The Fire Note Writer Edition Top Albums of 2023

| | , ,

At The Fire Note, our writers are the heart and soul of what we do. We want to give a big shout-out to these amazing folks (past and present) who pour their knowledge and love for music into every piece they write. The time and effort they put in consistently doesn’t go unnoticed by us at TFN, even if it might be taken for granted by everyone else.

We’re gearing up for our official Top 50 year-end list, but we know that everyone’s got their own take on the best albums of 2023. Huge thanks to all our contributors for sharing their thoughts and making TFN the diverse musical hub it is.

As we get ready for the big year-end reveal, take a peek at what our contributors are thinking below! And if you’re itching to be part of this crew next year, shoot us an email at [email protected]. Let us know you’re keen on getting early access to music and adding your voice to the mix.

Discover, Support, Share!

Thomas Wilde

  1. The Bug Club – Rare Birds: Hour Of Song
  2. Wurld Series – The Giant’s Lawn
  3. Wednesday – Rat Saw God
  4. boygenius – The Record
  6. Pardoner – Peace Loving People
  7. Protomartyr – Formal Growth In The Desert
  8. Sincere Engineer – Cheap Grills
  9. Tee Vee Repairmann – What’s On TV?
  10. The Tubs – Dead Meat
  11. The Reds, Pinks & Purples – The Town That Cursed Your Name
  12. Guided By Voices – Welshpool Frillies
  13. Connections – Cool Change
  14. The Men – New York City
  15. The Drin – Today My Friend You Drunk The Venom
  16. Say She She – Silver
  17. Parannoul – After The Magic
  18. Population II – Electrons Libres Du Quebec
  19. Marnie Stern – The Comeback Kid
  20. GOAT – Medicine
  21. Hotline TNT – Cartwheel
  22. Ratboys – The Window
  23. Speedy Ortiz – Rabbit Rabbit
  24. Upchuck – Bite The Hand That Feeds
  25. rocky – rocky

Simon Workman

  1. Peter Gabriel i/o
  2. Circus DevilsSqueeze the Needle
  3. The IronsidesChasing Light
  4. WednesdayRat Saw God
  5. Okonski Magnolia
  6. Guided By VoicesLa La Land / Welshpool Frillies / Nowhere To Go But Up
  7. Frankie & The Witch FingersData Doom
  8. Kendra MorrisI Am What I’m Waiting For
  9. Altın Gün Aşk
  10. Say She SheSilver
  11. Sven WunderLate Again
  12. SurrogateSpace Mountain
  13. Rudy De AndaCloset Botanist
  14. Population IIElectrons Libres Du Quebec
  15. King Gizzard and the Lizard WizardPetrodragonic Apocalypse / The Silver Cord
  16. Durand JonesWait Til I Get Over
  17. SquidO Monolith
  18. Sufjan StevensJavelin
  19. Mondo DragThrough The Hourglass
  20. R. RingWar Poems, We Rested
  21. MotorbikeMotorbike
  22. Maya OngakuApproach to Anima
  23. Smug BrothersIn The Book Of Bad Ideas
  24. Black PumasChronicles of a Diamond
  25. EyelidsA Colossal Waste of Light

Brian Q. Newcomb

25. The Church: The Hypnogogue

I’ve always been a sucker for the dark, brooding ambiance of Aussie rockers, The Church. Oh, and those guitars. The songs here are strong enough that if you want to ignore the sci-fi, psychedelic concept, the voice of original member Steve Kilbey and guitars of Ian Haug and the newer recruits carry the day.

24. Wilco: Cousin

Still hoping the band would tap the rich instrumental veins of the albums of their 90’s and 00’s, Tweedy & Co. still manage to deliver compelling works that continue that connection I’ve felt for their music from the earliest days.

23. Black Pumas: Chronicles of a Diamond

These guys, along with Leon Bridges, are keeping that crucial connection between Rhythm & Blues and pop & rock music alive and vital, which is essential to my mind. As vocalist Eric Burton sings in “Rock and Roll,” it’s about “coordination, innovation, inspiration, temptation” and let’s not forget Soul.

22. Buddy & Julie Miller: In the Throes

When Julie sings that opening line, “Baby, when I’ve got these blues to kill/you’re my thrill,” it rings so very true that I’m in for the whole ride with the first couple of Americana.

21. Jenny Lewis: Joy’All

The pure pop songcraft, clever self-aware lyrics and genuine appreciation of a “Puppy and a Truck” made Ms. Lewis’ 4th solo album my easy listening guilty pleasure of the year.

20. Wednesday: Rat Saw God

I was introduced to this Asheville, NC band led by Karly Hartzman and featuring guitarist MJ Lenderman when they opened one of those Guided By Voices 40th Anniversary shows, and impressed by everything from their songwriting to the way they taunted that delicate noise to melody ratio yet more than held my interest. To be honest, I have to save the 8 minute epic slog through “Bull Believer” until I’ve heard rest of the album… but I want more of this.

19. PJ Harvey: I Inside the Old Year Dying

The artful, haunting beauty of PJ’s tenth album kept bringing me back to it. The stark, stripped back instrumentation of Harvey, producers John Parish and Flood, at times reminded me of Peter Gabriel’s instrumental soundtrack to “The Last Temptation of Christ,” even as her strong melodic voice cut through.

18. Guided By Voices: Welshpool Frillies

Dayton’s own, Robert Pollard & Co. marked the year of their 40th Anniversary with two great celebration shows and no less then three new studio albums, which the singer/songwriter assured us were “stellar.” And he’s not wrong. The guy with a thousand great song ideas, backed by a band that can deliver every rhythmic nuance while rocking hard, is a force of nature and tracks here like “Romeo Surgeon” and “Meet the Star” continue deliver.

17. The Rolling Stones: Hackney Diamonds

I guess we all knew another Stones’ album was possible, if not downright inevitable in this “everybody cash in” climate, but I don’t know anyone who suspected it would be as good as it turned out. Mick is in great voice (and not just for his age), and Keith and Ronnie are still able to bring the heat on guitar, and they’ve produced songs that are strong and exciting enough to extend their legacy, rather than deplete it as some assumed it would. Add McCartney playing that gritty bass-line on “Bite My Head Off,” and I’m in.

16. Sparklehorse: Bird Machine

There’s almost no way to detach the sentimental quality of this posthumous release ten years after the passing of Mark Linkous, carefully curated by his family who’d worked with him on the recordings, songs he’d planned for his next release, but what brings one back time and time again is the superior quality of these songs. The distorted cover of Robyn Hitchcock’s “Listening to the Higson’s” sung and played joyfully by Linkous and his brother Matt, just feels like a final gift.

15. Peter Case: Doctor Moan

This March release got to me too late in the year for a review, but having enjoyed his solo piano set on a Mountain Stage show with Wilco and others that I gave it considerable attention these last weeks. Mostly moving to the keyboard, after all these decades of largely acoustic solo concerts, Case proves not only a proficient player, but that he’s a more than capable singer/songwriter at whatever instrument he chooses.

14. Paul Simon: Seven Psalms

What’s to say about this strange, beautiful and provocative seven song cycle where each track leads into the next, poetic themes repeat, largely played on acoustic guitar with fun embellishments and Simon’s voice and lyrics pretty and curious and with as many questions as he offers answers. Well, it’s a delight to these ears, and it calms my mind and fears.

13. Palehound: Eye on the Bat

El Kempner’s reflective diary-entry lyrics are no more potent than the guitar parts this rock trio brings to explosive tracks like “The Clutch,” “Head Like Soup,” and “Independence Day.” The title track caught my ear every time I heard it on satellite radio, but the rest of the record proved more compelling.

12. Yo La Tengo: This Stupid World

This Jersey band formed in the 80’s sounds as fresh, vital, and hungry as ever on this, their 17th album. Whether playing electric with guitar jam band energy with plenty of noisy feedback, or on more accessible acoustic tracks they sound equally engaged, and perhaps because they are self-produced for the first time, it feels more focused and personal. The mood seems appropriate for the year, existential grief at life’s undaunting chaos mixed with wonder at the miracle that we’ve survived this long suggests a new kind of hope is possible.

11. Peter Gabriel: i/o

21 years after his last recording of original material, Gabriel introduced this album one track at a time on each full moon of this year. With many of the songs closer to moody ballads, and only a couple obvious bangers, “The Road to Joy” and “Olive Tree,” built to match his previous hits, the record’s import lay in the rich instrumentality, immaculate production values, Gabriel’s elegant vocal instrument, and a lyrical message that culminates in the belief that “Love Can Heal.”

10. Depeche Mode: Momento Mori

By now, it’s no surprise that the duo of Martin Gore and David Gahan seem resonate most strongly when dealing with topics like sex and death. Sadly, this time is was the sudden passing of band member and reported “marriage counselor,” Andy Fletcher. Most of the songs were apparently written prior to Fletch’s passing, notably “Ghosts Again,” which Gore wrote with the Psychedelic Furs’ Richard Butler, but as the title suggests that sense of loss prevails on what is the band’s strongest album in the last two decades.

9. Ian Hunter: Defiance, Pt. 1

Nothing pisses me off more, than having to sing the praises of artists that should have been great big rock stars but nobody else has ever heard of. The lead singer & songwriter with Mott the Hoople in the 70’s, but kept at decade after decade, and I even traveled to see him play a 2019 show with members of Mott from 1974. He may be a year or two older than Jagger and McCartney, but he’s still writing great rock anthems, and he attracted dozens of celebrity guitarists, from Slash to Heartbreaker Mike Campbell, STP’s Dean DeLeo to Billy Gibbons of ZZ Top. Ringo Starr drums on one track, the late Taylor Hawkins played on more than one, and Jeff Beck shows up for one of his final recording performances here; its an amazing collection of rock’s heavy hitters, so why haven’t more people heard this album? I’ll never understand.

8. Sufjan Stevens: Javelin

Only an artist of Sufjan Stevens caliber can make a record about the death of their intimate lover and friend, as he does here on “Javelin” for his partner Evan Richardson, and make it ultimately a celebration of life and love, uplifting even as it acknowledges the “burning heart” of love. Much like the opening track “Goodbye Evergreen” transitions into a joyous chorus, stating again and again that “you know I love you.” Stevens to his more intimate recording style, often playing all the instruments in multiple tracks, with aid from a vocal chorus, and some extra guitars from The National’s Bryce Dessner on the disc’s 8 minute epic, “Shit Talk,” one highlight here among many.

7. Blur: The Ballad of Darren

The idea of a new studio album from Brit-pop giants Blur, after the low-effort 2015 “The Magic Whip,” seemed unlikely from a group that could get together ever 5 years or so, play a headline reunion gig at Wembley Stadium, then a summer tour of major festivals and laugh all the way to the bank. But this feels like a real Blur effort, dating back to their heyday in the late 80’s and 90’s. “The Narcissist” kept showing up on the satellite radio station I rely on, and then I’d come home and listen to the whole disc, each time impressed by the somewhat retro feeling of warmth, but with no loss of wit and insight.

6. Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit: Weathervanes

Any other year, this album would be my number 2 or 3, but as I was making final decisions, I noticed I nearly had a top five with female artists, well it become no. 6, because we all know this stuff is pretty arbitrary, right? But you gotta love this guy, don’t you… he’s writing these world class Americana classics, he’s maintaining the southern rock tradition (When I saw the 400 Unit at one of the first shows post-pandemic in Columbus, they closed the encores with a killer cover of the Allman Bros.’ “In Memory of Elizabeth Reed”) while pushing back at all the racism, misogyny, and rebel flag BS, he’s upfront about his sobriety struggles, and leading a kick-ass band while playing some great guitar too.

So there’s all that obvious, great stuff about Isbell’s talents, his solid, intentional efforts at songcraft, and the earnest, heartfelt quality in his lyrics, and storytelling choices, but I really connect with intimate internal observations that really get to the heart of the matter. “Death Wish” has a great hook, but I think they wear out that chorus with all the repeats, but there’s one line in the first verse that just nails those crazy days of the late teens and early 20’s for so many of us: “The night was young once, we were the wild ones… Anything could happen, but nothing ever did.” That’s so very, very true. Clearly one of the finest musical collections of this year.

5. Indigo De Souza: All of This Will End

In the year after I reviewed De Souza’ 2021 release, I kept returning to its eclectic mix of modern pop tones and textures, folky psychedelia, and indie rock free-form approach to music as an expression of her personal angst-filled life journey that somehow seemed to capture the humanity and chaos of our times. Here was a 20-something young woman telling us what she saw and felt in our world, while making some very interesting music. So, I’ve been giving this new one even more attention, and it’s a rewarding experience walking briefly alongside the American-Brazillian artist as she mixes and matches musical genres in a host of compelling and challenging ways—everything from a grungy scream therapy session in “Always” and a mix of pedal steel and operatic vocalizations over the folky rock of “Not My Body.” This one deserved more attention than it’s been getting, one of my go to albums this year.

4. The Pretenders: Relentless

Now in her early 70’s, Chrissie Hynde’s steadfast leadership of The Pretenders, overcoming early tragedies and managing numerous personnel changes, has been nothing if not “Relentless.” She pretty much recorded the band’s 2016 release in Nashville with Dan Auerbach of The Black Keys, joined by studio players from another of his side-project The Arcs. For the band’s 2022, Hynde forged a song-writing partnership with guitarist James Walbourne, a productive collaboration that continues here, this time with the grittier, louder production of David Wrench (who also worked on Blur’s latest), the band sounds a big, bold, and vital as ever. Hynde’s voice is rich, full, and if possible lower, and sultrier, while Walbourne’s guitars continue to prove a perfect foil for her on dramatic rockers like “Domestic Silence,” and unique turns like “Merry Widow” with Eastern musical tonalities, or “Just Let It Go,” which starts as ballad, then builds to a soaring rocker. Refusing to leave her best work in the past, pushing in fresh new directions, Hynde’s Pretenders have produced a late-career classic and one of the strongest albums of the year.

3. Margaret Glaspy: Echo The Diamond

At the same time as some keep complaining that “they just don’t make music like they used to,” there’s nothing more satisfying than stumbling upon a new-to-you artist making writing and playing great new tunes. I kept running into Margaret Glaspy’s single “Act Natural” on satellite radio when we were out for an early fall driving vacation, and always turned it up and came more alive listening to her quirky guitar licks and fun, smart vocal delivery. I was more than happy to come home and find out that she’d been around for a decade, and that this new album was packed with more great rocking songs with catchy vocal hooks, intelligent, at times funny, lyrics, that the collection left one with a great feeling at every listening. Next time you hear that old comment dissing modern music, introduce them to this record, or the one by Indigo, or Russell, the next one on this list.

2. Allison Russell: The Returner

I’ve already shared here at the site how I stumbled upon Allison Russell as a performer while attending the Nowhere Music Festival, first as the lead singer of her and her husband’s band Birds of Chicago, then a second time when she played her solo album “Outside Child,” backed only by a guitarist and the Sista Strings, both on cello, while Russell added her unique instrument additions on banjo and clarinet. That album told her origin story—born in “Montreal,” surviving sexual abuse, running away, finding love and redemption, and rebuilding her life—and went on to earn numerous Grammy nominations, before winning the Americana Music Association’s 2022 Album of the Year Award. As the title suggests, Russell is back in bigger, bolder fashion on “The Returner,” bringing a larger, funkier R&B and soul music fueled palette to the proceedings, including lush orchestrations and big production numbers. Plus, the truth-telling about race and misogyny in “Eve Was Black,” well this woman isn’t just going places as a great singer and songwriter, she’s taking us along with her, telling a story that we all need to hear.

1. boygenius: The Record

Hang the label “supergroup” on a project or album and it’s like hanging an albatross around its neck. Anyone remember The Thorns – which combined the talents of three great artists, Pete Droge, Shawn Mullins & Matthew Sweet? I caught two fun showcases with them at SXSW in 2003, and I think they may have actually broke up before I landed at home on my flight back from Austin.

But with Julien Baker, Phoebe Bridgers, and Lucy Dacus – known together as boygenius, the coming together feels more like an organic friendship and appreciation of one another’s work, and not at all like some record company A&R man conceptualized it and created the graphics before the three Thorns had played one song together in a late-night Irish bar. Maybe if the three of them had all kissed at the end of a song, like the female trio did on the Colbert show at the end of their acoustic performance of “Cool About It,” things might have worked out better. Well, there’s a level of mutual respect and admiration, that fuels the musical collaboration and makes “The Record” all the better for their intimate, permission giving musical explorations that include gritty guitar rockers like “$20,” “Anti-Curse” and “Satanist,” the rethinking a popular Paul Simon melody with lyrics that tell a story of your own, or great original pop & folk of “True Blue,” “Emily I’m Sorry,” or “Not Strong Enough.”

Each of these women have produced strong collections on their own, and will likely continue to do just that, but here together they tap into a rich vein that resonates at a deeper level. boygenius’ “The Record” will no doubt do very well in the coming award season, but more importantly they have created musical art design to match this moment and linger in heavy rotation for years to come. It’s my album of the year.

Honorable mentions (in a very prolific musical climate):

Blonde Redhead: Sit Down for Dinner
Lana Del Rey: Did You Know That There’s a Tunnel Under Ocean Blvd
Deer Tick: Emotional Contracts
The Feelies: Some Kinda Love; Performing the Music of The Velvet Underground
Foo Fighters: But Here We Are
Inhaler: Cuts & Bruises
The National: The First Two Pages of Frankenstein
The Salt Collective: Life
Sonic Youth: Live in Brooklyn 2011
Lucinda Williams: Stories from a Rock N’ Roll Heart

Christopher Tahy

  1. All FictionPile
  2. PetroDragonic Apocalypse; or, Dawn of Eternal Night: An Annihilation of Planet Earth and the Beginning of Merciless Damnation/The Silver ChordKing Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard
  3. MagnoliaOkonski
  4. Girl With FishFeeble Little Horse
  5. Changing LightThe Ironsides
  6. Data DoomFrankie and the Witch Fingers
  7. Good Living is Coming for YouSweeping Promises
  8. The First Two Pages of Frankenstein/Laugh TrackThe National
  9. Land of SleeperPigs Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs
  10. PrizeRozi Plain
  11. Rat Saw GodWednesday
  12. GutsOlivia Rodrigo
  13. Fly or Die Fly or Die Fly or Die ((world war))Jaimie Branch
  14. After the MagicParannoul
  15. Intercepted MessageOsees
  16. HellmodeJeff Rosenstock
  17. The Recordboygenius
  18. SilverSay She She
  19. AskAltın Gün
  20. Super SnõõperSnõõper
  21. Food for WormsShame
  22. In Times New Roman…Queens of the Stone Age
  23. CartwheelHotline TNT
  24. Gigi’s RecoveryThe Murder Capital
  25. Cracker IslandGorillaz

Kevin Poindexter

  1. Guided by VoicesNowhere to Go But Up, Welshpool Frillies, La La Land
  2. The TubsDead Meat
  3. WednesdayRat Saw God
  4.  James Brandon LewisEye of I
  5. London BrewLondon Brew
  6. ConnectionsCool Change
  7. En Attendant AnaPrincipia
  8. Hotline TNTCartwheel
  9.  Johnathan BlakePassage
  10. Birthday GirlBirthday Girl
  11. Brian Blade & the Fellowship BandKings Highway
  12. Ambrose AkinmusireBeauty is Enough
  13. Billy ChildsThe Winds of Change
  14. Son VoltDay of the Doug
  15. Fire! OrchestraEchoes
  16. Ulaan KholMilk Thistle
  17. Sharp PinsTurtle Rock
  18. WeiteAssemblage
  19. The Lost DaysIn the Store
  20. Walter Smith IIIReturn to Casual
  21. Edena GardensAgar, Dens
  22. BondoPrint Selections
  23. BullyLucky For You
  24. Dion LunadonSystems Edge
  25. The Smashing TimesThis Sporting Life

Daniel Taylor

  1. Being DeadWhen Horses Would Run The most fun I had listening to an album this year. The Mamas and the Papas meets Clap Your Hands Say Yeah and Gus Englehorn.
  2. The Bug ClubRare Birds: Hour of Song The 2nd most fun I had listening to an album in 2023. Ultra-catchy and just filled with energy.
  3. Kate Davis: Fish Bowl Hooks for days. LIYL Liz Phair/Metric/Electrelane
  4. Cave StoryWide Wall, Tree Tall LIYL Personal Trainer, Teenage Cool Kids and Pavement
  5. Anytime CowboyDemons Obey Low key alt-country jangle.
  6. Arbor Labor UnionYonder Impressive indie folk/western-tinged rock.
  7. Parking LotMy Life Is a Mess Excellent post-punk. LIYL Teenage Cool Kids/Parquet Courts
  8. PardonerPeace Loving People Slacker punk.  
  9. Bo GritzChroma LIYL Psychic Graveyard/Gilla Band/Death Grips
  10. WasherImproved Means to Deteriorated Ends: LIYL Rick Rude/Ovlov/Baked
  11. Nice GuysCoin Post-punk goodness. LIYL Future of the Left/Mclusky
  12. Index for Working MusikDragging the Needlework for The Kids at Uphole LIYL Pavement/Grifters/Ultra Vivid Scene
  13. R. RingWar Poems, We Rested LIYL Breeders/Kelley Deal
  14. Pyrex: S/T: Hardcore post-punk. LIYL Running/Brandy
  15. OnyonLast Days on Earth Hypnotic krautrock with a touch of Electrelane.
  16. Sleaford Mods: UK Grim: LIYL punk/dance beats and yelling about Tories.
  17. WednesdayRat Saw God Shoegaze-tinged alt-country.
  18. Erik NervousImmaturity Crunchy power pop/punk. LIYL Mike Krol.
  19. Landowner: Escape the Compound.
  20. Model/ActrizDogsbody LIYL Gilla Band meets LCD Soundsystem.
  21. Brother of MondayS/T LIYL old GBV/Von Hayes
  22. SquidO Monolith LIYL Black Midi/Yard Act/Slint
  23. DuringS/T LIYL Spray Paint/Brandy/Rider Horse
  24. Flat WormsWitness Marks the Worms have just released their most accessible album to date.
  25. Guided By VoicesWelshpool Frillies Finest album from this current iteration of GBV. 

Fire Note Staff

Car Seat Headrest: Faces From The Masquerade [Album Review]

The Fire Note Blazing Top 50 Albums Of 2023


Leave a Comment