The best albums of 2021 (so far)
Bennett Raglin/Getty Images for BET

The best albums of 2021 (so far)

Let's hear it for the undersung heroes of the post-pandemic music industry: the vinyl manufacturers. While the world went into lockdown for much of 2020, oh-so-many artists decided to record quarantine projects. Some of them were quite successful, and others took the form of Van Morrison angrily singing about Facebook. Manufacturers were overwhelmed with requests for new physical media, and as such, some 2021 album releases came out digital-first, with the physical copies hitting months after the fact. No matter what format you hear these records on, the first half of 2021 has yielded some incredible, groundbreaking, and flat-out energizing music: some pandemic-inspired, and many not. So let's take a moment and celebrate the 25 albums that have given us joy and make us excited to hear music in live venues again, surrounded by people.

 
1 of 25

Floating Points / Pharoah Sanders "Promises"

Floating Points / Pharoah Sanders "Promises"
Visionhaus#GP/Corbis via Getty Images

At the time of the recording "Promises," Floating Points' Sam Shepherd was in his mid-30s while famed tenor saxophonist Pharoah Sanders was knocking on the door of 80. A whole lifetime of years divides them, but on "Promises," their musical connection runs so deep it feels like they've known each other through past lives. A lush, vibrant, moody orchestral work done in collaboration with the London Symphony Orchestra, the various movements of "Promises" floats along a simple harp-plucked motif that changes, shrinks, expands, and explodes, with Sanders' sax weaving in and at out at times to add dabs of texture, at other times to incite an explosion of sound. The end result isn't too far removed from John Coltrane's landmark album "A Love Supreme," wherein this record isn't so much to be listened to as outright experienced. "Promises" puts you in a trance and makes you feel like you're about to have a spiritual revelation. Few records hold such power but make no mistake: "Promises" is one of them.

 
2 of 25

Gruff Rhys "Seeking New Gods"

Gruff Rhys "Seeking New Gods"
Martyn Goodacre/Redferns

The former frontman of the great Welsh alt-rock outfit Super Furry Animals has filled his solo career with beautiful clutter of offbeat and downright irregular solo records, up to the point where he's about to eclipse the total studio output of his former band (and already has if you count his electropop side project Neon Neon). Yet while Gruff Rhys' albums have always been viewed as critical curiosities, "Seeking New Gods" could very well be the record that pushes him back into the spotlight. By adhering to a loose concept (about the Mount Paektu volcano) and tying it into some of the most crystalline pop melodies he's written in a decade, "Seeking New Gods" reaches new heights for Rhys, as it feels like he's learned how to let go and have fun in the studio again. The rollicking piano licks of "Loan Your Loneliness" feel ageless in presentation, while the gimme-gimme guitar rock of "Hiking in Lightning" recalls the garage-revival catchiness of bands like King Tuff in their prime. Featuring one indelible pop gem after the other, Rhys was right to center his album about a volcano because this set of songs is nothing short of explosive.

 
3 of 25

Caroline Kingsbury "Heaven's Just a Flight"

Caroline Kingsbury "Heaven's Just a Flight"
Lissyelle Laricchia

An '80s pop fantasia about navigating young queer romance, the debut album from Caroline Kingsbury is without question one of the most refreshing pop albums of the year. Evoking Kim Carnes one moment and 'Til Tuesday the next, "Heaven's Just a Flight" revels in its own octagon-drum excess, as every synth pad is washed in neon and every electric guitar is given a plastic flanger echo. Of course, a tribute to her era-specific idols would be fun by itself, but Kingsbury wraps it all up with hugely confident songwriting and arranging: the backing vocals to the title track are copied straight from the Billy Joel pop playbook, while "Hero" is an arena-rock ballad just waiting for an arena. Yet as much as "Heaven" is here to show you a good time, the production hides a darker lyrical text about family tragedy and the pains of discovering your sexual identity and revealing it to an uncaring world. It's a dance album, a dramatic diary entry, and the kind of record you find yourself coming back to time and time again. "Heaven Just a Flight" is worth a trip.

 
4 of 25

Rhiannon Giddens "They're Calling Me Home"

Rhiannon Giddens "They're Calling Me Home"
© Larry McCormack / tennessean.com, Nashville Tennessean via Imagn Content Services, LLC

Rhiannon Giddens is the rare kind of songwriter who is a student of her form. Throughout both her solo work and her time leading the string band revival outfit Carolina Chocolate Drops, she's scoured ancient songbooks and folk history for tunes that reek of tradition. In digging up the past, she argues, can we learn more about our future? At times very lively and at times deathly solemn, her body of work is intensely considered, but with "They're Calling Me Home," she and longtime collaborator Francesco Turrisi pine for their homelands of America and Italy while in a Covid-directed lockdown in Ireland. Calm and filled with yearning. "They're Calling Me Home" uses minimalist instrumentation to highlight the power of Giddens' voice, and hearing her soaring tones sync up perfectly with sawing fiddles on tracks like "Avalon" highlights the power of her performances every time. Revealing layers of depth despite its musical sparseness, "They're Calling Me Home" is a beautiful embodiment of folk tradition, proving that sometimes the best songs for the moment are the ones that have already been written long ago.

 
5 of 25

Danny L Harle "Harlecore"

Danny L Harle "Harlecore"
Filippo Alfero/Getty Images for OGR

As straightforward a dance album as anything that has emerged from the PC Music scene, Danny L Harle explores contemporary club music on his own wacky terms. Avoiding obvious EDM tropes in favor of tracks that walk the line between homage and parody, Harle plays around on "Harlecore" with four distinct personas: DJ Danny with his throwback rave vibes, DJ Ocean (Caroline Polachek) with a more ambient take on the genre, MC Boing (Lil Data) with his fast-paced nerdcore raps, and DJ Mayhem (Hudson Mohawke) rounds things out with borderline happycore energy to intense and rapid breaks. In splitting his musical identity out into such clearly-defined forms, "Harlecore" really does feel like a series of DJs trading off on a hot dance floor, with some songs like DJ Ocean's "On a Mountain" sounding so close to early 2000s trance breakbeats you'd be forgiven for thinking it was beamed in directly from the era. Modest in scale (the album clocks in at less than 40 minutes) but ambitious in scope, "Harlecore" is the one-stop dance party you didn't know you needed to attend.

 
6 of 25

Maxïmo Park "Nature Always Wins"

Maxïmo Park "Nature Always Wins"
Thomas M Jackson/Getty Images

As the boys in Maxïmo Park start encroaching on close to two full decades since their legendary 2005 debut "A Certain Trigger" was released, one can understand why an alternative act would maybe want to rest on their laurels or maybe mellow out their sound. Not the case with England's Maxïmo Park, whose seventh studio full-length "Nature Always Wins" sounds as fresh and confident as their debut, which honestly is a remarkable feat. The stunning opener "Partly of My Making" mixes a Led Zeppelin-indebted sense of theatrics with an indelible alt-rock melody and frontman Paul Smith's confident-as-ever vocal histrionics. Radiating a lyrical maturity while only occasionally stopping to slow the tempo, parts of "Nature Always Wins" feel damn-near eternal, as if these songs have been radio staples for years. By the time Smith gets to the serene pop ode to fatherhood that is "Feelings I'm Supposed to Feel," it's clear that while you could always count on Maxïmo Park to deliver a great album, few expected them to release one of their best albums to date and one of the best rock records of the year. Here's to upsetting expectations.

 
7 of 25

Unwed Sailor "Truth or Consequences"

Unwed Sailor "Truth or Consequences"
Charles Elmore

Johnathon Ford's long-running instrumental rock outfit Unwed Sailor are entering their third decade of existence. Over a series of immaculately-rendered full-lengths, "instrumental rock" is a broad term that encompasses oh so very much. From heavy metal guitars to danceable drums to moody atmospherics, Unwed Sailor has done it all, so it's a pleasant surprise to find the band behind the new album "Truth or Consequences" at their most relaxed. Sure, opener "Blitz" is a late-'80s Britpop smash simply looking for a lead vocal, but the languid bass of the album's title track unwinds at a beautiful pace, the sunlight hitting your eyelids as you awaken from a Saturday night rager into the lazy maw of a Sunday afternoon. At times joyously rocking and at times blissed-out and serene, "Truth or Consequences" feels like a triumph, as each song slowly hides in waiting upon first listen to only repeat themselves in your head weeks later -- and all without a single lyric to its name.

 
8 of 25

CFCF "memoryland"

CFCF "memoryland"
Kitra Cahana/ Getty Images

Montreal's Michael Silver has developed quite the name for himself with his downtempo, largely instrumental recordings under his CFCF moniker. He's tried everything from vocal slow pop songs to guitar-driven slices of mood music to full-on drum machine concoctions, and as it so happens, this has gained him a lot of followers, especially in the age of the mood-based streaming playlist. Yet 2019's "Liquid Colors" gave us some early-2000s ambient drum-n-bass textures, a style that he'd only hinted at before. As he digs further into his electronic music past, he rediscovered a love of late-'90s techno and Big Beat artists like Basement Jaxx and Paul Oakenfold. 

The intimidating opus that is "memoryland" serves as a love letter to that era, and it is nothing short of an experience. With every synth sound, vocal edit, and spoken-word interlude perfectly in place, the aptly titled "memoryland" feels less like an album and more like a time machine that takes you back to the time when tracks like iiO's "Rapture" were climbing the charts and rock groups were experimenting with synth textures to varying degrees of success. Cuts like the euphoric "Heaven" and the indistinguishable Daft Punk rip that is "Self Service 1999" sound like they are coming out of your CD Walkman as you walk around the mall in your Sketchers shoes. In truth, "memoryland" could've been campy or kitschy (or, even worse, dripping with irony), but by wrapping a love for the genre around actual songcraft, Silver has delivered us nothing short of the best album of his career. It's really that good.

 
9 of 25

Lightning Bug "A Color of the Sky"

Lightning Bug "A Color of the Sky"
Ingmar Chen

The first two albums by New York's Lightning Bug delivered some true hero worship: '80s college rock and shoegaze templates were borrowed from liberally to create a new, updated sound for the 2010s that was euphoric, cathartic, and speaker-breaking all at once. Yet for the stripped-down "A Color in the Sky," Audrey Kang and her crew have moved beyond their influences to create something dreamy, lush, and new. Embellishing simple guitar plucks with swarms of orchestration and earnest lyrics, the band tap into a slower sound that is yearning, striking, and at times just achingly beautiful. What makes this album work so much better than their previous two is how even in calmer surroundings, Lightning Bug has truly mastered the art of the build, as each track grows and expands out to exciting new heights, exemplified by the simple-on-its-surface opener "The Return," which takes its time to blossom into an overwhelming aural experience. Other cuts like "Song of the Bell" show that they haven't abandoned rock songs entirely, but "A Color of the Sky" really feels like Lightning Bug have finally found their true artistic voice and are giddy with their new sadcore possibilities. A lush treat.

 
10 of 25

Menahan Street Band "The Exciting Sounds of Menahan Street Band"

Menahan Street Band "The Exciting Sounds of Menahan Street Band"
Rita Quinn/WireImage

You know you're doing something right when Jay-Z decides to sample you for a single. Floating around since the early 2000s, Thomas Brenneck's cinematic soul-funk group was intended to be the in-house band Dunham Records, the soul-aimed subsidiary of the mighty Daptone Records. Having worked extensively with the late, great Charles Bradley throughout his studio career and featuring members who've played with everyone from The Avalanches to The Roots to Budos Band, "The Exciting Sounds of..." feels like a record made by a group of musicians with nothing to prove: they want to have a good time in the studio. Featuring sepia-toned production that makes every track sound like a throwback to an earlier time, Menahan Street Band's third album can't be described as anything other than pure joy. From the tight horn charts to the beautifully unintrusive guitar work to the delicate piano flourishes, "The Exciting Sounds of..." transcends mere soul imitation to become an evocative soundscape in its own right. But not sticking with strict pop song structures and sometimes expanding out to inciting new directions (like the dipped-in-cabernet noir-lounge of "Rainy Day Lady"), the Menahan Street Band have created one of the year's most memorable, hummable, and sometimes even danceable records. We can't wait to see which big-name hip-hop producers sample them next.

 
11 of 25

The Black Keys "Delta Kream"

The Black Keys "Delta Kream"
© Piet Levy, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel via Imagn Content Services, LLC

After blues-rockers Dan Auerbach and Patrick Carney found multiplatinum success with their 2011 breakthrough "El Camino," they didn't really know how to follow it up. The lightly psychedelic "Turn Blue" got a mixed-to-positive reception, and five years later, The Black Keys telegraphed their influences by calling their next record "Let's Rock" -- and let's be honest: it could've used even more rocking. So for "Delta Kream," the duo decided to change things up by doing a record of nothing but classic blues covers, tackling songs by everyone from R.L. Burnside to John Lee Hooker.

Not having to worry about shipping a radio-ready single, the boys sound completely at ease here, rollicking through these standbys with a casual flair and a real joy of playing. In truth, it sounds like The Black Keys are learning to have fun again, especially when they're tackling the songbook of Junior Kimbrough, of which half of the album's tracks are covers. Carney and Auerbach have evolved into remarkable producers over the years, and the depth of sound achieved on "Delta Kream" is both meticulous and also barely noticeable: every track has room to breathe and grow, while Auerbach's wild guitar lines are teased out of each track slowly as if trying to tame a snake. Some could argue that The Black Keys have delivered more iconic albums, but you'd be hard-pressed to find another one as downright enjoyable as "Delta Kream."

 
12 of 25

Ben Aylon "Xalam"

Ben Aylon "Xalam"
© Vera Bello

For the Israel-born Ben Aylon, West African drumming has been his lifelong obsession. Having studied under masters for years while developing his own style, Aylon has spent time documenting the practice of the sabar (Senegal's traditional drum) while also lending out his talents to metal bands like Salem when the time calls for it. With "Xalam," Aylon takes his years of worldbeat study and creates a gorgeous soundscape built around West African and Middle Eastern influences, achieving effects both psychedelic (dig that instrumental break by Doudou Ndiaye Rose on the title track) and heartfelt (with the gorgeous vocals of the late Mali singer Khaira Arby on "Alafia"). Mixing acoustic guitars and Aylon's layers of drumming with Malian song structures, "Xalam" makes for a rich, compelling listen that breezes by so easily and with such a casual calm that it's hard to believe that it took years to assemble. Then again, Aylon has a tattoo of a Senegalese N'der drum on his leg, so maybe he's justifiably obsessed with his craft.

 
13 of 25

Dam-Funk "Architecture III"

Dam-Funk "Architecture III"
Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic

Damon Riddick is always down for a good time, ready to play his synth-heavy brand of contemporary funk for anyone who wants to listen, whether it be Snoop Dogg, Tyler the Creator, or the late rapper Mac Miller. Yet his long-running Dâm-Funk moniker has given the world a bevy of groovy, endlessly replayable albums. With 2021's electro-leaning "Architecture III" EP, he's landed squarely in the realm of sweaty electrofunk. With numerous drum machines, tinny click tracks, and deep, deep bass, Riddick has created a mechanical cage that houses nothing but the best grooves. From the stoner-ready headspace of "Think" to the high-end cocktail hour soundtrack that is "Shine," this "Architecture III" is built on solid funk foundations and the kind of album that you're always in the mood to put on.

 
14 of 25

Tyler, The Creator "Call Me If You Get Lost"

Tyler, The Creator "Call Me If You Get Lost"
© Jenna Miller/ Delaware News Journal

Ever since Tyler broke through with 2017's openly queer hip-hop masterpiece "Flower Boy," it feels as if his production style, itself heavily rooted in psychedelic soul music, has evolved in wild new directions. 2019's "Igor" was a hard-hitting soul-pop album that contained perhaps the fewest actual raps of his career, which he aims to correct with his surprise-announced new album "Call Me If You Get Lost." Heavily influenced by '90s R&B vibes ("Wusyaname" drips like an LL Cool J ballad), Tyler balances a giant guest roster (Pharrell, Lil Wayne, Ty Dolla Sign) with some of the most intricate narratives he's ever recorded. The album's unquestioned highlight is the eight-minute closer "Wilshire," wherein he describes the pains of wanting to start an affair with someone who's already married and not wanting to mess up the existing friendship that exists between all three parties. "If I f--- our friendship up for you, I think it's worth it," Tyler raps, "But, nah, I can't do that, that n---- don't deserve it / And plus y'all got depth, I'm just the n---- on the surface, for real." Emotionally vulnerable, deftly handled, and as funky as it is sometimes abrasive, "Call Me If You Get Lost" shows that Tyler's current creative streak is seemingly unbreakable.

 
15 of 25

Japanese Breakfast "Jubilee"

Japanese Breakfast "Jubilee"
Daniel DeSlover/Sipa USA

While many of us view 2021 as a year of recovery, Michelle Zauner is probably having the greatest year of her life. First, her memoir "Crying in H Mart" got released. It became quite a literary sensation, as many people connected with her story of losing her connection to her Korean heritage after losing her mother. The book was so well received that it's being optioned to a movie, where her band Japanese Breakfast will do the soundtrack. As if that wasn't enough, Japanese Breakfast also put out a new album, and the aptly-named "Jubilee" serves as a joyous emotional counterpoint to the more heart-rendering themes of "H Mart". Filled with '80s-affected pop choruses ("Be Sweet") and rushing indie rock motifs ("Slide Tackle"), "Jubilee" tackles a litany of issues from fascinating angles, perhaps no better articulated than on the heartening and surprisingly non-sexual lead single "Posing in Bondage," which uses galloping soundscapes to create a distinct sense of close interpersonal connection. No matter what the now multi-media maven Zauner does with her numerous future opportunities, "Jubilee" will still stand among her finest works.

 
16 of 25

Rebecca Vasmant "With Love, From Glasgow"

Rebecca Vasmant "With Love, From Glasgow"
Vuk Valcic / SOPA Images/Sipa USA

You may not know the name Rebecca Vasmant unless you're familiar with the Scottish jazz scene, but for several years, she's served as its unofficial champion, celebrating emerging new voices through her DJ sets, radio shows, and unique collaborations. Covering a litany of contemporary styles, "With Love, From Glasgow" not only serves as Vasmant's debut album but also a transmission from the heart of Scotland, as Vasmant worked with no less than 23 musicians to bring this record to life. From the disorienting vocal dreamscape of "Internal Dispute" to the light lounge flair of "Jewels of Thought" to the Quiet Storm hybrid that is "Autumn Leaves," "With Love, From Glasgow" contains a little something for everyone in the jazz spectrum. Yet what makes this record truly kick is how unafraid it is to get weird sometimes: this isn't entry-level coffee shop music, no. While the songs are all circle pleasant and digestible song structures, they sometimes veer into darker melodic territory, culminating in the apocalyptic closer "Revolution," proving that when it comes to introducing a new generation of Scottish jazz onto the world, Vasmant knows how to serve it best: uncompromisingly.

 
17 of 25

Bo Burnham "Inside (the Songs)"

Bo Burnham "Inside (the Songs)"
Kristen Norman/Chicago Tribune/TNS/Sipa USA

There has been a fair share of era-specific art that has emerged out of our global quarantine, with some of it being quite good (Taylor Swift's "Folklore") to some of it being quite bad (the Chiwetel Ejiofor/Anne Hathaway heist flick "Locked Down"). Yet comedian Bo Burnham took it pretty hard, fully isolating himself in his house to make a feature-length musical comedy show where he served as the star, director, songwriter, and cinematographer. The more irony-poisoned may be dismissive of Burnham's self-referential schtick, but for a large swath of Netflix subscribers, his resulting film "Inside" captured that intangible hopelessness and despair we all felt at varying points during the early stages of lockdown lifestyle.

Burnham uses his medium to tackle everything from commentary culture to our impending global demise, and the songs he fills the special with are some of the best he's ever written. While certain tracks don't stand up as well without their visual gags (see: opener "Comedy"), other numbers remain just as stunning on their own, ranging from the catchy ode to horniness "Sėxting" to the funny-yet-affecting folk number "That Funny Feeling." Making us laugh while also confronting our own existential despair, the artistic panic attack that is "Inside" serves as a dynamic document of one of the strangest times we've ever lived through.

 
18 of 25

Allison Russell "Outside Child"

Allison Russell "Outside Child"
© Josie Norris / The Tennessean via Imagn Content Services, LLC

Throughout her many alternative and traditional folk outfits (Po' Girl, Birds of Chicago, Our Native Daughters), Allison Russell has immersed herself in folk music's storied past while also pushing it towards the future, finding kinship with musicians of all stripes along the way. A talented multi-instrumentalist, Russell has been slowly working on a suite of songs that would ultimately serve as her musical autobiography. The resulting album, "Outside Child," has no right to be as upbeat and catchy as it is while dealing with its gritty subject matter. Alternating between numbers with a soulful bounce and moments of striking cinematic beauty, "Outside Child" is an emotional epic, tracing Russell's life growing up in Montreal to dealing with the sexual abuse of her stepfather to running away as a teenager and finding her calling in music. Whether she's making her voice the siren call in a sea of crashing tympani during "Little Rebirth" or singing over haunting banjo plucks on the frightening "All of the Women" or switching from English to French on a dime, "Outside Child" is a rare record that emits a beguiling emotional gravity, because as Russell tells her own gripping story, we see parts of it in our own. One of the year's unquestioned best.

 
19 of 25

Iceage "Seek Shelter"

Iceage "Seek Shelter"
Scott Dudelson/Getty Images for Coachella

The boys of Iceage formed their band when they were in their teens, and by the time they dropped their fifth studio full-length "Seek Shelter," this Copenhagen quintet was inching towards their 30s, having now burned through much of their youthful angst. This isn't to say that "Seek Shelter" is a calm or weary record by any means -- the post-punk fury of "High & Hurt" recalls dance-rock titans The Rapture at their splashiest peak -- but as time has gone on, the boys have gradually eased into a grander sense of songcraft that also compasses pop, jazz, and orchestral elements, something they started exploring all the way back on 2014's "Plowing Into the Field of Love."

But even that record couldn't have yielded a bleak ballad on the scale of "Love Kills Slowly," which sounds like Radiohead headlining prom night. As Iceage thaws over time, it's clear that they have become less and less restricted as to what they have to do as a "rock band," and their songcraft is veering into wilder new territory with each release. "Seek Shelter" feels like a band rediscovering the joy of making music time and time again, and even if the results are sometimes a bit nihilistic, there's no denying that "Seek Shelter" is the kind of record you'll find yourself replaying on a loop -- at least until the end times hit.

 
20 of 25

One Million Eyes "Brama"

One Million Eyes "Brama"
© Michael Snyder, The Northwest Florida Daily News via Imagn Content Services, LLC

Working under the moniker Tempelhof for years, musicians Luciano Ermondi and Paolo Mazzacani made indie dance music that had a hard time breaking through the algorithmic playlist barriers. Taking a break before regrouping as One Million Eyes, the duo now focuses on music that they enjoy making, which, as it turns out, is the sound of beat-driven ambient soundscape. "Brama," their debut album under their new name, is a winsome, gorgeous affair, as the duo uses digital synth pads and programmed drum machines to create a sound that feels damn near close to organic. From the tempo-moving cloud that is "Punta Cometa" to the cinematic star-gazer of a piece that is "Aguirre" to the ominous tennis match that closes out the record in the form of "15-0", it feels as if Ermondi and Mazzacani were right in naming their outfit One Million Eyes because even when positioned in the ambient genre, they can see the multitude of directions their creativity can take them. How lucky for us they explore as many ambient styles as they do on this wild and invigorating debut.

 
21 of 25

Wolf Alice "Blue Weekend"

Wolf Alice "Blue Weekend"
Keith Mayhew / SOPA Images/Sipa USA

The modern shoegaze bluster of Wolf Alice's 2017 sophomore album "Visions of a Life" catapulted them to the front of the line for critical consideration: that record topped numerous Album of the Year lists, hit new highs on the U.K. singles charts, and even won them the lauded Mercury Music Prize. Touring and promoting the album was a multi-year process (the Londoners dropped no less than seven singles from it), but after delays and some lockdown-indebted studio polishing, "Blue Weekend" is finally here, and it absolutely rips -- but not in the way some people were expecting. Sure, "Smile" has enough guitar fuzz in it to power a dozen lesser bands at once, but the way frontwoman Ellie Rowsell has found new dimensions to her voice, especially on multi-layered tracks like "Safe from Heartbreak (If You Never Fall in Love)," show just how much further the band has evolved. "The taste of someone's lips / Their hands placed on my hips / Swaying in the kitchen / To all the greatest hits," she sings on "Play the Greatest Hits," perhaps knowing some of their own songs will decorate many greatest hits comps yet to come.

 
22 of 25

brijean "Softened Thoughts"

brijean "Softened Thoughts"
Jim Bennett/FilmMagic

The duo who make up brijean (percussionist/vocalist Brijean Murphy and multi-instrumentalist Doug Stuart) refer to their sound as "back-room disco," and it couldn't be more apt. On their sophomore outing, they ride smooth Latin percussion and small keyboard beats to give us a slow-strobe of a party album, a mid-tempo "vibe" that sustains from start to finish. Only one song clocks in at over four minutes, but even in the half-hour period that "Softened Thoughts" runs, they pack in so much fun it's hard to deny the infectious energy. The title track walks a line of influences, both contemporary (Confidence Man) and alternative classic (Cibo Matto), while songs like the cooing "Ocean" could soundtrack the sipping of the most expensive VIP cocktail you could imagine. As much pressure as there is for albums to have grand artistic intent, sometimes the best records occupy the specific, beautiful lanes, and in the case of "Softened Thoughts," it's next to impossible to have a bad time when it's on.

 
23 of 25

Madlib "Sound Ancestors"

Madlib "Sound Ancestors"
© Christopher M. Bjornberg, Special to the Free Press

"Sound Ancestors" unites two of the most daring producers working today: crate-digging underground rap legend Madlib and acoustic studio polymath Four Tet. Independently, they've been involved with some of the biggest artists and most iconic albums of the past two decades, and together, their styles mesh remarkably well for the 41 minutes that "Sound Ancestors" runs. While Madlib is still the primary artist and Four Tet is responsible for editing and mastering, this record still feels like a close collaboration, as Madlib's unique and wild choices of samples (like the strange keyboard-horn sounds on "Loose Goose") are given an appropriately spaced-out treatment in the mix, giving each LP-pull a sense of authority and timelessness. There are numerous highlights across the board, but as soon as the record dropped, fans singled out the incredible trip-hop soul of "Road of the Lonely Ones," which takes a sample from nigh-forgotten Philly soul outfit The Ethics and transforms into something close to a spiritual epic. Filled wild oboes, forgotten synth sounds, and even a tribute to the late, great J Dilla, "Sound Ancestors" satisfies on first listen and reveals more and more of its depth with each subsequent spin. A quality Album of the Year contender.

 
24 of 25

Margo Ross "Prairie Life"

Margo Ross "Prairie Life"
Light Found Photography / Julia Ross

"I spent the whole day just f---in' around / I just want you to know I'm cool when s--- hits the ground," sings Margo Ross over some lightly-strummed ukelele on "Lost," and from that moment on, it's clear that she is not your standard country/bluegrass chanteuse. All over her debut album "Prairie Life," Ross waxes about the importance of interpersonal relationships, blending big pop moments with an Americana lilt to create an album that feels fully formed out the gate. Self-taught on the banjo and co-producer on her own record, Ross doesn't fit to a specific genre so much as follow her songs where they lead her, which is when the penultimate track "Take Me Now" starts as a Brill Building ballad before it becomes awash with lively electric guitars and intricate string sections. Lyrically unafraid and always musically interesting, "Prairie Life" isn't quite country, isn't quite folk-pop, and isn't quite what you expected. It's better than what anyone could've expected. Margo Ross is a voice we're going to hearing a lot more from in the years to come.

 
25 of 25

Lipstick Jodi "More Like Me"

Lipstick Jodi "More Like Me"
Jeen Na

To leave your imprint on the music scene, you have to be an innovator or just really good at the genre you exist in. While the quintet of musicians that make up Lipstick Jodi isn't breaking any new ground on their album "More Like Me," every single track is produced to sheer pop perfection. Sometimes such obsessive attention every synth pad, drum tap, and vocal waver results in an album that feels introverted or at arm's-length away, but by wisely not overstuffing every production, the lovable dance-pop grooves that support singer Karli Morehouse always feel perfect for the occasion. While lead single "do/SAY" evokes Billie Eilish in the most complimentary way, the percolating keyboards of "How" and the stop-start synth pads of "Only One" show that Lipstick Jodi is a fascinating pop entity all its own. Our favorite track may be the bedroom club shuffle of closer "Why Try," but this is the kind of record where the song that gets stuck in your head the most changes from week to week. We are always in need of more albums like that.

Evan Sawdey is the Interviews Editor at PopMatters and is the host of The Chartographers, a music-ranking podcast for pop music nerds. He lives in Chicago with his wonderful husband and can be found on Twitter at @SawdEye.

More must-reads:

Customize Your Newsletter

+

Get the latest news and rumors, customized to your favorite sports and teams. Emailed daily. Always free!

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.