NPR Music's 100 Best Songs of 2021 (80-61)
"Only here to sin." That admission from NPR Music's song of the year lies at the heart of many of the stories told across these 100 tracks. Perhaps the crowning of Cardi and Megan's "WAP" last year signaled a transgressive sea change. Maybe, after 20 months behind masks, we felt like revealing ourselves again. Perhaps we kept some truths concealed during dire straits, so as not to appear frivolous (or feral) in the face of unforgiving circumstance. But in the songs ... booties were called. Muffins were buttered. Revenge was contemplated. In other words, we could be human again, and it felt good to be back. It's our sincere hope that as you make your way through our 7-hour playlist of the year's 100 best songs, you'll feel the same. If you find yourself losing steam or feeling down or wondering when things will finally turn around, feel free to skip the rest of "All Too Well." (Jk, Taylor!) (Oh, and you can find our 50 Best Albums of 2021 here.)
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Tyler, The Creator (feat. YoungBoy Never Broke Again & Ty Dolla $ign)
Tyler, the Creator doesn't care if he's coming on strong on "WUSYANAME," a soulful track where the formerly trollish artist indulges in a sweet sincerity. He and his love interest aren't even properly acquainted yet, and he's already asking to share secrets and take overseas trips. The excited, new-crush energy of "WUSYANAME" conveys that feeling of locking eyes with someone and accidentally finding yourself fantasizing about marriage and babies. A sample of H-Town's 1994 R&B jam "Back Seat (Wit No Sheets)" and angelic ad-libs by Ty Dolla $ign make it all the more sentimental. —Nastia Voynovskaya, KQED
Lithuanian National Symphony Orchestra
Not every picture tells a story. Some canvasses evoke moods and memories instead of narrative. That's the case in music too. Saudade, by Lithuanian composer Žibuoklė Martinaitytė, is a masterful example. The title refers to mixed feelings of nostalgia and muted joy. Martinaitytė translates that into sound, manipulating the symphony orchestra to capture texture, color and light. Brass players produce eerie calls by blowing and singing into their instruments. Percussionists place cymbals atop the timpani for a glistening effect. The music, like strong waves of emotion, swells in giant crests of pealing brass and soaring strings before returning to repose. —Tom Huizenga
Yotuel, Gente De Zona, Descemer Bueno, Maykel Osorbo and El Funky
"Patria y Vida"
Maykel "Osorbo" Castillo has been imprisoned in Pinar del Río since May, charged, according to pro-government outlet Cubadebate, with "crimes of attack, public disorder, and escape of prisoners or detainees." Earlier this year, Osorbo co-wrote a song that altered the revolution slogan "patria o muerte" to "homeland and life." It has since lived many lives on and off the island after July's demonstrations protesting food scarcity and medicine shortages as the pandemic surged gained international attention, as well the artist's movement organizing in the name of free expression, of which Osorbo is a member. "¿Quién le dijo que Cuba es de ustedes? / Si mi Cuba es de toda mi gente," Randy Malcom of Gente de Zona asks. Reality and the future will always be more difficult to hold than the words we ascribe to it, harder to honor than the interests of politicians in Cuba or in the U.S, but art asks its listeners to try. —Stefanie Fernández
Meet Me @ The Altar
"Hit Like A Girl"
Sure, fine, yes: This was the year pop-punk reentered the mainstream, not filtered through SoundCloud rap's purple haze or Philly indie's basement fuzz but sounding roughly as it did when most media left it for dead a decade ago. And yet, for all the high-gloss bratitude that zoomed through the culture in 2021, much of it felt like moonlighting — a cluster of fun, one-off genre experiments by artists whose bread is buttered elsewhere. A toast, then, to Meet Me @ The Altar: three musicians just old enough to remember the last wave firsthand, who can sing and play better than many of their forebears, and whose commitment to the studded-belt sound appears devout and all-consuming. On the page, "Hit Like a Girl" is a flurry of fists-up hashtags, and in less capable hands it might fizzle. The juice here is in the execution — the command of melody and volume, the bottled subtext of dismissed and diminished voices seizing the mic at last and the walloping chops to put those instincts to work. —Daoud Tyler-Ameen
"Ship Of Theseus"
Zao didn't plan a WandaVision tie-in, but the MCU coincidence didn't hurt. The Ship of Theseus is a thought puzzle developed by ancient Greek philosophers, essentially asking if a ship rebuilt from new planks is still the same ship. In WandaVision's season finale, the question allows for an emotional eureka; for Zao, "Ship of Theseus" serves as a ripping statement of re-purpose. True, the decades-spanning metal band has no original members, but a track like this one — featuring Daniel Weyandt's ferocious bark over stuttered and swirling riffs — honors Zao's heritage while braving unknown waters. —Lars Gotrich
Mexican singer-songwriter Silvana Estrada is on an intimate level with the Spanish language, which means the cadence of the lyrics of "Marchita'' are just as important as the message of a lost love. "Marchita" is a quiet meditation on the lyrical and musical poetry of the conditional tense, and is a master class in how to say so much with so little. Coupled with the stark instrumentation of Mexican folk instruments augmented by a string quartet, the song becomes the mark of a fully developed artist. —Felix Contreras
There's a touching backstory to this euphoric song by former EDM wunderkind-turned-hyperpop auteur Porter Robinson about falling back in love with making bangers after a festival-sized bout of self-doubt. While teenage stardom isn't exactly the most relatable background, his irrational obsession with music — and the joy he feels producing it — will strike a chord with anyone who can't stop, won't stop. "This is why we do it, for the feeling," Robinson belts out, his voice pitched up and poignant. And what better way to express that exuberance than that sample of Rob Base and DJ E-Z Rock's "It Takes Two"? —Otis Hart
Percussion ensembles tend to be populated by white men. So the four young women of color who founded the group Recap in 2020 are, by definition, shifting the percussion paradigm. Their distinctive debut album, Count to Five, features works by six women composers and is anchored by Hedera, a mesmerizing, 20-minute piece by Lesley Flanigan. Thunderous bass drums and tom-toms predominate, delivering an oscillating groove over which the composer's voice floats like "clouds of pitch," as she told NPR. Like ivy, to which the word "hedera" refers, the music's roving tendrils wrap themselves around you. [This review originally appeared in NPR Music's #NowPlaying series.] —Tom Huizenga
The year in electronic music started on a mournful note with the loss of SOPHIE in January. Throughout her short-lived career, the producer and artist found herself straddling the line between abrasive industrial sounds and shiny bubblegum pop music, often blending the two together on a single track. Her final song came two days before her death in the form of "UNISIL," a pounding, galvanic B-side from her earlier 2015 compilation, PRODUCT. As the last release from a once-in-a-lifetime talent, the track stands as a reminder of the artist and potential art we lost. —Reanna Cruz
This is and ain't the Daniel Bachman we've grown to admire. In the past decade, Bachman has grown past his fingerstyle guitar roots and, much like his early mentor Jack Rose, moved with and beyond the instrument's reach. "Coronach," a heavy keening composed and played on a 12-string acoustic, may sound in line with his guitar soli oeuvre, but is sandwiched between gurgles of radio static ("WBRP 4.75") and noisy field recordings ("Deep Adaptation") near Axacan's end. Over its nine minutes, the piece wades through mud and blood like the atavistic drones that surround it, but steels itself with hard-struck strings in a desperate triumph to pull beauty from the muck. —Lars Gotrich
Leave it to Cardi B to turn a brutal takedown of haters and rivals into a good time. Rhyming "uh-gu-ly" with "f*** on me," she turns misperceptions of her into jokes, and fires back with 10 times the ammo. At two and a half minutes, "Up" is a quick hit of dopamine, with a repetitive hook that gives booties no choice but to bounce (no wonder it blew up via TikTok dance). The song is all super ego, and its lyrical audaciousness makes you want to double back and listen again. —Nastia Voynovskaya, KQED
"F*** Him All Night"
Whether you love or hate her, you can't deny that Azealia Banks knows her way around a beat. At its core, the aptly-named "F*** Him All Night" is very simple, composed of a minimal Galcher Lustwerk drum and synth under Banks' bouncy flow; the magic lies in the relationship between the two. Banks has always excelled on top of house beats, and as she dances around lines that range from the explosively sexual to the suggestively seductive ("I'm high like Sharon Stone in Casino"), the track bears similarity to her classic "212" — both in eternal catchiness and replay potential. —Reanna Cruz
Durand Jones & The Indications
I dare you to play this song just once. It's impossible. The popcorn bass and effervescent synthesizers build on each other to form a double-helix of groove. Aaron Frazer's falsetto insinuates itself, the sexiest of earworms. Durand Jones adds heft with his deeper singing and party-starting shout of a chorus. The lights at the roller disco swirl — to stop now would be to risk falling on your butt. The only thing to do is press repeat and spin around the rink again. —Ann Powers
The Baylor Project (feat. Dianne Reeves & Jazzmeia Horn)
No one parties harder than married musical duo The Baylor Project (singer Jean and drummer Marcus Baylor) on "We Swing (The Cypher)." A festive celebration of the jazz tradition, this high energy tune features acclaimed vocalists Jazzmeia Horn and Dianne Reeves. Along with Jean Baylor, they deliver a masterclass in scatting, the improvisatory jazz expression of freedom in song. With phenomenal displays of vocal capacity, range and a richness in sound, each woman offers an exceptional interpretation of the verse and the hook — "Why must we swing so hard?" The answer? Because they can and they do it so well. —Suraya Mohamed
Tion Wayne x Russ Millions (feat. ArrDee, E1, ZT, Bugzy Malone, Buni, Fivio Foreign & Darkoo)
I know what you're thinking: Nine names? Yep, and that's just on this one remix of Tion Wayne and Russ Million's chart-topping drill track. There are four more mixes that hit almost as hard, thanks to the one man missing from the metadata, U.K. drill producer Gotcha. His behemoth sub-bass also powered Wayne and Russ's last rendezvous on the Official Charts, 2019's "Keisha & Becky (Remix)," which had four features of its own. The short of it is: Everyone wants a piece when these two London drill stars put their heads together. Throw in a viral verse about unprotected sex, and you've got the first drill track to hit No. 1 on the pop charts. —Otis Hart
Robert Plant & Alison Krauss
"Go Your Way"
Songwriter and folk revivalist Anne Briggs recorded this abandoned lover's lament in 1971 as a hauntingly spare invocation of a pastoral Great Britain. This standout from Raise the Roof, the harmonizing Plant and Krauss' first album in 14 years, expands the song's musical frame as a way of distilling the calm of its loneliness. Over a strings-driven, keyboard-sparkled arrangement that recalls the psychedelic-era Beatles, Plant delivers a restrained and deeply emotional lead vocal with deft occasional support from Krauss. He is the fool on the hill, knowing his yearning is pointless but still laying out meals and mash notes for the one who will never return. This is heartache as a route to enlightenment. —Ann Powers
Lana Del Rey
To Lana Del Rey, white America is an ethnic concept, and she its best anthropologist. Whereas the soap-operatic stuff of her past albums glorified a whirly mythology of American artifacts — the cigarettes, the Mustangs, the old Hollywood despondencies — "White Dress" is a diaristic dispatch far closer to reality. Her ballad to making it as a 19-year-old waitress in Orlando — serving people probably less of the quail-and-mint-jelly sort and more like the Western-omelet-and-Sysco-muffin type — makes this a version of Del Rey with an uncanny update, yet still entirely the Del Rey we know: ultra-mundane and eternally out-of-time. Whenever her vape crackles on the track's maudlin instrumental bridge, I return to the thought that American Studies scholars would be remiss to not include her on forthcoming syllabi. —Mina Tavakoli
Doja Cat (feat. SZA)
"Kiss Me More"
The trend forecasts were right: The bleakness of sheltering in place gave way to a post-vaccine maximalism, and the glittering aesthetics of the '70s made a comeback in 2021. "Kiss Me More" is Doja Cat and SZA's contribution to this collective energy shift. Over a four-on-the-floor, funky beat, Doja Cat gives us a lusty celebration of desire. She's at her most flirty and raunchy, rapping and singing with a grin and a wink. The song is about sex, sure, but after the major mood-killer that was 2020, "Kiss Me More" pulses with an unrestrained appetite to experience, feel and live. —Nastia Voynovskaya, KQED
"To Lose You"
Mannequin Pussy appeared in Witchblood, the vampires vs. witches comic-book western, twice this year; first, a teal hair-dyed witch sings the band's song "Patience" on a motorcycle, then later the band members themselves become illustrated avatars. In that scene, Mannequin Pussy performs "To Lose You" in a small-town bar about to be consumed by a worldwide rain (and reign) of blood, a fitting setting for a tender-hearted shoegaze-punk ballad about a relationship's apocalyptic uncertainty. The swooning grandiosity of "To Lose You" screams teen rom-com sync placement, but there's a dark sophistication to Marisa Dabrice's melodramatic vocal performance, a romance deep and perhaps, yes, vampiric — coming to terms with a devastating loss of love bound by blood. —Lars Gotrich
Since Kacey Musgraves' star-crossed was positioned as her divorce album, listeners were alert for any evidence of dirt in the songs. But what Musgraves delivered instead, particularly in "good wife," was deft ambivalence toward the gendered, domestic role she'd taken on. The song lands like a pensive prayer, the measured subtleties of her vocal inflections clear even through gauzy effects, as she contemplates the desire for companionship on the one hand and dreads the emotional labor of managing a husband's happiness on the other. It's conflicted and subtly devastating stuff. —Jewly Hight, WNXP
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