The Top 100 Songs of 2021 (#20 – #1)
From Silk Sonic’s “Leave The Door Open” to Amber Mark’s “Worth It” and more
Rolling Stone India global contributing editor Amit Vaidya counts down his favorite songs of the year, from TikTok sensations to seasoned hitmakers and everyone in between. Check out #100 to #81, #80 to #61, #60 to #41 and #40 to #21 in our countdown.
20. Daya – “Bad Girl”
Daya has come a long way from her Grammy-winning breakout hit with The Chainsmokers “Don’t Let Me Down” in 2016. The artist has spent the good part of the past half decade releasing cool music but as the artist has grown and evolved, so has her music. The singer speaks her truth on “Bad Girl,” a bold synth-track that centers on talking about her bisexuality. She flips the meaning of “bad girl” into an empowering phrase of someone who has the confidence to do what they want, rather than what we’ve generally seen it to mean as someone “troubled.” Co-produced by Charlie Puth, the song is dark but incredibly catchy making Daya’s declaration feel all the more impactful.
19. Giveon – “Heartbreak Anniversary”
Long Beach-born singer-songwriter Giveon had quite the year. From TikTok to Justin Bieber, the R&B crooner made his presence felt, in particular thanks to “Heartbreak Anniversary,” an emotionally powerful ballad that turned the baritone into a name we’ll not forget soon. Seldom these days do we think about the clever lyrical content of a song, but here Giveon gives us something more poetic than what normal balladry usually shells out. The singer recounts every detail and pain he experienced on the day his heart was broken. Rarely does one song personify an artist but this year, with this song – Giveon certainly came close to doing just that!
18. Satin Jackets, Tailor – “Relapse”
German producer Tim Bernhardt aka Satin Jackets scored again this year with “Relapse” after being my number one song last year with “I’m With It.” Featuring U.K. singer-songwriter Tailor, the song is another hypnotic number that fuses disco beats with haunting melodies. This time, the song focuses on that feeling we all get when we lose ourselves in the moment, fully aware it won’t last, but we go back and hold onto that alternative reality. “I got caught up instantly by Tailor‘s mesmerizing vocals and heartfelt lyrics,” the talented producer shared with me. “It was our first collaboration so I took some time to develop it with him. In the end, it turned out everything we thought it could be.” It clearly resonated as the two collaborated again releasing another single together “Spell” leaving us equally satisfied.
17. Black Saint, Jim Junior – “Keep Me In The Dark”
British producers Black Saint team up with Canadian singer-songwriter Jim Junior for “Keep Me In The Dark,” a moody dance track that blends the best of soul and jazz with a house groove to create a world of its own. The single is the perfect example of genres blending together seamlessly without any blatant attempt to cash in on a specific style, but rather it keeps a vibe going. Soulful, charming and with an incredibly memorable hook, the song is yet more proof that some of the best music out there is often not what’s on the radio or streaming at the top of playlists. If there were any justice “Keep Me In The Dark” could have been a welcome Top 40 addition, but since it’s not, let’s make it a mainstay to your playlist – thankfully any genre compilation can feature it without fail.
16. Big Red Machine, Fleet Foxes, Anais Mitchell – “Phoenix”
What do you get when you put the National’s Aaron Dessner and Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon together? Well, you get Big Red Machine, who released their album How Long Do You Think It’s Gonna Last? over the summer, featuring a great number of creative collaborations as diverse as Taylor Swift and Sharon Van Etten. Of course, none of the tracks feel as layered by emotions as “Phoenix” which features singer Anais Mitchell and Fleet Foxes’ Robin Pecknold. “Phoenix” is a perfect example of talents in their own right coming together to create something bigger than any of their musical identities individually. At a time when so many bands and artists are trying their hands at working together, this single shines brighter than many of those works, because you can actually hear all the performers having the time of their lives in the recording (probably helps that they all took turns in the songwriting of the track). It’s rare we get to hear such joy these days, thankfully it literally radiates through the speakers on this track.
15. Silk Sonic – “Leave The Door Open”
Nostalgic R&B at its soulful best. “Leave The Door Open” from its opening chords became an instantly iconic track. Bruno Mars and Anderson .Paak create the perfect retro band here, high on melody, high on harmonies and high on…well, clearly that’s part of the fun too. Silk Sonic was such a fun departure this year sonically and this single proved to be just the teaser to their sound – full of joy, humor and fun. Anytime Mars shares the mic is always a welcome change of pace for me as he shines best when he’s a part of and not the main act front and center. Of course, the added bonus is seeing Anderson .Paak get the attention and love his work and talent has always deserved.
14. Charli XCX – “Good Ones”
Much like Carly Rae Jepsen, Charli XCX has always been cool. But unlike Carly Rae Jepsen, Charli XCX still gets some fair shots. Or that’s what I thought (Damn you Covid! Her Saturday Night Live could have been iconic!). How in the world did “Good Ones” not become a massive Top 40 hit across the globe is beyond my comprehension. The song is probably the most commercial sounding pop song XCX has ever recorded as a solo track and it also has an instantly iconic music video to match it! I don’t understand why it is that true pop seemingly fails to chart when so much other drivel gets heavy rotation. Insanely catchy and the most fun, I’m not going to let go of this for a while still, hoping against hope that some TikTok challenge comes along to give Charli XCX the much deserved mega hit she deserved with this one.
13. Sam Fender – “Seventeen Going Under”
While the artist may laugh off the comparisons to Bruce Springsteen as “stupid,” there is a bit of reason for many feeling this way. Unlike an artist we’ll get to in a bit, Sam Fender’s “Seventeen Going Under” does sonically carry an Eighties Springsteen vibe to it that’s undeniable. While the Irishman certainly doesn’t sound like the New Jersey legend, if he continues to crank out singles like this, it’s possible the singer-songwriter could at least secure himself a long career in the biz. “Seventeen Going Under” is straight-up blue-collar indie rock, inspirational storytelling that seldom exists these days on the radio. How the track didn’t cross over majorly to Springsteen’s homeland remains a mystery to me, but there’s simply no denying the talent that Fender has and here’s hoping his humble beginnings continue to reward us lyrically and sonically over the next many years and albums to come.
12. RAY BLK, Stefflon Don – “Over You”
South London’s RAY BLK has been one to watch for a minute. But this year, the singer delivered big with her stellar Access Denied album. The self-proclaiming “Black Madonna” has somehow found the absolute right formula for a current mainstream sound. She best puts that on display with the single “Over You” featuring British rapper Stefflon Don. The instantly catchy single showcases the talented singer’s soulful voice and also puts forward her ability to call it out like it is, like in this case, the end of mourning for a failed relationship. It doesn’t hurt that the song incorporates one of the most celebrated (and used) beats, the “Diwali Riddim” that gave us all those big hits in the early 2000s for Wayne Wonder, Bounty Killer and Sean Paul. Ironically, its slightly altered use in Lumidee’s one-hit wonder “Never Leave You (Uh Oooh, Uh Oooh)” came out around the same and strangely enough, that song too was sampled for Anne-Marie’s “Kiss My (Uh Oh)” featuring Little Mix. Seems like the riddim won’t quit and thankfully neither will RAY BLK!
11. Doja Cat, The Weeknd – “You Right”
What’s to say? Doja Cat did no wrong this year and unlike the million other songs The Weeknd featured on, he was magic on “You Right.” The intentionally sensual song works because the two share a vocal chemistry that The Weeknd usually only shares with Ariana Grande. At a time when slowed-down R&B affairs tend not to dominate the hip-hop leaning charts, it was a pure pleasure to see two artists score a legit hit at the format without having to indulge in any genre histrionics. Having said that, there is no artist as diverse in style and content right now than Doja Cat and her Planet Her album proved that not being put in a box but instead creating your own planet has its perks for the artist and big rewards for her audience.
10. Katy B – “Under My Skin”
Katy B can do no wrong in my books. The talented Brit doesn’t really pop up very often but whenever she does, at least for me, her records seem to last as long as her hiatuses. It’s something ridiculously impressive then, that despite only releasing an EP this year with Peace And Offerings, the singer ends up with two singles in my year-end chart. “Under My Skin” is vocally exactly what we expect from Katy B – soulful, sensual, underplayed but still playful. It helps that this time the offerings are slower than her usual affairs, giving the singer room to really showcase a more R&B groove that works perfectly. While I know the artist isn’t opposed to collaborations since she has a history of them, I must say, this song felt built to have a rapper thrown right into the mix. Perhaps it’s not too late and in 2022 we can finally see the artist get that big Top 40 moment! Lord knows she deserves it!
9. Emeli Sandé – “Look What You’ve Done”
I’m not quite sure why I even have to ask this when it comes to Emeli Sandé. The Brit has made brilliant records over the last nearly decade yet lately, no track of her seems to break through like the endless hits she released from her phenomenal debut album Our Version Of Events. I had hoped that lightning would strike again for the criminally underrated singer this year with “Look What You’ve Done,” her first self-produced. The soulful combination of the piano and the strings wrapped in the U.K. garage style she once dominated works just as well today as it did 10 years ago, but where are the programmers and deejays? “Look What You’ve Done” is another fantastic record by the singer-songwriter and I really do hope the whole world she once had gets in on her fantastic second inning!
8. Snoh Aalegra – “Lost You”
This year, Snoh Aalegra’s name got tossed around a lot. Some of it was unwarranted, especially with the unfair Sade comparisons (I mean a ponytail is just not enough, come on!) but thankfully the rest seemed centered on her music. “Lost You,” the stellar track from her album Temporary Highs In The Violent Skies is the real standout. The R&B jam is captivating from start to finish and the Persian singer, born and raised in Sweden and now based in Los Angeles provides the purest of vocals to make the song all the more haunting. Aalegra has taken her time over the past few years making a dent on the scene, it was a rewarding year to see that hard work and talent finally get the praise it deserves.
7. SZA – “Good Days”
Okay, let me get this off my chest first and foremost. What the hell is wrong with the Grammys that they relegated this track only to Best R&B Song? SZA delivers masterful vocals on one of the most gorgeous neo soul tracks of the year. The song is pure sonic delight and it shouldn’t come as a surprise, given Jacob Collier’s name being part of the songwriter’s list. The talented musician also serves as a background vocalist on the track. In many ways, while the song is as seductive and gorgeous as anything SZA has done, it’s the Collier touch here that gives the song a little extra life. I really hope SZA and Collier work together more as an album of just this sound would be gold. “Good Days” thankfully did become a major solo hit for SZA, but I’m going to crib for many years about how any voting group could not praise the artist and her vocals here or put this up for Record and Song of the Year! Shame on you Grammys!
6. Adele – “Easy On Me”
There’s not much left in the world to say about “Easy On Me” by Adele. The song which shattered records and then some was supposed to hit fast and then as quickly fade away. Instead, the song has crossed over into nearly every music format and become a hit. Much like another ballad a few spots higher on the chart, the song transcended categorization – with Adele basically creating her own genre – Adele. Thankfully her album 30 is far more diverse sounding than the single. In many ways, I actually think of this song as its own moment and the rest of the album as another statement. There’s no one who could sing this better (trust me, literally YouTube has hundreds of thousands of people who keep trying) and there’s no one that could deliver the song’s message better, so let’s celebrate the fact that once in a while, yes, music can still bring us all back together.
5. Elderbrook, Bob Moses – “Inner Light”
I mean this combination felt created and made in my playlist’s heaven! Both Elderbook aka Alexander Kotz and Bob Moses have made my year-end list multiple times, so seeing the English singer-songwriter collaborate with Canadian electronic duo had to be excellent, right? Absolutely. This is euphoric dance music with a purpose. Elderbrook’s pensive vocals in the verses build with confidence as we are led into a hypnotic chorus. While both artists are talented and skilled in their own respective rights, the song here works because it plays up to the vulnerability they both share lyrically in their music, through a genre that often doesn’t require the same amount of emotional connection. “Inner Light” works exactly because it follows ours!
4. Alex Isley, Jack Dine, Lucky Daye, Masego – “Good & Plenty (Remix)”
I’ll be honest, I’m not usually a fan of a remix that adds an additional vocalist. It’s usually used as a commercial tactic to get added sales or bank off the success of whoever is additionally featured. And then you listen to “Good & Plenty (Remix)” and you think, okay, that’s what’s up. Alex Isley already had a soulful version of the single out in 2020 with Jack Dine and Masego but here, with the addition of Lucky Daye, not only is there a new vocalist, but a new verse and even Isley lyrically switches it up! The result is mesmerizing. The quartet truly nail it and create a timeless soulful jam that deserves much more recognition than it has received. But fret not, this is a track that has already seemingly aged well like fine wine. Hands down the most creative refix I’ve heard in ages and a special shoutout for managing to reference Tweet’s “Oops (Oh My)” (another underrated gem) within the first 30 seconds of the song!
3. Olivia Rodrigo – “Driver’s License”
What Olivia Rodrigo accomplished with “Driver’s License” is something even Billie Eilish can’t claim. Rodrigo created a song for the four quadrants – a song that could have only resonated with her built-in teen audience but actually became a massive single across the globe without any single age demographic finding the song pandering, dated or juvenile. That’s extremely difficult for any accomplished artist to even accomplish, but for a debut single by a relative unknown to achieve this is truly extraordinary. Special kudos to co-writer and producer Dan Nigro for bringing out the universality of Rodrigo’s experiences in a way where we got to see her shine, much like we do with Taylor Swift. If songs were only judged by bridges, this song would be at the top, I mean it’s not every day you see even Saturday Night Live get in on the action and sing along!
2. Regard, Troye Sivan, Tate McRae, Topic – “You”
After the surprise success of a pitched-down version of Jay Sean’s “Ride It,” DJ Regard has been moving from one hit to the next. The Kosovo-Albanian producer collaborated early on this year with Australian singer-songwriter Troye Sivan and Canadian singer Tate McRae for “You.” The banger works because of the emotional depth both singers bring to the haunting production. The lyrics about lingering love after the end of a relationship also work brilliantly because it attracts every audience possible, creating a vibe that you can just sing along to without judgment. Given that the song came out during another wave of the pandemic, it was good to have a track that kept us dancing, no matter what emotional state we were in and with whom!
1. Amber Mark – “Worth It”
How in the world did this song not give Amber Mark a huge hit this year – emoji shrug. Ever since her debut mini-album 3:33am released in 2017, Mark has been leaving hers bit by bit, with one standout track after the next. With “Worth It,” the R&B singer-songwriter created an anthem that mirrors the iconic Des’ree’s “You Gotta Be” in terms of self-empowering mantras. “I wrote the song as a way to motivate myself…I wanted something to remind myself, a song of motivation,” the talented Mark shared with me. “I made it with the intention of the listener singing it to themselves like I sing it to myself. I hope people connect with it and utilize it as a positive.” While some may not have discovered the track like I did, I hope it’s Number One ranking here gives some added recognition to the song. We need more music that uplifts us, helps to combat the anxieties we face especially during these continued crazy times. With Mark’s upcoming album Three Dimensions Deep ready to drop in early 2022, it’s clear the artist knows what’s she serving up and yes, it is worth it!
Tune in to the entire Top 100 Songs of 2021 in the playlist below. Also check out our Top 100 Songs of 2020.