After the vaccine-inspired optimism of May and June, July has been a bit of a gut-check, bringing back the masks and anxiety levels we’d all been hoping to leave behind. The Paste Music team has taken refuge, as ever, in the new music of the month, relishing the uniquely personal self-titled effort from California rapper Vince Staples, the statement-making sophomore LP from powerhouse English singer Yola, and the cosmic jazz, funk and soul fusion of Emma-Jean Thackray’s debut, among other records. If there’s one thing the pandemic has taught us, it’s that art is most invaluable in hard times—we hope each of the albums below helps lighten the heavy load we all continue to carry.
Listen to our Best Albums of July 2021 playlist on Spotify here.
Once Nick Murphy felt that his legal name was unsuitable for his latest endeavors, he announced a return to the Chet Faker moniker with his newest album, Hotel Surrender, a joyous record that combines all of his styles thus far into a dynamic, funk-filled statement. The album infuses the Faker brand of mellowed-out electronic haze with striking live instrumentation: Sticky bass on tracks like “So Long So Lonely” brushes elbows with saxophones and piano keys, dancing in time with Murphy’s layered harmonies. “Feel Good” is an apt title, with Murphy presenting his own take on funk with a blend of artificial and natural sounds. Then there’s “It’s Not You,” where Murphy’s vocals take a front seat as he eases into a silky falsetto that would make D’Angelo turn his head. One of the most striking qualities of Hotel Surrender is its unabashed happiness, one that can only come out of the cathartic breakthrough Murphy experienced in the recording of Music for Silence. The subtle romanticism of lyrics such as “I’m swimming in you now / You’re swimming in me” on “Whatever Tomorrow” showcases Murphy’s delicate understanding of human connection as something as precious as the music he loves to make. His words carry weight as he crafts them with care to form the vivid portraits of love and heartache in as few strokes as possible, letting the music fill in the blanks. —Jade Gomez
London rockers Desperate Journalist demanded our attention with the April release of “Fault,” the lead single from their fourth full-length Maximum Sorrow! The follow-up to 2019’s In Search of the Miraculous, the album lives up to that song’s promise, with Jo Bevan (vocals), Rob Hardy (guitar), Simon Drowner (bass) and Caz Helbert (drum) consistently delivering moody, tightly-wound post-punk that’s occasionally brightened by flashes of ethereally melodic dream-pop (e.g., “Personality Girlfriend,” “Utopia,” and the particularly light “The Victim”), like a flare turning night into day. Bevan’s vocals bring to mind the late Dolores O’Riordan; meanwhile, her bandmates couch her contemplations of fear, uncertainty and conflict in shimmering waves of instrumentation. The overwhelming sense you get from Maximum Sorrow! is one of confidence and control, as if Desperate Journalist know the ’70s gothic rock tradition they’re operating within both inside and out, and are uniquely equipped to carry it forward. —Scott Russell
British jazz musician Emma-Jean Thackray makes music that’s transcendent, with an album that explores spirituality in all of its variations. On her debut album Yellow, Thackray’s dance-aligned interpretation of jazz is a psychedelic foray into the subconscious, guided by her incredible vocals that nestle deep into the crevices of our minds. Her intention is written all over the album as she dances around her skilled backing band in a gentle unification of their ideas, digging deep into the meanings of dualism and human connection. This pursuit is something to be reminded of, and Thackray nudges the audience with care. —Jade Gomez
It’s been five years since we’ve last heard from Isaiah Rashad, the Top Dawg Entertainment rapper whose name is doused in mysticism. Glimpses of songs shared on Instagram sustained hungry fans for years, who pieced together any sign of life. Rashad finally delivers on The House is Burning, picking up where he left off. Anchored in his struggle with his mental health, Rashad’s thoughtful deconstructions of life’s vices are carried by the album’s minimalist production, influenced by the sparse, percussive Dirty South mixtape sound. Three 6 Mafia and Project Pat samples are morphed into haunting lo-fi loops that thread through Rashad’s path to making sense of himself and the world around him. As the smoke finally dissipates, Rashad can finally fill in the gaps left in his absence and look toward the future. —Jade Gomez
A few months after 2016’s A Dreaming Room was released, Laura Mvula was dropped from her label. So, she did what anyone else would do: made a kickass pop album to show them what they were missing out on. Her righteous return on Pink Noise is a crisp homage to the ‘80s, with elements of Michael Jackson and Prince finding a fitting home within Mvula’s impressive artistry that extends far past the music into the entire aesthetic (have you seen those press photos?). Mvula didn’t get bitter, she got better, and it’s a refreshing comeback if we’ve ever seen one. —Jade Gomez
The follow-up to Midwife’s acclaimed 2020 album Forever, Luminol has an origin story common among COVID-era albums: Robbed of touring by the pandemic, New Mexico-via-Colorado multi-instrumentalist Madeline Johnston shifted her focus back to writing and recording her new six-song set. The album takes its title from “a chemical used by forensic investigators to reveal trace amounts of blood left at a crime scene. When it reacts with blood, luminol emits a chemiluminescent blue glow that can be seen in a darkened room,” per press materials. Luminol evokes that same contrast of horror and beauty through Midwife’s self-described “heaven metal,” comprising droning guitar feedback, sparse percussion, synths and strings, and Johnston’s ethereal vocals. “And it feels, and it feels like Heaven is so far away,” she intones again and again on “2020,” as if singing a hymn to a dead, forgotten god—on “Colorado,” she wonders, “How much more death can one person take? / No, I’m not OK.” Midwife continues to be a musical black hole, a font of unknowable power, impossibly light and heavy at once. —Scott Russell
Amid the seriousness of her 2017 album Three Futures—it was primarily about reckoning with religious trauma, after all—TORRES’ Mackenzie Scott predicts, in the glow of disjointed synth-pop, “There must be a greener stretch ahead.” And after what feels like a lifetime, it sounds like the Georgia-born, Brooklyn-based artist is finally basking on those green lawns she sketched out nearly four messy years ago. The music of TORRES has never been desolate, but there’s a clear change in tone on Scott’s fifth record under the moniker. Scott’s music has shifted from experimental rock to progressive pop and back again, and her career has been exciting to witness, but there was always the sense she was capable of something more energized, more her. In her latest release, Thirstier, we finally have the complete picture, and it’s as lively a rock album as you’ll hear this year. —Ellen Johnson
In his nearly decade-long career, Long Beach rapper Vince Staples has never put out a bad album, a hot streak that continues on his new self-titled effort. That said, listeners looking for the “FUN!” of his last album won’t find it on Vince Staples: The Kenny Beats-produced project is more like the breezy FM!’s suffocating counterpoint, with Staples stepping into the shadows to discuss the costs of living in a place where, inevitably, either “the sun or the guns come out.” The emcee has long made clear he can stand the heat, but spends Vince Staples showing us how much weight his psyche carries as a result: “When I see my fans / I’m too paranoid to shake they hands / Clutchin’ on the blam / Don’t know if you foe or if you fam,” he raps on “Sundown Town.” On the low-key psychedelic “Taking Trips,” he almost explicitly rejects FM!’s entire sensibility: “I hate July / Crime is high, the summer sucks / Can’t even hit the beach without the heaters in my trunk.” But a line on the R&B-infused “Take Me Home” puts it simplest: “You know these trips come with baggage.” Staples says he self-titled this album because it’s his most personal—if the rest of his discography is a shopping spree, then Vince Staples is the bill coming due. —Scott Russell
Bristol-born and Nashville-based singer Yola’s new record Stand for Myself straddles a wide gulf of styles, like soul, rock, Americana, gospel and doo-wop, as well as tempos, from upbeat to slow-groove. There’s seemingly no aesthetic Yola won’t embrace and no pace she can’t keep up with, or at least nothing she won’t fully commit herself to if she decides to try it. Coloring the album only in sunny shades belies the deep-rooted sadness at its core, because Yola has, like everyone on the planet, gone through a hell made just for her through the last year and change. Stand for Myself isn’t the product of a Pollyanna. It’s frank and fresh in its fashion, carrying darkness and unguarded emotions on crests of S-tier artistry. It’s demonstrative, too, showing us more of who Yola is two years after she announced herself with her excellent debut Walk Through Fire. Best of all, though, the album actively seeks out hope under duress. That’s work we all have to do. Yola shows us how. —Andy Crump
Detroit rapper ZelooperZ evades convention, instead reinventing his unique sound without end. On his surprise album Van Gogh’s Left Ear, the follow-up to 2020’s Valley of Life, ZelooperZ positions himself as akin to one of his favorite painters as he creates his own colorful, surreal world. As part of the Bruiser Brigade, one of the finest hip-hop collectives in recent memory, ZelooperZ serves as the group’s “secret sauce” with his distinct vocal delivery and witty punchlines similar to label head Danny Brown. Where ZelooperZ differs is in his production choices, embracing the whimsical, ridiculous and downright absurd on Van Gogh’s Left Ear. “Battery,” the album’s first single, is a cacophonous display of confidence, while the Crash Bandicoot sample on the Brown-featuring “Bash Bandicoon” is as hilarious as it is intriguing, with the two rappers nestling into different pockets of the Dilip-produced beat. The latter half of the album is ZelooperZ in a more accessible, relaxed state, with trap hi-hats and flutes soundtracking his introspective reflections on his momentous career. With the two sides of ZelooperZ coming together as a whole, Van Gogh’s Left Ear is a culmination of everything the rapper has built, while still leaving room to reinvent once again. —Jade Gomez