No, this isn’t a blog post on Blackjack. The review of new albums from June 2021 is here! That’s right, we’re halfway there in our madcap quest to find the 21 best albums of 2021. And, like Bon Jovi before us, we’re living on a prayer.
If this is your first time here, I’m listening to new releases every month, sorting them into categories, and then I’ll do a final list of the best 21 after the year ends. If you missed the previous editions, you can find them here:
This is one of three music-related blog series I’m doing this year. You can check out my ongoing review of critic’s choices for the best albums of the 2010s here, and my wrap-up on reviews of the 20 best albums of 2020 here.
I’ve received a few questions from readers, so the halfway point of this enterprise seems like a good spot to do an FAQ.
Q: How do you find the albums to listen to? A: I’m subscribed to weekly new release e-mails from All Music Guide and Pitchfork. I may be missing a thing or two, but between them I’ve listened to 440 albums as of the end of June, so I can’t be missing much!
Q: How do you listen to the albums? A: Between YouTube Music and Apple Music I can find almost everything- sometimes there’s a delay of a week or two, but most everything shows up in those places eventually.
Q: How do you listen to so many albums? A: I’m generally listening during the day at work, with moves through a lot of music if you do it daily! I take a few notes real-time, and then work on the write-ups after hours.
Q: What genres are you listening to? A: What I’ve always been interested in musically is Rock, very broadly defined, including all the genres that led to it and descended from it. So, I’m deliberately not listening to classical albums, chamber music, choral, opera, etc. Jazz is borderline, if it’s on the fusion edge of other genres I’ll often give it a try, whereas if it’s the more “pure” jazz I generally don’t. Otherwise, blues, country, dance, electronica, folk, hip-hop, gospel, rock, R&B and soul, etc. are all making it in.
Q: Are there any other criteria? A: I’m not listening to EPs since I have my hands full-enough with full-length albums. I’m also listening to new releases, so re-releases don’t make the cut. Either do live albums unless they’re of very recent vintage. I will listen to soundtracks if they’re comprised of new material.
Q: Do you listen to the whole album? A: It depends… I listen to at least the first few tracks of everything. If I’m three to five tracks in (depending on the length of the album) and I know it isn’t going to do it for me, I stop. But anything that’s a “yes” or a “maybe” I have listened to the entire album.
So that’s that for questions! Before we go on, a quick note about the three categories:
Yes– These are the albums that, based on my initial listen, are in definite contention to be considered for the 21 best albums of the year. As of the end of June, this list is up to 117 albums, so we’re probably looking at 200+ for the final reckoning at year end.
Maybe– These are albums that had definite strengths, but about which I have some reservation. I’ve noticed over the years that some “maybes” have a habit of lingering, so I’m giving them a category just in case.
No– These albums are not in contention. Some of them deserve discussion, though, which I note.
And now, let us proceed with the 82 new releases from June…
Amythyst Kiah, Wary + Strange– A plaintive folk-inflected beginning, then a muscular bruising blues track two, then back to soulful orchestral folk, on to an eerie steel blues, and so on (with a country song thrown in the middle too). Musically excellent, and informed throughout with vocal power and sharp, clear, lyrical picture-painting.
Anna Rochinski, Cherry– This 10 year alum of the Boston music scene and the band Quilt delivers pare synths and beats, driving vocals, an offbeat edge to both, and a certain dark attitude in the lyrics. Altogether, it’s a winning combination.
Birds of Maya, Valdez– Recorded in 2014 as a follow-up to their well-received 2013 debut, but just now released due to the Philadelphia-based band reforming. Bruising noise rock, pieces that go into surging, crunching length, with hints of psychedelia and metal along the way but informed by punk spirit- this is as excellently straight-up as 2000s hard rock gets.
Body Breaks, Bad Trouble– Is this electronica? 60s throwback? The results of an explosion in a psychedelia factory? This is weird, discordant, unexpected rock, and I love it.
Cola Boyy, Prosthetic Boombox– Some disco throwback, some home-studio electronica, a lot of wit and eclecticism, not to mention solid fun. Score one for the Oxnard music scene!
Danny Elfman, Big Mess– While he’s done A LOT of soundtrack work, this is Elfman’s first proper album as such since the 90s. There’s always been an edge of darkness and discord to his work, but here we’re often positively into Nine Inch Nails and/or noise pop territory. His trademark wit is here as well, and way with melody, though in this case buried beneath a layer of menace. A dark and challenging album that came by it honestly-explicitly struggling with aging, disappointment, Trumpism, COVID. Masterful, disturbing, and completely of its time.
Dean Blunt, BLACK METAL 2– This is not the black metal I was looking for. What it is, is a very interesting alternative hip hop album. This British DJ is delivering something that’s equal parts spoken word, acoustic, and indie rock, and is richly textured and darkly swirling. It’s excellent, and I haven’t heard anything else this year that sounds like this.
Holiday Ghosts, North Street Air– Bouncy, charming, incisive lyrics- acoustic rock with a punk spirit and sure knowledge of rock song structure.
Japanese Breakfast, Jubilee– Touches of new wave, touches of turn of the millennium dance music, touches of Kate Bush, with lyrics and vocals that are sensual and smart.
Liz Phair, Soberish– This is her first original album in ten years, which makes me feel a little old. The music has a pop sheen, but not as unadvisedly so as some of her earlier 2000’s efforts, and the lyrics have caught back up with her actual life. There’s almost a 60s swinging pop sound to it, with 90s snark. I might wish for it to be a little more rocking, but it’s musically and vocally lush, self-assured, and lyrically substantive. Well done, Liz!
LoneLady, Former Things– Some dynamic dance music here, with an edge of 80s sound. Julie Campbell is the LoneLady in question, and came to dance/funk from post-punk. I like what she’s laying down!
Lukas Nelson/Lukas Nelson & Promise of the Real, A Few Stars Apart– He sounds a little like Willie Nelson, which is not genetically an accident, since he’s Willie’s son. The music straddles several eras/genres of country and is always utterly sincere, and the lyrics have that same air to them. This feels like an instant classic country record.
Marina Allen, Candlepower– A debut album from the ethereal side of folk, but with a strong musical drive and powerful lyrical turns that preserve it from the danger of fuzzing out.
Matthew Dear, Preacher’s Sigh & Potion: Lost Album– Hi, is this cowboy DJ/mix music? That was the opening track, after that it got more varied, but remained a mix of instrumental heartland-flavored music with minimalist electronic/beats and interesting and unusual lyrics delivered with low key vocals. I really like it! This is from an experimental direction he took a few years back, but was unreleased.
Modest Mouse, The Golden Casket– Sometimes I remember the promise of indie rock-the power of rock, livened by experimental and unusual music choices, subject matter not normally touched, and an unapologetically intelligent approach.
Mykki Blanco, Broken Hearts & Beauty Sleep– Alternative hip-hop, a great vocal and musical mix, glowing with positivity and fun but also weight and power. The genderfluid aspect of performance artist/poet/musician Mykki Blanco also adds to it. I like things that aren’t like everything else, and also I like things that are really good, and this is both!
Night Beats, Outlaw R&B– I love the idea that the album name brings to mind- an R&B equivalent of Outlaw Country. I wouldn’t quite say it’s delivering that, but it is an R&B brimming with a feeling of the 60s- I hear some Beatles in there, some Who, some Cream, some Del Shannon. There’s even a spooky gunfighter ballad and a garage rock banger that sneaks in there from somewhere. This was just great, a thoroughly enjoyable turn from this Texas band.
Quivers, Golden Doubt– Opens with great instrumentation, strong lyrics, nice production flourishes on the vocals. These are rock songs that work, with a pop leaning, that are both strong and catchy. Callbacks to 60s pop, golden syrupy 70s, 80s alt, 90/00s twee pop, it’s all here. And it’s all beautiful!
Raoul Vignal, Years in Marble– Moody and affecting acoustic folk-tinged indie rock. Some nice unusual flourishes, and while it’s certainly in a vein, it never descends into sameness.
Scientists, Negativity– From the first distorted guitar feedback notes, I feel like this is something I’m going to like. Naively klunky lyrics and ragged vocals add to the charm. It kind of pivots back and forth between the amateurish charm of original punk rock and a very garagey neo-psychedelia. The sound isn’t an accident, as this Australian band started out in 1978, then took 1987-2007 off before reincarnating. And I love it!
St. Lenox, Ten Songs of Worship & Praise for our Tumultuous Times– Boisterous, quirky and awkwardly earnest vocals and lyrics, music informed by gospel and electronic, unconventionally spiritual, this really does achieve its aim of delivering songs of worship for our modern age!
The Mountain Goats, Dark in Here– The Mountain Goats was one of those groups I knew secondhand from knowing many people who liked them, so I was curious. I am quite pleased to have formally made their acquaintance! Lively propulsive instrument-heavy indie rock, playing with genres, and darkly-inflected lyrical wit. I can kind of see where they fit in too, among the Arcade Fires and the Death Cabs and what not. And they’re welcome!
- Atreyu, Baptize– Hi Atreyu, I have needed someone this year to be metal, and you are quite metal! I like the mix of moving parts here- Screamcore? Yes. Technical/orchestral? Yes. Thrash? Yes. A dash of punk and emo too. If it was any one of these, it might bog down, but by including all of them, and thanks to song times on the shorter side, it’s dynamic without sacrificing being heavy. A little too produced sometimes, but a strong entry regardless!
- Hiatus Kaiyote, Mood Valiant– This Australian band is described as genre- bending, and I get it. Jazz? Yes? Fusion with multi-layered R&B production? Yes. Sound loops and sound effects? Yes. Quirky kaleidoscope of vocals? Yes. All of this is very charming, and keeps pulling it back from the edge of meandering/nonsense side of jazz.
- Jeb Loy Nichols, Jeb Loy– Has the feeling of a 60s soul throwback, not as a forgery but as a genuine expression from this now Wales-based veteran U.S. soul singer. The lyrics sometimes go for rote/cliché, which is my reservation, but the music and vocals and spirit of it are spot on.
- John Grant, Boy From Michigan– swinging, unusual, brooding, an electronic-informed indie rock. While it’s a little heavy on the slow/ballady side, the unusual voice, both lyrically and vocally, and the way the music informs and livens the content keeps it going. It reminds me of Sufjan Stevens and Ben Folds in terms of tender revelatory lyrics made epic-sounding.
- Lin-Manuel Miranda, In the Heights [Original Motion Picture Soundtrack]– There was a Broadway Cast album a few years back, but this is from the film that is out now. Show tunes are, of course, their own kind of boisterous fun, and these are massively informed by hip-hop and latin music on top of it. It’s musically and lyrically interesting, and full of voices and points of view that aren’t typical for music. I have to call it “Maybe” because I’m not sure it stands on its own outside the context of the musical.
- Lucy Dakus, Home Video– Produced with dark musical tones and vocals livened by a trace of haunting, this meditation on adolescent experiences in the shadow of a strong church upbringing is arresting. It reminds me of the kind of interior work Sufjan Stevens does. I sometimes wondered whether it was too similar musically track to track, but it also never lets go of one’s attention.
- N0V3L, NON FICTION– I feel like a lost post-punk album form an early-80s college rock station has just landed on me. It’s a pleasant impact. There’s really nothing to fault in this perfectly delivered entry from a British Columbia band except that it sounds very of an era.
- Peter Holsapple/Chris Stamey, Our Back Pages– The founders of 80s college rock darling the dBs are here with a mighty fine acoustic album of new arrangements of dBs songs. These are excellent versions, and also a reminder that 2000s indie didn’t come from nowhere. It seems a little self-derivative to be best, but gosh it’s pretty darn good.
- Sleater-Kinney, Path of Wellness– Sleater-Kinney is one of those artists where there’s no such thing as a “bad” album. The main problem this album has with me is that it isn’t the Sleater-Kinney I want, but what’s going on here is sophisticated, complex, well-played. And if I wish it was a little more conventionally rocking, and I’m kind of sore at them for letting long-time drummer Janet Weiss go, well, is that the album’s fault? I could see it growing on me.
- Styx, Crash of the Crown– Like the Cheap Trick album I reviewed a month or two ago, the mere existence of a new Styx album is kind of an existential surprise. It sounds like- a really good Styx album! I’m kind of flummoxed by this- so dated in a way, and yet every damn track works.
- Tyler, The Creator, Call Me If You Get Lost– Very smart production, lyrics, and sampling in this hip-hop album. There’s also a framing structure around travel. Turns out Tyler is a creator! It does get a little “bitch”y for my taste, but is full of personality and some atypical subject matter, which I really appreciate.
- White Flowers, Day by Day- The music and vocals are pretty, ethereal, darkly billowing. This reminds me of the Cocteau Twins and My Bloody Valentine. I do wonder if it’s a little too similar track to track, but I liked it the whole way through and was never moved to turn it off.
- AFI, Bodies-This is a fine example of AFI’s kind of thing, but it strikes me as too one-tone throughout, and curiously emotionally detached. I probably would have liked this in the 80s, though.
- Alessandro Cortini, Scuro Chiaro– It is quite very ambient.
- Amy Helm, What The Flood Leaves Behind– As you might expect from Levon Helm’s daughter, there’s big Americana here. Unfortunately, while there are rich vocal and musical moments, it tends a little more toward the slick and pre-fab side of things.
- Angelique Kidjo, Mother Nature– Powerhouse veteran of West African music- the music here is exquisite, but the lyrics sometimes go a little too cliché polemical and it doesn’t feel like it has the coherence, or lyrical consistency needed for “year’s best”.
- Azure Ray, Remedy– Very pretty, tender and sophisticated lyrics, but a little too same track to track, and the production ia glossy at the expense of genuine.
- Billy Gibbons, Hardware -In one of the less surprising things to ever happen, this solo album by a ZZ Top member sounds a lot like…ZZ Top! I do like a certain dose of ZZ Top in my life, but I’m not sure there is anything new enough/above and beyond here to qualify as “best album of the year” status.
- Charnett Moffett, New Love– This was described as a crossover jazz album, but I think it has not crossed over far enough for me. That being said, it’s not bad at all, if you’re a jazz fan you might want to check it out!
- Ches Smith/We All Break, Path of Seven Colors– When I read that part of the mix here was the artist having spent years studying voodoo drumming, I was definitely intrigued. It’s very good, but given the instrumental leanings and pervasive use of Haitian French, it’s a little inaccessible for “year’s best” status.
- Chris Thile, Laysongs– An interesting set of acoustic songs, delivered in an offbeat, almost discordant way. It was a little too low volume and jumpy for me.
- Crowded House, Dreamers Are Waiting– Very competent outing by a very competent band, but it doesn’t rise above itself.
- Daniel Avery, Together in Static– The first track was so ambient it nearly ambiented itself into another dimension. Things picked up from there, but not much.
- Dave Koz/Cory Wong, The Golden Hour– As bouncy crossover jazz instrumental albums go, this is a pretty good one. I don’t think it’s unique or different enough to make “top album of the year” status, but genre fans may want to check it out!
- Eli Keszler, Icons– Really low-key shimmery electronic music with a new age flavor. Ugh.
- Faye Webster, I Know I’m Funny haha– Sparkling and sophisticated acoustic pop with a jazzy sheen, but it’s all a little too produced and same track to track for me.
- Francis Lung, Miracle No– At its best, sparkling pop that I think the Beatles and Brian Wilson would approve of. At its not best, too many songs in a row that are a little too low-key keep deflating it. Alas, because this could have been an absolute yes on its strongest tracks.
- Garbage, No Gods, No Masters– A more electronic outing from them- not badly done. But the music does feel a little pre-fab, and the lyrics a little cliché at times as well. The covers on the second disc of the deluxe edition are kind of great though!
- Gary Louris, Jump For Joy– Jayhawks co-founder delivers almost an ELOesque production shine to the tracks. If more had the energy of the opener, it really could have been a contender, but too much of the rest of the album is in “lull” mode.
- Greentea Peng, Man Made– Self-described “psychedelic R&B singer”, this, plus knowing she’s British, and that there’s a fair amount of dub influence, gives you a good idea what you’re in for here. It is interesting and very well done, but a little too all in one mellow groove without standing out. I think it would have taken some more variability, and a shorter run time (it’s over an hour) to make it to the “yes” list.
- Gucci Mane, Ice Daddy– The musical mix and vocal stylings here were actually very dynamic and fun, but the contents too often didn’t get much beyond boasting, hos, and money.
- Helvetia, Essential Aliens– The first track of this outing by Duster alumni Jason Albertini is discordant sound, the second and onward is an often lively and jangly indie rock sound with a raw musical and vocal edge. Puts me in mind of Camper Van Beethoven/Cracker and the Meat Muppets, which I greatly appreciate being put in mind of, but it unfortunately bogs down in the middle and starts to get off every other track from there.
- Hiss Golden Messenger, Quietly Blowing It– A pretty nice slice of Americana-flavored folk, more than a twist Dylanesque and you know how I like that. On the best tracks it definitely works, but ultimately too much of it sounds a little too standard, without enough notable/authentic breaking through.
- James, All the Colours of You– I remember James when they were an 80s alt band. Then they became a 90s BritPop band. They were good at both things, and they’re still sounding good, but not particularly new or different, and there’s also some klunky lyrical topicality here.
- João Donato/Ali Shaheed Muhammad/Adrian Younge, Joao Donato JID007– Really kind of a rocking jazz record, with great percussion, but it started to get a little too note bubbly.
- Ka$hdami, Epiphany– This is high on charm and lyrical wit, but the auto-tuned vocal and musical school of hip hop continues to be…troublesome…for me.
- Kid Millions/Jan St. Werner, Imperium Droop– The drummer for Oneida and an experimental musician/artist for Berlin team together for something experimental. As sound art, it’s interesting. As a best album of the year, I think it’s too self-consciously sound art to make it.
- King Gizzard & the Lizard Wizard, Butterfly 3000– I really liked their album earlier in the year, L.W.. This one, well…it tends more towards sing-songy lyrics and electronic sound effects. I’m not mad at them, though. The essence of range and experimentation is that not every experiment will land!
- Kings of Convenience, Peace or Love– This Norwegian acoustic duo has a winning combination of brightly played and sung, and lyrically bitter and blasted by love. It fades a bit too much toward sameness, but there’s something worthy here.
- Lightman Jarvis Ecstatic Band, Banned– Lurching music, swirling vocals, everything is deliberately offbeat-both figuratively and literally. it’s an interesting ride, but a little too off-kilter in the end.
- Lightning Bug, A Color of the Sky– Pretty, textured, acoustic-oriented pop. To be clear, there is NOTHING wrong with this, but it was all too much in one tone, and too much track to track sameness compared to what I would need for a best album of the year.
- Loraine James, Reflection– Why? Why so much autotune in the world? The hyperdub form is interesting, but it doesn’t feel like it comes together as a consistent album to me.
- L’Rain, Fatigue– Left of center soul from this Brooklyn songwriter, with some strong concept in the album. Ultimately, it too often fades into low-key to really come together, but there is definitely worthy material here.
- Mabe Fratti, Será que ahora podremos entendernos?– Album from a Guatemalan cellist and experimental musician. The arrangements are a little too on the orchestral/experimental side for me, but it is an intriguing exploration of soundscapes.
- Maroon 5, Jordi– Adam Levine and autotune. Saints preserve us. Maybe it’s just that I still haven’t forgiven them for winning the Best New Artist Grammy over the White Stripes, but I’ve never succeeded in liking Maroon 5. Still true.
- Mdsgn, Rare Pleasure– Light and bouncy jazzy easy listening sound please no.
- Mia Joy, Spirit Tamer– Very pretty, well-produced, ethereal, but I never found something solid I could grab on to track to track.
- Michael Cormier, More Light!!!– A nice, mellow, low-key folk album. There are tracks that get more interesting, but not until halfway through, which is too late for “great”.
- Pan Daijing, Jade– A little too on the experimental and discordant side for me, but I do appreciate her artistic daring, and it’s genuinely eerie and unnerving.
- Pastel Coast, Sun– Opening feels like it inhabits the kind of sunny overlap of pop-rock and electronic that Phoenix is in. Not quite as high-energy and dynamic as them, though, and the tracks here faded into sameness by about halfway through.
- Polo G, Hall of Fame – Lots of autotune, lots of gangster rap tropes, not a lot that really grabbed me as unique, special, or especially well done.
- PWNT, Days in the Summer– 60s swinging pop sound, a little twist of Brian Wilson. It was really very pleasant, but it never quite rose above that.
- Rise Against, Nowhere Generation– It’s passionate, it’s intelligent, it’s well played, but late third-generation punk has to do something pretty special to, well, rise against the background.
- Rostam, Changephobia– This album by Vampire Weekend’s co-founder, and award-winning producer, Rostam Batmanglij, is by no means unpleasant or unskillful. But a lot of it is also the kind of musically and vocally mellow where everything just blends together in a way that makes it fade into the background. It perks up halfway through, but, well, if you don’t perk up until halfway through…
- Schneider TM, The 8 of Space– If you like music that sounds like it was made by machines for machines, you might like this. I do like a pinch of that, but it gets hard to sustain at album length.
- SPELLING, The Turning Wheel– Jazzy, sparkly, light and bubbly. I can barely stand it.
- Squirrel Flower, Planet (i)– The first track was too ethereal, the second had some brood and some bite to it, the next got back to a little too slow and down-tempo. It goes on kind of unevenly like this- the best bits from Boston-diy scene and currently Iowa-based folk singer/songwriter Ella Williams are really good, but it doesn’t add up to a coherent album.
- The Catenary Wires, Burling Gap– This veteran duo from several indie groups delivers something well played, well sung, and gets into some fun pop/twee space, but too many tracks fade into a mellow sameness.
- The Mountain Movers, World What World– This started off with excellent distorted electric guitar psychedelia with a side of sinister, then the middle bogged down in multiple slow songs in a row. Alas!
- Wolf Alice, Blue Weekend– This is unquestionably well done, but it felt a little too slick and packaged for me.
Join us next time for the review of July’s new releases which, you never know, just *might* be completed before the very end of August!