Best of 2021
As we count down to 2022, let’s take a look back at the year that was and all the music we heard.
At the very top of the year, Olivia Rodrigo exploded onto the charts with “Drivers License,” and over the next 12 months, we saw chart records broken and/or extended by The Weeknd, BTS and Drake — and of course, Mariah Carey with her annual record-breaker. Lil Nas X proved that the “Old Town Road” era wasn’t a fluke and Adele returned to an audience chomping at the bit to overreact to everything she does.
Narrowing down to a list of 10 songs was tougher than expected, but we now have our winners — in no particular order. The list has just one prerequisite: a 2021 release date. As a result, even though The Weeknd’s “Blinding Lights” dominated the charts for a third calendar year and made history, and Dua Lipa’s “Levitating” was the biggest hit of 2021, neither song could be considered for this list because they were released in 2019 and 2020, respectively.
(Loophole Alert: Remixes of pre-2021 songs released this year were eligible for the list.)
Beyond the release date stipulation, there were no rules. Songs of all genres and all levels of popularity (including album cuts) were considered — with the obvious limitation being that I clearly haven’t listened to all the songs released this year. It never stopped the folks at Pitchfork and Rolling Stone from making shoddy lists, so lay back and let me cook. Also, as with all other lists, it is reflective of the author’s taste — and this author got good-ass taste. Keep scrolling for the best of 2021.
Doja Cat – “Get into It (Yuh)”
With the release of her third LP, Planet Her, Doja Cat made it clear that she’s nothing to play with. That album gave summer ’21 a soundtrack with “Kiss Me More” (featuring SZA) and showed that Doja can ride an Afropop beat with “Woman”; but it is her Nicki-Minaj-inspired track, “Get into It (Yuh),” that stands above the rest. In two minutes and eighteen seconds, Doja paid homage to one of her idols while reminding us that few people can rap better than she can. The song, which was supposed to include a verse from its inspiration, is currently without a music video despite months of viral popularity.
Tems – “Replay”
Nigerian R&B singer Tems had a breakthrough year. Her vocals are the centerpiece of WizKid’s “Essence,” she was featured on Drake’s Certified Lover Boy, and Rihanna seems to be a huge fan, describing her tone as “unmatchable.” How’s that for a co-sign?
The good news didn’t end there. In September, Tems signed with RCA Records, which was announced along with the release of her second EP, If Orange Was a Place. The five-track project is a brief but brilliant showcase of her singing and songwriting chops. Its third track, “Replay,” is a three-minute dragging of all the people who thought Tems wouldn’t make it — and one of the very best songs of 2021. If you’re aren’t already hip, thank me later.
Lil Nas X – “Montero (Call Me By Your Name)”
Due to the meme-y viral nature in which Lil Nas X rose to fame, it is probably easy for many people to think the kid isn’t legit, but we know better around these parts. “Montero (Call Me By Your Name),” the lead single and title track of the rapper and singer’s first LP, feels like four different genres at the same damn time, which is on-brand for an artist whose first hit was so ambiguous that it confused the people at Billboard. The song combines a strong melody with a catchy hook, and as you can imagine, that is a recipe that rarely fails — even with lyrics and a music video some have described as “controversial.” “Montero” debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 and is nominated for Record of the Year and Song of the Year at the 64th Grammy Awards.
The Kid Laroi & Justin Bieber – “Stay”
What happens when you take “Blinding Lights,” add a little bass, and speed it up a bit? You get “Stay” by The Kid Laroi & Justin Bieber. In addition to the “Blinding Lights” similarities, Laroi’s emo vocal style is likely to remind you of Post Malone and Juice WRLD, the latter of which mentored the 18-year-old Australian. With so many familiar elements, it is no surprise that “Stay” is such a huge hit, ruling the Billboard Hot 100 for seven non-consecutive weeks over a three-month period and staying in the top 10 since July.
Ari Lennox – “Pressure”
The idea of R&B being “dead” is largely based on a variety of falsehoods and a commitment to ignoring good R&B songs made by Black artists. With “Pressure,” Ari Lennox gave us one of the best songs of her career so far and a reminder that R&B is very much alive. Unfortunately, the song failed to gain traction because the music landscape of today is particularly unfavorable to artists like Ari Lennox, but make no mistake, “Pressure” is among the year’s best.
SZA – “I Hate U”
SZA is yet to provide a follow-up to her debut LP, Ctrl, but in 2021, she kept us fed with a number of collabos and non-album singles. “I Hate U” was initially posted on SoundCloud in August, and in true SZA style, the song is clear and direct — “If you wondered if I hate you, I do,” she sings. The song quickly became a viral hit, and in December, the singer released the song on streaming platforms, allowing it to become a top 10 hit. If this is what we can expect from her sophomore album, we’re in for a treat.
Myles Yachts – “Walkthrough” (featuring BOS)
If you heard Myles Yachts’ “Walkthrough” (featuring BOS) and assumed it was Yo Gotti, just know you weren’t alone. It’s not clear if Yachts set out to go viral, but “Walkthrough” is just the kind of song to do so , and that it did. In an era where we’re getting fewer and fewer rap songs that are actually danceable, “Walkthrough” is a much-needed breath of fresh air.
The Weeknd & Ariana Grande – “Save Your Tears” (Remix)
The Weeknd’s After Hours campaign wasn’t just extended by the unprecedented success of “Blinding Lights.” In April, eight whole months after “Save Your Tears” was released as the album’s fourth and final single, a second remix of the song was released. This version was a duet with Ariana Grande, and we got to hear how much better many of The Weeknd’s could be if someone with a stronger voice sung them.
WizKid – “Essence” (Remix) [featuring Justin Bieber & Tems]
As mentioned previously, 2021 was the year of Tems, and it all started with “Essence,” the fourth and final single from WizKid’s fourth LP, Made in Lagos. Tems is only “featured” on the track, but she gets way more singing time than WizKid and is very much the reason why people love it so much. Though the song was made a single this year, the album was released in 2020, so the original version is ineligible for this list — its remix, however, is fair game.
In August, Justin Bieber was tapped to add vocals to the track, and while fans of the original weren’t too crazy about it, it helped expose the song to an even larger audience. ” Essence” would go on to peak at No. 9 on the Billboard Hot 100 and is credited as the first Afrobeats song to crack the top 10 — this all depends on whether you consider Drake’s “One Dance” (featuring WizKid & Kyla) to be Afrobeats.
Tainy & Miguel – “Sunbathe”
The industry continues to sleep on Miguel, but despite that fact, he continues to deliver. “Sunbathe,” a collaboration with Puerto Rican DJ Tainy, is a reggaeton-infused R&B song with the kind of elaborate metaphors for which we know and love Miguel. The song was so ignored that no one has even taken the time to include it in either artist’s discography on Wikipedia, but it has the No Hipsters seal of approval as being one of the year’s best.
Ariana Grande – “Test Drive”
Coi Leray – “No More Parties”
Kamillion – “Fine Azz”
Rema – “Soundgasm”
Lost Frequencies & Calum Scott – “Where Are You Now”
Cardi B – “Up”
Post Malone & The Weeknd – “One Right Now”
Doja Cat – “Kiss Me More” (featuring SZA)
Busta Rhymes – “Where I Belong” (featuring Mariah Carey)
The Weeknd – “Take My Breath”
Mooski – “Track Star”
Ayra Starr – “Sare”
Silk Sonic – “Skate”