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Best Albums of 2023: MD’s Staff Picks the Top 25

It’s been a packed calendar as far as releases, with a new contender for “best of” lists seemingly emerging every week. With 2024 just around the corner, here are our picks for the best albums of 2023.

1. Olivia Rodrigo – GUTS

Olivia Rodrigo’s sophomore album, GUTS, has taken the public by storm since it came out in September. The album was nominated for both Album of the Year and Best Pop Vocal Album at the 2024 GRAMMYs. As of the week of December 23, the album is at No. 14 on the Billboard 200. Rodrigo’s SOUR (2021) also makes an appearance on the chart at No. 44. Additionally, GUTS is No. 9 on Billboard’s Top Album Sales chart.

GUTS is full of attitude, angst and introspection. The ballads especially show off the artist’s improvements since SOUR, both vocally and lyrically. Rodrigo certainly hits notes on GUTS she never would have had the skill to hit on SOUR. However, it is her clever, emotional lyricism that illustrates just how much she’s grown as a songwriter and an artist.

GUTS is definitely one of the defining albums of 2023. Rodrigo continues to impress with her musical range, vocal chops and thought-provoking lyrics. — Maia Robbins

2. Caroline Polachek – Desire, I Want To Turn Into You

Since setting out on her own after the demise of indie outfit Chairlift, Caroline Polachek threw her hat into the ring of modern popstars with her stellar debut, Pang. Some five years later, Desire, I Want To Turn Into You takes the love song formula of its predecessor and flips it on its head—love is still the constant throughline, but it’s entirely abstracted, discussed via odes to unavailability (“Bunny is a Rider”) or jealousy towards the feeling itself (“Welcome to My Island”).

The biggest singles are just as triumphant and addictive as “So Hot You’re Hurting My Feelings,” but what truly sets Desire over the top is how it expresses Polachek’s deep and diverse influences, pulling instrumentation choices from the strangest of places. That leads to huge highlights in ways you’ll struggle to find anywhere else—the children’s choir at the end of “Billions,” the woozy trip-hop of “Pretty in Possible,” the ’80s power pop of “I Believe,” the bagpipe solo that closes “Blood and Butter.” It takes a bit to truly get your arms around Desire (a sentiment I’m sure Polachek would agree with), but up and down, it proves to be one of the richest and most rewarding listens of this calendar year. — Matt Varga

3. Noah Kahan – Stick Season (We’ll All Be Here Forever)

With multiple collaborations under his belt in 2023, it comes as no surprise that Noah Kahan’s Stick Season (We’ll All Be Here Forever) deluxe album has made its appearance on our top albums of the year. Featuring hit songs like Stick Season, Dial Drunk, and Northern Attitude, the re-released album has created nonstop buzz on the internet, capping off a massive year for the singer that led to a huge new following and a Grammy nom for Best New Artist.

Kahan’s collaborators on the project include Hozier, Kacey Musgraves, and even Post Malone. Delving outside his own realm of indie-folk music, Noah has served as a gateway between country and rap fans with the songs he’s created with other brilliant artists. And that doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface of his list of accomplishments. Though it feels like it can’t get any more positive for Noah Kahan given what he experienced in the past 365, he’s sure to keep shattering records in 2024. — Alyssa Osorio

4. Hozier – Unreal Unearth

The album cover for Hozier's 'Unreal Unearth,' Music Daily's pick for 4th best album of 2023.

Hozier’s third studio album, Unreal Unearth, released on August 18th of 2023, has quickly become one of the most iconic indie albums of the year. The Irish singer-songwriter’s iconic weighty instrumentals and ethereal vocals are on full display in these tracks, giving the album the feeling of something introspective, almost somber. The album was written during the Covid-19 pandemic and based around a descent into the nine circles of Hell from Dante’s Inferno, as a way of processing the profound emotional shift that many can attest to experiencing around that time. Even so, the album carries with it an underlying hopefulness, and the lyrics and varying tones will take you on an emotional journey through the ideas of life, love and loss. — Noah Sletten 

5. Lana Del Rey – Did you know that there’s a tunnel under Ocean Blvd

Ever since Born To Die, the alluring major-label debut from Del Rey, critics mistook her love for nostalgia and the art of persona as a cheap excuse for a lack of authenticity. Instead of succumbing to the blowback, the melancholic singer-songwriter pursued her craft eight records deep to where the Grammy-nominated Norman Fucking Rockwell shook off her legions of naysayers, leading publications like Pitchfork to re-evaluate just who Lana Del Rey is.

And, for just how somber Del Rey’s ninth studio album, Did you know that there’s a tunnel under Ocean Blvd, is, the project arrives like a message in a bottle: as you pop the lid, each track echoes like an epitaph, a shard of history itching for impact. Across Ocean Blvd, the 38-year-old unwraps her karmic lineage, aspirations and fears through a brilliant display of samples and unfiltered rambling. Despite the heavy features list and sometimes wilder, innovative moments, Del Rey undoubtedly builds a space for self-reflection, re-invention and the opportunity to see the person behind the persona. — Andres Fabris

6. Nicki Minaj – Pink Friday 2

Pink Friday was a pop-culture phenomenon like no other, complete with barbaric disses from alter-egos Roman Zolanski and Harajuku Barbie, A-list collaborations from Eminem and Kanye West, and some honest rap moments that sprinkled the Billboard Hot 100 music with zesty-flavored Top 10 hits. Simply put, it’s unheard of for a debut album, let alone a then-new female rapper. But Nicki Minaj is that exception. After a decade of mainstream success, Minaj positioned herself as one of the best rappers—across men and women—of all time.

Minaj doesn’t need to prove her Queen status anymore, but her shiny new album, Pink Friday 2, solidifies why she’s always been in her own class of rap excellence. Powered by catchy throwback samples, Minaj meets the sequel to her debut with the same high-stakes play on pop rap—and it pays off! With features from Young Money elites Lil Wayne and Drake to hip-hop favorites 50 Cent and Monica, the Queen of Rap knows how to bring “Everyone” together for a memorable record—even Lil Uzi Vert. While it may take a few listens to sink in, Minaj knows her Barbz eat up everything she does. — Andres Fabris

7. Kiltro – Underbelly

Kiltro probably landed on most people’s radar through the single “Ofelia.” Rhythmic, ambient, and honestly a little spooky, the track’s atmosphere is all around infectious, the exact direction that their 2023 Underbelly uses as its starting point. Multiplying that same echoey, atmospheric sound, it’s chaos—but somehow makes for an honestly fun listen. Part South American folk, part rock, part psychedelic and part indie-alternative, all of the tracks on Underbelly utilize lots of looping melodies and syncopation, a choice that echoes lead singer and songwriter Chris Bowers Castillo’s mission statement for the project: it’s “what happens inside your soul when the world stops on its tracks.”

Though delivered a bit after the height of the pandemic, the album reflects the feelings of chaos, loneliness and political outrage that so many of us felt during lockdown while still maintaining a really playful and funky sound. Kiltro themselves take their name from the Chilean word for mutt—a throughline that’s especially apt with this project. It combines so many different emotions and so many different sounds into a spectacular end product. — Lindsey Burns

8. Paramore – This Is Why

Paramore this is why

A lot has changed in the years since Paramore first burst onto the scene. The brooding media they were so often attached to has had its day in the sun, and as a result, they’ve had to take stock and change shape. Look to This Is Why for proof of that—written at the height of the pandemic, it finds all Paramore’s key members paranoid and untrusting, a bit disillusioned with the outside world as a whole. Musically, though, the high-octane rebrand that This Is Why exemplifies is what makes their sixth album so compelling; it’s an amazing step forward (and outward) for the much-beloved band. Angst and uncertainty are as much a main character in the This Is Why story as anything else—present in the lyrics and sounds on the album like on ”Running Out of Time.” — Brian Kennedy

9. Taylor Swift – 1989 (Taylor’s Version)

Already dominating headlines all year via The Eras Tour and everything in her personal life, Taylor Swift didn’t need much else to cap off her biggest year yet in 2023. But as always, keeping Swifties well-fed was at the top of the list, and we got not one, but two TV releases, none more important than the reissue of 1989. The new takes on massive hits like “Style,” “Blank Space” and “Bad Blood” remain pretty close to the originals, but her vocals now are stronger than nine years ago, carrying a more mature tone that adds depth to those old standards. 

But it’s really the five new vault tracks that make 1989 (TV) deserving of its placement on our list. “Slut!” might be the best of the bunch, providing an open-book perspective into how Taylor viewed her portrayal in the media during one of the most transformative periods in her life as a superstar. Given the seismic sonic shift that 1989 marked for Swift back when it was originally released, the “never before heard” additions to this LP give some real-time context into the studio sessions and thought processes that shaped that shift, information fans of no other artist would get given her size. With outlets from CNN to Business Insider pivoting to cover everything Taylor this year, her music has almost become secondary to the spectacle, but with consistent releases like Taylor’s Version of 1989, the music will never fall too far behind. — Matthew Landsman

10. 100 gecs – 10,000 gecs

100 gecs: the experimental/electronic/hyper-pop band that fits any designation just as easily as they evade it entirely. The duo finally released their sophomore album this year, 10,000 gecs, a project that defines the path forward as they grow from internet curiosity to true cutting-edge force.  Louder and lighter than their first album, 10,000 gecs sees Laura & Dylan expand into untouched territory, like the ska tones of “I got my tooth removed” and the alt-’90s flashback that is the rocking “Doritos & Fritos.”

Meanwhile, it’s still supplying a whole load of emo-punk headbangers, and for good measure, a song about their favorite frog. Les & Brady also use this album to reflect on their cultural impact with “The Most Wanted Person In The United States,” containing references to Les’ trans identity and the rebellious nature of their songs. Even with its “love it or hate it” style, 10,000 gecs thrives by creating its own high-energy mayhem, no matter how many Victorian children they claim in the process. — Charlie Woodberry

11. Drake – For All The Dogs

Drake is no stranger to a mixed reception, as he’s wont to remind the listener throughout his decades-spanning catalog. But there’s no doubt that Certified Lover Boy and Scorpion were a low point, adding a ton of “what will he do now” anticipation to his first post-Her Loss endeavor. For the most part, For All The Dogs responds to the call admirably. Before even releasing, it birthed a new classic entry into the timestamp series with “8AM in Charlotte.”

Most notably, a whole new cast of characters entered the official Drake canon, from SZA to Yeat to Sexyy Red to, at long last, J. Cole. Looping in the Scary Hours deluxe tracks was another smart move, giving Drake the opportunity to remind why he’s classed with the Coles and Kendricks of the world. Over moody Alchemist and Ovrkast production, Drizzy empties his Notes app unceasingly, with his performances on “Red Button” and “Stories About My Brother” among his best in recent memory. Love him or hate him, Drake continues to make it harder and harder to argue with his sparring partner’s claim—he’s still “big as the Super Bowl.” — Matt Varga

12. NCT DOJAEJUNG – Perfume

NCT DOJAEJUNG is the NCT sub-unit that no one saw coming, but that everyone fell in love with. In April, three of the NCT boys—Doyoung, Jaehyun and Jungwoo—came together as a sub-unit to share and express their love of groovy, R&B-pop songs in Perfume. With a dazzling music video for the title track, “Perfume,” charismatic performance videos and live vocal showcases for both “Perfume” and “Kiss,” and compelling choreography and stage performances for “Dive,” fans, thankfully, had a plethora of content during the sub-unit’s debut.

The EP itself is filled to the brink with R&B swagger and captivating melodies. Though Perfume only has six songs, each one fits perfectly into the charm the group portrays. Fans look forward to DOJAEJUNG’s next project together, and pray it’s sooner rather than later. — Maia Robbins

13. Boygenius – The Record

A cult favorite in the alternative scene, Boygenius’ self-titled EP existed as a case of “what could have been” for years, a tease at the otherwordly chemistry Phoebe Bridgers, Lucy Dacus and Julien Baker had as a collective. Five years later, in a surprise announcement, they reunited, and The Record has become a defining moment in all of their careers. Phoebe Bridgers’ brutally transparent and lucid lyricism is as much of a guiding light on The Record as it is in her own solo catalog, leading to heart-wrenching moments like “Emily I’m Sorry” or solemnly triumphant ones like “Letter To An Old Poet.”

But the trio’s debut effort is purposefully equitable, creating equal opportunity for each musician to step into the spotlight—Lucy Dacus and Julian Baker excel when their number is called. Outside of the tracklist, The Record has unexpectedly led to all of the “boys” becoming industry darlings and near-household names, a testament to how against all odds, sometimes genuine emotion and a “true-to-yourself” nature can still lead to massive industry success. — Matt Varga

14. Harbour – To Chase My Dreams or to Just Lie Down

HARBOUR’s To Chase My Dreams, or to Just Lie Down? was a refreshing standout among a year chock full of huge releases. This album was a strong reminder of just how hard-hitting the alt-indie scene can be. To begin, the band made great intentional choices throughout the entire album. The color choices in the album cover reflect the contrasting sounds of defeated lyrics cushioned in upbeat melodies. In a vulnerable testimony to navigating fame, To Chase My Dreams is arguably some of HARBOUR’s best work. It highlights the talent of each of the five band members within each track. From shining vocals to rhythmic bass and punchy guitar solos, it still stands as one of our favorite indie-rock albums of the year. And it’s a great representation of how to evolve as a band and come out as something new—and even better than before. — Alyssa Osorio

15. Genesis Owusu – STRUGGLER

In a word, STRUGGLER is explosive. Genesis Owusu’s sophomore record boils over with raw energy and rage, and showcases one of the best concept album concepts you’ll find, exploring the absurdities of life from the perspective of a roach. Over its 12-track runtime, Genesis Owusu grips his audience and doesn’t let go with booming beats, cutting vocals and profound realizations. True to his multi-hyphenate status, Owusu seamlessly weaves through rock, rap, punk and R&B to force the answers to his questions. Ultimately, STRUGGLER uses nihilism, absurdism and existentialism as pillars behind its distinct sound and message, and on top of being one of our favorite records this year, feels entirely and solely unique. — Emilie Widarsson

16. Travis Scott – Utopia

2018’s ASTROWORLD served a dual purpose for Travis Scott—foregrounding his chopped and screwed, psychedelic Houston roots, and providing the last piece of the puzzle for his ascension to rap’s inner circle of stardom. Operating on a typical release schedule before then, La Flame took half a decade to deliver its follow-up, but in its fully realized form, Utopia is certainly worth the wait.

Outside of his talents on the mic, Scott’s true calling is in worldbuilding, and Utopia is a high water mark in that regard. Placing Beyoncé on the same album as Westside Gunn is a feat in and of itself, but it’s more impressive that it’s a cohesive decision—“DELRESTO” and “LOST FOREVER” both slide seamlessly into the cinematic, nocturnal universe of Scott’s fourth full length. Though there may not be a “SICKO MODE” in the tracklist of this one, the Houston rapper’s return to the charts is a much more consistent and enveloping experience, and no doubt one of the best rap projects so far this decade. — Matt Varga

17. BabyTron – Bin Reaper 3: New Testament

Hot off the heels of an extremely busy 2022, BabyTron kept up that torrid pace this year, delivering Bin Reaper 3: New Testament a few days before Halloween. Much like the previous installments, New Testament is an exercise where Tron is chameleon-like with his cadences, ranging from the Chief Keef-esque sound of “Gimme Dat” alongside Lil Yachty to the fast-paced, sample-based rap sound of “Remote Control.”

The 26-song runtime of the mixtape is both entirely on brand for BabyTron and a bit daunting at first glance, but it opens up plenty of opportunity for the Detroit rapper to spotlight his hometown and draw outside of the lines of his signature sound. Both happen on “Waffle House,” where Tron assembled the Avengers of The Hip Hop Lab, including J1Hunnit, RMC Mike, Babyfxce E and The Shittyboyz. Once written off and hard capped as a social media flash in the pan, BabyTron’s 2023 cemented him as a real player in the ever-changing landscape of hip-hop, and if you had to pick one, New Testament is the project that goes the furthest in showing why. — Colin McEvers

18. ENHYPHEN – Dark Blood

K-pop group ENHYPEN’s DARK BLOOD EP has broken several records since its May release. The title track, “Bite Me,” soon earned a name for itself as one of the group’s most popular songs. The song did suffer some unnecessary controversy due to the boys dancing with female partners for parts of the song. Despite this, “Bite Me” has quickly become one of ENHYPEN’s most streamed songs, with over 182 million streams on Spotify alone. Its music video has over 88 million views on YouTube and is the group’s third most-watched music video.

In addition to “Bite Me,” another fan favorite from DARK BLOOD is the song “Chaconne.” Known for its addictive melody and sensual lyrics, fans consider it to be in the same vein as one of the group’s other, more mature songs: “FEVER” from 2021’s BORDER: CARNIVAL. Nonetheless, every song on the EP is a hit, from the poetic opener “Fate” to the sultry “Sacrifice (Eat Me Up)” to the pop-rock “Karma.” ENHYPEN truly wowed with DARK BLOOD. They continue to do so with their most recent releases, such as their August single, “Criminal Love,” and their November EP, ORANGE BLOOD. — Maia Robbins

19. Tinashe – BB/ANG3L

Like clockwork, every year it seems that there’s a host of articles presenting “the next great popstar.” Some bear fruit, and some don’t, but after being named, few have quite the career path that Tinashe has. A former girl group standout, Tinashe has had her fair share of charting singles, but has made her name with inventive, alternative R&B, inviting a huge cast of collaborators into the mix in the process, with names like Chanel Tres, KAYTRANADA, Future and Calvin Harris appearing alongside her throughout the years.

It’s that open attitude to collaboration that makes the “no features” approach of BB/ANG3L all the more notable. Boldly announced with the single “Talk To Me Nice,” Tinashe’s sixth album is often contradictory—hazy but energetic, pleading but independent, accessible but the slightest bit left-field. The confidence she carries on tracks like “Needs” or “Uh Huh” is counterbalanced by the unassuredness of “Gravity” or “Tightrope,” but no matter the emotions expressed on these songs, they’re infectious all the same, with “A1” production and songwriting the whole way. — Matt Varga  

20. Hannah Grae – Hell is a Teenage Girl

Among other perks, a job in music forces you to come face-to-face with artists you wouldn’t normally seek out. So though I’m maybe not in the exact target demo for Hannah Grae’s Hell is a Teenage Girl, the fact that it resonated so strongly speaks to its undeniable strength as an album. Hannah Grae’s vocals, ear for production and lyricism are spellbinding—her storytelling so often bridges the gap between stories that are deeply personal, but also easily accessible and relatable. That doesn’t mean they’re muted in any way either, though.

Throughout Hell is a Teenage Girl, we frequently find Grae shouting her feelings, expressions of despair, jealousy and most of all, the aching sensation to be free, from relationships, from negative feelings, from her own personal thought cycles. “Time of Your Life” is probably the truest expression of what makes this album so special, a half-nostalgic, half-embittered retrospective on her high school years that feels plucked from a Riverdale or Smallville soundtrack. On this collection of so many complex emotions, it’s easy to see why Grae arrived at the title, but it’s even more impressive that she makes those feelings so easily digestible by anyone who presses play. — Gerard Blandina

21. The Brian Jonestown Massacre – The Future is Your Past

Just surviving a decade in the music industry can feel like a huge accomplishment, but few have thrived so deep into their careers as Anton Newcombe and his Brian Jonestown Massacre. First kicking off in 1990, they’ve amassed 20 studio albums under their belt and keep on adding to it, most impressively with their recent string that delves into more experimental stylings. All that brings us to The Future is Your Past, an extremely apt title given the retro era that the sounds of the LP are ripped from. It gives Newcombe the chance to step back and examine the sounds that made him the musician he is today, taking on prog rock, ’60s psychedelia and trademark singer-songwriter fare in expressive and explosive fashion. From start to finish, it’s a gripping listen—impressive no matter where a musician’s at in their arc, an incredible feat this far in. — Matt Varga 

22. Sofia Kourtesis – Madres

Though its definition changes depending on the person, if there’s one thing constant throughout all of house music, it’s an emphasis on community. Sofia Kourtesis started out her career on the margins of the genre, crafting lo-fi, often classically inspired electronica, but you’ll be hard-pressed to find an album released this year that taps into genuine warmth and connection better. Dedicated to Kourtesis’ mother, Madres presents as a collection of sprawling house movements, moved forward by Spanish language vocals and sample chops alike. Cuts like “Estacion Esperanza” and “How Music Makes You Feel Better” are revelatory, carrying messages laid out in their titles that reveal both Kourtesis’ emotional connection to the music she makes and her intended affect on the listener.

“Moving Houses” is a key departure, a languid and unsettling interlude that speaks to Kourtesis’ multi-national upbringing and the complications coming with it. In all, Madres is a unique achievement, set apart from house music’s mainstream with its unorthodox production choices, and far too well-crafted to be relegated to an internet phenom. Regardless of what “scene” it fits most comfortably in, Kourtesis’ debut is as comforting a listen as you’ll find this year. — Matt Varga

23. Various Artists – Barbie: The Album

Given the unbelievable success of the movie it’s attached to, it wasn’t a surprise that Barbie: The Album was able to pull in so many A-list musicians: Lizzo, Nicki Minaj, Ice Spice, Sam Smith, Khalid, the list goes on. But what was a surprise was the quality of the work they all combined for. Simply put, Barbie: The Album is in the upper tier of soundtracks released in recent times.

Sam Smith’s “Man I Am” and Lizzo’s “Pink” are central to the narrative of the actual movie on top of being top-tier pieces of pop music, and Dua Lipa’s “Dance the Night” as well as Nicki Minaj & Ice Spice’s “Barbie World” went on to achieve massive chart success independent of it. Elsewhere, artists like PinkPantheress and Charli XCX turned in excellent performances (“Angel” & “Speed Drive”). After a certain point of quality singles released in the lead-up, it made more sense to treat Barbie: The Album less like a promo side project and more like what it actually was: one of the best albums released in 2023. — Olesya Mertz 

24. Serhat Durmus – Red Lies

Over the course of his career, Turkish DJ Serhat Durmus perfected the art of combining the traditional music he grew up on with the trance & drum and bass genres he gravitated towards as he became a musician. Nowhere is his mastery of that more apparent than on Red Lies. Though “Things I Do” and the title track have become the most popular cuts from the tracklist, there’s truly not a beat he misses from start to finish. Speaking before the album’s release, Durmus revealed that he wanted his album to reflect a sense of unity, and because of that intended to work more international flavors into Red Lies’ fabric. It results in a much more accessible sound without compromising what makes his sound so unique in the first place. — Olesya Mertz

25. CIFIKA – ION

Korean electro-pop artist CIFIKA explores a new realm of sound on her sophomore album, ION, with harmonies and echoing beats that crash like waves. Each song sparkles and twinkles while an uncaged energy guides ION forward. “Giant Lion” and “Make Me Cry” pulse with the sting of heartache, making ripples with their entrancing electronic stabs. Each track seamlessly flows into one another, creating a completely cohesive journey despite each step being unique in and of itself. ION is moving, incomprehensible, otherworldly and completely CIFIKA. — Emilie Widarsson

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