Ear Traffic’s best local albums and tracks of 2023


Given that Ear Traffic ATX is — with extremely limited historical exception — just one person’s thoughts on music, a little bit of disclosure and vulnerability seem appropriate here. So here it is: 2023 was an incredibly difficult year for me personally. There were deaths that profoundly and collectively affected me and my family — two beloved people, one beloved pet. A family member’s health scare was a large part of the picture as well, giving way to the satisfying but qualified relief that everything’s OK so far. Other more trivial aggravations sprinkled themselves in, capped with me catching and waiting out two different viruses in the last month and a half of the year (neither of them COVID).

Revealing this stuff serves the purpose of prefacing my usual year-end rankings with a rationalized confession: I didn’t have the same availability, or emotional energy, for avid music newshounding and nerdery in 2023 that I usually do. My evaluations of the year that was — both for local music and for the best overall albums and tracks of 2023 — don’t come from as comprehensive a place this year. That’s just the reality. I’m sure I’m not alone.

Nonetheless, I did manage to hear some fine and amazing music from both local artists and beyond. Today, I’ll start with the locals: my five favorite full-length albums from Austin-area artists in 2023 (EPs are ineligible; gotta be an LP) and my 20 favorite tracks from same. I raise a glass to the artists appearing on these lists for making my 2023 a little better through well-harnessed talent.

5 Best Local Albums of 2023

5. Half Dream, Will I Still Bloom?

Living up to its name, and wrapping dream pop, basic indie rock and folk into a cohesive package, Half Dream leverages all its to strengths to fine and varied effect on its first full-length. Paige Renée Berry’s crystalline voice and Laine Higgins’ lead guitar star across these 11 tracks as Half Dream asserts its facility with everything from building ballads (“Ebbs & Flows”) to higher-energy, tuneful rock (“Will I Still Bloom?”, “Too Much”).

4. Being Dead, When Horses Would Run

Seeing Being Dead at a SXSW day show back in March was … fine, but it didn’t prepare me for how fun When Horses Would Run would turn out to be. At every turn, there’s an indie-psych nugget that sticks you square between the garage and the spaced-out drum circle in the commune courtyard. It’s a winning, out-there vibe all the way through.

3. Blackchyl, Better Than I Imagined

It’s pronounced black-CHILE, but if it were pronounced “chill” instead, Te’aunna Moore’s hip-hop persona would have an appropriate moniker — but deceptively so. As smooth as it gets on the mic, the proud East Austin veteran runs through a concise, audacious and sturdily produced set of 10 tracks in just 25 minutes, flowing fluidly through gently spiky rhymes you’ll need to hear more than once to fully absorb.

2. Tele Novella, Poet’s Tooth

As perfect as a spare, ’60s-reminiscent woodsy folk-pop record can be. Vocalist/guitarist Natalie Ribbons, guitarist Jason Chronis and producer/drummer Danny Reish collectively and consistently churn out tracks with echoes of pop and country’s jangles and deliberate dynamic shifts of 55-60 years ago. Always dreamy, alternately idyllic-sounding and despairing, always captivating.

1. Black Pumas, Chronicles of a Diamond

I’m sure I wasn’t the only person who listened to Black Pumas’ very good self-titled debut back in 2019 and thought, “They can still be better.” But I’m confident that around Austin, at least, it would have been an unpopular opinion at the time. Lo and behold, here’s that better record. Chronicles of a Diamond is more assertive, arresting and stylistically adventurous than Black Pumas, giving their psych-soul even more bite than it had when they broke big. Eric Burton’s tremendously rangy vocals and Adrian Quesada’s guitar and production work are consistently top-notch and always take a new turn to keep you enthralled (e.g. the processed guitar in the outro of “Tomorrow”). But it’s when Burton deploys his Curtis Mayfield-ish higher register that the Pumas claw their way to the heights of today’s retro-indebted rock scene — not just for Austin, but all over.

Top 20 Local Tracks of 2023

20. Blackchyl, “Protected”
19. Black Pumas, “Sauvignon”
18. Farmer’s Wife, “Pool Song”
17. Half Dream, “Will I Still Bloom?”
16. A Giant Dog, “Different Than”
15. Trouble in the Streets, “Mother’s Tongue”
14. Alesia Lani, “Better”
13. Pelvis Wrestley, “Keep On Running”
12. Hovvdy, “Jean”
11. Magna Carda, “Cowboy”
10. Shinyribs, “Dark Cloud”
9. Bright Light Social Hour, “Not New”
8. Blackchyl, “Eastside”
7. Being Dead, “Last Living Buffalo”
6. Tearjerk, “Show You”
5. Van Mary, “Ennui”
4. Grocery Bag, “Alone”
3. Tele Novella, “Hard-Hearted Way”
2. Die Spitz, “Groping Dogs Gushing Blood”
1. Black Pumas, “Ice Cream (Pay Phone)”