The 10 best songs of 2021

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Best Songs of 2021
Best Songs of 2021

Olivia Rodrigo/YouTube; Harper Smith; Megan Thee Stallion/YouTube; Brandi Carlile/YouTube; Doja Cat/YouTube; Rosalind O'Connor/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images

good 4 u, you made it to the end of another very strange year. Let's celebrate by running through the songs we had on repeat in 2021. The tracks we highlighted below represent a little bit of everything from the last 12 months: pop-punk revivalism, newly minted stars, unabashed queer anthems, hard-left sonic turns. So sit down, throw on some headphones, and press play on our selection of the year's 10 best. (Find our list of the year's best albums here.)

10. Doja Cat – "Get Into It (Yuh)"

Once pop's problem child, the irrepressible Doja sprints through this pithy track with vocal dexterity, otherworldly intonation, and campy lyrics that nod to kitschy parts of Ed Sheeran, Ariana Grande, and Nicki Minaj's songbooks. Sure, each preceding line to the repeated lyric "get into it (yuh)" doesn't quite mesh with what follows (for example, "If you go to church" to "If she ain't got a butt"), but the winking absurdity is the draw. With this standout track from her third album, Planet Her, the performer proves that she has the talent to drop both blistering rap verses and breezy melodies. —Marcus Jones (Full album review)

9. Halsey – "The Tradition"

Who knew that 2021 was just waiting for a highbrow feminist gloss on Phantom of the Opera piano goth, curated by dark-lord production gods Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross? ("Ask for forgiveness/Not for permission," indeed.) If the title of the singer's fourth studio album If I Can't Have Love, I Want Power was a mission statement, its broken waltz of an opener drilled down to something uglier and more specific: a sawing, seasick tale of "the loneliest girl in town," dressed up, parceled up, and passed around. It could be a black-hearted children's story, a cautionary tale, or an extended metaphor for the pop-music industry; only Halsey knows for sure. —Leah Greenblatt

8. Billie Eilish – "Happier Than Ever"

Billie always works best when she has a bad-guy adversary, and the emotional vampire in "Happier" provides the highlight of her sophomore LP: A man so titanically selfish and unreliable that the only sure thing is that her life couldn't possibly be worse without him. What begins as wry acoustic lullaby takes its sweet time to build; for the first two and a half minutes at least, it sounds like the song has nowhere to go but down its own slow, pretty rabbit hole. Then the wave crests, and the whole thing breaks open into crashing rock-opera catharsis: "You ruined everything good/Always said you were misunderstood/Made all my moments your own/Just f---ing leave me alone," she roars, a pop-star lamb going out like a lion. —L.G. (Full album review)

7. Brandi Carlile – "Right on Time"

Brandi Carlile got a nice, friendly boost of exposure this year when her pal Courteney Cox directed the video for "Right on Time" and performed it with her in a playful parody ribbing the Americana powerhouse for how long she holds a particular note in its refrain. Not that the Grammy-nominated song needed any help. A towering ballad about regret and a relationship on the rocks, the lead single from Carlile's stately seventh album, In These Silent Days, is a stunner, a blast of piano-led bombast that soars so high it practically shatters the firmament. "I never held my breath for quite this long," she confesses at one point. As the track reaches that showstopping chorus — which tears through it like a hurricane — you might realize you've been holding yours too. —Jason Lamphier (Full album review)

6. Normani, Cardi B – "Wild Side"

If lush, carnal R&B like "Wild Side" is what we can expect from Normani, then her current slow-burn approach to releasing new music has all been worth it. A spiritual successor to Aaliyah's "One in a Million" that's more titillating than tender, the single soars highest in its mesmerizing, climactic bridge on the superior extended version, where the singer blissfully commands, "Baby, bring it to me how I like." A deserved honorable mention goes to co-writer Starrah's abstract outro — and the choice to let Cardi be as nasty as she wants to be. —Marcus Jones

5. Silk Sonic – "Leave the Door Open"

When onetime tourmates Bruno Mars and Anderson .Paak opened the strobe-lit "Door," it was more like a Narnia portal to a sweeter, simpler time: a groovy Soul Train dream of satin lounge robes, fresh filets, and rose petals scattered in bathtubs. "My house clean, my pool warm/Just shaved, smooth like a newborn," Mars coos to whoever the lucky lady of this evening (and possibly no other) may be — a shameless Pepe le Pew player even if he swears that "every word is coming straight from the heart." But who's counting, when there are so many pretty Chi-Lites harmonies and a cascade of la la la las you could happily drown in? —L.G. (Full album review)

4. Megan Thee Stallion – "Thot Shit"

When you claim GOAT status, you better bring receipts. And they get brought on "Thot," a casually ferocious clapback to all the petty haters and undercard players trying to stand in Megan's light. If she wrote the hot-girl soundtrack for a 2020 summer that never quite was (thanks, COVID variants!), "Thot" fell like a nuclear winter, at least for the enemies it was aimed at: "I remember hoes used to clap for me happily/Now I'm bossed up and them same hoes mad at me/Acting like they ridin', whole time tryna pass me," she spat. But let them talk; she's too busy scooping up handfuls of Grammys and appreciating how fine the Megan in the mirror is. —L.G.

3. Lil Nas X – "Montero"

Blood-droplet Nikes! Lap dances for Satan! It was easy to get caught up in the wild theater of LNX; in many ways, he wants you to. But the singles off his full-length studio debut genuinely slap — like the title track "Montero," a sinuous ode to love in this club with crisp handclap percussion and a dusty-vinyl backbeat. Armie Hammer may never have whispered " I want that jet lag from f---ing and flying/Shoot a child in your mouth while I'm riding" to Timothée Chalamet in the actual Call Me by Your Name, but the spirit was there: queer romance coming unabashedly into the light, and taking the Hot 100 by the tail. —L.G.

READ MORE: Lil Nas X is here to prove you wrong

2. Sharon Van Etten, Angel Olsen – "Like I Used To"

Thundering pianos, a mud-thick bass line, those body-shivering wails — "Like I Used To" has enough electricity to power its own citywide grid. This commanding duet sees two of the greatest songwriters of their generation spitting free-formed phrases and spinning their wheels (Van Etten: "Will the marker stain the skin? Stole the dress I saw you in/Now nothing comes to mind"; Olsen: "Will my lover bе there, stay/Follow them to less the pain/The ceiling must be wrong"). Coming together in the hook seems to solve those woes, as they sing of finding clarity in old habits ("Sleeping in late like I used to/Crossing my fingers like I used to/Waiting inside like I used to"), their voices bursting at the seams. We'll take an entire duets album next, please. —Alex Suskind

1. Olivia Rodrigo – "Brutal"

To anyone with sentient memories of the '90s, "Brutal" was like stepping through a Lollapalooza looking glass, the alt-nation swagger and blown-out guitar fuzz of the Breeders and Elastica reborn in one dimpled Gen-Z teen. First the pretty cinematic strings, and then the drop: If "Drivers License" was Rodrigo's mournful calling card, the salvo of Sour's pounding opener served as a corrective to all those delicate feelings. "I'm so sick of 17/Where's my f---in' teenage dream?/If someone tells me one more time 'Enjoy your youth,' I'm gonna cry," she snarled, fury churning behind a Disney-star smile. And we (not remotely 17) shouted it right back. —L.G. (Full album review)

A version of this story appears in Entertainment Weekly's January issue, on newsstands Dec. 17 and available to order here. Don't forget to subscribe for more exclusive interviews and photos, only in EW.

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