best albums of 2023 so far

The 50 Best Albums of 2023 So Far

The 50 best albums of 2023 offer sublime music as major artists return with albums and brilliant new sounds bubble up from the underground and worldwide.

Deerhoof – Miracle-Level (Joyful Noise)

Having released 18 albums of English-language noise pop, Deerhoof switched to Japanese for Miracle-Level, which extols the virtues of escapism through experimental rock songs that don’t ignore the nightmarish severity of the obverse of dreaming. This could feel like the group is challenging the fans they’ve accrued through their English language back catalogue. However, “challenging” is not a word that belongs in a review of Miracle-Level, thanks to uncluttered production, thoughtful songwriting, and compositional immediacy that flit between poppy adult contemporary played with lounge-band indifference and full-throttle math rock. 

The record is as vitalizing as it is soft-hearted. The studio sound has fully revealed accomplished players interested in exploring the humanitarian capabilities of music, expressing, however vaguely or explicitly, a longing for the miraculous and a rejection of the mundane. – Jay Honeycomb

Iris DeMent – Workin’ on a World (Flariella)

This music on Iris DeMent‘s Workin’ on a World is too good not to be shared. DeMent sings and writes from the heart. The 13 songs are powerful statements of love and indictments of bad behavior. DeMent both names and describes the deeds of whom she considers the heroes and villains from our recent past. For example, she calls ex-President George W. Bush (“Like that president who lied about WMD / Hundreds of thousands of people / Are lying in their graves”) a war criminal and praises Minnesota peace activist Rachel Corrie who was run over by an Israeli tank during a Palestinian protest. Her views may seem radical on the surface, but DeMent’s commitment to a better world for all consistently comes across. DeMent defiantly sings she is “workin’ on a world I never may see”. She knows that change may be slow to come, but that doesn’t stop her from trying to change the world for the better. – Steve Horowitz

Fatoumata Diawara – London Ko (Wagram)

On her strongest album yet, Fatoumata Diawara demonstrates how music from today’s African diaspora can be “Everything Everywhere All at Once”. Currently living in Paris, the singer and actress from Mali named her latest London Ko as a play on the name of the Malian capital of Bamako, a playful announcement that this music seamlessly fuses musical traditions. While it isn’t an amalgam of traditional African instruments with modern electronics, it is still unmistakably African because of the tightly controlled microtonal flourishes of Diawara’s voice as she carries the melody across the rhythmic landscape set down by her excellent band.

Diawara uses a broader sonic palette than her earlier music and generally dials up the amplitude. While the music aims to move your body, its Bambara lyrics are also meant to move your spirit. Updating the African griot tradition of cautionary storytelling, the songs are generally about living the right life and heartfelt advice for contemporary women. – Marty Lipp

Dommengang – Wished Eye (Thrill Jockey)

Blues-space rock outfit Dommengang‘s new record, Wished Eye, is the stuff of gods. While guitarist Dan “Sig” Wilson, bassist Brian Markham, and drummer Adam Bulgasem are just Portlanders (having settled after living separately), they know their stuff and will fearlessly dole it out. In one swoop of a song, Dommengang will carry us out via oceanic riffs, primordial bass, and a percussive chariot only to retract us, reminding us we are safely harnessed when earthless. We’re off, threading through the needle’s eye into an unknown destiny. The ooze Dommengang draw from Wished Eye is a loose, unspun wool that’s part metallic, fuzz addiction, visionary production, power trio power, and all rock. – Katherine Factor

El Michels Affair and Black Thought – Glorious Game (Big Crown)

Glorious Game is the second long-gestating project from Black Thought to be released in less than a year. The results are impressive. El Michel’s Affair‘s smooth, 1970s-indebted R&B gives Black Thought a classic hip-hop template to rap over. Consequently, he’s often inspired to reminisce about his younger days. The combination of live R&B and an experienced rapper still at the top of his game is potent. There’s plenty of variety in what El Michel’s Affair and Black Thought are doing, keeping what could be a static-sounding record fresh and exciting. The album blasts through its 12 tracks in a brisk 31 minutes. El Michels Affair change the approach here and there, but they keep the focus on Black Thought’s verses. There aren’t any extended instrumental passages to be found; the music is serving the vocals. – Chris Conaton

Fucked Up – One Day (Merge)

One Day equally recalls the strengths of Fucked Up’s critically acclaimed second record, The Chemistry of Common Life (2008), which received the 2009 Polaris Music Prize. A return to form, as some might say, but, with this band, never for too long. As further suggested by its title, the new album’s central theme is the subject of time, and, taken as a whole, One Day possesses a brightness and sense of happiness that’s addictive and optimistic, even if the lyrics at times insinuate the opposite. Rather than despair, Fucked Up impart the hard-won lesson that the passage of time is what you consciously make of it. They would know. The artistic process affords a way of managing that fact and that dilemma, whether through acknowledgment, memory, experimentation, or other forms of storytelling. – Christopher J. Lee

Gorillaz – Cracker Island (Parlophone / Warner)

Gorillaz don’t have to go painfully leftfield and abandon tunes in favor of “high art” dirges full of jazz instruments, vintage pianos, and impenetrable lyrics. That, at least, must be the thinking of Damon Albarn and Jamie Hewlett, who breathe new life into gap-toothed Gorillaz members 2-D, Murdoc, Noodle, and Russel on their eighth album, Cracker Island. The Blur singer and the sometime comic-book artist must also have memoed producer-drummer Remi Kabaka Jr to that effect, as well as singer Adeleye Omotayo, both now elite members of the Gorillaz camp. More than that, they’ve brought in Grammy Award-winning producer-songwriter Greg Kurstin to help keep things fresh, he of Adele, Sia, and Beck fame. Albarn and Hewlett have convinced all concerned that the virtual band they created over two decades ago continues to present endless sonic possibilities of the chart-busting kind. – Adam Mason

Ice Spice – Like..? (10k / Capitol)

Like so many musicians today, Ice Spice seems to become a name to watch overnight. Like..? is her debut collection, seven fiery, self-assured drill tracks that announce the 23-year-old to the world as a fully-formed artist. In spite of her controlled delivery, her bars are inventive and elastically spat, as highlighted by the rapid-fire rhythms of the viral hit “Bikini Bottom”. While there isn’t much in the way of variety — “Actin a Smoochie” is as about as mellow as it gets) — Like..? is a short, sharp, and thrilling display of energetic and hyper-contemporary rap from a burgeoning star. – Tom Morgan

Jason Isbell – Weathervanes (Southeastern)

Weathervanes is another triumph for Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit. Songs like “Save the World” and “Cast Iron Skillet” pack an emotional gut punch in addition to being excellently written. The 400 Unit may not be an ensemble that screams “monster musicians”, but they are up for anything Isbell throws at them, however delicate or heavy. They demonstrate this ability on the record’s final two songs, handling a surprise tour through the 1960s and 1970s classic rock with aplomb. Even by Isbell’s lofty standards, Weathervanes is a big swing, and the band hits a home run. Isbell and the 400 Unit turn in typically strong performances throughout the record. Isbell himself balances his songwriting with tracks in his country-rock wheelhouse and a few welcome excursions outside his comfort zone. His voice is also in great form; this LP features his finest vocal performances across a full album. – Chris Conaton

Durand Jones – Wait Til I Get Over (Dead Oceans)

Stepping away from his band, Durand Jones & The IndicationsDurand Jones has proven his star power and charisma on his solo debut album, Wait Til I Get Over. For his solo work, Jones looks to classic soul and R&B, but it steps away from dance-floor material for music is a celebration of rootsy soul, gospel, rock, and jazz.

It’s a fabulous record that recalls masterful works by Marvin GayeStevie Wonder, and Bill Withers. Braiding stirring songwriting prowess, sparkling production, and beautiful vocals, Jones has created one of the most assured and brightest debut albums in quite some time. Though the record has hallmarks of throwback soul music, it cannot help but be concerned with topical social issues. There’s a joy to much of Wait Til I Get Over, but Jones also eulogizes Sandra Bland, George Floyd, Tamir Rice, Breonna Taylor, and Danny Ray Thomas, reflecting the angst of cultural disquiet. – Peter Piatkowski