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Albums of the year

From Mandy, Indiana and Mitski to Julie Byrne and Mick Jenkins, we rank the records that defined 2023.

04 December 2023, 08:30 | Words by The Line of Best Fit

The breadth of taste and opinion on music in 2023 is more diverse than any year we’ve seen as we head towards two decades of Best Fit’s life.

Despite Taylor Swift dominating almost everything in music for the past 12 months, her name didn’t appear once in the 80-strong list of writers and editors whose opinions we polled as part of our annual Best Fit Fifty. Support for the likes of boygenius, Lana Del Rey and Blur - also absent from our list - was also minimal and consensus was harder to find than ever before in making this elusive list of the music we've loved this year. Such fragmentation can only be a good thing though – a sign that independent thought is thriving and the album format is enduring.

Other factors figured into the rankings of our favourite albums – site ratings, artists we've long championed (and ones we felt deserved more attention) plus more than a little instinct and gut-feeling when it came to the final ordering. And right at the top of the list is one of the strongest debuts we've heard in years, by a frighteningly talented artist whose record cuts to the core of what it means to be human.

I've Got Me by Joanna Sternberg

Perhaps Phoebe Bridgers said it best when she labelled Joanna Sternberg as the ‘Emo Randy Newman’, aptly summing up the artist’s talent for confessional yet tender songwriting that feels immediately resonant. Favouring modest arrangements and anti-folk inspirations, I’ve Got Me showcases a litany of empathetic nursery rhymes; hymnals for the chronically anxious and seasonally depressed.

The album continues Sternberg’s tradition of creating art in their signature comic-book style to accompany their projects, envisioning themselves as surrounded by clutter and encircled by their bedroom walls - reflective of the pandemic-induced confinement that inspired much of the album’s contents. Consequently, the record leans into this claustrophobia, as showcased on album-highlight, “Stockholm Syndrome”, detailing a relationship that’s begun to sour. But all is not lost, for at times Sternberg seems closer to hope than they’ve ever been before – finding silver linings in self-medication on “Drifting on a Cloud” and the chance to try again on “Mountain’s High”.

More importantly, Sternberg returns with a self-assuredness that markedly felt absent on previous projects. And though imposter-syndrome is bound to creep in from time to time, they are quick to remind us with a quiet-confidence that, at the end of the day; ‘I’ll leave you be, because I’ve got me.” – AJ

Bandcamp | Spotify

Joanna Sternberg

The Worm by HMLTD

An ambitious sophomore record from one of Britain’s most exciting bands, The Worm is an expansive rock opera that speaks volumes on its storytelling and themes. Setting in a mediaeval fantasy world where England was occupied by large worms, the album largely took its influences from Radiohead, Black Midi, and theatrical musicals like Jesus Christ Superstar.

Frontman Henry Spychalski describes the record as being anachronistic, a deliberate artistic licence to highlight the similarity between The Worm’s world and ours. On tracks like “Saddest Worm Ever”, we are treated to lines that allude to then-futuristic objects like a gun as if to show how in control the narrator is. Meanwhile, “Past Life Sinnerman’s Song” interpolates the piano from Nina Simone’s most acclaimed cover to show the drastic change of heart. What could’ve been a disorientating call away from the imaginative concept instead reinforces the whole that is greater than the sum of its parts.

It is not the worldbuilding or the surface narrative that matters, but rather the climatic subtext of dejection, delusion, and hopelessness. Themes that pervade in Spychalski’s mind at the beginning of “Liverpool Street”. One might see the Worms as being emblematic of mental health, but the nationwide context of political dysfunction and growing cynicism adds to The Worm’s literary excellence long after its release.

On one listen, we imagine the worms to be our self-projected arrogance against the limits of what we can and cannot do. On another, it’s a damning critique on scapegoating and boogeyman in which we blame others without accepting our responsibility. Such is what makes The Worm an enthralling experience as behind its symphonies and prog-like cohesion, it offers one of the finest songwriting of this year, maybe this decade even. – MC

Bandcamp | Spotify

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Desire, I Want To Turn Into You by Caroline Polachek

Released on Valentine’s Day, Caroline Polachek’s second solo album Desire, I Want To Turn Into You is nothing short of a triumph. The expansive collection blends the unique tones of Polachek’s incredible voice – a powerful instrument in its own right – with frenetic, experimental twists that unite everything from baroque Celtic folk to children’s choirs with trip-hop, drum and bass and magical, maximalist pop compositions. Produced in tandem with Danny L Harle, the album really began to take shape following Polachek’s final shows promoting Pang in London. Just days before the first lockdown was introduced and she was stranded in London, Polachek debuted “Smoke” – a track that would become an album highlight built around a rousing chant and more vocal acrobatics. It would go on to inform the mystical volcanic landscape that backs Polachek during her headline sets.

One of the more mellow, sentimental songs "Butterfly Net” speaks to the life she led in those months. Its narrative storytelling is transformative as she discusses loneliness and the unrelenting sameness of everything around her remaining unchanged. The record’s most poignant moment comes from Polachek’s heartfelt dedication to divas everywhere. “I Believe” is a shrine to immortality and the legacy a powerful figure can leave – dedicated to her late friend and collaborator SOPHIE, who herself left the world with an inimitable legacy as an artist and producer.

From the bagpipe solo on “Blood and Butter” to the brattiness of the album’s opening track “Welcome To My Island”, as an artist Polachek rarely deals in absolutes. The sprawling nature of her allows for parallel interpretations to be divulged as topics such as grief, love and parental relationships are refracted through her operatic vocal riffs and cinematic soundscapes. A masterclass in doing exactly what you want without compromisingDesire… is Polachek’s best work to date and that’s even before we mention the Dido collaboration. – MK

Bandcamp | Spotify

Caroline Polachek

Mid Air by Paris Texas

Arguably one of the most immediate artists to land on the internet in recent years, MID AIR, the third project by LA-duo Paris Texas, keeps up their track record. Filled with punchy and definitive tracks, Louie Pastel and Felix refine their creative flow and lyricism against trap-rock production. The result makes their first full-length album infectious.

Together, they play hypemen and storytellers, cutting up each other’s flows and namedropping to absurdity while pulling in a select few collaborators that flirt with their nature. On “Full English” Teezo Touchdown is recruited to reference everything from Nando’s, bad weather, Corteiz, Tesco, and baked beans, while “BULLET MAN” finds the duo back in the US, drawing a dry ‘humour’ out of a shooting epidemic. As the trajectory of Paris Texas continues to unfold, previous comparisons to Odd Future and BROCKHAMPTON become ever-lousy, they’re in a lane of their own. – HB


Paris Texas Mid Air cover

Messy by Olivia Dean

Even with a single hitting our ears three years prior, Olivia Dean’s Messy remains current in today’s musical landscape. “The Hardest Part” may have arrived in 2020, but a pandemic and a few lockdowns later, the album came at the right time for the young artist. With it even being recognised and nominated for the Mercury Prize, it’s a fitting rise for an artist that began her career at just 17 years old.

From the pop leanings of “Dive” to the pared back aria of “I Could Be A Florist,” Dean displays a vulnerability that’s not often seen from a 24 year old. She admits her flaws on “Everybody’s Crazy,” professes abandonment on “No Man,” and treads carefully on “Danger,” hesitant to fall in love. It’s on “Carmen” though, that Dean truly shines and leaves a lasting impression. The tribute to her grandmother, part of the Windrush Generation, is a celebration of family, love, and everlasting connection to her heritage that helps Messy surpass being just another album to listen to. With each listen, the record garners just a little bit more meaning, and becomes one that you’ll return to in years to come. – DC

Bandcamp | Spotify

Olivia Dean Messyalbumart

Everything is Alive by Slowdive

The rule of thumb for reforming artists is their live shows will be celebratory moments of nostalgia, bringing both the artist and audience back to a halcyon time in the past. The band and audience are older, but thesongs make them feel young again. Therein lies theproblem of releasing new music. When artists are rooted in a specific era of musical history, a remembrance oftimes past is usually proof of the law of diminishing returns.

Following their return in 2017 with their eponymously titled comeback record, Slowdive continue to buck thenostalgia trend with everything is alive. A creative and commercial peak 30 years in, it’s a remarkable achievement that bucks how this story usually works. It’s a record that harnesses the unexpected durability ofshoegaze, where the possibilities of sound embraces timelessness, as opposed to Britpop’s hedonistic soundtrack to the ‘90s.

everything is alive draws on the deaths of Rachel Goswell’s mother and Simon Scott’s father, which lends the songs a sense of memento mori, where everything must come to an end eventually. But it’s also the soundof rebirth, moving effortlessly from the sensuality of“chained to a cloud” - possibly the best song they’ve written, which would have been a perfect fit on Vangelis’ Blade Runner soundtrack in 1982 - to the blissful pop hooks of “kisses”, that’s seen them embraced by theinstant gratification of TikTok in 2023.

With guitar music in a state of stasis what 2023 needed was a statement of intent, where there’s still life in theformat, and not only life, but a progressive idea of what guitar music can be now – challenging, emotional and above all, restlessly exciting. That Slowdive would be theband to deliver that this year is both a cause for optimism and a triumph against the odds. – EN

Bandcamp | Spotify


In the End It Always Does by Japanese House

In The End It Always Does goes by like a dream, and is the realisation of Amber Bain’s near decade of musical development. From the get-go of opening track “Spot Dog,” you are transported to a space that's so rarely captured so well. 1975 drummer George Daniel’s production across the record lends a hand in this, and while it sometimes tip toes along the verge of sounding like a record from Daniel's band (especially with an appearance from Matt Healy on “Sunshine Baby”), it remains true and steadfast to Bain’s vision.

Until this year, the output from The Japanese House has always been somewhat slower in pace and tone, but In the End it Always Does masterfully picks it up and lets it go at the right moments, giving space where it’s needed and energy just when you think you’ll drift off into the dreamy sound. Its delicate sapphic yearning is paired with confident emotional development, and results in an album that unveils more and more in its nooks and crannies with each and every listen. It’s not just a ‘nice’ album, it’s one that has been considered and edited down to a near-perfect 45 minutes. – DC

Bandcamp | Spotify

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False Lankum by Lankum

Building from the success of 2019’s The Livelong Day, this year's False Lankum took the Irish quartet’s prose, power and promise to dark new depths. Their third album on Rough Trade, it propelled the group to wide-reaching acclaim, wrenching traditional folk approach and lore into the rough and ominous context of 2023. Originally written in the throes of Ireland’s lockdowns in a Martello Tower by the sea, the impact of both socio-political and geographic conditions can be felt across the album. Collaborating again with producer John “Spud” Murphy, officially the group’s unofficial fifth member, his experimental and expansive skills bring a dynamic, arresting and innovative spear to the record’s sonics. Taking cues from traditional folk songs and stories, then twisting them with fresh ideas, dark drones and a foreboding thunderstorm of sound, the group create something that’s as unnerving as it is indulgent.

From the acapella opening of “Go Dig My Grave,” Radie Peat’s compelling vocals both strident and otherworldly, the record journeys through a series of startling moments and revelations. There’s the hauntingly discordant but equally melodic “Clear Away in the Morning,” the rich and expansive storytelling of “Newcastle,” and the stridently abrasive delivery of “The New York Tradesman.” It’s a thrilling album that propelled Lankum into mainstream attention with a Mercury Music Prize nomination and a sold-out show at London venue The Roundhouse to end their year.

However, don’t expect the group to sell out in any other manner. Earlier this year Peat and Murphy, alongside fellow Irish musicians Eleanor Myler and Katie Kim launched their side-project ØXN, an even deeper and more startling continuation of traditional Irish folk performance. Releasing their debut recordCYRM through the relaunched folk stable Claddagh Records it took cues from where False Lankum left off, twisting and experimenting with the genre even further. Keeping a light on in the darkness, their continued revitalisation of this rich and historic genre will surely continue to reap rewards. – JL

Bandcamp | Spotify

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Beautiful and Brutal Yard by J Hus

Back in July there was a week in which Dave and Central Cee’s “Sprinter” and J Hus’ Beautiful and Brutal Yard (B.A.B.Y) surmounted the UK Singles and Album charts respectively. Not strictly unchartered territory for UK Rap (Stormzy had both Number 1 spots in January 2020), but it did signify a new chapter for the scene.

Never one to be validated by stats, awards or plaques, Hus displayed yet again why he is one of the most revered exports in British music. B.A.B.Y. is by far his most evolutionary and complete to date. Bold, brash, pensive, pained. There’s mastery in his lyricism, purity in his creativity, frankness in his observations; above all else, an unwavering ability to tell it how it is.

The album is a sprawling, joyous excursion through Hus’ lived experience. Seemingly disparate tropes of love, fame, sex, violence and struggle feature heavily. From the sultry “Nice Body,” to the brutal “Come Look,” he straddles the dichotomy between the life he has - and what could’ve been.

The shimmering summertime anthem “Who Told You” was everywhere. Blaring out of car speakers, booming through house parties, soundtracking every bar, club and festival around the country; it even made Obama’s famed playlist. The biggest takeaway? Drizzy’s verse wasn’t it.

Such is the strength of the project, there’s no need to rely on gimmicks or big-name co-signs for validation. Hus effortlessly glides over Drill (“Cream”), Afrobeats (“Masculine”), R&B (“My Baby”), UK Rap (“Comeback”) and Dancehall (“Killy”) without ever sounding contrived. References to ‘usna’s,’ ‘bunda’s,’ and ‘tun-tun’s,’ proliferate, but the silliness in his lyrics are exactly what make him so unique and replayable.

While we didn’t quite get the live comeback we’d hoped for, this record will go down as a glittering example of Hus’ versatility and originality. – DM

Bandcamp | Spotify

J Hus

The Whaler by Home Is Where

It was adventurous of Home Is Where to open their first full-length album with a five-minute song that disintegrates into atonal tinkering with musical saws and various other quirky percussion instruments. It was adventurous, too, to give the album’s screamo-into-the-abyss midpoint a title like “Everyday Feels like 9/11.” Emo was always at its best when at its bravest, though; the genre’s vanguard acts – from Cap’n Jazz to, more recently, The Hotelier – continue to define this hard-to-nail, constantly morphing form of emotional punk music. It’s feasible – perhaps inevitable – that Home Is Where will be equally revered in a decade or two, as The Whaler respects what’s come before while ramming it into a fresh, sometimes terrifying direction.

Trans woman Brandon MacDonald leads the Florida quartet, and though discussion of gender dysphoria is only implicit on The Whaler, it ostensibly feeds the album’s preoccupation with the human body, which interfaces with the natural world via grotesque, expressionistic imagery in her lyrics. From track titles “Skin Meadow” and “Floral Organs” to lines such as “Pulling weeds out of your spine / And all our lawns are cut the same way,” MacDonald illuminates the body’s fragility and concurrently humanity’s level playing field. The Whaler is the band contending with the horror of modern America by using these reference points – the things closest to home, at once ubiquitous and yet unreliable.

Still, for all its intensity and nihilism, The Whaler knows when to ease off the gas. There are the snowdrop guitar arpeggios of “Yes! Yes! A Thousand Times Yes!.” There are the quietly sputtering, short-circuiting synths at the end of “Whale for Sport,” space to take a few deep breaths before the chilling discordance of “9/11.” There’s also the rusty Americana of “Daytona 500,” the most sunny-sounding cut, even if it does conclude with the complaint: “The end of the world is taking forever.” Thank god we have music to pass the time. – HM

Bandcamp | Spotify

Home Is Where The Whaler

Words by Sophie Leight Walker (SLW), Thomas Turner (TT), Steven Loftin (SL), Olivia Swash (OS), Liam Inscoe-Jones (LIJ), Larry Day (LD), Laura A David (LAD), Alice Browne (AB), Kayleigh Watson (KW), Jen Long (JL), Hannah Browne (HB), Adele Julia (AJ), Marc Corrales (MC), Matthew Kent (MK), David Cobbald (DC), Ed Nash (EN), Dinesh Mattu (DM), Hayden Merrick (HM), Quentin Harrison (QH), Will Yarbrough (WY), Kyle Kohner (KK), Elise Soutar (ES), Josh Herring (JH), Josh Mills (JM), Sam Franzini (SF), Tanatat Khuttapan (TK), John Amen (JA), Cerys Kenneally (CK), Tom Williams (TW), Joe Creely (JC)

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