Around this time in 2020, Paste took stock of the year’s first six months of music under very different circumstances. By then, the reality of the pandemic had set in—it would not be a mere few weeks of hunkering down at home before a return to normal, but rather an indefinite lockdown, with no end in sight and no guarantee “normal” would return at all—and the future had become a complete blur. With everyone cooped up, plans of all kinds canceled, concerts existentially threatened and reasons for optimism all but impossible to come by, there wasn’t much to cling to but the music. So we did.
What a difference a year makes. Though there’s a long way left to go, COVID-19’s cruel grip on the globe is slowly, but surely loosening, thanks to millions of vaccinations per day—tiny victories that add up. The pall of isolation and anxiety is lifting off both private and public spaces, with remote work the new normal for many and fear of infection on the decline. And live music is on its way back, with tour and festival lineup announcements flooding the internet in recent months. Just this past weekend, New York City rockers The Strokes played the one-time pandemic epicenter’s first in-person concert of 2021 in front of a fully vaccinated crowd. This time last year, that would’ve been unthinkable.
The music of 2021 has soundtracked our stresses and celebrations alike, with artists fearlessly constructing and ushering us into sonic worlds to help us transcend our own. The Weather Station’s Tamara Lindeman confronts climate catastrophe via urgent, jazzy art-pop on Ignorance; The Armed carve out a genre of their own—and use a chainsaw to do it—on ULTRAPOP; serpentwithfeet speaks his sensual, life-affirming truth on DEACON; Japanese Breakfast builds a bountiful monument to joy on Jubilee. There are debut albums here, as well as surprise albums, breakout albums and albums that very nearly never existed at all. We’re lucky to have every one of them.
Listen to our Best Albums of 2021 (So Far) playlist on Spotify here.
For someone so committed to flexing her New Orleans roots, Dawn Richard often makes music that sounds like it’s coming from an entirely different planet. On previous albums, the former Danity Kane and Dirty Money member often sang about love and life in the language of sci-fi and fantasy atop equally celestial beats. Her music likewise sounds interstellar throughout most of her sixth and newest album, Second Line: An Electro Revival, but here, she sets an explicit goal of shouting out her homeland more than ever before. Richard weaves New Orleans into Second Line more in spirit than in sound. Short but frank audio clips from Richard’s mother about her Louisiana upbringing and Creole roots open several tracks, but you won’t hear bombastic walls of bounce (save traces in the bassline of “FiveOhFour”) or bursts of Louisiana Indigenous zydeco. Instead, Richard shows us what being a “Creole girl” (to quote her mother) or “Creole King” (the fictional protagonist who supremely loosely guides Second Line) is like by just being herself. —Max Freedman
Some of the biggest artists out there are stylistic weather vanes, blown this way and that by whichever strong winds happen to catch them. Enigmatic Haitian rapper Mach-Hommy is the opposite: His style is his style, and he’ll compromise it for no one. Pray for Haiti, executive produced by Westside Gunn (and released by Gunn’s Griselda Records), is a mesmerizing display of that style: Mach-Hommy’s rhymes are as erudite as they are ice-cold (“Oh, word? Your raps braggadocious? / Put this .38 in your mouth, go ‘head and spit your magnum opus” he smirks on “No Blood No Sweat”), and he delivers them over sparse, yet dreamy beats, spliced together using jazz and soul samples, and punctuated by audio clips pulled from such disparate sources as Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver and a PBS panel discussion of the Haitian Creole language. Mach-Hommy is walking a path that’s all his own, and this album is proof he knows exactly what he’s doing—Pray for Haiti has the immediacy to grab your ear and hold it, with the depth and density to keep you coming back. —Scott Russell
Washington, D.C., emo-punk duo Origami Gang is fun—few words describe them better than that. Their lineage is clear: prickly guitars that devolve into heart-wrenching chords in the vein of D.C. and Midwestern emo, noisy metal-inspired drums and finger plucking, and hilariously self-aware song titles and lyrics taken from the pages of early-2000s pop-punk. On Gami Gang, the two manage to capture a hazy snapshot of our inner teenage nostalgia, cringe and all, with all the honesty and none of the toxicity of their predecessors. —Jade Gomez
With Black to the Future, U.K.-based jazz supergroup Sons of Kemet are following up nothing less than a Mercury Prize-nominated effort in 2018’s Your Queen Is a Reptile. Shabaka Hutchings (composer, sax, clarinet) helms a band featuring tuba player Theon Cross, and dual drummers Tom Skinner and Edward Wakili-Hick, and the Sons welcome a variety of collaborators on their latest, including Lianne La Havas, Moor Mother, Angel Bat Dawid, Kojey Radical, D Double E and poet Joshua Idehen. Bandleader Hutchings calls the album “a sonic poem for the invocation of power, remembrance and healing” that “depicts a movement to redefine and reaffirm what it means to strive for Black power.” You could also describe it as a towering hour of Afrofuturist jazz, haunting on “Field Negus,” hungry on “Hustle,” righteously furious on “Black,” visionary and virtuosic everywhere. —Scott Russell
Arlo Parks has already accomplished one of her biggest goals. The 19-year-old British musician, born Anaïs Oluwatoyin Estelle Marinho, has said that she writes her songs “to feel both universal and hyper-specific.” The high-profile fans—Phoebe Bridgers, Billie Eilish, Michelle Obama—whom Parks has accrued since her 2018 emergence certainly attest to her music’s broad relatability, and her music itself displays her talent for intimate, you-had-to-be-there details and unyielding, wise-beyond-her-years empathy. On Parks’ long-awaited debut album Collapsed in Sunbeams, her narratives remain vivid and often crushing. Likewise intact is her vibrant fusion of rock, jazz, folk and hip-hop, a combination both dedicated to her idols Frank Ocean and Radiohead (she namechecks Thom Yorke on “Too Good”) and sprinkled with a blueness distinctly her own. Her sound is compelling enough that, even when her lyrics regress into platitudes, her music remains stirring and intense. —Max Freedman
ELUCID and billy woods, aka Armand Hammer, are a dynamic duo, capable of digging a knife into any subject they want and twisting it, capturing the pain and grotesque fascination with how it got to that point. Their new album Haram, produced by The Alchemist, is a disturbing and stunning thesis on irony and the failures of the big dogs. The paranoia never comes off as being wrapped in tinfoil, nor does the cultural analysis feel condescending. They have struck the perfect balance for an accessible Armand Hammer album without sacrificing the resonance of their message. —Jade Gomez
Palm Coast quartet Home Is Where make an indelible first impression with I Became Birds, a debut release that blurs the bounds of not only the album form, but also of emo as a genre: Its six tracks and 20-ish minutes are packed with surprising, gratifying moments that incorporate both hard rock and Americana, from the harmonica bridge on “Long Distance Conjoined Twins” to the delightful refrain of “I wanna pet every puppy I see” giving way to crashing screamo on “Sewn Together from the Membrane of the Great Sea Cucumber.” The record’s peak is its de facto title track, “Assisted Harakiri,” on which vocalist Brandon MacDonald’s explosively passionate delivery imbues both simple suburban imagery and deep internal struggles with the same emotional potency: “Moths confuse / porch lights for the moon / Over and over / Oh, the treachery / of anatomy.” Poetic and powerful in equal measure, I Became Birds punches far beyond its weight, placing Home Is Where at the forefront of the Sunshine State’s suddenly buzzing emo scene. —Scott Russell
The inevitable messiness of life is what makes it so painful, interesting and enjoyable, but learning to be okay with it all is much easier said than done. Nashville-via-Texas singer/songwriter Katy Kirby is well on her way in that journey. On her debut album Cool Dry Place, Kirby tries to decide what’s worth holding on to and what’s worth seeking, but also allows herself the freedom to pause and just revel in precious moments, like a drunken walk home (“Peppermint”) or the fantasy of protecting someone you love (“Eyelids”). Whether slipping into playful metaphors or arriving at an important realization, Kirby sounds, at once, comfortable and uncomfortable with the fluidity of interactions and situations, which is what makes this record more than just an incredibly pleasing collection of songs. Wants and needs are blurred, relationships shapeshift, but more than anything, a human desire for intimacy and understanding underpins it all. After dropping in and out of school, religion and recording music, Kirby is searching for a sustainable source of warmth—whether a person, a plant, Target lingerie or “a secret chord that David played.” —Lizzie Manno
Genre classifications can be a helpful shorthand when it comes to understanding and engaging with new music, but nowadays, more and more artists are leaving them entirely in the dust. Just take Ghana-born, Australia-based musician Genesis Owusu, whose thrilling debut record Smiling with No Teeth is consistently difficult to pin down in a way that feels nothing less than vital. The avant-garde, yet undeniably accessible album spans glitchy, Death Grips-esque electro-hip-hop, lush dark-pop and R&B, lusty synth-funk and new-wave rock, with Owusu as the charismatic presence in the eye of the stylistic cyclone. On lead single “Gold Chains” and the album as a whole, Owusu exposes “the flaws of being in a profession where, more and more, you have to be the product, rather than just the provider of the product,” emphasizing the human being under all that gold, whose peace of mind may be the price he pays. —Scott Russell
On both their records to date—2018’s Springtime and Blind and this year’s Between the Richness—Boston rockers Fiddlehead have delivered a potent combination of anthemic melody, hard-rock muscle and poignant lyricism; the band, featuring members of Have Heart, Basement and others, “blend post-hardcore punch with emo’s openhearted catharsis,” as we previously wrote in praise of standout single “Million Times.” Between the Richness packs hard-won wisdom—vocalist Pat Flynn got married, had a son and marked the 10-year anniversary of his father’s death, all between the band’s two albums—into 25 minutes of explosive, deeply personal rock ‘n’ roll that manages to look back on life’s peaks and valleys without ever taking its foot off the gas. —Scott Russell
The idea of Madlib and Four Tet joining forces is unbelievably enticing. Both are forward-thinking artists who are admired in their respective musical corners—one is hip-hop’s undisputed beat king and the other is an acclaimed electronic musician. So it won’t come as a shock that their collaborative record, Sound Ancestors, sounds like decades of mastery went into it. Madlib, who’s famously mysterious and prolific, and has collaborated with greats like MF DOOM, De La Soul and Erykah Badu, sent Kieran Hebden (aka Four Tet) hundreds of files over several years, consisting of various beats and live instrumentation, and he allowed Hebden to distort and curate them as he saw fit—however, Hebden decided he wouldn’t add anything of his own. The result is an ambitious, versatile LP that displays their wide range of tastes, from left-field flute and bass odysseys (“One For Quartabê/Right Now”) and minimal, groovy psych-rock à la Unknown Mortal Orchestra (“The Call,” “Road of the Lonely Ones”) to Spanish guitar fingerpicking (“Latino Negro”) and dramatic organ noodling (“The New Normal”). The record is also sprinkled with Madlib’s various record scratches, artful bells and enigmatic samples, and though it might sound like sensory overload, there’s actually plenty of space in these songs, allowing listeners to latch onto the album as if it’s one hypnotizing, ever-changing groove. To call this album inspired would be an understatement. —Lizzie Manno
Gojira have slowly strayed from their death-metal roots, but on their latest effort Fortitude, the French metal pioneers embrace a more mainstream approach to their enchanting songwriting. There is no shortage of chugging guitars and frontman Joe Duplantier’s war cries, but the way that the band continues to innovate with their slow-rising melodies and silky echoes is exciting and mesmerizing. The subtle nods to blues-rock, as well as Indigenous and African drumming, make Fortitude a necessary protest album. —Jade Gomez
13. Nick Cave & Warren Ellis: Carnage
For such a literate person, Nick Cave does his new album with Warren Ellis a bit of a disservice by choosing to describe it as “a brutal but very beautiful record nested in a communal catastrophe.” That is, of course, an accurate description of what this music is, but it doesn’t really encompass everything Carnage can blossom into once it reaches the listener’s ear. Part of what’s made Cave and Ellis’ voluminous body of work so beguiling is the way that primary-color descriptors like “brutal” and “beautiful” lose their meaning in the endless shades the two musicians have at their disposal. And to prime the audience to expect something that slots neatly into Cave’s setup is to constrain an extraordinarily complex work of art. Regardless of how the COVID backstory makes the music relatable, the ambiguity here—both disorienting and rewarding—is one of Carnage’s main selling points. —Saby Reyes-Kulkarni
In the past, singer/songwriter Julien Baker—acclaimed both as a solo act and as a member of boygenius alongside Lucy Dacus and Phoebe Bridgers—has stunned us with her ability to evoke powerful feelings using only her hushed vocals, confessional lyrics and sparse instrumentation. On her third studio album Little Oblivions, though, Baker’s self-described “bummer jams” have gained a new and arresting sense of scale, losing none of their poignance in the process. These are lush, expansive compositions, awash in everything from drum machines and synthesizers (“Highlight Reel”) to banjo and what sounds like theremin (“Heatwave”). But ever-present on Little Oblivions is the breathtaking introspection of Baker, alone at a piano (“Song in E”), pouring her whole heart into her songs. They’re more fearless than ever, with instrumental scope to match that of their overwhelming emotions. —Scott Russell
There is something magnificent in the way that Jazmine Sullivan dissects the intricacies of relationships, from the struggles of heartache to the rush of really great sex, on her latest album Heaux Tales, all with the skill of a slick-talking preacher, or perhaps a goddess herself. Sullivan’s words are interspersed with spoken interludes of women reflecting on their own ideas of sex, which contradict just as much as they agree with each other, emphasizing the difficult position of sexual indulgence as a woman, and the societal pressures to keep quiet and submissive. Sullivan’s vocal control shines, ping-ponging between a soft croon and a rap as she lets desire take control and lets her voice echo the choir of other women who are finally embracing their human right: pleasure. Don’t get it twisted—”Heaux” (pronounced “ho”) is a term of empowerment, and Sullivan will make sure you know it. —Jade Gomez
British quartet Dry Cleaning extract the profound from the mundane and the meaningful from the nonsensical. On “Viking Hair” from the band’s 2019 EP Boundary Road Snacks and Drinks, frontperson Florence Shaw’s everyday sexual fantasies stood in for the arbitrary guidelines determining acceptable and shameful desires; as she surreally rattled off “traditional fish bar, chicken and ribs, bus pass” and more on “Traditional Fish” from the band’s other 2019 EP, Sweet Princess, she scorned the very idea of commerce. And she did it all in a bone-dry, comical sing-speak set to rollicking, if not straightforward, post-punk courtesy of guitarist Tom Dowse, bassist Lewis Maynard and drummer Nick Buxton. New Long Leg, Dry Cleaning’s debut album (and first release for 4AD), is all of that and none of that. Shaw’s semi-accidental revelations about the ridiculousness of being alive when we live in a society are sharper than ever, and her voice newly takes the tone of a psychic waking up from a 70-year nap. Dowse, Maynard and Buxton have massively upped their game, too: The EPs’ post-punk foundation remains, but atop it come stomping glam riffs, dream-pop arpeggios and razor-sharp melodies that loosen Dry Cleaning’s prior tension without entirely taming the mania. —Max Freedman
Michelle Zauner’s third album as Japanese Breakfast finds her shedding the sadness and trauma of her past, embracing joy and celebrating Jubilee. Upon its announcement, Zauner said of her follow-up to 2017’s Soft Sounds From Another Planet in a statement, “After spending the last five years writing about grief, I wanted our follow-up to be about joy. For me, a third record should feel bombastic and so I wanted to pull out all the stops for this one.” The soaring, yet densely layered Jubilee lives up to that billing: Zauner’s palette boasts more colors than ever—the yearning strings that conclude “Kokomo, IN,” the regal horn outro on “Slide Tackle,” the noise-rock crescendo of closer “Posing For Cars,” so much more—and her new masterpiece is abundantly vivid as a result. —Scott Russell
Toward the end of Squid’s debut album Bright Green Field comes a brief moment of liberation. “Well, I’ve always been told what to do,” the narrator of “Peel St.” mumbles, “but now, I’m free / There’s no warden following me.” Whether the prison from which this character has been released is literal or one of the mind is left for the listener to decide, and most of the details underpinning Bright Green Field’s paranoid, dystopian universe are similarly vague. More immediately apparent is Squid’s utter disregard for rock convention—where drummer-vocalist Ollie Judge’s words leave gaps in his Orwellian brutalism, his chainsaw of a shout-speak and his band’s squawking guitars fill in the blanks. Though Bright Green Field is easily Squid’s most musically varied and ambitious work yet, the British quintet—whose contemporaries include black midi and Black Country, New Road—remains thematically tethered to the pervasive anxiety and fear that have defined them from their 2019 breakout single “Houseplants” through last year’s Sludge / Broadcaster 10”, their debut for storied electronic and experimental label Warp. If anything, Bright Green Field—co-written by the entire group and produced by Speedy Wunderground mastermind Dan Carey—raises the band’s longtime stakes. Where “The Cleaner,” the highlight from 2019’s Town Centre EP, hinted at simultaneously more abrasive and hooky grooves to come, Bright Green Field delivers on that promise without diminishing Squid’s madness. —Max Freedman
It’s best to ignore the fact that Matador Records billed Afrique Victime as a cross between Van Halen, Black Flag and Black Uhuru. Mdou Moctar may be a Billy Gibbons fan, but those descriptors sell him short—not because it wouldn’t be cool as hell to hear a Saharan shredder type emerge from the Sahel setting his fretboard on fire, but because Moctar isn’t that player. As Afrique Victime makes abundantly clear, the real selling point here is how delightfully inviting and accessible he tends to be. Yes, there are blazing solos and squalls of feedback, such as on the extended lead section of the title track. Still, for all his chops, Moctar has a rare gift for fluidity, as he and rhythm/acoustic guitarist Ahmoudou Madassane meld assouf, rock, psych and jazz elements into a single stream under their fingertips. Moctar and the rest of the band—Madassane, drummer Souleymane Ibrahim and Brooklyn-based producer/bassist Michael Coltun, who would routinely go through a grueling 48-hour journey just to rehearse with the others—vary their approach from song to song with such impeccable grace that Afrique Victime never settles into one gear. Nevertheless, as a complete work, the album goes down in a single, 40-minute gulp as easily as a glass of cool (if spicy) iced tea that leaves you tingling with refreshment and leaves myriad flavors on the tongue long after the fact. —Saby Reyes-Kulkarni
The second album from New York City-based singer/songwriter Cassandra Jenkins revolves around the notion that “Nothing ever really disappears, it just changes shape,” as the artist herself opines. These seven songs, described in a press release as “ambient folk,” find Jenkins tracing the very universe’s through lines, considering the energy that animates our everyday lives and where it goes after we’ve moved on. “You’re gone, you’re everywhere,” she sings on “Ambiguous Norway,” a farewell to the late David Berman, who died in August 2019, just before Jenkins had been set to tour with him as part of his Purple Mountains project. Like human beings, An Overview on Phenomenal Nature overflows with nuance and an unknowable wonder, its instrumental alchemy blending restrained keys with jazzy horns and Jenkins’ sing-spoken hypnotism—nowhere as bewitchingly as on album centerpiece “Hard Drive.” On ambient closer “The Ramble,” the album finally transcends language entirely, setting chirping birds alongside the music, humankind and (phenomenal) nature made one. —Scott Russell
5. serpentwithfeet: DEACON
On DEACON, serpentwithfeet presents Black queer love and joy more as a series of little everyday moments than an all-consuming, mystical force. While vivid details and a Black queer foundation are nothing new for the Ty Dolla $ign and Björk collaborator—on “fragrant,” from his 2018 debut LP soil, he recalled asking all of his ex’s exes one by one to kiss him—the presence of unbridled joy and love on his sophomore album is a striking sea change. Where serpent mourned fizzling loves on soil and debut EP blisters, here, he hails the simple glories and everyday little moments of thriving Black queer romances. His perspective, though a stretch to read as some sort of overt or grand political statement, is a beaming needle in the ever-cluttered, often redundant haystack of romantic music. —Max Freedman
Shapeshifting. If there’s one descriptor for Philadelphia rockers Spirit of the Beehive, that’s it, so we figured we’d get it out of the way early. Transformation surrounds their fourth album and Saddle Creek debut ENTERTAINMENT, DEATH, affecting the band itself—founding members Zack Schwartz and Rivka Ravede are now joined by Corey Wichlin—as well as their recording process and, of course, the music itself. While the band recorded their breakout 2018 album Hypnic Jerks in only a week, they took four months for ENTERTAINMENT, DEATH, self-recording and producing their most adventurous album yet. Just take “I SUCK THE DEVIL’S COCK,” the record’s near-seven-minute third single, which they describe as “our take on ‘a day in the life’”: The song begins as glitchy, drum machine-spiked jangle-psych, but quickly devolves into borderline ambient noise, eventually reconstituting itself as dreamy indie-pop with the oddest refracted textures. It, like all of ENTERTAINMENT, DEATH, is thrillingly unpredictable from moment to moment, and a mind-expanding exploration of the innumerable forms rock music can take. —Scott Russell
Everything you read about The Armed’s latest album ULTRAPOP will mention the mysterious nature of the Detroit-based band’s true lineup. They’ll cite made-up names and untrustworthy interviews, falsified press releases and photos featuring models standing in for whoever’s behind such an uncommonly catchy and charismatic strain of hardcore punk. Here’s what we do know: Whoever is pulling strings and pushing boundaries for The Armed is doing a hell of a job. What’s most impressive about ULTRAPOP is not necessarily the killer riffs, the pummeling rhythms or the plentiful melodies, though all of those are consistently thrilling. What’s most impressive is the way this band brings together different, disparate styles in a way that sounds seamless and natural and new, even if others have done it before. When The Armed announced ULTRAPOP last winter, de facto leader Dan Greene was quoted as saying the album “seeks, in earnest, to create a truly new listener experience. It is an open rebellion against the culture of expectation in ‘heavy’ music. It is a joyous, genderless, post-nihilist, anti-punk, razor-focused take on creating the most intense listener experience possible.” With ULTRAPOP, they’ve done exactly that. Whoever “they” are. —Ben Salmon
2. The Weather Station: Ignorance
Ignorance, the fifth and best album by The Weather Station, is the kind of album that arrives in the middle of an artist’s discography and marks a clear, penetrating break with everything that came before it. Think The Dreaming, or Kaputt: abrupt stylistic leaps that subvert and explode whatever category the artist previously seemed to occupy. In The Weather Station’s case, that category was folk music. For more than a decade, the Canadian band—led by singer and former child actor Tamara Lindeman—specialized in delicate indie-folk, rooted in fingerpicked guitars and light, rustling percussion. 2015’s Loyalty and 2017’s self-titled follow-up enlarged the band’s sonic range and empathetic lyrics, but still operated within the folk tradition. Ignorance is a departure. More specifically, this album is a stunningly assured plunge into a sleek, buzzing jazz-pop wilderness. Lindeman’s guiding impulse here is rhythm: interlocking polyrhythms (“Robber”), hi-hats that rattle and hiss like gently persistent metronomes (“Wear,” “Separated”), even some outright four-on-the-floor beats, which spring to life on the sparkly disco-pop of “Parking Lot” and “Heart.” And on “Atlantic,” she’s more expressive than ever, fitting a world of pathos and awe into the way she utters the mere words “My god.” The song describes the feeling of marveling at natural beauty and yet being unable to let go of dread, unable to dismiss grim thoughts of what humans have done or will do to all that beauty. —Zach Schonfeld
1. Floating Points, Pharoah Sanders & The London Symphony Orchestra: Promises
This unlikely pairing of British electronic wiz Sam Shepherd, aka Floating Points, and free-jazz saxophone titan Pharoah Sanders is among the most revelatory match-ups in recent memory. On their long-simmering album Promises, which also features the cinematic swells of the London Symphony Orchestra, the musicians’ collaborative energy proves as remarkably potent as it is improbable. Unfurling in one continuous, wordless composition split into nine movements, Promises sounds like a leap of creative faith, a cosmic communion that reaches across generations, genres and musical barriers to build something beautiful. When played without interruption and afforded the patience (and quality speakers) it demands, Promises is the kind of album that can rearrange the molecules in a room. It can imbue your drab apartment with a vast, cinematic weight. It can kill a party (this is admittedly speculative) in the best possible way. It can fill up the space while you wash dishes, put away laundry or water plants, infusing any mind-numbing household activity with a mist of supernatural yearning. —Zach Schonfeld