By Scott Stephens
Looking back on a year of music is always an odd endeavour. There is an incredibly wild variety of music, and yet when you pay attention to what is going on in the world of music for a whole year, everything looks almost cohesive. Music does not operate in an independent culture, it’s weaved into our lives in so many ways that ends up making us look back on the records released in 2023 and thinking that all those albums, while so different, just feel so 2023. As art’s solitary purpose is to be criticised and ranked against each other, here are the completely objective top five albums of the year that was 2023.
5. Lankum: False Lankum
While only 5th on this list, False Lankum would definitely win in the “Best albums of 2023 to soundtrack my nightmares” category. The opening track ‘Go Dig My Grave’, is the band’s spin on the folk song ‘The Butcher’s Boy’, a haunting ballad telling the story of a girl who takes her own life after being abandoned by her lover. The track slowly builds to a nightmarish instrumental which eventually fades into the next track ‘Clear Away in the Morning’, and with that we are launched into Lankum’s world of folk, trad, and a bit of ambience. Just when you think you’ve settled into the traditional music on ‘Master Crowley’s’, all of a sudden, the band hits you with their experimental twist. Lankum have mastered everything to do with their music, the instrumentation is brilliant, the tunes are gorgeous, but their crowning glory is Radie Peat’s vocals. Her voice, particularly on the tracks ‘Go Dig My Grave’ and ‘Newcastle’ is suited perfectly to the bands style. False Lankum is far from an easy and light listen, but it is an essential for anyone with a love for trad.
4. boygenius: the record
Following on from their EP, boygenius have delivered their first album together, and make sure you bring a box of tissues. A band that has proven that they are better than the sum of their three parts, boygenius have burst into the mainstream with the record. Members Julien Baker, Phoebe Bridgers, and Lucy Dacus show that they can showcase such personal experiences on such brilliant songs. The imagery of the record leaves you truly in awe of their songwriting skills; “To the T-bird graveyard where we play with fire/In another life, we were arsonists/How long’s the chevy been on cinderblocks?” But the record is not without its danceable tracks, such as ‘Not Strong Enough’, which will leave you having a personal crisis but at least youll be having a groove to the addictive “Always an angel, never a god” bridge. The true misery will come on the song ‘Cool About It’, which if you have somehow not heard yet, I will leave as an unspoiled sadness surprise for you.
3. Lana Del Rey: Did you know that there’s a tunnel under Ocean Blvd
Helped by famed producer Jack Antonoff, Lana Del Rey has created some of her best tracks since the critically acclaimed Norman Fucking Rockwell. Not to give Antonoff all the credit, while the production is fantastic, and his own feature on the album is a highlight of the record, Del Rey is certainly the mastermind, showing off her incredible songwriting skills. The song ‘A&W’, one of the best songs of the year, is a long ranting track detailing a progression from childhood to a depressed sex addict, with the speaker seeing herself as useless for anything in a relationship except sex. Another high on the album, both in terms of quality and title length, which Del Rey seems to be a pro at, is ‘Grandfather, please stand on the shoulders of my father while he’s deep-sea fishing’. This track has Del Rey’s usual gorgeous vocals with her signature complicated lyrics. The track details her desire to reach spirituality, but Del Rey is not making it easy for us. No way anyone is going to get that metaphor from just the title. But where the songwriter succeeds best is on her love songs. The feelings of love and admiration are most present in the tracks ‘Let The Light In’ and ‘Margaret’. The former features Father John Misty, with the two performing an amazing duet. Ocean Blvd certainly marks a new step in Del Rey’s career, her ninth album under that name, and it will be exciting to see where the songwriter takes her work next.
2. Sufjan Stevens: Javelin
If you think the record was a tough listen, strap in for this one. Stevens, now a veteran of the sad folk genre, has been through an incredibly tough time prior to this album. His partner sadly passed away and he was later diagnosed with Guillain-Barré syndrome (GBS), an auto-immune disease where the body’s immune system attacks the nerves. Stevens has lost his ability to walk and is now learning again through physical and occupational therapy. What is striking about Stevens’ work is his ability to transform his personal pain and suffering into beautiful music, but this is nothing new with the artist. Take Stevens’ album Carrie & Lowell, which surrounds the death of his mother. It is one of the saddest and most beautiful albums of the 21st century, and Stevens has once again turned personal tragedy into art. ‘Goodbye Evergreen’, the opener to the album, sets the tone for the album with Stevens bidding farewell to someone he thought was going to be a permanent fixture in his life, his evergreen. At no point in the album does Stevens allow the emotional weight to falter, with it perhaps reaching its peak on the track ‘Will Anybody Ever Love Me?’. Bolstered by elegant production, poignant lyrics, and a general feeling of sincerity, Javelin is Sufjan Stevens at his best.
1. Geese: 3D Country
This time last year I had never heard of Geese, and moreover, I certainly did not predict that my best album of 2023 would be about a cowboy taking psychedelic drugs, getting lost in the desert, and reflecting on the world around him. 3D Country is, at its heart, a rock record, but clearly displays its retro influences, and at parts sounds like it’s been taken out of a rock musical. Cameron Winter, the main vocalist, proves himself adept at different singing styles, from the shouty declarations on ‘2122’, to his loving performance on ‘I See Myself’. The latter is one of the best parts of the album, a sincere love song where the Winter urges his partner not to be scared to be vulnerable in front of him; “You don’t need to hide from me/I don’t want you to say anything/I see myself in you.” The role of the rest of the band cannot be understated either. The instrumentation and production makes all the songs have a “full” sort of feeling to them, like all the performers are putting their all into the music. All these parts of the album culminate perfectly at the climax of the final track, ‘St. Elmo’. A climactic arrangement plays out as the singer, now at the end of his adventure in the desert, declares that while he does not know the answers to the world problems, he will still comfort the person he loves; “In the fire when war is over/Make believe I know the answers.” 3D Country may sound like a daunting record, but it is the most enjoyable listen of the year and is far more than a simple collection of bluesy rock tracks.