The Best Albums of 2023 You Need to Listen to This Year

Hailing from New York City by way of Washington, D.C., and Zimbabwe, rapper and Backwoodz Studioz label head billy woods is a writer with an expansive purview and a rhymer with a seemingly inexhaustible supply of intriguing flows. Maps, his second collaborative album with L.A. producer Kenny Segal, turns the experience of touring the world into a kind of hero’s journey, a story of zany inklings and occurrences coming between the traveling musician and the comfort of home.

Read Craig Jenkins’s interview with billy woods.

Air Not Meant for Us, the sophomore album from Connecticut death and doom merchants Fires in the Distance, achieves a precarious blend, counterbalancing a collection of musings on decay and despair with gorgeous arrangements that tease out brighter melodies without undercutting a song’s heaviness. Pianos dart around punishing riffs throughout “Wisdom of the Falling Leaves,” and instrumental breaks in opener “Harbingers” make the noise and desperation of the chorus — “They’re gaining on us!” — hit even harder. The sweetness punctuating these anguished observations is a message: Don’t let that beauty die.

Future’s Shadow Part 1: The Clandestine Gate, the fifth album from Seattle doom-metal duo Bell Witch, is a careful step forward for singer-bassist Dylan Desmond and singer-drummer Jesse Shreibman. It’s an 83-minute continuous song cycle inspired by reading Nietzsche and watching the unnervingly patient films of Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky, it’s a meditation on the promise and dread that greet us each new morning, and it’s a massive expanse of swelling organ drones, beguiling poetry, and triumphant riffs, the opening act of a planned triptych. While Clandestine Gate’s dawn illuminates fields of pulsing worms and decaying corpses, one wonders what terrors await as Future’s Shadow creeps into the twilight hours.

Tracey Thorn and Ben Watt hung up their successful musical collaboration Everything But the Girl in 2000 after they became parents to twins and band engagements began to clash with familial obligations. 2020 cleared their schedules, and they put parallel careers as authors and solo artists on halt to craft Fuse, the 11th Everything But the Girl album and a careful comeback that pleases admirers of the plaintive, elegant dance-pop of “Wrong” and “Missing” while sharpening the writing and gently modernizing the production.

Read Craig Jenkins’s review of Fuse.

On her debut studio album, Kara Jackson, our 2019-2020 National Youth Poet Laureate, sings with the aching honesty that gripped fans of her writing, sharing wry observations on romance — “Every man thinks I’m his fuckin’ mother / Good for milk and good for supper,” “therapy” laments — and grief, emoting plainly over lush arrangements like the constellation of strings and voices that envelope Jackson’s voice in “free” or the bells and pianos of “dickhead blues.” Why Does the Earth Give Us People to Love dresses modern concerns in the garb of a ’70s singer-songwriter album.

Much is rightfully made of the ’80s and early-’90s heyday of Metallica and the force with which the Cali quartet helped carry metal music into mainstream American popular culture, but it’s worth noting that right now, Robert Trujillo has been in the band longer than any other bass player, and the lineup introduced on 2008’s Death Magnetic really seems to have jelled. 72 Seasons, Metallica’s 11th studio album, makes a satisfying peace with the past in its sweeping survey of sounds from different parts of the catalogue and in the stories singer-guitarist James Hetfield tells, where protagonists escape the ghouls that hound them.

Read Craig Jenkins’s review of 72 Seasons.

On her debut album, With a Hammer, Korean American singer-songwriter and producer Yaeji showcases the excellence in sound architecture she fine-tuned across EPs and mixtapes like 2017’s Yaeji or 2020’s What We Drew. Melodies and rhythms stack carefully and methodically, from opener “Submerge FM,” a jazz-flute reverie that transforms incrementally into a pillowy bass-music groove, to the title track, where scattered drums and staccato vocals abruptly morph into a spacious pop banger. Sweet melodies, strange textures, and disparate genres clash and combine, giving the feeling of waking up inside a video game.

Read E. Alex Jung’s profile of Yaeji.

Boygenius — comprising Julien Baker, Phoebe Bridgers, and Lucy Dacus, each an impressive indie-rock singer-songwriter in her own right — set anticipation sky high with their self-titled 2018 debut EP. This year’s bluntly titled the record meets those expectations head on. From the bittersweet romance of “True Blue” to the smirking self-destruction of “$20” to the nihilistic resign of “Satanist,” the record is the sound of a few of the sharpest pens doing devastating work over a batch of the catchiest tunes of their careers.

Read Craig Jenkins’s review of the record.