Photo Credit: Clay Banks via Unsplash

Volunteer Contributor – Haytham Nawaz



As 2021 continues to settle in and pandemic life becomes more ingrained in us all, it becomes harder and harder to find an escape. Well, if it’s any consolation, here’s four exceptional records from this year (so far) to check out if you’re looking for a quick fix to relieve those pandemic blues.


Forever in Your Heart – Black Dresses


Released in mid-February, the electro-industrial duo of Black Dresses return with their fifth LP and it’s more tortured than much of anything released in the last year. The Toronto-based outfit moves through paranoid sound-experiments that express the alienation of the moment via abrasive production tricks, shouted vocals that feel like an emotional eruption, as well as fleeting moments of tenderness—even melodic bliss—that quickly get swallowed in the cacophonous electrical barrage. 


There’s no better example of these elements than the opening track “PEACESIGN!​!​!​!​!​!​!​!​!​!​!​!​!​!​!​!​!” that starts off with driving, chunky riffs but dissolves into warm shoegazeing verses, that eventually fall apart into chaotic shouting and demented glitch-pop. 


If Black Dresses are trying to make a statement on the internal turmoil many are facing as of late, it is no better expressed than on Forever in Your Heart. As artists who have come up entirely through internet buzz, who have dealt with transphobia and managed to turn its dark impact on their lives into something expressive and who continue to push the envelope of genre intersectionality — Black Dresses are a gleaming example of how to dig out some meaning in isolating times. 


Sound Ancestors – Madlib


Sound Ancestors is an instrumental record that sees veteran L.A. producer Madlib combining his more organic sampling and spiritual undertones with some modern sounds and light experimentation. 


Many of the cuts off this record mediate between a disassociated headspace of electronic music and the welcoming hearth of cultural sounds, a la “Hopprock”. The more cerebral territory that Madlib explores on this record, as opposed to his previous outings, is a welcome surprise. The producer seems to be getting his feet wet again after decades of blunted out soul-sampling and grimy boom-bap. Though, there do remain some of those classic Madlib elements here. 


It becomes clear that Madlib was looking to make a record that scratches a bit deeper (no pun intended) than usual.


Brass – Moor Mother & Billy Woods


While yes, technically Brass was released in mid-December of 2020, it caught more attention moving into the new year after a series of good reviews. This delayed appraisal, on top of it being that good, means it would be a shame if it was left out of this list due to a technicality. 


Ironically, technicality is one of the strengths of this record’s collaborative energy found between the two rappers, as their often jarring, yet proficient bars cut through the equally jarring production to create an underground rap record that has a real character to it. New York-based hip hop odd-ball Billy Woods and poet/activist Moor Mother work together to create a space of creative foreboding that is only derivative of earlier landmark indie-rap in attitude, not in substance. 


Brass actively cements itself among rap’s best outsider records, yet it is a singular experience of heady-bars and murky, abstract production. Its vibe beckons imagery of systemic pain and isolation, yet there’s a spiritual humanness beneath all of its cryptic bravado and vague political gestures. Take the hypnotic “Arkeology”, (featuring a guest verse from Elucid) which is a brooding track, something that could pass in scoring a horror film. Yet, at the same time it contains some of the most densely poetic material on the record: “And you lookin’ like you owe me money / Lookin’ like you stealing from me / Remind me of the ship / Flesh of Christ on my lip”. 


Overall, this is one of the most impressive rap records in years and a must-listen for hip hop heads. 


For the First Time – Black Country, New Road


For several years now the hype has been building for Black Country, New Road (BCNR) to release their first album, as they kept dropping critically acclaimed single after single. Well, it’s finally here and it delivers on nearly every front imaginable. 


The most impressive thing about For the First Time is its implications for the band’s future; if their first outing shows this much potential, we as listeners are in for a treat as this band continues taking liberties in the prism of post-rock that they are clearly fascinated with. 


In many respects this record is a tease; a kind of endearing, pretentious experimentation permeates the whole of the project. There’s the ethnic incorporation of traditionally Jewish music in the opening track “Instrumental”, or the dynamism of a cut like “Opus”, which at some points is straight up bebop with a tinge of that aforementioned klezmer, while showcasing heavy Slint-worship in its rock-orientation. One thing is clear, BCNR are excited to experiment and play with rock sensibility like they are kids at a “Science Fair”, that being the name of track four. Beyond the instrumentation, Isaac Wood’s crooning-yet-neurotic voice and intriguing phraseology makes the record that much more of a relatable time for its audience of artsy types, indie kids, rock elitists and the like. 


Maybe one of the best lyrical outings appears on “Sunglasses”. On this cut, Wood almost jauntily compares the psychology of ignorant right-leaning men and their veil of defensive masculinity to the actual veil of sunglasses: “I am locked away in a high-tech, wraparound, translucent, blue-tinted fortress / And you cannot touch me / I am invincible in these sunglasses”. It’s almost funny, but it’s also tragic. 


Honestly, this record stands out above anything from this year thus far and I don’t see it being surpassed easily. For the First Time offers something for all music fans.


There you have it, four fantastic records from early 2021. Hopefully the rest of the year will be as fruitful as these first few months have been for music releases. With that said, let’s try to stay optimistic where we can and get through the rest of this year.