NPR Music's 100 Best Songs of 2021
"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.)
"All Too Well (10 Minute Version) (Taylor's Version) (From The Vault)"
At 22, Taylor Swift released 2012's Red and came of age in the interstices between country and pop, heartbreak and freedom. At 31, Swift has now released Red (Taylor's Version), revisiting some unprocessed wounds with nine years of distance, freeing her to relish an anger she once restrained herself from expressing. With this 10-minute version of cult classic "All Too Well," Swift extends compassion to her vulnerable younger self through damning, targeted lyrics — "And I was never good at telling jokes, but the punch line goes, 'I'll get older, but your lovers stay my age' " — and studious observations. The most powerful weapon in Swift's arsenal is her ability to deploy a collective memory of her romantic life. In returning to a past relationship that left her with outsized discomfort, she bridges youthful grief with mature perspective.
New, meticulous lyrical details reveal that from the inside, the highly publicized and theorized relationship in question was unequal. The edited five-and-a-half-minute version is blame-free and even nostalgic, but the 10-minute version of "All Too Well" is a seething, scorched earth tragedy as Swift, rightfully so, transforms into the crazed woman she's been made out to be all along. Even as moored as it is in Swiftian fanlore, "All Too Well (10 Minute Version) (Taylor's Version) (From The Vault)" proves itself to be Swift's most authentic song, a significant credit to her vast discography that sets the record straight once and for all. —LaTesha Harris
Rhiannon Giddens & Francesco Turrisi
The most powerful incantations make you dance. "Avalon," by American folk exploder Rhiannon Giddens and Italian border-leaper Francesco Turrisi, works that kind of alchemy. Cowritten with Justin Robinson (of Giddens' former band the Carolina Chocolate Drops), the song arises at death's border: As she, Turrisi and guitarist Niwel Tsumbu lock into each others rhythm, Giddens plays the part of a graveside mourner who suddenly can glimpse the afterlife. The only original song on Giddens and Turrisi's masterful album They're Calling Me Home, "Avalon" opens the gateway to its suite of homecoming and homegoing songs. On its own, it's a prayer beyond religion, pulsing with earthly joy. —Ann Powers
Anna B Savage
The singer Anna B Savage, these days based on the West Coast of Ireland, swoons and soars with "Baby Grand," telling a deeply personal tale of a complex relationship through a night spent listening to music together under a baby grand piano. "You rest your head on me under the baby grand / I am frozen, it's so familiar / You've fallen asleep, I hold my own hand." With a voice that will likely attract any Joni Mitchell aficionado, Anna's stark sound is enthralling, alluring and one-of-a-kind. —Bob Boilen
Rappers have been personifying their vices as love interests since the beginning of rhyme. Common used to love H.E.R. Scarface sought solace in Mary Jane. Pac relied on his trigger-happy "girlfriend" in this life of sin. There's a lot to be said about men gendering carnal weakness as feminine temptation, but Moneybagg Yo takes it a step further by giving his dependency a pet name: Wockesha is his lover, his therapist, his crutch — but mostly she's the lean in his styrofoam cup. Needless to say, it's a toxic relationship. "I hope I don't OD / she keep saying po' me," Yo melodically raps over the same DeBarge sample that made Biggie's "One More Chance/Stay With Me (Remix)" a hit Bad Boy ballad 26 years ago. The thing is Moneybagg Yo knows his thug passion for Wockesha is problematic. But it's a constant cycle of yearning and being burned. "One minute I'm done with you / the next one I be running back," he confesses. "Go your way, I go my way / but somehow we be still attached." In an age where addiction takes so many lives too soon, Moneybagg's honesty is heartening and frightening at the same time. —Rodney Carmichael
Few things feel more lawless than being drunk and heartbroken at a party where you're this close to sneaking away from your friends to text an ex. Snail Mail's "Automate" speaks to this sensation as Lindsey Jordan pines for a false reality with the person she loves while settling for a stranger. In what may be one of Jordan's strongest songs lyrically, she constantly questions her thoughts, her actions and her object of affection. Her clouded mindset communicates a clarity that so many of us lack soberly: "I guess I couldn't keep her fire out / And I'm like your dog," she sings, and later, "childishly I'm lonely when it's time to clear out the party." —Sofie Hernandez-Simeonidis
Imagine opening a door expecting a library but finding a rave. That's "Pepas" by Farruko. The whispery first verse quickly escalates into a raging party anthem, complete with chants, that is simultaneously reggaeton and EDM. Full disclosure, I had no idea what the song was called or what it was about after hearing it blasted everywhere — bodegas, bars, and passing cars — since June. But every time I did, I surrendered to the beat. Turns out, I understood the assignment. Generously translated, the song prescribes living in the moment and partying like there is no tomorrow (albeit with a little extra help.) —Nikki Birch
One of country music's great themes, and the root of its meaningful melancholy, is the fact that life goes on even after devastating loss. After you fall to pieces, albums like Carly Pearce's graceful, funny and impeccably honest divorce album 29: Written in Stone attests, you have to pick yourself up. The title track, written with masters of the well-honed confession Shane McAnally and Josh Osborne, is Pearce's act of coming clean, admitting that picture-perfect isn't in the cards for her. Few expressions of heartache are this clear-headed, this self-incriminating in the name of healing. "Let's just call it what it was," Pearce sings in her lonesome alto. She's readying herself for the next step. —Ann Powers
"That Funny Feeling"
Once we're lucky enough to look at the pandemic in hindsight, Bo Burnham's Netflix tragicomedy special Inside will stand as one of its greatest artifacts. A time-capsule entry that captures the finer points of lockdown life, Inside unleashed a torrent of simultaneously hilarious and powerful songs like "That Funny Feeling," which captures what it might have been like had Elliott Smith attempted to rewrite "We Didn't Start the Fire." (Sample lyric: "Carpool Karaoke, Steve Aoki, Logan Paul / a gift shop at the gun range, a mass shooting at the mall.") In a textbook case of "game recognize game," Phoebe Bridgers began covering the song almost immediately; that the song fits seamlessly into her catalog speaks well of them both. —Stephen Thompson
Among the many explorations of what it takes and how it feels to take charge on Yola's virtuosic album Stand for Myself, "Starlight" is the most sophisticated display of sensuality. It's a sumptuous track, an inspired exploration of disco-era soul and also a thoroughly grown-up fantasy. While awaiting consummation, she savors desire itself. During the verses, she ends her long, sumptuous phrases with a sly, syncopated push, then elevates the sense of anticipation with her luxuriant delivery of the hook. —Jewly Hight, WNXP
"Back Of My Hand"
Melina Duterte and Ellen Kemper seem born for each other. On Doomin' Sun, their debut album as Bachelor, they've taken their respective projects Jay Som and Palehound and turned friendship into grit and tenderness. "Back Of My Hand" is a deep dive into creepy, over-the-top fandom. Kempner takes on the role of the stan, singing, "I'm your biggest fan / Got your song in my head / And your poster's above my bed / You watch me sleepin'." The chorus is a beautiful burst of guitar and synth, a sound that I hope isn't just a one-time project. —Bob Boilen
Tinashe (feat. Jeremih)
With 333, Tinashe's second independent release since leaving RCA in 2019, the California singer-songwriter enters her enlightened goddess era. True to the angel number it's named after, the album explores utopias removed from fear, and "X," featuring Jeremih, leans on seductive coos and an experimental mid-tempo beat to manifest a devil-may-care night between the sheets. Tinashe's impish vocal delivery glides between singing and rapping as she dares, "X marks the spot, now can you find it?" —LaTesha Harris
Pom Pom Squad
Pom Pom Squad's "Drunk Voicemail" is as scathing as its heartache. It resuscitates, in just three and a half minutes, the lost art of the dark and gritty love song — or, if a visual helps, what overlaps in the venn diagram of "destructive relationships" and "alternative rock." "Wanna tell you that I hate you but it'd be a lie / 'Cause I think I love you more than I am willing to try," Mia Berrin sings. With gnawing guitars and vocals at their wits' end, "Drunk Voicemail" depicts someone holding on to a love so powerful, not quite ready to give it away. —Alex Ramos
Nas's last two projects, Kings Disease I and II, have shown that he's embraced his elder statesmanship, and more importantly, with Hit-Boy at his side, he's recouped docked points in the beat picking category. On "Moments," his perspective is that of an emcee who's had enough success to enjoy the spoils and enough tenure to realize that time is the invaluable commodity that he can't get back: "Like taking your first swim / Like still being a virgin / Take your training wheels off the rim / Moving in your first crib or having your first kid / Moments you can't relive." —Bobby Carter
While opera singers were sidelined during the pandemic, baritone Will Liverman made his dream album – one devoted to Black composers. He commissioned Shawn Okpebholo to write Two Black Churches, which includes "The Rain," a dark mediation on the horrific 2015 church shooting in Charleston, S.C. With water as a recurring image, the song reveals its pain slowly and deliberately. Midway through, Liverman's velvety voice rises high to a hushed falsetto as he sings "Emanuel AME Church." The song ends with a shower of rippling piano notes turning to solitary, slowly rising chords, as if trying to keep its head above water. —Tom Huizenga
Indigo De Souza
Who hasn't yearned, at least once, for a way out? On "Way Out," North Carolina indie rocker Indigo de Souza weights the simple titular request with boundless possibility, clawing away at the ghosts and monsters of her insecure mind. "I want to be a light," she wails above jagged guitar by the end, in a song that distills the hard, grasping work of embracing emotional vulnerability. —Hazel Cills
"Headshots (4r Da Locals)"
Since the release of his mainstream debut, 2014's Cilvia Demo, Isaiah Rashad has been hyper-focused on relaying his life lessons in the most relaxed, laid-back manner possible. That includes his slip-ups and struggles, and his self-described fixation on death and mortality. The chorus of "Headshots (4r Da Locals)" features Rashad crooning vulnerably alongside an uncredited female singer, while another unknown figure wails longingly in the background; the vocals commingle in a way that sets Rashad up to languidly stroll through the rest of the song, while coming back to this home base of internal conflict. Altogether, it feels like Isaiah Rashad sharing his pertinent messages of growth and determination, while acknowledging he's only human. —Kiana Fitzgerald
One of the more refreshing K-pop comebacks of 2021, STAYC's "Stereotype" addresses — with attitude — the pressures that come with being girls in the public eye. STAYC invites listeners to look and listen past their girl group structure and "teen fresh" concept; those who follow through are met with unique voices and charismatic personalities. The track allows each member to showcase how the spotlight hits them best, while bouncing off of the other members' energies. Despite their small body of work, STAYC seems almost serendipitously formed — "Stereotype," a song written for the group way before their debut in 2020, is proof. —Alex Ramos
Phil Pendergast's got a voice that will break your headbanging heart — his vibrato reaches beneath the surface of despair and rattles the senses awake. But without the combined talent and weathered vulnerability of guitarist Ben Hutcherson and drummer Zach Coleman, Khemmis would not ring so intensely. From Deceiver, "Avernal Gate" opens with an acoustic guitar duet that nods to Master of Puppets, a Metallica comparison not given lightly, as the seven-minute track intricately weaves doom-metal yearning with classic heavy metal riffing and soul-ripping feedback. "Avernal Gate," self-aware yet empowered, meditates on your darkest reflection, with a blast-beaten outro that screams the forthcoming oblivion: "Beneath the tide of cinders, I accept this is my fate." —Lars Gotrich
Charging every pulse with a rapid-fire beat, there's a sense of urgency to "Orca." As the music shifts in sound and tempo, the instruments whoop and careen recklessly through Orisaka's bombastic process of reinvention. The song collects in itself all the best parts of jazz — the endless creativity, the joy of exploring — to create the kind of melody that immediately catches your ear, forcing you to stop and listen. —Fi O'Reilly
As the reigning queen of Jersey Club music, UNIIQU3 has spent the last several years churning out bubbly club bangers, and "Microdosing" is a fast and furious addition to her excellent catalogue. "Stop microdosing my love," UNIIQU3 sings in the chorus over a frenetic beat, sweetening a demand to commit with the promise of a never-ending high, before spitting in the verses: "I ain't something you can reject." Cuffing season has arrived. —Hazel Cills
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