We’ve come to the end of another year and as the optimism from the beginning of 2021 has steadily dwindled, a bright spot about living in a pandemic is the top notch music that keeps coming out. Besides Adele’s stranglehold on the vinyl industry and the continual starting and stopping of many artists touring schedules, there hasn’t been any delay in regard to great singles being released. Whether an artist was teasing an upcoming record or just navigating a stopgap in their schedules, 2021 was chock a block with hits. This is all clearly evident just by taking a quick peek at the diversity of the selections sent in by all the Northern Transmissions contributors from around the world. From standout selections featured on our best albums of the year list, looking at you LOW, Turnstile and Japanese Breakfast, to newcomers absolutely killing it out of the gate.
We can’t remember a time when an unknown band like Wet Leg consistently one upped themselves with each release. It has been an absolutely amazing time to be a music fan. We were treated to hugely anticipated releases from Tyler, The Creator, Mitski and Rostam. Fresh tracks from indie stalwarts like Sharon Van Etten and Angel Olsen, as well as Lucy Dacus and Snail Mail. Art rock rompers from black midi, Squid and Black Country, New Road. Teases of what is to come from Caroline Polachek and Beach House plus incredible homegrown hits from Canadians The Weather Station, Backxwash and newbies Ducks LTD. 2021 also didn’t lack pleasant surprises. Floating Points, Geese, Little Simz, among many others, all caused us to sit up and take notice the moment we hit the play button.
While we sit and wait for a bit of a reprieve in, well, all other aspects of everything that is happening in the world, it has been an absolute treasure that bands and artists are still able to provide us all with a modicum of relief from the world’s woes. It’s a wild time out there these days and it doesn’t seem to be getting easier on anyone but with that in mind, take a peek at the Northern Transmissions Top 50 Singles of 2021. Perhaps buried somewhere in this extensive list you are able to find something new to groove on, something familiar to comfort up beside or something cathartic to help clear your overburdened hearts and minds. We can only go up from here and if that is the case with the quality of music we can expect from 2022, then maybe there’s room for a little bit of optimism after all.
50. ROSTAM “4RUNNER”
“Don’t wanna be pretty like a girl / I think I’m pretty much your boy.” “4Runner” is a sweet song from Rostam to his lover. “We’ve got this 4Runner / And we’ve been good together.” Like the rest of the album, Changephobia, it’s full of detailed memory, introspection, and overcoming love. A great summer (or anytime) jam.
49. POM POM SQUAD “HEAD CHEERLEADER”
“Squirming out of my skin / I’m in love with you.” Pom Pom Squad’s recent song, “Head Cheerleader,” is a song about finding yourself and finding love, but it feeling a bit like in high school. It’s a song fit for their name and it is anthemic in a kind of dark way. Probably a song many people can relate to as they rock out to its perfect composition.
48. DUCKS LTD. “18 CIGARETTES”
“I wanted things to stay / How they would not stay.” “18 Cigarettes” by Duck Ltd. is a sad, self-aware song capturing the feelings of a heart navigating life’s confusing waters. It’s up beat and surfy, a stellar track off of a stellar sophomore album. It’s humorous, it’s wistful. Definitely one of the best songs to come out this year.
47. THE BALCONY, FRUIT BATS
“The Balcony” is a beautiful song about awakenings and rebirths. “And yeah soon the drought will become a flood / And it’ll drown out the feeling.” It’s a hopeful tune that imagines whatever hard or depressing things we might be feeling—pandemic related or otherwise—can be overcome by wonder. Did I say it was a beautiful song?
46. HELADO NEGRO “OUTSIDE THE OUTSIDE”
Helado Negro’s compositions have always been compelling, but on his latest record they are super charged. This supremely danceable song, with the catchy chorus, “Outside the outside,” gets under your skin. It’s music that is food for the mind and health for the body. Love/art at its purest.
45. AROOJ AFTAB “MOHABBAT”
Brooklyn based Pakistani vocalist and music composer Aroof Aftab has created an otherworldly song in “Mohabbat.” Mohabbat is “love” in Hindi and the voicings are angelic and the instrumentation hypnotic. It is a taste of another world, and despite the language difference, the music and vocals are entrancing and wonderfully moving, keeping you rapt for the seven plus minutes.
44. HOVVDY “BLINDSIDED”
Recalling Pinegrove, Hovvdy’s new track “Blindsided” is a sweet song dealing with the complicated relationships with our parents. “Could’ve used you in my life but / you were blind.” Our parents are just humans like us, and it’s a healing, relatable song that also touches on the beautiful moments in their relationship.
43. BACKXWASH, ADA ROOK “I LIE HERE BURIED WITH MY RINGS AND MY DRESSES”
This heavy, screamed/rapped track from Backxwash and Ada Rook will satisfy your need for catharsis. The vocals from both performers is super intense and super satisfying. It’s one of the hardest songs on our list, but is no less of an ear worm.
42. GEESE “LOW ERA”
Geese have appeared like an astroid on the scene mid to end of this year. The guitar intro to open the song, “Low Era,” is brilliant but doesn’t prepare you for the soulful vocals that follow. “On the hour of my death, the page rips / All is lost and I am left to rot.” It is a heavy, poetic song with super satisfying guitars, that promises more great stuff will be coming from the Geese direction.
41. FAYE WEBSTER “I KNOW I’M FUNNY HAHA”
The title track off Faye Webster’s latest album is a sweet song about becoming rock stars and dealing with rent problems and meeting family who forget you. It’s funny in an understated way. It’s a chill song, with lap steel guitar thrumming in the back ground. It’s a simple but catchy song that cashes in on the diary like lyrics and folk indie sound.
40. THE WEATHER STATION “TRIED TO TELL YOU”
Along with greats like Weise Blood, Tamara Lindeman knows how to write a timeless song. “Would it kill you to believe in your pleasure?” “Tried To Tell You” is a song from one friend to another, who’s wrestling with the pull and the fear of a love relationship. Tamara’s beautiful voice is matched by beautiful instrumentation. It’s a hit off a stunning album of songs.
39. BARTEES STRANGE “WEIGHTS”
Bartees Strange has appeared as a guest guitarist and singer on quite a few notable tracks in the last year. His solo material rivals those greats, however. “Weights” is a bombastic tune that shares elements with 2000’s emo music. “And we can get out tonight.” This is a song that will get you out of your house to a club to see his impressive rising star performance.
38. CAROLINE POLACHEK “BUNNY IS A RIDER”
With lyrics that roll right off the tongue, the hip, body moving track “Bunny Is A Rider” from Caroline Polachek is an ear worm. It shares elements with modern hip hop, but maintains her beautiful singing voice throughout. “I do, I do, feel like the lady / I do, I do, fireworks blazing.” It’s addictive.
37. COURTNEY BARNETT “RAE STREET”
The lead single for Courtney Barnett’s latest album, “Rae Street” chronicles a morning looking out her window at her Sydney adjacent town. It is full of intimate details of parents yelling at their kids or teaching them to ride their bike, ruminations on the troubles of the world, and the affecting chorus, “Well time is money / And money is no man’s friend.” It’s another hit from the folk indie talk rocker.
36. THE WAR ON DRUGS, LUCIUS “I DON’T LIVE HERE ANYMORE”
Rock that transcends time, The War On Drugs offers another classic song in “I Don’t Live Here Anymore.” “Beating like a heart / I’m gonna walk through every doorway, I can’t stop.” It’s a triumphant song, featuring Lucius, about overcoming the darkness. It’s what you would expect from a title track from one of their records: something you can sing along to and be transported.
35. BEACH HOUSE “SUPERSTAR”
Beach House’s recent drop of an album, Once Twice Melody, gave us more chance to revel in their indie dream pop. “Superstar,” the second song on the first disc of the album compares a failing relationship to a falling star. “When you were mine / we fell across the sky.” It’s a bitter sweet song of love that may not last, but blesses us with its ephemeral glory.
34. BINKI “CLAY PIGEON”
A play on the sport of shooting clay pigeons, Binki’s song is a song fit for a Blur comparison. It’s a catchy, playful song about the complexities of blame and fun in a relationship, it seems. Binki’s indie rock is as catchy as all get out. This is a song to repeat.
33. ERIKA DE CASIER “DRAMA”
An R&Bish song about the “drama” in a relationship. “Wish that I could rewind / Take back whatever I said / But I can’t do that.” It’s a bitter sweet song of apology and trying to make things wrong right. The guitar and the intense beat under Erika’s smooth vocals, is magic that might make a hurting relationship heal.
32. BLACK MIDI “JOHN L”
“In all the world there’s no escape from this infernal din.” There is something infernal to the song, but it’s about “the words on Main Street when John Fifty comes to town.” A clever and frenetic song, nothing, of course, like Japanese Black Midi music. It’s complicated rock n roll.
31. FLOATING POINTS, Pharoah Sanders & The London Symphony Orchestra “Promises”MOVEMENT 3”
Joined by the London Symphony Orchestra, Floating Points and Pharaoh Sanders have put together an album of 9 movements of meditative and engrossing instrumental songs called Promises. This is Movement 3. Something to carry you off into the ether.
30. DOSS “STRAWBERRY”
“Strawberry” is a hypnotic song by the dream pop band Doss about singing together. “Maybe this song won’t leave you / Maybe this song believes you.” It is about the power of music and vibing together and is 3 minutes and 30 seconds of fun. An escape, a preoccupation. You’ll want to jam to it over and over again.
29. BLOOD CULTURES “SET IT ON FIRE”
“It’s not that I don’t care / I do / But I don’t see the use / You had my neck in a noose / And that’s just not that cool.” “Set It On Fire” chronicles an abusive relationship in indie fashion, with a catchy melody line and beautiful guitar solos. It’s a deep feeling song with a groovy riff, fit to heal, bring light, and relate to those who’ve experienced relationship trauma. Or who just wanna dance.
28. INDIGO DE SOUZA “HOLD U”
With its Casio drum beat intro and Indigo’s lyrics, “You are the best thing, and I’ve got it, I’ve got you,” “Hold U” is a sweet love song that just keeps getting funkier as it goes on. It’s quite the jam, simple but affecting. “And I will hold you, I will hold you, oh-oh.”
27. JOSE GONZALEZ “HEAD ON”
“Join forces and deal with it,” Jose Gonzalez sings on his single “Head On,” an anthem about facing the problems of life with bravery and fortitude. It’s a chill song, with acoustic guitar and his buttery voice. It’s a simple but sweet song, that could help anyone face the demons of life down with joy and purpose.
26. MAGDALENA BAY “SECRETS”
With their music which could soundtrack a video game and their wonderfully quirky videos, Magdalena Bay has accrued quite the following. “Secrets,” off their album Mercurial World, is a bop with its beat and production and Micah’s beautiful vocals. “Secrets, I don’t wanna tell you everything about me.” But they’ve told us enough to hook us in.
25. ARMAND HAMMER & The Alchemist “Falling Out the Sky” feat. Earl Sweatshirt
“Sly told ya that everybody is a star / The only problem is some people haven’t been put in the dipper / and poured back on the world,” Little Richard narrates over the new hip hop track, “Falling Out the Sky.” That’s not a problem that Earl Sweatshirt, Armand Hammer, and The Alchemist rappers have though. They narrate experiences from the loss of a father to going to summer camp in rhymes fit for a novel.
24. PARQUET COURTS “WALKING AT A DOWNTOWN PACE”
“I’ve found a reason to exist / written on the tile / of the platform wall / begging not to go extinct,” Parquet Courts yell in their bopping chorus to this song that has ruled the airwaves (at least in Baltimore) for the last half year. It’s a song full of words and full of feelings that sounds like it could have been written about the pandemic, but was written before it. It’s about as catchy as you can get, with its funky vocal delivery and instrumentation. A damn good song.
23. SQUID “G.S.K.”
Brighton, England’s post-punk Squid, which sounds something like Parquet Courts, with a little bit more punk, came out with their debut album this year. “G.S.K.” is a stunning example of what they’re capable of. “Speeding along, speeding along / I go through the windshield.” It’s not a break neck song, but it’s full of feeling like glass breaking. Excited to see what this stellar band does next.
22. LUCY DACUS “HOT & HEAVY”
With singles like “VBS” and “ Thumbs,” Lucy Dacus deservedly made it to the upper echelons of greatest albums’ lists this year. But we at Northern Transmissions chose her song “Hot and Heavy” which captures the self-discovery of the album. “When I went away, it was the only option / Couldn’t trust myself to proceed with caution.” The success of Lucy Dacus’ album Home Video is her recollection of youth as a maturing woman. This track captures that well.
21. Little Simz “I LOVE YOU, I HATE YOU”
Over a swelling orchestra and a cool beat, Little Simz recounts her hurt and her resolution to live a faithful life despite the challenges. “(Sometimes) I hate you / (Always) I love you.” It’s a big hearted tune, but super cool, with Little Simz’ compelling wordplay. The orchestra vamps up to full form by the end, and we end the song wanting, like Little Simz “To unlock what it takes to fight for what we believe in.”
20. GOOD MORNING “COUNTRY”
Liam Parsons of Melbourne band Good Morning deals with the regrettable person he’s become on his song from this year, called “Country.” It has a bit of a country feel to it, to be sure, though it’s more indie and psychedelic. It’s a catchy song about being “incapable of changing” and in that way, many people could relate to the song. It’s what many of us feel, regretting losing touch with friends that regret to lose touch with us, but nothing happens to change it.
19. JAZMINE SULLIVAN “PICK UP YOUR FEELINGS”
R&B singer Jazmine Sullivan puts her cheating boyfriend in his place on this year’s single, “Pick Up Your Feelings.” “New phone (who is this?) / Contact? Don’t exist.” With the wonderful vocal acrobatics and the clever wordplay, it’s the perfect companion to relationship problems her listeners might be going through. And it has indeed found a real home this year in people’s playlists.
18. MDOU MOCTAR “AFRIQUE VICTIME”
The title track to Mdou Macerator’s new album is a fusion of traditional African music and rock n’ roll. Sung in his native tongue, it still captures the pathos of his poetry, along with the adventurous guitars and drums. The heart of the song is in the title, “Africa is a victim of so many crimes.” Be moved by this music to maybe get informed about the current events of a beautiful continent yet in turmoil.
17. THE NATION OF LANGUAGE “THE FRACTURED MIND”
“D’you think that I could simulate / My life, but done a better way / In this fractured mind.” Post-punk, new wave indie pop band The Nation of Language from Brooklyn, NY, had a stunning follow up album come out this year. It is the best of the best of modern new wave and comes at you in, you guessed it, waves. A beautiful addictive song.
16. CASSANDRA JENKINS “HARD DRIVE”
In her poetic offering, “Hard Drive,” Cassandra Jenkins plays on the double meaning of hard drive, a computer’s memory (the way the brain works) as wells as the difficult drive/trip this life is. It’s a wonderful conflagration of music and words, moving you, for 5 minutes and 30 seconds, to think about the more spiritual things in life. Give it a listen and see if you’re not carried away by it’s profundity and relatability.
15. NONAME “RAINFOREST”
“The universe bleeds infinity, you got one life,” Fatimah Nyeema Warner, rapper Noname from Chicago, riffs over a jazzy beat. This song, delivered in beautiful, break neck speed is about the rainforest which “cries / everybody dies a little” and billionaires and racist corruption. But “I just wanna dance tonight.” It’s supremely danceable, but makes you think in a way only a poet can.
14. CHVRCHES, ROBERT SMITH “HOW NOT TO DROWN”
It was wonderful news when we heard that Robert Smith would be joining CHVRCHES on a single this year, especially as the Cure ramp up for a tour and potentially a new album next year. Lauren Mayberry and Robert Smith’s voices compliment each other beautifully. It’s a haunting tune a la the cure, and comes off one of the best albums of the year, Screen Violence.
13. THE ARMED “AN ITERATION”
In their fiery single, “An Iteration,” Detroit hardcore punk band The Armed aim their target at the “Pseudo-sophisticated, poet laureate-posing, Young white savior.” Like they repeat in the chorus, he is only an “iteration.” It’s a powerful, “beautiful” song about the state of the world right now, and all of our complicity. A hard but satisfying listen.
12. SNAIL MAIL “VALENTINE”
It’s slow to start and surprised the world, with it’s tuned down synthy beginning. But Snail Mail’s titular single, “Valentine,” ends up being one of the most banging songs of the year. Chronicling a relationship going wrong and Lindsey Jordan’s fiery passion, it captures a young love that is maturing. Definitely the piece de resistance of the album.
11. BLACK COUNTRY, NEW ROAD “Science Fair”
Much anticipated English post-rock band Black Country, New Road released only their third song “Science Fair” this year. It’s dramatic and self-aware in the most compelling ways. “I was at the Cambridge Science Fair / And she was so impressed I could make so many things to catch on fire,” the song starts and then the worst happens: “And you ended up burning / I’m sorry.” In both sound and lyrics it tells the most compelling of stories and shows them to be a band with staying power.
10. TYLER, THE CREATOR “LUMBERJACK”
The title track to Tyler, The Creator’s latest album, is a hip hop gem that’s a tribute to a life he cherishes and endures. “Quality Wednesday Music!” Or any day of the week really.
With a number of collaborators ad libbing and the frenetic beat and instrumental, it’s a hypnotic look at fame and the creative life. “Oh yeah, you asked for it.”
9. BIG THIEF “CERTAINTY”
With one of their more country sounding singles to date, Big Thief are back with “Certainty,” which features Adrianne Lenker’s familiar voice harmonizing with fellow band mate.
“Maybe I love you is a river so high / Maybe I love you is a river so low / I love you, still don’t know.” The song captures the “wildness” of certainty and life itself, in a fetching three minute romp. Always moving, in good Big Thief form.
8. YVES TUMOR “JACKIE”
With a killer beat and Sean Bowie’s addictive voice singing about (probably) lover “Little Jackie / When you wake up / Do you think of me?” Yves Tumor gets existential. “These days might be tragic / I ain’t sleeping / Refuse to eat a thing / I can’t tell you what happened.” It’s a super catchy song to capture the glimmer of love in an anxious world, you’ll want to play again and again.
7. DRY CLEANING “STRONG FEELINGS”
Dry Cleaning have come at us this year, like a post punk revelation out of South London. They have a number of hits this year, but this one with Florence Shaw’s typical spoken vocals and Tom Dowse’s beautiful, hypnotic guitars is our choice for best song this year. “Just an emo dead stuff collector / things come to the brain.” They sure do.
6. TURNSTILE “BLACKOUT”
“And if it makes you feel alive / Well, then I’m happy I provide.” This banging, guitar heavy, screaming song talks about the inevitable end and grabbing life by the horns while you can. “It’s just a part of my show.” It’s a life affirming, performance worshiping song, that gets stuck in your head. Worthy to repeat.
5. WET LEG “CHAISE LONGUE”
Without even putting out an album yet, Wet Leg have been winning the admiration of places like NPR and Pitchfork and listeners across the world for their endearing, indie pop. This tongue in cheek song about getting “The big D,” is a look at life in college, working your fingers to the bone. Whether it’s sex or work, the gen Z generation can relate, and us older folks can laugh and nod in recognition.
4. LOW “DISAPPEARING”
It’s hard to pick a favorite from the new Low album, Hey What. It has been praised, far and wide, for its disintegrating and ear assaulting sound, and this single is no different. “That disappearing horizon / It brings cold comfort to my soul / An ever-present reminder / The constant face of the unknown, unknown.” The sound comes at us in waves like the ocean, and offers the strange kind of hope and darkness Low is so often known for.
3. SHARON VAN ETTEN and ANGEL OLSEN “LIKE I USED TO”
Angel Olsen said that after the grind of having to push out fan-worthy songs for years now, getting together with Sharon Van Etten was like capturing the spark of creativity as she used to know and love it. It’s an epic song that highlights these two female vocalists and rockers. Radio stations have been blasting it for most of the year, and I can say that it kind of gets in your crawl, in the most wonderful way. “Falling in love, like I used to!”
2. JAPANESE BREAKFAST “Be Sweet”
Michelle Zauner of Japanese Breakfast put out one of the best records of the year and this is her hit single. “Be sweet to me baby / I wanna believe in you / I wanna believe in something.” It’s pop alternative goodness, with a nod to the 80’s. It’s an anthem of love in a sometimes harsh world, a non-gendered proclamation that we can all use with a little more sweetness.
1. MITSKI “WORKING FOR THE KNIFE”
Mitski has always laid it bare in her songs. In her comeback single “Working For The Knife,” she talks about the pain of being employed, even in something that you might love to do. We can’t help but romanticize stars in our society, and in good Mitski form, she can’t help but pull the veil back to reveal a reality much less glamorous. We love the hurt in this one.
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