BrooklynVegan’s Top 55 Albums of 2023

Another rollercoaster of a year, another slew of amazing albums to soundtrack it with. We collectively spent hours and hours listening to and loving hundreds of albums this year, and narrowing our favorites down to 50 was not only difficult, we decided it was literally impossible, so this one goes to 55. (Even though we try our best to rank, the difference in how much we like our 55th pick and 46th pick is virtually non-existent, so don’t think of the 51-55 range as anything other than five albums we couldn’t make this list without expressing our love for.) (It’s also technically more than 55–we combined them into one slot if an artist released more than one of our favorite albums of 2023, to make room for as many different artists on the list as possible.)

The list ranges from indie rock to punk to metal to pop to hip hop to lots of hard-to-pin-down things in between, and it ranges from small DIY acts to certified pop stars, from legends and veterans to promising newcomers. Because even 55 is a small number, we have lots of genre-specific lists that we’ll be rolling out in the coming days, so stay tuned for those to find out about even more of our favorites of 2023. One of those lists, jazz, is up now.

Also: SZA’s December 2022 album SOS has deservingly been coming in very high on a lot of lists this year, and it would be high on ours too if it didn’t appear on our 2022 list.

Thanks again to you for another great year, and read on for our list…

One of the most gorgeously innovative shoegaze albums of the year came from a mysterious South Korean musician with releases under a number of different monikers, including this one: Parannoul. Following a few other internet-buzz-stirring releases, After the Magic is Parannoul’s first album for Topshelf and it’s the biggest, cleanest album for this project yet. These songs bring to mind things like the electro-shoegaze of aughts-era M83, The Notwist’s glitch pop, The Appleseed Cast’s soaring vocal-oriented post-rock, and the more maximalist Sigur Rós songs, with fluttery arrangements that wouldn’t feel out of place on a Sufjan Stevens album. As with all of those artists, the beauty and the emotion in the music is overwhelming. [A.S.]

Though still brutal, progressive Long Island metal band Afterbirth have toned down the ‘slam’ they helped invent three decades ago before quickly breaking up and reforming 20 years later with vocalist Will Smith (of Artificial Brain and more) taking over for the late Matt Duncan. Now on their third full-length after releasing their first-ever in 2017, they continue to innovate within the space that they helped define in the first place. On In But Not Of, Smith (with help from guest vocalists Cory Peterson of Thaetas and John Collett of Nightmarer) carries on the band’s guttural vocal tradition while the rest of the band balances out the brutality with prog, psych, and ambient textures that take you on an atmospheric journey to outer space and back again. Keyboards and synths are courtesy of Krallice & Gorguts’ Colin Marston who also mixed and mastered the album. Parts Tool and Opeth with touches of black metal and the Blade Runner soundtrack, In But Not Of isn’t just some of the nastiest, gnarliest death metal of the year; it’s also a total head-trip.

Having played as a tight-knit unit for the better part of two decades, The Menzingers were feeling the need to change things up, so they headed out to the desert–the famed Sonic Ranch studio in Tornillo, Texas, to be exact–and made a record like no other in their career. Produced by Brad Cook (Waxahatchee, Kevin Morby, etc), Some of It Was True is the most spacious Menzingers yet. There’s room to slow things down, room to let guitars ring out like never before, room to fuck with their usual formula. But it’s also so clearly and distinctly a Menzingers album, and these are some of the band’s best songs yet. Their perspective on life continues to evolve, and their ability to write ragged, singalong anthems just seems to get stronger and stronger. [A.S.]

Having started out as Anaiah Lei’s solo project, Zulu is now a full, collaborative band, and with all these different voices and contributors, they’ve crafted an album that sounds like nothing else in the world right now. The bulk of the album is heavy, metallic hardcore with an overwhelming amount of groove, and they also seamlessly dip their toes into psychedelic soul, jazz, and hip hop, along with samples that bring reggae and Afrobeat into the equation too. Anaiah’s growl is contrasted by drummer Christine Cadette’s higher-pitched screams, along with guest vocals from Soul Glo’s Pierce Jordan, Playytime’s Obioma Ugonna, and Truth Cult’s Paris Roberts. From the diasporic approach to genre to much of the lyrical content, it’s an album that celebrates Blackness and challenges the expectations that Black art should reflect trauma. It’s also truly an album-oriented work of art, a force of its own that stands tall next to the power of Zulu’s live show. [A.S.]

On her 2020 debut, Montreal’s Helena Deland took an electronic approach to the singer-songwriter genre, but for its follow-up she unplugged and fully embraced her inner folkie. Named for the small town in British Columbia where she was born, Goodnight Summerland is a step sideways and up, a gorgeous tribute to her mother who died in 2021, and the most impressive showcase for her stunning, expressive voice yet. Working with producer Sam Cohen and using mostly acoustic instrumentation, Deland crafts songs as lush and bucolic as her memories of her childhood home — shades of Sufjan Stevens at times — and even if you’re not following her words, the melodies, arrangements and that voice might still make you verklempt. As Helena noted when the album was announced, “Music said it better than words could.” [B.P.]

Lamp of Murmuur emerged from the swamp this year. After several acclaimed lo-fi releases, the Olympia, WA black metal act played its first-ever full-band live shows in 2022, and that was followed by this year’s Saturnian Bloodstorm, the project’s most-welcoming (and most widely-available) album yet. It’s still black metal, but the band’s core member (who goes simply as “M.”) cites Judas Priest, Iron Maiden, Deep Purple, Dio, and Black Sabbath as influences on this album, and you can really feel those triumphant, classic heavy metal tendencies coming through amidst all the blackened evil. It’s a rare album that feels fully immersed in the world of harsh, extreme, underground metal, and also transcends it. [A.S.]

On Cerebral Circus, Initiate are going for it like never before. It’s one of the catchiest and meanest hardcore records of the year, and it completely ignores subgenre barriers without ever biting off more than it can chew. Heavy metallic hardcore, post-rocky screamo, grunge, shoegaze, and power pop all have a place on this LP, and Initiate frequently combine two or more of those things in entirely unexpected ways. Crystal Pak primarily sticks to a ferocious bark, but when she does belt the melodic chorus of “The Surface” or delivers the spoken word and pained shouts of “Transparency,” she shows off a striking amount of range. The possibilities of where this band could go next seem endless. [A.S.]

Lira Mondal and Caufield Schnug dropped their fantastic debut album as Sweeping Promises at the height of the 2020 pandemic which, despite little fanfare found an audience while still flying under the radar. Their second album has made a lot more noise, thanks in part to being released via Sub Pop everywhere except North America, and to being just as good as their first. Good Living is Coming For You is packed to the brim with urgent, danceable post-punk earworms that get extra mileage out of its purposeful low-fi production, giving it a lost classic feel that also sounds very now. [B.P.]

It’s kinda crazy to think that Scowl only released 10 minutes and 22 seconds of music in 2023, because this has been a huge year for them. From being a rare hardcore band at Coachella to selling out several dates of their own headlining tour, they’ve been an unstoppable force, and it’s clearly only the beginning. However brief, the five songs on the Psychic Dance Routine EP have been the fuel for all this fire. Their foray into melodic alternative rock on “Opening Night,” the title track, and half of “Shot Down” has helped open Scowl up to entire new audiences, while the ferocious hardcore punk of “Wired,” “Sold Out,” and the other half of “Shot Down” has continued to make them a force for the moshers and stagedivers. These are easily the five best songs Scowl have written yet, and some of the most replayable songs I’ve heard all year. The art of the perfect 7″ is a time-tested, sought-after quest in hardcore, and with Psychic Dance Routine, Scowl have made theirs. [A.S.]

Jessie Ware’s What’s Your Pleasure? was one of the key records in the 2020 Disco Renaissance, and this year upped the ante with its very saucy follow-up. That! Feels Good! keeps the party going with a record of pure disco, lushly produced (by Stuart Price and Simian Mobile Disco’s James Ford) with octave-hopping bass, congas, swoony strings and all the other glittery accouterments. Jessie also knows that a little cheese only adds to the fun and giddily gilds the lily on these 10 songs with lots of playful touches (“Hello Love” kinda sounds like The Love Boat theme and it works). There are a few modern touches, like “Freak Me Now” which dabbles in Daft Punk French Touch house, but you could imagine songs like “Free Yourself,” “Pearls,” “Begin Again” and the title track being played at Studio 54 in 1977…and going over like gangbusters. [B.P.]

For her first proper full-length album, Yaeji told Pitchfork that she was most interested in “exploring weird songwriting that is peripheral to dance music,” and that quote alone is a pretty good way to sum up With A Hammer. It’s a raver-goes-pop album that offers up blissful choruses without losing the edge of Yaeji’s earlier releases. She sings in both English and Korean while swerving between synthpop, hip hop, techno, and more, and–as depicted by Yaeji gripping a sledgehammer on the album cover–the driving force behind many of these songs is rage. Yaeji aims anger at the world of hatred and bigotry, and on behalf of her childhood self, undercutting With A Hammer‘s pop escapism with dark realism. [A.S.]

A former National Youth Poet Laureate, it should come as no surprise that Chicago singer/songwriter Kara Jackson has a way with words. A song about an ex becomes “Damn, the dickhead blues.” Another begins, “Every man thinks I’m his fucking mother.” When Kara grieves the death of a friend from cancer on the title track, the question is “Why does the earth give us people to love then give them a sickness that kills?” She’s blunt, poetic, and conversational all at once, with a perspective and a delivery that often sits in stark contrast to the mellow folk music stylings beneath her, which are fleshed out with ornate arrangements and help from fellow Chicago musicians NNAMDÏ, Kaina and Sen Morimoto. Whether it’s the in-depth storytelling of the eight-minute “rat” or an attention-grabbing minute-long gem like “therapy,” this album lands with so much impact. [A.S.]

After inadvertently revolutionizing pop music with the impact his self-titled debut LP left on stars like Drake and Beyoncé, James Blake spent his last few albums embracing the pop format himself, but Playing Robots Into Heaven is a return to the weirder forms of his earlier work, and his best album in at least a decade. He uses his voice the way he did on his first two albums, chopping it up, manipulating it, and looping a single lyric in the spirit of the dance music he came up on. Playing Robots Into Heaven is also the danciest vocal-oriented album he’s ever made; it’s like a fusion of his debut and the clubby EPs that came before it. And as much as it’s a return to form, it’s only a return in spirit, not in the sense that he’s rehashing old ideas. It sounds as futuristic today as his debut did 12 years ago. [A.S.]

Sexyy Red’s year began with breakout single “Pound Town,” and by the end of the year, she put out a remix of that song with Nicki Minaj, a second hit single (“SkeeYee”), a slew of memorable guest verses, and a handful of other fan-fave tracks. The bulk of those tracks are on Hood Hottest Princess (with a few more on the deluxe edition), which proved that she’s not a one (or even two) hit wonder. She’s also not a one trick pony; HHP has more raunch where “Pound Town” came from, but it also has harder, darker, angrier anthems that’ll walk all over half the rappers she shares space with on the radio. She’s a St. Louis rapper with a clear love of the South–including assists from Juicy J, DJ Paul, Tay Keith, and a song called “Female Gucci Mane”–and she shout-raps her way through these 11 songs in a way that flips a middle finger to anyone who thinks “pop rap” has gone soft. [A.S.]

Janelle Monáe has never repeated herself, and this year she returned with one of her most fun, freeing, explicitly pleasureful album yet. She says she wanted the album to be “a love letter to the diaspora,” and it weaves together funk, trap, Afrobeat, reggae, R&B, and more in a way where you can feel her enthusiasm for all of it. The guests on the album also reflect the various genres and regions that Janelle channels (Grace Jones, Sister Nancy, Amaarae, Seun Kuti & Egypt 80, Doechii, CKay), and the album’s rich diversity is matched by some of the most undeniable songs of Janelle’s career. It makes sense that both videos from this album took place at pool parties; these are summer bangers. [A.S.]

In the world of emo-ish pop punk, 2023 belongs to Hot Mulligan. They took the leap, headlining one of the year’s most stacked package tours in their genre and selling out very decent-sized clubs in the process, and it’s all because of Why Would I Watch. This album is just hit after hit, with all the deep emotional honesty and voice-cracking catharsis you could ever want from this style of music. They played every song on the album when I saw them in NYC in November, and every single one was a massive crowd singalong. Sometimes you just know you’re witnessing a classic in the making, and this was one of those times. [A.S.]

Two very different New York rappers, Wiki and MIKE, teamed up for a collaborative album with The Alchemist this year, and they also each released their own albums, 14K Figaro (with producer Tony Seltzer) and Burning Desire, respectively. They’re all great, and instead of trying to rank them all against each other, here they are in one blurb. 14K Figaro connects Wiki with longtime producer Tony Seltzer, and going back to his roots brought some classic Wiki out of him; this album’s full of hyper-local New York references and Wiki delivers cold, hard raps in a classically New York way. MIKE, on the other hand, is the de facto leader of New York’s current experimental rap underground, and Burning Desire finds him pairing his cool, stream-of-consciousness screeds with hazy, jazzy instrumentals to great effect–it’s one of his most purely lush albums yet. My personal favorite of the three, though, is Faith Is A Rock, which finds MIKE and Wiki feeding off of each other over beats from one of the best producers in all of hip hop. They push each other outside of their usual comfort zones, and deliver some all-timer bars in the process. [A.S.]

Zach Bryan is just unstoppable. Last year he released an album, EP, and two-song single that made for a total of 45 songs in one year that also included a great live album released on Christmas, and this year he put out an album and EP totaling in another 21. It would feel overwhelming if his songs weren’t so addictive every time. He’s an arena headliner who still favors lo-fi recordings. Guest appearances on his new records range from Kacey Musgraves to Bon Iver to fast-rising star Noah Kahan, and Zach fits perfectly next to all of them. When the songwriting is this considered, the versatility is inevitable. [A.S.]

I know it’s cliché to say an album feels like a movie, but ICECOLDBISHOP’s Generational Curse really earns it. The South Central LA rapper sounds like a cross between Kendrick Lamar at his most theatrical and Danny Brown at his weirdest, as he takes you on a journey through drug addiction, fatal shootings, poverty, violence, institutional racism, and other topics that are all too real. It’s no surprise that multiple people have compared Generational Curse to good kid, m.A.A.d city, which Kendrick referred to as a “short film” on the album cover, and Generational Curse earns those comparisons just like good kid, m.A.A.d city earned its comparisons to Illmatic. The influence is there, but the stories are ICECOLDBISHOP’s own to tell. [A.S.]

Mandy, Indiana are the kind of band that sound how their Manchester, UK hometown used to sound — dark, desolate and danceable, forged in the fires of an abandoned steel mill. That’s partially because it was recorded in shuttered warehouses, a cave, and other unusual places, and the natural acoustics add a lot to the near-industrial vibes. There’s also the novel approach they take to their instruments: guitarist Scott Fair is more likely to scream through his instruments than play a chord, and drummer Alex Macdougall has the precision and speed of a drum machine. The songs are great too — angry, loud, bleak yet fun — and singer Valentine Caulfield keeps things focused with an undeniable magnetism and French delivery that adds much to this record’s mystique and cool. [B.P.]

Amaarae defies easy categorization, and she’s deservingly pretty adamant about not being called “Afrobeats.” Really, her sophomore album Fountain Baby is just great pop music that doesn’t fit the mold that most people think of when they hear the words “pop music.” She’s lived in the Bronx, New Jersey, Atlanta, and Ghana over the years, and all of the sounds she grew up around come through in her own music–African polyrhthyms, ’90s dance-pop, punk, and Atlanta trap are all present on Fountain Baby, and Amaarae stirs up a musical melting pot that’s as experimental as it is catchy. [A.S.]

Joanna Sternberg is not shy about their fandom for another certain Joanna, and the comparison is easy to make for reasons other than their first names. But also, I’ve Got Me is one of the most delightfully weird, refreshingly intimate, freak folk-esque albums since The Milk-Eyed Mender. Joanna is trained in jazz, and they take the jazz community’s convention-smashing approach to music and apply it to stripped-back, acoustic guitar-and-piano-fueled singer/songwriter songs. The songs are bare but not simple, whimsical but still overwhelmingly earnest and sincere. And Joanna doesn’t need bells, whistles, or fancy production; their words and melodies alone land with tremendous impact. [A.S.]

To borrow a half-joking phrase from Ratboys’ Julia Steiner herself, indie rock is in its “post-country” era. Ratboys have already been there for years, and in a real stars-aligning moment, they’ve made their best album yet this year with The Window. It’s their fourth album, but it’s their first written collaboratively with their solidified four-piece lineup–all of who have deep roots in the Chicago DIY/house show scene–and it also features invaluable contributions from producer Chris Walla, who helped make this a Ratboys album like no other. Whether they’re banging out a ripper like “Crossed That Line,” indulging in the jammy “Black Earth, WI,” or making nods to Maps & Atlases on “I Want You (Fall 2010),” The Window is the twangy indie rock gift that keeps on giving. [A.S.]

With the 15-song, 82-minute double album 93696, it feels like Liturgy have made the album they’ve been working towards ever since Ravenna Hunt-Hendrix first uttered the words “transcendental black metal.” Perfectly paired with pastel-colored album artwork, 93696 is black metal that feels bright, with technicolor arrangements that are even more spine-tingling than so many black metal bands that aim to exude pure evil. These pummeling passages are fleshed out by string arrangements, a children’s choir, art rock electronics, and other non-traditional (for metal) elements that push the music in all kinds of unexpected directions, very much living up to Ravenna’s goal of making this album “sound more punk-meets-classical than metal.” It’s a taxing, demanding listen, and also a highly rewarding one. [A.S.]

The comfort of familiarity and the thrill of newness are often presented as opposing forces when it comes to music consumption; as Izzy Hagerup’s debut album as Prewn is a reminder of, they don’t have to be. When I heard the way Izzy messes with time-tested folk music traditions on lead single “But I Want More”–a hair-raising song inspired by her father’s longtime journey with Parkinson’s disease–my instinct was to compare it to the freak folk era of the mid 2000s, but the more I listen to that song and the rest of the equally-stunning Through The Window, the less I think Prewn actually sounds like anyone from that era. The ingredients are similar–hearing the contrast between Izzy’s earthy warble and the ramshackle guitars is like being transported to an alternate universe where Karen Dalton was raised on Dinosaur Jr–but the presentation is all her own. [A.S.]

The ’90s comparisons to Blondshell abounded even before she toured with Liz Phair this fall. The comparison isn’t without warrant, but her takes on alt-rock and grunge feel distinctly modern, and her searing lyricism is entirely her own. She’s not afraid to be totally candid, whether she’s reflecting “It should take a whole lot less to turn me off” on “Sepsis” or admitting “I think my kink is when you tell me that you think I’m pretty” on “Kiss City.” She’s cited Hole’s Live Through This as a key influence, and Blondshell seems likely to serve as her own breakthrough record. [A.H.]

Model/Actriz have been around the Brooklyn underground since the mid-2010s and by the end of the decade had gained a reputation as an unmissable live act, with writhing, sweaty shows led by magnetic singer Cole Haden who you can’t take your eyes off. (Shouldn’t take your eyes off, either, lest you may find him off the stage and in your face.) Dogsbody, their debut album, hits like a panic attack on the dancefloor, an overwhelming rush of anxiety, lust and violence, all hitting and processed as the same intense emotion while Ruben Radlauer’s techno-influenced drumming fires like jackhammers, guitarist Jack Wetmore shears through metal with a white-hot blade, and bassist Aaron Shapiro keeps the groove throbbing. The band managed to capture their live energy on tape, as Cole seethes and wails. “Go ahead and grind me into a pearl” is his idea of a come on, while the band does just that to the listener. Dogsbody is not exactly “fun” but it is cathartic and unforgettable. [B.P.]

If you’re unfamiliar with Olympia/Oakland duo Ragana, consider that they hold Mount Eerie and Wolves in the Throne Room in equal regard (and have opened for both of them), and you’ll start to get an idea of what to expect from them. They’ve been around for over a decade, but Desolation’s Flower has been a breakthrough and all the new attention they’re getting is deserved. Over a backdrop that blurs the lines between slowcore, black metal, and DIY punk, Ragana celebrate queer and trans ancestors, mourn the death of a friend, and call for the death of America. It’s music that’s heavy, raw, and delicate all at once, and rawest of all is the emotion in Maria and Nicole’s voices. Music that’s this real and this honest just can’t go unnoticed. [A.S.]

Feist hasn’t had a hit single since The Reminder era, but (hot take?), the music she’s been making since then has been even stronger. Multitudes is largely one of Feist’s quietest, most intimate albums ever. She isn’t aiming for anything remotely like “1234” or “I Feel It All,” and it’s a unique thrill to hear an artist whose presence is so massive make music this tucked-away. Even the songs that do get louder and more fleshed-out do so in a way that feels out of step with most music coming out right now. Feist remains in a world of her own, and we’re lucky that every six years or so we get a peak inside of it. [A.S.]

Citizen celebrated the 10th anniversary of their debut album Youth with the biggest shows of their career this year, but they also reminded the world that this is not a band that relies on nostalgia. They’ve been evolving their sound and becoming a stronger band at every turn, and their new album Calling The Dogs is at least a contender for the best Citizen album yet. It’s like a culmination of everything Citizen have ever done, from jangly indie rock to twitchy dance-punk to forceful post-hardcore, and also a clear step forward. Produced by Rob Schnapf, it’s the warmest-sounding Citizen album yet, and it’s full of enduring choruses and quality control. So many potential singles, zero duds. [A.S.]

After winning over the world with her 2021 debut, Olivia Rodrigo deftly avoided any hint of a sophomore slump with GUTS. It delivers more of what made SOUR so damn appealing to everyone from the pop girlies to the DIY punk kids in the first place, but sounds entirely fresh in the process. From the hilariously self-deprecating “ballad of a homeschool girl” and its lament of “Every guy I like is gay” to the priceless former-theater-kid delivery on “bad idea right?” and its wink and nod refrain of “I just tripped and fell into his bed,” GUTS‘ pitch-perfect lyricism is backed by relentlessly catchy music, and Olivia is all TikTok-ready charisma whether she’s tackling the demands of stardom or the entirely-too-relatable early 20s experiences of lust, heartbreak, and plotting revenge. She’s not reinventing the wheel here, but her pop vision, which takes as much inspiration from Paramore and The Breeders as it does Taylor Swift, is a genuine blast. [A.H.]

Few people in 2023 made rock music with as much lust, energy, and adventure as Yves Tumor. More so than any Yves Tumor album before it, Praise A Lord Who Chews But Which Does Not Consume; (Or Simply, Hot Between Worlds) is an entire record of songs that should’ve been hits, an onslaught of bangers that are as catchy as they are innovative. Elements of new wave, psychedelia, post-punk, grunge, funk, chillwave, and krautrock fill these songs, topped off by Yves’ expressive flamboyance and a gleaming, futuristic exterior. Comparisons to Bowie and Prince are frequent and warranted, and like both of those artists, Yves Tumor is a true original. [A.S.]

A lot’s happened in the long four years since Tomb Mold’s last full-length–including two other projects from Tomb Mold members (Dream Unending and Daydream Plus) and a Tomb Mold EP–but they finally returned in 2023 to reclaim their throne in a big way. They had previously been touted as leaders of the “old school death metal revival,” but there isn’t much “old school” about The Enduring Spirit. The production is glassy and modern (Sean Pearson engineered, Arthur Rizk mixed/mastered), and the death metal fury is injected with the jazz fusion influence that Derrick Vella also brings to Dream Unending. It’s as brutal as it is elegant, and the way Tomb Mold fuse their opposing tendencies together is seamless. [A.S.]

See also: the Dream Unending/Worm split from this year.

A total surprise when they first announced it nearly a decade ago, Slowdive’s return has become one of the most rewarding second acts in recent memory. Their second album since reuniting is decidedly more understated than its 2017 predecessor — right down to it’s title and songs, rendered in lowercase — but its many wonders bloom with repeat listens, revealing a moving, melancholic, magisterial work. There is sadness but also joy and wonder in songs like “kisses,” “alife” and “skin in the game” with Neil Halstead and Rachel Goswell’s voices and gossamer guitars melding in perfect atmospheric harmony. everything is alive is Slowdive’s most cohesive, emotionally resonant album yet, and is a subtle stunner that is possibly the best record of their career. [B.P.]

When “Munch (Feelin’ U)” dropped in August of 2022, it wasn’t just an instant contender for Song the Summer; it was the arrival of a star. Since then, just about every song she’s touched has either felt like a hit or actually become one, and she makes it look so damn easy. 10 of those song are on the deluxe edition of her debut EP Like..?, plus her pre-fame On The Radar freestyle to show her new fans where she comes from. She and producer RIOTUSA hail from the same New York drill scene that the late Pop Smoke popularized, and they take that sound and add a distinct new twist that has entirely transcended New York drill. Fellow drill staple Lil Tjay and superstar rapper Nicki Minaj both show up on Like..?, only to be bested by Ice Spice herself. Her delivery remains calm and cool as she delivers one-liners that fans want to scream back at her, and as we witnessed when Ice Spice opened for Doja Cat last month, that’s exactly what’s been happening. [A.S.]

London trio Girl Ray went from wistful folk-pop on the first album to R&B-tinged synthpop for its follow-up. On their third, they found the sweet spot and their sound: breezy, string-laden disco. Prestige channels Chic by way of Bananarama with nimble, funky arrangements, big pop hooks, and Poppy Harington’s wistful charisma and breathy vocals drawing you in with every memorable chorus. In a year loaded with great disco (Jessie Ware, Jake Shears, Roisin Murphy), Girl Ray took the lead with confident, understated charm. [B.P.]

MSPAINT’s debut album feels like a trip back in time and a journey into the future all at once. Their raucous synthpunk and lead shouter Deedee’s charismatic presence feel transported into 2023 from the early 2000s warehouse art punk scene, but MSPAINT sound like they’re two steps ahead. They flirt with both hip hop and hardcore, they don’t fit neatly anywhere, and they’ve filled Post-American with some of the most strangely catchy songs I’ve heard in the last few years. Militarie Gun’s Ian Shelton and Soul Glo’s Pierce Jordan both lend their voices (and the former also co-produced with Taylor Young), and MSPAINT also toured with both of those bands this year. They don’t sound like either of those bands, but they work perfectly with both of them because their range is so wide. It’s kinda rare to get a band that’s this confident and fully-formed and also this purely weird right off the bat, and MSPAINT really are all of those things. [A.S.]

With its cover portrait of queer rights activist and drag queen Marsha P. Johnson, the Johnsons’ namesake, My Back Was a Bridge For You To Cross feels like a re-statement of purpose for ANOHNI. Not only is it her first new album since 2016’s HOPELESSNESS, it’s her first under the ANOHNI and the Johnsons moniker in 13 years. Taking influence from Marvin Gaye’s iconic What’s Going On, she departs from the electronic palette of HOPELESSNESS for the warm, organic sounds of soul. With the exception of “Scapegoat,” which addresses transphobia, she also largely moves away from the sometimes-harsh imagery of HOPELESSNESS, but her words and voice are no less powerful for the shift. ANOHNI’s voice serves as both a balm and a call for action as we face a broken society and environmental collapse, and she’s rarely sounded so timely as she does now. [A.H.]

A decade and four masterful albums removed from his breakthrough as a solo artist, Jason Isbell has earned the right to stretch his wings a little. Weatherwaves, the followup to 2020’s tightly-focused Reunions, is his longest album yet at an hour in length, and it’s looser, freer, and requires a little more patience than its predecessor. It’s got songs that knock you out instantly like “Death Wish” and “Save the World”–the former a spine-tingling anthem about a person in love with a partner who’s suffering, and the latter a lament for the rise of school shootings–but most of Weathervanes creeps up on you more gradually. It’s a full-band album that often leans into Jason’s quiet, folky side, though the 400 Unit gets to rock out on “When We Were Close” and “This Ain’t It,” and it marks another clear evolution for Jason as a storyteller. His knack for turning vivid realism into tuneful singalongs has made him one of the most consistently rewarding songwriters of his generation, and his most resonant work is often his latest work because he’s constantly moving forward. He’s truly an artist that grows alongside his fanbase, and Weathervanes exhibits some of his most remarkable growth to date. [A.S.]

For those who frequented the Emo Twitterverse of 2018, it’s hard to forget the impact awakebutstillinbed left with their debut album what people call low self​-​esteem is really just seeing yourself the way that other people see you. The San Jose band seemingly came out of nowhere, and those who heard Shannon Taylor’s ability to go from a whisper to a roar were usually either hooked, confused, or both. The best vocalists and songwriters are so often the ones that are also a little bit jarring, and Shannon very much fits that bill. On their long-awaited sophomore album chaos takes the wheel and i am a passenger, they have made an album that might be even better than their beloved debut. Like a cross between Rainer Maria and late-period Fugazi, it’s as beautiful as it is abrasive, as raw and intimate as it is larger-than-life. With multiple climactic songs that hover around the 6/7/8 minute mark, it’s not an album that lends itself to passive listening. chaos takes the wheel is something you really need to immerse yourself in, and when you do, it’s nothing short of mesmerizing. [A.S.]

Over a decade since his breakthrough and two years into his 40s, Danny Brown has just had one of the best years of his career. He released two very different albums that show off two completely different sides of him. His JPEGMAFIA collaboration Scaring the Hoes finds both rappers at their most chaotic, with yelled verses and hooks over production from JPEGMAFIA that ranges from hyperpop to glitch to industrial to flipped soul samples. On his own Quaranta, Danny leans into his somber, sober side. It’s a reflective, introspective album and it’s also a grown-ass rap album that feels just as spirited as Danny’s more youthful work. [A.S.]

Ian Shelton has long been a staple of the hardcore scene, but with Militarie Gun, he wanted to make a Big Rock Record. He kept one foot planted in the hardcore world the whole time, but he also allowed himself to write the most catchy, most earnest songs he could, without holding anything back, and the result is one of the year’s most addictive records–in rock, punk, hardcore, or otherwise. It ranges from arena-sized rock anthems to sunny power pop to gnarly post-hardcore, and it rarely takes its foot off the gas. It’s full of songs that would’ve been all over the radio in the ’90s, but also reminds you that alternative rock came from punk/hardcore in the first place. It makes sense that Militarie Gun have been covering Hüsker Dü a bunch; they’re one of that band’s most promising spiritual successors. [A.S.]

Pick up our exclusive pink marble vinyl variant.

Despite multiple album delays and threats to quit music, Noname has finally given 2018’s Room 25 the followup it deserves. Sundial finds Noname speaking her mind over live instrumentation that makes this one of the year’s best rap albums and one of the year’s best jazz albums, with subtly sticky hooks and an endless amount of mic drops. She looks at everything from her own career to Black art overall to even more macro social/political topics, and all the expectations, contradictions, and hypocrisies that fill them. Noname never shies away from taking a fellow artist to task, and often the artist she’s targeting is herself. Noname can’t be the artist you want her to be, she can’t be perfect, and she can’t be easily described or pigeonholed. She can only be exactly who she is, with all the layers and discrepancies that come with that. Sundial is a reflection of all of this, bottled up into 11 compact, endlessly replayable songs. [A.S.]

In a world of heavy music that’s full of hyper-specific subgenres and countless bands that fit neatly into them, Horrendous refuse to play by anyone else’s rules. On their wildest, weirdest album yet, death metal is not the destination but the starting point. From there, Horrendous weave in elements that range from punk to prog to jazz fusion, from technical dissonance to ethereal beauty. It’s a journey, and not many albums in 2023 took us on a ride the way this one did. [A.S.]

Fireworks toured their asses off for about a decade straight until retreating from the public eye in 2015. But the band wasn’t over; they were slowly and quietly working on their best album yet. They surprise-released Higher Lonely Power on New Year’s Day, and they haven’t done much else since then–they gave just one interview that accompanied the album’s release and played an extremely select amount of shows in support of it–but the music speaks for itself. Higher Lonely Power is an art rock masterwork that’s in an almost entirely different universe than the pop-punky material that preceded it. The raging post-hardcore of opening track “God Approved Insurance Plan” is really the only song on this album that feels “punk” in the traditional sense. From there, they dive into lurching rhythms and eerie soundscapes that recall records like Sufjan Stevens’ Age of Adz, Radiohead’s Kid A, and The Notwist’s Neon Golden, while tackling subjects like Christian trauma and mortality. Higher Lonely Power has moments where Fireworks’ hard-hitting rhythm section reminds you this band did cut their teeth for years in the punk scene (“Funeral Plant,” “Blood in the Milk,” “Veins In David’s Hand”), and those moments are just as crucial as the far-out passages in songs like “Jerking Off the Sky” and “Machines Kept You Alive.” It’s an album that sets no limits for itself, an album that prioritizes experimentation and communal choruses in equal measure, and one of the boldest, strongest, most remarkable records released this year in any style of music. [A.S.]

What started out as a merch item idea for Phoebe Bridgers, Julien Baker, and Lucy Dacus’ 2018 tour together turned into one of the most beloved supergroups around. Since stirring up excitement by soft-launching their return on this year’s Coachella poster, 2023 has become the year of boygenius. Their full-length debut The Record picked up where the heart-rending three-part harmonies and vulnerable lyrics of their debut EP left off, and it bests its predecessor time and time again. Since its release, the boys (as they like to be called) spent the year playing to increasingly bigger crowds of adoring fans who hailed them as sapphic icons, capping off the year by selling out the world’s most famous arena. The Record takes the boys’ individual strengths and their love for each other, and transforms them into something bigger than any one of them alone. [A.H.]

Lana Del Rey is one of our greatest songwriters and chroniclers of the American experience, and more than ever since 2019’s Norman Fucking Rockwell!, she’s on a hot streak that won’t let up. Following her two amazing 2021 albums with the sprawling Did you know that there’s a tunnel under Ocean Blvd in March, she crafted another collection of songs that have similar roots as her folky, introspective 2021 material, but remain entirely distinct. They’re stitched together by a gospel choir, with memorable hip-hop-inspired turns on “A&W” and “Peppers,” and a cast of guest appearances that never detracts from the true star of the show: Lana herself. Some of her most personal lyrics yet veer into stream of consciousness as they parse matters of faith, family and memory, in poetry both intimate and myth-making. Lana’s America is haunted but not without hope; as she says in an interlude on “Margaret,” a sweet song for regular collaborator Jack Antonoff and his wife, Margaret Qualley, “So if you don’t know, don’t give up,’cause you never know what the new day might bring.” [A.H.]

Julie Byrne didn’t only create a beautiful album informed by the loss of a pivotal creative partner and friend with The Greater Wings; she also found the resilience to move beyond the tragedy to the life and chosen family waiting for her there. That spirit is embodied in these songs, which take the bare-bones folk sensibility of her previous releases and infuse it with lush, stirring arrangements, intermingling with the otherworldly poetry in her lyrics. She incorporates details both cosmic and mundane, from drops of blood on a bed sheet in “Conversation is a Flowstate” to a “distant galaxy moon” and the “tilt of the planet” in the title track. Grief casts a long shadow, transforming everything it touches, but Byrne is working through the pain with her community beside her; “healing can be heartbreaking, it’s alright,” she sings on “Flowstate.” “I am by your side.” [A.H.]

Wednesday’s fourth proper album (and Dead Oceans debut) is the rare combo of down to earth and larger than life. Across its 10 songs, you get everything from dusty alt-country to fuzzed-out shoegaze to explosive grunge, all topped off with stories and observations from Karly Hartzman so hyper-specific that you feel like she must be talking to an old friend, not the hundreds of thousands listeners who turned Rat Saw God into the band’s breakthrough. It’s faded memories of ’90s rock by people who were barely old enough to experience that music in real time, and the band’s perspective is so fresh that they make these time-tested sounds feel new all over again. [A.S.]

See also: Wednesday member MJ Lenderman’s live album And the Wind (Live and Loose!), and pick up our exclusve color vinyl variant of Rat Saw God.

With five of its singles coming out between 2021 and 2023, Desire, I Want to Turn Into You felt like a greatest hits upon arrival, and it’s remained the gift that keeps on giving for the full 10 months since its Valentine’s Day release. From Caroline’s vastly impressive, haters-will-say-it’s-auto-tuned vocal runs to a musical backdrop that incorporates trip-hop beats, ambient soundscapes, flamenco guitars, and bagpipes to a collaboration with Grimes and Dido, Desire is a triumphant, idiosyncratic offering of album-oriented pop. It’s unpredictable and strangely crowdpleasing, a hugely satisfying album from an artist who refuses to play by anyone else’s rules. [A.S.]

The world of Fever Ray is populated with aliens, mutants and freaks but Radical Romantics has very relatable human emotions at its core. On 2019’s Plunge, Karin Dreijer was newly out and diving headfirst into the giddy waters of new love; Radical Romantics swims the complex waters of how to keep love alive after the initial rush has tempered. “Love’s carbon dioxide, can’t say it out loud,” Karin sings on “Carbon Dioxide,” the album’s most scintillating banger, “I’m afraid to lose it.” There are other things on their mind — gender, faith, science, parenthood — while navigating with matters of the heart and, as usual, it’s a complex, mesmerizing world Dreijer has created, full of intoxicating soundscapes, memorable melodies, and full-throated performances to match the emotions. Helping this time are Trent Reznor & Atticus Ross, Vessel, and Dreijer’s brother / former Knife collaborator, Olof, but Radical Romantics is entirely Karin’s singular vision. [B.P.]

The Whaler is not exactly protest music, it’s not exactly a record full of hopelessness, and it’s not exactly a record about acceptance. It’s, to quote the band, a “concept record about getting used to things getting worse.” It’s a reflection of coming of age at a time where you’re forced to navigate a dying world. Part of the album was inspired by 9/11, which happened when singer Brandon McDonald was just a child; for Home Is Where and many of their fans, a post-9/11 world is all they know. The Whaler is the soundtrack to so many people’s realities.

Brandon has wanted to write concept albums ever since she heard Neutral Milk Hotel’s In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, and that album is clearly a musical influence on The Whaler, as is everything from bright indie pop to abrasive screamo. The band proudly waves the “emo” flag, though I would wager that they sound nothing like the average person’s definition of emo. That said, emo–like hardcore and punk before it–is just as much a community as it is a style of music, and Home Is Where have been making that community a much better place. Led by two trans women–Brandon and guitarist/co-songwriter Tilley Komorny–Home Is Where have cultivated a fanbase that genuinely feels like a safe and encouraging space for queer people, trans people, and really anyone who felt alienated by the straight, cis, white, male-dominated emo scenes of yesteryear. The music world in general has needed a band like this for a long time; a band with powerful, thought-provoking music and a radical worldview that’s not just accepting of all walks of marginalized lives and identities but inviting them. [A.S.]

The last time Sufjan Stevens released an album in indie folk/singer-songwriter mode, it was 2015’s Carrie & Lowell, a spare, haunting work that found him mourning the loss of his mother. Over five years and multiple collaborative and experimental projects later, he returned to the genre to grieve his late partner. Javelin‘s first track starts with its title, “Goodbye, Evergreen,” simply sung, but it wasn’t until Sufjan shared a moving dedication to Evan Richardson, “the light of my life, my beloved partner and best friend,” that most listeners knew how literally to take those words. The revelation brought an added depth to an already remarkable work; Javelin is full of some of Sufjan’s most painfully beautiful arrangements yet, with all of the prolific exuberance of Illinois but with an added resonance. The vocal harmonies teeter between despair and the sublime, sometimes taking on the feel of church hymns. Javelin has just as much to appeal to those who love Sufjan’s escapades in electronic experimentalism, like Age of Adz or The Ascension, as those who prefer the bare bones folk of Seven Swans. Joining the two modes, it ranks among his best and truest work yet. [A.H.]

billy woods is one of those artists whose music creates an entire universe, and the more time you spend in it, the better it gets. As a solo artist and one half of Armand Hammer (with ELUCID), he usually releases at least one top-tier album a year, and it never feels like too much of a good thing. This year, he reunited with producer Kenny Segal from his especially beloved 2019 album Hiding Places for the new solo album Maps, and Armand Hammer also released We Buy Diabetic Test Strips. They both scratch the same abstract rap itch, and each one brings something completely necessary to the table. Both albums are clever, funny, dark, wise, deep, and poetic in equal measure; they’ll leave you hanging on every word for weeks on end. The lists of collaborators are the stuff that indie-rap dreams are made of–Danny Brown, Aesop Rock, Quelle Chris, Future Islands’ Samuel T. Herring, ELUCID and more are on Maps, while We Buy Diabetic Test Strips features Soul Glo’s Pierce Jordan (as Moneynicca), Junglepussy, Moor Mother, Pink Siifu, and more, plus JPEGMAFIA and El-P as producers–and every contributor takes the opportunity to find their own place within this universe. woods and his cohorts make albums for the sake of crafting immersive pieces of art. There’s no ploy for a hit single, a TikTok craze, or a Spotify playlist inclusion; they’re just continuing to make music on their own terms, and even as the world catches up with them, woods & his friends still sound ahead of the curve. [A.S.]

Mitski’s never made the same album twice, and after returning from a hiatus last year with the dance pop-infused Laurel Hell, she’s changed direction again with The Land Is Inhospitable and So Are We. It’s full of grand gestures — an orchestra, a full choir of 17 vocalists — and even more satisfying payoff. Mitski is a master working at any scale, from the intimate to the epic, and she is at her absolute sharpest this time around. And like at her increasingly ambitious and choreographed live shows, she makes it look easy.

For all of its beautiful adornment, Mitski’s songwriting can be remarkably economical. She never belabors a point, trusting that the listener will get it and moving right on to the next idea. All of the songs on TLIIASAW clock in at under four minutes, and album highlight “When Memories Snow” is just one minute and 44 seconds of jazzy horns and piano that recall musical theater. Yet Mitski packs cinematic soundscapes into those small spaces. She also incorporates plenty of country twang this time around (after all, she’s Been The Cowboy), like on the cowboy ballad “My Love Mine All Mine,” which earned her her first Billboard Hot 100 entry (and TikTok virality). It’s just the latest stop on a years-long ascent that’s accelerated rapidly since the release of her 2014 breakthrough Bury Me at Makeout Creek. Nearly 10 years later it’s still impossible, and exciting, to imagine where she might go next. [A.H.]

Dave’s Honorable Mentions
André 3000 – New Blue Sun (Epic)
Bella White – Among Other Things (Rounder)
Blackbraid – Blackbraid II (self-released)
Blockhead – The Aux (Backwoodz)
Jenny Lewis – Joy’All (Blue Note/Capitol)
Nas – Magic 2 & 3 (Mass Appeal)

Andrew’s Honorable Mentions
Empty Country – Empty Country II (Get Better)
Marnie Stern – The Comeback Kid (Joyful Noise)
Peso Pluma – Génesis (Double P)
superviolet – Infinite Spring (Lame-O)
Teenage Halloween – Till You Return (Don Giovanni)

Amanda’s Honorable Mentions
Lucinda Chua – YIAN (4AD)
Jenn Champion – The Last Night of Sadness (self-released)
Sprain – The Lamb as Effigy (The Flenser)
Youth Lagoon – Heaven is a Junkyard (Fat Possum)
Maple Glider – I Get Into Trouble (Partisan Records / Pieater)

Bill’s Honorable Mentions
Art Feynman – Be Good the Crazy Boys (Western Vinyl)
Ulrika Spacek – Compact Trauma (Tough Love)
Katie Von Schleicher – A Little Touch of Schleicher in the Night (Sipsman)
Everything But the Girl – FUSE (Buzzin’ Fly)
En Attendant Ana – Principia (Trouble in Mind)