Having limited myself to only 10 picks this year, it was even harder than usual to narrow down my final selections. The top three were set in stone right away, but I was re-listening to albums daily for weeks and weeks trying to firm up the remaining slots—quick nod to some contenders that didn't quite make the list: a.s.o., Code Orange, Fury of Five, Leopard Print Taser, and Majesties.
The usual disclaimer: these are my favorites. I certainly don't hear everything, and I don't pay much attention to "higher-profile" releases (even in the "underground"). I'm presenting differently this year, however, because the top three rise above and beyond for me. So, the top three are displayed first and in order (gold, silver, bronze style), followed by the remaining seven alphabetically. I hope you'll find something to enjoy, especially if you missed me yelling and screaming about these releases on the website or elsewhere throughout the year...
Djunah, Femina Furens (Self-Released)
I was unfamiliar with Chicago duo Djunah prior, but as soon as it clicked with me (way back in March), I knew that Femina Furens was my album-of-the-year and would be almost impossible to top. I listened to it more than anything else all year, it was the most striking and jaw-to-floor material I encountered in 2023, and I was so completely blown away that I even bought the album on every format—twice on vinyl, even!?
I actually find it difficult to discuss this one, because I don't feel that I can properly formulate a description of anything about this release with the level of eloquence that it deserves. The best I could come up with earlier in the year was "like if P.J. Harvey went off-the-charts foreboding metal or something," but that's not good enough. No matter what I say, I feel like an insulting hack. Just know that this music is atypically powerful, exceptionally intense, and if you've been sleeping on it all year: wake up. Now. This is the best of 2023.
Rid of Me, Access to the Lonely (Knife Hits/Den of Wax)
One of my most-anticipated releases coming into 2023, Access to the Lonely even exceeded expectations. Philadelphia quartet Rid of Me continues to elevate noise rock to new heights—heavier and more robust, but also darker, more melodic and exploratory; with a lyrical honesty and intensity that feels increasingly uncommon these days, blending directness with poeticism. Add the striking visual aesthetic to the fact that the majority of the songs also break into an energy that's impactfully catchy, too, and you're in for a ride that's absolutely excellent on every level. I'm legitimately excited to hear whatever the band will put forth next...
Mightyfew, "Don't be So Fucking Dramatic" b/w "Keep Your Head Up, Kid" (Self-Released)
Australian act Mightyfew initially started out as somewhat of a Deftones-ish type of group, but over the course of just under a decade developed and matured into a unique form of heavy alternative/indie rock that feels familiar and uncommon all at once. Having suddenly returned with their first new recordings in over 15 years, these two songs—both of which totally rule—feel like a natural progression from where the band left off all those years ago. Still heavy, but a little more spacious and angular, with a killer balance of atmosphere, emotion, and energy—not to mention a superb recording that's probably the best they've ever sounded. I'm left wanting so, so, so much more; and thus hope that this won't be the last we'll hear from such an underrated gem of a group.
"Don't be So Fucking Dramatic" and "Keep Your Head Up, Kid" are available digitally on Bandcamp. Stream through Spotify or Apple Music, etc. One-sided clear 10" lathes (which were limited to a mere 30 copies) have sold out, but some of the band's prior work is still available in physical form.
Ancient Teeth, Deathbed (Locust Hail)
Ancient Teeth is a Canadian project led by singer/songwriter Adrian Mottram (Sights & Sounds, Seas, etc.), though they landed on my radar because of the involvement of bassist Jahmeel Russell (Red Vienna, Projektor, etc.). The group's debut full-length, Deathbed, proved to be a bit of a sleeper hit of nebulously atmospheric—but catchy!—alternative rock with the lightest of post-rock characteristics and bright vocals soaring up above. It's an interesting take that walks a fine line between something that could be considered to have "mainstream" appeal, while staying rooted in an aesthetic/attitude that maintains credibility. While revisiting albums to narrow down my picks, I just kept coming back to this one, eventually realizing: "Yep, this goes on the list."
Brights, This City Kills People (Self-Released)
Probably the single most underrated album of 2023—certainly the most overlooked on this particular list—Regina, Saskatchewan, Canada's Brights (formerly known as Built in Shellbrook during the late-'90s) have with This City Kills People essentially delivered the album that I wish Renee Heartfelt had released after the Magdalene EP. We're talkin' Quicksand-ish post-hardcore with a heavier alt.-rock oomph and slightly more streamlined hooks. There's atmosphere and nuance, but none of the boring crap—and in fact, you're in for some rather high-energy tempos at times. Loads of memorable choruses, and while there's enough polish to feel like it has that "wider" type of appeal, it's not so much so that anything is overly pristine nor affected. Given the band's severe lack of social media activity since the album came out, I fear this might be the last we'll encounter from Brights, but... fuck, I hope I'm wrong. This album is absolutely fantastic, and deserves so much more attention...
Dying Breed, Take My Soul... Give Me Grave (A389/Generation)
Being a firm believer in reissues, I try to allow myself one or two when it comes to the year-end list, and this one was a no-brainer. I've aggressively ranted on numerous occasions regarding the topic of the hardcore scene's near-total disregard for reissuing lesser-known/underappreciated material, so this is a superb example of precisely what needs to be done far more often, and exactly how it should be executed. Yes, I was bummed that it's vinyl-only, but the most important factor is getting the music back out there for a new chance to be heard—not just on streaming, but in any physical form. Here we see Dying Breed's bitterly crushing and in-your-face Troycore that has become significantly harder to find than some of its local contemporaries of the era granted new life as a 2xLP with a gatefold sleeve; a two-sided printed inner pocket for each LP that includes photos, flyers, lyrics, and credits; a giant poster of the album cover; and beautiful green, red, or green/red smash vinyl that perfectly matches the color scheme of the cover art. Respect.
End Reign, The Way of All Flesh is Decay (Relapse)
"Epic" is not a term often applied to metalcore—at least not accurately—but End Reign's debut, The Way of All Flesh is Decay, is fuckin' epic. Another of my most-anticipated releases of 2023, the group's lineup alone—Domenic Romeo, guitar (Integrity, Pulling Teeth, Day of Mourning, etc.); Mike Score, vocals (All Out War, Below the Frost, etc.); Art Legere, bass (Bloodlet); Adam Jarvis, drums (Pig Destroyer, Misery Index, etc.); Sebastian Phillips, guitar (Noisem, Exhumed, etc.)—elicits near-impossibly high hopes. The material, however—ambitious without being pretentious—delivers in full; evoking precisely the ferocious vocals, churning riffs, scorching solos, technical musicianship, and atmospheric flourishes one might expect, and without treading too closely to the territories of any of the members' past discographies. Superb, to say the least.
Fiddlehead, Death is Nothing to Us (Run for Cover)
I did not expect to be talking about Fiddlehead right now. Their past efforts were pretty good, but nothing especially impressive, and I just didn't understand the hype. Death is Nothing to Us, though, hits different. From the opening track, I was already thinkin', "Damn, I really like this." Their hardcore-adjacent, alternative-tinged post-this-or-that is sort of starting to feel like a slightly lighter Drug Church or something, but I think the fact of the matter is simply that the songwriting has significantly improved this time out. The overall tone is a little more memorable, and something about the energy makes the emotional components hit harder, to the point where I find myself reacting to a handful of songs in a manner that's pretty rare for me. It's undeniable. I "get it" now. This time, the hype is well-earned.
Heavenward, Pyrophonics (Fever Ltd.)
After a few years of scattered singles and an EP, I was psyched to finally see a full-length from L.A.'s Heavenward materialize, and Pyrophonics quickly gripped me with its "grungegaze" type of approach that explores a wider range of influences and aims to keep things energetic and memorable without lacking atmosphere. I've definitely been gravitating more toward this niche over the past five years or so, and Heavenward lands far above average when it comes to maintaining some heft to the riffing and oomph to the tempos. These tunes even go full-blown alt.-rock at times—there are a few big, wide-open chord progressions torn straight from the classic Oasis handbook (just keep in mind that when fused into this augmented context they do tend to transform a bit, so I'm not saying, "Oh, this sounds like Oasis, you'll love it!"). I certainly have high hopes for this band moving forward.
Pyrophonics vinyl ain't cheap, but does look beautiful and palette-appropriate, so pick up the second pressing through Fever Ltd. Grab your digital through Bandcamp, or stream on Spotify, Apple Music, etc.
Venomous Concept, The Good Ship Lollipop (Decibel/Extrinsic)
Prior to 2023, I didn't care about Venomous Concept. No particular reason. However, leading up to the release of The Good Ship Lollipop, I encountered a bit of hubbub about the material being catchy and melodic and a significant shift in style, and that caught my attention, 'cause shapeshifters are often the albums that I love the most. Sure enough, this is great! What is it? Alternative metal? I guess? I can hear a little Clutch, Fear Factory, and Killing Joke at times—and of course some of those wonderfully dissonant Shane Embury riffs—but this is generally its own weird beast. And there's still some grinding hardcore/punk in there, too. Many have disagreed, but they're wrong. This is Venomous Concept's finest work to date, and I'd be quite eager to hear more in this vein.