As much as new music has been a therapeutic support structure to pull us through these difficult times, the artists who soundtracked 2020 and 2021’s challenges were not typically the biggest celebrities in the business. Very few superstars bothered sticking their necks out over the past two years. After all, why would they? There was no reason for the stars to risk failed market acceptance during a state of unprecedented global turmoil. Music discovery simply wasn’t people’s first priority as they sought to satisfy their most fundamental human needs first.
Yet with the world recovering and people’s basic needs slowly being met, we’re finally seeing the skies start to clear. For those of us gazing up at the sky over the past year and a half wondering when the stars would come out, the summer of 2021 did not disappoint.
The first celebrity music debate on most people’s mind was obvious. Who won the heated summer feud between Kanye’s Donda or Drake’s Certified Lover Boy?
No matter your opinion, both albums pulled in otherworldly features the likes of which we haven’t seen in years. Take Donda‘s tracks “Jail” and “Jail pt 2” for example. In what world would you hear an artist release two versions of the exact same song, with the only “minor” change being that one song features the legendary JAY-Z, and the other features one of this decade’s most beloved rappers in DaBaby? Call Kanye crazy, but he may be the only artist in the world with that kind of clout.
Drake’s lineup in Certified Lover Boy dropped just as many jaws, with eminent features like Travis Scott, Young Thug, Future, 21 Savage, Ty Dolla $ign, Kid Cudi, and Lil Baby, just to name a few. He even pulled in JAY-Z for a track of his own. Who knows if that makes JAY-Z a mediator, a unifier, a parent settling an argument, or an artist willing to throw in a verse whenever one of his friends asks for a teensy favor.
Kanye and Drake weren’t the only names sourcing shockingly impressive guest appearances. In a summer lush with celebrity exhibition, the estates of several late superstars like Mac Miller and Pop Smoke made sure posthumous content was front and center. Pop Smoke’s album Faith was ripe with artists and friends desperate to pay tribute on this new 30 song catalog, including this the likes of Kanye West, Pusha T, Rick Ross, Pharrell Williams, and many more. Considering his untimely death at age 21, it’s no surprise why the hip hop industry flocked honor his legacy.
While hip hop is more likely to see more big name artist features in comparison with other genres, Big Red Machine sought to put that notion to rest. The alt-folk band consisting of The National’s Aaron Dessner and Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon included fun folky features like Anaïs Mitchel, Sharon Van Etten, and Ben Howard on their latest album How Long Do You Think It’s Gonna Last?. But rarely do you see a band flex their industry connections so hard that they score features like Fleet Foxes AND Taylor Swift on the same LP. Not only that, but Taylor features two times. Two damn times! If you’re looking to flaunt some secret TSwift knowledge to one of your friends who claims to be her “biggest fan”, Big Red Machine just handed you some serious bragging tools.
So many more big names released brilliant works of art without an army of features. Kacey Musgraves’ new album star-crossed broke our hearts and lifted them back up again in the sobering sequel to her 2018 masterpiece Golden Hour. Chet Faker exemplified his purposefully broad statement that “music does something, I just don’t know what it does” in his new thought-provoking album Hotel Surrender. Flume, Rudimental, and Tkay Maidza all came out with singles that put listeners somewhere in between needing to take a deep breath and wanting to run through a wall.
I could clearly go on and on, but I’ll give you time explore the gargantuan heap of musical mastery for yourself. The following playlist contains 40 of my favorite songs released over the past three months. As always, the songs are in no particular order with a restriction of only one song per artist.