Exclaim!'s 31 Best Albums of 2021 So Far

Exclaim!'s 31 Best Albums of 2021 So Far
The first half of 2021 has felt a bit like being in limbo: the return of the concert industry feels within reach, but with still a few more months to go before we can safely gather again, most major artists have been holding back their releases. This isn't to say that there haven't been lots of great albums — rather, we've had a year full of curveballs and unexpected faves.

From the mainstream pop breakthrough of an artist we hadn't even heard of six months ago to lots of rising Canadian talent, plus a smattering of reliable indie rockers we've been loving for years, 2021's best albums have been an eclectic grab bag.

Most importantly, they serve as a reminder that, even as lockdowns lift, we shouldn't simply return to life as normal. This year's best albums are imbued with remarkable amounts of wisdom and intelligence, acting as a potent reminder to keep listening, learning and taking deliberate action. Here are the 31 best albums of the year so far.

31. Yoo Doo Right
Don't Think You Can Escape Your Purpose

Montreal has been long-known as a stronghold for inventive, exploratory post-rock, but the most surprising part of the scene's 2021 renaissance is the success of upstarts Yoo Doo Right. On their debut album, the trio infuse their shapeshifting, largely instrumental rock explorations with punishing waves of doom metal atmospherics and hypnotic krautrock rhythms (they're named after a Can song, after all) for a fresh and engaging take on one of their city's signature sounds.
Matt Bobkin

30. St. Vincent
Daddy's Home
(Loma Vista)

St. Vincent paints a self-portrait on Daddy's Home, an excavation of Annie Clark's complicated real-world history told with fantastical theatricality. To reckon with her past — and with her ex-con father — Clark employs the funky, sitar-filled stylings of mid-'70s rock to accompany her crooning melodies. Measured, confessional and swaggering, Clark's sixth record offers another St. Vincent reinvention — this time with a retro twist — but also a glimpse at something true. 
Matt Owczarz

29. Zao
The Crimson Corridor

Metallic hardcore and post-metal have the shared ability to take one's breath away, and so it is with Zao's career-long slide into sludgier fare. The Crimson Corridor does exactly that thanks to its sheer magnitude and execution. The door on its cover, completed with a disembodied arm clawing its way out, should be avoided in a horror film — but here, we'd recommend barging in and setting up camp. You're going to stay a while.
Bradley Zorgdrager

28. McKinley Dixon
For My Mama and Anyone Who Look Like Her

Virginia prodigy McKinley Dixon offers a gorgeous, uncompromising blend of jazz fusion and hip-hop. For My Mama finds him combining impactful bars and explosive flow with lush arrangements often played on drum kits, guitars and cellos. Dixon's vivid lyrics and melodic chops seamlessly weave into complex grooves and improvisational solos, backed by an impressive roster of instrumentalists and vocalists. Features from underground talents like Teller Bank$ and Pink Siifu top off this soulful jazz rap opus.
Max Heilman

27. Yu Su
Yellow River Blue
(bié / Music from Memory)

Yu Su makes captivating, fluid, open-minded electronic music. Since moving from Kaifeng to Vancouver, she's woven together an untethered, offbeat style that drifts masterfully through dub, house, pop melodies, deep bass, IDM beats, otherworldly ambience and musical elements from her homeland. Combining her skills as a classically trained pianist with modern technologies and a variety of inspirations, Yellow River Blue headily melds worlds while showcasing some of electronic music's new directions.
Chris Bryson

26. serpentwithfeet
(Secretly Canadian)

Recently, a phenomenal social media presence known as @gendersauce wrote on Instagram, "Our culture permits men three emotional states: rage, triumph and stoicism." On his sophomore album, DEACON, serpentwithfeet deftly croons throughout a light and tender record that preaches queer male joy without a hint of any of those three narrow feelings. Affectionate, intimate and groovy as hell, DEACON is an early-career high watermark for a musician who mixes his powerful gospel-trained voice with delicate rhythms and humming basslines.
Anthony Boire

25. Cannibal Corpse
Violence Unimagined
(Metal Blade)

The almost cartoonish violence of Cannibal Corpse's music, lyrics and visuals oddly almost provides an escape from all of life's real horrors. Part of it may be due to desensitization, but it seems the Florida death metal stalwarts' signature brand of zombie movie-style goriness has never felt more welcome than on their latest LP, Violence Unimagined. The album sees Cannibal Corpse easily proving they are still kings in their domain, not to be outdone by any newer, younger acts.
Manus Hopkins

24. Dorothea Paas
Anything Can't Happen
(Telephone Explosion)

Right after declaring she's "not lonely anymore" in an intro that sounds deliberately incomplete, Dorothea Paas invokes an incident of self-deceit, and it could belong to generations. Her debut full-length grapples with a kind of monogamist-realism, echoes of the game-ified app dating landscape in post-free love Laurel Canyon vistas splashed with flashes of Sonic Youth at their most dysfunctional and festival-friendly. Lines like "hard to be soft with you" read the cultural intimacy thermometer like an encyclopedia.
Tom Beedham

23. J. Cole
The Off-Season
(Dreamville Records)

Last decade, J. Cole propelled himself into the upper echelons of millennial rap. Cole steps into the new decade with The Off-Season and shakes things up by enlisting new producers and features to rap along with, finally shedding his long-standing "no features" reputation. There's a ravenous hunger — reminiscent of Cole's early days — that fuels his mastered delivery of precise and eloquent bars about his current status, all upheld by top-notch production. Fourteen years in and Cole is still pushing his career to new heights. 
Papa Minnow

22. TiKA
Anywhere but Here 
(Next Door Records)

TiKA has long established herself as a fixture in Canada's music scene. Her long-awaited debut album, Anywhere but Here, details a personal journey marked by leaving behind an abusive relationship and embracing her queerness. The experiences are mined through compelling lyricism, earth-shattering vocals and '80s-inspired R&B; Prince cover "I Would Die 4 U" is a perfect fit, while "Walking Disaster,'' a climbing duet with Desiire, delivers a heartbreaking punch. TiKA's moment is finally here. 
Yasmine Shemesh

21. The Armed
(Sargent House)

ULTRAPOP is what happens when you give punks, art school kids and all-around weirdos the keys to pop music's kingdom. Rooted in a DIY aesthetic, this Detroit crew — their membership as difficult to pin down as their sound — blend hardcore, noise, industrial groove and, yes, pop into aggressive chaos. Yet, out of this sonic mayhem, they find ways to wring hooks and melodies and create small moments of beauty and grace. 
Ian Gormely