I used to work at a music magazine where we would spend several weeks in November and December trying to make a list of the best songs of the year. This is standard practice for most culture publications, because people have a love-hate relationship with being told what the best thing is, and the posts that tell them those things are guaranteed to do numbers. This is all well and good, but if there’s one thing I like more than songs, it’s very specific moments within them: the adlibs, intonations, and weird noises (or lack thereof) that really make a song great.
I keep a little list of these in my phone over the course of each year, and now I am going to share 2021’s offerings with you. It’s worth noting that most of these songs are Top 40 hits because, well, that’s what I like to listen to. Sorry! I will hopefully include whatever scary nightcore remix you love next year.
Danny L Harle’s Baby – “Bunny Is A Rider” by Caroline Polachek
One of the best songs of the year also features one of the best sounds. Do you hear that little person cooing in the background? That’s producer Danny L Harle’s actual baby, and I just think she’s doing a great job.
“Why the FUCK you in the club when n— wildin’” – “Thot Shit” by Megan Thee Stallion
The sound of the year is probably Megan going “Aah,” but this line delivery by her boyfriend Pardison Fontaine is one that has stuck with me for a long time. It features one of my favorite things, which is when the music cuts out for a second so a musician can emphasize a line of dialogue. He really wants to know why the fuck she’s in the club.
Ambient car noises – “drivers license” by Olivia Rodrigo
Right at the beginning of the song, you hear a car starting, followed by the chime of a “door open” alert and the jingling of keys. Rodrigo told the New York Times that the sound was recorded by her mom in her actual car, and I think that it is one of the things that takes one of the year’s biggest hits from good to great. As this list reveals, I am a slut for real world noises being put into music.
Opening horns – “Industry Baby” by Lil Nas X feat. Jack Harlow
The king has arrived! That’s what these horns signal to us in the catchiest single off of Lil Nas X’s debut album MONTERO. Not only that, but these aren’t just computer-generated horn sounds, but rather producer Nick Lee performing and layering each trombone part on top of one another. A win for band kids everywhere.
*DING* – “Kiss Me More” by Doja Cat feat. SZA
I can barely comprehend what either of these girls are saying, but I do know that every time I hear this song I sing along when SZA goes “cahkdeein witcha fen, yeain even hafmay lion onuh *DING* you know that…” The ding is everything.
The Big Transition – “Happier Than Ever” by Billie Eilish
When this song starts, Eilish sounds almost like Judy Garland, crooning slowly over a simple guitar track, and by the end she is wailing like a rock star over electric guitar and crashing drums. And then the music drops out (another one!), the guitars come screaming in, and you feel it when Eilish snarls “I don’t talk shit about you on the internet.” The best way to enjoy this particular moment is to watch a live version of it, in which an audience full of scorned young women are screaming along to the line “You made me hate this city.”
That Crazy “OOOoooOOOOooo”– “The Other Side” by Jazmine Sullivan
Only 15 seconds into the song and Sullivan has me hooked. I wish I could be locked in a room where this song just plays on repeat. I think that would fix a lot of my problems.
“This BITCH” – Smokin Out The Window by Bruno Mars & Anderson .Paak
I like that Bruno Mars is really using this as a gendered insult. He is not saying “this bitch” the way I am when one of my friends is acting foolish. He is using a slur, and it sounds great coming out of his mouth.