50 best albums of the year so far

The 50 Best Albums of 2021 So Far

The year has offered a mountainous feast of sublime music. The 50 best albums of 2021 so far are an eclectic, forward-looking, and increasingly “woke” bunch.

ALTIN GÜN – YOL [ATO Records]

The foundational concepts behind Altın Gün’s music are ones that need little by way of adjustment. Their interpretations of Turkish classics are well-informed by a sense of style: what to keep, what to change, and how to put it all together for a 21st-century audience. On Yol, the group continue to make good creative decisions in that regard by foregrounding synthpop sounds on a strong backdrop of intricate and instantly recognizable Anatolian modal motifs. It raises questions of future sounds, as any album does when observed in the whole of a band’s catalog: will subsequent works see the group move even further into retrowave or funk? Will vintage psychedelia disappear? The good news is that Yol proves Altın Gün’s versatility, reassuring listeners that the group can walk down many paths and still take us on a fabulous trip. — Adriane Pontecorvo

Listen: Bandcamp


ARAB STRAP – AS DAYS GET DARK [Rock Action]

ARAB STRAP - AS DAYS GET DARK

The dead rising should always be a cause of trepidation. Our loved ones may return inconceivably altered, void of spirit, even dangerous (to memory). Lucky for us, Arab Strap’s return is more akin to a door swinging open to reveal old friends gone a-traveling. Better still, the new album, As Days Get Dark, finds Malcolm Middleton and Aidan Moffat far too busy showing how far they’ve journeyed to spare time for backward glances. This is a record as rare as hens’ teeth: a comeback that not only beats expectations but has an excellent claim to be the band’s crowning achievement (so far). — Nick Soulsby

Listen: Bandcamp


BACHELOR – DOOMIN’ SUN [Polyvinyl]

Doomin' Sun

Bachelor is a collaboration between two of the DIY scene’s most luminously raw diarists: Palehound’s Ellen Kempner and Jay Som‘s Melina Duterte. On the project’s debut album Doomin’ Sun, they join seamlessly and skillfully. Over ten tracks, they come together to make confidantes of their listeners, intertwining lyrics of desire and anxiety with layers of sonic exploration. Alternately bitter and sweet but invariably vulnerable, Doomin’ Sun is indie music at its most engaging, and Kempner and Duterte make a relatable pair.

They’re also a versatile one. Catchy, acerbic rock cuts sit comfortably beside delicate ballads, acoustic and electric textures ebbing and flowing in seductive cross-currents where no style is off-limits: hot blues licks, noisy ambience, stripped-down picking, and atmospheric billowing all lend themselves well to different moments. — Adriane Pontecorvo

Listen: Bandcamp


BALTHAZAR – SAND [Play It Again Sam]

BALTHAZAR - SAND

With Sand, Balthazar’s fifth studio outing, the Belgians remain at their peak, all the while pivoting their sound in a whole new direction. If Sand has a visual equivalent, it’s the interiors of a jazz club from a 1960s European noir, perhaps something out of a Jean-Pierre Melville policier. The rousing closing song “Powerless”, with its somber piano motif and cries of “power!” in the chorus, sounds like a jazz standard that’s been around for decades, performed and recorded dozens of times over. Devoldere’s low croon on “You Won’t Come Around” conjures an image of a lounge singer slumped over his microphone, a drink in hand, mumbling out his heart’s inner workings. For Balthazar to put out a set of songs as confident and exhilarating as these at any given time would have been a remarkable feat; to have done so during a global pandemic makes Sand all the more special. — Brice Ezell

Listen: YouTube


BASIC RHYTHM – ELECTRONIC LABYRINTH [Planet Mu]

BASIC RHYTHM - ELECTRONIC LABYRINTH

Electronic Labyrinth’s cover photo is of St. Fabian Tower, a now-demolished tower block in north London where Basic Rhythm (real name: Anthoney Hart) played as a DJ on the Rude FM pirate radio station. The analogue grit of the photograph possesses real texture and depth, the rich blue of the sky contrasting starkly with the sharp concrete of the decaying tower block.

The tower block also mirrors the formality of Electronic Labyrinth. Hart has described his sonic aesthetic as ‘modernist hardcore’, and St. Fabian Tower, with its brutalist architectural design, could easily be described by this tag. This synergy between the music and modernist architecture can be heard in the sharp, angular funk of “Larkin’ Around”, which recalls modernism’s horizontal and vertical geometry. It’s also heard in the unfussy simplicity of “Techno”, which shares the aesthetic’s lack of ornamentation, and the skeletal “Palace of the Peacock”, which is likewise content to display its inner workings and structural composition. — Tom Morgan

Listen: Bandcamp


BICEP – ISLES – Ninja Tune

BICEP - ISLES

Bicep’s instantly recognizable sound is a product of their eclectic obsession. House, garage, ambient, downtempo, psychedelic, and everything in between is intermingled in the capable hands of Bicep. Particularly distinguishable and central to the “Bicep sound”, is the playful augmentation of beats. Steeped in syncopation and polyrhythmic/tupleted measures, expect Bicep’s complex beats to affect you physically and cranially. Bicep frequently use pitched synths in place of bass and snare drums, effectively using melody for rhythmic accompaniment. Pitch-bending cymbals slide and drift away, dancing in-and-out between the melodic loops. In layered dynamics, each part of the kit’s volume functions independently. Hi-hat crescendos will contrast and cascade around the diminuendos of other individual percussive elements.

Isles is born out of the conflicting doublethink experienced by the now emigrated Northern-Irish duo. The urge to explore in a mold-breaking wanderlust met with equally strong feelings of belonging and local identity. Bicep’s sophomore release is much more grown-up and conflicted, however, this is not to the detriment of their characteristic eclectic abandon. — B. Sassons

Listen: Bandcamp


BIG|BRAVE – VITAL [Southern Lord]

VITAL BIGBRAVE

Some records are greatly enhanced by the setting in which the listening experience occurs. Vital, by Montreal experimental metal trio Big|Brave, is an immersive, best-when-cranked-loud kind of record, so that means two options: headphones or you get out the big speakers. It sounds fantastic on either, but I highly recommend the latter. Place the speakers facing slightly inward towards you on your left and right and let her rip.

Some facts: this is the band’s fifth LP, their fourth for adventurous heavy music label Southern Lord, their second engineered by Seth Manchester (The Body, Daughters, Lingua Ignota), and their first with drummer Tasreen Hudson, who joined the band for the tour supporting their previous record A Gaze Among Them. Big|Brave’s sound has evolved gradually over their past four records, and the trio took advantage of pandemic isolation to write and record their most accomplished and yes, vital work to date. — Michael Frank Lukich

Listen: Bandcamp


BLACK COUNTRY, NEW ROAD – FOR THE FIRST TIME [Ninja Tune]

BLACK COUNTRY, NEW ROAD - FOR THE FIRST TIME

Black Country, Road Road‘s debut, For the First Time, is a frenetic culture clash. The influences that made this album sprawl across the globe and throughout history. The band’s line up is equally intriguing and features the standard rock formation: vocals, two electric guitars, bass guitar, bass, drums, and keys. Added to the mix are the more unlikely saxophone and strings (predominantly violin), as necessary as any other instrument compositionally. With such an eclectic and unique sound, it is hard to pigeon-hole Black Country, New Road. But put a gun to my head, and I would say, think Pulp, but way angrier and with the bite of Charles Mingus, the free-jazz danger of Ornette Coleman, the cinematic awe of John Williams, the Afrobeat of Fela Kuti, the soundscapes of Sunn O))), the abandon of klezmer, the experimentation of Black Midi, the enigmatic charm of David Bowie, and the pandemonium of 2020. — B. Sassons

Listen: Bandcamp


BLACK MIDI – CAVALCADE [Rough Trade]

BLACK MIDI - CAVALCADE

Calculated tumult. No two words in the language English better sum up the much-anticipated second full-length LP from Black Midi, the UK’s more aspirational and engaging experimental rock band. Those clinging to the cataclysm of the band’s 2019 genre-defying debut, Schlagenheim, don’t need to fret – there are few indications on Cavalcade of a slowdown or a sophomore slump. Far, far from it. But while some tracks on the eight-song LP will inspire listeners to toss around adjectives like “cutting-edge” or “brilliant” or consult a thesaurus for synonyms, there are, sadly, occasional lulls on the album and that leaves it feeling slightly less than a complete effort. — Justin Vellucci

Listen: Bandcamp


CHAI – WINK [Sub Pop]

CHAI - WINK

Pop and punk are constantly in motion in the uniquely exuberant sounds of CHAI. Professing an inclusive doctrine of neo-kawaii in their visual and sonic aesthetics, the Nagoya-based four-piece band tend toward high energy and irrepressible positivity, all with a satisfying rock edge. It’s a little bit of a surprise, then, when the new album Wink opens not with a bang but with full-body synthpop bliss. “Donuts Mind If I Do” is slow, warm, and sweet (“Everybody fall in love with something / Sometime / Somehow,” sings lead vocalist and keyboardist Mana), with sharp hits from guitarist Kana adding height to the subtle cool of Yuuki’s subtle bassline and Yuna’s crisp drumbeats. — Adriane Pontecorvo

Listen: Bandcamp

FROM THE POPMATTERS ARCHIVES
PopMatters