Coming fresh off the heels of one of the most unprecedented years in modern history, 2021 has been another jam-packed, wild time… especially for all things music.
With the world slowly opening up again as more and more folks get the COVID vaccine, the entertainment industry is getting back in full-swing. Artists can tour again, crews can shoot music videos again, musicians can play live in studios again… and the excitement is starting to show. Left and right, new records—as well as ones that got postponed due to 2020 logistics—are dropping, bringing new sounds, styles and trends with them.
So, with such a high influx of jaw-dropping, mind-melting, goosebump-inspiring releases, the American Songwriter staff got together and each submitted our top five picks for best albums of the year so far. With artists of all genres, styles, backgrounds and more represented, it’s becoming clear that 2021 is shaping up to be a historic moment for music.
Check out our picks below:
Picks from Madeline Crone:
Lainey Wilson | Sayin’ What I’m Thinkin’
With unreserved emotional perspective, Lainey Wilson bears the miles travelled in a camper trailer between Nashville and her map dot hometown of Baskin, Louisiana with humor and grace. She co-wrote all 12 tracks on the album which encapsulate her thoughts, feelings, and wisdom she has picked up along the way. Wilson considers herself first, and foremost a songwriter. When she began sifting through her songbook for the record, the artist stopped only for the tracks that passed her truth test: “Is it sayin’ what I’m thinkin’?” Produced with Jay Joyce, the album boasts a creative synergy resulting in a harmonious arrival—the advent of a shaker among the abundance of Nashville stars.
Jack Ingram, Miranda Lambert, Jon Randall | The Marfa Tapes
Each of these artists holds their own impressive accolades. But as a trio, they possess a transcendence as storytellers. Co-writes from previous Marfa trips that appear on the album like “Tin Man” ( Lambert’s 2016 double album, The Weight Of These Wings) and “Tequila Does,” (Lambert’s Grammy-winning 2019 album Wildcard ) suggest something celestial about their creative unit. Their unadorned recordings capture candid moments like their audible delight when they hit all the right notes and laughter when they were off-key. Cracked voices and forgotten lyrics show sentiment in their artistry. The howling wind offers a scenic backdrop. Rustling leather from a boot against rocks and chirping birds behind their banter serve as a reminder of the elemental exposure. These sonic cues invite the listener into those inception points, precisely where some of their most influential songwriting has taken place over the last six years.
Lukas Nelson & Promise of the Real | A Few Stars Apart
As their seventh album in just over a decade, A Few Stars Apart highlights the fantastical storytelling that has been overshadowed by the dynamic instrumental scaffolding that upholds their previous works. A fruitful year of contemplation—while quarantining at home outside of Austin with his father (Willie Nelson), his mother Annie, and brother Micah—compiled into a towering collection of songs for the band to sift through. Picking their favorites, they went round-by-round until they were left with something cohesive. His bountiful harvest of 11 intentional tracks suggests that the year was not lost.
Lake Street Dive | Obviously
Over 15 years in the making, Lake Street Dive has evolved from pupils at Boston’s New England Conservatory to pioneering artists with a global impact. Penned and completed pre-pandemic, Lake Street Dive’s fifth full-length album is unabashedly experimental. Much of their process for this record involved mining through their computer files and voice memos, trying to be “less precious” about sharing their older ideas. Between funk flexes like “Hypotheticals” and the intimate soul ballad, “Nobody’s Stopping You Now” are eclectic pieces of a jubilant yacht rock collection with compelling lyrical value.
Picks from Jason Scott:
Jetty Bones | Push Back
If you ask Jetty Bones, being so forthright about mental health and suicidal ideation is not an act of bravery. It’s a simple state of being. With her new record, Push Back, she swaps out the indie sphere for heavily disco-influenced pop music that falls like sparkling rays of sunlight─contrasting starkly against lyrics about depression, struggling to stay alive (closing track “Bug Life” was literally written as her suicide note), and wondering what the point of it all is. It’s as infectious as it is soul-crushing, and that’s why it’s utterly brilliant.
- Olivia Rodrigo | SOUR
Few artists have smashed the charts (and our collective emotions) quite like Olivia Rodrigo. With her debut record, SOUR, she somehow magically captures both millennials’ eternal flame of angst and her generation’s swelling unease in the face of political upheaval and an ongoing global pandemic. Lead single “drivers license” (a vocal masterclass) is simply an appetizer for the set’s far deeper and more emotionally-grueling moments─“traitor,” “happier,” and “enough for you” chief among them. But don’t be fooled: there’s nary a dud in the batch. In fact, when the curtain falls with the final frame of “hope ur ok,” you’re just itching for an encore.
Lindsay Ellyn | Queen of Nothing
They say you have your entire life to write your debut record. Well, it’s well worth the wait for Lindsay Ellyn’s Queen of Nothing. The singer-songwriter trains her eyes on classic country stories wrapped up in arrangements that feel both throwback and modern, her voice adding vibrancy and charm. Weaving from the deeply-reflective “Dirty Fingers” to gospel soaker “Glory Glory” to the heart-torn “Pieces of Things,” Ellyn scorches the earth in her musical wake, leaving the sort of impression that signals she’s going to be around for a very long time.
Morgan Wade | Reckless
Morgan Wade’s debut Reckless pulverizes the heart into diamonds, rough-cut and powdery. Her voice, a two-ton barbell, swings across timeless melodies, often vigorous, always lilting and sweet. The Virginia native races from musing upon an older lover’s younger days (“Wilder Days”) to reflecting on her sobriety and a past life of reckless behavior (“Other Side”) to further shattering particularly toxic people and behaviors (“Reckless”). There’s no mistaking the sheer heft of her songwriting, and there’s really no telling how far she’ll soar in the future.
Elise Davis | Anxious. Happy. Chill.
Anxious, happy, chill─three words to perfectly encompass the last year of our lives. Ironically, the album’s early roots were taking hold right as the pandemic slammed stateside and Elise Davis and her husband were traipsing through the desert. A year later, Anxious. Happy. Chill. bursts at the seams with dirty indie-rock, crimped around the edges with deeply existential probing of growing older, particularly as a woman, and the impending doom of our collective demise. “Lady Bug” crashes into the eardrums, sending vibrations down the spine, whereas “The Grid” longs to disconnect from the modern world and “Thirty,” with its static fuzz, toasts to the beginning of another decade. By the time voices and glassware clatter inside “Another Year,” a warm sigh escapes her lungs, all the heaviness seemingly falling from her shoulders and fading with the setting sun.
Picks from Dallas Jackson:
The Pretty Reckless | Death By Rock N Roll
A five-year gap between albums proved to be more than worth it as Taylor Momsen and The Pretty Reckless returned with one of the best rock albums of the year. With vulnerable lyrics and killer instrumental breaks, DxRNR is a record that we believe will stand the test of time. There are so many emotions tied into one production that it is tough to pinpoint exactly which takes the lead after each listen. Honesty drives home the point of each tale and the winding story through the 50 minute run unfolds perfectly.
Ayron Jones | Child of the State
This is the album that will take Ayron Jones from the Pacific Northwest to the mainstream. Child of the State, as a complete package, is astonishing. It rumbles, shakes. It includes thick riffs, lighting solos and raspy intimacy. In many ways, it also fits within the lineage of other heavy Seattle rock groups like SoundGarden and Alice in Chains. And, in a way, that’s very much on purpose.
Greta Van Fleet | The Battle At Garden’s Gate
Everything you loved about Greta Van Fleet from previous efforts gets turned up as that band leaned into what made it a success and amplified it. The guitars, the ‘70s rock vocals, the aspirational lyrics… everything. Turning on TBAGG is an ode to the great music of a bygone era as well as a showcase of optimism that rock music still has a future. We are now a decade into what this band will be and TBAGG is a reflection of its evolution, spiritually, personally, and as songwriters. The Battle at Garden’s Gate opens a new portal to Greta Van Fleet.
The Dirty Nil | Fuck Art
Fuck Art slides into this list with its Jan. 1 release as it opened the year with a solid offering act that did not get the recognition it deserves. The Dirty Nil spends most of their time playing guitar through blaringly loud amps in a tiny room—which is almost a dying art, as so many artists stockpile music for later and write with a producer—that the unique style comes through in what is released. A band that (we assume) takes pride in a live show perhaps more than an album release, what it was able to accomplish on Fuck Art makes it clear that it can succeed in both places.
Valerie June | The Moon And Stars: Prescriptions For Dreamers
Valerie June is able to incorporate gospel, soul, pop, R&B, African and Native American inflections into The Moon and Stars, where her vibrato-free singing evokes both ancestral voices and modern-day sensibilities. June combines acoustic, electric and electronic elements to create a beautiful composite sound. In addition to guitars, strings, horns, percussion, keys and even Moog synthesizer, the lush yet airy arrangements also incorporate the sounds of twittering birds, Tibetan singing bowls, tinkling wind chimes and… silence. It is a complete album that will give you more than you expect from it.
Picks from Joe Vitagliano:
Kero Kero Bonito | Civilization II
Clocking in just north of 14 minutes, Kero Kero Bonito’s Civilisation II is likely the shortest release on this list—yet, over the course of its three tracks, the London-based indie pop trio makes a brilliantly profound statement of artistic excellence. From the bubblegum melodies of “The Princess and the Clock” to the zeitgeist-capturing melancholy of “21/04/20” to the driving electro-groove of “Well Rested,” the eclectic mix of vintage synths, evocative lyrics and dreamy arrangements comes together to form something truly sublime. With the power of its sentiment, the beauty of its form and its hyperpop majesty, Civilisation II makes for the perfect torch, shining a light onto the dim path leading into the great, unknown future.
Floating Points & Pharoah Sanders | Promises
Bringing together two living legends—renowned electronic producer/DJ Floating Points and iconic free jazz saxophonist Pharoah Sanders—Promises is equal-parts a technical and emotional triumph. Primarily featuring ambient, orchestral soundscapes with augmentations and interludes from both artists, it’s a magnetic work with impressive depth. From the way it thematically builds suspense over the course of its nine movements to the sheer brilliance of its harmonic and melodic climaxes, it offers something transcendent, something that speaks beyond the ordinary parameters of music. At 80 years old, Sanders’ performance is exquisite, communicating an indescribable beauty through clever lines and impassioned flurries of notes. Produced with precision and brought to life through deeply human expressions, Promises is a peak for Floating Points, Sanders, the London Symphony Orchestra and fans of music everywhere.
Green-House | Music For Living Spaces
Tracing its roots back to Mort Garson’s 1976 album, Mother Earth’s Plantasia, “plant music”—an affectionate term for a particular strain of chill, melodic electronic music—has blossomed as a scene over the past few years. Nowadays, one of the movement’s preeminent voices is Green-House, who delivered their debut full-length record, Music For Living Spaces, this past May. With strikingly beautiful arrangements, blissful melodies and a palpable, entrancing atmosphere, the record is an exciting accomplishment. Its minimalist synth-lines are far more subtle than the lush arrangements of most pop and rock records from the past few decades, yet, the brilliance of its composition and the tact of its arrangement renders it just as powerful and compelling as a symphony orchestra or blazing punk outfit. It’s escapist yet visceral, uber-modern yet timeless, unpretentious yet profound—it’s plant music at its finest.
A. G. Cook, et al | Apple vs. 7G
2020 was a seminal year for British producer and PC Music-founder, A. G. Cook. Spending the better part of the past decade pushing the boundaries of pop music through his collaborations with Charli XCX (he’s her creative director), SOPHIE, Jónsi and more, last year saw Cook step into the spotlight on his own for the first time. With two records—the sprawling, 7-disc 7G and the concentrated hyperpop masterpiece Apple—he unleashed his iconoclastic musical manifestos into the world, again redefining the boundaries of “pop music.” Now, in 2021, Cook is back with a magnificent remix album, Apple vs. 7G, featuring colorful and bombastic reinterpretations of his songs from the likes of Charli XCX, umru, Caroline Polachek, Sarah Bonito, Boys Noize, No Rome, EASYFUN and more. Augmenting the tunes and showing off the true versatility of his inimitable style, the album is another creative treasure from the generation-defining artistry of A. G. Cook.
Faye Webster | I Know I’m Funny haha
With dreamy pedal-steel lines, crisp ‘70s-chic hooks and resonant, touchingly-candid lyrics, Faye Webster’s I Know I’m Funny haha is a testament to the Atlanta-native’s knack for authentic song-craft. Conveying many of the woes and joys of modern living, Webster—only 23 years old—has proved herself to be one of those special songwriters who can conjure wordlessly complex emotions with effortlessly simple language. Between its chilled-out atmospheres, its earworm melodies and its heartstring-tugging depictions of romance, the grand sum of I Know I’m Funny haha is something wonderful, boundless in its search for beauty in a turbulent world.
Picks from Lee Zimmerman:
Langhorne Slim | Strawberry Mansion
Langhorne Slim’s always been adept at making music that resonates with honesty and emotion, but with Strawberry Mansion, he shared both his psyche and sentiments in equal measure. An honest, yet intimate, set of songs, it resonates with feeling and conviction and elevates this Nashville-based artists to an entirely new plain through its depth and delivery. Named for the neighborhood where both his grandfathers were raised, it boasts no fewer than 19 songs flush with spirituality and solace. Don’t know how I’m feelin’, he sings on the auspiciously dubbed, but surprisingly upbeat “Panic Attack.” But I’m feelin’ feelings exponentially. That thought is clearly evident throughout.
Mare Wakefield and Nomad Ovunc | No Remedy
No Remedy, Mare Wakefield’s latest collaboration with Turkish multi-instrumentalist Nomad Ovunc is a rousing and robust example of eloquence and expression. With a voice that often brings comparisons to Dar Williams, Natalie Merchant, Shawn Colvin, Gillian Welch, and Dolly Parton, Wakefield stakes out her own turf with a work flush with both tender torch songs (“Almost Mine,” “Winter Rose,” “Safe Heart,” and “Outfield”) and rousing revelries that grab a listener by the proverbial collar and shake their sensibilities (“Give Myself to Love,” “Your Dad”). Wakefield’s poignant, personable melodies share hope and heartache in equal measure, making this another in a series of memorable musical encounters.
Gruff Rhys | Seeking New Gods
Gruff Rhys’ work with the psychedelic ensemble Super Fury Animals is well documented, but with the band on indefinite hiatus he’s continued to explore their experimental avenues entirely on his own. Not surprisingly then, Seeking New Gods combines unbounded ambition with easily accessible melodies, no small effort in and of itself. Songs such as “Mausoleum of my Former Self,” “Can’t Carry On” and “Loan Your Loneliness” are upbeat and effusive, while other numbers echo obvious influences—“Hiking in Lightning” bringing to mind the Who’s “Pictures of Lily” and “The Keep” and “Holiest of the Holy Man” recalling the Beach Boys courtesy of billowy harmonies and sunshiny sentiment.
Korby Lenker | Man in the Maroon
Known for both wit and whimsy, Korby Lenker is a skilled songwriter possessing both credence and confidence. Man in the Maroon, is further proof, an upbeat set of songs flush with insight and intelligence. It’s mostly an upbeat encounter, but as always, Lenker doesn’t shy away from dealing with more profound issues as well, as expressed in “Mose and Ella,” an unlikely account of a hike taken by a quibbling couple. The down home designs shared in “Billie Louise” and “Open Country” are, by contrast, cheery and charming, while “Tri State Lottery” allows for a more a more pensive perspective. Still, it’s his quiet cover of the classic “Moon River” that demonstrates that Lenker’s subtlety and sensitivity are never in short supply.
Paul Kelly | Please Leave Your Light On
Long known as one of Australia’s most prolific and respected singer/songwriters, Paul Kelly has never been adverse to taking chances and exploring more far-reaching musical terrain, with Shakespearean sonnets, soundtracks and country music being among the many objects of his intentions. With his latest offering, Please Leave Your Light On, Kelly goes further afield than ever, teaming with jazz pianist Paul Grabowsky for a series of twilight tunes featuring only voice and piano. A take on Cole Porter’s “Every Time We Say Goodbye” reflects those nocturnal desires, while “Sonnet 138” finds him again basking in Bard-like domains. Happily though, Kelly’s own compositions dominate the set, with each song sounding like a seminal standard.
Picks from Tina Benitez-Eves:
Garbage | No Gods No Masters
Garbage faces the seven virtues, seven sorrows, and seven deadly sins, and Shirley Manson eviscerates them all. A perfected dissent against systemic racism, the “defects” of religion and capitalism, sexism and misogyny, No Gods No Masters reflects a handful of the woes migrating in Manson’s mind with her opening affirmation: The men who rule the world have made a fucking mess. It’s a declaration for her distaste, not for man, but an opposition to the archaic practices and modes of thinking spawned by a mostly older, white male patriarchy. Holed up in a Palm Springs house with the band in 2018, Manson’s head raced around all her socio, political, and religious lyrical proclamations, questioning the disillusionment of organized religion—a Noah’s Ark of the Future—and capitalism (listen for the intro slot machines) on the opening, “The Men Who Rule the World,” into the manic deprivation of “The Creeps” and sinister means of a “A Woman Destroyed” and gloomier jazz close of “This City Will Kill You,” a song Manson originally conceptualized as an ode to Los Angeles, which turned darker as the music—capturing the cinematic soundscapes of Glaswegian electronic duo Blue Nile—took shape.
Imelda May | 11 Past the Hour
Responding to the message of the number 11, Imelda May delved deeper into her psyche and had an awakening, all centered around the digit that kept reappearing in her life. Written with co-producer, Primal Scream’s Tim Bran, and string arranger Davide Rossi, 11 Past the Hour pivots around love—not necessarily the romantic kind—in varied forms from the eerie title track croon, co-written with Pedro Vito, and overcast “Breathe,” a song May wrote from the viewpoint Mother Nature, and a metaphor for her own mental health. Irish singer-songwriter Niall McNamee slips in the folkier “Don’t Let Me Stand on My Own,” while a more universal tone is set on “Made to Love,” featuring The Rolling Stones’ Ron Wood on guitar and vocals by activist Gina Martin and author Dr. Shola Mos-Shogbamimu, bridging her connectedness with I’m Martin Luther / Lennon, Buddha / Marielle Franco /I’m Jupiter / I’m every refugee you see / I’m every ‘bum’ on every street. Last Shadow Puppets’ frontman Miles Kane joins May on the soaring “What We Did in the Dark” while Wood returns along with Noel Gallagher on vocals, prancing around the lovestruck “Just One Kiss. A swelling “Solace”—the sole poem May ever transformed into song—is a fitting precursor to the string-y pulse of closer “Never Look Back.”
Alan Vega | Mutator
When Alan Vega passed away in 2016 at 78, he left behind a treasure of art. All musical captures born from his visual scope, the former art student and one half of avant-electronic duo Suicide archived an extensive collection of music, all recorded in between albums and all direct transfusions of his timeless relevance—even from 25 years earlier. The first in a series of unreleased material from “Vega’s Vault,” Mutator, originally recorded with Vega between 1995 and 1996 with wife and longtime collaborator Liz Lamere, trudges through the good, the bad, and oft revolting aspects of life from the opening jolt of “Trinity,” revealing the unease of a succumbed world or wanting to destroy the dominators on “Fist,” and howling at a paradise of poetry, snarling a refrain of Life in the Rainbow Room / Life on the monster beach. The eerier drift of “Samurai” segues into a more menacing “Filthy,” and hip-hop-fused “Nike Soldier” to the metallic instrumental “Psalm 68” and growling incantations of closing “Breathe.” Lamere, along with collaborator and friend The Vacant Lots’ Jared Artaud, who mixed and produced the lost album, continue to unearth more of Vega’s self-manipulated, experimental works… of art.
The Tragically Hip | Saskadelphia
The songs of Saskadelphia were meant to see the light of day more than 30 years years ago as The Tragically Hip recorded their second album Road Apples in a New Orleans haunted house. Somehow, five of the six songs slipped through the cracks of the album’s final cut, leaving behind a glimpse into a special moment in time and nowa posthumous homage to Hip frontman Gord Downie, who passed away in 2017. After seeing the band’s name listed among the artists who lost their music in a Universal Studio fire in 2008, the band started searching for their lost songs, and found two-inch, unlabeled tapes—previously moved to safer keeping in Canada years prior to the fire—and unearthed Saskadelphia in 2020. Moving through the injectable funk and grooves of “Ouch” and “Crack My Spine Like a Whip,” the latter a track the band often used to open their set, through an unrestrained “Reformed Baptist Blues,” the sixth track on Saskadelphia, “Montreal,” was recorded during a 2000 concert at the Bell Centre, marking the 11th anniversary of the 1989 massacre at the École Polytechnique—the second mass shooting in Canada at the time. Saskadelphia is a time in the life of The Tragically Hip that finally has its moment.
Moby | Reprise
After performing with the LA Philharmonic in 2018, Moby was transfixed on creating something more orchestral, even acoustic. Revisiting some of his more “intense” tracks, Reprise required songs that would hold up to the sweeping orchestrations by the accompanying Hungary’s Budapest Art Orchestra. Digging through his catalog, Reprise offers stripped back versions of Play tracks “Everloving” and a soul-fused “Natural Blues” with My Morning Jacket’s Jim James weaving around a string-and piano-fused rendition of “Porcelain,” which makes a reappearance throughout the artist’s documentary Mody Doc. Mark Lanegan gives an eerie oration of “The Lonely Night” with Kris Kristofferson, off 2013 release Innocents, while Mindy Jones delivers a stirring “Heroes,” the sole Reprise cover, and ode to friend David Bowie. The Twin Peaks-sampled “Go” from Moby’s 1992 debut is less techno and more of a tribal-jazz unraveling. Pulling one song each from Hotel (2005) with “Lift Me Up,” and 1995 release Everything is Wrong with “God Moving Over the Face of the Water,” a more desolate “Extreme Ways” from 18 and misty “The Great Escape” round out the 13 retrievals of Reprise.
Picks from Hal Horowitz:
Amythyst Kiah | Wary + Strange
The Grammy nominated song “Black Myself” included on Our Native Daughters’ album was just the clarion call and likely introduction to this stunning singer/songwriter. Being black, gay and raised in the Bible Belt provides plenty of material for Amythyst Kiah’s first widely distributed album although second overall. After two unsuccessful tries at recording this one, she partnered with producer Tony Berg who was the perfect partner to bring her combination of tough, edgy indie rock and emotional folk to life. Powerful yet melodic, Kiah has arrived.
John Paul Keith | The Rhythm of the City
The titular metropolis is Memphis where singer/songwriter/guitarist John Paul Keith calls home. He knows, understands and can replicate the greasy, soulful heartbeat of that legendary city with honesty and integrity. It’s something he has been at for over a decade on four previous releases that are almost as powerful as this. Horns, fatback bass, in the pocket drums, Keith’s unaffected but passionate singing, some tight guitar solos and above all great songs push this one from good to great. He has been hiding in plain sight and hopefully this will grab the multi-talented Keith some much deserved recognition.
Israel Nash | Topaz
This Texas-by-way-of-Missouri singer/songwriter has been gaining steam for his widescreen sonic adventures over the past decade and finally found the secret sauce on this striking release. Complex arrangements, yearning vocals with more than a twinge of Neil Young at his most vulnerable and intimate songs that feel and sound larger than life combine country, folk and rock influences into a stunning, often windswept sonic stew. Listening to it on a good pair of headphones is an unforgettable experience, but in any environment this is a monumental release.
Dry Cleaning | New Long Leg
Frontwoman Florence Shaw and her post punk backing trio’s debut sounds like nothing else released this year, or in recent memory. Shaw speaks her dry, wry lyrics as if she is reciting poetry with an icy yet compelling concentration. It’s often difficult to understand what she’s going on about, but that makes no difference. The edgy, instrumental backing sounds like Television without guitar solos supporting her plentiful words which unravel with hypnotic and chilly intensity. Where Dry Cleaning goes from here is unclear since this is such a focused, challenging sound. But based on this first release, the band is well worth watching.
The Black Keys | Delta Kream
Dan Auerbach and Patrick Carney might have been born and raised in Akron, Ohio but the duo’s hearts have always been steeped in deep Southern soil. Their once minimal even raw attack has become increasingly commercial over the decades so this return to the sound that initially lit their musical buttons is a closure of sorts. They add two more players but there is nothing slick about their slimy, swampy approach to the ominous, often hypnotic North Mississippi blues they dive into here. Covers of R.L. Burnside, Junior Kimbrough, John Lee Hooker and others are as unapologetically tough and rugged as the originals. Which, coming from these white indie rockers, is high praise indeed.