The 21 Best Songs of 2021

A great song can beckon you onto the dance floor or deep into your feels; inspire you to stand up or throw a middle finger as you walk away; shout along to the words or just get lost in effable sound. These are our favorite tracks of 2021 — unranked and individually selected — they helped us get up in the morning and fall asleep (or stay awake) at night. Or sometimes we simply played them on repeat, because you never need a reason to hear your favorite song. 

Read on, and check out our Best Songs of 2021 Spotify playlist for the full list and bonus tracks (plenty of ‘em).

Amber Mark — “Worth It”

At the mid-year point, Amber Mark's "Worth It" was my song of the year.  And it still is. Everything I loved about it then still very much applies now, thus my mid-year sentiments stay intact here. Since that time, Amber has released even more stunning singles from the upcoming January 2022 album “Three Dimensions Deep,” proving that "Worth It" is no fluke. Southern California folks craving to see Amber Mark live should take note of the conspicuous absence of a Los Angeles date at this point in her spring West Coast tour. Might she be playing a certain festival in April? — Scott Dallavo, KCRW DJ

Baby Keem featuring Kendrick Lamar — "Family Ties"

It’s been over four years since Kendrick Lamar released a solo album, and for as long, I’ve waited impatiently for new words from him. My impatience was rewarded this summer, when “family ties,” a single by emerging artist (and Lamar’s younger cousin) Baby Keem, blessed car stereos around the world with Lamar’s feature. “family ties” finds both cousins at the top of their game. As an artist who’s been both praised and pigeonholed for his gravitas, Kendrick lets himself have fun on this track. He plays with his voice, does his best Hulk Hogan impression, flexes his rap muscles, and proves that, yes, after three years of virtual silence, he’s not a “trending topic,” he’s still “a prophet.” 

While Lamar’s been a household name for arguably a decade, Keem is a fresh face to many. Before releasing his acclaimed debut “The Melodic Blue” this fall, Keem had a growing following and was at the forefront of Lamar’s new interdisciplinary media company, pgLang. On “family ties,” over beat switches, flow changes, and rarely a breath in between, the 21-year-old artist proves himself worthy of going bar for bar alongside the greatest rapper of this generation. “family ties” is a grand entrance for Keem into the next phase of his career, a momentous reemergence for Lamar, and a triumphant preview of what the future holds for pgLang. In short, “amazing, brother.” — Surreal Lewis, KCRW Music Intern

Bo Burnham - “That Funny Feeling”

Bo Burnham's tour-de-force, COVID era-defining, comedy(?) special "Inside" dropped on Netflix the Friday before Memorial Day. As is the case with most of Burnham's best material, the jokes — such as they are — are delivered in song form. There were perhaps flashier options to highlight, like the Insta-viral "White Woman's Instagram," or the synthpop dream of tone-setting opener "Content," which for someone (me) who frequently dreams of content that doesn't exist, would have been a no-brainer. 

And yet, it's “That Funny Feeling” — this disquieting faux-campfire sing-along about the weird, smoothing-out effect that too much time spent in front of the internet can have on a human brain — that stuck with me the most. It's the song I find myself murmuring while I wash the dishes: "Carpool karaoke, Steve Aoki, Logan Paul..." It's the song that caused another of my favorite creators, Joanna Robinson, to simply tweet: "There it is again. That funny feeling." The song has the power to make you like that tweet right away without thinking about it, because you get it. But then you immediately delete Twitter from your phone, because you get it. — Marion Hodges, Administrative Assistant, KCRW Music

Dua Saleh — "Fitt"

Dua Saleh, a Sudanese-born artist now based in Minneapolis, is making a splash as a genre-bending visionary, and the single "Fitt" is perhaps the most dizzyingly difficult to define. "Fitt" begins with a gritty boom-bap beat, then ascends into a harp-heavy interlude worthy of a Minnie Riperton classic before morphing into a dancehall hip-shaker. The song is so incredibly sexy and infectious you may barely catch the name-checking of both “Catcher in the Rye” and Riddick Bowe... but really, the lyric "turn up the beat, make 'em lose control' is the one that best applies. — Dan Wilcox, KCRW DJ

Duendita — “Bio”

Duendita is fascinating on so many levels. There was a point during lockdown where her music soothed my soul, and I loved playing her records on KCRW hoping it would do the same for others. There’s something to be said about her range and style, but just hit play and you not only hear her but feel her. The listener can sense the joy, the pain, the optimism, and everything else she expresses into her songs. 

“Bio” is Duendita’s way of playing with sound in the form of a curious scientist. The Afro-Latina musician is also very active in her messaging and activism. Whether she’s uplifting causes or spirits, her magic is constantly on full display for all to see, share, and feel. — Anthony Valadez, KCRW DJ and co-host of Morning Becomes Eclectic

Esperanza Spalding — “Formwela 2”

The sun. The rays upon our skin. The warm feelings that we have as we breathe and utilize the natural elements of our earth. How does music and our natural environment heal us and make us whole? An effort to strip life down to our simple selves. Stress free, away from all of the layers of debt, doom, responsibility, gloom, ailments, pain, and suffering is a place where minds can wander free. Bodies can be free; in a world where everything is possible; no boxes, no labels just sound imagination, silence, the Gods’ natural landscape, and good positive vibrations that existed way before we inhabited the planet. 

As mystical as it sounds, esperanza spalding may possess a different way of communicating with the world. Not acting or reacting, but really having a vision of what is possible and acting on that vision musically and scientifically. Sonic potions, grounded well within the contours of rhythm, but simultaneously touching the stars!

The Songwriters Apothecary Lab, also the name of spalding’s eighth studio album, released this year, is an accumulation of musicians, neuroscientists, therapists, phycologists, and ethnomusicologists in search of healing vibrations. Sonic prescriptions all with the purpose of bringing us back to the balance of our true selves. “Formwela 2” was composed in Wasco County, Oregon by absorbing the beauty of this environment and letting nature dictate composition. An inhale and exhale of sorts, a natural gift musically re-imagined to bring us peace!

Clear your mind, sit in silence, close your eyes, and listen! — LeRoy Downs, KCRW DJ and host of Just Jazz

Gabriels — “Blame”

The song “Blame” by Gabriels echoes emotions and chord progressions of the ‘30s and ‘40s, when select Black people could be exalted for their talents when entertaining, but upon stepping off the stage, descended to the ranks and maltreatment of their peers. The timeless piano chords, the sophistication of the strings, and pageantry of timpani drums give that richness in sound on “Blame,” giving way to singer Jacob Lusk's haunting vocals that, as the lyrics depict, seem to fall and get back up every time. Then, in classic song structure, the bridge comes and the band meanders into new chordal territory while the high vibrato of Lusk's voice conjures Billie Holiday at her most yearning moments, before resolving to the fact that things are the way they are — and we take what we can get.

“Blame” admits the quandary of glamor and exploitation. Sure, the pomp and circumstance of high society is a seductive gaze, so who's to blame when the rat chases the cheese and gets lost in the maze? — Jeremy Sole, KCRW DJ

Hector Morlet - “Picture Frame”

Hector Morlet is one of Perth's newest exports, bringing with him warm and inviting vocals. “Picture Frame” is his debut release and was featured on KCRW's Global Beat Australia earlier this year after being discovered by AMRAP's Andrew Khedoori. It's one of those songs that latches on to you immediately and doesn't let go. His sound isn't something that can easily fall into a single genre. It's the feel of psychedelic pop, wrapped in a bit of neo soul, with a lovely touch from the comforting sounds of the clarinet. He has a sound uniquely his own, and the breezy, laid back vibe makes us eager to hear more from this rising star. — Raul Campos, KCRW DJ and host of Global Beat: Australia

James Blake - Life is Not The Same

This song is a reminder of just how much and how rapidly the past two years have changed the lives of so many, a heart-string-pulling confirmation that… well, life is not the same, whether we’re miles away, light years away, ages, dimensions away, whether you do it your way or theirs. The track paints the precise picture that so many people are experiencing simultaneously. With vocal stacks so rich and warm, all 3:20 of it is so beautifully orchestrated and layered. Such a gorgeous sonic trip. It’s one of those tracks that changes and amplifies as you relisten, especially through headphones. It’s a release, a healing element, uncovering new gems and layers with every listen. — Ro “Wyldeflower” Contreras, KCRW DJ

Julia Kwamya - “Wonderhow”

As is tradition, my thoughtfully curated, annual best-of list was locked up and in the bag… until the final days of November, when I found a boatload of amazing records I missed throughout the year, and was forced to reconsider everything.  At the helm of this 11th hour boatload of magic is Julia Kwamya, a Brooklyn-based singer-songwriter with an angelic vocal timbre and a proclivity toward sleek, nostalgia-adjacent, synth-driven instrumentals. The combination, captured on her latest EP “Feel Good About Feeling Bad,” is pop divinity.

"Wonderhow," my favorite single from Kwamya's EP, finds the perfect balance between energetic and ethereal — ideal for my time hosting Sunday’s late-night hours. Its percussive elements and bouncing bassline are heavy and round, grounding Kwamya’s soaring vocal melodies and accompanying guitar musings in a way that’s simply electrifying. In its totality, “Wonderhow" is pure and breezy, which perhaps is something we can all strive for in 2022. — John Moses, KCRW DJ

La Dame Blanche - “Veneno”

Describing the inspiration behind “Veneno,” Cuban-born La Dame Blanche shares that the track was born out of the collective isolation many of us felt at the height of the pandemic. As people the world over hunkered down in private silos having minimal contact with others, the rapper and musician found herself fighting despair. She shares on her Bandcamp page that she’d often ponder “the value of a caress, a kiss, a friend.” Indeed, solitude can be overwhelming, easily stripping us of our voice and sense of self. “Veneno” comes as a direct response to that desperation, an energetic anthem declaring that she has no intention of being silenced. 

The track begins with an intriguing flute solo showcasing her skills as a classically trained flautist, before exploding into heavy percussion with ferocious lyrics to match. “Veneno” puts La Dame Blanche’s wordplay and musicianship on full display. As the daughter of trombonist Jesus Ramos, band leader of The Buena Vista Social Club, it’s clear that the rapper is intent on carrying the torch. She raps in Spanish: “My wings are hard to cut / my mouth is hard to shut up.” “Veneno” is an affirmation that La Dame Blanche is here to stay. And it’s a reminder that so are we. — Francesca Harding, KCRW DJ

Lady Blackbird - “Beware The Stranger”

One of the most powerful voices of 2021 belongs to Lady Blackbird, but our journey with her dates back to 2020. Within the first 30 seconds of hearing her take on Nina Simone's “Blackbird,” our collective hearts stopped. I could choose any perfect song off of her 2021 debut album “Black Acid Soul,” but “Beware The Stranger” — her rendition of East Harlem’s “Wanted Dead Or Alive” — is a clear standout. It’s raw, honest, and turns the tables on the original. This is not your typical jazz vocal. Her wisdom, strength, and interpretation make “Black Acid Soul” the work of a truly old soul. — Anne Litt, KCRW Program Director of Music

Lakou Mizik + Joseph Ray - "Ogou (Pran Ka Mwen)"

Initially formed to spread cheer and hasten healing after the catastrophic earthquake of 2010, the eclectic artistic collective Lakou Mizik (Haitian Creole for "backyard music") has blossomed into one of Haiti's most celebrated musical exports. But it's their most recent release, a collaborative experiment with electronic music producer Joseph Ray, that adds warmth (and samples of Alan Lomax field recordings) to their audacious blend of Vodou drum chants, Rara festival music, and guitar-based Troubadou. "Ogou (Pran Ka Mwen)" is a paean to Ogou, the Vodou spirit of iron and war, an emotional plea for strength during adversity, a sentiment to which we can all relate. — Chris Douridas, KCRW DJ and Music Programming Curator of Eclectic24

The Lazy Eyes - “Where’s My Brain???”

“Where’s My Brain?” by Sydney outfit The Lazy Eyes is a playful display of perfectly crafted psychedelic rock. From the soft falsetto open with a rapidly building rhythm section, to the driving drum fills and wah-wah pedal goodness, to the cosmic synths with spastic guitar solos, this track has everything. It’s been the perfect jam out number for such a high-low, rapid-slow, year. The song appears on the phenomenal four song “EP2,” which ranks high on my shortlist of favorites for the year. — José Galván, KCRW DJ

LIPS - “Not Today”

Every now and then, I come across a song that stops me in my tracks. A love at first listen, where I can tell that there's something very special. In the case of "Not Today" by New Zealand’s Lips, the song is a source of comfort that I can rely on, and ironically, that's exactly what the protagonist of the song is missing. With a musical theater background, the songwriting duo of Steph Brown and Fen Ikner paint a clear picture of this fictional character while leaving so many questions unanswered. I feel so invested in what the character has lost, what they are looking for, and, as a parent, completely relate to their mother who wants nothing but protection for their child. 

I also love how the duo's theater experience helped inform so many brilliant choices on this record. That includes the first several seconds of this song, in which the production captures the main character around a group of kids walking from school playing this fake pop track on their phone. You can hear in the pace of the song, which sounds like a very steady, pensive walk with the beat matching footsteps alongside ambient field recordings that intimately bring us into the narrator’s world. — Nassir Nassirzadeh, KCRW DJ

Melanie Charles & Marlena Shaw - “Woman Of The Ghetto - Reimagined”

I’ve been a fan of Marlena Shaw’s “Woman Of The Ghetto (1969)” since I first heard it in the late ‘90s. Flume’s house remix of the song dropped in 2013 (and was cool), and Antenna Happy gave it a more-than-decent shot in 2015 with their own just-shy-of-eight-minutes monster of a dark disco edit that, frankly, hasn’t left my crate since. Enter Melanie Charles, the jazz world’s golden child du jour. The year is 2021, and her version of the classic literally had me transfixed with a whole lot of affirmative inner monologue going on the whole way through. Charles’ version opens with gorgeous harp arpeggios and slowly eases the listener into her singing. The percussion builds to a steady groove and the signature bassline carries through and stays true to the original. 

A graduate of The New School for Jazz and Contemporary Music, Charles is a multi-instrumentalist, a fearless visionary, and a true genre-exploring pioneer unafraid to push sonic boundaries while at the same time giving out red cards to our inequitable system by poignantly naming her album “Y’All Don’t Really Care About Black Women,”  a collection of songs she was working on against the backdrop of Breonna Taylor’s murder at the hands of Louisville Police. Her knack for fusing three of my favorite things in life — jazz, beats, and sampling — is bigger than just a producer’s quest to satisfy one’s own artistic hunger; by presenting jazz within a broader electronic, tech, and beats context, she is able to cut through to a generation of young folks who otherwise might not have been turned on to jazz luminaries such as Marlena Shaw, Nina Simone, Billie Holiday, more. 

It’s that point of intersection, the old and the new, the organic and the electronic, “for the people and by the people,” that Charles refers to as “trill jazz,” and if there is any doubt as to where she stands within this expression, one only needs to look at her hashtag: #makejazztrillagain. Kudos to her for standing shoulder to shoulder with contemporaries like Kamasi Washington, Robert Glasper, Josef Leimberg, and the rest, and breathing new life into one of America’s biggest treasures: jazz. — Valida, KCRW DJ

Petey - “Lean Into Life”

LA’s own genre-skirting musician and comedian Petey was one of our favorite discoveries of the year. If he were simply content to make surrealist TikToks for the rest of his days, that would be enough. Lucky for us all, that’s not enough for Petey. Even the most cursory listen to his debut full length “Lean Into Life” reveals an artist reaching for every available outlet to make some sense of it all. And that’s especially potent on the title track. Over an increasingly heartrending progression of lo-fi drums and synths, Petey candidly recounts the anxieties, mundanities, and existential travails of just getting by, man. 

If the particular contains the universal, Petey's quotidian lyrical details like "I took on some credit card debt /
On a night that didn't mean nothing, a night I'll probably forget," and "I think I'm making my own self sick at the thought of getting sick / I don't leave any more / Did I leave my keys in the door?" hit like a cathartic brick to the gut. It's tempting to describe the track as “LCD Soundsystem, but make it Millennial,” but the further down the path Petey travels, the distinctly weirder and more poignant it gets. No wonder, then, that when it comes to this thing we call life, his conclusion is that the only safe way out is through fully leaning in.  — Andrea Domanick, KCRW Digital Producer of Music and Culture and Marion Hodges, Administrative Assistant, KCRW Music

Qrion - “Proud”

When I first heard Japanese producer Qrion, I was struck with a refreshing yet nostalgic sound that I hadn't heard in electronic music. Her productions allow us to both capture emotion and get up on the dancefloor, incorporating old school samples, loops, arrangements, and unique melodies, making for an exciting style to engage with as both a listener and creative. “Proud” is a track to celebrate, because it makes you feel just that.  — SiLVA, KCRW DJ

serpentwithfeet - “Fellowship”

"Fellowship" is a perfect celebration of friendship and the appreciation of it that deepens with maturity. It's a kind of maturity that understands the importance of youthful play, too. The joyous chorus feels like an open-invitation singalong, while serpentwithfeet's voice is sweet and gentle as a lullaby throughout the verses. Some instruments in the track are even reminiscent of wooden toy versions, in the best way. Frolicking freedom spills into the music video as well, which shows serpentwithfeet writing ephemeral messages in the sand with a loved one. Whatever your play is, this song will make you want to do it with your friends. — Novena Carmel, KCRW DJ and co-host of Morning Becomes Eclectic

Totally Enormous Extinct Dinosaurs - “A Dream I Have”

“A Dream I Have” is a rush of grooves, layered with all the flavors of an electronic banger: wavy bassline, catchy synth hook, pulsing drumbeat, and pop lyrics about love. It’s rare that a song will feel too short, yet here is a bop that beckons me to listen on repeat, continuously craving more. Best served loud on a nighttime drive through the city. — Tyler Boudreaux, KCRW DJ

Wet Leg - “Chaise Longue”

Wet Leg unleashed the ripper of all rippers in June, right around the time things started opening up again in LA after a year-plus shutdown brought on by COVID. It felt like we finally had permission to have fun again, and Wet Leg delivered the anthem.

"Chaise Longue" is a song bursting with personality. Its many quotables are delivered in a deadpan manner by frontwoman Rhian Teasdale (including the Mean Girls-referencing, "Is your muffin buttered? / Would you like us to assign someone to butter your muffin?") over a propulsive post-punk bassline, and a very easy hook to jump around and sing along with. A group formed in the midst of the boredom of quarantine in the U.K.’s Isle of Wight, Wet Leg's debut single put on full display the band's offbeat sense of humor and on-point musical instincts.

The assuredness of vision of the band's self-directed video for "Chaise Longue" and subsequent singles have put to bed any notion that Wet Leg are just a one-hit wonder. Their eponymous debut album is already one of the most anticipated releases of 2022. — Travis Holcombe, KCRW DJ and host of FREAKS ONLY

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