I didn't see much live music, but I did spent a lot of time in my car this year, listening to songs that soothed or spoke to my heart. But by the time it came time to put my feelings about this year's music into words, I was worried I didn't have them. I struggled to finish this year-end review; it felt like the words were there, but blocked from coming out. So tonight, I did what I do best: I put on my headphones and hit play.
There were so many times like that this year: when I worried I wasn't capable of completing something, or wasn't going to finish it in time for it to matter. But each and every single time, I came through. Music played no small part — many of these albums and songs were critical soundtracks to my success. Sometimes, it's simply a matter of finding the right musical companion or cheerleader for the moment, and I hope that some of the below might serve you in this way, like they did for me, in the new year and on. The songs on these albums have been my friends, saviors, soft landings and side-by-side fighters in a year that took everything I had to give, returned the investment, and then still asked for more.
Music as motivation to keep going and take care of yourself has never seemed more important than now: the world is rather bleak and may feel pointless at this time for many. But "if life is getting old forever / at least we're getting older together," Hannah Cole sings in the heartbreaking chorus of "Hilda," a line that has kept me afloat for the past month. Hang in there, even if it's just to hear another year of amazing music, friends. See you this time next year.
Top Albums of 2023
This Denver-based, Chilean-inspired band is one of my all-time favorites, so of course I was thrilled when they released their long-awaited second album in June of 2023. I love this album as its own, and as strong sophomore album for the band. They help find the feelings I have somewhere deep inside me, and allow me to feel them—which is no small feat in 2023. Not only has Kiltro succeeded with their sophomore album in once again creating the kind of music that we don't hear anywhere else, but in trying to come to terms with the way the world has changed since their debut release in 2019, Kiltro is helping the rest of us do the same. As Chris Bowers Castillo sings in “Softy,” “Sometimes it seems I’m arriving / as somebody else.”
The Beaches, Blame My Ex
Sisters Jordan Miller (lead vocals, bass) and Kylie Miller (guitar), and close friends Leandra Earl (guitar and keys) and Eliza Enman-McDaniel (drums) have been making music together for more than a decade—and it shows. These four women together have made the best indie rock album of 2023, hands down. It's a brilliant mix of guitars, drums, angst, lyricism, melodies, harmonies, and raw energy packaged in succinct, punchy songwriting that is perfect for the kind of year when you just want to scream (and sing) along in the car. There's just something so 2023 about when Miller croons, "Cause I'd rather be dead / than with 99 percent of all men... When I'm with myself it's honestly zen..." in "Me & Me." These 10 songs are best listened to all the way through, in order; as one-offs for whatever mood you're in; or in any indie rock playlist.
Hannah Cole, Big Bite EP
I know almost nothing about Nashville-based artist and songwriter Hannah Cole, but I do know this: I love her latest EP. She snuck in late this year to my speakers, but she has since taken a "Big Bite" out of my life.
Cole is solidly indie rock/pop, but there are elements of so many good artists from the last two decades in her work. She's moody, grungy, but heartfelt and soft at the same time, with the perfect vocals to match each and every mood. I love this review of her EP by Abby Kenna on Ones to Watch that describes her music as having "guitars that somehow sit like a pit in your stomach while simultaneously lighting a fire in your chest."
Haley Blais, Wisecrack
Ever since Haley Blais' 2018 EP Let Yourself Go and its fantastic track "Small Foreign Faction" (for which I own the bright green t-shirt), I've always been eagerly awaiting more of her music. Following her debut full length Below the Salt in 2020, sophomore release Wisecrack is a bleak but beautiful soundtrack to an existential crisis, a journey down memory lane, figuring out who it is to be a person in the world. Each and every one of these 11 songs is a carefully cultivated experience, but a couple stick with me more than the rest. “Body” is a favorite journey, gliding through harmonies that display her gentle vocal agility. But it's “Baby Teeth” that has my heart, as Blais effortlessly sinks into childhood nostalgia, while piano and a jazz trio keeps pace to her morbid, yet reassuring announcement, "When I die I know I won't freak out."
Dessa, Bury The Lede
Dessa is as powerful of a storm as the hurricane she anticipates in the opening track of her first solo full-length album in five years, Bury the Lede. This singer, songwriter, and rapper who cut her teeth in my beloved Minneapolis comes out swinging with solid, catchy tune after tune on this release. Several years after relocating to NYC, she's got nothing to prove and instead, gives us straight grooves. Her wordplay is impeccable, her beats drop, her heart is on her sleeve, and I am here for it. "It feels right because it's true," she sings with confidence in "I Already Like You." It's been at least ten years since we lived in neighboring apartment buildings, but I've never felt closer to a version of Dessa than the one who is most freely and honestly herself, eating Oreos and drinking whiskey in bed ("Twelve to One") and wondering "what if I'm not ready for all I've been waiting for?" ("What If I'm Not Ready).
You are in for a treat—or rather, a beat—every time Jungle releases an album. Like clockwork, this British duo have been releasing albums every two or three years since 2013 that make life worth dancing to again. Volcano is their fourth studio album, following Jungle, For Ever, and Loving in Stereo. London-based producers Josh Lloyd-Watson and Tom McFarland partner with a diverse range of talented singers and instrumentalists to create lush soundscapes saturated with 1960s and 70s vibes that make not only for upbeat, repeat at-home listening, but some of the most memorable live shows I've ever been to. I've not yet had the chance to hear Volcano live, but I'm sure I'll just about dance myself to death if I do, as I have so gladly each of the two times before.
Imagine my surprise when I find out that PVRIS' 2023 release EVERGREEN is their fourth album?!? I could have been listening to Lynn Gunn's music for the past decade?!? Well, I've been making up for lost time, that's for sure. Their dark electro-pop style is one of my all-time favorites, and EVERGREEN has been on repeat for me since I discovered it in November, followed closely by their 2020 album Use Me. I love reveling in the angry, dark, electric energy of these tracks, and dancing to them at home or in the car feels like shedding an old, unhealthy skin. While it's a stellar through-listen, standout songs for me on this release include: "GOOD ENEMY," “GODDESS," "TAKE MY NIRVANA," and "SENTI-MENTAL."
Lastlings, Perfect World
Siblings Josh and Amy Dowdle released their second full-length album this year, following 2020's First Contact. The Australian-Japanese duo blend sounds and emotions beautifully in their electronic, indie pop/dance songs. Perfect World picks up right where their previous album ends, like a new and improved B side. I'd be hard pressed to pick a favorite track out of this perfect through listen, as each song has served me well in a different way this year, but the title track shines through as a fantastic example of their lyricism, songwriting, and production skills. Amy Dowdle on vocals makes a mastery of singing simple lines such as: "I still miss your voice coming through the phone." It's a hard set of songs to get out of your head.
Best Frenz, The Mall
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If you like Joywave, you should listen to this collaboration between Joywave's Daniel Armbruster and Sir Sly's Jason Suwito. The pair worked on an escapist theme for this debut full-length project, in the form of a metaphysical mall. As stated the album bio: "In the same way one finds a hodgepodge of sushi, shoes, plushies, and CDs at the local shopping center, you’ll discover bossa nova, indie rock, tinges of hip-hop, and house music all sitting next to each other." It's heavily Joywave, so it's wonderfully weird, fun, and some of the best that indie rock/pop has to offer in this modern, late-stage capitalist society. I especially enjoy “The Carousel” and “Sunshine and Milkshakes.”
Billie Marten, Drop Cherries
This spring was a breeding ground for releases by moody, soft-sung female vocalists, and so I was initially hesitant about English folk-pop singer-songwriter Billie Marten. Would this release just be another Phoebe Bridgers genre sound-alike? To my pleasant surprise, it is not. In her fourth album at only age 23, Marten takes the best of many popular trends, new and old, and does them better. She is Feist 2.0, the modern female version of Nick Drake, a complementary rival to New Zealand's Nadia Reid—and something very much, entirely her own. Drop Cherries is lush, warm, and perfectly produced, from the glorious but understated "I Just Can't Get My Head Around You," to the rolling chords, warm bass, and harmonies of "Just Us," and the simple piano and romantic admissions of "Nothing But Mine." If you like acoustic guitar, poetic lyrics, and one of the best voices around today, hit play.
Arlo Parks, My Soft Machine
Favorite tracks: “Blades” and “Dog Rose”
Ava Max, Diamonds and Dancefloors
Favorite tracks: “Hold Up (Wait A Minute)” and “Get Outta My Heart”
Bentz: “is it?”
Grand Lotus: “better.” and “weightless”
Hannah Georgas, I’d Be Lying If I Said I Didn’t Care
Favorite tracks: "Not The Name You Say" and "This Too Shall Pass"
Jessie Ware, That! Feels Good!
Favorite tracks: “Freak Me Now” and “Free Yourself.”
K. Flay, MONO
Favorite tracks: “Raw Raw” and “The Punisher”
Kylie Minogue, Tension
Favorite tracks: “Padum Padum” and “One More Time”
Metric, Formentera II
Favorite tracks: “Just the Once”
Miss Grit, Follow The Cyborg
Favorite tracks: “Perfect Blue” and “Syncing"
PRAANA, Supernal Dawn
Favorite tracks: “Lullaby (ft. Julia Church)” and “Landing Patterns”
Favorite tracks: “Ordinary Love” and "Luna"
Rose Gray, Higher Than The Sun EP
Favorite tracks: “Ecstasy” and “Prettier Than You.”
SG Lewis, AudioLust & HigherLove
Favorite tracks: “Lifetime” and “Infatuation”
The Japanese House, In The End It Always Does
Favorite tracks: “Boyhood” and “Friends.”
Favorite tracks: “Needs” and “None of My Business”
Pre-2023 Honorable Mention
Ronboy, Pity to Love (2022)
Sometimes I come across an album that wasn't released in that given year, but I become enamored with it nonetheless. Julia Laws released her first single in 2019, and has since been noticed by big names in the U.S. indie rock scene as well as released a stunning album nothing quite like I've heard before. Sweeping, dramatic instrumentals kick off the opening track, "Always," while electronic elements build and transport the listener to another era by the end of "Forget It." But Laws is the whole package, her vocals and lyrics pack as much of a punch as her songwriting, her emotional range encompasses both intensity and sorrow. The solo piano and stillness in “Your Way” threaten to undo me every time. "Don't rely on me," she asks, at the end.
Other 2023 music I enjoyed this year
Andy Shauf, Norm
Anna Shoemaker, Hey Anna
Astronaut Husband, Down the Road
AWOLNATION, Candy Pop
BC Camplight, The Last Rotation of Earth
Bebe Rexha, Bebe
Bibio, Sunbursting EP
Bombay Bicycle Club, My Big Day
boygenius, the record
Cannons, Heartbeat Highway
Cautious Clay, KARPEH
Daughter, Stereo Mind Game
Foo Fighters, But Here We Are
Great Lake Swimmers, Uncertain Country
Gregory Alan Isakov, Appaloosa Bones
Hannah Diamond, Perfect Picture
Indigo De Souza, All of This Will End
James Blake, Playing Robots Into Heaven
Joel Ansett, Layers
Janelle Monáe, The Age of Pleasure
Kesha, Gag Order
Kimbra, A Reckoning
Liza Anne, Utopian
Local Natives, Time Will Wait For No One
Lapsley, Cautionary Tales of Youth
Little Dragons, Slugs of Love
Margaret Glaspy, Echo The Diamond
Meltt, The Absent Sea and Soak My Head
Miya Folick, ROACH
Mutual Benefit, Growing at the Edges
NEIL FRANCES, It’s All a Bit Fuzzy
Olivia Rodrigo, GUTS
Paramore, This Is Why
Paul Cook & The Chronicles, Cheers Love
Romy, Mid Air
Royal Blood, Back To The Water Below
Say She She, Silver
Sigrid, The Hype
Squirrel Flower, Tomorrow’s Fire
Sufjan Stevens, Javelin
Susanne Sundfør, Blómi
The Chemical Brothers, For That Beautiful Feeling
Tiny Ruins, Ceremony
Unknown Mortal Orchestra, V
Vagabon, Sorry I Haven’t Called
Vallis Alps, Cleave
VÉRITÉ, love you forever
Weval, Don’t Lose Time
Yellow Ostrich, Make It Make Sense EP