Exclaim!'s 30 Best Songs of 2021
Published Dec 02, 2021Looking back over the past 12 months, a surprising trend emerges: spoken word. We don't mean rap, mind you — we're talking about actual spoken word, whether in the form of non-singing post-punk vocalists or artists reading poetry over gorgeous soundscapes.
So what's with all the spoken word? Maybe it's just a trend, but it also might have something to do with the need to communicate thoughts as clearly as possible at this tumultuous point in history. This year, artists had a lot they needed to get off their chests.
Of course, Exclaim!'s list of the best songs of 2021 also includes fiery rap bangers, elegant folk rock laments, and some truly fantastic pop anthems. Whether articulating the weariness that marked 2021 or raging against it, all these songs carried us through the past year.
30. Leanne Betasamosake Simpson
"I Pity the Country"
The centrepiece of Leanne Betasamosake Simpson's absorbing album Theory of Ice is a reinterpretation of Willie Dunn's incisive colonial critique, which regrettably remains no less relevant decades on from its composition. Over a measured full-band arrangement, Simpson sings Dunn's words with a solemnity palpably different from her other spoken word turns on the record, leaving each line to linger. Her added "I pity this country" gives way to a resounding rock crescendo, as if to spur greater action in dismantling this genocidal state.
29. Big Red Machine feat. Taylor Swift
If 2020 taught us anything, it's that Taylor Swift and Aaron Dessner (and give or take Justin Vernon) play well together. The folklore/evermore collaborators' reunion on Dessner and Vernon's How Long Do You Think It's Gonna Last? LP as Big Red Machine was as stirring as the team-ups that preceded it: "Renegade" sets a empathetic, warm-amber mood in the face of resistance, Swift's crisp delivery leading over serpentine acoustic guitar, swathes of percussion and Vernon's impassioned harmonies.
28. Graham Wright
As a story song, "Bridget" is vivid enough to be a three-minute rom-com. Amidst chipper acoustic guitar strums and Strokes-y electric riffs, Tokyo Police Club's Graham Wright describes one of those "if we both turn 40 and we're not married yet…" pacts before expertly detailing how it falls apart. With hurt feelings and humour, it's self-aware about self-pitying.
27. Kanye West feat. the Weeknd & Lil Baby
(GOOD / Def Jam)
Kanye West's 2021 has been tumultuous; he dealt with a divorce, numerous Donda delays, and an endless parade of controversies and feuds. Through all of the noise, West found the inspiration to create "Hurricane," a sombre yet empowering song that speaks of enduring tribulations and triumphing. The song's soulful essence is brought out by the astounding vocal performance of the Weeknd and heartfelt verse from Lil Baby, which are both upheld by West's resonant production.
26. Alice Glass
"SUFFER AND SWALLOW"
On the first single to be released from her upcoming debut solo album, former Crystal Castles vocalist Alice Glass plots revenge against unholy spectres, addressing the reprehensible treatment she endured during the formative decade of her career with ruthless abandon. The track finds Glass settling into her artistic maturity, where she has embraced a distilled — and quite haunting — version of her sound. It's a triumph for the dark-techno vet, who wraps biting lyrics in a Cimmerian fog, embodying the very demons she's exorcising while subverting toxic power dynamics.
Hailing from Montreal by way of St. Vincent, Skiifall released his first EP earlier this summer, earning cosigns from critics and celebrities like Jorja Smith and Virgil Abloh. On "Lost Angeles," the 20-year-old rapper dips between English and patois to create a breakup anthem for the ages. As elements of dancehall and soca permeate pop music, Skiifall's storytelling traces that influence back to its roots. Armed with its immediate earworm chorus, "Lost Angeles" proves that Skiifall has tapped a unique vein.
24. black midi
After black midi's invigorating debut LP Schlagenheim led to the band's immediate ascension upon impact, it was hard to image how they would follow it up with anything comparable in its ingenuity. They silenced doubters with a baffling lead single to sophomore album Cavalcade that still feels indescribable, as the band constructs an impossibly dense, ever-metamorphosing supergiant of instrumentation. Tension releases more tension, and the silence is most suffocating of all. The infernal din reveals the enormity of Geordie Greep's words.
Yoshi Maclear Wall
23. Polo G
Who knew what trap music needed was more ukulele? Over plucky Einer Bankz strings and a nodding Synco rhythm, Polo G elects not to turn up but turn inward. Unpacking the downsides of fame and deking through a gamut of emotions — anxiety, exhaustion, paranoia, isolation — in two tight verses, Polo's raw reflection helps us relate: "When they ask if I'm okay, it just make everything seem worse." I guess that's how it sounds when you're winning. Ukulele is the new cowbell. More, please.
22. Lucy Dacus
With the release of her third album, Home Video, indie rocker Lucy Dacus solidified herself as one of the best at her craft, as the true bite of her vivid storytelling creeps up on listeners. But even the heaviest revelations pulled from yearbook margins on the jaunty "Brando" sound sweet in hindsight: "You called me cerebral / I didn't know what you meant / Now I do, would it have killed you to call me pretty instead?"
This highlight of Low's astonishing HEY WHAT is a nebulous note of interdependence, playing to both the grinding and gentle sounds of their 13th album. In moving harmony, Alan Sparhawk and Mimi Parker sing of disconnect, their pacing set by the song's shimmering thump, occasionally punctuated by the titular exclamation. Its formless, ambient coda drifts between darkness and light, with Parker's held note clarion calls of "hey" and "what?" serving as beacons. This is the sound of reaching out.
20. Snotty Nose Rez Kids feat. Just John
"Sink or Swim"
From the bone marrow rattle of the beat's distortion to the shouted chorus about "being a mess since my first breath," SNRK's "Sink or Swim" is a singularly cathartic moshpit anthem. The duo's lyrics about depression and vice are in keeping with their career of socially conscious rhymes. But climactic lines about refusing to conform and not surviving but thriving, along with the song's tenacious tone, help "Sink or Swim" soundtrack their triumphant renaissance.
Turnstile's explosive third album, GLOW ON, ripped through our collective consciousness like a bullet. Receiving near-universal acclaim, it quickly cemented itself as one of 2021's finest hardcore submissions whose candy-cotton skies belied a razor-sharp underbelly. On "HOLIDAY," the Baltimore quintet reframe the existential qualms of life through the lens of an extended sojourn. "I can sail with no direction / Like it's a holiday," yells frontman Brendan Yates into the void. It's 172 seconds of pure adrenaline that throws caution to the wind and does not disappoint.
18. Dorothea Paas
"Anything Can't Happen"
If anything can happen, then it's equally true that anything can't happen. For every possibility that crystallizes into reality, there are thousands — maybe millions! — that suddenly disappear, leaving us to wonder what we've lost in the exchange of question for answer. This amorphous regret is what moves Dorothea Paas's sweeping ode to the debilitating power of "what if?" and the delicacy of trust — how can we ever be sure of anything, when anything can happen at any time?
17. Silk Sonic
"Leave the Door Open"
Rich pianos, twinkling vibraphones and lush, delicious swells, make everything about Silk Sonic's comeback single feel like a hug. With liberal helpings of warmth, romance and levity, Bruno Mars and Anderson .Paak prove themselves to be the super duo the world didn't know it needed. This track feels like a sigh of relief and, for the rest of the year, it left R&B lovers breathless for more. An impeccable teaser for a standout album.
16. Mdou Moctar
Mdou Moctar is a master of the guitar solo, deftly weaving a world of influences into each lick and groove, but the title track from his latest album soars due to an atypical element: his lyrics. Sung in Tamasheq and French, Moctar bluntly protests colonialism: "Africa is a victim of so many crimes / If we stay silent, it will be the end of us / Why is this happening? What is the reason behind this?" Sure, the inevitable solo rips, but his words make the lasting impression.
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