10. 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
9. Carly Rae Jepsen – The Loveliest Time (Interscope)
Since the release of her legendary E·MO·TION in 2015, Carly Rae Jepsen fans have been subject to a yearly treat. After every album release, almost like clockwork, a new full-length of “B-sides” from that record gets released, with no overlap, no remixes — just more excellent pop confections from Jepsen’s personal sonic bakery. Following 2022’s The Loneliest Time, however, comes not a B-side record so much as a direct sequel called The Loveliest Time, trading in some of Loneliest’s more emotional numbers for more lively and danceable material.
Jepsen continues to expand her sonic boundaries with each release, and the percussion-driven “Shy Boy” and slow-burning torch number “Kollage” pull new styles into her repertoire. The whole album is wonderful, but it’s hard to believe that “Psychedelic Switch”, a pure Daft Punk-indebted dance rave-up, wasn’t released sooner, as it’s one of the single best tracks to come out this year. She may no longer be a presence on the radio like she once was, but that’s almost better for Jepsen, who will keep making some of the finest dance-pop albums known to man at a regular clip to an increasingly fervent cult audience. —Evan Sawdey
8. Maisie Peters – The Good Witch (Gingerbread Man / Asylum)
Maisie Peters’ The Good Witch isn’t just a breakup album with attitude and vigor. It’s a continuing saga of what it means to be a 20-something female musician in an era where people come of age on social media, which can be toxic and empowering at once. Indeed, it would be more suitable to classify Peters’ sophomore LP as a post-third-wave feminist record, where young women can embrace their ennui unironically.
This is displayed best on tracks like “You’re Just a Boy (And I’m Kinda the Man)” and “Wendy”, where Peters concludes on the latter that young men are expected to be lost boys, and young girls are expected to be Wendy. The sooner women learn they don’t have to mother their male partners, the better. In fact, Peters is kind of “the man” for all intents and purposes since these are her stories, and she gets to decide how to tell them. She’s strong enough to know when she needs to go back to therapy or that while she can’t necessarily rewrite the history of man, she can control her space within it. It’s like the old saying goes: don’t get on a writer’s bad side, for their revenge could become immortal. – Jeffrey Davies
7. Shamir – Homo Anxietatem (Kill Rock Stars)
On his latest work, Homo Anxietatem, Shamir teamed up with British producer Justin Tailor (who goes by the moniker Hoost) to create a record that takes many of its cues from the guitar-driven rock of the 1990s. There are notes of Seattle grunge, glossy pop/rock, and polished alt-radio rock. Charming touches of nostalgia include record scratches, wall-of-sound crashing guitars, and crunchy electric guitars that power through catchy, athematic choruses. The lyrics on the record are confessional, diary-like entries that tell tales of heartache and desire. There are clever allusions to queer pop culture (gay icons like Mariah Carey and Cher get shoutouts), but the record’s tone is yearning and desire – a keening desire that matches the album’s title. – Peter Piatkowski
6. Lana Del Rey – Did You Know That There’s a Tunnel Under Ocean Blvd (Interscope)
Released nearly four years and three albums after the landmark Norman Fucking Rockwell!, Lana Del Rey’s Did You Know That There’s a Tunnel Under Ocean Blvd returns to the epic scope of that record, albeit with a slightly different approach. What sets Ocean Blvd apart is its more stream-of-consciousness approach, making for a more meandering, personal meditation than Rockwell’s eulogy for the death of the American Dream. This more spontaneous approach to songwriting, while a bumpy ride from time to time, offers glimpses into Lana’s psyche more than ever before, whether she’s singing about her family and friends, looking back on lost loves, wondering if she’ll be remembered when it’s her time to go, or if she’ll be forgotten just like Long Beach, California’s abandoned Jergins Tunnel referenced in the title track. – Adrien Begrand
Del Rey has the perfect collaborator in Jack Antonoff, and the pair’s almost telepathic chemistry yields the stunning “A&W”, which magically morphs from tortured self-loathing (“Did you know a singer can still be looking like a sidepiece at 33?”) into a stark, menacing 808-driven trap arrangement over the course of seven thrilling minutes. It’s fitting that Del Rey references Wim Wenders’ Paris, Texas late in the album because just as that film explores the danger of clinging too tightly to the past, she too seems ready to put the past behind her. As her recording of evangelist Judah Smith says, “I used to think my preaching was mostly about You…I’ve discovered my preaching is mostly about me.” Del Rey’s epiphany has given us an enigmatic, endlessly fascinating, and ultimately hopeful record. – Adrien Begrand
5. Beach Fossils – Bunny (Bayonet)
Summer and pop music go hand in hand. Released in June, Beach Fossils’ Bunny seemed timed to hit the seasonal circuit of evening deck parties in Montauk and hot July nights in Brooklyn. There is nothing especially complicated about this album. In our age of experimentation and endless reinvention, Dustin Payseur intuitively understands that effective songcraft can be about restraint and keeping things simple. His reference points are jangle pop guitarists like Tom Verlaine, Johnny Marr, and Peter Buck, with atmospherics that recall the Church and Mojave 3. The attitude is one of intentional nonchalance, reflecting the fine art of hanging out. “Nothing feels better than wasting time”, Payseur sings in “Dare Me”. Other standout tracks include “Don’t Fade Away”, “Run to the Moon”, and the opener, “Sleeping on My Own”. This is also decidedly a New York record. It ranks with Luna’s Penthouse (1995) as a love letter to the city. — Christopher J. Lee
4. Caroline Polachek – Desire, I Want to Turn Into You (Sony)
Caroline Polachek’s 2019 album Pang showed just how limitless the potential was for the singer-songwriter to take art pop to stratospheric new heights, and her long-awaited follow-up does just that by smartly focusing more on the pop side. Typical of Polachek’s oeuvre, Desire, I Want to Turn Into You is so hyper-ambitious that it practically itches to fly off in every direction at once, but somehow the hooks on this record, which are so consistently infectious, tie everything together and keep the entire thing grounded. The melodies are all so huge and so immediately memorable that it’s easy to overlook that Polachek deftly jumps from stadium rock to flamenco, to trap, to new age, to trip hop in the blink of an eye.
Wait, did we just hear a sly nod to Kate Bush’s The Sensual World? Her powerhouse voice pulls off astonishing tricks – her ability to mimic vocoder throughout the record is a marvel to hear – but for all the technical vocal gymnastics, for all diversity of styles, it’s all in service to the song. – Adrien Begrand
3. Olivia Rodrigo – Guts (Geffen)
Theater kid energy collides with 1990s alternative rock on a follow-up that many thought possible, but few figured would ever materialize because that would’ve been too awesome an idea for mainstream pop. But no, young Olivia Rodrigo transformed from teen sensation to savvy pop auteur on her raucous, magnificent, and wildly enjoyable second album. The immediacy and brutal honesty of these dozen tracks – always hovering around three minutes long – appeal to the younger crowd, but parents, aunts, and uncles of those kids will be wowed by just how smart this record is.
The 1990s signposts appear quickly and often: Hole, Pixies, the Cure, Elastica, Veruca Salt, Pulp, Breeders, Liz Phair, the Muffs, Archers of Loaf, and even early Blink-182. What Rodrigo and producer Daniel Nigro do, however, is mold all those influences into a sound that’s uniquely Olivia, the arrangements matching the passion of her incisive, often cutting lyrics and the huge range of her voice. Her vivid descriptions of teenage angst are laced with deep self-loathing and wicked humor. – Adrien Begrand
2. Kylie Minogue – Tension (BMG)
After the country-pop pivot, Kylie Minogue did on 2018’s Golden, she revamped her sound to incorporate contemporary disco stylings with 2020’s aptly-named Disco, which reintroduced the long-reigning diva to the club DJ set. Now, with this year’s Tension, Minogue leans hard on that modern dance-pop edge, delivering us a new instant club classic with “Padam Padam”, the unofficial song of the summer. Tension, her 16th studio album proper, trades in a panoply of dance-pop styles, from more traditional “classic Kylie” effervescent jams (“One More Time”, “Just Imagine” from the Deluxe Edition) to slick bangers that evoke her Fever era at its finest (the delicious title track). Kylie Minogue always knows what a good beat sounds like, and numbers like the almost K-pop-leaning “Vegas High” and ballroom-referencing “10 Out of 10” show she’s never afraid to experiment with new sounds and styles. After all, you don’t get to your 16th album simply by following trends. Therein lies the Tension. —Evan Sawdey
1. Jessie Ware – That! Feels Good! (EMI)
Jessie Ware, long a prized collaborator in the UK electronica scene, finally pivoted to full-bore dance-pop on 2020’s excellent What’s Your Pleasure?, even landing on the PopMatters Best Pop Albums of 2020 list. So, after a much-needed re-release of your most acclaimed record to date, how do you even begin to think about following it up? With That! Feels Good!, we finally have the answer: by getting goofier, sluttier, and campier.
Ware’s deeply unserious 2021 duet with Kylie Minogue, “Kiss of Life”, sets up the mood for That! Feels Good!, with disco beats colliding with colorful horn sections and sassy backing vocalists. Anthems like “Free Yourself” and “Begin Again” carry on the What’s Your Pleasure? legacy, but tracks like the funky “Freak Me Now” and flirty “Shake the Bottle” breathe with a devilish, indulgent kind of energy heretofore unheard on a Jessie Ware album. She’s leaning harder into her high-energy era and is remembering to keep it fun. Being a Jessie Ware fan has never felt so Good. —Evan Sawdey