Under the Radar’s Top 130 Songs of 2021 Part 1 | Under The Radar Magazine Under the Radar | Music Blog for the Indie Music Magazine
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Under the Radar’s Top 130 Songs of 2021 Part 1

Jan 25, 2022
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It is confounding that so many outlets insist on posting best songs of the year lists in early December (in 2021, December 6 seemed to be a popular date to post such lists, including ones by Pitchfork, Paste, and Rolling Stone, with NME’s list dropping the next day). Not only are there several more weeks left in the year, in which a number of potential great songs could be released, it also takes time to digest all the tracks released in November and earlier in the fall. We’ve obviously taken too much time.

As with our Top 100 Albums of 2021 list, we had other pressing priorities in the fall of 2021 (our 20th Anniversary Issue and Covers of Covers album) that delayed deciding on our favorite songs of 2021. As a base we started a nomination process with all of the songs that landed in the main rankings (usually a Top 10) of our Songs of the Week lists in 2021. We then asked our writers for additional nomination suggestions (they had to be original songs first released in 2021, no covers). Once we had the final nomination list, our writers voted. When everything was calculated it added up to 130 songs we particularly liked. While many of the songs are taken from records that landed on our Top 100 Albums of 2021 list, there are also some standalone singles, songs from 2021 full-lengths that didn’t make the albums list, and advance singles from some anticipated 2022 albums. We limited it to no more than three songs per artist, otherwise half of each album from Japanese Breakfast and Wolf Alice (our #1 and #2 albums of the year) would’ve shown up on this list. By Mark Redfern

1

Wet Leg

“Chaise Longue”

Isle of Wight, England duo Wet Leg released their debut single “Chaise Longue” via the Domino on June 15, 2021. It was written for fun in a single day by vocalist Rhian Teasdale while she was sitting on an actual chaise longue originally owned by guitarist Hester Chambers’ grandfather.

The duo certainly couldn’t have envisaged just how “Chaise Longue” would have resonated with lockdown weary music fans in search of escapism and it soon became 2021’s summer anthem garnering millions of streams. Of course, with this sort of perceived “overnight” success (Wet Leg have actually been around since 2019), there’s always the spirit crushing inevitability of the emergence of whey-faced “musical librarians” and self-appointed professional cynics questioning Wet Leg’s “indie credentials” (yawn.) And true to form they surfaced and began bandying about nonsensical vaguely conspiratorial terms such as “industry plants,” something the band amusingly made reference to on Twitter in December 2021. The reality is that there is no insidious covert industry plot here, Wet Leg signed to a label and arrived like a breath of fresh air striking a chord with many amidst a time of abject gloom. The combination of effervescent guitar-driven indie-pop tunes and a surreal visual aesthetic which saw Teasdale and Chambers dressed like puritanical Amish cult members, whilst delivering innuendo laced lyrics simply added to their charm. They remain as baffled as anybody regarding their dizzying ascent.

“Chaise Longue” is undeniably a deserving song of the year, combining a knowing deadpan Julz Sales (of Delta 5) style vocal delivery, driving guitar riffs, propulsive percussion, and an impossible to get out of your head chorus. It’s hypnotic, compelling, great fun, and all rather wonderful. The duo apparently has a penchant for French disco, a shared love of The Ronettes and Jane Birkin, and a liking for Ty Segall and Björk. And huge straw hats, obviously. Their self titled debut album arrives in April 2022 via Domino and subsequent singles “Wet Dream” and “Too Late Now,” as well as their stellar live performances, have all confirmed the view that Wet Leg is very much the real deal.

By Andy Von Pip

2

Wolf Alice

“The Last Man on Earth”

“The Last Man on Earth” was Wolf Alice’s first new material since their Mercury Prize winning album, 2017’s Visions of a Life. Anybody expecting the feral grunge howl of something like “Yuck Foo” may have been surprised at the power ballad style adopted by “The Last Man on Earth,” but Wolf Alice have always been a band who have managed to be eclectic yet cohesive. “The Last Man on Earth” was a stunning return, with Ellie Rowsell producing one of her finest vocal performances to date. Beginning with a simple plaintive piano line and Rowsell’s beautiful vocal at the forefront, this is a slow-burning track that builds and builds until mid-song it soars and transforms into something epic, with Rowsell’s layered vocal sounding like a dazzling celestial choir.

It’s a track that one can imagine may well induce one of those lighters in the air moments at music festivals, but one that sounds utterly uncontrived and packed with genuine heartfelt emotion. Rowsell’s lyrics—inspired partly by her own meditation on “the arrogance of human beings” (in which she includes herself) and reading Kurt Vonnegut’s prophetic postmodern social satire, Cat’s Cradle—are some of her best yet, as she adopts a more direct approach rather than hiding behind ambiguity. It was a stunning return that set the stage for what was to come on their game-changing fourth album, Blue Weekend.

By Andy Von Pip

3

Sharon Van Etten and Angel Olsen

“Like I Used To”

When two of the past decade’s most celebrated singer/songwriters collaborate, greatness is expected. However, “Like I Used To” is more than great. It stands as one of the best singles either artist has ever released. The pair shoot for the dramatic heights of rock balladry, with a triumphant Springsteen-esque hook, immense melodies, and immediate vocal chemistry. Each element locks together seamlessly, building the tension high until the pair soar into the freeing catharsis of the chorus. At its core, the song is about that same catharsis, an anthemic paean to revival and reclamation. After the pains of the preceding year, nothing served as a better soothing salve than hearing two of indie’s biggest stars in such perfect lockstep with each other, delivering one of the best songs of the year.

By Caleb Campbell

4

CHVRCHES

“How Not to Drown” (Feat. Robert Smith)

Glasgow synth-pop trio CHVRCHES returned in 2021 with arguably their best work to date in the form of their magnificent fourth album, Screen Violence. Of the myriad of notable highlights on said album, Lauren Mayberry’s soaring duet with Cure legend Robert Smith takes some beating. As soon as Mayberry sings the opening line, “I’m writing a book on how to stay conscious when you drown,” you’re drawn into a world of shimmering dark pop before Smith joins, adding to the sense of urgency and claustrophobia as both singers’ unique voices combine in a perfect union. Throughout their respective careers, Smith and CHVRCHES have managed to walk the line between hope and fear, anxiety and euphoria, and interestingly Smith—who doesn’t do many collaborations and although keen to work with CHVRCHES—wasn’t initially sure how he could fit into the song without distracting from it. Thankfully things clicked into place to gift us this thrilling darkly glittering slice of a slice of goth pop-noir.

Both Mayberry and fellow CHVRCHES founding member Martin Doherty shared some insights into the track and also just how much it meant to them to work with their idol Robert Smith. Doherty revealed how he’d suffered from anxiety and depression all his life and that working with Smith was the “proudest moment of [his] life in music.” Whilst Mayberry disclosed that the lyrics were written at a time when she’d seriously thought about quitting the band. “I felt like I was in over my head at the deep end and not sure how to get back,” she revealed on social media. “But I did get back. And if you’ve felt like that, I hope you find your way back too. This is the chapter on what to do after they dig you up.”

By Andy Von Pip

5

Japanese Breakfast

“Be Sweet”

While the first single from Japanese Breakfast’s third album, Jubilee, isn’t quite Dorothy stepping from sepia into the dazzling Technicolor world of Oz, it does represent Michelle Zauner’s decision to embrace a more colorful, widescreen style of pop than on previous albums.

Adopting the soaring ’80s-tinged emotive synth-pop that CHVRCHES have nailed, it is a transformative track in the sense that this is Zauner attempting to step away from grief and to look forward to a brighter future, to “believe in something” as she puts it on “Be Sweet.”

Her debut album, 2016’s Psychopomp, was written during a time when her mother was undergoing treatment for cancer, whilst her follow up, 2017’s Soft Sounds From Another Planet, was written in the wake of her death. Zauner has also written a book in which she movingly shares her experiences of grief entitled Crying in H-Mart. The title references a supermarket chain that sells Asian food as Zauner recalls that food was how her mom expressed her love.

As “Be Sweet” demonstrates, Jubilee is a different beast as Zauner changes the narrative and attempts to reframe how people perceive her as an artist. In her own words: “After spending the last five years writing about grief, I wanted our follow-up to be about joy. For me, a third record should feel bombastic and so I wanted to pull out all the stops for this.”

By Andy Von Pip

6

Arlo Parks

“Too Good”

Certainly Arlo Parks’ breakthrough 2020 singles, “Black Dog” and “Eugene,” were no fluke as she proved on her debut album Collapsed in Sunbeams (#7 on Under the Radar’s Best Albums of 2021 list). The carefree lilting rhythm of “Too Good” hides a story of a relationship not going as planned in the protagonist’s mind. Aside from the song’s easy going cadence, Parks shares some razor sharp observations in the form of the bump on a lover’s wrist and picking at the rips of her sneakers. The specific recollection of these glimmers from a past remembered are what set Parks’ songwriting apart from the pack, but also oddly makes for her universal appeal.

By Mark Moody

7

The War on Drugs

“I Don’t Live Here Anymore” (Feat. Lucius)

Through much of I Don’t Live Here Anymore, the listener sees Adam Granduciel held in the past, locked into a haze of memory as he reflects on growing up and growing older. In contrast, the album’s title track finds Granduciel at the precipice of the future, moving forward into the unknown with a resolute purpose. The triumphant title track is The War on Drugs ascending to the full arena rock stardom they’ve hinted towards, but have never quite delivered. More than anything else, it sounds massive, with layers upon layers of iridescent synths, glistening guitars, and sweeping gospel harmonies from Lucius. It’s a work of tremendous pop alchemy, crafting a song made for road trips and arena sing-alongs. Even as the future feels uncertain, Granduciel makes hope and adventure feel alive with “I Don’t Live Here Anymore.”

By Caleb Campbell

8

Beach House

“Once Twice Melody”

The title track of Beach House’s eighth album, 2022’s Once Twice Melody, certainly could have been used to describe their surprise back to back album releases of 2015. But in this case, “Once Twice Melody” is the leadoff track for an 18-song, nearly 90-minute opus from the Baltimore-based duo. And what a leadoff it is. On an album characterized by tweaks in Beach House’s approach, “Once Twice Melody” gently sings itself awake as it starts its star-ward journey into the vast whatever may lay ahead. Undulating synth lines, sparkling keyboard runs, and layered harmonies are both instantly familiar, while also whetting the appetite for the promise of subtle shifts of phase.

By Mark Moody

9

Magdalena Bay

“Secrets (Your Fire)”

One thing you immediately notice about this song—which stands out among several highlights on the debut album from Los Angeles pair Mica Tenenbaum and Matthew Lewin, otherwise known as Magdalena Bay—is how impressively full it sounds. High-gloss pop that’s got its eye on the past yet remains thrillingly modern is the duo’s calling card, and they knock “Secrets (Your Fire)” out of the park and into orbit. Big hook? Check. Chunky bassline? Check. Moreish production touches? Triple check. Tenenbaum’s vocals glide coolly above everything, yet there’s a pleading note to the way she expresses her reticence about “digital anxiety” and the culture of oversharing. She seeks connection but you’d better make it worth her while. Some things are better left unsaid, so here’s a song about online paranoia that absolutely slaps—it’s no secret.

By Gareth O’Malley

10

Cassandra Jenkins

“Hard Drive”

We loved the second album from New Yorker Cassandra Jenkins; An Overview on Phenomenal Nature sets a high bar overall, but its second single is arguably the standout, unfolding gracefully over five-and-a-half enthralling minutes. Jenkins speaks of meetings with a museum security guard, a bookkeeper, and a psychic, not to mention “finally” getting her driver’s licence at 35. She’s had a hard few months, but is assured that “this year is gonna be a good one.” The band locks into an irresistible groove around her, fleshing out a song which is both an outpouring of emotion and hyper-detailed intake of advice from colorful characters, each of whom reveals something about themselves in doing so. In turn, the artist forms an emotional connection with the listener which is nothing short of magical.

By Gareth O’Malley

11

Hatchie

“This Enchanted”

12

Wolf Alice

“How Can I Make It Ok?”

13

Wet Leg

“Wet Dream”

14

Nilüfer Yanya

“Stabilise”

15

The Weather Station

“Parking Lot”

16

All We Are

“Eden”

17

LUMP

“Animal”

18

Sea Power

“Two Fingers”

19

Japanese Breakfast

“Posing For Cars”

20

Lucy Dacus

“Thumbs”

21

Wolf Alice

“Play the Greatest Hits”

22

illuminati hotties

“Pool Hopping”

23

Low

“Days Like These”

24

Silk Sonic

“Leave the Door Open”

25

Piroshka

“V.O.”

26

Allie Crow Buckley

“Moonlit and Devious”

27

Water From Your Eyes

“Track Five”

28

Mitski

“The Only Heartbreaker”

29

Nation of Language

“This Fractured Mind”

30

Geese

“Low Era”

31

Ducks Ltd.

“Under the Rolling Moon” (Feat. The Beths)

32

Mitski

“Working for the Knife”

33

Spoon

“The Hardest Cut”

34

Pom Pom Squad

“Head Cheerleader”

35

Wesley Gonzalez and Rose Elinor Dougall

“Greater Expectations”

36

Yard Act

“The Overload”

37

Ora the Molecule

“The Ball”

38

Julien Baker

“Hardline”

39

Hovvdy

“True Love”

40

Snail Mail

“Valentine”

41

Modest Mouse

“We Are Between”

42

Public Service Broadcasting

“Blue Heaven” (Feat. Andreya Casablanca)

43

Japanese Breakfast

“Paprika”

44

Courtney Barnett

“Rae Street”

45

Middle Kids

“Today We’re the Greatest”

46

Metronomy

“It’s good to be back”

47

Alex Lahey

“On My Way”

48

Sleaford Mods

“Nudge It” (Feat. Amy Taylor of Amyl and the Sniffers)

49

Turnstile

“MYSTERY”

50

Still Corners

“Heavy Days”

51

Bartees Strange

“Weights”

52

Villagers

“So Simpatico”

53

Let’s Eat Grandma

“Hall of Mirrors”

54

Pip Blom

“You Don’t Want This”

55

Courtney Barnett

“Before You Gotta Go”

56

Tonstartssbandht

“What Has Happened”

57

Kero Kero Bonito

“Well Rested”

58

Horsegirl

“Billy”

59

Imarhan

“Achinkad”

60

Bobby Gillespie and Jehnny Beth

“Living a Lie”

61

Lucy Dacus

“VBS”

62

Magdalena Bay

“Domino”

63

Gang of Youths

“tend the garden”

64

W.H. Lung

“Pearl in the Palm”

65

Wet Leg

“Too Late Now”

66

Animal Collective

“Prester John”

67

Coco

“Come Along”

68

Nick Cave and Warren Ellis

“White Elephant”

69

Lael Neale

“Blue Vein”

70

Magdalena Bay

“Hysterical Us”

71

UV-TV

“Back to Nowhere”

72

Cassandra Jenkins

“Crosshairs”

73

Viagra Boys

“Girls & Boys”

74

The Goon Sax

“Desire”

75

Sam Evian

“Time to Melt”

76

Sparks

“So May We Start” (Feat. Adam Driver, Marion Cotillard, and Simon Helberg)

77

Elbow

“Six Words”

78

SASAMI

“The Greatest”

79

Absolutely Free

“Remaining Light”

80

Indigo De Souza

“Hold U”

81

Baio

“Dead Hand Control”

82

Parquet Courts

“Walking at a Downtown Pace”

83

Mogwai

“Ritchie Sacramento”

84

Sufjan Stevens and Angelo De Augustine

“Back to Oz”

85

Dry Cleaning

“Unsmart Lady”

86

Foals

“Wake Me Up”

87

Penelope Isles

“Sailing Still”

88

Desperate Journalist

“Fault”

89

Water From Your Eyes

“When You’re Around”

90

C Duncan

“Alluvium”

91

Tachys

“When the World Wakes Up”

92

SPELLLING

“Little Deer”

93

Teenage Fanclub

“The Sun Won’t Shine On Me”

94

TORRES

“Don’t Go Puttin Wishes in My Head”

95

Colleen Green

“I Wanna Be a Dog”

Check out part 2 (#96-130) here.

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