Throughout 2021, artists have been hard at work delivering songs to help fans escape the final months of the world’s struggle forward in the time of COVID-19. Whether it’s dreamy, disco-inspired dance-pop, introspective indie or fired-up hip-hop, artists have provided the much-needed musical means for people to take a moment and unplug.
That’s certainly true for LGBTQ stars — throughout the pandemic, queer artists in particular have led the charge in providing inspirational, thought-provoking songs to help listeners deal with our strange circumstances. From “dance around your apartment like no one is looking” anthems to quieter, more somber offerings, LGBTQ artists have made sure that their fans felt seen in 2021.
Now, Billboard is taking the time to celebrate their efforts — check out our picks for the 25 best songs released by LGBTQ artists in 2021 so far below.
Allison Ponthier, “Cowboy”
“It took New York to make me a cowboy.” In nine simple words, rising folk artist Allison Ponthier distilled her message of growth, change and self-acceptance into a masterful single. Throughout the excellently crafted “Cowboy,” Ponthier waxes poetic on issues of identity, as she tells her very own coming out story in the context of a Western tableau. The gorgeous harmonies, grade-A production and her skillful songwriting made for one of the most memorable debut singles of the year, cementing Ponthier’s place as a queer star on the rise. — STEPHEN DAW
Amorphous & Kehlani, “Back Together”
After creating one of many viral mashups with Rihanna’s “Kiss It Better” and Luther Vandross’ “Never Too Much” that Fat Joe and DJ Khaled later used on “Sunshine (The Light),” 23-year-old producer Amorphous properly steps into the spotlight and links up with Kehlani on his debut single. He cooks up a slinky beat for Kehlani to ride, while her verses flex on her exes while promising it won’t be the last they see of her. — HERAN MAMO
Arlo Parks, “Hurt”
A vivid portrait of crippling depression built around days of skipped meals, Twin Peaks marathons and far too much drinking, “Hurt” should feel like the end of the world. But this isn’t Trent Reznor or Johnny Cash singing — and in the always capable and sympathetic hands of Arlo Parks, the emotion at the song’s core isn’t despair but a weary optimism, the been-there British singer-songwriter insisting “Just know it won’t hurt so much forever” over a soothing bass-and-drum shuffle. It’s touching validation from your sweetest friend that not everyone you know goes away in the end. –ANDREW UNTERBERGER
Ashnikko feat. Kelis, “Deal With It”
At the turn of the millennium, there was no sound more chilling in pop music than a distorted Kelis bellowing “I HATE! YOU! SO MUCH RIGHT NOW!” at a soon-to-be-ex on her breakout hit “Caught Out There.” A little over two decades later, singer-rapper Ashnikko borrows that blood-curdling hook for a revenge anthem of her own with the playful dismissal “Deal With It” — this time, using it more as punctuation of her own mild irritation than a primal howl from the depths of a hollowed-out soul. It doesn’t sound watered down, though, as much as a sort of gratifying progress in not really giving a s–t about trifling dudes: Ashnikko’s fury may get to “Caught” levels at her worst, but after a barbaric yawp or two she’s onto doodling d-cks on his sweaters and turning to her toy rabbit as a replacement. — A.U.
Big Freedia, “Judas”
Ten years after Lady Gaga released Born This Way, a group of artists have come together to celebrate the blockbuster album with a series of covers, some faithful, others experimental. Big Freedia’s take on “Judas” winks at the latter category with its stark piano intro, then explodes into the type of campy electro-pop that Gaga thrived on during the beginning of the 2010s. The chorus of “Judas” needs to be shouted along to, and Big Freedia knows that; her cover begs you to turn the volume up beyond a reasonable level, and let the magic be rediscovered. — JASON LIPSHUTZ
Released as the first single from Brockhampton’s latest album Roadrunner, the Danny Brown-assisted track traces Kevin Abstract’s struggle to make it from Corpus Christi to Hollywood considering all the roadblocks that could’ve set him back from reaching his full potential: “Think I had to hit rewind and think about why I do shine.” “Buzzcut” also sheds light on the boy band’s older material by sampling “Bleach” from their 2017 album Saturation II and Jay-Z’s “Dead Presidents II.” — H.M.
Cavetown, “Ur Gonna Wish You Believed Me”
A whispery acoustic strummer from English singer-songwriter Cavetown, “Ur Gonna Wish You Believed Me” is the kind of song that would lull you to slumberland in lesser hands. But like Feist or Belle & Sebastian, Cavetown’s easy knack for gentle melodies and unobtrusive electronic flourishes make this one mesmerizing. After all, earnest, bittersweet acoustic numbers can be bops, too. — JOE LYNCH
Chika, “Cinderella Pt. 2”
The intoxicating second part of Chika’s “Cinderella” series moves past the first’s heart-thumping feeling of meeting someone special at a party and delves into the sensual, romantic side of the night. Complete with heavenly harmonies and soaring vocals, Chika paints a dreamy picture of falling head over heels and wraps up an already soothing chorus with a reassurance of unconditional love: “Doesn’t matter if I’m icy / No agenda, you love blindly.” — RANIA ANIFTOS
Claud, “Soft Spot”
As the first signee to Phoebe Bridgers’ label Saddest Factory (a Dead Oceans imprint), Claud’s debut album Super Monster proved Bridgers does indeed have an ear for talent. Emotive lead single “Soft Spot” is, as the title suggests, a soft and gentle track — co-written with Dan Nigro, Olivia Rodrigo’s go-to collaborator — about missing an ex, mistakenly seeing them at a party and, as a result, opening a mental can of worms. The beauty is there’s no vengeful rage or death wishes, just the brave admittance of having a soft spot for someone you once loved — and maybe still do. — LYNDSEY HAVENS
Demi Lovato, “The Kind of Lover I Am”
While everyone obsessed over the bi-curious overtones of Lovato’s 2015 seasonal smash “Cool for the Summer,” “The Kind of Lover I Am” opens the floodgates for Lovato’s limitless romantic expeditions. The pop superstar fully embraces their pansexuality and breaks down what they want to share with a partner (“I’ll hold you, console you, every night I’ll show you,” they promise) over a groovy summer melody with a cheeky nod to Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion’s “WAP.” — H.M.
ElyOtto ft. Kim Petras and Curtis Waters, “SugarCrash! (Remix)”
After TikTok pushed ElyOtto’s brilliant, bonkers “SugarCrash!” into viral hit territory, the rising hyperpop talent teamed up with dance-pop princess Kim Petras and Curtis Waters (the man behind the groovy “Stunnin'”) for a victory lap remix. The trio expands on the candy-coated sonic boom of the original, although it’s a testament to ElyOtto’s distinctive vision and witty delivery that he remains in the centerstage even when sharing the spotlight with a hyperpop fixture like Petras. — J. Lynch
Girl in Red, “Serotonin”
The indie queen of streaming really just needed one song to put her over the top as an alt-rock star, and with “Serotonin,” the artist born Marie Ulven might’ve finally nailed the chemical formula. The If I Could Make It Go Quiet single balances the sung-rap anxiety of its verses with the soaring release of its guitar riff and the catharsis of its near-drop of a chorus, making for a song that goes off equally when booming from your car stereo speakers and when bouncing around your head alone in bed at night. And the early trials have been met with predictably resounding approval: “Serotonin” not only became Girl in Red’s first entry on Billboard‘s Alternative Airplay chart, it’s already reached the top 10. — A.U.
Hayley Kiyoko, “Chance”
Hayley Kiyoko’s “Chance” is the summer jam for all the queer women who suffer from overthinking. The sheer number of questions asked throughout the song shows that Kiyoko has tapped into the psyche of lady-loving ladies who anguish over not making a move when they had a chance. The song hopefully serves as a gentle reminder for everyone to (respectfully) go after the person they’re pining for or be forever left wondering what if. — TAYLOR MIMS
Jordy, “Long Distance”
No one exactly wants a long-distance relationship in their idealized version of the world, but sometimes, a few hundred miles between the one you can’t get enough of is better than feeling isolated in a relationship that just doesn’t have the magic. With his gentle sing-song vocals and a sweet falsetto, Jordy beautifully captures the sweet sadness of parted lovers on this bouncy, low-key bop that may just be in your head even longer than that distanced relationship. — J. Lynch
Joy Oladokun, “Taking The Heat”
For many years the archetype of the “strong Black woman” has been used to both champion and burden women of color. The idea that Black women are resilient has resulted in more being expected of them with less help being offered. Joy Oladokun’s “Taking the Heat” takes aim at that stereotype and considers why “nobody ever wonders how the strong stay strong.” The song feels like at least one Black woman speaking her truth and unloading some of that pain and burden. — T.M.
Kelechi, “Dance in the Mirror”
Upon first listen, Kelechi’s “Dance in the Mirror” may sound like a classic breakup song. In many ways, it is — the singer mourns the end of a relationship and takes up the difficult task of moving on. But listen again, and you’ll hear an outburst of queer-as-hell, romantic pop that deserves repeated plays. The subtle production, from gentle guitar riffs to muted synth bars, only adds to Kelechi’s haunting voice. As for what he’ll be doing for the foreseeable future: “I put on my favorite song/ And I’ll see myself clearer when I dance in the mirror.” — S.D.
Kidd Kenn, “Good Day”
Ever since signing to Island Records at the mere age of 16, Chicago rapper Kidd Kenn has made his career out of gassed-up flex anthems. So to hear him pare things down and take a smoother tone on “Good Day” is a surprise, and a welcome one at that. The rapper’s voice glides over the track, as he lists out exactly the type of person we’re all desperately in need of today — attentive, smart and kind, for starters — before declaring that “I’ma have a good day.” At this rate, Kidd Kenn’s about to have a good year. — S.D.
King Princess, “House Burn Down”
On the latest single from the Cheap Queen herself (King Princess’ debut full-length of the same name arrived in 2019), the artist uses her at-times-misleading passion to power her delivery. She sings of being in the palm of another’s hand, “But you still throw me down to see how I land,” and later admits, “Damn, you’re good when you say you love me/Damn, you’re good when you give me nothing.” Yet her loyalty gets the best of her when she concludes that, despite the turmoil, she’s staying put until only ashes are left. — L.H.
Lil Nas X, “Montero (Call Me By Your Name)”
Although he’s only been in the spotlight for a few years, Lil Nas X has already mastered the balancing act between the groundbreaking and the straightforward: in 2019, he scored a record-setting No. 1 smash thanks to a deceptively simple country-trap hook, and this year, he notched his second Hot 100 chart-topper with a catchy-as-hell pop song that’s a milestone for queer representation in mainstream music. “Montero (Call Me By Your Name)” couldn’t be more different than “Old Town Road,” but that unpredictability, with an understanding of songcraft at his core, is what makes Lil Nas X so reliably exciting. — J. Lipshutz
Mykki Blanco, “Free Ride”
Mykki Blanco brings a winning, boisterous attitude to “Free Ride,” which clips along like a car rolling down the open highway on a warm, traffic-free day. “What I wouldn’t do for love?” asks a voice in the background as trap beats skitter by and old-soul flourishes breeze past, but Blanco won’t be had quite that easily: “It take a real kingpin to try and cuff the queen / It take a real bad chick to try and thug with me.” The ride might be free, but you probably haven’t earned it yet. — J. Lynch
Orville Peck, “Born This Way (The Country Road Version)”
There were several outstanding bonus tracks on Lady Gaga’s Born This Way Reimagined: The Tenth Anniversary album including covers by Big Freedia and Kylie Minogue. But when Orville Peck’s mysterious baritone follows the twangy guitar into “My mama told me when I was young/ We are all born superstars,” it brings the gay anthem to another level. Orville Peck’s turn at the helm of the pop single makes the heartfelt track feel both serious and playful as that deep voice reminds the listener to “just love yourself.” — T.M.
Rebecca Black, “Girlfriend”
2021 is the year Rebecca Black found herself. “Ready to dive in the deep end / This time it’s gonna be different,” the viral star sings in the bubbly ode to rekindling a lost romance, and while she’s referring to her relationship with her girlfriend, the line also applies to Black’s explosive growth. Moving past the online bullying she endured following 2011’s “Friday,” Black is becoming a more secure, confident young woman who is ready to get the career she deserves. — R.A.
Regard, Troye Sivan & Tate McRae, “You”
The pain of being broken up with and not told why is so palpable on “You” that it took not one, but two vocalists — and bouncy production courtesy of Regard — to chronicle the emotion in hopes of moving on from it. But, as Troye Sivan sings, “When the Hennessy’s strong, all I see is you.” It takes nearly three minutes and Tate McRae as the voice of reason to finally admit, “Nearly blocked you on my phone about a thousand times/Yeah, I know I should say goodbye.” — L.H.
Vincint ft. Parson James & Qveen Herby, “Kill My Heart”
If you walk into a gay club within the next few months and don’t hear the opening, heart-pounding strains of Vincint’s “Kill My Heart,” call the police, because a crime has been committed. From top to bottom, “Kill My Heart” is made for the club, with special guests Parson James and Qveen Herby joining on the scintillating beat to assist Vincint in his quest to make “crying on the dancefloor” a reality. If you’ve got an ex that you’d really like to stick it to, promptly send them a video of you getting down on a dancefloor while Vincint croons, “So when you see me up on someone else/And you’re dancing by your goddamn self/ Remember you tried to kill my heart.” — S.D.
Years and Years ft. Kylie Minogue, “Starstruck”
For a song called “Starstruck,” it makes sense that Years & Years would turn to disco queen and LGBTQ icon Kylie Minogue for the remix. With her playful vocals melding gorgeously with Olly Alexander’s yearning croon, the Aussie legend lends an effervescent confidence to this uplifting dancefloor banger. As the synths cascade and the elastic bass line thumps along, you’ll inevitably be singing along as if the song were credited to Years & Years ft. Kylie Minogue and Your Well-Meaning-But-Ultimately-Shitty Voice. — J. Lynch