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Under the Radar’s Top 100 Albums of 2023 Part 1

Dec 23, 2023
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Here we go again, racing to December’s finish line, eager to put another chaotic year in the rearview and nervous about what the next 12 months have in store for us. In 2023, the WHO ended its global health emergency status in relation to the COVID-19 pandemic and U.S. inflation eased, but the Russian invasion of Ukraine continued and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict erupted when Hamas attacked Israel and the latter declared war on Hamas, leading to a truly tragic situation and lots of civilian deaths (with over 20,000 Palestinians killed and over 1,400 Israelis dead). Worldwide, the effects of global warming were more apparent than ever, with record temperatures and rampant forest fires.

Fears over AI, among other issues, meant that dual actor and writer strikes shut down Hollywood for months, while at the same time U.S. autoworkers were also on strike and in Washington, D.C. the House of Representatives was at a virtual standstill when Kevin McCarthy’s short tenure as Speaker of the House came to an end and there was a lengthy and dysfunctional process to name his replacement. Next year we have a crucial U.S. presidential election to stress over, which will likely be a rematch between two candidates who aren’t that popular beyond their base supporters (although, it’s important to remember, that only one of the two candidates incited an insurrection).

In this over-connected century, it seems impossible to escape the ills of the world, but we can always take solace in the arts. For us, that mainly means music (as well as films, TV shows, video games, books, and comic books/graphic novels). Please ignore those who bemoan a lack of exciting new albums in 2023; the naysayers just weren’t listening closely enough.

Each year, Under the Radar seems to be one of the last music publications to post their best albums of the year list. I guess we’re less concerned with being first and more worried about getting it right. That’s not to say that other music sites don’t take care when putting their lists together—perhaps we just obsess too much. And it’s also not as if we’ve left it all to the last minute, we’ve been working on our Top 100 Albums of 2023 list since at least early November.

It starts with me putting together a nominations list of albums I most want our writers to consider (this year it was 138 albums). They have to be new full-length albums first released in 2023 (no reissues, live albums, or best of compilations). Then our writers and editors are free to suggest other albums they feel are worthy of consideration. It all goes into a shared spreadsheet and we all do lots of listening and re-listening and then each writer inputs their ballot of their 50 favorite albums of the year into the spreadsheet, with their favorite album getting 50 points, their second favorite getting 49 points, and so on until their 50th album gets one point. They are able to also vote for up to 15 honorable mentions at one point each. My Co-Publisher/wife Wendy Redfern and I have a few more points to work with, since it’s our magazine after all, so our number one albums get 65 points and so on down from there.

This year 269 different albums were included on the spreadsheet. For an album to have a chance to make the Top 100 it has to be picked by at least three different writers, for there to be a true consensus. Our number one album this year was picked by 17 different writers, including Wendy and myself, and overall 20 contributors took part in this year’s vote. This year we did a separate vote to decide what should be our number one album, choosing between the two that got the most votes. Then, as we do most years, I put together a Top 95, based mainly on the staff vote, but slightly tweaking the order here and there based on our coverage in the past year. Then we did a separate vote to decide which five albums should round out the list, from a selection of 30 albums that almost made the Top 95. Finally we arrived at this Top 100 Albums of 2023 list, with several honorable mentions for good measure. Our writers wrote new blurbs on each of the Top 50 albums.

Here at Under the Radar we aren’t afraid to include artists we’ve covered for years on our best albums lists, as long as they put out a new album we loved, but we also like to make room for new blood and debut albums. We’ve never hidden that we’re primarily an indie rock magazine and so while some other genres do get a look in, you won’t find too many albums on this list that could be considered mainstream pop, hip-hop, country, metal, etc. But there’s still a whole varied universe of sounds within indie rock. We like our lists to truly represent our editorial coverage from the last year, including artists we’ve interviewed in the last 12 months, albums we’ve favorably reviewed, and artists who made our weekly Songs of the Week lists, all with the benefit of year-end hindsight. Certainly there are albums in the Top 100 that you will have seen on many other best albums of 2023 lists, but we hope there are some surprises too, although if you’ve been paying attention to what we’ve written about in the last year you shouldn’t be too shocked by our choices.

In just a few days, it all begins again, with a new year and a fresh crop of releases to dive into (some of which we’ve already heard). Before the cycle restarts, join us in reflecting on the albums that meant the most to us in 2023. By Mark Redfern

1

Ratboys

The Window

Topshelf

The Julia Steiner-led Ratboys have been quietly putting out high quality content for the past dozen years. Their last full length of new material, Printer’s Devil, came out at an inopportune moment (February 2020), which makes their return with The Window all that more of a moment to celebrate. And celebrate, The Window does well. Whether the spotlight is on Mother Earth (“It’s Alive”), being spitting mad (“Empty”), or lives well lived (“The Window”), Steiner knows no mode other than wearing her heart on her sleeve. Here with a production assist from Chris Walla (formerly of Death Cab for Cutie), every song is a set piece with its own distinct dynamic and every single one of them is fantastic. For a band that already had a well-earned pedigree, The Window is clearly a level up. By Mark Moody

2

Sufjan Stevens

Javelin

Asthmatic Kitty

Is there anyone who switches modes more fluidly than Sufjan Stevens? (Probably not?) But he always returns to a core mode, the version in which he hugs you close and tells you his secrets. Often with a banjo. On Javelin, there are more sonic flourishes than his early, folkier turns, but this is still where he whispers in your ear stories of the pain of heartbreak and the resiliency of the same heart to carry on. And just when you think he’s alone, a chorus joins him, as on “Everything that Rises,” to remind you that no one is truly alone. By Jim Scott

3

Caroline Polachek

Desire, I Want to Turn Into You

Perpetual Novice

Whether as the vocalist for Chairlift or in her solo work, Caroline Polachek is truly singular. Nobody sounds like Polachek, and she has never sounded more vibrant or potent than on her sophomore record, Desire, I Want to Turn Into You. She opens the album with an otherworldly wail with “Welcome To My Island,” dances with twirling flamenco guitars on “Sunset,” and darts through wiry and minimalist art pop on “Bunny Is a Rider.”

All along, she casts herself as desire incarnate, crafting a series of decadent fantasies traced with dream-like lyricism. There is a hunger within these tracks, an incorrigible drive to sample new sounds, try on new aesthetics, and subsume them all within Polachek’s glassy avant pop. What is left is a colorful menagerie of pop music that is at once completely infectious and delightfully idiosyncratic. By Caleb Campbell

4

Black Belt Eagle Scout

The Land, The Water, The Sky

Saddle Creek

Katherine Paul’s third album comes on with the subtlety of a freight train as “My Blood Runs Through This Land” thunders through the speakers. Paul’s record, which in part documents her return to the Swinomish Tribal Community, is at times powerfully celebratory (“My Blood Runs Through This Land,” “Sedna”) but also has moments that are prayerfully contemplative (“Salmon Stinta,” “Nobody”). Not one to shrink from truth, Paul shares mental health struggles on the brooding “Treeline” and graces us with the gift of her singing with her parents on the chill-inducing “Spaces.” The Land, The Water, The Sky runs as deep as Paul’s pride for her community and gives the listener many paths to explore. By Mark Moody

5

Jessie Ware

That! Feels Good!

Interscope

After three albums of stately and soulful pop-R&B, in 2020 Jessie Ware released What’s Your Pleasure?, thrilling fans (and attracting a bevy of new ones) with its swerve into the world of lush, decadent disco. It was an escape into joy at a time the world needed it most. Three years later, That! Feels Good! continues Ware’s pursuit of sensory gratification, trimming some of the previous album’s fat and leaving behind a lean, punchy collection of danceable bops. This is music whose primary ambition is to get the body moving, and it succeeds admirably—just try not to dance by the time the saxophone takes the melody at the end of the opener and title track. “Pleasure is a right!” Ware declares, and she means it. That! Feels Good! is 2023’s album most densely packed with delight. If one of the year’s themes was radical joy in the face of fear, Jessie Ware led the charge. By Scotty Dransfield

6

Slowdive

everything is alive

Dead Oceans

Shoegaze legends Slowdive continued reclaiming their crown as kings of escapist dream pop with the enigmatic and hauntingly beautiful album everything is alive. The gossamer echoing guitar stylings and airy electronics come to life as seductive and slow pop songs whose multi-layered and textural edges feature dabs of shoegaze, drops of post-punk electronica, and dashes of New Wave. While avoiding the melodramatic, the catchy and melodic tunes are tastefully adorned with an occasional slinky bassline, commercial playfulness, or reflective mood. And those who don’t get hypnotized by the feathery sweet warbles, and instead pay close attention, will find pleasure in the fine details. The shimmering grooves are awash in lush sonic touches and spiraling sound effects making the perfect backdrop for these blissful tunes that are layered with ear-catching sounds and ethereal voices. Everything is alive is a gorgeous triumph and sure to please all those who give it a spin. By Matt the Raven

7

boygenius

the record

Interscope

2023 was the year that boygenius became stars. Phoebe Bridgers, Julien Baker, and Lucy Dacus were already some of indie’s most acclaimed songwriters, but this year has made them bona fide mainstream artists, transcending any semblance of continued underground status. They were everywhere all year, beginning it with a Rolling Stone cover and closing it with a massive sold-out arena tour and a slew of Grammy nominations. Along the way, they released their long-awaited debut LP, the record.

It would almost be easy to lose sight of the record amidst the craze surrounding the band this year, were it not also one of the year’s best albums. It is filled with arena-ready singalongs such as “Not Strong Enough” and lovely yearning moments like “Cool About It,” delivering gorgeous vocal arrangements and searing guitar solos in equal measure. What is more, the trio makes one of the year’s most hyped releases also feel like one of its most intimate. At its core, the record is a love letter between Baker, Dacus, and Bridgers, offering listeners the chance to watch as indie rock’s new superstars write the latest chapter of their story together. By Caleb Campbell

8

The WAEVE

The WAEVE

Transgressive

This collaborative effort of oddly paired trailblazing artists Graham Coxon (Blur) and Rose Elinor Dougall (The Pipettes and her solo work) shows off a unique musical style that is a genuinely entertaining mix of cinematic British rock and indie pop, brought to life with polished vocals.

The catchy rhythms on the handful of indie rock-oriented songs are skillfully constructed and executed and settle into a groove of nuanced pop rock that erupt with bursting melodies and vibrant accents. Other tracks offer a more blithe pop vibe, whose arrangements have surreal qualities that add up to a feeling of being enveloped by whimsies and trances as they navigate a varied landscape of delicate melodies.

With flashes of pure rock and roll splendor, The WAEVE contains warm and fuzzy rock with woozy orchestrations, an amiable swirl of sound, and a pleasant cacophony of motley instrumentation, from a band that’s super talented and not afraid to take chances. By Matt the Raven

9

Wednesday

Rat Saw God

Dead Oceans

In an indie rock landscape that too often feels interchangeable, Wednesday are in a league of their own. They have spent the past several years honing in on an indelible mix of shoegaze, country, and indie rock, one they have ground to a jagged edge with their latest album, Rat Saw God. Tracks such as “Chosen to Deserve” are some of their most instantly anthemic, while slower highlights like “Bath County” or “Formula One” show off the band’s instincts for sprawling country tones. Meanwhile, “Bull Believer” delivers an eight-minute behemoth centerpiece, crashing in on itself with layers of feedback before ending on a staggering wail from vocalist Karly Hartzman.

However, what sets Rat Saw God apart is its distinct sense of place. Hartzman narrates curdled imagery of lice-ridden Southern summers, ODs in Planet Fitness parking lots, and teenage Benadryl highs, rendering them as vivid and striking portraits. She delivers a level of detail only matched in intensity by the squalling layers of noise and mournful pedal steel accompanying her vocals. Rat Saw God finds a certain romance in this world, an American South that is fetid and decaying, yet glimmering with bursts of humor, joy, and grace. It is visceral in its imagery, but generous in its beauty in a way only Wednesday could manage. By Caleb Campbell

10

Olivia Rodrigo

GUTS

Geffen

Olivia Rodrigo had sky-high expectations on her after 2021’s SOUR instantly launched her into pop’s A-list. Fortunately, her new album GUTS definitively proves Rodrigo knows how to please a crowd. However, what is more interesting than her pop perfectionist veneer is the ways in which she breaks the mold.

Look no further than the opener “all-american bitch,” which finds Rodrigo skewering youthful femininity’s narrow confines, all while delivering a certified anthem. In contrast, “bad idea, right?” is full of tongue-in-cheek speak-singing and cheerleader chants, recalling indie outfits like Wet Leg. In “vampire” and “lacy,” Rodrigo crafts some her best ballads, while “ballad of a homeschooled girl” and “get him back!” pack in some of the year’s best hooks.

As the record continues, you are continually reminded that Rodrigo is not just a musician or a songwriter. She’s an actress, and she treats GUTS like the performance of a lifetime, capturing all of the messy heights of romance, heartbreak, and fame in a dazzling burst of manic theater-kid energy. By Caleb Campbell

11

Mitski

The Land Is Inhospitable and So Are We

Dead Oceans

The Land Is Inhospitable and So Are We is the kind of soothing record that just washes over you. It ebbs and flows between dramatic peaks of orchestral splendor and somber acoustic folk valleys, where the grand horns of “When Memories Snow” give way to the soft melancholy of “My Love Mine All Mine.” Mitski practically lives on year-end lists like this, curating a seven-album run that’s cemented her as one of the most consistent singer/songwriters of the 21st century. So that this album might be her best work yet is a testament to both its, and her, greatness. By Kyle Kersey

12

Nation of Language

Strange Disciple

[PIAS]

A triumphant third album, Nation of Language’s Strange Disciple doesn’t waste any time as it immediately dives into new sonic territory. Yes, the Brooklyn three-piece still succeed in shepherding us through a transformed New Wave landscape, but the cornerstones here are sleek, advanced, modern.

Highlights include Talking Heads-esque “Surely I Can’t Wait,” the hypnotic “Weak In Your Light,” and one of the best songs the band has ever released, “Spare Me the Decision.” The latter of these makes one want to dance alone in their room, not to cassette tapes but to your streaming service of choice on a Bluetooth speaker. By Ben Jardine

13

Caroline Rose

The Art of Forgetting

New West

Caroline Rose’s fourth album, The Art of Forgetting is by far their most moving, personal, and impactful. Where their previous albums found them inhabiting a playful, tongue-in-cheek persona, The Art of Forgetting is devoid of artifice or guarded satire, instead opting for raw lyrical reflections and a glassy, experimental bent.

It finds Rose mid-transformation, adorning ephemeral and artful arrangements with “Love / Lover / Friend,” leaning into chopped samples and woozy grooves on “The Doldrums,” and crafting gauzy dream pop with “The Kiss.” Interspersed among these genre experiments are some of Rose’s most soaring tracks—“Everywhere I Go I Bring the Rain” and “Tell Me What You Want”—songs that translate their confessions into pop magnetism.

With each turn, Rose’s lyrics teem with cutting honesty, building until the record’s cathartic final moments as they offer a touching invitation to renewed self-love. In those final moments, Rose closes their best album yet and opens what is sure to be an exciting new chapter in their career. By Caleb Campbell

14

Miss Grit

Follow the Cyborg

Mute

Using the scuzzy, guitar-based indie rock heard on their two early EPs as a launching pad into the inevitable future, Follow the Cyborg is decidedly more cinematic in both approach and scope. As moods morph from murky to majestic and back again, the songs are crafted with creativity and a willingness to experiment and are informed with a phantastical, sometimes heavenly, vibe while also exhibiting a subterranean edge.

Margaret Sohn’s velvety voice acts as a common thread that links the tracks into a cohesive album while occasionally showing off her guitar chops. The album as a whole impresses and excites with sophisticated and soothing electronic foundations adorned with waves of atmospheric indie rock wrapped in creative melodies with waiflike vocals, justifying repeated plays that are more rewarding each time. By Matt the Raven

15

Wilco

Cousin

dBpm

Wilco fans could be forgiven for expecting another album of low-key acoustic tunes, given that that’s the wheelhouse they’ve mostly been sticking to since 2016’s Schmilco. Last year’s Cruel Country began to wriggle out of that particular mode, going back to the twangy sounds of their 1995 debut to satisfying effect. But Cousin is a new beast entirely, with Jeff Tweedy & Co. bringing in Cate Le Bon as producer to help shake things up. The vibe is still relatively gentle throughout, but the clever soundscapes and arrangements of tracks such as “Infinite Surprise” and “Sunlight Ends” crackle subtly with electricity, while the more straightforward songs still sprawl and spread in a fresh way. Nearly 20 years after A Ghost is Born, it’s thrilling to see Wilco still able to conjure that same magic. By Scotty Dransfield

16

Lana Del Rey

Did you know that there's a tunnel under Ocean Blvd

Interscope

On her ninth studio album, Lana Del Rey explores new themes allied to more stripped-back arrangements, producing another classic Del Rey album. While Did you know that there’s a tunnel under Ocean Blvd falls slightly short of the brilliance of her magnum opus, 2019’s Norman Fucking Rockwell!, it stands as one of her finest works to date. Del Rey’s songwriting adopts a more introspective and self-aware tone compared to her earlier stylized narratives. This album places Lana Del Rey in existential therapy, sprawled on a chaise longue of regret, expunging the ghosts of past loves while searching the Californian coastline for buried memories. These songs burrow deep, unearthing family ghosts and dissecting anxieties with the precision of a diamond scalpel.

As expected from Lana Del Rey, darkness is never far from view. However, on Did you know that there’s a tunnel under Ocean Blvd, the romanticized haze of vintage glamour and illicit affairs gives way to her most personal work yet. Delving into family ties, gnawing fears, and flickering hopes, amidst the album’s beautifully intricate arrangements, it’s those glimmers of hope that shine through. Although it’s worth noting, it’s often said that “it’s the hope that kills you.” By Andy Von Pip

17

Bully

Lucky for You

Sub Pop

Ten years into the project’s existence, Alicia Bognanno delivers Bully’s best album with their latest record, Lucky For You. Bully has always been a reliably solid choice for grunge-inflected alt rock, but Lucky for You finds Bognanno operating on another level, honing her sound to a razor’s edge. The hooks have never been this apparent, the production has never been this clean, and Bognanno has never been this arresting.

Even with Bognanno’s signature raspy vocals and fuzzy guitars adding some grit to the record’s bright sheen, Lucky for You is undoubtedly Bully’s most immediate and accessible album. The hits come hard and continue non-stop, opening with the careening rush of “All I Do” before following with the towering drum fills on “Days Move Slow.” Bognanno crafts her songs into howling anthems, even as they are navigating weighty topics like sobriety, grief, or the unending clamor of the news. The results are some of the most cathartic and vital rock songs of the year. By Caleb Campbell

18

Blonde Redhead

Sit Down for Dinner

section1

Blonde Redhead has always epitomized the definition of indie rock. Marching to the beat of their own drummer, the band has avoided pigeonholing by following their instincts instead of trends, by experimenting and exploring varied musical landscapes with each release while creating a distinctive and interesting indie rock sound. Tenth album Sit Down For Dinner is no different. Only this time around, the trio of twin brothers Amedeo Pace (singer/multi-instrumentalist) and Simone Pace (drummer) and enigmatic singer and multi-instrumentalist Kazu Makino, soak their crafty ethereal pop in a reflective and moody marinade of early ’70s soft rock to great effect.

The rich sound of intricately layered dream-pop and fleshed-out orchestrations found on elite tracks “Snowman,” “Before,” “Sit Down For Dinner (Part 2),” and melancholic closer “Via Savona” capture the magic and sonically bright tunefulness the band is known for and make Sit Down For Dinner one of the year’s most contemplating and enchanting releases. By Matt the Raven

19

Alex Lahey

The Answer Is Always Yes

Liberation

Alex Lahey’s best songs have always felt like both comedies and tragedies. The Australian singer/songwriter has built up a gift for finding witty and memorable angles on heartache, loneliness, and burnout, coupling the heavy feelings with bright indie rock guitars and sticky power pop hooks. That same formula is at play on her latest record, The Answer Is Always Yes, a record marked by frustrated breakups (“You’ll Never Get Your Money Back”), social anxieties (“Shit Talkin’”), and queer teenage alienation (“They Wouldn’t Let Me In”). However, even in the record’s lowest moments, Lahey brings a sense of catharsis and bombast, leavening the poignant songwriting with an array of catchy riffs and crowd-pleasing melodies. By Caleb Campbell

20

Blondshell

Blondshell

Partisan

Blondshell is a newcomer to the increasingly crowded field of ’90s-indebted indie singer/songwriters. Even before the release of her self-titled debut album, the singles were drawing early comparisons to Exile In Guyville and Live Through This, placing her within a storied lineage of diaristic young songwriters. But what the album ultimately does best isn’t channeling Liz Phair or Courtney Love, but making room for Sabrina Teitelbaum to carve her own identity.

The album packs plenty of grunge riffs, ascendant choruses, and dreamy indie soundscapes, all laced with sharply written hooks that snarl and soar. But for as often as the record’s sound palette draws on ’90s touchstones, Teitelbaum’s songwriting makes the record feel of its moment, offering messy dissections of bad sex, toxic relationships, and romantic longing. The record’s core lies equally in the sharply written hooks and the vicarious thrill found in Teitelbaum’s oversharing. Blondshell hits hardest when she is at her most raw and messy, transmuting the frayed angst of young adulthood into resplendent indie rock. By Caleb Campbell

21

Indigo De Souza

All of This Will End

Saddle Creek

Indigo De Souza tips her hand with the title of her third full-length album, All of This Will End. The record is about endings and transformations, with its title acknowledging the simple and devastating reality of how fleeting life can be. The album finds De Souza writing her own endings and making space for new beginnings, exorcising grief and trauma with a heart-wrenching lyrical voice (“You Can Be Mean”) and in moments of alluring simplicity (“The Water”).

In the midst of all this, her music touches on skittering indie pop, spectral folk, and grunge confessionals, crafting sticky and elliptical songs that will live with you for some time after the last notes fade. The final words of the title track capture the album best: “I’m only loving, only moving through and trying my best/Sometimes it’s not enough, but I’m still real and I forgive.” By Caleb Campbell

22

Strange Ranger

Pure Music

Fire Talk

The hardest part of listening to Strange Ranger’s Pure Music is knowing it is the band’s swan song. After becoming one of indie’s most underrated acts over the past decade, the band called it quits shortly after the release of the album this year. Before they departed though, they crafted an ecstatic tribute to strains of ’90s trip hop, electronica, and shoegaze, filtered through the world of indie rock.

The silken production, gauzy guitars, and trancelike rhythms all sound impeccable, joining together to create a current of wistful moonlit nostalgia that runs throughout the record. “She’s on Fire” and “Rain So Hard” feel akin to walking home amidst city lights, while “Wide Awake” and “Fantasy” hit propulsive and immersive highs befitting a crowded dancefloor. With Pure Music, Strange Ranger evokes both searching angst and unbridled euphoria, holding them both close together, immersed in a gentle twilit glow. By Caleb Campbell

23

Paramore

This Is Why

Atlantic

Paramore has flipped the typical career path of the typical mid-2000s radio-friendly pop-punk band. Whereas older contemporaries such as Fall Out Boy and Panic at the Disco peaked in 2005 and have since become hollow trend chasers in mainstream pop, Paramore has only gotten better with each release. Their dive into pop via 2017’s After Laughter was a colorful breath of fresh air that showcased the band’s range and knack for vibrant, upbeat songwriting. This is Why maintains those qualities while instrumentally shifting back toward the rock side of the spectrum. Tinged with funk and post-punk influences and filled with catchy choruses, This Is Why showcases the band’s maturation as songwriters without skimping on fun bops. By Kyle Kersey

24

IAN SWEET

SUCKER

Polyvinyl

With SUCKER—Jilian Medford’s fourth album as IAN SWEET—Medford takes the most ambitious pop swings of her career. SUCKER is littered with indie pop anthems like “Smoking Again,” “FIGHT,” or “Your Spit,” the kind that leave an indelible imprint from the very first chorus. Medford laces these tracks amongst warm shoegaze guitars, simmering synths, and thorny lyrics, leaning on the widescreen aesthetics she cultivated on 2021’s Show Me How You Disappear, but imbuing them with a new sense of scale. On SUCKER, Medford’s songwriting sounds more sweeping, urgent, and confident than ever before. By Caleb Campbell

25

Yo La Tengo

This Stupid World

Matador

Yo La Tengo prove they fully deserve their elder statesman status on their seventeenth studio album, This Stupid World. It’s quite a bit noisier and messier than its predecessors, somehow recapturing some of the energy of the band’s late ’90s classics. Check the jammy sprawl of opener “Sinatra Drive Breakdown,” and the endlessly gorgeous “Aselestine.” It ends with two long, evocative tracks that confirm it: this is the best Yo La Tengo album in at least a decade. By Scotty Dransfield

26

Jess Williamson

Time Ain’t Accidental

Mexican Summer

Jess Williamson’s prior solo album was titled Sorceress, but the 11 songs that make up Time Ain’t Accidental were not simply conjured up. From the flirtatious title track to the abject heartbreak of “A Few Seasons,” these songs evidence an artist honing their craft and getting comfortable with sharing hard won truths. If you view “Abilene,” from Williamson’s Plains side-project with Katie Crutchfield, as a stripped down countrified jumping off point, songs like “Stampede” come into focus as works put through the refiner’s fire to distill them down to their essence. Flavored with pedal steel, drum machine beats, and Williamson’s crystalline vocals, these elements may differentiate her from the stark compositions of Townes Van Zandt and Guy Clark, but the commitment to bringing her best pairs well with those legends. By Mark Moody

27

John Cale

MERCY

Double Six/Domino

In the music video for “STORY OF BLOOD,” John Cale swans about in a black frock, a pearl necklace, and painted fingernails. His eyes twinkle with mischief. At age 81, the proto punk remains far too edgy for a profile in AARP: The Magazine. Indeed, MERCY belies the age gap between Cale and guests such as Weyes Blood, Sylvan Esso, and Animal Collective. His seventeenth album is propelled by throbbing, dubby rhythms and electronic effects. Fans of the late-career sound of David Bowie will gravitate to “NIGHT CRAWLING,” whose animated music video depicts Cale out on the town with the Thin White Duke. The star attraction is Cale’s sternum-deep voice, reverberating as if he recorded his vocals in the bowels of the Grand Canyon. A vital achievement. By Stephen Humphries

28

Girl Ray

Prestige

Moshi Moshi

After the twee indie folk of their debut and the New Wave-tinged synth pop of their sophomore record, London trio Girl Ray once again went in a restless new direction for their third full-length album, Prestige, pivoting into sparkling disco pop. Inspired by the genre’s roots in ’80s ballroom culture, the band steeps themselves in disco’s glitter and glamor, adorning the record in upbeat guitars, funk grooves, and silken string arrangements. The record is infectious from its earliest moments, but the hits steadily build towards a standout finale with the closer, “Give Me Your Love,” a sprawling studio production complete with bells, effervescent synths, and vocoder. Like all great disco, Prestige is joyous, liberating, and—most importantly—irresistibly fun. By Caleb Campbell

29

Lael Neale

Star Eaters Delight

Sub Pop

The follow-up to Lael Neale’s folk fueled and Omnichord driven Acquainted With Night is somehow even better. Though Neale set out on her own path with the preceding album, here she takes things further and wagers on risks that handsomely payoff. “If I Had No Wings” and “Must Be Tears” stick with her prior approach, but the album’s most stunning moments come on tracks such as the eight-minute single “In Verona.” Neale exudes a post-punk air of detachment in a chilling retelling of the tale of Shakespeare’s star crossed lovers. “Faster Than the Medicine” has the bass thumping rush of New Order’s best. While, the closing “Lead Me Blind” pushes a heartfelt and piano-driven ballad through layers and layers of tape hiss like some long forgotten outtake from the Smithsonian Anthology of American Folk Music. By Mark Moody

30

Blur

The Ballad of Darren

Parlophone

When Blur announced they were writing and recording together for the first time in nearly a decade it’s probably fair to say anticipation levels were high. Lead single “The Narcissist” suggested the album might be more downbeat and introspective than its predecessor, while this summer’s return to the live stage was a joyous celebration of everything that had come before and more besides. When The Ballad of Darren finally landed, it proved to be another welcome addition to an already momentous canon of work. Fascinating and timeless in the way we’ve come to expect from Blur, whether in Damon Albarn’s vocal delivery, Graham Coxon’s exquisite guitar work, or the taut rhythm section of Alex James and Dave Rowntree. Whether Blur record again remains to be seen, but if The Ballad of Darren is to be their swansong, there’s no finer epitaph to bookend with. By Dom Gourlay

31

Peter Gabriel

i/o

Real World

The first half of Peter Gabriel’s solo career featured albums without formal titles. (They’ve been nicknamed I, II, III, and IV.) The second half of his career has featured albums with two letter titles. This year’s i/o follows its monosyllabic predecessors, Up, Us, and So. Gabriel may no longer be the innovator he once was on those first four albums but his long-awaited latest studio effort compensates with meticulous song craft. Tracks such as “And still,” “Olive Tree,” and “Four Kinds of Horses” boast the songwriter’s hookiest melodies since the 1980s. They also benefit from the emotional heft he brings to lyrics about topics ranging from aging to terrorism to forgiveness. The one unchanging constant throughout his career? An ageless voice that can still make hearts flutter. By Stephen Humphries

32

JPEGMAFIA & Danny Brown

SCARING THE HOES

AWAL

When combined, JPEGMAFIA’s jittery, digital gospel-soul and Danny Brown’s frenetic flows are as dangerous as a Panera Charged Lemonade. Let the listener be warned. SCARING THE HOES is bold and emboldening. Don’t believe me? Blast “Burfict!” before your next anxiety-inducing Zoom call and you’ll feel like Russell Crowe’s Gladiator. With this much-needed shot of adrenaline, Peggy and Danny bring together club and choir, profane and sacred with wholehearted irreverence and vigor. By Chris Thiessen

33

Emma Anderson

Pearlies

Sonic Cathedral

Emma Anderson’s long-awaited first solo record was everything we’d hoped it would be. Pearlies is a mesmerizing collage of sounds and ideas that doesn’t just provide flashbacks of her halcyon years in Lush, but also gives us an insight into her futuristic vision. Anderson’s songs and arrangements coupled with James Chapman’s (aka Maps) production make for an incendiary musical marriage, and with the possibility of a second album and live shows on the horizon, 2024 promises to be an intriguing year for one of the first wave shoegazer’s most understated songwriters. By Dom Gourlay

34

M83

Fantasy

Mute

Anthony Gonzalez returns with his first official M83 album since 2016’s Junk, and he’s got synthesis on the mind. Fantasy splits the difference between the “epic film score” sound of the band’s early output and the sparkling New Wave pop of Junk and 2011’s seminal Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming. The result is a sweeping and emotional journey that makes room for evocative landscapes (“Earth to Sea”) as well as pop bangers (“Fantasy”), making it M83’s most approachable album yet. By Scotty Dransfield

35

Art Feynman

Be Good the Crazy Boys

Western Vinyl

Luke Temple’s worldly alter ego, Art Feynman, bursts back onto the scene with the most Talking Heads-ian album this side of the Stop Making Sense rerelease. Be Good the Crazy Boys, recorded live in studio with a full band, is packed with nervous energy and wry musings on modern life; its blend of funk, yacht rock, and post-punk is an absolute blast. Exemplified by the brilliant “Therapy at 3pm,” this album explores the mental experience of life, all while making you want to dance uncontrollably. By Scotty Dransfield

36

Water From Your Eyes

Everyone's Crushed

Matador

Nate Amos and Rachel Brown shake hands, share a smoke. They make an album of see-sawing melodies. It’s exponentially bonkers. In the current time of technology, it’s hard to tell the difference between organic and synthetic sound, but wondering is half the fun. Creativity has gone wild. We ingest copious amounts of music, and some of us mix all the diversity into beautiful chaos. Water From Your Eyes is on their toes, declaring a Cool War. They make pop for listeners that hate actual pop. All the indie labels that didn’t sign them are coughing. By Jordan Michael

37

Palehound

Eye on the Bat

Polyvinyl

Four albums in, and on the heels of their collaboration with Jay Som as Bachelor, El Kempner delivers their most consistent album yet in Eye on the Bat. If you like guitars, layered upon guitars, layered upon guitars, “The Clutch” puts that song in single of the year category. But it’s the more heartfelt and confessional (not a new approach for Kempner) songs that win the day here. The back-to-back openers of “Good Sex” and “Independence Day” rotate quickly from amusing anecdote to a detailed remembrance of a breakup. While the closing two songs (“Right About You” and “Fadin’”) are softly hued, lump in the throat gems that help to showcase Kempner’s full range of abilities. By Mark Moody

38

Grian Chatten

Chaos for the Fly

Partisan

Chaos for the Fly sees Grian Chatten, best known as the frontman for Fontaines D.C., exploring varied sonic landscapes, including acoustic odes and a flirtation with wobbly lounge, while somehow staying true to his band’s edgy rhythms with an underlying layer of pop hooks hiding in the darkness.

Outstanding tracks “Fairlies,” “Bob’s Casino,” “I Am So Far,” and “Season For Pain” are wonderfully elegant, atmospheric rockers with cool grooves and the complex character of moody textures wrapped in a simple and catchy package. At the center of each song, Chatten’s introspective lyrics are delivered with his signature monotone-ish and accented warble that entices the complex character of Chaos for the Fly to gradually unfurl into a terrifically cool album that is wholly appreciated with repeated plays. By Matt the Raven

39

This Is the Kit

Careful of Your Keepers

Rough Trade

This Is the Kit, the Paris-based project led by British-born alt-folk songstress Kate Stables, returned in 2023 with their sixth studio album. Gruff Rhys from Super Furry Animals takes on the production role. From the groove-heavy opener “Goodbye Bite,” this record is quirky, unpredictable and intricate. Stables has a knack of using the bare minimum of lyrics in a repetitive loop but somehow making it work.

The soothing title track is reminiscent of Janis Ian at her peak. Aside from the uncomfortable title, “Scabby Head and Legs” is hypnotically excellent. The record overall is a sonic conundrum—just when it starts to meander, on the verge of getting lost, it takes a left-turn down an unexpected alleyway into the musical sunlight once again. By Lee Campbell

40

Young Fathers

Heavy Heavy

Ninja Tune

Many bands get described as “post-genre,” but few artists fulfill that label better than Scottish experimentalists Young Fathers. Their fourth full-length album, Heavy Heavy, is a whirlwind blend of spiritual folk stylings, gospel hymnals, art pop, West African rhythms, electronic arrangements, and more. At moments these textures swirl together into feverish whirlwinds of sound and rhythm, yet the band also radiates warmth and humanity even at their most chaotic. The band wields this contrast in a deft dance of tones, striking with a purposeful weight on the record’s most pointed and outwardly political tracks like “Rice,” and dancing into joyous wild-eyed frenzies on “Drum” and “Holy Moly.” By Caleb Campbell

41

Shame

Food for Worms

Dead Oceans

The third album from Shame hasn’t quite returned the UK post-punk group to the piss and vinegar of its 2018 debut, but it’s getting closer. Uber-producer Flood is behind the knobs of Food for Worms, but the superbly confident group didn’t need his permission to explore its introspective side, which it does at length. The cautionary drug tale “Adderall” and the plodding “All the People” tap into Pixies’ patented style. Yet Shame is most impactful when it is at its visceral, shouty best, such as on the pogo-ready “Fingers of Steel” and the chaos-driven “Six-Pack,” whose humor-filled videos soften the sting of the razor-sharp lyrics. By Lily Moayeri

42

The Lemon Twigs

Everything Harmony

Captured Tracks

From the beginning of their career, The Lemon Twigs’ biggest influences have laid in the past. Even as their songwriting skills evolved and their sound shifted between glam rock, power pop, and harmonious chamber pop, that rear-facing disposition has remained a constant. Similarly, their fourth album, Everything Harmony, is no less nostalgic or theatrical, but it also is the band’s most impressive album to date.

The record does nothing more or less than deliver a set of great songs, impeccably produced and opulently arranged. The band’s swooning melodies, weepy strings, and standout vocal harmonies sound better than ever, coupled with songs full of equal parts heartache and longing. The greatest compliment you can give Everything Harmony is that it not only evokes the band’s ’70s influences but that it stands amongst them as equals, showing a keen ear for the sonic craftsmanship and pop songwriting that made those records great. By Caleb Campbell

43

Margaret Glaspy

Echo the Diamond

ATO

After taking a detour into synths and pop sounds on 2020’s Devotion, Margaret Glaspy picks the guitar back up and gets a little louder—and a little more ambitious in her songwriting—on Echo the Diamond. The overall feel is satisfyingly loose and confident, whether Glaspy’s letting out some rage in “Female Brain” or breaking down on the timeless-sounding ballad “Turn the Engine.” She’s gunning for the rock singer/songwriter crown—and she might be winning. By Scotty Dransfield

44

CMAT

Crazymad, for Me

AWAL

A concept album about a 40-something CMAT reflecting on a toxic relationship from decades’ earlier, Crazymad, for Me reflects the ennui of modern love with sharp wit and distinctly clever lyrics. Ireland’s breakthrough singer/songwriter conjures images of millennial/Gen Z relationships, like watching 16 hours of Gilmore Girls with an ex who is just not right for you. By Ben Jardine

45

Wild Nothing

Hold

Captured Tracks

Jack Tatum’s synth-pop band Wild Nothing expands their range with some thrilling results on Hold. Kicking off with the rhythmic, ’90s-inspired jam “Headlights On” featuring like-minded peer Hatchie, it veers into oddball New Wave (“Basement El Dorado”) and epic romance (“Alex”) while making space for detours such as the stunningly gorgeous instrumental “Presidio” along the way. Meanwhile, Tatum sings his most personal and vulnerable lyrics yet. These new dimensions give Hold a strong case for best Wild Nothing album yet. By Scotty Dransfield

46

billy woods & Kenny Segal

Maps

Backwoodz Studioz

On “Soft Landing,” 15 seconds of gentle guitar strums and airport ambiance are interrupted by a beat drop and billy woods’ opening line: “It’s 2:1:1 on the daiquiris/It ruins the whole day when my baby mother mad at me.” Woods’ words paint pictures (“From up here the lakes is puddles/The land unfold brown and green, it’s a quiet puzzle”) and form free associative poetry (“A single death is a tragedy/But eggs made omelets”) throughout “Soft Landing” and Maps as a whole. The second full-length collaboration between woods and producer-extraordinaire Kenny Segal, Maps offers a tour travelogue paired with jazzy, unorthodox beats. Not only is this woods’ most accessible album yet (see “FaceTime,” featuring Samuel T. Herring of Future Islands), but it’s also his most personal. By Kyle Kersey

47

Sampha

Lahai

Young

Sampha’s rich music is deep enough to live in, and it shall be celebrated. The South London producer hadn’t released a new album since his debut, which won the Mercury Prize in 2017. Time flies, but this existential talent did not fade.

Lahai (Sampha’s middle name, as well as his grandfather’s first name) is call-and-response cosmic soul. It’s as if fertile West African Wassoulou music got mixed within a rhythmic house full of jazz and breakbeats. Sampha bore a child while he was away, and he’s expressing the cycle of life through his music. He knows no limits. By Jordan Michael

48

Mutual Benefit

Growing at the Edges

Transgressive

We’ve found the perfect album for laying on your back in tall grass, not moving an inch, as the moon’s silver gaze spreads hope. Jordan Lee’s fourth LP is a serendipitous lullaby, made by 13 musicians playing piano, saxophone, guitar, violin, and beyond.

Lee has been gathering different musicians, nationwide, since 2009, inviting them into his search for musical magic. This is light alternative pop that floats at the pace of a cold river. “Edges are where spaces are negotiated,” Lee says. “Relationships make a place meaningful.” Grab your partner, it is time to cuddle. By Jordan Michael

49

Madeline Kenney

A New Reality Mind

Carpark

Madeline Kenney’s A New Reality Mind can often feel like a maze, a work that you have to explore completely to truly appreciate. The record finds Kenney encased behind walls of glassy synths, winding song structures, and experimental instrumental textures. Yet, the record’s stark and confessional core makes the puzzle worth solving, offering an insular navigation of the aftermath of a breakup as Kenney unpacks her feelings and untangles her identity from the relationship she left behind. It is a record that expects a degree of patience and a curious sensibility, but it rewards listeners with entrancing sprawls of melody, adventurous sound palettes, and startingly self-aware lyricism. By Caleb Campbell

50

Geese

3D Country

Partisan

Come for the freewheeling singles (“Cowboy Nudes” and the title track), stay for the glam rock revival you didn’t know you needed (“I See Myself,” “Crusades,” “Gravity Blues”). Geese make a large pivot from the artsy punk of their debut, to explore the sounds of an earlier era complete with bona fide background singers. Led by the dual guitar attack of Gus Green and Foster Hudson, as well as Cameron Winter’s larger than life and malleable vocals, the album is pulled off with a sense of effortlessness of a more experienced band. The group is developing into a latter day (and grittier) Foxygen, with part of Geese’s charm becoming the teetering between achieving great heights and driving things into the ditch. Regardless of their next move, 3D Country will always make for a thrilling listen. By Mark Moody

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