Let The Forty-Five present to you, the best songs of 2021. It was tough to call but with the help of our army of contributors, the votes are in and we can reveal the only playlist you’ll need to get you through Christmas with your family, New Year’s Eve and every miserable work day in between. Enjoy!
45. Alewya – ‘Spirit_X’
After some noteworthy releases in 2021, Alewya is a name that will hopefully be heard more widely in 2022. The London-based artist fuses Middle Eastern musical influences with pop/R&B vocals and masses of intoxicating rave energy. Of her singles released this year, ‘Spirit_X’ is memorable; a drum & bass banger, with Alewya rapping over the track’s edgy rhythms. Arusa Qureshi
44. Taylor Swift – ‘All Too Well (10 Minute Version) (Taylor’s Version)’
It’s rare that making a song twice its original length makes it better, but on the 10-minute version of her 2012 track ‘All Too Well’, that’s exactly what Taylor Swift did. Although very specifically about her past relationship with a certain Hollywood actor, the elongated take on the modern classic became even more devastating in its specificity, lines about longing for a partner to tell you they love you or going AWOL on your birthday instantly bringing back your own heartbreak, whether your ex was an A-list celeb or not. Rhian Daly
43. Saweetie ft. Doja Cat – ‘Best Friend’
After Megan and Cardi, came Saweetie and Doja with a slightly more wholesome anthem about appreciating your ride or die. “That my best friend/ She a real bad bitch” sang besties everywhere. Its impossibly catchy hook and slick-as-hell video has racked up a casual 183 million views on YouTube. “Beep beep, is that my bestie in a Tessie?“. Pure gold. Charlie Gunn.
42. Orla Gartland – ‘More Like You’
Somebody remove this song from our heads. Orla Gartland’s ‘More Like You’ is a near-perfect indie-pop track from the Irish singer-songwriter. “Where’d you get that confidence from? / ‘Cause you wear it like a coat“, Orla asks on this song taken from her debut album ‘Woman On The Internet’. Charlie Gunn
41. Lime Garden – ‘Sick and Tired’
Some new bands emerged from the pandemic fully formed. See, Lime Garden – the oddball Brighton four-piece who already have a raft of indie bangers up their sleeve. ‘Sick and Tired’ laments the ennui of modern life. “I’m sick and I’m tired/ Need to find a way to get back up and wired.” Hard relate. Charlie Gunn.
40. BTS – ‘Butter’
In 2021, BTS continued their mission to give the world some joy when it often felt in very short supply and ‘Butter’ was their first dose of medicine. A squelchy, smooth jam that referenced everything from Michael Jackson’s ‘Smooth Criminal’ to Usher’s ‘U Got It Bad’, it was instantly infectious, the serotonin surging until the ending “Hotter? Sweeter! Cooler? Butter!” chant. Mission accomplished. Rhian Daly
39. Griff – ‘Black Hole’
“There’s a big black hole where my heart used to be,” Griff sang on the dark but intoxicating ‘Black Hole’, perfectly nailing post-break-up melodrama where everything feels at its most absolute and extreme. Despite that, though, there was still a sense of playfulness to the track, the BRITs Rising Star winner keeping her tongue firmly lodged in her cheek as she crafted another inventive banger. Rhian Daly
38. Remi Wolf – ‘Quiet On Set’
Few songs released this year achieved the same level of bonkers fun as ‘Quiet On Set’. A highlight of debut ‘Juno’, it captured the ethos of Remi’s zany pop with its irresistibly catchy wobbly beat and chanty chorus. It’s grown up Daphne and Celeste on psychedelics, and that’s a good thing. Abigail Firth
37. Priya Ragu – ‘Forgot About’
Props to Swiss-Tamil artist Priya Ragu – one of our Future Five hot tips for 2021 – for bringing back 90s R&B in a big way. ‘Forgot About’ showcased Priya’s buttery smooth vocals on this slow-jam about a former flame. Mariah, move over: there’s a new diva in town and she’s got beats for days, too. Charlie Gunn.
36. Amyl and The Sniffers – ‘Guided by Angels’
What are Amyl & The Sniffers without their raucous live show? While the pandemic challenged the music industry as a whole, Aussie’s premiere punk band spent it reflecting, reading and working on one helluva comeback. The first single from second album ‘Comfort To Me’, ‘Guided By Angels’, set up the rest of the album via its repetitive, galvanising lyrics – “I’ve got plenty of energy / it’s my currency” – and a wall of crunching guitar. Charlie Gunn
35. SZA – ‘I Hate U’
A landmark year for SZA, she continued to tease the follow-up to breakthrough ‘Ctrl’ with surprise drop ‘I Hate U’. Initially released on Soundcloud, the single is signature SZA, intertwining feelings of love and hate over a playfully groovy keyboard line and sung with as much enunciation as Ariana. Abigail Firth.
34. Pom Pom Squad – ‘Head Cheerleader’
Pom Pom Squad got mainstream coverage as the band that Olivia Rodrigo was accused of pinching her aesthetic from but all that aside, they are one of our favourite discoveries of 2021. Debut album, ‘Death Of A Cheerleader’ is a grunge masterpiece and ‘Head Cheerleader’ is its standout track. Charlie Gunn
33. Girl In Red – ‘Serotonin’
Enough has been said about Girl In Red’s viral success but ‘Serotonin’ – 2021’s sad-girl anthem – has 62 million Spotify streams and counting. Marie Ulven Ringheim’s ability to package Gen Z concerns up into a neat indie-pop package is unrivalled and on ‘Serotonin’, she lays her mental health struggles out with a candidness that can’t fail to resonate. Charlie Gunn.
32. Flo Milli – ‘Roaring 20s’
Riffing on Fiddler On The Roof‘s ‘If I Were A Rich Man’, Flo Milli used her distinctive bubblegum-pop flow to remind any potential suitors that she pays her own bills. “Ain’t nobody your mothafuckin’ bitch/ You my bitch, ho“, she raps. Flo Milli shit on point. Charlie Gunn.
31. Holly Humberstone – ‘The Walls Are Way Too Thin’
In the year of the sad girl, Holly’s self-help song about a claustrophobic London bedroom is a crown jewel. Devastatingly relatable for anyone who’d spent the last two years locked up, ‘Walls’ recalls ‘Every Breath You Take’ in both beat and tension, Holly Humberstone makes bored sound really bloody good. Abigail Firth
30. Lil Nas X – ‘Montero (Call Me By Your Name)’
Lil Nas X has spent his whole career so far being a complete icon, but he kicked it up a notch this year when he became enemy number one of swathes of devout Christians, after he pole danced into hell and gave the devil a lap dance. Flipping the script, ‘Montero’ is Lil Nas X declaring he doesn’t care that he’s going to hell if it means he can express himself freely. Abigail Firth
29. Megan Thee Stallion – ‘Thot Shit’
‘Thot Shit’ saw the return of Megan Thee Stallion’s alter-ego Tina Snow this year, and in typical Hot Girl fashion, it was a bold, no-shits-given sex-positive gem. Her first solo release after 2020’s debut album ‘Good News’ amalgamates excellent beats with an unforgettable hook, as Meg reclaims sexist slurs and claps back against right-wing trolls. Arusa Qureshi.
28. Snail Mail – ‘Valentine’
The queer, grunge anthem we didn’t know we needed. ‘Valentine’ was a standout hit from Snail Mail’s stunning album of the same name. “So why’d you wanna erase me, darling valentine?“, begs Lindsay Jordan with a heartbreaking ferocity. Think Courtney Love on a sugar high. Charlie Gunn.
27. Chloe – ‘Have Mercy’
As one half of Beyoncé-approved sister duo Chloe x Halle, Chloe Bailey’s journey into solo stardom was never going to be half-baked. And inevitably, her debut single as a solo artist arrived this year fully formed, as a total banger. ‘Have Mercy’ is an ode to body positivity and sexuality, with the now seminal line “Booty so big (work!) / Lord, have mercy (work!)” laying the carpet out for Chloe’s celestial vocals and feisty rap-sung verses. Arusa Qureshi.
26. Adele – ‘Easy On Me’
What a comeback. Adele begged for mercy on her first new music in six years. Teeing up her “divorce, babes, divorce” album, ’30’, ‘Easy On Me’ was a beautiful, soulful ballad that did what Adele does best: sing a big ol’ song about a bad ol’ breakup. Only this time, it was on her terms. Charlie Gunn.
25. Noname – ‘Rainforest’
The last time we heard from Noname was on ferocious diss track, ‘Song 33’, where she schooled J.Cole on what really matters in life. This year’s ‘Rainforest’ was a more uptempo affair that saw the revolutionary rapper – real name Fatimah Warner – go deep on capitalism while at the same time – with the world’s problems feeling all too heavy – yearning for a party. Charlie Gunn.
24. Wolf Alice – ‘Delicious Things’
On ‘Blue Weekend’, Wolf Alice levelled up once again and ‘Delicious Things’ was one of their crowning moments. A cinematic ode to being in a city you’ve previously only seen on screen and trying to find your place in its streets, the swooning masterpiece perfectly captured the wide-eyed wonder of expanding your world and the push and pull between adventure and the call of home. Rhian Daly
23. Lana Del Rey – ‘White Dress’
“Don’t care with my head in my hands / Thinking of a simpler time,” Lana Del Rey began on ‘White Dress’, the opening song on her first album of the year. Over a winding piano line and through an experimental, urgent vocal melody, she wistfully recalled her life pre-fame. The results were nostalgic and emotional – and one of her finest pieces of work so far – that ended with a heavy supposition: “Kinda makes me feel like maybe I was better off.” Rhian Daly
22. Clairo – ‘Blouse’
‘Blouse’ was the first single from Clairo‘s second album, the stunning, Jack-Antonoff-produced ‘Sling’. With Lorde on blink-and-you’ll miss them backing vocals, and a barbed message in the midst of a scene of serenity “Why do I tell you how I feel/ When you’re just looking down my blouse,” it introduced the world to a more confident and accomplished Claire Cottrill. Charlie Gunn
21. Olivia Rodrigo – ‘Brutal’
‘Brutal’ was a brilliantly bold track – from its melodramatic string intro to its blaring guitars to some of the year’s most memorable lines, declared with bitter desperation over a melody that makes you want to nod or shout along. But the song’s genius was in its sharp, stripped-bare lyrics, which were as surprising in their vulnerability as in their directness. Aliya Chaudhury
20. Wet Leg – ‘Wet Dream’
The second taste of Isle Of Wight newcomers Wet Leg, ‘Wet Dream’ cemented the duo’s place as not only Britain’s most exciting new band but also its cheekiest. “Baby, do you want to come home with me? / I’ve got Buffalo ’66 on DVD,” Rhian Teasdale sang, mocking an ex’s chirpsing tactic of choice, all while putting them firmly in their place: “What makes you think you’re good enough to think about me / When you’re touching yourself, touching yourself?” Instantly iconic. Rhian Daly
19. St. Vincent – ‘Pay Your Way In Pain’
Picture the scene. It’s midday, 70s downtown New York, glass of bourbon in hand. You’re hiding out from some unsavoury characters, ready to skip town at any moment. This is the world St Vincent drew us into with the first track from album ‘Daddy’s Home’. Opening with a honky-tonk piano line and a kaleidoscopic video, Annie Clark’s sleazy disco anthem was somewhere between Scissor Sisters and ‘Fame’-era Bowie and we were all aboard for her 70s revival. Charlie Gunn
18. Lil Nas X ft. Jack Harlow – ‘Industry Baby’
Lil Nas X really doesn’t need to prove anything at this point but for anyone that dared to doubt his talents, the release of ‘Industry Baby’ said it all. “I told you long ago on the road / I got what they waiting for,” he sings in the chorus, taking aim at critics that labelled him a one-hit-wonder after ‘Old Town Road’. Beginning with fanfare from horns and a gritty trap beat courtesy of Take a Daytrip and Kanye West, the second single from Lil Nas X’s phenomenal debut studio album ‘Montero’ is a lesson in self-belief. Arusa Qureshi.
17. aespa – ‘Next Level’
K-pop, despite all its genre-mashing maximalism, has rarely been this outrageous. For their second-ever single, four-piece aespa remixed a Fast & Furious soundtrack number into a three-act, beat-switching extravaganza, featuring outstanding vocals, an infectious chorus and a middle section that knocks your socks off. Abigail Firth
16. Caroline Polachek – ‘Bunny Is A Rider’
As with all of the greatest pop songs, there’s something deliciously nonsensical about Caroline Polachek‘s ‘Bunny is a Rider’. Is it a song about emotional unavailability, or an escaped house rabbit riding around town on one of those infernal rented scooters? Luckily, that bouncing beat, produced by Danny L Harle, is so addictive that it really doesn’t matter. El Hunt.
15. COBRAH – ‘GOOD PUSS’
Sherbety noughties bassline shot through a hyper-pop lens, this Swedish jubilant ode to “real good bush” has serious hints of Peaches’ provocative streak, and has to be the most brilliantly filthy pop offering since ‘WAP’ “Dive in real thirst/Eat lunch I serve,” COBRAH chants in helium deadpan. No wonder it’s become a staple floor-filler at queer clubs everywhere. El Hunt.
14. Billie Eilish – ‘Happier Than Ever’
After simmering for fourteen tracks, Eilish eventually loses her rag on penultimate song ‘Happier Than Ever’ from her second album of the same name. Her warped Peggy Lee turn erupted into astonishing, electric guitar fury. It’s a standout track on an album that expands rather than stagnates Eilish’s sound, threading together disparate genres with her distinctive vocal delivery. She’s crisper, fuelled by angry, visceral emotion. She swerves mainstream demands, exposes misogynistic horror, and somehow betters an extremely successful debut. Happier than ever? No shit. Kate French-Morris
13. Mitski – ‘Working For The Knife’
Mitski‘s return was a characteristically yearning and knotty affair. ‘Working For The Knife’ saw Mitski team up with longtime producer Patrick Hyland for a synth-driven, forlorn yet propulsive track that laid bare Mitski’s angst in succinct, poetic fashion: “I always knew the world would move on / I just didn’t know it would go without me”. With some neat distorted guitar riffs (and even a little whisper of the Velvet Underground in her delivery of “I’m working for the knife”), the track is about “being confronted with a world that doesn’t seem to recognize your humanity, and seeing no way out of it”. We hear you. Emma Holbrook.
12. Lorde – ‘Solar Power’
It’s hard to explain how anticipated Lorde’s return was. After ‘Melodrama”s barbed break-up bangers, ‘Solar Power’ showed us a brand new Lorde. With a rock’n’roll acoustic guitar riff that toe-taps on the jukebox from George Michael’s ‘Faith’, ‘Solar Power’ was a carefree, playful ode to the summer. Singing of bliss, companionship and overripe peaches, Lorde shares her slice of vicarious happiness and the result was one of the feelgood songs of 2021. Emma Holbrook.
11. Willow – ‘Transparent Soul’
Willow Smith’s rockstar rebrand might have come as a surprise, but no genre has ever suited her more. Assisted by Travis Barker and an earworm of a guitar line, she breathed new life into pop-punk with lyrics about spirituality and reflections on fame. Short, slick and snarling, it was an unforgettable comeback that deservedly put her back on everyone’s radar. Abigail Firth
10. Silk Sonic – ‘Leave The Door Open’
A retro R&B masterclass, the deliciously smooth first offering from Bruno Mars and Anderson .Paak’s collaborative project was pure Hitsville, USA – a lost recording session sandwiched between The Commodores and Marvin Gaye. Everything from the heavenly 7th chords to the studio where the music video was shot was. Emma Holbrook.
9. ENNY – ‘Same Old’
Tackling weighty and topical issues like Brexit and gentrification with a gospel groove underneath, Enny’s ‘Same Old’ is a track about finding the light amidst the darkness. The rising south London rapper’s first taste of her debut EP also turned out to be an undeniable highlight on her broadly excellent 2021 release. Arusa Qureshi
8. Charli XCX – ‘Good Ones’
Pop’s notorious outsider Charli XCX went full main pop girl on comeback single ‘Good Ones’. Usually looking to the future, on this track she looked to the past, nodding to 80s Janet Jackson and blowing the label budget for her final album. In true Charli fashion, it’s mainstream pop with a wink and a nudge, the XCX edge sharper than ever. Abigail Firth
7. PinkPantheress – ‘Just For Me’
If you’ve been anywhere near TikTok this year, you’ll have come across a PinkPantheress track. Between ‘Pain’, ‘Passion’ and ‘Break It Off’, her impossibly sweet and slightly robotic vocals infiltrated For You pages across the globe, but it was garage-driven stalker crush banger ‘Just For Me’ that took her out of phone screens and into the mainstream. Abigail Firth
6. MUNA and Phoebe Bridgers – ‘Silk Chiffon’
Lust is one of the most storied topics in music, but teaming up with Phoebe Bridgers, MUNA’s take is both refreshing and… kinda sexy. “Silk chiffon, that’s how it feels, oh, when she’s on me,” the insatiably horny chorus declares. Throughout, there’s a sunshiney lightness to the song’s rollerblades and cherry lipstick – it’s a summer fling, encapsulated. El Hunt.
5. Wet Leg – ‘Chaise Longue’
To say that Wet Leg’s debut single blew up would be a monumental understatement. The sexy, sassy ‘Chaise Longue’, with its infectious riff and innuendo-packed lyrics (“Is your muffin buttered? Would you like us to assign someone to butter your muffin”) was the fodder of indie radio A-lists all summer long – and is quite frankly, one of the best debut singles since ‘I Bet You Look Good On The Dancefloor’. Charlie Gunn
4. Wolf Alice – ‘The Last Man On Earth’
There are few modern bands for whom we could realistically tell you that their comeback track sounds like A) a thwacking, thundering juggernaut, B) a subtle, slow-building, almost religious experience or C) a cheeky, sling-your-arm-around-your-mates jubilant bop and all of the above could feasibly be equally true of ‘The Last Man On Earth’. This stunning single was a marker of what was to come from Wolf Alice’s third, exquisite album ‘Blue Weekend’. Britain’s best band? No doubt about it. Alison Craig.
3. Self Esteem – ‘I Do This All The Time’
Starting out with slinking, lift-jazz drums, this spoken-word tour de force creeps up on you gradually, biting tenet after tenet piling up like a musical Jenny Holzer piece. The best of all: “You’re beautiful and I want the best for you/but I also hope you fail without me”. By the time the final chorus kicks in, bolstered by a choir, it’s sheer euphoria. El Hunt.
2. Olivia Rodrigo – ‘Good 4 U’
After the supermassive success of ‘Driver’s License’ and the subtle digs of ‘Deja Vu’ came full-pelt Rodrigo rage. ‘Good 4 U’ is a pop-punk triumph that proved Olivia Rodrigo is here to stay. The perfect anthem for anyone whose partner has left them high and dry, everyone from Gen Z to geriatric millennials were spotted screaming “Well, good for you, you look happy and healthy/
Not me, if you ever cared to ask” in front of the mirror. Get this teen all seven of those Grammy nominations. Charlie Gunn
1. Little Simz – ‘Woman’
Little Simz is a master when it comes to blending heart, wit and ingenuity in her music and ‘Woman’ – a standout on ‘Sometimes I Might Be Introvert’ – is a prime example of this. “Woman to woman, I just wanna see you glow,” she raps reflectively in the track’s pre-chorus, before Cleo Sol enters with her silken vocals, providing a message of empowerment. Full of warmth and soul, the track is Simz’ love letter to women all over the world and the many qualities that make them special. In a year of turbulence and distressing news, ‘Woman”s mellow instrumental backdrop and luscious production, coupled with Simz’ lyrical prowess, offers a much-needed moment of celebration. Arusa Qureshi
Listen to the best songs of 2021 in this here playlist. Give it a follow!