Heavy Rotation Public Radio’s Most Popular Songs of 2021: World Cafe: NPR

From left to right, Saint Vincent, Nathaniel Rateliff and Japanese Breakfast.

Renee Klahr/NPR


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Renee Klahr/NPR


From left to right, Saint Vincent, Nathaniel Rateliff and Japanese Breakfast.

Renee Klahr/NPR

Each month, NPR Music asks music programmers, station hosts and producers across the country to choose the songs they can’t stop spinning. Now, as we look back at our favorite songs, albums, and artists of 2021, we’re spotlighting some of the year’s most beloved public radio songs. Here they are, in alphabetical order.

All of this year’s picks are available to stream on the heavy spinning Spotify and Apple Music playlists at the bottom of the page. As always, you can experience fantastic music programming across the country in real time by clicking on the links to each station’s website.

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Bachelor, “Staying in the Car”

What started as a little poem in a phone’s notes app turned into a sweet and loud pop single, Bachelor’s “Stay in the Car.” Consisting of Jay Som’s Melina Duterte and Palehound’s Ellen Kempner, the latter brought the idea of ​​her fascinating experience in a grocery store parking lot to their collaboration. Singing in harmony, the couple’s fuzzy song builds with urgency, giving it an adorable Pixies vibe. —Alisha Sweeney, Colorado Public Radio, Indie 102.3

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Jon Batiste, “Freedom”

This sweet pastiche of Little Richard, Marvin Gaye, Pharrell Williams, Herbie Hancock and OutKast at its most pop is what every alliance on earth prays for: music that every generation will dance to. If songs could make wishes, this one would beg to be paired with an overly choreographed end credits dance sequence in the sequel. Coupling the world deserves. – matte silver, WRTI

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Big red machine, “Phoenix”

Memories and indecision seem best seen through the eyes of Robin Pecknold, lead singer of Fleet Foxes, a band that lives in a sepia-toned world. Collective project Big Red Machine embraces Pecknold in the fold with “Phoenix,” a lyrically repetitive meditation for deep contemplation as you watch the sunlight hit specks of dust. –Jade, The stream

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Leon Bridges, “Motorcycle”

With “Motorbike”, the first track released by Sound of gold diggers, fans of Grammy Award-winning Fort Worth crooner and producer Leon Bridges have not only witnessed his continued evolution as an accomplished artist, but also his rise to the role of sensualist and visionary. Coupled with the spellbinding Anderson .Paak Bonnie and Clyde-inspired video, “Motorbike” celebrates the unadulterated joy of two hearts beating in unison. —Gini Mascorro, KXT

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Brandi Carlile, “Right on Time”

The lead single from Brandi Carlile’s stunning 2021 album, “Right On Time” is a pandemic-appropriate song: a call for reconciliation that reminds us all that we are losing ourselves in complacent silence. From the first listen, it quickly became part of the soundtrack of a year where empathy and understanding were more essential than ever. —David Safar, The Current

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Cautious Clay, “Dying in Subtlety”

Although he has writing credits on records by Taylor Swift and Billie Eilish, Joshua Karpeh (aka Cautious Clay) remains independent. On his first self-produced album, Impassive love, the Brooklyn-based musician dispenses a fluid mix of indie-pop and R&B, anchored by the earworm “Dying in the Subtlety,” which has an infectious hook that delves into the inner workings of relationships. —Desire Moses, WNRN

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Helado Negro, “Gemini and Leo”

“Gemini and Leo” by Helado Negro is a disco-tinged track that, according to Roberto Carlos Lange (aka Helado Negro), is inspired by the astrological signs of him and his partner. Cheerful synths and an infectious bassline set the mood as Lange sings about new beginnings and “dances on the floor all night long.” —Brian Burns, WUNC

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Hiss Golden Messenger, “Sanctuary”

With a nod to the late John Prine, MC Taylor gives us a heartwarming entry into the best of 2021 with “Sanctuary.” The song seeks shelter in the storm around us – in the chaos of this year, could there be a more perfect song idea? —Chris Wienk, WEXT

Japanese breakfast, “Be Sweet”

This year, Japanese Breakfast released a landmark album, video game soundtrack, and memoir that debuted on the New York Times bestseller list – being made into a movie. And it all started in March with this song. —Justin Barney, 88Nine Radio Milwaukee

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Durand Jones and the Clues, “Witchoo”

“Witchoo” is a catchy R&B funk track that’s sure to spice up your party playlist and maybe your love life. Drummer Aaron Frazer’s falsetto floats atop bass and a breezy keyboard groove, while frontman Durand Jones and backing vocals sing rhapsodically about plugging in and getting along. —Rosemary Welsch, WYEP-Pittsburgh

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Lake Street Dive, “Hypotheticals”

Lake Street Dive’s latest pop gem is perhaps a direct descendant of The Great American Songbook. Not only did the band create an incredibly danceable pop song, but they did it with the kind of deft rhythmic and melodic playing you might find in Gershwin and Kern. —Eric Teil, Jefferson Public Radio

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Lord Huron, “Not Dead Yet”

When released in May 2021, Lord Huron’s “Not Dead Yet” was the band’s first new song in three years. The band are best known for their dreamy, cinematic black indie-folk songs, and “Not Dead Yet” came out the door with unusual focus and infectious energy, a surprising and welcome change to their sound. – Bruce Warren, XPN

Manchester Orchestra, “Headboard”

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If it’s catharsis you seek, Manchester Orchestra rises to the occasion. Guided by the captivating voice of Andy Hull, “Bed Head” is an urgent discourse on the paths one chooses in life, the stripping of innocence, and the cleansing grace that can come from grief. —Michael Bacon, 90.9 The Bridge, Kansas City

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The Marias, “hush”

After much anticipation, The Marías have released their debut album MOVIE THEATER in 2021. After listening to “Hush”, we can’t help but immerse ourselves in the cinematic universe of the Marías. Singer María Zardoya is both teasing and sultry in her lyrical delivery, and the moody music sets the perfect scene. —Erika Bocanegra, KERA

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Parker Millsap, “The Real Thing”

The first acoustic lick of Parker Millsap’s “The Real Thing” evokes an upbeat sunrise, and its sweeping falsetto reflects the kind of yearning for meaningful connections that many of us have felt throughout the pandemic. With the return of live music, I hope this song will remind us to keep our level of gratitude high for the artwork we love. —Adam Harris, WVPB Mountain Scene with Kathy Mattea

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Arlo Parks, “Hope”

2021 has definitely been a star-making year for Arlo Parks, whose talent has shone through the challenges of being an up-and-coming artist during a pandemic. But songs like “Hope” gave listeners exactly that with its upbeat refrains of “you’re not alone” and “we all have scars.” Clearly Arlo Parks has arrived. —russ boris, WFUV

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Nathaniel Rateliff and The Night Sweats, “Survivor”

Building pressure only to release it in a deluge of music has been a songwriting technique for eons, but it’s never been put to better use than on this hard-hitting, soulful jam. Rateliff and company have settled into this sound and appropriated it, in the same way that one slips into a perfectly adapted outfit. —Eric Teil, Jefferson Public Radio

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Allison Russell, “Nightflyer”

Deep and rich, “Nightflyer” is a hypnotic entry from Allison Russell, which embodies both pulling force and smoldering sensuality. The lyrics are powerful, delivered in the siren-like seduction of a song that envelops the beauty and danger around you with eyes wide open. —Jesse Scott, Radio Roots

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Silk Sonic, “Leave the Door Open”

Silk Sonic’s “Leave The Door Open” is more like polyester satin – the noblest compliment I could imagine. Anderson .Paak shared with rolling stone “We both make feel-good music…because we’ve been through pain and tragedy.” Evoking the real McCoy dusty rose, it’s worn music to soothe the weary soul. —Ayana Contreras, vocalist

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Saint Vincent, “Pay Your Way in Pain”

Here’s a song more at home in a modern art installation than in jukeboxes. Surrendering to her retro impulses, Annie Clark’s deconstructive vision blends vaudeville piano, Eurythmics-inspired synthesizer, desert-stage guitar licking, a menagerie of R&B-style vocals and meows in a devious episode of artistic attitude. Not since Midnite Vultures-era Beck has a mainstream artist so thoroughly reveled in her tacky side. —David Hyland, Wisconsin Public Radio

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Sharon Van Etten and Angel Olson, “Like Before”

If I ever remember 2020 to 2021, I hope it sounds like this song. The first thought after years of averting my eyes from the rolodex of memory will be painful – especially when forgotten names or places are revealed – but probably a wholesome experience. It also helps when Sharon Van Etten and Angel Olsen are your thought guide. —Ryan Wen, KUTX

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Wet Leg, “Chaise Longue”

It’s rare for a new band to come out of nowhere and completely blow your mind with their very first song, and Wet Leg did just that. “Chaise Longue” was a breath of fresh air the world needed after being locked up for too long. An instant hit, “Chaise Longue” is incredibly catchy and contagiously fun, and gives us something to look forward to. The group’s debut album will be released in April 2022. Kevin Cole, KEXP

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