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The Best Music of 2021

In year two of the pandemic, music continued being an art form that was both comforting and uplifting. We saw the rise of pop music darlings like Olivia Rodrigo, as well as the return of certified superstars Adele and Ed Sheeran. Some artists spent the year looking back in time. Taylor Swift released re-recorded versions of both Fearless and Red, whilst Silk Sonic’s debut album harkened back to the sounds of the 1960s and 70s. Billboard had Doja Cat’s Kiss Me More (feat. SZA), Lil Nas X’s Montero (Call Me By Your Name), and Justin Bieber’s Peaches (feat. Daniel Caesar & Giveon) top the charts. Although often ignorant of chart-toppers, in 2021 I listened to more music than I ever had before. And I have compiled a shortlist of my favorite songs of 2021. Enjoy!

Jazmine Sullivan – Girl Like Me (feat. H.E.R.)

Philadelphia-born R&B powerhouse Jazmine Sullivan has been on my radar ever since her memorable feature on PJ Morton’s Built For Love in 2011. Cited as possibly the most talented vocalist in contemporary R&B music, Sullivan’s runs are legendary. She sits right on the border of an over-use of riffing but never crosses it. Her raspy, agile voice is an incredible instrument used to absolute vocal perfection. With the debut of her first album in six years, Heaux Tales, she candidly discusses themes of sexuality, romance, and feminism. Sullivan is known to combine female empowerment with an old-school R&B vibe and modern productions. She exhibits irresistible sass on the single Pick Up Your Feelings, dream-like desires on The Other Side, and painful heartbreak on Lost One. Heartbreak surfaces again on the vulnerable Girl Like Me where Sullivan teams up with H.E.R.. The song speaks of the insecurities Sullivan felt after being dumped for someone else, but it also displays anger and frustration with this male dissatisfaction. Sadness and hurt are accompanied by the commanding sonic power of Sullivan and the sweet angelic tones of H.E.R. On a record with several fantastic features, their combined vocal stylings are incomparable. If you had any doubts about whether they sounded just as well live, watch both of their NPR Tiny Desk performances!

Dominic Fike – The Kiss of Venus

Singer and rapper Dominic Fike came onto the scene in 2017, releasing the EP Don’t Forget About Me, Demos whilst in jail for violating house arrest. He took off after the success of his hit song 3 Nights and has since collaborated with artists like Kevin Abstract, Omar Apollo, Halsey, and Justin Bieber. Although catchy, a lot of his previous output and new releases have yet to strike me as particularly great. It has mostly been surface-level pop that does not attempt anything ambitious or unique. However, 2021 has been good for Fike. This year Paul McCartney brought on a variety of artists to remix his album McCartney III. Fike also reinterpreted a track, making The Kiss of Venus very much his own. It sounds nothing like the original song yet maintains the Beatle’s trademark quirky feel. It started as a bare-bones, acoustic track that features McCartney’s guitar-playing and shrill vocals. But Fike’s version improves upon this and perfectly succeeds in bringing McCartney’s music to the present by giving it a warmer sound, a wider variety of instruments, and new lyrics for the verses that account for today’s divisive news climate. It’s accompanied by a great music video, not unlike the other remix Fike appeared on in 2021. He also partnered with Remi Wolf for the incredibly joyful Photo ID, the music video of which is just pure infectious fun.

Silk Sonic – Fly As Me

An Evening with Silk Sonic, the combined efforts of two unbelievably talented musicians (Bruno Mars & Anderson .Paak), is a nostalgic album that injects us with a contemporary take on the 1960s/70s R&B, funk, and soul. Under the guidance of funk legend Bootsy Collins, this unique and unexpected partnership excels. Tied with Janelle Monáe for my favorite artist of the last decade, Anderson once again proves he can do no wrong. The first single Leave The Door Open gave him his very first number #1 on the Billboard Hot 100. He and Mars are not just musically gifted, but this record also has some of the funniest tongue-in-cheek lyrics I’ve heard in a while. The interlude for Smoking Out The Window goes: “Look here, baby, I hope you find whatever it is that you need. But I hope that your triflin’s ass is walkin’ ‘round barefoot in these streets.” The serotonin-enhancing vibes of Skate have also been on repeat. But my favorite song has to be Fly As Me. This track is just pure, unadulterated, braggadocious hubris. And I love it. They claim that anyone would be lucky to be “seen with somebody as fly as me” and the song certainly makes it sound good. The funky ass bass-line, the magnificent horns, Anderson’s slick bars. Everything works. Shower them in Grammyies, please.

Cory Wong – Dean Town (The Paisley Park Session)

Whereas Silk Sonic worked with a funk icon, this next song was recorded at Minneapolis’ funk capital, Prince’s home and studio, Paisley Park. And it’s all on YouTube! As the opening of the video states: “There was a kid who lived just down the road from here in the 90’s, his name is Cory Wong.” Guitarist Cory Wong first caught my attention as a frequent collaborator of Vulfpeck, an American band that has got to be the funkiest group of white people I have ever seen. Their partnership is only a fraction of the impressive discography he has developed. Similar to Prince, Wong is incredibly prolific, releasing seven full-length albums in 2020 alone. One of which, Live in Amsterdam, I almost attended but decided to pass on (a gigantic mistake!). The Paisley Park Session sees Wong and his Wongnotes giving a funk masterclass. Their final song, Dean Town, is a Vulf-original and is particularly fantastic. While the Chris Thile version remains my absolute favorite, Wong’s 12-part band gives the song so much depth and power. And Wong is playing it on Prince’s Purple Rain (1984) ‘Cloud’ guitar. Come on!

Stromae – Santé

Paul van Haver, AKA Stromae, has still got it. The Belgian musician became a household name after releasing his fantastic dance song Alors on Danse. Following his 2013 album Racine Carrée, this status was cemented, featuring hits like Papaoutai and Formidable. The latter’s music video went viral because Stromae was seen wandering Brussels, visibly drunk, singing to himself and bystanders. As one of the more unique voices of this generation, he is influenced by Belgian New Beat, Congolese, hip-hop, and pop music. He ties this to his socially aware sensibilities and a willingness to tackle both joy and melancholy. After a hiatus partially caused by suffering from panic attacks, he released Santé (cheers) in 2021. It’s an ode to blue-collar workers and those that can’t celebrate, which carries quite a pertinent message in the broader context of the pandemic. The tune has a South American influence, a great unconventional rhythm, and Stromae’s one-of-a-kind delivery. The characteristically peculiar music video also contains a striking dance that has no doubt contributed to its popularity. It has me wanting more so I can’t wait for his next album Multitude to release in March!

I listened to a great many songs by different artists in 2021, both new and old. But these were my favorite releases of 2021. Hopefully, you’ll be able to enjoy some of them too. To another great year in music!