Another year is coming to a close, and it’s perhaps the most significant one in a while because finally, finally, the music industry seems to have made a full rebound. Venues had full calendars, festivals and massive tours posted record attendance numbers, and recorded music drove all-time high revenues, thanks in part to the dozens of amazing albums released in 2023.
As is tradition, Olivia and I have been agonizing for weeks over which albums to highlight for this list. Should we pick our personal favorites, the ones we spent the most time with over the last 12 months? Do we factor in how they sound live, or how well we know the back story? Can we distill what makes them good? (Hint: Not at all.)
It should come as no surprise that the following list is a little bit of all of the above, and it’s our Christmas gift to you, the reader. We hope you find something new to enjoy, and we’ll see you in 2024!
Olivia, Taylor, and David
DURRY: Suburban Legend
Brother-sister duo DURRY are an accidental COVID/TikTok project, but their staying power comes from the relatability of their lyrics and their energetic punk-ish riffs that feel like modern anthems. Their debut, Suburban Legend, chronicles the struggles of young adulthood, from coming up a dollar short at Taco Bell (“TKO”) to having vague existential crises in between making small talk (“I’m Fine (No Really)”). But there’s also optimism, a sense that the challenges persist but so do we. DURRY is a fresh addition to alt rock, and their first album holds so much promise to build on the cult following they’ve already amassed.
Key Tracks: “Who’s Laughing Now,” “Little Bit Lonely”
Various Artists: Barbie The Album
Whether you liked it or not, 2023 was the year of Barbie. The movie drove brand activations across almost every consumer-facing category, and the songs from the soundtrack trickled into the public domain ever so slowly. The result is a fun, summer-y collection that already feels like the perfect time capsule for this year. (Think of The House Bunny soundtrack and how it captures 2008 so purely.) Sam Smith, Dua Lipa, and Billie Eilish give the Barbie The Album mega starpower, and there is Latin and K-Pop representation from KAROL G and FIFTY-FIFTY, respectively. You get a little bit of everything — even Ryan Gosling on “I’m Just Ken,” which is hard to take seriously. But that’s the point.
Key Tracks: “Dance the Night,” “Speed Drive,” “Hey Blondie”
Grandson: I Love You, I’m Trying
The beginning of Grandson’s career was angry and insurgent as he became something of an activist, but Death of an Optimist marked an aptly named shift. He’s still calling for the powers that be to do what’s right, but there’s a sense of despair underneath the demands. Enter I Love You, I’m Trying, which has all the heart and vulnerability of a Grandson project but a different central theme: He’s drowning up there in his head. Case in point, “Eulogy” is a two-and-a-half-minute panic attack, “Drones” is about the delusions that help us sleep at night, and “Heather” mourns a fan he couldn’t save. He’s angry with the world and with himself — in all, I Love You is an apology for letting people down — but he really is trying.
Key Tracks: “Something to Hide,” “Half My Heart”
Troye Sivan: Something to Give Each Other
When Katie Gavin of MUNA sang, “I wanna dance in the middle of a gay bar,” she had to be talking about this album. The thumping house beats of opener “Rush,” the disco tinge of “Got Me Started,” the subtly sexy “Silly” — they’re all made for the dance floor. But listen closely and you’ll hear the lyrics that detail Sivan soaking up everything life has to offer. He’s hanging out and hooking up and pursuing fashion, art, drag, and other opportunities that come his way. The result is self-assurance and indulgence that shine through on this cohesive record.
Key Tracks: “What’s the Time Where You Are?,” “Got Me Started”
The Maine: The Maine
The Maine are celebrating their Sweet 16, and somehow it feels like just the beginning. Their eponymous album chronicles the journey they’ve been on together and has just the right amount of polish to reflect how grown up they are now. By no means do they have everything figured out — see “thoughts i have while lying in bed” and “spiraling” — but they have certainly mastered a command over this sweet spot of danceable alt pop punk. Rather than telling a single story over the course of the album, each track is its own tale of struggle or triumph, and as a body of work it’s a night drive soundtrack. And whether this is your intro to The Maine or you’ve been a fan for over a decade, you know this is a bright and punchy addition to their catalog that signals more to come.
Key Tracks: “i think about you all the time,” “blame,” “leave in five”
Betcha’s debut album almost didn’t happen. Lineup changes put the band’s plans on hold, and there was always the temptation to release yet another EP once they had enough good songs. But luckily, frontman Charlie Greene had a vision for Placebo, even the name, and the discipline to see it through as a cohesive body of work. Listening through, Side A tells a clear story: the frustrations of a negative but addictive relationship (“Unaffected”) to the terror of going it alone (“Moon”) and then the cautious optimism of (“Older”). It’s the stronger side of the album, especially as Side B showcases the slippery slope of regressing back to the source of the problem. Still, it’s the band pushing their own limits and growing musically, and it’s worth highlighting.
Key Tracks: “Moon,” “Older,” “Jaded”
- Fall Out Boy: So Much (For) Stardust
- SG Lewis: AudioLust & HigherLove
- Miley Cyrus: Endless Summer Vacation
- Nothing But Thieves: Dead Club City
- Des Rocs: Dream Machine
Never one for a traditional album release, Watsky dropped Intention– the third in his trilogy- with little warning and a challenge attached. This album was one of my top most played of the year and it’s really not hard to see why. His lyricism combined with handcrafted beats and the love that comes from working with a trusted team of creative collaborators capped this journey perfectly. Even better- the initial release was only the first half of the album and a worldwide scavenger hunt unlocked the second half for a delightful surprise that had an entire fandom on the edge of their seats. I’ve been jamming “What’s the Move” since day one- you can never go wrong with a T-Pain feature and the perfect instrumental earworm.
Key Tracks: “Paper Nihilist”, “Young Ruettiger (I Do What I Want)”
Fall Out Boy: So Much (For) Stardust
This band has been synonymous with the scene for decades now and somehow still at the very top of their game. Stardust landed early in the year just so we all had ample time to absorb every minute and the landscape the quartet has cultivated makes this record one of the best in their catalog. Just when we thought they couldn’t possibly craft more sweeping metaphors or singer Patrick Stump couldn’t decimate our hearts with his soaring vocals, this album proved everyone wrong. They’re a band like no other and “Heaven, Iowa” is a diamond in the middle of a true masterwork.
Key Tracks: “Hold Me Like a Grudge”, “What a Time to Be Alive”
Stray Kids: 5-STAR
Stray Kids released their latest full length album amid a sea of comebacks in 2023 and it’s one of their strongest works so far. The group only loosely falls under the K-POP umbrella- one listen to 5-STAR and the growth of every member is front and center in these tracks. Being a self-produced entity is more of a rarity in the genre and these eight members have such a concrete vision for their music and concepts, making this album one of my favorites of 2023.
The Rocket Summer: Shadowkasters
When I spoke with Bryce Avary about this album earlier in the year, he admitted that it does stray more into experimental territory- so much so that he thought it may not be a TRS record after all. Shadowkasters is such a richly layered work and a natural progression in Avary’s discography that I couldn’t imagine not having this album on my list. He plays with effects (both vocal and instrumental) in a way that demands repeat listens just to catch every nuance woven into the record. Even the live translation pulled in all of these elements in a way that only Avary has mastered.
Key Tracks: “Eyes 2 Skies”, “Hope is a Treacherous Drug I’m Getting High Though”
Epik High: Strawberry
The trio of Epik High celebrated 20 years as a group this year and, while they’re all older and wiser, they carry a chip on their shoulders that hits hard on this album. Korean rap has more freedom of expression than K-POP tends to embody and Epik High held nothing back on Strawberry. The highlights are the natural flow between the three members and their choices of features- Jackson Wang and Hwa Sa take their own devil may care vibes and lend them to Epik High’s own.
Key Tracks: “On My Way”, “God’s Latte”
Eric Nam: House on a Hill
Eric Nam confessed onstage that House on a Hill was kind of his existential crisis album and that might be exactly what we needed to hear in 2023. Coming out of a pandemic and so much uncertainty gives this record a feeling that so many listeners related very strongly to- myself included. While the record is rooted in pretty danceable pop, the lyrics bely an sense of confusion, loss and attempting to find your own way. Putting this one on repeat definitely helped with my own struggles this year and already gives the album a sense of timelessness in Nam’s catalog.
Key Tracks: “I Wish I Wasn’t Me”, “undefined”
- The Rose: Dual
- Agust D: D-Day
- Xikers: House of Tricky: Doorbell Ringing
- Des Rocs: Dream Machine
- Paramore: This is Why
- Fall Out Boy: So Much (For) Stardust
- Boys Like Girls: Sunday at Foxwoods
- Knox: I’m So Good at Being Alone
- Little Hurt: Lovely Hours
- Story of the Year: Tear Me to Pieces
Story by Olivia Khiel and Taylor Knauf