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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.

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From Rolling Stone US

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.