It was a year of tears, of heaven and hell, a year we’ll remember all too well; a year of red flags, red scarves and red lights; a year that did not make us happier than ever, but had us smokin’ out the window as the social distancing continued. Whether you missed your best friend or simply felt like fuckin’ something, loneliness seemed to be the common denominator for most people during year two of COVID; but thankfully, our favorite artists managed to make 2021 bearable either through surprise drops (SZA!), unexpected earworms (Olivia?!), and releases of long-awaited projects that exceeded their hype (Adele! Kanye!).
As we look back on the year that was, I’ve decided to share my musical superlatives—the best songs, albums, collabs and music videos of 2021—along with honorable mentions. Before bidding you adieu until 2022, I recommend checking out the Spotify playlist I’ve curated to accompany this list here or at the link further down.
BEST SONG: "All Too Well (10 Minute Version)" (Taylor Swift)
Where to even start with “All Too Well?” Well, at the beginning.
Upon the release of her most eclectic record—Red—back in 2012, Taylor Swift revealed that the album’s songwriting process was a messy but proliferous one, resulting in her having to drop many songs from the tracklist and drastically shorten what’s now widely considered her magnum opus: “All Too Well.”
Lots has changed almost 10 years later. For one, as her generation’s most salient songwriter, Swift’s penmanship has only further improved. Though most critics were still placing the original, five-and-a-half-minute song at the top of their Swift rankings prior to November, the storytelling on last year’s folklore and evermore is far more nuanced than almost anything on Red—even if she was already displaying strengths beyond her years at the time of its release. Then, in 2019, Swift announced that she was re-recording her first six albums to reclaim ownership of her masters after they’d been sold along with her previous record label, Big Machine Records.
As expected, November’s arrival of Red (Taylor’s Version), came with both a near-identical re-recording of the OG, as well as the never-before-heard, ellusive 10-minute version. Simply put, the extended song is so far above the already excellent original, you have to wonder why it never saw the light of day until now. Told in chapters that are marked by important dates and the passing of seasons, the storytelling here is elevated not just by its further intricacies, but also by its unique structure. Entirely new melodies were added, creating a sprawling epic that’s capitulated by two devastating bridges and Swift’s longest and most beautiful outro since “august.”
Though I refuse to believe the finished version wasn’t spun out of a more recent draft (“fuck the patriarchy” keychains weren’t popular until at least 2015, and much of the songwriting here is in line with her post-Lover work), there’s plenty of euphony and descriptive imagery that places it comfortably in the Red-era’s canon. That Swift was able to accomplish such a feat of creative and commercial success out of a seemingly impossible endeavor, proves once again how far above she is over the majority of her peers.
Top 25 Runner-Ups:
“The Melting of the Sun” (St. Vincent) · “Thunder” (Lana Del Rey) · “Happier Than Ever” (Billie Eilish) · “Chinatown” (Bleachers ft. Bruce Springsteen) · “New Romance” (Beach House) · “Paprika” (Japanese Breakfast) · “My Baby Wants A Baby” (St. Vincent) · “Kiss Me More” (Doja Cat ft. SZA) · “Nothing New” (Taylor Swift ft. Phoebe Bridgers) · “Over and Over” (Beach House) · “Right On Time” (Brandi Carlile) · “Stop Making This Hurt” (Bleachers) · “happier” (Olivia Rodrigo) · “Superstar” (Beach House) · “Take My Breath” (The Weeknd) · “Fly As Me” (Silk Sonic) · “DON’T SHOOT UP THE PARTY” (BROCKHAMPTON) · “Aloo Gobi” (Weezer) · “deja vu” (Olivia Rodrigo) · “Arcadia” (Lana Del Rey) · “Somebody Like Me” (St. Vincent) · “I Drink Wine” (Adele) · “UNDERWATER BOI” (TURNSTILE) · “INDUSTRY BABY (EXTENDED)” (Lil Nas X & Jack Harlow) · “The Only Heartbreaker” (Mitzki)
BEST ALBUM: Daddy’s Home (St. Vincent)
Given how I was already a fan of Annie Clarke’s previous records and production credits, it’s no surprise that I ended up enjoying her newest LP, Daddy’s Home. What did surprise me, is how her sixth studio album managed to excel the artist also known as St. Vincent’s already robust catalogue, quickly becoming a critic’s favorite even among her acclaimed, self-titled album from 2014; as well as 2017’s Masseduction.
When you read up on the story behind Daddy’s Home, this makes sense. Inspired by her father’s recent release from prison, this may just be one of Clarke’s most personal projects. Co-produced by Clarke and Jack Antonoff (whose name you might recognize from a long line of producer credits, including Masseduction), this record is a grueling, complexly arranged flourish of dark pop, lounge pop and psychedelia that’s head and shoulders above most of 2021’s full-length offerings. In the company of more than a few highly enjoyable records from her contemporaries, that’s saying something.
Clarke’s sprawling, hyper-specific lyrics reveal many influences aside from her father’s prison sentence, including New York City lore. The song “Candy Darling” is about the legendary transgender actress and icon of the same name, while “The Melting of the Sun” deals with institutional sexism while creating a dreamscape out of heavy synth-washes and 20th-century-era backup vocals. Her lead-single, “Pay Your Way In Pain,” is a dark funk song that sounds straight out of the 1970s. Few records this year were as eclectic in both sound and subject matter, and none were this stunning.
Top 10 Runner-Ups:
Blue Bannisters (Lana Del Rey) · Take the Sadness Out of Saturday Night (Bleachers) · Jubilee (Japanese Breakfast) · An Evening With Silk Sonic (Silk Sonic) · GLOW ON (TURNSTILE) · ROADRUNNER: NEW LIGHT, NEW MACHINE (BROCKHAMPTON) · OK Human (Weezer) · SOUR (Olivia Rodrigo) · 30 (Adele) · Happier Than Ever (Billie Eilish)
BEST COLLAB: "Chinatown" (Bleachers ft. Bruce Springsteen) & "Kiss Me More" (Doja Cat ft. SZA)
The collaboration category was a difficult one for me to narrow down this time around. Do I go with one of my new favorite songs—the atmospheric synth-pop anthem from Bleachers that just so happens to include an incredible Bruce Springsteen feature; or do I go with Doja Cat and SZA’s infectious bop, which was arguably the year’s best showcase of two separate artists’ individual talents? “Chinatown” and “Kiss Me More” made it into my top 25 runner-ups for Song of the Year, but it would feel wrong not to dedicate some words to both of them.
It’s worth reiterating that both Jack Antonoff and Doja Cat have had a hell of a year. In addition to stacking up production credits on critically acclaimed and commercially successful feature-length projects from Lorde, Clairo, Taylor Swift, Lana Del Rey and St. Vincent, the former also produced a third LP under his stage name, Bleachers, along with Annie Clarke herself. Meanwhile, Doja made waves not just with her own Grammy-nominated studio album, Planet Her, but also through a VMAs hosting gig and a pile of high-charting features for other artists. Still, her own lead single off of Planet Her featuring SZA might just be her best to date, and a testament to her immense talent and versatility.
As many have already said, Doja is one of the few (if not the only) contemporary artists who channels so many styles into her music that she often sounds like she’s featuring herself on a single track. Even if the wacky and inescapable “Need to Know” is also proof of this, “Kiss Me More” is the more consistent track overall, bolstered by a strong beat and even stronger transitions between the breathy intro, disco-inspired chorus, chanty rap verse and a flawless bridge delivery from her collaborator. SZA’s feature is a generous one—her vocal riffs towards the end acting as an equally high point to Doja’s verses—and the two compliment each other like butter on toast.
Then there’s “Chinatown.” While I admittedly have a soft spot for Antonoff’s sound (just as Daddy’s Home is my favorite album of 2021, Swift’s folklore and evermore were my favorites of 2020), this Springsteen collaboration is easily the best track off of Take the Sadness Out of Saturday Night, evoking a nostalgic feeling beyond the artist’s signature 1980s-inspired aesthetic. While many would have likely let The Boss carry the song through a longer feature or a verse of his own, the heavy production on this song melds Springsteen’s indistinguishable vocals seamlessly on the soaring second chorus and bridge. Catchy and loud but tinged with overwhelming sadness, it’s one of this year’s best singles.
Top 10 Runner-Ups:
“Nothing New” (Taylor Swift ft. Phoebe Bridgers) · “INDUSTRY BABY” (Lil Nas X & Jack Harlow) · “Dealer” (Lana Del Rey; uncredited vocals from Miles Kane) · “Best Friend” (Saweetie ft. Doja Cat) · “BUZZCUT FT. DANNY BROWN” (BROCKHAMPTON) · “I Bet You Think About Me” (Taylor Swift ft. Chris Stapleton) · “LONELY DEZIRES FT. BLOOD ORANGE” (TURNSTILE) · “You Used to Laugh” (Adam Driver & Sparks) · “Secret Life” (Bleachers ft. Lana Del Rey) · “It’s Your Own Body and Mind” (Sufjan Stevens & Angelo De Augustine)
BEST MUSIC VIDEO: "INDUSTRY BABY" (Lil Nas X & Jack Harlow)
It’s hard to deny the momentum of “MONTERO (CALL ME BY YOUR NAME),” considering the maelstrom of memes, think pieces and general outrage that followed. The racy music video—which explored the openly gay artist’s personal journey of self-discovery and acceptance through biblical metaphors—caused quite a stir upon its release, eschewing positive feedback and overblown negative controversy in equal measure. For my money though, his music video for “INDUSTRY BABY” (directed by Christian Breslauer), is the most novel thing he’s done to date—and his best visual project by a wide margin.
Functioning almost as a short film, “INDUSTRY BABY” maintains the singer and rapper’s colorful, maximalist aesthetic; this time trading the sci-fi/fantasy motifs of previous music videos for a prison setting. But what makes this video revolutionary is the way that Breslauer and Nas X take hyper-masculine hip-hop iconography—such as the playboy image of the male artist surrounded by overtly sexualized women—and adapt it to Nas X’s narrative, surrounding him with hordes of muscular men in pink prison uniforms instead. As in real life, the artist switches between flamboyance and bronze seamlessly, dancing naked in the shower one moment and lifting 100-lb weights the next.
It also helps that the song is a complete banger, with some of the best mixing and instrumentals on any track from this artist to date—as well as an excellent feature from Jack Harlow. To the girls watching, Harlow also provides some much-appreciated eye candy. But the shot of Nas X popping into frame from the ceiling as the song begins—covered in sweat and tattoos—proves he may just be the closest thing Gen-Z has to a rock star.
Top 10 Runner-Ups:
“Save Your Tears” (The Weeknd) · “Need to Know” (Doja Cat) · “Happier Than Ever” (Billie Eilish) · “Kiss Me More” (Doja Cat ft. SZA) · “We’re Good” (Dua Lipa) · “Streets” (Doja Cat) · “CORSO” (Tyler the Creator) · “LA NOCHE DE ANOCHE” (Bad Bunny & Rosalía) · “Tears In the Club” (FKA Twigs ft. The Weeknd) · “Best Friend” (Saweetie ft. Doja Cat)