The 20 best songs of 2021 | Music


After Blinding Lights, the partnership between the Weeknd and producer Max Martin continues down a rainswept neon freeway, the place synthwave reminiscent of a Terminator or RoboCop film prowls round tales of nocturnal depravity. Not even Skynet might have created one thing so completely engineered for dancefloor satisfaction; the ultimate refrain, with its drums tap-dancing throughout disco strings, is arguably essentially the most stunning second in his catalogue to this point. BBT


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 Seventies and 80s, Bruno Mars and Anderson .Paak are alive to the slight absurdity of these songs’ carnality, and lean into it. .Paak is “sipping wine, in a gown / I look too good to be alone”; Mars sings the refrain like a person hurling roses as much as a balcony. They promote it so enthusiastically, and with such beautiful songcraft, that what might have been a Dick in a Box-type spoof turns into an unironic masterpiece. BBT


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

By now it’s cliche to watch how superbly Abba essay loss. Maybe in full data of that expectation, Don’t Shut Me Down appears to start out as a lady’s twilight years set in: she’s alone in a park as evening falls and the sound of kids’s laughter fades; the softest, floatiest strings appear to buoy her reflections heavenwards. However this second seems to be one of quiet confidence earlier than she heads as much as an ex’s condominium to rekindle their relationship, sure, now, of what she needs and desires from their reunion. Her conviction is girded by – what else? – a wonderful left-turn into disco, as uneven, virtually ska-tinged guitar powers her up the (presumably illuminated) staircase to his door. LS


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



Volcanic swagger … Ellie Rowsell of Wolf Alice. {Photograph}: Onstage photographs/Rex/Shutterstock

Though written pre-pandemic, How Can I Make It OK? resonated eerily with these unusual, transitional instances. “A second to vary all of it / Had life earlier than been so sluggish?” Ellie Rowsell sings virtually operatically, cautiously savouring the potential for change. No matter might come subsequent, happiness is paramount. “How can I make it OK?” the band sing in tender, nervous staccato, earlier than the tune cracks open to bolster their reassurances with volcanic swagger – displaying this particular band’s dynamic at its best. LS


As with Anz – see No 10, under – the dance tracks which have resonated most this 12 months are the joyous ones that seize your arm and haul you on to the ground with a sambuca, shaking the torpor of the 12 months away. Right here, the snap and thrum of Miami bass pairs with a ghetto home breakbeat that retains dancing away from a gradual tempo; Samara’s vocal line is the type of skipping-game chant that will pair completely with a burst hydrant in the summertime. BBT


Cassandra Jenkins – Hard Drive

Sensual ... New York songwriter Cassandra Jenkins.
Sensual … New York songwriter Cassandra Jenkins

Cassandra Jenkins has one of these talking voices, like Laurie Anderson’s or Catherine Keener’s, that looks like its personal calm wellspring of knowledge. On Arduous Drive, she narrates a shakier spell in her life when she appeared like a cellophane wrapper on a pack of cigarettes – so clear that mates might look proper by her and spot the damaged components. Heat guitar and horns construct round her, the impact as sensual and protecting as being held. LS


After the furore that sluiced round Cardi B’s WAP ultimately evaporated, conservative America was primed for one thing else to get performatively shocked by. Sliding down a stripper pole on to Devil’s lap within the music video got here Lil Nas X, with a sadistically catchy bit of Latin-leaning pop. He’s radically frank, open and out there to his lover – “I need to promote what you’re shopping for” is a superb inversion – and his lascivious tone of voice lets you understand how a lot he enjoys it. Energy bottoms had their theme tune. BBT


Japanese Breakfast – Be Sweet

By hooking a classically brooding New Order bass line to a piercing demand for faithfulness that you possibly can simply think about at dwelling on Madonna’s debut album, Michelle Zauner contrives the proper mid-80s dancefloor second. However the enigmatic lyrics are distinctively Japanese Breakfast: “Fantasise you’ve left me behind and I’m turned again working for you,” Zauner sings – an unorthodox means of surprising a relationship again to life. LS


Simply if you thought they couldn’t get any cheesier, the Ok-pop superstars doubled down on the dairy. It’s so joyous to listen to them go to locations you sense that western boybands – not that they even exist proper now – would discover too naff: saying “break it down!”; doing a middle-eight rap; including shiny “ping!” noises. That is pop at its most trustworthy and keen, connecting cleanly with the style’s essence. BBT

Little Simz.
Little Simz. {Photograph}: Nick Dale


Should you see the Manchester-based DJ and producer Anz on a nightclub flyer, you already know you’re in for the other of chinstroking: her units at all times have you ever flinging your fingers away out of your face and round your head. Now she’s lighting up daytime radio with this uptempo replace of 80s boogie. Coupled with George Riley audibly batting her eyelashes as butterflies flutter under, there’s little higher for dancefloor flirtation. BBT


She begins with the sort of fanfare that blares firstly of battle: horns and martial drums asserting a very intimidating foe. It’s the sort of factor rappers have usually reached for to telegraph their would possibly, so there’s a wry humour in Simz utilizing it for a observe about her introversion. The battle additionally turns inward as she considers ego, privateness and the way a lot to embrace every – necessary concerns as her expertise propels her to better fame. BBT


Individuals’s tendency in direction of self-destruction is regarded with dignity and such profound kindness by Tamara Lindeman, as she recollects how she tried to make somebody realise they liked another person (even, maybe, as an alternative of herself). The previous tense suggests she failed, and the malaise is probably greater than love anyway: “Some days there is likely to be nothing you encounter / To face behind the delicate concept that something issues.” BBT


Billie Eilish on stage
Chillingly actual … Billie Eilish. {Photograph}: Suzanne Cordeiro/AFP/Getty Photographs

Eilish’s comeback single instructed a well-known story of a person within the leisure trade taking benefit of an underage woman. It’s the frustration in her voice that elevates this on a regular basis story of abuse; the sense of one more teenage woman being compelled to confront this unbearably tenacious energy dynamic. The place her macabre debut album revelled in spooky sound results, this real-life horror story required nothing however limpid acoustic guitar and ghostly chill. LS


Olivia Rodrigo – Good 4 U

Having essayed one finish of heartbreak with the piano lament Drivers License, Rodrigo’s temper swung like a wrecking ball in direction of this equally huge hit (between them, they spent 14 weeks at UK No 1). From its sarcastic title downwards, Good 4 U’s recrimination has the sort of bitterness that softens with age and solely a teenage palate can actually recognize, as Rodrigo rages towards her blithely blissful ex. The methods the chords shift by totally different shades of harm is riveting, as is Rodrigo’s supply, as if writing in a journal with the nib piercing the paper. BBT


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

Earlier this 12 months, pop trio Muna signed to Phoebe Bridgers’ Saddest Manufacturing facility Data, a gathering of minds between two of LA’s most anxious and emotionally annihilating acts. It was a pleasant shock, then, that their first collaboration revelled in nothing however the purest good feeling of a completely reciprocated crush. Delving into the crisp, crunchy textures of early 00s pop, possibly their depiction of this good woman queerly subverts millennial boy rockers’ simplistic fantasies – or possibly it’s not that deep. The piercing, oxygenated refrain hits like cannonballing into cool water from a excessive ledge. LS



With these liquid, reactive vocals, Caroline Polachek is so elegant at promoting a line that no matter Bunny Is a Rider seems to imply, you already know you’re on board from the lyric’s first flinching, suggestive rendition. Her newest collaboration with Danny L Harle considerations the taming of this elusive, wounded creature, studying to belief once more – “coronary heart is unbreaking however don’t drop my title” – amid a febrile bassline, a tail-shake of glassy percussion and a whistled chorus to lure you into giving chase. LS


Sharon Van Etten and Angel Olsen – Like I Used To

Like I Used To feels fantastically lived in, as if these two generational songwriting abilities had been wandering the hallways of their lives, weighing up their regrets amid the ruined grandeur and deciding: fuck it – all you are able to do is hold residing as wholeheartedly as humanly potential. All burly, stinging guitar and gilded vocal harmonies, it swaggers and sparkles like Stevie or Springsteen, and extends a hand for any time it’s essential mud your self off and stride forth. LS


Wet Leg.
Instantaneous buzz … Moist Leg. {Photograph}: Andy Corridor/The Observer

This tune prompted the sort of instantaneous band buzz that’s relatively uncommon as of late: with no different songs out on the earth, the Isle of Wight duo all of the sudden discovered themselves in entrance of heaving pageant crowds. Chaise Longue is the stuff of on the spot indie disco adoration: easy bassline, fist-pumping tempo, and a refrain you’ll be able to chant alongside to as your pint spills freely round your twisting heels. BBT


There was no scarcity of bands speaking at us this 12 months; the wonder of I Do This All of the Time is how Rebecca Taylor embodies that nagging inner voice, the ever-present bully who’s there to remind you of each embarrassing second and merciless phrase aimed in your path. Narrated in a rueful mutter over a backdrop of drizzle and a downcast beat, her moments of self-sabotage, because it seems, aren’t that large a deal – sending overlong texts, forgetting an ex’s birthday – nevertheless it’s her ear for these small, grubby humiliations, the sort that unfold like mould, that captures the way it feels to be trapped by an inescapable sense of your self. As Taylor touches on the chilly exes and smug married mates and demeaning feedback which have made her really feel unworthy, she subtly outlines the pervasive expectations which have made her so fretful and vulnerable to second-guessing, and I Do This All The Time turns into as a lot a reference to unhealthy habits as to that relentless conditioning. And so she earns her huge, Lisa Stansfield-worthy refrain of girls encouraging her to face tall and maintain regular, the crowning second of this unusual, fantastic, deeply transferring tune that alerted a nation to Taylor’s really very appreciable virtues. LS

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