Summer is in full swing, we’re halfway through 2023, and there’s already been too much good music this year to keep track of (and even more that we’re anticipating). We narrowed down our many favorites to a list of the 40 albums that currently stand out to us the most from this year, with records ranging from euphoric disco revival to pensive hip hop, from boundary-pushing hardcore to old school-style death metal, from rising indie rock bands to indie legends, and much more. We didn’t rank them (we’ll save that for the end of the year), but read on for the list in alphabetical order.
Also check out the Indie Basement mid-year list for more of Bill’s picks.
Not only is Amaarae a guest on the new Janelle Monáe album, she’s also got her own new album out and it scratches a pretty similar itch. It’s her sophomore album and major label debut, following 2020’s The Angel You Don’t Know, and it picks up where that diasporic, genre-defying album left off. Amaarae has lived in the Bronx, New Jersey, Atlanta, and Ghana throughout her 28 years, and she’s just as influenced by Ghanaian polyrhythms as she is by American pop, hip hop, and experimental music. (And as you can hear on “Sex, Violence, Suicide Pt. 2,” peppy garage punk.) All of those sounds swirl together on Fountain Baby, and the result is something that sounds like all and none of the above at once. The easiest way to describe Fountain Baby is just experimental pop music. These are catchy, fun pop songs that tackle themes like sex, religion, and escapism, and they challenge the notion of what “catchy, fun pop songs” sound like in the American mainstream. Production ranges from club beats to Afrobeats, Amaarae’s delivery ranges from helium-voiced coos to melodic rapping, and she really never sounds like anyone else in American or African pop music.
Anna B Savage has a voice, both fragile and powerful, that can convey big emotion without singing an actual word. On her second album, in|FlUX, Savage has lots to sing about, though, all of it involving matters of the heart. We’re talking Bronte levels of passion and emotion, including breakups, makeups, lust, or the rush of a new relationship and the general mess love can leave you in. Anna made the album with Mike Lindsay of Tunng and Lump, who brings his expertise of mixing the organic and the electronic. This is a wonderful sounding album, mixing acoustic guitar, standup bass, and woodwinds with warm synthesizers, a perfect backing for Anna’s voice that often sounds like it’s being sung two inches from your ear. This is High Art pop that works best when it is reaching the highest, as on in|FLUX‘s title track that goes from the blushingly intimate to giddy heights as she protests, though layers of harmony and perfectly unhinged lead vocals, “I want to be alone / I’m happy on my own / believe me.” Savage sells every emotion-packed line, be it awkward or moving or mortifying, and makes every second captivating.
In a world where oversharing is the norm, London post-punk trio bar italia are a nice throwback to the days when you often didn’t know anything about a band except the music. They don’t do interviews, their press photos are comically underexposed (another descriptor: terrible), and there’s almost no official information out there. (Bar Italia is also the name of a Pulp song, which I bet they’ve heard, but it’s also an actual London bar. These three are a million miles from Britpop.) Unless you’re deep into the London underground scene you may not have been aware that they are a supergroup of sorts, featuring members of NINA & Double Virgo who formed during the pandemic and released two albums and an EP in rapid succession on Dean Blunt’s World label before signing to Matador Records for their third long-player. No matter, Tracey Denim makes for a wonderful introduction into bar italia’s mysterious but inviting world.
Much like their visual cues, bar italia’s music doesn’t follow normal conventions. Nina Cristante, Jezmi Tarik Fehmi and Sam Fenton are all equal players, trading off vocals with almost no interest in things like verses or choruses. Songs feel constructed using the Exquisite Corpse: one member starts with a riff and melody and then hands it off to another who does with it as they please, and so on. Sometimes it snakes back around with weaving vocal interplay, while other times, like on “Punkt!,” it’s three distinct vignettes using the same setting in one song. None of these obscurist tendencies keep bar italia from making great, easily enjoyable music though. There is no shortage of hooks, and Cristante, Jezmi and Sam are distinct vocalists who sound great together. Most of their music lurks in the shadows with spidery guitarwork and jazzy rhythms which puts us in the same general world as King Krule or Sorry, but these three are much more indebted to the nerdy world of OG post-punk, from Young Marble Giants to Television Personalities. bar italia would’ve fit in on Rough Trade in 1980, but still sound very much a part of 2023. As for who they are, the music speaks plenty loud.
Between Armand Hammer and his solo career, New York rapper billy woods releases so much music that all varies from good to great, so it’s not easy to pick a favorite album or an entry point, but his Kenny Segal-produced 2019 album Hiding Places is up there. So it’s very exciting that billy and Kenny have once again made an entire album together, Maps, which finds their chemistry sounding even stronger. Kenny’s experimental production rarely sounds like traditional hip hop, and woods’ dizzying lyricism fits it perfectly. He has too many witty, ear-catching one-liners to count, and Maps has some of his most tuneful, memorable rapping in recent memory. Like Hiding Places, woods’ Armand Hammer partner ELUCID appears on this album–this time on two songs–and it also features Backwoodz labelmates ShrapKnel and some bigger guests like Danny Brown, Aesop Rock, and Quelle Chris, plus hooks from Benjamin Booker and Future Islands’ Samuel T. Herring. Their distinct voices help give the album a good flow (and might help rope in some new listeners), but the recognizable names are an added bonus, not a crutch. It’s always woods and Kenny themselves steering the ship.
So many artists have started out making loud rock music and gotten poppier over the years; Sabrina Teitelbaum is doing the opposite. After spending a few years releasing radio-friendly electronic music under the name BAUM, she realized she’d rather explore the grungy guitars of Nirvana and Hole, and she adopted the moniker Blondshell for her new endeavor. She debuted the project with the instantly-buzzed-about single “Olympus” last June, and continued to roll out equally good songs, all of which now appear on her self-titled debut album. The grunge influence is apparent in the album’s explosive climaxes, but Blondshell doesn’t stop at ’90s revival. She applies her pop smarts in more subtle ways, and also brings a modern singer/songwriter element that’s not too far off from the new Boygenius album. Her knack for good hooks is matched by her knack for deadpan one-liners about TV, sex, therapy and other everyday occurrences, and she really knows how to deliver these songs in a widely appealing way.
When Phoebe Bridgers, Julien Baker, and Lucy Dacus first came together as Boygenius, they had originally only intended to do a 7″ to be sold on their 2018 tour together. Once they got to writing, they came out with a lengthier, now-beloved EP, and in the years that followed, the trio continued to appear on songs together, including tracks on Hayley Williams’ 2020 album Petals For Armor, Phoebe’s 2020 album Punisher, Julien’s 2021 album Little Oblivions, and Lucy’s 2021 album Home Video. As we know now, a week after Punisher came out, Phoebe sent Julien and Lucy a demo and asked if the trio could be a band again. That demo was of “Emily I’m Sorry,” one of the 12 tracks that makes up Boygenius’ first full-length album, The Record, out now via their new major label home of Interscope Records. The trio have proved to have such natural chemistry over the years, and that continues for the entirety of The Record. Each member’s distinct voice and songwriting style shines at various points, and the record always gets taken to another level when the three of them harmonize together. The record is full of the kinds of gorgeously intimate indie folk songs that these three have a reputation for making, but it’s also got hard-edged rock songs like “Satanist,” “Anti-Curse,” and “$20,” the last of which is a rare Boygenius song with screaming. And then there’s “Not Strong Enough,” which not only calls back to Sheryl Crow’s “Strong Enough”; it’s also a jangly folk rock song that sounds like it could’ve been a hit for Crow in the ’90s or early 2000s. It’s a subtly diverse record, and the more you listen, the more new songs stand out as potential highlights. It’s full of clever turns of phrase, melodic surprises, as many pop culture references as their recent photoshoots (including songs titled “Leonard Cohen” and “Revolution 0”), and all the conversational-yet-devastating lyricism you’d expect from these three.
Desire, I Want To Turn Into You is pop music on Caroline Polachek’s own terms, ranging from flamenco to ambient pop to a breakbeats-fueled song with Grimes and Dido. It’s also some of the most forward-thinking and best music she’s ever made. Read our full review.
Danny Brown and JPEGMAFIA both have reputations for making loud, erratic rap music, and their two collaborations on Danny’s 2019 album uknowhatimsayin¿ were major highlights, so the idea of an entire collaborative album from these two sounded perfect. And it’s just as perfect in execution as it is on paper. Produced by JPEGMAFIA, the album ranges from hyperpop to glitch to industrial to flipped soul samples and more, and Danny and Peggy have boundless energy as they bounce off of each other over these blaring beats. The album’s only guest appearance comes from one of the most exciting newer rappers around, redveil, who provides “Kingdom Hearts Key” with its smooth coda.
Living Proof isn’t just the name of Santa Cruz hardcore band Drain’s excellent sophomore album (and first for Epitaph); it’s a mantra. In the classic “anyone can do this” punk rock fashion, Drain are living proof that you can do this too if you believe in it, that haters can’t bring you down, that no one can stop you from being yourself. “These are the words I wish I had when I needed them the most,” vocalist (and former Gulch drummer) Sammy Ciaramitaro screams on the title track, which closes the album. Drain aren’t playing for the gatekeepers, the critics, or the cultural tourists; they’re playing for the kids who need a great hardcore band like Drain in their lives. With thrash and groove metal riffs from guitarist Cody Chavez, Drain are tough, but they aren’t unwelcoming. Anyone who cares about this shit is welcome at a Drain show, and Drain shows are getting pretty damn big lately. The vibe is both in-your-face and flat-out fun, just like Living Proof, which balances out its aggressive tone with colorful artwork, California warmth, and honesty and vulnerability in Sammy’s lyrics, whether he’s talking about kicking an alcohol-fueled lifestyle for a straightedge one on “FTS (KYS)” or celebrating being your true self on “Imposter.” As a way of keeping the album from ever getting stagnant, Drain break up their fury with a hip hop interlude (led by hardcore-adjacent rapper Shakewell) and faithful, clean-vocal cover of Descendents’ “Good Good Things,” both of which fit perfectly within the context of Drain’s music. They don’t abandon what people loved about their Revelation Records-released debut LP California Cursed, they just expand upon it, add in a few new things, and make it even better.
Listen to our new podcast episode with Sammy for more.
FUSE is Everything But the Girl’s first album in 25 years, that is pretty much everything you could want from an EBTG record in 2023. They have covered a lot of musical ground over the last 40 years, from bossa nova to Sophistipop to cutting edge electronic music, but they basically pick up where Temperamental left off. Almost entirely electronic and in line with everything they’ve done before, the album manages to find new paths to explore without ever falling into “How do you do, fellow kids” territory.
For over 20 years, Feist has put out genuinely remarkable music–each album distinctly different than the last–and she’s sounded like no one else in the world throughout all of it. Her newest album Multitudes is no exception. Like on its 2017 predecessor Pleasure, the Feist of Multitudes sounds free of expectations, conventions, and trends. There’s a close-mic’d, meandering acoustic guitar here, and some primal percussion there. Some moments are fleshed-out, heavily-arranged, and immaculately produced, and other moments feel intimate and entirely unpolished. It’s an album that could only come from Feist; her voice and songwriting style remain strong, attention-grabbing, and entirely her own.
“We don’t come with a manual,” Karin Dreijer sings on “Looking for a Ghost” from their third album as Fever Ray, in a voice mutated by effects overtop ticking percussion, like a wind-up mechanical doll. Love is strange and it takes a lot of work to keep it aflame, a theme that runs through the entirety of Radical Romantics. If 2017’s Plunge was Dreijer, newly out and embracing the wonders of the heart, then this is the tough job of keeping it going after passions have cooled and the realities of life seep back in. Reality is a loaded word in Fever Ray’s world, full of distorted voices and unsettling characters (even moreso in their videos), but for all the creepy noises, Radical Romantics presents a lot of recognizably human emotions at its core. Love, anger and everything in between, all filtered through Dreijer’s distinctive style.
As far as anyone could tell, Fireworks went on hiatus at the end of their 2015 tour, but behind closed doors, they were working on their fourth album, unobstructed by the demands of touring or the expectations of record labels and standard album cycles. In 2019, they resurfaced with the single “Demitasse,” an ambitious art rock song that showed off a much different side of Fireworks than the one shown on the indie-friendly pop punk records released during their initial run. Along with the release of the song, they announced their new album Higher Lonely Power, but COVID hit a few months later and Fireworks once again retreated from the public eye. In the fall of 2022, The Wonder Years took Fireworks on the road, marking the band’s first shows in seven years, and on New Year’s Day 2023, they finally unleashed Higher Lonely Power, self-releasing it on their own Funeral Plant Collective label with less than a 12-hour warning and no pre-release singles.
“Demitasse” isn’t on the album, but it did set the tone for it. Higher Lonely Power is an art rock journey through sweeping string arrangements, breakbeats, synth-infused dream pop, and caustic post-hardcore. It brings to mind anything from Sufjan Stevens’ Age of Adz to Radiohead’s Kid A to The Notwist’s Neon Golden to the darker, artsier moments of Arcade Fire, but it still has the energy of a band that comes from the emo/punk world and it still sounds like Fireworks. (And for a more emo/punk world comparison, it makes me think of Foxing’s Nearer My God.) As Fireworks make their way through these stunning, shapeshifting arrangements, vocalist Dave Mackinder grapples with Christian trauma, death, the changing perspectives of artists who are nine years older than when we last heard from them, and the days when the members of Fireworks volunteered to have Pfizer test new medication on them so they could earn some extra cash (“Woke up afraid to die when we used to think it was funny”). It’s an album that needs to be heard from start to finish, an album where no individual track could possibly give you the full scope of everything that Fireworks have to offer here. (Though if I had to pick one song to at least give you an idea of the album’s boundless creativity, I’d probably say “Jerking Off the Sky.”) It’s an album so expansive and meticulously arranged that you can really picture Fireworks spending the last nine years getting every little detail right, and the wait was worth it. Higher Lonely Power is so remarkable that cult classics like 2011’s Gospel seem like warm-ups in comparison.
Pick up our exclusive green/brown/black tri-color vinyl variant.
Fort Worth, TX’s Frozen Soul took the world of hardcore-laced death metal by storm with their 2019 demo and then their 2021 debut LP Crypt of Ice, so needless to say, a followup has been highly anticipated. That anticipation only rose when we learned that Frozen Soul recruited some familiar faces to help them achieve their vision on Glacial Domination–including co-producer Matt Heafy of Trivium, guest vocalists John Gallagher of Dying Fetus and Reese Alavi of Creeping Death, and guest guitarist Blake Ibanez of Power Trip and Fugitive–and now the record is here and it meets and exceeds expectations. It’s got everything that was great about the debut but it’s bigger and better in every way. It works in John Carpenter-inspired synth interludes, everything feels both harder-hitting and more carefully crafted, and it feels less limited to a specific subgenre than Crypt of Ice without departing from the band’s self-described “cold school death metal.” Like many death metal albums, Glacial Domination has its fair share of absurdism, but there’s also a very personal and serious side. Vocalist Chad Green’s younger brother Cory tragically passed away while Frozen Soul were writing the album, and that grief manifested itself in the lyrics of these new songs, particularly “Death and Glory” and “Arsenal of War,” both of which Chad wrote with input from his other brother, Josh, who also does vocals on both tracks. “Writing this record helped me cope with loss, especially writing lyrics with my brother Josh,” Chad said. “There were times while making this record where I didn’t think I was going to be able to get through it. Luckily, I had my band and family to have my back.” Chad also adds that Cory’s “spirit is all over this record,” and you can feel it in his delivery. Especially on the songs that are directly about his brother, he screams with the kind of passion you can only harness when the subject matter is this close to home.
The track on NJ hardcore band Gel’s debut full-length that seems poised to get the most people talking is the one that isn’t a proper song at all. “Calling Card” is an atmospheric interlude track made up of voicemails from fans. One of them says “hardcore for the fucking freaks,” a phrase that’s become Gel’s de facto slogan. “From the beginning of Gel, we never — for lack of a better term — gelled with the broader hardcore world,” guitarist Anthony Webster said in a recent Stereogum feature. “Especially now, post-COVID, there’s a lot of young new kids, and a lot of pushback against those new kids from voices in the broader hardcore space. And I just don’t wanna be that person pushing them away. So I guess like, the whole hardcore for the freaks thing, we adopted in like 2019, and it really fully feels true now.”
Gel formed in 2018, with three members who had previously played in the powerviolence-leaning band Sick Shit, and they gradually rose, with a series of increasingly good demos, EPs, promos, and as many live shows as they could play. Things really started to take off as the world began coming out of lockdown, with Gel stirring up more buzz than ever for their 2021 EP Violent Closure and their 2022 split with Cold Brats, and now Only Constant arrives as the culmination of everything Gel had been working towards. “Hardcore for the freaks” describes it perfectly; there’s some garagey psychedelia, there’s raw punk, there’s chuggy hardcore, there’s a dance beat, there’s a tunefulness despite vocalist Sami Kaiser always sounding like they’re tearing their vocal cords apart. Only Constant sounds antagonizing, but Gel are entirely welcoming. There’s a little something in there for so many different types of hardcore fans, and as Gel’s shows keep getting bigger, there’s room for all the freaks to meet up in the pit.
Home Is Where’s I Became Birds is a unique, brief, six-song album that came out in March of 2021 and became the band’s breakthrough release thanks to a gradually-increasing amount of word-of-mouth excitement that primarily existed outside of the usual hype machine platforms. Not long after its release, band leader Brandon MacDonald had a nervous breakdown, and that’s when the idea for The Whaler came to her. The band calls it a “concept record about getting used to things getting worse,” and Brandon adds, “With Birds being so personal and inward, for this one, I wanted it to be less about me and more about how a person navigates this postmodern, late capitalist hell world that we’ve built around us. There’s still something personal in that though, even though it’s much more external.”
Across the album’s 10 songs, The Whaler recalls anything from Neutral Milk Hotel to Fugazi to pageninetynine, often within the same song. It’s tied together by musical interludes and recurring themes and lyrics, with sentiments that range from questioning religious beliefs (“An all-knowing god doesn’t know what it’s like to not know anything at all”) to processing national tragedies (“And on September 12th, 2001, everyone went back to work”) to a song where an image of Dale Earnhardt pushing a shopping cart turns into a metaphor for the end of the world. It’s an album full of songs that take you by surprise even after multiple listens, like when “Lily Pad Pupils” builds a bridge from dusty alt-country to dissonant skramz and then goes into “Yes! Yes! A Thousand Times Yes!,” the album’s poppiest and weirdest song. They made the album with Jack Shirley, who Brandon calls her “favorite contemporary producer,” particularly because of Jack’s work with Jeff Rosenstock and Deafheaven, and Home Is Where have managed to become a band who would make sense on tour with either one of those artists. Sometimes The Whaler becomes harshly shrieked extreme music, other times it becomes towering post-rock, other times it becomes breezy, catchy folk rock. All throughout, Brandon sings about subject matter that feels real and authentic and depressing and I’d imagine it’s widely relatable to anyone that’s given up hope for a better world.
If the phrase “fifth wave emo” means anything to you, then Hot Mulligan is probably already a household name in your house, but if they’re not, let Why Would I Watch be your introduction to this great band. It’s their best album yet, and it has the power to transcend the niche corners of emo and pop punk that Hot Mulligan have occupied these past few years. It’s got the huge, sugar-sweet hooks of pop punk, but Hot Mulligan come at them with post-hardcore grit. Vocalist Tades Sanville is always on the verge of screaming, even when Hot Mulligan are at their catchiest, and every song finds this band swinging for the fences, playing as hard as possible, intent on winning over anyone who’s listening. Within those throat-shredding hooks are some genuinely heavy topics that range from addiction to death to familial issues to severe anxiety to internalized Christian guilt, and Hot Mulligan sing every song like they mean it. Recent tourmates The Wonder Years are an easy comparison to make–both bands mix unabashedly poppy melodies with intensely raw emotion–but Why Would I Watch also takes some thrilling detours away from that sound, like with the American Football-esque “This Song Is Called It’s Called What It’s Called” and the scrappy acoustic track “Betty.” And even when Hot Mulligan tone things down, they’re just as arresting as when they’re screaming their hearts out.
For more on this LP, read the band’s track-by-track breakdown.
Bronx rapper Ice Spice and her producer RIOTUSA started dropping singles together in 2021, and they took the rap world by storm with 2022’s “Munch (Feelin’ U).” With Ice Spice’s calm delivery and the ability to turn one clever line into an instant-classic hook, “Munch” put a fresh spin on the NY drill sound that’s been dominating the city for the past few years, and it quickly became the New York rap song of the summer. Ice Spice proved it was no fluke, following it with “Bikini Bottom” and “In Ha Mood” that successfully repeated the same formula and won over Ice Spice’s growing fanbase just as quickly as “Munch” had. Today she follows those songs up with her first project, the Like..? EP, featuring all three recent singles and three new songs, entirely produced by RIOTUSA. She keeps her trademark spin on drill going with “Princess Diana,” but Like..? also finds Ice Spice starting to flirt with some other ideas too. Ice Spice recruits Lil Tjay for a song that’s named after the late Gangsta Boo and samples P. Diddy’s 2002 single “I Need a Girl Part 2,” and it finds Ice Spice mixing her usual sound with a little Y2K-era nostalgia. “Actin A Smoochie” finds RIOTUSA offering up slower, more atmospheric production that could fit on an early 2010s Drake record, and Ice Spice matches the mood with something a little more sentimental. With six songs in 13 minutes, starting with an EP instead of going straight to an album or mixtape feels like a good move. The brief format is perfect for Ice Spice’s short, blunt songs, and Like..? hints at her being capable of more than she’d shown us already without drifting too far from her already-winning formula. I’m very curious to hear what she does when it comes time for a full-length, but for now, Like..? feels like a neat, lean introduction to a rapper who’s clearly got something to say.
South Central LA rapper ICECOLDBISHOP has been on the rise for a few years now–having collaborated with the likes of slowthai, Rico Nasty, Denzel Curry, Boldy James, and more–and now he finally put out his debut album, Generational Curse. Across the album, he proves to be an extremely charismatic rapper, sounding like a cross between all three Flatbush Zombies and Kendrick Lamar at his most theatrical, and the air of desperation in his voice really matches the subject matter. Tragic death shows up at every turn on Generational Curse, whether it’s from drug addiction or shootings, and ICECOLDBISHOP often sounds like he’s grappling with grief in real time. Like so many great rappers before him, he’s a natural-born storyteller, capable of opening the world’s eyes to the poverty, violence, and institutional racism that plague neighborhoods like the one Bishop grew up in. He does it with the level of command of a person that’s looking you directly in the eye the entire time, and his ear for beats, melodies, and arrangements is just as gripping as his bleak stories.
California hardcore band Initiate sounded like they were bursting at the seams with ideas on their 2020 EP Lavender, and it all explodes on their new full-length Cerebral Circus, one of the most uniquely appealing hardcore LPs I’ve heard all year–and it’s been a great year for hardcore. Cerebral Circus is full of genre-hopping ideas that Initiate pull off incredibly naturally. On “Waste Your Life,” punchy power pop guitars lead right into chuggy hardcore. “Amend” offers up a shoegazy twist on a metallic hardcore breakdown before pivoting to vocalist Crystal Pak screaming over delicate, ballad-driven guitars in a way that hearkens back to ’90s screamo. “The Surface” goes from floor-punching hardcore to a soaring, melodic alt-rock chorus without missing a step. Closing track “Transparency” is a post-rock-infused post-hardcore mini-epic that would fit on a Touché Amoré album. There’s so much range and depth and beautiful aggression in this album, and it all comes together in a way that’s grander than any one or two of these songs could’ve suggested on their own.
Janelle Monáe is in her pleasure era. The titties-out version of Janelle we’ve seen all throughout the rollout for The Age of Pleasure is a much different look than the androgynous, Prince-inspired sci-fi Afrofuturist that graced the cover of Janelle’s instant-classic 2010 debut The ArchAndroid, and the new look is reflected in the music. On The Age of Pleasure, Janelle is as ambitious and genre-hopping as she’s ever been, but in a way that feels looser, freer, and more explicitly euphoric than ever. “I want it to be so specific to this Pan-African crowd who are my friends,” she told Zane Lowe on Apple Music 1. “I want it to be a love letter to the diaspora.” That’s exactly what The Age of Pleasure is. It opens with “Float,” a triumphant dose of horn-fueled funk-trap featuring Seun Kuti and Egypt 80, the former band of Seun’s Afrobeat-pioneering father Fela, and the song introduces themes and motifs that reoccur all throughout the record. Janelle also explores Afrobeats rhythms on “Phenomenal,” “Know Better,” and “Paid In Pleasure”; classic reggae on “Lipstick Lover” and “Only Have Eyes 42”; experimental R&B on “The Rush”; and more. She peppers the tracklist with interludes that help tie everything together, and she ropes in guests that come from all different musical trails of the diaspora: in addition to Seun Kuti & Egypt 80, there’s the crazed Tampa rapper/singer Doechii, Ghanaian-American pop experimentalist Amaarae, Nigerian Afrobeats star CKay, dancehall legend Sister Nancy, and the one and only Grace Jones. You can hear how all of their respective styles influenced this album, and it’s a treat to hear that Janelle isn’t just pulling influence from all over the world but working with artists from all over the world too.
It’s remarkable to think that, over 20 years since Jason first joined Drive-By Truckers and 10 years since he released his breakthrough solo album Southeastern, Jason is still searching for something creatively, still trying to write better songs than he wrote last time or the time before that, and succeeding at doing so. Every Jason Isbell album is an honest portrayal of where he is at that point in his life, and that’s why every Jason Isbell album brings something to the table that the others can’t. Weathervanes is no exception. Read our full review.
Jessie Ware’s 2020 album What’s Your Pleasure? was one of the key releases in the current disco / house revival alongside records by Roisin Murphy and Beyonce. She could’ve easily called its joyous follow-up Pleasure Too, but managed to come up with an even better, cheekier title. “I’ve put aside years of anxiety, imposter syndrome and all that fretting and feeling like I’m not good enough,” Ware says. “It’s not necessarily bigger or better than the last album, it’s more about turning the volume up and embodying that real, deep, sexy, bloody gorgeous groove.” Working with Simian Mobile Disco’s James Ford and Stuart Price (Les Rythmes Digitales, Pet Shop Boys), That! Feels Good! is a nonstop pleasure cruise — there’s even a song that recalls The Love Boat theme — and she giddily mixes classic ’70s funk, disco and tropicalia with ’80s new wave / electro, ’90s house, R&B and French Touch, and just about anything else that suits her fancy. Fun is the order of the day and it’s served up across 10 effortlessly playful, gorgeously produced dance tracks that are equal parts groove, sweep and melody with nods to everyone from Gloria Gaynor to Madonna (though Ware’s British accent is real). If you’re not having a good time listening to this wonderful record, check your pulse.
NYC singer/songwriter Joanna Sternberg had already made fans of the likes of Phoebe Bridgers, Conor Oberst, and Jeff Tweedy off the strength of their 2019 album Then I Try Some More, and they signed to Fat Possum for its followup, I’ve Got Me. Joanna played all the instruments themselves on the album, which marks their recorded debut as a string arranger, drummer, and electric guitarist, and they designed the cover art (as they’d also done in the past). It was produced by Chavez/Zwan guitarist Matt Sweeney. With Joanna’s close involvement in so many aspects of the album’s creation, it’s natural that it would sound like such an intensely personal document, and they go a step beyond in just how relatable they make their earnest, deeply felt messages. They went to school for jazz and spent years gigging in the jazz community, but the raw, intimate songs on I’ve Got Me are in the orbit of anti-folk, freak folk, and bedroom pop. Narrated in Joanna’s unique voice, these are songs that feel like they could have come out at any point in the past few decades, that stand apart from passing trends, which was very intentional. “That is what I want to do,” Joanna said in an interview with Sam Sodomsky for Pitchfork. “I want anyone to be able to connect with the songs, regardless of age or anything.”
Chicago-based singer/songwriter Kara Jackson has received numerous accolades for her poetry over the past few years, including being named the US National Youth Poet Laureate in 2019. She brings the same rich lyricism and sense of narrative to the songwriting on her debut full-length album, where arresting tales of love and loss are set to folk music in the grand tradition of the genre. Fellow Chicago artists NNAMDÏ, Kaina and Sen Morimoto worked with her to re-record the demos she’d made in her childhood bedroom during the early days of Covid lockdown, ensuring that the textures of the music keep up with her expert, memorable turns of phrase. Songs like “free” and “rat” are mini-odysseys with powerful storylines soaked in melancholy, but the shorter tracks like “recognized” and “therapy” hit just as hard.
Kelela takes her time. Since taking the world by storm in the early 2010s as a guest vocalist on electronic tracks by the likes of Teengirl Fantasy, Kingdom, and Daedelus, she’s only released one mixtape, one EP, and one full-length album, along with a few standalone singles and remixes. But every time she does drop, it’s always worth the wait, and Raven–her sophomore album and first new music in nearly six years–is no exception. The album was written, arranged, and executive-produced by Kelela, alongside co-executive producer Asmara of Nguzunguzu, with most of the production coming from LSDXOXO, ambient duo OCA, and Bambii–a tight-knit team that helped Kelela make exactly the album she wanted to make, without worrying about the expectations of outside forces like capitalism and the culture of white supremacy. Kelela calls the album “an affirmation of Black femme perspective in the midst of systemic erasure and the sound of our vulnerability turned to power,” and she accomplishes that with a remarkable fusion of R&B, dance music, and ambient music. It feels like a natural progression from her earlier work, and feels as daring and futuristic today as her debut mixtape Cut 4 Me did ten years ago. On Raven, Kelela doesn’t sound concerned with writing another “LMK,” the pop-friendly lead single of her previous album Take Me Apart. That’s not to say that Raven doesn’t have its bangers, but it’s an even more intimate, atmospheric album than its predecessor, and even its catchiest, most upbeat songs explore Kelela’s experimental side. The production is wide-ranging and innovative, and Kelela has gotten even better at weaving her soaring voice in and out of the beatwork than she already was. Kelela benefited from arriving at a time when the crossroads between indie, electronic music, and R&B was a trendy place to be, but Raven affirms that Kelela is no trend-hopper. It doesn’t really sound like any of the big R&B records of late, and with music this creative and refreshing, Kelela is better off that way.
To quote Billie Eilish, Lana Del Rey paved the way for everyone. Her once-polarizing version of alternative pop music changed the way so many artists approached their music, from already-established giants like (recent Lana collaborator) Taylor Swift to more recent rising stars like Billie. And the more influential she gets, the more her own music seems to shy away from commercial expectations. “With this album, the majority of it is my innermost thoughts,” Lana said while talking to Billie Eilish in the same Interview Magazine interview that Billie’s quote came from. Lana has been moving towards a more personal songwriting style for a few albums now, and she really leans into it with Did You Know That There’s a Tunnel Under Ocean Blvd. The album is largely quiet and minimal, with piano and string balladry setting the scene for stream-of-consciousness lyricism on the large majority of these songs. And then there are the outliers, like the hip hop-leaning “Peppers” with Tommy Genesis, the gospel-leaning “The Grants,” and “Let the Light In,” a lovely Laurel Canyon-style folk duet with Father John Misty. The album ends with a reprise of Norman Fucking Rockwell standout “Venice Bitch.” (There’s also a track where celebrity pastor Judah Smith delivers a four-and-a-half minute sermon, and I dunno if I’m gonna let that one finish every single time I listen to the album but your mileage may vary.) It’s an album where Lana sounds like she’s doing whatever the fuck she wants, a phrase that basically describes multiple Lana Del Rey albums at this point. In a broader sense, you know what you’re gonna get from this album, but on a more micro level, Ocean Blvd finds many ways to surprise you.
Ravenna Hunt-Hendrix has been challenging the boundaries and purism of black metal since Liturgy’s inception, and even with the expectation that the band’s new double album 93696 will do exactly that, this colossal new project still thrills and surprises in ways that feel almost jarringly fresh. True to its name, traditional black metal very literally invokes visions of darkness, but Hunt-Hendrix uses familiar black metal tricks to make music that sounds as bright and technicolor as 93696‘s album artwork. Along with Liturgy’s current lineup of guitarist Mario Miron, bassist Tia Vincent-Clark, and drummer Leo Didkovsky, 93696 finds Hunt-Hendrix bringing in string arrangements, a children’s choir, art rock electronics, and more to push the music in all kinds of unexpected directions. She says that she aimed to make this album “sound more punk-meets-classical than metal,” and that goal is reflected in the album’s production and arrangement choices, which rarely feel typical for metal (or any other style of music for that matter). The singles for the album included a shapeshifting 15-minute song, as well as a song that features nothing more than wordless choral a cappella singing, and those tracks make even more sense within the context of this album. It’s a true journey of an album, one that can be jaw-dropping, euphoric, and antagonizing all at once.
Storied outsider artist Lonnie Holley began his career as a painter and sculptor in the late 1970s, and he began making music in the mid 2000s, which ended up attracting the attention of the indie rock community. He signed to indie label Jagjaguwar for 2018’s MITH, and this year–following the 2020 release of the National Freedom EP (recorded in 2014 with Richard Swift) and a 2021 collaborative album with Matthew E. White–Lonnie released his second proper album for Jagjaguwar, and this one’s loaded with guests from the indie music community. Bon Iver, R.E.M.’s Michael Stipe, Sharon Van Etten, Moor Mother, and Jeff Parker, along with Malian artist Rokia Koné, assist Lonnie as he tells stream-of-consciousness tales of personal hardships, like growing up poverty-stricken in the Jim Crow South and being beaten at the Mount Meigs juvenile corrections facility. His world-weary delivery often blurs the lines between singing and spoken word, and it makes for a remarkable contrast with the familiar voices of his guests. Made in collaboration with producer Jacknife Lee (R.E.M., U2, Bloc Party, etc), Lonnie’s stories are propped up by a backdrop informed by jazz, ambient music, the avant-garde, and more, taking you on a journey that is both otherworldly and inspiring. He defies the conventions of modern popular music while still making very special songs that feel fresh and innovative.
What is Mandy, Indiana? Specifically they are a group from Manchester, England who were originally named Gary, Indiana but then changed it — perhaps to get away from people bringing up The Music Man, but also to give them more of an abstract feeling. The name evokes a half-forgotten memory, one that wells up unexpectedly that you can never quite pin down. Mandy, Indiana’s music feels like a place, too: eerie, alien, magnetic, dangerous, thrilling, elusive. They’re a guitar band who don’t play chords, an electronic band who only occasionally want you to dance, but they present a vivid tableau with their music which is often unsettling and confrontational. I’ve seen a way, their debut album, soundtracks a post-apocalyptic hellscape dotted with abandoned factories and crumbling government housing. Some songs sound like they’re being played at the opposite end of of an endless warehouse where industrial noise echos into ambience. Elsewhere, it’s all release, with sheets of blistering white noise and singer Valentine Caufield — who has an opera background — shrieking, wailing and whispering, all in her native French, but her delivery needs no translation. All of it is compelling, but but it’s the songs with a beat — the neon-lit strut of “The Driving Rain (18),” the bam-thwok of “Pinking Shears,” simmering techno number “Injury Detail” — that stay with you the longest.
On their first full-length album, Militarie Gun boldly branch out from their hardcore roots, take a massive leap forward from their already-great EPs, and come out with one of the best rock albums of the year. We’ve got a lengthy feature up with much more on this remarkable LP.
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Nostalgia tends to run on 20 year cycles which means the mid-’00s are back and as someone who was in NYC at the time and has fond memories of those days, I am here for it. At least some of it, like my rent back then, and my hearing. Model/Actriz, who have actually been part of the NYC fringe for the better part of a decade, seem like they could’ve actually held their own in 2003, with a fierce strain of arty technopunk that sounds like it was forged in an abandoned flame-cut steel factory. Drums fire like jackhammers, a machine gun of kickdrums, guitars shear off slices of metal like a hot knife through butter, and singer Cole Haden wails lines like “I remember thorns shredding my palms!” Dogsbody, their debut album, is fueled on twitchy, relentless energy that rarely lets up over its intense, dark and deadly serious 38-minute runtime. The only respite is pretty closer “Sun In,” which you could be forgiven for thinking was the algorithm skipping to another artist after the album finished. Dogsbody is not exactly “fun,” but it is cathartic and, like the groups it feels inspired by (Liars, Lightning Bolt, Black Dice, !!!), is probably best experienced live and loud in a sweaty packed club with strobes and smoke machines. In lieu of that, listen to Model/Actriz as loud as you can stand.
Hailing from Hattiesburg, Mississippi, MSPAINT are not from one of the popular music locales, they’re not backed by one of the big tastemaker record labels, and they’re out of step with pretty much every trend happening in music right now, but those who have latched onto the band agree: MSPAINT is something very special. “When I first heard ‘Hardwired’ it felt like I was let in on a secret, like an undiscovered hit,” said Militarie Gun vocalist Ian Shelton, referring to the opening track of the band’s self-titled 2020 debut EP. Ian since formed a close relationship with the band; Militarie Gun took them on tour and collaborated with them, and Ian co-produced their debut album Post-American alongside Taylor Young, and he sings a verse on standout track “Delete It.” The album has one other guest vocalist on “Decapitated Reality,” Soul Glo’s Pierce Jordan.
As evidenced by their collaborators, tourmates, and record label, MSPAINT have been embraced by the hardcore scene, but they’re not a hardcore band themselves. In fact, the band maintains that the only preliminary discussions they had about what MSPAINT would sound like is that they wouldn’t use any guitars. Not that the “rock band ditches guitars” narrative is anything new, but MSPAINT do it in a way unlike almost any other band I can think of. Rejecting the rock-goes-synth pipeline that so often results in something cleaned-up and radio-friendly, MSPAINT’s synth-punk feels built for grimy, sweaty, poorly-lit warehouse parties. Their drum-and-bass rhythm section is pummeling, their synths are warped and distorted, and their charismatic vocalist–who goes only by Deedee–leads the band with barely-melodic shouts that are way catchier than they’ll ever sound on paper. The songs are as jagged and aggressive as they are fun and infectious; it’s pop music for the outcasts and freaks, and MSPAINT don’t really sound like any of the other bands who fit that description.
“This album is not what you expected, but what I always wanted.” That’s how the mysterious South Korean musician Parannoul introduced After the Magic, which follows two other full-lengths and and a few EPs and splits (both with fellow South Korean artist Asian Glow, and one also a three-way split with Brazil’s sonhos tomam conta), as well as releases under other monikers like laststar and Mydreamfever. Those early releases helped build Parannoul a cult fanbase, and it’s one that’s existed almost entirely on the internet; some of Parannoul’s loudest cheerleaders come from across the globe, and this all started to happen during COVID lockdown, before anyone had seen Parannoul live. (As far as I can tell, Parannoul has only rarely performed, and never outside of South Korea.) The ingredients that make up After the Magic are similar to the ones on Parannoul’s earlier releases, but this record feels bigger, cleaner, and less lo-fi. It fits in somewhere between the electro-shoegaze of aughts-era M83, The Notwist’s glitch pop, and The Appleseed Cast’s soaring vocal-oriented post-rock, with fluttery arrangements that wouldn’t feel out of place on a Sufjan Stevens album. In other words, this is deeply beautiful music, and it’s full of feeling.
Mexican singer Peso Pluma’s voice is everywhere right now. As we speak, he has nine singles in the Billboard Hot 100 as either a guest or a lead artist. Two of them are especially omnipresent, Eslabon Armado’s “Ella Baila Sola” and Yng Lvcas’ “La Bebé,” the former of which became the first regional Mexican song to enter Top 10 in the history of Billboard’s Hot 100. Regional Mexican music is a catch-all used by radio stations that encompasses rancheras, corridos, cumbias, boleros, norteño, sierreño, mariachi, and other styles of Mexican music, and Peso Pluma’s music is often specifically categorized as corridos tumbados, a subgenre pioneered in large part by Natanael Cano that fuses traditional and acoustic styles of Mexican music with elements of more modern styles of music like hip hop and reggaeton. Natanael may have kicked open the door, but Peso Pluma barged through it and he’s quickly become the biggest regional Mexican crossover artist in a very long time. He bridges generation gaps with instrumentation that embraces tradition, topped off with charisma, lyricism, and a youthful spirit that’s caused his music to resonate with gen Z audiences.
Peso Pluma already has two albums, two live albums, an EP, and countless singles and guest appearances dating back to 2020, but Génesis is his first album since he began his meteoric rise and it feels poised to be his breakthrough. His songs on the album are primarily fueled by fiery acoustic guitars, insistent horns, and only minimal percussion, and Peso Pluma tops it off with a voice and a knack for melody that are both truly addictive. He stands out when he guests on other artists’ songs because of how distinct and ear-catching he always sounds, and on Génesis he keeps that going for the length of a 14-song album. he also brings in some of his own impressive guests, including the aforementioned Natanael Cano; fellow regional Mexican artists Junior H, Luis R Conriquez, Gabito Ballesteros, Jasiel Núñez, Darey Castro; and two songs with Tito Double P, the moniker of Peso Pluma’s frequent producer/co-writer Tito Laija (whose recent debut single “Dembow Bélico” fuses Mexican bélico with Dominican dembow). Peso Pluma also branches out from Mexican music by bringing in Puerto Rican rapper Eladio Carrión on “77.” It’s easy to tell from this album alone why Peso Pluma has been able to break down regional, cultural, language, and genre barriers; his songs are undeniable, and you really can’t put him or his music in a box.
Having built up a reputation as one of the brightest new voices in hardcore, Scowl expand their musical palette with their remarkable new EP Psychic Dance Routine. It fuses the band’s hardcore influences like Negative Approach and Ceremony with ’90s alternative rock bands like Nirvana, Sonic Youth, and Hole; it finds vocalist Kat Moss mixing it up between piercing screams and anthemic clean vocals; and it’s got the band’s strongest songs yet. Read our new feature on Scowl and listen to our podcast with Kat for more.
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This past December, The Sidekicks revealed that the reason they’d been quiet for a few years is that they’d broken up. It marked the end of one of the most beloved and frequently-underrated bands of the past 15 years, but just a few months later, we learned that singer/guitarist Steven Ciolek was turning his focus towards a new project, superviolet. Having formed The Sidekicks when he was 15 and only just starting to write music, writing with a band was really all Steven ever knew, so he considers superviolet a “clean slate,” a way to try out different ideas that maybe wouldn’t have worked in a band environment. “The idea behind Infinite Spring as an album was to try to capture that feeling of openness or possibility or growth,” he said. He made the album in close collaboration with Zac Little, leader of Saintseneca (which Steve has also played in), and The Sidekicks’ Matty Sanders drummed on it, so even though it is a solo album, it does have some of the familiar chemistry we’ve heard from Steven and his friends over the years. Steven has a distinct songwriting style that makes Infinite Spring instantly recognizable as the work of The Sidekicks’ leader, but he’s also never really written songs like this before. It tends to be a lighter folk-pop record, with only a few louder indie rock moments, and this vibe suits Steven well. He also sounds refreshed as a songwriter, and he injects this album with melodies, sentiments, and vivid imagery that you feel in your bones.
When live music finally returned and Wednesday started playing shows again, they were surprised to look out into their crowds and realize they’d built up a fanbase of unfamiliar faces. “I had no idea that anyone we didn’t know personally would want to come see us,” drummer Alan Miller said in a recent interview with Ian Cohen for The Ringer. Their 2021 album Twin Plagues–one of that year’s true indie rock gems–had gradually and organically built up word-of-mouth buzz, and more and more people were catching on to the band’s uniquely appealing music. That album was the band’s third, but first with longtime collaborator Jake Lenderman as a full-time member, and it came out on Orindal Records, the small-but-trusty record label co-run by Owen Ashworth of Advance Base and Casiotone For The Painfully Alone. Jake–who’s also Wednesday singer Karly Hartzman’s partner–also releases solo music as MJ Lenderman, and his 2022 album Boat Songs also stirred up quite a bit of acclaim, drawing even more attention to Wednesday and to Jake’s casual drawl, which pops up a bit in Wednesday songs as well.
The momentum Wednesday had built up helped them ink a deal with Dead Oceans–the label that’s home to big-name indie acts like Phoebe Bridgers, Japanese Breakfast, and Mitski–and their first album for Dead Oceans, Rat Saw God, became one of the year’s most talked-about indie rock albums even before its official release. It’s presumably the album Wednesday would’ve written whether there were all these eyes on them or not, but it’s also the perfect album to release when you’re on the verge of a breakthrough. It’s bolder, grander, and flat-out better than anything Wednesday had released prior, it currently stands as the best introduction to this band’s work.
Picking up where Twin Plagues left off, Rat Saw God is like an alternate history of the ’90s, one where alt-country, shoegaze, and grunge were all fused into one thing. Wednesday aren’t shy about their ’90s-era influences–their 2022 covers album includes songs by Drive-By Truckers, Medicine, The Smashing Pumpkins, and Greg Sage of Wipers (and DBT get namedropped on this new album)–but they never sound like they’re imitating any of them; they’re drinking them up and spitting them back out in a way that sounds unique to Wednesday. The album’s first two singles are the band’s most sprawling songs yet–the country-gazing “Chosen to Deserve” and the eight-and-a-half minute grunge epic “Bull Believer,” which ends with an explosive climax that finds Karly screaming her head off. This is the work of a band who demands to be heard, and the rest of Rat Saw God follows suit. There are heavy, loud guitars that would’ve shaken alt-rock radio in the ’90s, and there are soft, countrified moments that are perfect for lazy Sundays. Karly’s singing and lyrical style are both gripping and full of range, and the moments when she and Jake sing together add an additional, special layer of warmth. There are certain aspects of Rat Saw God that fit in with today’s indie zeitgeist, but Wednesday don’t seem very concerned about following trends, which gives the album an already-timeless quality. Rat Saw God is a record that would turn heads no matter what year or decade it was released.
Sean Bowie has spent most of their career as Yves Tumor morphing from experimentalist into bold, glammy art-rocker, and at this point, the transformation is complete. Picking up where 2021’s crowdpleasing The Asymptotical World EP left off, Praise A Lord Who Chews But Which Does Not Consume; (Or Simply, Hot Between Worlds) really leans into the loud, hook-fueled material that’s perfect for the Coachella stage that Yves graced in April. But as always, Yves approaches rock and pop music on their own terms; getting more accessible doesn’t mean abandoning their stranger tendencies or softening the blow of their sharp, distinct voice. As ever, Yves Tumor is an expert at blending familiar sounds in unfamiliar ways; Praise A Lord recalls an array of different styles of music, including but definitely not limited to new wave, psychedelia, post-punk, grunge, funk, chillwave, and krautrock, and Yves often touches on two or more of those per song. With production from Noah Goldstein (Frank Ocean, Kanye, Bon Iver, etc), mixing by Alan Moulder (My Bloody Valentine, Ride, Nine Inch Nails, etc), and a cast of talented contributors (including standout guest vocalist Kidä on “Lovely Sewer”), Praise A Lord sounds fantastic, with a timeless sheen that’s perfect for the concoction of sounds that Yves has stirred up.
“Must I only share my pain?” It’s a question that Zulu ask more than once on their debut album A New Tomorrow, referring to the way that Black artists are so often expected to make art that reflects their trauma, rather than celebrate their culture and community and selves. Parts of A New Tomorrow are informed by pain, but it’s so much deeper and more vast and more celebratory than that. Having started out as the powerviolence-with-vintage-soul-samples solo project of Dare/The Bots drummer Anaiah Lei, Zulu is now a full band, and their multi-genre sound now comes from more than just samples. Anaiah often splits screaming duties with drummer Christine Cadette, and guitarist Dez Yusuf takes over on lead vocals for the album’s jazz-rap song “We’re More Than This.” Soul Glo’s Pierce Jordan, Playytime’s Obioma Ugonna, and Truth Cult’s Paris Roberts lend their voices too. They do still employ soul (and reggae and Afrobeat) samples, but they also offer up their own psychedelic soul and jazz instrumentals. And they’ve taken their bone-crushing hardcore far beyond powerviolence, often venturing off into territory so groove-oriented and danceable that it fit perfectly when Zulu recreated an A Tribe Called Quest video for one of the album’s songs. A New Tomorrow is the perfect name for this album; Zulu sound like the future.
Amanda's Honorable Mentions
Christine and the Queens - Paranoïa, Angels, True Love
Debby Friday - Good Luck
Kate Davis - Fish Bowl
Lucinda Chua - YIAN
Youth Lagoon - Heaven is a Junkyard
Andrew's Honorable Mentions
Alfa Mist - Variables
Asake - Work of Art
Eslabon Armado - Desvelado
Overmono - Good Lies
XL Life - The Boogie Down South
Bill's Honorable Mentions
Baxter Dury - I Thought I Was Better Than You
En Attendant Ana - Principia
Noel Gallagher's High Flying Birds - Council Skies
Sweeping Promises - Good Living is Coming for You
Ulrika Spacek - Compact Trauma
Dave's Honorable Mentions
Fucked Up - One Day
Lael Neale - Star Eaters Delight
McKinley Dixon - Beloved! Paradise! Jazz!?
Never Ending Game - Outcry
Sanguisugabogg - Homicidal Ecstasy
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