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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.

Scaring the Hoes by Danny Brown and JPEG Mafia

Listening to the collision between rap’s lonely cowboys JPEGMAFIA and Danny Brown is like being sonically curb-stomped: teeth to the concrete, boot to the head. When rappers, more than ever, are polishing their sound to a fine commercial gleam, SCARING THE HOES is an act of aux cord kamikaze.

The glitch-hop abomination communicates in memes and an index of shit-posting references the way the religiously possessed speak in tongues. Brown’s verses are cartoonishly gloopy (“Man, I can’t fuck with y’all ni**as / Y’all let Jack Harlow sell y’all chicken”); Peggy’s snarky and stupidly funny with the opening bar, “First, fuck off, Elon Musk”. With a cursory scan of titles including “Steppa Pig” and “Where Ya Get Ya Coke From?”, it’s an arms race in shock-jock immaturity – something to make the “bitches” roll their eyes and leave the room to the pair’s absolute delight.

The sole producer of what might be described as the album’s “cursed” beats, Peggy doom-scrolls through an entire internet’s worth of samples from iMessage notification tones and Nintendo video game sounds to a female voice screaming “shut the fuck up” and a Japanese seafood advert from 1985. As he crashes and careens between them all with an ADHD-addled attention span, SCARING THE HOES is an uncomfortably honest reflection of our information-crippled minds and desperation for distraction.

Yet even though the compression on these tracks is enough to give you a nosebleed, make no mistake: this record is not the party-ender it pretends to be. “Play something for the bitches, how the fuck we s’posed to make money off this shit?” Peggy cynically mimics on “SCARING THE HOES” - and in a twist of irony, they very well may have figured it out. In collapsing context, stretching sounds to the creative extremes and firing endlessly inventive bars with the intensity of a pinball machine, JPEGMAFIA and Danny Brown have made a floor-filler for the end times. – SLW



Blondshell by Blondshell

Dogged and grungy guitar riffs, blown-out choruses, and candid lyrics about bad sex, disappointing partners, and the universally shared but individually piercing insecurities of any young adult, Blondshell’s self-titled album is a 90’s exasperation. The debut project under her fresh moniker, Blondshell has become Sabrina Teitelbaum’s new, yet intentionally well-worn and slightly damaged, coat of armour (resplendent in its baseball caps and mom jeans). Whilst the naked honesty of the record is a quintessential throughline, its production teeters between thumping shoegaze, choruses poached punk, and distant indie dreamscapes. Although its album cover may be black and white, the record revels in detailing the real, messy, and forever stained shades that make up Teitelbaum’s lived experiences; the nuances and dialogues of adulthood.

“Logan’s a dick / I’m learning that’s hot,” she sings on the album’s opener “Veronica Mars”, immediately introducing the world to the sardonic perspective from which she pens. Taking narrative inspiration from the early 00’s television show of the same name, she pokes fun at her own very live adolescence, picking at the habits she has learnt as if they were fresh scabs to reveal the tender skin underneath. Thick with an air of melodrama and regret, the lyrics across the album are playful in their confessionality and confessional in their playfulness. Toying with the listener from “I’m going back to him, I know my therapist’s pissed” on self-flagellating "Sepsis", to “I want to save myself you’re part of my addiction” on lamentful "Olympus", she recounts her love life with a steely knowingness, yet cathartic lack of care, of its toxicity. Vastly monotone except in moments of needed emotional release - the scream in "Sepsis", or the final minute of "Kiss City" - the album is shaded by these head-turning one-liners keeping listeners hanging on to every word. What at first glance seem to be Teitelbaum’s tales of romance and sex thus fade in intrigue to be mere windows into the true grist of the album: the internal conflicts raging in her head. – TT

Bandcamp | Spotify


Maps by Billy Woods and Kenny Segal

Four years and a whole pandemic after their debut collaborative album Hiding Places, New York rapper and Backwoodz Studioz founder billy woods reunites with producer Kenny Segal on Maps, a 17-track concept record that captures woods’ experience with a heavy touring schedule in a post-Covid world, and provides a full-circle, turbulent and grounding journey that takes off, and returns to, woods’ home city.

Cold, gritty hues roll effortlessly into lullaby-like melodies, particularly from opener “Kenwood Speakers” into “Soft Landing” - a particular highlight where woods’ lyrical pen is sharp enough to cut deep - "A single death is a tragedy but eggs make omelettes / Statistics how he look at war casualties" - and is backed by a watery guitar melody that transports you to a timeless limbo that feels akin to the isolated, hazy headspace of the pandemic.

Aesop Rock, E L U C I D, ShrapKnel, Quelle Chris, Future Islands lead vocalist Samuel T. Herring and Danny Brown are among those that appear on the record, offering colourful vignettes that act as different checkpoints to woods’ tour route. On “FaceTime”, Herring reiterates the blur and lack of time to experience each place while travelling through different states, eating the same breakfasts in different hotels, and becoming at peace with your own company. “Ground Zero” sees Brown inject some boastful energy, jumping between clever lyrical remarks about working out, fast food and more while making reference to MF DOOM’s “Curls” and Cool Runnings.

Maps is - across its 17 tracks - a sleepless rollercoaster charged by nocturnal paranoia in a changed world. There’s a comforting warmth in the jet-lagged tangents that make up this concept album about touring, and while there’s pockets of loneliness scattered throughout, there’s also a consistent theme of woods finding home in himself on the road rather than his fixed address.

This record proves that woods and Segal’s creativity is pushing into a higher altitude, and a mentally and physically taxing task such as touring can absolutely be a solid source of inspiration. – CK

Bandcamp | Spotify

Billy woods Kenny Segal Maps

Sundial by Noname

Five years since the last long player from Chicago rapper and poet Noname came Sundial – undoubtably the year's most intelligent record and one that confirmed Fatimah Warner among hip hop’s most vital voices.

Taking time out from music after the release of Room 25 to focus on activism and education – including the Noname Book Club – Warner nearly quit music entirely, and at one point threatened to pull Sundial entirely after the response to Jay Electronica’s appearance.

Clocking in at a trim 30 minutes, Sundial is a masterclass in eloquent rage, dialled up through Warners’ deliciously versatile voice. Whether it’s a sultry whisper or a husky bark, her polished flow bends with ease as she navigates her way across targets like Obama (“We is Wakanda/We queen, Rwanda/First Black president, and he the one who bombed us.”) and her own hypocrisy (“Coachella stage got sanitized/I said I wouldn’t perform for them and somehow I still fell in line, fuck”). Her anger is matched with a humour and wit, and helped by some well chosen collaborators (Common, $ilk Money, Jimetta Rose).

Sundial is fundamentally an uncompromising record at heart; Warner meets the contradictions of playing the game with philosophical candour but remains an artist that struggles with the music industry – and it’s in that space where her art finds its true north. – PB


Noname Sundial

The Land Is Inhospitable and So Are We by Mitski

Mitski’s music has always centered around two opposing forces, desire and resignation. Sometimes, she carefully balances them both - like on Puberty 2’s “I Bet On Losing Dogs”, where she crooned for everlasting love but admitted her destiny was on the losing side. Sometimes she wildly, even recklessly, embraces one extreme at the expense of the other - on 2022’s “Love Me More”, desire won out - as Mitski pled for love, or even just the illusion of it, to drown out life’s harshest realities.

On The Land is Inhospitable and So Are We, the push and pull of these forces remains central. However, the grandiose synth-pop of 2018's Be The Cowboy and last year's Laurel Hell, is now replaced by a relatively restrained approach. This makes way for some of the most nuanced, expansive and affecting songwriting of the indie sensation’s career thus far.

The Americana-infused songs of The Land is Inhospitable... tell a tale of solitude, with Mitski's tales of isolation amplified by tasteful orchestral arrangements. Much of the album finds the singer-songwriter clutching at something to fill the void left by isolation. On the solemn lead single “Bug Like An Angel”, she tries to self-medicate with alcohol because "sometimes, a drink feels like family", but by the time the buzz wears off, she’s unable to avoid the starkness of reality - that all the promises she’s broken will eventually break her “right back”.

More attempts at reprieve arrives via over-working and binge eating on "I Don't Like My Mind", while Mitski pleads for someone to take her soul, and its many burdens, on “The Deal”. On the viral sensation "My Love Mine All Mine", Mitski acknowledges that there's no replacement for real, meaningful connection, making the songs of seclusion that surround it all the more painful. – TW

Bandcamp | Spotify

Mitski The Land Is Inhospitable And So Are We

Fountain Baby by Amaarae

After her 2020 debut birthed the sleeper viral smash of ‘SAD GIRLS LUV MONEY’ expectations were high for Amaarae’s follow up. When it arrived into a sweltering June, it exceeded these expectations in every possible way; a sweaty, sexy pop record of bulletproof bops and sly experimentation.

In many ways the tent pole influences are obvious, structurally and in its simultaneously busy and precise production style it clearly takes its cues from the early 2000s pop-experimentalist Mount Rushmore of Timbaland, Missy and The Neptunes. However, instrumentally it broadens her sonic palette in every direction at once; taking in full orchestration, new-wave propulsion and even a punk ripper to her already sonically stuffed afrobeats sound. But despite its sonic restlessness the record manages all its disparate elements with absolute ease, never breathless in its corralling of these sounds, instead all coiling around Amaarae’s sublimely flexible vocal style.

It also, crucially, is a record full of utterly magnificent songs. ‘Wasted Eyes’ is swooningly melodramatic, the sound of being pulled into the whirlpool of someone’s all-consuming magnetism while ‘Counterfeit’ gives flexing the momentum of a chase scene in a spy film. But more than anything else it has felt like the record where Amaarae has come into herself as a truly great pop star; someone who coalesces these brilliant songs, great videos, massive personality into creating a whole world for their records. What a world it is too. Fountain Baby creates a queer fantasia, a cornucopia of bodies, sweat and money; swagger, loneliness and lust. It takes ideas of rap excess that have grown into cliches, and makes them pulse with a new relentless, globally minded energy.

As the year closes out the record feels even more timely. With our government continually finding new lows for its fearful, contemptuous, insular view of the world, Fountain Baby stands as a model of everything that is beautiful about everything they’ve tried to dismantle. A record made across three continents, by people from all corners of the world, embraced by people right across the musical and social spectrum, from pop fans to avant-garde experimentalists. A record that finds nothing but potential joy and connection in the new. An artist and an album excited and inspired by everything, afraid of nothing and no one, meeting the world with a resounding ‘Yes'. – JC

Bandcamp | Spotify

Amaarae Fountain Baby

Javelin by Sufjan Stevens

“Give myself as a sacrifice / Genuflecting ghost I kiss the floor / Rise, my love, show me paradise / Nothing seems so simple anymore,” pleads Sufjan Stevens on Javelin. He’s on his knees making deals with the beyond, bearing his soul just to see his lover once more. A self-described “poster child of pain, loss, and loneliness,” Stevens lives up to his reputation on his latest offering. On Javelin’s release day, Stevens shared a post of his late partner Evan Richardson, who died earlier this year, and dedicated the project to him. The album is a powerful artistic meeting of that moment, covering expansive emotional ground as he grapples with grief, love, and faith.

For Stevens devotees, Javelin is an exciting return to the artist’s roots. It’s his first singer-songwriter project since 2015’s Carrie & Lowell and invokes the sonic stylings of his debut, Greetings from Michigan: The Great Lake State. Eccentric bells, muted horns, and wistful piano frills abound on the record, all grounded by Stevens’ signature delicate, warm guitar patterns and aching vocals. “Goodbye Evergreen” opens the record with an instrumental epic, while “There’s A World” closes it on an intimate, stripped-down note. The tracks serve as bookends to a project that takes listeners through a journey of big romance and big mourning. Alongside this boundary-pushing production is, as always, Stevens’ masterful lyricism. Trying to decipher the biblical references, the callbacks to his own catalog, and the cultural commentary on Javelin will turn any engaged listener into a literary detective (as the titles of “Everything That Rises,” a nod to Flannery O’Connor, or “Genuflecting Ghost” make very clear). But that’s all part of the fun of listening to, living alongside, and loving the work of Sufjan Stevens.

And yet, for someone so famously elusive about his private life, the release of Javelin also ushered in a new personal era for Stevens: His album dedication marked his first public acknowledgement of his queerness, a subject long speculated upon by fans. While nods on the record to his personal tragedy may be shrouded in allegory — just as they were on Carrie & Lowell — his coming out provided resolute clarity to his lyrical enigmas.

Still, perhaps Stevens’ foremost gift is his ability to use the hyper-specific to communicate the universal. Javelin is another poignant look inside longing and the inner self, providing listeners the brand of comforting melancholia that only Stevens can deliver. – LAD

Bandcamp | Spotify

Sufjan Stevens Javelin

Heavy Heavy by Young Fathers

When asked which qualities Young Fathers desired to evoke with their fourth studio album Heavy, Heavy in an interview with me for Best Fit earlier this year, Alloysius Massoquoi said: “Undeniably steeped in humanity. There are so many ways it can go. There’s contradiction, there’s a spiritual element. It’s antagonistic, anthemic… all these adjectives that describe certain things we all resonate with as humans.” Theirs is a sound that draws on thousands of years of movement and feeling without borders, and this record is a victory not in sounding unlike anything else out there – but rather sounding like everything.

The title Heavy, Heavy speaks to not the volume but the density of its ambition. It’s a sprint of ten tracks that practise self-restraint, the product of what happens when you choose less, but maximise those elements to great effect. “Everything, even the kitchen sink, is in there. We threw everything at it,” said G Hastings. Inspired by the archives of ethnomusicologist Alan Lomax who dedicated his career to folk music from around the world, the record draws on ‘spirituals’, a genre of Christian music pioneered by Black Americans with its roots in sub-Saharan African cultural heritage; it was sung communally by slaves, and its signatures would later evolve into blues and gospel. It’s about tradition and capturing that elusive thing we might call “soul”.

“Geronimo” is a hymnal experience; Alloysius Massoquoi’s voice carries the beauty of light filtered through stained glass. The band’s lyrics are abstractions awaiting interpretation, sermons from men who bargained with experience for wisdom. “Breathe in like a lion / Breathe out like a lamb”, sings Hastings and Kayus Bankole, an admission of wearing your vulnerability as proof of your courage. And there is more joy than ever – joy as an act of defiance. “Holy Moly” is an invitation to take a risk, consequences be damned. It jitters with absolute aliveness, a living and breathing thing. “Better grab you’re your chance / With both hands if you want to / Before we’re damned”, sings Massoquoi with the swell of a choir behind him.

He shared his personal notes on Heavy, Heavy in our conversation: “… Music should be about what it means to be human, the thing that rings true for us, our base in humanity. We want to highlight the intricacies of the human condition and explore it visually: the subtleties, the joy, the awkwardness, the paranoia, devastation and redemption – all done through the lens of the mundane with thrown-in bits of fantasy and surrealism. We’re more interested in the idea of proximity and tend to lean towards the stuff that doesn’t necessarily have a correlation with one another, but by actively forcing them into a condensed space, to have a dialogue of some sort, you create opportunity for something new in a new language - something that’s transformational, from the ordinary to the extraordinary.– SLW

Bandcamp | Spotify

Young Fathers

Rat Saw God by Wednesday

“We always started by telling our best stories first, so now that it’s been a while I’ll get to tellin’ you all my worst,” is the promise tied to Wednesday’s third album, Rat Saw God. It’s a spit-swear pact, the kind made when you can be trusted with ugliness; to still have faith in the silver among the shrapnel. Its release has marked the final chapter of a three-year transformation for Wednesday which began with five kids from North Carolina with inked arms and unruly kitchen-scissor mullets packing out basements, and ended, on the other side of it all, with one of the most fascinating indie-rock bands in America.

Wednesday’s songs are sometimes like sweat-soaked nightmares, sometimes tender in the way of a deep purple bruise - but they are always intensely human. Born from the scarred earth of the American South, their sound merges rusty-switchblade shoegaze with the country swoon of a steep-lap guitar.

Paired with the sound spirited to life by bandmates Jake ‘MJ’ Lenderman, Xandy Chelmis, Ethan Baechtold and Allan Miller is frontwoman Karly Hartzman’s own visceral kind of storytelling. The “Hot Rotten Grass Smell” lingers in your nose, the “piss-coloured bright yellow Fanta” sticks in your throat. Someone’s died in the Planet Fitness parking lot, Bobby and Jimmy sit in the baby pool with lice in their hair, and “the kid from the Jewish family got the preacher’s kid pregnant”. Hers is a casual poetry: half-funny, half-tragic, holding unprocessed memories to light from a numb, out-of-body distance. Writing songs is her way of getting closer, of confronting the things she felt all along.

On “Chosen to Deserve”, Hartzman reflects on the magic and agony of adolescence over slamming country guitar riffs. The way it recalls sticky summer days distracts from the surrender of her darkest secrets that she trusts to her lover without fear. “I used to drink ‘til I threw up at my parents’ house / My friends all took Benadryl ‘til they could see shit crawlin’ up the walls / One of those times my friend took a little too much he had to get his stomach pumped / They took him over to the hospital and told us he was lucky to survive”, she purges. It’s the unlikeliest, ugliest – and therefore most honest – love song of our time: “Thank god that I was chosen to deserve you / ‘Cause I’m the girl you were chosen to deserve.”

“Bull Believer” is the album’s eight-and-a-half-minute behemoth: it crashes in self-destructive shrieks of electric feedback, before retracing the blankness that the grief of losing a close friend at seventeen years old left her with. In its final minutes it spirals into a staggering, bloody wail of anguish which crescendos into a devastating scream - the kind Hartzman was too self-conscious to try in front of her bandmates, preferring to record it alone while they played Tetris downstairs. She freaks out, freaks out in a way that she probably always wanted to but didn’t know how, and Rat Saw God is a victory in catharsis from one of America’s best storytellers. – SLW

Bandcamp | Spotify

Wednesday Rat Saw God

Why Does the Earth Give Us People to Love by Kara Jackson

In her book All About Love: New Visions, bell hooks wrote: “To be loving is to be open to grief, to be touched by sorrow, even sorrow that is unending.” The debut album of Chicago singer-songwriter Kara Jackson is negotiated out of that old pact between love and loss; it bears the weight of those unwelcome lessons and endures like a flower rising from cracks in concrete. Love, she understands, is not a commodity that can be bargained with, won and lost – love is something you must consciously practise despite the price that must be paid for the privilege.

Jackson’s best friend Maya died of cancer in 2016. Her grief is the receipt of that love, heavy with a wisdom which belies her twenty-three years. Why Does The Earth Gives Us People To Love? – that central question around which everything orbits – is both a monument to their friendship and the story of the young woman left behind, searching for connection in a splintered world.

Jackson’s voice, exceptionally rich and soulful, seems to come from an ancestral wellspring. She always found a natural ally in words, becoming the US national youth poet laureate at nineteen, but it is with the guitar that her verses take on elevated meaning. These lush, understated arrangements co-produced with her close friends Kaina, Nnamdï and Sen Morimoto give Jackson space; they take on a fluidity necessary for her lyrics which defy the formalities of traditional songwriting. These songs are better aligned with a lineage of poetry, protest and storytelling of Black American folk music to which Jackson is a natural heir.

“Some people get high to be recognised / Some people roll dice to be recognised”, she begins on the record’s opening song, piano meandering up the scale like an absent-minded daydream, before she arrives at a truth that, when she unfolds it, strikes you with the weight of a piano falling from the sky: “Some people take lives to be recognised / Some people gon’ die to be recognised.”

Its title track rings out like a burial hymn, stretching out into a vast expanse, empty save for Jackson herself. It evokes the Western approach to grief which is experienced in isolation; a sense of communion is lost. “I’ve buried old and young / I’ve watched them lower a saint / We’re only waiting our turn / Call that living?”, she searches.

Yet Jackson is funny, too. “Every man thinks I’m his fucking mother,” she sings, relishing every syllable on “therapy”. Coupled with “dickhead blues”, they act as canonical folk songs for the twenty-something dating experience. “I’m sharper than a jewel / What kind of miner does that make you? / When I’m the gold and you’re just a fool”, is one such line that casually executes the lover who let her down. Why Does The Earth Gives Us People To Love?, more than an album, is a necessary experience. To listen to Kara Jackson for the first time will become a modern rite of passage. – SLW

Bandcamp | Spotify

Kara Jackson

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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