Inbox Infinity's Best Albums of 2023

Inbox Infinity's Best Albums of 2023

Writing the introductory essay to a year-end list feels like writing a preamble on a cooking blog. I'm not going to take the time to program in the "SKIP TO RECIPE" button that I love so much; instead I'll keep this short.

Music criticism, both as a profession and an art form, has felt like it's slowly slipping away from me ever since the start of the pandemic. I can't pretend like it was a stable ground when I began down this path over a decade ago, but things have gotten undeniably more dire in recent years. 2023, in particular, brought more layoffs, buyouts, and bullshit than ever before. It's hard not to be a doomer about the state of things right now.

Launching this newsletter almost three months ago has helped a bit. None of the albums on the list below were things I discovered directly through the Inbox Infinity method, but I have found a bunch of great music via combing through my Gmail. My initial goal wasn't to hunt for the next great album, but rather to reignite my passion for discovery. I think I succeeded in that.

I chose a weird number of records to highlight this year, and that's purely based on looking at my shortlist and determining how many of them I could honestly stake my claim on. I've written about a few of these in the past, and in those cases I've chosen to paraphrase my original reviews rather than hatch new takes—take that as a vote of confidence toward the time and effort I spend on my initial coverage of music.

Next week, I might follow this up with a round-up of movies and other ephemera that I've enjoyed this year, or I might not. Rest assured though: I'll be back in January. Thank you so, so much for your support these last few months.

Honorable Mentions:

ANONHI - My Back Was A Bridge For You To Cross

Explosions in the Sky - END

Hotline TNT - Cartwheel

Lamp of Murmuur - Saturnian Bloodstorm

Strange Ranger - Pure Music

Yo La Tengo - This Stupid World

#13 Golden Apples - Bananasugarfire

The frequent Elephant 6 comparisons that Bananasugarfire has garnered make senseThis thing is full of fuzzy guitars leading sun-kissed melodies while lightly fucked up effects swirl around in the background and Russell Edling's sweet nasally voice curls around lyrics about sunshine, gardens, and trees. The dream of the '60s via the dream of the '90s is alive here. But after a first half made up of shaggy, ebullient power pop songs, things get weirder and move beyond one-to-one E6 comparisons. Golden Apples are no one trick pony, and they were one of my favorite surprises this year.

Inbox Infinity review

#12 Nourished By Time - Erotic Probiotic 2

I went to Pitchfork Festival in Chicago for the second time this year. It was great, but it got off to an unfortunate start. My partner and I landed at O'Hare, took public transit to our friends' house/crash pad for the weekend, then took a 25 minute Uber to Union Park. We got to the gate, I opened my wallet, and my ID was gone. It would've been 1000% worse if I had no idea where it was, but I felt 1000% dumber because I knew exactly where it was. Between the ticket checkpoint and the x-ray machines at airport security, I had stashed it in the small pocket of my backpack, which was back at our friends' house. An hour and two more Ubers later, we were inside the festival, but had missed Nourished By Time's set, which was one of my most anticipated of the weekend. Erotic Probiotic 2 sounds like Arthur Russell attempting to make Janet Jackson's Velvet Rope, and I can't wait to see some of its songs performed live one day.

#11 Horrendous - Ontological Mysterium

These Philly death metal vets have a history of shapeshifting—witness their gradual transformation from OSDM revivalists to progged-out fusion heads between 2012’s The Chills and 2018’s Idol—but this is by far their brashest play yet. In under 40 minutes, Ontological Mysterium gallups, grinds, and glistens through an array of seemingly unrelated death metal subsects, even venturing beyond the genre for the occasional melodic interlude. For Horrendous, who have always been a workmanlike unit of death metal perfectionists, the whirlwind approach is a breath of fresh air.

Pitchfork review

#10 Beach Fossils - Bunny

I had this promo in my inbox for months before I pressed play on it (tell me something I don't know about the pre-Inbox Infinity days) but in this rare case, I'm glad I waited. My first Bunny listen came days after moving back to New York, while hopping on the subway to ride to a barbecue in McCarren Park. A ton of my earliest memories of the city in 2009 & '10 are accompanied by a Beach Fossils soundtrack—the band was just taking off, playing shows at Williamsburg's many now-defunct venues seemingly every weekend, and releasing their (in my mind) classic debut album. Bunny, with its lyrics about aging into a love/hate relationship with NYC, hit me like a ton of bricks. I'd kind of fallen off Beach Fossils in the interim, but this hooked me right back in. I'm very happy that I also got to A) interview Dustin Payseur about the album and B) catch the midnight release show in Ridgewood after hoofing it from a Billy Joel show at Madison Square Garden. AYEEE, New Yawk City, baybeeee.

SPIN interview

#9 Full Of Hell & Nothing - When No Birds Sang

I'll admit, when this was first announced I was expecting it to be a split rather than a full-on collaboration. With Full Of Hell's track record of similar projects with Primitive Man, The Body, and Merzbow, though, I should've guessed that they'd not only write songs with Nothing, but that they'd manage to blend their sounds to magnificent effect. These songs range from absolutely brutal (opener "Rose Tinted World") to woozily depressed (the very next song, "Like Stars In The Firmament"), to the degree that you can tell which band took the reins on some tracks. When it feels like more of an exact meld of FoH's noise-addled beatdowns and Nothing's loud-as-fuck, swoony shoegaze, as it does on "Forever Well" and "Spend The Grace," there's little that has come out this year that I'd rather hear.

#8 MIKE - Burning Desire

Last December's Beware of the Monkey was MIKE absolutely nailing what he does best—a brief runtime, warm sounds, insular tracklist, self-production. Burning Desire feels like an opus. It's eclectic—see how the glitchy jazz of "Zap!" butts up against the aggressive bombast of the GAWD-produced "African Sex Freak Fantasy"—but songs also often flow into each other, a sample speeding up or slowing down from one track to the next. It's got a larger, more prestigious guest list (Earl Sweatshirt, Liv.e, Larry June, etc.), but this doesn't detract from intimate moments like MIKE's solo run between the songs "Zombie" and "Set the Mood." MIKE has a unique sound that could also be considered a barrier of entry, and Burning Desire is a classic example of an artist doing nothing to smooth out those kinks but still coming across as more immediately accessible than past work. Maybe it's the rest of hip hop moving closer to MIKE's orbit; maybe it's MIKE growing as an artist. It's probably both.

Inbox Infinity review

#7 Wednesday - Rat Saw God

So far, I've bought tickets for two shows next year, both for artists I've never seen before, and I'm not sure which one I'm more excited for. The first is Project Pat, one of my all-time favorite rappers. The second is North Carolina's Wednesday (with opener Hotline TNT!!), who put out this countrygaze masterpiece and delivered on all of the hype and goodwill they'd amassed with 2021's Twin Plagues and guitarist MJ Lenderman's 2022 banger Boat Songs. Rat Saw God is far more than just a showcase for the band's loud, twangy chemistry—its greatest strength is honestly Karly Hartzman's darkly humorous, Southern gothic lyrics. Earlier this year I read a wild-ass novel about an annual rattlesnake hunting tournament in Georgia, and Rat Saw God reminds me of that.

#6 DJ Sabrina The Teenage DJ - Destiny

Can you even call a 4-hour-long, continuously mixed, 41-track release an "album" anymore? I don't give a shit, Destiny is so awesome. DJ Sabrina's sample-based style pulls from the kitschy past to envision a heartfelt future, and in doing so, she made an album that keeps on giving. Seriously, this thing is bountiful. My favorite way to experience it has been starting it on my phone when I head out to work, run errands, or travel to other neighborhoods, and just keep picking up where I left off until the album's over. Sometimes it takes me four days; sometimes it takes me two weeks. It's a commitment, but it never lets you down. You think, 'Oh, things are getting a bit same-y' 90 minutes in and then you get this jazz-inflected soft rock heater ("The End"). You think, 'There's no possible way that the best song could come at track 38,' and then she drops her version of Daft Punk's "Something About Us" on you ("Some Kind of Destiny"). Mind-boggling stuff.

#5 Veeze - Ganger

I tweeted this the other day, but in this era of an increasingly centralized star system for hip hop, it's so cool that one of the consensus rap albums of the year comes from a hyper-regional Detroit artist. I first heard Ganger and thought it was consistent beyond anything else, which is saying something for a 21-track (26 if it's the deluxe edition) album without a ton of stylistic breadth. A few more listens in, I was fully sold on the mealy-mouthed genius of Veeze. He's so swaggy and confident but acts like it's no big deal. He's outright hilarious, but purposefully eschews comedic timing to ensure that the punchlines only connect with repeat listens. I know I'll be playing this for years to come.

#4 Caroline Polachek - Desire, I Want To Turn Into You

For my money, the best opening moment of any album this year, or maybe this decade, comes about a minute into Desire, I Want To Turn Into You. After sumptuous trop-house chords, airy wordless vocals, and Polachek's deadpan intro, she belts out: "DESIIIIIIIIRE, I WANNA TURN INTO YOU-HOO." I understand why people think this album, and Polachek at large, are annoying, but this is directly in my alt-pop sweet spot. For the second time in a row, she and producer Danny L Harle unite for an album of catchy, interesting, semi-campy fare, though I personally rank this higher than 2019's moodier Pang. The key to understanding this album, I think, are its sly lyrical references to The Zombies' Odessey and Oracle and Moody Blues' Days of Future Passed. Desire is the child of baroque hippies who spent summers on Ibiza with its cool younger aunt who was friends with William Orbit.

#3 Empty Country - Empty Country II

Joe D’Agostino, the former Cymbals Eat Guitars frontman, started Empty Country after his arty, emo-inflected band broke up in 2017. His second album under the moniker continues the bleak imagining of America of his 2020 debut, spinning tales of lost innocence, societal decline, and rampant violence, venturing further into the corroded recesses of this country’s past and present. D’Agostino's tales are fictionalized, unreliably narrated, and interwoven across centuries, but reveal the corroded heart of the US. This is a dark, disheartening listen. And yet, Empty Country’s detail-driven writing shows there’s strength to be found in dredging all this up, that there’s beauty in the margins.

Pitchfork review

#2 billy woods & Kenny Segal - Maps

The most critically fawned-over rap album of the year, and with good reason. billy woods has been The Best Rapper Alive, in my opinion, for at least five years, during which he's released stellar solo records and even more celebrated collaborations with ELUCID under the Armand Hammer moniker. Maps is his second with producer Kenny Segal following 2019's excellent Hiding Places, and this builds on his already-vast world of socialist critiques, global mindset, and writerly impulses while offering an unprecedentedly personal approach. Very loosely, Maps is a concept album about the realities of being a mid-tier touring rapper in his 40s, offering an everyman relatability along with woods' standard dose of social and political commentary. Give this man his flowers.

#1 Parannoul - After The Magic

It's rare that a January release holds down my AOTY spot throughout the entire year, but After The Magic is just that good. Or rather, as its Pitchfork reviewer Ian Cohen has repeatedly noted, maybe it's just laser-focused on personal tastes shared by me, him, and other aging millennial music critics. South Korean one-man-band Parannoul emerged from complete obscurity with 2021's To See the Next Part of the Dream, which was a gloriously lo-fi take on shoegaze, dream pop, and Siamese Dream-style alt rock. His full-length follow-up ramps up the majesty of all of those sounds and lets the fidelity follow, delivering a much more lush and layered album. The fact that something sung entirely in a language I don't speak is #1 on my list should tell you how much I love this music; it's truly all I could want from a bedroom project in 2023. I can't wait to see what Parannoul does next, but even if he hangs up his laptop without releasing another song, he's already given me a rich enough collection of music to last a lifetime.

Plug 2

There's been a lot of great writing grappling with shoegaze's emergence as one of the genres du jour of the 2020s—shout out especially to Eli Enis' wrap-up piece for Stereogum last year. Yesterday, Pitchfork's Philip Sherburne, whose sharp, insightful editorial eye has improved many a review I've written for that site, penned one of his own. His goes much deeper into shoegaze's infiltration of youth culture, namely via TikTok and the younger generation of bands who've made some of this year's most acclaimed albums. It's a crucial explainer of this longstanding sound's unexpected continued relevance.

BOI (Best Of Inbox) #12

A couple of weeks ago, I warned that the new release pickings get ever slimmer as we near the end of the new year. So today, instead of drumming up some enthusiastic praise for new songs I only somewhat enjoy, I'm only focusing on one album that hit my inbox this week. That album is the remixed and remastered 10th anniversary edition of Las Vegas post-hardcore band Caravels' 2013 swan song, Lacuna. I've had a ton of fondness for this band and album since their heyday, which spanned just six years of recorded material in the late '00s to early '10s, and for some reason I don't think they ever got much press (outside of Andrew Sacher's ongoing coverage for BrooklynVegan).

I'd be remiss if I didn't launch into a description of this album without a shout to the best friend I made in college, Jordan. He was so hype on Lacuna when it dropped, and once we listened to it, I could instantly see why: this was exactly his shit. When we first met a few years prior, I didn't share his fondness for screamo and post-hardcore, but he gradually weaned me on it until I became the one going a little too overboard about the new Touché Amoré LP at 3 AM. Jordan's a fantastic writer and guitarist, so Caravels, with their dense lyrics and gorgeous interlocking leads, seemed to me like a band he'd puppeteer together were he some sort of '60s record label svengali.

Lacuna has all of the raw emotion of the more popular concurrent post-hardcore, once semi-ironically referred to as "The Wave": Touché, La Dispute, Defeater, Pianos Become The Teeth, etc. The five-piece's gift for melody, predilection for patient tempos, and vocalist Michael Roeslein's literary lyrics are what set them apart. Along with Touché's Is Survived By, also released in 2013, Lacuna's intelligent but open-hearted bloodletting is responsible for getting me into a ton of great heavy music. Jordan and I got to see Caravels live twice—once opening for Touché and mewithoutYou, and another time at a Topshelf Records CMJ show headlined by Braid and The Jazz June reunions. It makes me feel old as hell that Caravels are the one reuniting now.

Check out the new remix/remaster (it sounds fantastic) and if you're lucky enough to live in Vegas, catch Caravels' one currently announced reunion show at Dive Bar on December 22.

All Inbox Infinity picks are available in playlist form via Apple Music and Spotify.

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Jamie Larson