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The best songs of 2021 are from Japanese Breakfast, Lil Nas X, and Taylor Swift

A 30-song playlist of the big hits and under-the-radar gems from a year in music.

Michelle Zauner of Japanese Breakfast performs at the Union Transfer on Aug. 6, 2021. "Be Sweet" tops our best songs of the year playlist.
Michelle Zauner of Japanese Breakfast performs at the Union Transfer on Aug. 6, 2021. "Be Sweet" tops our best songs of the year playlist.Read moreYONG KIM / Staff Photographer

In honor of Adele, whose latest numerically titled album made the biggest commercial splash of 2021, there are 30 tracks on this best songs of the year playlist.

They aren’t ranked in order, but sequenced to be heard as a playlist. Along with big hits by Lil Nas X, Taylor Swift, and, yes, Adele, there are less omnipresent selections. It’s my music-nerd intention for Silk Sonic’s “Leave the Door Open” to be heard back-to-back with Madlib’s “Road of the Lonely Ones,” and a little later on, to also have Willie Jones’ “American Dream” and Amythyst Kiah’s “Black Myself” also hit you consecutively.

But go ahead and hit the shuffle button on the Spotify playlist embedded in this story if you must. Unlike Adele, whose wishes to have her album heard only in the order it was assembled were agreed to by the streaming giant, I don’t have the power to stop you.

Here are the best songs of the year.

Japanese Breakfast, “Be Sweet.” The catchiest earworm on Jubilee, the mostly sunny counterweight to Michelle Zauner’s grieving memoir Crying in H Mart. “Be sweet to me, baby,” she sings. “I want to believe in you.”

Doja Cat feat. SZA, “Kiss Me More.” The flirtatious hit from the Los Angeles singer and rapper who was a standout at this year’s Made in America festival.

Leon Bridges, “Steam.” A shimmying standout from the Texas soul singer’s Gold-Diggers Sounds that’s his funkiest effort yet.

Silk Sonic, “Leave the Door Open.” The inviting single from Bruno Mars and Anderson .Paak’s 1970s soul throwback An Evening With Silk Sonic, with luscious strings arranged by Philadelphian Larry Gold.

Madlib, “Road of the Lonely Ones.” This ghostly collaboration between producers Madlib and Four Tet is built on a sample of “Lost in a Lonely World,” by the late 1960s vocal group The Ethics.

Sharon Van Etten & Angel Olsen, “Like I Used To.” A soaring duet between two indie stars eager to get back to living in a less encumbered way, like we used to.

Adele, “Strangers by Nature.” The understated Ludwig Goransson-produced opener to 30, which features Adele “taking flowers to the cemetery of my heart.”

Snail Mail, “Ben Franklin.” A seething, top-flight breakup song that Lindsey Jordan, who records as Snail Mail, named after the first U.S. postmaster general.

Justin Bieber, feat. Daniel Caesar and Giveon, “Peaches.” The Made in America headliner at his most carefree and charming, with the help of two R&B up-and-comers.

Lil Nas X, “Montero (Call Me By Your Name).” Lil Nas X has been worth rooting for since he exposed country hypocrisy with “Old Town Road” in 2019. But the entertainer born Montero Lamar Hill didn’t have another song with staying power until this one, in which he’s clear about his intentions: “I’m here to sin.”

Baby Keem, with Kendrick Lamar, “Range Brothers.” Along with “Family Ties,” one of two adventurous tracks on nascent rapper Keem’s The Melodic Blue on which his cousin Kendrick drops in to give him a lift.

Megan Thee Stallion, “Thot S—.” “Damn, I don’t brag enough,” the irresistible Houston rapper who now has her own signature brand of Popeyes Hotties sauce asserts on this bass-heavy twerking tour de force.

Kacey Musgraves, “Camera Roll.” A digital divorce song: “Chronological order and nothing but torture, scroll too far back and that’s what you get.” From Musgraves’ Grammy-snubbed Star-Crossed.

Nnamdi, “Lonely Weekend.” Multi-instrumentalist Nnamdi Ogbonnaya’s winning banjo and vocal harmonies recast a song from Musgraves’ 2018 album Golden Hour.

Arlo Parks, “Black Dog.” “I’d lick the grief right off your lips,” British songwriter and poet Arlo Parks sings, eager to aid a friend coping with depression. From the full-of-promise Collapsed in Sunbeams.

PawPaw Rod, “Glass House.” Delightfully catchy breakthrough single from Oklahoma singer-rapper about learning to live with what you can’t change.

Cassandra Jenkins, “Hard Drive.” Spoken word, saxophone, and shared conversations add up to eloquence from this New York songwriter. “This year, it’s gonna be a good one,” a friend tells her. Let’s hope so.

Arooj Aftab, “Diya Hai.” I was unfamiliar with Pakistani composer Arooj Aftab before she was nominated for a best new artist Grammy. Now I can’t stop listening to Vulture Prince, which is full of gorgeous, sorrowful songs like this one.

Floating Points / Pharoah Sanders, “Movement 5.” This wordless collaboration between free jazz saxophonist Pharoah Sanders and British electronic music Sam Shepherd is Aftab’s close competitor for most beautifully calming music of the year.

Felice Brothers, “Jazz on the Autobahn.” Freewheeling, inspired Beat poetry from veteran New York state sibling act.

Catbite, “Call Your Bluff.” House party starting ska via Philly band fronted by magnetic singer Brit Luna.

Morgan Wade, “Wilder Days.” Country music with a rock and roll heart. She’ll have you singing the “you said you hate the smell of cigarette smoke” chorus out loud.

Tyler Childers, “Yes I Guess They Ought To Name a Drink After You.” Terrific cover of a barroom classic by the late John Prine on the Broken Hearts & Dirty Windows tribute album.

Steve Earle, “Harlem River Blues” A heartbreaker, from J.T., Earle’s album of songs written by his son Justin Townes Earle, who died last year of an accidental drug overdose.

Willie Jones, “American Dream.” A country-hip-hop hybrid “patriotic protest song” from Louisiana songwriter Willie Jones. “I really wanna ride for the flag,” he raps. “But I gotta keep an eye on the flag.”

Amythyst Kiah, “Black Myself.” Tennessee banjo playing singer Kiah first recorded this protest song on 2019′s folkie Our Native Daughters album with Allison Russell, Leyla McCalla, and Rhiannon Giddens, but here she adds righteous power with stacked vocals and loud guitars.

Strand of Oaks, “Galacticana.” “I believe that ecstasy happens when we all get together,” now Austin, Texas-based Philly rocker Tim Showalter sings on this celebration of community that opens his fine In Heaven.

Bartees Strange, “Weights” An exultant rock song about leaving the past behind is so good it’s hard to believe that Strange left it off of last year’s Live Forever. It’s included on the deluxe edition.

The War on Drugs, “I Don’t Live Here Anymore.” The go-big-or-go-home title track to the acclaimed Philly rock band’s fifth album lifts off like a jet engine with careening guitars and assistance from vocal duo Lucius.

Taylor Swift, “All Too Well (10 Minute Version).” The epic extended iteration of the song from 2012′s Red that Swift has now released with all originally excised verses about a guy who is presumably Jake Gyllenhaal. It’s full of exquisite hurt: “And you call me up again just to break me like a promise, so casually cruel in the name of being honest.” Ouch. At 10 minutes, it had to go last.