2021 was a wild year. Relive the highlights with our favorite songs by Olivia Rodrigo, Silk Sonic, Wet Leg, Willow, Turnstile, Neil Young, Madlib and more.
2021 was a wild year. Not to be outdone, artists and producers went over the top with bold production and surprise collaborations, making 2021 one of our favorite recent years in music.
From 100 gecs’ maximum overdrive to Wet Leg’s fuzzy garage-pop and Turnstile’s sledgehammer hardcore riffs, 2021 was loud and in your face. But 2021 had a soft side, too. Silk Sonic slid into our hearts with spot-on soul perfection. In “VBS,” Lucy Dacus saved a seat for us by the campfire with some of the year’s best verses.
2021 was a huge year for new artists, too. Willow teamed up with Travis Barker on her pop-punk debut (one of those surprise collaborations we mentioned), Olivia Rodrigo blew us away with brutal honesty and grungy guitars, and Molly Moore tells it how it is on “i love you but i don’t like you.”
Here, in no specific order, are just a few of the songs that caught our ear in 2021.
Olivia Rodrigo — “brutal”
Olivia Rodrigo refuses to hold anything back on “brutal,” the fifth single from her debut album, Sour. The brutality hits harder than Mortal Kombat in this crunchy grunge-pop thrasher where Rodrigo, with equal parts candor and spite, rejects the idea that life peaks while you’re still in high school.
The blown-out, fuzzy guitars and Rodrigo’s in-your-face vocals are reminiscent of ‘90s alt-rock acts like L7 and The Breeders, but with a razor sharp Gen Z wit that makes Rodrigo one of the most exciting songwriters of 2021.
Willow (feat. Travis Barker) — “t r a n s p a r e n t s o u l”
Willow enlisted drummer Travis Barker of blink-182 fame to power the pop-punk/new-wave hybrid “t r a n s p a r e n t s o u l” to number nine on the Billboard US Rock Airplay charts.
Willow’s quick vocal cadence cuts like a knife (as do Barker’s rapid-fire beats), calling out “fake people” and “snakes” in her energetic pop-punk debut. The guitars have an ‘80s flavor a la The Police that’s a refreshing change from pop-punk’s typical distorted edge, leaving plenty of space for Willow’s stacked vocal harmonies and Barker’s intricate drumming to take the lead.
Turnstile — “HOLIDAY”
Turnstile pair heavy riffs with heavier grooves on “HOLIDAY,” from the Baltimore hardcore punk band’s third album, Glow On.
The quintet worked with producer Mike Elizondo (Eminem, Fiona Apple, Keith Urban) to sculpt their brand of frenzied punk aggression into a genre-agnostic masterwork of Brazilian samba rhythms, dreamy shoegaze guitars and riff-heavy rap-rock that’s unlike anything in the contemporary hardcore circuit.
Wet Leg — “Oh No”
Who is Wet Leg? The post-punk duo of Rhian Teasdale and Hester Chambers are one of 2021’s biggest surprises—arriving seemingly out of nowhere in June with the single “Chaise Lounge,” which quickly scored over 800,000 views on YouTube.
In November, Wet Leg turned up the distortion and doubled down on absurdist humor with “Oh No,” a fuzzy blast of playful garage-pop for the terminally online. They’ve yet to release their debut album, but with a quirky sound halfway between Ty Segall and Deerhoof, Wet Leg is well on their way to becoming one of the most exciting bands of 2022.
100 gecs — “mememe”
100 gecs continue their abrasive hyperpop assault with “mememe,” the frenetic lead single from their highly anticipated second album, 10000 Gecs.
“mememe” filters the musical trends of the MySpace era—chiptunes, pop-punk, nü-metal, ska, dubstep, screamo and happy hardcore, to name just a few—into an algorithmic mash-up of styles stronger than the sum of its parts. 100 gecs’ clever repurposing of web 2.0 aesthetics is anything but retro and “mememe” should get fans excited for 10000 Gecs, set for release in early 2022.
Lucy Dacus — “VBS”
Lucy Dacus takes listeners on a vividly rendered trip through scenic forests, rickety cabin bunk beds and bible study with “VBS,” an autobiographical story of an adolescent summer at church camp.
Dacus’s easygoing melodies and campfire acoustic guitar accompaniment spin a soft yarn about secret lives, bad poetry and forbidden love—until the line about “playing Slayer at full volume” prompts the band to respond with appropriate heavy metal thunder.
“VBS” bottles the uncertainty of adolescence like a sodastream and shakes it up with cinematic storytelling and an unpredictable musical arrangement, making it (and the rest of Home Video) one of our favorite releases of 2021.
Silk Sonic — “Skate”
Bruno Mars and Anderson .Paak team up to turn in a solid gold funky roller disco jam with “Skate,” from the album An Evening with Silk Sonic. Mars croons his way across the dancefloor (and plays piano, guitar and congas) atop .Paak’s slippery funk fusion drum groove in this swaggering throwback to the slick soulful sounds of the ‘70s and ‘80s.
The R&B super duo got their name from Bootsy Collins, who endowed the group with the moniker after listening to a rough mix of the album. Collins sits in with the virtuoso funk bass protégé Thundercat on the slow jam “After Last Night,” a neosoul deep cut showcasing the group’s impressive instrumental abilities.
Mdou Moctar — “Taliat”
Tuareg songwriter and guitarist Mdou Moctar fuses the assouf “desert blues” guitar style of Africa’s Saharan region with the heavy psych sounds of California’s Palm Desert—home of Kyuss and Queens of the Stone Age—on “Taliat,” from his sixth album, Afrique Victime.
On the guitar, Moctar’s fleet-fingered flurry of cascading trills often sounds like two or three players exchanging licks across the badlands while the rhythm section cuts a groove around looping, danceable rhythms.
Low — “Days Like These”
Low’s late-career renaissance continues with“Days Like These,” from Hey What, the thirteenth LP by the veteran Duluth, Minnesota slowcore duo.
Alan Sparhawk (guitar and vocals) and Mimi Parker (drums and vocals) team up once again with producer BJ Burton (Bon Iver, Taylor Swift, Lizzo) to twist and contort Low’s quiet ambient indie murmur beyond all recognition.
“Days Like These” is an experimental and evocative hybrid of melancholy vocal harmonies, uplifting gospel chord progressions, cherubic guitar melodies and avant-garde production techniques that’ll make you question everything you thought you knew about distortion and bass.
Illuminati hotties — “MMMOOOAAAAAYAYA”
Sarah Tudzin lashes out at pretty much everything on “MMMOOOAAAAAYAYA,” the lead single from illuminati hotties’ album Let Me Do One More.
Tudzin cuts between angular post-punk guitar riffing, jangly summertime power-pop and a vocal delivery more animated than the cast of The Simpsons in this unhinged, snarky and sarcastic skewering of every single thing that really grinds her gears.
Madlib — “Dirtknock”
Madlib kicked off 2021 with a boom and a bap on Sound Ancestors, a crate-digger’s paradise of reggae rhythms, instrumental hip hop and patchwork sampling strung together with a loose, jazzy feel.
On “Dirtknock,” the third single edited and arranged by electronic musician Four Tet—who shares credit with Madlib—hard kicks and snappy snares are layered with deep bass and an exhaustive sample library to send listeners on an immersive trip through the past, present and future of hip-hop.
Molly Moore — “i love you but i don’t like you”
Molly Moore doesn’t mince words on the trippy alt-soul cut “i love you but i don’t like you” from her album Voice on the Internet.
On her debut album, Moore examines her relationship with social media (and the people behind the profile pics) with a vocal style so smooth it’s easy to forget this is a diss track.
The chilled-out, downtempo electric piano chords and swirling backwards electronic beats made “i love you but i don’t like you” one of our favorite tracks of 2021.
Neil Young & Crazy Horse — “Shape of You”
Neil Young welcomes Bruce Springsteen sideman Nils Lofgren back to the Crazy Horse stable on the rollicking honky-tonk piano rocker “Shape of You,” from the album Barn.
Lofgren sits at the dusty piano bench (the album was recorded live in a barn, after all) to tickle the ivories on this rowdy, rambling and largely unrehearsed number that captures Crazy Horse in all their ragged glory.
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