25. JPEGMAFIA – Hazard Duty Pay!
[Hip-Hop, Vaporwave – USA – Self-Released]
US rapper JPEGMAFIA has been making a strong mark, bouncing off the maniacal experimentation of Death Grips and carving his own niche into experimental hardcore hip-hop. Peggy creates a supreme juxtaposition by combining this vaporwave inspired funk loop and twinkly keys with a really hard and gritty vocal delivery. The two somehow combine together remarkably well resulting in a short song that feels uplifting and gut-punching in equal measure.
24. SARAH BRAND – Red Dress
[Avant-Pop – USA – Self-Released]
This divisive single from newcomer and viral sensation Sarah Brand was celebrated, mocked and detested in equal measure throughout 2021. Whilst some ears found Brand’s off-pitch vocals and muzak quality instrumentation to be like nails on a chalkboard, there were many like myself who found Red Dress to be wondrously mysterious and fascinating. Some critics and music scholars have even gone as far to describe Red Dress as “microtonal pop”, finding a real purpose in Brand’s quivering vocal delivery. Coming out of absolute nowhere, this self-recorded, produced and released hit got a lot of people talking and sharing. Even by the end of the year this is an unforgettable highlight, hosting bizarre religious metaphors where Brand becomes a devil in a red dress within a church, comparing her life to a car that is being literally steered by a god or higher power. The hilarious and off-kilter self-directed music video only goes further to emphasise the surreal qualities of a song that sounds like it was left out in the sun for far too long! Personally it makes me chuckle, but it’s also strangely catchy and endearing, always reeling me back in for more and more. Love it or hate it, you won’t forget it!
23. LONELADY – (There Is) No Logic
[Synth-Pop, Post-Punk – UK – Warp]
Lonelady’s latest album Former Things is so chock full of groove machines that every track could have been released as a single. (There Is) No Logic is one of the most danceable songs of the year built on bouncy, shifting percussion and a hard, grinding bass hook. Upon this, Lonelady delivers a really commanding and direct vocal that has a swagger to it. This is one of those songs that just demands that you get up and move your feet. Even though the lyrical themes are thought provoking – possibly observing how impossible it is to make sense of modern society in a world where satire is dead – this is still a fun song with a strong energy and physicality to it.
22. BLACK COUNTRY, NEW ROAD – Bread Song
[Post-Rock, Art Rock – UK – Ninja Tune]
British newcomers Black Country, New Road have easily been my favourite new discovery of 2021. This wild post-punk ensemble have come out of nowhere and just grabbed a hold of me, making some of the most exhilarating, powerful and forward thinking music around right now. Combining noisy guitars, post-rock dynamics, strings, horns and stream-of-conscious spoken word, BC, NR tick all my boxes. I’ve been so enamoured with their debut full length For The First Time, that I was actually reluctant to hear the new singles they’ve been dropping ahead of their forthcoming sophomore album as I just wasn’t ready to leave the universe they’ve already created. Eventually I caved, and of the three excellent singles, Bread Song has really captured me. Interestingly, whilst the songs from their debut album were unhinged and chaotic, the band sound a little calmer and more relaxed here, yet still having that nervous edge. I’m really excited to see how the band transition for album number two, but as it stands, Bread Song is a truly beautiful ballad that keeps driving forward with these escalating guitar arpeggios. It actually reminds me a lot of one of my favourite Animal Collective songs, ‘Banshee Beat’. A sorrowful and contemplative journey through complex emotions.
21. BIG THIEF – Sparrow
[Indie Folk – USA – 4AD]
US indie folk darlings Big Thief are a prolific bunch, having already released two albums in 2019, and with members Adrianne Lenker and Buck Meek releasing respective solo albums since. The indie folk rockers have been teasing towards a forthcoming new album dropping a bunch of wonderfully weird singles and I had a really hard time trying to choose just one for this list. Sparrow is the one that tugged at my heartstrings the most. Though a more atypical Big Thief folk ballad, Lenker’s iconic voice is just in top form here. I love how the song is this slow-burning crawl that never changes up from its very simple two chord progression, yet as the song goes on touches of atmospheric background instrumentation just help carry the momentum, resulting in this gorgeous and well earned climax where what sounds like a dulcimer takes over the mix. Big Thief are just one those bands who continually craft out these heart-warming and intense songs that feel so effortless, like the band were born with a fire in their bellies.
20. CIRCUIT DES YEUX – Vanishing
[Baroque Pop – USA – Matador]
Circuit Des Yeux are a brand new discovery for me this year, even though brainchild Hayley Fohr has been making music under this guise for many years, I was somehow late to the party. With Vanishing being the opening song on their latest album, it grabbed me immediately with a powerhouse string section and a vibe reminiscent of a James Bond theme. Fohr has this sensational baritone voice that gets pushed and pulled in so many directions on this song in such a powerful and passionate performance. A quirky, baroque-pop wonder in the vein of ’60s Scott Walker.
19. DRY CLEANING – Unsmart Lady
[Post-Punk – UK – 4AD]
Dry Cleaning are one of the most British bands I’ve ever heard. So much so that I wonder how well they manage to fare with international audiences. However their blend of post-punk is so well captured and rawkus that there is enough to love right there, taking in pinches of Wire, Mclusky and Television. Vocalist Flo Shaw is the icing on the cake that sets the band apart from everyone, narrating spoken word non-sequiturs that come across like a series of tidbits pulled from diary entiries, overheard conversations and tweets, giving Dry Cleaning’s music a surreal quality. Unsmart Lady is one of the wilder and hardest singles from their fantastic debut, with driving scatty guitars and a smooth as hell bassline. In contrast Shaw sounds unsettled, staggering in and out of the instrumental. It’s a work of bizarre yet utterly engrossing genius.
18. EARL SWEATSHIRT – 2010
[Abstract Hip-Hop – USA – Tan Cressida]
Odd Future (remember them!?) outcast Earl Sweatshirt has a very unique approach to hip-hop, often creating these sketch-like melancholic songs that just drop you in and never change up the beat, often lacking a chorus or solid hook. With this exciting single that dropped out of nowhere towards the end of the year, Sweatshirt hones this approach to a tee. Producer Black Noi$e adds more clarity and finesse to the beat than some of Sweatshirt’s previous productions, with this irresistible spacey synth arpeggio driving the song. Though Sweatshirt doesn’t change up his winning formula, his voice beams with effortless confidence, even through being deliberately monotone. It all culminates in an atmospheric and hazy wonder that will have you reaching for the repeat button. A tiny glimpse of fire.
17. DEAFHEAVEN – Great Mass Of Color
[Shoegaze, Post-Rock – USA – Sargent House]
For the leading lights of the blackgaze movement, fans were really shocked to find out that the very first single from Deafheaven’s forthcoming fifth album Infinite Granite would be driven through clean guitars and no metal riffs, allowing the band to explore more thoroughly their shoegaze and post-rock influences. Great Mass Of Color is my favourite track from the album and hearing it for the first time was an unbelievable surprise that really felt like a coming-of-age moment for a band who I’ve adored for years. This change of pace was a welcome breath of fresh air that saw Deafheaven take some real risks and step out of their comfort zone. Whilst it’s certainly not as great as the influences their riffing on (think Cocteau Twins, American Football and Slowdive), there’s still something so beautiful and pleasing about Deafheaven just giving it a go and mixing things up.
16. CASSANDRA JENKINS – Hard Drive
[Dream-Pop, Spoken Word – USA – Ba Da Bing!]
Hard Drive is one of the most unique singles of the year, even in the canon of Cassandra Jenkins’ short discography. This epic and ethereal indie folk song combines twinkly guitars, shuffling drums, dreamy saxophones and most importantly a spoken word narration. Jenkins offers a really interesting twist and experiencing this song feels more like you are watching an indie road trip film rather than listening to a piece of music. The storytelling lyrics are incredibly detailed and vivid, describing people and places and bringing you the listener along for the ride.
15. LIL NAS X – Montero (Call Me By Your Name)
[Hip-Hop, Latin Pop – USA – Sony Columbia]
2021 was the year where Lil Nas X became an icon, whether it through his long awaited debut album, memes, brilliant marketing, that loveable face and even a strange legal controversy with Nike. Lil Nas X has lived ten years in one years, and still gifted us some of the catchiest and most playful songs of the year. Whilst he has a whole bunch of instantly accessible singles to his name, nothing quite had the same impact that Montero did; Lil Nas X’s literal calling card. This LGBTQ+ anthem (presumably named after the novel and film Call Me By Your Name) proved that Lil Nas X was not just a one trick pony or a one hit wonder after breakthrough hit ‘Old Town Road’. Montero is a thrill-ride of clapping percussion, Latin-pop flamenco guitar fusions and a sing-along chorus that saw Lil Nas X giving the devil a lapdance and subsequently killing them in the music video that nearly caused a new wave of satanic panic! At just over two minutes, this sensational single feels so much larger than it really is.
14. KACEY MUSGRAVES – Camera Roll
[Dream-Pop, Singer/Songwriter – USA – Polydor]
Country-pop sensation Kacey Musgraves channeled the feelings and memories that came with her recent divorce on her latest triumph Star-Crossed. One of the more low key but hard hitting singles Camera Roll is an elegant dream-pop gem laced with walls of reverb and serene folky guitars. This sad song plays out like a dream sequence in a romantic drama as Musgraves describes the very relatable scenario of when you scroll back too far on your Instagram camera roll and stumble across old photos of someone you miss who meant a lot to you. In Kacey Musgraves’ world it’s probably her ex-husband, but the song has a universal quality that could relate to a lost friend, pet, family member or even just a person or place that you miss. It’s a feeling that we can all relate to and I love that Musgraves has managed to take such a simple and current day dilemma and turn it into something so powerful, emotional and understated. A true heartbreak anthem for the social media age.
13. LANA DEL REY – Arcadia
[Soft Rock, Singer-Songwriter – USA – Polydor]
Lana Del Rey released two new studio albums in 2021, and whilst each one was a bit inconsistent in quality, they both found a whole host of amazing singles. Del Rey has really been pushing herself forwards as a vocalist, delivering a mesmerising performance on soft-rock lounge ballad Arcadia. Del Rey is reaching into higher registers with her voice more than ever before and sounds more versatile because of it. I found the lyrics really compelling, comparing her body to various places, “My body is a map of L.A. / My chest the Sierra Madre, / My curves San Gabriel all day.” And who could forget the immortal line “Run your hands over me like a Land Rover.” Arcadia is a hark back to ’70s and ’80s lounge ballads and sounds like it could have been performed in a darkly lit, smoke filled basement jazz club. I love how the instrumentation is so quiet in the mix, with the subtle touches of strings and brass barely making a conscious impact, allowing Del Rey’s thunderous voice and the guiding piano to take centre stage. Del Rey sounds vulnerable, yet in her element. The music video sees her writhing on a hotel room bed and it totally enhances this song – with a spectacular surprise at the end too.
12. CHVRCHES (FT. ROBERT SMITH) – How Not To Drown
[Synth-Pop – UK – Glassnote]
Synth-pop wonders Chrvches went so much harder on their fourth full length Screen Violence, with vocalist and lyricist Lauren Mayberry going deep into personal and socially conscious writings, turning in their darkest and most hard-hitting and emotional set of songs to date. How Not To Drown is an instant standout with a massive chorus and lyrics all about keeping our heads above water as we battle with our mental health. The guest vocal from The Cure’s Robert Smith is the icing on the cake, and one of the year’s most spectacular collaborations. How Not To Drown is poignant and cutting edge; an anthem for looking after ourselves and one another.
11. HEALTH + NINE INCH NAILS – Isn’t Everyone
[Industrial Rock – USA – Loma Vista]
Even though Nine Inch Nails didn’t release much under their own name, they’ve still had a monumental 2021, with Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross winning Oscars for their original score to Disney Pixar’s Soul as well as producing Halsey’s latest triumph of an album. They also put out this remarkable one off single collaborating with experimental psych band HEALTH on a song that really combines the best qualities of both artists. HEALTH bring these really dreamy clean vocals that sit so well against NIN’s dark and cinematic industrial rock. In fact these styles gel so well that you actually wonder why NIN haven’t attempted a song like this much sooner. HEALTH also allow Reznor to mix things up melodically too, stepping out of his signature chord patterns to find warmer piano phrasing. Isn’t Everyone is a really expansive song that takes its time to build up in layers, finds an explosive chorus and then gradually deconstructs itself with a brilliant atmospheric shimmer in its finale. The different shades of dark and light throughout this song really grapple with each other in an impressive way, and in just five minutes, so many interesting moods and emotions are tapped into.
10. WEEZER – All My Favorite Songs
[Baroque Pop, Orchestral – USA – Crush Music]
When it comes to the album experience, Weezer have an extremely topsy-turvy discography, but regardless, they often manage to come out with solid lead singles going into new album releases. All My Favorite Songs is one of the catchiest songs Weezer have ever made and it comes with a sonic shake-up as the quartet turn down their guitars in favour of a 38-piece orchestra recorded at London’s imfamous Abbey Road Studios for their OK Human album. Weezer are usually one to stick to their guns, but this orchestral-pop experiment has lead to some of their best ever songs, channeling the spirit of Harry Nilsson and The Beach Boys. All My Favorite Songs has this brilliant glossy melody that recalls The Beatles’ Revolver-era sound. Cuomo’s voice really shines and you don’t even miss the power-pop guitars. The brilliant chorus “All my favorite songs are slow and sad” certainly captures a lot of my picks on this very Best Of The Year List as well, so Rivers Cuomo has definitely tapped into something here. I don’t know what’s wrong with me!
9. TYLER, THE CREATOR – Lumberjack
[Abstract Hip-Hop – USA – Sony Columbia]
Though one of the shortest singles I heard this year, Tyler, The Creator’s first taster of his latest album was a total rager with a manic energy that got fans hyped as fuck. Lumberjack has a weird and raggedy flow that keeps being interrupted by guest posse vocalists. The dense industrial hip-hop banging beat that opens the song lasts only five seconds before completely dropping the beat and energy, only to kick back in at the thirty second mark. Lumberjack pushes and pulls the listener like a tug of war, throwing you one of the most irresistible beats of the year, and then silencing it over and over again. It’s like a game of musical chairs that has this abstract meta-quality. The perfect way to tease up a new album as it left us begging for more, and still holds up as one of the year’s most amazing songs.
8. HALSEY – I Am Not A Woman, I’m A God
[Industrial, Art-Pop – USA – Capitol]
Pop sensation Halsey teamed up with Nine Inch Nails dream team Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross this year, writing and producing an entire album together that very much exists in the NIN sonic universe. I Am Not A Woman, I’m A God exemplifies this creative union, creating a total banger that sounds like the spiritual successor to NIN’s 1994 classic hit ‘Closer’. It has a really similar heart-beat pulse to it and builds up with irresistibly bubbling synths and industrial production. Halsey turns in a powerhouse vocal that sounds like a guiding siren. Not even three minutes long, from start to finish this commanding and raunchy slapper of a song will have you coming back again and again!
7. INJURY RESERVE – Knees
[Abstract Hip-Hop, Neo-Psychedelia – USA – Self-Released]
Experimental glitch-hoppers Injury Reserve have definitely made some of the most original and compelling music in 2021 with a really out there sound that barely sounds like anyone else around. This is exemplified by putting out this excellent song as a single as it is so off-kilter with a non-linear structure. The slow beat on this sounds like machinery that is breaking down and stuttering, whilst this atmospheric shoegazy guitar sample stops and starts alongside it. The vocals sound closer to singing than they do rapping, pushed into the middle of the mix. It’s hard to really capture this wonderful track in words, but it certainly evokes that sensation where you wake up suddenly in the middle of the night and you aren’t sure if you are still in a dream or not. With key band member Groggs passing away before the completion of their new album, it just makes this heartfelt song more compelling and emotional. It’s not too often a hip-hop act can write a sad song that will make you cry, but this might just do it.
6. EMMA RUTH RUNDLE – Return
[Chamber Music, Singer/Songwriter – USA – Sargent House]
Emma Ruth Rundle is an artist who always manages to change up her sound and approach for each album but still deliver something incredibly emotional, atmospheric and investing. Return was the first single taken from her stripped down masterwork Engine Of Hell and this is one of those songs that I got addicted to and played the wonderful black and white music video over and over for weeks (itself an excellent abstract piece reminiscent of the film Black Swan). Driven mostly by piano and vocal, Return is gorgeously subtle and eerie, pairing this beautiful piano melody with an ominous undercurrent of what sounds like humming synth (or possibly cello) haunting the background of the mix. Rundle’s vocal delivery is outstanding and gripping, boasting a more direct delivery than on her previous works and working in very abstract imagery into the lyrics that adds to the surreal and dreamy atmosphere. A stunning case where peeling back the layers can actually reveal more depth.
5. BLACK MIDI – John L
[Jazz Fusion, Progressive Rock – UK – Rough Trade]
The first single to tease Black Midi’s sophomore album Cavalcade is completely barmy and off the chart. The noisy math rock sound of their debut has leaped into full on avant-prog jazz rock complete with menacing strings and screaming saxophone! John L sounds like music that has crash landed from another planet as it is so strange yet surprisingly groovy. The off-kilter spoken word adds another strange texture, sounding purposely indecipherable, like hearing an auctioneer speaking in double speed. Sonically John L reminds me quite a bit of one of my all time favourite bands The Mars Volta, pairing together the technical virtuoso playing of prog rock with the blistering energy of post-hardcore. Black Midi have created something instantly remarkable, completely mind-blowing and as mad as a truck! Like how do you even come up with this shit!?! And just who is John L anyway!?!
4. TAYLOR SWIFT – All Too Well (10 Minute Version) (Taylor’s Version) (From The Vault)
[Singer/Songwriter, Pop Rock – USA – Republic]
The longest single on this list comes from pop sensation Taylor Swift with this ten-plus minute behemoth! Swift has taken one of Red‘s original songs and beloved fan favourite deep cut, ‘All Too Well’ and has expanded it into – And let’s get the title correct here… ‘All Too Well (10 Minute Version) (Taylor’s Version) (From The Vault)’… Just rolls off the tongue right!? This updated version actually takes on a very unique and clever approach because the original five minute version was a song about painstakingly reminiscing over Swift’s hard breakup with actor Jake Gyllenhaal, and really zoning in on those memories using a lost scarf as the catalyst for telling this epic romance story. But this 2021 version goes one (or five minutes) extra, expanding the original song with extra lyrics, so Swift is looking back on this relationship from both her 22 year old mind and her 31 year old mind at the same time! That’s some Christopher Nolan Inception shit right there, but damn, it makes for a really interesting concept and Swift absolutely nails it. If you’d asked me back in 2012, I didn’t think I’d be demanding Taylor Swift be nominated to be the poet laureate, but DAMN! Swift observes love and heartbreak on the same epic scale as the likes of Tom Waits, Joni Mitchell and Leonard Cohen right here. There are so many incredible deep lines and metaphors as this ten minute version plays just as wordy as a rap song. “You taught me about your past thinking your future was me, / You kept me like a secret, but I kept you like an oath.” Swift sings with this frantic, maniacal energy, defeated and battle-torn, searching through old letters and belongings desperately trying to make sense of the pain and despair that has fallen upon her. The use of observational lyrics, characters and storytelling here is second to none, with enough material for Swift to even direct a short film that expands the narrative of this song. I feel like Taylor Swift deserves a standing ovation for creating one of the best breakup songs of all time right here.
3. LINGUA IGNOTA – Pennsylvania Furnace
[Chamber Music, Singer/Songwriter – USA – Sargent House]
The music of Lingua Ignota has frequently been harsh and destructive with Kristin Hayter performing deeply personal survivor ballads that combine elements of opera, industrial and noise music. For her third album Sinner Get Ready, Hayter made a much more natural and earthy sounding record largely free of digital production and electronic sounds, also allowing herself to fully immerse herself into some incredible ballads. Pennsylvania Furnace is possibly the most low key and least dramatic song Lingua Ignota has ever made, prominently consisting of piano and singing. Yet it is laced with difficult imagery, bookended with the stark “Me and the dog we die together” and grappling with Christianity’s hold on one’s life and Pennsylvania itself. Working on a post-rock inspired structure, we begin the song deafly quiet, ever so gently building in volume and intensity. By the time we reach the four minute mark, Hayter’s performance becomes overwhelming, devastating and gut-wrenching. Like experiencing the last crashing crescendo of an orchestra, Lingua Ignota finds an even greater magnitude with her voice, piano and light chamber accompaniments than if she had been screaming over sheets of dissonant noise. Like with everything Hayter does, the emotional resonance is almost unbearable, and this could be her most affecting and stirring song to date.
2. BROCKHAMPTON (FT. DANNY BROWN) – Buzzcut
[Conscious Hip-Hop, Abstract Hip-Hop – USA – Question Everything]
Times have been turbulent for the self-proclaimed “best boy band since One Direction” recently, with a discography that keeps changing momentum. Brockhampton are still a band trying to discover themselves, but when they unleashed Buzzcut at the beginning of the year, it felt like the posse had recaptured the heat that defined their early singles from 2017’s Saturation trilogy. And this time they’ve brought Danny Brown along for the ride! This dynamic song works on a strict three-act structure consisting of three very distinct sections in a fairly non-linear approach. it opens up like a party, and the band just tear it up on the mic with so much energy. This then paves the way for Danny Brown to deliver a sensational guest verse over the spacey stuttering beat. But the change up in the finale is absolute Brockhampton gold and a true testament to how bold and boundary pushing they can be when they are on form. The song winds down into this psyched out trap R&B song featuring vibey autotuned vocals from Joba, and even some saxophone as the song takes this remarkable 180 turn that gives me goosebumps every time. Sadly the rest of the Roadrunner album didn’t quite live upto this magnitude, but Buzzcut is one of Brockhampton, and contemporary hip-hop’s finest moments.
1. SHARON VAN ETTEN & ANGEL OLSEN – Like I Used To
[Heartland Rock, Indie Folk – USA – Jagjaguwar]
Flashback to summer 2021 and after a year of heartache, turmoil, wondering, waiting and hoping, it looked like life was finally ready to formerly find it’s way out of the pandemic lockdowns and attempt to restore some semblance of normality once again. Like I Used To was an expertly timed soundtrack to this very moment – a song all about liberation, relishing the good times and appreciating the true things that matter in life. Two legends of the indie folk scene, Sharon Van Etten and Angel Olsen made a legendary (and much overdue) pairing to deliver an anthem that the world needed – a guiding light out of a world of darkness. The uplifting fusions of synth-pop and heartland rock whisk you away through a dreamy and uplifting song reminiscent of ‘Born To Run’. Van Etten and Olsen’s voices converge so elegantly, cleverly having separate verses but coming together for the choruses and the big finale. This song should absolutely be heard with the stunning music video that enhances the themes of the song so well, seeing the two protagonists both alone and together.
Check out the Spotify playlist where you can hear all 25 singles!