As we emerged from the harsh year of 2020, 2021 became—while still in recovery— a year to break free. While the entertainment industry was getting back in full swing, more and more music came to us as a result of the pandemic.
Artists who were in lockdown for so long began hitting the road and releasing music in droves. With all that music it made it difficult to pick the best. However, the American Songwriter staff put our heads together to pick some of the songs we thought excelled in 2021.
And as the year comes to a close, and with the virus seemingly surging again, and shows being canceled (déjà vu), at least we can say… we’ll always have 2021.
Check out our 22 Best Songs of 2021.
“STAY” – Justin Bieber (ft. The Kid LAROI)
Justin Bieber has come a long way since releasing “Baby” in 2010. Being leaps and bounds from the beginning of his career may be an understatement. This year, Bieber released one of the biggest pop hits of the genre—“STAY,” Bieber’s collaboration with The Kid LAROI. “STAY” is a to-the-point dance track that defines Bieber as a titan in the industry. It’s also just fun to listen to.
“I am not a woman, I’m a god” – Halsey
Halsey’s standout single from her fourth studio album is provocative and addictive. “I am not a woman, I’m a god” produces high drama that battles the stereotypical nature of femininity. Halsey also released a cinematic experience for the album that houses this single.
“All Too Well (10 Minute Version) (Taylor’s Version)” – Taylor Swift
At an impressive 10 minutes and 13 seconds, this version of “All Too Well” is the longest song to break into the Billboard Hot 100 chart (dethroning “American Pie” with an 8:42 run time). Even without this record-breaking title, Taylor Swift is reminding music fans that her strength still lies in her lyricism… fuck the patriarchy.
“She’s Fire” – Diane Warren (ft. Santana and G-Eazy)
Who would’ve thought to put famous guitarist Carlos Santana and rapper G-Eazy on the same track? Well, Diane Warren did, and she put them on her song titled “She’s Fire.” This song is everything we didn’t know we needed.
“dancing in the kitchen” – LANY
Forget dancing in the rain, I want to dance in the kitchen. LANY’s latest record gg bb xx, is an unabashed dive into the good, bad, and ugly of relationships, and “dancing in the kitchen” airs on the sweeter side. This song is a feel-good, let’s waltz in front of the refrigerator type of track. Press play.
“Hypotheticals” – Lake Street Dive
The first time I heard “Hypotheticals,” my only thought was “where has this song been all my life?” It’s the perfect start-of-something anthem for when you don’t know what will come of a relationship, but you’re just looking forward to the ride. Full of soul and groove, this song should be on all of your jam playlists.
“The King” – Sarah Kinsley
With an absolutely entrancing piano feature, Sarah Kinsley will grab your attention and keep it with “The King.” A celebration of youth and making the most of it, this song serves as a reminder that “you’re still young and you’re still free.” Drive down the highway to this one and tell me it’s not deserving of this list.
“MORBID MIND” – Jack Kays
There’s still time to jump on Jack Kays at the front end because his first single and album only hit streaming platforms in January of 2021. With his music emphasizing on mental health, “MORBID MIND” pinpoints the feeling of overthinking. The song still has the beat and guitar for your everyday playlists, but it provides a sense of understanding on the tougher days.
“Nothing New” – Taylor Swift feat. Phoebe Bridgers
In my very humble opinion, “Nothing New” was the standout track of Taylor’s Red re-release. I tried to pick a specific line that really did it for me, but there were too many. Miss Swift’s resilience shows through the fact that this song was originally written close to 10 years ago and she’s still relevant as ever. The appearance from Phoebe Bridgers adds a layer of maturity to this long vaulted song.
“All I Do” – Morgan Harper-Jones
If you need additions to your more mellow playlists, “All I Do” is for you. Morgan Harper-Jones uses simple piano and percussion tracks along with her stunning vocals to open up about wanting a relationship to end differently. Full of heart-straining vulnerability, this song can be the soundtrack to your melancholy winter days.
“Back To Oz”- Sufjan Stevens & Angelo De Augustine
The first time I heard this song was basically also the 107th time I listened to it. That’s simply how many times in a row I played the track upon finding it. To be honest, any song about the super-weird sequel to the Wizard of Oz movie is going to get a listen from me. But this one is like lavender and honey to my ears. Stevens’ gentle voice and music that builds like a heart rate; it’s joyous.
“Magnolia Blues” – Adia Victoria
The song is a spell, a mesmerizing incantation. It’s a trail of ink into a poetic conclusion. It’s a history lesson and a piece of art. It’s melody and heartache, rhythm and perspective. The song’s central components are voice and guitar. The first breathes life, the second shapes the skeleton. The rest is lovely harmony, bouncy banjo, and percussion to wake the heavens.
“Call Me A Fool” – Valerie June
Prescriptions For Dreamers: To live in any voice, you’d have to be a fool not to choose Valerie June’s. Hers is a trampoline and a priceless museum. A set of stars splayed against the inky black universe and your first bicycle. Each note that wends from her lips is a unicycle atop of which sits genius songwriting scribbling lyrics on floating dandelion spores. That’s how much life June’s voice has. Especially in this perfect song.
“Keep Those Teardrops From Falling” – Natalie Bergman
Is this rock ‘n’ roll? Is this spiritual, doo-wop, gospel? Truly, I don’t want to waste a moment wondering what box in which to put this song or Bergman, as an artist. All I want is to hear her sing on these tightly-written, spiritually made, delightful tracks. This song is sad and hopeful and immaculate, born of savvy and tragedy.
“TGIF” – K.Flay
K.Flay is such a fucking boss. Sign me up for her army. I salute you! This song is rough and rugged and the kind of thing that will propel any into battle. What you’re fighting for is another chance to fight. Try not to sway your shoulders like a soldier, try not to strut like a sniper. And then when guitarist Tom Morello comes in after her sharp vocals, it’s a wrap. BBBDDDDTTTTAAAAATTT!!!
“Bang” – AJR
It never occurred to me that a band could create glue but AJR has done it. This song is everything sticky. It’s pristine in its grab. A room may explode in dance if it’s put on. A movie scene will up its own anty by featuring it in a central scene. It’s a ticking timebomb of exuberance. And it’s splattered all over my ears, thank god.
“Redemption” – Nathaniel Rateliff
Truth be told, I’m a sucker for Nathaniel Rateliff. He has such exquisite songwriting touch. And this track might be example No. 1 of his skill. This song provides, to me, a type of sonic bliss, to be sure. It’s delicate but strong, confident but open. It achieves what the chorus asks: Just set me free!
“Rain” –grandson and Jessie Reyez
The music video for this song is a cornucopia of dope badass shit. Excuse my French! Between the build and release of the music and the performances by grandson and Jessie Reyez, to the action sequences and flowers shooting from throats. My goodness, what an epic four minutes. I’ll take another round, directly in my veins, please!
“Straight Home” – Jason Boland & The Stragglers
This concept record about aliens and time travel, produced by the great Shooter Jennings, is quite good. But this specific song has rocketed up the charts for this writer. The Bolero-like chorus makes one want to puff his chest out like a monster emerging from a sunken grave. There’s something so sad and so triumphant at the same time. Okay, have to go, need to listen to it again!
“Happier Than Ever” – Billie Eilish
I don’t talk shit about you on the internet… And all that you did was make me fuckin’ sad. Billie Eilish hits back at the trolls, stalkers, and all the judgers who have something to say. Part of her more autobiographical second album of the same name, “Happier Than Ever” is Eilish catching her more sullen and intimate thoughts before releasing and exploding on I don’t relate to you, no / ’Cause I’d never treat me this shitty / You made me hate this city.
“Superstar” – Beach House
Draped in starstruck synth, “Superstar” imagines the more celestial and fleeting moments, the ephemeral tale of capturing all there is in front of us before it’s all gone.
“I Don’t Live Here Anymore” – The War on Drugs
There’s still a sense of sweet, sweet mystery in this life, sings Adam Granduciel, name dropping Bob Dylan and figuring out all the lighter bits of a murkier existence through the prismatic synths and swelling guitars on the title track off the band’s fifth album.