Half a year in and already 2021 is shaping up to be a corker – in terms of albums, at least. While the outside world remains bleak, today’s artists have stepped up to the plate to deliver us mood-changing escapism, hard-hitting realism and everything in between. If the second half of the year is as musically rich as the first, we’re in for a real treat. For now, and in no particular order, here are the best albums of 2021 so far.
Shame, ‘Drunk Tank Pink’
After casting a sardonic punk spell on our hearts with their 2018 debut ‘Songs Of Praise’, Shame’s return found them struggling with life off the road and grappling with their identities back in the real world. The south Londoners’ second album drilled into chaos and claustrophobia, dove into their dreams to find answers and headed for the highlands to party with a man known as Acid Dad. The journey it went on was often intense, but equally as inventive – a fitting representation of the path you often take to discover who you really are.
NME said: “‘Drunk Tank Pink’ confirms Shame’s status as one of the most exciting bands at the forefront of British music. Long may they reign there.”
Celeste, ‘Not Your Muse’
In early 2020, Celeste was the most hyped-up artist in the country – a fortunate but also potentially dangerous place to be for a musician who had yet to release their debut album. If there was a risk of the noise around her growing too loud, ‘Not Your Muse’ silenced those fears spectacularly. Self-assured and elegant, it showcased an artist worthy of all the acclaim and more, able to break your heart at one moment and lift you up the next.
NME said: “There may be elements of these greats like Amy Winehouse, Aretha Franklin and Billie Holiday in her vocals, but as ‘Not Your Muse’ proves, Celeste is on her way to becoming a star in her own right.”
Sleaford Mods, ‘Spare Ribs’
With Sleaford Mods’ commitment to telling it like it is, it would be easy – in these especially bleak times – for their latest album ‘Spare Ribs’ to have capitulated under all the doom. Instead, it danced through gallows humour and jagged post-punk riffs, the duo breathing new life into their oeuvre with new collaborations and more darkly funny one-liners. It raged, but still managed to find the light – a lesson for us all.
NME said: “The extraordinary ‘Spare Ribs’ is graffiti on a concrete wall; there’s no manifesto, no easy answers and nowhere to hide.”
Claud, ‘Super Monster’
Growing up might be hard but, on their debut album, Claud effortlessly captures the highs and lows of coming of age. The rising bedroom-pop artist, who comes with a literal Phoebe Bridgers co-sign after being snapped up by her label Saddest Factory, deftly details the complexities of young love over a patchwork of genres, from funk-pop to pop-punk.
NME said: “The honesty and authenticity of the situations [sung about] gives the album its emotional resonance, but Claud has the bonafide pop ear to back it up.”
Chung Ha, ‘Querencia’
Packing the same blues-busting escapist energy as Dua Lipa’s ‘Future Nostalgia’, Chung Ha’s debut album whisked us off around the world and into her own universe. The globe-trotting ‘Querencia’ pulled from the sounds of Latin America, the Caribbean, European synth-pop, Afrobeat and more to create a boundary-free utopia that offered flirty fun, self-empowerment and doses of empathy. A sublime and addictive first full-length release from one of K-pop’s most in-demand stars.
NME said: “If its title refers to a place where you can be your true self, then this album reflects its creator as a curious, confident and passionate artist whose songs help make the world feel that little bit bigger again.”
Genesis Owusu, ‘Smiling With No Teeth’
On his debut album, the Ghanian-Australian solo artist put his own spin on modern hip-hop, bringing avant-garde flashes and a liberating individualism to the genre. Lyrically, Genesis Owusu took on subjects that were incredibly personal but had universal scope – the impact of racism on his own mental health, toxic relationships, and hiding your struggles to make others feel more comfortable. The combination is powerful and uniquely boundary-pushing.
NME said: “Genesis Owusu has delivered a riveting album that underscores the power of self-knowledge, perspective and art – one that should be cranked loud.”
Dry Cleaning, ‘New Long Leg’
“I just want to put something positive into the world but it’s hard because I’m so full of poisonous rage,” sighed Florence Shaw at the end of ‘Every Day Carry’, guitars squalling around her. She shouldn’t be so hard on herself – ‘New Long Leg’ is a beacon of surrealist humour, psych-tinged post-punk and kitchen sink references that brightens up the world in one listen.
NME said: “Influenced by newspaper headlines, shop front taglines and finding beauty in the everyday, Shaw’s lyricism thrives in concealing devastating one-liners within verses about Müller Corners and Antiques Roadshow.”
For Those I Love, ‘For Those I Love’
Grief is something that has loomed over society in the last 15 months and the debut album from Dublin’s For Those I Love offered a musical friend to those struggling with it. Written after David Balfe’s best friend and musical partner Paul Curran took his own life, the record recalled happy, precious memories and highlighted the power of community and support. Most important of all, though, it urged listeners to keep going: “If you can grasp it, own it, deal with it, you can heal with it.”
NME said: “‘For Those I Love’ is not only an immaculate debut, but a beautiful record that speaks to anyone who’s ever loved and lost, anyone who might be mourning or just processing the days of youthful abandon, or perhaps those who need reminding that you can’t have shadows without the light.”
AJ Tracey, ‘Flu Game’
AJ Tracey’s second album might have been packed with big-name cameos – from T-Pain to Kehlani – but the real highlight was the growth and development of the West London MC himself. Making tracks that sound at home on chart radio is often seen as a negative – as though the songs might lack soul or creativity – but AJ Tracey proved on ‘Flu Game’ that isn’t always the case, scoring radio-friendly, hook-heavy hits that flew between vulnerable and supremely confident.
NME said: “‘Flu Game’ cements AJ Tracey as a commercially successful rapper still discovering new ways to craft hooks and clever wordplay.”
Girl In Red, ‘If I Could Make It Go Quiet’
Louder and rowdier than her early material, Girl In Red’s debut album added a new facet to the poignant, personal songwriter that first came to the world’s attention: guitar-shredding party-starter. Just because Marie Ulven decided to go off on the record, though, didn’t mean she’d waved goodbye to her introspective lyric-writing – the album still invited you into her inner thoughts, be they raging against characters in her life or processing struggles with mental health.
NME said: “A cinematic widening of scope, ’If I Could Make It Go Quiet’ occasionally leans back on some blockbuster tropes, but in the stand-out moments Ulven proves that she’s more than capable of rabble-rousing indie-rock and slow-burning yearning alike.”
Royal Blood, ‘Typhoons’
An album about a frontman’s struggles with sobriety might not sound like it would be much fun – but, on their third record, Royal Blood managed to open up and vulnerably share Mike Kerr’s story while packing in grooves that make you want to move. The results were both euphoric and intimate; a celebration of making it through a dark time and an ode to honest, brave songwriting.
NME said: “‘Typhoons’ is not only their best work to date, but all the better for Royal Blood being free to explore what they’re capable of.”
Lana Del Rey, ‘Chemtrails Over The Country Club’
After many delays, Lana Del Rey’s long-awaited follow-up to ‘Norman Fucking Rockwell!’ finally arrived in March and it was worth the wait. Leaning deeper into the 21st century Joni Mitchell sound she’d begun drifting towards on that 2019 album, the star sets ruminations on fame and romance to lush folk, intertwined with hip-hop elements. It doesn’t quite reach the same highs as ‘NFR!’, but it’s another dazzling collection that gets pretty close.
NME said: “More than just being influenced by the likes of Joan Baez and Stevie Nicks, she’s now on a par with them. Lana Del Rey is at the peak of her game – just don’t expect her to come down anytime soon.”
Arlo Parks, ‘Collapsed In Sunbeams’
Ahead of her debut album, Arlo Parks had garnered a reputation for being a moving, poetic songwriter whose creations could touch your soul. ‘Collapsed In Sunbeams’ reinforced that notion , sharing stories from her adolescence that gently drifted through a spectrum of emotions and offered wisdom and empathy as the journey continued. If there was any doubt that Parks is a singular, special talent before – and there really shouldn’t have been – this album made it resoundingly clear.
NME said: “Arlo Parks may be the voice of Gen Z, but there’s no doubt that this is a universal collection of stories that’ll provide solace for listeners of all ages and backgrounds for decades to come.”
Squid, ‘Bright Green Field’
If the Squid that first got the buzz-o-meter flying told quirky stories about houseplants and Sonic Youth superfans, on their debut album the Brighton band took a dive into subject matter that’s a little more serious. Framed within the context of an imaginary cityscape, they take on right-wing propaganda and the evils of big corporations, setting their commentary to songs that veer from hook-filled bangers to avant-garde intriguers. It’s massively ambitious, but they pull it off brilliantly.
NME said: “From their very earliest material it was clear to tell that Squid would only be able to truly fulfil their potential when given the canvas of an album, on which to tell a story that ebbs and flows at a pace and route that they dictate. ‘On Bright Green Field’, in all of its weird, frantic and fantastic glory, they’ve gone above and beyond.”
Ghetts, ‘Conflict Of Interest’
After 20 years in the game, it’s rare for an artist to produce their best work yet. But that’s exactly what Ghetts did on his major label debut ‘Conflict Of Interest’. Earnest, autobiographical and full of powerful observations on life – and aided by some star turns from Ed Sheeran, Dave, Wretch 32 and more – the rapper proved he’s nowhere near past his peak yet.
NME said: “It’s a rare achievement to make an album as thoughtful and transparent as this; you need real lyrical talent to do so […] ’Conflict Of Interest’ could sit on the same shelf as Dave’s ‘Psychodrama’ as an album that depicts honest tales of London through the art of true lyricism, a tradition that will never die out.”
St. Vincent, ‘Daddy’s Home’
In Annie Clark’s latest character transformation, we found her in full-on ‘70s-sleaze mode, adopting a new ‘daddy’ role that’s both powerful and playful. Using her own father’s incarceration as a jump-off point, Clark filled the record with songs about humanity’s flawed citizens, crafting characters that leap through your speakers in 3D along with the gritty, funky fabric that the musician and her guitar weave throughout.
NME said: “‘Daddy’s Home’ is Clark’s most welcoming record yet, defined by an arch humour which also brings its listeners closer than ever, and filled with compassion for the characters who dwell within it.”
Black Midi, ‘Cavalcade’
Once London’s kings of buzz, since NME declared them the “best band in London” before releasing a single, Black Midi have settled into a journey that zigs and zags in the most unpredictable forms. Their second album gave us their most thrilling about-turn yet, screeching through noise rock, ambient folk and more in exhilarating fashion. Where will they go from here? We’ll just have to strap in and cling on to find out.
NME said: “One thing emphatically confirmed is that they’re miles beyond the flash-in-the-pan buzz band some pre-emptively penned them as. Whatever form, sound or shape they might gravitate towards next, it’s certain that they’re here to stay, and their intense fire shows no danger of burning out.”
Olivia Rodrigo, ‘Sour’
When Olivia Rodrigo released her debut single ‘Drivers License’ earlier this year, it took on a life of its own, refusing to be toppled from the peak of the charts or vacate the brain of anyone who’d listened to it, even just once. It was the kind of success that can silence an artist before they’ve even begun – how do you follow that? In Rodrigo’s case, the answer was to look to the angsty sounds of the ‘90s and ‘00s and repurpose them on a break-up album that sizzles with insecurities, jealousy, rage, heartbreak and begrudging acceptance.
NME said: “For the most part, Rodrigo has passed the bar she set on ‘Drivers License’, sharing with us an almost-masterpiece that’s equal parts confident, cool and exhilaratingly real. This is no flash-in-the-pan artist, but one we’ll be living with for years to come.
Easy Life, ‘Life’s A Beach’
With a concept that’s centred around aspiration and the romanticism of the seaside, Easy Life’s debut is a modern British gem. Like a day spent gorging on ice cream under the sun and wasting all your money trying to win at the arcade, it seesaws through its subject matter, egging you on before throwing an arm around your shoulder. All the while, it confirms the Leicester band’s status as one of the best new bands around.
NME said: “A melancholy streak runs through the album’s second half where tales of devotion (‘Lifeboat’), longing (‘Daydreams’) and ruminations on mental health and anxiety (‘Nightmares’, ‘Living Strange’) shine.”
Tomorrow X Together, ‘The Chaos Chapter: Freeze’
In pandemic life, everything feels like a struggle but spare a thought for those dealing with the usual trials of coming-of-age in amongst this global nightmare. As members of that generation, Tomorrow X Together put their stories at the forefront of ‘The Chaos Chapter: Freeze’, submerging themselves in frustration and cynicism. The optimists within them managed to win out though – their second album raced through the upbeat sounds of hyperpop, hip-hop and more, while reminding us of the power of love to get us through.
NME said: “Life might be bleak at the moment, but at least we have TXT to turn our many lemons into a wealth of lemonade.”
Wolf Alice, ‘Blue Weekend’
How do you follow up an album as perfect as 2017’s ‘Visions Of A Life’? In Wolf Alice’s case, by making a record that’s even more flawless; a widescreen, atmospheric beauty that sets the bar for British music. That’s exactly what ‘Blue Weekend’ is and does, offering stunning saunters through acerbic punk, cinematic indie, tender folk and more, while Ellie Rowsell’s poetic lyrics make you want to scream, swoon and sob throughout.
NME said: “Blue Weekend’ is the group’s most cohesive listen, and keeps intact the restless spirit that makes their work so unpredictable and exciting.”