1.
Olivia Rodrigo — “good 4 u”
1.

While Olivia Rodrigo‘s debut single “Drivers License” gave her a viral moment, her Sour track “Good 4 U” resonated with millennials and Gen Z alike to make her a certified star. Rather than singing about the woes of a broken heart, “Good 4 U” is instead empowering, sarcastic, and details the wildly relatable feeling of the jealousy and pain that comes from an ex moving on a little too quickly. As a whole, “Good 4 U” is an example of Rodrigo’s versatility that helped her become a household name. It showcases her genre-spanning songwriting along with the fact she can just as easily execute a rock-leaning banger as well as a piano-driven ballad. – Carolyn Droke

Olivia Rodrigo Sour
2.
Olivia Rodrigo — “drivers license”
Olivia Rodrigo Sour
2.

Arguably the most impactful song of 2021, “Drivers License” struck a nerve with a bunch of cooped up kids who were feeling the pain of losing a whole year — and potentially losing relationships in the wake. But “Drivers License” is about so much more than a breakup, it spans the whole gamut of grief, from the everyday minutia to the broken dreams of future plans, to the specific kind of loneliness that only hits when you’re driving past a place that used to feel like home. To be able to get all that into a song at the tender age of 17, well, that’s a phenomenal feat by a songwriter just beginning her journey. – Caitlin White

An Evening With Silk Sonic
3.
Silk Sonic — “Leave the Door Open”
An Evening With Silk Sonic
3.

Bruno Mars and Anderson .Paak announced their Silk Sonic duo back in February and left the music world to simply imagine how great this pairing could be. The things they imagined were brought to reality with Silk Sonic’s perfect debut single, “Leave The Door Open.” Undeniably catchy, impressively smooth, and irresistible altogether, Silk Sonic squeezed every bit of juice out of the record for five months before offering a new track to their fans. Nowadays, singles rarely get worked and promoted for as long as “Leave The Door Open” did, with life of Silk Sonic’s debut track acting as a testament to just how good the song is. – Wongo Okon

4.
MUNA — “Silk Chiffon” ft. Phoebe Bridgers
4.

If you haven’t heard the lesbian anthem of the year, GTFO. Okay, sure, this song belongs just as much to bi women as anyone else (hi Phoebe), and it only takes a tiny stretch of the imagination to make it into a love song for just about anyone. But, in a heteronormative, patriarchal world that so often dismisses the idea that plenty of women could be completely happy loving each other, “Silk Chiffon” reclaims space in a deeply political way. The fact that it also happens to be a banger is just icing on the cake… or an extra bit of chiffon on the blouse. – Caitlin White

5.
Japanese Breakfast — “Be Sweet”
5.

Japanese Breakfast’s Jubilee is one of the best indie albums of the year, and “Be Sweet” was the first taste we got into Michelle Zauner’s joyful world. Built upon a buoyant bass groove, funky guitars, and driving synths, “Be Sweet” is a notable high point on an album that is full of high points. Zauner’s infectious vocal melody drives it all home, crafting a track that will be quick to get you dancing. – Zac Gelfand

6.
Turnstile — “Blackout”
6.

With their latest album Glow On, Baltimore hardcore heavyweights Turnstile stepped out of their comfort zone a bit and started to experiment. “Blackout” represents the perfect midpoint between Turnstile’s past and future, with 808 accents and non-traditional percussion working together to build the track’s tension. It all eventually explodes into a cathartic chorus that finds Brendan Yates screaming “if it makes you feel alive / well, then I’m happy to provide,” all before fully breaking down into a heavier hardcore outro. – Zac Gelfand

7.
Lil Nas X — “MONTERO (Call Me by Your Name)”
7.

In the event that you somehow managed to not hear anything about Lil Nas X since the historic No. 1 run with “Old Town Road” in 2019… well, a lot has changed since then. The rapper shed his squeaky-clean image (which he cultivated based on a song that references adultery and breasts) to make conservatives faint by becoming a gay icon and giving Satan a lap dance. The change was for the better, as “Montero (Call Me By Your Name)” made him a lasting cultural fixture, due to both the quality of the music and Nas’ masterful ability to promote it and himself in delightful ways. – Derrick Rossignol

8.
Caroline Polachek — “Bunny is a Rider”
8.

Between her many years with Chairlift, and other solo project monikers like Ramona Lisa and CEP, it took a while for Caroline Polachek to finally settle into her own as an artist. But now that she’s there? She’s going full speed ahead. “Bunny Is A Rider” is more high-speed chase energy, run through the filter of summer flings and getaway cars. It’s an epic, left-field pop hit that should be on every year-end playlist, and hopefully means the follow-up to 2019’s excellent Pang will be coming next year. – Caitlin White

9.
Wizkid — “Essence” (Remix) ft. Tems & Justin Bieber
9.

Afrobeats reached a new level of popularity in 2021. Proof of that lives in Wizkid, Tems’, and Justin Bieber’sEssence” collaboration. The original record, which features just Wizkid and Tems, was released at the end of 2020 with the former’s Made In Lagos album. It eventually became the first record by a Nigerian artist to enter the Billboard Hot 100 while the addition of Bieber helped to propel the song to No. 10 on the chart. Altogether, Tems’ captivating presence on the song, Wizkid’s smooth-guy demeanor, and Bieber’s mainstream appeal helped to make the song one of the more successful crossover records in recent memory. Its success and popularity were clear as fans from all over the world belted its lyrics at the top of their lungs long after the song’s original release. – Wongo Okon

10.
Sharon Van Etten & Angel Olsen — “Like I Used To”
10.

Sharon Van Etten has one thing in common with every other Angel Olsen fan: She has stood in the crowd of Olsen’s shows and cried her eyes out to the singer’s cathartic lyrics. The two famed indie songwriters hadn’t known each other too well before teaming up for the Americana duet “Like I Used To,” but they had always supported each other from afar. That air of mutual admiration is more than palpable in the collaboration, a song that boasts shimmering chords, a big-band chorus, and swirling harmonies that feature both singers’ velvety voices. The anthemic track calls back to the heart-wrenching ballads that arose out of the American heartland, but instead focuses on their own personal self-growth rather than a romantic relationship. – Carolyn Droke

11.
Lil Nas X & Jack Harlow — “INDUSTRY BABY”
11.

It’s occasionally hard to separate Lil Nas X’s music from the general chaos that surrounds his releases. In the case of “Industry Baby,” there was a controversial (and really very excellent) music video that spawned pearl-clutching backlash and prompted much prodding and speculation about Jack Harlow’s role in the whole thing. But even if you peel back that layer, you’re left with a truly transformative track that celebrates the strivers and takes the piss out of the skeptics who thought Nas was just a one-hit-wonder or an “industry plant.” Also, Kanye really lives up to his outsized reputation as a producer. Wins all around. – Aaron Williams

12.
Doja Cat — “Kiss Me More” ft. SZA
12.

Jittery and sweet, like the butterflies that accompany new romance, “Kiss Me More” expanded Doja Cat’s influence from internet hip-hop and took it straight into classic pop territory. With all the filthy, x-rated, absolutely raunchy lyrics Doja and plenty of other rappers love to engage in, this song’s chaste, extremely catchy emphasis on the art of kissing was a welcome respite. Plus, getting SZA back on the radio? Now that’s something we all want more of whenever possible. – Caitlin White

13.
Cassandra Jenkins — “Hard Drive”
13.

There’s a certain serenity to “Hard Drive,” akin to a meditative walk in the woods, or mindless antique shopping in a small town, or a drive down the interstate with multiple gas station pit stop and chats. “Hard Drive” paints vignettes of the types of quaint interactions someone might have along the way, weaving them seamlessly alongside a calming drumbeat, twisty saxophone, and Jenkins, our humble narrator, flashing moments of her breathy vocals. The song plays like a series of therapeutic conversations and its theme of staying connected to the world around us is arguably the thesis statement of Jenkins’ brilliant An Overview On Phenomenal Nature. – Adrian Spinelli

14.
Big Thief — “Little Things”
14.

Big Thief is a prolific band. In the past few years, its four players have released, including solo projects, half a dozen albums of their hushed, jittery, reflective folk. To me, many of their songs, while lovely, can blend together. Not “Little Things,” off Dragon New Warm Mountain I Believe In You, Big Thief’s forthcoming double album, which promises to be their most immediate yet. Strident, nearly-clanging-but-still-delicate guitars hear the four piece at their most euphorically in sync as Adrianne Lenker sings of obsession. She recounts the little things she likes about her lover, and how even in New York City, which as she reminds us in an oddly touching deadpan, is a crowded place, she loses sight of every face but theirs. “Little Things” is sad but invigorating, like a bucket of ice water, while also striking as pedestrian yet beautiful, like a handful of marbles. And, it’s as satisfying as the sound of releasing either. — Jael Goldfine

15.
Taylor Swift — “All Too Well” (10-minute version) (Taylor’s Version) (From The Vault)
15.

The original five-and-a-half-minute “All Too Well” was a ballad about the pain of remembering. This ten-minute version, which Swift had originally been pressured by her label to shorten, is the undiluted result of heartbreak; it’s an incredibly real piece of art untouched by expectations of others. The song is unrelenting in detail, rooted in physical descriptions, vivid scenes, and more context of the nature of the relationship (“And I was thinking on the drive down / any time now, he’s gonna say it’s love / you never called it what it was.”) It’s a blend of conflicted emotions, portraying that the wound is still fresh and probably the only thing that will heal it is time. – Danielle Chelosky

16.
The War On Drugs — I Don’t Live Here Anymore
16.

After four long years, The War On Drugs finally returned in November with a reward for our patience. Musically, I Don’t Live Here Anymore is a refinement of the craft the band explored on 2017’s A Deeper Understanding, which itself was a refinement of 2014’s Lost In The Dream. It’s evidence of a band that is always adapting and evolving for an LP that is without a doubt their most accessible material to date. It packs in catchy hooks, driving rhythms, and emotionally cathartic instrumental arrangements anchored by guitar solos that will remind you why guitar solos are, in fact, awesome. – Zac Gelfand

17.
Wet Leg — “Chaise Longue”
17.

Call it lightning in a bottle, but nobody saw Wet Leg coming. How could we? The duo from the British Isle of Wight (hardly the breeding ground that London or Bristol is) didn’t even form until the start of the pandemic. But the debut single from the band is catchy, snarky post-punk with a pop twist. “Is your muffin buttered? Would you like us to send someone to butter your muffin?” vocalist Rhian Teasdale asks, perfectly encapsulating the humor that she and Hester Chambers infuse across the now four songs they put out in 2021. Tack on a bouncy Britpop bassline and wavy guitar melody and “Chaise Longue,” a slacker ode to laying around all day, proved to be the start of the next big thing. – Adrian Spinelli

18.
Jazmine Sullivan — “Pick Up Your Feelings”
18.

At the apex of the pandemic, Jazmine Sullivan thought it was the perfect time to remind the world of her existence with a steamy stack of songs titled Heaux Tales. Its second supporting single “Pick Up Your Feelings” encapsulates everything we missed about Jaz. Pure vocals, women empowerment, encouragement, and anecdotes. “I deserve so much more than you gave to me / So now I’m savin’ me / And I made my peace / So you can run them streets,” she relents. “But don’t forget to come and pick up your feelings.” – Cherise Johnson

19.
Lucy Dacus — “Hot & Heavy”
19.

“Hot & Heavy” is an invitation into fumbling adolescence, the very core of Home Video. At a steady crescendo from its heady start, the song pulses with desire, embedding us in a memory that’s stifling in its awe. Dacus’ subject here is a “hidden gem… the biggest, brightest flame” and a “fire that can’t be tamed.” Her blazing admiration is a hallmark of the album; rendered in memory, its many subjects — childhood friends, camp-mates, and loves — are immutable. But Dacus told me this song is “kind of about” herself; that renders “Hot & Heavy” a slap of self-recognition tinged with embarrassment. Looking at her younger self, Dacus sees how she’s grown. – Caitlin Wolper

20.
Olivia Rodrigo — “deja vu”
20.

The fear that comes alongside the success of a breakout hit is very real: What if I can’t do it again? What if I’m a one-hit wonder? While it’s likely those terrifying thoughts entered Olivia Rodrigo’s head once or twice after the runaway success of “Drivers License,” they were quickly laid to rest when “Deja Vu” came storming through the gates. With its twinkling synths, breathy vocals, and cotton candy-tinged video, the song expanded her imprint on the pop world tenfold when it dropped a few months after her debut. Biting and sweet, bitter and clever, “Deja Vu” revealed to the rest of the world what Olivia’s team had known all along — this wasn’t just another pop star, it was a spectacular songwriter. Throughout 2021, she’d prove that again and again, until “Deja Vu” was how we felt about her chart success and critical acclaim. – Caitlin White

We close this year’s Critics Poll with this top 20 playlist and encourage you to check out the songs and albums that also received votes and the critics that made this all possible.

Some artists covered here are Warner Music artists. Uproxx is an independent subsidiary of Warner Music Group.