Music is alive and well, baby. While Covid-19 kept us mostly at home for the past two years, the Best TV and Best Movies provided us with something to do. But the sweet, holy sound of music–music–gave our hearts a place to go. It took us mentally into the valleys and peaks of our emotions, to imaginary escapes. The future.
In 2021, the artists produced some of their finest work. There was plenty of food for dancefloors, whether it be at home or in a warehouse. Singers such as Doja Cat and Silk Sonic (the joint project from Bruno Mars, Anderson.Paak), and ABBA were all available. Yes, ABBA! They’re back! They’re back! There was rock, soul, and even some surprising debuts (Wet Leg!). ).
No matter what your mood is, there’s a song for you. These are the GMT top 2021 songs.
Earl Sweatshirt, “2010”
Earl Sweatshirt is free to move around as he pleases and makes music whenever he feels inspired. The style of Thebe Kgositsile, who was born in Thebe, is not based on traditional form, structure, or even releases. Columbia Records released Some Rap Songs in 2018 and he released Feet of Clay, which he released in the following year. He raps “2010” while in the middle of his thoughts with a fluttering synth. This opening line serves as a reminder that Earl is one hip-hop’s most brilliant lyricists. He combines abstract thought with clever wordplay and personal memories to create a unique song.
“The Future” — Nathaniel Rateliff and the Night Sweats
Nathaniel Rateliff & the Night Sweats broke out with their particular, you-can’t-help-but-dance brand of rock n’ roll back in 2015. The frontman was not sure he had more happy songs at the beginning of last year. After a split, he said to Esquire that he would not get the group back together until the energy returned. Instead, he preferred more serious solo releases. This song, which was the first to be on their return LP in 2021, announced a boisterous and undeniable return.
“Keep an Eye on Dan” — ABBA
ABBA has just released their 40th-anniversary album. It contains a song called “Keep an Eye on Dan” and we are supposed to continue as normal. Preposterous. Voyage is an amazing and strange look into the inner lives of four Swedish pop stars who are divorced. We think so. The only thing we know is that none of them have spoken English since 1981. After listening to the song several times, we aren’t sure if Dan is the ex-husband or the child is being dropped off for a weekend at a new stepmother. We don’t even care. It’s a simple song that will make you scream “KEEP A EYE ON DAN!” for days.
“Like I Used to” — Sharon Van Etten and Angel Olsen
It seems almost absurd that Angel Olsen and Sharon Van Etten had never worked together before listening to “Like I Used To”. It is amazing to see how easily two of the most respected singer-songwriters today can share this track. Their voices are perfect for each other in tone, timbre and power. Their choruses are like a collection of blocks that form a musical structure.
“New Shapes,” Charli XCX ft. Christine und the Queens
Charli XCX, Christine and the Queens are already a dream team when creating club-rattling pop art. Charli’s sound has been further elevated by Caroline Polachek adding to the equation on “New Shapes”. The crisp synth beats and stomping drums make for a smooth transition. It’s a dancefloor experience that’s as emotional as the best Charli music.
“Chaise Longue” — Wet Leg
Wet Leg’s “Chaise Longue”, which dropped in June, has been viewed nearly 2 million times on YouTube and listened to by 4.5 million people on Spotify. This may seem small potatoes compared to, say, Bieber streaming numbers but it is an amazing feat for a debut single from any band, even one from the tiny Isle of Wight. Hester Chambers, one half, said that it was a pleasant surprise shortly after the song went viral. “We wrote it in an evening. We were just writing for fun and being silly. We didn’t know it would connect so many people at the time.” This blithe attitude toward post-punk (the song’s opening line may be a reference of Mean Girls “buttered muffin”) is what makes Wet Leg so effortlessly hip. Rock music doesn’t have to be taken so seriously. Let the numbers prove that we have been waiting.
“Middle of Love,” Jake Wesley Rogers
Rogers, a Missouri-born and Nashville-residing musician, made a name for himself early in mainstream music. He reached the quarter-finals on America’s Got Talent at 15. He’s now signed to Justin Tranter’s Facet label and is embracing his queerness, as his melodic chops grow stronger. Rogers continues where Freddie Mercury and Elton John left off in 1970s, and this track has become a glorious AM gold for streaming.
“Control” — Mannequin Pussy
“I’m in charge” / That’s how I tell myself. / When all the wall around me are / Close in,” Dabice sings in this diary of unresolved frustration. It’s a cathartic release, ranging from anxious vocals and guitar to an eruption drums and screams. It feels very attuned with the past two year. It is a reminder that even when everything seems to be on fire, there’s still some power. It doesn’t matter if we have to be able to tear down our beds whenever we want. Let loose. Go fucking nuts. It’s your right. Mannequin Pussy is the perfect music to make it happen.
“Become the Phoenix” — Tara Kye
Become the Phoenix is a real-life story by Tara Kye. I have been a key witness in a legal battle defending my farmers from a chemical spray which was sprayed on their fields prior to fruit forming but exceptionally crop-damaging. I was warned to walk away from that the people who made the mistake were very powerful and that they had ways to destroy me personally so I would not be a witness for my farmers, that paying somebody to make me look “crazy”, or “bankrupt me” or “kill me” was cheaper and more likely than them paying my farmers for the damage that they created. I found this hard to believe and I laughed saying they’re a big corporation, why on earth would they want to hurt me to avoid paying the farmers for their mistake? Well, I was wrong and so I wrote a song. Read more here
“Sundown Town,” Vince Staples
Vince Staples, a disintegrating Kenny Beats producer, reveals his anxiety view of the world in “Sundown Town.” The song is a testimony to his incredible command of language and his ability to distill his phobias into just a few bars. He doesn’t need another second. It only takes him two and a half minutes.
“Immune” — Jensen McRae
McRae, a rising star, tweeted earlier this year: “In 2023 Phoebe Bridgers will drop her third album. The opening track will be about hooking in the car while waiting to get vaccinated at Dodger Stadium. It’s going to make me cry.” She also posted a thirty second pre-emptive cover and it went viral. So she recorded the entire thing. We stayed away from clicking and listening because of our natural aversion towards viral content. The crowd shouted at her to recite it, and she ended her set at Troubadour Los Angeles with it. It’s a beautiful, sad, perfectly-observed song on Love in These Times. Even though it was written by someone else, Jensen McRae wrote it. Keep an eye out for her.
“Silk Chiffon”, MUNA
It felt like everyone could use a little pick me up as hot vax season gave way to the delta-variant autumn. Enter “Silk Chiffon”, a light-hearted indie pop song by Los Angeles trio Muna. It’s their first single since signing with Phoebe Bridgers label Saddest Factory Records. It’s a sweet ode to the golden age of queer love. The hit single is reminiscent of late-’90s bubblegum pop with its sweet melody and shimmery chorus. Finally, gays can have their own makeout song.
“MMMOOOAAAAAYAYA” — illuminati hotties
The topsy-turvy Illuminati “MMMOOOAAAAAYAYA”, which is populated with musical fuckery, features Illuminati hotties. They’re trying to tie us into knots, I believe. There are key changes. There are also random left turns at tempo. A gibberish chorus is heard. It’s pure joy. It’s difficult to remember where the song will go next despite listening to it countless times. It shouldn’t. (Really.) Yet, it does. The visuals for “MMMOOOAAAAAYAYA”, are also incredibly subversive. They take a playful look at D’Angelo’s ‘Untitled (How Does it Feel)’ video. This one is not for the faint of heart.
“Valentine’ — Snail Mail
Lindsey Jordan, a member of Snail Mail, was just a teenager in 2018 when her debut album was critically acclaimed. She became an indie-rock star in 2018. Three years later, Jordan is back and has only grown and refined her craft with “Valentine”, a heartbreaking, painful love song that explodes with guitars and Jordan’s intense anguish. She sings, “You won’t believe what just two month do / I’m older now, trust me, I love you,” before the song’s chorus almost bursts into grief. It’s powerful and beautiful.
“Solar Power” — Lorde
Lorde returns to the simplicity of her breakout single “Royals” in the verses, but then you blink three more times and it kicks in: the hook that will be sounded at all pool parties until the autumn. It’s a little George Michaels’ “Freedom 90”, it’s Primal Screams’ “Loaded”, and the video certainly takes cues from Humira. While none of us have ever made a bong of a fennel bulb we will continue to try. It has been a common question whether we could kick it, especially in this year. But Lorde seems to be right. We can.
“Kiss Me More” — Doja Cat, ft. SZA
Pop music’s beloved chameleon continues to reign. Doja Cat, a LA native of 25 years, is currently in the midst of her third album, Planet Her. She moonlights in many music genres, including hip-hop and R&B. Her joy undoubtedly ties her adventures together. This is a sticky-as–bubblegum roller-rink flirtation with SZA.
BTS’ “Butter”, which has been at number one since its May release, continues their hot streak. It brings joy to a difficult, stressful season. Our winter-issue cover boys get just cocky enough that we know they are killing it. Yet, they still name-check ARMY to reminds us who got them there. This song is still the Summer of Butter’s undisputed hit, despite the fact that US radio airplay has fallen behind streaming and sales.
“Atlantic,” — The Weather Station
In the opening line of “Atlantic,” Tamara Lindeman sings, “My god, I thought” / “My god. What a sunset” / Blood red floods The Atlantic.” As Lindeman struggles to reconcile the beauty of nature with the impending doom of climate change, a storm of trilling synths whirls in the background. She said that she was thinking about the impact of climate change. “How can you love the world and look out the window when it is so endangered? And how does that threat and that grief get in the way of being able to love the world and be able to interact with it?” she explained to Apple Music. It’s a song about coming to terms with the terrible events of our time. We can’t help but to listen when a song like this is so beautiful.
“VBS” — Lucy Dacus
Summer is the time when cool kids head to parties and coastal kids hit beaches. These experiences are well-documented in songs. It’s also the time when many sadder children with more careful parents pack up and head to vacation Bible school. Lucy Dacus relates this experience to great effect. It’s a brief story about a preacher dressed in a tshirt, a father with long sleeves to conceal his past life, and a girl whose nervous system can only be soothed by secret Slayer sessions. Dacus might no longer believe, but she is clear that the communion of young and skeptical minds can be a miracle.
“Don’t Judge Me” — FKA twigs, Headie One, Fred Again
FKA Twigs is back to finish what she started. The avant-garde pop star used her vocals for a brief interlude on a mixtape by rapper Headie One, and producer Fred again . The entire collection, GANG, is well worth a spin. This serves as the first version of the 2021 release. It was worth the two years of tinkering. The final version is absolutely exhilarating from her blown glass vocals and the UK drill star’s hypnotic, urgent flow.
“MONTERO” (Call me by Your Name) — Lil Nas X
This video is attracting all of the attention. It’s not surprising that one would slide down a stripper pole from Hell to give Satan an impromptu lap dance and then snap his throat. The song is a love song to a self destructive, possibly closed-minded man who “lives under the darkness,” and it’s worth listening to.
“Folasade” — Kabza De Small, DJ Maphorisa, TRESOR
Amapiano has been the most popular South African sound in recent years. It is a subgenre of house music. It started out as a counter-cultural DIY movement. It is the music of freedom, long, joyful, and hypnotic dance songs that are rooted in deep house. This movement is led by DJ Maphorisa and Kabza de Small, who helped spread it throughout Africa and to global fame. TRESOR, Maphorisa and Kabza de Small showcase the true potential of this genre on this almost 8-minute long track. This track is also proof that the likes Drake, Usher and Disclosure are paying attention to this scene. It’s possible that this will be the next K-Pop or reggaeton or pr Latin trap sensation.
“Peaches” — Justin Bieber ft. Daniel Caesar, Giveon
You won’t win the Peaches TikTok Makeup Challenge, but you will eventually give in to the latest chart-topper by the Biebs. It’s a great time to make it now! Bieber performed the unorthodoxly funky track during his NPR Tiny Desk performance in January, just hours after releasing Justice LP. It was a rousing, even if somewhat random tribute to different parts of the United States. This is not something to overthink. The radio version is flawlessly produced and features Daniel Cesar. It’s almost impossible to be smooth.
Silk Sonic – “Leave the Door Open”
Bruno Mars can take on any genre, whether it’s the ’90s jack swing of “Finesse”, or the early-’80s synth-pop “Treasure”. This shows that he is able to understand the task. But that’s the problem with Bruno Mars’ music: his music can often feel like an assignment. Mars has teamed up with Anderson.Paak for Silk Sonic. Their first track is a perfect tribute to mid-’70s R&B, with a key shift that will make you cheer. While we aren’t closer to knowing who Bruno Mars is, his work is so much fun that it doesn’t matter.
“Hard Drive” — Cassandra Jenkins
Cassandra Jenkins creates beautiful vignettes using her mind’s hard drive. She alternates between spoken-word storytelling with soft, pensive vocal singing. In the everydayness of her thoughts, there is an unmistakable hope. It is a reminder of the many things we can come back to, and how simple, quiet moments can have so much meaning. Jenkins released the following words on the occasion of President Biden’s inauguration: “I hope today, we can take deep breaths, count to 3, let go of the past 4 years, and start looking ahead to the next chapter.” She also offers a meditation guide to the listener, “Just breathe.” It feels great to breathe in fresh air.
Olivia Rodrigo – “Driver’s License.”
Every few years, a debut track comes along and punches you in the face. It’s big, broody and brilliant. This song is irresistible to teens and adults alike. It’s a song you want to hear alone but also with all your friends. What about other music? You forget it, completely. This year, Olivia Rodrigo (17 years old) dropped “Driver’s License” and it quickly took over radio airwaves. It reached the top spot of the Hot 100 within days. This one is a real pain. Sing it loud.
“Scratchcard Lanyard” — Dry Cleaning
It’s odd to call a band “post-punk” forty-five years later, but that description doesn’t seem to fit South London quartet Dry Cleaning. Florence Shaw, the lead talker, says that she came here to create a ceramic shoe…It is a Tokyo bouncency ball.” She also cries out over the squealing Gang of Four-style guitars and a mix that’s chaotic enough for its time. After fourteen months of feeling nothing, “Do everything and feel everything”, turns out to be exactly what we need to hear after 14 months. (Progratulations also to the best video we have seen in years.
“1491” — Navy Blue
This was the year that Christopher Columbus arrived in America. The year before he started the transatlantic slave trading and the American Indian genocide. Navy Blue says, “I used to kiss Saint Christopher, fuck Christopher Columbus1491, it’s one and done. This shit is ficked up.” He explains it over a crackling sample, and a distant siren. Navy Blue recalls vivid memories of that year and connects them to his own life. “They got machetes on their track pants, a swishy inside the sock / Just pray for a Black man. I’ve been feeling down.” –
“When You See Yourself” — Kings of Leon
Kings of Leon won’t be as popular as they were in the beginning of their careers, when songs like “Use Somebody”, “Sex on Fire” and other hits went viral. Their eighth album, released in March, finally makes it sound like they don’t care. This track, which is lifted by an arena-rock-sized melody and sung in frontman Caleb Followill’s voice, moves with an admirable ease, even in its middle tempo pocket. The only mistake? It is a mouthful of a title.
“Last Day On Earth” — beabadoobee
All of us have done the same thing: we looked through our photo apps for the last normal image before lockdown. We all have more than a year to think about the end and what we would do if it had been known. We all made bread, took up piano or chess, and some even got comfortable in sweatpants. Beatrice Laus and Matty Healy from The 1975 teamed up to create a song that addresses the new relationship we have with mortality. It also suggests early ’90s Shoegaze and builds on last year’s promising “Fake the Flowers.”
“Be Sweet” — Japanese Breakfast
Michelle Zauner’s first single, Japanese Breakfast, is a statement of joy. The first two albums, which were about her mother’s battle with and eventual death from cancer, served as mournful, dream-pop meditations on the subject of grief. With a bright groove and glowing synths, Zauner taps into her effervescent side. She told Pitchfork that she wanted to explore a new part of herself: “I am capable of joy, and I have experienced lots of joy.” “All the songs serve as reminders to how to experience that or make space for it.” With everything going on in the world, this is exactly what we need.
“Hurt” — Arlo Parks
Inspired by a quote from Audre Lorde– “Pain will either change or end”– British singer/songwriter/poet Parks sends a tense world a soothing message over lo-fi beats: “I know you can’t let go of anything at the moment, just know it won’t hurt so much forever.” We’ll have to take her word for it for now, but until the world settles, Parks’ debut Collapsed In Sunbeams is a front-runner for album of the year.
“Girl Like Me,” Jazmine Sullivan feat H.E.R.
Jazmine Sullivan’s song “Girl Like Me”, offers a nuanced approach to the breakup ballad. She sings the first verse over a lonely piano and a Frank Ocean-esque soundscape. The song explores the haunting questions of a breakup and the destructive effects it can have on one’s self-worth and mental health. Sullivan said that she identified with the song as a Black woman and a woman. She also felt it was a reminder of how social media has made it easy for women to see images on Instagram and feel overwhelmed. It eventually gets to you.
Lisa Harris Editor
John Rob, a Brooklyn-based culture/lifestyle writer, music critic, and journalist.
Madison is an editor and writer living in New York.