Home Music Music Lists

The 50 Best Songs of 2021

Wizkid’s global-pop sunshine, Taylor’s 10-minute masterpiece, Silk Sonic’s 1970s slow jam, and much more

Rob Rusling; John Esparza; Simon Emmett; Beth Garrabrant

This year, the pop-music world felt more wide open than ever. Our list of 2021’s best songs includes a beautiful indie-pop celebration of queer love, a reggaeton star tucking into some sweet Eighties synths, a self-celebrating pop-rap smash that scandalized the American right, a Lorde track that sounds like it could’ve been a Nineties U.K. club hit, and unforgettable anthems that pushed the boundaries of K-pop, rock, and country.

Find this playlist on Spotify

From Rolling Stone US

Play video

BIA feat. Nicki Minaj, ‘Whole Lotta Money’

When Nicki Minaj heard “Whole Lotta Money,” a standout on BIA’s 2020 EP For Certain, she liked it so much that she reached out to the rapper on Instagram. As soon as she did, she saw BIA had actually been writing to her for years, eager to get her attention. Those messages, coupled with the interplay between the two rappers, makes their collaboration feel like it was always meant to happen: On the remix, BIA flexes coolly while Nicki stunts, sneers, and sprints her way through her verses, each of them self-assured and relentlessly audacious over the song’s domineering, bass-blown beat. —J.L.

Play video

Leela James, ‘Complicated’

Leela James applies her gale-force voice in precise, leveling blasts in “Complicated,” a bouncy, lavish love song. It’s a song obliterating the red tape that’s been standing in the way of a romance that comes packed with many forms of sustenance for R&B fans: James offers a brief spoken intro in the manner of grand Seventies ballads, lyrical nods to early Mary J. Blige, and a programmed shuffle that evokes Zapp’s “Computer Love.” Before the last stirring chorus, there are a couple of rounds of high ooh-oohs that hint at the ecstatic vocal twirls in Prince’s “Do Me Baby” — like “Complicated,” that’s another track that urges lovers to forget their hang-ups in a hurry. —E.L.

Play video

Aventura and Bad Bunny, ‘Volví’

The Dominican bachata band Aventura has split up and reassembled a few times over the years, but their reunion on “Volví” features a surprise addition that made the internet’s jaw drop: Bad Bunny joins the group, his swaggering baritone loose and carefree over a stinging bachatón beat. Hearing him sidle up next to Romeo Santo’s recklessly high vocals is a complete thrill, but the peak of the song happens when the collaborators erupt into a few addictive seconds of ultra-quick perico ripia at the end — something that leaves the door open for what many hope is part two of the collaboration. —J.L.

Play video

Jessie Ware, ‘Please’

U.K. singer Jesse Ware made a splash last year with the dance-music classicism of her album What’s Your Pleasure. “Please,” a single that came out of this year’s “Platinum Pleasure Edition” of the LP, arrived this spring, just as it was starting to look like it might feel safe to go out again. “I want a place/Where golden moments last forever,” she sang over shimmering hi-hats, Cylon-ping-pong synths, and a perfectly deployed army of backup voices. Along with the song’s engulfing euphoria, there’s a knowing sense of longing and hunger in Ware’s singing that gives the song extra depth — as if the club is a place where you go to lose yourself, and find yourself, too. —J.D.

Play video

Maluma, ‘Rumba (Puro Oro Anthem)’

Maluma’s popularity has sometimes outweighed the hookiness of his songs. A gleaming gem like “Rumba (Puro Oro Anthem)” helps even the scales: This single is an ode to the last “rumba loca” — a wild, champagne-soaked shindig that unfolded beach-side and kept going till sunrise — that conveniently doubles as an invitation to the next one. Maluma shows his keen grasp of pop-reggaeton’s tools, gliding over snaking guitar and boom-chick-boom-chick drums, and his delivery is easy, oozing charm. But this surplus of suave serves as camouflage for an urgent plea. “What happened were the consequences of a crazy party,” Maluma sings in Spanish. “It was so crazy that we deserve another.” —E.L.

Play video

Sofia Kourtesis, ‘By Your Side”’

Sofia Kourtesis first earned notice for buzzing tracks like “Sarita Colonia,” which the electronic producer said “were about happiness and losing it and three-day raves with my best friends.” She dialed down the ferocity on her follow-up EP, Fresia Magdalena, so it’s fitting that the highlight “By Your Side” initially pulses with soothing energy — dulcet notes on what sounds like a keyboard, a snippet of an announcer referring to the coziest of standards, “I Only Have Eyes for You.” This surplus of cool makes it all the more exciting when a battery of horns blurt through the calm, 122-beats-per-minute groove with all the grace of a hardcore band tuning up in a quiet cafe. —E.L.

Play video

Meek Mill feat. Lil Baby and Lil Durk, ‘Sharing Locations’

Meek Mill’s signature all-caps tenor perfectly complements the trapped-out ice-cream-truck jingle of “Sharing Locations.” His hurried bluster contrasts with the melody, making him sound like he’s giving you an agitated yet motivational pep talk. He shouts, “My diamonds be hittin’ like we in a Versuz/We stickin’ together, this shit in a cursive.” His wordplay is as nimble as ever. Lil Durk’s chorus makes this humid banger, which was released during the dog days of August, and shimmers with a restless long-hot-summer urgency, an anthem for all seasons. —W.D.

Play video

Yotuel Romero, Descemer Bueno, Maykel Osorbo, Eliécer “El Funky” Márquez, and Gente de Zona, ‘Patria y Vida’

“Patria y Vida,” the stewing rallying cry that Cubans shouted during demonstrations on the island over the summer, wasn’t easy to make. The Havana-based rappers Maykel Osorbo and El Funky recorded their verses in secret and sent them to collaborators Yotuel Romero, Gente de Zona, and Descemer Bueno to mix in the U.S. — taking a risk that, to many, highlighted the danger of making dissident art in Cuba, especially after Osorbo was thrown in jail, where he’s been held since May. He remained there when “Patria y Vida” won Song of the Year at the Latin Grammys, grave recognition that’s only reinforced the emotional weight and power of the protest anthem. —J.L.

Play video

Bleachers, ‘Stop Making This Hurt”

Jack Antonoff has amassed an enormous track record as our era’s go-to superproducer, collaborating with Taylor Swift, Pink, Troye Sivan, St. Vincent, and Carly Rae Jepsen, among many others. It’s amazing he has anything left in the tank for his own project, Bleachers. But boy does he. “Stop Making This Hurt” is an Eighties pop gusher of the first order, with echoes of Howard Jones, New Order, Bruce Springsteen, and Simple Minds, among others, all mustered in service of Antonoff’s adorably over-the-top underdog romanticism. It works so well because he’s not just a guy who makes hits songs that own Top 40, he’s a fan of them too. —J.D.

Play video

Willow feat. Travis Barker, ‘Transparent Soul’

A throwback to the video-countdown era of the early aughts (when bands like Blink-182 dominated), “Transparent Soul” gave us a blast of delectable angst with a big blunt hook. The song’s structure is as straightforward as its “performance visual”—a black-clad Willow Smith raging into a gritty fisheye lens. Over Travis Barker’s breakneck drumming, Smith sings, “I can see right through, just so you know.” And it was tough to resist their scrappy skate-punk anthem. —W.D.

Play video

Madi Diaz, ‘New Person, Old Place’

The Nashville singer-songwriter delves deep into heartache and salvages what’s left on this gem from the severely underrated History of a Feeling. “I used to go shopping for pain,” she admits over a cozy guitar immersed in a string arrangement. (And when she sings “Can’t be a new person in an old place,” it’s like an eloquent seconding of Billie Eilish’s line “You make me hate this city!” from “Happier Than Ever.”) The runners-up: “Resentment,” which was recorded by Kesha, and “Crying in Public,” recently remixed by Muna. As Diaz told us in her Artist You Need to Know profile last August, “My job is to have feelings.” —A.M.

Play video

Eric Church, ‘Russian Roulette’

Eric Church reclaimed his country mojo on the sprawling three-disc Heart & Soul, but he was at his most thrilling when he took a hard left into rock opera on this Heart track. “Russian Roulette” is a grandiose, glorious composition with a deep debt to the late Jim Steinman. In the verses, Church is speeding through the night in his Chevy, constantly tuning his radio in the hope that he won’t hear the one thing that will grind his escape to a halt: a song that reminds him of his ex. When Church reaches into his falsetto to sing “I need a melody without a memory/Take me where I’ve never been,” he delivers all the power and drama of a lost Bat Out of Hell track. —J.H.

Play video

Proteje feat. Popcaan, Pa Salieu, and Toddla T, ‘Still Royal’

Protoje is a crucial new voice leading a recent resurgence in Jamaica of classic, conscious reggae. On “Still Royal,” he delivers a sleek anthem of upliftment for the sexy brunch set. Coincidentally, the Jamaican crooner’s mother scored a hit in the early 1970s with the single “Breakfast in Bed.” So lineage and a gracious carpe diem mentality are his forte. “If I ever make it in life/You gonna be living like royalty,” he insists over mellow synths. These are optimistic day-party vibes, if the celebration from the night before never stopped. —W.D.

Play video

Girl in Red, ‘Serotonin’

Twenty-two-year-old Norwegian singer-songwriter Marie Ulven tapped into the distressed soul of Medication Nation on this indie hit from her sharp debut, If I Could Make It Go Quiet, exploring her “intrusive thoughts” with as much humor as desperation: “When it feels like my therapist hates me/Please don’t let me go crazy/Put me in a field with daisies/Might not work but I’ll take a maybe.” The song sounds a little like Billie Eilish if she’d grown up listening to Built to Spill, and Ulven’s tough yet playful lyrics and delivery show that, in the battle against depression and angst, sometimes some sweet guitar static and a sticky melody are as good a defense as anything your therapist can give you. —J.D. 

Play video

Kacey Musgraves, ‘Breadwinner’

Kacey Musgraves chronicled the disintegration of a relationship on her album Star-Crossed, saving some of her most pointed words for the standout “Breadwinner.” A thumping, disco-flavored tune that has shades of Blood Orange’s retro pop, “Breadwinner” ditches Musgraves’ characteristic humor and draws blood with its portrayal of a successful woman and the man she once loved. “He wants your shimmer/To make him feel bigger/Until he starts feeling insecure,” she sings. She chides herself for having missed the warning signs, but ultimately washes her hands of it and moves on with head held high — just like any decent disco diva should. —J.F.

Play video

Tainy feat. Bad Bunny and Julieta Venegas, ‘Lo Siento BB:/’

When Julieta Venegas’ voice peers out from a lonely piano melody on “Lo Siento BB :/,” it feels like a ghostly remnant of the 2000s Latin alt-pop scene floating into the present day. The song’s mastermind, Tainy, warps her lithe vocals with haunting production effects just before they skitter and blink out, overtaken by a chugging reggaeton beat and Bad Bunny’s delightfully irreverent, love-scorned verses (“Cupido e’ un huelebicho, ese cabrón siempre me miente”). In less skilled hands, the song would have been a disjointed jumble relying on nostalgia; Tainy makes it an artfully unexpected collaboration that’s bold and forward-looking without losing its tender, achy-breaky center. —J.L.

Play video

Lorde, ‘Solar Power’

“Solar Power” is a pristine summer tune — warm instrumentals and cheeky, charming lyrics with just a dash of clever, self-conscious commentary from one of pop’s most pored-over figures (“Come one, come all, I’ll tell you my secrets/I’m kinda like a prettier Jesus”). If there’s any knock against “Solar Power,” it’s that, for a song so indebted to Primal Scream’s “Loaded” and George Michael’s “Freedom! ’90,” the blissed-out groove that closes it is just too dang short. But really, that’s nit-picking. “Solar Power” is a tune worth basking in all seasons. —J.B.

Play video

Snail Mail, ‘Ben Franklin’

This banger arrives on Valentine right after the title track, marking it the second song in a row on the LP in which Lindsey Jordan uses the word “honey” with an expert execution that oozes coolness and heartbreak all at once. The award for the best lyric is shared between two: “Got money, I don’t care about sex” and “Since rehab I’ve been feeling so small/I miss your attention, I wish I could call.” And after you watch the video — where the indie-rock singer-songwriter casually sings on a couch with a snake around her neck and a bowl of cereal in her hand — you’ll never think of the Founding Father the same way again. —A.M.

Play video

Brothers Osborne, ‘Younger Me’

Country music loves to crow about how honest and true-to-life its songs are. Spoiler alert: A lot of that is bullshit. “Younger Me,” however, couldn’t be more real. Released a few months after Brothers Osborne singer TJ Osborne came out as a gay man, it’s his openhearted dissertation on giving yourself grace and room to grow. “Younger me/Made it harder than it had to be/Trying hard to dodge my destiny,” he sings in a vulnerable baritone. Written by TJ with his brother John Osborne (whose guitar solo is as liberating as TJ’s vocals) and songwriter Kendell Marvel, “Younger Me” was released as a one-off track right in the middle of the promotional push for “official” radio single “I’m Not for Everyone.” That’s how important this song is. —J.H.

Play video

Bo Burnham, ‘All Eyes on Me’

“Get your fuckin’ hands up,” Bo Burnham sings repeatedly on “All Eyes on Me,” the emotional climax of Inside, his harrowing and hilarious one-man Netflix meditation on pandemic-era isolation turned surprisingly effective pop album. But the ominous synth line creeping underneath clues you in to the fact that this is no care-free party starter. Midsong, Burnham breaks into a startlingly frank monologue on the panic attacks that stalled his career, and from there everything from the canned laughter in the background to Burnham’s goofy slo-mo vocal effect starts to scan more as psychological horror than musical comedy. “You say the whole world’s ending, honey, it already did,” Burnham sings, shortly before he snaps and starts berating his invisible audience. “You’re not gonna slow it/Heaven knows you tried/Got it? Good, now get inside.” —H.S.

Play video

Megan Thee Stallion, ‘Thot Shit’

“Thot Shit” is another winner from Megan that blends sexual pleasure with personal politics. Beneath the surface, it’s a chance for the Houston rapper to fight back against criticisms she’s faced since her Tina Snow breakthrough in 2019. “Hoes taking shots but they ain’t in my caliber,” she raps in double-time over a beat from LilJuMadeDaBeat. By aiming at media commentators who railed against her and Cardi B’s lascivious “WAP” performances and dismissing rap fans who underrate her skills, Megan makes the point that she’s going to continue to do “thot shit,” “pussy-ass” haters be damned. —M.R.

Play video

BTS, ‘Butter’

BTS celebrate the power of silky beats, sunburst harmonies, party raps, and jump-up choruses with such unguarded joy it makes everyone else on the pop charts seem drab by comparison. “Butter” rides a Chic-loving disco groove similar to their megahit “Dynamite,” yet where that song was about their triumph as a group, this one gives everyone a chance to shine — and the addition of a killer Megan Thee Stallion remix only added to the good time. —J.D.

Play video

Japanese Breakfast, ‘Be Sweet’

Michelle Zauner specializes in translating the languages of grief, from her book Crying in H-Mart to her third (and finest) Japanese Breakfast album, Jubilee. For “Be Sweet,” she teams up with Wild Nothing’s Jack Tatum to write a surprisingly glitzy Eighties synth-pop trip in the mode of the Cure or Duran Duran. She articulates her rage to a lover who’s let her down, taunting, “Come and get your woman/Pacify her rage.” But even at her stormiest, her voice sounds utterly confident that forgiveness will be sweet. —R.S.

Play video

Morgan Wade, ‘Wilder Days’

Anyone’s who’s heard this debut single from Blue Ridge Mountain-bred singer-songwriter Morgan Wade more than once has likely spent the better part of the past year shouting “You said you hate the smell of cigarette smoke!” to themselves. But apart from delivering the year’s most irresistible country-rock chorus, Wade’s debut single, complete with a gentle nod to Guy Clark’s “Desperadoes Waiting on a Train,” established Wade as a moving storyteller: The narrator is falling for someone so hard they begin to feel misplaced nostalgia for the past versions of their love interest they never knew. As Wade sings: “Why don’t you show me?” —J.A.B.

Play video

Polo G, ‘Rapstar’

The Chicago rap kingpin turned “Rapstar” into his world-conquering anthem, putting the streets first and counting his money over a ukelele hook. Polo G rides the road to the riches, asking, “Do it sound like I’m kidding?/I been making like two thousand a minute.” He’s got jokes, too: “Only bitch I give a conversation to is Siri.” But under the whips-and-jewels floss, every day is a battle, and he dreams about leaving Earth behind. “Rapstar” became Polo G’s first Number One hit, flexing all his contradictions and making them boom. —R.S.

Play video

Wet Leg, ‘Wet Dream’

“Baby, do you want to come home with me? I’ve got Buffalo 66 on DVD.” Welcome to the wonderful world of Wet Leg, where the Isle of Wight duo excel in quips as sharp as their guitar riffs — and everything is about sex, all the time. “What makes you think you’re good enough/To think about me when you’re touching yourself?” Rhian Teasdale asks. The band is slated to drop its debut next spring, but until then, we’ll keep this one on repeat. —A.M.

Play video

Muna feat. Phoebe Bridgers, ‘Silk Chiffon’

In 2021, we desperately needed a song like “Silk Chiffon,” not only for how shocking it felt to hear the words “Life’s so fun!” over and over, but also because L.A. indie-pop band Muna’s queer-pop confection was so transporting. Guest vocalist Phoebe Bridgers continues her stellar run of bulldozing us with her highly relatable lines (“I’m high and I’m feeling anxious/Inside of CVS”), while Muna dazzle with their brightness. Their easeful, ecstatic song about staying out until dawn with a girl as soft as silk chiffon has one of the year’s sweetest melodies, radiating the kind of pure pop bliss so many bands go for but almost never get this right. —A.M.

Play video

Noname, ‘Rainforest’

Noname’s reputation for community activism and radical politics has often stood in stark contrast to acclaimed recordings on which she analyzes her own foibles with quietly poetic intensity. On her only release of 2021, she begins to bridge the divide. Over a light, soulful bossa nova groove, she harmonizes “Rainforest cries/Everybody dies a little/And I just wanna dance tonight.” But she can’t disguise her rage, rapping “How you making excuses for billionaires?” and “Took the wretched of the earth and called it baby Fanon.” “Rainforest” is a short glimpse at a young musician’s radical awakening. She demands further listening, even if a two-and-a-half-minute song is all she has to offer right now. —M.R.

Play video

Adele, ‘I Drink Wine’

Adele goes to church in this showstopper from 30, taking sweet inspiration from vintage gospel like so many great soul belters before her. “I Drink Wine” is her six-minute testimony as she worries over her love pains, confessing, “We’re in love with the world/But the world just wants to bring us down.” She wonders why she keeps trying so hard to be somebody else — even though the rest of us just wish we could be as cool as Adele. And she’s revealed that she’s sitting on a 15-minute outtake, so brace yourself for the inevitable gallon-size “I Drink Wine (Adele’s Version).” —R.S.

Play video

Rauw Alejandro, ‘Todo de Ti’

Reggaeton loops served as the jet fuel that helped launch Spanish-language pop into global prominence during the 2010s. But the drums in “Todo de Ti” are flat and square, ignoring the lurching syncopation that makes reggaeton lethal on dance floors; Alejandro’s single also opens with a sprightly synthesizer that wouldn’t be out of place at a local bar’s Eighties night. This is nu-new-wave, an unusual sound in the current Latin mainstream, but it unexpectedly became a massive global hit. “For English speakers, it’s just a pop record,” Álvaro Díaz, one of Alejandro’s collaborators, told Rolling Stone. “But for Spanish speakers, nobody in his genre is doing that and having the success he’s having.” —E.L.

Play video

Billie Ellish, ‘Happier Than Ever’

The magic of “Happier Than Ever” lies in both the insanely quotable lines (“I’d never treat me this shitty/You made me hate this city!”) and the raging build-up around the two-minute mark. What begins as a gentle and sulky ballad erupts into a pop-punk explosion — the perfect anthem for 2021, when we saw light at the end of the pandemic tunnel but were immediately pulled back into chaos. And the title? Eilish means it. “When you’re happier than ever, that doesn’t mean you’re the happiest that anyone’s ever been,” she told us last summer. “It means you’re happier than you were before.” —A.M.

Play video

Silk Sonic, ‘Leave the Door Open’

Bruno Mars and Anderson .Paak join forces for a damn-near-perfect stroll into vintage Seventies Soul Train R&B. “Leave the Door Open” didn’t sound retro because it felt so gloriously right for 2021, a bell-bottom seduction ballad for the post-pandemic summer we didn’t quite get. These two studio obsessives get every technical detail right. But Mars and .Paak work even harder to get the mood right, so “Leave the Door Open” is pure romance, with every drum hook a pheromone rush. You can practically see the Harvey’s Bristol Cream on the nightstand, right under the velvet paintings and strobe light. —R.S.

Play video

Lucy Dacus, ‘VBS’

Some songwriters are wary of tying the content of their work too closely to their real lives. Not Lucy Dacus, who makes a beeline for the most achingly vivid memories from an early-adolescent romance at a Christian summer camp on this low-key stunner from her third LP. She writes affectionately about her nutmeg-snorting, Slayer-blasting beau, hinting at a deeper sadness on the margins of the story without getting maudlin. “Your poetry was so bad, it took a lot to not laugh,” she observes wryly in the first half of the chorus, then shows her own poetic gift for summing up a world of emotional complexity in a few understated words: “You said that I showed you the light/But all it did, in the end, was make the dark feel darker than before.” —S.V.L.

Play video

Lil Nas X, ‘Montero (Call Me By Your Name)’

Say hello to the new shock rock. Where Alice Cooper would decapitate himself onstage and Gwar would spray audiences with bodily fluids, all that Lil Nas X, a young, gifted, and Black gay man from Georgia had to do to raise the evangelical right’s eyebrows was perform a salacious lap dance for Satan in the “Montero” clip. The brilliant video was simultaneously transgressive and progressive enough to rattle shoemaker Nike, and Lil Nas X rendered the song even better with a rare hook catchy enough to rival his breakthrough earworm, “Old Town Road” — a feat which is truly shocking. —K.G.

Play video

Olivia Rodrigo, ‘Drivers License’

We only had to endure seven days of a pre-“Drivers License” world — our permit period — before Olivia Rodrigo arrived like a teenage comet on Jan. 8, the most stellar thing to come out of the Disney channel since Zenon: Girl of the 21st Century. We cited “Drivers License” as a best-of contender immediately, but what we didn’t expect was how long we’d hold on to it. Rodrigo spends the ballad carefully dissecting just how awful it feels to get your license after a breakup, making a 17-year-old’s heartbreak instantly relatable regardless of age. And when she calls out Becky with the good hair (“And you’re probably with that blonde girl/Who always made me doubt”), you fiercely take her side. —A.M.

Play video

Taylor Swift, ‘All Too Well (10 Minute Version)’

Swift doubled the length of her 2012 fan-favorite album cut, adding new melodic flourishes and perspective. Whether or not Swift wrote the words “fuck the patriarchy” is beside the point: What’s most moving about this remembrance of red scarves past is the way in which Swift reworks her opus in the present day. The 10-minute version is a thirtysomething’s memory of a memory, a moving revisitation and reconsideration of some of the more sinister elements of a young twentysomething relationship that she now remembers more vividly than ever. —J.A.B.

Play video

Wizkid feat. Tems, ‘Essence’

Wizkid’s massive international hit offered the best vision possible of our eternally shrinking world: at once local and global, intimate and universal. On it, the Nigerian singer, one of the most popular pop artists in Africa, embraced one of his country’s newest talents. Their performances are distinct yet seamless, joining together over a melange of Nineties American R&B, U.K. Afroswing, and percussive Nigerian Afrobeats. “Essence” hit the top of several U.S. charts in 2021 after it got a Justin Bieber remix this summer, but its reach was wide well before. “I want everyone to understand [the song],” said P2J, one of its producers, “but still understand the essence of the music is from Africa.” The result was a sound of status and place coalescing without the loss of identity. —M.C.