Jon Pareles’s Top 25
Full disclosure: There can’t be a definitive list of best songs — only a sampling of what any one listener, no matter how determined, can find the time to hear in the course of a year. For discovery’s sake, my list rules out the (excellent) songs on my favorite albums of the year, and it’s designed more like a playlist than a countdown or a ranking. Feel free to switch to shuffle.
1. Residente featuring Ibeyi, ‘This Is Not America’
Backed by implacable Afro-Caribbean drumming and Ibeyi’s vocal harmonies, the Puerto Rican rapper Residente defines America as the entire hemisphere, while he furiously denounces historical and ongoing abuses.
2. The Smile, ‘The Opposite’
Thom Yorke of Radiohead — in a side project, the Smile — wonders, “What will become of us?” Prodded by a funky beat and pelted by staggered, syncopated guitar and bass notes, he can’t expect good news.
3. Wilco, ‘Bird Without a Tail/Base of My Skull’
With Wilco picking and strumming like a string band, Jeff Tweedy spins a free-associative fable about elemental forces of life and death, leading into a brief but probing jam that reunites country and psychedelia.
4. Rema featuring Selena Gomez, ‘Calm Down’
The crisply flirtatious “Calm Down,” by the Nigerian singer Rema, was already a major African hit when Selena Gomez added her voice for a remix. He’s confident, she’s inviting — at least for the moment — and the Afrobeats syncopation promises a good time.
5. Emiliana Torrini and the Colorist Orchestra, ‘Right Here’
A plinking Minimalist pulse and a deft chamber-pop arrangement carry the Icelandic songwriter Emiliana Torrini through fond thoughts of hard-won but durable domestic stability.
6. Lucrecia Dalt, ‘Atemporal’
“Atemporal” (“Timeless”) is from “Ay!,” Lucrecia Dalt’s heady concept album about time, physicality and love. It’s a lurching bolero that dovetails lo-fi nostalgia with vaudeville horns and an electronically skewed sense of space.
7. Burna Boy, ‘Last Last’
The Nigerian superstar Burna Boy juggles regrets, justifications and resentments as he sings about a romance wrecked by career pressures, drawing nervous momentum out of a strumming, fluttering sample from Toni Braxton.
8. Aldous Harding, ‘Lawn’
The tone is airy: unassuming piano chords; a high, naïve voice; a singsong melody. But in one of Aldous Harding’s least cryptic lyrics, she is trying to put the best face on a confusing breakup.
9. Madison Cunningham, ‘Our Rebellion’
Madison Cunningham sings, wryly and fondly, about an opposites-attract relationship in a tricky, virtuosic tangle of guitar lines.
10. Big Thief, ‘Simulation Swarm’
Adrianne Lenker’s wispy voice belies the visionary ambition — and ambiguity — of her lyrics. So does the way the band, not always in tune, cycles through four understated folk-rock chords, swerving occasionally into a bridge. It’s a love song with a backdrop of war and transformation, delivered like a momentary glimpse into something much vaster.
11. Margo Price, ‘Lydia’
Somewhere between folk-rock plaint and short story, Margo Price sings about a pregnant woman at a clinic, with a hard-luck past and a tough decision to make.
12. Ice Spice, ‘Munch (Feelin’ U)’
Cool, fast, precise and merciless, the Bronx rapper Ice Spice dispatches a hapless suitor by designating him as a new slang word: “munch.”
13. Jamila Woods, ‘Boundaries’
Mixing a suave bossa nova with a tapping, stubbornly resistant cross-rhythm, Jamila Woods neatly underlines the ambivalence she sings about, as she ponders just how close she wants someone to get.
14. Stromae featuring Camila Cabello, ‘Mon Amour’
The cheerful lilt of Stromae’s “Mon Amour” is camouflage for the increasingly threadbare rationalizations of a compulsive cheater; he gets his comeuppance when Camila Cabello asserts her own freedom to fool around.
15. Giveon, ‘Lie Again’
Giveon floats in a jealous limbo, hoping not to be exposed to hard truths. His voice is a baritone croon with an electronic penumbra, in a track that hints at old soul translated into ghostly electronics.
16. Tyler ICU featuring Nkosazana Daughter, Kabza De Small and DJ Maphorisa, ‘Inhliziyo’
No fewer than three leading producers of amapiano, the patient, midtempo South African club style, collaborated on “Inhliziyo” (“Heart”), creating haunted open spaces for the South African singer and songwriter Nkosazana Daughter to quietly lament a heartbreak.
17. Tinashe, ‘Something Like a Heartbreak’
Nothing feels entirely solid in this song: not Tinashe’s breathy vocals, not the beat that flickers in and out of the mix, not the hovering tones that only sketch the chords. But in the haze, she realizes, “You don’t deserve my love,” and she moves on.
18. Jessie Reyez, ‘Mutual Friend’
Revenge arrives with cool fury over elegant, vintage-soul strings as Jessie Reyez makes clear that someone is definitely not getting a second chance.
19. 070 Shake, ‘Web’
Danielle Balbuena — the songwriter and producer who records as 070 Shake — overdubbed herself as a full-scale choir in “Web,” a pandemic-era reaction to the gap between onscreen and physical interaction. She wants carnality in real time, insisting, “Let’s be here in person.”
20. Holly Humberstone, ‘Can You Afford to Lose Me?’
In an ultimatum carried by a stately crescendo of keyboards, Holly Humberstone reminds a partner who’s threatening to leave just how much she has already put up with.
21. Brian Eno, ‘There Were Bells’
“There Were Bells” contemplates the slow-motion cataclysm of global warming as an elegy and a warning, with edgeless, tolling sounds and a mournful melody as Brian Eno sings about the destruction no one will escape.
22. Caroline Polachek, ‘Billions’
Is it love or capitalism? Caroline Polachek sings with awe-struck sweetness — and touches of hyperpop processing — against an otherworldly backdrop that incorporates electronics, tabla drumming and string sections, at once intimate and abstract.
23. Stormzy, ‘Firebabe’
In a wedding-ready, hymnlike ballad, Stormzy sings modestly and adoringly about a love at first sight that he intends to last forever.
24. Hagop Tchaparian, ‘Right to Riot’
A blunt four-on-the-floor thump might just be the least aggressive part of “Right to Riot” from the British Armenian musician Hagop Tchaparian, which also brandishes traditional sounds — six-beat drumming and the snarl of the double-reed zurna — and zapping, woofer-rattling electronics as it builds.
25. Oren Ambarchi, ‘I’
The first section of an album-length piece, “Shebang,” by the composer Oren Ambarchi, is a consonant hailstorm of staccato guitar notes, picked and looped, manipulated and layered, emerging as melodies and rejoining the ever-more-convoluted mesh.
Jon Caramanica’s Top 22
There are plenty of ways to try out something new — fooling around with your friends, tossing off a casual but not careless experiment, disappearing so deeply into a feeling that you forget form altogether.
1. GloRilla featuring Cardi B, ‘Tomorrow 2’
Kay Flock featuring Cardi B, Dougie B and Bory300, ‘Shake It’
It was a great year for the Cardi B booster plan. Like Drake before her, she is an attentive listener and a seven-figure trend forecaster, as captured in these two cousin-like feature appearances. “Shake It” is as credible a drill song as a non-drill performer has yet made — Cardi’s verse is pugnacious and tart. And “Tomorrow 2,” with its big BFF energy, helps continue construction of a new pathway for female allyship in hip-hop.
2. Ice Spice, ‘Munch (Feelin’ U)’
Ice Spice is a gleefully patient rapper. On “Munch,” she pulls off a perfectly balanced tug of war between neg-heavy seduction and the affect of being utterly unbothered.
3. Bailey Zimmerman, ‘Rock and a Hard Place’
The trick of this catalog of a couple’s catastrophic collapse is that the arrangement never lets on that the circumstances are dire, but atop it, Bailey Zimmerman sings like he’s narrating a boxing match.
4. Lil Yachty, ‘Poland’
A non-song. A koan. A cry from beneath the ravenous eddies. A memory bubbling up from repression. A tractor beam. A stunt. A hopeful warble. A promise of infinite tomorrows.
5. The Dare, ‘Girls’
Epically silly and epically debauched, “Girls” marks a return(?) of quasi(?)-electroclash(?), but, more pointedly, is a reminder of the perennial power of lust, sweat and arch eroticism.
6. Sadie Jean, ‘WYD Now? (10 Minute Version) [Open Verse Mashup]’
The logical endpoint of the TikTok duet trend: one extended posse-cut version aggregating everyone’s labor into a lofi-beats-to-study-to forever loop. The wooden spoon provides.
7. Lil Kee, ‘Catch a Murder’
From his arresting debut mixtape “Letter 2 My Brother,” a caustic and bleak pledge of revenge from the Lil Baby affiliate Lil Kee, who sing-raps as if in a trance of menace.
8. Cam’ron, Funk Flex #Freestyle171
Another year, another casual calisthenics lesson from Cam’ron, the last avatar of the intricately economical style that dominated Harlem rap in the ’90s and remains staggering to observe.
9. Yahritza y Su Esencia, ‘Soy El Unico’
The first song Yahritza Martinez wrote — at age 13 — was “Soy El Unico,” a defiantly sad retort from a discarded partner to the discarder that pairs the groundedness of Mexican folk music with a vocal delivery inflected with hip-hop and R&B.
10. Kate Gregson-MacLeod, ‘Complex (Demo)’
This song began life as viral melancholy on TikTok, a brief portrait of someone stuck in the gravitational pull of a person who doesn’t deserve their care. The finished song is desolate but resilient, a hell of a plaint.
11. NewJeans, ‘Cookie’
Most striking about “Cookie,” the best song from the debut EP by the impressive young K-pop girl group NewJeans, is its ease — no maximalism, no theater. Simply a cheerful extended metaphor over an updated take on the club-oriented R&B of a couple of decades ago, finished off with a tasteful Jersey club breakdown.
12. Jack Harlow featuring Drake, ‘Churchill Downs’
The student befriends the teacher. Both drop out for a life of partying, followed by self-reflection, followed by more partying.
13. Ethel Cain, ‘American Teenager’
Midwest emo as refracted through Southeastern parchedness under a filter of radio pop-rock, delivering devastating sentiment about the emptiness of the American dream and the hopelessness of those subject to its whims.
14. Joji, ‘Glimpse of Us’
You OK, bro?
15. Delaney Bailey, ‘J’s Lullaby (Darlin’ I’d Wait for You)’
One long ache about the one who’s slipping away: “Darlin’, I wish that you could give me some more time/To herd the whole sky in my arms/And release it when you’re mine.”
16. Muni Long, ‘Another’
Luscious, indignant, scolding.
17. Romeo Santos featuring Rosalía, ‘El Pañuelo’
Two traditionalists at heart, each feeling out the outer boundaries of their appetite for risk while still honoring what the other can’t quite do.
18. Hitkidd featuring Aleza, Gloss Up, Slimeroni and K Carbon, ‘Shabooya’
Roll-call rap that bridges the early ’80s to the early ’20s, with a cadre of Memphis women reveling in filth and sass.
19. Kidd G featuring YNW BSlime, ‘Left Me’
Lil Durk featuring Morgan Wallen, ‘Broadway Girls’
What is hip-hop to country music these days? A source of vocal inspiration? A place for experimentation? Close kin? Safe harbor?
20. Fireboy DML and Ed Sheeran, ‘Peru’
The globe-dominating update of the Fireboy DML solo hit features bright seduction delivered with jaunty rhythm from Ed Sheeran.
Lindsay Zoladz’s Top 25
Anxiety abounds in this modern world, and music is one surefire way to process it — or maybe, for a few minutes at a time, to escape from it. The songs on this list consider both options.
1. Hurray for the Riff Raff, ‘Life on Earth’
Conventional wisdom tells us that life is short, time flies and there are never enough hours in the day. But Alynda Segarra takes the long view on this elegiac, piano-driven hymn: “Rivers and lakes/And floods and earthquakes/Life on Earth is long.” As it progresses at its own unhurried tempo, the song, remarkably, seems to slow down time, or at least zoom out until it becomes something geological rather than selfishly human-centric. The thick haze of climate grief certainly hangs over the track (“And though I might not meet you there, leaving it beyond repair”) but its lingering effect is one of generosity and spaciousness, inspiring a fresh appreciation for the interconnectedness of all things.
2. The 1975, ‘Happiness’
Matty Healy, the gregarious leader of the British pop group the 1975, is rarely at a loss for words, but on the supremely catchy “Happiness,” infatuation leaves him tongue-tied: “My, my, my, oh/My, my, my, you.” Ultimately, though, the song becomes an ode to giving oneself over to forces beyond control: like love, the unknown or maybe just the groove — particularly the loose, sparkling atmosphere the band taps into here.
3. Beyoncé, ‘Alien Superstar’
The moon is a disco ball and it orbits around Beyoncé on this commanding dance-floor banger, a studied but lived-in ode to ball culture and Afrofuturism. Like the rest of the remarkable “Renaissance,” the song’s focus flickers constantly from the individual to the collective, as Beyoncé’s braggadocious boasts of being No. 1, the only one, share space with her exhortations to find that unicorn energy within: “Unique, that’s what you are,” she intones regally, before a transcendent finale in which the song takes flight on a Funkadelic spaceship of its own making.
4. Amanda Shires, ‘Take It Like a Man’
The melody keeps ascending to nervy, dangerous heights, like a high-wire walk without a net: “I know the cost of flight is landing,” Amanda Shires sings on this imagistic torch song, trilling like some newly discovered species of bird. The title is playfully provocative, but it takes a twist in the song’s final lyric, when Shires proclaims, “I know I can take it like … Amanda” — a fitting finale for such a singular song of self.
5. Taylor Swift, ‘Anti-Hero’
Rejoice, you who have suffered through “Look What You Made Me Do,”“Me!” and even “Cardigan”: For the first time in nearly a decade, Taylor Swift has picked the correct lead single. “Anti-Hero” is one of the high points of Swift’s ongoing collaboration with the producer Jack Antonoff: The phrasing is chatty but not overstuffed, the synthesizers underline Swift’s emotions rather than obscuring them and the insecurities feel like genuine transmissions from Swift’s somnambulant psyche. Prospective daughters-in-law, you’ve been warned.
6. Rosalía, ‘Despechá’
Rosalía, smacking her gum, eyebrows raised, one hand on an exaggeratedly cocked hip: That’s the attitude, and this is its soundtrack. “Despechá” — abbreviated slang for spiteful — is a lighter-than-air, mambo-nodding dance-floor anthem, and an invitation to join the ranks of the Motomamis. As always, she makes pop perfection sound as easy as A-B-C.
7. Pusha T, ‘Diet Coke’
Pusha T, is, as ever, part rap-poet and part insult comic on the razor-sharp “Diet Coke,” bending language to his will and laughing his enemies right out of the V.I.P. room: “You ordered Diet Coke — that’s a joke, right?”
8. Chloe Moriondo, ‘Fruity’
“Fruity,” like the best hyperpop, is an anarchic affront to refinement and restraint, an ever-escalating blast of melodic delirium and warped excess. It’s a sugar rush, it’s brain-freeze-inducing, it’s recommended by zero out of 10 dentists. Turn it up loud.
9. Yeah Yeah Yeahs featuring Perfume Genius, ‘Spitting off the Edge of the World’
Yeah Yeah Yeahs grow elegantly into their role as art-rock elders here, not just by slowing to a tempo as confidently glacial as the Cure’s “Plainsong,” but by placing a spotlight on the existential dread of the next generation. “Mama, what have you done?” Karen O sings, channeling the voice of a frightened child. “I trace your steps in the darkness of one/Am I what’s left?”
10. Grace Ives, ‘Lullaby’
Grace Ives makes music of interiority, chronicling the liminal moments of her day when she’s by herself, daydreaming: “I hear the neighbors sing ‘Love Galore,’ I do a split on the kitchen floor,” goes the charming “Lullaby,” a passionately sung, welcoming invitation into her world.
11. Weyes Blood, ‘It’s Not Just Me, It’s Everybody’
The pandemic left many people isolated in their own heads, questioning their perceptions, feeling disconnected from a larger whole. The clarion-voiced Natalie Mering has written a soothing anthem for all those lost souls in the emotionally generous “It’s Not Just Me, It’s Everybody”; its title alone is an offering of solace and sanity.
12. Florence + the Machine, ‘Free’
A bass line buzzes like a live wire, snaking continuously through this exorcism of anxiety. “The feeling comes so fast, and I cannot control it,” Florence Welch wails as if possessed, but she eventually finds her catharsis in the music itself: “For a moment, when I’m dancing, I am free.”
13. Ice Spice, ‘Munch (Feelin’ U)’
“I’m walking past him, he sniffing my breeze,” the rising star Ice Spice spits expeditiously on this unbothered anthem; before he can even process the insult, she’s gone.
14. Drake, ‘Down Hill’
A sparse palette from 40 — finger snaps, moody synth washes, light Afrobeats vibes — gives Drake plenty of room to explore his melancholy on this standout from the welcome left turn “Honestly, Nevermind.”
15. Alex G, ‘Miracles’
An aching, bittersweet meditation on the holiness of the everyday, and an expression of intimacy from one of indie rock’s most mysterious, and best, songwriters.
16. Carly Rae Jepsen, ‘Western Wind’
The one-time “Call Me Maybe” ingénue shows off a breezier and more mature side, as impressionistic production from Rostam Batmanglij helps her conjure California sunshine.
17. Mitski, ‘Stay Soft’
“You stay soft, get eaten — only natural to harden up,” Mitski sings on this sleek but deceptively vulnerable pop song, as her voice, fittingly, oscillates between icy cool and wrenching ardor.
18. Miranda Lambert, ‘Strange’
Down is up and wrong is right in this topsy-turvy, tumbleweed-blown country rocker, on which a wizened Miranda Lambert sings like a woman who’s seen it all: “Pick a string, sing the blues, dance a hole in your shoes, do anything to keep you sane.”
19. Plains, ‘Problem With It’
Katie Crutchfield, better known as Waxahatchee, embraces her twang and her Alabama upbringing on this collaboration with the Texas-born singer-songwriter Jess Williamson; the result is a feisty, ’90s-nodding country-pop gem.
20. Charli XCX, ‘Constant Repeat’
“I’m cute and I’m rude with kinda rare attitude,” she boasts on the best song from her aerodynamic “Crash” — a top-tier lyric befitting some next-level Charli.
21. Alvvays, ‘Belinda Says’
As in Belinda Carlisle, whom the Alvvays frontwoman Molly Rankin addresses at the climactic moment of this blissfully moody song: “Heaven is a place on Earth, well so is hell.” Towering waves of shoegaze-y guitars accentuate her melancholy and give the song an emotional pull as elemental as a tide.
22. Jessie Ware, ‘Free Yourself’
A thumping, glittery one-off single from the British musician finds her continuing in the vein of her 2020 disco reinvention “What’s Your Pleasure?” and proving that she’s still finding fresh inspiration from that sound.
23. Koffee, ‘Pull Up’
The Jamaican upstart Koffee has a contagious positivity about her, and this reggae-pop earworm is an effortless encapsulation of her spirit.
24. Anaïs Mitchell, ‘Little Big Girl’
“No one ever told you it would be like this: You keep on getting older, but you feel just like a little kid,” the folk musician Anaïs Mitchell sings on this moving standout from her first solo album in a decade, which poignantly chronicles the emotions of a demographic drastically underexplored in popular music: women at midlife.
25. The Weather Station, ‘Endless Time’
“It’s only the end of an endless time,” Tamara Lindeman sings in a mirror-fogging exhale, eulogizing a whole host of things taken for granted — love, happiness, the inhabitability of Earth — expressing a fragile, and very human, disbelief that they won’t last forever.