Even as normal life feels closer and closer in America, the pandemic continues to disrupt the music world. Shows and festivals are scheduled to take place in a matter of months, yet some major 2020 tours keep announcing new dates for 2022. It’s all a bit surreal, when you consider that some of us, at least, thought we’d be back inside a venue sometime last summer when the initial waves of lockdown first hit. If you glance over the lineups and gigs plotted for the latter half of the year, and if you consider the artists we haven’t heard from in a while, you get the sense we’re in for a wild fall. It might not be quite how it was, but a post-pandemic world seems very within reach — and it looks like it’s going to be a loud one.
What that also means is that the first half of 2021 has been a bit of a slower burn. Last year, we had plenty of new music to get us through, thanks to quarantine albums or what people had recorded before they weren’t able to be in a room with each other anymore. Now, we know a lot is around the corner, but at the same time there have been few seismic, universal albums since the beginning of the year. When we make these lists, we usually have a few of those — the albums we as a Stereogum staff can agree summed up at least some element of everyone’s experience or perception of a given passage of time.
When looking at these first six months, what you see is half a year that allowed a lot of albums to breathe. Without the usual churn of normal times, new artists were able to stake their claim in even more resounding ways; you’ll find several debut albums on this list. Small, intimate releases gripped us and became profound companions as we tentatively stepped back out into the world. That’s not to say there’s anything quiet about 2021 so far — these are albums that, in their own ways, demanded and earned our attention. You might find some of your own favorites, and you might even find something you haven’t heard before. As usual, anything that will be out by the end of June and that we’ve heard was eligible, and we don’t count EPs. Read below for the best albums of 2021 so far. —Ryan Leas