The A-list playlist.
Buongiorno! Welcome back to the final part of my Top 50 Songs of 2021 list! We’ve gotten through some big names in our journey to the Top 10, names which should still be celebrated irrespective of their landing outside the premier league stage. To that end, you can catch-up/refresh on #50 – #31 of the chart here, and #30 – #11 of the chart here! If you’re already wised up, though, let’s blast.
10] Silk Sonic
“Leave the Door Open”
An Evening with Silk Sonic
So many babies are being conceived to this. I mean, of course they are; it’s a Bruno Mars/Anderson .Paak team-up. By that token, I can also say with the exact same emphasis that so many wedding playlists are gonna feature this. It is cheesy, it is cartoonishly horn-dog, it is delivered with a relentless ‘wink wink nudge nudge’ barrage – it takes the pair until only the song’s fourth line for them to start the jokes, “Oh, you got plans? (You got plans)/Don’t say that (Shut your trap)” – it is a retro pastiche of the kind that is causing Berry Gordy in the afterlife to convert to Buddism so he can reincarnate and sue the duo for copyright infringement… It is also undeniable. That’s always been the thing about Bruno Mars post-debut, as well as .Paak to a lesser extent. His schtick should be insufferable, pogoing across the line of cool and good taste… but the craft is just undeniable. The songwriting so strong that the results are legitimately excellent. You hear that semitone step-up in the pre-chorus? Who else is doing that? Why is no-one else doing that?! That shit rules! Respect motherfucking craft!
09] Lucy Dacus
Yes, this destroyed me upon first listen. I’ve written a lot about my complicated relationship with my parents over the years – thankfully we’re all in a better place nowadays, but a song like “Thumbs” re-opened old wounds of times where I wanted absolutely nothing to with them. Overbearing, emotionally manipulative, oblivious to the pain they’re causing. Dacus communicates that kind of cruel toxic parental relationship with just a few choice lines which say more than a thousand paragraphs; not just his actions (“He hadn’t seen you since the fifth grade”) but in the reactions of Dacus’s partner which the song places more of an empathetic emphasis on (“You feel him watching/So we walk a mile in the wrong direction”). The arrangement is ultra-spare, synthesiser/mellotron and cavernous reverb which occasionally bubbles up sounds reminiscent of passing cars. All of the focus is on those vocals, those lyrics. The turn at the halfway point is heart-stopping, only rivalled by the beautiful line at its very end: “You don’t owe him shit even if he said you did.”
08] Years & Years
Let’s get the elephant in the room out of the way: this is a reskin of Dua Lipa’s “Don’t Start Now.” Same structure, same bass focus, same pre-chorus, same post-chorus vocal effects, same sonic influences. Up until I had to write this entry, I was certain this even shared at least one of the songwriters from Dua’s massive hit, only to find out that no actually (although Clarence Coffee, Jr. did work on a few other tracks from Future Nostalgia). What’s it doing on here and this high when the sheer blatant “can I copy your homework?”-ness of the affair should override all positive boppy feelings? Well, one: “Don’t Start Now” is a really fucking good song that I didn’t hear in time for the 2019 list, so we can pretend this is a makeup. Two: genius often steals from greatness and I have long passed my insufferable teenaged music bro era where I give a shit about originality; a bop’s a bop. Three: …I genuinely think this is the better song. The chorus is bigger, the tone more ecstatic and exuberant, that post-chorus can be classed as a terroristic weapon it’s so catchy, and it has Olly Alexander which is always a win. Four: it just makes me happy whenever I listen. Ain’t that enough in These Uncertain TimesTM?
07] Tyler, The Creator
CALL ME IF YOU GET LOST
This was my first Tyler album. I missed Odd Future’s heyday, got turned off by the buzz around his virulent homophobia on the early releases for reasons I didn’t fully understand at the time but which are really obvious in retrospect, then just never felt compelled to dive in when he became a critical darling. But his return this year was one of the few Event releases in the music calendar and I really liked lead single “LUMBERJACK” so was all ‘sure, I’ll give it a shot.’ Reader, I nearly threw my entire neck out once the second verse of “CORSO” kicked in the first time. Jee-zus, I cannot recall the last time a rap song instilled this level of primal response in me, one which not only hasn’t lessened in the months since but actually grown. Just… the absolute best shit-talk (“pulled up in that, uh, whatchamacallit”), a beat designed to break necks with ruthless efficiency and additional flourishes which just make the song (that synth bass in the chorus break), mid-00s DJ Drama ad libs. And then there’s that last verse, where the bravado and materialism reveal themselves to be a front for deep emotional rejection to a degree which elevates everything that came before. Yes, I will be diving deep into the rest of his discography soon.
06] Wolf Alice
“Lipstick on the Glass”
This never ever goes well for me, but I’m gonna risk jixing it anyway: are Wolf Alice simply incapable of writing a bad song? Three albums of increasingly high quality in, it’s really difficult to convince me otherwise. Take, for instance, “Lipstick on the Glass,” perhaps their finest composition to date. A synthesis of their disparate folky, electronic, and traditional band sides that moves from sparse acoustic verses where Ellie Rowsell pushes her upper register past its highest Kate Bush limits, to a full-band bass-welded skitter in the chorus which has a slight ugliness to it. Producer Markus Dravs reverbs guitars, vocals, drums in an ethereal swirl, accentuated with synth programming and buried percussion, but leaves that acoustic guitar untouched in the centre of the mix anchoring the track in the heartbroken drama of the song’s narrative. Rowsell’s lyrics are poignant and conflicted, reflecting the mess that her partner has made of this relationship and a weary sense of obligation to continue it anyway, whilst the choral bridge is one of the best moments in the band’s entire discography.
05] Snail Mail
Best Chorus of 2021. No contest. I don’t care what other candidates you put in front of me, you’re wrong. This is the winner. No other chorus in 2021 has so completely taken over my entire being every single time it comes on. No matter where I am, what I am doing, who I am with. This song comes on, that chorus winds up? I’m belting it the fuck out with every fibre of my soul, whether that be from the top of my lungs or just mouth-whisper-yelling in a way that makes everyone think I’m a psychopath. Hell, I’m doing it now as I write this entry! “So why’d you wanna ERASE MEEEEEEEEE? DAAAAAAARRLING VAAAAAALENTIIIIIIIINE?” So, so, so much queer pain and longing is unleashed in those lines. “You’ll always know where to FIIND MEEEEEEEE! WHEEEEEEEEN YOOOOOOU CHAAAANGE YER MIIIIIIIIIIND!” So, so, so much petty queer spite in those follow-on lines. Both so wrenchingly true. I remember saying three years ago that, even as she released an instant-classic debut, Lindsey Jordan was clearly nowhere near her full potential yet, but even I had no idea she could come out with something like this. Everybody please thank Amandla Stenberg for breaking her heart badly enough that this song could unspool from it (allegedly)!
04] Billie Eilish
“Happier Than Ever”
Happier Than Ever
And speaking of blistering “fuck you”s by prodigal female musicians still barely old enough to drive. Wish that the apocalypse in Phoebe Bridgers’ “I Know the End” was instead localised entirely within one absolute asshole of a boyfriend that you go completely scorched earth on? Yeah, the structure is cribbed from my favourite song of 2020, but it’s recontextualised marvellously. There’s a dissonant serenity to the jazzy first half which is already pretty damning on its own merits – “When I’m away from you/I’m happier than ever” is just an amazing casual burn to base a breakup number on – but clearly feels like Billie trying to, as she puts it, “think of something clever.” The raw power of that second half, when the track ignites like a grand theatrical curtain-closer, comes from the simple fact that she’s failed to come up with that something clever. So, instead, she just plainly lays out in a messy profanity-laden tirade the emotional damage, constant let-downs, and residual trauma this ex inflicted on her. There’s no poetry, no grace, not even any firm demands. Just righteous, cathartic, sad, desperate anger.
03] Japanese Breakfast
The only other potential candidate for Best Chorus of 2021 I will seriously entertain is “Be Sweet.” Right up until “Valentine” dropped, this was the runaway victor in that debate and, in fact, practically sold the album it was attached to entirely off its own back. The fearless way that Michelle Zauner throws her voice all over those “belIIIEEEEEEEEEeeeeeeEEEEEve”s has built up an entire cul-de-sac in my brain and pays zero property tax; it’s exactly the right kind of off-key. There’s so much fear and hail mary apprehension in that line and its delivery which is represented in the rest of the song. A shiny 80s new wave throwback with positively glistening synths and palm-muted tremolo-picked guitars hiding a vulnerable plea to not be let down or hurt yet again by an unfaithful partner. That kind of transparency sticks in a listener’s gut just as much as the melodies stick in their head. By most metrics, this is the best pop song of the year; the total package.
02] St. Vincent
“Down and Out Downtown”
I adore every single second and every single facet of this song. You name it, I love it. The in medias res fade-in? Love it. The slinky ascending bass line which forms the core of the song? Love it. The jazzy drums with that incessant eighths hi-hat? Love them. Annie Clark’s 70s analogue mic filter? Love it. Her emotional yet assured vocal performance. Love it. The recurrent sitar? Love it. The transition into the chorus. LOVE it. Those backing vocals after each line of the chorus? LOVE them. The lack of judgement over a walk-of-shame? Love it. The way in which the separate vocals and instruments harmonise together on the same ascending note at the end of the chorus? LOVE it. The melody switch on “And that joker with that funny laugh/Is digging through the basement of my past,” including those held beats on each “that?” LOVE LOVE LOVE it! Sorry, Charli, those are my real favourite two seconds in music all year. “Down and Out Downtown” is supposedly Annie’s favourite song on the album. She has good taste.
01] No Rome
“Spinning (with Charli XCX & The 1975)”
Spinning – Single
Most years, my #1 song makes itself obvious almost immediately. I’ll give it a listen and have some kind of strong emotional response to it that makes me go “yep, that’s it, that’s the one” and it never changes between that first listen and Listmas season. 2015, 2016, 2018, 2020; these were ones where I knew in my heart that I had found my song for the year. Other times, I’ll reach Listmas SZN with no preordained victor but a pretty decent idea of what the major frontrunners were going to be and could make a decision very quickly into the sorting process. 2017, 2019; those were the ones I had an inkling were going to be my #1 but took until I was in the middle of the listmaking to know for certain. Those are the easy years.
But, sometimes, there is no clear frontrunner. Sometimes, the #1 slot doesn’t feel obvious at any point no matter how many times I end up defaulting to it when filling in reader surveys for sites like Pitchfork and Stereogum. Sometimes, I’ll go through the rigamarole of hip-shooting my list for discussing with friends, have the same #1 in place every time, but keep thinking to myself that it’s probably gonna be replaced by some other flashier name when time comes to do the proper list. Thing is, that hasn’t happened since 2014. So, perhaps you can understand why I felt a sense of anti-climax upon locking in my list for 2021 and realising that, yeah, my official #1 really was going to be “Spinning.” Just as it was when I threw my hat into The Gummies. Just as it was when I sent in my ballot for Pitchfork’s Reader’s Choice poll. Just as it was when I declared it my Song of the Summer on the Stereogum form in August. Just as it was when I took a personal mid-year poll to see how things were faring. And just as it was when I dropped £9 on a 7’ single copy because I loved listening to the song that much.
Like, it seems too obvious? Picking my most-played song of the year by several continents as my #1 favourite? Sure, it’s a damn great song. A buoyant, jubilant slice of house-pop with 90s-esque piano, sliced-and-diced auto-tune vocals darting all over the place, and a swirling assemblage of synths and bleeps and overdubs that become almost cacophonous by the track’s end; representative of the drug-fuelled bender its protagonists are on. It operates at the exact midpoint of all three artists’ prospective sounds in a manner that makes every one of them sound great. Charli reminding everyone that she can make more straightforward pop music sound distinctly Charli; Rome injecting the drug-addled darkness and fuck-up lyrical preoccupations of his works; George Daniel and Matty Healey of The 1975 showing off those unmistakeable production chops of theirs. It sounds massive, energetic, infectious, unpretentious, an instant mood-lifter. It’s a damn great song. But my #1 of 2021?
Well… yeah. Why not? Sometimes, it’s really not that complicated. Sometimes my Song of the Year can just be the one I listened to the most. It’s not that hard.
And with that, the novella is complete! Thanks once again for indulging me and my taste in music! Hope you had fun, maybe even found something you liked but hadn’t heard of before! Below, you’ll find the playlist of all but one of the 50 songs included in this year’s countdown. (NINE is no longer available to stream, so you’ll have to search “Bitter Streets” out elsewhere or just mentally paste it in.) Enjoy!
Callie Petch looks so good dressed in nothing.