Exclaim!'s 31 Best Albums of 2021 So Far

BY Exclaim! StaffPublished Jun 15, 2021

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

20. Japanese Breakfast
(Dead Oceans)

"When the world divides into two people / Those who have felt pain and those who have yet to," Michelle Zauner sings during the aching ballad "Posing in Bondage." It's clear that she falls into the former camp, but Jubilee, her third album as Japanese Breakfast, dances the pain away. Whether it's the fashionable funk of "Be Sweet" and "Slide Tackle," the stately Beirut horns of "Paprika," or the honeyed pop classicism of "Kokomo, IN" and "Tactics," Jubilee is always tinged with melancholy but never defeated by it.
Alex Hudson

19. Cadence Weapon
Parallel World

Always an astute, observational lyricist with a penchant for weird beats, Cadence Weapon ups his game to challenge listeners like never before on Parallel World. The production can be noisy, skittering into electronic and even old-school video game flavours, making each track vibrantly mind-bending. But the focused rhymes — speaking out on indifferent governments, oblivious urban planners, nefarious advertisers, ahistorical Canadian anti-Black racism and evil social media companies — are a compelling cry for sanity in a world gone wrong. 
Vish Khanna

18. Mdou Moctar
Afrique Victime

Following 2019 breakthrough Ilana (The Creator), Afrique Victime is Mdou Moctar's most fully realized recording to date. Here, an even tighter group effort is marked by mesmeric melody and skillful groove, as the Tuareg guitarist and his band stir mind and heart with songs of love, devotion and protest. Whether acoustic or electric, they are led by Moctar and his six strings, taking flight on the frets for mantric licks and scorching solos alike.
Calum Slingerland

17. Gojira

Progressive death metal band Gojira are back with a new triumphant and regal-sounding record. Incorporating sensibilities of classic progressive rock without losing their crushingly heavy sound, Fortitude embraces the immense majesty and menacing intensity that Gojira's exploratory musicianship affords them. Tight guitar work and hard, driving rhythms contrast soaring vocal atmospheres in a way that's as awe-inspiring as it is ferociously pummelling.
Cole Brocksom

16. Vanille
Soleil '96

The debut album from Montreal's new Francophone dream pop sensation came out in the dead of winter, but with the sun finally shining, there's no better time to give it a spin. Soleil '96 features gauzy hooks, shimmering guitars and Rachel Leblanc's ethereal vocals, exuding plenty of warmth perfect for these summer months. But it's not all clear skies — Vanille's slower tempos (compared to contemporaries' breezy pacing) helps Leblanc's wistful poetry hit even harder, using its pacing to let listeners consume every heartbreaking detail.
Matt Bobkin

15. Godspeed You! Black Emperor

G_d's Pee AT STATE'S END! blends the pre-hiatus hallmarks of the Godspeed sound with what has come since their 2012 comeback LP, 'Allelujah! Don't Bend! Ascend! The Montréal troupe have reinstated the samples to their pivotal position, brought back the movements-within-songs structure, and rolled out melodies with a sense of pomp arguably absent since Lift Your Skinny Fists Like Antennas to Heaven. Yet, this new collection achieves something you'd not necessarily expect from a band known for whiplash vacillation between explosive peaks and lulling valleys. This is the band's most balanced effort yet. 
Tom Piekarski

14. Genesis Owusu
Smiling with No Teeth 
(House Anxiety / Ourness)

In what is one of the year's most righteous and eclectic albums of the year, Genesis Owusu's staggering debut displays his impressive genre-blending capabilities. While his sound is rooted in hip-hop, Smiling with No Teeth sees the Ghana-born, Australia-based songwriter incorporate elements of funk, soul, indie rock and electronica, as he lyrically tackles themes of personal growth, mental health and racism. There's something for any music fan to enjoy.
Katie Tymochenko

13. Squid
Bright Green Field

The frantic energy contained in Squid's debut LP Bright Green Field finds the band breaking from the anxiety-inducing mould of their post-punk forebears, and instead settling comfortably into a sleek-but-sassy niche overdue for live performance. Without their usual gigging haunts to test out their latest batch of quotable lyrics, experimental instrumentation and chonky runtimes, the band afforded themselves time for a deeper dive into their creative subconscious, resulting in a virtually un-skippable album.
Allie Gregory

12. Joyce Wrice 

Joyce Wrice couldn't have picked a more fitting title for her debut. Overgrown is a studied effort that feels more like the contribution of a seasoned R&B vet than a relative newcomer. Wrice, along with producer D'Mile, prove themselves to be students of the game with cohesive songwriting, warm beats and nostalgic vocal arrangements that could easily tuck themselves in the bygone '90s but are modern enough to stand out in 2021. 
A. Harmony

11. Mustafa
When Smoke Rises
(Regent Park Songs)

Nearly all music talks about love. But grief, love's most heart-wrenching by-product, is a challenging sentiment for even the most skilled artist to capture. On When Smoke Rises, Mustafa mourns his fallen friends with raw honesty, humanity and heavy doses of tenderness. His gripping blend of unvarnished lyricism and dulcet folk exposes the beauty that lies in grief and establishes Mustafa as peerless. It's a courageous debut that will surely prove to be evergreen.
A. Harmony

10. Cassandra Jenkins 
An Overview on Phenomenal Nature
(Ba Da Bing)

Following the death of David Berman in 2019, on whose Purple Mountains tour Cassandra Jenkins was supposed to play guitar, An Overview on Phenomenal Nature is a restorative documentation of acute observations related to humanity's relationship between the physical and spiritual mind. Jenkins has a cerebral sense of spatial awareness as she collects mournful moments based directly on encounters with those around her and gently lays them out into an enlightened, restful narrative. The ambient, fluid folk-jazz arrangements are precise yet mindful and are intuitively complex in a way that mimics the natural flow of human emotions.
Chris Gee

9. Brand of Sacrifice
(Blood Blast)

God Hand put Brand of Sacrifice on the map in 2019, and Lifeblood has launched them into the stratosphere. It's an unrelenting piece of deathcore brutality that will leave listeners bruised, confused and begging for more. Kyle Anderson singles himself out as one of the best lead singers in the scene today, while the roster of top-tier guest spots shows the Toronto crew are no longer the cult band they once were. Deathcore is going through a resurgence right now, and Lifeblood is far ahead of the pack. Brace yourself. This could get heavy.
Max Morin

8. Madlib
Sound Ancestors 
(Madlib Invazion)

Madlib is known for his eclectic and experiential soundscapes (and of course for Madvillainy, an album collaboration with the late MF DOOM, which stands as one of the most revered hip-hop albums of the past two decades). With Sound Ancestors, he provides the closest thing to a solo Madlib album yet: a dense offering of hundreds of complex beats and recordings made over several years, edited, arranged and mastered by Four Tet. Sound Ancestors demands we hear its texture, see its nuance, notice the particulars of a single line or bar, and ride the experience. 
Ashley Hampson

7. Julien Baker
Little Oblivions

For her third album, Julien Baker weaves a tragic tale of self-deprecation. The album's slow-burning sound unveils pure, heartbreaking poetry. Baker details her struggle with addictions and relapses, as well as her relationship with her Christian faith and asking for forgiveness from her family, friends and God. Playing nearly every instrument on the album and expanding from her previous pared down alt-folk sound, the musicality of Little Oblivions is no small feat, and cements Baker as one of the best modern songwriters.
Karen K. Tran

6. black midi
(Rough Trade)

There are many different ways to listen to the latest black midi record. You could marvel at the outstanding musicianship (particularly drummer Morgan Simpson). You could try to classify their wild brand of experimental rock with equal parts jazz fusion, prog and math rock with some folk thrown in for good luck. You could try to break down their dense, complex compositions that are as bewildering as they are exciting. But perhaps the best option is to get out of your own head, turn the record up and let this dynamic group astound you with the world of surprises they have packaged up on Cavalcade.
Matt Yuyitung

5. DijahSB
Head Above the Waters 

Though they rap about struggling to stay afloat, DijahSB sounds like they're soaring to new heights on Head Above the Waters. Their heartwarming rhymes about planning to buy their mother the "biggest crib" over the mellow funk of "New Harrison" or their galvanizing chorus about building a storm-worthy vessel on "By Myself" both sound like anything but treading water. Better still is "Overtime," on which the Toronto rapper's flow and the upbeat bassline self-assuredly strut in lockstep, which sounds destined for the top of the charts. So yes, DijahSB should be praised for their vulnerability, but also for chronicling their triumph.
Kyle Mullin

4. Olivia Rodrigo 

Everyone knows the crushing feeling of heartbreak and the devastating hurricane of emotions that follow in its aftermath, and Olivia Rodrigo's SOUR provides the perfect soundtrack to those raging moments. The Disney actor and singer's colossal single "drivers license," released at the beginning of the year, only set the platform for what is undoubtedly one of the biggest albums of the summer. A mix of soft ballads and pop-punk bangers drawing inspiration from Lorde, Taylor Swift and Avril Lavigne, Rodrigo's visceral storytelling on SOUR makes listeners feel exactly what it's like to be a teenage girl, and validates their anger, healing and growth.
Jordan Currie

3. Floating Points, Pharoah Sanders & the London Symphony Orchestra
(Luaka Bop)

With Promises, Floating Points has literally orchestrated a modern masterpiece. His subtle electronic leitmotifs that structure this genre melding one-track, nine-movement opus allow for spiritual jazz icon Pharoah Sanders to reach the pinnacle of his artform. Finally, the whole project is anchored by the luscious strings of the London Symphony Orchestra. Achieving such intrinsic balance is not only a musical tour de force, but also blissfully peaceful and trance-inducing — something that came as a much-needed relief during turbulent times. Recorded over the course of five years, this magisterial collaborative album is what hi-fi sound systems are built for.
Antoine-Samuel Mauffette Alavo

2. The Weather Station
(Next Door)

Ignorance, the Weather Station's fifth LP, sounds miraculous. The steady percussive grooves could move mountains, the strings and woodwinds flutter like sparrows at a feeder, and Tamara Lindeman's voice is soft and commanding as she confronts her grief and anxieties about climate change, capitalism, love and so much more. "I guess that I am soft, but I am also angry," she concludes on "Heart."

Although the Weather Station started as a largely bare-bones folk project, the jazzy rock sound of Ignorance has been building steadily over the last few Weather Station releases. With Ignorance, Lindeman and a team of talented collaborators reach heights that are so thrilling you'll find yourself echoing the startled opening words of "Atlantic": "My God."
Laura Stanley

1. Leanne Betasamosake Simpson
Theory of Ice
(You've Changed)

Leanne Betasamosake Simpson has long been an accomplished author, scholar and musician. With Theory of Ice, the Michi Saagiig Nishnaabeg artist delivers her most powerful album yet. Stippled with synths and aired out by vaporous electronics, it hovers gracefully in the realm between folk and rock. She sings and speaks with acute sensitivity, making for a radiant whole.

Theory of Ice sounds timeless as Simpson bridges past and present with traditional Anishinaabe storytelling and a seismic cover of Willie Dunn's 1971 protest anthem "I Pity the Country." But these enduring influences battle an insidious legacy: anti-Indigenous racism in Canada, ranging from destruction of unceded First Nations land to atrocities like MMIWG and the residential school system. 

Simpson gives voice to wildlife, lakes and even oil rigs on Theory of Ice. By considering every perspective of our nuanced world, she draws on empathy in hopes that everyone will work together to create the change they want to see. Theory of Ice is a tender work of remarkable beauty, but moreover, it's a bold exclamation mark in the endless conversations about justice for Indigenous people and the planet we all share.
Leslie Ken Chu

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