My Favorite Albums of 2023
This year was something of an abnormal year in music for me. I can't remember a year with more releases that I was excited to hear -- more than 40 in fact. Yet when it came down to deciding on my 10 favorite of the year I struggled to get to 10 that I felt were worthy of my list. I eventually got there, but that means there were far more disappointments for me in 2023 than favorites. Some of the releases were awful, but the majority were just plain average. The mediocre included releases from artists I love -- Everything But The Girl, ZZ Ward, Blur, Natalie Merchant and The Pretenders to name a few. Then there were some I enjoyed but not enough to include them on my must-listen list -- Depeche Mode, Durand Jones, Boy & Bear, and The Struts. And there were a few that flirted with my top 10 but in the end didn't quite get there -- albums from The New Pornographers, Molly Burch, Jess Williamson, Hozier, and Bethany Cosentino could be called honorable mentions.
In the end, my list of 10 albums represent for me the very best of 2023. Some of these records I listed to a lot, and some came out later in the year so I'm still digging in. What I will say about 2023 is that for me there were two records that stood head and shoulders above the rest and that will be evident in my discussion of the top two. But there were 10 very good records, so here you go:
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10. Chronicles of a Diamond - Black Pumas. In October 2019 I went to see Black Pumas at a small club called the Rhythm Room on Indian School Rd. I went by myself, on the strength of a single song I'd heard called Black Moon Rising. I left knowing the next time I'd see them it would be at a huge venue because this neo soul band from Austin, Texas literally blew the doors off the legendary club. As it turned out, within a few months the Pumas were all over the radio and television with their huge hit Colors. The next time I saw them was in front of thousands of people at the Innings Festival at Tempe Town Lake. It took four years for the follow up to their self-titled debut album, and while it's not as epic as the first record, Chronicles of a Diamond is a fabulous psychedelic soul album that gets better with each listen. Just five years ago lead singer Eric Burton was busking at Third Street Promenade in Santa Monica and today he's one of the freshest voices in the genre.
9. Electrophonic Chronic - The Arcs. Dan Auerbach is prolific as fuck. When he's not making Black Keys records with Patrick Carney he's producing albums for Lana del Rey, Cage the Elephant, Grace Potter, and Ray LaMontagne. In between, he has found the time to front a second band in The Arcs. The Arcs first release in 2015 was wonderful and made my top 10 that year, but then we had to wait eight years for the next one. Electrophonic Chronic is blues rock with a psychedelic twist and it will fill the void in my soul until the next Black Keys record.
8. Strays II - Margo Price. She may look country, but don’t let the boots and hat fool you. Margo Price is a cornucopia of perfection. Country, Americana, Blues, Rock…whatever. It simply doesn’t matter when you put on Strays II and buckle in. The 40-year-old singer songwriter from Nashville received a Best New Artist Grammy nomination in 2018, and one magazine called her “country’s next star” but she doesn’t fit the mold. Do yourself a favor and listen to Strays — you won’t be disappointed.
7. Laugh Track - The National. When your favorite band of the past 20 years releases a surprise album just a few months after their previous record…well…you just say thank you and play them both. Laugh Track came out in September along with the release of first cut Alphabet City and while I was still basking in the glow of the band’s earlier 2023 release (see the top of this list) I tuned in and felt like I was given a bonus. Laugh Track is solid and includes a few great collaborations from band favorite Phoebe Bridgers and even Rosanne Cash. The band played a few songs off the release when I saw them live earlier this month, and the record is definitely good enough to make my year-end list on its own.
6. Pollen - Tennis. I’ve been a fan of this husband and wife due since my kid introduced me to them in 2017 and this is the third straight Tennis record to make my top 10 countdown. This year I also finally got to see them live after two misses because of the pandemic, and they were great — singer Alaina Moore was a tiny little ball of energy on stage. Tennis has a real 70s vibe but with a modern touch.
5. What Matters Most - Ben Folds. I love Ben Folds. And have going on 30 years, all the way back to the first time I heard One Angry Dwarf and 200 Solemn Faces. I’ve seen Ben solo and with Ben Folds Five, and he’s one of those artists for me that never misses. What Matters Most is classic Ben and I saw him live a few months back and he was spectacular as always. I know not everyone likes their rock with a sense of humor but I definitely do. This song is a great example of Ben being Ben. “Some dude live tweeted as I ran half naked past a Cracker Barrel.”
4. Joy'all - Jenny Lewis. Few artists had a busier 2023 than Jenny Lewis. She released her fifth solo album since leaving Rilo Kiley, and then went on a whirlwind tour with The Postal Service to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the band’s only record Give Up. Hell, the only thing she didn’t do was make a triumphant return to Hollywood where as a child actress she once co-starred in such classics as Troop Beverly Hills, Webster, Growing Pains, Golden Girls and the hugely underrated Brooklyn Bridge. And while I first fell for young Jenny in Gary David Goldberg’s classic sitcom where she played Catholic schoolgirl Katie Monahan (ironic since Jenny is in fact Jewish in real life), it is her music that has made me a lifelong fan. Joy’all is a beautiful album top to bottom and I have had a hard time deciding which is my favorite track. For purposes of this blog post I guess I’ll go with:
3. i/o - Peter Gabriel. It has been 12 years since we’ve heard from Peter Gabriel, one of rock music’s most enigmatic artists. But let’s be honest, did anyone really notice 2011’s New Blood or 2010’s Scratch My Back? Not me, and I’m a huge Gabriel fan. You really have to go back to 1992’s Us to find something akin to a hit song with Digging in the Dirt and Steam. But something felt new and exciting again with i/o, despite the oddest release gimmick of all time. Gabriel’s 10th studio album was released song by song, beginning last fall, one per month, on the full moon. Oh Peter. And yes, i/o does mean “input/output” but it’s also the name of one of the moons of Jupiter. Still, the full album won’t officially be released until Dec. 1, 2023 but I just created a Spotify playlist for it and added each song as it came out. And one by one, song after song, is brilliant and pure Gabriel. i/o is his best work since 1986’s So, and that’s saying something given how brilliant that record was (and is). i/o has long dramatic rock anthems, soft moody ballads, and weird kafkaesque lyrics. So yeah, classic Gabriel. I’m not sure if we’re going to get real videos for the songs on this record, but it’s kind of a good thing because I am in no way prepared to pick a favorite song from i/o. The title song is up there, but Olive Tree is sort of separating itself for me. Let me know your favorite song from the record.
2. Weathervanes - Jason Isbell & the 400 Unit. Americana and roots rock is having a moment, and nobody is having a better time of it than Jason Isbell. In the past few years he has released some of the genre’s best music, he has won four Grammy awards and countless other awards, he gets to live and work with his lovely and super-talented wife Amanda Shires, and he has a budding acting career with recent roles in Billions, Deadwood, and Martin Scorsese’s Killers of the Flower Moon. He’s a got-damned Alabama Renaissance Man. But mostly, he’s just the best fucking songwriter in the world today. He’s a musical Raymond Carver.
Weathervanes is spectacular from start to finish. For me it’s his second best album ever, after 2020’s Reunions which topped my 2020 favorites list. Weathervanes has everything you want in a rock and roll record, from hard-rocking anthems to heart-wrenching love songs. It appeals to country fans, and rock fans, and Americana fans, and just plain music fans. Isbell is smart, and bold, and undeniably on the side of the everyman. Death Wish is a great song. I love Save the World. Cast Iron Skillet is superb. Every one of the album’s 13 songs is just brilliant. Brilliant.
King of Oklahoma is my favorite, a song about addiction and its impact on relationships. Isbell speaks on behalf of the part of America that struggles to make ends meet and feel left behind by the so-called American Dream. His background is rural and white, but his lyrics appeal to everyone in the working class. This song is devastating and real.
She used to wake me up with coffee every morning
And I'd hear her homemade house shoes slide across the floor
She used to make me feel like the king of Oklahoma
But nothing makes me feel like much of nothing anymore
1. First Two Pages of Frankenstein - The National. About 20 years ago I read about a new band from Brooklyn by way of Ohio and upon my first listen to their album Boxer, I knew I’d found something special. The driving drum beats and killer guitar licks combined with Matt Berninger’s deep soulful baritone voice hit me like a ton of bricks and Boxer quickly became one of my favorite albums. I know The National is not for everyone, and I’m okay with that. And yeah, over the years the band has grown a faithful audience of middle-aged white men and pioneered the genre disparagingly called dad rock. I don’t care if they’re not your cup of tea. They are most assuredly mine.
The National is my favorite band of the 21st century. I like every album the band has released and every song on each of those albums. I’ve seen them live twice now, and they give a hell of a show. There’s something about their music that penetrates my body and as I listen to them I get lost in the melodies and the lyrics. But mostly I feel Matt Berninger’s voice deep in my soul. Over the past 20 years no other band has come close for me.
I think it’s funny that even as Gen Z makes fun of The National and other dad rock artists, they have become something of a cult band among other popular artists. Bandmates and twin brothers Aaron and Bryce Dessner have become sought-after collaborators and producers for artists as wide ranging as Ed Sheeran, Local Natives, Sharon Van Etten, Bon Iver, Paul Simon, and many others. Aaron has produced or co-produced songs by none other than Taylor Swift. This week David Letterman appeared on the Late Show for the first time since his retirement and he asked The National to leave their tour and perform on the show that night (which they did).
First Two Pages of Frankenstein is the band’s ninth studio album and for me their best since Boxer. The album is 11 perfect songs, starting with the moody Once Upon a Poolside (featuring Sufjan Stevens) and closing with the love song Send For Me. In between there are two collaborations with Phoebe Bridgers, and one with the aforementioned Taylor Swift. Yes, T-Swizzle sings a beautiful piano-driven duet with Berninger called The Alcott that is one of the strongest songs on the record. I’m no Swiftie, but this song is beautiful.
I love every song on this album. Eucalyptus with its anger about a breakup (You should take it, 'cause I'm not gonna take it; You should take it, I'm only going to break it). New Order T-Shirt about looking back at a relationship through photos of good times (I keep what I can of you; Split-second glimpses and snapshots and sounds; You in my New Order t-shirt; Holdin' a cat and a glass of beer). Your Mind is Not Your Friend about navigating life during the pandemic (Don't you understand? Your mind is not your friend again. It takes you by the hand. And leaves you nowhere.)
While it’s impossible to find a favorite on this album, push come to shove I have to go with the upbeat Tropic Morning News. The melody is infectious and the lyrics are relatable as it speaks to the loneliness and fear we get from doom-scrolling the news and how it can affect our relationships. Tropic Morning News hit #1 on the Billboard Adult Alternative chart (is that what I am — adult alternative?).
Got up to seize the day
With my head in my hands, feeling strange
When all my thinking got mangled
And I caught myself talking myself off the ceiling
I have played this album so many times since it was released last April. I go back to it all the time, and with each listen it gets deeper and deeper inside me. I guess I’m a sad dad. But at least I’m not alone.
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