The Top 25 Tracks of the Year
From post-breakup anthems to the return of the club banger, and viral TikTok hits. These are the tracks that resonated in 2021
Joy Orbison ft. Léa Sen
As Joy Orbison, Peter O’Grady is best known for being the purveyor of Big Club Bangers like Hyph Mngo. But in 2021, the south London producer embraced a more personal mode of expression on his debut full-length still slipping vol. 1. better, a link-up with London-based rising star Léa Sen, is an immaculate deep house cut and the mixtape’s clear high point. Amidst the sumptuous pads and slinky percussion, Sen’s silken vocal luxuriates, conjuring a nocturnal mood that is both intimate and strangely addictive. Hyph what?
It’s 2021 and Chloe Bailey only has one shot. As half of the critically acclaimed R&B sister-duo Chloe x Halle, she had already performed the feat of stepping out from under the shadow of her mentor, Beyoncé. Now, as a solo artist, she needs to assert herself not as the teen vocalist she became famous as, but as an adult – with her own vision. Luckily, Have Mercy is a song that harnesses all the bravado and gumption Bailey needs to strike out on her own. Crafted around incendiary production from Murda Beatz, Chloe stands bemused at her own domination (“Why I keep bossing like I do? Why I keep flossing like I do?”). It’s feisty and authentic, and the perfect foray into a solo career sure to reach dizzying heights.
I Do This All the Time
“Sunscreen for millennials” is how Rebecca Taylor billed her comeback single, but I Do This All the Time could just as easily be seen as a #nofilter subversion of influencer culture. Motivational quotes and positive affirmations mingle with a laundry list of painful memories on this wickedly funny, gut wrenchingly on-the-nose exploration of life as a 30-something woman in 2021. “Don’t be intimidated by all the babies they have/ Don’t be embarrassed that all you’ve had is fun,” Taylor intones in her world-weary, Rotherham drawl, the sparseness of the verses contrasting beautifully with the maximalist choruses, packed with gospel-style harmonies and swirling strings. The accompanying video found Taylor embracing a younger version of herself protectively, underscoring the song’s real message: it’s time you showed yourself some compassion.
You just cannot go wrong with a club track called Bonk. New York producer Anthony Naples released plenty of music in 2021, including his ruggedly ambient Chameleon album, but the most satisfying material turned up on the Club Pez EP. His return to the centre of the dancefloor is led by this jelly-limbed spin on UK funky and broken beat (with a hint of kuduro modernism in the vein of Lisbon’s DJ Marfox, Lycox, et al). But in addition to the shuffling drums and bossy synth lines, the deep house pro puts his own stamp on it with dreamy pads and a blast of the fog machine. This is how you put a bonk on it.
BackRoad Gee ft. BG and TizzTrap
There’s something intensely likeable about BackRoad Gee. He’s hyperactive and playful – and that’s just in his day-to-day life. In the studio, whipping up solo cuts or high-level collaborations with the likes of Pa Salieu, JME or Lethal Bizzle, the London MC brings this energy and then some – raising the heat to near-combustible levels. He’s got the bars, the flow and that unique blend of UK flavours (he moves from grime to rap to drill with ease) to back up his approach with something grittier, as debut mixtape Reporting Live (From the Back of the Roads) demonstrates. A Yo is a ‘tape highlight’; a raucous Nick French-produced link-up with BG and TizzTrap with more bounce than a space hopper. Remember those?
Tokischa ft. Haraca Kiko and El Cherry Scom
Reggaeton being filthy is nothing new. It’s what makes the genre so thrilling; this ability to physically move you to the point of total liberation, breaking down all inhibitions until it’s just you and your perreo on the dancefloor. But for a movement so sexually emancipated, the social conditions in which it is made are far less tolerant. Latinidad is still ruled by a religious, post-colonial conservatism that marrs the diaspora. So when Dominican Republic’s puckish newcomer Tokischa stepped out with Tukuntazo, she wrong-footed all the right people. Joined by Haraca Kiko and El Cherry Scom, it’s a song about casual sex and the many ways one could enjoy it, embodying – and honouring – the carnal energy of dembow, enriching our culture one perreo sucio at a time.
Rachel Grace Almeida
It’s not often you hear a hardcore punk band confine their rage to short bursts, sandwiched between sections of washed-out surf rock and woozy R&B. Yet somehow Power Trip, Surfer Blood and Blood Orange have all breathed on this Turnstile track, which refuses to break free of its restraints and is all the more effective for it. The Baltimore shapeshifters have always prioritised rhythm, never allowing the hardest beatdown or the filthiest riff to overshadow the all-important groove that turns every Turnstile pit into a dancefloor and/or therapy session. Here, vocalist Brendan Yates sings of unknown pain and a long process of healing that has barely begun, caught between the tight drum pattern which keeps him on course, and the crunchy power chords that threaten to rock him overboard.
WizKid ft. Tems
For Essence, Afrobeats star Wizkid recruited Nigerian newcomer Tems to help him create a slow, brooding banger that, while limber and low-key, really got under your skin. It’s not so much that it’s relaxed as it is hinged on a vibe, from the hazy echo of the horns to Tems’ unforced delivery of the track’s infectious hook, “You don’t need no other body”. It’s clear the vibe resonated, in fact, the track completely blew up – Justin Bieber even jumped on a remix – and landing on every Top 40 chart under the sun. Of course, we should have expected no less from a beloved figurehead and one of the year’s most tipped new artists.
Of the myriad semi-trends that came to define dance music in 2021, the continued creativity around 100 BPM proved to be one of the most captivating. From Bristol to New York to Kampala, just about everybody has been embracing downtempo, reggaeton-inspired club music. So when three of the most revered names in this space came together, it was bound to turn heads. A collaboration between DJ Python, Florentino and Kelman Duran – all formidable forces in their own right – Sangre Nueva (Spanish for ‘new blood’) was the year’s most exciting supergroup, and Sola was the eponymous EP’s highlight: a razor-sharp cut of melancholic club music with all the flex and flare of a mid-noughties Dre beat.
Amaarae ft. Kali Uchis, Moliy
SAD GIRLZ LUV MONEY REMIX
Golden Child Entertainment
Pulled from Amaarae’s excellent 2020 debut full-length, The Angel You Don’t Know, the alluringly melancholic SAD GIRLZ LUV MONEY is given new life with this Kali Uchis-assisted reimagining. Amaarae has previously described the song as “a prayer” and you can certainly sense a hint of the divine (“talk like my words are made of angel dust”) in Uchis’ verse. Building around the original feature by Ghanaian artist Moliy – where she sings of driving in a Range Rover and getting paid – Uchis transforms the track into a honey-dipped, bilingual exploration of female pleasure, which blends into Amaarae’s invitation to get intimate on the dancefloor. Dedicated to independent women everywhere, SAD GIRLZ LUV MONEY invites you to worship at the altar of three female artists calling the shots.
On Introvert, Little Simz searches for herself – specifically, “Simbi the person” – amongst the chaos of the world. She vividly lays out a detailed landscape of global turmoil and moments of despair, from war and Apartheid to an illness that’s left her aunt bed-bound. Simz’s deft storytelling is dramatised by rich brass and the stomp of marching drums. Piercing through the havoc, however, is a palpable hope (“Find a way, I’ll find a way”) and the album’s theme of inner strength. Introvert is the sound of an artist recognising how to harness the power of introversion, reconciling Simbi the person with Little Simz the artist. An anthem for self-acceptance, and as a result, self-growth.
Bunny Is a Rider
Being a Caroline Polachek fan is simply the gift that keeps on giving. With Bunny Is a Rider – the follow-up to her improbably brilliant cover of The Corrs’ Breathless – the former Chairlift singer excels herself on a skeletal groove that leaves tons of space for that very special voice. A lyrical ode to being slippery and unavailable, the song is held together by little more than a whistled melody and a phonky bassline played by co-producer Danny L. Harle, resulting in one of the most stark and immediate pop songs of the year.
What’s the point of enduring a world-shattering breakup if you can’t lean into the drama of it all? Valentine, Lindsey Jordan’s return as Snail Mail, takes this literally, from the cinematic synths of its opening lines to the Victorian bloodbath of a music video. Here, the singer-songwriter bounces back from the brink – of heartbreak, but also the fallout of her rising stardom which landed her in rehab. Jordan shows a newfound clarity as she confidently deadpans, “You won’t believe what just two months do/ I’m older now, believe me/ I adore you.” Ah, that all too familiar power struggle that can consume you after the collapse of a relationship. Sometimes, wailing into a pillow is the only way to deal. But for all the other times, a scream-along to Valentine’s lovesick hook will do just fine.
Rachel Grace Almeida
Just for me
It’s PinkPantheress’ world and we’re just living in it. That’s how it has felt this year, anyway, as the ascendant star took over TikTok and radio airwaves at breakneck speed. Just for me is the effervescent gem in her still-expanding treasure chest, and the most potent example of the cross-pollinated sound with which she’s made her name. There’s the Mura Masa-produced beat, buoyant and UKG-indebted, with the artists citing Craig David as an apparent inspiration. Then there’s her angelic voice, delivered ever so casually, much like another 00s icon, Lily Allen. It’s this careful fusion of musical – and aesthetic – influences that makes her music so enticing; for all its misty-eyed nostalgia, it sounds unequivocally fresh.
Lana Del Rey
“My body is a map of LA,” sighs Lana Del Rey on Arcadia, the swooning piano ballad that ramped up anticipation for Blue Banisters. Once upon a time, that kind of humdinger would have elicited groans from the cheap seats. But to listen to that line in 2021 is to be somehow drawn in, not turned off. The combination of pared-back piano and minor-key sincerity gave the impression of a creative reset – and it sounded sublime. It’s a remarkable thing, to be able to reach into your own mythology over and over, and each time resurface with something that resonates – surprises even. Indeed, when it comes to great American songwriters of the 21st century, all roads lead to Lana.
Scratcha DVA x :3LON
After years of incubating steadily in the townships around Johannesburg, 2021 finally saw amapiano break out and flood the streets of London. With its close sonic ties to UK funky and gqom, it was no surprise to see the sound championed by artists like Supa D, Ikonika and Scratcha DVA – all of whom wasted no time in putting their own UK spin on the genre. A highlight amongst this unbridled wave of creativity was Flex – a collaboration between DVA (as Scratchclart) and Baltimore singer :3LON. Precise, lustrous and poppy, Flex feels like a watershed moment: a celebration of amapiano’s arrival as a truly global movement.
Unravel in the Designated Zone
Anyone who’s been following Anz knows she’s one of the UK’s most versatile dance producers right now, as demonstrated on her annual Spring/Summer Dubs mixes, which leap between electro smackers, fizzy R&B edits and tearout jungle with ease. But even in a banner year for the Manchester producer – one that included a proper radio hit with the sassy You Could Be – it was Unravel in the Designated Zone that really hit the spot. With its sharp ‘n’ funky drums and outrageous electro-boogie lead, it’s the most anthemic of her productions to date, guaranteed to kick off a naughty terrace chant in the club.
good 4 u
As the culturally appointed leader of 2021’s pop punk revival, Olivia Rodrigo’s third single came as a curveball after her breakthrough with X-Factor friendly balladry (drivers license) and psychedelic pop (deja vu). Instead, good 4 u draws on the 00s lineage of radio-friendly teenage angst, giving a Taylor Swift by way of Avril Lavigne brand of sarcasm and a melody that flies so close to Paramore’s Misery Business that Hayley Williams and Josh Farro were retroactively added to the writing credits. Between its musical references and the video – an homage to teen revenge film Jennifer’s Body – good 4 u deals heavily in nostalgia, filtering Y2K’s aesthetic awkwardness through a composed modern lens. The teens we were, and the teens we wish we had been, united under one banger.
For seasoned clubbers, the name Blawan is sure to conjure up some nostalgia. Perhaps that’s why the producer, who has weathered both the post-dubstep explosion and the early 2010s industrial techno revival, decided to go full vintage on Under Belly. On his XL debut, Blawan recontextualises brass band sounds with a tongue-in-cheek flair. Despite calling back to his idiosyncratic extremes of old, the track supposedly marks a new period that finds Blawan “moving further away from the club and the touring DJ life of the previous ten years of his career and deeper into the studio”. Whether or not that will prove true, the amped-up reverb, staccato tempo and addictive drum breaks on Under Belly leave us eagerly anticipating what’s next.
Space Afrika ft. Blackhaine
This year, Manchester’s flourishing underground scene continued to make its presence felt well beyond the city’s borders. This collaboration, by two of its brightest stars and referencing Manchester’s bee emblem, is as close to a declaration of pride as these complex artists are likely to get. “Man are tryna get rich at the top of the map,” raps Blackhaine, his Lancashire accent rolling across the scorched-earth ambience and corrugated metal percussion. It is, broadly speaking, a bracing and eerie hymn to scratching a living in the spaces that gentrification hasn’t got to. Until something extraordinary happens: strings begin to swell and Blackhaine’s voice fades away. A momentary reprieve amidst the unremitting darkness? An acknowledgement of hope? Or something more final? Either way, it stuns.
Parris ft. Eden Samara
can you feel the sun
Parris’ beautifully textured and highly-anticipated debut album Soaked in Indigo Moonlight arrived at the perfect time – in the dead of seemingly endless autumn, when we needed a hit of dopamine the most. The London-based producer is known for his nuanced, polyrhythmic electronics, but on Skater’s World, Parris takes this sound in a new direction. Leaning into the pop sensibilities that have been lifelong influences, bright chimes and energetic drum beats buoy Eden Samara’s melodic vocals, creating a real sense of shared euphoria. Skater’s World is, simply put, about hanging out and skating. But more importantly, it’s about joy. A twinkling anthem for the summer that never quite existed.
In her first solo release since 2020’s lockdown LP how i’m feeling now, Britain’s most mischievous pop star swapped A.G. Cook-aided experimentation for brutally direct synth-pop, created in collaboration with Scandinavian writers Oscar Holter, Mattman & Robin, Noonie Bao and Caroline Ailin. Powered by whipcrack beats and the dark throb of arpeggiated synths, and featuring one of the most indelible – not to mention laconic – choruses of the 29-year-old’s colourful career, there’s not a single moment wasted on this impish ode to making toxic relationship choices. It’s a tantalising first taste of Charli’s self-described “ultra-popstar” era, and one that has left us all wanting more.
In a year that saw UNIIQU3 break new territory with intoxicating EP Heartbeats for Local Action and get sampled by R&B star Chloe Bailey, Microdosing is the cherry-on-top: a banger that fulfils her promise as a self-proclaimed “international club queen”. Invoking the push-and-pull of situationships that leave you wanting more, she asks, “You want me?/ Come take a dose of this drug,” while warning “stop microdosing my love” – that all too relatable narrative of becoming addicted to someone’s emotional crumbs. Ultimately, though, UNIIQU3 doesn’t seem like one to brood: for every unrequited feeling on Microdosing, it’s tempered with a euphoric house beat that almost makes you forget all the pain. Just like the artist, it’s a Jersey club gem.
Baby Keem ft. Kendrick Lamar
What good are family connections if you don’t use them? While Baby Keem has proven reticent to exploit the familial bond before now, it seems he timed it just right, tapping his cousin for the rap track of the year. Keem starts proceedings in grand fashion for one of his strongest performances since 2019 breakout track Orange Soda, his thunderous voice riding Family Ties’ dramatic beatswitch seamlessly. As expected, Kendrick’s performance is straight fire too, his initial braggadocious cry of “smoking on your top five tonight” and reference to himself as the “Omega” indicates a newfound edge, before ripping into an otherworldly verse that almost made us forget we’re still waiting on an album. This link-up will serve just fine in the interim.
On the surface, Yves Tumor is slippery and otherworldly, but the music they make is as human as it comes. Across their discography, Tumor has toyed with genres like a kid in a playground, retaining a constant air of unpredictability. But their songwriting is easier to anticipate: Tumor writes songs about being alive, ones that make you feel alive, too.
Take Jackie – the first track on their The Asymptotical World EP for Warp. It’s a searing slice of psych rock that addresses a relationship in limbo. Tumor’s anguished lyrics chart the familiar stages of post-breakup life: insomnia (“These days have been tragic/ I ain’t sleeping”), appetite changes (“Refuse to eat a thing”) and the masochistically ruminative thought processes (“When you rest your mind/ Do you think of me?”). And while these all cut deep, it’s the line “we were torn apart right by the sleeve” that sticks. As physical as it is poetic, it’s an apt description of Tumor’s musical approach, and a loose metaphor for 2021.
Tumor’s delivery is critical. Each wounded croon emphasises this heartache as they transform what’s universally recognised as a pretty shit situation into art that’s both beautiful and bruised. Tumor has created some of their finest songs in this sweet spot, a space so desperately romantic and raw it becomes altogether toxic. Think Kerosene!, Honesty, Licking an Orchid… but none of these are quite as bracing as Jackie.
Which is what makes the track so fascinating. On 2020’s Heaven to a Tortured Mind, Tumor adorned themselves in the signifiers of a certain streak of rock – the swagger, the alien sexiness. With Jackie, they levelled up. This was Yves Tumor at their most exposed, and yet their most untouchable. Even the artwork – an image of a guitar-wielding pin-up, one knee dipped as if they’re about to flood our ears with the world’s most frenzied solo – feeds into this vision of them as a rock star figure. One who lives at the extremes, expressing their innermost emotions, striding across stages like a god, but who shuns revealing the moments in between.
Jackie’s place is undoubtedly on the stage. For one, it’s a stadium-sized song – the kind that deserves a sound system that can hack the maelstrom of towering guitars and punishing drums encased within its exhilarating, tightly-packed production. But also, there’s a curious distance between Tumor and the listener across the track. They are not strictly singing to us. Instead, it’s as if they are singing into the void, hoping their lover, or whoever Jackie may be, is out there listening, yearning for them in return.
On stage, with Tumor in all their – whisper it – Prince-esque glory, this distance will be replaced by closeness. Closeness between Tumor and their fans, their fans and one another. In a year like this year, when catharsis was so tantalisingly close yet so qualified, it’s the connective experience we’ve craved. Almost as much as Tumor craves Jackie.