Best albums of 2021 so far

Top 20 Albums of 2021 so far

5. Rawal, Bharg – Sab Chahiye

A budding friendship between producer Bharg and hip-hop artist Rawal is what led to their debut album Sab Chahiye. What fuelled it were their individual journeys up until that point—Rawal shedding tears and spitting fire in turns with the mic and Bharg’s fluid, buoyant sonic storytelling that was bright and dark when it needed to be.

Where most artists would start an album with dropping a napalm-level cut, Rawal and Bharg ease the listener into things with a cheery combo of the aspirational title track and the reassuring neo-soul bop ‘Magan’, featuring Seedhe Maut’s Encore ABJ. But that’s where playtime ends. The bass-fed, siren-sampling chaos of ‘Jungli Kutta’ is the Dilli launda condensed into a song, Rawal throwing lethal flows alongside Seedhe Maut’s other half, Calm and the sneer of Raga. Adding to the din is the star power of Ikka who invokes Jamnapaar on ‘Akkad Bakkad Bambey Bo’ over the sound supplied by Sez on the Beat.

Through stories of love, loss and friendship, Rawal and Bharg are cheeky, resolute and most importantly, heartfelt when it comes to hip-hop.

4. Prabh Deep – Tabia

Punjabi music is a mainstay in the Indian industry right now, even as it brings forward diaspora artists shining bright in different parts of the globe. Prabh Deep is part of this movement, and maybe he’s an outlier, but he walks the line so well between accessible bops and verbose, hard-won gems on his new album Tabia that he gets the best of all worlds.

Across 15 tracks and nearly 55 minutes, Prabh shows just how far he’s come from his days roughing it out on his debut album, Class-Sikh, which came out back in 2017. He has the fandom and critics behind him—how else would you explain comparisons between the album concept and Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs?

The artist deftly lays down club-friendly, swirling production and his breathy, moody vocals, which reflect everything from lust to power to euphoria to self-awareness. That last part is at the centre of everything Tabia concerns itself with. There are more aggro cuts like ‘Taqat’, but songs like ‘Paapi’ and ‘Waqaf’ mark an evolution that shows us Prabh and his music can no longer be conveniently placed into the boxes of hip-hop and rap. He’s stepping into a space that’s entirely his own, pitching a flag for everyone to see.

3. Dhruv Visvanath – The Book of I

Delhi-based singer-songwriter, Dhruv Viswanath, has been a familiar face in the independent music scene for many years now. But, in the past two years, his star has reached new heights. 2020 was a busy year for the masterful acoustic guitarist, as he released a slew of new singles. And those tracks slowly made their way to the ultimate release—the artist’s third studio album—Book of I.

Much of Dhruv’s discography is characterised by his ability to tell stories and let listeners in on some of the most vulnerable reflections of his life. On Book of I, he accomplished that like never before. Ripe with his signature guitar work and rich vocals, this album saw him “pushing himself as a producer,” as Nishtha Jaiswal notes in her review of the album.

Spanning themes and traversing an expansive soundscape, Dhruv Viswanath’s Book of I has been a revelation; praise and roaring applause surrounding the project is a valuable and accurate measure of success, in this case.

2. Shreyas Iyengar – Tough Times

Undoubtedly, the pandemic left several in the creative arts gasping to understand a new, physically confining world. The world turned, but everything had changed, especially for musicians who booked their studio time, played their gigs and (eventually) released their music. Multi-instrumentalist Shreyas Iyengar from Pune, we dare say, had an advantage in terms of being a drummer, guitarist, saxophonist and pianist.

With help from guitarist Jayant Sankrityayana, flautist Siya Ragade, and vocalist Pallavi Seth, Iyengar’s debut album Tough Times became a dexterous, resigned yet triumphant encapsulation of the pandemic situation in India and abroad. Grooves dominate songs like ‘Quarrel Times’, while there’s subtle yet crafty flourishes on ‘Trouble In The Orient’ and the one-two punch of ‘Tough Times 1’ and ‘Tough Times 2’ reflect exactly the kind of myriad feelings one experienced in the last one and a half years.

1. Mali – Caution to the Wind

In this era of distribution and playlists, it is easy for independent musicians to get buried under the pressure to release constantly and consistently, fight to stand out but only occasionally ever manage to. While Mali has been releasing singles since 2018, after her debut EP in early 2017, she has taken her sweet time to write, record and perfect her debut full-length album, Caution to the Wind. One of the songs from the album which was released as a single in 2020 along with a stunning music video, ‘Absolute’ was written as early as 2016 and only now found its way into the world, and became one of the best songs of 2020. This year, the album that it sits on beautifully, is a strong contender to possibly be the best album of the year, by a good measure.

The singer-songwriter never says no to an opportunity—she was doing every interview and every Instagram interaction to make sure everybody that could listen to her music, was listening to her music. Smart and all-pervading promotions aside, she along with her co-producer Arnob Bal spent a lot of time making sure that the final product they put out was worth talking about, and they did. This one keeps the attention all through its 28 minutes, already a feat in these times, but also keeps you engaged throughout. This is one of those albums that sounds better when heard in its entirety, having been pieced together very carefully. That does not imply that it does not have its standout moments; ‘Absolute’, ‘Age of Limbo’ and even ‘Really, Not Really?’ with its raw simplicity, will definitely stay in people’s minds and playlists for a long time. With this album, Mali has grabbed the attention of anyone who had her pegged for yet another singer-songwriter and proved her might as an ambitious, intelligent and a very, very talented musician.

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