With the first quarter of 2021 almost done, we asked our writers a simple question: what has been their favourite album of the year so far? Here are the records that have grabbed us most...
(And here's to another nine months of great music.)
Arab Strap - As Days Get Dark
Key Track: 'The Turning of Our Bones'
With it's opening track 'The Turning of Our Bones', Scottish duo Arab Strap make one thing very clear: their comeback is not to be some nostalgic grab at vinyl cash (as if there's much of that to be had anyway), but a glorious standalone statement that should reach the highest branches of Best Album End of Year lists. The cinematic alchemy of that opening track - its mesmerising guitar loop, its build and denouement, its dark, sensual lyrics - are quite simply spectacular. And then comes 'Another Clockwork Day' with its touching melancholy and playful use of lyrics. And then the dastardly sounds of 'Compersion, Pt.1'. And then. And then And then... (Jessie Atkinson) Full review.
Mogwai - As The Love Continues
Key Track: 'Ritchie Sacramento'
After a rocky start to what we all hoped to be a fresh beginning and an optimistic brand new year, four-piece Mogwai returned in February with As The Love Continues, an album so full of riveting lyrical ideas ("Arise crystal spear, fly-through over me / Suddenly gone from here") and dream-like sonic ambience, it may just have the spell to cast a little magic on these most gloomy of days.
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Incorporating flavours from lo-fi Indie to Eno-like soundscapes, Mogwai boast their innovative and eccentric musical skills whilst maintaining a solid amount of intrigue, unpretentiousness and unexpectedness throughout. Album highlight, ‘Ritchie Sacramento’ a grandiose outing for wailing guitars and alternating rhythms, demonstrates Mogwai’s artistic capabilities as a band and with its Placebo-Esque swagger is crying out to be performed live. (Harrison Smith) Full review.
Shame – Drunk Tank Pink
Key Track: 'Water in the Well'
With a band as young as this South London five piece, it seems weird to start talking about maturity. But that's precisely the vibe that Shame's second album Drunk Tank Pink gives off. Where their pre-pandemic debut Songs of Praise oozed energy, songs like 'Water In The Well' and 'Snow Day' saw them enjoying the sharper focus that endless touring brings, while lyrically they indicated a clear move on to more philosophical and self-explanatory territory. The title refers to a colour specifically designed to stop tempers flaring, but Shame, if this LP is anything to go on, are just getting better and better at targeting their anger. (Ben Willmott) Full review.
The Pretty Reckless - Death By Rock and Roll
Key Track: 'Rock And Roll Heaven'
The Pretty Reckless launched into 2021 with their most sophisticated sound yet. Dealing with grief and tragedy, Death by Rock and Roll speaks to listeners going through the same thing, and it’s certainly one of the most relevant albums of the difficult year we’ve had so far. The mix of alternative sounds that you can find on the album is what makes it stand out as a fierce record: the opening title track is an anthemic ode to classic rock, while the deeply emotive ‘Rock and Roll Heaven’ injects elements of country-rock into the album’s sound. Death by Rock and Roll features contributions from Rage Against The Machine’s Tom Morello and Soundgarden’s Matt Cameron and Kim Thayil – more than just good marketing, these collaborating artists are integral to the songs on which they feature.
The whole album is cohesive and painstakingly detailed – from its structure to its atmospheric lyrics, each listen opens the door to new details that you missed the first time around. (Vicky Greer) Full review.
Sleaford Mods - Spare Ribs
Key Track: 'Nudge It'
Given that the irrepressible Sleaford Mods have kept up an impressively prolific outout in recent years, it's somewhat of a mystery as to exactly why this album should provide the duo with a breakthrough moment. We can offer a few answers. The early January release certainly helped to ensure a Top 10 chart placing, and the fantastic dayglo yellow artwork looked great on billboards, but mainly it was the songs. 'Shortcumings' pointed its ire at the country's least favourite Covid rule breaker, while, conversely, 'Mork & Mindy', which featured Billy Nomates back when no-one really knew who she was, showed a shift in mood away from the political to the more personal. All of course, delivered via some whoppingly catchy earworms as ever. (Ben Willmott) Full review.
Viagra Boys - Welfare Jazz
Key Track: 'Girls & Boys'
Welfare Jazz is a wonderful album: an album about love, redemption and acceptance. It's a narrative chronicling a man's journey from scumbag to...slightly less of a scumbag. It’s classic stuff really: a beautiful record. It’s also really nasty. Welfare Jazz is the kind of album that you might need a bath after, whether it’s the squalid post-punk grooves of opener ‘Ain’t Nice’ or the surprising New Wave turn on ‘Creatures’, the album is uncomfortable in the best way possible. Humour also lights the way, with satritical lyrics abounding. All of this culminates with the John Prine cover ‘In Spite Of Ourselves’ (feat. Amy Taylor of Amyl And The Sniffers) which leaves with the life-affirming statement: ‘We'll end up a-sittin' on a rainbow/Against all odds/Honey, we're the big door prize/We're gonna spite our noses/Right off of our faces/There won't be nothin' but big old hearts/Dancin' in our eyes’. (Jack Vincent) Full review.
Black Country, New Road - For The First Time
Key Track: 'Track X'
Even a month after its release, there’s still more to discover about the Black Country, New Road record. From the opening ‘Instrumental’, a track that feels as much like a sudden dunking in ice cold water as it does a call to dance, to the closing freak-out on ‘Opus’, For The First Time is packed with so many ideas and diversions as to make it daunting to begin with ...the pulsing heart at its centre, ’Track X’ becoming more twinkly-eyed with every play. Obviously, with nine minute-plus tracks and general air of avant-garde chaos, it’s understandably not for everyone - but for those it does click with, then it’s like new doors being opened in your mind. Most exciting of all for those who have caught the band live either in the flesh or on a stream, songs like the so-far unreleased ‘Basketball Shoes’ are giving all the signs that this is only the beginning. (Jamie Macmillan) Full review.
Genesis Owusu – Smiling With No Teeth
Key Track: 'The Other Black Dog'
Saul Williams' The Inevitable Rise and Fall meets Prince's 1999 in this 53-minute trip through overcoming depression, racial stereotyping and toxic relationships. This hip-hop album remains consistently inconsistent throughout as Genesis’s impeccable lyricism is thrown against a backdrop of funk, noise, rock and pop, the end result of which is one of the most exciting albums of the year so far.
Genesis Owusu makes waves with his first full length LP, Smiling With No Teeth. The album has range, which reaches far and wide as tracks like 'On The Move' - that come packed with yelling vocals and punchy production - are balanced out by the likes of 'I Don’t See Colour', filled with monotone flow, high-pitched vocals and a funky, evangelic mix. Despite such a varying style throughout, the album remains cohesive and the tracks flow into one another seamlessly. The combination of different emotions and topics, along with the unpredictability in production leads to one of the most gripping listening experiences of 2021 so far. (Dale Maplethorpe) Full review.
Ashnikko - DEMIDEVIL
Key Track: 'Slumber Party'
Ashnikko’s DEMIDEVIL: an album that totally encapsulates the pop culture of today. Ashnikko has seamlessly infiltrated TikTok and everything surrounding it. Although, DEMIDEVIL is so much more than just that: it’s a modern femme’s love letter to being unapologetically sensual, sexy and beautifully crude. True to Ashnikko’s chaotic flair, she writes about breakups, sex toys and reinvents Avril Lavigne’s 'Sk8er Boi'. Not to mention the frankly iconic concept track that is 'Clitoris! the Musical'. After two hugely successful EPs and a multitude of viral singles, Ashnikko’s debut is truly unrivalled; she is the modern figurehead of female sexuality, un-centring cis men from being the peak of sexuality. Every single track on DEMIDEVIL is meticulously thought through with not one bad song on this album. It deserves so much more; to be absolutely, wildly received in clubs. (Willow Shields) Full review.
Arlo Parks - Collapsed In Sunbeams
Key Track: 'Hurt'
January brought about the release of Arlo Parks’ stunning debut Collapsed In Sunbeams. Such a mesmerisingly beautiful and romantic LP, it was the perfect cure for January blues. Arlo’s strength lies firmly in her lyricism- the minor details that she describes with such eloquence and precision really allows you to get totally engrossed in the world she has created, though I could listen to Arlo sing a shopping list and be equally unable to tear myself away.
The instrumentation on this album draws from soul and trip-hop to create a soundscape that accompanies Parks’ poetry succinctly. It adds a real depth and warmth to the record whilst allowing the lyrics to take centre stage and really shine. Parks is headed for the very top and at only 20, we can’t wait to hear her sound develop. (Charlie Brock) Full review.
Madlib - Sound Ancestors
Key Track: 'Hopprock'
Although widely known for being one of the most prolific and critically-acclaimed hip-hop producers of the 21st century, Madlib has very rarely been just Madlib. Best known for collaborations with the likes of MF DOOM (Madvillain), J Dilla (Jaylib) and Freddie Gibbs (MadGibbs), Madlib has throughout his four-decade spanning career also brought us almost as many alter egos as there are records in his discography. Arranged and edited by Four Tet, Sound Ancestors is a collection of Madlib beats embellished into a harmonious full-length album. Another collaboration on paper, yet while there are tints of Four Tet-ness shining through at times, Sound Ancestors feels like a Madlib album from start to finish.
The record is an exhibit of Madlib’s ear for samples and in signature Madlib style , they are often left raw and unmanipulated, shining brightly without regard for genre or style restrictions. However, Sound Ancestors is more than a set of ideas, seamlessly tied together by Four Tet, it is arguably Madlib’s most cohesive solo effort so far. We may only be a few months into 2021, but we have a feeling the album will feature on many end of year roundups come December. (Sofie Lindevall)
slowthai - TYRON
Key Track: 'nhs'
A fourteen track album sliced into two, TYRON - the second album from Northampton rapper slowthai - is a lyrical and melodic piece of art. The first seven tracks bring about a flavour of the debut album Nothing Great About Britain, with tracks such as ‘MAZZA’ and ‘CANCELLED’ featuring industry greats A$AP Rocky and Skepta. The second half of the album meanwhile, encourages a gentler, more muted sound. Quite clearly mirroring the fact that many of TYRON’s tracks were written throughout the pandemic, ‘nhs’ offers relatable lyrics for all, succinctly exclaiming: "same old shit, just a different day".
A particular standout from the album - ‘feel away’ - displays a more meditative and soulful vibe, featuring James Blake and Mount Kimbie. It contributes to the softer-cut final seven tunes, in which slowthai embraces an arguably more vulnerable side. Regardless, all fourteen tracks of TYRON are crafted impeccably. Far from the controversies which had previously clouded his name, slowthai hits the spot with this album, allowing the music to do the talking for him. (Niamh Ingram) Full review.
Lana Del Rey - Chemtrails Over The Country Club
Never one to stagnate, Lana tries new things with the sonic palette that swirls in the snow globe of Chemtrails Over The Country Club. On ‘Dark But Just A Game’, a sultry bassline plumbs the depths of the song’s bittersweet approach to fame, while a tambourine keeps a sleepy beat. With 'Tulsa Jesus Freak', autotune runs quitely rampant - its glitches so subtle as to easily be missed. The entire effect is one of catching far-off music on the breeze: a hint of Latin nylon guitar on 'Yosemite'; the smallest taste of saxophone on 'Dance Till We Die'.
“Honey, you make me feel like I’m invincible. It's just like I wanted” Lana sings on ‘Yosemite’, one of several standout tracks on Chemtrails Over The Country Club. It’s the kind of line that Rosemary Hoyt might deliver in Tender Is The Night: defiantly romantic, tragically beautiful, and penned by a true legend of American culture. (Jessie Atkinson) Full review.
For Those I Love - For Those I Love
For Those I Love is an album designed for both the vastest of venues and most intimate of spaces. Balfe’s inspiring testament to Curran, his friends and his family is the execution of a true artistic vision because it comes from a place of such clear authenticity.
As a result, it becomes more than just a gloriously category-free album that refuses to settle in any one place. In our current cultural and political moment, it reminds us in the clearest possible fashion of the validity of masculine emotional openness. Balfe’s wounded outpourings are all too seldom heard from male voices across society, and for that reason, this is an album that will rightly be remembered for years to come. (Ben Miles) Full review.
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