The 50 Best Songs of 2021

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The 50 Best Songs of 2021

Albums are the traditional measure by which great artists earn that title. Somewhere along the line, we all agreed that full-length LPs were the gold standard by which musicians should be judged—forgetting the fact that songs were what we fell in love with in the first place. It’s the lone towering tree, rooted alongside another, then another, and so on, that eventually constitutes a forest. But you cannot have the latter without the former, and every year, this list is our opportunity to zoom in on the trees that stood tallest in the abundant forest planted over the past 365-some-odd days. Whereas albums play out across, say, 45 minutes, a song operates within a mere fraction of that time, forging its connection with your brain from moment to moment, rather than minute to minute—this is where the rubber meets the road, where songwriters make their magic. We’ve done our utmost to capture why the 50 tracks below struck us as this year’s best, but at the core of every song, there’s something ineffable, whispering to us in a language we can’t understand. These were the 2021 tracks that held our ears, the moments that created memories—the seeds planted during a chaotic couple of years that, in spite of everything, grew tall.

Listen to Paste’s Best Songs of 2021 playlist on Spotify here.

50. 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

49. Ducks Ltd.: “18 Cigarettes”

Back when they were making music as Ducks Unlimited, multi-instrumentalists Tom McGreevy and Evan Lewis made one of 2019’s best EPs, Get Bleak, earning a spot on Paste’s list of the year’s best new artists and a deal with Carpark Records. The Toronto, Ontario, duo now known as Ducks Ltd. released their full-length debut Modern Fiction via Carpark on Oct. 1, and shared the Oasis-inspired lead single/video “18 Cigarettes” to celebrate its announcement.The single is squarely in the duo’s jangle-pop sweet spot, with hot-knife guitars and thrumming bass acting as its revving engine, and Eliza Neimi playing cello over its soaring choruses. Meanwhile, McGreevy’s narrator is “contemplating messes made,” and rationalizing his problems down to a manageable size however he can: “Smoking 18 cigarettes / Giving two away / Thinking smugly ‘how does anyone / smoke a pack a day?’” —Scott Russell

48. 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 that 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

47. 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

46. Maxo Kream: “Big Persona” feat. Tyler the Creator

Tyler, The Creator has had a very good year. Following this summer’s release of his excellent album Call Me If You Get Lost, he’s channeled his ecstatic energy towards a stadium-sized beat and a laser-sharp verse on Maxo Kream’s Weight of the World single “Big Persona.” The pair provide a good balance between each other’s styles, with Tyler lending his reliably aggressive and slightly frantic flow alongside Maxo Kream’s more methodical technique, all conspiring to make “Big Persona” feel as massive as its title and its chorus suggest. —Jason Friedman

45. Remi Wolf: “Liquor Store”

On the path to her forthcoming debut full-length album (one of our favorites of the year), Remi Wolf offered another fixture in her vibrant funhouse with “Liquor Store.” The song, which is Wolf’s reflection on her sobriety, captures the stress and subsequent euphoria of newfound sobriety with a sprinkle of her psychedelic funk mixed with R&B. With 2020 behind us and 2021 acting as a more optimistic year full of change and excitement, “Liquor Store” was a reminder that it’s okay to bare it all. —Jade Gomez

44. Alien Boy: “Dear Nora”

Portland, Oregon, rockers Alien Boy released “Dear Nora” as the third and final single ahead of their latest album Don’t Know What I Am, released Aug. 20 on Get Better Records, following “The Way I Feel” and “Nothing’s Enough.” “Dear Nora” finds Alien Boy—i.e., guitarist and songwriter Sonia Weber, drummer Derek McNeil and “a rotating cast of Portland, Oregon scene stalwarts”—looking back on “Somewhere Without Me,” the opening track from their 2018 record Sleeping Lessons, and using an old song to find their way in a new direction. A melodic lead riff surfs waves of whammied shoegaze fuzz, only receding to make space for Weber’s lovesick vocals: “You’re everything, you’re everything,” she sings, gushing, “I adore you so, you adore me in the way I always wanted.” It’s a love song to the core, communicating its larger-than-life feelings and desires via dreamily distorted guitars and punchy low end, no to mention hooks that will follow you into 2022 and beyond. —Scott Russell

43. Enumclaw: “Fast N All”

“I’m just not for everybody / It’s hard to accept,” Enumclaw vocalist and guitarist Aramis Johnson sings on “Fast N All,” the first single from the Tacoma, Washington, quartet’s debut release, Jimbo Demo. It’s a fair assessment: One of the first things you notice about this band is Johnson’s voice, nasal and raw, which may turn off listeners who mistake a feature for a bug. That unvarnished authenticity is what Enumclaw are all about, and it only amplifies their honest, emotional songwriting. Instrumentally, the band—which also features Nathan Cornell, Ladaniel Gipson and post-Jimbo Demo addition Eli Edwards, Johnson’s brother—craft a sound that’s equal parts grunge and shoegaze, fusing the former’s casually distorted disaffection with the latter’s dreamy, effects-augmented melodies. There’s nothing more exciting than a band than can bottle lightning while retaining so much room to grow. —Scott Russell

42. Olivia Rodrigo: “brutal”

Teenaged pop sensation Olivia Rodrigo released some of 2021’s biggest hits in “drivers license,” “deja vu” and “good 4 u,” but it’s her Sour opener “brutal” that lands the knockout blow. Its garage-rocky, Elvis Costello-inspired chord progression, bookended by unexpectedly tender string arrangements, subverts the expectations set by Rodrigo’s signature singles, hewing closer to the Paramore-core, pop-punk revival sound that made “good 4 u” her highest-charting single. With an assist from producer/co-writer Daniel Nigro, Rodrigo laments youth’s false promises with a fed-up angst that resonates across generations, singing over power-chord crunch, “And I’m so sick of 17 / Where’s my fuckin’ teenage dream? / If someone tells me one more time / ‘Enjoy your youth,’ I’m gonna cry.” The track stings and surprises, humanizing Rodrigo even as it fuels her meteoric rise to music superstardom. —Scott Russell

41. illuminati hotties: “MMMOOOAAAAAYAYA”

Sarah Tudzin’s tenderpunk project illuminati hotties entered a new era of creative freedom with this year’s Let Me Do One More, and the memorably titled “MMMOOOAAAAAYAYA” was an exhilarating first preview of the album. “Somebody told me my music is too ‘CUTE’ to take seriously” Tudzin said of the track upon its release. “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

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

This summer, indie singer/songwriter TORRES (moniker of Mackenzie Scott) released Thirstier, the acclaimed follow-up to 2019’s Silver Tongue, and Scott’s second album with Merge Records. Lead 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

39. SeeYouSpaceCowboy & If I Die First: “bloodstainedeyes”

SeeYouSpaceCowboy and If I Die First revitalized the thrill of the split release with A Sure Disaster, blending the strengths of the two bands into a satisfying, thrilling EP. Its centerpiece is the devastating “bloodstainedeyes,” a collaborative track that is an exercise in maximalism. SeeYouSpaceCowboy’s flashy sasscore collides with If I Die First’s traditional metalcore leanings in a bloodthirsty rage. It ebbs and flows like an opera, flying into euphoric melodies and crashing into tragic snarls. United by a love for early-’00s metalcore and screamo, “bloodstainedeyes” is a breathtaking display of chaos. —Jade Gomez

38. 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

37. Halsey: “I am not a woman, I’m a god”

Halsey’s captivating If I Can’t Have Love, I Want Power, made in collaboration with Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, is one of the year’s most remarkable concept albums, written in the midst of the artist’s pregnancy with their first child. Whereas motherhood is commonly stereotyped as a pure blessing, Halsey digs their claws deep into the stigma that comes with the life change on “I am not a woman, I’m a god.” Over Reznor and Ross’ bouncy industrial beat, Halsey’s rich voice explores being both Madonna and Whore, exploring the juxtaposition within herself as a sexual being and a new mother, which society deems unable to coexist. It’s an intense listen, redefining Halsey’s image as a teen-pop darling into that of a multi-faceted artist capable of digging into the lesser-discussed horrors of daily life. —Jade Gomez

36. 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 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 destined to soundtrack ballroom battles and dance parties alike for a long time to come. —Jade Gomez

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

It had been five years since we’d last heard from Isaiah Rashad, the Top Dawg Entertainment rapper whose name is doused in mysticism. Glimpses of songs shared on Instagram sustained hungry fans for years, who pieced together any sign of life. Rashad finally delivered this summer with The House is Burning, picking up where he left off. His first offering of 2021 was “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

34. 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

33. Nation of Language: “Across That Fine Line”

A Way Forward, Nation of Language’s Introduction, Presence follow-up, had a tough act to follow: The band’s acclaimed debut ranked among Paste’s top albums of 2020, and we highlighted the New York City outfit as the Best of What’s Next soon after its release last May. Lead single “Across That Fine Line” is a characteristically winning new-wave throwback, powered by an anxious drum machine clatter, twitchy bass and guitars, and singer/songwriter Ian Devaney’s airy vocals, all of which combine to anthemic effect in its thrilling choruses. Nation of Language have a way of bringing ‘80s synth-pop into the present, embodying these retro sounds, rather than simply trying them on for size, and “Across That Fine Line” is yet another example of that knack. —Scott Russell

32. McKinley Dixon: “Bless the Child”

Richmond, Virginia’s McKinley Dixon was a fixture on our Best New Songs lists in the lead-up to his much-anticipated 2021 album, For My Mama And Anyone Who Look Like Her, released May 7 on Spacebomb. The record’s fourth and final single was its best: Loosely inspired by Toni Morrison’s God Help The Child, “Bless the Child” finds Dixon traveling through time to process a lifetime of loss, regret and love, with rich instrumentation reflecting each stage of his journey. Over Timothy Erbach’s urgent bass and spectral backing vocals from Jaylin Brown and Ali Thibodeau, Dixon catches up with a fallen friend in a bittersweet dream, but later looks inward with anger, “starting to regret not being more of a threat / ‘cause then you could just protect the ones you love.” Easy answers evade him as he reckons with cycles of violence (“Watch them cut down a family tree in just one night” is a particularly searing line), transforming his pain into ambitious, life-affirming art. —Scott Russell

31. Indigo De Souza: “Kill Me”

Indigo De Souza’s second album Any Shape You Take was one of our favorites of the year, and that was no surprise after lead single and closing cut “Kill Me” stunned us upon its release on June 15 alongside a music video and the details of De Souza’s album, the North Carolina singer/songwriter’s first for Saddle Creek, which dropped on Aug. 27. At first blush, “Kill Me” seems strangely sweet—”Kill me slowly, take me with you / Down to the garden where magnolias bloom,” De Souza sings, her vocals lilting over a single electric guitar. A forceful low end propels the song higher and higher into gear, with De Souza outright howling in its choruses—over that dynamic pop-rock framework, she layers lyrics that are at turns harrowing, funny, horny, relatable, or all of the above at once. Even the outro’s explosively cathartic refrain is cleverly understated: “Tell them that I wasn’t having much fun,” De Souza sings, as if making a polite excuse to head home early. It’s a glorious, gut-spilling mess, rendered as an irresistible rock track. —Scott Russell

30. Mandy, Indiana: “Bottle Episode”

Mandy, Indiana, the Manchester, U.K. band formerly known as Gary, Indiana, released their debut record—the utterly ungoogleable ... EP—on Nov. 19 via Fire Talk Records. Lead single “Bottle Episode” has all the acute intensity of its namesake, a tight squeeze that breaks the expected formula by design. Valentine Caulfield (vocals/lyrics), Scott Fair (guitar/production) and Liam Stewart (percussion) begin the track with a war march, only to replace it with thumping bass that sounds like it’s bleeding through the walls of a packed club. The militant and the escapist elements of the track soon collide as Caulfield’s lyrics, delivered in her native French, depict “men waiting, moving forward; war is never mentioned, yet it is obvious that the men are waiting for death. The song ends with the men almost dancing as the bullets hit them,” she explains. That haunting, uncanny combination—the shared oblivion of death and dance—is where “Bottle Episode” makes its home, an exhilarating darkness for the bold to brave. —Scott Russell

29. Hovvdy: “True Love”

Hovvdy are a long way from their DIY bedroom-pop beginnings on “True Love,” a lush, acoustic guitar- and piano-driven tune with gentle, but firm touches of cosmic Americana. In the interval since their 2019 album Heavy Lifter, Charlie Martin and Will Taylor both married their partners, and Taylor had a child. All that love is a precious gift, but also a huge responsibility: “You comfort me, Rosy,” they harmonize, repeating in the swirling outro, “Do you believe what I said / That I am the man I say I am?” “For each Hovvdy record there’s always been a song that kinda shocks my system, kinda jolts me into a brand new and inspired place. This was definitely that song for me,” Martin said of “True Love” in a statement. “I remember writing it and feeling a rush of excitement—crying a lot honestly. it feels so good to express love and appreciation when you really fucking mean it. but it’s hard to feel worthy of love, of something so rare, and all we can do is try to measure up—that’s what that last part is all about.” —Scott Russell

28. Pom Pom Squad: “Head Cheerleader”

Mia Berrin-led, Brooklyn-based indie-rock outfit Pom Pom Squad released one of Paste’s top 2021 records in their debut album Death of a Cheerleader. The LP was 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

27. Geese: “Disco”

There are debut singles and then there are debut singles. Brooklyn five-piece Geese released the latter to mark their signing to Partisan Records, as well as in an apparent effort to make us 30-somethings feel unaccomplished: The band’s oldest member only just turned 19. Their youthful fearlessness explodes through your speakers on “Disco,” which ping-pongs between rock ‘n’ roll touchpoints so fast and frequently, you can never quite get a bead on it. As the song stretches towards the seven-minute mark, it transforms from post-punk slasher a la Omni (its most prominent mode) into dark, synth-forward stomper, psych-rock wave pool, and noise-rock rattle and hum, with flashes of Dove-esque piano-pop and even twee jangle in the mixture. That the band can shape all of these far-flung forms into a song whose vise-grip on you never for a moment loosens is a testament to their preternatural skills and vision. Consider Geese’s concept proven. —Scott Russell

26. 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

25. 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

24. Boldy James & The Alchemist: “Double Hockey Sticks”

Bo Jackson is the gift that keeps on giving, and Detroit rapper Boldy James shines every time he links up with legendary producer The Alchemist. Album opener “Double Hockey Sticks” is absolutely menacing, with the anxiety-inducing piano twinkles making way for a hypnotic loop of muffled strings in one of the most unexpected and satisfying beat switch-ups in recent memory. In its brief three-minute existence, “Double Hockey Sticks” is a full-fledged play in three parts as it abruptly ends with a child inquiring about the legend that is Bo Jackson. James’ non-linear storytelling feels like a dream, soundtracked perfectly by Alchemist’s lush, limber production. James is one of the most versatile voices in rap, but Alchemist brings out the best in the Detroit wordsmith. —Jade Gomez

23. 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,” released via 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

22. The Weather Station: “Atlantic”

On Ignorance’s “Atlantic,” Tamara Lindeman is more expressive than ever, fitting a world of pathos and awe into the way she utters the mere words “My god.” The song describes the feeling of marveling at natural beauty and yet being unable to let go of dread, unable to dismiss grim thoughts of what humans have done or will do to all that beauty. “I should get all this dying off my mind,” Lindeman tells herself, as fluttering woodwinds and keyboards hover above the mix like the shearwaters mentioned in the lyrics. “No, really / Why can’t I just cover my eyes?” Lindeman’s voice, with its bright, magnetic presence, has drawn endless comparisons to Joni Mitchell’s, but here she sounds a little like Laurie Anderson—half-singing, half-speaking, conversational and bemused, her voice alive with the surreal and horrific reality of the world outside. —Zach Schonfeld

21. Mannequin Pussy: “Control”

This year, 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

20. Low: “Days Like These”

The first single from Low’s Hey What, “Days Like These” is a striking, sparse, and at times unrelenting track that continues the band’s streak of using noise to strike through the heart of the familiar and propel emotion forward. The space between Alan Sparhawk’s crisp vocals and the light guitar chords feels drastic, especially when livened by the thick layers of disintegration that often characterizes the band’s music. Alongside the single is a video directed by longtime friend Karlos Rene Ayala that references the divine imagery the band brings to life. —Jason Friedman

19. Little Simz: “I Love You, I Hate You”

While artists like Skepta and Dave have come to define the future sound of British rap, it’s Little Simz who might very well leave the most lasting mark this year. Her single “I Love You, I Hate You” is one of the best all-around tracks of 2021. Produced by Inflo (who has had nothing short of a Midas touch on his work with SAULT, Michael Kiwanuka, Cleo Sol and Jungle), the song finds Simz sliding into each bar with dense lyricism that’s just flat-out impressive on a pointed track about her maligned father; there’s opening yourself up by being vulnerable and then there’s this: “Never thought my parent would give me my first heartbreak (I hate you) / Anxiety givin’ me irregular heart rate (I love you) / Used to avoid gettin’ into how I really feel about this (I hate you) / Now I see how fickle life can be and so it can’t wait (I love you) / Should’ve been the person there to hold me on my dark days (I hate you) / It’s easier to stargaze and wish than be faced with this reality (I love you) / Is you a sperm donor or a dad to me?” There’s emotional outpourings like this at every turn of Sometimes I Might Be Introvert, but it always sounds so grandiose. She’s as confident on the mic as they come and you can feel the cold, hard gaze in her eyes when she’s delivering lines like the one above. —Adrian Spinelli

18. 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

17. Bartees Strange: “Weights”

One of Paste’s top artists of 2020 has had a pretty good 2021, too: On the heels of a statement-making set at this year’s Pitchfork Music Festival, D.C.-based rock songwriter (and in-demand producer) Bartees Strange released a new track, “Weights,” which appears on the deluxe version of his breakout debut album. Strange wrote and recorded “Weights” earlier this year with Grammy-nominated producer Will Yip, but the track would have fit in well on Live Forever. Both Strange’s vocals and the instrumental’s propulsive art-rock evoke Bloc Party, but his lyrics are more moody and pensive, looking back on a romantic connection that fell apart. “Timing’s not a friend sometimes,” he sings, his hurt and regret accentuated by synth backing fit for a Robert Smith vocal. A fleeting acoustic breakdown comes and goes in what feels like an instant, with Strange going full Kele Okereke in the track’s heart-squeezing climax. —Scott Russell

16. Mdou Moctar: “Afrique Victime”

The eponymous finale of Mdou Moctar’s acclaimed new album, “Afrique Victime” is a stunning display of the Tuareg guitarist’s skills and vision, delivering an impassioned condemnation of his continent’s perennial exploitation. “Africa is a victim of so many crimes / If we stay silent, it will be the end of us,” Moctar sings; meanwhile, he and his band—rhythm guitarist Ahmoudou Madassane, producer and bassist Mikey Coltun, and drummer Souleymane Ibrahim—are anything but silent, their shuffling rhythm eventually speeding to an urgent gallop. Moctar’s face-melting solo is much more than just a climactic rockstar moment for a guitarist who drew early inspiration from Eddie Van Halen—he plays as if each incandescent note has the power to reshape the world around him for the better. Who’s to say it doesn’t? —Scott Russell

15. Mitski: “Working for the Knife”

Mitski Miyawaki, the singer/songwriter mononymously known as Mitski, returned in 2021 with her first proper new material in over three years. Produced by Mitski’s longtime collaborator Patrick Hyland, “Working for the Knife” is a striking track that’s reminiscent of David Bowie’s “Cat People (Putting Out Fire),” beginning with a dark synth and drum machine drone that eventually gives way to an outpouring of glossy, carefully layered rock. Mitski’s distinctive tenor vocals sit at the nexus of porcelain keys, whammied waves of electric guitar distortion and jangling acoustic chords, but it’s her soul-baring lyricism that stands out from it all. She recounts a creative journey filled with disappointment and frustration, closely examining her relationship with “the knife”—perhaps a symbolic means of opening herself up to show the world what’s inside, turning pain into art. She looks back on aspirations her life has since upended, and even seems to acknowledge her hiatus from music (“I always knew the world moves on / I just didn’t know it would go without me”), but it’s the song’s final lines that hit the hardest: “I start the day lying and end with the truth / That I’m dying for the knife.” And isn’t that one of the hardest truths of all, that it’s what we love that kills us? —Scott Russell

14. The Armed: “ALL FUTURES”

Detroit, Michigan, 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

13. Circuit des Yeux: “Vanishing”

Chicago-based composer and singer/songwriter Circuit des Yeux (Haley Fohr) made her Matador Records debut with the October release of -io. Fohr described her single “Vanishing” as “an account of climate change and loss through the final stage of grief.” It’s no surprise, then, that “Vanishing” is an existential gut-punch, in which Fohr strives to accept that human civilization has reached “the goodbye point.” Over an epic arrangement of strings, brass and woodwinds, as well as rock guitars and drums, Fohr sings, “Goodbye hands touching where it hurts / Goodbye laugh tracks of ancient works / Goodbye thought, goodbye dog,” like the most devastating possible riff on Goodnight Moon—like Goodnight Earth. For all its apocalyptic drama, the song ends on the smallest of images, from which Fohr still manages to wring outsized beauty: “Goodbye to the puddle in the ground / We didn’t know each other well, but you were my mirrored sky.” —Scott Russell


Baltimore-based poptimistic hardcore mainstays TURNSTILE have finally struck the perfect balance of chant-worthy lyrics and a sparkly atmosphere that works in the pit or in your favorite pair of headphones. “HOLIDAY,” the standout from the band’s universally acclaimed album GLOW ON, has all the elements of a perfect Turnstile track, including fuzzy guitars and frontman Brendan Yates’ energetic yelp. The infectious hook, oozing with early-’00s pop-punk nostalgia, shows that Turnstile have only improved since 2018’s Time & Space. —Jade Gomez

11. 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. “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

10. Wet Leg: “Chaise Longue

The debut single from U.K. rock duo Wet Leg is a doozy, immediately affirming what Domino Records saw in their new signees. Hailing from England’s Isle of Wight, Rhian Teasdale and Hester Chambers decided to start Wet Leg while at the top of a Ferris wheel—an origin story that actually vastly undersells a thrill ride like “Chaise Longue.” The band’s tongue-in-cheek humor is one thing (“Is your mother worried? / Would you like us to assign someone to worry your mother?” is one of several chuckle-worthy lyrics), but their propulsive, danceable indie rock is entirely another, with guitar riffs as sticky as (if not more so than) their mock-bourgeois insistence on whiling away the hours “on the chaise longue / on the chaise longue / on the chaise longue / all day long / on the chaise longue.” Produced by Jon McMullen and mixed by Alan Moulder (Arctic Monkeys, Beach House, Foals), the ear-grabbing track is an undeniable introduction to Wet Leg, who also self-directed its video. —Scott Russell

9. 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

8. Big Thief: “Little Things”

Indie folk-rock mainstays Big Thief shared their first proper new songs in two years in August, “Little Things” and “Sparrow,” later sharing three more and announcing their new album, Dragon New Warm Mountain I Believe in You, coming in 2022. Produced by Big Thief drummer James Krivchenia, “Little Things” and “Sparrow” were recorded with Shawn Everett at Topanga, California’s Five Star Studios in October 2020 and Sam Evian at Flying Cloud Recordings in the Catskills in July/August 2020, respectively. “Little Things” isn’t quite like anything we’ve heard from the band to date: Bright acoustic-electric strumming and eager bass noodling (plus Buck Meek’s grasping electric guitar riffs) shuffle atop a difficult rhythm to get a handle on, yet Adrianne Lenker’s distinctive vocals ride the lightning as only she can, as she sings to a lover about “the little things I like about you,” admitting, “Maybe I’m a little obsessed / Maybe you do use me.” In the song’s latter half, she yelps as if the instrumental’s livewire energy has literally electrocuted her, and the band jams onward as she murmurs indistinctly, the song stretching breathlessly towards the six-minute mark. —Scott Russell

7. Squid: “Narrator”

U.K. band Squid released their debut album Bright Green Field in May 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

6. Yves Tumor: “Jackie”

The boundary-smashing artist behind 2020 Paste-favorite album Heaven to a Tortured Mind released a new single and video, “Jackie,” ahead of their surprise EP The Asymptotical World. “Jackie” sounds like Prince’s emo fever dream, with psych-rock guitar squalls, a massive pop drum track and neon synths swirling around Yves Tumor’s brooding vocals. Even its standard-issue breakup song lyrics manage a certain dreamy depth, with Tumor hoping to see themselves in a lost love’s subconscious: “I said, ‘Hey, Jackie baby’ / When you rest your mind, do you think of me?” The “Jackie” video makes the song’s romantic battlefield (sur)real, setting Tumor’s struggle on an alien world absolutely saturated with the kind of hallucinatory color you’d find in a Panos Cosmatos film. —Scott Russell

5. Snail Mail: “Valentine”

At long last, Lindsey Jordan’s Snail Mail returned this year with her second album, Valentine. The album’s accompanying biography, written by none other than Katie Crutchfield (Waxahatchee), gave us an idea of what Jordan experienced while writing her new record, including “life-altering success, a painful breakup and six weeks in treatment.” It’s her heartbreak that comes to the forefront on “Valentine,” an aching ode to Jordan’s lost love that serves as a bridge between Lush’s guitar-driven approach and her new album’s more expansive instrumental palette. Over creeping synth and muted guitar riffs, Jordan is torn between clinging to her waning relationship and learning to let it go, demanding to know, “So why’d you wanna erase me? / Darling, valentine,” but adding, “You’ll always know where to find me / When you change your mind,” in the song’s explosive choruses. “I adore you,” she repeats as “Valentine” fades out, a feeling only time can assuage. —Scott Russell

4. Caroline Polachek: “Bunny Is a Rider”

Caroline Polachek’s otherworldly presence has made her one of pop’s most intriguing figures, first as co-founder of the synth-pop outfit Chairlift, and now as a solo act. Her 2019 debut Pang was a stunner, making our list of the best pop albums of that year. This summer, Polachek returned with her first original piece of music since then, “Bunny Is a Rider.” The single is a sonic departure from Polachek’s dreamy, introspective indie-pop as she veers into spicier territories. Deep bass provided by producer Danny L Harle and whistles transport listeners into a Caribbean paradise as Polachek reflects on operating untethered to anyone or anything. In a statement, Polachek elaborates on her new track: “‘Bunny Is a Rider’ is a summer jam about being unavailable. Bunny is slippery, impossible to get ahold of. Maybe it’s a fantasy, maybe it’s a bad attitude. But anyone can be Bunny, at least for three minutes and 17 seconds.” —Jade Gomez

3. The War on Drugs: “I Don’t Live Here Anymore”

When surveying an artist’s discography, retrospect plays a big role in the outcome. But with “I Don’t Live Here Anymore,” the track is built off lyrics about getting older, accepting yourself as such and refusing to dwell on it. “I’m gonna make it to the place I need to go / We’re all just walking through this darkness on our own,” Adam Granduciel sings atop a river of gospel backing vocals—provided by Lucius—and synths like those on OMD’s “If You Leave” sparkling beneath. His love for Bob Dylan rears its head as he opens the track with a nod to the “creature void of form” of “Shelter from the Storm” and later explicitly references “Desolation Row.” Granduciel and company play hard into their fine-tuned eccentricities, showcasing a new confidence in letting the song’s gorgeous melody unravel on its own, rather than forcing an erupting guitar solo onto it. After four years away, just when you thought they couldn’t do this psych-rock thing any better than they did on A Deeper Understanding, The War on Drugs return to us bearing gifts of celebrations and daydreams, riffs worthy of a hundred sold-out arenas and sweeping pop hooks magnetic as all get out. —Matt Mitchell

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. —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

Listen to Paste’s Best Songs of 2021 playlist on Spotify here.