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.

30. Fatoumata Diawara – London Ko (Wagram)

Do you ever notice how your friends are a complete and total reflection of your personality? Not every friend fits every occasion, but sometimes you need to spend time with the rulebreaker, get drinks with the gossip queen, or stay in with that genius introvert just to keep yourself in check. With musicians, you can tell a lot about them from the company they keep, and when Malian singer-songwriter-actress Fatoumata Diawara had Led Zeppelin’s John Paul Jones and drumming legend Tony Allen appear on her debut album, people took notice.

With London Ko, only her third studio album proper, she merges her African blues-indebted with a surprising amount of Western collaborators, ranging from soul legend Angie Stone to Gorillaz/Blur mastermind Damon Albarn, who co-produces half of the songs here. Yet even with a decked-out VIP room, the brilliance of London Ko lies with its songs, ranging from piano-driven laments of lost family on “Somaw” to her emotive collaboration with the Brooklyn Youth Chorus on “Sete”. London Ko may very well be Diawara’s most colorful record to date (check that wild dance collaboration with -M- on “Massa Den”), but it never once feels concessionary or overly commercial.

Fatoumata Diawara keeps the company that she does because everyone around her recognizes how powerful a performer she is, and with London Ko, we fully expect her to make a whole new batch of famous friends and admirers. — Evan Sawdey

29. Mitski – The Land Is Inhospitable and So Are We (Dead Oceans)

Mitski has had a banner year. Arriving after her Oscar-nominated song, “This Is a Life”, for Best Picture winner Everything Everywhere All at Once, her latest album, The Land Is Inhospitable and So Are We, continues the momentum and acclaim she has accrued over the past several years. Mitski has often conveyed discomfort with the established role of the female singer-songwriter as a commodified product of the male gaze. Her response has been to balance her natural vocal gifts with an indie rock sensibility that self-consciously rebelled against the chanteuse ideal. The Land Is Inhospitable and So Are We reflects a modulation of this approach. Embracing the traditions of her new home of Nashville tracks like “Heaven” and “I Don’t Like My Mind” indulge country music as a new genre for self-expression. The outcome is a novel means of experimentation and self-acceptance, one less individual and more communal in scope. – Christopher J. Lee

28. Lana Del Ray – 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.

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 thirty-three?”) 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

27. Meshell Ndegeocello – The Omnichord Real Book (Blue Note)

Go to instrument manufacturer Suzuki’s website, and you’ll be able to pick up a similar Omnichord that Meshell Ndegocello used to create her Blue Note debut, The Omnichord Real Book. The site assuredly states, “anyone can easily play chords, including those who are new to musical instruments and those who are less adept with traditional instruments.” Of course, that doesn’t mean that anyone could generate a transfixing, 80-minute work of full funk, experimental rock, and traditional jazz. That can only come from an accomplished multi-instrumentalist, who 30 years into her career, can still make an album that sounds like it could have been a triumphant sophomore follow-up to a trailblazing debut album. 

Ndegeocello wrote much of The Omnichord Real Book in her attic on the Omnichord. The loss of her mother and father is addressed, but the album is not an elegy; instead, the absence of her family is just a portion of the experiences she addresses. Experiences as a Black woman. Experiences as a bisexual. Experiences as a restless artist. At close to 80 minutes, The Omnichord Real Book isn’t an album you can listen to on a commute. It’s demanding work, with all 18 songs serving a distinct purpose. With each subsequent listen, The Omnichord Real Book reveals a new layer of riches. – Sean McCarthy

26. Lydia Loveless – Nothing’s Gonna Stand in My Way (Bloodshot)

Lydia Loveless’ sixth studio LP, Nothing’s Gonna Stand in My Way Again, is a collection of songs that combine to tell a unified story. Though the tracks culminate into a coherent single work of art, that doesn’t mean Loveless falls prey to monotony. Far from it. Each song is an individual letter to audiences with a unique message or sound. However, together, the tracks tell a story of vulnerability, heartache, sadness, and yearning.   

There’s strength in being open and vulnerable, particularly when expressing those feelings through song. Loveless exhibits a steely resolve, regardless of how bruised the lyrics are. So, in a story song like “French Restaurant”, we get a searing portrait of a collapsing relationship; Loveless guides the narrative, only exposing what she wants, thereby painting a confessional portrait on her terms.  

One of the most notable things about the album is how lovely so much of it sounds. The record has an autumnal, reflective tone, reflecting a resigned sadness and unsettled peace. In “Summerlong”, the moving closer, Loveless draws her audience’s attention to her stirring voice and moving poetry. In contrast to the more radio-friendly jangly pop of the other tunes, we only hear Loveless’ close, tight voice accompanied by the melancholic string, making for an unbearably riveting moment. – Peter Piatkowski

25. Billy Woods/Kenny Segal – Maps (Backwoodz Studioz)

The life of touring is a dream come true for most musicians: The reality of getting paid to perform your music and even having venues from other countries pay for you to perform is such a career summit that it’s hard to imagine the negatives. Unless you get to that point and then have to endure all of the tedium, the exhaustion, the disorientating “where am I now?” feeling of zooming from town to town. On Maps, Billy Woods and Kenny Segal’s second full-length effort, the jazzy segments get weirder, the atmosphere is more claustrophobic, and the bars kick a bit harder than on their excellent Hiding Places

Lyrically, Maps ranges from the deceptively petty (like when Woods repeatedly stresses why he won’t be at soundcheck on the aptly-titled “Soundcheck”) to the hazy introspectiveness of “Facetime”. And in the gut-punch of a closer, Woods looks at his son and gravely states, “I watch him grow wondering how long I got to live.” As a travelogue and modern navigation through middle age, Maps takes you on a journey that few albums could compete with in 2023. – Sean McCarthy

24. Blondshell – Blondshell (Partisan)

Is there anything more thrilling than a strong debut with a unique perspective and the skill to pull it off? Sabrina Teitelbaum’s self-titled debut as Blondshell, Blondshell,l is one of the most thrilling things in recent memory.

Blondshell was born out of the tumult following the dissolution of Teitelbaum’s solo pop project, BAUM, and a relocation from Manhattan to Los Angeles. It’s equally as inspired by the normal chaos of living through your 20s, though. Blondshell is dripping with bad sex, regrettable relationships, hangovers, substance abuse, and toxic friendships.

Blondshell isn’t self-pitying, though. It’s not especially exploitative either, though. Teitelbaum isn’t afraid to look at the bottles and the pills, nor their aftermath. Teitelbaum speaks with wisdom and clarity beyond her years, getting sober in the midst of her own chaos. The perspective lets her speak openly, insightfully, and emotionally about the struggles of being young without ever becoming melodramatic.

Backstory aside, Blondshell‘s just a joy to listen to. Songs like “Veronica Mars” are serious earworms, with its plucky palm-muted guitars and shout-along chorus, which just makes it a pyrotechnic guitar solo all that much more thrilling. Teitelbaum’s love and appreciation of 1990s indie guitar rock like Liz Phair and Hole is seriously in right now. Teitelbaum still manages to inhabit the style in a way that feels as lived-in, believable, relatable, and comfortable as warm, worn denim. – J. Simpson

23. Armand Hammer – We Buy Diabetic Test Strips (Fat Possum)

Armand Hammer’s star has risen in the past decade and has been helped by increasing interest in left-field hip hop. We Buy Diabetic Test Strips is an incredible offering in both a prolific and boundary-pushing career for the New York rappers. Building on their gifts as MCs and lyricists, Billy Woods and Elucid have further cemented their place in alternative hip hop as one of the headiest yet most exciting groups right now. 

We Buy Diabetic Test Strips is, in the best way, an unsurprising record for Armand Hammer. The beats can be hazy and harsh, while Elucid’s cerebral rhymes continue to complement Woods’ bleakly satirical poetry. A consistency of quality and a varied and rich palette of experimental production will surely please the duo’s dedicated fanbase, but there is plenty to recommend to new listeners, too. Woods’ ability to craft intricate rhymes and extensive vocabulary should not be overlooked either. It may put him in the league as the late, great MF Doom (reverently sampled on “Y’all Can’t Stand Right Here”.’ – Alex Brent

22. Yussef Dayes – Black Classical Music (Brownswood / Nonesuch)

Black Classical Music is drummer Yussef Dayes‘ debut solo studio album, but he is not a rookie by any stretch. He’s been a major player in London’s jazz scene for a while, including his collaboration with keyboardist Kamaal Williams – naming themselves Yussef Kamaal – and his appearance on Tom Misch‘s What Kinda Music.

So, by the time he sat down to record Black Classical Music, Dayes most likely had a clear idea of what he could do and where he wanted to go. And boy, does he go places. Armed with 19 tracks and using almost every square inch available on a compact disc, Black Classical Music takes the listener on a highly groovy and ultimately fulfilling ride through the peaks and valleys inside of Dayes’ musical brain. To say that every stone is overturned would be overselling it. Dayes doesn’t achieve everything, but there are still an impressive number of stones flipped over in the creation of this album.

With just one album, Dayes goes all over the map. That he pulls it off non-frantically is one of Black Classical Music’s many selling points. So call it jazz, call it classical, call it whatever you like, just don’t sleep on it. – John Garratt

21. Quantic – Dancing While Falling (Play It Again Sam)

If there’s one constant in producer and musician Will Holland’s varied repertoire, it might be best expressed as warmth. Whether dabbling in retro funk, Colombian coastal folk, tropical jazz, or dubby pop, Holland, usually under the moniker Quantic, infuses everything he creates with a balmy kind of love. In Dancing While Falling, he continues to bring the light in troubled times, circling back to his early roots in 1960s and 1970s funk and soul with a new sophistication and, perhaps, slightly softer contours from 20-plus years in high-energy circulation around the globe.

Permeating the entire album is a sense of community in terms of sound and production. Beds of luscious orchestral arrangements, gospel vocals, and tempered electro-disco beats combine into buoyant soundscapes, often undergirding sparkling contributions from featured singers like Andreya Triana, Rationale, and Connie Constance. Their voices make for powerful bridges between the vintage vibes and contemporary pop sensibilities integral to Quantic’s overall palette. – Adriane Pontecorvo