In the annals of music, some things never change. While genres will morph, advance and retreat, there will always be: a young newcomer who makes everybody feel older than they are, a fantastic collaboration or two, a tear-jerker, a floor-filler, a buzzy new band.
2021 is no different: we got stonking tracks from every one of these tropes, and then some. Find here the Gigwise 20 best tracks of the year:
20. Wet Leg - 'Chaise Longue'
Isle of Wight duo Wet Leg are one of the most promising new acts on the scene right now—their joyously catchy mix of indie guitar, fun lyrics and a sense of rude wholesomeness make for a band who are irresistibly charming. Not to mention the sheer quality of the tunes, Wet Leg are a band with buckets of potential.
'Chaise Longue' burst onto the scene earlier this year as the duo's debut: combining indie essence with French Disco tempo and lyrics that are offhand and funny, 'Chaise Longue' is without doubt one of 2021’s strongest singles. Wet Leg have sold a boat-load of tickets off the back of two very strong singles and have already announced a debut album for 2022. Wet Leg are a duo with such talent for writing ear worms, and if they’re not your new favourite band then they will be soon. (Charlie Brock)
19. Doja Cat feat. SZA - 'Kiss Me More'
Who would’ve thought the girl from that cow video would make it so big? Doja Cat delivered one of the best summer songs of this year by teaming up with neo-soul darling SZA and making ‘Kiss Me More’, a mid-tempo homage to disco that shows a more earnestly sweet side to the Californian musician.
‘Kiss Me More’ might not be too complex, but its uncomplicated approach makes it one of Doja’s best songs ever. This track lures you into her world with its dreamy backing vocals and romantic guitar line that permeates through the entire song. It’s also an excellent showcase for Doja herself, balancing her breathy, girlish singing voice with her more assertive, raspy rapping voice, flitting between infatuation and seduction. SZA also keeps up with her signature writing style and distinctive vocals, making for yet another fantastic duet released in 2021. (Alex Rigotti)
18. Ashnikko feat. Princess Nokia - 'Slumber Party'
Let’s be real: once Ashnikko came out with the lyrics “Me and your girlfriend playing dress up at my house/ I gave your girlfriend cunnilingus on my couch”, no one else really stood a chance this year, did they? Add in a provocative music video and a verse from Princess Nokia, and Ashnikko had it in the bag this year. When we were all locked down in our homes at the start of the year, what we needed were strong, bold lyrics. And Ashnikko came through.
Needless to say, 'Slumber Party' quickly took over the internet and made Ashnikko a stand-out star in the next generation of pop. She’s released more exciting stuff since their debut mixtape arrived in January, but ‘Slumber Party’ remains our favourite. With such unfiltered confidence on her debut mixtape, it’s really exciting to see where Ashnikko is going to go next.
And let’s not forget its place on the most important list of all—our 21 Horniest Songs of All Time list. It might not be safe for work, but it’s safely in our top songs for 2021. (Vicky Greer)
17. Sharon Van Etten and Angel Olsen - 'Like I Used To'
Two heavy-weights in confessional songwriting with emotional heft, when we found out that Sharon Van Etten and Angel Olsen would be collaborating back in the spring we were full of expectation. Two of rock's most talented artists with two of 2019's best albums (Remind Me Tomorrow and All Mirrors), Van Etten and Olsen did not disappoint with their collaborative gem, 'Like I Used To'.
A mournful, country-tinged invocation of two extremely special voices, the track is fatted on layers of juicy production starring splashy, gated percussion and guitars that rise and rise to giddy heights before exploding into starry arpeggiation.
Sadly, it seems that it may be a one-off. Aside from a poignant acoustic version, the pair's partnership has rested...for now. (Jessie Atkinson)
16. Wolf Alice - 'The Last Man on Earth'
At this point, it might feel like we’re running out of superlatives to describe Wolf Alice. One of the biggest and best bands in the UK right now, they kept us waiting three years for the next single to follow Visions Of A Life, but ‘The Last Man on Earth’ was well worth the wait when it dropped in February.
When it begins, all gentle piano and Ellie Rowsell referencing a Kurt Vonnegut novel in the opening lines, you just know that sooner or later it’s going to erupt into life—and around the halfway mark it does just that with rousing soundscapes and strings before the loud-chorus dynamic that exemplifies the Wolf Alice we all know and love: “'Cause it's lies after lies after lies/But do you even fool yourself?” asks Rowsell before the song fades away again almost as suddenly as it first kicked into gear.
It hints at a more mature Wolf Alice, who are doing things their way, and even on a critically-acclaimed number one album it stands out as one of the best tracks. Almost a rock ballad, it conjured up memories of past tracks with similarly gripping finishes like ‘Blush’ and ‘Planter Hunter’, and it’s truly the London band at their very best. (Adam England)
15. Sarah Kinsley - 'The King'
Teasing her crowning jewel of a track for weeks on TikTok ahead of its full release, fans of Sarah Kinsley and a slowly-gathering crowd of newcomers started to get antsy. Teenagers came to the producer's defence as other teenagers berated her for her tardiness. The song in question was of course 'The King', an incredible, cathartic pop anthem entirely written and produced by Sarah, who attends Columbia College in New York City.
Like her previous release 'Karma', a song that made us sit up and listen immediately, 'The King' shared some similarities with Fleetwood Mac, though this time, the contempoary production techniques that Sarah used made for something totally fresh. Just take in the quickening pace of that opening piano and marvel as it transforms into the track's underpinning beat. (Jessie Atkinson)
14. Lynks feat. Charlie Steen - 'This Is the Hit'
Two of London's most popular performers and a very unlikely pairing turned out to be one of the most genius artistic couplings of the year. Shame frontman Charlie Steen—gnashing, sweating, masculine—and Lynks—choreographed, bemasked, drag-inspired—linked up in April for the alternative club banger 'This Is the Hit'. "Copy me now/I am Bob Ross" and "I'm so sick/feel my glands" are two of the couplets Lynks employs in this vogueing-ready track, which is right out of the artist's playbook. What makes this even more exciting than usual, is the mash-up of Lynks' sardonic vocal and Steen's newly-treated growl.
"Who would have thought that a post-punk frontman and an alt-pop gimp would make such a tasty tune??" Lynks asked at the time. Quite. (Jessie Atkinson)
13. Paris Texas - 'HEAVY METAL'
A hip-hop horror-show, L.A. duo Paris Texas’ 'HEAVY METAL' seamlessly blends together rock and classic hip-hop beats in a beautifully chilling manner.
For anyone wondering where the next wave of punk rock icons are coming from look no further than Paris Texas. Hard beats, overdriven guitars that come straight out of the hard-rock text book, it’s pulse-pounding, heart-racing and truly brilliant stuff.
As far as debut singles go, you’d be hard pushed to find one that beats ‘HEAVY METAL’. Paranoia inducing, tense and brilliant. ‘HEAVY METAL’ is one to get the pulse pounding and an exciting taste of what Paris Texas have to offer. (Tom Dibb)
12. Charli XCX - 'Good Ones'
Charli XCX only has one album left on her contract, and by the sounds of it, she’s promising to go out with a bang. ‘Good Ones’ is like the grown-up sister of her True Romance days; gothic, nostalgic, but always bombastic. It’s a return to her traditional pop days after her more experimental, hyperpop records Charli (2019) and how i’m feeling now (2020). ‘Good Ones’ is pop on steroids, and a promising introduction to her upcoming album, Crash (2021).
There’s so much to love about ‘Good Ones’, from its opening strutting bassline to the ‘ooos’ of the chorus that Charli pulls off with her typical popstar panache. It’s the resignation and frustration that she feels, however, which really sells the song: "And baby you couldn’t have loved me any better/But doin’ this is all that I’ve known ever", she whines. ‘Good Ones’ just limps over the two-minute mark, but it’s a pop song that wastes no time with frills and lace, instead delivering its message with slick, in-your-face production and straightforward fun. (Alex Rigotti)
11. Olivia Rodrigo - 'drivers license'
When Disney’s Olivia Rodrigo dropped ‘drivers license’ at the start of the year, it marked a turning point in the pop landscape. Did even Rodrigo herself, then just seveteen years-old, expect the astronomical success that would come her way in the following months? She’s a pop megastar, the poster girl for Filipino-American representation, and even a pro-vaccine advocate—and ‘drivers license’ really kicked things off.
It was a record-breaker, smashing not only Spotify records but the charts across the world too, and invited comparisons to pop behemoths like Taylor Swift, Lorde and Billie Eilish rather than her fellow Disney alumni.
A bedroom pop ballad, 'drivers license' mixed teen heartbreak with indie sensibilities and mainstream appeal, and in the process went 4x platinum in Rodrigo’s native US—and 2x platinum here in the UK too. And all this from someone who wouldn’t have even been able to order a pint here for another month after the track came out. (Adam England)
10. Lil Nas X - 'MONTERO (Call Me By Your Name)'
‘MONTERO’ is a middle finger painted hot-pink to everyone who discounted Lil Nas X. From mild one-hit-wonder accusations to straight up homophobia both outside and within the music industry, the Georgia native had a lot of people to prove wrong. Giving Satan a lap dance, kissing a back-up dancer at the BET awards and releasing shoes with blood in them were not things we had on our 2021 bingo, but Lil Nas X played into every homophobic nightmare and made it beautiful.
These shock tactics worked so well because ‘MONTERO’ is, simply put, a banger. Taking inspiration from Egyptian modes, flamenco palmas and hip hop production, ‘MONTERO’ is a sophistication deviation from Lil Nas X’s previous country-trap sound. Lil Nas delivers some hilariously bawdy lines, but it’s the chorus that really cements the anthemic desperation that turns ‘MONTERO’ from superficial PR stunt to genuine artistic expression: "Call me by your name; tell me you love me in private".
‘MONTERO’ is everything that pop should be: political, pleasureable, a little cheeky. Lil Nas X singlehandedly pushed listeners to re-evaluate what homosexuality looks and sounds like—and, in turn, pushed the general public to start accepting a whole new generation of gay people. (Alex Rigotti)
9. Silk Sonic - 'Leave The Door Open'
‘Leave The Door Open’ is the perfect throwback to slow jams, written by none other than Bruno Mars and Anderson .Paak. It introduced the world to their new project, Silk Sonic, which would end up producing an album filled with smooth soul/funk tunes. Mars and .Paak get endearingly romantic on ‘Leave The Door Open’, but always with a knowing wink.
The production is crisp, yet sleek, accompanied by the sexy snap of .Paak’s drumming. Every instrument is used to its fullest potential, from the soft strings section to the warm piano chords that background much of the song. However, it’s the performances from Mars and .Paak that really steal the show. The two musicians do their damnedest to seduce their lovers with their boyish charm (‘I won’t bite – unless you like’, .Paak suggests playfully).
There aren’t many musicians out there that could bring the blend of soul and RnB to the mainstream quite like Silk Sonic do. ‘Leave The Door Open’ is a wonderfully enjoyable offering from the duo, and their compatibility is a testament not only to their musicianship but their friendship, too. (Alex Rigotti)
8. Sam Fender - 'Seventeen Going Under'
The title track for Sam Fenders acclaimed sophomore album, ‘Seventeen Going Under’ is a prime example of Fender’s songwriting abilities and showcases exactly why he’s earned the moniker of The Geordie Springsteen. Lyrically, ‘Seventeen Going Under’ is an elegant slice of working class poetry, casting an eye over Fender's own youth in his native North Shields. The track examines the ups and the downs of Northern working class life, from the cheap fun of, “drink and snide fags” to the, “DWP see(ing) a number” in a manner that is nothing sort of elegant and beautiful.
Musically, the track is a guitar-pop hit of euphoria: think ‘Born To Run’ with a pint of Newcastle Brown. Opening with an almost acoustic sound, with a guitar being picked and Fender’s tender vocals, it quickly transcends into an all-out pop banger. Loud horns, elegant keys and a frantic solo at the tracks climax. It builds upon the already excellent foundations laid by his previous outing ‘Hypersonic Missiles’ by adding a darker, more introspective sound to his anthemic pop. A blistering, full whack arena song that unashamed to point fingers at austerity Britain is a joyous affair. (Tom Dibb)
7. Billie Eilish - 'Happier Than Ever'
The title track of Billie Eilish's second album, 'Happier Than Ever' soon received an edit that shaved it in half. The slashed version catered to playlists everywhere, giving the masses what they wanted without the wait: Billie pivoting to the kind of rock vocals that are literally impossible not to sing along to. Paramore's Hayley Williams even jumped back on Twitter to commend Billie on the performance.
But 'Happier Than Ever' is better for its two-and-a-half-minute build-up, a simmering pot of vintage-sounding musings and sly put-downs that characterise the rest of Billie's muted second outing. Then, when we finally get to those first tone-changing words: "you called me again, drunk in your Benz driving home under the influence," the enormity of the song jumps out: the rest of 'Happier Than Ever' is a cathartic, crackling guitar chorus that'll continue to push a newly-tweaked form of rock to a young generation. (Jessie Atkinson)
6. Olivia Rodrigo - 'good 4 u'
Released shortly before her debut album SOUR, ‘good 4 u’ turned Olivia Rodrigo’s break-up narrative into a deliciously bitter yet devastating affair. It plays into the recent wave of pop-punk nostalgia, from its music video referencing cult film Jennifer’s Body to its similarities to Paramore’s ‘Misery Business’. Indeed, it’s even more impressive given it’s one of the first rock songs to top the Billboard Hot 100 in years—and all from an eighteen-year-old who seemed to appear out of nowhere.
In contrast to her breakout hit ‘driver’s license’, there’s no longing or pleading to be seen in sight. Instead, Rodrigo’s lyrics are dripping with sarcasm and fury after discovering her ex's quick rebound. It’s not a whine fest, though – the song is wonderfully tense, exploding and restraining itself at just the right moments. It helps that Rodrigo’s vocals are well-controlled; one minute, she’s seething, the next, she’s belting out all her frustrations in one of the catchiest pop choruses of the year. (Alex Rigotti)
5. Caroline Polachek - 'Bunny Is A Rider'
New York City-born Caroline Polachek has long been a staple figure in the alternative pop scene, from her days in synthy-indie band Chairlift to her subsequent solo career—not forgetting her work on Beyonce’s 2013 surprise self-titled album. She’s been closely-linked to the PC Music scene in recent years, working with Danny L Harle on her most recent album Pang, out in 2019. He again worked with Polachek on ‘Bunny is a Rider’, released this July, a song that's set to be part of an upcoming project.
There’s very much a PC Music influence to ‘Bunny is a Rider’, an electrifying synth-pop track that, in Polachek's own words, is “a summer jam about being unavailable”. The minimalist beats and clicks perfectly suit Polachek’s impressive and versatile vocals, giving them the chance to appear front-and-centre stage, and the lyrics are relatable for anyone who’s ever distanced themselves from others, going off the radar for a while.
While Polachek might be compared to artists on the PC Music label, or other key electronic pop players like Arca or Sky Ferreira, her work is very much her own, and ‘Bunny is a Rider’ truly cements that. (Adam England)
4. MUNA - 'Silk Chiffon'
Is this what we were missing from pop? The return of MUNA in September brought with it the Phoebe Bridgers-featuring (the single is out on her Saddest Factory imprint) 'Silk Chiffon', an ecstatic track about queer lust. Giddy drums and vocals that you can literally hear the smile behind, 'Silk Chiffon' is unrestrained in its joy; a gorgeous invocation of those moments when life feels more than worth all the pain.
"I'm high and I'm feeling anxious inside a CVS," Bridgers sings on her verse as lightning guitars light up the soundscape. Even the words "life's so fun, life's so fun," are a grower, their simplicity adding to the child-like optimism of the track. Considering it also has a chorus for the ages, 'Silk Chiffon' is an exercise in pop excellence on the grandest of scales, will enter the Gay Hall of Fame alongside tracks like Carly Rae Jepson's 'Cut To The Feeling' and Charli's 'Vroom Vroom'. (Jessie Atkinson)
3. Self Esteem - 'I Do This All The Time'
In one of the giddiest rises of the decade so far, Rebecca Taylor's Self Esteem has a lot to thank 'I Do This All The Time' for. Initially not even slated to be a single, the release of this wombing, moving, relatable and humorous spoken word track with its massive choir-sung chorus shunted this popstar up into the consciousness of music fans all over the UK. Ever since she first performed the song on Jools Holland, 'I Do This All The Time' has become rightly revered.
Though the rest of Prioritise Pleasure—which we named our Album of the Year—wrought just as much emotional effect, production quirks and hefty serious-funny combos, 'I Do This All The Time' still manages to top all of its album mates thanks to its never-ending parade of brilliance: the mimicking male naysayers verse, the deftly-used stabs of electric guitar, the OTT, background synth-work, the closing swirl of strings. With every listen, 'I Do This All The Time' presents a new detail to obsess over. God forbid we still had MSN: the lyrics to this one would be the only pm lyrics for miles around. (Jessie Atkinson)
2. IDLES - 'The Beachland Ballroom'
We knew IDLES were fans of soul tunes from the moment they covered Solomon Burke's 'Cry To Me' on their excellent 2018 album Joy As An Act of Resistance. What we didn't know was that the Bristol punks could pen their own. Surprise single 'The Beachland Ballroom', which hip-hop producer Kenny Beats called "One of my favorite songs I’ve ever worked on in my entire life", introduced a much-needed new era for IDLES. What a re-introduction. 'The Beachland Ballroom' is a smoke bomb of a new, scorched and gnarled kind of soul in which guitars and Joe Talbot's punk-fried voice bend punk into the equation.
The blunted, doom-laden, doo-wop lilt of the introduction make the soulful inspirations of this track immediately clear, and when Joe Talbot begins his vocal turn, it's amazing to hear him actually sing. There's plenty of teeth-gritting half-yells here too, as we've come to expect from IDLES, but 'The Beachland Ballroom', with the pendulum of its guitar ringing out like a vast clock shows us a new face to IDLES: one that continued on the excellent CRAWLER and will hopefully continue to bloom. (Jessie Atkinson)
1. alt-J - 'Get Better'
It's tough to put into words just how moving alt-J's six-minute single 'Get Better' is, so we'll let the band's Gus Unger-Hamilton explain: "when Joe first played it to me I didn’t just get a bit tearful, I broke down. A big, big cry. A cry of the year" he said in a press note that accompanied The Dream single release.
A restrained, stripped back but crystal clear acoustic track about bereavement, 'Get Better' is one of the most devastating songs in recent memory. Little details like raising a spoon to front-line workers, keeping the deceased partner's Nutella in the cellar and pretending "you're out of sight in another room" all team together with a sweet piano/acoustic guitar combo to bring forth tears no matter how many times you've listened. By the time the hook "a younger me, a younger you meeting at the Serpentine" kicks in for the final time alongside swelling, Einaudi-esque keys, you'll be undone. 'Get Better' is an example of extraordinary storytelling that strolls alongside impeccable production for a song that literally takes your breath away—every single time. (Jessie Atkinson)