Olivia Rodrigo, Charli XCX, Bree Runway and Lorde
Olivia Rodrigo, Charli XCX, Bree Runway and Lorde. Photo: Amy Sussman/Getty Images, Neil Mockford/Getty Images, John Phillips/BFC/Getty Images for BFC, Jon Kopaloff/WireImage. Image: Sam Boxer
Life

19 Songs That Defined the Hope and Hopelessness of 2021

At the end of a year of extremes, here are all the songs that rode shotgun on our collective trip to hell.
Emma Garland
London, GB
Lauren O'Neill
London, GB
Ryan Bassil
London, GB
December 9, 2021, 9:00am

Many of us spent 2021 in a state of polarised extremes. A seemingly endless winter lockdown eventually melted into the promise of a hot vax summer; the disappointment of hot vax summer failing to get off the ground dispersed when events and festivals started creeping back into the day-to-day and we began micro-dosing “normal”. Autumn loomed, Omicron reared its head along with the knowledge that this will not end until rich countries stop hoarding vaccines. All this to-ing and fro-ing has been emotionally nauseating. It’s like reading in the back of a car, except the book is shit and you’re not really going anywhere.

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But all journeys need a soundtrack, even – in fact, especially – the hazardous ones. And if nothing else, 2021 has given us a landslide of gut-punching, mind-altering, life-affirming music to ride shotgun on our collective trip to hell.

Here, the VICE editorial team presents a list of songs that epitomise the sense of hope and hopelessness of this year, and kept us company in all weather conditions.

HOPELESSNESS

Linkin Park and 100 gecs – “One Step Closer (100 gecs Reanimation)”

There couldn’t have been a more fitting anthem for 2021 than a rework of Linkin Park’s furious declaration of hopelessness “One Step Closer”, by popular culture’s premier chaos goblins 100 gecs. Dylan Brady and Laura Les continued their run of fascinating and irresistible post-everything hijinks into this year, and while Brady’s new version of Rebecca Black’s “Friday” featuring Dorian Electra, Big Freedia and 3OH!3 was almost the best thing the gecs-verse produced this year, this new take on “One Step Closer” has it beat in terms of sheer mayhem. 

So much of the culture that surrounds us centres on remaking or rebooting for its own sake, often producing results on the spectrum between “underwhelming” and “actually brain-numbing”. Not so with this “One Step Closer” reanimation, which takes a song that genuinely seems to express something about how we experience our relentlessly stressful times, and makes it sound like the way we experience them; like the dark heart of the algorithm. – Lauren O’Neill

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King Woman – “Morning Star”

When living through the timeline from hell, it’s fitting that someone would pass the mic to the devil. “Morning Star” allows Lucifer to tell their side of the story, narrating their fall from grace in a sinister but strangely emotional way. Opening with a haunting lone guitar and hypnotising vocal melody – “Dripping from pearly gates, I was luminous” – before erupting into a wall of metal that sounds like the crust of the earth cracking open, it’s cinematic in sound alone. But you can’t talk about “Morning Star” without mentioning the video, in which songwriter/vocalist Kris Esfandiari – smoking and swaggering in a black dinner jacket – inhabits the role of Lucifer with a charisma that lands somewhere between The Joker and a preacher. An uneasy yet mesmerising characterisation of religious and personal darkness. – Emma Garland

Snail Mail – “Valentine” 

The worst break-ups are the ones where you feel like your soul is being cut into tiny little pieces with scissors, while the other person remains totally chill and intact. That’s the vibe that prevails throughout “Valentine,” the grit-drenched indie-pop track from Snail Mail, aka 22-year-old Lindsay Jordan. She holds nothing back: “I'd hate to picture someone with you / I lay down and start to cry,” she sings in tender-sweet, crestfallen tones, her voice breaking in the second line. “You won't believe what just two months do / I'm older now, believe me, I adore you.”

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If 2021 existed on a scale of romance to heartbreak, it would surely lean more towards the latter. Relationships formed during lockdown crumbled under the pressure of summer freedom. People moved on, moved out, realised that their lives needed changing in drastic ways. Long distance relationships finally reached their expiry date as clubs, bars and social events resumed. There were a million Lindsay Jordans, stuck in their own version of “Valentine,” screaming “So why d'you wanna erase me?” to an ex-lover just out of reach. – Daisy Jones 

Lingua Ignota – “Pennsylvania Furnace”

Lingua Ignota's Kristin Hayter has long been rummaging through the landfill of despair. Themes of violence against women, the body, and revenge have run through each of her projects, taking the form of all kinds of sounds from operatic splendour to abrasive noise – as close to corporeal as it's possible for music to get – in an effort to articulate trauma ("lingua ignota" Latin for “unknown language”). Her fourth album, SINNER GET READY, takes that trauma and places it within the religious history and generally austere vibe of rural Pennsylvania, where Hayter lived until recently. 

Reverberating with heavy piano and rumbling drums, "Pennsylvania Furnace" sounds like the fear of God itself – his judgement, his abandonment. "Do you wanna be in hell with me?" she asks, referencing an 18th century legend of the Pennsylvania Dutch, about an iron master who throws his dogs into the furnace for underperforming on a hunt only to see them return and drag him to hell. It's a grim tale of sin and retribution, brought to life as one of the most intense physical experiences you could possibly have while taking a government-sanctioned stroll around the block with your Air Pods. – Emma Garland 

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No Rome – “Spinning” (Ft. Charli XCX and The 1975)

If the first half of 2021 was defined by staying inside, the second half was about realising how neurotic all of the staying inside had made me, while frantically saying “yes” to everything as though I’d read some sort of self-help manual. Initially, being back in the world felt cathartic. But as everything starts to creep back up to pace, it’s been easy to feel out of control, like life is happening to me rather than like it’s something I’m actively doing. 

Anyway, the point is that “Spinning,” a glitchy, uppers-y single from London’s No Rome, perfectly encapsulates the feeling of having fun and simultaneously feeling very weird about it. He’s joined on the track by Charli XCX and The 1975, the reigning monarchs of complicated sesh thoughts, and the result is a very contemporary confection: sugary and sweet as a blue WKD, but underscored by an inevitable nausea, too. – Lauren O’Neill

Lana Del Rey – “White Dress”

When Lana Del Rey dropped this in mid-March, the UK was four months into lockdown 2.0 and the general mental state was, to summarise, "bad". For those who felt their best years slipping away with each news bulletin, this dreamy meditation on the pleasures of youth, and how much happier a responsibility-light life of shift work and partying can feel in retrospect, hit hard and bittersweet.

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Rooted in her aesthetic strengths of innocence and melancholy, Lana breathily recalls a life before the burdens of business and fame, projecting a lyrical montage of waitressing in a crisp uniform, listening to The White Stripes and drunk talking about life into the early hours of the morning, feeling "like a God". Set to the same strain of lush, last-orders piano balladry established on 2019’s Norman Fucking Rockwell!, “White Dress” is the perfect soundtrack for wafting around your flat while reflecting on your life like a nan in an armchair, talking to her grandchildren about how she used to go out dancing too, once. – Emma Garland

Olivia Rodrigo – “good 4 u”

Hopelessness takes many guises. For a lot of us, especially in the early part of 2021, it meant moping around, curtain twitching to get a look at a passing dog just to feel something, and screaming “I’m sick of making fucking sourdough” in manner of Gemma Collins on Celebrity Big Brother. But hopelessness isn’t just about stasis: It can also be rageful and, ultimately, curiously generative, as Olivia Rodrigo proved on her monster hit “good 4 u”.

Following the down-tempo singles “drivers license” and “deja vu”, “good 4 u” was a win for those of us whose favourite genre is “music that sounds like you could run up the wall to it,” and felt like a major arrival for Rodrigo, who this year cemented an unavoidable place in the mainstream. It’s a petty-at-times, constantly furious kiss-off addressed to an ex-boyfriend-turned-”damn sociopath” (this year’s My Chemical Romance “trust me”), and, most of all, a shining beacon of the brilliance that can occasionally come out of feeling really, really shit. – Lauren O’Neill

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For Those I Love – “I Have A Love”

It can be hard to know what to do with grief, a state of being so all-encompassing it becomes abstract, bewildering, easy to get lost in. On his debut album For Those I Love under his moniker of the same name, David Balfe preserves the memory of his best friend, Paul Curran, against the backdrop of young adulthood in working-class Dublin.

“I Have A Love” is the introduction but also the centrepiece of the album, encapsulating the pain of loss, euphoria of love, and colour of memory without pretence. "I have a love and it never fades," Balfe repeats, more adamant each time, as the instrumental swerves like a boy racer around unlit country roads, building towards something you could almost call club-ready. 

In the end, the song doesn’t mourn Curran’s death as much as it brings his memory to life. I would put this in the next category if it weren't so entirely shattering to listen to. – Emma Garland

HOPE

Warmduscher – “Wild Flowers”

At the big tub-thumpin’ disco at the end of the earth, this song belts loud. If you’re into the word ‘fuck’, you will be into this. If you also like The B-52’s “Love Shack”, you will love this. Next time someone bemoans rock’n’roll for being the largely boring genre it has become, arm yourself with this, the latest Warmduscher track and tell them to shove it up their arse! – Ryan Bassil

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Bree Runway – “HOT HOT”

Pop stars are special: they’re people like the rest of us, but with a bit extra: oomph, sparkle, personality, pizzazz, or whatever you want to call it. Not everyone who is granted the title “pop star” lives up to it, by the way – the music industry works hard at trying to sell us “skinny” and “Insta-friendly” in place of “actually charismatic” – but if 2021 has taught us anything, it’s that we can be sure of east London’s Bree Runway as the solid gold real deal. 

While Bree has had a phenomenal year across the board – not least her superlative remix of Lady Gaga’s “Babylon” (“face card never declined!”) – it was “HOT HOT” that felt like her coronation. With an MTV-era music video that highlighted her as a triple threat, lyrics as memorable as Lil Kim’s circa Hard Core, and a bold, distinctive sound that could bring a hair flip to anyone’s head, “HOT HOT” had it all, impressing on everyone who heard it the power of a real, true, proper pop star. – Lauren O’Neill

Tion Wayne and Russ Millions – “Body 2” (Ft. ArrDee, 3x3E1 & ZT, Bugzy Malone, Fivio Foreign, Darkoo, Buni)

Back in April, we included Tion Wayne and Russ Millions’ “Body” on our list of songs that gave us hope for the future. The consensus from Ryan Bassil at the time? “Every moment I’m not listening to this heater makes me feel less alive.” Shortly after this objectively correct opinion was published, the remix dropped and helped boot the track – and international enthusiasm for it – through the roof. 

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“Body 2” deserves flowers purely for the historic achievement of being the first drill song to hit number one in the UK. But with production that’ll give you frostbite, a list of features longer than Santa’s naughty list for the House of Commons, and an irresistibly clatty verse from 2021’s cheekiest breakout rapper ArrDee, this one takes the crown for ‘British song most likely to cause a lower back injury at literally any function’. – Emma Garland

Charli XCX – “New Shapes” (Ft. Christine and the Queens and Caroline Polacheck)

Remember your first Proper Night Out post-lockdown? How did it end up? Sick in the Lyft home, was it? WhatsApping a cryptic emoji to the ex before your last ex, at 4.03AM? Or was it a big disappointment? You got tired at midnight and slipped home, not used to so many people breathing on your face? Well, “New Shapes” is what the night should have felt like from the beginning. Big, bright synth lines. Key changes. Beats to dance to. Lyrics dripping in potential, excitement: “We could fall in love in new shapes / new shapes.” 

Scrolling through the YouTube comments, Christine is largely considered the stand-out of this track. “Christine has found her queens,” someone typed, to the tune of 1.1k likes. And it's true – Chris is sick. But it's Caroline's silky saccharine tones that really elevates this to something special. “Maybe we're meant for another dimension, babe,” she sings, liquified autotune tugging on your heart. The three of them will make you want to slam your laptop screen down and go straight to the club. “New Shapes” is everything 2021 was supposed to have been like – and still could. – Daisy Jones

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Sofie & Miss World – “Melody” (Ft. Peanut Butter Wolf)

Arriving at the tail end of 2020, Sofie & Miss World came through with probably the sweetest hook on every bad motherfucker’s fave toe-tapper of the last 12 months with their blog-ready cover of Plus Two’s “Melody”. The 2000s? They’re revived, my son. But unlike the groovy-chic trousers and wide-legged jeans in the streets, this ecstatic brand of Hypem.com (talk to your older brother) leaning music is extremely fun. Everything is ok here. Has anyone got an American Apparel hoodie I can borrow for the weekend? Have you heard of CSS? Want to do some poppers and “hang out online”? What’s offered is pure nostalgia, feat outrageously scintillating piano riff, coked-up lust lyrics and PVC-snap-synths. Gimme! – Ryan Bassil

Danny L Harle / DJ Danny – “On A Mountain”

What could epitomise the concept of hope more than this HUGE club banger that seems to have a personality of its own and a deep understanding of its purpose in the world. The rushing synths, the pitched-up vocal cooing “Can you feel it, this is something new” like a siren luring all sentimental Jägerbomb enthusiasts to the dancefloor, the amen break – much like the 00s era of trance and post-happy hardcore music it’s influenced by, “On A Mountain” is designed to chase euphoria. And by the time the beat drops for the first time, you’re already there. – Emma Garland

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Lorde – ”Solar Power”

For most of us, 2021 wasn't exactly glamorous. We weren't all at mindfulness/yoga retreats, wearing all-white Midsomer garb and dancing barefoot on the sand before engaging in spontaneous jam circles. And I doubt many of us were throwing our “cellular device in the water.” If I did that, I would need to take a loan out. My family would be concerned. 

Lorde's “Solar Power” might not have been the most relatable – but that doesn't mean it wasn't fun, and hopeful, and silly. It's sonically gorgeous, too. Listeners at the time compared it to Primal Scream and George Michael and even Dido – unexpected touchstones for the 25-year-old pop star whose previous output always skewed moody and melodramatic as opposed to mega chill. 

Listening again now, “Solar Power” bleeds optimism. It's a golden light, a sun-soaked surprise. It's the sound of laying the grass in your bra and pants with this drifting out someone's phone speakers. This was apparently the year of psychedelics, of Gen Z finally getting in touch with their connectedness. “Come on and let the bliss begin,” Lorde sings like a seductive cult leader. “Blink three times when you feel it kicking in.”Daisy Jones. 

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MUNA ft. Phoebe Bridgers – “Silk Chiffon”

MUNA have been quietly amazing for many years now, but seem to have experienced their biggest breakout moment so far in 2021 with “Silk Chiffon”, an explicitly lesbian delight that is 50 percent Busted, 50 percent “Built This Way” by Samantha Ronson, and therefore 100 percent amazing. Joined by Phoebe Bridgers (musician beloved to people of depressed experience, and label boss of Saddest Factory, to whom MUNA signed earlier this year) for a guest verse and a But I’m a Cheerleader-inspired music video, MUNA brought cheer to a year largely bereft of it via pure, clean songcraft, guaranteeing that every listen is a main character moment straight out of a teen movie with Barenaked Ladies on the soundtrack. – Lauren O’Neill

Doja Cat – “Kiss Me More ft. SZA”

Does this song remind me of scrolling TikTok until 2AM on a weeknight, feeling unhinged while watching a woman in pleaser heels walk her boyfriend through the woods on a lead? Yes. Is it up there with “Trap Queen” and Justin Bieber’s “Sorry” as one of the most addictive hooks in modern pop history? Also yes.

The accolades you could bestow on this song are endless. For one, it’s a mammoth disco-infused collaboration between two of pop’s most sensual songwriters whose idiosyncratic voices are peerless beyond each other. For two, no one has brought this much wit and originality to a song about snogging since Hot Chocolate in the 80s. And for three, if there is a single moment that could approximate the 2021 experience in a nutshell, it’s a shitposter-turned-popstar rasping “I FEEL LIKE FUCKIN’ SOMETHING” in a tone that is both petulant and threatening. – Emma Garland

yeule – “Don't Be So Hard On Your Own Beauty”

Hope doesn't exist without hopelessness. Light doesn't exist without shade. And 23-year-old yeule's syrup-sweet release “Don't Be So Hard On Your Own Beauty” wouldn't hit so hard without it's blue palette and emo lyrics. This is definitely a hopeful track though! Just listen to the words: “I look into your eyes and see a bright white light / You turn this horrible place into orange light, sunset in sight.” Relief peeps through the misery. Euphoria seeps through the pain. This track is what late March through to August felt like: Glistening. Electric. The first ever summer after a winter of TV binging and depression meals. 

One other thing about this track: it sounds a bit like a sequel or companion track to Grimes' “Delete Forever” – similar saccharine vocals, indie guitar strums over synth. If “Delete Forever” is the nihilistic, destructive electro-pop anthem of 2020, “Don't Be So Hard On Your Own Beauty” is the light after the destruction. – Daisy Jones

Pom Pom Squad – “Head Cheerleader”

Pom Pom Squad had one of the best debut albums of 2021 in Death of a Cheerleader, and “Head Cheerleader” was its finest flourish. An ode to the towering emotions of a crush, as well as a play on the stereotypical, heteronormative tropes of such narratives as they usually exist in pop culture, the song sees Mia Berrin purr and snarl over chugging, tightly controlled guitars, her command of melody thrilling and her lyrics enjoyably physical (“Press your teeth into my neck and watch me bruise”; “I’m squirming out of my skin”).

The track is rock music as rock music really ought to be – sexy, well-written, propulsive – and offers an enormous amount of hope for the future of a genre which often feels as though it has a question mark hanging over its head. If Berrin and Pom Pom Squad are at its new vanguard, then guitar music is in excellent hands. – Lauren O’Neill

@daisythejones / @emmaggarland / @hiyalauren / @ryanbassil