Updated: Dec 6, 2022
Hi guys, welcome back to The Social Tune! And today, you read the title correctly, we are counting down the Top 15 Best Hit Songs of 2021.
This is not usual for me. I would rarely do more than a Top 10 unless I genuinely felt the year in question had been great and that there were really THAT many songs I want to highlight on a Best list. Well, here we are; no fewer than 30 songs ended up making the final cut for this list! Oh, my God, this was at a fun one! Seriously, for as much as the Worst hits of the year really did piss me off, there was way more great stuff in 2021. And surprisingly, no, I don't think this is just a case of the local charts being better than the Billboard ones, because internationally speaking, it was a great year all round. Sure, there were more bad hits on Billboard year-end 100 than on my Top 100 Biggest Irish Hits of 2021, but even if you were just keeping track of what charted in the US or in most other countries this year, it was a terrific year! Much like last year, it felt like the charts actually mattered, and unlike last year, they mattered in a fresh and new way. Where instead of relying on nostalgic throwbacks like we did throughout most of 2020, artists were looking to actually push boundaries and dare to try different things. Which is why we had a whole slew of relatively new acts who absolutely ruled the year, along with a couple of familiar faces from 2019 to really hammer home the innovation. That's why I think the year was so strong; it was dominated by artists who debuted in a groundbreaking year for pop music like 2019, which was nevertheless still a little rough around the edges, then they evolved and dropped better sophomore albums in 2021!
And fair warning: yes, there are also going to be a couple of controversial picks for this list, as usual. The music that I loved in 2021 was often very chart-based, as I enjoyed seeing just how well a song I loved was performing. Meaning that the songs near the top of this list are going to be familiar to most of you, even if you haven't been following me that closely all year. But there was just so much genuine quality, including the honourable mentions. There is nothing on this list that I would put below an 8 out of 10 score, dead serious, it was THAT good of a year in my opinion!
And so, without further ado, let's dive in.
This single flew under the radar for far too many and I can kind of see why. After all, it's more of a ballad, something more low-key that he felt like dropping in between albums, Hell it isn't even on an official project. But was I the only one who was really damn impressed by it?!
Afterglow by Ed Sheeran
YE position: #54
Look, say what you will about the year that Ed Sheeran had, call him a sell-out all you want for his moves on equals, but in my opinion, Afterglow is the most underrated hit of the entire year. A song where Ed Sheeran brought in some really stellar and different vocal production for him and made an absolutely STUNNING ballad in the process. Seriously, Afterglow is ethereally beautiful, where each line is emphasised by the production and his tender crooning. It splits the difference between Bon Iver and Francis and the Lights, and I was here for it from the very beginning!
And yeah, I'll also admit the fact that I think Ed Sheeran is a is a terrific songwriter lends a hand here as well, as what he describes on this is just such a snapshot of tranquil contentment. The 2 of them sitting at a coffee shop, watching the sunrise, listening to Iron & Wine on the radio as they simply enjoy each other's company, losing track of time. As usual, he adds all these little details and flavour, that's what makes him unique and special as a songwriter. And even when he's writing corny radio fodder, he never sounds like he's half-assing it, he always sounds like he's giving it his all... even though I sometimes wish he wouldn't.
But once again, what makes this song for me is the production: the reverb on the guitars, the atmospherics, the distorted multitracking, the entire thing just builds on itself as the song goes on, all while keeping the runtime short. It's the kind of compact little gem that I haven't heard hit the charts since Flashing Lights by Kanye West & Dwele. And yes, I am perfectly comfortable making that comparison. Just a genuinely beautiful song to kick off this list, and we're only just getting started.
I know that many people have called this the weakest of the first 3 singles off the album, and I do sort of understand why. After all, it's messy, it's scuzzy, less interested in being catchy, and more in just making a point. But my gods does it just push all of my good buttons!
deja vu by Olivia Rodrigo
YE position: #38
So let's get this out of the way first: I don't have a problem with this instrumental. Maybe it's because I spent a good portion of the year listening to black midi and Black Country, New Road, but this rougher mix doesn't rub me the wrong way at all, and the ramshackle drums, sliding bass and rougher guitars are juxtaposed really nicely with the twinkling piano on the opening verse. I think this is actually a really effective way of framing the song, as she slowly tears apart his fantastical new relationship.
I said on Twitter, a few months ago, that Olivia Rodrigo always tends to have at least one line that really grips me on her songs, but deja vu has several. For starters, most songs about déjà vu would focus on how quickly your ex has moved on, doing the same things with his new girlfriend as he did with you, which she does also touch on. But she takes it a step further and actually highlights just how similar this new girl is to her... and how that kind of freaks her out. They both sound similar, they're both actresses, and it makes her start to doubt whether or not he actually loved her or if she was just a TYPE to him, not even a real person. Seriously, that line cuts deep and it's followed up immediately by one of the best parts of this song, the Billy Joel line. Not just because he also used to play Billy Joel for her but because, again, it takes it a step further. As the bridge reveals, SHE was the one who introduced him to Billy Joel, meaning that he took something that was essentially hers and then brought it along with him, leaving her behind. It's genuinely tragic and gets me every time!
And while yes, it's melodramatic, the song is so well-written that I can't help but be sucked in by it. I just think it's genuinely fantastic, and Olivia's performance on it is top-notch. She struggles with these emotions of feeling inadequate or that she was just a simple chapter in his life that he can easily replace and move on from. It takes a premise that's been done 1000 times before and takes it to a new level, which is something that I do think Sour does more than people give it credit for. So yeah, this song is terrific and I will fight anyone who says otherwise!
You know, it's a weird fact of doing a weekly series, but very often you have to trust your initial reaction to a song. Sometimes you've only had the time to listen to it a couple of times before putting out your thoughts. And it just so happens that 2 of the hits on this list are both songs that I didn't initially praise all that much. And while the other one growing on me may not surprise you, this one might.
RAPSTAR by Polo G
YE position: #59
This one surprised me. On the first few listens, all I heard was just standard trap bars; complaints about fame, counting ridiculous amounts of money, references to various luxury brands, comparing himself to 2Pac, aaaaand I just dismissed it. Sucks, but that's the way it is, even the title felt self-serving to me! And yet that spare ukulele, along with some great subtle trap percussion backing it, kept bringing me back to this... until I was forced to acknowledge one of the catchiest hooks of 2021. And the more times I listened, the more I realised just how fucking SAD Polo G sounds on this!
I've called him one of the most consistent rappers of 2021, but aside from Martin & Gina and his verse on that Skylar Grey track Last One Standing, he's not really impressed me like he does here. It basically combines the best parts of both of those songs, with the emotion of the former and the detailed bars of the latter. Because this is an anthem from a guy who's not that much older than me, and yet who seems so world-weary already. There's something about it that reminds me of Lorde's Liability, where everybody's either intimidated by him or expecting him to be grateful for his success. You can tell he feels bombarded by all the noise around him, whether it's the planes flying, the crowds screaming, the money being counted, the chains clanging and it's all so overwhelming... but then again, who is he to complain? Because that's what it sounds like when you're winning, right?
The bottom line is that he's not happy. He can't find fulfillment in all of his success because he's waiting for it to consume him. And the worst part of it is the certainty of his downfall... the 2Pac line definitely hits different at that point. And again, it's the loneliness of the track that sells it, whether because the only "woman" he can have any real conversations with is Siri, or that his potential scares away the people around him. Is it any wonder he turns to abstract concepts like God or his past self for advice or comfort, in order to fight this losing battle?
Yeah, this became impossible to ignore, the kind of cry for help that we mustn't ignore. We've already lost so many young talents over the past few years... don't let Polo G be another one.
Some of you may be shocked to see this so low on the list considering how immediately in love with it I was. And I still am... but 2021 just hit different, you guys.
Leave The Door Open by Silk Sonic
YE position: #55
An Evening With Silk Sonic is without a doubt some of the most fun I had with an album this year. An incredibly smooth, charismatic, laid-back good time, where Bruno Mars and Anderson .Paak serenade you with some of the best vintage throwback music you can imagine. Yes, it's definitely backward-looking and coasting off of charisma, but it's just such a good time that I can't help but smile every time I revisit it, especially as a LOOONNNG-time fan of both of these men.
To be honest, the only reason Leave The Door Open is so low on the list is because it wouldn't even make my top 5 from the album. It's a lush, smooth-talking slow jam, where they easily win me over with effortless charisma. Anderson .Paak lures you in with those verses, with Bruno's band The Hooligans backing him up perfectly with the adlibs, and then once you're close enough, he seals the deal with that drumline, as Bruno's phenomenal voice soars to the heavens! Reassuring you that he's not playing any games, every word he says is genuine and comes straight from the heart! And what I love about it most of all, is that it's an open invitation. There's no pressure, it's all casual, they're just going to leave the door open and you're welcome to enter anytime you'd like.
It's a very straightforward song with a VERY easy appeal, which is why it became one of the biggest worldwide hits the year. This was a fantastic choice of single and I'm not at all surprised that the rest of the singles that followed didn't take off in quite the same way. Even so, I'm a little surprised by just HOW big it got, becoming the 7th-biggest hit of the year in the US, and I'm also surprised by its Irish performance considering how different it is to everything else that charted this year.
It's such a gorgeous fusion of 2 performers that I've been praising for years, and especially for launching Anderson into the mainstream properly, this man is SO deserving of it! And paired with that gorgeous key change towards the end which leads into the outro, this song is one of the most majestic and romantic songs of the entire fucking year. And we're not even in the Top 10 yet, GOD I love this year!!!
I'll be honest, I wasn't really paying attention to the Billboard charts this year in the same way that I have in previous years, considering I was so focused on the Irish charts. So I was genuinely surprised that this wasn't actually as big of a hit over there as it was over here. Because this was in the top 10 for weeks! And we were SO much better off for it!
THAT'S WHAT I WANT by Lil Nas X
YE position: #48
Of the songs I loved off of Lil Nas X's sophomore album, THAT'S WHAT I WANT was one that took its time growing on me. Yeah, it's got an easy instant appeal in that soaring, earnest chorus, kind of like a Dermot Kennedy track with bucketloads more energy, charisma... and I'll say it, talent, but it didn't have the more experimental moments of the other big hits Lil Nas dropped this year. That being said, what made this connect with me - much more than his other big earnest single SUN GOES DOWN which flopped - and why I think it stuck around so long, is because of the fire he infuses it with! The thing is, Sun Goes Down is earnest and emotional, but not in a way that engaged me all that much, with listless production that felt like somewhat of a retread for him. Here, you have the strong guitars that remind me more than a little of Livin La Vida Loca, which make for an absolutely phenomenal build-up to that colossal hook! Seriously, take notes all EDM producers, THIS is how you pay off a build-up.
Lil Nas howls his fucking lungs out on this, screaming a mantra that many of us can relate to: just yearning for someone who loves and needs him! After all, it's nice to feel wanted, especially in those lonely moments when you wake up alone, late at night. It doesn't feel overdramatic, it feels real and authentic, and lends heart to the Montero album that brings it beyond pure showmanship. That's what really made the song click for me; it finally made me feel for Lil Nas X in a way that I never had before on any of his other singles, even the ones better than this (which we'll get to).
I think this track is absolutely terrific. One of the strongest, most powerful pop songs of the year, with a driving groove that is absolutely undeniable! Terrific job man, this is a sound that really resonated and made me feel for you. Not quite your best work... but we'll get back to you.
You know, I had my best hits the year locked and loaded for quite a while now and it's only in the last couple of months that a few new challengers joined the roster and completely threw all of my plans are out the window, which caused me to expand this to a Top 15. Not that I regret it though, it just meant more great music worth highlighting. And while 2 other songs later on this list were the latest newcomers, this one kind of kicked off the avalanche.
Easy On Me by Adele
YE position: #41
I said it when I reviewed the song and I'll say it again: Easy On Me is one of Adele's best singles to date. A song that just has so much weight and heft behind it, where all it needed was a simple piano line from Greg Kurstin and Adele's powerful voice. I only wish the rest of 30 had been this impactful or even just this well-produced because this just hit me like a ton of bricks.
It's a song that Adele addressed to her ex-husband and child, begging them to go easy on her as she leaves them and moves on with her life. After all, this is decidedly NOT easy! It's a situation where nobody's in the wrong and nobody's in the right. The simple fact is she isn't in love anymore, and she's not happy. And therefore, for her own sake as well as theirs, she needs to move on with her life. And yeah, they're probably going to paint her as the villain or in an unfavorable light and she absolutely gets that. But all she asks is that they please go easy on her. After all, she had good intentions, and while those may not be immediately obvious, she hopes that they'll find it in their hearts to forgive her in some small way.
It's a plea that is so authentic and so perfectly worded... which is lucky, because this absolutely could have blown up in her face. If there was a hint of insincerity to this, it would not work! But she pulled it off, she made me see her side. Seriously, the lines about marrying far too young, struggling to put them both first every time, but just reaching a breaking point and needing to give up, it's heartbreaking but it's real. It's a very complicated situation, and a way of painting divorce that I really haven't seen put to music often enough.
So with all that being said, why the Hell isn't this even higher? Well, if I did a 1 gripe, it's that it's not really a song I can always listen to it. I need to be in the mood for it, whereas everything else on this list can just be stuck on at any point and I'll be absolutely enamored. But even with that caveat, the song is still unbelievable. You're gonna want to treasure this, guys, it really is something special. And while it may seem like an obvious pick or that I'm putting Adele here just because of who she is, she earned the spot. And I wish her all the best moving forward.
To bring it back to the smoother vibes for a moment; you know, Silk Sonic weren't the only duo who teamed up for a retro-leaning jam this year, to amazing results...
Kiss Me More by Doja Cat (Ft. SZA)
YE position: #16
As great as Leave The Door Open is, I don't think it quite screams "modern classic" to me compared to other songs on the album. By contrast, Kiss Me More is my favourite thing either of these ladies have done to date! I know a few critics have called this a middling track at best, but the reason this would easily be Top 5 material in a weaker year is that it's the most comfortable I've ever heard Doja or SZA sound.
The biggest hurdle to get over with a lot of Doja Cat's music was the looming presence of Dr. Luke, as I mentioned on my Worst list. Well, one of the best parts of Kiss Me More is that Dr. Luke is nowhere to be seen! Instead, the production was done by Rogét Chahayed and Yeti Beats, the former best known for working in hip hop, the latter having worked on several of Doja's other songs including my former favourite of hers Say So, which made my Best hits of last year. But this blows Say So out of the water; a gorgeous slice of bubblegum dance pop with elements of R&B, hip hop, and even some subtler trap elements, to form one of the most gorgeous beats of the year. And it's not just the instrumentals, it's also the vocal production: the way that the backing vocals fade in and out and the soft multitracking on both their voices, with just a hint of echoing reverb... Dr. Luke tried this dreamlike fantasy vibe on Need To Know, but these 2 execute it so much better here because it actually sounds so damn pleasant!
I also know that some people have outright said that this song isn't for them, and that's more than fair. In a year where Billie Eilish made a song called Male Fantasy, I definitely don't want to come on here and say that this works purely on sex appeal... but there is a fair bit here that just clicked for me on a very basic level! It's 2 beautiful women singing in gorgeous unison over twinkly beats that relax the Hell out of me, where the production softly caresses your eardrums as they ask you to kiss them more. I'm sorry, but it's tender. It's sweet. It's hot as Hell! And thanks to Doja, it's also pretty fun and sleazy in spots.
Doja is fantastic at being sexy without throwing out her trademark personality, as her verse is full of character! From the way she opens her verse with the fantastic cyclical line "I feel like fucking something, but we can be corny, fuck it" to "wishing that this pussy was a kissing booth" to "when we french, refresh, gimme 2"; seriously, this might be her best verse. Even SZA, whom I'm not normally a huge fan of, just knocks this right out of the park. Not only does her more melodic crooning blend really well with the beat, but the "prison" theme in the first have of her verse is flawless - including the "pussy like Holy Grail" line which always makes me laugh - and even the most overtly sexual lines in the whole song with the mention of keeping the pace as she throws it back, and her promise to give you "fantasy and whip appeal"!
This sounds phenomenal. I honestly thought Silk Sonic would be the ultimate sex jam of 2021, but these 2 swooped in and stole that title effortlessly. And it's one of the best songs of the year, without question!
Sometimes a song drops and everybody scrambles to talk about it; the hit that we're all making big and controversial for the week, which can often ride that wave of chatter to incredible success. In this case, the music video definitely played a part - unsurprising considering this was a very public and outspoken one that offended many purists - but I think what got lost amid all the debates about good taste and "the gay agenda" was just how fucking fantastic the song is!
MONTERO (Call Me By Your Name) by Lil Nas X
YE position: #8
No lie, if I were basing this was purely on sheer creativity, then MONTERO would easily be my song of the year. A phenomenal blend of modern pop trap with flamenco guitars, queer-friendly content that featured his most openly gay lyrics to date - all subtlety is just chucked right out the window - and all of it made for one of the most progressive songs I've ever heard top the charts. And yes, this did go to number 1 here, much like it did in the US, the UK, Greece, Austria, France and many other countries! And to be clear, I am definitely in the camp of music video being absolutely fantastic, but I heard the song before seeing the video and even then, I was instantly hooked!
Up until this point, Lil Nas X had always been nothing but a novelty in my eyes. Sure, Panini and Holiday were good, but they didn't have enougb impact to radically change my mind on the guy. Meanwhile, MONTERO was a game-changer, a song so daring to be different and challenging you to find fault with it! I know a lot of people said it felt more like a fragment of a song, and to those people: what the fuck are you talking about?! The chorus is one of the absolute best of this year, the instrumentation comes together absolutely flawlessly when it really shouldn't, but most of all, the way the instruments fade in and out at JUST the right points keep the song incredibly dynamic! Seriously, the little touches like the flamenco guitar flourishes sprinkled into the build-ups to the various hooks, making each chorus feel unique, it's just one of the reasons why this song is brimming with personality, which I found was a common denominator in most of my favourite music in 2021.
Then you have the sensual promise behind the lyrics, all about reveling in debauchery, begging for his lover to call him by his name. Todd In The Shadows once said that when you listen to this song, for the duration, you are gay. And you know what, as somebody who has thought a lot about gender identity and sexuality over the last few years, I am entirely fine with that. Even the technical songwriting is excellent, especially the entirety of the second verse and its internal rhyme scheme that's absolutely phenomenal:
Oh, oh, oh, why me?
A sign of the times every time that I speak
A dime and a nine, it was mine every week
What a time, an incline, God was shining on me
The song is a fucking godsend, and marked the start of Lil Nas X's reign over 2021 in the best way possible. Do not sleep on this one, it's bound to go down as an absolute classic! Speaking of which:
Levitating will not be making this Top 15. No, it's not because of the DaBaby remix, I just got genuinely sick of it. It was overplayed to absolute Hell and was on the charts for months on end. So yeah, as much as I liked it at the end of last year, it's not making the list, sorry... But you know what also came out last year and is arguably better anyway?
Prisoner by Miley Cyrus (Ft. Dua Lipa)
YE position: #71
I know that I keep saying it again and again on list after list, but Miley Cyrus's metamorphosis the last couple of years has been truly inspiring! She has come out with some of the best music of her career and Plastic Hearts was the epitome of that; an album that I still go back to constantly, easily my favourite out of her catalogue. And while I will add the caveat that Midnight Sky and WTF Do I Know are still the best songs on the album, this one comes really close as well... as do the title track, Golden G String, and Night Crawling with Billy Fucking idol, but I'm getting distracted! ... Gimme What I Want deserves more love- ALRIGHT, I'LL MOVE ON!
It took me just 1 listen to realize that, much like Dua Lipa's own song Physical, this song also samples Olivia Newton John's Let's Get Physical, albeit taking it in a very different direction. Physical was a reimagining of the song, while this is pretty much based around the original sample, only infusing it with some serious bass. The guitars MAKE the song, the groove is just fantastic, and Miley and Dua play opposite each other beautifully! It's not clear whether they're singing to each other or to other people, but it's about being trapped in a state where you can't forget someone, as they live in your head rent-free no matter how much you want them to just be gone and release you from their shackles around your mind. Basically it's a song about being incredibly horny and hung up on someone you may want to leave, but can't seem to get away from.
Not that you really need to know any of that to be able to appreciate this song, because every single part of it is just so fucking catchy. There's not a single part of it that isn't close to pop perfection. A song like this was going to make the list, no 2 ways about it. And the fact that it ended up being such a huge hit here, sticking around on the charts far longer than I had initially predicted, is a testament to how good this year was. Amazing song!
When people ask what pop perfection is, they tend to come up with a lot of interesting answers to that question. After all, sometimes a product is so immaculately put together or perfectly polished around the edges, that it actually ends up sounding a bit plastic and fake, causing people to disconnect from it as a whole. My struggle with this particular song was the exact opposite; from the very beginning, it felt like a ramshackle collection of ideas, especially instrumentally, which shouldn't work well together by any means. And yet...
good 4 u by Olivia Rodrigo
YE position: #6
good 4 u by Olivia Rodrigo is the literal definition of lightning in a bottle. The kind of extremely bratty, in-your-face screaming song that somehow manages to be one of the most cathartic pop rock anthems of our generation. And no, I don't care that they ripped off Paramore because the song still sounds so fucking great! (Plus the band got a writing credit later on, get over it!)
Seriously, everything about this instrumentally is a journey: the tense bass that opens up the song, the drum roll before the first hook that just hits you like a freight train, and the brightly-coloured guitars and strong percussion that somehow still don't overwhelm Olivia's fantastic multitracked vocals. And the bass continues throughout this song until you get to that absolutely stellar bridge! Seriously, I know it's just a bunch of layered vocals over an incredibly catchy guitar line which then transitions into the very downbeat, almost punk refrain "Maybe I'm too emotional but your apathy's like a wound in salt" but MAN it just hits as a moment of sheer, ethereal beauty! And the way the instrumentation goes back to the spare electric guitars right before the final hook just CRASHES back in, it is incredibly satisfying!
But I think what gets me the most about this song is that it's Olivia Rodrigo at her absolute best. While I do have a lot of praise for her, I do think she's currently still a bit limited as an expressive performer in some ways. Here though, she is very much playing the archetype of an angry teenage girl, and she just SELLS it... almost as if she wanted to scream at him without the composure of her previous 2 singles. After all, it is brutal out here, sometimes it helps to just let it all out.
Oh, and the writing is just top-notch! It took me a while to really admit it, but that bridge which initially rubbed me the wrong way really connects now, especially considering "maybe I'm too emotional" is likely something she was told more than once. You know, code words like "emotional" or "crazy" or other things that we say to dismiss women's feelings as trivial hysterics. The rest of the writing is fantastic too, like the absolutely killer line about the therapist that SHE found for him who's now helping him after they've broken up, allowing him to be a better man for his brand new girl... OUCH! And don't forget the deliciously sarcastic chorus: good for you, so glad you're happy without me! I'm not, but thanks for asking!
This is absolutely the kind of song that I could see rubbing some people the wrong way over time, but for me, it's such a journey musically, where the backing vocals in particular are absolutely key to making it work, and where every lyric just connects on repeated listens. Plus I kinda dug this style of bratty pop music in 2021, I was in a mood. The clear standout of Sour, one of the biggest songs of the year, and deservingly so!
There are going to be many people who are surprised that this isn't my number 1. And I understand why! Back when it first hit the charts, I praised the absolute loving Hell out of it, and even highlighted that I'd been listening to it months before it was even officially released. And while I don't think the songwriting is quite on the level of his best emotional cuts, I still think it's close to his best hit to date. And the fact that it was somehow a hit in Ireland, albeit just barely, is just an absolute gift.
Visiting Hours by Ed Sheeran
YE position: #98
I once compared this song to Since You've Gone To Heaven by Brandy Clark, an absolutely phenomenal and heartbreaking song where a woman mourns the loss of her dad, leaving behind a broken family scrambling to try and keep things together despite it all falling apart, and the effects it has on their small hometown. And I don't think that Visiting Hours is quite as good - it doesn't have the detail or the absolutely heartbreaking spare production - but I will say that it nails the atmosphere close to perfectly.
Ed's voice quivers as he speaks to a lost loved one who's passed on before they could even meet his daughter, the choral production shimmers while trying not to go too over-the-top, and the beautiful horns and echoing backing vocals are all filtered through this hazy filter that makes them feel ethereal and otherworldly. Even the bridge, which can feel a tad much at times, works better each time I hear it. And as for those lyrics, they're so tender and familiar that you can't help but get sucked in.
He voices this song like a prayer, one where he wishes that Heaven could have visiting hours like at a hospital or care home, where he could go and visit his loved one and tell them all the news that they're missing, particularly involving his own daughter getting older. All the lessons that he's passed on to her are things that he's learned from his own role models, and he admits that he's afraid. Afraid that he won't live up to the example they set for him, afraid that he'll turn out of failure and not quite live up to the expectations of his fans and family, afraid he won't be able to raise his daughter as well as he was. It's just so goddamn vulnerable!
Honestly, the only reason this isn't even higher is that Ed Sheeran has written even more emotional and bold-faced songs in the past. But while I won't quite say it's my favourite song off of Equals anymore, this is still damn close to his best.
I know I said I wanted to wait till 2022 for this to become a hit... but I'm not about to complain if it decided to get here a little earlier than expected.
Seventeen Going Under by Sam Fender
YE position: #88
I'm actually unclear what the general consensus on this song is. I mean, I know people appreciate it; it's full of thundering guitars, it stays very true to Sam's home North Shields in terms of the accent, and the lyrics are about the struggles of being a teenager, but I haven't seen an overwhelming amount of support for this... or maybe I missed it. After all, this song got to Ireland quite late, only in the last 6-7 weeks of the charting year, but I'll be damned if it didn't instantly catch my attention!
Let's get the obvious stuff out of the way: THIS is a fucking rock song! There have been many different types of rock music that have resurfaced on the charts this year, ranging from the easier-going subgenres like punk, emo, and pop punk from the mid-2000s to Italian hard rock, but this is proper, drum-driven Highland rock, the kind of song that is designed to roar out of your speakers as you drive through the mountains. It feels primal, it connects you to the world around you, which in fairness, is much harder to achieve, especially for a radio hit!
Luckily, Sam Fender is also a fantastic songwriter. So he decided to make a song that is very unconventional in this day and age, where he's reflecting on when he was 17 and kind of a fucking asshole. Someone who would stand by and watch younger kids getting beaten up by his "friends", forced to laugh along because he was always the fucking joker, the fun guy armed with a plastic grin. There's a disdain for his older self here - which, I'll be honest, I find kind of relatable as somebody who sometimes looks back on their teenage years and just sighs deeply - but what I like is that he takes the time to show that he was just an idiot kid who had real problems, a product of a very difficult environment.
He got kicked out of his father's house at a young age, yet was always called the spitting image of his old man... and those people wonder why "that kid looks so sad" when they tell him that. He also describes watching his mum crying on the floor as she doesn't receive help from the Welfare office, even though she's drowning in debt. And yet despite all that crying, she talks him out of selling drugs to help her... which, you know, good for her, but it left him feeling so damn helpless! The song is just so fucking complicated and human! Sam Fender lends this song the performance that it deserves too, with a deep-throated howl that just hits you right in your soul! And the absolutely frenetic guitars and bells that ring out across the song, especially on the outro as he cries out that he's 17 going under, it's just full of energy and a desperate need to be different, to be a better person!
The entire song is just phenomenal, and while I really don't see this crossing over to the US anytime soon, if it does reach that sort of international level, this is going to go down as a rock classic. Mark my words, this is one we're going to be talking about for years, it's already crossed over to a few European countries. Poetic, memorable, catchy, phenomenally produced... and we're only at number 4! What could be better?!
Honestly, I didn't think she could do it. The song was way too long, way too expansive, and none of the tracks off of her album rereleases had really stuck around in 2021. The closest was probably that reimagining of Wildest Dreams which is admittedly fantastic. But even though there was some controversy behind it, there was no way that THIS could actually stick in the top 10 for any amount of time being the way it was! Especially considering that it was the Christmas season! ... Right?
All Too Well (10 Minute Version) (Taylor's Version) by Taylor Swift
YE position: #82
Ever since folklore dropped, my entire view of Taylor Swift and her music has shifted. I've always respected her and she's made some great music over the years, but it wasn't until that album that I found a project that I could love without any sort of caveat or strings attached. The production was lush and textured, the songwriting was excellent, Taylor's performance was on another level, and the complex web that she weaved throughout that album with the 3 different characters, as well as her own autobiographical cuts, all of it made the album intensely relatable and re-visitable for me, it's still an album I go back to regularly. And sure, evermore was a bit of a downgrade, but it also had some incredible high points like Coney Island and champagne problems. And since then, throughout the year, I was waiting for one of the songs on any of the "Taylor's Version" rerecorded series of albums to hit me like that... and who would have expected it from Red?
Historically speaking, Red has never been my favourite Taylor Swift album, and the re-realease felt like an even bigger downgrade in some ways, especially on the bigger singles like 22 and We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together, which didn't flatter her now huskier vocal tones. But my GOD was All Too Well the exception! Taylor knew that this was a fan favourite, so she went all out, giving it the full update. She hired Jack Antonoff to give it some spare, atmospheric production, she wrote a bunch of new lyrics, and she expanded the song that used to be 5 and a half minutes long to a full 10-minute version. It was the kind of experiment that really showed off how far she's come, even the way she engages you so effortlessly throughout the full 10 minutes, weaving one stage of the story into the next flawlessly. There's not a single point on the song where I get bored, as it takes the original story of a girl freshly hurt because of a breakup with an older guy who broke her heart, and turns it into one of a woman looking back on it years later. She's moved on, she's learned from it... and yet she still remembers the way she felt and the way he treated her, all too well.
The entire song is built around that mantra, as you really do feel the weight behind her words. Like I mentioned, unlike the original, Taylor doesn't play a young 21-year-old here, which is where the old version could feel a bit shrill in spots. Here though, her older vocals lend this a cold tone of disdain for the man who treated her so badly. And the production is doing some real heavy lifting, as it's constantly shifting and evolving, not nestling into grooves for too long and adding little elements here and there to really enhance the soundscape. And yes, it's spare, it's not overdone, but that's kind of the point, the focus is on the lyrics, the storytelling, and Taylor's own performance. I mean we all know that Taylor can make the gut-punch moments land, but even she caught me off-guard a couple of times here; the moment where the entire song just sort of fades into silence after her dad comforts her on her 21st birthday when her boyfriend doesn't show up. The absolute disdain in her voice when she describes how he kept her scarf and how it reminds him of innocence and the falsely shiny image that he had of her to satisfy his own ego, someone that he could just wear on his arm in order to look good. And of course, the way he breaks her heart and then uses their age as an excuse... even though she now looks on as he's still dating women that are the same age she was at the time. And to all those who wonder why she's choosing to bring so much attention to this again now, so many years later, you have the line "I forget about you long enough to forget why I needed to". Sometimes even she forgets why she NEEDED to forget, why she holds him in such contempt... until she doesn't, and it all comes back to her. She remembers. All too well.
The maturity in Taylor's voice and writing, not to mention the upgraded production, all just make this so much more effective than the original, it grips you and never lets go. The only reason this song isn't higher on the list is that it kinda takes its time ending (it sounds great but it does take a while) and I don't think it's the best of Taylor's output this year. Still though, the fact that this went to number 1, and stayed in the Top 5 in Ireland for weeks throughout the Christmas season... it's beyond impressive, it's stunning. You blew me away Taylor, yet again.
Some artists act like they're deserving of accolades. They expect praise and awards, and when they don't get it, they get really pissy about it. And as somebody who grew up doing theatre, I get it, getting applause and praise from an audience is something that we often crave. Of course, you become well-adjusted enough to not let bad feedback get to you... but once in a while, you're not really content to rest on your laurels after, say, a single underperforms. So instead, you follow it up with a fucking cry for attention in the form of a bombastic victory lap, which ends up being the best thing you've ever done.
INDUSTRY BABY by Lil Nas X (Ft. Jack Harlow)
YE position: #17
INDUSTRY BABY is the best thing either of these men has ever done. No, I don't think that's an exaggeration. People have come around on MONTERO and I know THAT'S WHAT I WANT has a lot of big fans. But for me, this is the absolute pinnacle, the moment where Lil Nas X took full control of his image, his career, and everything else, in order to create not just something experimental or heartfelt, but instead an undeniable "fuck you" to everybody who ever doubted him!
This is definitely one of the more hip hop-oriented songs on his album, the one where he recruited fellow rapper Jack Harlow to create his very own champion theme, an anthem with some of the most bombastic production that I heard all year! And yeah, Lil Nas' usual producers definitely pull their weight here as they did throughout the entire year, but the real key ingredient which pushes this over the top - it's not going to surprise you - it's Kanye West. I guarantee that he had a large hand in those horns and that percussion where the whole thing ramps up bombastically, with loads of tiny little elements that you might miss unless you've heard it about 50 times the way I have. Like the cheeky hand clap that follows Jack Harlow's "handprint on her ass cheek" line, the way that the first 3 notes of the chorus ramp up in time with Lil Nas' "I told you" to give the words extra power and sneer, and most of all the percussion all over this is just absolutely phenomenal. If you want to know more about the evolution of percussion in 2021, I highly recommend going to see this video by Rodrigo Pasta, it is absolutely fantastic! But suffice to say that the outro bangs HARD and carries you into the sunset on the shoulders of a full brass band.
This is Lil Nas X's moment of glory and he isn't letting anyone beat him down. It's epic, it's rightfully self-absorbed... but that's not what pushed this over the top for me. No, the real standout for me was Jack Harlow! Frankly, I've never bought into this guy before, I don't really give a shit about most of his music. Sure What's Poppin was fine, but he's also worked with Chris Brown, so he's got some work to do. But this verse... this is one of the first pop rap verses that I have actually sat down and played repeatedly to try and memorise in YEARS! Not just because of how memorable every single line is - "turn my haters to consumers", "I make vets feel like they juniors", "I din't peak in high school I'm still out here gettin cuter" and of course, the one everybody's highlighted "all these social networks and computers got these pussies walking round that they ain't losers" - but what really appealed to me more than any of the lines themselves was the rhyme scheme!
Seriously, I know that's a weird thing to harp on about, but if you really listen to that verse, the 3 different rhyme patterns he goes into are just FLAWLESS! Going from "bash me, flashy, gas me, nasty, ass cheek" to "notes, posts, close. toasts, control, made it so" and then transitioning into the final rhyme scheme which carries you through to the end with "rumors, humor, boomers, consumers, juniors, sooner, bloomer, cuter, computer and loser"! I know that that may seem like a given, but in an age like this where people tend to just rhyme words with themselves or maybe run with a standard A-A B-B formula, the fact that he keeps the rhyme scheme so consistent and fluid is just SO fucking appealing to me! It's my favorite moment in pop music of the entire year.
This song is just an absolute titan, one that is and feels absolutely huge, taking the bombast of 2 performers who everybody doubted, yet who made it despite everything being against them. Now is their moment to shine! And the fact that this song became so huge internationally only lent it more power and catharsis. Incredible song... and yet somehow, wasn't number 1.
But before we get to that, let's go through our very long list of honourable mentions.
Woman by Doja Cat - Year-end position: #46
This one grew on me immensely, even despite the pretty simplistic chorus. The 1 verse on this may be short but it is the most righteously feminist thing I've heard touch the charts in years and felt SO earned!
Hold On by Justin Bieber - Year-end position: #62
Haha, you guys got Holy, we got this gem! Better luck next time, America!
BED by Joel Corry, RAYE & David Guetta - Year-end position: #10
The follow-up to Head & Heart that could have never lived up to it... and yet somehow it grew on me. One of the best radio pop songs of the year!
Up by Cardi B - Year-end position: #43
"Big bag bussin' out the Bentley Bentayga man, Balenciaga Bardi back and all these bitches fucked" Need I say more?
Sweet Melody by Little Mix - Year-end position: #68
After such a successful year for the now-trio of girls, it's kind of sad that my favourite Little Mix hit of the years should be this leftover with Jesy. One of the best-produced ones too!
34+35 by Ariana Grande - Year-end position: #67
This should have been at #69, dammit Outnumbered!!! Also I love this, it's like WAP for slightly more prudish people.
Our Song by Anne-Marie & Niall Horan - Year-end position: #42
A little annoyed this is the only full-blown Irish artist on this list, but we'll get better. Anyway, this duet just kept pushing all my good buttons till it won me over. Props to Anne-Marie for actually being pretty good all year!
Bad Habits by Ed Sheeran - Year-end position: #5
Aside from being incredibly catchy, there was a slightly dark period in my personal life I went through this Autumn where this song became somewhat of a soundtrack... not sure if that's something to be proud of but I learned to really love this track.
drivers license by Olivia Rodrigo - Year-end position: #13
Olivia made better music in 2021 than this, but this is still the one that started it all. And it's still exceptional.
Wellerman (Remix) by Nathan Evans, 220 Kid & Billen Ted - Year-end position: #39
It's not the original, but this remix just wore me down week after week until I had to love it. Short and sweet, just the way I like it!
My Universe by Coldplay & BTS - Year-end position: #75
The best thing either of these groups have done in ages... HOW does this sound so natural?!
Little Bit Of Love by Tom Grennan - Year-end position: #19
... Yep! ... What can I say, a bad artist making a great song will always get you brownie points! And this is easily the best Tom Grennan has sounded over any type of production. This was legitimately my wake-up song for the whole Summer, I'm not kidding.
Let Them Know by Mabel - Year-end position: #100
I SO wanted to put this on the list, purely for how close it was to missing the year-end. Ultimately though, it JUST got edged out... still the best sleeper hit of the year though.
favorite crime by Olivia Rodrigo - Year-end position: #81
Or wait, maybe this was... either way, both great songs that made her year-end, and this one didn't even need to get pushed as a single!
Levitating by Dua Lipa - Year-end position: #4
Okay I'm sick of it right now, but I'm not idiotic enough to leave it off entirely!
And now, on to the main event!
I listened to a decent number of albums in 2021. Not enough so that I felt fully qualified to make a Best Albums list this year - which is why that's getting replaced by the Top 15 Worst Songs of the entire year regardless of the hits, keep an eye out for that - but enough that I definitely got my fill anyway. And of the albums I checked out this year, most of them clicked for me pretty immediately. But there was only one that REALLY took its time hitting me, especially compared to the immediacy of her last album. It was actually on the 4th or 5th listen that one of the songs on the album recontextualized everything - and spoiler alert, it's not the one I'm talking about today - making me rethink the entire album. It restructured the framing of each and every song, and it made me realise that the album is among one of the best of the year, emotionally, structurally, and overall a giant leap forward for this artist that I STILL don't think she's getting enough praise for! And so, since I have yet to see this top a Best list, allow me to fix that.
Happier Than Ever by Billie Eilish
YE position: #26
I remember being fairly positive towards this song back when it first dropped. I praised it for having heart, for going for a much rougher, rock-heavy sound on the second half, for the elegance of the first half, etc. But I did think that the juxtaposition between the 2 parts was a bit jarring, even if it made sense contextually. And yet the thing I missed the first few times was just how fucking manipulative the guy she's describing on this album is. He really did a number on her and it's clear from song to song. And once it finally clicked, the writing on this song just absolutely floored me.
I mean, she spends most of the first half of the song using this meek, composed voice, shyly telling him that she's happier without him. There's almost something almost disbelieving in her voice, like she can't believe she's finally saying this out loud or that it's actually true. Someone she depended on so strongly in the past is actually someone whom she's now happier without. And this is still unmistakably the real Billie we all know and love. She starts out trying to think of clever things to say, writing things down in order to prepare herself, and questions whether or not he still follows her career. That last part almost sounds wistful, but it also harbours a really dark undertone when you consider that this was a relationship she's described as abusive. It makes several gestures from this guy feel like not-so-veiled threats: "when you said that you were passing through, was I even on your way?" or when she told him not to freak out and knew he was absolutely going to anyway... and she "would end up more afraid"... That's the line that really tipped me off that there was something darker going on here, something downright sinister.
Finally, she makes it clear, saying that he made her miserable. And that's where the song begins to shift. Because the more she says it, the more she feels emboldened, which is when the atmospherics kick in, followed by the bass guitar and then the guitar riff, which gets uglier and scuzzier as the song goes on. She describes him calling her up, crying, trying to win her back while he's clearly drunk, egged on by his fucking friends, and not even bothering to listen to her as she tells him to stay away because she is scared of him! Until she finally snaps... the drums and guitars thunder out even more loudly on the third verse, and Billie Eilish fucking SCREAMS!
All the times she had stood up for him, never saying anything bad in spite of what a shitty, petty person that he was! He can keep his guilt-tripping to himself, because off the top of her head, she can't think of a single time where he ever showed up on time, where he ever set time aside for her mother or friends - and if you've seen any Billie Eilish interview, that's a hugely important part of her life - which brings us to the other line that REALLY stuck with me: "I shut them all out for you because I was a kid". It's a moment of sheer disgust, not just at him, but at herself, for turning her back on her own family for a guy who absolutely wasn't worth it! There's something so deeply hurtful and naive about that, because we all do stupid things as kids. It's a revealing moment where Billie reveals she's no exception to that. For all her fans who place her on this pedestal of wisdom, this is her pulling back the veil in a way that she's never really done before. Sure, when the party's over hurts but it's not as real as this 1 line... in fact it's even more real than anything Olivia Rodrigo put out this year, as much as I enjoyed it.
And with the final lines, she puts the nail in the coffin. This emotionally manipulative asshole, who always complained about being misunderstood or made all of her achievements about him, can just fucking leave her alone! And as the guitars and drums get even louder and more industrial, her voice distorts and peaks in the mix, she screams "Fuck you, goddamn!!!" It's a sheer, unadulterated release of pain and tension, something that I genuinely never would have expected to see on the charts, let alone from someone as controlled as Billie Eilish. In the past, whenever she revealed her more emotional side, it still felt very elegant and composed. With Happier Than Ever, there's no poise. There is at the start of it, but that's all stripped away by the end, the gloves are off and the knuckledusters are on. And somehow, not even my favourite song on the album. But that's for another list.
For now, Happier Than Ever by Billie Eilish; without a fucking doubt, the best hit song of 2021.
So yeah, that was the Best of 2021! I know it was long, but I hope you enjoyed, I had a lot of passion to get out of my system. I hope this exposed some new awfulness to some of you or at least gave you some catharsis in the same way it did for me! Top 10 Best Hits of 2021 is next, so please make sure you subscribe to the blog and follow me on Twitter so you don't miss a thing. Stay safe, and until the next time, I'm Fionn and this is The Social Tune signing off.