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The 20 best tracks of 2021

TextDazed DigitalIllustrationMarija Marc

From Azealia Banks to Amaarae, Pa Salieu to PinkPantheress, we look back on our favourite songs of the year

So many artists released killer tunes last year, but there were no clubs to hear them in. 2021 was the year we broke free, and artists brought their A-games, releasing banger after banger after banger. But with it looking like we’ll have yet more uncertain times ahead in 2022, it’s a stark reminder that this freedom can be precarious. At least we have these songs to take us back to the good times, and to enjoy during the better times that are still to come. Here are our top 20 tracks of 2021.


It’s a measure of Rosalía’s ability to rewrite the rules on pop that, in 2021, she was able to call on the likes of Billie Eilish and The Weeknd for features – and for those features to be sung entirely in Spanish. But it was a ghetto-fabulous track released with little or no fanfare in September that slapped hardest, proving once again her knack for finding pop’s hidden erogenous zones. On the track, the Catalan singer spits double-speed rhymes over a whiplash beat with Tokischa, a rising star of the Dominican Republic’s dembow scene whose queer sex-positive style has seen her villainised in the press and even threatened with jail. For everyone else, “Linda” was two minutes of transparently filthy fun: “dulce y deliciosa como una cookie”, indeed. (Alex Denney)


Painting outside the lines of contemporary jazz, R&B and classical styles, Lewisham-born Bradley Miller creates a healing space with his music as cktrl. Following his breakout, breakup EP Robyn with a release about coming out the other side of loss, Zero was a record full of strange whispers of the heart and sudden, eruptive swells of strings and Miller’s trademark clarinet. On the title track, Miller hews closer to the electronic R&B of occasional collaborator Coby Sey, teaming with neo-soul singer Mereba for a graceful lament that sounds like a slow exhalation of breath. (Alex Denney)


Amapiano’s journey out of the South African townships to all-conquering genre coveted by producers worldwide has been a long one, and “Adiwele” felt like a crowning moment of sorts. A smash-hit built out of little more than rapper Young Stunna’s breathless title chant and the layered percussion of acknowledged masters Kabza de Small and DJ Maphorisa, it’s a marvel of minimalist production that underscores the enigma around the yanos genre: how did house music that’s been stripped of its most basic component, the kick drum, become a bona fide pop phenomenon? (Alex Denney)


Worming its way into endless sets before it got its official release earlier this year, “Sick Bitch” was the first track that got everyone to sit up and pay attention to LSDXOXO, and by the time his EP Dedicated to Disrespect dropped in April, we were hooked. Though there was some argument as to which track most deserved a spot in Dazed’s top 20, eventually we settled on “The Devil” – a delicious techno-pop earworm on which the Berlin-based producer boasts of fucking the devil, selling his soul, and having hundred dollar bills rain all over his body (which is surely the dream for most of us, right?). (Emma Davidson)


Like, is it just me, or did dating get even more depressing in 2021? Coming in hard with an anthem for anyone dealing with their very own fuckboy was PC Music signee Namasenda. Taken from debut album Unlimited Ammo, the Joey LaBeija-featuring track “Finish Him” landed in the hazy final days of summer, and encouraged listeners to kick serial offenders to the kerb. “Ghost him, dump him, finish him, caught him textin’, finish him, candy-coloured lies, yeah I’m sick of it, idiotic smile, been a while, finish him,” the Swedish musician purrs, her angelic, Auto-Tuned lyrics soaring sweetly across softly tinkling synths. Namasenda takes no prisoners, and neither should you. (Emma Davidson)


One of the most exciting new voices in global music right now, Tems has had an unbelievable year. From breaking records as the most streamed female artist in Africa to the success of WizKid’s “Essence”, the first Nigerian song to reach the Billboard Top 10, which featured her goosebump-inducing vocals. But it was on the lead single of her second EP If Orange Was a Place that Tems drilled to the core of 2021. On “Crazy Tings” she declares, in her signature alto, that “crazy tings are happenin’” – and absolutely no lies are told, your honour. The infectious drum beat, optimistic keys, and vibrationally relatable earworm hook make this anthem the perfect tonic for the year we’ve had where crazy tings continued to take on a whole new meaning, alongside chronicling the madness of Tems’ own catapult onto the international stage. (Natty Kasambala)


Another glamless year for all of us women of the world on an ever-shrinking globe has passed. We’ve mined art, film, and pop for any semblance of mystique, charm, the ever-gorj, and came up short. We said our prayers to father, son, House of Gucci and heard no heavenly voice back. Then the new era of Charli baby arrived, all big hair and bigger 80s synths, for a banger built for a post-lockdown summer that could have been. “We could fall in love in new shapes, new shapes,” Charli sings. “Now we are so close, We don't have to fight how we feel, when the lights and the skins arе cold,” affirms Christine and the Queens, while Caroline Polachek’s super sweet soprano invites us deep into this glittering other-dimension. “New Shapes” is imbued with all the sweet hope, glinting possibilities, and stomach butterflies of a perfect, yet to be known night out. (Anna Cafolla)


Did anyone have a Doss comeback on the cards this year? Seven years ago the New York City-based songwriter, producer, and DJ released a transcendent debut EP of swoon-worthy, starry-eyed electronic pop – yet she largely disappeared from public view in the intervening period, popping up only for the occasional DJ set and remix (including a notable collaboration with the late SOPHIE on a “Whole New World” rework). With this year’s 4 Hit New Songs EP she picked up right where she left off, with “Strawberry” hitting a particularly sweet spot – a sugar rush of a song mixing dream-pop with 90s shoegaze, big beat, and electronica. (Selim Bulut)

12. SZA, “I HATE U”

Is there a more cathartic refrain than “And if you wonder if I hate you… I dooooooo”? Yes, that question is rhetorical. Despite only being officially released in the first week of December, true SZA stans have been rinsing “I Hate You” since it was uploaded as one of three “random thoughts” to SoundCloud in the summer. Soundtracking everything from actual car crashes to the slightest inconvenience on TikTok, the track became an unofficial anthem for a decidedly awful year. Swinging from the sexually charged ennui of “I be so bored with myself, can you come and fuck me?” to the realisation “Shitty of you to make me feel just like this,” this portrait of a toxic relationship easily transposed itself onto our collective experience of life in 2021. Two years deep into the pandemic the naïve hope of “Good Days” are long gone – but at least some respite can be found in scream-singing “Fuck you!” into the void. No, we are not OK, but at least we have new SZA to get us through – even if we had to bully her for it. Next up, “Shirt”. (Vanessa Hsieh)


Although Manchester’s Anz has been diligently delivering brain-battering technoid explorations via Hessle Audio and her own OTMI label for a while now, her recent excursion into pop songwriting was a welcome plot twist. Her All Hours EP for Ninja Tune was a blow-by-blow account of a day spent in and around the clurb, from loo queues to the afters, building a world of wristbands, warm tinnies, and waiting for your mate to finish applying eyeliner so you can get in the Uber. After a cascade of glimmering synths pulled from the 80s, “You Could Be” is freestyle pop at its best, unashamed (with sickly sweet lyrics like “I can picture us / Holding hands on a beach falling in love”), and genuinely joyful. When we next get to no sleep, bus, club, another club, another club, plane, next place with reckless abandon, this will be the soundtrack to pre-drinks. (Felicity Martin)


If 2020 was the year of forced abstinence, 2021 was the year to get back on our “Thot Shit.” Being “lit since brunch”? Thot shit. “Hands on my knees, shakin’ ass”? Thot shit. Two words to simply but effectively shut down haters. “Thot Shit” returns to the swagger and flow of Megan’s early EP persona Tina Snow, delivering a delicious diss track to those who’d like to drag her down, through the IDGAF celebration of her wins. “Hoes taking shots,” she raps, referring to literal and metaphorical shots fired at her by Tory Lanez and subsequent blogs doubting her allegations against him, “but they ain’t in my calibre.” Manifesting personal milestones (“2021 finna graduate college,”) as well as predicting the year’s broader pop cultural shifts (“Goth girl shit, I’m a real hot topic” – looking at you, Kravis), “Thot Shit” is Thee Stallion’s cocky assertion that this is her world, we’re all just living in it. All haters will be haunted with defiant twerking and the threat of becoming their own worst fear. (Vanessa Hsieh)


Back in June, Lil Nas X released an unauthorised collaboration with Nike, which saw the rapper inject actual human blood into the soles of its Air Max 97s. Unsurprisingly, the company took him to court, but as one of the only celebrities actually capable of using social media, Lil Nas X made a meme of the mandate. Much of his music seems to bait outrage, too, stirring up shock and humour, like the rambunctious “MONTERO (Call Me By Your Name)” which saw the rapper grind and pole dance for beelzebub. Funny only papers over pain, though, as Lil Nas X (whose real name is Montero) exorcises the demons of his closeted past, making a circus out of the hell he was supposedly destined to. (Daniel Rodgers)


MUNA’s Phoebe Bridgers-featuring single “Silk Chiffon” is a giddy ode to queer love – namely, the electric feeling of a first kiss. “Life’s so fun, life’s so fun / Don’t need to worry about no one / She said that I got her if I want / She’s so soft like silk chiffon,” the band sings before the track explodes into its head-banging, anthemic chorus. It’s MUNA’s first release on Bridgers’ label Saddest Factory Records and the euphoric, cinematic-sounding track gets an equally cinematic video, inspired by the seminal lesbian film But I’m a Cheerleader. Dressed in bubblegum pink, lead singer Katie Gavin joins her bandmates (alongside Bridgers as the camp leader and Caleb Hearon as a ‘reformed’ ex-gay counsellor) at a conversion therapy camp, where she quickly falls for a girl before escaping to a gay bar with the other camp attendees. A rapturous addition to MUNA’s canon of candid, politically sharp, and joyously queer works. (Brit Dawson)


“I have no genre. I’ve been pinned down for most of my life, so I’m not going to let it happen with something I enjoy,” Pa Salieu told us last year. His style-hopscotching Afrikan Rebel EP was another example of the Coventry rapper’s bid for freedom: drawing on his African heritage by bringing together sounds from across the continent. Among nods to Ghanaian drill and Nigerian alté, “Style & Fashion” featuring the distinctive vocals of Obongjayar was the standout: a floaty salute to the genre that enjoyed a breakout year, amapiano. Where the British-Gambian MC has previously done hypnotic, time-stretched dancehall (“Betty”), emotional rap (“More Paper”), and no-frills barring (“My Family”), here he proved he can do tear-out party tracks at their most club-playable too. Protect this man at all costs. (Felicity Martin)


Doja Cat is a weirdo, but that’s her appeal. Whether she’s donning chainmail to do dramatic readings of Cupcakke lyrics in a fake British accent or creating a beat in real-time on Instagram Live, millions of fans tune in just to see what she does next. “Get Into It (Yuh)” truly pulls us into the orbit of her weird world, an addictive amalgamation of playful gaming sounds, a specific kind of internet literacy that speaks straight to Gen Z (“Y’all bitches better ‘yuh’ like Ariana”), and audacious, unexpected rhymes (“church”/“butt”). She’s even able to make an Ed Sheeran name-drop sound cool. Doja pays homage to Nicki Minaj, who paved the way for this new gen of genre-blending pop-rap girls. “Thank you Nicki, I love you!” Doja sings as a fan, referencing “Massive Attack” in the same line. Minaj’s influence is also felt on the trippy word acrobatics and intricate internal rhymes, which belie the song’s simple premise of a girl with a “truck” of an ass. Coaxed by the irreverent repeated hook, Doja Cat convinces us to “Get Into It (Yuh)”, and it’s hard to escape her call. (Vanessa Hsieh)


PinkPantheress started the year as any other student in London. Yet, as she began to upload titbits of her aching, syrupy tracks to TikTok, she soon cultivated a phalanx of followers, among them Grimes, Lizzo, and Marc Jacobs. Produced by Mura Masa, “Just For Me” has been appropriated over two million times on the app and reads like a sweet, melancholic diary entry to a hometown crush. But at less than two minutes long, it pangs more than it pains, like a distant, blurred-out memory. Laced with breakbeat samples and jungle hooks, PinkPantheress’ nostalgia-tinged sound conjures both images of Lily Allen on MySpace and shitposters on @on_a_downward_spiral on Instagram, capturing the constantly yearning, existential, era-hopping culture of today. (Daniel Rodgers)


500 Twitter accounts later and Azealia Banks remains one of pop culture’s most unique assets. “Fuck Him All Night” was drunken, filthy, and funny, powered by a blistering intellect and the rath of Banks’ wordplay: “Cause we can slut, we can fuck, we can dig in the guts, we can suck to the nut if you ready to bust.” Consider it the thinking man’s “WAP”. Originally titled “Kanye West”, Banks incinerates the Galcher Lustwerk-produced beat with an acidic tongue, likening her genitals to Jay-Z and Lizzo in the process. Despite Banks’ propensity for spite and chaos, she evades full cancellation because she, much like “Fuck Him All Night”, is bombastic, moreish, and often astute. Azealia Banks probably could have written “Thou art a boil, a plague sore” but Shakespeare could never have come up with “So seductive and plush, feel the pussy deluxe”. (Daniel Rodgers)


Amaarae made one of the more arresting debuts of the year in The Angel You Don’t Know, a free-floating mix of sensual soul, Afrobeats, trap and dancehall influences that aligned itself with the Nigerian alté movement, though its creator grew up between Ghana and the US. Call it ASMR&B, if you will, but look out: album standout “Sad Girlz Luv Money” might have sounded like the softest of pillowtalk, but it concealed a lyric as coldly acquisitive as Clipse in their stacks-counting prime: “Get the fuck outta my way / I’m gonna get paid, yeah.” When Kali Uchis contributed a sexed-up remix in September, the track went global via a TikTok dance (what else?), but the vibe is all Amaarae: pure steel wrapped in cotton-candy clouds. (Alex Denney)


Bunny is a rider. It’s an odd combination of words, though they do have a specific meaning. Polachek has said that the song is about absconding from life’s responsibilities, if only briefly: ‘Bunny’ could be any and all of us, and to be a ‘rider’ is to not text back, to go off-grid, to do your own thing on your own schedule for a minute. But it still feels like a non-sequitur. Bunny is a rider. Hearing Polachek sing those words in the song’s opening bars, even just one time, will be enough to permanently lodge them in your head like a Pontypool word virus. Bunny is a rider… is bunny a rider? Combine with a killer bassline, chorus, the sampled giggles of producer Danny L Harle’s baby, and some whistling (why not?), and you have one of 2021’s most distinctive singles. Yes, you’re right… Bunny is a rider. (Selim Bulut)


Nimco Happy was one of the last people to find out that her “Isii Nafta (Love You More Than My Life)” had become a worldwide phenomenon. Originally recorded in 2017 as part of an Eid special on Kenyan TV, the three-minute endorphin rush had already garnered cult status in East Africa as a mainstay of Somali get-togethers, but it wasn’t until Akafi Ali, a British Somali TikToker, uploaded a clip from a family wedding that “Isii Nafta” went global. Ali’s video scored a million views in less than a day and, soon enough, Cardi B and Bella Hadid were posting the song to their own pages. It may have taken a few years to reach its full potential, but the track had all the trappings of a viral hit and was quickly re-released on a major label. From the onset, synths trumpet and whirr into action, as Nimco (pronounced Nimo) professes her love through crack-laced earworm hooks, before bursting into an anthemic chorus sung in Somali, Swahili, Arabic, and English. As computerised, retro horns clamour over Nimco’s life-giving declarations, “Isii Nafta” is the sonic serotonin shot, and proof that, in 2021, the best music comes without borders. (Daniel Rodgers)