In the strange period of re-emergence that has characterized the first six months of 2021, we've asked for a lot from the music we love: brand-new sounds and nostalgic grooves, gnarly guitar solos and gentle lullabies, refreshing individuality and impressive collectivity. Thankfully, the songs released in the past six months have delivered. These 27 songs are the ones that have stuck with the staff of NPR Music the most during the first half of this year – one pick per person, presented in alphabetical order by artist. (You can find the list of our favorite albums here. Follow NPR Music's ongoing coverage of new songs at our #NowPlaying blog.)
Beach Bunny, "Blame Game"
"And I'm tired of the world perceiving me," Beach Bunny vocalist Lili Trifilio sings. "And I'm tired of girls saying, 'Something here's gotta change.' " Trifilio's vocals bounce over the twinkling guitars of "Blame Game," a musical account of the burden women's bodies bear in a society that views them as objects, spectacles and scapegoats. The track is bittersweet, almost heartbreaking, in the way it emphasizes these comments as barely inescapable. Trifilio stands firm in her position: "I don't want to smile for anyone." —Alex Ramos
Cande y Paulo, "Treaty"
"Treaty" is one of those you-can-only-hear-it-for-the-first-time-once experiences. When I was advised I would be listening to a semi-acoustic duo from a small town in the Argentine provinces I thought I knew what to expect. What I got was a devastatingly beautiful treatment of Leonard Cohen's "Treaty" from a vocalist (Cande Bausso) who also plays a stand up bass alongside her piano-playing musical partner (Paulo Carizzo). Their self-titled debut LP was produced by Larry Klein, who knows a thing or two about working with exceptional vocal talents (Joni Mitchell and Luciana Souza, among others). What to call their sound? I call it Cande y Paulo music. —Felix Contreras
Cico P, "Tampa"
I imagine Texas rapper Cico P goes through the day floating on a cloud. Everything he says on "Tampa" sounds hard on paper but comes off soft and easy-going. It's from 2019, but I'm glad social media got pretty much everyone hip to it this year. It's like a lullaby delivered in rap form, Kodak Black's cloudiest music put through a strainer. Lifestyle rap has rarely sounded sweeter. —Mano Sundaresan
Toumani Diabaté and the London Symphony Orchestra, "Elyne Road"
Strange bedfellows never sounded as heavenly as they do here, where the Western symphony orchestra meets the West African kora (a 21-stringed plucked instrument) in music of wistful beauty. Toumani Diabaté's instrument sings sweet curlicues of melody that billow above Nico Muhly's translucent arrangement for the London Symphony Orchestra. The song, propelled by a gently descending theme, glows with the warmth of old friends in conversation. —Tom Huizenga
Noga Erez, "End of the Road"
One of the standout tracks on an album stuffed with insanely infectious bangers, "End of the Road" struts and pops with some of the year's stickiest hooks, all while contemplating the mystery of what happens after death. —Robin Hilton
James Francies, "713"
Picture yourself hopping into the back seat of your high school friend's slightly dangerous car and hoping they get you home by curfew. A similar adventure awaits those who listen to "713," one of several gems on Blue Note recording artist James Francies sophomore album, Purest Form. The pianist and producer has been quietly acquiring credits across jazz, hip-hop and R&B since 2015, when he was just 20, and Purest Form showcases a depth of musical sensibility that you might not expect from such a young musician. Joined on this track by fellow Houstonians bassist Burniss Travis and drummer Jeremy Dutton (each with equally impressive resumes of their own), the trio ventures through a landscape where boundaries of genre collide and blur. Dial area code 713 and let your parents know you're going to be a little late coming home today. —Nikki Birch
Flock of Dimes, "Price of Blue"
Flock of Dimes began life as a solo electro-pop side project for Wye Oak's Jenn Wasner, but its sound grows more searching and expansive on this spring's Head of Roses. In the six-minute powerhouse "Price of Blue," Wasner looks back on a relationship with clear-eyed perspective before unleashing a Wye Oak-esque guitar solo that's by turns gnarly and thrilling. —Stephen Thompson
HAIM feat. Taylor Swift, "Gasoline"
"Gasoline," re-released in 2021 featuring contributions by Taylor Swift, is one of the catchiest tracks on the deluxe version of HAIM's third studio album, Women In Music Pt. III. The Haim sisters' lilting vocals and the bass line are easily etched into listeners' memories. And when Swift yell-sings, "I get sad," near the one-minute mark, it's hard not to sing along. —Chasity Hale
Cassandra Jenkins, "Hard Drive"
The centerpiece of An Overview on Phenomenal Nature, Cassandra Jenkins' "Hard Drive" doesn't add up on paper: Over gentle instrumentation in a spoken-word delivery, Jenkins details exchanges with characters across the country. But by the time she recounts a guided meditation led by the psychic Peri Lyons – "Close your eyes / I'll count to three / take a deep breath / count with me" – even the most skeptic listener will be ready to believe Jenkins' assertion that this year's gonna be a good one. —Lyndsey McKenna
Tammy Lakkis, "Notice"
When this song was released, all of three months ago, whatever celebration this summer is ending up affording (a few) was still up in the air (for all). Halfway through the year, the trepidation in "Notice" is as relevant as the surge animating it. —Andrew Flanagan
Amber Mark, "Worth It"
After keeping busy during quarantine through her COVERED-19 YouTube series, Amber Mark came back back in April with "Worth It." Written as an uplifting mantra for herself, the sentiment is easily transferable, with an undeniable rhythm. If you're feeling down on yourself, press play, and when those drums switch up, brace yourself! —Bobby Carter
Meet Me @ The Altar, "Hit Like a Girl"
Where to start? How about that opening aaaAAAHHH, a spine-straightening invocation of the everybody-on-the-floor moments from "Le Freak" and "Spice Up Your Life"? Or those metalcore kicks and mathy guitar squiggles, in case anyone doubted these Y2K babies have the chops? Maybe that pristine octave leap in the chorus, or lyrics that quietly rebuke the toxic rooms where this music thrived a generation ago? MySpace-era pop-punk was always going to call new challengers; count your lucky stars that these three picked up. —Daoud Tyler-Ameen
Mooski, "Track Star"
When Mooski's "Track Star" went viral on TikTok earlier this year, after being released in a vacuum last summer, it felt like a sign that the pandemic was almost over. Or maybe it just took some time before the world was ready to hear a brother in his feels over his heart's desire ghosting him. Call me crazy, but I swear there's a deeper metaphor buried in here somewhere. Like Aretha singing "R-E-S-P-E-C-T" in the long, hot, riotous summer of '67, Mooski's pain serves up a hot side dish on America's short-lived commitment to the work of racial justice it swore to take up. But 'Merica, girl, we still know what you did last summer. —Rodney Carmichael
Emile Mosseri and Han Ye-ri, "Rain Song,"
Composer Emile Mosseri is on a fast-track to eminence. Following his breakout score for 2019's The Last Black Man in San Francisco, Mosseri, along with his 40-piece orchestra, delivered an evocative, Academy Award-nominated soundscape for writer-director Lee Isaac Chung's Minari. The score's standout track, "Rain Song," features lead actress Han Ye-ri singing, her vocals gently floating over the steady, soft hum of an acoustic guitar. It's a mother's lullaby, an enchanting one that — significantly aided by the translation work of lyricist Stefanie Hong — warmly emotes the security of maternal protection and home. —LaTesha Harris
Petal Supply feat. umru, Himera and trndy trndy, "1"
The evolution of popular music is relatively simple: Take the latest technology and find new ways to express "I want you." This moment's bleeding-edge variation on that theme belongs to Canadian hyperpop artist Petal Supply and her maximalist symphony "1," an 11-minute, four-part trance masterpiece that oozes drama and desire. After crafting the song's motif, she sent the stems to like-minded producers umru, Himera and trndytrndy for the remix treatment, then stitched the results together into a single track, complete with a firework finale of her own design. —Otis Hart
Rostam is especially renowned for his production abilities (he's produced for artists like HAIM, Clairo and Frank Ocean, and co-founded Vampire Weekend), but Changephobia, especially "Kinney," exemplifies his ability as a songwriter. With its cool, experimental sounds and funky saxophone, the song is an ideal soundtrack to spending a warm, summer day with a friend who just might be more than a friend. —Sofie Hernandez-Simeonidis
Silk Sonic, "Leave the Door Open"
With the release of their first single, Bruno Mars and Anderson .Paak instantly became the collaboration we didn't know we needed. The nostalgic sound of "Leave the Door Open" only amplifies the natural chemistry between the two Silk Sonic members, allowing them to glide effortlessly on the track. For anyone in need of smooth sounds for the summer, it's easy to say Bruno Mars and Anderson .Paak understood the assignment. —Gabrielle Pierre
Tōth, "Turnaround (Cocaine Song)"
I love a tale that's both funny and sad. "Turnaround (Cocaine Song)," sung by Alex Tōth, recounts how his addiction made a mess of plans to play "Ave Maria" on the trumpet at his Aunt Mary's funeral. First heard at Tōth's 2020 Tiny Desk Concert, and now on the delightful album You And Me And Everything, this song turns disaster into hope. —Bob Boilen
Seinabo Sey feat. Hannes, "Rom-Com"
"Rom-Com" is perfectly named, a light and breezy ode to the fears that hold us back from jumping into a new love. Seinabo Sey's interplay with Hannes illustrates Sey's knack for pairing with collaborators that perfectly compliment her vocal timbre. If this song doesn't end up underscoring a TV or film montage of a couple sneaking glances at each other before they come together in the sunshine mentioned in the song's opening, well, I'll just have to settle for imagining it. —Mitra Arthur
Wayne Snow, "The Thrill"
Sometimes, a new sound can open up a corridor in your brain where there wasn't one before. Zigging and zagging through slippery guitars and stuttering beats, Wayne Snow's voice rises like a hand reaching for the sky in this ode to chasing that which makes us feel alive. But don't think about it too hard, says the Berlin-based artist. There is excitement in what we barely understand, in knowing we may have time or we may not. —Cyrena Touros
On January 28th, 2021, avant-pop musician SOPHIE released "UNISIL," a thumping, industrial bonus instrumental from her breakout 2015 EP, Product. Two days later following a freak accident in Greece, SOPHIE was dead at the age of 34. For many, including myself, SOPHIE was a once-in-a-lifetime artist: an unapologetically trans woman making pop music into molding putty. "UNISIL" is a reminder of her everlasting talent, and a final song that will continue to carry on her legacy. —Reanna Cruz
Starflyer 59, "Life in Bed"
Jason Martin's always been one to wonder what could've been. Nearly three decades into his rock band Starflyer 59, a darker shade's revealed. Synths drip across a strummed acoustic and languid lead guitar as Martin comes to an understanding of the past and possibility. In the final minute, he returns to the feedback that once drenched his despair, as if to visit the young man who sang about a life yet unknown. —Lars Gotrich
Jazmine Sullivan feat. H.E.R., "Girl Like Me"
The somber and stunningly honest conclusion to Jazmine Sullivan's Heaux Tales, "Girl Like Me" stings quite like nothing else. Amid acoustics and with soaring vocals, Jaz and H.E.R. lay out the unique perils of the dating world these days — the apps, the games, the expectations, the impossible beauty standards. Just when it can't cut any deeper, this one twists the knife. —Sidney Madden
SZA, "Good Days"
Since dropping last Christmas, "Good Days" has become SZA's biggest single as a solo artist, cracking Billboard's Top 10 — bold performance for an R&B song this wistful and languid. But as SZA ruminates in a slouchy cadence (against airtight background vocals by Jacob Collier), it's easy to connect with her vibe. "Good day in my mind, safe to take a step out," she begins — hopeful but guarded, perfectly in tune with our moment in time. —Nate Chinen, WBGO
C. Tangana & Toquinho, "Comerte Entera"
The quiet, insistent, synthesized vocals that open "Comerte Entera" signal the kind of calm before the storm that the single itself came to symbolize in the career of Spanish trap artist turned pop heartthrob C. Tangana. On the cusp of releasing an album that would forever alter his image, he released a single with both subtle melody and sneaky electronic-induced depth that both prepared and invited the listener to enjoy the album that was to come. —Anamaria Sayre
Ryley Walker, "Rang Dizzy"
Two years after kicking addiction to the curb, singer, songwriter and guitarist Ryley Walker has achieved fever-pitch productivity, documenting pellucid songs, psychedelic jams and freewheeling improvisations on his Husky Pants label. Course in Fable, issued in April, weds his customarily airy tunesmithing with gently abstruse lyrics and prog-infused arrangements. "Rang Dizzy" is lush and brusque, a waking dream with implicit edge: When Walker ends each chorus with, "F*** me, I'm alive," his wonder feels weighty. —Steve Smith
Water From Your Eyes, "'Quotations'"
Water From Your Eyes describes its music as being "like solving a puzzle with a ton of different answers," and "'Quotations,'" the impressive final track on the duo's forthcoming album, is a perfect example. The band calls it "a sort of inverse version" of another of its songs; this version layers singer Rachel Brown's voice over complex loops to hypnotic effect, resulting in a surprising and curiously cathartic blanket of sound. —Marissa Lorusso
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