Every three months, we will be rounding up the best albums that have lifted our spirits and help us feel less alone during what's hopefully the final stretch of the pandemic. We just closed out 2021's first quarter and already find ourselves overwhelmed by a number of great releases. From Madlib's fanatic, crate-digging dive into spiritual jazz to Kiwi Jr.'s infectious and clever sophomore effort, here are the best albums we've been leaning heavily on during an already stagnant year.
Note: This report is focused only on albums ranging between January through March, so all releases from April 2 are excluded.
10. The Vices — Looking For Faces
The Vices' full-length debut album is packed with 35-minutes of indie rock sensibilities reminiscent of the mid-aughts. There's also a surf rock bent that compliments the catchy melodies and vocals that recall the Growlers and the early soulful years of Cage The Elephant. Every now and then, a song here explodes into a shredding guitar solo, particularly on "Good Morning City, Now Let Me Sleep." Lyrically, the album explores mid-twenties angst and self-discovery ("Boy," "All That I Know"). The Vices showcase their exploration into different soundscapes—from the artful strings on "Behind the Bars" to the reggae-styled percussion on "The Neighbor is a Bitch." Comparisons to prominent rock bands of the mid-aughts aside, the Vices introduce themselves with urgency and spirit on their debut effort with plenty of excitement surrounding them. —Laurette McNabb
Listen to: "In and Out" "Good Morning City, Now Let Me Sleep" & "Trouble"
9. MonoNeon — Banana Peel on Capitol Hill
The prolific and quirky Memphis-based bassist Dwayne Thomas Jr., aka MonoNeon, entered the new year swinging with this short, but incredibly fun psychedelic funk album Banana Peel on Capitol Hill. Aside from its spookily prophetic title, released just two days before the storming of the U.S. Capitol raid, this slightly lo-fi collection is filled with a healthy dose of social commentary, incredible musicianship and a profound sense of humor reminiscent of Frank Zappa and Thundercat. Its spaced out and psychedelic haze of pure fun exhibits some of Thomas' best work yet and features all-star collaborations with AWFM, Sam "RetroPMas" Porter and Nicholas Semrad. —Alex Whetham
Listen to: "Genetrified Chickkken Tearing Down Your Neighborhood" (ft. AWFM) "Slipping on a Banana Peel (On Capitol Hill)" & "Uglybeautiful (Not so Awful as it Seems)"
8. Renée Reed — Renée Reed (Self-titled debut)
From the humid heat of Southwest Louisiana, folk artist Renée Reed's debut album captures the essence of Cajun music with her own flavor. Eerie and mystical, her voice and twangy acoustic guitar fill the atmosphere for most of the record, with a vintage production style giving the album a live and organic feel. Ethereal vocal harmonies float over Reed's entrancing finger-picking guitar patterns, with lyrics showing off her dreamy storytelling. On a couple songs, Reed full embraces her roots and sings in French, most notably on "Où est la fée" with an organ flowing beneath her raspy vocals. The beauty in simplicity unfolds through Reed's debut offering of tremendous promise. —Laurette McNabb
Listen to: "Neboj" "Où est la fée" & "Drunken Widow's Waltz"
7. Madlib — Sound Ancestors
While it may have been assembled by Kieran Hebden, aka Four Tet, this instrumental hip hop project by one of the greatest producers to ever do it showcases why Madlib is held in such high regard. The album's quick 16-track, 41-minute runtime breezes by with its folklore sermons and sorcery of beatmaking. Madlib's signature soul sampling and spiritual jazz is peppered throughout this release. While it may not compare to Madlib's best work with rappers like Freddie Gibbs and the late MF Doom, it's one of his finest instrumental hip hop tapes he's ever done and serves as an ideal entry into the world of Madlib. —Alex Whetham
Listen to: "The Call" "Sound Ancestors" & "The New Normal"
6. Black Country, New Road — For the First Time
One of the most hotly anticipated records in the modern post-punk and experimental rock scene, Black Country, New Road's debut album For the First Time did not disappoint by any means. Channeling a wide range of experimental rock influences from the past few decades and even incorporating influences as wide ranging as free jazz and Klezmer music, BC, NR established themselves in a league of their own with this effort. This album maintains a well-tempered intensity that's honest in its angst and hyper-awareness of the world that's exclusively a Generation Z approach. Even if the re-recordings and lyrical changes lack the immediacy of their original counterparts, we haven't seen a debut effort be this explosive and fresh in a while. Along with their contemporaries, Squid and Black Midi, BC, NR embody a new musical scene that already has a head start in the music world. By the end of the year, this will be an album that should remain in our list of best albums. —Alex Whetham
Listen to: "Science Fair" "Sunglasses" & "Opus"
5. Nick Cave & Warren Ellis — Carnage
Unlike their usual projects together, Nick Cave and Warren Ellis depart from their soundtrack work with their latest offering Carnage. Their first proper album as a duo is a cohesive, visceral listening experience that serves as a cinematic experience in itself. Recorded while in lockdown, Carnage continues Cave’s and Ellis’ creative chemistry with haunting and atmospheric compositions that evoke the musicians’ greatest strengths and capture the emotional devastation from these unprecedented times. Sonically, every instrumental texture builds an atmosphere of the surreal that beautifully compliments Cave's poetic storytelling and chilling voice. Aural and lyrical motifs, such as the "Kingdom in the sky," Cave revisits throughout the albums, threading songs together even when distant. The album's centerpiece "White Elephant" begins as an outright protest song with its seething monologue addressing white supremacy, police brutality and gun violence. Then, the song ascends with a gospel choir calling for the end times and looking towards the sky. Simply put, this album is a masterpiece and will stick with you without hearing it twice. And that's the type of genius that surrounds this album, which isn't surprising considering Cave's and Ellis' long understanding of each other. —Laurette McNabb
Listen to: "White Elephant" "Old Time" & "Balcony Man"
4. The Weather Station — Ignorance
Since releasing her first album as The Weather Station eleven years ago, frontwoman Tamara Lindeman has been expanding the sounds of her project and has entirely torn up the rulebook on her latest album Ignorance. On her fifth studio album, Lindeman placed aside her rippling Laurel Canyon-style folk in favor of more complex, Wild Things Run Fast-styled rhythms that are richly sculpted in a clash of misty orchestrated arrangements—a document of Lindeman's musical progression, venturing into brilliant territories. The lead single and opening track "Robber" is an urgent message of climate anxiety that's wreathed with tension-building jazz rhythms and disco beat that overlays Lindeman's emotional landscape, setting the tone for the entire album to follow. From the tense, motorik pulses ("Loss") to the hypnotic and moody strings ("Trust"), Ignorance is a shadowy, but wide-open sonic scope that's artistically and musically reflective and entrancing. —Joe Massaro
Listen to: "Loss" "Robber" & "Wear"
3. Silicone Prairie — My Life on the Silicone Prairie
After piling up some excellent punk releases with Warm Bodies and The Natural Man Band, Ian Teeple's latest project Silicone Prairie is a DIY embracement of the underground. Hailing from Kansas City, Missouri, Teeple compresses his influences, ranging from the arty antics of '70s-Devo, pre-Milo Aukerman Descendents, D.L.I.M.C and The Dead Milkmen into a blender, bringing out a fast and and utterly unpretentious collection of lo-fi songs that melds trebly art punk with retro new wave nerves. The opening track "PD2TB" is unapologetically strange with its swarm of jagged riffs, drum machines and synths that possess the sonic spectrum Teeple admires. "America" is one of the many highlights here with its sharp, angular guitars and stop-start rhythms that underlay a vocal delivery that's filled with effervescent charm. Aside from these frenzied and energetic arrangements, some songs are accompanied with bedroom jangles that carry the rippling Dunedin Sound ("River of Time," "Goodbye") and dashes of psychedelia ("Lay in the Flowers"). There's even an instrumental ode to the late-electronic pioneer Patrick Cowley. Between the hyper-creative guitar passages and explorative rhythmic melodies and keyboard weirdness, this debut album seams into peculiar territories that'll make you return more than once. —Joe Massaro
Listen to: "America" "Come Away" & "Open Module"
2. Kiwi Jr. — Cooler Returns
Where Kiwi Jr.'s superb debut album Football Money was a love letter to Toronto with an unabashed earnestness that drew comparisons to Pavement, Jonathan Richman and Flying Nun bands, their sophomore effort Cooler Returns solidifies them as masters of their craft in power pop's musical folklore with their "selfish pursuit" front and center. On Cooler Returns, the recent Sub Pop-signees offer some of the best charismatic and ramshackle guitar pop that guides you on surreal and comical adventures about the terrible twenties, undecided voters and strangling the jangle pop band. The sprawling and jangled verses on opener "Tyler" and "Guilty Party" best display frontman Jeremy Gaudet's raspy vocals, which can be quite mistakable for Stephen Malkmus'. The rippling, country-tinged "Only Here for a Haircut" displays intricacy and craftiness, incorporating a slide guitar, wheezing harmonica and honky-tonk piano riff that recalls their cover of Galaxie 500's "Tugboat" from last year. On "Highlights of 100," Gaudet rapidly spits out hyper-specific references over bouncy rhythms, but like most songs here, they're filled with ambiguity. The scratchy and highly angular title track is already one of the best singles of the year with some seriously funny and senseless lyrics that conjure many ideas—"It's not fair to be strung out on the back of your ATV / Throwing dead birds into the air, singing, 'Howdy, neighbors, how do you like my new ride?' / And now I can see that after spending some time apart." From the infectious power pop hooks ("Domino") to the punchy melodies ("Nashville Wedding") and charming, lyrical wit ("Waiting in Line"), Cooler Returns is jam-packed with sardonic social commentary that's hard to ignore. You'll get used to the familiarity and nuance that is Kiwi Jr. —Joe Massaro
Listen to: "Domino" "Cooler Returns" & "Nashville Wedding"
1. Tickley Feather — 1 2 3
After a pair of warped folk releases, the brainchild of Philadelphia native Annie Sachs, aka Tickley Feather, recorded a soothing collection of lo-fi bedroom pop songs on thrift store-bought keyboards and a four-track cassette recorder in early-2010. Dave Portner (Avey Tare) and Josh Dibb (Deakin) of Animal Collective then collaborated with Sachs on the backdrops, bringing in everything from their signature dazzling synthesizers, droning guitars, vigorous rhythms and vibrant field recordings while using Sachs' cassette recordings as the foundation. This collaboration was nearly forgotten about until years when the trio reconvened to mix and polish the nine songs that would shape 1 2 3. Around this time, Portner released his immaculate debut solo effort Down There, which was recorded in the same space and the same time as 1 2 3. This also isn't the first collaboration between Sachs and AnCo. Prior to 1 2 3, she first met AnCo on the set of their visual album ODDSAC and in 2015, she provided vocals on the split digital 12" New Psycho Actives Vol. 1, providing vocals on Geologist's track "Stretching Songs For Spring." Encompassing a similar tone to Portner's Down There and Broadcast's Tender Buttons, the booming soundscapes pair gorgeously with Sachs' dynamic croons, especially on the yearning standout "Wish." Her vocals also navigate tremendously through the splattered beats and trippy synths on the opener "Cow Man." 1 2 3 traveled a long way to get here, but its landing in 2021 couldn't of been better. It breaks new ground for the trio, especially for Sachs, which should be celebrated as the year's best surprise.
Listen to: "Wish" "A Certain Way" & "Red Kimono"