The best songs of 2021

Image via Matador

The music of 2021 delivered on the catharsis we so desperately needed, whether it be all-too-briefly in a mosh pit or in spurts soundtracking TikToks. Pop-punk, in particular, came back in a big way and generations found out that High School Musical: The Musical: The Series is a thing and developed strong feelings about the romantic entanglements of its stars.

Some of the sharpest singer-songwriters in indie rock took big swings with big payoffs. And yeah, some musicians managed to chill without being annoying about it. 2021 was a big year in music, and even though we’re still living in a time when coronavirus variants have the power to postpone Grammy Award ceremonies, it’s never a bad time to take stock of some of the best tunes the year gave us.

Here, in no particular order, are the best songs of 2021.

Valentine” by Snail Mail

On her sophomore album, guitar wunderkind Lindsey Jordan majorly amped up her vocals. The title track’s lived-in heartbreak oozes Leonard Cohen’s heartfelt sleaze as her voice warps each time she sings one syllable, sneering then tender and back. Jordan makes good on the song’s mission statement of becoming unforgettable.

“Nothing New” (Taylor’s Version) (From the Vault) by Taylor Swift and Phoebe Bridgers

The standout entirely new (to us) song off Red (Taylor’s Version) offers a more nuanced perspective on female celebrity than we’ve seen from her even though it was written nearly a decade ago. It’s not a Girlboss anthem like “The Man” or the Final Girl approach to pop stardom of “Bad Blood.” Here, Swift lets ugly thoughts linger as she contemplates life after being the shiny new toy, singing, “People love an ingenue.” It gives a much different perspective on “feeling 22” than the original album dared show. In a brilliant move, she recruited beloved moody blonde singer-songwriter of the moment, Phoebe Bridgers, as a duet partner, asserting that they’re both in it for the long haul.

“Working for the Knife” by Mitski

Unfortunately for Mitski, Mitski fervor has only grown since the artist announced an extended break in 2019. Thanks, in part, to her music spawning multiple TikTok trends, her influence has exploded. “Working for the Knife” is the exact opposite of that, and art is hard. Mitski struggles to find purpose and inspiration, “I cry at the start of every movie, I guess ’cause I wish I was making things too.” Luckily for us, we can cry at the start of new Mitski songs again.

Holiday” by Turnstile

In a year of pent-up aggression, Turnstile achieved something like a pop hardcore album bringing The Clash’s genre-zig-zagging version of punk into the present. On “On Holiday,” they capture the restlessness of pretty much everyone these days, screaming “too bright to live, too bright to die.”

“Hardline” by Julien Baker

In a year of isolation, Julien Baker made her most expansive work yet, even if, yes, it’s still very much a solo venture. Baker is still playing every instrument, but it’s a little closer to full color than grayscale this time. On “Hardline,” she hits the ground running, blasting synths and confronting her own faulty logic of wanting to feel the pain to get to the feeling of relief from pain but never quite making it out of the maze.

¡BREAKOUT!” by Willow (Featuring Cherry Glazerr)

Willow (yes, that Willow of the Smith dynasty) has come a long way since “Whip My Hair” and her pop-punk effort lately i feel EVERYTHING is her most assured release yet. She respects her elders, bringing on the motherf*cking princess herself, Avril Lavigne, for a song. She also collaborates with Travis Barker, which is like jury duty for musicians in that you could be called upon to do it at any time. Her track featuring rockers of this era, Cherry Glazerr, is a vibrant standout from the album. Willow screams paraphrased Kanye lyrics ferociously over thudding metal guitars, “No woman should have all that power. Hate people, just to talk to flowers.”

“Puppy and a Truck” by Jenny Lewis

Rilo Kiley frontwoman Jenny Lewis is in her Jimmy Buffett era, thank god. Like Buffett, she has well-worn advice on how to just kick back: you don’t need a Tesla…a hypoallergenic dog will solve most of your problems. After winning over Harry Styles fans opening for the pop dreamboat, Lewis’ follow-up to 2019’s On the Line is hotly anticipated.

“déjà vu” by Olivia Rodrigo

Ah yes, 2021, the year Olivia Rodrigo reinvented Billy Joel. She broke the mold of the Disney actress to the pop star, emerging right out of the gate as an artist committed to her own voice rather than clumsily rebelling later on as a course correction. Her first three songs as a solo artist proved her range, but “déjà vu” in particular uses her proclivity towards insidious lyrics to the greatest effect, seizing control of every mundane memory until it twists like a knife.

“MMMOOOAAAAAYAYA” by Illuminati Hotties

Look, the song title makes sense if you listen to it, I promise, and it’s so damn catchy that you’ll find yourself humming every syllable. Singer, producer, audio engineer, and pretty much everything Sarah Tudzin exuberantly sprints through the indignities of modern life: a broken two-party system, questionable wellness fads, and “every self-appointed startup.” The CDC says, “If you’re not laughing, baby, then you’re not making money.”

“Days Like These” by Low

How many minimalist bands can come out with an album that sounds completely fresh on their 13th go of it? On “Days Like These,” the harmonies are bigger than ever like you should be listening to it in an arena instead of your bedroom. Just close your eyes, and who knows what you’ll see.