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2023 in Music: The 23 Best Albums of the Year

Javelin, the new album by Sufjan Stevens. Image courtesy of Asthmatic Kitty

So, was this a good or a bad year for music? Every year as I start writing these lists, I hate answering that question. My attitude has always been that if you thought any year was a bad year for music then you just weren’t looking in the right places. The best year for music is the year you delve deepest into. The mainstream though, that’s more measurable, and that’s what people mean: did the biggest artists of the year deserve to be the biggest? Did we see the birth of some new superstars? Did our favourite artists put out one of their best albums?

And so, judging 2023 on that metric, I’d say, no, yes and yes.

So if you’re in doubt as to whether 2023 was a good year for music, here’s my list of 23 reasons why it was.

First some honourable mentions, cause believe it or not, 23 isn’t that many spots and you should definitely give these a listen if you think they might be up your street:

  • God Games by The Kills
  • Quaranta by Danny Brown
  • SAVED! by Reverend Kristin Michael Hayter
  • Ugly by Slowthai
  • Raven by Kelela
  • The Pink Tape by Lil Uzi Vert
  • The Age of Pleasure by Janelle Monae
  • Magic 3 by Nas
  • Guts by Olivia Rodrigo
  • Jaguar II by Victoria Monet
  • Cracker Island by Gorillaz
  • The Land is Inhospitable and So Are We by Mitski
  • Things Don’t Always Go the Way That You Plan/Arrived Anxious Left Bored by Flume
  • Glorious Game by Black Thought
  • BB/ANG3L by Tinashe
  • Lahai by Sampha (“Dancing Circles” in particular is heavenly)
  • Wallsocket by Underscores
  • Utopia by Travis Scott
  • For All the Dogs by Drake
  • Something to Give Each Other by Troye Sivan
  • Heaven Knows by PinkPantheress
  • But Here We Are by Foo Fighters
  • The Aux by Blockhead
  • Business is Business by Young Thug
  • Ultra Paradise by Angel Electronics

23. Census Designated by Jane Remover

Sometimes the setting and means by which you listen to music can wildly affect how you respond to it. Some streaming services come with different audio qualities and different speaker systems can accentuate different elements in the mix. Census Designated became a watershed moment for me when it came to my listening habits, because it illustrated extremely well why some music needs to be heard through a proper speaker to be appreciated. When I first heard 19-year-old shoegaze singer songwriter Jane Remover’s sophomore album on my headphones, I must admit I gave her work little thought; nothing in the sound struck home and I’m not the biggest shoegaze fan anyway. But thankfully, I gave this project another chance when I got home and the difference was stark. The texture of the sound felt more resonant and the vocals had more room to stand out, allowing me to better appreciate the darkness and terrible beauty of the lyrics about feeling used and alone. Today, this stands as one of the most compelling sonic experiences of my year and may one day be something I look back on as a key album that expanded my listening horizons.

22. Paranoia Angels True Love by Christine & the Queens

Possibly the most creatively ambitious project on this list, Christine & The Queens Paranoia Angels True Love sets itself up from the get go as the artist’s magnum opus. A triple disc odyssey spanning more than 90 minutes in length, Paranoia Angels True Love can be a tall order for the listener and months later I still think I’m far from unravelling all its secrets, hence the slightly tentative position on this list. There’s a lot of tracks I’ve yet to fully get to grips with, but one thing that smacks you in the face the second you start listening is the sheer overwhelming beauty of the orchestration and Christine’s echoing, commanding voice. “Full of Life” is one of the most exquisite things I’ve ever heard, a devastatingly cathartic explosion of gender euphoria, yearning desperately for a time when he can be seen and understood for exactly who he is. It’s a definite song of the year contender.

21. Struggler by Genesis Owusu

Conceptually ambitious albums needn’t be lengthy, though, and one artist that proved it was Genesis Owusu, who capitalized on the exciting blend of hip-hop, funk and pop he brought us with his debut with a sophomore album whose tight focus and concision still left plenty of room for some amazing psychedelic funk jams. Struggler employs direct Kafkaesque imagery, imagining the singer as a cockroach living in the shadow of a god trying to exterminate him, and if that sounds bleak, it’s offset by the infectious grooves and charismatic performances Owusu brings to the table. He really doubles down on the pop accessibility of his sound without sacrificing any of the sense of thematic heft and social commentary, instead just streamlining them into a tighter package.

20. We Buy Diabetic Test Strips by Armand Hammer

The first of the two Billy Woods albums on this list, with their latest output his long and fruitful collaboration with fellow rapper ELUCID delivers arguably their most exciting, experimental, and entertaining release yet. I’d admittedly struggled to adore Armand Hammer as much as I respect them each as rappers, but We Buy Diabetic Test Strips finds them in a weirder and more experimental lane, and that’s saying something of these two. It’s an eclectic smorgasbord for hip-hop connoisseurs, seeing the two branching out, as if daring each other to put together the most obtuse wordplay over the most untamed beat they can, and it’s a testament to their talents that they’re able to pull it off so effectively.

19. Why Does the Earth Give Us People to Love? by Kara Jackson

This album has “Rat” on it.

I could make that this whole entry. Kara Jackson’s haunting, tragicomic blues ballad about a young Southern man’s ill fated quest to the big city, performed with skin-prickling rustic soulfulness and laced with sinister string touches is my favourite song of 2023. But there’s some terrific moments throughout poet Kara Jackson’s music debut—her songwriting is superb and the achingly poignant tone she strikes throughout is fantastic—“Rat” is just the best example. Few records this year have left me more excited by the future in store for their creators.

18. Sundial by Noname

It’s unfortunate that the release of Noname’s long awaited new album was so mired in controversy. Suffice to say that Noname’s Achilles heel is her defensive attitude towards criticism, which led her to threaten to scrap the whole album when her fans queried the apparent contradiction between her frequent criticism of Jay-Z’s black capitalist ethos and the prominent inclusion of his protogee Jay Electronica (the antisemitic undertones of his feature didn’t help either). Such distractions aside, Noname’s thin skin can be a real virtue, as few approach the rap game with as much ferocity, sensuality or radical energy. More than anything, Sundial acutely articulates the depth of her love for the medium and the frustrations of attempting to express oneself creatively in the face of the dispiritingly corrupt modern world. For all its political bite, self-doubt and cynicism, it’s the moments when Noname seems to be truly lost in the music and the freedom it brings that Sundial’s beauty shines most brightly.

17. Integrated Tech Solutions by Aesop Rock

Another of the most rewarding hip-hop releases of the year, Aesop Rock’s Integrated Tech Solutions is only loosely tied together by the themes of technological innovation and what a double-edged sword it has been for humanity, and the rapper-producer finds plenty of time to explore the kind of comedic and abstract asides that make his records such unique and unpredictable experiences. What other rapper could have you nodding along on the edge of your seat as they describe the artistic process behind an unfulfilled project to draw a bunch of pigeons?

16. Maps by Billy Woods & Kenny Segal

Billy Woods makes his second well-earned appearance on this list, this time reteaming with Kenny Segal, the producer behind my previous favourite of Woods’s albums, 2019’s Hiding Places. Maps matches the abstract imagery of that project with a more acerbic comic sense and absurdist bent. Perhaps Woods truly is listing in a slightly more accessible direction or maybe I’m just getting more into his style, but between this, We Buy Diabetic Test Strips and last year’s Aetheopes, he’s becoming one of the most in demand, respected and influential voices in hip-hop’s underground, as displayed by the increasingly formidable feature lists his projects are gathering. Either way, Maps is an engrossing listen that should earn the attention of anyone who takes hip-hop seriously.

15. Joy’All by Jenny Lewis

I’m no great lover of country music, but every year there’s that one country record that hits like nothing else around, and this year it was Joy’All by Jenny Lewis, an instantly infectious feel-good ride through the sardonic bittersweet highs and lows of experiencing heartbreak in one’s 40s. Like…you’re still going through all the same feelings as a lovesick teenager, but with the self-awareness to be mildly amused by how silly you’re being. Lewis’s songwriting and performances are endlessly endearing and this record’s a breezy delight from start to finish.

14. Voir Dire by Earl Sweatshirt & The Alchemist

Supposedly this album has been out for years as a kind of white whale for underground hip-hop fans. The rumour goes that Earl and The Alchemist discreetly put it up on YouTube anonymously and left fans to discover it themselves. Apparently that never happened which is probably the funniest outcome, and it also allows me to consider it eligible for this list. And thank goodness I can because this is possibly my favourite Earl Sweatshirt album yet. Earl is an artist whose every album has impressed me more than the last and that I do think is somewhat down to him lightening up somewhat in recent years. The humour of his increasingly expressive delivery has given his recent projects like SICK! a bit of an X-factor that makes them so absorbing and replayable. Some will miss his more dour records that meant more to them, but I personally love hearing him seemingly in a better place nowadays.

13. 10,000 Gecs by 100 Gecs

Oh my God is this album fun. If you hate fun, turn back now. If a ska song about a frog’s social anxiety is going to make you wrinkle your nose with disdain then this album is not for you and you should just skip ahead to the next entry. But if you have a sense of humour then I cannot recommend this outrageously hare-brained album enough; it’s absolutely hilarious. A minute into the opening song, “Dumbest Girl Alive,” an ear-to-ear grin fixed itself onto my face and remained there for the next 30 minutes. Absolute ear candy, I love it!

12. Let’s Start Here by Lil Yachty

Possibly the most unexpected thing that happened in the entirety of 2023 was when, less than a month into 2023, auto-crooner and hip-hop punchline Lil Yachty declared a sudden shift into psychedelic prog rock with his surprise album Let’s Start Here. More surprising than the genre switch was that, though many may have turned up to gawp at the novelty of the much ridiculed rapper making a fool of himself through some misguided genre tourism, Let’s Start Here actually turned out to be kind of phenomenal…?

Yachty certainly showed surprising taste in the genre in choosing his collaborators, linking up with some of the genre’s most progressive and innovative music makers, but Yachty’s own ear for melody, his strained boyish vocals and subtle incorporation of rapping (which I honestly would’ve liked to have heard pushed further) all made for an intoxicating concoction, and with stellar supporting vocals from Diana Gordon, Yachty became the unlikeliest purveyor of the year’s first must-listen experience.

11. Me Chamo De Gato Que Sou Sua by Ana Frango Electrico

I remember listening to Ana Frango Electrico’s album Little Electric Chicken Heart a few years ago and appreciating it, even if it didn’t really stick with me. Well stick with me is certainly what Me Chamo De Gato Que Sou Sua has done! This is such a fun, replayable and rewarding album, one of those records that is so suffused with creative energy and motion than it can’t help but put me in a good mood whenever I come back to it, which is often. It’s cheeky, adventurous and often extremely beautiful, with a playful quirkiness and humour that I can’t get enough of.

10. Quest for Fire by Skrillex

One’s Spotify Wrapped isn’t a great indication of one’s taste, especially as it’s not the only music streaming service I use, it heavily leans towards the records that released early in the year, and in my case those which were tame enough to play on the speaker at work, but still, much to my surprise, my number one artist of 2023 turned out to be Skrillex! And that was entirely due to this one album, the only Skrillex record I’ve listened to. But yeah, I’m no dubstep fan and I’ve not exactly been getting back into EDM, but I do really love this album. It’s one banger after another, and even if the last few tracks are lacking compared to the rest, it’s still one of the hardest hitting and most replayable producer records I’ve listened to (Flume deserves an honourable mention for the two mixtapes he released this year, both of which I considered for this list). Yes, that’s due in no small part to the collaborators, both fellow producers like Fred Again and Joker and vocalists like Flowdan and Missy Elliott are bringing heat every time, but the depth, intensity and volume of Skrillex’s beats are as addictive as they are exhilarating.

9. Scaring the Hoes by JPEGMAFIA & Danny Brown

The ambitious team-up between two of the most outrageous voices in hip-hop hardly promised to disappoint, but even fans of the two had reason to be overjoyed by what we got. Playing into their weirdo outsider credentials and off of one another’s trickster-God energy, Scaring the Hoes is an absolutely demented trip of hilarious one-liners, lurid imagery and some of the most hare-brained production Peggy could scour the backwaters of audio to find. On his other album this year, Danny Brown took a more serious minded look at his life and career, but here, he and Peggy are just out to have as much fun as possible, reveling in the joy of defying convention and disorienting the listener. It’s a work of pure chaos and one that I appreciate more every single time I come back to it.

8. How Do You Sleep at Night by Teezo Touchdown

As far as the year’s biggest rising star, that would have to be Teezo Touchdown, who was cosigned by some of the biggest stars in hip hop like Drake, Travis Scott and Lil Yachty, on all of whose records he gave star-making performances. But it was on his own record that he would need to prove his credentials, and although the sales were underwhelming, his album proved one of the most winning, humorous and replayable pop releases of the year. Melding the sounds of pop, hip-hop, funk, rock and indie into a sound I can only describe as “Rex Orange County if he had swagger,” the nail-haired showman delivered one outrageous, bittersweet and tragicomic vignette after another. Every track showcases a magnetic personality exploding onto the music scene, from tongue in cheek funky sex jams to storytelling indie rock tracks that had me on the edge of my seat, Teezo’s audacious style and endearing underdog persona singled him out as the most exciting new artist of 2023.

7. The Loveliest Time by Carly Rae Jepsen

So, if you’ve read any of my previous music writing, you’ll know I’m a bit of a Carly Rae Jepsen obsessive. The Loneliest Time was my joint favourite album of last year (with FKA Twigs Caprisongs) and I caught her So Nice Tour this year as well. She’s long been in the habit of releasing sister albums to each of her records, with B-Sides following Emotion and Dedicated, but I hadn’t expected her to follow up The Loneliest Time so soon. Yet she did and delivered yet another pop album of the year contender.

It’s not hard to explain what’s so great about her music: it’s not experimental or boundary pushing, she just has an unerring ability to create extremely fun and addictive disco pop hits with an exhilarating modern energy to them. Her brand of girly, lovestruck dance-pop tunes has been one of the most consistent sources of endorphins throughout my life and she continues to deliver on her latest record, hands down one of the most euphoric listens of 2023.

6. Desire I Want to Turn Into You by Carole Polachek

I’m a little of two minds about Desire I Want to Turn Into You. I mean, not too much cause I still think it’s one of the best releases of the year, but that sentiment is still tinged with a little disappointment. For one, the consensus seems to be that this is a better album than her solo debut Pang. I disagree, I love Pang, it’s one of my favourite albums of all time and I think it’s both underrated and a better experience from front to back than Desire is. Desire is for me carried by its singles, and that’s where a more impactful issue with the album comes in, that all the best songs it had to offer had already been out, in some cases for almost two years, by the time the album arrived, which somewhat deflated the release for those who’d been keeping up. The album tracks are all good, but it’s the singles that really make Desire such a phenomenal record. “Sunset,” “Bunny Is a Rider” and “Blood and Butter” are all song of the year contenders. This album’s singles have been featuring high on my Spotify Wrapped for the last three years! Caroline’s distinctively stunning vocals, esoteric songwriting and occasionally hare-brained production choices have made her one of the leading voices in modern art pop and Desire is nothing if not a lasting monument to that achievement.

5. That! Feels! Good! by Jessie Ware

Jessie Ware is another artist who had to do little reinvention to earn a spot on this list. Just do what you did last time and you’ll have an album of the year candidate and she did exactly that. Sure, That! Feels! Good! is a slightly bolder and more irreverent record than 2020’s disco delight What’s Your Pleasure, and maybe not quite as consistent a one at that (this is the third album on this list where my opinion boils down to “yeah, I mean it is incredible but I still prefer your last one”) but still, the high points of That! Feels! Good! are some of Ware’s best songs to date. Between the dazzling and anthemic “Free Yourself”, the pulse raising “Pearls”, the body shaking “Freak Me Now”, the rib-tickling “Shake the Bottle” and the heart-swelling “Hello Love”, the latter being possibly my new favourite Jessie Ware song, she absolutely spoils the listener with one incredible highlight after another. Combined, they make That! Feels! Good! into one of the easiest and heartiest music recommendations I’ll ever make.

4. Javelin by Sufjan Stevens

You can’t really talk about Javelin without going a bit into the person who made it and there are others much better versed in the lore of Stevens, who had heretofore been a very private person. But, ahead of the release of his latest record Javelin, the folk singer opened up to his fans and it’s clear why. Javelin is his response to the death of his partner of many years. Unlike say, Mount Eerie’s A Crow Looked at Me (in its own right, one of the best pieces of art I’ve ever experienced) Javelin isn’t about death though. Instead, it’s a moment of reflection, upon their relationship in its entirety and all it has meant to Stevens throughout the years as he eulogizes the man who meant so much to him and Stevens pulls out all the stops to do so, delivering a beautifully ornate, jubilant and delicate piece. Naturally there’s a lot of complex and difficult emotions swirling through Javelin, as Stevens looks back on all the moments throughout their relationship where they hurt one another, or almost lost each other, but the tone is so tender and sensitive throughout. It truly feels like a celebration of the life they had together and all that they brought into one another’s lives, from the moment they met to the one when death separated them.

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

McKinley Dixon is a name you need to be pretty deep into the world of underground hip-hop to know. His last album For My Mama and Anyone Who Look Like Her made an appearance on my best of 2021 list. It was a lot lower down than this but still demonstrated the energy, skill and authority of an artist worth your attention, bringing exciting funk and soul grooves into a scene that typically favours more sombre jazzy or grimy beats. Still, little on that album could have prepared the listener for Beloved! Paradise! Jazz!?, a project that deserves to become synonymous with the concept of ‘quality over quantity’ in hip-hop. It’s ten tracks run just under half an hour, yet Dixon packs more passion, profundity and beauty into that time than most albums more than twice that length.

The project structures itself as a reworking of themes gathered from the literature of Toni Morrison, portraying modern life today just as she did then, with comparable levels of poetic description and emotional intensity, delving into a world where people are radicalized by prison separations and untimely deaths. The record’s opulent orchestral jazz soundscape presents the project with a sense of scale almost unheard of in underground hip-hop, with choirs, strings and horn sections matching the nostalgic scope and faded vintage flourish of the projects influences. It’s a true modern blues record, and still a hugely varied and exciting project as well, as euphoric one moment as it is nightmarish the next. It’s rare that an artist releases a magnum opus this deep, concise, accessible and addictive. Not one to be missed under any circumstances.

2. Did You Know That There’s a Tunnel Under Ocean Blvd by Lana Del Rey

When Indigo de Souza’s single “Younger and Dumber” first came up on one of my playlists at the start of this year, my blind reaction was, “wow! Lana Del Rey got good!” Evidently Lana heard this thought and took it personally because she then released what is, by a significant margin, her best album. It’s not that I’d never been a fan of Lana, but we’re several years beyond Born to Die at this point and even Norman F*cking Rockwell was a little meh to me. Did You Know That There’s a Tunnel Under Ocean Blvd is a whole other deal though; I love this thing! It showcases her most mature and emotional songwriting, her most adventurous and subtle production choices and most tasteful use of experimentation to date. Who Lana Del Rey is in 2023 was evidently a difficult question to answer as untangling all the different layers of performance and artifice behind her persona has long been central to her brand, playing into submissive feminine tropes while expressing sincere yearning, heartbreak and confusion. On Ocean Blvd, a lot of that artifice feels stripped away; there’s an honesty and directness to her songwriting that feels like she’s finally nailed down precisely what she means to say and how best to say it. She still delves into her complex relationship with sex and its power dynamics on a couple of tracks, which feel alternately like celebrations of her sexuality and femininity and critiques of her self-destructive indulgences, but Ocean Blvd is as much about her feelings towards her faith, her family and friends, and herself, as she reflects on who she has become and the changed perspective she’s acquired on her relationships.

And that’s all well and good if you’re a Lana fan already, but it’s the strength of the execution that makes Ocean Blvd more than a fan favourite “personal one” in her own catalogue and into one of the best albums of the year. Her strengths as a vocalist and a songwriter have never been given such a spotlight and although he’s gained his fair share of detractors lately, this may be Jack Antonoff’s best work as a producer ever. It’s a much subtler and more intimate piece than NFR was, with Antonoff and the other producers investing each song with such nuance and delicacy, knowing exactly how to develop the track and let the strengths of Lana’s voice shine out, without smothering them. It’s an absolutely gorgeous album from beginning to end and feels like the true masterpiece we were waiting for.

1. No Joy by Spanish Love Songs

As we’ve seen, there’s been some fantastic albums this year, so it really is saying something that I have so little hesitation about choosing No Joy by Spanish Love Songs as my favourite album of 2023. This album had a high bar to clear, as the band’s last album Brave Faces Everyone was not only my 2020 album of the year (technically it tied with Peaceful as Hell by Black Dresses) but also possibly just my favourite rock album ever. That, combined with the fact I’ve not seen a single other person single this album out for especial praise (other outlets are already publishing their lists and I’ve not seen it anywhere yet), makes this a very personal choice. My partner hates this band. She thinks Dylan Slocum sounds like a sheep.

I’m unwavering.

This is the best album I’ve heard all year. Dylan’s passionate vocals and anguished songwriting capture a sense of hopelessless and raw despondency that perfectly sums up the routine pain of struggling to stay afloat, financially, creatively and mentally in the modern age. Despite this, No Joy builds on Brave Faces Everyone with more apocalyptic imagery, yet paradoxically, a more optimistic outlook and more upbeat emo rock instrumentals. Spanish Love Songs have started to channel modern-day The Killers or classic Bruce Springsteen, with energized, explosive heartland anthems expressing a determination to cling to those we love in the face of irreversible social decline. It’s heartbreaking, devastating and uplifting in the most raw, political, realist and poetic fashion imaginable, and managed the impossible feat of actually equalling Brave Faces Everyone.

Written by Hal Kitchen

Primarily a reviewer of music and films, Hal Kitchen studied at the University of Kent where they graduated with distinction in both Liberal Arts BA and Film MA, specializing in film, gender theory and cultural studies. Whilst at Kent they were the Film & TV sub-editor and later Culture Editor of the campus newspaper InQuire and began a public blog on their Letterboxd account.
Hal joined 25YearsLaterSite as a volunteer writer in May 2020 and resumed their current role of assistant film editor in November 2020.

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