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NPR Music's 100 Best Songs Of 2021 (20-1)

NPR Music's 100 Best Songs of 2021
Renee Klahr
/

"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.)

Stream NPR Music's 100 Best Songs Of 2021:
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20.

Olivia Rodrigo

"deja vu"

Or listen on the streaming platform of your choice.

In the foggy aftermath of a romantic relationship, details can feel dreamlike — hazily rendered, misremembered. But for Olivia Rodrigo, a star pupil of the Swiftian school of specificity, the devil of a former partner is in the details he's recycling with a new flame: shared strawberry ice cream and Ryan Murphy reruns. While the bridge of "deja vu" may have inspired enough of the titular sensation to force a post-release interpolation credit, the track is all Rodrigo: a sharp send-off of an earworm, somehow delivered with both irreverent playfulness and brute force. -- Lyndsey McKenna


19.

Emily Scott Robinson

"Let 'em Burn"

Or listen on the streaming platform of your choice.

There are breakup songs, and then there's the breathtaking "Let 'Em Burn," which fans out to survey the wreckage of a painstakingly curated life — "faithful wife of fifteen years, mother of three" — that's been brought low by the realities of depression, disappointment, lost faith and crippling doubt. With her pure, bracing vocal set against an achingly somber piano, Emily Scott Robinson doesn't marinate in misery so much as summon the strength to venture up to a precipice and stand at "the edge of something wild." —Stephen Thompson


18.

Mdou Moctar

"Afrique Victime"

Or listen on the streaming platform of your choice.

A rock and roll shredder for our era of global crisis, Mdou Moctar brings not only chops but his full humanity to the table on Afrique Victime. The album is a spectacular manifestation of the Tuareg guitar tradition, with Moctar's band working a hard churn behind him. It's also a cry of political and social conscience, as Moctar makes clear on the title track, singing Tamasheq lyrics whose English translation leaves nothing unclear: "Africa is a victim of so many crimes / If we stay silent it will be the end of us." —Nate Chinen, WBGO


17.

Mitski

"Working for the Knife"

Or listen on the streaming platform of your choice.

After a handful of critically-lauded albums and years of grueling tours, Mitski took time away from the spotlight. Earlier this year, she returned with "Working for the Knife," a track that contemplates the double-edged sword of her success in all its glitter and gore. Over an eerie synthesizer and a sharp guitar riff, Mitski sings about working hard and still feeling left behind, the promise of having made it always disappearing over the horizon. Still, at the song's center is the very best of Mitski: a yearning, beating heart wanting more and committed — or resigned — to keep trying. —Marissa Lorusso


16.

Lucky Daye (feat. Yebba)

"How Much Can A Heart Take"

Or listen on the streaming platform of your choice.

I can't help but think of the Paul Rudd/Sean Evans meme ("Hey, look at us!" "Who would've thought?" "Not me!") every time I hear this song. Yebba can't figure Lucky out, and she's had enough of his side-piece romps. He's had enough of hearing about it. Two of modern soul's elite connect in a lover's quarrel as you've never heard before over a stanky D'Mile bassline. Their role reversal in the lyric video is too cute. —Bobby Carter


15.

Remi Wolf

"Grumpy Old Man"

Or listen on the streaming platform of your choice.

Some hooks you don't question. It doesn't matter what you do or don't know about Remi Wolf's past lives — an American Idol audition or her TikTok explosion or the addiction and recovery stories sewn into the lining of her young career, for example. It doesn't matter if you're feeling everything else this insecurity bop has to offer (the renewable energy of its elastic bass and cassette percussion and the bridge that plays like a duet with a busted Speak & Spell). Just get into this hook.

It is a simple but unstoppable force, a homebrewed nursery rhyme mixed from household chemicals. Its molecular structure holds up even as its reinterpreted on every single repetition: in a clear-eyed deadpan over a drumless break; with a shoulder-shimmy swing once the beat returns, as if through a duck-lipped selfie face while the climax builds; and finally in a stack of harmonic variations that push enough air across the words to overpower and negate their absurdity. "I got long hair, long beard, turtleneck sweater." What does it mean? I couldn't begin to tell you, but this year, nothing felt better. —Daoud Tyler-Ameen


14.

Noname

"Rainforest"

Or listen on the streaming platform of your choice.

Having grown closer to her radical politics as an anti-capitalist socialist, Noname has moved away from ambiguous sonic messaging. "Rainforest," her first single since "Song 33," finds the Chicago rapper light and playful despite contemplating the intimacy of love and connection in the face of global violence committed in pursuit of financial gain — specifically, colonization and mass rainforest destruction. An unrestrained consideration of the gap between her multifaceted radical spirit and imperial forces trying to bury it, Noname recreates revolution's irresistibility by infusing "Rainforest" with delicate warmth and a jazzed-up Samba-influenced instrumental. —LaTesha Harris.


13.

Sun-EL Musician (feat. Simmy)

"Higher"

Or listen on the streaming platform of your choice.

Celebrated South African producer and DJ Sun-El Musician collaborates once again with neo-soul singer Simmy on "Higher," the uplifting hit single from African Electronic Dance Music — Sun-El's third studio album under his own label, EL World Music. A comfort for the soul, this eight-minute spiritual exploration is enchanting not only because of its pristine production quality, with musical sections that build, hold and release, but also for Simmy's celestial melody that's repetitive but never tiring: "Higher and higher / Ain't nothing stopping us / Ain't nothing stopping us / We're on our way up." Simple lyrics layered over a depth of sound promoting positivity and hope. —Suraya Mohamed


12.

Baby Keem (feat. Kendrick Lamar)

"range brothers"

Or listen on the streaming platform of your choice.

Baby Keem and his older cousin Kendrick Lamar put on a masterclass in having fun with hip-hop. The runaway favorite from Keem's debut album, The Melodic Blue, "range brothers" sees the two MCs trading unconventional verses and punchy ad libs. From beginning to end, the song sonically transforms multiple times over, proving to be an adventurous, but controlled, undertaking for Keem and Lamar. With every braggadocious lyric masked as deadpan humor — and, of course, the meme-friendly "top of the morning" line from Lamar — "range brothers" has solidified itself as one of the year's most memorable songs. —Kiana Fitzgerald


11.

Brandee Younger

"Reclamation"

Or listen on the streaming platform of your choice.

Over the last decade, Brandee Younger has persuasively traced an Afrocentric vision of the harp, drawing on the pioneering work of precursors like Dorothy Ashby and Alice Coltrane. Somewhere Different, Younger's self-assured major-label debut, opens with this tuneful jazz-funk overture: a nod to her place in that lineage, and a reminder that she's committed to bringing it up to date. —Nate Chinen, WBGO


10.

Brandi Carlile

"Broken Horses"

Or listen on the streaming platform of your choice.

There are countless shining moments across In These Silent Days, which brims with a tenderness that's unique to Brandi Carlile, but it's the rollicking barnburner, "Broken Horses," that's singular in its impact. Bearing the same name as her memoir that was released earlier this year, and brandishing both tenacity and grit with lines like, "I wear my father's leather on the inside of my skin," the track is a reminder that despite achieving new heights, Carlile will never forget where she came from. —Desiré Moses, WNRN


9.

Olivia Rodrigo

"good 4 u"

Or listen on the streaming platform of your choice.

As much time was devoted talking about the song as was about where came it from: the uncanny interpolation of Paramore's "Misery Business" that resulted in a retroactive songwriting credit; its Jennifer's Body-inspired music video, sharing a jilted cheerleader aesthetic with Pom Pom Squad and Courtney Love (who accused Rodrigo of plagiarism); the Rolling Stone cover with heartbreak virtuoso Alanis Morrissette. We had heard this song before, in our bedrooms and on bleachers, and with its pop-punk cues and biting lyrics, it worked again. "Maybe I'm too emotional," she sings. It doesn't actually matter. "good for u" doesn't ask for permission to feel its feelings, and each time, it seems a little less that songs like this have to. —Stefanie Fernández


8.

Chlöe

"Have Mercy"

Or listen on the streaming platform of your choice.

In January 2021, after years of only having shared social media accounts with her younger sister and artistic partner Halle, Chloe Bailey went solo. Exuding sex appeal on her own terms in a digital space for the first time, Chlöe quickly gained followers — but also a hoard of Internet haters. After a few flipped pages on the calendar, the 23-year-old with a major pop star pedigree unveiled her clapback to all those who claimed she was "doing too much" with her first solo single "Have Mercy." A high-energy anthem about her favorite body part, "Have Mercy" has all the makings of a hybrid hip-hop-pop hit. Chlöe's expertly controlled vocals give way to cheeky euphemisms and a hook that builds anticipation. Buoyed by a Jersey-meets-Baltimore club sample and filled to the brim with Chlöe's charisma, this track is not only a new addition to the canon of body confidence boosters, it serves double duty as Chlöe's declaration of independence. —Sidney Madden


7.

Rauw Alejandro

"Todo de Ti"

Or listen on the streaming platform of your choice.

As energetic as it is resonant, "Todo de Ti" is the world-sprawling welcome party for new-wave Latin pop. Released by relative newcomer Rauw Alejandro, the solo hit proves that genre-bending doesn't require the collaboration of a representative artist from across space or time. Here, a reggeaton production of '70s beats calls upon evocative legacy sounds to open doors for the future of Latin pop. Guiding a global audience on a breezy skate with danceable beats and a snappy refrain, Alejandro's catchy tune is certain to inspire sun-kissed moves for many summers to come. —Anamaria Sayre


6.

Cassandra Jenkins

"Hard Drive"

Or listen on the streaming platform of your choice.

It's hard not to view 2021 as a sequel to the rocky and terrifying year that preceded it — a hangover, an exhalation, an escalation. Cassandra Jenkins' "Hard Drive" gives that sequel its ideal soundtrack, albeit one made of unlikely parts: a sampled conversation; a breezy, jazzy saxophone; a mostly spoken monologue about art, driving, therapy and meditation. Documenting exchanges with a security guard, a bookkeeper and two empathetic friends, "Hard Drive" somehow adds up to a deeply human, tear-jerking overview on life, grace, friendship and the ways we might put our hearts back together after a rough few months. —Stephen Thompson


5.

Sharon Van Etten & Angel Olsen

"Like I Used To"

Or listen on the streaming platform of your choice.

It feels like fate brought Sharon Van Etten and Angel Olsen together. As two impeccable songwriters with distinctive voices and a flair for drama, their music has only gotten bolder and more beautiful over time. Really, it was a long-standing mutual appreciation for each other's music that inspired Van Etten to reach out with an unfinished demo, and the resulting duet is sublime — buoyed by swagger and subtle harmonies, while production by John Congleton lends the whole endeavor a sweeping grandeur. —Marissa Lorusso


4.

Megan Thee Stallion

"Thot S***"

Or listen on the streaming platform of your choice.

Megan Thee Stallion's anthemic summer bop "Thot S***" further revealed her penchant for two things: turning up and loving herself. The MC's bars veer from relatable ("I've been lit since brunch") to singularly boastful ("I'm the s***, per the Recording Academy"), but her undeniable appeal lies in her commitment to subverting misogynistic topics that have long had a strong hold on the hip-hop community. "I'm really just... taking ownership of the words 'thot' and 'hoe' [because] they're not the drag the men think it is when trying to come at women for doing them," the rapper tweeted. On "Thot S***," Megan Thee Stallion continues her reign as one of music's most uninhibited artists. —Kiana Fitzgerald


3.

Lucy Dacus

"Thumbs"

Or listen on the streaming platform of your choice.

I don't know what the father in "Thumbs" did, but I do know that I want him dead as much as the narrator does. A chilling chapter in Home Video — Lucy Dacus' brutal memoir of a third studio album — "Thumbs" is a nauseating study of a past relationship's ongoing haunts. Through visually evocative storytelling, Dacus interrupts a lineage of pain with unguarded passion, using meticulous lyricism to bestow unconditional support unto a scared, fragmented partner. Even though Dacus leaves the sins of the song's antagonist up to interpretation, her judgement rings explicit: "I would kill him," Dacus sings, her vocals quavering with muted rage, "if you let me." As much as "Thumbs" is a tragedy, it's a hymn for love, in the purest sense of the word. —LaTesha Harris


2.

Wet Leg

"Chaise Longue"

Or listen on the streaming platform of your choice.

From that little island off the south coast of England comes my musical delight of 2021. Wet Leg's "Chaise Longue" — via Isle of Wight duo Rhian Teasdale and Hester Chambers — is a brilliant mix of the understated and the explosive, with a good bit of humor holding all together. Their droll delivery ("Is your muffin buttered? Would you like us to assign someone to butter your muffin?") and bursts of guitar make for three minutes of pure joy. —Bob Boilen


1.

Lil Nas X

"MONTERO (Call Me By Your Name)"

Or listen on the streaming platform of your choice.

Desire is always a driving force behind popular music, and its most revolutionary expressions have often come from Black, queer and otherwise marginalized people. From the sugar bowl blues of Bessie Smith to SOPHIE's pitch-shifted eradications of the gender binary, so much has been whispered, encoded and screamed in hopes that one day everything may be plainly said. Who knew that a meme-savvy teen turned category-melting, multi-everything pop star would be the one to finally achieve this apotheosis? On the title track from the eponymous album MONTERO — a coming out that works on so many levels it obviates the term — Lil Nas X, born Montero Lamar Hill, does without even blinking. And all in a daydream of a song, a delicious amalgam of wishfulness, anxiety and hot sex. "You cute enough to f*** with me tonight," Montero teasingly tells a would-be lover as he lets his mind and syrupy baritone wander in sync with pelvic beats and a melody connecting North Africa to Puerto Rico to lowrider Los Angeles, balancing vulnerability with an enthralling self-assuredness. Then he elaborates in openly erotic terms. "I'm not fazed, only here to sin," he intones, saying what Little Richard couldn't in the radio-censored "Tutti Frutti," what was once confined to subcultural corners but now rings out from the top of the charts. For all its welcoming shininess and singability, "Montero (Call Me By Your Name)" is not a pride anthem or a cry of resistance. It's an existentially casual bop, and that's why it matters so much. —Ann Powers


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