2023: That Feels Good

by Peter Piatkowski

The past year has been an exciting one for music—lots of great comeback albums by some veteran acts, as well as some exciting work from new artists. Yes, 2023, like 2022, was a difficult year, but, as always, pop music has been there to distract us, inspire us, make us dance, or make us feel. So, below are my top 10 albums of 2023, plus some honorary mentions.


Kylie Minogue – Tension

Kylie Minogue has lasted longer than most of her critics predicted and she has emerged, triumphant as a legendary diva. On Tension, her 16th studio LP, the singer makes up for her ’80s cheese-tastic work with Stock Aitken Waterman by making a fantastic New Wave-inspired dance album. Tension is a brilliant album—easily one of her best—and stands apart from dance music this year by being unabashedly pop and thoroughly sentimental and emotional. The hit single “Padam Padam” became yet another signature theme tune for Minogue (she’s got quite a few now) and the fancy title tune has Minogue introduce a blazing homage to ’90s house. But perhaps Minogue’s greatest moment on vinyl is “Story” —a pitch-perfect tribute to the New Romantic synth-pop tunes of the ’80s.


Jessie Ware – That! Feels Good

Jessie Ware’s fifth album That! Feels Good is an exhilarating disco album that recalls the heady nights at Studio 54. Seemingly possessed by the ghost of dance legend Donna Summer, Ware finds her Giorgio Moroder with James Ford and Stuart Price, and the resultant is an intoxicating example of neo-disco for the 2020s. With swirling synths, strutting funk, and pounding keyboards, That! Feels Good is an exciting record that sounds at once modern and retro. Like the best of dance music, there’s genuine heart and emotion behind these dance bangers, but there’s also a lot of tongue-in-cheek camp.


Shania Twain – Queen of Me

The title of Twain’s sixth studio album, Queen of Me is perfect because it alludes to the country diva’s reign as the queen of country during her superstardom in the 1990s as well as her sizable popularity among the gay community. Ever since her comeback, 2017’s Now, Twain has built on her endearingly frivolous brand of country-pop that embraces the pop more than the country. As seen in the Netflix documentary, Not Just a Girl, Twain has weathered some bruising storms—but unlike most female country divas, instead of mourning and lamenting on heartbreak tunes, Shania Twain comes back with a frisky, jumpy pop album that is pleasingly defiant.


Miley Cyrus – Endless Summer Vacation

By 2023, Miley Cyrus has released eight albums and gone through several pop guises. Like her godmother Dolly Parton, Cyrus saw the pop potential in country music, but she never seemed comfortable settling into just one genre, flitting from country to power-pop to hip-hop influenced dance music. If her musical output sounds somewhat haphazard and her celebrity seems to overshadow her music, one thing has been consistent: Cyrus possesses some of the best pipes in pop music. A wide, loud throaty roar, that voice is often far too beautiful and distinct for the radio-friendly pop tunes she’s recorded. That’s why Endless Summer Vacation is such a marvel. It’s the first studio LP in which the singer feels comfortable and at home. The songs play to her strengths, taking advantage of her charisma, charm, and talents. We hear mainstream adult-pop on Endless Summer Vacation, but we also get moments of dance, particularly in the smash hit single “Flowers,” a disco summery jam.


Depeche Mode – Momento Mori

It’s been six years since Depeche Mode’s last album, and in those ensuing years, the band suffered tragedy when bandmember Andy Fletcher died in 2022. Though Fletcher hadn’t started work on the band’s 2023 album, there was still some doubt whether Momento Mori would be released. However, even though Momento Mori was released, its moody, ruminative tone reflects the somewhat darker and troubling times we’ve experienced in the past few years. Martin Gore was inspired by death and mortality, driven by the pandemic as well as the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Releasing the album as a duo, Depeche Mode (comprised of longtime members Gore and Dave Gahan) has proven an uncommon longevity. Momento Mori is a moving, at-times unsettling listen, that has just enough echoes of their ’80s new wave sounds to feel familiar, but this is no work of a nostalgia band. Though there is a coldness to the slick, smooth synths and gleaming keyboards and drum machines, Gahan’s haunting vocals and moving lyrics make the record sound warm, in spite of itself. Even more important, despite the songs’ examination of death, the album never sounds maudlin or depressing, just thoughtful and intelligent.


Lana Del Rey – Did You Know That There’s a Tunnel Under Ocean Blvd

It’s very easy to misunderstand Lana Del Rey. Is she a genuine artist? Is she a dilettante, dabbling in music? Is she a cleverly concocted media creation? All of it is true. The singer-songwriter is an alt-rock and dream-pop poetess, but she’s also a careful curator of her own image, building up a mysterious pop persona that is equal parts Dusty Springfield, Ann-Margret, Nancy Sinatra, and Sylvia Plath. A thoroughly American and Americana album, Did You Know… is an expansive record that feels like more like a short story collection than a pop record. One of her most challenging albums, Did You Know… is a record that seeks to create a new pop lore with tales of heartache, love, family, and life. The record contains allusions and references to Americana and speaks to traditions of country, folk, and alt-pop. In the song’s best moment, “The Grants” has the singer spin a tale of loneliness and regret while finding a sacred euphoria in its spirituality (made indelible with the celestial background work of Melodye Perry, Pattie Howard, Shikena Jones).


Belinda Carlisle – Kismet

Eighties power-pop diva Belinda Carlisle, frontwoman of legendary girl group The Go-Go’s, took some time before releasing her latest, the 2023 EP Kismet. Her last mainstream pop album was 1996’s A Woman & A Man. In the past twenty-plus years, Carlisle wasn’t exactly silent. She released two esoteric projects—an album of French chansons and a meditation record—as well as touring with the band and being inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. So, the release of Kismet feels like a bit of a surprise, but it’s a fresh, brief soupcon that reminds listeners of Carlisle’s glory days in the mid-’80s. Teaming up with superstar songwriter Diane Warren (who penned Carlisle’s big hit “I Get Weak”), the singer sounds invigorated and exciting. The record—produced by Mathia-Mathithiahu Gavriel and Peter Stengaard—embraces a slick, pop-rock sound that has just enough hints of dance, new wave, and synth-pop to bring up feelings of warm nostalgia.


Kesha – Gag Order

The change in Kesha’s career, sound, and image is at once stunning and dispiriting. The singer became an important figure in the ongoing MeToo saga (her reports of rape and sexual assault are harrowing). After 2016, when a New York judge dismissed the singer’s allegations against a record producer (eventually, the two reached a settlement), she hoped to return to her career, releasing Rainbow (2017) and High Road (2020), which sought to set right much of the time she lost in court. Gag Order is her fifth album and explores dark themes of anger and exhaustion. Though a sprawling mainstream pop record, written with a team of songwriters and producers, Gag Order feels intimate and candid. Kesha is a supremely talented singer-songwriter and is humane and human—and her empathy and pain is relatable and bracing to witness.


Jake Shears – Last Man Dancing

The former Scissor Sister is currently starring as the Emcee in a London production of Cabaret, and that makes total sense because Jake Shears is innately and inherently flamboyant. A natural heir to the kind of high-camp virtuosity of Elton John and George Michael, Jake Shears is seemingly the perfect pop star. On Last Man Dancing, his second solo outing after the dissolution of his band, pulls a tricky feat: mining club culture, queerness, ’70s-era disco and house while molding it into something squarely mainstream. Feeling like a dance party, Shears acts as a party DJ, spinning out ingratiating and hypnotic tunes, all featuring his sexy, camp persona. There are call outs to queer ephemera and trivia, and he’s joined on the record by legends Kylie and Big Freedia, even getting Jane Fonda herself to record a hilariously kitschy robotic cameo on the Moroder-inspired “Radio Eyes” that pushes this project into genius absurdity. The most impressive track, though, is the closer, “Diamonds Don’t Burn” that starts and stops, reaching an epic, U2-like chorus that’s anthemic and expansive.


Peter Gabriel – i/o

Though Peter Gabriel has remained incredibly prolific, i/o is his first studio album of original material in over 20 years. He hasn’t been silent in the two decades, putting out several cover albums, live work, and soundtrack contributions, but it’s fascinating to see the kind of creative muse that is inspiring the rock legend. An ambitious project, whose genesis (no pun intended) goes all the way back to 1995, i/o is an expansive, epic album that includes several remixes and versions that embrace several sounds, tones, and themes. Working with Mark “Spike” Tent and Tchad Blake, the songs are given a “bright-side” burnish or “dark-side” mix, as well as an “In-side” mix by Hans-Martin Buff. The overarching feeling on i/o is a hope and optimism that belies some of the thick, moody instrumentation. Unsurprisingly, Gabriel is introspective with his songwriting, but also looks outward, folding in elements of world music and global imagery. There’s a confidence with i/o, a self-assured attitude from a pro who seems to only get better with each passing year.


Honorable Mentions

“What Was I Made For?” – Billie Eilish

A heartbreaking and devastatingly vulnerable piano ballad that underscores the oft-poignant and moving moments of Gerta Gerwig’s Barbe film. Eilish’s whisper of a voice floats uneasily over a mournful piano, as the singer sings unbearably sad lyrics about losing one’s confidence and assuredness; using the plasticity of a Barbie doll as an appropriately apt allegory, Eilish brings listeners to tears by relating to the main character in Gerwig’s film, who experiences feelings of ennui and existential dread.

“Last Time I Saw You” – Nicki Minaj

Quite a surprisingly departure for Nicki Minaj, which has the normally gregarious rapper croon sadly over an understated synth-pop beat. The other remarkable thing about the song is that though Minaj shows off her considerable rapping prowess, she also possesses a pretty singing voice, which highlights the emotion of the lyrics that explore loss and regret.

“Owner of a Lonely Heart” – Trevor Horn, feat. Rick Astley

On Horn’s latest album, he assembled a laundry list of famous pop pals – including Seal, Iggy Pop, Tori Amos – who meet with the British musical legend for a covers project. On “Owner Of A Lonely Heart” —a hit for Yes after Horn moved from singing in to producing the band—’80s pop soul crooner Rick Astley applies his luxuriously soulful belt, turning “Owner” into a smooth, brisk synth-pop dance tune that glides effortlessly and is oh so cool.

“One of Your Girls” – Troye Sivan

A sexy synth ballad that will remind listeners of the Pet Shop Boys, right down to the sexual ambiguity, queerness, and melancholia. Telling the story of queerness and being closeted, it’s quietly devastating—particularly as the narrator promises to keep his love with his errant DL lover a secret.

“What’s Up?” – Dolly Parton feat. Linda Perry

Linda Perry and Dolly Parton became close friends when the two collaborated on the soundtrack to the Netflix comedy Dumplin’. After being inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (after initially turning down the honour), Parton decided to record an album of rock and pop covers, including Perry’s “What’s Up?.” Honestly, when the song was a radio hit, it was pretty annoying. But in Parton’s hands, the song becomes deeper and more substantive; as the country legend imbues the song with gravitas, it becomes a call to action on an increasingly chaotic world.

“Mine” – Kelly Clarkson

With her success as a talk-show host, Kelly Clarkson’s music has seemingly become an accompanying part of her celebrity. It’s a shame, given just how great of a singer she is. (She’s one of the few American Idol alumni to successfully transcended the reality TV baggage.) After a particularly rough divorce, Clarkson has released her own breakup album, filled with heartbreak ballads, but a highlight is the driving dance song “Favorite Kind Of High.” Written with Carly Rae Jepsen, the tune is defiant as a bruised yet resilient Clarkson is willing to put herself out there, despite being damaged from her breakup. As always, Clarkson’s vocals are on fire—really, she’s just an incredible singer—and Jesse Shatkin’s production is propulsive.

“Concrete Mind” – Bettye LaVette

The soul survivor is still making vibrant and exciting records late into her 70s. Though she’s at her best when she’s witty and fiery, “Concrete Mind” is another side to the legend—a slow, thoughtful ballad that allows for the singer to explore the various nooks, crannies, pocks, and marks of her inimitable raps of a voice. The rusty curl of her voice adds a weary sadness to her singing.

“Letter to Linda” – Tanya Tucker

When Linda Ronstadt retired due to her progressive supranuclear palsy, pop music lost one of its greatest singers. Tanya Tucker, a country great, pays tribute to her fellow legend with this simple, yet loving “Letter To Linda.” It’s a moving fan letter from one legend to another that trades lyrical sophistication with genuine emotion.

“Oil” – Gorillaz feat Stevie Nicks

Rock legend Stevie Nicks joins the Gorillaz and offers her distinct, crinkly vocals which add a pleasing warmth to the harmonies on this midtempo ballad that recalls synth-pop ballads of the New Romantic movement of the 1980s.

“Popular” – The Weeknd feat. Madonna and Playboi Carti

The Weeknd and Madonna join forces with Playboi Carti, and pull off a surprisingly light and effervescent track, despite the baggage of having two huge superstars on one song. The Weeknd’s sleek vocals pair well with Madonna’s light, airy tones, and Playboi Carti holds his own with his incandescent charisma.

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