Whew, it’s already halfway through 2021 — how did we get here? While only David Byrne can answer that, we do know that the torrent of excellent music released this year has certainly helped us navigate the last six months.
From rock star returns to underground luminaries to breakthrough debuts, there’s been a lot to keep up with. To help wade through it all, KCRW is pleased to present a selection of stunners on our mid-year albums list.
Since there’s plenty more great music to come, we’re saving the cagematch of our comprehensive ranked list for the end of the year in favor of a more iconoclastic take on this in-between space, featuring an unranked selection of individual favorite albums hand-picked by KCRW DJs and music staff.
Check out KCRW’s favorite albums of 2021 so far, and put ears on all the goods with our Spotify playlist.
Read more: The Best Songs of 2021 (So Far)
For more than a year now, London’s Black Country, New Road has patiently teetered on the cusp of success. The seven-piece experimental rock outfit emerged from relative anonymity in 2019 with just two songs, and publications from the New York Times to the Guardian quickly embraced them. The Quietus even declared the group “the best band in the world.”
With a visceral sound that melds post-rock, jazz, post-punk, and even klezmer into dynamic compositions, the band would soon sell out shows across the country, book international festivals, and land a record deal with independent stalwart Ninja Tune. Then the pandemic hit, delaying the release of their debut album “For the First Time” for a year.
Despite a refreshingly opaque social media presence (the band only posts stock photos), the disruption hasn’t detracted from the hype — and might have even been a blessing in disguise. “For the First Time” arrived at the top of 2021 as a thrilling palate cleanser from the nostalgia and inertia that characterized much of the pandemic music experience. The record feels urgent and wild, a document of raw youth, generational disillusionment, and the hollow excesses of late capitalism that bristles with tension, intelligence, and a smirk.
It’s also a fine middle finger to today’s short attention spans, with long tracks that grip you till the end. The nearly nine-minute “Sunglasses,” for example, shape-shifts from ruminative post-punk into an orchestral ballad before collapsing into cacophony and reassembling as a dance-punk invective.
“I am so ignorant now, with all that I have learnt,” singer-guitarist Isaac Wood howls and pants into the bridge. “I'm more than adequate / Leave Kanye out of this / Leave your Sertraline in the cabinet / And burn what's left of all the cards you kept.” We’ll bring the matches. — Andrea Domanick, KCRW Digital Producer, Music and Culture
When listening to the remarkable debut full length from Genesis Owusu, “Smiling With No Teeth," one can't help but be struck by the sheer number of different genres between which the Ghana-born, Australia-based artist bounces at a head-snapping pace. There’s sludgy techno ("On the Move!"), synthy New Wave ("The Other Black Dog"), modern electronic R&B ("Centerfold"), retro soul ("Waitin On Ya" & “Smiling With No Teeth”), political-leaning hip-hop ("I Don't See Colour"), and even punk rock ("Black Dogs").
It’s an incredible feat, considering it took genre-bending artists like Bowie, Talking Heads, Grace Jones, or, more recently, Anderson .Paak, entire careers to cover this much musical ground. Yet Owusu—who just delivered a powerhouse live set on Morning Becomes Eclectic— keeps things cohesive with the common denominator that is his undeniable voice, presence, and lyrical prowess, making for one of the great albums of 2021. — Dan Wilcox, KCRW DJ
Read more: Hip-hop breakthrough Genesis Owusu on racism, depression, and ‘Smiling With No Teeth’
Several weeks ago, someone emailed me and recommended that I listen to Tamar Aphek’s album “All Bets Are Off.” I had never heard of her. Seeing it was on Kill Rockstars made me curious, because that’s a great label. I went to the Bandcamp site, listened, and got the album. Aphek is from Israel. She has a strength that is undeniable. She’s a fascinating and ripping guitar player with killer tone, alongside being a great vocalist and lyricist.
The tracks are brilliantly produced and lend themselves to jazz, rock and avant-garde without trying to fit into any of them. The more you listen to the record, the better it gets. It’s on as I write this, and her guitar playing is blowing my mind. Bass player Or Dromi and drummer David Gorensteyn are relentlessly innovative. They seem to explode and ricochet behind her with intelligence and energy to spare. Easily my favorite album of the year so far. Run, do not walk, to this one. — Henry Rollins, KCRW DJ
You have certainly heard Aaron Frazer on our airwaves over the years and just didn't know it. The Brooklyn based, Baltimore raised artist first came across our radars as the drummer and co-lead singer of the band Durand Jones and The Indications. Frazer's talent was never in doubt, but it wasn't until his solo debut full-length that we were able to experience the full expression of his gifts.
“Introducing...” is one of those albums you'll hear on every KCRW DJ's show. No matter anyone's particular musical constitution, the sonic landscape that defines this impressive debut is undeniable. The record is a 12-song fusion of ‘60s soul, gospel, doo-wap, exquisite songwriting, and impeccable production courtesy of KCRW favorite Dan Auerbach of The Black Keys. The two recorded “Introducing…” in a single week at Auerbach’s antique and ephemera-laden studio in Nashville, following what has been described as "a rapid and prolific songwriting session".
The result is one of those albums where you can just press “play” and know you're in good hands. There are no skips. “Introducing…” is a must-have add to your collection, and I anticipate it making our final top 10 of the year. — Aaron Byrd, KCRW DJ
Viagra Boys set the bar high for 2021 by dropping their raucous second studio release “Welfare Jazz” on the first Friday after New Year's Day. It's an invigorating, top of the year self-reflection. The brash mea culpa of “Ain’t Nice” starts the set, with lead singer Sebastian Murphy spewing his worst qualities in a confessional meltdown. From there, the album follows him to rock bottom and back again, ultimately leading to his coming to terms with a loveless life. Thankfully, there's a semblance of a happy ending, with Murphy trading verses with Amy Taylor of Australian punks Amyl and the Sniffer, on a transformative take on the late John Prine's corn-pone classic, "In Spite of Ourselves." — Chris Douridas, KCRW DJ and Music Programming Curator of Eclectic24
“Shirushi,” the debut LP from Japanese psych-punk outfit TEKE::TEKE (pronounced tech-ee-tech-ee), is a mixture of old and new. It’s old in the form of using traditional Japanese instruments like a shinobue (bamboo flute) and taisho koto (two string lyre with a keyboard), and new in the way the band integrates that instrumentation with fuzzy guitars, surf rock, and psychedelia. The Montreal based seven-piece captivate with their ability to effortlessly transition from songs that sound like cinematic soundtracks (“Kala Kala”) to folk-inspired ballads (“Kaminari”) to modern day psychedelic rock (“Yoru Ni”). It’s true “world music,” loaded up with modern relevance, a bit of nostalgia, and delivered with Big Band energy — perfect for getting through that mid-year hump. — Jose Galvan, KCRW DJ
A little escapist ‘70s-retro disco-lounge with a French touch? Why, yes, please! Et voilà, French dream synth master Anoraak, whose sound is often credited as inspiration for soundtrack of the movie “Drive.” His new project “Karma” marks a bit of a departure from Anoraak’s typical synth-laden sound, but continues his musical collaboration with the sultry French-Lebanese chanteuse Sarah Maison, with whom he explored their mutual love of dark disco on their 2020 single “Gang.”
From start to finish, “Karma” transports you to Paris at night, with all of its immaculate charm and iconic stylings. The EP is equal parts disco dance and boudoir chill. Maison’s signature velvety voice, which steps from singing to spoken word, weaves a seductive vocal tapestry that adds a whole new sensual-chic dimension to Anoraak’s steady groove. Save this one for nighttime, the dance floor, or a dinner party with no expiration time…because once you put it on, your guests won’t want to leave. — Valida, KCRW DJ
First, read Hanif Abdurraqib’s essay about this album. It’ll help you gauge whether or not this is a record that you can handle right now. Because “Little Oblivions” is a record to be handled. It is to be chewed, processed, and experienced. It’s for early morning walks, long drives, and wearing really big headphones while staring into the middle distance. If you’re in need of summer jams at the moment, feel free to move right along. That’s not to say that this record is all darkness. The impeccably tuneful song craft on display here is awe-inspiring (Baker handled almost all of it herself). Perhaps you’ll even find yourself in a sweat-drenched catharsis, shout-singing along to “Relative Fiction”: “I don’t need a savior, I need you to take me home / I don’t need your love, I need you to leave me alone!” Perhaps it’s a new kind of summer jam — the kind you didn’t know how much you needed until it hit. — Marion Hodges, Curator and Administrative Assistant, KCRW Music
I listened to Schwey’s new album from start to finish during a drive, and could not believe the progression within each song and into the next. “Schwey 2: Cyber Soul” feels like the perfect mixtape to compliment your summer — and quite possibly the fall and winter, too. The Vancouver collective showcase their skills dabbling in soul, funk, and dance music, but what stands out most are the beautiful harmonies that rest like butter over the drums and synths. It’s an album that’s sure to put a smile on your face, and make your toes tap and fingers snap. — Anthony Valadez, Morning Becomes Eclectic Co-Host, KCRW DJ
The 20-plus year career of Italian producer, DJ, guitarist, arranger, and bandleader Nicola Conte reaches its high point here in his latest collaboration with Italian trombonist Gianluca Petrella. Conte and Petrella lean heavily on their bandleader-arranger talents, assembling a group of uniquely skilled musicians from South Africa, Sweden, Ghana, Ethiopia, Finland, England, the U.S., and Italy. The result is an exquisite cross-cultural adventure that manages to sound both meticulously calculated and gleefully spontaneous.
Is it jazz? Afrobeat? House? Hip-hop? Yes to all, and more. While African-style rhythms and roots drive most tracks, the overarching sound of the record defies borders and classifications in a manner that screams “all music is one.” The spiritually-focused and universally-minded lyrics of “People Need People” and “The Higher Love” (featuring the exceptional MC skills of Raashan Ahmad) further express the commonality of the human experience that is the defining mark of the album. It’s my any place, any time, any mood album of the first half of 2021. — Scott Dallavo, KCRW DJ
“Paradigmes,” the third record from Paris-via-Biarritz psych-punks La Femme, has the feel of a restless band at the top of its game challenging itself to further expand its palette. While 2016's “Mystère” drew heavily from surf rock and krautrock archetypes, “Paradigmes'” center lies somewhere between the poles of ‘80s synth pop and ‘60s French chanson. At times, it can feel like a “Various Artists” compilation as it swings wildly between genres and tempos, but “Paradigmes” manages to find footing in its own frenetic energy.
An exhilarating listen from start to finish, it's really “Paradigme’s” final 14 minutes — the 1-2-3 punch of "Le Jardin,' "Va," and "Tu t'en lasses" — that make it the most thrilling album of the year. "Le Jardin," in particular, wouldn't sound wholly out of place on one of Serge Gainsbourg's psychedelic funk masterpieces, and is a midway-mark contender for song of the year. — Travis Holcombe, KCRW DJ
Discovering Rosie Frater-Taylor was a situation where the stars aligned. In a moment where I had a musical craving that I just couldn’t manage to pinpoint, I heard the first few strums of the London-based singer-songwriter’s track “Think About You.” I became a fan overnight, and began counting down the days until the release of her second album, “Bloom,” just two weeks later.
The 21-year-old singer’s “Bloom” covers an eclectic range of sound, from an acoustic cover of Fleetwood Mac’s “Dreams,” to the jazz guitar solo and scatting on “Better Days,” to rhythms reminiscent of Brazilian jazz on “Just My Type”. Bloom is the album I needed in the first half of 2021 – with lush production and variety that make me crave a live show in a crowded venue, but a laid-back sound with which I’m happy to fill my home until that day comes. — Surreal Lewis, KCRW Music Intern
The plight of a man, brilliant and Black in any time in history on this planet, should never be considered an anomaly. If you think about the juxtaposition of rhythms and tension that exists in society when it comes to privilege, versus those who are deemed inept, knowledge is the ascension that provides a great equalizer. Think about George Washington Carver, the agricultural scientist who turned the peanut into soap, paper, shaving cream, lotion, and a host of 300 other products as he transformed from slave to scientist. Imagine how Carver’s life evolved, the struggles and the triumphs, and then take those rhythms, melodies, harmonies, and dissonant notes, and compile that story through music.
Acclaimed saxophonist and composer James Brandon Lewis has imagined life through the eyes, heart, pain, and tenacious adversity of a man who created miracles that many of us may take for granted today. What is the road less traveled? How do you carve a direction to the unknown based on theory, and come out vicariously correct? The brain and synapses that fire must trigger a certain response that is equivalent to sound and story. Lewis’ “Jesup Wagon” is the vehicle and metaphor that moves thought from inception to astounding completion. It is not magic, it is not luck, it is a deep dive into cognition and the perseverance to broaden the horizons of the world. James Brandon Lewis had the vision. — LeRoy Downs, KCRW DJ
“Path of An Empath” is the perfect prescription for a weary soul. Released in January at what was allegedly the start of a new year, but in some ways felt like the extended edition of 2020, this EP arrived right on time. Tom Wilson, a.k.a Sweatson Klank and formerly known as TAKE, honed his skills and garnered respect as part of the early Los Angeles beat scene with his legendary party, Sketchbook, and has gone on to create a vast and varied catalogue over the decades.
But he suggests that “Path of An Empath” is some of his most potent work, taking the listener on “an all-ambient journey into self discovery through nature, synthesizers, tape loops, and field recordings… a musical antidote to all the anxiety & suffering our own thoughts can put on us.” I personally can attest to its efficacy as a satisfied patient. I’ve listened to it nearly every morning to start my day for the last five months. Between the bird songs and the earthy and hypnotic throbbing synths, the “Path” pill provides a wash of immediate calm, with no negative side-effects. — Novena Carmel, Morning Becomes Eclectic Co-Host
My only frustration with uniquely great albums is that I normally limit myself to playing one single from a given record per radio show. This year, I’ve found myself particularly frustrated with Kalbells’ sophomore full-length album “Max Heart” because, simply put, it’s too damn good.
You may recognize Kalbells’ frontwoman Kalmia Traver from the Vermont-based indie outfit Rubblebucket, or perhaps, like me, you first got hip to her debut solo album “Ten Flowers.” Or maybe Max Heart will be your entry point into Kalmia’s wonderful universe of swirling synthesizers and spirited storytelling. After a year of doom and gloom, an album all about new beginnings, personal discovery, and even making sweet love to the Earth (a very literal interpretation of Kalbells’ “Hump the Beach”) feels welcome. Helpful, even.
Max Heart’s musical totality rests above the clouds, beneath the stars, and somewhere between the folds of synth-pop and avant-rock. You’ll catch shades of Toro Y Moi and Mndsgn in the production, with off-kilter twists of Ryuichi Sakamoto or Tune-Yards in its delivery. I recommend “Purplepink” for driving with the windows down on a spotless sunny day, or “Diagram of Me Sleeping,” which bops around at a tumbleweed’s pace — ideal for lazing on a slow Sunday. There’s something for everyone here — press play and sink into “Max Heart” front to back. — John Moses, KCRW DJ
Be it rave-era tecno on anthems like “Go” or the melodic classics of his iconic full-length “Play,” Moby’s music has transcended genres and generations. In more recent years, the Little Idiot has managed to release excellent albums, open a restaurant, and speak out about social consciousness and animal rights, remaining relevant all along the way.
2021 marks the release of the beautifully crafted collection “Reprise” that revisits many of his hits, revamping them into acoustic and orchestral arrangements performed by the Budapest Art Orchestra, a string quartet, and multiple stellar guest singers. Household names like Gregory Porter, Jim James, and Kris Kristofferson are among those to lend their talents, and the new versions definitely hit the mark. I’ve been a fan of Moby since day one, and like many around the world, will continue to be for years to come. — Raul Campos, KCRW DJ
Read More: Throwback session: Moby live on MBE in 1999
Mystique is an oft-abused ideal in the music world. Some treat it like cheap tinsel for publicity, hiding behind played-out signifiers like masks, gauzy press photos, and cagey pseudonyms. Others force-feed mystique into the music itself, grasping for artsy and unreachable but landing with a thud on pretentious and aloof. But true mystique is the unforced byproduct of an artist's genuine attention to, and immersion in, their work. Like tuning a radio between two half-heard stations, it comes from the friction between a tangible emotional atmosphere and the listener's inability to get a precise fix on its origins.
The mystique of transnational collective known as Fievel Is Glauque is in this latter category. Their membership fluctuates across years, cities, and continents. Versions of the band have flared up in Brussels, Tournefeuille, New York, and LA. Their debut album “God’s Trashmen Sent to Right the Mess” sounds like a documentary recording of a basement rehearsal — which, in fact, it is. The group runs through 20 quietly virtuosic songs in 35 minutes. Although they proceed from a baseline of what one might (inadequately) call "indie rock," they traverse genres, tempos, time signatures, and arrangements with a minimum of fuss. Auxiliary instruments wander in and out like revelers at a house party. Female vocals are a regular feature, but it's hard to tell them apart or how many there are. One hears snatches of French speech, laughter, and tape machine noise at the margins. In different hands, it might sound insufferably precious and self-absorbed. But Fievel Is Glauque, whoever and whenever they may be, end up sounding only like themselves. And that's genuine mystique. — Myke Dodge Weiskopf, KCRW Senior Music Producer
The songs began to take form while Bergman spent time at a monastery to meditate on the sudden loss of her father and step-mother to a car crash. To say that this collection of tracks falls under “gospel” wouldn't do their complexity justice. Yes, titles like "Talk To The Lord" and "Shine Your Light On Me" are clarion calls for help, but "I Will Praise You" offers shiny high life-style guitar work, while "Paint The Rain" is straight-ahead love gone awry. Recorded in Los Angeles in the comfort of her brother's home studio, Bergman’s album embraces faith and hope as touchstones as she embarks on the healing process by writing a dozen songs and playing all the instruments. — Ariana Morgenstern, Morning Becomes Eclectic Executive Producer
St. Vincent’s Annie Clark simply can’t put a foot wrong. Every layer of every song on her sixth studio album “Daddy’s Home” is flawless. Painted with shades of hazy, quaalude-infused guitars and vocals, Clark digs deeply into the inspiration of downtown New York in the ‘70s (1971-76, to be exact). Cutting through all of that haze is injections of David Bowie with a side of Steely Dan. She nails it when she calls horn-laden slow-burner “...At The Holiday Party” “the feminine sister to the Rolling Stones’ ‘You Can’t Always Get What You Want.’”
During a recent conversation on Morning Becomes Eclectic, co-host Anthony Valadez asked Clark how she knows when a song is done. Her response was, “I think usually music is best when you kind of get it out of the way. I find that the more I do and play, the less I feel like I have control over music. I feel like I'm sort of chasing it around the room half the time.”
On “Daddy’s Home,” she definitely doesn’t chase the music. It’s intricate and sophisticated, while staying effortless, honest, and simply beautiful. — Anne Litt, KCRW DJ and Program Director for Music
As I was driving into the studio for a shift, I turned on the radio, and Chris Douridas was playing a band that caught my ear right away. It was Sad Night Dynamite, a pair of childhood friends from the U.K. named Josh Greacen and Archie Blagden who bring together various styles and sounds into their own pot of sample wizardry.
The duo, who’ve earned cosigns from the likes of Gorillaz and FKA Twigs, stay away from loops in favor of working with musicality and instrumentation, drawing on a massive love of old school music created without rules, and the dark and cinematic. They began making music while at different universities, sending each other beats that would build over a back-and-forth into full-blooded songs.
Standout track “Icy Violence” is broken into two styles, with a dark, deep electro dub sound segueing into a Romanian sample with the original song melody played on top. It’s one of the first songs they created, and just one piece of a daring and thought provoking record that will earn affections from fans of the Avalanches, film soundtracks, and experimental lushness. Keep eyes on Sad Night Dynamite, a band that doesn’t just create albums, but forges into a more visual, conceptional score space. — Jason Kramer, KCRW DJ
Sault is a beacon of what's cool in music right now. Powered by Inflo's inventive production, the mysterious U.K. collective has earned a special place among the KCRW DJ family. Wildly prolific, they've released five albums in just over two years, each packed with breathtaking moments and just great ideas. Across their growing catalog, grooves reminiscent of R&B classics sit alongside future-fresh tribal beats, protest poetry, and the occasional guest appearance, all underscored by anger, compassion, contemplation and an always-welcome flip. “Nine” is the latest, and it just dropped June 25th. Mark that date, because you can only stream, download, or purchase the album for 99 days. Then, presumably, it disappears. — Chris Douridas, KCRW DJ and Music Programming Curator of Eclectic24