Exclaim!'s 30 Best Songs of 2021

BY Exclaim! StaffPublished Dec 2, 2021

Looking back over the past 12 months, a surprising trend emerges: spoken word. We don't mean rap, mind you — we're talking about actual spoken word, whether in the form of non-singing post-punk vocalists or artists reading poetry over gorgeous soundscapes.

So what's with all the spoken word? Maybe it's just a trend, but it also might have something to do with the need to communicate thoughts as clearly as possible at this tumultuous point in history. This year, artists had a lot they needed to get off their chests.

Of course, Exclaim!'s list of the best songs of 2021 also includes fiery rap bangers, elegant folk rock laments, and some truly fantastic pop anthems. Whether articulating the weariness that marked 2021 or raging against it, all these songs carried us through the past year.

30. Leanne Betasamosake Simpson
"I Pity the Country"

(You've Changed)

The centrepiece of Leanne Betasamosake Simpson's absorbing album Theory of Ice is a reinterpretation of Willie Dunn's incisive colonial critique, which regrettably remains no less relevant decades on from its composition. Over a measured full-band arrangement, Simpson sings Dunn's words with a solemnity palpably different from her other spoken word turns on the record, leaving each line to linger. Her added "I pity this country" gives way to a resounding rock crescendo, as if to spur greater action in dismantling this genocidal state.
Calum Slingerland

29. Big Red Machine feat. Taylor Swift


If 2020 taught us anything, it's that Taylor Swift and Aaron Dessner (and give or take Justin Vernon) play well together. The folklore/evermore collaborators' reunion on Dessner and Vernon's How Long Do You Think It's Gonna Last? LP as Big Red Machine was as stirring as the team-ups that preceded it: "Renegade" sets a empathetic, warm-amber mood in the face of resistance, Swift's crisp delivery leading over serpentine acoustic guitar, swathes of percussion and Vernon's impassioned harmonies.
Megan LaPierre

28. Graham Wright

(Ray Cat)

As a story song, "Bridget" is vivid enough to be a three-minute rom-com. Amidst chipper acoustic guitar strums and Strokes-y electric riffs, Tokyo Police Club's Graham Wright describes one of those "if we both turn 40 and we're not married yet…" pacts before expertly detailing how it falls apart. With hurt feelings and humour, it's self-aware about self-pitying.
Alex Hudson

27. Kanye West feat. the Weeknd & Lil Baby

(GOOD / Def Jam)

Kanye West's 2021 has been tumultuous; he dealt with a divorce, numerous Donda delays, and an endless parade of controversies and feuds. Through all of the noise, West found the inspiration to create "Hurricane," a sombre yet empowering song that speaks of enduring tribulations and triumphing. The song's soulful essence is brought out by the astounding vocal performance of the Weeknd and heartfelt verse from Lil Baby, which are both upheld by West's resonant production.
Papa Minnow

26. Alice Glass

(Eating Glass)

On the first single to be released from her upcoming debut solo album, former Crystal Castles vocalist Alice Glass plots revenge against unholy spectres, addressing the reprehensible treatment she endured during the formative decade of her career with ruthless abandon. The track finds Glass settling into her artistic maturity, where she has embraced a distilled — and quite haunting — version of her sound. It's a triumph for the dark-techno vet, who wraps biting lyrics in a Cimmerian fog, embodying the very demons she's exorcising while subverting toxic power dynamics.
Allie Gregory

25. Skiifall
"Lost Angeles"


Hailing from Montreal by way of St. Vincent, Skiifall released his first EP earlier this summer, earning cosigns from critics and celebrities like Jorja Smith and Virgil Abloh. On "Lost Angeles," the 20-year-old rapper dips between English and patois to create a breakup anthem for the ages. As elements of dancehall and soca permeate pop music, Skiifall's storytelling traces that influence back to its roots. Armed with its immediate earworm chorus, "Lost Angeles" proves that Skiifall has tapped a unique vein.
Daniel McIntosh

24. black midi
"John L"

(Rough Trade) 

After black midi's invigorating debut LP Schlagenheim led to the band's immediate ascension upon impact, it was hard to image how they would follow it up with anything comparable in its ingenuity. They silenced doubters with a baffling lead single to sophomore album Cavalcade that still feels indescribable, as the band constructs an impossibly dense, ever-metamorphosing supergiant of instrumentation. Tension releases more tension, and the silence is most suffocating of all. The infernal din reveals the enormity of Geordie Greep's words. 
Yoshi Maclear Wall

23. Polo G


Who knew what trap music needed was more ukulele? Over plucky Einer Bankz strings and a nodding Synco rhythm, Polo G elects not to turn up but turn inward. Unpacking the downsides of fame and deking through a gamut of emotions — anxiety, exhaustion, paranoia, isolation — in two tight verses, Polo's raw reflection helps us relate: "When they ask if I'm okay, it just make everything seem worse." I guess that's how it sounds when you're winning. Ukulele is the new cowbell. More, please.
Luke Fox

22. Lucy Dacus


With the release of her third album, Home Video, indie rocker Lucy Dacus solidified herself as one of the best at her craft, as the true bite of her vivid storytelling creeps up on listeners. But even the heaviest revelations pulled from yearbook margins on the jaunty "Brando" sound sweet in hindsight: "You called me cerebral / I didn't know what you meant / Now I do, would it have killed you to call me pretty instead?"
Megan LaPierre

21. Low

(Sub Pop)

This highlight of Low's astonishing HEY WHAT is a nebulous note of interdependence, playing to both the grinding and gentle sounds of their 13th album. In moving harmony, Alan Sparhawk and Mimi Parker sing of disconnect, their pacing set by the song's shimmering thump, occasionally punctuated by the titular exclamation. Its formless, ambient coda drifts between darkness and light, with Parker's held note clarion calls of "hey" and "what?" serving as beacons. This is the sound of reaching out.
Calum Slingerland

20. Snotty Nose Rez Kids feat. Just John
"Sink or Swim"

(Distorted Muse)

From the bone marrow rattle of the beat's distortion to the shouted chorus about "being a mess since my first breath," SNRK's "Sink or Swim" is a singularly cathartic moshpit anthem. The duo's lyrics about depression and vice are in keeping with their career of socially conscious rhymes. But climactic lines about refusing to conform and not surviving but thriving, along with the song's tenacious tone, help "Sink or Swim" soundtrack their triumphant renaissance.
Kyle Mullin

19. Turnstile


Turnstile's explosive third album, GLOW ON, ripped through our collective consciousness like a bullet. Receiving near-universal acclaim, it quickly cemented itself as one of 2021's finest hardcore submissions whose candy-cotton skies belied a razor-sharp underbelly. On "HOLIDAY," the Baltimore quintet reframe the existential qualms of life through the lens of an extended sojourn. "I can sail with no direction / Like it's a holiday," yells frontman Brendan Yates into the void. It's 172 seconds of pure adrenaline that throws caution to the wind and does not disappoint.
Dylan Barnabe

18. Dorothea Paas
"Anything Can't Happen"

(Telephone Explosion)

If anything can happen, then it's equally true that anything can't happen. For every possibility that crystallizes into reality, there are thousands — maybe millions! — that suddenly disappear, leaving us to wonder what we've lost in the exchange of question for answer. This amorphous regret is what moves Dorothea Paas's sweeping ode to the debilitating power of "what if?" and the delicacy of trust — how can we ever be sure of anything, when anything can happen at any time?
Kaelen Bell

17. Silk Sonic
"Leave the Door Open"


Rich pianos, twinkling vibraphones and lush, delicious swells, make everything about Silk Sonic's comeback single feel like a hug. With liberal helpings of warmth, romance and levity, Bruno Mars and Anderson .Paak prove themselves to be the super duo the world didn't know it needed. This track feels like a sigh of relief and, for the rest of the year, it left R&B lovers breathless for more. An impeccable teaser for a standout album.
A. Harmony

16. Mdou Moctar
"Afrique Victime"


Mdou Moctar is a master of the guitar solo, deftly weaving a world of influences into each lick and groove, but the title track from his latest album soars due to an atypical element: his lyrics. Sung in Tamasheq and French, Moctar bluntly protests colonialism: "Africa is a victim of so many crimes / If we stay silent, it will be the end of us / Why is this happening? What is the reason behind this?" Sure, the inevitable solo rips, but his words make the lasting impression.
Matt Bobkin

Click "Next" to continue reading.15. Ada Lea

(Next Door/Saddle Creek)

Ada Lea's "damn" captures the weariness that marked this year. To begin, the narrator is at a party, observing and feeling deeply, and then starts to name what's wearing her thin: "the work," "the music," "the fun that's missing." At first, you think her curses will be contained to a single verse, but at the end of the song, she returns to her bullet-point list of grievances. As each downward strum of the guitar matches each utterance of "damn," the exhaustion and grief is magnified. When Lea names her anxieties, there is catharsis.
Laura Stanley

14. Big Thief
"Little Things"


Big Thief don't miss. One of rock's most prolific and potentially generation-defining bands, Big Thief are returning with a 20-song double album called Dragon New Warm Mountain I Believe in You in early 2022, led by the carefree and untethered "Little Things." Its free-flowing nature is an irrefutable statement of the four-piece's singular chemistry as they twist, stretch and spiral into a propulsive weightlessness while Adrianne Lenker's spirited warbles get tangled up in a lovesick daze. 
Chris Gee

13. Lil Nas X
"MONTERO (Call Me by Your Name)"


After the cute novelty hit "Old Town Road" won over elementary school kids everywhere, it seemed fair to assume that Lil Nas X had peaked. But then he pole-danced into hell, seduced Satan and anointed himself a queer icon and larger-than-life provocateur. With its fluttering flamenco rhythms and steady barrage of hooks, "MONTERO" Trojan horses graphic lyrics about drug use and gay sex into the mainstream. Lil Nas X was always a master of memes; now he's got a message, along with some incredible pop songs.
Alex Hudson

12. Squid feat. Martha Skye Murphy


In a banner year for post-punk, Squid managed to stand out by pushing and stretching the genre's boundaries. A swirling tower of sound, the eight-and-a-half-minute(!) lead single from the band's debut album pulls in elements of punk, funk and krautrock. An allegory for patriarchal scene politics, singer-drummer Ollie Judge sing-speaks about taking control of one's narrative, oblivious to whose agency is removed in the process, as voiced by Martha Skye Murphy.
Ian Gormely

11. Bo Burnham
"That Funny Feeling"


Much like Bob Dylan captured the spirit of the '60s on "The Times They Are A-Changin," Bo Burnham gave voice to the COVID-19 era on Inside. The mix of isolation and numb macabre is especially visceral on "That Funny Feeling," where Burnham laments "the quiet comprehending of the ending of it all." The "funny feeling" he describes (spoiler: it's depression) is painfully relatable to many, and future generations can look back on this to fully understand the unique horror of the last two years.
Max Morin

10. Tyler, the Creator feat. YoungBoy Never Broke Again & Ty Dolla $ign


Tyler, the Creator has always embraced an eclectic array of musical influences, drawing inspiration from multiple genres and putting his spin on them. With "WUSYANAME," Tyler presents a lush, luxurious love song built on a foundation of '90s R&B nostalgia, sampling H-Town's "Back Seat (Wit No Sheets)" as he dotingly divulges his feelings for a mystery woman. Boasting excellent guest appearances from Ty Dolla $ign and YoungBoy Never Broke Again, the track perfectly toes the line between past and present, instrumentally capturing the spirit of '90s R&B while showcasing a few of contemporary hip-hop's greatest talents.
Wesley McLean

9. Capella Grey


Sampling a legendary hip-hop anthem well enough to stack up against the original is no easy feat. Capella Grey's "GYALIS" makes a considerable case as a future hall-of-famer as it twists Juvenile's 1998 classic "Back That Azz Up." The infectious contemporary hit is a nod to Grey's Jamaican heritage, memorializing the patois term for the quintessential ladies' man that leaves other men envious. Let a gyalis tell it and he'll smirk and leave you to your interpretation of his persona, whether positive or negative; let Grey tell it and he'll likely respond that he's just "that guy."
Veracia Ankrah

8. The Weather Station

(Next Door)

"I should get all this dying off of my mind." That's the one that's hard to shake — of all the exacting words that dot the Weather Station's Ignorance, it's this line in "Atlantic" that best captures the record's anxious heart. How can we observe the immensity of the tides without also seeing their fragility? How can we watch birds fly without envisioning their end? We can't, and despite that selfish pang pushing us to look away, we shouldn't.

Ignorance is a record that asks you to reject its namesake, even when covering your eyes is so much simpler. "Atlantic" is where Tamara Lindeman best makes her case for opening yourself to reality, to touch pain in the name of truth.
Kaelen Bell

7. Dry Cleaning
"Scratchcard Lanyard"


"Scratchcard Lanyard" is properly introductory. The opener on Dry Cleaning's debut album New Long Leg, it doles out the elements of the band's sound one by one, as if to say, "Here are the colours we'll be painting with today." The track invites you into the record with a jaunty bassline and a workhorse beat. A skittering guitar line and some spoken vocals soon follow. Replete with diaristic sentiments and quotidian observations, vocalist Florence Shaw's lyrics are always just on the edge of overwhelming with their specificity. Around her, Shaw's bandmates find a way to elevate lines like "I've come to hand weave my own bunk bed ladder in a few short sessions" to anthemic proportions.
Tom Piekarski

6. Cadence Weapon feat. Jacques Greene


Who knew '80s champion Formula One racer Ayrton Senna would prove such a potent rap muse? Veteran indie rapper Cadence Weapon turns Senna's name into a mantra on the chorus of his song of the same name off his Polaris Music Prize-winning LP Parallel World. Unaware of that obscure racetrack star? The song will still grip your torso like the inertia of sitting in a careening vehicle, thanks to the propulsion of both the beat by Jacques Greene and Cadence's flow. You'll want to take more than one spin around this racetrack of a track to catch each densely packed, breathlessly delivered reference.
Kyle Mullin

5. Caroline Polachek
"Bunny Is a Rider" 

(Perpetual Novice)

This one-off single from experimental pop singer Caroline Polachek is 2021's ultimate fantasy. Over top of production from PC Music affiliate Danny L Harle, Polachek — who has spoken about her own complicated relationship with social media — paints a picture of a fantasy figure. Bunny has no dependents, no commitments, no fixed position, no strings attached. Bunny is a slippery character, someone who manages to make themself unavailable. The tension comes from the song's central, yet unspoken question: how does such a person even exist, and how can I be more like Bunny? 
Ian Gormely

4. Wet Leg
"Chaise Longue"


Of all the emotions I felt in 2021, "cool" and "sexy" and "silly" weren't high on the list. In swaggered Wet Leg from the Isle of Wight, delivering a debut single that was everything this year wasn't. Over a thrumming post-punk bassline, vocalist Rhian Teasdale speaks lyrics like "Would you like us to assign someone to butter your muffin?" with a disaffected cool straight outta early '00s Brooklyn. And it wasn't a fluke, since follow-up single "Wet Dream" is nearly as good.
Alex Hudson

3. Japanese Breakfast
"Be Sweet"

(Dead Oceans)

"I wanna believe in you / I wanna believe in something," Michelle Zauner sings over dreamy synths — something that could be a heartfelt plea, or a line from The X-Files.

Japanese Breakfast recently received two Grammy nominations thanks to the groovy stylings of her third LP, Jubilee. At the helm is "Be Sweet" — a lead single that represents everything there is to love about J Brekkie's new era. It's a funky, exuberant, and heartfelt song that you'll find yourself dancing to with your cat when you're home alone. Even sung in Simlish, it's sublime.
Karen K. Tran

2. MUNA feat. Phoebe Bridgers
"Silk Chiffon"

(Saddest Factory)

Queer joy is radiant on MUNA's debut for Phoebe Bridgers' Saddest Factory Records. The infectious, euphoric "Silk Chiffon" embodies all things fun — a whimsical treat that perfectly encapsulates the coming-of-age longing felt for that one special crush. Weaving in imagery of rollerblades and breezy miniskirts, the band have perhaps delivered the ultimate song of summer; it's everything Katy Perry's "Teenage Dream" wishes it could've been, while remaining casually cool, feminine, poppy and above all, capital "G" Gay. As guitarist Naomi McPherson summarized aptly in a statement, it's a song "for kids to have their first gay kiss to."
Allie Gregory

1. Cassandra Jenkins
"Hard Drive"

(Ba Da Bing!)

Simply put, Cassandra Jenkins' "Hard Drive" is a stroke of genius. It's a song that came out of left field early in the year, in the heart of a pandemic winter, when morale was at an all-time low and we forgot how to take care of the relationship between our minds and our bodies. On "Hard Drive," Jenkins gives us time to "leave room for grace" and find our sense of self again.

The song is narrated by Jenkins's smooth and reassuring speaking voice as she recalls several distinct, impromptu conversations while a shy saxophone and a softly pattering snare slowly coalesce into a restorative groove. Jenkins refers to a "hard drive" in two different ways, the mind being a repository for memories while the road of life is difficult to navigate. One is figurative and one is more literal, but as the song progresses, both meanings melt into one enlightened message: take the time to reflect, to mourn, to feel, to breathe. Jenkins's spoken, poetic verse melds with her restful melodic voice, letting moments of clarity sink in yet softening awareness in a subliminal way as she gently allows her intuition to take over, sighing, "Close your eyes, I'll count to three. Take a deep breath. Count with me."
Chris Gee

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