From rising female rappers to newly formed super-duos, 2021 has already been full of surprise (or not so surprise) hits. One week the Hot 100 could be ruled by a relative unknown and the next it’ll be dominated by a superstar like Cardi B or Ariana Grande. At the same time, on apps like TikTok or Triller, the #1 song in the country was often not the most popular song used in cooking videos, dance challenges, or makeup tutorials. In the middle of all this are the left-of-mainstream artists that haven’t broken traditional radio and streaming playlists or the fickle virality of the TikTok ecosystem. Regardless of their commercial success, the 21 songs on this list capture the genre-bending fearlessness of 2021’s music scene. There are throwbacks to ’70s R&B sitting next to updated versions of punk-pop, acoustic ballads, dancehall anthems, and tender country paeans. These are the 21 Best Songs of 2021 (So Far). *Note: this list prioritizes songs from albums that were not recognized on the 21 Best Albums of 2021 (So Far) list.
#21. “HOT HOT” (Bree Runway)
Last year, Bree Runway stormed the world with her futuristic 2000AND4EVA mixtape, and she kicked off 2021 with her gorgeous Missy Elliott-assisted “ATM” video. Believe it or not, this is still just the beginning for the fascinating multihyphenate. “HOT HOT” has survived through two different versions, and both iterations of the song are terrific. Originally built around a sample of Busta Rhymes’s “Touch It,” HOT HOT is a smooth and sexy song built for the summer. Bree bigs herself up (“You think you hot hot/you ain’t got it like me, don’t lie baby tell the truth”) throughout the song, but there’s more than enough confidence to go around. That’s what this song’s mission is: to inspire confidence and swagger in every single listener. The sleek mélange of hip-hop, R&B, and dancehall hits every note of the typical summer smash. Nevertheless, in typical Bree fashion, none of this feels like a paint-by-the-numbers affair. Even in her more carefree songs, there is clear intention behind every background harmony. If “HOT HOT” isn’t the song of the summer for 2021, there’s always the next year and the year after that! Vote for Bree Runway at the 2021 Bulletin Awards here. Read the full “HOT HOT” review here.
#20. “F.U.C.K.” (Victoria Monét)
Who doesn’t love turning a curse word into an acronym for something that’s mildly sweeter? On this slow-burning R&B standalone single, Victoria Monét turns “fuck” into “friend yo(u) can keep.” Despite the title, “F.U.C.K.” is actually more sensual and more tender than most of Jaguar. Victoria and D’Mile (“Damage,” “Roll Some Mo”) create a piquant soundscape over which she croons lusty couplets. A sequel of sorts to the ephemeral satisfaction of “Moment,” “F.U.C.K.” is concerned with consistency as she sings “I’m just tryna jump your bones, we don’t gotta jump the broom.” Between the drums and bass guitar, this track is mixed to perfection. The song is incredibly accurate in the way that it describes most modern-day situationships, but Victoria makes even the most complicated things sound like slices of heaven. Vote for Victoria Monét at the 2021 Bulletin Awards here. Read the full “F.U.C.K.” review here.
#19. “Beating Down Yo Block” (Monaleo)
Easily one of the most addictive songs of the year so far, Monaleo’s “Beating Down Yo Block” is all bark and all bite. When you sample “Knocking Pictures off da Wall” by Yungstar, you absolutely have to come correctly. Monaleo’s take on a breakup song isn’t a tearful ballad. Instead, she channels her anger and spite into one sublime hook and two ferocious verses. Monaleo spits “And I can’t claim a nigga ’cause none of these niggas mine/Don’t ask me bout my ex, let’s just pretend that nigga died.” Yeah, it’s that serious. Her delivery may be agitated, but she consistently hits every pocket in the Merion Krazy-produced beat, this level of control is what makes Monaleo so promising. Although this is a song inspired by the end of a relationship, it’s also an anthem of independence and the beauty that lies in choosing violence from time to time. You’ll find yourself screaming along to the hook after just one listen. Vote for Monaleo at the 2021 Bulletin Awards here.
#18. “intimate moments” (Isaac Dunbar)
One of the best things a song can do is strike the perfect contrast between its sound and its content. A track taken from Isaac Dunbar’s evil twin EP, “intimate moments” is stunning. Isaac juxtaposes his lyrical vulnerability and delicate vocal performance against rousing strings and robust drums. This song doesn’t capture an intimate moment as much as it creates a vivid picture of the fear that these moments can induce. “And I might cry but I’ll never show it/Can’t let you down, can’t let you down,” Isaac sings. When first creating intimacy in relationships, people can tend to project their own fears and expectations onto their partners. It’s a scary experience because you feel aimless and the lack of control is daunting. In his layered vocal performance, Isaac is able to relay all of these nuances in this gorgeous track. It’s one of many high moments on the evil twin EP. Read the full ‘evil twin’ review here.
#17. “Sober & Skinny” (Brittney Spencer)
Black country music is in a beautiful place. From BRELAND and Tiera to Jimmie Allen and Mickey Guyton, the new generation of Black country stars are bringing true star power and versatility to the scene. On “Sober & Skinny,” Brittney strips things down to ensure that the focus is squarely on the lyrics. A dicey story about acknowledging the need to neutralize certain vices that sometimes adversely impact a relationship, “Sober & Skinny” is less concerned with resolution as it is with sitting in discomfort. “You want me to shrink, but I think we should talk to one,” she sings at the beginning of the second verse; here, Brittney simultaneously continues the recent trend of openly singing about therapy as well as showing off her and her collaborators’ dynamic wordplay. Also, the slight quiver in her voice plays well against the simple instrumentation. There’s nothing more impressive than a song that uses its underlying darkness as a source of power.
#16. “MONTERO (Call Me By Your Name)” (Lil Nas X)
Remember just two years ago when most people assumed that “Old Town Road” was a flash in the pan? And then came “Panini,” and then “Rodeo,” and then one of the biggest cultural moments of the year so far: “Call Me By Your Name.” Built around flamenco-esque handclaps and guitar, “Call Me By Your Name” is a far cry from the country-rap hybrid of “Old Town Road.” In this song, Lil Nas uses a more subdued mood to explore the intersection of Christianity, vices like drugs and alcohol, sexuality, and more. These interlocking themes had the potential to swallow the song, but Lil Nas’s charisma and his knack for catchy melodies make the song unstoppable. From the song’s structure to Lil Nas’s swaggering rap cadence, “Call Me By Your Name” is very of its time. Nevertheless, the song is timeless in the way that it is committed to fearlessness. Lil Nas sings about sex in the way that straight pop stars have done for decades (“Shoot a child in your mouth while I’m ridin'”), but he also balances this with a vulnerability that highlights how personal the story of the song is. It’s his best single yet. Vote for Lil Nas X at the 2021 Bulletin Awards here. Read the full “MONTERO (Call Me By Your Name)” review here.
#15. “WiFi” (Dexta Daps & Drumma Boy)
Last year, a whole summer of fetes and functions were taken from us. Luckily, some of dancehall’s brightest stars have gone full steam ahead and continue to give us infectious anthems. Produced by Drumma Boy, “WiFi” is the perfect combination of sultry production with Dexta’s sexual lyrics. The song’s relatively mellow tempo allows Dexta to utilize a soft croon for the majority of the song and really emphasize intense physical connections over one-off dances between strangers. He uses “wifi” as a metaphor for this connection singing, “Girl me just love how me and you connect like a WiFi.” His endearing Auto-Tuned warble casts a magic spell over this track; every time the lyrics get extra explicit (“Gyal when me done you need plastеr/You ago dead a wah you last words?”), the softer edges of his delivery offer up some semblance of sweetness to balance it out. “WiFi” is one of the new offerings on the deluxe version of Dexta’s Vent album. Hopefully, it’s a slow burner that makes its presence known throughout the summer.
#14. “Your Power” (Billie Eilish)
There’s been a lot of wariness and controversy around Billie this year. From the less-than-warm reception of her recent singles to a massive wave of anti-Billie sentiment on TikTok from younger fans, the seven-time Grammy winner is no longer in an era of goodwill. Nonetheless, at the end of the day, she is still doing her job incredibly well. “Your Power” is easily one of the best songs Billie has ever released. Set against a delicate acoustic guitar, Billie dissects the sinister terrors of unbalanced power dynamics in romantic relationships. Lines like “She was sleepin’ in your clothes/But now she’s got to get to class” underscore just how comfortable society has become with murky age gaps. Her somber vocal performance is pulsating with remorse, resentment, and a continuous search for peace and understanding. Underneath all of those emotions is some level of reclamation — reclamation of her body, her mind, and her power. “Your Power” also happens to feature one of the best songwriting moments of the year: “If you could take it all back/Would you?/Try not to abuse your power.” The way “would you” functions as the end of the question and the beginning of a demand parallels the imbalanced power dynamic the song is about. It truly doesn’t get better than this. Vote for Billie Eilish at the 2021 Bulletin Awards here.
#13. “I Want Love” (Jessie J)
Jessie J has tried on a lot of sounds over the years, but with the ‘70s-influenced “I Want Love,” she may have found a new pocket for her to truly shine in. The Grammy-nominated powerhouse blends elements of disco, pop-rock, and soul into one hell of a number that’s guaranteed to get you on the dance floor. The greatest accomplishment of “I Want Love” is how it serves as a reminder that programmed instruments can’t always capture the raw feeling of real instrumentation. The strings arrangement on this track, courtesy of David Campbell, provides a sense of euphoria that plays well off of Jessie’s rousing belts and the backing choir composed of talented vocalists such as Judith Hill. Sure, “I Want Love” doesn’t necessarily push any lyrical boundaries, but it doesn’t need to. What it lacks in innovation in that area is counterbalanced by how focused it is in terms of pacing, dynamics, and its overall arrangement. A thumping bass line, a powerful yet controlled vocal performance, and a key change? What’s not to love? Read the full “I Want Love” review here.
#12. “Calling My Phone” (Lil Tjay & 6LACK)
Tjay and 6LACK really did something with this one. As melodic rap has continued to prove itself to be the dominant point of convergence between rap and R&B, we’ve been getting more midtempo and downtempo tracks that feature rappers digging into their singing bags. Teased throughout last winter and released just in time for Valentine’s Day, “Calling My Phone” finds the two stars pleading with an ex-lover to stop calling them, even though they’re still struggling with letting go of them as well. A pitched-up loop of someone singing “can’t get you off my mind,” some piano, and a light trap beat provide the backbone of the ballad. 6LACK has never disappointed when it comes to his guest appearances on tracks, and “Calling My Phone” is no different. His hybrid of talking, singing, and rapping is the perfect avenue to ramble about the murky lack of clarity in this thing called love. 6LACK closes his verse by singing “Get a mood swing, I’ll be gone by tomorrow.” On the surface, the line is self-explanatory — just as mood swings cause a person to swiftly move through emotions, 6LACK’s actions will follow. The line can also be read as a nod to the song “Mood Swings,” Lil Tjay’s 2020 Pop Smoke collaboration. While that song was anchored by lust, “Calling My Phone” unpacks the aftermath of relationships that don’t keep that spark forever. Vote for Lil Tjay & 6LACK at the 2021 Bulletin Awards here.
#11. “On Read” (Lucky Daye & Tiana Major9)
One of the best things about R&B is how the genre has perfected conversations via song. Taken from his Table For Two EP, Lucky Daye taps Tiana Major9 for this fiery duet about failed communication in the digital age. Lucky’s EP was stacked with duets with female artists, but “On Read” is top two, and it may not be #2. The duo has chemistry that transcends their voices simply pairing well together. Of course, their harmonies are tight, and their vocal tones complement each other’s, but when they start conversing through the lyrics, it’s actually believable. When Tiana sings “Baby, I’m so headstrong/It’s your lucky day if I answer,” the pun on Lucky Daye’s name doesn’t feel forced or corny. She delivers it with such bite that you actually hear the frustration bubbling beneath the surface. The song opens with iPhone text message sound effects and spends most of its duration holding space for bluesy guitar licks and drums. Everything about this track is a lesson in world-building and curating an atmosphere to act as a backdrop for the exceptional performances both artists give as vocalists and as characters. Read my full review of ‘Table for Two’ here.
#10. “Seeing Green” (Nicki Minaj, Drake & Lil Wayne)
Nostalgia drives a significant portion of our culture, and often it can feel overbearing and overwhelming. When nostalgia is done well, however, it’s unstoppable. On “Seeing Green,” hip-hop’s “Big Three” and Young Money’s top-ranking royals reunite for a seismic showcase of rap prowess and lyrical skill. Produced by GOVI & Kid Masterpiece, the song moves away from the crafty hooks of “Chun-Li” and “Laugh Now, Cry Later,” and instead presents lengthy metaphor-driven and punchline-packed verses from the three rappers. Lil Wayne opens the track with a verse that acts as further proof of his incredible longevity. He raps “Don’t put no K after that B-Boy, “Bad kall,” that’s flag talk,” a genius double entendre about gang life and the ethics of violence. Nicki then follows with one of her strongest verses in recent years with lines that allude to how much it takes to bring a talent like hers down: “No one bitch could be my opp, that shit offends me/It’s corporate giants and machines that went against me.” Finally, Drake brings the song to a close with some of his best rapping in a minute; he may have fallen into TikTok anthems and taken some time to regain his footing, but he came swinging on this track. Truthfully, there’s a fair argument for any of the three verses to be crowned the best, and that’s what makes the song so enthralling. This YMCMB reunion wasn’t a quick cash grab or nostalgia play for attention, the three artists genuinely linked up made one of the year’s best songs… all for the re-release of a classic 2009 mixtape (Beam Me Up Scotty). Makes you wonder what else they have in store! Vote for Nicki Minaj, Drake & Lil Wayne at the 2021 Bulletin Awards here.
#9. “Messy Love” (NAO)
At this point, it’s fair to say that Nao is incapable of making a bad song. On “Messy Love,” she links up with newly-minted Oscar winner D’Mile for this stunning single off her as-yet-untitled upcoming album. She flexes her range over earthy guitars, drums, and strings. The production here is brilliant; D’Mile has created a soundscape that fuses with the different layers of Nao’s voice instead of creating a bland backdrop for her voice. She illustrates a complex and messy love affair that has finally spurred her to choose herself over anything else. She sings “Everybody’s splintered and scarred with broken hearts / And I don’t wanna go back there, oh no.” There’s no desperation in her voice, just a quiet but assured contentedness with her decision to prioritize herself. Her voice is as nimble as ever; she packs the song with effortless riffs and dips in and out of her lower range to provide some dynamics to the otherwise straightforward track. Earlier this year, Nao dropped the Adekunle Gold-assisted “Antidote,” and now with “Messy Love,” her upcoming third album is shaping up to be a worthy successor to her outstanding Saturn album.
#8. “Wasting Time” (Brent Faiyaz & Drake)
Brent Faiyaz has been on a hot streak. Even though he’s dropped stunning singles like “Eden” and “Show U Off,” his old songs (“Rehab (Winter in Paris)”) are popping off on TikTok while his Sonder project continues their evolution with new singles like the Jorja Smith-assisted “Nobody But You.” His latest track, “Wasting Time,” features production from The Neptunes and a verse from Drake… so, basically, it was already set up for success. Last year the legendary production duo crafted songs for Megan Thee Stallion and SZA. They continue their effortless chemistry with music’s brightest new stars on “Wasting Time”; the song opens with gentle strings before launching into a stuttering synth-heavy beat. Brent presents a (slightly) less toxic version of himself with the general sentiment of he and his partner choosing to waste their time with each other instead of other people even though they are both busy in their own rights. Drake, on the other hand, delivers an emotional and introspective verse that recalls his Nothing Was The Same album. He flexes his pop culture knowledge with a nod to The Queen’s Gambit (“New piece around my neck, it’s chest games/’Cause shorty stay with calculatin’ moves, like Beth Harmon”) while simultaneously unpacking communication issues (“Fluent in passive aggression, that’s why you actin’ dismissive/Hearin’ me out for once would require you actually listen”). This is Brent’s best collaboration of the year yet. Vote for Drake at the 2021 Bulletin Awards here.
#7. “Jackie” (Yves Tumor)
Fresh off the release of their critically lauded Heaven to a Tortured Mind, Yves Tumor has gifted us “Jackie.” In a year where a song like Olivia Rodrigo’s “good 4 u” can debut at #1 on the Hot 100, the different narratives and analyses about the pop-punk revival are swirling all over. Truth be told, we would be remiss to center white artists in this conversation and push aside the Black artists that are upholding the legacy and Black roots of the genre. Kick drums and fervent guitars soundtrack the brash glam-rock-influenced track. Yves sings of a lover that they still long for despite being “torn apart right by the sleeve.” The lyrics aren’t incredibly complex, but that’s because the grit of the song lies in their impassioned vocal performance and fried guitars that taste of the 2000s without feeling stale. It’s brash and heartfelt; pure unfiltered emotion that gets straight to the point. This is how Yves wins.
#6. “Lipstick” (WILLOW)
Speaking of Black artists upholding the Black legacy of rock and all of its subgenres, WILLOW is about to own the rest of the year. The Travis Barker-assisted “t r a n s p a r e n t s o u l” is getting the most traction right now, but “Lipstick” is where the real meal is. From the cinematic intro to her sturdy vibrato, WILLOW has crafted a stunning track with “lipstick.” Existentialism has always driven a significant portion of WILLOW’s music, but on “Lipstick” she finally finds the proper musical avenue to express the hidden comfort and ease that lies in unpacking and questioning pain and healing. Over audacious drums and guitar she sings, “And I’m looking at pain like my old close friend/Open arms for her when I see her again.” WILLOW’s vocal performance is particularly strong here; she’s able to hold her own against the heavy instrumentation without sounding like she’s fighting or straining. Between the “t r a n s p a r e n t s o u l” and “Lipstick,” WILLOW’s new album, lately i feel EVERYTHING, is gearing up to be a monster. Vote for WILLOW at the 2021 Bulletin Awards here.
#5. “Tragic” (Jazmine Sullivan)
Truthfully, Jazmine’s entire Heaux Tales EP (which I listed as the best album of 2021 so far) could comprise half of this list, interludes included. Alas, that wouldn’t be fair, so we can settle for “Tragic,” the latest single from the “Pick Up Your Feelings” songstress. Built around a sample of Congresswoman Maxine Waters’s iconic “reclaiming my time” sound bite, Jazmine rips into men with weak sex game and big mouths. Much of Heaux Tales is about how the patriarchy has shaped and negatively warped women’s relationships with sex. With “Tragic” she shifts the blame onto the shoulders of men (where it should have always been) and sounds damn good while doing so. Jazmine continues to utilize a rap-adjacent cadence and soulful belts over lyrics that are anchored by car metaphors. The best part of “Tragic” is the bridge; the lyrics are simple and direct which only accentuates how powerful Jazmine’s vocal delivery is. Vote for Jazmine Sullivan at the 2021 Bulletin Awards here. Read the full “Tragic” review here.
#4. “Solar Power” (Lorde)
Lorde is back! After a lengthy break following her impeccable Melodrama album, Lorde has returned with the easy, breezy, beautiful “Solar Power.” Featuring production from Jack Antonoff and backing vocals courtesy of Phoebe Bridgers and Clairo, “Solar Power” blends surf rock and coffee shop pop into an irresistible low-key summer anthem. This track is expertly-paced. Light acoustic guitars slowly morph into a cacophony of melodious drums and brass. “Solar Power” couldn’t sound more different from “Green Light” or “Royals,” but what connects this song to the rest of her catalog are the lyrics. You can hear her winking in the way that she sings “I’m kinda like a prettier Jesus.” Her mischievous grin is apparent in the way she sing-talks “Can I kick it? Yeah, I can.” These minuscule moments, and others like it, work together to introduce the new Lorde of the Solar Power universe. Lorde’s lead singles are never the best songs on her albums, so if “Solar Power” is this good, we may not be truly ready for what she has in store with the album. Read the full “Solar Power” review here.
#3. “Fight for You” (H.E.R.)
It’s almost funny that the best H.E.R. song of the year is not one of the 20+ songs on her debut album, Back of My Mind. She may have gotten in her own way on that project, but at least she has “Fight for You.” The lead single for the Judas and the Black Messiah soundtrack pulls from funk and ‘60s R&B and soul. Militant drums open the song before launching into a groovy arrangement that recalls Sly and the Family Stone. H.E.R. sings of police brutality, racism, and inequity, but the song never feels preachy or heavy. That’s a tough task considering it’s the marquee song for the biopic of Chairman Fred Hampton. H.E.R. croons “When they knock on your door, will you be ready for war?” with a conviction that recalls the depth of the Panthers’ efforts. In an era where so many “protest anthems” prioritize representation and empowerment over the sentiments of revolution and liberation, “Fight for You” is a breath of fresh air. This song is about family as much as it about progress by any means necessary. Moreover, this is the sound that H.E.R. works best with; she gets a chance to flex her instrumental and vocal prowess, and she sounds amazing while doing so. Vote for H.E.R. at the 2021 Bulletin Awards here.
#2. Leave the Door Open” (Silk Sonic)
Did you really think you’d scroll through a Best of 2021 list and not see this song at some point? As Silk Sonic continues to tease us about this album that they’re withholding from us, “Leave the Door Open” still has us all in a chokehold. Released back in March, Silk Sonic, comprised of Bruno Mars and Anderson .Paak, pull from the icons of ‘70s R&B (think The Delfonics and The Chi-Lites) to create a lovestruck invitation for bedroom fun. The song toes the line between corny and sexy, but, of course, the duo is successful because that’s Bruno’s whole shtick. Anderson’s rap-sung delivery in the verses pairs well with Bruno’s impassioned belts in the chorus and bridge. “Leave the Door Open” is so good and has proven to be so dominant because of how well Silk Sonic sells this song. There’s no half-assing here. Bruno puts his all into those belts, and you can literally hear the winks and smirks on their faces when they sing lines like “My house clean, my pool warm/Just shaved, smooth like a newborn” and “If you smoke, I got the haze/And if you’re hungry, girl, I got filets.” The commitment to live instrumentation only furthers bolsters the track and reminds us of how great Bruno and Anderson are when it comes to their overall musicianship. The door may still be open, but that album can’t come soon enough. Vote for Silk Sonic, Bruno Mars & Anderson .Paak at the 2021 Bulletin Awards here. Read the full “Leave the Door Open” review here.
#1. “Good Days” (SZA)
Was this song released at the tail-end of 2020? Yes. Is it the best song of the year so far? Also yes. The wait for SZA’s sophomore album is getting to be unbearable, but “Good Days” (along with “Hit Different”) is enough to hold us over for now. A nostalgic track about lost love, SZA weaves in and out of themes ranging from codependency and toxicity to self-assured optimism and freedom. Featuring contributions from Jacob Collier, SZA launches into a dreamy mélange of off-kilter alternative pop and soulful R&B. “Good Days” doesn’t reject fear and pain as much as it studies, understands, and transforms them into something that SZA can turn into grace and power as she moves forward. After the year-and-a-half we’ve experienced, lyrics like “Still wanna try, still believe in good days,” hold special weight. The good days in question can range from better days in one’s love life to days where we can finally be free of all the systems and forces that seek to oppress us. SZA is simultaneously pleading for and manifesting these “good days” for herself and for everyone else. From the gorgeous guitar to the sweeping overall arrangement, “Good Days” is the kind of sonic positive affirmation that we need. Vote for SZA at the 2021 Bulletin Awards here. Read the full “Good Days” review here.
Honorable Mentions: “LEMONHEAD” (Tyler, The Creator & 42 Dugg); “Been Like This” (Doja Cat); “OMW” (Aisahn), “Southern Curiosity” (Fancy Hagood); “Wants and Needs” (Drake & Lil Baby); “Eden” (Brent Faiyaz); “Avalanche” (Migos); “Back Together” (Amorphous & Kehlani); “They’ve Closed Down The Honky Tonks” (Miranda Lambert); “All Three” (Noah Cyrus); “Poster Girl” (Zara Larsson); “Gang Signs” (Freddie Gibbs & ScHoolboy Q); “Bruuuh” (Denzel Curry & JID); “Blessings” (dvsn); “jealousy, jealousy” (Olivia Rodrigo); “Why Don’t You Touch Me” (Leon Bridges); “l e t . g o . m y . h a n d” (J. Cole, Bas & 6LACK); “Boom” (Polo G)