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Arts & Culture

KPBS Staff Picks: Best Albums of 2023

A graphic of several covers of albums released in 202 with white text reading: KPBS staff picks best albums 2023.
Graphic by Tony Zuniga
A graphic of several covers of albums released in 2023 with white text reading: KPBS staff picks best albums 2023.

"Yeah, I blast music loud, and I work myself to the bone / And on an inconvenient Christmas, I eat a cake / A whole cake, all for me," sings Mitski in her 2023 release, "The Land Is Inhospitable and So Are We." In some ways it's an almost cheeky encapsulation of art in the year 2023, with disenfranchisement, anger, heartbreak bubbling up through the creative ranks — but there's also some cake.

While the year saw a deluge of great albums from newcomers, it was also a year for tried-and-true acts continuing to put out records. Taylor Swift released three albums this year, for example — each of them chart-toppers — and The Rolling Stones put out their 31st album, 59 years after their first.

Our staff picks for albums this year range from disillusionment to political to disco and plenty more. Here are some of KPBS' staff picks of our favorite albums released in 2023, in no particular order. Go ahead, blast your music loud.

Killer Mike: 'MICHAEL'

This album has so many amazing collaborations with other artists. It focuses on Killer Mike’s life with touches of gospel within the hip-hop genre. Some of the songs get you pumped up and others just have you vibing and listening to every lyric. Definitely one of the top hip-hop albums of the year. —Lauren Carlucci, Grants and Engagement Assistant

This album gave me hope that political rap is not dead, and it can be delivered in a very smart articulate way. Killer Mike has always delivered these messages while holding up the mirror to himself so (he) can address his own personal shortcomings when dealing with life. —Mike Damron, Lead Videojournalist

Rap and gospel music/deaths and civil rights movement. —Phil Smith, Part-time Mailroom Coordinator

Lauren Carlucci's runner up: Travis Scott - "Utopia"

This album was an immediate hit. The features on this album are insane and the instrumentals immediately get you hyped up.

Mikey Damron's runner up: ODUMODUBLCK - "EZIOKWU"

I was scrolling through Apple Music and found this album. It has a very deep Afro-Beat\Caribbean vibe that is extremely catchy.

Phil Smith's runner up: Miley Cyrus - "Endless Summer Vacation"

Club tracks, energizing dance.

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Jason Isbell: 'Weathervanes'

Isbell is one of the great songwriters working today. Weathervanes is a beautiful mix of songs that touches on some of the most vexing issues of our time — racism, opioid addiction, school shootings and abortion — from authentic and at times surprising perspectives. —David Washburn, I-Team/Digital Fellowship Editor

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Cautious Clay: 'KARPEH'

It was hard for me to pinpoint a standout album this year. So I looked through my Spotify Liked Songs playlist ... and looked for an album I had added a lot of songs from (very scientific, I know). KARPEH, by Cautious Clay, was by far the winner, and you know, I wasn't mad. It's honestly such an exciting album. It's jazzy but not jazz, funky but not funk. Cautious Clay really experiments with sound in such a personal and compelling way on the album. The title comes from his family name, and in interviews, Cautious Clay has said it's about his personal journey in the context of his family's story, tracing back to his grandfather, who was of the Kru people in Liberia. It's hard not to get lost in the genre-blending saga, in part because of the music but also because of the recordings of family members telling stories. The mix of synth and analog instruments is an apt representation of the immigrant family experience. This album is a journey, and you should really go on it. —Brenden Tuccinardi, Web Producer

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Mitski: 'The Land Is Inhospitable and So Are We'

It was hard to pick a favorite album this year, but I kept coming back to this one. Mitski's music is mournful, gorgeous and urgent — and that's what hooks me at first — but what sticks for me is how gifted she is at setting a scene without it feeling forced or overly narrative. Each song is like a glimpse into a window, or a tiny movie, a little story of its own — but not at the expense of the whole album. It's an imaginative, vast, sad and stark listen, top to bottom. Standout tracks are "Buffalo Replaced," "I Don't Like My Mind," "The Deal," and of course the viral hit "My Love Mine All Mine." Just listen to the whole thing. —Julia Dixon Evans, KPBS/Arts Producer/Editor

Julia Dixon Evans' runner up: Wednesday - "Rat Saw God"

This punk-meets-alt-country album is chock full of vulnerable storytelling and raw, high-energy sounds. Lead singer Karly Hartzman's vocals are somehow both tender and hard-edged at the same time. "Rat Saw God" is an instant pick-me-up, while also being nostalgic, wistful and undeniably cool.

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Taylor Swift: '1989 (Taylor's Version)'

1989 (Taylor's Version) is the epitome of 2014 and with little to no contemporary references amplified a new age of pop music. This is Swift's fourth re-released album. She is on the journey of re-recording her first six albums. This album is a time machine to the height of pop music and true pop-synth production.1989 Taylor's version is a costal beach escape to explore acceptance. The vault tracks are never before heard songs that did not make the original album's cut. The vault tracks amplified this album of reinvention. They are full of original and danceable sound. Personally, this album was a pivotal moment in 2023 and will always be on repeat. It has no skips and every song is a gift of her talent that never goes out of style. —Megan Ando, Programming Assistant

Megan Ando's runner up: The National - "First Two Pages of Frankenstein"

This album is a voice you can connect to in a crowded room that is drowning out all sound. It is a beautiful collection of songs that feel like poetry with a euphoric tone layered with wistfulness you can relate to. 

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Jon Batiste: 'World Music Radio'

As far as I'm concerned, Jon Batiste can do no wrong. He is just so darned talented. It doesn't hurt that his messages are universally about peace, love and happiness, which is always a good lyrical mix for the ears. WMR is highly listenable from start to finish with funk, dance, jazz, reggae and classical influences. Oh, and the guest artists fit in without making you think you're hearing a totally different song, which is sometimes the case with other albums. WMR gets my vote for album of the year. —John Decker, Sr. Director Content Development

John Decker's Runner Up: The Rolling Stones - "Hackney Diamonds"

These guys just don't stop — and I mean that in a good way. I'm thankful that this group of octogenarians have figured out how to make great music. Again. Nothing special with this album, which is why I can't stop listening to it. Rock by the Stones. Nothing more. Nothing less.

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The Chemical Brothers: 'For that Beautiful Feeling'

Block Rockin' beat pioneers and they introduced me to electronic rave music. —Eric Smith, Corporate Development Account Executive

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Cleo Soul: 'Gold'

This album is one you feel in your soul. She manages to call back to a different era of R&B without getting caught in the past. Plus, it was released just two weeks after a sister project called "Heaven." Listening to the two back-to-back immerses you into her world and feel transported. —Jacob Aere, Reporter

Jacob Aere's runner up: Jordan Ward - "moreward(FORWARD)"

A great example of genre-bending R&B that is both fun and thought provoking.

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Jessie Ware: 'That Feels Good!'

Disco is having a moment in pop culture, which I love. But with this album, Jessie Ware sets herself apart as a contemporary disco artist who understands not just the sounds of the genre but the message as well — one of joy and liberation. —Andrew Bowen, Metro Reporter

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Glüme: 'Main Character'

For her second album she's reached all sorts of new musical marks. Even with life of health issues, she remains strong. She's true to herself and doesn't compromise. The album is both enjoyable as it is thought provoking. —Jeff Crane, Engineer

Jeff Crane's runner up: Tirzah - "trip9love…???"

An awesome album from 2023 that I cannot stop listening to.

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Various: 'Barbie Original Motion Picture Soundtrack'

I loved this movie! Who knew Barbie and her crew could bring so much fun and entertainment while hitting us with a much deeper, universal message? Brava, Barbie.
M.G. Perez, Education Reporter

M.G. Perez's runner up: Olivia Rodrigo - "GUTS"

... Naughty and nice at the same time.

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I discovered Helena Deland's music in 2020 during the height of the pandemic. At a time when we were all confined to our homes with swirling thoughts and emotions, Deland's intimate and emotionally resonant melodies gave me a lot of comfort. "Someone New" was the perfect debut album with dreamy, ethereal tracks. So, when "GOODNIGHT SUMMERLAND" released this year, I was dying to listen to it. And even with all the internal hype I'd built up from the love I have of her first album, this one exceeded my expectations. It stands as the most beautifully sounding album of the year, hands down. Somehow, it felt more personal, more haunting, yet strangely uplifting compared to her first.

I was able to witness Helena Deland live at the Casbah for my birthday this year (shoutout to my wife for the best present ever). Her music sounded even more enchanting in person. Plus, she graciously agreed to take a photo with me — highlight of my year. I can't wait for her next album. 10/10 for this one. —Elma González Lima Brandão, Digital Editor

Elma González Lima Brandão's runner up: Boygenius - "The Record" 

Boygenius is an indie rock supergroup, consisting of Julien Baker, Phoebe Bridgers and Lucy Dacus. It's latest album "The Record" was critically acclaimed, peaked on Billboard charts, and got seven Grammy nominations — including Album of the Year and Record of the Year. Need I say more? Just go listen to it. 10/10 period. 

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Peso Pluma: 'Genesis'

The record-breaking Mexican artist has pulled off the feat of crossing over regional music to the mainstream with this album and his other collabs. It’s exciting to see Peso Pluma pridefully showcase his roots and for this genre, album and artist to gain worldwide recognition. —Roxy de la Rosa, TV Programming Coordinator

Roxy de la Rosa's runner up: Karol G - “Mañana Será Bonito“

This album shows a more vulnerable side of La Bichota as she heals from heartbreak and loss, while still showcasing the dance tracks she’s known for.

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Aruán Ortiz: 'Pastor's Paradox'

Love what Ortiz did combining his musical talent with Dr. King's "I Have a Dream," speech. —Marielena Castellanos, South Bay Engagement Producer

Marielena Castellanos' runner up: Cher - "Christmas"

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Troye Sivan: 'Something to Give Each Other'

My first introduction to this album was "Got Me Started," which famously samples Bag Raiders' hit-turned-meme "Shooting Stars." It was a bold, almost baffling choice but it absolutely rocked my world, and every single person I've shown it to has gone through a similar emotional journey. But beyond eclectic samples, this album covers all the bases — it's got club anthems, it's tender, but most importantly, it's about finding love and joy in community. It's an album that, at least for me, cements Sivan's status as one of our new pop heroes. —Julianna Domingo, Producer for Midday Edition

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Sid Sriram: 'Sidharth'

The album is a seamless blend of Indian Carnatic music, R&B and the gospel of his Fremont, California childhood. The sound is so fresh, and he sings with a captivating amount of soul. It’s the first album in a while that made me stop, sit down, and do nothing else but listen from start to finish. —Katie Hyson, Racial Justice and Social Equity Reporter

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Genre: Mexican Regional/Corridos Tumbados

2023 was the year of regional Mexicano, specifically corridos tumbados. This once obscure genre only enjoyed by a small minority of corrido lovers took the world by storm, completely dominating the Billboard/Spotify charts for most of the year. This little genre dethroned the goliath of reggaeton and pop in the Latin charts and shook up the world charts with their top five presence throughout the year, ultimately sending a clear message to the music world: join us or get out of the way. Next thing you know, the likes of Bad Bunny, Shakira, Bizrap and Anita are all getting aboard the tumbado bestia.

What I find extremely appealing about this genre is the marriage of hip-hop/rap lyricism with regional musicality. As someone who grew up with hip hop and norteño/regional this makes me extremely happy. They are playing traditional regional instruments in unconventional ways; a fast progression of low-fast Tololoche (double bass) and harmonic charchetas (tenor horn), trombone and the emblematic 12 chord bajo sexto. Often switching between mouthpieces of one instrument (say a sax) to that of a tuba or trombone to achieve that high tempo beat. While nowadays you can’t be a serious producer/artist without a laptop and a synth ... corridos tumbados just bring up that good old organic imperfectness of humans pushing against nature … fingers and mouths pressing against brass wood and string.

—Julio C. Ortiz Franco, Producer/Editor "Port of Entry"

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