My soundtrack of 2023

By Adam Lee

From the surge in AI-generated songs and the continuing effects of ‘Tiktokification’, to Swiftmania and the Ticketmaster controversy, the 2023 music industry underwent a slew of pivotal developments. However, amid the chaos of the world around us, music has long been a cultural constant providing a means of entertainment, escapism and protest – and last year was no exception. Here I present my 10 favourite albums of 2023.

10. Beloved! Paradise! Jazz!?McKinley Dixon

Borrowing its title from the novels of Toni Morrison’s ‘Beloved’ trilogy, this album is a lush fusion of orchestral jazz, hip-hop, and soul that simultaneously casts an inward eye on identity and surveys the Black American experience. Punctuated by triumphant bursts of brass and embellished with soaring cinematic strings, the sub-30-minute album whizzes past with the dazzling brilliance of a shooting star.

9. The Greater Wings – Julie Byrne

In this beguiling yet understated chamber-folk album, Byrne journeys across the tumultuous worlds of grieving and healing by nestling her lyricism in reference to nature’s unstoppable course. In some places, Byrne favours the mellowness of acoustic fingerpicking and heart-rending piano keys. In other places, she allows rippling synths to collide with the swell of orchestration.

Abound with elegant instrumentation, meditative vocal melodies, and exceptional lyricism, this is one of the most gorgeous and comforting albums to come out of 2023.

8. Madres – Sofia Kourtesis

The Berlin-based Peruvian DJ’s debut album is a captivating, exultant, and evocative tapestry of lustrous synths and pulsing beats. In embracing a subdued and atmospheric side to house music, Kourtesis makes heavy use of shuffling drum patterns, syncopated percussion, warped brass and guitars, and hazy vocal samples. Yet beneath the club-ready exterior lies an anthology of personal stories paying tribute to mothers, surgeons, and LGBT+ protestors. This is an embodiment of how music can allow us to process love, grief, and courage.

7. 93969 – Liturgy

Liturgy’s cryptic and challenging new album picks up the baton in the band’s ongoing musical project centred on the frontwoman’s (Haela Hunt-Hendrix) ‘Transcendental Black Metal’ manifesto. The invigorating combination of screeching and distorted blast-beating guitars with classical arrangements results in an ambitious musical behemoth that never ceases to be technically and conceptually dense. It may deter or frustrate you, but you might also just discover something truly beautiful.

6. Desire I Want to Turn Into You – Caroline Polachek

This is an eccentric, forward-thinking, and high-concept album that imagines the future possibilities of pop music. By design, it is a pop album that revels in deliciously addictive hooks and groovy basslines. But woven into the fabric of the music is also a tendency for the surreal and experimental. With immense replay value, the album hints at a myriad of directions which Polachek could head in next.

5. Black Rainbows – Corinne Bailey Rae

Rae’s delightfully unpredictable fourth album is a celebration of Black culture, spirituality, beauty, hope, and freedom. Punchier cuts featuring grungy guitar distortion and angsty vocal delivery (Erasure and New York Transit Queen) are placed alongside gentler moments of misty-eyed yearning and balladry (Red Horse or Peach Velvet Sky).   

4. Raven – Kelela

An hour-long reverie of minimal drum ’n’ bass and ambient R&B, Kelela’s sophomore album wavers with effortless but laser-focused precision between the ethereal and the danceable. Kelela and her co-producers have created a tangible and deep-rooted sense of space and depth – aptly anchored by the lyrical motif of water as a symbol of rebirth.

Let yourself get lost in the dreamy, aquatic, and nocturnal world of Kelela

3. Javelin – Sufjan Stevens

Stevens’ 10th studio album is a devastating yet endearing collection of 10 songs with lush instrumentation, tasteful electronica, elegiac lyricism, and tender vocal refrains. It succeeds in being both reminiscent of older works yet welcomingly refreshing. The double blow dealt by news of Stevens’ Guillain-Barré syndrome diagnosis and the passing of his partner allows for a profoundly more affective reading of the lyrics, and ultimately a more intensely hard-hitting listening experience.

2. Canto Ostinato – Erik Hall

In this mesmerising interpretation of Simeon ten Holt’s original 1976 minimalist composition, Hall offers a bright and colourful take performed on grand piano, electric piano, and organ. On the surface, the music is repetitive and mechanical. But if you choose to pay attention, the music is also effervescent; it subtly shifts and fluctuates, deftly deviating from and returning to melodic motifs in a blissful meditation.

1. I Killed Your Dog – L’Rain

L’Rain’s third album sees the artist venturing further into eclectic sonic territories across a psychedelic collection of playful, enigmatic and mercurial songs. Like much of L’Rain’s previous music, the songs on here skitter and dance across genre boundaries without ever settling too comfortably on any particular musical idea. Via pitch-shifted vocals, trippy and distorted guitar rhythms, clattering percussion, and occasional spoken word, L’Rain sculpts soundscapes that are consciously positioned between luscious ambience and intoxicating bombast.

Illustration: Carly Tait

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