Yes, this Top Twelve song list for 2021 is certainly overdue, but it’s still earlier than the list for 2020 last year, so it’s not that bad. Maybe I can actually get 2022’s posted in January, when I typically have in the past. My top movie lists are still pending, but I like summing up the previous year with a song list, sort of the soundtrack of the latest snippet of my life. While 2020 and 2021 were awful years in so many ways, they delivered top-tier music to keep us dancing and tapping our feet through the tears, so to speak. Many creatives used the pandemic shutdowns to dedicate time to their next projects, and they gifted us with so many outstanding songs that I struggled greatly trying to pare down the field to a mere twelve.

I’ve stated this before, but every year for me seems to stand out in retrospect based on a particular artist or artists that I discovered for the first time, one of those “where-have-you-been-all-my-life” moments as I binge their whole discography at once. Here’s my running list since I first started these music countdowns:

2016 – Florence and the Machine
2017 – Kygo
2018 – Aurora, Chvrches, RUFUS DU SOL, and Tom Odell
2019 – Saint Motel, TWRP, Kensington, Sigma, Kaiser Chiefs, etc.
2020 – Mika, Sparks, and The Orion Experience

The number of “discoveries” has grown as I’ve become more exploratory in my music listening. And 2021 was no different as I found an intense admiration for Marina (and the Diamonds), Orangestar, Autoheart, and The Birthday Massacre, all of whom released new music last year, much to my delight. While a few of my Top Twelve below made it on the charts, they once again don’t seem to match the mainstream musical tastes of the rest of the world (not much rap, you might notice). I don’t mind that, but I do wish these awesome songs and artists would get the acclaim and attention they deserve.

So it’s time to dive into the list (and the usual overabundance of runners-up). Please let me know what you think and feel free to recommend other songs I might have missed. There are usually a few I discover too late and wish could have made it on here, so I’m always on the lookout. Now to bring on the music!

12. “Snake Oil Baptism” – Diablo Swing Orchestra

I may have been going through an experimental phase when I discovered Diablo Swing Orchestra, an avant-garde metal band from Sweden (where so many of my favorite artists seem to originate). While not the weirdest song on the album Swagger & Stroll Down the Rabbit Hole, “Snake Oil Baptism” leaves the biggest impression with its huge rock choir and shifting rhythms, including a definite Led Zeppelin influence. It feels like it should be in the soundtrack of a movie’s most awesome scene. Special mention for “The Sound of an Unconditional Surrender” and “Out Came the Hummingbirds.”

11. “Dreams of You” – The Birthday Massacre

I wouldn’t have expected myself to become a fan of a dark wave gothic rock band from Canada called The Birthday Massacre, but here we are. While some of their songs go a little too hard for me, most have an enchantingly dreamy quality that I love, like headbanging in the star-kissed twilight. An early release from their 2022 album Fascination, “Dreams of You” fits that atmospheric mold perfectly, with synths and drums creating a magical soundscape. And between you and me, it’s likely another song from Fascination will make it on the 2022 list.

10. “Wild Hearts” – Keith Urban

The video may be from 2022, but Keith Urban’s “Wild Hearts” was a high point for 2021’s country scene. Granted, I’m not a huge country fan, but this infectiously catchy, feel-good anthem hits all the right inspirational notes. Definitely perfect road-trip music.

9. “Highly Emotional People” – Marina

Now to swing from hard rock to tender pop. Ancient Dreams in a Modern Land isn’t my favorite Marina album, but “Highly Emotional People” is an achingly beautiful meditation on the human need to express emotions, ranking among her most heartfelt songs. “Flowers” and “Goodbye” are similarly gorgeous entries that outshine the more bombastic singles.

8. “Butter” – BTS

It feels odd that I was never that impressed by BTS when they were growing into a Korean phenom, but their English-language songs have been genuine slam dunks breaking into American radio. “Dynamite” made it onto my 2020 list, and now “Butter” has done the same, both of them dance-worthy summer jams that are hard to resist. Special mention for “Permission to Dance” as well.

7. “One Night in Tokyo” – Beast in Black

Scandinavia, you’ve done it again. A Finnish heavy metal band called Beast in Black is also not what I would expect to be a favorite of mine, but boy, do they deliver the jams. Yannis Papadopoulos’ vocals are second to none, and the instrumental section at the two-minute mark is peak head-banging music for me. I assumed “Moonlight Rendezvous” would make it on the list when I first heard it, but “One Night in Tokyo” blew all others away.

6. “Can You Handle My Love??” – Walk the Moon

And a hearty welcome back to Walk the Moon, who placed #2 on my 2017 list and #8 on the 2019 list. I don’t know how they do it, but they always manage to come up with tunes that refuse to let me sit still. “Can You Handle My Love??” is a toe-tapping banger that should have been all over the radio, and I love how the heavy piano is complemented by the drums. Incidentally, this would be my VC’s #1 song. Special mention for “Win Anyway.”

5. “Surges” – Orangestar

There is something special about this short, fast-paced Japanese song that I can’t quite pin down. I’ve already mentioned how I love a heavy-handed piano, but beyond that, it just packs such energy and optimism into such a small runtime that I find it spectacular. After discovering this song, I must have listened to it a hundred times in the following week and never grew tired of it (I am not exaggerating). Despite being a Calorie Mate commercial, the accompanying animated “music video” is also brilliant and rather cathartic after all the COVID lockdowns.

4. TIE: “Higher Power” and “My Universe” (with BTS) – Coldplay

Am I cheating here by including both a tie and a second appearance of BTS? Probably but I’ll allow it. 😉 Although Coldplay is one of my favorite bands, this is the first time they’ve appeared on my yearly song list (though they did get their own list), and they went full sci-fi with the latest album Music of the Spheres. The spacy grandeur of “Coloratura” or the digitized Latin chant of “Infinity Sign” affirm why Coldplay is amazing, but I have to go with the singles. “Higher Power” has a steadily growing energy that never disappoints, while “My Universe” is simply their best song in years, buoyed further by the cross-cultural message shared with BTS. As Chris Martin sings, “I’m happy I’m alive at the same time as you.”

3. “Feel Good” – Saint Motel

And a warm welcome back to Saint Motel, who placed at #6 in the 2020 list and #5 in 2019. They are a prime example of a band that should be HUGE, but I’m glad to be among their devoted fans. Although the full Original Motion Picture Soundtrack album was released last year, it was eclipsed for me by “Feel Good,” a stand-alone single written for the Netflix film Yes Day. Infectiously upbeat, it lives up to its name in all the best ways. Special mention for “It’s All Happening.”

2. “Into the Woods” – Autoheart

Autoheart is the musical discovery from last year that gladdens my heart the most. This British group became an instant favorite as I listened to their past piano-heavy masterpieces, sometimes haunting, sometimes quirky, and the Hellbent album was my favorite of last year. “Into the Woods” has a poignant, immersive melody, with its repeated insistence of “I feel fine” evoking a relatable denial and desperation. “I’m hopeful, I’m certain / I won’t be always hurting” – just gorgeous. Special mentions for “Older”, “Time Machine”, and “I Know That He Loves Me.”

1. “Heat Above” – Greta Van Fleet

It takes something special to outrank the previous few songs on this list, and “Heat Above” is special. Considering how often Greta Van Fleet is compared with Led Zeppelin in style and vocals, I would consider this their “Stairway to Heaven.” It feels BIG, like the kind of song that will (or should) become a rock staple in years to come. Josh Kiszka’s voice once again nails the Robert Plant-esque screams while the synth organ and timpani lend it the sound of a rock opera high point. Simply marvelous! Special mention for “Age of the Machine” and “My Way, Soon.”

There you have it, my favorite songs of 2021, however unconventional they may be. Obviously, this list is based on my own personal tastes, but hopefully there are some out there who might agree that these songs are awesome. Whether you do or not, let me know what your list would look like. The year 2021 may have continued the rather terrible trend that 2020 started, but at least we had some outstanding music to lift our spirits. As always, below is my long list of runners-up, continuing the countdown in order (#13, #14, etc.), so hopefully you’ll find some new favorites among my list as well.

“Next to Me”, “I Don’t Wanna Leave”, and “See You Again” – RUFUS DU SOL

“Follow the Light” and “Breakdown” – Dirty Loops & Cory Wong

“Night Eyes” and “Cosmicandy Girl” – The Orion Experience

“Run” and “Sunshine” – OneRepublic

“Summerland”, “What’s Wrong”, and “Hot Tea” – half alive

“Hate Myself” – Dodie

“Get Better” and “U&ME” – alt-J

“Mirror” – Sigrid

“Quiet Town” and “West Hills” – The Killers

“Christmas Truce” and “Steel Commanders” – Sabaton

“One Last Kiss” – Hikaru Utada

“Love Dies Young”, “Waiting on a War”, “Cloudspotter”, and “Holding Poison” – Foo Fighters

“Avid” – Hiroyuki Sawano (closing song for the anime 86 Eighty-Six)

“Heathens” and “Cure for Me” – Aurora

“Bitter Taste” – Billy Idol

“Stop Making This Hurt” – Bleachers

“I NEED YOU” – Jon Batiste

“Worry No More” – Amos Lee

“Be Bold!” and “Ai wo, Ima” – BRADIO

“Loretta” and “Juban District” – Ginger Root

“One Mississippi” – Kane Brown

“Easy on Me” and “I Drink Wine” – Adele

“Typhoons”, “Trouble’s Coming”, and “Oblivion” – Royal Blood

“See You Again”, “Lovers”, and “Easy Way Out” – Roosevelt

“Lose Your Head” and “Call Your Friends” – London Grammar

“Rushing Water” – Sting

“The Reasons Why” – Sheppard

“Goosebumps” – MO

“A Million Miles Away” and “U” – Belle soundtrack

“Amen” – Ana Soklic (Slovenia’s Eurovision entry)

“Blossoms” and “Secret Worlds” – The Amazing Devil

“Back to Oz” and “Cimmerian Shade” – Sufjan Stevens & Angelo De Augustine

“Airplane Song” and “Being Alone” – DJ Sabrina the Teenage DJ

“Back from the Dead” and “RATA-TATA” – Royal Republic

“Beautiful Mistakes” – Maroon 5

“Last Dance” – Stefania (Greece’s Eurovision entry)

“Visiting Hours”, “Bad Habits”, and “Shivers” – Ed Sheeran

“My Poor Heart” and “Numbers” – Andrew Belle

“Maps” – Lesley Roy (Ireland’s Eurovision entry)

“He Said She Said”, “Killer”, and “How Not to Drown” – CHVRCHES

“Diamond Ring” – Jonah Nilsson, feat. Steve Vai

“Ghost of My Past”, feat. Emily Falvey, and “Elevate” – Vicetone

“Army of One” and “Behind Your Walls” – The Offspring

“Good 4 You” – Olivia Rodrigo

“End of Me” – Billy Talent, feat. Rivers Cuomo

“South Side”, feat. Foster the People, and “R U High”, feat. Mallrat – The Knocks

“Wake Me Up” – FOALS

“Searching for My Love” – Robert Plant & Alison Krauss

“Put on a Smile” and “Skate” – Silk Sonic

“Don’t Say That” – iamnotshane

“Bright Blue Sky” and “Polygon” – TWRP

“Don’t Shut Me Down” and “I Still Believe in You” – ABBA

“Ghost” and “Bit of Good (Bit of Bad)” – Star-Lord Band

“Out of Time” – Diviners, BUNT., Tom Bailey

“Voices” – Tusse (Sweden’s Eurovision entry)

“Good in Red” – The Midnight

“The Maze”, feat. Andrew McMahon in the Wilderness, and “Raising Hell”, feat. Ben Harper – Tom Morello

“Tout l’Univers” – Gjon’s Tears (Switzerland’s Eurovision entry)

“Cornflower Blue” – Flower Face

“Destroyer” and “Phantom” – Of Monsters and Men

“Lose You Again” and “Tears That Never Dry” – Tom Odell

“Stronger” – Sam Feldt, feat. Kesha

“Musician” – Porter Robinson

“Home” – Walk Off the Earth (from the soundtrack of Blade Runner: Black Lotus)

“Superhuman” – Tritonal & Codeko

“Do Better” – Feint

“Embers” – James Newman (UK’s Eurovision entry)

“How High” – The Record Company

“The Tipping Point” – Tears for Fears

“Billy Goodbye” – Franz Ferdinand

“Cool Enough” – Almost Monday

“Discoteque” – The Roop (Lithuania’s Eurovision entry)

“Friendless” – Nathan Wagner

“Killing Me” – Chung Ha

“Hold No Grudge”, “Helen of Troy”, and “Solar Power” – Lorde

“The Ride” – RAFAL (Poland’s Eurovision entry)

And like I usually do with these music posts, I’ll end with a short tribute to the many musical artists we lost in 2021, including Phil Spector, Jimmie Rodgers, Mary Wilson of The Supremes, Bunny Wailer, DMX, Joe Long of The Four Seasons, Lloyd Price, Samuel E. Wright, Robby Steinhardt of Kansas, Dusty Hill of ZZ Top, Dennis Thomas of Kool & the Gang, Don Everly of The Everly Brothers, Charlie Watts of The Rolling Stones, Sarah Harding of Girls Aloud, Jane Powell, Leslie Bricusse, Jay Black of Jay and the Americans, Graeme Edge of The Moody Blues, Stephen Sondheim, Steve Bronski of Bronski Beat, and Michael Nesmith of The Monkees. May they all rest in peace and never be forgotten. I’ve been deep into Broadway lyrics lately, so it seems right to feature the best version of one of Sondheim’s most celebrated songs.