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Our Favorite Artists' Favorite Music of 2021

Lil Nas X, Japanese Breakfast, Vince Staples (pictured above) and more share their favorite music of 2021 with NPR.
Photo Illustration by Renee Klahr/NPR; Getty Images; Album art courtesy of Polydor & Wolf Tone Records, Saddle Creek Records, Kemosabe & RCA Records
Lil Nas X, Japanese Breakfast, Vince Staples (pictured above) and more share their favorite music of 2021 with NPR.

Well, we made it through another year. Even if it's only thanks to a technicality — a barely-there, hanging-by-a-thread type of completion — we made it. In 2021, we were more isolated than ever, idling in detachment, doing our best to survive while anxiously waiting for an undetermined end point. The more we regressed to where we started (Should I cancel my birthday party? Is it a bad idea to go home for the holidays? Should I stay in?) the more important music became. A constant crutch, music held us upright and carried us across the finish line to bring us back to each other.

In a year where putting on a record and closing our eyes often served as the only way to escape from ... everything, NPR Music needed to know what our favorite musicians retreated into. What excited them; what made them cry; what was the only thing that made them smile on bad days; what did they love so much they had it on repeat for the entire year? From Lucy Dacus on standout favorite Dijon to C. Tangana on Natalia Lafourcade, these are our faves' faves. Below, you'll find 15 musicians featured on our Best Music of 2021 year-end lists sharing their personal favorites of the year. — LaTesha Harris

Our fave: Lil Nas X

Our fave's fave: Glass Animals, "Heat Waves"

I've been listening to that song a lot and I think it's a really great song. It feels very nostalgic. And for albums ... My favorite album outside of my own? You know, I love SOUR and I love Planet Her by Olivia Rodrigo and Doja Cat, respectively — my competitors at the Grammys.

Fave: PinkPantheress

Fave's fave: The Kid LAROI and Justin Bieber, "Stay"

Unexpectedly, I listened to it once and realized that it was the best-written song I've heard in ages. I also love how emo vibes it is.

Fave: Caroline Polachek

Fave's fave: Ethel Cain, "Crush"

She's an incredible, incredible lyricist and every single line of this song has its own hook.

Fave: Snail Mail

Fave's fave (by a landslide): The Goon Sax, "In the Stone"

The lyrics are innovative and the singers' voices blend together in a way that feels right. All of the riffs are excellent and fit together in a way that blows my mind. I get a full-body chill without fail every single time I hear the line, "Are you the vampire? / We take on so many forms." As a bonus, I think it's really hard to actually be cool in 2021 and these guys are cool as f***. —Lindsey Jordan

Fave: Meet Me @ The Altar

Fave's fave: Avril Lavigne, "Bite Me"

Avril's new song is the PERFECT blend of her pop-punk roots with more modern pop elements. She has created, for lack of better words, an anthemic BANGER and we can't help but scream along to it in the car. If "Bite Me" is any indication of where her new album will go, we're 100% sure we'll fall in love with the entire thing!

Fave: Remi Wolf

Fave's fave: Dijon, "Many Times"

I've been listening to this song nonstop ever since it came out. It has so much raw energy and it feels really emotional, and it's one of the most free spirited, improvisational sounding songs that I've heard in a really, really long time. I feel like you never really hear that in music a lot nowadays, and it's really refreshing to hear such an emotional and honest song.

Fave: Jazmine Sullivan

Fave's fave: Yebba, Dawn

I love her so much. There's nothing vocally that she can't do. Her lyrics are beautiful, and knowing her backstory adds to why I think her project is so, so, so gorgeous. I have to shout it out. It's amazing. She's amazing.

Fave: Little Simz

Fave's fave: Cleo Sol, Mother

She dropped an amazing project. I love this album; it's such a beautiful masterpiece. I love the production, I love the songwriting and how she utilizes her voice in different ways. I love the styles in which she takes it and where the music moves for the album. I think she's an incredible artist.

Fave: C. Tangana

Fave's fave: Natalia Lafourcade, Un Canto por México, Vol. 2

I love the entire project of Un Canto por México, I think they're very aligned with El Madrileño and the project of traditional music. I've drawn a lot of inspiration from this thing that has been called "el musical" which is a direct interpretation of some of the themes that lots of artists have explored. I think it has a lot to do with what I did in my Tiny Desk — this idea that music is a celebration, that's related to your community and your relationships. And I think it has to do a lot with my album, El Madrileño, I think we're investigating the same concepts.

Fave: Vince Staples

Fave's fave: Doja Cat, Planet Her

Doja Cat's Planet Her is another example of her willingness to push boundaries and create a new sound. She's a California legend and I will always support her. If you're a fan of mine and haven't heard her music, then you are definitely missing out, and you must be living under a rock because she is a super star.

Fave: Japanese Breakfast

Fave's fave: Hand Habits, Fun House

I think Meg Duffy is one of the greatest guitar players of all time. They're also one of my favorite composers and lyricists. The album is just so devastating. It's also produced by my good friend SASAMI, who does a brilliant job. —Michelle Zauner

Fave: Turnstile

Fave's fave: SPELLLING, The Turning Wheel

Sometimes music gets me kind of in a time and place. And the first time I heard the song "Little Deer," I was in Milwaukee on a super rainy, just very grim, day, and it sparked this magical thing. It drew me into checking out the rest of the record and it's very incredible and very inspiring. I love it a lot. —Brendan Yates

Fave: Lucy Dacus

Fave's fave: Dijon, Absolutely

It came out towards the end of the year, but this album came in hot for me. It's been a while since I've woken up to texts from multiple friends saying I would love a record that just came out, and they were all correct. I'm listening to it right now as I'm writing, feeling excited. It's unrefined in a way that feels on purpose: to keep things nostalgic and indicative of the process, which was quick and collaborative and mostly in home studios from what I can tell. I say nostalgic, but it's not caught playing with outdated tropes — there are lots of production calls that feel fresh and inspiring. He doesn't stay in one mode for too long, which makes me think he respects the songs (which are so damn good, worth mentioning) and follows them where they want to go. The transitions are perfect, maybe the best track listing I can think of. When he cries "I still wear the t-shirt you gave me!" in "Rodeo Clown?" The little emo heart at the core of this very cool record deserves protection at all costs. I'm a sucker for it every step of the way.

Fave: illuminati hotties

Fave's fave: Dijon, Absolutely

Sliding in right at the end of 2021 and sweeping me off my feet, Dijon's new genre-bending LP does exactly what every great record should do: force me to stop thinking for one godd*** second. Absolutely is all at once expansive and intimate as we bear witness to Dijon's expert-level writing, production choices and emotive lyrics. All rip'rs top to bottom. —Sarah Tudzin

Fave: Wild Up

Fave's fave: Floating Points, London Symphony Orchestra and Pharoah Sanders, Promises

Promises doesn't let listeners escape themselves, even for a moment. It opens with a single orchestral resonance, repeated every ten seconds, leaving us no recourse but to project ourselves into the openness — to get lost in thought amidst chromatic bloom.

Then Sanders plays, wailing a wisdom that hangs groundless above the emptiness. Soloing nonstop for virtually the entire record, he becomes a new constant. By the sixth movement, we've pushed through harmonic gate after harmonic gate, until the orchestra has built up enough courage to fill in the gaps. Violins roll downward, entwined in a mid-century Hollywood romance, violas sing and basses churn as the orchestra bursts into a brilliant tremolo slicing the air en masse. In a moment, that mass vanishes and we're back in the luminous dark.

Promises is a mirror, a grand salve and a miraculous truth. This year, it saved me. —Christopher Rountree, artistic director

Stream our 2021 Faves' Faves playlist:

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

LaTesha Harris is NPR Music's editorial assistant. A relentless jack-of-all-trades, she takes turns writing, editing and producing music coverage. Invested in the culture behind pop, hip-hop and R&B, her work highlights the intersection between identity and history. Once in a blue moon, Harris moonlights as a talking head with no filter.

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