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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 Killed Your Dog by L'Rain

“You didn’t think this would come out of me,” multi-instrumentalist Tajja Cheek sings on I Killed Your Dog, her third full-length project under the alias L’Rain—which might be true, considering the album sees Cheek interplaying with folk, rock and psychedelia in a way we’ve never heard from her before. Still, the work maintains an infinite quality, allowing what she’s deemed her “anti-breakup album” to sprawl in all directions as she meditates on the end of the world and the evolving nature of love.

Cryptic, dizzying and occasionally profound, the album blends unfurling saxophone solos and airy vocal arrangements into playful interludes—mirroring the expanse of our own existence. Even in its brief flashes of giddy darkness, I Killed Your Dog chooses light amidst uncertainty: “You're convinced that in the dark there will be nothing / But to me, a little nothing's got some something / It's a new day and I will believe in something.” - ES

Bandcamp | Spotify

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With a Hammer by Yaeji

After an exhilarating run of EPs and singles, With A Hammer offered an extended look into the rage-fuelled beats of Yaeji. Carefully curated into a breezy blend of techno, ambient electronica and full-frontal pop, it’s easy to overlook the sentiments at play but Yaeji brings it all together in a stroke of genius.

Drawing nuances from her Asian-American heritage, the album crystalises themes of childhood, alienation, and sexuality with key questions: “Why are we the ones to always run away / why are we the ones to always apologise?”, she sings in “Fever”, while elsewhere she asks “How you like it now?” – reaching peak confrontation. Still, she takes the high road – rarely spiralling, and instead takes a deep breath. A necessary awakening, With A Hammer is an earnest rebirth for Yaeji. – HB

Bandcamp | Spotify

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Radical Romantics by Fever Ray

Is Karin Dreijer the artist of the century thus far? They certainly stake a case for it with Radical Romantics. The third LP under the Fever Ray banner expands on the lush, woozy passion of 2017’s Plunge while folding in some of the harsher, more confrontational sounds of The Knife. The cover art sets up the contrast, Dreijer looking simultaneously sharp and haunting, an otherworldly, heavily made up creature in a business suit.

“Shiver” is the sexiest, sultriest Fever Ray track since the orgasmic "To the Moon and Back". It’s a highly physical experience, a celebration of “Killer skies / Thick thighs.” This is no love song, though; over wheedling woodwind, Dreijer plays the hunter, seeking out a “trophy human / You still haven't met / But you need to reset.”

Things take a darker turn on highlight “Even It Out”, maybe the record’s most direct effort. A simple buzzing chromatic riff gives Dreijer’s voice freedom to float and echo above it all like a malevolent spirit. “This is for Zacharias, who bullied my kid in high school / There's no room for you, and we know where you live,” they sing, before upping the venom on the chorus-cum-threat: “And we cut, cut, cut, cut."

It’s Dreijer’s sharpest moment since, well, The Knife, and it’s no coincidence that Radical Romantics reunite them with brother Olof for the first time in a decade. The siblings co-write the opening four tracks on the record. “Kandy” in particular returns to the textures of Deep Cuts-era Knife; the synth sounds are timeless, noirish, and unmistakable.

“Tapping Fingers”, another standout, brings back Dreijer’s manipulated low register and the bouncing bassline that has made their tracks instantly recognisable thus far in their career. Few artists can make music this gleefully sinister while still immensely fun, danceable, human and other all at the same time.

As we sink into lengthy, experimental closer “Bottom Of The Ocean”, we’re reminded once more of the versatility of this fantastic artist. They could, you imagine, fully embrace moody, soundtrack-ready pop, or go off and do something truly strange. Write a tune for Jose Gonzales or score another weird opera. That they so perfectly toe the line makes them beguilingly, unpredictably complete. – JM

Bandcamp | Spotify

Fever Ray Radical Romantics

Raven by Kelela

Atmospheric and alluring, hypnotic and inviting, Raven is a sophisticated and focused album from cult R&B songstress Kelela Mizanekristos. After five years without new material, Raven's lead single, "Washed Away", floated down like a call from heaven. Ethereal and dreamy, the ambient track is more spare than anything she's ever released, and proved her next effort to be a conceptual and experimental foray. Atop UK garage, breakbeats, and alt-R&B instant classics, she sings of heartbreak, love, and interior solace alongside slowed instrumental tracks that act somewhat as interludes, but also as crucial parts of the work that is Raven. "If you don't run away / Could be a happy ending after all," she sings on the jittery, explosive "Happy Ending," where she foresees the end of a relationship. After, she taunts: "It's deeper than fantasy."

Raven has its fair share of love, sex, nights out so steamy they're likened to a sauna, but at its heart is a story of self-reliance and identity after a break in one's ego. "They tried to break her," she sings in the title track, but "there's nothing here to mourn." Rising up like a raven, she recedes ("I go where they hold me down," she sang in the previous track) and emerges stronger, more certain. "I can feel my body now," she admits at the end of "Raven," its frantic electric beats zipping all over. "Are you tough enough for love?" she asks an unwilling partner later down on the tracklist, and the subtext is clear: she's done the mental heavy work, and now it's up to you.

Raven might not be full of heavyweight juggernauts like its predecessor Take Me Apart was, which makes for a subdued first couple of listens; though definite peaks lie in "On The Run", "Happy Ending", and "Contact", which in particular is sure to occupy the upper echelon of several end-of-year lists. But the record's charm reveals itself over time, its solidity washing over you like waves undulating just beneath the surface of an ocean on a pitch-black night. At this aquatic club, you're desperate to get your name on the list. – SF

Bandcamp | Spotify

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The Patience by Mick Jenkins

Flying under the radar, Mick Jenkins' The Patience is another dose of his sultry smooth yet wickedly concise bars that this time around deftly weave between his life and the bigger picture. Being able to produce a project populated with jazz instrumentals while unloading his pent up thoughts on everything from the state of rap to racial injustice is a classy combination, one that posits Jenkins as a unique voice with inimitable grace. His state-of-the-nation delivery manages to whip into a frenzy as easily as it relinquishes control, always giving an otherworldly exhale in either case. His stature is tall, his joy contagious, and his rage palpable - if Jenkins is out of anything it would appear to be patience.

Oddly, Jenkins positioning in 2023 doesn’t appear to have changed much. Released to limited fanfare, The Patience deserves repeated plays just to experience the Chicago rapper at his most free and unstoppable. But his diamond in the rough status in the confused state that is rap in this decade makes listening and discovering his talents all the more rewarding. Each of his projects has offered something new to his persona - Gil Scott-Heron 2018 homage Pieces of Man showed his prescience for artistry while 2021's Elephant In The Room spilled his truth to critical acclaim - but The Patience is the first where he has properly unloaded, and you get the distinct sense he doesn’t give a fuck who’s listening which makes the essence of his fourth album one of overall serenity - and lord knows if ever there were a year we needed that, 2023s capitulation to the crazy and darkly zany is it. Mick Jenkins will save us all. – SL


Mick Jenkins The Patience cover

The Greater Wings by Julie Byrne

Perseverance is an act of defiance. “I’ll carry that through time, never firms the pain of life,” Julie Byrne proclaims on “Portrait of a Clear Day”, “that” referring to memory. Propelled by her dreamlike ambience, the track hovers above the grounds of reality, refusing to return as she rewinds again and again the bygone years of happiness. On The Greater Wings, the past is just as alive as the present because she perseveres in maintaining it. The transcendental synthline lingers, and the guitar chord recycles itself, defying progression. How is moving forward an option when one is stricken with the sudden passing of a beloved?

Nothing this year has sounded quite like The Greater Wings: an exploration of grief so unique and moving that categorization wounds its serene beauty. Despite the songs’ stagnant state, the album is beyond an improvement when compared to her discography. The vivid imagery painted not only by her lyrics but also by her meticulous sound design certainly contributes to its unrivalled greatness; each string and pluck solidifies the inexplicable pain that is lodged inside her. It’s a quality that welcomes interpretation – does the sonic eruption on “Hope’s Return” signify a revelation, or a surrender to the hard truth of life?

With the absence of percussion on the record, gravity is nonexistent. Every song finds solace in anything but the ground; they stay afloat and directionless, solely guided by pure emotion. It establishes Byrne as an expressionist musician, whose focus is on creating and moulding layers of sound that convey human feelings. Harp, for example, constantly and abruptly appears in the final minute of “Summer’s End” as if it’s trying to prolong fading bliss. Music to her is much more than the messenger of an experience, and that’s what makes it so thrilling.The Greater Wings is as much a journey into the spheres of boundless sensibility as it is a reintroduction of how profound and delicate soundscapes alone can be. – TK

Bandcamp | Spotify

Julie Byrne The Greater Wings

I Don't Know by Bdrmm

The second track on bdrmm’s second album, I Don’t Know, fleshes out self-distrust, self-loathing, and cautiousness (“be careful of yourself”), portraying the conditioned “I” and the world as equally dangerous domains (often with significant and toxic overlap). The dreamy soundscape is nudged toward horror as an alternately narcotized and hyper-expressive vocal points to an adversarial relationship with life, reminiscent of Philip K. Dick’s conspiratorial take on the cosmos. This self-interrogation/self-doubt, set within a roil of rhythms and atmospherics, pervades and defines the project.

“It’s Just a Bit of Blood”, meanwhile, moves between gossamer verses and shoegaze-inflected choruses, making use of soft-loud dynamics. The vocal recalls Thom Yorke’s ethereal moans, the band pivoting between gossamer swaths and well-distorted welters. “Advertisement One” similarly underscores the band’s compositional prowess and knack for sonic dynamics, swelling from a minimalistic collage to a fully instrumented yet subtly rendered and meticulously mixed soundscape. With “Hidden Cinema”, the band move from jangly pop elements to ambient accents to staccato rhythms. Tragedy is processed yet still personalized: empowerment and dissociation, Romantism and nihilism, tensions sustained, catharses mindfully eschewed.

The vocal on “Pulling Stitches” is complemented by threads of noise and jarring rhythms. The song and album contrast the mechanistic aspects of contemporary life with the archetypal desires of the heart. The themes are classic: choice vs. fate, the possibility of transcendence vs. the ineluctability of The Program; i.e., is freedom an illusion? Are we slaves to causality, to a tome of rules implemented circa the Big Bang? Well, if you ask the members of bdrmm, it’s still possible to regard life as glorious, despite humankind’s problematic evolution. With I Don’t Know, the British quartet capture this paradox: the timelessness of beauty, the crushing reality of posthumanism – JA

Bandcamp | Spotify

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Beloved! Paradise! Jazz!? by McKinley Dixon

The fourth album from Chicago-based rapper McKinley Dixon elevates him to hip hop powerhouse tier by virtue of the densely-blended immediacy of Beloved! Paradise! Jazz!? The City Slang-released album explores Dixon’s trauma, grief and hope through divine string sections and sweeps of brass, all the while drawing from multiple facets and generations of the Black American experience.

He intentionally toned down the sprawl of his previous records, resulting in a neatly-packed runtime of under 29 minutes, but the literary narrative themes and sophisticated jazz and choral arrangements make Beloved! Paradise! Jazz!? feel momentous in scale.

Dixon is building on his previous themes of honouring African American women who’ve inspired him by naming the album after a trio of novels written by his hero Toni Morrison, a Nobel laureate who he dubbed "the greatest rapper ever". These motifs are echoed through the Kitchen Table Sessions that he dropped alongside each single release — itself paying homage to visual artist Carrie Mae Weems’ Kitchen Table photographic series.

Messages of resistance and optimism run throughout, touching on themes of violence, systemic racism and, on “Sun, I Rise,” a journey to understanding humility. “Tyler, Forever” embodies a sharp confidence in his creative direction, as we experience Dixon sealing a memory of a loved one in a time capsule and growing and grieving through a cathartic, explosive track.

With flourishes from collaborators including Anjimile, Angélica Garcia and poet Hanif Abdurraqib, who reads the introductory track’s stark passage from one of the album’s titular novels by Morrison, the album is a richly-cultivated jazz-rap triumph that celebrates shared values and community. – OS

Bandcamp | Spotify

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Am I British Yet? by VV Brown

Although V V Brown’s 2013 record Samson & Delilah and this year's Am I British Yet? are parted by a decade, both mark essential turning points for the English singer and songwriter. The former commemorated Brown’s break from major label expectations to pursue her agenda on her own YOY imprint; the latter finds her continuing that same mission but taking it a step further.

As remarked upon in my review of Am I British Yet?, I discuss Brown’s conceptual shift on this recent set, “On previous affairs, Brown pondered the mores of contemporary womanhood or engaged in avant-garde storytelling; this time, Brown drills down on the experiences – past, present and future – of Black Britons. Threads of history, identity, gender, sexual orientation, and more are woven into the narrative loom of Am I British Yet? where she gives equal space for frustration, reflection and celebration.”

Brown, in cooperation with Justin “Sensible J” Smith, plot a compelling course regarding the scripts and production for Am I British Yet? Whether it’s the gripping spoken word manifestation of “Inhale,” the soulful squall of “Philosophy,” or the chameleonic performance turned in on “Marginalised,” every lyric, soundscape and vocal arrangement housed on the record reverberates with intention. And this is to say nothing of the collaborative counsel she establishes with several guests joining her to share their experiences through thematic vignettes. Her artistic singularity may not win conventional or commercial favor, however, it puts Brown in a class all her own—and that is a very good place to be.

Since its release, Am I British Yet? has been extended to the live show format to winning effect, another element of this project that this bold creative has flawlessly enacted. Whatever comes next for Brown, this long player is quite the feather in her discographic cap. – QH


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Famous Last Words by CASISDEAD

Famous Last Words is a record haunted by its own becoming. The masked MC is shrouded in questions, silent and untraceable for years at a time, breaking the surface only to leave an offering of “answers” that beget more questions. Famous Last Words, his first album in a decade, is a requiem from London’s most entrancing storyteller who may not be dead, but is decidedly post-alive.

“I’m a director before I’m a rapper,” he declared in a rare interview with i-D in 2014, and with Famous Last Words, his vision is realised. These 24 tracks are the director’s cut of a cyberpunk neo-noir where society is being fed Aghast 6, a drug inducing apathy in its subject developed by a company called Deadcorp. Its eight skits follow Alpha and Omega, two insurgents who refuse to take the drug and intend to destroy Deadcorp. The narrative runs in parallel with his own, but for CASISDEAD, the rot has already taken hold.

Produced by Stranger Things composer Kyle Dixon and Italians Do It Better label founder Johnny Jewel, Famous Last Words is soaked in neon. The Lynchian, 80s-indebted synths provoke a yearning for an irretrievable past on “Pat Earrings”, and “Marilyn” which calls on an impassioned chorus from Connie Constance and leans into fade-to-black drums that make your stomach lurch.

His stories are like desperate bits of nightmares: coke-mirror reflections, armed ambushes, missing children and self-annihilation. There are also his paramours, a complicated cast of women blighted by trauma who turned to addiction and promiscuity. And then there is death - a character ever-present in the frame. He’s there when CASISDEAD combs his hair and half of it comes off on the brush; there when he drives under the influence with bottles clinking in the footwell. “Friends know I’m fucked, but they don’t know how much”, states CASISDEAD. All these fragments might be an act of world-building, or maybe this induced apathy and its attendant consequences is more entrenched in reality than we realise.

Every track turns to vapor, slips through your fingers. The final track “Skydive” is achingly tender, guitars and hymnal synths stretching out into empty space. “Sat on the second step, the sun setting, seconds left”, he begins, there to meet the end. He grapples with legacy, the lost gods and fallen kings before him, offering up his hard-earned wisdom from “the years that I was owed, stolen”. A chorus delivered from The Pet Shop Boys’ Neil Tenant wraps the song in a comfort blanket of the past. Famous Last Words is a staggering monument to the closely-guarded truths that can only be spoken behind a mask. – SLW

Bandcamp | Spotify

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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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