If 2020 was a year of scary and uncertain darkness, 2021 is so far a tentative sunrise. The world is getting vaccinated, people are making plans to do things outside of the house again, and overall, it’s starting to look like our planet and its inhabitants might just be okay.
While pointing out the good parts of a historically devastating pandemic isn’t the most obvious or even appropriate thing to do, it should be noted that 2020 at least delivered a ton of great music. Also during that time, artists had a year off from live shows and have been able (whether they liked it or not) to either write new material or finish stuff they hadn’t had the chance to properly wrap up. So, 2021 has brought and will presumably continue to deliver a new wave of exemplary music.
Some of these sounds reflect on the tough year that preceded them, others try to help us all sport smiles and move forward, and others yet check different boxes. Whatever the case, there’s been a lot of music to be grateful for so far this year. That’s as important now as it’s been during any other time in recent memory, so let’s go through the best albums of 2021 so far, presented below in alphabetical order. Please note that December 2020 albums are eligible to be included here, as they came out too late for our 2020 lists.
Another Michael – New Music And Big Pop
It takes a mere 31 seconds for the opening track of Another Michael’s debut album to capture your full attention, when frontman Michael Doherty hits a falsetto so striking it is impossible to ignore. Across its ten tracks, New Music And Big Pop is imbued with a sense of liberation and raw talent that feels rare in 2021, a breath of fresh air that creates a unique lane and a promising future for the indie-folk trio. – Zac Gelfand
Arlo Parks – Collapsed In Sunbeams
With her poetic lyrics and vulnerable songwriting, UK singer Arlo Parks won over hearts with her debut album Collapsed In Sunbeams. The singer has earned co-signs by the likes of Michelle Obama and Dua Lipa, and it’s no secret as to why. Over shimmering harmonies, Parks is able to share catchy-yet-moving songs that resonate, exploring subject matters like queerness, teenage depression, and anxiety, and offers earworms about why it’s important to never lose hope. – Carolyn Droke
The Armed – Ultrapop
Are they called The Armed because the band members always look so jacked? Are these even really the band members? There’s so much mystery to this enigmatic noise-rock outfit, but what’s obvious is how much fun Ultrapop is. Chaotic soundscapes abound as always but there’s more melody and hooks to be had here than on previous records. It’s like if The Go! Team did crank for three days and then made a record. – Steven Hyden
Caleborate – Light Hit My Skin
Bay Area native Caleborate is one of few stalwarts of the indie rap scene who deserves placement here, mostly because Light Hit My Skin is the perfect showcase for what feats of creativity artists can be capable of away from the commercial expectations of the major-label system. In spots, it dazzles. It also asks listeners to think — about the world around, about the art they consume, and about themselves. Plus, it sounds lush, a true accomplishment when compared to the repetitive, bare-mininum production that often defines bigger-budget releases. – Aaron Williams
Claud – Super Monster
As the first artist to officially be signed to Phoebe Bridgers’ fêted Dead Oceans imprint, Sad Factory, (now featuring the queer trio Muna as well) Claud’s sparkling sad-pop anthems are a fitting foil to Bridgers’ own terrifically depressing tunes. Super Monster is 21-year-old Claud Mintz’s first official album, but it’s by no means their initial foray into music. The artist formerly known as toast has been making delightfully left-field pop songs for the past two years or so, and they’ve honed in on that sound with confidence on this surprising, gentle debut record. – Caitlin White
DDG – Die 4 Respect
DDG’s imminent path to rap stardom is found on his mixtape Die 4 Respect. Helmed by production from the Grammy Award-nominated and legend OG Parker, a sound is developed as DDG establishes his own style of rap. Though the current star of the show is the pop-based TikTok track “Impatient” with Coi Leray, Die 4 Respect is loaded with so many hidden smashes outside of the previously released “Rule #1” featuring Lil Yachty, “Money Long” with 42 Dugg and of course, the platinum-certified “Moonwalking In Calabasas.” The melodic “Hakuna Matata” is a storytelling number about what it took to get out of his hometown of Pontiac, Michigan and “Let em Go” is the tale of how it goes when fame hits. At this point, it’s hard to deny DDG’s artistry. If you’re reading this, it’s probably not too late to give Die 4 Respect a spin. – Cherise Johnson
Girl In Red – If I Could Make It Go Quiet
Girl In Red may have gotten her start writing gentle pop songs in her bedroom, but with her debut album If I Could Make It Go Quiet, the Norwegian songwriter positions herself as a major indie pop contender. Altering between heartbreak and horniness, the album boasts smoldering hooks and towering choruses that sometimes veer into pop-punk territory. Her cutting-edge alt-pop songs about queer relationships have even made the question “Do you listen to girl in red?” become a discrete way to find out if a crush is gay. – C.D.
Guapdad 4000 – 1176
From its opening track’s clever Alice Deejay rework to its closer’s raw, gut-wrenching storytelling, the Oakland native’s latest release is 100 percent authentic to who he is. Though he’s primarily known as a comedic figure, here, he gets tender, delivering heartwarming odes to the flavors of his youth (“Chicken Adobo“) and poignant plugs to partnerships ruined by split attentions (“PlayStation“). And still, despite his commitment to peeling back the layers and hailing his Filipino heritage, he’s wiling to remain a little goofy on tracks like “She Wanna” with fellow Bay Arean P-Lo. – A.W.
Jazmine Sullivan – Heaux Tales
It’s been so long since the R&B game heard a full project from Jazmine Sullivan and Heaux Tales satisfyingly came through at the top of 2021. The words Jazmine sings are relatable hymns found out through time and wisdom, are what make this collection of songs inspired by stories from the women in her life truly special. “This process and making the project helped me to do that by listening to the tales of other women, my girlfriends, and older women,” she told Uproxx in an exclusive interview. “Bodies (Intro)” alone is a moment that many women may have found themselves in at one point in time when it comes to making sure sexual needs are met after a cocktail or two. “Pick Up Your Feelings” reiterates a classy new mindset of what it means to have a hot girl summer. – C.J.
Joyce Wrice – Overgrown
Joyce Wrice is without a doubt one of this year’s brightest and most promising newcomers in the R&B world. The LA native shared her debut album, Overgrown, at the beginning of the year and while it flaunted her youthful spirit and cheery vocals, Wrice also injected enough maturity and wisdom in the project’s 14 songs to deliver her intended message without error: Indecision and false hope are two things she won’t deal with in love. – Wongo Okon
Julien Baker – Little Oblivions
The contradiction of Little Oblivions is that it’s the most musically inviting album that Julien Baker has yet made, and also her most lyrically devastating, observing a period of personal upheaval. The extra heft added to the guitars and rhythm section nudges her closer to a full-on rock record. Somehow, the emotional brutality of the words melds with the uplifting beauty of the music, perhaps giving Baker some peace in the process. – S.H.
Kota The Friend – To Kill A Sunrise
It’d be easy to write off Kota The Friend and Statik Selektah’s collaborative effort To Kill A Sunrise as “just another backpack rap album,” if not for the laser focus of its execution, the earnestness of Kota’s rhymes, and the intensity that emanates from each of its 10 tracks. It’s a vibe that says it’s cool to just, like, enjoy the process. Unlike J. Cole’s The Off-Season, Kota raps with nothing to prove, and the lightness and enjoyment with which he does is infectious. – A.W.
Lana Del Rey – Chemtrails Over The Country Club
Confounding, canceled, and always coquettish, Lana Del Rey managed to drop an album that can stand up to the best of her career while even long-term fans were rolling their eyes at her endless social media gaffes and tone-deaf “rebuttals.” But maybe Lana does best when she’s under pressure, managing to turn in the breezy and beautiful Chemtrails Over The Country Club despite all the noise. With the finest take on folk-pop since music critics started scorning the Laurel Canyon vibes, Del Rey comes out on top again. It’s not a statement record like Norman F*cking Rockwell but a gentle, whispering one, the kind Jackson Browne and her own beloved Joni used to deliver. – C.W.
Lil Tjay – Destined 2 Win
Of all the 20-something New York rappers utilizing the singsong flow pioneered in large part by A Boogie Wit Da Hoodie, Bronx rapper Lil Tjay is perhaps the most versatile. He illustrates as much on the wide-ranging Destined 2 Win (shout out to the power of manifestation), where he contemplates heartbreak on “Love Hurts” and turns up on the jaunty “Oh Well.” He even displays a penchant for broader ranging, tough guy taunts on “Headshot” with his longtime partner-in-rhyme Polo G. – A.W.
Manchester Orchestra – The Million Masks Of God
Manchester Orchestra have spent the better part of the last two decades as one of the biggest emo bands on the planet, known for their emotive and volatile brand of post-hardcore. The Atlanta band’s latest album, The Million Masks Of God, features the their grandest vision to date, delivering a collection of what Steven Hyden called for Uproxx “expansive and philosophical indie rock” tracks inspired by the death of guitarist Robert McDowell’s father. – Z.G.
Mdou Moctar – Afrique Victime
Afrique Victime is loaded with moments where this Nigerian phenom steps out of the song in order to ram his guitar directly into your guts. He does this for emotional effect, bending and blurring notes with the furious energy that defines one of his most obvious influences, Jimi Hendrix. But you suspect that Moctar also believes that ripping off a sick solo is extremely dope, which on this record it absolutely is. – S.H.
Moneybagg Yo – A Gangsta’s Pain
While A Gangsta’s Pain is only Moneybagg Yo’s fourth album, the project is a part of more than 15 projects he’s released since 2012. Known for his braggadocious bars and nonchalant approach to seemingly anything that doesn’t benefit him, A Gangsta’s Pain, which saw help from Polo G, Jhene Aiko, and more, found the Memphis rapper effectively tap into his emotions and how the pains of yesterday affected him. It’s an illuminating look at what created the rapper and man he is today. – W.O.
Nick Cave / Warren Ellis – Carnage
Nick Cave has proven to be hard to predict: Just since March, he’s voiced a “virtual midsummer forest” in an online theater production and released two songs inspired by a letter from a fan. So, it shouldn’t have been a tremendous shock when he released Carnage, an album made alongside Warren Ellis that Cave says was made with risk-taking and “an accelerated process of intense creativity.” It’s one of the finest offerings of his already incredible career. – Derrick Rossignol
Olivia Rodrigo – Sour
Olivia, what’s left to say? Dominating 2021 from the jump with her darkly sad, magnificently constructed “Drivers License,” Rodrigo proved she wasn’t a one-trick-pony ten times over on the simple, eleven-track Sour. Veering from pop-punk to delicate electronic-laced anthems, to even folk-infused harmonies on one of the album’s sleeper cuts, “Favorite Crime,” Rodrigo proved that she has the range — and it only took her 34 minutes. All this quick, efficient pop record did was make fans want another one. And another one. And another one. – C.W.
Origami Angel – Gami Gang
The sophomore album from Washington, DC duo Origami Angel is a sprawling double LP that transcends the traditional boundaries of emo and puts on full display the band’s knack for catchy and undeniable songwriting. With tracks ranging from borderline metalcore to intimate folk punk, Gami Gang feels like nothing short of a modern punk masterpiece, fraught with intricate guitar insanity and impressive vocal hooks that show the band won’t be stopping anytime soon on their way to the big leagues. – Z.G.
Pink Sweats – Pink Planet
Unlike most, Philly singer Pink Sweats endured an extended wait between his breakout moment, his debut single “Honesty,” and the arrival of his debut album, Pink Planet. The latter appeared nearly three years after the former and while it was certainly a long wait for those who got acquainted with the singer early, Pink Planet proved to be an excellent display of Pink’s artistry as it honed in on the qualities listeners were familiar and introduced new ones that made his music more enjoyable. – W.O.
Pooh Shiesty – Shiesty Season
Pooh Shiesty’s highly-anticipated debut mixtape Shiesty Season came with evergreen hits in the chamber. He put his hometown of Memphis on full display through his lyrics and let everyone know what time he’s on over beats crafted by eerie beats. “Back In Blood” featuring Lil Durk stars one of the most prominent lines used to assert allegiance: “Pooh Shiesty that’s my dog, but Pooh you know I’m really shiesty.” Songs such as “Neighbors” with Big30, “Ugly” featuring 1017 general Gucci Mane, and “Box Of Churches” with 21 Savage offer a peek into what can become of Pooh Shiesty musically since he’s just getting started. Though Pooh’s rise happened during the pandemic, nothing is stopping Shiesty Season from its inevitable reign. – C.J.
Rico Nasty – Nightmare Vacation
Coming in hot at the end of 2020, Rico Nasty’s long-awaited debut turned out to be everything longtime fans could have hoped for from the eclectic DMV native. With forays into the thrash-rap that helped make her name on “OH FR?” and “STFU,” floaty, cotton-candy trap on “Own It” and “Don’t Like Me,” and splashy hyperpop on “iPhone,” Rico deftly displays every facet of her weird-girl style, delivering a debut that truly has something for everyone. – A.W.
Rod Wave – Soul Fly
Rod Wave’s latest had something of a bumpy road to its release but once that road cleared, the Florida native easily coasted to an impressive chart debut, buttressed by his velvet vocals on tracks like “Richer,” “Street Runner,” and “Tombstone.” Even for fans who can’t relate to his traumatized tales of hood survival, his voice transmits every emotion needed to tap in and zone out. SoulFly is as soulful as trap music has ever been. – A.W.
Shelley FKA Dram – Shelley FKA DRAM
Three and a half years went by since Shelley (fka DRAM) dropped his debut album, Big Baby DRAM. At long last, he returned in April with his sophomore effort, Shelley FKA DRAM. It saw the Virginia native embrace the sultry love-driven ballads that appeared infrequently throughout his discography before this album. All in all, it made for an elegant and unblemished body of work that detailed the beauty behind a fearless love. – W.O.
Slowthai – Tyron
Casual American audiences might know Slowthai best from his raucous Tonight Show performance from early 2020. That uniquely high energy level can be found all over his sophomore album Tyron as well, although the UK rapper proves his versatility and also excels in tender moments, like on the James Blake-featuring “Feel Away.” – D.R.
St. Vincent – Daddy’s Home
A departure from the futuristic sounds heard on St. Vincent’s previous albums, Daddy’s Home takes a trip through the past. Trading in electrifying guitars for woozy sitars, the album leans heavily on iconography from the ‘70s in order to revisit her own complicated history. Her most personal album yet, Daddy’s Home vaguely sheds light on St. Vincent’s private life with dizzying production, dreamy chords, sultry back-up vocals, and her acerbic sense of humor to explore what it truly means to be a struggling artist. – C.D.
Sun June – Somewhere
Sun June previously told Uproxx that their second album, Somewhere, takes place at “a futuristic prom set in Albuquerque in a time where global warming has lapsed to a point of climate cooling.” Indeed, on Somewhere, there are handfuls of tender and hypnotic moments suited for a swaying embrace, the sort of calming blanket that can make any apocalypse more bearable, whether the world’s actually ending or it just feels like it. – D.R.
Taylor Swift – Evermore
Since the ever-prolific T. Swift managed to file her second album of 2020 after all the year-end lists had already been ranked, published, and debated, we have little choice but to take Evermore as a 2021 record. And since the project’s excellent bonus tracks “Right Where You Left Me” and “It’s Time To Go” were added to this year’s deluxe edition, we did technically already have new Taylor songs in 2021. Like the rest of this thick, folkish album, the songs hew close to Swift’s signature storytelling style, sprinkling in banjo twang and elevated strings that bring her closer to her best self than ever before. – C.W.
Topaz Jones – Don’t Go Tellin Your Momma
When Topaz Jones stepped away from the limelight in the wake of viral single “Tropicana,” it wasn’t just because he didn’t want to be stuck rhyming about fruit juice. Instead, he examined himself both as an artist and as a man and came back with the introspective, observational, and terrifically musical Don’t Go Tellin’ Your Mama. Like Kendrick Lamar with To Pimp A Butterfly, Jones threw out what had worked in the past, opting for something smart, experimental, and deeply personal. Tell a friend. – A.W.
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 that evoked a cross between Death Cab For Cutie and Lost In The Dream. For Wild Pink’s latest, Ross pursues a big, lush sonic canvas that integrates Americana instrumentation like pedal-steel guitar and fiddle into his usual heartland rock mix. – S.H.
Some artists covered here are Warner Music artists. Uproxx is an independent subsidiary of Warner Music Group.