One of the great things about pop songs is the brevity of the form. In just a couple minutes’ worth of your time, an artist can communicate the highest highs and lowest lows of emotion we’re capable of experiencing. Sometimes, it’s an emotional gut punch; other times, it’s blissed-out catharsis; and yes, most of the time it’s a milquetoast echo of other, better material, but that’s what makes the best songs stand out all the more. Taking genres and styles that have seemingly been done to death a thousand times over, and making them feel as vital and alive as the first time you heard them, is a minor miracle—a magic trick of sorts that never stops dazzling, no matter how many times it’s performed.
The artists below have all managed to pull off that musical miracle, dropping songs in the first half of 2021 that act as flag-waving avatars for their respective styles. Whether encapsulating the best sounds that contemporary K-pop has to offer, conjuring up new visions of post-rock, or just unleashing some ferocious hip-hop, these tracks seethe with the unleashed potential of the year’s best songwriters. In an effort to highlight the scope of the current music landscape and prevent overlap, we’ve restricted this feature to artists who aren’t on our list of the best albums thus far, and vice versa. Given the sheer tonnage of music released, there’s almost certainly a favorite song of yours that didn’t make our list (we have no doubt you’ll let us know in the comments); but for now, we can say that these are the songs that most moved our hearts and heads—and occasionally, our asses to the dance floor—in the first half of 2021.
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