Country Club
Yes, the chorus “not all those who wander are lost/it’s just wanderlust” out of context absolutely sounds like the sort of shit that adorns awful Etsy-made steel plate decorations owned by the sort of people who collect insipid “Live, Laugh, Love” memorabilia. Not gonna dispute that, nor the bit in the second verse where Lana goes “Cos every time I said ‘no’/It wasn’t quite what I meant” since I’m in a forever push-pull with how I react to her sorta romanticisation of abuse. But, dammit all, few songs have occupied mental headspace this year more than this one. Partly, that’s for the opening line: “I’ve been wearing the same damn clothes for three damn days,” as potent a narrative hook as I’ve heard in 2021. Partly, that’s for the delivery of the chorus, one of the few times on the Chemtrails album where Lana’s piercing falsetto works. Mainly, it’s for the dreamy Californian Americana instrumentation, which is Mazzy Star without the ladles of reverb. Sunkissed, nostalgic, highway-centric. I can totally picture myself sat in a passenger seat staring out over a desert sunset on a road trip listening to this… oh, God, am I actually a closet “Live, Laugh, Love”-er?!
“Romeo (Feat. Bas)”
Loving in Stereo
I’m amazed it’s taken Jungle this long to dip their toes into hip hop. Their retro-sounding neo soul with funk inflections often have the makings of potential sample beds for underground or backpack rappers to laconically spit their shit all over. That’s a brief which J. Cole protégé Bas fulfils with aplomb on “Romeo,” bigging himself up in hashtag raps – “jumped out the circus like Soleil, curving” – and humblebrag acknowledgements of the bottom he started at before getting here. “2010, they tried to end me/But I see them bullets off… 2020, Grammy nominated/Bet we goin’ off.” It fits the dorky laidback cool of the sonic base Jungle operate in here, with snapping snares and steady bass which all lock-in together on a chorus I can’t help but dance to. There’s also that garbled Lee Williams & The Cymbals sample which provides the title, surprisingly the first time Jungle have used/credited a sample, and, despite its innocuousness, one I find hard to envision the song without. It ties everything together, like a nice rug.
“T.L.C. (TURNSTILE LOVE CONNECTION)”
The conflict between traditional post-hardcore raging and more experimental deconstructions of that straight-ahead sound is what powers Turnstile’s breakthrough album, perhaps best encapsulated by the microcosmic precision of “T.L.C.” Although the main riff is introduced on skittish modular synths and vocalist Brendan Yates is shouting about a desire for tender emotional connection, the track’s first 30 seconds are a lightning-paced charge through thrashing mosh-ready hardcore, complete with a descending scale chorus barked out like a game chant. Then, after the second chorus run, the track screeches to a halt, downshifting gears for a funky Sly & The Family Stone interpolation before again abruptly transitioning, this time to an airy peaceful coda consisting of nought but an 808 kick and warm deeply-mixed piano chords. In lesser hands, a song like this can have one of those segments overpower the rest to a degree that a listener wishes it were the entire song. Not here, though. Each part is equally thrilling.
“On the Level”
Earnest directness suits Poppy well. In the hands of Titanic Sinclair, and even as she began breaking away from his allegedly abusive grip on last year’s I Disagree, Poppy was an art project. One of those heavily-online things designed to deliberately transgress and unsettle, whether that be in her viral videos or in her semi-deranged car-crash music. There was a charm and fun in that, don’t get me wrong, but earnestness and sincerity results in tracks like “On the Level.” A sugary sweet, infectiously hooky, and winsome number heavily reminiscent of that time just before the millennium when this kind of guitar pop was making inroads to the mainstream but before the industry sanded every last trace of edge off of it. Poppy’s vocal performance radiates relief and joy whilst still carrying these flickers of uncertainty and justified paranoia – the chorus putting it plainly that, after so long being stuck in an abusive relationship, “it’s so peculiar” to “find someone on the level.” That slight metalcore breakdown in the bridge rules, the guitars are just the right degree of spiky, and the restrained amount of bass emphasises the calming space of this beautiful moment in a relationship.
35] Royal Blood
Honestly, I have no idea if I actually like this one or have just been sufficiently beaten down by its nagging hook and car commercial delivery of the titular noun that I’ve given in like a torture victim and will say whatever it takes to make the pain stop. Supposedly it’s about being enthralled so much by depression that you can’t silence its rage anymore? The only thing I know it’s about for certain is yelling “ty-PHOOOOOOOOOOOOON!!” like you’re pissed in a football grandstand whilst one of those deliberately inescapable escalating scale riffs loops over and over and over and over and over again like a typhoon or the activation key in a cult brainwashing program. To be fair, and after listening to it all year in a failing effort to somehow stop its insidious control, there are things I genuinely like about the song. The vacuum-sealed production is the right level of cheesy, I like the addition of spangling guitar overdubs to the bass-and-drums Royal Blood set-up, and I guess if I keep searching it out I must sincerely like it a bit, right? Who even knows, anymore. “Ty-PHOOOOOOOOOOOOOOON!!!” is gonna follow me to my grave.
Never Enough – EP
Oh, how I ‘umm’ed and ‘ah’ed over whether to go with “In My Arms” or “Seduction” for the, at this point, obligatory Disclosure entry. (I can’t help it; they won’t stop dropping heaters and they’re on a stonkingly consistent run of greatness right now!) “In My Arms” goes a lot deeper and clubbier than anything they’ve released in years, but is still based on standby Disclosure tenants: that wobbly synth bass, pronounced click track percussion, drops which always wait just a beat longer than they’re supposed to and therefore feel a tiny bit more mega, a killer vocal sample manipulation forming the beat’s basis. But I don’t think I’ve ever heard them put out something that sounds like “Seduction.” Ultra-Chicago house, or specifically Chicago house as envisioned by Yuzo Koshiro for Streets of Rage 2 if the tech were less bit-crushed. This is cool, slinky, even more than a little bit sexy which is not something I’d normally associate with Disclosure. That funky bassline is so goddamn brilliant. Keep pushing the boat out your comfort zone, Lawrences. It clearly suits you well.
33] The War on Drugs
“I Don’t Live Here Anymore (Feat. Lucius)”
I Don’t Live Here Anymore
I, in my infinite wisdom, chose to howse the latest War on Drugs album – ‘howse’ being Stereogum commentariat parlance for ‘only listen to the lead single prior to an album’s release’ – because Lost in the Dream and A Deeper Understanding became obsessions of mine over the last few years and I wanted that pure first-listen experience. Except that it took over a month for my ordered CD to arrive so I’ve not had anywhere near enough time to digest it like I wanted and, as such, am definitely paying it dirt on this list. Guarantee, in two months’ time, I’ll be kicking myself for not putting the title track in (bare minimum) the Top 20, assuming I’m not kicking myself for not putting any of the other incredible songs here in its place. But let’s instead focus on the fact that “I Don’t Live Here Anymore” already made this strong of an impression in just 12 days of listening. I knew this was gonna be the one the second that “Bette Davis Eyes” chord progression kicked in; a feeling reconfirmed when Adam Granduciel’s poignant lyrics of faded memories and changed home towns took over; and then re-reconfirmed when enormous group harmonies sent that chorus into outer-space, the one thing it turns out a War on Drugs song was missing.
32] Charli XCX
“New Shapes (Feat. Christine and the Queens & Caroline Polachek)”
Charli is in her self-described sellout era, having declared hyperpop dead, and evidently going all-in on giving the record label she’s had a tumultuous relationship with over the last decade what they think they want for her final contracted album. One could understandably be worried about the potential results, were it not for the fact that this is still Charli baby and, as she memorably bragged on “Click,” “when [she] wanna go pop, [she’ll] pop, [she] got them hits.” “New Shapes” is absolutely irresistible candy-coloured 80s pop bliss with Jam & Lewis-snappy production, a magnificent usage of silent space and held beats, and the return of all-timer Charli collaborators Caroline Polachek (who frankly steals the whole track with her bridge) and Christine and the Queens. There are days where I think that the “Charli, Caroline, Chris/Whatchu want whatchu want” ad lib is my two favourite seconds in music this year; it’s gonna kill in gay clubs once we can actually go out to them reliably again.
31] Everything Everything
SUPERNORMAL – Single
It was weird to me, as a pretty big Everything Everything fan, to read the rather divided to muted responses for their album last year, RE-ANIMATOR, from certain corners. Maybe that it lacked an immediate and forceful banger like “SUPERNORMAL” was the reason for that, despite the fact that the song’s bitter aggression is exactly why it wouldn’t have fit on the record. I’m real glad the band released it as a loosie, though. It’s an anxious, urgent, restless rocker reflecting the lyric’s themes of capitalistic avarice and ultra-masculine desire for more no matter the cost. The biting snarl with which Jonathan Higgs and the band deliver every single “you’re goddamned RIGHT!” is just outstanding, and the John Congleton compression also found on the prior album adds to the suffocating overstimulation of the instrumentation. Ridiculous as this is to say, but “SUPERNORMAL” sounds like it wants to fight the listener, albeit for nihilistic Fight Club-esque reasons and with Everything Everything’s undeniable pop instincts winning out in the end.
Come on back tomorrow for #30 – #11 of the countdown!