We love a good album, and there have been a lot of them this year, but let’s be real — whether you’re driving down the freeway with the radio on, or streaming KCRW as you pregame for a night out (remember those?), we at KCRW know better than anyone: It’s all about the songs.
Whether it’s a powerhouse lead single, a brooding deep cut, or a one-off dance floor banger, nothing has the power to move and transform quite like a great tune. At the halfway point of a strange year bursting at the seams with creative output, we’ve rounded up the best tracks for your listening pleasure. Much like our Best Albums of 2021 (So Far), we’re ditching the traditional ranked format — that’s for the end of the year — in favor of hand-picked individual selections from KCRW DJs and music staff.
Check out KCRW’s favorite songs of 2021 (so far), and be sure to put ears on our extended Spotify playlist for a deeper dive into the wealth of this year’s primo offerings.
We want to know your picks, too. Sign up for the KCRW Music Insider newsletter for a chance to share your top tunes and win a Morning Becomes Eclectic mid-year prize package.
Read more: The Best Albums of 2021 (So Far)
If you need a new lease on life coming out of this god-forsaken year — or at the very least, a new mantra — Elohim and Big Freedia have it. It’s fierce, and it’s “Strut.”
Know this, remember this, live this. After 18 months of being indoors, bedecked in athleisure, the song’s central chant of “It’s not a sidewalk, it’s the runway!” is a jolt back to life. Oozing attitude and full of bounce, “Strut” is not only my song of the summer, but the piece of music that has revived me in the funnest, most booty-shaking of ways. I feel powerful and look like a million bucks the second the first synthesizer hits my ears.
Yesterday, I went to the 7-11 in my remote workplace of rural Eastern Virginia to… wait for it… get a Slurpee. It was the damn runway. — Anne Litt, KCRW DJ and Program Director for Music
LA psych-soul outfit the Marías have been on a steady trajectory as one of the city’s most promising and talented new bands since releasing their debut EP “Superclean Vol. 1” in 2017. Around that time, I stumbled upon an early show of theirs at Silver Lake’s El Cid. Even with a sparse crowd, it was immediately clear that this was a band that had arrived fully formed — from their sartorial prowess, to the tight rhythm section, to the captivating vocals and stage presence of singer María Zardoya, who in a different era might have been the muse of French New Wave cinema.
The band, which performs in both English and Spanish, would earn hype through cosigns from Cuco, their ultrasmooth bilingual EPs, and Cardigans-esque covers of Radiohead and Britney Spears. But it wasn’t until the recent release of “Hush,” off of the group’s tantalizing debut LP “Cinema,” that the Marías stepped firmly into a lane all their own. Their former uber-retro stylings are cast aside in favor of lean synths, rhythmic tension, and dissonant, unhinged guitar licks, allowing Zardoya’s velveteen vocals and kiss-off lyrics to hit like the last cigarette before leaving the club. Band co-leader Josh Conway seals the deal with the welcome contrast of his creeping baritone, lending unsettling harmonies to the chorus before squaring off against Zardoya with a verse of his own. Listen at your own risk — and keep your lover close. — Andrea Domanick, KCRW Digital Producer, Music and Culture
Read more: Pan Caliente: The Marías
An innovator, composer and jazz luminary Vijay Iyer is a rhythmic cypher, connecting history through portals of illumination, knowledge, and the ethos of humanity, tragic and effervescent. Helming the piano, Iyer has a way with story as a means of reaching the inner thoughts of oneself, as the ballet of notes provide an ingenious way for perspective.
On “Children of Flint,” Iyer eloquently and beautifully expresses the joy of everyday life while the politics of budget cuts and contaminated water pose a real struggle on communities poisoned by lead from aging pipes. Though a dismal situation, the hope and power of a people to rise are expressed through the uplifting melodies, calming bass lines, and the gentle crash of symbols. A world beyond, the wrongs of misguided politicians are being turned around and the music provides a look, a feel for hope and positivity, and a path towards change. Always feeling his way with the will of the people of all colors, Iyer shines light on the circumstances that expose tyranny and show the true resilience of the spirit of humanity through the registers of melodic tone and splendor. — LeRoy Downs, KCRW DJ
Melbourne’s Spiritual Mafia claims to have members of Ausmuteants and EXEK, but it’s impossible for me to confirm that, as on their Bandcamp page as well as on their LP “Alfresco,” there’s no personnel information I can find. I can’t remember where I read about the two aforementioned bands. I was sent the tracks from the label as a download, dug it, and got the album, which I really like, mainly because I can’t figure them out and am enjoying the cool mystery of their music. It doesn’t hurt that I’m an Ausmuteants and EXEK fan as well. The strangest/coolest track on the whole thing is the 10-plus minute “Bath Boy,” which is way out there. This is becoming one of my favorite warm weather albums for 2021. — Henry Rollins, KCRW DJ
Hiatus Kaiyote say that “Red Room,” the second single from their new full-length “Mood Valiant,” was simply a jam after a long day in the studio, with no intention of adding more songs to the album. “I never write lyrics on the fly, but this song just wanted to exist,” lead singer Nai Palm shared in an Instagram post. “We laid down a couple of passes, and that was that. Sleepy, raspy voice, imperfections and all.” Like so many great, organic music magic moments throughout history, that’s exactly what makes it perfect. Push play, and be immediately transported to the blanketed beauty of Nai’s real-life red stained glass room to which the track is an ode. — Novena Carmel, Morning Becomes Eclectic Co-Host and KCRW DJ
Rotterdam-based singer, songwriter, multi-instrumentalist, and producer Sykes released his debut EP "We and Us" in February, a project entirely self-written and produced. It's drenched in 2-step influenced drums, jazz piano loops, neo-soul melodies, dashes of broken beat, and his ambitious vocals. It just gives you all the feels.
“I Am 2” is no exception, tailor-made for the p.m. hours, and in particular for those who prefer their music to feel just as good as it sounds. In fact, if you don't feel something after listening to this, you just might want to check your pulse. — Aaron Byrd, KCRW DJ
Pakistani singer Arooj Aftab brings time and place to a standstill with this remake of a song from her 2014 debut. This new recording starts her latest album “Vulture Prince,” which is dedicated to the artist’s younger brother who died this past year. The lyric, sung in Urdu, speaks of loss and longing. Raised in Lahore, just across the Northern border of India, and currently based in Brooklyn, the Berklee graduate is now poised for the global stage. Be sure to grab tickets for her just-announced show at LA's Lodge Room for September 27th. — Chris Douridas, KCRW DJ and Music Programming Curator of Eclectic24
A 25-time Grammy and Latin Grammy winner, Juanes has delighted an international audience for decades. His deep passion for rock and Latin American rhythms has always led the way, but on his new album “Origen,” Spanish for “origin,” Juanes takes a deep dive into the music that inspired and molded his artistry the most. Covers like Carlos Gardel's tango "Volver" take a modern tropical turn, while his version of Juan Gabriel's "No Tengo Dinero" slides into rock territory, but the record’s true gem is the Spanish version of Bruce Springsteen's "Dancing In The Dark" — an impeccable translation with a sultry beat that just may become your favorite make out song. — Ariana Morgenstern, Morning Becomes Eclectic Executive Producer
I’m not sure if I chose this song, or if this song chose me, but Blood Cultures’ single “Set It on Fire” has been stuck in my head for the last few months now… and I like it. Their newest album, “LUNO,” builds on the emotional subtleties of their previous work, leaning into delicate rock sensibilities to communicate themes of identity and self-acceptance.
Instrumentally, “Set It on Fire” sounds like it’s shot in 35mm – there’s a grain on top of the warbling organs, resonant church bells, punchy guitar solo, and ghostly vocals that make it a multi-dimensional earworm. If you like the indistinct psychedelia of Black Moth Super Rainbow or Tame Impala, chances are you’ll be enamored with this tune. — John Moses, KCRW DJ
London rapper Little Simz’s 2019 album “Grey Area” began a musical reign, and “Woman,” the second single from her upcoming album “Sometimes I Might Be Introvert,” solidifies her spot on the throne and the crown on her head. With rich, soulful production by frequent collaborator Inflo (who also produced KCRW’s top album of 2020, SAULT’s “Untitled”) and vocals lended by Cleo Sol, Simz celebrates the strength, beauty, and fine details of melanated women around the world on “Woman.” Not only is Simz at the top of her game lyrically, but she makes a triumphant directorial debut in the vibrant and decadent music video, featuring women of color dancing their way through a luxurious mansion. “Sometimes I Might Be Introvert” drops on September 3, and the wait couldn’t be over sooner. — Surreal Lewis, KCRW Music Intern
Producer/vocalist Iman Houssein only has a handful of singles out, but has already caught our attention as a recipient of Today's Top Tune. “Show Them” features texture, depth, and progression that feels fitting in the year of pandemic emergence. Born in Iran and now based in London, Houssein’s vast array of influences are easy to hear, from electronic beats to neo soul,
blended together in a creative way that's unparalleled. — Anthony Valadez, Morning Becomes Eclectic Co-Host and KCRW DJ
Ok, full disclosure: I am generally not a lyrics person. If I love a song, I’m usually so taken by its melody, arrangement, and musicianship that its lyrics don’t even register until dozens of listens later. All of this is to say, even if Amber Mark’s “Worth It” contained lyrics of no consequence, I’d still be all-in. The soaring melody, the gorgeous arrangement (including a mid-song rhythm change that comes in like a fresh breeze), and Mark’s majestic and powerful voice are more than enough to place this track among the mid-year best.
But, oh, the lyrics. After a year-plus of having unstable ground beneath us, of fretting about the future, and of various and sometimes powerful forms of self-doubt, “Worth It” comes in to remind us of who we are and the power and possibility that lies within each of us. For the spiritually-minded, Mark’s lyrics “Open up the ceiling / Come on let the love in” remind us that we aren’t in the battle alone. It’s telling that I have both wept to this song, and also caught myself speeding on the freeway while listening, carried away by its power. — Scott Dallavo, KCRW DJ
From first listen to the single “Don’t Hold Back” by Chicago-based R&B/dance duo Drama, I was hooked. Singer Via Rosa’s vocals sit beautifully in the pocket of this lush mid-tempo groover that grabs you and doesn’t let go. Its gorgeous house music just makes you sway from side to side for the duration of this three-and-a-half minute escapade. — Raul Campos, KCRW DJ
"Creatures," a highlight off of Viagra Boys' latest LP “Welfare Jazz,” has “show closer” written all over it. While 2018’s "Sports" is probably the Boys' most famous song, "Creatures" might prove to be the Swedish post-punk outfit’s most resonant. The "Someone's Great Version" (perhaps a nod to LCD Soundsystem?) that appears on the “Shrimptech Ecstasylab” EP strips the original version down to its skivvies and remakes the Viagra Boys' rallying cry into something approaching a profound statement. — Travis Holcombe, KCRW DJ
This song began its life cycle back in January, when “Artist to Watch” Jensen McRae decided to engage in some speculative fiction about Phoebe Bridgers making a song about getting the COVID vaccine on Twitter. From that initial snippet, to a subsequent Phoebe Bridgers co-sign, to McRae’s kind-of parody tune racking up nearly 3 million streams on Spotify, “Immune” has been deeply satisfying to track. Once it became an actual song, I listened with the studiousness of a teenager, obsessed with knowing the chorus by heart so that I could conjure it with my own voice on an as-needed basis. Six months later, the need remains. — Marion Hodges, Curator and Administrative Assistant, KCRW Music
In February, nearly a full year into the pandemic, I had settled into the stay-at-home malaise and seriously contemplated a world without enjoying live music with a crowd ever again. Then I heard Psymon Spine's "Channels" — a dizzyingly infectious dance-rock number with equal parts LCD Soundsystem and Gang of Four — and I've never wanted to pogo amidst hundreds of strangers more badly in my life. — Dan Wilcox, KCRW DJ
As soon as I heard the opening drum fill of Jack Page’s “Play That Too,” off of the New Zealander’s impressive sophomore EP “The Days, Pt. 2,” I was hooked. The sparse, easy-like-a-Sunday-morning rhythm section and soul-laden keyboard chords start this lament of a love gone sour and make it an immediate ear worm. Page’s croon follows with the gut-wrenching sincerity of opening lines “You’ve found somebody new / cuz I was never enough,” and daydreams into “What if I stooped to their level?” It’s all about the hurting, and Page doesn’t hold back when he delivers the pain and the agony of rejection, and the ways in which an ex-lover shows disdain. Throw in the staccato horn section in the chorus, and you got yourself a tune so heavily steeped in retro ‘70s soul that you begin to question whether this was indeed produced in 2021, and not a great find from the vaults of 1971. — Valida, KCRW DJ
Rebecca Taylor, once a member of the rising duo Slow Club, has left the indie music world behind and aspires to unapologetically redefine and reclaim what being a pop star is. Her solo project, Self Esteem, pushes forward female autonomy with a critique for comparison culture, all while holding fast to a bit of self-deprecation. It’s in that contradiction that this gem of a single shines bright, packed full of witty insight and clever skepticism. “I Do This All The Time” highlights the insecurities and frustrations we all deal with, yet beautifully emboldens with an inspiring chorus. Truthful lyricism for the win. — Jose Galvan, KCRW DJ
"How don't you know my name?" asks the refrain at the heart of neo-soul raconteuse V.C.R's psychedelic soul epic, "Minnie Lives." As in all great soul epics, the answer is less important than the articulation of the question. V.C.R imbues the phrase with sorrow here and a searching melancholy there, altering her tone with each repetition. The California artist wrote "Minnie Lives" as "an ode to women everywhere," but its title is a coded reference to the late singer Minnie Riperton, who died tragically young from breast cancer. The track’s title reads as if Riperton's spirit still lingers among us, but V.C.R sings it as "many lives," holding space for both lives lived in their fullness and those cut short. (V.C.R also acknowledges that the song had its roots in an abusive relationship.) In that context, the song becomes an anthem about the pain of erasure and the perpetual desire for human connection.
All of which would be enough to credit "Minnie Lives" for the command of its storytelling. But V.C.R has also given the song a rich and ambitious musical arrangement, all cascading strings, earthy percussion, and heavenly vocal stacks. The song takes a hard left turn in its third act featuring rapper Pink Siifu, when the suddenly dysphoric soundscape threatens to undermine the song's reach for transcendence. But Siifu's verse, crushed by distortion, ends with an affirmation of the transformative potential of pain: "We sign our names in the stone / Washed by the sand so far / Ancestors like come closer / Closer please / Close to me / Close." — Myke Dodge Weiskopf, KCRW Senior Music Producer
Holly Humberstone has only been at it for a few years, and already landed herself as the runner up in the BBC Sound of 2021 poll and a featured artist on Apple Music’s Up Next. I first heard of her when my friend had sent me her music shortly before the release of her 2020 EP, “Falling Asleep at the Wheel.” I found her work haunting, vulnerable, truthful, and I believed every word. She even caught the ear of 1975's lead, Matt Healy, to collaborate on Holly's forthcoming EP.
Humberstone’s latest release is a tender song about her struggles of moving to a new town and feeling alone and claustrophobic even while surrounded by friends. It's a story to which we can all relate as we grow older and emotionally develop. The song's vibe is not sad or slow, but energetic, as if she has accepted this time in her life as a temporary journey and keeps moving forward. I’m looking forward to Humberstone's career in music as someone who will use her words to guide us without complications. — Jason Kramer, KCRW DJ