What’s the difference between a song and content? In 2021, is there one? Can a 20-second TikTok be as valid as a 10-minute epic? Is the 10-minute epic now made only with the 20-second TikTok in mind? If a stream is a stream, does the matter in which a song is consumed matter?
These are questions to consider when reading our Best Songs of 2021 list. Admittedly, it’s a diverse collection. There’s one song that was popular before it was even released thanks to an Instagram snippet. There are two songs—one by a fascinating upstate New York rap upstart, another by the biggest pop star of the 21st century—that stretch past nine minutes. Another was cut from an album and made the rounds as a SiriusXM rip before making its way to streaming this month. None of this is exactly conventional. But perhaps given the current landscape for songs, the unconventional is the new norm. Either way, it’s all content. —Justin Sayles
10. “Justified,” Kacey Musgraves
The reviews were flattering enough, but behind the scenes, there’s been nothing but eye rolls from critics frustrated by the general cringe on the latest album from Kacey Musgraves. There’s certainly something just a bit off about Star-Crossed, a so-called divorce album that’s often echoing sounds and adopting postures a decade behind the trends in female-led pop production. In 2021, Kacey Musgraves made a city pop album and told The New York Times she may well relocate to Tokyo indefinitely. God knows why but I quite like the sound of that, and “Justified” strikes hardest at the multidimensional ambivalence that’s come to define Kacey Musgraves’s career since Golden Hour. I much prefer Star-Crossed to Golden Hour; I prefer to see where she goes with this. —Justin Charity
9. “American TTerroristt,” Rxk Nephew
Yeah so this is a delirious, nearly 10-minute tirade from a garrulous Rochester rapper who knows what he likes (conspiracy theories, celebrity trash talk, theological debate) and what he doesn’t like (hooks, choruses, general decorum), and what fascinates me about this is I’M READIN’ THE BIBLE LIKE “WHAT IS THIS?” WHAT IF ADAM WOULD’VE NEVER FUCKED EVE? NAME ONE PERSON WHO WAS ALIVE WITH JESUS. WHO YOU MET THAT CAME FROM THE DEAD? WHO THE FUCK IS CHRISTOPHER COLUMBUS? GRANDMA LIKE, “WHAT THE FUCK IS ALGEBRA?” HOW THE FUCK Y’ALL KNOW JESUS’S BIRTHDAY? LET’S GET BACK TO JEHOVAH’S WITNESSES. HOW THE FUCK FLAVA FLAV STILL ALIVE? THEY TALKIN’ ‘BOUT PRAY BEFORE YOU EAT. BITCH YOU EATIN’ A DEAD ANIMAL. THEY SAY THERE’S 77 SEXTILLION STARS IN THE SKY. I AIN’T EVEN HEARD THAT NUMBER BEFORE THEY TOLD ME THAT LIE. WHY THE FUCK I NEED A DRIVER’S LICENSE? IF I CRASH, I’M THE ONLY ONE DYIN’. Rap song of the millennium. —Rob Harvilla
8. “Essence,” WizKid Featuring Tems
2020 was sexless. It was as if the entire globe was trapped in a temporal desert devoid of hormones and gyrations of any kind. (A global pandemic will do that.) 2021 wasn’t much better at the outset, even as the world began to reopen. Then “Essence” arrived like a horny oasis courtesy of WizKid and Tems. The hook of the chart-topping Afrobeat-meets-’90s-R&B amalgamation was simple—”You don’t need no other body.” Fair enough.
Produced by Legendury Beatz and P2J, the song isn’t a sensual slap in the face, but rather a warm caress. Tems’s voice is all conviction. WizKid’s verses belong in the pickup hall of fame. The jazzy horns and sharp clicks of the drum pattern revel in an understated sense of cool. “I want people in the States to understand it, I want people in Korea to understand it,” P2J told Rolling Stone. “I want everyone to understand it, but still understand the essence of the music is from Africa.” Longing is universal and perhaps the crowning achievement of “Essence” is that it does little to get in the way of something so simple. —Charles Holmes
7. “Thot Shit,” Megan Thee Stallion
Yes, yes, I know this is a list about songs, not videos. But it’s the video for “Thot Shit” that really does it. We’re going to be honest here. Megan would want us to be honest. The song is cool. The song is great. But the video?
It’s a reclamation in a sense, though what it really is, is an artistic bashing of skulls and taking of lunch money. You’ve got to remember “Thot Shit” dropped post-“WAP.” Folks were in a tizzy. Ben Shapiro was opening his bedroom to us and the results were not what he thought they were. Meg knows as well as anyone what her very existence begets: the thin line between adulation and obsession when it comes to Black women’s sexuality; the intertwining of desire and control. In the video and the song (but really the video) we have the ultimate treatise—the Hot Girl Response, if you will.
There’s a crusty white senator with a propensity for virtual slut-shamming (among other things) and a cut scene of Megan, reminding him over a landline, who not to fuck with. He ignores the call. What follows is a nearly five-minute-long rocking, swaggering, gyrating, thoroughly scrupulous takedown of an entire culture. And it sounds great, by the way. The beat has enough thump to displace concrete and a synth breakdown that’s outright colossal. Megan, at the peak of her powers, can flutter on it, run through it, hold the thing in the palm of her hands. On “Thot Shit,” the rapper is in utter control. That’s the point. —Lex Pryor
6. “Happier Than Ever,” Billie Eilish
Billie Eilish’s sophomore album—like seemingly every high-profile 2021 pop extravaganza, from Adele’s to Kacey’s to Halsey’s to (sorta) Taylor’s—is a morose and bombastic rumination on all the ways pop superstardom and romantic bliss can’t coexist, primarily because the crap exes in question can’t handle it. And while it might take you a while to digest the full dolorous, 16-track density of Happier Than Ever—there are multiple opportunities for catnaps—there’s no denying that the record builds, carefully and gloriously, to Track 15, a.k.a. “Happier Than Ever” itself, which begins with a near-whisper (“When I’m away from you / I’m happier than ever”) and ends in a thrashing, distorted, howling, electrifying apocalypse. (“You ruined everything good / Always said you were misunderstood / Made all my moments your own / Just fuckin’ leave me alone.”) It makes you want to tattoo every word on your own ex’s forehead. It makes you happy you’re not a pop star. It makes you even happier that Billie Eilish is. —Harvilla
5. “Stay,” The Kid Laroi Featuring Justin Bieber
If you would’ve told me heading into 2021 that the Kid Laroi (no relation to LaCroix sparkling water) and pop prince Justin Bieber would have one of the year’s standout songs, I would’ve never believed you. But guess what. I called it months ago. Before its actual release, “Stay” had made its way around the internet, leaking onto Discord servers. At one point, the demand was so high that a hard drive was hacked in an attempt to leak the song. When the song first made its way into the public consciousness as a 30-second clip on Instagram, it was evident then that Laroi had a smash on his hands. The song starts with one of co-producer Charlie Puth’s signature synth lines before Laroi obliterates the track talking about waking up drunk. (He’s an 18-year-old Hennessy drinker, btw.) But what works above all else is the hook. It’s an effective pop excursion. Dynamically, it’s built over a loop, but the repetitive chorus—tinged with pitch changes Melodyne’d to high hell—creates a safe, mellow track that defined Laroi’s sound and will no doubt push him to superstardom. —Lani Renaldo
4. “Life of the Party,” Kanye West Featuring André 3000
André 3000 is the rare man of his word. For the past 15 years, much to the chagrin of music fans worldwide, André Benjamin has forsaken the rigors of a full-time rap career for the far greener pastures of playing his flute across America’s streets. Unlike most of his peers—Jay-Z, Dr. Dre, Lil Wayne, Mase—André refuses to renege on his retirement vow, and hasn’t released a full-length since the last Outkast album. Arguably, the world is better for this level of self-restraint, because when André returns, he purges.
His verses unfold like soliloquies, a man burdened with the immensity of his God-given gift descending from the mountaintop to regale mortals with the despair of everything he’s seen of life and its burdens. “Life of the Party” is one of these moments. Written as a letter addressed to Kanye West’s deceased mother Donda West, André tries to make peace with his own loss. The verse begins:
Hey, Miss Donda
You run into my mama, please tell her I said, “Say something”
I’m startin’ to believe ain’t no such thing as heaven’s trumpets
No after-over, this is it, done
If there’s a heaven, you would think they’d let ya speak to your son
André’s lyrics get only more devastating from there. Traveling back and forth through time, he gets to the kernel of a dispiriting truth. There’s little communication in death. Letters, emails, and text messages addressed to deceased loved ones live in the writing and wither after the realization that no one is left to consume them on this mortal coil. As André raps, he envisions his mom surviving within the joy of a baby’s laugh or in the slight discomfort of a singular blade of grass poking his body. There are confessions of André’s teenage love and longing for his son to share a pedestrian life away from the spotlight.
It’s a miracle that the purity of André’s verse survived the bullshit (e.g., the Kanye and Drake beef) that almost derailed it. We may never get an André solo album, but “Life of the Party” proves why that’s for the better. Getting this close to the truth takes distance and days alone with your flute. —Holmes
3. Taylor Swift, “All Too Well (10 Minute Version) (Taylor’s Version)”
Yeah, so this is a delirious, fully 10-minute celebrity-relationship autopsy from a towering country-pop star who knows what she likes (scarves, calling it what it was) and knows what she likes even more (highest-possible-profile draggings, rerecording her old albums to spite various music-industry goons), and what’s fascinating this time is THEY SAY ALL’S WELL THAT ENDS WELL, BUT I’M IN A NEW HELL EVERY TIME YOU DOUBLE-CROSS MY MIND. YOU SAID IF WE HAD BEEN CLOSER IN AGE, MAYBE IT WOULD’VE BEEN FINE, AND THAT MADE ME WANT TO DIE. THE IDEA YOU HAD OF ME, WHO WAS SHE? A NEVER-NEEDY, EVER-LOVELY JEWEL WHOSE SHINE REFLECTS ON YOU. NOT WEEPIN’ IN A PARTY BATHROOM, SOME ACTRESS ASKIN’ ME WHAT HAPPENED: YOU. THAT’S WHAT HAPPENED: YOU. YOU WHO CHARMED MY DAD WITH SELF-EFFACING JOKES. SIPPIN’ COFFEE LIKE YOU’RE ON A LATE-NIGHT SHOW. BUT THEN HE WATCHED ME WATCH THE FRONT DOOR ALL NIGHT, WILLIN’ YOU TO COME. AND HE SAID, “IT’S SUPPOSED TO BE FUN, TURNING 21.” Diss track of the decade. —Harvilla
2. “Lemon Pepper Freestyle,” Drake Featuring Rick Ross
Placing “Lemon Pepper Freestyle” on this list feels like a hollow victory. The fact that Drake managed to make his most vulnerable record of the year on a song named after Rick Ross’s favorite wing flavor speaks volumes about how perplexing of a year it’s been at ye olde OVO compound, while also operating as an admittance that Certified Lover Boy is a glorified coaster resting on 2021’s saddest coffee table. On a throwaway EP released in March, Drake accomplished the very task that was so elusive across his sixth studio album. Drake let Aubrey—a disgustingly wealthy single father who is running out of things to say as the women he made a career of pining over transform into the moms he sees at parent-teacher conferences—breathe.
Over a sped-up sample of Quadron’s “Pressure,” Drake marries the difference between an extended celebrity therapy session and a blistering rap verse. Lyrics about the joys of on-time child support payments and school drop-offs sit next to bars on which Drake still feels bitter about the rap progenies he helped birth. For nearly five minutes, hip-hop’s reigning king manages to set so much of the bullshit that’s derailed his later-stage career aside. The pressures of commercial dominance, never-ending beefs, and breaking streaming records cease to matter. In that all too brief time, Drake comes up for air and delivers a level of introspection that’s been blunted the longer and hotter his star has burned. Perhaps after the critical disappointment of CLB, Drake will return to the platter of wings he left behind in March and see if there’s any meat left on the bone. —Holmes
1. Olivia Rodrigo, “Good 4 U”
The bridge, as you might discover somewhere around your 75th flabbergasted listen, is the best part. “Maybe I’m too emotional / But your apathy’s like a wound in salt,” sings 18-year-old pop star and vaccine ambassador Olivia Rodrigo, sumptuously obliterating that guy you were probably too old to have previously heard of who costarred with Rodrigo on that Disney show you’re almost assuredly too old to watch. The song’s seething and sugary-sweet pop-punk assault—in the delightfully vicious lineage of Paramore, Kelly Clarkson, Avril Lavigne, and OK, a bunch of even older people—pares down to a serrated hush; at one point in the video, Rodrigo is wearing a cheerleader uniform and elbow-length rubber gloves whilst buying a gas can (and a bag of Smartfood popcorn) from a grocery store. That’s my favorite part, but pick yours: the slinky and insidious bass line; the casual ether of “I guess that therapist I found for you, she really helped”; the ecstatic caught breath before the micro-guitar-solo hits; the even more ecstatic Camaro-off-a-cliff caught breath of the line “Like a damn sociopath.” OK, now listen to it 75 more times. —Harvilla