Time may be an illusion, but if you choose to believe the illusion we are already more than halfway through 2021. This arbitrary landmark means, of course, that it’s time to reflect upon the past six months and, in particular, pick out the musical highlights that have carried us through another difficult spell. So, without further ado, here are the best albums of 2021 (so far). If you couldn’t be bothered to read the article and just want the tunes—bit harsh—scroll all the way to the end for a little playlist.
Black Country, New Road | For the first time
There were so many accomplished bows onto the main stage over the past six months that it was hard to keep up with the amount of new talent emerging every week, but I can confidently state that there were none quite as undeniable as this.
A young band that arrived under a tremendously rare wave of hype from the British, wider European and American music press but couldn’t have cared less, Black Country came across as a group of mates whimsically jamming their wild jazz-punk concoctions for no one but themselves. The results are best experienced as an immersive whole in order to truly behold the spectacle of freewheeling abandon, erratic improvisation and sheer musicality that BCNR unleash on For the first time.
Highlights: ‘Science Fair’/’Sunglasses’/’Track X’
For Those I Love | For Those I Love
David Balfe’s debut record is a staggering piece of work. The loss of Balfe’s friend—poet Paul Curran—is embedded in every second of For Those I Love but its reach extends beyond that personal bereavement. For all the specificities of the record—its collage of old voice notes, Dublin colloquialisms, and formative musical influences—the themes to which it speaks stretch beyond the confines of Balfe’s own identity. This is an album for anyone who has grieved a loved one, found themselves disenfranchised, or struggled with loss in any capacity.
Most impressive of all is Balfe’s ability as a producer and songwriter. FTIL may confront the heaviest realities of life, but there are moments of euphoria here too. Moments when the glitchy electronic beats and Balfe’s raw delivery cut through the dark tapestry of death and let the light shine in. For Those I Love is a moving celebration of friendship and love, and a herald of its creator’s immense talent and empathy.
Highlights: ‘I Have a Love’/’To Have You’/’Birthday / The Pain’
J. Cole | The Off-Season
The weekend this album was released, Cole began his professional basketball career with the Rwanda Patriots in the Basketball Africa League. It was a big flex from a star that has always had an obsession with the sport, but it also showed that he is operating at his own pace in a universe of his own creation. This album represents a break from his recent releases, KOD and 4 Your Eyez Only, both of which conformed to a specific style and were accused of being heavy handed with their preachiness. On this record he sounds like he’s having fun, it sounds like it’s coming from a place of artistic freedom. This freedom was possibly rooted in his decision to open the door up to collaborations again.
The opening monologue from Cam’ron, the chaos of the Lil Jon chants to the prayer delivered by Diddy all sound like he’s experimenting creatively, while also pushing back on the “platinum with no features” narrative that was being pushed by his fans. The rap features from Lil Baby and 21 Savage sound at home on the record too. Cole has always treated rapping like a sport, and you can hear it in his punchlines and wordplay. He’s testing new flows and finding new perspectives to explore. The earnest introspection from his previous albums is still present, but here he’s also comfortable including more trivial things that sound cool. This is high-level rapping from one of the A listers—it’s exactly what the fans were hoping for.
Japanese Breakfast | Jubilee
Michelle Zauner’s third album as Japanese Breakfast is a more joyous offering than the first two records, with their heavy focus on the illness and subsequent loss of Zauner’s mother. Jubilee maintains many of the indie-rock elements of those first two LPs, while also bringing a poppier, ‘80s-influenced synth sound into the mix. Lead single ‘Be Sweet’, for example, grooves with playful possibility, while opening salvo ‘Paprika’ expands the Japanese Breakfast sound through the addition of horns and strings.
Beyond the personal tales of grief that characterised the first two albums, Jubilee highlights Zauner’s ability as a narrative storyteller, with album highpoint ‘Savage Good Boy’ exemplifying her songwriting chops, as she conjures images of apocalyptic domesticity by way of slick alt pop. Ultimately, Jubilee finds its place in Zauner’s discography as a testament to fortitude, celebrating the idea that we can endure and overcome the worst periods of our lives and find solace, or even unadulterated joy, again.
Highlights: ‘Be Sweet’/’Posing in Bondage’/’Savage Good Boy’
Lana Del Rey | Chemtrails Over The Country Club
After a tumultuous past year that saw her come down with a bad case of foot-in-mouth disease, it was nice to be reminded that Lana Del Rey is one of the premier songwriters in the world when she lets the music do the talking—and the Gothic neo-folk of Chemtrails Over The Country Club left no doubt that we are still witnessing an iconic artist at the peak of her powers.
Del Rey’s seventh album was in the seemingly impossible position of following an all time classic record but it’s a testament to the enduring ability of its artist that Chemtrails stands not only as a worthy sequel to Norman Fucking Rockwell! but a major achievement in its own right, that arguably sits a comfortable second place in Lana’s catalogue at the time of writing.
Highlights: ‘White Dress’/’Tulsa Jesus Freak’/’For Free’
Lucy Dacus | Home Video
Lucy Dacus’s follow up to her acclaimed breakout record, Historian, reaffirms her place as one of the most empathetic songwriters working today. Home Video, living up to its nostalgia-inducing title, is an evocative journey through the formative experiences of the songwriter’s youth in her native Virginia. The album may not stray too far out of Dacus’s musical comfort zone, but what a truly comfortable zone that is. Earnest without becoming cloying, it’s an evocative, sharp look back at those pivotal years, managing to explore the past without drowning in it.
Veering from lo-fi singalongs (‘Going Going Gone’) to more fuzzed-out indie rock (‘First Time’), Dacus uses small moments and sketches from her earlier years to examine greater themes of sexuality, repression, and religion. Nowhere is this confrontation of repressed identity through a juvenile lens better realised than in the record’s finale, ‘Triple Dog Dare’, when the young protagonist boils her stifled desire down into a line straight from the playground, “It’s a triple dog dare, you’re a chicken if you don’t”.
Highlights: ‘Thumbs’/‘Going Going Gone’/‘Triple Dog Dare’
Mustafa | When Smoke Rises
Growing up in Toronto’s Regent Park housing project, Mustafa experienced loss, grief and dispossession from a young age. He channels all of this into his beautifully delicate debut project. A close friend of Mustafa’s, Smoke Dawg, was murdered in 2018 and dealing with this grief forms the majority of this project, as well as informing the title and featuring on the album cover. Projects such as these can often adhere to a conscious stereotype and moralise against gang violence, however Mustafa’s decision to avoid the backpack rap culture and instead root his sound in folk music gives his tales the aura of a fable. There is no hint of preachiness. Instead, it feels like he is having an honest conversation with his community.
Much of the soft acoustic production comes from industry heavyweights Frank Dukes, Jamie xx and James Blake but his sound is distinctly his own. His voice is bassy and warm and manages to be delicate while also captivating his audience. The album is punctuated by voicemails, possibly inspired by fellow Toronto native Drake, and these interludes are all part of his attempt to give his community a voice. Alongside mourning his friend, Mustafa highlights the gentrification of his home and the lack of opportunities for his friends who survive. This is a deeply personal album from an important new voice in music.
Highlights: ‘Stay Alive’/‘Air Forces’/‘Capo’
Olivia Rodrigo | SOUR
When she was young, Olivia Rodrigo and her mother would go into record stores and pick up random vinyl from different artists. She would go home and listen to them, developing her eclectic taste and knack for storytelling. Above anything else this album is a heartbreak record, and her unabashed, blunt approach to this theme is its best attribute. Rodrigo is clearly gutted by a breakup, and the real life gossip of its origin only added to the album’s appeal. The album balances words of wisdom and earnestness with unashamed pettiness. Tracks like ‘deja vu’ are more scathing than most modern rap diss tracks. In moments like these comparisons to her idol Taylor Swift are evident.
Her unexpected production choices establish her own lane though, as she veers between frantic pop punk, delicate balladry and blown out electronics. The unprecedented success of her first single ‘drivers license’ has catapulted Rodrigo to pop stardom, and the album backs up this success with real quality songwriting. The repeated references to her heartbreak can be waning, but it’s a moment in time in a teenager’s life when she can’t think about anything else. For many the album will conjure nostalgia—whether emotionally or based on her musical influences—and for others she represents a new star to follow and support.
Highlights: ‘drivers license’/‘deja vu’/‘enough for you’
The Weather Station | Ignorance
The climate crisis isn’t exactly the most accessible topic to centre an album around, but such is the majesty of Tamara Lindeman’s songwriting on Ignorance that it brings an issue often presented as vague or distant into devastating focus, outlining the impact of the crisis with an unexpectedly emotional perspective that humanises the problem like no media I’ve heard, seen or read before March 2021, or since
As profound as Lindeman’s lyricism is throughout these ten tracks, as much power lies in the musical execution of her fifth album, which sees The Weather Station complete a staggering evolution from their humble folk beginnings into the full blown rock orchestra presented in all its euphonic glory on Ignorance.
Highlights: ‘Robber’/’Parking Lot’/’Heart’