The Best Albums of 2021 So Far

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·39 min read
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albums-of-the-year-so-far - Credit: Cover composite by Rolling Stone
albums-of-the-year-so-far - Credit: Cover composite by Rolling Stone

This year has already given us a slew of excellent releases, including breakthrough debuts from Olivia Rodrigo, Arlo Parks and Girl In Red, revelatory R&B from Jazmine Sullivan and Dawn Richard, thrilling indie-rock from Julien Baker and Dry Cleaning, and excellent new work from reliable stars like Eric Church, the Foo Fighters, and Lana Del Rey.

Olivia Rodrigo, Sour

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Whereas most artists build to their breakup album, carefully laying down the foundations of their future devastation, Rodrigo has already skipped ahead to her Tunnel of Love (ahem, there’s even a song titled “1 Step Forward, 3 Steps Back”). In the same vein as “Drivers License,” the ballads here tackle heartbreak with grace — even when she’s parting ways with an ex, she resists the urge to tear their new partner down. “But she’s beautiful/she’s kind,” she admits on “Happier,” one of the record’s sparkly highlights. “She probably gives you butterflies.” Just as “Deja Vu” and “Good 4 U” proved Rodrigo was going to be much more than a one-and-done phenom with a viral hit about careening through heartbreak, Sour confirms this is just the start of her story, where she expertly rides the wave of teenage turbulence and emotional chaos down any road she chooses. God, it’s brutal out here. A.M.

Girl In Red, If I Could Make It Go Quiet

Norwegian bedroom-pop star Marie Ulven goes deep on loneliness, anxiety, lust, rage, jealousy, and all the other agonies of that crazy little thing called love. As Girl on Red, she’s built a loyal following since her 2018 “I Wanna Be Your Girlfriend,” building up to her long-awaited debut If I Could Make It Go Quiet. Ulven summed up these songs in Rolling Stone as “a lot of mental noise,” from “Serotonin” (produced by Finneas) to the booty-call malaise of “Midnight Love.” But she’s got a great way of getting right to the point: “You stupid bitch, can’t you see / The perfect one for you is me.” R.S.

Lana Del Rey, Chemtrails Over the Country Club

Though Del Rey’s overall project has remained remarkably consistent throughout her career, her growing disillusionment with fame, and with this country’s prevailing iconography of wealth and success, has loomed large as the national mood has grown more dire. Her observations are somber now, her melancholy placed against a more substantial backdrop. Kids dance the Louisiana two-step in a forgotten bar; a prolonged breakup meets its bitter end; people get high and make out in a parking lot while “the whole world is crazy.” It’s an incredibly bleak yet weirdly comforting sentiment all at once – the notion that one’s personal dramas, the ups and downs of “normal” life, will continue to go on even as the rest of the world goes to shit. C.S.

Dawn Richard, Second Line

R&B artist Dawn Richard has taken a winding path through her nearly 20-year career. Now, she finds herself on the North Carolina indie-rock label Merge with her sixth LP, Second Line. It may be an unexpected place for her, but the record feels like a culmination of all her experience, suffused into an album that threads decades of music and heritage into a thrilling, organic whole. the decision by Richard to anchor much of Second Line in house and other forms of electronic club music has a poignant energy all its own. Just as the early pioneers of Chicago house created a futurist sense of musical and sexual identity, there’s a feeling here of following any impulse you want, no matter where it takes you. J.D.

Serpentwithfeet, Deacon

Josiah Wise trades in passion for commitment on Deacon, his latest full-length album as Serpentwithfeet. Since his debut Blisters EP, the choir-trained experimental artist from Baltimore has woven an extensive catalogue depicting the tenderness and lushness of queer romance, with a baroque sonic palette that would be as fitting for a bedroom as a tabernacle. Deacon works in a lighter register, with four-on-the-floor beats and pop hooks, although it’d be disingenuous to call this a party record — Deacon is less “clubby,” and more like dancing in your living room with a glass of wine after dinner. C.S.

Julien Baker, Little Oblivions

On two standout solo albums, and as a member of the indie supergroup Boygenius, with Phoebe Bridgers and Lucy Dacus, she’s established herself as one of the leading female singer-songwriters of her generation, both for her music’s muted grandeur and lyrics that seem to dive headlong into emotional chaos.In 2019, Baker took a break from music to finish her undergraduate degree. But she’s emerged a much more proficient artist. After making her previous LPs mostly on guitar and piano, Baker recorded her latest, which she also produced, with a full band, creating a big, steely, momentous-feeling sound that’s much more pop-aware than anything else she’s done. The expansive music does nothing to dilute her lyrical directness. A.M

Taylor Swift, Fearless: Taylor’s Version

Swift begins the massive undertaking of remaking her back catalog with Fearless, the album that established her as a crossover star. Unlike most rerecordings, this time the new versions somehow sound less slick than the original. Her voice feels lower in the mix this time around, but for the most part she’s gone to extreme lengths to mimic the polished Nashville textures and soundscapes of the first Fearless; she brought back several of the album’s session musicians and even recruited Colbie Caillat (a primary influence on the 2008 version of Fearless) to redo her backing vocals on “Breathe.” Swift has clearly studied her vocal intonations on Fearless, down to the awkwardly recreated laughs and hiccups sprinkled throughout “Hey Stephen.” But her thirtysomething voice is richer, deeper, and more sure of itself. She embodies her earlier country affectations but only to a point: No longer does she try to make “back” rhyme with “laugh” on the deep cut “Come in With the Rain.” J.B.

The Weather Station, Ignorance

Canadian singer-songwriter Tamara Lindeman treats Ignorance as a breakup-record with her own dying planet, grappling with what she describes, at one point, as the “fragile idea that anything matters.” Sometimes that means reveling in natural beauty in the face of destruction (“Atlantic”), sometimes it means greed and the loss of innocence (“Robber”), and sometimes it just means grief. Halfway through “Loss,” a song about what happens when using optimism as a survival tactic no longer suffices, Lindeman stakes out the album’s emotional territory in a moment that recalls Van Morrison’s “the love that loves to love” epiphany from “Madame George”: “Loss is loss is loss is loss is loss,” she sings, each word its own funeral, ”is loss is loss is loss is loss is loss is loss is loss is loss.” —J.B.

Jazmine Sullivan, Heaux Tales

Sullivan’s stunning vocal range is well-documented. She was a contestant on Showtime at the Apollo at the age of 11, singing better than most adults. And she’s particularly gifted at modulating her voice. As a songwriter, Sullivan is known to confront thorny emotions with open-faced compassion. Heaux Tales finds the singer at her most dexterous. That it took five years for Heaux Tales to come into fruition feels right. Though brief, with a runtime of just over 30-minutes, the EP shows Sullivan crafting a complete constellation of love and loss. J.I.

Foo Fighters, Medicine at Midnight

The Foos’ 10th album is upbeat even by their uniquely well-adjusted standards, returning to their core Nineties alt-rock sound minus any gimmicks, detours, or shenanigans. Although Grohl has spent much of his post-Nirvana career emulating his Seventies FM-radio rock idols, Medicine at Midnight evidences a pop streak that he’s only hinted at before. As with their last album, 2017’s Concrete and Gold, Foo Fighters teamed up with Adele and Kelly Clarkson producer Greg Kurstin, who has helped them hone their tuneful sensibilities. On the title track, they mix funky disco loops and acoustic guitar without losing their edge, and the serene ballad “Chasing Birds” has a melody that lingers well after its final chord. K.G.

Dry Cleaning, New Long Leg

The first full-length album by the bracingly original London band Dry Cleaning is already a strong contender for one of the year’s coolest debuts. Dry Cleaning are a great guitar band with a lead vocalist who carefully speaks her acerbically droll, often very funny lyrics, creating a sound that feels at once intimate and ominous, like a mumbled autopsy of our shared desires, terrors, and daily malaise. Shaw’s lyrics are oblique yet conversational; “Scratchcard Lanyard” feels like a seething critique from the inside of middle-class social and gender expectations, rolling past evocative lines like, “I’ve come here to make ceramic shoe and I’ve come to smash what you’ve made,” before landing on the killer aphorism, “Do everything/Feel nothing,” J.D.

St. Vincent, Daddy’s Home

Annie Clark has framed her frenetic and unabashedly retro new album Daddy’s Home as a kind of reckoning. Her father has returned home from prison, where he served 12 years for his involvement in a multi-million-dollar stock manipulation scheme; in the meantime, Clark radically transformed her St. Vincent music persona, evolving from a small-time indie artist with a cult following to a self-proclaimed “near-future cult leader” within pop music. While her last album Masseduction peered at her newfound fame through an electro-pop funhouse mirror, Daddy’s Home looks backward, examining Clark’s relationship with her father — and her own self-discovery with “becoming Daddy,” as she’s put it — through the funky stylings of Sly Stone, Pink Floyd, and other artists of the mid-Seventies. C.S.

Maluma, #7 DJ: 7 Dias En Jamaica

The Colombian star worked with Jamaican artists to create an organic LP that never feels like musical tourism. Though the island’s legendary dancehall producer Bobby Digital is responsible for the dembow riddim that came to define reggaetón, Maluma’s latest represents less a homecoming than a pilgrimage. What keeps #7DJ from backsliding into gimmicky ephemera is just how well he maintains his signature Pretty Boy/Dirty Boy identity throughout. By never losing himself in the moment to serve some irie trope, he preserves what endears him to his fans. G.S.

Madlib, Sound Ancestors

The wildly inventive rapper-producer’s proper debut after 30 years of making records under various aliases and guises, came into fruition thanks to the electronic musician Four Tet, whose long standing friendship with Madlib stems from a shared reverence for sonic exploration. The product of several years and hundreds of recordings and fragments provided by Madlib, Sound Ancestors is dense but never overwhelming. The connections blend seamlessly thanks both to Four Tet’s steady hand and Madlib’s uncanny ability to deftly juggle ideas. Madlib deploys samples to the point of near sublimation, leaving you with the ecstasy of discovery. J.I.

Sleater-Kinney, Path of Wellness

Sleater-Kinney are back to their old tricks, which means trying out some new tricks. The Pacific Northwest punks grabbed the world’s imagination with the 1996 riot-grrrl bombshell Call the Doctor, but ever since, they’ve refused to repeat themselves. Everything about their new album is outside their zone, starting with the title: Path of Wellness. It’s the first album they’ve made as a duo—the band is down to Carrie Brownstein and Corin Tucker, after a painful and public split with longtime drummer Janet Weiss. On Path of Wellness, Sleater-Kinney sound as though Tucker and Brownstein figured there was no way to get back to normal, so they might as well get as weird as possible. R.S.

Arlo Parks, Collapsed Into Sunbeams

This 20 year-old singer-songwriter from London is getting “voice of a generation” hype in the U.K., and there’s no doubting the power of her music, which is equally influenced by Elliott Smith and Frank Ocean. Arlo Parks sings subtly and feels deeply on her debut, Collapsed Into Sunbeams, which takes its title from a line in a Zadie Smith novel, spinning tales of Gen Z emotional malaise over tracks that land between R&B, indie pop, and folk. The highlight is “Caroline,” a delicate evocation of watching a couple fight on the street that gets inside other people’s pain with the empathetic literary beauty of classic Ray Davies. J.D.

Selena Gomez, Revelación

Revelación is not the Mexican-American singer’s first stab at recording music in Spanish. A decade ago, she released Spanish versions of her hits a “A Year Without Rain” and “Who Says.” She also recorded a posthumous duet with her namesake, Tejana legend Selena Quintanilla. Gomez became a force in Latin music in 2018 from her feature on DJ Snake’s global smash “Taki Taki” with Cardi B and Ozuna.While there isn’t anything as explosive as “Taki Taki” on Revelación, Gomez finds her groove among the reggaetón beats thanks to one of the genre’s innovators, Puerto Rican producer Marco “Tainy” Masís. On the Latin side, he’s worked with heavy-hitters like Daddy Yankee, Bad Bunny, and J Balvin, and on the pop side with Dua Lipa and Justin Bieber. Gomez is at the perfect intersection of both lanes and Tainy masterfully merges the two together. L.V.

Adult Mom, Driver

Singer-songwriter Stevie Knipe has been making music for close to a decade, since they were a college student in upstate New York recording in a dorm room. But Knipe (who uses they/their pronouns) has really taken a leap forward in terms of both sonics and songcraft with the excellent Driver. While previous Adult Mom albums had a spare, bedroom-recording feel, Driver is more of a band album, with bright production and songs that carefully and vividly map out an early-twenties travelogue full of crisis, memory, hope, and the kind of intense moments that feel almost debilitatingly hard-hitting at that age — even if you’re just starting to become wise enough to know they’re ephemeral. J.D.

Eric Church, Heart & Soul

Church’s latest project is his most ambitious: a 24-song triple album released over the course of a week in three segments. Heart, &, and Soul further refine the melodic, mid-tempo storytelling Church excels at, offering a moving summation of what he has done well throughout his 15-year career. You get brash statements that recall his irreverent early days (“Stick That in Your Country Song”), as well as maximalist rock-and-soul like the Elton John-meets-Meat Loaf “Heart of the Night,” and the roots rock of “Hell of a View.”Each of these albums has a loose premise (plenty of “heart” tunes on Heart, lots of R&B-leaning funk rock on Soul); taken together, Heart & Soul is a concept record of sorts, about the everlasting power of music — the music he makes and the music he loves, which spans the gamut from the Doors and Bobbie Gentry (“Rock and Roll Found Me”) to Elvis and Guns N’ Roses (“Heart on Fire”). J.B.

Brockhampton, Roadrunner: New Light, New Machine

The mutable 13-member rap group’s sixth album Roadrunner: New Light, New Machine manages to be the easy listen that Ginger was not, which is surprising since it was created amidst tragedy. Roadrunner is influenced by the suicide of groupmember Joba’s father. For years, the specter of suicide has lingered over Brockhampton’s music. Now, they’ve been forced to process it in reality. Joba’s loss has pushed him to meditate on passion and purpose, and while there are no holds barred when Joba confronts his pain, the album as a whole feels inspired, and even hopeful. Brockhampton has experimented with what it means to be an “American Boyband,” acknowledging that rap is pop’s present and future, while subverting the aesthetic expectations that comes with the “boyband” moniker with their candid confessions. M.C.

Celeste, Not Your Muse

Rising Star Celeste’s debut album, Not Your Muse, has been a long time coming. Since releasing her first single, “Daydreaming,” in 2016, she’s been winning praise from the likes of Elton John and Billie Eilish and getting compared to Adele. Not Your Muse delivers on the promise, veering between hazy disco tunes and syrupy ballads with ease, thanks to her dreamy, smoky voice. Upbeat songs like “Tonight Tonight” and “Love Is Back” are sweet retro steppers full of attitude and funk. The best moments show off her powerful range, like the twinkling, wintry “A Little Love” and the sublime highlight “A Kiss.” B.S.

J. Cole, The Off-Season

Unlike his last two albums, J Cole’s The Off-Season has no overarching message, but instead, flat out bars. ’The Off-Season’ is reminiscent of his 2010 mixtape Friday Night Lights, which established his core fan base and used basketball as a metaphor for rap. With guest appearances from Atlanta’s Lil Baby on “Pride is the Devil” and 21 Savage on “My Life,” we get to hear Cole rap alongside some of today’s biggest superstars in rap. The Off-Season represents in essence what Cole built his foundation on, a mix of conscious storytelling and punchlines that you might not catch until your second or third listen. D.G.

Japanese Breakfast, Jubilee

Michelle Zauner is no stranger to facing grief head-on with elation.As if the title weren’t obvious enough, Japanese Breakfast’s latest LP Jubilee is the project’s most ecstatic-sounding album to date, although one glance at the lyrics will tell you that Zauner isn’t done excavating the thornier aspects of dependency, devotion, and longing. Lead single “Be Sweet,” written with Jack Tatum of indie-pop group Wild Nothing, evolves the Studio 54 influence of “Machinist” into Eighties synth bliss, turning Zauner’s pleading hook into a rallying cry: “Be sweet to me, baby/I wanna believe in you/I wanna beliiieeeeeve!” C.S.

Joy Oladokun, In Defense of My Own Happiness

Joy Oladokun’s major label debut In Defense of My Own Happiness showcases a serious talent with a kind of low-key, casual ease. Oladokun, the child of Nigerian immigrants, writes about her experiences as a queer woman of color in a generous way, threading together moving statements on love, spirituality, and race with a sound that nimbly skips between pop, folk, R&B, and indie rock. Oladokun never hides her past struggles or pain in her lyrics, but as with songs like “If You Got a Problem” and “Look Up,” she’s always seeking out the light to point the way, making for one of the year’s most uplifting listens. J.F.

Mustafa, When Smoke Rises

The more you listen to Mustafa, you begin to realize that the juxtaposition of the gritty street life he depicts and the gentle music he makes shouldn’t be much of a juxtaposition at all. Half of the singer-songwriter’s debut project, When Smoke Rises, has been released as singles, with music videos capturing the brick and concrete exteriors of Toronto’s Regent Park housing project, where he was born and raised. His folk-inflected music, tender and calm, and these videos, serene and defiant, honor his neighborhood with the softness so often absent in attitudes and policy towards poor people. Mustafa’s choice to sing of hood tragedy in folk music is effective, not only because it is beautiful and stirring, but because it feels unexpected. M.C.

Slowthai, Tyron

Throughout Tyron, Slowthai appears to be reckoning a punk-inspired brashness with a broader culture of accountability. The result is both illuminating and one-dimensional in equal measure. Despite a handful of missed landings, Tyron still admirably inspires the kind of mosh-pit energy that feels nearly romantic in an era of closed venues and social distancing. The front end, with song titles in all-caps, is full of the high-octane style most fans are familiar with. The latter half, with titles in lowercase, finds Slowthai in relatively new territory. The bpms are lower, and he’s is in a place of genuine introspection. It’s this honesty that makes the second half of Tyron stand out as the record’s greatest strength. —J.I.

Benny the Butcher, The Plugs I Met 2

Though the title of the Buffalo rapper’s latest release, The Plugs I Met 2, takes up after his 2019 album The Plugs I Met, it’s easy to think about the album as the close of a trilogy of solo work. The first Plugs, from 2019, served as a gritty entry into a world of organized drug crime, shadowy and overcast. Last year’s Burden of Proof was mostly a flashy and triumphant recollection of the spoils of pushing drugs and getting out, with occasional hints at street life’s frustration and loss. On The Plugs I Met 2, Benny explores this sadness and danger more fully over a selection of Harry Fraud beats that meld the grit of the first Plugs with the sheen of Proof. He’s a convincing rap sage; a captivating spitter offering his nefarious experiences with an abundance of awareness of their nuances and influence. M.C.

Valerie June, The Moon and the Stars: Prescription for Dreamers

June has never sounded more fully and thrillingly herself than she does on her latest album, The Moon and Stars: Prescriptions for Dreamers, which merges pop ambition, folksy open-heartedness and blues wisdom. On this 14 track song-cycle, June steps into her own as co-producer (alongside Jack Splash), adding modern drum programming, classic orchestration, and Afrobeat flourishes to her foundation of country-folk, R&B, and roots-rock. Her voice has never sounded more nimble than it does here: fragile one moment (“Fallin),” athletic the next (“Stay”). The songs are meditative and impressionistic, sometimes outright non-narrative. “Within You” and “Stardust Scattering” evoke both the expanded mind of Revolver-era Beatles. J.B.

Nick Cave and Warren Ellis, Carnage

Carnage, a collaboration between Cave and Bad Seeds multi-instrumentalist Warren Ellis, is a relatively quiet meditation on spiritual salvation in the era of loneliness. On each of the record’s eight tracks, Cave attempts to make sense of his place in the world, as he sees it crumbling around him. When he thinks of love on the title track, it’s “with a little bit of rain, and I hope to see you again.” Deeper into the album, on “Shattered Ground,” his love is diffuse, “Everywhere you are, I am,” he sings into an ether of synthesized strings, “and everywhere you are, I will hold your hand again.” —K.G.

Topaz Jones, Don’t Go Tellin’ Your Momma

Topaz Jones’s Don’t Go Tellin’ Your Momma inspired him to create a short film of the same name, a visual album very different from Beyonce’s self-titled or Lemonade work, but just as enjoyable, emotive, and thought-provoking. The album-album is just as good. Its breezy backdrop of funk and hip-hop elevates Jones’ sharp raps that connect the common threads of his Black adolescence (candy, cookouts, family dysfunction) to the joys and perils of Black adulthood (drugs, mass incarceration, complicated relationships). Jones is a masterful storyteller across mediums. M.C.

Joeboy, Somewhere Between Beauty & Magic

“I’m always making really happy music,” rising Nigerian artist Joeboy told Rolling Stone. Indeed, his first album to be released in the United States teams with bright melodies, gorgeous rhythms, and an optimistic vision. On “Number One” his voice skates into a supple high register over a skittering beat, and “Better Things” creates something glistening and majestic from a simple guitar loop and his warm harmonies. Whether he’s singing about love and marriage or more ephemeral romance, everything on this uniquely pretty records flows with the warmth, generosity, and beauty of an Al Green valentine. —J.D.

Hayley Williams, Flowers for Vases/Descansos

Hayley Williams has codified what a top-to-bottom quarantine album can sound like with her latest LP, Flowers for Vases/Descansos. It’s her second solo album outside of her long career as the lead singer for Paramore, and her second one in less than a year: She put out her debut, the eclectic and Björk-inspired Petals for Armor, in three parts last spring. Unlike Petals, or any other album she’s been a part of, Williams recorded Flowers entirely on her own — singing all the harmonies, playing all the instruments — at her home in Nashville. Flowers places the listener into the heart of Williams’ past grief as she experienced it in her most vulnerable state. C.S.

Weezer, OK Human

what would happen if Cuomo poured his heart out unfiltered for once? Since there’s no true antonym for irony (and Cuomo would never allow himself to drop the seventh veil), Weezer’s 14th LP, OK Human, is likely as close as he’ll get. For the album, the title of which conspicuously winks at Radiohead’s OK Computer, Cuomo & Co. traded loud guitars for flowery string arrangements. The approach is a not-so-subtle nod at chamber-pop benchmarks like Pet Sounds and Let It Be but without the confessional diary entries of the former or the sentimentality of the latter. Instead, Cuomo tempers his natural sense of humor to the mood of the music and the world in front of him. K.G.

Liz Phair, Soberish

The timing has never been better for a good Liz Phair record. The full-disclosure lyrics and painterly songcraft she perfected on her classic 1993 debut, Exile In Guyville, can be heard these days in any number of excellent young artists across the indie-pop map — Soccer Mommy, Snail Mail, Jay Som, Adult Mom, Lucy Dacus, Stella Donnelly, just to name a few — making Phair easily one of the most resonant songwriters of the last 30 years. Soberish, her first album in 11 years, brings to mind the glory of Guyville and its 1994 follow-up, Whip-Smart, without feeling at all like self-conscious recapitulation. J.D.

Zayn, Nobody is Listening

It’s been more than two years since his last album, Icarus Falls, an aptly titled 27-track follow-up to his much sleeker 2016 debut, Mind of Mine. Both LPs left listeners with more questions than answers about what Malik wanted out of his post-1D career. Despite its brooding introduction, Nobody Is Listening shows both restraint and growth from a new dad who just turned 28, even if the songs seem more reflective of his relationship with longtime partner Gigi Hadid than of his journey into fatherhood. Given Malik’s R&B-crooner ambitions, it’s a good thing he can sing the hell out of a love song. B.S.

Kenny Mason, Angelic Hoodrat: Supercut

On Angelic Hoodrat: Supercut, 26 year-old Kenny Mason floats between acrobatic rap and alternative rock. Whereas such concoctions can feel corny and forced, Supercut eases you into a moody world where skillful guitars live in harmony with dusty hip-hop drums. “Me and my patnas that grew up in the same neighborhood were listening to Coldplay the same way we were listening to Future,” the Atlanta native told Rolling Stone in April. “We listen to [rock] right after Peewee Longway and Bankroll Fresh.” Under his range of influences, Mason tells stories of neighborhood struggles with sensitivity. “I’m in the A thinking of ways to be remembered when I’m erased,” he raps. M.C.

Juliana Hatfield, Blood

Boston boho Juliana Hatfield has been one of indie rock’s champion songwriters since her early days with the Blake Babies, yet she’s definitely not going soft. Blood is one of her toughest ever, full of politically charged fury. Hatfield has her own style of wispy melody, as befits a rocker who’s dropped tribute albums to her idols like Olivia Newton-John. But on Blood, she speaks for us all in one-liners like “I had to punch myself in the face to get myself out of bed.” R.S.

Sleaford Mods, Spare Ribs

When the only music you can stand is the drumbeat of rage coursing through your aching head, the Sleaford Mods are always good for a spin. They’re Nottingham, England’s answer to the Fall, with singer Jason Williamson rant-rapping about everything from austerity-era Britain to consumerism to the foibles of the music business over Andrew Fearn’s spare-yet-sharp beats. Spare Ribs, the Mods’ 11th LP since they formed in 2007, is a veritable a la carte menu of outrages. Written partly during lockdown, the record features some of the least-annoying songs about the pandemic recorded since the initial outbreak in 2019. B.E.

VanJess, Homegrown

VanJess — the duo of singing Nigerian American sisters Ivana and Jessica Nwokike — sit softly in their carnal desires and emotional needs on Homegrown. The pair may be best known for their collaborations with producer Kaytranada, both on his projects and their stellar 2018 album Silk Canvas. The pair slips “Dysfunctional,” their 2019 dance track with Kaytra, onto Homegrown, but smartly bury it between sexy new songs. Here, VanJess also enlists the sophisticated production of Snakehips and Monte Booker, double date with guest vocalists Garren and Jimi Tents, and link with Phony Ppl. Across nine tracks, Ivana and Jessica are in sync with each other through delicate harmonies and in sync with their soundscape of slinky, uptempo R&B, soul, funk, and hip-hop. —M.C.

Bachelor, Doomin’ Sun

The indie rock superhero duo of the year, starring two of the sharpest songwriters in the game, Jay Som’s Melina Duterte and Palehound’s Ellen Kempner. The guitars slither in Elliott Smith/Mary Timony mode, while both women whisper and growl about twisted love in “Back of My Hand” and “Stay in the Car.” Best of all: “Sand Angel,” about dreaming about somebody you miss, then grinding your teeth all night, knowing you won’t fall back to sleep. Both songwriters know this emotional turf inside out, as in Palehound’s Black Friday or Jay Som’s Everybody Works. But together, they reach somewhere new. R.S.

Aaron Lee Tasjan, Tasjan, Tasjan, Tasjan

The singer-songwriter’s latest album is his most compelling to date. His sonic reinvention here — marked by stammering synths and swirling glam rock — feels both effortless and inevitable. Tasjan delivers songs — like “Sunday Women,” with its chorus storming the song in its opening seconds, and “Don’t Overthink It,” with its psych-rock outro — with a thrilling, fresh urgency that makes it feel like he’s the first singer-songwriter to discover (or, in his case, rediscover) synths and pop choruses. —J.B.

Alice Cooper, Detroit Stories

That spirit of rock & roll abandon still exists in Cooper’s music half a century after he got his start. It’s no surprise that the best songs on Cooper’s 21st solo album, Detroit Stories, are the funniest. “Our Love Will Change the World” is a jaunty cover of an ironic ditty by the Michigan power-pop group Outrageous Cherry, and in Cooper’s hands, it sounds like The Partridge Family on angel dust, complete with finger snaps, as the ever-sarcastic singer describes his dream utopia as a dystopia. —K.G.

Sarah Mary Chadwick, Me and Ennui Are Friends, Baby

Chadwick props herself on her piano and divines the right chords to treat each of her wounded words like a salve as she makes sense of her middle-age wreckage. It’s not so much the heartbreaking language of Me and Ennui that makes the record captivating as it is the way she sings it. Yes, there’s plenty of ennui — that difficult-to-describe dissatisfied feeling that Sylvia Plath and Charles Lloyd paid homage to in poetry (perhaps summed up best in Peggy Lee’s “Is That All There Is?”) — but Chadwick is too self-aware for that feeling to take center stage. In some ways, this album has been a long time coming. —K.G.

Lake Street Dive, Obviously

For 15 years, they’ve been pop’s outliers: A band fronted by a lead singer with roots in jazz and cabaret, playing music that nods to Americana, R&B, pop and everything else but never fails squarely into any of those categories. Hell, Bridget Kearney even plays an upright bass. On Obviously, they’re still oddballs, but in the best way. At a moment when pop strives for lo-fi, solitary-world intimacy, the jazz-pop-whatever band refuse to think small. Fully living up to the water imagery in their name, they’ve made their first truly abashed yacht rock record — with all the hooks, musical interplay, sophistication and sometimes dodgy lyrics of that genre. D.B.

Blaqbonez, Sex Over Love

Who hurt Blaqbonez? We owe them a thank you. The self-proclaimed “Best Rapper in Africa” channeled his romantic rage into his triumph of a debut album, Sex Over Love. The 25 year-old MC began battle rapping in his native Nigeria at 16 before releasing a string of EPs and singles that flaunt his lyrical prowess and his undeniable ability to curate a vibe. From the strip-club ready “Heartbreaker” with South African rapper Nasty C, to the cheeky “BBC” remix with afrobeats darling Tiwa Savage, to the Drake-influenced “TGF Pussy” with Blaq solo, Sex Over Love offers a cohesive collection of hip-hop and Afropop that may make you look at your partner sideways. M.C.

Dinosaur Jr, Sweep It Into Space

“I ain’t good alone,” J. Mascis notes on Dinosaur’s latest, a sentiment we can all get with these days. Sweep It Into Space is the most amiable record of the band’s entire career, without losing any of their amp-torturing thunder. Songs like “I Met the Stones” and “I Ran Away,” on which co-producer Kurt Vile plays 12-string guitar, are at once heavy and cheery, while Lou Barlow’s whimsical folk-rock pastorale “Garden” is a tender detour, and even when the guitars scream and wail like caged yetis, the mood is always generous and upbeat, the sound of people happy to take their noise into the world once again. J.D.

Remember Sports, Like a Stone

On their fourth album, the Philly indie pop-punk outfit doesn’t break new ground so much as dig deep into what they do best on this superb collection of sharply-crafted late twenty something anthems (“Like a Stone”) and gorgeous slacker ballads (“Out Loud). Lead singer-songwriter Carmen Perry delivers bruised-heart meditations on early-onset nostalgia, aging and the aftermath of heartbreak, topics she’s been chronicling with her band’s power-pop pathos since their 2014 college-band debut Sunchokes. As she sings on the thrasher-punk declaration “Falling Awake”: “All it ever does it never go away.” J.B

Matt Sweeney and Bonnie “Prince” Billy, Superwolves

Will Oldham, who performs as Bonnie “Prince” Billy, and Matt Sweeney are perfectly matched collaborators, which helps to explain why their joint 2005 album Superwolf has become a cult classic. Their new sequel features a larger cast than its predecessor, with Tuareg guitar marvel Mdou Moctar and his bandmates appearing on a few tracks, but as with its predecessor, the record’s strongest moments are the ones that show off Oldham and Sweeney’s sturdy rapport in the sparest way. “Good to My Girls” is a classic Oldham character study that depicts a brothel madam with a clear-eyed view of her role, and on “My Popsicle,” Sweeney’s eerie, descending melody line and spectral backing vocals heighten the intrigue of Oldham’s elliptical lyrics. H.S.

Mdou Moctar, Afrique Victime

Mdou Moctar has previously claimed, “I don’t know what rock is exactly,” and that’s a good thing listening to the Niger-based Tuareg singer-songwriter’s latest album, Afrique Victime. There’s a unique sense of freedom in the record’s eight songs that most household-name rockers will never understand. He and his bandmates focus on ostinato, repeating cycles of riffs and chords over and over again in transcendent cycles; “Ya Habibti,” a love song, and the sweet, lullaby-like “Tala Tannam” add handclaps, and Moctar occasionally swaps his Strat for an acoustic guitar but mostly they keep their structures simple and hypnotic. K.G.

Evanescence, The Bitter Truth

Arkansas hard-rock yowler Amy Lee of Evanescence cut quite a unique figure when she first showed up in the mid-’00s. The nu-metal scene that the singer asserted herself into wasn’t just male-dominated, it was asshole-dominated. But Lee rose above that wan world of bellyaching and bad facial hair like a mythic beast, thanks to her enormous vocal power and messy, fresh-faced emo-goth charisma. Evanescence got kind of arty on their last album, 2017’s classically-tinged Synthesis. But they’re back to the sturm und drang basics on The Bitter Truth, slugging away, baring life’s battle scars and reaching for their own personal slice of Valhalla. J.D.

Marianne Faithful and Warren Ellis, She Walks in Beauty

Marianne Faithfull has loved as deeply and lived as tragically as any of England’s celebrated romantic poets of yore, but unlike most of them, she has lived to tell her tales. So on She Walks in Beauty, a spoken-word collaboration with violinist/songwriter Warren Ellis on which she recites some of her favorite entries from Palgrave’s Golden Treasury, her warm, lived-in voice finds new depths in verses by Lord Byron, John Keats, Percy Shelley, William Wordsworth, and others. When she reads a line like “My heart aches, and a drowsy numbness pains my sense” in Keats’ “Ode to a Nightingale,” she does so with a sense of knowledge from hard-worn years of crushing life experience that the poet, who died at age 25 of tuberculosis, would never know. K.G.

Guided by Voices, Earth Man Blues

Earth Man Blues could be the GBV’s best album since 1995’s Alien Lanes. While that might seem like a lofty claim — especially with a discography as expansive as GBV’s — Earth Man Blue squarely hits all the marks that make Guided By Voices great — again and again and again. A collage of previously unfinished or rejected songs resurrected and forged into a rock opera about Pollard’s childhood, this is GBV as pure id: bonkers lyrics, aural experimentation, and hooks for days. Just try to get “Sunshine Girl” — a sweet little rocker that sounds like the Monkees on downers — out of your head. Pollard and his “race car mind” are now a permanent part of your hippocampus. B.E.

Floating Points, Pharoah Sanders, and the London Symphony Orchestra, Promises

Over the years, legendary saxist Pharoah Sanders has never lost the gorgeously grainy roar that made him such a potent asset in John Coltrane’s late-era bands. Sanders’ latest — a team-up with Sam Shepherd, the thirtysomething electronic composer-producer known as Floating Points — drives home what a master collaborator he’s always been. The album places the 80-year-old musician at the center of an electro-acoustic ambient-classical concerto, composed and arranged by Shepherd. Consisting of a single, 46-minute work, Promises is both startlingly minimal and arrestingly gorgeous. H.S.

Goat Girl, On All Fours

The members of this UK band have excellent punk names like Clottie Cream and Rosy Bones and they sing about modern rubbish like climate change and anxiety meds, channeling their angst into songs that call recall the dreamier side of post-punk (bands like the Raincoats and Oh-Ok), mixing slanted dissonance and offhanded beauty, often (as on the house music–flavored standout ‘Sad Cowboy”) working their way into artfully shambling dance grooves. Listening to their excellent second record feels like happily sleep walking through the early days of the apocalypse. J.D.

Pom Poko, Cheater

Can’t decide between listening to Talking Heads, Gang of Four or Nirvana? Don’t worry, Pom Poko’s got you covered. The Norwegian art-punk quartet seamlessly blend together the sounds of post-punk, grunge, and bratty pop together on their second album Cheater, pairing head-banging power chords with changing time signatures and unexpected cowbell. If Speedy Ortiz or Woods-era Sleater-Kinney is more your style, standout track “Like a Lady” will provide all your guitar-fuzz needs. C.S.

Gojira, Fortitude

On their seventh studio full-length, Gojira mix heavy music with heavy concepts, and never once do they sound like a drag. On various tracks, the long-running French metal crew encourage peaceful protests (“Into the Storm”), decry deforestation (“Amazonia”), and advocate living a minimalist lifestyle (“Born for One Thing”). But they never come off as preachy, partially because they have a knack for inventive music. On “Sphinx” and “Born for One Thing,” singer-guitarist Joe Duplantier and lead guitarist Christian Andreu summon squelching, screaming, memorable sounds from their instruments between mosh-worthy riffs. It’s all the rage of death metal mixed with the conscience of punk rock and the musicality of progressive rock, and it’s never boring. K.G.

The Hold Steady, Open Door Policy

A triumphant peak for everybody’s favorite Brooklyn bar band: Open Door Policy is not only the Hold Steady’s first album to debut in the Top Ten (watch out, BTS!) but it’s also their best in 15 years, full of hard-boiled rock & roll noirs. Craig Finn sings about loners, losers, Kiss fans turned crust punks, the nurse in rehab who has “Eruption” as her ring tone. But there’s wild humor in tales like “Heavy Covenant,” “Lanyards,” and “Unpleasant Breakfast,” confessing, “I no longer see romance in these ghosts / This coffee’s cold, this toast is gross.” Pick hit: “Hanover Camera,” with its swampy electric-piano groove and horns, has to be the year’s coolest Steely Dan song. R.S.

Assertion, Intermission

If you know William Goldsmith’s name, it’s likely linked to one of the bands he played with in the Nineties — Seattle emo luminaries Sunny Day Real Estate, and a little group called the Foo Fighters. But Intermission, the debut by the drummer’s new Tacoma, Washington, power trio Assertion, and Goldsmith’s first release following a lengthy hiatus from music, shows that he’s still a vital creative force. The band’s approach is familiar: passionate, post-hardcore–leaning indie rock that makes liberal use of quiet/loud dynamic shifts. When the trio kicks into an anthemic gut-punch chorus like the one on “Defeated,” you’ll wish with every fiber of your being that you were howling along at a sweaty club gig. H.S.

Joyce Wrice, Overgrown

With the help of A&R, Eddie Fourcell, and executive producer D’Mile, Joyce Wrice’s debut album take’s late-Nineties R&B and makes it her own through stories of inspiration, heartbreak and joy. The Southern California singer uses her hefty yet soothing voice to add depth and power to each track. Just put Overgrown in rotation this summer at the barbecues and day parties and watch songs like “On One” provide the vibe you need. D.G.

Black Midi, Cavalcade

London’s Black Midi satiated critics’ chaos cravings on their out-of-nowhere 2019 debut, Schagenheim. But the avant-rockers’ follow-up is even more unnerving and gloriously surreal — like gazing into hell through a kaleidoscope. For fans who prefer their noise-rock outbursts without the screeching violins and prog technicality, Cavalcade probably won’t rise above “infernal din” territory. But even the haters should buy a ticket to Black Midi’s dark carnival, if only for educational purposes. Few bands take such perverse glee in eroding genre lines and fucking with your head. R.R.

Cloud Nothings, The Shadow I Remember

Dylan Baldi of Cloud Nothings remains exceedingly adept at mixing pop and punishment, landing somewhere between the bouncing charge of Superchunk, the lofi tunefulness of his fellow Ohioans Guided By Voices, and the crushing onslaught of the Jesus Lizard. The latest Cloud Nothings release is one of the sharpest of their decade-long run, particularly on standouts like “Nara,” “Sound of Alarm,” and “Nothing Without You,” where he cranks up the tattered, heartfelt melodies and the surging guitar noise in equal measure. J.D.

Chrissie Hynde, Standing in the Doorway: Chrissie Hynde Sings Bob Dylan

Hynde’s Dylan covers project came together last year after Dylan surprise-released a couple of songs, “Murder Most Foul” and “I Contain Multitudes,” in the early months of lockdown. These songs reminded Hynde of the impact his music has had on her formative years, and they moved her to select some of her favorite Dylan songs and record them with the Pretenders’ lead guitarist James Walbourne as a “lockdown series” of YouTube videos. But rather than reinterpret “Like a Rolling Stone” and “Mr. Tambourine Man” like masters of warhorses, the pair opted for less obvious fare, including many recordings Dylan made in the early Eighties, allowing Hynde a wider berth to fit them to her voice and character. K.G.

Palberta, Palberta5000

This NYC trio has been floating around the city’s experimental/noise scene for a while now, putting out awesomely weird records and even stranger side projects for close to a decade. (Back in 2017, we named them an Artist You Need to Know for an album that featured a freaky-Friday Bee Gees cover.) But they’ve really leveled up with their fifth LP, which is full of impossibly catchy almost-pop songs like “No Way,” “Big Bad Want,” and “Hey!” These songs are bright, concentrated bursts of art-punk genius, with riffs for days and upside-down melodies you can’t forget. You might catch a hint of Sleater-Kinney, the Minutemen, or whichever band is your yardstick for this sort of thing, but mostly you’ll just want to hit play again. S.V.L.

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