Albums: Mid Year Review 2021

Selecting a favourite record is no easy task – no matter what the time period allocated is. But it is especially difficult to pick a favourite release from the last six months because the quality has been so consistently high. For our Mid Year Review, we’ve asked our contributors, some of our favourite artists, and folk from record labels that are very close to our hearts, to pick an album that’s made an impression on them. Alongside our EP feature, this is our Albums: Mid Year Review 2021.

Adult Mom – Driver (Epitaph)

selected by Tallulah Webb (Sad Club Records)

When Adult Mom announced their new album, Driver, I honestly did not know if I was emotionally ready. But, although perfectly encapsulating that 20-something ‘what AM I doing?’ horrific question, it’s feels more-so about self-discovery and empowerment. This collection of songs follows Stevie’s intimate and awkward experiences – accompanied by soft guitars, a drum machine and bright production. A beacon of hope in a dark year, it leaves you feeling braver and willing to grow. Thankfully, Driver is filled to the brim too with their trademark wit: ‘The only thing that I’ve done/This month is drink beer and masturbate!’ Adult Mom’s Driver is ten luscious dream pop gems, it couldn’t get any better.

Allison Russell – Outside Child (Fantasy Records)

selected by Neil Riddell

On her first full LP release under her own name, Allison Russell tells the harrowing story of her upbringing in unflinchingly powerful, poetic terms. And though she is sharing pain and trauma, these are beautifully performed songs of healing and and life-affirming joy too. A triumph and a masterpiece. 

Arlo Parks – Collapsed in Sunbeams

selected by Wyldest

My favourite album of the year so far is between Arlo Parks’ Collapsed in Sunbeams and Julien Baker’s Little Oblivions. I just flipped a coin and it came up Arlo, so Imma go with that and, to be honest, I know it’s the right choice because flipping a coin is an exercise which is best reserved for revealing what you truly want, and when it landed on heads (for Arlo) I felt satisfied.

I first heard the track, Collapsed in Sunbeams, round a friend’s house earlier this year after having a deep conversation about how miraculous Kae Tempest is and how spoken-word indie music is something the world needs more of. My friend put this song on and I was hooked. I listened to the entire album on repeat and was just mesmerised by her voice, what she was singing about, the instrumentation, the simplicity and space in the production. The album is such a wonderful listen on just a surface level too – it’s so catchy and poppy, with some moments of nerdy music – genius with the chord progressions and then such sparsity and just raw vocals and honest lyrics. My highlight of the album is Hurt. It’s a feel-good tune and just instantly puts me in an excellent frame of mind. I love the break beat and the catchy vox and I read that it’s about ‘temporary suffering’ and I totally get that. It sort of acts as a reminder to all of us that moments good or bad come and go, so when things aren’t particularly great, we can take comfort that things will get better. Equally, I appreciate the reminder to enjoy things in the moment because those moments do go as easy as they come. It’s just a great message and something that everyone can relate to.

Ben Howard – Collections from the Whiteout (Island)

selected by Tendertwin

Saccharine party, baby. I remember the dark place I was at when the record before this (Noonday Dream) came out, and how, song by song, it pulled me out of the state I was in. The timing of Ben Howard seems to be always at these transitional stages of my life — I’ve been waiting for this one quite impatiently. It’s beyond fascinating how he can create such a coherent mood frozen in time with each album… Even when the name refers to a collection of sorts, the graceful thread of sound through the record makes grand sense. I think I also connect to it on a personal level because the larger picture truly holds a nomad narrative. All is there: boats, planes, Belleville, Aaron Dessner, Thomas Bartlett, Yussef Dayes… It’s this short stories paperback you read lying on an hammock on a spring afternoon. So far, it ages so well into the summer.

Black Country New Road – For The First Time (Ninja Tune)

selected by Harry Hodgson

For The First Time sounds like a record from a band who have been playing together for years, which makes it even more impressive that it is their debut. While short at just six tracks long, the album takes the listener on a journey through diverse, yet somehow cohesive soundscapes, which not only make this one of the best albums of the year so far, but also makes them one of the most exciting bands in the UK today.

selected by Jana Bahrich (Francis of Delirium)

AOTY for me is For The First Time by Black Country, New Road. I know speak singing is having a bit of a resurgence, but Isaac’s voice and delivery is so theatrical and emotive, it really stood out and resonated with me. The way the band are able to build these unique landscapes using the saxophone and violin in a way that still makes sense in the context of the songwriting is very cool. Lyrically, as well, it feels very unique – so many memorable lines that sort of appear to mean nothing, but make you feel so much anyway.

Buck Meek – Two Saviors (Keeled Scales)

selected by Mia Hughes

Two Saviors is a beautiful, meditative look at life and love and loss. It feels so deeply in tune with the patterns of life; the pockets of joy we find, the humour in unexpected places, the sadness in looking back at happy moments. Plus, Buck’s vocals and melodies are gorgeous, and his interpretation of folk music is really uniquely captivating.

Buffet Lunch – The Power of Rocks (Upset The Rhythm)

selected by Lloyd Bent (Bingo Records)

I think the record I’ve listened to the most this year is The Power of Rocks by Buffet Lunch, which came out on Upset The Rhythm about a month or so ago. I’ve a hunch Mr Ben is going to choose this one as well so I’m hoping I’ve got this over to Secret Meeting before him! For me, it’s one of those records that feels a bit like a book, in the sense that while you’re involved with it it sort of consumes your imagination and plants you in a constructed world. For some reason I imagine it as the soundtrack to this mad book I read about a journalist with a pet penguin in the Ukraine, but I’m not sure why. Maybe the moods sort of match or something. The guitar parts are like good versions of the things I try to play in my bedroom and Jane from Me Lost Me (who released a class record in 2020) sings on it, which is brilliant. I really enjoy the wonky perspective from which the songs are written – the focal points being fruit and chairs and the like. I like sings about inanimate objects. I also think maybe the bass player from Mazes plays on it? I really liked them growing up in Manchester back in the day.

Charlie Martin – Imaginary People (Grand Jury)

selected by Joseph Purcell

Since hearing the whispering lo-fi of Hovvdy’s 2018 delight, Cranberry, I’ve been hooked – and the hollow warmth that comes together on that record has meant it has been on repeat ever since. So, it was to my delight that one half of the Austin duo, Charlie Martin, announced a surprise solo debut, Imaginary People, in late April. Maybe it was the low-key release that means it seems to have been missed by many, but, to me, it is the standout of 2021 so far and was described perfectly Tobi’s Secret Meeting review – ‘what Martin has done so brilliantly is turned up the brightness, and distilled the singer/songwriter aspects of Hovvdy – honing into a sound that, much like a journal, shows us stories that might have previously got lost in the abstract soundscapes.’ Imaginary People is not only the equal of the Hovvdy catalogue, in my opinion, it exceeds the canon of remarkable records the pair have released. Martin has taken centre stage, and its optimistic disposition elevates his debut to a whole new level. The tracks are boundless and unconstrained – every listen a new adventure – so if you have missed this one, please give it a listen: it is a reminder of everything that’s great about music.

Chihei Hatakeyama – Late Spring (Gearbox Records)

selected by Joey Cobb (White Flowers)

Released in April, Late Spring is an album that’s very easy to get lost in. There’s nothing too radical about Chihei Hatakeyama’s work, but he manages to tap into a certain magic that a lot of other ambient music often fails to. There are certain points in the record where you feel a sense of deja-vu, but this is all part of the dream-logic beauty of Hatakeyama’s murky arrangements. The concept of time fades away as tape hiss and degrading loops wind their way through layers of lush synth swells in a beguilingly organic way.

Chloe Moriondo – Blood Bunny (Elektra)

selected by Bonnie Kemplay

My favourite album of 2021 so far is Blood Bunny by Chloe Moriondo. It’s the perfect coming of age record that beautifully and honestly encapsulates the intensity of falling in love, heartbreak and figuring out ‘who the f you are’. I love the comical juxtaposition of her sweet, soft vocal delivery and the dark, almost psychotic lyrics in songs such as Body Bag and I Eat Boys. I would say this album is for fans of Avril Lavigne, Soccer Mommy and Phoebe Bridgers.

Dntel – The Seas Trees See (Morr Music)

selected by Phillip Jon Taylor

The modest prince of contemporary melancholic electronica. Jimmy Tamborello’s wonderfully named The Seas Trees See is the latest collection of ambient works from the Los Angeles based producer. A refreshing less is more approach shines a spotlight on the meditative beauty in Tamborello’s sense of melody and production. Quiet moments of magic. Breathing space. Opening with an acapella cover of The Lilac and The Apple, a song originally recorded by Californian folk singer Kate Wolf in 1977 samples the original recording whilst juxtaposing a deep, modern vocoded harmony. The album is a gentle ebbing flow of emotions and at times a wander into the abstract and experimental. The poetic flutter of The Man On The Mountain, dreamy piano on Movie Tears, slow sway to Fall In Love and the recognisable joyous crescendo of Dntel in Hard WeatherThe Seas Trees See adds to a discography, which to me is like a much loved patchwork quilt that only becomes more beautiful with time and each new piece added.

Flock of Dimes – Head of Roses (Sub Pop)

selected by Johanna Samuels

I’ve been a fan of Jenn Wasner since I heard The Knot in my early 20s by her band Wye Oak. I was an instant fan. So inspired by the way she can rip. Her songs are ones I’ve come back to again and again over the years. The depth of her new Flock of Dimes’ record is endless and continuing to shed light for me. It takes risks. It casts such a wide net sonically – ranging from her signature oceanic shred rockers to feeling like I’m five feet away from her and an OP1. Somehow possessing a vastness and at the same time such an intimacy. It’s braided together with what I think are some of her most soulful lyrics yet. I find her writing to be personal and universal at once – which is all I can ever ask for in a great song. She has two unique voices: her vocal alto instrument and her inimitable guitar playing. The chord changes in these songs make me feel homesick, angry, at peace and in love all at once. Tasteful shredding and heart. I just think the record is perfection. My standout is Price of Blue. She is such a hero of mine.

Flyte – This Is Really Going To Hurt (Island)

selected by Clara Mann

I talk about this record constantly – my friends and family are sick of my conversations inevitably leading back to it, so they’ll be relieved that I now get to vent my feelings here, and then maybe shut up about it for a while. I really don’t think I’m over-stating it: it’s a stunning record, and it breaks my heart a bit more with every listen. Even the title gets me emotional, but throughout the album, the brutal honesty of the lyrics makes me fully weep at the least convenient moments (on the way to work, in cafes, at dinner). Somehow, delicately, Flyte intertwine the openness of a classic ballad with the secret, the held-back, and the unspoken, in their delicate lyrics and expansive melodies – it’s a perfect break-up album, tearing between pain, bitterness, and pure love. Gets me every time.

For Those I Love – For Those I Love (September Recordings Ltd)

selected by Adam Goldsmith

Not so much an album, as a bubbling love letter to friendship, the Irish wordsmith’s collection of electronic-infused poetry is a heartbreaking tribute to the memory of those we have lost. The project was born out of grief at the passing of close friend, Paul Curran, but it’s the crushing weight of David Balfe’s love that hits hardest. Sparking with the grit of Balfe’s inner-Dublin tones, his reflections on memories of youthful chaos are played out in slow motion. The Dubliner invites us to the dark spaces of his mind, but there’s real hope to be found in the refrain, ‘You live in a love that will never fade.’

Fust – Evil Joy (Dear Life Records)

selected by Craig Howieson

Fust’s Aaron Dowdy spins his stories in black and white. There are good days and there are bad days. There is happiness and there is sadness. And throughout Evil Joy, there is little left of the middle ground. However, this polarity of opinion provides us the opportunity with which to examine the space in between; the place we ultimately reside for most of our days. Held within its loose knit alt-country and homespun heartlands rock, Evil Joy’s candidly dour outlook may make it painstakingly clear that good things don’t last forever. But its plaintive guitar lines provide a childlike optimism – a reminder that things are seldom as bad as they seem. On Night on the Lam, as Dowdy sings, ‘And even if they told me it would get easy down the way, I’m still gonna try to find the worse way,’ he is all too aware that we are all our own worst enemy. But such is the comfort found in his songwriting that returning to Evil Joy is like heading for the warming smokestacks of home. I have held Evil Joy close since my first listen, and it is a record I will not be letting go of. 

Holiday Ghosts – North Street Air (Fat Cat)

selected by Ben Hall (Mr Ben & the Bens)

I absolutely love the new Holiday Ghosts’ album, North Street Air, that came out last month on Fat Cat Records. Twelve tracks of beautifully observed musings on the everyday – packaged in a pure, understated production. Refreshingly in your face acoustic guitar drives the record alongside arrangement nods to groups like The Clean and the Velvet Underground. There are ripe flavours of power-pop here too with songs like Off Grid and Leaving Today. From the equal parts hilarious and upsetting ode to a absentee landlord, Mr. Herandi, to Barrett-esque, Bathing SuitNorth Street Air is a timeless antidote to the dark old winter of 2020.

Johanna Samuels – Excelsior! (Basin Rock/Mama Bird)

selected by Gemma Laurence

I’ve been a fan of Johanna Samuels for a while, but her recent album Excelsior!  is a real feat. Her collaboration with Sam Evian is genius – the production is incredible and fleshes out her folky melodies with a timeless touch. As the drums chug along and dreamy pedal steel swirls overhead, the grounding tone of Samuels’ alto draws her listeners into her lyrics and the stories they tell. Exceptional songcraft.

Kiwi Jr. – Cooler Returns (Sub Pop)

selected by Chris Hatch

Everything about Cooler Returns makes me smile. Brimming with melody, laden with hooks, and written using a unique turn of phrase, it is a slacker pop gem.

Lael Naele – Acquainted With Night (Sub Pop)

selected by heka

I love the warm fuzzy sound and the atmosphere of Acquainted With Night. Feels timeless and nostalgic, like summer. The whole collection moves slow in total harmony, seamlessly track to track to track, gorgeous melodies and smart, evocative lyrics. Really great.

Moontype – Bodies of Water (Born Yesterday)

selected by Tobias Moore

It’s the variety of moods that makes Bodies of Water ever the more inviting – with each listen you become more inquisitive, and with each play, the album becomes more human. A mirroring of the conversations that make up the murmurings around us, the multitude of tempos that converge within this collection that allows for a true reflection of daily life. Be it the whirrings of an overwhelmed brain that culminates within the melodies of Blue Michigan, or the sighs of relief that emerge from Ferry, the ability to conjure emotions so kindred to the ones that we ourselves feel is a credit to the musical language that Moontype have translated.

Nicholas Krgovich – This Spring (Tin Angel)

selected by Ste Hudson (Dog Daisies)

Over the past year, our most used household phrase with our four year old has been ‘poo to coronavirus’. This Spring, Nicholas Krgovich’s album of Veda Hille covers is THE soundtrack to this polite, self-comforting mantra. On first listen, it reminded me of fellow covers album Peter Broderick and Friends play Arthur Russell or Lambchop’s FLOTUS and, like both, manages to sink its hooks into your emotional core using seemingly benign apparatus; a minimal playset of keys, percussion, guitar and softly-sung vocals. Listening to this album on headphones after a tough day is like having Krgovich whispering breathily in your ear ‘poo to coronavirus’ over and over.  

Renée Reed – Renée Reed (Keeled Scales)

selected by Philip Moss

A debut to immerse yourself in, Renée Reed felt like a special record from its first play. But that feeling has only grown over the months since its release. Like a lost relic dug from the Louisiana soil, it could be 100 years old – such is the timelessness of Reed’s writing – while still managing to feel totally contemporary. And despite being described as ‘dream folk’ by Reed, there’s a haunting, ghost like quality that hangs off of every note – meaning it will linger long in the mind even after the needle lifts.

The Reds, Pinks & Purples – Uncommon Weather

selected by Paddy Kinsella

There has been a slew of sun-soaked guitar projects over the last decade – think Wild Nothing, Real Estate and Beach Fossils – however, while I found the guitars jangly enough, I always found the emotion a little missing. The Reds, Pinks and Purples’ Uncommon Weather combines the two with more success than ever before, and with enough variation to stop the sunshine from turning into a drought. The project of Glenn Donaldson, his trademark is to build the song up optimistically enough before delivering the song’s chief choral line in a tone of utter resignation – he extends the words beautifully, lingering like syrup on the tongue. This year, Uncommon Weather has largely functioned as a pick-me-up during the darkest times of lockdown, but these are songs built to span far beyond the pandemic, indeed, they might just last a lifetime.

Various Artists – Belong to the Wind (Forager Records)

selected by James Endeacott

The sticker on the sleeve has a picture of some mushrooms with the words ‘A mellow drift through Psychedelic Folk & Soul gathered from American 45’s of the 1970’s’. The sleeve itself is a simple drawing of an eye in a cloud by an open window with some flowers in the foreground…!!?!! That’s it I’m sold. Not only am I sucker for a compilation album and the word psychedelic, but I’ve always been partial to the odd mushroom.

The music inside doesn’t disappoint. Soaring melodies and harmonies that enter your mind and stay there. Songs you think you’ve heard before and memories that were lost in the back of your mind become crystal clear. Ten songs by ten artists you’ve probably never heard of is a wonderful start to this or any other day. Belong To The Wind is the perfect companion for us all. By the way the label have loads of great mixes on their website that will keep you fed and watered for weeks to come.

The Weather Station – Ignorance (Fat Possum)

selected by Frank J. Wates (Bleach Lab)

Firstly, I honestly think my answer on this will change fairly soon, as I have been totally blown away by Blue Weekend – the new Wolf Alice album. But I haven’t given it enough time yet to be sure, so for now… I hadn’t listened to anything by The Weather Station prior to this album. I think I first heard them on 6Music. I was listening with particularly intent as we were playlisted on there at the time, and I was listening out obsessively for us to get a play. While doing so, their track, Atlantic, got played and I was really into it. Delving into the rest of Ignorance, I was really taken by the instrumentation, which is very rich, and classic yet modern. The songwriting is really considered and timely. The vocals often sound and feel very exposed in a really affecting way and generally sound great throughout. I had Tried To Tell You in my head for weeks.

Wild Pink – A Billion Little Lights (Royal Mountain)

selected by Phil Scarisbrick

Arriving in the midst of winter’s seemingly endless nights, Wild Pink’s A Billion Little Lights crept above the horizon to drench the world in a kaleidoscope of of vibrant, life-affirming colour. John Ross’ rich vocals hook you in and keep you rooted. Feeling instantly familiar, they act like the childhood comfort blanket that still provides warm solace as an adult. From the opening bars of The Was Like A Train, right through to closing track, Die Outside, you’re transported into another world where you can’t help but feel joyously enamoured. Until this record, I was unfamiliar with the band, but much like Trace Mountains’ Lost In The Country a year previously, I went from being oblivious to enraptured from the very first play. The band also released a collection of covers a couple of months later, and as a huge Bruce Springsteen fan, hearing a group nail a deep cut like When You’re Alone only cemented my love.

Wolf Alice – Blue Weekend (Dirty Hit)

selected by Alannah Williams

Blue Weekend is the perfect demonstration of how Wolf Alice have evolved and matured throughout their career – without losing sight of where they came from. Easily their most experimental and daring release to date, swimming through a menagerie of genres, Wolf Alice touch upon post-punk, folk and shoegaze through heartfelt narratives. Blue Weekend is full of introspective tracks, soulful vocals and roaring bass lines that mark a new and exciting era for the band.

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