Exclaim!'s 30 Best Songs of 2021
Published Dec 02, 202115. 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.
14. Big Thief
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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."
8. The Weather Station
"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.
7. Dry Cleaning
"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.
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.
5. Caroline Polachek
"Bunny Is a Rider"
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?
4. Wet Leg
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.
3. Japanese Breakfast
"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
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."
1. Cassandra Jenkins
(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."