No one was really demanding a follow-up to 2020, but fortunately last year was highlighted by some of the best musical talent from both our own shores and overseas saving their best for when we needed them most.
 With another “unprecedented” year behind us, here are the songs X-Press writers will remember as their soundtrack to 2021.

21. POND America’s Cup

Possibly the best POND song ever, America’s Cup scores points not just for its massive chorus, but also for its bonus mini history lesson on Freo. “Before the America’s Cup/ It was Bikies and Junkies/ Bass Guitarists and Flunkies.” It may sound unlikely, but with its funky bassline and excellent structure it’s one of the year’s best pop moments.

20. Porter Robinson Musician

Porter Robinson’s Musician is the perfect slice of blissed-out beats and melodic hooks that made his album Nurture such a success. The track is joyous and celebratory, without straying too far from Robinson’s nuanced brand of dreamy melancholia.

19. Tyler, the Creator LUMBERJACK

Tyler, The Creator has always enjoyed veering between the noisy and the melodic, and LUMBERJACK is a banger that exemplifies the former. Braggadocious yet self-aware, Tyler swaggers all over the sparse beat and Gravediggaz’ 2 Cups of Blood sample, detailing how he celebrates his Grammy victory for Igor “took that gold bitch home…I put that bitch on the shelf, to let it ventilate/ And bought another car ’cause I ain’t know how to celebrate.”

18. Miiesha Damaged

Miiesha lays bare the heartache of her broken relationship with her mother on Damaged with gripping honesty and courage. “Tell me that I’m damaged/ If my wounds can’t fit your truth/ Then I’m leavin’ it abandoned/ The way that you demand it/ Turned me to a savage/ Nothing left for me to do/ When I cannot break your habits.” The themes of the song hit hard, but the Woorabinda songwriter delivers them with such captivating beauty it’s hard not be swept away.

17. Lil Nas X MONTERO (Call Me By Your Name)

Montero (Call Me By Your Name) was the lead single from Lil Nas X’s debut album and is named after the song’s creator, while the subtitle refers to the 2017 LGBT romance-themed film Call Me By Your Name. The video for the song contained some of the memorable moments of recent music video history with Lil Nas X riding a stripper pole to Hell before giving a lap dance to Satan.

16. IDLES The Beachland Ballroom

This absolute belter of a lead single sees Bristol’s mighty post-punk heroes expand their sonic arsenal. Joe Talbot’s voice is in fine form, crooning melodically, as opposed to his usual full-blooded roar, showing his vocal range and growth. His personal growth is explored too, his battles with addiction, but with an uplifting feeling of hope. The swinging beat and piano stabs build the drama, before it builds to an epic climax as Talbot howls “If you see me down on my knees, please do not think that I pray! Damage! Damage! Damage!” drawing out “da-maaaaage” each time with a barely controlled rage that hits hard with emotional impact. It’s IDLES at their most intense, powerful and beautiful.

15. Sam Fender Seventeen Going Under

On Seventeen Going Under, British songwriter Sam Fender turns reflections on a troubled youth into a yearning and uplifting anthem. Reciting tales of “fist fights on the beach” and “snuff videos,” Fender turns up the drama with lines like “I was far too scared to hit him/ But I would hit him in a heartbeat now/ That’s the thing with anger/ It begs to stick around.” It’s sometimes harrowing in its detail and relatability, and when the chorus kicks in it’s like seeing a young star coming of age before our eyes.

14. Wet Leg Chaise Longue

From one of the most hyped rock bands since The Strokes, Wet Leg exploded onto the scene with their debut single Chaise Longue, a jittery brew of indie-rock and post-punk that is classic cool. Rhian Teasdale’s simple and snarky vocals recall woman-fronted rockers such as Sleeper and Elastica, while remaining as effortlessly cool as Kim Deal.

13. Amy Shark Amy Shark

It takes a certain audacity to name a song after yourself – a trend usually reserved for bands whose name starts with ‘B’ (see: Black Sabbath, Bad Religion, Belle and Sebastian). So whatever you think of Amy Billings’ shiny emo-pop, take an open mind into this little-heard single, the restrained acoustic closer from last year’s Cry Forever. “This song is my story,” Billings told fans on release. With a parent figure clearly in her sights, she takes no prisoners in lambasting their absence: “I needed help, I needed love/ I needed care, needed a hug/ I needed praise, I needed time with you,” before delivering the crushing blow: “Don’t start now I’m winning and finally happy/ Don’t start now I’ve done all the years of hard work/ Don’t start taking over and asking for favours/ Please just don’t start now that I’m Amy Shark.”

12. Genesis Owusu Gold Chains

After first being discovered as an Unearthed High finalist in 2015, Gold Chains shows how far Genesis Owusu has travelled thus far on his musical journey. This intimate and reflective track is Owusu’s take on the shackles that come with fame, delivered through the lens of hip hop, R&B, and funk-laced grooves.

11. Lana Del Rey White Dress

While her 2019 album Norman Fucking Rockwell established Lana Del Rey as the poet laureate of American pop music, White Dress is perhaps her most relatable song to date. Whether that’s because, or in spite, of her questioning a level of fame and fortune most of us can only dream of, remains part of the mystery. Recounting her days as a “waitress wearing a white dress,” we meet 19-year old Lana at an Orlando music business conference, still an impressionable youth “listening to White Stripes when they were white-hot.” “I felt seen,” she remembers fondly on the verge of her big break, “and it made me feel like a God.” That is, until the outro brings her back down to earth. “Kinda makes me feel, like maybe I was better off.” Maybe.

10. Doja Cat ft. SZA Kiss Me More

Kiss Me More was simply too good to refuse. The standout single from Doja’s third album Planet Her saw her team up with SZA to combine attitude, tenderness, and fun into a sugary-sweet pop banger. More please.

9. Spacey Jane Lunchtime

Spacey Jane’s highly anticipated first 2021 single Lots of Nothing was a worthy follow up to last year’s popular Sunlight album, but when Lunchtime dropped shortly after it was like manna from indie-rock heaven for their fans. While the tune still packs an emotional punch, it’s almost like you can hear the members of the band smiling as they recorded it, knowing they were onto a winner.

8. King Stingray Get Me Out 

Hailing from remote Arnhem Land in the Northern Territory and Queensland, King Stingray and their breakout single Get Me Out became an instant favourite across the country. The feeling of being “lost in the city” captured both the anxiety of modern life and the longing for a home left behind that both city and country folk alike could sing along too.

7. Methyl Ethel Neon Cheap

Neon Cheap is Methyl Ethel offering a highly danceable journey into a future dystopia. Elucidated with synths and pop-hooks, Jake Webb cites all the lonely people as he doom scrolls his way through the Metaverse on his journey towards pop-perfection.

6. Sharon Van Etten & Angel Olsen Like I Used To

Sometimes when great artists collaborate it’s not as good as you’d hoped, but Like I Used To reaches the potential of these two powerhouse singer-songwriters. Both have incredible, singular voices, and they’ve shared a certain style and career trajectory over the last 10 years. They also shared a mutual admiration, started communicating on tour and finally hooked up to work on this song idea Van Etten wrote with Olsen in mind. This huge single gives them both the chance to shine, before their voices combine majestically on the soaring chorus, with a sense of nostalgic yearning. “Lighting one up… Dancing all alone… Falling in love… Like I used to.” Hopefully this is just the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

5. Holly Humberstone Scarlett

One of several hits from Holly Humberstone’s The Walls Are Way Too Thin EP, Scarlett sees the UK musician wrestle with heartache and the things she can’t control in vivid clarity: “We go together like bad British weather on the one day I made plans/ So go hell for leather and know that it’s out of my hands.”

4. Gretta Ray Cherish

The centrepiece of Gretta Ray’s debut album Begin To Look Around, this single conveys all of the young Aussie songwriter’s strengths. The lyrics hit as hard as anything she’s written to date; “I’m playing all of my cards, sweetheart, but I’m no match for your demons/ I know that I won’t beat them/ Questions I should never ask are all that I seem to ponder latеly/ As times ahead look hazy,” as Gretta Ray grieves a fading relationship over a melancholy bop.

3. Taylor Swift All Too Well (Taylor’s Version)

Originally appearing on 2012’s Red album, the first version of All Too Well wasn’t the whole story that Taylor Swift wanted to tell. “The 10-minute version of All Too Well is what was originally written for the song before I had to cut it down to a normal-length song.” she revealed upon its release. Now re-released on Taylor’s version of the album, the ten minute version feels both nostalgic and new, as though fans are finally getting to know the full range of an artist no longer contained by major label stardom. In true Taylor form, the song paints the biggest of pictures with the smallest of lyrical brushstrokes; “You, who charmed my dad with self-effacing jokes/ Sipping coffee like you were on a late night show/ But then he watched me watch the front door all night, willing you to come/ And he said, ‘It’s supposed to be fun… turning 21.”

2. Billie Eilish Happier Than Ever

While there were no shortage of break-up songs in 2021, Happier Than Ever felt like it was about so much more. Much like the album of the same name it was lifted from, Happier Than Ever revealed itself in stages, starting out in a disarmingly mellow fashion before a downpour of anger about betrayal and mistreatment is unleashed. As she tackles the grief of the past while also staring down an uncertain future, lines like “I don’t relate to you/ I don’t relate to you, no/ ‘Cause I’d never treat me this shitty/ You make me hate this city” show Billie at her baddest, boldest and best which we’re finding out may be hard to beat in any calendar year going forward.

1. Wolf Alice How Can I Make It Ok?

The startling centrepiece to Wolf Alice’s third record, How Can I Make It OK? is an instant hook-fest that immediately suggests a band hitting their prime. It’s hard to remember a stadium chorus this big since the 90s, but Wolf Alice save it from cliché with a dreamy first half and Ellie Rowsell’s inquisitive falsetto. Then the song’s second stanza ups the bass and heaps on the emotion. Suddenly, Rowsell’s delivery of the chorus lines “How can I make it okay?/ I just want you to be happy“ and “How can I make it okay?/ Nothing else is as important as that to me,” transcend query to become an urgent plea. This alchemy from ethereal questioning to rousing expressionism makes for the purest of heartfelt indie rock songs.

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