Photo-Illustration: by Vulture; Photos by YouTube
What are songs for these days? We’re (hopefully) not crowding into clubs and concerts just yet; many of us still don’t even commute. But good songs thrive in any setting, with anyone or no one, and many throughout the pandemic have still proven their ability to shake us out of the growing monotony of our day-to-day, not unlike the way a well-executed beat drop on a night out once did. The same has been true of the best music of 2021 so far, especially in standout tracks: They’ve each offered moments of escape, reflection, and just plain old joy. Maybe we’ll be able to hear these songs live with others before the end of the year, but they’ve done just as great a job of soundtracking neighborhood walks and Friday-night Twitter scrolls in the meantime.
SZA has exactly one full album to her name, yet there’s never much worry that she won’t deliver; it’s just always a matter of when. During the wait for the follow-up to her 2017 masterpiece CTRL, she dropped off a taste of the new in last year’s “Hit Different,” an exceptional radio single that seemed to serve as a bit of a gut check for her; it also teased another new song at the very end. That song, “Good Days,” didn’t come until the last dying breaths of 2020, but it is the heart of SZA’s path forward — a mid-tempo ballad that no longer gives as much time to the people who’ve taken from her as it does to the only person who’s going to continue to offer something to her core. “I don’t miss no ex, miss no text, I choose not to respond” has been the punch line for a thousand tweets, but the line that precedes it, “Gotta get right, tryna free my mind before the end of the world,” should probably be the larger takeaway. For SZA, life doesn’t seem to be all about fight or flight anymore. What will control look like for her now? —Dee Lockett
The idea of Justin Bieber making ’80s–inspired rock music should elicit as much of a cringe as Justin Bieber making R&B or gospel-pop. But against all odds, “Anyone” arrived at the top of 2021 as not only Bieber’s best song in years but his most convincing love song since his marriage to wife Hailey. That’s not thanks to the lyrics or the production as much as to the heart in Bieber’s performance, which is even stronger in the song’s live takes. (Okay, and that drum breakdown is pretty great too.) When the song first came out, it sounded as if it could have been a fluke; turns out it was a taste of the best moments to come on Bieber’s best album, Justice. —Justin Curto
Jazmine Sullivan made her name writing scorching songs about falling in love and losing love, and for singing them with even more fire than what’s on the page. So many of those songs were autobiographical, mined from her own life experiences and traumas, but often the best source material for songwriting is the lives of those around us. Heaux Tales, Sullivan’s splendid first album in too long, marries her gift for storytelling with the stories of the women she knows, whether it’s a peer like Ari Lennox waxing poetic about some dude who dickmatized her, or a close friend struggling with self-worth. That said, who knows who or what real-life event inspired “Pick Up Your Feelings,” but whoever the subject of this song is, sorry to that trash man, your time is up. Flipping from falsetto to the deepest depths of her register, she spends three minutes and seven seconds eviscerating a man who should’ve known better. “You need to hurry and pick up your feelings while I’m up cleaning” is a lyric you hear and can immediately sense Beyoncé seething for not having come up with it first for “Irreplaceable.” Jazmine’s just that good. —D.L.
“Oversharers Anonymous” could have earned its spot on this list based on one lyric: “You’re a fucking baby, but your pain is valid too,” which is all the more potent coming from Wild Pink’s soft-spoken leader, John Ross. But that would have neglected the other wonders of this gem off the New York band’s heartland-rock opus A Billion Little Lights. Ross is a meticulous narrator, and nowhere on the record is his attention to detail more apparent than on the road trip of “Oversharers Anonymous.” The song finds him fixating on everything from corporate ad copy to the reverberations of American Colonial history. It all drifts off into a minutes-long instrumental outro — a landscape more sweeping than even Ross could depict in his lyrics, colored by deliberate strokes of pedal steel, strings, and synthesizers. —J.C.
Every love triangle has to have a villain, the story goes, and while that third person out should logically be the one who’s been trifling rather than the two just along for the ride, where’s the fun in logic? And so in the off-camera saga of the trio at the center of the Disney Channel gift that is High School Musical: The Musical: The Series, our villain is famously “that blonde girl.” Welp, Sabrina Carpenter is doing her damndest to make people know her name. The Girl Meets World actress might not have the chart or Taylor Swift bump of an Olivia Rodrigo or the raw talent of a Joshua Bassett, but she’s been at this music thing professionally longer than those two co-stars, and her entry into their trilogy of songs about the gossip, “Skin,” is the breath of fresh air and perspective the rest are lacking. “Maybe you didn’t mean it. Maybe ‘blonde’ was the only rhyme,” is about as direct as Carpenter gets in addressing the subtext (and addressing Rodrigo directly), but closer attention to her lyrics and delivery reveals a song less concerned with the optics of Disney Channel dating and more with that world’s damaging history of young women pushed to villainize one another. “I just hope that one day we both can laugh about it when it’s not in our face,” she sings, “won’t have to dance around it / don’t drive yourself insane.” The stakes in these songs are low, but the stories of Britney, Demi, Selena, etc. should tell us that the pain will always be heightened. —D.L.
Morgan Wade has said in interviews that people made fun of her voice when she was growing up. That’s baffling to consider upon hearing any of the songs on her debut album, Reckless, especially the standout single “Wilder Days.” Wade pairs her commanding, gritty rasp with a straightforwardly huge pop melody on the song; if we’re not getting another Miley Cyrus country album soon, Wade could be the next best thing. Not that Wade is firmly a country singer either — “Wilder Days” sits somewhere between country, Americana, and rock thanks in part to the 400 Unit’s Sadler Vaden, who produced Reckless. (It’s all the more impressive that the pair struck gold on “Wilder Days,” the first track they worked on together.) The song’s confident sexuality won’t do it any favors when it comes to country radio either, but that doesn’t make the chorus any less perfect for evening drives with the windows down. —J.C.
As Cardi B graduates from rap newcomer with something to prove to a highly decorated artist with several titles to defend (not to mention her honor, if her Twitter correspondence tells us anything), much has changed: Her budget is bigger (the “WAP” video was an embarrassment of her riches) and so is her audience, which would typically trigger the kind of balancing act between pleasing everyone and no one that sets most artists up for failure. In taking her time with her sophomore record, though, Cardi has turned more Teflon. “Up” is the kind of song you release as a solo follow-up to a massive hit that sparked mass moral panic, when you understand that discourse of all types is just a hazard of the job, so let ’em talk. Her delivery is more taut; her insults are better barbed; and her self-aggrandizing is both believable and contagious. I wouldn’t try to stand in Cardi B’s way this year, or any other. —D.L.
Although some fans and followers have crowned her an authority on revolutionary politics, Noname has been quick to note that she’s still learning herself, just like those fans. On “Rainforest,” an offering from her forthcoming album, Factory Baby, the Chicago rapper works through her thoughts in real time: “How you make excuses for billionaires, you broke on the bus?” she wonders in the hook. Rather than directly answering her questions, Noname outlines what she does know, making for a stunningly powerful second verse that connects the dots between everything from anti-Black police violence to environmental degradation. It all happens over one of Noname’s grooviest beats, leaving you to contemplate a line like “You ain’t seen death, I can hear the blood on the moon” as you’re dancing. —J.C.
Soft Sounds From Another Planet was the perfect name for Michelle Zauner’s second album as Japanese Breakfast, an ethereal dream-pop odyssey. But Zauner’s follow-up, Jubilee, may have an even more fitting title — at least based on its infectious lead single, “Be Sweet.” It’s the easiest Japanese Breakfast music to dance to thanks to the funky guitars and buoyant chorus, but it’s also deceptively intricate, especially in moments like the perfect lockstep of the pre-chorus. Lyrically, it marks a shift for Zauner. “After writing two albums and a book about grief, I feel very ready to embrace feeling,” she told Pitchfork. Zauner has become a master of looking inward (see also her upcoming book, Crying in H Mart), and “Be Sweet” finds her stretching herself to do so even more. —J.C.
At this point, Bruno Mars and Anderson .Paak have their musicianship and showmanship down to a science, so much that it makes sense for them to form a duo that could just as easily count as a supergroup. Between the two — and a murderer’s row of session musicians, courtesy of .Paak’s band the Free Nationals — they are Silk Sonic, an act aesthetically suspended in the time of Motown but with cues taken from present-decade rap. Or at least that’s the introduction they’ve offered in “Leave the Door Open,” a distant cousin to Mars’s previous “Versace on the Floor” that borrows less from Boyz II Men and more from the Isley Brothers — twin ideas separated only by era. Mars has always been something of a human karaoke machine; he got his start as a kid performing in Elvis Presley drag. .Paak tries on a million hats as well, but his references are often just less obvious. Neither is going about musical curiosity the wrong way. Together, they’re next to impossible to creatively beat. (Enjoy their 2021 Grammys performance for further evidence.) —D.L.
“Control” is Mannequin Pussy at its most whiplash inducing. The song shifts from whispery rock ballad to pummeling punk track in a single minute; few things are more exciting than hearing lead singer Missy absolutely howl the final line of an otherwise delicate chorus. “Control” continues to push the Philly band in the direction of 2019’s Patience, which polished its sound and refined its hooks to outstanding results, so it’s no surprise the band has been playing the song live since 2019, shortly after releasing Patience. It grapples with some of the same ideas as Patience, too, namely asserting agency and independence. Fittingly, then, it presents the band in perfect control of its own powers, wielding them to electrifying results. —J.C.
Every Iceage album feels like the biggest yet from the Danish art punks. So what to do after the messy orchestral masterpiece that was 2018’s Beyondless? “Shelter Song,” the third offering from the band’s upcoming fifth album, Seek Shelter, is the best answer: an arena-size anthem of resilience with a choir to boot. As terribly cheesy as it sounds on paper, it’s that undeniable in practice. Singer Elias Bender Rønnenfelt leads the long, winding trudge toward the chorus, where everything finally clicks into place. The guitars suddenly sound straighter, Rønnenfelt’s vocals clearer. It’s a glorious moment of Oasis-esque uplift: “Come lay here right beside me / They kick you when you’re up, they knock you when you’re down,” Rønnenfelt sings. The lines just beg to be echoed by a crowd in some baptism of sweat and cheap beer. —J.C.