Steven Hyden’s Favorite Albums Of 2023

Before I share my list, I need to repeat my regular “year-end list” disclaimer. If you already know the drill, feel free to skip ahead.

1) Ranking albums is dumb …
We all know this. Art isn’t a competition. I can’t really distinguish between my 13th favorite album and my 15th favorite. This is all talk. None of it really matters.

2) … but it’s kind of fun …
Of course it is! Because it’s about sharing music recommendations. And I do mean share — make your own lists and show them to me, especially if you’re the sort inclined to complain about lists. Put yourself out there and let me complain about you, too!

3) … because it’s really about discovering an album or two (or possibly more!) that you might not have known about otherwise.
Exactly!

Now, let’s rank!

26. Greg Freeman, I Looked Out

This year’s list is officially a Top 25, but there was so much good music in 2023 that my Top 25 actually includes 51 albums. Also, I’m starting my Top 25 with a No. 26 entry reserved for my favorite album from 2022 that I heard in 2023. I’m doing this because (unlike a lot of year-end lists) I respect the sanctity of the calendar, which precludes me (unlike a lot of year-end list makers) from pretending that an album that came out in 2022 belongs on a 2023 list simply because I posted my list in early December. (I recognize that in respecting the sanctity of the calendar I am disrespecting the sanctity of Top 25 lists having 25 entries.) Anyway: Greg Freeman is a singer-songwriter from Burlington, Vermont who worships at the altar of Jason Molina and applies that mopey country-rock template to rousing old-school indie-rock in the style of Guided By Voices and Neutral Milk Hotel. The only way I Looked Out could be more up my alley is if Greg Freeman cracked open my skull and programmed an algorithm from my stray brain waves.

25. Peter Gabriel, I/O

I really like this album, but I love the idea of this album. A prog-rock genius spends 21 years and god-knows-how-much-money crafting his ultimate opus. He announces the record at the beginning of the year, and then proceeds to release every song from the album as a single over the proceeding months. And he puts out multiple mixes of each song. And then, at the end of the year, he puts out the album in multiple multi-disc packages that spotlight the songs on both sparkling compact disc and luminous Blu-Ray. Even if I/O sucked I would have found an excuse to put it on this list. But I/O does not suck. Despite the album’s convoluted back story, Gabriel’s songs are relatively uncluttered and direct, particularly on the contemplative piano ballads where the most soulful voice to ever croon about the battle of epping forest resembles an extraterrestrial Randy Newman.

Sub-List No. 1

MY TOP FIVE “I LOVE THE IDEA OF THIS ALBUM MORE THAN THE ACTUAL ALBUM” ALBUMS OF 2023

5. Dolly Parton, Rockstar

I listened to 45 seconds of her cover of “Stairway To Heaven” with Lizzo. It works much better as a thought experiment than as music.

4. Garth Brooks, Time Traveler

The record he put out as part of a seven-CD box set sold exclusively at Bass Pro Shops. As one of the only music critics in America who owns it, I am obligated to put it here.

3. Mac DeMarco, One Wayne G

If you have heard all 199 songs (or nine hours and 30 minutes) of this, I am calling the police so that they can remove the bookshelf that has fallen on top of you.

2. DJ Sabrina The Teenage DJ, Destiny

This four-hour album of throwback dance-pop jams sounds incredible … for about 45 minutes at a time. If my job consisted solely of listening to this record for an entire work week, it would be No. 1 on the overall list.

1. Andre 3000, New Blue Sun

The “I love the idea of this album more than the actual album” album of the decade, and possibly the century.

24. L’Rain, I Killed Your Dog

I/O is my favorite prog-rock record of 2023 by a senior citizen, but I Killed Your Dog takes the prize in the junior division. Though prog-rock is probably limiting for the multi-instrumentalist and composer otherwise known as Taja Cheek, who resists categorization as stubbornly as she eschews convention. All I know is that when this record is on, my mind goes to a place that feels disconnected from my body. The only reason this album isn’t ranked higher is that my dog died this year, and the title is triggering.

23. The National, Frankenstein Laughs

The only reason this album isn’t ranked higher is that it’s not a real album. It’s a compilation I made of the two uneven records The National put out in 2023, First Two Pages Of Frankenstein and Laugh Track. However, I listened to Frankenstein Laughs so much this year that I have tricked myself into believing that it is the actual new National LP for 2023. My fantasy A&R is just that good. But seriously: Frankenstein Laughs demonstrates that The National can still put out top-shelf late-career work with a little quality-control assistance from obtrusive, know-it-all rock critics.

22. Geese, 3D Country

I used to have a ridiculous grudge against this band based solely on the fact that they are called Geese and there’s also a jam-band I like called Goose. In my defense, Geese started out as a by-the-numbers post-punk outfit from NYC, the sort of group that the media gives a default endorsement. But on 3D Country, they made a shocking left turn into … jam-band music! I couldn’t believe it! This is my favorite album of the year that I also find slightly annoying. It reminds me of Mr. Bungle backed with the female singers from Gaucho. But I think that’s by design. It’s good to like bands that get on your nerves sometimes, because that usually means they’re messing with your expectations on the way to making unexpected breakthroughs. And 3D Country is nothing if not an unexpected breakthrough.

21. Westerman, An Inbuilt Fault

Whenever I recommended this record to people, my selling point was always the same: “It reminds me of the first four Sting solo albums.” I understand that this is an unorthodox pitch. The quality of “Englishman In New York” is not commonly recognized in these times. (Me and Shaggy are among the only people who still put on …Nothing Like The Sun for pleasure.) No matter: This British soft-rock singer-songwriter is a master at setting a stellar sensitive-guy mood with a piano, jazzy drums, and fretless bass. If this album came out in 1989, I imagine he would be on the cover of Musician magazine. And that, for me, is high praise.

20. Kara Jackson, Why Does The Earth Give Us People To Love?

This Chicago-based singer-songwriter has a legitimate literary pedigree — she was the National Youth Poet Laureate back in the late 2010s. But the wonder of her beguiling jazz-folk fantasias are how they operate on a level that goes beyond language. What Jackson evokes musically is usually more compelling than the lyrics, which has a lot to do with her expressively husky, one-of-a-kind voice. But it’s also related to her unusual melodic sense — these songs never play out in the way you might expect. Structures and tempos waver and morph and evolve in idiosyncratic fashion, and just when you begin to worry that it might all fall apart they land, miraculously, with grace and beauty.

19. Ryan Davis & The Roadhouse Band, Dancing On The Edge

If you put a pedal steel (or a lap steel) guitar on your record this year, you had a 75 percent chance of making this list. You can hear the instrument on a few albums I have already mentioned, and you will hear it more and more as we get closer to the top. You can also hear it on this record by a Louisville singer-songwriter also known for playing in the likably scruffy country-rock outfit State Champion. If you know that band, you’ll know what to expect from Dancing On The Edge, i.e. amiably shambling shaggy-dog story songs reminiscent of well-read wise-asses like Terry Allen and David Berman. If a writer better utilized “jizz” in a song lyric this year, I didn’t hear it.

18. Dusk, Glass Pastures

This summer, I spent a lot of time drinking cocktails on my back patio and listening to music. This is my No. 1 all-time favorite activity. My No. 2 all-time favorite activity is tweeting about drinking cocktails on my back patio and listening to music. I spent a lot of time doing that this summer as well. Over time, I honed my personal philosophy about patio music. It must sound good when the sun is shining on you. It must complement the affect of the cocktail. It must compel you to move, but only in your chair. (Head bobbing, fist pumping, air drumming, etc.) My preference is for chunky rock songs with significant riffs and choogling rhythm sections, which describes Glass Pastures (my top patio music album of 2023) as well as anything. Also: This band is literally called Dusk, which also happens to be the magic hour for patio music.

Sub-List No. 2

MY TOP FIVE PATIO MUSIC ALBUMS RELEASED IN 2023 (NOT INCLUDING DUSK)

5. Bonny Doon, Let There Be Music

This band is from Michigan, which is like being an Irish-themed punk band from Boston but for patio music. You’re born into this life.

4. Rose City Band, Garden Party

This preternaturally chill indie-jam band makes the same album over and over. But it’s a really good album. They’re like AC/DC, except they sound like the Dead.

3. Buck Meek, Haunted Mountain

The Big Thief guitarist embraced full-on choogle on this record, which gives me hope that the next Big Thief record will sound like Cosmos Factory.

2. Daniel Donato, Reflector

This melding of country-rock with jam-band dynamics gives you the best of both worlds. It’s an homage to the late-’60s Byrds but with longer guitar solos.

1. Slaughter Beach, Dog, Crying, Laughing, Waving, Smiling

The best Wilco album of 2023.

17. The Rolling Stones, Hackney Diamonds

The O.G.s of patio music. When this album dropped, I was adamant about it not being the best Stones album since Tattoo You. (Defending Voodoo Lounge apparently is a hill I’m still willing to die on.) The root of my appreciation for Hackney Diamonds was that Hackney Diamonds existed at all. I’ve loved the Stones for most of my life, and now that Charlie Watts is no longer with us I feel extra protective of Mick, Keith, and Ronnie. I figured I would listen to Hackney Diamonds a few times and then file it next to A Bigger Bang. But the album has been surprisingly resilient in my daily rotation. I keep craving the adorably stupid rock songs that pad the record, especially “Bite My Head Off.” That’s the one where Mick goads very special guest star Paul McCartney into laying down a nastily fuzzy bass line. It always moves me. Can you believe these guys are still around and making music?! What a world. Also: I am going to make the case for “Depending On You” being a Legit Great Rolling Stones Song. It’s another one of those tender mortality songs (in the vein of “Waiting On A Friend” or “Mixed Emotions”) where Mick might be singing about a lover and/or Keith Richards, only Mick is in his 80s now so it hits with extra urgency. “Now, I’m too young for dying and I’m too old to lose” — damn straight, dude.

16. Cory Hanson, Western Cum

The best thing about the album title is that the Stones can’t use it for the follow-up to Hackney Diamonds. The worst thing about the title is that I have to repeat it whenever I recommend the album to somebody. And I have recommended (ahem) Western Cum to a lot of people. As a member of the L.A. band Wand, Hanson pushes his guitar jams to the edge of mainstream accessibility. But on this album, he embraces a grabbier classic-rock sensibility that weds thick and kinetic riffs to his easygoing, soft-rock croon. I’ve described Western Cum as David Gates from Bread covering the first Boston album, and if that sounds like your thing then I can guarantee you will be uncomfortably recommending this record to friends and family in no time.

15. Ratboys, The Window

This extremely enjoyable and consistent Chicago band specializes in a genre I call “Just Good-Ass Indie Music.” Ratboys are the sort of band you tell a friend about by explaining that they are “Just Good-Ass Indie Music.” It’s not terribly specific or descriptive, but people know exactly what you mean when you say it. “Just Good-Ass Indie Music” is not glamorous or trendy. Music critics will not win awards by writing about “Just Good-Ass Indie Music.” But a quality “Just Good-Ass Indie Music” band will make records that you end up listening to 5,000 times without realizing it. The Window is that kind of record.

Sub-List No. 3

MY TOP “JUST GOOD-ASS INDIE MUSIC” ALBUMS OF 2023 (OTHER THAN RATBOYS)

5. Feeble Little Horse, Girl The Fish

Good-ass shoegaze music.

4. Bully, Lucky For You

Good-ass grunge.

3. Being Dead, When Horses Would Run

Good-ass surf rock.

2. Bory, Who’s A Good Boy

Good-ass power pop.

1. Slow Pulp, Yard

Good-ass “rock radio circa 2003” music.

14. Jerry David DeCicca, New Shadows

Earlier in this column I described Westerman as an artist who would have appeared on the cover of Musician magazine in 1989. In that same theoretical issue, there would have been a lengthy interview with Jerry David DeCicca conducted by Bill Flanagan. DeCicca mines a very specific aesthetic on New Shadows that derives from once-disreputable, now-beloved albums made in the ’80s by the top troubadours of the ’60s and ’70s. The synths and saxes evoke albums like Bruce Springsteen’s Tunnel Of Love, Leonard Cohen’s I’m Your Man, and Bob Dylan’s Empire Burlesque in a manner that never feels slavish or ironic, but will nonetheless seduce listeners who are very much, well, like me. If I was capable of making an album, this is the kind of album I would want to make.

13. Joanna Sternberg, I’ve Got Me

This Brooklyn-based singer-songwriter is in their early 30s, but if you told me Joanna Sternberg was more than twice that age I would believe it. I’ve Got Me doesn’t seem like a record that came out this year; it might be the least 2023 album on this list of 2023 albums. It sounds more like music that derives from the singer-songwriter boom of the early ’70s, when there were so many genius writers that someone like Judee Sill could somehow fall through the cracks commercially and become a cult hero in retrospect. Sternberg sounds like an old-school cult hero only they are writing simple but insistently melodic and affecting songs now, like a freak-folk Carole King. This ought to be appreciated in the moment.

12. The Replacements, Tim (Let It Bleed Edition)

In past years, I have resisted including reissues on my year-end lists, because it’s not a fair comparison with contemporary releases. Based purely on the merits of the album, Tim is better than any record on this list. It’s better than practically any record on any list. This is the problem of mixing reissues with contemporary releases. It’s like putting Mike Tyson in the featherweight class. However, I decided to put Tim (Let It Bleed Edition) on my list anyway because 1) I respect my readers enough to assume that they will recognize that reissues are weighted differently and 2) I just felt like it. Anyway: Everyone who has heard this knows that the new mix of Tim sounds incredible. Even the 52-year-old guy in your social media feed who won’t stop loudly complaining that Tim already sounded great in 1985 when he dubbed the LP on a shitty cassette. (He’s not wrong, by the way.)

Sub-List No. 4

MY TOP FIVE BOX SETS RELEASED IN 2023 DEVOTED TO A CLASSIC ALBUM (OTHER THAN TIM)

5. Marvin Gaye, Let’s Get It On (Deluxe Edition)

Penalized for being a digital-only release. Adds insult to injury by dividing the album into separate discs on streaming platforms. Don’t taunt us physical media addicts!

4. R.E.M., Up (25th Anniversary Edition)

An important reminder that R.E.M. promoted their first post-Bill Berry record by going on Party Of Five.

3. Bob Dylan, The Complete Budokan 1978

In honor of this box set I will be writing the reminder of this column to a reggae rhythm only I can hear or understand.

2. The Darkness, Permission To Land … Again

In 2003, I never imagined that I would want this album to be four hours and 30 minutes long. But I apparently do.

1. The Who, Who’s Next: Life House

An essential document if you love Who’s Next. If you don’t love Who’s Next, the Pete Townshend demos make this stadium-rock warhorse sound like a Bandcamp record (in the best possible sense).

11. Robbie Robertson, Killers Of The Flower Moon (Soundtrack From The Original Apple Film)

This titan of modern music passed away in August, but his closing musical statement lived on a few months later when Martin Scorsese’s latest film opened in theaters. Among the highlights was Robertson’s finest-ever score, which also doubles as his best album since his 1987 self-titled solo debut. Robertson’s taut mélange of blues guitar licks and tribal rhythms is the heartbeat of the movie, but the music works incredibly well on its own, demonstrating the same feeling of impending dread and tragedy that Scorsese communicates cinematically. Finally, at the end of the record, we hear Robertson’s voice. He’s singing a song called “Still Standing.” The miracle of this album is that when you hear the vital music he composed at the end of his life, he still is.

A Special Note Before My Top 10

Hope you’re enjoying the list so far! If I haven’t listed something that you like, I can confirm that I have “no love” for it. In fact, I hate every album from 2023 that is not on this list. All of the albums that were released this year were either great (on the list) or the worst thing ever (not on the list).

There are no exceptions.

Back to ranking.

10. Hotline TNT, Cartwheel

The year’s best “Let’s Make A Motherfucking Rock Record!” record. This band’s singer-songwriter, Will Anderson, grew up in western Wisconsin, not far from where I went to college, so I feel like I have an extra special connection to this album. Cartwheel is the sound of living in a boring Midwestern town with nothing to do, so you go into the basement, turn up the amps to a stupid volume, and scream your block off over guitars that howl like a mountain of VHS tapes being set on fire. I don’t merely love this album. I feel like I lived it.

9. Florry, The Holey Bible

The year’s “I Wish I Was There While This Album Was Being Made” album. It’s possible that I’m projecting, but The Holey Bible at least sounds like a party. Imagine an early ’70s Stones album consisting only of the most drunken and stoned jams that didn’t make it on Sticky Fingers or Exile On Main St., and you will get a sense of Florry’s lovably sloppy approach to southern-fried folk rock. You could play The Holey Bible for a nun and by the midway point she would be blowing above the legal limit, just from being in close proximity to this record.

8. Palehound, Eye On The Bat

Here’s another band that seems like a good hang. On Eye On The Bat‘s opening track, El Kempner writes about a failed sexual conquest with the cringe-comedy precision of Larry David. Later, they compose some of the finest “life on the road” songs since Bob Seger. Like the title track, in which Kempner makes playing in an indie-rock band seem simultaneously awful (you have to piss in the van) and awesome (you get to listen to Black Sabbath’s Paranoid in that piss-stinking van as the sun goes down). But the best thing about Eye On The Bat is that it’s the rare indie album inspired by ’90s alt-rock that sounds like it really could have come out in 1994. This is definitely true of the album’s single, “The Clutch,” which in my mind at least is always preceded by a pithy introduction from Matt Pinfield.

7. The Tubs, Dead Meat

If I were running a record store — which is still a fantasy of mine, even in 2023 — I would be forced to put this record in the “Punk” section. But I wouldn’t feel right about it. The Tubs favor grinding guitars, bobbing basslines, and mile-a-minute tempos. But this British band’s soul derives (to my ears) from their country’s folk traditions. Now, my read is probably influenced by how much the singer reminds me of Richard Thompson (as well as Bob Mould from his Thompson-inspired Workbook phase). But I’m convinced you could play these songs half as fast and one-third as loud and they would still work as Fairport Convention homages.

6. Jason Isbell, Weathervanes

The venerable dean of modern-day country-leaning singer-songwriters has been so consistent for so long that the arrival of another excellent album is easy to take for granted. But I would make the case for Weathervanes ranking with his very best work. Taking over production duties from long-time collaborator Dave Cobb, Isbell has made the best-sounding record of his career by leaning into the live-in-the-studio chemistry he has with The 400 Unit. After a series of quieter and folk-oriented albums, he actually cranks the guitars this time to levels that recall his tenure in Drive-By Truckers. (The DBT allusion is deliberate on one of the album’s best tunes, “When We Were Close.”) But as always his core strength is writing with great care and sensitivity about the inner lives of ordinary people caught in extraordinary circumstances — a school shooting, a failing marriage, the haunting memory of a terrible father, a young couple facing a potential life-changing decision. As you come to know the songs, you feel as if they know you, too.

5. 100 Gecs, 10,000 Gecs

This record offers many potential rhetorical landmines for the humble year-end list blurb writer. Because (Hyman Roth voice) this is the business we have chosen, your initial instinct as a gainfully employed music critic is to stare off into space and stroke your chin and come up with a grand theory about why 10,000 Gecs works as well as it does. For instance, I once compared 100 Gecs to the Ramones in the sense that both groups surveyed the trash culture of their respective eras and distilled it all into an idiot-genius package that didn’t elevate the material so much as revel in wanton moronic splendor for its own sake. But does likening 10,000 Gecs to a record that came out 47 years ago really do this band justice? I suspect not. Therefore, I surrender. This record is great because it rules. Put emojis on my grave, I’m the dumbest dude alive.

4. Mitski, The Land Is Inhospitable And So Are We

There’s something refreshingly old-fashioned about Mitski’s enigmatic public-facing persona. She’s undoubtedly one of the biggest indie stars on the planet. But we don’t ever see her. She’s not going on every talk show. She’s not appearing on other people’s records. She has a minimal social media presence. All we have … is her music? Is such a thing still possible in 2023? With her latest album, which rivals Puberty 2 as her very best, Mitski demonstrated that creating your own unique musical universe requires the courage and fortitude to let that world stand on its own without apology or further explanation. It’s her John Wesley Harding — a country-tinged parable straight out of Nashville whose mysteries and ambiguities only grow deeper the more you listen.

3. MJ Lenderman, And The Wind (Live And Loose!)

In 1979, Neil Young put out one of his greatest albums, Rust Never Sleeps, in the summer. Five months later, he dropped Live Rust, which featured many of the same songs. If I were a critic that year, I would have put both records in my Top 10. Therefore, I have no problem placing an MJ Lenderman live record in my Top 3 the year after putting Boat Songs at the top of my 2022 list. Because Live And Loose! really is MJ’s Live Rust. Virtually every song here sounds better than the previously recorded version, particularly the tunes from Ghost Of Your Guitar Solo. Also, I know this will end up being the 2023 release I play the most in the years ahead. All of my future bonfires and cookouts already seem inconceivable without it.

Sub-List No. 5

MY TOP FIVE FAVORITE LIVE ALBUMS OF 2023 (OTHER THAN MJ LENDERMAN)

5. Shooter Jennings, Shooter Jennings And The Werewolves Of Los Angeles

When Warren Zevon was snubbed by the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall Of Fame, some of us wrote thinkpieces but Shooter Jennings recorded a kick-ass live album of Zevon covers.

4. Strand Of Oaks, Live At Pustervik

A cowboy in Sweden, non-Lee Hazlewood edition.

3. Ryley Walker, Live In Malmo

The funniest indie-jam live record of the year.

2. Father John Misty, Live At Salle Pleyel, Paris, France, 3/7/23

We all underrated Chloë And The Next 20th Century.

1. Cat Power, Cat Power Sings Dylan: The 1966 Royal Albert Hall Concert

One of the best singers of her generation covers one of the greatest concerts of any generation. She’s an artist and she does look back.

2. Superviolet, Infinite Spring

A lot of year-end lists attempt to approximate the zeitgeist by focusing on the most zeitgeist-y music. Music critics are music-obsessed people, and they believe they can explain the world through a music-centric lens. (I just re-read that last sentence out loud just to emphasize how ridiculous it is.) The reality is that the albums we love the most exist outside of time. They transcend transitory concerns to speak to the greater human condition. Which is a fancy way of saying that great records are the ones you don’t get sick of. I have no idea which 2023 albums I’ll still like in 2033. Or 2043. Or if I’ll even be alive to see those years. But I’m putting my money on Infinite Spring being one of those albums. I never get sick of it. It doesn’t have any negative baggage to make me like it less. Its aims are modest but true — former Sidekick Steven Ciolek set out to write fantastic songs that reimagine Alex Chilton as an Ohio native who cut his teeth in a generational emo band. And he succeeded. His songs are fantastic. And I feel like I can grow old with them. What else do you want from an album?

1. Wednesday, Rat Saw God

I can’t find the interview online so take what I’m about to write with a grain of salt but: I’m pretty sure I once read a Steven Van Zandt quote where he was talking about his radio show Underground Garage and how his rule for what to play centered on the Ramones. Every record on Underground Garage either had to be an influence for the Ramones or be influenced by the Ramones. (He also presumably played the actual Ramones.) For me and this list — and perhaps the totality of music I care about right now — that pivotal band is Wednesday. I care most about the things that are an influence for Wednesday (Drive-By Truckers, Smashing Pumpkins, drugs, The South) or in some way feel related to the heavy-riffing, story-oriented, sorta-but-not-really alt-country movement they are spearheading. I have already written a lot about that music in this column, and it all leads to Rat Saw God. Even if I didn’t think it was the best album of 2023, Rat Saw God would undeniably be the most important record of the year in the world that exists between my ears.

Some artists covered here are Warner Music artists. Uproxx is an independent subsidiary of Warner Music Group.

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