The Best Music of 2023

In mid-November, the musician André 3000—one-half of the beloved hip-hop duo OutKast, which released six idiosyncratic and irrepressible records between 1994 and 2006—announced that he was, at long last, putting out a full-length solo LP. “Hey Ya!,” OutKast’s biggest hit, from 2003, is the sort of song that belongs on one of those satellite time capsules NASA periodically launches into space, a rare and potent distillation of everything freaky and beautiful about life on Earth. His fans wanted a rap record, and why wouldn’t they? André 3000 is preternaturally good at rapping. Instead, he gave us “New Blue Sun,” an eighty-seven-minute, largely improvised, entirely instrumental flute record with song titles such as “I Swear, I Really Wanted to Make a ‘Rap’ Album but This Is Literally the Way the Wind Blew Me This Time.” Digital flutes, contrabass flutes, bamboo flutes, Mayan flutes. Lotta flutes.

I’ll admit that I have an unusual—my therapist might say pathological—affinity for meandering, ponderous, vibey records that are fundamentally at odds with the pop Zeitgeist. It might be my punk-rock heart, or a response to the tumult of modern life, but, when I first heard about “New Blue Sun,” my reaction was not gentle disappointment or abject confusion but a kind of giddy thrill: Cosmic flutes, presented in the upside-down barometrical spirit of Yusef Lateef or Pharoah Sanders or John and Alice Coltrane? Shoot it in my veins! If that makes me sound like a pretentious gasbag, well, whatever, never mind. I spent my teen-age years pretending to like difficult music because I aspired to be a cooler and more sophisticated person; this year, I found myself pretending to like massive pop releases because to dismiss them as trifling or mercenary seemed, I don’t know . . . ungenerous? Out of touch? Lame? Rockist? While the former practice sorta worked—when I was fifteen, locking myself in my bedroom with Sonic Youth’s “Washing Machine” opened my mind to the thrill and logic of utter cacophony—dutifully listening to Morgan Wallen, the most popular artist of 2023 by a number of metrics, mostly made me feel as though I was on eternal hold with my insurance company.

Instead I really only wanted to hear far-out music that met or reflected our era of generalized collapse. Artists with the courage to challenge institutional dictates; music that felt small and real and occasionally unpresentable. Anything not maximized for palatability. Anything without an American Express presale code. Anything that didn’t plainly prioritize profitability, solipsism, selfishness, or ignorance—things I saw plenty of in nearly every other facet of modern life. For the first time, I found myself thrashing against the seduction of newness, and moreover the presumption that newness is always where the heat is; these days, popular culture is so hopelessly accelerated that the supernovas are perhaps less interesting thant the things that manage to remain. My top three records of the year are mid-career masterpieces from artists who have been making serious, thoughtful work for more than a decade.

There are, of course, some great releases missing from my list—boygenius, Caroline Polachek, Elle King, Cleo Sol, yeule, Jessie Ware, Paramore, Miley Cyrus—not because I didn’t enjoy them (I did), but because lists, like records, are best when they’re a little strange and imperfect. In his memoir “Going Into the City,” Robert Christgau wrote of how good art is often born from a desire to “add order and beauty to the inchoate world that radiates out from each of us.” But, he added, “in every culture some humans are better at this than others, and as cultures get more complex, the art they produce starts seeming pretty inchoate itself. So criticism conjures order and beauty from that.” Can a year-end list conjure order and beauty? I don’t know. But here are a dozen records that did it for me in 2023. I learned so much from them.

1. ANOHNI and the Johnsons, “My Back Was a Bridge for You to Cross” (Secretly Canadian)

I can’t think of another contemporary singer who is quite as effective (or as moving) a soothsayer as Anohni Hegarty, whose profound and celestial voice routinely delivers necessary warnings, dark missives from on high: “You’re so killable, just so killable,” she sings on “Scapegoat,” one of the more devastating tracks on “My Back Was a Bridge for You to Cross,” her gorgeous and complex sixth album. Hegarty has said she was influenced by blue-eyed soul, queer and transgender activists (a portrait of Marsha P. Johnson is featured on the album’s cover), Lou Reed, Nina Simone, and the civil-rights movement, but so much of “My Back Was a Bridge for You to Cross” feels without precedent. It kept me afloat during a year in which depravity, bloodlust, and spite seemed like truly inescapable forces.

Photograph by David Moffly / Alamy

2. Sufjan Stevens, “Javelin” (Asthmatic Kitty Records)

The singer and songwriter Sufjan Stevens has been recording delicate, tender love songs since at least 2000, when he released “A Sun Came,” his début LP. hough he has taken several stylistic detours in the years, dabbling in electronic music and chamber pop, “Javelin” contains the sort of intimate, finely wrought folk music he’s best known for; it might be his most bare and emotionally raw work. (The day of the album’s release, Stevens, who has long been quiet about the particulars of his romantic life, posted a photo to Instagram of his late partner, Evans Richardson, who passed away in April; “Javelin” is dedicated to him.) On “Will Anybody Ever Love Me?,” Stevens’s voice sounds weary, thin, repentant, hungry. Who doesn’t reach a point at which they simply want to know if they can be received—in the Biblical sense, in the romantic sense—by another consciousness? “Watch me drift and watch me struggle, let me go / ’Cause I really wanna know / Will anybody ever love me? / For good reasons, without grievance, not for sport?” he wonders. You might think it’s all too plaintive and earnest to bear, until you realize it’s also the only question worth asking.

3. Oneohtrix Point Never, “Again” (Warp)

The composer Daniel Lopatin, who records as Oneohtrix Point Never, makes dense and opaque electronic music that feels singular in its capacity to reflect the uncanniness of contemporary American life. “Again” is Lopatin’s tenth album as O.P.N.; like all of his releases, it’s thematically concerned with the instability of both time and memory. Lopatin’s compositions often feel slightly out of reach, which can be thrilling—perhaps music (and meaning) coaxed from the flotsam of personal and collective memory is not supposed to be so easily held. Lopatin uses A.I. on a couple of tracks, but not in the way you’d expect, and not in the way anyone is “supposed” to—though Lopatin, more generally, tends not to use anything in the manner in which it was obviously intended. The songs on “Again” make me feel lost but also cradled. “Memories of Music,” my favorite track on the album, is strange and stunning—equal parts menacing and soothing, true and false, then and now, real and imagined.

Photograph by Peter Van Breukelen / Redferns / Getty

4. Pharoah Sanders, “Pharoah” (Luaka Bop)

To be fair, this record actually came out in 1977, but it was remastered and reissued this September by the great and visionary label Luaka Bop, which gathered never-before-seen photographs, ephemera, writing, and research for a beautiful boxed set. The new release is a double LP, and includes two previously unavailable live performances of Sanders’s “Harvest Time,” both of which transform the original track, already perfect, into something entirely different, yet still perfect. Sanders, who passed away in 2022, is a beloved and revered saxophonist; I think he might also be a wizard. “Come on, / Have faith, / And love will find a way,” he croaks on a track of the same name. It’s hard to land on a wiser or more forgiving mantra for the coming year.

5. Lana Del Rey, “Did you know that there’s a tunnel under Ocean Blvd” (Interscope Records)

Nobody is better at chronicling the strange glamour of a crumbling American empire than Lana Del Rey. “Did you know that there’s a tunnel under Ocean Blvd” is Del Rey’s ninth album, and her voice is richer and more authoritative than ever; these songs sound incredible while driving a car, smoking a cigarette, drinking a cup of gas-station coffee, zipping up a new dress, eating the frosting off a slice of cake, arranging carnations in a vase, painting your toenails, or pining after someone beautiful and mysterious. All the late nights and terrible decisions have only given her more gravitas. “Don’t be actin’ like I’m the kinda girl who can sleep,” she reminds us on “Let the Light In.”

Photograph from Alamy

6. Noname, “Sundial” (self-released)

The rapper Noname, who was born and brought up in Chicago, is one of our boldest and most incisive critics. On “namesake,” a track from her biting and deft second album, she handily indicts art under late-stage capitalism by taking a shot at the biggest, dumbest spectacle around: “I ain’t fucking with the N.F.L. or Jay-Z / Propaganda for the military complex / The same gun that shot Lil Terry / Out west the same gun that shot Samir in the West Bank / We all think the Super Bowl’s the best thing / Go, Rihanna, go / Watch the fighter jet fly high / War machine gets glamorized / We play the game to pass the time,” she seethes. Noname isn’t turning away from or excusing all the ideological contradictions that run through popular culture, even at its most righteous. She is constitutionally oriented toward truthtelling; “Sundial” is revelatory.

7. Peter Garland, “The Basketweave Elegies” (self-released)

This exquisite piece, composed of nine movements and performed entirely on solo vibraphone, is inspired, in part, by the art of basket weaving. (“I want to write music that is well-made, sturdy, useful, and beautiful—like a basket,” Garland wrote of the album.) The album’s performer, William Winant, is a revered percussionist, but “The Basketweave Elegies” feels elemental, instinctive, and natural, as though it were being broadcast from a radio station on the moon, or maybe from somewhere inside your body.

Photograph by Thomas Bregardis / AFP / Getty

8. Lonnie Holley, “Oh Me Oh My” (Jagjaguwar)

At seventy-three, the visual artist and musician Lonnie Holley still seems to be discovering new worlds. I don’t know how to describe this music in a way that feels true to its magnitude or its singularity: there are strains of free jazz, folk, ambient, and gospel, but mostly it feels like the apotheosis of a genre that we don’t have a name for yet. Michael Stipe adds vocals to the title track, which, like all of Holley’s best and strangest songs, reckons with trauma and God and perseverance and joy. “I suggest you all go as deep as you can,” Holley sings. His delivery is gentle, but it doesn’t seem like the kind of advice anyone can afford to ignore.

9. Amaarae, “Fountain Baby” (Interscope Records)

Born in the Bronx, to Ghanaian parents, Amaarae sings about sex and relationships in a breathy, libidinous, rustling soprano. Her depictions of lustful wandering, cooed over synths and bass—her musical touchstones include Afrofuturism, Missy Elliott, a little Yves Tumor—are idiosyncratic, artful, weird, hot: “I want to fuck a puddle,” she offers on “Angels in Tibet.” On “Co-Star,” she tries to suss out a lover’s astrological sign: “Gotta be a Leo / You so fucking spoiled / Maybe you’re a Sag / You nag / You nasty,” she teases, her voice high and tense. Underneath it all is, of course, a kernel of vulnerability—even our most wanton desires are rooted in a kind of love.

Photograph by Roberto Ricciuti / Redferns / Getty

10. PJ Harvey, “I Inside the Old Year Dying” (Partisan Records)

This summer, I had the chance to speak with PJ Harvey about “I Inside the Old Year Dying,” her wise and absorbing tenth album, which is also a companion piece, in the broadest sense, to her book “Orlam,” a collection of poems telling the fantastical story of a year in the life of a nine-year old girl named Ira-Abel. Harvey and I talked about the record’s themes of transmutation and renewal, of liminality, of change—she described it as being about “a between-worlds place, poised on thresholds between child and adult, day and night, dream and wakefulness, life and death, across the different seasons and the different months.” She added, “That’s also why the title felt appropriate, ‘I Inside the Old Year Dying’—this transformation of both person and year into something else.” It’s almost impossible to capture those moments of reversal, which happen so incrementally that it’s easy to miss them. Harvey does it masterfully here.

11. Bonnie “Prince” Billy, “Keeping Secrets Will Destroy You” (Drag City)

The Kentucky-based singer and songwriter Will Oldham has released twenty-one records as Bonnie “Prince” Billy; each one of them contains at least one strange and aching bit that swiftly undoes me. “Keeping Secrets Will Destroy You,” his latest, is full of those sorts of moments: something soft, something hard, and something beautiful, delivered all at once. “How can I grow old / If I don’t know?” Oldham sings on the refrain of the title track, his voice crackly and rich. “Tell me what’s wrong with me / Say it in a clear cold whisper.” Thematically, it’s a record about family, time, and death, and, like most of what Oldham does, it is ancient and spooky, palliative and vast.

Photograph by Debbie Hickey / Getty

12. The National, “First Two Pages of Frankenstein” (4AD)

I didn’t realize how divisive this band was until I wrote a profile of them for the magazine, back in April. But if you are already predisposed toward what the National has been doing for the past two-plus decades—making brooding, fraught, atmospheric rock and roll, marked by careful, resonant production and a ribbon of debauched humor—you are likely to also savor “First Two Pages of Frankenstein,” a heady encapsulation of the band’s entire gestalt. The National actually put out a second very good record in 2023 (“Laugh Track,” released in September), which included “Weird Goodbyes,” previously a one-off single featuring Bon Iver. That song contains my favorite lyric of the year: “Memorize the bath water / Memorize the air / There’ll come a time / I’ll wanna know I was here,” the front man Matt Berninger sings, his voice deep and gravelly. Life goes by fast. Grab on to what you can. ♦

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