Who Won 2021? (And Who Came Close)

Photo by Chris Pizzello

Videos by American Songwriter

Videos by American Songwriter

How will you remember 2021?

Musically speaking, there was a lot to celebrate. Sure there was a lot to mourn, too. Between lost legends like drummer Charlie Watts and bassist Robbie Shakespeare, and gigs cancelled every-which-way and arguments over the internet about who knows what… but let’s focus on the good stuff here, shall we?

Here, we will talk about the winners of the year, those artists who wowed us beyond imagination, who raised our eyebrows skyward and perked our ears like the news we won the lottery. So, without further ado, let’s get into the winners.

Honorable Mentions:

Questlove: This year, Quest released one of the best movies and documentaries of the year, Summer of Soul, for which he just earned an Oscar nomination. The movie also won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance Film Festival and is nominated for a Grammy, among many other distinctions. But on top of that, Questlove is always winning as the co-founder and lead of the hip-hop group The Roots. And he just released his latest book, Music Is History, in October.

The Beatles: The famed Liverpool-born band rocketed back to the top of all our lists and hearts with the Peter Jackson-directed docu-series, The Beatles: Get Back. The three-part series brought to life by the Oscar-winning director (Jackson) and Disney+ earned millions of streams over the Thanksgiving weekend and got the former Mop Tops back into the U.K. Top 40 (were they ever really gone?). It was a big year for the group whose surviving members, Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr, are still beloved.

Mick Jagger (Selfies): Speaking of British-born all-timers, Mick Jagger makes it onto this list simply for getting a beer in a pub wearing a Dad Hat. The Rolling Stones’ frontman became all the rage on social media this year for taking a photo in a Charlotte, North Carolina bar while no one noticed. But Jagger, of course, also experienced hardship this year as his group lost its drummer Charlie Watts, who passed away at 80 years old.

Ed Sheeran (Streams): In December of 2021, Sheeran’s song, “Shape of You,” surpassed 3 billion streams on Spotify ahead of the Christmas weekend. The song also boasts nearly 6 billion streams on YouTube. Oh, to be the grinning redhead.

Dolly Parton: Everyone’s favorite Country Auntie was everywhere this year, from helping to fund the COVID-19 vaccine to singing duets with Reba McEntire to sharing relationship advice. She even surprised Carly Pearce with a Grand Ole Opry invitation. Truly, Dolly could be on this list every year. But she definitely belongs on it this time.

Robert Plant and Alison Krauss: This year, Robert Plant (ever heard of him?) and Alison Krauss (wooo!) teamed up to release their second LP together, Raise the Roof (and first in 14 years). The duo’s prior release came in 2007, Raising Sand. But not to be outdone, Raise the Roof is a stunning achievement led by the sticky single “Can’t Let Go.” The duo performed a rendition of the track on The Kelly Clarkson Show earlier this month and it’s been in our heads ever since. Bless these two and their angelic voices.

Jon Batiste: Batiste, who is the excellent musical director on The Late Show With Stephen Colbert, led the field of Grammy Award nominations this year, garnering 11—truly, a staggering number. If that wasn’t enough, earlier in 2021, Batiste (along with musicians Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross) won the Oscar for Best Original Song for the animated feature Soul. It’s good to be Batiste, who also found himself on American Songwriter’s Best Albums of 2021 list and our Best Videos of 2021 list.

Brandi Carlile: With both a new album, In These Silent Days, and a new memoir, Broken Horses, Brandi Carlile went above and beyond the call of super-star artist duty this year. Yet, we loved every minute of it. Carlile, who is a standout in many arenas, is also a great supporter of up-and-coming big-name artists, including one of our favorites, Allison Russell. Check out this delightful exchange between the two on Twitter that will warm your 2021 heart. She even had a holiday special for 10,000 people.

Singing Competitions: These television programs brought us some of our favorite 2021 memories, from watching The Voice to America’s Got Talent to American Idol to That’s My Jam and beyond. We met new favorite artists, heard classic songs redone and loved Kelly Clarkson and Ariana Grande cementing their friendship on stage in a karaoke head-to-head.

Third Place:

Luke Combs: Perhaps more than any country singer, Luke Combs had a banner 2021. Combs releases hits, plain and simple—in fact, his 2020 deluxe album, What You See Ain’t Always What You Get, earned its record seventh No. 1 hit this year. The achievement marks Combs’ 12th consecutive country No. 1 hit.

For his work, the catchy Combs was also crowned the CMA award for Entertainer of the Year in November at the 55th Annual CMA Awards. Combs also won Male Vocalist of the Year and Album of the Year at the Country Music Association Awards in 2020. In other words, the hits keep coming.

Second Place:

Dave Grohl: In 2021, it seemed like every other headline belonged to Dave Grohl. The former Nirvana drummer turned Foo Fighters frontman released a new memoir, The Storyteller: Tales of Life and Music, and a new record, Medicine at Midnight, with his famed rock band. Grohl also celebrated the 30th anniversary of Nirvana’s Nevermind and told stories on platforms from Howard Stern to late night shows and beyond, talking about everything from Paul McCartney giving his daughter piano lessons to his memories of Kurt Cobain.

When you have so much history in rock and roll, you’re going to have a lot of stories to tell and a lot of reasons for celebration. But Grohl also talked about his reasons for sorrow and confusion this year. He’s a voice of reason in a world often lacking it. And he treated music fans to eight days of covers for Hanukkah. What a guy!

2021 Winner

H.E.R.: I mean, honestly, what didn’t H.E.R. do this year? To start the calendar year, she won Grammy and Oscar awards seemingly between cups of coffee and, as the year has now come to an end, H.E.R. has earned more major nominations on top of those. She also participated in the all-female Bruised soundtrack (and sat down to chat with Halle Berry—swoon!), petitioned to collaborate with Dave Grohl and announced that she will be making her acting debut in the forthcoming rendition of The Color Purple.

Oh, H.E.R. was also one of our 2021 digital cover stars. She performed at the Super Bowl and later with Chris Stapleton and Kane Brown. She also was honored by the Soul Train Awards. Few people—if any—can walk in as many circles and do it as skillfully, prolifically and with such poised virtuosity as H.E.R. We can’t wait to see what the 24-year-old bespectacled California-born guitar-wielding R&B artist does next.

Truly, if H.E.R. stands for Having Everything Revealed, then we’re ready for more!

Photo by Chris Pizzello-Pool/Getty Images

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