Year in review: 25 biggest songs of 2021

Entertainment

Ariana Grande is seen at the GRAMMY Charities Signings during the 62nd Annual GRAMMY Awards at STAPLES Center on January 26, 2020 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Robin Marchant/Getty Images for The Recording Academy)

GREENVILLE, N.C. (Stacker.com) — Louis Armstrong once famously said, “Music is life itself.

What would this world be without good music? No matter what kind it is.” Whether rap, pop, country, or alternative, Armstrong was right—good music knows no genre. What matters is the way music makes us feel. The lyrics, the beat, the instrumentation, and the artists all come together to offer a few minutes of pure joy.

To determine the biggest songs of 2021, Stacker took a look at Billboard’s year-end Hot 100 chart, the definitive gauge for hit-makers. These songs made us dance, sing along, and provided comfort during yet another unprecedented year. They gave us a chance to escape for a while, to connect with ourselves and each other, and to feel understood and seen. One song signaled the return of a pop star who’d taken a bit of a hiatus from music; another track became a posthumous hit from a rapper who was tragically killed in his West Hollywood rental home; and yet another smash marked the massive crossover for a rising hip-hop artist.

Although a number of the songs that appeared on Billboard’s Hot 100 chart are a blast from years past, they were still considered contenders on this list of the biggest songs of 2021. They were performed live everywhere from Facebook to “Saturday Night Live.” Keep reading to see if your favorite song of the year made the cut.

1 / 25Rich Fury // Getty Images

#25. ‘Therefore I Am’ by Billie Eilish

Released in 2020, Billie Eilish wrote “Therefore I Am” with her brother and longtime music collaborator, Finneas O’Connell. Eilish also directed and shot the music video, which takes place in a local shopping mall and was filmed on an iPhone. A play on philosopher René Descartes’ famous dictum “I think, therefore I am,” this dark, upbeat pop song was influenced by hip-hop and the song’s instrumentation includes synthesizer, kick drum, and bass line.

2 / 25Astrida Valigorsky // Getty Images

#24. ‘Industry Baby’ by Lil Nas X featuring Jack Harlow

Lil Nas X teamed with fellow rapper Jack Harlow for this track and its accompanying music video, which stirred a great deal of controversy. The LGBTQ+ rapper is best known for his megahit “Old Town Road.” Writing for NPR, Reanna Cruz called the song “an exercise in braggadocio; a triumphant, horn-driven beat from Kanye West and Take A Daytrip.” “Industry Baby” garnered a nomination for Best Melodic Rap Performance at the 64th Annual Grammy Awards.

3 / 25Ethan Miller // Getty Images

#23. ‘My Ex’s Best Friend’ by Machine Gun Kelly and blackbear

“My Ex’s Best Friend,” the guitar-heavy song pairing Machine Gun Kelly and blackbear, appears on the rapper’s fifth studio album, “Tickets to My Downfall.” Released in 2020, the album didn’t arrive without some criticism, as many music critics felt MGK had strayed away from his hip-hop origins in favor of a pop-punk style. Even so, the LP debuted at #1 on the Billboard 200 chart, garnering MGK his first chart-topping project.

4 / 25Scott Dudelson // Getty Images

#22. ‘What You Know Bout Love’ by Pop Smoke

This track, which appears on Pop Smoke’s posthumous debut studio album “Shoot for the Stars, Aim for the Moon,” leaked online in February 2020, just after the rapper’s death. It eventually climbed to the #9 spot on Billboard’s Hot 100, where it spent 42 weeks. The rapper was just 20 years old when he was killed in February 2020 in a home invasion in the Hollywood Hills home he was renting.

5 / 25Kevin Winter // Getty Images

#21. ‘34+35 (Remix)’ by Ariana Grande featuring Doja Cat and Megan Thee Stallion

Taken from her sixth studio album “Positions,” Ariana Grande’s “34+35” is an explicit track that contains graphic lyrics and sexual content, including numbers in the song’s title that, when added, spell out a well-known sexual innuendo. Earlier this year, the track got even hotter with added verses from collaborators Megan Thee Stallion and Doja Cat on its sticky-sweet remix version. Speaking about the track in an interview on the Zach Sang Show, Grande said, “It’s absolutely absurd. It was just a fun thing. We heard the strings that sounded so Disney and orchestral and full and pure. And I was just like, ‘Yo, what is the dirtiest possible, most opposing lyric that we could write to this.’”

6 / 25James D. Morgan // Getty Images

#20. ‘Astronaut in the Ocean’ by Masked Wolf

Australian rapper Masked Wolf made his debut in 2018 with “Speed Racer.” Originally released in 2019, “Astronaut in the Ocean” was re-released in 2021 when Masked Wolf signed with U.S. recording label Elektra Records in a multi-album deal. The song has become known for its guitar-heavy intro, which has been used in hundreds of thousands of videos on TikTok.

7 / 25Timothy Norris // Getty Images

#19. ‘Go Crazy’ by Chris Brown and Young Thug

“Go Crazy” received two Soul Train Awards nods in 2021 and was a critical and commercial success for Chris Brown and Young Thug. The track sampled The Showboys’ 1986 single, “Drag Rap,” and inspired a dance challenge on Instagram called the #GoCrazyChallenge, which challenged fans to make videos showing them dancing to the song next to a moving car with an open door.

8 / 25Jason Kempin // Getty Images

#18. ‘Forever After All’ by Luke Combs

Country star Luke Combs’ love ballad was originally released in 2020 as an album track on “What You See Ain’t Always What You Get,” the deluxe edition to his sophomore studio album, titled “What You See Is What You Get.” In February 2021, the North Carolina native announced on Instagram that “Forever After All” would be his next single to hit country radio. The song is a tribute to his wife Nicole and the music video released in April 2021 features footage from the couple’s wedding ceremony.

9 / 25Rich Fury // Getty Images

#17. ‘Without You’ by The Kid LAROI

After a successful premiere in 2020, Australian musician and teen sensation The Kid LAROI debuted the remix version of his smash hit song “Without You” with singer Miley Cyrus on “Saturday Night Live” in May 2021. The song went viral on TikTok, which is where the singer also got a huge response after name-checking TikTok megastar Addison Rae. LAROI also had a mentor-like relationship with the late rapper Juice Wrld, who died in December 2021 from a drug overdose. “That was my big brother. I learned a whole lot from him,” the rising artist said of his friend in an interview with HotNewHipHop.

10 / 25Scott Legato // Getty Images

#16. ‘Heat Waves’ by Glass Animals

While Glass Animals are no strangers to success, “Heat Waves” is the group’s first song to hit the Billboard Hot 100. Writing for Stereogum, critic Chris DeVille described the track as, “Trap drum programming, woozy electronic bass and keyboards, pitched-down vocals, a guitar loop that blurs into the digital morass.” The indie British rock band has come a long way since the members met in secondary school in Oxford and came together as an act in 2010.

11 / 25Marc Piasecki // Getty Images

#15. ‘Bad Habits’ by Ed Sheeran

Snow Patrol’s Johnny McDaid co-wrote and co-produced this electro-pop song that brings a bit of an edge to wholesome pop star Ed Sheeran. In the music video for the record, a pink-suited Sheeran dons fangs and the ability to fly. Not only did the song help Sheeran break records this year, but it also discussed the difficulty of vices, such as substance use and smoking, both of which the singer has dealt with in the past.

12 / 25Kevin Mazur // Getty Images

#14. ‘Positions’ by Ariana Grande

As the lead single on her latest album, “Positions” is a simple track featuring trap drums, strings, and the soft hum of crickets. The music video features Ariana Grande in a female-centric White House, serving as both the leader of the free world while navigating the White House, and as the woman of the house who belts in the captivating chorus: “Switchin’ the positions for you/Cookin’ in the kitchen and I’m in the bedroom/I’m in the Olympics, way I’m jumpin’ through hoops.” Grande’s alluring track even garnered her Grammy acclaim, earning a nomination for Best Pop Solo Performance at the 2022 Grammy Awards.

13 / 25Kevin Winter // Getty Images

#13. ‘Deja Vu’ by Olivia Rodrigo

The heart-aching follow-up to Olivia Rodrigo’s debut single and megahit “Drivers License,” “Deja Vu” finds the singer lamenting about an old flame doing the same things with his new girlfriend that he once did with her. With added song credits given to Taylor Swift, Jack Antonoff, and St. Vincent, the track proves Rodrigo is no one-hit-wonder—“Deja Vu” debuted at #8 on the U.S. Billboard Hot 100, becoming the second consecutive single from her Grammy-nominated debut album “Sour” to enter the top 10 of the chart.

14 / 25Kevin Mazur/MTV VMAs 2021 // Getty Images

#12. ‘Stay‘ by The Kid LAROI and Justin Bieber

The repetitive rhythm of “Stay” makes this pop song a dance hit and a TikTok favorite. Variety named it 2021’s Song of the Summer, and the track debuted at #3 on Billboard’s Hot 100 chart. This is the second collaboration between LAROI and Bieber, with the first being “Unstable” from “Justice,” Bieber’s sixth studio album.

15 / 25Kevin Winter // Getty Images

#11. ‘Butter‘ by BTS

“Butter” is the second English-language single from Korean pop group BTS, and is the follow-up to their Grammy-nominated track “Dynamite.” Writing for NME, critic Rhian Daly called the track “a clean and crisp piece of dance pop that’s undeniably cool without sacrificing immediacy or memorable hooks.” What’s more, “Butter” bagged the group its second Grammy nomination of their career, earning a bid for Best Pop Duo/Group Performance at the 2022 Grammy Awards.

16 / 25Jeff Kravitz // Getty Images

#10. ‘Peaches’ by Justin Bieber featuring Daniel Caesar and Giveon

“Peaches” debuted at #1 on both Billboard’s Hot 100 and Billboard’s 200 chart, making Justin Bieber the first solo male artist to receive such an honor. The song also earned the first #1 for R&B favorites Giveon and Daniel Caesar. The success of “Peaches” earned Bieber even more acclaim at the upcoming 2022 Grammy Awards, receiving nominations for Record of the Year, Song of the Year, Best R&B Performance, and Best Music Video.

17 / 25Jason Mendez // Getty Images

#9. ‘Montero (Call Me by Your Name)’ by Lil Nas X

First featured in a 2021 Super Bowl LV Logitech ad, “Montero (Call Me by Your Name)” is named after the 2017 Timothée Chalamet and Armie Hammer film of the same name, which focuses on a gay love story. Lil Nas X came out in 2019 and has been very open about his sexuality in both his music and the videos that accompany it. The music video stirred up a significant amount of controversy with its content, which depicted the rapper giving Satan a lap dance after he joined him in hell via a stripper pole. Despite the hubbub surrounding the record, the song earned several nominations at the 2022 Grammy Awards, including for Record of the Year, Song of the Year, and Best Music Video.

18 / 25Mike Coppola // Getty Images

#8. ‘Drivers License’ by Olivia Rodrigo

The debut single and love ballad by the Disney actress received an overwhelmingly positive response from fans and critics alike, shattering a myriad of streaming and chart records in its arrival earlier this year. The singer marries two teenage milestones—navigating a breakup and getting a driver’s license, which may be why the song is so relatable. Speculation over the song’s subject also caused a stir across TikTok, with many believing it was written about Rodrigo’s “High School Musical: The Musical: The Series.” co-star Joshua Bassett. “Drivers License” received recognition at next year’s Grammy Awards as well, earning nominations for Record of the Year and Song of the Year.

19 / 25Bennett Raglin // Getty Images

#7. ‘Leave the Door Open’ by Silk Sonic

Singer Bruno Mars and rapper Anderson .Paak came together to form the R&B duo Silk Sonic, which has seen much success with its debut single, “Leave the Door Open.” The song is plucked from their debut album, “An Evening with Silk Sonic,” and serves as a nod to the slow, soulful bluesy jams of the 1970s. Funk-icon Bootsy Collins contributes a one-minute intro track for the album and also came up with the duo’s cool band name. The fan-favorite track will compete at the 2022 Grammys for Record of the Year and Song of the Year.

20 / 25Kevin Mazur // Getty Images

#6. ‘Kiss Me More’ by Doja Cat featuring SZA

Writing for The Guardian, British journalist Alexis Petridis described “Kiss Me More” as “a laid-back bit of disco-infused pop-rap with a neat immediately recognisable hook from Olivia Newton-John’s ‘Physical’ in the chorus.” Featured on her third studio album “Planet Her,” which features guest appearances from Ariana Grande and Young Thug as well, Doja’s SZA-assisted “Kiss Me More” took home the 2021 American Music Award for Collaboration of the Year. Not to mention, the record is a top contender at the 2022 Grammys, earning nominations for Record of the Year, Song of the Year, and Best Pop Duo/Group Performance.

You may also like: 50 ways music has changed in the last 50 years

21 / 25Mat Hayward // Getty Images

#5. ‘Good 4 U’ by Olivia Rodrigo

Featured on her debut album “Sour,” “Good 4 U” is the third single to release from the track, and the second after “Drivers License” to reach the #1 spot on the Billboard Hot 100 chart. Not only does the song’s instrumentals call to mind the 1990s and 2000s but the music video that accompanies it references several movies from that period, including “Jennifer’s Body” and “The Princess Diaries.” Like Rodrigo’s other songs, “Good 4 U” calls out an ex-boyfriend for his post-breakup behavior. The visual for the track received a nomination at the 2022 Grammy Awards for Best Music Video.

22 / 25Julio Aguilar // Getty Images

#4. ‘Mood’ by 24kGoldn featuring Iann Dior

Speaking of his chart-topping collaboration with Iann Dior, rapper 24kGoldn told Variety, “Right from the jump, I knew ‘Mood’ was gonna be huge because I’d never had a song debut so strong.” The upbeat song from the San Francisco native features some heavy lyrics and an appealing guitar riff. A hit not only on the charts, but on TikTok as well, “Mood” has its own dance.

23 / 25Kevin Mazur // Getty Images

#3. ‘Blinding Lights’ by The Weeknd

In November 2021, the viral hit “Blinding Lights” made Billboard history when it knocked Chubby Checker’s hit “The Twist” off the charts as the greatest song of all time on Billboard’s Hot 100 chart. The unstoppable track spent an epic 90 weeks on Billboard’s Hot 100. The pop song has a 1980s vibe with its synth-heavy sound.

24 / 25Kevin Mazur // Getty Images

#2. ‘Save Your Tears (Remix)’ by The Weeknd and Ariana Grande

“Save Your Tears” is not the first hit-making collaboration for The Weeknd and Ariana Grande but rather the third. The Weeknd’s first Top 10 hit came when he guested on Grande’s “Love Me Harder” in 2014. “Save Your Tears” was originally a solo project but languished in the Billboard Hot 100 Top 10 until the remix with Grande released earlier this year, thrusting it up the charts to the #1 spot, becoming the sixth #1 Billboard Hot 100 entry for both artists.

25 / 25Kevin Mazur // Getty Images

#1. ‘Levitating’ by Dua Lipa

The single from Dua Lipa’s 2020 album “Future Nostalgia” bounced all over the Billboard Hot 100 but went on to become the Song of the Year on Billboard’s Hot 100. A remix with DaBaby and a collaborative Grammy performance made this TikTok favorite soar. However, a homophobic rant DaBaby delivered onstage at Rolling Loud in Miami has since turned fans off to the remix, which prompted Lipa not to submit the track for consideration at the 2022 Grammys. Billboard followed the controversy by dropping the rapper’s name from the track’s chart credit altogether.

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