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2021 provided no shortage of terrifyingly dramatic ups and downs. And with that chaos usually comes the creative spark (and space) to shift paradigms, challenge the status quo, and chart the new normal.
We can often look to the world of music to chart these changes happening across the greater cultural landscape. And when those paradigm shifts make it all the way up the ladder to the very upper echelons of pop music, it’s all the more exciting. In short, we’re just really excited about a whole new crop of pop artists coming into the spotlight these days.
Here is our list of 2021’s most unexpected breakout songs, and why we love them.
Olivia Rodrigo – “drivers license”
While it may be hard to believe that Olivia Rodrigo was still a “breakout” artist little more than a year ago; nobody truly saw this one coming. Come on, a sad girl-indie ballad crossover pop song with confessional lyrics and an epic halftime piano breakdown in the chorus? It’s part musical theater geek part Goo Goo Dolls ’90s nostalgia spiritual transcendence. And yet, her meteoric rise to stardom is proof that this was a combination of influences and circumstances (see: TikTok ahem) that shot this song into the stratosphere and broke records in the process. This is THE breakout song of breakout songs. Rodrigo not only captured people’s hearts with this track, she eclipsed BTS’s record for most Spotify streams in a single week.
Since the release, Rodrigo has become a sensation, dropping her debut, and hitting the road on a sold out tour. Read our full analysis of “Drivers License” here.
PinkPantheress – “Break It Off”
A record deal with Elektra and an upcoming tour with Halsey are certainly signs of breakout success from London based PinkPantheress. So where is the unexpected? Citing emo and nu-metal bands like My Chemical Romance and Limp Bizkit as influences alongside Frank Ocean and K-Pop (mmmkay…), PinkPantheress has about as unique a sound as one could imagine in 100 years of pop music. The drum and bass/jungle influence of her London upbringing can be heard heavily throughout her production, and her music has been categorized as part of the newest wave of super trendy “hyper-pop” (although the verdict is still out on what this genre actually is). We’ll be listening closely.
Doechii – “Yucky Blucky Fruitcake”
Hailing from Tampa, FL, visionary Doechii broke ground in 2021 with her viral opus “Yucky Blucky Doechii” (although technically the song dropped in late 2020). The track went viral on TikTok in 2021 and garnered attention across media. If you listen to the song, you may start to gather why it’s an unexpected breakout hit.
Fusing the best of classic hip-hop and mumble rap with stabs of spoken word à la Janelle Monáe and neo-soul/RnB, “Yucky Blucky Fruitcake” covers a lot of ground musically. An incredibly stylistic rapper in her own right, Doechii masterfully flips her song 180°, to an ultra cool Tribe Called Quest style jazz beat halfway through.
The Kid LAROI – “STAY” (feat. Justin Bieber)
“STAY” has become more myth and meme than music, but it only belongs more on this list because of that. This song BLEW UP, due in part to its syncability and use in TikTok trends. Bolstered by a massive Justin Bieber feature, this song put The Kid LAROI on the map overnight in a big way. Although Charlton Kenneth Jeffrey Howard has been on the scene for a few years, his presence as an artist wasn’t felt until “STAY” dropped in 2021.
The song’s upbeat feel and extremely catchy hook(s) are infectious, while the song’s retro feel, soaring melody and unabashed youth (he’s still just 18!), earn it a spot on our list of unexpected breakout songs.
Måneskin – “ZITTI E BUONI”
Eurovision Song Contest winners, Måneskin hail from my homeland of Italy, and yes they sing in Italian, and just like the rich culture and artistic lineage of their nation, they have brought rock music and the high-fashion glamor associated with its Golden Age back in force. Even after the slew of unprecedented insanity the last two years have brought us, if I’d told you that an Italian classic rock band wearing latex from an East Village oddities shop would win Eurovision in 2021 you’d have told me to va’ fa Napoli!
Following crowd-favorite performances on tele and a minor drug-related controversy (since debunked and thoroughly hedonistic) the band have released a slew of chart-toppers. Nothing, however, has overshot the raw power of their mainstream debut, Eurovision clincher and breakout track “Zitti E Buoni” (translated: “Shut up and behave”). The song is unabashedly hard rock albeit original, hailing from Valhalla and speckled with influences ranging from the Hindenburg to Steven Tyler’s scarves, without ever drifting into the realm of “nostalgia-rock” that boils up every couple of years (see also: The Darkness, Jet, Greta Van Fleet).
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Muni Long – “Hrs and Hrs”
Before 2021, only dedicated RnB fans would have known the dynamic work of Priscilla Renea Hamilton, now known as Muni Long. With a career dating back to 2009, Hamilton found success as a songwriter, working with artists like Rihanna, Fifth Harmony, and Ariana Grande. She took her current pseudonym and returned to releasing music as a solo artist in 2019. Long’s style is sophisticated neo-soul. The kind of music that feels like electric maple syrup on a bright winter’s morning. We could listen for hours and hours…
GAYLE – “abcdefu”
Released in 2021, GAYLE’s major label debut “abcdefu” has become an anthem around the world. Even as of this writing, the song is still climbing global charts. Hailing from Nashville, GAYLE inked a deal with Atlantic records and scored her first smash right out of the gate. “Abc” was released after a clever bit of TikTok trickery. GAYLE put out feelers for song ideas, and received a reply from a follower to try writing a break-up song using the alphabet.
Fun fact: That person who left the comment totally works at Atlantic records, so I’m giving this one brownie points for 1) actually being a great breakout song, and 2) incredible marketing.
You can’t deny how savage this song is top to bottom. Given that the guitar-heavy track peaked at #3, and featuring no less than nine F-bombs, “abcdefu” was certainly an unexpected smash. Had “drivers license” not stormed into 2021 headfirst, this one would top the list.
Emmy Meli – “I AM WOMAN”
After a viral TikTok video, American singer, Emmy Meli’s first release cracked about every major music chart, reaching #28 on the Billboard’s Top 40 US Mainstream. This is no small feat for an artist previously unsigned with just five self-released singles under her belt. Emmy’s song is unexpected because it breaks from the status quo of anthemic female pop in the modern era. This song is more reminiscent of Helen Reddy than it is of modern pop champions.
Featuring a rotary speaker guitar riff and vocal free from hard limiting or any semblance of overproduction, “I AM WOMAN” is an unexpected breakout from start to finish. And it kills.
KennyHoopla & Travis Barker – “hollywood sucks//”
KennyHoopla aka Kenneth La’ron, was already making noise throughout 2019 and ’20. However, a collaboration with Blink-182 drummer and mega producer Travis Barker took things to an entirely different level. The release took La’ron on the road opening for Yungblud and rapper-turned alt icon, Machine Gun Kelly. Leaning more heavily into the pop-punk revival stylings of his collaborators past and present, La’ron can be heard belting a tongue-in-cheek chorus that roasts the city of angels in truly irreverent fashion.
Avril Lavigne – “Bite Me”
Following years of less-than-rousing adult contemporary music, and an interesting collab with new beau, MODSUN, noughties icon Avril Lavigne blew everyone’s Vans off when she dropped “Bite Me,” a sub-three-minute burner that awakened the echoes of angsty, nostalgic heart-spillage for an entire generation. Hearing Lavigne default back to the sound of her peak years couldn’t have come at a better time, with the continued insurgency of pop-punk and emo-influenced alternative infiltrating charts everywhere.
Don’t stop here!
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