Time usually feels like a line, but much of 2021 was a fog. We don’t need to get into the ins and outs of why. We don’t need any spiel about pandemic fatigue. The important thing is that 2021 really felt like the year where we remembered that life is for living, and the music of the year was certainly a soundtrack for that. Whether this was the year you stepped back on to the dancefloor or jumped back into a mosh-pit or not, there was always a song to keep you on your feet.
In this definitive list of the 50 absolute best songs of 2021, you’ll find every shade of life – from dayglo pop-punk to glitterball K-pop via goth-noir, neon electro, hard grime and everything in between. From icons to upstarts, these are the tracks that took around three minutes of your life, but gave you so much more. These are the moments of magic in an instant. In that spirit, let’s just bloody get on with it shall we? Here’s your year in absolute bangers.
Andrew Trendell, NME News Editor
Words by: Alex Flood, Ali Shutler, Andrew Trendell, Ben Jolley, Charlotte Krol, El Hunt, Ella Kemp, Hannah Mylrea, Jenessa Williams, Kyann-Sian Williams, Patrick Clarke, Rhian Daly, Rhys Buchanan, Sam Moore, Sophie Williams, Thomas Smith and Will Richards
50. Yungblud – ‘Fleabag’
Inspired by Oasis, Green Day and Nirvana, this banger saw Yungblud living out every one of his rockstar fantasies. After the eclectic might of second album ‘Weird!’, ‘Fleabag’ somehow condensed everything that’s brilliant about Yungblud into a three-minute rager. Sexy, snarling and dripping in angst, it’s proof that our Dom can straddle his stadium ambitions whilst comfortably giving us the cult hero we so desperately need. AS
Best bit: Just when you think the song can’t get any harder, Dom pulls out that wailing guitar solo.
49. The Cribs – ‘Swinging At Shadows’
Wakefield’s finest wouldn’t let us go without any new music in 2021, having roared back to life last year with the still-stupendous ‘Night Network’. To launch their vinyl single subscription service ‘Sonic Blew Singles Club’, The Cribs blessed us with ‘Swinging At Shadows’: 205 seconds of indie-pop majesty jam-packed with crunchy Jarman riffs, a glorious sing-along chorus about being “outsiders once again” and enough good vibes to make you briefly forget there’s still a pandemic raging in the background of everyday life. God bless The Cribs. SM
Best bit: The “ooh-ooh-wahey!” backing vocals in the chorus. It’s like 2005 all over again – pass us the Martell, would you?
48. Enny – ‘Same Old’
There’s always something feel-good about an Enny song. Whether it’s the chorus’ simple, campfire singalong vibe, or the wailing piano keys synonymous with R&B, there was a sense of freedom to ‘Same Old’ despite its angsty lyrics. At 26-years-old, the south Londoner used her wisdom to form conscious prose that encapsulates the trials of a generation going through gentrification, Brexit, love, and a whole load of other very 2021 problems. KSW
Best bit: Before the last chorus, Enny ends her story of perseverance with an uplifting line of affirmative action: “I saw truth and had to face it / I knew then that I could make it out”.
47. Twenty One Pilots – ‘Saturday’
With a back catalogue that largely deals in isolation, you’d assume Twenty One Pilots would have been in their element during lockdown. Instead of leaning into misery, they made ‘Scaled & Icy’ – an album so joyous, some fans believe they’d been brainwashed by their own fictional secret organisation, Dema. The jewel in that jubilant crown is ‘Saturday’ – a funky, uptempo bop that’s more interested in dance than despair. This party-starter is bright, bold and a surprisingly good look for the emo duo. AS
Best bit: A audio clip that sees frontman Tyler Joseph wanting to watch Friends, but his wife tells him to do some bloody work instead. We’ve all been there, eh?
46. Ashnikko – ‘Deal With It’ (feat. Kelis)
A highlight of Ashnikko’s genre-splicing debut mixtape ‘Demidevil’, this self-described “rage-room” of a song is a belter. Sampling Kelis’ classic ‘Caught Out There’ (the track features Kelis’ iconic: “I hate you so much right now” line), and boasting house-shaking pop-trap production, this is the ultimate middle-finger to that ex who just doesn’t get that you’re so over them. HM
Best bit: The brilliantly filthy line: “I don’t need a man, I need a rabbit”.
45. aespa – ‘Next Level’
Though K-pop’s newest rookies officially debuted with ‘Forever’ and ‘Black Mamba’, ‘Next Level’ was the moment where aespa truly arrived. A reimagining of A$ton Wyld’s Fast & Furious soundtrack contribution from 2019, it pushes the genre into a much darker realm – pulling hip-hop and e-girl into cyberpunk. Did we mention it has at least three entirely separate ‘beat drops’, all with their own ridiculously catchy hooks? Mark these girls down as your tip for 2022 – they’re going to be BTS-levels of huge. JW
Best bit: Check out the video of that flawless choreography – imitate it at your peril.
44. Coldplay – ‘Higher Power’
Coldplay have been looking up to the stars for years, and ‘Higher Power’ finally saw them truly lift off towards the stratosphere. A euphoric valentine to that person who makes the world seem a little brighter, this was the sound of a band free of the shackles of youth – nostalgic with shades of electro-pop, rather than their own angsty discography, and basking in the glow of love with no-strings attached. EK
Best bit: The soaring outro, a tender admission of gratitude and perfect singalong moment as “your love song floats me on” which sounds like it’s been decades in the making. Lovely stuff.
43. Tyler, the Creator – ‘WUSYANAME’
We may never know the identity of the woman Tyler, the Creator fell hard for on ‘CALL ME IF YOU GET LOST’ (see ‘WILSHIRE’ for an ode to a failed relationship) – but ‘WUSYANAME’ painted another vivid picture of a girl he longs to woo. Tyler crafted a delicious, ’90s-indebted R&B slinker to soundtrack his smooth-talking. Being whisked off to France with promises of pampering and adventure was a winning romantic gesture. CK
Best bit: Tyler adding dry humour to the mix: “Let’s go to Cannes and watch a couple indie movies that you’ve never heard of”.
42. Willow – ‘Transparent Soul’
Proving that the transition from R&B to pop-punk can be seamless, musical visionary Willow became a new emblem for alt-girl magic on ‘Transparent Soul’ – channelling Paramore and Avril Lavigne to tell a story of back-stabbing friends. Blink-182’s Travis Barker certainly hasn’t struggled from work this year, but his drumming efforts here were particularly huge; matching the skyscraper power of Willow’s voice. Where she goes next is anybody’s guess, but for now, the rock life suits her well. JW
Best bit: Where that massive chorus kicks in – a proper ‘Misery Business’ moment for a new generation.
41. Pa Salieu ft. Slowthai – ‘Glidin’’
As two of Britain’s most idiosyncratic rhymers, Salieu and Slowthai did just what’s on the tin with this angsty gem – gliding along with class and attitude. Tapping into Pa Salieu’s perfected fusion of grime and afrobeats, the Coventry lad’s ethos this year was to just have fun. ‘Glidin’’ took his and Ty’s free-for-all flows and imaginative wordplay to another level. KSW
Best bit: Pa Salieu’s insane ad-lib work, especially in his second verse.
40. Sofia Kourtesis – ‘La Perla’
The Berlin-based Peruvian artist’s emotive electronic collages shone brightest on this sonically-shuffling highlight from her ‘Fresia Magdalena’ EP. Softly detailing a moving yet uplifting memory of her late father, this was Sofia at her most soul-bearing: beautifully singing in Spanish on record for the first time over glistening synths, a choir of voices and percussive instrumentation, everything builds up to create a heartfelt house triumph. BDJ
Best bit: That tear-jerking whistled outro that conveys a feeling of long-awaited peace, like staring out to sea on a serene day.
39. Mabel – ‘Let Them Know’
Mabel gave us one of the year’s defining club bangers after deciding to make something that she claimed sounded “like a Madonna’s ‘Vogue’, but in 2021”. That’s quite an assignment to set yourself, but she pulled it off by watching RuPaul’s Drag Race and the seminal LGBTQ documentary film Paris Is Burning, then channelling their defiant attitude into a strutting ’90s house update from producer SG Lewis. The result: “Tens, tens, tens across the board!” for Mabel, Lewis and co-writers MNEK and Raye. NL
Best bit: The chorus’ empowering pay-off: “No, they can’t beat you down / ’Cause baby you’re that bitch”.
38. Sigrid – ‘Mirror’
The past year’s pause on live performances provided the Norwegian star with a personality crisis of sorts. Her self-worth, she realised, was wrapped up in entertaining others, but this comeback single provided a joyous fightback that celebrated the “person in the mirror”, all set to her most ambitious and party-starting production yet. TS
Best bit: The ravey middle-eight, ripe for several club remixes by dance music royalty like Paul Woolford and Kelly Lee Owens.
37. Måneskin – ‘I Wanna Be Your Slave’
Måneskin entered 2021 in relative obscurity, before their gender-bending sexed-up glam rock stormed Eurovision when they took home the prize for Italy with the swaggering ‘Zitti e buoni’, but the real fame came after. Proving that they’re far more than a Eurotrash gimmick – and did-he-didn’t-he-drugs headline fodder – ‘I Wanna Be Your Slave’ proved to their real victory. A snarling, punk-metal, NSFW ode to getting kicks out of your kinks, this real romp even got the seal of approval from Iggy Pop who lent his vocals to a re-released version. It really puts the lust back into life. AT
Best bit: That sultry whisper: “And if you want to use me I could be your puppet”. Phwoar.
36. Baby Keem & Kendrick Lamar – ‘Family Ties’
Kendrick Lamar’s long-awaited solo return may look set for 2022, but the Compton rapper did reappear this year to help launch Baby Keem’s impressive debut album. The intense three-part ‘Family Ties’ initially saw Keem enter to horns and talk of reaching “the stars on my tippy-toes” before Lamar took the mic and, well, dominated. “I been duckin’ the pandemic, I been duckin’ the social gimmicks / I been duckin’ the overnight activists,” he retorted to his detractors before declaring: “2021, I ain’t takin’ no prisoner.” Yeah, fair enough. SM
Best bit: “I’m not a trending topic, I’m a prophet.” – Kendrick Lamar. Again, fair enough.
35. Bree Runway – ‘Hot Hot’
The sexy, knowing genius of ‘Hot Hot’ was that despite the simple song title – a phrase that you’d more likely find on a bottle of Nando’s sauce – it evoked multiple and complex pleasures: of movement, confidence, freedom. Bree built up the track’s sustained feeling of self-belief perfectly, piling on the pounding beats, lyrical flexes and layered pop harmonies and letting them repeat, knowing we wouldn’t get sick of this throbbing arrangement any time soon. SW
Best bit: “Sweet little honey, do you want some?”, she cooly sang in the first verse, teasing a potential love interest. Who could resist?
34. Holly Humberstone – ‘The Walls Are Way Too Thin’
By detailing the alienation that accompanies finding one’s place in a new city, this mid-tempo number wrapped itself up in bittersweet nostalgia – the kind you can’t escape after seeing pictures of friends from back home pop up on the timeline. Grantham’s own Humberstone fused this experience into a twinkling rumble that crystallised her pain; the themes that she wrestled with on this song are certainly universal, but they’re rarely depicted with such immediacy. SW
Best bit: The pulsing synth line that buoys the melody throughout, as if it’s stuck in a looping dream.
33. Squid – ‘Narrator’
The first single from their five-star debut album, ‘Narrator’ was a microcosm of everything that makes Squid so exciting – packed into eight-and-a-half thrilling minutes. Across the track, singer/drummer Ollie Judge roared over math-y guitars indebted to 2008-era Foals, before a wild, untamed midsection saw the track’s form melt away and the band’s avant-garde tendencies really come out to play. A true odyssey within a single song. WR
Best bit: When, after multiple minutes of tense, foreboding build-up, the track explodes into chaos and letting a torrent of dissonant noise spill forth.
32. Mitski – ‘The Only Heartbreaker’
Is this the most sophisticated imagining of what “crying in the club” sounds like? Mitski danced through loneliness and betrayal in a dizzying ’80s-inflected battle-cry about being the guilty party in a failed relationship, throwing her hands up and sending us skyward. With hair-raising synths and commanding vocals, ‘The Only Heartbreaker’ solidified her status as a master of distilling messy feelings into something quite breathtaking. EK
Best bit: The opening five seconds – it’s impossible to sit still once it sinks in with just how much power Mitski is making her comeback as our patron saint of bittersweet bops.
31. Yard Act – ‘Dark Days’
Rather than succumb to the shit-storm of the last few years, Leeds gang Yard Act managed to laugh through the turmoil on ‘Dark Days’. Backed by one of the year’s biggest post-punk grooves, frontman James Smith served up golden lines that made everything feel more bearable: “I’ll embrace all my mistakes / As I descend into the bowels of hell with a shit-eating grin on my face.” It confirmed them as true originals refusing to fall in line. RB
Best bit: A spangled guitar line opens up the floor for Smith’s maddened yelp that says just about everything you need to know – “AHHH!!!!”
30. Japanese Breakfast – ‘Be Sweet’
Korean-American indie rocker Michelle Zauner clocked out of this ’80s-influenced pop belter with a personal request cum generational rallying cry: “Be sweet to me baby / I wanna believe in you / I wanna believe in something!” It was a noble pursuit – and after just three minutes of Japanese Breakfast’s euphoric disco-shoegaze, you’ll be ready to fall right in line behind her. AF
Best bit: The bassy beginnings – an instant hit of funk to turn your bad day into a good one.
29. Kanye West & André 3000 – ‘Life Of The Party’
‘Life Of The Party’ didn’t make the final cut on ‘DONDA’ due to André 3000’s apparent unwillingness to have his swearing censored. But after some divine/dastardly intervention from Drake, who leaked the track during the pair’s feud, the official version finally emerged on the deluxe release of ‘DONDA’ in November. The OutKast man beautifully ruminate on life and death in the context of his late parents over a classic flipped Kanye instrumental, wistfully wondering if his mother’s spirit had spoken to him through a blade of grass, a cigarette or a baby’s laugh he heard “passing by in a stroller reminding me: ‘Hey, keep rolling’.” SM
Best bit: André 3000’s verse aside – arguably one of his best-ever – the audio sample of the late DMX comforting his daughter was a touching addendum following his untimely death this year.
28. Jungle – ‘Keep Moving’
No summer feels complete without hearing Jungle’s layered and lush electronica breezily soundtracking a BBQ, party or festival. It was fitting, then, that the west London duo dropped ‘Keep Moving’ five months before the August arrival of their radiant third album ‘Loving In Stereo’. Grooving its way into hearts, minds and Euro 2020 coverage throughout summer 2021, the ’70s-nodding track strutted its stuff on the dancefloor with lashings of rich strings and the duo’s trademark falsetto. SM
Best bit: The kinetic drum roll 30 seconds in, which commenced said groove.
27. Lil Nas X featuring Jack Harlow – ‘Industry Baby’
If any artist enjoyed an imperial phase in 2021, it’s surely Lil Nas X: the more he pushed the envelope, the more of a superstar he became. Co-produced by Kanye West, this chart-topping collab with Jack Harlow shows his knack for crafting catchy pop-rap bangers and his next-level savvy. He’s a self-styled “industry baby” because he already knows how to play the game on his own terms. NL
Best bit: “I don’t fuck bitches, I’m queer” – a plain-speaking line that underlines Lil Nas X’s fearless authenticity.
26. Adele – ‘Easy On Me’
The most anticipated comeback single of 2021 hit the mark because it gave us something comfortingly familiar and a subtle progression. Yes, it was another massive Adele ballad that will make you want to cry into your wine, but it was also surprisingly spare and restrained. Sounding better than ever, Adele knows her majestic voice can do all the heavy lifting, so producer Greg Kurstin wisely kept the bells and whistles to a minimum. Mission accomplished, babes. NL
Best bit: The effortlessly swooping way she sings “I had good intentions and the highest hopes” on the bridge.
25. St. Vincent – ‘Pay Your Way In Pain’
For her ’70s soul indebted sixth album ‘Daddy’s Home’, the arch icon St. Vincent welcomed us into her new world of disco balls, big collars and seedy NYC backstreets with this sassy and super-fly double shot of whiskey-soaked funk. There are real ‘Young Americans’ overtones to its lounge-y swagger, but with a hip cocked and eyebrow raised, it remains quintessentially Annie Clark. AT
Best bit: That refrain of “I WANNA BE LOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOVED”. You tell ’em, Annie.
24. Dave featuring Stormzy – ‘Clash’
Though it’s hooks weren’t immediately obvious, ‘Clash’ saw two of our country’s premier rappers doing what they do best; swaggering around a drill beat, reeling off a shopping list of social cache and material wealth, all the while seeming entirely unconcerned by the rapidity dripping from their lips. Effortless and cool, it was a suitably low-key opener for Dave’s second record, an intricate album that deserves to be enjoyed at leisure. JW
Best bit: “She wanna go to the cinema, so we just walk downstairs.” An extremely casual flex from Stormzy, who presumably doesn’t live in your local Vue.
23. India Jordan – ‘And Groove’
Underpinned by a relentlessly pounding drum machine, ‘And Groove’ felt like the musical equivalent of the deepcut Lady Gaga quote that reappeared as a meme last year: “Bus, club, ’nother club, ’nother club, plane, next place. No sleep.” Released during a time when all of these things were very much out of reach, the London-based producer’s track is a house-inflected ode to staying on the move, capturing the giddying feeling of stamping the night away in a deliciously dingy, strobe-lit basement. EH
Best bit: When the crispy hi-hats first collide with ‘And Groove’’s muffled piano melody.
22. MUNA featuring Phoebe Bridgers – ‘Silk Chiffon’
For most people, the idea of recording a song with their boss sounds like a thoroughly dreadful prospect, ending only in humiliation and ruin. But luckily enough for LA electro-poppers MUNA, they signed to Phoebe Bridgers’ imprint Saddest Factory this year, and the breezy ‘Silk Chiffon’ marks their first collaboration with their new label head. The result was a carefree, wide-screen rom-com of a song, and considering that far too many queer musical narratives still end in certain tragedy, there was something quietly refreshing about ‘Silk Chiffon’’s lack of resistance. EH
Best bit: The Guitar Hero buzzes of electric guitar in Bridgers’ verse are exquisitely emo.
21. Clairo – ‘Amoeba’
This slinky number from Clairo’s stunning five-star second album ‘Sling’ saw Claire Cottrill admonish her own behaviour. “You haven’t called your family twice,” she critiques in the chorus, “I can hope tonight goes differently / But I show up to the party just to leave.” It’s a brutally honest assessment of her life on tour that fused candid revelations with lush instrumentals and a funky rhythm section. HM
Best bit: The key change towards the song’s finale, before Clairo launches into the exhilarating final chorus.
20. Berwyn – ‘I’d Rather Die Than Be Deported’
The Mercury-nominated Trinidadian-British musician was strictly a nomad in this music game. Able to move between rap, R&B, and sometimes pop, Berwyn always somehow manages to hit you right in the heart. ‘I’d Rather Die Than Be Deported’ was a deep cut into the 25-year-old’s life seeking refuge in the UK after having struggles with his immigration status – Berwyn turned this pain into perfect piece of art. KSW
Best bit: That space after Berwyn delivers the title, and you feel that pure rawness.
19. PinkPantheress – ‘Just For Me’
A savvy player of the internet age, the Bath-born-and-bred singer was once hidden under a cloak of invisibility. Instead of putting on a show for everyone, she injected nostalgic UK classics into sparkly one-minute tracks that have captivated a new generation. From her playful vocals to the Mura Masa-produced beat straight out of the ’00s, ‘Just For Me’ boasted both a nostalgic vibe but ultimately sounded like the future. KSW
Best bit: As well as sounding great, the story of PinkPantheress’ yearning for her love interest is remarkably vivid given its one minute and 55 seconds runtime.
18. Silk Sonic – ‘Smokin Out The Window’
A cynic could say that Bruno Mars and Anderson .Paak’s debut record as Silk Sonic is a blatant attempt at cosplaying the 1970s’ golden era of soul, but it would fundamentally miss the point – the pair sound like they’re just as much in on the joke as we are. ‘Smokin Out The Window’, a whip smart breakup track that references Chuck-E-Cheese and scrapping in the UFC ring with their lover’s new fella, proved just that. TS
Best bit: After all the good times – and all the money spent – .Paak’s swimming in his own self-pity: “Not to sound dramatic, but I wanna die,” he wails.
17. Caroline Polachek – ‘Bunny Is A Rider’
A bouncing, juddering beast of a pop song, produced by Carly Rae Jepsen and Charli XCX collaborator Danny L Harle, ‘Bunny Is A Rider’ drew on the surreal imagery of Alice In Wonderland. Nodding to the book’s hapless white rabbit, who runs around clutching a stopwatch and being late for things, Polachek’s only single this year was a genius new spin on the age-old theme of emotional distance. EH
Best bit: Every single ridiculous rhyming couplet, but especially “bunny is a rider / Satellite can’t find her”.
16. Doja Cat featuring SZA – ‘Kiss Me More’
‘Kiss Me More’ was on constant replay thanks to its insanely catchy hooks, sexed-up lyrics and sugary pop production that zapped synapses in all the right places. Doja Cat and SZA’s soulful harmonies were a match made in heaven – better still their isolated raps delivered with passion and prowess. Both artists flitted naturally between stunning vocal runs and defiant spits, expressing exactly how to manage and make good on their desires. CK
Best bit: When they yell gleefully, “All on my tongue, I want it”, in the post-chorus.
15. Wolf Alice – ‘Smile’
The standout song on astounding third album ‘Blue Weekend’, and the glorious spiritual sister to the feral ‘Yuk Foo’ from their previous record, ‘Smile’ saw frontwoman Ellie Rowsell fiercely challenge the male gaze perceptions of a woman as “mad” and “unhinged”. “I am what I am and I’m good at it / And you don’t like me well that isn’t fucking relevant,” Roswell sings with fierce malice. A track marked by dreamy shoegaze, soaring harmonies and a killer bass, it’s certain to become a staple of their live shows for years. They’ve never sounded more assured. EA
Best bit: When Ellie Rowsell snarls: “And now you all think I’m unhinged / Wind her up and this honeybee stings.”
14. Griff – ‘Black Hole’
The Hertfordshire all-rounder went from pop prospect to bonafide star with ‘Black Hole’, her highest-charting and single so far. While the other releases from her debut mixtape, ‘One Foot In Front of The Other’, favoured intimacy, ‘Black Hole’ – quite literally – embraced the Go Big Or Go Home mantra, with a playful mix of twinkling home-spun songwriting and backed it with a ‘Yeezus’-sized cacophony of sound. Spectacular. TS
Best bit: A bombastic live performance at this year’s Brit Awards bagged her a new friend in Taylor Swift.
13. The Weeknd – ‘Take My Breath’
Trying to top a hit as big as ‘Blinding Lights’ would be nigh on impossible for most artists. But in ‘Take My Breath’, Abel Tesfaye proved otherwise. From its pulsing, foot-tapping opening to its spine-tingling chorus, this track is a stunning slice of disco pop indebted yet again to The Weeknd’s love for the ’80s. They don’t get much bigger than this. DJ
Best bit: The giant falsetto in the chorus. Oosh.
12. Foals – ‘Wake Me Up’
After the Oxford alt-rockers literally saw us through the apocalypse on their sister albums ‘Everything Not Saved Will Be Lost’ Parts One and Two, Foals felt that 2021 was probably time to lighten up. The first taster from their upcoming rave-fuelled seventh album was the perfect antidote to spending too long indoors – as frontman Yannis Philipakkis squawks his way out of lockdown monotony and up to sunlit mountaintops. You could say it’s the spiritual sequel to dancier moments like ‘My Number’ and ‘In Degrees’, but in truth it’s the fully realised disco infiltrator they’ve always threatened to write. AT
Best bit: That first ‘OH NO!’. Real Studio 54 vibes.
11. Charli XCX – ‘Good Ones’
Charli XCX’s ‘Good Ones’ is pure, unadulterated pop. Over squelchy synths, Charli regrets letting the “good ones go”, instead opting for the messy and the “bad ones, ’cause they’re all I know”. The earworm embraced glossy production, with XCX’s distinctive vocals floating across the thrilling soundscape – resulting in a stone-cold smasher. HM
Best bit: XCX’s delivery of “go” in the chorus, or rather, her delivery of “go-oh-oh-oh-oh-oh-oh…”
10. BTS – ‘Butter’
In our first pandemic year, BTS took the lead when it came to crafting poignant pop songs that acted as companions through life’s new uncertainties. With ‘Butter’, they tried a different tact for year two – one that took a simpler path to finding some long overdue joy. A feel-good summer smash, the award-winning track put its focus on fun, cramming in pop culture references and a squelching bassline it was impossible not to strut to. The results were something that oozed confidence and cool, and provided an instant pick-me-up even in the gloomiest of moments. RD
Best bit: When RM neatly sums up the connection between band and fan on the ride-or-die call-to-arms “Got ARMY right behind us when we say so”.
9. Little Simz – ‘Introvert’
When Little Simz returned in April with the cinematic fanfare and political pummel of ‘Introvert’, it was the sound of a critically adored yet commercially undervalued rapper on a career high. Simz has long shied away from making overtly political music but on ‘Introvert’ it was laid bare. Written as the pandemic took hold and the BLM movement ballooned, the song artfully traverses themes of racial injustice, poverty and her own shortcomings, and steeped in sublime arrangements. CK
Best bit: Simz’ admission that it’s time to use her platform more, rapping: “Not into politics, but I know it’s dark times / Parts of the world still living in apartheid.”
8. Billie Eilish – ‘Happier Than Ever’
Next year, the LA teen will headline Glastonbury Festival’s Pyramid Stage, returning to Worthy Farm as the festival’s youngest ever solo headliner. The title track to her assured second record ought to be the set’s closer, as it encapsulates both her past and present. The opening whispering lullaby – akin to her breakout single ‘Ocean Eyes’ – is violently crushed in the spectacular second half where Billie goes full rock star and dabbles in a dash of Britpop excess. You can pinpoint exactly the moment when the fireworks will start bursting. TS
Best bit: Pain, anger and pity populate every line, but it’s this couplet that’ll have the room and your head spinning: “You were my everything / And all that you did was make me fucking sad.”
7. CHVRCHES featuring Robert Smith – ‘How Not To Drown’
Scottish pop trio Chvrches’ third album ‘Screen Violence’ was a career high, and a document of the real life sci-fi dystopia of doom-scrolling and digital voyeurism that we find ourselves within. If you want to lay the darkness on nice and thick, what better way than having the Gothfather himself, Robert Smith, jump on board? The Cure legend is the perfect fit for the track’s already majestic pop-noir horror show vibes, crooning a wonderful duet of being lost in doubts and darkness. Gloom rarely feels this good. AT
Best bit: The first time Smith and Mayberry unite on a chorus, married in glorious misery.
6. Lorde – ‘Solar Power’
The best artists always borrow from their greatest inspirations – and who could blame New Zealand pop idol Lorde for giving her big comeback single a Bobby Gilespie-inspired breakdown? Shaking off the blues of second album ‘Melodrama’, ‘Solar Power’ sees Ella Yelich O’Connor bathing in sun-kissed indie-folk, before busting out some Primal Scream-esque acid house for the song’s euphoric finale. Yes it sounds very like ‘Loaded’, but the Scottish ravers have given their blessing – Gillespie was “so lovely about it” when Lorde reached out – and we’re not complaining. We’re gonna have a party instead! AF
Best bit: “Blink three times when you feel it kicking in…” – oh, we can feel it alright.
5. Lil Nas X – ‘MONTERO (Call Me By Your Name)’
‘MONTERO (Call Me By Your Name)’ was such a gargantuan hit that it’s easy to overlook just how much pressure was on Lil Nas X to follow-up the omnipresent ‘Old Town Road’. Anything less than absolute perfection would leave him wide open to one-hit-wonderdom. With ‘MONTERO’, however, Nas X rose to that pressure and then some, delivering a slick, sexy and snaking banger for the ages and an iconic video to match. There’s no doubt about his talents now, Lil Nas X is a generational superstar. PC
Best bit: When that first chorus hits, shimmering guitars suddenly plunging into the most smouldering of grooves.
4. Sam Fender – ‘Seventeen Going Under’
Nobody sings about embittered youth quite like Sam Fender, and he’s never been more convincing than on the fearless single that announced his comeback. A propulsive beat leads him – and us – into the future, trademark sax and twinkling guitars aplenty, while boldly looking back on his past with some of his most fearless lyrics to date (“She cries on the floor encumbered / I’m seventeen going under”). Anger, regret, defiance and pride all swirl and swell in Fender’s majestic mission statement. He’d never cry about it on record, but his vulnerability still hits you right in the gut. EK
Best bit: The saxophone solo after the chorus – you knew it was coming, but its euphoric impact is still unmatched.
3. Wet Leg – ‘Chaise Longue’
Raise your hand if, this year, you haven’t psyched yourself up for a gig, workout, or Big Night Out by listening to the thrillingly uncompromising ‘Chaise Longue’? If this list simply reflected the number of punch-the-air moments a chorus produced, then this slick, rapid debut single would be a runaway Number One. Rhian Teasdale and Hester Chambers delivered this song with the confidence, muscle and hunger of indie stalwarts, crafting a heady blend of weighty bass and needling riffs so precise and addictive that it could ping pong around your head for days. SW
Best bit: The Mean Girls-referencing refrain of “is your muffin buttered?”. So deadpan, it hurts.
2. Self Esteem – ‘I Do This All The Time’
Prior to releasing ‘I Do This All The Time’ most people yet to catch onto her solo debut ‘Compliments Please’ still knew Self Esteem as ‘Rebecca from Slow Club’ – and then this slinking, spoken-word epic brought the late adopters up to date in one fiercely witty swipe. Loosely inspired by Baz Luhrmann’s ‘Everybody’s Free To Wear Sunscreen’, Self Esteem’s best song to date dispenses brutally honest wisdom alongside vocal hums and a slinking beat. “Be very careful out there, stop trying to have so many friends,” Taylor says, “don’t be intimidated by all the babies they have, don’t be embarrassed that all you’ve had is fun.” It was the perfect entry-point for Self Esteem’s second album ‘Prioritise Pleasure’ – an ode to celebrating yourself in a society which would rather you didn’t. EH
Best bit: The last 30 seconds’ euphoric burst into technicolour – a proper, fling-your-head-back-and-belt-out-the-lyrics-moment.
1. Olivia Rodrigo – ‘Good 4 U’
In early 2021, a little-known singer-songwriter called Olivia Rodrigo became the most talked about teen on the planet. Her stunning debut single ‘Drivers License’ came – almost out of nowhere – to conquer; topping the UK chart for nine weeks and breaking countless records along the way. Far from a one-hit wonder, Rodrigo’s debut album ‘Sour’ (released in May) was a veritable treasure trove of tunes, ranging from the emotive stripped-back moments (‘1 Step Forward, 3 Steps Back’), to alt-rock indebted stompers (‘Brutal’).
It’s ‘Good 4 U’ that really stood out, though. The ferocious tune that saw Rodrigo eye-roll “Well, good for you, you look happy and healthy” over thrashing instrumentals is a killer. “We wanted to take an early 2000s pop-punk song and sort of twist it and find a way to make it 2021,” Rodrigo told NME earlier this year in her cover story – a brief she more than fulfilled on the Dan Nigro-assisted tune. Not just setting the standard for the joyous nostalgia-embracing pop-punk sound that’s dominated the mainstream in 2021, it’s a masterclass in songwriting, matching a real rock earworm with Rodrigo’s brilliant, pithy lyrics. Where the song could have become a pastiche, ‘Good 4 U’ feels remarkably modern; a euphoric example of Rodrigo’s sheer talent, and a song that perfectly captures the spirit and energy of a year where we were finally able to cut loose and feel free. HM
Best bit: The final chorus when Rodrigo switches the lyrics, resulting in the searing: “Good for you, you’re doing great out there without me, baby / Like a damn sociopath!” – how dare they!