Pop Albums of the Year: 2023

From supergroups to genre mash-ups to super-smart pop—it’s all there in our critic’s top ten for the year

December 30, 2023
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Illustration by Vincent Kilbride

The Record by Boygenius

Boygenius began life five years ago, an indie supergroup made up of Phoebe Bridgers, Julien Baker and Lucy Dacus; three young American singer-songwriters whose tour schedules had dovetailed well enough for them to cross paths, share bills, and subsequently form a friendship tight enough to begin writing songs together. There was an EP, a series of collaborations on one another’s solo records and, this year, at last, a full-length album. The Record ranges from Andrews Sisters-style close harmony singing to full-throttle rock numbers, its songs displaying great lyrical dexterity, always mindful of hooks and humour. The band’s live shows inspire the kind of rapture usually reserved for boybands, but their greatest trick has been to conjure a similar kind of fervour through recorded music; it’s the type of album you listen to on repeat.

False Lankum by Lankum

In Radie Peat, Dublin’s Lankum have one of the great folk voices of the day; an ancient, bog-leathered sound that can move nimbly from ominous to wondrous and back again. It’s Peat’s voice that threads the band’s fourth album, which comes on the back of a growing reputation as one of the finest live bands, but around it press her male bandmates—the hammered dulcimer, concertina, hurdy-gurdy—music that is warped and wound. There are no gaps between tracks here, rather the 12 songs follow one another as if joined in solemn procession; a simple device, but one that quickly folds the listener into its world, taking us from the dour set of “Go Dig My Grave” to a radiant new take on American folklorist Gordon Bok’s “Clear Away in the Morning” via a series of fugues. If all this sounds too fiddle-de-dee folk for your liking, bear in mind the energy of Lankum is more aligned with Pogueish punk brimstone than painstaking retrospective. Few bands have this fire.

Did You Know That There’s a Tunnel Under Ocean Blvd by Lana Del Rey

Lana Del Rey’s 2023 Glastonbury tardiness may have disappointed some, but the year also brought the release of the US singer’s remarkable ninth album, a record so good it might just redress the balance. As Del Rey’s career has progressed, her work has become increasingly insular; at this point, it feels as though we might be eavesdropping as she sings to herself over the housework. But, as she has turned evermore inward, she has also explored a level of a musical self-involvement that has resulted in the creation of an intricate and distinctive Del Reyian world with its own internal logic; choosing to sample her earlier records on the tracks “A&W” and “Taco Truck x VB”, for instance, makes perfect sense here. There are outward-looking moments, too: samples of pastor Judah Smith, a song about her producer’s fiancée (album standout “Margaret”), and a rangey approach to genre—Del Rey moving from trap to rap to psych rock and torch song. It’s a masterful record.

Desire, I Want to Turn Into You by Caroline Polachek

There’s something ecstatic about Caroline Polachek’s second solo album (previously the Connecticut-raised artist recorded with Chairlift and under various noms de plume). Since 2019’s Pang, her life has changed considerably—the loss of her father, a new love, the division of her time between Los Angeles and London, and a formative stretch spent in the Mediterranean. Accordingly, this is a beautiful, strange, irresistible pop record that draws on a life-affirming array of sounds from Spanish guitars to bagpipes via triphop, Celtic folk, children’s choirs and dembow. The starring role goes to lead single (released way back in 2021) “Bunny is a Rider”, which Polachek described as “a summer jam about being unavailable” and that comes off as an impeccably arranged, wholly whistle-able celebration of elusiveness.

Water Made Us by Jamila Woods

The third album by Jamila Woods moved the Chicago-based songwriter and poet into a new, more intimate space—following the arc of a relationship from first frissons to final disintegration. Woods drew from a spectrum of musical styles: pop, rap, R&B, interwoven with old voice notes and Woods’s poetry. Woods steers her way so assuredly through these tracks—the sweetly anthemic “Tiny Garden”, the sultry “Practice”, the folk-rock singalong “Wolfsheep”—and, as she goes, offers a glimpse of the many musical directions she might take.

Heavy Heavy by Young Fathers

Young Fathers’s fourth record is an absolute cacophony; one that marries restless, walloping percussion with gospel ascension and dancefloor giddiness; handclaps meet sub-bass meet falsetto; breakbeats bend into near-harmony, double back to blousy rock ’n’ roll. Over 10 tracks, none even touching the four-minute mark, the Mercury-winning Edinburgh trio are propelled by an infectious momentum, reaching their peak on “Geronimo”—the album’s warm, buoyant heart. As with many of this year’s best records, Young Fathers are renowned for the thunder of their live performances; one might wonder whether we are at last hearing the return-to-life albums of an industry so recently devastated by pandemic lockdown.

The Land is Inhospitable and So Are We by Mitski

A foil to the polished pop production of many of this year’s most celebrated records, Mitski’s offering held a rawness that not even the recurring presence of a 17-strong choir and an orchestra could derail. Over the course of seven albums, Mitski’s career has often told of an unease with both the music industry and the experience of music-making. Here she finds a less painful position, exploring aspects of love with great tenderness and flickers of iridescent humour. Long an adept songwriter, much beloved by the TikTok community, on this record Mitski’s talents seem reinforced; she stands now among the classic American songwriters, a twist of the Jimmy Webb, perhaps, to her musical insights.

Why Does the Earth Give Us People to Love? By Kara Jackson

The first time I saw Kara Jackson, she performed both songs and a selection of spoken-word pieces, displaying the kind of linguistic ingenuity that earned her the title of National Youth Poet Laureate two years after Amanda Gorman—and that this year filled her debut album. It wasn’t always an easy listen—the music could be discordant, Jackson’s voice could turn steely, and her perspective on love was shaped by its loss. Regardless, it revealed a powerful new lyrical voice to the world, one that rang at its most convincing on the beguiling “No Fun/Party” and the expansive “Dickhead Blues”.

Laugh Track by The National

After a period of severe writer’s block left the future of The National in peril, Matt Berninger’s bandmates gathered round to draw the singer back to life. The result was a year of two new National albums—the blurred and tentative First Two Pages of Frankenstein, released in the spring, and then a late summer surprise in the more exuberant Laugh Track. Both tell of the disorientation of depression, the loss of language and self-expression, but also of the love and galvanisation that can exist between the members of a musical project that has endured for nearly 25 years. On record, and on stage during their recent tour, the band seemed to have found a new, deeply creative appreciation for one another.

Guts by Olivia Rodrigo

This year brought the sophomore release by US pop phenomenon Olivia Rodrigo; a record weighted with much expectation following the wild success of her 2021 debut, Sour. Such self-consciousness might have thwarted lesser artists, but Rodrigo is a pro, and Guts is a masterstroke in pop songwriting. Rather than ruminating on the drag of fame, Rodrigo wisely sticks to relatable teen content: boys (good and bad), rejection, body image, introversion, the behaviour of other girls. These are songs that display not just Rodrigo’s familiarity with her audience’s preoccupations but her tremendous gift as arranger, vocalist and lyricist: the experimental structure of “Vampire”, the breathy tremor of “Logical”, the likening of a love rival’s skin to puff pastry in “Lacy”. It’s a record that underscores this as an era of fantastically smart pop music.

And some music you might have missed…

Session musician Miguel Atwood-Ferguson has worked with artists from Ray Charles to Mary J Blige via Thundercat and Dr Dre. This year, he released a solo work—Les Jardins Mystiques, Vol I, a vast and creatively ambitious 52-track opus that is a sure contender for jazz album of the year. Scottish singer-songwriter Mike Nisbet has only ever self-released his music, but the quality of his latest album ought to earn him greater attention; soulful songs such as “Pure Pain” and “Real Love” sound like instant classics. RAYE has written and produced for Beyoncé, Rihanna, and John Legend, among many. Her debut collection of her own songs, My 21st Century Blues, has won her fierce praise and accolades. Julie Byrne’s The Greater Wings is an extraordinary folk-framed account of grief, following the loss of her partner.