Things are starting to look up for all of us. As we venture out of our homes and (hopefully) to shows for the first time in almost 18 months, we’re reminded of the ways that music served, perhaps more than ever before, as a lifeboat during this extended time of unease. Stuck at home like the rest of us, with very few creative distractions, many artists had time to really focus on their craft and deliver some of their best music to date.
Sure, albums are great – but an album is nothing without its songs. And 2021 has been nothing if not full of great songs. From Olivia Rodrigo’s mega-smash “Drivers License” to Taylor Swift’s continued pivot to indie-folk, these songs inspired hope, they felt our pain, or they helped us transport to a different place entirely. Presented below in alphabetical order, here are the best songs of 2021 so far. Please note that songs released in December 2020 are eligible to be included here, as they came out too late for our 2020 lists.
Beabadoobee – “Last Day On Earth”
UK songwriter Beabadoobee has been credited with reacquainting Gen Z with the flannel-loving aesthetics of ‘90s grunge music. Her debut album Fake It Flowers was inspired by feel-good rom coms but with her track “Last Night On Earth,” the singer issued a more nostalgic ode. The song was released as the lead single to the 1975-produced EP Our Extended Play and features pop-leaning hooks that imagine all the things the singer would have done differently if she had known her life was about to be put on pause for over a year due to the pandemic. – Carolyn Droke
Bebe Rexha – “Die For A Man” Feat. Lil Uzi Vert
Don’t overlook Bebe Rexha’s freaky, eclectic second album, Better Mistakes. Anchored by singles like “Die For A Man,” which is basically the exact inverse of most heartfelt feminine songs about breakups, this misandrist assertion of self-worth is a spooky trap-pop statement. Bebe basically says no matter how in love she is, the breakup will never kill her. When Lil Uzi Vert comes through for a smooth verse of Autotuned braggadocio, that’s just the cherry on top. It’s a refreshingly tough alternative to some of the more vulnerable themes that have been tearing up the charts lately. But Bebe has always been marching to the beat of her own drum, and that’s why we love her. – Caitlin White
BIA – “Whole Lotta Money”
Massachusetts-bred Bia has finally arrived after spending the last half-decade paying dues as a cast member of the Oxygen reality television show Sisterhood Of Hip Hop and a string of underground mixtapes and EPs. “Whole Lotta Money” is her first Billboard-charting solo track, buoyed by a viral trend blowing up — where else — on TikTok. With its flossy boast about putting on all her jewelry for a bodega run, the burgeoning hit has backed videos of lip-syncing users mugging the camera, twerking, and showing off their own swaggering displays of confidence. – Aaron Williams
BTS – “Butter”
Every time it doesn’t seem possible that BTS can top themselves again. And every time, they manage to. Following up the record-breaking heat of “Dynamite,” their new single “Butter” stays in the same incredibly upbeat, joy-inducing range, but comes in even smoother. “I’ve got the superstar glow” goes the pre-chorus, only to be followed up with an even better gem: “Let me show you ‘cuz talk is cheap.” It’s a dance anthem for a world ready to shake off its malaise, a declaration of love sans any fear or hesitation. It’s smooth like butter, like we all want to be. A BTS mood has officially become the aspirational peak, all summer long. – C.W.
Burial – “Dark Gethsemane”
Despite Burial’s last album, Untrue, arriving in 2007, the reclusive UK producer has actually remained pretty active, as they’ve released a bunch of EPs over the past decade. On one of the most recent, they teamed up for with Blackdown this year for the Shock Power Of Love EP, a split project to which both artists contributed a pair of tracks. The beefiest one of the lot is Burial’s 10-minute “Dark Gethsemane,” which starts as a kinetic dancefloor banger before shifting into more experimental territory halfway through. – Derrick Rossignol
Cardi B – “Up”
Cardi’s first new single since “WAP”-ageddon not only kept her streak of smash hits alive, but it also drew more than its share of controversy, just like her prior table shakers. Once again, she was accused of copyright infringement over its Crime Mob-homaging hook, and this time, she even took flak over the track’s TikTok popularity as critics sniped at the dance craze that popped up seemingly overnight. None of that prevented the song from becoming Cardi’s fifth No. 1 Hot 100 hit or from becoming one of the most talked-about performances of the 63rd Annual Grammy Awards in March. – A.W.
Cassandra Jenkins – “Michelangelo”
Cassandra Jenkins wrote her sophomore album An Overview On Phenomenal Nature during a time of grief. She was reeling from the death of David Berman, who she was set to tour with just days later. Much of the serene album is Jenkins telling the story of others, like a museum security guard or a bookkeeper. But her breezy album opener “Michelangelo” instead directs her attention inward, creating a space to murmur meditative reflections about the process of healing over folksy instrumentals. – C.D.
Coi Leray – “No More Parties”
“No More Parties” has ruffled its fair share of feathers, but if you’re one of those detractors who think it’s Coi Leray’s only noteworthy work to date, you haven’t been paying attention. If anything, it’s a coronation, the culmination of the Jersey-bred rapper’s past three years of hustle, which included appearances on the Spider-Verse soundtrack, a pair of impressive mixtapes, and cultivating a massive social media following with her counterintuitively catchy twerking videos — a legitimate marketing technique in a post-Megan Thee Stallion connected rap universe. It follows, then, that the song’s warm reception — including multiple remixes and freestyles from peers and predecessors and a late-night debut on The Tonight Show — is a confirmation that it’s all coming together. – A.W.
Darkside – “The Limit”
Nicolás Jaar and Dave Harrington haven’t done much with Darkside a near-decade after releasing their sole album, 2013’s Psychic. That is, until recently, as they announced they will bless this summer with a new full-length album, Spiral. They’ve offered some early tastes of the record, and “The Limit” stands out. The hypnotic and rhythmic track shows the two artists haven’t become musical strangers during their extended time apart, as only two partners who are completely locked in could make something this compelling. – D.R.
Doja Cat & SZA – “Kiss Me More”
This long-awaited collaboration between SZA and Doja Cat did not disappoint. “Kiss Me More” scales back from the raunchier aspects of modern music and delves into an old-fashioned kind of intimacy that’s punctuated by both women alternating between rapping and singing. While we wait for both of these superstars to drop their albums, “Kiss Me More” is another reminder that these two are as versatile as artists come. Both of them refuse to be put in a box when it comes to pop, R&B, and hip-hop, and that ambiguity has only made their work in all three genres better. Let the insistent, funky beat sink into your skin, and get ready for a very physical summer. – C.W.
Drake – “What’s Next”
Drake knows what kind of global rap superstar powerhouse he is and he reminds everyone of this with a message on his rambunctious Scary Hours 2 hit song “What’s Next.” Produced by Supah Mario, The Boy takes us on a ride to share what he’s been up to since Certified Lover Boy’s release date got pushed back. “Well, summer, all I did was rest, okay? / And New Year’s, all I did was stretch, okay? / And Valentine’s Day, I had sex, okay? / We’ll see what’s ’bout to happen next,” he reveals. And it’s fine, Aubrey can take as much time as he needs to get CLB right, but boy are we thankful we have “What’s Next” to hold us over until then. It’s not like he’s missing out on being on top of the “Hot one hundo, numero uno,” he puts it. Afterall, “What’s Next” did land at No. 1 on the Hot 100 charts upon its release, dethroning bubbling pop sensation Olivia Rodrigo’s “Driver’s License,” with the rest of the Scary Hour 2 tracks falling right behind at No. 2 and No. 3 (and it didn’t even come with a bundle). “What’s Next” is the lyrical embodiment of Drizzy’s cultural dominance. No matter when or where he chooses to release new music, it always gets a little scary when a Drake release is near. – Cherise Johnson
Dua Lipa – “If It Ain’t Me”
Robbed of what would’ve been a gigantic, glittery tour around her epic sophomore album, Future Nostalgia, Dua Lipa did what all great pop stars do when faced with a challenge — pivot. Instead of a tour, she poured her creativity into the Future Nostalgia remixes, and followed that up in early 2021 with the Moonlight Edition. “If It Ain’t Me” is one of the new songs off that version, a song about being happily in love and wondering what it would be like to lose that feeling. It’s more glitchy, disco-pop from the new queen of the dancefloor, dancing her heart out even as the fear creeps in. – C.W.
Foxing – “Go Down Together”
Foxing just officially announced their follow-up to 2018’s art-emo masterpiece Nearer, My God, though they have begun teasing music from their forthcoming fourth LP for a few months. “Go Down Together” finds the St. Louis outfit leaning more into their pop sensibilities than the emo-tinged roots they built a career upon. It’s an interesting pivot for the band, but also makes for what Derrick Rossignol called for Uproxx “the band’s most accessible work so far.” – Zac Gelfand
Griff – “Black Hole”
Griff is going to be one of the next big things in pop, so keep an eye on her for the back half of 2021. Right now she’s blowing up off the strength of “Black Hole,” a bouncy, funk-flecked song about missing someone so much it annihilates your heart. The London-based songwriter channels heartbreak into sleek synth-pop just like Julia Michaels — and has the voice to back it up, too. Olivia isn’t the only one writing epic breakup songs in 2021, this is a pop subgenre that just keeps on giving, and Griff is on the cusp of being another breakout star. – C.W.
IDK and Offset – “Shoot My Shot”
The hope is that DMV rapper IDK is just a few months away from sharing his sophomore album, U See 4 Yourself, the sequel to his debut effort, Is He Real?. While it remains to be seen what his second album will sound like, IDK might have delivered a preview of it with “Shoot Your Shot” featuring Offset. The charismatic banger is laced with the duo’s impenetrable confidence as they compare themselves to basketball players like Steph Curry while shooting some shots of their own. – Wongo Okon
Isaiah Rashad – “Lay Wit Ya” Feat. Duke Deuce
The nearly five years without music from Isaiah Rashad finally came to an end with the TDE rapper’s single, “Lay Wit Ya” with Duke Deuce. The effort found a balance between mainstream assimilation and a continued display of Rashad’s artistry that we love. The added contribution from Deuce also provided a jolt of raucous energy to the track. With The House Is Burning on the way, “Lay Wit Ya” promises more great music that’s set to come from Rashad. – W.O.
Japanese Breakfast – “Be Sweet”
Japanese Breakfast’s first two albums were Michelle Zauner’s synth-infused reflections on the feeling of grief. But with her new project Jubilee, Zauner takes inspiration from unbridled joy. “Be Sweet” mirrors the same kind of euphoria. Zauner belts optimistic lyrics about the prospects of love underscored by a groovy bass guitar and buoyant keys, and the catchy tune is exactly the bop we wanted from Japanese Breakfast’s new album cycle. – C.D.
Jazmine Sullivan – “Pick Up Your Feelings”
After years of undeniably great songs and albums, Jazmine Sullivan kicked off 2021 with yet another excellent project thanks to Heaux Tales. Her most popular track at the moment, “Pick Up Your Feelings,” can be found on that record as the song once again puts her roaring vocals on display as she asks her ex-lover to pack up their affection and physical belongings, which may or may not be in the box to the left, before exiting her life. – W.O.
Koreless – “Joy Squad”
For about a decade now, Koreless (Welsh producer Lewis Roberts) has been building up clout with both fans and his peers; He got a track of his own on Perfume Genius’ remix album from last year. Now, he’s finally putting out a debut album, and alongside that announcement from May came “Joy Squad.” The track might send anybody who grew up on AM radio running for the hilliest of hills, but it’s a complex and lush three minutes of music, filled with sounds that could be described as unsettling, catchy, harsh, and other seemingly disparate adjectives that play nice together under the tutelage of Koreless. – D.R.
Lana Del Rey – “White Dress”
Even if a latent annoyance over Lana’s willfully obtuse commentary about herself, certain other women, and their place in the music industry might be lingering, “White Dress” is self-reflective enough to show another side of Del Rey. As she looks back on her early days as a nobody, male-dominated music industry looming over her idyllic time as a waitress, the song’s nostalgia and mystical glow take over any logic. “White Dress” is pure feeling, and nobody captures that like Lana. – C.W.
Lil Baby – “Real As It Gets” Feat. EST Gee
Lil Baby and EST Gee revel in their rap star lifestyles on their menacing ATL Jacob-produced song “Real As It Gets.” Two street dudes who happen to rap, on a song together, just makes sense and it was an inevitable collab that was waiting to happen. Lil Baby’s signature hyper-flow is tempered by Gee’s suave mode of lyrical delivery, giving us a reason to want to hear this duo more often. In the song, Baby takes the opportunity to explain how it all started for him: “To the streets, I’m the voice, I’m an advocate / Ask the plug, this the most he done ever sent,” before Gee shares his own story of he came into the rap game. “All this sh*t started off in the kitchen / Showed me once and I was payin’ attention / Ask the trenches, they gon’ say I’m the realest,” the rising Louisville rapper spits. Between Baby and Gee’s hood star power and the track’s ominous production, “Real As It Gets” is everything the song implies. – C.J.
Lil Nas X – “Montero (Call Me By Your Name)”
“Montero (Call Me By Your Name)” has transcended its two minutes and 17 seconds of audio and become a cultural moment. The song and its controversial, hell-set video pissed some people off, aroused others, and elevated Lil Nas X beyond a one-hit-wonder status. That said, none of this could have happened if “Montero” wasn’t a great song, and it genuinely is. It proves that “Old Town Road” wasn’t a one-time fluke and that Lil Nas X is a master of catchy hooks, packaging them for the masses, and dealing with the attention that generates. – D.R.
Mac Ayres – “Nothing Else”
An R&B act you should absolutely get familiar with is Mac Ayres. The New York native shared his latest project, Magic 8Ball, back in January. While it’s an effort that went under the radar, the EP’s eight songs, in combination, made for one of 2021’s best R&B projects and “Nothing Else” is one of its brightest moments. Backed by hypnotizing keys and stuttering drums, Ayres promises to work out the problems with his lover rather than run from them like he used to. – W.O.
Olivia Rodrigo – “Drivers License”
Arguably the most influential song of the first half 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. – C.W.
Polo G – “Rapstar”
Ever since Polo G popped up on the scene, the Chicago rapper has been nothing short of himself and his No. 1 hit song “Rapstar” is a great representation of that. “Rapstar” is actually Polo’s first solo Hot 100 No. 1 and he didn’t even have to switch up his sound to make it happen. Always introspective, Polo spits, “Every day a battle, I’m exhausted and I’m weary / Make sure I smile in public, when alone, my eyes teary / I fought through it all, but that shit hurt me severely,” while also showing gratitude towards all the luxurious things that his lifestyle brings. The track also features Einer Bankz on the ukelele and was in great anticipation among his legion of fans after they teased the song back in 2020. Polo stayed consistent, stayed true and landed a huge hit that will no doubt see his star rise even higher once his third studio album Hall Of Fame is unleashed on June 11. – C.J.
Pooh Shiesty – “Back In Blood” Feat. Lil Durk
Whew. There have been few straight-up trap records that have been as well-received and explosive as “Back In Blood.” A propulsive, gritty, straight-from-the-gut banger, Pooh Shiesty’s breakout hit received a huge boost from the efforts of Lil Durk, who was in the middle of an incendiary comeback of his own thanks to Drake and “Laugh Now Cry Later,” among other works. The sheer amount of goodwill the song’s engendered led to the duo making an appearance on The Late Show and Pooh Shiesty becoming one of the most exciting new voices in street rap today. – A.W.
Saweetie – “Best Friend” Feat. Doja Cat
At this point, hating on Saweetie is like fighting the tide. It was one thing when her formula almost solely included hijacking 2000s hits. But “Best Friend” is all original, a succinct, saccharine summation of everything the Bay Area artist represents with her Icy image. Doja Cat’s verse — misinterpreted though it may have been — is the icing on the Icy cake, lending one of pop-rap’s most enervating presences to a song high on energy and nearly impossible to nitpick. – A.W.
Sharon Van Etten & Angel Olsen – “Like I Used To”
It’s hard to believe that indie legends Sharon Van Etten and Angel Olsen haven’t collaborated on music until now. The duo’s first-ever joint release, “Like I Used To,” channels the best of both veteran songwriters into what Derrick Rossignol called for Uproxx a “bold Americana” track. – Z.G.
Silk Sonic – “Leave The Door Open”
Anderson .Paak and Bruno Mars first formed Silk Sonic one drunken night after touring Europe together in 2017. They kept the project under wraps since, but their debut single “Leave The Door Open” was worth the wait. Leaning on each musician’s strengths, .Paak delivers playful percussion (he even recorded the drums in one take), while Mars croons soulful harmonies about wooing a significant other. The song has already topped the Billboard Hot 100 chart a couple times, so it’s safe to say the project’s forthcoming debut album will be just as enticing. – C.D.
Syd – “Missing Out”
As far as R&B goes, Syd always delivers and she casually does it once again with “Missing Out.” It’s an expectation at this point. “Missing Out” is Syd’s first release since 2017’s Fin, which was incredible. Her futuristic handling of R&B has become signature and her soft voice flows perfectly throughout the song’s heavenly production, making it more than a listening experience by turning it into a poetic feeling experience. “Hope you finding what you need or what you seek ’cause now I’m free / And maybe in another life, you’d be mine,” she sings. “But you’re missing out.” More of this superb music-making is expected from Syd in 2021. – C.J.
Taylor Swift – “Mr. Perfectly Fine”
Leave it to Taylor to tack on one of her greatest cutting room floor songs onto the already near-perfect Fearless tracklist. “Mr. Perfectly Fine” mirrors some of Taylor’s other best songs about being jilted by a careless boy, the “casually cruel” line she later reuses to even greater effect in “All Too Well,” the golden-crush key final chorus, the ability to make a song about the worst feelings still seem dreamy and slightly upbeat. The best part about “Mr. Perfectly Fine,” though, is how space has shaped her own relationship to it — there’s no more pain or pettiness in delivery. That’s perfect. – C.W.
The Weather Station – “Tried To Tell You”
The Weather Station have been making music for over a decade. The band, fronted by Toronto songwriter Tamara Lindeman, had been a mostly acoustic project but their 2021 LP Ignorance took their sound in a new direction. Its standout single, “Tried To Tell You,” showcases the sonic shift, trading in wistful acoustic guitar for skittering snares and dance-ready rhythms. The song’s theme juxtaposes its optimistic instrumentation by detailing the importance of reaching out to a friend in need. – C.D.
Vic Mensa – “Shelter” Feat. Wyclef Jean, Chance The Rapper
Vic Mensa is back. Technically, that happened last year, with the confessional V Tape EP he released that saw him return to his pre-punk rock makeover lyrical form. Still, though, there was always a lingering doubt, the sense that it might all be temporary. Then, he reunited with his school friend and brother-in-arms Chance The Rapper for one of the most heartfelt tracks either have released in literally years (Chance’s wife-doting notwithstanding). “Shelter” feels like a reset for both its principal artists, a moment they recaptured the public’s interest and buying enough credit for us to eagerly look forward to their next move. – A.W.
Young Dolph and Key Glock – Penguins
Young Dolph and Key Glock have done an excellent job of leading Memphis’ recent hip-hop resurgence over the last few years. The protege and mentor combination delivered strong collaborations in the past, with one of their best being their recent joint album, Dum & Dummer 2. Throughout its 20 tracks, the duo show their chemistry has only improved over the years and “Penguins” is a prime example of this. The icy track captures the Memphis duo once again celebrating their well-earned success with diamonds and other jewels colder than the most brisk wind. – W.O.
Young Thug and Gunna – “Ski”
At this point, Gunna and Young Thug’s chemistry is nearly unmatched by any other pairing in rap. Recapturing the magic of their So Much Fun collaboration “Surf” on the YSL Records compilation Slime Language 2, they prove that it shouldn’t take much to make an unimpeachable rap banger. Bass, loop, snares, and the two rappers’ complementary verses all combine into a slickly versatile musical gumbo — one that also inspired a viral TikTok dance, boosting its popularity and proving that there is still plenty of fun to be had. – A.W.
Some artists covered here are Warner Music artists. Uproxx is an independent subsidiary of Warner Music Group.