Album Of The Year
I’m going with an all killer, no filler approach here. You know the deal, let’s count off our favorite collection of recorded music and music-related sounds to happen in 2023.
Honorable Mentions: The Foo Fighters - But Here We Are; Bully - Lucky For You; Jeff Rosenstock | HELLMODE
10. Margo Price – Strays
“I got nothing to prove, I got nothing to sell” opens Margo Price on her senior album. Strays. It’s a bold claim to make, but a well-founded one. Over the course of the past seven years, Margo has gone from a frontline solider in the Outlaw Country revival efforts to a four-star general, and Strays is another skin on her wall of bonafides.
Sonically, it’s probably her most interesting album since 2017’s All American Made, specifically the opening first three tracks of the album: the anthemic, driving “Been To the Mountain”, the tempo-pushing “Light Me Up” and the bass-filtered groove of “Radio”, a collab with Sharon Van Etten, perhaps the best single cut on the album. There’s also the Sheryl Crowe-esque “Time Machine”, but Margo really excels showcasing her Outlaw roots in “Hell In The Heartland”, the highlight of the album with some incredible production.
9. Caroline Rose – The Art Of Forgetting
In the promotional cycle for Caroline Rose’s third album, she purged her Instagram and changed her bio to “formerly hilarious thespian songstress”. I really hate when they find a way to say what I try to say in 200 words in only four.
For her fourth studio offering, Caroline dropped the quirky act and came forth with an emotional honestly that was frankly jarring at first while finding a way to stay sonically in line with the best parts of her former acts. It sounds like a Caroline Rose album, but the content doesn’t match. But we all have to grow up sometime.
Highlighted by the beautiful “Miami”, the nexus of incredible lyrics and songwriting, The Art of Forgetting is a deeply personal and extremely relatable reflection inward from Caroline who has taken all the elements of songbuilding she has mastered in her past efforts and put them behind her most emotional lyrics to date.
Caroline is dead, long live Caroline.
8. Paramore – This Is Why
Speaking of growing up, Paramore ended their hiatus with yet another reinvention that has saw them go from a pop punk band that dropped the “punk” to a 80’s new wave revival band to an art rock band with their offering This Is Why. The album takes cues from leadwoman Hayley Williams’ maligned solo debut but improves upon with a much more diverse sound that is reflective of their journey as a band.
If you listen closely, you can hear elements of their past resurface across a fairly tight 36 minutes. Taylor Swift may be re-releasing her own music with remakes, but “You First” and “Figure 8” sounds like the band polishing a RIOT!-era pop punk cut. “C’est Comme Ca” has a distinct Talking Heads/new wave influence from After Laughter, and “Liar” has the quiet energy from Brand New Eyes.
But it’s not a clip show album, Paramore take these diverse styles and manage to work it into a cohesive sound that makes for a great listening experience this is both fun and full of substance.
7. Portugal. The Man – Chris Black Changed My Life
Chris Black Changed My Life is, in a word, a lot. It’s grand in scale, and it’s all over the place. The guest list spans a wide swath of ground that nears comparison to a Gorillaz project, and the concept of the album is hard to pin down. It feels like they recorded each song in a vacuum. There’s a dog howling audio sample randomly at the zenith of a song. One song is a biting criticism of America and the very next is a dance anthem(?) The next song after that is very clear mainstream radio bait.
It’s a mess. And…it kind of works. I can’t recall being this stumped by how I feel about an album, but I finally realized that if I came back for an eighth or ninth listen willingly than it must not be bad. Once I stopped trying to question the album to understand it, only then did I realize that this, while an eclectic collection, is a collection of PTM’s best grooves and songwriting. It lacks the cohesion of Evil Friends for sure, but a lot of albums do. PTM just wanted to make an album of good songs, and dammit they did that.
6. Queens Of The Stone Age – In Times New Roman…
Welcome to the Circular Logic portion of the list. In Times New Roman... is a great album because it’s Queens of the Stone Age album. Are they saying anything important? Nope. Are they doing anything genre defining? Nah. Are they doing anything grand in scale? Not more than usual. So kinda?
ITNR is just Josh Homme and co doing what do best: being a god damn great rock and roll band. No frills, no need to reinvent the wheel, no gimmicks, just QOTSA being QOTSA. At their age and this point in their career, no real need to do anything different because the formula works.
Although, the album does conclude with the nine-minute “Straight Jacket Fitting” which is a tour de force in weaving different segments into a cohesive sound and groove that wraps up the album nicely.
5. TV Girl – Grapes Upon The Vine
Brad Petering and co. are back and as good as ever. Their first non-collaborative studio album since 2018’s Death of a Party Girl, Grapes Upon The Vine is probably the band’s single most cohesive album, be it the vibe of each song, the interpolations, sampling, or lyrical content. Most notably, there’s a strong church inspiration throughout, be in obvious like a backing choir or a sample of a reverend on a few songs or more subtle with more ruminations on the afterlife and being willing to pay the price for it.
Quite a few songs on the album play off that theme: “Higher Ground”, “One of These Mornings”, “Big Black Void (which is in the style of a gospel piano song)”, “Fire”, and “Heaven Over Our Heads”. Of course, the whole album is about relationships, as TV Girl are want to do, but the number of ways they found to successfully iterate upon the concept with a distinct sound for each that plays to their strengths is really impressive.
“Fire” may be my favorite song of the year. The first 2:48 of it is a good enough song, but after that point they enter a 90-second riff on “Every Breathe You Take” that, yes while being a sample, is some of the best songwriting I’ve heard all year. Seriously, it’s so damn good and it’s my favorite song
4. Jason Isbell & The 400 Unit – Weathervanes
At this point you know what to expect from a Jason Isbell album. Some of the best lyrical storytelling in music (“King of Oklahoma”, “Volunteer”), some emotional terrorism (“Strawberry Worman, Cast Iron Skillet”), and some incredible instrumentation (“Save The World”, “Miles”) all with a distinctly authentic southern sound (“Vestavia Hills”, “This Ain’t It”). Sometimes in the same song (“Middle of the Morning”).
Isbell simply does not miss, and this is another hit. What’s more is that he’s finally getting his due and recognition in the True South vein of music, the one that doesn’t rely on the reductive performative formula of truck jeans cutie dirt road cold beer. Weathervanes doesn’t really stand out among the discography of Isbell records as the clear-cut best, but that says more about the quality Isbell is good for rather than the induvial quality of the album.
In more ways than one, Isbell has come a long way from his Drive-By Truckers days. The path for him wasn’t exactly linear, but now he comfortably sits at the top of his craft.
3. Olivia Rodrigo – GUTS
When I included Oliver Rodrigro’s SOUR, I said that Olivia’s youth was apparent in her music and I looked forward to hearing her mature because her debut was still good.
Well, I’m still waiting for that because she decided to run it back with GUTS, but it’s really fucking good.
GUTS benefits from Olivia getting better as a songwriter and a lyricist, but the vibe is still the same, if not improved upon, from SOUR. Part of me is cynical about Olivia co-opting pop punk sounds from my youth, but on the other hand she’s so good at it. GUTS leans more “pop” than “punk” compared to SOUR, but the difference is cosplaying as Paramore compared to Avril Lavigne, and frankly the Avril sound suits her more.
GUTS is more than empty calories of “bad idea right” and “get him back” though. “vampire” is one of the more authentic ballads of the year and the composition is actually incredible. Rodrigo claims that she wrote the song over a short period of time and then spent months refining it and debating the pros and cons of certain chords to make the song as good as it can possible be, and it shows. “lacy” doesn’t personally move the needle much for me, but I do recognize the improvement in songwriting that is displays, while “making the bed” may be the actual second best cut on the record behind “vampire” where Olivia does in fact show her maturation. It’s the song Taylor Swift wishes she could have written for Midnights.
2. Boygenius – The Record
“It’s a bad idea, and I’m all about it” isn’t just the opening line from the first actual song off “super”group boygenius’ sophomore album, it’s their mission statement.
My main criticism of boygenius’ (the group consisting of Phoebe Bridgers, Lucy Dacus, and Julien Baker) debut was that the songs felt too homogenized. Like the trio tried to find a sound that all three could play to simultaneously and it suffered because it was pretty much the singer/songwriter lowest common denominator. They thankfully eschewed that for their follow-up record, instead choosing to playing to their individual strengths on different tracks along the album, while still keeping it a collaborative effort. It’s not quite to the level of “oh this is a Lucy song” or “this is a Phoebe song”, but there definitely are songs that have their lead’s identity imprinted on them. But the highlight of the album is probably “Not Strong Enough” where all three play a major part and contribute heavily to the sound and feel of the lyrics.
Above, I put a quotation mark around the “super” in “supergroup” because when The Record was announced and the press tour began, I questioned my friends how much a group where the most famous member is Phoebe Bridgers can be considered a supergroup, but if we’re basing it off song quality then they absolutely fit into that label.
1. Romy – Mid-Air
Mid-Air is technically a debut, but Romy (of The xx) is not a rookie to this, and it certainly doesn’t sound like it.
Her solo debut Mid-Air is everything I’ve ever wanted out of an album: it’s a tight 30 minutes of energetic electronic performances that weave in and out of synthpop to straight up house music but does so in an incredible cohesive fashion with some raw, emotional, and intimate vocal performances and great songwriting. Oh, and all of that can be found and localized in the first song off the album, “Loveher”.
I may have gone back and forth on whether or not I liked this album more than the record, but this just felt like the correct pick. This album just connects with me in a way most albums rarely do. Picking a favorite song is impossible, although you can’t go wrong with “Enjoy Your Life”, the closing “She’s On My Mind” or “Twice”. It’s a collective whole though. The entire album excels in any possible deliverable. Wire to wire, it’s incredible and it’s my album of the year.
Artist Of The Year
Every Single Rock Band You Liked in 2007
Paramore, Portugal. The Man, and Queens of the Stone Age weren’t the only bands from the era that had a huge year. The Foo Fighters just barely missed the cut with But Here We Are. Creed had a huge TikTok/Rangers-driven resurgence in pop culture. Matchbox 20 was a willing part of one of the biggest jokes in the biggest pop culture event of the year. I played a Three Doors Down song as a joke and discovered that damn, they really knew their way around a hook. LCD Soundsytem was back on tour after breaking up (again).
Also, you could actually afford to see all of those bands live.
Albums of the Year
I get it, I’m old.
There’s a certain liberation in being old. I don’t have to follow the trends or keep up with the Flavor of the Week. I like what I like, and if that’s not good enough, tough noogies. I do still like seeking out new music, but I don’t have to force it anymore. There’s a stack of old record I can still enjoy.
The problem for me is that my favorite record in 2023 came out originally in 1985. But the remastering of the Replacements’ Tim really makes it sound like a new record. Even songs I never much cared for (I’m looking at you “Dose of Thunder”), now sound vibrant with the new mix. They somehow made one of the greatest rock n roll records of all time sound even better.
And that, ironically, soured me on the year. There were a lot of good albums, but few that felt great. I didn’t feel like I was listening to the next Tim. Which is a high bar, I know, but that was the standard for me this year. Do I want to listen to your record, or do I want to listen to the remastered Tim again?
The Replacements usually won. But here are 10 records that put up the best fight.
10) BEING DEAD - When Horses Would Run.
Know what we don’t have enough of? Surf rock. The jangly guitars, the singalong lyrics, the propulsive beat… surf rock rules. It’s such a quintessentially American style, too. It just hits all my pleasure centers and you know what? Right now, we could all use some joy. However, Being Dead aren’t content to simply be a surf rock band, as they delve into inside jokes and pop surrealism, making every song a treasure chest of influences. Even better, there’s genuine excitement on the first listen of where each song is going to go. The band is full of surprises and I’m hoping this debut is just the beginning for them.
9) THE TUBS - Dead Meat
Punk rock vibes with pop hooks? Where do I sign up? This is a record that sounds straight out an 80s college rock playlist and as someone who grew up on 80s college rock, there’s not really a bigger compliment I can give. The album winds its way to its epic closer, “Wretched Lie,” in which the band intones that lie , “You are always on my mind…” Intentional shot at Willie Nelson? I don’t know, but it works.
8) DUSK - Glass Pastures
Dusk is yet another indie rock band in the long line of modern indie bands who have added country and Americana elements into their sound, like slide guitar, to pair with their idiosyncratic lyrics. But here’s the thing, I like Americana. I like lo-fi. This is a record that is targeted pretty directly at me, and I thank them for it. It fits like an old, warm jacket. Sure, there’s some stuffing coming out of the back where I tore a seam trying to duck under a chain link fence years ago, but that just adds to the personality. This is a record made for putting on the background while you sip scotch on your back porch. To be fair, I could have gone with the Ratboys here, but I like promoting the lesser known band. But if you don’t know, the Ratboys are great, too.
7) MARGO CILKER - Valley of Heart’s Delight
The Santa Clara Valley used to be known as the Valley of Heart’s Delight, regionally famous for its plant life and orchards. Today, we know the same region as Silicon Valley. It kind of lacks the same poetry, eh? Margo Cilker grew up in the Valley of Heart’s Delight, a place that no longer exists. Her family’s five generations meant nothing, and she moved out to the Pacific Northwest where she recorded one of the great indie country albums of the past decade in Pohorylle. On the strength of that release, she has recruited a superstar supporting cast on this record. She’s no a virtuoso, but she’s a smart and perceptive writer, with a knack for quirky line readings. And she sees a world that is disappearing, and tries to breathe it back to life.
6) PALEHOUND - Eye on the Bat
Palehound kicks off the record with “Good Sex,” a song about how she wore a corset under her clothes to surprise her boyfriend with some sexy times, only for him to get caught on an hour long phone call and her to realize that corsets are really, really uncomfortable. It’s that kind of record, one that dives into the awkwardness of everyday life, and how tragedy and comedy aren’t that far apart. Your emotional breakup is fodder for someone else’s one liner. The album is about that breakup, but also finding humor in yourself and maybe, that’ll make it all okay.
5) ASHLEY MCBRYDE - The Devil I Know
Last year, Ashley McBryde release Lindeville, a raw, messy record in which she and some of her fellow songwriters made an album with a real sense of place, warts and all, and got back to the basics of country music. It’s a brilliant album, and one that her label had no idea what to do with, so they let it flounder with no support or radio airplay, not that McBryde gets a ton of airplay. But unlike other country iconoclasts outside of the Nashville machine, she doesn’t get the more dignified label of Americana, making it okay for people who say they don’t like country to like artists like Jason Isbell or Chris Stapleton. Her response? To make a goddamn arena country record? Pissed off by her roots record, well, what if she went the other way and made a near rock n roll country record? But unlike her country peers, she’s still a gifted songwriter with a keen eye for building character and a sense of time and place. Her songs feel lived in, and she’s not bashful at saying she enjoys the boozing and cheating… it’s the devil she knows.
4 SLOW PULP Yard
I pretended to like shoegaze once, I’m not doing it again. I don’t care how many articles I read about how shoegaze is back, its still a bunch of skinny prep school kids staring at their pedals, unable to make an emotional connection with the songs. So why the praise for a modern shoegaze band? Because they are clearly moving away from the sound, into a more grungy/country rock, but also because frontwoman Emily MAssey gives this band an emotional heft that their peers lack. Her voice is that of someone who has seen more of life. It feels lived in and almost weary, despite being a young woman. The songs are more spare and stripped down, and they cut right to the meat of the matter. No more hiding behind effects pedals.
3) BULLY - Lucky for You
You know what is awesome about rock n roll? Riffs. Keith Richards is the best not because he noodles all over the guitar, but because he plays the goddamn riff. Everyone wants to show off their musicality and that’s great and all, but I want something I can pop in the car stereo and turn up the speakers to 11. Know what would be even better? A sultry voice on top of that riff which every so often breaks into an angry yelp like on “Hard to Love.” Is it a throwback record? Absolutely. “Days Move Slow” sounds like a radio hit from 1994. But I liked radio hits in 1994. And I no longer have to pretend I don’t. This album simply kicks ass. It breaks no new ground, but instead kicks so much of the aforementioned ass.
2) JOANNA STERNBERG - I’ve Got Me
I have no way to describe this album. It sound like a lost Daniel Johnson record, if he were a 60 year old woman. But Joanna Sternberg isn’t 60, she just sounds like she is, and I mean that in a good way. Her voice is so odd, it gives even simple songs a kind of weight. The songs are stripped down, just a guitar (or piano) and a voice, and there’s nowhere to hide. And this is just wonderful advice: “ Why is it so hard to bе kind and gentle to myself?/Take the box of self-deprecation/ Lock it and put it on the shelf/ Then wait five days, take that box/ Throw it in the fire.” Be kind to yourself, y’all. The world is harsh enough as it is. What an uplifting record.
1) 100 GECS - 10,000 Gecs
I’m not even gonna pretend I get the joke. Their last album was called 1000 Gecs, so the Gecs keep multiplying, and I don’t even know what a Gec is. If you don’t know, you’re too old. The style is called “hyperpop” but that’s a bullshit label invented by critics or worse, marketing execs. What 100 Gecs are is really, really fun. They do not feel constrained by genres or references or even good taste. Whatever is nearby, it gets thrown into the musical blender and spit back out. It glories in its own stupidity, but its the kind of stupid smart that evokes Ween in its heyday. You get the feeling there’s no plan, that they are just throwing things at the wall to see what sticks, but that’s part of the fun. Even when it doesn’t work, it’s part of the joke. And when it does work…. “I did science on my face!”