Editors’ Picks: 2021’s Best Songs

Written By Austin Hall (@ADWAustin), Brandon C. Kesselly (@bckesso), Jose Lopez (@Sh1tJayLowSays) & Chris Walker (@cwlkr20)

Happy New Year, fellow music nerds! It’s finally 2022! After enjoying the laundry list of holidays, we’re ready to reveal our 2021 music list!

Keeping in line with our normal criteria, we’re basing our list off of work released during the 2021 fiscal year (September 1, 2020 to September 30, 2021)—qualifying them for nomination in the 2022 Grammys. 

Let’s start things off with our list of 2021’s best songs!

Note: We will not be repeating any songs from last year’s list.

Austin

I have slowly gotten back into the mood of listening to music by combing through a backlog of what I’ve listened to for the past 10 years. As a result, most of the new music I hear now is in little snippets on TikTok, but, I did actually find a few songs that stood out when I listened to them at least twice.

“All Eyes On Me”—Bo Burnham (Inside)

Inside, Bo Burnham’s latest comedy special, is one artist’s stab at trying to make sense of the pandemic and everything that came with it. Because of this, you will probably not be surprised to find that it’s less of a comedy special and more of a study in what happens when there is no audience in a medium that requires it. We slowly delve into Burnham’s psyche, and that psyche is at its most vulnerable during “All Eyes On Me,” where Burnham pumps in fake crowd noise while grabbing the camera and dancing around with it. It is intimate, heartbreaking, and real in a way I don’t think we’ve ever seen before, and if there were one song to make sense of the senselessness of it all, this would be that tune.

“Shame Shame”—Foo Fighters (Medicine At Midnight)

Though the song technically came out in 2020 (the Foo Fighters even performed it on Saturday Night Live that November), the album came out shortly after the new year, so I say this counts. It is devoid of the usual rockstar energy that the band is known for, and is instead a more stripped down melody. That’s probably the main reason it stands out for me so much. It isn’t a happy song, and it’s not a song you can have on in the background, which is perfect for a time when we can’t take anything for granted.

“Bells in Santa Fe”—Halsey (If I Can’t Have Love, I Want Power)

The only reason, and I mean the ONLY REASON, I listened to this song at all is because Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross of Nine Inch Nails (NIN) provided the atmosphere for this song and the album it comes from (If I Can’t Have Love, I Want Power). We get the haunting creep of subtle beats that make way for Halsey’s piercing voice, and it reminds me of the female version of NIN (that would be the band How to Destroy Angels). It’s not the standard Halsey song, but that makes it easier for non-Halsey fans to flock to it.

“Boilermaker”—Royal Blood (Typhoons)

A poppy, sassy rock song in the form of a Queens of the Stone Age ditty, “Boilermaker” has a great bass line, plenty of drums, and crooning falsetto to round it out. The music video is pretty good too, and is what initially drew me in. Even in desperate times, we must rock on.

Brandon

As the world around us has continued down a path of COVID uncertainty, I tried to keep my music chill and happy. But, old habits die hard, so I fell into my usual mixture of hardcore and mellow music. A lot of my selections this year fulfilled some form of “throwback”—whether it was the production, vocals, or artists involved. Two of them came from stories involving history, what’s more throwback than that?

“telepatía”—Kali Uchis (Sin Miedo (del amor y otros demonios) ∞)

Kali Uchis never ceases to impress me. While I could not understand ⅔ of her album due to it being primarily in Spanish, the music was still lit. “telepatía” is a perfect balance of this, where she oozes the vibe felt on her breakout single “After the Storm” and puts a Spanglish spin on it. I was instantly drawn to this song since I first heard it back in November 2020. 

“Mystery Lady – Sego’s Remix”—Masego (Studying Abroad: Extended Stay)

Masego continues to be a top-notch performer, mixing jazz and hip-hop soul to great effect. Despite the upbeat tempo and volume of his recent project’s “Mystery Lady, ” his personal remix of the track is incredible. It sounds more his speed, focusing more on the vocals than the production. 

“What It Feels Like”—Nipsey Hussle featuring JAY-Z (Judas and the Black Messiah: The Inspired Album)

First things first: rest in peace, Nipsey Hussle. This track hailed from the soundtrack of the Fred Hampton biopic Judas and the Black Messiah. Nipsey’s verse is as stellar as always, and JAY-Z continues to show that his skills are aging like fine wine. His references to the Capitol Riot, his legal Cannabis brand, and the fact that he was literally born on the day Hampton was killed remind you that he’s still one of the best rappers alive. 

“Black Bruce Wayne”—Tunji Ige (Black Bruce Wayne)

Nigerian American artist Tunji Ige was on a bit of a musical hiatus since his Grammy Award-winning work on Khalid’s “Location.” However, over the last year, he’s been dropping some dope singles in preparation for his next project. “Black Bruce Wayne” is the cream of the crop, in my opinion, mixing a hard-hitting beat and bars over a short but sweet three minutes. 

“Leave The Door Open”—Silk Sonic (An Evening With Silk Sonic)

If the Silk Sonic album came out a few weeks earlier, I would have likely chosen a different song. That being said, the lead single for Bruno Mars and Anderson .Paak’s partnership was “smooth like a newborn” and effective enough to carry them to the top of the Hot 100. This earworm felt like a throwback jam in the best possible way but combined the strengths of both artists equally. 

“Black Gold”—Flying Lotus featuring Thundercat (Yasuke)

It’s weird to admit this, but this song is the opening theme for the Netflix animé Yasuke, a historical fiction series about the recently-discovered Black samurai of the same name. Flying Lotus produced the music for the series, and it all slapped, even if the show was ultimately forgettable. Mind you, I bumped off “Agatha All Along” but kept this, so you know it impacted me deeply. 

“l e t . g o . m y . h a n d”—J. Cole featuring Bas & 6LACK (The Off-Season)

Spoiler Alert: I think J. Cole put out the album of the year, similar to Pusha T in 2018. Off-Season is a perfect blend of the old and new, combining the Fayetteville, NC native’s hardcore rap sensibilities with his storytelling and production chips. And after seven years of solo projects, he’s got actual FEATURES instead of just himself with vocal effects. “l e t . g o . m y . h a n d” is representative of Cole as a storyteller, my favorite version of him. 

“HOT WIND BLOWS”—Tyler, the Creator featuring Lil Wayne (CALL ME IF YOU GET LOST)

What if Odd Future and Gangsta Grillz behaved like the Wonder Twins? Well, I’ll tell you: it’s a dream team in the making, at least when their main acts collab. Tyler, the Creator and DJ Drama put together a surprisingly good mid-2000s throwback-style project. This track embodies everything great about it, complete with a solid Lil Wayne feature. 

“AM I DREAMING”—Lil Nas X featuring Miley Cyrus (MONTERO)

The title on this one perfectly encapsulates what I was thinking when I first heard it. Maybe I continued to underestimate the kid, but Lil Nas X has been a pleasant surprise since “Old Town Road,” and Miley Cyrus sealed the deal on this one. Beautiful track from beginning to end.

“Nobody”—Nas featuring Ms. Lauryn Hill (King’s Disease II)

What better way to follow up the Grammy award-winning King’s Disease than with a sequel? If you’re going to do a sequel album, then you need a classic feature from Grammy darling Lauryn Hill. After years of controversy and misinformation, Ms. Hill came back to set the record straight and she rocked the mic nonstop to listening delight.

Jose

After the tumultuous past year, my favorite songs this year consist of upbeat feel-good tunes or throwback sounds of new stuff that are reminiscent of songs of the past. A little funk, a little pop, and even a little merengue to spice things up in hopes of better days ahead for next year. 

“Shivers”—Ed Sheeran (=)

Ed Sheeran has had quite the year with his newest album =, this song in particular never fails to send “shivers” down my body and start grooving along to the beat and sing-along. No doubt his latest album will definitely get Sheeran into Grammy consideration once again.

“Take My Breath”—The Weeknd (N/A)

Hot off his highly acclaimed album After Hours, this newest song from The Weeknd felt like it was a leftover from that album, with the same funky retro beats, but still without a doubt never fails to capture the same hypnotic disco-funk as the songs in After Hours. This one is definitely not a throwaway but a further continuation of Abel’s disco throwback anthems.

“STAY”—The Kid Laroi & Justin Bieber (F*ck Love 3: Over You)

Bieber has stayed relevant in the past few years with his last few singles, but his latest collab with The Kid Laroi was definitely one of my favorites from the past year. I can’t wait to hear more of Laroi’s work and Bieber continues to distance himself from his sweet innocent image of yesteryear into a “bad boy” of music. (audible laughter)

“Moth to a Flame”—Swedish House Mafia & The Weeknd (Paradise Again)

The Weeknd teams up with Swedish House Mafia in what seems to be a match made in heaven. SHM’s techno music paired with The Weeknd’s vocals seems like the pairing was meant to be, for a song that gives us a techno concerto that is somehow both upbeat and melancholy.

“Muñe”—Elvis Crespo (Multitudes)

A personal favorite of mine, Elvis Crespo was always the go-to merengue playlist in my family, from his classics “Suavemente” and “Pintame” from the late 90s. Needless to say, his newest album Multitudes was a welcome throwback to my childhood with new songs with that classic merengue beat that I’ve been missing.

“Bad Habits”—Ed Sheeran (=)

Ed Sheeran gets a double mention on this list, this one, in particular, is the song that brought my attention to his latest album. This song hits the ground running and instantly makes you want to get up and dance all night long. 

“Better Days”—NEIKED, Mae Muller & Polo G (N/A)

I found this song late in 2021, but its soothing beat and message made it one of my favorite ones to close out the year with. Looking forward to a better 2022 is something we can all hope for and no better way to bring in the new year than a song that reminds us to keep a positive outlook for what’s ahead.

“Cold Heart (PNAU Remix)”—Elton John & Dua Lipa (The Lockdown Sessions)

Elton John used a bit of a cheat code with this one by redoing and mashing up some of his most famous songs “Rocket Man,” “Sacrifice” and “Kiss the Bride” into a brand new song with a slightly updated beat and an assist from pop sensation Dua Lipa. It’s an oldie, but a goodie with something new, which captures the throwback trend of a lot of pop songs lately.

“Skate”—Silk Sonic (An Evening With Silk Sonic)

Following the throwback vibe of this year, “Skate” is a great disco anthem that makes you feel like you stepped into a roller-skating club from the 70s. The sounds of Anderson .Paak and Bruno Mars make you shake your groove thing with nostalgia and let the good times roll. It’s the real authentic funk that today’s music needed.

“Out Out”—Joel Corry x Jax Jones ft. Charli XCX & Saweetie (N/A)

Last but not least, hands down my favorite party anthem of this year. This is the definite pregame song of 2021, with a sick beat that gets you pumped as you get turnt up, and, just as the title suggests, gets you ready to go out and party with your friends.

Chris

The theme of my list is It’s still a pandemic but remember those five minutes we were outside. It’s always about the bops in this section, pulling from everywhere, including chart storming ballads to album intro tracks that are better than entire people’s careers. 

As well, check the honorable mentions at the end—because some of us couldn’t keep it to 10. 

“Essence”—WizKid featuring Tems (Made in Lagos)

This song should accurately be described as being by Tems since she does all the work, but alas it isn’t. That said, it does keep to a nice trait of WizKid’s career: he hits a solid, smooth vibe throughout the song that he doesn’t deviate from for anything, like a well-dressed man who knows what he looks good in. 

Also, stop playing the version with Bieber on it. If I wanted my stuff diluted, I’d always add more water to my sorrel.

“You Are My High”—DJ Snake (N/A)

This was a top-five song on my Spotify list, so it earns its place here. The slow peddle into the drop paces you into a medium-paced track, that’s oddly great for working out. The Gap Band sample is a sweet touch by the way.

“Woman”—Doja Cat (Planet Her)

If there was one song used to describe Doja Cat’s album, Planet Her, I’d say album opener “Woman” fits the bill. The pop sensibilities get balanced with an expertly composed afrobeat/reggae beat, with witty, cutting lines, focused on femininity. It’s the thesis for the album, in under three minutes, that doesn’t waste a moment.

“Drivers License”—Olivia Rodrigo (Sour)

I do not believe Rodrigo isn’t dragging her ex-boyfriend on this song. Thus, it is an elite-level diss-track from a teen. Salute. Also, the SNL skit got the emotional pull of the song correct.

“34+35″—Ariana Grande (Positions)

Did Ariana Grande hear “WAP” and say, “Oh well shit we’re just being horny out loud? Ok, bet!” Then, go to the studio with Victoria Monet and bang out this hit? Probably. This song is nice, and is clearly an “I want it on the table when you get home” type of song. Good for the former Nickelodeon princess who can clearly sing.

“Introvert”—Little Simz (Sometimes I Might Be Introvert)

“Introvert,” the intro for Sometimes I Might Be Introvert, spends time questioning where Little Simz should focus her energy–on her true self or on her public persona. The actress/rapper uses cinematic level composition to ask the question, and even though she doesn’t answer it directly on this track, the thunderous, jazzy track uses verse to contemplate if people are actually worthy of her energy as it stands.

“THATS WHAT I WANT”—Lil Nas X (MONTERO)

An aspect that I really gravitate to with Lil Nas X is how committed he is. From his entire album rollout to his “beef” with Boosie Badass, X is dedicated to the bit. He’s blatantly emotive, telling you in every song where he is, and how he got there. It’s a rare find in hip-hop at times, and “THATS WHAT I WANT” keeps that in mind, delivering a sense of longing for someone’s touch and intimacy, in a very infectious, danceable way.

“Ghost”—Justin Bieber (Justice)

I, for one, don’t love Bieber. I’ve already noted he should not be on every track possible. The best version of the Usher protege is as the guy on EDM or pop-rock tracks. “Ghost,” which fits the latter genre, is a contemplative ballad for the lonely, who yearn to be close to others. This is also maybe the best song on a very good album, loaded with introspective thoughts on his life. It’s impressive to see this growth.

“Have Mercy”—Chlöe (N/A)

This is both a body confidence track and a booty track. It is clear that Chlöe, a Beyoncé scion, has learned well. The entire song, from the hypnotizing beat to witty lyrics, puts Chlöe’s bravado on display, focusing your attention where she wants it. All I need now is a follow-up or for her to hit this young guy up for the remix.

“DRUGS”—Tai Verdes (TV)

I’ll keep this short: thank god this kid blew up on TikTok, because we wouldn’t have a song about drugs, not hard ones, that is so catchy without it. 

Honorable Mentions

Body”—Russ Millions x Tion Wayne: UK Drill is having a moment now and the bars traded here will get you out of your seat. (CW)

Gyalis”—Capella Grey: This is crooning about being a West Indian ladies man. I stan. (CW)

Ginger”—WizKid feat. Burna Boy: Has this combination ever made a bad track? (CW)

Happier Than Ever”—Billie Eilish: Eilish’s slow build before it becomes a full rock ballad is genius (CW)

Off the Grid”/”JUNYA”/”Ok Ok pt. 2”/”Moon”/”Pure Souls”—Kanye West: This is everything I liked from Donda, which needed more Shenseea and Fivio Foreign, but needed to be contained to 11 songs. (CW)

System”—Dave feat. WizKid: There’s a bounce and riddim mix here that Dave and WizKid are always capable of delivering, separately and together. (CW)

Peng Black Girls”—ENNY, Amia Brave: This is just an effortless, uplifting bars about Black women that slaps. (CW) 

9 5 . s o u t h”—J. Cole: Cole taking up space in the rap game is something I respect. (CW)

Can’t Let You Go (remix)”—Stefflon Don feat. Tiwa Savage, Rema: I heard the original and said it needed something. Savage and Rema, plus a little sax, do the trick. (CW)

I Don’t Want To Talk (I Just Wanna Dance)”—Glass Animals: “Heat Waves” was everywhere, but this one had better vibes, simple as that. (CW)

Summer of Love”—Shawn Mendes & Tainy; “Don’t Go Yet”—Camila Cabello: It’s crazy to think that these two songs came out in the same year, one after the other, as these two crazy kids broke up. Sad for them, but they sure know how to make popping songs. (JL)

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