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Best Songs Of 2021: 20 Hits That Defined The Year
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List & Guides

Best Songs Of 2021: 20 Hits That Defined The Year

From life-affirming dance-pop to viral TikTok tunes, the best songs of 2021 showcase a wide range of artists who made an undeniable impact.

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Whether it was pop divas taking a stand or incendiary UK drill acts making rap history, 2021 was a memorable year in which music offered an escape from the reality of post-pandemic life. From the return of songwriting behemoths such as Ed Sheeran and Adele, to the collaborations that helped us look beyond a world in lockdown, here is our list of the best songs of 2021.

Listen to our Pop playlist here, and check out our 20 best songs of 2021, below.

20: Ella Henderson and Tom Grennan: Let’s Go Home Together

A romantic but unconventional love song, Let’s Go Home Together marked something of a chart comeback for pop starlet Ella Henderson. Originally co-written – and intended to be performed as a duet – with James Arthur, Henderson instead opted to re-record the song with Bedford lad Tom Grennan, and the duo’s vocal chemistry truly sizzles as they pretend to be a mismatched pair of friends who become aware they’re falling in love with one another (“Even though you got bad tattoos and smell like booze/I’m into you”). Peaking at No.10 in the UK, Let’s Go Home Together pairs playfully flirtatious lyrics with a seductive acoustic hook.

19: Måneskin: I Wanna Be Your Slave

In winning the 2021 Eurovision Song Contest, Italian rockers Måneskin racked up more than enough points to prompt listeners to send I Wanna Be Your Slave into the UK Top 5. A thumping rock’n’roller melding mid-2000s indie swagger with the 80s rock-god attitude, the single will easily be remembered as one of the best songs of 2021 for achieving the near-impossible by bringing guitar music back into the pop charts. The song was later re-recorded with The Stooges’ frontman and proto-punk pioneer Iggy Pop, underscoring its lineage with his former band’s similarly sadomasochistic trailblazer, I Wanna Be Your Dog.

18: Coldplay X BTS: My Universe

In this full-on sci-fi pop banger produced by Swedish maestro Max Martin, alternative rock giants Coldplay teamed up with Korean boy wonders BTS. With its shuffling synth-based extravagance and EDM-influenced breakdown, My Universe’s out-of-this-world music video saw Chris Martin and his bandmates dancing on another planet with BTS holograms, clearly having a great deal of fun indulging in this starry-eyed K-Pop crossover. Gifting Coldplay their first US No.1 since Viva La Vida, the single earns its place as one of the best songs of 2021 by matching the band’s internationalist ethos with their laser-guided enthusiasm for Max Martin’s chart-busting brand of commercial pop.

17: Cardi B: Up

Once again hitting the US Top 5 following the extraordinary success of WAP last year, Cardi B went gangsta with Up, and put a catchy spin on street slang (“If it’s up, then it’s stuck”). Aiming to mix her quirky rap flow with trap-based production, the Bronx-raised rapper presented listeners with yet another hip-hop banger that, in its own way, proved just as controversial as WAP. “This might sound crazy,” she said in an interview with Zane Lowe, “but I got really inspired of drill Chicago music.” By association, it’s no surprise the song’s lyrics are cocky and street-smart, hinting at violent confrontation as Cardi spews out intoxicating bars with attitude and braggadocio. Up isn’t the only drill-inspired tune to stake its claim among the best songs of 2021, but Cardi’s performance marks it out as something truly special.

16: Elton John and Dua Lipa: Cold Heart (PNAU Remix)

Though not technically a new song, Australian dance DJs PNAU gave Elton John a UK chart-topper by remixing elements of his old hits for a duet with pop sensation Dua Lipa. Cold Heart intersperses the verse from Elton’s 1989 single Sacrifice, the chorus from 1972’s Rocket Man, as well as other bits from Kiss The Bride and the lesser-known album track Where’s The Shoorah? Set against a strutting disco-pop beat, the combination of Dua Lipa’s confident vocals and Elton John’s timeless songcraft gave us a duet for the ages, sailing in at No.1 in October 2021. As the song that made Elton John the first solo artist to get a UK Top 10 hit across six different decades, Cold Heart has already earned its place in history.

15: Saweetie (featuring Doja Cat): Best Friend

Best Friend saw Californian rapper Saweetie team-up with Doja Cat to create an ode to female camaraderie – a girl-power anthem for a more cynical age. From crowing about their riches to boasting about their status as sex symbols, Best Friend peaked at No.14 on the US Hot 100 owing to its unapologetic celebration of female independence and its twerk-ready bouncing beat. As befitting a song that calls out misogyny and wears its feminist motivations on its sleeve, the music video saw Saweetie and Doja Cat give a nod to the 1991 movie Thelma & Louise by driving a Tesla off a cliff into the ocean. It was a hell of a way to make a splash.

14: Arrdee: Oliver Twist

2021 saw Brighton-based rapper Arrdee go viral and break through to the mainstream courtesy of a guest appearance on a remix of Russ Millions and Tion Wayne’s Body. Living up to the hype, Arrdee immediately scored his first UK No.1 with Oliver Twist, which is propelled by a memorable violin hook and a fresh and breezy sound conjured by producer Zel. The lyrical references to the 1968 musical Oliver! were no accident, since Arrdee reportedly used to sing Consider Yourself and I’d Do Anything when he was just six years old. “All the songs are embedded in my head,” Arrdee said of the Dickens-inspired musical. “I feel like they’re like a part of my family’s history.” If his first No.1 hit is anything to go by, Arrdee can definitely expect more than a bowl of gruel for his trouble.

13: Lizzo (featuring Cardi B): Rumors

The queen of body positivity, Lizzo slammed the naysayers in this year’s funk-infused duet with Cardi B. Fun and playful, Rumors is part of Lizzo’s ongoing crusade against fat shaming and double standards for women, with both herself and Cardi B humorously lampooning snooty attitudes about sexual relationships. At one point, Lizzo even jokes that she’s not managed to have sex with Drake… yet. “I just thought it would be so funny to say,” Lizzo told Zane Lowe. “I just feel like women, there’s so many times where girls’ names get dropped in songs because they’re fine.” Replicating the 70s vibe and retro-soul brilliance of her 2019 hit Juice, Rumors stands out as one of the best songs of 2021 and proves why Lizzo’s larger-than-life presence on the pop scene is much-needed.

12: Billie Eilish: Your Power

Returning to the limelight with platinum blonde hair, Your Power was the lead single from Billie Eilish’s second album, Happier Than Ever. Undeniably powerful and moving, it’s a slow acoustic folk ballad described by Eilish as “an open letter to people who take advantage – mostly men”. With help from a music video in which the singer is slowly suffocated by an anaconda – a metaphor for an abusive relationship – Your Power peaked at No.5 in the UK and was hailed by Eilish’s fanbase as a protest anthem for the #MeToo generation. As one of the best songs of 2021, it was a provocative and potent way to kick off the Happier Than Ever album campaign, reminding us of Eilish’s peerless status as an alt-pop superstar.

11: Ava Max: My Head & My Heart

By interpolating the melody of A Touch Of Class’ early-2000s Eurodance hit Around The World (La La La La La), Ava Max’s My Heart & My Heart wasn’t just one of the best songs of 2021, it was a dance-pop revelation. Wishing to write a song for people to dance to at home during the COVID-19 lockdown, Ava Max enlisted the help of DJ Jonas Blue on production to create this floor-thumping banger that peaked at No.18 in the UK. Lively and infectious, it’s hard not to be enthused by Max’s belting vocal performance on the chorus, as she takes the pop formula behind her chart-conquering breakthrough hit, 2018’s Sweet But Psycho, and amps it up to 11. Escaping our living rooms and making its way into the clubs, this one will stick around for a while.

10: Olivia Rodrigo: Good 4 U

Pop-punk made a roaring comeback in 2021 thanks to Olivia Rodrigo’s Good 4 U. Hitting No.1 in the US and No.2 in the UK, the song saw Rodrigo make a U-turn from the piano balladry of Driver’s License by serving up a rollicking slice of emo angst articulating teenage resentment. “Writing Good 4 U was really satisfying because the song is upbeat and high energy, and people can dance to it,” Rodrigo said in an interview with Variety. Becoming the first “rock” song to top the charts for five weeks since Evanescence’s bring Me To Life, in 2003, Good 4 U was a blast from the past and a dead cert for one of the best songs of 2021. Owing to similarities with Paramore’s Misery Business, singer Hayley Williams and guitarist Josh Farro were later added to the songwriting credits. Clearly, there’s still a commercial appetite for emo punk – let’s hope this is a sign of things to come.

9: Griff: Black Hole

With its bouncy synth notes and unashamedly poppy chorus, Black Hole reached No.18 in the UK and lived up to expectations after Griff won a BRIT Award for Best Rising Star, in February 2021. Exuberantly produced by British producer Lostboy, Black Hole speaks of a void incapable of being filled following the breakdown of a relationship. “The melodrama of the lyrics – over a really interesting beat – keeps the song fun, and not too serious,” Griff said. There is, however, a tinge of melancholy lurking in the galactic metaphor she uses to express her heartbreak (“There’s a big black hole where my heart used to be/And I tried my best to fill it up with things I don’t need”).

8: Lil Nas X: Montero (Call Me By Your Name)

Lil Nas X’s importance cannot be overstated. As one of the few “out” stars in US hip-hop, the Georgia-born rapper is fully embracing his role as a pioneering LGBTQ+ musician in a predominantly hetero-dominated genre. “I feel that’s really important for representation in general, and this is going to open more doors,” Lil Nas X said in an interview with Genius. “This song is a sign of the times.” With lyrics celebrating same-sex lust and name-checking the gay romance film Call Me Be Your Name, Montero went to No.1 in both the UK and the US, and will doubtless be remembered as one of the best songs of 2021. Following in the footsteps of insurgent pop icons such as Madonna and Prince, the song’s music video revelled in courting controversy from the Christian right by featuring Lil Nas X giving the Devil a lap dance in the depths of hell. Bold and provocative, Montero is a watershed moment for LGBTQ+ songs.

7: The Weeknd: Take My Breath

Following the TikTok craze surrounding 2019’s Blinding Lights with yet another smash from producers Max Martin and Oscar Holter, The Weeknd merged illuminating 80s-style synths with Michael Jackson-esque vocals for Take My Breath, a disco-pop sensation that tells the story of a doomed relationship that ends with autoerotic asphyxiation. “Songs that tell stories and create worlds have always been why people get lost in music,” The Weeknd said in an interview with Apple Music. “I always try to immerse myself in that tradition and foster that escapism.” Peaking at No.6 in the US and No.13 in the UK, Take My Breath isn’t just one of the best songs of 2021, it also teases a synthwave development in the The Weeknd’s music.

6: Ed Sheeran: Bad Habits

Having dominated playlists for much of the year, Bad Habits is the UK chart-topper that marked Ed Sheeran’s return to pop glory. The last song recorded for Sheeran’s fifth album, =, it was also an attempt to create a club-ready pop banger with production duo Rain Radio, inviting Sheeran to dabble in a new dance-inflected sound. The result quickly became one of the best Ed Sheeran songs. “I wanted to go in the studio and make something that was totally different,” the songwriter told BBC Radio 1 DJ Greg James. Donning a pink suit in the music video and flying around with vampire fangs, Bad Habits sucked the blood out of the competition, spending 11 consecutive weeks at the top of both the UK and Irish singles charts. As legend has it, vampires can live forever, so it was always going to take more than a clove of garlic and a crucifix to keep Bad Habits from this list of the best songs of 2021.

5: Adele: Easy On Me

Reflecting on her divorce and addressing her son with diary-like honesty, Adele’s comeback hit, Easy On Me, is a piano ballad par excellence. Going to No.1 on both sides of the Atlantic, the song was the perfect vehicle for Adele’s stunning voice, and it sold a remarkable 70,000 copies in its first two days of release. “It’s got this soaring chorus which, you know, everyone’s going to hear now,” Adele told BBC Radio 2’s Zoe Ball. “It just felt like a ‘me’ song.” Imploring people to understand her reasons for ending her marriage, Easy On Me was a mature evolution of Adele’s tried-and-true recipe of heartbroken balladry, seeing her express her desire for self-worth via confessional lyricism. Without a doubt one of the biggest comebacks of all-time, it also proves that Adele just keeps getting better and better.

4: Russ Millions X Tion Wayne: Body

Earning the accolade of being the first drill song to reach No.1 in the UK, London rappers Russ Millions and Tion Wayne created a bona fide UK hip-hop classic. Celebrating the melting pot of different cultures in England’s capital city, Body became an instant street anthem with a memorable chorus fit for festival singalongs (“English girl, name Fiona/Big batty girl, name Abiola/Body-ody shape like Cola”). However, it was the Body 2 remix, featuring Arrdee and Bugzy Malone, that propelled the song to viral success, racking up over 75 million views on YouTube. Shortly thereafter, a Twitter campaign was launched to get Body to No.1, securing its place in British rap history and giving UK drill its first real commercial breakthrough. It certainly won’t be the last.

3: Sam Fender: Seventeen Going Under

Unflinchingly honest, Sam Fender’s single Seventeen Going Under is a verbose and poetic portrayal of working-class life as a teenager in Newcastle. Telling a largely autobiographical story about laddie fistfights by the sea and Fender’s mother’s struggles with debt, it’s a sobering critique of class struggle on the streets of North Shields (“Luck came and died ’round here”). Tailor-made for the saxophonic sweep of Fender’s Bruce Springsteen-esque take on Phil Spector’s “Wall Of Sound”, the song performed a remarkable feat by climbing into the UK Top 10 after a period of five months, largely thanks to heavy radio play. Much deserving of recognition, Seven Going Under’s success may finally mark a point where guitar music can start making a cultural impact once again. Let’s hope more young bands follow Fender’s example of setting Britain’s societal woes to cathartic blasts of indie rock’n’roll.

2: Masked Wolf: Astronaut In The Ocean

Inspiring countless TikTok trends and memes galore, Masked Wolf’s conscious-rap sleeper hit Astronaut In The Ocean blew up in 2021 and vaulted the Australian rapper into the mainstream. As part of a wave of releases keen to address mental-health struggles, it’s telling that the song struck a chord with audiences. “Astronaut In The Ocean touches on mental depression, how I was stuck in a place of anxiety and feeling low,” Masked Wolf told Tone Deaf. Subject matter aside, it also boasts a killer trap beat from producer Tyron Hapi (aka Happy). With its socially conscious lyrics, it’s refreshing that a “message” song can still make an impact – least of all one that isn’t ruined by Auto-Tune and unimaginative trap kicks. For that reason, Astronaut In The Ocean deserves to be regarded as one of the best songs of 2021.

1: Silk Sonic: Leave The Door Open

Tapping into a wellspring of inspiration via the golden era of 60s and 70s soul and funk music, Bruno Mars and Anderson .Paak formed Silk Sonic and quickly became the epitome of cool. With its impeccable groove and glittering melodic harmonies, their Philly soul-flavoured first single, Leave The Door Open, glided in at No.1 in the US. Pairing the smooth vocal stylings of Mars with the rap showmanship of .Paak, the song revived a timeless musical style in thrall to the likes of Curtis Mayfield and Bobby Womack, but made it completely fresh and contemporary. Seeing the duo’s melodic talents collide on their kitschy, Soul Train-inspired music video was nothing short of jaw-dropping. Unapologetically retro and stylish, Leave The Door Open was a tour de force that notched up over 440 million YouTube views by the end of the year, easily earning its place at the top of our list of the best songs of 2021.

You’ve heard the best songs of 2021, now find out which musicians to look out for in 2022.

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