NPR Music's 100 Best Songs of 2021 (60-41)
"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.)
"Don't Go Yet"
For her third album's lead single, Camila Cabello leaned into her Latin pop roots in a way that sounds surprisingly familiar. Equipped with a flamenco guitar that flows through the heart of the verses, chattering maracas that give the song its pulse and a full horn section that's got a Cuban salsa flair to it, this song moves fluidly through genres and stylistic directions. The best part of the track has to be the salsa instrumental break right before the final chorus, where all of these Latin music motifs converge. "Don't Go Yet" is truly at its strongest when it pays homage to different elements of Latin music. —Cat Sposato
Berlin-based electronic producer Sofia Kourtesis created "La Perla" in memory of her late father, inspired by the trips to the ocean they would take together when she would visit her native Peru. With a heart-beat evoking drum as its strong center, "La Perla" unfolds delicately outward in glittering layers of warm synths, soft percussion and hazy, mournful vocals, enveloping you in sound like a salty ocean wave cresting the shore. —Hazel Cills
The iconic strings of Juvenile's "Back That Azz Up" announce the arrival "GYALIS," but Capella Grey's breakout single is a decidedly New York affair. With dancehall-kissed melodies (the Bronx-bred singer-rapper is of Jamaican heritage) and drums that demand movement, it has the sultry rhythm of a New York summer, right down to its theme. No surprise, it took hold there first. Perhaps it's the way Grey snakes effortlessly in and out of his cadences, his lothario's audacity dressed up as charisma, or the way a minute and a half never seems quite enough — "GYALIS" became the perfect soundtrack for outside's return and all the mischief it could bring. —Briana Younger
Larry June's slow and steady grind continued to pay dividends in 2021. The Bay area rapper's signature catchphrases and organic branding can be seen all over social media as his music fuels the movement. "Iced Coffee," from his latest album, "Orange Print," is one of the best from his extensive catalog, and his laidback tone and conversational flow slide all over this Jake One 808/boom-bap slap. —Bobby Carter
Valerie June (feat. Mavis Staples)
"Why the Bright Stars Glow"
2021 was a year of endless starting-over mornings. The pandemic waxed and waned and never fully receded; the world reeled from human-wrought catastrophes; a path toward any coherent future never made itself clear. Yet people rose again each day. They reached for each other through the ether and sometimes in real life. Valerie June's hymn of resistance through interconnectedness, made even holier and earthier by the voice of Mavis Staples in this acoustic version, is a companion and a tool for that brave, necessary act of starting again. —Ann Powers
"Sacude" opens simultaneously with a clave and an irregular synthesized beat; each is a representation of where Xenia Rubinos' music has been and where it's going. It's the slow sound of a hybrid machine of organic and manmade parts. She sings, slowly, as it hums to life: "I'm carrying weight for the both of us / Time to let go." "Sacude" shakes off that weight with its next arresting lyric, "Cuanto quisiera salir de esto ya." Midway, the song builds around the chorus "Sacude, sacude y Dios que me ayude," a centering call she creates and responds to in untethered soneos. Its a true despojo, a ritual of the kind one seeks after all else fails, dredging up a new self from the pieces of rumba it shatters and puts back together. —Stefanie Fernández
Dawn Richard kills it wherever she goes, but her home-turf advantage is unstoppable. Second Line is not only about New Orleans and family, specifically her mother who narrates the album, but is also a reclamation of electronic music made by Black women. Co-produced with Sam O.B., "Bussifame," then, is the joyous statement piece: a crushed velvet hip-house beat flexed upon by Richard's rap muscles, featuring bar after bar of well-earned braggadocio. The sinuous groove, lightly adorned by neon electro-pop polka dots, is a dream for any drill team in need of a full-body routine, but will also put your feet to work. —Lars Gotrich
Reality is fungible, time is mutable, distance is relative and the future is foggier than ever. Being alive right now is, simply put, a trip. As the dots we'd slowly connected in our lives up to this point shift positions, everything is redrawn — maybe not necessarily improved, but at least new. From a studio in Hamtramck, Mich. and a head full of nearby Detroit's inestimable history of dance music, Tammy Lakkis sent through this koan of cautious rediscovery. The beat is straight house, but diffused — a little furtive — and given sheepish soul through Lakkis' vocals; a lovely, matter-of-fact reopening of the terms between her and her environment. So really, between us and ours. —Andrew Flanagan
Amaarae (feat. Kali Uchis)
"SAD GIRLZ LUV MONEY (Remix)"
It's not a stretch to call Amaarae a star. And I mean star. The Afropop artist's presence is one of oddity; a memorably sweet, almost-whispered vocal tone, an impeccable ear for cross-genre beats and a sneaky, slithering mode of storytelling that encourages you to rationalize all previously-repented sins. "SAD GIRLZ LUV MONEY" off Amaarae's 2020 debut The Angel You Don't Know is a sampler of the cosmic bad b****ery she conjures: a cruising jaunt about ignoring all distractions that don't involve a bank note or body roll. And thanks to a bilingual remix with Kali Uchis, it's proven to be Amaarae's key to cracking Billboard's Global charts. "I feel nice, there's nothing in my way," she sings — and she's absolutely right. —Sidney Madden
BIA (feat. Nicki Minaj)
"WHOLE LOTTA MONEY (Remix)"
A cool, calibrated flow with an emphasis on all things designer and opulent (even for a quick run to the bodega), BIA's "WHOLE LOTTA MONEY" was already enjoying a steady incline in streams at the beginning of summer when the timbre of Queen Onika Maraj burst through the track to decree a do-over. Calling back to her iconic Beam Me Up Scotty mixtape style, Nicki momentarily pauses the beat so that the heat can properly be delivered. Adopting the same cadence as BIA is light work for Nicki and by the third verse, the ladies go bar for bar, playfully building upon each other's sky-high siddity standards, giving us something even tougher to strut to. —Sidney Madden
"Mi Conga Es De Akokán"
"Akokán" is a West African Yoruba word meaning "from the heart," and the big band that took that word as its name uses every note of its two albums to spread the gospel of 19650s-era Cuban music. The band is a product of both Havana and Brooklyn, and this song, from the album 16 Rayos, is its version of jumping into a carnaval procession amidst a battery of folkloric percussion playing a traditional conga rhythm from the eastern region of Santiago de Cuba. The groove is so infectious that if this doesn't get your foot tapping, you may be dead. —Felix Contreras
One does not listen to "Jackie" so much as be engulfed by it. From its opening wail of feedback to its final fade of reverb, the song is a battlefield of lovesick dissonance — the guitars frolic and weep in turns, and the drums remain crisp even as they crash. Yves Tumor searches the carnage for hints of life and answers not forthcoming. "These days have been tragic, I ain't sleeping, refuse to eat a thing," they sing in a voice that is somehow impassioned yet stony, like agony gnawing just beneath the surface of an impenetrable cool. In the restrained moments and the tumultuous, "Jackie" is the anthem that cataclysmic heartbreak deserves. —Briana Younger
Spice (feat. Shaggy & Sean Paul)
"Go Down Deh"
If you look carefully at our 100 Best Songs of 2021 list, you'll notice a paucity of Gen X artists. That's understandable, given that so many of us listen to music to feel young. And who knows, maybe this year will represent a changing of the guard when we look back on it in 5-10 years. So it's kinda fascinating that while so many twentysomethings sing slow songs wise beyond their years, the dancehall track of the year comes courtesy of a geriatric-milllennial — the Jamaican sex-positive icon Spice — and two silver foxes. Spice generated deserved buzz earlier this year for releasing the first official album of her 18-year career, but the X-rated single remains her, um, sweet spot, and "Go Down Deh" sits among, if not on top, her greatest hits. —Otis Hart
Little Simz (feat. Cleo Sol)
Nodding along with simple beats and biting lines, Little Simz is making sure you don't get it twisted: "Ain't nothing without a woman though." The second track on the British rapper's fourth album signals the kind of slow-tempo, vulnerable reflection the artist displays through her work. The cool tones of her subtle instrumentals serve as the perfect backdrop for a radiant call of empowerment for a cast of strong female characters. Pulling back synthetic beats and letting heartfelt vocals float across dreamy strings, Little Simz speaks above the noise of a hazy industry proclaiming that under her watchful gaze, the color of feminine expression will always shine with brilliance. —Anamaria Sayre
An undulating groove curves under Leon Bridges' voice in this sultry track. Deceptively simple in its production and lyrics, "Motorbike" recreates the closeness of bodies leaning together while traversing soft rolling hills. Bridges entices us along for the ride, an easy temptation to succumb to as the soul crooner reminds us, "When it feels good, you don't have to try to." —Mitra Arthur
A reflection on self-centeredness set to the lush combination of Claire Cottrill's piano/guitar combo and Jack Antonoff's signature production sensibilities, "Amoeba" is a song about Clairo's rise to stardom and the adjustments that come with it. With stacked background vocals acting like a self-critical Greek chorus, Clairo grapples with and realigns her priorities not just as a musician but as person. —Sofie Hernandez-Simeonidis
Dua Saleh (feat. Amaarae)
Even in a world of constant connectivity and a dizzying oversupply of music, it's rare that two of your favorite artists collab and it actually lives up to hopes. Luckily for mutual fans of Dua Saleh and Amaarae, "fitt" delivers. Each artist occupies so many different spaces. Saleh is nonbinary, Sudanese-born, Minneapolis-based and experiments with dense, shadowy elements. Amaraae is New York-born, but now creates out of Accra, Ghana, and has come to be known for beguiling, bouncy Afro-fusion. Regardless, each shows the amazing dexterity of the diaspora and when together, their joined forces are unmatched. The beat for "fitt" evolves over three minutes to accommodate the strengths of each artist's verse, balancing carnal drums with ethereal harp strings. Each holds a presence on the track that demands attention. The real beauty is that they share this attention equally. —Sidney Madden
Over and over in her songs, Joy Oladokun has poignantly put her finger on the painful particulars of broken trust — trust splintered long ago when she came face to face with racism and homophobia in her faith community and nation. Her singer-songwriter folk-soul number "Jordan" is one of the most moving examples to date, and she delivers it with woolen intimacy, balancing its hand-hewn quality and understated pop appeal. She's turned hymn-writing on its head in the most openhearted fashion, singing of her resolve to leave behind those who insisted she needed spiritual cleansing to build a life with someone who sees her as she wants to be seen. —Jewly Hight, WNXP
BLACKSTARKIDS is a Midwest trio situated in the widening space between hip-hop, emo and blown-out laptop pop, and on "JUNO" it achieves a kind of induced synesthesia, cramming so much suburban summer atmosphere into its bleached synths and hiccupy guitar that the sounds start to radiate their own light. As a song, it is structure-agnostic: You'll hurt your head trying to make the lines group neatly into fours, and each member's contribution — a heavy-lidded rap verse, a run of bubbly micro-melodies and a full-throated chorus, respectively — feels like a self-contained short story, beamed from its own corner of LiveJournal. But as a vibe, its message couldn't be clearer: Life sucks, but maybe not today. —Daoud Tyler-Ameen
Westside Gunn (feat. Jadakiss & Stove God Cooks)
Westside Gunn likens himself to Joe Pesci in Goodfellas because of his superior s***-talking skills. But the truth is, Gunn is Scorsese — a visionary armed with a 35mm and an uncompromising POV. To put it plainly, Gunn's work of art is wrought from the penitentiary chances and violence he survived coming up in Buffalo, N.Y. Those years honed his ear for cinematic beats, like the Denny LaFlare-produced "Right Now" off HWH8: Sincerely Adolf, the first half of his 2021 double LP. Co-starring Jadakiss and frequent collaborator Stove God Cooks, the song finds them drawing the starkest contrasts in the midst of trading cocaine tales. Gunn stashes crack in his "Versace draws," while Jada stirs a "brick and a half in the pot, Dior gas mask." It's an acquired taste, especially for fellas who've sacrificed so much to attain it. —Rodney Carmichael
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