NPR Music's 100 Best Songs Of 2021 (40-21)
"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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Drake (feat. 21 Savage & Project Pat)
Through heavy sampling of his older material, Memphis rap legend Project Pat's career caught a second wind. As a result of his influential sound resurging, Project Pat freely and advantageously collaborates with contemporary artists, and "Knife Talk" is a prime example of his impact. Project Pat opens the song with an instantly recognizable delivery that 21 Savage adopts in his following verse. It's a genuine hat-tip from one generation to another, and hip-hop mainstay Drake is the swaggering glue that holds it all together as he reminds us throughout the song about his riches, woes, successes and tribulations. —Kiana Fitzgerald
"Bunny is a Rider"
Aloofness, as a sub-component of "charm," is an ancient, semi-teachable skill that, when used correctly, can be a remarkably life-changing tool. Caroline Polachek cares to illustrate: In the immaculate video for "Bunny is a Rider," a bleepy, bumpy little ode to the pleasures of using choice acts of escape as part of a self-preservational, anti-FOMO mindset, she roams around a stockroom while dodging a Minotaur. The monster's supposed to represent the pains of unnecessary obligation; the storage units, a life scrupulously compartmentalized. It's like if an Aesop fable met self-help in a pop song. Not since Kate Bush have we had such a funny modern fabulist. —Mina Tavakoli
It's a relatively short and simple song, but "Nausicaa," in this breathtaking rendition, packs an outsized emotional punch. An aqueous synth intro yields to gently undulating strings, unfurling a subtle red carpet walkway onto which the Canadian mezzo-soprano Emily D'Angelo makes her majestic, yet intimate, appearance. And with one long, ravishingly phrased line ("Don't be afraid, stranger"), we fall under the spell of the beauty of the human voice. That the music, by Sarah Kirkland Snider and inspired by Homer's Odyssey, speaks of homecoming, makes it feel even more like safe haven in these extraordinary times. —Tom Huizenga
In terms of output, Victoria Monét's 2021 has been defined by quality over quantity. The summertime bop "Coastin'' got some burn on radio and made it to the Billboard charts, but it was this song that stayed on repeat. The acronym in that cheeky title (Friend U Can Keep), is an ode to buddies with benefits, as the singer-songwriter whispers sweet everythings. Chock full of witty one-liners, this sultry ditty came weeks before she delivered her most important project to date; a precious baby girl. —Bobby Carter
"I didn't know / How deep some feelings can go," confesses Esperanza Spalding on this enchanting, empathic effort from her Songwrights Apothecary Lab. "And you can really do some damage down there / In the soul of another." Taking honest measure of her own failed obligations in a romantic partnership, and crucially resolving to do better, Spalding has made a delicate yet durable song out of that rarest of modern human instincts: accountability. —Nate Chinen, WBGO
Aventura & Bad Bunny
If we thought we needed the slice of nostalgia that was the Aventura reunion of 2019 back then, we absolutely needed "Volví" this year. The Aventura and Bad Bunny collab, a dreamy bachata-reggaeton union, closed out a summer that could have done with even more mess to make up for all that we've missed. "Volví" delivers: on the brash reminders from a cocky ex, delivered in Romeo's dulcet tenor and Benito's brazen flow, tied up with a merengue típico in the outro. Two titans of Latin pop past into present, sitting comfortably in the undeniably Caribbean house they helped build. —Stefanie Fernández
The Linda Lindas
"Racist, Sexist Boy" (Live at LA Public Library)
Loud, angry and full of heart, "Racist, Sexist Boy" is a joyous assertion of personhood. In a world that often shames teenage girls for simply existing and insists to women — particularly women of color — that they prioritize geniality, The Linda Lindas call out what they see: "You are a racist, sexist boy!" The song is all swagger and confidence, unapologetic about commanding space, as the band hits the chorus with an exhilarating crash. "Racist, Sexist Boy" is a manifesto for refusing to accept the injustices of today, looking towards a raucous and brilliant tomorrow. —Fi O'Reilly
Charli XCX is a hit-making Midas — everything she touches turns to gold. The past few years have found her at the apex of the mainstream hyperpop scene, but on "Good Ones" she harkens back to the music that started her career, paring the experimentation down for an old-fashioned synth-pop track. Clocking in at barely over two minutes, "Good Ones" doesn't overstay its welcome; the song is designed for maximum replay right down to the sugary, "yass"-inducing chorus. It's Charli exploring her '80s goth influence with years of melody-prioritizing maximalism backing her up, resulting in a synthesis that is simple yet stellar. —Reanna Cruz
It's been a trip to watch Migos rise from hip-hop disruptors to cultural standard bearers over the last decade. As Quality Control's first marquee artists, Quavo, Offset and Takeoff are practically the Temptations of trap now. No wonder their triplet flows sound so at-home over the song made famous by Motown's most storied ensemble ever. "Papa was a rollin' stone but now I got rolling stones in the bezel," Quavo jumpstarts the trio's Culture III single "Avalanche," floating over Norman Whitfield's swelling string arrangement. They even dressed the part for Jimmy Fallon and the Roots in October, swapping out their technicolor Versace shirts for matching black fedoras, suits and shades at their Tonight Show performance. Classic soul samples and dialed-down looks may not be part of the arsenal that got Migos here, but as long as those signature flows remain intact everything else is as interchangeable as the Temptations' revolving tour roster. —Rodney Carmichael
"What It Is"
When Amber Mark's "What It Is" first hit my eardrums, I started it over immediately. Could this be an R&B song that not only exemplifies the genre's alt cousin, but also hints at the classics from my own heyday? The answer? A resounding yes! Patient, yet probing, Mark methodically dissects her feelings, mulls over their origins, and appeals to a higher power for the solution to this puzzle. But y'all! There's a bridge! (Remember those?) The song climaxes with poignant reflections and a guitar solo, finally asking if the answer to her question is love. —Nikki Birch
In "713," pianist James Francies and his collaborators (and fellow Houstonians), drummer Jeremy Dutton and bassist Burniss Travis, present a track that always provides me with a moment to sit and breathe. The track's atmospheric vibe, aided by the incorporation of synths, is perfect for putting your devices on mute and letting it wash over you. Just as you start to chill, though, "713" will engage your mind as the trio displays a nuanced interplay that attests to their sonic and geographical commonality. Never was there a more enjoyable exercise in contrast. —Mitra Arthur
"Leave the Door Open"
Just as we were drowning in '90s and early aughts nostalgia, Bruno Mars and Anderson .Paak — known together as the newly formed R&B superduo Silk Sonic — threw out a life raft straight from the '70s. Opulent and flirty, "Leave The Door Open'' is an invitation, lyrically and musically, that employs familiarity in the art of seduction. A direct but charming come-on, its beckoning lush arrangement begs to be stripped down, harmonies all the way to the strings, appreciated in full layer by glorious layer. .Paak's raspy playfulness grounds the superstar sheen of Mars, who answers by coaxing out some of his counterpart's finest vocal work. This is classic, Sunday morning soul as it was intended, translated and updated by two of this era's most fluent artists. —Briana Younger
"Just for me"
With her bedroom pop songs sampling UK garage hits by Sweet Female Attitude and Adam F, PinkPantheress emerged in 2021 as Gen Z's mysterious new patron saint of romanticized Y2K nostalgia. The charming 2-step electronica of "Just for me" quickly found virality on TikTok, where millions of teenagers lip-synced their hearts out to the producer's doe-eyed, breathy earworm chorus: "When you wipe your tears, do you wipe them just for me, me, me, me?" Clocking in at just under two minutes, the vintage simplicity and romantic obsession of "Just for me" makes it one of the year's most surprising hits. —Hazel Cills
"Meet Me At Our Spot (Live)"
Thanks to TikTok, "Meet Me At Our Spot," the standout track on THE ANXIETY's self-titled debut from 2020, exploded this year. Simple chords and steady drums produce an entrancing melody ripe for comfort as narrators WILLOW and Tyler Cole celebrate the spot to which they escape when life's anxieties become overwhelming. Luminous with the vibrancy of young love, WILLOW and Cole take turns reassuring each other — you are my present and the strength of our commitment helps me see my bright future. This new live recording improves upon its original (again, thank you, TikTok) with WILLOW singing in a lower register as Cole's vocals soar higher in response, resulting in transcendent, perfectly matched harmonies. —LaTesha Harris
MUNA (feat. Phoebe Bridgers)
MUNA has invented a new kind of captivating tune that you just can't get out of your head: the queerworm. "Silk Chiffon"'s message of a sapphic crush is sweet and charming while being, simply put, catchy as hell. It's the type of song that you're singing along to without realizing you know all the words, the type that you listen to on a walk that makes you skip just a little bit, the type that makes you roll down the windows of your car and act as though you're the star of a music video. —Sofie Hernandez-Simeonidis
Enveloped in chest-resonant drumming and layered vocals, "YA" cements YEИDRY's rise to the top using the Italian-born singer's customary Dominican flair. Patchworking together moments of cuttingly tranquil speech and intermittent fiery cries, YEИDRY produces an empowering sonic testament to the strength of her artistry and person. "Aunque pueda morirme" ("Even though I can die"), she refrains with the quiet insistence of a woman who has come to know her own power. Reaching for energy from the vocal tradition of generations before her, she makes her intentions clear: "Yo quiero to" ("I want it all"). She won't be pulling any punches until she gets it. —Anamaria Sayre
2021 belonged to Japanese Breakfast's Michelle Zauner. Her memoir Crying in H-Mart made her a first time New York Times bestselling author, and her album Jubilee made her a first-time Grammy nominee. In retrospect, the opening line of "Be Sweet": "Tell the men I'm coming" functioned as a warning shot for Zauner's pop culture domination. As Jubilee's lead single, "Be Sweet" was also the kick-off to a celebratory album that marked a shift from the heavier subject matter of Zauner's previous work and showed off her strengths as an artist who can write outrageously catchy pop hooks. —Raina Douris, World Cafe
"Same Size Shoe"
Oh, to hear Josiah Wise testify on the ecstasies of contentment. This stunner from serpentwithfeet's second album, DEACON, is only literally about discovering how precisely you and your mate measure up. "Me and my boo wear the same size shoe," Wise coos over a stately drum pattern that flutters like a heart skipping a beat. Its deeper truth is about how completely you can find yourself surrendering to seemingly mundane layers of a shared life: knowing the words to the same songs, piggybacking on an appointment with your other half's barber. "Same Size Shoe" reaches true heights of domestic bliss in early morning kitchenlight moments — like the one where Wise calls for a trumpet and then breaks into an a cappella fanfare, or fully commits to the kind of pun ("you're my soul/sole-mate") you can only get away with when you're alone with someone who raises an eyebrow at bad jokes but recognizes them as a sincere offering of devotion. You could call it the gospel of the perfect fit. Or you could just call it love. —Jacob Ganz
Petal Supply (feat. umru, Himera & trndytrndy)
Most dance tracks that extend past the 10-minute mark attempt to establish a hypnotic state, someplace you can lose all concept of time. And then there's "1" by rising Canadian hyperpop producer Petal Supply. The neon paean to immaterial infatuation unfolds like an epic prog-rock journey through the metasphere. That's largely due to the guests in parentheses above — each remixed Petal Supply's original demo for "1," but instead of taking the results and compiling them on an EP, she sequenced them to create a Voltron unlike anything I've ever heard before. If only its runtime was 11:11. —Otis Hart
Toumani Diabaté and The London Symphony Orchestra
Strange bedfellows never sounded so heavenly as they do here, where the Western symphony orchestra meets the West African kora (a 21-stringed plucked instrument) in music of wistful beauty. Toumani Diabaté's instrument sings sweet curlicues of melody that billow above Nico Muhly's translucent arrangement for the London Symphony Orchestra. The song, propelled by a gently descending theme, glows with the warmth of old friends in conversation. [This review originally appeared in NPR Music's Favorite Songs of 2021 (So Far)] —Tom Huizenga
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