Lists like this one are built on a rickety foundation of caveats and qualifications, the most important being that musical taste is a curious impulse. Unlike film, unlike novels, it’s almost impossible to diagnose our musical ideals. You don’t point to Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer and say, “It looks good.” You describe the performances, the script, the historical import. With music, this process gets a bit hazier. You might enjoy something because it makes you want to dance, or because it reminds you of a commute to some old job. Perhaps the melody is “catchy.” But what does that really mean?
With the advent of algorithmicized streaming media, it’s harder than ever to see outside the fog of our own immediate taste. But it’s important to try, not only for our stale (come on, admit it) sense of adventure, but for the thousands upon thousands of artists creating with little expectation of audience. This list might, I hope, be seen as a breath of possibility. Will you enjoy all of these albums? No. You certainly will not. Beyond that, what qualifications have I to tell you what to listen to? Precious few. With that in mind, unhitch the stern line! Off we go!
- King Gizzard & The Lizard Wizard – PetroDragonic Apocalypse; or, Dawn of Eternal Night: An Annihilation of Planet Earth and the Beginning of Merciless Damnation
For a few thousand rain-soaked Seattleites, ‘23 was the Year of Gizz. The hyper-prolific Australian rockers played guinea pig for the city’s newest outdoor venue, Remlinger Farms, and the three shows went off without a hitch despite torrential downpours. The tree-ringed field will open as a Northwest mainstay next year, thanks in part to this headbanger of a record.
- Bully – Lucky for You
Lead singer Alicia Bognanno has just enough growl in her vocals to channel Courtney Love. But the choruses on Bully’s fourth album are pure bubblegum, in the best possible way. Key tracks: “A Wonderful Life”, “Ms. America”
- Jon Batiste – World Music Radio
Following his genre-blurring, Grammy-winning WE ARE (2021), the multitalented New Orleans pianist ups the ante with this full-fledged concept album, the concept being a kind of globalized radio program showcasing his many rhythmic interests. “Worship” might stick around as a dancefloor hit.
- Sufjan Stevens – Javelin
Stevens’s heartbreaking, gorgeous new record is dedicated to his late partner Evans Richardson. The sense of loss feels doubly poignant after Stevens’s terrifying battle with Guillain-Barré syndrome earlier this year. He may never finish his 50-State Project, but it doesn’t matter. Stevens is a one-of-a-kind talent who’s spoiled a generation of indie fans. There won’t be another artist like him.
- boygenius – the record
America’s favorite supergroup (I think?) delivers on the hype with their first full-length record. Let’s hope they get along better than famous songwriter collectives of the past. More, please!
- Shabazz Palaces – Robed in Rareness
The Seattle duo continues to drop music that sounds like it’s beamed back from ten years in the future. How do they do that? Extra credit for Rainier Beach shots in the “Binoculars” music video.
- Wednesday – Rat Saw God
A little bit Sonic Youth, a little bit Americana – see: pedal steel guitar – the hardworking rockers from Asheville, North Carolina have their breakthrough album in Rat Saw God. Wednesday channels the spirit of lo-fi Seattle better than anyone on this list, local or not. Key track: “Quarry”
- Arlo Parks – My Soft Machine
Given the success of 2021’s Collapsed in Sunbeams, Parks’s newest round of earworms is less a surprise than a welcome addition. There’s something to be said for dependability. The instrumentation here is precisely as synth-heavy as the musical moment requires. Key track: “Weightless”
- Bakar – Halo
The 20-something North London product scored a hit with 2019’s “Hell N Back.” This album shows he’s not a flash in the pan but a serious songwriting talent. Key track: “All Night”
- Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit – Weathervanes
The late, great David Crosby said that Jason Isbell would “drag country music, kicking and screaming, into this decade.” He was right.
- Laufey – Bewitched
Out of geographic left field (Iceland), a wonderful, jazzy vocal debut from a 24-year-old Berklee grad now living in LA. Laufey claims Chet Baker as one of her music influences, which tracks given her silky smooth articulation. Kudos to the arrangements for London’s Philharmonia Orchestra on “California and Me.”
- Logic – College Park
Norah Jones, the RZA, Seth MacFarlane, and Bun B on the same record? College Park takes place around the University of Maryland campus. It features a few too many skits, but the same can be said of many a great ‘90s LP. Extra credit for the line, “Killing sh**, Avada Kadavra” on “Clone Wars III.”
- Unknown Mortal Orchestra – V
I wrote about Ruban Nielson when he brought UMO to Seattle this March. V, his fifth album, comes five years after 2018’s excellent Sex & Food. There’s a jungle of reverb here, a retro vibe that brings UMO back to the DIY sound Nielson pioneered with his original bedroom recording rig.
- Christian McBride – Prime
McBride left starry sunspots in the scene’s vision when he visited Seattle this fall. The bassist steps outside the box with this, the second album by his “New Jawn” quartet. For a look at their chops, see this perfectly executed Tiny Desk appearance.
- Mac DeMarco – Five Easy Hot Dogs
Rather than rehash his successful singer-songwriter formula, DeMarco gives us a cabinet of curiosities, 14 instrumental ditties written as he traveled the United States – particularly the Northwest coastline – by car. These tunes sound lackadaisical at first, but there’s a catch. DeMarco is an expert in soundscapes.
- Cécile McLorin Salvant – Mélusine
Vocalist Salvant, who grew up in Miami, was raised in a multilingual household and studied classical vocals in Aix-en-Provence, France. Most of this album is in French, which complements the sparse, often wonky instrumental backing. Salvant’s all-star studio cast includes Luques Curtis on bass and the inimitable Weedie Braimah on percussion, most notably on the djembe/vocal duet “Dites moi que je suis belle.”
- Olivia Rodrigo – GUTS
It’s fine to eschew popular artists from these lists. Sometimes, it’s worth giving in. Rodrigo’s follow-up album lands in the murky estuary connecting pop music to fifth wave emo. Holy internet culture, that’s a lot of waves! Is Avril Lavigne true north for Gen-Z taste?
- Hotline TNT – Cartwheel
Fuzzy, hooky-heavy goodness pushes this guitar-centric album over the top. It’s not a clean sounding record, not quite dirty. The production threads the needle, leaving just enough of a garage sound for your imagination to fill out the rest.
- Brad Mehldau – Your Mother Should Know: Brad Plays the Beatles
Instead of throwing your hat in with the dancing robot ghost of John Lennon, try these eleven solo renditions from piano brainiac Brad Mehldau. The maestro has a habit of deconstructing pop songs. Here, he breaks down some of the Beatles’ finest chordal work and rearranges it in abstract variations.
- Margaret Glaspy – Echo the Diamond
As jangly and bareboned as your favorite Pavement album, with a lower bar to entry. Glaspy’s got just enough rasp in her voice to match her scuffed-up telecaster. On this, her fourth LP with Dave Matthews’s ATO records, she showcases her vocal range and witty lyricism.
- King Krule – Space Heavy
Not only does Space Heavy have my vote for album art of year, it’s also the record title that most accurately describes the sonic landscape therein. This is a prettier, more meditative album than anything 29-year-old Archy Marshall has yet delivered. Still, it’s littered with the telltale moments of rage for which he made his name.
- Gabrielle Shonk – Across the Room
I don’t know much about Shonk, an up-and-coming indie crooner from Quebec City. I do know that Across the Room, her second album, captured me from the first listen. “Lush” is the operative word for this harmony-stacked work.
- Butcher Brown – Solar Music
The prolific jazz-funk quintet out of Richmond, Virginia ascends with their fourth record since 2020. If jazz has a commercial future, it’s likely here, in the subsummation of that “genre” into hip-hop, soul, etc. Catch them December 5 at Madame Lou’s.
Postlude: Best Reissues and Anthologies of 2023
The Who – Who’s Next / Life House Super Deluxe Edition
Chet Baker – Blue Room: The 1979 Vara Studio Sessions in Holland
Skydog: The Duane Allman Retrospective
Nirvana – In Utero (30th Anniversary Super Deluxe)