SonicAwareness Special Guest Feature
SonicAwareness is proud to bring you this special guest feature! Take a look at music connoisseur Phil Herring's picks for the the best 50 albums of 2023, along with a playlist and detailed write-up of why he selected each record!
Phil’s Top 50 Albums of 2023
In celebration of my 15 (maybe 16?) years of doing this, I’ve upped the ante and increased my ear end album list to 50. For anyone who has somehow stumbled upon this list, hope you find something you like and/or your tastes are validated.
50) JUNGLE - Volcano
Since first debuting in 2014, Jungle has been slowly but surely growing in stature over the past 9 years. Their fourth effort is a loose, guest-list heavy affair which almost functions more like a mixtape than a proper album but still maintains their essence. Blending neo soul with a nice dash of electronic production, Jungle kick out the jams with a whole slew of guest rappers such as Chanel Tres, Roots, Erick The Architect and more providing a nice interplay with the falsetto style of lead vocalist Josh-Loyd Watson. While it’s probably their most low-key release to date, it has somehow springboarded them to greater commercial heights given they are now headlining arenas here in the US, signifying that there might be even bigger heights to aim towards on future records. For now, Volcano was able to keep the mission on track in 2023.
49) SEMISONIC - Little Bit Of Sun
Dan Wilson has made quite a career for himself after Semisonic initially split (yes, the same Semisonic that does “Closing Time”). As a co-writer and producer he penned a number of hits for big pop stars, most notably co-writing Adele’s “Someone Like You”. Getting the band back together wasn’t a necessity but Wilson must have felt a natural chemistry with his old bandmates which gives this record a nice, loose feel. Freed from the industry constrictions of the late 90’s which dictated they try to market themselves as an“Alternative Rock” Band, Semisonic indulge in brisk, light AM 70’s pop which is their naturally calling card and the type of band they’ve always been. Given Wilson’s keen sense of melody, he’s able to stack hook on top of hook while also allowing the band to play to their strengths, making this one of the most welcome 90’s reunions in a while.
48) MEET ME @ THE ALTAR - Past / Present / Future
The pop-punk genre is tough to stick with as you grow older since 1) the themes are mainly around high school relationships/break-ups and 2) the whiney yelp-y vocals of the genre tend- to grow more grating as you age. This has also been compounded by a new breed of bands who don’t necessarily have the same opportunities of the early 00’s TRL glory years so they tend to feature a lot of whiney/yelpy singers with zero melodic skills. Meet Me @ The Altar is another story, made up of 3 young women who have taken the genre and injected their own personality into it. After a smattering of EP’s their first proper full length shows they’ve not only mastered the genre but been able to find a few cheat codes to make it sound fresh. Song tempos vary, melodies are huge and the hooks are irresistible.
47) ALL TIME LOW - Tell Me I’m Alive
When I first encountered All Time Low in 2007 they were part of that new trend of pop-punk knuckleheads with neon clothing and swoop haircuts. Needless to say, their music and more importantly, their Blink 182 jr antics bugged me and while I enjoyed a few of their records, I checked out and moved on. Slowly but surely the band morphed from rudimentary pop-punk to a more well-rounded pop/rock band, still holding onto their past but playing more in the indie and electronic pop fields which I think they function better in. Tell Me I’m Alive comes after their 2020 breakthrough Wake Up, Sunshine which finds the band continuing to refine their songwriting and providing 13 radio-ready bangers that are too catchy to be ignored.
46) POOLSIDE - Blame It All On Love
Poolside was a pandemic discovery for me as their music, pristine low-key mellow relaxing music to listen to while vegging in the sun, provided a nice reprieve from the chaos in the world at the time. Now down to just one member, Jeffrey Paradise, Blame It All On Love has a nice open-door policy when it comes to collaborations with Paradise ceding vocals to several guests. The roster features various names who kick around in electro-pop scene (Muyana, Mazy, Ora The Moracle and more) which gives the album a sense of dynamism throughout. Focusing more on vibes and late night grooves, Blame It All On Love is perhaps a night time record, made for reflection after those long days by the pool/beach which is a nice change-up for Paradise while still allowing him to display his melodic chops and production skills.
45) MARVELOUS 3 - IV
Butch Walker has had a long fruitful career both as a solo artist as well as a producer on big name pop and rock acts. Similar to Semisonic who appeared earlier on this list, there was no real reason to get his old band, Marvelous 3 back together for any sort of big payday or nostalgia purposes other than just having fun with his old friends. IV is exactly the sound of that, 3 guys getting together and connecting as a power trio, cranking out an excellent combination of hair metal meeting power-pop full of big hooks, riffs while also indulging in a bit of Walker’s recent Americana vibes. Of course, given that all the members are all in their 50’s there’s a fair amount of wistful nostalgia that creeps into the record, giving it a more mature sheen than their earlier output but also allows for IV to be a fun look back, not a late 90’s cosplay. As someone who was a fan of modern rock radio in the late 90’s/early 00’s, it’s great hearing this kind of music played again and being done by one of the most talented songwriters and producers out there.
44) NOEL GALLAGHER’S HIGH FLYING BIRDS - Council Skies
14 years after Oasis imploded, Noel Gallagher has continued to keep his sturdy solo career going. Keeping his foundation of acoustic strummers, Gallagher and his band crafted a muted but still emotionally resonating record as an ode to his youth when he was living amongst council estates and still hoping for a possible escape. In stringing together some of his best songs since Oasis’ split he’s able to bring them to life via the full-band. No one is counting on Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds to reach the same heights as Oasis but at this point in his career, Noel sounds completely comfortable both with his legacy and as a sturdy craftsman. With his 4th studio album, he’s proved he hasn’t lost a step and seems to be one of the rare rockers who is able to age gracefully.
43) SAMPHA - Lahai
After wrapping up the promotional and touring for his 2017 debut Process, UK R&B artist Sampha remained busy collaborating with other artists and also became a father during the time. While Process dealt more with grief and sorrow, Lahai features a more bubbly optimistic outlook from the talented singer/songwriter/producer. Named as a tribute to his late grandfather, Lahai is a proper bigger and brighter follow-up full of skittish but still soothing R&B while also having a wider grasp on various sounds that compliment Sampha’s smooth silky voice. The new outlook works well for the singer as he’s able to both flex his vocal chops while engaging in extremely detailed and thick production highlighting his talents as both a writer and an arranger.
42) JENNY LEWIS - Joy’All
Being a mainstay in indie rock for 20 years plus has allowed Jenny Lewis to stray outside her comfort zone in many ways. This year’s Joy’All found her embracing her time in Nashville and crafting her own America-country fusion record. Continuing to build on the rich details of 2019’s On The Line, Joy’All is a semi-ode to her current middle age but one that takes the title’s advice in embracing her current place in life. Being written during the pandemic and the various other, shall we say, challenging times of 2020-21 would usually mean a darker or more reflective lyrical outlook but Lewis instead opts to revel in the positive which makes for a bit of an outlier in 2023 and a welcome addition to her catalog.
41) THE ARCS - Electrophonic Chronic
Dan Aurebach remains ever-prolific even outside of his consistent work with The Black Keys, releasing solo albums on top of his work with The Arcs. Initially a one-off side project in 2015, the group reconvened in 2018 in Aurebach’s studio to record the majority of Electrophonic Chronic. Tragically, key band member Richard Swift died before the record’s completion and when Aurebach and the producer went to assemble the tapes they shifted the overall presentation slightly as a tribute to Swift. More downbeat and R&B based than the Arcs previous release, Electronic Chronic is like an old-fashioned LP meant to be listened to in full with psychedelic rock mixing firmly with dreamy acid pop. It likely won’t win as many converts as Aurebach’s main project but showcases he is able to stretch out when he feels like it and demonstrates a much more varied style of songwriting than most give him credit for.
40) WHITE REAPER - Asking For A Ride
The second major label offering from excellent Louisville rock band White Reaper picks up where the last one left off. Tightening up and refining their sound, White Reaper kick up a good racket throughout 10 concise songs. Something like a midpoint between Cheap Trick and Iron Maiden the band lays on big hooks and vocal harmonies amidst excellent 80’s style-riffing while also extending their palette to include hints of new wave and heartland rock. What audience still exists for this music in 2023 is still up for debate but given they found themselves opening for Blink 182’s big comeback arena tour earlier in the year, it seems like there is always a crowd for beer-soaked riff-heavy rock.
39) ANDREW MCMAHON IN THE WILDERNESS - Tilt At The Wind Now
20 years and more into his recording career, Andrew Mcmahon has now released more albums under The Wilderness project than any of his others (Something Corporate, Jack’s Mannequin). Given he hit 40 last year and has spent the past two decades on the road, Tilt At The Wind Now naturally finds him in a reflective mood, looking both on his past while reconciling what is ultimately sustainable for the future. Sonically, this means a moodier presentation with his piano taking more of a front and center role than it has compared to his most recent outings. Given McMahon is one of the most gifted songwriters to come out of the Warped Tour emo scene of the 00’s, Tilt continues his winning streak showcasing new areas he hasn’t explored while remaining firmly honest and earnest, always his biggest strength.
38) LANA DEL REY - Did You Know That There’s A Tunnel Under Ocean Blvd?
In the modern pop landscape, Lana Del Rey continues to remain an anomaly. She’s a pop star without really any genuine hits (save for a dance remix of “Summertime Sadness”) and a festival headliner who tours very sporadically. In her 8th album in 10 years recording under the moniker of Lana Del Rey, and 9th overall, this year’s offering sees another sprawling set of gorgeous cinematic songs. The nearly 80 min runtime allows Lana to get weird, deviating slightly outside of the typical sparse piano arrangements while also inviting collaborators such as Father John Misty, Jack Antanoff and Jon Batiste to contribute to her latest magnum opus. These collaborations in particular make for sonic detours which differentiates this record from others in her catalog while also allowing her to remain firmly planted in her neo-noir Americana songstress mode which continues to be her biggest selling point.
37) M83 - Fantasy
Anthony Gonzalez sidestepped following up his massive 2011 album Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming with the post-fame freakout Junk in 2016. While that album had its merits, those fans hoping for the wide scale nostalgic cinematic synth-tinged majesty of M83 to return were definitely nonpleased. Fantasy thus functions as a course-correction for those who loved “Midnight City” and finds Gonzalez again working on a large scale. Big brash synths, keyboards, guitars that cut through glass and hypnotic vocals soundtrack a trip back to the simpler days of the 80’s with Gonzalez’s quaint and smooth vocals allowing for the ultimate escape. It’s the type of music he was born to make and it’s great to hear him functioning in this lane again.
36) WEDNESDAY - Rat Saw God
Over the last 10 years, indie rock has increasingly moved towards a more poppy and synth/electronic direction which, while yielding some excellent results, sometimes does make for a homogeneous scene. Wednesday, led by the talented songwriting of Karly Hartzman, is a breath of fresh air and with their 5th studio album truly broke out in 2023. Equal parts heartland rock, shoegaze, Americana with some well-timed 90’s style reverb and screeching feedback, Kartzman’s lyrics also showcase a penchant for detailed storytelling specific to the Southern area they come from (North Carolina). Rat Saw God is a fine record showcasing a band coming into their own, focusing on their strengths and releasing their best work to date.
35) GRACE POTTER - Mother Road
I’ve checked in and out of Grace Potter throughout the years, not due to any decrease in quality on her end but mainly because there’s always so much music to listen to. Mother Road, her 3rd solo record after splitting from The Nocturnals, is set on a road trip she took recently across the country while also reflecting on having a new child and the time spent with her family. The result is a lovely collection of Americana-sliced pop which highlights Potter’s lively vocal style and contains plenty of hooky melodies, rich instrumentation and vast Americana textured-songs. Her profile may not be that of similar artists such as Jason Isbell and the like but Potter continues to build a strong legacy in her own space with Mother Road being one of her best releases.
34) SIGUR ROS - ATTA
It’s been 10 years since the last Sigur Ros album and, while the band has toured fairly consistently and indulged in solo projects, it was beginning to look like the band may have run out of things to say artistically. ATTA is an extremely welcome return-to-form with Sigur Ros giving listeners everything they want from the Icelandic band. The whole record zeroes in on what the group does best, which are big beautiful, cinematic sonic landscapes that are more of a “score” than songs. Lead singer Jonsi’s gorgeous vocals in the made-up language continue to function as another instrument which allows this record to be exclusively experienced on a musical level, a rarity for bands operation at their level.
33) BLONDSHELL - Blondshell
Sabrina Teitelbaum had previously recorded under the name of Baum and was able to gain some social media traction in 2018. Pivoting to the moniker of Blondshell and getting sober, she began writing songs in a new style, focusing more on acoustic instrumentation with some 90’s alternative influences. Her debut is a fully formed release, highlighted by the struggles of being young while also struggling to find her identity. By ditching the more fabricated sound of her early releases, she’s able to shoehorn in influences like Hole, Depeche Mode, Liz Phair, Belly and more to give what is essentially a Gen-Z update to the early 120 Minutes era of MTV in the 90’s. Even with the gripes on social media of her being another “nepo baby”, this album stands on its own and will please even the most cynical of skeptics (which initially even included myself).
32) JASON ISBELL & THE 400 UNIT - Weathervanes
At this point, Jason Isbell has long passed the band he was booted out of (Drive-By Truckers) in terms of stature and popularity. Partnering again with his long time band the 400 Unit, Weathervanes was primarily written when he was starring in Martin Scorsese’s film from this year, Killers Of The Flower. Given he was currently in an acting role, perhaps that added a little extra emphasis on his storytelling focus which Isebell is incredibly gifted in. All of his songs feel lived in as he paints brutal pictures of sad figures in rural America all haunted by various ghosts. Performance-wise since he and his band have played together for so long everything is tight and perfectly in place with an additional emphasis on instrumentation. Count this as another win for one of today’s best songwriters.
31) 100 GECS - 10,000 Gecs
I don’t know if it’s a trend but there have been a few recent articles over the last couple of years noting how Gen Z’s music is really mellow and vibe-heavy, essentially the antithesis of music that would piss off the parents back in the 90’s and 00’s. Enter 100 Gecs, the hyper-pop duo who have a blast making a racket that would probably drive mom and dad nuts. Synths and guitars squelch alongside abrasive percussion and with a vocal style that might be even politely described as “annoying” alternating between singing about frogs on the floor, getting your teeth removed and well as full on metal-style shrieking. Brevity is typically the key in these genres; this sophomore outing comes in at under a half hour, just long enough to allow the listener to get caught up in the revved up electro-pop rush without overstaying its welcome.
30) THE STRUTS - Pretty Vicious
Like a lot of up and coming bands, The Struts' momentum was a bit halted due to the pandemic. They responded by releasing a (slightly) toned down version of their glammy arena rock in 2021, the excellent Strange Days. Taking the seeds of that project and injecting it with the pomp and arena-rock excess of their first two proper releases, Pretty Vicious splits the difference in that it services up some good ol’ fashion rock and roll with plenty of darker and more textured undertones. Lead singer Luke Spiller is still the ultimate frontman, always seemingly having a blast throughout almost every song he’s leading (as demonstrated by the various handclaps and “woos”). Outside of the band’s control, commercial success seems to have trailed off for them at least here in North America which means while their lesser counterparts Greta Van Fleet can do their Zeppelin cosplay across arenas, The Struts are stuck at the club level or, worse, opening for knuckle-draggers like Staind and Seether in the spring. Regardless, The Struts remain committed to their vision and are truly one of the most fun new rock bands to be out there attempting to operate on this scale.
29) HOZIER - Unreal Unearth
Of all the UK/European troubadours that saw success in the mid-10’s, Hozier seemed to be the most likable. After the monster success of “Take Me To Church”, he took his time crafting the follow-up and, while likely influenced by the pandemic, he again was meticulous to deliver his 3rd full-length. Although it foregoes anything as immediate as his global hit, Unreal Unearth is a showcase of his considerable talent, crafting gospel and soul-inspired folk rock, diving deeper into his Irish roots (with the opening track inclusive of Irish native Gaelige) while also bringing in additional instrumentation. The somber tenderness to the songs, even the more uptempo numbers, keep the songs from becoming overly saccharine and continue to cement Hozier as quietly being one of the top singer-songwriters of the day. The recent arena trek proves that artists don’t need to consistently have top 40 hits so long as they follow their muse and connect with their fan base which is what Hozier continues to do.
28) FEIST - Multitudes
After the phenomenal success of 2007’s The Reminder and, in particular, the breakthrough of hit song “1,2,3,4” via an ipod commercial (remember those), Feist has steadfastly refused to sand down any of her rough edges. After the darker sonic murk of 2017’s Pleasure, this year’s Multitudes finds her still operating in the “weird girl invited to brunch” mode with a number of tender melodies, artful acoustic arrangements accompanied with her usual opaque lyric style. This record proved to be more personal than most as it draws from both the birth of her daughter and the death of father. Even with those significant life events, the overall presentation remains fairly upbeat and pleasant, showcasing how she works with the various contrasts of her music. While she may never be the center of discussion again, Feist continues to prove herself as a strong uncompromising artist due to each album containing various layers allowing the listener to discover new charms with each listen.
27) CANNONS - Heartbeat Highway
On their social media platforms, Cannons advertise that they bring you “future boogie: sexy, dreamy, drenched.” That’s essentially long form for “Dream pop” which Cannons have been specializing in since the mid 2010’s with various EP’s and singles before finally dropping their full length, Fever Dream, in 2022. This year’s Heartbeat Highway is a consistent update on their debut which makes sense as the band has been on the road constantly for the past two years meaning both their writing and performances are tighter. Led by vocalist Michelle Joy, her dreamy vocals take you into smoke-filled bars and hazy late-night memories backed up by beautiful lush and shoe-gaze-style indie rock, charming the listener with each track and even capping off the whole thing with a downbeat cover of Thin Lizzy’s “Dancing In The Moonlight”. A worthy successor to their debut and an indication they’re in it for the long run.
26) THE NEW PORNOGRAPHERS - Continue As Guest
Some bands who stick around and are consistent get taken for granted, which means they fall out of the zeitgeist and even lose traction with longtime fans. New Pornographers have been kicking out quirky indie power pop for over two decades while several of the collective have also continued their own solo careers (Neko Case, AC Newman, etc). Continue As A Guest, their 9th overall, strips back some of the synth-pop shine of their previous releases and allows for the group to indulge in some of their weirder tendencies. While the songs might not be as immediate, there are still a ton of gems to be found (band seems to be incapable of writing an all-around clunker). With this one, the band gets their hooks across in more subtle ways, ones that sneak up on you while also layering on additional textures that compliment the excellent songwriting which makes this album yet another winner in their catalog.
25) MITSKI - The Land Is Inhospitable And So Are We
Mitski has been on my radar for a while but I’ve never quite connected with her at the same level as some of her more rabid fans (i.e the “I want Mitski to run me over with a truck” people that live on Twitter). That all changed this year with her most recent work. More lush and sedated than her previous pop bid last year, The Land is Inhospitable And So Are We focuses more on live instrumentation rather than synths and puts the eclectic artist in singer-songwriter mode which seems to suit her most. Lush strings and beautiful melodies are frequent in this nice, concise record (32 minutes) showcasing Mitski’s strength both as a writer and an arranger. It’s also nice to hear she didn’t end up quitting music overall as she indicated in 2022 and went on to make one of her best overall records.
24) THE HIVES - The Death Of Randy Fitzsimmons
After a fairly significant absence (last release being in 2012), The Hives roared back in 2023 with another fun blast of garage-inspired punk rock via Sweden. Equal parts swagger but also biting humor, The Death Of Randy Fitzsimmons makes a case for not fixing a formula that isn’t broken. Now approaching middle age, The Hives made a point not to give in to any “Maturing band” type indulgences. There are no string-laden ballads, no cheesy arena-rock riffs, no excessive details, just a 32 minute blast of full uncut fun that has long been missing in the seemingly over-serious world of punk and rock.
23) ARLO PARKS - My Soft Machine
Coming off a celebrated debut (Brit Awards, Mercury Prize) and some key opening slots for both Harry Styles and Billie Eilish, UK R&B singer Arlo Parks leveled up this year with her sophomore outing. Building on the strength of her previous releases, My Soft Machine is a smooth, silky collection of R&B pop run through an indie rock filter. Referencing the minor crisis most of us go through in our mid-20’s, she works through the beginning stages of adulthood with a more personal lyrical approach accompanied by sticky melodies and a tasteful mixture of style and sincerity. The ultimate sticking point of the album remains her ability to emotionally sell the various feelings she’s conveying, giving her a leg up in the crowded indie R&B scene.
22) THE BEACHES - Blame My Ex
Coming six years after their proper debut (though there were a smattering of EP releases in between), Canadian band The Beaches broke through in 2023 with this excellent sophomore release. Inspired by a particularly brutal breakup lead singer Jordan Miller went through, this tight 10 song collection of power pop and lush alternative rock take listeners through the entire turmoil. Both angry but also self-reflective, this concise collection is simply one gem after another with both immediate melodic hooks and excellent interplay between the band. Given the shortage of guitar pop acts that are breaking through, bands like The Beaches provide a nice batch of alternative programming amongst the cluttered homogenous festival lineups and Spotify playlists of the day.
21) OLIVIA RODRIGO - Guts
Following up a highly successful and critically acclaimed debut is hard for anyone, much less someone who just turned 20. Given the microscope that is put on Olivia Rodrigo, it’s amazing she was able to not only deliver a great album but one that bested her debut. Building on the template of her debut, Guts finds her expanding in both directions firing off spunky hooky sugary pop-punk while also still providing plenty of ballads for late night woes. There’s an unabashed sense of fun and humor even when she’s grappling with the typical topics of teenage heartbreak and anxiety. While this may not necessarily be music for everyone given the more youthful themes, Rodrigo and her team’s attention to songcraft is incredible and bonus points should be given for the nods to the various 90’s sounds which are essentially pavlovian to geriatric millennials like myself.
20) QUEENS OF THE STONE AGE - In Times New Roman
In the six years since the last Queens’ record, Josh Homme has gone through a contentious divorce/custody battle all while somehow kicking a crystal meth addiction. Given those circumstances, it makes sense that In Times New Roman is a cathartic exercise. Trading the upbeat dance-floor grooves of 2017’s Villians, this record showcases Josh and his ever-changing cast of characters doing what they do best by simply stretching out and playing. While there isn’t necessarily a surefire rock radio hit to be found on this record (though “Emotion Sickness” is addicting), there is enough big muddy riffing that has been noticeably absent from the Queens output in the 10’s to make longtime fans happy. All being said, it’s great to have this band back and also great that they’re still sounding so relevant and essential nearly 30 years into their career.
19) NATION OF LANGUAGE - Strange Disciple
Hailing from Brooklyn, Nation Of Language aren’t the very first group from here to dive into the icy synth-pop sounds of the 80’s though they are, perhaps, the ones to do it best. Album #3 from the trio showcased them still focusing on the early Mute recording sounds of the 80’s but like all great bands from that era, they too have taken to experimenting with actual instrumentation to compliment the electronic beats and synths that make up the foundation of their music. Still heavily entrenched with glossy synth-pop hooks, Strange Discipline is a natural continuation of their previous two releases and marks them as another band to watch which is proving true given the increasing size of venues they’ve recently been playing.
18) THE GASLIGHT ANTHEM - History Books
After an extended hiatus The Gaslight Anthem slowly but surely started making their way back. First by celebrating the 10 year anniversary of their classic 2008 release The 59 Sound and then by regrouping to play some shows in 2022. In between, lead singer/songwriter Brian Fallon established a mildly successful solo career which means History Books is essentially a blending of the two universes. While the band came up in the gritty working class punk scene in NJ, History Books is largely devoid of the rousing anthemic sing-alongs and instead offers a more reflective, somber type of presentation. This being The Gaslight Anthem, the songs are still put through a full band filter meaning that Fallon’s usual solo material is revved up with additional instrumentation and energy. Given the band is now approaching middle age, it’s a natural and welcome continuation of their growth, showcasing a band still pushing ahead and not ready to rely on nostalgia anytime soon.
17) FOO FIGHTERS - But Here We Are
With both the death of drummer Taylor Hawkins and, more quietly, the death of his mother, Dave Grohl naturally was in mourning approaching the Foo Fighters 11th full length. Unlike the debut made in 1995 in the wake of Nirvana bandmate Kurt Cobain, in which he mostly avoided the topic, But Here We Are finds Grohl at his most reflective and vulnerable. Stripping back on some of the arena-rock redundancies which have somewhat plagued the Foos’ later-day releases, this year’s offering showcases Grohl operating at the peak of his songwriting powers. Both melancholic but also uplifting, it’s the work a wisened veteran band, powering through with their strengths while also allowing themselves to explore some new textures and sonic areas which both pay tribute to their deceased drummed while also indulging in some of said drummers’ favorite rock poses (particularly on the prog-rock “The Teacher”). While every album the Foo Fighters have made has its gems, But Here We Are stands as a late career triumph made in wake of extreme tragedy.
16) CITY AND COLOUR - The Love Still Held Me Near
Saying a City And Colour record sounds “sad” is akin to saying water seems “wet” but The Love Still Held Me Near has an extra lower of morose given the turmoil that Dallas Green (who records under the moniker) went through. Haunted by a tragic death of a close friend as well as his divorce, Green wrestles with his demons and sadness throughout this beautiful collection of 11 songs. Continuing to stretch out from the initial sales pitch of guy and acoustic guitar, the album is full of lush soundscapes, sweeping guitars and even a few alt-country type guitar solos. Green’s beautiful voice and melodies are what really sell it as he is able to avoid being exceedingly saccharine while still effectively expressing his grief. Another winner from one of Canada’s most talented singer-songwriters.
15) SAY SHE SHE - Prism
Brooklyn soul trio Say She She’s sophomore release takes their debut and puts it on steroids. Releasing a double record (though it still technically fits on one CD for you old-heads) as a sophomore release is quite a flex but the group is confident and sounds fit throughout. With three singers, the group’s sound of neo-soul/R&B/doo-wop is able to be dynamic enough throughout all 66 minutes keeping the momentum going while also displaying a natural charm the members project given their chemistry. While success somewhat eludes them here in the States (they seem to be getting a much bigger response in the UK), I still have hope that they’ll achieve a wider breakthrough here allowing them to play bigger venues and continue to build on what is already a great catalog.
14) PARAMORE - This Is Why
Even when they first experienced multi-platinum success playing pop-punk/emo in the late 00’s, Paramore were always shouting out indie rock such as Bloc Party, Foals, etc. This Is Why, their first offering in 6 years, finally finds them embracing more complicated angular structures. Ironically, as interest in the emo boom of the 00’s surged this year and in recent years, Paramore serviced their hungry fanbase with an album that is the least indebted to that time period. This being Paramore, all songs are still strung together by Hayley Williams’ undeniable star power and her ability to weave melodies out of the most complicated arrangements. While it may not be any of the fanbase’s current favorite, this is the album in a band’s catalog that is often the “grower” and will have many fans looking back on it as an underappreciated classic. To me, this record proves that Paramore is still one of the best young bands out there, willing to take on new challenges and still deliver the goods.
13) CROSSES - Goodnight, God Bless, I Love U, Delete
Chino Moreno of the Deftones has long been known to have a penchant for moody, atmospheric, synth-driven darkwave or dream pop (the dude has a Depeche Mode tattoo after all) which is why he’s branched out from his main gig a few times. Back in 2005, he formed the shoegaze-inspired Team Sleep and then in 2014 he landed on Crosses with Far guitarist Shaun Lopez. Both projects mine similar territory but Crosses has allowed for both Lopez and Moreno to stretch out and touch on all the ambient and dreamy sonic territories their main gigs don’t allow for. Their sophomore record, coming nearly a decade after their debut, is a fully realized experience, flowing from beginning to end with Moreno’s dreamy croon matching Lopez and team’s creation of trip-hop beats and sounds. In keeping with the collaborative spirit, there are also a number of guests including both Robert Smith of The Cure and El-P of Run THe Jewels which give the record a much more dynamic feel than their earlier work, putting this project up there with anything the two have done in the past.
12) THE JAPANESE HOUSE - In The End It Always Does
Amber Mary Bain who records as The Japanese House took her time crafting her follow up to her debut. Taking the template of her previous release while also consulting with her labelmates The 1975 (singer Matty Healy guests on the record), In The End It Always Does is a moody, dreamy affair highlighting Bain’s grappling with her sexuality across 12 impeccably crafted numbers. Perhaps not as immediate as other albums which fall under the “indie pop” label, this release unfolds over various listens and allows the listener to become fully immersed in Bain’s world. Kudos also must be given to 1975 member George Daniel who applies some of the same workings of his main= band to allow for Bain’s songs to both pop and retreat at appropriate moments, allowing for the full range of emotions to be heard.
11) DEPECHE MODE - Memento Mori
Death has long been a theme in every Depeche Mode record since the early 80’s but Memento Mori hits especially hard, particularly given the circumstances surrounding it. While all the songs were written prior to band member Andy Fletcher’s death, the theme of looming death permeates throughout the entire record. Now both contributing to songwriting, Martin Gore and Dave Gahan reflect on their own mortality through this collection of beautiful synth-driven dark pop which has been the band’s calling card for 40+ years. While there may not be anything inherently new in terms of the overall presentation, Depeche Mode have been the best in the game for a while and Memento Mori is the reflection of two long-time bandmates trying to set aside their differences and continue striving towards their best work well into middle age.
10) CARLY RAE JEPSEN - The Loveliest Time
Carly Rae Jepsen has spent the past decade plus stacking bangers on top of bangers throughout her seven proper studio releases. She’s yet to make it onto any year-end list that I wrote simply because I never bothered to fully dig into her output. That all changed this year with the release of The Loveliest Time which is the companion piece to 2022’s The Loneliest Time. This has been a consistent strategy by Jepsen who has essentially released three double-albums due to both the quality and the quantity of strong material she produces during the album sessions. The Loveliest Time is both lighter and darker than its predecessor, focusing on big beats and big glossy pop hooks while also injecting a bit of actual personality which is missing from many of today’s big pop stars. With The Loveliest Time, Carly Rae Jepsen continues to outdo herself and she might even be able to do her own version of the Eras tour in years to come if she continues at this level.
09) BLINK-182 - One More Time
Reuniting with Tom Delonge for a second time (he first quit the band in 2004, returned in 2009 and then split again in 2013), Blink-182 had a banner year in terms of hype and discourse. Given the various traumatic events all 3 band members have been through (cancer, plane crashes, deaths of friends, divorce, etc.) it’s not surprising that One More Time includes plenty of heavy moments. What is ultimately thrilling is how locked in the three members sound on this 2023 comeback album as it essentially functions as a kind of “greatest hits but new songs” album. There is bratty fat pop-punk, new wave synth-tinged numbers, dark post-punk songs reminiscent of The Cure and more all tied together by the undeniable chemistry of Mark Hoppus, Tom Delonge and Travis Barker. Delonge, in particular, makes up for lost time delivering both his funniest and also most sincere performances. A Blink-182 record in 2023 has no business being this good but One More Time more than holds its own with any of their classics.
08) ROMY - Mid Air
With the XX on what seems to be a very long hiatus, each of the three members has now launched their own solo initiative. Jamie XX, the DJ in the group, has seen the most success with his embrace of electronica while singer Oliver Sim seemed to prefer the more muted inward approach. The other vocalist, Romy Croft, combined the best of both worlds and gave us what was, in her words, a love letter to gay dance culture. Influenced and inspired by the 90’s wave of British electronica, Mid Air is a crisp and concise collection of hypotonic dance beats and big dramatic hooks. The album works well, emphasizing Romy’s considerable vocal skills complimented by euphoric textures meant to soundtrack both a long night out at the club while also grappling with various heavy existential themes and trauma (most notably the death of both her parents). Sounding much more immediate and hooky than anything her previous band has released, Mid Air is a great introduction statement from the singer.
07) BOYGENIUS - The Record / The Rest
What was once a one-off side project for three emerging singer-songwriters (Julian Baker, Phoebe Bridgers, Lucy Dacus) turned into full-blown mania this year. Given the stature of all three, through Bridgers in particular, has risen since they put out a 6-song EP in 2018, anticipation for this release was sky high. Thankfully both The Record and its later companion piece of other songs, The Rest, both met and exceeded most expectations. Unlike other “supergroups' ' these three work as a total democracy, with each taking the lead in certain songs while collaborating in others. Taking the strongest areas of each and combining them makes for brilliant indie folk, pop, rock and more showcasing how sometimes the hype is worth it. While these three will likely retreat back to their own solo releases, let’s hope they keep the Boygenius name alive in the future.
06) CAROLINE POLACHEK - Desire, I Want To Turn Into You
Since leaving indie avant-garde act Chairlift in 2016 (still best known for their ipod commercial soundtrack jam “Bruises”), Caroline Polachek has built herself back up as a solo act to be reckoned with. After the more insular Pang in 2019, Polachek opened for Dua Lipa and continued working on her craft which allowed for this year’s bright, bubbly but still artsy record. While it’s a pop record, Polachek still is able to maintain her “weird art girl who frequents vintage shops” vibe as the hooks are less obvious but still thrilling backed by a worldy sonic palette which suits her more insular persona and vocal delivery. The cynic in me initially found this record to be a bit too focused-grouped to tastemakers but multiple listens allowed me to recognize it for the masterpiece it is.
05) THE NATIONAL - First Two Pages Of Frankenstein / Laugh Track
The streaming era has dictated that most acts focus not only on quality but quantity as more songs equals more streams which then equals more revenue. This led to a number of companion albums, long albums and or double-albums (some are even on this list). The National must have had a burst of inspiration as they released two full lengths this year which essentially document everything the band does well. There are smooth sweeping sonic landscapes, moody piano pieces, a few electrifying rockers and a continued focus on outside collaborations featuring the current most famous person in the world (Taylor Swift) as well as other impressive guest spots such as Phoebe Bridgers and Justin Vernon of Bon Iver. Now 20 years plus into their career, The National knows what they do well and how to do it well. What’s amazing is that both these records offer some career best songs and thankfully don’t just serve as the soundtrack to aging fans going to the bathroom and/or checking on the babysitter while at the band’s shows. These two records showcase The National continuing to quietly put together one of the best catalogs in indie rock.
04) GIRL RAY - Prestige
This UK trio started out playing a more somber folk-y version of indie rock and then transitioned to a hybrid inclusive of R&B leanings. Sometime during the pandemic, Girl Ray began binging on all sorts of campy music and tv shows which gave their sound another overhaul allowing them to fully embrace disco and dance. The result gives us Prestige, which is an absolute blast tossing off low-key grooves and addicting melodies while still fully leaning into the idea of being a full-fledged band as opposed to some sort of electro-pop act. It’s wild to think this type of music was ever considered so unfashionable given how often modern pop and rock draw from the familiar elements (pulsing basslines, clean trebly guitar parts, big dance hooks, etc) but we’re all the luckier to have bands embracing it as the record is an intoxicating listen from a young band that has found a new sound which works best for them.
03) PORTUGAL THE MAN - Chris Black Changed My Life
Having a huge hit 16 years into a band’s career will always throw a long-running band for a loop. “Feel It Still” gave Portugal The Man a higher profile which meant that more eyes would be on the follow-up. Confounding the challenge were the additional personal issues the band went through, namely lead singer/guitarist John Gourley’s daughter being diagnosed with a neurodegenerative genetic disease on top of close friend Chris Black, who the album is named after, passing tragically. Those circumstances slowed down the usually prolific band (they released 7 albums between 2006 and 2013 alone) and led to a regroup producing one of their best records to date. Both groovy and rich in psych-rock textures, Chris Black Changed My Life both functions as addicting pop and also the soundtrack to tragic times. With this record, Gourley and co. have come back strong with some of their best songs to date meaning that, while they may never produce another song that captures the cultural zeitgeist as “Feel It Still” did, their commitment to their overall vision will be rewarded by both longtime and new fans alike.
02) RIPE - Bright Blues
Boston-area band Ripe had a fair amount of buzz behind their debut, 2018’s Joy Into The Wild Unknown which was able to generate their signing to prominent UK label Glassnote. When recording their sophomore album they did what all young bands should do which is level up, focus on your strengths, hone your craft and better what you previously did. Bright Blues is exactly what its title refers to, dealing with heavy topics with an overall upbeat and bright presentation. Part reggae, part funk, part rock, part pop, Ripe puts it all in a blender and delivers 12 insanely well crafted songs which sound better after each listen and even better live. In particular, lead singer Robbie Wulfsohn’s ability to craft both immediate hooks and inject personality into each tune propels the band well above all the other acts competing for spots at local midsize theaters across the country and showcases that Ripe has a long fruitful career in front of them.
01) FALL OUT BOY - So Much (For) Stardust
20 years into a band’s career, it’s very rare they can make an album that is embraced by the fanbase, commercially successful while also giving them a new stature in the critical discourse but here we are with Fall Out Boy. Scaling back on some of the electronic pretensions of 2018’s Mania, So Much (For) Stardust functions as a hard reboot for the act. Wisely, they don’t fully dig into the mid-00’s emo pop-punk that made them famous but instead look to all of their past releases to create the most well-rounded Fall Out Boy release to date. Pete Wentz, now in his 40’s, offers a more reflective lyrical outlook and no longer relies on witty one-lines and clever metaphors to sell his feelings. The ultimate start is singer/guitarist/arranger Patrick Stump who ultimately puts the highest emphasis on melody making for the most rewarding listen for me of 2023.