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Anticipation to frustration, dreams to dread, we experienced a full range of emotional states these past twelve months, and the songs that reflect them are equally varied. Read on and you’ll encounter disco-funk and ska-punk, free jazz and fine-tuned pop; music that spoke to our eagerness to get back out into the world, around our friends and loved ones, and dance…and music that echoes our simultaneous desire to pull the covers back over our heads and hide.

Many of the 26 selections featured in WXPN’s Best Songs of 2021 are cuts you’ve absolutely heard on the radio — the soaring Sharon Van Etten and Angel Olsen duet Eric Schuman sings praises of, the jauntily existential jam from The Felice Brothers that’s a favorite of David Dye. Others dive deeper and are perhaps new to many of us, but are just as essential: the radiant “Rosie” by Figmore that John Morrison tells us about, or the dreamy “Beauty Queen” by Izzy Heltai, reviewed by Megan Matuzak.

One thing that carries across them all: we love these songs, and we know you’ll love them too. We’re music fans first and foremost here in XPN-land, and this is the music that peaked our fandom. Listen on, read on, and join us on a musical trip through 2021.

Allison Russell – “Nightflyer”

Allison Russell made her name with groups like Po’ Girl, Birds of Chicago (with her husband JT Nero) and Our Native Daughters (with Leyla McCalla, Amythyst Kiah and Rhiannon Giddens), but her solo debut, Outside Child, is the most full realization of her immense talent as a songwriter and musician. Empathetically produced by her bandmate Dan Knobler, the album chronicles the pain and abuse that Russell experienced as a child, eventually leading her to run away from home at the age of fifteen. The exceptional “Nightflyer” sees her dealing directly with being sexually abused by her father (“I’m each of his steps on the stairway / I’m his shadow in the door frame / I’m the tap tap of a lunar month / I’m the stale beer on his breath”), while making it clear that her story is one of survival and re-birth following the depths of tragedy. Laid upon an inescapable melody, Russell owns her entire self, accepting her past, while not allowing it to define her and re-enforcing the message that it is, indeed, “love that conquers all.” It takes an immensely brave and honest person to release a song like “Nightflyer,” and we are all the better for it. Thank you, Allison. – Julian Booker, Sleepy Hollow


Baby Keem ft. Kendrick Lamar – “Family Ties”

This single from Baby Keem’s heavy and fresh third album The Melodic Blue was the first I ever heard about him, but I’m learning to love the album now. “family ties” drew me in with its brutally simple beat, pyrotechnic turns by Keem, and the most bonkers bit we’ve heard from his cousin Kendrick in years — maybe the most theatrical since “u.” Keem spits about honesty and his past (“tongue-tied when the truth is an object”), and demanding his haters come clean (“a million to grandma, who did I offend?”). Halfway through, the new beat rushes in like a nightmare, and Kendrick rattles off all the trends he’s been ducking in 2021. (“I go months without a phone,” reads a page on oklama.com, where he teased his own new material in August before the drop with Keem.) He treats us to many voices on this cut, silly-Kendrick, reclusive-Kendrick, and we even get a rare peek at rap-game-competitor-Kendrick, spewing hot threats: “motherf*** that album, f*** that single, burn that hard drive.” Find director Dave Free’s dazzling video for the single below. – Thomas Hagen, The Key


Catbite – “Call Your Bluff”

If I could dance worth a shit, I’d dance to this tune. Voted (by me) the Philly band I most want to play a gig in my basement. – Dan Reed, XPN Music Director


Cate Le Bon – “Moderation”

Cate Le Bon is formidably bringing New Wave pop into the 2020s. The two singles she released this year ramping up to next year’s full length Pompeii are synthesized masterpieces complete with that certain peculiarity that distinguishes Cate Le Bon’s artistic style. “Moderation” stands out for its  bright, upbeat tempo and counter-rhythmic bass line. – Paige Walter, The Key


Cosmic Guilt – “Silver and Lead”

Cosmic Guilt blend the best of rock, Americana and soul on “Silver and Lead”.  It’s one of a few standout singles that the Philadelphia collective released this year.  And it’s one of those songs that you hear once and want to hear again, and again and again. “Silver and Lead” is a natural fit for the stage that starts quietly and uses every one of its ten-piece supergroup to reach sonic perfection. – Mike Vasilikos, XPN New Music Show


Duand Jones & The Indications  – “Witchoo”

Durand Jones & The Indications reminds the world that disco-pop is alive and well in 2021 on their single “Witchoo.” The band invites the listener to the dancefloor with up-tempo funky grooves paired with Durand Jones’ and Aaron Frazer’s high/lo verse tradeoffs. The catchy chorus makes this track a must play for funk fans in all dance party playlists to come. – Dylan Eddinger, The Key


Felice Brothers – “Jazz on the Autobahn”

Love me a good song about the apocalypse,  particularly nowadays.  And I adore a song that surprises and delights from the first play.  “Jazz on The Autobahn” is Ian Felice’s opening blast of proto-beatnik poetry on The Felice Brothers eighth studio album, FromDreams To Dust. The song is a road-trip running from impending doom with an over-load of timely metaphors on board. It culminates in the title chorus’ ultimate description that the end will indeed sound like “jazz, jazz, jazz, jazz on the autobahn,” something most of us will just have to imagine.  Along the way there is a delightful “whoa, whoa whoa” chorus and a Nate Walcott (from Bright Eyes) trumpet solo.  Hallelujah, bring it on. – David Dye, Dave’s World


Figmore – “Rosie”

With its head-nodding beat and gorgeous harmonies, “Rosie” perfectly distills the psych-infused R&B sound found on Jumbo Street, the debut full-length from Los Angeles-based duo, Figmore (Singer JuiceBox and Producer 10.4 Rog). A groovy and lovesick dream of a song, “Rosie” would’ve made waves in any era.   – John Morrison, Culture Cypher Radio


Irreversible Entanglements – “Water Meditation”

At 20 minutes long, “Water Meditation” very much could be an EP standing alone from the rest of Open The Gates, the sophomore album by the Moor Mother-lead jazz quintet Irreversible Entanglements. It starts off sparse, with a singular horn filling the room until Camae Ayewa finally comes in with just one word: “Water.” It’s like that for the first few minutes, just trumpet, a touch of percussion, her beautiful voice, and little else. Minimal but, like everything the band does, very purposeful. No wasted breaths, no extra notes. From there it builds and builds, with the rest of the group slowly drifting in until the song reaches a crescendo around the 13-minute mark. From there it’s brought back down, down, gently sinking into that ocean of sound until finally it’s become one with the water, again. – Yoni Kroll, The Key


Izzy Heltai – “Beauty Queen”

If you love songs with incredibly satisfying tempo changes, look no further than Izzy Heltai’s “Beauty Queen”  from his debut album Day Plan (5 Songs Written 4 the End of the World). Izzy’s folk-walk singing style, complemented by the thick, dreamy guitar and soft reverb filters, culminates and disperses so well; the transition into the chorus feels like diving into a warm swimming pool at dusk after laughter-filled day drinking and a joint, no splash. – Megan Matuzak, The Key 


Jimbo Mathus & Andrew Bird – “Poor Lost Souls”

On “Poor Lost Souls” Andrew Bird and Jimbo Mathus tell a seemingly universal story of broken dreams. Set with the backdrop of glitzy Los Angeles, the song gives voice to the homeless and downtrodden, and asserts how close we all could be from sharing their plight. Reminiscent of The Band in the simple chorus harmonies, it’s a song that can easily stand the test of time. – Ian Zolitor, WXPN Folk Show


Little Simz – “I Love You / I Hate You”

With a driving beat by Inflo, Little Simz provides us with some lyrical therapy. A song about an absentee father isn’t exactly new ground, but I feel I can comfortably say Simz has made the best one. “I Love You / I Hate You” is the most thought out and grown up of any of these types of songs. With lyrics like “It’s hard to confront the truth with what you see in the mirror / some people you inspire and others you trigger” and “never thought my parents would give me my first heartbreak / anxiety giving me an irregular heart rate” you can tell she’s already tried to work through these ideas and issues and instead of using her song as a way to lash out it was a step toward acceptance and healing. – Josh Leidy, The Key


Lucky Daye ft. Yebba – “How Much Can A Heart Take”

To be honest I chose “How Much Can A Heart Take” because it came out in the beginning of the year and I haven’t stopped listening to it since it’s release on February 12th. The smooth rhythms from those drums create a setting for Lucky Daye and his guest Yebba to have drinks as the two R&B singers harmonize and question how much their own hearts can take. Safe to say this song has gotten a lot streams from me in 2021. – Rahman Wortman, XPN Weekend Host


Mannequin Pussy – “Control”

Open any social media app, hit play on most podcasts, or page through the editorial section of any publication and one thing is clear: we are anxious about everything anymore. Nothing is certain — finances, health, upcoming plans…nothing. Mannequin Pussy’s “Control” distills the feeling of telling yourself you’re in control of everything but you know that is not the case. The song starts calmly and then erupts by the second verse into anger and frustration at the knowledge of this loss of power. A line that is repeated throughout is “Yeah, I know no one’s waiting for anyone,” like a melancholy  reminder that we’re on our own in dealing with these uncertain times. – Maureen Walsh, The Key


Mitski – “The Only Heartbreaker”

Whomst among us doesn’t like to dance for a serotonin boost, while also crying over the content of a song dealing with deep, emotional undertones about self-doubt in a relationship? Lyrically, the song speaks about the pains of not being perfect in a relationship; the agony of being the person who’s always messing up in a relationship, but musically, the upbeat, powerpop, 80s-esque sound makes you want to break out the neon spandex outfits and dance those sads away. Only Mitski could be “The Only Heartbreaker” and make people excited about it.  – Meghin Moore, The Key


Mountain Movers – “Flock of Swans”

This year’s World What World from heady New Haven, Connecticut, psych leaders Mountain Movers simmers and broods just as much as it rips through its first seven songs. Then the album-ending “Flock of Swans” leaves the ground atop a Stratosphere-piercing hook not often found in their catalog. Take hold early because once Kryssi Battalene commandeers the fowl with her guitar barrage there’s no coming down for a while. – Brian Wilensky, The Key


MUNA – “Silk Chiffon”

“Silk Chiffon” had quite possibly the best hook of this year, one that especially feels so great to scream along to at a concert — an act that was sorely missed this previous year. MUNA’s hit single, for me, was a favorite just for the sheer exuberance and energy every line has, combined with elite arrangement decisions at every turn (shout-out to the electric guitar that makes its entrance in Phoebe Bridgers’ verse). And it doesn’t hurt that the song also has an instant classic of a music video. – Sam Kesler, The Key


serpentwithfeet – “Same Size Shoe”

It is without a doubt that I say no chorus bounced around my head quite as frequently as serpentwithfeet’s joyously absurd and endlessly sweet declaration of love on “Same Size Shoe”. This soulful ballad, one of a handful of incredible tracks from 2021’s DEACON, is one that charms instantly, capturing the moment when infatuation slides into devotion. Is it truly essential that your lover share a shoe size? It is if it’s something you discover about the one you’re falling in love with. – Sean Fennell, The Key


Shamir – “Cisgender”

When Shamir opened for Lucy Dacus at a sold out Union Transfer this fall, it wasn’t the poppy alt-rock from his acclaimed 2020 album that made the biggest impact, but something newer, darker and decidedly more gripping; the live debut of “Cisgender.” The noisy anthem was the perfect song to steal the show, since it’s very much about fighting those who try to box you into an identity. In a world of false binaries and catch-all labels that try to summarize the complexities of individual people, the Vegas-born, Philly-based singer-songwriter sings of living in the nuanced in-between — “I’m not cisgender, I’m not binary trans / I don’t wanna be a girl, I don’t wanna be a man / I’m just existing on this god forsaken land.” Lyrically raw and vulnerable as guitars roar and drums slam, “Cisgender” finds Shamir not understanding how to make folks comfortable and accepting, throwing down a “take it or leave it” gauntlet, but most significantly resisting compromise: “I’m not gonna pass for you.” Shamir is frustrated, yes, but unafraid, and makes it clear that he’ll keep being himself, and inviting folks to see the beauty in the unexpected. – John Vettese, The Key


Sharon Van Etten + Angel Olsen – “Like I Used To”

Some duet partnerships yield a song so perfect, its collaborators never crossed paths again. Think “Under Pressure,” “Don’t Give Up,” or “Where the Wild Roses Grow.” If “Like I Used To” ends up being a similarly fleeting team-up, it’ll already be more than we deserve. The burly guitars and Van Etten’s and Olsen’s gritted-teeth deliveries channel a universal frustration over having to refer to hobbies such as “sleeping in late” and “falling in love” in the past tense. Add this to your go-to karaoke list when you can get back to the roadhouse like you used to. – Eric Schuman, Indie Rock Hit Parade


Sofia Valdes – “Handful of Water”

There are people who make music because they want to, and people who make music because they need to. Sofia Valdes is one of the latter. Her dyslexia and ADHD caused her to struggle in school, but she immediately excelled at guitar when she began playing at the age of 8. Soon she realized she could channel herself through music, and began obsessively crafting songs until they sounded juuust right – not that you can hear any of her strife in the breezy, bossa nova-tinged pop of “Handful of Water!” What we DO hear is the promise of a starlet who has already managed to create a uniquely comfortable sound on her debut EP, Ventura, and we can’t wait to see what comes next. – Kristen Kurtis, XPN Morning Show


Spellling – “Boys At School”

Listen, it’s impossible for me to think of Spellling’s “The Boys at School” as anything but a post-feminist, pro-womanist treatise on the allure of male centered, boys-club culture. The song, a piano and voice-driven lament, at once melancholic and empowering, shifts from angry pop ditty to epic cinematic dream just inside the song’s seven-plus minutes. Whether we’re over and done fucking them or fighting them is not quite made clear here — after all “the body is the law”; yet she and I are tired of these boys, and with lyrics like “Shut out the Sun until I’m small again, I’m way too tired to climb out of bed”  and a chorus that states “I hate the boys at school, they never play the rules”, child, let me tell you — I appreciate the sentiment. As I alluded to on the review of the record that houses this beautiful, mind-altering slab of glam-a-delica, The Turning Wheel, this is best song I’ve heard on similar topics — like social ostracism and anxiety as a part of political oppression and these phenomenon’s impact on already inherently marginalized communities — since 2016 gave us Moor Mother’s Fetish Bones, Kamaiyah’s A Good Night in the Ghetto and Beyonce’s Lemonade in the same year. Tracks like Savan DePaul’s “Mist Burns” from their 2021 album Acid Rain II evokes this spirit too — lyrical flourishes over a drama-filled, bass-soaked earworm of a tune, a song about resiliency when faced with debilitating factors brought on and augmented by the misery of oppression. With its goth further blackened (and Blackened) by cutting, Massive Attack-ian sensibilities, “The Boys at School” joins this oeuvre as my favorite song of the year. – Alex Smith, The Key


Spoon – “The Hardest Cut”

I love the rugged feel of Britt Daniel’s voice, and I welcome it back. Spoon has been quiet a little longer than usual. It can make a fan wonder…”are they running out of material?” This answers that question quickly and with a confident swagger. It’s funky and bluesy and just when you are ready to hit the dance floor, Spoon throws a left hook, fuzzed out riff. It’s gonna get rowdy. I think we have a lot to look forward to when the album lands in February – Wendy Rollins, XPN weekend host


Taylor Swift – “All Too Well (Ten Minute Version)”

When Taylor Swift performed her new 10-minute directors cut of “All Too Well,” one of the standout songs from the recently released Red (Taylor’s Version), she put on a performance for the SNL ages. The studio “from the vaults” version recently toppled Don McLean’s “American Pie” for the longest No. 1 hit in Billboard’s Hot 100 chart history. But if hit charts aren’t any kind of indicator for you, or an enticement to listen to this song, I highly suggest you explore it out of curiosity: about how Swift turns the original version – a song of magnificent emotional proportion about a failed relationship — into an even more epic story and song. Clocking in at 10:13, Swift makes it feel as though only four minutes has passed. It’s that engaging. – Bruce Warren, XPN Program Director


Tigers Jaw – “Commit”

The most striking thing about this track off I Won’t Care How You Remember Me, a long-anticipated release on my end, is Brianna Collins’ clear and commanding vocals. This song is all about owning up to mistakes and putting a stop to a forced feeling. The final line of the choruses, “If you wanted to ask for forgiveness, then commit and say it,” demands that you push your ego aside and face facts. It’s a brutally honest song and I love how it’s written in that sort of last-shot kind of way. – Emily Herbein, The Key 


Wet Leg – “Chaise Longue”

It’s hard to describe “cool”. You just know it when you see it – or, in the case of Wet Leg – when you hear it. The Isle of Wight duo’s first single “Chaise Longue” radiates an effortless confidence, with a nearly monotone vocal delivery of funny, clever lyrics smoothing out the jittery guitars. But just because they sound hard to impress doesn’t mean they don’t rock out. These are the girls you want to be friends with because they’ve got the best jokes, the most attitude and they probably throw really good parties. – Raina Douris, World Cafe


[full playlist]

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