Music

The most underrated songs of 2021

Here are some hidden gems you might have missed this year.

Here are some hidden gems you might have missed this year

Artists Remi Wolf, Boyfrn and Tommy Genesis released some of the most underrated songs of 2021. (Submitted by the artists, design by CBC Music)

Do you ever find yourself in a rut, listening to the same albums over and over? There's comfort in familiarity, and frankly, there's just so much new music to sift through that it can be overwhelming. Keeping track should be an Olympic sport.

Here at CBC Music, we're dedicated to staying on top of new releases and even we miss out on stellar tracks. Sometimes songs slip through the cracks or don't get the play they rightfully deserve — and the end of the year is the perfect time to rectify that.

This list is a collection of (mostly Canadian) songs CBC Music producers think deserve a few extra spins. From headbanging hard style to sultry R&B, from left-field hip hop to glossy K-pop, these lesser-known tracks go toe-to-toe, in terms of quality, with the biggest hits of the year. Dive in and discover your new fave.

What songs do you believe deserved more love this year? Let us know via @CBCMusic.


'Bésame,' Lolaa feat. Sin Color

Mexican–Canadian nuevo pop sisters Lolaa made one of the best albums of the year and not nearly enough people have heard it. Start with "Bésame," an evocative act of time travel to an open-air, early '80s dance party. Maybe it's a warm night in Mexico City, and you've been dancing for hours, skin sticky with sweat and joy, an exhilarated buzz mixing with the beat to keep you moving. You're just about to sit down when you lock eyes with someone across the floor and then this song swells up: urgent, vital, irresistible. You find each other and the rhythm, and suddenly you're in sync. The push-pull of the keyboard line is its own flirtation as the music pulls you deeper into each other's bodies, the song's title a promise lingering between your lips: "Bésame." — Andrea Warner


'Can You Hear Me,' Maddee

Maddee imbues this track about losing her best friend with heartbreaking authenticity. The muted production lets the sorrow in her voice fully penetrate each line. I get goosebumps every time she pleads, "Can you hear me calling out your name?" The song is clearly deeply personal, a love letter to their friendship, but it also has a universal quality. Grief and loss have permeated many of our lives over the past 20 months, and it's a gift to hear a song that so purely and succinctly elucidates the feeling of losing someone; that permanent hole in the soul. Music as catharsis, if you will. — Kelsey Adams


'A Woman is a God,' Tommy Genesis

Understated in its production, but bold in its message, Tommy Genesis's "A Woman is a God" isn't afraid to make big proclamations. From Genesis's direct statement that "this track is a smash," to her repeated refrain "If a man is a man/ then a woman/ a woman is a God," the Vancouver rapper dresses up her lyrics with nothing more than a steady house beat. The result is an indomitable display of dominance and power — positions that should be more commonly associated with women. — Melody Lau


'Last Night,' Boyfrn

Writing in a Toronto basement studio in the middle of a frigid pandemic winter, Boyfrn was transported to the pastel skies that hang over Malibu on "Last Night," a song so full of soulful yearning that it sticks in your chest. Sounding like an interlude cut off Frank Ocean's Blonde, "Last Night" transitions from an echoey, guitar-picked intro to a bass-heavy declaration. If you've spent any time in a dark, Canadian winter, you know how memories of warmer times — both literally and emotionally — can seep in to nag you about what you used to have. Boyfrn grapples with that here, not pretending to have the answers, but knowing there's light at the end of the tunnel and the top of the basement stairs. — Jess Huddleston


'Rolla,' Liza

"I don't need somebody/ to come just to leave me, stay when it's easy," sings Liza in the opening verse of this mid-tempo R&B earworm, which uses a road trip as a metaphor for commitment in a relationship. "I hope you know if you hop in, we goin' down for a ride." And frankly, as a listener, it's easy to commit to "Rolla," from its seductive electric piano intro and gently swaying beat to Liza's singing as she effortlessly ascends and descends her range, finding beautiful vocal colours along the way. It's a great reminder that commitment can be sexy. Robert Rowat


'Flying on Your Own' (Rita MacNeil cover), Jenn Grant

Over the more than three decades since its release, Rita MacNeil's "Flying on Your Own" has taken on many forms of agency. For Jenn Grant, the song symbolizes her mother's freedom, leaving P.E.I. for Nova Scotia with her young kids and not much else, to make a new home and start a nursing degree. Grant's version of MacNeil's classic has a beautiful, fresh spirit, her voice carrying a similar hope to MacNeil's, this time overtop loops and synths reminiscent of Grant's Aqua Alta project. (A Phil Collins-esque drum fill adds a little '80s flair to the song that was originally released in 1986.) Fittingly, the original was inducted this year, alongside the late singer-songwriter, into the Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame. — Holly Gordon


'Summer Thing,' Dragonette, Sunnery James & Ryan Marciano and Cat Dealers feat. Bruno Martini

Ah, summer — the season of escape and good vibes. Pair that with music and you have the spiritual antidote to the malaise of a global pandemic. It was that intention that brought this cast of all-star collaborators together. And with "Summer Thing" those good vibes are built upon the vocal sorcery of Dragonette's Martina Sorbara and impeccable production compliments of a small army or "Armada" of producers. That combination transports the listener to a place where, even if it's only for two minutes and 38 seconds, you can forget all your worries and dig your toes into the metaphorical sand. Unless you put it on repeat, which you'll want to do — then it's forever, baby! — Ben Aylsworth


'Ting Tun Up Part II,' Skiifall feat. Knucks

Montreal-based rapper Skiifall has been bubbling below the surface for a minute, but he's primed for a major breakout — just ask him, he boasts in the first verse: "Drake done know say Skiifall next up." This second take on his 2020 single 'Ting Tun Up" is just as fun and brash as the first time around except now he has an assist from London, England-based rapper Knucks, upping the ante and giving a bit of cross-Atlantic flare. There's an obvious Caribbean influence over a lot of the Saint Vincent native's music, and he's spitting bars of straight patois throughout "Ting Tun Up Part II." It's refreshing to hear such direct references to Caribbean culture. Skiifall really wears his pride on his sleeve. — KA


'Sexy Villain,' Remi Wolf 

Remi Wolf's musical universe is an oasis for weirdos. From her bright psychedelic esthetic to the sometimes nonsensical lyrics, Wolf's music can be a hard sell for those looking for clear narratives or a straightforward hook. But what she lacks in traditional pop appeal, she makes up for with sky-high levels of fun. While Wolf's debut album, Juno, does confront the awkward growing pains of adulthood, the Los Angeles artist never lets that dampen her effervescent vibe. At her best, as on the grooving "Sexy Villain," Wolf finds the perfect pockets within her songs to perform in, riding out a melody with such ease that it feels like Wolf can sing her way through any composition. — ML


'Get Lit,' Wolf Castle

To be honest, Wolf Castle's entire 2021 EP, Da Vinci's Inquest, is underrated, but the opening track "Get Lit" is top of the list. It opens with sharp, dramatic strings, setting the tone for an album that's about toppling ego and finding your true place. "Destiny writes its own story/ the future gon' build its own road/ every single path and unturned stone/ justice ain't coming for my people dethroned," raps Wolf Castle, whose love for classical music and dramatic flair shines through every verse. When the beat kicks in alongside the strings after 25 seconds, you'll be hooked. — HG


'Paris Saint Germain,' Lou Val feat. Tay Iwar

Aside from hit single "Eternal Sunshine," Lou Val's six-song EP Tayo and the Dreamer was one of 2021's best-kept secrets, a veritable neo-soul treasure trove. "Paris Saint Germain" enshrouds you in a haze of synthesizer and reverb-laden vocals before a muted Balearic house beat kicks in to establish an uplifting, romantic vibe. "I don't wanna waste your time/ I just wanna make you mine," pleads Tay Iwar with his sweet tenor voice, ready to do or be anything to have his way, and the chorus's three rising, repeated phrases seal the deal. — RR


'Palace,' Elissa Mielke

Underrated is the understatement of the year when it comes to this piano ballad from Los Angeles-via-Toronto singer-songwriter Elissa Mielke. The statements she makes throughout "Palace" are so human, so relatable, that it's hard not to well up as they ricochet through your psyche, grabbing at applicable memories along the way. "Out of all the women that I've been/ I still love the one I am when I'm with him," she sings over a Bonnie Raitt and John Hiatt-reminiscent piano, before calling out earnestly: "Can you please be who I hope you are?" Everyone has asked this question multiple times since touching down Earthside, each time hoping for an honest resolution that will reinforce our faith in it all. — JH


'YSB,' Nimkish feat. Ascxnsion

Nimkish wrote one of the realest — and most memorable — choruses of the year for their lowkey electro-R&B-pop generation Z anthem, "YSB." But the song hasn't blown up.... yet. "Young, sick, broke, I need healin', I got issues stacked to the ceiling/ I need healin', I need freedom, young, sick, broke, yeah I need it." These lyrics bloom from Nimkish's lived experiences as a 20-something, two-spirit, Indigiqueer artist but many can relate to their sentiment. The slick, chilled-out beats evoke a specific kind of solitude: a dance floor for one, the kind of place where hearts and healing go hand-in-hand. — AW


'Accelerate,' Chippy Nonstop

With a heady, pulsating beat, "Accelerate" is a shot of adrenaline. Opening with the line "I'm a hedonist, I want thrills," Chippy Nonstop sets listeners up to anticipate the brain-melting trip the track is about to embark on. Her distorted vocals call out over relentless kick drums and hollowed-out bass for us to prioritize fun above all else, and as the resident queen of Toronto's rave scene, we have no other option but to oblige. The song is all highs, with a euphoric sensibility that builds and builds but never really falls back down to reality. In Chippy Nonstop's world, the party never ends. — KA


'I Don't Need my Space,' Sophia Bel

This hyper-pop anthem has it all, but let's start with singer, producer and antagonist of the status quo, Sophia Bel.  Her ethos is to be herself, aggressively so. You'll see that in her look, read it in her lyrics, and hear it in her music — especially on "I Don't Need my Space," which features, among other things, squeaks, what one might call a variation of scatting, and believe it or not dolphin whistles. But it works superbly, which is the true magic of Bel's producing here (alongside Tim Buron and Christophe Dubé, a.k.a. CRi). It's the blending of quirkiness with a driving pop-punk backbone that makes this song sing. Here's to Sophia Bel keeping it weird. — BA


'Inside Out,' Nu'est

It feels contradictory to call a K-pop song with millions of streams and YouTube views underrated given the genre's worldwide popularity, but in North America it can feel like the conversation in the mainstream still revolves around a short, exclusive list of acts like BTS, Blackpink, NCT, and Seventeen. If you're looking to expand your K-pop intake, I'd like to suggest Nu'est, a five-member group who debuted in 2012. This year, they dropped their sophomore album, Romanticize, which came with lead single "Inside Out," a glossy pop number about longing to reconcile with someone after a breakup. With sleek production and subtle yet memorable choreography, Nu'est has everything it needs to be the next breakthrough K-pop act. — ML


'Fallin' For,' vbnd, Katie Tupper, the Soulmate Collective

If you like nocturnal neo-soul with a firm foundation in jazz, then settle into "Fallin' For," a standout single from Scum Funk, the debut full-length from Saskatoon bassist, songwriter and producer Devon Gunn (a.k.a. vbnd) and his friends in the Soulmate Collective. You'll be seduced by its crunchy electric piano chords, jaw-dropping bass solo and languorous vocals from Katie Tupper. "My, my, my, how can this be? I've fallen for a man who doesn't know me," she sings in the chorus, infusing this urbane lament with rustic bayou vibes. — RR


'Leaf in a River,' Keeper E.

"I'm not a leaf in a river/ I know what I'm here for," Keeper E. reassures on each chorus of her early 2021 single, setting her intention afloat over springy synths and twinkling keys. It's a testament to the Halifax-based artist's songwriting that these lyrics are still floating around my head 10 months later — and it was only her second-ever single. "Leaf in a River" is a buoyant pop song that keeps one eye on life's purpose and the other on living in the moment, a seemingly impossible task. The video is just as charming as the single, as Keeper E. finds herself in different areas of Halifax, shedding quilt after quilt in her blanket-fort metamorphosis. — HG


'Satisfaction,' No Tourists

This super group is made up of members from Ottawa and Toronto, who all have their own cool solo stuff going on but something magical happened when they linked up as No Tourists. Pulling from hip hop, dancehall, grime and jazz, they've created a Canadian sound with global influences. One song isn't enough to fully understand the breadth of their experimentation with genre but if you have to start with one, make it "Satisfaction," which is all about frivolous summer hookups. Its kiss of experimental jazz, toned-down dancehall and Afrobeat inflection make it a left-field summer heater. It's also thrilling that they're clearly having a blast as they trade verses, their voices noticeably distinct but melding seamlessly together. — KA


'Parallels,' Kaia Kater feat. Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah

On the first verse of "Parallels," Kaia Kater muses, "For any binding to sever, there's a wreck and a wrecker/ Which one am I?" The song starts off spare and brooding, but unfurls in a wild expanse with the addition of Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah's gorgeous trumpet and Kevin Williams' loping percussion. The song is "about destruction," Kater writes on her website. "It's about ripping out harmful beliefs that have grown and taken root inside many of us like weeds. I wanted to create a sense of sonic chaos — as if anything could happen — because mine and my friends' experiences in the last few years have been to show up and care for each other amidst the chaos of job loss, financial instability, mental health crises, environmental disasters and more. I would like 'Parallels' to be welcoming for whatever folks feel — be it sadness, rage or whatever else." The song is a perfect place for complicated feelings — every listen reveals some new moment, some invitation to a different understanding. But it's also a love letter to those who hold us in our hardest moments. — AW


'Excuses,' Maddie Jay

The opening moments of Maddie Jay's "Excuses" feature a helium voice uttering fragmented sentences: "I don't know, it's just like/ well..../ I mean, I...." It's odd to hear at first, but upon repeat listens it becomes clear that it's setting the tone for the rest of the track. A writer's-block anthem, "Excuses" never tries to provide a cure or an answer to our woes; it's a sentence we can't complete and the ellipses are piling up. In fact, Jay is a bit too busy scouring her brain for self-deprecating thoughts and rationalizations. "When I look up I'm all alone/ Think I need to get a chaperone," Jay sings over a busy soundscape of quirky flourishes after losing precious time scrolling on her phone. Ultimately, we have no one else to blame but ourselves for our unproductive state, but hey, it's fun to lean into excuses sometimes. — ML


'Parable 3,' Young Clancy and Matthew Progress

Producer Young Clancy knows how to create the perfect playground for artists to flex their skills. His 2021 EP Something Something Tape is full of gems featuring Clairmont the Second, Daniela Andrade, DijahSB and more. On "Parable 3," Matthew Progress takes full advantage of the old-school beat, rapping disaffectedly about destiny, anti-Blackness, perseverance and the hypocrisies of life. This pair just gels so well and Progress rides the beat so effortlessly, it's a shame it clocks in under two minutes. With nuggets like, "You a no fire having low Scoville-type, you Tabasco/ I'm a Scotch Bonnet dipped in gas with a match, though," it could go on forever and I'd be pleased.  — KA

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