There's already lots of great musical projects to celebrate in 2021, ranging across many genres. Listed are my favourites released from January to the end of June in no particular order.
Faye Webster - I Know I'm Funny haha
Very strong songwriting is on show here, Faye Webster's approach to folk music has a country twang and an upbeat, mostly relaxing atmosphere. Her lyrics are dryly funny but don’t shy away from being honest, romantic or sad. There’s a dichotomy between the funny, dry and detached lyrics and the brutally honest and emotionally vulnerable ones. It really makes Faye Webster a relatable and very likeable centerpiece for the music to revolve around. This is all pieced together with blissful instrumentals, far more dense than a typical ‘folk’ album and far more exciting too.
Faye Webster definitely proves herself to be one to keep watch of with this album, which improves on an already great previous record Atlanta Millionaires Club. Her thoughtful wry songwriting and lyricism could see her achieve the sorts of success that artists like Phoebe Bridgers have reached, and it would be very well deserved.
HIGHLIGHTS: Cheers, Better Distractions, In A Good Way
nothing,nowhere. - Trauma Factory
This “emo-rap” project has always skewered more towards emo than rap, while still being an exciting fusion of genres. nothing,nowhere. in particular is heads and shoulders above peers in the burgeoning genre due to genuine lyricism tackling isolation, depression and heartsickness. Compared to a lot of his contemporaries it was far easier to believe and empathise with the honesty contained within these songs.
After a great debut and a not quite as great sophomore album, nothing,nowhere.’s third album Trauma Factory is hitting for the fences with bigger production flourishes and anthemic choruses, going for something larger and more varied than his previous works - focusing more on pop-punk style and dropping the amount of rapping (which aside from the increased lyrical density, was always the weakest aspects of nothing,nowhere. projects).
It’s hard to deny the catchiness of tracks like Fake Friend, Buck or Upside Down, even if their lyrical simplicity sometimes makes them less valuable than the more honest and vulnerable nothing,nowhere. songs. Though there are still great moments of deeper introspection and a few convicted rap verses, this mostly excels with the stronger vocal performances and more varied production choices. Definitely a very fresh sounding project that has a lot of value with such honest lyrics alongside some killer hooks.
HIGHLIGHTS: fake friend, barely bleeding, buck
Cochise - Benbow Crescent
Cochise’s debut album Benbow Crescent comes off the back of some viral hit songs like Hatchback and Red Head. Anyone clued into underground or semi-mainstream rap music however will recognize that Cochise’s high-pitched raps, nonsensical flows, lack of lyrical depth and focus on cloudy trap beats owe a debt to Playboi Carti’s 2017-2020 output before he switched it up for his dark and drugged up late-2020 project Whole Lotta Red.
But Cochise excels in a market gap left by Carti, if you can get over the similarities between the two. He’s definitely not worth dismissing as a clone, especially since what he’s pulling off here is hardly redundant. Offering a less drugged up, more upbeat and gleefully silly approach compared to Carti’s current darker, aggressive and sometimes combative experimental trap music.
Cochise isn’t saying a whole lot, but it’s the way he says it combined with a great selection of cloudy trap beats that make this project a complete breeze even at 18 tracks long. His vocal range is often very amusing and leads to a lot of catchy moments that keep me revisiting certain songs - going from comically high pitched to amusingly low pitched. It’s occasionally repetitive and Cochise’s brief exploration of the dancehall genre for a couple songs disrupts the otherwise intoxicating flow a little bit. But otherwise this is addictive, super fun and a nice easy listen.
HIGHLIGHTS: USOPP, SANJI, YOGA FIRE FREESTYLE
Nurture - Porter Robinson
Nurture comes a whole seven years after Porter Robinson’s debut album Worlds, and with only live shows and an EP of trance music under the alias Virtual Self to keep us going in the meantime, it’s been a long wait. But that wait was worth it, especially considering what a massive step up this project is for Porter.
Compared to the EDM-Indietronica crossover of Worlds, nurture feels more cohesive and less adherent to big set-pieces intended for live shows (though there still are a few here for this release). New this time is that Porter himself is singing on a lot of the tracks, tackling his struggles of creating art with such large expectations looming over him in the long wait between albums, among other feelings. What this leaves is one of the most life-affirming and happy albums of the year. Pleasant electronic beats with wholesome lyrical content that isn’t afraid to stretch itself to anthemic pop choruses. There’s also room for some more experimental ambient interludes and quieter moments, where the song-writing remains sincere and hopeful.
It’s rare that after a seven year gap between releases manages to live up to the hype, but I think Nurture has been pretty much universally acknowledged as being worth the wait!
HIGHLIGHTS: Look at the Sky, Get Your Wish, Musician
Tyler, the Creator - CALL ME IF YOU GET LOST
Another extremely creative album from Tyler, the Creator, released roughly two years since his last, which was the lovesick R&B crossover IGOR. While Tyler’s been in the game for years now, his artistic growth since his exciting but muddy fourth album, CHERRY BOMB, has been really cool to watch. Starting with CHERRY BOMB and subsequently better pulled off on Flower Boy and Igor, Tyler had began moving slightly away from rap music or alternatively making rap music that sounded unlike anything else in the genre. CALL ME IF YOU GET LOST is a return to a straight-up hip-hop album. It even features DJ Drama as hype man, giving off the feeling of a ‘00s Lil Wayne Dedication mixtape.
Still, this carries over all the promising growth of Tyler’s last few albums and applies them in a focused hip-hop setting. Tyler’s rapping is at its best here, lyrics are often clever or funny, as well as honest and self-reflective. There’s a revolving door of unexpected guest vocalists who all manage to sound great over Tyler’s distinct production style - which continues to have improved here also. Tyler’s often at his best when he’s rapping rather than the pitch-shifted singing as seen primarily on IGOR, and this album is full of Tyler just rapping. It feels like a great mixture of his recent albums while still pushing certain sounds forward, making it another certified hit for Tyler.
HIGHLIGHTS: MANIFESTO, JUGGERNAUT, LEMONHEAD
Greatest Hits - Waterparks
Despite its title, Waterparks’ third album is not a ‘greatest hits’ collection, but the quality of a lot of the pop-punk adjacent crossover anthems on show here make a compelling case for the cheeky album name. While Waterparks have been around for a while now and landed a few mild hits in the pop-punk sphere, it was their 2019 album FANDOM which really saw the group come into their own with frontman Awsten Knight displaying a newfound exaggerated swagger with bratty, yet often comical and clever lyrics. As well as a lot more sonic diversity across the project, making it a compelling listen compared to a lot of the more stagnant pop-punk bands, which focus on a nostalgic sound reminiscent of Blink-182 or My Chemical Romance.
Greatest Hits follows up on FANDOM with another album of similar quality, definitely with some higher highs. It’s fairly long at 17 tracks, made more digestible through usually short song lengths. There’s some tonal whiplash as the tracklist goes between braggadocious flexing to more subdued break-up anthems, but there’s no doubt a great selection of singles to be collected from this album. Though perhaps holding this fun album back from wide appeal is that the bratty character the frontman occupies is often a bit too cartoonish and annoying to take wholly seriously - especially when he’s singing stuff like “I just cried into a shirt I could never afford last year”...
HIGHLIGHTS: Fuzzy, Numb, Just Kidding
Wolf Alice - Blue Weekend
Wolf Alice have been bubbling under the UK music landscape for a while now, landing some decent streaming hits from their previous two albums and becoming a new forerunner in the country’s indie rock scene. While those previous albums were both enjoyable, they only seemed to be showing glimpses of the band’s full potential. Blue Weekend really seems like the band is finally reaching some of that full potential.
A loose concept album set over the course of a weekend, vocalist Ellie Roswell commands the songs with a great voice and some massive, festival-ready choruses. Lyrics explore relationships, both romantic and with friends, in an honest and intimate fashion. Sonically the album also feels like a step-up, with a dreamier take on indie rock that escalates to a shoegaze-esque finale.
This album sets Wolf Alice up as a festival headliner band for sure, a thoroughly engaging album front to back that revels in ‘90s influences to make something that sounds fresh in the 2021 music landscape. In a world of spotify playlists and YouTube music videos, it’s a great feat to make an album that demands to be listened to front to back and knowingly stays joyously cohesive, despite some great surprises in the tracklisting. Cohesive, while never feeling redundant or samey. Hopefully this lifts Wolf Alice up into the mainstream, or as far as a rock band can get into the mainstream these days...
HIGHLIGHTS: Delicious Things, Smile, The Beach II
Iceage - Seek Shelter
Danish punks Iceage were one of the most consistent and exciting indie rock bands of the 2010’s, putting out four great albums which each seemed to one-up the last while increasing the ambition. Seek Shelter is their fifth effort and offers a new dressing for the band, who have gone from nihilistic aggression to idiosyncratic drinking anthems to goth-punk previously. Now the new look for the band is to provide weary yet optimistic anthems that seem fit for our current times.
Again, this is another really exciting album front to back with some good surprises in store - such as the addition of a backing gospel choir and more traditional and upbeat guitar backings that sometimes sound like something closer to Oasis than Iceage’s previous work. One of the most alluring things about Iceage’s music has been frontman Elias Rønnenfelt’s signature Danish drawl which makes his lyrics and vocals all the more enticing. Here he’s at his best, managing to provide some anthemic performances that have enough off-kilter allure to make it all the more memorable.
HIGHLIGHTS: Shelter Song, Gold City, Vendetta
Sewerslvt - Skitzofrenia Simulation
With an artist name like Sewerslvt, her music is hard to bring up in casual conversation and recommend - but this brand of atmospheric drum & bass / Jungle is too enticing to pass up. Drenched in internet era aesthetics, it sounds like the soundtrack to a futuristic cyberpunk club night. Taking interesting samples and also giving most tracks some room to breathe, mixing aggressive techno, drum & bass and jungle beats with ambient outros or interludes that make the project easier to take in in one go. It’s a really interesting mix of electronic genres that have been out of the mainstream for quite a while now and with clear thought and heart put behind these songs with some ethereal sample choices and non-traditional song structures.
If you can get past some of the edgy aesthetic choices that you’d expect an artist named “Sewerslvt” would employ, like provocative song titles and some dark samples - this is a great album that further cements Sewerslvt as one of the most exciting underground electronic artists and will surely grow her cult fanbase even further.
HIGHLIGHTS: I Break My Heart & Yours, Restlessness, Antidepressant
ERRA - ERRA
ERRA have been making waves in the metalcore scene for over a decade at this point, releasing a steady stream of albums throughout the 2010s. However with their first release of the new decade, coming back with a self-titled for their fifth studio album is a strong statement and the music is showing that things have finally firmly clicked into place for the band - marking their best release yet, by far.
Starting off with the massive opener Snowblood, they deliver pretty much everything you’d want out of a metalcore song. Hard-hitting unclean vocals, killer riffs, catchy clean vocals for the chorus and massive breakdowns. You’d think after the huge headbanging finale of the first track they might dial it back a bit for the second but Gungrave goes even harder, selling the album as worth the full ride. Though, despite the record’s general ferocity, the band knows when to push the brakes a little with earworm choruses and melodic, technical interludes to simmer down the otherwise non-stop intensity.
For fans of the genre you’re not likely to get much better than this, it’s wonderful to hear a band so confidently come into their own over an album’s length. This for sure puts ERRA firmly near the top of the current metalcore canon. You’re also probably not going to hear many albums which rock as hard as this for the remainder of the year.
HIGHLIGHTS: Snowblood, Gungrave, Remnant
BROCKHAMPTON - ROADRUNNER: NEW LIGHT, NEW MACHINE
BROCKHAMPTON, a collective with many members but focused around six core vocalists, were by far and away the most exciting act of 2017. Releasing three stellar projects in just one year with The Saturation Trilogy, they proved themselves to be a force to be reckoned with and built a loyal fanbase. However the next year one of their core rappers, Ameer Vaan, was kicked from the group following sexual misconduct accusations, which took the wind out of the sails of a group that seemed unstoppable at the time. 2018’s iridescence was enjoyably chaotic and 2019’s GINGER was enjoyably sombre, but neither really managed to come close to any of the three Saturation albums in terms of overall quality.
Now with ROADRUNNER, BROCKHAMPTON seem more at ease with themselves, despite this album featuring some of their heaviest lyrical content. This time bringing on features from other artists more prominently and mostly limiting songs to a lower number of dedicated verses, compared to the often messy posse cuts that the group would attempt, which lost some of their lustre as time went on. This time the more focused songs like DON’T SHOOT UP THE PARTY and BUZZCUT excel with tighter song structure, instead of verse after verse from the supergroup.
While tonally the album bounces around, from fun summery anthems like COUNT ON ME or breezy love songs like I’LL TAKE YOU ON to the extreme introspection of THE LIGHT and a harrowing finale with THE LIGHT PT. II which features member Joba bearing his heart out over the impact his father’s suicide had on him and his family. It’s definitely a show-stopper ending. This leads to an exciting album from the boys which covers a range of emotions, making it their best since their fantastic 2017 output.
HIGHLIGHT: BUZZCUT, I’LL TAKE YOU ON, DON’T SHOOT UP THE PARTY
The Armed - ULTRAPOP
If you want something noisy, uncompromising and yet oddly catchy - then The Armed’s latest, ULTRAPOP is for you, maybe. This band sounds unlike most metal or hardcore bands out there, which will probably make it an alienating or oddly intoxicating listen for outsiders. This album does not hold back and often it’s so deliberately loud and all over the place that it’s hard to even know what to focus on while listening. Lots of exciting songwriting, though often how rough around the edges it’s presented makes it a challenging listen.
But there’s undeniably some incredible moments in songs like ALL FUTURES and AN ITERATION. Anthemic hardcore tracks that have great experimental flourishes, that you can imagine will absolutely demolish in a live venue. The production often feels like some of the lyrics or even songwriting gets lost amongst the hurricane of noise, but that’s part of the appeal I think. I enjoyed this as a no holds barred, forward thinking approach to a hardcore album. Some massive songs on here and the album as a whole feels like getting punched in the face, in the best way possible!
HIGHLIGHT: ALL FUTURES, AN ITERATION, AVERAGE DEATH
SPIRIT OF THE BEEHIVE - ENTERTAINMENT, DEATH
This sounds like a collage of a bunch of my favourite indie bands, for sure the most sonically diverse album I’ve heard this year. But it creates a wonderful sense of character for itself and stands out regardless of its constant switch-ups from calming indie to more aggressive noise rock. It’s a hard album to get your head fully around, considering how different it sounds moment to moment. But by the end you're ready for another spin, prepared to catch new nuances in it’s chaotic structure. It helps that despite its experimental leanings, it’s mostly a pretty pleasant listen with nothing too offputting in the mix, despite it’s confrontational ALL CAPS song titles such as “GIVE UP YOUR LIFE” and “DEATH”. Though the blasts of noise and oblique songwriting do make it a bit more challenging than your average album.
It’s an interesting album in how you can hear bits and pieces of other bands, but overall it really feels like nothing else. In committing to a lack of cohesiveness it feels very fresh. Often it feels like a harsh take on psychedelic music, it’s hard to tell what’s coming next at any point in the album’s runtime. Chaotic, but very charming and one of the most unapologetically creative and out there albums of the year for sure.
HIGHLIGHTS: WRONG CIRCLE, THE SERVER IS IMMERSED, IT MIGHT TAKE SOME TIME
Bladee - The Fool
Highly prolific artist and “CEO” of the popular Swedish collective Drain Gang: Bladee, released three projects in 2020 containing some of his best music and he’s already back with another full-length project for 2021. If you’re not already aware of Bladee and his polarising autotune drenched music, this project might be a hard sell - though it is definitely one of his more accessible albums at only just over half an hour long and containing some of his most consistent vocal performances.
While The Fool doesn’t offer too much new for those already following Bladee, it’s still another really enjoyable project which sees him refining his style further and lean into his image as a futuristic popstar displaced in time.
HIGHLIGHTS: Hotel Breakfast, egobaby, I Want It That Way
Easy Life - life’s a beach
This strong debut from the Leicester band makes a case for their laidback brand of indie pop R&B crossover. Frontman Murray Matravers delivers his melancholy lyrics in a British drawl that switches between charmingly offbeat speak-singing and sleepy rapping - reminiscent of Mac Miller’s later, less rap focused projects or The Streets’ Original Pirate Material. Some songs sound like they could soundtrack a lazy summer evening in a British coastal town, while others look more inwards and tackle ideas of self-doubt.
With a charming vocal performance and brief runtime, Easy Life gives us an easy listen with this album and one that’s for sure worth checking out in time for the summer. Definitely an exciting debut for the band and one that’s for sure going to gain them further cult following within the UK.
HIGHLIGHTS: daydreams, skeletons, ocean view
HERE'S ALSO SOME EP’s WORTH CHECKING OUT!
Poppy - Eat (NXT Soundtrack)
One of the more surprising artistic progressions of recent years has to go to Poppy, who has pivoted from being a YouTube performance artist, to a bubblegum pop artist and more recently to a full on metal artist. After a great album last year, she turns things up a notch further with this EP. Her marriage of pop and metal is one that leans closer to metal than pop with each new release, this one not really holding much back - often sounding as if Slipknot hired a female vocalist. Really going aggressive with this release works wonders, lots of enjoyable screaming and consistently heavy percussion further establish Poppy as an exciting wildcard in the metal world.
HIGHLIGHTS: Say Cheese
Ecco2K - PXE
The most mysterious member of the Swedish collective ‘Drain Gang’ returns after his 2019 debut album with a short little release which showcases further experimentation. Despite an extremely limited runtime, PXE proves addictive and pushes Ecco2k’s versatility further. Self-produced, this often sounds unlike anything else that Ecco or his frequent collaborators have attempted - often indulging in interesting electronic soundscapes. At a cursory 10 minutes, PXE leaves a big impression and makes a compelling case for this new direction to hopefully be explored further in a full-length record at some point from Ecco.
Highlights - In the Flesh
Matt Ox - Unorthodox
Philadelphia rapper Matt Ox first gained some notoriety at age 12 when his first music was released. The novelty of a young kid rapping and it actually being “not that bad” was fleeting, but now at age 16 it seems like Matt Ox is finally finding his voice as an artist. This EP showcases some wacky vocal range and the beats keep switching as if the producer wants to keep one-upping themselves, so it sounds like Ox is being kept on his toes or as if several smaller songs are spliced into one deranged final product. It makes the whole EP a trip, feeling unlike pretty much anything else in the genre currently. Unashamedly weird and often surprising, this showcases Matt Ox as a young talent with an interesting artistic vision for his music.
Doss - 4 Hit New Songs
Elusive producer Doss returns with 4 Hit New Songs seven years after her self-titled EP. Proving to be a pretty direct title for an EP, this offers four very fun, intimate dance tracks. There’s a distinct melancholic vibe to this approach to dance music, often the songs sound hazy or like they should be playing in the cutest dance club ever - like one occupied by stuffed animal mascots spinning around and having exclusively fruit juice on tap. Just overall this EP is thoroughly pleasant, Doss will have to remain elusive for now, unless she puts out more work - but hopefully we won’t have to wait as long until the next batch of songs arrive.
Ethel Cain - Inbred
Ethel Cain is a musical project of Hayden Anhedönia, this EP is the first of which to gain some sizeable cult following online. Drawing inspiration from her upbringing in a small and very religious town in Florida, painting a vision of this through dreamy rock music that draws comparison to the mellower songs by Deftones. Instantly showcasing a powerful singing voice which sounds striking on top of the reverb-ed out instrumentals. Featuring two appearances from hip-hop adjacent artists: Lil Aaron and Wicca Phase Springs Eternal, this decision is also pulled off well. It makes for a compelling character to listen to music from, this EP feeling distinctly personal and showing excellent potential for the project going forward.
HIGHLIGHTS: Michelle Pfeifer
ALSO WORTH MENTIONING...
Origami Angel - GAMI GANG
CHECK IT OUT IF: you want a fun, fresh new emo band with a heavier sound and a mix of tongue in cheek lyricism with sincere optimism.
HIGHLIGHTS: Caught in the moment, Noah Fence, Self-Destruct
Small Black - Cheap Dreams
CHECK IT OUT IF: you want a understated synth-pop soundtrack to a summer evening.
HIGHLIGHTS: Driftwood Fire, Postcard, Cheap Dreams
CHAI - WINK
CHECK IT OUT IF: you want a lighthearted and chill Japanese album with a pleasant energy start to finish.
HIGHLIGHTS: Maybe Chocolate Chips, ACTION, IN PINK
CFCF - Memoryland
CHECK IT OUT IF: you want a nostalgic electronic record that still sounds fresh.
HIGHLIGHTS: Night/Day/Work/Home, After the After, Model Castings
Sweet Trip - A Tiny House, In Secret Speeches, Polar Equals
CHECK IT OUT IF: you want some of the most creative, layered and exciting indie-pop of recent years.
HIGHLIGHTS: Surviving a Smile, Chapters, Polar Equals