June produced another very strong contender for Album of the Year as well as a whole host of stunning records that could plausibly find their way into the top ten come December. We’re now halfway through 2021, and if the second half is anywhere close to as strong as the first, we could be looking at a vintage year for new music. I hope that you enjoy these recommendations!
WARNING: All albums and their accompanying videos are completely uncensored. A number of them contain bad language that is unsuitable for children, NSFW topics and images, and/or political commentary that may offend or disturb some.
Please follow the following links if you wish to skip to The Contenders (2-9) and Further Recommendations (10-18)
Album of the Month
Japanese Breakfast – Jubilee (Indie Rock, Dead Oceans)
Japanese Breakfast’s 2017 album Soft Sounds from Another Planet was a good friend to me at a time when I needed one. I first heard it during a period in my life when I was regularly sinking three to four hours of my day into a commute on a cramped bus, listening to as much music as I could whilst also trying to make up the lost hours of sleep. Not many albums got as much rotation as Soft Sounds. Even as I drifted in and out of consciousness, it was plainly obvious that this was a special record. It had an eclectic musical scope, matched by the kind of lyrical bravery that inspires devotion (e.g. “If you don’t like how I look, then leave, I can’t get you off my mind, I can’t get you off in general” on centrepiece Boyish). The album never got the recognition it truly deserved. It received almost unanimously positive reviews, but by the end of the year it appeared in only a handful of publications’ Album of the Year lists and barely registered on any sales charts. It remained a secret treasured by those lucky enough to have heard it.
Four years later, I thankfully no longer have to make those commutes, and Japanese Breakfast mastermind Michelle Zauner looks very much like she is deservedly moving onto bigger and better things too. In April she released a memoir, Crying In H Mart, that came second only to one George W Bush in the New York Times’ non-fiction bestsellers and subsequently will be made into a movie. At the same time, anticipation for the new Japanese Breakfast album Jubilee seems to have reached levels usually reserved for indie bands of a much bigger commercial stature. The already considerable expectations of fans (including yours truly) were raised further still by the release of lead single and curveball Be Sweet back in March. If it weren’t for Zauner’s distinctive vocals, the track would sound nothing like anything we’ve come to expect from Japanese Breakfast so far, with its funky guitars, retro synths, and jubilant backing vocals all sounding like they could fit into a 1980s pop single. It also has arguably the most immediately catchy chorus that Zauner has penned yet. The song treads a line that many indie artists dream of: on the one hand, it’s the sort of bold, risky artistic reinvention away from previous releases that inspires admiration and critical praise; on the other, it’s an absolute banger that might prove to be Zauner’s potential crossover hit into indie rock’s higher tiers.
In one sense, Be Sweet is a red herring of what to expect from Jubilee as an album. This is not an indie pop juggernaut housing ten huge hits. In multiple interviews Zauner has explicitly expressed her desire to avoid the pitfall of indie bands going “full-pop” simply to attract a larger audience. At the same time, the lead single does showcase a number of the album’s qualities that separates it from Soft Sounds (as well as debut album Psychopomp) and signifies that Zauner has confidently taken the next step in Japanese Breakfast’s artistic and commercial development. While Soft Sounds was musically ambitious in its own way as an eclectic, kaleidoscopic mix of the many different faces of indie rock, nevertheless it still felt like an ‘indie’ rock album (in the traditional sense of the word) that was very happy to stay in its own lane rather than reach for arenas. Jubilee, meanwhile, displays a very different sort of ambition, combining a much grander sense of scale, further experimentation with unfamiliar sounds, and more immediate songwriting to create a bigger and bolder sound compared to any previous release. Zauner’s ever-growing experience as a musician meant that she “had a large palette to pull from,” including the ability to co-compose string and horn sections (she has spent the years between Soft Sounds and Jubilee writing “sprawling, ambient-chill tracks” for the soundtrack to videogame Sable andstudying music theory, amongst other things). Moreover, previous successes gave her a greater confidence that her formidable talent as a songwriter and musician would allow her to realise her artistic ambitions. Consequently, she was able to approach writing and recording Jubilee with the outlook that “nothing was limited.”
Paprika is an exemplary opening statement in that regard, starting with a swell of downbeat synths where a counterpart from Soft Sounds might have lingered indefinitely. That mood is shattered almost as soon as it arrives, firstly by an elated chorus and then by an anthemic horn line more often found in The National, Beirut, or Illinois-era Sufjan Stevens records. From that moment onwards, the track leaves behind its initial overcast tone to bask in an atmosphere that is alternately celebratory and heroically grand. Zauner might have intended to avoid a full immersion into the world of pop as a ‘cheap’ route to more fans, and the changes in sound found on Jubilee may well have been a result of her artistic curiosity rather than any commercially-minded decision. She has said that the chorus’ lyrics (“How does it feel to stand at the height of your powers, To captivate every heart? Projecting your visions to strangers, Who feel it, who listen, who linger on every word, Oh, it’s a rush!”) are about learning to “enjoy… how magical of an experience it is to have people listen to you and relate to you.” Nevertheless, it’s difficult to listen to a track this grand and not conclude that it would probably connect with a much larger audience than she currently has. It’s simply a different way of meaningfully connecting with as many listeners as possible, a more genuine and “well-intentioned” path where Zauner does not have to compromise her identity as an artist.
This bigger, bolder sound is not the only significant stylisticshift from the musical trajectoryestablished by Psychopomp and Soft Sound. The warmer, more immediate tone of the composition in much of Jubilee reflects Zauner’s efforts “to write an album about joy” as a conscious “departure” from those two Japanese Breakfast albums (and Crying in H Mart) which were “so rooted in grief and loss” in the wake of her mother’s passing in 2014. After Paprika’s giddy swirls and Be Sweet’s pop euphoria, Kokomo, IN rounds out the opening salvo with an exquisite slice of baroque-pop that’s maybe the most perfect synthesis of Jubilee’s pomp and vibrancy. It is certainly the most luxurious-sounding Japanese Breakfast track to date, with a swooning string arrangement that sounds closer to a nineteenth-century European palace than an indie rock venue. Underneath that ornate exterior summery chord progressions and an instantly memorable chorus produce a pure sugar-rush of melodic bliss. Just ask Wilco frontman (and major Japanese Breakfast inspiration) Jeff Tweedy, who was almost immediately inspired to record and upload a cover of the song online. Once that opening trio passes, much of the rest of the album maintains a similarly ebullient mood, from the New-Order-meets-Bon-Iver leftfield pop of Slide Tackle to the breezy drive of Savage Good Boy and the twinkling balladry in Tactics. This is an album built on big moments designed to exhilarate the listener.
This emphasis on joy also features prominently in the lyrics, marking another significant diversion from Japanese Breakfast’s previous work. Paprika’s appreciation of fans’ devotion makes way for a recurring theme of love throughout the album which at times sounds decidedly more positive than Zauner’s past considerations of the topic (“So be good to me… You and me always had a good time”). Even certain songs dealing with more traditionally sombre matters are often elevated by clever lyrics and upbeat music. The fictional midwestern teenager longing after an ex who has moved away in Kokomo, IN exudes wistful nostalgia rather than depressed anguish, thanks both to the song’s sunny melodies and the character’s mature recognition that the departure is possibly for the best (“I’ll wait, passing time just popping wheelies… Watching you show off to the world the parts I fell so hard for, God, I wish we could go back there, Left alone in my room, [But] I know they deserve you too”). Similarly, Savage Good Boy is told through the perspective of a multi-billionaire building “a billion-dollar bunker for two” to survive the impending climate apocalypse. But the breezy feel of the accompanying driving rock and the lyrics’ playful skewering of the protagonist’s attempts to woo his future bunker-mate (“when the city’s underwater, I will wine and dine you in the hollows, On a surplus of freeze-dried food”) are both so accomplished that the overall tone is immensely enjoyable rather than loathsome.
If any old fans are starting to feel unnerved by all the talk of stylistic departures, opulent orchestration, and uplifting happiness, it’s worth pointing out that Japanese Breakfast has not become unrecognisable from the band they fell in love with. Firstly, in many ways Jubilee’s exploration of new sonic terrain is simply another step forward on a path already established by Soft Sounds’ eclectic vision, albeit maybe not the one that some fans of that album would have expected. Moreover, in spite of Jubilee’s grander scale and considerably more upbeat musical mood, it still incorporates more than enough elements from Japanese Breakfast’s past (not least of all Zauner’s distinctive voice) to sound more like a natural evolution rather than a revolutionary demolition of it.
The album’s midway pointin particular amply demonstrates this connective tissue between Jubilee and its predecessors. Though second single Posing in Bondage is potentially more experimental than any other Japanese Breakfast track, it shouldn’t come as a shock to any fans that are familiar with the gloomy electro-pop of Soft Sounds single Machinist. It begins as a slow, vague mist of art-pop-music-meets-ambient-soundscape, drifting along as industrial swells of melody and harmony meet chattering synth arpeggios. Then, after the second subdued chorus, it kickstarts into life with childlike, wordless vocals and a “drive-y, chill” beat similar to Drake’s Hold On, We’re Going Home. The industrial tone continues with the brooding monolith Sit, its growling guitars and ghostly, piano-led prechorusgiving it a malevolent and desolate feel that would fit comfortably on Soft Sounds. Later on, In Hell is actually a reworked version of a bonus track from the Soft Sounds sessions, and whilst it suits its new surroundings, inevitably it too would not sound out of place on the record which it was originally written for. In short, even those Japanese Breakfast fans who would usually be put off by their favourite indie band breaking out string and horn sections will find plenty to love here.
Equally (and perhaps not surprisingly for a writer as nuanced as Zauner), Jubilee’s attention to joy is considerably more complex than the prevalent discussion in interviews might initially suggest. Though Zauner herself has often been the initiator of such conversations, she has also often been clear that this does not equate a complete absence of grief and loss. This album is a multifaceted exploration of “the different ways that we interact with joy,” one that reveals itself over repeated listens to document “the struggle to feel joy” just as much as the highs of actually experiencing it. In spite of its provocative title, Posing In Bondage conveys the “loneliness and longing… [of] two people who want so badly to connect but are never quite able to do so” (“Can you tell I’ve been posing, This way alone for hours? Waiting for your affection”). Underneath another yearning string arrangement Tactics’ lyrics deal with “walking away from someone or something to experience joy or preserve joy,” drawing from Zauner’s own experiences of the difficult relationship with her estranged father (“So I had to Move a great distance from you, Cross a sea, [to] keep you from me”). Perhaps most devastating of all, In Hell recounts the highly traumatic process of caring for her mother throughout the year preceding her death (“I snowed you in with hydrocodone, Layer by layer ’til you disappear… Hell is finding someone to love, And I can’t see you again”).
Clearly, then, it would be wrong to conceive of Jubilee as a purely ‘joyful’ album. The happiness it describes is by no means absolute and unblemished by the kinds of gripping anguish and despair that Zauner shared so viscerally with us on previous releases. Curiously, understanding Jubilee in these terms has possibly furthered my understanding of Psychopomp and Soft Sounds at the same time. Whilst they are undeniably dark, sorrowful records, neither is entirely detached from the experience of joy that is more overtly on show here. A significant part of what made those earlier records’ lyrical content so compelling and relatable was Zauner’s remarkable ability to capture pain and misery as a potential consequence of exposing one’s emotional vulnerability to others in the search for that happiness. (e.g. see “I came here for the long haul, Now I leave here as an empty fucking hole”).
On Jubilee, that risk of devastation still clearly remains, and the examples listed above show that Zauner has not lost her talent to convey the repercussions of leaving oneself exposed in brutal detail. However, the overall arc of the narrative is changed substantially by the introduction of the potential rewards that reaching for joy can bring. Joy might not be bereft of pain, but equally the experience of pain and suffering (even as great an amount as Zauner has faced) does not necessarily negate one’s ability to feel joy permanently – “I wanted to just explore a different part of me: I am capable of joy and I have experienced a lot of joy.” It is true that trying to achieve joy might risk more pain than you would experience if you never reached for it in the first place. When Be Sweet was first released as a single my initial reaction to the lyrics gravitated instead to those risks of getting hurt again when trusting someone who has let you down before (e.g. “come and get your woman, Pacify her rage, Take the time to undo your lies, make it up once more with feeling, Recognize your mistakes and I’ll let you back in, Realize not too late, loved you always”). But having listened to the whole of Jubilee and read Zauner’s own words about the record, I think that first interpretation missed the point. The joy that this act of forgiveness can unlock is worth so much more than the safety of not trusting. Ultimately the rewards of reaching out can significantly outweigh that risk, even if it comes with the understanding that things will not work out in every case. It’s not a new message, but it is rarely explored so profoundly in musical form.
As Posing for Cars wraps up proceedings with a blissful extended guitar solo, I’m left with a very strong feeling that a vital journey has just been completed, one that captures a slice of both the pain that comes with living in this world and the beauty that makes it all worthwhile for many of us. It’s a feeling that a particular type of great album gives me and is usually a very good sign. All being well, Jubilee will prove to be the kind of crossover album like High Violet or Currents that catapults Japanese Breakfast into the modern indie ‘big leagues.’ It certainly deserves to be. But if not, those of us fortunate enough to have been introduced to this most magical of artists can enjoy this secret just a little bit longer.
2. Wolf Alice – Blue Weekend (Rock, Dirty Hit)
The Skinny: Three years after their surprise Mercury Prize win in 2018, London rockers Wolf Alice are back with their sights set on the biggest stages around. Their third album Blue Weekend is both a blockbuster release (claiming Number 1 and the biggest opening week for a British act in 2021 so far on the UK albums chart) and a real chameleon of a record, twisting the band into a myriad of styles. Lipstick on the Glass bears more than a passing resemblance to PJ Harvey’s Stories From the City, Stories From the Sea (in a very good way), whilst preview single Smile mixes squelchy riffs with a huge shoegaze chorus. At other points, listeners will pick up less expected components such as the starry-eyed Hollywood worship of Lana Del Rey (Delicious Things), the more folk-y moments of Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours (Safe from Heartbreak), and even trip-hop (Feeling Myself). Blue Weekend is the very best of what an arena rock album can be in 2021. Its widescreen sound and wealth of irresistable hooks can top charts and headline festivals, yet it has plenty of substance to keep listeners interested through repeat plays. This album has earned Wolf Alice their third Mercury Prize nomination – perhaps they’ll nick another trick from PJ Harvey in September and become only the second act in the prize’s history to win for a second time.
Standout tracks: Delicious Things, Smile, No Hard Feelings
For fans of: PJ Harvey, The 1975, Daughter
3. Spellling – The Turning Wheel (Art-Pop, Spellling under exclusive license to Sacred Bones Records)
The Skinny: A stirring theatricality runs throughout The Turning Wheel, one which Oakland-based artist Chrystia Cabral has admitted was a primary objective in making the third album for her project Spellling. There’s a very fine line in applying that quality to music, between roaring success and the appearance of embarrassing amateurism or pretentiousness. But Cabral’s impeccably-crafted arrangements and engrossing lyrics ensure that the musical and vocal flamboyance on display here add extra layers of dynamism and genuine drama rather than affectation. For example, the weighty piano and beautifully harmonised strings in the introduction to lead single Little Deer, followed by soaring chord progressions and vocal melodies, make Cabral’s supernatural, Frida Kahlo-inspired vocals concerning a human-animal hybrid seem both perfectly natural and captivating rather than ridiculous.
The theatricality does not let up from there. The ornate instrumentation of tracks such as Always, The Future,and Emperor with an Egg conjure up a feeling of fairy tales and high fantasy. Awaken fizzles with momentum and a sense of epic purpose, especially in the chorus, and Revolution’s snaking melodies and sliding bass craft a sense of dangerous intrigue. Standout track Boys at School goes yet another step further, moving from a jazzy, musical-theatre-influenced introduction to a soul-baring piano ballad before culminating in a crescendo of bombastic shredding guitars and grand horns, all within the space of seven and a half minutes that absolutely fly by. All the while, Cabral’s vocals display a range and quirkiness that recall greats such as Joanna Newsome and Kate Bush as well as more recent examples like Weyes Blood. The Turning Wheel is a spell-binding voyage for listeners, one that continues to become more rewarding with each repeated play.
Standout tracks: Boys at School, Little Deer
For fans of: Weyes Blood, Kate Bush, Kelsey Lu
4. Alice Ava – Can You Feel It (Alt-Pop/Singer-Songwriter, Alice Lin)
The Skinny: Described as a collection of “lullabies, protests and gifts for friends,” Can You Feel It is the debut solo album of Bodies of Water member Alice Ava (you might remember that Bodies of Water’s track Never Call Me Again featured in February’s Tracks of the Month). The album was recorded mostly at home on a laptop, giving it an intimate,pleasinglylo-fi vibe as it weaves between melodically-rich piano (The Blue and the Silver, Moon Language, The Year I Met Your Mom) and left-field pop with touches reminiscent of Parade-era Prince (Powder in the Air, Lost Boy). There are many stunning moments to be found here, like the seamless switch from The Blue and the Silver’s original minor-key chord progression to the major-key final coda. Can You Feel It was a discovery that I stumbled on purely by chance, and thank goodness I did; it is a hidden jewel of a record.
Standout tracks: Powder in the Air, The Blue and the Silver
For fans of: Bodies of Water, John Grant, Grandaddy, Aldous Harding
5. Enji – Ursgal (Jazz/Alternative, Squama)
The Skinny: Another of June’s great unexpected finds, Ursgal is “a unique blend of Jazz and Folk with the traditions of Mongolian song” and the first album by Munich-based Mongolian artist Enji to feature her own compositions. Much of the instrumentation is based around beautifully warm guitar played by Paul Brändle, which works perfectly in tandem with Enji’s airy, multi-lingual vocals. At points an element of positive tension is provided by subtle parts like Munguntovch Tsolmonbayar’s menacing double bass line in Zavkhan or the combination of epic vocals and tremolo-strummed guitars in the outro of the title track. English-language tracks like Diary of June 9th and I’m Glad There Is You are utterly charming in their simplicity. In particular, the latter takes Julie London’s 1955 jazz ballad and strips it of any instrumentation, resulting in a performance that reminds me a little of Like Someone in Love from Björk’s Debut (a track that I adore). Things take a brief, unexpected turn with the more atonal vocal chants and brass of Sevkhet Bor, but otherwise Ursgal is a near-perfect record and a testament to Enji’s own songwriting talents.
Standout tracks: Khorom, Aya
For fans of: Nai Palm, Arooj Aftab
6. Tyler, The Creator – CALL ME IF YOU GET LOST (Rap, Columbia Records)
The Skinny: Fans are already busy debating whether Call Me If You Get Lost marks the final chapter of one of the great rap album trilogies of all time following 2017’s Flower Boy and 2019’s Igor. Call Me If You Get Lost certainly lives up to the pre-release excitement. It’s another absolute tour de force in compositionally-innovative rap music and larger-than-life lyrics. Tracks like lead single Lumberjack and late highpoint Rise! fizz with an irrepressible verve, getting the listener’s pulse racing and head nodding. It’s the sound of an artist who knows he’s on a hot streak and potentially writing his name into the history books of his genre (or any genre, for that matter).
Call Me If You Get Lost is not perfect. When referencing an apology to Selena Gomez over previous disturbing tweets in Manifesto, he doesn’t sound entirely sincere or contrite, creating an unease that is compounded by some skits which could be described as immature at best. With so much incredible material on offer here, there is also absolutely no need for the likes of cod-reggae borefest I Thought You Wanted to Dance, and DJ Drama‘s stint as host and hype man wears out its welcome within the first few tracks. Those points aside, Call Me If You Get Lost is another excellent album. It is yet more proof, if any more was needed, that no artist in rap since To Pimp a Butterfly-era Kendrick Lamar has managed so successfully to balance sonic innovation with commercial megastar status (Call Me If You Get Lost became Tyler’s second album to top the US charts this week).
Standout tracks: RISE!, LUMBERJACK
For fans of: Kanye West, MF DOOM
7. Faye Webster – I Know I’m Funny haha (Country/Indie Rock, Secretly Canadian)
The Skinny: Following 2019’s excellent Atlanta Millionaire’s Club, I Know I’m Funny ha ha continues to develop Faye Webster’s enchanting brand of country and indie to produce her strongest album to date. The deadpan tone of the title – worded in such a way that we’re unsure whether it’s intended to be subtly self-deprecating or actually as boastful as it reads at face value – is a good indication of the album’s vibe. Webster’s vocals almost always sound charmingly dejected, not only when the lyrical content matches that mood but also even when their meaning is considerably more positive (e.g. In A Good Way). It makes total sense in its own way, acting as the perfect accompaniment to the downbeat-yet-beautiful instrumentation (in particular the wistful slide guitar found throughout). Anything more cheerful would likely shatter the spell cast. With I Know I’m Funny haha, Faye Webster continues to firmly establish herself as one of the finest alt-country artists around.
Standout tracks: In A Good Way, I Know I’m Funny haha
For fans of: Julia Jacklin, Conor Oberst, early Angel Olsen
8. Pom Pom Squad – Death of a Cheerleader (Alternative, City Slang)
The Skinny: Frontperson and songwriter for self-described “Quiet Grrrl Punk” four-piece Pom Pom Squad Mia Berrin creates music that is emotionally stirring. Death of a Cheerleader, the band’s debut full-length album and first with German independent label City Slang, is an impressively varied record. There is plenty of the energetic alt-rock (Head Cheerleader, Drunk Voicemail) and “cathartic punk” (Lux, Shame Reactions) with which the band is most often associated, but Death of a Cheerleader also features the kinds of lush track (Crimson + Clover, Forever, Be Good) that would rarely feature on a punk album in previous decades. Berrin also has a clear talent for creating searing, instantly-memorable lyrics which unmistakably convey the tribulations she experiences as a queer, half-black and half-Puerto Rican woman (“You should ask your mother what she means, When she says stay away from girls like me” on Head Cheerleader). Part of Berrin’s stated aim with Pom Pom Squad was to vigorously resist the constant erasure of black, queer, and female artists from rock music in spite of the genre’s “invent[ion] by a black queer woman” (Sister Rosetta Tharpe). With as brilliant and vital record as Death of a Cheerleader, she has already made an admirable and thrilling contribution in that struggle.
Standout tracks: Head Cheerleader, Red with Love
For fans of: illuminati hotties, Hole, Sleater-Kinney, Soccer Mommy
9. Hailu Mergia & The Walias – Tezeta (Jazz, Awesome Tapes from Africa Publishing)
The Skinny: Technically this isn’t a new album; instead, it is the first international release of ‘lost’ album Tezeta by trailblazing Ethiopian jazz royalty Hailu Mergia & The Walias. It was only unearthed after an older gentleman from the Netherlands contacted the great folks at Awesome Tapes From Africa in order “to contribute a few recordings he brought back from his time in Ethiopia during the mid-70s.” It’s a great story, and the music more than merits its belated day in the sun. The majority of the album is extremely mellow, soulful jazz, with melodic brass and some endearingly quirky organ tones. Highlights like Zengadyw Derekou and Mestirawi Debdabe add gorgeous slinky funk guitars to the mix, the former in particular sounding utterly heavenly as it moves through its chord progression. Nefas New Zemedie changes the tone for a moment midway with some enjoyable spooky, almost murder-mystery vibes. When I listen to Tezeta,I’m often saddened to think that it never got the chance to be as widely heard as it deserved in its own time. But most of all, I’m just glad that we eventually got to hear this fantastic collection of songs.
Standout tracks: Zengadyw Derekou, Nefas New Zemedie
10. L’Rain – Fatigue (Neo-Psychedelia, Mexican Summer LLC)
11. Hildegard – Hildegard (Electronic/Experimental, SECTION1)
12. Lucy Dacus – Home Video (Indie Rock, Matador)
13. Sault – 9 (Neo-Soul, Forever Living Originals)
14. Mykki Blanco – Broken Hearts and Beauty Sleep (Hip-Hop/R&B, Transgressive Records)
15. Rostam – Changephobia (Singer-Songwriter, MATSOR Projects)
16. Throwing Snow – Dragons (Electronic, Houndstooth)
17. MIKE – Disco! (Rap, 10k)
18. Tigercub – As Blue as Indigo (Rock, Blame Recordings)
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