The music of 2021 was intrepid, innovative and intense. Here are The Augur Beat’s top ten songs of the year, along with the best line from each.
10. “Jail” by Kanye West and JAY-Z
Love it or hate it, Kanye West’s 2021 album DONDA was an event. A delayed, lengthy, controversial event, but what else could one expect from him at this point? The first of three album premiere events concluded with “Jail,” a rock anthem about acceptance—not apology—for his faults. Then, miraculously, a familiar voice takes the mic. Mercedes-Benz Stadium, the premiere’s venue, erupted into cheers: Kanye had finally ended his feud with his former mentor, best friend and frequent collaborator JAY-Z. “This might be the return of the Throne,” JAY-Z rapped, referring to the duo’s 2011 album Watch the Throne. And while DONDA was a mixed bag, “Jail” is a truly great song about accepting one’s own faults.
Best line: “This might be the return of the throne”
9. “Thot Shit” by Megan Thee Stallion
After a groundbreaking 2020, Megan Thee Stallion returned in June 2021 with the fiery single “Thot Shit.” The brilliant music video took shots at the conservative backlash to her and Cardi B’s smash hit “WAP” while celebrating Black women in the workforce. This song isn’t just an absolute banger—it’s a refusal to be cornered or put into a box. Megan demands control over her public narrative and defends her throne as rap’s reigning champion.
Best line: “I don’t give a fuck ‘bout a blog tryna bash me / I’m the shit per the Recording Academy”
8. “deja vu” by Olivia Rodrigo
2021 was undoubtedly the year of Olivia Rodrigo. “deja vu” had impossibly high expectations as the follow-up to her record-breaking debut single “drivers license.” But Rodrigo secured her seat at the table of pop superstardom a minute and 24 seconds into “deja vu,” when the killer drumline and psychedelic synth kick in. Taking cues from her idol Taylor Swift, she roots the song in memory, listing all the activities she and her ex did together. “Strawberry ice cream in Malibu, don’t act like we didn’t do that shit too,” Rodrigo chants, interpolating (that is, using the melody of) Swift’s “Cruel Summer.”
Best line: “I bet you even tell her how you love her / In between the chorus and the verse”
7. “Silk Chiffon” by MUNA, featuring Phoebe Bridgers
If anyone could turn 2020’s breakout sad girl Phoebe Bridgers happy, it’s MUNA. The trio’s comeback single is a sapphic love song with a much-needed dose of unflinching positivity. It’s a pop confection concocted for the girls, gays and theys. In a year of uncertainty and countless tragedies, “Silk Chiffon” reminded us how fun life can be.
Best line: “When she turns round halfway round the aisle / With that ‘you’re on camera’ smile”
6. “White Dress” by Lana Del Rey
Lana Del Rey has been hinting at her complicated past since her debut (see “This Is What Makes Us Girls”), but it truly emerged for the first time in “White Dress.” Taking the listener back to the mid-2000s, Lana explains the power dynamics that women in the entertainment industry faced—and still do today. “It made me feel like a god,” she sings of the attention she received working at a so-called “men in music business conference.” Lana’s divey atmosphere, diaristic lyrics and wailing vocals are set to kill.
Best line: “Listening to White Stripes when they were white-hot”
5. “Be Sweet” by Japanese Breakfast
Michelle Zauner has had a breakout year for the ages, from publishing a bestselling memoir to racking up multiple Grammy nominations. The music highlight of her 2021 is surely her album Jubilee’s first single, “Be Sweet.” Pulling inspiration from shoegaze and ’80s pop, Zauner demands justice from her unfaithful lover with infectious energy. “Be Sweet” is Zauner’s pledge to prioritize joy no matter what circumstances are thrown her way.
Best line: “Tell the men I’m coming, tell them count their days / I can feel the night passing by like a mistake waiting for me”
4. “MONTERO (Call Me By Your Name)” by Lil Nas X
After having the longest-running No. 1 single of all time with “Old Town Road” and subsequently being dismissed by many as a one-hit wonder, Lil Nas X came back in full swing with the first single off his official debut album, “MONTERO (Call Me By Your Name).” A master of controversy, Nas has perfected the art of staying visible in a time when attention spans are shorter than ever. But beyond the pole-dancing to hell, Satan shoes and naked shower dance routines, he is making great music. “MONTERO” tells a story all too familiar to queer men of unrequited attraction towards a man who would rather put on a constant performance of masculinity for his friends than admit his sexuality to himself. Over syncopated claps and Spanish guitars courtesy of production duo Take a Daytrip and guitarist-of-the-moment Omer Fedi, Lil Nas X mastered the pop song, queer anthem and pop culture moment with “MONTERO.”
Best line: “If Eve ain’t in your garden, you know that you can”
3. “All Too Well (Ten Minute Version)” by Taylor Swift
Taylor Swift is at her best when she deals in memories—the kind we play over and over in our heads. Her magnum opus, “All Too Well,” is a representative of how much Swift and the world surrounding her have changed since its original conception in 2012. This ten-minute version provides the hindsight missing from the original. The famous bridge now acts as a centerpiece in the song’s ring structure, granting Swift time to analyze the gender dynamics at play in her doomed love affair. “All Too Well (Ten Minute Version),” with its epic storytelling and powerful delivery, cements Swift’s legacy as one of the greatest songwriters of our time.
Best line: “You kept me like a secret, but I kept you like an oath”
2. “Happier Than Ever” by Billie Eilish
If 2019 was the year of Billie Eilish’s world domination, 2021 was the year of her establishing herself independently from the expectations that teenage superstardom brought her. Her 180 from the insular pop of her debut to the raging anthem “Happier Than Ever” proves that she is no passing fad. This song takes its sweet time, building from a whisper to a scream. FINNEAS’ production is at its very finest here, with blaring guitars pushing to a dynamic climax. Gone is the “bad guy”; Billie emerges from “Happier Than Ever” a scorned hero.
Best line: “Just fucking leave me alone”
1. “Introvert” by Little Simz
UK rapper Little Simz’s “Introvert,” the best song released this year, is a battle cry of the unheard. Simz establishes herself as a prophet of her generation, wielding her vulnerability as a source of power. From its marching band opening to a closing monologue by The Crown star Emma Corin, Simz and producer Inflo make every second of this six-minute masterpiece count. She pays tribute to the late, great Amy Winehouse, discusses gentrification and takes pride in her Black womanhood. It’s an epic statement from Simz that, even as she admits she’s “not into politics,” the personal is political.
Best line: “The kingdom’s on fire, the blood of a young messiah”