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The 21 Best Albums of 2021—So Far

It’s here: we’ve made it to the halfway point of 2021 and I cannot believe that. Though I do feel like we’re making incredible positive progress and hopefully on the road to permanent recovery, I’m still a bit (incredibly) anxious to see what the rest of the year holds.

There’s a lot of very hyped albums out soon (Clairo, Billie Eilish, Bleachers, Lorde, to name a few)…and we can’t wait to see what else pops up this year. The team at Staged Haze has compiled what we think to be the best albums of the year so far. Did your picks make the list?

In chronological order:

A Billion Little Lights, Wild Pink (February 19, Royal Mountain Records)

If you look in the dictionary for the phrase “criminally underrated,” you’ll find Wild Pink’s picture. I don’t understand why this band has so few listeners; one would think that all of the people in the middle of the Bon Iver – War on Drugs Venn diagram would be listening to Wild Pink, plus plenty of other people who just enjoy beautiful indie-heartland rock. To hear me gush about A Billion Little Lights, I’ll refer you to my album review from earlier this year, but I’ll update you and say that this album has had staying power. Months later, I still find myself scrolling back to listen to the transition from “Bigger Than Christmas” to “The Shining But Tropical” and the stringy pedal steel in “Oversharers Anonymous.” If you haven’t heard this record yet, do yourself a solid and give it a spin. – Brittany

Little Oblivions, Julien Baker (February 26, Matador Records) 

Acclaimed singer-songwriter Julien Baker expanded her sonic universe on Little Oblivions in the best way, but her dark lyrical world remains intact. In my review, I wrote that “Little Oblivions has energy and momentum; it ebbs and flows just like recovery.” It’s an album about the cycle of falling from grace and chasing redemption, and each song is a microcosm of that process. For fans of Julien’s work, it’s exciting to witness her expand her sonic horizons, and for newcomers, it’s a pristine, heartbreaking, and unforgettable singer-songwriter record that holds up as one of the best of the year. – Emma M.

How Did We Get Here, Blu DeTiger (March 5, ALT: Vision Records) 

Taken from the “Songs We’re Vibing With – (March and April 2021 post)”

One of my new musical obsessions is 23-year-old Blu DeTiger, incredible bass player and certified badass. I had heard a few of her songs previously, but really fell in love with her music earlier this year when her EP How Did We Get Here? was released. “Toast With The Butter” is a song that is so catchy I find myself singing it to myself at least once a day. Over the last year, she’s found immense success on TikTok, like many other musicians, and her expertise as a bassist (she’s been playing since she was seven), are emulated brilliantly in her music. She recently announced a few tour dates for the US later this year, check them out here. – Kristin 

Today We’re the Greatest, Middle Kids (March 19, Domino Recordings)

I’d never heard of Middle Kids before Kristin wrote her glowing review of Today We’re the Greatest, the sophomore album from the Australian indie pop group. My mission is to make this band’s American audience as big as it should be. How is Middle Kids’ Columbus, OH show at A&R Music Bar not yet sold out? Why are they playing the Metro in Chicago instead of at least the Aragon? Get yourself a ticket to see a big band in a tiny venue they should not be playing.

Today We’re the Greatest is an album mostly about being there to support people in your life, exemplified best by bombastically catchy “Stacking Chairs” and “Some People Stay In Our Hearts Forever.” You can hear the Killers influence in “Summer Hill,” which I need to hear Brandon Flowers cover. For a solid pop album that will make you dance and lip synch with your earbuds in, give this album a try. – Brittany 

Road Runner: New Light New Machine, BROCKHAMPTON (April 9, RCA Records)

The past few years have told me a lot about myself as a music connoisseur. One “quirk” of mine is that I tend to fixate on at least one rap-inspired album a year. Logic, who retired back in 2020, took that honor several times, as did Big Sean, J.Cole, and Eminem. Now, BROCKHAMPTON isn’t exactly on the same comparable caliber as the former, but RR: NLNM is a pleasure to pop on every now and again.

The idea of a band with thirteen minds and seven vocalists didn’t exactly jive with me at the beginning, but this album speaks for itself. With the three additional tracks that were released on June 4, one can say RR: NLNM, partitions three ways: serious, introspective, and party-ready. There’s something for everyone here, which should make sense, considering thirteen individuals and countless preferences assisted in the creation of the hour-long project. – Sean

Ska Dream, Jeff Rosenstock (April 20, Polyvinyl Record Co) 

For longtime fans of New York-based punk rock icon (at this point that’s got to be true) Jeff Rosenstock, “Ska Dream” was just that—a total dream. On the album Rosenstock went back to his roots, not just in the sense that this album is a cover album of his 2020 release “No Dream,” but “Ska Dream,” a ska reinvention of the previous album harkens back to Rosenstock’s roots in ska band The Arrogant Sons of Bitches and his regularly ska-influenced work in Bomb the Music Industry! 

Throughout his career Rosenstock has never aimed to do what’s “cool,” rather he’s made art that spoke to him and connected with his ever-growing fanbase. It’s been said that ska’s been having a comeback lately, even Billboard wrote about the recent rude girl and boy revival, and while Rosenstock has never cared about whether the Caribbean-based genre is in fashion or not, his effortlessness and enduring humor in capturing the darker side of life might just be what’s bringing the next generation into the genre. – Erin

Nurture, Porter Robinson (April 23, Mom + Pop)

After a seven year hiatus, EDM-phenom Porter Robinson returns with a gut-wrenching performance on Nurture. Having been a fan of Porter since his Spitfire EP release in 2011, I always enjoyed his “complextro” style (akin to Zedd’s hit “Clarity,” also from 2011), which notably blends bass-driven beats into a seamless narrative. Ten years after the Spitfire EP, Robinson takes a new approach; his sound swapped from abstract and clearly computer-generated to the natural, breezy and airy. 

Robinson has clearly accepted and embraced a level of maturity on this project, as there’s something for everyone on Nurture — eventual club favorites like “Look at the Sky” and “Musician,” to reflective piano ballads on “Wind Tempos,” and much more. Even the vocaless “dullscythe” deserves kudos, as the track highlights Robinson’s struggles and pressure to create over the years. Needless to say, those seven years were worth the wait. Nurture earns perpetual repeat status. – Sean

Gami Gang, Origami Angel (April 30, Counter Intuitive Records)

I’ve been pitching Origami Angel to anyone who will listen as “if you grew up listening to Relient K, and then grew up a little more.” Origami Angel will appeal to fans of that 2000’s alt/pop-punk scene, carrying on that incorrigible commitment to puns and bits with an emo twist. (You would expect nothing less than songs titled “Neutrogena Spektor,” “Tom Holland Oates,” and “Möbius Chicken Strip” from a band who released an EP with a GameBoy game parody cover and songs titled “Ruby,” “Sapphire,” and “Emerald.”) 

The highest praise I can give Gami Gang is that it is the most fun album of the year. I can’t wait to catch a Gami show; even though they’re only a two-piece, they radiate energy. Besides Origami Angel’s raw vibes, they’re also incredibly consistent across this 20-track double LP that weaves the whole thing together through disguised motifs in the opening and closing tracks. Looking for a high-energy pick-me-up? Give Gami Gang a go. The first 45 seconds of this album will leave you smiling or your money back. – Brittany 

Forever Isn’t Long Enough, Alfie Templeman (May 7, Chess Club Records) 

I listened to this snappy thirty-minute project three times in a row on a perfect May day in Fort Greene, Brooklyn. It’s one of those days I’ll always remember, not because anything particularly remarkable happened, but because the music I chose was so perfect for the occasion, it cemented the memory. At only eighteen years old, Alfie Templeman managed to bottle joy and inject it straight into this project. Forever Isn’t Long Enough is an electric indie pop mini-album complete with buttery synths, unforgettable hooks, and a pure sense of charisma that should be on everyone’s summer rotation. – Emma M.

A Touch of the Beat Gets You Up On Your Feet Gets You Out and Then Into the Sun, Aly & AJ (May 7, Aly & AJ Music LLC) 

Kacey Musgraves may have written the lyrics “Happy and sad at the same time,” but former Disney Channel stars Aly & AJ really personified it on “A Touch of the Beat Gets You Up On Your Feet Gets You Out and Then Into the Sun.” The album is the duo’s first full-length venture in 14 years, and marks a clear distinction from their previous work.

Within 12 songs, the sisters capture the feeling of a California summer in perfect time as the country begins to open up again after a pandemic, but they also capture the depression, anxiety and pessimism that has grasped the nation, let alone the world, in the past year. Just as soon as you’re ready to turn up one of the songs and head out to the beach, the lyrics will bring listeners crashing back down to reality. It’s a beautiful album that acutely captures the time it was released in. – Erin 

The Marfa Tapes, Miranda Lambert, Jack Ingram and Jon Randall (May 7, Vanner Records)

Many of us are buying our first concert tickets in over a year, eagerly awaiting the specific adrenaline that comes with experiencing the music we love in a living, breathing, physical space. The Marfa Tapes, in which country mega-star Miranda Lambert joins industry veterans Jack Ingram and Jon Randall, has been a special joy to listen to for that reason. The three recorded the project with a bare-bones setup in Marfa, Texas, and you can hear the rawness all over the project; there’s banter between each track and you can practically feel the weight of their fingers on the guitar strings. 

The songs themselves are characteristically tight, Texas-inspired, Americana tracks that recall the work of artists like John Prine. Campfire-style music isn’t typically album-of-the-year material, but let this trio at the top of their game change your mind- just this once. – Emma M. 

The Off-Season, J Cole (May 14, Roc Nation)

One of the most anticipated rap albums of 2021, J. Cole did not disappoint with The Off-Season. The album finds J. Cole returning to his roots as a rapper – excellent beats, poignant bars, and superb delivery. It’s really just a straight up rap album, notably filled with features (that his previous platinum albums have lacked), but J. Cole never gets the spotlight stolen from him. He raps with emotional maturity and wisdom that puts him far above any of the current “hot” rappers of the day, and is a great reminder why J. Cole is one of the very best.
– Mitch

Harmony House, Dayglow (May 21, Very Nice Records)

Sloan Struble delivers once more on his sophomore album Harmony House. The passionate project breathes effortlessly, inviting listeners to a time that once was. I knew Struble accomplished his goal after playing Harmony House at home one day, which prompted my parents to ask, “why does this sound so familiar? Is this from the eighties?” One may think that’s the case after listening to “Close to You,” which is my personal favorite track from this year. Call me crazy, but I’ve listened to this song at least once a day since its initial release in January of 2021, and the album as a whole since I began reviewing it in April. You need to listen to this album. Good vibes ahead! – Sean

Digital Meadow, Dora Jar (May 21, Original Sin) 

When I heard the first song off of this EP, I was instantly hooked. “Polly” first made an appearance on Spotify’s New Music Friday playlist, and once I realized it was by an artist I had never heard of, I was amped to listen to the entire EP. Dora weaves different genres seamlessly into “Polly:” indie pop, hip-hop, borderline dance music with flashes of ’90s influences like Ace of Base. The rest of Digital Meadow has an incredible balance of what’s popular in commercially successful music while simultaneously being a little weird and unconventional. 1000/10 would recommend. – Kristin

Greatest Hits, Waterparks (May 21, 300 Entertainment)

Pop punk is BACK baby! Texas-based threepiece Waterparks was already piquing my interest earlier this year after stumbling across their pages on social media, featuring an incredibly eye-catching aesthetic of matching outfits that reminded me of the final scene in The Cheetah Girls when they all wore their own color sweatsuits. Waterparks’ fourth studio album is what I wish Twenty One Pilots still sounded like, but with debatably more electricity than anything TOP has ever done.

Listening to Greatest Hits is like a straight dose of caffeine into your veins: the desire to start parkouring off every piece of furniture in sight relevant. I guarantee you’ll find something enjoyable off this album: and be sure to move quickly, cause Waterparks’ Fall 2021 headlining tour is selling out quickly.
– Kristin 

LUNO, Blood Cultures (May 28, Pack Records)

LUNO was one album I was highly anticipating to release this year. The abstraction, the insanity, the introspection that this album delivers is quite literally like nothing you’ve ever heard before. You’re just as likely to hear Blood Culture’s songs at a small get together with friends as you are at an underground house club. The other interesting element of LUNO is the visual aspect of it: the music videos are seemingly highbrow, but are ultimately beautiful works of art that each stand on their own. Like I said in my review, this album definitely isn’t for everyone, but those that enjoy it will really enjoy it. – Mitch 

Jubilee, Japanese Breakfast (June 4, Dead Oceans)

Without question, my favorite album of the year so far is Jubilee. What made me realize this album’s potency was how enamored I was with the project upon first listen, even though some of the pre-release singles (“Be Sweet” in particular) didn’t strike me at all. But Jubilee as a complete project is one of the most intricate, enchanting, and insightful albums I’ve had the pleasure to explore. Lyrically, Japanese Breakfast is poetic, rich, and sometimes even unwieldy- but the complexity of her lyrical world makes a thirty-seven-minute project feel infinite. Jubilee is a gift, an exploration of power, grief, and acceptance, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see it take my top spot at the end of the year. – Emma M.

A remarkable album worthy of every year-end list it will inevitably end up on, Japanese Breakfast’s Jubilee is a beautiful album from beginning to end. Michelle Zauner sings with a sharpened sense of power and confidence, effortlessly drawing all the means within her disposal to deliver an album about joy, despair, and experiencing a renewed sense of power. A few weeks after the dust has settled on its initial release, Jubilee is still in my daily rotation – with beautiful instrumentation for every mood or moment. – Mitch 

Holy unexpected, Batman. I had never listened to Japanese Breakfast prior to June 4, but wow. What a mistake that was. Jubilee, acting as my window into the Japanese Breakfast discography, is sheer perfection. It effortlessly blends good vibes with softhearted lyricism and instrumentation. Now, you may be wondering, why isn’t this my favorite album of the year. I need to note that I rode the struggle bus when putting my favorite albums in order. Truth be told, I had a five way tie for first place — a title that Jubilee shares with each of my other submissions to this list. I need more time to delve into the deeper meanings behind each song on Jubilee, but tracks like “Slide Tackle,” “Be Sweet,” and “In Hell” will make that journey a breeze. – Sean

Changephobia, Rostam (June 4, Matsor Projects)

2021 signaled a shift in my personal perspective on life. Previously, I purposely sought out fast-paced albums or tracks for my gym / workout playlists. I was always go-go-go and rarely took time to appreciate the good that surrounds me. This notion, however, has finally been put to rest now that I ended my competitive running career.

Rostam’s Changephobia resonates with me most because each track is slow, methodical, and carefully constructed. During this new, relaxed pace of my life, I can really take some time to ditch the hotheadedness I once adorned and kick back in the yard while enjoying a beer. Changephobia perfectly and flawlessly encapsulates that notion: find your nice speaker, grab your friends, and enjoy each other’s company on a glorious summer evening. I guess it’s good to have this perspective at 24, as hopefully it will carry with me throughout the remainder of my life. – Sean

Blue Weekend, Wolf Alice (June 4, RCA Records)

Blue Weekend is an album that took me by absolute surprise. Admittedly, I’ve never listened to Wolf Alice before, but the range on this album is astounding. From garage rock songs like “Play the Greatest Hits” to gentler melodies like “The Last Man on Earth,” this album runs the full spectrum of emotions, experiences and stories. Taken all together, the album is very cohesive, all the way through to its satisfying end. Wolf Alice may have flown under the mainstream radar, especially in the U.S., but the artistic potential on this album alone solidifies the group as a mainstay in the alternative scene. – Mitch

I had never paid much attention to Wolf Alice before, but Blue Weekend has been a staple in my rotation since its release. Equal parts gentle and bombastic, Blue Weekend is a shoegazey rock record dripping in 90s nostalgia, electric hooks, and memorable vocal performances from lead singer Ellie Roswell. It’s an incredibly dynamic record that isn’t afraid to experiment, and almost every risk pays off. I’m excited to continue to experience this album over and over again this year- each listen rewards me with a new insight. – Emma M. 

Home Video, Lucy Dacus (June 25, Matador Records) 

Lucy Dacus’ third album, Home Video, tells an autobiographical story of Dacus’ pre and teenager years growing up in Richmond, VA. The album weaves through various storylines in which Dacus explores platonic and romantic relationships, religion, sexuality and more with incredibly rich detail: ones that make you imagine the scenes playing out in front of you in a fully packed movie theater (I really miss going to movie theaters). “Thumbs,” a fan favorite, describes the rage Dacus feels towards the father of someone important to her when they come crawling back asking for forgiveness. Dacus gets experimental on “Partner In Crime,” a song about a relationship with someone significantly older than the protagonist featuring a lot of auto tune and synth sounds.

Her bandmates in Phoebe Bridgers and Julien baker make multiple appearances, and so does Mitski, Nashville-based musician Liza Anne, and last but not least, Baker’s dog. Arguably Lucy’s most intimate album yet, I won’t be surpirsed to see Home Video make the cut for best album roundups during the end of the year.
– Kristin

Death of A Cheerleader, Pom Pom Squad (June 25, City Slang) 

Is it too early to call it for Pom Pom Squad? I am totally convinced this is my album of the year so far and will be curious to see if it stays that way throughout the next few months. After I first heard the band’s earlier single “Head Cheerleader,” I was intrigued by what was coming next. 23-year-old Mia Berrin started PPS five years ago at this point, releasing music along the way before signing with City Slang records earlier this year.

The album is filled with grunge punk bangers, inspired by women pioneers in similar and adjacent genres, including Billie Holiday and riot grrrl bands, tv shows like Twin Peaks and the crazy culty film Heathers. Pom Pom Squad’s aesthetics, containing cheerleading uniforms, doc martens, smashing of cakes and latex gloves, is one that’s been making headlines recently, bringing extra life to the music: making me wish the 30 minutes and 21 second album was a smidge longer. Berrin doesn’t shy away from overdoing it: her voice screams, it cries, and most importantly, tells the story. – Kristin 

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