And finally we come to this; our Top Songs of 2021. Always the hardest list to make, as there are so many songs to choose from (my personal playlist has over 150 songs in it). But, for the sake of conciseness and time, these are the top fifty songs that made 2021 rock, swing, skank, swoon, mosh, cry and scream. They have humor and heartbreak, incredible harmonies, sharp rhythms, and a whole lotta saxophone. You can never have too much saxophone.
If there was any sort of overarching theme to the music of the last year, I’m certainly too close to see it. Some tracks directly addressed the craziness of 2020, whether it be the pandemic, the state of politics, police brutality, or the artist’s struggles with mental health facing the world. There were love songs and break-up songs, songs of doubt and faith, and a song about wanting to bite a face (technically that one’s a love song too).
The diversity was great, and genres once again became less and less meaningful. We have artists from the UK to Sweden to Indonesia to Australia, and all parts of North America.
It’s quite a list, so let’s begin. Our Top Songs of 2021:
- Ski Lift – Portal
Making the biggest splash of the year with what was only their second song ever released, UK indie rock trio Ski Lift far and away stole the year with “Portal”, one of the catchiest tracks to cross my ears in years. 60’s garage guitars and a barreling drum beat kick things off before the bouncy vocal melody comes in. A song about dreaming of an escape from city life (“if I had a portal, just a little portal…I would stick my head in the clouds”) and the mundane world, the song hits heavenly heights with its layered harmonies and bouncy rhythm. Coming in at just over two minutes, it doesn’t come close to overstaying its welcome. Much the opposite – it leaves you wanting much more. That Ski Lift is writing tracks this good so early in their career can only generate hope to hear what else they’ll cook up for us in the future. Good show lads!
2. David Bowie – Trying to Get to Heaven
Leave it to the late, great David Bowie to take a forgettable Bob Dylan deep cut, and transform it into something remarkable. This Record Store Day release hit streaming services back in January, and the power of the song hasn’t waned. While the original Dylan track was a tepid, mid-tempo folk rock track off Time Out of Mind, in David Bowie‘s hands, it becomes a compelling plea filled with desperation, hope and fear, made all the more powerful for being released following Bowie’s death. With the synth-heavy production and soaring guitars generating a grand wall of sound that makes the song feel huge and dramatic, while Bowie’s soulful vocal performance keeps the ship sailing smoothly through the stormy seas. While more Bowie music keeps getting dug out of the vaults, if this were to be the final track ever heard of from the Thin White Duke, it would be the perfect goodbye.
3. Bleachers – How Dare You Want More
Jack Antoff made it pretty clear that he was going to be diving further into his Jersey roots on this album when it was first revealed The Boss himself was guesting on his track “Chinatown”, yet that track did not come as close to bringing to life Antoff’s E Street Band ambitions as “How Dare You Want More”. First premiered in a live performance on The Tonight Show, the song had me out of my seat dancing on first listen. A track about a crisis of faith and loneliness has never sounded so jubilant. From the 50’s R&B rhythm to the jangling guitars to the (yes!) dueling saxophones, everything about this song lifts the spirits. And when Antoff sings “Hey, lonely wants to stay forever / But tonight we’re gonna to a little better”, it feels like an empowering sequel to his debut single “I Want to Get Better”. Cathartic, anthemic and joyful.
4. Lucero – Back in Ohio
Lucero have made it clear that they consider Warren Zevon and The Replacements as influences, and it’s never been more clear than on this chugging single from When You Found Me. The opening riffs are pure ‘Mats goodness, full of bombastic power chords and a brass section, while the lyrics have that sardonic sense of storytelling that Zevon was so good at. As the song’s narrator sails to Cuba to find redemption, singer Ben Nichols’ puts his knack for unexpected melodies to good use, having the chorus of “Back in Ohio” go in a more thoughtful direction, with a melancholy keyboard line coming in instead of louder guitars. It’s destined to be a classic at their live shows.
5. Hayley Williams – Inordinary
One of the most personal and intimate feelings songs on Flowers for Vases / Descansos, Hayley Williams takes us behind the veil of her life, letting us peak in on the origins that made her the human she is today. Over delicately strummed acoustic chords, Williams addresses a broken past relationship (“You gave me another chance. A renegade holding your hand. I was somebody’s”) and her and her mother’s escape from a bad situation when she was young (“Life began in seventh grade when me and momma got away…started over, Tennessee. Rent was cheap and we were free”). Williams vocal delivery carries a haunting weight that fills the lyrics with heartache and the wisdom she’s accumulated from her life. A stand out on her record, it once again shows what a strong songwriter Williams has become.
6. Jensen McRae – Immune
What began as a lark for indie songwriter Jensen McRae, attempting to write a Phoebe Bringers-style narrative about waiting in line to get a Covid vaccine shot at Dodger Stadium, evolved into one of the best songs of 2021. McRae’s detailed descriptions of both the setting and the tension with her friend/lover are palpable, and with the line “…do you think she knows we just fucked…the friendship up”, McRae writes one of the best double-meaning fake-outs ever.
7. Arkells – You Can Get It (feat. K. Flay)
The second single from the Canadian band’s new album, “You Can Get It” is pure energy and attitude. With hook after hook, the band and guest K. Flay wrote a song that simply slaps, with it’s funky piano and handclap breaks and rap-like lyric delivery. It’s simply a feel good jam that deserves to be 100x bigger than it currently is.
8. Grrrl Gang – Honey, Baby
This indie Indonesian rock band wrote one of the best 60’s pop song since the actual 60’s. While fairly new, Grrrl Gang show off a keen sense of melody, and know how to use a jangly guitar properly. “Honey, Baby” floats along dreamily, with soothing vocals that play perfectly off the new wave guitar lines. It’s a modern throwback that needs to be heard world wide.
9. Barenaked Ladies – New Disaster
If you had told me that 90’s pop-rock hitmakers Barenaked Ladies would have one of the best songs of 2021, I would have been quite surprised. Not because the band hasn’t continued to write good songs over the last decade, but to write a song so memorable and impactful that it would be in the Top Ten of the year would be quite a feat. But that’s just what the group did with “New Disaster”. Like many of their songs, it’s an instantly catchy tune with clever wordplay, but it’s also one of their most pointed tracks ever, taking a critical look at our media-obsessed, damaged culture and the harm it’s causing. Thirty years in, and the band still has some tricks up their sleeves.
10. The Mighty Mighty Bosstones – I Don’t Believe in Anything
The ska-punk veterans sounded refreshed and ready to riot on their latest album, and on second single “I Don’t Believe in Anything”, they brought back their horn-ladened hooks. With a chorus made for jumping and shouting along to, “Believe” also benefits from a unique drum-led rhythm and frontman Dicky Barrett hitting on a timely concept of loss of belief, which I’m sure resonates with many in these difficult times. Ska punk that’s lyrically relevant, musically powerful and savvy in its pop smarts – this is why the genre will never die.
11. girl in red – You Stupid Bitch
Perfectly captures the anger of seeing someone you love in a bad relationship with the wrong person. The word “bitch” has never been used so endearingly in a song.
12. Daisy the Great – Record Player (feat. AJR)
The kind of chorus you listen to again and again so you can be sure you’re singing it to yourself properly, because it’s going to be stuck in your head either way.
13. Sam Fender – Seventeen Going Under
The UK guitar rocker comes back with another sonically impeccable anthem, full of bleak honesty and authentic storytelling.
14. The Verve Pipe – Forever Reaching
The 90’s rockers came back with a stellar, prog-influenced new track that “reaches” for the musical heavens and grasps it with an emotional wallop.
15. Kalu & The Electric Joint – Downfall
A unique blent of downtempo rock and soul that comes at you from unexpected directions and simmers with unfiltered power.
16. A Day to Remember – High Diving
Emo-core veterans again manage to wrap lyrics about succumbing to pressure and hitting your limit in addictive pop melodies.
17. Weezer – I Need Some of That
The alt rock mainstays perfectly channel their love of groups like Thin Lizzy and Van Halen in this joyful ode to 80’s rock.
18. The Zangwills – Call
British rockers infuse this song of obsessive love with an appropriate undercurrent of menace, especially when the singer asks “will you still be up around midnight?”
19. Tash Sultana – Coma
Beatific, atmospheric psychedelia from Australia’s current best guitarist. The kind of track that takes you to another plane of existence.
20. Goody Grace – Grape Swisher
A tale of young love and flavored cigarillos that is instantly hooky.
21. The Maine – Sticky
As the chorus goes, “Sticky just like the song in my head”.
22. Eve 6 – I Wanna Bite Your Face
A ravenous gutter punk love song from these 90’s survivors.
23. Amends – Walking Backwards (feat. Laura Jane Grace)
Sing-along folk punk that will make you want to go out and raise hell.
24. Rag’n’Bone Man – All You Ever Wanted
A booming chorus which will be all you ever wanted in a good pop rock song.
25. Imogen Clark – Forget About London
Clark deals with a London heartbreak on this swooning pop banger.
26. Amethyst Kiah – Wild Turkey
Powerful indie folk addressing depression and drinking from rising star.
27. Billy Idol – Bitter Taste
Punk legend looks starkly back at a motorcycle that almost took his life, and mortality in the macro.
28. The Offspring – Let the Bad Times Roll
If we only get one super-catchy pop punk track from these SoCal rockers, then we’ll take it.
29.Pale Waves – You Don’t Own Me
A defiant, classic f-u song from these great British pop rockers.
30. Rostam – 4Runner
Chill indie goodness from former Vampire Weekender.
31. Poorstacy – Hills Have Eyes
Dark nu-punk that will send chills down your spine as you mosh.
32. Noname – Rainforest
Hypnotic R&B that works as both a conflicted love track and a commentary on economic injustice.
33. Nathan Gray – What You Mean (feat. Red Tape Parade)
More memorable punk rock with a powerful social message from one of the most underrated songwriters in the genre.
34. Ben Howard – Far Out
Howard’s style of hazy, quiet yet powerful indie rock remains “far out” and engaging
35. Q-Unique – Verrazanno Villains (feat. Taking Back Sunday, Cappadonna, DJ Eclipse)
Striking rap track with an emocore chorus that takes aim at police abuse.
36. Catbite – Excuse Me Miss
The kind of ska-pop-punk that gets instantly caught in your head, and would have fit in on Tragic Kingdom.
37. Angels & Airwaves – Euphoria
Tom Delonge adds a dose of dark synth wave and post-punk to his normal sound for one of the slickest, impressive tracks of A&A’s catalogue.
38. Jon Foreman – Jesus, I Have My Doubts
The Switchfoot frontman’s solo track is a stark moment of vulnerability; a man questioning his faith as the darkness and troubles of the world weigh down on him.
39. Little Hurt – It’s Ok Not to Be Ok
Accepting your sadness and depression has never sounded so ebullient as it does on this pop rock gem.
40. X Ambassadors – skip.that.party (feat. Jensen McRae)
With her second appearance on the list, McRae joins the Ambassadors for a compelling tale of parties, mistakes and regrets.
41. Japanese Breakfast – Be Sweet
Sublime indie pop that rightfully takes JB’s music to the next mainstream level.
42. Don McCloskey – First in Flight
McCloskey channels Graceland-era Paul Simon for this afropop-indebted folk bop.
43. Gang of Youths – The Angel of 8th Ave
The Australian group continues to reach for the heavens (or at least stadiums) with this grandiose rock anthem.
44. Strand of Oaks – Jimi and Stan
Timothy Showalter manages to make a song about Jimi Hendrix befriending his late cat in heaven tearfully joyful and moving beyond explanation.
45. Mod Sun – Karma
A perfect pop-punk kiss off; “karma’s a bitch sometimes”.
46. Tai Verdes – I deserve 2 b alone
Verdes looks inwards at his own faults, bravely admitting his lover deserves better than him in this painfully honest track.
47. Lime Cordiale – Apple Crumble (feat Idris Elba)
Australian pop rock duo are joined by the famed LUTHOR actor for a song that’s even more delicious than the dessert it’s named after.
48. Bob Schneider – The Band Plays On
Schneider mourns a fallen musical hero on this touching ballad.
49. Jackson+Sellers – As You Run
Wistful alt. country from this first-time collaboration from two of the best modern singer/songwriters in the genre.
50. Dooms Children – Heavy Year
AlexisonFire guitarist’s new side project perfectly captures the emotional baggage the last year has put on all of us while still narrating a personal tale of woes.
So there you have it. A small but significant list of the songs that will forever be a part of our 2021. Take a listen to all of them now in our Top Songs of 2021 Playlist!