The global tropical cyclone (TC) number has historically been relatively constant from year-to-year, however, the reason remains unknown. Furthermore, climate projections are inconclusive regarding future global TC frequency changes. Here, we investigated years in which observed global TC activity deviated from the mean and potential links to ocean drivers from 1980 to 2021. We found that the annual global number of named storm days and accumulated cyclone energy (ACE) were significantly linked with El Niño–Southern Oscillation (ENSO) and the Atlantic Meridional Mode (AMM). La Niña and positive AMM are associated with the bottom percentiles of both TC metrics, and vice versa for El Niño and negative AMM. The ENSO Longitude Index explains variability in annual global named storm days and ACE as well as the Niño 3.4 index. This research reveals that reliable future projections of ENSO are necessary, but not sufficient, to understand future changes in global TC frequency.