Let’s be honest: It’s been an unusual year in music so far. At the midway point of 2021, many of the heavyweights in rap and pop are still holding on to their albums, waiting for the full-blown return of live concerts and festivals. In their absence, up-and-comers like Pooh Shiesty and Olivia Rodrigo have stepped up and taken advantage of the lull to make noise of their own, previewing what music might sound like in years to come. If you miss the A-listers, though, you’re in luck. All signs point to the second half of the year bringing the kind of blockbuster albums that have largely evaded us so far. J. Cole’s The Off-Season may have just broken the seal, and now we await rumored releases from the likes of Drake and Kendrick (and even a joint project from Lil Baby and Lil Durk). 

Because of all this, our annual mid-year best albums list arrives at a moment of transition, which makes it a great time to reflect on the projects that have defined 2021 up until now. These are the artists who were bold enough to release albums in a time of uncertainty, and whose fearlessness has already been rewarded. These are Complex’s picks for the best albums of 2021 (so far).