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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.

MODEST MOUSE – THE GOLDEN CASKET [Epic]

MODEST MOUSE - THE GOLDEN CASKET

The Golden Casket finds Modest Mouse‘s Isaac Brock in a clearer and more optimistic headspace than ever before. It’s a buoyant, lively album, one crafted by a musician evidently content with life and his place in the world. Titles like “We’re Lucky” and “The Sun Hasn’t Left” epitomize this gracious and calm perspective, as well as Brock’s tranquil, almost meditative demeanor. He’s not strictly an optimist, but he’s aware of life’s complexities (see the “making plans in the sand as the tides roll in” line from “Wooden Soldiers”). He is at peace within a turbulent universe (check out “We Are Between’s” “somewhere between dust and the stars” mantra).

Brock has always loved making these sorts of grand statements. From “3rd Planet” to “People As Places As People”, they can be found littered across the highlights of Modest Mouse’s career. His witty existentialist poetry has mostly focused on the cosmos, the natural world, and oddball characters, all still present on The Golden Casket. However, certain tracks also see him taking a close look at his own life – specifically the achingly sweet “Lace Your Shoes”. — Tom Morgan


GEORGIA ANNE MULDROW – VWETO III [FORESEEN Entertainment / Epistrophik Peach Sound]

GEORGIA ANNE MULDROW - VWETO III

The latest iteration of Georgia Anne Muldrow’s VWETO series (meaning “gravity” in Kikongo) builds on the success of the previous two with a 17-track clinic on creating rhythmic frameworks that wow you with their complexity and propel you into movement.

Discussing the conception and evolution of VWETO III, Muldrow expresses a desire to build music that creates its own environment: one of her influences was “an Isaac Hayes LP where even the reverb had grain and texture”. These tracks are “intended for movement” and should “be played when you birth yourself back outside after a long introspective period to get the things you need.” The long introspective period of the past year is proof that Muldrow didn’t start baking bread in her downtime off tour, but rather an intricately varied beat tape that elevates itself into the status of a proper album by creating its own atmosphere. — Richard Moriarty

Listen: Bandcamp


LIZ PHAIR – SOBERISH [Chrysalis Records]

LIZ PHAIR - SOBERISH

It’s been a decade since Liz Phair’s last LP, Funstyle, an album that seemed to embrace ironic, outsider art with its flirting with electropop, bhangra, and novelty-pop. Soberish doesn’t feel like an indulgence but a progression for a brilliant and singular talent who has settled into a comfortable niche. One thing listeners will notice is that Soberish shares the clean sheen of Liz Phair. For many purists, Phair’s embrace of pop was a sign of selling out. That’s a silly accusation to level, as high-quality pop can be just as smart as lo-fi indie rock. And most importantly, Phair has the chops to craft some catchy tunes – and her engaging voice is a welcome listen.

The best songs have Phair employ her idiosyncratic knack for writing emotionally honest lyrics that eschew pop cliches. The record opens with the strong “Spanish Doors”, which engages with Phair’s history with music – there are elements of ’90s alt-rock and grunge, but the chorus sways with a radio-friendly melody. “Soberish” is a similarly affectionate look at the sounds of Phair’s early music before she courted superstardom – it has a lean production, unfussy, and is a solid impression of Guyville-era Liz Phair. — Peter Piatkowski


POM POKO – CHEATER [Bella Union]

POM POKO - CHEATER

Pom Poko have established a reputation as an explosive live act, and hearing any of the ten songs on Cheater – not a dud among them – it’s easy to see why. Led by Martin Miguel Tonne’s knotty, distorted guitar work and Ragnhild Fangel’s angelic, playful vocals, the quartet lock into frenetic grooves, often stopping on a dime to indulge in odd time signatures and idiosyncratic diversions. Beginning the album with a bang, the title track blows the doors down with a melodic pop-punk vibe as Tonne’s distorted harmonics lay out the song’s spine, and the rhythm section chugs away. The song slows down long enough to slam down some deliberate power chords over Fangel’s sweet, soaring voice.

Finishing off an album of maniacal, sugarcoated spikes with such a warm blanket of pop heaven is exactly the kind of thing Pom Poko would do. Just when you think you’re in for another delightful head-scratcher of a song, the group tuck you in and kisses you on the forehead. Here’s hoping this amazing band continue to be weird and fun. Predictability would never suit them. — Chris Ingalls

Listen: Bandcamp


JOE PUG – THE DIVING SUN [Independent]

JOE PUG - THE DIVING SUN

In the middle of Joe Pug‘s rich new album, The Diving Sun, I found myself completely lost in the rapturous anthem “Deep End”. The song, a desperate, romantic call to commitment, is a microcosm of everything special about Joe Pug’s music, which champions the art of emergence. If there is a central theme in Pug’s body of work, it is never too late to re-invent oneself if one is willing to commit nose to the grindstone. Against whatever odds, a new life is possible. Pug’s biography exemplifies this ethos, with the singer famously leaving college just before graduation and inventing his musical life as he went. It is the stuff of troubadour legend, and his metamorphosis continues with The Diving Sun.

From the beginning of his career, the best of Pug’s music beckons listeners to seek better versions of themselves against all odds. Yes, his characters carry world-weary wisdom, but Pug never lets them bunker down in simple cynicism. What makes Pug unique among singer-songwriters in the Americana tradition is his willingness to embrace the naïveté of inspiration; his songs are brave enough to uplift their audience, urging them to keep stumbling forward in the quest for authenticity. — Danny Anderson

Listen: Bandcamp


GRUFF RHYS – SEEKING NEW GODS [Rough Trade]

GRUFF RHYS - SEEKING NEW GODS

Welsh musician Gruff Rhys has made a career out of crafting lovably quirky yet poignant tunes. Whether as the mastermind behind Super Furry Animals, the co-leader of Neon Neon, or as the creative guide behind multiple other projects, Rhys’ idiosyncratic vibrancy, eccentricity, and warmth ensures that whatever he touches turns to musical gold. Unsurprisingly, that holds true for Seeking New Gods, his seventh solo LP. Feeling more like a follow-up to 2018’s Babelsberg than to 2019’s more esoteric Pang! the record consistently satisfies due to its blend of synthy orchestral majesty and instantly charming songwriting. It’s as delightful and robust as anything else he’s done.

Whereas past albums revolved around people, this one began as a biography of Mount Paektu (an active volcano situated between North Korea and China). Before long, Rhys expanded the concept to allow the LP to act as an allegory for how entire cultures appear and disappear around geography that remains unchanged. Helping him realize his vision are the same musicians that brought Babelsberg to life: pianist Osian Gwynedd, drummer Kliph Scurlock, bassist Stephen Black, and singers Lisa Jên and Mirain Haf Roberts. (Gavin Fitzjohn offers some brass accentuations, too.) Together, they make Seeking New Gods gorgeously retro, modern, and timeless all at once. — Jordan Blum

Listen: Bandcamp


DAWN RICHARD – SECOND LINE [Merge]

DAWN RICHARD - SECOND LINE

Since 2011, Dawn Richard has followed her own idiosyncratic music, putting out a series of brilliant albums, mixtapes, and EPs that sought to explore and expand on the boundaries of pop, soul, and dance music. With her latest, Second Line, Richard continues to thrill listeners with some beautiful, fascinating music. Working with various producers, including Joe Beats, Kaveh Rastegar, J-Rick, Sam O.B., and Ila Orbis, Second Line is a gorgeous record that has some fantastic, strange, esoteric sounds that play with house and club conventions. It’s a pioneering record and easily one of the best of the year.

There’s a concept or theme laced throughout the record; Richard pays tribute to New Orleans, her birthplace. The title refers to the traditional parades of New Orleans, hosted by the Social Aid and Pleasure Clubs. “Second Line” refers specifically to the group of people who follow the first line, reveling in the music and fellowship. For much of New Orleans culture and lore, music is an integral part of the narrative, and so it makes sense that in her homage to such a rich tradition, Richard creates a whirl of an album with a dizzying array of sounds. — Peter Piatkowski

Listen: Bandcamp


PHAROAH SANDERS, FLOATING POINTS, AND THE LONDON SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA – PROMISES [Luaka Bop]

FLOATING POINTS Promises

For producer Sam Shepherd, better known as Floating Points, three-dimensional space is a medium that is central to the message of his compositions, always prominent, always pivotal. For legendary tenor saxophonist and John Coltrane disciple Pharoah Sanders, outer space is the place. His is an undeniably celestial body of work, linking the personal and spiritual to the cosmic through his avant-garde style of jazz.

Perhaps it’s this reverence for the power of the expansive that makes Shepherd and Sanders such a dynamic combination on Promises, their breathtaking collaboration with each other and the strings of the London Symphony Orchestra. Recorded in 2020, space was critically important to the making of the 46-minute-long continuous piece. Following social distancing protocols, orchestra members were seated far apart from one another, their collective performance caught by over one hundred microphones. — Adriane Pontecorvo

Listen: Bandcamp


SERPENTWITHFEET – DEACON [Secretly Canadian]

SERPENTWITHFEET - DEACON

Josiah Wise’s new album DEACON is an exhilarating listen. The artist – known as serpentwithfeet – has created a soulful, beautiful record that gives listeners an intimate glimpse into his romantic, sentimental heart. Deacon is a gentle and swirling melding of atmospheric and moody sounds: cloudy, ethereal synths waft, subtle beats skip, a guitar strum, and angelic voices float effortlessly. He looks to the 1980s and the 1990s when crafting the record; there are some nods to New Romantic sounds as well as Boyz II Men-esque harmonies throughout. Yet, Deacon sounds contemporary and modern, and the past echoes don’t date the record.

Part of why DEACON is so remarkable – aside from its obvious musical merits – is that it’s a rare record that highlights Black queer love. Although pop culture and pop music have become more inclusive in the last few years, it’s still subversive and powerful to hear such an honest, bracing tribute to same-sex love. Wise’s lyrics though poetic and allegorical, are also explicit in their telling of Wise’s queer identity. DEACON delivers on the fantastic promise that Wise’s earlier work – most notably his debut LP soil – has shown. He brings a creative, eccentric, and intelligent sound to alternative soul. — Peter Piatkowski

Listen: Bandcamp


SHAME – DRUNK TANK PINK [Dead Oceans]

SHAME - DRUNK TANK PINK

Drunk Tank Pink isn’t an obvious record. For starters, Shame have mostly abandoned the reverb-drenched post-punk anthems of their debut and instead gone digging into a grab bag of unexpected influences. There’s highlife, krautrock, 1970s funk, and cheeky 1990s alternative. “A good writer writes, a great writer steals,” Steen sings on “Great Dog”. Throughout the album, it becomes clearer that Shame are the latter.

More surprising, though, is that Steen sounds less like a frontman and more like a band member, with producer James Ford pushing his vocals down in the mix. Steen’s performances are just as great as they were on Songs of Praise, with his delivery striking a menacing balance between anger and absurdity. But Ford’s mix effectively renders his voice as another instrument. That leveling-off allows for the band to come into their own. Eddie Green and Sean Coyle-Smith’s guitars shriek and shimmer over walls of percussion and jittery synths on “Born in Luton” and “March Day”.Kevin Kearney

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