10 best indie albums of 2021 so far
From January to August, here's a list of my top 10 indie albums of 2021. Featuring Wolf Alice, The Snuts, Arlo Parks and more!
10. The Rah's - When Does It Become Real?
Earlier in the summer, I described The Rah's, in a review of their debut album, as "the best new band I've heard in a long time" and it's still holding true with each further listen.
On 7 May, The Rah's released When Does It Become Real? and there's barely a dull moment to be had over the 41-minute debut record. Tracks like 'Our Design', 'Land of the Dreamers', and 'Sweet Lover' are energetic rock 'n' roll tunes with swagger in abundance.
The hooks are big, designed for singalong gigs and high-up festival slots. Personal favourite 'If You Never Try (You'll Never Know)' carries on the feel-good feel of opening track 'The Time Is Now'. Simply infectious rock 'n' roll which certainly left an immediate impression.
They've already supported The View and The Fratellis and are onto bigger and better things, having reached the attention of the likes of Jack Saunders on Radio 1 and John Kennedy on Radio X. To add to that, they've already sold out venues such as Glasgow's Broadcast and Edinburgh's Sneaky Pete's on their upcoming UK tour.
It's not a surprise either. Here's a band that has the lot. Swagger, the tunes, big choruses, attitude. Their time is now.
9. Kings Gizzard & the Lizard Wizard - Butterfly 3000
Melbourne band King Gizzard & the Lizard Wizard may have one of the strangest names around, but don't let that put you off. Averaging two studio albums every year since their 2012 debut 12 Bar Bruise, they've just released their 18th studio album and it's a fantastic listen.
Butterfly 3000 was recorded at the band's homes during the pandemic and is an infectiously colourful record that combines dream-pop, psych-rock and synth-pop to excellent effect.
'Catching Smoke' immediately sprung out as an early favourite, the most feel-good and dance-floor friendly on the album. It's an absolutely delightful bit of psychedelic pop that'll have your head moving in no time.
If you were ever into Tame Impala, MGMT or Animal Collective, you'll absolutely love this record. Its carefree melodies will brighten up your day tenfold!
8. Arab Strap - As Days Get Dark
Lockdown in the music world brought many surprises. One that wasn't expected was the comeback of Falkirk band Arab Strap and their first album in 16 years, As Dark As Days Get. A truly stunning effort. The reason for that is its wry style, eeriness and the distinctive tales of downtrodden and sinister characters. After a few listens it was one I simply couldn't get enough of it!
The production on the album from Malcolm Middleton is bleak and dark, bringing together elements of folk, baroque, post-punk and even jazz. He's really right on the money here. Moffat’s lyricism will have you smiling when he doesn’t have you intensely encapsulated. The two come together like a dream for one of 2021's most surprising successes.
I particularly liked the ominous horror style of ‘The Turning of Our Bones’ and the cry confessions on ‘Tears On Tour’. The way link the hostility of immigrants to that of foxes on ‘Fable of the Urban Fox’ made for a fantastic listen and, finally, the penultimate climax of ‘Sleeper’ eerily set the scene of a man on a train journey to an early grave to great effect.
7. Maximo Park - Nature Always Wins
Almost 16 years from their debut A Certain Trigger, Maximo Park released their seventh studio album; Nature Always Wins. For a band from that era to make it this far is worthy of applause for a start!
The start of this album flows brilliantly from track to track. The catchy, toe-tappers have so much style and depth to ensure there isn't a dull moment. 'Versions of You' has a certain uplifting melancholy, whilst lead single 'Baby, Sleep' harps back to the band of old, a song frontman described as a "light-hearted look at the surreal nature of sleep-deprivation, and the way it distorts normality in a capitalist society." 'Placeholder' is a jangly indie-pop number which, again - only four tracks in - shows the bands versatility.
Thankfully Nature Always Wins is such an easy album to fall in love with, delivering a brand of infectious pop hooks and clever indie rock that is lacking in today's day and age. Bands of their era either experiment beyond recognition or give us a watered-down version of their older material, so it's definitely welcomed when one finds a middle ground between the two.
6. Lana Del Rey - Chemtrails Over the Country Club
ILana Del Rey released her seventh studio album Chemtrails Over the Country Club on 19 March. It was the follow up to 2019's brilliant Norman F***ing Rockwell and - like her previous effort - it was another record I couldn't get enough of.
Over the past decade, Lana has built a profile for her themes of 50s nostalgia, romantic longing and California escapism. There really isn't anyone like her and the new album proves exactly why that is the case.
'White Dress' is a stunning opener. It's a gentle piano ballad, Lana nostalgic for when she was working as a waitress in Orlando, listened to jazz, Kings Of Leon, and "White Stripes when they were white-hot, listening to rock all day long".
Chemtrails Over The Country Club is a far more stripped-down album than Norman F***ing Rockwell, featuring subtler Americana and folk tendencies. It's perhaps less dramatic than previous efforts, but the power of her hooks, nostalgic imagery and stunning voice creates a sublime album from start to finish. It's one you'll quickly fall in love with.
5. Dry Cleaning - New Long Leg
One of my most listened to albums this year has been from this London art-rock band who released their debut New Long Leg on 2 April on 4AD.
Upon hearing the irresistible sound of 'Scratchcard Lanyard' one morning on BBC 6Music, I couldn't wait to hear if they could deliver with a full album. Thankfully they do. It's a record that doesn't take itself too seriously, yet still feels important.
Let's be honest, frontwoman Florence Shaw isn't exactly your most conventional lead singer. Performing on KEXP Seattle's KEXP radio station, she admitted to initially being too anxious to join the band and needing some convincing to perform with them. As a means to overcome her mental health issues, Florence decided she had nothing to lose and signed up.
How happy we are that she took the plunge, providing detached vocals and surrealist lyrics to counter the tight, energetic post-punk sounds of the rest of the band. The unconventionalness contributes to their appeal, soon you can't get enough of Florence's dry turn of phrase and seemingly random lines!
4. The Snuts - W.L.
West Lothian's finest The Snuts set the standard for music releases this month with the release of their debut record W.L. The hype was off the scale for this album, matched in a chart performance which achieved them the first number 1 debut album for a Scottish band since The View's Hats Off to the Buskers (2007).
Whilst it's by no means a perfect record, W.L. proved there's still a place for bands in the mainstream. In any normal year, it's the album of the summer not just for indie fans, but for many pop music fans too. Unfortunately, we're living in less guitar-friendly times which may impact the album's reach.
The Snuts edge more to the funk side of rock 'n' roll over the rawer, punkier side of the abovementioned The View proving they - unlike many 'current' bands - aren't simply trying to rehash the garage rock revival sound of the early to mid-2000s.
The flow of the record is also excellent and there's barely a dull moment over the 45 minutes run time. If you're ever worried about the record losing focus on a track, the band will simply raise your spirits with energy and big hooks on the next. W.L. is an incredibly accomplished and enjoyable record, fit for festival headline sets and sing-along gigs. The hype it's been getting is entirely justified so you may as well get on board!
3. Django Django - Glowing in the Dark
When 6Music named new album Glowing in the Dark their album of the week earlier in the month, I was immediately intrigued after loving their self-titled 2012 debut.
What we have is a heady slice of escapism, incorporating a number of genres - Madchester, indie-pop, rave, dream-pop, funk - into an overarching dance-rock record. Opener 'Spirals' lured me right in with its psych-indie-dance vibes, a great introduction to the otherworldliness that would follow over the next 40 minutes.
The collaboration with Charlottle Gainsborough, 'Waking Up', is delightfully dreamy, whilst 'Free from Gravity' paints more sci-fi imagery with its lyricism and spacey synth sounds. My favourite on the record was 'Kick the Devil Out' through it's funky guitars and psychedelic vibes, though 'Glowing in the Dark' runs it close, anthemic and ravey.
Whatever you do, get this one played loud.
2. Arlo Parks - Collapsed in Sunbeams
Collapsed in Sunbeams is an indie-pop record with an atmospheric edge and dashes of r&b and soul. It comes together for a near-perfect debut and one that remains engaging throughout. Listening to a lot of albums these days, you inevitably find yourself losing focus, but the delightful hooks and upbeat, looped drums and conversational delivery holds your attention for the most part.
With a buzz created over 2020, the temptation might've been to go overboard after a lengthy delay to the release. Instead, at 12 tracks and just under 40 minutes, you leave the album feeling satisfied, excited for the next listen. Truthfully, only a small number of debuts are able to do that.
One of the tricks here is the placement of her best two tracks, 'Caroline' and 'Black Dog', at almost exactly the halfway point of the record. And despite familiar themes of nostalgia, mental health and coming of age tales, there's just enough difference track to track to not wear you down (believe me, this can be easily done!).
With her effortless conversationalist style, lyrics exploring youthful lust, mental health and depression, supported by trip-hop, r&b tinged, indie-pop, Collapsed in Sunbeams is a near-perfect debut from an already accomplished new artist.
Arlo Parks is our guide to help us through hard times.
1. Wolf Alice - Blue Weekend
Less than four years after their last album Visions of Life, Wolf Alice returned in June with Blue Weekend. Recorded in Brussels between February and March 2020, I hailed the new record as a masterpiece that furthered their claim as the best British band around.
Almost four years out and expectation levels were through the roof for what was to come next. Thankfully, Wolf Alice have delivered on these expectations to give us one of the most beautiful and dynamic albums of 2021. The range of the band's performances across Blue Weekend is seriously impressive.
You have the punk of 'Play the Greatest Hits' sitting effortlessly alongside the acoustic folk of 'Sale From Heartbreak (if you never fall in love)', the psychedelia of 'Feeling Myself' and eerie-dreaminess of tracks like 'Lipstick on the Glass'. It all comes to a close with the ethereal, shoegaze of 'The Beach II'; a perfect end to a near-perfect album.
When Wolf Alice released 'The Last Man on Earth' in February, I described it as "a beautiful track which is a gigantic departure from them!". From initially feeling underwhelmed, I kept an open mind, listened on and the track quickly became one of my favourites of the year.
It proved the progression of the band and took everyone by surprise, even featuring a Beatles-inspired 60s jam (because...why not?). You leave the track with the hairs on your neck firmly raised, completely encapsulated by Ellie's vocals.
On 'Smile', which has a passing resemblance to Vision of Life's lead single 'Yuk Foo', we're back to vitriolic, hard-hitting alternative rock. The sentimentality is gone, the gears have changed and Ellie's at her unapologetic, snarling best: "I wear my feelings on my sleeve, I suggested it / it serves me better than to swallow in a sedative / I am what I am and I'm good at it / and you don't like me well that isn't f****** relevant".
In the run-up to the album's release, Ellie spoke about being bolder and more open in her lyricism and that certainly holds true through the vulnerability on offer. Similarly, it's her stunning vocal performances across the 40 minutes that leave a lasting impression, able to move from snarling to heavenly at the drop of a hat. She's backed up perfectly by the rest of the band (Joff Oddie, Theo Ellis and Joel Amey) who perfectly accompany her mood with punchy and emotionally textured performances.
The quality of the music, vocals and mood ensure there isn't a dull moment to be had. It's 11 tracks of masterful indie rock from a band that continue to progress album after album following their big breakthrough in the mid-2010s.
The London band are in their prime and we need to embrace them while they're in it.
Happy with the list or anything I've missed? Let me know what you think @BFloodlights.