The Best New-To-Me Albums of 2023

The Best New-To-Me Albums of 2023

List season is upon us. Despite 2023's insistence at dragging on for another few weeks, sites and writers everywhere have begun rounding up all of their favorites from the year and sharing them with the masses. In a couple of weeks I'll do the same, but don't take my delay as a statement about the importance of waiting until the year's actually over. The reason most sites choose to incite listomania in the first week of December is purely for SEO—if you release yours later, you'll be buried alive under countless other posts titled Best Albums of 2023. For a newsletter this small, that's no concern of mine. I've just always enjoyed using the final month of the year revisiting albums I didn't listen to enough, as well as sniping others from lists by writers whose taste I trust.

HOWEVER, I'm not immune to the list bug. Cataloguing and ranking things is like a drug for most culture writers, so please allow me to get my fix in a way completely unrelated to the music of 2023. Contrary to popular belief, I don't spend every waking hour listening to new music. That's where most of my earning potential as a writer comes from, but it's healthy (and freeing! and enjoyable!) to devote at least 50% of your listening time to the ancient music of the past. I'd like to think I have a pretty good grasp on English-speaking music 1960-present, but there are always gems that slip through the cracks— the things that, upon hearing them for the first time at age 32, make you wonder why the hell you've been wasting your time on random new bands that clutter your inbox.

Here are seven albums that defined 2023 for me, despite the fact that they were originally released anywhere from one to 47 years ago.

billy woods - History Will Absolve Me (2012)

With the way billy woods' stock has risen over the past five-or-so years, via his solo work, output alongside Elucid as Armand Hammer, and successful career as the head of his Backwoodz Studioz label, it can be easy to forget that the Brooklyn MC's been grinding since the early 2000s. Just before seeing woods' album release show for Maps, an album I'll write more about in a couple of weeks, I figured I'd dig into his back catalog, having only come onboard circa the first Armand Hammer album in 2017. History Will Absolve me is a louder, more aggressive album than the measured, thoughtful material that's become woods' calling card, but that works in its favor.

Fuck Buttons - Tarot Sport (2009)

2009, the year I started college, was the first year I started reading Pitchfork religiously. Tarot Sport placed 11th on their best albums list of that year, and along with Sunn O)))'s Monoliths & Dimensions, it was one of the list entries I pressed play on and thought, 'Hmm, not for me' (Side note: anyone who thinks Pitchfork's year-end lists have become progressively more pop-friendly should look at how many radio-ready, crossover-attempt indie rock albums dominated that '09 list). Fuck Buttons made noisy, psychedelic electronic music, and I fully understand why I wasn't into it at age 18. But after getting into Blanck Mass, the newer project of FB member Benjamin John Power, a few years ago, I figured the time was right to dive in again. I was correct. Tarot Sport is a journey. It's so ambitious in its scope, and it's not nearly as abrasive as I initially thought it was. Time heals all wounds.

Makaya McCraven - In These Times (2022)

I only missed this one by a few months, first jamming the September 2022 release in January, but I was instantly kicking myself for not including it on my 2022 AOTY list. McCraven is a Paris-born, Masachussetts-raised, Chicago-based jazz drummer who's logged time playing with guitarist extraordinaire Jeff Parker but is now best known as a bandleader. We love to see a drummer-as-bandleader! In These Times is some of the most spellbinding, transportive jazz I've ever heard, its sweeping melodies always guided by McCraven's deft rhythmic backbone. I was lucky enough to catch him playing a wildly stacked show with Laraaji and Standing on the Corner (unfortunately I missed Liv.e's opening set) in May at Knockdown Center, and despite McCraven's set being far too short, the way he brought these songs to life was a beautiful thing to witness.

Mark McGuire - A Pocket Full of Rain (2009, reissued 2023)

I was thrilled to get the opportunity to review the ambient/experimental guitarist's recently-reissued album for Pitchfork back in August. I'll let you follow that link if you want to read my extended thoughts on it, but suffice to say that letting this patient, mind-expanding album into my life for a few weeks lent me some of my favorite memories of this past summer.

Max Romeo & The Upsetters - War Ina Babylon (1976)

The best book I read this year, hand down, was Marlon James' 2014 epic A Brief History of Seven Killings. It's technically fiction, but it's centered on the 1976 assassination attempt on Bob Marley, though he's never referred to by name (only as "The Singer"), and it sprawls far beyond that into the 20th Century tendrils of Jamaican culture and diaspora: political power struggles, drug trade, CIA interference, and of course, music. Since it's been almost six months since I finished the book, I can't remember the exact context in which Max Romeo is referenced, but I know I downloaded this album because James mentions it in some capacity. Previously, I only knew "Chase The Devil" because of the iconic sample Kanye laced Jay-Z with on The Black Album, but this whole album is essential. Romeo confronts Jamaica's social and political issues head-on, and is backed to terrific effect by Lee "Scratch" Perry's house band, The Upsetters. Instantly a top 10 reggae album for me.

Morphine - Cure For Pain (1993)

Less than a week after moving back to New York this May, I randomly stumbled upon a cozy bar that was playing consistently good music over a two-hour period. A couple weeks later, I started working there. Unlike my last job, the owner curates the bar playlists, which is tough to adjust to no matter how great said curator's taste is, but thankfully his is pretty great. I've been introduced to a few artists via these playlists, but none more startling than the blues/jazz-inflected '90s alternative band Morphine. I'd heard the name before, but as my friend and fellow music writer Daniel Bromfield put it earlier this year, "I thought forever that Morphine was a slowcore band instead of, like, cartoon weasel music." Slowcore's always been a bit of a hard sell for me, so maybe that's why I avoided them. Cure For Pain is a dark, weird record, accented by saxophone, and it's like nothing else I've ever heard.

Thin Lizzy - Live And Dangerous (1978)

I'm not sure why it took me so long to give Thin Lizzy a fair shake—maybe it was all of the commercials featuring "The Boys Are Back in Town," maybe it was because I used to mix them up with Twisted Sister—but over the last few years, I've corrected my course and recognized them as one of the all-time greatest hard rock bands. Putting Live And Dangerous on here is cheating a little bit, as I threw it on a couple times at the restaurant where I worked until December 2022, but who can truly concentrate on music while working a bartending shift? The album rose in stature for me this year because of two things: 1) finding a pristine used vinyl copy at Generation Records in Greenwich Village and 2) playing this while grilling with three of my best friends on a vacation this summer. Full stop, it's one of the best live albums ever, with the band's energy bursting out of the speakers and their tight arrangements holding up in front of a raucous crowd.

Plug 1

This week I contributed my first-ever blurb to a Pitchfork year-end list, which feels like some kind of minor milestone. I wrote up Four Tet's sprawling, tranquil 8-minute single "Three Drums," which the site named the 29th best song of the year. Check that out here.

BOI (Best Of Inbox) #11

Farsot - "Nausea"

Genre: gothic black metal // RIYL: Enslaved, Tribulation

Black metal, especially European black metal, can be such a closed-off and self-serious style that I'm always here for a band that's able to branch out and imbue it with some fun, or at least some personality. Farsot are a German group who will be celebrating their 25th anniversary next year, and I've never heard of them prior to this week! Crazy how often that happens. Apparently they started out playing more depressive black metal, but their latest single strikes me as a little campier, reminding me of what the much campier Swedish band Tribulation did on their excellent heel turn of a third album, The Children of the Night. Maybe Farsot's deathly serious about this, but who cares! Their album Life Promised Death is out 2/16/24.

frown line - "Knowing You"

Genre: indie rock // RIYL: Soccer Mommy, Snail Mail

Sometimes I don't have anything interesting to say about a song; it's just straight-up good. frown line is the project of 20-year-old, Ottawa-based singer-songwriter Annika Devlin, and if you like either of the bands I listed above, you'll love "Knowing You."

Lil Ugly Mane - "Orange Over"

Genre: lo-fi emo // RIYL: Lil Peep, Phil Elverum, Beat Happening

Upon the release of the two-song SPILL (EP? single?) earlier this week, I saw someone tweet, "Lil ugly mane think he the microphones now huh." It's apt as hell, with "Orange Over" building on the more guitar-based material the former rapper's been putting out since 2021. It reminds me that Lil Peep sampled Phil Elverum a couple of times, and how weird it was to talk to Phil about that in the wake of Peep's death. I also got the rare chance to interview Ugly Mane earlier this year, which was wild. He's been through some harrowing shit since then, and I really hope he's doing better.

Meatbodies - "Hole"

Genre: psychedelic shoegaze // RIYL: LSD and the Search for God, Fuzz

I definitely recognized the name "Meatbodies" when I saw it in my inbox, but I can't say I'd ever listened to the LA psych-rock band until now. They're part of the whole In The Red Records LA scene—Thee Oh Sees, Ty Segall, Wand, etc.—which mostly comprises music I'm tangentially aware of, but has never exactly been my cup of tea. "Hole," however, is. The lead single from Meatbodies' new album delivers on the trippy potential of shoegaze that few of the many, many modern bands playing that genre rarely tap into. Flora Ocean Tiger Bloom is out 3/8/24.

Punchlove - "Dead Lands"

Genre: slacker shoegaze // RIYL: Alvvays, Truth Club, loud guitars and quiet vocals

I'm a dyed-in-the-wool Pavement fan. I'm almost always going to love a band that sounds like they're not trying at all while conversely nailing whatever they're playing. On "Dead Lands," Brooklyn five-piece Punchlove alternate lackadaisical verses with gorgeous, thick hooks, and I'm 110% here for it.

Tom & Collins & AMÉMÉ - "Ando High"

Genre: Latin-meets-Afro house // RIYL: I'm woefully ill-equipped to draw comparisons to other international house artists, but suffice to say that if you like dance music at all, you will dig this

I get so many PR blasts about music that is completely outside of my taste, let alone the small segment of my taste that comprises music with which I'm familiar enough to authoritatively cover. It's so rare that one of these ever connects with me, but when it does, it's the best feeling in the world. Don't get it twisted, I fucking love dance music. There are multiple nights a month when all I want to listen to is banging electronic cuts. But for the most part, I flail when trying to write about it. Granted, I just wrote about Four Tet (see above), and have covered Daft Punk, Nico Jaar, and Caribou in the past, but I'd be lying if I claimed that my finger was even remotely in the vicinity of the pulse of dance music. "Ando High," a collaboration between Mexico City's Tom & Collins and Brooklyn-via-West Africa's AMÉMÉ, slaps. That's all you need to know.

YaH-Ra feat. Bruiser Wolf - "The iLLEST"

Genre: left-of-center, drumless hip hop // RIYL: Roc Marciano, Action Bronson, punchlines

No disrespect at all to YaH-Ra, but this song is here because of Bruiser Wolf. If you're a fan of elastic vocals delivering the wildest lyrics imaginable and you've never heard his 2021 album Dope Game Stupid, exit out of this window now and listen to that shit. I was very excited to hear the Bruiser Brigade MC pop up on Danny Brown's recent album, but my last two years have otherwise been sorely bereft of Bruiser Wolf. The 90 seconds he's granted on the back half of this song will have to do for now. "They asked if I want a million, I said, 'You silly'/I told 'em I want a William, that's a billi'"—no one's doing it like him right now.

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

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Jamie Larson