Surprise! I don’t often write about pop music outside of Korea and Japan, but I thought I’d switch things up for a day and countdown my favorite non-K-pop/J-pop tracks of the year. I’ve had a few requests for this and it might be interesting to gain some context for my music taste outside of The Bias List‘s narrow focus (spoiler: it’s a lot of dance music).
With such focus on Korea and Japan, I don’t keep up with Western pop as much as I used to. But, I made a concerted effort in 2021 to give it more attention. I’m sure I missed a ton of great tracks, but for now here’s the soundtrack to my year (with some brief commentary included).
20. Mabel – Let Them Know
File this under: club anthem trimmed of any extraneous bits. It runs on pure attitude.
19. Alan Walker x Imanbek – Sweet Dreams
Alan Walker releases too much music for me to keep up with, but this simple banger instantly captured my attention and stuck around all year long.
18. Jackson Wang – LMLY
I probably could have included this in the main K-pop countdown, but it feels distinctly separate from that industry (unlike, say… BTS’s Butter). Either way, it’s a knockout rush of moody synthpop.
17. Laura Mvula – Got Me
Everybody looked back to the 80’s this year, but few did it as convincingly as Laura Mvula. The synth-fueled chorus is such a great, funky match for her brassy vocals.
16. Robin – Sucker For That Love (ft. SAAY)
Robin’s transformation into a retro pop warrior was flawlessly executed, and Sucker For That Love is a sterling example. I feel like a broken record, but that synth is just everything.
15. Jonasu – Black Magic
Yep, another big club track. I guess I have a type? This one is also a total banger and an example of how effectively a well-constructed drop can be used.
14. Lil Nas X – Montero (Call Me By Your Name)
I was never a fan of Old Town Road, and ignorantly dismissed Lil Nas X as a novelty. Then, Montero happened and blew that perception wide open. What a massive earworm.
13. Years & Years x Galantis – Sweet Talker
Strings and dance music are a match made in heaven, and Sweet Talker‘s symphonic drop is my idea of pop nirvana. The track is relentlessly melodic and sprightly as hell.
12. Robin – Hard To Love (ft. Alex Mattson)
I’m a longtime Robin fan (his Finnish-language music is excellent), but Hard To Love brings him into a new era with energy and panache. It’s such a big-sounding track.
11. Rat City – Rather Be (ft. Isak Heim)
“Rat City” is a weird name and honestly does this amazing song a disservice. It’s the kind of disco funk I live for, thriving on an addictive bassline and building toward a head rush chorus.
10. Lil Nas X – That’s What I Want
Lil Nas X had more than proven himself by the time his album was released, but That’s What I Want feels like the track and video where everything comes together to create a superstar moment.
9. Becky Hill x David Guetta – Remember
When it comes to dance music my taste is stupidly simple. Give me a pumping beat and sky-high chorus and I’m putty in your hand. Remember excels in both regards — particularly its mammoth chorus.
8. Dua Lipa – Love Again
Future Nostalgia already feels like a greatest hits package, and I’m so glad Dua was able to squeeze out this last single. Love Again is a fully-realized pop track, anchored by that inspired “Your Woman” sample.
7. The Parity Complex – Move On Song
The fact that this is sitting at around 3,500 views on YouTube makes me weep. Move On Song is brilliant! Its chorus is absolutely cathartic, underlined by a sticky groove that captures the best of 80’s freestyle.
6. The Weeknd – Take My Breath
I’m eagerly (and impatiently) awaiting The Weeknd’s new album, especially if it echoes the style of this track. Take My Breath fuses so many of my favorite elements together, culminating in a simple wisp of a chorus.
5. Little Mix, Galantis & David Guetta – Heartbreak Anthem
I consider Rihanna and Calvin Harris’s We Found Love to be one of the finest songs of the 2010s, and Heartbreak Anthem reminds me of that emotional sound. It just builds and builds until that big, glossy beat hits.
4. Kim Petras – Future Starts Now
Though I much prefer the original extended mix, the video version of Future Starts Now captures most of its charm. This is a firecracker of a dance track — a close sister to Carly Rae Jepsen’s best work. I love when the chorus slams in full-force.
3. The Kid Laroi x Justin Bieber – Stay
I certainly wouldn’t have expected either of these artists to make my year-end countdown — let alone top three. But, Stay is the earworm of all earworms, showing the importance of great melody. That synth arpeggio feels instantly iconic to 2021. It’s a deserved mega-hit.
2. Dua Lipa – Levitating
Yeah, I know versions of this were first promoted in 2020, but 2021 was the year when (the DaBaby-free version of) Levitating truly made its mark. It’s a perfect disco pop song — the kind of track that feels formed from the ether by some primordial force. It’s trendy and timeless… a lethal combination.
1. Agnes – 24 Hours
I’ve been following Agnes since her days on Swedish Idol over a decade ago, and when last year’s excellent Fingers Crossed emerged I sat up and paid renewed attention. 24 Hours is everything I could hope for from today’s disco-revival: gritty, catchy and high on its own pummeling force.