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.

60. Animal Collective – Isn’t It Now? (Domino)

The beloved American experimental pop band veers into progressive territories on their twelfth studio album. Isn’t It Now? is made up of extended jams that stay compelling all the way through, pushing Animal Collective further into psychedelic pop than they’ve ever been, nearing fantastical, adventurous, otherworldly conceits. Songs like “Genies Open”, “Broke Zodiac”, and “Gem & I” are jaunty tunes with basslines that bubble and rumble, sometimes reminiscent of the Beatles circa Yellow Submarine. Other songs like “Magicians from Baltimore” create hallucinatory effects through prudent synth and keyboard sequences over slower drum beats.

Animal Collective grow their psychedelic effects within drawn-out song lengths, a first for the Baltimore, MD, band. “Defeat” is the longest track the band has ever released, nearing 22 minutes long and carrying an ethereal, revelatory essence in its first arc. It moves into a vibrant sequence that rides a bouncy bassline, then turns ghostly in its last minutes. Throughout Isn’t It Now?, Avey Tare’s voice pleasantly floats bright, colorful melodies, flowing over the rest of the band’s lush, rich, warm instrumentation, making the album a textural gem. – Andrew Spiess

59. James Blake – Playing Robots Into Heaven (Polydor / Republic)

Over a decade since that groundbreaking self-titled debut, James Blake returns to the sounds that made him a household name. While Blake’s sound has not undergone many radical transformations, he has undoubtedly been inspired and shaped by changes in popular music and his relationship to it. The result is an album that looks back and forward, blending production styles from house, dubstep, and hip-hop and shot through with Blake’s trademark croon. Most of the music is an exciting and often brilliantly experimental selection of future-facing electronic music, while the end is more lethargic.

“Tell Me” and “Big Hammer” are Playing Robots Into Heaven‘s real standouts, demonstrating Blake’s development and range as a producer. “Tell Me” is perhaps the most danceable, most explosively ravey song Blake has ever put out, its blistering drums and laser synths better suited to big rooms than headphones. “Big Hammer” remixes the ideas of his early releases for Hemlock and R&S Records, blending trap and electronic music with what sounds like a dancehall vocal sample, gradually pitched up and down to devastating effect. – Alex Brent

58. Chris Stapleton – Higher (Mercury Nashville)

Chris Stapleton‘s Higher builds on the excellence of his previous efforts and stands out from the glut of other country records due to the insightful songwriting and beautiful singing. He doesn’t sing so much as he soars through these impeccably crafted tunes, finding soul and spirit in the painful ballads or the rousing uptempo material.    

Higher is a collection of fantastic tunes that explore the different sides of pain and despair. “What Am I Gonna Do” (co-written by Miranda Lambert) is a bracing and brutal story song of depression, loneliness, and alcoholism; as he ponders his life without his love, he wonders what he’ll do alone, imagining his pain drowned in alcohol. On the other end of the spectrum of love is Stapleton’s celebration of women in “It Takes a Woman”, in which he pays homage to his woman, testifying, celebrating, and pledging his allegiance to his woman – it’s a stirring anthem to the love of a good woman, a lovely antidote to the gross, alt-right country songs that have found crossover success; Stapleton’s candid emotion is bracing as he dares to be vulnerable despite his husky vocals.   

The centerpiece of Higher is the album’s single, “White Horse”, the anthemic country-rocker that sounds tailor-made for arenas. It’s the catchiest song on the record, with pop hooks and a memorable guitar riff. Higher is a prime example of mainstream country rock at its finest. Stapleton’s voice is a multi-hued natural wonder: warm, evocative, pained, and beautiful. It’s a voice reared by the greatest of popular music: rock, country, soul, gospel. He summons up a wide range of emotions and feelings; he’s knowing, cocky, sad, funny. Higher is required listening for fans of high-quality, contemporary country. – Peter Piatkowski

57. Tomb Mold – The Enduring Spirit (20 Buck Spin)

Countering death metal with touches of melody and delicacy has been a tried-and-true tactic since the early 1990s when the likes of Opeth, Cynic, and Atheist broke new ground in the genre. However, it’s been a very long time since a contemporary death metal band successfully pulled off such a difficult feat with the same sense of innovation as those progenitors. Canadian upstarts Tomb Mold have been one of the most consistent death metal bands of the last decade, always displaying a knack for juxtaposing throttling, subterranean death metal grooves with sneakily melodic riffs, but their fourth album The Enduring Spirit constantly pulls the rug out from under listeners with left turns that veer towards jazz fusion, progressive rock, and even post-punk.

The surprises keep coming, and it’s enough to put a big dumb smile on any guitar aficionado. Just listen to the opening section of “Will of Whispers”, which sounds like a marriage between Alan Holdsworth and Joe Satriani. Or the lithe lead guitar that punctuates the otherwise ferocious “Flesh As Armour”. Frankly, it doesn’t get much better than the eleven-minute closing epic “The Enduring Spirit of Calamity”, which gracefully shifts from dexterous old-school death metal (owing heavily to Death’s Chuck Schuldiner) before launching into an extended Steve Vai-derived shred-fest that wrenches more emotion out of death metal that you thought possible. In a genre oversaturated with plenty of faithful disciples, it’s exciting to hear a band create something advanced and genuinely moving. – Adrien Begrand

56. Sam Wilkes – Driving (Independent)

What happens when one of the most prominent bassists of the Los Angeles alternative jazz scene suddenly decides to pivot to indie rock? You get one of the year’s most dynamic and endlessly curious records, of course. While Sam Wilkes has slowly built up a legacy of hypnotic mood pieces through the Leaving Records roster and especially with his collaborations with saxophonist Sam Gendel, Wilkes’s abruptly announced album Drivingthrew some fans off track, unsure of what caused his change of genre. Yet Driving rewards you as you listen, moving from instrumental collages to Mac DeMarco-indebted guitar lines with full rhythm section backing.

Wilkes loves a good echoing guitar tone, and tracks like “Ag” and the string section-assisted “Own” work on their own beautifully curious internal melodic logic. These songs pulse, swirl, and beguile, but by keeping things rooted in somewhat typical rock structures, Wilkes’s emotive chord changes never fly too far out of reach. Only when he closes the record with an acoustic lament of unrequited love, detailed over rambling paragraphs of pained lyric readings, does Driving reveal its wounded yet still beating heart, which throws all the tracks that preceded it into a new life. While unassuming on its surface, Driving is one of the year’s most unexpected masterpieces. —Evan Sawdey

55. Jamila Woods – Water Made Us (Jagjaguwar)

Jamila Woods is a 34-year-old poet and singer from Chicago, but she sounds much younger. There is a freshness to the persona she presents, who has not been jaded by her limited experiences. She directly addresses the topic of love from a personal perspective on her latest album. She’s ambitiously self-reflexive in her search for truth and beauty. You would think she’d know better. Love is magic and mysterious. One can analyze love from a myriad of perspectives and still not be able to understand it. While Woods offers kernels of wisdom, she doesn’t comprehend the phenomenon anymore at the end of the record than she did at the start. Love is love. The rest is art.

Water Made Us is full of creativity. The music takes on many forms, just like the water referred to in the album’s title. The songs are not just liquid, solid, and gas; they are blood, wine, and soul. Big enough to contain oceans of emotions and as small as a teardrop. A scientist would call water a universal solvent because it dilutes everything. But Woods also knows the opposite is true. H20 is also the world’s most important building block. – Steve Horowitz

54. Depeche Mode – Memento Mori (Columbia)

Two major events played crucial parts in shaping Memento Mori, one tragic and one inspired. In May 2022, founding member Andy Fletcher died unexpectedly, leaving Depeche Mode a duo of Martin Gore and Dave Gahan for the first time in its 42-year history. Before that happened, Gore had engaged in a songwriting dialogue with Psychedelic Furs vocalist/lyricist Richard Butler, a collaboration which berthed a handful of Memento Mori’s tracks. The resulting analog synth-based modern pop is, musically, in line with latter-day Depeche Mode.

But Memento Mori has an elegance and clarity of purpose, unlike anything they’ve done for decades. It is as if Fletcher’s absence gave Gore and Gahan a newfound appreciation for their shared history, while Butler’s involvement provided a fresh, rejuvenating spark. Memento Mori takes nothing for granted and, in doing so, makes a profound statement of Depeche Mode’s perseverance and vitality. – John Bergstrom

53. Aesop Rock – Integrated Tech Solutions (Rhymesayers)

Every few years, Aesop Rock releases another volume of his trademark dense rhymes and spacey beats, and Integrated Tech Solutions is yet another satisfying chapter. It begins with a parody of a generic tech business, but on “Mindful Solutionism”, he offers another critique of technology addiction, which is consistent with his generally insular, dense rhymes. His worldview is stated most explicitly in “Kyanite Toothpick”, with its humorous lines like: “I’m on that OG / You on that new to this…I’m on that find peace / You on that find meth.”

Despite being largely absent in “Who’s the GOAT?” discourse, his influence is evident in the current crop of critical darling MCs like Earl Sweatshirt, MIKE, and Armand Hammer, whose Billy Woods stops by for a killer verse on “Living Curfew”. Aesop’s storytelling skills have been unmatched for decades, and “100 Feet Tall” is a recollection of seeing Mr. T turned tribute, while “Aggressive Steven” is a heartbreaking tale of the intersection of homelessness, addiction, and mental illness. While many of the major hip-hop stars of the early 2000s have fizzled, Aesop continues to craft rewarding, engaging records that require a little work to unpack fully. – Brian Stout

52. Kelela – Raven (Warp)

It’s hard to believe it’s been six years since Kelela dropped Take Me Apart, one of the most ambitious and bracing debuts of the 2010s. Kelela subverts expectations with Raven — instead of a follow-up designed to make a splash, much of Raven feels like ripples, designed for a late-night headphone trip. “Let It Go” and the late-night club vibe of “Contact” exude a controlled calmness, seamlessly meshing ambient sonic structures with confessional soul. 

Water imagery permeates Raven both lyrically and musically. Sonically, listeners are given enough space to absorb all of the subtleties of Kelela’s mesmerizing vocals. At a filler-free 60 minutes, Raven is a beautiful, intense, and immensely enjoyable experience that’s as transfixing in a packed club as it is in a bedroom. – Sean McCarthy

51. Explosions in the Sky – End (Temporary Residence)

End was promoted as the conclusion to a sequence starting with their debut, How Strange, Innocence (2000). Or is it merely a meditation on endings? Ambiguity aside, this is not their final album. If anything, End displays the enduring strengths of Explosions in the Sky in peak form. Post-rock has always been a capacious genre, and Explosions have largely occupied a category of one, being both minimalist (no vocals) and maximalist (three guitars) at once.

Miraculously, they have managed to legitimate the rock soundtrack as an art form. Against this backdrop, End represents a culmination, blending the electronica of their recent work (The Wilderness) with the intricate guitar interplay of their best albums (The Earth Is Not a Cold Dead Place). The urgent, militant drumming of Chris Hrasky, like a heartbeat, also stands out. Their first album in seven years, End is predictable in a good way – epic, cathartic, conclusive. – Christopher J. Lee