The 20 best songs of 2021

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20

The Weeknd – Take My Breath

After Blinding Lights, the partnership between the Weeknd and producer Max Martin continues down a rainswept neon highway, where synthwave reminiscent of a Terminator or RoboCop movie prowls around tales of nocturnal depravity. Not even Skynet could have created something so perfectly engineered for dancefloor satisfaction; the final chorus, with its drums tap-dancing across disco strings, is arguably the most beautiful moment in his catalogue so far. BBT

19

Silk Sonic – Leave the Door Open

Anderson .Paak and Bruno Mars are Silk Sonic
Loving homage … Anderson .Paak and Bruno Mars are Silk Sonic. Photograph: Theo Wargo/EPA

In a loving homage to the baby-making “quiet storm” R&B of the 1970s and 80s, Bruno Mars and Anderson .Paak are alive to the slight absurdity of those songs’ carnality, and lean into it. .Paak is “sipping wine, in a robe / I look too good to be alone”; Mars sings the chorus like a man hurling roses up to a balcony. They sell it so enthusiastically, and with such stunning songcraft, that what could have been a Dick in a Box-type spoof becomes an unironic masterpiece. BBT

18

Abba – Don’t Shut Me Down

Quiet confidence … Abba.
Quiet confidence … Abba. Photograph: Baillie Walsh/PA

By now it’s cliche to observe how beautifully Abba essay loss. Perhaps in full knowledge of that expectation, Don’t Shut Me Down seems to start as a woman’s twilight years set in: she’s alone in a park as night falls and the sound of children’s laughter fades; the softest, floatiest strings seem to buoy her reflections heavenwards. But this moment turns out to be one of quiet confidence before she heads up to an ex’s apartment to rekindle their relationship, certain, now, of what she wants and needs from their reunion. Her conviction is girded by – what else? – a fabulous left-turn into disco, as choppy, almost ska-tinged guitar powers her up the (presumably illuminated) staircase to his door. LS

17

Pearl Charles – Only for Tonight

Much like Silk Sonic, the LA singer isn’t merely nostalgic. She recreates the white disco-influenced MOR pop of the 1970s with a cosplayer’s level of exactitude and finesse, right down to the unthreatening mid-tempo pace, warped harpsichords and backing vocals that swoon as if into a wicker armchair. She obviated the return of Abba until Abba’s aforementioned return. BBT

16

Wolf Alice – How Can I Make It OK?

Ellie Rowsell of Wolf Alice.
Volcanic swagger … Ellie Rowsell of Wolf Alice. Photograph: Onstage photos/Rex/Shutterstock

Although written pre-pandemic, How Can I Make It OK? resonated eerily with these strange, transitional times. “A moment to change it all / Had life before been so slow?” Ellie Rowsell sings almost operatically, cautiously savouring the potential for change. Whatever may come next, happiness is paramount. “How can I make it OK?” the band sing in tender, nervous staccato, before the song cracks open to bolster their reassurances with volcanic swagger – showing this special band’s dynamic at its best. LS

15

Parris – Skater’s World ft Eden Samara

As with Anz – see No 10, below – the dance tracks that have resonated most this year are the joyous ones that grab your arm and haul you on to the floor with a sambuca, shaking the torpor of the year away. Here, the snap and thrum of Miami bass pairs with a ghetto house breakbeat that keeps dancing away from a steady tempo; Samara’s vocal line is the sort of skipping-game chant that would pair perfectly with a burst hydrant in the summer. BBT

14

Cassandra Jenkins – Hard Drive

Cassandra Jenkins has one of those speaking voices, like Laurie Anderson’s or Catherine Keener’s, that feels like its own calm wellspring of wisdom. On Hard Drive, she narrates a shakier spell in her life when she appeared like a cellophane wrapper on a pack of cigarettes – so transparent that friends could look right through her and spot the broken parts. Warm guitar and horns build around her, the effect as sensual and protective as being held. LS

13

Lil Nas X – Montero (Call Me By Your Name)

After the furore that sluiced around Cardi B’s WAP eventually evaporated, conservative America was primed for something else to get performatively shocked by. Sliding down a stripper pole on to Satan’s lap in the music video came Lil Nas X, with a sadistically catchy bit of Latin-leaning pop. He is radically frank, open and available to his lover – “I want to sell what you’re buying” is a brilliant inversion – and his lascivious tone of voice lets you know how much he enjoys it. Power bottoms had their theme song. BBT

12

Japanese Breakfast – Be Sweet

By hooking a classically brooding New Order bass line to a piercing demand for faithfulness that you could easily imagine at home on Madonna’s debut album, Michelle Zauner contrives the perfect mid-80s dancefloor moment. But the enigmatic lyrics are distinctively Japanese Breakfast: “Fantasise you’ve left me behind and I’m turned back running for you,” Zauner sings – an unorthodox way of shocking a relationship back to life. LS

11

BTS – Butter

Just when you thought they couldn’t get any cheesier, the K-pop superstars doubled down on the dairy. It’s so joyous to hear them go to places you sense that western boybands – not that they even exist right now – would find too naff: saying “break it down!”; doing a middle-eight rap; adding shiny “ping!” noises. This is pop at its most honest and eager, connecting cleanly with the genre’s essence. BBT

10

Anz – You Could Be ft George Riley

If you see the Manchester-based DJ and producer Anz on a nightclub flyer, you know you’re in for the opposite of chinstroking: her sets always have you flinging your hands away from your face and around your head. Now she’s lighting up daytime radio with this uptempo update of 80s boogie. Coupled with George Riley audibly batting her eyelashes as butterflies flutter below, there’s little better for dancefloor flirtation. BBT

9

Little Simz – Introvert

She begins with the kind of fanfare that blares at the start of battle: horns and martial drums announcing a truly intimidating foe. It’s the kind of thing rappers have often reached for to telegraph their might, so there’s a wry humour in Simz using it for a track about her introversion. The conflict also turns inward as she considers ego, privacy and how much to embrace each – important considerations as her talent propels her to greater fame. BBT

8

The Weather Station – Tried to Tell You

People’s tendency towards self-destruction is regarded with dignity and such profound kindness by Tamara Lindeman, as she recalls how she attempted to make someone realise they loved someone else (even, perhaps, instead of herself). The past tense suggests she failed, and the malaise is perhaps bigger than love anyway: “Some days there might be nothing you encounter / To stand behind the fragile idea that anything matters.” BBT

7

Billie Eilish – Your Power

Billie Eilish on stage
Chillingly real … Billie Eilish. Photograph: Suzanne Cordeiro/AFP/Getty Images

Eilish’s comeback single told a familiar tale of a man in the entertainment industry taking advantage of an underage girl. It’s the disappointment in her voice that elevates this everyday story of abuse; the sense of yet another teenage girl being forced to confront this unbearably tenacious power dynamic. Where her macabre debut album revelled in spooky sound effects, this real-life horror story required nothing but limpid acoustic guitar and ghostly chill. LS

6

Olivia Rodrigo – Good 4 U

Having essayed one end of heartbreak with the piano lament Drivers License, Rodrigo’s mood swung like a wrecking ball towards this equally massive hit (between them, they spent 14 weeks at UK No 1). From its sarcastic title downwards, Good 4 U’s recrimination has the kind of bitterness that softens with age and only a teenage palate can truly appreciate, as Rodrigo rages against her blithely happy ex. The ways the chords shift through different shades of hurt is riveting, as is Rodrigo’s delivery, as if writing in a journal with the nib piercing the paper. BBT

5

Muna – Silk Chiffon ft Phoebe Bridgers

Label mates ... Saddest Factory Records signees Muna.
Label mates ... Muna. Photograph: Greg Chow/Rex/Shutterstock

Earlier this year, pop trio Muna signed to Phoebe Bridgers’ Saddest Factory Records, a meeting of minds between two of LA’s most anxious and emotionally annihilating acts. It was a delightful surprise, then, that their first collaboration revelled in nothing but the purest good feeling of a fully reciprocated crush. Delving into the crisp, crunchy textures of early 00s pop, maybe their depiction of this perfect girl queerly subverts millennial boy rockers’ simplistic fantasies – or maybe it’s not that deep. The piercing, oxygenated chorus hits like cannonballing into cool water from a high ledge. LS

4

Caroline Polachek – Bunny Is a Rider

With those liquid, reactive vocals, Caroline Polachek is so sublime at selling a line that whatever Bunny Is a Rider turns out to mean, you know you’re on board from the lyric’s first flinching, suggestive rendition. Her latest collaboration with Danny L Harle concerns the taming of this elusive, wounded creature, learning to trust again – “heart is unbreaking but don’t drop my name” – amid a febrile bassline, a tail-shake of glassy percussion and a whistled refrain to lure you into giving chase. LS

3

Sharon Van Etten and Angel Olsen – Like I Used To

Like I Used To feels fantastically lived in, as if these two generational songwriting talents were wandering the hallways of their lives, weighing up their regrets amid the ruined grandeur and deciding: fuck it – all you can do is keep living as wholeheartedly as humanly possible. All burly, stinging guitar and gilded vocal harmonies, it swaggers and sparkles like Stevie or Springsteen, and extends a hand for any time you need to dust yourself off and stride forth. LS

2

Wet Leg – Chaise Longue

Wet Leg.
Instantaneous buzz … Wet Leg. Photograph: Andy Hall/The Observer

This song prompted the kind of instantaneous band buzz that is rather rare these days: with no other songs out in the world, the Isle of Wight duo suddenly found themselves in front of heaving festival crowds. Chaise Longue is the stuff of instant indie disco adoration: simple bassline, fist-pumping tempo, and a chorus you can chant along to as your pint spills freely around your twisting heels. BBT

1

Self Esteem – I Do This All the Time

There has been no shortage of bands talking at us this year; the beauty of I Do This All the Time is how Rebecca Taylor embodies that nagging internal voice, the ever-present bully who is there to remind you of every embarrassing moment and cruel word aimed in your direction. Narrated in a rueful mutter over a backdrop of drizzle and a downcast beat, her moments of self-sabotage, as it turns out, aren’t that big a deal – sending overlong texts, forgetting an ex’s birthday – but it’s her ear for those small, grubby humiliations, the kind that spread like mould, that captures how it feels to be trapped by an inescapable sense of yourself. As Taylor touches on the cold exes and smug married mates and demeaning comments that have made her feel unworthy, she subtly outlines the pervasive expectations that have made her so fretful and prone to second-guessing, and I Do This All The Time becomes as much a reference to bad habits as to that relentless conditioning. And so she earns her massive, Lisa Stansfield-worthy chorus of women encouraging her to stand tall and hold steady, the crowning moment of this strange, wonderful, deeply moving song that alerted a nation to Taylor’s actually very considerable virtues. LS

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