Even though I know I don’t really have to anymore, I still listen to most new music the old fashioned way: by listening to the album from beginning to end.
When I was a young adult buying CDs, that’s what I would always do. Over and over again, I’d listen from start to finish, memorizing where my favorite tracks were so that I could eventually skip to them in the future. Years of consuming music this way taught me to see albums as complete works that required my careful attention and loving interest. I know with streaming culture and the way our consumption of art is fractured because of social media, many people don’t really think about songs and singles as being a small piece of a larger project, but I try not to lose sight of that. I see and understand that musicians are trying to tell stories in their own ways, too, and I want to make sure I get the complete picture before I decide which parts of the story are the ones that will stay on repeat for a long, long time.
This year in music was kind of a strange one. It’s difficult to pin down a specific theme or set of themes that were common in the new releases. Among all the many queer musicians who released new work this year, the focus ranged from hooking up to celebrating being alive to mental health issues to falling in love to grief about a personal experience or grief about the terrible things we’re experiencing and witnessing together in broader society. And I have to say, I kind of like that about the music I got to listen to for the first time this year. We’re navigating one tragedy after another — the genocide in Palestine, the ongoing attacks on queer and trans people in the U.S., the shifting economy, the worsening climate crisis, and this doesn’t even fully cover it — and we still have to wake up every morning and do our lives, whatever that means for each of us. Most days, for me, that feels impossible to do, which is where art comes in to remind me that despite what the people oppressing and destroying us might want us to believe, there is still beauty all around us.
When I originally started working on this, I had a list of 28 new albums (and some EPs) by queer and trans musicians who I felt deserved to be on here. And it reminded me how lucky I am to be alive in a time when so much work by queer and trans people is not only out there for us to find but it’s also entirely accessible through every electronic device we own. I keep thinking about this wild abundance of art from people who have such little time to think about making art and who have to put a lot on the line to do this work in the first place. I’m not sure we’re deserving of what they’ve given, but I’m grateful we get to receive it.
As you go through the list, you might notice there are some high profile releases missing from the list. It’s not that I didn’t like those albums or that I didn’t think they showed a high level of talent and artistry. It’s just that, like I said, there was so much out there this year, and I thought there was more to celebrate.
Here are 10 of the best queer albums of 2023.
Amaarae – Fountain Baby
Flanked by an orchestra of strings, an extensive horn section, West African and steel pan drums, and playful Afropop and Alté beats, Amaarae’s glittering, opulent voice unravels and exposes the darker sides of celebrity, of fame and power, of being young, sexy, and adventurous. Her debut album, The Angel You Don’t Know, blast Amaarae onto the scene as one to watch, and this follow up, Fountain Baby, proves she’s here to stay for as long as she wants it.
Fountain Baby is especially interesting because it feels split in two. Amaarae doesn’t lead us directly into the darkness. Instead, she first shows us the lighter, sensual side of having money to burn, parties to go to, and women to hook up with. Tracks like the funk carioca tinged “Angels in Tibet” celebrate the excitement of moving through a night out with nothing but a desire to fuck on her mind, while more experimental pop tracks like “Co-Star” (the album’s single) and “Princess Going Digital” have some fun poking at both Amaarae’s astrological dating history and her unwillingness to settle down.
The album takes a turn at “Reckless & Sweet,” a slower track exploring her relationship with someone who’s just with her because of her money — “It’s cause my money’s just too long / The thought of me spendin’ gives you goosebumps” — and keeps peeling off the layers of the harder parts of being young, rich, and sexually daring from there. Tracks like the uptempo “Sociopathic Dance Queen” and the almost oddly sensuous “Sex, Violence, Suicide” bring us into some of the more ill-fated sexual and romantic experiences she’s had. By the last track, “Come Home to God,” it’s obvious Amaarae has no illusions about herself and her own intentions, and her bright, crystalline voice shines through even the more difficult parts of her story to remind us she’s got a handle on it all: “When I’m in that pussy, I’m above the law / If I had the world, I still would end it all.”
Indigo De Souza – All of This Will End
All of This Will End was my introduction to Indigo De Souza this year, which is interesting considering it feels like her first two albums provide the necessary build up to what she’s exploring on this new one. But even with that, All of This Will End feels like the standout among them and definitely one of the best albums I listened to this year. Where her previous two albums were a little quieter, a little less confident, and just hinting at her preoccupation with the finality of death, All of This Will End explores her obsession with mortality more openly and features some of the biggest tracks, arrangements-wise, that she’s recorded to date. It’s the most sincere she’s ever been about her emotions.
The album blasts open with a short, dreamy synthpop track, “Time Back,” that gives voice to some of De Souza’s anger about a past relationship. It serves as an interesting precursor to “Smog,” a full-on dance track that celebrates De Souza’s contentment with solitude and loneliness: “I come alive in the nighttime when everybody else is done / I come alive, it’s the right time to really start having fun.” Other tracks like “You Can Be Mean” and “Always” explore different, more difficult aspects of being alive. On “You Can Be Mean,” De Souza takes aim at someone who hurt her by reminding them that they’re not quite as “good” as they likely think they are. “Always” is an blistering, angry track about her relationship to her often absent father that fills up the space of the song with raucous electric guitars and De Souza’s screaming.
On the title track, “All of This Will End,” De Souza breaks through some of the anger of the previous tracks to almost exuberant resignation: “Sometimes it’s not enough / Who gives a fuck? / All of this will end / Don’t forget / All of this will end.” Although the album is full of sincerity and earnest confessions, she’s at the height of her honesty and openness on “Wasting Your Time,” a sludgy guitar and drum heavy track about self-doubt, and the final track “Younger and Dumber,” a quiet ballad about growing up and getting hurt by someone she trusted. On the latter, she sings: “Sometimes I just don’t want to be alone / And it’s not cause I’m lonely / It’s just cause I get so tired of filling / The space all around me.” By the final chords of the album, you can see how De Souza has finally stepped comfortably into the person she was meant to be.
Kara Jackson – Why Does the Earth Give Us People to Love?
Kara Jackson’s work is hard to describe without making someone listen to it immediately. Why Does the Earth Give Us People to Love? is an album entirely compromised of songs about love, but not a single one of the tracks is a love song or even comes close to being one. There’s no begging for a past lover to come back or eulogizing the loss of a romantic relationship that she didn’t expect to end. Rather, Jackson explores how loving, whether it’s romantic love or platonic love, is a never ending series of losses no matter what choices we make or don’t make.
Before you even get to her stories, you’ll notice how arresting and singular Jackson’s voice is on every single track. Her deep falsetto feels cutting and otherworldly over minimalistic guitar melodies, muted horns, delicate pianos, and floating choral arrangements that make it into a few tracks. On the album’s single, “no fun/party,” Jackson’s voice lilts over simple guitar chords to lament how difficult it is to feel fully held in love: “I wanna be as dangerous as a dancing dragon / Or a steam engine, a loaded gun / Be loved for my hazard and a will to destruct.” Tracks like “dickhead blues” and “free” drive home this idea of loving as always having to give something up. The arrangements on these two tracks are similarly stripped down, but feature more than just guitar in places where the drama of the songs begins to heat up for a moment before she brings us back down to tell us about what she’s learned in this process of loving and having to give that love up.
The title song “why does the earth give us people to love?”, the most powerful track on the record, has an arrangement that soars above the others with guitar, synthesizers, reverb on the vocals, and a choral backing in some parts of the track. It tells the story of the loss of a close friend of Jackson’s who passed away, and drives home the theme of the whole album: “Why does the Earth give us people to love? / Then take them away out of reach?”. For Jackson, vulnerability isn’t an option, but just her primary mode of being, and she explores what it means to be vulnerable and open in a moment where the world seems so hellbent on making us suffer. Her music is a way of navigating the grief that comes along with the cycle of loving and losing and provides pathways for listeners to navigate their own, as well.
ANOHNI and the Johnsons – My Back Was a Bridge for You to Cross
ANOHNI has been a constant in my life since the release of her sophomore album, I Am a Bird Now, and I can’t help but get excited when I hear she’s working on something new. My Back Was a Bridge for You to Cross is her first album with the Johnsons in 13 years and over five years in the making since the release of her solo EP, Paradise, in 2017. A tribute to the Black American soul music that inspired the singing and songwriting of some of her favorite artists as a young person, My Back… is an exploration of not only that very genre but also the power in ANOHNI’s voice and the difficulty of being alive in an impending climate nightmare.
Unlike some of ANOHNI’s previous recordings, the tracks on My Back… feel stripped to the basics that make soul records so appealing: rhythm guitar, six-piece drums, light synths, electric bass, and some gentle horns every now and then. The subtler composition really leaves so much room for ANOHNI’s voice to bend the composition to her will and fill all of the spaces left by the more subdued instrumentals. It’s an incredible feat of songwriting that transcends the genre but still feels so rooted to it and grounded to the Earth, which feels especially appropriate considering the majority of the songs sets her sights on our relationship to it.
Tracks like “It Must Change,” “Go Ahead,” and “It’s My Fault” directly address the worsening climate crisis in different ways. “It Must Change” opens the album and reminds us all of what’s at stake if we don’t take action while also mourning how much we haven’t. “Go Ahead” takes the ruling class and the power structures that get in the way of making the world a better place to task by daring them to keep doing what they’re doing. And “It’s My Fault” examines ANOHNI’s (and our) relationship to capitalism and how we get trapped in individualizing our complicity in climate destruction without taking those in power to task for theirs.
The standout track on the album for me is “Scapegoat,” a track that starts as a soft, simple composition that builds and builds until the final minute of the song where the beauty of the composition contrasts the lyrics entirely. On it, ANOHNI directly addresses the transphobia of our time by taking the perspective of our oppressors to essentially highlight the horror of their actions. The last two tracks on the album, “Why Am I Alive Now?” and “You Be Free” work together to clarify the connections between the artistry and activism of the past and what ANOHNI’s is trying to do on this album: there is so much to mourn and fight against, and there is so much we can still do to save each other, too.
Jamila Woods – Water Made Us
I love Jamila Woods. I really do. I’ve been hanging onto her work ever since the release of her debut, Heavn, in 2016. I’ve traveled to see her perform live and then, eventually, had the privilege of seeing her where I live. There is something truly special about the way she approaches the art of songwriting and composition, and, man, that voice. That voice. It’s so particular, so incredibly different from so much of what we hear all the time. You can feel the love she has for not only the work she’s doing but also those of us who consume it and revel in it. And the album she dropped this year, Water Made Us, takes all those strengths and puts them to investigate love through music in a way we’re not really used to: love not at the beginning or the end but all throughout the entirety of loving someone and being loved back by them, love as a journey of discovery for ourselves and for others, love as a process of surrender and release and back again.
The album’s single, “Tiny Garden,” is a smooth little uptempo track examining the slow evolution and growth of a relationship between Woods and someone else that isn’t exactly a “tiny garden” but still she vows to “feed it, every day.” “Practice” and “Boomerang” are upbeat, almost dance-y tracks that work in contrast with one another. On the former, she’s discussing a loving relationship that wasn’t meant to last forever. On the latter, she sings about a rapturous relationship that makes her a little nervous but that she’s determined to make last longer: “You lead the way, I’ll follow you here / And I won’t run, no, I won’t run.” Other tracks like “Send A Dove” and “Thermostat” are both melodic R&B tunes that explore the ups and downs of long term relationships, their twists and their turns, and the ways we must communicate openly and compromise in ways we don’t always expect to make them work.
Each track is a new opportunity for Woods to illustrate a vision of love — or the expectation of it or the aftermath of it or the experience of being in it — that leads her on a path to learning more about herself. Repeatedly, she reminds us that even if love doesn’t last forever, the lessons, the laughter, the little moments we shared in those relationships will stay with us, help us continue to move through all of the experiences we have after, and they just might teach us how to love ourselves more completely and more compassionately also.
Miki Ratsula – i’ll be fine if i want to
Miki Ratsula has been such an interesting musician to watch over the last couple of years. For a while, it seemed as if they were more well known for their social media presence than for the music they make, and even with the release of this new album, it seems like they’re still a little under the radar in the indie music world. I was familiar with their work before i’ll be fine if i want to, so I had an idea of what to expect with this album, but I finished it so thoroughly impressed and I’ve been coming back to it over and over again the last couple of months.
In a moment when so many people seem to be under the impression that “queer and trans people have never had it better than right now,” Ratsula’s album delves deep into the interpersonal realities of what it’s like to be queer and nonbinary in a world that is simultaneously giving us new ways to survive while also finding new ways to make our survival more difficult. The majority of the tracks on the album are lo-fi, guitar-driven compositions that occasionally feature modest electronic beats, which helps give it a bedroom recording feel despite its studio polish. These particular compositional intricacies and lyrical intimacies show incredible growth for Ratsula as an artist and producer.
On the album’s single, “blue balloons (featuring Semler),” Ratsula sings about getting misgendered by a friend at their birthday party. It takes its chorus from lesbian icon Lesley Gore’s most famous song, “It’s My Party,” and turns the song into a quiet anthem about trans resilience. Ratsula might be hurt but they worked hard to be where they are, so they’re not going down like that. “if i blame myself” is a surprisingly upbeat track that reveals the the struggle of freeing themself from an abusive relationship but ultimately refusing to let the person hurting them walk away believing Ratsula is the one to condemn: “Like everybody else who gave you what you wanted / Yeah, you’d love it / If I blamed myself.” Beyond the tracks that directly tackle some of the friction Ratsula has encountered in their romantic relationships, they also explore their relationship with their family on tracks like “jealous of my brother,” a track that begins as a confessional about Ratsula’s feelings of envy towards their cis brother and ends as a letter of gratitude to him, and “what would the neighbors think?,” a powerful testimony of what it’s like to deal with loved ones who don’t understand you.
The album ends with “unconditional,” a beautiful rumination on the freedom of being loved wholly by another person and reminder of the possibilities that come with that kind of love. Although Ratsula probes the emotional complexities of being openly queer and trans throughout the entirety of the album, it also serves as a testament to the power of that openness and being who they are in spite of what’s against them.
Kelela – Raven
It really feels as if people forgot this album came out this year, but it is truly one of the most introspective and most impeccably produced albums of the year by a long shot. In a moment when the history of Black electronic music has been dissected and, to a certain extent, exploited by other artists, it’s almost unbelievable to me that Raven hasn’t gotten more hype and more attention. But perhaps that’s due to the subject matter — there is an unapologetic focus on queerness and Black womanhood and the intersections of those realities that fills every compositional and lyrical inch of Raven. It’s not necessarily a celebration but a forced witnessing of what it’s like to inhabit a personhood that so many other people are determined to destroy. It’s a dance album at the end of the world made by someone who has a more intimate understanding of the importance of both pleasure and pain in the apocalypse than many of the rest of us do.
With the aid of a stunning roster of other producers including Kaytranada, Junglepussy, and Bambii, among others, Kelela pulls from all over the electronic music gradient — Chicago house, dancehall, U.S. and UK garage, drum’n’bass, b’more, 90s techno — to create a litany of seductive, almost euphoric tracks that will make you feel like you’re moving in slow motion, at least for a little while. “Divorce” and the title track, “Raven,” point most directly to the steady introspection and self-reflection that helps guide the whole album, with the latter subverting the metaphor of the raven to signal Kelela’s reincarnation throughout the course of the over five years she worked on this album. On tracks like “Contact,” “On the Run,” and “Sorbet,” Kelela addresses sexuality and the sensuous rush of new and all-encompassing lust over blissed out jungle, dancehall, and trancelike beats.
Standout track, “Holier,” is a lulling, slow-burner that places Kelela’s sweeping vocals at the forefront of the track to exclaim in a gentle rhythm: “Don’t wanna cover the scar / So I go where they hold me down / And I go where they hold me down / And you’re not gonna take my crown.” By the end of the album, it’s obvious that forced witnessing isn’t for nothing: Kelela understands the potential of communal revolution through shared experience and the worlds she builds on this album keep pointing toward those possibilities.
Romy – Mid Air
This debut from the xx’s Romy Madley Croft is just one electronic gay banger after another. And that isn’t hyperbole. While it is definitely missing some of the more intimate earnestness and pensiveness we’re used to seeing in Romy’s songwriting with the xx, Mid Air is a joyous homage to the dance-pop and electronic music that was such a mainstay on the queer dancefloors of the 1990s and early 2000s. Romy’s ability to both build on the allure of those kinds of beats and productions while also transcending them to create something that is reflective of the way music has moved forward since is part of what is so attractive and wonderful about this album as a whole. 2023 feels like it has been one long reconsideration of the power of dance and electronic music in our culture, and I think the work Romy did in the production of this album deserves to be part of that conversation. On top of that, this album is a celebration of queer euphoria, of unrestrained sexuality, of rapturous encounters, and falling for friends.
Although the atmosphere of the album as a whole is engrossing from start to finish, Romy’s work on Mid Air is at its best on the tracks that combine that tribute to the flashy Euro-dance tracks of the past with this reverence of queer love and sensuality. “Loveher,” “Weightless,” “Strong,” and “Twice” serve as some of the best examples of this on the album. Their rhythms and glossy synth-driven production recall the dance-pop era but add modern twists to make them feel entirely new. Romy’s feelings for whoever is on the receiving end of their affection is put on full display with a sentimental fervor that would convince some of the most dispassionate people of the beauty of falling fast and hard for another person.
The album ends with, “She’s On My Mind,” a track about what feels like one of the most common experiences among queer people in the world — realizing you like a friend as more than just a friend. Along with some extremely nostalgic drops in the techno instrumentation of the track, Romy’s lyrics here also feature some impactful, lovesick surprises: “She’s on my mind but I wish she was under me / And there’s a space in between us, I don’t know how to reach.” The song keeps the tension building to the end where it takes a turn I don’t want to spoil. But it’s an appropriate ending to an album that allows the idiosyncrasies of queer love and queer joy to permeate every corner of every track. In a time when it seems so difficult to just live, Mid Air is a gorgeous reminder of the moments that give meaning to being alive.
Yves Tumor – Praise a Lord Who Chews but Which Does Not Consume; (Or Simply, Hot Between Worlds)
In the past, Yves Tumor’s work never really hit for me in the way that the music I return to time and time again does. It’s not that I didn’t get it or didn’t like it — I actually did enjoy the experimentation and artistry quite a bit and have always thought they were talented — but it just didn’t hit, and I can’t fully explain why. When the first track on their new album was coming to an end, I could already feel that shifting inside of me. Praise a Lord… doesn’t just feel like their best work to date, it also feels like an artist finding their footing and realizing the greatness inside of them and how much more they can truly achieve. It’s an ambitious album with sleek, high quality production and lots of interesting musical nods and cues to other acts Tumor seems to be inspired by or has deep admiration for.
For most of the tracks on the album, the compositions are heavy and dark, filled with rich, muddy electric guitars, booming drums and bass, reverberating vocals, and lush synthesizers that help create an atmosphere that feels completely outside of our own. On top of it, Tumor grapples with some of the issues for the artists in our culture — how to navigate a world where you’re constantly being watched, how to balance the personal and private in your work, and what your responsibility is to the people who consume the work in an ever-fracturing pop cultural landscape. Like that fractured landscape, Tumor creates a variety of vivid textural experiences through the tracks on this album, making it feel like a collage of their musical interests that helps them reorient our understandings of desire, race, gender, and sexuality through their focus on the smaller, more confidential parts of our relationships with others. Praise a Lord… is an appreciation of life, all the good and bad that comes with it.
The best tracks on the album — “Parody,” “Echolalia,” and “Purified By the Fire” — survey this landscape the best and help provide clarity on Tumor’s perceptions of themself, the way people expect them to move through the world, and the way they actually do. When the conclusion of the album comes through the track “Ebony Eye” — an almost hymnlike incantation that feels more like a prayer than an art rock single — you can see all of Tumor’s visions, hopes, and beliefs coalesce into an imagining of a future that’s ours for the taking.
Julie Byrne – The Greater Wings
I’ve seen Julie Byrne described as a “well-kept secret,” and that feels entirely fitting for me as her music was all new to me this year. Before The Greater Wings was released earlier this year, I got into her through one of the singles off her 2016 album, Not Even Happiness. After spending time getting to know her music and getting to hear The Greater Wings, there’s no doubt in my mind this is some of her most vital and beautiful work yet. Born through heartbreaking circumstances — Byrne unexpectedly lost her longtime collaborator and close friend Eric Littmann in 2021 as this album was being produced — the album is a phenomenal meditation on the materiality of loss, grief, and catharsis. The fact of the album’s creation makes for an interesting take on the finality of the death of a loved one. Bryne doesn’t revel in the somber and melancholic aspects of grief here and, instead, she pushes forward to present a renewed sense of appreciation and admiration of the power and pleasure of loving and being loved (in every way).
Like much of her previous work, the tracks on The Greater Wings are quiet but magnetic in their delivery. Utilizing mostly finger-picked guitar melodies, strings and harps, and hushed synths, Byrne’s compositions are subtle conspirators to the testimony in her voice and in her lyrics. On tracks like “The Greater Wings,” “Portrait Of A Clear Day,” “Lightning Comes Up From the Ground,” and “Summer Glass,” Byrne eulogizes her friend by focusing on the things that make the love of friendship so profound and wonderful in the first place. She sings on “Summer Glass,” for example: “Desire, laughter, blur, ache, abandon / Are we gonna bring this to fruition? / The tattoo you gave me, lying in bed / Watched the light turning gold / Our limbs are sick, winter shadow / You are the family that I chose.” Some tracks, like “Moonless,” seem to be speaking to some specific memories or moments Byrne shared with her friend even though the track was written before his death like many of the others. It makes it seem as if Byrne was already intent on writing an album of songs about the holiness of human connection, and the gravity of her loss helped her produce tracks that accomplish this while also inviting us to join her in exaltation.
I read that the last track on the album, “Death Is The Diamond,” is the only one Byrne wrote after Littmann’s death, and it is an incredibly heart wrenching offering to both the memory of her friend and her belief in our capacity to move through mourning with grace and eyes looking forward instead of back. She sings, “I guess it’s a story much greater than our own / Alive, moving through dusk / Alive, if only once.” Even through one of the greatest losses of her life, Byrne shows that it’s possible to stay grounded in the knowledge that, as she says in the beginning of the album, she’s “not here for nothing.”