What a year, gang. The last 18 months have felt incredibly strange on a multitude of levels, almost like a nightmare that’s slowly fading but not quite finished with you yet. There isn’t an industry on the planet that wasn’t adversely effected (besides multinational corporations that profited mightily on the backs of their suffering and financially trapped employees, naturally), and music was no exception. 2020 brought with it a whole host of unique and quickly written and produced projects from the likes of Charli XCX and Childish Gambino, with each experiencing varying degrees of success. Unfortunately, there weren’t many non-metal albums released last year that I feel will have true, intense staying power (the new Microphones album being a notable odd exception). But 2021 is a new dawn, and damn have there been some great records released so far.
Please enjoy our selections of best albums of 2021 thus far. I think you’ll find as you read through a fairly wide breadth of styles and genres here, which to me further cements that metal listeners have some of the most interesting taste in all music on the planet. You the Heavy Blog faithful are certainly part of that group, and being as such we’d love to hear about what you’re listening to. What albums blew you away so far in 2021? What have we missed that you’d love for us to hear? Leave a note in the comments or on Facebook.
We hope you are safe and as well as you are able to be. We appreciate you greatly, and cannot wait to share more music we love with you.
Jonathan’s Top Five:
- Black Country, New Road – For the First Time
Post-punk is having a bit of a re-re-revival (who’s counting the resurrections at this point?) as of late. With bands like Squid and Iceage dropping new records to wide acclaim. But none of the newest batch of post-punk records has come close to touching the delightful strangeness of Black Country, New Road‘s For the First Time. I haven’t heard another record like it in 2021, and wouldn’t be surprised to feel that way until the band write their next record. Over six sometimes long, often winding and even more frequently straight up delirious tracks Black Country, New Road have carved out an Arcade Fire-esque niche in a very short amount of time. Front to back this record is a stunner, and if you are skeptical of that claim just give “Athens, France” a listen.
- black midi – Cavalcade
It’s pretty much impossible to name another band that sounds like black midi. If you’ve heard them, you know. If you haven’t, prepare your body. The band’s debut Schlagenheim was one of the most unhinged, batshit records I had heard up to that point, and given the more lush, accessible (though no less complex) direction of Cavalcade it looks like that designation will remain intact. That isn’t to say that this latest record is any less engaging. It often feels like a distillation of the band’s more erratic and aggressively weird tendencies into something that is less difficult to grasp. The vocals, instrumentation, and songwriting are all top notch here, letting each track breathe and morph in a sometimes meandering manner that never gets old or dull. It’s honestly a hard album to explain in written form, so I would strongly recommend you check it out for yourself. High quality stuff.
- Nick Cave and Warren Ellis – Carnage
Nick Cave has a special place in my heart. His string of recent records, detailing his grief over the death of his son and the aftermath of that event, have brought out some of the man’s most gruesome, harrowing, and deeply thoughtful expressions to date (which is saying something), so I half expected a collaborative album with Bad Seeds longtime member Warren Ellis to be a bit of a throwaway/fun release. I couldn’t have been further from the truth. While perhaps not as emotionally devastating as Nick Cave’s previous two full-length recordings, Carnage is a gorgeous record, teeming with life and menace, all captured through the prism of Cave’s incredible gifts as a songwriter. Ellis’ contributions here are no less noteworthy, bringing music to life that is in turn mournful and wrath-filled. It’s a killer combo that makes the record feel incredibly interesting and diverse throughout. Those who needed a little more Nick Cave in their life in 2021 will be enamored.
- Iceage – Seek Shelter
Iceage have been post-punk staples for well over a decade now, and for good reason. They haven’t made a dud album, and their first four records have each been top 25 releases in their release year. They keep the good times rolling with Seek Shelter, their most sonically diverse record yet. Fans of Iceage’s previous material will find plenty to love here, but it’s certainly a more robust sonic affair than we’ve previously been accustomed to with their earlier material. There’s a more lush and less sparse songwriting style here, with instrumentation to match. If you’re fully invested in Iceage’s strictest post-punk iteration, this record may come as a surprise or a disappointment. But if you’re willing to let the band take you where they want to take you, you may find that Seek Shelter is an enjoyable and fresh record.
- Godspeed You! Black Emperor – G_d’s Pee at State’s End
I’ve written a lot about this record already, and my feelings have only become more positive with time. Nevertheless, I’ll refer back to my previous conclusion on the record, which encapsulates my current thoughts well:
“G_d’s Pee at State’s End! Is a masterclass in post-rock proficiency. It’s the band’s best release post-breakup, and one of the best examples of what the genre has to offer in 2021. But even more valuable to me is its ability to transport me back to a time where this music made a deep impact both on my overall taste in genre and the way that I emotionally approached music. It’s powerful, demanding, vulnerable, and filled with a conviction that often feels forced in this type of music. Can’t get enough, and strongly recommend you give it a listen if post-rock, the band’s previous work, or emotionally engaging and intellectually stimulating music is up your alley.”
Eden’s Top Five:
- Floating Points, Pharoah Sanders & The London Symphony Orchestra – Promises
I’ve written about his album on our Top 25 Albums So Far list because it’s just that damn good. Regardless, this is one of the best albums of 2021, outside and inside of metal. It is also one of the most complete albums I’ve heard, leaving no stone unturned in the exploration of its own themes, sounds, recurring phrases, and directions. Simply put, it’s a masterclass not only in performance (seeing as it has one of the best saxophone players ever, one of the best orchestras ever, and one of the best producers ever) but also in composition. Listening to this album, how it lays down the first foundations of its music, and then how it unfurls from those foundations is an experience that each and every person making music should go out of their way to have, at least once.
- Dark Time Sunshine – Lore
If someone had told me that what I needed in 2021 was a wholesome, high energy, well produced hip-hop/rap album, I would have said “OK yeah, fair enough, that checks out”. Lore is all of the above and more, tackling issues from online discourse (“Starscream”), community (“Lore”), ADHD and the education system (“Ritalin”, “The Rite Kids”), all while making some excellent, groove inducing hip-hop. The beating heart which makes this is all possible is the duo Onry Ozzborn and Alejandro Zavala, who produced this album to perfection. You can hear their dedication to beat and delivery especially on the first two tracks (“Lore” and “Ritalin”), where the supremely agile drum beats inject the tracks with the energy which permeates the entire album. Long story short, whether your thing is story/word crafting or smooth beats, this album has a little bit of both.
- Beach Bunny – Blame Game
A four track EP on a Top 5 list? You bet your ass. Blame Game continues Beach Bunny’s obsession with the poppiest, catchiest alternative indie you can get your hands on. The EP format actually works super well with this sound, making the release like a sort of bittersweet, short-lived lollipop. You want the sugar to keep running forever, even as you’re cognizant that all things must come to an end. That duality is well displayed in the tension between the subject matter of the tracks and the music itself, channeling heartbreak, nostalgia, and frustration through jumpy riffs, punchy drums, satisfying bass and, of course, the extra unique timbre of Lili Trifilio herself. I feel stupid writing even these many words about such an immediate, personal, fun album. Just go spin it while the sun is shining; it’s the perfect summer dalliance.
- serpentwithfeet – Deacon
Speaking of summer, the season is not all about fun and games. There’s a sort of languishing, not uncomfortable sort of state that you only get when you’re staring at/being stared at by a powerful, unrelenting summer sun. Deacon is that feeling distilled, an album that uses soul, gospel, pop, and electronics to run the thin line between carnal love, sacral worship, and personal introspection. Just like that feeling I described above, it’s a subtle and intricate release. It’s hard to tell whether it’s optimistic, sad, forlorn, deeply settled, at home, or away wandering. It’s probably all of that, and more, using supposedly simple tools to create a deceptively intricate release. Sounds far-fetched? Just listen to “Amir” and then to the following couplet of “Dawn” and “Sailors’ Superstition”. That’ll give you an idea of the varieties of this album.
- Hiatus – Distancer
My relatively recent infatuation with the fertile spaces of neo-classical and ambient crossover are blossoming again and this year, it’s mainly thanks to Hiatus’ Distancer. The beating heart of this excellent release is the tension created by the kamancheh, a bowed string instrument used in Persian, Azerbaijani, Armenian, and Kurdish music and the deep, electronic ambience at the base of the album. The kamancheh, like many central Asian string instruments, has a decidedly forlorn and far-flung timbre, evoking emotions that blend perfectly with the morose, downtempo, aforementioned electronics, which manifest in cavernous drums, trip-hop inflected and resonant. Add in some vocal guest spots, colorful synths, other stringed instruments and an overall meticulous attention to the progression and structure of the album and you get a beautiful, dream-infused release sure to set your mind wandering on fantastic journeys into life. Oh, and there’s a Jalāl ad-Dīn Mohammad Rūmī poem in there as well. Perfection.