Hello Readers! My name is Joseph Hinz, a music nerd and pretentious blowhard all the same. With those two titles in hand, I’m now in the position of telling you my picks for each of the ten best and worst songs music had to offer in 2021.
Rules are simple, songs had to either be released in 2021 or late into 2020 and peak in popularity this year. Speaking of popularity, to keep myself grounded and not talk about deep-cuts from smaller acts that I still love but wouldn’t be as relevant to a larger audience, all songs must have a minimum of 1 million plays on Spotify (and as a bit of a constraint for the worst list, the songs on there had to either peak in the top 40 of the Billboard Hot 100 or make the 2021 Year End List).
Other rule: MY OPINION. This isn’t your opinion, this isn’t based on chart success, this isn’t a stream count ranking, this isn’t the Swiftie’s agenda, this isn’t a Metacritic ranking, this isn’t off Pitchfork scores, just my jaded brain, so if a song you love missed this list or even hits the worst list, it’s not personal, out taste differ (also, if there is a song you want to highlight for the best you think flew under the radar, shout it at me, I’d be glad to hear it!)
Without further ado, I'm honestly not a huge fan of a worst list but it gets clicks so let’s do this one as quickly as possible, shall we?
10: Put Your Records On- Ritt Momney (2021 Year-End: #93)
There are many layers of confusion I have with this track, the biggest being why is this something that needed to exist? I know many people my age missed the original by Corinne Bailey Rae but that song is legit excellent, but this cover borrows very little from it outside the main hook and the words, and I say words instead of lyrics for a reason. Instead of the great warmth of the original, it’s now replaced by this watery bit of indie that works for a second if you squint at it, but the mixing is all off in a way that the groove barely coalesces. Our vocalist who named himself RITT MOMNEY is nowhere near the likable presence Corinne is, which isn’t helped by how buried he is in the mix. So fine, indie cover of a classic, that’s one thing, SO WHY ARE THE LYRICS SPUN TO BE A HOOKUP? I swear, with the voice of the song now being a guy, and some of his “charm” shining through, what once was a pretty easy going empowerment anthem turns into this awful pickup song and it just DOES NOT work, plain and simple.
9: Drinking Beer. Talking God. Amen- Chase Rice & Florida Georgia Line (2021 Year-End: #99)
This spot was originally going to “Lil Bit”, another FGL cut, this time featuring Nelly, mostly on the premise that some record executives stuck in 2014 decided the world needed a sequel to “Cruise”, and while it is bad that many people nodded their heads and agreed to writing, producing, and promoting such a bad and money-hungry idea, it’s almost worse that because the song was big, it worked.
Well, I decided against its inclusion because there is too much bad music for me to have repeats on a list and if you think I was going to pass on laughing at a song whose title is literally “Drinking Beer. Talking God. Amen” (dumb periods and all), you must not know me well.
8: Happier- Olivia Rodrigo (Chart Peak: #15)
By no means was this objectively in the “worst songs” of 2021, but it is the most “ugh” worthy.
I think my biggest disconnect from ‘SOUR’ and the whole Olivia Rodrigo moment (outside of guys not being the target demographic, or not caring about the drama, or the fact she hasn’t made “brutal” or “favorite crime” singles which are the best songs on the album and both excellent), was that for a high-schooler myself, while the growing maturity and purposefully revealing immaturity brought a sense of relatability to her persona, it also got TEDIOUS, and often just bitter.
It doesn’t help that on the weakest moments of this album show how not over this relationship Olivia is in the worst way (which is the case here, in how the hooks shows how she condemns this guy for possibly being happier with his new partner), and unlike, say, “good 4 u”, which takes the “Misery Business” approach of going full pop-emo and making the toxicity have a level of energy and facade to it, this track is sprawling and limp as a result, and when the emotions are more sour (ha…) than bittersweet, yeah, not a fan… can someone in Olivia’s management just push better songs?
7: Just The Way- Parmalee, Blanco Brown (2021 Year-End: #88)
I’ll state this outright, I like country. Quite a lot in fact, the best artists in the genre are some of the most consistently terrific artists out there, either by understanding smaller, richer emotions, bringing real warmth to their music other genres can’t replicate, or by taking a more songwriting focused approach that makes for some absolutely potent cuts.
Unfortunately, 2021 wasn’t a year that country thrived in and “Just The Way” being a hit is proof of that. This year was the year of “wait, we’re STILL doing bro-country??” along with “wow, that is insipid and lacks any sort of punch whatsoever”. “Fortunately” for us, Just The Way falls in the latter category, popularized by whatever mid-tempo slog Dan + Shay or Kane Brown at his worst pumps out, this brand of “boyfriend country” is effectively as bad as bro-country, just replace the list driven “whiskey, women, beer, trucks” form of songwriting for some of the most formulaic love songs imaginable… this one in question also has a hack named Blanco Brown and a hook that says wallows about how a girl is perfect because it was the way God made her, even the most religious among us probably barfed at such a concept.
(Tie) 6: Certified Lover Boy- Drake / Donda- Kanye West (both albums went #1 BB 200)
I wish I could have been bothered to care when these came out. I mean, I was forced to have takes, it’s Drake and Kanye, of course you have to say SOMETHING, but to be honest, I think it’s fair to say that if they have nothing original WHY SHOULD I?
This is not to say there aren’t good moments on each album, “Hurricane” and “Moon” are both really good (even if they are more The Weeknd’s and Don Toliver’s songs), and even if “Knife Talk” is 100% a mid-tier ‘Savage Mode II’ song, it was nice of 21 to give Drake at least one highlight.
But that does mean that we needed 85 minutes of Drake songs that have no pulse, the stupid title line of “Girls Want Girls”,along with everything to do with “_____ Fans”, and the nearly TWO HOURS of Kanye, with a tracklist as disjointed as they come, some of the worst production I’ve ever seen (what he did to “Tell The Vision” is criminal considering the one he features on that’s on Pop’s album is REALLY good, what HAPPENED here?), and some of the worst controversy baiting and fake-gospel lyrics I’ve seen in a minute.
It’s hilarious these two were in endless debates over who was better, because as it stands now it’s been three years since either has made a great song, and EIGHT since a proper good album (and that’s me being nice to Yeezus), they aren’t two competing greats, two sides on the same coin of mediocrity.
5: Without You- KID LAROI (Chart Peak: Top 10)
What is up with emo-trap artists thinking they have any sort of lyrical nuances and depth in their writing to make acoustic ballads when in reality it just highlights how basic their songs are and how openly disgusting their lyrics are?
Granted, there are artists who pull this off, Polo G has consistently delivered in this lane, and Juice WRLD’s later work and then posthumous material often dabbled in that lane and it mde for his best work, especially a song like “Righteous”. Problem is, KID LAROI is Juice WRLD’s nasal, emotionally immature, bratty, and overall obnoxious protege, and by god he can’t pull this off.
Let’s go past the singing, in which I think he flubs about every vocal range he tries, but the hook effectively just derives to him complaining a girl left him so he regresses to derogatory insults. And considering there is barely any content to this song, barely even 2½ minutes, yeah, this only got big because it became an anthem for people’s worst instincts, and even then, there are better songs to exercise those demons.
4: Bang!- AJR (Year End: #56)
Talk about an easy target…
Look, I actually don’t hate this song, in some twisted way, I see it’s absolutely garbled mess production having some sort of pull and desirable effect to it, also the hook works occasionally.
But let’s not make this overshadow how asinine the song really is. The sound effects are absolutely eye-roll worthy, the pitch shifting and instrumental warps screams of an act who thinks doing… things equals artistic intent and uniqueness, which only serves to highlight that they basically have the same approach as Twenty One Pilots except with none of the poise, direction, or emotional stakes.
And the lyrics, y’know, credit where it’s due, I like the message of growing up and FINALLY maturing (which gets exponentially funnier considering how childishly dumb their early material is), but this is BASIC stuff, with complaints on taxes and forgetting passwords make me realize that they still haven’t grown up, but only complaining about the never-ending struggle of doing so, and how pathetic they look while they take the smallest of steps toward maturity.
This spot probably deserved to be “Way Less Sad” because it is far worse, but this is bad enough to make due.
3: Fancy Like- Walker Hayes (Year End: #27)
America, you know, we were doing ok for a minute in pushing out the absolutely stupid from Music Row, we actually made Sam Hunt and Luke Bryan mostly flop this year, and at least the mocking idiots at least have the cover of wistful tones and the boyfriend country label, but THIS, this is inexcusable.
Like, I don’t need to highlight what’s wrong with this, listen for even 30 seconds and you’ll get it, but I just ask, out of all of the country we could’ve made viral hits (This spent multiple weeks in the TOP 5!!), we chose a middle-aged guy bragging about Natty Lite?
2: Am I The Only One- Aaron Lewis (Chart Peak: #14)
You probably missed this song, but to summarize, it’s the lead singer of Staind writing a miserable country durge where he heckles about being the “only one” who stands for real patriotism, but is so tellingly vague as to what that means, except for when he complains about the removal of Confederate statues and how he stops singing Springsteen songs, which only amplifies the fact that this song was effectively Astroturfed by people who shared his exact same beliefs.
So no, you are not the only one, Aaron, but you sure are ignorant.
1: Monster- Shawn Mendes & Justin Bieber (Chart Peak: #8)
This is probably a shock for number one, but to be honest, I don’t know if there could be a more concentrated example of failure that these men have made even if they tried, and that’s saying a LOT considering the existence of “Treat You Better” and Justin Bieber’s… everything (between him trying to speak in Afro-beat rhythms on “Essence”, his bad religious pivot on “Holy”, his yodel on “Lonely”, his cringe ad libs on “Peaches”, the fact he has a song called “MLK Interlude”, and then him making multiple terrible collabs with KID LAROI, I had OPTIONS), but this really takes the cake.
Let’s start with Shawn Mendes, who’s paranoia over his current (at the time) relationship with Camila Cabello gave everyone watching signs of “Oh, that relationship is DOOMED”. His general frightened nature throughout the entire track gave signals that something was wrong here, scary how prophetic it was.
But Justin is what kills it. This year was basically the year of him winning back the industry’s love after he told the world that his wife has that “yummy-yum” (or more likely it’s the industry trying to save their golden boy), so a lot of his lyrics stemmed around his bad boy antics of his entire career. Now on paper, him taking responsibility would be a good thing, but that’s not what he does. He downplays his antics by saying he was trying to “act cool”, and that he was “upset by their jealousy”, and then basically says he would take responsibility for his actions under the implications that they’d finally shut up, and if I have to explain why after YEARS of public toxicity why this attitude is selling no one on your public apology, then I don’t know what to say.
So after all of that, we got a terrible bit of relationship melodrama from Mendes, even worse publicity management from Bieber, some pretty dower and listless production, and considering this song fell of the charts entirely in a month and most people forgot Mendes put out an album last December, I repeat, you can’t get much worse failure if you tried.
WOW, those were pretty bad, so let’s move to the positives, shall we?
And considering I have way more to say that’s interesting for the best list, let’s throw in some little bonus honorable mentions to “Silk Chiffon” by MUNA (I’m not the target demographic but this is amazing), “Solar Power” by Lorde (annoyed this got slandered by critics, tbh), and “Friday (Remix)” by Rebecca Black (Yes, I KNOW).
10: Street Runner- Rod Wave (50 Million Streams, Chart Peak in Top 40)
This song shouldn’t work, hell I don’t even know if it does. It’s a pretty abbreviated interlude that sounds typical for Rod Wave sandwiched between an extended chipmunked sample of the person best known for the piano ballad “Lost Boy” (yes, THAT one), and after the first chorus a phone call comes in and plays for almost two straight minutes as the production plays it out.
But DAMN, for what is actually here, it’s pretty incredible. The vibe the production creates is immaculate, and sure while there is too much that really deviates this from the other things Rod Wave has done before but this is probably the perfection of his sound. Oh, and Rod himself kills the track, the lyrical content brings this really poignant level of melancholy and both extended samples work in creating the sprawl of the track that manages to be amazing throughout its whole runtime.
9: mememe- 100 gecs (2 Million Streams, Viral Buzz)
So, this is 100 gecs, they are hyperpop, their biggest song sounds like a banjo chiptune track with a 15 y/o baby-voiced edgelord spewing on nonsense about big trucks, and most people originally don’t know if they should hate them or only like them “ironically”. Well, once you cross the 100 foot barrier and all the “gec gec gec” memes, you’ll find a damn innovative artist with not only great bops, but some genuinely beautiful moments.
Anyways, this is their newest single and it might be their best to date. The explosive guitars remind me a lot of the darker moments on “Happier Than Ever”, but the punchy production and quick tempo has almost a ska vibe, and both of our vocalists are killing it. I always love the hazy stability Dylan brings, but Laura’s verse on this one is just, PURE manic anger, and it’s glorious. Look, if you have already run from the fact I threw these two on this list, I can’t help you, but to the genuinely curious, this a really great jumping on point for one of the most eccentric acts out there.
8: NDA- Billie Eilish (120 Million Streams, Single from #1 Album on BB200)
Speaking of Happier Than Ever! Yeah, it was in a toss-up versus the previous single of her great album with the same name for who would get this slot, but ultimately I return to NDA more. I mean, my favorite song from her debut was hands down bury a friend, and this is probably an extension of that song, possibly even better. I love how while bury a friend has less of a groove and more of a cohesive atmosphere with well defined elements of the song, this song manages to be propulsive, haunting, and tragic throughout. And unlike “bury a friend” which is a disconnected story about monsters which while potent, felt too disconnected from reality, this is grounded in true contempt, and the whirlwind of the production matches the frenzy of emotions. This might be Billie’s best, the fact she tops herself time after time is incredible, can’t wait for more!
7: Deal With It- Ashnikko (feat. Kelis) (50 Million Streams, Tiktok Hit)
...I’m not sorry.
Ashnikko is a goddamn queen and this is a triumph. The flip of the Kelis sample to go into a chorus that will never leave your brain… ever, the chipper keyboard hits that brings a vivacious mood to me everytime it comes on, Ashnikko’s pretty damn perfect delivery, all of the sound effects (if you know you know), the spooky post-chorus that’s 100% camp, and THAT BRIDGE. This is the song with themes of “feminist power” by way of kicking dudes to the curb for being the worst that I didn’t expect would be anthem for me when I actually gave Ashnikko a full chance very early in January this year, but I’m happy for it, this is fantastic, also WHY WAS THIS NOT HUGE BUT SLUMBER PARTY WAS?
6: CORSO- Tyler, The Creator (35 Million Streams, From #1 Album on BB200)
Say hello to Tyler Baudelaire, AKA The Creator, AKA Bunny Hops, and he’s here to absolutely murder a 2000s rap pivot released for the summer that still kills as we enter the frigid winter motnhs. From DJ Drama’s interjections that keep the manic energy of the whole affair, to the reckless quotableness of all of Tyler’s bars, to how the production will go from really delicate but cutting grooves to just ALL BASS.
But what caps this song of is the storytelling, in 3 verses in under two and a half seconds, you get Tyler at his most boisterous and self-centered and destructive, until the final verse where he rips everything away to show how everything didn’t work out and how much that devastated him, plus the best lines “Remember I was rich, so I bought me some new emotions; And a new boat, 'cause I rather cry on the ocean”, just, wow. Someone call Drama to turn the noise up.
5: Scaled And Icy (Yes, the whole album)- Twenty One Pilots (#3 on BB200)
Most people slandered the newest effort by Twenty One Pilots, which is a damn shame because it’s incredible, so good that I threw the whole album on this list because I couldn’t pick a single. From the warm fake smile of “Good Day” and “Choker”, the incredible throwback of “Sky Away”, the off-kilter and eccentric “The Outside”, the propulsive “Never Take It”, bouncy “Mulberry Street” and… “Bounce Man”, the genuinely wholesome lovely “Formidable”, the dower and atmospheric “No Chances” and finally the genuinely heart-wrenching “Redecorate”... also I LIKE “Saturday”!
This has become a legit go-to for my daily 40 minute bus ride, nothing hits quite like fantastic pop music when you want to face a case on the Mondays. I know it’s hard to believe me, but not only is this album great, this might also be Twenty One Pilots’ best and one of the best pop albums this year, period. And people wanted to treat it like a punching bag, yeah, No Chances here. (Someone stop this segment before some even worse puns :/)
4: How Not To Drown- CHVRCHES (ft. Robert Smith)
(8 Million Streams, Big Name Collab)
Granted, I’m hesitant to call Scaled And Icy the absolute best pop albums this year because our synthpop queen has returned, with Lauren Mayberry and co. creating the perfect spooky time album, mixing absolutely shimmering synths to some of their darkest grooves and subject matter to date. They had a spot effectively guaranteed on this list just off concept alone… and then they brought in Robert Smith of The Cure for a swampy, beautiful duet.
Honestly, I don’t have too much to say for this, CHVRCHES know their stuff so well that all I can say is that this song is my gothic glittery banger that got me through the year.
3: Enter Sandman- Rina Sawayama (1.5 Million Streams, Cover of Metallica Classic)
So Metallica did this charity, 40th Anniversary, compilation, overlong project… thing called ‘The Metallica Blacklist’ in honor of ‘The Black Album’, and I got to be honest, only 10% of the covers are even semi worth a look.
However, they brought in enough great names to make some fantastic covers, and while I was tempted to give the honor to Jason Isbell, IDLES, PUP. or Ghost, it had to go to Rina, who infuses Enter Sandman with such vocal intensity, stomping 2000’s influence, and just an overall level of likeability that makes me actually enjoy listening to thrash metal as opposed to when I have to hear most in the genre play it dead straight and it getting super tedious. Basically, we got a hyperpop-adjacent version of one of the biggest metal songs of all time… and it surpasses the original, no doubt.
2: The Numbers- Rise Against (5 Million Streams, This is a me pick, ok?)
I think everyone has that one band they’re championing for that peaked in popularity over a decade ago but you still follow their new stuff and everytime they come out with stuff, you preach their greatness. Going into this year, I sure as hell did not expect that band to be Rise Against but OMG THEIR NEW ALBUM IS INCREDIBLE AND YOU MUST HEAR IT!! Ok, fanboying aside, Rise Against have proven themselves to be capable of making a great album now more than 20 years deep into their career, and they may have just released their best ever single.
The Numbers is soaring, a 5 minute piece of melodic hardcore, starting with the distorted pledge, the way the guitars cut across the opening notes, added in with the galloping percussion to build up of Tim McIlrath’s entrance, every little moment of this trac is used to build the stature of it all. AND THE WRITING! Now, does it rise to specific politics that I prefer out of punk music? No, it still runs in empowerment poetry and calls to some sort of action that remains to be “the system”, but this track gets so much right. It’s a call for populism, power in numbers, uprisings against oppression. I mean, outside of a chorus that goes “They have the power, but we have the numbers now, it’s all just a constant illusion of control”, along with the beaten horse metaphor “Will you gallop when you’re kicked, or throw the rider off?”.
Yeah, this song is pretty damn by the numbers (HA!), but melodically, sonically, and through just sheer will, I think it’s pretty incredible.
1: SUN GOES DOWN- Lil Nas X
(100 Million Streams, DESERVES A BILLION MORE)
So, ‘MONTERO’, pretty big album wasn’t it?
I’d argue that as an album, it may have been the year’s biggest, kicking off with its title track, we ran the gambit this year, from sacrilegious music videos involving homosexual relationships, nude shower scenes, killing the devil, and that pregnancy… thing, blood-infused shoes, Jack Harlow being the biggest ally known to man, and two world conquering Number One hits (maybe with a better push, “THATS WHAT I WANT” can make it three?).
However, in the middle of all this controversy and social media micromanagement and overall otherworldly hype for this album, Lil Nas X released this song, effectively as a promo single that wasn’t going to get the hype of a “CALL ME BY YOUR NAME” or “INDUSTRY BABY”, more for the fans and public to understand some of the direction with this album. Now to most people, it was pretty disposable, it was way slower, not as immediate, just kind of loose throwaway that will only be good when surrounded by bangers, a weird deepcut made to follow-up one the biggest songs of the year.
That being said, I’m here to say this song is a masterpiece.
First of all, this production is perfection. The guitar tone they go for is so optimistically melancholic, empowering but also devastating, made to make you tear up but also smile. The percussion is perfectly subdued, and the little string flourishes and vocal inflections add to the beautifully paced release that the song is. Also, when everything crashes for the final hook, and then Nas X rushes in to combat the hook with the post-chorus, one of the best musical moments of the year.
But the focus here really is the content, which is where I think the song really cements it’s place at the top of my list.
The hook is implicitly about suicidal ideation, in which Nas X cries about not wanting a life and then seeing the sun. Then you have the verse, which perfectly highlights the struggles he suffers: homophobia, being a general social outcast, and depression. You get the fantastic line about him stanning Nicki Minaj, which played for jokes, highlights the normality many in our generation find in parasocial relationships, along with social media being some place of comfort. But ultimately, the way these two personas play out is what makes this song work. It opens with the desperation of the hook and Lil Nas X in his past struggling to hold on to his own life, and then his future self comes in to reflect on where he has come, what his struggles were really about, but is ultimately comforting and optimistic, talking himself down from that ledge, the moment where he’s happy to still be here and that he has the chance to make the days of his fans gets me every time.
You know, the number one should really be a “me pick”, one where I’m the one person who fully unravels my love for a song, and I think “SUN GOES DOWN” was that song, it’s mood and themes were one that connecting with me at the perfect time, and returning to it, it’s just as good as it was from first listen. So yeah, best song of the year, now let’s watch the sun go down on this year and rise on an even better one.
Hey everyone, I know this list was long but I hope you stuck around to see all my little insights and thoughts, but if not, I’m happy for y’all reading regardless!
Again, any disagreements or other pieces of music you found notable, please shoot it at me at firstname.lastname@example.org (I’ll read it, I swear ;))
Anyways, next entry will be some loose album reviews, not sure what it’ll be on right now but we’ll check it out. Otherwise, I’ve been Joseph Hinz, and thanks for reading!