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The 30 Best Songs of 2021

Our favorite tunes from another bizarre 12 months — from Doja Cat to Deafheaven to Duran Duran
Best Songs 2021

A pair of rappers pulling off the best Tom Tom Club sample since Mariah Carey’s “Fantasy” (G Perico & Rucci), an iconic New Wave band trafficking in tongue-in-cheek nostalgia (Duran Duran), a blackgaze act embracing their love of vocal harmony (Deafheaven), and psych-rockers using the shopping mall as a metaphor for capitalist greed (My Morning Jacket) — SPIN‘s 30 Best Songs of 2021 offer something for everyone.

For our latest year-end track recap, we kept our overall sorting process the same as 2020: For a cut to be eligible, it needed to be one of two things: 1) a stand-alone single released in 2021 or 2) part of an album issued in 2021.

30. Beatrice Deer – “The Storm”

The sound is so simple that, at first, it feels almost formless: a primal drum groove, shards of metallic electric guitar, dollops of distorted bass, a vocal mantra sung in Inuktitut. But “The Storm,” the centerpiece of Beatrice Deer’s sixth LP, SHIFTING, is masterful in painting these small brush strokes — shakers, synth drone, squiggly six-string accents — into one vibrant wash of color. Unless you’re actively listening for it, you may miss the “Inuindie” artist’s traditional throat singing, woven into the verses like a percussion instrument — her breaths almost functioning like a cabasa. “I see my path,” she sings (translated to English). “I see my purpose.” The intensity of “The Storm” suggests that view is clear. – Ryan Reed

29. Willow – “t r a n s p a r e n t s o u l”

If you’re gonna go full pop-punk, you might as well hire a master. “t r a n s p a r e n t s o u l,” the lead single from Willow’s fifth LP, is built on the signature drum drama of Blink-182’s Travis Barker: the king of rapid-fire hi-hats and floor toms. And Willow matches that vibe with cathartic F-bombs and lines about two-faced “fake friends” who sell secrets for cash — all building to a gloriously yelped chorus. It may just sound like youthful angst, but as she told Rolling Stone, the single was influenced by a quote from Hindu guru Radhanath Swami. – R.R.

28. Tommy Genesis – “a woman is a god”

Who knew a fetish-obsessed Canadian rapper and model could sound so humble in 2021? Tommy Genesis did, especially since quiet banger “A Woman Is a God” trades her normally explicit subject matter (sort of) for a propulsive treatise on authenticity and power. Genesis, a.k.a. 31-year-old Vancouver native Genesis Yasmine Mohanraj, can sound like Cardi B run through a Snapchat filter that flattens out her sugary voice. But “Woman” is borderline ASMR territory. Sultry and spare, she floats just above a skittering, Erlend Øye-quality beat, the speak-flow bubbling forth just long enough to pop for a mantra-like chorus: “If a man is a man…then a woman is a god.” – John Wenzel

27. Duran Duran – “Anniversary”

Like their hero David Bowie, Duran Duran generally look ahead and not back when making a new record — one reason the band has stayed together for over 40 years. One stylistic exception, however, is “Anniversary,” from their latest LP, Future Past. This pulsating, hypnotic dance-rock track uncannily recalls the band’s classic sound of the early and mid-80s, evoking songs like “The Wild Boys”; even the chorus “doo-doo-doo-doo-doo” seems like a nod to “Hungry Like the Wolf.” “[‘Anniversary’] is autobiographical to some extent,” Duran Duran bassist John Taylor recently told Newsweek. “It’s probably one of the few songs that we’ve done that actually has conscious elements of our sound. It’s almost built like a Duran Duran tribute track.” Overall, “Anniversary” pays homage to Duran Duran’s past, and its celebratory vibe is something we all need during the pandemic era. – David Chiu

26. Mdou Moctar – “Chismiten”

Mdou Moctar has been decentralizing experimentalism — and updating cultural interchange — since his 2008 debut, Anar, building a robust catalog defined by his distinct brand of Tishoumaren (or “desert blues”). With his sixth album, Matador Records debut Afrique Victime, the Tuareg guitarist captures an uncanny symbiosis between the lyrical and explosive — a precision brilliantly showcased on opener and mood-setter “Chismiten,” whose psychedelic guitars and shifting tempos instantly transport us to the desert in a semi-hypnotic state. Music will always be the best way to travel, after all. Ana Leorne

25. Violet Cold – “We Met During the Revolution”

While 2021 seemed like a comparatively slow year for Azerbaijan’s prolific Violet Cold, “We Met During the Revolution” from Empire of Love is one hell of a statement — a centerpiece not just for the record but the project as a whole. Blackgaze is rarely this anthemic or romantic — it’s not explosive because of any pyrotechnics (though it does have some tasty licks), but for its unquenchable spirit. Though Emin Guliyev’s vocals rarely go above a whisper, “Revolution” transforms shoegaze’s fantastical haze to an assured, defiant proclamation of love without boundaries, of embracing brightness amongst turmoil. – Andy O’Connor

24. Kacey Musgraves – “cherry blossom”

“When we’re on fire, it’s something to see / No one can question the chemistry,” Kacey Musgraves sings, hinting that her exciting new spring fling may be spiked with a touch of danger. While her fifth studio album dissects all emotional angles of her real-life divorce, the buoyant, strummy guitar-pop of “cherry blossom” is a soothing balm. The song is laced with warm koto plucks and light synth, supporting a melody so gentle you’re afraid that it might blow away. Unabashedly romantic, “cherry blossom” lulls us into a false sense of security, making the heartbreak that follows sting all the worse. Evan Sawdey

23. G Perico & Rucci – “Keep Killin”

G Perico has long been South L.A.’s answer to the question, “What if Eazy-E could rap very well?” In his most prolific year, the avowed BG Crip tapped Rucci, Inglewood’s best Blood-affiliated rapper since Mack 10, for “Keep Killin.” The song’s joyous yet menacing roller rink bounce comes courtesy of producer Low Da Great, who adds the locker-slamming drums of many contemporary L.A. rap songs to Tom Tom Club’s “Genius of Love.” Perico and Rucci float over the beat, toasting bottles of Ace of Spades while Perico offers pragmatic life advice and Rucci goes “dumb with a 10-round drum.” Together, they make blue and red the perfect yin and yang. – Max Bell

22. Parquet Courts – “Homo Sapien”

The first guitar lick rips the seal off this banger, unleashing a campy scream, a choogle, a screed. The stomp-charging “Homo Sapien” finds Parquet Courts co-leader A. Savage in a bluntly cynical frame of mind about the species he’s part of. Wait, this is the endpoint of centuries of human evolution: hand-off plunder, impulsive subjugation, all mod cons? “The primal desire to fuck / The primitive urge to kill,” he sneers, disgusted. “The endorphins of the hunt / Jump like begging dogs.” Call it a measured fit of pique or, maybe, a visceral Valentine for those of us put off by the foursome’s mid-2010s pivot to agit-funk and name-producer bingo. – Raymond Cummings

21. Drake – “Champagne Poetry”

Does Drake mean it — any of it — or is he camping? Does it matter? For the last several years, the improbable, prolonged celebrity of this Canadian multi-hyphenate star has rendered these questions moot. Everything comes down to this: His production cabal bought a sample of a Beatles cover, and it kicks off Certified Lover Boy in extravagant fashion. Is “Champagne Poetry” even a good rap song? For the first half, it’s a valid concern. Drake treads thematic water as the chipmunk soul beat serenades him hypnotically. Then the midpoint arrives, the tune winks at us, all is forgiven; Drake is spitting diagrammatically but knowingly over halcyon ivory as if he and his crew were CGI’d into the end credits of Goodfellas. OVO boilerplate or not, his drama sells itself: “I even got the cleaning staff planning extortion on me / My therapist’s voice is making the choices for me, and I always censor myself because no matter what, they reporting on me.” – R.C.

20. Unknown Mortal Orchestra – “That Life”

There’s something in Ruban Nielson’s unmistakable voice that will always ring as a safe place. Maybe it’s early nostalgia for that sweetly naive mid-10s neo-psych revival when everybody had II on repeat; but even though recent global events might have slightly faded Unknown Mortal Orchestra’s bright-colored trip, their music never fails to bring a heartwarming atmosphere. One of their first two singles since 2018’s IC-01 Hanoi, “That Life” resurrects UMO’s trademark discreet euphoria without resorting to past formulas or obsolete aesthetics. Innocence may be gone, but the dream has never felt so alive. – A.L.

19. Julien Baker – “Hardline”

“Hardline” was the entry point into Julien Baker’s spellbinding third record, Little Oblivions, grabbing us by the lapels with a repeating synth tone, droning behind Baker as she sings, “Blackout on a weekday, is there something I’m trying to avoid?” From there, dense post-punk layers filter through, piling like so many grains of sand into Baker’s most complex and intimate work to date. It works as a powerful thesis statement, proving from the outset that Baker’s confessional songwriting style doesn’t need to hide behind simple strumming patterns, but instead lives ever so comfortably on the waves of her beautifully constructed orchestrations. – Niko Stratis

18. Deafheaven – “Lament for Wasps”

A hidden gem in the middle of Infinite Granite, “Lament for Wasps” reveals that Deafheaven’s most monumental shift wasn’t the most obvious one (George Clarke mostly singing clean). Instead, it’s the whole group embracing the possibilities of vocal harmony. And “Wasps” has everyone going all in, turning a Madchester romp into a celestial body way more euphoric, growing in fervor as all voices surge. This track reaches the loveliest critical mass, thanks to Daniel Tracy’s escalating double-kick and rhythmic thunder. While Granite‘s singles shocked and adored, “Wasps” is a deep cut that will earn its own following years down the road. – A.O.

17. Gabe ‘Nandez – “Ox”

List New York’s most promising rappers, and Gabe ‘Nandez should sit near the top. For the last four years, he’s released excellent projects that split the difference between intellectual art rap and bruising brass knuckle bars (e.g., Diplomacy). “Ox” isn’t a summation of his talents so much as it is a relentless, stream-of-consciousness torrent of incredible rapping. Backed by chilling and eerie boom-bap, ‘Nandez alchemizes dense blocks of language into fluid lines, collapsing distinctions between high (The Odyssey) and low art (Marvel comics) while mourning fallen rappers, pondering eternity, and asserting his mic supremacy. It’s a feat worthy of far more praise. – M.B.

16. illuminati hotties – “MMMOOOAAAAAYAYA”

In a world of increased surveillance, it grows harder to sing and dance like no one’s watching. But on Illuminati Hotties’ SEO-defying track “MMMOOOAAAAAYAYA,” the singer entertains us in her own uninhibited language. The track is masterfully deranged and unhinged, the sound of a kid making noises to entertain themselves, set to squalling guitars and a boppy Hanson-like chorus.  Like a pop-punk Nicki Minaj, she showcases at least a dozen emotions and voices, veering senselessly between horny, goofy, ground-down, maniacal — all at the rapid rate of thought. It sounds like a brain transposed onto song. – Emma Madden

15. Bartees Strange – “Weights”

Bartees Cox could have easily rested on laurels after Live Forever, his 2020 debut, positioned him among indie-rock’s most admired. But he doesn’t like to sit idly: His 2021 return, “Weights,” bursts into the room with the same urgency of Live Forever standout “Boomer,” dancing across genres with equal zeal — from full guitar-heavy rock reminiscent of Bloc Party to a (temporary) cool-down as a twinkling piano ballad. With its desperate, crowd-ready choruses, the song explores the emotional distance growing between two people, with the verses snidely noticing, “Tulum went too well / You’ve tanned your cheeks.” – Brendan Menapace

14. Dry Cleaning – “Scratchcard Lanyard”

The cadence with which Florence Shaw recites her lyrics sometimes seems determined less by the meaning of a phrase than her interest in the sounds of certain words — turning a syllable over like a marble in her mouth, its physicality made inextricable from the melody. It’s hard to convey this in text, but here’s a good example: how she stretches the word “bazooka” to its natural limit in the opener of Dry Cleaning’s debut. The abstraction of her found-phrase lines — collaged over the backdrop of the band’s no-nonsense post-punk instrumentation — creates at once a full-bodied fingerprinted work, and a clean canvas onto which the listener can project whatever meanings they can piece together. – Annie Fell

13. My Morning Jacket – “The Devil’s in the Details”

When it comes to protest songs, nobody has struck a balance between scathing social commentary and super-chill atmosphere the way My Morning Jacket do on “The Devil’s in the Details.” Jim James sounds deceptively soothing as he contrasts rampant consumerism with the evils it helps to mask: violence, poverty, inequality. “But let us forget the war / And buy something pretty,” he croons, as a spacey swirl of guitars, keyboards and backing vocals float past. Though the song is nine minutes long, it’s so quietly riveting that you simply lose track of time along the way. – Eric R. Danton

12. Bo Burnham – “All Eyes On Me”

On Bo Burnham’s 2016 special, Make Happy, he ended with “Can’t Handle This,” a mockery of a tune that took Kanye West’s already-outrageous AutoTuned stage rants to their comic endpoint. On Burnham’s much bleaker, darker, and far-too-relatable quarantine film, Inside, he manages to sprinkle his finale with not one but several emotional climaxes, from the tender acoustic lament “That Funny Feeling” to the yet another AutoTuned depression anthem called “All Eyes On Me.” Yet the latter is a different beast than what came before: Ignore the spoken word section and it could be a hazy SoundCloud synth jam on its own (which his label agreed with, killing the monologue and issuing it as a single that charted globally). It’s an anthem, a resignation, a fever dream, a release. “You say the whole world’s ending,” he spits with venom. “Honey, it already did.” Preach. – E.S.

11. Tinashe – “Bouncin'”

On “Bouncin,” effectively a song about stepping out and feeling the hell out of yourself, Tinashe displays a level of emotional dynamism that makes the club feel like the gateway to heaven. With sweat in her hair, gold dripping from her neck and nudes on her phone so immaculate she hopes they “make it to the Cloud,” Tinashe showcases the life-saving vitality often found in feeling beauty among a crowd of moving, perspiring bodies. The ultra-slick and cavernous club beat is both urgent and minimal, the sound of one person’s perspective among a sea of euphoric dancers. E.M.

10. Darkside – “The Limit”

When the long-dormant Darkside returned in late 2020 to promise a second LP, fans wondered just how they’d build on their acclaimed 2013 debut, Psychic. It turns out the experimental electronic duo (producer Nicolás Jaar and guitarist Dave Harrington) got spectacularly weirder. Take, for example, “The Limit,” which starts as a shimmering ambient soundscape and drops down into a rock-solid acoustic-driven groove — all before transmogrifying into a series of new forms through digital effects, stellar drum work, and squelching synths. It delivers on everything that makes this project so exciting: it’s unpredictable, danceable, and definitely worth the wait. – John Paul Bullock

9. Crumb – “Up & Down”

The opening track of Crumb’s ambitious second album, Ice Melt, eases us into the Brooklyn band’s unsettling unease. A sax squeals in hysterics, a droning synth swells underneath, doom most certainly looms. Singer-guitarist Lila Ramani drifts in like a wraith, her voice soft, sensual, yet hardly comforting: “Feel your heart slip away, but it belongs to me, only me,” she purrs, half-detached but fully determined. A cyclone of arpeggios breaks through her spell, but bassist Jesse Brotter and drummer Jonathan Gilad are determined to push forward, eventually slipping into a glitchy trip-hop groove as Ramani shares one more haunting message: “Please go back to where you’re from and leave me by myself.” – Stephanie Garr

8. Arlo Parks – “Black Dog”

The immediate allure of “Black Dog” is the relaxed arrangement — colored by hypnotic nylon strings and twinkling keys. It provides a comforting canvas, as Arlo Parks offers genuine compassion for an often misunderstood affliction: depression. The track, a standout from the British songwriter’s stunning debut, Collapsed in Sunbeams, radiates warmth — even as Parks feels understandably helpless trying to aid someone dealing with mental health struggles. “It’s so cruel what your mind can do for no reason,” she gently sings in the refrain. At a time when our brains are scrambled by the collective trauma of the past two years, her words drift by like an empathetic breath of fresh air. – Jedd Ferris

7. Turnstile – “BLACKOUT”

On what was (mostly) inarguably the year’s best rock album, Turnstile proved once again why they’re both America’s finest and most diverse hardcore act. But while Glow On is packed with a wide variety of jams ranging from heavy to atmospheric, the singalong third single of “BLACKOUT” stands out from the pack. With chugging guitars, an immediately memorable melody, multiple percussion-only breakdowns, scream-worthy lyrics, and that super cool five-note guitar riff after each line of the chorus, “BLACKOUT” contains pretty much everything we’ve come to expect from Baltimore’s best export since The Wire. – Josh Chesler

6. Isaiah Rashad – “Headshots (4r Da Locals)”

Isaiah Rashad has a gift for couching personal and painful revelations in cryptic lyrics, for lulling you into a false sense of security with smooth, relaxed production. See: “Headshots (4r Da Locals).” If you aren’t paying attention, the second single from The House Is Burning might scan as a mellow, innocuous song about driving around and smoking. In reality, Rashad raps about accepting the possibility of untimely death (“…if I’m gone, don’t trip”) and recovering from addiction (“Weed couldn’t settle my fire / Couldn’t cover my pain…”). By the end, he acknowledges that sobriety and talking to God trump self-destruction. But Rashad isn’t proselytizing. He knows you’ll take what you will. – M.B.

5. Olivia Rodrigo – “drivers license”

Olivia Rodrigo’s debut single, “drivers license,” is a quintessential belt-in-the-bathroom-mirror-while-sobbing song for any adolescent girl alive in 2021. Literally turning her key in the ignition as the track begins, the singer takes off on the suburban streets while crying out the routine stages of losing your first love — a familiar subject with a fresh delivery. And it’s the perfect vehicle for her pinpoint lyricism and heartbreak-ridden howl: establishing Rodrigo as her generation’s sad-girl poet, a Taylor Swift for those born after Y2K. The first bridge’s build has us all tightly clutching the wheel, screeching Rodrigo’s tearful ballad as if it’s our own. – Marisa Whitaker

4. Lil Nas X – “MONTERO (Call Me By Your Name)”

There’s pushing limits, and then there’s deliberately picking them up and moving them. Lil Nas X did the latter with “MONTERO (Call Me By Your Name),” a darkly seductive pop-rap cut with explicitly homoerotic lyrics. Attached to a video in which the rapper famously gives Satan a lap dance, “Montero” drew outrage and praise as it soared to No. 1 in 20 countries. It was a groundbreaking moment. No mainstream star had ever been this unapologetically gay. Lil’ Nas X did so with a dizzying mix of showmanship and artistry, not to mention a level of raciness barely tolerated in heteronormative pop. The rapper met the backlash with humor and a sense of purpose. In an Instagram post addressed to his younger self, he wrote: “This will open doors for many other queer people to simply exist.” – Beverly Bryan

3. Doja Cat (feat. SZA) – “Kiss Me More”

Intergalactic queen Doja Cat lifted off into the pop star stratosphere with her third album, Planet Her, which peaked at a career-best No. 2 on the Billboard 200. And she set in motion this thrilling new era with lead single “Kiss Me More,” a whirling dervish of female sexuality. Sweat drips from the melody — rumbling full-tilt over a chewy bass line, between biting bars from collaborator SZA. Meanwhile, Doja Cat’s tongue-lashing remains as seductive and playful as ever: “I feel like fuckin’ somethin’,” she proclaims. “But we could be corny, fuck it.” It’s a tantalizing treat clearly worth the sugar high. – Jason Scott

2. Snail Mail – “Valentine”

Snail Mail’s “Valentine” opens with the calm of a droning synth, with Lindsay Jordan leaning into her hoarse register as she sings, “Let’s go be alone, where no one can see us, honey / Those parasitic cameras, don’t they stop to stare at you?” The song hits against the intrusive fame Jordan was thrust into at age 18, while also capturing the non-linear emotions tied to romantic relationships. In the explosive chorus, she accuses, “So why’d you wanna erase me?” over crashing drums and crunching guitar — but she softly yearns, “I adore you” as the intensity softens toward the track’s close. “Valentine” is an exemplary Snail Mail song, both anthemic and intimate at the same time. – Erica Campbell

1. Japanese Breakfast – “Be Sweet”

Michelle Zauner began the solo project Japanese Breakfast as an outlet for grief after her mother’s death. But with her third album, Jubilee, she decided it was time to make room for joy — and lead single “Be Sweet” was the perfect way to usher that in. It’s an indie-rock-goes-pop fantasia, influenced by Whitney Houston and Madonna, with a bassline as danceable as the chorus is hooky. The narrator sings to a failing lover, urging them to give it another try, although the chorus doubles as a crush anthem: “Be sweet to me, baby / I wanna believe in you; I wanna believe in something.” – Mia Hughes