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21 Top Contenders of 2021

21 Top Contenders of 2021

2021 was certainly a year to remember. With the world in and out of lockdown, the industry continues to do what it does best… get creative. From virtual streaming to viral TikToks, live shows to unique release strategies, fans, artists and distributors alike were put to the test and many still came out on top!

Below are 21 of The Orchard’s partners who topped the year’s lists across genres, services, publications and beyond, earning numerous accolades for their success in 2021. 

BAD BUNNY (Rimas Entertainment)

For the second year in a row, Rimas Entertainment artist Bad Bunny has earned the title of most streamed artist globally on Spotify in 2021. Not only that, but Bad Bunny was the most streamed artist to ring in the New Year as well! While dominating across streaming services with hits such as “Yonaguni,” “Dákiti,” and the Aventura collaboration “Volví,” the latter even received a shout out from Barack Obama in his 2021 list of favorite songs. Bad Bunny ended his year by celebrating with a massive concert, his first in over two years, ‘P FKN R.’  

All that without releasing an album in 2021…It’s clear, and even Billboard official, that Bad Bunny is one of the greatest pop stars of 2021.


Among the top streaming artists in Japan, YOASOBI continues to top lists in 2021 and break through globally. The catalog hit “夜に駆ける” which translates to “Into the Night” has garnered even more listens in recent years landing at  #19 on Apple Music’s Top Songs of 2021: Global. On the same list you can find more recent YOASOBI including “Monster” and “Gunjou.” The Japanese duo released both THE BOOK and THE BOOK 2 in 2021 which has seen massive success locally and internationally. THE BOOK took the number one ranking for Spotify Japan’s Most Streamed Albums, YOASOBI landed at #2 for Most Streamed Artist and took 3 out of the top 5 spots for Most Streamed Tracks

NAS (Mass Appeal) 

Nas, a legend and innovator, dropped two albums this year shortly after partnering with The Orchard. King’s Disease II has been included across dozens of top lists across music and media publications such as XXL, HipHopDX, Paste, Exclaim!, The Undefeated, The Needle Drop, Good Morning America, The Independent, and many more. The album earned the #32 spot on Complex’s Best Albums of 2021,  #9 on HotNewHipHop’s Top 30 Hottest Hip-Hop Albums of 2021, #3 on VIBE’s 21 Best Hip-Hop Albums of 2021 and even earned a GRAMMY Award nomination for Best Rap Album. Tracks off the album “Nobody (feat. Ms. Lauryn Hill)” and “Moments” also received top rankings including #5 on HotNewHipHop’s Top 35 Hottest Hip-Hop songs of 2021 and NPR’s Top 100 Best Songs of 2021 respectively. “Nobody” was also included in Barack Obama’s favorite songs of the year.

Nas’ second release of the year, Magic, dropped on December 24th. Otherwise, it too would have certainly been included in more 2021’s top lists as well.  


Charlotte Day Willson’s debut album, ALPHA, blew critics away and put Canada’s incredible R&B songwriter on the map. The album earned the top spots at #1 on both UPROXX and Range CA’s Best Albums of 2021, and #2 on Canadian Broadcast Company’s 21 Best Canadian Albums of 2021. ALPHA also made appearances on Complex Canada, Exclaim!, ALBUMISM, and Billboard Critics’ Picks for Best R&B Albums. The single “I Can Only Whisper” also makes the #6 ranking for CBC’s Top 100 Canadian Songs of 2021.  


An outstanding example of musical excellence, Promises, combines the optimal musicality of Floating Points, Pharoah Sanders and The London Symphony Orchestra for an epic Jazz album that has not gone unnoticed. Time Magazine anointed Promises #1 Best Album of the Year as did Paste and Mojo. The New York Times followed suit, giving the top spot on their Jazz Album list to the trifecta. The New Yorker placed Promises at #2 on their list for Best Music of 2021, and NPR ranked the album at #6. 

CAROLINE POLACHEK (Perpetual Novice)

Out of the 100 songs reviewed, Caroline Polachek’s “Bunny Is A Rider” was named Pitchfork’s #1 Song of the Year! The Guardian and Paste also gave the track a top spot at #4 while Exclaim! followed, placing the track at #5. That’s not all. The track placed in the top 20 across nearly every reputable music publication from Consequence to the New York Times, and NME with additional nods from NPR and UPROXX’s year-end lists. Across streaming services, “Bunny is A Rider” was included in year-end playlists on Spotify’s Best Indie Songs and Deezer’s Best of Alternative.


To say The Weather Station album Ignorance is critically acclaimed is the biggest understatement of the year. It’d be more difficult to find a list that did NOT include this album. The Canadian songwriter was featured in more than 30 lists celebrating the top music of 2021. The album topped three album lists across Uncut Top 75 Albums of 2021, The New Yorker’s Best Music of 2021 by Amanda Petrusich, and The Observer’s Kitty Empire’s UK Best Pop and Rock of 2021. Ignorance also placed in the top 10 across Exclaim!, Paste, The New York Times Jon Pareles‘ as well as Lindsay Zoladz’s lists, The Guardian (both on 50 Best Albums AND 20 Best Songs for “Tried To Tell You”), The Quietus, The Sunday Times, Brooklyn Vegan, Pitchfork, Mondo Sonoro, Stereogum, FLOOD, A.V. Club, and received placements across dozens more. Essentially, if you haven’t listened to this album yet… what are you waiting for?

KELSEA BALLERINI (Black River Entertainment)

Kelsea Ballerini had a big year as well. On top of her stack of platinum and gold records her single with Kenny Chesney “half of my hometown” won two CMA Awards and was ranked at #9 on Spotify Wrapped’s 10 Best Country Songs and #2 on the playlist Hot Country Presents… Best Country Songs of 2021. Not only that, but Kelsea was the cover of the Hot Country 2021 playlist with “I Quit Drinking” also featured on the list as well as Best Mellow Pop of 2021. 

ARMAND HAMMER (Backwoodz Studioz)

A pioneer in Rap and Hip-Hop, Armand Hammer teamed up with The Alchemist to release Haram. The union created a masterful album that has got the industry buzzing with mentions across nearly two dozen Best of 2021 lists. Top rankings include #4 on Stereogum’s 10 Best Rap Albums of 2021 and Pop Matters 20 Best Hip-Hop Albums of 2021. Passion of the Weiss The POW Best Albums of 2021 included Haram at #5 and Consequence of Sound placed the album at #9 on their Top 50 Albums of 2021 list. The FADER, Paste, SPIN, Okayplayer, Pitchfork, Complex and Brooklyn Vegan all gave nods to the album as well in their complete 2021 lists. All in all, this is one album that must be included in your collection. 

MAGDALENA BAY (Luminelle Recordings)

Mercurial World, is defining the new age of pop thanks to Magdalena Bay. The ambient synth pop album was selected as the #1 on Gorilla vs. BearsTop 50 Albums of 2021, and  #4 on PopMatters 20 Best Pop Albums of 2021. The album earned multiple placements in Pitchfork for their Readers’ Poll, 100 Best Songs of 2021 (“Chaeri”), 50 Best Albums of 2021 and Best Progressive Pop Music of 2021. The record also received mention by Rolling Stone for the track “You Lose!” as well as a specific call out by writer Rob Sheffield, with publications like The Needle Drop, The New Yorker, Billboard and Vinyl Me, Please, all giving their praise to the new age electro-pop duo. They’re not just loved by critics either. Magdalena Bay has a massive following across streaming services and was named among TikTok’s Emerging Artists of the Year and #10 on Spotify’s Best Indie Songs of 2021 playlist.

PARIS TEXAS (Paris Texas)

PARIS TEXAS is the new buzzworthy rap duo to know. Their debut album, BOY ANONYMOUS, featuring the single “HEAVY METAL” blends rock and rap elements for a style that’s guaranteed to capture attention. The record has been well received by critics ranking at #34 on Loud And Quiet’s Albums of the Year 2021, #40 on Gigwise 51 Best Albums of 2021, and mentions in HipHopDX Best Mixtapes and EPs of 2021, Consequence of Sound Top 10 Rap Albums You May Have Missed in 2021 and Paste 40 Best Hip-Hop Albums of 2021. Track “SITUATIONS” landed at #26 on Consequence of Sound Top 50 Songs of 2021, and “HEAVY METAL” at #50 on Paste’s 50 Best Songs of 2021.

L’RAIN (Mexican Summer)

L’Rain’s sophomore album Fatigue is an ethereal soundscape of emotion that challenges everything we thought we knew about music. Embracing a collage of instruments and artistry, L’Rain is no genre and every genre at the same time. The groundbreaking record has critics across top music publications remembering what it is they love about music. L’Rain top 2021  rankings at The Wire where Fatigue as #1 in their Top 50 Releases of 2021, #2 on Pitchfork’s 50 Best Albums of 2021 and #2 on Wired’s 8 Best albums of 2021. Placing in the top 20, Fatigue made appearances on FLOOD, The Quietus, Crack Magazine, and Brooklyn Vegan with many more noting the effortless nature of the monumental album. 

IVAN CORNEJO (Manzana Records)

The teenaged newcomer, Ivan Cornejo went viral in 2021 with acoustic Spanish-language ballad “Está Dañada.” The track blew up on TikTok earning #2 on the Top Latin Tracks of 2021. The success of “Está Dañada” made waves lending to four Spotify 2021 playlists including The Best of Viva Latino, RADAR US – Artists to Watch and The Best of Los Que Mandan 2021; the latter of which also included “Llamadas Perdidas.” Later in 2021, Ivan teamed up with Jhay Cortez to release a remix of “Está Dañada.” The video with Jhay, released just one month ago, has already had over 7.5 Million views on YouTube. 


When the pandemic took over, avid touring metal outfit Knocked Loose pivoted from constant shows to focus on their writing. Their 2021 EP, A Tear in the Fabric of Life, took the band to new levels of musicality and production without losing their core anthemic sound. The new creative direction paid off, earning the group nods at #3 on Revolver’s 10 Best Hardcore Albums of 2021 and #8 on their 25 Best Albums of 2021. The group was also noted at #13 and #40 on Brooklyn Vegan’s 50 Best Punk Albums of 2021 and Top 50 Albums of 2021, respectively. Loudwire also showed their love for Knocked Loose listing “God Knows” at #30 on their 35 Best Metal Songs of 2021 and included the EP in their 15 Best Rock + Metal EPs

MUSTAFA (Regent Park Songs)

Also known as Mustafa the Poet, the soulful Toronto-based singer-songwriter released his highly anticipated debut album, When Smoke Rises. The thoughtful and intimate release earned the #1 spot on The New York Times: Jon Caramanica’s Best Albums of 2021, CBC 21 best Canadian albums of 2021 as well as Complex CA’s 25 Best Canadian Albums of 2021. The deeply reflective album was also included across 2021 lists shared by Dazed, Exclaim!, The FADER, SPIN, Rolling Stone, ALBUMISM and more.

GROUPER (kranky)

Something many of these releases have in common is pushing boundaries. Grouper’s album Shade is another perfect example of music that does not fit within the mold. The ambient, lo-fi, trance album has haunting elements that compliment the subtleties of the singer-songwriters style. Shade’s unique form of melancholy has landed at  #2 on Washington Post’s Chris Richards’ Best music of 2021, # 4 on Gorilla vs. Bear’s Top 50 Albums of 2021, and #6 on The Line of Best Fit Best Albums of 2021. Grouper’s quiet vocals and almost ASMR style production require the listener to listen closely in almost a meditative state. It’s no surprise Shade with included on 15 additional lists including Pitchfork, The Vinyl Factory, The Wire, Loud and Quiet, Brooklyn Vegan and many more. 

CL (Very Cherry)

Since dropping her debut album ALPHA, CL has taken the industry by storm. The magnetic R&B artist is truly Alpha, owning her Korean identity while combining languages throughout her album. Hooks from tracks “Lover Like Me” and “Tie a Cherry” are massive earworms the appeal to a global music market. The album was recognized in UPROXX’s Best Pop Albums Of 2021 as well as Billboard’s 21 Cool Pop Albums From 2021 You Might Have MissedRolling Stone India and Pop Crush also included CL in their year-end lists with Pop Crush’s Lai Frances stating, “Perhaps one of the most anticipated releases of the year, ALPHA showcases Lee Chaelin’s versatility in the form of 11 tracks that blend synth-pop and hip-hop, while the artist playfully tackles topics such as confidence (“Chuck,” “SPICY”), lust (“Xai,” “Tie a Cherry,” “5 STAR”) and heartbreak (“Lover Like Me”).”

FOR THOSE I LOVE (September Recordings) 

A heavy Irish accent recites spoken word artful lyrics over intricate electronic melodies. For Those I Love dropped their debut self-titled album earlier this year combining the energy of electronic, punk, rap, and poetry for a sound unlike any other. The release has caught attention in some unlikely places including #6 on Men’s Health 15 Best Albums of 2021. The album also receives positive feedback at #7 across The Independent 40 best albums of 2021, Gigwise 51 Best Albums of 2021 and Clash Albums Of The Year 2021. The breathtaking audio also earned high marks on numerous other publications including DIY, Mondo Sonoro, NME, The Sunday Times, Loud and Quiet, Double J Radio and many more UK and global album lists. 


In July of 2021, Los Legendarios teamed up with Wisin and Jhay Cortez to release “Fiel.” The track immediately blew up, topping Billboard charts, mid-year lists and going viral across various social and streaming platforms. By the end of 2021, “Fiel” has become the #7 Global Top Latin Track on TikTok and #14 on the platform across all genres globally. On Spotify’s 2021 wrapped, the song landed at #9, #33 and #39 on the Baila Reggaeton, Viva Latino, and Top Tracks playlists, respectively. 

JENSEN MCRAE (Human ReSources)

The Phoebe Bridgers parody-turned viral “Immune” provided us with the song of the pandemic and so much more. Jensen’s 2021 EP Who Hurt You? is full of gems indicative of modern times. “Immune” a song about relationships surviving the pandemic and beyond, earned the #4 ranking on Esquire Best Songs of 2021. In good company, Jensen McRae was referenced in The Year in Music on TikTok along with the ‘sad singer-songwriter explosion.’ “Immune” was also included in Jon Caramanica’s Top 28 New York Times Best Songs of 2021 as well as Men’s Health 40 Best Songs of 2021.

YOTUEL (Chancleta Records)

With music and culture vastly intertwined, Yotuel’s track alongside Gente De Zona and Descemer Bueno, “Patria y Vida,” became an anthem for the protests occurring in Cuba. Calling for freedom and revolution, the powerful song earned two Latin GRAMMYs in 2021 and was included on Barack Obama’s favorite songs of 2021. 

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