Top 20 Songs of 2021: Our Picks

For the second year in a row, we are turning our top 20 songs of the year into a blog post! 2020’s list was met with the most engagement we have ever seen, with plenty of shares and criticism to go around. So let’s do it again!

Before we get started, a few themes we noticed this year that were not prevalent in years past:

  1. The return of the female voice! Women vocals comprise 12 of the 20 songs on our list. And although many are accompaniments to established artists, they still are major drivers of great songs.
  2. Miley Cyrus makes her first (and second) appearance on the chart. At first we were embarrassed that we started listening to Miley at length this year, but then again what makes her so much worse than anybody else? So what if she has had some mishaps in the past. Her and Dua Lipa are the only artists to appear multiple times on this year’s countdown.
  3. More popular names than usual. Little-known alternative artists have pretty much dominated the list over the past few years. But this year you will see a lot of names and songs that are also on top 40 radio. Nine of the 20 songs were staples of the Sirius XM Hits 1 channel for at least part of the year.
  4. The list we start with gets smaller and smaller. The list has technically existed since 2000, when Outkast’s B.O.B. edged out Linkin Park’s In the End for the top spot. But that list also started with close to 100 songs! This year’s list was the first ever to start with less than 50 songs (49 to be exact). This could be a testament to narrowing music taste – or just being too busy to listen to music at every waking moment.
  5. Songs are shorter now. There was a time when this list of 20 songs would be 75-80 minutes. And for those of you who remember burning CDs, 79 minutes was the limit! That made for some creative song editing back in the high school years. The 2021 list, however, comes in at 62 minutes – or a little longer than three minutes per song.
  6. Spotify didn’t list Cocomelon first! Top lists are suddenly automated, and Spotify seems to have the best combination of algorithm and shareable graphics. One shortcoming: they fail to leave out music that is clearly selected and listened to by little children.

And now let’s get to the list!

20. Bleeker – Running Through the Flames

The countdown starts with a song that was actually released before the pandemic but gained some notoriety recently thanks to Spotify dumping it on a ton of “Discover Weekly” lists – including my own. This song is both fast and uplifting, making for a great song to listen to while you run or do a Peloton ride.

19. Elton John and Dua Lipa – Cold Heart (PNAU Remix)

Contrary to popular belief, this song is actually NOT a remake of an older Elton John, but apparently, it combines elements of some of his other hits. I’m not usually one for this type of collaboration: an elderly music star duet with a current queen, mixed together by an EDM group. But the song quickly was stuck in my head and found itself on the list.

18. Dreamers – Palm Reader (feat. Big Boi and Upsahl)

Dreamers is an alternative band that is constantly getting played on satellite radio but they have never broken through to this top 20 list. In fact, over the past four years, they have had four songs that were among the last 10 songs cut from the list (i.e. they were top 30, not top 20). Now that they have help from two other artists who have had top 10 hits in the past, Dreamers finally cracks the list.

17. Swimming With Bears – Keep Smiliing

Another pre-pandemic song that I (and most others) discovered in 2021, Keep Smiling is the first song I have heard about waiting tables. There are some epic lyrics that stick with you long after the song. (“Now that you’re finally done, congrats Mary Jo on the clean plate club,” referencing an old widow that takes forever to eat her meal had me dying). The title, while very positive, hints at undertones of unhappiness and depression, albeit in a very funny manner.

16. Steve Aoki – Losing My Religion (feat. MKLA)

Full disclosure: there are several other artists on this song that didn’t fit into the headline, but they are Gattuso and Aukoustics – two groups that some European people or hardcore EDM fans may know? Anyways, yes, this is an EDM remix of the 90s R.E.M. song that all of us millennials and Gen X’ers know. Chances are, most of this song’s biggest fans (Gen Z) have no clue who Michael Stipe is and would just mock us if they did.

15. Saweetie – Best Friend (feat. Doja Cat)

The first of two duets with the queens of hip hop on the list, Best Friend is an epic song with attention-grabbing album art, to put it lightly. This is one of the few songs that was in constant rotation almost all year, first appearing in March and never becoming one of those songs I got sick of. (Warning: these next three videos are extremely NSFW. You will know based on the thumbnail when one is not…)

14. Lil Nas X – Industry Baby (feat. Jack Harlow)

I was as surprised as the next person when I first heard this song and thoroughly enjoyed it. Industry Baby was (and still is) a massive radio hit and is hard to listen to without singing the chorus. Lil Nas X has a formula for making bangers these days. It seems like he is on the radio with a new song every few months.

13. Miley Cyrus – Prisoner (feat. Dua Lipa)

It’s difficult to tell the difference between these two singers in this song, and I don’t know why that is. They admittedly do not sound similar but for some reason, it is hard to tell them apart here. The song is a lot of fun, albeit dark, given the title and connotations.

12. Post Malone – Only Wanna Be With You

The original Hootie and the Blowfish version was pretty good, but the Post Malone version is fantastic. The slowest song of the countdown is supposedly part of the Pokemon 25 album. Speaking of which, has anybody seen any other songs come from this other than a random Katy Perry re-release? It looked like a promising album based on this song, but we have not seen much else.

11. The Beaches – Want What You Got

A little-known song from a little-known band, this song is funny, goofy, and a true earworm. This would have been higher on the list, but the second half of the year produced some epic songs that pushed this one just outside the top 10. As mentioned earlier, this is the year of the short songs, but this is the longest one, coming in at 4:28. It’s a full 27 seconds longer than any other song on the countdown, but it sure doesn’t feel that way when you listen to it.

10. Lizzo – Rumors (feat. Cardi B)

A strange, funky, rock-infused collaboration between two of the hottest names in music gave us a dynamite song. At first, I thought it was missing something like some extra rock guitar or a longer verse, but after a few plays, I realized it’s great just the way it is. Side note: Cardi B is pregnant in the video – can you imagine being that kid in 20 years? “Oh yeah, that’s me!”

9. Hollywood Undead – Gonna Be OK

Combine Insane Clown Posse with Slipknot and you get Hollywood Undead, a band that I hate to admit is ok sometimes. They make their second-ever appearance on the list nearly a decade after “Levitate” snuck onto the list. There really is not much else to say about this band, as I try to avoid them when I’m not listening to one of their two good songs.

8. Twenty One Pilots – Saturday

I’m not sure why Twenty One Pilots get so much hate. The music is a fun blend of alternative and pop and the guys are clearly talented, as I saw first-hand at Lollapalooza in 2015 when Tyler played the guitar, piano, ukelele, and trombone all in the same song. This is not necessarily the song to play when pregaming on a Saturday night. Rather, it’s the song for us millennial dads to play when mowing the lawn on a Saturday morning instead.

7. Miley Cyrus – Midnight Sky

The first time I heard this song I thought I was hearing a collaboration between Miley and Stevie Nicks. Everything about this song sounds exactly like what you would expect to hear from Nicks if she returned to the top 40 scene in 2021. Alas, I am ashamed to admit this is only Miley and the song is way too catchy and addictive to leave off the list.

6. bbno$ and Rich Brian – Edamame

For a super-bizarre earworm with hard-to-understand lyrics, this is a pretty wild song. I had never heard of either of these guys and I still don’t fully understand the message, but I can’t stop listening to it. This is by far the shortest song on the list, coming in at 2:13, so you can listen to it four times before you get through one play of November Rain by Guns N Roses.

5. RedHook- Bad Decisions

A little-known Australian band whose music sounds like it came straight out of 2002? Sign me up! Unlike Edamame, you find out the meaning of these lyrics pretty quickly. If you are looking for a song to add to a workout or Peloton playlist, this one is for you. Bad Decisions would have been higher on the list but I didn’t hear about this song until mid-October, leaving it with only a few weeks to quickly ascend and compete with some heavy hitters above it.

4. Deadmau5 and Lights – When the Summer Dies (meowingtons remix)

The original version of this song is missing something… and that void is filled with this amazing remix. It has been awhile since Deadmau5 made it on to the list, but he is back with some help in 2021. Honestly, the original is so dull and slow that this remix changed it from a forgettable song that I’ll listen to once into a banger that will be on this Spotify user’s playlists for years to come.

3. grandson – Dirty

Speaking of Spotify, Dirty got the distinction of being my number one played song of 2021, overtaking heavy hitters like Cocomelon and Bubble Guppies. But I chose not to stick with Spotify’s calculus mainly because this song was one of the first I discovered at the start of the year. It’s still a great song and the highest-ranking one that would be considered strictly alternative.

2. Big Data and MNDR – Save Yourself

Very few readers will know this song, although most will know music by Big Data from the past few years. I had to look up MNDR, as I thought she was a European singer, but she was actually raised on a farm in North Dakota. You would never know by hearing her with the obnoxiously addictive beat that Big Data puts out with this jam.

1. Olivia Rodrigo – good 4 u

It is only fitting that 14 years after Paramore’s nearly identical song topped this chart, Olivia Rodrigo repeats the accomplishment. I honestly avoided this song after hearing Rodrigo’s boring previous chart-toppers, but I accidentally heard it one time and never looked back. Most years I struggle to decide the number one song for this list but there was never a doubt that this would top it.

And that’s the list! You can listen to the whole list on Spotify so you aren’t stuck with YouTube videos. From there you can also see all the past lists, or at least the ones going back to the early 2010s when I first moved the lists off iTunes.

This list was built and written by Digital Detroit Founder and CEO Nick Mattar.

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