Last Thursday, Billboard put a cap on the year that was with the release of the 2021 year-end charts — aggregating metrics for each artist, title, label and music contributor on the weekly charts dated Nov. 21, 2020, through Nov. 13, 2021, and reflecting equivalent album units, airplay, sales or streaming during the weeks that the titles appeared on a respective chart during the tracking year, based on info from MRC Data.
Arguably the main event of year-end chart season, the year-end Billboard Hot 100 was topped for the first time in 20 years by a song that did not rule the Hot 100 at any point on the weekly rankings: Dua Lipa’s “Levitating,” which topped out at No. 2 in May. It was followed by two songs from The Weeknd originally found on his 2020 blockbuster set After Hours, “Save Your Tears” (in its duet version with Ariana Grande) at No. 2 and “Blinding Lights” (which also topped the 2020 year-end Hot 100 and was recently named the No. 1 Hot 100 single of all-time) at No. 3. The top 5 is rounded out by 24kGoldn’s “Mood,” featuring iann dior, at No. 4, and Olivia Rodrigo’s “Good 4 U” at No. 5.
How appropriate a year-end No. 1 is “Levitating”? And who might dominate the year-end Hot 100 listing for 2022? Billboard staffers discuss these questions and more below.
1. Dua Lipa’s “Levitating” closes the year as our No. 1 Hot 100 song. On a scale from 1-10, how appropriate a 2021 representative do you think the song is as the top hit of the year?
Lyndsey Havens: 10. For better and worse, it has two key components of a 2021 hit: it arrived at the peak of the pandemic, offering sweet relief in the form of a bouncy, dance floor-ready escapist anthem (“If you want to run away with me, I know a galaxy and I can take you for a ride,” sings Lipa), and it had a brief encounter with controversy thanks to its remix featuring DaBaby, who this year was pulled from several festival performances following homophobic remarks. But what helped launch this song to the top of our year-end tally is the swift course-correction from team Lipa (who condemned the rapper’s words), radio programmers (who reverted to playing the original version) and fans (who pleaded for Lipa to remove DaBaby altogether) that saved it from plummeting — and helped it continue to levitate all these months later.
Jason Lipshutz: A 7. After Dua Lipa helped kick off the nu-disco movement last year — a year in which we all needed to dance the lockdown away — with Future Nostalgia, the trend has persisted in 2021 in hits like “Butter” by BTS and “Kiss Me More” by Doja Cat and SZA, as well as on The Weeknd’s various retro-leaning smashes. Meanwhile, “Levitating” became a radio juggernaut this year, and overtook hits like “Don’t Start Now” and “New Rules” to become Lipa’s signature song, a testament to both her new standing as a pop A-lister as well as a cultural moment in need of some carefree tunes.
Kristin Robinson: I was tempted to say it was not representative because “Levitating” came out in 2020, but this is actually in line with what MRC Data noted in its mid-year report this year. According to MRC Data, 66.4% of total album consumption in the US is made up of music released over 18 months prior to when the user pressed play. Though “Levitating” wasn’t quite that old for most of 2021, it still falls in line with that trend which was up significantly from 60.8% of so-called “catalog” listening from MRC’s mid-year report in 2018. For this reason, I’d give “Levitating” a 6 on the scale of appropriateness.
Andrew Unterberger: 6. Obviously the song was massive all year — rare was the hour of 2021 you could flip channels and not hear it somewhere — but its disco flavorings did make a little more sense in 2020, when it was flanked on the airwaves by similarly strobe-lit hits from Doja Cat, Harry Styles and Lady Gaga & Ariana Grande. As The Weeknd found with the slightly underwhelming (by his stratospheric standards) reception to this year’s “Take My Breath,” the ’79 flashbacks didn’t always play quite as well in ’21.
Christine Werthman: If every Olivia Rodrigo song is a 10 on the 2021 representative scale, Dua Lipa’s “Levitating” is a 6. It’s solidly a 2020 song, considering the album and remix release dates (The Blessed Madonna in August 2020 and DaBaby in October 2020), but it remained top of mind — and in the top 40 — for much of 2021, thanks to the Grammys performance with DaBaby in March and a healthy TikTok boost. “Levitating” spent 41 weeks in the top 10, only reaching its No. 2 peak in May of this year. Though it never reached No. 1, it played the long game ,and hit the top spot when it mattered. The metrics make sense, but it’s still a surprise. I look forward to losing a round of trivia one day when asked what the No. 1 song of 2021 was and putting down “Drivers License.”
2. The Weeknd has two of the three biggest hits of the year with “Blinding Lights” (No. 3) and “Save Your Tears” (No. 2) — both songs whose chart runs started prior to 2021. Which artist do you think could have a major impact on the 2022 year-end chart with songs that are already out (or will be out by the end of the year)?
Lyndsey Havens: Yes “All Too Well (Taylor’s Version)” is 10 minutes long, and yet that hasn’t stopped me from playing it repeatedly — and I don’t imagine tiring of it any time soon. I imagine Swift’s stans feel even more confident in that assessment, allowing me to believe it has a chance of having a major impact on the 2022 year-end chart. But perhaps the more obvious example here is Adele with “Easy On Me,” which holds its top spot on the Hot 100 this week for a sixth frame — and is starting to become a dominant force at radio, too.
Jason Lipshutz: The most obvious answer is Adele, right? Considering that the Hot 100 reign of “Easy On Me” isn’t letting up, and that 30 has just arrived with a handful of potential singles to carry into 2022, I wouldn’t be surprised to see multiple Adele songs in the top 10 of next year’s year-end Hot 100. Let the cultural domination of “Can I Get It” commence!
Kristin Robinson: I think Olivia Rodrigo and Lil Nas X still have some hits up their sleeve to pivot to. Rodrigo’s Geffen label could continue to push “Traitor” and “Brutal” from Rodrigo’s SOUR in the new year, and Lil Nas X’s “SCOOP” featuring radio queen Doja Cat could still have some legs. Speaking of, I also wouldn’t count Doja Cat out for pulling more radio singles from Planet Her.
Andrew Unterberger: His album isn’t even out yet, but let’s not forget that the last time Roddy Ricch released a full-length project at the end of a calendar year — Please Excuse Me For Being Antisocial in Dec. 2019 — it ended up having an enormous chart impact on the next year’s charts, including Hot 100-topper “The Box” finishing at No. 3 on the 2020 year-end listing. With sophomore set Live Life Fast due on Dec. 17, it would hardly be shocking to see the star rapper do so again for 2022.
Christine Werthman: Adele will rule the 2022 year-end chart. All 12 songs from 30 are currently on the Hot 100, and the 12-week, 24-show Las Vegas residency she just announced that kicks off in January is going to keep the momentum going.
3. Is there a song on this year-end Hot 100 whose ranking feels surprisingly low to you, given how big an impact you felt it had on the year?
Lyndsey Havens: Tate McRae’s “You Broke Me First” (No. 37) and Gabby Barrett with Charlie Puth’s “I Hope” (No. 40) both feel as though they have been unavoidable hits for a long time; as such, I thought the length of time since their release would benefit their year-end chart placement a bit more. Also, as a huge Billie Eilish fan, I’m slightly surprised to see “Happier Than Ever” come in at No. 94 (?!). While I’m led to believe timing worked against the track (it arrived halfway through the year), along with the less-than-conventional song structure, I thought Eilish’s star power and the way in which “Happier” riffs off the popularized pop-rock sound that dominated the year would have given it more of a boost.
Jason Lipshutz: “My Ex’s Best Friend” by Machine Gun Kelly and blackbear may come in at No. 23 on the year-end tally; part of the reason why it’s outside of the top 20 in 2021 can be chalked up to its release way back in August 2020. Yet you’d be hard-pressed to find a hit as impactful to the sonic DNA of popular music as “Ex,” a pop-punk anthem informed by hip-hop production that is already serving as a blueprint to a new generation of rock-crossover hopefuls. Meanwhile, Machine Gun Kelly is an A-list musical act at this point — and that’s not solely due to “My Ex’s Best Friend,” but his biggest hit is a big reason for that.
Kristin Robinson: “Beggin’” by Maneskin! This song enjoyed such massive success on pop radio and its hook was etched in my brain. Though its success was in the latter part of 2021, it felt so ubiquitous. I wouldn’t expect that to rank lower than the yawn-worthy Justin Bieber single “Lonely.” I also think “Essence” at No. 60 is quite surprising. I suppose the Bieber boost came a little later in the year (August 2021), but this was another song which had an indelible impact on music in 2021. I expected it in be in the top 30 at least.
Andrew Unterberger: No shame in coming in at No. 8 on a year-end Hot 100, certainly — but from the moment it began skyrocketing upon launch in January, I would’ve bet the farm on “Drivers License” ending up the year-end No. 1. Fact is, though that song burned as bright as any other song this year, it didn’t quite burn as long as some of 2021’s other crossover smashes — possibly due to Rodrigo herself putting it in her rearview, with the release of a couple harder-edged and similarly successful follow-ups.
Christine Werthman: I thought that Billie Eilish’s “Happier Than Ever” would’ve been higher than No. 94. It came out alongside a video the same day as her sophomore album of the same name, on July 30, 2021, and it now has nearly 118 million views. Granted, “Therefore I Am,” which is No. 25 on this year-end list, has been out since November 2020, and the video currently has more than 188 million views, so perhaps “Happier” just didn’t have enough time to cook.
4. Outside of the couple Weeknd songs, are there any songs whose presence on the list seems unbelievable, because it feels like they came out a decade ago at this point?
Lyndsey Havens: “You Broke Me First” definitely fits into this category for me, as does “Mood” by 24kGoldn and Iann Dior. But kudos to these teens for crafting such sticky hits that might just be able to stand the test of time.
Jason Lipshutz: Two Pop Smoke songs from 2020 appearing in the top 40 of the 2021 year-end Hot 100 is almost as mind-boggling as… his 2020 posthumous album, Shoot For the Stars Aim For the Moon, cracking the top 10 of the 2021 year-end Billboard 200 chart. We’ve arguably never seen a posthumous album resonate the way that this one has over the past year-and-a-half, and while “What You Know Bout Love” and “For The Night” feel like they’re from a long-distant past at this point (especially considering the fact that a second posthumous Pop Smoke album, Faith, came out this year), they remained inescapable on hip-hop radio in 2021.
Kristin Robinson: I’m surprised “Lemonade” by Internet Money maintained the No. 51 spot on the list in 2021. It came out in the summer of 2020, and I thought its virality and buzz mostly went down by the end of last year. I guess this is just a testament to how good that Don Toliver hook is (and perhaps how little I paid attention to the song’s ongoing success)!
Andrew Unterberger: If you asked me which song came out first, Ava Max’s “Kings and Queens” or 30 Seconds to Mars’ “Kings and Queens”… I’d say Ava Max. But I’d have to think about it for a second.
Christine Werthman: Going to go with No. 97, “Throat Baby (Go Baby).” Truly thought for a minute that that came out in 2019, when in fact BRS Kash released it in July 2020.
5. Just looking at the list’s top 10 or top 20 songs at a glance, do you think they tell you anything interesting about the current state of pop music on the whole — or at least where it’s been the past 12 months?
Lyndsey Havens: To me, the top 10 indicates pop music’s prioritizing of danceable, retro-synth hits (“Levitating,” “Blinding Lights”), smart songwriting and big bridges (“Drivers License,” “Leave the Door Open”) and rock riffs as a song’s backbone (“Mood,” “Good 4 U”). While I think the desire to dance may fade a bit into 2022 — as we continue to receive all the songs about how artists really felt through the pandemic — that will crack open a need for continued vulnerability in lyrics, which oddly enough is a staple in many of pop-punk’s biggest hits… a genre I think we’ll be seeing even more of into the new year.
Jason Lipshutz: The year-end top 20 lays out exactly how much R&B is impacting popular music right now. Daniel Caesar, Giveon, SZA and Anderson .Paak were all major parts of songs that finished in the top 10 of 2021; Ariana Grande’s Positions album opted for a more rhythmic direction and yielded two of the biggest hits of the year; and down the list a little, a straight-ahead R&B single like Giveon’s “Heartbreak Anniversary” becoming the 31st biggest song of 2021 suggests that these songs don’t necessarily have to interlope with pop to cross over. This is an exciting moment for R&B fans, and I’m guessing it will continue into 2022.
Kristin Robinson: Like I said in my first answer, catalog streaming (streaming songs that are over 18 months old) is certainly a growing trend and this list reflects that. In my opinion, this is partially fueled by increased nostalgia during a tough pandemic year, but I also think the streaming era just allows users to explore all kinds of music, including older cuts, way easier than before.
Andrew Unterberger: Stars have always ruled the day on the Hot 100, but it feels like perhaps more than in recent memory, pop’s walls are up at the highest levels to the fluky, one-off smashes. Of the 20 highest songs on the year-end chart this year, only three are by artists you wouldn’t necessarily call reliable pop hitmakers at this point — “Mood” (24kGoldn & iann dior) at No. 4, “Heat Waves” (Glass Animals) at No. 16, and “Astronaut in the Ocean” (Masked Wolf) at No. 20. TikTok has had some success in making top 40 a little more accessible for less-established artists — and indeed, all three of those songs listed benefited from its influence heavily — but for the gatekeepers at radio and streaming, it’s still proven stars who come first, second and third.
Christine Werthman: Last year, we had Roddy Ricch’s “The Box,” DaBaby feat. Roddy Ricch’s “Rockstar” and Future feat. Drake’s “Life Is Good” all in the top 10, but this year, there’s not a track up there that I’d point to and call the definitive Hot 100 rap single of the year. I don’t think this is a sign that rap is losing steam, but I do think it shows that listeners were more drawn to music with a gentler, sing-songy vibe, like on “Kiss Me More,” “Peaches” and “Mood.” The only songs in the top 10 that really break with that are “Drivers License” and “Good 4 U,” one a ballad and the other a pop-punk revival, and both coming from the same artist. But Roddy Ricch is releasing his sophomore album this month, so maybe he will usher in a grand rap return in 2022.