Music You Should Know: 50 Best of 2021 So Far


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Music You Should Know: Best of 2021 So Far (MPR graphic)

We've been rolling out six new songs once a week — every Thursday — this year, and as we're nearing the halfway mark of 2021, we're putting together the 50 best songs of the year so far. Follow along the entire week of June 21 as we reveal 10 tracks each day.

Arlo Parks, "Hurt"

The U.K. artist's debut was one to watch in 2020, with buzz and anticipation building up slowly. A bevy of Best New Artist nominations soon followed, and Arlo Parks' album, Collapsed in Sunbeams, continues to deliver with deeply personal songs told thru Parks' clear and confident vocals.

Beabadoobee, "Last Day on Earth"

British up-and-comer Beabadoobee gained some serious traction last year with the release of her debut album, Fake It Flowers. She was supposed to go on tour with the 1975, but the pandemic shut that down. Seems like that tour spirit was still alive, because now there's a new song, "The Last Day on Earth," that she recorded with The 1975's Matty Healy and George Daniel.

Flock of Dimes, "Two"

Wye Oak's Jenn Wasner spent some time away from the band to join Bon Iver, and then she recorded a new album under her solo moniker, Flock of Dimes. The second album from Flock of Dimes, Head of Roses, shows off the song craft that Wasner has honed over the years. It's a lush and beautiful sound that feels effortless.

Japanese Breakfast, "Be Sweet"

Michelle Zauner (who performs under the moniker Japanese Breakfast) will be releasing Jubilee on June 4. Zauner has said that the album is about joy, and "Be Sweet" is about being treated right in a relationship. It's full of '80s flair and smiling vocals — it's sweet but not saccharin.

Jon Batiste, "I NEED YOU"

The love and affection Jon Batiste has for blues, R&B, funk, soul, and hip hop comes across loud and clear on his new record, WE ARE. The bandleader on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert knows how to pull from those sources he loves, but he also injects his own perspective and enthusiasm to elevate the music to a fresh new level.

Lord Huron, "Not Dead Yet"

Los Angeles indie rockers Lord Huron have visited The Current studios twice, in 2015 and in 2018, while touring in support of their previous albums Strange Trails and Vide Noir, respectively. Their new project jumps through various genres with a nod to classic television variety shows and the music of the '50s and '60s.

Manchester Orchestra, "Bed Head"

The Atlanta-based indie-rock band, who made a splash with their 2017 hit, "The Gold," are back with a new album, The Million Masks of God. There's a fervor to their song, "Bed Head," a pulsing and driving force that bucks the song title.

St. Vincent, "Down"

St. Vincent teased her seventh album with a new series of posters and video clips, building anticipation for what was described as "warm Wurlitzers and wit, glistening guitars and grit, with sleaze and style for days. Taking you from uptown to downtown with the artist who makes you expect the unexpected."

Tamar Aphek, "Crossbow"

Tamar Aphek is one of the prominent faces of contemporary rock in the Israeli rock scene, known not only for her awesome guitar-playing abilities but also for her talent as a songwriter. "Crossbow" comes from Aphek's new album, All Bets Are Off, which she produced and recorded at Daptone Records Studio in New York.

Valerie June, "Call Me a Fool"

The world of Valerie June seems to be a place where childlike wonder still holds true. It's a place where friendships last forever and hope always holds out. The latest album, The Moon and Stars: Prescriptions For Dreamers, is a wonderful place to stay for a while.

Black Pumas, "Stranger" feat. Lucius

A one-off Kinks cover from Austin, Texas, duo Black Pumas, featuring the sweet harmonies of Lucius, was strong enough to enter The Current's Chart Show Hall of Fame and make you — however briefly — forget about the original version of the song and focus on the songs theme of perfect unity.

Dinosaur Jr, "Garden"

With a little help from Kurt Vile co-producing, Dinosaur Jr. are hitting their stride with a wonderfully balanced album. Since their reunion in 2005, the band have released five albums, and this feels like it could fit in with some of their earliest work. It's a deft example of the band at their best: J Mascis warbling his way thru lyrics that relate as much to dad rock as college rock and high school emo; Lou Barlow's clear declarations; softer melodies revving up to face-melting solos; and Murph holding down the beats.

Genesis Owusu, "Gold Chains"

The Ghana-born artist moved to Australia with his family (including fellow musician and brother Citizen Kay) as part of a growing community of African/Australia immigrants who make music about the experience. The song deftly mixes baritone rapping with smooth R&B.

H.E.R., "Fight For You"

The Oscar-winning song, "Fight For You," is another accolade to add to H.E.R.'s extensive list. Her sophmore album, I Used To Know Her, came out in 2019 and earned her five Grammy nominations. But it was her protest song "I Can't Breathe" that won her Song of the Year at the 2021 Grammys.

Jazmine Sullivan, "Pick Up Your Feelings"

Jazmine Sullivan has been releasing music since 2008. She's on the short list of artists with the most Grammy nominations who have never won (with 12 nominations over the years). Her big break seems to have hit, however, in 2021, after her appearence at the Super Bowl singing "The Star-Spangled Banner." Heaux Tales looks to be a year-end favorite with songs that showcase Sullivan as a powerhouse vocalist.

Jungle, "Keep Moving"

Just in time for summer, the British duo are back with "Keep Moving," a song that starts with cinematic strings and gentle harmonies like a gentle wakeup before kicking things up. The disco renaissance continues with a shimmery song to take us outside and dancing together again.

Nick Cave and Warren Ellis, "Hand of God"

CARNAGE strikes an even balance between the tumultuous narratives of Cave's earlier work with the Bad Seeds and the contemplative tone of his last few albums, notably recorded in the wake of the death of his son Arthur in 2015. There's no clear-cut end to grief, and thus any attempt to label CARNAGE a capstone to this section of Cave's life would be folly. Emotions are ever-unfolding, and Cave is not a person who will try to wrap life into a tidy package, but CARNAGE truly does feel like a summation of the last several years of his career and life, and is a milestone of sorts in both realms. – Mac Wilson

Lucy Dacus, "Hot and Heavy"

The sophomore album from Lucy Dacus comes out this summer, and she's already released her murder ballad (and fan favorite) "Thumbs." Now we have "Hot and Heavy," a song Dacus says "was just about me outgrowing past versions of myself."

Michigander, "Better"

Everything Will Be OK Eventually seems like a good mantra for 2021, so it makes for a good title for the new EP from Michigander. It kicks off with "Better," a song that is full of revved-up drums and U2-like guitar strums to inspire self improvement.

Silk Sonic, "Leave The Door Open"

Anderson .Paak and Bruno Mars toured together briefly in 2017 and decided that eventually, they would make some music together. Smooth, sweet, and slow as molasses, .Paak and Mars aren't taking anything too seriously with their new project, Silk Sonic; you can hear their smiles as they croon their way through their new song "Leave the Door Open."

Squid, "Narrator"

British band, Squid, wrote their debut album in drummer/vocalist Oliver Judge's local pub and recorded it in producer Dan Carey's London basement studio. "Previous releases were playful and concerned with characters," Judge explains, "whereas this album is darker and more concerned with place — the emotional depth of the music has deepened."

Wolf Alice, "Smile"

Wolf Alice are back with their third album, Blue Weekend. The album shows off the band's explorations with a couple of ballads, a take on post-punk, and a rocker, "Smile" that was inspired by lead singer Ellie Rowsell's desire to fight back against those who try to define her. She said, "It's about people that make assumptions about you."

Amythyst Kiah, "Black Myself"

With a little help from Wendy Melvoin (Prince and the Revolution) on bass, Blake Mills (Alabama Shakes) on guitar, and Kane Ritchotte (Portugal. The Man) on drums, Amythyst Kiah's "Black Myself" is a rocking song with a message. A song for this moment, as Kiah said, "The reception of the song so far has given me hope that there are people
out there who are ready to confront the shared trauma of racism, to look within ourselves and see how we might be perpetuating racist beliefs,
and to do what is needed to create equality for all people."

Celeste, "Hear My Voice"

Following the January release of her debut album Not Your Muse, which debuted at No. 1 on the U.K. Albums Chart, British singer-songwriter Celeste is unveiling the new song, "Hear My Voice," which features in the soundtrack of the Netflix Original Film The Trial of the Chicago 7. Celeste's highly anticipated debut album follows her wins of the BBC's annual Sound of… poll and of the Rising Star Award at the Brit Awards in 2019.

Dawn Richard, "Boomerang"

Remember Danity Kane? It was a reality-TV band that Puff Daddy put together in the early '00s. Dawn Richard has spent the last two decades putting all that behind her and making her own music. In her sixth solo album, she's gunning for that electro-dance world that Janelle Monáe lives in.

Dry Cleaning, "Strong Feelings"

This London-based four-piece post-punk band are known for their spoken-word delivery in place of sung lyrics. Dry Cleaning's new record, New Long Leg, is already a critical darling with witty lyrics delivered with humble sarcasm and delightful coyness by lead vocalist, Florence Shaw.

girl in red, "Serotonin"

The Norwegian bedroom-pop star grew to prominence when she posted her first song on SoundCloud in 2016. But it was a viral hit on Tik Tok during the pandemic — which led to millions of streams — that showed the true force of the gritty and honest self-produced musician. Her song, "Serotonin," struck a chord with its take on therapy, medication, and mental stability.

The Hold Steady, "Family Farm"

Craig Finn's storytelling is always front and center for any Hold Steady project. The latest offering from the New York band with Minnesota roots is Open Door Policy. It takes you to a dingy bar on the holidays, to a protected farm, to late-night parties, and introduces a new collection of characters just trying to get by with flaws and generous humanity.

Julien Baker, "Faith Healer"

Nashville-based Julien Baker has released two solo albums as well as an EP with Phoebe Bridgers and Lucy Dacus as boygenius. Now, Baker is back with a new album, Little Oblivions, that revisits themes of faith, addiction and sobriety, sexuality, and mental health.

Lana Del Rey, "Chemtrails Over the Country Club"

Whatever else you think about Lana Del Rey, she knows her vision and has a distinctive delivery style. She ticks all the boxes on this new album, Chemtrails Over the Country Club: love with an edge of desperation to it, vocals floating over muted instrumentation — like a ghost haunting each song, somehow timeless and nostalgic, and yet pointing to very current issues.

Mdou Moctar, "Afrique Victime"

An album full of "meditations on love, religion, women's rights, inequality, and Western Africa's exploitation at the hands of colonial powers." That's how Tuareg guitarist and songwriter Mdou Moctar describes "Afrique Victime." Rock guitar solos, drums that fire like machine guns, and soft but clear vocals flow for more than 7 minutes on the title track.

serpentwithfeet, "Same Size Shoe"

Originally from Baltimore but now based in Los Angeles, Josiah Wise — known professionally as serpentwithfeet — creates music that explores a world where Black love is paramount. In "Same Size Shoe," serpentwithfeet celebrates gay love and the tenderness present in the best companionships, romantic or otherwise.

Sleater-Kinney, "Worry With You"

After a big shake up, Sleater-Kinney are back officially as a duo of Corin Tucker and Carrie Browstein. The two spent quaratine writing and recording their new record, Path of Wellness. "Worry with You" covers a lot of ground in 3 minutes, showing off a back-to-basics approach (after a more glossy last album produced by St. Vincent) with fuzz, feedback, and grit.

The Staves, "Good Woman"

The trio of sisters came together on their most recent album, Good Woman, after dealing with big life changes: the death of their mother, becoming mothers themselves, and the end of a relationship. It all left them grappling with the question: what makes a good woman? Figuring out how to be the best versions of themselves lays the groundwork for their beautiful album.

Black Country, New Road, "Track X"

The debut album from the British band came out February 5, and this song is one they've been playing live since 2018. The band's name is derived from a major road that goes through the West Midlands of England, an area known as the Black Country given its history as a coal-mining and industrial area.

CHAI, "Donuts Mind If I Do"

Frenetic and energetic, the punky and irreverent Japanese band continue to spark joy with their new album WINK. The aptly titled album is full of fun and tongue-in-cheek turns of phrase; CHAI are a band who take the music seriously but understand that they can have fun at the same time.

Lorde, "Solar Power"

Lorde has been hinting at a new album being in the works since 2018, when she first teased that she and producer Jack Antonoff were collaborating again. While the release may not have gone off exactly as she had hoped (it was leaked out a week before it was supposed to be released), it's here to show off a new era of Lorde. It goes to show what time and breath can do for an artist, allowing them to experiment with their sound and stretch creatively. This sounds nothing like Lorde's previous music. There's a lightness, a freedom, and a maturity to "Solar Power" that speaks to an exciting album on the way. Bonus points for the backing vocalists, Phoebe Bridgers and Clairo.

Madlib, "Road Of The Lonely Ones"

Madlib's music is as eclectic as the artists he's produced music with: Kanye West, Erykah Badu, Noname, J Zilla, and MF Doom. His most recent solo project, Sound Ancestors, sees Madlib tracing the lineage of hip-hop to ancestral rhythms. He told The Guardian that he "sees his production style as 'collecting' spirits'".

Noname, "Rainforest"

The Chicago rapper was planning on releasing her third album in 2020, but the pandemic and the social justice movement protests switched her focus to her own social justice book club. Now, she's released her first song of 2021, "Rainforest"; it's direct and political like much of Noname's writing — but with a tropicalia beat, it's a danceable song of resistance.

Olivia Rodrigo, "brutal"

Well, if you've been paying attentionto the music landscape in 2021, then you may have already stumbled upon the name Olivia Rodrigo. This has been one of the most anticipated albums of the year after several of the songs from the child actor went viral (and her friendship with Taylor Swift didn't hurt). She's been compared to The Breeders, Alanis Morrissette, Elvis Costello, and Veruca Salt — that's the sort of comparison you can't ignore. Don't let the Disney pedigree scare you off; this is a great first offering from a young artist.

Bachelor, "Stay in the Car"

Bachelor is a new project from Jay Som's Melina Duterte and Palehound's Ellen Kempner. They've been friends and fans of each other's work, and while on a touring break, they met up in California to record some music together. Back in February, they released "Anything at All" and now there's "Stay in the Car," a '90s rocker with fuzzy guitar distortion that's going to sound great live.

Bicep, "Atlas"

Bicep are the London-based duo of Matt McBriar and Andy Ferguson, two childhood friends who grew up in Belfast, Northern Ireland, where they bonded over a shared love of dance music. This track, "Altas," is from the album Isles, which brings in the soundscape of the streets of London and adds the musical elements of Middle Eastern music.

black midi, "John L"

If you need a jolt of caffine, or maybe a shot of adrenaline, toss on some black midi. The barely held together chaos of loops and cacaphony of energetic instrumentation pulses behind the vocals of Geordie Greep.

Alice Merton, "Vertigo"

The catchy single, "Vertigo," from Alice Merton is a stadium sing-along of a song. The idea for the song developed from a conversation between Merton and her producer Koz. "I casually described a club night," Merton explains, "where I felt out of place, and the feeling of vertigo took over. We both felt it would be fun to play around with this idea and create a dark atmosphere, supported by a driving rhythm and an almost hypnotic guitar riff."

Iceage, "Gold City"

An album that begs for a live show, each song could easily be stretched out and jammed for additional minutes. Iceage has crafted an album that's easy to fall into; a gentle fall into opening track, "Shelter Song," that builds to a rush with "Vendetta," with rests along the way in shimmering "Gold City."

Joy Oladokun, "breathe again"

On her Twitter, Joy Oladokun refers to herself as the "trap Tracy Chapman," but that simplifies her ability to jump genres. The Nashville upstart has one foot in the country world (Maren Morris is featured on a track from Oladokun's new album), and she can create dance jams just as easily. Her Americana roots are showcased in "breathe again" a single that also shows up on her new album, In Defense of My Own Happiness.

Mustafa, "Stay Alive"

The 23-year-old Toronto poet, singer and songwriter released this debut song and video "Stay Alive," dedicated to those he's lost to gun violence. The album, When Smoke Rises, has received glowing accolades for the beautiful lyricism about dark topics; Mustafa never shies away from the ugly realities but covers them with gentle affection.

Sons of Kemet, "Hustle"

The British jazz collective of Shabaka Hutchings, Theon Cross, Edward Wakili-Hick and Tom Skinner know how to balance their musical powers to create music that is a living force; a movement. Black to the Future showcases the collective working with vocalists and rappers from across the globe, but jointly focused on advocating for change and serving the underserved.

Spirit of the Beehive, "The Server is Immersed"

Entertainment, Death, the debut album from Philadelphia band Spirit of the Beehive, is coming out April 9. Sludgy screams balance out with found sound samples and 808 beats, shaping a disconcerting sound that grows with each listen on "There's Nothing You Can't Do."

Tai Verdes, "Stuck in the Middle"

He may have lost out on the music reality-show circuit, but by turning to Tik Tok to release his music, Tai Verdes has become a hit. Verdes knows how to create a perfect summertime song: sing-along style lyrics, and breezy, light beats.