35 Best Singles of 2021

I tend to live in my own bubble, if not on my own planet, when it comes to singles these days. Well, maybe I always did (you might be saying), but at least I used to not go through entire years without writing about any of them, or really talking to anybody about them at all. At least with albums I still post “product reports” on facebook and then here a couple times a month. With singles, I just keep my mouth shut.

And yes (here he goes again), I said “singles” not (zzzzzz) “songs”; last year’s explanation still applies. Main requirement is I have to have heard them as standalone entities, before or apart from whatever album they might wind up on. Yet I almost never find out about them while listening to the radio, much less in clubs where people dance.

This year I’d say my main sources were “Apres Ski” and “Ballerman” compilations of songs young Germans evidently trinken bier to on vacation (responsible for five of the top 20 below and one more of the 15 also-rans), lists Dave Cooper Moore and Frank Kogan periodically emailed out to a small group I’m part of and/or blog-posted, stray and fleeting mentions by facebook friends, maybe weekly song reviews in The New York TimesPlaylist” feature, and new-release spreadsheets I get paid to peruse every Wednesday for Napster/Rhapsody. If a title piques my interest, I drop it into a mix for random streaming, and from there let chips fall where they may.

I should also explain that I remain dedicated to the “year of impact” rule, even more with singles than with albums. Which explains why so many on my list technically hit the streets, airwaves or at least youtube in (mostly late) 2020 — In my own world, they connected in 2021. And especially since it may take me a while to check out (say) newer Alpine ski-slope mix installments, no doubt there will be some 2021 singles I won’t even have heard of until sometime in 2022. That explained, in approximate but not over-thunk order of preference, here are my 20 favorites from (or at least “of”) 2021, followed by 15 more I like.

But are Funky Marys funkier than Kuhl un de Gäng?

Tublavuoro” by Seksikäs Suklaa & Dosedela (video posted Nov. 6, 2020) Title means “Double Shift” in Finnish. A brown-skinned Helsinki “comedy” duo, apparently, and their friend with died red hair wear work uniforms in offices and warehouses in the video while rapping and calling-and-responding stuff about Lamborghinis and bada-bing-bada-boom like if Falco came from Mesopotamia.

“Königin” by Funky Marys (video posted Oct. 23, 2020) Title means “Queen” in German. Website says they are “Andrea Schönenborn, Yvonne Schönenborn, Tabea Scholdan, Anja Keul and Bianca Schüller. The Funky Marys have been the most successful and best-known women’s Kölsch formation for almost 20 years.” Thing is, they’re not “funky” — unless hey-hey-hey na-na-na Eurobeat Oktoberfest oompah drndl-pop stomping counts as funk, which maybe it should. The cheap cartoon video has a royal girl in a crown and regular guy in suspenders sharing spaghetti strands and getting married. At their reception, this ditty will surely fill the dancefloor.

“Mer Dänze Jaan” by Kuhl un de Gäng (non-video posted Oct. 22, 2020) Title means “Give Me More Dances” in German. Four to six guys depending which video or photo you look at, sometimes dressed dorky and dapper like a ’90s swing revival band, with trumpet and saxophone. “Anyone who has escalated with Kuhl un de Gäng knows that this is not about colorful confectionery,” their website clumsily translates. “EDM (eddytor’s note: not the genre I would have assigned them) at its best and live, that makes this newly invented band unique in the music landscape. Whether in Cologne, in GÄNGLAND, in the whole of Germany or beyond, full energy, strobe and ecstasy! Straight ahead without compromise , GÄNG has made it its motto, because ‘When we celebrate, we celebrate hard’! A celebration to last throughout the years, as their somewhat funkier almost-namesakes used to say (speaking of wedding reception songs.)

Qbik is not a Polish joke (or is he?)

“Sztuka Picia” by Qbik (video posted October 7, 2021) Title means “The Art of Drinking” in Polish; new wavers Lady Pank (who Robert Christgau once astutely described as a Polish hybrid of Men and Work and the Vibrators) once did a song with the same name. Qbik’s music, though, is the best (only?) central European opera rap since “Rock Me Amadeus”. On his facebook page, he wrote a looooong, ticked-off and quite possibly drunk New Years rant about what I guess is the state of Polish education. A brief excerpt: “WHAT THEY TEACH AND LEARN IN SCHOOLS IS DRAMA. GREATEST KNOWLEDGE THAT YOU WILL NEVER DO IN REAL LIFE. FUCK YOU KNOW WHAT IS THE RESULT OF SOME FUCKING PHYSICAL ACTIONS, HOW MUCH BACTERIA ON THE ROW OR SOME CHEMICAL REACTIONS FROM THE DUME, IT IS NOT INTERESTING AT ALL AND IT WILL NOT HELP YOU. THEY SAY THEY TEACH LOGICAL THINKING IN SCHOOL, BUT WHERE IS THE LOGIC, MOST LESSONS SEEMS THE SAME. FOR MEMORY OF READY RULES FROM THE HANDWREL, COUNTING SINUSES, SOME KUTANGENS, THE SAME LECTURES FOR 30 YEARS.”

“Komplett am Arsch” by Ina Colada (non-video posted July 17, 2020) Title means “Completely Fucked” in German. Ricketyness reminds me of B*witched. Wikipedia identifies Ina Colada as “a German party singer,” 35 years old. “Inga Peters’ career began in 2008 with an appearance in the famous Bierkönig party pub on Mallorca. First as Inga von der Playa , then as Ina Colada , she sang party hits and mood music. She made her first record the following year, it was a cover of the Connie Francis hit “Beautiful Stranger Man’.” As far as I can tell, Ms. Francis had no such song. Maybe they mean “Strangers in the Night” — or “Beautiful Stranger” by Madonna?

Meet Me at Our Spot (Live)” by the Anxiety (video posted September 24, 2021) #21 US pop, #8 Australia, #6 New Zealand. Most genre-less American hit I heard all year; not even sure what I’d compare it to — “Fast Car” by Tracy Chapman is the closest precedent I can think of, and it’s not close at all. This is way more ebullient, for one thing. Tyler Cole’s misty murmur might irritate me if Willow’s cracked volume didn’t perfectly balance it out. Not being Californian, I couldn’t figure out what “the 405” they might “hit” was until I saw a Joan Didion quote in the paper this morning where she remembered that it used to be called the San Diego Freeway. And for a long time I couldn’t figure out why Willow “just got a drug test” — I suppose “drunk text” does make more sense, now that youtube mentions it. I also like how, in the video, the Anxiety’s “spot” is a woodsy area beneath a remote graffitied bridge. How “Meet Me” apparently got exactly zero song votes in the Uproxx critics poll is beyond me — I would’ve bet money on it being one of the year’s big critic singles. Once upon a time, I’m sure it would have been. I’m guessing people must consider it a 2020 song, which it technically is. But thanks to TikTok, it was a 2021 hit.

Feminine boy, masculine girl.

“3Sex” by Indochine & Christine and the Queens (video posted 25 November, 2020) #8 Belgian Ultrapop chart; #42 France. Alfred Soto (while discussing love triangle songs) was wondering recently why there aren’t more menage a trois songs, and I immediately thought of Joan Jett’s “French Song” (“I have to laugh out loud when you say three’s a crowd” etc.). But it just now occurred to me that this year’s Euro-hit by venerable French neo-wavers Indochine and their quasi-band countrywoman Héloïse Adélaïde Letissier might count too. But nope — turns out its more about a third gender than three people knocking (six?) boots. Lyric translations yield “a masculine girl,” “a feminine boy,” “dressed like my fiancé,” “I don’t want to see him (then later, her) naked.” So, closer to say “Androgynous” by the Replacements — except it sounds a lot sexier. Here’s hoping it gives Éric Zemmour nightmares.

“Brutal” by Olivia Rodrigo (lyric video posted May 20, 2021) #12 US pop, #8 New Zealand. Did not expect her to grab the top two song spots in the 2021 Uproxx poll (Pazz & Jop, I miss you more than ever), and neither with what I swear is her only great song (the rest are fine, don’t get me wrong, as is her album, but though I try to make it a habit not to second-guess my fellow writers’ tastes I detect a whole lot of wishful thinking in the latest incarnations of what thankfully nobody seems to call poptimism anymore.) So yeah, as many have pointed out, “Brutal” sounds an awful lot like “Pump It Up” by Elvis Costello — maybe even more than “Frustrated” by the Knack used to. And how Costello ended this year’s reimagined Spanish Model with “Pump It Up (Brutal Mix)” suggests he has a sense of humor about the similarity. But has everybody noticed that Rodrigo’s wonderfully mundane line about the difficulty of parallel parking furthers the driving obsession voiced in her breakthrough hit? Also, was Skye Sweetnam 17 years ahead of her time, or what?

“Am I Alright” by Aly & AJ (non-video posted October 21, 2021) Lonely mental breakdown Eurodisco from Southern California: “I’m never happy when it rains in L.A./And when it’s sunny I feel the same.” Probably the best thing this once Radio Disney-identified pair have done since Insomniatic in 2007. Which is partly because they took a long break, but for the past couple years they’ve been sneaking out seemingly self-released single tracks and EPs at an impressive pace. In May they released their first full album in 14 years, A Touch of the Beat Gets You Up on Your Feet Gets You Out and Then Into the Sun; it was passable, but this isn’t on it, and it’s better than anything that is.

The new goths wear white.

End of Time (Taste of Heaven)” by Keiino (video posted October 8, 2021) Doomsday-disco bubble-goth from a two-guy/one-gal “joikpop-band from Norway,” says their facebook page. Wikipedia calls them a “supergroup” for reasons I can’t figure out, and says they were their country’s Eurovision contestants two years ago. (Googling “joikpop” reveals….nothing.) Creatures of the night are getting down, angel leather queens are letting go, all the queers go straight to heaven. On facebook, Keiino wear Christmas sweaters.

“Transactions” by Narissa feat. Wiz Khalifa (video posted April 6, 2021) Capitalism song of the year, the art of Narissa’s deal: “I take Master Card and Visa, ho, I take a big-ass house with a lawn to mow.” Hope she gets a battery-run lawnmower like mine! I have no idea how “Apple Pay” works, and I’m not entirely clear on what Wiz is supposed to add, but I can live with that. According to Slauson Girl (“Los Angeles News from a South Central Native”), “A graduate of St. Johns University (where J. Cole graduated summa cum laude 2009), Narissa majored in Communications and Business.” (The J. Cole parenthetical was in the original; since I’m old enough to remember “Sucker M.C.’s,” I would have named DMC instead.)

Hey Violet aren’t blue

“Sway” by Hey Violet (non-video posted October 21, 2021) Three-girl/one-boy pop band from L.A.; originally allegedly harder rocking when they were teenagers of course called Cherri Bomb. I liked their 2017 album From the Outside okay, and had a feeling they’d do something I liked even more someday. I’m a sucker for a Middle Eastern undulating chorus, and probably always will be.

“Geiler Tag Zum Tanzen” by Nancy Franck feat. Kevin Reumann. (non-video posted November 26, 2020) Title means “Great Day to Dance” in German; lyric says said day is “heute,” i.e. today. More super-bouncy (“raise your hands, come on dance, come on dance!”) electro-schlager trash. You like your generic; I like my generic.

“Tik Tik Tok (Rhythm of the Clock)” by Kid Alina meets DJ Ey DoubleU (“wideo” — as Kid Alina says at the beginning — posted March 11, 2021) More presumably Teutonic bosh-pop, this time by an actual kid. Something weirdly ominous about this one, for some reason. Especially when DJ Ey makes Alina’s voice go all cyborgian.

In the deserts of Sudan

“Gatulak” by Kronan & Nyaruach (video posted May 6, 2021) Nyaruach is from South Sudan, “a single mother of two who lives in Kakuma,” according to the Global Voices website, which also reveals that this “feminist hit” about “a boring man with no plan” has existed in some form (without Kronan, maybe? not sure) since late 2018. That’s more than I would have figured out. The whistling helps.

“Summer Fling” by Mykki Blanco feat. Kari Faux (non-video posted June 3, 2021) Dicks that smell like hamsters, wigs set on fire, mushrooms in Jaaaaanuary. Rapper Mykki’s pronouns are she or they; “started hormone therapy for her gender transition” in 2019, Wikipedia says. “Her influences include Lil’ Kim, GG Allin, Jean Cocteau, Kathleen Hanna, Lauryn Hill, Rihanna, Marilyn Manson and Anaïs Nin.” But it’s rapper Kari’s Arkansas-accented concrete-smoldering-beneath-her-toes chorus that made this (at least in retrospect) the real song of summer 2019. The block is hot for sure.

“Christine’s Coming Over” by the Airport 77s (video posted December 14, 2020) Actually put this on my Uproxx ballot (we were permitted five and only five “songs” — grrrrr — along with our ten albums) even though I’d rank it not quite so high in real life (i.e, here); voted for it as a stand-in for this airline-pilot-uniform-clad Maryland trio’s Rotation EP, since I miss the bygone days when Pazz & Jop let you list five of those. Between this knee-slapper (eligible as a single in my book by both the first-track-on-EP and there’s-a-video rules), “(When You’re Kissing on Me Do You Think of) James McAvoy” and parenting song of the year “Bad Mom,” Airport 77s probably came up with 80% of this year’s funniest music punchlines, none of which I’ll give away here. But I will say that they pull off late ’70s skinny-tie Records/Motors-style pub-rock powerpop better than anybody since, well, the late ’70s. They even cover Bram Tchaikovsky’s top 40 1979 inflatable-doll classic “Girl of My Dreams” (right up there with Roxy Music’s “In Every Dream Home a Heartache” and Mel McDaniel’s “Plastic Girl”), for Crissakes. Puny potatoes to you maybe, but some of us remember.

“Фемки” by нексюша (non-video posted May 19, 2021) Title means “femki” in Bulgarian. No idea what “femki” means in English. Give or take “Brutal,” probably the closest thing to a “pop-punk revival” I fell for this year. (Honestly, did pop-punk ever really go away? Didn’t it just change its name to screamo or something? And why would anybody want to revive it? And wasn’t it already a revival in the ’90s in the first place?) Fast, super catchy, extremely Slavic, and apparently performed by a small red-haired girl prone to dressing up as a rabbit.

“Wellerman (Sea Chantey)” by Nathan Evans (video posted April 9, 2021) US pop #116; #1 in pretty much every country in Europe — another smash hit that got inexplicably shut out in that Uproxx poll. Given how many of my eighth-grade daughter’s friends break into it randomly in the middle school hallways (she says), I’m surprised and saddened it didn’t chart higher in the States. Still, sparest percussion of the year and shortest version of Moby Dick ever to hit TikTok, or pretty much any other popular platform ever. I wonder whether the wellerman ever came, and the toungin’ ever got done.

“Trenches” by Morray (video posted April 21, 2021) “Love for the ghetto, love for the ‘hood, love for the people that turn the bad into good/Love for the people that think that it could be worse, love for the people that puttin’ they family first.” Hip-hop blues contagiously warm for the place it’s from (in Morray’s case Fayetteville, North Carolina, surrounding military base Fort Bragg) with a humanity hip-hop rarely manages anymore (though I realize I could be remonstrating out my rear end and thereby totally wrong about that), like (and not to be confused with) Mozzy’s “Big Homie From the Hood” from a year ago, or (easily my favorite 2021 rap album) Fire in Little Africa’s longplayer-length love letter to Tulsa a century after the city’s race massacre. (Yeah, yeah, I know, I’m corny and old and out of it and should try harder to comprehend third-generation mumble-trap or whatever.)

Willie Jones has a dream.

Fifteen honorable mentions, alphabetized though I was often forced to make judgement calls about which ones count as having last names and which ones don’t: Black Midi “Slow (Loud)”; BRS Kash feat. @Mulatto “Kash App” (wobble of the year); Capsule “Hikari No Disco”; Caramba Express “Ding Dong Bier Pong (Ramba Zamba im Saloon)”; Charmaine “Woo!“; City Girls “Twerkulator” (planet rocker of the year); Eek-a-Mouse “Negro With the Whip”; Carla Frigo “Entro En El Party”; Willie Jones “American Dream”; Eric Malmberg “Till Minne av Lilly Lindström”; Carly Pearce “Next Girl”; Moonchild Sanelly “Yebo Teacher” (school lesson of the year); Seksikäs-Suklaa & Dosdela “Häätö”; Tokyo Jetz feat. T.I. “Know the Rules”; Wet Leg “Chaise Lounge” (cannonball of the year.)

7 comments

  1. “Beautiful Stranger Man” is actually the translation of “Schöner fremder Mann”, quite possibly the biggest of Ms Francis’ countless German-language hits (a #1 or #2 hit there, depending on the source), which happens to be a version of her 1961 US B-side “Someone Else’s Boy”.
    She recorded the song in no less than eight different languages. It’s (sort of famously, I think) featured at the end of Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s 1978 film In einem Jahr mit 13 Monden (In a Year of 13 Moons).

    Liked by 1 person

  2. via email:

    Chuck – I made a YouTube playlist of your 35 best singles of 2021 if you want to link somewhere.

    Also tweeted it here (https://twitter.com/koganbot/status/1479551053662199811) , and your writeup here (https://twitter.com/koganbot/status/1479550525397942277) , if anyone wants to retweet it.

    Also, tried to post a comment at your site but don’t know if WordPress even let it through to moderation – usually *I* can see it with a note on top that it’s awaiting moderation, but this time I didn’t see anything after I hit submit. Short version of what I said: genius.com translates “Фемки” as “Feminists”; someone there described Neksusha as “маленький проект с маленькой нексюшенькой играющей на маленькой укулеле в маленьком Омске,: which Google Translate renders as “a small project with a small nexushenka playing a small ukulele in small Omsk,” which would make her Russian not Bulgarian (and Omsk interrupted my comment to object that it was in no way small, given that it’s the second-largest city in Siberia). I was seriously considering her album, “Осторожно, постмодерн” [“Caution, postmodern”] [!!!!!], for my Uproxx ballot till I found out it was from 2020. “Feminists,” which isn’t on it, seems to be solidly 2021, however.

    Like

  3. via facebook:

    Michaelangelo Matos
    ditto re: Uproxx

    Sara Sherr
    I will have to check these out. I have liked most of the singles from Aly & AJ. I also liked Twerkulator.

    Chuck Eddy
    I can definitely see you really liking at least five or six others too, Sara.

    Sara Sherr
    I’ve been trying to keep track of various playlists on Spotify from NYT, Pitchfork, Matthew Perpetua, others, and those always stick out to me. I made a resolution last year to make monthly lists and now I have too much music that I liked to go through and determine which is the best. I guess that’s a good problem to have.

    Chuck Eddy
    I’m not on Spotify (my streaming allegiance is pledged elsewhere), but maybe somebody who is will make a mix out of my lists (maybe even including those country lists.) Pretty sure somebody did in previous years.

    Sara Sherr
    For me, once I’ve set stuff up on one platform, it’s hard to go and make another and keep up with more than one. So Spotify makes sense for me for now, even though it’s kinda evil.

    Sara Sherr
    I need to dive into Bandcamp some more and I’ve barely scratched the surface.

    Sara Sherr
    what I’m probably gonna do is listen to your stuff and add to my ongoing Best of 2021 list on Spotify if I hear stuff I like (which I probably will).

    Jill Blardinelli
    Sara Sherr I made a Spotify list for Chuck’s 2021 top 36 singles and Nashville Scene list so feel free to follow me on Spotify!

    Yuval Taylor
    Thank you for “End of Time.” “I just wanna dance in heaven. They will not refuse this bacon.” Wow.

    Jill Blardinelli
    I made a Spotify playlist for your 35 best singles. I have had a lot of fun listening to the songs on this list!!! Your writing style was very informative and often funny.
    I also made a Spotify playlist for your Nashville Scene choices.
    When I finish my piece on my own best singles of 2021, I will share it.

    Like

  4. via facebook:

    Mike Freedberg
    Indochine’s cover of Miss Kittin’s remake of THEIR OWN “3me sexe” is riveting
    “Un ete francais” is as magnificent a song of tragedy and triumph as anything Bruce Springsteen has given us

    Mike Freedberg
    PS : Nicola Sirkis is over 60.
    One of rock’s most sustained great geniuses ever

    Mike Freedberg
    PS : no, “Konigin” is not funky. It is sort of what funk might sound like played backwards…

    Like

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