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The Top 100 Songs of 2021 (#40 – #21)

From Japanese Breakfast’s “Be Sweet” to Kacey Musgraves’ “Good Wife” and more

Amit Vaidya Dec 22, 2021

Kacey Musgraves, The Weeknd and Japanese Breakfast feature among the Top 100 songs of 2021. Photos: Brian Ziff (The Weeknd), Peter Ash Lee (Japanese Breakast)

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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  and #60 to #41 in our countdown so far.

40. IDK, The Neptunes, Swae Lee, Rico Nasty – “Keto”

Super-talented Maryland-native IDK released the very fun USEE4YOURSELF album this year to rave reviews. One of the highlights of the album is the single “Keto,” which features great guest verses from Swae Lee and Rico Nasty. Produced by the always intriguing duo The Neptunes – the song is an all-out banger that somehow manages to be catchy and lyrically a breath of fresh air compared to what is else is being churned out in hip-hop these days.

39. Japanese Breakfast – “Be Sweet”

Written with Jack Tatum of Wild Nothing, “Be Sweet” showcases a much more upbeat and flavorful Michelle Zauner aka Japanese Breakfast than what we’d heard from the artist before. Of course, Eighties synth-pop is all the rage right now and the Korean-American’s voice fits perfectly to the style change from her indie rock origins. With two Grammy nominations (Best Alternative Album for Jubilee and Best New Artist), Japanese Breakfast have definitely moved on up with their third album, the first to chart on the Billboard 200 and with “Be Sweet,” the first to become a bonafide hit!

38. Dawn Richard – “Bussifame”

Dawn Richard’s journey from the girl-group Danity Kane to one half of Dirty Money to now one of the most interesting and talented solo artists of our time has been revelatory. She’s played by her own rules and her music is both eclectic and bold. Second Line, her most recent album continued to build on the strengths the artist is best known for – blending electronica and soul together in this most lucid alternative R&B/dance world. “Bussifame” is hypnotic. It defies categorization making it kind of the perfect track to feature on any lit playlist.

37. Farruko – “Pepas”

Puerto Rican singer-songwriter Farruko landed a global smash with “Pepas.” The euphoric single with a dash of reggaeton mixed into guaracha with a rallying chant felt like just the right dose at a time when the world’s coming back together again. The track was big for the clubs and for the stadiums and as it turns out, it sounded as good blasting out of cars all summer long around the world. Records don’t come this epic anymore and Farruko managed to make a song that gets everyone moving towards a shared experience.

36. Shelley FKA DRAM, Summer Walker – “All Pride Aside”

A few years back, DRAM scored a big hit with “Broccoli” featuring Lil Yachty. But with the artist now going by Shelley FKA DRAM, Shelley Marshaun Massenburg-Smith unleashes an R&B jam for the bedroom, getting soul siren Summer Walker to join him. The song has a timeless quality that would make you think the track has been on a “Slow Jams” compilation for years. “All Pride Aside” is pure adult R&B and well, that’s midnight perfection.

35. Emotional Oranges, Becky G – “Down To Miami”

L.A.-based Emotional Oranges gave us an extra dose of sunshine with “Down To Miami.” The soulful record just has a vibe that works perfect for any drive and Becky G’s Spanish verse adds even more Vitamin C to the track. Emotional Oranges have been on a roll this year with their slew of collaborations featured on their excellent album The Juicebox, which included another favorite of mine – “Back & Forth” featuring the always reliable Vince Staples.

34. The Weeknd – “Take My Breath”

So The Weeknd has made dark-disco an artform over the past couple of years and “Take My Breath,” the only new solo release by the artist in the entire year, felt like the perfect follow-up or rather next step to the After Hours album era. But the only problem? The After Hours era refused to die. The Weeknd found his older hits competing with the new track for airplay and streams. As a result, in what could have been an amazing start to a new chapter, it instead feels like a tag-along to a pre-existing era. Make no mistake though, the song is amazing and The Weeknd doesn’t miss a beat on the groovy, moody single – just wish there had been more space for the song to breathe, and oh, let’s not forget the artist subsequently got featured on a new track like every week (Doja Cat, Ye, Swedish House Mafia, Post Malone, the list is literally endless), making nothing feel fresh for more than a week!

33. James Vickery – “Hourglass”

There are too few R&B singers out there these days that choose to go smooth. James Vickery is thankfully an exception. With his stellar debut album Songs That Made Me Feel, the British soul singer showcased his vulnerability, with “Hourglass” being the standout. He writes about the beauty of the female form. “I think it’s important in my music to respect all curves and shapes of sizes of bodies and the message of the song is as simple as that,” Vickery described to me. “The song is so sensual but also feels extremely classy and purposeful at the same time.” Vickery actually got Stint aka Ajay Bhattacharyya to produce (Sabrina Claudio, Gallant) the record to “further amplify this feeling.” He adds, “It was important to me to make the song feel downtempo but also have a steady groove throughout and hence the decision to put the four to the floor kickdrum pulsating throughout the song.” Thankfully for us, they nailed it and we’re totally feeling the vibe.

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32. Weather Station – “Atlantic”

Toronto-native Tamara Lindeman enchanted us this year with her fifth album Ignorance as Weather Station, with the brilliant single “Atlantic.” The song contemplates the very real dilemma Lindeman’s generation faces about the current realities of the world. “Thinking I should get all this dying off my mind” isn’t your traditional opening line for a chorus but the song works in the same way some of the best tracks by Sarah McLachlan did back in the Nineties. That era’s modern rock is today’s alt-pop and thankfully, the artist keeps the music mellow even when the lyrics force you to think.

31. Chris Malinchak, Kiesza – “In My Eyes”

What is it about steel drums and strumming guitar chords that immediately takes us to our happy place, especially if said happy place is a beach somewhere? For me, probably no song this year took me there more instantly (and frankly I needed it to many a times!) than “In My Eyes” by one of my faves Chris Malinchak. The talented musician collaborated with Canadian singer-songwriter Kiesza for this sun-filled, chill-out summer jam. The track came out at the perfect time – as we all began to experience rays of light again, finally thinking about what lies ahead again. As for Malinchak, it’s always exciting to see what he’s up to next – given that he seems to make a yearly appearance in my lists, that’s likely happening again in 2022 and I can’t wait!

30. BTS – “Butter”

Let’s just get this out of the way. “Butter” is a great pop record. It’s insanely catchy and it’s no wonder it stayed at Number One the longest of any single this year. BTS have found the right formula to balance out their K-pop origins with their global boy-band superstar status. Retro-pop with little nods to everyone from Michael Jackson to Bruno Mars, the song makes every generation want to get up and dance and sing along and that’s no easy feat these days – especially in the fickle world of pop music. As the boys enjoy their much-deserved hiatus, let it be a reminder that at least for the moment, there’s nobody bigger in pop than BTS.

29. Anabel Englund, Yotto – “Waiting For You”

So-Cal raised Anabel Englund ended 2020 with the stellar album Messing With Magic. The album then got a deluxe edition this year, featuring the hypnotically dreamy single “Waiting For You” with Yotto. The blissful track instantly takes you into a trance and Englund’s vocals continue to be magic. At a time when so much of electronica has veered into blending multiple sonic styles, it’s nice to just hear a timeless dance-pop song that can easily fit into a playlist featuring everyone from New Order to Madonna.

28. Lucky Daye, Mahalia – “My Window”

Ann Peebles’ classic “I Can’t Stand The Rain” has made its way into many covers and has been sampled a bit too many times for my liking. But then again, it never reached the hands of Lucky Daye, one of my faves at the moment. Daye, who featured last year on my chart with SG Lewis with “Feed The Fire,” comes together this time with British-Jamaican Mahalia, who also incidentally featured in my year-end chart two years ago with her banger “Simmer.” Together, they create the beautifully haunting midtempo jam “My Window,” the highlight off of his duet album Table For Two. The album was recently nominated for Best Progressive R&B Album at the Grammys. True to that genre name, Daye truly is a progressive – he knows just how to bring enough retro soul into his work but still remain current.  

27. Elle King, Miranda Lambert – “Drunk (And I Don’t Wanna Go Home)”

These days, getting the banjo to invoke any state of late-night euphoria feels implausible. But put alt-country/Americana singer Elle King and country-rock queen Miranda Lambert together – you’ve got yourself a ditty that’s plain kickass. Ironically, the two recorded the track before the start of the pandemic but incidentally enough, the song felt like the perfect song to commemorate the return to normalcy. We know drinking went up astronomically over the past couple of years, so why not celebrate the return to going out and well, getting drunk again in public!

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26. Arlo Parks – “Too Good”

Mercury prize winner Arlo Parks has had quite a phenomenal year. Her debut album Collapsed In Sunbeams is ending the year on nearly every critic’s year-end list (including mine) and the British singer-songwriter also notched up two Grammy award nominations including Best New Artist. While the album is stellar, “Too Good” tops the list thanks to the very relatable lyrics. When the artist repeats throughout the track “Why do we make the simplest things so hard?”, you can’t help but wonder that about so many other artists who try so hard at doing something new or different that they lose all sight of what’s right in front of them – being themselves and sharing that truth with their listeners.

25. Justin Bieber, Tori Kelly – “Name”

Besides The Weeknd, no other artist seemed to get “featured on” or have as many “featuring on” their songs as Justin Bieber. While “Peaches” was a step up for the singer compared to a number of the other tracks he released this year, it’s one song he didn’t release commercially as a single that I’m just dumbfounded why not? “Name,” featuring Tori Kelly at her vocal prettiest, is miles ahead of any of his other releases lyrically, and the track is both haunting and melodic. It’s his best single since “Love Yourself” and it’s truly unfortunate that between the other 100 songs he released, such a gem remained hidden.

24. Manchester Orchestra – “Telepath”

Manchester Orchestra have been around since the mid-2000s. While generally classified under the indie rock genre, I’ve always found the American band far more compelling than that generic label. “Telepath” is probably the strongest example of this. The timeless track is part Simon & Garfunkel, part Sufjan Stevens and all too beautiful. The lyrics carry an earnestness that helps the song to come alive and as listeners, we stay captivated by the emotional heft of lead singer Andy Hull’s voice.

23. bbno$, Rich Brian – “Edamame”

It’s a bit odd that the Top 40 of this year’s chart started with “Keto” and now we have protein-rich “Edamame.” This ridiculously fun and funny single by bbno$ featuring Rich Brian was instantly loveable. Thankfully, it got just the right amount of airplay that it didn’t become overkill and remained just a tad below the radar for the artist not to become the next Macklemore. While I’m sure a big Number One single would be a great thing for the Canadian rapper, this gives the chance for him to continue entertaining us and getting us moving (like his follow-up single with Rebecca Black “Yoga” also brilliantly did). Bonus points for soybeans officially entering the hip-hop lexicon.  

22. Kacey Musgraves – “Good Wife”

Okay, I’ll be honest, there was a part of me that was disappointed with Kacey Musgrave’s album star-crossed. It’s a great album, no doubt, but when unfairly comparing it (and I am being unfair) to her Grammy Album Of The Year-winning Golden Hour, it just paled in comparison. That’s not to say there weren’t standout tracks. For me, “Good Wife” is definitely the best of the lot. The song in many ways seems to incorporate the entire theme of the album into one song and sonically, Musgraves manages to fit still within the wheelhouse of alt-country without feeling completely pop, thus continuing that delicate balance Golden Hour managed. Musgraves sounds best when she’s in control and here, her self-awareness helps the song soar.

21. M-22, Rhea Melvin – “Gravity”

British-German DJs M-22 produced one of the most anthemic club singles of the year with “Gravity” featuring Northern Ireland’s Rhea Melvin. The uplifting track centers on the duo’s signature house beat as the disco strings and a catchy AF piano riff ying to Melvin’s vocals yang. The singer shared with me recently, “The song really gave me a chance to show what I love in music, and that I can dance! I was so lucky I got to showcase that in the music video.” The singer is right, unlike most dance tracks these days, the newcomer actually features in the video and she dances her heart out. I have a feeling we’ll be hearing and seeing the artist a lot more in the coming year. As for M-22? Well, they know how to keep us moving!

Stay tuned for songs #20-1! Has your favorite been featured yet?

Also check out our Top 100 Songs of 2020.

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