I have to be honest: I had a different experience of the 2023 musical landscape than Jay – it was hard for me to find any anything to really settle into, anything that moved me, or anything that shocked me in a way that was wholly new. Some years are like that, whether it’s how you’re feeling, your context, world events, or just a willingness to be open – occasionally music just doesn’t hit. I spent hundreds of hours listening to books and podcasts, and perhaps that took up all the emotional air in the room, or perhaps, when I was struggling through the early part of 2023, I didn’t want anything emotional, good or bad. Music only works if you let it in. 

Nevertheless, here’s my top albums of the past year, in no particular order, because I don’t think they’re really comparable.

The Reds, Pinks, and PurplesThe Town That Cursed Your Name (Listen)

Other than the big hits, I was never really a huge fan of The Smiths – I know I’ll take heat for that one, but it’s true. Never fear, enter: The Reds, Pinks, and Purples. Hailing from San Francisco (even though the sound like they were forged in the sooty furnaces of Birmingham) Fronted by Glenn Donaldson and a rotating roster of more-than-capable musicians, their bandcamp page calls them “enveloping ennui.” I wouldn’t disagree, but there’s something far more joyous in their pop hooks, undulating melodies, and skittering rhythms. If we’re being honest, I was sucked in by the band’s consistently beautiful album covers – always a single photograph surrounded by a solid border. I miss that kind of world-building in music, that kind of wider aesthetic gesture that visually embodies what the music is trying to do sonically. There’s no comparison musically, but it’s what Iron Maiden was doing for metal that The Reds, Pinks, and Purples are doing for these foggy, sentimental, romantic jams. Hate The Smiths but love the idea of The Smiths? This might be the band for you.

ShitKid – Rejected Fish (Listen)

ShitKid is the project of 23-year-old Åsa Söderqvist based in Gothenburg in the south of Sweden, and this is a new release, but it’s technically a re-presentation of the 2020 album Fish featuring different versions of songs and tracks that didn’t make the cut. If you haven’t heard ShitKid, I’m not sure where to begin or how to describe it. It’s a genre-jumping jumble, a pastiche or collage of sounds that sometimes feel more like notes than fully-fleshed out ideas…and I love that. Sometimes I want to be presented with the raw framework of something instead of the glossy end product, and this album does just that. It’s honest, transparent, and effective. You might like this if you like Le Tigre, Mirah, Cherry Glazer, The Coathangers.

RatboysThe Window (Listen)

There’s nothing complicated about this album, which is arguably their most mature to date. It gives me a million tiny tastes of bands I love, Liz Phair, Veruca Salt, The Breeders, Juliana Hatfield, while being something wholly its own. It feels new and old at the same time, like buying your favorite sweatshirt all over again; it fits the same, but it’s just a little tighter, a little brighter, and a little less rough-around-the-edges. 

KAMAUULACUNA in The House Of Mirrors (Listen)

I found KAMAUU through TikTok, where he produces short unique visual accompaniments to his music. I was sucked into them stylistically, then started to explore his music. It’s a bumpy ride sometimes, even though it’s flawlessly produced. Layered, complex, tempo-shifting, and defying categorization, the songs sometimes embrace a hundred emotions simultaneously, like an overfull glass of water, precariously ready to spill over the edges and form unimaginable shapes on the table. This is an album where you can’t predict what’s coming next, and to me, that’s the best kind of story, best kind of poem, best kind of movie, and in this case, makes for a compelling listen. Maybe it’s a riddle, maybe it’s a lark, maybe it’s a red herring, but no matter how confounding it is, it bumps.

Yo La TengoThis Stupid World (Listen)

I’ve been listening to YLT for over 30 years, and if I’m being honest, they slide on and off my radar screen. Their latest effort is magnetic – noisy and lush as ever, but there are creepy departures like “Tonight’s Episode” that make you sit up in your chair, cock your head to one side, and think “well, this is new.” This is a perfect winter record because it wraps you in a blanket, but the blanket is occasionally bright, chirpy, and patterned in a way that reminds you spring is imminent. 

La Chachalaca – La Chachalaca (Listen)

This has been on heavy rotation since I went to the release party here in Buffalo and bought the record. It’s a soundtrack to a Western that was never made, and every time I play it, I get to envision new characters and new scenarios. It’s got immaculate vibes that run you through the full spectrum of emotions. It’s sensual without being crass. It’s energetic without being frenetic. It’s so well-balanced that sometimes I forget that I’m playing a record, and it just becomes the soundtrack to my life for those 40 minutes. It’s a dusty and colorful wonder with leitmotifs that recur throughout, drawing you in, making you wonder “what’s so important about that part?” If there’s anything on my list I want you to listen to, it’s this. 

Here’s a list of honorable mentions that have been in rotation for me, and they’re on a bunch of other people’s top lists:

  • Drain – Living Proof (Listen)
  • Lana Del Rey – Did You Know There’s A Tunnel Under Ocean Blvd (Listen)
  • Olivia Rodrigo – GUTS (Listen)
  • Depeche Mode – Memento Mori (Listen)
  • Lana Del Rabies – Becoming Everything: Strega Beata Remixed  (Listen)
  • Kenya Grace – No albums, just various singles so far (Listen)
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