So, I’m late with this one. Shoot me. Pandemic brain has been real, and this blog just sometimes falls further down the list of priorities than would be ideal. It’s also moved much further towards writing about music than films, purely because that’s what my area of expertise has ended up being. It was an accident, beginning to work in the music industry. A total accident, but one I’m very grateful for. If you miss the old film content, do let me know on Twitter or via email! I’ll definitely be squeezing in a bit more in the coming months.
But for now – admin over – I just wanted to give a round up of some of the best albums which have been released during the first half of 2021. Disclaimer; I am, of course, behind on my listening. Obviously. So if there’s a glaring omission, again, let me know. Chances are, it’s still on my 30+ hour long “to listen” playlist. Or I did listen, but didn’t like it, in which case, let me know anyway, so that we can argue about it.
Without further ado, and in roughly order of release, here are 25 albums I deem worth your time from the first half of 2021…
Black Country, New Road – For the first time
This band was honestly so in danger of collapsing under the weight of their own hype, but this album is a brilliantly solid debut with lots of interesting ideas. It’s unique and fun to listen to, with epic moments and some very surreal spoken word passages.
Hayley Williams – FLOWERS for VASES / descansos
The second solo record from Paramore’s frontwoman was a surprise drop. Her vocals have honestly never sounded better and it’s a nice companion record to last year’s Petals For Armour – much softer and morose, with the home studio setting adding a layer of intimacy that I felt was missing in parts of Petals.
Pom Poko – Cheater
Look no further than this album for the most bonkers poppy math rock-noise you’ll hear this year. I was completely blown away by how many genres are effortlessly folded into the mix of this album, rounded off with some truly sugary vocals a la Charley Bliss. It’s adorable and unhinged at the same time.
Divide And Dissolve – Gas Lit
The duo’s ambient doom-drone to combat white supremacy is perfected on this, their third full-length release. At times, glacial, at others, warm and thick, the sound created on this album with only two musicians and a spoken word artist is compelling from start to finish. This is definitely one of my highlights of the year.
The Weather Station – Ignorance
It’s an album about divorce that grooves its way through ten tracks, pretty much all of them surprisingly uplifting, given the subject matter. The arrangements are truly luscious – this is one for the Big Headphones.
NYX & Gazelle Twin – Deep England
A deeply, deeply creepy album about the corruption of England, with tracks taken from and expanded on from Gazelle Twin’s Pastoral. I think this album has to be heard to be believed – the amount of creativity put into every fraction of a second, the hefty concept carried beautifully by this perfect collaboration. It also puts into simplistic words something which probably a lot of us have been feeling for some time now – that England is often a cruel place to live.
Armand Hammer & The Alchemist – Haram
It’s really hard not to be put off by the album cover for this one, but it’s worth ignoring if you’re looking for what is surely the most excellent soul hip-hop of the year. The name itself acts as a jumping off point, signifying the album’s theme of exploring things that are forbidden and taboo. It’s dense to get into, but it also works perfectly as a background record. It’s rewarding either way.
Loathe – The Things They Believe
I have to put this in writing now so that I can claim my reward when I’m proven right later on down the line – Loathe are the future of metal. That’s all. I was so intrigued to see what would follow last year’s I Let It In And It Took Everything, but a dark ambient album was certainly not what I was expecting. The fact that they smashed this release as well as the gorgeous metalcore-noise-post mix of I Let It In signifies a really exciting band whose trajectory is pointed straight up. Watch this space.
Livingdog – If I Let The Air In
A teeny tiny bandcamp find, but this album explores lost and ghosts (metaphorical or otherwise) in such a rich yet gauzy sound palette that I’m really intrigued to see what comes next. This is perfect for getting lost in the woods.
The Hold Steady – Open Door Policy
God, this band is just everything that’s good in the world. They sound like the equivalent of a riotous tavern, each song building to euphoric moments of comradery. This album might not be quite so happy-go-lucky as some of their others, but it’s still an absolute joy to listen to.
Jazmine Sullivan – Heaux Tales
A concept album discussing and celebrating female sexuality with verbatim interview segments from women around the world telling their own stories about love and sex and relationships with men? Yes please. This is apparently “just” an EP but it’s a pretty ambitious topic perfectly executed, and it includes a plethora of bangers.
Nubiyan Twist – Freedom Fables
Another band who have nailed it on the third attempt. Nubiyan Twist’s melding of jazz fusion and afrobeat feels so completely effortless on this release, in a way it hasn’t done before. They have so much fun with all the songs on this record, and it’s just as comfortable soundtracking a lazy Sunday morning as it is a packed out dancefloor.
Pupil Slicer – Mirrors
Math-grindcore is not an accessible genre. I’m not about to tell you that Pupil Slicer are the band to make it accessible, but they take the conventions of the genre and completely rip it up, starting again with a rulebook it seems like they’re writing as they go. It’s a messy and chaotic slab of genius experimentation, and if you’re at all into your heavy shit, this is an unmissable record.
Johanna Hedva – Black Moon Lilith in Pisces in the 4th House
An absolutely tiny release, this was actually recommended to me by someone off a dating app. Thanks to them, I am completely obsessed with this six-track exploration of grief via the genre of ‘hag blues’. Johanna performs each track with only their guitar for company, and it’s a sound which is primitive and raw.
Godspeed You! Black Emperor – G_d’s Pee AT STATE’S END
An absolutely blissed out offering from the post legends. It’s an album about the end of days and the rising of a new sun when it seems all hope is lost. It’s devotional and heart-wrenching as well as hopeful.
The Armed – ULTRAPOP
Chaos. This album is pure chaos in a way metalcore has never really seen. It’s brilliantly imaginative and full of personality, and I predict will have a genuine impact on the heavy music scene in the years to come.
Big|Brave – Vital
The amount of textures this album manages to pack in, whilst still maintaining the most spacious, huge doom sound I’ve heard in a while, is truly impressive. I’ve been a fan of this band since Muted Shifting and I think Vital is where they really come into their own. They make use of space as much as they do sound, meaning that every song rings out in the emptiness, feeling absolutely colossal.
Gojira – Fortitude
At this point in their career, Gojira can honestly do no wrong. Each album they’ve released in the last 15 years has been more or less flawless, and whilst I do think this album is a step down from 2016’s Magma, it’s Gojira, so it still makes it onto the list. Listen for chugging guitars, rousing choruses and Mario Duplantier, one of metal’s best drummers around today.
Voronoi – The Last Three Seconds
God this album gives me anxiety. In a good way. It’s spacey and jazzy and absolutely frantic. A really weird listen but such an evocative one, this was sent my way by Wall of Sound PR, who generally have a brilliantly colourful roster. This was one of their best.
Mdou Moctar – Afrique Victime
A beautifully sunny and retro-feeling album, this record really takes me back to the golden days of afro psychedelia, but arguably does it better. The guitar work on this album is insane, and refreshing is the DIY take on album formation. It’s an absolute treat, and essential listening.
black midi – Cavalcade
Building on the success of debut Schalngenheim, the boys have truly knocked it out the park on their second release. This might make the number one spot, you guys. It’s a brilliantly paced album ranging from the bonkers to the serene, and ‘John L’ will almost definitely win my song and/or earworm of the year.
Body Void – Bury Me Beneath This Rotting Earth
This is good, heavy shit. Inspired by colonialism and environmental collapse, but never once falling into despair, this is noisy doom with punk sensibilities and a feeling of rebellion and revolution imbued throughout. It’s an eulogy for the Earth and a rousing call to save it at the same time. Truly brilliant stuff. Read my interview with frontwoman Willow here.
Floating Points, Pharoah Sanders, London Philharmonic Orchestra – Promises
From the heaviest to the calmest, I defy anyone not to enjoy this musical equivalent of floating along a serene river. Each track melds seamlessly into the next, without even track names to distinguish them from each other. A collaboration made in heaven, this album certainly lives up to the hype of the names involved in the process.
Backxwash – I LIE HERE BURIED WITH MY RINGS AND MY DRESSES
Backxwash is about to blow up. I’m calling it now. There’s no way a rapper of this quality and this much critical acclaim will stay underground for much longer. Get on the hype train now, especially if you’re after political horrorcore industrial hip hop about being a trans woman of colour, in a similar vein to clipping, but like, way more personal. I love her.
Sons of Kemet – Black To The Future
This album is the sound of a community coming together. After the riots of 2020, there was a bunch of art speaking about racial issues, and rightly so – but I think this is the best. At the very least, it’s a culmination. There are so many brilliant artists featured on this album, and each track is like a stab in the gut. Except, you know, with saxophones and stuff. The opener and closer of this album are era-defining.
I hope you enjoyed my list! Let me know on Twitter what you thought, and you can listen to my playlist below if you fancy. I’ll be adding and editing it in the coming months so you’ll be able to keep up with what I’ve been thinking about 2021 music.