The Best "Best of 2021" Lists
End-of-year discoveries, gems, playlists, and podcasts
Holiday season means it’s list season — the most wonderful time of year to catch up with music that slipped through the cracks. As my gift to you, I sorted through the endless stream of lists to find a few standout gems. (And as a belated Hannukah gift, here’s Haim’s update of Adam Sandler’s Hannukah Song in case ya missed it.)
As always, you can find all of the songs and artists mentioned below in the Hear Hear playlist. Thanks again for listening with me all year long. (And if you want to spread some end-of-year cheer, forward this newsletter to a music fan in your life! They can subscribe here to get more great tunes delivered to their inbox in 2022.)
NPR Music chats with two of the year’s biggest artists
Once again, NPR has an excellent end-of-year roundup with wide-ranging lists of the year’s 100 best songs and 50 best albums. True to their podcasting prowess, they celebrated their picks for top song (“Montero” by Lil Nas X) and album (Heaux Tales by Jazmine Sullivan) by producing a pair of charming, funny, insightful interviews with both artists.
Of course, you already know Lil Nas X’s ubiquitous singles (“Montero” and “That’s What I Want”) but his album really deserves a full listen — I love the Cudi-esque “Tales of Dominica,” the falsetto crooner “Void,” and the bouncy-but-mellow “Sun Goes Down.”
Another NPR highlight: Alt.Latino’s episode celebrating the best Latin singles of the year, an exciting dive into a genre I don’t follow as closely.
Sleeper picks from Gorilla vs. Bear
Without fail, the annual song and album lists from GvB always deliver a batch of underrated gems and eclectic discoveries. A couple of favorites…
Mercurial World, Magdalena Bay: GvB’s pick for album of the year is a futuristic synth-pop journey. The standout track is “Chaeri,” with its pulsing beat, bittersweet vocals, and catchy hook.
Letter Blue, Wet: You might recall Wet and the memorable voice of singer Kelly Zutrau from their 2014 breakthrough indie hits “Don’t Wanna Be Your Girl” and “You’re The Best.” They’re back with an inventive new album fueled by exciting new collaborators — including Buddy Ross (producer on many Frank Ocean songs) and Dev Hynes (aka Blood Orange) — with smooth, subtly shifting sounds that surprise and delight. Check out the bouncy “Far Cry” and slinky “Clementine” to get a sense.
The Critical Consensus
Every list has its own biases and quirks, so I always appreciate the ambitious efforts to piece together a comprehensive overview of The Year That Was…
Uproxx surveyed over 200 music critics to find the year’s 50 best albums and 20 best songs. (Here’s a handy Spotify playlist for the latter.) The top album was Japanese Breakfast’s wonderful Jubilee; the top song was — what else? — Olivia Rodrigo’s inescapable “good 4 u.”
Fluxblog’s Matt Perpetua curated his annual Survey Mix, “a time capsule playlist documenting the year in music across genres.”
Rob Mitchum’s trusty Top Albums spreadsheet creates the ultimate list-of-lists with cold hard math. Leading the pack right now is Little Simz’s Sometimes I Might Be Introvert, a thrilling hip-hop album with sweeping orchestration and genre-hopping sounds. My favorite tracks: “Woman,” featuring rising soul star Cleo Sol, and “Introvert,” the album’s maximalist intro.
It’s Phoebe’s world, etc.
Stereogum’s Rachel Brodsky had fun ranking the year in Phoebe Bridgers’ output. I dropped a few choice selections in the Hear Hear playlist, including her latest Christmas tune (a Tom Waits cover), McCartney collab (improving on his original), and “Silk Chiffon,” an indie-pop anthem she sings on with rising LA trio MUNA.
Wet Leg // Turnstile // Joy Crookes bring the buzz to Late Night
The rise of Wet Leg has been so rapid that it’s almost suspicious, as the Isle of Wight duo has now played sold-out shows in NYC, LA, and SF before even releasing an album. But their debut TV performance on Late Night justified the hype, bursting through the addictive “Chaise Longue.”
Two more rising 2021 stars showcased their stuff on Late Night recently: Baltimore band Turnstile, with their distinctly accessible brand of hardcore punk, and British singer-songwriter Joy Crookes, with her Amy Winehouse-style soul.
🎄 Christmas Corner 🎄
Finally, two new playlists for your holiday rotation…
yule love it from SNL’s Bowen Yang — a playful mix of old and new gems. [ft. Marvin Gaye, Darlene Love, Kevin Morby, 100 gecs, girl in red]
Christmas Present. from Pitchfork founder Ryen Schreiber — “the best new Christmas music” from 2018 to now. [ft. Tyler the Creator, Ariana Grande, FINNEAS, Smino, Chilly Gonzales]
If you need more, I put together an evergreen roundup of high-quality holiday playlists last year.
And if you missed it in 2020, check out this pop-punk Christmas anthem from Charly Bliss + PUP, covered in a great new piece from The Ringer’s Michael Baumann. Have a wonderful holiday week, and see you in the new year!