The 25 Best Songs of 2021 (So Far)

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The 25 Best Songs of 2021 (So Far)

If picking the year’s best albums so far is like choosing between cities, then the song equivalent is choosing between buildings. Rather than assessing how one unified whole stacks up against another, here, we’re comparing their individual components—the distinctive shapes and structures that bring iconic character to a city skyline. (We’ll cease to torture both you and this metaphor.)

Where albums rise and fall from track to track, songs do so from moment to moment; evaluating them feels less academic and more instinctual, like explaining why something tastes good. You can describe, classify and intellectualize it until you’re blue in the face, but there’s something about a great song, deep down, that will always resist easy explanation—that demands to be heard.

Some of 2021’s great songs, like Japanese Breakfast’s “Be Sweet” or black midi’s “John L,” signaled new eras for artists we’ve come to know and love, while others, including Squid’s “Narrator” and Arooj Aftab’s “Mohabbat,” found rising stars stopping us in our tracks. These are the songs that punctuated 2021’s first six months most emphatically, and that the Paste Music team will have in our rotation for many more months to come.

Listen to our Best Songs of 2021 (So Far) playlist on Spotify right here.

25. UV-TV: “Back to Nowhere”

It’s Always Something with New York City-via-Gainesville trio UV-TV, who released their third album—their first entirely written and recorded since their NYC exodus—on May 28 via PaperCup Music. Written and recorded under lockdown in early 2020, the follow-up to their 2017 debut Glass and 2019 second effort Happy melds post-punk angularity, new-wave sheen and jangle-pop hooks. You’d expect “Back to Nowhere” to find the band overwhelmed and on edge, but instead, they sound more clear-eyed than ever, with songwriters Ian Bernacett and Rose Vastola (now joined by drummer Ian Rose as a full-time member) intertwining their vocals and guitars with slick precision; meanwhile, Rose’s drums and tambourine keep the energy high. The track feels like a modern-day take on The Cult’s “She Sells Sanctuary,” a fitting kinship, given UV-TV’s drive to find peace in a chaotic world on Always Something. —Scott Russell

24. Faye Webster: “Cheers”

Faye Webster will release her fourth studio album this Friday, June 25 on Secretly Canadian. Following 2019’s Atlanta Millionaires Club, I Know I’m Funny haha’s announcement was accompanied by the release of the record’s first single: “Cheers” is a stellar taste of what’s to come on Webster’s forthcoming record, with her dynamic vocals receiving an added punch via driving guitar and a rhythmic amp fuzz sample. Webster said of “Cheers” in a statement: “This song has always felt like a standout from the record to me. It was the kind of song where you’re like ‘oh yeah, this is the one.’ Right after the first take. It felt different to me and it made it feel like I was entering a new era and chapter for myself. It’s kind of the outlier on the record but at the same time is still so original and identifying to myself. Also it just makes me feel like a badass for once.” —Carli Scolforo

23. Paris Texas: “Heavy Metal”

It’s thrilling to see a new act arrive with a clear idea of who they are and what they’re here to do. Enter South Central Los Angeles duo Paris Texas, whose statement debut single “Heavy Metal”—the standout track from their BOY ANONYMOUS project—has the unmistakable intensity and energy of intention. Louie Pastel and Felix trade self-assured verses over a spidery riff that kicks into full overdrive in the choruses, distorted power chords blasting alongside pumping 808 bass, crashing cymbals and flying-saucer synths, all of which collapse into an unexpected shoegaze reverie at the song’s end. Paris Texas’ imaginative raps reference The Matrix and using Orion’s Belt as a weapon, but reveal a deeper pathos beneath all the bold braggadocio: “I just wanted my father’s applause / I just wanted my mother’s applause / I just wanted these crackers’ applause / So I stand on the stage with the bars / So I stand on the stage with the boys.” —Scott Russell

22. Genesis Owusu: “The Other Black Dog”

A standout single from Genesis Owusu’s excellent debut album Smiling with No Teeth, “The Other Black Dog” “explores the internal struggle between a hopeful spirit of endurance, and a gnashing black hole of ugliness. One is me, and the other is also me,” the Ghana-born, Australia-based artist explains. Owusu renders this conflict via dark, pulsing dance-rock, exposing the dichotomy of inner pain and external performance: “All my friends are hurting, but we dance it off, laugh it off / Scars inside our shoes but we just tap it off, clap it off.” The song hurtles forward like a freight train until it flies right off the tracks—in its place appears a burbling, low-key funk number a la D’Angelo, with Owusu singing, “You tryna cope but you ain’t dealing,” as if in an effort to get his own attention. —Scott Russell

21. Yasmin Williams: “Sunshowers”

Urban Driftwood is the second album from Virginia-based guitarist and composer Yasmin Williams, and its opening track “Sunshowers” is an arresting work of instrumental folk, reliant entirely upon Williams’ six-string mastery for its rustic, entrancing allure. Her fingerstyle acoustic guitar-playing makes one of popular music’s most familiar instruments sound new, capturing the luminous, evanescent beauty of the song’s namesake via bright harmonics, overlapping cascades of fingerpicked notes and intermittent lap-tapped percussion. “Sunshowers” shines bright, introducing a collection of stunning and inventive songs that feel particularly heaven-sent in this era of being stuck indoors, scared of civilization and disconnected from the natural world. —Scott Russell

20. HEALTH & Nine Inch Nails: “ISN’T EVERYONE”

Los Angeles noise-rock trio HEALTH collaborated with none other than Nine Inch Nails, sharing a stunner titled “ISN’T EVERYONE” via Loma Vista Recordings in early May. “It’s fucking Nine Inch Nails. That speaks for itself. You don’t need a clever quote to encapsulate it,” HEALTH said of the collaborative track in a statement. Produced by both bands, and mixed by Atticus Ross, “ISN’T EVERYONE” is a dark and brutal electronic epic. Trent Reznor takes the first verse, growling “All the little piggies cannot help themselves” over pulsating bass and electric guitar grind before joining voices with HEALTH’s Jake Duzsik on the song’s bleakly nihilistic choruses: “Nothing matters / We’re all to blame / We lie surrendered to those we serve / We get the world we all deserve.” But it’s Duzsik who delivers the song’s ultimate kicker: “Are you alone? / Isn’t everyone?” —Scott Russell

19. TORRES: “Don’t Go Puttin Wishes In My Head”

This summer, indie singer/songwriter TORRES (moniker of Mackenzie Scott) will be releasing Thirstier, a follow-up to 2019’s Silver Tongue. Out July 30, this will be Scott’s second album with Merge Records. First single “Don’t Go Puttin Wishes In My Head.” is a heartbreaking explosion of emotions as Scott reflects on a relationship built on empty promises, yearning for a sign she should keep going. Scott’s bright guitars and vocals that sneak into blissful high notes feel like being on the brink of tears. The new single marks a stylistic change for Scott, who was inspired by the dynamic sounds of Butch Vig’s work with Nirvana and Garbage. Of this new direction, Scott said in a statement: “I wanted to channel my intensity into something that felt positive and constructive, as opposed to being intense in a destructive or eviscerating way. I love the idea that intensity can actually be something life-saving or something joyous.” —Jade Gomez

18. Isaiah Rashad: “Lay Wit Ya” (feat. Duke Deuce)

It has been five long years since TDE’s Isaiah Rashad has released an album, and his hype is sustained by Instagram live recordings and countless leaks, to the point where you can’t discuss hip-hop leaks without his name coming up. His first offering of 2021 is “Lay Wit Ya,” a sleazy, sinister and minimalist deconstruction of Southern rap made to fit into Rashad’s mold. His lackadaisical delivery is juxtaposed against rising Memphis Crunk star Duke Deuce, whose aggressive, energetic flow transforms the song from playlist staple to club banger. It’s a reminder of Rashad’s charisma and musicianship that shows through even the most bare of production, and the Three 6 Mafia sample flip doesn’t hurt, either. —Jade Gomez

17. Julien Baker: “Heatwave”

Nashville singer/songwriter Julien Baker shared the instrumentally upbeat, yet lyrically harrowing “Heatwave” as the final single ahead of her latest acclaimed album, Little Oblivions. The standout track is replete with “gruesome beauty,” as Baker sings, opening on the fiery image of an exploded engine, and unspooling from there into thoughts of death and the cosmos, all culminating in an unforgettable lyric (CW: suicide): “I’ll wrap Orion’s Belt around my neck / and kick the chair out.” Baker surrounds all this with some of the more casually dynamic instrumentation of her career, a diffuse set of textures featuring electric and acoustic guitars, banjo, piano and even a theremin, which taps into the chorus-less song’s sense of irrevocable spiritual unrest. —Scott Russell

16. Dry Cleaning: “Unsmart Lady”

London four-piece Dry Cleaning released “Unsmart Lady” as the third single ahead of their acclaimed debut album New Long Leg, one of Paste’s top albums of the year so far. “Unsmart Lady” opens with a clattering cacophony of wailing guitar and drums before leaning back into a steady blend of post-punk and psychedelia. Vocalist Florence Shaw’s drawling monotony swims on top of the band’s high-energy, fuzzy distortions for a sound both dark and unmistakably cool. Shaw spoke to the song’s lyrics in a statement: “‘Fat podgy, non make-up’—I was thinking about these things that are supposed to be a source of shame about your appearance and wanting to use them in a powerful way. Just trying to survive when you feel knackered and put-upon and shit about yourself, but you say, ‘I don’t care what I’m supposed to be.’” —Carli Scolforo

15. illuminati hotties: “MMMOOOAAAAAYAYA”

Sarah Tudzin’s tenderpunk project illuminati hotties returned in April with their first new music since their acclaimed 2020 release FREE I.H.: This Is Not the One You’ve Been Waiting For, and the music-industry rigmarole that has dogged the band in the past is now behind them. “Somebody told me my music is too ‘CUTE’ to take seriously” Tudzin said of the band’s first new single of 2021. “So I wrote them a love letter. I hope they’re laughing their patoots off.” “MMMOOOAAAAAYAYA” kicks “cute” to the curb with queasy guitars and synth stutters, with Tudzin contorting her voice as she sneers at pushes to make her art more “palatable” (read: profitable): “You think I wanna be a part of / Every self-appointed startup? / Every brand-approval markup? / Place that precious pretty product,” she mocks, having a blast as she colors outside the lines. —Scott Russell

14. LSDXOXO: “Sick Bitch”

LSDXOXO is a globetrotter, taking pieces of European dance scenes, American house staples and African elements, amongst a slew of other influences, to create some of the most compelling dance music of the past decade. His recent Dedicated 2 Disrespect single “Sick Bitch” is a tribute to the raunchy Chicago ghetto house movement. LSD turns moans and body-thumping bass into a club banger that will soon make its way across ballroom battles and dance parties alike. —Jade Gomez

13. Arooj Aftab: “Mohabbat”

Released in March as the first single from Brooklyn-based Pakistani composer Arooj Aftab’s sophomore album, Vulture Prince, “Mohabbat” is rooted in a centuries-old lyric form: the ghazal, an ancient poetic style—sometimes spoken, sometimes sung—that centers on the bittersweet interconnection of love and loss. Aftab here performs Hafeez Hoshiarpuri’s famed ghazal “Mohabbat karne wale kam na honge” (from Urdu, roughly, “There is no shortage of love”), following in the footsteps of Pakistani singers including Medhi Hassan and Iqbal Bano (as Vrinda Jagota points out in Pitchfork). Aftab’s rich, fingerpicked acoustic guitars are the song’s guiding force, while her fluid vocals convey an aching longing that transcends language, and what sounds like an electronic tabla undergirds it all. As “Mohabbat” wanders, distant horns and synths make their presence felt, like landmarks here and there beside the path; rather than heightening the song’s tension as it builds, only to release it, Aftab opts for a more complicated structure, as if the song is part of something so large, we can’t experience it all at once. And it is, isn’t it? —Scott Russell

12. The Armed: “ALL FUTURES”

Detroit, Mich., punk collective The Armed released one of the year’s best albums in ULTRAPOP, sharing its absolute shredder of a lead single back on Feb. 4. “ALL FUTURES” very much aligns with The Armed’s stated mission “to create the most intense experience possible, a magnification of all culture, beauty, and things”—the rollicking electro-rock track overwhelms by way of pummeling drums, fuzzed-out synths and shouts, and a big, blown-out production sensibility. The Armed’s instrumental firepower is in direct proportion to their ambition, as the song also seeks to catalyze ULTRAPOP’s namesake micro-genre, somehow managing to leave room for melody amidst its sweep-you-off-your-feet squalls of sound. —Scott Russell

11. Pom Pom Squad: “Head Cheerleader”

Mia Berrin-led, Brooklyn-based indie-rock outfit Pom Pom Squad will release their debut album Death of a Cheerleader this Friday, June 25, on City Slang Records. The record is produced by Sarah Tudzin of Illuminati Hotties and co-produced by Berrin, while Tegan Quin of Tegan and Sara contributes vocals to “Head Cheerleader.” In a statement, Berrin described “Head Cheerleader” as “a celebration of the discomfort that comes with stepping into your new skin—your own power”—on the song itself, she lays claim to that power over cascading power chords and nimble low end, declaring, “I’m learning how to be someone I could put my faith in,” and tossing off clever, self-deprecating one-liners like, “My worst decisions are the ones I like the best” and “My feelings always make a fucking fool of me.” It’s only fitting that a song about Berrin coming into her own also finds her doing exactly that as a songwriter, rising to the occasion of Pom Pom Squad’s much-anticipated first full-length statement as a band. —Scott Russell

10. BROCKHAMPTON: “BUZZCUT” (feat. Danny Brown)

Art-rap boy band BROCKHAMPTON shared their first official new release in two years on March 25, the shapeshifting “BUZZCUT,” featuring a verse from Detroit hip-hop misfit Danny Brown, as well as backing vocals from in-house producer Jabari Manwa. Over booming bass hits, fidgety synths and myriad vocal samples, Kevin Abstract looks back on his group’s path to this point, reflecting, “Deals they had us sign, for years it had me blind / Think I had to hit rewind and think about why I do shine,” and unflinchingly acknowledging, “A platinum record not gon’ keep my Black ass out of jail.” Brown’s trademark high-pitched delivery lends a special musicality to lines like “White on the street, walking the beat like Abbey Road,” and as the song progresses and changes shape, Kevin Abstract’s insistence on independence (“Now get the fuck out my ride”) manifests as the music itself roving free. —Scott Russell

9. Katy Kirby: “Cool Dry Place”

Texas-based indie rocker Katy Kirby’s Cool Dry Place title track is about finding the balance between emotional boundaries and the primal need for deep connection with others. With love being such a high-risk, high-reward venture, it poses taxing moral dilemmas, and Kirby finds herself finally committing, yet still looking back: “And once the dust has settled, then you’ll know / that you’re gonna get more of me than you bargained for / All the ways we can go wrong / Will we ever get that far?” The song’s dainty beginnings gradually morph into an untamed indie rock firestorm, as if to signify this jump into the great unknown. —Lizzie Manno

8. serpentwithfeet: “Same Size Shoe”

Los Angeles-based artist serpentwithfeet shared “Same Size Shoe” ahead of his sophomore album DEACON, released March 26 via Secretly Canadian. DEACON follows serpentwithfeet’s acclaimed debut album soil and is a continued exploration of his perspective on love as a Black, gay man. “Same Size Shoe” professes serpentwithfeet’s preference to date other Black men and enjoy the profound connection that comes through similar life experiences with his closing ad-lib: “You’re my heel and my toe mate / I know that you can actually walk a mile in my shoes / That’s why I love you.” The track is mellow and playful, with serpentwithfeet’s vocalized trumpet solo breaking up the R&B beat. —Carli Scolforo

7. black midi: “John L”

black midi’s Geordie Greep said of the band’s new record, “The emphasis when we were making and sequencing Cavalcade was to make music that was as dramatic and as exciting as possible.” That approach quickly becomes obvious on the album itself: Opener “John L” is a whirling dervish of a track, even by black midi’s standards. Greep’s ever-unexpected vocals sound strange in an entirely new way as he unspools the tale of a cult leader whose flock turns against him (“No hack with an army / Will last long before he / Breeds men who yearn / For their own bloody glory,” he warns), while the additions of Joscelin Dent-Pooley on violin and Kaidi Akinnibi on sax lend a particularly anxiety-inducing new element to the band’s sound. Simpson’s thundering drums marshal “this infernal din,” which stops and starts on a dime, further intensifying its chaotic energy. —Scott Russell

6. Lucy Dacus: “Thumbs”

In March, Richmond, Virginia singer/songwriter Lucy Dacus finally released “Thumbs,” the live-set staple and fan-favorite track so beloved by Dacus diehards, it inspired a “Has Lucy released Thumbs yet?” Twitter account. Dacus wrote “Thumbs” during “a 15-minute car ride to dinner in Nashville,” per a press release, but it has the specific detail and depth of emotion of a song crafted across a far wider span of time. The song finds her recalling a harrowing encounter over oceanic synth and mellotron, with little to distract from her moving vocals: “Your nails are digging into my knee / I don’t know how you keep smiling,” she sings of her friend, who’s somehow holding it together during a confrontation with her estranged father—it’s clear their family history is a dark and, for her, traumatic one (“I would kill him / if you let me”). Dacus’ compassion for her friend is interwoven with visceral anger at the man who hurt her: “I love your eyes / and he has ‘em. / Or you have his / ‘cause he was first. / I imagine my thumbs on the irises / pressing in / until they burst.” Ultimately, all Dacus can do is help her friend carry on—one imagines that listeners who’ve dealt with similar trauma may feel better equipped to do so, now that “Thumbs” is out in the world. —Scott Russell

5. Mannequin Pussy: “Control”

Last month, Philadelphia indie-punk trio Mannequin Pussy—Missy (vocals/guitar/keys), Colins “Bear” Regisford (bass) and Kaleen Reading (drums)—followed their acclaimed 2019 album Patience with a new EP, Perfect. The opening track off the EP, “Control” captures the mental struggle so many have experienced in the times of coronavirus, rendering feelings of helplessness and hopelessness as dynamic, poignant rock. “I’m in control / That’s what I tell myself / When all the walls around me close in,” Missy murmurs over a lone electric guitar, giving up as she concludes, “I know no one’s waiting for anyone,” only for the song to explode into a cathartic, irresistibly hooky ripper, emotions flying outward into the waiting ears of people who care. Missy stars in the accompanying video, as well as directing, moving from isolated and alone to empowered and liberated in thrilling, funny fashion. —Scott Russell

4. Squid: “Narrator”

U.K. band Squid released their debut album Bright Green Field on May 7 via Warp Records. The album was produced by Dan Carey, and it follows their acclaimed 2019 EP Town Centre and a pair of 2020 singles, “Sludge” and “Broadcaster.” The album’s announcement also came with their lead single “Narrator,” featuring Martha Skye Murphy, and its accompanying video, which includes stunning animation. “Narrator” may be their best track yet, as it encapsulates their offbeat horn-and-synth-laden post-punk, and also contains a patient, intensely melodic and almost ghostly unfurling of energy that will shake you to your core. —Lizzie Manno

3. Sharon Van Etten & Angel Olsen: “Like I Used To”

Two titans of the indie world—songwriters Sharon Van Etten and Angel Olsen —came together on a new collaborative track, “Like I Used To,” out now on Jagjaguwar. The product of a long-shared admiration between the two artists, the electrifying and anthemic single finds the pair at the top of their craft, constructing walls of tender guitar chords over which their voices soar. Fundamentally a song about the reclamation of one’s own space and personal identity, “Like I Used To” lyrics such as “Lighting one up like I used to / Dancing all alone like I used to” feel like an echo of personal catharsis, especially among the dramatic arpeggios and synth pads at the song’s emotional peak. —Jason Friedman

2. Japanese Breakfast: “Be Sweet”

Michelle Zauner revealed the details of her third Japanese Breakfast album on March 2 alongside the music video for lead single “Be Sweet.” The follow-up to 2017’s acclaimed Soft Sounds From Another Planet and Japanese Breakfast’s 2016 breakout Psychopomp finds Zauner moving beyond the sorrow that drove those records, and working towards hard-earned happiness. Jubilee’s first single has a retro feel similar to Soft Sounds, but also a big, bass-driven buoyancy new to the band’s output, with an almost Chic-like low end pushing the danceable track forward. Lyrically, the song connects directly to Zauner’s 2019 tweet about the album’s theme being “please just be nice to me”—“Be sweet to me, baby / I want to believe in you, I want to believe in something,” she sings on the hooky choruses, the centerpiece of an impressive vocal performance. The video, shot by Zauner’s frequent collaborator Adam Kolodny, follows those lyrics to their natural conclusion: a delightful X-Files parody in which Zauner and her fellow agent (played by Marisa Dabice of Mannequin Pussy) have a close encounter of the third kind. —Scott Russell

1. Cassandra Jenkins: “Hard Drive”

New York singer/songwriter Cassandra Jenkins released her latest album, An Overview on Phenomenal Nature, on Feb. 19 via Ba Da Bing Records. Lead single “Hard Drive” highlights how meaningful unexpected, passing interactions can be, and as the pandemic has shown, memories of brushes with friends, acquaintances and strangers can often act as heartwarming fuel in moments of pain. Over minimal, jazzy instrumentals, Jenkins delivers stories via invigorating spoken-word, ones that examine the intersection of the material and immaterial worlds. Whether it’s a security guard lending wisdom on an art exhibition or a dear friend offering to mend a heart via mystical yet well-intentioned means, Jenkins mines profundity from the mundane. —Lizzie Manno