The Best Music Of 2021: NPR Staff Picks The NPR Music staff share their personal 2021 favorites
The Best Music Of 2021: Staff Picks

The Best Music Of 2021: NPR Staff Picks

NPR Music's writers and producers share their personal favorites of the year

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Valery Hache/AFP via Getty Images

Jacob Banks.

Valery Hache/AFP via Getty Images

This is more of a "Best for Mi" list. Represented here are my belief that strings make everything better; my tendency to listen to music that gives me '70s, '80s & '90s sounds; the fact that I'll play on repeat anything from Lake Street Dive, We are KING and Alice Smith; and that sometimes, I just need to feel all the feelings. There's other biographical bits, but I've already shared enough of my business. I'm also going to cheat and give love to a song that came out last year. Thanks to my mom playing (and singing) it constantly on my long-awaited pandemic visit with her, it became a balm during 2021: Bri Babineaux's "He's My Rock."

Top 10 Albums of 2021

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• Joy Oladokun, in defense of my own happiness
• Luke James & Nu Deco Ensemble, A Live Sensation
• Emma-Jean Thackray, Yellow
• Brandee Younger, Somewhere Different
• Theo Croker, BLK2LIFE // A FUTURE PAST
• Hiatus Kaiyote, Mood Valiant
• Jared Schonig, Two Takes, Vol. 1: Quintet
• Sons of Kemet, Black to the Future
• Dr. Lonnie Smith, Breathe
• Cautious Clay, Deadpan Love

Top 10 Songs of 2021

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• Jacob Banks, "Found"
• Lake Street Dive, "Same Ole News"
• Silk Sonic, "Leave the Door Open"
• Nicolas Godin (feat. We are KING), "Another Side"
• Rogê (feat. João Donato & Alice Smith), "Vai Viver Curumim "
• Scary Pockets (feat. Astyn Turr), "Drivers License"
• Ari Lennox, "Pressure"
• Butcher Brown (feat. Alex Isley), "Remind Me"
• Raquel Rodriguez, "Sweet Side"
• VanJess, "Come Over"

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Shervin Lainez/Courtesy of the artist

NIKARA.

Shervin Lainez/Courtesy of the artist

Music was back with a vengeance this year, or perhaps I was in a better place to actually savor the juicy tidbits I discovered. This is an unranked collection of my favorite songs and albums that came out in 2021. Deciding which ones made this list was incredibly difficult since there are many more I would have liked to include, but I decided to go with the music I couldn't stop playing on repeat. I hope that in this list, you discover new artists that become a part of your soundtrack. Cheers!

Top 10 Albums of 2021

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• Joy Oladokun, in defense of my own happiness
• NIKARA, NIKARA presents Black Wall Street
• Rogue VHS, I am: Rogue VHS
• Cory Henry, Best of Me
• Mirrors, Mirrors
• Portico Quartet, Monument
• Celeste, Not Your Muse
• Weedie Braimah, The Hands of Time
• Silk Sonic, An Evening With Silk Sonic
• Tyler, the Creator, Call Me If You Get Lost

Top 10 Songs of 2021

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• Barbra Streisand (feat. Kermit the Frog), "Rainbow Connection"
• Big Boi and Sleepy Brown (feat. Killer Mike), "lowercase (no cap)"
• Kiefer, "Friends"
• Gabriels, "Blame"
• Jordan Peters, "Float"
• Michael League, "Me, Like You"
• J3PO, "Silver Lining"
• Joe Flizzow (feat. MK and Jay Park), "CIAO"
• Bill Laurance, "Zeal"
• Lime Cordiale, "Apple Crumble"

Palehound's Ellen Kempner and Jay Som's Melina Duterte perform as Bachelor. Tonje Thilesen/Courtesy of the artist hide caption

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Tonje Thilesen/Courtesy of the artist

Palehound's Ellen Kempner and Jay Som's Melina Duterte perform as Bachelor.

Tonje Thilesen/Courtesy of the artist

Some of my favorite music of 2021 came from artists who were new to me — a contrast to my 2020 list, the year COVID made it extra challenging to the unknowns. Among the new finds are the Isle of Wight rock and droll duo Wet Leg; Charlie Hickey, who covered a Phoebe Bridgers song as a 13-year-old, now she's singing on his record; Olivia Rodrigo, with an expressive and explosive album on youthful heartbreak, and Arooj Aftab's smoky and solemn reflections, have all made for a year I'm grateful for.

Top 10 Albums of 2021

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1. Lucy Dacus, Home Video
2. Bachelor, Doomin' Sun
3. Steady Holiday, Take The Corners Gently
4. Olivia Rodrigo, SOUR
5. Arooj Aftab, Vulture Prince
6. Tōth, You and Me and Everything
7. Sufjan Stevens and Angelo De Augustine, A Beginner's Mind
8. Cassandra Jenkins, An Overview on Phenomenal Nature
9. Jónsi, Obsidian
10. Ada Lea, one hand on the steering wheel the other sewing a garden

Top 10 Songs of 2021

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1. Wet Leg, "Chaise Longue"
2. Lucy Dacus, "Thumbs"
3. Cassandra Jenkins, "Hard Drive"
4. Bachelor, "Back Of My Hand"
5. Olivia Rodrigo, "brutal"
6. Tōth, "Turnaround (Cocaine Song)"
7. Arooj Aftab, "Suroor"
8. Saint Sister, "Manchester Air"
9. Aisha Badru, "Rebirth"
10. Charlie Hickey, "Ten Feet Tall"

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Bottom of the Map

Dr. Regina N. Bradley and Christina Lee, hosts of Bottom of the Map.

Bottom of the Map

The year in hip-hop can't be quantified by new music alone. Not in 2021, when starting a podcast feels like a rite of passage for every rapper flirting with retirement. Ever since the podfather Combat Jack taught hip-hop how to "dream them dreams," the proliferation has been unreal. Now podcasts are the culture's official mouthpiece and the genre is as varied as the rap game itself. You can hear everything from real journalism and cultural criticism to straight-up jaw jacking. Here's my shortlist of the best hip-hop podcasts of the year, along with the albums I couldn't stop listening to in between time.

Top 10 Albums of 2021

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• Mach-Hommy, Balens Cho
• Lukah, When The Black Hand Touches You
• 42 Dugg, Free Dem Boyz
• Greentea Peng, MAN MADE
• MIKE, Disco!
• Moor Mother, Black Encyclopedia of the Air
• Mick Jenkins, Elephant in the Room
• Baby Keem, The Melodic Blue
• Westside Gunn, Hitler Wears Hermes (side A and B)
• ZelooperZ, Van Gogh's Left Ear

Top 10 Hip-hop Podcasts of 2021

Big Facts with Big Bank & DJ Scream
The Bridge: 50 Years of Hip-Hop
Mogul
Drink Champs
Bottom of the Map
Juan Ep is Life
Have You Heard George's Podcast?
Geto Boys Reloaded
What Had Happened Was
Fresh Era

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Diane Allford/Courtesy of the artist

James Brandon Lewis.

Diane Allford/Courtesy of the artist

What caught my ear and held it in 2021? There's no coherent formula to the dozen albums that constitute this answer — except that they all came from a place of fierce and abiding commitment. You can hear it plain and clear on Jesup Wagon, which I flagged as a best-album contender the first time I encountered it. You can hear it resonating at a quieter, sadder frequency on KIMBROUGH, which beautifully memorializes a loss from around this time last year. And you can feel it just as palpably in the songs I've compiled from 12 other noteworthy albums, most of which could be swapped in above with little objection (at least, not from me). We're living in trying times, and what I hear in this music is exhortation — a reminder that we're not alone, and a nudge to keep moving forward.

Top 12 Albums of 2021

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1. James Brandon Lewis, Jesup Wagon
2. Artifacts, ...and then there's this
3. Ches Smith and We All Break, Path of Seven Colors
4. Vijay Iyer, Linda May Han Oh, Tyshawn Sorey, Uneasy
5. Johnathan Blake, Homeward Bound
6. Jason Moran, The Sound Will Tell You
7. Various Artists, KIMBROUGH
8. Floating Points, Pharoah Sanders & The London Symphony Orchestra, Promises
9. Sylvie Courvoisier & Mary Halvorson, Searching For The Disappeared Hour
10. Sound Prints, Other Worlds
11. William Parker, Migration of Silence Into and Out of The Tone World
12. Sons of Kemet, Black to the Future

Top 12 Songs of 2021

▶ LISTEN ON SPOTIFY

1. esperanza spalding, "Formwela 10"
2. Irreversible Entanglements, "Open the Gates"
3. Terence Blanchard, "Absence"
4. Nate Smith (feat. Kokayi & Michael Mayo), "Square Wheel"
5. Jazzmeia Horn and Her Noble Force, "Where We Are"
6. Tyshawn Sorey & Alarm Will Sound, "For George Lewis"
7. Ben LaMar Gay (feat Ohmme), "Sometimes I Forget How Summer Looks on You"
8. Miho Hazama (feat. Danish Radio Big Band) "I Said Cool, You Said... What?"
9. Brandee Younger, "Reclamation"
10. Jen Shyu, "When I Have Power"
11. Craig Taborn, "Now In Hope"
12. Kazemde George, "I Insist"

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Brent McKeever/Courtesy of Elektra Records

PinkPantheress

Brent McKeever/Courtesy of Elektra Records

Much of the music I admired in 2021 came from artists working unapologetically on their own terms. I reached frequently for risk-takers — blown-out pop-punk makeovers from unexpected voices, a New Age composer returning to music after stepping away for decades, a bedroom pop producer reworking UK garage samples into two-minute bites of brilliance. All were a welcome reminder that music has no rules, and that you can't sit around waiting for someone to give you permission to create what you want, how you want to.

Top 10 Albums of 2021

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• Illuminati Hotties, Let Me Do One More
• Indigo De Souza, Any Shape You Take
• L'Rain, Fatigue
• Eris Drew, Quivering in Time
• PinkPantheress, to hell with it
• Pauline Anna Strom, Angel Tears in Sunlight
• SPELLLING, The Turning Wheel
• Yu Su, Yellow River Blue
• Circuit des Yeux, -io
• WILLOW, lately I feel EVERYTHING

Top 10 Songs of 2021

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• Indigo De Souza, "Way Out"
• Illuminati Hotties, "Pool Hopping"
• Sofia Kourtesis, "La Perla"
• PinkPantheress, "Just for me"
• Caribou, "You Can Do It"
• Cassandra Jenkins, "Hard Drive"
• L'Rain, "Two Face"
• Faye Webster, "Both All the Time"
• WILLOW feat. Avril Lavigne, "G R O W"
• Circuit des Yeux, "Dogma"

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Courtesy of the artist

Draco Rosa.

Courtesy of the artist

I have been trying to find some idea that ties together my list of 20 albums that stood out in 2021 — on the surface they are all so disparate. There is Arturo O'Farrill's bold Latin jazz, and Salt Cathedral's lush electronic meditation on Colombia. ÌFÉ explores ancient future spiritualism, while Roxane Amed, Sofia Reí, and Susana Baca each explore the sound of the female voice through their own cultural lenses. From The Meridian Brothers' latest avant-garde release from Colombia to IKOQWE's Angolan-Portuguese, there are so many musical paths to follow. Taking it in as a whole didn't make any sense until a wise friend suggested: "It's you. You tie it all together." He's right. I am constantly looking for a sound I have never heard before, and this year it happened more than it usually does. The expanse of creativity blew my mind, and now I wait until next year!

Top 20 Albums of 2021

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• Arturo O'Farrill, ...dreaming in lions...
• Gabriel Alegria Afro-Peruvian Sextet, Social Distancing
• Omar Sosa and Seckou Keita, SUBA
• Draco Rosa, Sound Healing 1:11
• Roxana Amed, Ontology
• Berta Moreno, Tumaini
• Xenia Rubinos, Una Rosa
• Meridian Brothers, Conjunto Media Luna, Paz En La Tierra
• IKOQWE, The Beginning, the Medium, the End and the Infinite
• The Los Sundowns, The Los Sundowns
• Susana Baca, Palabras Urgentes
• ÌFÉ, 0000+0000
• Sofia Rei, Umbral
• Salt Cathedral, CARISMA *isolation mixes*
• Cultura Profética, Sobrevolando Instrumental
• Various Artists, It's a Good, Good Feeling: Fania Records (The Singles)
• Various Artists, Changüí: The Sound of Guantánamo
• Cande y Paulo, Cande y Paulo
• C. Tangana, El Madrileño
• Bola Sete, Samba In Seattle: Live In The Penthouse 1966-1968

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Frazer Harrison/Getty Images for NYFW: The Shows

Azealia Banks.

Frazer Harrison/Getty Images for NYFW: The Shows

I hate to admit it, but aside from the club tracks, my 2021 favorites were often aligned as "Problematic Fave-core" – fun yet stupid music that included RXKNephew yelling in a Death Grips-like cadence to "do some more drugs!", a Limp Bizkit revival, and, to put it bluntly, Iggy Azalea. To me this makes sense; in a chaotic year packed with change I found the most joy in songs that made me smile. Goofballs of rap like Babytron and Zack Fox, queer chaos like the "Sine From Above" remix, and the endearingly annoying cadences of SEBii and MC Boing were all highlights. These 20 songs may not be time-stopping all-timers, but they're all speaker-knocking earworms that, at the very least, will put a smile on your face too.

Top 20 Songs of 2021

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• Azealia Banks, "F*** Him All Night"
• Lana Del Rey, "White Dress"
• Nathy Peluso, "MAFIOSA"
• Zack Fox, "fafo"
• SEBii, "GUApp"
• RXKNephew, "Beam On Ya Toes"
• Stray Beast, "In Motion"
• Limp Bizkit, "Snacky Poo"
• Lady Gaga (feat. Elton John), "Sine From Above (Chester Lockhart, Mood Killer, Lil Texas Remix)"
• BabyTron, "Euro-Stepper"
• Yves Tumor, "Jackie"
• Lime, Jacques Greene, "Babe, We're Gonna Love Tonight (Jacques Greene Remix)"
• Tammy Lakkis, "Notice"
• Danny L Harle, MC Boing, "Boing Beat"
• Elton John, Dua Lipa, "Cold Heart (PNAU Remix)"
• Ross From Friends, "Life In A Mind"
• DJ Sabrina the Teenage DJ, "Being Alone"
• Majesto Mixer, Mario Judah, "I Miss The Rage (Majesto Remix)"
• Iggy Azalea, "Iam The Stripclub"
• Cardi B, "Up"

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Courtesy of the artist

Circuit des Yeux.

Courtesy of the artist

As is the way of existence, these album and song lists are unordered and unranked. Since this space is meant to reflect on my year of music, please also consider these 10 record labels that gave oblong form to my year: Educacion Cínica, Big Ego, No Quarter, Headsplit, An'Archives, Discos Peroquébien, Grime Stone, Chinabot, RVNG Intl. and Three Lobed.

Top 10 Albums of 2021

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• Circuit Des Yeux, -io
• Dawn Richard, Second Line
• Yasmin Williams, Urban Driftwood
• Moor Mother, Black Encyclopedia of the Air
• William Parker, Migration of Silence Into and Out of The Tone World
• Pink Siifu, GUMBO'!
• Zao, The Crimson Corridor
• Daniel Bachman, Axacan
• Myriam Gendron, Ma délire - Songs of love, lost & found
• Fuubutsushi, Yamawarau

Top 10 Songs of 2021

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• Mannequin Pussy, "To Lose You"
• Les Filles de Illighadad, "Surbajo"
• Maria Elena Silva, "December"
• Lydia Loveless, "Let's Make Out"
• DijahSB, "Throw That Back"
• Duke Deuce, "Soldiers Steppin"
• Canary Room, "Christine"
• Starflyer 59, "Sunrise"
• Moin, "Crappy Dreams Count"
• Panopticon, "Know Hope"

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Daniel Boczarski/Getty Images for iHeartRadio

Doja Cat.

Daniel Boczarski/Getty Images for iHeartRadio

In a year saturated with excellent releases — luminous false starts idling in the shadow of this never-ending global tragedy — projects that maximized ferality won me over. Identifying and rejecting restrictions to embrace innate curiosity, overwhelming desire and the love of connection. I wanted to drown in someone else's emotion, to be reminded that I wasn't the only well in the world. This year, my favorite feral sounds to get lost in were a melancholic sax bursting through to joy; cicadas chirping in the night; glass shattering; dogs barking; and, of course, the feverish warped glitching of a "yuh."

Top 10 Albums of 2021

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1. Jazmine Sullivan, Heaux Tales
2. Little Simz, Sometimes I Might Be Introvert
3. Summer Walker, Still Over It
4. WILLOW, lately I feel EVERYTHING
5. Doja Cat, Planet Her (Deluxe)
6. Remi Wolf, Juno
7. Yola, Stand for Myself
8. The Marías, CINEMA
9. Isaiah Rashad, The House Is Burning
10. Helado Negro, Far In

Top 10 Songs of 2021

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1. Lucy Dacus, "Thumbs"
2. Noname, "Rainforest"
3. Japanese Breakfast, "Slide Tackle"
4. Olivia Rodrigo, "brutal"
5. Mitski, "Working for the Knife"
6. SZA, "I Hate U"
7. MUNA feat. Phoebe Bridgers, "Silk Chiffon"
8. PinkPantheress, "Just for me"
9. Taylor Swift, "All Too Well (10 Minute Version) (Taylor's Version) (From the Vault)"
10. Lorde, "Oceanic Feeling"

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Atlantic Records

The Blessed Madonna and Fred again..

Atlantic Records

Welp, here we are again. When I placed Fred again.. and The Blessed Madonna's "Marea (We've Lost Dancing)" in my Top 10 Songs of 2021 in late November, I thought of it as a poignant relic of a bygone era. Now, thanks to the omicron variant, I won't be getting those hugs with friends on the dancefloor just yet. The song's message remains frustratingly relevant: If we can live through these next six months, what happens next will be marvelous. Mask up, boost thyself and stay safe. We gon' make it through.

Top 10 Albums of 2021

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1. Jazmine Sullivan, Heaux Tales
2. Flyying Colours, Fantasy Country
3. Carly Pearce, 29: Written In Stone
4. Ghetts, Conflict Of Interest
5. Native Soul, Teenage Dreams
6. Yasmin Williams, Urban Driftwood
7. Koreless, Agor
8. Hamish Hawk, Heavy Elevator
9. Karine Polwart & Dave Milligan, Still As Your Sleeping
10. Massage, Still Life

Top 10 Songs of 2021

▶ LISTEN ON SPOTIFY

1. Porter Robinson, "Musician"
2. Petal Supply (feat. umru, DJ Himera & trndytrndy), "1"
3. Wet Leg, "Chaise Longue"
4. Cassandra Jenkins, "Hard Drive"
5. Sun-EL Musician (feat. Simmy), "Higher"
6. Fred again.. (feat. The Blessed Madonna), "Marea (We've Lost Dancing)"
7. Spice (feat. Shaggy & Sean Paul), "Go Down Deh"
8. Carly Pearce, "Diamondback"
9. Indigo De Souza, "Hold U"
10. Turnstile, "HOLIDAY"

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Jason Koerner/Getty Images for Audacy

girl in red.

Jason Koerner/Getty Images for Audacy

2020 was a year when I fell back into my oldest ways and interests; in short, my tastes were not unlike those of a middle schooler as I rewatched and relistened to the media of my past. 2021 gave way to new opportunities, new jobs, new friends and new things to obsess over, as if acting as a sort of bridge between my reverted tastes and new discoveries. My favorites of this year contain a mix of artists I've loved in the past and new discoveries I will love for a long time to come.

Top 10 Albums of 2021

▶ LISTEN ON SPOTIFY

• Lucy Dacus, Home Video
• girl in red, if i could make it go quiet
• Japanese Breakfast, Jubilee
• Mdou Moctar, Afrique Victime
• Isaiah Rashad, The House Is Burning
• Olivia Rodrigo, SOUR
• Snail Mail, Valentine
• Jazmine Sullivan, Heaux Tales
• Turnstile, GLOW ON
• Various artists, Almost Famous (Music From The Motion Picture / 20th Anniversary / Super Deluxe)

Top 10 Songs of 2021

▶ LISTEN ON SPOTIFY

• Baby Keem (feat. Kendrick Lamar), "range brothers"
• Clairo, "Amoeba"
• Lucy Dacus, "Cartwheel"
• Natalie Jane Hill, "Orb Weaver"
• Injury Reserve, "Knees"
• MUNA (feat. Phoebe Bridgers), "Silk Chiffon"
• Pom Pom Squad, "Drunk Voicemail"
• Rostam, "Kinney"
• Jazmine Sullivan, "Put It Down"
• Taylor Swift, "Mr. Perfectly Fine (Taylor's Version) (From the Vault)"

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Gareth Cattermole/Getty Images

Dodie.

Gareth Cattermole/Getty Images

As the poet Louise Erdrich said, "life will break you" and "nobody can protect you from that." But, really, that's okay. At the end of the day, grief, pain, loneliness and yearning are all an inextricable part of the seemingly endless and mysterious human experience. We are here to love and lose and love again. And, as Erdrich writes, when you are hurting, "Let yourself sit by an apple tree and listen to the apples falling all around you in heaps, wasting their sweetness. Tell yourself you tasted as many as you could."

Top 10 Albums of 2021

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• Ada Lea, one hand on the steering wheel another sewing a garden
• Arlo Parks, Collapsed In Sunbeams
• Dodie, Build A Problem
• Joell Ortiz, Autograph
• Little Simz, Sometimes I Might Be Introvert
• Low, Hey What
• Noga Erez, KIDS
• Pom Pom Squad, Death of a Cheerleader
• Remi Wolf, Juno
• Solemn Brigham, South Sinner Street

Top 10 Songs of 2021

▶ LISTEN ON SPOTIFY

• Amy Shark, "Amy Shark"
• Baby Queen, "You Shaped Hole"
• Dodie, "Hate Myself"
• Deb Never, "Stupid"
• Elizabeth and the Catapult, "Together, Alone"
• girl in red, "Serotonin"
• Joell Ortiz, "Uncle Chris Car"
• Joy Crookes, "Poison"
• Meet Me @ The Altar, "Feel A Thing"
• Torres, "Are You Sleepwalking?"

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Innova Recordings

Arlene Acevedo, Aline Vasquez, Alexis Carter and Tiahna Sterling of Recap.

Innova Recordings

A continuing pandemic, an attempted coup d'etat at our Capitol and further racial injustice — just a few things on my mind this year. In perilous times, music often comes to my rescue, and I leaned hard on music again in 2021. Thankfully, musicians hunkered down in studios with robust results. The thrill of discovering Emily D'Angelo's plush voice was a highlight this year, as was facing the staggering symphonic force of the 90-year-old composer Sofia Gubaidulina and delighting in the debut album by a quartet of teenage percussionists. These are among my rays of hope shining through another embattled year.

Top 10 Albums of 2021

▶ LISTEN ON SPOTIFY

• Wild Up, Julius Eastman Vol. 1: Femenine
• Arooj Aftab, Vulture Prince
• Emily D'Angelo, enargeia
• Toumani Diabaté & London Symphony Orchestra, Kôrôlén
• Anna B Savage, A Common Turn
• Recap, Count to Five
• Lucy Dacus, Home Video
• Žibuoklė Martinaitytė, Saudade
• Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, Andris Nelsons, Sofia Gubaidulina: Orchestral works
• Lucas Debargue / Gidon Kremer / Kremerata Baltica, Zal The Music of Miłosz Magin

Top 10 Songs of 2021

▶ LISTEN ON SPOTIFY

• Toumani Diabaté & London Symphony Orchestra, "Elyne Road"
• Anna B Savage, "Baby Grand"
• Arooj Aftab, "Baghon Main"
• Tyshawn Sorey & Alarm Will Sound, "For George Lewis"
• Lucy Dacus, "Thumbs"
• Recap, "Hedera"
• Baby Rose, "Go"
• Will Liverman, "Two Black Churches: No. 2, The Rain"
• Morgen Wurde, "Weiht"
• Max Richter & Baltic Sea Philharmonic, "Flowers of Herself"

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Graham Tolbert/Sub Pop

Flock of Dimes' Jenn Wasner.

Graham Tolbert/Sub Pop

What a delight – in a year of so much drab sameness, of anticipation and then canceled plans – to hear a song or album for the first time and think: This is exactly where I want to be. And then to retain that feeling as you listen to it over and over for the next little while. This year, I noted each time I heard a new voice that felt like an old friend or a story I thought I knew told from a fresh angle; here's a selection of those moments, arranged alphabetically.

Top 10 Albums of 2021

▶ LISTEN ON SPOTIFY

• Lucy Dacus, Home Video
• Indigo de Souza, Any Shape You Take
• Flock of Dimes, Head of Roses
• Illuminati Hotties, Let Me Do One More
• Japanese Breakfast, Jubilee
• Katy Kirby, Cool Dry Place
• Ovlov, Buds
• Palberta, Palberta5000
• Rosie Tucker, Sucker Supreme
• Turnstile, Glow On

Top 10 Songs of 2021

▶ LISTEN ON SPOTIFY

• Big Thief, "Little Things"
• Cassandra Jenkins, "Hard Drive"
• Ada Lea, "damn"
• Lil Nas X, "MONTERO"
• Mitski, "Working For The Knife"
• MUNA, "Silk Chiffon"
• Caroline Polachek, "Bunny Is A Rider"
• Pom Pom Squad, "Drunk Voicemail"
• Sharon Van Etten and Angel Olsen, "Like I Used To"
• Water From Your Eyes, "'Quotations'"

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Amy Sussman/Getty Images

BTS.

Amy Sussman/Getty Images

The NPR Music team listened to a lot of excellent music this year and unfortunately, some of it didn't make any of our lists. Here are a few of my favorites that don't appear anywhere in our Best Music of 2021 compilations. There is no theme or order to this list. These songs and albums aren't ranked; it's just good music that speaks to me in a powerful way.

Top 10 Albums of 2021

▶ LISTEN ON SPOTIFY

• Artifacts, ...and Then There's This
• Greentea Peng, Man Made
• H.E.R., Back of My Mind
• Vijay Iyer Trio, Uneasy
• Sons of Kemet, Black to the Future
• Native Soul, Teenage Dreams
• Nubya Garcia, SOURCE ⧺ WE MOVE
• Emma-Jean Thackray, Yellow
• Tirzah, Colourgrade
• Caetano Veloso, Meu Coco

Top 10 Songs of 2021

▶ LISTEN ON SPOTIFY

• BTS, "Permission To Dance"
• Jacob Banks, "Found"
• John Glacier, "Platoon"
• Omar S, "Heaven Knows"
• Genesis Owusu, "Waitin' on Ya"
• The Paper Kites (feat. Julia Stone), "Without Your Love"
• Portico Quartet, "Terrain: 1"
• Skepta (feat. J Balvin), "Nirvana"
• Tonstartssbandht, "What Has Happened"
• Julia Wolf, "Villain"

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Rich Fury/Getty Images

Flo Milli.

Rich Fury/Getty Images

Much like the Ramones, I've spent the better part of this year sitting in my room. But thankfully, through Instagram Stories, Spotify links and lovingly curated playlists from friends, I've still found ways to swap songs I love with the people I love. From all the melodies I've been lucky enough to exchange this year, here's a selection with no particular hierarchy — save the well-earned No. 1 placement of "Roaring 20s," because absolutely nothing has made me laugh harder this year than Flo Milli rapping over Zero Mostel's rendition of "If I Were a Rich Man."

Top 10 Albums of 2021

▶ LISTEN ON SPOTIFY

• Kojaque, Town's Dead
• Måneskin, Teatro d'ira - Vol. I
• Susana Baca, Palabras Urgentes
• Angélica Garcia, Echo Eléctrico
• Willy Fishman, ¡Guachi Guau!
• Fito Páez, Los Años Salvajes
• Delvon Lamarr Organ Trio, I Told You So
• No-No Boy, 1975
• Caetano Veloso, Meu Coco
• C. Tangana, El Madrileño

Top 10 Songs of 2021

▶ LISTEN ON SPOTIFY

• Flo Milli, "Roaring 20s"
• The Foxies, "Timothée Chalamet"
• Jonas Brothers, "Who's In Your Head"
• The Halluci Nation (feat. Chippewa Travellers), "It's Over"
• Rico Nasty, "Magic"
• Sech, "Sal y Perrea"
• Jasiah (feat. Denzel Curry & Rico Nasty), "Art of War"
• Hamilton Leithauser & Kevin Morby, "Virginia Beach"
• Shannon & The Clams, "Midnight Wine"
• Juanes, "Volver"

Valerie June. Fantasy Records hide caption

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Fantasy Records

Valerie June.

Fantasy Records

The end of 2021 is offering a powerful, if jarring message to culture critics whose egos are bound up in their opinions. A few great songs and albums are surfacing as consensus picks within the morass of year-end best-of features, but even those represent nonconformist impulses and private pleasures more than any sense of a public sphere. And the proliferation of lists makes it difficult to have a maverick opinion, too: Everything is being touted by someone, somewhere.

As someone who's often wrestled with an overwhelming sense of personal insignificance, I find this situation unnerving but ultimately liberating. It feels like there's finally, truly no point in trying to explain the year through a survey or to assert my taste as some kind of bellwether of artists' future influence. I'm just a friend here, sharing some stuff that you might not have heard. Shoutouts to the albums and songs that are getting bigger shine (I wrote about a few here and here). Below are a few that spoke to me beyond the buzz that's not cohering anyway. Oh — and I made a playlist that's as long as a work day featuring many other favorites. Check it here.

Top 10 Albums of 2021

▶ Listen on Spotify

1. Valerie June, The Moon and Stars: Prescriptions For Dreamers
2. Caetano Veloso, Meu Coco
3. Tre Burt, You, Yeah, You
4. Melanie Charles, Y'all Don't (Really) Care About Black Women
5. Joy Crookes, Skin
6. Sam Williams, Glasshouse Children
7. McKinley Dixon, For My Mama and Anyone Who Look Like Her
8. Sierra Ferrell, Long Time Coming
9. Willie Dunn, Creation Never Sleeps, Creation Never Dies: The Willie Dunn Anthology
10. Rhiannon Giddens with Franceso Turrisi, They're Calling Me Home

Top 15 Songs of 2021

▶ Listen on Spotify

1. Rainbow Girls, "Free Wine"
2. Leon Bridges, "Motorbike"
3. Felice Brothers, "Jazz on the Autobahn"
4. Adeline, "Whisper My Name"
5. Alexa Rose, "Clearwater Park"
6. Jon Vinyl, "Stacy"
7. Margo Cilker, "Broken Arm in Oregon"
8. Leela James, "Complicated"
9. Dave, "Three Rivers"
10. Clairo, "Blouse"
11. Loraine James featuring Baths, "On the Lake Outside"
12. Le Ren featuring Tenci, "Annabelle and MaryAnne"
13. Serpentwithfeet, "same size shoe"
14. Jackson + Sellers, "Waste Your Time"
15. Tai Verdes, "A-O-K"

From left: Alizzz, Jorge Drexler, C. Tangana. Ash Ponders for NPR hide caption

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Ash Ponders for NPR

From left: Alizzz, Jorge Drexler, C. Tangana.

Ash Ponders for NPR

Change was the inescapable yet exhilarating undercurrent of my year. Between moving back across the country, graduating from school and completing a full circle year with NPR, I needed a soundtrack to color all the transition and match the unpredictability of my own personal moment. There was no shortage of music that fit that need. I'm dedicating this page and este año to all the amazing Latinos who carried on with la lucha this year and made expectation-defiant, wide-reaching sonic masterpieces. These artists filled life with a lot of smiles and copious amounts of living room dancing.

Top 10 Albums of 2021

▶ LISTEN ON SPOTIFY

• C. Tangana, El Madrileño
• Mon Laferte, SEIS
• Natalia Lafourcade, Un Canto Por México, Vol. II
• Little Simz, Sometimes I Might Be Introvert
• Mexican Institute of Sound, Distrito Federal
• Rodrigo Amarante, Drama
• Rita Payés and Elisabeth Roma, Como La Piel
• Cimafunk, El Alimento
• Myke Towers, Lyke Mike
• Olivia Rodrigo, SOUR

Top 10 Songs of 2021

▶ LISTEN ON SPOTIFY

• Gabriel Garzón-Montano, "Tombs"
• Valeria Castro, "guerrera"
• Rauw Alejandro, "Todo de Ti"
• Nicki Nicole (feat. Lunay), "No Toque Mi Naik"
• Bad Bunny, "Yonaguni"
• Silvana Estrada, "Marchita"
• Lucky Daye (feat. Yebba), "How Much Can a Heart Take"
• Maria Becerra, "Acaramelao"
• Girl Ultra, "rosas (dimelo)"
• Salt Cathedral (feat. Ximena Sariñana), "Te Quiero Olvidar"

December 16

NPR Music 2021 Staff Picks: Cat Sposato

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Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images for Disney

Zayn Malik.

Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images for Disney

This year, my music listening habits were fraught with the battles of the generation wars. My music taste contains multitudes, and while most of my favorite projects and tracks were made by my favorite millennial artists, like ZAYN, Adele and Aventura, I also found myself flocking to artists that represent the new vanguard in music: Gen-Zers like Lil Nas X, Talia Goddess and Joshua Bassett topped my playlists over and over again.

It's also disingenuous of me to try to pretend that much of my list this year didn't come straight off of my TikTok "For You" page. The artists I'm holding closest to my heart were ones I wouldn't have found without the app, like Sarah Kinsley and Jensen McRae. While I struggle with the app's grip on the charts and what that will mean for the industry moving forward, I've got to admit it, it has brought me some of this year's absolute best.

Top 10 Albums of 2021

▶ LISTEN ON SPOTIFY

1. ZAYN, Nobody is Listening
2. Lil Nas X, MONTERO
3. Natalia Lafourcade, Un Canto por México, Vol. II
4. Adele, 30
5. Xenia Rubinos, Una Rosa
6. Olivia Rodrigo, SOUR
7. Sech, 42
8. Diamante Eléctrico, Mira Lo Que Me Hiciste Hacer
9. Brittany Howard, Jaime (Reimagined)
10. Doja Cat, Planet Her

Top 10 Songs of 2021

▶ LISTEN ON SPOTIFY

1. Adele, "To Be Loved"
2. ZAYN, "Tightrope"
3. Sarah Kinsley, "The King"
4. Omar Apollo ft. Kali Uchis, "Bad Life"
5. Joshua Bassett, "Crisis"
6. Diamante Eléctrico, "Suéltame, Bogotá"
7. Olivia Rodrigo, "Jealousy, Jealousy"
8. Talia Goddess, "Poster Girl"
9. Aventura (feat. Bad Bunny), "Volví"
10. Jensen McRae, "My Ego Dies At The End"

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Rich Fury/Getty Images

Bo Burnham.

Rich Fury/Getty Images

It can be hard to tease out commonalities in any given best-of-the-year list; after all, the primary commonality they share is that one irrelevant stray speck in an unfeeling universe singled them out for praise at the same time. But this particular speck was endlessly moved by the vast well of empathy these works contain, whether they tell untold stories (Jazmine Sullivan), grow from their pain (Arooj Aftab, Emily Scott Robinson, Madi Diaz, Cassandra Jenkins, Allison Russell, et al) or, like Bo Burnham, merely indulge in "the quiet comprehending of the ending of it all."

Top 10 Albums of 2021

▶ LISTEN ON SPOTIFY

1. Arooj Aftab, Vulture Prince
2. Jazmine Sullivan, Heaux Tales
3. Emily Scott Robinson, American Siren
4. Madi Diaz, History Of A Feeling
5. Flock Of Dimes, Head Of Roses
6. Allison Russell, Outside Child
7. Olivia Rodrigo, SOUR
8. Lucy Dacus, Home Video
9. Black Country, New Road, For the first time
10. Bo Burnham, Inside (The Songs)

Top 10 Songs of 2021

▶ LISTEN ON SPOTIFY

1. Cassandra Jenkins, "Hard Drive"
2. Jazmine Sullivan, "The Other Side"
3. Emily Scott Robinson, "Let 'Em Burn"
4. Big Thief, "Little Things"
5. Muna, "Silk Chiffon (feat. Phoebe Bridgers)"
6. Snail Mail, "Valentine"
7. Madi Diaz, "Nervous"
8. Yasmin Williams, "Juvenescence"
9. Bo Burnham/Phoebe Bridgers, "That Funny Feeling"
10. Jon Hopkins, "Sit Around The Fire (feat. Ram Dass & East Forest)"

The Best Music Of 2021: Staff Picks

The Best Music Of 2021: NPR Staff Picks

NPR Music's writers and producers share their personal favorites of the year