At the Half: Top 10 albums of 2021 (so far)

The usual disclaimers apply: These rankings can and will change (though I’d be very surprised if my #1 and #2 looked any different come December). There’s still plenty that I haven’t heard, and a couple of these are still new enough that my assessment of them might change. But for now, if you’re looking for recommendations or just want to catch up…

  1. Allison Russell | Outside Child
  2. Natalie Bergman | Mercy
  3. Jon Batiste | WE ARE
  4. Tyler, The Creator | Call Me If You Get Lost
  5. Olivia Rodrigo | SOUR
  6. Valerie June | The Moon and Stars: Prescriptions for Dreamers
  7. Sons of Kemet | Black to the Future
  8. Nick Cave & Warren Ellis | Carnage
  9. Rhiannon Giddens with Francesco Turrisi | They’re Calling Me Home
  10. Blake Mills & Pino Palladino | Notes with Attachments

Notes on Notes: New albums, jazz and jazz-adjacent

A bumper crop. Loosely ranked, but all recommended.

Notes with Attachments | Pino Palladino & Blake Mills

Had this released a few decades prior, the Beastie Boys would have scuttled it for parts, making a meal out of the rope-taut bass lines and dank sound effects. It is exactly the kind of scene-setting, weather-changing music that omnivores and crate-diggers cherish, a record where the pleasures are modest but never-ending, song after song shape-shifting from lithe funk to free jazz to pulsing Afrobeat. It celebrates texture and found sound as brilliantly as any album since Latin Playboys, but with the added bonus of elastic small-combo interplay. Palladino, who has played bass on some of the best R&B records of all time (think Mama’s Gun, Voodoo, and Black Messiah), sounds at times like he’s on a mission to prove just how much ground you can cover riding a single, steady groove. The album is a near-perfect summit meeting between his low-end rumble and Mills’ affinity for atmosphere. And it almost feels like there should be equal billing for Sam Gendel, whose raw skronk is a perfect addition to this arresting mix. 

Tone Poem | Charles Lloyd & the Marvels

The title promises something meditative and abstracted, so the first couple of songs— rambunctious takes on classic Ornette Coleman tunes, complete with some Mingus-style whoops and hollers—feel like fakeouts. Tone Poem eventually settles into a series of wonderfully exploratory 10-minute pieces, giving Lloyd and his band plenty of time to expand on the earthy, rustic jazz they suggested on Vanished Gardens. Highlights? Try the genially rambling title song; “Monk’s Mood,” sounding here both sad and breezy; and a thrumming take on Gabor Szabo’s “Lady Gabor.” Now in his early 80s, Lloyd sounds as robust as ever on sax and flute; yet so much of the band’s folksiness emanates from the laconic drawl of the guitars, played by Bill Frissel and Greg Leisz.

Let My People Go | Archie Shepp & Jason Moran

Mere weeks after the release of his burnished solo piano album, The Sound Will Tell You, Moran returns for a set of live recordings with legendary activist and sax man Shepp. Like so many of the great meetings between jazz giants, this one settles on common ground— blues, gospel songs, and standards— that reflects a deep intergenerational kinship. The album is austere but also rich in its sound and deep in its spirituality, thanks to Shepp’s regal and authoritative sax tone, Moran’s majestic piano runs, and a few eruptions of surprising, sonorous singing.

I Told You So | Delvon Lamarr Organ Trio

Industrial strength funk. Organ trio albums can seem a little one-dimensional, but there’s a certain kind of mood where this is all you want: Crisp drums, chicken wire guitars, the hum of the keys, groove upon groove upon groove. A record so greasy that if they packaged it in a brown bag, it would turn the paper translucent. 

Seven | Cameron Graves

Pianist Graves, an associate of Kamasi Washington and Thundercat, made this album to unite his twin loves of jazz and metal. It’s just as macho and melodramatic as you’d think, but also surprisingly seamless, joining two distinct idioms in a shared language of virtuosity and precision.