The Top 100 Songs of 2021 (#60 – #41)
From Ed Sheeran’s “Overpass Graffiti” to Caroline Polachek’s “Bunny Is A Rider”
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 and #80 to #61 in our countdown so far.
60. Rauw Alejandro – “Todo De Ti”
In a shift from traditionally charting crossover Latin hits, Rauw Alejando’s smash “Todo De Ti” was a welcome surprise. The dance-synth pop single by the Puerto Rican singer became a big success thanks to its beach-friendly summer vibe and very catchy melody (which feels like it may have been influenced by Fergie’s “Big Girls Don’t Cry”). As Latin artists continue to dominate the global charts, it’s nice to hear the variety in styles which have always existed but besides reggaeton seemed to stall at breaking out.
59. Polo G, Roddy Rich – “Fame & Riches”
Polo G was the breakthrough rap artist of the year and it shows with the recently released deluxe edition of his album Hall Of Fame which debuted at Number One on the album charts. “Fame & Riches” featuring last year’s breakthrough rapper Roddy Rich is as self-reflective as a song about the excesses of life will ever be in modern times. But it works. Not sure why the track never released commercially because it had huge crossover appeal especially given the two promising rappers together.
58. Zara Larsson – “Need Someone”
Swedish singer Zara Larsson is quite the Scandinavian anomaly. Unlike many of her peers (Florrie, Tove Lo – to name a couple), she’s not really found her sound yet. Most of her records have been good but not great and for the most part, you can’t really tell who’s singing any of her songs, because they often feel so overproduced with so little emotion. Still, when her third album Poster Girl dropped early in the year, I had hope – especially with “Need Someone” – the standout track on the album where the song’s lyrics and Larsson’s identity struggles seemed to work towards her advantage. The song never really made a huge dent on the charts but I wish the artist had more songs like this on the album, because if she did, she’d be a household name.
57. Lecrae, Jidenna, Limoblaze – “Everyday”
Texan and Christian hip-hop artist Lecrae joined hands with “Classic Man” Nigerian-American Jidenna and U.K.-based Nigerian Afrobeat hitmaker Limoblaze for this “ho-li-day” jam. Guaranteed to take you straight to the chill zone, the song works well because the three artists complement each other well, reminding us about what they share in common rather than what boxes us apart.
56. Elton John, Dua Lipa – “Cold Heart (PNAU Remix)”
The power of Dua Lipa is all I can say here. Elton John has been staying relevant collaborating with everyone from Lil Nas X to Lady Gaga, but it took Australian trio PNAU to have John repurpose four of his own songs with a little help from Dua Lipa to finally get back on the charts again and make it all the way to Number One in his native England. The song mashes up John’s singles “Rocket Man” from 1972, “Sacrifice” from 1989, along with two lesser-known tracks of his, “Where’s The Shoorah?” from 1976 and “Kiss The Bride” from 1983. The nostalgia factor plus Lipa and an undeniable groove made for the perfect storm. Wondering if this is a one-off thing or has PNAU opened the floodgates for other older artists to find their way to younger audiences again with their own music catalog?
55. Gabrielle Aplin – “When The Lights Go Out”
While she has appeared as a featured artist on Michael Calfan’s house track “Imagining,” “When The Lights Go Out” is Gabrielle Aplin’s song and the track that examines trust in a relationship works because her silky voice and melancholic approach are kept intact. Another artist I just can’t quite understand why she continues to slip under the radar but thankfully, the music always continues to be first-rate.
54. Ed Sheeran – “Overpass Graffiti”
Ed Sheeran is many things. He’s a superstar – his songs get played at any and every respectable event from weddings to funerals and everything in between. But Ed Sheeran is also incredibly talented songwriter and musician and many of his more commercial fares tend to actually be some his weakest material. Case in point – “Overpass Graffiti”. The Eighties influenced synth-pop track is the perfect Top 40 should-be hit but it’s likely not going to impact as strongly because it’s moodier, less flashy and well, like another song that will be featured a little later, the song is overkill with two big hits — “Bad Habits” and “Shivers” — still hovering at the top of the charts.
53. Self Esteem – “I Do This All The Time”
Rebecca Taylor aka Self Esteem lives up to her name with “I Do This All The Time” – an empowering song if there ever was one. The British singer delivers a strong message in this part-spoken word anthem where she vents about the challenges faced in conforming to “normal” society. The song and the complementing video showcase a beautiful reality – that sometimes we are complicated and we have to slow down and literally give ourselves a hug.
52. Pink, Willow Sage Heart – “Cover Me In Sunshine”
Very few pop artists can offer this level of saccharine and get away with it but Pink managed to do that so beautifully this year in “Cover Me In Sunshine,” probably one of the most, if not most happy songs the artist has ever recorded. Go figure then she would get her daughter to make her vocal debut on the song. While artists have often featured their kids (ahem, Blue Ivy Carter!), this one just feels different because, it’s catchy, breezy and it is exactly what it is, a touching number about positivity and love that we can all sing along too (and have!).
51. Olivia Rodrigo – “. Good 4 U”
“Good 4 U” on its own felt like a great updated pop-punk record that Avril Lavigne or Paramore would have released in the 2000s. Incidentally, the latter band’s Hayley Williams and Josh Farro got songwriter credits on the single as it was inspired by their hit “Misery Business.” But when you realize the song was part of the album Sour – that includes the Number One hit “Driver’s License,” “Déjà vu” and “Traitor” – you realize how Rodrigo truly skyrocketed into a space that previously was occupied once by the great Alanis Morissette. There is difference though; music has become so segregated that Rodrigo only gets play at Top 40 radio formats. It might be the reason why she is so popular, everybody digs the music but the big tent radio stations play her!
50. Lil Nas X – “MONTERO (Call Me By Your Name)”
While many expected Lil Nas X to join the one-hit wonder club after his monster track “Old Town Road,” it was his tenacity, dedication and most importantly creative vision that made sure he was no fluke. Enter “Montero (Call My By Your Name),” a catchy hip-hop/electropop banger that is unabashedly queer in its lyrical content (with the title even having a shoutout to the 2017 film of the same name that focused on a gay romance) and of course, its controversial music video. What X did this year wasn’t just push the envelope but he kicked open the gates for queer artists, all the while reminding all of us (like Madonna once did) that controversy sells much more when you make an incredibly catchy, memorable song and video to complement it!
49. Mehro – “Chance With You”
L.A.-based singer-songwriter Mehro’s “Chance With You” came out early on in 2021 but resonated strongly throughout the year thanks to his warm vocals and the lyrics that reflect on something many of us did during Covid – wondering what if we did “go back in time” and do things differently with someone we let slip through our fingers? The independent artist has had a stellar year thanks to his savvy social media ways and producing music that resonates to many of our lives’ soundtracks.
48. Doja Cat – “Woman”
Probably next to Lil Nas X, we can say Doja Cat has truly had a banner year. Thanks to the artist’s album Planet Her – one that likely will continue to spawn hits throughout 2022 – Cat has found a niche all for herself. While her duet with SZA “Kiss Me More” got the immediate attention and her single “Need To Know” got listeners enthralled, it’s “Woman,” the opening cut from her album, which truly showcases the range the artist is capable of exuding. Between her singing, rapping, dancing, videos, it’s very clear – she can be our woman.
47. Jojo – “Worst (I Assume)”
Imagine if Jojo got back all the years she lost during all those label disputes? It’s clear though that since then, her work has only gotten better and her voice has never sounded this good. “Worst (I Assume)” is a revelation as the singer’s control is tested and she makes her vulnerability feel like it’s ours. It’s a shame her music has yet to catch the wider net like it once did, but then again, she’s doing this for her love of music and so long as she keeps creating the way she does, we’re in for a treat.
46. Porter Robinson – “Look At The Sky”
“Look At The Sky” was the fourth single released from Porter Robinson’s electronic/synthpop album Nurture. As the standout track from the record, the single exudes a ray of positivity despite Robinson so openly discussing his doubts while battling many lows. The song works because his vocals carry an upbeat attitude over some super catchy melodies. Robinson makes dance-cry into a beautiful act of healing – and we’re here for it.
45. Brandi Carlile – “Right On Time”
When the Grammy nominations were announced, it was no surprise to me to see Brandi Carlile’s name be read and in particular, she be acknowledged for this stellar track “Right On Time.” The folk-rock song has a beautiful slow-build as Carlile takes her time, having us feel the emotional ride she’s on as she ponders the concerns of the day, the things that never will and the hope that tomorrow brings. Check out the music video directed by Friends alum Courtney Cox, who skillfully captures Carlile’s intimate ballad for the bittersweet reflection that it is.
44. Billie Eilish – “Happier Than Ever”
I like Billie Eilish. But I’ll be honest, while she’s made great music and it’s very well produced, I do feel the critical acclaim she’s consistently received is overrated. I don’t think she deserves even half of the seven Grammy Awards she’s won and may win again (she’s up for another seven!). Having said that, if there was a soft spot I had for her this past year, it was for her album’s title track “Happier Than Ever.” Midway through the otherwise kind of dull acoustic strummed guitar ballad, she switches it up into a kind of punk rock song. It helps that Eilish isn’t just softly singing along and we get to hear the angst and the frustration in her voice match the lyrics. Please more of this!
43. Caroline Polachek – “Bunny Is A Rider”
American singer-songwriter Caroline Polacheck’s “Bunny Is A Rider” is a song that doesn’t leave you. Co-produced with her frequent collaborator Danny L. Harle, the experimental/electro-pop song vocally keeps moving even if sonically it feels otherwise. The song was the perfect summer record that still feels cool in the middle of winter and it’s no wonder Dua Lipa herself has Polachek joining her on tour next year.
42. Riton, Nightcrawlers, Mufasa & Hypeman – “Friday (Dopamine Re-Edit)”
A lot of songs are interpolating older hits but one of the more clever ones this year was this jam by Riton that featured viral stars Mufasa & Hypeman, who got us moving to the Nightcrawlers classic hit “Push The Feeling On” again in the form of “Friday.” The single actually came together after English DJ and producer Riton and producers The Invisible Men found Mufasa & Hypeman’s videos on YouTube. They came on board to create this track which the producers hoped would continue to help folks cope with the pandemic by giving them something to dance along to and smile. Mission accomplished!
41 Jessie Ware, Kindness – “0208”
So Jessie Ware was at the top of my list last year thanks to her spectacular album What’s Your Pleasure. She kept the party going this year with the deluxe edition of the album that featured additional club bangers. The true winner of the new lot was “0208” featuring Kindness. The song is a slow-burn all the way, like some of Ware’s best tracks in the past have been. Here, she exudes just the right dose of sensuality and soul necessary to keep the steamy affair going. Melodically, the song bears an uncanny resemblance to Patti Labelle’s “On My Own” but that actually works to make the song sound timeless, as if it actually were from another era.