When we remember 2021, few things will be more evocative than the music that provided the soundtrack to the world as we re-entered it after a long year filled with uncertainty and social distancing. This year, there was a song for every occasion, every event, and every emotion—from the reflective sounds of Lucy Dacus’ “VBS” to the exuberant strains of Farruko’s triumphant banger, “Pepas,” here are the songs we couldn’t stop listening to in 2021.
10. “Woman,” Doja Cat
Whatever you may think of Doja Cat’s Internet controversies or viral hits, there’s no denying her immense talent or her fearless, experimental influence on the pop music landscape. This is seen most cogently with “Woman,” a sultry Afrobeats-driven anthem for the divine feminine within every woman. The track is a sonic delight, showing off not only Doja’s flexible vocals to great effect but featuring the versatility of genres that she’s managed to not only master but meld with her music.
9. “Wilder Days,” Morgan Wade
In a year in which Justin Bieber, Adele and ABBA put out music, it’s nevertheless hard to find a more eminently screamable chorus lyric released this year than “YOU SAID YOU HATE THE SMELL OF CIGARETTE SMOKE!” The line is the handiwork of the rising country singer Morgan Wade, whose ragged voice perfectly matches her Springsteen-esque material; the song somehow captures both the glorious recklessness of youth and the pangs of nostalgia for such chaos at the same time.
8. “La Mama de La Mama,” El Alfa
No song this year matches the silliness nor the pure unadulterated euphoria of “La Mama de La Mama,” a collaboration between the Dominican rappers El Alfa and El Cherry Scom and the Staten Island rapper CJ. The track is a prime example of the Dominican genre dembow—in which beats and syllables hurtle along at breakneck speed—and shows the breakout star El Alfa at his loosest and most joyous. You might laugh at first at his ridiculous falsetto, and then you might blast the song 20 times in a row due to its relentless exuberance.
7. “Good 4 U,” Olivia Rodrigo
After the releases of the maudlin “drivers license” and the wistful “deja vu” in early 2021, it seemed like the ascendant pop star Olivia Rodrigo had picked a lane: a disciple of the Lorde, Maggie Rogers and Billie Eilish School of Morose Interiority, if you will. And then she swerved hard left with “good 4 u,” a sulking, sneering guitar anthem that proved her versatility, cultural acuity, lyrical wit and fearlessness to zag. Was the song a near carbon copy of Paramore’s “Misery Business”? Sure. Was it also a transcendent suckerpunch of a song that re-injected some much-needed pop-punk brashness into the center of the mainstream? Absolutely.
6. “Twerkulator,” City Girls
During this hot vax summer, there was no hot girl anthem more fitting than the City Girls’ “Twerkulator,” a bombastic, high-energy track that was impossible not to booty pop or at least bust a move to while listening to it. While the song initially leaked ahead of the City Girls’ 2020 album, City on Lock, due to clearance issues (it prominently samples two classic dance samples, Afrika Bambaataa & Soulsonic Force’s “Planet Rock” and Cajmere’s “The Percolator,” respectively), the song didn’t make its official debut until 2021. Upon its release, however, its infectious beat and the brash, braggadocious charms of JT and Yung Miami confirmed that it was, indeed, finally “time for the Twerkulator.”
5. “Monster,” Yoasobi
The J-pop duo YOASOBI has taken Japan by storm over the last couple years, topping several charts, accruing billions of streams and winning this year’s “Artist of the Year” at MTV’s Video Music Awards Japan. “Monster,” an English language version of one of their biggest hits, thrums along with the band’s trademark vivacity. It seamlessly integrates a giant pop hook with furious math rock riffs, jazzy chromatic runs and a seismic EDM-esque drop. Given the song’s yearning, cinematic nature, it’s wholly unsurprising that it served as the title song to the anime Beastars.
4. “VBS,” Lucy Dacus
The best lyrics aren’t just beautifully poetic or descriptive, but also conjure a whole universe that lies just beyond them and out of reach. The singer-songwriter Lucy Dacus is a master at this craft: she writes vivid scenes that nonetheless force the listeners to use their imaginations to fill in the narrative gaps on their own. Her song “VBS” takes its story from Dacus’ own experiences at Christian camp, where darker undercurrents of restlessness and nihilism course below her piety. The song overflows with details that beg to be explored in a novel or feature film: “Your dad keeps his sleeves down through the summer for a reason / Your mother wears her makeup extra thick for a reason,” she sings. Meanwhile, the song builds to one of the most epic musical climaxes of the year, which nods to the metal band Slayer.
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3. “All Too Well (Taylor’s Version),” Taylor Swift
When Taylor Swift announced she was re-recording her 2012 album, Red, “All Too Well” was a hotly anticipated track. The song, an achingly beautiful breakup ballad that has received cult classic status thanks to fan speculation that it’s about Swift’s split with Jake Gyllenhaal, has, in 2021, matured and grown into a 10-minute epic with new, keenly recognized lyrics that not only explores first love, but questions the imbalanced power dynamics of the relationship. The extended version is an improvement on a design that Swift has made her own over the course of her career—that is, ballads on the ins and outs of love—but with Taylor’s version of “All Too Well,” we bear witness to a woman who is reclaiming her narrative and taking up her time and space. It’s a journey that’s well worth 10 minutes.
2. “Essence,” WizKid ft. Justin Bieber and Tems
Wizkid’s sultry “Essence” was already a standout track on his 2020 album, Made in Lagos, thanks to a dulcet assist from fellow Nigerian artist Tems, but the Afrobeats star’s hit became ubiquitous in 2021, after he released a remix of featuring Justin Bieber alongside Tems. The song’s seductive beat and lush vocals make it one of the most easy, luxurious sonic experiences of the year, an ode to longing, to lust, and yes, to love.
1. “Pepas,” Farruko
No song better captured the supreme ecstasy of re-emerging in the world after a long year of social distancing than the exhilarating, exuberant “Pepas,” from the Puerto Rican artist Farruko. The dance track, which relies on an intoxicating reggaeton beat and an energizing shot of guaracha (an offshoot of Latin America’s tribal house music), begins with slow crooning before devolving into a triumphant chorus, spiked with a healthy dose of EDM. The ecstatic appeal of “Pepas” has propelled Farruko to the top charts, but its true effect can be felt in the instant burst of energy it summons when it’s blasted out of the window of a car driving by or played on a packed dance floor.
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