The Alternative Guide To... The Best Albums of 2021 so far

Jonny Dickin is back with yet another 'Alternative Guide To' feature, this time highlighting the best left-field album releases of the year so far - including entries from Black Midi, Floating Points, Amenra and more...

Skiddle Staff

Date published: 16th Aug 2021

2021 has been an extraordinary year for music so far. While the world has been hibernating, it appears that musicians have all followed a similar trend; to refine their work and to release music that excites, stirs emotion and astounds with its creativity. Now that we’re halfway through the year, I thought I’d follow suit with every other music site in the world that does these mid-point roundups and write about some of my favourite albums of the year so far. Except mine is better, because obviously, my music taste is the best in the world, so…

Here are eight records that I highly recommend you get in your ears as soon as possible:


(Click or tap on the artist names highlighted below for tickets and more...)


Black Midi - Cavalcade

When Black Midi were catapulted straight from the ether on to the British rock scene in 2019 with mercury prize-nominated debut album Schlagenheim, it was clear that this was a band of exceptionally talented musicians, who care not for modern approaches to songcraft, but rather choose to rely on the musical bond stringing them all together, like an 8-armed beast conducting a cacophony of noisy, jammy, jazzy, controlled chaos.

With second album Cavalcade, Black MIDI have carved a new path for themselves, one of jazz-fusion-laced head-scratchers, bringing brass, piano and strings to the forefront of the King Crimson-esque barrage. Whether it’s on the wild and mathy opener John L, with its almost humorous lead-riff, low, dread-fueled bass, right through to the album closer, Ascending Fourths, a song that sees the band take on a veneer of musical pomposity, Cavalcade is an album that bewilders and astounds in equal measures, and one that feels fresh every time I start over. At times, it seems frontman Geordie Greep is crooning in his own world of Frank Sinatra performances and tuxedo-clad concert goers. Combine this unique vocal delivery with the brain-melting drum work of Morgan Simpson and the constant low-end explorations of Cameron Picton on bass and what results is an album that re-affirms  Black MIDI as one of the most exciting British bands in 2021 - a band who I have no doubt will continue to re-define themselves with each release.



FFO: King Crimson, Swans, Xiu Xiu

Jonny's Top Three Tracks: John L, Diamond Stuff, Hogwash and Balderdash



Divide And Dissolve - Gas Lit

Melbourne-based two-piece, Divide And Dissolve’ third album, Gas Lit lulls the listener into a false sense of security, with opener ‘Oblique’ introducing the 35-minute slab of plate-shifting doom metal via the serene and spacious saxophone wails of Takiaya Reed. The music floats like leaves resting on a slow-flowing river before being split asunder by the lo-fi assault of Takiaya’s undefinable guitar riffs, gliding in out of tune like a hornet with a damaged wing alongside Sylvie Nehill, who pulverises the drums with an approach that states less about her musical capabilities and more about her desire to pour every inch of her being into the duo's songs.  

Divide And Dissolve are a protest band. They revolt against white supremacy and colonisation in all forms. Though the music on Gas Lit may be brutal and at times punishing, it longs for a conclusion; to see a world where this isn’t a necessity. Whilst they have created a thunderous wall of noise on this collection, it's plain to see it is not through a love of the genre, but more about the need to make themselves heard. The music is laced with a bone-chilling eerie quality - jazz-flecked soundscapes are the constant blood flow of the album, never ceasing to create a fog through which the bludgeoning doom riffs become shrouded in mystery and intrigue. Though the band has created what is, at heart, a piece of protest art, they have also delivered an astonishing display of doom-riff delight. 



FFO: Chelsea Wolfe, Big Brave, Daughters

Jonny's Top Three Tracks: Prove It, Denial, We Are Really Worried About You



Naoko Sakata - Dancing Spirits

Released via the inimitable Anna von Hausswolff, Japanese pianist Naoko Sakata graced 2021 with her stunning collection of improvised pieces, Dancing Spirits. A 43-minute record made up of seven off-the-cuff performances - a solo record the likes of which is rarely seen in modern music. Jazz greats of old, of course, quite often released collections of this sort, but Naoko’s pieces embody something outside the confines of genre - they skirt along whimsically, conjuring images of bright blue skies, slow-flowing rivers and mythical creatures. 

The music effortlessly floats between enchanting melodies and crashes of notes void of musicality. 

Naoko released ‘Improvisation 3’ prior to the album's release - the latter half of which truly astonishes. The melodies that flow from her mind to her fingertips in real-time is beyond doubt something to behold. If she’d have written the pieces prior, I doubt they could have carried the same magical aura they possess. They summon up a world of Ghibli-esque landscapes and moonlit forests.

While it may fail to make the majority of year-end lists, Dancing Spirits is a true marvel - a record of an artist masterfully performing. It oozes emotion, passion, skill and dedication. The most beautiful thing about a record like this is its existence - a miracle within itself that each note followed the one prior; it can never be repeated, which makes this a truly special album.




FFO: Anna Von Hauswolff, Charles Mingus, Losing yourself in some mystical sounding improvisations while walking around in a wooded area

Jonny's Top Three Tracks: Listen to the album in one sitting!




Black Country, New Road - For The First Time

What do you get if you cross Klezmer music, 90’s post-rock, shades of early Biffy Clyro, seven art school students and autobiographical musings? Answer: Black Country, New Road. Without a doubt one of the most talked of bands in British alternative music since they first emerged with singles ‘Athens, France’ and ‘Sunglasses’ in 2019, Black Country, New Road delivered their first full-length album this year, the fittingly titled For The First Time. Despite only being 6 tracks in length, the album cycles through genre definitions with ease, featuring self-analytical lyrics discussing the naivety of youth, blossoming relationships and self-doubt delivered by Issac Wood in a spoken-word, anxiety-drenched style. Though it's lazy to say, the vocals are truly reminiscent of 90’s cult heroes Slint, a comparison so worn out, Issac draws reference to it in his own lyrics.

Each track stands alone as its own display of intention, whether it be the Klezmer-infused, upbeat opener 'Instrumental', the stripped-back introspection on 'Track X' or the post-rock/klezmer/post-punk absurdity of closer 'Opus', the latter of which spends its final minutes delivering a post-rock pastiche of saxophone riffs, half time grooves and tortured yells. For The First Time is a remarkable display of talent possessed by these seven musicians who effortlessly fuse genres to form some of the most interesting “rock” music of the past few years - an orchestration of forward-thinking songwriting and innovation.



FFO: Slint, This Heat, Shame

Jonny's Top Three Tracks: Opus, Sunglasses, Track X



Sweet Trip - A Tiny House, In Secret Speeches, Polar Equals


According to the website Rate Your Music, a site where music fans score records on a five-star rating system, Sweet Trips 2003 album, Velocity : Design : Comfort is the 118th greatest album of all time, bookended by music legends Charles Mingus and Nick Drake, a tremendous achievement for a band who have stayed clear of the mainstream for the majority of their career. Velocity : Design: Comfort was an album that sought to bring about a musical parity between shoegaze bliss and glitch chaos. It succeeded in its goals triumphantly and has since earned its ranking as a cult classic of the early noughties. The duo behind the album remained largely in the shadows until 2009, when they released ‘You Will Never Know Why’ before disappearing once again. In 2021, however, they returned with the tremendous A Tiny House, In Secret Speeches, Polar Equals

Though the glitch elements have become more refined than on earlier releases, the band have learned to mould genres into a single, coherent sculpture, consisting of dream pop lullabies and soaring shoegaze delights. The music floats over psychedelic scenery, picking up influential hints along the way from My Bloody Valentine, Cocteau Twins, Aphex Twin and Pale Saints, casting its own sheen over the canvas prepared by those before them. Yet despite these clear motivators, Sweet Trip feel somewhat self-referential on this record, as though their main inspiration lies not in the giants of the genre, but more in their own work and the want to refine what they themselves sculpted with their earlier releases. The result is a bright, shimmering collection of experimental pop songs that glows exceptionally bright in its own achievements.



FFO: My Bloody Valentine, Asobi Seksu, Lush

Jonny's Top Three Tracks: Tiny Houses, You, At Last a Truth That is Real



Floating Points, Pharoah Sanders & The London Symphony Orchestra - Promises

Without question, Promises is the most beautiful piece of music I’ve heard so far this year. A single, 46-minute suite, split into 9 separate movements that pull at undefinable emotions as it slowly folds over dynamic shifts and tonal explorations like waves calmly replacing the ones that came before them. Manchester-born electronic producer, Sam Shepard, better known as Floating Points directs this auditory spell, introducing various elements across the movements, centred around a single chord progression and motif. The London Symphony Orchestra, no doubt a dream collaboration for Sam, at times play with such delicacy, their presence is like a spectre twitching the curtains before they reveal themselves as the grand musicians that they are, conjuring astral connotations. Jazz legend Pharoah Sanders, at the age of 80, delivers a career-defining performance - his saxophone passages practically radiate emotion; each note feels precisely determined to interplay with the delicate backbone of the piece and to shift the music through the serene soundscapes to epic heights.

Promises is a piece of music that demands the listeners' full attention, respect and awe. It’s a record that requires being played without interruption - nothing to break the spell of focus it casts onto your mind. It’s hard to summarise in words the effect a piece of music such as this can have. The best way for me to express this to you is with this; listen to this album.



FFO: Mind-blowing pieces of music that transcend genre definitions

Jonny's Top Three Tracks: Can't choose just three, the entire album is immense




Amenra - De Doorn

Belgian Post-metal band Amenra have an uncanny ability to deliver records that feel biblical in weight and impact. Though they have forged the majority of their career so far on a formulaic sound of bone-crushing, knuckle-dragging heavy slabs of sludgy, hardcore fused behemoths, the formula does not grow tiresome - particularly in a live setting, which is down-right gobsmacking to behold. De Doorn, however, feels like a slight shift in the plates; a chance for Amenra to push the boundaries of their past endeavours. The first studio album in their discography to exist outside of the 'Mass' naming structure (their first 6 albums being titled Mass I - VI), De Doorn earns its right to stand alone as an Amenra commandment of a different nature. However, the band still retains their monstrously dark characteristics.

The record opens with fear-inducing swells, a theme that permeates the album. Vocalist Colin H. Van Eeckhout marks his first appearance on the album through these swells with spoken word passages that give way to the hammerfall that is the tried and true onslaught of Amenra - the guitars, bass and drums pulverise like an atomic bomb, vaporising all in its path, and when Colin lets loose with his trademark screams, they are nothing short of spine-tingling. ‘De Evenmens’ sees the band introduce melodic guitar riffs reminiscent of ‘Sweet Dreams’ by the Eurythmics, if they instead had nightmares. The band's willingness to embrace ambience, melody and tragedy alongside their devastating wall of sound is more prominent than ever on ‘De Doorn’ - a record that is as heavy in its emotion as it is in its volume.




FFO: Cult of Luna, Neurosis, Sumac

Jonny's Top Three Tracks: Ogentroost, Voor Immer, Het Gloren




Parannoul - To See the Next Part of the Dream

Parannoul is the pseudonym of someone who has not been identified. All we know is that they are from Seoul, South Korea and that they produce lo-fi, shoegaze inspired, emo/alternative rock in their bedroom, and that they do it very, very well. In that sense, Parannoul lives up to the ‘Dream’ in the title of this, their second full-length album - a dream-like entity that remains anonymous yet delivers such a wonderfully inspired collection that wears its influences proudly. 

The music is raw, exhibiting its creases clearly across its under-produced guitar tones, distorted drum sound and, in the creators own words, utilising "singing skills [that] are f**king awful”. But these lo-fi elements are what make this album stand out among an ever-increasing field of young shoegaze contemporaries. Where people are pushing guitar tones to new and exciting places with wild pedals and vintage amps, Parannoul opts to display his passion for music as opposed to high production values. The result is an emotionally charged rock album that impresses massively on each listen.



FFO: American FootballToe, Mass of the Fermenting Dregs

Jonny's Top Three Tracks: Beautiful World, White Ceiling, Excuse




To find tickets for gigs and live events happening in live music venues across the UK this year, click or tap - here


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