We have reached the halfway point of 2021. The masks are coming off. People are out and enjoying life, drinking at bars, eating ice cream, getting ready for concerts to begin again. The unvaccinated can thank the vaccinated for all of this fun. We can also enjoy the glorious new music that this year has yielded. Please allow us to present a list of albums that we feel have bubbled to the top of the heap. And while there are some significant absences, we hope this feature will inspire you to seek out some of the smaller names here.

Amythyst Kiah – Wary + Strange [Rounder]

She’s not a household name, but she should be. Amythyst Kiah’s Wary + Strange is a major part of the sound of America emerging from the pandemic; things are no longer the same, a point that Kiah makes abundantly clear. An “out” black woman in Chattanooga, Tennessee, Kiah crawled back into a hole while attending college in provincial Johnson City. But now, she’s no longer afraid, and her latest album reflects on who she was and who she is now.

Even though it was nominated for a Grammy, when Our Native Daughters (Rhiannon Giddens, Leyla McCalla, Allison Russell and Kiah) recorded “Black Myself,” it was a little too polite. Rerecorded here, the song doesn’t just spark fire, it’s ready to burn down the house. It’s electric and electrifying, rocking out a definition of who Kiah is. For every emotional explosion on the record, there is a moment of subtle beauty, like “Firewater.“ No opportunities are squandered. Throughout the album Kiah threads the needle between rock, folk and blues effortlessly. Amythyst Kiah has found a way to live in the world without restrictions. She goes her own way. Wary + Strange is the sound of an artist who refuses to live in a world of limitations. – Bob Fish

Anne Guthrie – Gyropedie [Students of Decay]

2021 is shaping up to be the Year of Field Recordings. The pandemic has split so many lives into “before” and “after” that it’s a natural impulse for any artist to document the change in real time with Tascams and voice memos. L’Rain’s Fatigue, Lucy Liyou’s Practice, Claire Rousay’s A Softer Focus and Flora Yin-Wong’s Holy Palm are just a few albums released this year that bottle the transient moments in their creators’ lives and carry them into the future. And Anne Guthrie’s Gyropedie might be the best of the bunch, the third full-length from an artist whose works somehow teem with vitality at the same time as they feel cold and desolate.

Gyropedie is based on field recordings of the artist’s cross-country car journey while moving from New York to California. But Guthrie tactfully avoids the sounds of wheels or idling engine noises. Instead, we hear lapping water, crunching snow and—poignant when you consider the nature of field recordings as a document of the transitory—the instruments the artist had to sell in order to afford this journey. Its four tracks clock in at roughly equal length, totaling half an hour, and this episodic structure gives the album a sense of momentum even as it dwells on stillness. If you’ve ever gone on a solo trip, stepped out of the hotel in the early morning with frost on your breath, and anticipated a long day alone with your thoughts, this music is for you. – Daniel Bromfield

Arab Strap — As Days Get Dark [Rock Action]

Despite the dramatic, adult angst-riddled music and lyrics of Arab Strap, their breakup was as amiable as they come. “There’s no animosity, no drama. We simply feel we’ve run our course… Everybody likes a happy ending.” No matter the breakup, though, it’s difficult to not spend time thinking about what could have been if you’d taken things a little further. With As Days Get Dark, the first Arab Strap album in 15 years, we get to see that fantasy played out — and what’s more, we get to see a remarkable best-case scenario of it happening.

The years between The Last Romance and As Days Get Dark weren’t exactly kind to anyone, but for a band that once used a live album to declare themselves as “mad for sadness,” that setback proved to be a beautiful setup for an outstanding comeback. Lead singles “The Turning of Our Bones” and “Compersion Pt. 1” tell us everything we need to know about the world of the album: rather than focusing solely on the romantic follies of youth, Moffat hones in on the ravages of aging. “Another Clockwork Day” looks inward at the sexual disconnect of an older couple, while “Tears on Tour” tackles an inability to cry quite as easily as one used to. And, of course, with songs like “Kebabylon” and the aforementioned “Compersion Pt. 1,” there’s plenty of lascivious sex acts to be had.

Much like the wife of the protagonist in “Another Clockwork Day,” Arab Strap seems to have not aged a day. It doesn’t matter if the last 15 years are showin’ ‘round the eyes, As Days Get Dark gives us the duo at their sharpest, most focused, and — most importantly — their best-sounding. Reunited couples rarely work like they used to, but this one feels like, somehow, it came back better than how they left it. – Holly Hazelwood

Conny Frischauf- Die Drift [Bureau B]

From abstract ambient to avant-garde film soundtracks to catchy synth-pop, Vienna-based artist-musician Conny Frischauf doesn’t much care to stay in her genre lane. In fact, she doesn’t even recognize the lines; back in January she told an Austrian music site, after she was asked about her approach to more commercial work, that “I’m not thinking about what it is.

Pop can be on board too just as the more awkward stuff.“ Frischauf’s debut album Die Drift is inspired by the metaphor of wind meeting water, and in her case, the gently colliding elements are manifest in the genre conventions that she gleefully ignores. As a result of this aesthetic drift, the wind and water of art and commerce play out in an album that’s as toe-tapping as it is experimental.

With kraut-rockish rhythms and swooning vocals, Frischauf crafts an endearing electronic set list, and in another era, she could have scored a hit single with “Fenster zur Straße” (“Window to the Street”), which sounds like people watching as the tone goes from dry to wondrous, with music to match. Yet she closes the album flexing a Tangerine Dreamy shimmer on the 10-minute “Freundschaft” (“Friendship”). Her song titles are telling: as much as her experimental side leans to innovation, she always keeps one eye and ear on the hummability of human contact. — Pat Padua

Floating Points, Pharoah Sanders and the London Symphony Orchestra – Promises [Luaka Bop]

Despite what the naysayers and traditionalists say, jazz never died. But even so, the genre’s revival as a cutting-edge artform over the last decade has been a thrill. This year alone has provided tremendous new work from rising luminaries like Sons of Kemet, but it’s one of the last living legends, Pharoah Sanders, who has turned in the most remarkable album. Made in collaboration with electronic musician Floating Points and the LSO, Promises is less Third Stream than Fourth World, cosmic world music that exists outside of borders or trends. A single composition broken up into movements, the album unfurls slowly, playing on Sanders’s status as the most delicate and precisely phrased of the free jazz titans. Twinkling bell percussion introduces his slow, ringing voice as electronic whirs and strings coalesce around him, and the rest of the record flows from that gentle easing into view. Mixing Sanders’s penchant for side-length journeys and Floating Points’ grasp of ambient sonics, Promises makes a great many collaborators sound minimal and intimate, slowly rising and falling as each element weaves in and out of the others. The final result is a reminder that the form of spiritual jazz that Sanders helped to pioneer with John Coltrane can be as soothing as it is wailing, and that quiet reflection can reveal the soul just as nakedly as the most unrestrained noise. – Jake Cole

Humanity’s Last Breath – Välde [Unique Leader Records]

Humanity’s Last Breath operates in a very interesting cross section of genres, namely technical deathcore, blackened deathcore and doomcore. Välde is truly a combination of the best aspects of these micro-genres, and shows why fans of all three should give these Swedish madmen a listen. Doom’s colossal, glacial weight finds common ground with black metal’s evil atmospheres and melodies, tied together with the lethal execution of tech-metal. These guys sound as natural as they do chaotic, dealing skull-cracking breakdowns as easily as spellbinding crescendos and electrifying riffs. Humanity’s Last Breath haven’t exactly reinvented the wheel, but they’ve certainly set the bar incredibly high for all the deathcore kids who listen to Dimmu Borgir or Disembowelment once and try to out-heavy everyone. – Max Heilman

Japanese Breakfast – Jubilee [Dead Oceans]

Jubilee pulls off a very difficult songwriting trick that has tripped up so many artists that came before Japanese Breakfast. Michelle Zauner writes the sort of tender, personal songs that can create a cult following, but those songwriting skills sometimes fail to translate with an expanded sonic palate and bigger ideas. But her skills translate far beyond the “person with a guitar” format; Jubilee recreates the sort of stylistic free-for-all that typified indie rock of the late ‘00s and early ‘10s. From song to song, Zauner jumps from intimate horn-and-string pieces to bouncy pop to the same kind of atmospheric rock that she began exploring on 2017’s Soft Sounds from Another Planet. What’s more, the emotional thrust behind the songs is more varied this time around; whereas Zauner’s previous efforts focused on traumatic events in her life, Jubilee finds her exploring new lyrical ideas as well as musical ones. These are personal songs, sure, but they’re driven by a plethora of emotions. Some are pure emotional expressions, while others (most notably the biting “Savage Good Boy”) incorporate elements of narrative. The album is as pure of an expression of artistic joy as one will hear this year, and it further asserts just how special a talent Michelle Zauner is. – Kevin Korber

John Hiatt with the Jerry Douglas Band – Leftover Feelings [New West]

Songwriter John Hiatt and resonator/lap steel player Jerry Douglas joined up for Leftover Feelings, and it was a perfect match. The album starts with strong material: Hiatt’s “All the Lilacs in Ohio” sounds better than ever, but he loads the whole album with amazing songs. The singer can be sentimental or humorous, reflective or kinetic all in one flow. Douglas and his band add their own style, but rather than turning Hiatt’s songs into bluegrass, everyone works to create a distinctive Americana sound, touching on a variety of traditions without ever settling anywhere for too long.

With that approach, Hiatt and Douglas move as inspiration takes them without wandering too far. At times they could be recording for Sun Records, as in the playful “Long Black Electric Cadillac“ or “Keen Rambler.” The group recorded in Nashville, but they would have been just as much at home in Memphis or in a folksier setting (“Sweet Dream”). They circle key ideas about memory, loss and roots, fencing in the sound with shuffles and slides, somehow sounding loose and comfortable even with every note in just the right place. The album delivers on both heart and technique, and the resulting warmth shows that Leftover Feelings goes far beyond a simple warm-up. – Justin Cober-Lake

Justin Bieber – Justice [Def Jam/Schoolboy]

I’m on my ten thousandth life,” Justin Bieber sings on his latest studio album Justice, “But this the one I’m not giving up.” In a predictably stagnant year for pop music, reflecting the brunt of the 2020 shutdowns, the Canadian singer returned just a year after his highly anticipated comeback effort, the lackluster Changes, for possibly his best work yet. While he’s spent the last few years of his career forging a path into cringeworthy white-boy R&B, Justice reminds that when he’s in the right headspace, pop is what Bieber does best.

Much of the album’s lyrical content revolves heavily around Bieber’s marriage to Hailey Baldwin, and comes across as an effort to make amends with both the public and himself. On the comfortingly infectious “Hold On” he also seeks to help those that might still be struggling. Considering that much of popular culture over the last decade has been dedicated, for better and for worse, to charting Bieber’s rise and fall from grace, it seems rather hypocritical to not give him a second chance when he seems committed to reconciling. And during a year when we’ve been forced to spend excessive amounts of time with the voices in our own heads, reconciling with our destructive past is a blessing. – Jeffrey Davies

Lana Del Rey – Chemtrails Over the Country Club [Polydor]

Chemtrails Over the Country Club was released just months after Lana Del Rey’s poetry collection Violet Bent Backwards Over the Grass and less than two years after Norman Fucking Rockwell!. With new album Blue Banisters scheduled to drop in July, it could yet come to be regarded as part of her purple patch.

It may lack the epic centerpiece of its predecessor, but its 11 songs are superbly paced and without s misstep. Loosely themed around female unity and Laurel Canyon songwriting, it acknowledges the path fought by Joni Mitchell with a faithful cover of “For Free” and has guest spots from Weyes Blood and country stars Nikki Lane and Zella Day.

More intimate than previous albums, its romantic melodrama is often most affecting at its most basic. “Yosemite,” left over from 2017’s Lust for Life, epitomizes this move towards soft guitars and bongos. Despite that, it still has time to surprise with a burst of jazzy horns on “Dance Till We Die” and vaguely trip-hop beats and auto-tuning on “Tulsa Jesus Freak.”

A step-change rather than a sonic revolution, Del Rey’s seventh album nonetheless has the feel of an artist in control of her place in music history. – Susan Darlington

Nonagon – They Birds [Controlled Burn Records]

One of Chicago’s finest purveyors of post-hardcore, punk and noise-rock took some 20 years from their founding to release a debut full-length LP – and They Birds, for all of the anticipation, is more than worth the goddamned wait.

Unfettered by the restrictions of split-singles and the EP format, Nonagon expand on the sleight-of-hand hooks and, oddly, yes, melody (sample: “Tuck The Long Tail Under”). In doing so, they occasionally hint at a 21st century Naked Raygun or Husker Du, and still don’t lose any of their bile or bark. Standouts “Hack,” “Boxes,” “June of ’14” and others roar like a beast recently uncaged, calling to mind the greatness of Touch and Go Records’ heyday. Nonagon also pays decent homage to those who have come and toiled on this road before, particularly with stop/start fare like “Jeff(s),” which calls to mind the Steve Albini-led Shellac.

A riveting LP from stem to stern, They Birds is also playful and quick to not take itself too seriously – a pitfall of post-hardcore. From the sampled quips to the buoyant tunes, this Chicago trio sounds like it’s having a blast, indeed the time of its life, on its first LP proper. Nonagon hit the nail square on the head with some of the finest material they’ve yet to cook up for listeners. Listen closely and you’ll hear the Hallelujahs! – Justin Vellucci

Panopticon – …and Again into the Light [Binedrune]

Austin Lunn’s tenth album under the Panopticon moniker plays like the culmination of his entire career. His atmospheric black metal and Western music hybrid is lasso-tight, discarding what previously shackled him. Lunn’s maturity is evident in in how he leads by example. After severing the connective bonds between his dingy black metal and Appalachian folk on 2018’s double album The Scars of Man on the Once Nameless Wilderness, he has returned with his most concise vision, drawn from the bog plants sprouting in the Minnesotan murk. With this comes an album of dire struggle, punctuated by coarseness and foliage blocking any incoming sunlight.

It’s the worst place to be in a state of recovery; the very bottom. But Lunn digs his way out. He claws through biting black metal and reflects on his progress in moments of serenity. This wide spectrum uses post-rock and folk as agents of urgency, tightening the black metal’s emotional toll. Panopticon’s appeal is no longer the contrast between his ferocity and his Western music inclinations. It’s Lunn’s depiction of his recovery, where stumbling in the trenches is as vital as appreciating the sun’s radiance. Lunn has become the symbol of growth he once searched for. By lumbering through hell he promises that anyone can do the same. – Colin Dempsey

Porter Robinson – Nurture [Mom + Pop]

Citing writer’s block as a big reason for his disappearance, Porter Robinson returns to form with introspective electronica that’s just as exciting and energetic as it is reflective. Just like Bo Burnham’s latest and greatest work Inside, Robinson builds off his long-term isolation on Nurture to create relevant, tear-jerking narratives about self-acceptance that eventually reach their height in the last few tracks.

Like his previous work on Worlds, Nurture is full of energetic, electronic bangers and glitchy, pitched-up voices, but new human elements grant comfort in his alien environment. Luscious, lifelike moments appear, with samples of sprinklers and nature-rich areas on ambient track “Wind Tempos”—easily one of the most creative pieces of the year so far. And emotional centerpiece, “Bloom,” pairs crisp acoustic guitars with soft, but distorted vocals.

Nurture is at its best when it blends relatable themes of self-judgement and confusion with Robinson’s patented EDM patterns on tracks like “Look at the Sky” and “Something Comforting.” But what makes it a one-of-a-kind project is its ability to empathize with the listener and create an unsettling world full of the familiar and unfamiliar. No matter the future of Porter Robinson’s discography, Nurture is a noteworthy project that proves its own point: if you’re patient with yourself, good things will come. – Hunter Church

Rochelle Jordan – Play With The Changes [Young Art]

Play with the Changes is as much of an order as it is a statement. Rochelle Jordan emerges after a lengthy hiatus and during (what people are hoping is) the tail end of a world-shifting pandemic. Made with longtime collaborator KLSH alongside Jimmy Edgar and Machinedrum, each R&B devotees in their own right, the album kicks up the BPM on Jordan’s edgy, synthy take on the genre, where she’s as much an MC as a singer. Her rhythmic cadence enjoins one to the dance floor yet is just agitated enough to express reservations about returning to dim rooms and beat-fueled tension, much less life itself.

“I’m just trying to get next to you,” admits “Next 2 U,” Jordan’s anxieties echoed by the skittering beat. “All Along,” built upon the carefree groove of New Jack Swing, finds its gait hampered by moody piano. The world, hostile and isolating long before COVID19, remains a disappointing, dangerous place. It demands much of Jordan (“Nothing Left”), especially as a Black woman (“Broken Steel,” “Lay”); and still, Jordan bravely, gingerly returns to it, oscillating between exasperation and guarded hope. In spite of hardship she retains her warmth, empathetic towards the “young Black man doing all he can” and cautiously optimistic of second chances (“Something”). Heady and brimming with anxious energy, Play with the Changes occupies the racing mind with songs that match its pace; even when Jordan’s dancing by herself, her thoughts remain, ensuring she’s never completely alone. – Mick Jacobs

Rostam – Changephobia [Mastor Projects]

On his second studio album after departing Vampire Weekend, Rostam employs synthesizers, saxophones and pianos alongside sparse and pared-back lyrics to make for an outstanding second effort. Changephobia is about exactly that, the unstoppable fear of change. Memories of youth, quiet and unintentionally intimate moments, or the uneasiness of memories that seem fonder than today. Rostam’s quiet singing and sophisticated production give the album a cohesive feel for its short runtime.

Rostam fell in love with classic jazz styles when crafting the album and employs the use of a baritone saxophone in multiple songs. Highlights include the opening track “These Kids We Knew” where he praises younger generations and their ability to see past the influence of emperors or dictators and stay focused on pulling our earth back together. On “4runner” he conjures images of seeing the West Coast and an array of innuendos about fooling around in the back of the midsize car. Other highlights include “Interlude,” where Rostam’s production styles are mixed so eloquently they create a fantastical and levitating feeling for the instrumental piece.

When Changephobia was printed on vinyl, a soft orange, Thai tea-colored edition was produced and if that doesn’t give an inclination to the very modern production, yet traditional instrumentation Rostam conjures throughout, nothing does. Reflective of the springtime and summer months with a new president and mass vaccination efforts underway, the album feels like the awakening from a dark and long winter. – Domenic Strazzabosco

Squid – Bright Green Field [Warp]

Our own Holly Hazelwood, in her review of Bright Green Field, wrote that the only thing more addicting than Squid’s remarkable debut album is trying to describe it to your friends. Indeed, the comments section of the YouTube video for lead single “Narrator” is a party of music fans shouting out the influences they hear: Talking Heads, Sonic Youth, Deftones, Foals, Radiohead, Can, B-52s and Fugazi. And because I can’t help but join in the fun, I’ll add that I hear Arcade Fire in the cathartic release of “Narrator” and Modest Mouse’s Isaac Brock in the way that drummer and lead singer Ollie Judge contorts his voice around his words.

Bright Green Field demonstrates that rare phenomenon by which the amalgamation of so many influences results in a completely original sound. This is abundantly clear in the first seconds of “G.S.K.” as horns and drums punch in unison and blur the line between brass and percussion. The descending intro of “Boy Racers” feels like a cartoonish tumble down a flight of stairs. The electronica-infused “Paddling” with its chanted “patient, in control” feels like a call to arms as it picks up speed with tight control, pulling us along for the ride like Quicksilver holding Magneto’s head to save him from whiplash. The menacing “Global Groove” is dystopian in its oscillating drone, its dirge-like horns and Judge’s disturbingly bright vocals as he sings “Watch your favorite war on TV, just before you go to sleep.”

Squid’s debut reminds us how fun the arrival of a new great band or artist can be. Easily the year’s best debut album so far, Bright Green Field is confident and relentless. You’ll listen once, be reminded of a classic record you love, go listen to that album and repeat the process, discovering something new with each return to Squid. – Aaron Paskin

Wau Wau Collectif – Yaral Sa Doom [Sahel Sounds]

As the world around us progressively burns hotter, optimism is scant, and is therefore appreciated when it can be found. On Yaral Sa Doom, Wau Wau Collectif has written a message to future generations, specifically the children; the ones that are growing up in a world that is only becoming less inviting with time. Through collaboration, they have created a bright blend of Senegalese folk music with flairs of modern electronic production, resulting in a dreamlike world of childlike wonder.

On every song, but especially on cuts like “Yaral Sa Doom II” and “Mouhamadou Lo and His Children,” Wau Wau Collectif exudes enthusiastic wisdom; there is a notion that to “educating the young” (the translation of the album’s title) is not only a method of passing information down to younger generations as any elder would do. Educating the young is framed as an intimate, almost magical experience that all parties are privileged to be partaking in. Through psychedelic synth lines and shimmering chords, relatively stripped back folk music becomes a religious experience, with the faith of a better tomorrow being instilled through music. In some ways, it is a radical statement, a deliberate and direct attempt at promoting joy. In other ways, it is simply some of the most ambitious music of the year. – Thomas Stremfel

William Parker – Migration of Silence Into and Out of the Tone World [Volumes 1-10] (Centering Records/AUM Fidelity)

William Parker might be the most prominent and prolific free jazz performer living today, but even this statement reduces his art in a way counter to his all-encompassing spirit. His new work – it can hardly be called just an album, though it is an album in the most basic sense – Migration of Silence Into and Out of the Tone World wears its prodigious title well. Spanning ten discs, it consists of works for solo voice and piano; dedications to Harlem, Mexican migrants and Native Americans; free jazz explorations as well as more traditional ones; and a suite for Italian film directors – to name a few.

It would be counterproductive to recount individual highlights, as no single song quite captures the sense of the whole, but “A Great Day to Be Dead” is exemplary of the spirit if not the sound. The two constants between the volumes that comprise the work are Parker’s fingerprints – not always playing, but always arranging, composing, and producing – and the persistence of women’s voices, both literally and through their instruments.

The radical de-centering Parker performs on himself in the album that bears his name is a recognition of the dozens of musicians that it took to realize the work. Migration of Silence is a stunning and overwhelming assertion of the collective and social nature of jazz – across time and space – at a time when collectivity and sociality are swiftly vanishing from our political and artistic horizons. – Ian Maxton

Wolf Alice – Blue Weekend [Dirty Hit]

If My Love is Cool was their big bang and Visions of a Life expanded Wolf Alice’s universe, then Blue Weekend is a galaxy of its own. Wonderfully crafted with a perfect mix of passion and precision, their third album is a stylistic smorgasbord from four individuals throwing everything against the wall and somehow making it all stick. This is one of those records where every song could be your favorite song. You’ll find no weak moments here.

Throughout the album, Wolf Alice knows when to let their songs breathe and unfold, like on the Beatlesque “The Last Man on Earth,” and when to scorch the ground, like on the fuzzed-up “Smile” or punky “Play the Greatest Hits.” Some tunes defy easy categorization. “Lipstick on the Glass,” one of their most stunning works, grows from light strums on an electric guitar to a spacious chorus that almost sounds like Cocteau Twins covering Kate Bush.

Ellie Rowsell brings an all-time great vocal performance to Blue Weekend too. “How Can I Make It OK?” alternates between heavenly notes and desperate shouts. “Delicious Things” is a seductive whisper over a slippery bass that swells to an ecstatic cheer. The acoustic “No Hard Feelings” finds sadness and understanding at the end of a relationship.

With their variety only exceeded by their spectacular songwriting, Blue Weekend is Wolf Alice at the height of their powers, building roads to anywhere they want to go. We’re more than happy to follow them. – Joe Marvilli

Wreche – All My Dreams Came True [Handsmade/Acephale Winter]

Wreche’s self-titled 2017 debut was an album whose impact and appeal could almost have been due to its novelty. Black metal with a piano – importantly, not a synthesizer – as its main instrument and no guitars at all is probably something nobody asked for – but it was great. All My Dreams Came True proves that it wasn’t just a fluke. This time, pianist/vocalist John Steven Morgan plays everything himself, and the album has a heightened emotional intensity and intimacy that is completely gripping even if at times almost claustrophobic. With the core Wreche sound established, this time Morgan allows himself to experiment more with his songwriting, making for music that is less single-minded and aggressive and more personal and involving.

Whereas Wreche felt bracingly forlorn and bleak, All My Dreams Came True is concerned more urgently with the search for hope and significance in the face of a meaningless and indifferent universe and contains a dark and beautiful sense of poetry lacking from the debut. The sound and texture of Wreche’s music doesn’t have the same shock value as when first encountered, but the fact remains that in removing the volume and chaos of overdriven guitars that automatically confer power on the sound of black metal, Morgan is forced to use skilful songwriting and the genre’s dynamics and atmosphere to create music that is both emotionally involving and sonically unique. – Will Pinfold

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