Song of the summer 2021: our writers pick their favourite tracks

From Olivia Rodrigo to Leon Bridges to Bo Burnham, Guardian critics recommend their most played songs of the season

Chvrches feat Robert Smith – How Not to Drown

The unstintingly boppy Chvrches take a darker turn while paying due deference to goth godfather Robert Smith in this near wholesale homage to the Cure from their forthcoming fourth album. Over the past year I’ve spent a lot of time mooning to music in my bedroom, just as I did as a sullen teen, and this song brings me right back there, with hints of Garbage, the Cranberries and Duran Duran’s Come Undone.

A driving piano and synth beats cushion singer Lauren Mayberry’s melancholic entreaties, while Smith’s amazingly preserved voice comes through as clearly as it did some 30 years ago with The Cure’s masterpiece Disintegration, which Chvrches have cited as a major influence. (However, Smith should heed the song’s own advice, as Mayberry’s childlike voice drowns him out a bit on the chorus.) Keep your hot girl summer – it’s sad boi season all the way for me. Lisa Wong Macabasco

Megan Thee Stallion – Thot Shit

So many things have changed from last summer to this, shaped by the arc of the pandemic, but one thing remains the same: Megan Thee Stallion’s ability to stir the world with the wildest song of the warm season. In 2020, her song Savage, featuring Beyonce in the remix, captured whatever fun could be had in that dim year’s sun. Thot Shit does it one better, with smart lyrics that redefine the snide term thot (“that ho over there”) as a point of pride. To fully inhabit the lyrics, Megan spits them in her unhinged Tina Snow persona, reveling in lines like “Damn, I don’t brag enough” and “I stop at every mirror / Just to stare at my own posterior”. The song’s hilarious video adds a smart allusion to the movie Fight Club and shows off a some visuals that would make Sir Mix-A-Lot explode. Sexy, bright, and liberating, Thot packs just the punch this return-to-life summer needs. Jim Farber

Leon Bridges – Motorbike

Rather like Ginuwine with his pony, Leon Bridges invites you to ride his motorbike, and it’s likely he doesn’t just mean his new Royal Enfield. But sat on a beat that gently putters like a bike engine, with the gorgeous, warm arrangement gently streaming by, he genuinely makes you feel like you’re motoring through a thick summer’s evening. The soft heat of those hours often feels erotic and alive with possibility, and Bridges conjures those summer nights so palpably, when it feels like the world has narrowed to two people. The Gold-Diggers Sound album this is taken from – out 23 July – is one of the best soul and R&B releases of the year, and suffused with that same warmth even as it shifts focus to songs about breakups or civil rights. Ben Beaumont-Thomas

Dawn Richard – Boomerang

With its grainy vocoder intro, smooth harmonies, ringing whistles, and pulsing beat, Dawn Richard’s Boomerang is designed for dancing. The disco-inspired track references Michael Jackson through Richard’s high-energy ad libs and callouts – with Richard’s euphoric verses and chorus adding to its irresistible joy.

Whether you’re working out, running weekend errands, or cleaning up around the house, the track is guaranteed to make you want to move. And with its lyrics speaking of a love that keeps returning to Richard and she happily welcomes each time it reappears, the song offers a promising message that’s only rivaled by its bouncing production. Richard describes her latest album Second Line as an electric revival. And Boomerang embodies the theme, making for a summer song revival that’ll have you coming back to the track like a boom boom all season long. Treye Green

Bo Burnham – All Eyes on Me

For months of lockdown, I imagined the song of my summer would be a banger, something glittery and euphoric, soundtrack to rooftop drinks and nights spinning on the dancefloor. Instead I found myself pacing the streets to All Eyes on Me, the emotional climax of comedian Bo Burnham’s virtuosic Netflix special Inside. As it did for many very online people, Burnham’s special hit me in a visceral, desperate way. All Eyes on Me is a send-up of a Kanye-esque audience participation upper performed to an empty attic room, invocations of “put your fucking hands up” spliced with Burnham’s reflections on panic attacks and his inauspicious return to performance in 2020. The song slaps; there’s a reason it’s the first comedy title to hit Billboard’s global charts. Again and again, I’ve been drawn to its ending, sung through a distorted auto-tone, as if Burnham’s voice is the beckon of oblivion: “You say the ocean’s rising, like I give a shit / You say the whole world’s ending, honey, it already did / You’re not gonna slow it, heaven knows you tried / Got it? Good, now get inside.” It feels like catharsis, like submitting to depression but also coming alive, like returning to what was normal and finding yourself changed. Adrian Horton

Remi Wolf feat Dominic Fike – Photo ID

Remi Wolf’s acid pop-funk sizzles like a pavement hot enough to fry an egg on, powered by a dialled-up intensity that teeters between bug-eyed mania and uninhibited euphoria. That’s the Californian musician’s theme on Photo ID (which technically came out last year, though a fresh remix with Dominic Fike pushed it back onto playlists): she’s having one of those days where she’s lost everything, her lover’s being a shit and nothing’s going right – but then perhaps there’s a kind of freedom in losing your keys and your mind along with them. Although it vibrates at a different frequency, there’s something of Len’s sublime one-hit wonder Steal My Sunshine in Photo ID’s seamless brew of G-funk, yacht rock and Wolf’s own goofball energy, manifest in an addictive chorus that demands to be sung in a way that shows every tooth in your mouth at once. Laura Snapes

Olivia Rodrigo – good 4 u

It’s safe to say that 2021 is the year of Olivia Rodrigo, so it stands to reason it’s the summer of Olivia Rodrigo, too. While the artist of the moment is currently dominating the charts with a bevy of bops, her emotive manifesto in the form of good 4 u sounds tailor-made for a hot and sweaty summer. With its angsty build-up that explodes into a hooky chorus, the track has the ability to coerce even the most skeptical Rodrigo believer; its journey perfect for a sweltering season which is also doubling as a moody return to normalcy.

Does it kind of sound like a Paramore B-side? Sure, whatever. Keep in mind, we’re currently in the midst of the golden age of throwback culture and we should proudly accept Rodrigo as Gen Z’s sort-of Hayley Williams. Plus, when’s the last time we heard actual instruments dominate pop music? For further proof of the shooting star’s rise, just ask Rodrigo’s latest stan: Joe Biden, with the president recently inviting her to the White House to help raise vaccine awareness. Good for her. Rob LeDonne

grandson and Jessie Reyez – Rain

There’s something thrillingly uncool about grandson and Jessie Reyez’s slick, swaggering Rain, a track more suited to being named song of the summer about two decades ago. It’s got the bombastic feel of something that would have played out a Joel Schumacher-directed Batman movie; big and not that clever but loud, emotive and incredibly effective. It’s taken from James Gunn’s upcoming The Suicide Squad, an old-fashioned “from the motion picture soundtrack” anthem with scrawled-in-your-teenage-bedroom emo lyrics that are as equally stuck in the past. But as simple as its message might be (“I do not mind the rain sometimes ‘cause that’s the only way the roses bloom”), there’s something charming about its full-throated earnestness, especially as the pair go from singing to screaming as it reaches its frantic all-guns-blazing climax. It’s enough to make me spend the rest of the summer glued to MTV waiting for their (probably rain-drenched, definitely movie clip inter-spliced) video so that I can record and rewatch while bemoaning my parents who just don’t get it. Benjamin Lee

Naika – For Gerard

In this tarried pandemic, any form of escapism is welcomed (though, Jones Beach, try as it might, simply cannot compare to the warm aquamarine waters of the Caribbean). But with the Caribbean Sea unavailable to me, songstress Naïka has supplied a summer morning vibe with For Gerard.

For Gerard is an ancestral duet for the French Haitian chanteuse, having sampled her great uncle’s melodic, almost avian-like whistling for the song. The ethereal, consanguineous track layers the whistling over rhythmic drums and a hypnotic bass with Naïka’s high but gentle vocals matched by the soft strings.

With lovestruck lyrics over the breezy beat, it all creates a distinctly tropical song, reminiscent of being serenaded awake by tropical birds, a soft sunrise only obstructed by palm-fronded shade and fine sand under your feet. Ebullient like the midday sun, the song is equal parts hip swinging and carefree, which is just the summer I want. Dream McClinton

Contributors

Lisa Wong Macabasco, Jim Farber, Ben Beaumont-Thomas, Treye Green, Adrian Horton, Laura Snapes, Rob LeDonne, Benjamin Lee and Dream McClinton

The GuardianTramp

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