BensBeat Top 25 Albums of 2023

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Finally, here are my favourite albums that 2023 had to offer. Keep on listening to great music.

Honourable Mentions:

  • Ameer Vann & Merlyn Wood – SLIME IN THE ICE MACHINE
  • Ava Max – Diamonds & Dancefloors
  • Charlotte Cardin – 99 Nights
  • Gorillaz – Cracker Island
  • JPEGMAFIA & Danny Brown – SCARING THE HOES
  • Killer Mike – MICHAEL
  • Lil Yachty – Let’s Start Here.
  • Mitski – The Land Is Inhospitable and So Are We
  • Skrillex – Quest for Fire
  • Troye Sivan – Something To Give Each Other

25. Foo Fighters – But Here We Are

While they’re deservedly recognized as rock royalty after a storied and accomplished career, even most of the band’s fans might argue that The Foo Fighters hadn’t made a truly great album in over a decade – and while the circumstances that led to it are truly tragic, that’s certainly not the case anymore. After longtime drummer Taylor Hawkins passed away in March of 2022, with frontman Dave Grohl’s own mother following only five months later, it was clear that whatever materialized next would be coloured with a deep and unspeakable grief. Grohl doesn’t just speak of it on the album – he does what he does best and bellows every inch of his emotion out on a cathartic and heavy-hitting series of tunes. He goes through the stages of grief, reckons with what he learned from the departed and how he can keep on rocking going forward, and finally lays them to rest on a stunning final two tracks spanning fifteen minutes in length.

24. Hozier – Unreal Unearth

The poetic musings of Hozier were always going to be best applied to a concept album, and although this one is only loosely structured to follow the classic story of Dante’s Inferno, whenever Hozier breaks from the mythological talk and begins to get a little more personal, it’s equally as powerful. Just take a look at “Butchered Tongue,” where he rails against colonial Brits who attempted to wipe out his native Irish language with striking imagery, as an example. Applying the stories of Icarus, the River Styx and even a favourite Irish novel from 1939 to symbolically speak on his usual topics of love, death and how the two often intermingle in a truly dastardly way. The best part is that even when Hozier stops with the flowery language and touches on something simple, his delivery is always earnest enough to have it hit just as hard – like when he admits “So much of our lives is just carving through the dark, and the hardest part is who we are.”

23. PinkPantheress – Heaven Knows

Leading the charge for the new generation, the 22-year-old PinkPantheress first drew attention from making extremely brief, social media algorithm-ready tunes recorded from her bedroom, finally breaking through to the true mainstream with the remix to “Boy’s A Liar,” a collaboration with fellow upstart peddler of bite-size material Ice Spice. Despite that song, which closes this project, appearing on every top 10 list under the sun, she recently gave an interview where she called everything that’s gotten her attention so far “crap.” It might explain why the songs here all run past two minutes for the first time, but while PinkPantheress’ combinations of trip hop and jungle with early 2000s digitized synthpop and bubblegum are all ear-grabbing and engaging in a nostalgic way we haven’t heard yet, none of it is crap. A comment like that just shows how ambitious she is – which can only mean that the future looks even brighter.

22. Tainy – DATA

Any hip-hop fan knows that the idea of an album with a producer in the starring role has only become more and more prominent in recent years. Of course, not every hip-hop producer is Metro Boomin – the less talented can sometimes put out a project that gets a little tedious to listen to. So when the current king of reggaeton, a genre often recognized for its instrumental uniformity, decided to put out his first solo project, the fact that it goes to so many interesting places along the way only shows why he’s at the top of his game, with boundary-pushers like Bad Bunny and Rosalia keeping him on call. Keeping the genre’s spirit alive while simultaneously tweaking the familiar every chance he gets, with guests ranging from Daddy Yankee and Myke Towers to The Marias and Skrillex, Tainy brings in the synths, stretches track lengths, and simply has a lot of fun playing around in the studio. It’s a journey that any fan of Latin music needs to go on.

21. Amaarae – Fountain Baby

Over the course of a couple prominent features over the years, the Ghana-born Amaarae introduced herself to music listeners with a unique voice that had to be heard to be believed. A naturally high-pitched lilt that enters the uncanny valley, making Amaarae sound a little more like an alien or an AI trying to recapture the intricacies of the human voice, it’s equally as fantastic that her musical ambitions are just as unique as her voice. As the genre of Afrobeats continues to spread to every corner of the globe, someone had to step up to be the left-of-centre voice that plays with the dominant formulae. Running through a variety of instruments from all over the globe that perk up the ears with their distinct sounds and switching up the rhythms with some hyperpop-adjacent percussion, Amaarae’s flexes are all top-of-the-line while making Afrobeats that sounds like it comes from the future.

20. Chris Stapleton – Higher

While this project got a little more criticism than Stapleton is used to – it would be nearly impossible to follow up an excellent album like Starting Over anyway – those people truly need to wake up and realize that anytime you’re able to listen to new recordings of someone with a voice like Chris Stapleton’s, it’s a fantastic day. While not as lyrically complex as his prior projects, Stapleton pushes his voice to new heights and even takes a couple swings outside of his country and Southern rock comfort zones by getting a little more soulful. With touching odes to his longtime partner, dutifully accompanying him on backing vocals as always, Stapleton continues to prove why he just might be the greatest living vocalist.

19. Burna Boy – I Told Them…

The title of Burna Boy’s latest, his third great project in four years released only 13 months after his previous Love, Damini, contains an ellipsis – as if to bemusedly laugh in the face of those who continued to doubt his ability to ascend to his current place in the music industry. It’s a place that sees an artist born in Africa who sings mostly in his native Igbo and Yoruba languages able to sell out an arena in this writer’s native Canadian city. Continuing to refine his sound, tapping into what’s worked for him and getting rid of what hasn’t, Burna Boy’s global ambitions, memorably husky vocal delivery and catchy rhythmic abilities find the African Giant, to quote the project’s lead single, sitting on top of the world.

18. Janelle Monae – The Age Of Pleasure

Five years after Dirty Computer, which saw her celebrating the full spectrum of sexual identity over a funk-infused backdrop, Monae attracted widespread social media attention this year for provocative visuals and music videos that leaned even further into these themes. This time, however, she explained in an interview with Zane Lowe that she wanted the sound to be “so specific to the Pan-African crowd who are my friends,” and “a love letter to the diaspora.”Additionally noting that songs only earned a place on the album if these friends reacted positively to them in a party atmosphere, fans might initially be thrown off by the unorthodox track lengths – many don’t hit the two-minute mark – but Monáe’s goal is more oriented towards a party playlist. It finds her effortlessly morphing through Afrobeats, reggae, dancehall, and some of her usual trap and soul while delivering the personality, presence and underrated vocal ability she’s known for.

17. Kim Petras – Feed The Beast

Were there many albums this year that felt more like hit after hit of nothing but high-octane and undeniably catchy tunes? Making the jump to stadium status in 2023 after a high-profile collaboration with Sam Smith, the album that Petras put out (one of two that manifested this year!) was actually a lot more in line with the bubbly synthpop of her beginnings than that track’s more gothic angle. As Petras asserts on one of the tracks here, “everything I drop is a banger,” and it’s hard to argue with her. Displaying her personality along the way with a heavy dose of cheeky and button-pushing lyricism while demonstrating some truly impressive vocals every step of the way, there simply aren’t artists making pop into the kind of epic spectacle that Petras does on tracks like “King of Hearts” or “Castle In The Sky” right now.

16. Zach Bryan – Zach Bryan

Country music is getting more and more popular each year as its fans make the switch to streaming – and others are converted to the genre for the first time because they’re unexpectedly finding the musical aspects they’re looking for most, which don’t manifest in the stuff that gets pushed to the radio. A demand for authentic, folksy music that hit at the gritty heart and soul of the people behind it shot to the forefront this year, and while country has always been a primary place to find it, you wouldn’t know it so much in recent years. Luckily, we’re in the kind of universe where someone like Zach Bryan can shoot to number one with a track that opens with the lyric “Rotgut whiskey’s gonna ease my mind.” Bryan’s powerful voice, which teeters on the edge of both tearful breakdowns and becoming completely blown out with passion at times, and lyrics willing to dive into personal traumas and serious subject matter with the kind of detail only a great country writer can make (Bryan spent some time in the Navy, which informs a couple tracks), make this one a fantastic breakout.

15. Hannah Diamond – Perfect Picture

Embarking on a ten-year run that could only be described as the stuff of legend, UK-based label PC Music, founded by future hyperpop god A. G. Cook, played a major role in essentially birthing an entirely new genre into the world. One of its earliest figureheads was none other than Hannah Diamond, so it’s only right that Diamond provided the label with its final release before they elected to cease operations at the end of 2023. It couldn’t be more of a fitting sendoff. With what is only Diamond’s second full-length, the kind of bright bubblegum pop that was sugary-sweet enough to rewire listeners’ brain chemistry and send them down paths questioning why they liked something so different than what they’re used to returns here. Pick a track, and you’ll find a borderline-perfect pop melody that won’t leave your head for days.

14. Travis Scott – UTOPIA

2023 was one of the biggest down years in recent memory when it came to the state of hip-hop. Pundits have been predicting “peak trap” and the end of an era for years, but for the first time, it feels like most major stars’ outputs have become so safe and tired that something new is going to have to rise up and take its place for excitement in the genre to remain high. When it came to major stars that hit the mark, there was really only one – Travis Scott. Capturing the creative spirit of his mentor Kanye West (one of the only musicians who might have been even more problematic than Scott himself at the time of its release), UTOPIA sounds like Scott’s Yeezus in a variety of ways – in fact, one track even uses a leftover beat from West’s opus itself. With one of the most stacked feature lists (of all time?), an industrial sound, and a willingness to throw his listeners off guard with something unexpected that his contemporaries lack, it’s the rare album that lived up to the impossible hype surrounding it.

13. Olivia Rodrigo – GUTS

While a then-17-year-old Olivia Rodrigo initially captivated listeners with her striking power-ballad “drivers license,” it was the edgier, pop punk-leaning “good 4 u” that had the most staying power from her world-dominating debut, SOUR. On sophomore project GUTS, it’s pretty clear that Rodrigo and returning producer Dan Nigro took note of that. Together, they sidestep the sophomore jinx with a project that finds Rodrigo both bidding her youth goodbye with expectedly mixed feelings and mining the last bits of delightfully bratty exuberance out of it through talk-singing, belted sneers and a variety of tracks that feel unexpectedly like they might have come from the last Wet Leg album. If you’ve wronged Rodrigo, you’re about equally likely to receive a simple, shouted “you suck” as you are a full-verse poetic dismantling on this album. The best moments, though, are where the two sides combine.

12. Arlo Parks – My Soft Machine

With how much Arlo Parks has made a name for herself in the indie scene (even picking up a couple Grammy nominations), it’s incredible to realize that at the time of this album’s release, she was still only 22 years old. While there are quite a few female singers who try for the same thing, there aren’t any that truly personify the word “soft,” which appears in her album’s title, quite like Parks, a former poet, can. Bolstering it with detailed and narratively complex musings on her and people around her’s lives – mostly in dealing with personal mental health struggles and working their way through a variety of relationships equally tumultuous and soaring – the London-born singer recruits all-star producers like Paul Epworth, Ariel Rechtshaid and BROCKHAMTON’s Romil to back her up on a self-assured sophomore project. Playing with heavier guitars and even dropping a couple rap verses along the way, Parks’ work is as intoxicating as ever.

11. Sampha – LAHAI

After taking home the Mercury Prize six years ago with Process, an album where a grief-stricken Sampha reckoned with cancer taking his mother’s life after it did the same to his father when Sampha was only nine years old, he has returned with LAHAI – another family-driven album where he expands his focus to the human condition at large. LAHAI ends with an image of Sampha at a family gathering, laughing and taking pictures. The narrative of the album has quite a few recurring themes, but the changes in Sampha’s life since the release of Process seem twofold. The first is a search for connection: if Process found a grieving man alone at a piano, LAHAI feels like a slight backtracking after realizing that support from others was what he needed most. The second is the birth of his first child, a daughter, in 2020. It found him admiring characteristics of his mother that sprung up once again, his mind spiralling through thoughts of cycles, reincarnation, and even the possibility of time travel. Anchored by the moving voice that’s touched the souls of many, it all coalesces into a heady and sonically adventurous project that finds Sampha, finally, looking up.

10. Dorian Electra – Fanfare

Fanfare has been dubbed hyperpop provocateur and experimentalist Dorian Electra’s most accessible album yet – sometimes in a derogatory way. If that’s what it takes to introduce people to the madness of their work (and honestly, it does smooth out some of the disorienting material of their past that took things a little too far in a chaotic direction), then so be it. As Electra bellows on one of the tracks here, “got the normies in the dungeon going FREAK MODE!” Their nod to “normies” is just one in a score of terminally-online terminology that appears throughout the project, alongside genre-bending hyperpop thrills and a variety of lyrics that would make a grandmother have a heart attack. The hyperpop genre has always been a place for artists to play around with the exaggerated gender roles of pop music, and the non-binary Electra makes a claim for the throne as its rightful monarch.

9. Grupo Frontera – El Comienzo

When it comes to the regional Mexican craze that has been muscling its way confidently onto the Billboard charts this year, it turns out that some of the most consistently excellent contributors actually grew up about an hour’s drive north of the border, in Edinburg, Texas. Led by the 20-year-old Payo Solis, who possesses a rich baritone beyond his years, and bringing a little bit more of a sunny and cheerful norteño angle to the genre in contrast to the darker-toned corridos of contemporaries like Peso Pluma, Grupo Frontera has livened up just about any track they’ve found themselves on this year. Breaking out in a major way with a collaboration with Bad Bunny, if there’s anything that Grupo Frontera did better than any other artist this year, it’s making people smile as soon as their classic sound and instrumentation, now updated for a modern world, struck its first couple notes.

8. Jessie Ware – That! Feels Good!

At the risk of sounding sacrilegious, you can add Jessie Ware’s That! Feels Good! to the Little Simz NO THANK YOU list of follow-up albums to a universally acclaimed classic which many rated lower due to sticking with the same formulae, but that this listener actually believes is even better. Keeping up her disco leanings after topping year-end lists with her big sonic swing, What’s Your Pleasure?, the follow-up is a tight ten tunes that will have you moving throughout – or rather, as one song repeatedly asserts, shaking it until the pearls fall off. Bringing a strong and assured vocal delivery to the complex and deeply rhythmic instrumentals of producer James Ford, Jessie Ware continues to set out on the town in search of just about anything that will bring her to the kind of euphoria echoed by the double exclamation point of the album’s title.

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

It took a long time to fully materialize – singles for it were being released as early as July of 2021 – but now that we have the full project, it’s clear that it’s one of the biggest pop achievements of the last couple years. Taking its title from Polachek’s intoxicating vocal delivery of a line from single “Welcome To My Island,” she tackles a variety of art pop tunes with her boundless vocal range – truly, Polachek does a couple things with her voice on this album that nobody else would even dare to attempt. With some trip-hop and late 90s and early 2000s influences, Polachek’s lyrics have a certain maximalist and grandiose flair that’s hard to find anywhere else outside of something like Lorde’s Melodrama. Sure, it often makes it difficult to pin down exactly what she’s singing about, but when she sings it like that, it doesn’t really matter.

6. SPELLLING – SPELLLING and the Mystery School

SPELLLING is all about cycles. It was a theme that appeared in full effect on her outstanding 2021 album The Turning Wheel, a concept album that played with themes of religion, rebirth and reincarnation while comparing the cycle of human life to the endless revolutions of a rotating wheel. Now, she brings it all together on this new project, an album that finds songs from her first three albums in a new stage of their life journey, reinvented with new arrangements. One of the main reasons why The Turning Wheel was such a revelation was Cabral’s sudden use of endlessly dynamic, fuller instrumentation that came from an orchestra of 31 musicians – whereas her first two projects were sparser, eerie and experimental affairs that mostly found Cabral’s captivating, witchy timbres singing over little more than her own synth arrangements. In reinventing these tunes, it almost feels like Cabral is retroactively Turning Wheel-ifying her work – and the Turning Wheel tracks get new life as well.

5. 100 gecs – 10,000 gecs

There’s not a lot to be said about the seminal St. Louis hyperpop duo that hasn’t already been said, but to fully paint the picture of what 100 gecs music can do, anyone who attended one of their live shows this year (as I did) knows that most of the night is spent in a pendulum between disbelieving euphoria and complete terror – due to the “anything goes” attitude that the music inspires in its deranged, cultish followers. I say this lovingly, because I am one of them. Topping their debut, an album that introduced regular people everywhere to the true potential of what music can be and converted many a nonbeliever, by upping the gec count, bringing in some live instrumentation, and getting even sillier in concept while ever so slightly more accessible on the musical front, 10,000 gecs is the kind of album that was delayed for over a year because its artists were working tirelessly to clear a sample of the classic THX deep note.

4. boygenius – the record

After Phoebe Bridgers exploded into the mainstream consciousness and picked up a raft of Grammy nominations for her 2020 album Punisher, she truly could have done anything that she wanted. Luckily for us, she chose instead to reunite with her old supergroup boygenius, who had last put out a six-track EP back in 2018. Now with a full-length album, Bridgers and fellow alt-rock and indie-pop royalty Lucy Dacus and Julien Baker have two incredible things going for them: the kind of locked-in harmonies that are usually only reserved for siblings who share a deep, deep bond, and naturally following that, tracks that reaffirm just how truly strong and beautiful the friendship they share is. One of the project’s greatest strengths is the slight changes made to the instrumental to allow each of the three to shine in their own way. Many of the lyrics here can be equal parts blunt and poetic, tackling the crumbling world and the systems that make it up as well as friendships and partnerships as a member of the LGBTQ+ community. With lyrical nods to Paul Simon and Leonard Cohen, these three are making a case to be immortalized in that folk pantheon.

3. Carly Rae Jepsen – The Loveliest Time

The woman. Simply. Doesn’t. Miss. I saw more than a couple online comments that genuinely believed that Jepsen’s latest – in typical fashion, a collection of B-sides that could easily be argued is better than its parent album – is not only better than The Loneliest Time, but that it’s better than her pop music-defining and timeless project, 2015’s E-MO-TION. While I’m not sure that I’d go that far, this is Jepsen’s most self-assured and daring project since that one. Jepsen has always has pop formulae down to an exact science, yes, but she’s never really been regarded in the same vein as contemporaries like Charli XCX or Slayyyter when it comes to making experimental music of the future. With a couple big swings here on her first album where Jepsen is making music that’s entirely happy and in love, she just adds to her ability to make music that’s nothing short of addictive.

2. RAYE – My 21st Century Blues

As the story goes, the London-born RAYE was signed to a major label contract nearly a decade ago, when she was still a teenager. Getting into a lengthy dispute as they continued to hold her work back from the public eye, she made a name for herself as a songwriter in the pop sphere – but now that she’s finally free to do whatever she wants, it’s obvious that her frustrations stemmed from the fact that her true talents are infinitely more than something that can be confined to a single box. With a voice that sounds like it comes from the era of jazz standards while still injecting a ton of modern hip-hop and R&B sensibilities into everything that she does, RAYE ties it all together with that aforementioned ability to write a great pop melody. The project is coloured with exhilarating beat switches and a nice mix of both fun tracks and serious ones, dotted with refreshingly blunt social commentary as she tackles topics like climate change and getting heartbreakingly candid about an assault at the hands of a music producer. RAYE, thankfully, has finally arrived, and the game should be on watch.

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

Not to be biased, but to close out BensBeat and bring things full circle, here’s the full text of my review that caught the attention of Lana Del Rey herself – leading her to send me a vinyl of the year’s best album.

Always one to extract everything she possibly can out of a metaphor, the songwriter extraordinaire Lana Del Rey’s ninth album can mostly be summed up by the one she touches on during its eighth track. Titled “Kintsugi,” it’s named after a Japanese term for repairing broken pottery in such a way that the breaks and cracks are preserved as part of the artwork’s storied history. On a project where Del Rey does a lot of musing about the legacy of her and her family – anticipating a day that she might be forgotten, like the titular tunnel with mosaic ceilings that lies dormant under Long Beach – it stands out as truly poignant. Opening up about some family tragedies as well as, of course, her own heartbreak, Del Rey’s latest set of tracks find her embracing those cracks as part of the beauty of the whole with another helping of her trademark poetics. Another great symbolic moment opens the album: specifically selecting her backup singers because they once performed with Whitney Houston herself, the first thing we hear is them making a mistake and then recovering swiftly. It’s quite a testament to both Del Rey’s songwriting ability and her mesmerizing vocals that she’s now been releasing albums that often don’t have much outside of piano and string ballads for over a decade, and scores of entranced fans still wait for the next one. There’s nobody who does wistful and melodramatic quite like her, and you can add the title track of this project to her all-timer catalogue in that regard. There are still some surprises scattered throughout – Jack Antonoff takes a break from the orchestral swells to drop a couple futuristic trap beats and rapper Tommy Genesis makes an appearance near the end – but for the most part, once again, it’s the longing sighs and ballads that continue to show off her strengths. As she says herself on “Kintsugi” – if it cracks, that’s how the light gets in.

That’s it for me – from the bottom of my heart, thanks for reading.

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