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.

Dudu Tassa and Jonny Greenwood – Jarak Qaribak (World Circuit)

Dudu Tassa and Jonny Greenwood approached their new musical collaboration, Jarak Qaribak, very simply and with no preconceived notions or sociopolitical ambitions. It’s simply an interpretation of an extraordinary Middle Eastern songbook, although they understand it may be perceived otherwise. The multinational slant of Jarak Qaribak is primarily aided by the fact that each of the nine tracks features a singer performing a song from a country other than their own. “Taq ou-Dub”, is an old Lebanese song that Palestinian vocalist Nour Freteikh sings. It was the starting point for the project and moves along in an almost trance-like state with clean, precise percussion and intoxicating Eastern strings matched with nimble electric bass and subtle electronics, combining classic instrumentation with more contemporary sounds. – Chris Ingalls

Tinariwen – Amatssou (Wedge)

In the new Tinariwen release Amatssou, these sonic and spiritual connections take more literal forms. Produced by Daniel LanoisAmatssou puts the Kel Tamasheq stars in musical dialogue with banjo player Wes Corbett, multi-instrumentalist Fats Kaplin, and Lanois himself. The resulting collaborations come together with a smoldering brilliance as the keen sounds of Tinariwen’s guitars, drums, and voices stretch out in peaks over rippling beds of pedal steel and flowing strings. It fits nicely into the Tinariwen body of work (2019’s Amadjar featured Micah Nelson, Cass McCombs, and other acoustically-inclined guests) while standing out as distinct among their exemplary offerings thus far. Above all, the lyrics on Amatssou are resolute. Tinariwen sing of martyrs, battles, unity, and hopes for the future, advocating for justice. – Adriane Pontecorvo

U.S. Girls – Bless This Mess (4AD)

Musical artist Meg Remy—under the banner of U.S. Girls— has traversed a vast landscape of musical genres and themes for the past 15 years, from channeling her vocals through delay pedal effects to fronting an art-soul orchestra. Creative stasis has never been an issue for U.S. Girls. 2023’s Bless This Mess is no exception, folding existential ruminations on meaning, sensual embodiment, and mystery within an exceptional dance track.

Remy gave birth to this project concurrent with the conception and birth of her twin sons. The resulting album is suffused with the bodily—blood, sweat, sex, nursing, and exhaustion pulse throughout—and marks the interplay and interference of the machine on physical connection. In advance press for the album’s release, Remy points to funk as a generative anchor for this work with its earthy sensuousness, cleaving to and guiding the body’s rhythms. – Rick Quinn

Reuben Vincent – Love Is War (Jamla / Roc Nation)

A warm, soulful album that’s rich in mood and texture, Love Is War announces Reuben Vincent as a force to be reckoned with. The Charlotte, North Carolina native’s Roc Nation debut is a confident and emotionally intelligent work, one that belies its creator’s youth. The whole album is bathed in a dreamy warmth, like walking into someone else’s daydream. “Geechie Suede” and “Mon’e” go relatively hard, but most cuts are light on their feet and nuanced, full of compassionate, thoughtful lyrics that attempt to unpack the many complexities of love. Given the quality of this release and the fact that Vincent dropped his first tape at the age of just 13, it’s safe to assume that he’s got a bright future ahead of him.

Sunny War – Anarchist Gospel (New West)

Can music bear the whole weight of our human experience? Anarchist Gospel, folk-punk artist Sunny War‘s fourth studio album makes a case that it should. While our weariness with struggle and division may push us to yearn for the assurance of music that seamlessly ties up all loose ends, Anarchist Gospel is not offering the promise of world harmony that follows from “teaching the world to sing” a la the iconic 1971 Coca-Cola commercial. 

The heft and the hope of the album emerge from Sunny War’s narrative that she artfully translates into a deeply affecting collection of countrified blues, gospel overtones, and rock with dashes of cowpunk. Raw and authentic but never preachy nor maudlin, Anarchist Gospel keeps life’s contradictory tensions in the forefront of our consciousness, whether in the playfulness of the artist’s stage name (born Sydney Lyndell Ward) or in the attention-arresting album title. – Rick Quinn

Jessie Ware – That! Feels Good! (EMI)

Jessie Ware has continued her disco success with her latest studio album, That! Feels Good!, which is somehow even more potent than its predecessor. But this should hardly come as a surprise. Given that pop albums released in 2020 would have been in various development stages before the onset of COVID-19, disco released three years on is more intentional and deliberate. In an era of increased anxiety over public health, climate change, and female bodily autonomy, pop artists like Ware recognize that the pleasure of the dancefloor is both a protest and a right. It’s albums like That! Feels Good! that younger generations and trendsetters should be paying more attention to, as incorporating the still-relevant past into new work is not only what can make some of the best art but some of the bravest art. – Jeffrey Davies

Water From Your Eyes – Everyone’s Crushed (Matador)

Water From Your Eyes traffic between experimental music of the krautrock period of the late 1960s and early 1970s and today’s feminine pop sensibility reflective of their millennial/Gen Z generation. They come across as methodical students of the Nurse with Wound list who are also fans of Lana del Ray. Their new album, Everyone’s Crushed, is more experimental than previous releases, undertaking what might be called a neo-Dadaist approach that again harks back to krautrock and its successors. Water From Your Eyes want to make clear that moving up in the world doesn’t mean sacrificing your art rock impulses. The opening track, “Structure”, which signals a link to this LP’s predecessor, announces this intention with its cryptic, computer-generated melody that is willful in its evasion of conventional song structure and identifiable emotion. – Christopher J. Lee

Wednesday – Rat Saw God (Dead Oceans)

On Wednesday’s new record, Rat Saw God, hell is a place on Earth. It’s magical and terrifying, animate and anesthetizing. Every corner bends toward the dark of the night like the edges of a burnt photograph. The air reeks like a sunbaked lawn that’s been pissed on. The LP is Wednesday, as you could only imagine back in their nascency: fully aware of their capabilities and firing on every cylinder.

Wednesday’s eight-minute, three-part masterpiece, ”Bull Believer”, must be heard to be believed. Its length, complexity, and the cosmic power of its closing minutes threaten to overshadow the rest of Rat Saw God, and it almost does. Blessedly, Wednesday don’t reattempt its energy, and instead, we get the unabashed country twang of “Chosen to Deserve” and the lumbering lament of “Formula One”, the catchy tableau vivant of “Quarry”, and the listless slowcore of “What’s So Funny”. True to Wednesday’s growth, each track turns the corner onto another avenue of rock transformed in their peculiar alchemy. – Rob Moura

Young Fathers – Heavy Heavy (Ninja Tune)

Scottish trio Young Fathers are a frequently indescribable prospect. Their music (Heavy Heavy is their fourth studio album) dissolves hip-hop’s boundaries, encompassing art pop and experimental electronica as much as traditional rap music. It overflows with ecstatic vocals and percussive rhythms as if channeling the earliest 20th-century black vocal music or further back still. The record is hip-hop-adjacent, with “Drum” featuring rapid-fire rapping and “Shoot Me Down” boasting moody, bass-heavy beats. It’s a unique collection that music fans of all persuasions need to hear. – Tom Morgan

Youth Lagoon – Heaven Is a Junkyard (Fat Possum)

Given the location and the stories told, there is a tintype mythmaking quality to some of the tracks on Youth Lagoon‘s Heaven Is a Junkyard in the manner of Bob Dylan’s John Wesley Harding. This album is also about the American West, as written by Annie Proulx. Powers has been compared to the late Daniel Johnston, and this analogy makes sense given the mutual traits of sincerity and vulnerability heard in their vocals. From a musical standpoint, I would further nominate Kurt Wagner of Lambchop as another comparison – another regional artist who has consistently experimented with his sound to reinvent how his hometown’s musical traditions are understood, in his case Nashville. Both Powers and Wagner demonstrate a strong identification with their respective geographies while resisting established conformities that could impair their artistic visions. – Christopher J. Lee