The Rock & Roll Globe midyear report looks back at the best albums of the last six months
Anyone who knows me is well aware of my staunch loyalty to physical media.
And since Nic Harcourt began kicking me down CDs from the giveaway closet during my internship at Radio Woodstock 26 years ago, I’ve been getting free CDs and records in the mail. For as little money as I’ve made over the course of my career in music journalism, it has been undoubtedly counterbalanced by the amount of free music I’ve received through the years. It’s a blessing and a privilege I’ve never taken for granted.
Free promos are incredibly hard to come by in 2021, especially after the entire music industry grounded to a near-halt as one of the hardest hit areas of the working world in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. And if you’re a hard copy loyalist like me, that means writers had to shell out the loot if we wanted to own the CD or vinyl regardless of your station in this…”game”.
So for me, I probably spent more money on music in these last 18 months than I’ve ever spent in my life, man. Facts. The last time I had to buy everything I wanted I was a broke college kid so I couldn’t buy more than one cassette after each paycheck I got from my gig bagging groceries at Shop Rite.
So for this year’s halftime report, in acknowledgment that I’m certainly not the only one who spent way too much money impulse buying on BandCamp (especially on the first Friday of every month since the pandemic outbreak), I just wanted to make this year’s Best Of list an editorial affair, given how much time I’ve spent in 2021 being a fan and a customer in addition to a music journalist and editor, and will continue to in the second half of the year, no doubt.
1. L’Rain Fatigue (Mexican Summer) Taja Cheek, Brooklyn music royalty, makes R&B from a 6th dimension. And Fatigue brings together a balance of introspection and improvisation that blur the lines between Solange and Sun Ra even more deeply.
VIDEO: L’Rain “Two Face”
2. Weezer OK Human (Crush Music) For their best album since the Green one, the band ditches electric guitars in favor of piano and strings, punching up the genius of Rivers Cuomo as a master of melody. Van Weezer, on the other hand…
VIDEO: Weezer “All My Favorite Songs”
3. Too Much Joy Mistakes Were Made (People Suck Music) What makes this triumphant comeback from these Boston legends all the more sweeter was the realization of how Too Much Joy has served as a secret template for some of the best new power pop of the last 20 years.
VIDEO: Too Much Joy “Blinding Light of Love”
4. Garbage No Gods, No Masters (Infectious Music) This was the very first Garbage LP I bought with my own money, and it was worth every penny. Easily their best album since Version 2.0, maybe their best ever? Thirty years after becoming a household name for producing Nevermind, NGNM confirms that this remarkable band will forever be Butch Vig’s true legacy. Get the deluxe edition.
VIDEO: Garbage “The Men Who Rule The World”
5. Pupil Slicer Mirrors (Prosthetic Records) Few vocalists in metalcore encompass the sheer range and versatility of Katie Davies of London’s Pupil Slicer, who sings and plays guitar as if Greg Puciato and Ben Weinman were one person on the UK trio’s brutal and brilliant full-length debut.
VIDEO: Pupil Slicer “Wounds Upon My Skin”
6. Armand Hammer and The Alchemist Haram (Backwoodz Studioz) The proverbial sons of new Brooklyn grime teams a West Coast beat giant and continues to secure the dominance of billy woods and Euclid as the true lions of East Coast rap in 2021.
VIDEO: Armand Hammer & The Alchemist feat. Earl Sweatshirt “Falling Out of the Sky”
7. Olivia Rodrigo Sour (Interscope) The fact this former co-star of High School Musical aped a famous Elvis Costello lick for her boffo single “Brutal” (sounds more Wire-ish to me, tho) means she is listening. And the Top 40 is a better landscape for it.
VIDEO: Olivia Rodrigo “Brutal”
8. Kaidi Tatham An Insight Into All Minds (First Word) All these jazz critics keep wondering who the next Herbie Hancock is when they should be discovering what the first Kaidi Tatham is all about. An Insight Into All Minds finds this Belfast-born session man for the likes of Slum Village, Soul II Soul, Amy Winehouse and others in peak creative form on this modern-day space jam.
AUDIO: Kaidi Tatham “Try n Follow”
9. Juliana Hatfield Blood (American Laundromat) Juliana continues to assert her dominance as the hardest working woman of her generation with her incredible ninth solo LP. And it’s her darkest work yet, channeling her feelings about the age of Trumpism with horror film imagery and lyrical viscera that cuts to the core of the critical fracture in the American psyche.
VIDEO: Juliana Hatfield performs “Mouthful of Blood” on Samantha Bee
10. Maria Grand Reprocity (Biophilia Records)/James Brandon Lewis Red Lily Quintet Jesup Wagon (TaoForms)/Charles Lloyd & The Marvels Tone Poem (Blue Note)/Floating Points, Pharoah Sanders and the London Symphony Orchestra Promises (Luaka Bop) We’re talking tenors, man. And its like as if the saxophone stars have aligned perfectly in the sky this year with this quartet of tenor titans, who collectively encompass three generations of brass majesty in all of its myriad forms. Maria and JB are literally the Twin Towers of 21st Century Tenor, each of whom possess this magical ability to paint these colors with their brass that will resonate for generations to come. My hope is that both Maria Grand and James Brandon Lewis will be in the same place Charles Lloyd and Pharoah Sanders are right now in their golden years, because the fact that both of these men are still playing at the very top of their game is such a joyful testament to the healing and holistic element of the saxophone.
11. Chris Church Game Dirt (Big Stir Records) For his first album on Big Stir, this North Carolina power pop vet has released the loosest, loudest album of his 20-odd years on the college radio dial.
VIDEO: Chris Church “Learn”
12. CHAI WINK (Sub Pop) Recorded on GarageBand over Zoom and the old fashioned telephone ☎️, this Tokyo quartet delivers some of the most imaginative J-Pop since Cibo Matto told us to shut up and learn to eat.
VIDEO: CHAI “IN PINK” (feat. Mndsgn)
13. Part Chimp Drool (Wrong Speed Recordings) This South London outfit has been literally the only English post-hardcore band that matters since coming together in the year 2000. And fifth album Drool cements their legacy of brutality with their most nuanced work yet, though when we say nuanced we really mean heavy AF.
VIDEO: Part Chimp “Back From The Dead”
14. Ours Ours (Cage Recording Company) Jimmy Gnecco of Teaneck, NJ, deserves far more accolades than he receives as one of the singular voices of his generation of rockers, consistently releasing music that challenges the notions of what’s prog and what’s emo and what’s pop with a panache entirely his own. The eponymous ninth album from Ours showcases the artistry of a man on the cusp of 48 at complete ease with the sound he’s workshopped for 30 years.
15. Genesis Owusu Smiling With No Teeth (Ourness) Australia has had a hip-hop scene since the 80s. But the last couple of years has proven to be a creative boon happening Down Under with the success of such esteemed exports as Sampa The Great and Tkay Maidza, who just signed to 4AD. Genesis, a 23-year-old originally from Ghana, takes it to a whole other level on his excellent debut that owes as much to Michael Hutchence as it does Juice WRLD.
VIDEO: Genesis Owusu “Same Thing”
16. Jeff Rosenstock SKA DREAM (Polyvinyl) I’m not sure what motivated Rosenstock to make this skanked up version of last year’s raucous NO DREAM. But it sounds like Operation Ivy, and more kids need to get into them. It’s also better than literally every ska-punk album that came out in 1996.
AUDIO: Jeff Rosenstock SKA DREAM (full album)
17. Madlib/Four Tet Sound Ancestors (Stones Throw) Like a millennial hip-hop version of King Tubby and Lee “Scratch” Perry coming together for a soundclash, this union between Otis Jackson, Jr. and Kieran Hebden is even better than you imagined.
AUDIO: Madlib x Four Tet Sound Ancestors (full album)
18. Paul Weller Fat Pop Vol. 1 (Polydor) Coming off his most soulful album since the Style Council days in On Sunset, Paul Weller quickly followed up with an album that sounds like the kinda thing the Jam man would’ve released 30 years ago at the peak of Madchester madness. Call it Weller-delica.
VIDEO: Paul Weller “Fat Pop”
19. Gary Louris Jump For Joy (Thirty Tigers) While The Jayhawks continue to relish in their amazing second act–releasing one of the best albums in their 35 years with 2020’s XOXO–Louris returns to the solo fold with his first set of quality Minnesota guitar pop under his own name since 2008’s Vagabonds.
VIDEO: Gary Louris “Almost Home”
20. Squid Bright Green Fields (Warp) Warp Records continues to secure a small but elite community of electronic-minded rock bands with Squid, a post-punk band from Brighton who are more Minutemen than Gang of Four in the best possible way.
VIDEO: Squid “Pamphlet”
21. Mdou Moctar, ‘Afrique Victime’ (Matador) Tuareg guitar blues enters the Houses of the Holy on this uncompromisingly heavy and soulful album, the Niger-based songwriter’s first on Matador. Few folks can rip like Mdou in 2021.
VIDEO: Mdou Moctar “Afrique Victim”
22. SAULT Nine (Forever Living Originals) This mysterious London outfit remains as productive as they are elusive as they continue to skip the evens with NINE, their most accessible work yet. But just because SAULT might sound more radio friendly doesn’t mean they are no less serious than they’ve been in the wake of the collective global trauma from which they have risen.
23. Brockhampton Roadrunner: New Light, New Machine (Atlantic) These cats call themselves a boy band, but this Texas collective are not only redefining that archaic phrase, but the concept of multicultural brotherhood as well, with every album they make. Originally conspired to be released across the din of a scrapped YouTube series during the pandemic, Roadrunner feels more like a mixtape than a proper album for Brockhampton. Nevertheless, anything Kevin Abstract and company do is well worth seeking out.
VIDEO: Brockhampton feat. Danny Brown “BUZZCUT”
24. Mammoth WVH Mammoth WVH (EX1) All you critics giving the Wolf man a hard time about the music he makes are missing the point entirely. Eddie’s only son, who turned 30 this March and is on tour with Guns ‘N Roses, isn’t out to make another Women and Children First. Rather, Mammoth WVH delivers a more superior version of modern-day radio rock that takes what he learned as a member of Tremonti and elevates it to a higher ground that surely made his old man proud.
VIDEO: Mammoth WVH “Don’t Back Down”
25. The Coral Coral Island (Run On) The Coral have come a long way in their 25 years together from a ragtag group of Merseyside teens hopped up on old Deram Records sides into one of most astute acts in modern UK rock. Now as men in the throes of middle age, they’ve turned around and delivered some of the most English Britpop since Blur’s The Great Escape.
VIDEO: The Coral “Faceless Angel”
26. Parranoul To See The Next Part of the Dream (self-released) “Mathgaze” is what BandCamp calls this massive second album from Seoul, South Korea’s own Parranoul. As for me, I think these cats released the best thing Mogwai never recorded. It’s available online for free, and I strongly suggest you take a chance on it and discover the wonder for yourself.
27. Hiatus Kaiyote Mood Valiant (Brainfeeder) “When you think your life is going to be taken away from you, it makes you think about who you are,” stated Nai Palm, lead singer of Australian future soul collective Hiatus Kaiyote in a press release announcing their Brainfeeder debut. “I guess after the breast cancer scare I decided that I needed to prove to life that the offering I have is genuine. My only wish is to live and offer my experience of time and beauty.” Mood Valiant, the band’s third LP, is a testament to the human spirit that not only finds the Kaiyote in collaboration with renowned Brazilian composer Arthur Verocai on the cut “Get Sun,” they elevate his psychedelic vision into a new realm where digital and analog are intertwined beyond the point of untangling.
VIDEO: Hiatus Kaiyote “Get Sun”
28. Patrick Paige II If I Fail Are We Still Cool? (Fat Possum) The Internet’s bass-playing secret weapon continues to forge his own path beyond the innovative R&B band with his second solo jawn and debut on Fat Possum, showcasing his ever-increasing strengths as not only a producer and arranger but an MC as well.
VIDEO: Patrick Paige II “Whisper (Want My Luv)”