The top 10 songs of 2021 ranked

This year’s greatest songs not limited by genre or language

Doja+Cat+and+SZA.+Photo+by+Jamal+Peters.

Doja Cat and SZA. Photo by Jamal Peters.

By James Rosales, Assistant Arts Editor

At the close of the 2010s, consumer tastes seemed to shift away from flashy pop stars and formulaic hits, embracing subdued alternative sounds instead. And then, 2020 happened. Driven by pandemic blues, the resurgence of traditional pop trends is welcomed by the collective societal search for joy, no matter how momentary. With the alternative foundation of the past decade, K-pop’s competitive influence in the mainstream and Millennial-Gen-Z nostalgia for the early 2000’s, music in 2021 is the perfect amalgamation of genres and sounds. Experimentation is the new norm and it’s a common thread in many of this year’s greatest hits. Last year’s full embrace of pop elements across all genres is the underdog story that makes all the sense.

Here are 2021’s best songs:

10. “Demon High” – Lil Uzi Vert

A pop-punk rap single is best done by Lil Uzi Vert, whose eclectic and extravagant personality shines through his genre-bending discography, vibrant vocal color and personal style. The track accessorizes a minimal instrumental almost straight out of the credits of a 2000s teen movie or a Blink-182 B-side. Repetition is welcome in a TikTok trend-helmed year and “Demon High” is no exception. Offsetting this repetition is phenomenal lyrical content with killer lines and stick out metaphors. Almost counterintuitive to being on this list, “Demon High” is nowhere near Vert’s best. Sans a captivating melody or riveting production, the track’s mid-tiredness seems like a calculated tease for Lil Uzi Vert’s next artistic embrace. Nevertheless, regardless of what “Demon High” lacks in, it excuses itself with its experimental nature.

Best line: “And I sacrifice my own love just to feel your touch / And I cancel my whole wide world just to gain your trust”

9. “State of Grace (Taylor’s Version)” – Taylor Swift

Does a 2021 rerecording of a song released in 2012 qualify for consideration at the 2022 Grammy Awards? Certainly not. Does it qualify for this list? Absolutely. Some tracks released as ‘Taylor’s Version’ are merely the clone of the original song, only now with Swift’s ‘grownup voice.’ The opposite is the reality with “State of Grace (Taylor’s Version).” Swift’s ‘grownup voice’ does more than echo her past self. Her vocal performance is essenced with the skills of a veteran pop star and the emotion of a veteran lover. Swift navigates every line, inflection and adlib with the timbre of well-deserved confidence and experience. Paired with tighter drum tracking and other engineering details, “Grace” has received a musical facelift that supersedes even the perfection and acclaim of “All Too Well (10 Minute Version).”

Best line: “We are alone with our changing minds / we fall in love till it hurts or bleeds”

8. “Spoiled” – Pop Smoke (feat. Pharrell Williams)

Pop Smoke was on his way to become one of hip-hop’s greatest and youngest innovators before his tragic passing in 2020. On his second posthumous full-length album, various collaborators add color to Smoke’s diverse track list. Producer and music mogul Pharrell Williams impresses with “Spoiled,” clearly drawing inspiration from a mid-2010’s pop-rap sound like that of Fetty Wap’s debut album. An 808 heavy beat and a rhythmic melody are all Smoke needs to create an entrancing experience that is all parts cool and all parts captivating.

Best line: “See you want to be rewarded for bein loyal, bein loyal / you want me wrapped around your finger like a rapper or a singer, nah”

7. “Addicted” – Jorja Smith

Arriving from the indie mumble-sing genre is a track of Jorja Smith’s criminally underrated R&B EP entitled “Be Right Back.” Assumptively deriving inspiration from artists like Solange and Amy Winehouse, “Addicted” is carried by its vocal melody, accompanied only by minimal throwback drums and a soft lead. As Smith sings every song like it’s a lullaby, her vocals are held back in all the best ways. On “Addicted,” Smith sings to soothe, not impress.

Best line: “Can we drink just not to care, not care just to drink / can’t that be enough and not take too much?”

6. “Nobody” – Nas and Ms. Lauryn Hill

Nas brings us back to the ‘good days’ of 90’s hip hop and R&B on “Nobody” featuring the legendary Ms. Lauryn Hill. The track fills the craving for an old school sound as much as it embarrasses the almost fraudulent attempts of contemporary artists at the 90’s hip hop sound (as well as the distasteful sampling of 90’s classics.) While instrumentation can be mimicked, writing talent simply cannot. Nas and Ms. Lauryn Hill are powerhouse lyricists: so much so that there are multiple “best line’s,” a luxury exclusively allotted to this track.

Best lines: “All the time has been focused on my freedom now / why would I beat ‘em when I know that I can beat ‘em now?;” “They tried to box me out while takin’ what they want from me / making room for people who didn’t like the labor or wanted the spoils, greedy, selfish behavior;” “When you keep what you know is meant for someone else / the ditch you dig for the might just end up in yourself”

5. “Savage” – aespa

With composition helmed by veteran K-pop producer, Yoo Young-jin, “Savage” is the blockbuster hyper pop-trap hit aespa needed to solidify themselves as K-pop royalty. The four-member girl group was birthed during the 2020 pandemic under major K-pop mogul SM Entertainment to much acclaim. Complete with virtual AI ‘avatars’ called “ae,” aespa’s concept is future-focused and strays from conventionality. With vocals battling against blunt and abrasive synths, “Savage” is not a palatable song by any means. High frequencies, hard-hitting trap kicks and claps, and slurring synth screams collide head on to create a multi-genre aria. While the track’s production is certainly praiseworthy, its delivery is where aespa drive the track home. The vocal training K-pop idols endure for years prior to debut is no secret. Members Ningning and Winter ordain “Savage” with vocal growls and belts.

Best line: “I’m a savage, let me destroy you / I’m a savage, let me trample on you”

4. “Industry Baby” – Lil Nas X & Jack Harlow

Despite Lil Nas X’s true intentions for the track being muddled by TikTok trends, “Industry Baby” is an edict to a long-homogenous pop industry: change isn’t coming, it’s here. “Baby” is a queer anthem juxtaposed with Lil Nas X’s own grounding in self. Lil Nas X is the industry, despite he himself being everything the industry has fought against. While pop idol narcissism is a tone deaf and scoff-worthy motif in today’s culture, Lil Nas X has every right to boast and brag. As a gay Black man, Lil Nas X has been extremely vocal about navigating the hip-hop and pop worlds, both spaces that are unwelcoming to Nas’ identities (albeit in different ways.) Production wise – pumping brass hits, bright horns and a unique bass line accelerate the spitfire verses and brutal callouts. “Industry Baby” is sure to be the go-to ‘scream at the top of your lungs’ anthem at parties for years to come.

Best line: “I told you long ago, on the road / I got what they waitin’ for (I got what they waitin’ for) / I don’t run from nothin’, dog / Get your soldiers, tell ’em I ain’t layin’ low”

3. “Déjà vu” – Olivia Rodrigo

Making a radio hit with such a divisive and alternative synth drop is no easy task. The droning, whining synth in the second half of its choruses is as genius as it is jarring. Nevertheless, its unique timbre and melodic quality make for an addictive earworm that listeners revisit over and over. Reaching viral heights because of her personal and detailed Swift-like lyrics, the Filipina-American Disney alum comes on strong, referencing FOX’s “Glee” and “strawberry ice cream.” Rodrigo’s storytelling and phenomenal top-line writing talent have the power to make me mad at an ex I’ve never had. With an entire year of nonstop success, Rodrigo and “Déjà vu” head producer Dan Nigro might have become pop music’s next power duo, following the likes of Britney Spears and Max Martin, or Taylor Swift and Jack Antonoff.

Best line: “And I bet that she knows Billy Joel / ‘Cause you played her ‘Uptown Girl’ / you’re singing it together / now I bet you even tell her how you love her / in between the chorus and the verse”

2. “Antidote” – Nao (feat. Adekunle Gold)

When it comes to cultural music genres, Afrobeat is no stranger to appropriation, commodification and subsequently, dilution. Antidote is a criminally underrated collaboration between Grammy-nominated English artist Nao and Nigerian artist Adekunle Gold, written to spread a glowing feeling to its listeners with its strong pop melodies and African grooves. Nao’s vocal performance stands out most, with her unique high range and gritty texture, she is uniquely a one in a billion voice.

Best line: “I pray for something more than metaphysical /ooh you’re something spiritual / will you be my antidote?”

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

The sugar-coated pop flair of “Kiss Me More” has shunned it away from many year-end critic lists or found itself demoted to lower ranks, but not on this list. I strongly believe that we need to cast away the pretentious idea that pop music cannot be “good” unless it is thought-provoking or ‘underground.’ Music should make people feel something, and that should be enough to merit songs like “Kiss Me More” recognition. Arguably, the track is also home to one of Doja Cat’s greatest rap verses: a playful and bouncy verse complete with tongue-in-cheek lines and slick rhymes. “Kiss Me More” is pop at its purest and it’s best. Melody aside, the track’s infectious nature can be attributed to the fact that the track is a celebration of youth. If anything, the song has signaled a shift into the happy, anthemic pop music that dominated radio in the 2010’s. What more do we need in 2022 than a little extra happiness?

Best line: “I, I feel like f*****’ somethin’ / But we could be corny, f–k it / Sugar, I ain’t no dummy, dummy / I like to say, what if, but if / We could kiss and just cut the rubbish”

Some other amazing songs to check out:

“RING X RING” – Billlie

“Symptom of Your Touch” – Aly and A.J.

“C’est Cuit’ – Major Lazer, Aya Nakamura, Dj Snake

“Creature” – Grace Gaustad

“Blast Off” – Bruno Mars, Anderson .Paak, & Silk Sonic

“FEVER” – Enhypen

“Over This!” – Slayyter

“Be Alive” – Beyoncé

James Rosales can be reached at [email protected] and followed on Twitter @imjamesrosa.