The Top 40 Pop Songs Of 2021
Before we get to this week’s column, some housekeeping: After eight(!) years writing The Week In Pop, I am handing over the reins of this column in 2022. Starting in January, Rachel Brodsky will be Stereogum’s weekly pop columnist. Chronicling the twists and turns of the pop mainstream has been fun and challenging, but I’m excited to focus on different projects and spotlight a different perspective in this space. If you’ve read Rachel’s writing about pop — like, say, her universally acclaimed review of the new Adele album — you know The Week In Pop is in good hands.
Without further ado, it’s time to count down the best pop songs of 2021. Although the list is ultimately about quality, in keeping with the established parameters of this column, I erred on the side of chart success and cultural ubiquity. (There’s a reason I called it The Top 40 Pop Songs Of 2021.) Given how many different ways you can define pop and how many pop scenes are percolating online and around the world, there will surely be a few bangers omitted. Considering how many of the biggest songs of the year were annoying or mediocre, some of 2021’s signature tracks were also left out. Rap songs that made a big chart splash qualify; so do album tracks by pop stars; so do songs released before this year that enjoyed slow-build success or were included on an album in 2021. Yeah, there’s some ostensibly “indie” stuff in there. Think of this list as the best of this year’s most ubiquitous hits with a few of my personal favorites sprinkled in. It is a great list, if I do say so myself.
Chlöe - "Have Mercy"
Chlöe Bailey is Beyoncé’s protege, and “Have Mercy” certainly has a whiff of junior varsity Beyoncé about it. But haute couture heaters of this quality are becoming rarer and rarer from Bey, so we might as well enjoy the passing of the torch.
Yebba - "October Sky"
This was my favorite Adele song of the year until the actual Adele came back.
Jazmine Sullivan - "Pick Up Your Feelings"
In the age of Silk Sonic, it’s nice to be reminded that you can make a great retro soul song without winking your way through it.
Polo G - "RAPSTAR"
Haunted, reflective, melodious blues-trap has been a kind of backdoor pop music for several years now, so it was nice to see one of those songs hit #1. Credit the ukulele, I guess?
Billie Eilish - "Your Power"
The prettiest and most devastating ballad on an album full of them.
Brent Faiyaz - "Show U Off"
There were many fine Brent Faiyaz singles this year, but my favorite was “Show U Off,” a flickering love song on which the only thing prettier than the sophisticated production was his delicate vocal virtuosity.
Elle King & Miranda Lambert - "Drunk (And I Don't Wanna Go Home)"
In 2021 Miranda Lambert released an entire album of lo-fi voice memos recorded around a campfire with two acclaimed singer-songwriter peers. She put out a stylish and original Christmas album with the Pistol Annies. And she also dropped this gloriously trashy banjo-synth banger with Elle King. The woman has range!
Lil Nas X & Jack Harlow - "Industry Baby"
Lil Nas X’s catchy low-slung hook, Jack Harlow’s impressive bars, and another futuristically regal Take A Daytrip beat added up to one of the most purely fun tracks of 2021.
Amaarae - "Sad Girlz Luv Money" (Feat. Moliy)
It’s hard to live up to a title as good as “Sad Girlz Luv Money,” but Amaarae pulled it off. Her wispy high-pitched voice makes this sound like Grimes doing twilit African pop, which would be a spectacular scandal if Grimes actually did it but is just plain spectacular coming from Ghana.
Doja Cat & SZA - "Kiss Me More"
Doja Cat impressed the backpackers of the world with her Little Brother knowledge over the weekend, and Planet Her has plenty of fun pop-rap hybrids. But I tend to think she’s at her best when shooting straight down the middle like this. That said, the asides like “All on my tongue, I want it!” are what elevate “Kiss Me More” to a higher plane.
Clairo - "Amoeba"
The sophisticated studio suites of Sling rarely resembled any modern conception of pop, but when that beat drops on “Amoeba” it enlivens the whole lush panorama, not least of all Clairo’s deft near-whispers.
MUNA - "Silk Chiffon" (Feat. Phoebe Bridgers)
Beyond its status as a queer anthem, sonically “Silk Chiffon” swings hard into nostalgia (whether your favorite flavor is ’80s, ’90s, or ’00s) and connects big-time.
Tinashe - "Pasadena" (Feat. Buddy)
That breakneck drum track has never failed me. As the woman herself sang, it’s a vibe, feelin’ right.
Summer Walker - "Ex For A Reason" (Feat. JT From City Girls)
“That bitch your ex for a reason” is one of the most disarmingly direct lyrics on an album that did not lack for bluntness. Yet for all her unfiltered truth bombs, Summer Walker glides over those thumping 808s with an effortless smoothness.
Jessie Ware - "Please"
An instant disco classic, overflowing with joy, rendering the past in the most impeccable sonics the future has to offer.
Coldplay - "Higher Power"
Coldplay obeyed their thirst and got back to the top of the charts by partnering with BTS, but in a just world they could’ve made a splash on pop radio again with “Higher Power,” the effervescent result of Chris Martin calling up Max Martin (no relation) and ordering “one ‘Blinding Lights,’ please!'”
Charli XCX - "Good Ones"
R.I.P. hyperpop? Sweet dreams are made of this!
Jorja Smith - "Addicted"
A sultry, sleek, retro-futuristic R&B breakup ballad that reminds me of Radiohead was always going to be a lock for this list.
Kali Uchis - "telepatía"
Kali Uchis sealed her international stardom with a Latin pop jam that hits like chillwave.
Caroline Polachek - "Bunny Is A Rider"
Every little moving piece within “Bunny Is A Rider” is sublime — the less-is-more bass, the smartly skittering rhythms, the various random noises — but special attention must be afforded to that whistling hook, which made the most wonderful foil for Caroline Polachek’s lustrous, commanding vocals.
Justin Bieber - "Hold On"
Justin Bieber’s voice was built to belt a chorus this all-consumingly catchy. He may be an R&B guy at heart, but pop-rock sounds good on him.
Halsey - "Girl Is A Gun"
My favorite track on Halsey’s deeply impressive Nine Inch Nails team-up was this frenetic drum ‘n’ bass/synth-pop throw-down.
Tate McRae - "You Broke Me First"
Here we have Purity Ring reimagined as wordy Gen Z bedroom pop, building to a gigantic chorus that lets the synths and drum machines do the talking.
Olivia Rodrigo - "drivers license"
The year’s biggest new star announced her arrival by rendering common teen distress in uncommonly direct and beautiful piano ballad. What really pushes “drivers license” over the top, though, is that immaculate bridge. When the bottom drops out and a glimmering chorus of Olivias surges back in to sing, “Red lights, stop signs, I still see your face…”? That’s the stuff.
Dua Lipa - "Levitating"
This is the third straight year a song from Future Nostalgia has placed on this list. Dua Lipa has been dropping hits from that album since a month before the first COVID-19 case was identified. It has been quite the era.
The Weeknd - "Take My Breath"
It is bizarre to me that the extremely mid “Save Your Tears” was a chart-topping smash but this quite literally breathtaking disco-synthwave machine stalled out at #6. Its sound portends extremely well for Abel’s coming dance-floor odyssey.
The Kid Laroi & Justin Bieber - "Stay"
The Kid Laroi almost deserves to be disqualified due to “Without You,” arguably the most atrocious pop hit of 2021. But “Stay” is too appealing to ignore — like popping a breath mint and strapping on a rocket pack.
serpentwithfeet - "Fellowship"
One of the most beautiful, tender R&B love songs of the year is not even romantic, at least not primarily. Rather, “Fellowship” is a warmly exultant, subtly propulsive celebration of being adored and supported by good friends — something that can be even harder to find than a good partner in this endlessly solitary age.
Silk Sonic - "Skate"
That percussion! Those strings! The ghost of Curtis Mayfield! This is maybe my favorite Bruno Mars song since “Uptown Funk” because like that Mark Ronson collab, it gets so caught up in its own exquisite elation that the notion of wearing a retro costume falls away.
SZA - "Good Days"
Step into the mirage and witness R&B’s past, present, and future.
PinkPantheress - "Just For Me"
PinkPantheress got a lot of attention for repurposing famous Y2K-era dance samples in obvious ways, but what caught my ear was when she polished up that aesthetic a bit and steered it directly into the cresting hyperpop wave.
Kacey Musgraves - "Camera Roll"
Leave it to Kacey Musgraves to turn one of the most mundane rituals of modern life — scrolling through old photos in your phone — into one of the prettiest, most heart-wrenching ballads of 2021, one that sounds like a golden hour fading away.
Olivia Rodrigo - "deja vu"
Just when you thought she was a one-hit wonder, Rodrigo unveiled another deliciously savage flavor of breakup song, one that found producer Dan Nigro showing out with an intricate slow-build pop-rock arrangement for the ages. Weirdly, it also maybe turned on a whole new generation to Billy Joel, but we won’t hold that against it.
Taylor Swift - "All Too Well (10 Minute Version)"
Taylor Swift’s long-rumored “All Too Well” expansion was so breathlessly anticipated by her stans — and by the critics who fawn over like stans — that I was not expecting much from it. But the 10-minute edition of the Red show-stopper lived up to the hype, somehow ratcheting up the drama with each new stanza.
Normani - "Wild Side" (Feat. Cardi B)
Every time I turned on the radio this year, “Wild Side” was on, and every time “Wild Side” was on, I was happy. Rarely has a song that seemed to exist within an anti-gravity chamber felt so heavy.
Yola - "Diamond Studded Shoes"
Is “Diamond Studded Shoes” a pop song? It certainly would have been in 1965, and given how joyously rapt it leaves me in 2021, I’d argue it still is. The cowards at iHeartRadio should put it in heavy rotation and see if the requests don’t start pouring in when listeners get a load of that contagious gallop, that rousing populist message, and those fiery hooks upon hooks.
Wizkid - "Essence" (Feat. Tems)
“Essence” was the rare African pop song to soar all the way to the American top 10, and you can see why. Good lord, Tems — it doesn’t get much smoother than this.
Adele - "Easy On Me"
That transcendent melody? That stunningly minimal arrangement? Just when I thought Adele could not outdo the blustery pageantry of “Hello,” she drops this all-timer on us. Give me another Adele/Greg Kurstin breakup ballad every half-decade for the rest of my life.
Giveon - "Heartbreak Anniversary"
Take pity on my wife and children, who have often been subjected to my attempts at recreating Giveon’s bellowed chorus from “Heartbreak Anniversary.” The concept is great. I love the recurring guitar line that threatens to singe you. But Giveon’s resounding vocals — dense with emotional power, wielded like a sledgehammer — are what make this a classic.
Olivia Rodrigo - "good 4 u"
One of the biggest and best pop songs of the year was also a full-fledged rock song. When was the last time you could say that? But “good 4 u” is not the queen of 2021 for the sake of novelty or nostalgia. It owes its supremacy to Olivia Rodrigo’s scathing firebombs, Nigro’s versatile barrage of guitars, and expert dynamics that make the song feel like a series of ticking time bombs detonating. Rodrigo’s ex ain’t the only one whose career is taking off.
Adele’s 30 rules the Billboard 200 for a third straight week. Per Billboard, the album earned 193,000 equivalent album units — a staggering total for an album in its third week on the market. In fact, it’s the best third-week total since Drake’s Scorpion put up 260,000 units in its third week back in 2018, and that was a double album heavily boosted by streaming. Whereas a full 149,000 of Adele’s total comprises actual sales of the album. The woman moves units!
Taylor Swift’s Red (Taylor’s Version) remains at #2, followed by Polo G’s Hall Of Fame, back at #3 with the release of its deluxe edition. Michael Bublé’s Christmas is at #4, followed by Olivia Rodrigo at #5, Morgan Wallen at #6, and Drake at #7. Mariah Carey’s Merry Christmas climbs back up to #8 due to continually ramping up “All I Want For Christmas Is You” streams. For similar reasons, it’s followed by Vince Guaraldi Trio’s A Charlie Brown Christmas at a new #9 chart peak. Doja Cat’s Planet Her rounds out the top 10.
Adele also holds on to the Hot 100 crown this week as “Easy On Me” spends its seventh nonconsecutive week at #1. Carey’s “All I Want For Christmas Is You” has crept back up to #2, followed by Brenda Lee’s “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree” at #3. After the Kid Laroi and Justin Bieber’s “Stay” comes two more Christmas classics, Burl Ives’ “A Holly Jolly Christmas” at #5 and Bobby Helms’ “Jingle Bell Rock” at #6. SZA’s “I Hate U” debuts at #7, becoming her fifth top-10 hit according to Billboard. Lil Nas X and Jack Harlow’s “Industry Baby” falls to #8, followed by Glass Animals’ “Heat Waves” at #9. Andy Williams’ holiday standard “The Most Wonderful Time Of The Year” closes out the top 10.
NEWS IN BRIEF
- Olivia Rodrigo did a Tiny Desk Concert. [YouTube]
- Adele will earn over $2M for each of her Las Vegas shows. [Daily Mail]
- Chlöe shared a cover of Adele’s “Easy On Me.” [Twitter]
- DJ Earworm released his annual “United State of Pop” mashup. [YouTube]
- Machine Gun Kelly had a launch party for his new nail polish and came chained by the pinky finger nail to Megan Fox. [Instagram]
- Speaking of MGK, he and Pete Davidson did an Instagram Live promotion for Calvin Klein underwear. [People]
- BTS did “Butter” on the thousandth episode of James Corden’s Late Late Show. [YouTube]
- Shortly after announcing they’re taking a break, the members of BTS launched individual Instagram accounts. [ET]
- Lil Nas X fell onstage trying to avoid a wardrobe malfunction. [Twitter]
- Coldplay, Lil Nas X, and Doja Cat all had to cancel Jingle Ball shows due to members of their touring party catching COVID. [TMZ]
- Speaking of Pete Davidson, he and Miley Cyrus played True Confessions on Jimmy Fallon. [YouTube]
- BLACKPINK’s Rosé recorded a sleep story for the Calm app. [Instagram]
- Receiving the Music Icon Award, Christina Aguilera performed a hits medley at the People’s Choice Awards. [YouTube]
- Selena Gomez is partnering with Univision to produce a true-crime docuseries about Juan Guerrero Chapa, so I guess there’s some truth to Only Murders In The Building. [People]
- Nicki Minaj has filed legal documents in response to her husband’s accuser’s lawsuit. [TMZ]
- Halsey gets covered in honey in her new video for “Honey.” [YouTube]
- Here’s TikTok’s year-end music report. [TikTok]
- A fan rushed the stage and tried to get a selfie while Justin Bieber was performing at Jingle Bell Ball in London. [TMZ]
- Ariana Grande and Kid Cudi released their full Don’t Look Up performance video of “Just Look Up.” [YouTube]
- Dan + Shay did “Officially Christmas” on Fallon. [YouTube]
HOLD ON, WE’RE GOING HOME