After listening to countless albums throughout the year, here are the ones that resonated most with our editors.
Who determines the best albums of the year? Ultimately, it’s you. The best albums are the ones you love, without explanation. Here are ours.
Bob Guccione Jr., Acting Editor in Chief
Killer Mike, Michael
I’m not a fan of most rap, and of what I do like I prefer old school to new.
I love Michael though—it’s the freshest rap record I’ve heard in decades. It’s aurally inventive, blending classic R&B singing to rapid-fire, sharp raps and gospel music (and some pertinent dialogue samples). “Down By Law (ft. CeeLo Green)” is one of the songs of the year in my (simple if not humble) opinion. (And the video is brilliant.) “Shed Tears (ft. Mozzy, Lena Byrd Miles)” and “Slummer (ft. Jagged Edge)” could be time travel visits from Curtis Mayfield and Sister Rosetta Tharpe. (These would be good visits.)
Every track is extraordinary, and he blends in some sensational cameos, including Young Thug, André 3000, 6lack, CeeLo Green, Ty Dolla $ign, and Dave Chapelle.
On “Talk’n That Shit!” he bitch-slaps his detractors, rapping with menace: “Niggas talk to me about that woke-ass shit (Yeah) / Same niggas walkin’ on some broke-ass shit.” He gets meaner from there. Deliciously.
Mike has several messages on this album—one is speaking directly to the complacent and the defeatist/defeated, where he says, basically, rise up. His idea is not the fantasy of a violent revolution but, more doably, if you don’t let yourself be defeated, you win.
Mike has always had a social and political streak in his work, whether solo or as half of Run the Jewels, and, to understate, he says what he thinks. He does not hold back. He speaks truth as he sees it, people’s sensitive sensibilities be damned. He steamrolls those fools. One idiotic reviewer, on Pitchfork, after acknowledging that Mike has positive initiatives for his Georgia communities with food drives and his local black businesses, chastises him for his “inopportune meeting with Georgia’s Republican governor,” for trying to work within in the system politically, and for his “less than ideal optics”—as if who he’s photographed with undermines his good works. What blathering dreck! To realistically—not idealistically, impossibly—beat the system, you have to at least be on the same playing field.
Michael is for Killer Mike’s given name, and the album as a concept is partly about returning to some of the innocence of the child influentially raised in the church. It’s a rich album. It’s the real deal. Best of the year.
Young Summer, Young Summer
Young Summer—Bobbie Allen on her passport—doesn’t release a lot of records, this is her first since 2014, which is a shame and a mystery. But this self-titled album is beautiful, and if it took till now to get it right, it took just the right amount of time. It’s a wondrous mix of whimsical, partly ethereal, partly pop music. Her voice is enchanting and I wouldn’t compare it to anyone’s (although some reviewers have suggested Karen Carpenter)—it is, like her look, just hers.
The standout tracks are “Make Waves,” “Emotionally High,” and the intriguingly titled “You Make Dying Fun.” A lot of the writing is “deeply personal,” she declares, and in an ocean of so much musical mediocrity, often spewing from social media, this ambitious and gloriously rendered album heartens the soul.
John Mellencamp, Orpheus Descending
John is in his Bob Dylan, cherished-American-treasure moment now, and could coast on that if he wanted. But he doesn’t want to do that. This latest record is a masterpiece, of songwriting, performances, and searing, poetic, and blunt messages. It’s raw and powerful, and musically a return to the Appalachian sound of records like The Lonesome Jubilee and Big Daddy. His voice is deeper and thinner than it was for those records, but the gravelly sound of his singing gives the songs, especially “The Eyes of Portland” and “Hey God,” a perfect weight.
Daniel Kohn, Editorial Director
Caroline Polacheck, Desire, I Want to Turn Into You
In 2023, there were no shortage of notable alt-pop releases, but Desire, I Want to Turn Into You is a cut above. Each of the album’s 12 songs is thrilling, combining everything from trip-hop, drum and bass, a children’s choir and bagpipes with the precision of a surgeon. The former Chairlift member’s second solo project is her most experimental to date, and this big swing definitely connects.
Duff McKagan, Lighthouse
Despite playing in stadiums as part of his day job with Guns N’ Roses, Duff McKagan hasn’t lost his perspective on the ordinary. On his third studio album, the sound tilts toward brash rockers and introspective, acoustic punk. Throughout, McKagan remains hopeful people will realize they have more in common than they might expect, and the result is a rich, incisive look at a world engulfed in chaos.
Ruston Kelly, The Weakness
Widely known as one of Music City’s most talented songwriters, Ruston Kelly harnessed that promise on The Weakness, which chronicles the dissolution of his marriage to fellow musician Kacey Musgraves. On 11 songs that mix gentle confessionals with humor and revel in a sound he describes as “dirt emo,” Kelly finds his way out of what could have been another dark descent. Not everything is perfect, but Kelly is a survivor and is ready to move forward, warts and all.
Hotline TNT, Cartwheel
The New York-based band took a giant step forward on their second album. Powered by Will Anderson, the album is an exhilarating blend of driving indie and alt-rock, power-pop, and shoegaze. Heartbreak is present throughout Cartwheel’s moody and melodic 32 minutes, with Anderson’s deft songwriting making feeling bad sound so good. Don’t be surprised if this album, released in November, picks up steam well into 2024.
Liza Lentini, Managing Director
It feels completely unfair to call Feist’s mid-April release, Multitudes, her “best,” especially from an artist who seems to completely up herself with each new project. So, it’s better to call Multitudes what it is: a masterpiece. Multitudes feels authentically evolutionary, a reflection of her life right now, somehow a reflection of our lives in this wild and unpredictable world, too. For a musician that’s beloved for being so sunny, this time, along with the sunshine, she brings the storm (especially on songs like “In Lightning”). And what a beautiful storm it is. Read my April interview with Leslie Feist here.
Robert Finley, Black Bayou
There’s King Midas, and there’s Robert Finley—both can’t help but turn everything they touch into gold. If 2021’s Sharecropper’s Son was thoughtful and reflective, Black Bayou, released in October, is unapologetically steaming with swagger. (The entire album—front to back—is proof of this, with “Sneakin’ Around” a personal favorite.) When I spoke with Robert a few months back about the album’s release, my takeaway was—just as it was for his June 2021 cover story— that hanging with Robert Finley is like going to church. You walk away feeling like a better person for knowing him, his goodness shines through, the music is just a delicious bonus.
The Church, The Hypnogogue
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: True artists only get better with time. (And in case you need the reminder, commercial success does not define them.) This 2023 release by The Church —their 25th studio album—might be one of the most underrated and overlooked of the year, a gorgeous neo-psychedelia triumph, taking you on The Church’s signature alt-stargazing journey, though current and uncompromising. The single “No Other You” may best exemplify this album’s greatness, but I’d advise you to take the time to listen to The Hypnogogue in a single go, preferably with gigantic headphones, to properly transport you back to the magical, forgone days of authentic alt radio, when inspiration ruled over all else.
Matthew Thompson, Features Editor
Mandy, Indiana, i’ve seen a way
As a man touched by both Fischerspooner in 2001 (please tell me “Emerge” ain’t 22 years old) and Liquid Sky in 1982 (holy fuck), I am a proud lover of derange-wave and electroclash, in all their lurid ambivalence. I thus declare the finest album of 2023 to be this danceably convulsive debut from Mandy, Indiana. The group’s English instrumentalists pour forth crystal-studded swamps of rhythm while the Berlin-domiciled Parisian vocalist whispers and torments in French. If you haven’t yet heard i’ve seen a way, change into something gorgeously trashy, roofie yourself, set a strobe to full epileptic overload, and crank up “Drag (Crashed)” and the rest of this LP.
Matt Butler, Reckless Son
While setting into a couple of Oregon prisons to witness NYC singer-songwriter Matt Butler workshop this down-and-out song cycle, seeking feedback from prisoners as he did so, I came to know many of the lyrics along with the moods explored so genuinely on this album. Each is a sketch of life gone awry–of “track marks and Jesus Christ tattoos,” of mothers burnt by junkie sons, of last-refuge shelters, of going home from a stretch with a stigma, of believing your suicide would be a kindness to your loved one. And judging by how I saw prisoners taking it in and talking after, it’s on the mark. Special work.
Sleaford Mods, UK Grim
Bitter rants. Beats. Throbs. Snide remarks. Corroded funk. Punk-hop. Post-punk. Post-hope. Fractured tales. Envy. Blame. Self-loathing. Rage. Munt music. Turn it up and dance like you just don’t care in a room full of someone else’s breakables. Break dance. Rat dance. Munt dance. Who cares? Don’t listen to this if you don’t like mangey Englishmen cussing about how bleeping bleep everything is. No one here wants you to see the light. But if you are a bit of a munt then turn it the fuck up and twitch. Perry Farrell even pops up on a track (adding nothing but subtracting nothing neither, so zero sum, mate). This dirty Pommie duo make scabrous gold on UK Grim, their 12th studio album.
Ryan Reed, Sr. Editor
Peter Gabriel, i/o
Once upon a time—in his early years after leaving Genesis, when he had the most to prove—Peter Gabriel albums arrived with relative frequency. But that steady stream gradually slowed to a trickle, as the art-rock god dealt with extramusical projects, family concerns, and, perhaps, the pressure of maintaining his own lofty legacy. i/o, his first album of new material since 2002, miraculously doesn’t buckle under that weight. In fact—and maybe I’m not to be trusted since I’ve been having extreme Gabriel withdrawals—it could be his most vital work since the late ‘80s, from the exuberant “Road to Joy” to the meditative “Love Can Heal.”
Sufjan Stevens, Javelin
The first time I heard Sufjan Stevens’ 2004 indie-folk masterpiece, Seven Swans, I was floating in bed on painkillers after having my wisdom teeth removed. I muttered to myself, “This is the most beautiful thing I’ve ever heard.” When the medicine wore off, my opinion didn’t soften all that much. I’m not a religious man, but Sufjan’s music has always pierced me in a kind of spiritual way, often leaving me wide-eyed and/or blubbering. Javelin, his 10th album, continues the streak, either through the sheer wonder of his music’s epic architecture (the chilly choral swells and somber keys of “My Red Little Fox”) or the intimacy of his fingerpicked ballads (the almost-whispered verses of “A Running Start”).