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.

50. Gorillaz – Cracker Island (Parlophone)

Part of the genius of Gorillaz has always been how they can effortlessly mesh a wide variety of guest artists into their sophisticated pop milieu. On their eighth studio album, these guests include rock luminary Stevie Nicks, punk veteran Thundercat, Puerto Rican rapper Bad Bunny, and indie stalwart Beck. Cracker Island also finds the band pairing with producer Greg Kurstin for the first time, and this results in a warmer-sounding album that reins in some of their wilder tendencies while retaining their essential feel-good vibe. The cameos are great, but it is the more introspective tracks featuring only the core quartet that are the most impressive. Cracker Island may be “just another Gorillaz album”, but as their unflagging quality and energy have demonstrated over the years, that is actually saying a lot. – John Bergstrom

49. Ratboys – The Window (Topshelf)

Chicago’s Ratboys have been on the come-up for years now, and this is their moment. The Window is their best record yet, with hooky songs and immediate production courtesy of Chris Walla, formerly of Death Cab for Cutie, who has previously steered Foxing and Tegan and Sara to career peaks. His hand is evident on tracks like “Break”, with its electronic flourishes, and elsewhere, the band’s sound opens up significantly, too. The Window delivers a sugary rush that recalls Velocity Girl on tracks like “Crossed That Line” and “Making Noise for the Ones You Love”. Even the songs that have the familiar Ratboys sound are more immediate. “It’s Alive” is one of their best songs, period. The biggest surprise is the epic “Black Earth, WI” is their furthest stretch yet, a leisurely jam that stretches out over eight minutes. – Brian Stout

48. Sunny War – Anarchist Gospel (New West)

As the oxymoronic album title suggests, Sunny War’s latest album is full of paradoxes. The blues, folk, country, punk, and rock artist finds that uncertainty in life is what gives living its flavor. The contradictions between what is meaningful and what is hopeless coexist. War sings about the dualism without necessarily taking sides. As someone with anarchic tendencies, she doesn’t assign hierarchies as much as to illustrate the connections between things like life, love, and other people. Her original tunes, such as “Love’s Death Bed” and “Test Dummy”, fit in well with covers of Van Hunt’s “Hopeless” and Ween’s “Baby Bitch”.   

War’s voice has a coarse edge with a slight drawl that suggests her rough past as a homeless drug addict in Southern California before returning to her native Nashville. She articulates each word to show the importance of details in the story songs that she sings. War also brilliantly plays the acoustic guitar in a variety of styles. There is a powerful directness in her music. The album was produced by Andrija Tokic (Alabama Shakes, Hurray for the Riff Raff), who purposely accentuates the spaciousness of the sonics. Anarchist Gospel never sounds forced or hurried. – Steve Horowitz

47. Shamir – Homo Anxietatem (Kill Rock Stars)

On his latest work, Homo AnxietatemShamir 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. 

Shamir plays with different musical shapes and colors throughout Homo Anxietatem, finding that tone shifts and zigs and zags depending on the tempo or soundscape they and their collaborators build. On the driving dance-rock of “Crime”, Shamir is sent on a fast-paced, skipping sprint, its frenetic sound and frantic beat amping up the urgency of the tune, which the singer responds to with an anguished wail of a performance.

Oh, by the way, that voice. Shamir is an outstanding songwriter, but not enough can be said about that gorgeous voice. It’s a genderless, androgynous instrument that is soulful, tight, airy, and jazzy – capable of threading precisely around tangled song structures or lilting beautifully over shiny pop beats. It possesses a vibrato that sneaks up on listeners at the end of a sentence or phrase, sweetening a lyric or chorus or adding poignancy and melancholy. – Peter Piatkowski

46. Upper Wilds – Jupiter (Thrill Jockey)

Upper Wilds’ third album with a planetary title finds the trio as fierce and as catchy as ever. Vocalist/guitarist Dan Friel is equally likely to pull off a blistering noise rock guitar solo as he is to anchor a song with a huge, hooky riff. Bassist Jason Binnick and drummer Jeff Ottenbacher keep pace with Friel at every turn, making for an incredibly tight band that often masquerades as sloppy punkers that could fall apart at any moment. The title track even combines all of these elements into a single song. In keeping with this theme, the record includes killer tracks called “Permanent Storm” and “Voyager”. 

Friel also displays his trademark affection and empathy for humanity’s extremes. The appropriately epic “10’9″” finds him musing about the life of the tallest human on record while seeming simultaneously astonished that it took 20 people to carry his coffin. “Short Centuries” reflects on the oldest married couple on Earth with the refrain, “We know how to pass the time.” Jupiter even finds the band loosening up a bit with a bouncy cover of Hüsker Dü’s “Books About UFOs”, which includes an unexpected saxophone solo. Combining noise-rock intensity with big melodies can be a tricky balance, but Upper Wilds has it figured out. – Chris Conaton

45. WITCH – Zango (Desert Daze)

Over the last few decades, Zambian group WITCH (an acronym for “We Intend to Cause Havoc”) have become the stuff of legends, immortalized in compilations and reissues galore as icons of the electrifying 1970s Zamrock scene (and, to a lesser extent, dabblers in 1980s disco). Zango marked their first new album in almost 40 years, as acid-soaked and fuzz-toned a release as anything the group—still fronted by Emanyeo “Jagari” Chanda; the only other previous WITCH member still in the group is keyboardist Patrick Mwondela—has ever made.

Chanda’s raw vocals hearken back to the group’s early garage rock stylings, intricate percussion, and vintage electronics to their later synthpop. Still, WITCH looks forward. With guests including Keith Kabwe of fellow 1970s Zamrock group Amanaz, Zambian-Australian artist Sampa the Great, folk singer Theresa Ng’ambi, and Hanna Tembo, Zango calls upon old and new superstars to make catchy, high-octane psych rock far more relevant than retro. The final track, simply titled “Message from WITCH”, compares the return of the band and Zamrock as a whole to a rising phoenix, one that embraces love and counters discrimination of all kinds. It’s an apt comparison: on Zango, WITCH are truly reborn and with a new and fiery sense of purpose. – Adriane Pontecorvo

44. Niecy Blues – Exit Simulation (kranky)

It’s been a long road traveled to Niecy Blues‘ Exit Simulation, her debut LP, and a breathtaking and immaculate creative statement. In a just world, this record will lay down fire and love in innumerable hearts and minds. One moment (“IIII”), we’re in hypnagogic pop territory; the next (“The Nite B4”), it’s pure electronica with Neicy Blues’ voice either blissed-out murmurs or pure rising ecstasy reaching so high it grabs at the hems of angels’ robes. Then it all shifts again (“U Care”), and we’re listening to Amy Winehouse-style dark jazz at its most introverted and contemplative.

Particularly in this current cultural moment, there are a lot of artists genre-hopping, grabbing at sounds without any interest in coherence, respect for context, or insight into the histories that forged them. Niecy Blues’ work, by contrast, is a cascade of dimensions and allusions. This is what true creativity looks like. Niecy Blues’ opens up a breathtaking imaginative landscape within each song through which the narrative moves like water, pausing or circling one detail or another, plunging past obstacles, vanishing through cracks to emerge in wondrous new terrain. Exit Simulation is the sound of thrilling discovery and, hopefully, the start of a long and rewarding journey in Niecy Blues’ company. – Nick Soulsby

43. Mandy, Indiana – I’ve Seen a Way (Fire Talk)

I’ve Seen a Way’s blitzkrieg of glitches, blips, and cavernous echoes was one of the most exciting debuts of 2023. Hailing (partially) from Manchester but drawing inspiration from an economically depressed industrial town in Indiana (renamed Mandy because it sounded better), Mandy, Indiana’s debut is a fully realized piece of art disguised as chaotic noise. Beginning with the sound of a downpour, I’ve Seen a Way then pays homage to peak Fever Ray (“Drag (Crashed)”) as well as the Blade Runner worlds. 

Some of I’ve Seen a Way was recorded in caves, which partially explains the primal, corrosive bluntness of songs like “Iron Maiden”. This is met with the chilly, futuristic haze of tracks like “Pinking Shears” and “Peach Fuzz”. This “push and pull” between primitive punk nihilism and sophisticated electronic goth is a balancing act destined to collapse, but somehow, Mandy, Indiana keep things thrillingly balanced on I’ve Seen a Way. – Sean McCarthy

42. The Mountain Goats – Jenny From Thebes (Merge)

The Mountain Goats’ latest album revisits a character that looms large among the band’s discography. Jenny first appeared on the seminal All Hail West Texas album and has popped up a couple of times since. On Jenny From Thebes, head Mountain Goat John Darnielle embraces the shared universe idea, peppering the songs with references to Jenny’s previous appearances as well as other tracks from West Texas. There’s a story across these songs, but Darnielle isn’t interested in laying it out step by step for the listener; it takes some legwork.  

Fortunately, the songwriting and the Mountain Goats as a band are operating at their usual high level. One doesn’t need the details to enjoy the upbeat “Clean Slate”, the slow build of “Fresh Tattoo”, or the all-out rocker “Murder at the 18th Street Garage”. The 1970s piano-and-strings pop of “Same As Cash” and the bouncy, slightly Latin-infused “Going to Dallas” show the ensemble’s diversity. Meanwhile, the ballad “From the Nebraska Plant” and the tense “Jenny III” make the references explicit enough for even casual fans of the band to enjoy. Jenny From Thebes is another great album in a long string of great albums from one of indie rock’s most consistent bands. – Chris Conaton

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

Young bands can do anything, so why not try everything? It’s a waste of career position to do otherwise. Water From Your Eyes understand this opportunity intuitively or self-consciously (it’s hard to say), but the result is a compelling set of compositional experiments on Everyone’s Crushed, their debut on Matador. The unpredictable range on this LP will not be to everyone’s taste. The lovely slow jam of “Remember Not My Name” and the melancholia of “14” sharply contrast with the stressful electronica of “Barley” and the anxiety-driven title track “Everyone’s Crushed”. Somehow, it all works. There is an element of “low theory” – a concept that privileges “failure” as a means of resisting mainstream forms of “success” – to the proceedings. Regardless, it’s inspiring to hear a duo embrace a bricolage ethos with abandon to create neo-Dadaist collages of sound and attitude. Everyone’s Crushed reflects our frenzied times. It feels singular. – Christopher J. Lee