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.

40. Laurel Halo – Atlas (Awe)

Laurel Halo’s Atlas is one of her most personal, intimate albums to date. It’s also one of her most abstract, oblique, mysterious, and remote. Built around sparse, delicate recordings of acoustic piano, these spare recordings are then layered with string arrangements and snippets of ghostly vocals – courtesy of collaborators Bendik Giske, Lucy Railton, Coby Sey, and James Underwood – and all of which are wrapped in gossamer wings of cavernous reverbs and delay. It sounds like listening to Erik Satie through a hotel wall – or perhaps 100 years.

The roots of Atlas lie in 2020, with Halo exploring the piano as part of an Artist In Residency program in the Pacific Palisades. She quickly found herself alone, as nearly everybody else had left due to the pandemic. This period of isolation and the rekindling of her childhood interest in the piano serve as the nucleus of Atlas‘ hazy dreamscape.

Atlas has a similar bruised tenderness to Grouper’s Ruins, with a similar sense of isolation even while containing a yearning for connection like some glowing ember in a misty heart of darkness. It speaks to ambient music’s urge to soothe and connect as well as unsettle and alienate. It’s also one of the most ambitious albums in Halo’s discography, although you’d scarcely know it just by listening; the seams are so well hidden. It’s truly a remarkable achievement, made even more so by how gentle, relaxed, and organic it sounds. – J. Simpson

39. Olivia Rodrigo – Guts (Geffen)

Theater kid energy collides with 1990s alt-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, from the screams of “social suicide” on the hilarious “Ballad of a Homeschooled Girl”, the celebratory revenge tune “Get Him Back” (“I wanna meet his mom and tell her her son sucks”), and the withering, instant classic “Bad Idea Right?” Ballads “Making the Bed”, “Logical”, and “Teenage Dream” show a lot more nuance than her breakthrough “Driver’s License”, while the masterful “Vampire” turns up the angst and anger to transcendent, euphoric levels. Meanwhile, the aching “Pretty Isn’t Pretty”, which bluntly depicts body dysmorphia, is the loveliest rock song since Alvvays’ “Belinda Says”. To think this marvelously talented woman is only getting started. – Adrien Begrand

38. Anti-God Hand – Blight Year (American Dreams)

Back in 2021, City and i.o released an exquisite work of experimental music with Chaos Is God Neighbor. Now City, the alias of guitarist Will Ballantyne, returns with the sophomore record of his black metal project Anti-God Hand. The follow-up to 2021’s WretchBlight Year is an intense trip through the landscape of modern post-black metal, with Ballantyne re-interpreting many of the traditional attributes of the genre. Instead of textural characteristics, Blight Year features a well-defined and complex approach. The raw perspective is melting into a complicated structure, a method also mirrored in the progression providing a strong sense of drive and purpose.

Hand in hand with this comes the transcendental, modern-day interpretation of the genre. It is a quality that opens up further experimentation as Ballantyne takes on a Krautrock approach. The application of atmospherics and further sound design build a crystalline monument, one capable of exploding in a myriad of colors. To balance things out, Anti-God Hand still offer grueling and oppressive moments. The continuous beating in “Endless Brightness”, the in-your-face assault of “Demon Sniper”, and the complete nihilism of “Warped and Opalescent Swords” are examples of this modus operandi. It all results in a very technically sound, forward-thinking, and beautifully balanced work of extreme music. – Spyros Stasis

37. King Krule – Space Heavy (XL / Matador)

Somehow distant yet intimate, British singer-songwriter Archy Ivan Marshall, better known as King Krule, sticks to his sparse guitar work saturated in chorus effects on his latest album. Like much of King Krule’s work, many of these songs could have worked fine acoustically, but the electric guitar adds animation along with limited use of saxophone and trickling drum beats. Space Heavy is a bit less jazzy than previous works, touching more on new wave and shoegaze (“This Is My Life, That Is Yours”), with pretty poppy moments, including a feature from Raveena (“Seagirl”), and moments of boisterous noise (“Pink Shell”).

The album is often tenuous, matching the quiet, socially observational concept that ties the album together. Marshall examines how easy it is to lose opportunities to connect with others due to fears or sensitivities, resulting in loneliness and isolation. Space Heavy is full of carefully executed tunes with a singular vision. It bears so much weight with how minimal it is, and it’s safe to say that, as an artist, King Krule deserves the attention he receives. – Andrew Spiess

36. Algiers – Shook (Matador)

Algiers‘ Shook shares much of Young Fathers’ Heavy Heavy‘s focus on the black voice and vocal music’s radical, transcendental qualities. Shook is as much a soul and post-punk album as a rap album. It awkwardly but thrillingly shifts gears with wilful abandon, ranging from the EBM beats of “Irreversible Damage” to the caustic synth-punk of “A Good Man” to the dark, abstract rap of the billy woods and Backxwash-featuring “Bite Back”. It’s not as focused or singular as Heavy Heavy, but it makes up half of a double bill showcasing how hip-hop can be deconstructed and reimagined. — Tom Morgan

35. Ekiti Sound – Drum Money (Crammed Discs)

Under the moniker Ekiti Sound, producer Leke Awoyinka makes music with a bold and mindful commitment to the techniques of collage. His sense of craft has only grown since 2019’s astonishing Abeg No Vex. This year’s Drum Money is just as tight with an even smoother flow as Awoyinka strings together synths, samples, folk, and funk, among other things. Nigeria-born and moving between Lagos and London, Awoyinka has a tremendous range of styles at his disposal, and he deploys them with finesse on track after track. Brassy “Chairman” (one of the year’s all-around catchiest singles) evokes 1970s Afrobeat but draws extra power from its more contemporary EDM production.

The jazzy protest chants of “Ghost Leader” melt into “Raindrops”, a pastiche of downtempo balladry that swings gently between acoustic and electric. We move through philosophical spirals against the horns, back in full force, on “Home”. Tracks like “Fuji” and “Ku Ise” set traditional Nigerian percussion against rapid-fire electronic beats. By the end of the album, tracks like “Mami Wata” and “Eko Bridge” roll in on more relaxed, old-school hip-hop beats. Even with all that (and more) in play, there’s a cohesion to Drum Money that makes it a smooth ride from start to finish and one full of sonic gems. – Adriane Pontecorvo

34. Earl Sweatshirt and the Alchemist – VOIRE DIRE (Tan Cressida)

The increasingly prolific producer, the Alchemist, has become a high-demand collaborator, building studio albums with different recording artists for the last several years. This time around, he teams up with Odd Future alum Earl Sweatshirt. With his signature languid flow, Earl has established himself with a contrarian rap style, habitually delivering well-crafted near-spoken word verses for over a decade. This is Earl Sweatshirt’s fifth studio album, and his raps are as full as they were on his 2013 debut LP, Doris. The Chicago-born rapper stays consistent with his confessional, diaristic writing style. It’s as if we’re overhearing him reflect upon his life to himself behind a closed door.

The duo makes for an appropriate combination. The Alchemist matches Earl’s drawl with relaxed, soulful beats filled in with guitar and keyboard samples to give the album a live feel while carrying plenty of bass. With featured verses from MIKE and Vince Staples to round out the album, VOIRE DIRE is the perfect headphones hip-hop along similar lines as Madvillian, Black Thought & Danger Mouse, Denzel Curry & Kenny Beats, and other fully collaborative albums between rappers and producers. This isn’t the first time Earl Sweatshirt and the Alchemist have worked together; hopefully, it won’t be their last. – Andrew Spiess

33. Sampha – Lahai (Young)

On his second LP, Sampha brings in sweet, lilting sounds that contrast with his moodier debut release. Lahai (named after the singer’s grandfather) explores sunnier themes and sounds, inspired, in part, by fatherhood. Though he suffered a significant loss, which informed much of his first album, Lahai takes a more hopeful tone after the birth of his daughter in 2020. The confessional songs on Lahai bring to mind the deeply personal records of 1970s singer-songwriters like Joni Mitchell, Marvin Gaye, and Curtis Mayfield, and yet the album feels thoroughly modern, finding the warm marriage between low-key instruments and electronics.  

The highlight of Lahai and its peak is the expansive “Dancing Circles”, which brings together all of the wonderful elements of the album. The lyrics – at once anxious yet yearning and hopeful – tell a story of the complex emotions Sampha feels, his angst reflecting social concerns (“Talk about crime / Government lies like ain’t nothin’ new”), yet he sums up his feelings by crooning, “Dancing, come close / Hold me, hold me so much so we both let go.” As his ethereal tenor sways, it see-saws with a tic-tocking piano, adding a slight, subtle bit of sass and soul to a beautifully introspective song. The song draws to a close with some skittering drum programming.  

The warmth found in the blend of synths, studio effects, and electronic sounds with more natural-sounding instrumentation gives the record a welcoming, inviting timbre as if it were a loving embrace. The songs glide smoothly, often finding poignance and empathy in thoughtful, ruminative pianos (“Can’t Go Back”) or the achingly beautiful orchestral interlude, “Wave Therapy”. Sampha references 1970s soft soul with “Jonathan L. Seagull”, a shimmery ballad that takes its name from the seminal, inspirational novella Jonathan Livingston Seagull.  

In the chaos of the pandemic and the years after, Lahai is a kind refuge – a musical safe space in which the singer allows for his vulnerability and emotion to shine without guile or shame. – Peter Piatkowski

32. Joy Oladokun – Proof of Life (Amigo / Verve Forecast / Republic)

Joy Oladokun offers inspirational anthems for a better world. She lights the light forward to a spiritual and material place where there is room for everyone. Oladokun grew up in a small town in Arizona, the daughter of pious Christian parents who were Nigerian immigrants. The influence of the church is clear in her music. She preached and led religious services while still a teenager. Her songs are infectious whether they move to an African beat, gospel call and response rhythms, or solo acapella. The lyrics are personal, heartfelt, and literate.  

Oladokun has experienced the pleasures and pain of life. On her fourth album, Proof of Life, the singer-songwriter declares the importance of being true to oneself.  As a gay, black woman from a rural pious municipality, the singer often felt isolated. Now she’s in her thirties, Oladokun sings confidently about her path. “I hate change / but I’ve come of age / and I’m finally finding my way,” she boldly sings in a straightforward voice. She may have learned her lessons the hard way, but the 16 cuts on this release provide proof that she can lead us all to be joyously together as individuals within a community. – Steve Horowitz

31. Nation of Language – Strange Disciple (PIAS)

The third album from the Brooklyn synthpop trio Nation of Language is more evolutionary than revolutionary. Strange Disciple is an even more focused and intent paean to vintage English synthpop than its predecessors. Musically, that means embracing subtlety and streamlined arrangements, such as on the gorgeously stark “Weak in Your Light”. Frontman Ian Devaney’s hyper-romantic lyrics and theatrical vocals, however, remain at the heart of the band. The band have said that half the people at their shows come there to dance and half come to cry. If that is the case, Strange Disciple does a fine job appealing to both factions in equal measure. – John Bergstrom