On its surface, 2023 was a big year for already-massive pop stars. Artists like Taylor Swift and Beyoncé both traversed the globe with elaborate stage shows, capturing them on camera and releasing highly lauded concert films for fans unable to shell out hundreds — or in some cases, thousands — of dollars to attend in person. (Maybe 2024 will be the year someone finally holds Ticketmaster responsible for jacking up ticket prices, huh?) Olivia Rodrigo made her highly anticipated return, and Billie Eilish made us all weep with “What Was I Made For?”, her contribution to the Barbie movie.
In some ways, it’s a bit of a frustrating Tale of Two Cities situation: the rich get richer, while more and more independent artists find themselves unable to afford to tour. It’s harder than ever to be a working musician, and one can only hope that the playing field levels out a bit in the coming year. That said, 2023 still saw plenty of stellar album releases from artists of all varieties, whether they were favorites like Wilco and The National or relative newcomers like Laufey.
With that in mind, we’re rounding up our favorite records of the past 365 days. As always, we’re not interesting in comparing apples to oranges or squabbling over which is the “best.” These are personal picks, the albums that stuck with us the most on this particular trip around the sun. Check them out in no particular order below.
Boygenius, The Record
I have been a fan of Phoebe Bridgers, Lucy Dacus and Julien Baker, to varying degrees, for most of their careers — Phoebe for her angelic voice and her penchant for truly heartbreaking melodies; Lucy for her incredible turns of phrase and similarities to the kind of indie rock that landed her on Matador Records; and Julien for her mastery of atmospheric guitar work, as she dances around a pedalboard of effects so massive it’s like a spaceship. When they joined forces for their first EP together as Boygenius in 2018, I liked that, too.
All three of them, on their own or together, have felt perfectly within my standard wheelhouse as a middle-aged dude who loves old-school indie rock and singer-songwriter stuff. But this year, with the release of The Record, it has become extremely apparent that I am not the target demo — and it’s been among the more gratifying things in my life to watch how that has unfolded.
I have a 13-year-old daughter whose entire personality could aptly be described as Boygenius. We talk about them constantly. She listens to them constantly. YouTube videos of their shows stream endlessly in my living room. Their records, all of them, now live in her record collection rather than in mine. She loves them the way I loved Nirvana at her age, the Doc Martens on her feet serving as a constant reminder of the parallel.
We’ve seen them live together three times — first at Forest Hills Stadium in Queens, then in Nashville on a family vacation and again, most recently, at Madison Square Garden. To be around thousands of people at a time, primarily women between the ages of 13 and 30, I’d say, who love them and feel a connection to them the same way my daughter does, is just amazing. There are tears, there is singing along, there is screaming along to some of the more impactful lines (you have not lived till you’ve heard 15,000 women scream, I want to be emaciated!!!”), and there is solidarity, safety and an incredible amount of catharsis. It’s about feminine love, queer love, close friendship and the importance of community.
It’s all there on The Record, too. The songs are beautiful and sad but also funny. I’m grateful to have them in my life the way I’m grateful to have so many of the songs I love. But I’m even more grateful that people like my daughter get to have them in theirs. — Mike Conklin
Key track: “Not Strong Enough“
Wednesday, Rat Saw God
Wednesday is one of those bands whose sound is nearly impossible to summarize with any particular genre label. Are they Southern rock? Shoegaze? Country? The answer is all of the above and somewhere in between, and the North Carolina group’s excellent Rat Saw God will make you look back wistfully at your feral 20s. On album highlight “Chosen to Deserve” (also a strong contender for my favorite song of the year), for example, frontwoman Karly Hartzman croons about Benadryl overdoses and hooking up in the back of an SUV parked in a cul-de-sac over steel guitar in a way that’ll make you feel a bit nostalgic for your own misspent youth while simultaneously wondering how you managed to make it out alive. It’s that perfect combination of brutal honesty and story-driven songwriting that bands like the Drive-By Truckers always seem to nail, and Wednesday similarly hits the mark. — Bonnie Stiernberg
Key track: “Chosen to Deserve”
The Japanese House, In The End It Always Does
While I could gush about the metric ton of Grammy-level production in The Japanese House’s In the End It Always Does for days — electro-pop maven Amber Bain displays a new level of sonic mastery and maturation with album’s ultra-sparse yet undeniably upbeat soundscape — I’d be remiss not to take the time to draw your attention to the album art for Bain’s 2023 release. This is not to discredit a no-skip tracklist of cutting ruminations on heartbreak, lust, queerness and wiener dogs (“One For Sorrow, Two For Joni Jones” is named for the Brit’s pandemic-adopted dachshund), Bain’s delightfully idiosyncratic vocals or the buoyant house vibe that has been flawless concocted via a cast of talent that includes The 1975’s George Daniel and Matty Healy, Charli XCX, Justin Vernon of Bon Iver and boygenius-adjacent rockers MUNA in the slightest (all of that is great, too), but rather because a tastefully muted album cover is decidedly hard to come by, and because the looping graphic acts as the metaphorical cherry on top of Bain’s retrospective of a sundae. It’s simple, beautiful and conveys everything you’ll find within — regret, ambivalence and unrelenting reality. — Paolo Sandoval
Key track: “Sunshine Baby”
Jantra, Synthesized Sudan: Astro-Nubian Electronic Jaglara Dance Sounds from the Fashaga Underground
There’s a long history of dance music having liberating properties, and that quality is neatly encapsulated in this collection from the Sudanese musician Jantra. The making of this album combined existing recordings with Jantra’s live improvisations — all made on a customized keyboard — and the result is gorgeous, sprawling and ecstatic. In a recent interview with The Guardian, Jantra said of his live sets, “I take pride that the energy the music creates lets people have such a good time.” Whether you’re on the dance floor or at home, this album might just spark a similar reaction for you. — Tobias Carroll
Key track: “Ozali”
Militarie Gun, Life Under the Gun
The best part about living in a post-Turnstile world is that punk, hardcore and emo got interesting again — and a new generation seems ready to embrace those sounds. Bands like Koyo, Spanish Love Songs, MSPAINT, Soul Glo and Gel have their retro leanings but also bring a fresh perspective to guitar-led angst. And they’re all doing it differently! The LA-based band Militarie Gun could have released Life Under the Gun in the ’90s — tracks like “Do It Faster” have as much in common with that alt-rock generation as they do today’s quasi-hardcore scene. Here’s to big, chunky riffs and real hooks. — Kirk Miller
Key track: “Very High”
Another year, another extremely solid Wilco record that gets generally positive reviews upon release, generates a bit of conversation and is then unceremoniously forgotten about come time for year-end roundups, as critics and regular listeners everywhere give into the hivemind approach that leads to the same records appearing on every single list. And that’s fine: Wilco has been at it for long enough that they exist just outside of it all — devoted road dogs led by a restless creative in Jeff Tweedy, whose albums have come to feel almost low-stakes because of how consistently they arrive. It’s like their continued existence, and Tweedy’s overall body of work and the reliable nature of it, is the point more so than any of its individual parts. And for the most part, that’s also fine, but you do get the feeling people are sleeping a bit on those individual parts, and especially the more recent ones. Cousin is a strange, insular-sounding record that represents a complete 180 from last year’s twangier Cruel Country. As I noted when it was released, there’s a coldness to the arrangements and the production (courtesy of Cate Le Bon), but there’s also an intimacy that’s almost unsettling, I think having to do with the front-and-center mixing of the vocals on certain tracks. I’ve been beating this drum for years now, but Tweedy has been on a creative streak since 2018 that rivals any other period in his career. — Mike Conklin
Key Track: “Pittsburgh”
Night Beats, Rajan
I saw Night Beats open for Black Lips at a Brooklyn House of Vans (RIP) show back in 2014, and it was the garage punk night of my dreams. I quickly fell in love with his 2013 album Sonic Boom, and 10 years later, Danny Lee Blackwell is at his best with his latest release, Rajan. A little less garage and a little more neo-psychedelic than his previous work, every song is a spellbinding journey that shows off Blackwell’s unfiltered imagination. Rajan leans into the vintage influences that Blackwell is so obviously comfortable with, but it also has a little bit of a Western character, perhaps a nod to his Texas roots. It’s a sumptuous record that feels comfortable in any place and time. — Amanda Gabriele
Key track: “Blue”
Zach Bryan, Zach Bryan
The antidote to the atrocious pop-country cover of “Fast Car” which has been topping charts and somehow winning awards this year? Zach Bryan’s self-titled album, which brings together folk, rock and singer-songwriter sensibilities into a blend of country that’s best listened to in your car with the windows down during long summer days, not remixed in a club at 2 a.m. while the person next to you at the bar orders a round of Espresso Martinis. If you happened to come across one of the 16 songs on the album this year, it was most likely a guest-starring hit like the wistful duet “I Remember Everything” with Kacey Musgraves or the “Hey Driver” singalong with the War and Treaty. But the moments that hit the hardest come when Bryan is left to navigate his Oklahoma poetry without sharing the spotlight (particularly on “Ticking” and “Summertime’s Close”). “Poetry” isn’t a fanciful description, either — he starts the album with a spoken-word poem accompanied by some strumming. You don’t need to be a 27-year-old like Bryan to appreciate his heart-on-his-sleeve songwriting; you just need to remember what it was like being 27. — Alex Lauer
Key track: “Ticking”
The National, First Two Pages of Frankenstein
Given the extremely unlikely developments of the past few years, whereby The National’s Aaron Dessner’s notoriety skyrocketed after he co-produced Taylor Swift’s two early-pandemic records, Folklore and Evermore (which also featured a duet with The National’s Matt Berninger), it would not have been the craziest thing in the world if the band had let some of that newfound notoriety impact their creative decisions. Maybe swing for the fences a bit more in an attempt at leveling up once more in a career that has already been wildly successful. But no. They did not do that at all. First Two Pages of Frankenstein is as National-sounding a National record as there has ever been: It’s quiet and thoughtful and exhausted just the way you want it to be, with Berninger’s world-weary lyrics taking center stage as always. The melodies are subtle and heartbreaking, and the accompaniment is tasteful and lovingly textured. There’s a Taylor Swift appearance, yes, but it’s still very much their show, not hers. — Mike Conklin
Key Track: “Tropic Morning News”
Hozier, Unreal Unearth
Hozier has always been revered for his songwriting abilities, and this album may just be his best yet. True storytellers are able to tell tales through their music, but Hozier has the rare ability to write lyrics that go beyond the meaning of what’s simply written or sung. He often takes inspiration from other elements, whether it be folklore, mythology, literature or life events, and tells hidden stories you wouldn’t even notice unless you were looking for them. He used the pandemic as inspiration for Unreal Unearth, but he didn’t want to write songs about the pandemic, so he tells his stories through the lens of Dante’s Inferno, part one of the epic Divine Comedy, and Dante’s journey through the nine circles of Hell. One of his first singles from the album, “Eat Your Young,” plays off the Circle of Greed, and “Francesca” is based on Francesca, a character from Inferno, in the Circle of Lust. Unreal Unearth is one of Hozier’s most cohesive, creative and powerful albums yet, weaving together a heartbreaking story with lines many of us can understand. The lyricism is pure poetry, and the songs thread together beautifully and effortlessly. — Joanna Sommer
Key track: “Eat Your Young”
Cut Worms, Cut Worms
Cut Worms is small but mighty; its nine tracks clock in at just under 35 minutes, but it features some of Max Clarke’s best work to date, whether it’s the dreamy doo-wop of “I’ll Never Make It,” the starry-eyed “Is It Magic?” or “Ballad of the Texas King,” a murder ballad where the real victim is our narrator’s childlike innocence. (“I found a new song/Pulls me along/To that other plane,” he sings. “I’ll see you some time/Off down the line/Where it never rains.”) The album is a collection of classic-sounding, no-frills pop-rock that’ll have you marveling over Clarke’s ability to pen a catchy tune that sounds like it’s been around forever. That’s not nostalgia, necessarily — it’s craftsmanship, and in the case of Cut Worms, it has to do with his idea of what goes into a perfect pop song. After 2020’s double-LP Nobody Lives Here Anymore, Clarke specifically set out to make Cut Worms as concise as possible, drawing inspiration from the three-minute hits of 20th century AM radio. You can read our full interview with him about the process behind the record, which he mixed and produced himself, here. — Bonnie Stiernberg
Key track: “I’ll Never Make It”
Mary Lattimore, Goodbye, Hotel Arkada
When she’s not making some of the most sublime music released today, harpist Mary Lattimore has worked with everyone from Superchunk’s Mac McCaughan (with whom she made a collaborative album) to André 3000 (to whom she gave a harp lesson.) As befits an album that features members of The Cure and Slowdive, Goodbye, Hotel Arkada is heavy on the atmosphere. Factor in Lattimore’s precise and melancholy work on the harp, and you have an album that accomplishes the rare feat of rewarding both ambient and deep listening. — Tobias Carroll
Key track: “And Then He Wrapped His Wings Around Me”
Ratboys, The Window
Ratboys is a Chicago band that’s been kicking around since 2010 and releasing records consistently since 2015. Stylistically, they’ve jumped around a bit, sometimes leaning into fuzzed-out party-ready indie-pop that would’ve done just fine on college radio in the ’90s, while at other times doing more of a laidback acoustic thing. Their most-played song on Spotify, “Go Outside” from 2021’s Happy Birthday, Ratboy album (it was featured in a Walmart commercial, weirdly) is an outrageously catchy little country song with pedal steel and an acoustic guitar taking center stage. But for this year’s The Window, the went in the other direction, enlisting producer/engineer Chris Walla (formerly of Death Cab for Cutie) to bring new life and added refinement to their noisier side. What stands out to me about these songs, written primarily by singer/guitarist Julia Steiner and guitarist David Sagan, is my favorite thing to stand out in a song: the sense that they could exist in any form — loud, quiet, fast, slow — because at their core they are so solid. I’m extremely excited to see what they do next. — Mike Conklin
Olivia Rodrigo, GUTS
How do you follow up a universally beloved, quadruple-platinum debut album? If you’re Olivia Rodrigo, you simply silence any nay-sayers whispering about sophomore slumps by putting out another absolutely undeniable record that perfectly captures that not-a-girl, not-yet-a-woman period of late adolescence. Like Sour, GUTS is full of both heart-wrenching ballads (“vampire” is an all-timer) and more uptempo, pop-punk fare that makes her Millennial fans feel like they’ve been transported back to their middle-school days. The droll “bad idea right?” feels like a retread of her 2021 hit “brutal,” but why mess with a great formula? And if America Ferrera’s monologue in the Barbie movie about the double standards women face on a daily basis had you emphatically nodding in agreement in the theater, you’ll love “all-american bitch,” where Rodrigo tackles similar themes via some cathartic screams. — Bonnie Stiernberg
Key track: “all-american bitch”
Allison Russell, The Returner
Allison Russell’s Outside Child was a gorgeous, moving record that chronicled the sexual abuse she endured as a child and sparked plenty of important conversations. But it is by no means a complete picture of Russell. You don’t need to spend much time chatting with the Canadian singer-songwriter to figure out that she’s warm, passionate, effusive, quick to laugh — certainly not some sort of tragic figure. And that’s why on her sophomore album The Returner, she chose to embrace joy. “So long, farewell, adieu, adieu/To that tunnel I went through,” she sings on album opener “Springtime.” “And my reward, my recompense? Springtime of my present tense.” From those first notes, it’s clear that The Returner is a celebration of what comes after survival — healing, finding strength in community, letting the light back in. Sonically, it sees Russell experimenting with new genres, and it features guest appearances from the likes of Brandi Carlile, Hozier and Brandy Clark. You can read our complete interview with Russell about the record here. — Bonnie Stiernberg
Key track: “Demons”
If you need proof that the kids are alright, look no further than the massive TikTok fame of Icelandic-Chinese singer-songwriter Laufey. The massively talented artist is a bit of a prodigy; she performed as a cello soloist with the Iceland Symphony Orchestra at the age of 15, and in 2021 she graduated from the prestigious Berklee College of Music. She sounds like she’s been snatched out of another era, delivering lovely jazz and bossa nova songs that draw inspiration from Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday, but she never feels like a novelty act. She has a contemporary sensibility that has earned her a large following of young fans. She’s said that she hopes to do for jazz what Taylor Swift has done for pop and country, and with the attention Bewitched has been receiving this year, she just might. — Bonnie Stiernberg
Key track: “From the Start”
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