Best Albums of 2023
Another year of music has gone by, and while it truly felt like a bigger year for shows returning than new music, there was still plenty of great releases to make this latest trip around our sun feel special. While our list definitely tiered from top to bottom by how much we loved each record, once you crack the Top 5 here things have changed so much in week-to-week listens that actually ranking a #1 album felt futile.
Note: The latest remaster of the Talking Heads’ Stop Making Sense would have easily topped our list, but that felt like a bit of a cheat, so we’ve simply linked a track for anyone still missing out below.
Holly Walker – Unsung
There was something about the “La Roux mixed with Kate Bush” feel of Holly Walker’s new album that just swept me away, and totally stuck with me where other albums couldn’t. “How Can I Tell You” slinked with unhinged darkness and romance, while “Storylines” took a similarly offbeat direction with its more pointed pop. “Clunk” and “One of Them” bring a more familiar pop core, but doing so with plenty of abrasive and out-of-left-field textures in the mix that really send you somewhere different than you expect when you first put them on. And between the tracks elsewhere here that call to Lucius, Charlotte Gainsbourg and even some Susanne Sundfør, this album takes a singular approach that’s nothing quite like any of them in the end.
Priya Ragu – Santhosam
While it certainly takes notes from Top 40, no other pop record I heard this year went from new to stuck in my ears quite like Priya Ragu’s record. Santhosam is filled with colourful worlds, hypnotic beats, potent lyrics and a joy in performance that is tangible from the opening notes of the record. There’s a mystifying power that makes you lose control of your body on “One Way Ticket” and a deeper beat that sets your soul on fire through “School Me Like That,” both adding an infectious drive and sense of self to the music that elevates it even higher. “Black Goose” proves a truly transcendent political banger, constantly weaving between its more aggressive and free moments to expand the contrast between pain and what we’re all searching for. And whether you get silly moving to “Adalam Va!” and “Vacation,” dig the grime of “Power” or want the exploration of “Mani Osai,” this album provides a full breadth of energies to satisfy.
Caroline Polachek – Desire, I Want to Turn into You
New York City/Greenwich, CT
Caroline Polachek consistently weaves her insane technical singing talent and art-pop sensibilities into the fine wine of music, and she has yet to disappoint. She takes off like she’s the sun itself on “Welcome To My Island” before dropping you into booming choruses, while she’s able to let melody and her more sophisticated swinging beats give their own flair on “Pretty In Possible.” Vintage pop ideas play out in Latin and synth worlds between “Sunset” and “I Believe,” and the album even plays to 90s drum and bass at times. For those needing the space, the back half of the album slows and opens up a lot, while still leaving room for a more chaotically beautiful track like “Billions” to slow-burn into an overwhelming synthetic rainbow by its close.
Altin Gün – Aşk
Though their album-a-year pace was bordering on diminishing returns, Altin Gün got the special sauce cooking perfectly on their latest effort. “Badi Sabah Olmadan,” and “Rakiya Su Katamam” are equally massive tracks for the band, still transporting you sonically, while upping the ante with psychedelics and chunky rock tones respectively. “Su Siziyor” and “Dere Geliyor,” shift into more groove-oriented spaces, yet with a fleshed-out mix the band usually reserved for their more synth-focused tracks in the past. Those looking for a more traditional-feeling banger will still find the band bringing it on “Kalk Gidelim,” while “Doktor Civanim” delivers a great new dance spin for the band rippling with electronics and a touch of Abba.
Paramore – This Is Why
Returning to their punk with more art-pop and off-kilter rock, Paramore are not quite the band from After Laughter, or from before it anymore. Refreshingly the band didn’t betray fans of either, and actually grew themselves to deliver their most mature record, and one that somehow actually pleases just about everyone. Pissed as ever, you can hear the blistering frustration the band is known for on tracks like “The News,” or “C’est Comme Ça” where they throw kaleidoscopic riffs on top of that burning pyre. There’s an evolved feeling to the band on “This Is Why” as they play around with funky grooves, unnervingly quiet grooves and prechoruses that come in like a slow-motion implosion. And their ability to dissect pop and write smart lyrics has never been as sharp as on “Running Out of Time,” where Hayley Williams runs you through her whole vocal range while also dropping her funniest lines in a decade. The whole back half of the album goes emotionally heavy between “Crave” and “Liar,” almost overbearing in their frank approach. But the dynamics of “You First” shine as a one-two combo that instantly dazzles more and more on every listen and stands as a catalyst on this album to get fans in a frenzy.
Tennis – Pollen
Refining their sound and crafting a more complete album feel this time around, Tennis trades perhaps individual songs for the greater beast of a record. All this means however, is Pollen is a record that may not stand out as hard as Swimmer at first, but once its relentless melodies sink into you, you’ll be leaning your whole body into them on those next repeats. Case in point, “Forbidden Doors” and “Let’s Make a Mistake Tonight” drip a healthy barrage of riffs and then dynamic punches, to the point you’ll be winded. The shift to more airy guitars lets tracks like “Pollen Song” meditate on the smaller things, and “Glorietta” bring the band through more rock than they tend to side with. “Paper” and “Hotel Valet” play to the most classic sounds of the band, with effortless smooth appeal, and 70s lush pop. Though hilariously it’s the short-but-huge writing of “One Night with the Valet” that is the album’s best, bringing that hard-to-obtain magic and going all out on a sub-two-minute track that takes you to galactic heights.
Janelle Monáe – The Age of Pleasure
Kansas City, KS
Janelle Monáe’s 2023 record is perhaps the one I would recommend the most as a “listen front to back” record, as it’s simply elevated when digesting the full package as opposed to bites. Whether it be that beachy vibe, Seun Kuti’s arrangements or just the feeling this album leaves you with like a sensual vacation, the experience goes deeper in that full listen. Hearing the brass evolve and Monáe’s approach go from soaring to sassy between “Float” and “Champagne Shit” is grin-inducing. But it’s that consistent feel and great transitions that set this album apart, turning “Phenomenal” into an island in the middle of so many vibrant soundscapes, and even a bit of Grace Jones seeming to treat you over drinks. You get that funky, overtly sexual pop on “Lipstick Lover” and “Water Slide,” without ever losing that great rhythm and harmony Monáe does so well, and her knack for weird but effective hooks. And the record rounds out with a trip between sultry and more romantic moments, giving a kind of relationship arc in its brief runtime.
The Chemical Brothers – For That Beautiful Feeling
Rather than making something closer to the concept-like record they did last time, The Chemical Brothers made a record that feels like individual hits one after the other, as well as feeling like a mini career retrospective in the process. The freshest and most powerfully dense on the album are “Live Again” and “Skipping Like a Stone” (with Halo Maud and Beck respectively), both overflowing with intoxicating electronic rushes, and in the latter’s case a spiritual high in its choral booms. The duo trade between dance floor drops and explorative production between “Goodbye” and “No Reason,” before pop usually more akin to the Avalanches on “Fountains.” Their most retro pseudo-instrumentals provide a wondrous shift in pace on “Magic Wand” and “The Weight,” both feeling like some amazing classics you’d hear mixed into a DJ’s set before asking them what they’re playing. This is before a truly ambitious final run of songs that get as huge on the pop as they do on far-reaching writing, for a satisfying round out to the album as a whole. All this to say, this record only highlights how much of a shame it is that they’re reportedly not planning to tour North America any time in the near future.
Queens of the Stone Age – In Times New Roman
Palm Desert, CA/Seattle, WA
While Queens of the Stone Age’s latest record felt like an overall improvement on Villains sonically on early listens, the album really grows on you as a whole the more you revisit it. While singles like “Paper Machete” and “Emotion Sickness” deliver that catchy radio sound, the band is still layering so much grit, ecstatic shouts, dense ambiance and overall detail in the writing, that they stand as way more intently designed than you might consider at first. This becomes more readily apparent as you wrench between grinding rock and surreal visions on tracks like “Time and Place” and “Made to Parade,” which really highlight how much Dean Fertita and Troy van Leeuwen have been able to expand the shape of this band over the years. However, the band’s knack for pop in an almost orchestral abyss delivers amazing drops on both “Obscenery” and “Carnavoyeur,” which both deliver these larger-than-life booms in instrumentation from strings and the stronger-than-ever roster of the band at this point and time. Though it’s fair to argue they give a little too much room for the riff rock, it’s hard to argue when you’re also getting the demented bliss of “Sicily” and the evil polka of “Straight Jacket Fitting.” Most of all, these songs push out great punchy moments that will rip live when the band tours through Canada next spring.
Kali Uchis – Red Moon in Venus
While Kali Uchis certainly found a mesmerizing collection of songs on Isolation, her latest album is the cohesive step forward that ties together her past half-decade of exploration musically. This is a new defining record of Uchis’s persona, tying in a bit of everything about her, while being a truly amazing listen in the process. There’s a dream-like state you get between the production and ethereal calls of “I Wish You Roses” and “Worth the Wait,” that leave you feeling like you’re in a cloud. The album not only leaves you in a kind of love haze, but clearly one that reflects Uchis as you feel the unique colours and one-liner spoken lines of “Como Te Quiero Yo” and “Hasta Cuando” focus in on her intentions. While the many small instrumental choices across the album create a signature unique to Uchis, “Moonlight” is by far that one collision of everything she does so well, and that extra oomph of bass and detailed sounds that make it the standout sensation it is, and a summation of her. Add in the fact that she has more music right around the corner, and Uchis is on a roll!