Best Album lists tend to earn all the internet hype — it always feels like a somewhat serious, academic endeavor, adding to the pantheon of OK Computers and To Pimp a Butterflys. But Best Songs lists are weirder, messier, even more challenging on a nuts and bolts level. (When was this song released? When was the album released? Does it need to be singles only?) While LP lists tend to follow the critical consensus, songs lists are harder to predict. And that makes them fun to explore.
Below, we gathered our 30 favorite tracks of 2021 so far. (In this case, we decided songs from any 2021 albums were on the table.) And as you’ll notice, we swerved all over the map — from Bieber to Black Country, New Road. Let’s meet back here in six months and see how things shake out.
Bachelor – “Anything At All”
The first single from Bachelor, the new joint project from Jay Som (Melina Duterte) and Palehound (Ellen Kempner), is a near-perfect melding of both artists’ experimental indie-pop sensibilities. “Anything At All” begins with Jay Som’s creeping bassline and Palehound’s static drum pattern — a somewhat unnerving atmosphere gradually brightened by their melodic vocals and chiming keys. Then another shift arrives just after the one-minute mark, when a massive, searing guitar solo comes slicing through the mix like a chainsaw. It’s a master class in how to build tension and subvert expectations. – John Paul Bullock
Julien Baker – “Hardline”
Julien Baker transforms the painfully personal details of her life into art. “Alcoholism, heartbreak, reevaluating your ego … These are all the things people do every damn day and fight through for their entire lives,” the singer-songwriter told SPIN, noting the hardships explored on her latest LP, Little Oblivions. Heart-wrenching opener “Hardline” documents her struggle with substance abuse: “Blacked out on a weekday / Still something that I’m trying to avoid,” she sings. “Still asking for forgiveness in advance / For all the future things I will destroy.” The arrangement conjures a suitable drama: The first 15 seconds, anchored by distorted organ chords, feel like walking through the doors of a disorienting church. Baker’s soft vocals lead you to an explosive instrumental buildup you’ll want to experience at maximum volume. – Anna VanValkenburgh
Justin Bieber – “Anyone”
Justin Bieber’s winning strategy after his underwhelming 2020 comeback, Changes, was blanketing the airwaves with new singles to set up a quick follow-up album, Justice. The result was several hits at once, but one song got a little lost in the shuffle. Bieber’s biggest recent singles pushed his renewed agenda to be taken seriously as an R&B singer. But frequent collaborators Jon Bellion and Andrew Watt give the power ballad “Anyone” an earnest ‘80s synth-pop sound, playing to the strengths of his pouty boy-band voice. – Al Shipley
Black Country, New Road – “Instrumental”
Appearing as the first song on Black Country, New Road’s chameleonic debut LP, For the first time, “Instrumental” is a befittingly oddball intro. But that’s natural territory for the audacious septet. The song opens with chunky bass, jazzy tom-tom grooves and the lithe, spidery keyboard and guitar figures that loop throughout a frenzied four minutes. A wailing violin and sax fill out the arrangement before feedback ensues, building to an open-ended climax on this sort of neo-klezmer track. It’s but an appetizer of the album’s wanton sonics. You’ve entered Black Country. – Logan Blake
DARKSIDE – “The Limit”
It’s no surprise that “The Limit,” the first single from DARKSIDE’s long-awaited second LP, offers a reticence that adds to its mystique. It’s not so much the light word count — it would be just imprudent to distract from the fat, lubricated bassline in this dark yet airy funk-psych earworm. Savor the details: the inexorable acoustic strum, the enthralling drone created by gyrating electric lead under splashes of synth, the masterful but restrained glitch solo that sounds sensuous, mottled and scintillating all at once. Eventually, the main beat then drops back in, doubling down in its seductive sinews. As full as the feeling it instills, “The Limit” bereaves you at its end, eliciting a sick craving for just one more listen. – L.B.
Démira – “New Voodoo”
Try to resist “New Voodoo” and you’ll only fall deeper under its black magic spell. This feisty electro/trip-hop song comes from Dutch singer-songwriter/multi-instrumentalist Démira, who incants about “tricky Madonnas” and Catholic guilt with the defiance of M.I.A., Billie Eilish or Florence Welch. “Voodoo,” built on a thrumming Bollywood beat, sounds like it runs on 4 a.m. club energy — partly because Démira wrote it after staying up all night at an underground Paris punk show, seeking a similar adrenaline rush for her song. Démira, a classically trained guitarist and poet, co-produced the track with Gosha Usov (A$AP Rocky, Frank Ocean) at Electric Lady Studio — home of the original voodoo child. – Sarah Grant
Sam Dew – “NTWFL”
After penning tracks for giants like Rihanna and Jessie Ware, Chicago’s Sam Dew has finally stepped into his own spotlight. The songwriter — best-known for working on Zayn and Taylor Swift’s mammoth 2016 hit “I Don’t Wanna Live Forever (Fifty Shades Darker)” — issued his debut solo LP, Moonlit Fools, in February. And its pulsating lead single, co-produced by Kendrick Lamar’s go-to studio guy Sounwave, absolutely leaps from the speakers. The smoldering, syncopated synth is addictive on its own. But the key is the hook: Dew’s melty interpolation of Gamble and Huff’s “Now That We Found Love.” (Heavy D lives on, sort of.) – Bobby Olivier
Drakeo The Ruler (feat. Drake) – “Talk To Me”
On this moody slice of languid West Coast menace, Drakeo the Ruler takes his first steps toward mainstream attention, sounding perfectly comfortable with the role of street balladeer and succeeding in keeping the focus away from the superstar. Drake sounds so geeked to be working with Drakeo, he turns in a nimble hook that could have come straight out of Take Care itself. But this is Drakeo the Ruler we’re talking about; his dark murmur of a rap voice and flair for subterranean world-building will keep this miles away from any pop playlist blasting in your immediate vicinity, and we’re all the better for it. – Jibril Yassin
Dry Cleaning – “Scratchcard Lanyard”
Indisputably British, this music itself tantalizes — half Wire, half Wilderness, a machinist’s complex contraption. Nick Buxton keeps sly, syncopated time, a head-nodding metronomic paddy-twack. Lewis Maynard’s bass lines are an invisible adhesive. Tom Dowse’s guitars are playful, precise. But it’s the desiccated, scattered wit of frontwoman Florence Shaw that truly gives “Scratchcard Lanyard” its terminal velocity, that makes Dry Cleaning’s signature post-post-punk single go. As a not-quite art-school confidential, it’s aces: Shaw’s narrator is a charmer, a disrupter, a chain-smoking ingenue winking, Mark E. Smith at his cruelest, Linda Hamilton in Terminator 2. “You seem really together, you’ve got a new coat, new hair,” she snarks. “But I tell you one thing, you’ve got it coming/One day, you’re gonna get it.” – Raymond Cummings
Flock of Dimes – “Hard Way”
“Hard Way” plays like a close friend whispering unspeakable truths in your ear. Appropriate, as Flock of Dimes mastermind Jenn Wasner admits discovering subconscious messages to herself throughout the track, hidden in lines like “If I lost your hand / I know I could stand / Without your protection.” A departure from the musician’s usual lush offerings (and the majority of Head of Roses, her second full-length under the moniker), the song is tethered to a barely-there synth line, allowing her voice and vulnerability to fill the frame. No easy answers or sonic release, just a stunning tribute to finding peace in moments of discomfort. – Laura Studarus
Foo Fighters – “No Son of Mine”
The ubiquitous, smiley good-guy version of Dave Grohl is absent from this punky, unrepentant cut, the most aggro moment from Medicine at Midnight. “No Son of Mine” offers dark punk-metal energy and propulsive bombast that would seem better suited for one of his other bands, Them Crooked Vultures. Grohl acknowledged the song’s edgy ethos, telling OK!: “I wish Lemmy were alive to hear it, because he would see how much an influence he’s been to me.” Even the ghostly choral backups accentuate the raw power of this scorching speed demon, adding to “No Son of Mine”’s pedal-to-the-metal perfection. – Katherine Turman
José González – “El Invento”
José González’s “El Invento,” the songwriter’s debut Spanish language release, is the first great Xennial song about parenting. It’s also his first new music in six years, after taking time to focus on raising his daughter, Laura. The lyrics mirror the relentless questioning of a curious child to “dime por qué será” (“tell me why is it so”). It gently addresses some very heady themes like religion and the mysteries of the universe, but thankfully manages not to preach. González’s understated, elegantly hypnotic classical guitar feels warm and consistently reassuring, like a thoughtful and supportive father. – J.P.B.
Iceage – “The Holding Hand”
This is Iceage at their most psychedelic. A highlight from their latest LP, Seek Shelter, “The Holding Hand” flaunts their oft-shelved ability for mildness, with dead-eyed equanimity deferring to impassioned surges. It begins softly while amassing kinetic heat through sporadic string flare-ups amidst a churning and capricious electric guitar; it’s all tempered by Elias Bender Rønnenfelt’s characteristically elongated, abstract lyrics that speak of “a smoky rolling mass” and a “limp-wristed God” in what seems like a ghostly transmission from another dimension. “The Holding Hand’ is an all-in-one showcase that emblematizes the album’s eclecticism. – L.B.
Japanese Breakfast – “Be Sweet”
Michelle Zauner has spent enough time exploring the depths of grief. On Jubilee, her third outing as Japanese Breakfast, the singer-songwriter orbits a different, more joyful galaxy. Co-written by Wild Nothing’s Jack Tatum, “Be Sweet” is a bombastic first single, anchored by heavy bass and poppy guitar lines, pointing to the most playful parts of ‘80s/’90s nostalgia. (It doesn’t hurt that the video features Zauner doing her best Dana Scully impression.) By the time she breaks in with a Madonna-like authority, demanding “Tell the men I’m coming / Tell them count the days,” it’s almost impossible to resist the intentionally feel-good tune. In a year still marked with sadness and rage, it’s a much-welcomed drop of sweetness. – L.S.
The Koreatown Oddity – “Breastmilk”
According to Dominique Purdy, aka the Koreatown Oddity, it’s delicious. The crackling, languid single waltzes into some basic introductory remarks: “People like, ‘Yo, Dominique, man, you lookin’ good,” the rapper observes. But then, bam — things get weird as he breaks down his “regimen” for success. It’s an ode to none other than his “baby mama’s” breastmilk, hinged on the argument, “You drinking cow’s milk — fuck is you doing?” Illuminating the secret to his glowing skin and family dynamic (“Me and my daughter benefit from the nutrition”), Purdy continues to spit out witticisms on his bizarre but boundless love, one after another with incredible consistency. He squeezes a mind-boggling amount into its two-and-a-half-minute runtime, and he writes arguably the funniest hook of all time (which I won’t spoil here). The only downside is a possible sore gut from chronic laughter. Proceed with caution. – L.B.
Lil Nas X – “Montero (Call Me By Your Name)”
Two words: Satan shoes. Lil Nas X is now one of the mainstream’s great authors of spectacle, dropping a two-minute song and a controversial music video — demonic lap dance and all — to commandeer the pop consciousness (not unlike “Old Town Road” did in 2019). His limited line of sneakers, literally injected with human blood, didn’t hurt either. The song itself is a major electro-pop earworm, with flamenco stylings, rumbling low end and Nas X’s deep vocal permeating every pore. It’s a lush, club-ready production that should remain near its chart-topping spot this summer, especially as bars and dancefloors slowly reopen. Any song that resonates widely enough to shock politicians is here to stay. – B.O.
Lord Huron – “Not Dead Yet”
Lord Huron chronicle a rapid decline on this toe-tapping retro folk-rock tune: “You got holes in your clothes, booze on your breath / You look like hell, and you smell like death.” But “Not Dead Yet,” as the title implies, still offers an overwhelming sense of release. The song takes a ride along country back roads — a shift in direction from the eerie sci-fi dreamland of the band’s previous album, Vide Noir. “I’ve been out away too long, heading right for the edge,” Ben Schneider croons. But the following line (“If she asks about me, tell her I’m not dead yet”) suggests the protagonist might not be as doomed as they think. – A.V.
Lushlife – “Dépaysement”
On Lushlife’s Redamancy EP, the Philadelphia rapper deliberately submerges his rhymes in an impressionistic blur of avant-jazz textures and unlikely samples (one track nabs the ghostly voice of atomic bomb developer J. Robert Oppenheimer). The EP’s climax is “Dépaysement,” a nine-minute mini-symphony buoyed by a sample of what sounds like a children’s choir, a feverish guest verse by MC dälek and a rousing free-jazz coda that squawks and wails into the abyss. While the genre is indeterminate, its status as one of the year’s headiest tracks is assured. – Zach Schonfeld
Gabe ‘Nandez – “Ox”
Gabe ‘Nandez has been rapping for years, but “Ox” feels like his coming-out party. Over a crunchy, minimalist beat and airy vocal sample, the New York emcee delivers two and a half minutes of dizzying bars that probably gave Genius transcribers nightmares. Packed to the brim with references spanning The Iliad to Eric B & Rakim to mixed martial artist Lyoto Machida to Dragon Ball’s Vegeta, “Ox” allows ‘Nandez to flex his vast knowledge without sacrificing technical skill. Through this exercise in lyrical dexterity, he proves himself a well-studied wordsmith with a chip on his shoulder. – Josh Svetz
Nonconnah – “To Follow Us Through Fields of Lightning”
At any given moment in this opening cut from Songs For And About Ghosts, you might find yourself lost amid a heavenly choir, halo-jumping into an active feedback volcano or hang-gliding under a celestial matrix of glistening strings and bells. Nonconnah — Tennessee-based married couple Zachary and Denny Corsa — are believers in drone’s positive properties. On “To Follow Us Through Fields of Lightning” they glide into a sort of non-specific shoegaze dreamspace, an area of psychoactive relativity likely to stir different memories in different audiences. One common thread: a cosmic, psychic cleansing. – R.C.
Arlo Parks – “Black Dog”
The characters on Arlo Parks’ first LP, Collapsed in Sunbeams, are no strangers to depression, messy bisexual entanglements and partying to numb the pain. But it’s Parks who struggles on album highlight “Black Dog,” attempting to connect with a friend suffering from suicidal ideation. Her percussive guitar strumming is soft and measured, the sonic equivalent of dust floating across a sunlit room. However, poetic details point to a much darker picture, as mental illness manifests Robert Smith-like eye-makeup, pleas to “go buy some fruit” and the ever-present black dog — a Churchill-derived metaphor for depression. Park’s voice remains calm, but her declaration “I would do anything to get you out your room” resonates — it’s a quietly devastating reminder that no matter how far gone we feel, we’re never alone. – L.S.
Olivia Rodrigo – “drivers license”
Twitter gossip about a love triangle between three C-list Disney-affiliated singer-actors may have helped propel “drivers license” to a surprise debut atop the Hot 100. But Olivia Rodrigo’s palpable teenage heartbreak in every line — whether or not you care about the backstory — has kept the song ubiquitous through 2021’s first half. Daniel Nigro’s gently cinematic production sways and sighs with humming synths, leaving space for Rodrigo’s voice to rise and rise into a melodramatic sob. Then she regains composure to calmly lament, “You said forever, now I drive alone past your street.” – A.S.
Jorja Smith – “Gone”
“Tell me what to do when the ones you love have gone missing,” Jorja Smith sings, stylishly but mournfully, on this electro-soul ballad, a single from her Be Right Back EP. It’s unclear who’s vanished — or how or why — but that mystery feels fitting within “Gone”’s hypnotic groove. We don’t know the scope of Smith’s loss, but the pain in her swooping croon communicates plenty, pogoing off a watery piano loop and booming trip-hop drums. “On God, I lost you in the moment,” she sings, just as we’re lost in ours. – Ryan Reed
St. Vincent – “Pay Your Way In Pain”
“Pay Your Way In Pain” begins as a casual barroom piano ditty…until it shifts into retro synth-funk loveliness. Tons of sonic treats permeate the sexy slow burn, despite the poignant, painful story the lyrics tell. (“This character is like the fixture in a 2021 psychedelic blues,” the multi-faceted Annie Clark told Apple Music. “And this is basically the sentiment of the blues: truly just kind of being down and out in a country, in a society, that oftentimes asks you to choose between dignity and survival.”) The grit ‘n’ glam dynamic defines “Pay Your Way In Pain”: The tune ends with the dramatic, drawn-out primal scream of “I want to be loved,” her unfettered delivery of that universal dream cutting straight to the soul. – K.T.
Squid / Martha Skye Murphy – “Narrator”
“Ten toes, I’ve got five on each,” Ollie Judge matter-of-factly speak-sings, just before bursting into the song’s pinching epiphanic declamation: “I’m my own narrator!” The centerpiece of Squid’s debut full-length, Bright Green Field, “Narrator” vacillates between post-punk and hardcore — coupling Judge’s serrated screams and snotty statements with the citric guitar pickings, warps and waves sprinkled in the background. Martha Skye Murphy’s blasé vocals help to instill a sort of otherworldly unease in the low points as the song gathers momentum. After the eight-minute mark, it climaxes into the harshly shouted “I’ll play mine” amidst her strait-jacketed screeches, ossifying a new exemplar of the current wave of post-punk iconoclasm. – L.B.
Starrah – “Miss This”
Brittany “Starrah” Hazzard is a big-time songwriter who’s helped pen massive hits for artists like Rihanna and Maroon 5, but social anxiety has reportedly kept her away from the spotlight and more comfortable behind the scenes. So her recent, self-released solo album, The Longest Interlude, feels like a chance to share songs too idiosyncratic or personal to pitch a platinum pop star. Even the flirtatious single “Miss This” is a 102-second oddity where spoken dialogue takes the place of a second verse, occupying some murky space between state-of-the-art Autotune R&B and lo-fi bedroom pop. – A.S.
Tirzah – “Send Me”
If you long to nullify all negative vibrations and enter a bubble outside the parameters of physics as we know them, play this song. You could drift into unawareness by the uber-minimal kick/muffled hi-hat combo and the lull of a looping, clean-toned bedroom-pop guitar riff. Then there’s Tirzah’s enveloping vocal, gliding in mezzo-soprano and imploring a presumed lover for some space to heal, but not for too long. It’s a skeletal, unadorned track that aims to be a snake in the grass — it’s deceptively simple until the brusque overdrive drowns out the track and washes it away, shocking you out of its slumber. “Send Me” has the power to send you to sleep and bolt you straight up, and it delights in the awareness of its complete control. – L.B.
The Weather Station – “Atlantic”
Tamara Lindeman’s voice is at its expressive best on “Atlantic,” which captures the profound weight of choosing to acknowledge and reckon with impending climate collapse. “I should get all this dying off of my mind,” she sings — her voice somehow desperate and casual all at once — but of course she can’t, and won’t. It’s a disturbingly real sentiment: How can you enjoy the natural world without being eternally haunted by what we have done and will still do to it? The song’s musical backing, with its vibrating disco backbeat, sounds rich and alive, bustling with the simultaneous exuberance and anxiety conveyed in the song. - Z.S.
Hayley Williams – “First Thing to Go”
“Time moves slow, I just talk to myself,” Hayley Williams croons on “First Thing to Go,” the heartrending opener to her surprise solo sequel, Flowers for Vases / Descansos. That sentiment inevitably links the February LP to pandemic isolation — fitting, as Williams wrote and recorded the whole thing during quarantine, playing every instrument and penning some of her saddest tunes to date. This folky acoustic dirge is both eloquent and painful, as Williams unpacks lost romance and the slow disappearance of a lover from her memory. It’s the most re-listenable track off an album loaded with anguish and searching for peace. – B.O.
Willow (feat. Travis Barker) – “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 upcoming 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.
Listen to all of the songs on our Spotify playlist below.