First, I want to apologize for not getting this list out sooner—I had a setback in mid-December, prime list making time, when I got a double ear infection and all music sounded muffled and out of tune for 3–4 weeks. My ears eventually recovered (though still not quite back to normal) and I was able to narrow down my favorites from the crowded field. I thought for sure that because of certain life events this year, I would listen to less new music than normal this year. But it turns out the number of 2023 albums I listened to was pretty typical: 61. Here are my top 6, which for the most part manage to combine great music with lyrical content that are not just simple love songs, but resonate with our social condition in 2023.
What Matters Most by Ben Folds – I wasn’t expecting Ben Folds to be relevant in 2023, but this may be the most timely album I heard this year. The album is (mostly) a beautiful and earnest evaluation of what is important in life. And while Folds deals with the darker side of humanity, he also shows a halo of hope. Definitely check out the expansive and classically-inspired “But Wait, There’s More” (a phrase that cuts in several ways) and the conversational “Kristine from the 7th grade.” One warning: “Exhausting Lover,” a story of a bad decision, is for mature listeners only.
Celebrants by Nickel Creek – This album, written on a grand scale, works better as a whole; not many singles here. Honestly, I’m still working out the meanings of this album, but I can say that it is a post-pandemic album that deals with what happens we are used to meeting and seeing each other, but suddenly that all changes; “Celebrants” refers to people who are taking part in a party (celebration), though normally it is applied to religious ceremonies. If you want some entry points, I’ll pick a favorite song from each member: “The Meadow” (Chris), “Stone’s Throw” (Sean), and “New Blood” (Sara). The pair of instrumental tracks “Going Out…” and “...Despite the Weather” are instant classics.
The Sorrow Songs (Folk Songs of Black British Experience) by Angeline Morrison – Morrison loves the power of British folk song, but realized that there aren’t many songs from that tradition about the experiences of British Black people like her. So, she researched historic Black British experiences and wrote her own folk songs to document. She interspersed the songs with a few short quotes from non-Black folks. A powerful album from a great voice. For a taste, check out “The Hand of Fanny Johnson,” inspired by a mummified hand buried by an English family in 1996 that had been passed down for 200 years, claiming it was from the family’s black servant. You should really check out the beautiful album liner notes, which you can read or download here.
Dusk Moon by Rura – This all-instrumental album from this Scottish quartet is great from start to finish; if you want to dip your toes into some smoking yet nuanced trad music, try “Dusk Moon,” “The Grove” or “The Crossing.” Or just put the whole album on as some background music.
This is Why by Paramore – Like other albums on this list, this one is channeling post-pandemic angst and anxiety. I feel like the band watched The Good Place as a starting place for their research of modern moral quandaries. But no song tackles too much—each has a laser focus. It is hard to pick an entry point because every track is good, with a mix of driving, danceable, catchy music and clever lyrics. But why not start at the beginning, the title track “This is Why”? “Running Out of Time” is funny, sad, and serious all at the same time. “Big Man, Little Dignity,” one of the slower songs, draws from the ‘80s in a good way (and is maybe about Trump?). Bass clarinet fans, like myself, keep your ears open!
GUTS by Olivia Rodrigo – My favorite album of the year may be the sophomore album from Rodrigo—it is musically catchy and lyrically memorable; it’s got ballads and bangers. Besides deftly channeling some big feelings (love, jealousy, anger, disillusionment), Rodrigo shows she is a master of musical irony. For example, the first track “All-American Bitch” ping-pongs from a controlled, measured arpeggiated guitar to a frenetic punk song, while using music and contradictory lyrics to emphasize the impossible expectations heaped on young women. Another favorite, “Get Him Back,” is a master class in double meanings. I’m posting the clean version of the album here, but you can easily hear more expletives, if you want to feel the anger more—anger at mostly the patriarchy; but also herself.