January is always a little weird. People are still recovering from the holidays and trying their damnedest to stay on top of their New Year's resolutions. But this month's usual slow churn was a bit more chaotic than it's been in recent memory. We witnessed an insurrection at the Capitol and finally watched Trump leave the White House. The closest thing we've gotten to live music in nearly a year was Lady Gaga, Jennifer Lopez, and Garth Brooks' performance at the inauguration, which we were still a little too numb to truly feel. 2020 took a lot of things away from us, but music wasn't one of them. Artists like Jazmine Sullivan and CHAI hit the ground running with new releases—even if Drake didn't, postponing Certified Lover Boy until further notice. Through it all, we're still having a blast discovering new music, whether on TikTok or through sheer curiosity. It's with great pleasure that we share the 12 songs that started the year off strong.
Adding "Good Days" to this month's Best Songs list might be cheating, considering SZA first teased the single at the end of the "Hit Different" video last summer. But the song just hit streaming services on Christmas—well after our Best Of lists—so it's fair game. "Good Days," featuring Jacob Collier, feels like a worthy offering for 2021 after the year we've had. "I still wanna try, still believe in good days," she sings. And while the overarching theme of "Good Days" is optimism, SZA spends much time reflecting on the feelings that make her feel less than sunny. "I try to keep from losin' the rest of me / I worry that I wasted the best of me on you." —Kristin Corry
SZA, "Good Days"
Jazmine Sullivan and H.E.R. are fed up with dating in a digital world. On "Girl Like Me," Sullivan's songwriting feels like an episode of Insecure, finding the two songstresses navigating the superficial world of double tapping and swiping right. Blocked messages mark the end of relationships, leaving Sullivan comparing herself to the women: "It ain't right how these hoes be winning / Why they be winning?" This song, if sung by a different pair, could have easily been held to the scrutiny of respectability politics. But by the end, Sullivan would give anything not to feel the pain she's experiencing, even if that means turning into the same women she's singing about. "And I ain't wanna be / But you gon' make a hoe out of me." —Kristin Corry
Jazmine Sullivan feat. H.E.R., "Girl Like Me"
On Smino’s effortlessly funky latest single “MLK Dr.” the St. Louis and Chicago rapper spots “a martian right on Martin Luther King Drive.” Its accompanying animated music video portrays the alien as an extraterrestrial version of Martin Luther King Jr., who gets a flat tire and shares a blunt with Smino. It’s ridiculous imagery but it suits Smino’s goofy sense of humor and colorful musical world. Few acts have been able to carve out a lane in hip-hop so confidently that’s also so accurately a reflection of his eccentric personality. That the under-two-minute song is also densely-packed with subtle synth grooves and the rapper’s breathlessly dexterous flow makes it proof that he’s a one-of-a-kind artist. —Josh Terry
Smino, “MLK Dr.”
We can thank the pandemic for the influx of songs looking forward to better days. It's a sentiment we can all relate to, and Coi Leray's "No More Parties" is a melodic mantra for positive thinking. "I'm off to better things / I'm only doing shit that's gonna make me elevate," she sings on the hook. That's not to say that Leray is dismissing the emotions that make her human, like her relationship with her father, rapper and reality star Benzino. "My daddy let me down / But I promise you I won't let up / I wanna say fuck that man / But this shit won't make me better." We could all take a page from Leray's playbook. —Kristin Corry
"No More Parties," Coi Leray
Japan’s CHAI had one of the most simultaneously charming and confrontational LPs of 2019 with Punk, which seamlessly combined J-pop, synth-rock, and well, punk into something totally their own. But “ACTION,” one of two songs the four-piece have shared so far in 2021, takes them into a much more club-ready direction. There’s the band’s signature group vocals and mixture of Japanese and English lyrics but they’re washed in pulsating bass and mesmerizing dance beats. It’s so far their biggest earworm in a catalog of songs that can get stuck in your head for weeks. —Josh Terry
One of the best parts of this job is finding new talent sitting in your inbox. Not all of it is good, but every once in a blue moon, there's something that makes thousands of emails worthwhile. We first heard from Mikey100k, a rapper from Raleigh, in 2019 and kept our eye on him. Mikey is still making music and "When It's Time" is a worthy offering that can take the rapper beyond North Carolina. Mikey raps over delicate guitar strings with ease, with a flow so melodic you can't help but bop your head to his cadence. "We was hustling, tryna dodge them blue and red lights / Thank you God, 'cause we ain't never do no fed time," he raps on the hook. "When It's Time" is only the beginning of Mikey's story and we want to know more. —Kristin Corry
Mikey100k, "When It's Time"
Fire Talk Records didn’t miss in 2020. With albums from Deeper, Dehd, Mamalarky, Pure X, Corey Flood, and others it was a pretty undeniably impeccable run for the New York label. So far, 2021 seems to be no different based off this single from Chicago’s Mia Joy. The track is washed in ethereal synths and brooding vibes as Joy takes a darkly comic look at daily life. She sings, “We’re changing against our will / I knew that one day we would / Change for good / Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha.” It’s been three years since Joy released her last EP and whatever’s in store for her in 2021 is already worth the wait thanks to this track. —Josh Terry
Mia Joy, “Haha”
Alycia Bella captured the emotional roller coaster of the sneaky link—you know, the person you told your friends you stopped dealing with. "So anytime you call, I answer, we link / I regret it, you act like we strangers / I lose all my patience with you," she says in a breathy whisper a la Janet Jackson. Last week Bella released Muse, a sultry 14-track project, that only proves one thing: She won't be a secret for much longer. —Kristin Corry
Alycia Bella, "Link"
Last year, Chicago’s Gia Margaret followed up the delicate post-folk of her 2018 first album There’s Always Glimmer with a heavily-textured collection of ambient synth compositions called Mia Gargaret, which she made after an illness left her temporarily unable to sing and tour. That was a gorgeous release that highlights how dynamic she is as a songwriter but her latest single “Solid Heart,” a song she first premiered in an Audiotree session a couple of years ago, finds her returning to her debut’s singer-songwriter voice-centric palate. She bulks up the already pastoral arrangement with some stunning pedal steel and subtle vocal harmonies. Margaret said in a press release that this song was a misfit “production-wise” in the pool of songs she’s fine-tuning for a new album, which bodes well for the quality of the new material. —Josh Terry
Gia Margaret, “Solid Heart”
The images we hold in our minds of people, places and moments are permanent. Some of them are potent, resurfacing with every nostalgic late-night excavation we do of our pasts. “Sober” is a hazy edit of those images. In spite of its soft indie pop drums and keys, the potent memories of heartbreak, addiction, and depression are at the core of the single. Stevie Knipe has been writing with rage and honesty since they were a college student crafting deeply personal and poetic songs, showing the world a voice wise beyond their years on Adult Mom’s debut album Momentary Lapse of Happily. Five years later, Adult Mom is rolling out their new album, Driver, a record off to a gentle but resonant start. —Jaime Silano
Adult Mom, “Sober”
“Lonely” is a heavy-hearted, distorted fairy tale from a 20-year old songwriter pouring herself entirely into her music. Sofia Valdés laces harmonies with delicate falsettos about longing for a sense of peace, rest, and distraction during a heavy winter. Valdés has been writing songs since she was eight years old; she learned to speak English by listening to pop music as a kid in Panama, and from there absorbed everything from British folk and bossa nova to 60s Motown and 70s soul. Her music is a kaleidoscope of sounds crafted from a dream state of complete focus and instinctive tenderness. —Jaime Silano
“Lonely,” Sofia Valdés
The latest out of Fayetteville, North Carolina, Morray starts his year with “Big Decisions.” He might've sharpened his expressive tenor at church, but it sits just as nicely on a simple guitar-and-808 track. Life seems to be happening in fast-forward for the artist who most of us met for the first time last October, with “Quicksand.” Somehow, he’s already dealing with the concerns that come with newfound fame and wealth—and they are founded. He’s coping with stress, making sure his tax situation is correct, and questioning the motive of friends who might not have his best interests in mind. “I’ve got a family to feed, I’ve got a family with needs” he reiterates in the chorus. You hope—and know—that's only going to get easier, very soon. —Ashwin Rodrigues
Morray, “Big Decisions”