E/O's favourite records of the year revealed at the half way stage of 2021. Who made the cut?
Well, that was fast!
Somehow we find ourselves in June at the midway stage of 2021, which means it's time to look back on the past six months in music and name the greatest records of the year so far. There's been no shortage of candidates, with a total of 75 (!) albums covered on site since January (check them all out here and here), but I've painstakingly whittled down the cream of the crop below.
Along the way to guide you there will be a selection of the best tracks from each of these masterful albums which I've compiled into a Spotify playlist that can act as a either a handy introduction or a fond reminder of the year to date. So if you haven't treated yourself to these records already or you're simply looking for an excuse to enjoy them again, what are you waiting for?
Here are the best albums of 2021... so far.
Collapsed In Sunbeams - Arlo Parks
Released: 29th January
Rated: 7.0 / B-
The good thing about reviewing the year at this stage is that it gives me a chance to revisit everything I've covered since January, and in some cases there are records worthy of not just a revisit but a reevaluation too. That's the case with my first pick as Collapsed In Sunbeams received a measly 7.0 in the February Wrap Up but has since become a comforting staple of the past five months for myself and many others, with Arlo's enchanting lyricism resonating stronger on each listen while its resplendent selection of beats never loses its allure for a second on repeat runs.
What I Said Then: "Arlo Parks' slick indie pop come R&B goes down so smoothly on Collapsed In Sunbeams that you may miss the poetry in the Londoner's expressive journal entries... It's a deceptively simple, universally appealing formula that almost conceals the low key beauty in Parks' relatable lyricism, which comprises a collection of portrait studies based on those who shaped the singer's adolescence."
Best Tracks: 'Hurt'/'Black Dog'/'Eugene'
For the first time - Black Country, New Road
Released: 5th February
Rated: 8.5 / A-
Debuts are seemingly going to be a strong theme of the albums listed here. There were so many accomplished bows onto the main stage over the past six months that it was hard to keep up with the amount of new talent emerging every week, but I can confidently state that there were none quite as undeniable as this.
A young band that arrived under a tremendously rare wave of hype from the British, wider European and American music press but couldn't have cared less, Black Country came across as a group of mates whimsically jamming their wild jazz punk concoctions for no one but themselves. The results are best experienced as an immersive whole in order to truly behold the spectacle of freewheeling abandon, erratic improvisation and sheer musicality that BCNR unleash on For the first time.
What I Said Then: "...threatens to combust on itself with an overload of ideas and themes that Wood & co. will no doubt continue to mine in the coming years. If the results are as electrifying as this then Black Country will be a force to reckon with - judging by the gleeful anarchy and bold thirst for invention that defines this debut, For the first time could be a mere tune up for what’s to come."
Best Tracks: 'Science Fair'/'Sunglasses'/'Track X'
An Overview on Phenomenal Nature - Cassandra Jenkins
Released: 19th February
Rated: 8.5 / A-
Another magical release from an outrageously stacked February, Cassandra Jenkins' sophomore album possesses a beauty that will be seldom equaled throughout the year, and a quality of songcraft that most songwriters would struggle to attain throughout their careers. Jenkins is the purest of musical talents, a special breed crafting mythical stories set to delicate songs that deserve to be treasured and sacredly passed down from generation to generation in a manner befitting a precious family heirloom. An Overview on Phenomenal Nature is a gift to the self, so cherish and keep it... in fact, forget that you read this because I want it all to myself.
What I Said Then: "Perhaps most striking though is the remarkable sound quality of these compositions - it's no stretch to say that An Overview on Phenomenal Nature could well boast the best production of any record to date this year. As such, it distinguishes Jenkins as one of the most promising folk songwriters in America on her first great work of art. She may be just two albums in, but the Brooklyn native already sounds like an assured veteran."
Best Tracks: 'New Bikini'/'Hard Drive'/'Crosshairs'
New Long Leg - Dry Cleaning
Released: 2nd April
Rated: 8.0 / B+
Another debut? It would be impossible not to include the wittiest and most addictive album of the year to date in New Long Leg from London's own Dry Cleaning. The wave of post-punk bands dominating indie rock music in 2021 can be difficult to differentiate at times, but Florence Shaw's sardonic spoken word vocals and stream of consciousness narratives make Dry Cleaning one of the most distinguishable and unique bands in the world right now. The fact that their ice cool frontwoman is being backed by some of the best guitar tracks of the year doesn't exactly hurt either.
What I Said Then: "Dry Cleaning are pioneering a brand new sound, and doing it with swagger and style. It's yet another great post-punk debut to add to an ever more impressive collection this year, but Dry Cleaning are far from just another brick in the wall. Thanks to its highly unusual and inventive execution, New Long Leg is certain to go down as one of the most creative and unique rock records of 2021."
Best Tracks: 'Scratchcard Lanyard'/'Strong Feelings'/'Her Hippo'
For Those I Love - For Those I Love
Released: 26th March
Rated: 8.5 / A-
It's getting harder and harder to return to the heart wrenching tale of love and loss that David Balfe spins on For Those I Love for the sheer emotional toll that it can take on any given listen. Yet every time I go back, I'm reminded that through the grief and tragedy Balfe examines as he tries to understand the death of his best friend Paul Curran, there is light at the end of the darkest of tunnels. It's the kind of life affirming perspective that only a work of enduring greatness can achieve, the kind of reward that you only feel after experiencing art of a complex and affecting nature almost too acute to verbalize. For Those I Love is all these things and more.
A songwriter so capable of capturing the human state is a powerful and lasting one, so expect Balfe to be celebrated by North Dublin, Ireland and (if there is any justice) the rest of the wider music world for years to come. If you had asked me on January 1st what the best album of the year would be, I might have had a hundred potential answers but I never would have imagined that the frontrunner was living within a five minute radius of where I'm writing to you from. This is no sentimental favourite though - if you haven't heard it yet wherever you are, you are doing yourself an disservice.
For Those I Love is my record of 2021 right now.
What I Said Then: "It's guaranteed that you aren't going to hear another record like this in 2021, but don't be surprised to find an upcoming collective of Irish artists in the next decade that are as indebted to Balfe as he may be to Mike Skinner et al. For Those I Love feels like an influential album, one destined for cult status as it grows in age and stature - for now, it stands proudly as one of the most striking and triumphant debuts of the year, a powerful memoir by an essential new artist in Irish music."
Best Tracks: 'To Have You'/'Birthday/The Pain'/'You Live/No One Like You'
Chemtrails Over The Country Club - Lana Del Rey
Released: 19th March
Rated: 9.0 / A
After a tumultuous past year that saw her come down with a bad case of foot in mouth disease, it was nice to be reminded that Lana Del Rey is one of the premier songwriters in the world when she lets the music do the talking, and the Gothic neo-folk of Chemtrails Over The Country Club left no doubt that we are still witnessing an iconic artist at the peak of her powers. Del Rey's seventh album was in the seemingly impossible position of following an all time classic record but it's a testament to the enduring ability of its artist that Chemtrails stands not only as a worthy sequel to Norman Fucking Rockwell! but a major achievement in its own right that arguably sits a comfortable second place in Lana's catalogue at the time of writing.
And if that weren't enough, LDR is set to drop her eighth studio album in just a couple of weeks as Blue Banisters hits shelves on July 4th. Whether it can live upto Chemtrails remains to be seen, but the fact that we're asking that question is evidence enough that Del Rey has already dropped one of the outstanding albums of the year.
What I Said Then: "...a bold and beautiful proclamation that the 35 year old is still in her prime and thriving creatively like never before. When the dust has settled, Chemtrails over the Country Club will go down as another landmark record in one of the defining musical catalogues of the 21st century - a moment of quiet, stripped back bliss that exists peacefully in the afterglow of a dazzling high."
Best Tracks: 'White Dress'/'Tulsa Jesus Freak'/'For Free'
TYRON - slowthai
Released: 12th February
Rated: 8.5 / A-
The outstanding rap album of the year to date comes from Northampton of all places. Tyron Frampton's blisteringly raw talent burns brighter on TYRON even more so than his ferocious 2019 debut Nothing Great About Britain. This time around our narrator turns the microscope away from his country and onto himself, blasting through an intensely candid self portrait in thirty five whirlwind minutes. Whether furiously recounting tales of his youth and hometown, laying down some comedically braggadocious rhymes on a typically eccentric address or conducting a visceral examination of his own mental health struggles in gritty detail, slowthai is at his show stealing best on a magnificent sophomore record.
What I Said Then: "A triumph from start to finish, TYRON reveals a profound, still rapidly developing songwriter and firmly establishes slowthai as one of the most charismatic and captivating figures in hip-hop today."
Best Tracks: 'MAZZA (feat A$AP Rocky)'/'nhs'/'feel away (feat. James Blake & Mount Kimbie)'
Daddy's Home - St. Vincent
Released: 14th May
Rated: 8.5 / A-
Daddy's Home marked another phenomenal entry into the already stellar discography of St. Vincent when it dropped last month, but Annie Clark's sixth album is also one of the more unique records of her career for several reasons. Its subject matter (her father returning from prison in 2019) affords us a rare glimpse into the mind of a normally reserved and reclusive artist, yet perhaps its greatest revelation is the sumptuous musical palette on breathless display throughout. With a signature assist from Jack Antonoff, Clark boldly expands her repertoire by executing a dizzying mix of soul, funk and jazz while transporting listeners inside the dingy walls of a smoky Manhattan dive bar circa 1973.
Having garnered all of the conceivable acclaim she could as one of the indie rock pioneers of the 2010's, Clark looks set to continue to blaze a trail by following nobody's rules but her own. Daddy's Home is all the evidence you need that whatever lies ahead of St. Vincent as we enter a new decade, it's going to be one hell of a ride.
What I Said Then: "Clark reinvents herself once again on her sixth studio album as we find our protagonist down and out in New York on a record that vividly snapshots the smoke and glamour of mid seventies Manhattan while immaculately recapturing the psychedelic sound of its era... It's another major success for St. Vincent as Annie Clark effortlessly transforms once more while delivering another unique entry into an already vastly impressive discography."
Best Tracks: 'Pay Your Way In Pain'/'The Melting Of The Sun'/'Down'
Ignorance - The Weather Station
Released: 5th February
Rated: 9.0 / A-
The climate crisis isn't exactly the most accessible topic to center an album concept around, but such is the majesty of Tamara Lindeman's songwriting on Ignorance that it brings an issue often presented as vague or distant into devastating focus, outlining the impact of the crisis with an unexpectedly emotional perspective that humanizes the problem like no media I've heard, seen or read before March 2021 or since. As profound as Lindeman's lyricism is throughout these ten tracks, as much power lies in the musical execution of her fifth album, which sees The Weather Station complete a staggering evolution from their humble folk beginnings into the full blown rock orchestra presented in all its euphonic glory on Ignorance.
What I Said Then: "On Ignorance, The Weather Station boldly execute their vision for the world and themselves by delivering a work of considerable artistry and stunning depth, executed with the kind of spectacular delivery merited by a message of great significance. It's a transformative moment for Tamara Lindeman and our privilege to witness it."
Best Tracks: 'Robber'/'Parking Lot'/'Heart'
OK Human - Weezer
Released: 29th January
Rated: 8.0 / B+
If you'd told me at the start of 2021 that I'd be including Weezer in the discussion for best albums of the year by June, I'd have said you were taking crazy pills. But it's with great joy that I name OK Human as the most pleasant surprise of my year to date, as Rivers Cuomo & co. delivered an endearing quarantine masterwork this past January that I still can't get enough of five months later. By ditching the guitar that made them 90's rock icons while retaining the sugar sweet melodies and undeniable chorus hooks on a series of charming home diaries set to shining string and piano ballads, Weezer triumph on the most unexpected and welcome record of their post millennium career.
If you've fallen out of love with Weezer somewhere along the past twenty years but 'Say It Ain't So' still gives you goosebumps, then you need to hear this album and let it soothe the pain of Ratitude and Hurley. And guess what? Van Weezer fucking rocks, too!
What I Said Then: "...it's a true joy to hear Rivers Cuomo and co. back to something approaching their best, and the band's fourteenth album flows with a cohesion and spirit that has been lacking since even before the quartet entered double figures on their discography. Cuomo writes earnestly about home and family throughout, riding the band's glorious wave of indie pop while making some typically witty observations on isolation and lockdown, with the pandemic serving as a backdrop that never overpowers the 50 year old's genuine warmth and lust for life."
Best Tracks: 'All My Favourite Songs'/'Aloo Gobi'/'Here Comes The Rain'
That's it for now folks. It's been a pleasure covering all of the above over the past six months, and I can't wait to hear what the rest of the year has in store for us all. Keep it here at E/O to get all your album reviews, wrap ups and monthly mixes until December when we countdown the best albums and songs of the year in full.