Olivia Rodrigo, Jazmine Sullivan, Iceage, and more.

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Best Albums of 2021 so far
Credit: Album Illustration by EW

It's brutal out here; thankfully, the last six-plus months have given us plenty of new music to scream along with, curl up in a ball over, or just genuinely smile about. We think the 14 albums below are 2021's best of the bunch (so far) — from Gen Z classics in the making to campfire-ready country-folk to a blend of Haitian and street politics from your favorite rapper's favorite rapper.

Olivia Rodrigo — Sour

Olivia Rodrigo
Olivia Rodrigo's debut album, 'Sour'
| Credit: Geffen Records

The peak-pandemic ubiquity of "Driver's License" and a teenage resumé built almost entirely on Disney seemed to promise that Olivia Rodrigo's debut would be some squidgy, winsome collection of cracked-pastel-heart ballads. Then came its opening salvo — the blown-speaker stomp of "Brutal," a snarling the-kids-are-not-alright anthem built on the best Elastica riff since 1994 (look them up, kids!), and all the monster bops to follow: "Traitor," "Good 4 U," the Lorde-biting, bittersweet "Déjà Vu." A little bit Billie Eilish, a lot bit pop-punk riot, Sour's spin-the-wheel mood may be the product of extremely savvy Gen-Z market research, but it also feels exactly right for this moment: the sound of electric youth personified. —Leah Greenblatt

Jazmine Sullivan — Heaux Tales

Best Albums of the Year So Far Jazmine Sullivan – Heaux Tales 
Credit: RCA Records

"Tales" is an apt word for Jazmine Sullivan's first project in six years — a deeply entertaining, empowering, and often hilarious glimpse at the varying complexities of modern dating, particularly for Black women. The Philly-based artist is often invoked as one of the few vocalists in the game still able to sing the house down, and she doesn't disappoint here, balancing deliciously illicit riffs (the Ari Lennox collab "On It") with showstopping, effusive directives ("Pick Up Your Feelings"). Intermixed with confessional monologues from real women in Sullivan's life, this sex-positive project is positively exquisite, providing a new joke, harmony, or quote to latch onto with every subsequent listen. —Marcus Jones

Serpentwithfeet — Deacon

serpentwithfeet

"He never played football but look at how he holds me/He never needed silverware but I'm his little spoon," Serpentwithfeet, a.k.a. Josiah Wise, sighs happily on Deacon's ethereal opener "Hyacinth." The Baltimore native's second full-length rarely pushes its BPMs above resting heart rate, but the record feels radical nonetheless: an intimate, intoxicating gospel-R&B opus that doesn't just openly explore queer love but elevates it to something holy, self-love and joyful affirmation blooming in every tender dream-tempo note. —Leah Greenblatt

Iceage — Seek Shelter

Iceage — Seek Shelter 
Credit: Mexican Summer

The Danish punk group spent years embellishing the delightfully impenetrable sonics that defined their earliest work, incorporating everything from jazz to experimental pop. On their fifth album, they're up for a new challenge, tumbling down a path of backing choirs and Springsteenian aplomb. "Drink Rain" has the joyful pomp and precision of a Broadway number, and criminal schemes get laid out over the propulsive chugging groove of "Vendetta." By "Shelter Song," Iceage are dipping their toes in '90s alt-rock, with Elias Bender Rønnenfelt snarling about impending calamity: "We crash and then burn/Water's rising, hypnotizing slowly as we flow." Disaster is already here, but Seek Shelter feels sturdy enough to stand the test of time. —Alex Suskind

Dawn Richard — Second Line 

Best Albums of the Year So Far Dawn Richard — Second Line 
Credit: Merge Records

A phoenix risen from reality-TV ashes, former Making the Band star Dawn Richard made her break for alt-R&B freedom nearly a decade ago. Now on her sixth solo EP, the New Orleans-bred singer is more than fully liberated from the strictures of her Danity Kane origin story — she's got actual wings on the album's cover, and shiny gold C3PO armor, too. That's not a bad metaphor for a record built on feathery beats and low-key Afro-futurism; a chill room-ready collection whose skittering soundscapes and burbling synths peel back to reveal the lyrical humanism shimmering just beneath. —Leah Greenblatt

Lucy Dacus — Home Video

Best Albums of the Year So Far Lucy Dacus Home Video 
Credit: Beggars Banquet

Home Video wades in sense memory — of first love and fireflies, of long drives home and bad poetry. In pulling anecdotes from her own diaries and, yes, home movies, Lucy Dacus has created more than just a time capsule of her childhood, but one that speaks to anyone's — along with our incessant need to revisit those moments ("Try to walk away but I come back to the start," Dacus sings on opener "Hot & Heavy"). Dacus' excavation of joy, pain, exhilaration, and confusion — of the meandering yet razor-sharp observations of a not-quite distant path — gives Home Video its backbone, and makes it hit harder with each listen. —Alex Suskind

Mach-Hommy — Pray for Haiti

Best Albums of the Year So Far Mach-Hommy - Pray for Haiti
Credit: Griselda Records

Your favorite rapper's favorite rapper without a Googleable government name, Mach-Hommy's addictive blend of Haitian and street politics already made him a prized jewel for obsessive rap heads. Pray for Haiti isn't his mainstream turn, but it's the masked griot at his most crystalline. An obvious credit goes to Griselda's Westside Gunn, trusting Mach with the off-key, jagged loops embedded in his label's DNA while coloring the project with his yowling quotables ("Left with the moon, came back with the sun") in his executive producer role. But it's Mach's voice that makes those tools work. He makes a passing reference to the late MF Doom, but their connection is deeper than that and their facelessness. It's also the effect of their dexterity. Mach's able to wade through invented myths ("He rose on the third day in Vetements linen/He pulled up in the Wraith throwing blessings at the village") and cultural pride ("Almost got swallowed by show biz, but the zoo is too focused") fluidly. It's unpredictable, yet all the pieces fit. —Brian Josephs

St. Vincent — Daddy's Home 

Best Albums of the Year So Far St Vincent — Daddy’s Home 
Credit: Loma Vista

At this point, a new St. Vincent record feels like the chance for genre omnivore Annie Clark to flex yet another persona and follow her muse wherever it leads — in Daddy's case, down the rabbit hole of her father's recent release from a 10-year prison sentence. The primal parenting stuff is all in there, but so are louche tales of benzo beauty queens and bodega roses, filtered through the wah-wah guitar haze and slithering disco-funk of a lost '70s AM-radio transmission. Is "My Baby Wants a Baby" an unhurried electro-boogie reworking of Sheena Easton's "9 to 5 (Morning Train)"? Maybe! Does "Pay Your Way to Pain" sound like melting summer asphalt feels? Yes, and that's the highest compliment. — Leah Greenblatt

Jack Ingram, Miranda Lambert & Jon Randall — The Marfa Tapes

Miranda Lambert The Marfa Tapes

From hometown ode "Waxahachie," which aches for a familiar face, to the kick-back-and-relax singalong "Homegrown Tomatoes," The Marfa Tapes feels comfortably broken in, like your favorite pair of boots. It also sounds less like a carefully written and planned release than an off-the-cuff jam session between three friends who want to savor the moment: the gently plucked acoustic guitars, the raw vocals, their natural surroundings — the snap and crackle of a slowly dying campfire with the occasional airplane flying overhead. In decamping to the wilds of West Texas — and recording it outside, under the stars — collaborators Miranda Lambert, Jack Ingham, and Jon Randall have created something sparse, intimate, and timeless. —Alex Suskind

Weezer — Van Weezer

Best Albums of the Year So Far Weezer — Van Weezer
Credit: Crush Music/Atlantic

Rivers Cuomo started 2021 declaring "all my favorite songs are slow and sad" on OK Human, an LP full of orchestral ruminations over a decaf latte. Consider this immediate follow-up a double-shot espresso of sped-up joy. Blaring guitars quote Eddie and Ozzy, and the power chords aren't just nostalgic — though man, I wish Guitar Hero still existed, so we could button-mash through "All the Good Ones." Cuomo's songwriting infuses the throwback riffs with raucous quirk, shouting out Nietzsche and Nostradamus. It's an arena-sounding album about gleefully un-arena things: calling Mom, "crying like when Aslan died," freaking Iron Fist, the whole album climaxing with an emo ode to a leather-jacketed femme metale. Cuomo's not straying far from his usual Lovelorn Nerdlinger thematic boulevard, but the band sounds unleashed on bangers like "Sheila Can Do It" and "I Need Some of That." Roll on forever, middle-aged rock dads! —Darren Franich

Madlib — Sound Ancestors

Best Albums of the Year So Far
Credit: Madlib Invazion

"Pastiche" can be a dirty word — why not just pick a lane, and stick it? — but it's a skill set that Madlib, a.k.a. prolific producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Otis Jackson Jr., has elevated to a one-man art form over the last two-plus decades. The go-to collaborator of some of hip-hop's brainiest underground heroes (Freddie Gibbs, late greats MF Doom and J Dilla), Jackson has shaped his latest standalone LP with the help of another studio godhead, Four Tet. The result is a sort of warm immersion: beats designed not so much to leave blood on the dance floor as to sink into like a sound bath — an album rich with all the hypnotic layers and textures of half a lifetime's worth of crate-digging. — Leah Greenblatt

Dry Cleaning — New Long Leg

Dry Cleaning  New Long Leg
Credit: 4AD

The British band Dry Cleaning is at once chaotic and placid. Wild drums, hulking basslines, and slashing riffs churn and sputter, contorting themselves into positions that are as striking as the most obvious pop hook. But instead of being accompanied by a similarly pitched caterwaul, Dry Cleaning's music is counterbalanced by vocalist and lyricist Florence Shaw, whose pursed-lip, spoken delivery gives an added sense of surreality to her elliptical lyrics. New Long Leg, the quartet's first full-length and inaugural release on the beloved independent label 4AD, is an extended study in contrasts that rewards repeated listens. Shaw's acute observations on the human condition are littered with everyday imagery — Antiques Roadshow, Instagram filters, too-tight boots — and their ordinariness intensifies the sonic maelstrom surrounding it. New Long Leg is a potent commentary on the now, echoing the somewhat blasé unease that inevitably results from scrolling through neverending social-media feeds and watching the 21st century try to figure itself out in real time. —Maura Johnston

Pink Sweat$ — Pink Planet

Best Albums of the Year So Far
Credit: Atlantic

Pink Planet feels like flying — a gospel-tinged R&B effort filled with velvet-smooth vocals and melodies as light as clouds. It's a fitting soundscape for Sweat$ (a.k.a. David Bowden), who spends the record searching for his own form of heaven: a lush, fertile, safe new world that serves as an escape from a rough upbringing. "We were born in the rubble, we were raised in the mud/Yeah it's hard in the city, the city where I'm from," he sings over an indelible organ riff on "Pink City." Later, on "Paradise," it's "I'd give you the world and I'd trade all my time/We could have paradise for the rest of our live." Metaphorical or otherwise, Bowden seems to have found it. —Alex Suskind

Bo Burnham – Inside (The Songs)

Best Albums of the Year So Far Inside – Bo Burhnam
Credit: Imperial Distribution

Like many of us, Bo Burnham spent quarantine growing an unkempt beard, wandering around a dark room in his underwear contemplating the meaning of life, and shrinking into a husk of a human as the world around him slowly collapsed into oblivion. Unlike many of us, Burnham decided to turn these thoughts into a dark and droll Netflix comedy special (or, as he sings over buzzsaw synths, "Daddy made you some content"). Though Inside is best served by actually watching Burnham perform and shoot his collection of songs and sketches from the comfort ("comfort") of his own living room, the accompanying album more than stands on its own, serving up earworm hooks and whip-smart analysis on everything from capitalism to the yawning pit of hell that is the Internet. ("Can I interest you in everything all of the time?") With Inside, Burnham managed to make the first piece of pandemic-era art that not only tells Jeff Bezos to drink the blood of his enemies but accurately reflects what it was like living through it. —Alex Suskind

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