The 50 Best Albums of 2023

Featuring Ratboys, Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit, JPEGMAFIA & Danny Brown, jaimie branch, Kara Jackson and more.

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The 50 Best Albums of 2023

Our 21st Best Albums of the Year list, 2023 was one for the books. Recency bias out the window, this might very well have been the best year of music since 2016. From instant classics by breakout acts to masterclass LPs from seasoned vets, the industry’s output has been on an absolute tear since January. At times, it seemed nearly impossible to keep up with all of the great music. But we did it, and here we are—ready to enshrine projects from folks like Julie Byrne, Noname, Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit, Yves Tumor and many, many more.

Combining votes from our music contributors and the Paste staff with our team’s review scores throughout the year, we’ve assembled a bulletproof list of gems mainstream, underground and somewhere smack-dab in the middle. From jazz to metal to pop to folk to electronica to country to rock ‘n’ roll to the uncategorical, we aimed to leave no stone unturned. Not only is this an opportunity to talk about what we missed or overrated, this is a chance to sing the praises of the some of the most vibrant works of the last 12 months. Without further ado, here are the 50 Best Albums of 2023. I prompt you to give each of them a listen and ride into 2024 in style.

Matt Mitchell, Head Music Editor


50. Yo La Tengo: This Stupid World

This Stupid World, the Hoboken trio’s first proper full-length in five years (not counting the ambient lockdown quickie We Have Amnesia Sometimes), is very good indeed, a dreamy and reflective song cycle that welcomes us into Yo La Tengo’s private world while leaving ample mysteries unexplained and secrets untold. Like 2018’s expansive There’s a Riot Going On, This Stupid World bristles with a sense of uneasy quiet as the world outside rages and burns. At times, the noise explodes into the open, as in the seven-minute, motorik groove “Sinatra Drive Breakdown,” which recalls Ira Kaplan’s gnarled guitar workouts of the past, particularly 1995’s “Flying Lesson (Hot Chicken #1).” Yet much of this album is muted, condensing the restless, ambient-pop sprawl of Riot into compact packages like “Apology Letter,” a wry, self-deprecating tune about marital squabbles. Humor and sadness swirl together, as they often do in the Yo La Tengo extended universe. The title track (the band’s first ever) is a monochrome drone rocker, plodding along like some damaged White Light/White Heat B-side. As the song sputters to an end, the trio repeats the titular refrain like a mantra: “This stupid world/It’s killing me/This stupid world/Is all we have.” Maybe that’s what passes for optimism these days. Maybe, as Yo La Tengo has found, perseverance in a stupid world is its own kind of hope. —Zach Schonfeld [Read our review]

49. Blue Lake: Sun Arcs

The latest Blue Lake LP from Texas-born, Denmark-based multi-instrumentalist Jason Dungan is, in no short terms, a dense, emotional and far-spanning revelation. The eight-track, 41-minute collection Sun Arcs finds Dungan building entire worlds with his 48-string zither, a slide guitar, pump organ, woodwinds and drones. It’s an Americana record, but not in the conventional sense. In fact, Sun Arcs feels like it siphoned its energy from another planet entirely. The songs, like “Dallas,” “Fur” and “Wavelength,” commiserate in their own momentous, improvisatory subtleties—arriving with vignettes as crystalline and multidimensional as the Don Cherry album it shares its namesake with. Whenever a track begins to feel minimalistic and atmospheric, Dungan’s compass puts him down a path of righteous instrumentation that is wondrous, stirring and innocent in its own pensiveness. Fingerpicking, open-tuning and nurtured melodic undercurrents make Sun Arcs one of the best ambient albums in a long time. —Matt Mitchell

48. Kate Davis: Fish Bowl

Fish Bowl is Kate Davis’s best work yet; a unique movement inspired by Greek epics and A Hero’s Journey. In a lot of ways, the album twists and turns like a big, romantic concerto with Davis firmly in the eye of the storm. While other artists saw their music releases halted or postponed at the beginning of COVID in 2020, Davis used that time to start piecing together the glass of Fish Bowl. The songs are wondrous and confessional, and she chronicles a life full of people standing at a distance from one another. Perhaps that’s why the songs are astronomical and poetic. On “Confessions,” she talks of a black hole tearing into the part of her heart that had forgotten about fragility and tenderness; on “Call Home,” she ponders if the last gasps of freedom should be spun into an apocalyptic romance or a social commentary. There’s a bit of embellishment at play, which Davis zeroes in on nicely by taking up the persona of an otherworldly character—FiBo (short for Fish Bowl)—a vehicle in which she feels most comfortable telling her confessional stories, serving as a mirrored experience of what she had been living through but in a world that had nothing to do with her own reality. —Matt Mitchell [Read our feature]

47. Slow Pulp: Yard

On Yard, Slow Pulp deploy those peculiar, harmonious sounds to unpack conflicting emotion—and their introspection is catchier than ever before. The album tracks the band’s ever-evolving relationships with isolation and collaboration, the fluctuating roles one plays as an adult whose independence grows more complicated year after year—offering the ideal soundtrack for any mid-20-something who is caught re-assessing their social role in those unwieldy years that immediately follow college. Yard sees the band toy with its sound playfully and freshly. Emily Massey pushes her vocals beyond the deceptively low-effort utterances that have become her trademark. Take “Cramps,” for example—a punk-leaning track with immersive guitars reminiscent of mall emo hits breaking only when Massey sustains: “But I want everything.” “Mud” is its closest neighbor, at times pummeling and at other instances crunchy, falling somewhere between pop punk and fuzz rock. The real outlier on the record is “Broadview,” where pedal steel greets the listeners into a folksy ballad and Massey boasts a striking, unforgettable affection and warmth. Yard is a genuine level up for Slow Pulp that reveals the band’s versatility—confirming that the band has extensive new sonic avenues to explore in depth moving forward. —Devon Chodzin [Read our feature]

46. Armand Hammer: We Buy Diabetic Test Strips

For the past decade, billy woods and E L U C I D, the two rappers who regularly join forces Wonder Twins-style under the name Armand Hammer, have remained comfortably ahead of the curve among their hip-hop contemporaries—finding common cause with fellow forward-thinking producers as they blow apart they idea of what rapping needs to sound like. On album #6, the bitterly and humorously titled We Buy Diabetic Test Strips, they continue to delight in blank verse, surprising internal rhyme schemes and forked tongue imagery describing a world on the precipice of disaster. The secret to their sauce: a sense of humor. “The night is dark and full of terrors,” woods intones on “Total Recall,” “Might fuck around and say ‘Suge Knight’ three times in a mirror.” Everyone involved from guest rappers Moor Mother and JPEGMAFIA to producers El-P, Sebb Bush and Child Actor had to raise their individual game to reach Armand Hammer’s level. No mean feat but damn if they didn’t reach the mountaintop only to find woods and E L U C I D already halfway down the slope on the other side. —Robert Ham

45. Squirrel Flower: Tomorrow’s Fire

Ella Williams knows how to keep our attention. On Tomorrow’s Fire, her delicate folk vocals—combined with production assistance from Alex Farrar—create the heavenly shoegaze sludge of Williams’s third Squirrel Flower LP. The Chicagoan leans into her heavier sound on the anthemic “Full Time Job”—featuring MJ Lenderman on guitar—where she sings, “Taking it easy is a full time job / One I’m tired of.” Even with her new sound, the lyrical angst Williams is known for is present in “When A Plant Is Dying,” opening with the verse: “Kick you when you’re down / Can’t get much lower now / I’m sitting in the drain / Can’t get much lower now.” The Springsteen-conjuring, Heartland-inspired “Alley Light” considers what kind of balance comes from longing for healing yet fearing change. Tomorrow’s Fire is the product of an artist who demands to be heard, as Williams captures how it feels to lose childhood innocence in a world riddled with overconsumption, climate change, pain and violence. She closes the album with the culmination of these anxieties on “Finally Rain,” singing: “If this is what it means to be alive / I won’t grow up.” —Olivia Abercrombie [Read our feature]

44. PJ Harvey: I Inside The Old Year Dying

On her first studio album in seven years, PJ Harvey abandons the language of 2016’s The Hope Six Demolition in favor of enigmatic, awing storytelling. Fit with samples and field recordings, the soundscape at play across the tracklist is some of the English singer/songwriter’s most ambitious and experimental work yet. As good and emotive as anything she did on Dry and Rid of Me, Harvey embodies a poetic machine, delivering some of her strongest, most vivid lines yet. “Hear the grinding wheel-bird grieve / Grief unknits my raveled sleeve / Death of zummer, death of play / Waxing night and dwindling day / Help me dunnick, drush and dove / Love Me Tender. Tender love,” she sings on “A Children’s Question, August.” We may never see a 30-year career culminate in such a rich, imaginative collection of songs—and it’s no surprise that Harvey remains in a league of her own on I Inside The Old Year Dying. —Matt Mitchell

43. Lonnie Holley: Oh Me Oh My

After a collaboration album with Matthew E. White over the pandemic, Lonnie Holley’s latest is full of collaborations. They include poet/activist Moor Mother adding her own lyrical flavor to Holley declaring, “I Am A Part Of The Wonder” and “Earth Will Be There” and Michael Stipe lending his lovely baritone to the title track, singing “Oh Me, Oh My,” before Holley contrasts it with his higher timbre and his occasional growl. Justin Vernon, Sharon Van Etten, Rokia Koné and Jeff Parker all lend their talents to songs that both dig deep into Holley’s past and proclaim messages of peace and kindness and thankfulness. “Kindness Will Follow Your Tears” is one of the titles, and it’s one of the many mantras Holley has chosen to live by. But there are no vocal collaborators on “Mount Meigs.” It’s his voice alone over the cacophony as the memories become more horrific. The three years of abuse and neglect he experienced at the notorious Alabama Industrial School for Negro Children will always be with Holley. And they will always fuel his art and music, but with a purpose, challenging the viewer or the listener to think about the distant future and how we’re living. —Josh Jackson [Read our feature]

42. Hotline TNT: Cartwheel

Over 30 years after that fertile era for shoegaze, Hotline TNT does justice to the genre’s communal roots. Their second album Cartwheel is a glowing achievement of what shoegaze is capable of. For the naysayers who tease the genre’s notorious introversion, Cartwheel is a fierce disproof. The record bundles together the distortion and crackle of classics like Loveless and Souvlaki with the ethos of community that has always been equally as important in the history of that misunderstood genre. Outside of what Cartwheel means or represents in the shoegaze canon, the record does the trick that has made the genre so enduring for over three decades: It imbues each wave of guitar and pulse of sound with Will Anderson’s emotiveness. Shoegaze sounds huge because it feels massive, a maxim Anderson commits to all across Cartwheel. When he admits “there’s a lot in this song that’s not in my diary” on “History Channel,” it comes as no surprise. It’s right there in the way he plays. —Andy Steiner [Read our feature]

41. Titanic: Vidrio

A collaboration between Guatemalan-born cellist Mabe Fratti and Venezuelan guitarist Héctor Tosta, Vidrio is a sublime, stirring beauty. Named after the Spanish word for “glass,” the album nurtures a convergence or ornamental jazz and avant-garde chamber pop. The result feels like a folk project pollinated by vivid, intimate vocalizations from Fratti and arrangements that are so gorgeous they outmuscle the ugliness Titanic interrogate in the songs’ stories. “I feel an avalanche that falls over me,” Fratti sings on “Balanza.” The way the world on this album is defined by strings, speak-singing, melodic imperfections, atmosphere and static, you can feel just how visceral every checkpoint is for Fratti and Tosta, who fill every inch between Heaven and the earth with charming, devastating and blooming music. —Matt Mitchell

40. Cut Worms: Cut Worms

Cut Worms embodies traditional Americana in the purest form: It’s jangly, catchy, folksy and a little bit pissed off. Sprinkled amidst the twanging love pleas and swinging piano riffs are explorations of a real, endemic hurt which, for decades, the most talented and brave among us have disentangled from this country’s DNA and interwoven into art. Turn to “Take It and Smile,” a bouncy indictment against that special American hatred that seems to fill the air these days. “When it gets worse all the while, how can I just take it and smile? All the blind hatred so vile, all the pain, just take it and smile,” Max Clarke croons in a manner that is so upbeat that you hardly catch the gut-punch of what he’s saying. It’s a sneak-attack; a right hook to the temple on a gorgeous spring day. Similar worry is afoot on “Too Bad,” a gorgeously rich, guitar-based tapestry of discontent. Clarke sighs, “Deep inside the engine room, waves upon the frozen beach like a riptide. All control now is drifting so far out of reach.” That same upset, the anger that’s defined Clarke’s American world, slips in and out with so little fuss you hardly register its searing pathos. When you do, though, it adds a new layer to Cut Worms—one that’s tricky to pull off genuinely, and one which Clarke has become an expert at crafting. —Miranda Wollen [Read our review]

39. Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit: Weathervanes

Weathervanes is another undeniable offering from Isbell and his fellow 400 Unit players—who, together, constitute one of the best live rock bands on the road at any given time. Like Isbell’s solo magnum opus Southeastern, Weathervanes hits close to home, but it finds more inspiration in the everyday moments. While the album is more of a straight trail than a winding path with lots of peaks and valleys, its steadiness is one of its most attractive attributes. Within the first 20 seconds of the album, Isbell sings: “Everybody dies but you’ve gotta find a reason to carry on.” And while the 400 Unit frequently excels at rocking out (just listen to the entirety of “Miles” and the heartbreaker “When We Were Close” for proof), some of Isbell’s best work is found in his folk songs. He reminds us some of the best wisdom comes from questioning the status quo on the harmonica-infused “Cast Iron Skillet” and encapsulates the phenomenon of just wishing you could step out of your own life for a minute on “Volunteer.” —Ellen Johnson [Read our review]

38. JPEGMAFIA & Danny Brown: SCARING THE HOES

A collaboration between hip-hop heavyweights, SCARING THE HOES is an arc of brilliance from JPEGMAFIA and Danny Brown, two of the most important MCs of the last 10 years. This album is a collision at full-speed, boasting some of the very best rap songs of 2023 and of the 2020s altogether. “Lean Beef Patty” arrives with mangled beats, while “Steppa Pig” employs the chaos of unorthodox synthesizers. So few convergences have ever sported such a unique and honed-in chemistry, yet Peggy and Danny are in a completely different orbit from everyone else but greatly in-step with each other. “Orange Juice Jones” and “Fentanyl Tester” showcase their individual talents and coupled malleability, while “Garbage Pale Kids” might go down as the best rap track of the year, as Danny and Peggy go absolutely manic with their flows. “You can’t be broke and over 30, getting your ass beat where you sleep at,” Peggy spits. “Come on, bro.” If you want to know what it looks like when two titans join together and refuse to steal each other’s thunder, look no further than SCARING THE HOES. —Matt Mitchell

37. Young Fathers: Heavy Heavy

The fourth proper album from Young Fathers is being billed as a “back-to-basics” effort, but there’s absolutely nothing basic about it. Bearing in mind that the Edinburgh trio’s full-length debut still sounds stunningly fresh almost a decade after the fact, it’s no surprise that their music remains as impossible to categorize as ever on Heavy Heavy. Five years after their last effort, bandmembers Kayus Bankole, G. Hastings and Alloysious Massaquoi can still be counted on to create a clamoring mélange of electronic experimentalism, West African rhythms, art-damaged hip hop and god knows what else. (If you can imagine The Weeknd produced by the likes of Suicide, FKA Twigs, M.I.A. and Massive Attack, whatever you imagine still wouldn’t be quite cutting-edge enough.) As the new album title suggests, Heavy Heavy roils with the weight of the world bearing down from every angle. And yet the music itself glows with a sense of spirit that refuses to be quashed. In its own peculiar way, in fact, Heavy Heavy gives off the intoxicating, celebratory allure of a party record. As alien as Young Fathers might sound to previous (and current!) generations of dance music fans, the band has a way of using brain-twisting rhythms to get listeners on their feet. Lest we forget that disco and post-punk were practically born on the same dancefloors, Heavy Heavy reminds us that the DNA of both forms was bound to yield strange new permutations for a long time to come. —Saby Reyes-Kulkarni

36. Water From Your Eyes: Everyone’s Crushed

Everyone’s Crushed picks up right where Water From Your Eyes’ last album left off. Its cheeky opening track, “Structure,” shares the same name as the Brooklyn natives’ 2021 breakthrough record. It’s as if vocalist Rachel Brown and multi-instrumentalist/producer Nate Amos are world-building, expanding on the lore of their dense catalog. It’s another case that marks the duo as one of the most innovative, exciting creative partnerships of the moment. Their vision has become fully reified, merging pop balladry, Berlin techno and indie rock in methods that seemed unfathomable until they executed it. Despite that record’s elliptical abstractions, Everyone’s Crushed takes their collagist ethos a step further, shining an incandescent limelight on Water From Your Eyes at the absolute height of their powers; it’s their best work yet. —Grant Sharples [Read our review]

35. Nation of Language: Strange Disciple

The instrumentation on Strange Disciple is unlike anything Nation of Language have done before. On a track like “Sightseer,” you can find all of the familiar fixtures—the push and pull of minimalist arrangements that blossom into an explosive unraveling, all done beneath the gloss of woozy, beautiful electronica. The band making these denser, bolder and bigger songs was always a visible path. The result is an immensity that comes alive more and more with every passing chapter, a living room and nightclub album drunk on technicolor, dancing and candy-coated longing. Strange Disciple evokes a stirring emotional maximalism, through vignettes and a cloud of splashy, arresting opulence. “Weak In Your Light” follows a pulsing metronome of erotic, low-octave key turns—which allow for Ian Devaney to take his own vocals into these operatic, church-clearing ranges; “Stumbling Still” offers a tangible, muted pop tone bustles in conversation with a drum machine—only to tumble into a titanic, appetizing arrangement of malleable dance-floor brushstrokes. Constriction was erased from Nation of Language’s vocabulary, and Strange Disciple is a blown-up, successful imagining that erases the limiting confines of any rough draft. It’s, in no minced words, the band’s greatest document yet. —Matt Mitchell [Read our feature]

34. Sweeping Promises: Good Living Is Coming For You

Throughout Good Living Is Coming For You, Sweeping Promises out-mutilate the corporate mutilators, taking these fragmented scenes and slogans and holding them up to their lo-fi funhouse mirror until they resemble reality again. With each paradoxical hook, picture two gears turning against each other until they smoke and glow red. They carry a resonant anxiety: What if there’s no payoff for the treadmill crawl of the working week? What if the grind just grinds you down? Consider the band’s grooviest track, the rubbery synth jam “Walk in Place”: “Ever get the feeling that there’s something you’re supposed to do?” Mondal sings. “Some kind of cosmic order that you didn’t follow through? / Can’t go against the current, can’t shrug off the restraints…you’re just walking in place.” Mondal and Schnug are masters of conveying what they call “Generic dread resistant of a label” on “Throw of the Dice”; everything in life that ad copy imitates but never actually captures. That even goes for “Ideal No,” a closing track that doesn’t cohere as well as the album’s highlights. My favorite part comes in the bridge, where Mondal, evoking Pylon’s Vanessa Briscoe Hay, suddenly crows like a bird. It’s one moment of many where Good Living Is Coming For You jolts you to look up from the treadmill. —Taylor Ruckle [Read our review]

33. Jessie Ware: That! Feels Good!

Despite her dance music roots, Jessie Ware’s run of albums from her 2012 debut Devotion to 2017’s Glasshouse trafficked in a trendy—if not anonymous—blend of R&B, soul and sophisti-pop. Her disco pivot on What’s Your Pleasure? was a gamble that paid off in spades, revitalizing a career that had plateaued; an inviting, undulating club-pop record that found Ware taking you by the hand and leading you into a crowd. Her new album—and its title—act as an emphatic answer. On That! Feels Good!, Ware casts aside any measure of modesty, transforming her disco den mother persona into the epitome of pleasure and excess. That! Feels Good! is a record of sterling, mirrorball-lit songs and bawdy lyricism. It’s Ware’s finest collection of work to date. The most ambitious song in Ware’s catalog, “Begin Again” seems to carry every emotion she’s felt in the last three years. “Why does all the purest love get filtered through machines?” she asks, venting through her frustrations about having had to work remotely on much of this album. It ends with repetitions of another question: “Can we begin again?” And, while she may not have known it at the time she wrote this, the answer would be a resounding yes. Time marched on, and Jessie Ware’s career has decidedly begun anew. —Eric Bennett [Read our review]

32. Reverend Kristin Michael Hayter: SAVED!

SAVED! is Hayter’s first record under her own name—with a “Reverend” honorific added, after she got ordained as part of the process. She recorded its 11 stark pieces in high fidelity before forcing them onto a 4-track recorder, then churned them through a litany of broken cassette players, remaking the sound at each turn. Inspired by the Pentecostal-Holiness Movement and the brimstone sounds of Old Regular Baptists and the Louvin Brothers, the result is an unspooled revelation, a supplicant’s distorted glee—a celebration which Hayter leaves pointedly open-ended. “As you are when the end comes, so will you be when you must face Him,” she declares on the website of her label, Perpetual Flame Ministries. “Whether this is enlightenment or insanity is up to the listener to decide.” There are familiar tracks on SAVED! for anyone who’s spent time in church pews. Songs are cut with echoes of glossolalia, more commonly known as speaking in tongues—a level of transcendence that Hayter achieved through “sleep deprivation, fasting, repetition of prayer, and sensory overstimulation.” Hayter uses self-allusions not only to reflect upon and conclude her Lingua Ignota story, but to revel in the possibilities that could come after it. —Annie Parnell [Read our feature]

31. The Mountain Goats: Jenny from Thebes

We get to know Jenny in detail here, and her relationship to one of her final guests and the character of her house—its occupants always shifting but its hospitality always steadfast. “Absence after absence / Keep the place secure,” John Darnielle sings in “Clean Slate.” Darnielle has referenced how his hesitation can grow as he brings in more new musicians for a project—but while Jenny from Thebes feels big compared to the Mountain Goats’ stripped-down albums, there’s restraint on these songs, and the rock-opera approach never feels garish. The string section on “Jenny III” adds a thoughtful coda to a confessional moment between Jenny and her sometime companion. Prickly horns, confidential vocals and soft, anxious guitar refrains create an undercurrent of dread in “Ground Level,” a song sketching the exhaustion and the lingering recovery of Jenny’s guests at her safe house—eyes on all the exits, three hours of sleep a night. Jenny from Thebes knows that if you push your imagination hard enough, your imaginings can become your lived convictions. And if you act enough on your convictions, you yourself might be expelled into imagination. One of this record’s biggest achievements might be building out the character of Jenny while managing to not sacrifice her central mystery. —Laura Dzubay [Read our review]

30. Youth Lagoon: Heaven Is a Junkyard

Written in and demoed while recovering from a freak illness that sidelined him for months and recorded in tune with the spirit of Trevor Powers’ dear friend Cormac Roth after his passing, there is a shadow of survival across Heaven Is a Junkyard. The world Powers has captured on this album is sure to change the lexicon in some capacity, whether it’s how we mark our own continuity or how we might begin to repair ourselves with kindness beyond grief. It feels right to say that the world needs Youth Lagoon now more than ever. Heaven Is a Junkyard aims to better understand what survival means in the eyes of a savior; how the underbelly of America’s cruelty can somehow make sense in conversation with a greater being—and what Powers’ presence is within all of that. The muscles and the guts and the nerves have been peeled back to expose the bone and reveal the truth: a singular voice surrounded by cadaverous, gaunt arrangements; a body making sense of its world by memorizing every inch of it. Powers shrunk the world of Youth Lagoon down into a single neighborhood—one that is not yet beaten down by the sun but overflowing with technicolor. In the cracks of pain is beauty; a shivering exodus of catharsis, hope, empowerment and togetherness. 20 months ago, God was suffering with Powers. Now, God is reveling in the joy and the strata of Boise, Idaho, a mooring, picturesque tomorrow that Powers has written him into. “Heaven is a junkyard,” he sings. “And it’s my home.” —Matt Mitchell [Read our feature]

29. yeule: Softscars

Big and bold and vibrant and inhuman are good descriptors for Singaporean glitch pop singer/songwriter yeule’s Softscars. At 12 tracks that never meander or stall, the project builds upon the masterwork of their 2022 album Glitch Princess. It’s impossible to understate how good Softscars is—as songs like “sulky baby” and the title track are absolutely bonkers, beautiful and hypnotic. And a song like “dazies” proves yeule even has some interests that dip into shoegaze and alt-rock, too. There’s a tangible reclamation of grief and trauma across the record, as yeule slides across octaves and pitches, combing through autotune and digital melodies with palpable and generous grace. The work here is evidence that they are one of our next great rock stars—surpassing the work of their predecessors, like Grimes, with ease. There’s no real other way of saying it: yeule is the past, present and future all rolled into one barrier-obliterating voice. —Matt Mitchell

28. Ragana: Desolation’s Flower

Desolation’s Flower, the sixth album from Washington-by-Oakland duo Ragana, is a massive, brutal and limitless metal record. Coley and Maria deliver aching, crushing songs that turn sludge into fever dreams. On the title track, Coley screams into an inaudible coda captured by soaring, distorted guitars and impenetrable noise. The seven-minute centerpiece “Winter’s Light, Pt. 2” is a particularly damning portrait of survival, as Coley sings “There is no return to a place before pain.” Desolation’s Flower demands to be heard, and it demands to show you its wounds. On “Woe,” Maria takes the lead and the song’s arrangement softens—but only for a moment, as the duo plug mutilated vocals into instrumentation that dares to crumble in on itself. Desolation’s Flower isn’t just the best metal record of the year, it’s a soaring document of queer and trans creativity that echoes the dense, painful and familiar vestiges of a continued life under the thumb of oppression. —Matt Mitchell

27. feeble little horse: Girl With Fish

Shattering the myth of “sophomore slump syndrome,” feeble little horse possess an uncanny bravery. They forge ahead with a fearlessness that is palpable even when the lyrics are sparse. You can feel it in the overdrive and the distortion, and the riffs that are so intense they register in your chest. Vocalist Lydia Slocum makes it most evident on tracks like “Healing,” in which she professes: “Paint still washes off / Even after it’s dried / It doesn’t matter / To the sink.” With her gossamer vocals floating over doting guitars, it’s a thinly veiled shot at reassurance—a promise that if you’re patient all the pain will go away. It’s these moments of tenderness that make Girl with Fish so endearing. There’s a sense that the band has seen what they’ve needed to, that they’ve been where you are and found a way through. feeble little horse don’t shy away from the harsh truths, like on “Tin Man,” when Slocum admits “I found you / All rusted and leaky / Took him apart / And I found nobody.” They highlight the letdowns and the L’s we all reluctantly take—staring down the moments that really suck and daring to transform them into proof of redemption. —Samantha Sullivan [Read our review]

26. Jess Williamson: Time Ain’t Accidental

Time Ain’t Accidental arrives like a rebirth for Jess Williamson. The centerpiece narrative of the album is a breakup—which she went through during the early throes of COVID—paired with a liberated sense of self-reflection and new musical headspace. One of Williamson’s greatest strengths is her ability to captivate a room without yelling too loud to grab everyone’s attention. It’s through her vocals—which are as angelic as they are familiar, alive and airy—that move the compass’ needle on her albums, and they shine so deftly on “Hunter,” “Chasing Spirits” and “Roads.” There’s empowerment far and wide across Time Ain’t Accidental, as if Williamson emerged on the other side of transitional grief with a new lease on autonomy, gratitude and kindness. But that didn’t come without her own personal carnage, which she presents to us in some of country music’s richest and most-animated vignettes. —Matt Mitchell [Read our feature]

25. Noname: Sundial

Best Albums 2023Noname’s third album—and first in five years—arrived as an immediate, unforgettable triumph. The Chicago MC delivers momentous flows atop silk-smooth instrumentals. Noname’s voice is dynamic, revolutionary. Songs like “toxic” boast romance-centric musings, as she spits “He like toxicity, my recipe good / Get that pussy to drip, wear that drip in the hood / Good riddance and good dollars makin’ him feel better / Fuck better, want better.” Likewise, on “afro futurism,” Noname admits “This is a dog-eat-dog world, she got family to hunt / It’s that time of the month / Blunt bitches and booze, I could smoke on a good mood / You could squabble in the comments, bitch, you are a comet.” She pulls no punches, rapping about Obama being the first Black president but then turning around and bombing innocent lives. Noname amplifies what’s around her and examines what’s in front of her. Sundial is packed with melodies and hooks that are pensive and intimate. Features from billy woods, $ilkMoney, Common and Ayoni turn the album into a mirage of quality. And Noname’s lyricism is literary, like a spoken-word poem transcribed above old-school beats. The controversial inclusion of Jay Electronica on “balloons” is marred by some, shrugged off by others. If anything is true about Sundial, it’s that Noname is quite interested in making flaws a part of her own vocabulary, working them out in real time—uninterested in who’s still running with her when the last track fades out and who isn’t. —Matt Mitchell

24. Lana Del Rey: Did you know that there’s a tunnel under Ocean Blvd

Best Albums 2023It’s a trope by now, an artist’s “most personal album yet.” Often, these emotionally naked projects come from folks who’ve never been particularly elusive, making this raw framing feel fraudulent. Lana Del Rey, though, traffics in ornate, melodramatic artifice. Her ninth album, Did you know that there’s a tunnel under Ocean Blvd?, is the first time she’s truly let us in, and it’s a new peak for the artist—uncharacteristically personal, and overwhelming in its beauty. On songs like “Fingertips,” “A&W” and “The Grants” she explores her feelings about maternity and mortality, as well as her relationships with her family. For an album exploring such heavy topics, it’s notable how sonically light it sounds, with each song lifted up by sterling strings. There’s also her innate humor ringing throughout, with songs like “Peppers” and “Taco Truck x VB” flipping the seriousness on its head. Lana just gets to be Lana, singing about her own inner world, her innermost thoughts, and her vape. —Eric Bennett

23. billy woods & Kenny Segal: Maps

Best Albums 2023There aren’t many artists who’ve had a 2023 like billy woods has. The New York rapper popped up on tracks by Aesop Rock and Noname, released another perfect album with his buddy E L U C I D as Armand Hammer (see #46) and, a few months earlier, fucked around and dropped a second full-length collaboration with producer Kenny Segal. Listening to Maps, it becomes evident that the two men have learned how to play to each other’s strengths. Segal knows that woods can make hay with any beat no matter how twisted or spiky, and woods knows to let those beats breathe and evolve before stomping through them. In interviews, woods has called the album a “hero’s journey.” In that case, it’s akin to Martin Scorsese’s After Hours or Dante’s Inferno—a long day’s journey into the inner circles of hell, meeting gentrifiers, dodging wildfires and daring to down a glass of New York tap water upon his return. —Robert Ham

22. Greg Mendez: Greg Mendez

Best Albums 2023“Picking up the things you left / I never thought I’d be so upset” are the lines Greg Mendez uses to open his new, self-titled album. It’s a fitting entrance for the Philadelphian, as he spends the next nine songs putting back together the fragments of his own life—attempting to understand the absurdity of his own truth and what hard damage has met him on the road to clarity. Ever the master of his storytelling craft, Mendez makes a bookend out of imagery that can be plugged into anyone’s own correspondence with the world around them. Greg Mendez is one man’s vulnerable, open book made accessible to anyone who might find something courageous or trusting within it. From drug use to heartbreak to childhood trauma to houselessness, Mendez offers a loving embrace drenched with hindsight to his former self. In turn, the album is not a critique of his past, but an attempt at understanding how it informs his personhood in the present. He populates the tracklist with recoiling and punctuated stories that are as humorous as they are heartbreaking. —Matt Mitchell [Read our review]

21. Yves Tumor: Praise a Lord Who Chews But Which Does Not Consume; (Or Simply, Hot Between Worlds)

Best Albums 2023Sean Bowie’s fifth full-length Yves Tumor album, Praise A Lord Who Chews But Which Does Not Consume; (Or Simply, Hot Between Worlds) marks the latest bold step in the progression from their ambient/sound collage-inspired debut, 2015’s When Man Fails You, to 2020’s critically lauded art-rock opus Heaven To A Tortured Mind and 2021’s EP The Asymptomatical World, the former of which brought forth apt comparisons to the likes of Prince and the other Bowie. Still, to drop those names—suggesting the cover-band-level imitations others have attempted as of late—feels like it does the all-consuming world that this Bowie creates a disservice. The thing they have most in common with experimental forebearers like these is their inability to fit the mold provided for them, as well as their incessant need to reinvent themselves every time we turn our backs. On Praise A Lord…, their work still contains that urge to reference other genres and periods of time in music history, but it never feels like pastiche. If anything, Bowie is more interested in detaching it from any nostalgic context and placing it in the framework of their own immersive collage of sound. It’s psychedelic, but not dreamy or spaced-out; if anything, Bowie’s psychedelia is metallic—all intense greens and blues and purples that shade their maximalist, deconstructed vision. —Elise Soutar [Read our review]

20. The Lemon Twigs: Everything Harmony

Best Albums 2023Brian and Michael D’Addario have been calling Everything Harmony their “Simon & Garfunkel record,” given how much they let these new songs breathe atop dynamic, orchestral and—mostly—acoustic arrangements. “Corner Of My Eye” is very Fate for Breakfast-era Art Garfunkel, as Brian splays an inquisitive falsetto over a sweet, catchy, plucky melody. It’s chamber-pop perfected to a T, which you can hear through a delicious wall of harmonies cascading at the 1:50 mark. “I’ve got a wonderful feeling / That’s ripe for being wrong,” Brian sings, cheekily. It’s their most-conscious and present album yet, as the brothers couple the anxieties and romances of their mid-20s with their textbook humor. While Songs for the General Public was a 50/50 songwriting split between Michael and Brian and led to a hodgepodge tracklist, the conception of Everything Harmony was much more and synthesized and particularly influenced by Brian’s sonic vision and interests. Following his brother’s lead, Michael reconfigured his output to help make each song on the tracklist parallel with the next. I could go on and on about why Everything Harmony is this perfect, idealistic rendering of mid-century, singer/songwriter bliss; why it’s the best-engineered album of 2023 altogether. Unlike their first three albums, the Lemon Twigs have toned down the loudness. Don’t get it twisted, though: the D’Addario brothers can still melt your faces. “In My Head” and “What You Were Doing” tap into the glam rock ethos that still courses through their veins. The former, especially, signaled an end to the amber-colored, glammy, retro sheen the Lemon Twigs were once so deeply engulfed in, as Michael gives hypnotizing, McCartney-inspired “Ooos” that contort and bend like boa constrictors. —Matt Mitchell [Read our feature]

19. Indigo De Souza: All of This Will End

Best Albums 2023Indigo De Souza’s music can be funny, sad, sweet or unsettling—sometimes all at once. In touch with her feelings and attentive to those of others, De Souza’s work presents a genuine openness that, while oft-imitated, is truly singular. If Any Shape You Take is notable for the empathetic way it conveyed insecurity, her new album All of This Will End is marked by its presentation of anger and anxiety. Though it pulls from many of the same sonic places, it’s messier—less concerned with traditional structures and genre constraints. The opener “Time Back” is done up with autotune in a way that recalls “17” from two years ago, though it only poses as a pop song for a moment. Despite its sub-two-minute run time, “Time Back” undergoes three separate movements, as De Souza vents about mistreatment—proclaiming that she’s reclaiming the pieces of precious life that were taken from her. Closing out All of This Will End is one of De Souza’s most divine pieces of work. “Younger & Dumber” is an easy song to label “devastating,” because it’s sad, but its power is more restorative than destructive. Yes, she’s singing about pain and about a relationship that took so much from her, but she isn’t just mining or exploiting that pain; she’s reflecting on her past trauma while affording herself grace. —Eric Bennett [Read our review]

18. boygenius: the record

Best Albums 2023The first EP from boygenius—the supergroup composed of three of the greatest millennial rock singers: Julien Baker, Phoebe Bridgers and Lucy Dacus—felt raw in an almost accidental way, like we were peeking into a quiet evening among friends through a door left ajar. the record travels to a similar space emotionally, but everything about it feels more curated: the tracklist, the sonic mood, and the sharing of the mic (and pen—all three artists are credited as songwriters on every song). Boygenius’ collaboration is harmonious in more ways than one, and the record shows they belong among the ranks of the greatest American supergroups. For every bar of lo-fi folk or pop music on the record, there’s a rock ’n’ roll outburst to match. In the fashion of Bridgers’ “I Know The End” (and a seemingly endless stream of indie rock songs since then), both “$20” and “Satanist” feature guttural screams. “Anti-Curse” is another great, loud moment. Baker initially takes the lead, but then a little glimpse of each artist comes into focus: Dacus’ trembling guitars, Bridgers’ cool soprano against the backdrop, and Baker’s warm-blooded words. Their three voices together are magic, they know this, and best of all, they seem to just really enjoy making music together as much as we enjoy listening to it. Baker, Bridgers and Dacus are nothing if not effective communicators, but it’s clear the most important dialogue is between each other. —Ellen Johnson [Read our review]

17. Nourished By Time: Erotic Probiotic 2

Best Albums 2023Describing anything as “DIY”—or, God forbid, “bedroom pop”—can conjure the sound of music made minimal by necessity, with its charm derived from its limitations. Though his full-length debut under the moniker Nourished By Time was entirely made in his parents’ basement in Baltimore, Marcus Brown’s blend of ‘90s R&B and ‘80s freestyle is so impressive because it appears to have arrived fully formed. For such a bare-bones operation, its fruits overwhelm. Planting himself at the midpoint between SWV and The Blue Nile, between heartbreak and life under late-stage capitalism, between dance floor bangers and deeply-felt pleas for understanding, Brown threads all of it together to create an idiosyncratic, well-crafted collection of songs that can’t help but attach themselves to you. The melancholic guitar fog of opener “Quantum Suicide” runs perfectly into the synth-driven bounce of “Shed That Fear” and “Daddy.” By the time he’s wringing your heart out with lines like “My prayer is for our clouds to collide / But I have to face the possibility that I’m wasting my time”—delivered in lush harmonic layers on “Rain Water Promise”—you’re ready to pivot with him wherever he aims Nourished By Time’s arrow next. Loving and losing are eternal themes for a reason, but in his isolation, Brown repurposes them into something strikingly original and frequently gorgeous. —Elise Soutar

16. Kelela: Raven

Best Albums 2023Experimental R&B singer Kelela has always expected more. In the intervening years between Take Me a_Part, the Remixes and her second studio album, Raven, Kelela immersed herself in everything from Black queer and feminist theory to hooks and Devereaux, and performed an audit of her network—asking what her connections are really doing to support Black women and marginalized people in their practices. She forged a new path ahead based on those responses. It’s this act of expecting better, seeking it out in writings and conjuring a liberated future through ingenious production that makes Raven such a shocking listen. Kelela is no stranger to changing the game through her futuristic dance music, but Raven possesses a unique brilliance. Her heavenly vocals pair exquisitely with LDSXOXO’s disorienting breakbeats; the denouement of “Contact” is psychedelic and all too real at once, an elegant celebration of queer Black feminine pleasure. Ambient comedowns act like valves, reducing the pressure for a few precious moments before the party starts again. Raven is a tour of a freer future, where the party’s only just begun. —Devon Chodzin

15. Olivia Rodrigo: GUTS

Best Albums 2023Olivia Rodrigo’s second album, GUTS, begins with “all-american bitch,” an ironic gem that arrives as a gentle, folksy ballad before making a heel turn into a pop punk kiss-off to her idolizers: “I am built like a mother and a total machine,” she sings angelically over a light, fairytale-like guitar plucking. When the full band kicks in and rocks out in the chorus, it’s apparent just how much the now-20-year-old has been holding in all these years: “I don’t get angry when I’m pissed / I’m the eternal optimist / I scream inside to deal with it,” she chants, tauntingly, before actually screaming her guts out. This is about more than just adulthood: GUTS is a brash, sobering look at the totality of fame on a young woman—how it consumes, abuses and isolates. On SOUR, Rodrigo wore her sadness and rage as armor; her emotions were intense but predictable; and the music hinted at a brighter sky beyond the stormy weather. Not so on GUTS, where bad decisions are encouraged, death is preferable over socializing and every playboy can be fixed. On the dizzy, jangly-rock “bad idea right?,” she willingly ignores her mind’s rational pleas to have one more tryst with an ex, while on the soaring ballad “logical,” she attempts to reason with her own lovesick feelings by believing the impossible: “‘Cause if rain don’t pour and sun don’t shine / Then changing you is possible / I guess love is never logical.” The stakes are higher in these new loves built on power and age differentials—and the consequences cut a lot deeper. —Rachel Saywitz [Read our review]

14. Maria BC: Spike Field

Best Albums 2023Spike Field is a dreamy soundscape of the multi-instrumentalist’s inner conflict of past and future self. As a young artist who began the journey of Maria BC during the pandemic, self-reflection has always been deeply embedded in their work. Spike Field confronts the shame of their past to reconcile who they were to be comfortable with who they become. The ambient folk artist’s soft vocals float across the eerie landscape of the raw emotions of “Still” however, they soar in choral passion in “Watcher.” In an album wrought with potent imagery, the album’s namesake provides a quiet contemplation of human communication through the concept of menacing earthworks. The atmospheric album combines Maria BC’s talents as a poet and classically trained vocalist, all emphasized through their passion for experimenting with human sounds. In all its morose beauty, Maria BC provides honest commentary on the painful truth of the shame of growing up. —Olivia Abercrombie [Read our feature]

13. jaimie branch: Fly or Die Fly or Die Fly or Die (World War)

Best Albums 2023This should have been jaimie branch’s great leap forward. The trumpeter was already being celebrated for her far flying compositions and improvisation with her own group and as half of the duo Anteloper. It was on those waves of momentum that she and her regular crew of collaborators, including drummer Chad Taylor, bassist Jason Ajemian and cellist/keyboardist Lester St. Louis, landed at Omaha’s Bemis Center for Contemporary Art in April of last year for a session that stirred the cauldron something fierce. The mood of these recordings was equal parts celebratory, inward-looking and outwardly furious. The quartet’s collective interests in the various arms of political music came into play, be they Afrobeat, punk or spiritual jazz. As with so many of the great recordings on the International Anthem inprint, Fly or Die Fly or Die Fly or Die (World War) sounds boundless and wondrous. Sadly, we’ll never know where branch could have gone from here, as she left our blue marble far too soon last August. Long may she fly. — Robert Ham

12. Kara Jackson: Why Does the Earth Give Us People to Love?

Best Albums 2023​​What the Chicago-based interdisciplinary writer and musician Kara Jackson accomplishes on her debut LP Why Does The Earth Give Us People To Love is not “raw,” at least not in the sense that the writing is unrefined or off-the-cuff. Instead, that distinction comes through how the listener is made to feel listening to Jackson’s cosmic country jams. Lines like “Some people take lives to be recognized” are delivered with nonchalance, and the way she belts “don’t you bother me” over swirling harp notes elicits chills. Jackson is communicating her message with precise orchestration for optimal impact. As a listener, you may feel exposed, maybe even singled out. Jackson starts the album with “recognized,” a lo-fi exercise contemplating what people do for validation and why. As she and her piano arpeggiate, she raises the stakes. It contrasts with the lush “no fun/party,” where her theatrical voice balances with a racing guitar and reclining strings. She reckons with men who won’t rise to the occasion and take that out on her and, as much as she laments the loss of companionship, she remembers that the other person is just as liable to miss her, too. Across the album, Jackson’s expert guitar work and lyricism reveals an extensive archive of her relationships with peers, partners and more who she’s entrusted with her love. Many of those people are men who’ve mishandled that love. When Jackson is solo, she is a force. With her friends’ help, the result is divine. —Devon Chodzin [Read our review]

11. Bully: Lucky For You

Best Albums 2023“It’s unattractive for me to burden you with shame,” sings Alicia Bognanno about halfway through Lucky For You, her fourth album as Bully. She shouts the line with the kind of exhaustion and straightforwardness that we come to expect from Bully. With 2020’s Sugaregg, Bognanno turned her band into a solo project and pushed onward with a blurry collection of cathartic, tired songs. Three years later, Bognanno picks up where she left off with Lucky For You, another strong collection of anthemic post-grunge that doubles as Bully’s poppiest record so far. But this album’s catchiness runs contrary to Bognanno’s strongest suit, which is writing about varying forms of disappointment. Bognanno has always been an expert at pairing her chagrin to fuzzy rock songs, but Lucky For You likely has some of her most muscular tunes yet. In the explosive, shouted chorus of “Hard to Love,” the catchy bass lick of “How Will I Know,” and the pummeling drum intro of “Days Move Slow,” Bognanno clearly wants the smoldering, crunching textures of this record to ring out in the listener’s memory. Between images of black holes, shades of blue, and pledges to “never get fucked up again,” the most memorable thing here is her intensifying honesty and lyrical dexterity. Bognanno’s writing for Bully has always sat atop the balance of visceral and ephemeral. On Lucky For You, that tightrope balance is a beautiful achievement. —Eric Bennett [Read our feature]

10. Sofia Kourtesis: Madres

Best Albums 2023Sofia Kourtesis captures a warmth few of her contemporaries ever achieve. Arriving after a series of singles and EPs, Kourtesis’ first LP—Madres—finds the Peruvian producer working within storied traditions of deep house and the Berlin nightclub scene, while infusing those influences with a beating heart all her own, like a tender embrace in the heat of a crowded dance floor. Tracks like “How Music Makes You Feel Better” live on the miasma of emotions Kourtesis entangles at any turn, skittering house loops, airy vocal exhalations, and brief chops of soul singer howls. On “Moving Houses,” Kourtesis forgoes beats entirely for an ambient piece centered on decaying loops of her own voice, shedding her usual arsenal to even more intimate poignance. Though built through struggles and pain, Madres is a reciprocal gift from Sofia Kourtesis to the listener, a record that seeks to impart its personal comforts and catharsis onto those who take it into their hearts. —Natalie Marlin

9. ANOHNI and the Johnsons: My Back Was A Bridge For You To Cross

Best Albums 2023My Back Was A Bridge For You To Cross is not an album that seeks out an answer to any of its questions. In the wake of an ongoing, unfurling and merciless stream of abuse enacted against trans people, hearing a record that illustrates so closely what the fear of extinction—both ecologically and socially—might look like is necessary, heavy, equitable and full of care. ANOHNI’s work is rid of mythos and, instead, rooted in anti-destiny. The world she colors on My Back Was A Bridge For You To Cross is flawed and harsh and unforgiving, yet it is also a great container of love and respect. “You be free. You be free, for me. For me, you. Be free for me,” she echoes out, at the end of the album. Even in her greatest pivot towards darkness, ANOHNI holds her loved ones up through the ashes of violence and demands that fate take the shape of a nurturing, generous light. —Matt Mitchell [Read our review]

8. Mitski: The Land is Inhospitable and So Are We

Best Albums 2023Mitski’s seventh album feels, all at once, like a much-needed course correction away from ‘80s-style synths growing staler with each use and like her lowest stakes release yet. The towering expectation and deafening hype that surrounded Laurel Hell seemed to have died down, leaving her free to exhale. The Land is Inhospitable and So Are We finds Mitski breaking new ground, building transcendent songs with the accompaniment of acoustic guitars, pedal steel, a string section and an entire 17-person choir. These resplendent pieces fit together to form fascinating, delicately arranged songs. One of the most striking things about the record is how it succeeds while sacrificing the reliance on melody that undergirds some of Mitski’s best songwriting thus far. There is nothing as electric as “Nobody,” nothing as distorted as “Your Best American Girl.” And yet, this is her finest collection of songs. There’s a beauty to her pastoral vignettes that resonates without the need for traditional pop hooks. It’s not music that’s suited to arenas, and maybe that’s the point. Mitski can do anything she wants to now, and we’re better off under her reign. —Eric Bennett [Read our review]

7. L’Rain: I Killed Your Dog

Best Albums 2023L’Rain toys with a wide variety of sounds on I Killed Your Dog, exhibiting the versatility that Tajja Cheek and her collaborators have demonstrated on prior work. “5 to 8 Hours a Day (WWwaG)” is equal parts vintage folk and futuristic post-rock, exploring Cheek’s evolving relationship with the concept and reality of “practicing” as an artist. Pedal steel and electric guitars have a prominent role in the piece, at one level, to make it abundantly clear that L’Rain is not referencing jazz. Such a genre tag gets thrown onto her work a little too quickly without adequately accounting for the rock and folk references made alongside them. “Uncertainty Principle” is an especially potent listen, with growing vocals, percussion and electronics in conflict—mirroring the experience of being at a crossroads with a potential new mate. One of the album’s biggest stars is the most pop-like track, closer “New Year’s UnResolution”—a meditation on the mental checkpoints one reaches throughout and after the end of a relationship: “I’ve forgotten what it’s like to be in love / Swallow sun spit up snow / Days, they don’t get old.” Cheek’s voice feels like an overhead thought-bubble while synths churn into something psychedelic and danceable, coagulating into L’Rain’s catchiest work yet. It’s an all-around stunner. —Devon Chodzin [Read our review]

6. Julie Byrne: The Greater Wings

Best Albums 2023What Julie Byrne brings to us on The Greater Wings is, quite possibly, one of the heaviest and most thoughtful records of 2023—not just because of Bryne’s artistic singularity, but because of her attention to partnership and symbiosis and generosity. The talismanic, guiding force on the album was the passing of Eric Littmann, who was Byrne’s dearest musical partner and soulmate, had a steadfast belief in what they could make together—knowing that it was critical and vital work and worth pursuing through whatever shape it was destined to take. What must be said is that The Greater Wings exists the way it does because of the brilliance and care that Littmann put into it alongside Byrne while he was alive. The energy of memorial surrounding the beauty of his time spent here with us adds even more depth to Byrne’s songwriting—which is deeply packed in a language that is as meticulous and clear-eyed as it is accessible to anyone who has been enraptured by a similar degree of ache. Her emblems of mourning and recollection can so easily be about a bygone lover, a friend who’s passed on or an insurmountable, uncategorical mountain of loss. In that way, the songs she writes are timeless treasures. The Greater Wings does not aim to settle the score on any type of trauma. Byrne approaches pain on a molecular, curious level, as she attempts to better understand the sorrow, not conquer it. With deep bonds, that is a nature of healing that is so often emphasized in poetics but forgotten in conceptual music. You don’t get through heartbreak, you learn to live with its wounds and allow them to change and transform as days pass. By The Greater Wings’ end, the hole in Byrne’s heart is not patched shut; it’s blurred as a means of enduring. —Matt Mitchell [Read our feature]

5. Ratboys: The Window

Best Albums 2023The 11 tracks on The Window are something of a real majesty. Ratboys zero in on everything they do exceptionally well and put it in a blender. Julia Steiner’s songwriting, in particular, is at a pinnacle—which says a lot, given how dense and heavy and immaculate Printer’s Devil was, the demos for which were tracked in the emptied rooms of her childhood home in Louisville after it was sold. Somewhere on the spectrum in-between Rilo Kiley and Wildflowers-era Tom Petty, Ratboys have made it to a place in their own artistry where they have ample reserves of courage to execute risks. At the center of it all are Steiner—whose lyrics probe familiar and personal imagery through Lake Michigan parables and wholehearted reflections—and Dave Sagan—whose guitar-playing is one of immense finesse and sublime shredding. Together, they write themselves out of longing, through the anxieties of isolation still frozen in the stars, into moments of smoke sessions and graveyard escapes. They burn blank CDs and turn a life-changing freshman orientation encounter into a time capsule of stubbornly curious poetry. Much like its title suggests, The Window is a portal into a world Steiner is still considering the weight of. No longer fixated on how the grief of childhood can tumble into adulthood, the work here examines what chapter comes next; the ways that love and what-could’ve-beens can haunt the present. —Matt Mitchell [Read our feature]

4. Caroline Polachek: Desire, I Want to Turn Into You

Best Albums 2023Desire, I Want To Turn Into You, Caroline Polachek’s sophomore effort, sees her grapple with feeling limited by physical space and by our corporeal forms—she wants not only to be near someone she loves but become a physical part of them. Desire is just as esoteric musically. Its songs pull from genres as disparate as drum and bass, dembow, and flamenco while Polachek and Harle festoon them with baroque instrumentation—bagpipes, church bells, organs, and a children’s choir. Its arrangements are intricate and densely layered so that every song reveals itself to you more and more upon revisiting. Even the quiet moments split your attention, like on “Hopedrunk Everasking,” where a smoke alarm’s low battery chirp pierces the space between Polachek’s maudlin delivery. The album ends on “Billions,” an ambitious undertaking on an album rife with them. “Billions” is spindly, disjointed, and painted with psychedelic images of headless angels, pearls and a bountiful cup running over. It’s one of Polachek’s best and, as a final bow, the icy pop track ties up the record’s lone loose thread. The vast expanse she feels separated by is folded into every song on this record, whether nodded to lyrically or in the amorphous soundscapes she’s built. Though she may not ever be able to close the gap completely, as “Billions” fades to black, she gets closer than ever before. The members of the Trinity Choir play us out, repeating in angelic harmony, a conclusion: “I’ve never felt so close to you.” Desire is a massive leap forward and, for an artist so focused on orate detail, never falters under the weight of its many parts. It’s elegant, revelatory, verbose and catchy. —Eric Bennett [Read our review]

3. McKinley Dixon: Beloved! Paradise! Jazz!?

Best Albums 2023Beloved! Paradise! Jazz!? is about an entire ecosystem crafting its own optimism in the wake of surviving together. The progression is natural, earned and celebratory. But to achieve optimism, you have to first grieve through the cyncism and fatalities that come before it. Five years after the death of his homie Tyler, McKinley Dixon is still learning how to cope with that absence in his heart. On the track “Tyler Forever.” he raps: “Propelled forward by vengeance, penchant for taking yo’ pendants / Accountability process is loaded in them extensions / We done fixed on ascending, my boys might break through the roof / Y’all become killers all of a sudden when you find dusty loops.” Dixon’s songs are not figments of the past so much as they are considerations of the present and the future, depictions of how each soul around him continues to get by in the places they came from. He considers how he will continue to hold them and make their voices loud and true and generous under the sun’s, the cops’ and the system’s calamitous weight. It is not the work of a king, but the stenography of someone—born on street corners that bent inwards into gentleness at the first crack of summer sun—who has found enough language to chronicle survival. And who is the architect of a kingdom if not the tongue that dared to name the crown? —Matt Mitchell [Read our feature]

2. Sufjan Stevens: Javelin

Best Albums 2023Although the album’s promotional cycle would have you believe Javelin is a straightforward extension of the gentle melancholy of Carrie & Lowell, that’s a slight misnomer. Rather, Sufjan Stevens’ latest blends the synth-driven freakouts of 2010’s The Age of Adz with his quieter endeavors. Most of Javelin concerns itself with past wrongdoings and the physical atonement, much of it self-induced, that its narrator undergoes as a result. “Give myself as a sacrifice / Genuflecting ghost as I kiss the floor,” Stevens’ opening couplet of “Genuflecting Ghost” goes, making immolation sound peaceful with arpeggiated acoustic guitars. Later in the song, he’s begging someone to “bind” and “insult” him as he “praise[s] your name.” This contrast of disturbing imagery and gorgeous, musical tapestries has long been one of Stevens’ strengths as a songwriter. The way he illustrates hopelessness is so affecting that, despite his quiet voice and instrumentation, his music refuses to recede into the background. It commands your attention in every conceivable way. —Grant Sharples [Read our review]

1. Wednesday: Rat Saw God

Best Albums 2023If you’ve ever tumbled through a world where a fast-food restaurant is one of the top hangout spots, or left high-school dances to go vape in friends’ basements, there’s a language that Karly Hartzman employs across the record that is niche to outsiders but biblical to those in on the joke. “I used to drink ‘til I threw up at my parents house / My friends all took Benadryl ‘til they could see shit crawlin’ up the walls / One of those times my friend took a little too much / He had to get his stomach pumped,” she sings on “Chosen to Deserve.” It’s a track spearheaded by Xandy Chelmis’ country-drunk lap steel, where, atop the gauze of her and MJ Lenderman’s dueting, Lyrnyrd Skynyrd-evoking, creekgaze guitar licks, Hartzman unleashes a psalm of coarseness no western outlaw would dare speak of, due in part to the literature, music and hobbies she consumes during the songwriting process, like Lynda Barry’s Cruddy and the Swirlies.

The stories on Rat Saw God are not just Hartzman’s own. On “Quarry,” she sings about her dad burning down an entire cotton field on accident when he was a kid; “What’s So Funny” is about tragedy spun into comedy, when Chelmis got stung by a colony of yellowjackets and Lenderman couldn’t stop laughing about it. But Hartzman’s personification of the boonies and backroads of North Carolina should not be considered the sole entity of Wednesday’s album narratives. She perfectly interjects those Harry Crews-like, gravelly details with little fits of Brautigan-like beauty. The sweetest moment on Rat Saw God comes amid the chaos of its most reckless triage when, on “Bull Believer,” she sings: “God, make me good but not quite yet.” Later, she finds solace in accepting grief while surrounded by others. “The boat I feel so lonely in / Ends up to hold us all / I cannot tell myself apart / At night I don’t count stars, I count the dark,” she sings.

I listen to Rat Saw God and the bees in my stomach have come alive once more, just as they have in the molecules of Wednesday’s sound. I now care about what the news anchor in the gas pump wants to tell me. There are teens doing whippets in the alleyway behind the local pharmacy; guns and cocaine are hidden in drywall. There is a parade everywhere, bounties of gargoyles, neon signs half alive and heads full of lice. When the eye of the storm calms down, there are five people. Five Tar Heel punks. Five rats. All of them, they’re more in love with each other and more in love with music than ever before. And what do rats do? They scavenge. They make use of what others throw away. On Rat Saw God, Wednesday have taken the ugly bits of their pasts—what everyone else has forgotten about—and reworked them into funny, imperfect and beautiful mementos of chaos and growth. —Matt Mitchell [Read our feature]


Listen to a playlist of our favorite songs from these 2023 albums below.

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