The first six months of 2023 have been filled with great music in every genre, and the In Between Drafts music team have assembled a list of what we think are the best albums of 2023 so far. For our first mid-year music list, we’ve decided to not rank the albums, and instead we’re presenting them to you alphabetically by artist name (and by last name for solo artists). Without further ado, here are the albums we’ve all enjoyed in the first half of the year.
Babitha – Brighter Side of Blue
In a sea of uncertainty and unknown, writing became the one constant for the Australian singer-songwriter Imogen Grist, which then gave birth to the musical project we now know as Babitha. But this was not the only factor that essentially became a driving force for her personal and profound 12-track debut Brighter Side Of Blue. Written across a two year period, including the chaotic era of Covid-19 pandemic, the record finds her navigating an array of hatred, mistrust, sorrow and hope. Sonically leaning into folk and psych-rock territories, thumping surf-bound guitar riffs and vintage bass lines create a raw and nostalgia-fueled soundscape that will welcome the listeners for a satisfying listening experience. – Semih Özdemir
Belgrado – Intra Apogeum
The third album by Spanish synth-pop outfit Belgrado feels like a lost classic from the 1980s. The band perfectly embody the sound of the Eastern European coldwave genre with their icy synths, mechanical drumming and the ethereal, distant Polish-language vocals of singer Patrycja Proniewska. Songs like “Boixar” and “Nie Zapomne” feel like goth night at the dance club, and are great examples of the resurgence of obscure 80s styles of the last few years. The entire thing is equally brooding and danceable, and makes Belgrado’s Intra Apogeum a blast from the past done correctly. – Ryan Gibbs
Boygenius – The Record
Trifecta Julien Baker, Phoebe Bridgers, and Lucy Dacus reunite following their own continued personal endeavors and their 2018 self-titled EP for their feature debut album The Record. Tackling a cohesive sound that fully unites their distinctive songwriter qualities and sonic preferences, the album allows the supergroup to flourish with a streamlined tracklist that floats between shared vocals to one of the three leading with the others harmonizing. Catchy, with charming diary entry observations and introspective prose expected from Bridgers and Dacus, and the intense and eclectic instrumentation Baker has come to weaponize since her 2021 album Little Oblivions, the album manages to marry their individualist character traits while unifying their sound into something charged, modern, and relatable. Standouts include “Not Strong Enough,” “Cool About It,” and “Anti-Curse.” – Allyson Johnson
City and Colour – The Love Still Held Me Near
The Love Still Held Me Near is a compassionate hand guiding you through the dark. City and Colour uses this album as an excavation of life, love, and suffering, unflinchingly facing the accompanying depths and turmoil. At the same time, perseverance and faith take on a steadily growing presence alongside each reckoning with hardship. The album inspires a quiet confidence that things will be okay, not by neglecting the difficult parts of life but by showing you how they can be bearable. And when you reach the final track, with the vulnerability that emerges from deep introspection, City and Colour smiles and softly lets you go, knowing you can take care of the rest yourself. – Neha Nandakumar
Bob Dylan – Shadow Kingdom
81 years old at the time of recording, Dylan manages to reinvent himself again — for the seemingly millionth time — here. The “Shadow Kingdom” is an alternate reality, seemingly beamed in from a whole other universe, which sounds like nothing else he’s ever done. On a mundane level, it’s simply a live recording made in Santa Monica during the height of the Covid-19 pandemic (July 2021). This means of course that there is no audience: what we hear is just the man himself and a few expert musicians joining him on a soundstage. That makes for a very shadowy kingdom indeed. The music is sparse and mysterious, perhaps suiting the times; the lack of an audience heightens this.
There are moments where Dylan seems to be singing all alone, or with only the quietest musical backing. This despite the intriguing fact that the songs are mostly from his 1960s to early 70s “rock n’ roll” era. That now seems a whole other kingdom, one where he had the heavy electric backing of The Hawks/The Band to giddy him up. Here, unruly classics from Highway 61 Revisited come at us in hushed tones instead. This just makes them sound weird and surprising all over again. It also places more emphasis on Dylan’s cracked, wizened vocals, which does wonders for “When I Paint My Masterpiece”. This live album ain’t his masterpiece, ‘course not. What’s more, he’ll likely never get there, given his age and slowly fading vitality, as his croaked vocals imply. That doesn’t matter — it’s the attempt that matters. And the fact that Dylan keeps on trying at such a late stage is a great testament to his artistry. – Oliver Hollander
Everything But the Girl – Fuse
In their first album in twenty years, Everything But the Girl returns with an astonishing melding of sounds with their album Fuse. The dance/electro-pop album from composers Tracey Thorn and Ben Watt manages to bridge the musical influences of the ‘80s and ‘90s into their modern sound, creating a distinctive piece of work only possible due to the artist’s journey through decades as songwriters. From rousing numbers to voyeuristic intimacy, from indie tracks to soul, and thrumming bass beats the album manages to touch on an assortment of sounds and themes while maintaining its cohesiveness. “Run a Red Light” and “Caution to the Wind” are instantly replayable tracks. – Allyson Johnson
Niall Horan – The Show
Niall Horan’s third album The Show is a thoughtfully crafted record embodying a matter-of-fact optimism throughout its declarations of unfailing devotion. In the 10-track album spanning not much more than thirty minutes, every moment is carefully chosen. Each song has a distinct identity and yet, together, they blend into a euphoric celebration of all that love could possibly be. From the jubilation exuding from “Heaven,” the undying devotion in “You Could Start A Cult,” to the gentle reassurance in “Science,” Niall Horan has created an album that has you feeling loved as well. – Neha Nandakumar
Nanna – How to Start a Garden
Of Monsters And Men’s Nanna Hilmarsdóttir worked on the songs that would eventually become her debut record How To Start A Garden in a small cabin outside of her hometown Reykjavik where she reveled in the quiet and marked a poignant start for her solo career. In this chilling yet achingly heartfelt collection of songs, Nanna finds herself in a state of catharsis in order to comprehend and embrace where she is today through the overarching stormy seas of life while drawing power from her loved ones and her inner strength. It is an evocative slice of folky indie rock filled with piano, strings, horns and woodwinds that both feel organic and modern. – Semih Özdemir
Parannoul – After the Magic
In his third album After the Magic, anonymous South Korean shoegaze musician Parannoul has achieved his greatest triumph yet. The album presents a clear maturation and evolution of sound, creating an all-encompassing sonic atmosphere. Harmonizing vocals are backed by diversified instrumentation including strings, horns, and pianos, with a greater emphasis on melody, alongside increased electronic sounds. The cohesive final product allows for singular standouts such as the re-recorded “Insomnia,” opening track “Polaris,” and the stunner “Arrival” which drops in with heavy drums before shifting into a focus on strings, horns, and layered vocals. The latter in particular highlights the cinematic appeal of the album, presenting a confident number that understands how best to utilize all of the tools at the artist’s disposal to create a piece of art that can completely wash over you and linger long after. – Allyson Johnson
Squid – O Monolith
On their sophomore full-length effort, British art rockers Squid go for a less quirky approach than 2021’s Bright Green Field and instead hone their experimental and proggy influences into a compelling collection of songs. Lead-off track “Swing (in a Dream)” packs big ideas into its four and a half minute run time, bringing in cool riffs, a fine Kid A-style chorus, and a raucous outro to create one of the best singles of the year so far. Longer songs like “The Blades” and “Undergrowth” is where O Monolith really shines, and bring their multiple styles and influences into songs that play around with song structure before building into dramatic climaxes and dissolving away into ambient eindings. This is one of those albums that rewards close listening and multiple replays and it does a lot with its 41 minute run-time. – Ryan Gibbs
The Tubs – Dead Meat
On their debut album, British jangle pop band the Tubs know both how precious your time is and how best to spend it. Dead Meat clocks in at only 26 minutes, but it fits a lot of hooks into that small package. The album contains nine supremely catchy tracks that feel like a breezy day at the beach even when hiding morose lyrics under its bright exterior. The Tubs includes former members of the much missed Welsh band Joanna Gruesome, and that group’s frontperson Lan McArdle pops in here and there with backing vocals that highlight the Tubs’ knack for catchy folk rock choruses.
Much has been made of how lead singer Owen Williams’ craggily baritone recalls that of Richard Thompson, and you can hear the influence of that British folk great on songs like “Sniveller”, whose prickly verses build up to a sweet chorus straight out of I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight. Other highlights include the single “Wretched Lie”, with its chiming guitars and subtle hooks, and “I Don’t Know How It Works”, a song that’s immediately catchiness and barely two minute runtime all but demands you hit the repeat button. For fans of jangly folky indie rock, there’s a lot to love in this debut effort by such a promising group of musicians. – Ryan Gibbs
Wednesday – Rat Saw God
To name your band after the most despised day of the week shows a kind of wicked perversity, which also happens to be evident in the noise-rock crash of this band’s music. These folks don’t sound like how most experience Wednesday, as a mid-week drag, an enervating blues. There’s not an inch of the blues in their bodies. They sound more like a Monday on this, their fifth album: fresh and invigorated, ready to take on all comers. Or like a Sunday, as on the leisurely rollout of the 8-minute “Bull Believer”, which gives lead vocalist Karly Hartzman a chance to stretch out and enjoy herself. Or like a Friday, what with the energy of the guitars, that overcome an end-of-week equivalent exhaustion with the exciting promise of good times to come. They’re complex, in other words: they encompass the tone of an entire week’s peaks and valleys. Except, that is, for the mid-week blues. – Oliver Hollander
WITCH – Zango
The first album in nearly 40 years from this Zambian rock band, Zango is a both a fun time and a sterling example of the unique “Zamrock” style that mixes psychedelic acid rock, funk and blues into traditional musical styles from the southern African country. The only two surviving members of the original band, vocalist Emanyeo Chanda and keyboardist Patrick Mwondela, neither of whom were in the band at the same time before their late 2010s reunion, are joined by European musicians who help round out the sound of Zango. Zamrock was always influenced by American and British rock that was suddenly banned from Zambian airwaves in the 1970s, and these new musicians bring new psychedelic influences into WITCH’s sound.
Unlike past records which had a heavy acid rock influence, Zango is based on danceable grooves and funk, the musicians whirl around Chanda and other guest singers as they sing in both English and Chewa. The raucous “Waile” and the chill “Unimvwesha Shuga” are particularly strong, as is the guest appearance of Australia-based Zambian musician and WITCH fan Sampa the Great on “Avalanche of Love”. If you’re looking for a fun, cool dance-rock record, you should totally seek out Zango, which stands as a happy ending to one of rock’s most interesting stories. – Ryan Gibbs
Young Fathers – Heavy Heavy
Defiantly hard to categorize as ever, this Scottish troupe’s fourth album encompasses hip-hop, soul, rock, gospel, and many other genres besides. They ain’t heavy, though: they’re your brothers. The mood they conjure up here is one of harmony and togetherness – though not in a stupid, unthinking way. On the last track, for instance, they claim to want to take ten pounds of loving out of the bank (even adding a polite “please”), but they also want to shake up the bag a little, stick a needle in their eye: “All I have is mad/All I have is crazy”. Harmonies and brotherhood will only get you so far in this crazy-ass world, even in Scotland, often regarded as the kindest and most welcoming part of the UK. Violence or competition could be round every corner for young men, particularly young black men in this still-racist world. In which case, crazy is just a means of survival. These youngsters embody such contradictions, embrace them even. And if they ultimately leave one with a sense of hope rather than despair, that’s mostly thanks to the warmth and maturity of their multiculturally-inspired music. – Oliver Hollander
Featured image contains album covers courtesy of Dead Oceans, Interscope, Ninja Tune, and Warp.