Best albums of 2021 so far, from Olivia Rodrigo to Sons of Kemet

·6-min read
Sons of Kemet, Oliva Rodrigo, Wolf Alice, Nick Cave and Warren Ellis (Udoma Janssen/Jordan Hemingway/Joel Ryan)
Sons of Kemet, Oliva Rodrigo, Wolf Alice, Nick Cave and Warren Ellis (Udoma Janssen/Jordan Hemingway/Joel Ryan)

2021 hasn’t exactly been a vintage year, it seems fair to say. And while there’s plenty that we’re not exactly desperate to remember about these last six months, there has been one consistently good thing: the music.

Locked down and without any gigs to distract them, musicians have had more space to create. That’s not to say it hasn’t been a harrowing time for many – the lack of any touring income has left many artists with only their streaming pittances – but thankfully for us listeners, the steady stream of new music has, despite a few rejigged release dates, remained constant.

Here, we heap praise upon the artists who, amidst all the upheaval, have kept us entertained with some wonderful releases. From star-making debuts to legend-affirming collaborations, these are the 10 best albums of the year... so far.

Black Country, New Road — For the first time

This seven-piece built a reputation as unhinged must-sees in a south London scene centred around Brixton’s Windmill venue. Their new collection, titled For the first time, captures a lot of that raw early promise. There are only six songs, but several are epics that stride off in multiple directions at once. Sudden gear changes are frequent, and Lewis Evans’s saxophone frequently catches the listener unawares with a screeching arrival. The album packs in a career’s worth of ideas and suggests this band could go on to become something even more special.

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Slowthai — TYRON

On this second album, its title already implying that Tyron “Slowthai” Hampton is going to show listeners the real him, the aim is to display definitively how multi-faceted he is. It arrives in two halves, the A-side featuring seven rowdier songs with titles all in capitals, the flipside filled with lower case, relatively quiet material and some moments of genuine beauty. His half-slurred, half-yelped delivery is highly distinctive over the most basic of backings, but most of the productions on TYRON are rich with detail. There’s a lot to take in, but it’s well worth the time.

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Nick Cave and Warren Ellis — Carnage

Nick Cave says there was “nothing too premeditated” about this album with regular collaborator Warren Ellis, which “just fell out of the sky”, with its eight songs taking their initial shapes in just two and a half days, but if it’s a sketch, that’s far from obvious. It’s characterised by Cave’s portentous not-quite-singing being mixed with shimmering, abstract electronics, but there’s energy here, and a few touches that puncture the gravitas. Some moments are ominous and clanking, others are warm with a cooing choir. The latter is perhaps a reflection of the accessible, genuinely friendly Cave who has been answering fan questions with a “Love, Nick” over the past couple of years on his website The Red Hand Files – joyful in the easiest way, providing solace amid the communal catastrophe. What more could we ask for from a spontaneous gift?

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Wolf Alice — Blue Weekend

Previously a pick ‘n’ mix act – a bit of angry grunge here, some shoegazing blurriness there, bouncy indie pop elsewhere, with Rowsell singing in a range of vocal styles – it was hard to get a firm grasp on who Wolf Alice were. Now, while the sound still has a broad scope, from the punk wallop of Play the Greatest Hits to the barely plucked guitar and wispy melody of No Hard Feelings, there’s a take-it-or-leave-it confidence to every song. It’s clear they know exactly what they’re doing, and have no intention of backtracking on their ascent towards becoming one of the UK’s biggest bands.

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Ghetts — Conflict of Interest

Could Justin Clarke AKA Ghetts be the Greatest Of All Time in grime? Others are more recognisable to casual fans, but few have earned consistent acclaim for as long. This album, his major label debut, looks like his opportunity to turn critical love and huge respect within the grime scene into lucrative mainstream recognition, but he hasn’t gone pop. There are bursts of anger, and lots of subdued maturity, alongside some brighter moments. Overall, this is slow-moving, sophisticated fare befitting an elder statesman.

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Olivia Rodrigo — SOUR

In January Olivia Rodrigo, at the age of 17, went to number one all over the world with her brilliant song drivers licence, a heartbroken ballad about passing her driving test and forlornly circling her neighbourhood alone, longing for the ex who was supposed to be in the passenger seat. On her hugely anticipated debut album, which followed in May, she channelled songwriters she admires such as Taylor Swift and Lorde, and dramatised the tortured navigations of life as a young woman, employing small details to show a universal picture. It was all very over-emotional, but so is being a teenager today. There’s no one better suited to tell their tales.

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St Vincent — Daddy’s Home

Messing with the conventional is not a new thing for Annie Clark. And on her latest album as St Vincent, even the title — the trilby-on-the-hatstand call of American cliché — has a much darker meaning, referencing the time her father spent in jail. The story had already been exposed through newspaper dirt-digging, but this is her taking control of the narrative, and despite all that baggage, she sounds the most relaxed she’s ever been on record. Often more clever than fun in the past, here her guitar creates lush prog-rock textures. It’s a calm, beautiful experience, and despite the family-life connotations of the title, this is far from the sound of her settling down.

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Lana Del Rey — Chemtrails Over the Country Club

Lana Del Rey has always looked and sounded like someone who could ruin your life in a Raymond Chandler novel, and today her fastidious aesthetic seems less connected than ever to the whizzy preoccupations of the livestreaming, TikTok-ing pop world. Despite toying with big-selling duet partners before, here the collaborators are less well-known, while her style is unconcerned with trending musical tropes too: on the track Yosemite, her distant, crackly voice sounds as though its being heard via a Jazz Age microphone. Like its creator, the album is off in a world of its own, free of commercial obligations and revelling in that autonomy. It’s a lovely place to visit.

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Squid — Bright Green Field

This Brighton band were fascinating from the off thanks to their inclusion of a singing drummer (!) but on their debut album, their intrigue spread far beyond the propulsive rhythms and elasticated yelps of Ollie Judge. They’re part of this new cohort of guitar-led bands that might seem like easy targets when it comes to naming and shaming their influences — Kraftwerk! Gang of Four! Joy Division! The Fall! — but to yell copycat accusations is to underappreciate the excoriating energy the band generate when hurtling along at top speed. Maybe it’s not the most original thing in the world, but it’s sure as hell exciting.

Sons of Kemet — Black to the Future

Shabaka Hutchings has always been a gifted collaborator and curator, and on Sons of Kemet’s latest album, those skills shine bright — he enlists the help of D Double E, Kojey Radical, Angel Bat Dawid and others on the record, and they all feel like vital compositional elements. Another of Hutchings’ tricks is to write music that’s both immediate and multi-layered; it’s impossible to resist the heavy rhythms he conjures, but beneath the surface, there are messages of anti-racism, identity and self-reflection here.

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