The best albums of 2023 were actually released in 2022. Taylor Swift and Beyoncé dominated the year through global stadium tours, blockbuster movies, and countless digital column inches. Beyoncé began the year by performing a lucrative and divisive private concert in Dubai and ended it in Kansas City when her Renaissance tour, an inclusive celebration of queer history and incandescent joy, came to a close. It is estimated that the tour generated $579 million in ticket sales. Swift, meanwhile, embarked on the Eras Tour, cannily marketing the idea of performing classic songs on stage as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
The long lives of Beyoncé’s Renaissance and Swift’s Midnights (plus her ongoing mission to rerecord the studio albums for which she no longer owns the masters) hint at the increasing tension around the purpose of albums in the streaming era.
With royalty rates minuscule and algorithmic playlists the primary form of song dispersal, artists are increasingly less interested in crafting a body of work that speaks as a whole. This may explain the relative flatness of albums from some of the biggest names this year: Drake, Travis Scott, and Lil Uzi Vert all doubled down to create agonizingly long and hollow-sounding projects, while Doja Cat’s discomfort with the pop world she exists in was felt in the agitated and rap-centric Scarlet.
While the mainstream feels like it’s missing its center, the fringes continue to provoke and innovate. The past year has been a fantastic one for globe-spanning artists chasing creative breakthroughs and growth. From explicit and empowering rap anthems to existential TikTok love songs, we’ve seen outstanding albums from artists who still value the format for what it has always been: the perfect vessel for soul-searching, new perspectives, and increased musical prospects.
Everyone’s Crushed, Water From Your Eyes
Nate Amos and Rachel Brown’s wry and disillusioned art-rock feels as indebted to meme accounts as to their historical forebears in Sonic Youth or Pavement. There is a gallows humor in their songs about addiction and inertia, with a strong anti-capitalist streak to boot. “There are no happy endings/There are only things that happen,” Brown sings at one point. “Buy my product.”
Hood Hottest Princess, Sexyy Red
Women continue to deliver unbridled energy in a fragmented hip-hop landscape. Sexyy Red enjoyed a breakout year in 2023 with her Hood Hottest Princess mixtape, which featured the St. Louis rapper delivering unfiltered bars about sex, money, and men with the same audacity as her male peers. Tough, comedic, and raunchy in equal measure, Sexyy Red made frankness sound like the only option.
Suntub, ML Buch
Danish synth-pop artist ML Buch’s Suntub is an album that often juxtaposes the beauty of nature with the carnal reality of the human body. “Can I melt in algal bloom/Leak from bladder flower wombs?” she ponders on “Solid.” It’s a device Buch seemingly uses to offset the gleaming sparsity of her music, crystalline pop songs lined with digitally heightened guitar tones. The result is the equivalent of dropping raw meat on an all-white couch. A mix of pristine aesthetics and body horror squelch battling for supremacy.
Did You Know That There’s a Tunnel Under Ocean Blvd, Lana Del Rey
Lana Del Rey is a remarkably prolific artist whose ninth studio album is arguably her finest—a rare feat in a time when artist personas can feel quickly exhausted. Did You Know That There’s a Tunnel Under Ocean Blvd continues Del Rey’s dreamlike trip through her own version of Americana, one filled with spiritual messages, John Denver classics, death, and the brittle facade of youth. She cries out to be remembered on the album’s title track, while on the sprawling, trap-lite, “A&W” she takes a scythe to her critics and an empowerment economy that still leaves some women feeling cast aside.
Rat Saw God, Wednesday
Indie rock is in constant dialog with the past, with some bands more faithful to those who picked up guitars before them than others. Wednesday’s latest adds a country-fried tinge to their grunge sound. The North Carolina band cites Drive-By Truckers among their influences, and Rat Saw God represents the midpoint between outlaw country and the mosh pit, as songs like “Cliff” are infused with pedal-steel guitar. Karly Hartzman is a refreshingly frank songwriter, bringing vulnerability and a feral-like quality to album standout “Bull Believer.”
10,000 gecs, 100 gecs
100 gecs are the gurning face of hyperpop, a genre name created by Spotify and quickly abandoned by those who fell under its umbrella. Laura Les and Dylan Brady dare you to take them seriously on 10,000 gecs as they plunder outmoded genres, including ska and nu-metal, on their way to an orgiastic celebration of bad taste. Pick at the gaudiness for just a moment, however, and 100 gecs reveal their maestro-like musical abilities and thinly masked vulnerability.
Fountain Baby, Amaarae
Afrobeats artist Amaarae was born in The Bronx and raised between Atlanta, Georgia, and Accra, Ghana. That intercontinental background is felt on Fountain Baby, an eclectic album that mixes its modern African pop sound with moments of rap nostalgia and punk-rock squall. While she is happy to frolic in various sounds, Amaare writes with a focus on love and sex. She derives pleasure from being pursued while always alert to the dangers of dating in 2023 (Libras don’t emerge well). On Fountain Baby, Amaare feels unmoored in the best possible way; free from expectations and history, ready to embrace whatever sensation comes her way.
The Land Is Inhospitable and So Are We, Mitski
The Land Is Inhospitable and So Are We is the sound of Mitski accepting her place in the world. While her 2022 album Laurel Hell masked discomfort with an increasing level of fame by utilizing synthetic pop sonics, this collection of small, knotty songs feels more intimate and led by nature. Sweeping orchestral arrangements and even a choir on “Bug Like An Angel” only serve to underscore the loneliness that runs through the majority of the album. On “My Love Is Mine All Mine,” however, Mitski finds strength in that which is elemental. Singing about her heart and capacity to love, she contemplates death and has a simple request: “Could it shine down here with you?”
Get Up, NewJeans
NewJeans’ nostalgic Y2K-era K-pop feels like cracking a window on a stuffy day. “Super Shy” is a flirtatious song about a crush that masks its desire behind a Jersey club-type beat. “ETA,” meanwhile, throws airhorns into the mix, adding a hooky dissonance to the groups’ stainless throwback club pop.
SZA teased fans with the arrival of a new album for years and then dropped SOS at the very tail end of 2022, late enough to mean it missed last year’s list season. SOS would have been a smash regardless of when it was released. SZA’s lack of vanity and desire to dig deeper than her peers gives songs like the heated murder ballad “Kill Bill” a villainous quality others may shy away from (“His new girlfriend’s next, how’d I get here?”). “Snooze” exists in the tender moments of a star-crossed relationship, while on “Shirt,” SZA chastises herself for being the sort of person to waste a sunny day. The tension between lust and rage provides the backbone of SOS, an album unrivaled in its rich textures and frank disclosures.