Countdown to 2024: The Best Albums of 2023
This year definitely provided a plethora of riches for music lovers, with strong debuts, impressive comebacks, and mid-career masterpieces. To help you wade through it all, we picked out the year’s top albums across different genres.
Miley Cyrus hit new heights with her album, Endless Summer Vacation, Taylor Swift dropped full-length re-recordings of both Speak Now and 1989, and Metallica returned with the blazing 72 Seasons. And the list goes on and on. That’s the kind of year it was. So, in no particular order, the best albums of the year:
There’s a good reason we’re including the second studio album from SZA, released in December 2022, in our 2023 list. Some of the singles were released separately throughout 2023, and her SOS tour was a highlight of the year. The album is filled with R&B-inflected pop gems, starting off with the opening track, “Snooze.” With its lazy beat and subdued vocals, it feels like the album is just waking up. But the hard lyrics provide an ironic contrast, creating the allure of intense love: “Mobbin’, schemin’, lootin’, hide your bodies / Long as you dreamin’ ’bout me, ain’t no problem,” she sings. The tension between love and violence is on SZA’s mind again on the hit single “Kill Bill,” with lyrics of killing her ex, while enveloping such violent thoughts with a candy-coated melody and shimmering synthesizer sounds. By the closing title track, she’s less enamored of her love: “All that sauce you got from me / All that shit I gave for free / I want it back, want it back,” she sings, streetwise and hardened while sunny harmonies soften the edge. It’s that sugar-and-spice combo that makes this album work so well.
The Car, Arctic Monkeys
On The Car, the veteran English rockers Arctic Monkeys continue to expand their reach, with song structures that wander beyond verse-chorus-verse, production that incorporates strings, and frontman Alex Turner’s vocals that grab your attention. The songs feature deliberate beats and pacing that leave the vocals and melody room to move around. At the same time, the band experiments with sonic textures, like mixing rough, distorted guitars with soft, smooth violins and sparkly piano, all creating a sound that constantly intrigues. The opening track, “There’d Better Be a Mirrorball,” exemplifies this approach, with changes in tempo and moments of silence for dramatic effect before Turner’s voice takes over, singing about a breakup with regret. With songs that never take the expected path, it’s an album that’s easy to listen to on repeat.
Michael, Killer Mike
Killer Mike’s first solo album in eleven years, Michael, focuses on family, particularly the rapper’s mother and grandmother, revealing a more mature and personal side in his music. Michael also features collaborations with a host of guest stars, including Young Thug, CeeLo Green, and André 3000, among others, creating a kaleidoscope of styles and sounds that might have overwhelmed a lesser artist. But Killer Mike’s strong presence weaves a unifying thread that ties everything together into a cohesive whole, with the supporting players as icing on the cake.
For That Beautiful Feeling, The Chemical Brothers
The English electronic music pioneers The Chemical Brothers’ tenth studio album, For That Beautiful Feeling, comes packed with the band’s trademark combination of techno beats and pop sensibilities. The album features infectious, largely instrumental tracks that will get you dancing in a club or at home in your PJs. From the funky, undulating bass line of “No Reason” to the slow build of “Magic Wand” to the synthesizers that sound like harmonies of “Skipping Like a Stone,” each track is a lesson in digital groove-making. Their production techniques also reveal the power of repetition, with bass lines, vocalizations, and other sounds creating dynamic movements and rhythms. And with no lyrics to speak of, meaning and significance are found purely in the quality of the sound and production, and its ability to make your body move.
Super Snõõper, Snõõper
Furious bursts of guitar, bass, and drums drive this hypersonic blast of pure energy from Nashville-based punkers Snõõper. But it’s the band’s ironic sense of humor that lifts this collection. “Fitness” takes on gym culture: “Lift weight, mutate / Hydrate, inflate / Await my fate / Primate growth rate,” before the song ends with an excerpt from an interview with a fitness enthusiast earnestly recounting his daily routine. “Defect,” meanwhile, takes a look at trying to get along in a digital world: “Digital error must eject / Antivirus disinfect / Dial up and connect / Cause and defect.” This is unpretentious, self-confident music that doesn’t care to play by anyone else’s rules. How refreshing.
I Inside the Old Year Dying, PJ Harvey
For the first time in 30 years, English singer-songwriter PJ Harvey has released an album on a label other than Island Records. The Partisan Records release is also her first new material since 2016, so the album represents something of a refresh for the alternative music icon. Harvey’s understated, almost falsetto vocals here seem to invite you in closer to hear what she has to say, while subdued percussion and acoustic guitars are often complemented by the rumble of an electric guitar or bass line. For a performer perhaps best known for raw and raucous songs exemplified by 1993’s “Rid of Me,” the restraint here gives songs like “Lwonesome Tonight” and “A Child’s Question, August” extra power — the power of what goes unsaid.
Rustin’ in the Rain, Tyler Childers
Rustin’ in the Rain, the sixth album from country singer-songwriter Tyler Childers, kicks off with a quick high-pitched guitar riff before jumping straight into business with drums and bass and more guitar for a honky-tonk style rocker. Childers yells and hollers how his “heart falls apart, rustin’ in the rain,” but with the next song, Childers reveals a more tender side. This ballad, called “In Your Love,” is filled with earnest assurances of dedication: “Like a team of mules / Pulling hell off from its hinges / It’s for love that I’ll keep tendin’ / I will work for you.” He pulls off both with confidence, a testament to the singer’s versatility and craftsmanship. The slow waltz of “Phone Calls and Emails” and the aching lament of “Help Me Make It Through the Night” further prove Childers’s skills. Rustin’ in the Rain is inflected with roots-style arrangements seasoned with hints of bluegrass, which perhaps should come as no surprise, considering Childers’s Kentucky heritage.
The Returner, Allison Russell
“I can’t think of a thing / That hasn’t been born of a dream,” sings Canadian singer-songwriter Allison Russell on the title track, a rich, soulful piece on an album mined with gems. Russell’s voice can sound emotional while staying smooth, and warm while keeping things imbued with meaning. The production features acoustic instrumentation but never sounds soft or dull. Instead, the arrangements experiment with piano, guitar, and percussion while never feeling arty or remote. With roots in folk, blues, and country, the album brings new dimensions to each genre.
Did You Know That There’s a Tunnel Under Ocean Blvd., Lana Del Rey
On “The Grants,” the plaintive opening track to her ninth studio album, Del Rey sings, “Do you think about heaven? Do you think about me?” At first, you might be struck by a seeming self-absorption, and you sense she may be winking at the thought, but it’s death here that’s on her mind: “My pastor told me / ‘When you leave, all you take / Is your memories’ / And I’m gonna take mine of you with me.” It’s both a heartwarming and somewhat morbid sentiment, and that duality is, of course, a good part of Del Rey’s appeal. Her voice is warm and expressive without overexertion, and the songs here are full of pop craftsmanship, strong on wistful piano and aching vocals as on “Sweet” and acoustic guitar as on “Let the Light In.”
the record, boygenius
For a debut album, you could call the record from indie stalwart boygenius a major success: topping the charts in the UK and Ireland and peaking at number four in the US, with much critical acclaim and Grammy nominations for Album of the Year and Best Alternative Music Album, among others. Listen once, and it’s hard to find fault with the response. The craftsmanship is evident from the first track, “Without You Without Them,” sung a cappella and in harmony. The album then gives way to the classic bass, drums, and guitar of the following number, “$20,” a song that would fit alongside any playlist of classic 1990s alternative tracks. The record glides through its songs with ease, filled with charming harmonies and enticing melodies, telling of love and heartache with honesty and sensitivity. “You could absolutely break my heart / That’s how I know that we’re in love,” goes the line in “We’re in Love” — and it’s a killer.