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The 15 best albums of 2023 from Washington artists

By Michael Rietmulder, The Seattle Times
Published: January 11, 2024, 6:04am

SEATTLE — Did things get less weird in 2023 or is our collective psyche simply adjusting to an endless cycle of chaos?

The last of the solitudinous pandemic albums have trickled out, putting a postscript on a period of intense upheaval and existential dread. Though the stakes remain as high as ever, art held more space for personal exploration, laughter and adventure. Washington artists used mind-bending jazz experimentations to question deep-seated social and economic systems, and needled billionaire tech villains through hummable punk bops. But in 2023, artists also took another step in reclaiming aspects of our humanity and holding them a little dearer.

Some of the albums that resonated most with me this year tended to either push my sonic expectations or felt instantly comfortable and familiar, like a new-to-me vintage sweater. And I don’t think I’m alone in that.

For the sixth consecutive year, we invited a cadre of local music journalists, radio DJs and playlist curators to vote for their favorite Washington albums of 2023. Using a sliding points scale, we tallied the results to highlight 15 of the finest local releases of the year, ranging from an Anacortes-area indie rock luminary to the red-hot Seattle newcomer who ran away with the top spot. For further recommended listening, check out all the individual ballots at st.news/2023-best-albums.

Hopefully, you’ll find enough new music to carry you well into the new year.

15. Spirit Award, “The Fear”

Spirit Award main man Daniel Lyon whipped up an unabashedly groovy psych-rock cyclone that’s a little bit spooky, sexy and steeped in mysticism. It’s the feel-good, lose-yourself record of the year for the wiggiest among us dancing through sweaty, Saturday night mosh pits.

14. Versing, “Tape II”

Four years after unleashing their well-received sophomore album through Sub Pop imprint Hardly Art, indie rock quartet Versing popped back up with a five-song EP packed with indelible melodies and shoegazey riffs that simultaneously feel thick and gauzy, like a bale of cotton candy, reminding us why they became Seattle rock faves in the first place.

13. Medejin, “The Garden”

This year, the club scene staples led by singer/multi-instrumentalist Jenn Taranto uncorked their first full-length set of swirling dream-pop, released through France’s Icy Cold Records and Seattle’s estimable cassette label Den Tapes. A sense of weightlessness pervades the album’s 11 atmospheric cuts, festooned with galactic synths and post-rock guitars.

12. AJ Suede, “Parthian Shots” and “Reoccurring Characters”

The most prolific rapper/producer in Seattle continued his breakneck pace, cranking out four more albums in 2023. Nothing against his more than capable production chops, but lately AJ Suede’s most memorable projects find him locking in with another producer, in this case Brooklyn’s Steel Tipped Dove on “Reoccurring Characters” and rekindling his woozy magic with Portland standout Televangel on “Parthian Shots,” an album stuffed with head-swimming, Seattle-centric wordplay.

11. Wimps, “City Lights”

Seattle’s functional-adult garage-punk champs returned with their first album in five years, during which the band welcomed a baby Wimp to the family. While songs like “Fits” are as lacerating as a toddler tantrum, the relatable “City Lights” is the fizzy, pit-sparking blast we’ve come to expect from the dialed-in punk trio that turns real-life mundanities into three-chord gold.

10. Skating Polly, “Chaos County Line”

Between the depth of their catalog and registering on the national rock radar as teenagers a decade ago, it’s easy to forget that this Tacoma-via-Oklahoma band is still a group of relatively young musicians. Five years since releasing their last album, the sibling trio that blends grunge, power-pop and pop-punk took a significant step in Skating Polly’s evolution on their sixth album, “Chaos County Line.” The 18-song collection is brimming with the most sophisticated songwriting of their career, balancing rip-roaring punk abrasions with intense vulnerability.

9. Black Belt Eagle Scout, “The Land, the Water, the Sky”

No album in 2023 — or in recent memory, for that matter — evoked such a strong sense of place as Black Belt Eagle Scout’s third and finest album to date. After establishing themselves in Portland as a standout among the next generation of Pacific Northwest indie rockers, Katherine “KP” Paul moved back, in 2020, to the Swinomish Indian Tribal Community near La Conner where she was raised. Laden with Paul’s foggy vocals and daybreak guitar tones, “The Land, the Water, the Sky” beautifully chronicles their journey reconnecting with their ancestral homelands during isolating pandemic times.

8. LIVt, “I Just Want My Bitches to Fly”

Over the last few years, Tacoma-area talent LIVt has established herself as a local R&B favorite, thanks to a string of solid EPs and vibe-setting festival performances. The rapper/singer maintained her impressive consistency on her latest five-song offering, tightly packed with impeccably cool melodies and a host of features from contemporaries like Dave Shanaé, Daizha and SoCal-based rapper (and onetime Tacoman) Jaywop. In the EP’s 14-minute running time, the real-life Olivia Thomas expediently flashes her versatility, kicking a few bars on springy party rocker “Who?!” between cleansing slow jams like “I Should Have Known.”

7. Dean Johnson, “Nothing for Me, Please”

The long-awaited debut album from 50-year-old singer-songwriter Dean Johnson was easily one of the most anticipated Seattle releases of the year, as evidenced by a familial sold-out Tractor Tavern release show this spring and a warm reception beyond Ballard Avenue. The Camano Island-raised artist and friendly faced barman did not disappoint with this charmingly homespun recording that lays bare Johnson’s honest songwriting and gentle voice that could calm an overcaffeinated trucker’s midnight jitters. The folk-country craftsman with an indie singer-songwriter’s earnest introspection takes listeners through transportive cowboy waltzes (“Faraway Skies”) and candle-flickering tales of love lost (“True Love”) with a sly pen and a knack for injecting subtle levity in just the right moments.

6. La Fonda, “We are Infinite”

The sibling-fronted dream-pop favorites delivered on their prismatic sophomore album, awash in shimmering, sunspotted guitar work. Alternately sleek and colossal grooves provide a foundation for the Topacio sisters’ carry-you-away indie-pop melodies that sail through flickering synthesizers and ambient surf licks on tracks like “Living in the Amazon” — a song that plays like a midsummer daydream at Golden Gardens, a cathartic lament of the live-to-work rat race.

5. Small Paul, “Come Alive & Live Again”

One of Seattle’s best new rock bands of the last few years was born of early-pandemic housemates, members of local staples the Moondoggies, Chris King & the Gutterballs and All Star Opera. The folk-rockin’ roomies’ cosmic-dusted full-length is a hearty, freewheeling affair with highway-ready riffs and glowing harmonies that could melt an ice-stormed Seattle hill. Campfire rockers like “Can’t Wait Any Longer” crackle and soothe while the seven-and-a-half-minute jammer “Laugh it Off” could keep us dancing all night. A cozier rock record one could not make.

4. Who Is She?, “Goddess Energy”

The return of this close-knit supergroup featuring members of Chastity Belt, Tacocat and Lisa Prank got off to a weird/funny/kind of legendary start when the band got booted from a Climate Pledge Arena gig after dissing Amazon founder (former Seattleite) Jeff Bezos, whose company holds the hockey palace’s naming rights, midsong during a Kraken game. The tune in question — a Seattleized reworking of Le Tigre’s “My My Metrocard” — turned up a few months later on their riot of a sophomore album “Goddess Energy.” The self-described “friendship band” lets us in on all their inside jokes via jangly garage-pop nuggets defending actor Anne Hathaway and paying nostalgic respects to a too-good-to-last movie subscription deal (“MoviePass”). Easily the most fun album of the year.

3. Kassa Overall, “ANIMALS”

Artists (including the one checking in at No. 2) have been exploring and strengthening the connective tissue between jazz and hip-hop for decades. Yet Kassa Overall, an adventurous drummer, producer and emcee, has managed to chart new terrain while breaking off from this well-traveled path. On “ANIMALS,” Overall’s first album for acclaimed experimental electronic label Warp Records, the studio mad scientist and a cast of well-curated contributors run wild with some of his most avant-garde impulses. Dizzying electronics brush against traditional jazz instrumentation and poetic verses confronting the pharmaceutical industry (a familiar Overall target), mental health issues and the perils of life as a modern artist. Anyone who puts influential blog-era rapper Lil B on the same album as renowned jazz pianist Vijay Iyer has a singular vision that warrants your attention.

2. Shabazz Palaces, “Robed in Rareness”

Last month Outkast’s Andre 3000, one of the most adventurous and technically proficient rappers of his generation, turned heads explaining his new rap-free flute album, telling an interviewer that at 48 years old he had nothing to contribute to the youth-driven genre. Clearly, he hasn’t kept up with Seattle hip-hop’s experimental guiding light Ishmael Butler, who at 54, has only gotten suaver with age. The new EP or “mini album” from Shabazz Palaces, effectively Butler’s solo vehicle since the departure of collaborator Tendai Maraire, continues to push the genre’s Afrofuturistic limits. With interstellar slickness, Butler’s electronically warped vocals and A+ wordplay (“How could I fugaze?/ The gangsters they hear me and shoe gaze”) leave digital comet trails over cruising-altitude beats while synthesizers sparkle like distant stars outside the window.

1. Oblé Reed, “LINDENAVE!”

Whereas Butler the cagey veteran pulled minds to afar left field, Seattle rap’s rookie of the year trained his arrow dead center and blew a hole straight through the bull’s-eye with the most impressive debut album of 2023. A high-energy performer with an infectious spirit, Oblé Reed has been working his way up the post-pandemic club scene and the uplifting “LINDENAVE!,” asserts his place among Seattle’s lineage of lyrically focused, hook-savvy rappers with an ear for ironed-out melodies. On his introductory project named for the North End street he grew up on, Reed’s songwriting is already crisp and polished — tidy packages for the make-it-look-easy fluidity of his delivery. Reed, who intentionally keeps his lyrics devoid of explicit material, wears his influences on his sleeve, channeling J. Cole’s ready-to-lyrically-rumble proficiency as well as Chance the Rapper’s gleaming soulfulness, sometimes on the same track. If “LINDENAVE!” is Reed just getting started, his next moves are going to be awfully fun to watch.

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