© 2024 Boise State Public Radio
NPR in Idaho
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

The Best New Artists & Breakthroughs of 2021

PinkPantheress, Wet Leg and María Becerra are among NPR Music's best new artists and breakthroughs of 2021.
Photo Illustration by Renee Klahr/NPR; Getty Images
PinkPantheress, Wet Leg and María Becerra are among NPR Music's best new artists and breakthroughs of 2021.

Updated December 9, 2021 at 3:18 PM ET

We have many things to be grateful for: vaccines, a steady return to live events and a plethora of great tunes. We've already listed the best albums and songs of the year, so let's talk about the best new artists and breakthroughs of 2021.

On Dec. 9, we had a live conversation on NPR Music's YouTube channel about the artists who shaped the year. NPR Music's Ann Powers, Alt.Latino's Anamaria Sayre, World Cafe's Raina Douris, Radio Milwaukee's Tarik Moody and Pop Culture Happy Hour's Stephen Thompson joined host Lars Gotrich to discuss how these musicians work "across genre, across styles, across borders, transnationally, bilingually," as Powers noted. "It's giving me a good feeling about connections rather than disconnection."

For the purposes of this Listening Party, we decided that a new artist meant that they released an album, demo, mixtape or single in 2021. (If they were previously in a band, but made their solo debut this year, that counts!) For breakthrough artists, the guidelines become somewhat fuzzier. These are musicians who have released albums, toured and found small, but devoted audiences; this year, they broadened their scope either through chart placement, bookings at major festivals or finally got some long overdue critical recognition.

Below you can find our staff picks for the best new artists and breakthroughs of 2021.

Best New Artist: Wet Leg

After going through the pandemic, there were a lot of serious, earnest albums released, which are beautiful and important. But it left me kind of wanting something that was kind of fun and silly and just unrelated to all of that. The first song that Wet Leg released, "Chaise Longue," caught me right away. It's a fine line to walk when you want to be funny and silly in a song without being too silly and they walk it. They're just the coolest. —Raina Douris, World Cafe

Best New Artist: María Becerra

María Becerra is a 21 year old from Argentina. She got her start doing a cappella YouTube covers of Ariana Grande and people like that, so she proved her vocal acumen at an early stage. But then was found by members of the Argentinian trap scene that's on the rise. The really interesting thing about "Acaramelao" is that it actually uses a sample on it from "Yo No Sé Mañana," which is a huge Salsa song. She's really trying to establish herself as more than just a member of this trap scene, but rather immediately inserting herself into this larger Latin music family that pulls from a lot of different global sounds and time periods. —Anamaria Sayre, Alt.Latino

Best New Artist: PinkPantheress

I am a drum and bass kid at the core. I feel like drum and bass hasn't gone away, it's just gone away from the public eye, and PinkPantheress has brought it back in a fun, new way. The art of sampling and the beauty of Black artists contributions to electronic music has been overlooked, and artists like PinkPantheress are bringing back what Black artists have done for electronic music that's been ignored for too long. —Tarik Moody, Radio Milwaukee

Best New Artist: Allison Russell

Outside Child tells Allison Russell's story of growing up Black in Montreal, abuse she suffered at the hands of her stepfather, escape she actually lived on the streets for a while as a teenager and then redemption and recovery through going to Vancouver, discovering music, joining a punk band. All the songs take us through that journey, not only through the lyrics, but through the incredibly musical tapestry of the album. You feel the love and community and healing in this album. —Ann Powers

Breakthrough Artist: Arooj Aftab

There's a Venn diagram where Sade intersects with Jeff Buckley, and right in the middle of that Venn diagram is my entire heart. Vulture Prince manages to swim in that space... Arooj Aftab's drawing from all of these different sounds and styles to make this wonderfully transporting record where we could needle drop anywhere on this record and find something beautiful that doesn't sound like anything else. It's rooted in real heartbreak and grief, but at the same time it's so beautiful and heartfelt that you're not just sitting wallowing in that grief, but you're celebrating in it as well. —Stephen Thompson, Pop Culture Happy Hour

Breakthrough Artist: Yasmin Williams

Yasmin Williams treats her guitar like a playground. She taps the wood of the instrument, fingertaps the fret — on other songs, she taps dance shoes, plays the kora or a thumb piano while playing the guitar. In a lot of ways, the joy and possibility she brings to the guitar reminds me more of Eddie Van Halen than any of the other fingerstyle guitarists to whom she's compared. This music goes back to Black blues guitarists; she's reclaiming, but she's also staking her claim at the same time. —Lars Gotrich

Sofie Hernandez-Simeonidis co-produced this story with Lars Gotrich.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Raina Douris, an award-winning radio personality from Toronto, Ontario, comes to World Cafe from the CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation), where she was host and writer for the daily live, national morning program Mornings on CBC Music. She was also involved with Canada's highest music honors: hosting the Polaris Music Prize Gala from 2017 to 2019, as well as serving on the jury for both that award and the Juno Awards. Douris has also served as guest host and interviewer for various CBC Music and CBC Radio programs, and red carpet host and interviewer for the Juno Awards and Canadian Country Music Association Awards, as well as a panelist for such renowned CBC programs as Metro Morning, q and CBC News.
Listen to the Viking's Choice playlist, subscribe to the newsletter.
Anamaria Artemisa Sayre
Anamaria Sayre is a multimedia producer for NPR Music with a focus on elevating Latinx stories and music. She's the producer for Alt.Latino, NPR's pioneering radio show and podcast celebrating Latin music and culture, and the curator of Latin artists at the Tiny Desk.
Tarik Moody
Tarik Moody is the director of digital strategy at 88Nine Radio Milwaukee and the host of Rhythm Lab Radio and 88Nine After 9. Listen here.
Ann Powers is NPR Music's critic and correspondent. She writes for NPR's music news blog, The Record, and she can be heard on NPR's newsmagazines and music programs.
Stephen Thompson is a writer, editor and reviewer for NPR Music, where he speaks into any microphone that will have him and appears as a frequent panelist on All Songs Considered. Since 2010, Thompson has been a fixture on the NPR roundtable podcast Pop Culture Happy Hour, which he created and developed with NPR correspondent Linda Holmes. In 2008, he and Bob Boilen created the NPR Music video series Tiny Desk Concerts, in which musicians perform at Boilen's desk. (To be more specific, Thompson had the idea, which took seconds, while Boilen created the series, which took years. Thompson will insist upon equal billing until the day he dies.)

You make stories like this possible.

The biggest portion of Boise State Public Radio's funding comes from readers like you who value fact-based journalism and trustworthy information.

Your donation today helps make our local reporting free for our entire community.