This was a banner year for recorded music. The sheer number of great albums released makes choosing a top ten an overwhelming task. No doubt today’s listeners will remember 2023 in the way boomers recall 1967, a time in which the Beatles and Motown dominated the airwaves—just as Taylor Swift and Beyoncé have conquered today’s concert scene—but it was the variety of other performers, from Aretha Franklin to the Doors to Bobbie Gentry, who left the greatest mark.
Today’s musical renaissance is the result of the Covid lockdown, a reaction to the rise of political populism, and other non-musical factors. After all, America seemed just as divided in 1967 as it does today. Critics have long noted that suffering has been responsible for some of the world’s greatest art (as in Picasso’s Guernica). I hope not. My selections were chosen with my heart more than my head. They made me feel more than think, even if the two are deeply intertwined.
- Margo Price, Strays. Margo Price and her husband, Jeremy Ivey, took a bunch of mushrooms and went to the beach for a week. This served as the inspiration for the music on Strays. The songs vary in form and topic, from hard rock to folk, and from time machines to abortion, yet Price remains its central focus. The album has continued to evolve since its initial release in January 2023 (there’s a part 2 and a part 3), but the music remains remarkably solid. Price proves that a record can evolve without diluting its initial power.
- Low Cut Connie, ART DEALERS. Low Cut Connie earned its reputation as a hot live act before the pandemic, and then used its livestreams to widen its audience of Tough Cookies into true believers. Now, as if the past few years had not happened, their music hops back to the sound of 1970s Lou Reed to show the musical underbelly of New York City as the place where the decadent became high art—in the best sense. ART DEALERS is a hard but tender slice of rawk and roll.
- Iris DeMent, Workin’ on a World. Iris DeMent hadn’t made a record in seven years before being coaxed into this one. She addresses both spiritual (“The Sacred Now”) and social (“Goin’ Down to Sing in Texas”) concerns, but as the title cut reveals, her yearning for a better world drives her creativity. DeMent’s voice crackles with honesty and emotion. The music has a gospel backbone that ties the personal to the political. One may not always agree with her opinions, but her passions are well-earned. She’s not afraid to name names and to tell the listener exactly how she feels.
- Sufjan Stevens, Javelin. Sufjan Stevens went back to being (in his words) in “full singer-songwriter mode” by recording on his own in his home studio. The album is private and passionate, dedicated to his late partner, Evans Richardson. There’s a delicacy to the production. This album is for fans who still remember Stevens of “Casmir Pulaski Day” and try not to cry amidst its sentimentality. The music can be as soft as a sigh on a winter’s day when snowflakes are in the air.
- Joy Oladokun, Proof of Life. Joy Oladokun keeps moving forward to the light on her second major label release. These anthems of a better day stay hopeful without being saccharine. “I hate change / but I’ve come of age / and I’m finally finding my way,” she sings in a straightforward voice. Oladokun employs notable guests, including Mt. Joy, Chris Stapleton, and Noah Kahan, to help boost our spirits.
- Jenny Lewis, Joy’All. Indie rocker Jenny Lewis smartly asked Americana record producer Dave Cobb (who has produced for Chris Stapleton, Brandi Carlile, and John Prine) to helm her latest solo disc. This was a wise choice. He brought out the singer’s country side without being corny. Lewis has always been direct and friendly in her music, so it was hard to tell if the Hollywood actress was goofin’. This shows her sincerity in a positive way.
- Margo Cilker, Valley of Heart’s Delight. Margo Cilker hails from the Northwestern U.S. She provides a fresh perspective on the changes she has witnessed, from growing up in the apricot orchards to living in the big city to being in the primitive wild. Her songs are folklike in their wisdom without being tied to a specific tradition. You never know where a song will take you, but you can count on Cilker’s literary gifts to show you the way.
- Sunny War, Anarchist Gospel. Sunny War laughs at herself and the world with a sneer on her face. She knows she has been trouble and troubled, with drug addictions and mental illness in her past. She finds that the world can be even more messed up than she was. There’s something inspiring in knowing you aren’t alone, and War finds us united in our traumas. She understands that good intentions can lead us to be demons or angels.
- William Prince, Stand in the Joy. Canadian William Prince sings in a quiet voice, even when he is praising the sublime beauty of gin in “Tanqueray” or the acting in the movie Cactus Flower in “Goldie Hawn.” He expresses gratitude for the good in his life without being cloying. As the album’s title suggests, Prince is appreciative of the modest blessings he has received.
- CMAT, Crazymad, For Me. Irish musician Ciara Mary-Alice Thompson (CMAT) knows that sometimes the best response to living in a crazy world is going nuts. This helter-skelter concept album comedically takes on time travel, being hip, falling in love, and defining “normal” in a very creative and fun way.
This list is woefully incomplete, as there are at least two dozen more wonderful discs that could easily be added. After completing my first draft, I noticed that I included a preponderance of albums by individual artists rather than groups. That wasn’t my intention. There were many superb discs by acts, such as the National’s First Two Pages of Frankenstein, boygenius’s The Record, Slowdive’s Everything is Alive, Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit’s Weathervanes, and Jenni Muldaur and Teddy Thompson’s Once More.
And then there are tribute discs, such as the beautiful More Than a Whisper: Celebrating the Music of Nanci Griffith, with wonderful contributions by Sarah Jarosz, Aaron Lee Tasjan, and Mary Gauthier.
Honorable mentions by individual acts include Mitski’s The Land is Inhospitable and So Are We, Lana Del Rey’s Did You Know That There’s a Tunnel Under Ocean Blvd, Nellie McKay’s Hey Guys, Watch This, Jon Dee Graham’s Only Dead for a Little While, Olivia Rodrigo’s Guts, Kali Uchis’s Red Moon in Venus, Zach Bryan’s Zach Bryan, Joanna Sternberg’s I’ve Got Me, Terra Lightfoot’s Healing Power, Joshua Ray Walker’s What Is It Even?, Lori McKenna’s 1988, and Eliza Gilkyson’s Home.
Don’t let the size of this list intimidate you. We live in a golden age of accessibility—you can hunt down clips of these artists online to see which ones you like most. Then go out and buy the discs and see live shows to support the artists.