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The 50 Best Albums of 2023

Illustration by Jed Chisholm for NPR

In certain Decembers, a list of the year's best albums feels like a fireworks display. 2023 may have been short on flashes and booms, but it was rich with smaller fires: no less intensely gorgeous, more approachable and built for heat, not spectacle. And while it might be tempting, as many have argued at many points in the format's history, to take this lack of consensus as proof of its diminished value as a popular art form, we look at things a different way. In a year short on albums that draw a mob, it's easier to see what might have otherwise been ignored for the treasure it is. (And at a moment when recordings lacking a critical mass of listeners have been deemed ineligible for royalties by a certain streaming service, that thought might be worth lingering on.)

Here's our proof. In the following list, you'll find albums that have been celebrated widely, and others that we're pretty sure you won't see on any other year-end offering. Every single one of them is loved intensely by a member of NPR Music's team.

In keeping with that vibe, we're offering this list of our favorite albums in a different wrapping this year. For the first time since 2015, our 50 best albums of the year aren't ranked, but listed in chronological order by release date. (You'll notice that the first came out in the closing weeks of 2022, though it lingered in our ears — and lodged in our hearts — far into 2023.) In case you need a bit more guidance and like to scroll, we have bestowed a special honor on a dozen of them: crowns to designate those we recommend to anyone looking for a spark, or a slow burn.


/ Top Dawg / RCA
/
Top Dawg / RCA

SZA SOS

Release Date: December 9, 2022

Six years ago, SZA completely changed the trajectory of R&B and a generation. In an industry that runs on facades of perfection, Gen Z fawners have dubbed SZA "mother" for her blunt, sometimes-contradictory but always-gnawingly-honest lyrics set to lilting harmonies. Solána Rowe herself is no longer the second-guessing 20-something of Ctrl days, and her sophomore release, SOS, proves it by pulling no punches. She offsets a sanguine outlook on love ("Snooze") with odes to bloody revenge ("Kill Bill"), indie-pop angst ("Ghost in the Machine"), acoustic toxicity ("Nobody Gets Me") and bad bitch mood boosting ("Smoking on my Ex Pack") — every track is another jewel to her crown. Though SOS landed right at the end of 2022, SZA has bobbed and buoyed all 2023 with record-breaking sales, chart-dominating singles, an international arena tour and yet another wave of Grammy nominations. Altogether, this collection of melodic stunts brings a whole new meaning to the old adage of "Smooth seas never made a skilled sailor." —Sidney Madden


/ The Latin Dead
/
The Latin Dead

The Latin Dead Eyes of the World

Release Date: February 14

Nearly three decades after Jerry Garcia's death, interest in the Grateful Dead's songbook has never waned; in fact, it has only grown over time. Guitarist John Kadlecik, who comes from the post-Grateful Dead musical circle (Further, Dark Star Orchestra, Melvin Seals & JGB), teamed up with Oscar Hernández, a pianist/composer/arranger/producer and leader of Spanish Harlem Orchestra, for an innovative run through Dead's music that has been approached from all kinds of directions except this one. The Latin Dead's Eyes of the World is a collection of tightly arranged interpretations that reveal the nuances of melody and composition that sometimes gets taken for granted during long jams. For an Afro Caribbean music-loving Deadhead like me, this album is a dream come true. Bob Weir recently announced he would abandon the rock format to use a symphony orchestra to explore the band's music; in that light, The Latin Dead's approach adds another path on the long, strange trip that is the Grateful Dead. —Felix Contreras


/ BMG
/
BMG

Tianna Esperanza Terror

Release Date: February 17

Someone coming to Tianna Esperanza's music without knowing her story might think they've been transported through time. But the portal is unstable: Is this the croon of a cabaret singer in Weimar Berlin, all smoke and decadence? Or are we in one of the jazz clubs where Nina Simone staged her arched-eyebrow protests? At one point on Terror, her debut album, this young queer biracial woman raised in Cape Cod sings from the perspective of the Harlem bookstore owner Lewis Michaux, who was born in the last years of the 19th century, yet her "Lewis" has the patchouli scent of classic Erykah Badu. "Three Straight Bitches From Hell" somehow marries Gil Scott-Heron's flow with PJ Harvey's drive as Esperanza calls out the women who've broken her heart. The granddaughter of Paloma McLardy, drummer for The Raincoats and The Slits, Esperanza embraces the impiety that is her punk inheritance, but she also values the beauty of her burnished contralto and the funky lyricism she shares with her mentor, Valerie June. Like that Americana innovator, Esperanza reimagines the past in ways that feel almost futuristic — beyond categories, beyond eras. She makes her own space. —Ann Powers


/ Songs of Iris
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Songs of Iris

Iris DeMent Workin' on a World

Release Date: February 24

Political awareness often begins at the kitchen table, in the living room, even at the family piano. With Workin' on a World, Iris DeMent — steward of one of the most treasured and timeless voices inhabiting our moment — brings disinformation-addled listeners back to such intimate realms. Her stepdaughter (and album co-producer) Pieta Brown encouraged DeMent to shape songs from her anxieties and hopes about the current mess of global crises; they headed to Nashville and gathered a band that does full justice to music with the warmth of folk, the reach of gospel and the homespun sagacity of classic country. DeMent counters spirited calls to action like "Warriors of Love" and critiques like "Let Me Be Your Jesus" with golden insights into the beauty and pain of our shared inescapable mortality. In the gemlike, Chekhov-inspired "The Cherry Orchard," DeMent looks across the span of her 62 years at young political idealists and warns them against ideologues — yet sends them forth, to fight despite the odds. "The train has pulled into the station," she sings about the passage of time and the need to act despite its toll. "Don your cape, don your shoes." —Ann Powers


/ Bis
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Bis

Missy Mazzoli Dark With Excessive Bright

Release Date: March 3

The first album to showcase Missy Mazzoli's orchestral works proves that the composer, known for her operas and chamber pieces, is fluent in the art of creating lustrous symphonic scores. Her harmonies are fresh, often surprising and filled with color. In her Sinfonia, subtitled "For Orbiting Spheres," harmonicas in three different keys produce an ethereal chorus, a sound she describes as a "hurdy-gurdy flung recklessly into space." Dark with Excessive Bright, a concerto for violin and string orchestra, takes its title from a blind man's description of God in John Milton's Paradise Lost. The incongruity seems fitting for a 21st century piece inspired by centuries-old music that blends tenebrous strings with glistening, high-flying solos for violinist Peter Herresthal.

Mazzoli claims to have a tolerance for mystery and the unknown, which is an apt context for These Worlds in Us, based partly on a poem about a lost WWII pilot. Armed with an opening wistful theme and wheezy melodicas, the piece thunders with drama and closes with quiet pulsating whiffs of Indonesian gamelan music. Mazzoli is presumably working on her Metropolitan Opera commission (due in 2025), but with symphonic works as dramatic as these, we don't need voices to tell the stories. —Tom Huizenga


/ Interscope
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Interscope

Jordan Ward FORWARD

Release Date: March 3

The St. Louis-bred singer-songwriter's debut ebbs and flows beautifully between R&B and hip-hop, employing vintage synth sounds and creating a harmonious space for his church roots and his background as a dancer to emerge. The title pays homage to his family name and declares the album as a sonic catalyst — Jordan Ward and his executive producer, Lido, recruited some of the most creative up-and-comers like Gwen Bunn and Joyce Wrice to participate. While the storytelling is inherently autobiographical, playing out the moments and experiences that have shaped Ward, there's immense relatability. This album creates a safe space for evolving 20-somethings to be seen and affirmed, no matter where we are on our life journeys, and makes complex and intangible feelings more concrete enough to grasp. There are also moments of lightheartedness and childish fun, showing an artist who fights to keep his inner child alive. If this is the foreword in Ward's book, there's no doubt that I'm committed to seeing the rest of his story unfold. —Ashley Pointer


/ Rabid
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Rabid

Fever Ray Radical Romantics

Release Date: March 10

The music that Karin Dreijer makes as Fever Ray has a sort of otherworldly charm. Like beings out of movies like Under the Skin and Annihilation, it can feel as if something alien and curious is trying to approximate human behavior — or, more accurately, trying to activate the emotional spectrum, to experience profound feeling and the change that sets in. Fittingly, Dreijer has said that Radical Romantics, the artist's unnervingly mutable third album, is about "finding out what it is to love." No stranger to donning costumes and playing personas, Dreijer contorts into many forms, navigating an oddball pop of buzzing and wobbly synths. But beneath its charades are senses stirred by the personal history of a private figure — gleeful fantasies of getting back at a child's bully, the last lingering touches of a pandemic relationship in crisis. The sum of its sensations is an album that is as earwormy as it is uncanny, and as empathetic as it is unreal. —Sheldon Pearce


/ Dog Show/Atlantic
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Dog Show/Atlantic

100 gecs 10,000 gecs

Release Date: March 17

The shopworn take on 100 gecs — that the hyperpop duo "sounds like the internet" — has always felt a little neat. Our modern internet presents largely as a lifestyle boutique, all rounded corners and yassified slogans; anything outmoded lives in back rooms on bottom shelves, and the default soundtrack is anonymous chillhop, playlist-ready and texture-free. Compare that atmosphere to "Doritos & Fritos," the sound of two friends playing stoner word games as they scroll every setting on an effects plugin, exchanging little-stinker grins. The difference is fun, a disarmingly pure kind that's retreated from online life since the Winamp and GeoCities salad days. 10,000 gecs is not an outright revivalist work, but it's born of genuine love for that messy moment near the turn of this century, when third-wave ska, seven-string rap metal, Myspace emo and Bushwick blog rock might have shared the same font size on a festival poster. The album's overture, a wholesale rip of the theater-rattling THX test sound that crash-lands into gender odyssey "Dumbest Girl Alive," puts its ethos in a nutshell: Like the best Hollywood blockbusters, what you're about to experience doesn't pretend to be high art, but rest assured it will matter. —Daoud Tyler-Ameen


/ Rough Trade
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Rough Trade

Lankum False Lankum

Release Date: March 24

As you scroll through NPR Music's list of the 50 Best Albums of 2023, you might notice a dearth of something that once felt ubiquitous — the band. There are myriad potential explanations for that shortage, including "it's hard to split $0.005 four ways" and "you can't fit the drummer and the bassist in a 9x16 crop." The way we listen (and swipe) simply isn't conducive to four or five talented musicians sharing equitably in streaming's spoils ... which is what makes Ireland's Lankum feel like a gift from the pagan gods. Radie Peat, Cormac Mac Diarmada and the brothers Daragh and Ian Lynch have not only defied the odds of 2023; the foreboding foursome is on track to become one of the greatest groups of the 21st century. False Lankum, their third award-winning album since 2017, takes their A24 update of Irish traditional music to unprecedented (read: Radiohead) levels. Who needs rock when you have the philosopher's stone? —Otis Hart


/ AWAL
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AWAL

JPEGMAFIA x Danny Brown SCARING THE HOES

Release Date: March 24

Anarchy is not a word commonly associated with rap nowadays. Droning 808s and low-vibrational BPMs have long since lulled the genre into a sonic snoozefest of predictability. But JPEGMAFIA and Danny Brown are this generation's patron saints for making rap noisy again. As solo artists, they've clearly been about that life for a decade apiece. Both serve as unwieldy experimentalists in a field where going against the norm provokes the kind of condemnation illustrated by the album's hyperbolic title, SCARING THE HOES.

Yet this collaboration shouldn't work as well as it does. Pairing Danny Brown's frenetic, helium-pitched flows atop rapper/producer JPEG's high-octane, chaotic production style should clash like the titans. But they prove two weirdos are better than one, as they take sex, drugs and sacrilege to the head. "Fell on my knees when I caught a felony," Danny raps on the gospel sampling "HOE (Heaven On Earth)." "Tell me who there for me / Think I need therapy." The album's release was preceded exactly one week by Danny publicly announcing at SXSW his plans to go to rehab, but SCARING THE HOES feels like a sobering slap to a rap industry drowning in monotony. —Rodney Carmichael


/ Interscope
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Interscope

boygenius the record

Release Date: March 31

The term "polyfidelity" was coined at a commune in San Francisco called Kerista, where tight alliances formed under the name "best friend intimacy clusters." Contrary to rumors, the singer-songwriter trio of Phoebe Bridgers, Julien Baker and Lucy Dacus is a professional collaboration, not a throuple. Yet the ecstatically beloved ensemble specializes in the thorniest aspects of best friend intimacy — how it matters within love affairs, can arise among casual acquaintances, defines periods of life only to end with a thud. "If you rewrite your life, may I still play a part?" Dacus sings at the site of one such crash in "We're in Love." With more focus than on its two previous EPs, boygenius presents camaraderie as the generative force that created rock 'n' roll (hear it in its Simon & Garfunkel-esque harmonies, see it in the endless nods to The Beatles and the other boy bands the trio is superseding) and the space in which people can make the most painful and necessary disclosures. boygenius is bigger than the record — these three had a year like Taylor Swift's and Beyoncé's, claiming festivals and arenas for their all-woman band — but it's the album that forms the ground of the phenomenon, with every song a generous collaboration that feels like one bestie intervening exactly at the moment when her confidante loses the ability to speak, every harmony a trust fall, every empathetic lyrical mind-meld a dare to take that leap and love somebody, maybe not in the way you expected to. —Ann Powers


/ Dead Oceans
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Dead Oceans

Wednesday Rat Saw God

Release Date: April 7

"Every daughter of God has a little bad luck sometimes," Wednesday's Karly Hartzman sings, wailing, midway through Rat Saw God, one of the best indie-rock records of this year. There's a lot of bad luck on this album — death in the parking lot of a Planet Fitness, overdoses, electric shocks, yellow jacket stings — but also chaotic joy, love and friendship, the two opposing realities mingling in Wednesday's passionate, country-infused punk noise. The Asheville, N.C., band has released music for several years, but its fifth album, Rat Saw God, is the group's boldest, grungiest release yet, helming a dark, twisted, Americana sound that mixes pedal steel and discordant walls of sound. Above all, Rat Saw God is grounded by Hartzman's fearless, talented songwriting ability to catalog her and her friends' wild, suburban, Southern youth. It's a catalog that feels both specific to her and yet, somehow, indelibly, universally American. —Hazel Cills


/ September
/
September

Kara Jackson Why Does The Earth Give Us People To Love?

Release Date: April 14

"Damn the dickhead blues," Kara Jackson moans on her debut LP, her deep, liquid voice floating on the fingerpicked chords of her guitar as a xylophone, strings and a Wurlitzer form a translucent arrangement around her. As she goes on to list just what dickheads do and how she's learning to refuse them — "I am pretty top-notch," she repeats, reminding herself — it's easy to imagine the tilt of her chin and the way her jokes clear the catch in her throat. The 24-year-old Jackson, an award-winning published poet who started playing piano at age 5, tugs on the line between the profane and the profound with the self-possessed ease of the century of blues storytellers who set this stage for her. Like those writers, Jackson builds her boat from casually devastating wordplay and lets her stray thoughts carry her to points of revelation: "just when you should sharpen me, the angels licensed you to leave," she sings of a colored pencil-collecting friend who died too young, pinpointing how a loss during adolescence can arrest a person. Elevating her accounts of mourning and resilience is the unobtrusively magical production by Jackson and her cohort of undefinable Chicago indie artists (KAINA, NNAMDÏ and Sen Morimoto); frameworks that seem skeletal at first glow with hidden details, offering new depths to explore with each listen. —Ann Powers


/ Polydor
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Polydor

Feist Multitudes

Release Date: April 14

Leslie Feist has always taken her time releasing solo albums, so it only makes sense that each feels hand-crafted, deliberate and, well, special. Multitudes is her first since 2017's Pleasure, and it follows a period of extreme upheaval in the singer's life: She wrote it following the arrival of her daughter and the death of her father, so it's only natural that it reflects heavily on beginnings, endings, mortality and the ways human beings connect and rely on one another. Multitudes often works at a whisper, alternating lushness and spareness while leaving room for air to hang meaningfully between notes.

Nearly 25 years into a great career, Feist has rarely sounded deeper or more assured and inspired. Multitudes isn't just a headphone record because of its richly orchestrated, deftly engineered sound. It also demands close-up attention because it has something new and profound to impart with each encounter. —Stephen Thompson


/ Nonesuch
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Nonesuch

Thomas Adès Dante

Release Date: April 21

Dante's Divine Comedy continues to inspire greatness. From Botticelli and Rodin to Gogol and Woody Allen, artists of all stripes have been drawn to his vivid depiction of a journey down into hell — guided by the poet Virgil — and back up through purgatory into paradise. Now, British composer Thomas Adès has responded to the Italian masterpiece with one of his own, a 90-minute ballet titled Dante. This music, in its stunning debut recording by the Los Angeles Philharmonic with conductor Gustavo Dudamel, ranks among the most fantastical and kaleidoscopic orchestral works of our time.

In the "Inferno," Adès' score pounds, swirls and pivots from boisterous grotesquerie to delicate lyricism, all in a sweeping and luxurious Romantic-era expression, with traces of Berlioz, Liszt and Stravinsky. "Purgatorio" finds us serenaded by the morning prayer of a cantor, with subdued, Middle Eastern coloring in the orchestra, while the final "Paradiso" spirals past space and time in cosmic explosions of light, landing gently in a choir of female voices. With Dante, Adès is our connoisseur of musical sins and cinematic opulence, rendered in his signature rigorous construction. With Adès as our Virgil, this vision of the afterlife is truly — and delightfully — out of this world. —Tom Huizenga

(A version of this review appears on NPR Music's #NowPlaying blog.)


/ EMI
/
EMI

Jessie Ware That! Feels Good!

Release Date: April 28

In 2012, when Jessie Ware released Devotion, there was little hint of how frisky her music would become. Recent albums have been possessed by the escapism of clubbing, its trysts and highs and vibes. Pleasure was always a focus of her songs, but what once manifested as a steamy, soulful yearning has evolved into a more disco-fueled exuberant sound with an appetite for excess. As the name implies, the extravagant, stunning That! Feels Good! zeroes in on the moments that stoke such euphoria. Revivalism at its maximalist best, this is an album that feels as liberated as it is detail-oriented, with layered background vocals, velvety horns and orchestral flourishes fleshing out a nightlife fantasy. Ware sings fervently of outlets, playing diva, freak and dreamer as rapturous songs delight in the spoils of letting the music take you, an experience it reproduces. The scenes are familiar, eternal — breaking loose from a stifling life; whirls scattering pearls across the dancefloor; beautiful people, everywhere, being free. —Sheldon Pearce


/ Verve Forecast
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Verve Forecast

Joy Oladokun Proof of Life

Release Date: April 28

"Try to see a light in the dark." Nothing sums up the inspirational appeal of Joy Oladokun's Proof of Life like that line from the bridge of the album's opening cut, "Keeping the Light On." The Nashville-based singer-songwriter has every right to be mad and/or sad at the state of the world. She's a Black, queer, first-generation American — a walking bullseye for bigots of a certain political persuasion. And yet, while her (mostly white) contemporaries wallow (or at the very least mope) in varying degrees of interiority, Oladokun's latest album exudes warmth, hope and sincerity, often with a killer backbeat. Her lyrics bend to the will of her songwriting, not the other way around. Even at her most defeatist on "Taking Things For Granted" — her personal spin on "Not Waving but Drowning" — you can hear references to The Rolling Stones' "Gimme Shelter" and The Beatles' "Hey Jude." And that's fitting, because no one takes a sad song and makes it better at this moment in time than Joy Oladokun. —Otis Hart


/ Palilalia
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Palilalia

Bill Orcutt Jump On It

Release Date: April 28

Bill Orcutt, the 61-year-old guitarist capable of euphoric skronk and uneasy quietude, couldn't pick a lane in 2023. He released duo and trio sets with drummer Chris Corsano and saxophonist Zoh Amba, plus The Anxiety of Symmetry, a mesmerizing album of looped and layered female voices. Orcutt also took his electric guitar quartet on tour, which rumbled the Tiny Desk with its minimalist miniatures. Jump On It, however, is both a return and a reinvention for Orcutt. For the first time in a decade, Orcutt improvises on an acoustic guitar — four strings, only and always — but instead of his signature scrapes and squiggles, these tracks explore a tender curiosity that's always been undercurrent. Previously, he might introduce and quickly deconstruct a figure within the same phrase, but here patience is paramount: Orcutt still dizzies up the fretboard, but more as a gust of wind than a storm, instead favoring repetition and lingering atmosphere. The result is among the year's most meditative recordings, one that sinks slowly into musical gestures, yet still crackles with energy. —Lars Gotrich


/ Backwoodz Studioz
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Backwoodz Studioz

billy woods & Kenny Segal Maps

Release Date: May 5

It took a while, but Maps feels like the album the enigmatic rapper billy woods has been steadily working toward since he first started in the early 2000s. Time invested and work done are kind of the point: Its songs are filled with ruminations on travel, journeys and destinations, searching and learning, all culminating in an all-timer reaching the peak of his powers. It doesn't feel like a coincidence that woods' most approachable album is also his punchiest, or that it comes in a moment of reflection — on collected knowledge and common sense. His labyrinthine verses can be challenging for the casual listener, but here he is more careful about unfurling them, doing so without losing the density that makes his music so transfixing. Among the most brilliant writers in rap, he is now one of the most surgical, too, and his rhymes bobble through like connected train cars passing sweeping landscapes. Produced entirely by Kenny Segal, a staple of the LA underground scene, Maps is far less monochromatic than their previous work together, or really any woods album, as if reflecting the broadening perspective of his songs. It is a defining triumph from an artist who has always seen progress as its own reward. —Sheldon Pearce


/ Sony Music Argentina
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Sony Music Argentina

Fito Páez EADDA9223

Release Date: May 30

Fito Páez's first solo album was released in 1984, a year after the end of a brutal dictatorship in Argentina; it was part of a burgeoning movement of Spanish language rock and roll. Along the way, Páez became known as one the movement's most lyrical and insightful composers, leading up to what many consider his masterpiece: 1992's El Amor Después del Amor. EADDA9223 (El Amor Después del Amor 1992-2023) is more than a nostalgic look back at the biggest-selling rock album in Argentine history, it's a joyous track-by-track celebration buoyed by a who's who of contemporary Latin American rockers, rappers and singers. The reimagined take burns with the same quiet intensity, but is now filtered through folk music, jazz and even splashes of flamenco. But, for my money, the album's best moment is on the title track: Three decades later, the vocals reflect a more profound understanding of why no one should live without love. — Felix Contreras


/ Interscope
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Interscope

Amaarae Fountain Baby

Release Date: June 9

Oh, the club's in its flop era? The sweat-slicked bangers of Amaarae's Fountain Baby say otherwise. After making noise for years on remixes, features and sleepers out of Africa, Amaarae's major label debut fuses pop, rock, R&B, Ghanaian highlife and a whole lot more to give anyone not hip to her abilities the fullest introduction possible. Bronx-born but raised in Atlanta, New Jersey and Accra, Fountain Baby is the lovechild of Amaarae's cross-continental upbringing, a legacy of all the music hubs where she found herself. The project takes you from an exuberant ride to the middle of a disco-balled dance floor ("Angels in Tibet") to the back corner ("Wasted Eyes") to a point of hazy recollection in the morning light ("Sociopathic Dance Queen"). The love of music has always spanned cultures, but the more it becomes a global conversation, the more visionaries like Amaarae, who create soundpaths unable to be confined by "genre," will rise as our next-gen leaders. —Sidney Madden


/ Wondaland/Bad Boy
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Wondaland/Bad Boy

Janelle Monáe The Age of Pleasure

Release Date: June 9

Unapologetically sybaritic, Janelle Monáe's fourth studio album slaps from the first track. While, on the surface, the record might appear to be a parade of hedonistic indulgence — and sure, it positively shimmers with sex and sensuality — it also embraces gratitude with open arms. Counting your blessings and accomplishments gives birth to a potent intoxicant: self-confidence. Watching your hard work transform into opportunities to explore the finer things in life yields an exquisite feeling of liberation. Pop that bottle. Take that trip with your friends. Spoil your bae(s). Own the power of acknowledging the balance between your feminine and masculine energies and let the haters come for you, if they dare.

Like its creator, The Age of Pleasure's musical identity is vibrant and fluid. R&B, hip-hop, Afrobeat, Lovers' rock, pop and soul delightfully play together for a seamless listening experience that ferries us through music that is as equally seductive as its unabashedly flirtatious lyrics. The Age of Pleasure is a triumphant declaration of independence that rightly revels in its own beauty. —Nikki Birch


/ EARTHCHILD
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EARTHCHILD

BLK ODYSSY DIAMONDS & FREAKS

Release Date: June 9

Every half-decade or so, an album drops that renews my faith in the funk. And lemme tell you, the bass-walloping embrace of DIAMONDS & FREAKS is so plush it reminds me of the crimson crushed-velvet seats in the back of my momma's '77 Buick Regal. But this is no ordinary funk redux, even with Bootsy Collins' occasional narration. What BLK ODYSSY accomplishes here is something of a synthesis of the last half-century or so of Black music.

The album introduces itself as "an erotic novel of love and lust." But this is a sonic odyssey, the byproduct of DNA spliced from the likes of P-Funk and To Pimp A Butterfly. Yet producer Juwan Elcock's voice is BLK ODYSSY's true innovation, bringing us to a future where hip-hop/R&B hybrids no longer require two artists trading hook-and-verse duty, but one vocalist who simultaneously embodies both roles. Elcock fronts the Austin, Texas-based band by alternating as both a) a singer with a rhythmic delivery and b) a rapper with a melodic flow. On "MS SWEET TEA," he spits lyrics over booming bass, then switches to a slinky falsetto in the next song, "SUMMER IN THE RAIN." They pull similarly soulful performances out of other guests, including KIRBY, Eimaral Sol and Rapsody, whose standout appearance on "BROKE FOLK FUNK" proves she, too, has been fully possessed by the funk. —Rodney Carmichael


/ Gamma
/
Gamma

Sexyy Red Hood Hottest Princess

Release Date: June 9

After breaking out with the Tay Keith-produced "Pound Town" in early 2023, St. Louis rapper Sexyy Red made sure the warmest months of the year were extra sticky with Hood Hottest Princess. As the title of the mixtape states, Sexyy Red has crowned herself royalty in the realm of all things hot, hedonist and ratchet. And her court is growing.

Even if her lyrics come off as out-of-pocket for unprimed ears — who would ever think we'd hear a whole football team scream "My coochie pink, my booty hole brown"? — it never feels out-of-character for the truly unbothered Big Sexyy. But what makes the St. Louis stunner one of the most entertaining rarities in hip-hop right now is how her p**** raps don't (necessarily) come with a price tag. Instead of VVS diamonds and private island trips, she's all about thrill-seeking and relatively humble goals like "I'm out here in Miami / Looking for the hoochie daddies" ("Pound Town") or "Drive the car fast, do the dash, it make my coochie leak" ("Hellcats SRTs").

Sexyy's priorities are finding herself a stepdad for her kid, standing on couches at the booty club and maybe matching her wig to her new whip. Yoom! —Sidney Madden


/ Blue Note
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Blue Note

Meshell Ndegeocello The Omnichord Real Book

Release Date: June 16

"This album is about the way we see old things in new ways," Meshell Ndegeocello explains in her album liner notes. The Omnichord Real Book opens with a nod to Ndegeocello's bass roots on "Georgia Ave," a major artery in Washington, D.C., and legendary in go-go, a genre she started playing as a teenager. Its lyrics, "Wake up, return, balance, align," vamp over an omnichord-generated, trancelike beat, with hints of nostalgia weaving effortlessly across progressive musical ideas. The subsequent 17 songs also tap into Ndegeocello's expansive musical background of over 30 years, each track a sensuous, stand-alone adventure, but better together as a collective work. No one genre can explain its expansiveness — it leans jazz for sure but also has a soul-infused, folksy feeling that sits strong in funky rhythmic patterns and tonal harmonies. Produced by and featuring Josh Johnson, this exquisite record also includes Jason Moran, Ambrose Akinmusire, Brandee Younger and more. —Suraya Mohamed


/ Sub Pop
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Sub Pop

Sweeping Promises Good Living is Coming For You

Release Date: June 30

Every time I open my smartphone, someone is trying to sell me something. Makeup, home decor, devices designed to make my life easier, devices designed to solve problems I didn't know I had. These ads populate my social media feeds, from companies and individuals and companies disguised as individuals. Good Living Is Coming For You, from the Lawrence, Kan.-based duo Sweeping Promises, plays like an album made to pierce through this ubiquitous, modern noise. Teetering on the edge of the post-punk revival that's been brewing for a few years now, members Lira Mondal and Caufield Schnug craft tightly wound punk mini-manifestos that tackle consumerism and desire. "If you'd been given all you wanted when you wanted it," Mondal sings on "Connoisseur of Salt," "would you be fine, fine, fine?" Not unlike artists like Barbara Kruger and Jenny Holzer, Mondal and Schnug skillfully contort the seductive language of advertising into menacing confrontation. —Hazel Cills


/ Dirty Hit
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Dirty Hit

The Japanese House In The End It Always Does

Release Date: June 30

U.K. electro-pop singer-songwriter Amber Bain, who records as The Japanese House, has been rattling around for more than a decade, as she's released one promising album (2019's Good At Falling) and a long string of EPs. On In The End It Always Does, she levels up in a big way, in vibrant songs that ruminate on queerness and failed romance while conveying a mix of world-weariness, wonder, lust, appreciation, disappointment and, appropriately enough, profound ambivalence. A list of Bain's highest-profile collaborators on the album — MUNA's Katie Gavin, The 1975's Matty Healy and George Daniel, Bon Iver's Justin Vernon, Charli XCX — actually provides a decent way to triangulate The Japanese House's vibe, which can be mordantly witty, darkly beautiful, buoyantly playful and all-around gorgeous, often all at once. And, while its flashiest bangers ("Touching Yourself," "Boyhood") pop up in its opening half, In The End It Always Does somehow improves in its final third, as "Sunshine Baby" and "Baby goes again" solicit swoons on top of swoons. —Stephen Thompson


/ Partisan
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Partisan

PJ Harvey I Inside the Old Year Dying

Release Date: July 7

Polly Jean Harvey is a daughter of Dorset, an English region of Jurassic cliffs and boggy forests, of fading villages and the intriguing remnants of a language mostly now spoken by the dead. For her 10th studio album, she immersed herself in the rhythms of her native countryside, following the seasons as she imagined a young girl's passage into adulthood and, through violence, a kind of supernatural immortality. Based on her novel in verse Orlam, I Inside the Old Year Dying finds a new way to invoke rural customs and lore, freeing these old sources from the trad-folk trappings that have often frozen them dead and adjusting her own inimitable art-rock sound to suit a narrative teeming with wildlife and the smells of the woods. She also learned the nearly extinct Dorset dialect, incorporating its pithy syllables into her lyrics. But here, also, lies the revenant of Elvis Presley, and of rusted old automobiles and other late 20th century relics. Her small group of collaborators, including musical soulmate John Parish, producer Flood and the field recordings gatherer Cecil, bring this region of nether-edges alive in a wondrous way. Harvey's voice has never resonated quite like this before — delicate, alien, a child's and an ancient spirit's, as ethereal and natural as the sun that touches the wilderness where no road has been cut. —Ann Powers


/ Merge
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Merge

The Clientele I Am Not There Anymore

Release Date: July 28

How do you trap a memory in a song? Is it possible for a tune to conjure the ache of an image burned into your mind? No band knows this pursuit — and the romance and torment of its inevitable failure — better than the London pop group The Clientele, which has spent three decades filling intimate pop songs not with the facts of history or memoir, but the feelings. On I Am Not There Anymore, the group draws on those accumulated skills to make an album that is impossibly delicate and possibly eternal. The album got noticed for the way its production deviates from the band's well-established, genteel acoustic sound. Here, for the first time in their catalog, melodic and lyrical themes emerge energetically from wisps of field recordings or entwine with recited poetry, then reappear many songs later, warped or faded or resolved by time, alongside programmed drums or looped samples. Songs like "Garden Eye Mantra" layer shifts in mood and meaning to bring on a new air of menace. But the obsessions are still the same: the shimmer at the edges of events that echoes in the brain like radioactive residue left behind by longing or confusion. I Am Not There Anymore is a tribute to a band's career-defining quest, and its culmination. —Jacob Ganz


/ AWAL
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AWAL

Noname Sundial

Release Date: August 11

During the 50th anniversary of hip-hop, many of its occupants held up a critical lens to its current state: A global phenom, no doubt, yet it's impossible to ignore that this genre born out of resistance and revolution has never been less hip-hop and instead has been reduced to a mere commercial commodity. This year couldn't have been more of a divine time for Noname's third studio album. Sundial is a protest, which challenges us to examine ourselves in how we're complicit in feeding the machine that's choking our communities, whether it's capitalism or colorism. Skating over a soulful, gospel-infused groove on "hold me down," Noname delivers hard truths: "Won't be a self-critic / Burn up our whole village / That wasn't us, that was colonialism / We keep our babies fed / We don't beat and rape on our women, we good / We is Wakanda, we Queen Rwanda / First Black president and he the one who bombed us." Noname strings conscious bars and humorous ones seamlessly and touches on her sexuality unlike before. Sundial encompasses multitudes, just like the community and people she's inviting to partake in this dialogue with her. —Ashley Pointer


/ RBC
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RBC

Mick Jenkins The Patience

Release Date: August 18

From the beginning, Chicago's Mick Jenkins has been an accomplished and composed rapper, but each new release has always seemed to be pushing toward holism, clarity of thought matching intensity of purpose. It's right there in the titles — The Healing Component, Pieces of a Man, Elephant in the Room, all implying a search for not just answers but self-fulfillment. He has never executed at a higher level than on The Patience, a controlled but emphatic album constantly evaluating the measures of his artistry and its place in his development as a person. Over subtle beats, long-running lyrical exercises are elevated by insights into his mindset. Within these songs his even-tempered verses are slightly more pointed, reveling in his own dexterity. Even for a long-confident technician, these performances are insistent and assiduous. They come with all the pent-up exasperation of waiting for the world to catch up to your talent. —Sheldon Pearce


/ RCA
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RCA

Victoria Monét Jaguar II

Release Date: August 25

Victoria Monét makes a great case for playing the long game. After years of playing various positions in the music industry — a one-time girl group member, a seasoned songwriter for marquee acts — the heat of Monét's spotlight is absolutely inextinguishable thanks to her debut album, Jaguar II.

"On My Mama" morphs an early aughts classic into a mid-tempo masterpiece that's one of the best songs of the year. The bites, bends and snaps of "Alright" feel like cutting up on the first night of a girls trip, and the twinkle of "Hollywood" — featuring the legendary Earth, Wind & Fire and Monét's own toddler, Hazel — opens up to a whole world of hope and possibilities. No matter the topic, the Grammy-nominated phenom gives glossed-up goddess energy for 11 tracks straight with every syllable seeping into the glow of the bassline. She never misses a note because she's guided by purpose. This is her moment. —Sidney Madden


/ self-released
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self-released

Awadagin Pratt STILLPOINT

Release Date: August 25

Poetry has long provided composers grist for their music mill. T.S. Eliot is the inspiration here, as pianist Awadagin Pratt doled out his favorite lines from Four Quartets to six composers as a jumping off point. The result is STILLPOINT, a thoroughly satisfying album sporting six new diverse works.

Jessie Montgomery's Rounds, a mini-piano concerto, is built on a traditional foundation, allowing a stormy cadenza and flourishes of high Romanticism. It's got legs. Pratt has already performed the work with 30 orchestras. Paola Prestini dug deeper into Eliot, inspired by his love letters to a schoolteacher. In Code, she writes uncanny birdcalls for Roomful of Teeth and rippling passages for Pratt. Tyshawn Sorey's contribution finds the MacArthur "genius" in his austere Morton Feldman mode, with tolling piano chords floating in the ether, buoyed by Teeth's airy vocals. Elder statesman Alvin Singleton's Time Past, Time Future blends Bach with Thelonious Monk, while Latvian Pēteris Vasks' contemplative Castillo Interior toys with the intersection of spiritual and intellectual ecstasy. The album concludes with sparkling music by Judd Greenstein, pulsing with vintage minimalism. With no recordings from Pratt for 12 years, STILLPOINT is an extraordinarily strong comeback. —Tom Huizenga


/ Geffen
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Geffen

Olivia Rodrigo GUTS

Release Date: September 8

Nearly three years ago, the world met a teenage Olivia Rodrigo driving through the suburbs on her mega-hit "drivers license," weepily bemoaning a first love she thought was "forever." But the 20-year-old you hear on the artist's deeply fun, sharp sophomore album, GUTS, might listen to that song now and roll her eyes. Across GUTS, Rodrigo is defiant and snarky about romance and heartbreak, cartwheeling through cursed hallmarks of young womanhood — vampiric older exes, questionable hookups, skin-crawling insecurities — over a palette of scuzzy, '90s indie rock-evoking sounds, landing feet-first with flying colors. In a pop landscape where such subjects are too often stripped of their human voice and vulnerability to reach the masses, how refreshing to hear a pop star who sounds like a real, young woman — messy, self-aware, funny, learning. "I know my age and I act like it!" Rodrigo shouts on the album's opening. Thank god for that. —Hazel Cills


/ Brownswood
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Brownswood

Yussef Dayes Black Classical Music

Release Date: September 8

Boasting a soundscape as lush and robust as the vegetation behind his childhood visage on the album cover, drummer Yussef Dayes' debut solo project is a vehicle for his exploration of the vast expansiveness of music that have a foothold in the Black Diaspora. A fixture in the U.K. jazz scene, Dayes ambitiously cycles through jaunts in post-bop, contemporary jazz, Caribbean rhythms, West African grooves, funk, orchestral interludes, neo-soul and more. Guest collaborators like Leon Thomas, Chronixx and Masego all make their mark ("Marching Band"). The first chord of Dayes and Tom Misch's dusky "Rust '' guarantees that this latest collab will be a success. Former Sons of Kemet bandmates Shabaka Hutchings and Theon Cross reunite on "Raisins Under the Sun." The work of the core ensemble — Rocco Palladino, Venna, Charlie Stacey, Alexander Bourt and Dayes himself — is the anchoring key to the album's flow, with each having several moments to shine. Woven through the broader landscape are autobiographical moments featuring his daughter, his mother and his own young self, which root the project with these glimpses of not only Dayes the drummer, but Dayes the person. —Mitra I. Arthur


/ Young
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Young

Romy Mid Air

Release Date: September 8

For most of her career, Romy Madley Croft has been known primarily as one third of The xx, the British rock group whose defining aesthetic is one of restraint: breathy vocals, clean guitar lines over minimalist electronica, a moniker so anonymous it reads more like a placeholder than a real band name. But Croft, like her bandmates Oliver Sim and Jamie xx in their solo pursuits, has been cultivating her own artistic voice. The result is her Grammy-nominated debut album, Mid Air, a joyous, propulsive dance album that celebrates her identity as a queer woman, an identity she hadn't previously centered in her music. Co-produced largely with Stuart Price and Fred again.., Mid Air brilliantly filters notes of house music and classic disco (the closer "She's On My Mind" plays like the Tavares' "Heaven Must Be Missing an Angel" as interpreted for a Boiler Room crowd) through Croft's signature coolness. —Hazel Cills


Darcy James Argue's Secret Society, Dynamic Maximum Tension
/ Nonesuch
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Nonesuch
Darcy James Argue's Secret Society, Dynamic Maximum Tension

Darcy James Argue's Secret Society Dynamic Maximum Tension

Release Date: September 8

Few inventions of the 20th century have proved more durable than the big band, a unit of musical organization that fashioned the peripatetic genius of Duke Ellington, Thad Jones and many others into a workable language. And few composer-orchestrators of the 21st century have made more resourceful use of that language than Darcy James Argue, whose Secret Society is a millennial paragon of the form. Dynamic Maximum Tension, his most expansive and ambitious statement with the band, practically explodes with big ideas — about cryptographer Alan Turing, futurist designer Buckminster Fuller and Hollywood subversive Mae West, but also Ellington and Jones — even as it roars like a stock car down the track. With plenty of room for soloists to make their strong impressions, Argue has created a double album that reinvigorates the big-band tradition with a modern metabolism. While he scans the known horizon for signs both ominous and hopeful, he's making sure the soundtrack really moves. —Nate Chinen, WRTI


/ Warner
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Warner

Ralphie Choo SUPERNOVA

Release Date: September 15

On his debut album, Spanish producer Ralphie Choo takes the listener on a global exploration of sound, punctuating pan-Latin genres electro-cumbia and bossa nova with American hip-hop and R&B stylings. Beat-driven flamenco rhythms, similar to those defining the Spanish pop scene, serve as the basis for the 14-track album, but SUPERNOVA possesses an innovative spirit and dynamic energy that builds sky-high above that base. Paradoxical harmonics are strung together with production choices that, in certain moments, rival Kanye-level grandiosity, setting tight, melodic bars over classical instrumentals. In a growing scene of Spanish producers-turned-artists experimenting with sound, Ralphie Choo captures the essence of what it means to thread space and time into a joyfully chaotic guide for the future of Latin music. —Anamaria Sayre


/ Fluff and Gravy
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Fluff and Gravy

Margo Cilker Valley of Heart's Delight

Release Date: September 15

Where is the West? In many American minds, it's centered in dusty deserts and rocky mountains. For Margo Cilker, it stretches from her current home in Washington's Columbia River Valley to the Santa Clara trough — where her family lived for generations, and whose farm-dotted orchards have been replaced by glassy tech biz office parks. Cilker's sound is classic cowboy country, but her sensibility is totally now: destabilized, sometimes mournful, but determined to preserve what's valuable and grow new gardens on threatened land. Working with producer and fellow root-grafter Sera Cahoone and leading an all-star Oregonian band — Jenny Conlee-Drizos from The Decemberists, Kelly Pratt from Beirut, and others — Cilker shares dispatches from her wandering days ("In little Santa Rosa, I got Christmas chili") and meditations on home, loss and legacy. Some songs stomp and rock, others are like little hymns written to make the dark days sunny. "If it's all tied together, are we better unwound?" she asks, looking backward at a home she loves even as she walks toward the horizon. —Ann Powers


/ Thirty Tigers
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Thirty Tigers

Corinne Bailey Rae Black Rainbows

Release Date: September 15

After Corinne Bailey Rae spent time at the restored Stony Island Arts Bank on the South Side of Chicago, she was inspired to make Black Rainbows. Never before had she seen 26,000 books on Black subjects, things she's been interested in her whole life. "That was the transformation for me," she told NPR, "the freedom to be able to explore my interests in my music, to not just sing about my personal experiences, but to bring my brain and mind and curiosity and allow that to come through my work."

Reimagination and revival run through the gorgeous songs on this record with varied beautiful glimpses into the Black experience. "We long to arc our arm through history to unpick every thread," she sings on the trancelike "A Spell, A Prayer." "Peach Velvet Sky" celebrates abolitionist Harriet Jacobs' incredible journey of courage and hope. "New York Transit Queen" was inspired by a 1954 Ebony magazine photo of model and feminist revolutionary Audrey Smaltz; the track also embraces Rae's Black punk background and energy. Powerful narratives aside, the musical compositions on this record are genius with rock and punk, jazz and soul, beat driven, harmonically luxuriant sonic treasures. —Suraya Mohamed


/ Forever Living Originals
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Forever Living Originals

Cleo Sol Heaven

Release Date: September 15

"Give grace, but don't you walk away." This encouragement from the second track of Cleo Sol's Heaven encapsulates the theme of her first of two albums released in 2023. Here, her musical tales center on leaning into faith — yes, faith in a higher power, but particularly faith in yourself, which can be the more difficult of the two. For Sol, they go hand in hand, one feeding the other in the guided affirmations and prayers in tracks like "Self"; the prods at self-exploration; and in parables that wax on the disruptions caused by duplicitous friends or partners, all a reminder that God got you even if the people in your life don't. After the work reclaiming physical, emotional and spiritual space preceding it, the celebratory grooves in "Nothing on Me" are earned when Sol declares "You will not break what I've built inside." And throughout it all, Sol's gentle voice subtly lifts up your chin to make you look her in the eye as she speaks over you an unrelenting love of self and of a spirit that fortifies. —Mitra I. Arthur


/ RCA
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RCA

Doja Cat Scarlet

Release Date: September 22

The hottest rapper in the game has nothing, but a fickle fanbase, to lose. Doja Cat was poised to become pop's reigning princess after the multiplatinum success of Hot Pink and Planet Her. Instead, she doused those albums in gasoline — calling them "cash grabs" — and set fire to the stans she'd collected (and nicknamed "Kittenz") along the way. The 1.5 million or so Instagram followers she lost in the aftermath might've closed the curtains on a lesser-known artist's career. But Doja was just setting the stage for a sonic reinvention. Scarlet is a case study in stan culture and Doja takes pride (even hedonistic pleasure) in trolling and triggering her mainstream lackeys. The devil makes her do it. At least that's the trope she uses to camouflage her creative freedom. "Lots of people that were sleeping say I rap now / Lots of people's hopes and dreams are finally trashed now," she raps on "Demons."

The problem isn't a failure to thrive but a question of whether she's reaching her intended audience. Everything ain't swell within the culture either. On "F*** the Girls (FTG)," her middle finger to capricious fangirls doubles as a critique of the scarcity mindset plaguing women in rap, at a moment when their collective power in the industry is growing into a movement. "You just here by proxy, you ain't feelin' me / Girls don't let girls live, but that ain't killing me." But underneath that bulletproof veneer is a vulnerable plea for acceptance. She's been canceled, crucified, vilified. But the devil is a lie; Doja Cat spits hot fire. —Rodney Carmichael


/ Northern Spy/We Jazz
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Northern Spy

Darius Jones fLuXkit Vancouver (i̶t̶s suite but sacred)

Release Date: September 29

There's a meaty, unbound physicality in the growl of Darius Jones' alto saxophone, which has often served to typecast him as some kind of free-jazz Dionysian. You wouldn't make that mistaken assumption with fLuXkit Vancouver (i̶t̶s̶ suite but sacred), an album whose powerfully visceral impression comes entwined with an intense commitment to the execution of complex maneuvers. Jones created this work through a commission from Western Front, a multidisciplinary arts organization in Vancouver, and he was clearly inspired to think beyond category. And while his closest partner in this chamber expedition is drummer Gerald Cleaver, a longtime associate, he receives no less ferocious buy-in from violinists Jesse and Josh Zubot, cellist Peggy Lee and double bassist James Meger, who together constitute an improv-enabled string quartet. The result of their cathartic cohesion is an objet d'art that celebrates multiple strains of the post-'60s avant-garde, down to the cover image, a mesmerizing new digital piece by the artist Stan Douglas. —Nate Chinen, WRTI


/ FAMM
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FAMM

Jorja Smith Falling or Flying

Release Date: September 29

Jorja Smith's touch can be so light, yet everything shuffles around her with sumptuous intricacy and intimacy. Her music often asks the question: What is this? And she doesn't really care for the answer. Falling or Flying catches the British singer-songwriter in various modes, from shimmying garage (the diamond-encrusted banger "Little Things") and chest-thumping Lovers' rock ("Falling or Flying") to shape-shifting Afrobeats ("Feelings") and a Kelly Clarkson-worthy kiss-off ("GO GO GO"). Much like Smith's 2018 debut, Lost & Found, she slips through these styles like silk, but here, the curvature of sound is seamless — you go into the experience expecting to club all night, but suddenly find yourself crying in the corner, wondering why you've changed, but the world hasn't. Throughout Falling or Flying, Smith is far more frank in her desires, but still gives room for the unknown spaces of love, romance and self. "I could love for miles," she sings. "And still not open up." —Lars Gotrich


/ Royal Potato Family
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Royal Potato Family

Allison Miller Rivers in our Veins

Release Date: October 6

Folklike and percolating, contemplative and slangy, Allison Miller's Rivers in Our Veins carries its environmental message with an unselfconscious ease. A 12-part suite with the casual momentum of a campfire story, it's rooted first in her drumming, which has always combined crisp finesse with low-slung power, whether she's playing post-bop, alt-rock or something in between. Her deftly drawn compositions take full advantage of the expressive talents of an all-star ensemble — violinist Jenny Scheinman, clarinetist Ben Goldberg, trumpeter Jason Palmer, pianist Carmen Staaf and bassist Todd Sickafoose — as well as a coterie of contemporary tap dancers, whose contribution is the farthest thing from a distraction or a gimmick. Miller conceived this work as a tribute to our waterways, especially mighty East Coast rivers like the Potomac and the Hudson. She seems to have borrowed a page from the playbook of Pete Seeger, who evangelized for cleaner waters from the ground up, winning converts one verse at a time. —Nate Chinen, WRTI


/ EMI
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EMI

Troye Sivan Something to Give Each Other

Release Date: October 13

Statements of intent don't come much more explicit than "Rush," the hydrant of innuendo that announced Troye Sivan's return from five years on pop's periphery — and yet, in hindsight, the song is almost a fakeout. Something to Give Each Other is, in principle, what its lead single promises, an album about pleasure and lust set in a permissive, after-hours utopia only daylight can pierce. But surrounding that sweaty core are 10 stories that traffic in all kinds of intimate exchange: the ache of mutual desire between people who know for sure they can't be together, the uncanny sweetness of sex between heartsick strangers, melancholic nostalgia and all its many antidotes. Conceived in a relationship's ruins, it's the rare breakup record that takes place in the mushy middle of recovery — not rock-bottom sorrow nor "Since U Been Gone" catharsis, but the dead center of the rebound curve, where the wet spot under the ripped-off Band-Aid leaves you porous to feelings you wouldn't and couldn't have if you were all the way healed. —Daoud Tyler-Ameen


/ Tiny Engines
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Tiny Engines

awakebutstillinbed chaos takes the wheel and i am a passenger

Release Date: October 20

Now that we are almost four decades into emo, genre signifiers — from the sprawling punk spit of Rites of Spring to Rainer Maria's existential yelp to My Chemical Romance's outrageous melodrama — still matter, but not as much as the feeling. San Jose's awakebutstillinbed clearly understands emo's history, but rattles with current urgency. In chaos takes the wheel and i am a passenger, the band looks to the raw abandon and atmosphere of a '90s cult favorite like Mineral, but filters everything through a cinematic post-hardcore sheen. Songs like "streamline," "clearview" and "scramble suit" sparkle with emo-peggios — that's an arpeggio, but, you know, in emo minor — but also careen toward screaming crises of epically personal proportions ("redlight"). But there are also songs like coulda-been-an-alt-rock-radio-hit "airport" that jangle sweetly with a heavy underpinning of self-doubt. Shannon Taylor, the band's songwriter and singer/screamer, distills emo's intent with wild eyes: We live in an indifferent world, alone together. —Lars Gotrich


/ Young
/
Young

Sampha Lahai

Release Date: October 20

There's a video clip of Million Dollaz Worth of Game podcaster Wallo meeting his hero Sampha earlier this year that conveys the emotional depth of the English singer-songwriter's impact. "I been looking for you for years, man," Wallo breaks down, alternating between hugs and tears in his choked-up attempt to explain what Sampha's music has meant to him since becoming a fan in 2017, fresh from serving a 20-year prison bid and still mourning the death of his brother.

Vulnerability is still Sampha's superpower. And he conveys it with his signature teardrop tenor-and-falsetto vocals and cinematic lyrics. But the loss and longing that defined Sampha's full-length debut, Process, is usurped by something transcendent on his sophomore follow-up. Lahai — his middle name and his grandfather's name — finds Sampha obsessed with how time flies, metaphorically and metaphysically. The album swoops and soars with references to birds ("Jonathan L. Seagull"), elevation ["Inclination Compass (Tenderness)"] and the levitating force of love ("Suspended"). Since having a daughter during the pandemic, fatherhood's helped him find a continuum after losing his mother in 2015. "Thinking maybe there's no ends / Maybe just infinity / Maybe no beginnings / Maybe just bridges," he suggests on "Satellite Business." Backed by his spacious production, which ties together programmed and organic instrumentation with cinematic sound design, Lahai makes life's heavy lifting feel like lightwork. Sampha's timing couldn't be more divine. —Rodney Carmichael


/ Sony Music Spain
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Sony Music Spain

María José Llergo ULTRABELLEZA

Release Date: October 27

María José Llergo's ULTRABELLEZA invokes down-to-earth, cinematic brilliance. Bringing it back to basic, heart-thumping beats beneath chilling vocals, she performs a perfect intersection of flamenco and contemporary sounds with an unparalleled authenticity. A Spanish artist drawing on Romani traditions, she taps into the vocal prowess of that lineage to weave poetic letra — "aprendí a llorar cantando, aprendí a cantar llorando," she sings.

Cutting powerhouse moments with contemplative piano and grounded beats, she mixes orchestral excellence and delicate beauty, setting herself apart as a true master of balance. With the whimsy and sincerity of someone who grew up traipsing identity lines, she's unafraid of experimenting with uncertainty, playing with heavy music and gritty noise with the freedom of someone who doesn't take life's toughest challenges too seriously. It's as classic as it is fearless, and there's nothing more María José Llergo than that. —Anamaria Sayre


/ UMG Mexico
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UMG Mexico

Mon Laferte Autopoiética

Release Date: November 10

Mon Laferte's Autopoiética is a master class in delightful contrast. Synthetic rhythms and traditional instrumentation waltz across 14 tracks of experimental grandiosity — she patchworks together incongruous sonic landscapes with the grace of some of the greats. The cadence of the album is variety at its best, underscored by diverse beats from cumbia to dembow, boasting gritty, sometimes unfinished, undeniably transfixing production choices. There's bold experimentation with the subversive "Mew Shiny," its industrial-thick sound cut by electric guitar and energizing vocals. In "Casta Diva," the listener finds levels of spiritual enlightenment amid chorally laden, supercharged electronic vocals. There is truly something for everyone to love in Mon Laferte's whimsically virtuosic world. —Anamaria Sayre

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