Reviews by mars
Mars' Top 21 Songs of 2021
A countdown of the best songs released during an erratic year including Olivia Rodrigo, Silk Sonic, Taylor Swift, and more.
There’s no denying that music is a reflection of culture. Music’s biggest moments were a direct window into American life in 2021: a chaotic, eclectic mix of both loneliness and a brief return to normalcy. Here are the 21 best songs of this year, including massive radio hits, a disco resurgence, TikTok sensations, the return of pop-punk, and of course, Taylor and Adele.
21. "Solar Power" - Lorde
Following the conclusion of Melodrama’s house party, the New Zealander took time to decompress and retreat from the spotlight: to reflect on life, remove herself from the pressures of fame, and revitalize her connection to both humanity and nature. On her first release in four years, Lorde traded in the “red and chrome” wreckage of the party life for a hazy, serotonin-filled journey of self-realization while paying homage to the beauty of summer in New Zealand.
20. "Cold Heart (PNAU Remix)" - Elton John, Dua Lipa
Sir Elton John wisely tapped disco queen Dua Lipa for this revitalization of decades-old cuts turned anew with the help of Australian trio PNAU. Taking pieces of John classics like “Rocket Man” and “Sacrifice,” this masterful collaboration soared across radio, streaming, and marked John’s first Billboard Hot 100 hit in 21 years.
19. "Have Mercy" - Chlöe
In a year of massive debut singles, the Chloe x Halle star makes her mark with the trap-infused TikTok smash hit. She pairs an addictive bass with her stunning vocal performance to craft a single that wisely finds its home in clubs across the world.
18. "Heartbreak Anniversary" - Giveon
Every once in a while, an artist comes around with such a mesmerizing tone that they could sing the alphabet and still make waves. This paired with some heart-wrenching lyrics paved the way for “Heartbreak Anniversary” to connect with millions this year through Giveon’s gorgeous performance and the track’s stellar production.
17. “Take My Breath” - The Weeknd
“The dawn is coming,” assured The Weeknd in 2021. While fans are still awaiting the pop superstar’s follow-up to the record-shattering After Hours, the album’s disco-pop lead single is yet another dance smash. It’s quite in line with the sound that elevated Tesfaye to new career highs (his “Blinding Lights” is officially the biggest Billboard Hot 100 hit of all time), yet with its sexy, 70s-inspired production and The Weeknd’s signature vocals, “Breath” makes for another surefire smash.
16. “Right on Time” - Brandi Carlisle
A gorgeous piano ballad that builds to a soaring high, “Time” features Carlisle asking to “turn back time” and to “help [her] to rewind” in hopes of making up with a loved one. Her performance of the single on Saturday Night Live only further showcased its strength as she cries out for love.
15. “Orange Magic” - Julia Michaels
A luscious 80’s, pop-rock song reminiscing on the early stages of romance, “Orange Magic” is one of music’s strongest songwriters at a more mid-tempo pace. This is classic Michaels writing filled with detailed imagery and expertly crafted melodies.
14. “Good Days” - SZA
One of the year’s earliest hits represented the turn from 2020 to 2021 - a longing for the good times ahead despite the intense negativity of yesterday. SZA reflects on a doomed relationship across an ethereal production coupled with guitar, wishing that her hopes for light will come true.
13. “Save Your Tears (Remix)” - The Weeknd & Ariana Grande
Following the rapid-fire success of After Hours’ “Heartless” and “Blinding Lights,” “Tears” was already a hit before The Weeknd teamed up with pal Ariana Grande to elevate the song into a #1 single destined for success. Talk about a time where a collaboration felt completely organic: the two tradeoff magical verses, but it’s Grande’s otherworldly lower register and stellar whistle note that make this remix such a gorgeous addition to the Abel x Ariana musical universe.
12. “Thunder” - Lana Del Rey
A standout track on the more digestible of Del Rey’s two releases this year, “Thunder” sounds like a classic Lana entry on first listen. It’s a lovely addition to her catalog as she tells the story of ending a relationship with a no-good man. Alongside luscious vocals, a choir, and even a “Mr. Brightside” reference, the track peaks at its thunderous apex.
11. “Peaches” - Justin Bieber feat. Daniel Caesar and Giveon
Moving on from the inauthentic Changes era and several singles sounding way too much like top-notch Jon Bellion songs, Bieber finally released a truly organic smash to both commercial and critical acclaim. “Peaches” debuted at the top spot on the Billboard Hot 100 upon Justice’s release - and deservingly so. The breezy collaboration effortlessly walks the pop-R&B line that Justin has attempted to balance for years now with its breezy delivery and laidback production. And its co-features make the track even stronger - a rarity in today’s Top 40 landscape.
10. “Montero (Call Me By Your Name)” - Lil Nas X
There was no escaping the reach of Lil Nas X back in 2019 with his monstrous, record-breaking “Old Town Road.” On “Montero,” the rapper goes all out with the theatrics, giving a lap dance to the devil, gliding along a stripper pole, and being unapologietically himself. With an infectious instrumental production accompanying the R&B track, “Montero” solidified Lil Nas X as a force to be reckoned with in pop music.
9. “Essence” - WizKid feat. Justin Bieber, Tems
The track dominated summer airwaves through its silky production, highlighting Afrobeats and R&B to create a surefire radio hit reminiscent of the hot, summer sun, Despite a Bieber assist, this is Tems’ time to demand attention. Her sensual welcoming across the song’s chorus is demanding without being overbearing. This is no “Despacito” follow-up but rather a sleek, flirtatious release from one of the understated forces in Afropop music.
8. “Kiss Me More” - Doja Cat feat. SZA
An undeniable song of the summer made a major splash upon its release back in April. “More” soars not only due to its seamless interpolation of Olivia Newton John’s “Physical,” but also because of the mesmerizing chemistry between Doja Cat and SZA. This may be their first collaboration, and it definitely should not be their last as this duo sounds right at home together across the song’s groovy production.
7. “honey” - Halsey
Despite never receiving the single treatment, “honey” is an absolute blowout from Halsey on the alt-rock leaning If I Can’t Have Love, I Want Power. Featuring drums courtesy of Nirvana and Foo Fighters’ Dave Grohl, “honey” is an ode to a former female flame. “Good things aren’t easy to get, I know that I won’t regret,” Halsey ensures. This is the pop-punk follow-up to Manic’s “3am” that fans begged for, and the singer-songwriter sounds perfectly at home on the playfully precise production. And with the resurgence of mainstream pop-punk in 2021, thanks to Travis Barker’s ubiquitous influence, Machine Gun Kelly, and even Disney star Olivia Rodrigo’s SOUR efforts, “honey” is the hidden gem on Halsey’s latest studio effort.
6. “good 4 u” - Olivia Rodrigo
Following her meteoric rise to fame following the 1-2 punch of her debut single and its follow up, “deja vu,” the Paramore-sampling summer smash solidified Rodrigo’s star power and penchant for writing killer hooks. There’s been much discourse surrounding Rodrigo’s various musical influences - ranging from Taylor Swift to Billie Eilish, Alanis Morissette to Lorde - but “good 4 u” is undeniably Olivia at her most angsty, sarcastic self yet. Her previous single releases conveyed the softer sides of heartbreak, but the fury of “good 4 u” perfectly shows off Rodrigo’s ability to craft the perfect pop song - specifically calling on details from her own experiences while ensuring her lyrics are relatable to all.
5. “Happier Than Ever” - Billie Eilish
In both a tonal and sonic shift from her blockbuster debut album, When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?, Billie’s sophomore release showcases the teen superstar reflecting on the darkness in fame, romance, and power dynamics. Eilish pushes aside the eerie, experimental production for a more subdued, timeless sound. For much of Happier Than Ever, she barely goes beyond her iconic whisper vocal performance, and the first half of the title track sounds like more of the same at first.
Around the two-minute mark, what begins as a muted ballad transforms into an explosion of cathartic release. Eilish emits pure rage, yelling out to a former love that she’d “never treat [herself] this shitty.” There’s nothing like hearing this for the first time and realizing that this is all one song. “You ruined everything good / Always said you were misunderstood / Made all my moments your own / Just f*ckin’ leave me alone,” she screams before her brother FINNEAS’ production collapses into radiant distortion.
4. “Leave the Door Open” - Silk Sonic
Bruno Mars and Anderson .Paak united this year for their collaborative project, An Evening with Silk Sonic. Its lead single - and one of the biggest hits of the year - builds on the recent ‘70s revival with a soulful and sleek invitation for some love. Mars is no stranger to nostalgic sounds as his last solo studio effort, 24K Magic, captivated listeners with its sexual themes and homage to ‘90s R&B. On “Leave the Door Open,” Silk Sonic managed to craft a sound so transcendent despite being rooted in decades-old production styles. The duo’s fusion of stellar vocals and raps paired with their undeniable chemistry make “Door” an impeccable, inescapable hit of the year.
3. “I Drink Wine” - Adele
Nobody does it like Adele. Since releasing her debut album in 2008, the British singer-songwriter has cemented herself in music history with her ability to walk the line between timeless and timely. “I Drink Wine,” a standout performance on her latest album, 30, is a gargantuan portrayal of Adele’s vocal talents. Her voice is radiant: stronger and sharper than ever before. “Wine” is Adele’s pitstop at church, inspired heavily by gospel and soul music, and has the singer-songwriter sharing efforts to shed one’s ego in hopes of finding true love. “Oh, I hope in time we both will find peace of mind / Sometimes, the road less traveled is a road best left behind,” she ponders. Its production is nostalgic of classic Seventies Elton John while the chorus’ melodies build on one another throughout the entirety of the six-minute-long track. It’s a stunning accomplishment from one of the world’s brightest stars - one even more enjoyable paired with a generous glass of Pinot Noir.
2. All Too Well (10 Minute Version) (Taylor’s Version) (From the Vault) - Taylor Swift
Nothing on Red (Taylor’s Version) was more anticipated than the 10-minute version of “All Too Well,” the highlight of Swift’s fourth album. Back in 2012, Swift revealed that the song was cut down from its original length to fit on the album, but fans clamored for a glimpse of those remaining details. As if the original portrait of love gone wrong isn’t heartwrenching enough, she goes for the jugular on the scathing full version. It holds more grief and rage than ever imagined, packing a punch like none other. Yet, with Jack Antonoff’s production, the 10-minute version is elevated from a country-pop tearjerker to an ethereal dreamscape. Her best song somehow became even more of a masterpiece.
Now, Swift incorporates a newfound sense of maturity into her trip down memory lane. And thanks to its lyrics’ beauty, the song's high profile release, and a stellar short film, “All Too Well (Taylor’s Version)” not only debuted at #1 on the Hot 100, but also now holds the record for the longest song ever to reach the chart’s peak - dethroning Don McLean’s 1972 classic “American Pie.” 2021 may have come and gone without a net-new full-length Swift album, but it is a year of Swift’s remarkable artistry that will be remembered (all too well) for years to come.
1. “drivers license” - Olivia Rodrigo
On Mars’ first review of the year, the world met then-relatively unknown teen singer-songwriter Olivia Rodrigo - just eight days into 2021. Over the last 12 months, the Disney star turned teen pop sensation has captured the world’s attention with both her exceptional songwriting ability and stellar voice. Both a coming-of-age narrative and story of failed teenage love, “drivers license” is a ballad that navigates nostalgia, and the heartbreak that accompanies lost love and hurt over a former flame moving on with someone new - someone prettier, older, and blonder. There’s also something so liberating about a Disney teen’s debut single being so transparent and mature, including a perfectly placed F-bomb.
On her debut single, Rodrigo effortlessly runs through her intricately crafted melodies, shifting immaculately between head and chest voices without a single ounce of hesitation. Her harmonies soar on the Lorde-inspired bridge, and its lyrics, so brutally honest, draw directly from her musical inspiration, Taylor Swift. “Drivers license” is the debut single that artists dream of having: a cultural centerpiece with a relatability that transcends age. It is her authentic artistry that allows Rodrigo to shine brightest: self-awareness beyond her years, charm, and complimentary sass purely Olivia. Now, it’s time for her to enjoy her musical freedom, driving onward and upward, embracing the magic in life’s messiest moments.
On a personal level, thank you to all who have found their way to my tiny corner of the Internet in 2021. This first full year of writing Reviews by Mars has brought me immense joy from being able to not only write about my biggest passion, but also share my thoughts with all of you. Looking forward to a new year filled with more magical music moments!
NY-based, 26-year-old, music-obsessed and loves to write about it.