The 50 Best Songs of 2021 So Far: Staff Picks

, , Leave a comment

When we checked in on the best songs of 2020 last June, the charts (and radio in particular) were dominated by The Weeknd’s After Hours and Dua Lipa’s Future Nostalgia — the two big pop albums that weren’t afraid to go large with their ambitions, even at the lowest, scariest point of the COVID-19 pandemic. Now it’s a year later, the world is opening back up, and the charts (and radio in particular) are currently being dominated by… yep, still After Hours and Future Nostalgia.

OK, that’s a little reductive: Plenty of other artists and albums have also done their part to keep the charts interesting in recent months. But it is conspicuous how the past year has seen the pop world really gravitate towards its most reliable stars, more than it has in recent years — leaning on them not just for one smash at a time, but sometimes as many as three or four simultaneously, while they keep finding new ways to breathe life into their most recent blockbuster LPs. They’ve been reassuring presences during this time of turmoil, but they’ve also made us particularly grateful for the newer breakout artists who’ve showed up to push them — including one who scored two of 2021’s biggest hits and became one of the year’s biggest stars, before even putting out her debut album.

And as always, it’s not just about the hitmakers, either: While they remain the centrifugal force of the industry, it’s been a similarly fruitful time for new artists still in the process of finding their audience, with results that are thrilling even if they never lead to Top 40 ubiquity and contention for the Super Bowl halftime show. Here are our picks for the 50 best songs we’ve heard from this year so far — including a handful technically released in 2020, but which were released as singles or peaked on the Billboard charts in 2021.

50. Willow feat. Travis Barker, “Transparent Soul” 

In late April, Willow joined the ever-growing ranks of artists leading a full-blown mainstream pop-punk resurgence with her rollicking, Travis Barker-assisted single – though maybe we ultimately have Michael Cera to thank. Her chilly lyrics throughout turn heads, but the three-minute song thrives most in its ability to linger for the perfect amount of time: From her elongated “o”s in the chorus to the stretchy guitar chords preceding the opening lyrics, it all hangs around just long enough to leave you wanting more. — JOSH GLICKSMAN

49. Dawn Richard, “Bussifame”

Bussifame” begins with a voiceover explaining New Orleans’ “second line” tradition of celebrating life through music and dance. Then, the beat kicks in — a pulsating blend of electro-pop, house and funk, punctuated by Richard’s slick, confident rhymes — inviting everyone to join the parade. It’s an apt lead single for the singer/songwriter and self-described “stereotype assassin”’s April album, Second Line, which she has described as an effort to reinstate electronic music’s Black female pioneers as leaders of the genre. — TATIANA CIRISANO

48. Wisin, Jhay Cortez & Los Legendarios, “Fiel”

If the over 2 million videos it’s inspired on TikTok are any indication, Wisin, Jhay Cortez, and Los Legendarios’ “Fiel” is one of the biggest Latin songs of 2021. Its edgy reggaetón fusion has people of all ages swaying their hips and shaking their hands to a dance challenge; “The people made it viral,” artist-producers Los Legendarios told Billboard. Penned by Cortez, the infectious bop is about having a crush on an independent woman. “It’s refreshing, and one of my favorite songs on the album because it captivates your ear,” Wisin explained. The song should continue to captivate through the summer, with a remix featuring Anuel and Myke Towers set to drop next week. — JESSICA ROIZ

47. Young Dolph & Key Glock, “Penguins”

Memphis rappers Young Dolph and Key Glock effectively function as horror-movie villains on “Penguins”: over a haunted-house beat from BandPlay, the MCs repeat words relentlessly while displaying only the faintest emotion, jolting listeners with lines like “This s–t ain’t nothing new, new, new, new, new, new, new, new” until we’ve reached total submission. “Penguins” showcases a pair of veterans at their most cold-blooded, the song construction tactic working spectacularly. — JASON LIPSHUTZ

46. Taylor Swift, “Mr. Perfectly Fine” (Taylor’s Version) 

Earlier this year, Taylor Swift opened her vault and pulled this gem out. Left off the original release of Fearless in 2008, “Mr. Perfectly Fine” encapsulates everything we love about Swift — the bitingly clever lyrics, a boppy tune that straddles the line between pop and country (it was written while she was still considered a country artist after all), and heartache simmering below the surface in a kiss-off song. It’s vintage Taylor that still feels fresh in 2021, even following her recent foray into the indie/alternative world. And it’s definitely more than fine. — DENISE WARNER

45. Trace Lysette, “SMB” 

“Bitch, I’m not your appetizer/ bitch, I’m the lasagna,” the acclaimed actress — known for roles in Transparent and Hustlers — declares on her debut single. And true to her word, she’s serving plenty of layers: “SMB” (that’s “Self-Made Bitch”) is a classic started-from-the-bottom anthem, but it’s also a rallying cry for her fellow trans women who have had to fight for survival. “I feel like it might be going over people’s heads,” Lysette told Billboard of all the double-meanings in her lyrics. But her wordplay isn’t the only thing to feast on — her magnetic delivery stands out all on its own, especially when she draws out her punchlines and makes each syllable a snack. — NOLAN FEENEY

44. Pronoun, “I Wanna Die But I Can’t (Cuz I Gotta Keep Living)” 

With a title like “I Wanna Die But I Can’t (‘Cuz I Gotta Keep Living),” you would imagine Pronoun’s lead single off of her upcoming EP would be pretty sad. You’d only be half right — the song’s world-weary lyrics, written by Alyse Vellturo (Pronoun’s off-stage name), paint a difficult-but-accurate portrait of feeling stuck in a world that keeps moving. But the production, complete with shimmering guitar licks and crashing drums like a grungier lost Heartthrob-era Tegan and Sara song, makes Pronoun’s latest an irresistible jam. — STEPHEN DAW

43. Glass Animals, “Heat Waves”

Reaching No. 25 on the Hot 100 thusfar, Glass Animals’ “Heat Waves” marks the London-based alt-pop group’s first-ever entry on the chart. And the fan-favorite fourth single from their third studio album Dreamland is still on fire, steadily climbing the listing thanks to its wavy production and relatable breakup lyrics. Earlier this year, frontman Dave Bayley revealed to Billboard that the bop was crafted in an hour, proving that Glass Animals heats up under pressure. — DARLENE ADEROJU

42. Yola, “Diamond Studded Shoes”

When Yola announced her new album Stand For Myself in April, she said she had been “brainwashed” out of her own majesty — and the first single “Diamond Studded Shoes” serves as a reclamation of magnificence. The catchy, upbeat chorus of “we know it isn’t, we know it isn’t” has fans tapping their feet, while the British crooner delivers a message of empowerment and, most importantly, understanding for Black folks who feel drained by historic and ongoing racism. In 2021, Yola is going to remind us all how to stand up for what we believe in, and “Diamond Studded Shoes” is just the beginning. — TAYLOR MIMS

41. Yung Bleu feat. Drake, “You’re Mines Still”

Though he’s wired to be a suave lothario, Yung Bleu’s player ways take a sharp 180 on “You’re Mines Still.” Hoping time can remedy his last relationship, Bleu scripts the ultimate sadboy anthem for those eying redemption. The record hits its emotional apex when Drake goes full-throttle on the R&B front, punching in a verse about jealousy, broken communication, and the grueling effects of a scorned ex prepping for a Hot Girl Summer. — CARL LAMARRE

40. Machine Gun Kelly x Blackbear, “My Ex’s Best Friend”

You don’t need to understand the precise entanglements at the heart of Machine Gun Kelly and Blackbear’s “My Ex’s Best Friend” — MGK sings “My boy’s new girl is your best friend,” which presupposes a quartet of competing motivations and Twelfth Night-style mishaps — in order to shout along to the chorus, “I swear to GOD, I never FALL IN LOVE, then you showed up and I CAN’T GET ENOUGH OF IT!” MGK’s Tickets to My Downfall album has demonstrated remarkable staying power as a new-school pop-punk pivot from the rapper, and “My Ex’s Best Friend” is one of the biggest reasons why. — J. Lipshutz

39. Rosé, “On the Ground” 

If you couldn’t get enough of BLACKPINK in late 2020, Rosé was here to serve in early 2021 — and she did it with substance on her first solo single. It would’ve been easy to croon about romantic yearnings as the world was still in lockdown, but no, Rosé instead delivered an empowering and thoughtful song about finding purpose within yourself. And to top it off, the infinitely hummable tune is perfect for dancing around in your living room or belting out in the shower — alone. — ANNA CHAN

38. Rebecca Black, “Girlfriend”

The same year that Rebecca Black celebrated the 10th anniversary of her iconic moment of YouTube virality, she also gifted pop fans a perfect pop single to show just how much she’d grown as an artist from those surreal teenage beginnings. “Girlfriend” is irresistible from its first guitar pop, a gleefully delirious jam about getting back with your ex that has the kind of over-excited energy that comes with embracing a decision so wholeheartedly that you never really stop to consider whether it’s actually a good idea or not. In a just world, this would be getting plenty of retrospective essays of its own in 2031. — ANDREW UNTERBERGER

37. Bleachers, “Stop Making This Hurt”

Jack Antonoff has had a pretty busy year producing and writing for other artists who you may have heard of, but luckily still had time for new Bleachers music. The outfit’s signature sound is back in full force, with dreamy synths and sad lyrics set to an upbeat production that makes you forget you are listening to a song about goodbyes and the disillusionment that often comes with life. To borrow from another Antonoff-co-penned track, “Stop Making This Hurt” is exactly the kind of music you’d listen to while drunk in the back of the car, crying like a baby coming home from the bar. — D.W.

36. Polo G, “Rapstar”

For his first No. 1 on the Hot 100, Polo G paints a picture of the highs and lows of stardom, where stacks of cash reach just as high as the pressure that comes with it. “Every day a battle, I’m exhausted and I’m weary,” he says in a measured, melodic flow that is sandwiched between a fat rhythm and a nimble ukulele part by Einer Bankz on loop. The Chicago rapper is a natural born storyteller, but he’s also got the one-liners on deck in this one: “Only b—h I give a conversation to is Siri.” — CHRISTINE WERTHMAN

35. C. Tangana & Andrés Calamaro, “Hong Kong”

C. Tangana’s superb El Madrileño is a marriage of urban and rap sensibilities with a slew of other genres. But in “Hong Kong,” his duet with Argentine rocker Andrés Calamaro, it’s rock n’ roll all the way, with drums, electric guitar and Tangana singing with nary a rap or chant to be heard. It’s gritty and greasy — and it’s also smoky in the joint where the video is shot — accentuating the live, acoustic vibe. “Hong Kong” is all about excesses (“I have a flower in my ass, and a camel in Hong Kong,” proclaims the chorus), and its undeniable sense of fun shows that a good melody and hooky lyrics are always welcome, regardless of genre. — LEILA COBO

34. serpentwithfeet, “Fellowship”

Serpentwithfeet’s major-label debut Deacon is riddled with romance, but the album’s standout cut goes out to the homies. “I’m thankful for the love I share with my friends,” the Brooklyn musician sings tenderly in the refrain, backed by additional vocals from Sampha — who co-wrote and co-produced the track alongside Lil Silva. It’s tricky to sing this earnestly about friendship without getting into cheesy territory, but serpentwithfeet glides through the challenge, delivering quite possibly the most romantic platonic love song there ever was. — T.C.

33. Durand Jones & the Indications, “Witchoo”

To do a proper post-disco soul throwback, you need more than just a stomping beat and some glitter — you need an energy and an enthusiasm that goes well beyond typical pastiche. Luckily, Durand Jones & the Indications are more than up for the task on the shimmering and infectious “Witchoo,” with Jones and co-lead Aaron Frazier swapping ecstatic come-ons like Kareem and Magic working the two-man game, over a thumping groove that could’ve saved Indeep’s life back in ’82. The giddiness is so infectious that the rest of the band has to join in on the vocals from time to time, audibly anxious to get in on the good times. — A.U.

32. Drake feat. Lil Baby, “Wants and Needs”

Drake’s latest three pack, Scary Hours 2, had a little something for every type of Drake fan, from an extended stream-of-consciousness freestyle alongside an inspired Rick Ross to a typically boastful solo cut in “What’s Next.” But the booming “Wants And Needs” was probably the best, and most formidable, of the trio — a lot of that due to the tight, intricate wordplay of Lil Baby. The still-rising Atlanta superstar has established himself as a better technical rapper than many gave him credit for early on, and has increasingly delivered verses with more substance than anyone else on his level. On “Wants and Needs,” his flow is dizzying. — DAN RYS

31. WizKid feat. Tems, “Essence”

A standout on WizKid’s Made in Lagos, “Essence” stays true to its title, capturing the feel of the entire album in one infectious track. The Nigerian superstar recruits emerging singer Tems, who opens the euphoric, hip-swaying song with an ascending verse (“I wanna leave you in the morning/ But I need you now”)  and equally-to-the-point chorus (“You don’t need no other body”). Although the album was released in 2020, WizKid released “Essence” as a single in April, along with an accompanying music video — reviving the track just in time for the summer. — NEENA ROUHANI

30. Lil Tjay feat. 6lack, “Calling My Phone”

Lil Tjay’s fusion of his melodic rapping with 6lack’s moody lyricism birthed both artists’ highest-charting Hot 100 hit in the hypnotic “Calling My Phone,” which debuted at No. 3. The two drone on over a wistful piano-driven beat about their exes, who are so hung up on their past relationships that they keep calling both men. The song effectively mirrors what said phone calls sound like, from Lil Tjay’s “brrr” ad-lib reminiscent of a phone ringing to the pitched-up “I can’t get you off my mind” post-chorus simulating a repetitive voicemail. — HERAN MAMO

29. Lucy Dacus, “Hot & Heavy”

Lucy Dacus takes a rollicking stroll down memory lane on “Hot & Heavy,” the second single from her third album, Home Video. “Being back here makes me hot in the face,” she sings about her return to the scene of teenage crimes, like making out in someone’s parents’ basement. The reunion, with both a person and a place, stirs up “bittersweet” feelings, but the rock song is light on its feet, skipping through recollections before wrapping in a glorious instrumental sendoff where the synthesizers sound like beams of light. — C.W.

28. BTS, “Butter” 

Nothing succeeds like success, and after the explosive chart performance of “Dynamite” in 2020, BTS decided to return to the formula — English-language lyrics, classic ’80s pop maximalism, a simile-based chorus hook — for this year’s “Butter.” If anything, the K-pop septet sounds even tighter this time around, building on the song’s early chorus and strutting groove with myriad late-appearing hooks that continue to raise the stakes until they ensure that every last pair of dress shoes at the wedding reception is squarely on the dancefloor. Like J-Hope eating an entire pad of the titular food stuff at video’s end, it seems like it should be too much of a good thing, but it gets a smile anyway. — A.U.

27. Nicki Minaj, Drake & Lil Wayne, “Seeing Green”

A five-minute victory lap added to this May’s long-awaited release of Nicki Minaj’s Beam Me Up Scotty on streaming services, “Seeing Green” finds the YMCMB Holy Trinity entering lyrical warp speed over a soulful sample that suits the mixtape’s original 2009 release. When Weezy asks at the top of his fiery two-minute intro, “Let me take this Balenciaga mask off to ask y’all, ‘Who asked y’all?’” it’s clear the phasers are not set to stun on this one. — JOE LYNCH

26. Elle King & Miranda Lambert, “Drunk (And I Don’t Wanna Go Home)” 

A rambunctious last call singalong released when such memories of wasted-in-at-least-one-sense late nights still felt fairly distant. “Drunk” proves the pairing of country star Miranda Lambert and genre nomad Elle King an unsurprisingly natural fit, but more unexpectedly successful is the song’s reuniting of banjo with a stomping beat and a shouted-at-10 chorus — a style ubiquitous on top 40 radio a little under a decade ago, but significantly less prevalent in recent years. As with the world at large, it appears we are about ready to return. — A.U.

25. Young Thug & Gunna, “Ski” 

No, it’s not actually about slopes and slaloms of course, but still: “Ski” would sound great over Winter Olympics footage. The beat, co-produced by BabyWave, Outtatown and Wheezy, glides majestically with its ticking trap drums and staccato strings, giving its co-leads the perfect course for their freestyle routines. The duo perform the necessary lyrical jumps, spins and other acrobatics over it, always sticking the landing before passing the mic to the other. Despite the tracklist to parent set Slime Language 2 being loaded with massive guest stars like Drake and Travis Scott, it’s the feature-less “Ski” that’s proven the real breakout single from the album — the song is just that cold. — A.U.

24. Flight Facilities & Channel Tres, “Lights Up”

Compton-based artist Channel Tres is the dance scene’s white-hot vocalist of the moment, appearing on recent tracks by Polo & Pan and VanJess. But his simmering baritone is used to greatest effect on May’s “Lights Up” by Australian duo Flight Facilities, who return triumphantly with a sleek take on nu-disco that builds into a swirl of strings, synth and kickdrum that altogether sound as fresh as your first post-quarantine haircut. Balancing ebullience and genuine cool, this one gets our vote for the song we want to play as we walk into any given party for the remainder of the year. — KATIE BAIN

23. Ariana Grande feat. Doja Cat & Megan Thee Stallion, “34+35″ (Remix)

Grande is anything but subtle in her innuendo-filled Positions single, as even the title itself adds up to a certain, well, position. While the lyrics are undeniably raunchy (“Can you stay up all night?/ F— me ’til the daylight”), the star gave her ode to sex a playful twist with her characteristic humor (“If I put it quite plainly/ Just gimme them babies!”). Plus, the track’s infectious pop melody has lodged it in our heads since Positions’ late-2020 release — and guest verses from fellow superstars Doja Cat and Megan Thee Stallion on the new remix kept it fresh well into 2021. — RANIA ANIFTOS

22. Jessie Ware, “Please” 

Last year, U.K. vet Jessie Ware made the leap from soul-baring, R&B-led torch songs to disco-pop siren bangers with What’s Your Pleasure?, a curveball that reinvigorated her career. “Please” serves as an extension of her latest era, but may be the most complete song from it yet: The drums snap hard, the cymbals work double-time, the harmonies sashay when needed, and Ware’s buttery delivery makes for a delectable centerpiece. Nu-disco is still a relatively new pose for Ware, but she makes it sound effortless. — J. Lipshutz

21. Doja Cat feat. SZA, “Kiss Me More”

From the moment Doja Cat delivers her first line with the gentle airiness of a light breeze, listeners are drawn into “Kiss Me More,” as if tractor-beamed to Planet Her. The following two cymbal clashes that introduce the beat act like glue, ensuring that once you’ve hit play you’re stuck. Bolstered by a sunny, glimmering riff, verses that spotlight Doja’s chops as a singer and rapper, and  even a rare feature from SZA, this song — as Bill Hader’s Stefon would say — has it all. — LYNDSEY HAVENS

20. Jazmine Sullivan, “Pick Up Your Feelings”

Straight off her rapturously received Heaux Tales EP from January, 12-time Grammy nominated singer-songwriter Jazmine Sullivan captivated fans with her hit single “Pick Up Your Feelings,” a powerful tune about avenging a cheating boyfriend in the best way — by glowing up, cutting ties and moving on. Paired with its smooth rhythm and jazzy beat, Sullivan’s gripping lyrics (“New phone, who is this? Contact? Don’t exist”) and mighty vocals are strong enough to drown any no-good ex in their emotions. — D.A.

19. Christian Nodal & Gera MX, “Botella Tras Botella”

A breakup song about hanging out with the boys and drinking your sorrows away has become a phenomenon on social media and digital platforms — all the doing of Mexican rapper Gera MX and Regional Mexican star Christian Nodal. Lacing both of their genres, the Erick Gutierrez Cervantes- and Edgar Barrera-co-produced “Botella Tras Botella” is a country-tinged acoustic ranchera with hip-hop beats. But more than just its hybrid melody and easy-to-sing lyrics, the song has had a global appeal because, as Gera says, it simply has soul. “I can’t find any other explanation [for its success], and it’s beautiful,” the MC told Billboard. “Botella Tras Botella” made history on the Hot 100 this year, as the first Regional Mexican title to enter the listing in its near-63-year history. — J.R.

18. Pop Smoke, “What You Know Bout Love”

When Pop Smoke first started to break out of Brooklyn with the singles “Welcome To The Party” and “Dior” in 2019, few would have thought that one of the highest-charting, most successful songs of his career would have been a Ginuwine-sampling, dreamy R&B single — a slow-building radio smash that finally cracked the Hot 100’s top 10 this March. But if there’s one thing his official debut album, the posthumous Shoot For The Stars, Aim For The Moon, showcased more than anything else, it was the young MC’s versatility. The rapper’s signature gruff voice proved itself just as at home over sultry songs about love and loyalty as up-tempo street anthems — not unlike 50 Cent, who wound up executive-producing Shoot For the Stars after Pop’s sudden death in early 2020. — D.R.

17. Giveon, “Heartbreak Anniversary”

In the breakup bop that tugged on heartstrings ‘round the world, Giveon paints a vivid picture of his breakup anniversary (“Balloons are deflating/ Guess they look lifeless like me”), creating an uber-relatable soundtrack given a second life in 2021 thanks to a viral TikTok dance. In an interview with Billboard, the vocally unmistakable R&B crooner hoped the song would offer a unique perspective on heartbreak — a feat he achieves effortlessly here through his lyricism and the song’s textured, nostalgic instrumental. — N.R.

16. Japanese Breakfast, “Be Sweet”

Jubilee, Michelle Zauner’s recently released third album as Japanese Breakfast, represents a turn toward more colorful themes and arrangements after a pair of grief-stricken indie-rock full-lengths. A few months before its release, Zauner previewed the project’s sunnier vibes with its brightest, strongest song: “Be Sweet” bounces into full-blown pop territory, with a major-key hook, chattering production led by an elastic guitar line, and Zauner commanding our attention with earnest hopefulness. “Be sweet to me, baby / I wanna believe in you, I wanna believe,” she sings, addressing a romantic partner but also her own ambitions as a crossover star. — J. Lipshutz

15. Saweetie feat. Doja Cat, “Best Friend”

Knowing that there’s no hype (wo)man as effective as your best bud, Saweetie and Doja Cat scored a No. 14 Hot 100 hit with their January ode to praising every damn thing about your bff, from her fresh blow out to her financial solvency. Over a deceptively simple elastic beat, the pair go full glow-up, demonstrating the raw power (and total fun) of pure and gloriously noncompetitive best friend-on-best friend love — and also making “Is that my bestie in a Tessie?” the all-purpose compliment of the year. — KATIE BAIN

14. H.E.R., “Fight For You”

Gabriella Wilson, a.k.a. H.E.R., has yet to release her debut album and has already snagged an Oscar for best original song with this entry from Judas and the Black Messiah, about the FBI infiltrating the Black Panthers’ Illinois headquarters in the late ’60s. H.E.R. beautifully channels Nixon-era soul, complete with staccato horns and insinuating, swaying rhythms. The relative lightheartedness of the music and H.E.R.’s sweet delivery works in direct opposition to the lyrics about loyalty and fighting against those thwarting justice as she sings “When they knock on your door, will you be ready for war?” The Staple Singers and Isaac Hayes would be proud.  — MELINDA NEWMAN

13. Olivia Rodrigo, “Good 4 U”

Following the record-smashing success of “Driver’s License,” Olivia Rodrigo had nothing but options before her. That’s what made her choice to lean into a guitar-driven, fiery pop-punk sound with “Good 4 U” — Rodrigo’s second single this year to debut atop the Hot 100 — so fascinating. From its already-beloved opening bassline, to the pure rage in the singer-songwriter’s voice when she screams “you will never have to hurt THE WAY YOU KNOW THAT I DO!” “Good 4 U” is the angsty, catchy, stunningly well-written pop-rock single that will refuse to leave your head for the rest of the summer. — S.D.

12. Billie Eilish, “Your Power”

Billie Eilish proved that she doesn’t need to hit listeners over the head with a crazy catchy beat to show off her talent. With the third single off her upcoming album Happier Than Ever, the 19-year-old superstar takes a vulnerable approach with her breathy vocals and delicate guitar, letting her intimate delivery and unsettling lyrics about precarious power dynamics take center stage. She hopes that the song “can inspire change,” as do we — and until then, it’s certainly inspired us to play it on repeat. — A.C.

11. Cardi B, “Up” 

After enjoying the sweltering success of her Hot 100-topping Megan Thee Stallion collab “WAP,” Cardi B upped the ante with her commanding solo track “Up.” Not only does she flatten the competition with her irresistible swagger, but she also kindly reminds us why her p—y power remains top-tier (“hit him with the good-good, make a n—- act right”). And while rappers teed up questions about the song’s originality, that didn’t stop Cardi from snatching her fifth No. 1 on the Hot 100. — C.L.

10. Girl in Red, “Serotonin” 

There’s a comforting darkness to the lyrics of “Serotonin,” written entirely by Marie Ulven (a.k.a. Girl in Red). Throughout the surging track, Ulven plucks more and more from the deepest crevices of her mind, admitting to everything from feeling “like my therapist hates me” to “breaking daily… crying like a f–king baby.” It’s the type of writing that only one producer of the moment could not only tap into but elevate: Finneas. Having expanded upon similar raw states and turning them into accessible hits along with sister Billie Eilish, Finneas brings the same magic to “Serotonin,” crafting fuzzy and at times menacing beats, but offsetting them with a glorious chorus that allows Ulven to jump off the deep end time and time again — becoming lighter herself with each freeing verse. — LYNDSEY HAVENS

9. Lil Nas X, “Montero (Call Me By Your Name)” 

Was it the twerking on Satan, the blood-filled shoes, the expert trolling of conservative critics, or ripped leather pants on Saturday Night Live that made the release of Lil Nas X’s “Montero” so much fun to witness? Maybe it’s the fact that the song, despite its occasionally tortured lyrics, is also an unapologetic romp, and the absolute definition of “hot vax summer.” “Montero” was released just as the country was opening back up, and with the flamenco-tinged track, Lil Nas X captures the spirit of breaking free after months of isolation, and re-entering the social scene with playful deviousness and reckless abandon. — T.M.

8. Justin Bieber feat. Daniel Caesar & Giveon, “Peaches”

Justin Bieber was still as central a presence as ever in popular music as the decade started, but he still hadn’t scored a Hot 100 No. 1 off one of his own albums since 2016 — until “Peaches,” the runaway hit from his recent Justice LP. The song might not have seemed an obvious smash during his Purpose era, but with its laconic groove, weed-and-women-appreciating hook and general warm-weather vibes, it was the perfect track to start heating up this spring. And while he’s re-cementing his own superstardom, Bieber also brings a couple rising stars along for the ride in Daniel Caesar and Giveon, with the R&B singer-songwriters further blissing out the tranquil track. — A.U.

7. SZA, “Good Days” 

The two-minute outro of SZA’s “Hit Different” music video teased what ended up being her biggest solo Hot 100 hit to date, with her forward-looking ballad “Good Days,” which reached No. 9. SZA interprets her past struggles through biblical parables about Jericho, Job and Jesus while continuing to seek her mental paradise and inspiring listeners to find their own. Her ethereal harmonies with Grammy winner Jacob Collier encompass the “inhale the good s–t, exhale the bulls–t” motto in the most relaxed demeanor, as the R&B singer takes the edge off by forgetting stressful situations, while letting her edges out.  — N.R.

6. Pooh Shiesty feat. Lil Durk, “Back in Blood”

Trickling out at the tail end of 2020, “Back in Blood” took off in early 2021 thanks in large part to the raw, no-frills energy of its Chicago-set, King Von-tributing music video. Chances are the song would have found its way to anthem status anyway, though, since the thing is both chilling and pulse-racing from the first notes of its piano hook, sounding like the soundtrack to a horror movie (which, in a way, it is). Pooh Shiesty became the year’s rookie breakout sensation thanks to his effortlessly imposing verses here, and a knockout chorus worthy of Mobb Deep’s The Infamous — but it’s Lil Durk who really steals the show, big-upping his co-star and providing one of the great cut-the-beat shout-along moments of the young decade: “Pooh Shiesty that’s my dawg/ But Pooh, you know I’m really shiesty!” — A.U.

5. Kali Uchis, “Telepatía”

Although written in pre-pandemic times, “Telepatía” perfectly captured the nostalgic essence of 2020 with ultra-melancholic hooks about making love telepathically. In fact, the synth-pop dreamy track is essentially built around hooks throughout, making every verse — in English or Spanish — memorable and conspicuously TikTok-friendly, which helped catapult the song to streaming success. Off Kali Uchis’ first-ever Spanish album Sin Miedo (del Amor y Otros Demonios), released last year, “Telepatía” became Uchis’ first Hot 100 hit as a lead artist in 2021, also scoring her first No. 1 on the Hot Latin Songs chart in May. Not only essential for its addictive groove and inspired lyrical content, the pop gem also put a spotlight on truly bilingual songs having chart (and TikTok virality) potential. — GRISELDA FLORES

4. Dua Lipa feat. DaBaby, “Levitating”

Levitating” is the gift that just keeps on giving. Five months after the original version first hand-clapped its way into our hearts on Future Nostalgia in late March 2020, Dua Lipa revitalized the disco-fueled dance track with a new verse from DaBaby. The star-studded single has only lifted higher and higher since then: last month, it rose to a new No. 2 peak on the Hot 100, and it’s back up to No. 3 this week. It’s only right that “Levitating” hangs around now that more people are finally getting to enjoy its infectiously exuberant nature together — because to quote DaBaby, on the vast list of great dance tracks from last year that we didn’t get to properly experience, it’s “one of the greatest, ain’t no debatin’ on it.” – J.G.

3. The Weeknd & Ariana Grande, “Save Your Tears” (Remix)

When The Weeknd turned to the sounds and vibes of the ’80s for his After Hours set, it’s almost like he knew he’d be promoting this album’s undying radio smashes for damn near as long as superstars used to work hit material back in the day. For the simple matter of dominating 2021, the artist born Abel Tesfaye teamed with Ariana Grande for a duet version of the breezy “Save Your Tears” that became the sixth Hot 100 No. 1 for both; while the collaborative version is fairly faithful to the already beguiling original, Grande imbues it with a bittersweet poignancy that makes “Tears” go by beautifully. – J. Lynch 

2. Silk Sonic, “Leave the Door Open”

Bruno Mars and Anderson .Paak weren’t even born when the Philly soul sound was at its peak in the 1970s, but their homage hits all the right notes. The title flips the title of Teddy Pendergrass’ 1978 bedroom classic “Close the Door,” which was written and produced by Philly soul maestros Gamble and Huff. The imagery of the video and select TV performances has emphasized the nostalgia/kitsch factor, with ‘70s fashions and ’dos, but the lush, swoon-worthy record makes clear that their affection is absolutely sincere. Several of Mars’ biggest hits have brought back classic sounds from the past, from the Police-style funk-wave hybrid “Locked Out of Heaven” to the new jack swing of the “Finesse” remix, and “Door” confirms that he remains pop music’s savviest revivalist. His jukebox is not only unorthodox, it’s well-stocked, and a source of endless inspiration. — PAUL GREIN

1. Olivia Rodrigo, “Drivers License”

The heartbroken debut single from a then-17-year-old Olivia Rodrigo immediately made waves upon its release in early 2021, as listeners flooded social media with theories over the IRL meaning and potential love triangle suggested in the devastating lyrics. However, the rumor mill surrounding the breakout pop ballad of the year is its least interesting offering: With just one song, Rodrigo proved herself as a compelling vocalist and a songwriter well beyond her years. Pop’s newest star hit a nerve by so eloquently capturing specific emotions — from betrayal to insecurity to wanting to shout “I still f–king love you!” — that had fans across generations reliving the devastation of failed first loves. The moving chorus builds to a sweeping “I guess you didn’t mean what you wrote in that song about me,” solidifying the undeniable magic of “Drivers License” and the start of Rodrigo’s reign as pop’s most captivating new storyteller. — R.A.

soul, classic soul, motown,


Leave a Reply