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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.

Quaranta by Danny Brown

While Danny Brown’s 2023 output might seem enviable, it’s cost has been pretty grand for him. Scaring The Hoes, his joint effort with JPEGMAFIA was a spasmodic gem filled with the best of both party’s unique gifts, while Brown’s solo endeavour of the year, Quaranta - his first since 2019’s U Know What I’m Saying? - is a more considered, introspective affair that lays the Detroit rapper at his barest and most vulnerable. It follows the same path as his Danny Brown podcast which has offered a wider glimpse into the manic mind of its creator, but instead of letting the guests field this in a public setting, he’s taking it direct to to the listeners with an even more concise, diaristic cards-on-the-table approach.

Quaranta starts with Brown musing upon the cost that rap has had on his life. Having gone through rehab for drug and alcohol addiction earlier in the year, the majority of its matter deals with Brown’s reckoning of his life choices up until this time. It also tackles the meaty topic of time itself (“Hanami”), and general recovering from one of the toughest periods that inevitably makes us stronger - and the occasional crosshairs aimed at those societal martyrs (HEAVY sarcasm) - landlords. The tone of his voice often signals what’s to come, with his usual, high pitch arresting missives still occasionally delivering the snapping, wild eyed rants, but the more focused moments find Brown more somber. It’s this energy - or at least the reenergising - that leads Brown through his toughest time and proves even after decades in the game, raps kindred free spirit has plenty more to say, and who knows what’s going to come out now he’s delivered himself of his sins. It’s also his last release on Warp records which signals an open road waiting for Brown in 2024. – SL

Bandcamp | Spotify

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Black Rainbows by Corrine Bailey Rae

Corrine Bailey Rae's 2016 record The Heart Speaks in Whispers felt like an indulgence in the best way; the British chanteuse, songwriter and musician offered an emotive, sensuous experience for listeners to tuck into, given the fraught year it was issued in. Sonic comfort food? Maybe. Given the justifiably darker vibes of her 2011 sophomore effort The Sea, one could hardly blame Rae for seeking something brighter, but no less ambitious to explore. Jump ahead six years, Rae has returned with her fourth full-length set: Black Rainbows. This time, her current collection locates a tonal pulse between the socio-political and the romantic.

Concerning what spurred on the former element, Rae had visited the Chicago-headquartered Stony Island Arts Bank hybrid gallery, media archive and library as curated by Theaster Gates. The materials gathered there examine the many facets, intersectional or otherwise, of the Black experience. Rae would return to perform in the space by invitation; so moved by what she had engaged with at Stony Island, she opted to draft new music for the occasion. Subsequently, Black Rainbows emerged.

Direct meditations on anti-Black violence (“Erasure”) and celebration of the indefatigable Black spirit (“Earthlings”) have Rae in sharp lyrical form; the musical arrangements—overseen by Rae herself and previous collaborative colleagues We Are KING—are in step with the intensity of their scripts. From the symphonic psychedelia of “A Spell, a Prayer,” on over to the alternative jazz fusion of the title song, and back around to the garage rock rattle of “New York Transit Queen,” Rae opens up her established sound to awesome effect.

For all that is new with Black Rainbows, one constant is Rae’s approach as a singer; she is as versatile and impactful as she has ever been. Entries such as “He Will Follow You with His Eyes” and “Peach Velvet Sky” are excellent examples of her impressive vocal form. It also doesn’t hurt that these two selections make use of her classic chamber soul aestheticism.

That Black Rainbows was put forward on Rae’s own independent label of the same name (with distribution via Thirty Tigers) suggests a newfound level of confidence. Even with limited commercial reach, reviews have been uniformly strong and the record has resonated with her base. Said limit doesn’t seem to be a point of contention at this avenue in her career. – QH

Bandcamp | Spotify

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Time Ain’t Accidental by Jess Williamson

Country music stalled out again in 2023. Nashville gladly stood by as Morgan Wallen tightened his hold over the charts. Even "Rich Men North of Richmond" played right into the hands of the people it rallies against. That's frustrating, especially when Jess Williamson came to blossom on her fifth album.

Williamson is a late bloomer. She didn't even pick up the banjo until her senior year at the University of Austin. While she's always straddled the line between alt-country, following last year's fruitful collaboration with fellow Emmylou Harris enthusiast Katie Crutchfield, Time Ain't Accidental leans toward the twangier side of the fence.

Like so many great country albums, Time Ain't Accidental revolves around a break-up. "Hunter" finds Williamson flirting with online dating for the first time since she rounded into her thirties. Her voice has only ripened with age, now soft and savory as a buttermilk biscuit, though she's not above taking shots at her ex (see "Chasing Spirits").

Still, Williamson isn't in a rush to move on either. She now splits time between her birth state and adopted home of Los Angeles, a 14-hour drive that served as a roadmap for this album. Time Ain't Accidental unfolds patiently, moseyed along by musty horns, warm sighs of lap steel, programmed drum beats and keys that jingle like a novelty disco ball dangling above the dashboard.

That steadily mid-tempo approach could spell trouble but not when you write like Williamson. It's fun cheering on SZA and Olivia Rodrigo as they taste sweet revenge, but our culture has become so unforgiving of each other's flaws that it's refreshing to hear Williamson sift through the mud for small, good things. Amidst the quiet wreckage of "Stampede", she sings slowly but with such assurance that her words glow with conviction. "Shatter the lamp / the light remains".

Williamson has waited too long to receive her flowers, but this year, she finally arrived at the perfect time. – WY

Bandcamp | Spotify

Jess Williamson Time Aint Accidental

Softscars by Yeule

Few artists can embrace the physical and humane in a cold, digital world better than Singaporean pop maverick Nat Ćmiel. Under the Yeule stage name, their pixelated pop futurism is deeply steeped in trauma; it's not always obvious, but pain, however faint, has refracted through the crevices, grooves, and cracks for as long as they’ve been making music. Softscars, Yeule's follow-up to last year's fiendish Glitch Princess encounters the artist's perpetually concealing veil and lifts it to reveal one of the most beautifully human records of 2023.

Blatant, surprisingly raw, yet never seeking to reckon with nor heal wounds, Yeule's confessional offering reopens and reveals the very things imprinted upon their DNA growing up. But this attempt to regurgitate that tormented inner-child while unraveling their distressed helix doesn't stop and end with the lyrical. With hints of My Chemical Romance, Avril Lavigne, and Smashing Pumpkins' shoegaze-y early years pulled into focus, softscars witnesses Yeule's entire universe of musical adolescence vibrate in imperfect harmony. It's as if Yeule tapped into something comforting and nostalgic by unearthing the ugly, but not without ignoring a vision ingrained in the future, bleak or bright, along the way.

Now falling just outside the lines of their cold, cyborgian pop music, Yeule has departed from the malfunctioning machinery of their work prior – at least for the time being. They’re embracing musical plurality and their own beating human heart instead, and what you hear is conflict, warmth, and rawness despite the specter of digital comfort haunting in the backdrop. – KK

Bandcamp | Spotify

Yeule Softscars

Honey by Samia

Moving forward from her 2020 debut album The Baby, Samia Finnerty chose growth over recapturing youth, and Honey was as sweetly acerbic as it was wittily effacing.

A confidence billowed as she excavated the trials and tribulations your twenties entail, and in a year rich with the likes of Olivia Rodrigo penning the turbulence of fame, Finnerty's came from a more grounded view point. It also delved further into pop territory, amongst a myriad other flourishing touches, each hiking Samia to a new level - one that feels like it’s been waiting for her to step up to since day one. She takes openness to a whole new level as she winds her way through everything from her own journey and the romantic pitfalls that swallow you whole, to those dramatic figures surrounding her (“Your mom keeps threatening suicide on holidays / Your sister's in LA making dinner with fresh produce,” - “Pink Balloon”).

Honey proved Finnerty to be as studious with a pen as she is with a melody. It’s rare to find such qualities in a singular name, let alone to have multiples happening in the same year, but if 2023 proved anything its that it was the year the open book, journaling types became fateful enforcers of accepting life’s ups and downs with a dynamite wit, and the anthems to boot. Finnerty's wicked eye certainly didn't miss a trick this year. – SL

Bandcamp | Spotify

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I Inside the Old Year Dying by PJ Harvey

In an astonishing 30-year career, Polly Jean Harvey has always been something of a folk-horror artist—whether it’s through unearthing jagged edges of human desire or crafting missals based on the horrors of war. Fittingly, her 10th solo album was initially conceived as a theater piece, reviving the nearly-forgotten dialect of Dorset she used to write Orlam, the poetry book she published last year.

Still, even in I Inside the Old Year Dying’s final album form, there is an element of theatrical world-building that both terrifies and enchants as you immerse yourself within its dream logic. Field recordings and textured instrumental layers create a disquieting atmosphere wrapped up in fever dream fantasies of Elvis as a deity and nights passing by in an ancient forest landscape. In the future, it probably won’t be the best introductory album for new PJ Harvey fans, but for those of us already entwined in her web, it’s another spellbinding body of work that will require frequent revisits to fully unravel. – ES

Bandcamp | Spotify

PJ Harvey

The Window by Ratboys

The blue-soak of The Window cover implies a cold, unwelcoming environment, but as the pastel glow of its titular pane infers, Ratboys are ready to warm your cockles. No strangers to offering us their inner most personal workings, the country tinges that radiate from Ratboys emo camp fire on their fifth album are sizzling with a raging purity more than ever.

The Window is another project that deals in vocalist and guitarist Julia Steiner’s life, and it’s the Chicago groups most consistent and considered effort to date. Produced by ex-Death Cab Chris Walla, there’s a fleshed out vision that propels Ratboys into a league of their own, even as the emo-fields in 2023 are the most fertile they’ve felt in years. Intimate details coax themselves around rootsy rock jams in a way that keeps giving, without pulling any punches, and without sacrificing any of their initial charm. As they unfurl each twanging, twilight-laden cut, Ratboys shift from strength to strength. The raucous becomes rowdy becomes resigned becomes refined, and back again. It’s hard to argue with any facet of an album that delivers its shots so succinctly, and if Ratboys continue on this trend, they’ll be unforgettable figureheads before long. – SL

Bandcamp | Spotify

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I've Seen A Way by Mandy Indiana

i’ve seen a way is a juggernaut, a debut album almost incomprehensibly massive and unfathomably claustrophobic, tangled by its anarchic origins (recordings took place in West Country caves, gothic crypts, shopping malls, and fields of Swiss cows) and lacerated by disparate jabs from across themusical spectrum, and pulsating with a frenetic, skittish, unplaceable energy looming large in the rearview mirror every which way you look. It’s laser-guided in its precision and aimlessly sprawling at the same time, with matted roots ofpost-punk, noise, and house all gyrating in time to percussion that’s dragged, throbbing and punching, into the foreground, jostling for the spotlight with Paris-born Valentine Caulfield’s acerbic vocals - sung in her native tongue.

The Manchester-formed band, whose steady rise through the ranks also birthed the superb …EP and included a stop at our new music festival, the Five Day Forecast, in January 2023, conjure a world of contrasts on i’ve seen a way - it feels like almost every fragment of the album is battling against another in some innovative way, either sonically, as on the leviathan industry of “Pinking Shears” (recently remixed by clipping.) or even when it comes to the recording process itself. Found sounds melt with both polished and raw recordings; the album’s two distinct halves were mixed by Daniel Fox of former tourmates Gilla Band and Giant Swan’s Robin Stewart. The direct, political nature of the (translated) lyrics clanks against obfuscation born from using French instead of English.

But, crucially, it all congeals together to be so much more than the sum of its parts. It feels exceptionally complete as a debut album and an experience – a testament, perhaps, to the major stylistic and structural inspiration drawn from longer-form visual arts, including film, videogames, and opera.

This is an immersive, provocative record slashed with maximalist and minimalist streaks in equal measure, and one that thrives on unpredictability even on repeated listens: Mandy, Indiana have crafted something utterly unforgettable with i’ve seen a way. – LD

Bandcamp | Spotify

Mandy Indiana

Lahai by Sampha

It's five years since Sampha debuted with the eclectic Process – a wonderful, electronic, emotional soundscape that burrowed deep within the English artist’s skin, crooning out under the waves of pain that came with the loss of his mother. With a platitude of features under his belt, Sampha looks to follow up his first masterpiece with another in Lahai, named after his grandfather. Rooted in primal human emotion, the futuristic, astronomical beat collections the artist has become so beloved for compiling, carry his indomitable spirit as he explains the world as only his eyes, hands and voice, are capable.

Ever is the case as Sampha traverses through the allegorical lessons of “Jonathan Livingston Seagull”, as he spirals through self-actualization and grounding realizations of personhood, in which lies the key to connection: light, love, spirit, and perhaps most importantly, love, will catch us in freefall. “Spirit 2.0,” the leading single, as images of elderly couples flash alongside waves crashing upon shores of lighthouses, sets the stage for an album about love, an increasingly complex emotion, made simple.

Among the premier songwriters, Sampha poetically saunters through his soundscape, pausing, at times, just long enough to catch his breath before the next thought invades the space. The juxtaposition between the sharp, inductive production and the flowery, ethereal choruses is a gulf easily surpassed with atop the warm, welcoming voice of Sampha, again, clearly an echelon beyond the fodder muddling at his feet.

His soft, yet firm vocals lilt through tragedy and masterfully present them as parables. The whispers of harmonization, trilling of violins and concertos of pianos drift behind the listener’s eyes as electronica buzzes and beeps and spirals, incorporating modern distraction, yet complementing and elevating already raw, unadulterated emotion. Under the clouds of the album’s cover, Lahai spread its wings, leaning into the bird in flight metaphor, as Sampha soars headfirst into introspection. – JH

Bandcamp | Spotify

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Life Under The Gun by Militarie Gun

Since their inception, Militarie Gun have forced their way to the front of a crowded pack and set themselves up as an unavoidably brilliant prospect in the rock landscape. The Los Angeles group, led by frontman Ian Shelton (formerly of Regional Justice Center), began brewing their audio elixirs just a few years ago in the midst of the COVID-19 lockdowns. They’ve quickly found themselves adored for punchy pockets of sound, simultaneously riddled with hardcore’s abrasive emotional outbursts and the sardonic peppiness of ‘90s alt. rock, and spawned a debut (produced by Shelton and Taylor Young) that ripples with the kind ofamped-up, snot-nosed cuts that wouldn’t feel out of place on a Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater soundtrack. It’s by no means one-dimensional in its offerings, however, with sumptuous harmonies (recalling The Beach Boys) and dreamy Smashing Pumpkins-esque riffs sauntering through some of the punk bile that nods to thelikes of MDC.

Life Under The Gun is undeniably fun and accessible from start to finish, and Militarie Gun revel in a destruction of conventional genre norms which results in the album feeling crisp, fresh, and optimistic - even when it really isn’t beneath the hood and in the lyrics.

At 12 songs and a little over 27 minutes, Life Under The Gun is a riotous rampage from Militarie Gun that careens through song after song with breezy aplomb. Despite its relatively brief running time, the band pack a great deal into each second, and ultimately create something that helps recontextualise modern hardcore as something deliciously pop-driven and forward thinking. Along with a slew of rapidly rising noisemakers, led in the mainstream by darlings Turnstile, the genre has been enjoying the early moments of a new golden age: Military Gun’s ascendancy is perfectly timed to ride that wave, and the band have grabbed that chance with both hands. - LD

Bandcamp | Spotify

Militarie Gun

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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