Despite what some “best of” blurb intros may tell you, there is no exact science to list-making. And constructing one so methodically just might ruin the joy altogether — for both us, the curators, and you, the readers.
Even though debate is a natural reaction, anger is not. These stories are supposed to be fun! And hopefully unique — who wants to read the exact same list at every publication? Sure, SPIN‘s Best Albums of 2021 (So Far) does feature some of the year’s biggest buzz bands. But we hope you’ll also discover some records that slipped through the cracks — and maybe, just maybe, reconsider some LPs you previously dismissed.
Let’s meet back here in six months and see how things shake out.
Adjective Animal – America’s Got Talons
For over a decade, Jon Birkholz has been a valued secret weapon in the Baltimore music scene — a multi-instrumentalist whose work ranges from the avant hip-hop of Soul Cannon to the indie-pop of Super City. But Birkholz has come into his own as a singer and songwriter on his second Adjective Animal project, a cathartic breakup record with the deceptively punny title America’s Got Talons. There’s a proggy complexity to the rhythms on “Octo” and “Strip Parade,” but the album’s heart is the story of a relationship slowly ending as two people drift apart. – Al Shipley
Altın Gün – Yol
While Altın Gün has always put a modern twist on traditional Turkish music, their latest album, Yol, is equally indebted to old-world folk and the Drive soundtrack. Adding synths and drum machines to their dizzying psychedelia melded a glimmer of dark-wave to the Dutch-Turkish collective’s already genre-hopping sound. This sonic tweak is an unexpected but highly welcome byproduct of band members file-sharing demos amidst a global pandemic, given the impossibility of in-person studio time. The result? Electro-pop jams like “Yüce Dag Basinda,” which wouldn’t sound out of place on a Dua Lipa album. It’s as if someone hung a giant disco ball over the Anatolian Peninsula for the ultimate dose of futuristic nostalgia. – Jessica Gentile
Architects – For Those That Wish to Exist
Now nine albums in, one of modern metal’s most looked-upon leaders grows stronger still. After 2018’s Holy Hell was widely revered as one of the decade’s finest metalcore projects, Britain’s Architects delivered an incendiary follow-up — a concept album of sorts, unraveling humans’ destruction of Earth (and whether there’s time to turn our shit around). At nearly an hour, Exist is a long ride, but certain moments are among their most accessible: Throttling singles “Animals” and “Black Lungs” are instant arena-rage anthems, and “Impermanence,” featuring a brutal guest spot from Parkway Drive frontman Winston McCall, is primed for long-awaited mosh pits. – Bobby Olivier
Maria Arnal i Marcel Bagés – CLAMOR
From Brazil’s Tropicália to Russia’s Pussy Riot, dissent music flirts with being silenced. But it often just gets louder. CLAMOR, the second album from Maria Arnal and Marcel Bagés, is slow-burn synthpop fueled by Catalonia’s grapple for independence. The group’s 2017 LP condemned Spain’s Civil War and politics outright. CLAMOR’s danceable dread isn’t preachy, though guitarist Bagés has called the record a “warning of mourning.” Arnal bends grievances into lullabies: “You bring out my animality,” she whispers on “Fiera de mi.” Tension bleeds between the lines, and goats bleat between songs. CLAMOR is indeed a different animal. – Patrick Flanary
Benny the Butcher / Harry Fraud – The Plugs I Met 2
With Harry Fraud manning the production boards, Benny the Butcher revisits familiar stomping grounds for a belated victory lap. After last year’s high-profile Burden of Proof, Benny returns to the gutters to talk shit and process everything that could have gone wrong, with vintage Fraud beats giving his words the right touch of melancholy. The Griselda stock has risen considerably over the past several years, yet even with blockbuster guests like 2 Chainz, French Montana, Fat Joe and Jim Jones on The Plugs I Met 2, the Butcher holds his own, thanks to his razor-sharp wordplay and nostalgic storytelling eye. – Jibril Yassin
Black Country, New Road – For the First Time
Following the smokescreen stun of their chameleonic debut, these post-punks gained unanimous appeal with follow-up For the First Time. Their signature sound is equal parts angsty strain and intimate rumination — marrying prickly, raucous guitars with smooth violin and sax. Within that weird blend of polished pleasantry and Dionysian abandon, you’ll find the temperamental spoken-sung lyrics of singer-guitarist Isaac Woods, who documents absurd situations (feeling invincible in sunglasses on a stroll, vexing out over kids dressing like Richard Hell, post-work habits of Gen-X parents), whether in a whispered deadpan or in urgent bombast. They were christened “the best in the entire world” over a year before their debut even came out. Now they’re no less than the gold standard of whatever experimental wave we’re currently riding. – Logan Blake
Black Midi – Cavalcade
There’s no argument the dudes in Black Midi can play. They’ll burn down your house with loopy time signatures and frenetic riffs if you let them. But as with all experimental music, such virtuosity needs a reason to exist. Cavalcade, feels a bit more grounded than the U.K. group’s acclaimed debut, 2019’s Schlagenheim, anchoring its chameleonic style shifts — more jazz on this one, for sure — to third-person characters: cult leaders, ancient corpses, cabaret queen Marlene Dietrich (who earns her own song title). The instrumentals still nod to Primus and King Crimson, but there’s singularity too. Album opener “John L” is confident in its cacophonous drama, and the climactic, crashing final minute of “Chondromalacia Patella” deserves a special “fuck yes.” – B.O.
Dry Cleaning – New Long Leg
Dry Cleaning have been saddled with the label of “next great post-punk band” — a forever impossible title to live up to. But unlike most other flavors of the moment, the London quartet actually deliver the goods on their debut LP. Singer Florence Shaw’s poetic narratives vacillate between funny and cynical — the consistent eye of the hurricane in these melodic and moody tracks, including the chiming title tune and punchy centerpiece “Scratchyard Lanyard.” New Long Leg is a scintillating launching pad for one of the year’s most exciting bands. – Daniel Kohn
Floating Points, Pharoah Sanders & the London Symphony Orchestra – Promises
Promises is an abstract jazz masterpiece so airy and malleable that it bends to every interpretation and none at all. Is it a late-career marvel from an avant-jazz legend whose career dates back more than half a century? A swelling tone poem of improvisational genius? A remarkable cross-generational collaboration released at a time in which in-person collaboration felt like a luxurious memory? An upturned middle finger at the industry culture of streaming numbers and playlisting goals? A cosmic soundtrack to a movie that does not yet exist? Yes. Yes, it is. – Zach Schonfeld
Flock of Dimes – Head of Roses
As a touring member of Bon Iver and one-half of Wye Oak, Jenn Wasner has established herself as a team player. But her second solo LP as Flock of Dimes showcases an artist forced to sit alone and make peace with uncertainty. Shifting away from the electropop of her debut, Head of Roses is full of spacious guitar compositions, designed to draw attention to Wasner’s silky voice — a winsome instrument used to deliver rough truths. “Hope is still keeping my head above water/ ‘Til the moment before I choke,” she sings with Dolly Parton-ish longing on “Awake for the Sunrise.” Wasner may be striving for joy, but roses can’t grow without dirt. – Laura Studarus
Foo Fighters – Medicine at Midnight
Foo Fighters’ 2017’s LP, Concrete and Gold, was their first team-up with Greg Kurstin, the super-producer behind chart-topping smashes by pop stars like Adele and Kelly Clarkson. The musical potential of their union felt, sadly, muddled and unrealized. But the second time around, Kurstin and Dave Grohl’s chemistry clicked, resulting in the band’s shortest and most unpredictable album — and the rare Foo Fighters record where the best songs aren’t the big singles. “Making A Fire” has a classic rock strut complete with backup singers that sound beamed in from the “Sweet Home Alabama” sessions, while “Love Dies Young” piles welcome new wave gloss on the guitars. – A.S.
Greta Van Fleet – The Battle at Garden’s Gate
Kudos to Greta Van Fleet for ignoring all those haters who call them Led Zeppelin wannabes — and for making an album that, well, still sounds a lot like Zeppelin, but with more varied and towering instrumentals than GVF’s polarizing 2018 debut. The Battle at Garden’s Gate, co-helmed by pop super-producer Greg Kurstin, adds some welcome polish. But they still explore epic worlds of fantasy and grandeur — oh, how they’d fit on a Dungeons and Dragons movie soundtrack — with mid-album pairing “Age of Machine” and “Tears of Rain” adding new power to the young band’s catalog. The record’s merit still largely hinges on whether you dig their retro touch. If you can’t tolerate it, fine. But GVF scratch a unique itch for rock fans — including many who won’t admit their enjoyment publicly. – B.O.
Dave Heumann – At Heights We Sway, At Depths We Speak
Whether as a member of Arboretum, in collaboration with Nathan Bell or by his lonesome, Baltimore’s Dave Heumann has always been a sonic seeker. For At Heights We Sway, At Depths We Speak, his guitars and effects become a magic carpet, a thing of polyphonic Yume Bitsu cruise folk. Sometimes the vibe is thick with azure; at others, a strummed hush descends or a small army of stinging blues licks ring out like clarions or harmonics intersect such that you’ll swear you’re hearing voices that aren’t really there. Heumann’s ruminations haunt and quest, conquering subconsciousness, taking root there. – Raymond Cummings
Iceage – Seek Shelter
Iceage have mastered the art of slowing down without softening. The Danish band’s latest album, Seek Shelter, is a long way from the nihilistic roar of 2011’s New Brigade, dabbling in gospel flourishes and Britpop swagger. Sonic Boom, a rare outside producer permitted into the group’s insular world, helps to widen their sound. But the group’s signature ferocity is intact, jostled up against the elegiac swoons of the Lisboa Gospel Collective (“Shelter Song”) or the Screamadelica-gone-punk shuffle of “Vendetta.” And Elias Bender Rønnenfelt, no longer the teenager he was when Iceage first shot to fame, remains the poet laureate of a new generation of sullen punks, whether interpolating the Christian hymn “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” (“High & Hurt”) or crooning dark wisdom about murder (“The Wider Powder Blue”). – Z.S.
Cassandra Jenkins – An Overview on Phenomenal Nature
Timing rarely aligns for an album, a songwriter and a sound. But when it does, it can be a beautiful thing. That’s exactly what happened for Cassandra Jenkins. Her second album, An Overview on Phenomenal Nature, isn’t just a clever title — it’s a feeling captured in perhaps the loveliest 31 minutes of music released this year. These songs are defined by a colorful, delicate vibe that would make Fleet Foxes proud. But there’s a deceptive depth in Jenkins’ exquisite storytelling, full of characters — a psychic, a security guard — that enrich her musical world. – D.K.
Valerie June – The Moon and Stars: Prescriptions for Dreamers
Valerie June’s celestial voice is a meditative guide through her evolving style of astral roots music. Her latest album, a collaboration with producer Jack Splash, takes some major creative leaps forward, moving well beyond the front-porch leanings of her earlier work to include orchestral backdrops (“Stay”) and programmed beats (“Within You”). But these embellishments are never overdone. Instead, they cradle June’s cosmic pondering in a colorful atmosphere that brightens the swirling folk of “You and I” and deepens the vulnerable sentiment of “Call Me a Fool,” a lush R&B ballad featuring an assist from Memphis soul legend Carla Thomas. – Jedd Ferris
King Gizzard & The Lizard Wizard – L.W.
King Gizzard & The Lizard Wizard are tirelessly prolific in a way that few other modern bands could hope to keep up with, issuing their 17th studio album in less than a decade. L.W., like its 2020 counterpart, K.G., continues the band’s recent interest in microtonal tuning, with melodies that evoke traditional Middle Eastern music filtered through their signature psych-rock sound. And while the band’s softly sung vocals often feel like window dressing to their dense instrumental grooves, there’s plenty to unpack in there too: Some songs build on their interconnected “Grizzverse” narrative, while “Supreme Ascendancy” decries the hypocrisy of the Catholic church. – A.S.
Genesis Owusu – Smiling With No Teeth
This Ghanaian-Australian artist’s audacious, conceptual debut immediately positioned itself as an Album of the Year contender. Using the double metaphor of the black dog (representing depression and racism) as its vehicle, Smiling With No Teeth details a fraught self-exploration of internal and external parameters of perception, taking on a solipsistic salience amidst a dexterous musical backdrop that eludes classification. The album incorporates more influences than it leaves out – dipping into soul, punk, electronica, R&B, hip-hop and pop (to name but a sliver) – while melding them all into a collage that transcends what, in others’ hands, could have been genre-splicing gimmickry. – L.B.
Arlo Parks – Collapsed in Sunbeams
Arlo Parks’ debut album, Collapsed in Sunbeams, develops her early EPs’ addictive blend of introspective bedroom-pop, indie-folk, R&B and jazz into something magnificent. The 20-year-old’s vocal performance here is all cream and honey, even in less-than-peachy moments like “Caroline,” which details the artist’s real-world observation of a couple arguing in public, or “Too Good,” as in a lover who’s too good to be true. Largely co-written with L.A.-based songwriter Gianluca Buccellati, the record grooves like no other — a terrific warm-weather soundtrack. It’s sort of sinful she released it in the dead of winter. – B.O.
Bruno Pernadas – Private Reasons
Don’t let the 75-minute run time scare you off. And don’t be intimidated by the sprawl — Bruno Pernadas‘ fourth LP is almost disorienting in his ambition, switching styles like an indecisive shopper trying on shoes. Private Reasons is a lot to soak in. The hazy synth-pop of “Family Vows” builds to a psychedelic guitar solo then descends into a nightmare of processed vocals. “Little Season I” falls somewhere between orchestral-pop and arty R&B. “Lafeta Uti” adds gooey ’80s synths to its Afrobeat groove. The sweet psych of “Brio 81” veers into a buzzy little jazz-fusion coda. Embrace the chaos. – Ryan Reed
Pink Sweat$ – Pink Planet
David Bowden got his nickname from emulating Cam’ron’s fashion sense, but the Philadelphia polymath’s music leans toward plush R&B and regal pop balladry, boasting a Bruno Mars skill set with a less campy retro aesthetic. “When I was growing up, I used to go through the radio and I would make it a habit to listen to all the different genre stations,” Bowden explains at one point on his debut full-length, a sleeper hit that’s quietly racked up a half-billion streams without any songs breaking the Hot 100. Pink Planet alternates between tightly syncopated live band grooves (“Magic”) and syrupy slow jams (“At My Worst”), but one song stands apart: “Not Alright,” a sleek, brooding banger that sounds like his “Billie Jean.” – A.S.
Really From – Really From
It’s almost impossible to innovate in our post-genre world, but it’s also hard to find another band on Really From‘s wavelength. On their first album under that name (following two projects as People Like You), the Boston-based Berklee grads draw on angsty emo, turbulent math-rock and oceanic jazz-fusion — the backdrop for their ruminations on family identity, race, sexual fetishization and other weighty subjects. Take “I’m From Here,” which opens in a floating, fingerpicked atmosphere and builds with sighing trumpets, palm-muted power chords and proggy rim-click drum grooves. The ingredients are familiar, but the flavor is distinctive. – R.R.
Spirit of the Beehive – Entertainment, Death
Philly’s Spirit of the Beehive seem to have compacted life itself into two weighty, diametrically opposed concepts. Entertainment, Death finds form when cohering into either a hazy dream-pop melody or a crunching, two-ton wall of sound, breathlessly alternating between bliss and belligerence. It’s quite a ride. You can’t tell when one song begins and the other ends; neither can you ever tell what’s actually happening. At some points, it’s an amorphous flow of glitter lasers and gusts, rapid-fire drums and oscillation discombobulations. At others, it’s a tide pool of iridescent glass shards. Listening to it through and through is like candy-flipping in someone else’s dream while passed out on an amusement park log ride. – L.B.
tUnE-yArDs – sketchy.
Now five albums deep, Merrill Garbus and Nate Brenner continue to build on a socially conscious art-pop sound that can be both exhilaratingly frenetic and enticingly soulful. sketchy. hits familiar sonic angles, boldly bouncing between the raw, rhythmic pulse of the group’s early efforts and the electronic experiments heavily deployed on 2018’s I can feel you creep into my private life. “nowhere, man” starts with industrial dissonance but eventually drops into a dance-ready groove, while “hypnotized” is sweet and steady throughout, matching the message of resilience in the face of anxiety. Along the way, Garbus also uses her acrobatic voice to address other weighty topics, including the climate crisis, gentrification and reproductive rights, but she never claims to have all the answers. Instead of holding a protest, tUnE-yArDs host a thought-provoking party. – J.F.
Viagra Boys – Welfare Jazz
On their second LP, these Swedish post-punk dirtbags deliver a sophisticated, genre-hopping album packed with scathing lyrics, squelching horns and stomping anthems. Frontman Sebastian Murphy takes us on a kaleidoscopic journey kicking off with “Ain’t Nice,” a savage dance-punk stunner with big DFA Records energy. There’s ‘80s synth street urchin sci-fi horror with “Creatures,” throbbing instrumental krautrock with “6 Shooter,” spoken word weirdness, lots of dog imagery, a 30-second song titled “Cold Play.” It all culminates with a stuttering, surreal cover of John Prine’s country duet “In Spite of Ourselves” featuring Amy Taylor of Amyl and the Sniffers doing Iris DeMent’s part. What more could you ask for? – John Paul Bullock
Ryley Walker – Course in Fable
The darkness that preceded Course in Fable — the addiction, the motel room suicide attempt, the redemption via rehab — threatens to overshadow the music. But Ryley Walker‘s mind-boggling new LP finds its own compelling narrative: Embracing his inner prog nerd, he crafted his most meticulous and colorful songs to date. The centerpiece — aided by the hi-fi glow of producer John McEntire (Tortoise) — is opener “Striking Down Your Big Premiere,” his words globbed like impressionistic paint over a canvas of psychedelic arpeggio and jazzy licks. – R.R.
The Weather Station – Ignorance
Tamara Lindeman and her band have been recording as the Weather Station for more than a decade, yet the name has never seemed more apt than on Ignorance, an uncommonly moving exploration of the grief and denial that accompanies our inexorable slide into climate crisis. With world-weary wisdom, Lindeman surveys colonial greed (“Robber”), willful obliviousness (“Atlantic”) and the painful reckoning that comes with deciding “to live as if the truth was true” (“Loss”). But Ignorance never wallows in apocalyptic despair. It helps that the songs luxuriate in a widescreen jazz-pop production, a heightened emotional expression for a subject that too frequently inspires numbness and cynicism. – Z.S.
Hayley Williams – FLOWERS for VASES/descansos
The surprise sequel to Hayley Williams’ 2020 solo debut unfurls the Paramore leader’s saddest and quietest music to date. The record was written entirely in quarantine, with the singer playing every instrument — mostly acoustic guitar and piano — as she clings to previous emotional wreckage. It’s a beautiful record, eloquently arranged, though the uniform anguish and minimal catharsis make for a challenging listen. Highlights include the impassioned and austere folk opener “First Thing to Go” and “Asystole,” driven by a Latin-inspired guitar line. – B.O.
Joyce Wrice – Overgrown
After adding vocals to acclaimed albums by acts like Westside Gunn, Amine and Free Nationals, L.A. singer-songwriter Joyce Wrice flourishes with Overgrown, an indie debut better than most major-label R&B albums in recent memory. Grammy-winning producer D’Mile (H.E.R.) and a crew of hip guests (including Freddie Gibbs and KAYTRANADA) certainly contribute to the album’s high quality. But Wrice — who sings a verse of “That’s On You” in Japanese but otherwise writes in English with a plainspoken vulnerability — deserves credit for the velvety harmonies, which evoke ‘90s Brandy. – A.S.
YUNGMORPHEUS & ewonee – Thumbing Thru Foliage
L.A. emcee YUNGMORPHEUS and New York producer ewonee strike a winning game plan on their full-length collab. ewonee pulls from a grab bag of grainy soul loops, fragmented sci-fi broadcasts and blunted boom-bap while YUNGMORPHEUS fits them to rhymes that bounce between the lurid and irreverent, peeling off jaded socio-economic barbs and internal monologues. Delivering these bars could have been a disaster in anyone else’s hands. But thanks to YUNGMORPHEUS’ casual tone and stream-of-consciousness delivery, this dizzying approach works, giving Thumbing Thru Foliage a melodic bounce that scans as both cathartic and confrontational. – J.Y.