Exclaim!'s 25 Best Albums of 2023 So Far

BY Exclaim! StaffPublished Jun 1, 2023

The ingénue, the prodigy, the blinding comet of talent that comes crashing to earth from seemingly out of nowhere — there are few characters with more powerful gravitational pull and allure. But what about a slow burn? A long-simmering stock rather than a flash in the pan? It's a slightly less tantalizing narrative, sure, but the reward can be far more satisfying — and Exclaim!'s mid-year list, counting down the best albums that 2023 has offered up so far, is an ode to the glow up. It may be the year of the rabbit, but this list is all about the tortoise.

From underground workhorse bands who finally made the leap to superstar status to longtime craftsmen operating at the peak of their powers to indie tastemakers making the delirious pop star plunge, these are Exclaim!'s top 25 albums of 2023 so far. 

25. Charlotte Cornfield
Could Have Done Anything
(Next Door Records)

Charlotte Cornfield has a light touch. The humour and compassion with which she tells stories about herself and other people on her latest record, Could Have Done Anything, is refreshing and endearing. The record is short, clocking in at less than half an hour, and most of the songs are similarly understated. This, as well as the diary entry intimacy of the songwriting, gives the album a spell-like quality that lasts long after the music ends. 
Sophie Noel

24. Jessie Ware
That! Feels Good!
(PRM Records / Interscope Records)

Jessie Ware's 2020 album What's Your Pleasure? marked a brand new era for the British singer, one that ushered in a lavish disco revival and paid homage to the euphoric sounds of 1970s club music. Ware keeps the never-ending party going on That! Feels Good!, where everything is a little gutsier, a little sexier, a little more glamorous. With funk, dance pop, house and R&B this intoxicating, it isn't difficult to lose all sense of time in That! Feels Good!'s giant, glimmering discotheque. 
Jordan Currie

23. Gayance
(Rhythm Section International)

With her debut album, Mascarade, Gayance makes the leap from DJ and producer to fully fledged recording artist, making a strong case for global musical stardom along the way. Thanks to her refusal to settle on any one genre, along with an impressive guestlist of Montreal musical mainstays, Gayance has created a focused and seamless collection of skits and tracks that provide an engaging glance into both her life and vast musical repertoire.
Scott Simpson

22. Daniel Caesar
(Republic Records)

On NEVER ENOUGH, Daniel Caesar captures the purity of his debut album (2017's Freudian) and refines the exploratory sound he aimed for on his second (2019's CASE STUDY 01). Satisfying his artistic need to showcase that he's no one-trick pony, Caesar spreads his wings well beyond his gospel roots. But for balance, he tempers his sonic experiments with the raw, unembellished R&B that endeared him to many. By riding the line between caution and risk, Caesar hits his stride.
A. Harmony

21. Kali Malone
Does Spring Hide Its Joy
(Ideologic Organ)

Does Spring Hide Its Joy finds composer Kali Malone wielding the power of harmonics to rapturous effect. Written for a trio of Malone on sine wave oscillators, Stephen O'Malley on electric guitar and Lucy Railton on cello, the piece is a masterclass in the emotive and compositional potency of frequency interference patterns. Over the three distinct performances of the composition, slight gradations between individual instruments' tonal qualities begin to blur, giving way to the impression that the performers are generating a continuously blooming, limitless sonic territory. However expansive, Does Spring Hide Its Joy feels like Malone's most focused and singular work to date. 
Tom Piekarski

20. Liturgy
(Thrill Jockey)

Liturgy's 93696 feels like the most cohesive version of the "Transcendental Black Metal" idea that Haela Ravenna Hunt-Hendrix has been pursuing since the very beginning. The music here is dense with the familiar themes and motifs of the band's earlier releases, but taken to their logical extremes to create a rapturous listening experience. Is it "real" black metal? Who cares? What it is, is one of the year's most unique and inspiring metal releases.
Jeremy Sheehy

19. Model/Actriz
(True Panther Sounds)

Listen closely and you're bound to find something to like in this debut from New York's Model/Actriz. Post-punk, industrial, experimental noise, electronic, indie sleaze even musical theatre — all make up their confrontational din. Yet they're much more than the sum of their parts thanks to frontman Cole Haden, who revels in and subverts the tropes of his role while exulting the joys of love, lust, heartbreak, community and just plain being alive, always with a playful wink. 
Ian Gormely

18. Paramore
This Is Why
(Atlantic Records)

Paramore's impeccable sixth LP sees the band at the height of their powers, and may well be their best album thus far. With incredible vocal performances from Hayley Williams, Zac Farro's tightest and most impressive drumming to date, and infectious riffs throughout from Taylor York, the trio find an undeniable groove here. From the catchy hook of the opening "This Is Why" through to the hazy catharsis of closer "Thick Skull," there's not a single skippable moment.
Wesley McLean

17. Jonah Yano
portrait of a dog
(Innovative Leisure)

Jonah Yano's ability to articulate his grandfather's battle with dementia so tenderly over the course of portrait of a dog is profoundly touching. Voice recordings strewn sparsely throughout the album offer an intimate glimpse of Yano's family as his delicate vocals rest gently atop the rich jazz instrumentals supplied by BADBADNOTGOOD. Few albums this year have blended poignant storytelling and sonic excellence with the surgical perfection showcased on portrait of a dog
Ben Okazawa

16. Kelela
(Warp Records)

Kelela has written that first spreading her wings to create Raven began with "feelings of isolation and alienation … as a Black femme in dance music." In full flight on one of the year's best, the visionary delivers a remarkably sequenced set of electronics swinging between club exhilaration and quieter reflection, to form what she calls "the sound of our vulnerability turned to power." The strength Kelela finds in Raven's community of collaborators — Asmara, LSDXOXO, BAMBII, Kaytranada and more — is palpable.
Calum Slingerland

15. Home Front
Games of Power
(La Vida Es Un Mus Discos)

Edmonton's Home Front write anthems that land like jump kicks. Pairing Oi! punk brio with a few eras' worth of synth sounds — krautrock, post-punk, new wave — they find something both nostalgic and new on their debut LP, Games of Power. It's kinetic, thrilling stuff, both gritty and uplifting, bleak and celebratory: Games of Power is the soundtrack to kicking at the darkness till it bleeds real blood. Fuck that darkness! 
Paul Blinov

14. poolblood
(Next Door Records)

mole, the debut album from Toronto's poolblood (singer-songwriter Maryam Said) is hazy, hushed alt-rock at its warmest and most intimate. Veering away from the emo-inflected indie of their previous output, raw emotions are reframed into quiet meditations on all types of relationships, as Said's ethereal voice nestles between grungy acoustic guitars with the occasional cello and saxophone breaking through the static. It's tough to be so tender, but Said's strength lies in their ability to pull delicately at your heartstrings.
Isabel Glasgow

13. Yves Tumor
Praise a Lord Who Chews but Which Does Not Consume; (Or Simply, Hot Between Worlds)
(Warp Records)

Since their debut in 2018, Yves Tumor has proven time and time again that they will never move with convention or themselves to be put into a box. Their newest release, Hot Between Worlds, is an adventurous, chimeric concoction of neo-soul, shoegaze, drone, cloud rap, industrial, hair metal and post-punk, and it hits just right on the best and worst of days. Come for Yves Tumor's Prince-like wails and growls, and stay for the wall of abstract — yet fathomable and grooving — sound.
Stephan Boissonneault 

nature morte
(Thrill Jockey Records) 

If there's one truth about BIG|BRAVE's nature morte, it's that beauty exists in the darkest of places. Through six songs, the Montreal drone metal trio explores the state of the planet by linking it to how poorly we treat each other. The music is slow and dense, fuelled by swaths of feedback and pummeling drums, while guitarist/vocalist Robin Wattie channels her own experiences into either haunting scream ("the fable of subjugation") or delicate whispering ("the ten of swords"). 
Bruno Coulombe 

(Sub Pop Records)

You can gauge how original an artist is by how widely people scramble to equate them to other artists. This odd phenomenon has plagued DEBBY FRIDAY since day one. But one listen to the Vancouverite's debut, and it's clear that she exudes too much personality, conviction and skill for turning tired genres on their heads to be boxed in. For those trying to classify her brand of icy synths, inverted rhythms and "do-whatever-the-fuck-you-feel" spoken vocals, good luck.
Daniel Sylvester

10. Lana Del Rey
Did you know that there's a tunnel under Ocean Blvd
(Polydor Records / Interscope Records / Universal Music)

With every subsequent creation, Lana Del Rey displays her ability to grow, to reify the cocktail of her soul with more integrity than before. As close to perfection she has ever reached, her lyrics here are simultaneously complex as riddles and clear as photographs. This album is colossal and sweeping — all static and dust on vinyl and weeping horns and tap-dancing piano, it foregrounds her voice, which gasps and whispers and laughs (perhaps at us) to reveal an artist reckoning with the understanding that, after the mess and whirl of personas colliding with others, the self and its storm is all she will know for certain. Ocean Blvd depicts the excruciating labour involved in appearing as an artist — not just before the world, but before oneself. The preaching on this album is mostly, unapologetically about Grant, and what a beautiful gift it is.
Alisha Mughal

9. U.S. Girls
Bless This Mess
(Royal Mountain Records)

This is the year of the groovy mom. Even still, Bless This Mess is far more than just Meg Remy's motherhood record. It's all over the place thematically, detailing suburban flight, gender roles and online anxieties with shimmering tact. With '80s funk, disco and a strong knack for pop songwriting that is never pastiche, Remy makes her apprehensions enrapturing. While the Jenga blocks of the modern world may topple at any second, Remy invites us to shake it off, even if just for a little while. When put that way, perhaps escapism and anxiety are just two sides of the same coin.
Sydney Brasil

8. 100 gecs
10,000 gecs
(Dog Show Records / Atlantic Records)

One of the most hotly anticipated sophomore albums in recent memory, each of 10,000 gecs' singles — 2021's hyperpop return-to-form "mememe," 2022's ska-leaning "Doritos & Fritos," the surprise Snake Eyes EP — came with the question of whether the duo of Laura Les and Dylan Brady would actually be able to pull it off again.

With the arrival of the blink-182-meets-Sleigh-Bells "Hollywood Baby" in 2023, it was clear the gecs had reached a new height of their power. The album finds them moving away from their Pollock-eqsue splatter of sound and curating a brash blend of maligned genres like pop punk, hyperpop, ska, nu metal, dubstep and pretty much everything between. The duo worked with a post-cringe, TikTok-indebted, self-aware deftness so neatly envisioned that it immediately began changing the cultural conversation, inspiring dozens of undercard artists to begin dabbling in geccore palettes. The first few seconds of 10,000 gecs opens with the THX deep noise — a gutsy statement about the cinematic contents within, but it's well-earned, even if it is through force. 
Allie Gregory

7. Zoon
Bekka Ma'iingan
(Paper Bag Records)

Bekka Ma'iingan is a record filled with intentionality and promise. Each strange and anomalous sound from Zoon's rarified take on shoegaze is embedded with self-discovery and hope — particularly as it pertains to Daniel Monkman's spiritual fulfillment and Indigenous identity. "A Language Disappears" describes the cultural alienation accompanying the loss of language, and "Niizh Manidoowig (2 Spirit)" acknowledges Monkman's two-spirit identity, encouraging and supporting others on a similar journey. Embedded with lush orchestral arrangements and hyper-fuzzed-out guitars, Bekka Ma'iingan is equal parts elegant and abrasive, colourful and austere. With Bekka Ma'iingan, Zoon proves themselves to be exceptionally innovative in their authenticity. 
Myles Tiessen

6. billy woods and Kenny Segal
(Backwoodz Studios)

Last year felt like a culmination for billy woods, a high-water mark that saw the New York rapper releasing two career-best records and capping off two decades of consistently thoughtful, challenging work. Maps, the rapper's latest, feels like a victory lap, a continuation of an all-time run that manages to broaden the veteran artist's appeal without sacrificing any of his experimental zeal. It may also be the perfect entry point into a dense and intimidating discography. Where the MC's previous collaborations with executive producer Kenny Segal felt shadowy and foreboding, Maps finally lets some light in, with woods' vertiginous, sometimes dryly funny observations about life on the road and the precarity of existing under late-stage capitalism coiling around and pushing against brilliant instrumentals that evoke sun-dappled haze and apocalyptic anxiety in turn.
JM Lacombe

Click "Next" to continue reading. 5. Feist
(Polydor Records)

Leslie Feist has always contained multitudes. Across her prestigious 20-plus-year solo career, Feist has given us mainstream pop radio hits, percussive rock songs and captivating folk ballads. Multitudes, her sixth studio album, is a prismatic offering of the tender and the tempestuous sides of her sound. Through hushed revelations, unrestrained screaming and sublime guitar playing, Feist wrestles with the loss of her father and becoming a mother. Life's harsh realities and the beautiful moments that catch up by surprise come together on Multitudes — and like what always seems to happen with Feist's records, it arrives just when we need it most: as we try to put our fractured selves back together again after years of unpredictability.
Laura Stanley

4. boygenius
the record
(Interscope Records)

They say three's a crowd, but the magical dynamic of boygenius — the supergroup of Julien Baker, Phoebe Bridgers and Lucy Dacus —  is one to be studied for decades. As friends, the trio have a powerful chemistry, which has effortlessly translated into their music. After a critically-acclaimed EP in 2018, listeners were left anticipating a full-length project. Five years later, the boys do not disappoint. At 12 tracks, the record captures an honest look at the complexities of relationships in every form: romantic, platonic and, most importantly, the one we have with ourselves. Opening track "Without You, Without Them" sounds like a warm hand outstretched to guide listeners into what's to come, mirroring the album's cover art. With themes of self-doubt, desire and religion, boygenius unpack the ever-complicated nature of being a person on standout tracks like "Not Strong Enough" and "Satanist." the record proves that this beloved supergroup are here to stay. 
Heather Taylor-Singh

3. JPEGMAFIA and Danny Brown

With JPEGMAFIA, you get some of the most interesting hip-hop productions around, and with Danny Brown, you get the intense ramblings of a degenerate poet. Together, on SCARING THE HOES, however, it's not really clear what you're getting, and therein lies its charm. This jittery collage of a record rampages through pop, jungle and gospel like a bull in Long & McQuade. The album somehow manages to remain seamless and jarring at the same time. At times it doesn't even seem real, but if we're talking true artistic expression, it's one of the realest records of the year so far.
Daryl Keating

2. Wednesday
Rat Saw God
(Dead Oceans)

Rusted chain link and burning cotton fields, vast highways and overgrown cul de sacs — this is the world of Rat Saw God. Wednesday's flamethrower of a fifth album sees the Asheville band level up in every conceivable way, igniting great powderkegs of lap steel and disintegrating guitar beneath Karly Hartzman's bruising storytelling. Hartzman rarely allows for linear narrative in her writing; where others might strive for completion, she chases expansion. Details squirm and illuminate the edges of her stories, lighting the dark corners and waterlogged ditches like fireflies. 

It feels increasingly rare to find a record so indebted to a place, to a people, as Rat Saw God. In its insular territoriality — its half-lit basements and half-lit teens, its quarries and truck beds and sun-warmed kiddie pools — is an entire universe, spinning faster and faster. 
Kaelen Bell

1. Caroline Polachek
Desire, I Want to Turn Into You
(Perpetual Novice)

Desire permeates all our relationships (social, economic, political, sexual), especially during a global pandemic. Want builds up pressure and releases like a volcano upon approval. And when Caroline Polachek's Desire, I Want to Turn Into You arrived after two years of trickling out tastes and treats, it did so much more than answer appetites with single-serving art pop. 

Indulging fantasy and plumbing Greek myth while contemplating personal longings and losses, the voracious, metaphor-rich songwriting Polachek displays on Desire is still playful, but more mature and forward-focused than she delivered on 2019's Pang. Learning from the best, she gleans as much from the rich if overlooked innovations of late-20th-century diva pop and feminized adult listening (Céline Dion, Enya's new age-steeped enchantments, Cher's Auto-Tune, Suzanne Vega, Dido) as the accelerated contemporary pop metascapes of Grimes, Charli XCX and SOPHIE. Merging their respective innovations and building out from them, Polachek establishes a psycho-technological aesthetic continuum that reshapes perceptions of more than 30 years of music making — and imagines the future in the process.
Tom Beedham

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