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.

Killer Mike – MICHAEL (Loma Vista)

If there’s one word to describe Killer Mike, it’s unapologetic. Since going from underground obscurity to global acclaim, the Atlanta rapper has remained outspoken on wax and off. While he has hardly hidden his Southern background with Run the Jewels, MICHAEL allows him to revisit his roots, lyrically and musically. Part autobiography and homage to the city that made him, MICHAEL is a lushly-produced and defiantly Southern hip-hop album, pulling from gospel and trap, Dungeon Family, and Three Six Mafia, and featuring a stacked list of local legends such as Andre 3000, Future, Ceelo Green, Young Thug, 2 Chainz, and even Jagged Edge. It’s an essential listen from a rapper at the top of his game and deserving of it. – Alex Brent

King Krule – Space Heavy (XL / Matador)

King Krule belongs to a provisional genealogy of highly individual guitar auteurs who have channeled a difficult-to-categorize eccentricity. Krule’s new album Space Heavy is characteristically a wild listening experience. This LP is arguably more muted and introspective than past outings, seemingly reflecting our pandemic moment. It is definitely more rock and blues-oriented, dispensing with many of the electronic and hip-hop leanings in his past work. This intention is announced in the mournful opening track “Flimsier”, which begins with an antiquated synth chord that sounds like it’s either from a French New Wave sci-fi film or a TV public service announcement circa 1975. Like his past work, the record wanders musically, exploring multiple avenues to test and work out different ideas, which sometimes approaches a stream-of-consciousness format. – Christopher J. Lee

Liturgy – 93696 (Thrill Jockey)

While it might be easier and neater to frame each Liturgy release as a discrete work to be judged against others in the group’s discography, perhaps the better way to understand Ravenna Hunt-Hendrix‘s art is to see them as ephemeral snapshots of an otherwise fluid, uninterrupted oeuvre. In this context, 93696 becomes more than just Hunt-Hendrix’s latest outing, but the embroidered result of everything that came before it, from Renihilation‘s lo-fi harshness to the daring experimentalism of H.A.Q.Q., and the philosophical undercurrents shadowing the music.

Contemplated as such, the album becomes a sprawling, ambitious piece that spans almost an hour and a half of music and incorporates elements as disparate as Appalachian folk, a cappella chants, turntable scratches, and breakbeats into a cohesive, utterly affecting whole. While eclectic, the metaphysical narrative, which forms and drives the album, results in movements that flow naturally into one another, even as they bridge acoustic guitar, flute, and electric piano soliloquies with pummeling black metal attacks. Because of its structure and complexity, 93696 might never be truly understood or fully untangled, but that is all that more mesmerizing because of the hermetic conundrum behind it. – Antonio Poscic

Baaba Maal – Being (Marathon Artists)

Never one to shy away from innovation, superstar Baaba Maal braids together driving beats, sublime Fulani folk, and electropop energy on his new album, Being, a fresh release from a consummate professional pushing the musical envelope. Often cited as a paradigm shifter in the worldbeat realm, Maal is irreducible to any genre in Being. He is equally a writer, producer, and performer, facilitating conversations between pasts, presents, futures, and many places. Ultimately, Being is about returning home and the inevitable change to any sense of place. Baaba Maal’s musical homecoming here is not myopic or static but embraces motion through space, time, and sound. – Adriane Pontecorvo

Gia Margaret – Romantic Piano (Jagjaguwar)

Gia Margaret’s new album, Romantic Piano, refines this approach. Like its predecessor, the defining feature of this LP is its minimalism, with vocals kept to only two tracks out of 13 total. Yet the word “minimalism” may also be misleading. The songs on this album are indeed quiet. However, as such, they conceal multiple layers of piano, field recordings, synth loops, and percussion. Margaret has referred to her music as “sleep rock”, though one gets the idea this description is a bit facetious. The net effect is that Romantic Piano asks you to huddle closer, to consider what makes a song work and what even makes a song a song. Margaret moves intuitively through tone and mood, utilizing piano fragments and the sampling of found sounds to articulate emotional experience. – Christopher J. Lee

MC Yallah – Yallah Beibe (Hakuna Kulala)

The Kenya-born, Uganda-raised MC Yallah has come up with a total barnburner with Yallah Beibe. A wild middle ground between rap, Afrobeats, and industrial, these 12 tracks are a thrilling ride through a futuristic, global vision of rap music. Flicking between Luganda, Luo, Kiswahili, and English, Yallah’s dextrous flow puts most Western MCs to shame, as does the unpredictable production. The dark “No One Seems to Bother” (featuring a member of Kenyan metallers Duma) is one of the boldest and most memorable tracks you’ll hear all year. An absolutely essential listen for all open-minded English-speaking listeners. – Tom Morgan

Nappy Nina – Morning Due (LucidHaus)

Morning Due is the latest from Nappy Nina, a Brooklyn-based MC that this writer, to his shame, was previously unaware of. It’s a quietly magnificent album with 14 tracks of delicate rapping (imagine a middle ground between Noname by and Moor Mother) and abstract, though never alienating, electronic production. It’s experimental but also approachable and full of introspective depth. Nina’s honest lyrics aren’t interested in flexes or punchlines, focusing instead on themes that portray a reserved, complex persona. It’s a guarded, subtle, and brilliant rap album. – Tom Morgan

The National – First Two Pages of Frankenstein (4AD)

The National‘s First Two Pages of Frankenstein shifts away from malaise for the sake of it and toward the heart. This is not to say that there hasn’t been emotion in their work; it’s full of grand crescendos, urgent percussion, searing guitar parts, and the trademark Matt Berninger Scream. But the the National have been trending further toward abstraction since the Alligator days, culminating in 2019’s gorgeous-albeit-obtuse I Am Easy to Find. We’ve been left to spelunk through increasingly windy compositions to figure out what we’re supposed to be sad about. First Two Pages of Frankenstein is not the cliché late-career-return-to-form record. The National wield each of their main elements to drill down to their heart. This is still obviously the National’s work and sound, but it wants to reach out more than they ever have. – Jeremy Levine

Joy Oladokun – Proof of Life (Amigo / Verve Forecast / Republic)

Joy Oladokun‘s Proof of Life is both a snapshot of a moment and, as the title suggests, a testament to the present and future of a life lived honestly and to its fullness. “This album is evidence of how I live,” Oladokun shared with writer Marissa Moss in a recent New York Times profile. It’s an attempt to connect with others who are struggling, hanging in, and moving forward, a connective invitation that traverses musical genres in its call. In a way, it fleshes out the overarching themes of the playful TikTok video. We are rooted in a moment, but we come from somewhere. We carry our past selves and experiences in ways we might not wholly untangle, but they often lead to surprising vistas unseen from previous perches in time. 

If worship music speaks to the potency of music to give voice to our most profound hopes and frame our pain while leading us into broader and deeper forms of human connection, then Joy Oladokun’s Proof of Life might just be the hymnbook of greater authenticity and connection in these fractured times. – Rick Quinn

Caroline Polachek – Desire, I Want to Turn Into You (Sony / The Orchard)

Desire, I Want to Turn Into You is a future classics. On it, Caroline Polachek feels destined to be connected to the auteurs that once captured that paradox. As a solo artist, Polachek has dedicated her art to all feelings unnameable, their extremes and dissonances integrated into her indelible melodies. At the music’s core remains her voice, a fascinating tool she employs the way Björk used strings on Homogenic, hitting that intoxicating cross between digital aesthetic and analog ethos. Pang (2020) successfully introduced us to this tactic, but on Desire, it reaches an apotheosis.

Engaging at every turn and carefully calibrated to its point of view, it represents art pop hitting yet another dizzy apex. She knows this too, having released nearly half of its tracks as singles over the last year. Each one is a diorama of its own, from the bipolar, scrunchy-laden manifesto of “Welcome to My Island” to the dembow-based “Bunny Is a Rider” to the flamenco flutter of “Sunset”. – Rob Moura