Must-hear albums continued to accumulate at an absurd rate in 2023. Olivia Rodrigo demonstrated that her 2021 Sour’s truth-bomb punk-pop was not an anomaly. Boy Genius completely exceeded first-album expectations. Lil Yachty bought a space cruiser instead of his boat.
With his album of intensely personal songs, Zach Bryan defied the stereotype of the country-bro man while still selling out arenas.
Beatmaker Kenny Segal teamed up with underground rapper Billy Woods, and they went deep. Mitski reinvented the American gothic; Victoria Monet led an R&B comeback; and Paramore roared back.
This was not a big year for mega-star blockbuster releases, with a few notable exceptions (like Miley Cyrus, Drake, and the Rolling Stones), but that just meant there was more space for up-and-coming innovators, like Tainy, the master of sci-fi-reggaeton, and Afrobeats legends like Mr. Eazi, Burna Boy, and Asake, as well as breakout country star Megan Moroney.
All of them provided us with records that we will continue to listen to long after this year ends.
Take a look at the top 10 album releases in 2023.
1. Jungle Volcano
Jungle creates music that resonates deeply within you. the kind you unconsciously tap your feet to. The kind you wear when the celebration slows down.
Volcano, their most recent album, is a groove-fest that will compel you to move. With its clever rap verses and synthesized beats, each track elevates electro-funk and disco beats to new heights. The 14-song set is akin to entering a Studio 54 party after exiting a time machine.
2. SZA ‘SOS’
SOS destroyed any doubt that SZA was a significant voice in her generation, which the five years since her 2017 breakthrough album, Ctrl, may have sown. Her follow-up album was clever and chock-full of surprises. She is amazing and confronts gossip and murmurs about herself head-on!
However, its enduring appeal surpasses its shock value. The album was released in December 2022, following the publication of our 2022 list, but it took off in 2023, peaking at Number One for a record-breaking 10 weeks, dominating the cultural discourse to an extent that no 2023 release could match, and garnering nine Grammy nominations.
SZA skillfully combines a variety of genres with her raw emotion and skillful wording on SOS, giving her the sense of control she sorely missed on her debut album.
Who else could belt out the opening line of an acoustic guitar ballad, “You were balls deep, now we are beefin'”? The album alternates between its peaks.
Easily one of the greatest R&B songs of the century is “Snooze.” She would have been the main attraction on the Warped Tour in 2004 if “F2F” had not been released and misogyny had not existed. Her stage name became Wu-Tang referenced after “Smoking on My Ex Pack.”
The ingenuity, creativity, and bravery that set SOS apart in a crowded field were evident when we selected her for the cover of Rolling Stone’s Grammy Preview issue this fall. “I am here to do better all the time, and maybe better than you if I have to,” she told us. “That is just the way I am built.” —M.C.
3. Tainy Data
Tainy’s debut solo album, Data, is an exploration of the super-producer’s innermost thoughts that opens up a maze of creative references for you to see. The record meanders through the years. Tainy was a bright teenage whiz kid, producing beats for Puerto Rico’s top artists.
However, it also melts in tales of tech dystopias, sci-fi dream girls, and pink-haired androids told over erratic soundscapes that feature Bad Bunny rapping over Eighties synths and Sech weeping over Nineties guitars.
Tainy’s only vision of the future up until now is a crystalline, sharp vision of data, which is masterfully constructed and sequenced. —J. Lopez
4. Olivia Rodrigo ‘Guts’
Olivia Rodrigo depicts the unsurmountable difficulties of becoming famous as an adolescent in Guts, complete with romantic betrayals, vampire ex-partners, and fair-weather friends.
The 20-year-old maintains a cutting lyrical precision throughout the album’s heartfelt ballads and sneering pop-punk cuts, all the while being unafraid to poke fun at her social faux pas and shortcomings.
This has solidified her as one of her generation’s best pop songwriters. She delivers the full emotional gamut of teenage girlhood through frantic screaming, sarcastic sing-speak, and grit driven by rage, as if to push herself away from the safe route of “torch singer” and reject the polite vision of femininity she skewers on “all-American bitch.” —M.H.K.
5. Mitski, ‘The Land Is Inhospitable and So Are We’
Mitski is a master storyteller who can compose music with the scope of a movie and the attention to detail of a novelist.
Another evolution is The Land Is Inhospitable and So Are We, which combines daring orchestral movements, classic country accompaniment, everyday yet elliptical lyricism, and the artist’s distinct storytelling style.
Like a sophisticated singer-songwriter reimagining Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio, Mitski weaves impressionistic vignettes drenched in rural loneliness from images of love, nostalgia, and the aftertaste of disappointment. —B.E.
6. Victoria Monét, ‘Jaguar II’
Before making her breakthrough, Victoria Monét put in a lot of behind-the-scenes work. She worked on records that were nominated for Grammy Awards, spent a little time in a girl group, and released solo albums.
Jaguar II demonstrates the amount of work required to make perfection appear natural. She ascends to the top of R&B’s most recent comeback with “On My Mama,” an instant classic.
She is comfortable with Lucky Daye, her contemporary, on “Smoke,” but she is also at home with reggae legend Buju Banton on “Party Girl” and on “Hollywood,” with Earth, Wind, and Fire (along with her daughter Hazel).
Monét is bringing back the excitement of the days when pop moguls and R&B’s biggest stars would battle it out regularly, and Jaguar II is an amazing knockout. —L.P.
7. Zach Bryan, ‘Zach Bryan’
With his timeless country duets (“I Remember Everything” with Kacey Musgraves) and endearing front porch gems (“Smaller Acts”), Zach Bryan delivers equally potent stomp-and-holler folk (“East Side of Sorrow”) and heartland rock (“Fear and Friday’s”) in this year’s biggest country album.
He is a traditionalist in many respects, but thankfully not to the extent that he emphasizes and displays his masculinity.
Zach Bryan is the ideal choice for the catchphrase “overtime” because he appears to be a counterbalance to the current wave of hyper-online, reactionary manhood: “I just want to hear my father tell me that he loves me and to stay hungry and humble; I do not care if I am arrogant or not.” —J. Blistein
8. “The Rise and Fall of a Midwest Princess,” by Chappell Roan
This Missouri-born pop phenomenon’s first full-length album, or “femininomenon,” as she refers to it in the cheerful lead single of her delightfully enjoyable album, Roan, is a wild, very hooky roller coaster through personal and sexual awakenings.
Though the album has an exquisite cover, much of its appeal lies in Roan’s acceptance of the less glamorous sides of self-realization, whether it is savoring the experience of watching an enemy destroy themselves on the long track “My Kink Is Karma” or exploring the deep end of a romantic relationship on the dreamy “Casual.”
In a way that never ceases to astound but always sounds delicious, Roan combines unadulterated passion with brutal honesty. —M.J.
9. Jessie Ware, ‘That! Feels! Good!’
British singer Jesse Ware focuses on the many joys of dance music on her fifth album. In the quest for ecstasy, inhibitions are cast aside, and the emphasis is placed on bodies and bodily sensations.
That! Feels! Good! is packed with big brass and grooves that accentuate the joyous feeling, making it even brighter and funkier than its critically acclaimed 2020 predecessor, What is Your Pleasure? She asks herself, “Why does all the purest love get filtered through machines?” in the song “Begin Again.” It is an appeal for human connection and rejuvenation, which the dance floor is uniquely suited to offer. —J.F.
10. Young Nudy, ‘Gumbo’
While there is no denying the appeal of some audio exploration, occasionally, as in the case of Atlanta rapper Young Nudy, it helps to know what to expect.
Nudy follows his conceited, enticing script for Gumbo and succeeds over a 13-track canvas that propels him higher up the hip-hop hierarchy’s “best ear for beats” list.
The project that Gumbo’s producers have created is immersive without ever being overwhelming, allowing Nudy’s unique, rubbery voice to take center stage in the music. —A.G.