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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.

SLAYYYTER – TROUBLED PARADISE [FADER Label]

SLAYYYTER - TROUBLED PARADISE

Slayyyter expands her scope beyond Blackout-era Britney Spears in a dazzling artistic leap on her debut album for FADER Label, Troubled Paradise. It’s a staggering achievement for an artist whose early career was a sort of voluntary pigeonholing — if Slayyter once succeeded by sounding a little like everyone else, Troubled Paradise ascends by leaving that crutch behind, filling a void in pop music left vacant for nearly a decade by simply having the gall to go for pure pop — no matter how embarrassing it may be.

The threat of embarrassment is what makes pop music such a fine art, what makes the prospect so scary. (Billie Eilish’s R&B take on pop, for example, rarely rises above a certain energy level lest the impenetrable “coolness” crumble.) Though Slayyyter is clearly aware of the challenge, she doesn’t seem to care. That is what creates the album’s most memorable moments.

Slayyyter strips the cynicism from hyperpop, invokes the best parts of the last generation of pop powerhouses, and fills the void in culture left by the last time Katy Perry went #1. Each song on Troubled Paradise is a reminder of how good we had it, but more importantly that we still can have it back. It’s a funny, catchy, boundary-pushing collection of songs that bring a desperately needed light to a genre whose prospects seemed extremely dark. — Nick Malone


SLEAFORD MODS – SPARE RIBS [Rough Trade]

SLEAFORD MODS - SPARE RIBS

Spare Ribs is perhaps Sleaford Mods‘ high watermark, a searing masterpiece of social commentary, childhood memories and recovered trauma, scathing wit, punk energy, funk, and hip-hop influences, and much more. This is a record with no fat and no filler. Andrew Fearn and Jason Williamson are absolutely at the top of their respective games here, and in uncanny lockstep between Fearn’s woozy and unsettling soundscapes and the high-wire act of Williamson’s breathtaking and excoriating lyricism. The whole thing is a relentless and immaculate dissection of contemporary British life that never lets the listener up for air or off the hook. In short, this should be a required text for our times, and there is so much happening at once that it’s as hard to imagine how they keep all of these balls in the air as it is for the listener to assimilate all of the codes, signals, and references that Fearn and Williamson unload on us here. — Rod Waterman

Listen: Bandcamp


SLOWTHAI – TYRON [Method]

SLOWTHAI - TYRON

Like a lot of artists, Slowthai had a long time to himself to think about things. Lockdown has been the source of inspiration for many performers, and the Northampton rapper is no exception. The time between his new album, TYRON, and his last, Nothing Great About Britain (2019), has made him introspective and highly critical, and self-aware of his behavior, particularly his destructive tendencies. Cleaved neatly in two, the first half of the record is blustery flossing, with sneering defiance; meanwhile, the second half of TYRON is emotional and sensitive, showcasing Slowthai’s vulnerability. The first half of the album is solid with virtuoso spitting, witty and imaginative wordplay, and engaging production. But the second half is brilliant, with Slowthai showing a sensitive and profoundly feeling side to himself.

With a public persona that mines punk attitude and rebelliousness, it’s no surprise that the first clutch of tracks on TYRON work as lyrical FU’s to standards of good taste and morality in society. The rage and contempt that he expresses for mores are evident in the lyrics, which can be obnoxious, boasting, and violent. But it’s undeniable that he also has a deep intelligence and a sharp wit. — Peter Piatkowski

Listen: Bandcamp


ANDY STOTT – NEVER THE RIGHT TIME [Modern Love]

ANDY STOTT - NEVER THE RIGHT TIME

On Manchester-based producer, Andy Stot’s latest LP, Never the Right Time, vocalist Alison Skidmore’s presence is more felt than on any of his previous records. Throughout the album, her cooing soprano offsets crackling dub, liminal bass, and slivers of interference. Her voice gives warmth and depth to songs like “Don’t Know How”, with its clicks, cuts, and glitches, or the title track, where the kick drums sound like they’re on the verge of explosion. Frequently, her vocals are so remote they sound suspended in space and time — almost disembodied or happening somewhere above and beyond the music itself.

Like the best Stott albums, such as Luxury Problems and Too Many Voices, even the glitchiest and most disorienting moments here are tinged with a somber, romantic hue. Just like the greyscale album art, with its shadowy contours and gulls borne aloft, Never the Right Time is bleak, but not unforgivingly so. Stott’s latest may be the most inviting record in his catalogue, perhaps even an entry point into his funereal sound-world. It’s also one of his best. — Parker Desautell


ST. VINCENT – DADDY’S HOME [Loma Vista Recordings]

ST. VINCENT - DADDY'S HOME

There’s no debate that St. Vincent (or Annie Clark) is a phenomenally talented songwriter and musician. Her vocals are always clean (even when her lyrics imply BDSM), and even if she’s not the literal best of vocalists, she is very, very good and can more than do the job. The guitar work, which she is probably best known for, is always sublime, without ever venturing into boring, navel-gazing virtuosic solos. That is because she is first and foremost a songwriter, one who understands what constitutes a good song, and her new album, Daddy’s Home, is endlessly listenable without being easy listening, unique but never esoteric.

Her music has been described as “all head and no heart”, but the fact of the matter is that she just writes about emotion differently than many other musicians. Even her especially left-brained albums like St. Vincent and Masseduction not only have their sentimental moments but are often soaked in a universal fear and distress. This album is emotional in a more recognizable way, but still in her unique St Vincent manner, marketed as her way of dealing with her father’s release from prison and all the strange emotions that provokes. — Annie Jo Baker

Listen: Bandcamp


TUNE-YARDS – SKETCHY [4AD]

TUNE-YARDS - SKETCHY

The new Tune-Yards record conceptually asks a lot of its listeners and does it right up front: should the purpose of music be to entertain or to instruct? Of course, many albums try to do both, but few so transparently as sketchyIt begins with a cacophony of noise meant to scare the audience and lines about screaming babies and the nasty rip of human flesh while a female voice proclaims, “people want to hear you sing”. The song itself, “Nowhere, Man” obliquely addresses the fact that men control the conversation and have the power when it comes to abortion rights. Using baby boomer rock references (The Beatles, “Nowhere Man”, Bob Dylan’s “Just Like a Woman”, Martha and the Vandellas’ “Nowhere to Run”), Tune-Yards suggest the limits of liberal best intentions. More importantly, the duo capture the anger at being forced to shut up (and sing) and not have agency over one’s life. — Steve Horowitz

Listen: Bandcamp


JANE WEAVER – FLOCK [Fire Records]

JANE WEAVER - FLOCK

The press materials that accompany Jane Weaver’s new album say the following: “Flock is a natural rebellion to the recent releases which sees her decidedly move away from conceptual roots in favor of writing pop music.” With all due respect to our Fire Records colleagues, there’s a good deal to take issue in that statement. Because Weaver’s latest album is precisely a continuation of her pre-existing refusal to plow a straight furrow, albeit that much of the material here might seem (and “seem” is, ahem, decidedly the operative word here) to be branching out, or rather in, to the mainstream, and all of that works within Weaver’s pre-existing conceptual framework. But it’s a brilliant sleight of hand with which to begin our consideration of the album.

Flock is, to be clear, a brilliant album, and in that Weaver is also consistent. But if this is a rebellion toward the mainstream (an act that itself appears at least a little bit perverse), it is nonetheless still a rebellion. In that, it’s an act of subversion, of musical entryism, deploying pop tropes and styles in the service of Weaver’s continuing restless mission to explore and re-invent both herself and the world around her. And let’s make another clarifying point before we embark on the odyssey of exploring these fantastic songs: if this music were actually to enter the mainstream and become massively popular, heard on radios all around the world, civilization and the Zeitgeist would be significantly improved. This is the very kind of music that should be hugely successful, in a just and peaceable world. — Rod Waterman

Listen: Bandcamp


WEINRICH AND PARRENIN – JOURS DE GRAVE [Versatile Records]

WEINRICH AND PARRENIN - JOURS DE GRAVE

You’d be forgiven if you never foresaw Detlef Weinrich and Emmanuelle Parrenin teaming up. The former is a Dusseldorf DJ known for his machine-like krautrock grooves; the latter is a French harpist and hurdy-gurdyist who made a name among cratediggers with her 1977 folk album, Maison Rose. You’d also be forgiven if you thought the two artists wouldn’t gel together, but you’d be wrong. More than 40 years since the daydreamy, electroacoustic beauty of Maison Rose, the legendary Emmanuelle Parrenin—now in her seventh decade—has joined forces with a modern krautrock guru to create the most deliciously weird, hypnotically groovy album of the new year.

But the miracle of Jours de Grave is that it not only works but works wonders. It’s damn near perfect. It feels too organic and alive to be called “avant-garde”, even though it is. Like its label’s namesake, Versatile RecordsJours de Grave is a baggy, versatile melting pot of downtempo, krautrock, and psychedelic folk. The nine tracks here are not really tracks—they are freak-jams, full of wordless howls, dubbed-out bass, and stomping, motorik grooves. There are several guests, each of whose presence makes about as little sense as the LP itself, but each shines in their own way. — Parker Desautell

Listen: Bandcamp


PAUL WELLER – FAT POP [Polydor]

PAUL WELLER - FAT POP

Now, less than 12 months after On Sunset, Paul Weller cracks open Fat Pop (Volume 1) for us all to hear and it’s no less vibrant than any music being made by anyone half his age. Fat Pop is full of highlights. If you crave Weller’s soulful side, “Glad Times”, “That Pleasure”, and the title track practically ooze that urban, nocturnal feeling that has helped him make his name since the Style Council. For those seeking out Weller, the singer-songwriter of pop music, you can get that via “Cobweb/Connections” and “Failed”, the latter of which could easily be covered by Noel Gallagher someday should he ever run out of his own material. He even dishes out a little Rolling Stones dirt with “Moving Canvas”, complete with sax, trumpet, and Hammond organ.

The writing, the collaborating, the execution, the minute recording choices, they all pop up out of the ground, again and again, every few years in the form of a lovely little album from Weller. Fat Pop (Volume 1) is certainly no exception. Even if it doesn’t wind up being one’s favorite Weller album, there’s no way these songs will be leaving your head without a fight. — John Garratt


YNDI – NOIR BRÉSIL [Nascimento/Grand Musique]

A melancholic air of fantasy swirls around the crisp pop beats that form the backbone of Noir Brésil, electropop artist Yndi Ferreira’s first album under her own mononym. Formerly Dream Koala, Yndi – based in Berlin, raised in Paris, with roots in Brazil – draws on her past, present, and future in creating the album’s luscious soundscape. It’s a mix of Afro-Brazilian-influenced percussion, mellow guitar, dramatic piano, streamlined electronics, and her winsome voice. This vulnerable instrument serves as the album’s incredibly poignant emotional core from start to finish. Noir Brésil may be moody, self-produced pop, but it still feels expensive, extravagant, huge; it has an atmosphere on a planetary scale and inescapable thematic and sonic gravity.

Poetic, sometimes primordial, and always passionate, Noir Brésil stands out as a dynamic and borderline spiritual work of pop music and signals great things ahead for Yndi as she continues down this promising and complex new leg of her journey. — Adriane Pontecorvo

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