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Our Editors’ Picks for Artists of the Year

We never agree on anything
(Credit: Al Pereira/Getty Images)

It was a great year for a lot of musicians, some who’ve been around for decades, some who are relative newbies. We don’t believe in the everyone gets a trophy bullshit, but these people do…

At the 9th Annual John Henry’s Friends Benefit held at Town Hall on on December 3, 2023 in New York City. (Credit: Al Pereira/Getty Images)


Bob Guccione Jr., Acting Editor in Chief

The notion of who is and what makes SPIN’s Artist of the Year is, by definition and appeal, subjective. There is, you’ll be surprised to learn, if you know much about us, some objective, logical criteria. But I’m not saying we follow it as such.

By almost any metrics how could Taylor Swift not be the Artist of the Year? And she’s not ours not because of any juvenile snobbery, but because—well, just because. Because although she had a more overwhelmingly successful and impactful year than any other musician, maybe ever, one does not satisfactorily live by metrics alone. Sinead is our Artist of the Year because we felt her the most. Even (and particularly) in death she towered over the musical landscape, and in retrospect we realize she had more to say and matters more than anyone else has this year, including Taylor Swift. 

My personal choice for Artist of the Year is John Mellencamp, because in his later, croakier-voice years he still has a power in his songwriting and performing that is gripping and lasting and important to hear. His 2023 album Orpheus Descending is his 25th studio release and is named after a Tennessee Williams play based on the Greek myth of Orpheus descending into Hell. So, you know, not quite as airy as Taylor Swift. In many ways it’s cut from the same cloth as his best albums—raw emotion, unfiltered opinions (thank God), and a lot of that Appalachian sound he introduced to rock. 

He starts by telling God off and assailing the madness of the proliferation of guns and “laws written a long time ago” on “Hey God,” launching into the song with those whirling, mountain-country instruments. That’s followed by the beautiful acoustic “The Eyes Of Portland,” about homelessness in America (“All of these homeless, where do they come from? / In this land of plenty where nothing gets done / To help those who are empty and unable to run” goes the chorus, which finishes by damning our hollow “thoughts and prayers” national default mantra). “Understated Reverence” is a beautiful song. “Perfect World” is the sort of song you imagine a country boy guitar picking and mumbling on his porch, which is, basically, how that song probably came about.

John also had a triumphant concert tour this year, his “Live and In Person” show. He’s not doing arenas and stadiums now, but there was an enveloping intimacy to the theaters he performed in across America. I’ve seen him perform to 60,000 people, and he was no less energetic and spellbinding in front of 6,000. He played the hits and he played newer, lesser-known songs, he got the audience to sing along with him, and he got us to sit down and listen. His warm up act was a video of old black and white movie clips, mostly a homage to his lifelong man-crush Paul Newman. And oddly it worked, perfectly setting up a rock show spanning about 50 years of Americana music and sentiment.

So my nod is to John Mellencamp, for not only not fading into some imagined dimming light but blazing defiantly at it. He produced one of the best albums of his career, and easily one of the best of 2023, and he transported crowds of devoted fans as if he was just starting out. Good for you, John.

Zach Bryan performs onstage for Day Two of the 2023 Pilgrimage Music & Cultural Festival, September 24, 2023 in Franklin, Tennessee. (Credit: Jason Kempin/Getty Images for Pilgrimage Music & Cultural Festival)


Daniel Kohn, Editorial Director

This year, only one artist got in trouble with the cops twice in a day while simultaneously topping both the Billboard album and singles chart, and that was Zach Bryan. There could hardly be a better example of the Oklahoma native and Navy veteran’s unique charm, which has propelled him to mainstream superstardom over the past 18 months. Building on his Grammy-nominated 2022 viral hit “Something in the Orange,” Bryan went to No. 1 with his self-titled LP and his heartfelt Kacey Musgraves duet, “I Remember Everything.” The latter conjures feelings of a bygone America, but one in which traditionalists can still find solace. By summer’s end, Bryan had also released the Boys of Faith EP, featuring pairings with avowed influence Bon Iver and fellow of-the-moment singer/songwriter Noah Kahan. True to lyrics about staying humble, hungry and making a name for yourself, Bryan even tangled with concert overlords Ticketmaster over its onerous exclusive contracts, vowing not to play venues bound by them. He eventually walked it back, but in doing so built up even more goodwill and enhanced his reputation as a man of the people (titling a live album All My Homies Hate Ticketmaster didn’t hurt either). With a massive 2024 tour of stadiums and arenas on the books, this talented troubadour will have no shortage of inspiration for his next batch of folk- and rock-flavored country.

(Credit: Photo courtesy of Matt Butler)


Matthew Thompson, Features Editor

It takes cojones for a Manhattan bookstore worker with no bad-ass pedigree to walk into jails and prisons across the country to perform monologues and songs from the point of view of the men he stands before. Although, I guess Matt Butler found a captive audience in his workshopping of what became this year’s album and show, Reckless Son.

Anyway, even if he doesn’t get shanked or trafficked to D Block, the highly literate and bespectacled Butler does run the risk of being pretentious and condescending. Were he the musical equivalent of a smug fucking “wellness” evangelist, as more than a few vomitous musicians are these days, we wouldn’t be having this conversation about cojones because he’d be just another preening bot. But Butler isn’t, and he does fret that his songs and stories of lost men could easily be pretentious and condescending.

Which is why, when he roadshows Reckless Son behind bars, he doesn’t just play at America’s legions of prisoners, but instead talks about what he’s trying to do, plays, asks the inmates for their thoughts, listens to what they say, listens to their songs, sits and chats, plays some more, and sometimes adjusts where he’s at with his show.

Butler has played Reckless Son at the locked world’s equivalents of Madison Square Garden—venues including Rikers Island and San Quentin—but he also gigs in smaller and more intimate performance spaces, including a murderer-studded room at Oregon State Penitentiary on a day I tagged along, as well as the Columbia River joint up in Portland.

When things were winding down at Columbia River, us soon to walk out and the prisoners about to go to their cells, an intense fellow came up and talked at a jaunty pace about taking his last needle of meth while police with guns drawn swarmed a car he’d just crashed through a wall into a family’s living room. Before that landed innocents in hospital and him in the joint where we stood and chatted, he’d apparently done many, many years in a southwestern state. Anyone come and sing?, I asked. Never, he said. Not once.

I heard much the same from a few convicts, aka, as the woke term goes, “people experiencing incarceration.” So this little dude from New York is doing something special for them. And, wherever you might stand on doing nice things for drug-fucked thieves ramming houses with women and kids inside, Butler’s doing something special for the American arts.

For the songs of Reckless Son are portraits and tales that shimmer with a nuanced realism: songs like “St. Christopher’s Inn,” sung from the view of an afflicted man deemed “destined to lose/With my track marks and Jesus Christ tattoos,” or “Been Gone So Long,” sung by a character who was a juvenile sentenced as an adult returning after a long stretch to a hometown locked in seeing him as forever who he was all those years ago.

In addition to this year’s many performances in jails and prisons, Butler has workshopped and refined Reckless Son with a drama company where half of the actors are ex-cons.

Butler is inspired by Springsteen’s Nebraska, by Robert Bly and the great days and work of the Minnesota Men’s Conference, by masters of short fiction, and by something strange in him that has led him into scores of the concrete storage units of America’s broken manhood.

Gabriel performs at Little Caesars Arena on September 29, 2023 in Detroit. (Credit: Scott Legato/Getty Images)


Ryan Reed, Sr. Editor

When I told a few people my “Artist of the Year” selection, I earned a mixture of blank stares, furrowed brows, and, if you looked closely enough, subtle eye rolls. 

On one hand, I kinda get it. If you’re around me for long enough (typically 12 seconds or so), I’ll mention my obsession with all things Peter Gabriel: his innovative solo catalog, his mind-expanding prog opuses with Genesis, his admirable work as a humanitarian, his childlike imagination for big ideas. (Here’s one: In 1994, he teamed with Brian Eno and Laurie Anderson to dream up the Real World Experience Park, a proposed hybrid of art gallery, museum, and amusement park including a “simulated trip through a psychedelic videoscape.” That venture never got off the ground, but it lives rent-free in my head.) 

Basically, of course Ryan picked Peter Gabriel. Of course he loves i/o, Gabriel’s first album of new music since 2002. Of course he paid a personal-record amount of money for tickets, rearranged his schedule, and drove 12 hours roundtrip to see him live in Columbus, Ohio, crying more than once during “Don’t Give Up.” I get what this looks like: a diehard swayed by his insatiable craving for new music. But even when I table my bias and crunch the invisible numbers, all roads still point me to this year-end pick. 

Gabriel first mentioned the title of i/o back in 2002, during the rollout of that year’s Up—and as I wrote several years ago, the album was then “teased and postponed so many times, [it became] something of an urban legend—the SMiLE (or perhaps the Chinese Democracy) of art-rock.” Sure, he tried to satiate fans’ impatient rumblings with rarity compilations (2019’s Flotsam and Jetsam) and orchestral reworkings (2010’s Scratch My Back) and one-off tours (including a joint jaunt with Sting dubbed “Rock Paper Scissors,” in which the two stars occasionally swapped songs). But i/o had existed in our collective mind for over two decades—it would have been crushing, for us and, I’m sure, him, if it never existed. The fact that it does at all is a minor miracle. But was anyone expecting Gabriel—deep into what could have been his retirement years—to finish off a borderline masterpiece? 

Sure, I have a few minor quibbles with i/o—as my wife can attest, since I mention it probably once a week, I found the one-song-at-a-time full-moon release strategy a bit tiring. (I also really wish Peter had opted for the Bandcamp-exclusive “Guitar Version” of his creeping piano ballad “So Much,” and I can’t sing the pre-chorus of the title-track—”stuff coming out, stuff going in”—without picturing human feces. I’m trying, though.) But as a front-to-back piece, I’d rank i/o somewhere around the middle of Gabriel’s catalog, which I intend as an enormous compliment. The album showcases all of his strengths: hi-fi production, forward-thinking arrangements that blend the synthetic and the organic, words that veer between plainspoken humanity (a tribute to his late mother on “And Still”) and mutating mystery (images of peace and terror on “Four Kinds of Horses”), and that voice—a raspy growl one second; an ageless, floating falsetto the next. 

Even if i/o was only a phenomenal album and tour, Peter Gabriel had a case for Artist of the Year. But even a non-fanboy can see it’s bigger than that—it’s also a symbol of creative perseverance. 

Want to know who we chose as our Artist of the Year? Sure you do!

Sinead O’Connor: SPIN Artist of the Year, 2023

And best records?

Our Editors Pick Their Albums of the Year

And, you know, other stuff that rocked our world, when we were paying attention?

Editors’ Picks: The Best (& Worst) of Everything Else in 2023