Music: love it or hate it, it looks like it’s here to stay. As in every year, there was so much more I didn’t have time to get round to than I could try, hence why this is an ‘albums I loved’ list rather than a ‘best of the year’ list. But there was no shortage of goodness from the selection of 2023 material that I picked up this year.
The Record – Boygenius
I spent a lot of time debating what to cut to bring this list down to 10 albums, but there was absolutely no competition for my overall favourite of the year. Julien Baker, Phoebe Bridgers and Lucy Dacus are three of my favourite working musicians, the latter an all-timer for me at this point, and their first full-length collaboration delivered on all my hopes that were built up by their astonishing self-titled 2018 EP. There is real alchemy at play when they combine their powers, elevated by a genuine mutual love that unites the album in spirit throughout as well as being the explicit subject matter of several songs.
These are songwriters with distinct styles who nevertheless get each other well enough to complement each other effectively and, I mean, gosh. Those harmonies. Bury me in their harmonies.
Baker and Bridgers in particular are known for writing desperately sad material, and there are moments for that on The Record, but the album’s overall tone is joyful, whether that’s expressed through Baker rocking out as a guitar hero on $20 or Dacus sweetly serenading her bandmates on We’re in Love. That they’ve seen their stars rise so dramatically this year has only emphasised the sense of triumph that underpins the record. It was palpable when I saw them in London this year, surrounded by young queer fans who deservedly lost their minds.
The Art of Forgetting – Caroline Rose
To put it lightly, this was not the album I expected from Caroline Rose. I’d been drawn into their work by Loner and Superstar, their two preceding records, both funny, jaunty, danceable 35-minute indie-pop romps brimming with energy and fun. The Art of Forgetting, meanwhile, is a startling 50-minute portrait of someone at their absolute lowest.
The album finds Rose in the aftermath of a breakup that seemingly caused a complete nervous breakdown. On the first track, Love/Lover/Friend, they are for the first time in their career almost lost for words, sparse lyrics descending into an ethereal wail, while follow-up Rebirth is similarly murkily despondent without being especially specific on what has put them into this near-catatonic state. Then third track Miami hits, and you know exactly what’s happened. It’s the best song on the album, an excruciating look into an open wound as Rose first details the slow, torturous decline of the relationship then cries out in agony at trying to process it. “This is the hard part, the part that they don’t tell you about”, they begin at the song’s wrenching climax, and you can feel the sharp lashes to their psyche as if they were to your own.
From there, the album goes on a bleak journey through the rubble of Rose’s life, exploring depression, frustrated yearning and the slow, painful process of rebuilding self-worth. It culminates in closer Where Do I Go From Here?, another album highlight which still feels its pain keenly and finds Rose not yet into a position of certainty but with a renewed willingness to reach the end of the tunnel.
It took me a long time to come around to loving this record as much as I do. It still feels a little baggy, not helped by several brief interludes sampling voicemail messages from Rose’s grandmother, and its relentless heaviness makes that length stretch. But I kept noticing myself going back to more and more of its individual tracks until I realised that it packs a lot of subtle variety into its runtime. Once you’re over the shock of its tone, you can find more of that previous Caroline Rose magic baked into its DNA, which only helps to further appreciate its darker shading. This is not an album for the faint-hearted, certainly, but its bracing honesty makes it one I’ll remember forever.
First Two Pages of Frankenstein and Laugh Track – The National
Am I cheating by not making myself pick just one of the two albums put out by the National this year? Probably, but it’s my list. Bog off. I’ve no idea which one I’d pick, gun to my head – across the board, it’s been an incredible year for one of my all-time favourite bands, putting out 23 tracks in total with little enough fat on them that attempts among critics to create a single, combined tracklist from them feel wasteful.
The case for First Two Pages of Frankenstein? Its lead single, the propulsive doomscrolling-and-depression anthem Tropic Morning News, my favourite track from the record. Your Mind Is Not Your Friend, the heartbreaking best of the two albums’ three Phoebe Bridgers features (a very welcome development for me after how well her voice combined with Matt Berninger’s on his 2019 solo track Walking on a String). New Order T-Shirt and (in particular) Send for Me, two tracks quite unusual for the National in their face-up optimism. Of the two records, it’s the one that feels most like a follow-up to their previous effort, 2019’s I Am Easy to Find, which has its detractors but is my favourite National record ever.
The case for Laugh Track? It’s closer in sound to older National records like High Violet or Boxer, partly due to the fact that drummer Bryan Devendorf is let loose in a manner that hasn’t been true for a good while; he is sensational throughout the album. It’s a great record to luxuriate in, including as it does their two longest-ever songs, which both also happen to be the best on the record. Closer Smoke Detector, which began life as an improvisation at a sound-check, is the album’s biggest experiment which pays off in spades, a slightly sinister stream of consciousness that sounds like we’re being let in on something other people ought not to be able to hear. For me, though, Laugh Track’s biggest triumph – and a genuine contender for the best National track ever – is Space Invader. Depicting a protagonist who can’t shake intrusive thoughts of how things might be different if things hadn’t gone just right for they and their partner to get together, it’s first grounded by a simple piano refrain and then later sent into the stratosphere by a more-than-three-minute outro in which Devendorf’s building drums take centre stage.
Big Picture – Fenne Lily
While not a ‘pandemic album’ in the sense that it ever confronts Covid-19 head-on, Fenne Lily’s third record feels very much like one that was written mostly in the depths of 2020. It’s almost entirely about a relationship that gradually fell apart in those dreadful months, and often both explicitly and implicitly depicts both Lily and her then-partner as trapped together in more ways than one.
Lily is a delightful, witty lyricist – Red Deer Day’s “Wanna call and get your thoughts on it // But I don’t ‘cause we’re not in love // As of really, really recently” is one of my favourite lines that anyone wrote this year – who does a great job of conjuring warm, domestic sounds and slyly undercutting them. Special mention must go to lead single Lights Light Up, which catches the attention immediately with a delicious, almost math-rocky riff from guitarist Joe Sherrin and holds it with a vivid picture of someone who understands their relationship – while perhaps not yet officially over – is doomed and has already started to reflect on it with surprising objectivity.
The Valley of Vision – Manchester Orchestra
Longer than most EPs and shorter than most LPs, it was hard to judge whether this project technically qualified as an album for this list, but I listened to it so much that I just couldn’t ignore it. I only discovered Manchester Orchestra late last year and have immersed myself so thoroughly in their full catalogue in 2023 that they’re my most-listened artist of the year by a frightening degree.
The Valley of Vision is clearly in conversation with their previous full-length release, 2021’s superb The Million Masks of God, with some shared lyrics and themes that provide in some cases dark, sombre reflections of tracks from that album. It establishes a very different overall mood, though, partly through being the least guitary project they’ve ever put out – they’re not absent, but used much more sparingly save for a couple of thrilling moments of punctuation – and also through a generally more muted, occasionally out-of-body atmosphere. It’s ruminative and engrossing.
I Am the River, the River Is Me – Jen Cloher
This absolutely fascinating album is the product of punk-tinged folk-rocker Cloher reconnecting with their Maori ancestry, and it’s by turns joyful, thoughtful, sexy, gentle, defiant and inspirational. I love a record that confidently and effectively mixes language, and the incorporation of te reo Maori into tracks like queer anthem Mana Takatapui and the album-highlight title track (where we are treated to a spine-tingling group chant at its climax) is delightful – not to mention English being jettisoned entirely for He Toka-Tu-Moana.
I’m a sucker for music reckoning intelligently with the climate crisis, and there’s something moving about how this record explores renewing one’s connection to the land even while being gripped by fear about its future. It’s a recurring theme, most notably front and centre on Protest Song, written in response to the Australian bushfires of 2019-20.
Light, Dark, Light Again – Angie McMahon
I liked McMahon’s debut record, Salt, in parts but didn’t really connect with it as a full album, with too much that just washed off me. But tracks like Slow Mover, Pasta and Keeping Time suggested a talented writer with a knack for honest self-interrogation and I was curious to see where she’d go next. It’s been a real treat to find out with this follow-up, on every level a step up from Salt.
Much of the album is concerned with anxiety, insecurity and the management thereof, much of it taking a light, meditative approach (though there are exceptions, like the chuggier Mother Nature), which sometimes feels like McMahon has found genuine peace and sometimes like she is trying to force herself to believe that she has. Final track Making It Through – for my money the best on the record – sees her arrive at an acceptance of life’s ups and downs, and willing to be proud of herself for persistence through those downs.
Particularly noteworthy here is McMahon’s developing use of her voice. It’s a powerful instrument – I saw a YouTube comment putting it between Florence Welch and Laura Marling, which is pretty bang-on – but she deploys it with much more versatility on this record. Underneath her lead vocal track on Divine Fault Line runs a subtle but satisfying punctuative refrain, while Serotonin is powered by an almost percussive use of her own breathing. Her interplay with herself throughout the album is really cool, and I can’t wait to see how she develops her sound next.
Proof of Life – Joy Oladokun
Listening to Joy Oladokun is like receiving a warm hug from someone who understands why you’ve had a rough day. She won’t sugarcoat the problems of the world, but she’ll lift you up and help you to focus on the good that’s plentiful and the good that’s possible. With songs that draw on her experiences as a gay Black woman who grew up in an intolerant religious environment, she sings with empathy that could sound trite from lesser writers or performers but doesn’t come close to it on this record.
Her default mode is mellow folk but she’s not afraid to break out a big fuzzy guitar on occasion, and the album’s diversity of sound is matched by its collection of features, including appearances by indie rock’s Manchester Orchestra and Mt Joy, country megastar Chris Stapleton, rapper Maxo Kream and folk breakthrough Noah Kahan.
Intention – Watsky
I’m still very gradually expanding my interest in and knowledge of rap – but that I have one at all is pretty much thanks to George Watsky, who early this year released what looks likely to be his last album as he indulges the urge to pursue other artistic interests. Intention is a pretty weird record which seems to have snowballed during the pandemic into a ‘throw everything out there’ concoction meant to serve as a messy victory lap for his musical career.
At a bloated 18 tracks – the back nine ‘unlocked’ by a convoluted treasure hunt and international puzzle-solving campaign – Intention is not short of trimmable fat, and it’s not as incisive, profound or technically impressive as some of Watsky’s best work in the past has been. But I also can’t deny that it’s my second-most-listened album of the year. A track like Aww Shit (hook: “awwww shiiiiit // what the fuck’s up? // what the fuck’s up? // what the fuck’s up?”) isn’t going to win any awards for penmanship but god damn if it doesn’t get me wriggling every time. Almost entirely, the album’s best moments are these ‘fuck it, let’s just have some fun’ tracks, also including Young Ruettiger (I Do What I Want) and the T-Pain-assisted What’s the Move?.
West Side Story actor Rachel Zegler shows up to belt her heart out on Mile Away – she has one line but, boy, does she make the best of it – and there’s a fun thank-you to long-time fans on Nothing Like The Last Time, which draws lines and instrumental phrases from a variety of tracks from his back catalogue. My favourite moment of the album, though, is Paper Nihilist, where Watsky challenges self-professed nihilists to square that outlook with the fundamental joy of being with good people. It’s that kind of grounded optimism despite it all that I’ll miss most if this really is the last we hear from him.