The 25 Best Albums of 2023 (Non-Local)
And 15 runners up, too!
10:56 AM CST on December 20, 2023
I can't promise you'll love every one of these albums (though you should—they're all great or I wouldn't have listed them) but I hope I can convince you to check out at least a few.
DeMent's seventh album in 30 years is also her most cantankerous and politically minded collection of songs since The Way I Should in 1996. No, let me rephrase—The Way I Should was her most cantankerous and politically minded collection of songs until this new album, which is anchored by an eight-minute rant that starts “I'm going down to sing in Texas/Where anybody can carry a gun” and provides support throughout to her allies while preaching from the left end of liberal. It’s not every DeMent fan’s favorite side of her, but I admire her when she's excessive and graceless about her beliefs—it feels like she's pushing herself out of her comfort zone, rather than just being a lazy crank, and that gives the songs a special edge. It’s worth noting that in her lyrics DeMent counts among her heroes not just John Lewis but Rachel Corrie—a mention that's proven all too timely.
I first listened to these mostly a cappella gospel recordings from inmates at one of the most notorious prisons in the U.S. out of respect—these forgotten men deserve to be heard, I figured. How sententious of me—they’re the ones doing us a favor, and pastors nationwide would trip over their robes racing to pull the vocal talent on display here into their churches. But each voice is deeply individual, valuing expression over technique, in a way I often find commercial gospel lacking, and an undertone of blues reminds us how much these men have lost. Highlights include the country clap 'n' drawl of “Step Into the Water,” that bottomless, echoed baritone on “Solve My Need,” and “I Give Myself Away, So You Can Use Me,” just solo voice and piano, until a second voice joins in and breaks my heart every time.
If you miss Janet Weiss's drumming (and why wouldn’t you?), you should know that Sleater-Kinney's former third wheel has long moonlighted (moonlit?) as the rhythmic half of the sardonic, tunefully clamorous Quasi, with long-ago ex-husband Sam Coomes up front. Their latest is their best in a quarter-century that was not without its high points, and that's in part because the human condition has caught up with Coomes's brightly cranky disposition. Here he rants like a guy who'd hoped he'd die before the world went to shit and batters his distorted rocksichord like there’s no tomorrow. Stuck between "Riots and Jokes," Coomes muses on the cruel indifference of the laws of nature ("Gravity"), the anxious tedium of pandemic isolation ("Doomscrollers"), and the act of settling for “half a half of a hotdog bun” ("Losers Win"). And if you’re worried that he’s giving up the fight with his "last long laugh at the edge of death," remember that in late 2016 while the rest of us were still chewing our nails and crying to our therapists, Coomes was working to get the indie-all-star ACLU/Planned Parenthood/350.org benefit album Battle Hymns ready in time for the inauguration.
Both Montreal producer Kaytranada and L.A. rapper Aminé have considerable reps, and if I’ve never disliked what they’ve done on their own it's never stuck with me either. So why does this collab click? Neither partner is more amazing than usual, but the pleasures are in the seamlessness. Aminé’s lowkey mutter slides coolly into Kaytranada's slick but unobtrusive rhythms, a feat all the more impressive given how well the multiple guests fit in. The beat gets a little rougher for Freddie Gibbs, a little sexier when Amaraae arrives, and even Big Sean doesn’t trip things up much. And when Pharrell shows up with a beat of his own on “4eva” you get a reminder of where Kaytranada learned so much of his shit.
Dubbing this group pioneers of the Saharan blues popularized by Tinariwen and Mdou Moctar might be a good way to get folks to check them out, but I hear something much less familiar in these 1971 recordings. Their call-and-response structures are simple enough: sometimes female vocalists sing a line, then a guitar or violin repeats it, at other times a solo vocalist sings in tandem with the instrumentation, and the chorus repeats it. Either way the melodies are unshakable. Relocating from the musical crossroads of Timbuktu to the deserts of Mauritania, and then on to Casablanca to record, the Orchestre brought an Arab feel to the Moorish music of their time. But it was left for later Tuareg musicians to consciously incorporate blues influences. Any musical affinities between the Sahara and the Delta are merely accidents of history.
Someday I’ll have to institute a Mountain Goats rule, retiring John Darnielle's band from all future year-end rankings, but not… this year. (Just a little Mountain Goats joke there, folks.) For real, though, Darnielle and his compatriots don’t miss, and it’s unfair to the competition. The unifying lyrical concept this time is narrative—Jenny owns a West Texas ranch house through which typically marginal Darnielle characters pass—but that's just a loose framework that allows conversational yet insular phrases like “We sleep light in the shadow of the clover leaf” and “There’s only one way out" take on the meaning of secret codes. From anyone else, you might think bringing in Sheryl Crow producer Trina Shoemaker to brighten up the sound was a pop move (the horns are a little corny, as they should be), but I suspect Darnielle just wanted to hear how the Goats would sound in this setting. He's got a great band, and he wants to show it off. Can you blame him?
19. Water From Your Eyes, Everyone’s Crushed
Hooks, beats, tunes, all those other amenities of pop music? Listen closely enough and they’re in there. But though Nate Amos and Rachel Brown call the lead track here “Structure,” that must be a little joke, because these songs-because-they-say-so ain’t got that, at least not in any conventional form. Instead the duo juggle and jumble sounds that appeal to them, like that rubbery guitar on “Barley,” slotting each wherever it seems to fit best. My advice: Start with the guitar squawk, snappy beat, and affectless patter of “True Life,” which could almost be a lost track from LiLiPUT (look 'em up, you'll be glad you did), then work out from there. I don’t know exactly what the lyric “I trace what I erase” means but it sounds like a cornerstone of their aesthetic. I do know exactly what the lyric “Track give dove slack drag draft mud scram/Hand knee feed bend three meant free track” means though—that we got secret –cret –cret –cret –crets back right now.
I’ll admit, I mostly loved last year’s Plains album for Katie “Waxahatchee” Crutchfield, or at least I thought I did. But any doubts that Williamson was an equal partner end with this album. Plenty of male ineptitude and mixed romantic signals are on display here, with the poetry of lines like “I want a mirror not a piece of glass” and “My love is as…honest as an ashtray” never undercutting the firmness of Williamson’s demands. Even when the lyrics are more plainspoken and diaristic, that big, rangy voice, pretty but too human to go for gorgeous, shades the lyrics with additional meaning—and it doesn’t hurt that she’s got melodies beyond the craft of many of her more conventionally Nashville peers.
It's not a competition, I know, I know, but I'll take these warm Shires duets, cut with country pianist Nelson just before her death at 92, over hubby Jason Isbell's rather grim if not outright fatalist Weathervanes in a walk. Though the tunes are super-familiar even for standards—not just "Always on My Mind" but "Somewhere Over the Rainbow"—Shires's robust but never overpowering voice finds new wrinkles in the melodies, and the accompaniment is flawless. Shires's violin can be astringent on her own material, but she handles traditional styles like she was born to them. (Not for nothing did Bob Wills's old band hire her at 15 to fiddle for them.) And Nelson, who'd played more gigs before she died than anyone can count, tinkles away fresh variations on songs she could play in her sleep. In fact, the two women interact with such instinctive sympathy that when Bobbie's brother Willie pipes in on "Summertime" you almost wanna tell him to beat it and let the ladies have their moment.
People have been calling Yo La Tengo’s latest their best in years, but they probably just mean their loudest, or maybe their noisiest. That slights recent albums like their collection of (mostly) covers Stuff Like That There or the deeply nuanced musical refuge of There’s a Riot Going On. But I’ll leave the debate over where This Stupid World ranks in the YLT canon to the message boards, because what matters is there’s no such thing as a truly bad Yo La Tengo album—after thirty-some years, they’ve mastered the art of mixing noise, tune, and sentiment in precise measures. Ira Kaplan does unfathomable things to his guitar while boasting of his yo-yo skills; James McNew and Georgia Hubley lock into grooves ranging from shambling indie to Germanic motorik. Typically, lyrics allude to without quite pinning down the sense of they summon, but the title track says it all plain: “This stupid world/It's killing me/This stupid world/Is all we have.”
Here’s one of those pleasurable little R&B albums so modest you might let it wash right over you before moving on. Then you stop and think, as thick with ambition and ingenuity and self-assertion as the genre is these days, how many pleasurable little R&B albums are there? And anyway, what makes this one so little? Maybe Amaarae’s pinched helium voice, which expresses her desires in a way that stimulates ours, but that’s no small feat itself. She makes more of her African-not-always Afrobeats rhythms than many a male suavester like Akase, and the Asian fusion touches don’t rankle like orientalist chintz. Why settle for mere vibes when you can have a little touch?
14. Noname, Sundial
This Chicago rapper has such a daunting sense of responsibility—to her craft, to her people, to herself—that she often comes off as her own harshest critic. On her new song “Namesake” she not only calls out superstars like Beyonce and Kendrick Lamar for playing the Super Bowl halftime show (“propaganda for the military complex”) but then criticizes herself for playing Coachella. (I mean, we all gotta pay rent.) The success of her brilliant 2018 album Room 25 had public repercussions, including an online tiff with semi-conscious rapper J. Cole, and Noname pledged to retire and dedicate herself to activism. I hope she doesn’t regret her decision to get back in the game, because with its multi-layered vocal approach, jazzy feel, and gospel choirs, Sundial is a lush achievement, as generous musically as it can be demanding lyrically.
They bring out the best in each other, which is a polite way of saying Lucy Dacus brings out the best in Phoebe Bridgers and Julian Baker. After all, Baker’s got the chops, Bridgers has the poison pen, but Dacus has the craving for intimacy that drives herself past her insecurities, and which gift do you think comes most in hand here? You want cathartic moments on long road trips? Romantic epiphanies belatedly arriving? Rockstar boasts and admissions of doubt? These gals got all that, plus lines like “I can see myself becoming/Someone only you would want” and “You already hurt my feelings three times/In the way only you could” and “I never thought you’d happen to me” that every young woman listening has tried and failed to express so perfectly. Melodies break the skin, harmonies allow each singer to retain her vocal personality, and let’s not forget those “Possum Kingdom” guitars on “Satanist.” Any group activity that can almost convince me that committed miserabilist Bridgers means it when she declares “I wanna be happy” is an incontrovertible force for good.
Anohni’s expressive stylizations have never before had this much access to my heart, and though we’ve probably both grown a little, I credit an artistic flowering on their part, an increase in outreach and generosity of spirit that you’d have to be a jerk not to call soul. They’ve simply never sung so warmly or beautifully. “It Must Change” with its shifting antecedents, is a personal song that takes on social and political dimensions; “Why Am I Alive Now?” addresses feeling unequal to our catastrophic moment. The title, which suggests sacrifice without martyrdom, offers hope that the lyrics merely strain for. This music isn’t enough to save us, of course. But neither is anything else.
“She didn’t share my politics/She wore her hair like Stevie Nicks.” “Nobody reads/But everybody looks/At art books.” The all-too-relatable “I’ve been screaming/At the top of my lungs/Almost silently.” Franklin Bruno could have written any of these lines last week. But these 14 tracks have been available, digitally or otherwise, for about a decade, which doesn’t mean you’ve heard all or any of them. (I hadn’t, though we’re Facebook friends and the Hearts’ 2012 album Another had made my top 10.) If time and technology have rendered “Don’t put my heart on the sell pile” as quaint as the good-natured waltz setting over which Bruno makes that plea, “Flag Pin,” about which concessions to nationalism he will and won’t make, grinds with unfortunately necessary timelessness. Even with guests taking the mic (Jenny Toomey handles the chilling “Loyal Opposition,” a string-adorned samba about the limitations of protest, while Bree Benton soars prettily on a Helen Adam poem that Bruno set to music), the album’s so much of a piece that I didn’t know that “Business” originated with Pete Seeger or that “June Is Colder Than December” was an Everly Brothers song till I read the fine print.
10. DJ Black Low, Impumelelo
From half a world away, for what it’s worth, South African amapiano strikes me as a little sweatier and less upwardly mobile than Nigerian Afrobeats, its reported house music roots attenuated by innovation and hybridization with regional styles, especially in the hands of Pretoria’s Sam Austin Radebe. Compared to his upbeat debut Uwami, this can be moody stuff, with synths that split the difference between eerie and airy. It’s smoother as well, as singers take something like command of each track, where their chants where but one component in the mix before. Smooth ain’t slick though—“Akulalwa” and “Oskido” each start with what sound like sneezes, and the Black Low’s signature electro-drum fills remain bassy and rude. A bottomless swell of tunelets rises and ebbs within each track, equally perceptible to your ears or your ass.
Yes, everyone should choose their own path, but before Andre3000 hangs up his hip-hop shoes forever he should have a sit-down with this mid-40s journeyman turned underground MVP. Woods’s gift is an idiosyncratic ability to combine a quip as abstract a “my lovе language an obscure dialect” with scene-setting as hyper-specific as his description of “smokin’ alone in a cardigan” at his desk while overhearing the commotion after a Playboy Carti show empties out. An everyman in spirit if not in actuality, he’s always drifting along from show to show here when he’d rather chill at home with his cat. Segal’s production gives Woods just enough of a structure to spring off, neither chilling with austere minimalism or force-feeding him hooks. To give you the full extent of his Woods’s skills, please excuse this extensive quote: “Colorful packaging, pack 'em in/Fly like gold on Africans/Cover my tracks with backronyms/If the track slaps, in the back, you can almost hear the black cackling/When it's my time, no need to pass the hat/Just throw me in when the fire good and crackling.” Oh, and the Armand Hammer album that Woods and Elucid put out this year is no slouch either.
8. Kate NV, WOW
For her fifth album as Kate NV, Russian art-pop trickster Ekaterina Shilonosova vocalizes playfully over decorative synths as the beats percolating underneath approach nothing in the neighborhood of funk. Her M.O. is minimalist repetition disturbed by flights of oddity like the discordant horns on “Confessions at the Dinner Table,” along with various bass pops, modulated vocals, and simulated bird tweets. She cites influences both highbrow (John Cage) and au courant (Japanese city pop), but don’t let that scare you off: This music isn’t just approachable—it sidles up to you first. I hear a sense of possibility that skirts the utopian and I doubt the lyrics would tell me much more than the instrumentals do even if I had a translation. If I were someone who ever wanted to calm himself down, this might do the trick—though folks with more balanced nervous systems might find it a little too busy for that purpose.
What I love most about Rodrigo here is the way her self-awareness never undercuts her impulsiveness, but never justifies it either. On “Bad Idea, Right?” and “Get Him Back!” she’s hilariously analytical about her terrible decisions, sometimes even before she makes them. She autopsies past relationships unsparingly on “Vampire” and “Logical,” and she understands stardom from the inside (“Teenage Dream”) and out ( “All-American Bitch”). And she does this all with the “let’s try this” confidence of a star making the most of her moment. No one in 2023 is transmuting heartbreak, jealousy, insecurity, and angst into pure pop pleasure anywhere near on her level.
“She’s not EDM, IDM, electronic, footwork, or post-footwork,” the notes to this six-track collection insist. “She’s simply Jlin.” Well, I’d say she’s all those things, including herself, adding that there’s nothing simple about her. In the six years since her masterpiece, Black Origami, this former Gary, Indiana, steel worker has hobnobbed with cultural institutions (Kronos Quartet commission, Whitney Museum exhibit soundtrack) rather than sticking it out in the clubs, a smart financial call (I’m guessing) that hasn’t dulled her edge. For this EP, she recorded the sounds of classical ensemble Third Coast Percussion and re-manipulated them to her own ends, and I can even imagine someone dancing to it. (Not me, don’t worry.) I can’t say for certain that no working electronic composer creates with a more taut rhythmic logic. But if you have any alternate suggestions, please send them my way.
I don’t miss “the ’90s” much but I do miss when rock embraced a broader avant-pop guitar palette. With Illuminati Hottie Sarah Tudzin co-producing, student of that bygone era Sadie Dupuis makes the guitar record she always had in her: Bold, clean lines diverge from their expected melodic trajectory, tonality be damned, while her technique is brawny and virtuosic but never wanky, and she still leaves room in the margins for smudges and squiggles. In short, here’s everything an old indie head could ask, and without the stink of retro—this is noise to burn a path forward, not to while away the time with arrant slackery. This ain’t the ’90s after all. Dupuis’s lyrics are cryptic in an enticingly allusive way, representing the everyday collision of thoughts in our distractible age as surely as her abruptly swerving tunes do. Legible phrases like “That's how I fuck up all my plans” and “Do I still my deserve my sanity?” and “I am an artist and I am for hire” and even (on my favorite chorus) “Don’t talk to me” offer landmarks for the disoriented. This is as confident as I’ve heard a smart person sound in years, so play loud, as we used to say.
Would this collection of breathy plaints have moved me to listen closer if Stevens hadn’t been recently diagnosed with Guillain-Barré syndrome or if he hadn’t dedicated the album to his long-term partner, who died in April? Maybe not—I’m constitutionally wary of both music that flaunts its vulnerability and the concept of sin even as a metaphor. What worked its way into my blood wasn’t so much lyrics—“I grow like a cancer,” “I cross my arms to hide my heart,” the Flannery O’Connor quote, the nakedly abject title “Will Anybody Ever Love Me?”—but the dramatic structure of these tracks. At the core of each is a simple melody sung simply, at first with spare acoustic accompaniment, its delicacy then splintering into intricate arrangements that never feel like self-defense mechanisms to keep the world at bay—in fact they’re Stevens’s way of opening up into the world and sharing its beauty with us. These are austere times, and Sufjan offers his pomp, his chorales, his kitchen-sink rhythms, even his flutes, as a glimpse of an ineffable power that sustains him and which he credits to a god, and even non-believers get to share in its succor.
Sounds crazy, I know, but if you find either of these noise boys insufferable on his own, this collab, all bad attitude and shrill din, just might short circuit your defenses and drill right into your pleasure center in the same way that amphetamines overpower ADD. Brown’s whine cuts through the clutter and clatter of JPEGMAFIA’s glitchy funk like the sirens and horns that topped the Bomb Squad’s sampled cacophony on classic PE records, with clips scattered throughout the blare like oases or mirages ranging from old Japanese TV commercials to the Lighthouse Interdenominational Choir to a little number you might recall known as “Milkshake.” If Brown is the more distinguished MC here, spitting “I wanna rock right now/Hittin' whippets and eating halal/Get to clippin' while whippin' these sounds/You get hit, you gon' sing like Bilal” on the trashmouthed, quick-lipped “Fentanyl Tester,” the more conversational JPEG more than keeps up with “You smack your bitch up like Prodigy when you do it darlin'/I smack my bitch ass to Prodigy when we do it doggy,” never caring whether the kids even remember Mobb Deep. I hope my rude upstairs neighbor hates this as much as I love cranking it.
Autobiographical songs aren’t necessarily any “realer” or “truer” than the kind you make up out of your head. But on this concept EP about her 2022 divorce from fellow country singer Morgan Evans, Ballerini writes and sings more acutely and directly than she had previously on any of her fine country-pop material. Songs like the Swiftian “Penthouse” (“We got along real nice until I wanted out”) and “Blindsided” (“Now you're singing it loud on the radio/You couldn't say it to my face”) capture the difficulty of leaping from the safe familiarity of even a bad relationship after you realize how rickety its foundations are. And really, has no pun-forward country songwriter come up with “Just Married” (just as in “merely,” not “recently”) till now? Set this beside Carly Pearce’s 29 and we’re in a golden age of EPs by female country singers about divorcing other country singers on the cusp of 30.
1000 gecs brimmed with the sort of goofily fractured noise that the tasteful insist they like ironically (if they deign to enjoy it at all) because they’re worried the joke might be on them. So on their second album, Laura Les and Dylan Brady dumbed things down enough that no one could be smart enough to miss the point, limiting themselves to one or two punchlines per track, and every one lands. For all the duo’s artistic development, if you’d like to call it that, the gecsthetic remains “what if we smooshed together the best parts of all our favorite songs?” and as ’90s babies that means nu-metal and pop-punk and mallrat dubstep and just plain fucking around with beats. When they’re cruising along, their core rhythm is quick and simple, its relentless mania an unlikely overlap between happy hardcore and third-wave ska, until they crash into a wall of their own design. What is not to love?
And because I never know when to stop, here are 15 more albums that's just barely missed the cut:
A. Savage, Several Songs About Fire; Danny Brown, Quaranta; Janelle Monae, The Age of Pleasure; Palehound, Eye on the Bat; Ashley McBryde, The Devil I Know; James Brandon Lewis, Eye of I; El Michels Affair & Black Thought, Glorious Game; Jamila Woods: Water Made Us; Lori McKenna, 1988; The Hold Steady, The Price of Progress; Ice Spice: If…; Pardoner, Peace Loving People; Mahlathini and the Mahotella Queens, Music Inferno: The Indestructible Beat Tour; Marc Ribot’s Ceramic Dog, Connection; Taj Mahal, Savoy.
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