The Skinny's Albums of 2023
We've once again polled our music writers for their standout records of the year, and as expected, 2023's list features a gorgeously diverse range of artists
Before we get into our top ten, it's important to show some love for the albums that didn't quite make the cut. At number 20 is Rat Saw God (Dead Oceans, 7 Apr), the fifth studio album from North Carolina outfit Wednesday, while coming in at 19 with her debut album, The Rise and Fall of a Midwest Princess (Amusement/Island Records, 22 Sep), is Chappell Roan, who says of her record: "After four years in the making comes my 14-song album holding stories of unearthing my true self and fearlessly embracing queerness. My whole project is a rebellion to how I was raised."
At 18 is Sampha's second studio album Lahai (Young, 20 Oct), the follow-up to his debut, Process, which landed in our top ten back in 2017, while Irish singer-songwriter CMAT's second album Crazymad, For Me (AWAL, 13 Oct), takes the 17th spot. We described the record as "funnier, weirder, more colourful and more ambitious" than her debut. Taking the 16th spot is i've seen a way (Fire Talk Records, 19 May), the exquisite debut from Manchester-based electronic noise-rock band Mandy, Indiana, while the super fun Something to Give Each Other (EMI Australia/Capitol, 13 Oct) from Troye Sivan lands at number 15.
No stranger to our end of year list, Fever Ray is back with their third studio album Radical Romantics (Rabid Records, 10 Mar), at number 14. Here's what we said on its release in March: "Radical Romantics is an examination of love in all its multifarious machinations, but in the typically twisted way you'd expect from Fever Ray." Taking the 13th spot is Scotland's own Hamish Hawk, for his latest LP Angel Numbers (Post Electric, 3 Feb), which we described as "an album of remarkable scope and vivid, romantic lyricism." At number 12 is Lana Del Rey for her mouthful of an album title – Did you know that there’s a tunnel under Ocean Blvd (Interscope/Polydor, 24 Mar), while just outside the top ten you'll find JPEGMAFIA & Danny Brown for their absolutely bonkers collaborative record SCARING THE HOES (AWAL, 24 Mar). And now onto the top ten.
#10 Paramore – This Is Why
Image: Paramore by Zachary Gray
Released in February, This Is Why, Paramore’s first studio album in almost six years, is a post-punk tour-de-force that set a very high bar for other rock acts to follow throughout the year. The album is filled front to back with real quality, with a plethora of catchy riffs and even catchier choruses. There are fast-paced pop-punk anthems like The News that harken back to Paramore’s early days, as well as slower, more introspective songs like Liar, that show how they have expertly expanded their musical horizons.
The influence of the early noughties garage-rock boom is clear, with a particular debt being owed to the likes of Bloc Party and The Strokes. But perhaps the most impressive thing about This Is Why is that it is experimental. Nostalgia is big business these days, and it would have been so easy for Paramore to cash in and put out a record with minimal effort while taking a headline slot at the next festival capitalising on a fondness for the golden days of pop-punk emo supremacy. Instead, they gave us one of their best albums, and one of the real rock highlights of the year. [Logan Walker]
This Is Why was released on 10 Feb via Atlantic Records
#9 Lankum – False Lankum
Image: Lankum by Sorcha Frances Ryder
When Lankum performed their rendition of The New York Trader at London’s Barbican earlier this year, the crowd were whipped into a state of gloried frenzy. Rising from their seats and flooding the aisles, they were enthralled by the raw droning power of this old Jonah Ballad. A work of finely honed beauty and cumulative power, False Lankum was conceived during Dublin’s recurring pandemic lockdowns. Successfully drawing a line between the past and the present, its 12 tracks (a mix of traditional folk songs and the group’s own compositions) combine the anxieties of that period with the hardship and desperation that haunt these centuries-old ballads.
From gothic opener Go Dig My Grave to the keening textures and melancholic tones of tracks like Newcastle and On a Monday Morning, these songs move fluidly from moments of glee to intense, all-consuming horror. It’s something perhaps best observed on Master Crowley’s, an invigorating jig that gradually succumbs to a subterranean drone that groans and heaves like a ship being dragged towards the bottom of the ocean. If False Lankum is to rightfully be termed a modern classic, it's because of these unexpected and expansive moments that push these songs into new extreme territories. [Patrick Gamble]
False Lankum was released on 24 Mar via Rough Trade
#8 Olivia Rodrigo – GUTS
Image: Olivia Rodrigo by Nick Walker
Enjoying a banner year with GUTS, Olivia Rodrigo swaggered past the sophomore slump, loaded with pop-rock ammo, bon-mots and volatile ballads.
In both aggro and gentle expressions, Rodrigo erroneously makes her way through young adulthood, navigating the entropic period of being not a girl, not yet a woman. And GUTS chronicles her backslides into bad decisions with winks, whispers, and wails. Diaristic in her admission of fears and ouroboros fuck-ups, she tries to deal with her dysfunction. But with an overbearing weight of anxieties, the Gen-Z laureate’s sense of self is a listing ship.
On bad idea right? Rodrigo self-acquits from her rampant self-sabotage with a comically unconvincing 'Fuck it, it’s fine'. It’s a heedless heel-turn away from good choices and her most addictive song to date. Debilitating cringe defines the thundering anthem ballad of a homeschooled girl, while making the bed plainly describes a burning self-contempt, lamenting a malaise of her own design. Finally, get him back! is a heady toss-up between revenge and reconciliation with a lover. She battles competing instincts: cater to him or clobber him?
GUTS rejects pieties and tugs at maturity. It’s a prismatic burst from a self-aware and mordant mind. [Lucy Fitzgerald]
GUTS was released on 8 Sep via Geffen Records
#7 Kelela – Raven
On Raven, even when Kelela is still, she’s on the move. It begins with a cleansing synth rushing over her – it washes her away on the current, fading away into the horizon. Later, she’s more in control: 'on the run', 'pushing a rock up a mountain', 'fighting the tide', grasping out. This constant movement illuminates Kelela’s journey towards Raven. Encumbered by a creative block in the shadow of her brilliant debut, Take Me Apart, six years previously, she did what she’s constantly doing on this record – she fought forward: getting political, engaging with her Blackness and its artistic history. The physicality of the music on Raven encapsulates this, not as some direct statement but as clarity of focus, newfound direction.
When you are listening to Raven, you are truly in it – its fluidity and considered consistency create a bubble with a thick, impenetrable surface. Within it, she conjures a sonic mélange drawing on UK 90s garage, Afrofuturism, Alice Coltrane-inspired new age and jazz, and ambient. Even when the shuddering beats temper on Holier, the bone-rattling bass keeps you moving. By the wordless improvisations of closer Far Away – initially mirroring the swells of the album’s introduction, and then transcending them – Kelela, and all listening, are finally in a place of ecstatic peace. [Tony Inglis]
Raven was released on 10 Feb via Warp Records
#6 Mitski – The Land Is Inhospitable and So Are We
Image: Mitski by Ebru Yildiz
Mitski’s seventh studio album sees an about-turn in form; rooted and organic in its instrumentation and composition, pared back when compared to last year’s pop-inflected Laurel Hell. Sonic flourishes are highlighted – choral hits in Bug Like an Angel, percussive intensity as The Deal rushes to an end – as rare stylistic punches amongst the effective acoustic simplicity of Mitski and producer Patrick Hyland’s arrangements, themselves measured lean-ins to the warmth of Americana.
This soundscape provides a rootedness; a buttress for Mitski’s aphoristic and forlorn lyricism, parsing fatalism (I’m Your Man), death (My Love Mine All Mine) and touching on alcoholism (Bug Like an Angel). There is light amongst the shade, however. A thrilling pang of hope and liberty in Buffalo Replaced; resounding, triumphant pride in album closer I Love Me After You.
It's this mastery of each component – sequencing, theme, songwriting, compositional intelligence – that Mitski and Hyland contribute to The Land Is Inhospitable and So Are We that frames its successes: it is resultantly emotionally erudite, classic in sound and presentation, and a jewel in the crown of one of America’s finest contemporary musicians. [Rhys Morgan]
The Land Is Inhospitable and So Are We was released on 15 Sep via Dead Oceans
#5 Billy Woods & Kenny Segal – Maps
Image: Billy Woods & Kenny Segal by Alexander Richter
Billy Woods will not be at soundcheck. On Maps, the Brooklyn rapper is a world-wise curmudgeon, maintaining his humanity in the no man's land of overseas touring. Instead of glamorous boat trips and afterparties, it’s EasyJet layovers, gentrified weed and missed FaceTime calls. Touring is tough for any independent musician. It’s even tougher when dealing with ‘survivor’s guilt with a side of buyer’s remorse’, as he raps on NYC Tapwater.
His frequent production partner Kenny Segal matches the dread, humour and heart found in the lyrics with grit-flecked beats. Like Nas/Hit-Boy or Little Simz/Inflo, the duo have a rare bond. It’s allowed them to create a tone and story that’s all their own.
There are, of course, countless quotables and killer punchlines with a writer as sharp as Woods. Every beat delivers. We expect that, now. But what’s made Maps connect beyond his cult fanbase is its focused themes and personal approach. Never has Woods sounded more open than when rapping about taking his kid to the park after a hectic tour. Moments like Agriculture and Hangman are emotional gut-punches that explain and elevate his slippery and standoffish demeanour. And after the twentieth listen, it’s still revealing secrets. [Skye Butchard]
Maps was released on 5 May via Backwoodz Studioz
#4 boygenius – the record
Image: boygenius by Harrison Whitford
the record is the first proper album from boygenius, the supergroup consisting of Lucy Dacus, Julien Baker and Phoebe Bridgers, and it is something very special indeed. The album opens with Without You Without Them, a stripped back mission statement of togetherness from the trio; 'I want to hear your story and be a part of it', they sing in pitch-perfect harmony, before lurching into life on the Baker-led juggernaut $20, an adventure movie about motorcycles, arsonists and empty pockets which plays out over choppy guitars.
The bulk of the album occupies these two spaces as it examines the relationships within the band itself, but in a refreshing twist on that rock'n'roll tradition; it's friendship not romance which takes centre stage. But make no mistake, these are love songs. Lyrics like, 'You could absolutely break my heart / That’s how I know we’re in love' (We’re In Love), or the tender refrain, 'I never thought you’d happen to me' at the end of Leonard Cohen (a song about a clumsy formative roadtrip the group took together) shine a rare light on the intimacy and nourishment friendship provides. Having dissolved into this deep connection, boygenius have become more than a sum of their (already very good) parts and the record is all the better for it. [Tara Hepburn]
the record was released on 31 Mar via Interscope
#3 Sufjan Stevens – Javelin
Image: Sufjan Stevens by Sufjan Stevens
Sufjan Stevens' tenth studio album is yet another masterpiece of intimate, carefully considered indie-folk storytelling. The songs are packed with allusive details that hint at regret and loss ('In the future there will be a terrible cost / For all that we've left undone', 'I was the man still in love with you / When I already knew it was done'), but the subtle orchestral arrangements are more hopeful than the grief-stricken Carrie & Lowell, its closest musical forebear.
Two personal details help explain the contrast which is struggled with throughout the album: 1) the death of his partner Evan Richardson earlier this year; 2) Stevens' recent recovery from the debilitating Guillain–Barré syndrome. These contextual clues, along with the essays and 'imaginative art' that accompany the album, are nice to have, but the songs themselves are worthy of celebration regardless. My Red Little Fox is a waltzing nursery rhyme that explores the delirium of love via the Pentecost; Everything That Rises has a hushed vocal intricacy to rival Nick Drake or Vashti Bunyan, and Will Anybody Ever Love Me? is simply another in a long line of ornate, breathtaking explorations of the soul that has cemented Stevens' legendary status over the past 25 years. [Lewis Wade]
Javelin was released on 6 Oct via Asthmatic Kitty
#2 Caroline Polachek – Desire, I Want to Turn Into You
Image: Caroline Polachek by Aidan Zamiri
At the time of writing, Caroline Polachek is freshly nominated for the Grammy for Best Engineered Album (Non-Classical). And as much as big industry awards are full of nonsense and essentially meaningless, that's pretty exciting, because Desire, I Want to Turn Into You is exactly the sort of work a music lover wants to see recognised in that category.
More than any of Polachek’s work to date, Desire... pairs the rhapsodic hooks of mainstream pop with a more inquisitive, even artisanal, approach to production. There are audio curiosities and international influences everywhere (Bunny Is a Rider features birdsong and a baby’s laughter; Blood and Butter features Brìghde Chaimbeul on the smallpipes), making it an album that rewards a second, fifth, or hundredth listen.
Polachek’s voice also remains fascinating – she’s leaned further into a singing technique she calls ‘vocal flipping’, whereby she exploits the jump from chest voice to head voice to create more harshly defined edges between notes. It may sound on first listen like an effect created in the 90s to help sell Cher records, but it’s actually the technique behind yodelling. That same technique gives her the power to explore the subcurrent of grief running through the album. It’s not a joyous sound in the traditional sense, but you might say it’s cathartic. [Laurie Presswood]
Desire, I Want to Turn Into You was released on 14 Feb via Sony Music/The Orchard/Perpetual Novice
#1 Young Fathers – Heavy Heavy
Image: Young Fathers, by Nico Utuk
This year’s album of the year was a clear stand-out from the start. On Heavy Heavy, Edinburgh’s Young Fathers have captivated us once more, with a career-defining album radiating celebratory joy through its very soul. Read Anita Bhadani's full recap of our Album of 2023 by scrolling on, or clicking here...