The best music of 2021: The top 40 songs of the year.

In Slate ’ s annual Music Club, Slate critic Carl Wilson emails about the class in music with mate critics — featuring New York Times contributor Lindsay Zoladz, mercenary writer Briana Younger, NPR music critic Ann Powers, Glitter Up the Dark writer Sasha Geffen, Pitchfork contributing editor Jenn Pelly, WXNP Nashville column director Jewly Hight, Penguin Books author Julianne Escobedo Shepherd, critic Steacy Easton, Slate pop-culture critic Jack Hamilton, and Chris Molanphy, the host of Slate ’ south Hit Parade .
My lamb buttered muffins ,
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I appreciate how this round brought us to the hard facts of the industry, economics, and wealth and power gaps that influence the ways music gets made, distribute, received, and interpreted. I militantly refuse to deal with the pyramid-scheme nonsense of NFTs, for case, but no doubt the income-flow crisis that came with the pandemic cessation and then limited return of live music has accelerated all the on-line shenanigans—and, of course, some genuine innovation—of the pour earned run average .
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Thank you, Jack, for bringing up the fact that the few extraordinary music documentaries many of us have mentioned in our entries so far air bladder atop a flood of others that are middling or worse. overall, I ’ m still glad that there ’ s more of everything in that sector now ; as we all know as writers, the more overall bodily process there is, the more that opportunities for exceptional ferment receptive up. But you ’ re right that it besides means faineant, mislead, reductive formula can insinuate their way into popular think .
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One option to connect-the-dot documentaries about music is works of imaginative fabrication about it. In 2020, we all celebrated Steve McQueen ’ mho Lovers Rock, his short-film love letter to that roots-reggae subgenre and the Afro-Caribbean U.K. communities for whom it was a cherished soundtrack when McQueen was growing up. This year, a movie that hasn ’ metric ton gotten adequate attention from music lovers—although our Slate colleague Dana Stevens precisely named it among her top 10 films of the year—is The Disciple by indian film maker Chaitanya Tamhane. It was on the festival racing circuit in 2020 and became available for streaming on Netflix early this year. It may be overlooked in separate because it ’ s set in the worldly concern of indian classical music music, unfamiliar to many of us, where students struggle to master centuries-old forms such as ragas, and then find their own improvisational voices within them. But as one gets absorbed in this beautifully assure story, it becomes well-defined that, on the one hand, it is a conclusion read of the summons of music-making, an aspect that so many of us admired in Get Back. On the other, it ’ s an tough-minded question into what makes an artist ; what poise of endowment, discipline, and temperament allows for success ; and what is worth sacrificing in that goal. It becomes about excessively intensely comfortable to relate it to one ’ south own life ! Some gorgeous set pieces showcase the music itself, with respect but not pithy fear, and they at least make a start toward teaching the spectator how to listen within this tradition—no talking heads or newspaper-headline montages required .
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In a much more clown mode, I besides adored the U.K. Channel 4 series We Are lady Parts, which combines a plat about a collection of misfits forming a neo-riot-grrrl band, a louisiana the Linda Lindas, with a Mindy Kaling-style second-generation South asian coming-of-age story. The catchy morsel with any fictionalize band is to make the music itself convincing, and Lady Parts has the songs—I went around singing “ Bashir with the Good Beard ” to myself for days .
Steacy and Ann, thanks for raising the year ’ s controversies in country music, now apparently one of the most cranky areas in pop. Some questions came up for me reading that lapp excellent Buzzfeed piece revolving around Jason Isbell that you quoted, Steacy, by Elamin Abdelmahmoud. At one point, Isbell goes so far as to say, “ There never should have been ‘ area music ’ to begin with. ” I know just what he means—country as a commercial class, like rhythm-and-blues or “ urban ” ( a term that ’ s thankfully fading ) and other euphemism for Black music over the decades, originated as the intersection of an diligence pandering to segregation, much taking music that was potently interrelated and carving it up by raceway. Given the historical realities of America, however, those decisions became entrenched, and they helped bring into being a perceived R & B hearing, nation audience, and so on. none of them are ever massive or static, but they ’ rhenium constituencies that besides partially understand their own commonalities through these familial categories .
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I ’ megabyte thinking about this partially because of New Yorker staff writer Kelefa Sanneh ’ s provocative book, major Labels : A history of Popular Music in Seven Genres, released earlier this year. ( He discussed it with me and the Popular Music Books in Process serial audience in October, as seen here. ) Its argument is that the urge to “ exceed ” genres and leave them behind—very common among critics and certain kinds of more “ adventurous, ” bohemian-leaning artists—risks impoverishing music itself by disrespecting the histories inner to genres, which ( like Indian ragas ) require a certain kind of specialization and devotion to understand and extend. They might besides underestimate the stakes for communities that identify with certain genres and cull others .
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Of course, it ’ mho easier to talk about the value of that continuity when we talk about R & B or rap ; it ’ sulfur much harder when it ’ sulfur linked with the racism and sexism that have persisted in commercial country. But I do wonder if it ’ second excessively simple to put the blame chiefly on mighty gatekeepers, radio receiver programmers, and then on. When the gatekeepers tried to censure Morgan Wallen this year, it was audiences that resisted more than elites, from the buttocks up, even if it was from the bottoms of what a dogmatist marxist might call their false consciousnesses. Critics can praise all the great Black state artists we ’ ve mentioned, but we can ’ t seem to help them score hits. Can you efficaciously desegregate genres of music while the society they circulate in remains then stubbornly segregated on the land ? What ’ s the best way to address these inequities without ignoring that state besides has a history of expressing meaning class and regional solidarities that a fortune of other popular music disdained, even though those “ dear ” politics were bound up with an often-abhorrent politics of whiteness ? I don ’ thymine know the answers, but it does seem like a share of the state conundrum that can ’ t plainly be condemned or shamed out of universe .
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Jewly, you ’ re the one in our midst who ’ randomness contributed most crucially and actively to these conversations in Nashville for many years. Help me try to square-dance this poisonous circle .
All that said, I ’ megabyte immediately going to offer a survey of songs of 2021—the ones not found among my earlier album list—that capriciously crosses genres, like the rootless-cosmopolitan critic I am. I found it more engage to offer micro-thoughts on individual songs this year-end than broader ones about albums, so I ’ ve gone a short hogwild on this list. But I hope it offers a few discoveries and more themes to explore. Skim it for what catches your eye. I ’ ll tax return at the end of the Music Club series with a honking big Spotify playlist incorporating these tunes vitamin a well as all of our guests ’ best-of picks, for which I thank you in progress !
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Sippin ’ chocolate like I ’ m on a late-night display ,
Carl
A 2021 top 40 list:
A survival of the best songs I heard this year not found among my albums number. alphabetic by artist, with brief annotations .
Adele — “ Cry Your Heart Out ”
If you adore weepy Adele, 30 has plenty to offer. But for those who prefer the clever, self-deprecating personality that we know from interviews, this Motown-reggae-girl-group-synesthesia track sets its sights securely on the pleasure rationale without abandoning the album ’ s cardinal themes .
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Phoebe Bridgers — “ That Funny Feeling ”
I was ambivalent about comedian-musician Bo Burnham ’ s acclaimed Netflix lockdown special, Inside, but he does have a manner with satirical hooks. Bridgers ’ cover crystallizes Burnham ’ s litany of online-culture references as a dreamy “ It ’ s the end of the World ( As We Know It ) ” for the digital era .
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Cardi B — “ Up ”
We didn ’ thymine get as much of Cardi ’ s bracingly boisterous heart in 2021 as we needed, so this was a welcome boost. A shoutout, besides, to her duet track with Lizzo, “ Rumors. ”
Deerhoof — “ Scarcity is Manufactured ”
Going on three decades as one of the greatest avant-rock-pop-noise ensembles always, Deerhoof gets overlooked excessively easily. This anarchic pandemic-mood portrait from the group ’ s latest album, actually You Can, slapped my face ( dizzily, mind you ) for always neglecting them .
Lana Del Rey — “ White Dress ”
I can take or leave Del Rey ’ s devotion to “ glamor. ” Give me LDR at her weirdest, her voice pushed sparse to cracking as she unspools a funny-sad yarn about her days as a new wait slipping into “ the homo in Music Business conference ” —one of the most uncannily unforgettable turns of phrase of the year .
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Drake ft. Tems — “ Fountains ”
I have a hard time digesting the sprawling buffets that Drake albums have become. I ’ thousand subject to fill my plate with this lesser-recognized track from Certified Lover Boy. That ’ s largely due to the aglow nigerian singer Tems, besides featured this year ( along with Justin Bieber ) on the hit individual “ Essence ” by her compatriot, the Afrobeats star Wizkid—who made his own international breakthrough in 2016 as a guest on Drake ’ s “ One Dance. ” Drake ’ s curatorial acumen, ampere much as the commercial kind, remains a quality that keeps him relevant .
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Drakeo the Ruler — “ Engineer Scared ”
The tragic news of Darrell Caldwell a.k.a. Drakeo the Ruler ’ s death at age 28, by stabbing at a music festival in L.A., came this weekend while I was assembling this tilt, adding to the dispiritingly endless count of figures in hip-hop who ’ ve met premature fates in recent years. I hadn ’ thymine grok much into his catalogue before, and when I did, I was taken aback by how commanding and charismatic a knocker he was. This is barely one of the Drakeo numbers that stood out from a year in which he put out four albums and appeared on countless early tracks. RIP .
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Billie Eilish — “ Your Power ”
A lot of Eilish ’ randomness Happier Than Ever is about the arduous lessons she ’ mho learned in her short years in the music-and-fame diligence. This is not lone one of the most acute and luff, but besides among the must musically inviting .
Glaive — “ I Wan na Slam My Head against the Wall ”
A hit inside the hyperpop hive, whatever we precisely mean by that. caution, parents : The self-harm lecture is meant to bait you .
Walker Hayes ft. Kesha — “ Fancy Like ”
I go back and away between this version of the nation knock and the master, but Kesha ’ s a brainy choice of guest—she started out making alike jokes about déclassé indulgences, only downtown alternatively of small-town. And she de-bros the sung a tad .
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Illuminati Hotties — “ Pool Hopping ”
Singer-songwriter-producer Sarah Tudzin and her L.A. band have been firing off one witty, acerb birdcall after another for several years. This individual from Let Me Do One More, its third full-length but first base on Tudzin ’ s own independent label, conceals riches of practically Joan Didion-level social observation beneath its shimmery, summery surface .
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Cassandra Jenkins — “ Ambiguous Norway ”
Another entrance in the spoken-word sweepstakes of 2021, Jenkins ’ unharmed second album An Overview of Phenomenal Nature is hard. critical attention has zeroed in on the Slacker -meets-Laurie-Anderson colloquial travelogue, “ Hard Drive. ” But I have to plant my flag for Jenkins ’ tender, quavering feat to grapple with the death of the poet and singer David Berman ( Silver Jews/Purple Mountains ), with whom she was about to tour until the atrocious day in August 2019 that the newsworthiness of his suicide broke.

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Lil Nas X — “ Montero ( Call Me By Your Name ) ”
This sung was a capital-E event in a year brusque on good ones. What more is there to say ? Just relish that exhilarating slide into the erotic hell of what is credibly the biggest explicitly queer hit in dad history .
short Simz — “ Point and Kill ”
The British-Nigerian rapper Simbiatu Ajikawo has been on the advance for years, both on her own and as part of the applaud corporate Sault. Her 2021 album, sometimes I Feel Introvert, is near the top of many critics ’ lists. I found it a snatch spotty but still full of high points—many of them with television treatments ampere brawny as the songs themselves, like this one .
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Lorde — “ Stoned at the Nail Salon ”
Among solar Power ’ s many bleary stoner reflections, I found this possibly the most musically alluring and emotionally affecting .
L ’ Rain — “ Suck Teeth ”
No question, Brooklyn singer-composer Taja Cheek is one of the current artists leading into the future, and this song is one that has me falling, faint, collapsing intoxicated into her slipstream .
Mach-Hommy ft. Westside Gunn and Keisha Plum — “ Folie Á Deux ”
A boho experimentalist thus elusive that he ’ mho constantly ( not fair recently ) worn a masquerade, Mach-Hommy can seem like an improbable part of the hard-core crew at Buffalo, NY-based independent rap steel center field Griselda Records, even though he was one of its founders. His pray for Haiti was one of the best, most ambitious rap albums this year, and this lead one of its most concentrate sonic eruptions .
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Juçara Marçal — “ Delta Estácio Blues ”
The claim traverse is a highlight of this São Paulo experimentalist ’ south album, a sequence of constant sonic surprises that besides sustain a vigorous radio link to the traditions of brazilian music. She ’ s been active for a hanker while but was one of the most delightful discoveries of 2021 for me .
Mdou Moctar — “ Afrique Victime ”
With this sung, the Tuareg guitar hero put out the most shit-hot anticolonial psychedelic rock anthem ( the lyric video recording can clue you in on the translation ) since, I dunno, possibly brazilian Tropicalia or Jimi Hendrix. And there ’ s tons more where it came from .
Megan Thee Stallion — “ Thot Shit ”
This wasn ’ triiodothyronine precisely a distinctive scorch Megan single, but besides the most hilarious, grand-guignol, politically satirical video ( by director Aube Perrie ) this side of Lil Nas X in 2021 .
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The Mountain Goats — “ Arguing with the Ghost of Peter Laughner About His Coney Island Baby Review ”
The longwinded title of this song from the Mountain Goats ’ latest album, Dark In hera, is a deep rock-nerd dive. It references an infamously drugs-and-violence-filled Lou Reed criminal record review in Creem magazine in 1976, written by the talented Cleveland musician Peter Laughner ( of the legendary band Pere Ubu ) the year before his end by kernel pervert at 24. But that ’ s not actually what the song is about. It is an elegy from Mountain Goats frontman John Darnielle for David Berman—see the Jenkins entry above. It expresses Darnielle ’ s huge admiration for his songwriting peer while lamenting the sentimentalization of artists ’ suicide. ( See besides : Mia Doi Todd ’ s “ Music Life. ” ) It is the one sung on this list I can ’ t listen to without breaking down. I thought of it again this month when we lost Greg Tate. not that Tate self-destruct, but these lines surely apply : “ You who took with you the ancient spell/ When you fell. ”
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Muna ft. Phoebe Bridgers — “ Silk Chiffon ”
A deliriously delectable lesbian hymn from the L.A. electropop band, with an uncharacteristically chipper Bridgers along for the ride and a video recording that pays protection to that millennial queer-teen ur-text, 1999 ’ sulfur But I ’ m a Cheerleader starring Natasha Lyonne .
Kacey Musgraves — “ Justified ”
“ Healing doesn ’ triiodothyronine happen in a straight line, ” Musgraves sings in this track from Star-Crossed, which as an album probes all the angles of that insight. But with a overcharge this entice, you ’ ra sure to feel better for at least a few minutes .
Carly Pearce — “ 29 ”
Watch out, Adele—there ’ s another age-enumerating grief singer, and this one has Nashville trade in her holster. This racetrack is the centerpiece of Pearce ’ s album of the lapp name about “ the year that I got married and divorced. ” The feelings are deoxyadenosine monophosphate big as that implies. fortunately, the music is besides .
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Robert Plant and Alison Krauss — “ It Don ’ thymine Bother Me ”
I said my man about the Plant-Krauss rejoinder album at length recently, including this enlistment de force led by Krauss. Exquisite music that begs no far argument .
Caroline Polachek — “ Bunny is a Rider ”
What is this song by this indie-pop loyalist all about ? No idea, truly, which may be part of why there seems to be no limit to how often I ’ meter felicitous to hear it .
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Olivia Rodrigo — “ Deja Vu ”
There ’ randomness nothing explicit in this sung that acknowledges how off-base its cardinal sentiment is, however common and relatable : jealous scandalization that an ex-wife is doing with their newly partner things you used to do, and not good the aphrodisiac parts. Love is many-splendored but love story has a more limit range, and you don ’ t have exclusivity rights over anyone ’ second experiences equitable because you got there first. ( besides, Olivia, you didn ’ thyroxine invent Billy Joel. ) But it ’ south that identical tension that makes the song even more charm than the other three or four great Rodrigo singles I could have put here .
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Shad — “ Black Averageness ”
All the stream authorization rhetoric in pop is great, but once in a while, it seems healthy for person to wink and say “ preceptor ’ thyroxine believe the hype. ” Veteran Toronto knocker Shad opens this track by saying, “ I love Black excellence… This is not that/ This is somethin ’ different. ” He goes on to celebrate the ordinary virtues of being merely okay, even mediocre, but getting by. such stand-in from inhalation feels particularly welcome these days. ( Get your loved ones some adequate presents this holiday season ! ) besides, I think my compatriots will agree that, in all its gallant corniness, this may be one of the most canadian songs ever .
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Sleaford Mods — “ Mork and Mindy ”
More britisher post-punk talk-singing, this time from a band that ’ second been around a twelve years and with a decidedly propertyless stress. This birdcall about growing up feeling like an extraterrestrial being in your dead-end district veers affably off in all directions on many reserve tanks of unspent anger .
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Jazmine Sullivan — “ Pick Up Your Feelings ”
dawn Richards ’ and Rochelle Jordan ’ mho albums represented R & B among my albums list, but Sullivan ’ s stands right alongside them. This track in detail might barely be the best in the writing style the year, an lavish yet ebullient kiss-off to a ambidextrous chase .
Taylor Swift — “ All Too Well ( 10-Minute Version ) ( Taylor ’ s Version ) ” ( Saturday Night Live adaptation )
I dreaded this one in progress, and I decidedly don ’ thymine think it outstrips the original, which remains possibly Swift ’ second best song. Some of the extra material here dilutes and distracts. But there are superb ones too—I love “ you kept me like a hidden, but I kept you like an oath, ” and the bits about the ridicule and her dad, for example. But you know what I liked best ? All that discussion ! It made 2021 actually fun for a few days .
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Tinashe — “ Bouncin ’ ”
Another great escapist traverse, another great video, and another great R & B singer who doesn ’ t quite get her due .
Vanishing Twin — “ Big Moonlight ( Ookii Gekkou ) ”
Another London band new to me this year, this one evocative of 1970s Brazil and, above all, Stereolab. But the solid world should be a thousand percentage more Stereolab-like, so yes, please .
Martha Wainwright — “ Love Will Be Reborn ”
Adele, Kacey, Olivia, Red ( Taylor ’ s Version ) ? sure, but if you want to talk breakup/divorce records, fix to be dismantled and then restored by the style traverse from 2021 ’ s comeback album by this daughter of Montreal. Martha is excessively frequently unjustly overshadowed by the compound stature of the solid Wainwright-McGarrigle kin, but she verifies her aesthetic autonomy here in more ways than one .
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Ryley Walker — “ Rang Dizzy ”
This Chicago singer-guitarist, whose work wavers between neo-pastoral, prog, and jazz/improv, is indeed fecund that I ’ ve been daunted. But I ’ ve started to dabble, and this tune with its extremely 2021 dazed-realization punchline “ fuck me—I ’ thousand alert ” makes me tidal bore to hear more .
Jessie Ware — “ Please ”
Shouldn ’ t Ware have been wholly exhausted from pumping out therefore many neo-disco bangers on end year ’ s What ’ s Your joy ? then she turns round and drops one of this year ’ s most irresistible singles, excessively, just in casing anyone still dares underestimate her .
Tion Wayne x Russ Millions ft. Arrdee, 3x3E1 and ZT, Bugzy Malone, Fivio Foreign, Darkoo and Buni — “ Body 2 ”
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The remix of this hit London drill hymn attracted a huge cross-continental project. It may not be the most subtle emissary for the U.K. hip-hop view ( for that see little Simz, or the Dave album on my earlier number ), but it ’ s an enthralling one-stop sample .
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The Weather Station — “ Parking Lot ”
One planet in environmental despair under a furrow. A half-century on from Joni Mitchell ’ second “ Big Yellow Taxi, ” not only is it barely possible for Mitchell ’ s boyfriend canadian Tamara Lindeman to recall a paradise under the park draw, but a solitary confinement bird is a heavier symbol of fragility than she can stand. From the album Ignorance .
rickety — “ Lent Foot ”
San Francisco ’ s Jon Leidecker has made diverting experimental electronic music since the late 1980s. But I ’ molarity picking this song from his latest album Popular Monitress primarily for the revolutionize video that combines it with the banish view from a certain democratic space movie ( shhh ) ; it ’ s a creation of the artist-composer who invented the mashup decades before YouTube, Plunderphonics overlord John Oswald.

Yotuel, Gente De Zona, Descemer Bueno, Maykel Osorbo, and El Funky — “ Patria y Vida ”
There are protest songs, and then there are acts of defiance so audacious that they dare the secret police to come to the door. That ’ s what this ensemble of Cuban artists ( some on and some off the island ) did with this anti-government track. Protesters adopted it as an hymn, and sure enough, the police came. The most demeaning act of melodious courage I heard about this class .
Read the former introduction. Read the adjacent entrance .

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