Ear Traffic’s 10 best albums and HI-35 (best tracks) for 2023


As I effectively said when I did my local best-ofs, for this writer the best thing about 2023 was that it ended. But one of the runners-up, surely, is the collective impact of the year’s best music. Here are my 10 best overall albums of the year and a short recap of what made them so great, followed by the annual HI-35: my 35 favorite tracks of 2023. Albums and tracks are eligible if they’re first released to the world between Dec. 15, 2022 and Dec. 15, 2023. At the bottom, you’ll find my embedded Spotify playlist of the entire HI-35.

10. Labrinth, Ends & Begins
Nobody in all of music today concocts a vibe quite like Labrinth’s, whose scoring for “Euphoria” is as much a character in the HBO teen melodrama as Zendaya’s Rue, Sydney Sweeney’s Cassie or anyone else. At a concise 29 minutes, Ends & Begins is skillful, darkly soulful electro-pop noir. “Kill for Your Love” is electronic Hozier for people who can’t stand Hozier; the collaboration with Zendaya on “The Feels” is dramatic rebirth and depression somehow alloyed together. Ends & Begins is a mood record that transcends the usual prerequisite of needing to be in the right mood for it.

9. Janelle Monae, The Age of Pleasure
Sex and self-love are the themes that tie together every end of The Age of Pleasure, and the internationally flavored rhythms Monae and their coproducers weave across the album make it an immersive, sultry and adventurous R&B experience. If you need a new bellwether of personal positivity while Lizzo tries to rebuild her reputation, Monae offers a version here that’s edgier, less focused on sloganeering and perhaps more artistically sustainable. E.g.: “I’m looking at a thousand versions of myself, and we’re all fine as fuck/Say it to my face/Bitch, say it to my face…” The atmosphere in The Age of Pleasure consistently lives up to the album’s name, creating a a fantasy space where nothing matters except feeling good physically and spiritually, and it maintains its accessibility throughout.

8. Sweeping Promises, Good Living Is Coming For You

If Sweeping Promises — based in Lawrence, Kan., by way of Boston — keeps making albums like their first two, they’re almost bound to explode into boygenius-level indie mainstream. Good Living Is Coming For You builds on the textbook postpunk of their 2020 debut with another collection of high-energy, bright-melody-in-the-darkness rockers that teem with heavy bass and ample edge.

7. Queens of the Stone Age, In Times New Roman
Suddenly (or perhaps not) pushing 30 years in existence now, QOTSA is now one of rock’s Old Reliables, checking in every handful of years or so with a fresh basket of riffs and Josh Homme-brand melodic wails that sound designed to blow your car windows out. In Times New Roman has all that booming classic rock swagger that reminds you that it will never be time to shelve or retire the compression pedal. Some of ITNR’s best tracks, especially “Paper Machete,” are right up there with their classics.

6. Alex Lahey, The Answer is Always Yes
“Give all you have, get nothing back/Love never leaves you in the black/You’ll never get your money/You’ll never get your money back.” If anything demarcates a talented modern songwriter, it’s finding a fresh way to say what a bitch love is. Alex Lahey has done nothing but grow as a songwriter and refine her garage-pop roots into something more polished without losing any of her edge. The power-pop rush of The Answer is Always Yes includes hummable tunes, heartbreak laments and zero missteps, solidifying the 31-year-old Aussie’s standing as one of the best in the alternative world.

5. Olivia Rodrigo, GUTS
It’s worth remembering, always, that rock began as music for the young, almost strictly by the young. If you haven’t forgotten what youth was like, that magical authenticity you get when a young songwriter knows what she’s doing — and wants to fill a car through its speakers — is always going to be an easy sell. Rodrigo is a superstar now, before she can even drink, and GUTS more than made the case that she absolutely should be. With Dan Nigro perfecting an ’00s-reminiscent mainstream pop-rock atmosphere on the boards, it roars righteously through societal pressure on females (“All-American Bitch”) and the destabilizing pull of college-age romantic feelings (“bad idea right?”, “get him back!”) along with vulnerable ballads that don’t cloy (“making the bed,” “the grudge”).

4. Palehound, Eye on the Bat
Breakup albums — or albums with breakups as at least a repeated theme — were hot this year (see previous two entries on this countdown). Eye On the Bat is a fairly flawless and sonically adept one, with El Kempner’s world-weary pipes painting pictures atop everything from acoustic indie-pop to synths to urgent, electronic-driven indie-rock. Kempner self-skewers and laments love with equal ferocity, repeatedly finding similes and imagery that land.

3. Hotline TNT, Cartwheel
New York’s Hotline TNT makes classic shoegaze, but with a focused conciseness the genre doesn’t always have and the perfect production swirl of fuzzy guitar and dreamy vocals that doesn’t leave you feeling like the distortion is a smokescreen for melodic weakness. Cartwheel is only 33 wonderful minutes spread across 12 tracks, with not a minute wasted on pointless drift, as Will Anderson’s reflections on love come in both woozily choppy sentence fragments and in more elongated thoughts. The hazy state the album thrusts you into is simply intoxicating.

2. Blondshell, Blondshell
If you’ve seen me wax semi-righteously about the quantity that’s required of a proper record, then you know I really liked Blondshell’s self-titled debut quite a lot — because it ranks in this lofty spot despite only nine tracks to its name. Sabrina Teitelbaum (top photo) came close to hitting nine home runs on Blondshell, sopping up and reinterpreting everything great about ’90s alternative. The revenge-for-a-wronged-friend fantasy “Salad” and the bad-boyfriend-as-an-infection masterpiece “Sepsis” might be the most ear-popping introductions to Teitelbaum’s supreme talents, but other standouts like “Joiner” and “Sober Together” are right up there, too.

1. boygenius, The Record
Rare is the supergroup record — even in the indie world, where they tend to be better — where the whole exceeds the sum of its parts. The Record did that and then some. It would probably prompt aneurysms in some circles to note that I think indie mogul and mega-queen Phoebe Bridgers is at least a little overrated, and Lucy Dacus and her sometimes-too-literal songwriting are a little more so. But the combined power of Bridgers, Dacus and the underrated Julien Baker on their first full-length is absurdly complementary and downright otherworldly. Not a bad track to be found on this approximately perfect album, varying seamlessly from the rock charge and silky harmonies of “$20” and “Satanist” to the folk-y balladry of “Cool About It,” with enticing and clever poetry sticking with you throughout.

Ear Traffic’s HI-35 for 2023

35. Janelle Monae, “Lipstick Lover”
34. Blur, “The Narcissist”
33. The Rolling Stones, “Angry”
32. Middle Kids, “Highlands”
31. The National, “Tropic Morning News”
30. Olivia Rodrigo, “bad idea right?”
29. The Japanese House, “Boyhood”
28. Lil Durk ft. J. Cole, “All My Life”
27. Cherry Glazerr, “Ready for You”
26. The Aces, “I’ve Loved You For So Long”
25. Hello Mary, “Special Treat”
24. Sweeping Promises, “Eraser”
23. boygenius, “$20”
22. Slow Pulp, “Cramp”
21. Labrinth, “Never Felt So Alone”
20. Arlo Parks, “Weightless”
19. Ron Gallo, “I Love Someone Buried Deep Inside of You”
18. Glitter Party, “time waits”
17. Palehound, “Head Like Soup”
16. Sincere Engineer, “Fireplace”
15. Bully ft. Soccer Mommy, “Lose You”
14. Alex Lahey, “You’ll Never Get Your Money Back”
13. The Warning, “More”
12. Wednesday, “Quarry”
11.The Last Dinner Party, “Sinner”
10. Hotline TNT, “Son In Law”
9. JW Francis, “Swooning”
8. Olivia Rodrigo, “all-american bitch”
7. boygenius, “Cool About It”
6. Jenny Lewis, “Psychos”
5. Big Thief, “Vampire Empire”
4. Queens of the Stone Age, “Paper Machete”
3. MJ Lenderman, “Rudolph”
2. Blondshell, “Salad”
1. boygenius, “Not Strong Enough”