It’s not quite at 2021’s halfway point yet, but there has been a good amount of music that’s been so exciting to me that I want to share how things have been shaping up NOW. Below you’ll find 30 of my favorite albums of the year so far (it’s ranked, but like, I’m just one guy. The rankings don’t mean much. Listen to every album on this list that interests you, regardless of a number attached to it), a cursory mention of 2 EPs I’ve really enjoyed, along with 30 unranked songs that have stuck with me over the last six months. I’ve linked each album with a stream, so make sure to support these folks. There have been some lovely surprises from newcomers, some mind-blowing entries into already sturdy artist catalogs, and more. Looking forward to continuing to digest more and more new music in 2021 until my belly is swollen and protruding. Hope you enjoy.
1. CASSANDRA JENKINS – AN OVERVIEW ON PHENOMENAL NATURE
[Ba Da Bing!]
Sitting with your best friend by the ocean, watching blown dandelion spores float off into the current.
Ethereal folk with touches of jazz and ambient country. A pure salve against hard times. Despite the subject matter being culled from a traumatic event, listening to this album is like being with a friend or a benevolent, comforting presence. Gentle, reassuring and fully human. A masterful balance of slowness and substance. Just plain immaculate. I’ve returned time and time again to be wrapped up in this album’s universe. Feels like my favorite moments of sitting, watching people pass by, watching the shore, watching wind blow through trees. My truest hope for post-pandemic relief sound, whenever that time is. Seeing her live in September and may or may not cry the whole time.
2. FLOATING POINTS, PHAROAH SANDERS & THE LSO – PROMISES
A true magic meeting of electronics wizard Floating Points, living legend Pharoah Sanders and the sublime London Symphony Orchestra. Carries a minimal motif across nine movements and 47 minutes, telling an engaging, poignant and momentous story in the process. True weightlessness. An album we’re all lucky to have in our lives.
3. SPIRIT OF THE BEEHIVE – ENTERTAINMENT, DEATH
Staying up for two full days watching unmarked VHS tapes from a dumpster, then hiking to the top of a wooded mountain and burying yourself in litter you collected on the way.
A rollercoaster ride into your own grave. Part paranoid, part lucid, part sedated, part self-destructive experimental rock where all the instruments seem to be processed on top of each other. Truly sounds like a being deprived of sleep, feeling doomed in a grocery store in the middle of the day. It’s not a whole bummer, there are some moments of light, but it’s a harrowing journey. A brilliant one.
4. KATY KIRBY – COOL DRY PLACE
Building a pillow fort with a clear view of the starry sky on the site of your childhood home that had been demolished 10 years prior.
Hit after hit after hit after hit. This album has more songs that will get stuck in your head than a Greatest Hits compilation. Tender, genuine and earnest pop and folk songs that carry a spark I haven’t heard on record in quite some time. You will be singing along to every song by the second or third listen. I should also mention that she was my first concert in over a year and everyone was singing along. Get to know if you plan on seeing the band live. Learn the words!
5. BLACK COUNTRY, NEW ROAD – FOR THE FIRST TIME
The smartest kid in your high school class is embarrassed in front of everyone at the talent show and goes on to write a morbid doomsday-like musical featuring every classmate.
Music that sounds like it has clammy hands in the best way. High concept (not really) post punk with intricate layers of instrumentation and arrangements. They’re setting themselves apart in the new wave of UK talky post punk youngsters by making LONG building songs with intense ranges of dynamics, as well as bringing in a wildcard: klezmer. Who’da thunk it.
6. GENESIS OWUSU – SMILING WITH NO TEETH
[Ourness / House Anxiety]
Sinking into a pit of quicksand outside a flashy neon display, draped in glittering gold jewelry, lavish furs and silk scarves.
Radical and innovative funk and soul oozing with personality. Breaks down genre barriers to present a cohesive, fluid vision of Owusu’s, from flashy Prince-like synth squelch jams to bludgeoning monster mashes of paranoid chords and lyrics. The perfect target to guest on the next Gorillaz album. Don’t know how more people aren’t talking about this guy.
7. MDOU MOCTAR – AFRIQUE VICTIME
A massive bonfire lights up an entire town, emitting softball-sized embers into the sky that sizzle out like fireflies.
North African Tuareg music that makes me feel like I have electricity running through my veins. Come for the virtuosic guitar performances, stay for the magical chemistry the band holds together throughout. Just try and not move while listening to this. Impossible.
8. ERIKA DE CASIER – SENSATIONAL
An etiquette instructor in a snappy white suit is seen having a tense exchange on their cellular phone in the estate rose garden, concluding with snapping the phone shut and striding back inside.
Erika is back for another lesson in Y2K-era pop + R&B, not only teleporting us to a time passed but also establishing her own universe. Immaculately crafted electronic instrumentals with nice variations on percussion and moods across the project. The lyrics will set any madman straight – you better show some class around Ms. de Casier.
9. SKEE MASK – POOL
A gang of futuristic eco-terrorists cause massive redwoods to burst through major highways while acrobatically grapple-hook flying through the newly-minted forests.
A true flex of artistic skill and vision displayed through deep techno, drum and bass, ambient electronic and more. Nearly two hours in length and doesn’t take a second of its time for granted. Varied and engaging in all its sounds, moods and techniques. Still digesting this one – it’s deep.
10. HILDEGARD – HILDEGARD
A massive room in an abandoned castle holding a single ornate mirror that reveals a hidden world, complete with an alternate universe version of you that’s been waiting for your arrival.
Uncanny, experimental electronic pop from Helena Deland + Ouri. Feels like a true mind-meld between two distinct voices, melting together into one singular voice slithering amongst a swaying field of woozy instrumentals that pulsate in the darkness.
11. DANIEL BACHMAN – AXACAN
The headlights and radio of a decaying pickup truck sitting at the bottom of a lake suddenly turn on, emitting warped AM broadcasts via caustic bubbles to the surface.
A juxtaposition of the beauty of nature and the devastation of humankind. A three-pronged auditory attack of industrial sounds, guitar + harmonium performances and the sounds of nature, fighting for space in a crowded world. A conceptual piece but hits hard. A new page in American folk music.
12. FOR THOSE I LOVE – FOR THOSE I LOVE
Being ground into dust by grief then slowly becoming more hydrated back into a human being as time passes.
A devastating piece entirely dedicated to the loss of a friend, a brother, an extension of one’s own psyche. Heart-wrenching, real life depictions of grief set aside a range of deep electronic and soul-sampling instrumentals. Bursting with as much love as there is pain.
13. JAPANESE BREAKFAST – JUBILEE
A cloud of birds carrying you over a botanical garden full of your friends and loved ones cheering below you.
Lush pop exploding with ideas, shifting from triumphant orchestral ballads, to radio-friendly bangers, to brooding synth murmurs, to optimistic odes, to irreverent 80s jams. Still unpacking all the styles, instrumentals and lyrical themes present on this. In short, it’s fun.
14. ROSALI – NO MEDIUM
Digging your way out of a grave and flipping off all the shocked bystanders as you walk home covered in dirt.
Honest to goodness kickass folk/country-touched rock record with ripping guitars and redemptive vocals + lyrics. A juxtaposition between steady vocal delivery and absolutely buckwild guitar fuzz moments.
15. DAWN RICHARD – SECOND LINE
Being outfitted with cybernetic parts to become an augmented humanoid and then starting a romantic relationship with the android from Björk’s “All Is Full of Love” video.
An exciting theater of futuristic electro-R&B featuring a full range of sounds, themes and moods. Will get the party started, will keep the party going, will usher in the sunrise, will confront weaknesses and bolster strengths.
16. BRIJEAN – FEELINGS
Entering a seemingly never-ending spa, where the steam gets thicker and thicker as wafts of clay, salt, coconut oil and other essential oils lull you into a hypnosis, floating and sweating between rooms.
Tropical disco with grooves and instrumentals so steamy you’d think this was recorded in a sauna. Dripping with humid sweat, melting together with a freeing sense of movement. The closest thing we have to a exfoliating, reviving spa for the mind. Just put this album on.
17. ROCHELLE JORDAN – PLAY WITH THE CHANGES
Trying to make your way home in a futuristic, neon-lit cityscape through underground pipeline raves, Akira biker gang fights and gravity-bending fashion shows.
An album that takes sounds from the past + present of both electronic R&B music and creates an enthralling portrait of the style’s future. Covers a wide range of punchy, high-energy bops to low-lit, throbbing late night tunes.
18. BEN SERETAN – CICADA WAVES
Small leaves of a houseplant on a windowsill sway gently after a big sigh.
An incredibly simple concept: piano explorations set to the din of the natural world. Sheets of cicada buzz, creaks of wooden floorboards, pounding rain, singing crickets and more share instrumental credits in this meditational experience.
19. SASHA & THE VALENTINES – SO YOU THINK YOU FOUND LOVE?
Riding a horse at full clip on the edge of a beachside cliff, tall waves crashing below you as you hold up a majestic sword in one hand and a roman candle shooting off multi-colored heart-shaped fireworks into the air in the other.
Some of the best indie pop I’ve heard all year: bright, jangling, dynamic, catchy, romantic. Takes the best cues from all your favorite bands over the last decade.
20. BLACK MIDI – CAVALCADE
An eccentric scientist gone mad from testing his concoctions groovily conducts a symphony of tubes, bottles and beakers, making foaming potions in his dungeon laboratory like he’s under a spotlight on stage.
The black midi sonic universe deepens on their sophomore album, opting for a more prog rock angle to their brand of highly talented, pinpoint-precise noise rock. Sprawling songs with more control over their dynamics compared to their debut, along with more instrumental and stylistic variety. Still plenty chaotic, like a stage show on fire.
21. LEON VYNEHALL – RARE, FOREVER
A post-apocalyptic timeline where all life on Earth has reverted back into its most ancient, microbial form amongst a harsh, ultra-futuristic crumbling metropolis.
A never-ending maze of rooms that leads explorers to a grand concert hall, a grimy underground club, a jazz lounge, a futuristic lab, a museum and more. A true chameleon of a record, but still unified overall.
22. DRY CLEANING – NEW LONG LEG
A J.D. Salinger novel protagonist escapes the story they’re bound to, hijacks a car and buys a house in the American southwest to live a life in peace.
Punchy post punk with droll, talky vocals that paint pictures of both absurd and mundane imagery, a combination that yields a substance built more of intimidation than boredom.
23. KARIMA WALKER – WAKING THE DREAMING BODY
[Keeled Scales / Orindal]
A cloud of fireflies waft into your room through an open window on a warm summer evening, casting objects you’ve grown numb to seeing in a new light.
Making good on its album title, this is like music you’d faintly remember hearing while sleepwalking. Rogue, reversed keyboards, peaceful plucks of guitar and soft, pillowy vocals.
24. BERNICE – EAU DE BONJOURNO
A child spends every day of their summer vacation building a labyrinthian sand castle that attracts the attention of a wandering zen meditation troupe, who inhabit the structure peacefully.
A contorting and smoothing collection of synthetic percussion, pockets of deconstructed ballad ambiance, 90s R&B and a wholeheartedly earnest appreciation for the groove.
25. M. SAGE – THE WIND OF THINGS
Listening to tales of days long past from old fishermen at the pub by the river, narrating the calm intricacies of their lives and the gentle calmness that they inhabit.
Delightful suites of field recordings paired with wafting compositions of strings, piano, assorted percussion, winds and horns. Unfiltered visions of rosy nostalgia, occasionally marred by cloudy memory.
26. FACS – PRESENT TENSE
[Trouble In Mind]
A glitched cyborg struggles to crawl their way through a dark alley before scrappers begin to salvage parts from their leaking body.
Bludgeoning noise rock with a penchant for caustic guitar tones, pummeling percussion and obelisk-like fuzz and distortion. One of the loudest & most consistent bands in the game.
27. AROOJ AFTAB – VULTURE PRINCE
Spending a night stargazing in a scenic pasture, a blinking satellite passing overhead syncs with your relaxed heartbeat.
Gorgeous, minimal & nocturnal compositions of devotional poetry, plush with tender strings and smooth yet impactful vocals. A flickering candle beneath a dark purple sky.
28. PSYMON SPINE – CHARISMATIC MEGAFAUNA
A man-sized Stretch Armstrong toy comes to life and cartoonishly struts down a busy fashion avenue, elongating his limbs around corners, until the hot sun causes him to drip and melt into an ooze.
Some of the most bombastic, wide-reaching synth pop music I’ve heard in a while. Mad scientists of sound and groove that sometimes harkens back to peak-DFA dance punk.
29. SARAH NEUFELD – DETRITUS
Ultra high definition slow motion videos of divers doing flips and spins as they plunge into icy waters below the rocky cliffside.
Tumultuous violin-based instrumental tracks, full of suspense and aching. Appropriate amount of accompaniment by booming percussion, ominous synth and threads of voice.
30. YASMIN WILLIAMS – URBAN DRIFTWOOD
A picturesque view of a mountain range next to a gentle stream for a daytime picnic.
Wonderful acoustic guitar music bound to inspire a whole new generation of players. Perfect to relax to at base level, but plenty of depth in the songwriting + performances to zone into.
It should also be mentioned that the best EPs of the year so far have been from DOSS and LOGIC1000. Listen to them!
THE BEST SONGS OF 2021 SO FAR:
It was a difficult task, but here are 30 of my favorite songs of 2021 so far. If I could I’d put “Hard Drive” by Cassandra Jenkins on here too, but just one per artist. Also don’t have many words to put to each individual song. It’d just be like “this song is good and I enjoy that about it”. You can trust that all these are certified jams though.
You can listen to all these songs + more on my Best of 2021 Spotify Playlist – HERE.
- BLACK COUNTRY, NEW ROAD – “Sunglasses”
- CASSANDRA JENKINS – “Crosshairs”
- DAWN RICHARD – “Jacuzzi”
- DEAN BLUNT – “the rot”
- DOSS – “On Your Mind”
- DRY CLEANING – “Her Hippo”
- ERIKA DE CASIER – “Drama”
- FLOATING POINTS, PHAROAH SANDERS & THE LSO – “Movement 6”
- FOR THOSE I LOVE – “Birthday / The Pain”
- GENESIS OWUSU – “Don’t Need You”
- HILDEGARD – “Jour 2”
- HORSEGIRL – “Sea Life Sandwich Boy”
- INDIGO DE SOUZA – “Kill Me”
- IZZY JOHNSON – “existing”
- JAPANESE BREAKFAST – “Paprika”
- JIMMY EDGAR – “Be With You (feat. Millie Go Lightly)”
- JOHN CARROLL KIRBY – “Rainmaker”
- KARIMA WALKER – “Reconstellated”
- KATY KIRBY – “Cool Dry Place”
- LITTLE SIMZ – “Woman (feat. Cleo Sol)”
- MDOU MOCTAR – “Afrique Victime”
- MISS GRIT – “Impostor”
- MR TWIN SISTER – “Expressions”
- ROCHELLE JORDAN – “Next 2 You”
- SARA BUG – “Rosebank”
- SKEE MASK – “Rdvnedub”
- SMERZ – “Believer”
- SPELLLING – “Turning Wheel”
- SPIRIT OF THE BEEHIVE – “The Server Is Immersed”
- TIRZAH – “Send Me”