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.

Margo Price – Strays (Loma Vista)

Margo Price‘s latest album, Strays, is her most adventurous one yet. This is not surprising, considering how she made it. Price and her husband (Jeremy Ivey) went to the South Carolina beach in the summer and took a six-day mushroom-filled trip looking for insights and inspirations. She also gave up drinking alcohol. The ‘shrooms must have inspired Price’s creativity. Or maybe it was giving up the booze. Or perhaps it was both of them or neither, but what these behaviors indicate about Price is her willingness to try new things and seek new ways of experiencing the world. She takes risks. The songs and instrumentalizations vary in topics and style. There’s no dominant theme as much as a central intellect and a heart. The world will make you crazy if you look at it too long, she sings, but she can’t look away. – Steve Horowitz

Protomartyr – Formal Growth in the Desert (Domino)

On Formal Growth in the Desert, Protomartyr have ever-so-subtly evolved their sound into something not quite mellow and not quite as expansive as its titular reference – and yet also not as claustrophobically volatile as previous efforts. It’s something gloriously in between. One would think that an album informed by and formed in the Western desert might have a “sunnier” sound (whatever that means) or maybe even some desolate expanses in the tunes. But solar-infused sonics aren’t quite there, though you can hear nuanced intonations of levity. However, the music is indeed less impenetrable than previous efforts. There’s more room for the instruments to breathe, and a true sense of space, at times invoking a feeling of being surrounded by the sky as you contemplate the stars. – Alison Ross

Purling Hiss – Drag on Girard (Drag City)

The comparison has been made that the sound of Purling Hiss is akin to that of Dinosaur Jr. This analogy hits you immediately with the opening track “Yer All in My Dreams” from Purling Hiss’ new album Drag on Girard. The fuzzed-out lead guitar, the languid vocals, and the unbridled backbeat that keeps it all together nail this resemblance down. The album continues the artistic momentum established by Valdez and Long Lost Solace Find in different ways. Musically situated between the two, it employs the high-decibel approach of Birds of Maya while retaining moments of the self-conscious vulnerability found in Polizze’s solo outing.

The record carries on a long-standing tradition of revisiting and updating the garage rock canon to extend that genre’s legacies to the next level. Mike Polizze seems unconcerned about recording a breakthrough album and instead just blissing out on the sounds you can make with a guitar and Marshall stack. He’s as much a fan as you. – Christopher J. Lee

Quasi – Breaking the Balls of History (Sub Pop)

Quasi’s Breaking the Balls of History updates the production value a notch with results that sound more polished than in preceding efforts. It is a Covid album, conceived and written while under lockdown and recorded in five days. A magpie sensibility rules as with their previous releases, revealing a diverse set of influences across the rock spectrum. “Last Long Laugh” possesses a soft-loud-soft-loud dynamic that betrays their 1990s roots. Less coy but with the same sound, it is an excellent reminder of where recent bands like Wet Leg and their hit single “Chaise Longue” owe their livelihoods. Soul/blues-driven songs like “Back in Your Tree” and “Queen of Ears” convey a latent affinity with the Black Keys circa Brothers by updating the Muscle Shoals Sound for present-day listeners. Meanwhile, “Gravity” has an orchestral, David Bowie-esque, “Space Oddity” vibe. – Christopher J. Lee

Rancid – Tomorrow Never Comes (Hellcat / Epitaph)

Thirty years after Rancid’s rampaging debut, it comes as no surprise that there’s no wild change of direction – what isn’t broken and all that. Tomorrow Never Comes finds Brett Gurewitz at the helm as producer for the sixth album in a row, ensuring no-frills, no-spills fidelity to the group’s polished sound. It’s also Rancid’s most concise statement at less than 29 minutes, as only six of 16 tracks even break the two-minute mark. The album never lets up the breathless pace at any point. For the first time, Rancid have written an entire record around a single concept: it dwells with gusto on the historical anarchism and freedom of piracy on the high seas. They show their maturity as lyricists in that it’s possible to listen to Tomorrow Never Comes and hear, instead, the ethics of the modern punk scene without even noticing the album’s thematic conceit. Either way, it’s a blast! – Nick Soulsby

RP Boo – Legacy Volume 2 (Planet Mu)

Anyone coming to RP Boo or footwork in general via Legacy Volume 2 needs to be prepared to have their bones rearranged and their senses overloaded. Using a Roland R-70 and an Akai SO1, the kind of equipment Boo’s trusted in for a quarter century, he creates rubbery, skittering drum hits that seem to be ever searching for a landing, hemmed into place by trebled smacks and tempered glass shards of repeatedly sampled melodies or words. Another way to get a sense of RP Boo’s genius is to watch him craft a beat, his head bobbing to emphasize how rhythm is at the heart of what he does, even as he dodges the kind of four-on-the-floor that House was built on. – Bruce Miller

Samia – Honey (Grand Jury)

If The Baby announced Samia as a vocalist and songwriter to watch, Honey makes it clear that we’ll be watching her for a long time. With ample self-awareness and a keen sense of the surreal, Samia has delivered a sonically dynamic voyage through the monstrous and merciful extremes of intimacy. Even though life can be hard to scrub off, there’s always something to learn in looking back. As Samia sings on Honey’s centerpiece, “To Me It Was”: “How much better can anything get / than sitting on your porch remembering it?” Many of Honey’s tracks deal with The Baby’s central question: how does one walk the line between concealing and revealing? But now, narrative arcs are tighter, images more compelling, and Samia’s instincts regarding which sparse details to include for maximum emotional impact are sharpened. – Rachel R. Carroll

Andy Schauf – Norm (Anti-)

Andy Schauf‘s Norm is a concept album about a guy named Norm. According to Schauf, the tracks feature four different narrators advancing the story. The mysterious plot is far from clear whether there is a beginning, middle, and end. His style is part Raymond Carver and part Raymond Chandler. That doesn’t matter. The sensation of incomprehension itself is part of the record’s charm. The music itself is suggestive, rapturous, mysterious, and mesmerizing. The lyrics set the mood. Each song works on its own. The connections between cuts may be vague, but they share an alluring magnetism. The 12 tracks offer journeys down sonic trails that start in the same hallway but change from room to room. The overarching theme concerns the big topic of love. – Steve Horowitz

Amanda Shires and Bobbie Nelson – Loving You (ATO)

Before she died, Bobbie Nelson worked with the multi-instrumentalist singer-songwriter Amanda Shires, who has repeatedly acknowledged Nelson as a musical hero. The COVID pandemic and lockdowns made their recording difficult, but Shires and the record company have recently released the results posthumously. The result, Loving Youis wonderful! Nelson’s piano playing is appropriately at the forefront on every track. She opens each song and sets the tone. They selected songs they knew from the past. These ranged from gospel (“Tempted and Tried” aka “Farther Along”) to classics from the Great American Songbook (“Dream a Little Dream”) to old country chestnuts (“Waltz Across Texas”) to Bobbie’s brother (“Angel Flying Too Close to the Ground”). Amanda Shires and Bobbie Nelson shared a profound connection. The result is a tribute to the artists’ talents and essential listening for piano-based country music fans and Americana listeners. – Steve Horowitz

Squid – O Monolith (Warp)

When compared to the frantic Grimm Brothers’ extrapolations of Black Midi and the razor-sharp interpersonal drama of Black Country, New RoadSquid‘s vibe is kitchen-sink progressive rock decorated with lyrical abstraction. Their newest, O Monolith, is a tighter, leaner, more refined version of what predecessor Bright Green Field brought to the table. Like their debut LP, O Monolith has a discernible topography, with quiet parts building into loud parts that then drop back into gulfs of atmosphere.

The five-piece remains a mercurial sonic collective, cramming in textures and colors as if Voltron were a Michelin-star chef. Many of them are breathtaking, like the poignant twinkle of synths over “After the Flash” or the angst-ridden guitar strums breaking down “Swing (Inside a Dream)”, and they reiterate how good Squid is at using these textures in ways unique to their music. – Rob Moura