My Top 20ish Songs of 2021 (Plus 15 HMs)
Here's my top 20ish songs of 2021, plus 15 newly added honorable mentions.
Honorable mentions (alphabetical)
*67 – “not me mix”
I was deep in a SoundCloud abyss one night when I stumbled on this jewel, a nightcore remix of Mitski’s “Washing Machine Heart.” The romantic, galloping instrumental of the original anthem turns evil once accelerated, flickering and throttling like the soundtrack to a shooter game in a decrepit Y2K arcade. The vocals are even more mutant. Sped up, Mitski’s slow, yearning requests for her lover to meet lips turn into shrill, freakishly energized cries. She sounds like an elvish opera singer withering in a hallucinogenic daze.
100 gecs – “mememe”
Sure, it’s not the most avant-garde piece of music they’ve produced. But who cares? It’s a high-speed zero-gravity rollercoaster of raging guitars and Auto-Tuned chants. The hook is one of their best ever, a spree of synthetic syllables that rents a permanent Airbnb within your brain like a kooky nursery rhyme. Rather than a private headphones experience, “mememe” is meant to be heard live; cannoning out of Terminal 5’s massive sound system, it ricocheted across the venue’s three floors and sent the crowd into a stomping, hooting frenzy. I remember hearing a few other unreleased songs at the concert that seemed to rely heavily on guitars as well, and I’m curious to see what gecs’ finished album will look like—I expect it’ll be as polarizing as this tune.
Caroline Polachek — “Bunny Is A Rider” (prod. Polachek & Danny L Harle)
I love that moment when Caroline drags out the “riiiiiii-iiii-der,” like she’s drawing a trail of clouds in the sky. Her slippery-sharp vocals perfectly capture the essence of the lyrics—I interpret them as going free as an animal, wanting to become so playful and peripatetic that no one can keep track of you. She glides over Danny L. Harle’s breezy instrumental, which is decked out with bass that thumps like fingers pressed lightly against your chest, strangely fitting infant squeaks (Harle’s baby daughter hopped on the track, apparently) and gleeful whistles.
dltzk, kmoe, juno – “back off!!!”
What if I told you Zeke’s hardest track this year wasn’t on Teen Week, Frailty, or their dariacore comps? “back off!!!” is a one-off nuclear bass banger that features kmoe and juno holding it down amid a violent storm of electricity. Vocals often feel out of place or kitschy in hybrid bass, brostep, or hardcore electronic trap music, which are mostly instrumental subgenres, but kmoe and juno fit perfectly here. The former’s high-pitched squeals add a sense of urgency as the tempo increases. Juno’s deeper vocals, sidling in toward the second half, sound slick and speedy as the beat chops and guffaws. Zeke is the conductor of everything, commanding the song’s crescendos and falls, even sprinkling a bit of impish Zoomer humor (there’s a sample from Undertale).
Doss — “Strawberry”
There’s a lot of pleasure in the word “Doss.” I love how it lingers on the tongue, after you pass the hard “duh,” and it’s like chiffon flowing out of your mouth — “osssss.” It also rhymes with “gloss,” a gorgeous word in both enunciation and meaning. The producer’s alias is a sweet onomatopoeia for some of her music, particularly “Strawberry,” which reminds me of fog-filled mornings in HS waking up for cross country practice. Its birdsong-fluttery vocals and drums that bustle in the background like rain hitting the outside of your jacket evoke both bittersweet nostalgia and yearning for new experiences.
Duwap Kaine - “Playin Wit Da Autotune” (prod. Nine9)
Auto-Tune is the apparatus for so much experimentation in modern rap and vocal music, generally. But the same sound can get repetitive if enough people daub it thick and overuse the technique. That’s why Duwap Kaine’s ludicrous “Playin Wit Da Autotune” is so exhilarating, especially because it genuinely sounds decent.
The method is simple—Duwap fucks around with Auto-Tune. His vocals are creaky and off-kilter, tripping up and down with the painful awkwardness of a pubescent teen caterwauling Ed Sheeran covers in the shower. It’s shamelessly bad, so obviously screwy that the first time you listen, you wonder whether Duwap should be embarrassed. But then you listen again, and again—and like 645AR’s “Yoga,” it rewires the neurons in your cerebrum.
Foodman ft. Taigen Kawabe – “Michi No Eki”
The song’s addictive rhythm and thrilling arc are conveyed well by the music video, which features Taigen Kawabe competing in a triathlon: running through a street, cycling in a forest while water drizzles from above, and tearing off his jacket to swim in a sea, blue-green water blurring the camera. The final shot, timed perfectly with the second breakdown at the end of the song, shows colorful victory streamers cascading over him as he dashes in slow-motion up a road flanked by green fields, heading toward a hazy mountainscape.
Kid Snorlax – “Lost my DS Stylus” (prod. VAMPMALICE)
What happens if you mix sellasouls, gabber, and Nintendo DS nostalgia? “Lost my DS Stylus,” a rippling surge of electricity, video game button-pressing sounds, and hissing. This one’s for the kids who grew up raving on Pictochat.
Luci4 (aka Axxturel) – “Follow Me On Instagram”
In today’s post-influencer age, aspiring stars use motley tactics to promote themselves. Many drop links to socials in their bios, others subtly slide their @s at the start of a video or the end of a post, while some thirst trap, just a saucy skin pic and a link to their OnlyFans. Luci4 took self-promotion to another dimension by making an entire distorted trap song built around the sole conceit that you follow him on Instagram after listening to it. And he fully earns that follow, jamming the track front to back with chandelier-shaking bass thuds and twisting synths, and commanding your Instagram fealty with the menacing tone and reverb-boosted bombast of a giant bossing his minions.
Magdalena Bay – “You Lose!”
“You Lose!” brims with pixelated synths while Mica Tenenbaum’s vocals shine like 10,000-lumen bulbs. I want to sprint through the city at max speed, blowing past all the cars and people, with this flooding my ears.
Meat computer – “dancing by myself”
It’s sad that whispering isn’t deployed more in rap, but at least we have meat computer, who’s pioneered a whole language of scat rap and ASMR ad-libbing. There’s a shimmering smallness to “dancing by myself.” The instrumental’s ebb and flow makes me picture a creek trickling in the near black of night while every human is tucked in bed. Meat computer mumbles like the tiniest, most forgettable little Hobbit sitting on the bank, dipping his feet in the dark cool blue, rattling off his anxieties to no one in particular but the trees and the forest animals, suicidal ideating to his own wobbly reflection.
Playboi Carti – “talk 2 me” (prod. Racki)
One of my favorite Carti joints this year wasn’t made by him. It’s a fanmade song produced by prolific beatmaker rackidiorr sampling Makoto Matsushita’s lush “Love Was Really Gone.” Before I heard Whole Lotta Red’s punkish menace, this is the direction I thought Carti was heading for post-Die Lit: soporific piano notes and diaphanous synths, soundtracks for angels to have delicate sex to. “talk 2 me” unfolds like a dream sequence. The first minute is just the utopian sample. Then there’s the engineer’s perfectly timed logo—“hold on, is that Racki?”—and the beat drops.
Rắn Cạp Đuôi - “Eri Eri Eri Eri Eri Rema Rema Rema Rema Rema”
Imagine Boards of Canada passed through a deep-fried image or saturation filter. The soundscape is dense with refrains that repeat like horror movie motifs and an onslaught of chaotic sound effects: a revving that skitters out of pitch, ambulance-like chimes, a lattice of malfunctioning breaths. Ran Cap Duoi’s Ngủ Ngày Ngay Ngày Tận Thế, and particularly this song, gives me the same feeling I get listening to James Ferraro’s darker music (“Skid Row”) or hauntology like Children of Alice: dread combined with curiosity. I’m anxious but excited because every inch of the song is packed with some new sonic curio to examine. The only constant across the Vietnamese group’s smorgasbord of terrifying textures and anti-ASMR noise splices is its incessant glitching. Disruption becomes the rhythm, something to clutch on to.
Remble – “Touchable”
Remble raps like he’s whispering to a friend in the library during finals week. “I just tapped his shoulder so I know that he is touchable,” he states with lawyerly gravity. “I just took your life and as you know it’s un-refundable.” Remble’s mode—enunciating each syllable like he’s at a conference with foreign diplomats, using ungainly words such as “subtractions”—teeters on the brink of self-parody but is for the most part funny and refreshing. The style works best on “Touchable,” where his voice is elevated by deadly-serious notes and tastefully subdued gunshot effects that make him sound like he’s reciting an incantation.
Humans have been real quiet since Yameii dropped this. She’s a Vocaloid, meaning her robotic voice was extracted from a database of stock human tones. You’d think this would limit her expressive capabilities, but on “Baby My Phone” she sounds livelier and more emotionally agile than many flesh-and-blood musicians, drifting between mumbling sweet coos about the passage of time and spewing incoherent, ear-pleasing robo-gibberish. What really makes Yameii’s voice work are Deko’s instrumentals, like the iridescent “Photon Scooter.” Woven together, Yameii’s voice and the synths vibrate with a squinty-brightness that’s like gazing at a solar eclipse without protective glasses.
The Top 20
#20 - aya - "what if i should fall asleep and slipp under" and "Emley lights us moor" (tie)
Imagine a darkly-lit ballroom full of tiny anthropomorphic sound splices walking around and having a good time. There’s a clap with a slender neck, a stocky bass note with legs, a triangle-bodied chime wearing a tie, a metronome with eyes, two synth stabs nibbling on hors-d'œuvres, an .mp3 file and a .wav whispering quietly in the corner while ladling fruit punch. That’s what I picture listening to aya’s "what if i should fall asleep and slipp under."
It’s like SOPHIE’s early style (maybe “BIPP”) reimagined as music for disassociation rather than dancing; “what if i should fall asleep and slipp under” has the same kind of metallic, spartan sound design but transformed into haunting and hallucinatory gothic ASMR. (Some of aya’s album im hole works as aural melatonin - the first chunk of track 10 sounds like a fan lightly whirring, a cat purring or someone rippling papers, an ASMR trigger.)
The barebones instrumental makes every individual component feel so much more vivid, each sound striking with purpose. For something so restrained and sonically off-kilter, it’s hard to imagine unleashing your body to it, but the song has an addictive vibration. Your guide across this twisted dancefloor is aya, her voice spanning crinkly whispers, mutated croaks, cries that swerve between multiple octaves in a single second, and all-out shouts about how she’s “now ecstatic… anaphylactic.” The lyrics aren’t always intelligible but when they are they penetrate. “Come over we could fuck the void out of each other,” she says like a character from Under the Skin.
And then there’s “Emley lights us moor” featuring Iceboy Violet. Whispering fretfully over a brooding drill-ish beat, aya’s vocals are difficult to decipher, but it doesn’t really matter because her words, interrupted every now and then by icy inhales as she breathes between lines, work as pure texture.
#19 - rrodney - "miss the rage" (Jersey club remix of Trippie Redd ft. Playboi Carti - "Miss the Rage")
Trippie Redd’s “rage beat” rap has a plastic, maximal quality evoking RUSTIE-esque festival EDM. It all feels so Fortnite: tinny, shiny, high-definition, pubescent, smooth, too smooth. Smooth like a musical zamboni hoovered over the mix.
Thing is, rage beats only get monotonous after you listen to a bunch in succession (which happened this year following Playboi Carti’s Whole Lotta Red, as tons of rappers copied the formula). Alone, they sound awesome. “Miss the Rage” has an undeniable infectiousness. The synths slash through like plasma beams out of a synthetic cannon.
Jersey clubber rrodney remixed the track (just the beat, the Trippie-Carti vocals have been expunged and replaced by Missy Elliot going ra-tah-tah) and it’s fantastic. What I love about Jersey club remixes of already great songs is that they inject the music with a new sense of urgency and supply a similar dopamine rush to speeding the whole thing up. The stuttered vocal sequences and frenetic drums create this cascading feeling of constant suspension, like you’re p-p-p-p-p-p-peaking, maintaining a breathless state of mid-dance euphoria. It’s as if the bass drop is happening over and over, that tremulous adrenaline of the climax extended across a longer length, a speedy never-ending groove. Dancing to it, you almost feel like you’re levitating.
#18 - aghast - "thas wut i do" (prod. wavebird & lungskull)
Listening to aghast’s songs feels like wading knee-deep in dirty dust. They’re alluringly murky tracks drowning in gunshots, washed-out synths and noises that sound like laptop error messages. “Thas whut i do” is SoundCloud rap for Zoomers nursed on a combo of Lil Pump’s “Boss,” Call of Duty edits, Sonic, and anime. It’s all endorphins and waviness and catchy lyrics loaded with low-syllable-count words (someone hilariously edited the Genius lyric page with more sophisticated versions of the bars). The lo-fi beat goes glitch-crazy at the start and then gives way to this eerie, menacing synth and a sample about demon energy from the anime Yu Yu Hakusho. aghast’s vocals are squeaky (he’s young) yet commanding, like a 12-year-old YouTuber trying to act “hard” in a vlog. But it kinda works in a surreal way, the style suiting the feculent beat. His vocals seem to slide and skate over the instrumental as it bends back and forth, the synths contorting up and down like an astral ballerina playing a demented game of Martian limbo. The whole thing only lasts 54 seconds.
The sickly “Mad” (prod. kkei3) and “diss 2 my haterz” (prod. lungskull), a track inundated with a Royalty Free Audio Library’s worth of sound FX (coughing, the Roblox “oof” noise, a car accelerating, gunshots, a bird chirp, a crowd gasp), also boil my blood.
There’s a mesmerizing simplicity to these songs—just a narcotic synth, distorted voice, and uproar of effects. You can tell they were produced on a program like Audacity or Garageband. Barely any other rapper does a better version of this kind of sludgy and lethargic yet also supercharged, up-tempo FX insanity.
#17 - Yves Tumor - "Secrecy Is Incredibly Important To The Both of Them"
The first time I heard this song I was riding on a cramped bus to upstate New York, and I particularly remember the way the feverish instruments—guitars striking like sharp lances, drums burbling with warlike intensity—lit up the drab scenery, making colorful curves and lacerations out of the rainy sky and flat, featureless greens. Yves’ vocals hang low in the mix, huddled under the instruments; “I put my guard up,” they say, as if they’re using the soundscape as a shield protecting their sonic flesh from prying eyes.
I’m not entirely sure what the cryptic lyrics are referencing, but I love the song’s eerily enchanting atmosphere and the angular post-punk inspo. It’s electric.
#16 - kaystrueno - "PRETTY B!TCHES NEVA DIE"
Similar to how Axxturel, lungskull, and some other glitchy SoundCloud musicians partly blew up because of Roblox TikTok, kaystrueno’s “PRETTY B!TCHES NEVA DIE” started to take off on TikTok thanks to people using it as the soundtrack to clips revolving around two video games. Genshin Impact makes sense—it’s an action-heavy RPG. But a few of the song’s most popular TikTok videos are edits for the hilariously strange mobile game Cookie Run, which involves playing as an anthropomorphic gingerbread cookie trying to escape an oven, I think. Check out the videos: you have these cutesy clips where people show off how the animated characters look, dainty and winsome, while the soundtrack is this absolutely crushing, moshpit-intense song vibrating with distortion, volleys of kick drums, and a menacing voice repeating, “X TRIPLE “I” PRETTY BITCHES NEVER DIE.”
The track is a trip. The beat lures you into this distressingly juddery tension, which stems from the constant tempo changes and the unique pattern of the kick drums. The kicks slam repeatedly in the background, bah, bah, bah, without much of a breather, making it feel like the song is constantly working toward some ecstatic climax that never comes. Instead, it’s more like an aural headache, that sludgy sensation you get at 4 a.m. after staying out too late and drinking too much, stumbling around and feeling the infant pangs of tomorrow’s hangover.
Kay’s other songs skew more ethereal, particularly “HOMESiK” and “TELLEM.” There’s something very Legend of Zelda-y about the latter, with kaystrueno’s voice so faint and shallow in the beat that it sounds like the instrumental is swishing over it, washing over him like a lapping tide. The songs are enhanced by kaystureno’s visual aesthetic: many of his cover art pictures are pretty screenshots from the video game Kingdom of Hearts.
kaystrueno, who is a member of the collective #GREED, calls his sound “maplekore,” which might be a nod to the classic aughts MMORPG MapleStory, although none of his thumbnails come from that game. While it’s a cliché now to use video game metaphors to describe any slightly lo-fi, up-tempo and spacey rap music, I’ll just say kaystrueno does a better job at evoking the texture of flattened GameBoy Advance or DS soundtracks than most. Listening to his awkwardly throbbing beats and crushed, crunchy vocals with the gorgeous Kingdom Hearts thumbnails in mind, I feel like I’m gallivanting around some alternate dimension where everyone is a 2008 Nintendo DS cartoon character.
#15 - kurtains - "spawn"
kurtains was one of those digicore producers last year who camouflaged in the pack and didn’t necessarily have a “big moment,” like Quinn, glaive, or ericdoa. When I briefly interviewed the Welsh singer-producer in August 2020, I remember what struck me most about their music was the weird glitchcore-esque vocal tricks they deployed — stuttered neon syllable-braids (“spinna,” “trees”); computer-fried vocal clips (“rain”); high-pitched somersaults (“talk talk”) — and this pervasive spine-chilling ache. Trading bright tones and cheerful melodies for purple hues and malefic beats, a lot of kurtains’ music seems to emanate from the same abyssal otherworld of silhouettes, shadows, and vocals chopped into cries.
On “spawn,” kurtains pairs aural hate mail (“I don’t like your fucking vibe”) with a piano-driven instrumental that could be a love letter, or maybe a meditative piece on transcendence and the passage of time. Much of the short track is underpinned by a fast three-note piano refrain, in which each note is separated by a small but noticeable break so it sounds like the sequence is glitching with intent, stutter-stepping toward the light. kurtains weaves between dissing an unnamed person and flowing lyrically about how “the purple moon, it’s calling me.” Somehow, the delivery syncs perfectly with the instrumental, so when kurtains says a sentence like, “your spawn is done, it’s time to meet his end,” the beat vanishes for a second and then reappears after they says “end,” accentuating the thrust and volatility of the word, giving it real emotional stakes.
kurtains’ insignia’s manor EP received little fanfare this year and may end up going down as one of the more slept-on projects — besides “spawn,” the pokey, chiptuney “scorpion” is also fantastic. kurtains kills at integrating pixelated noises that seem like they could belong to an Animal Crossing sound pack into subtly hypnotic pop-rap compositions.
#14 - Ecco2k - "PXE"
Don’t get me wrong, the rest of the EP is wonderful — especially the gleaming “In The Flesh.” But this intro is criminally underrated. Only a minute and a half long, the song flashes a constellation of miniature moments of sonic perfection. Each one is like a beam of light slashing across you, rippling into existence then vanishing after a second. A voice dissolving into mist; a shower of pixelated static; someone stammering out a moan; sublimely pitched beeps and boops.
It’s a lattice of sounds that works not despite but because of its textural disarray; it makes me feel like I’m ambling through a beautiful blizzard, where instead of snow I’m being hit in the face with streams of glitter.
An outsider who’s not tuned in to Ecco’s experimental impulses might find the track indulgent, half-baked or disorganized, but it’s the perfect opener to the rest of the songs on here. Hearing “PXE” feels like stepping through a shimmery tinsel door at a party or walking into a portal to the Distortion World — it welcomes you into Ecco’s universe and prepares your brain for the tantalizing aural attractions that follow, from the mangled guitars on “Jalouse” and surround-sound glitches of “No***'s Song” to the closer’s claustrophobic noise.
My favorite moment of “PXE” comes a minute through, when Ecco says “breathe life” and the soundscape pauses for a millisecond before a vivid, enveloping synth suddenly wraps around everything like an otherworldly duvet. As Ecco writes soon after in the gorgeously designed video for the EP, it’s the sound of coming “out of your shell” and walking into the light.
#13 - vertigoaway ft. schizoscriptures - "Break This The Breaking Point 2"
Ever wish you could leave the human world and its uncomfortable vibes, global catastrophes, and inevitable desiccation of the flesh behind, and instead live in a video game where the pixels are permanently vibrant and there’s infinite space and time? “Break This The Breaking Point 2” hurls you into just such a fantasy wonderworld. At 7 and a half minutes long, the track submerges you in its blissful bitcrushed oblivion. Shivering screams rip out of every corner of the soundscape. Chipmunk vocals tear themselves into incoherent shreds in live-time. Drums rage and synths pulse with hypnotic consistency, every sound ricocheting off each other like a bunch of tiny bouncy balls trapped in an iron chamber.
The song spread heavily on TikTok (~10,000 videos across audios). Of course.
vertigoaway’s “Break This The Breaking Point 2” (ft. schizoscriptures) is maybe the most addictive track to come out of hexD jungle, a micro-microgenre the Tallahassee-based artist unofficially coined (as far as I can tell) with their 2020 release Jungle Witch. The music combines jungle (breakbeat delirium) with hexD, a deep-internet music subgenre with sped-up vocals and soundscapes that are bitcrushed (reducing the bandwidth or resolution of audio so it becomes distorted). If you want something similar, check out electronic/Lolicore act Loli in early 20s’ feverishly fuzzy breakcore.
#12 - Baby Keem & Kendrick Lamar - "family ties"
Everything about “family ties” screams cinematic. The horns at the start announce the song like it’s a regal procession: here comes the Royal family. But nah, Prince Philip is six feet underground and Baby Keem is rampaging over ceiling-rattling bass blasts. It’s so bouncy and alive. One of my favorite moments early on is when the beat trips on itself for a second, repeating the same micro-refrain as Keem yells “beat em up, beat em up, beat em up.”
The first time I heard Kendrick appear in the second half, a stupidly wide grin came over my face. The beat switch is too dirty, especially juxtaposed against what his cousin was rapping over just a few seconds before, a somewhat light, groovy melody. Kendrick’s beat is hard as concrete. “Smoking on your top five to-night,” he says balefully, and he sounds immortal.
Keem’s high-pitched, wavering tone makes a great foil to Kendrick’s stern, forceful inflection, and vice versa. Although the duo’s verses are separated on this song both lyrically and sonically—there’s not really an overarching theme, and they each rap over radically different beats—it feels like they were in each other’s brains making this.
The song is loaded with clever quotables and infectious flows, but it’s also a showcase of silliness. Keem’s eccentric squeaks and mouth sounds are matched by Kendrick’s dorky tone switches (“My mental is amazing, brother,” he says, like Hank from King of the Hill). Two great rappers at their goofy and serious bests.
#11 - Summrs - "put out fye" + "Blood Always Thicker" (prod. Goyxrd)
After listening to plugg(nb) in a plethora of contexts — out my laptop speakers while working on something else, through the Airpods during walks, at a live show — I’ve realized that the best way to appreciate the music is through high-quality headphones and while I’m chilling in bed. So much of what makes the subgenre stuporific — the light flutter of certain sounds, the slow-mo bounce of the beat, the soothing warble of the voice — gets flattened when you play it out of a crummy built-in computer or phone speaker.
Once I give a song like “put out fye” my undivided attention, the layers of petal-pretty synths and gem-bright sound effects, perfectly stacked atop and between and below Summrs’ syrupy croons, wrap around my ears like a toasty cocoon. There’s an otherworldliness, tinged with wonder and woe, about Goyxrd’s instrumental that reminds me of Pokémon Mystery Dungeon — of the game’s soundtrack itself and the themes of the game (friendship, discovery, saying goodbye).
“Blood Always Thicker” has a similarly enchanting beat, but Summrs’ lyrics are reflective and penetrating. He’s a great storyteller who can somehow narrate how his drug use has gone beyond a coping mechanism and his anxious relationships with family members whilst vocally moonwalking over Goyxrd’s floaty backing. The song comes from Summrs’ recent album nothing More Nothing LESS, which is about the rapper’s unhealed emotional wounds from the SoFaygo War, where 200,000 Slayworld soldiers perished, the meme page Hyperpop Daily told No Bells in a recent interview.
#10 - saoirse dream - "when your pizza rolls" & leroy - "dilf repellent" + "awesome ends with ME and ugly starts with U" (tie)
Choosing one dariacore track is like being forced to pick a favorite color. Every color is great in a certain context, and there are thousands of shades. I love a good ruby red beanie when I’m feeling gregarious. A blue-black hoodie for the days I want to speak to no one. I love the peak Los Angeles peach-melting-into-hibiscus horizon, Santa Monica’s cerulean shore washing over light yellow sand, persian green palm fronds covering the ash gray concrete. In high school, I shamefully went through a phase wearing the most abrasively bright floral shirts and a salmon-pink hoodie. I love all colors.
(For the unenlightened, dariacore is a strain of lo-fi hymnal music that marries ASMR xylophone strums to Auto-Tuned praying mantis vocals and often features a hornucopian dronepipe. Some tracks, for additional flavor, include the earthy squelch of a didgeridoo.)
All that to say, my favorite dariacore tune changes by the hour. I picked these three because they’ve stuck with me the most.
What I love most about dltzk aka leroy’s “dilf repellent” is its intro, a sped-up version of the riff from Eyedress’ “Jealous” fused with Matty Healy’s vocals, which then fissures into a mechanical explosion. Everything becomes chaos. Glitched vocals flash in and out of earshot, the words losing their meanings as the snares and bass thuds pummel.
“awesome ends with ME and ugly starts with U” is bursting at the seams with pretty much every sound you can imagine. It features accelerated PinkPantheress vocals, a “h-h-h-h-holy shit” sound splice, Yeat ordering take-home Benibachi, titanic electronic splurges that sound like Skrillex hooked up with Flume, and Brittany Taylor (a character from the TV show “Daria”) saying, “Where’s my lipstick?”
Meanwhile, webcage member saoirse dream’s “when your pizza rolls” feels like an entire two-day festival experience packed in two minutes. There are as many genre influences and textures in this song as there are planets in our solar system. A frantic breakbeat; Jersey club bed squeaks; a stuttering plugg producer tag; a snippet of Justin Bieber and the Kid Laroi’s “Stay”; a rapidfire edit of Porter Robinson’s “Shelter”; EDM chaos galore.
Part of dariacore’s appeal is this rabid recontextualization of earworm pop anthems and rap lines. It offers a similar thrill to hearing a nightcore remix, slowed-and-reverb flip, or alternative version of a song. They’re still the same core sounds you already have deeply nestled in your brain, but manipulated slightly (sped-up, blended into other songs), the intensity heightened, almost like you’re listening while really really really drunk.
#9 - laura les - “Haunted”
What sets “Haunted” apart is the hook—a shuddddddddering stream of high-pitched cries. An infinity mirror of non-vocal mouth spasms; someone moaning, crying, begging for dear mercy and howling that they’ll plunge a knife into your eye socket all at once in an alien language. Or a human dissolving into a digital coma, the last desperate screams of the flesh before it gets alchemized into a pristine cyber exoskeleton.
A better title might be “Holy,” since the song is so full of these sacred shrieks and computerized calls to a higher power. I’ve been going to shows in NYC for around three months and still haven’t heard this played live, what the hell? I want to perform an exorcism to this track.
#8 - piri & Tommy Villiers - "soft spot"
PinkPantheress has been the main bedroom pop’n’bass artist on everyone’s minds these last few months, but there’s another song worth your attention: piri and Tommy Villiers’ heavenly June drop “soft spot.” It’s a glimmering ode to an unnamed lover that pairs twinkly, coy vocals with breezy breaks.
I can’t tell you how many evenings I found myself listening to this song, walking home from work through packed Manhattan streets, watching the skyscape shimmer while riding the J train over the bridge, strolling along the dusky East River waterfront, perched on my balcony gazing at the cars and people walking dogs drifting past below. It’s one of those “Main Character” songs: the perfect wallpaper for anything, it can transform an ordinary day, a demanding task, a tedious errand into something romantic and full-feeling.
#7 - L’Rain - “Blame Me”
I love the chords at the start of “Blame Me.” They make me feel like I’m sinking deep inside myself, descending down an emotional staircase. L’Rain’s vocals, light and slow, seem like they could be coming from anywhere, anyone, separated from the body, floating around space. Halfway in, the instrumental kicks up and begins to feel so vast and cozy you could almost hibernate inside it. “You were wasting away, my god,” she breathes, “I’m making my way down south.” She repeats this refrain over and over, and the words start to flicker across your mind like faint lights circling, falling in and out of focus, a crisscross of shadows dancing softly against the wall.
#6 - osquinn - "and most importantly, have fun" / "from paris, with love" (tie)
Quinn is a voracious sampler with a peripatetic appetite. She’s flown back to the 70s to snag Cortex’s groovy “Huit octobre 1971,” vaulted to the aughts to flip Frou Frou’s yearning “A New Kind of Love” into a chittering jungle track, reworked ScHoolboy Q’s “Hands On The Wheel” into glitch-rap, and adapted Azealia Banks’ “212” into a sun-kissed beat. She even covered the goofy early internet meme “The Duck Song” and added trap drums. Equally skilled at cratedigging and banger-building, the 17-year-old musician knows what samples to pluck and how to twist them into something inventive and addictive.
Maybe my favorite is “and most importantly, have fun.” The lick is Kris Kross’ “Jump,” an instant beam to the ‘90s, which itself samples Ohio Players’ 1972 “Funky Worm.” Quinn weaves the track’s whinnying funk synth into a breakbeat typhoon, the riff chopping in and out like a turntable needle skipping anxiously. The song’s manic pulse works as a kind of metaphor for the fury and fear Quinn seems to feel about parasocial relationships, how it makes her pissed that people think they get her when all they see is the exterior she presents to the public. You can sense the coiled-up rage and sly confidence in her voice, as someone who has been very vocal about the harassment and hate she’s faced online, when she declares, “you don’t even know me, you don’t even know me” in the intro. There’s no build-up, no slow crawl to a bass drop — just full-throttle from the get-go, the beat convulsing like a rattlesnake as Quinn spins and swerves over it with alliterative bounce (“barefoot in the blue Ford Focus”) and frantic energy.
My other favorite of hers this year, “from paris, with love,” twitches with angsty vigor that grows increasingly unstable. The beat starts off at a controlled tempo, akin to something she might have rapped over last year when she first blew up. But Quinn’s menacing threats and taunts — “you gon’ have to kill me if you want me… you can’t kill me if you tried to, and I know that makes you mad” — offer a tease of the aural warfare to come. Midway through, a wave of electronic noise smacks you in the face. The soundscape slowly starts to buckle and disintegrate under the pressure of glitches and mounting bass blasts. Suddenly, Quinn’s voice completely vanishes and the instrumental morphs into an aural Ganondorf lurching recklessly and spitting globs of low-end. Chaos engulfs everything. The final 30 seconds is practically a firestorm of radioactive synth explosions.
#5 - Dry Cleaning - “Scratchcard Lanyard”
When I went home to California after I graduated college in May, Dry Cleaning’s New Long Leg was the only album my parents wanted to play in the car. It became a household meme. “Dry Cleaning, again?” I sighed, more than once. But “Scratchcard Lanyard” slowly burned itself into my brain, like a cradle lullaby you never forget. I had already listened to the album and enjoyed it prior to returning home, but this constant repetition, combined with the raw-feels of being home again (maybe for the last time in a while) injected the music with new emotion. Plus, the music synced surprisingly well with the experience of riding through LA freeways: the band’s lean, insistent playstyle and Florence Shaw’s deadpan vocals seemed to fit perfectly with the sensation of speeding along narrow, colorless strips and flat, dry landscapes. When I listen to “Scratchcard Lanyard” nowadays, I’m flooded with memories of that specific time period, the emotions I felt then, even snippets of conversation.
Across the album, Shaw’s lyrics drift between absurd (“I’ve been thinking about eating that hot dog for hours”), tenderly doomful (“my only ambition is to grasp the roots of your hair”), and painfully real summations of our instant-gratification era (“do everything and feel nothing”). Her attention to detail, to all the banal details that round off the everyday nothingness of her existence—the big jar of mayonnaise, the tanned foot squeezing into a short boot, the Elmo costume, the Tokyo and Oslo and Rio de Janeiro bouncy balls (Instagram filters)—sparkles with the same dogged intensity as Proust writing about flowers. There’s something particularly apathetic about Shaw’s performance that makes her sound like an AI robot having a pre-programmed conversation with herself. Almost like there’s a computer-generated bank of random words, and her sole purpose on this record is to rifle them off one-by-one. There’s so much ennui and dis-passion in the voice. But there are also little flickers of humanity—moments when she pronounces a word strangely, like “baz-oo-kawh,” or makes a sudden sound (“huh!”), or describes a small, charming interaction (“pat dad on the head”), that pierce through her stony surface.
#4 - Luci4 aka Axxturel - "dying in xxtyle (trendxxetter 3)" / "dead n gone" (prod. Hollywood J) (tie)
Luci4, also known by the nom de rap Axxturel, has had a bigger year than almost every other underground rapper. He scored four TikTok hits in 2021 (including one that spawned a visually thrilling TikTok dance called “glitching” that I covered for Insider) and he’s inspired a wave of copycats imitating his malevolent beats, doomsday vocals and occult aesthetic. The Atlantic signee has invented an entire dialect of demented rap music. He’s made ASMR horrorcore and chopped up the “iCarly” theme into a serrated beat. While perhaps his GOAT tracks (“BodyPartz,” “All Eyez on Me,” “Ave Domina Lilith,” “2 Steppin on Necks,” and “Jimmy Choo”) came out last year or earlier, he’s released a number of mind-bending tunes this Earth rotation, notably “dying in xxtyle” and “Dead n Gone.”
A quick primer on Luci4’s music, paraphrased from my interview with Music Journalism Insider:
The songs are packed with hisses and robotic gurgles, moshpit-hard bass thuds, eerie synths, and pixelated sound effects. Luci4 used to get all his song thumbnails from Blingee, this defunct GIF website with a bizarre kind of kitschy medieval old-internet look: lots of corny skeletons and roses and demonic-looking creatures. The music itself sounds so frayed yet futuristic, the visual component gives it this out-of-time, phantasmic parallel world kind of vibe.
“Dying in XXtyle” and “Dead n Gone” are pure exercises in sense-overload. Every inch of audio space is thronged with astonishing sounds. In the former, pillars of bass slam against Luci4’s glitch-wracked voice while creepy chimes and slot machines ring out and synths spin like a car going full throttle in an early ‘90s racing game.
The Hollywood J-produced “Dead n Gone” sounds like the soundtrack to a medical experiment gone wrong; I imagine its fizzy hi-hats and oozy woozy electronic pulses coming out of a set of huge speakers in a chemlab staffed with white-coated spirit creatures. There are so many little components—a quick laugh effect, a layer of nearly imperceptible stutters firing off beneath his vocals at points, mini-explosion sounds—that knit together a tapestry of astral textures.
#3 - PinkPantheress - “Pain”
It was always obvious PinkPantheress was fated for something more than TikTok memedom. I remember hearing “Break It Off” for the first time in April as the audio for this TikTok trend where people would show off an array of glamorous outfits or create a fast-paced montage of their day. Her ultra-glossy vocals hooked me. The instrumental she used (Adam F’s “Circles”) was practically an aural fossil at 25 years old, sure, but the song felt like a transmission from 25 years in the future, this mutation of breakbeat frenzy with the gentleness of bedroom pop.
PinkPantheress loves twisting misery into melody and regret into rapture. When I heard “Pain” for the first time, scrolling TikTok in May, I had zero clue the song was supposed to be about a relationship in shambles, with PinkPantheress singing about how she’s shrouded in delusions and can’t stop dreaming about her ex-lover. Because the music itself is blissful and angelic: PinkPantheress trills la-la-la-la during the chorus like she’s just learned how to fly and is zooming excitedly around the clouds.
From a sociological standpoint, I find it fascinating how PinkPantheress appeals to literally everyone. Not like... Ed Sheeran or Justin Bieber, who appeal to “everyone” in a lowest common denominator, anodyne faceless pop kind of way. PinkPantheress appeals to the emo rockers, the blase teens, the hypermasculine frat bros, the moms, the dads, the grannies, the Drainers. That said, I have a bad feeling this might predict a depressing future for drum n bass and other electronic revivals — are we going to hear Drake whining over breakbeats or Maroon 5 crooning over a snappy UK garage rhythm in a couple of years?
#2 - Playboi Carti - "Stop Breathing," "On That Time," and "JumpOutTheHouse"
I’ve been studying Playboi Carti for ages. I remember his first experiments in plugg beats and instrumental psychedelia, circa 2014-2015; his early forays into sputtering ad-lib mayhem, 2017; the glorious “Cancun” leak and his gradual devolving into the baby voice, 2018, which became squeakier and screechier until it regressed into a fetus voice, 2020. It seemed that he’d reached peak gibberish — how could he sound any weirder? What can he do with ad-lib mosaics that he hasn’t already?
But then he took it further on Whole Lotta Red. It got even more disintegrated.
You could call his style here aural anarchy — music that sounds like it’s lost complete control of itself, syllables and synthesizers flying at random in a disturbing constellation of chaos. Moving away from psychedelic, lush instrumentals, Carti opted for destruction, howling over beats so hard they could knock an old man’s toupee off. Vocally, he teeters between two modes — going all-out, practically shredding his vocal cords, and a kind of breakneck gulping, gasping for air; on a track like “Stop Breathing,” it sounds almost like he’s dying. At one point, he trades rapping for simply wheezing — “haa, hhh, hu, hu, hu, hu, haa.” The track’s title functions both as a goofy statement about how girls can’t help but hyperventilate hornily when he takes off his shirt (it’s also a Gucci interpolation) and an audience imperative — mosh so hard you pass out.
If “Stop Breathing” was Carti’s death rattle, then “On That Time” is him in the afterlife as a shrieking hellhound. When Carti dropped this track live in Rochester, the crowd full of sweaty Syracuse boys, girls in vampy halter tops, and 18-year-olds wearing flannels over “ROCKSTAR MADE” t-shirts started thrashing like they were possessed by a Ouija board spirit. It’s one of those songs like “RIP” with an instant bass drop — no build-up, no tension, just a beat that feels like you’re getting pummeled in the face and full-on vocal violence. Carti’s increasingly oxygen-deprived flow makes the monosyllabic hook — “D, R, A, C, O, D, R, A, C, O, DEE, RRR, AYY, CEE, OH!” — so exhilarating to scream out during a concert. I was too busy yelling the letters at the top of my lungs to scan other folks’ expressions, but it seemed like people were unleashing everything they had, bodies smashing against bodies.
“JumpOutTheHouse” features Carti’s most unnerving vocal performance of his career. He begins with a baby voice that feels somewhat tame by his standards, and slowly ramps it up. Around 40 seconds, he suddenly starts squawking like a mutant Caillou throwing a temper tantrum. There’s something almost theatrical about this — like we’re watching a method actor go so far into his role that he forgets who he is.
I thought it was interesting how heavily Carti concealed himself at his own show. The whole time, huge clouds of special effect smoke puffed through the auditorium so that even when I was only feet away from him swaggering around the stage, I couldn’t discern his features. He was practically invisible in the fog, a phantom. Plus, he wasn’t rapping much, he was just letting his songs run and ad-libbing noises — squeaks, screams, coughs, cries, single syllables that reverberated across the venue walls. In a way, this physical ghostliness mirrored his obscure, dissipated musical presence. On Whole Lotta Red, he offers up barely any details about himself or personal reflections. What sticks in our skulls after we listen isn’t information about him, it’s the shards of weirdly enunciated words, the mindlessly addictive mantras that provide a temporary release from the world’s stress and sadness. Carti knows better than any rapper right now that it’s not about what you say, but how you say it, about the textures you can forge when you bend and twist your voice beyond recognition.
“Stop Breathing” — produced by ssor.t, Lukrative, and F1lthy.
“On That Time” — produced by Ojivolta and F1lthy.
“JumpOutTheHouse” — produced by Richie Souf.
#1 - dltzk - "52 blue mondays" and "kodak moment" (tie)
The idea that teens are melodramatic is a popular myth in our culture; we see it in television shows and movies, the numerous stock tropes of the “annoying teen with overblown feels,” or the “emo kid” who no one takes seriously. After being fed these stereotypes of the hormonal overdramatic teen, we internalize the notion that our emotions are insignificant and trivial.
But in the moment, those sadnesses feel enormous. I remember curling up in my bed at 16, feeling psychic walls caving on me, brain buckling under an avalanche of friendship issues, crush worries, school problems, and hopelessness about the future. I wish I’d had dltzk’s “52 blue mondays” then. Its alloy of claustrophobia and catharsis is like a big fuck-you to high school self-hate: it uses sound as an escape mechanism against dread.
Jane’s solution to insecurity is to bury it under walls of sound. That’s what they do on “52 blue mondays,” incinerating their anxious voice and self-doubt in a whirlwind of static and rippling breakbeats. Despondency is a weapon in Jane’s nimble producer fingers; their tormented repetition of the phrase “can’t have no fun with no one,” moaning like someone staring off the edge of an abyss, leads perfectly into an explosion of electric chaos.
Less cramped but just as chaotic and cleansing, “kodak moment” unfurls like a movie with different acts. You can feel the progression since “52 blue mondays,” from a person overwhelmed with insecurities to someone who’s capable of making sense of it all. The song is not only genre-oscillating but makes a nonsense of genre divisions — you could consider it a bunch of micro-songs with myriad textures (emo rock, industrial bass music, utopian video game soundtrack) woven together. At over 6 minutes long it’s not fit for any auto-generated or curated Spotify playlist. It evades both cheap imitation and instant replayability. I need a gulp of air after I hear the main drop, which sounds like the best and worst thing ever happening at once — someone breaking your heart while you find out your dream college has accepted you.
The first time I listened to “kodak moment” and reached the song’s final passage — no vocals, no mayhem, just pastoral keys and bittersweet vibes — I was convinced it sampled Pokémon. It has the exact same sound palette, and Jane confirmed that the video game’s chiptuney soundtrack was an inspiration on this record. It’s such a sweet way to conclude a song marked with so much churning, angst, and head-banging brutality. It’s like settling in on the couch with loved ones after experiencing a world of hurt.