After an extraordinarily slow start, 2021 feels like it could be about to find its feat. No, we don't mean the weather, which we've long given up on, but the longer nights are cause enough for celebration, and with that you need a refresh on that despondent winter playlist you keep reaching for.
Already this year has welcomed the hypnotic R&B of Jazmine Sullivan, powerful rock from Julien Baker and one of last year's most popular albums flipped into a remix record courtesy of Perfume Genius.
While 2020's best albums still yet to grace music venues and festival stages, there's every chance that your playlist is in need of an update. As such, here's the best albums released this year so far, for sunshine-soaked Friday afternoons and grey Monday mornings alike.
Sault – Nine
Little is known about the mysterious British collective Sault – whose string of neo soul and R&B albums have been causing a stir – other than that their previous records have been produced by Little Simz and Michael Kiwanuka producer/writer, Inflo. On Nine, an album that will only be available to stream or download for 99 days, the group delve further into Black identity, contrasting the joy of carefree jazz rippling through the breeze with the suffering of haunted nursery rhythms, uncomfortably long stretches of laughter and painful memory retold without any music.
Skip to: 'London Gangs' – A chaotic drum and bass moment which thrums and twists like the soundtrack to a video game that you're hurtling through.
Tyler, the Creator – Call Me If You Get Lost
A man of many alter-egos, the sixth album from Tyler, the Creator sees him go back to rap essentials with a mixtape packed with gems. It's a sign of his talent that in shedding the chameleonic layers he has long used to dazzle his sound is still as exciting as ever, drawing on R&B influences in tracks like 'WusYaName', and using the menace of trap in moments like 'Juggernaut' and 'Lemonhead'.
Skip to: 'Corso' – DJ Drama and Tyler's vocals thread in and out of each other in this whirlwind performance which slowly softens as it draws on.
Olivia Rodrigo – SOUR
What does the unbearable angst of young heartbreak not so much sound like as really feel like? A lot like the buzzy debut album from an 18-year-old from California called Olivia Rodrigo. The former Disney channel star's breakthrough album catalogues the churning seasickness of longing for someone when you drive down their street, or the fury of discovering you've been betrayed, even if they didn't "techically" cheat on you. The emotions in it cut through so much when it was released that it became a meme for millennials still believing they're young enough to be the target market. Sick burn.
Skip to: 'Happier' – The tug of war after a break-up is writ large in this bitterly sad song where Rodrigo implores: 'So find someone great, but don't find no one better /
I hope you're happy, but don't be happier'.
Sons of Kemet – Black to the Future
Shabaka Hutchings's brass band are reinventing jazz music for a new generation. The band's excellent 2018 album, Your Queen is a Reptile, was one of the most wonderfully weird of the year, and the follow-up is even better. On Black to the Future, the British four-piece use their brass instruments as tools in the fight against racial injustice to demand political change, like the powerful 'Field Negus', where poet Joshua Idehen softly speaks: 'Leave Candace Owens by the plantation / Foolish us, thinking the overseer even had the keys to these chains'.
Skip to: 'Hustle' – A squelching and righteous track featuring Kojey Radical, where Lianne La Havas lends her vocals to the simmering chorus as she sings, 'Born from the mud with the hustle inside me',
BROCKHAMPTON – ROADRUNNER: NEW LIGHT, NEW MACHINE
Since Brockhampton's breakout album, Saturation, the group have had a string of releases in quick succession, as well as the ousting of band member Ameer Vann over sexual assault allegations. After their shaky 2019 record, Ginger, their latest is a welcome return to form which sees the Kevin Abstract-fronted collective show a more serious side, lyrically and musically, as well as featuring several strong collaborations with A$AP Rocky.
Skip to: 'When I Ball' – A lilting R&B jam with echoes of Tyler the Creator and early Kanye West is a breezy highlight on the record.
Spirit of the Beehive – Entertainment, Death
In keeping with their namesake, Spirit of the Beehive have had a productive few years plugging away, and on their fourth album, Entertainment, Death, the three-piece electro-rock group from Philadelphia have really hit their stride. The 11-track record is a cacophony of record scratches, stuttering drums and strung out guitar chords that together, somehow, just really work.
Skip to: 'Rapid and Complete Recovery' – Warped percussion and muffled chatter flow in and out of this trippy four minute track which is packed with strange synth sounds and mellow jazzy riffs.
The Antlers – Green to Gold
Seven years after their strong 2014 album Familiars, the New York rock band return with a record which, as the golden hour tree scene on the album artwork suggests, slows the pace down a little to think. These are songs for the first drink at the end of the week, or the enjoyable fog of Sunday morning breakfast, with tracks 'Strawflower' and 'Equinox' giving bucolic bookends to a more reflective album.
Skip to: 'It Is What It Is' – Lead vocalist Peter Silberman finds stillness in this track which blooms beautifully around the resigned retrain of 'It is what it is'.
Lost Girls – Menneskekollektivet
Norwegian artist and writer Jenny Hval has been delighting fans with her pandemic productivity, recently appearing on Perfume Genius's remix record and now joining forces with instrumentalist Håvard Volden for their debut record as Lost Girls. The 5 track LP features Hval speaking directly to the listener, with the title track opening with the righteous address of 'In the beginning, there is sound', delivered in a hushed tone.
Skip to: 'Carried by Invisible Bodies' – A trance moment is interspersed with more vocal storytelling in a voice which sounds like the thoughts that trail around your head in the early hours of a nightclub dance-floor.
Floating Points, Pharoah Sanders and The London Symphony Orchestra – Promises
The collaboration between DJ and producer Sam Shepherd, who goes under Floating Points, and legendary saxophonist Pharoah Sanders, features the stirring instrumentals of the London Symphony Orchestra in this extraordinary album of nine movements. Repeated refrains flit through the tracks which melt together soothingly and are hard to decipher from each other. Listened to in one go, the extraordinary talent of Sanders is laid bare.
Skip to: 'Movement 6' – An eight minute wonder in which Sander's saxophone riffs fade almost into nothing against a vanishing piano chord before both soar loudly again.
Perfume Genius – Immediately: Remixes
Mike Hadreas's 2020 album, Set My Heart on Fire Immediately, was one of the very best of the year, capturing the hyperawareness of our bodies and reflection on emotional and physical pain that that whole world felt at that moment. In this follow-up remix record he finds a way to collaborate during an isolated time, handing over deeply personal records to artists like Jenny Hval, Actress and Westerman for remixes which feel familiar and yet excitingly different.
Skip to: 'One More Try' (Actress remix) – A spiritual sister to the original in which you can't quite put your finger on what is different. As Hadreas told Esquire: "It’s sort of unsettling that remix, and really satisfying in a harmonious way. He dug into one little portal in the song and really elegantly elongated it."
Julien Baker – Little Oblivions
Perhaps best known for being part of Boygenius alongside Phoebe Bridgers, Julien Baker's angst-ridden and powerful rock music under her own name has been gathering steam in recent years, all leading up to this impressive latest release. On Little Oblivions, Baker's emotive vocals set are set against towering guitar riffs which linger with you after listening.
Skip to: 'Hardline' – The album's second track sets the tone for the mixture of intimacy and expanse that comes after , beginning with Baker's voice alone singing, 'Nothing to lose 'til everything's really gone / It's worse than death, than life compressed', before the band kicks in dramatically.
Cassandra Jenkins – An Overview on Phenomenal Nature
On Cassandra Jenkins' arresting 2017 album, Play Till You Win, the New York songwriter cast a spell with tracks like 'Hotel Lullaby' and 'Tennessee Waltz', which conjured the idea of faraway places but never told you where they really were. Her follow-up is a seven-track collection of country rock which again feels poetic in its emotional specificity while still staying vague about what she really means.
Skip to: 'Ambiguous Norway' – Jenkins's voice enters a lower, more hushed tone in this intimate track which has a haunted and gorgeously sedate quality to it.
Slowthai – TYRON
Since disgracing himself at the NME awards last year, English rapper Tyron Frampton has been doing some soul searching, and in his second record, aptly given his own name, he shares a little more of himself. This isn't always apologetic, as he rails in a track with Skepta where he asks 'How you gonna cancel me? / Twenty awards on the mantelpiece / Pyramid Stage at Glastonbury', but arrives at something more authentic as a result of its contradictions.
Skip to: 'nhs' – Childlike voices garble against a lullaby in this dark moment in which the chorus sadly repeats 'I was in my head, feelin' dead, feelin' microwaved'
Django Django – Glowing in the Dark
Three years since the release of their 2018 album Marble Skies, the London psych-rock outfit return with a record that reminds you why people fell in love with their quirky sound in the first place. Glowing in the Dark is a zany hotpot of rattling drums, chiming cowbells and miscellaneous doorbells, creating a playful and weird world which feels fun to wander through.
Skip to: 'Waking Up' – Charlotte Gainsbourg's sultry vocals pair surprisingly well with Django singer Vincent Neff, giving this track about life on the road a sense of longing during a time when we're stuck at home.
Jazmine Sullivan – Heaux Tales
The fourth album from the Philadelphia-raised singer is her best and most personal, meditating on the ways intimacy and love changes women. Interrupted with dialogue about male ego and feminine sexuality, Sullivan's smooth vocals are a guide through this brilliant R&B record, in which collaborations with Anderson .Paak and H.E.R. are two of many highlights.
Skip to: 'Pick Up Your Feelings' – With shades of a Beyoncé's rousing vocals, this bouncy pop track has an infectious groove to it.
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