Annual Music Review 2023: Year Of The Climb

Cal W. S.
47 min readDec 22, 2023


This time last December I wasn’t up to writing much in the way of closing out the year. In many ways I think the only reason I was able to write it at all was as a kind of distraction; at very difficult time of year — at the end of the worst year of my life. Of course, nothing really changed at midnight on 1st January — nothing at all for months and months. But very slowly, incrementally and painstakingly I did begin to climb — not up, but sort of out; into something else, something different to where I had been stuck before. That’s ongoing; so for now I just want to take a brief moment to look back on some of the things I’m most personally proud of in 2023:

- I worked overtime and saved up to take my daughter on her first trip abroad to Spain for a week on her 4th birthday.

- I drove 275 miles every weekend to bring her back to her hometown to be with my family and friends.

- I went to therapy every week for 6 months, then every fortnight for 6 more (Shout out Emma, and my parents too)

- I took a trip away alone; 4 days in a cabin near Cheddar Gorge with no running water or wi-fi to reset. I also got to Dublin for work and Lille to visit my brother.

- I went to 4 weddings in 4 months and kept it together at a time when that felt near impossible.

- I carried on writing in an attempt to process everything; with lots more (less horrifying stuff) in the works.

- I ran 2 half-marathons and for the first time (after a few years trying) I finally ran 100km every month — a 1,200km year over 140 outings, despite a bad ankle sprain in March

We live in an age of braggadocio, posturing and desperate pleas for validation so thanks for affording me those 7 points. I was encouraged to do it and more than anything; the writing of it was very healing for me.

So, onto the music — 2023 thrilled and surprised me at times when I needed it. Friends talked about there being fewer outstanding albums; but I’ve always found myself to be easily drawn in and this year gave me myriad reasons to listen up. Let’s start with the songs.

My Favourite 100 Songs from 2023

I felt so moved by the great music around me this year that I had to check in at the mid-point; and listed my 30 favourite songs so far, halfway through 2023. Unsurprisingly; most of them stood the test of another 6 months; but trying to whittle down to just 100 of the best was a real job this winter — even completely unordered. What I will do is list out 5 more songs I got obssessed with since June (ranked based on how much I replayed) to give you some idea of where I’ve been at since then:

  1. ‘Freedom 2' by Kwengface, Joy Orbison & Overmono
    UK garage perfection meets UK rap gold
  2. ‘Out There’ by Cameo Blush feat. yuné pinku
    If there was a nightclub in the ‘Annihilation’ bubble
  3. ‘Ascending Into The Clouds’ / ‘In Order 2’ by Tiga & Hudson Mohawke
    The most euphoric dance songs of the year; and Roma’s car favourites
  4. ‘Not Even Ghosts Are This Empty’ by $uicideboy$
    Horrorcore rap punks hit their mid-30’s with poise
  5. ‘Sobering Thoughts From The Mondrian’ by Rory feat. Reason
    “I relate to Tom Brady, lost my family to the game, nothin’ changed”

They are all included in the playlist below; 100 of the most important songs to me released in 2023. Hope you find something new!

The ‘Sero, Sed Serio’ Award

Every year I discover an album that would probably be an AOTY contender; had it not come out the previous year and I was just too damn slow to have found it in time. I’m now calling this the Sero, Sed Serio Award, after my mum’s Scottish (Kerr) family motto, translated as ‘Late, but in earnest’
This year there was no doubt whatsoever that it go to hypochondriac by Brakence — an album almost impossible to describe within the rigid confines of words and sentences. Released at the start of December 2022, I can’t even remember how I came across it 10 months later but even at that late stage it ended in my Top 3 most-played albums of this year. Dropped before Randy Findell even turned 21, it’s a stunning blend of glitch, midwest emo, hyperpop, math rock and more it’s all tied together by his incredible vocal talent which sounds just as good in each octave. It felt like the last time (age 32) I could conceivably get away with connecting with something so emotionally melodramatic but I gave myself into it totally this year. My daughter loved listening to it in the car too. I may still write a full-length album review at some point but until then — please try it!

LP Honourable Mentions

So; onto the best LPs of the year. Before I begin the list, I have to list quickfire some of the artists who released albums I loved this year but who I just couldn’t squeeze into the Top 100. I know that sounds ridiculous, but I did listen to nearly 300 albums released in 2023 and I rarely play something I’m pretty sure I know I’ll dislike. So shout out to these guys; all worth checking out —

Actress, Ali Sethi & Nicolas Jaar, Andre 3000, Lauren Auder, Biig Piig, Brent Faiyaz, Cautious Clay, CMAT, Disclosure, Grian Chatten, HiTech, Jae Skeese, James Holden, Janelle Monáe, Jeff Rosenstock, Jessie Ware, Lankum, Liturgy, Slauson Malone 1, Nourished by Time, Troy Sivan, Patrick Shiroishi, Rainy Miller & Space Afrika, Real Bad Man & Blu, Sprain, Swans, Tigercub, Tirzah, Wesley Joseph, yeule and many more.

My Favourite 100 Albums from 2023

For my fellow list nerds asking how 2023’s output felt to me this year in retrospect — The top 5 were an easy lock while 5–35 could almost be put in any order. And as ever, the top 100 spot was saved for my sneak-diss placement (AKA must-try-harder) Enjoy.

100. Drake — For All The Dogs: While lyrically still a misogynistic jock aged 37 years old; this came with some of his best raps for at least half a decade. Frustratingly still not able to write him off yet.

99. shame — Food for Worms: Hard to remember now as one of the first great albums of 2023, shame went 3 for 3 this year. They added more melody to their sound, including a dedication to an addict friend.

98. NxxxxxS — Short Term Agreement: My running album for a large part of this year; the Parisian producer pulled together an amazing patchwork of sounds like surprised and propelled. Featuring Jeshi.

97. Lord Apex — The Good Fight: A UK producer getting production from Madlib and assists from Freddie Gibbs and BONES is something to take note of; this was a smoky but compelling listen.

96. Caroline Polachek — Desire, I Want to Turn Into You: Now a long way from her Chairlift days, Polachek continued to evolve this year, taking pop music with her. The SOPHIE tribute is key.

95. SonnyJim & Lee Scott — Ortolan & Armagnac: Last year’s White Girl Wasted was a sleeper favourite for me, so I was ready when this one landed. One of the most interesting voices in UK rap.

94. Gorillaz — Cracker Island: After the fun but formless Song Machine it was great to jump back into a cohesive Gorillaz project and there was so much to love about Cracker Island. What a band, still.

93. Queens of the Stone Age — In Times New Roman: After the turmoil of Josh Homme’s personal life recently, it was cathartic to hear this album, as I hope it was for him to create. Dirty and powerful.

92. Mandy, Indiana — i’ve seen a way: The heady blend of icy electronics and shattering post-punk with french vocals took me a while to break into; but once inside, I was obsessed and couldn’t leave.

91. Noname — Sundial: So much to like about Noname’s music; so little to like about her public persona. But hey, that doesn’t stop me listening to many artists and this is a really great record (with added $ilkmoney!)

90. Larry June & The Alchemist — The Great Escape: Luxury rap’s year-high featured Action Bronson, Joey Badass, Boldy James and some of The Alchemist’s most straight-forward beats in a while.

89. The Lemon Twigs — Everything Harmony: Weirdly this is probably the biggest sonic outlier for me this year but I hope it’s a sign of what I may lean more to next year. 1960s melodic joy.

88. Ameer Vann & Merlyn Wood — Ice In The Slime Machine: One of the longstanding members of BROCKHAMPTON unexpectedly teams up with the outcast; creating one of the more fun projects of the year.

87. midwxst — e3: I did not expect to enjoy this one so much; but from the gospel-choir emo-rap epic opening song ‘Lost’ it’s clear that midwxst was ready to take things to a whole new level with this album.

86. Joy Anonymous — Cult Classics: If this had come out in June rather than Nov it would have had a shot of landing much higher on the list — it’s summertime festival perfection that came too late!

85. Young Thug — Business Is Business: Compiled by Metro Boomin while he languished in custody on a RICO charge; this collection was better than it should have been. Some of Thug’s sharpest raps for a few years.

84. Tim Hecker — No Highs: I’ll always check for new Tim Hecker as long as I live, and the more foreboding sounds added to his ambience this time was just the note I was looking for to get sucked all the way in.

83. Earl Sweatshirt & The Alchemist — Voir Dire: After long existing in secret on YT, the fabled album was finally released. Given their respective skills it could have been even greater; but that’s not to say it wasn’t special.

82. Joanna Sternberg — I’ve Got Me: I initially avoided this because of its sonic proximity to another Joanna (Newsom) but I came back to it and it grew and grew on me like a warm blanket.

81. Aesop Rock — Integrated Tech Solutions: The master of varied vocabulary returned with another triumph in world-building; this time all about AI. Scary how he stays this good every time.

80. Nas — King’s Disease 3, Magic 2 & 3: Joining Nas’ and Hit-Boy’s 2023 output together to take the opportunity to celebrate 6 amazing albums in 3 years. Dream collaboration output and late career highs.

79. HEALTH — Rat Wars: With each passing release HEALTH sound more like a heavier NIN which is no bad thing. To listen to their 6th album is to enter a twisted world full of shocks and dark delights.

78. Speakers Corner Quartet — Further Out: Nu jazz still reigns supreme here in UK and SCQ rose with a star-studded debut featuring Sampha, Kae Tempest, Mica Levi and more. Effortlessly cool.

77. The Streets — The Darker The Shadow The Brighter The Light: Mike Skinner returned in 2023 to remind us that there are still sounds and statements that only he can make. Very off the wall, very irresistable.

76. RXKNephew & DJ Rude One — The ONEderful Nephew: 2023 was the year I dove into RXK and I haven’t looked back. Of his huge output this was the most complete and impressive body of songs to start with.

75. Barry Can’t Swim — When Will We Land?: Yes, it sounded a lot like Fred again.. at points, but that’s no bad thing at all. Bring on more and more of this blissed out UK dance salvation; I need it.

74. Alfa Mist — Variables: Possibly the best thing about England right now is London’s blossoming nu-jazz scene and Alfa Mist added another stunning submission to the sub-genre with Variables this year.

73. Killer Mike — MICHAEL: What it lacked in the irreverence of RTJ, Mike’s first solo album in a decade made up for with heart, focus and an Andre 3000 verse. A flawed man but a great one still.

72. Fever Ray — Radical Romantics: Further bewildering dispatches from The Knife’s Karin Dreijer. With each release she becomes a more singular talent; truly the closest Björk has to a visionary successor.

71. King Krule — Space Heavy: Now somehow 12 odd years into his musical career and still not yet 30 years old, Archy Marshall released another precious collection as King Krule for those late nights.

70 MIKE — Burning Desire: Until now I’d always found MIKE’s music nice but inessential; potentially because I’m not a fan of the laid back style. But that changes with the new one. That Earl collab too is godly.

69. Forest Swords — Bolted: Despite being signed to Ninja Tune, Forest Swords remains to me criminally unsung. This was his first proper album in 6 years but he is as mesmerising a producer as ever.

68. Black Thought & El Michels Affair — Glorious Game: Everything Black Thought touches turns to gold and Glorious Game was no different. El Michels gave the backdrop to some amazing bars.

67. Róisín Murphy & DJ Koze — Hit Parade: Murphy came out with some dissapointing middle-aged views this year but DJ Koze had already unleashed some of his best work ever here. Incendiary.

66. CHIKA — Samson: The Album: 2020’s Industry Games intro’d an MC for the ages, so it was a relief to finally get CHIKA’s full length album. Even better; it saw her putting her absolute best foot forward.

65. Amaarae — Fountain Baby: NY-via-Ghana pop alchemy from the future; blending afropop, R’n’B, dance music and more to wild new places. That Clipse Wamp Wamp sample is the icing on the cake.

64. Evian Christ — Revanchist: Cheshire’s own finally released a debut album; a full 10 years after the insane Kings And Them mixtape changed everything. It was dark and punishing, and absolutely unmatched.

63. Rory — I Thought It’d Be Different: Rory Farrell got his break on the Joe Budden Podcast but this year unexpectedly curated a great hip hop statement featuring James Fauntleroy, Conway, DRAM, Reason and more.

62. Elcamino — They Spit On Jesus: 2023 was the year the supporting cast of Griselda (Stove God Cooks, Jae Skeese) took centre stage; and Black Soprano Family’s Elcamino put out their best album. Rap gold.

61. Kassa Overall — Animals: I discovered Kassa through his amazing feature on Danny Brown’s album this year and what a joy. Animals is full of guests but it’s the producer and drummer who shines out.

60. King Gizzard & The Lizard Wizzard — The Silver Cord: Just 2 albums and 3 hours of new music from Aus’ hardest working band this year. This one was my favourite; swapping guitars for synths and nailing it.

59. J Hus — Beautiful And Brutal Yard: The return of J Hus after 3 years away was cause for much celebration. BABY showed the MC celebrating but also full of incendiary threats. One of UK’s most important voices.

58. Kweku Collins — Then Spring: Housing possibly my favourite song of 2023; unsung hero Collins continued his free-wheeling, free-spirited journey to become the most underrated act working today.

57. Squid — O Monolith: Warp records’ post-punk heroes followed up from their incredible debut with a sophomore that pushed their sound without sacrificing what makes them such a unqiuely angular prospect.

56. Romy — Mid Air: With Fred again behind prod of 8/11 of the album’s songs (as well as Koreless and Jamie xx) this couldn’t fail. But Romy’s voice is like home; and works just as well on the dancefloor.

55. Sofia Kourtesis — Madres: The long awaited debut album from Peruvian deep-house producer transcended the genre entirely; as a warm homage to her mother and the surgeon that saved her life.

54. Kojaque — Phantom Of The Afters: Coming through like slowthai if he grew up in Dublin instead of Northampton; Kojaque’s 4th album finally saw him get the recognition he so dearly deserves.

53. The Chemical Brothers — For That Beautiful Feeling: Following on their winning streak after 2019’s amazing No Geography, this latest album was proof they’re still on top now 30 years into their career.

52. Blockhead — The Aux: The ultimate Producer Album of 2023; Blockhead called an Avengers cast of the best underground rappers to deliver a who’s-who of the best of alternative US hip hop this year.

50. World’s End Girlfriend — Resistance & The Blessing: 2.5 hours of glitch, modern classical, post-rock, ambient and sound collage from a Tokyo producer 25 years into his career was the best surprise of 2023.

51. Tiga & Hudson Mohawke — L’Ecstasy

After a string of incendiary singles; the pair’s collab album finally arrived in December, just in time to heat up the winter period. Featuring smooth-as-hell singalongs featuring Channel Tres and Jesse Boykins III alongside more traditional techno songs; this was a real feast over 73 minutes. There were glimmers, such as on ‘Ascending Into Clouds’ and epic closer ‘In Order 2’ of the best work of each of the producer’s careers. Had they hit those highs for more of the runtime, we’d be talking top 10 but as it stood; this was a huge late-year high and one that will keep growing.

49. 100 gecs — 10,000 gecs

The big question of 10,000 gecs — could it ever be 10x crazier than the debut? The answer (mostly thanks to ska song ‘Frog on the Floor’) was a resounding Yes. Starting with everything-and-the-kitchen-sink opener ‘Dumbest Girl Alive’ you’re immediately thrown into the tornado of weirdness and it never lets up. The album sounds like trying to download nu-metal songs from Limewire in 2002, getting a colossal virus and just vibing with it. Sometimes you kind of just need to turn off the tiring, responsible part of your brain and bash your head against the wall.

48. Kaytranada & Aminé — KAYTRAMINÉ

When this was announced, there were a lot of Kaytranada fans who cried out for a full-length team up with other (in their view) more deserving MCs. But to me, one look at the artwork cemented why this team-up was perfect. Aminé is supernaturally unbothered and the producer here delivers 11 beats for him to absolute bounce over. Freddie Gibbs, Pharrell, Big Sean, each add something special to the party and on ‘Westside’ the pair even achieve something close to drama (almost) with a cool production flourish of a phone ringing off as Aminé raps “My ex on the phone so I hung up

47. Geese — 3D Country

After sort-of keeping an ear out for Geese over the past couple of years; I was prepared for how much fun 3D Country would be. Until this year, they’d been compared to UK counterparts like Squid and black midi, but their second album showed that they were far more rambunctious and silly for the poe-faced post-punk comparisons. This is more like a drunken pub shut-in singalong than a gloomy basement gig. The production literally bursts out the speakers (shout out James Ford) which may be part of why it felt nostalgic for the mid-noughties albums of my teen years.

46. Lil Yachty — Let’s Start Here.

And the Childish Gambino Award for Most Ambitious Reinvention goes to… Yes a lot was written about it not being the first time a rapper had changed gears; but to go from inspiring the most despairing ‘rap is dead’ comments back in ’16 to released a prog-rock album in ’23 is pretty amazing. Honestly, putting this on makes me want to close my eyes, sit in a beanbag, smoke some 1960s weed and invent some new colours. It’s such a head spin but done in a very cool way. Not enough is said about unexpcted left-turns in music these days; but Yachty reminded us what was possible.

45. The Veils — And Out Of The Void

My friends know that if The Veils release an album it will land in the year’s top 50 without a doubt. Their first in 7 years was a double album — the first half being the Nick Cave-indebted tales of love and redemption the band do so well; with the latter half a largely acoustic affair. While their wheelhouse remains strong (and criminally underrated) it was the folkier second side that really drew me in; exposing Finn Andrews stunning voice to more unexpected soundscapes; including a closing cover of a song the singer’s father wrote about him; now marking his own new fatherhood.

44. Kelela — Raven

Modern R’n’B’s most interesting songstress returned this year with an album that made good on all her promise, and then some. Released at the top of 2023, it could be easy to forget at points quite how good the record is; but every time you revisit, it somehow reveals more. Like the murky but calm black and white cover art; Raven beckons you to submerge yourself in the irresistible textures of the gorgeous music and Kelela’s stunning voice. The ultimate night time music; most of the collaborators are queer and black making it feel like a real celebration of the artist’s true self.

43. Mitski — The Land Is Inhospitable And So Are We

After the relative side-step of last album Laurel Hell it was good beyond words to fully fall for a new Mitski album again this year. It had begun to feel as though the artist had no desire to push further into continued success — which for one who started out so underground could be understood. But TLIIASAW presented a songwriter rejuvenated; with choral backing and moonlit blues showing that she was unafraid to make it weird; and more success followed. Some people are just too good to fail and Mitski is absolutely one. Also — best promo shot of the year, for my money.

42. Yves Tumor — Praise A Lord Who Chews…

You can pretty much divide music fans today between those who know that Sean Lee Bowie (yes, their actual name) is the next great rockstar, and those who haven’t twigged yet. Their fourth album (and second since blossoming into current form) is further evidence of someone whose ambition to be remembered in musical history knows no bounds. Every song is a hell-for-leather reach for the stars that could be a classic at any point between now back to 1973. It’s kind of uncanny how good this artist is, and you get the impression everything they do next will succeed.

41. Yung Senju — Blackman Wunderlan

I came across Yung Senju from a random YT recommendation but it was one of the best I got all year. All I know about him is that he’s 20 years old and from Atlanta; but the album really speaks for itself. A mix of lush live instrumentation and sharp, innovative beats; I was very excited to discover that the rapper produced it himself. He references the greats (sampling the same ‘Electric Relaxation’ bassline) but is also clearly pushing the sound and the message forward like someone like JID, Deante Hitchcock or Kenny Mason. Definitely one to keep tabs on.

40. boygenius — The Record

The year’s favourite sueprgroup (Phoebe Bridgers, Lucy Dacus, Julien Baker) arrived with a long away full-length just as peak Bridgers saturation was threatening to turn the conversation. While not as strikingly raw as their 20218 EP, it acted as the perfect showcase for the 3 markedly contrasting songwriters to work together on something large, open-hearted and easy to listen to. Their millennial over-sharing is familiar like a favourite pair of jeans and their influences are clear — but every time you press play on The Record it feels like coming home.

39. Lana Del Rey — …Tunnel Under Ocean Blvd

While some moments on 2021’s Blue Banisters lay the ground work, album nine was when the charm of LDR caught up with me at last. Naturally, the 7 minute epic ‘A&W’ was the key to unlocking it all; with its ghostly Hollywood menace and electronic second half. But the creepy church interlude along with Jon Batiste, Father John Misty and Tommy Genesis features really sealed the deal. There was so much to love here, so much to uncover, unpack and adore. I don’t know what held me back before but it’s now crystal clear to me that Lana Del Rey is a genius songwriter.

38. Reverend Kristin Michael Hayter — SAVED!

I initially found Kristin Hayter’s (FKA Lingua Ignota) new album too hard to listen to. Apparently she got ordained as part of the process of the album; and practised sleep deprivation, fasting, repetition of prayer, and sensory overstimulation in order to legitimately ‘speak in tongues’ In a word; the album is cursed. It follows on from the Appalachian sounds from her last few albums; but recorded on 4-track; making it sound like finding a cassette tape of a cult worship session at the bottom of a lake. If you grew up in ‘charismatic’ churches, you may want to sit this one out.

37. Oneohtrix Point Never — Again

At this stage, Daniel Lopatin basically exists in his own genre, his own time. Apparently ‘a speculative autobiography’ and collaboration between himself now and his past, younger self Again can be seen as a retrospective of sorts. There are certainly shades of R Plus Seven in the heavenly string sounds; and Age Of in the use of vocals. Distorted guitars also call to mind the restless Garden Of Delete. Like all great OPN records; it is at times confounding; others revalatory. But most importantly it is another artefact that proves he’s one of the most fascinating producers of our time.

36. ANOHNI and the Johnsons — My Back Was A Bridge

Sussex’s own Anohni Hegarty reached her final form this year; showing that protest music can be delivered with real angelic might. The image of Stonewall hero Marsha P. Johnson is a good signifier of both the themes and the meaning behind the album’s title. The singer unflinchingly faces the plight of the Trans community throughout, particularly on ‘Scapegoat’ (“You’re so killable…I can use you like a toilet / I can punch you, And take all of my hate, Into your body”) It was an album that cried out to be made in 2023, and who better to land it with grace and such artistry.

35. Model/Actriz — Dogsbody

Dogsbody smashed into my rotation in February and lingered there in it for the whole year, like an existential dread with no solution. To my ears; the band pitch somewhere between Xiu Xiu and HEALTH which is certainly a sweet spot for me. Lyrically it’s all dark drama; no clear line of vision — but it’s certainly sexual. Lines like “with a body count, higher than a mosquito” seem funny at first, until you remember it’s the most deadly animal on earth. You come out the other side bewildered; sure that you have been violated in some way, yet ashamed to find you want to go back in.

34. Wiki & Tony Seltzer — 14K Figaro

14K Figaro is the sound of Nuyorican rapper Wiki reaching a new plain. I don’t know much about Tony Seltzer but his beats really brought the best out the rapper; his every line becomes symbiotic with the neo-boom bap sounds crafted here. There’s so much to love here — but my favourite moment is the beatswitch halfway through the Zelooperz assisted ‘Fried Ice Cream’ when a chopped and slowed sample of 50 Cent’s ‘Candy Shop’ pays homage to an NYC legend. The whole thing is so much fun and more importantly sounds incredible played loud in the car.

33. Mick Jenkins — The Patience

Justice at last, for the most underrated MC of this second golden age of hip hop Mick Jenkins. It was amazing this year to see so many fans and critics alike agree on what a solid, faultless record this was. Telling too that he got Freddie Gibbs, Benny The Butcher and JID all on it too; though Mick is undoubtedly the star. Throughout he perfectly toes the line of lyrical genius without ever sacrificing the immediacy of a great song. ‘Pasta’ was the highlight; hearing him sounding anything but patient as he literally yelled each bar of the second verse. If you don’t know him, get to know now.

32. grouptherapy — I was mature for my age

In a post-BROCKHAMPTON world, hip hop has been crying out for a new group of rappers who would push the sound of the next wave forward again. The LA-based group draw from myriad influences; conjuring the dizzying futurism of early-00’s R’n’B alongside the lyrical prowess of peak Outkast or Tribe. Elsewhere though they can put out a hip-house tune (‘Lightspeed’) with complete ease and expertise. The inclusion of Jadagrace in the group adds a much needed female energy that the aforementioned rap group never achieved. Every song is is a thrill; they’re onto something.

31. Fred again.. & Brian Eno — Secret Life

After the 3 x Actual Life albums, it was time for Fred to do something a bit different — and who better to team up with that family friend Brian Eno, who had been mentoring the young producer since he was 16. A lot has been said this year about Fred again’s privileged upbringing and credentials as a tastemaker. But to hear 45 minutes of feather-light ambient music made with no intention other than to soothe and to comfort; I struggled to care about the precise pedigree of the person behind it. Blending perfect vocal samples with the producers own singing; it’s a special record.

30. Navy Blue — Ways Of Knowing

The LA rapper, producer, skateboarder and model AKA Sage Elsesser is still somehow only 26 but already sounds like an elder statesman of the laidback, West coast, poetic hip hop movement. I’ve enjoyed all of the albums he’s put out since the turn of the decade but Ways of Knowing felt like the definitive release in the artist’s short career so far. It melds gorgeous gospel samples with heart-on-sleeve raps about his family and his upbringing with complete sincerity. The perfect late-night hip hop record for 2023; it nourished like a warm nightcap.

29. Danny Brown — Quaranta

We waited over 10 years for the spiritual sequel to Brown’s incendiary XXX mixtape and in every way it reflected a man seeing time pass into entering his 40’s. The one-time non-stop party animal now sounds weary, alone and afraid of the impact of a decade of sinning has had on his soul. It’s the polar opposite of his collab with JPEGMAFIA which sounded uninhibited and fun — here he worries and reflects on regrets. The features are carefully placed and the beats make for an album that demands repeat listens. Danny is a tresure that must be protected at all costs — I hope he finds his peace.

28. Florence Sinclair — Departures, Wonders & Tears

I discovered the myserious Florence Sinclair on Iceboy Violet’s amazing EP from this year and was immediately fascinated by this full length. The easiest reference point is possibly Dean Blunt, but the London based Sinclair is far more restless; one moment chopping up Kanye, Jay Z and 50 Cent vocals into distortion (all on one song), the next using violin and 80s synths to sing about the trainline. There is a grime heart to the album (particularly with Top Boy samples) but it’s also rooted in trip-hop. It’s impossible to describe so just tune into their voice and check it out.

27. Overmono — Good Lies

After years of incredible singles, the Welsh brothers Tom and Ed Russell finally released their debut LP as Overmono. It felt like, in many ways UK bass music had been langusihing somewhat — in need of a really meaningful album-length statement. Good Lies really came through to remedy that and then some. For someone who was 18 in London when the original garage-inspired ‘Post-dubstep’ wake happened; it was so exciting to hear R’n’B vocals chopped in a pulsating and innovative way for 2023. Also — ‘Feelings Plain’ is my album intro OTY.

26. Armand Hammer — We Buy Diabetic Test Strips

This year, the unstoppable duo of ELUCID & Billy Woods released what is probably my favourite album as Armand Hammer. 2021’s team up with The Alchemist Haram was great, but it’s more satisfying to hear the pair follow their own sonic impulses. This is another transmission from rap’s cosmic outer layer; woozy and alarming in equal measure. As usual though, Woods grabs me most; with effortless lines like “Unexpectedly started crying to the instrumental” tossed out like they’re nothing (as on album highlight ‘Supermooned’ And it was even his best album this year…

25. Billy Woods & Kenny Segal — Maps

It’s been 5 years since Woods & Segal last teamed up for a full length record, so it’s been 5 years since I fully understood the former’s greatness as an MC. In the half decade since, he has proven it over and over again with several stunning albums; but here, Woods’ personality shines greater than every before. From defeatist ambivalence (“Every victory pyrrhic”) to nihilistic despair at the States’ bleak trajectory (“Sooner or later it’s gon be two unrelated active shooters / Same place, same time”) He’s one of those writers whose every line is capable of bouncing around my head the whole year long. The album’s closing, and most personal verse is the one that haunts most though: “I’m in the park with the baby on the swings…I watch him grow, wondering how long I got to live

24. Young Fathers — Heavy Heavy

Watching Young Fathers play Glastonbury on TV this summer cemented them as one of my favourite bands; so when the chance to see them live at Brighton Dome came up I jumped at it. Let’s get one thing straight first: they are absolutely the best live act in the country right now. It was as much an art installation or a dramatic play as a music gig. And this, their latest collection, further cements them as an unstoppable force. Heavy Heavy would feel like a victory lap if the band’s work was anywhere near done. They are a group that live and breathe with purpose and the songs here are no different. ‘Ululation’ is a ceremonial song in the Zimbabwean language of Shona, while ‘Geronimo’ features the line “I’m on the verge of something divine” The whole thing hums with life.

23. Deante’ Hitchcock — Once Upon A Time

I love an album with a linear story and Once Upon A Time is definitely that. Track 1 ends with “This is how I met your mother” which sets the scene for the rest of the record. We here Hitchcock starting out as a bit of a player; enjoying the single life among the company of multiple ladies. The songs then trace the tale of him meeting someone, falling for them, getting serious, having ups and downs in the relationship before eventually settling down and creating life together. It’s not a complicated story but it’s set against the backdrop of the most faultless, BBQ, windows-down summer-y hip hop of the year and it brought me a lot of light and enjoyment right when I needed it. It reminded me of that Kirk Franklin line “You can never go too far that you can’t come back home again

22. Genesis Owusu — Struggler

Owusu’s 2021 Smiling With No Teeth is one of the best debut albums of the short decade so far — so there was a lot of expectation from me on the follow up. Joyously, Struggler is every bit as incredible as it predecessor; proving that the Ghanaian-Australian really is the generational talent we thought he could be. The guitars and drums are taut and angular like the best post-punk outfits but he frequently lets the basslines take centre stage; carrying the record into neo-funk territory. Owusu’s vocal delivery is rooted in hip hop fire, punching out every line with fevour such as opener’s “Leaving the light, always thought I was living a lie / Wasn’t feeling it right” making a crisis of faith sound like a heated argument. The tribal closer and point to his next evolutionary step; I can’t wait.

21. Tkay Maidza — Sweet Justice

Zimbabwean-Australian Tkay Maidza has been making a lot of noise across her Last Year Was Weird EP series; particulary Vol. 2 which really saw her blow up. Sweet Justice is her first full-length since and it acts as a technicolour victory lap — her ideas bursting in all directions. The sonic world she’s built here is effervescent, futuristic and immediately intoxicating; you can almost hear the tracks fizzing with energy. There are production credits from the likes of Flume and Kaytranada but it’s Maidza’s sugary vocals and bulletproof attitude that sets the album apart. She effortlessly pulls together pop, hip hop and electronic music with no skips like a sorceress. In a parallel universe she is the biggest star in the music industry; here’s hoping this world catches up soon.

20. Sampha — Lahai

After 2017’s seminal debut Process, Sampha did ‘a Frank Ocean’ and largely dissappeared for over 6 years, save for some high profile feature appearances. It was with great anticipation then, that he returned this year afresh, with a sophomore named after his grandfather and dedicated to his baby daughter. If his first album was about the loss of his parents; this one had a newfound sense of optisim for the future. The music was more free-flowing; assisted on production from El Guincho (Rosalia, FKA twigs) the beats were more frantic and the vocals pushed higher to elevate Sampha’s inimitable voice. He sounded full of new ideas and new feelings, experimenting more while the songs themselves became even more accessible and memorable. A national treasure.

19. McKinley Dixon — Beloved! Paradise! Jazz!?

It’s rare for your first play-through of an album makes you immediately buy a whole trilogy of books but let that be testament to McKinley Dixon’s incredible jazz-rap masterpiece. The album opens with poet and music writer Hanif Abdurraqib reading straight from the source material; conjuring images of “Clarinets and lovemaking, fists and the voices of sorrowful women” which set the scene perfectly. The instrumentation is rich and multi-layered, the subject matter encompasses love, pain, life and death and all the best feature voices are women. The album is a thrilling collection of living, breathing hip hop with meaning, artistry — but Dixon can still let loose like on the banging ‘Tyler, Forever’ With any justice he should be mentioned in the same breath as Kendrick.

18. Angelo De Augustine — Toil And Trouble

Angelo De Augustine sounds like the meeting point between Elliott Smith and label boss Sufjan Stevens’ more delicate works. On Toil And Trouble — despairing at the insanity of the world — the songwriter holed himself away and recorded this haven from reality, playing all 27 different instruments himself. Like Stephen Fretwell’s Busy Guy before it, this became my go-to bedtime album this year; striking the perfect note between calm and melancholy. Some of the songs here sound downright pretty until you tune into the lyrics; when something like “I don’t want to live, I don’t want to die, I keep a Colt .45 in my drawer / If I change my mind” drifts gently into your consciousness like a poison gas. On the closing track he completes the album’s title with a sigh — “my only delights

17. Black Country, New Road — Live At Bush Hall

I started this year still very much in thrall to the band’s closing statement with singer Isaac Woods at the helm; so February’s live album experience got me while I was still vulnerable. Recorded over 2 nights in London; these songs were only to exist in this form; making it more than another ‘live album’. It serves as a stunning showcase for quite how many talented songwriters there are in BC,NR; particularly as 3 of the members split frontman duties here, and Jockstrap’s Georgia Ellery isn’t any of them.. seriously, there is no other band I can think of with an instrumentalist timeline like this. With climactic growers like 10-min ‘Turbines/Pigs’ alongisde celebratory theme song ‘Up Song’ (“Look at what we did together, BC,NR; friends forever”) it feels like an end and a beginning all in one.

16. Gabriels — Angels & Queens

Gabriels are made up of 2 British music producers Ryan Hope and Ari Balouzian who were in L.A. looking for a church choir for a project. There they discovered Jacob Lusk; a one-time backing singer for Diana Ross. They were immediately stunned by his talent and began making strange, retro soul music together. The first part of Angels & Queens was released in 2022 but I largely avoided it; knowing that the complete album would be special. But I still wasn’t prepared for how amazing it is. Bringing in gospel, Motown and jazz from the cabaret age; their music completely transcends time and style. The songs are like devotionals to human passion; Lusk’s insane Al Green-meets-serpentwithfeet voice soaring through octaves with miraculous ease. A privelage to behold.

15. Paris Texas — Mid Air

Paris Texas’ 2021 debut didn’t charm me in the same way it had others; coming like a 2-man BROCKHAMPTON, their DIY rap felt like a WIP. Mid Air, then, arrives as the complete article. From the the opening song’s chants of “Who wanna rock? Who wanna roll? Who wanna die?” it’s clear the duo are not messing around this time. Early highlight and single ‘DnD’ has an air-tight beat with an effortlessly cool guitar strum, and a complete scene-stealer feature from the great Kenny Mason. The album continues to thrill and subvert for its full 16 songs but it’s ‘Everybody’s Safe Until..’ that perfects the synergy between grungey aesthetics and new wave rap with the moody repeated growl of “There’s people tryna kill me, other than me” being the lasting impression.

14. Sleep Token — Take Me Back To Eden

I am aware how much of a black sheep this album is among this list. Something of a guilty pleasure; the vocals are pretty hammy in points but I found that once you give yourself over to the mood completely — like hearing an old Linkin Park song and being compelled to belt out the words — it’s an exceptional listen. It’s what makes songs like ‘Ascensionism’ so impressive — after 8 minutes of ups and downs the curshing crescendo of “You make me wish I could disappear” feels like the most bare, vulnerable line possible. Ironically, the songs where they lighten their sound (to a tone closer to my usual listening) are the ones that I didn’t connect with. TMBTE became my long solo car journey album; volume on full for the best shot and something that felt like catharsis.

13. slowthai — UGLY

Caveat: in June, slowthai pleaded not guilty to two counts of rape; and his trial begins next summer. I have attempted to suspend judgement until then. In the meantime, the rapper released the best album of his career on UGLY, as well as presenting a gargantuan leap forward as an artist both stylistically and emotionally. The opener completely missteps you with a UK-Yeezus sound before giving way to a largely post-punk sound palette helmed by rock production royalty Dan Carey. On upbeat songs like ‘Sooner’ he almost sounds like the spiritual successor to a Jamie T, while the title track features the whole of Fontaines DC; sounding like them fronted by slowthai; perfect. Most memorable of all is ‘Tourniquet’ which plays like a tormented farewell. A whiteknuckle ride.

12. HMLTD — The Worm

I hadn’t listened to this band (pronounced Happy Meal Limited) before The Worm dropped, but when I read reviews calling it a ‘prog-rock opera’ and ‘medieval concept album’ I knew I couldn’t miss it. In a nutshell, it follows the story of a giant worm that threatens to swallow all of England. We hear about a rebel uprising who seek to stop it; and just as you’ve started to suspend your disbelief, ‘Liverpool Street’ introduces the voice of a psychiatrist who is working with HMLTD’s singer. He says that he’s experiencing “a dissolution of the distinction bеtween symbolic and real figures in his mind” and that killing this metaphorical Worm “is a necessity for his salvation” You realise all the pageantry is part of his journey to recovery. A truly mystical album to file next to the great UK rock records of the century.

11. tobi lou — ‘Decent / Perish Blue (Fall Tour)

Ever since the game-changing (at least for me) ‘LINGO STARR’ back in 2020, my faith in the Chicago-via-Lagos rapper has been absolute. This year, he rewarded fans with not one, but two incredible projects. The first; ‘Decent acted as a love letter to the Windy City featuring hometown heroes Chief Keef, Saba and Polo G. The beats (once again all co-produced by tobi) sounded straight out of the best possible future. My only gripe was that at 26 minutes it was just over too soon. Luckily; Perish Blue (Fall Tour) arrived less than 2 months later, after a new song was dropped every week leading up to its completion. Brimming with energy and ingenuity; every song across the 2 records glows with kinetic charisma. The young star makes all things in hip hop feel possible again — just the shot to the arm the genre needs right now.

10. Skrillex — Quest For Fire

If you’d told me a few years ago that a Skrillex record would make my Top 100 albums of the year, let alone the Top 10 I would have absolutely laughed you out the room. But the signs were there in as early as 2021 when the first single from the album dropped: a collaboration with Four Tet, a producer who could be seen as the antithesis to Skrillex’s brash, EDM in every way. The two then joined Fred again.. for a 5-hour set at Madison Square Garden at the start of this year which was a bold statement of intent: Skrillex Is Good Now. More singles with the British artists dropped until it became impossible to fight and I just gave in and enjoyed the music. Somehow arriving a full 8 years after his last LP (the Diplo collab as Jack Ü) it felt like a complete reintroduction. The producer focused in on his undeniable talent as a DJ and forged something that pushes his technical skill and intentional craftsmanship to the fore. He is aided by yet more UK beatsmiths like Jamie xx and Joker too, not to mention Bow’s own Flowdan whose flow graces two of the album’s best songs. It stands as testament to the influence Britain has on the world stage (music-wise.) Interestingly, the day after Quest.. dropped, Skrillex put out a second album — Don’t Get Too Close; which while it did contain cool references to its sister album was definitely more of the Diplo-indebted pop I would expect from the artist. If the first was an iconic Boiler Room set in London, the follow-up was a pool party in Calabasas. Skrillex’s mother passed away in 2015 and with the release of these 2 records he confessed he’d suffered with alcoholism and writer’s block in the wake of her passing; so it’s good to see him reinvigorated and prolific now.

9. Corinne Bailey Rae — Black Rainbows

The biggest surprise entry for me this year — I had been completely ignorant of Corinne Bailey Rae since ‘Put Your Records On’ came out in 2006. So much so, that I could listen to this album dozens of times and would never have guessed who it was by if I wasn’t told. But this is the rebrith of a true artist and cannot be missed. The singer said that each song on the album is inspired by pieces from Theaster Gates’ Chicago archive of Black art which he calls ‘negrobilia’ — “How do you train a person to look at the ugliness of America? To accept the embarrassing truth that people made mockery of other people.” This clearly had a profound impact on Bailey Rae who said that its memories followed her wherever she went. The result is an uncompromising album that presents itself like the archive itself — at one moment funereal and cosmic; the next spiky and full of rage. ‘He Will Follow You With His Eyes’ begins with a lilting, waltz-like tone before it all spirals out of shape into an electronic “My plum red lipstick, my black hair kinking, my black skin gleaming” The floor falls away from beneath you like a dream taking a dramatic and surreal turn. The album is full of moments like this; where things don’t happen as you expect they should. ‘Put It Down’ is an 8 and a half minute voyage through trip-hop inspired sonics, while ‘New York Transit Queen’ is 109 seconds of punky riot grrrl rebellion. Black Rainbows, like the Black Archive that inspired it, is challenging and complex and with it Corinne Bailey Rae has completely reinvented herself; while placing the black experience — all its past and present — firmly centre stage.

8. ICECOLDBISHOP — Generational Curse

For me, ICECOLDBISHOP’s debut album seemed to crash land into my rotation from nowhere like a flaming meteorite. Like fellow L.A. visionary Kendrick Lamar did before him on good kid, m.A.A.d city, this album documents the dangers of growing up in gangland America; to families that made the same mistakes before you. The difference with Generational Curse though, is that BISHOP permanently embodies the manic, violent and paranoid space Kendrick only visits when he yells “You killed my cousin back in ’94 — fuck yo truce!” This album is 37 minutes of teeth-gritted stress at horrors existing simultaneously right outside the porch and within the living room at the same time. The MC covers everything from police violence, guns, drugs (taking and selling) at breakneck speed — but the theme that hangs it all together is the constant and oppressive spectre of untimely death always hanging over the neighbourhood. The beats create the perfect backdrop — feds pounding at the door, bullet cases clinking to the floor, cars screeching — courtesy of EDM greats like Mr. Carmack, Falcons and Lophiile alongside hip-hop greats Take a Daytrip, Kal Banx and Kenny Beats. Each forge an homage to L.A. past and present, with several G-funk interludes acting like music from smoke-filled cars sliding by. But it is ICECOLDBISHOP’s unmistakable delivery that elevates this project into something really special. At first listen he sounds like a nightmarish Elmo from Sesame Street; but repeat listens show that this is a voice forged in panic and trauma — and every single breath counts.

7. James Blake — Playing Robots Into Heaven

If you could construct one sentence in 2023 that would bring me personally complete and euphoric excitement it would be: “James Blake returns to the electronic roots of his Hessle, Hemlock and R&S records days” — the very phrase used to announce his 6th album. The songs were developed on the road and inbetween other album sessions but are held together by Blake’s faultless ear and ever-beautiful vocals. Self-doubt anthem ‘Fire The Editor’ is like the ultimate evolution of his debut while ‘I Want You To Know’ sounds like something straight off Burial’s Untrue. ‘Loadingcaptured that heart-in-the-machine combination of yearningly passionate singing backed by electrifying synthetic soundscape. ‘He’s Been Wonderful’ samples the gospel of T. L. Barrett and then the title track works as is an ambient funeral dirge for a synthetic lifeform. Elswhere it was so rewarding to hear Blake completely let loose again, such as on ‘Tell Me’ — possibly his most fun and dancefloor-ready song for over a decade. There were often moments that sounded like he was following other styles; but then you remembered that the artists better known now for those sounds came up pawing over his original blueprints. It was the sound of James Blake returning for the crown of best electronic producer in the country and doing so in absolute style. While his last couple of albums were fantastic, and contained some career highs; hearing an American producer tag at the beginning of a James Blake song just didn’t suit what was his initial MO. This is the most and honest and thrilling expression of the producer’s creativity in a really long time — I hope he finds the time, the headspace and the will to follow those quirky impulses again soon.

6. Bad Bunny — Nadie Sabe Lo Que Va a Pasar Mañana

The most-streamed album globally of 2023 begins ominously with the line (in Spanish) “They say the world is going to end, I hope it’s soon” before elegantly presenting the Puerto Rican’s very own take on a Bond theme; all strings and choral backing. This skates straight into 1960s Charles Aznavour-sampling ‘Monaco’ — a Grand Prix scale victory lap where Benito flexes the unimaginable wealth of being the most successful star in the world. Needless to say; the album is heady. I first checked Bad Bunny on his debut X 100PRE but found the later music less interesting — so imagine my delight at hearing this album was a return to that earlier sound. A lot of the beats here sound like mid-2010s Travis Scott, with ‘Seda’ sounding just like Future’s ‘Codeine Crazy’ — but somehow the singer’s voice makes everything sound completely brand new again. It’s a thrill to hear the guy clearly having fun, letting loose and just making some brash braggadocio on his own terms. ‘Thunder y Lightning’ even use drill production which somehow works perfectly too. I love how Bad Bunny once again rejects any English-speaking features across the album; only inviting fellow Latin artists to join him. There are several highlights among them but Luar La L’s fast-talking aggression steals the show after a wild beatswitch on ‘Telefono Nuevo’ It has to be noted too, that calling a song ‘Mr. October’ and not having Drake on it was a devilish masterstroke. Speaking of the Canadian, in many ways NSLQVAPM reminded me of what made his own palette cleanser, If You’re Reading This such a great album — the sound of a titan doing whatever he feels.

5. Travis Scott — Utopia

Looking back on the entirety of 2023 from its final days; it is now clear that the year lacked blockbuster, headline rap albums. Kendrick had 2022, Cole continued his impressive feature run and Kanye… well the less said about him right now the better. Meanwhile, Drake fumbled the bag for a 5th year in a row with more playlist-fodder. The job then, fell to Travis Scott, a man whose career had been in question since the fatal Astroworld Festival tragedy in late 2021. Now 5 years on from his last album — where to go next? The answer seemed simply to be: onwards. Utopia does not seek to reinvent what has made Scott’s best work — a thrilling blend of psychedelia and cutting-edge trap music — so successful. Rather; it retreads steps in a fascinating way. Many of the songs can be traced back to sessions 5 or 6 years ago, with one of the album’s most dancey songs ‘LOOOVE’ dating back as far as 2014, during the Rodeo sessions. Most curiously of all though are the sheer number of songs with Kanye’s fingerprints on them. At least 7 of the album’s songs are Kanye throwaways or contain his production or writing credits. The most impressive thing then about this album is how solidly it all hangs together. From the album’s opening sounds being a sample from a 1970’s British prog-rock band; I was immediately reassured. Once again the rapper/producer showcases his impeccable ear, while bringing along James Blake, Beyonce, SZA, Drake and more for the ride. No one else is bringing this level of artistry to the billboard right now — who else can get Vegyn, Dave Chapelle and Yung Lean on a track with 37 million streams? The sky is the limit.

4. Sufjan Stevens — Javelin

Javelin was positioned as Sufjan Stevens re-entering “full singer-songwriter mode” for the first time since 2015’s quiet masterpiece Carrie & Lowell. As more information emerged, it became clear what a labour of love this project really was. Stevens revealed in September that he had been diagnosed with autoimmune disorder Guillain–Barré syndrome, and had been so ill that he had to relearn how to walk. The album was recorded entirely in the artist’s home studio which simultaneously adds intimate warmth to every note; but also sounds impeccably produced. The real bombshell came on the night of the release, when Sufjan dedicated it to his late partner Evans Richardson IV, who had passed away in April this year. This was both heartbreakingly sad news and also acted as the first time he had spoken outwardly about his sexuality. Reading the message of eulogy while hearing this beautiful record slowly unfurl was a very moving experience and their are the gentle fingerprints of love and mourning over every song. Early single ‘So You Are Tired’ revealed itself not to be about someone leaving a relationship, but leaving the earth. Elsewhere, ‘Shit Talk’ alludes to th challenges that get in-between two people in love; with the repeated refrain “I don’t wanna fight at all / I will always love you” giving way to 2 and a half minutes of instrumental orchestral beauty — a transcendant moment. Javelin really marries Sufjan’s most delicate folk songwriting with his grandest, symphonic flourishes and in doing so he creates something singularly devotional.

3. CASISDEAD — Famous Last Words

Depending on how closely you’ve been following along, you may have been waiting for this album for 5 years (since the first single ‘Pat Earrings’ was released), 9 years (since CAS’ last album dropped) or maybe even 15+ years since the Castro Saint days. I joined along like most people back in 2018 when ‘Pat Earrings’ presented something completely new sounding; an MC with an immediately familiar London grime flow rapping over what sounded like something straight out the Drive soundtrack. This would become the blueprint sound of Famous Last Words which creates an entire world out of it. If you get Blade Runner vibes from the artwork; it’s intentional. The album’s concept is portrayed across 7 skits voiced by Ed Skrein and Emma Rigby which take place in a dystopian future where apathy is being sold as a drug. While it doesn’t necessarily speak to any of the lyrics on the songs; it creates the dangerous neon backdrop that holds everything together. CAS creates something here that feels formulaic when you spell it out; but that in practice is absolutely intoxicating in its fully-formed genius; and dropping it right as the winter nights draw in was a masterstroke. But the MC doesn’t take it all too seriously; regularly making me burst out laughing with the lyrics (“Pull up outside in that midlife crisis” for example) When Pet Shop Boys’ Neil Tennant shows up for the album’s closing ballad you’re left struggling to figure out how something this bizarre has been crafted so immaculately. The only way to figure it out is to immediately press play again.

2. JPEGMAFIA & Danny Brown — Scaring The Hoes

It’s hard to explain in writing what this album means to the hip hop fan whose love of the genre was born and has largely existed online. To those who downloaded mixtapes from DatPiff, who saw each collab like two superheroes teaming up, who loved every track too weird to ever make it to the club or to the radio — this was like the holy grail. Sonically it was definitely a JPEG album; but the absolute apex of his sound. There were gospel chops, abrasive beats, flourishes of distorted guitars and even a ‘Milkshake’ sample. It’s like he saved his best work for his cultural predecessor — every moment of the 14 songs is unexpected, jarring and completely unique. Apparently Brown was in his final days before going sober but he sounds absolutely dialled in on every bar; as electric as he’s ever been. The lyrics show how much fun the pair were having; Peggy opening the album with “First off, fuck Elon Musk” and maintaining the irreverent trolling from there on, taking on everything from Baby Keem’s nepotism to Jack Harlow’s culture-grabbing with total disregard for repercussions. Incidentally, the 4-track bonus EP released later was every bit as vital, ‘Hermanos’ had — to these ears — the most incredible beat of the year while the closing song ended on nearly 2 minutes of Danny completely acappella, sounding like a madman. His last words are “Used to think I knew it all, but now I don’t know!” followed by a completely maniacal laugh. This was the sound of 2 rap weirdos at the pinnacle of their powers; who knows when we’ll get something this special in hip hop again?

1. Headache — The Head Hurts But The Heart Knows The Truth

“Have you ever woken up and wondered where you are and why you’re naked? — You are now listening to Headache”

In November, Collins Dictionary crowned AI their ‘Word of the Year 2023.’ Of course, with the launch of ChatGPT, MidJourney and other generative AI tools; alongside more chat bots, driverless cars and complete algorithmic reign; it was undoubtedly the year for it. But the glee at having artificial intelligence write a valentines day card for you was soon replaced with a moral panic. Jobs were lost to the tools, and even applications turned down in automated racial profiling. It turned out the creation had just the same biases and discriminations as the creator did — who could have seen that coming?

Enter then: Headache — the latest product of man’s union with A.I. The website of label Plz Make It Ruins simply states “Produced & mixed by Vegyn, all lyrics written by Francis Hornsby Clark, and performed by AI.” Broadly speaking; this does cover it. Vegyn’s sound is unmistakable; but for me this is his most accomplished body of work to date. The drums are crisp and punchy, proudly unobscured and propulsive. The synths counter with wistful melodies that conjure an imagined nostalgia for a time not lived through. Then there’s the vocals. I have to admit that after my first listen — without reading the liner notes — I assumed they were from a British actor that I couldn’t quite place. It almost sounds like an update to Everybody’s Free (To Wear Sunscreen) but for mankind’s dying days. The revelation that they were infact “performed by AI” was mind-blowing. I have worked with generative AI in my day job but I’ve never heard it used so effectively to convey such complex human emotions. What you hear is not just happy, sad or angry — instead you can actually hear the contemplation, the epiphanies, the mysteries and the wonder. It’s some feat.

And then there’s the lyrics. Written (apparently) by a Francis Hornsby Clark — a Google search for the name on release week showed absolutely zero trace of anyone with that name ever having written anything. In fact the only thing I could find was a Companies House entry for the name was as a 29 year old director for a publishing company named after a 4th Century theologist monk. Who knows. What was clear was that this was the work of a true poet in the most refreshing and relatable sense. There is an undeniable narrative through-line on display, although its narrator seems unreliable. The album’s titled is repeated several times which spotlights an inner battle between thinking and feeling. But passed that — it’s really open to interpretation. Discussions with friends has put forward thematic theories ranging from ego death through a DMT trip to the dying thoughts and conclusions of a robot. Maybe it’s both. There is a disarming freedom to the content of what is being said — whether that’s freedom from life, or freedom from sentience is unkown. But what is undeniable here is an overarching sense of finality — that this is a document of an ending.

There’s so much shit in the world,
There’s good, bad, mad, sad, ugly, happy
But I just love beauty.
I think about my friends sometimes
Their lives, their failures; They don’t know where I am
I wonder if they miss me
I miss their stories, the stuff they leave unfinished
The words they leave behind, the good they drag after them
And the destruction they create. But above all,
Above all, I remember the love

My Favourite EPs from 2023

OK last but not least, here’s a super quick run down of the best EPs of 2023: Drake remembered how to rap after the album dropped, with 6-song Scary Hours 3. My teenage hero Patrick Wolf returned (somehow now 40 years old) with beautiful The Night Safari. Atlanta’s Kenny Mason released the 3 then 6 EPs which to my ears are the pinnacle of rap-kids-who-grew-up-listening-to-metal music. Dave & Central Cee wowed with the Split Decision EP; cutting UK bars over mafia samples. Cameo Blush released probably the most compelling electronic music of the year with Ultimate Grey. UK grime hero Trim returned with flawless RoadWorks Pt2 while newer London talents Jeshi and Jianbo both released incredible EPs; The Great Stink and Tears In My XO Sauce respectively.

Two Shell continued to kick experimental dance music in the arse with lil spirits while over in Australia, Mall Grab did the same with the Rascal and Mouse EPs. Smoke DZA & Flying Lotus teamed up for the wonderful Flying Objects. The Alchemist, as well as producing for some of the best artists this year also released 2 stunning Flying High EPs featuring some of his best work. Montreal (by way of the Caribbean islands) rapper Skiifall further raised his flag on WOIIYOIE Vol. 2. Bradford’s Nia Archives wowed with the electrifying Sunrise, Bang.. and miraculously, Manchester’s own Maruja got some well earned nods for Knocknarea while, hailing from china, Alice Longyu Gao dropped the best named project of 2023: Let’s Hope Heteros Fail, Learn & Retire.

Right that’s it, we did it. Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to anyone who’s read this far. Be good to each other and let whatever art makes you happy colour your life with what it sometimes misses xx Cal



Cal W. S.

I write short stories, lyrics without songs, talk about music and mental health and share photography. “I speak that ugly elegant”