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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.

GROUND – OZUNU [ChillMountain Records]

GROUND - OZUNU

Ground’s newest LP, Ozunu, is inspired by the fairytales and folklore of Osaka. And while the music still bears his signature organic imprint, the result is a little more chopped-and-screwed. Ozunu is an album of knackered grooves, murky pads, and corroded synthesizers. It’s a soupy cauldron of acid house jams that almost all top six minutes but, stunningly, never feel too drawn-out. In this way, Ozunu is a definite step forward for Ground, whose past work (especially on Vod-Nizm) sometimes meandered into overly lengthy runtimes.

The magic of Ozunu is that there is so much going on in every track, but it never sounds overstuffed. Like the trippy album art, which Singapore-based artist Reza Hasni created, the LP is overwhelmingly colorful but never too colorful for its own good. Ozunu is that rare thing: an infinitely-layered, lavishly overdubbed house record that does not have a single misplaced flourish. You could spend all day dissecting most of the tracks here, but the fun is in their danceability. — Parker Desautell

Listen: Bandcamp


HIATUS KAIYOTE – MOOD VALIANT [Brainfeeder / Ninja Tune]

HIATUS KAIYOTE - MOOD VALIANT

Mood Valiant comes six years after its predecessor Choose Your Weapon, and in that time, Hiatus Kaiyote have turned into something of a cult act. While they are still a way off becoming a household name, the group’s undeniable ability and immense likeability mean that further success is all but guaranteed. They have some friends in high places (including known fan Drake), and in March signed to Flying Lotus’ label Brainfeeder – one of the most respected indie labels in North America. 

Fortunately, the finished product is more than worth the wait. Following a wild 18 months, Mood Valiant is set to provide the perfect soundtrack to a summer where many of us are starting to see the light again. The clue to this tone is in the album’s title. Mood Valiant implies resolute strength, a will to remain courageous and determined. Following all of the turbulence that its creators faced, Mood Valiant is brilliantly bright and colorful – rich and complicated but always hopeful and deeply in love with life. — Tom Morgan

Listen: Bandcamp


VIJAY IYER – UNEASY [ECM]

VIJAY IYER - UNEASY

The new year finds pianist Vijay Iyer back to basics, in a sense. Uneasy features a new piano trio with Sorey again on drums but adding Linda May Han Oh on bass. Iyer is in an unmistakably retrospective mood, with nearly all the compositions on the program drawn from various sources across his career, formats, and influences. The result is a set of modern piano jazz that covers a remarkable range and features three brilliant musical imaginations that play well together.

Taken as a whole, Uneasy sounds very much like a mid-career moment—a review of the last 20 years and a reloading for what’s to come, a collaboration with an old friend, and a celebration of a new one, a mixture of youthful vigor and mature contemplation. The classic acoustic piano trio format is honored and extended, with both the preservation of traditional solos/trading statements and the use of complex time forms that alter the way that this rhythm section defines swing and plays with time. Even casual listeners can’t help but notice the exquisite “jazz” phrasing of all three players. Still, they also have fluent ease with the stuttered vocabulary of the new century, with rippling runs that use small hiccups in time to build more momentum. — Will Layman 


LORAINE JAMES – REFLECTION [Hyperdub]

LORAINE JAMES - REFLECTION

Reflection wholly obliterates any qualms about the genre’s potential for emotional austerity. Loraine James recorded the album in lockdown-littered 2020, and across the course of its vibrantly alive 11 tracks, her soul soars across space and time, sifting through memories and yearning for a better world. The album shifts its compositional tone and emotional axis with the skill of a master craftswoman, moving between melancholic longing, seductive romanticism, and hopeful optimism with deft, controlled ease. 

The tracks that are most IDM-ish, such as the angular “Let’s Go” and the lengthy head-scrambler “Change”, show that James can produce works of cerebral, mechanical genius. Yet what’s so brilliant about Reflection is that James chooses to forge her own identity, embracing drill, R&B, and numerous other sounds to create a work that’s as rife with emotion and observations as it is technical virtuosity. It’s a complete package – a work of seductive, heartfelt brilliance by an artist at the absolute peak of her powers. — Tom Morgan

Listen: Bandcamp


ROCHELLE JORDAN – PLAY WITH THE CHANGES [Young Art Records]

ROCHELLE JORDAN - PLAY WITH THE CHANGES

There’s something exhilarating about listening to an album like Rochelle Jordan’s latest project, Play with Changes. It’s hearing a bright and brilliant talent at her creative best. Play with the Changes works simultaneously as a playlist and homage to dance music and electronic R&B. UK Garage, dance-pop, house, and soul are laced throughout the great ear candy – all crafted with consummate skill by Jordan’s partners-in-crime, KLSH, Machinedrum, and Jimmy Edgar. The best dance-soul records combine innovative production, smashing beats, and a charismatic lead: on Play with the Changes is a masterpiece of club beats, deep hooks, and sweet vocals. Like a post-millennial Donna Summer, Jordan brings warmth and passion to the icy synths and the tailor-made beats.

Jordan’s voice is a smooth, creamy instrument – soulful and spirited. It’s lithe and agile, able to thread its way through the tight, sharp arrangements of these tracks. When skating over the skittering, stuttering shuffle of the album’s opener “Love U Good”. Her angelic, hypnotic croon nestles comfortably amongst the scurrying rhythms. The UK garage of “Love U Good” leads to Jordan’s homage to house, “Got Em”, a particularly hypnotic earworm. European house is also represented by the throwback nostalgia of “Already” which has a stylish swagger that recalls early 1990s club culture. And “Dancing Elephants” – the album’s best song – is a fabulous retro club-pop record destined for voguing in queer clubs. — Peter Piatkowski

Listen: Bandcamp


JUPITER AND OKWESS – NA KOZONGA [Everloving]

JUPITER AND OKWESS - NA KOZONGA

Jupiter and Okwess’ new album Na Kozonga sees the band travel the world. with sounds from Kinshasa in tow. With their signature style of bofenia rock still at the center of each track, the group comes into contact with a wide range of artists: Chilean rapper Ana Tijoux, horn players from the famed Preservation Hall Jazz Band, Brazilian artists Marcelo D2 and Rogê, and California-based soul singer Maiya Sykes all collaborate with the high-energy group, all joining together in exciting musical encounters.

As always, Jupiter Bokondji serves as the group’s charismatic frontman, a vital force with a nimble tongue. On the opening track, “Telejayi”, he alternates verses with rapper Marcelo D2, making for a formidable vocal duo in terms of both speed and power. Band Okwess, meanwhile, is in fine form throughout the album, with guitars wailing and percussion constantly on the move. “Mieux que ça” sees the ensemble making rapidly interlocking riffs and rhythms. Although they slow to a cool, rolling pace for the multilingual title track, a catchy tribute to the places Bokondji calls home even amid so much travel. — Adriane Pontecorvo

Listen: Bandcamp


LAKE STREET DIVE – OBVIOUSLY [Nonesuch]

LAKE STREET DIVE - OBVIOUSLY

Don’t let the “Dive” fool you. This is no bleary-eyed bar band that’s rousing the regulars, banging out roughshod rock ‘n’ roll. On their latest album, ObviouslyLake Street Dive once again make a smart, soulful pop that hums along with the integrated precision of an Indy race car.

The initial attraction here is the silk-and-smoke voice of Rachael Price, but as winning as her vocals are, she is whisked along by a great band that falls in place around her like a Secret Service detail cutting through a crowd. As a frontwoman, Price is like a classic rom-com sidekick: clever, funny, cool, and unflappable. She just happens to have a voice to die for. If the “Dive” in the band’s name signals anything, it is that their warm affability can sidle up to you like an old friend during a night out drinking. — Marty Lipp

Listen: Bandcamp


MARINA – ANCIENT DREAMS IN A MODERN LAND [Atlantic/Neon Gold]

MARINA - ANCIENT DREAMS IN A MODERN LAND

Before she returned with her last record Love + Fear in 2019, pop enigma Marina Diamandis—formerly Marina and the Diamonds, now simply Marina—had spent a few years soul searching. Love + Fear is likely her most commercial attempt to date. While the result was nothing short of the campy and thoughtful pop that only Marina can make, it ultimately didn’t resonate as strongly or in the same ways as its predecessors. But with her fifth studio album Ancient Dreams in a Modern Land, yet another return to solely her own words, the singer re-embraces her inner strength and has quite possibly created her magnum opus. (Diamandis even characterizes it as her best album.)

“You don’t have to be like everybody else / You don’t have to fit into the norm / You are not here to conform,” she boldly asserts on the opening title track, as a reminder to both listeners and herself. “I am here to take a look inside myself / Recognize that I could be the eye, the eye of the storm.” The central theme of the record finds itself here, one that champions (without being preachy) the old souls and underdogs who have never been able to conform, the same ones who have always found themselves seen and reflected in Marina’s lyrics and stage presence. In addition to creating a safe space for those soldiers, Ancient Dreams in a Modern Land also promotes the singer’s signature brand of confidence: the one we sometimes have to fake when forced to fold into inauthentic versions of ourselves. — Jeffrey Davies


MARIZA – SINGS AMÁLIA [Nonesuch]

Many platinum records later, the platinum-blonde Mariza has released a tribute to the “Queen of Fado”, Amália Rodrigues. While Mariza has a similarly powerful voice like Rodrigues, her album is not a copycat version of songs made famous by the late star. Mariza typically performs with a small group of longtime bandmates. Here she has teamed up with Brazilian cellist and arranger Jaques Morelembaum, who has worked with Brazilian stars such as Antonio Carlos Jobim and Caetano Veloso, as well as with notable international musicians such as Sting, Ryuichi Sakamoto, and Omar Sosa. For the tribute album, Mariza and Morelenbaum open up the arrangements for a string orchestra and other instruments. The lush sound lovingly wraps around Mariza’s intense, passionate voice.

While so many contemporary singers and audiences have been drawn to the hyperbolic style of singing of TV competitions, emphasizing volume and raw power, Mariza breathes new life into a traditional genre, rattling the rafters, but also showing how technique, control, and artistry can demonstrate another kind of power and ability to enrapture a listener. — Marty Lipp


BRAD MEHLDAU – VARIATIONS ON A MELANCHOLY THEME [Nonesuch]

BRAD MEHLDAU - VARIATIONS ON A MELANCHOLY THEME

For Variations on a Melancholy Theme, Brad Mehldau teamed up with the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra, an ensemble known for the way it democratically functions without a conductor. Aside from the piano, there are 38 members in all; 11 violins, four violas, four cellos, two double basses, two flutes, two clarinets, two bassoons, three horns, two trumpets, one trombone, one timpani, and two percussionists. As one may have guessed from the title, the theme is stated in the first track and is then followed by 11 numerically titled variations. A short cadenza then precedes a lengthier postlude. It isn’t until after the encore track, “Variations X & Y,” that we hear any applause. The main theme is barely two minutes in length, and a majority of the variations are even shorter than that. But Variations on a Melancholy Theme, despite the shifts in style and meter, has a flow that can only be described as natural.

The truly great thing about Variations on a Melancholy Theme is that it rewards casual as well as careful listening. If you can pinpoint the theme emerging from each variation, great. If not, it hardly matters. No matter your level of education or musicianship, Variations on a Melancholy Theme is still a treat to hear, from top to bottom. To have Mehldau release such top-tier material after 27 years of recording, the deal is only sweetened. — John Garratt

Listen: Bandcamp

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