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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.

CLOUD NOTHINGS – THE SHADOW I REMEMBER [Carpark]

CLOUD NOTHINGS - THE SHADOW I REMEMBER

When Covid happened, everything changed, as was the case for so many artists. But for Dylan Baldi, the arrival of a global pandemic seems to have been the catalyst for, or perhaps it’s better to say, the crystallization of, a work ethic that has been breathtakingly prolific. The new Cloud Nothings album, The Shadow I Remember, was recorded just under the wire before Covid’s grip tightened on every aspect of our lives and was always planned for a release at this time. But once the lockdown happened, all other plans changed, and Baldi went into the kind of overdrive that might make you feel slightly inadequate if you were an aspiring artist or even just a regularly productive one.

If we think of the experience of listening to The Shadow I Remember as the mimetic version of a live show we cannot yet attend, the closing track “The Room It Was” serves then as the encore, the room of the title serving as the venue for the imaginary gig we have been attending. And once again, the band provide their own contrapuntal energy, where Baldi finally intones the album’s title, rasping the first part, “The shadow,” before more tenderly and wistfully singing the whole phrase, “The shadow I remember,” as if the shadow is itself a memory of how we used to commune, something that makes him both angry in his iteration of the first part of the phrase and poignant in its second utterance. — Rod Waterman

Listen: Bandcamp


CHARLEY CROCKETT: 10 FOR SLIM: CHARLEY CROCKETT SINGS JAMES HAND [Son of Davy/Thirty Tigers]

CHARLEY CROCKETT: 10 FOR SLIM

Charley Crockett discovered the music of legendary Texas honky-tonker James Hand and befriended the man before Hand’s unexpected death last June. The two were even scheduled to tour together. Crockett promised Hand he would record his songs. This release, 10 For Slim – Charley Crockett Sings James Hand reveals the deep connection the two men had at the most fundamental level—the place where the heart lives. This does not mean the heart as a metaphor for love, but at the more primary source of human existence as that squishy button that controls one’s mind and lifeforce. 

Hand’s songs come from a deep place. He wrote with a knowing authenticity about the human need for connection, how depression can conquer one’s best efforts to fight the blackness, and in the end, nothing really matters more than an occasional friendly smile. Crockett selected songs like “Lesson in Depression”, “Mighty Lonesome Man”, and “Just a Heart” that use the honky-tonk beat to show the connection between the tears in a dive bar. If you thought Hank Williams was lonesome, well, this makes him sound like Sunny Jim. — Steve Horowitz

Listen: Spotify


DELGRES – 4:00 AM [PIAS]

DELGRES - 4-00 AM

The experiences of those forced to leave their homes and families to seek better lives, or just to stay alive, are at the heart of 4:00 AM, the new album by Delgres, the Paris-based, blues-rock trio led by guitarist and vocalist Pascal Danae. The follow-up to their 2018 debut, Mo Jodithe band’s sophomore outing offers a cohesive and moving response to the ongoing crises of displacement and forced migration experienced mainly by people of the Global South.

4:00 AM consolidates Delgres’ strengths—Pascal Danae’s emotive vocals and guitar mastery, the flexible and in-the-pocket rhythm section, the social consciousness that is never rhetorical or preachy but sharply observational and intimate. The new album also builds on those strengths, revealing a band whose identity and purpose are so strong that they can confidently venture into new territory. A wake-up call about today’s humanitarian crises, 4:00 AM speaks about suffering but also resistance and resilience. — George de Stefano


DJANGO DJANGO – GLOWING IN THE DARK [Because Music]

DJANGO DJANGO - GLOWING IN THE DARK

Django Django have built on the momentum of their previous records with the brilliant Glowing in the Dark, a fantastic whirl of the band’s sonic influences. The different sounds incorporated into the album – psychedelic pop, surf rock, indie, synthpop, dance, even funk – gives listeners a dizzying tour into their favored musical inspirations. Glowing in the Dark sports a thick, dense sound that feels like a celebration of studio trickery and musical prowess. The LP is the band’s fourth studio release after the well-received Marble Skies (2018) and continues with Django Django’s further exploration of the intersection of indie rock, New Wave, and dance club culture. The sound of Glowing in the Dark works as a joyful, articulate valentine to the London music scene.

Much of Glowing in the Dark is a mixtape of 1980s to 2020s pop music, all of which has been streamed through a buzzy, crackling pop filter. The hooks are indelible, and the sound is plump, shiny, and thick with gloss. It also features some virtuoso percussion and dazzling guitar work, along with soft, sweet vocals. Though much of Glowing in the Dark is felt in Marble Skies, the album is still a twirling mass of exciting surprises. — Peter Piatkowski


ELKKA – EUPHORIC MELODIES [Technicolour Records]

ELKKA - EUPHORIC MELODIES

You have to be pretty sure of the music you are making to name an electronic album Euphoric Melodies. With electronic music, whether a melody is euphoric or not is up to the listener. Euphoria comes at the point where time, space, and music interact so perfectly in a transformative moment of musical alchemy. To serve notice of intent so implicitly suggests a confident determinism that sure as hell needs to be backed up by the music. Thankfully, the new EP from Cardiff-born producer, Elkka, proves to be a treasure chest of exhilarating, uplifting tunes wholly deserving of its title.

Euphoric Melodies does exactly what it says on the tin. Measured rather than wildly hedonistic, it offers everything you would expect of it. Full of pulse-quickening beats and dizzying synths imbued with a sense of inclusivity for those life-affirming moments on the dancefloor. This is Elkka giving notice that she is ready to move into the big leagues. — Paul Carr

Listen: Bandcamp


GÁJANAS – ČIHKKOJUVVON [Bafe’s Factory]

Joik is a long-practiced musical tradition in Sápmi, a largely subarctic region spanning Finland, Norway, Sweden, and Russia. It stems from the indigenous Sámi people’s spiritual customs, conjuring images of the world through typically wordless vocables. Prog rock has a somewhat less ancient history, but it tends to be a mainstay of the Nordics. Hailing from Inari and Utsjoki in the far north of Finland, four-piece band Gájanas (Northern Sámi for “echo”) combine both. Already known for winning second place at the Sámi Grand Prix in 2016 and being Kaustinen Folk Festival’s band of the year in 2017, they now bring us brilliant full-length debut Čihkkojuvvon.

Fresh and unyielding, Čihkkojuvvon presents Gájanas as a band both youthful and well-informed by their cultural forebears. It’s no secret that joik and rock make for a versatile combination — look at Jonne Järvelä’s career — but Gájanas are still unique, their skill potent as they create modern Sámi music. Čihkkojuvvon is a strong and vital debut and Gájanas a group to watch closely. — Adriane Pontecorvo


GARBAGE – NO GODS NO MASTERS [Stunvolume / Infectious Music]

GARBAGE - NO GODS NO MASTERS

On their winning new album No Gods No MastersGarbage look back at the past few years and has formulated a response with a great collection of new tunes. The last few years have been trying, and there has been some profound pop art that has risen to answer back to a world done in by the elections of madmen, Brexit, police murdering unarmed Black men, a reckoning of sexual harassment throughout various industries, Nazis marching in the streets, a violent Capitol insurrection, and a global pandemic. Frontwoman Shirley Manson summed up No Gods No Masters as “our way of trying to make sense of how fucking nuts the world is and the astounding chaos we find ourselves in”. She characterizes the new LP – the band’s seventh – as “the record we felt that we had to make at this time”.

Arguably their most political record, No Gods No Masters is simultaneously novel and familiar: the lyrics and themes are timely and a stark reflection of the oft-overwhelming feelings of angst over the past few years. Yet the sounds on the record – a spikey, thick amalgam of guitar rock, electronic pop, and post-grunge – will feel recognizable to listeners who followed the band since their 1995 self-titled debut. Longtime collaborator Billy Bush has returned to create a large, expansive sound, booming with fuzzy, buzzy guitars, trip hop loops, and loping drums. Manson remains as charismatic and magnetic as ever with urgent vocals and empathetic lyrics. — Peter Piatkowski


GENGHIS TRON – DREAM WEAPON [Relapse]

GENGHIS TRON - DREAM WEAPON

Genghis Tron have done far more than merely try to keep pace with either trends or their legacy. With Dream Weapon, Genghis Tron don’t so much transition as achieve transcendence of everything they once were. And the change is so fully realized that it renders notions of genre loyalism utterly moot.

A radical re-invention in almost every respect, Dream Weapon will no doubt stun the band’s existing fanbase. Imagine the chest-bursting scene in the film Alien, only with the script flipped so that you’re picturing an irresistibly beautiful life form hatching from the body of a hideous (albeit very cool-looking) monster. You’ve come close to the way Dream Weapon grew out of seeds the band first planted in “Relief”, the final track on Board Up the House. With “Relief”, Genghis Tron introduced two key elements that form the new album’s foundation: trance-like repetition and a lyrical outlook that looks ahead to the eventual end of human life. Other than that, Jordan and Sochynsky’s penchant for interlocking three-note melody lines might be the single strand of Genghis Tron’s DNA that remains intact. — Saby Reyes-Kulkarni

Listen: Bandcamp


GOAT GIRL – ON ALL FOURS [Rough Trade]

GOAT GIRL - ON ALL FOURS

Anyone who loved Goat Girl‘s eponymous 2018 debut and waited for another like it might be slightly shocked upon first hearing On All Fours. This is not a negative observation; in fact, unless you’re referencing AC/DC, there’s an assumption that artists use records as statements of progress. One could argue these changes are connected to Mercury Prize-nominated South Londoner Dan Cary’s production, but then he was at the helm for the debut as well. Yet, Cary adds a bed of synthesizers here, tempering the guitars and draining On All Fours of some homemade qualities that made the debut breathe. His presence looms large at times too.

So, what we have here are some hazy but deeply unsettling observations, carried along effortlessly on a bed of delirious voices, sailing over music quieter, slicker, and tighter than that on Goat Girl’s debut. One might look at this as the necessary balance required to carry the heavier scrutiny these young women possess after bearing witness to our current mess of a moment from their South London stomping grounds. But let’s face it, growing up right now is tough, and the world has been through hell. That said, it’s amazing how gorgeous a record On All Fours is. — Bruce Miller


GODSPEED YOU! BLACK EMPEROR – G_D’S PEE AT STATE’S END! [Constellation]

GODSPEED YOU! BLACK EMPEROR - G_D'S PEE AT STATE'S END!

There’s reason to be excited – truly ecstatic, even – for the new LP from Godspeed You! Black EmperorG_d’s Pee AT STATE’S END! doesn’t trudge over much new terrain, doesn’t turn over new tea leaves or undisturbed stones. But, as an expression of the band’s overtly signature sound and paralleled political ethos, it is, without much doubt, the best record the Montreal post-rock ensemble have put together since 2000’s Lift Yr Skinny Fists Like Antennas to Heaven. And that, my friend, is no small feat.

GY!BE have been here before. The collective have released brilliant, genre-defining LPs and, even in their more lackluster or formulaic moments, have risen again to its challenges. STATE’S END! is another wonderful chapter in a book we hope will continue to be writ for years. I’ve said it once and I’ll say it again: Hotel2Tango isn’t the only mighty institution in Montreal – God bless God’s pee. We may have a Record of the Year on our hands here. — Justin Vellucci

Listen: Bandcamp

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