We’re halfway through the year and have already been blessed with some fine albums. Whilst there hasn’t been quite as many blockbuster releases as there was this time last year (save for Lana Del Rey), there’s nonetheless been some genuine works of art that will have a shelf-life well beyond 2023.
So, from the triumphant return of Everything But The Girl to the extraordinary left-turn of Lil Yachty, the epic three-piece opera from Christine and the Queens to Foo Fighters’ beautiful study in grief, here are the best albums of 2023 – so far.
Derealised – Jadu Heart
Diva Jeffrey and Alex Headford have been making inimitable dream-pop and electronic music for years as Jadu Heart, but their third studio album Derealised is something altogether more sublime. Whilst there’s an ethereal thread running through the whole project, tracks like ‘Cocoon’, ‘Sway’ and ‘Webs’ add a grunge verve that ensures it isn’t all airy-fairy. This is truly one of the best albums of 2023 so far.
Good Lies – Overmono
Having gained a reputation as underground electronic stalwarts for years – including through their Truss and Tessela solo projects – brotherly duo Tom and Ed Russell, aka Overmono, finally released their debut album. And it certainly delivered. Racing through garage, breakbeat, atmospheric techno and plenty in-between, and aided by the pair’s skilled use of sampling, Good Lies comes together like a brief history of UK dance culture.
Fuse – Everything But The Girl
The return of Everything But The Girl this year, almost a quarter of a century since their previous album, was cause for celebration in itself. But the brilliance of Fuse – toeing the line, as it does, between sounding entirely new and building on EBTG’s historic strengths (especially Tracey Thorn’s distinctive vocals) – surpassed expectations. Certainly, there are moments of letting-loose, as in the aptly-titled ‘Caution To The Wind’, but it’s matched by moments of downtempo, cerebral reflection, as on ‘Lost’ and album closer ‘Karaoke’. It’s a stellar example of how to mark a return.
Space Heavy – King Krule
Maturity, and how you weld it into your lyrical and sonic output, is a common theme among the best releases of the year to date. For many of us who grew up on a partial diet of King Krule’s sorrowful, laconic albums, there was always a question as to how the singer’s music would evolve as he did from boy to man. Space Heavy is exactly what you could have hoped for, preserving some of the best existential angst at the heart of the singer-songwriter’s catalogue, whilst pondering on some of life’s more grown-up aspects, including newfound fatherhood and finding real, genuine love.
Paranoïa, Angels, True Love – Christine and the Queens
A three-part epic, Paranoïa, Angels, True Love sees Christine and the Queens take on all the subjects of its title, one by one. The French artist’s best work to date, it isn’t so much produced by sub-lover Mike Dean as it does feature him, with the Kanye West and Frank Ocean collaborator cranking-up the bass aplenty across this project. But for every pounding track, there’s a moment of peaceful, longing, lovelorn reflection. C’est très très magnifique.
33 Tours Et Puis S’en Vont – Laurent Garnier
Techno can sometimes be overlooked in compilation lists, weighed-down by its emphasis on repetition and exclusivity, but the genre’s godfather, Laurent Garnier, released an album that’s near-impossible to ignore. The French DJ and producer’s first LP in eight years, 33 Tours Et Puis S’en Vont is a techno odyssey that clocks in at almost three hours long; such length takes something special to surmount tedium, but with samples from philosopher Alan Watts, Alan Vega’s sinister murmuring and house-oriented cuts like ‘Multiple tributes (to multiple people, for multiple reasons)’ things are kept perpetually fresh.
But Here We Are – Foo Fighters
The first Foos album written and released since the death of the band’s longtime drummer Taylor Hawkins and Dave Grohl’s mother, Virginia, But Here We Are was always going to be a study in grief. But it never had to sound as good as it does. Combining the rock icon’s classic propensity for raucous riffs and kicks with the emotional weight of mourning, this ten-track record is Foo Fighters’ best since 2011’s Wasting Light. Final track ‘Rest’, with its closing line “Wakin’ up, had another dream of us / In the warm Virginia sun, there I will meet you” in ode to Grohl’s mother, is as cathartic a track as you’re likely to hear all year.
UK Grim – Sleaford Mods
Oftentimes an artist will seek inspiration from the extremities of the world. In the case of Sleaford Mods, it’s more like the world truly caught up with their jaggedy, at-times challenging output. Amid a cost-of-living crisis, strikes galore and Tory chaos, trust Jason Williamson and Andrew Fearn to step up and make an album like UK Grim, with its depiction of “fist-fights in Sainsbury’s car park[s]” (‘Smash Each Other Up’) and the I-told-you-so warnings of “getting mugged by the right-wing beast” (‘Right Wing Beast’). It might not be the soundtrack we’d particularly want for the year, but with some of Sleaford’s most accessible work to date, at least it sounds class.
Maps – Billy Woods, Kenny Segal
By the same point in time last year, 2022 had a fierce number of acclaimed rap and hip-hop albums that were already jostling for top spot – not just for album of the year within the genre, but amongst the lot. Huge projects like Kendrick’s Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers and Pusha T’s It’s Almost Dry had healthy competition from the likes of Vince Staples’ Ramona Park Broke My Heart and Saba’s Few Good Things. 2023 hasn’t quite offered the same level of rap potency, but Billy Woods and Kenny Segal’s Maps is up there with the very best of last year. Strange, marauding and jazz-like in its freewheeling delivery, it defies the usual expectancy of a rap, or even socially conscious rap, album. Perhaps, in the scope of history, 2023 will mark a turning point for the genre – and Maps will be seen as one of key signifiers of that.
& the Charm – Avalon Emerson
Another somewhat surprising artistic turn on this list comes in the form of Avalon Emerson, who veered from her usual course of techno and leftfield electronic into the world of dream-pop. As a result, her & the Charm project has an Arthur Russell or Cocteau Twins feel to it, as she reconciles her musical roots and inspirations. Fine-tuned by the album’s executive producer Bullion, who shares Emerson’s love of dreamy soundscapes, the result is a nostalgic-sounding record that feels plucked from another time.
God Save The Streets – Avelino
After years of mixtapes and notable linkups, Avelino finally dropped his debut in 2023. God Save The Streets might relay the oft-heard tales of hardened upbringings and inner-city violence, but it does so largely at its own pace without the usual bluff and bluster that some grime and UK rap tracks get carried away with. As it segues from whip-smart storytelling akin to Knucks on ‘Vicious Cycle’ to jazz-inflected, Wretch 32-featuring ‘Sin City’, you can’t help but feel this was a debut worth waiting for.
First Two Pages of Frankenstein – The National
Features from Taylor Swift and Phoebe Bridgers – two of the most venerated artists currently around – would often overshadow an album, but not with The National’s beautiful First Two Pages of Frankenstein. In fact, especially in the wake of their collaborative work, Aaron Dessner and co. have been cast as the paternal purveyors of sorrowful rock. They’ve always had that string to their bow, notably with 2013’s Trouble Will Find Me, but their latest is quite possibly their best – an album that works through the suffering of depression with grace and that oh-so-vital, faint glimmer of hope.
The Record – boygenius
One of the most celebrated moments in music this year was the announcement of boygenius’ first full-length album, and first project since the trio of Phoebe Bridgers, Julien Baker and Lucy Dacus released their project’s self-titled EP in 2018. The most impressive thing about The Record is how it offers the very best of each of the supergroup’s members, all acclaimed soloists in their own right, without anyone being drowned out. A mix of rageful indie-rock and classy acoustic numbers, the weight and pacing is tremendous, as you half-expect the three hands on the album cover to clasp each other in triumph.
Mercy – John Cale
Former Velvet Underground and avant-garde journeyman John Cale released his seventeenth studio album. Age is just a number, sure, but when Mercy sounds as innovative as it does, Cale’s 81 years is all the more commendable. With the aid of some of the most exploratory artists currently around, including Laurel Halo, Weyes Blood and Sylvan Esso, the octogenarian is able to work through themes of despair and hopelessness, leaning into his slightly jaded vocals. There’s an end-of-days feel to the album as a whole, but tracks like ‘Noise Of You’ and ‘I Know You’re Happy’ offer a degree of calm amidst it all.
With A Hammer – Yaeji
Yaeji might be holding a sledgehammer on the cover of her debut album, but With A Hammer doesn’t so much smash you into a million pieces as it does gnaw away at you, slowly but elegantly, with steady dream-pop-induced rage. Oscillating between Yaeji’s dual tongues of English and Korean, this album isn’t quite as dancefloor-attuned as some of the New York-based artist’s previous works, but there’s still plenty to offer a mental, if not a physical, release.
Praise a Lord Who Chews but Which Does Not Consume; (Or Simply, Hot Between Worlds) – Yves Tumor
Few albums could justifiably be titled something as helter-skelter as Yves Tumor’s fifth album is, but with its angst-ridden groans and unpredictable changes in direction, Praise a Lord… certainly lives up to the billing. The album’s aspects of gothic grunge and experimental punk act like something of a smokescreen at times, with some wonderfully melodious tracks like ‘Meteora Blues’ and ‘Parody’ lurking beneath, making Praise a Lord… a truly spirited album that rises and falls like the uncontrollable soul in us all.
Did You Know That There’s a Tunnel Under Ocean Blvd – Lana Del Rey
The devotion that exists for Lana Del Rey among her fanbase – and the sad-girl aesthetic it reflects and induces – can occasionally lead to an oversight of her music, as people assume it’s just style over substance. Yet Did You Know… was a stark reminder of Lana’s poetic supremacy. Its second single ‘A&W’ operated like a whistle-stop history of the singer’s now-nine- album-deep catalogue, starting with its breathy, piano-backed opening and working towards its sensual, bass-heavy end via its self-loathing Lana of Paradise and Ultraviolence midpoint. With exceptional, sparse features from Jon Batiste, Father John Misty and yet more terrific production from Bleachers’ Jack Antonoff, it’s an album that penetrates well-beyond Lana’s mammoth fanbase.
Raven – Kelela
After a six-year hiatus, alternative RnB artist Kelela – who probably most closely shares a devotion to her art and aesthetic with Yves Tumor and Caroline Polachek on this list – returned with Raven. A sultry, smooth, hour-long run of tracks, it provides moments of jubilant club-fueled bounce through the likes of pared-back techno tune ‘Bruises’ and garage-inflected ‘Contact’, and a number of tunes for the ensuing comedown. A true Warps Records release, it’s an artist entrusted to do as they please, at the peak of their powers.
Desire, I Want To Turn Into You – Caroline Polachek
There’s a little bit of everything from the pop polymath Caroline Polachek on her sophomore album, Desire, I Want To Turn Into You. The former Chairlift vocalist commences the record with the necessary ‘Welcome To My Island’, which parachutes us into her smorgasbord of experimental design that incorporates bagpipes, children’s choirs, Spanish guitar and even the giggling cries of co-producer Danny L Harle’s baby. Dido’s feature on the album is a nod to some of its late-nineties, early-noughties nostalgia.
This Stupid World – Yo La Tengo
Nearly 40 years in, and with a 16 album-deep catalogue, New Jersey indie-rock heroes Yo La Tengo are still making music as vital as ever. As its title suggests, This Stupid World carries a haunting sense of despair that ricochets across the album, right from its pulsating, seven-minute- plus opener ‘Sinata Drive Breakdown’. Just when you think you’ve been dragged into a vortex of nihilistic anguish upon listening, the blissful bouts of tracks like ‘Aseletine’ and ‘Apology Letter’ provide a moment’s serenity, like an ice cube running down your back on a hot summer’s day.
Kassi Valazza – Kassi Valazza Knows Nothing
Arizona-raised, Portland-based Kassi Valazza might profess to know nothing on her sophomore album, but she sure knows how to pluck at the heartstrings. With vocals and lyrics reminiscent of Joni Mitchell, this is a mellow, folk-tinged country album that’ll leave you wanting to lie in the same sort of field Valazza sits in on the album’s cover, staring at the passing clouds as each track washes over. Flanked by TK & the Holy Know-Nothings (hence the album’s ostensibly self-deprecating title), there’s a real texture to each of the album’s ten tracks.
Real Back In Style – Potter Payper
In a scene that often bigs-up its tough image, it’s still nonetheless a shame that Barking rapper Potter Payper (real name, Jamel Bousbaa) was in jail upon the release of his debut full-length studio album, Real Back In Style. Listening to its contents, though, and the hardened circumstances Bousbaa has experienced, you can hear why, with the young rapper a product of his environment. This album isn’t just flexing for flexing’s sake, though, but is delivered with scintillating energy, and dextrous flow.
Glow – Wesley Joseph
Wesley Joseph may object to GLOW being placed on this list, regarding the project as technically a “mixtape” instead of an album. But to stop being a stickler for the rules for a moment, this is a project worthy of a shoutout. A highly versatile eight-track offering, it’s the product of an artist who can rap, sing and produce with a captivating charm that traverses jazz, RnB and hip-hop. Part of this album’s– sorry, mixtape’s – allure is the fact you feel there’s also much more to be had from the 25-year-old.
Cracker Island – Gorillaz
It’s been as busy a year as ever for British music stalwart Damon Albarn. Not only has the Britpop poster boy announced a new album with Blur, but earlier this year reconvened with his cartoonish characters for the release of Cracker Island. Enlisting notable features Stevie Nicks, Tame Impala and global streaming and reggaeton heavyweight Bad Bunny, this project is more trim than prior Gorillaz records, placing emphasis on quality instead.
Let’s Start Here. – Lil Yachty
Keeping us on our toes at the start of the year, Lil Yachty dropped one of the best left-turn albums in recent memory. Better-known prior to the release of Let’s Start Here as a proponent of “bubblegum trap”, this album is an immersive psych-rock thrill that takes far more inspiration from Pink Floyd the likes of Travis Scott. From its opening sci-fi rumblings, it’s a listen that feels so experimental on the Atlanta artist’s behalf that at times you wonder whether he even knows what’s coming next.