We’ve been consuming music in a vacuum for over a year now. There hasn’t been the chance to hear a new song at a bar, at a friend’s party, or at a club. Instead, we consume what we can find via the Internet. What we hear is recorded—or at the very least performed via livestream. It’s different. The great stuff has been able to unite us, physical distance between us be damned. Music has felt essential throughout the last 13 months. It’s offered us a short escape, or a way to make sense of our anxieties. In the best instances, an excuse to stand up and push aside the furniture and just move. And perhaps in a year or in a few months, we’ll hear some of these songs and be instantly transported to this time and this place, for better or worse. What we do know, is that, for right now, these are the songs getting us through whatever stage of These Times we find ourselves in. Whether it’s the escape of Silk Sonic or confronting the looming crisis of climate change with The Weather Station, this is the music we love most, right now. With new voices like Olivia Rodrigo and new subgenres from South Africa or bold statements from Lil Nas X, these are the best songs of 2021 so far.
“Atlantic” — The Weather Station
‘“My god,’ I thought / ‘My god, what a sunset’ / Blood red floods the Atlantic,” Tamara Lindeman sings in the opening lines of “Atlantic.” There’s a steady tide of drums. A storm of trilling synths swirls in the background while Lindeman tries to reckon with the beauty of nature and the looming doom of the climate crisis. “I was thinking about the weight of the climate crisis—like, how can you look out the window and love the world when you know that it is so threatened, and how that threat and that grief gets in the way of loving the world and being able to engage with it,” she told Apple Music of the song. It’s a song that attempts to come to terms with the great catastrophe of our generation. And when a song is this gorgeous we can’t help but listen. —Matt Miller
“Don’t Judge Me” — FKA twigs, Headie One, Fred Again
FKA twigs is here to finish what she started. In 2019, the avant garde pop star lent her vocals to a short interlude on a mixtape from rapper Headie One and producer Fred again…—the entire collection, called GANG, is worth a spin—that serves as the first iteration of this 2021 release. The two years of tinkering were worth it, the final version is completely exhilarating, from her blown glass vocals to the UK drill star’s hypnotic, urgent flow. —Madison Vain
“MONTERO (Call Me By Your Name)” — Lil Nas X
The video is getting all the attention, which when one slides down a stripper pole to Hell to give Satan a lap dance and then snap his neck, is to be expected. But don’t sleep on the song itself, an unrequited love song to a self-destructive possibly-closeted man who “lives in the dark,” from a narrator just as afflicted with internalized homophobia, wanting nothing to do with the boys “that’s in my league, I wanna fuck the ones I envy.” In a release-day Instagram post, Lil Nas X said he wrote this song for his fearful 14-year-old self, with “love from the future.” Here’s hoping that kid can see past the visuals and the cable-news outrage and appreciate the honest, nuanced and challenging look at grown-up gay life. –Dave Holmes
“Folasade” — Kabza De Small, DJ Maphorisa, TRESOR
In the last few years, amapiano has become the most popular sound in South Africa. A subgenre of house music, it started as a grassroots, countercultural, DIY movement that thrived in the local clubs. It’s the music of freedom—long, joyful, hypnotic dance bangers rooted in deep house. Kabza de Small and producer DJ Maphorisa are at the forefront of this movement, helping spread it across Africa and onto global popularity. On this nearly 8-minute track, Kabza, Maphorisa, and TRESOR show the genre’s true potential. It’s also proof of why the likes of Drake, Usher, Beyonce, Disclosure, and others are paying close attention to this scene. Don’t be surprised if this is the next K-Pop, reggaeton, pr Latin trap phenomenon. —MM
“Peaches” — Justin Bieber ft. Daniel Caesar, Giveon
It won’t be the Peaches TikTok Make-Up challenge that does it, but eventually you will give into the latest chart-topper from the Biebs. Why not make now that moment? Bieber debuted the unexpectedly vibey cut during his NPR Tiny Desk performance earlier this year, just hours before dropping his Justice LP. Manning the keys, it was an infectious, if slightly random, ode to different regions of the continental United States. (Don’t overthink this.) But the pristinely-produced radio version, which also features Daniel Cesar, is almost impossibly smooth. —MV
“Leave The Door Open” — Silk Sonic
When Bruno Mars takes on a genre—the ‘90s new jack swing of “Finesse” or the early ‘80s synth-pop of “Treasure”—he shows he understands the assignment, but that’s the essential problem with Bruno Mars: too often his music can feel like an assignment. For the Silk Sonic project, Mars has teamed with Anderson .Paak, and their first track is a flawless tribute to mid-‘70s R&B with a key change that will make you stand up and cheer. We’re no closer to understanding who Bruno Mars actually is, but when his work is this much fun, who cares? –DH
“Hard Drive” — Cassandra Jenkins
Floating between spoken-word storytelling and soft, pensive singing, Cassandra Jenkins weaves brilliant vignettes from the hard drive of her mind. There’s an undeniable hope lingering in the everydayness of her memories. It’s a reminder of all we have to come back to—when those simple, quiet moments can be so meaningful. Released on the day of President Biden’s inauguration, Jenkins wrote that “I hope today we can take a deep breath, count to three, let go of the last 4 years and start to look ahead at the next chapter.” Like a meditative guide, she instructs the listener: “Just breathe. One, two, three.” The fresh air feels so good. — MM
“Driver’s License” — Olivia Rodrigo
Every few years, a debut song comes along and sucker punches you right in the face. It’s brilliant and big and broody, irresistible to adults and teens alike. You want to listen to it alone, but also with everyone you’ve ever met. Other music? You forget it, completely. Such a cut arrived this year when 17-year-old Olivia Rodrigo dropped “Driver’s License.” Within what felt like hours it took over TikTok and radio airwaves alike; just days later it climbed to the top spot on the all-genre Hot 100. This one hurts in all the right places. Sing it at the top of your lungs. —MV
“Scratchcard Lanyard” — Dry Cleaning
Forty-five years after punk, it feels odd to describe a band as “post-punk,” but no other description seems to work for South London quartet Dry Cleaning. Lead talker Florence Shaw intones non-sequiturs—“I’ve come here to make a ceramic shoe…It’s a Tokyo bouncy ball”—over clanging Gang of Four-style guitars in a mix that’s just chaotic enough for its moment. “Do everything and feel nothing,” after fourteen months of doing nothing and feeling everything, turns out to be just what we need to hear. (Also, props for the best video we’ve seen in ages.) –DH
“1491” — Navy Blue
It’s the year before Christopher Columbus landed in America. And the year before he initiated the transatlantic slave trade and the American Indian genocide. “I used to kiss my Saint Christopher, fuck Christopher Columbus 1491, it’s one and done, this shit is fucked up,” Navy Blue puts it simply over a crackling sample and a distant siren. From that year, Navy Blue connects to vivid images of his own life: “I got brothers in the ends, though, to whom I miss a lot / They got machetes in their track pants, a swishy in the sock / Just say a prayer for a Black man, I been feeling down.” —MM
“When You See Yourself, Are You Far Away?” — Kings of Leon
Kings of Leon will likely never be as big as they were at the beginning of their career, when songs like “Use Somebody” and “Sex on Fire” enjoyed viral success before things, well, went viral. But on their eighth LP, which dropped in March, it finally sounds like they no longer give a damn. This cut, lifted by an arena rock-sized melody and draped in frontman Caleb Followill’s drawl, moves with an enviable leisure, comfortable in its mid tempo pocket. Its only misstep? It’s mouthful of a title. —MV
“Last Day On Earth” — beabadoobee
We’ve all done the thing where we look through our photo app for the last normal picture we took before lockdown, we’ve all had more than a year to contemplate the end of the world and what we might have done if we’d known it was coming. Some of us baked bread, some of us took up chess or piano, some of us just got more comfortable in sweatpants. Beatrice Laus teamed up with Matty Healy of The 1975 for a song that addresses our new relationship with our mortality, suggests early ‘90s shoegaze, and actually builds on the promise of last year’s near-perfect “Fake the Flowers.” Twirl your Covid anxieties away. — DH
“Be Sweet” — Japanese Breakfast
The first single from Michelle Zauner’s third album as Japanese Breakfast is a mission statement of joy. Her first two LPs chronicled her mother’s fight with, and eventual loss, to cancer, and worked as mournful dream-pop meditations on grief. But with splashes of funk, glowing synth, and a bright bass groove, Zauner taps into the effervescent side of herself. “I wanted to just explore a different part of me: I am capable of joy and I have experienced a lot of joy,” she told Pitchfork. “All the songs are different reminders of how to experience or carve out space for that.” And with everything happening in the world right now, that’s exactly the outlook—and sound—we need now. —MM
“Hurt” — Arlo Parks
Inspired by a quote from Audre Lorde— “Pain will either change or end”— British singer/songwriter/poet Parks sends a tense world a soothing message over lo-fi beats: “I know you can’t let go of anything at the moment, just know it won’t hurt so much forever.” We’ll have to take her word for it for now, but until the world settles, Parks’ debut Collapsed In Sunbeams is a front-runner for album of the year. -DH
“Girl Like Me” — Jazmine Sullivan feat H.E.R.
Jazmine Sullivan’s “Girl Like Me” offers a more nuanced take on the break up ballad. “Knew it was real when you blocked me / Now I sit at home judgin’ my body,” she sings in the opening verse over lonely piano and trickling Frank Ocean-esque production. It’s a song that digs into the questions that haunt us about a break-up—and the ways in which it can be destructive to one’s mental health and self-worth. “I identified with it as a woman, as a Black woman—as a woman who I feel like is on the side of the regular girls who don’t look like Instagram models and never have, with social media having gotten so popular, seeing those images all the time and it getting to you,” Sullivan told NPR. “It gets to you after a while.” —MM
Matt is the Culture Editor at Esquire where he covers music, movies, books, and TV—with an emphasis on all things Star Wars, Marvel, and Game of Thrones.
Dave Holmes is Esquire’s L.A.-based editor-at-large.
Madison Vain is a writer and editor living in New York, covering music, books, TV, and movies; prior to Esquire, she worked at Entertainment Weekly and Sports Illustrated.
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