With 2021 about halfway through, there’s no better time than the present to take a look at the treasures the year has gifted us until now. Here are our (unranked) picks for the best songs of the year…. so far.
“Be Sweet” – Japanese Breakfast
Heading into her third record, Michelle Zauner seems to have hit her stride. It’s been nearly four years since the release of her second studio album, Sounds From Another Planet, but her audience has remained fervent, turning “Be Sweet” into the biggest hit of her career. In a shift from the moody ambiance of signature tracks like “Road Head,” she leaned into her Fleetwood Mac inspirations and delivered the defining indie-pop track of the year thus far.
“4 On the Floor” – Zee Machine
The young California-based indie popper made his 2021 debut with a song that feels both thoughtful and off the cuff. “4 on the floor” isn’t an electropop banger like the title might suggest, but rather a stripped uptempo complete with handclaps and a catchy hook with clever wordplay. Pair that with a voice that sounds as effortless as his, and you have a compelling listen from start to finish.
“Kiss Me More” – Doja Cat feat. SZA
The defining song of Hot Girl Summer (The Re-Up) was bound to be a smash from the moment this pairing was made. Although the song definitely sounds like it was written by more than half a dozen people with its airtight pop structure, the chemistry between Doja Cat and SZA is something that couldn’t be replicated by anyone (or anything) else.
“Sugar” – Michael Medrano & Dance Yourself Clean
This throbbing dance-floor track is more spicy than sweet, with the inventive hook of “Sugar, sugar, touch me like a pornstar.” Medrano’s lyricism pushes the thermostat higher than most pop stars are willing to go, but even so, his natural charisma makes it feel more light-hearted than salacious.
“Good Woman” – The Staves
This slow-burning opener track from The Staves navigates the emotions that unfolded following the death of the trio’s mother. The reflection on motherhood before they experience it is poignant without feeling cheesy: “And I’m carrying weight, but I know it’s not minе / With half a heart, it’s hard to stop, but I feel as though / I’m a good woman.”
“The Melting of the Sun” – St. Vincent
The second single from Daddy’s Home is a stripped guitar slow burner, reminiscing on the legacies of, in her words, “brilliant female artists,” with a recollection of the incredible – the #MeToo movement – with all the amusement of the mundane. Oh, that thing? It’s just the melting of the sun.
“Peaches” – Justin Bieber feat. Daniel Caesar & Giveon
While The Biebs tends to lean toward the didactic – look no further than his latest album title – “Peaches” is a bright, light-hearted track that puts his natural musical prowess front and center, boosted by contributions and direction from Daniel Caesar and Giveon.
“Atlantic” – The Weather Station
The current front runner for Album of the Year is disarmingly vulnerable, like its third single, “Atlantic.” Frontwoman Tamara Lindeman’s lyricism is compelling and gut-wrenching as she grapples with the contradictions and reality of anxiety. It’s succinctly summarized with the childlike innocence of “Oh tell me, why can’t I just cover my eyes?”
“Lapdance From Asia” – Cosha & Shygirl
The two rising stars Cosha & Shygirl deliver a sexy slice of R&B electro-pop on “Lapdance From Asia.” The meticulous lyrics wind and bend around the beat so tightly that there’s little room for anything other than R-rated enjoyment.
“Up” – Cardi B
Following the reception of the Megan Thee Stallion assisted “WAP,” there was a bar and expectation set for Cardi B’s successive solo effort. She undoubtedly delivered, giving the one-liners that the world needed from its cultural czar, perhaps none more prolific than the new mantra “Broke boys don’t deserve no pussy.”
“Boost Mobile” – That Kid & Terror Jr
Hyperpop phenom That Kid shows that bedroom pop can go just as hard as any music from the PC label, leaning into a cheap aesthetic that sounds better than the expensive.
“Amazonia” – Gojira
While this will strike many readers as an odd choice for The Pop Smarts, the hard rock band Gojira’s stellar return to form, Fortitude, offers its share of thunderous and catchy bangers. And with the return of Pop-Rock to commercial homogeny, it makes sense for pop fans to look upstream for what’s inevitably about to come down (Rina, are you hearing this?).
“Look At The Sky” – Porter Robinson
While there’s an overabundance of optimistic EDM out there, Robinson’s personal brand of video game-esque euphoria is still effective and all his own.
“Lonely” – Sofía Valdés
While there’s a surplus of acoustic guitar-driven indie-pop on Spotify right now, “Lonely” and Sofía Valdés shine in simplicity. There’s little flourish in the song but the perfect amount to sustain interest, and Valdés sings with complete honesty and no pretense. For her, it’s clear that the music comes first, which gets lost in people’s art far more often than you’d think.
“Fellowship” – serpentwithfeet
With so much indie-pop focusing on anxieties and insecurities, the ins and outs of the struggles of love, it’s refreshing to hear a musician sing about happiness and sound convinced of it. With a soothing, clean voice over a simple hypnotic beat, he sings: “Maybe it’s the blessing of my 30’s / I’m spending less time worrying and more time recounting the love.” It’s joyous, but not overzealous, happy without trying too hard to be.