The Want List: Top Albums of ’23

Put the holiday music away with the decorations. We're hitting replay on 2023 with some favorite albums of the year.

Congratulations, you’ve arrived. Not just to this story but to the end of another 365.25-day marathon we call a year. 

At this stage, you’ve no doubt heard your fair share of songs imploring you to deck the halls, etc. — from drugstore loudspeakers, algorithmically-engineered playlists, and that friend who makes Christmas their entire personality (we all know one). But, if you need a break from hearing again and again with much gusto that you are all someone wants for Christmas with minimal personal payoff, you’re in luck. 

If your ears haven’t exactly been tuned in to the 2023 frequency, so much fantastic music has come down the proverbial chimney. As you readjust to a life less-tinseled, here are 10 standout releases from the year bound to thrill, resonate, and get you on a dance floor or two. There’s something for everyone’s turntable: Rising stars claiming their footholds atop the ladder, battle-tested veterans further sharpening their arsenals, hot hands that keep knocking it down, pitch-perfect curtain calls, and more. Listening to music is all about discovery, and this list aims to aid that journey. Just keep those ears open, and everyone will have a great time.

billy woods & Kenny SegalMaps

(Backwoodz Studioz)

The album artwork for the billy woods & Kenny Segal album Maps, styled like an airplane safety pamphletbilly woods is on the run of a lifetime, an unbelievably prolific heater encompassing his previous full album collaboration with producer Kenny Segal — 2019’s Hiding Places — and already continuing through this year with the latest Armand Hammer release. Sustained excellence begets success begets tours tours tours, informing woods’ travel-weary mindset on Maps as he’s taken down the other end of the long and winding road, transiting through parts hardly known. Segal’s production bakes in a restlessness, whether it’s the infinite rapid-fire jazz beats of “Blue Smoke,” the lilting float of “FaceTime,” or the slow build to an orchestral epic conclusion in “Babylon By Bus.” woods operates with unyielding confidence and precision. He’s not an enigma but is also never entirely knowable. His ever-compelling rhymes are puzzles to sit with and ruminate on, yet never quite crack. They’re evocative projections of living life from plane ride to plane ride — birds flyin’ high, sun in the sky, breeze driftin’ on, but not necessarily feelin’ good. For whatever is next, Maps sets the bar high — the perfect height to leap right over. 

Blue LakeSun Arcs

(Tonal Union)

The album artwork for the Blue Lakes album Sun Arcs is a blue blob on an off-white background that appropriately looks like a lakeThe zither may never get a genuine moment in the spotlight, but that won’t stop Blue Lake architect Jason Dungan from strumming. For the subtly engrossing Sun Arcs, Dungan got his melodies, accompaniments, basses, and contrabasses in order, constructing a custom-built 48-string zither explicitly for the project. That plucky behemoth lives all over Sun Arcs — lending the ambient, improvisational album its omnipresent wandering-but-not-lost quality — alongside layers of acoustic guitar, clarinet, pump organ, Roland 606 drum machine, and several other instruments. Dungan takes cues from Americana, folk, jazz, and krautrock in constructing droning contemplativeness. Breathe deep and find calm in the album’s swells. Picture yourself meandering around the trail again or idly floating on a boat; the sun is poking through the clouds, and any human-produced noise sounds miles off. Nothing is happening, yet everything goes on around you. The songs may fade to the background, and that’s okay. Sometimes, it’s the most compelling thing music can do.

Caroline Polachek Desire, I Want to Turn Into You

(Perpetual Novice)

Caroline Polachek crawls on the floor of a subway toward an unknown sandy area while wearing a champagne-colored dressCaroline Polachek is uncompromising in her approach, maintaining a complete command of sound and aesthetics — co-writing and co-producing everything — taking the rapturous Desire, I Want to Turn Into You to dizzying heights. Click play and enter into a maximalist fantasia, where every idea thrown against the wall sticks al dente. It’s all the more impressive that there is no sensation of haphazardness in the variance. Instead, the songs feel more like the assorted themes in a Legend of Zelda game: distinct entries, discernible throughlines, 100% bangers. Something entrancing is constantly crackling beneath the surface, erupting fabulously when its time comes. Any melodic form can flourish on this island, whether backing vocals from a children’s choir, flamenco guitar anchoring an entire track, or bagpipe cutting in for an inspired solo. Polachek’s vocal stylings are beyond exceptional, often pulling off Olympic-level gymnastics capable of winning a floor routine gold medal. In unsheathing her desires, she peacocks, deadpans, and occasionally howls like a werewolf. More than anyone else, Caroline Polachek is out here making this pop star thing look easy.

Cut Worms Cut Worms


A man in a white v-neck tee and khakis strums a bass guitar against a gray background. The words Cut Worms in black text against an orange background are obscured by the photo of the man on the artwork's top and the bottom.Every town needs its troubadour, just a rambling songster spinning melodies that land with you winter, spring, summer, or fall. With Cut Worms, Cut Worms (singer-songwriter Max Clarke) accepts that mantle for the royal we. Clarke twirls tunes that would be right at home on the perpetually fuzzy AM radio dial, infusing Cut Worms with melodies equal parts hummable and whistlable and hooks that really, well, hook you. An adoration for Brian Wilson and the Beach Boys shines clearly, especially on the multi-part harmony-laden “Is It Magic?” and “Use Your Love! (Right Now).” Elsewhere, “Let’s Go Out on the Town” reflects the Beatles before they permanently retreated to the studio. Stunning closer “Too Bad” tips a wide-brim hat to solo George Harrison, plus there are echoes throughout of Bob Dylan and Tom Petty — that’s three-fifths of the way to a full Traveling Wilburys! Even when the sun starts setting at an ungodly early hour, Cut Worms is a perennial pickup, rocking and rolling with the car windows down and miles of open road ahead.

jaimie branchFly or Die Fly or Die Fly or Die ((world war))

(International Anthem)

A painting centered on a brilliant peacock also features 4 smaller birds, each looking to the sky with exaggerated eye balls pointing upWhile technically a posthumous release, the final jewel in jaimie branch’s Fly or Die crown hardly fits that bill. Fly or Die Fly or Die Fly or Die ((world war)) — fully recorded before branch’s unexpected passing — is a captivating conclusion by circumstance, neither culled nor reverse-engineered from cutting room floor outtakes. If anything, it has more in common with last records like Ryuichi Sakamoto’s 12 or David Bowie’s Blackstar. Yet, those albums feel haunted by omnipresent death. branch’s third Fly or Die entry is vitality embodied, expressing nothing less than an artist accelerating to their peak and relishing every second. She makes the trumpet croon, howl, and altogether sing, cutting a punk-like path through jazz’s sonic bounds. “take over the world” seethes and hurtles with all-out righteousness, “baba louie” swirls through Latin-inspired grooves before unfurling into psychedelia, and “the mountain” is a straight-up folk duet with trumpet and bass accompaniment. Hand-in-hand with a sublime quartet — herself plus cellist Lester St. Louis, bassist Jason Ajemian, and drummer Chad Taylor — branch is an absolute vortex, subsuming style and bursting in a technicolor plumage. She flew.

Jessie Ware That! Feels Good!


Jessie Ware looks at the camera over right shoulders with her hair styled in an intricate updo wearing an ornate pearl necklace and pearl earringsJessie Ware has taken up the sequined flag of disco and is unabashedly dancing through the streets with it. Her loving embrace of a genre enduring long past its supposed expiration date has translated into an exercise in pure exuberance. That! Feels Good! finds a groove and wears that thing out, expanding on the groundwork laid by Ware’s previous album — 2020’s feted What’s Your Pleasure? With this entry, Ware proves her self-described career revitalization is only beginning to click into the next gear. These tracks flaunt gang vocal backing harmonies, ecstatic horn sections, and funky rhythms that’ll get your body moving even if you’re sitting down to write a year-end music recap. Ware confidently tantalizes you to dance for the joy of it — like everyone’s watching. Yep, it’s positive vibes only around these parts; if you’re not having fun blasting That! Feels Good!, you’re doing something wrong. Feeling good feels good, you’ll find no arguments to the contrary here.

Olivia RodrigoGUTS


Olivia Rodrigo lays against a purple background with her thumb in between her teeth and the album's title GUTS spelled out on individual rings on her other four fingersIf SOUR made Olivia Rodrigo a star, as three Grammys on your first go would suggest, GUTS is another leap. As Lorde did with Melodrama, Rodrigo levels up for round two and knocks all notions of a sophomore slump into the dirt. Despite never being alive for them, Rodrigo is a true product of the 1990s, harnessing a litany of alternative rock influences with a veteran’s self-assuredness. Her lyrics can be acerbic, yet unafraid to self-deprecate, with an unparalleled ability to drop an expletive. She also pens emotional wallops, relatable on a molecular level. Maybe you’re not a teenage girl on the precipice of adulthood, but how do you not feel some sort of connection to sentiments like “They all say it gets better, but what if I don’t?” Haven’t you heard it’s brutal out here? We all fall flat on our faces, worry that the best isn’t to come, and make the absolute worst decisions of our lives (so far) on a regular basis; for us, this album is an anthem — the shout-along, cry-along event of the year.

WednesdayRat Saw God

(Dead Oceans)

A painting of the band dressed in medieval garb sits on to top of a tall grass patch.Every story tells a story, which sounds like trivial nonsense but is to say even the seemingly most insignificant happenings can make for compelling tales. Wednesday vocalist and guitarist Karly Hartzman paints complete pictures out of observational minutiae, waxing poetic on boredom-induced mischief and dealing in the kind of small-scale stories that become word-of-mouth local legends for generations — every town has its version of the unassuming house that turned out to be a mob front. With Rat Saw God, Wednesday amasses an MVP-caliber song suite that proves even distorted guitar textures sound better with a little lap steel and knows sometimes the healthiest thing you can do is uncork a blood-curdling scream. For certain, many of these songs absolutely rip, to use the technical term. But aside from the undeniable greatness found in the countrified love jam “Chosen to Deserve” and the gradually epic “Bull Believer,” it’s small details like the immediate tempo speed-up on getting shocked ode “Got Shocked” — mirroring coming to from an electrical jolt — that solidify Rat Saw God’s mammoth stature.

YaejiWith a Hammer


Yaeji holds a sledgehammer with a smirking face drawn on it. She looks cool as hell.Yaeji leaves it all out on the dancefloor for her debut studio album, an alchemical feat of poppy affirmations, trip hop moodiness, and deep club grooves. It’s dance music as self-care, found in introspective lyrics that fluidly flip between English and Korean. Hammers contain multitudes. They can obliterate a wall, yet you’ll find it tricky to construct anything of substance without one. If you wield a hammer’s raw power with anything less than the utmost precision, you’ll destroy more often than you build. In Yaeji’s capable hands, the hammer is a magical tool. Hammer Lee — as it is known in officially published Yaeji lore — smirks like a little stinker from the album’s cover, and With a Hammer is rooted in anger. However, Yaeji is far more interested in using this blunt instrument to process than letting negativity continue to fester — to break things open a bit, sure, but do so to bring the pieces back together. It’s not so much wanting to smash things open as knowing you have the power to do so.

Yo La Tengo This Stupid World


A nighttime photo of an open field seemingly lit by car headlights. There is a white pacikup in the distance and the photo appears scratched, The band name Yo La Tengo is in the top right corner.The magic of a Yo La Tengo record is you never quite exactly know what you’re going to get. They’ll blow your hair straight back one moment only to bring a contemplative tear to your eye before you’ve even had a chance to reset your coif. On their 16th full-length with 30 years of practice in their current configuration, Yo La Tengo attack with the precision of a wisened samurai, striking only when they need to. Calmness endures despite This Stupid World being a squally, clangy, generally loud album. Ira Kaplan doesn’t need to shout to grab your attention on rattling numbers like “Fallout” or “Brain Capers.” Likewise, when Georgia Hubley takes the lead on subdued highlight “Aselestine,” the muted beauty is all the more an invitation to open your ears wide. This Stupid World is a self-produced, self-engineered, self-mixed affair, the byproduct of three expert tinkerers simply playing in a room, refining their intrinsic spontaneity. Things appropriately go where they may, and you’ve just got to strap in for the joyride.

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