Luke Nuttall (Editor / Writer)
Slaughter To Prevail – Baba Yaga
Few bands extolled the joys of a continuous barrage of body blows as vociferously as Slaughter To Prevail this year, to where it’s no surprise that Baba Yaga became the roundabout online force it did. Behind the visage of Russian lunatics in monster masks fronted by a guy fighting actual bears was a slice of deathcore plucked right from the top shelf, heavy and guttural in the absolute best ways, but still encompassing the planet-shaking enormity the genre has come to embody for the best. Of course, a lot of that comes from Alex Terrible himself as a truly exceptional growler, only fitting for a song about evil monsters lying in wait in the darkness, but on the whole, as a pure, adrenalised shot of head-crushery, Baba Yaga is second to none. The resurgence in deathcore as an exciting genre has been noteworthy this year, and songs like this deserve plenty of thanks for that.
KennyHoopla & Travis Barker – estella//
Yes, the song itself has been out forever, but KennyHoopla’s mixtape this year was the first time it had a proper home, where it can continue to stand out as one of the best pop-punk tracks of the last few years. On top of being one of the few good things Travis Barker has put his name on in a good while, estella// recaptures the vivacity of pop-punk that’s gone neglected for too long, in a sub-two-minute runtime that has the bounding, thunderous pace and KennyHoopla’s impressively distinct delivery, and keeps everything balanced so perfectly. Nothing ever feels cramped or as though anything has been cut out; this sort of caffeinated shot is exactly what the genre’s modern landscape needs, where the contemporary foundation of instant-grat pace hasn’t been neglected, but neither have the roots and the old-school vim that the TikTok breed forget still work. As it stands, KennyHoopla offers the most successful blend of the two sides that any artist has attempted, and claims of ‘moving the genre forward’ can, for once, feel true. This is the standard to aim for, and right now, estalla// sits as the new wave’s magnum opus.
Weezer – I Need Some Of That
The rigmarole around Van Weezer should’ve shattered all hype almost indefinitely, but a well-timed and well-placed single like I Need Some Of That pulled everything back together in spectacular fashion. Its appeals are almost stupidly simple but entirely logical at the same time—it’s a song about wanting to live the life of a big rockstar, with a sound juiced up out of its mind to ensure every one of those ambitions is fulfilled. It makes for a hard rock sugar rush that never seems to get old, as the riffs and solos bear the sort of cock-rock bravado where you can almost here the wind machine whirring in the background, and the power-pop delectability of Weezer at their best is allowed to shine in spades. It’s all wrapped together in a hook that’s just as irresistible on the several-hundredth go-around as the first, one of the sparse transcendent moments of latter-day Weezer that squeezes every drop of potential from itself to make every endeavour count. Because after the rocky ride that has been the Weezer catalogue, we all needed some of that.
Creeper – Midnight
Occupying their usual slot high up on the best singles list is Creeper, a band who just keep giving with every passing release. Even their epilogue EPs produce higher-grade fare than plenty of bands’ entire catalogues, evidenced by just how much of a stranglehold Midnight had as a lead single. The smouldering pianos and Will Gould’s trembled yet tortured voice is the perfect mood-setter, and when driving Americana guitars come in and the interplay with Hannah Greenwood takes full advantage of a perpetually great frontperson dynamic, it makes for yet another wonderfully dramatic and expansive anthem to add to an already stacked list. Punk is far from Creeper’s mindset right now, but that’s arguably done much more good for them in the long run. It’s given them the chance to sound grander and more flamboyant than ever, and give their macabre, Meat Loaf-esque love stories the room to embrace the melodrama. It what continues to delineate a truly untouchable band, who’ll follow their own arrow unwaveringly and come out with golden age music that’s still totally gripping now. Completely spellbinding.
Holding Absence – Afterlife
There’s not been a single song that’s persisted as an earworm this year more than Holding Absence’s Afterlife. That could arguably be enough to win it this spot alone; hearing Lucas Woodland belt out one of the most driven alt-rock hooks in years is a thrill that never dies, especially when the wall of guitars and blustering atmosphere finishes off any notion that this might be a humble listen. On an album that did the most yet at illustrating Holding Absence’s greatness, the powering, fluid majesty of Afterlife is an easy choice to single out. But looking further past that, Afterlife succeeds purely on the basis of rawness that forces itself out of even the tightest production jobs. There’s no artifice here, nor is there the snapping back to the middle of the road that keeps Britrock from soaring so often; there’s reality that bleeds through here, and Woodland’s voice as a vehicle for that—a voice that so flawlessly articulates both the anguish and tenacity that comes from clinging onto the last embers of someone lost—really does push this over the top. In general though, Afterlife has the feeling of momentousness that’s hard to pull off sincerely, but is masterfully done here. It’s been great to see Holding Absence properly come into their own all year, but nothing has quite topped the thrill of Afterlife.
Georgia Jackson (Deputy Editor / Writer)
Willow ft. Travis Barker – t r a n s p a r e n t s o u l
The new pop punk revolution is in full swing with today’s breed at the reins, plenty of them fresh names, others having gravitated to the genre for their next creative move. While Willow’s lately I feel EVERYTHING wasn’t completely without its flaws, its lead single t r a n s p a r e n t s o u l is her new era at its best, and a simply irresistible pop punk song aside from that. Willow’s voice is super enveloping, on the lower side with hints of interesting tones, and it sounds perfect over the guitar, which balances grit with a catchy top line, and characteristically dynamic drums from Travis Barker. It could be easy for pop punk fans to write Willow off as another trend-chaser (even despite her growing up around rock and metal with her mother), but the cut to the hazy dreamlike bridge which in turn gives the final chorus that added hit shows a real skill for the craft that could go anywhere in future.
Taylor Swift – Mr. Perfectly Fine
2021 blessed us with the first two rerecorded albums from Taylor Swift complete with previously unreleased ‘From The Vault’ tracks. While her version of 2012’s Red probably has the better selection of vault tracks overall, the best singular one comes from the new Fearless. The fact that Mr. Perfectly Fine was never to see the light of day before the undertaking of rerecordings is a travesty, as it shows country-era Taylor at her most glint-in-eye cutting, along with her most triumphant. An alleged takedown of Joe Jonas, Mr. Perfectly Fine is a driving country-rock cut that has all the hallmarks of a classic Swift song with all the power of her voice and delivery today.
Olivia Rodrigo – drivers license
Any one of the singles from Olivia Rodrigo’s record SOUR would fit right in on this list, and while plenty of rock fans would plump for the teenage rage-centred, pop punk revivalist good 4 u, the single that does the most is her first, the inescapable drivers license. If drivers license is anything musically, it’s an exquisite piano ballad that shows off the beautiful voice of the latest Disney-ingenue-turned-pop-icon. But semantically, it’s a stunning release of feelings, the complete shattering of teenage heartbreak told through a metaphor anyone who’s learned to drive as soon as they could can picture themselves in. It’s incredibly intellectual and real storytelling à la Taylor Swift and Lorde but for today’s breed of teens, and there’s absolutely no surprise that it became such a breakthrough hit for Olivia Rodrigo.
Griff – Black Hole
With all the recent promotion of new standalone single One Night, it can be easy to forget that Black Hole, the lead single from Griff’s debut mixtape, came out at the start of 2021. It’s the song that sealed a breakthrough for the singer, a performance accompanying her Rising Star win at this year’s Brits, and just happens to also be one of the best pop songs of the year. Immaculately produced and nailing a perfect balance between vulnerability and out-and-out melodrama, Black Hole feels fresh, triumphant and heartshatteringly danceable all in one, a perfect concoction hard to nail even for the most seasoned pop veterans.
Aly & AJ – Symptom Of Your Touch
Lots of sounds are blended into one glorious form on a touch of the beat gets you up on your feet gets you out and then into the sun, Aly & AJ’s first album in 14 years, but shining highlight Symptom Of Your Touch follows a more tried-and-tested path. This is a synthpop song that journeys you to another plane, giving off an untouchable feeling that makes your heart want to burst and the smile never want to leave your face. The lyrics tell a different story, mind, of the to-and-froing of not quite being able to leave a relationship that’s bad for you. The maturity shown in this sad/bop balance is nothing to brush off, and the lasting rush it gives you is something that can’t be brushed off.