The 100 best songs of 2021: SZA, Kali Uchis, Baby Keem

As normal came back into view in 2021 — then seemed to slip away again — great songs arrived from places we could predict and places we never thought to look. Here are The Times music staff’s picks for the 50 best of the year, followed by 50 more to hear, to savor, to be surprised by.

1. SZA, “Good Days”
A long, winding melodic line. Lyrical references to Jericho, Job and awaiting one’s “armored fate with a smile.” And can we talk about some of the wildest enjambment in pop-music history? SZA’s gorgeous and enveloping psychedelic-soul jam is all about her pursuit of an empty mind, but in truth, “Good Days” is overflowing with emotional data — a world of feeling to get thoroughly lost inside. (Mikael Wood)

2. Kali Uchis, “Telepatía”
From Uchis’ Grammy-nominated 2020 album, “Sin Miedo (del Amor y Otros Demonios) ∞,” the seraphic soul-pop of “Telepatía” might have been forever a B-side were it not for its enduring impression on TikTok. Re-released as a single in February, it continues to be a relevant theme for long-distance lovers; written and sung in Spanglish, the song lingered for four months on the Billboard Hot 100, proving itself a sleeper hit not to be slept on. (Suzy Exposito)

3. Baby Keem, “Family Ties”
While Kendrick Lamar’s guest verse launched a million “Top o’ the mornin’” memes, Keem’s breakthrough single heralded the laconic 21-year-old Carson rapper (and Kendrick’s cousin) as SoCal’s hottest new hip-hop voice. (August Brown)

4. Pharoah Sanders and Floating Points, “Movement 6”
A shimmering instrumental meditation between the crucial free jazz tenor player Sanders and experimental electronic producer Floating Points, this beatless nine-minute composition features orchestration by the London Symphony Orchestra. Though Sanders, 81, now walks with a cane and mostly plays seated, his seemingly inextinguishable tone still soars with superheroic grace. (Randall Roberts)

5. Olivia Rodrigo, “Drivers License”
Eight straight weeks at No. 1, and still the little details can raise the hair on the back of your neck: the door-is-ajar beep that turns into a plaintive piano lick, the perfect suburban almost-rhyme of “white cars” and “front yards,” the expert deployment of an F-bomb right where you want it — right where you need it — to be. (MW)

 A man standing against a white cinder-block wall.

Rauw Alejandro.

(Eric Rojas / For The Times)

6. Rauw Alejandro, “Todo de Ti”
While recording his Grammy-nominated album “Vice Versa,” the Puerto Rican sensation sought to set himself apart amid the growing class of talented MCs on his island. For his summer smash, the trap-reggaeton singer went off-script and trawled through his dad’s record collection; he came back with a fresh spin on the golden era of roller-disco. If ever the world begged for a Latin reboot of “Xanadu” — and according to The Times’ Latino Slack channel, it does — “Todo de Ti” would make a heavenly soundtrack. (SE)

7. Arooj Aftab, “Mohabbet”
This Grammy-nominated piece from Aftab’s breakout album, “Vulture Prince,” is mostly sung in Urdu, hasn’t charted and hasn’t generated much so-called heat. But her emotive voice, coupled with elegantly composed acoustic and synthetic arrangements and age-old lyrics adapted from poets including Rumi and Mirza Ghalib, combined to propel a supremely skilled artist into the mainstream. (RR)

8. Lil Nas X, “Montero (Call Me by Your Name)”
Months after the stripper pole and the Satan shoes scandalized just the right people, the song itself remains a marvel of seduction and construction. (MW)

9. Little Simz, “Woman”
There are shades of late-’90s Lauryn Hill in the crisp, buoyant production, but the U.K. rapper is resolutely in the present on her insightful, nimble “Sometimes I Might Be an Introvert” LP. (AB)

10. Adele, “To Be Loved”
The vocal performance of the year. (MW)

11. Pooh Sheisty featuring Lil Durk, “Back in Blood”
The new pride of Memphis rap more than lives up to his Tennessee hometown’s gothic native sound. He’s absorbed the hazy menace of fellow Southerners Gucci Mane and Lil Wayne, and it’s nowhere better on display than in this creepy standout single. (AB)

12. City Girls, “Twerkulator”
The rap duo cranks up their hometown sound in “Twerkulator,” an all-too fleeting, two-minute explosion of raw Miami bass that samples Afrika Bambaataa’s 1982 classic “Planet Rock.” Under the supervision of director and hip-hop legend Missy Elliott, the music video imagines JT and Yung Miami as super-size MCs who knock down buildings with the magnitude of their derrières — “Right cheek, left cheek wit’ it,” says JT — to the horror of screaming civilians. (SE)

13. Sparks, Adam Driver and Marion Cotillard, “So May We Start?”
The opening number in the Sparks-written movie musical “Annette” finds brothers Ron and Russell Mael, stars Driver and Cotillard — and even director Leos Carax — singing to its audience. In typical Mael-ian fashion, the song ponders the question of the title with an introductory admission: “They hope that it goes the way it’s supposed to go / There’s fear in them all but they can’t let it show.” (RR)

A female singer in an orange dress holds out a microphone.

Kacey Musgraves.

(Valerie Macon / AFP via Getty Images)

14. Kacey Musgraves, “Camera Roll”
In a gutting cautionary tale about the dangers of photo-scrolling after a breakup, Musgraves saves her knockout punch for the bridge: “Look at me, I’m living all alone / Now you’re only living in my phone.” (MW)

15. Farruko, “Pepas”
For more than a decade, the reggaeton MC coasted up and down the Billboard Latin charts, jonesing to break the mold like peers J Balvin and Bad Bunny. This year, he unleashed a monster hit of a song in “Pepas,” or “Seeds,” a guarachero-house fusion that has blasted jubilantly from sound systems and stadiums all over the world.

16. Shygirl, “Slime”
A hot and bothered slice of sex-delirious U.K. techno-rap, delivered with perfect breath control and precision-tuned musicality. (AB)

17. Sam Gendel and Josiah Steinbrick, “Mouthfeel 2”
Los Angeles saxophonist and woozy-beat producer Gendel, signed to the New York label Nonesuch, has a deal that allows him to independently release as much music as he wants, and he’s taken full advantage. This year alone, Gendel’s released at least seven solo or collaborative albums. The syrupy “Mouthfeel 2,” from his duo album “Mouthfeel” with percussionist Steinbrick, offers one choice entry point into Gendel’s house of mirrors. (RR)

18. Walker Hayes, “Fancy Like”
Dumb enough that Applebee’s wanted to use it as a jingle; smart enough that Applebee’s used it as a jingle. (MW)

19. Christian Nodal and Gera MX, “Botella Tras Botella”
On his road to regional Mexican stardom, Nodal has often played by the book, winning the favor of establishment darlings like Alejandro Fernández and the esteemed Aguilar family. This year, Nodal took a sharp left turn in the one-off single “Botella Tras Botella” (Bottle After Bottle), a darkly funny track he recorded with Mexican rapper Gera MX, about drinking yourself to forget a past relationship. (SE)

20. Madlib and Four Tet, “Dirtknock”
For their album “Sound Ancestors,” British producer Four Tet raided the beat archives of L.A. producer Madlib and selected tracks to use as the raw ingredients for his own interpretations. “Dirtknock” samples British minimalists Young Marble Giants — and adds a boom-bap rhythm. (RR)

21. Justin Bieber featuring Daniel Caesar and Giveon, “Peaches”
Can Bieber be counted among the greats of modern R&B? This effervescent single sure makes the case, with splendid guest turns from Caesar and Long Beach’s Giveon. (AB)

22. Turnstile, “Holiday”
The Baltimore five-piece made a name for itself by eschewing the hardcore scene’s historically rigid orthodoxies — most successfully in its third studio album, “Glow On.” On standout track “Holiday,” the band eases in with a sanguine procession of bossa nova synths — then blitzes the airwaves with a grinding rock groove fit for moshing and dancing alike. (SE)

23. The War on Drugs featuring Lucius, “I Don’t Live Here Anymore”
A heat mirage of shimmering ’80s-rock splendor from a guy whose idea of thirst is running out of guitar pedals. (MW)

24. Halsey, “I Am Not a Woman, I’m a God”
Having mastered the art of a Top 40 hit, Halsey tapped Nine Inch Nails members Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross to help usher them out of their electro-pop pigeonhole and into the gothic rock fantasy that became their now Grammy-nominated album, “If I Can’t Have Love, I Want Power.” Written while grappling with the deeply corporeal experience of pregnancy — which Halsey, who is nonbinary, said “leveled my perception of gender entirely” — “I Am Not a Woman, I’m a God” is as much a razor-sharp thesis on their identity as it is a lustral exhale. (SE)

25. Megan Thee Stallion, “Thot S—”
Megan has a new college degree in health administration, but she’s teaching the PhD-level course in club grinding here: “I’m the s— per the Recording Academy,” she boasts here, accurately. (AB)

26. Patrick Shiroishi, “The Long Bright Dark”
The Los Angeles saxophonist’s solo album “Hidemi” finds the musician stacking alto, tenor, baritone, soprano and C melody saxophones to create nine brief, melodically labyrinthine pieces inspired by his grandfather’s experience being imprisoned alongside more than 120,000 other Japanese American citizens during World War II. Shiroishi can blow, and “The Long Bright Dark” constructs a wild harmonic kaleidoscope. (RR)



(Madeleine Hordinski / Los Angeles Times)

27. Glaive, “I Wanna Slam My Head Against the Wall”
Hyperpop’s 16-year-old heartthrob vents his various frustrations — including the fact that “for the last two years I’ve been all alone” — over a groove that keeps switching between la-di-da and go-go-go. (MW)

28. Nessa Barrett, “I Hope Ur Miserable Until Ur Dead”
In the Old World, hexing your enemies required use of candle magick, mysterious sigils or poppet dolls impaled by needles; in 2021, Nessa Barrett turns hexes into dark-pop hits. The 19-year-old newcomer sews venom into the verses of “I Hope Ur Miserable Until Ur Dead,” projecting her worst intentions on an enemy with a sickly sweet aftertaste. (SE)

29. Chuck Johnson, “Raz de Maree”
A beat-less, sublimely dynamic instrumental track that blends Johnson’s pedal steel guitar and synthesizer work with piano and a string trio, “Raz de Raree” served as a constant salve across 2021. (RR)

30. Billie Eilish, “Oxytocin”
Pulsating with currents of steely ‘90s-industrial and techno sounds, this “Happier Than Ever” B-side gets its name from the so-called love hormone emitted during sex — which Eilish craves, and fears herself for craving. “Can’t take it back once it’s been set in motion / You know I need you for the oxytocin,” she purrs, opting to surrender to her shadow side. (SE)

31. LSDXOXO, “Sick B—”
Whenever after-hours raves come back after Omicron, this spit-dripping ode to queer sex and unbridled appetites will be the peak of any very, very late night out. (AB)

32. Yola, “Dancing Away in Tears”
“I Will Survive” meets “Dusty in Memphis.” (MW)

33. Willow featuring Travis Barker, “Transparent Soul”
Backed by Blink-182’s Barker on the drums, Willow commands the moody tempest of “Transparent Soul” with poise, meeting the brisk pace with thundering vocals (and a snarl). “They’re treating me like royalty, but is it kissin’ ass?” she muses, wielding her boredom like a blade. (SE)

34. Wizkid featuring Tems, “Essence”
Smooth operation. (MW)

35. Bad Bunny, “Yonaguni”
At last: a reggaeton song for the cat-eared kids camped out in the manga section of your local bookstore. No stranger to eccentricity, the Puerto Rican superstar turns post-breakup grief into candy pop in his bilingual 2021 ballad. In Spanish, he offers to whisk his ex-lover away to the subtropical island of Yonaguni, where — he sings more explicitly in Japanese — they can reunite and make passionate love once more. (SE)

36. Monaleo, “Beating Down Yo Block”
Hilarious, hard-slapping charisma and fantastic rapping from Houston’s new heir to Megan Thee Stallion’s throne. The city’s hip-hop scene was battered this year by Astroworld, but it nonetheless never ceased to foster great talent. (AB)

37. Smino featuring NOS, “I Deserve”
A track about waking and baking and feeling blah, the St. Louis rapper-vocalist’s “I Deserve” is driven by a weird, curiously melancholy beat, sing-song phrasing and a laid-back Midwest swing. What’s got him down? Not only is Smino running out of money, he raps, but “it’s an icebox where my heart is.” Worse, his friend died in August and Smino can’t shake it: “Am I supposed to feel normal about it? Likе, nah.” (RR)

38. The Marías, “Calling U Back”
For their Grammy-nominated debut “Cinema,” the L.A. indie jazz-pop darlings took inspiration from the films of Pedro Almodóvar and the music of Sade to become sonic maestros of sexual tension. Much like the elastic push-and-pull sensation of an on-again, off-again romance, the band nimbly applies and withdraws gravity to María Zardoya and Josh Conway’s breathy intimations, heightening the drama without hurting your ears. (SE)

39. Wet Leg, “Chaise Longue”
Talk about hooks. Talk about a beat. Talk about bars: “Is your muffin buttered? Would you like us to assign someone to butter your muffin?” (MW)

40. John Dwyer, “The War Clock”
During the COVID-19 pandemic, the visual artist and wild-eyed founder of the psych-rock band Oh Sees invited a dozen remarkable Los Angeles musicians — including members of TV on the Radio, Build an Ark and Ty Segall’s Freedom Band — to his Stu-Stu-Studio. There, to keep their pandemic-sidelined musical chops from dulling, they set to tape hours of Krautrock- and jazz-inspired jam sessions. At 12 minutes, “The War Clock” is an unrelenting illustration of how musicians harness pent-up energy to create feral sounds. (RR)

41. Azealia Banks, “F— Him All Night”
While we wait for someone to write the A24-worthy screenplay of Banks’ night trapped in Elon Musk and Grimes’ house, thank God we have this incendiary hard-house cut to tide us over. (AB)

42. Myke Towers, “Pin Pin”
Whether singing pop reggaetoncitos opposite Camila Cabello or spitting fire on stone-cold trap numbers with Bad Bunny and Eladio Carrion, the Puerto Rican wordsmith’s greatest asset is his adaptability. Here, he triumphs on the Carlos Santana-produced “Pin Pin,” in which the hiss-pop of trap clicks with the old-school tumbao of Tommy Olivencia’s 1986 salsa classic, “Periquito Pin Pin.” (SE)



(Christina House / Los Angeles Times)

43. Sasami, “The Greatest”
Some rock songs sound preordained. They hit with a kind of earned arrogance, as if they were out there in the ether, foot-tapping in wait since before the First Song. Mount Washington-based multi-instrumentalist and producer Sasami Ashworth’s anthemic, tortured love song is one such diamond. (RR)

44. L’Rain, “Find It”
Brooklyn’s entrancing new experimental R&B singer and composer gives her clearest statement of purpose on “Find It.” It’s misty, hypnotizing and reveals new layers every listen. (AB)

45. Holly Humberstone, “Please Don’t Leave Just Yet”
A yearning electro-soul tune co-starring the 1975’s Matty Healy as the guy whispering to another woman on the phone. (MW)

46. Jazmine Sullivan, “Pick Up Your Feelings”
Yet another acrobatic, exhilarating single from one of modern R&B’s finest. “Heaux Tales” is a trim, flawless album, and this its well-justified centerpiece. (AB)

47. NCT U, “OK!”
A lively late-December entry from one of K-pop’s most prolific combos, “OK!” is a showcase for the group’s rapper Mark to run circles around a hard-kicking, harp-driven beat. Fans are calling him “Jop Smoke” for good reason. (AB)

48. Yasmin Williams featuring Amadou Kouyate, “Urban Driftwood”
The title track from finger-picking acoustic guitarist Williams’ breakout album is the most immediately inviting entrance to the Virginia-based instrumentalist’s second album. (RR)

49. Mach-Hommy featuring Westside Gunn and Keisha Plum, “Folie á Deux”
Only built 4 fans of “Cuban Linx”… (MW)

50. Backxwash, “I Lie Here Buried With My Rings and My Dresses”
Unholy, acid-singed noise-rap with one of the most compelling, hellish vocal performances of the year. Goth boys, cower. (AB)

And in alphabetical order, another 50 not to be missed:

Gracie Abrams, “Feels Like”

Arca, “Rakata”

Ashe and Finneas, “Till Forever Falls Apart”

J Balvin and Skrillex, “In Da Getto”

Boys Noize featuring Abra, “Affection”

Leon Bridges, “Motorbike”

Brockhampton featuring Charlie Wilson, “I’ll Take You On”

BTS, “Butter”

Bo Burnham, “That Funny Feeling”

Brandi Carlile.

Brandi Carlile.

(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

Brandi Carlile, “Right on Time”

Clairo, “Blouse”

George Clanton featuring Neggy Gemmy, “F— Up My Life”

C. Tangana featuring Gipsy Kings, “Ingobernable”

Lucy Dacus, “VBS”

Alvaro Diaz, Feid and Tainy, “Llori Pari”

Doja Cat featuring SZA, “Kiss Me More”

Drake, “Papi’s Home”

El Alfa with CJ, Chael Produciendo and El Cherry Scom, “La Mamá de la Mamá”

Brent Faiyaz featuring Tyler, the Creator, “Gravity”

Genesis Owusu, “Waitin’ on Ya”

Girl in Red, “Serotonin”

Hand Habits, “Aquamarine”

Helado Negro, “Gemini and Leo”

Sam Hunt, “23”

Illuminati Hotties, “Pool Hopping”

Elton John and Dua Lipa, “Cold Heart (PNAU Remix)”

Karol G, “Bichota”

The Kid Laroi with Justin Bieber, “Stay”

Lorde, “Dominoes”

John Mayer

John Mayer.

(Mark Seliger)

John Mayer, “Shot in the Dark”

Mdou Moctar, “Chismiten”

Mon Laferte and Gloria Trevi, “La Mujer”

Neiked x Mae Muller x Polo G, “Better Days”

Oneohtrix Point Never and Rosalía, “Nothing’s Special”

Kim Petras, “Coconuts”

Pom Pom Squad, “Crying”

Poppy, “Her”

Olivia Rodrigo, “Good 4 U”

Saint Etienne, “Music Again”

Silk Sonic, “Leave the Door Open”

Soccer Mommy, “Rom Com 2004”

Matt Sweeney and Bonnie “Prince” Billy, “Hall of Death”

Taylor Swift featuring Phoebe Bridgers, “Nothing New”

Taylor Swift, “All Too Well (10 Minute Version)”

Tirzah, “Send Me”

Tyler, the Creator

Tyler, the Creator

(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

Tyler, the Creator featuring Youngboy Never Broke Again and Ty Dolla Sign, “Wusyaname”

Faye Webster, “In a Good Way”

Weezer, “Numbers”

Remi Wolf, “Grumpy Old Man”

Yves Tumor, “Jackie”