The Best Albums of 2023
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The 80 Best Albums of 2023

The best albums of 2023 challenged orthodoxies, blended and created new genres, and spanned a vast range of musical styles and traditions, while looking forward.

70. Iris DeMent – Workin’ on a World (Flariella)

Iris DeMent first began writing songs for her seventh album, Workin’ on a World, in 2016. She was devastated by the November election. The singer-songwriter took refuge and inspiration in music. She began working on recording the album back in 2019. In DeMent’s opinion, something was just not working. She put the tapes away until fellow musician (and stepdaughter) Pieta Brown asked what had happened to the recordings. DeMent sent the stuff to Brown, who realized the music’s value. Brown re-enlisted some other musicians who had previously worked on it and texted DeMent, “You have a record”.

DeMent has a distinctive voice that evokes old-time, rural church music. She shows off her chops on songs like the self-consciously pretty ballad “The Cherry Orchard”, where her vocals take the prominent role as she flutters from note to note. Speaking of church music, DeMent includes a song written in tribute to Mahalia Jackson called “Mahalia”. The gospel singer is honored for her strength.  

While DeMent may moan against the world’s evils, Workin’ on a World offers an optimistic message. We can change the world! We must recognize that we live in the present moment, which is just as holy and important as any other time (“The Sacred Now”). 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

69. Faten Kanaan – Afterpoem (Fire)

Producer Faten Kanaan plays with a fairly minimal sonic palette on her most recent album, Afterpoem. Even so, each experiment comes across as something vast. She builds her kingdom on synths, balancing majesty and light in neo-Baroque packages. It’s electronica in cursive, gliding and looping with orchestral grace and drama. From the flute sounds that usher in early autumn chills on opening track “Fin Août, Début Septembre” through the sparkling keys and gentle drones of “Ard Diar” and the uncanny computerized choir of “Votive” to the cinematic last stand of “Storm Signal” and all the harp, harpsichord, violin, and ominous hums in between, Kanaan stacks pixel-thin layers into intricate sound art.

In her brilliant catalog, already marked by invocations of the mythic and legendary, Afterpoem stands out as especially clear and sophisticated in terms of technique and atmosphere alike. Kanaan’s is a world to wander into with eyes wide and mind open, one that takes seriously the human need for awe by carrying us fully into the fantastic. – Adriane Pontecorvo

68. Pink – Trustfall (RCA)

“Close your eyes and leave it all behind,” proclaims Pink amidst EDM production that begs to be put on repeat. It’s not necessarily that pop singers grow up and get boring as fandom chooses to believe. It’s that singers like Pink need to be fully in their element to get their point across, which she is on her ninth studio LP Trustfall. “Wouldn’t you think by now I’d be ready?” she asks on “Feel Something”, one of the highlights on a track listing that consists mostly of ballads reflecting on life, loss, and the reality of living in an age of anxiety.

Pink gets nostalgic and emotional elsewhere on “Kids in Love” or “Our Song”, but it is offerings like “Hate Me” that make Trustfall sound like a full-circle moment for the singer in ways that its predecessor Hurts 2B Human was just a collection of songs about how life is hard. Indeed, years after outgrowing her manufactured role as the “not like other girls” figure in pop music and culture, Pink has matured into a musician seldom other female pop singers reach. So what if we just fall, as she suggests? Would life get easier? I’d like to think so. – Jeffrey Davies

67. The Church – The Hypnogogue (Communicating Vessels)

The Church‘s The Hypnogogue is remarkable in a couple of different ways. One is that, despite featuring a revamped lineup with vocalist/bassist Steve Kilbey as the only remaining member from the band’s major label era, the album is the most perfectly Churchy Church album imaginable, full of sharp, interlocking guitar licks, metaphysical wordplay, and far-out moods. The other is that The Hypnogogue is so strong as to make it a touchstone album in a career that has spanned 40-plus years and countless releases. That has less to do with the overarching sci-fi lyrical concept and more to do with Kilbey’s and longtime drummer/producer Tim Powles’ commitment to the Church aesthetic. Interpreted by the new lineup, it sounds as fresh and inimitable as ever. – John Bergstrom

66. Blonde Redhead – Sit Down for Dinner (Section1)

It’s quite an accomplishment when a band create some of their most accessible, appealing, immediate material nearly 30 years into their career. While Blonde Redhead’s 1990s albums were masterpieces of poise and craft, everything seemed carefully curated and considered. The title of their first album, Fake Can Be Just As Good, is a fitting battle cry and manifesto for Blonde Redhead’s first few decades.

This artful artifice eventually left to a creative dead end, though, following the especially fertile period that yielded the career highlights of Melody of Certain Damaged Lemons, Misery Is a Butterfly, and 23. The band seemed to have lost some of their sparkle, at least in their fans’ eyes, by the time Penny Sparkle came around.

Blonde Redhead haven’t sacrificed any of their style or craftsmanship on Sit Down for Dinner. It’s just not concealed beneath such a thick coating of studio polish and pretense. Instead, Sit Down for Dinner is as warm and spellbinding as a bed of embers, inviting you to sit down and fall under its spell again and again. J. Simpson

65. 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. 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

64. Prins Emanuel – Diagonal Musik II (Music For Dreams)

To make your mark in the music world, you either have to do something that no one has ever heard before or be extremely good at the thing you do. Swedish-based DJ and producer Prins Emanuel thrives on being good at smashing genres together to the point where you aren’t even sure what to call it. Diagonal Musik II, a direct sequel to his 2018 full-length of the same name, exists in a place where jazz chords collide with electronic beats and strumming rock rhythm guitars — and that’s just on the opening track “Kadens Tre”.

Throughout this gorgeous work, Emanuel uses simple 4/4 rhythms to build up layers of exotic instrumentation while achieving a purely cinematic effect. How else could you explain the tribal woodwinds that litter “Paia” or the late-night acoustic pluckings of the weeping “Västan Vind”? Despite the numerous textures and styles thrown in, Diagonal Musik II is a record that feels designed for your ears only, a private soundtrack for every emotion you’ve ever gone through, existing in a world without labels or expectations. It may be referred to as Diagonal Musik, but these songs are delivered to your heart in a straight line. – Evan Sawdey

63. Paramore – This Is Why (Atlantic)

Paramore has worked through the anxiety-ridden state between previous band members, saying goodbye to the difficult ones before making their 2017 album, After Laughter. They’ve settled into a comfortable position with Taylor York and Zac Farro on guitar and drums, respectively, and the effervescent Hayley Williams leading the crew. Rhythmically roguish and highly danceable, This Is Why is a welcome continuation of their move from pop-punk to indie pop without losing their sassy nature.

The first three tracks are a sprightly suite right off the bat. With snazzy drumming and spastic guitar work, the instrumentation is tight and energetic, like 1970s funk. It’s like a dance-punk band like Gang of Four, backed up by Stevie Nicks. Williams’s voice is as spunky as ever but also sophisticated and able to express a mature sense of discontent with a flippantly chic attitude. She still sings with the sense of pop melodrama she’s always had, yet her voice flutters wistfully in unexpectedly pretty melodies at other times. The album is genuinely funny, tinted with sarcasm, and sprinkled with small jokes. Frankly, the magic behind Paramore in recent years has been the band’s rhythmic prowess and Williams’ knack for undeniably catchy hooks used to deliver humorously misanthropic lyrics with class. – Andrew Spiess

62. Forest Swords – Bolted (Ninja Tune)

Multitalented Liverpudlian artist Matthew Barnes’ electronic releases under the name Forest Swords tend to be fairly spread out, with only three full-length albums since 2013. The general consensus, though, is that they’re always worth the wait, and 2023’s Bolted certainly bears that out. It’s craggy, ominous, and dystopian: an experimental maelstrom with a doomy, dubby center of gravity. Industrial beats form a sturdy backbone for fuzzy chaos and melodic clanging, all contributing to an intense subterranean ambience—fitting, as it was recorded in an old factory.

Barnes mixes solid beats and ephemeral samples (a few previously unreleased words from Neneh Cherry make the single “Butterfly Effect” a masterclass in brutalist pathos) into a complex of howls and tunnels, and he dwells in that space, expanding and exploring it rather than simply moving through and out of it. To listen to Bolted is to be surrounded by both emptiness and deep feeling, a vulnerability both crushing and driving, the perfect set of atmospheric conditions for true catharsis. Release is not necessarily relief in the Forest Swords oeuvre, but it is unquestionably fulfilling. So is Bolted, gleaming with both technical precision and pathos and easy to relish from the thick ostinati of “Munitions” to the baleful gallop of “Line Gone Cold”. – Adriane Pontecorvo

61. NewJeans – Get Up (ADOR)

K-pop is known for its indulgences: songs that are overstuffed with melodies and drum machines, merch releases dropped in multiple collectible variants, endless amounts of music video teasers and album repackages, and every other possible promotional angle you can think of amped up to its max. What is most remarkable and refreshing about NewJeans, the five-member girl group conceived of by industry veteran Min Hee-jin, is how they have bucked convention at every turn, playing within the K-pop idiom but by their own rules.

Get Up, their second EP, clocks in at only 12 minutes, but this is by design, as every single second packs a technicolor punch. From the colorful drum-n-bass lead single “Super Shy” to the thumping dance of “ETA”, NewJeans songs never overstay their welcome, practically begging for you to hit replay on them, given everything clocks in under three minutes. While “Cool With You” feels like a Disclosure collaboration that never happened, the experimental production on tracks “NewJeans” and “ASAP” feel like the girls pushing against the very concept of what commercial K-pop music is capable of.

Songwriters hired for this project have stated that during the interview stages, they were asked what their familiarity with K-pop was, and the ones that were hired didn’t know much of anything. This is because NewJeans was designed to break established norms, and what do you know: not only are they one of the biggest groups out there, but their music is adored, covered, copied, and now even shamelessly imitated. NewJeans is leading the way for K-pop’s fifth generation: now it’s up for everyone else to either Get Up or get out of the way. —Evan Sawdey