A Year of Bangers: The Top 20 Songs of 2021

A hardcore song with radio rock appeal. A deathcore epic attracting attention outside of metal. A top 40 pop song playing to the pop-punk of yesteryear. If there was any theme to music in 2021, it was crossover appeal. Genres are as fluid as ever, and good songwriting is helping merge styles in more creative and invigorating ways (just don’t ask me to define “hyperpop,” and give 100 gecs a listen for yourself). These 20 songs are the best this year had to offer, assuring us that the music scene is in good hands – that is, as long as Olivia Rodrigo is taking names.

20. Twenty One Pilots – “Shy Away”

Twenty One Pilots’ “happiest” album wasn’t exactly a strong one, but our first taste of the duo’s newest direction certainly got our hopes up. “Shy Away” is an excellent offering of chill indie pop, guided by smooth keyboard and hints of guitar and bass. It’s a fresh twist on the band’s frenetic sound, with a chorus that glides along with Tyler Joseph’s “I love you”s and “hoo hoo”s.

19. SeeYouSpaceCowboy / If I Die First – “Bloodstainedeyes”

Both SeeYouSpaceCowboy and If I Die First had strong years with an LP and an EP respectively, but it was their split EP that stood out the most. Both acts played together on the massive mall screamo track “Bloodstainedeyes,” which features a generous helping of high-pitched wails, hardcore riffs, and vocal trade-offs making this a key moment in the revival.

18. Billie Eilish – “Therefore I Am”

Billie Eilish grew up on her second record, Happier Than Ever, starting with her transition to adulthood (she turned 18 between releases). Her newest songs are more organic and less edgy, but it’s songs like “Happier Than Ever” that remind us of why we first fell in love with Billie. It’s a stylish cut of dark pop with impeccable production, and it’s both mystical and masterful.

17. Underoath – “Hallelujah”

The return of Underoath with 2018’s Erase Me felt more in line with Spencer Chamberlain’s more rock-oriented Sleepwave, so it’s reassuring to hear the band bring back some of their old ferocity with “Hallelujah.” Don’t get me wrong, they’re far from where they were in 2006. But the chilling backing choir and layered atmospherics truly warrant the hype for next year’s Voyeurist.

16. Clairo – “Blouse”

“Blouse” caught me off guard at first. The single has more in common with contemporary folk artists than it does with Clairo’s bedroom pop peers, as does much of Sling. But it’s a gorgeous track driven by acoustic guitars and a lyrical confrontation of sexualization in the music industry. In that way, it’s her most cathartic and genuine offering yet, and it showcases Clairo’s brilliance.

15. We Came As Romans – “Darkbloom”

Following the tragic passing of Kyle Pavone, the big question was where We Came As Romans would go from here. Screamer Dave Stephens has now taken on both clean and unclean vocal duties, and the band has remade itself as a smashing metalcore outfit. Their first single since, “Darkbloom,” is complete with breakdowns and anthemic choruses, and it’s wholly invigorating.

14. Olivia Rodrigo – “Brutal”

Olivia Rodrigo went a variety of routes musically on her debut, Sour, but it’s her rock side that piqued my interest the most. “Brutal” takes after the Riot Grrl artists of the ‘90s with elements of garage punk and indie rock, and it’s a statement opener. Call it juvenile all you want, but that’s exactly what Olivia is going for: What teenager isn’t feeling anxious about parallel parking?

13. Anberlin – “Two Graves”

Anberlin unveiled their first new song in seven years during their Lowborn livestream this summer, and “Two Graves” is as aggressive an alternative rock song as we’ve heard from the Florida bunch. Following in the vein of the guitar-heavy “Velvet Covered Brick” and “Desires,” it’s obvious that one of the most enduring bands on Tooth & Nail Records’ roster hasn’t lost a step.

12. 100 gecs – “mememe”

Hyperpop is in fashion, and 100 gecs wants you to know they do it better than anyone (does anyone else even sound like them?). “mememe” is like if you ran a top 40 pop song through a computer processor, then spliced it into a million pieces, and yet it’s still as catchy as they come. With its maximalist production and autotuned vocals, have fun getting this bop out of your head.

11. Wage War – “High Horse”

Our first taste of Wage War’s Manic came with “High Horse,” a relentless metalcore cut that doesn’t let up throughout its runtime. There are no clean vocals in sight, and that’s because the band is busy playing crushing breakdowns – and the two on this track are some of the most enthralling they’ve written yet. You want to see a war? Wage War sure lives up to their name.

10. Snail Mail – “Valentine”

Like with Soccer Mommy, Snail Mail’s initial appeal to me was her thicker, more guitar-driven approach to indie rock – with angsty results. But it’s her second record, Valentine where she truly comes into her own, with opening track “Valentine” thriving off her improved production and songwriting. Lindsey Jordan’s voice cracks and breaks through one of 2021’s best choruses. 

9. Slipknot – “The Chapeltown Rag”

Corey Taylor promises great things on Slipknot’s next album (even better than We Are Not Your Kind?). The first glimpse, “The Chapeltown Rag,” hints at the metal players’ raw self-titled roots while propelling them forward with their newly refined aggression. It’s a thrashy metal song that rides off the rails as Taylor screams about a serial killer and media distortion – terrifying stuff.

8. Lil Lotus – “Think of Me Tonight”

I am head over heels for “Think of Me Tonight,” because it sounds like a 2000s pop-punk anthem while maintaining a modern exterior. The track is a trip back in time to Take This to Your Grave, with Lil Lotus’ Elias Villagran going full-band romp. It’s so emo it hurts, possessing plenty of nostalgic flair: a sugary chorus, an impassioned bridge, and lyrics about a relationship.

7. Wage War – “Death Roll”

As a metalcore fanatic, I just can’t get enough of Wage War’s Manic – hence why a second song makes this list. But “Death Roll” is not just any ordinary metalcore song: It’s a hefty helping of everything to love about the genre, neatly wrapped together in a giant bow. From pinch harmonics to nasty breakdowns to a dashing guitar solo, this track is a monstrous scorcher.

6. Mod Sun – “Flames (Feat. Avril Lavigne)”

We ship Mod Sun and Avril Lavigne. One of the best power couples of 2021 also worked together on one of the year’s best collaborations (if not the best). With a punch of pop-punk and plenty of pop shine – courtesy of Lavigne’s gorgeous pipes – “Flames” builds into a magnificent rock song you can’t help but yell along to. Sk8er bois unite, as this is a generational anthem.

5. Turnstile – “Mystery”

Turnstile deserves all the attention and praise they’re receiving for Glow On, and it’s thanks to superb tracks like “Mystery.” It’s everything the band has brought to the table in their past decade as a band, but a little livelier and a lot groovier. With grungy riffs and a high-flying solo, the group transform their ‘90s New York hardcore style into catchy modern rock on this mosh number.

4. Bring Me the Horizon – “DiE4U”

Bring Me the Horizon is doing their own thing, and I’m all here for it. In 2019, they went full on pop-EDM. In 2020, they revitalized their hard rock edge. This year, they’re entering yet another era – this time, with heavy guitars to balance out their pop songwriting. Yes, “DiE4U” is a pop song at heart, with a sing-song chorus and catchy keyboard giving their rock sound flair.

3. Lorna Shore – “To the Hellfire”

When the drama with CJ McCreery went down, I unfortunately (and mistakenly) wrote Lorna Shore off. But new vocalist Will Ramos has taken them to the next level. “To the Hellfire” gives us an idea of just how far this band can go, swiftly moving through sections of blast beats, guitar solos, and unreal screams. It’s a deathcore masterpiece and one of the best songs in the history of the genre.

2. nothing,nowhere. – “Pieces of You”

nothing,nowhere. has been rolling lately, with Trauma Factory featuring several of his 2020 singles (“Nightmare,” “Pretend,” and “Fake Friend”). Non-album song “Pieces of You” proves just how versatile the emo rapper is – and just how much he can explore outside of emo rap. A heartwrencing slice of alternative rock, this is the type of song that can propel an artist beyond the scene.

1. Olivia Rodrigo – “Good 4 U”

Move over, Hayley Williams. Olivia Rodrigo is channeling her inner Paramore, and the next “Misery Business” has arrived (who cares if they sound similar?). This time, however, Olivia is a megastar who’s already bursting her own pop bubble. Her ode to 2000s pop-punk is as big a radio hit as I’ve heard in years. Guitar music is back, and it’s got plenty of teenage angst.

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