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Rolling Stone UK’s albums of the year

As 2023 comes to a close, we take a look back at the albums that have defined the year for the Rolling Stone UK team.

By Nick Reilly & Will Richards

(Picture: Rolling Stone UK)

The Chemical Brothers, For That Beautiful Feeling

Through their studio albums and lauded live show, The Chemical Brothers have been at the vanguard of popular electronic music for the entirety of their 30-year career. Making music fit for arenas and festivals while breaking both sonic and visual boundaries at every turn, Ed Simons and Tom Rowlands are the most important figures in UK dance music this century. 

Their 10th studio album For That Beautiful Feeling continues this experimentation, seeing them push into psychedelia while maintaining their penchant for penning world-beating four-to-the-floor hits. Through collaborations with Beck and Halo Maud, they push their sound in new directions while keeping a tight hold of their still-fresh essence. As interconnected and thematic as their live shows, the album travels from dancefloor euphoria to a blissed-out conclusion, working in dance-funk (‘No Reason’), pop melody (‘Feels Like I Am Dreaming’) and slices of darkness (‘Magic Wand’) along the way. The album’s constant resistance to the familiar or comfortable underlines The Chemical Brothers’ continued commitment to evolution, and for that they are the winners of The Album Award, supported by Brooklands Studio (see interview on page 102)

The Japanese House, In the End It Always Does

Amber Bain’s second album as The Japanese House takes the foundations of debut LP Good at Falling and stretches them in all directions. In the End It Always Does is more catchy, more emotionally intelligent and heartfelt and possesses catchier pop hooks. Featuring collaborations with MUNA and The 1975’s Matty Healy, the album features alt-pop bangers (‘Friends’, ‘Touching Yourself’) and devastating odes to heartbreak (‘One for Sorrow, Two for Joni Jones’), all tied together by Bain’s inch-perfect songwriting and rich, atmospheric layers of synths and guitars. It solidifies her as a consistent and stand-out songwriting force in British alt-pop.

Lankum, False Lankum

Dublin quartet Lankum’s Mercury Prize-nominated fourth album False Lankum features versions of songs up to hundreds of years old, but every note is brought firmly into the band’s intriguing, disturbing world. Traditional classics ‘Go Dig My Grave’ and ‘The New York Trader’ are burnt, blackened and transformed by the band through the use of foreboding drones. The fact that the two originals — ‘Netta Perseus’ and closer ‘The Turn’ — fit so seamlessly into the album’s story and sound, proves that Lankum approach their source material not just with reverence, but a determination to break out of their boundaries.

Romy, Mid Air

Romy’s debut solo single ‘Lifetime’ arrived in 2022 with a hurricane of energy and joy, as if the singer had been waiting for years to show off her love of the dancefloor, having made her name shoegazing and singing in hushed tones at the front of The xx. Debut album Mid Air carries this energy on brilliantly, calling back to pop hero Robyn and ’90s trance classics on an album of euphoria and healing. Its highlight, ‘Strong’, is a paean to strength in community and transmitted through an ecstatic dance beat. 

Young Fathers, Heavy Heavy

Their fourth album sees Young Fathers continue to tread their unique, idiosyncratic path, with the results more invigorating than ever. The chemistry between Alloysious Massaquoi, Kayus Bankole and Graham Hastings is like little else in music, and their vocals weave in and out of each other through songs that are giddy and energetic (‘Rice’, ‘Drum’, ‘Sink or Swim’), dark and dangerous (‘I Saw’) and delicately beautiful (‘Tell Somebody’, ‘Geronimo’). “Life’s so boring when you’re already the best,” they sing on ‘Holy Moly’, instead more interested in “the story when you go beyond the edge”. To follow them on this expedition is simply thrilling.

Raye, My 21st Century Blues 

The road to releasing a debut album for Raye has been a long one. The London singer made headlines in 2021 when she alleged on social media that Polydor, her record label at the time, had been holding back her debut LP for seven years.

After an acrimonious split, Raye’s debut shows her off as a singularly brilliant British music talent. ‘Escapism’ is a tale of heartbreak wrapped in the shape of a pop banger, while ‘Oscar Winning Tears’ is a vocal-led epic that immediately puts her up there with the country’s best. Hers is a tale of triumph and a win for independent artists everywhere. 

Blur, The Ballad of Darren

From the off, The Ballad of Darren is defined by a deep sense of loss but proves to be all the more affecting for it. Albarn has been vague about the meaning, but a recent interview saw him subtly alluding to his separation from his long-time partner earlier this year. But even when the themes are heavy, songs like ‘St Charles Square’ zip along with the verve of Blur’s 90s anthemic highs. The sombre ‘Barbaric’, meanwhile, where Albarn discusses his split, is one of their most powerful songs. With their ninth album, Blur have managed to retain every ounce of the musicality that made them such a brilliant prospect in the first place. 

Jorja Smith, Falling or Flying

When Jorja Smith released her debut album Lost & Found in 2018, it was clear that her talent could define British soul for the next decade. While that first record was full of sultry, one-tempo numbers, this second album sees her head off in a new direction entirely. There are bass drums and bone-rattling percussion on ‘Try Me’, while the Nia Archives-featuring ‘Little Things’ is up there as one of 2023’s club bangers. And there’s plenty for old-school fans too. Haunting ballad ‘Broken Is the Man’ shows off Smith’s stirring vocals, while break-up anthem ‘Backwards’ also hits hard. Having established a new and powerful sound, Smith is well on her way to becoming a voice of a generation.

J Hus, Beautiful and Brutal Yard

After three years of near silence, J Hus’s third album sees him return with a record that acknowledges his lofty place in UK rap. “They know I’m a Goat,” comes his not-so-subtle salvo on the opening track. A bold claim, perhaps, but one that he justifies throughout the record. Here is an album where sultry Afrobeats hits (‘Massacre’) sit naturally alongside party-starting tracks like the Drake-featuring ‘Who Told You’. Similarly, there are furious Drill flavours on ‘Nice Body’ (featuring Jorja Smith) and a club anthem in waiting on ‘Killy’. It’s great to have Hus back. 

Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds, Council Skies

“It’s going back to the beginning. Daydreaming, looking up at the sky and wondering about what life could be,” Noel Gallagher said earlier this year of Council Skies. His fourth album with High Flying Birds takes stock of his thrilling journey, resulting in some of the best songs of his solo career. There’s a touching conversation with his younger self on the psych-tinged ‘Easy Now’, while the title track drips with a 60s-esque continental swagger. When the solo material is as good as this, an Oasis reunion looks as far away as ever.