Steven Hyden’s Favorite Albums Of 2021 So Far

We are still in the early stages of coming out of a deeply strange and tragic period in modern world history. As we look ahead to the rest of 2021, there is hope that some sense of normalcy is about to settle in. In terms of music, new concert tours and festivals are being announced every single day. And that will potentially make the albums we’re listening to feel a little more permanent.

A common complaint you heard during the pandemic is that it made all forms of culture feel a little transitory. Films, TV shows, books, albums — they all seem to arrive one day and be gone the next. Given everything we’ve all had to deal with, it’s understandable that you might not remember music that was released last week, much less albums that came out earlier in 2021.

Hopefully this list of my favorite albums from the first half of the year will refresh your memory. Believe it or not, a lot of really good records have dropped so far in 2021. Here are 20 of them.

The Armed – Ultrapop

These hyperactive Detroit rockers specialize in merging combustible noise and frenetic rhythms with surprising bursts of bubblegum melody. Oh, and they’re also extremely ripped and sort of mysterious. On Ultrapop, they come on like a punk version of The Avengers, a highly enjoyable real-life comic book.

Julien Baker – Little Oblivions

The acclaimed singer-songwriter subtly expanded her spare, emotionally wrenching emo-folk sound on her third album. But while Little Oblivions is lusher than Baker’s previous releases, the confessional authenticity of her past work remains unvarnished. You’ll want a box of tissues to be handy before you press play.

Bonnie “Prince” Billy and Matt Sweeney – Superwolves

You might recognize this indie-rock dynamic duo from their classic mid-aughts collaboration Superwolf. While their paths have only fitfully intersected since then, I always hoped that Matt Sweeney and Will Oldham would find reason to work together again. On Superwolves, they pick up pretty much where they left off, spinning mournful songs with a malevolent undertow.

Black Midi – Cavalcade

This buzzy British outfit emerged a few years back just in time keep the “lad guitar band” trend alive. Though you can’t really pigeon-hole Black Midi. The generic “post-punk” signifier doesn’t do them justice — on their second full-length Cavalcade, they play highly theatrical songs that draw on an idiosyncratic mix of prog, goth, funk, and classical influences.

Dry Cleaning – New Long Leg

There is no shortage right now of British post-punk bands that deploy talky vocals, clanging guitars, and loose-limbed rhythm sections. Dry Cleaning certainly fits that mold, and while they don’t always transcend the conventions of this genre on their debut New Long Leg, lead singer Florence Shaw does have a strikingly unique presence that ultimately sets them apart.

Floatie – Voyage Out

This Chicago band makes jumpy and rhythmically intense guitar jams that unfold in mesmerizing fashion. Their latest album Voyage Out could be broadly classified as math rock, but that shouldn’t intimidate anyone not conversant with algebraic time signatures. The casual complexity never comes at the expense of winning melodies.

The Hold Steady – Open Door Policy

You expect a certain kind of thing from Hold Steady, namely bar-band rock with regionally specific, funny-sad lyrics. But on Open Door Policy, they have evolved sonically, integrating the more layered production of Craig Finn’s solo records (steered by excellent indie producer of the moment Josh Kaufman) into their bedrock, rough-and-tumble sound.

Home Is Where – I Became Birds

This Florida emo band has released one of the year’s most bracing and ecstatic rock records. Singer-songwriter Brandon MacDonald has expressed admiration for Bob Dylan, but their turbulent and explosive tunes instantly evoke the intensely spiritual expressions of prime-era Neutral Milk Hotel. This is the kind of record where if you hear it between the ages of 13 and 17, it might change your life.

Japanese Breakfast – Jubilee

Michelle Zauner has already put out one of the year’s most warmly received and bestselling memoirs in her debut book Crying In H Mart. But she’s also killing it with her regular job in Japanese Breakfast. The band’s latest, Jubilee, is their best and biggest sounding album to date, evoking the grand scale of big-tent indie classics from the ’90s and ’00s

Manchester Orchestra – The Million Masks Of God

These emo veterans have matured a lot over the years, evolving from a volatile post-hardcore outfit on albums like 2009’s Mean Everything To Nothing to the expansive and philosophical indie rock of their latest, The Million Masks Of God. Along the way, they’ve managed to somehow grow their audience while retaining committed fans who connected with the early records as teenagers, including famous acolytes like Phoebe Bridgers and Julien Baker.

Mannequin Pussy – Perfect

This Philadelphia punk band’s progression on albums like 2019’s Patience recalls the leap that Nirvana made from Bleach to Nevermind — the sound is more muscular, and the songs are much sharper and more assured. You hear that evolution continue on their great EP Perfect, which distills their mix of melody and venom to, well, perfection.

Mdou Moctar – Afrique Victime

While these are hardly great times for guitar heroes, at least those of us who still enjoy a good shred can dig into desert rock from Africa. One of the most exciting stars of this scene is unquestionably Mdou Moctar, whose latest album, Afrique Victime, not only displays his thrilling, Hendrix-inspired technique, but also his sensitive and politically minded songwriting, which achieves a new peak here.

Jimmy Montague – Casual Use

Imagine if Jim O’Rourke had joined Wilco after Yankee Hotel Foxtrot and together they decided to make a Chicago record. I think it would sound a lot like Casual Use, a loving homage to ’70s soft rock by recovering emo rocker James Palko, who’s a natural with arranging horns and strings over laidback but insistently sticky melodies.

Silver Synthetic – Silver Synthetic

I’m always on the lookout for some choogle — newbies are encouraged to learn about this mystical musical element by listening to this — especially now that the weather is getting warmer. Thank goodness for this band from New Orleans, one of the great American choogle meccas, who make chunky, feel-good jams with steady but chilled rhythms.

Spirit Of The Beehive – ENTERTAINMENT, DEATH

This experimental Philadelphia outfit creates highly unnerving soundscapes that set out to disquiet or possibly just annoy audiences. Is this punk? Industrial? Art-damaged synth-pop? A psy-op? Whatever else can be said of Spirit Of The Beehive’s latest effort, ENTERTAINMENT, DEATH, you can’t say it sounds like any other indie album released this year, or in any other year.

Sunburned Hand Of The Man – Pick A Day To Die

When the going gets tough, the tough get weird. And times this exceedingly weird call out for a band like Sunburned Hand Of The Man, the free rock collective that gratefully reassembled for their first album in a decade. If you wish the Grateful Dead sounded more like Can, this is the album for you.

The Reds, Pinks, and Purples – Uncommon Weather

This project spearheaded by San Francisco singer-songwriter Glenn Donaldson put out their album on Slumberland Records because they had to. Uncommon Weather is the most Slumberland album that ever Slumberlanded. It’s just the ticket for anyone whose heart starts to ache at the sound of jangly guitars, a shambolic rhythm section, and sweet sad-dude vocals.

Ryley Walker – Course In Fable

A die-hard fan of the English pop-prog band Genesis and a devout student of Chicago post-rock, this singer-songwriter has somehow merged these influences on his best album, stitching together multi-part songs heavy on wonky guitar solos and unexpected time signature changes. In the studio, he was assisted by John McEntire, a Chicago indie legend known for his work with Tortoise and The Sea And Cake. The result is one of 2021’s most unabashedly gorgeous and grand indie records.

Wild Pink – A Billion Little Lights

On previous Wild Pink albums, John Ross wrote sensitive story songs about millennial ennui set to surging synth-based rock, producing a rich, stirring sound. On the new A Billion Little Lights, Wild Pink integrates Americana instrumentation like pedal-steel guitar and fiddle into his usual heartland rock mix, producing an even more epic surge.

Yasmin Williams – Urban Driftwood

There is no shortage of instrumental guitar albums in the underground primitive scene, and while many of them are pleasant enough they rarely distinguish themselves from the pack. And then there’s Yasmin Williams, whose new Urban Driftwood is one of the best instrumental guitar records to come out lately. This record is like medicine for anxious souls.

SPECIAL BONUS SELECTION: Van Morrison – Latest Record Project, Volume 1

The year’s funniest trainwreck and a record I find myself weirdly compelled to revisit. It is not a great album. But it’s not nearly as bad as it could have been or perhaps should have been. And knowing myself and my sick habits, I expect to eventually talk myself into thinking it’s actually a subversive masterpiece. Stay tuned.

Some artists covered here are Warner Music artists. Uproxx is an independent subsidiary of Warner Music Group.