Iainsights’ 100 best songs from 2021

Alright, it’s that time of year again where we all pretend that I am the omniscient music listener in the world and I present to you the 100 best songs that came out in the hellfire year that was 2021.

This year, every week I listened to an average 40-50 of the most promising newly released songs (not including full albums) from a variety of sources, meaning there were about two and a half thousand possible contenders for this year’s best-of list, so it’s not been an easy feat to get this to where it is.

Last year I broke it down into two lots – the songs I thought you had probably heard and the ones I thought you might have missed. There was very little rhyme or reason to how I split them up so this year I decide to make some kind of informed threshold in dividing all releases in 2021 that felt significant to me, and so I created two playlists:

The plan was to write them up individually, because it always feels unfair to me to compare your Adeles and Taylor Swifts with your up-and-comers and hidden gems. But, instead I remerged the two playlists to create a nice round top 100 songs of 2021. The individual playlists for each still exist as linked above and I’d still like to flag it up as a point of interest, so any song with an asterisk next to it denotes that it was a song which received less than 10 million streams on Spotify – which may sound like a lot, bt in the pop music world where the big hitters get that in a matter of days, it really isn’t.

The only rules for the list were that the song had to be released between 1 January and 31 December 2021. There was no limit to the number of songs one artist could have, so there are fourteen artists who feature more than once.

Every single song on this list was chosen because of the impact it had in my life at some point throughout the year, whether it was support through an emotionally charged period, a means of escapism, a motivator to push myself that extra mile, or just being so annoyingly catchy it was simply inescapable. The act of pitting these songs against each other is ridiculous to me because every single song on this list is an 8/10 or higher to me, some of these decisions ranking decisions were on a whim and a song that is sitting at number 84 one day might be in the top 20 the next, but I had to be decisive and so here we are.

If you follow pop music in any way, there’s going to be a lot of stuff on here you probably know and some probably quite predictable tracks near the top end, but maybe there will be some songs you missed in here too.

Here it is: Iainsight’s definitive top 100 songs of 2021 and the accompanying Spotify Playlist

100. Circles by Saint Nothing*

We all have that friend who is doing the music thing, but less rare is that friend doing the music thing and it’s actually really good – my pal Calum aka Saint Nothing has been taking aim at doing that music thing for as long as I’ve known him and it finally feels like he’s landed with his third single Circles: a brilliantly catchy little synth-pop tune that occupied a small bit of my brain for weeks in 2021 and still gets me with that opening every single time it comes on.

99. Stronger (feat. House Gospel Choir) by Blinkie*

I’m eternally in need of a good #gymtune, particularly one that has built-in hype and this from Blinkie served as the opening number on the playlist for just about every workout I did in 2021 – the real testament is that even after all this time it that opening chant of ‘I’m stronger, I’m wiser, a lover, a fighter’ gets me pumped and doesn’t bring on any feelings of nausea and dread that so often lives at the beginning of a gym session. So good.

98. MONTERO (Cal Me By Your Name) by Lil Nas X

Very happy to see Mr Old Town Road finding post-novelty-banger musical success. I’ll admit, the volume of hype, publicity and ‘outrage’ around Lil Nas shagging the devil in the video when it dropped was too much to keep up with and I had to set aside to listen when it felt possible to listen to it without the discourse, and am very glad I did because it is a verifiable banger.

97. cut my finger off by Ethan Bortnick*

Piano prodigy turned pop-punk enthusiast Ethan Bortnick delivered a pop-theatre piano-driven 2.20 minute bit chaos that feels like a spiritual successor to Panic! At the Disco’s I Write Sins Not Tragedies. That piano has sent many a shiver down my spine and I trust it will send shivers down your spine too.

96. Drunk (And I Don’t Want To Go Home) by Elle King and Miranda Lambert

A gritty-vocalled tune from two of the country music’s most recognisable, this one kicks off with a lot of defiance in the verses before softening into one of the best pop-country choruses to land this year – a perfect blend of King and Lambert, the kind of song with staying power that keeps coming back around time and time again.

95. Rise by Calum Scott*

I’ll be the first to admit that Calum Scott’s balladeer version of Dancing On My Own was one of the biggest pop culture hate crimes of the 2010s, but perhaps its time to move on and give him a second chance on his song Rise which delivers one of my favourite melodic progressions in its genuinely rousing chorus. Sure, it’s all a bit naff, but he clearly means well and boy does he have the vocal chops to pull it off.

94. Dover Beach by Baby Queen*

A real song of the summer from one of pop’s most promising future stars – the opening vocalisation is iconic and this breezy little pop song is easily one of Bella Latham’s best yet. Robbed of the title of BBC Sound of 2022 in my humble (correct) opinion.

93. edamame (feat. Rich Brian) by bbno$

Every lyric in this is so offensively bad and good at the same time – and it fucking bangs. Can’t believe a song that starts ‘Balls hangin’ low‘ and moves to ‘Hey little mamma, yeah, you heard about me?/I’ma pop you like a pea, yeah, edamame‘ is so good?

92. Bad Bitch by Charlotte OC*

This songs really grew on me throughout the year, the first time it comes on you can tell there’s that something – the immediately downcast opening verse, or the pulled back chorus perhaps – and whatever that is will translate to you belting out ‘I’m a bad bitch, tell me you haven’t noticed/I decide what’s wrong or right/’Cause I’m a true motherfucker, There ain’t no other, Don’t tell me how to live my life,” every five minutes apropos of nothing.

91. Love Or Lust by 24kGoldn

24kGoldn posted pretty strong 2020 with the mega-smash Mood, which he followed up with an excellent album featuring the indisputably catchy Love Or Lust which is another vocally distinct, simple-but-effective rap-pop hit. Impossible not to get this one stuck in your head for weeks on end.

90. Let Them Know by Mabel

If you were to distill the essence of Love Island into a single song it would have to be Mabel’s Let Them Know: a sensless club-pop banger full of delightfully cheesy lyrics (‘You can call me Khaleesi‘) and an infectious melodic hook that marked this out as one of my summer-defining songs.

89. Way Less Sad by AJR

Alt-pop neds the AJR brothers delivered a full eye-roll inducing album with songs about being a #woke millennial in the age of the internet, and as awful as the whole thing is on paper and often in your ears, they managed to hit deliver a bonified neo-theatre-pop banger on Way Less Sad.

88. Be Kind by Zak Abel

Sometimes, all you want is a neat, catchy, upbeat little bit of blue-eyed soul-pop, and Zak Abel more than delivered with the relentlessly cheerful Be Kind – sure, it’s a little on the nose in its message, but maybe that’s what makes it so damn good.

87. Stop The Rain by Ed Sheeran

I’m compiling a list of songs that include rain imagery that are also perfect running songs. So far, I have Gaga and Grande’s Rain On Me and Ben Platt’s RAIN, and regrettably Ed Sheeran has joined their ranks with his annoyingly perfect for rain-running Stop The Rain which really did come on when I was running in the rain a few weeks ago.

86. Leave The Door Open by Silk Sonic

I had a little Bruno Mars renaissance period a few months ago when I found all three of his albums for a pound each in a charity shop and spent several weeks driving around blasting all of songs – and so his collaboration project with Andersen Paak. came at the perfect moment. It’s a great little album that is brimming with great songs, but this is the one I spent the most time with. What a vocalist.

85. Secret by Joshua Bassett*

Olivia Rodrigo opened the breakup narrative in her relationship with HSMTMTS co-star Joshua Bassett at the beginning of the year with drivers license, and after many months of brooding and brewing and forgettable singles, Bassett came back with a trifecta of rebuttal tunes. All of them were surprisingly great, but Secret stands out as the most accomplished. It may have been the year of Olivia, but Joshua got the last word in when he claps back ‘Oh, your secret’s safe with me/And him, and all of our friends you told‘.

84. I wanna love you but I don’t by Ben Platt*

I can’t express quite how much I love Ben Platt. His new album reverie is a magnificent bit of 80s inspired pop and glistens with his signature theatrical touches, but no song more so on I wanna love you but I don’t which has one of the best bridge-to-final-chorus key-changes that landed in 2021. Genuinely magical, vocally triumphant.

83. smoke break// by KennyHoopla + Travis Barker*

I’d like to see some stats on how many songs Travis Barker had a hand in in 2021 because it seemed like there was something from him every single week – but few quite as good as smoke break// on his joint record with KennyHoopla, a brilliant bit of new wave pop-punk.

82. Record Player (with AJR) by Daisy the Great*

The hook from Daisy the Great’s Record Player did the TikTok singing challenge rounds early in 2021 – the original was decent, but lacked that extra something to elevate it to become a proper *pop* song. This updated version with AJR is just what it needed.

81. Do You by Ken Fu + Duke Al*

I’m probably biased because Ken Fu is a friend of a friend, but I think this might be the best rap-pop song of 2021? The hook is so silly I can’t get enough of it: ‘be my girl/i can show you all around my world/spend a little minute by my side/we can do this all the time/just move to me‘.

80. Male Fantasy by Billie Eilish

Eilish is often at her best when she’s being gentle (see: when the party’s over). The emotional depth she channels in her whispered vocals is heart-breaking: ‘Can’t get over you/No matter what I do/I know I should but I could never hate you‘. Easily one of the best songs from her sophomore record.

79. Shade of Yellow by Griff

I really like Griff – I think she’s yet to have *that song* that gives her the kind of success the hype around her is building to, but Shades of Yellow is a fantastic testament to what she can do. It’s a simple, brilliantly-catchy bit of bedroom pop from one of the genre’s brightest new stars.

78. FaceTime with my Mom (Tonight )by Bo Burnham

I’m yet to see Bo Burnham’s Netflix special from which it hails, but FaceTime with my Mom (Tonight) is one of the catchiest pop songs of 2021. It’s perfectly composed and full of astute, expertly delivered tongue-in-cheek lyrics, my favourite of which has to be: “She’ll tell me all about the season six finale of The Blacklist” because of its sheer simplistic absurdity.

77. brokenhearted (together) by joan + BEKA*

The 90s heartbreak anthem was reborn via joan + BEKA this year in the form of brokenhearted (together) – just listen to that chorus and try to stop the nostalgia overcoming you, I promise you’ll be in floods of tears in under four minutes.

76. What A Damn Shame by Adam Melchor*

A cute and fun little pop song from Adam Melchor. It tells the story of him going on a date dressed to the nines for a date that stands him up. “I heard Sinatra wouldn’t be caught dead without a suit/I know I’m not him ’cause he wouldn’t be sitting here/Getting stood up by you” is such a brilliantly cutting line that Melchor delivers with a spring in his step.

75. Die For You (feat. Dominic Fike) by Justin Bieber

I started 2021 by watching every Justin Bieber documentary available (give his record changes a second chance) and so by the time his seventh album Justice came along I was champing at the bit for some brilliant pop from global megastar and he delivered. A lot to love on the record, but few quite as brilliant in its musical maturity as Die For You.

74. Telepath by Conan Gray

A wee synth-pop banger in which Dan Nigro alumni Conan Gray channels The Weeknd. Takes a minute but really kick in after a few spins, really excited to see where Conan goes from here.

73. How Not To Drown (feat. Robert Smith) by CHVRCHES*

Rare to find a song that passes the five-minute mark and not get that itch to skip it, but CHVRCHES completely annihilate every single second out of this brilliant, angst -idden anthem. When Laura Mayberry sings ‘That was the first time I knew/You can’t kill the king‘ right before the chorus it leaves me breathless every time.

72. Raise Your Glass by YONAKA*

Fortunately-unfortunately this is not a cover of that P!NK song, it is however a big angsty, powerful emo-rock enormoballad from one of the genre’s key new players. The lead singer of YONAKA really has a set of pipes and she is not afraid of using them.

71. The Thought by Emma Kelly*

It’s difficult to crack the pop world with a distinctive vocal, but Emma Kelly’s vocal doesn’t let up on this little pop banger. Her accent pulls you through every little moment of this song and lands it in ways that wouldn’t be possible without it. Interesting hook, great bridge, lovely melody – a real winner.

70. Meaningless by Charlotte Cardin

Canada’s next great pop export Charlotte Cardin delivered a brilliant album in 2021, and no song hits harder on that record than Meaningless. It’s Cardin’s distinctive, seductive vocal that emerges as the real MVP on this deep thrumming pop song that it’s almost surprising to discover is about being worried about not making a mark on the world – worry no more, Ms Cardin.

69. Lost Cause by Billie Eilish

Billie Eilish is a master of restrained pop. Musically there isn’t much to Lost Cause, she relies on her voice to drive the breezy little tune full of perfect little moments, the most perfect of all being the lead into the chorus when she confesses: ‘Thought you had your shit together, but damn, I was wrong‘. Simple, brilliant.

68. Middle of Love by Jake Wesley Rogers*

Elton John really had a great year with his lockdown sessions, but it’s up and comer Jake Wesley Rogers channeling the same kind of eccentricities that catapulted John to fame that delivered the most exciting piano-pop moments of 2021. Middle of Love is a vocally brilliant, desperately catchy song from one of the stars of tomorrow. The final bridge into chorus is a real vocal moment.

67. UK Hun? (United Kingdolls Version) by The Cast of RuPaul’s Drag Race Season 2*

Can’t quite believe bing bang bong happened in 2021. Surely the best Drag Race song since Read You Wrote You?

66. The Walls Are Way Too Thin by Holly Humberstone

2021 was a year overflowing with brilliant female vocal pop, Humberstone might be the least obvious but she certainly delivers on the hooks. The kind of song you playlist by chance and allow to become one of your favourites. As heartbreaking as it is catchy.

65. Reckless by Madison Beer

The opening pull of the lullaby drawstring you know that you’re in for something that’s gonna draw you into a contended sleepy stupor. Madison Beer Does her best Ariana Grande here impression and it is both beautifully simple and incredibly effective.

64. Love To Lose by Sandro Cavazza + Georgia Ku

Pop duets are my personal kryptonite, and the relentless harmonisation from Ku and Cavazza is like the sweetest spoonful of honey. The kind of song you pretend you don’t like but put on to cheer yourself up.

63. Hate Myself by dodie*

The way dodie layers in her vocals and falls gracefully through the spiral of self loathing is such a chef’s kiss moment: ‘Oh, so illogical/I’m not magical, I can’t read your mind/But how can you not hear the whole conversation/I have, sitting still with a brain on fire?‘ A triumph of quiet bedroom pop.

62. Fuck Being Sober by Annika Wells*

The catchiest life-is-shit-lets-get-drunk song of 2021, the way the music stalls to put Wells’ vocal in focus is real art. The final line of the bridge ‘But all I know for now‘ is pop perfection.

61. Bad Habits by Ed Sheeran

You know it, you’ve heard it, it’s a banger, it’s impossible to argue with the facts. When he drops into the chorus it’s very easy to tell why this spent so long at number one.

60. All You Ever Wanted by Rag’n’Bone Man

His second album left a lot to be desired, but All You Ever Wanted was a nice, pacey red herring release from Mr Rag N Bone. Can’t tell you how effective this is in a running mix.

59. Be Around Me (feat. chloe moriondo) by Will Joseph Cook *

Singing about falling in love through a pop song is nothing new, but to hear it happening in real time between Cook and moriondo is a thing of unfettered cuteness that you can’t help feel like you’re the one falling in love. The little ‘is that ok? yeah, I liked it‘ is such a simple idea that is delivered with such finesse – a perfect little pop moment.

58. THATS WHAT I WANT by Lil Nas X

Lil Nas X more than delivered on his debut album, but no song feels quite as perfect as this gay love anthem. When he cries ‘That’s what a fuckin want‘ you’ll feel it in every fibre of your being and be banging down the doors of anyone standing in the way of his dreams.

57. Dancing Alone by Kings Elliot*

A gorgeous vocal pop ballad that landed right back in January and has been making me cry ever since. Kings Elliot’s vocal is absolutely exquisite and if you haven’t heard of her I must urge you to rectify this immediately. The way the piano does little pirouettes throughout Dancing Alone is sublime.

56. Friendly Fire by Holly Humberstone*

The British answer to Phoebe Bridgers, Holly Humberstone is yet to have that song that captures the imagination of the masses, but with a Brits Rising Star Award to her name, she is poised for big success in 2022. The singer-songwriter thing isn’t an easy battle to win, but Humberstone has proven she has what it takes on Friendly Fire: a song about the build-up to the breakup that you know you have to do but are just putting off in an effort to delay the heartbreak. The chorus is so gentle but the ‘You were there, where was I?‘ really hits home.

55. Good Luck by Oli Fox*

I spent a lot of time with this catchy, well-lyriced little tune about love at first sight and the delerium that comes with it. It’s playful, buoyant, and infectious and Fox’s vocal lands it all perfectly. ‘I’m tired of thinking/If you’re not my lifeline/Then why am I sinking?‘ is such a good line.

54. Follow You by Imagine Dragons

Whilst it took a while to come round to this song and get on board with the sound of their new album, it was really refreshing to hear Imagine Dragons release a lead single that wasn’t a carbon copy of Radioactive/Believer/Natural. The way Dan Reynolds ducks and dives through the melody of the chorus is really impressive, and I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Imagine Dragons are the Queen of the 21st Century.

53. Little Bit of Love by Tom Grennan

Every year we get a different blue-eyed-soul boy bringing us a gravelly vocal on big anthemic tunes and 2021 was the year for Tom Grennan to take the mantle. I appreciate that sounds a bit derogatory but I’m unashamed that white men giving huge vocal performances is one of my favourite colours of music, and when Little Bit Of Love landed back at the beginning of January I knew that I’d be spending a large amount of time with Grennan and his songs that year and I was right. Like Lewis Capaldi on speed.

52. NEVER FUCKIN KNOW bypoutyface*

It’s been a minute since I was at a house party waking up and having that still-a little-drunk disorienting experience. poutyface come at the subject with sarcastic joyfulness: the spoken verses are fun in the morning after the night before story they tell, and the chorus is a big crash of sound a bit like that I Don’t Care from a few years ago. The way so seriously delivers ‘I wash the puke out of my hair’ on the pre-chorus is excellent.

51. Eternal Love by JLS*

I had forgotten how good JLS were and how much I loved them back in their heyday (yes, I still have my JLS hoodie) and it was such a pleasant surprise to hear they were back with some new music. It would’ve been easy enough for them to do something ~current~ sounding but instead they enlisted none other than Ed Sheeran for their comeback single that falls right in the soundscape they created around themselves in 2009/10. It’s cute, it’s got a great melody, and the boys sounds fantastic.

50. Butter by BTS

Because one year having a song of the summer wasn’t enough, the Bangtan Boys delivered Butter at the end of May and it has been lifting spirits ever since. The opening ‘Smooth like butter/like a criminal undercover’ is iconic, the ease and dancability of it is innate, and the first time I heard it I queued it another five times. Nobody does it quite like they do.

49. Solar Power by Lorde

Much as we were hoping for a Green Light calibre hit from Lorde’s first new song in four years, instead she delivered this delicate, beach-vibes summer anthem that calls on George Michael’s Freedom! ’90, and asks you to escape your trouble and just live in the moment; that giggle after she lands ‘I throw my cellular device in the water/can you reach me?/No you can’t’ is surely one of the best moments in a pop song in 2021? The summer breeze never did sound so appealing.

48. dramatic by Cat & Calmell*

Aussie duo Cat & Calmell are my hot tip for the future of pop music; everything they put out in 2021 was perfectly pitched, and this – their first release for the year, which happened to feature in Netflix’s You – is the song that made me fall in love with them. It’s a little bit dark, a little bit twisted and as promised it’s oozing with drama. That ‘If you cover my mouth with your hands trying to silence me/I’ll scream out as loud as I can’ is truly iconic.

47. The Kiss of Venus (Dominic Fike) by Paul McCartney

Former Beatle Paul McCartney remixed his McCartney III album and enlisted a host of music’s most exciting, including this with Dominic Fike. Like a sedate new take on Mr Bluesky, with so many layers of vocal affectation and autotune that call back to McCartney’s feature spot on FourFiveSeconds, this was the clear standout. Cool, current, and catchy as hell.

46. gray! By 44phantom*

Every once in a while you hear a song that demands to be put on repeat for hours and gray! Is one of those songs. Every single part of this song is perfect, from that completely deadpan opening ‘all my friends are dead’ to perfect lines like ‘I want a real smart girl/with a Harvard brain/shawty really gotta give good mind’, to the honest-about-his-anxieties lines ‘I think I lost all them when/I tried to drown all them/in my excuses, hell’ 44phantom proves his pop-punk sensibility and that he isn’t afraid of putting clever lyrics into banging tunes. Get this one on, then get it on again.

45. Rumors (feat. Cardi B) by Lizzo

Lizzo dipped her toe into 2021 with Rumors – an instantly iconic pop masterpiece taking aim at every rumour about her on the internet. It’s not exactly new territory in terms of subject matter, but the way Lizzo delivers it is full of personality, and Cardi is the perfect compliment. You could close your eyes and throw a dart and find a great lyric in this song, but my favourite has to be ‘No, I ain’t fuck Drake yet’.

44. Return of the King by Denise Chaila*

If there’s one person you absolutely need to get into, its Denise Chaila. The layers to this song are so thick and perfect, you can really tell she’s a poet at her heart the way she winds the lines together and puts the emphasis in all the right places in a very deliberate way. She lays the hooks on thick (I’ve never been to Mexico/but I know you Cancun) and sucker punches you on the verse (your transphobia is wack/your homophobia is wack/we see through you/my parents respect me way too much/for me to ever entertain what you do), and the way she throws in a sample her own song Chaila is the icing on the cake. If she is King then point me to her Kingdom.

43. Hallelujah! For Now by Kris Allen*

I fulfilled a long-held dream this year of seeing my teenage musical idol Kris Allen in joint concert with my other teenage musical idol David Cook, and it truly was one of the best concerts of my life. Allen has always been a consistent provider of happy little love songs, and Hallelujah! For Now is a fine example of it: the vocalizing in the introduction that evoke Itty Bitty Pretty One and a big crowd-friendly chorus, this is one of his best songs in years and proved to be a real concert highlight.

42. Deal With It (feat. Kelis) by Ashnikko

Straight out the gate in January, TikTok-anime-girl-come-pop-startlet Ashnikko came in swinging with Deal With It: an unapologetic, vocally empowered, i-don’t-need-a-man banger. The lyrics hit you with the opening ‘Allergic to you every time you touch me’ to the outrageous ‘I don’t need a man, I need a rabbit’ to the savage ‘You text me that you miss me/I say who the fuck is this, I deleted your number’ to the repeated cry of ‘I hate you so much right now’, this has got to be the biggest, most brilliant fuck-you song of 2022.

41. Monday by Imagine Dragons

Imagine Dragons are not, nor should they be, known for their electro-synth-pop songs, and they’re not doing any favours for themselves to change the minds of the people who decry them, but as a long time fan, I couldn’t help but love the cheesy, infectious draw of the lyric ‘you are my Monday/you’re my best day of the week’. Sure, it’s all very cringeworthy, but I’ll continue to sit here rosy-cheeked and soaking in the glow of this catchy little tune.

40. To Be Loved by Adele

I’ll admit, the Adele album was good, but it wasn’t really my bag. My day-to-day moods and playlists don’t call for 6+ minute piano ballads (which there were five of on the record) but I cannot deny just momentous To Be Loved is. I think the little teaser of the song we got in the preview for her in-concert-with show of her belting out ‘let it be known/that I tried’ was magical. The final product is an incredible vocal feat, and for a song that is 6 minutes 43 seconds, Adele doesn’t waste a single second of it. It’s a vocal triumph that only someone like Adele could make us stop and listen to, and I’m glad that she did. That final stretch is stunning, and the video of her singing it casually on her sofa is a testament to just how good she is. Sure, this one doesn’t fall in my daily mix, but I find myself seeking it out time and time again.

39. Favourite Song by Tim Chadwick*

Chadwick delivered my favourite song of 2019, so I can’t help but feel like this one was targeted a little bit at me. What I love about him is his distinctive vocal and the way he has proven more than once that he can craft a perfectly formed crypop banger. Every single second of this is glistening and magical and not for the first time Tim lands a perfectly built bridge to the final crashing chorus. If songs like Robyn’s Dancing on my Own are your thing, then definitely give this one a spin.

38. Till Forever Falls Apart by Ashe + FINNEAS

Ashe started flashing on the radar after her song moral of the story for the second To All The Boys film, but far from being a one-hit-wonder, she released one of the best debut albums of 2021. This, with friend and collaborator FINNEAS, older brother to Billie Eilish, was the lead single for the record, and it’s the perfect end-of-days love song. The way she leads you in gently and then the piano plays down the dun-dun-dun is inspired, and ‘So this is it/that’s how it ends/I guess there’s nothing more romantic than dying with your friends’ from FINNEAS goes down as one of my favourite lyrics of 2021. A triumph.

37. Tomorrow by Pale Waves*

Pop-punk properly landed in 2021, and new-wave emo band Pale Waves came in strong with their second album Who Am I? with a front cover paying tribute to Avril Lavigne’s Let Go, and a perfectly nostalgic sound. My personal highlight is Tomorrow: a garage-band, pop-punk slam begging you to just hang in there with your teenage angst even though life feels impossible: ‘Ben, I know that you love a boy/Sexuality isn’t a choice/Don’t let anyone say it’s wrong/Won’t you just keep hanging on?’ – if you aren’t listening to Pale Waves, make that your new years’ resolution stat.

36. More by Sam Ryder*

Much as I already gave the 2021 gravelly man accolade to Tom Grennan, TikTok star Sam Ryder surely gets second place. I love these high-paced vocally-powerful euphoria bangers, and Ryder’s voice is so compelling and genuinely uplifting I always come out the back of listening to this song feeling a little better than I did three minutes before. Optimistic, inspiring, a call to action about wanting and needing more in life, you’ll put this on and by the time it’s done your shoes will be on and you’ll be halfway out the door to do whatever it is you need done because you suddenly realized you didn’t want to waste another minute not doing it.

35. Beginning Middle End by Leah Nobel

Leah Nobel received the Ashe treatment in 2021 getting the headline song from the third and final To All the Boys film. This time the film really lent into the impact of a good song in a film by making it a *thing* but with or without that, Beginning Middle End is a perfectly cute little love song that is undeniably infectious and demands play after play.

34. As I Am (feat. Khalid) by Justin Bieber

I spent too much time with Justin Bieber in 2021, but fortunately his seventh (!!) record made him cool again, largely thanks to this I’m-doing-my-best anthemic plea with coolest-kid-in-town Khalid. Infinitely singable, I spent many, many weeks listening to this and little else. Sure, it’s a little cheesy, but isn’t that just what you need sometimes?

33. Shivers by Ed Sheeran

Say what you will about Sheeran, maybe he does give you the shivers for all the wrong reasons, but he knows his way around a banger doesn’t he? First play I thought this song was a bit of a joke, but it broke me down and now I’m comfortable in admitting it was the best song from his new record. It’s just incredibly infectious isn’t it? The kind of hype-song that makes you want to get up and get moving.

32. GO TO HELL by Clinton Kane*

Last year I made the grievous error of discounting Clinton Kane’s remember the mornings from my end of year playlist, which came out in late December and went on to become one of my most played tracks of 2021. Well, I won’t make that mistake twice – as soon as I heard GO TO HELL I knew it deserved immediate recognition, and now (as I’m writing this mid January) I’m even more confident in calling this one of the best songs to land in 2021. I know that Olivia gave us a lot on the post-break-up narrative front, but this from Kane is on a par – the way roars the chorus of ‘Tell me when/did you love somebody else/did you care when you just tore my heart to shreds in someone’s bed/why don’t you take him and go to hell’ is so fucking good.

31. Cloudy Day by Tones and I

I’ve always thought Tones and I would be bigger than Dance Monkey and her new record proved that she is a genuine pop star. The album was full of great hooks, but none quite as good as ‘mama always said look up into the sky/find the sun on a cloudy day’ which she repeats no less than thirteen times with various intonations, points of emphasis, and levels of power is so rousing, you can’t deny that she knows her way around a pop hook. Genuinely uplifting every single time it plays.

30. All Your Exes by Julia Michaels

There were two songs with a perfectly timed musical pivot in a pop song, and pop-hit-maker Julia Michaels delivered one of them on All Your Exes. When she leads in with a cute little intro then switches the electric guitar on 50 seconds in it’s a genuinely oh-fuck-that’s-good, instantly iconic moment. It’s a song about wanting to be the only girl in someone’s world and erasing all the memories of those who came before. Michaels’ voice is as deliciously gravelly and she proves once again that she can turn in a piece of perfect pop music

29. This Is Heaven by Nick Jonas

Sometimes a song comes along that is tailor-made just for your brain at a specific moment and This Is Heaven by Nick Jonas inexplicably was that song for me. It’s no secret that I’m a Jonas Brothers fan so when I heard a little snippet of his performance on SNL I was beyond excited for the finished product and it did not disappoint. If I’m honest, though they may play to similar sonic points, it’s not as good as Jealous, but that didn’t stop me sticking it on repeat for days on end. That little saxophone moment towards the end is both figuratively and literally music to my ears.

28. Message In A Bottle (Taylor’s Version) (From The Vault) by Taylor Swift

We’ve had two relentless years now of Taylor Swift both old and new, and as grateful as I am for all of it, except for a few songs along the way I’ve always been more of a post-1989 TS obsessive, so the re-recordings and ‘songs from the vault’ I’ve not appreciated quite as much as I think I’ll enjoy the bonus tracks on the ‘Taylor’s Version’ of her more recent records. Sure, there were a bunch of nice songs – Mr Perfectly Fine, Nothing New and I Bet You Think About Me the most obvious – but none quite landed for me quite as hard as Message in a Bottle. I do think that this is not the version of the song that would have existed if it came out back in 2012, but with a few pop records under her belt and a refined sensibility about what works, what she gave us on this is pure pop magic. It’s a perfect little love song: fun, fast and full of life.

27. Call Me A Dreamer by Kings Elliot*

I said already how much I fell in love with Kings Elliot in 2021. She lay the groundwork for what’s to come on Dancing Alone and landed a perfectly gorgeous little pop ballad on Call Me A Dreamer. The way she croons the title in the very first line pulls you right in and she spends the next three minutes swaddling you into submission with her hypnotic voice. It is not an easy thing to be so fresh on the music scene and command such a presence with a vocal over a very basic instrumental track, but she does it – and then some. The crescendo she builds into this tight little drop-off, it’s really a beautiful song.

26. deja vu by Olivia Rodrigo

After giving us drivers license the whole world was waiting with bated breath for what Olivia Rodrigo would do next. As we would later discover her debut record would be tightly packed with a near-perfect collection of pop songs, but the complete shift that came with déjà vu was unexpected and inspired. She said ‘here is a song that is important and I have this power to make you listen so this is what you get’. It’s far from the most obvious song on the record – a sauntering summery daydream of a song, but it peeled back new layers of the narrative: ‘So when you gonna tell her/That we did that, too?/She thinks it’s special/But it’s all reused’ and without nothing but scraps and speculation it was just the dose of musical gossip we needed – and after numerous replays, you have to admit she was right: it is an excellent song.

25. The Rhythm by Drew Sycamore*

Upbeat disco-pop is such a fun genre and I don’t know quite how or where Drew Sycamore and her impeccable album Sycamore came into my life but it’s a record I spent a lot of time blissing out to during 2021. There were some standouts (45 Fahrenheit Girl and Jungle), but it was really on The Rhythm that I feel like she nailed every single second of it. High energy, endless danceability, that little funky breakdown in the bridge, did not and does not fail to ignite energy in life in every fibre of my being.

24. therapist by Cat & Calmell*

I’ve already mentioned how excited I became over Cat & Calmell in 2021. After dramatic I kept a watchful eye on their releases and was instantly taken with therapist. It delivered heavily on the hook ‘I need a doctor/to put me in a coma/cos there’s no getting over you’ mixed in with a funky, future nostalgia esque sound, with a huge final chorus. What really tipped it over into becoming one of my favourite songs of the year, however, was their Live From Splendour XR EP on which therapist  was the opener. Maybe it was having been deprived of live music for more than 18 months, but the build-up into the opening verse in the live recording sends literal shivers through my body every single time.

23. Vertigo by Alice Merton*

I love Alice Merton. She nails that dark, bluesy-pop-rock thing that I think a lot of people try and fail at, and I genuinely think she is yet to release a bad song. Vertigo was the first teaser from her speculative sophomore record and it’s a high energy, foot-stamping tune that never fails to get me hype. When she rushes through the chorus of ‘Gotta get outta my head/Do something that I’ll regret/He’s dancing now with someone he met/Losing my sanity’ I feel it shake every bone in my body. A song I spent a lot of time with in 2021 and an artist I look forward to spending a lot more time with in the year ahead.

22. Take My Breath by The Weeknd

The Weeknd described his new record as a ‘Quincy Jones meets Giorgio Moroder meets the-best-night-of-your-fucking-life party record’ and quite frankly he nailed it on Take My Breath, with a little bit of ABBA’s Gimme Gimme Gimme (A Man After Midnight) thrown in for good measure. Good god do I need to hear this in a club setting.

21. Chemical by MK*

I saw someone describe this as a potential song of the summer and that really stuck with me. MK created something so simple and so perfect I found myself putting this on half a hundred times as a little pick me up. Fun, infectious, pure musical euphoria. That bass gets me every single time.

20. Just My Luck by Charlie Collins*

Charlie Collins wrote the perfect 00s rom-com opening song with Just My Luck and I NEED you all to listen to it immediately, and if anyone has any connections at Netflix then PLEASE get this over to them for their next production stat. It’s all perfect from the opening bars to the positively heart-breaking ‘I was ready to fall, you weren’t ready to jump/Really thought it was you but it’s just my luck’, to the way she picks it up an octave for a couple of lines in the chorus in a Kate-Bush sort of way. A real hidden gem of a song.

19. Leave Before You Love Me (with Jonas Brothers) by Marshmello

This song is perfect. Magic. Stunning. Gorgeous. How many more synonyms do you need? Instantly memorable, checks all the right boxes. A 10 out of 10.

18. Wrecked by Imagine Dragons

Much as I ended out enjoying -most- of the new Imagine Dragons record, nothing quite hit the same way as Wrecked: an emotionally wrought alt-rock ballad about being in mourning. Say what you will about Dan Reynolds and his cohort, but they’re at their very best when they’re swinging at your emotional core and they land punch after punch on this one. Absolutely devastated they’re not coming to Glasgow this year.

17. Permission To Dance by BTS

Euphoria on ecstasy. Jin, Suga, J-Hope, RM, Jimin, V, and Jungkook brought in the big guns (Ed Sheeran) to write on their second swing at song of the summer and the product is, as you might expect, three minutes and seven seconds of pure joy. Take that final chorus, put it in the blender, and inject it directly into my veins.

16. All Too Well (10 Minute Version) (Taylor’s Version) (From The Vault) by Taylor Swift

Originally I had this in my top ten for the year – you can’t deny it was a huge cultural moment when Taylor gifted us the ten-minute version of what has evolved over the past ten years into one of her signature hits. If the original wasn’t emotionally charged enough, she broke the emotional dial turning it up full blast giving us more details about the Gyllenhall of it all (You said if we had been closer in age maybe it would have been fine/And that made me want to die‘). I’d be interested to know which of the new lyrics really were from back in the real first version – ‘fuck the patriarchy keyring on the ground’ does seem a little unlikely – but with poetry like ‘You kept me like a secret/but I kept you like an oath’ it’s hard to be mad about it. The pop culture moment that we all deserved.

15. Loving The Light by Charlotte Jane*

I knew that Charlotte Jane knew her way around an impeccable ballad but I didn’t know she could do a cheery love-pop song as good as this. I don’t think there is any one thing that makes this such an excellent tune, it’s more a combination of all the little moments, specifically 1) the way she emphasises certain syllables in the chorus 2) that little vocal run at the opening of the second verse on ‘a few years down the line’, 3) the effortlessness with which she delivers every single line and 4) how infectiously catchy it is. Get your ears wrapped right around this one.

14. Think Twice by Aonair + Caoi De Barra*

I knew from the first second this came on I’d be absolutely obsessed with it, but even the promise of every other perfect part of this immediately buoyant 80s-synth-pop banger stacked to the nines with great beats, a glorious saxophone, and the absolutely perfect bridge boasting song, none of it could have prepared me for the vocal run in Caoi de Barra’s verse at 1.25 when she sings ‘just an infinite messiah on this solitary plane’. An incredibly special song with a pop moment I’ll be thinking about for years to come.

13. Nightmare by Dylan Fraser*

Look, I’ve written a lot of words already trying to articulate how strongly I feel about every song on this list but I am completely at a loss to describe exactly what is so good about this song, so here’s what I wrote after the first time I heard it back in June: ‘this one is absolutely dripping in adrenalinic energy, the way it pounds and builds and the way Fraser’s voice whispers through the bridge is everything.

12. The Difference by Daya*

Sometimes pop music doesn’t have to be new or be over-complicated to be excellent, sometimes pop music gets to just be that: straight up and down pop music, and Daya hit it out of the park with her perfect pop song The Difference. It draws you in with a tasty little bit of guitar, her voice echoes at you through the verses, wastes no time in getting to what is an impeccable, tight chorus, and gives you a fun little charli-xcx-like moment in the bridge. Can’t tell you how many times I’ve listened to this since Daya dropped it back in May.

11. If Only by Tom Grennan*

There was an abundance of angsty pop bangers on Tom Grennan’s second album, but none were quite so immediate as opening track If Only. It’s a mad rush of pop-rock adrenaline that is so full of energy I always feel a little worn out. There are a million little moments in this song that I love: the anticipation of the pre-chorus cry of ‘For the skies are falling down on me’; the first time the chorus hits; the way he barely gives you a second to breathe in the bridge; and how hard he goes in the final chorus. Songs like this often have a short shelf life, but this one proved its staying power and still hits as good as it did when it debuted back in March.

10. Roll The Dice by Haley Reinhart*

Haley Reinhart is an incredible vocalist with a great sensibility for both pop music and classical jazz and she is a master at winding them both together into the biggest most exciting songs. The way she builds herself into this song, teasing and teasing and then unleashing the key-changing crescendo, is a musical masterpiece – the best bit of this one is that you think it’s done and then she pulls another chorus out the bag you didn’t know you needed but now realise you can’t live without. They don’t make em like this anymore – except that they do, and her name is Haley Reinhart.

09. Hot N Heavy by Jessie Ware*

Disco pop podcast queen Jessie Ware is reliable for a dancy little number and she did not let us down on the Platinum Edition rerelease of her 2020 What’s Your Pleasure record, featuring the disco-pop fantasy that is Hot N Heavy. Every single second of this song is intoxicating, dripping in allure: from the opening ‘Where do you come from’ to the seductive repetition of ‘show me all the ways to strike a match’ to the moment she comes in with the hook, the effect is utter breathlessness. Tens tens tens across the board.

08. happier by Olivia Rodrigo

Olivia did a lot of great work this year, but nothing is more singable to me than happier. She picked a simple little melody, a very basic tempo, and then went ham fire with the matter-of-fact lyrics. From the opening ‘we broke up a month ago’ if your seatbelt wasn’t already fastened then you’re rushing to buckle in because you know something big is coming. She delivered a lot of great lyrics on SOUR, but I think of happier as having the best ones of all in a ride of bitterness (‘An eternal love bullshit you know you’ll never mean’), jealousy (‘I hope you’re happy, but not like how you were with me’), self-deprecation (‘One more girl who brings out the better in you’,) and pleading sadness (‘find someone great but don’t find no one better’).

07. The Manual by Miss Li

Miss Li delivered on of the most apologetically upbeat pop bangers of 2021. What’s more, this song and the album from whence it came was originally recorded in her native Swedish before they decided to rerecord it in English to reach a wider audience – and thank god for that because otherwise The Manual or Instruktionsboken as it is known in its original iteration (equally brilliant), might never have come across my plate. It was one of those songs that you know is fun so you playlist it and then it takes root and grows into your go-to pick-me-up tune: relentlessly fun, great melody, a fantastic little bridge – an excellent pop song that I urge you to spin.

06. good 4 u by Olivia Rodrigo

After the tear-jerking drivers license and the wistful, summery déjà vu, Olivia revealed to us her triple-threat status on good for u: the climactic point in the return of pop-punk to the mainstream. The way her personality inhabits the song, landing every single line so perfectly – whether it’s the bitterness dripping from the ‘I guess that therapist I found for you, she really helped’, the way you hear her unleash herself on the ‘screw that and screw you/You will never have to hurt the way you know that I do,’ and the sheer velocity she drives home in the bridge – is why she is the most exciting thing in pop music right now. She’s Taylor, she’s Avril, she’s Billie, she’s everything all at once turned up to a ten.

05. Easy On Me by Adele

Adele has that rare gift of being able to sit down with a piano and just sing and you stop what you’re doing and listen. The excitement is always palpable whenever she’s getting ready to unleash new music, and Easy On Me didn’t disappoint. Queen of heartbreak, Adele has a way of telling a story that is so simple and even lyrically uncomplicated but by sheer force of will brings you right in to how she’s feeling and has you bawling before she’s into the second verse. When she opens with ‘There ain’t no gold in this river/That I’ve been washin’ my hands in forever’ you can practically feel how much she aches with the weight of her past decisions, which is why when she begs you to go easy on her, there is no question about it.

04. Dance For The Hell Of It by LOVA*

LOVA’s Grown-ish EP dropped back in January 2021 and as much as I’d been casually following her for a while, I was floored when I first heard Dance For The Hell Of It. It was the overlapping point between my favourite tracks of the previous year (Baby Queen’s Want Me, Maude Latour’s Block Your Number) in terms of its fast-paced dance-like-nobody-is-watching pure-escapist pop, and it delivered the tale as old as time of wanting to fit in, not fitting in, and deciding ‘fuck it, let’s just enjoy ourselves’. So many perfect moments in this song – the opening rush, that first cry of ‘is there somebody else’, the whispered ‘I fuckin hate this place’ – and it holds a special place in my heart. Far and away one of the songs I spent the most time with in 2021.

03. No Words Needed by Rebecca Ferguson + Nile Rogers*

Incredible that there are not one but two X-Factor runners up featuring on a roundup of new music in the year 2021, isn’t it? The first time I heard this song I swear my entire soul left my body and I felt like I was levitating. There is so much magic running through No Words Needed and it’s all so wonderfully cohesive – the perfect balance of soul and pop and a vocal that remains so wonderfully distinct. I could talk about every single element of this stunning song, but we’d be here all day so instead I just want to mention the absolutely exquisite the second to last chorus where the music pulls away and it’s just Rebecca and some backing vocals: phenomenal.

02. drivers license by Olivia Rodrigo

I think we can all admit that drivers license was the defining song of the beginning of 2021. It was literally everywhere – and for good reason: it’s a perfect pop song. It came out of nowhere in that post-Christmas lull that’s ripe for the taking to whoever gets there first, and drivers license did it all perfectly. It’s an engaging, easy to follow story of heartbreak with elegant lyrics (‘I know we weren’t perfect but I’ve never felt this way for no one‘) and, of course, a killer melody and a delivery wracked in emotion. It’s a sing-at-the-top-of-your-lungs cry-your-heart-out territory that makes it the biggest break up song since Adele gave us Someone Like You; it cuts deep with a perfectly timed bridge with her iconic delivery of the pivotal ‘I still fuckin love you babe’; and it works just as well as a pop-punk song as proven jxdn. Sure, SOUR was an excellent album but there’s no way it would have hit as hard as it did without the lead in from drivers license. If I include the jxdn cover then this was my most played song this year.

01. Happier Than Ever by Billie Eilish

Ok we’re here, the best song of 2021, the Gen Z Bohemian Rhapsody: Billie Eilish’s Happier Than Ever. I’ll be the first to admit that the lead into Billie’s second record was choice (NDA makes sense now but as a standalone it didn’t really work), so when the record dropped I didn’t rush to listen to it, but after hype built around the title track I plugged my headphones in and gave it ago. The first half is a meandering lullaby, classic Eilish, all about that soft vocal and it was beautiful. And then the turn comes in and so does the goosebumps. That transitional period after ‘I wish it wasn’t true’ had me breathless. The second act of Happier Than Ever is emotionally wrought, expertly paced, and Eilish delivers the vocal performance of her career. You really feel it when she screams ‘Just fuckin leave me alone‘. It’s poetry. It’s theatre. It’s pure art. It’s been almost six months since it came out and I still cannot get enough.

One thought on “Iainsights’ 100 best songs from 2021

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