CRITICS POLL: No Depression Writers’ Favorite Roots Music Albums of 2023
Most years, our annual Readers Poll and Critics Poll don’t have a lot of overlap. Music writers, who listen to a lot of music with a lot of intensity, are hungry for novelty and tend to gravitate toward artists a little farther off the beaten path. Fans, however, stay true to their favorites, with established names often rising to the top of that survey.
In 2023, however, there was a lot of common ground. In both polls, Jason Isbell’s Weathervanes was the clear favorite, impressing fans and critics alike with its sharp songwriting and fresh sounds. Our music writers placed other favorites in a different order, but in all, seven of the albums below are also on the Readers Poll list.
Just like with the Readers Poll, we challenged our contributors to list their 10 favorite roots music albums of 2023 (no easy task!), then compiled their responses into this list. We’re so grateful to them for their good ears, good words, and good cheer in their work in this roots music community. Find a list of the contributors who participated at the bottom of the post, and click the name of each album to find our review of it.
Also at the bottom of this post, check out a playlist of songs from albums highlighted in our Readers Poll and our Critics Poll.
Throughout his career, Isbell has possessed a gift for observing and detailing characters in struggle, against family members, partners, society’s expectations, their own demons. He also understands the power of specificity as well as building drama through storytelling. — Michael Elliott
The Returner is a welcome arrival, and once again Russell opens her heart, inviting listeners to travel with her, body and soul, through travails and triumphs. The community gathered on this record reflects the unity we all strive for in the face of anguish and pain. It’s comforting and empowering to walk beside Russell as a fellow traveler. — Henry Carrigan
On Strays, Price demonstrates her shape-shifting musical genius and her restless lyrical spirit. On every song, Price wears her candor on her sleeve, spooling out stories that are emotionally eviscerating and exhilaratingly expansive. — Henry Carrigan
This full-length release showcases the evolution of the union of Julien Baker, Phoebe Bridgers, and Lucy Dacus since their initial 2018 EP collaboration and even deepens that sense of connection. These songs feel like the trio is singing to, and about, each other as much as anybody else. — Kyle Petersen
With her new album, Anarchist Gospel, talented singer, songwriter, and guitarist Sunny War continues to acknowledge the effects of anxiety, grief, and social alienation while accessing a notable equanimity. The album stands as a testament to life’s hardships and a declaration of triumph. — John Amen
On City of Gold, the second album from Molly Tuttle and Golden Highway, wanderlust is a central theme, as are its consequences, both positive and negative. — Chris Griffy
Sometimes Jess Williamson’s voice is a pure belt, other times a delicate quiver, but it’s always enchanting and inviting. It is an especially powerful tool to deliver the kind of vulnerability baked into this batch of songs, which are also served by a newfound openness to expanding her idea of where she fits in. — Maeri Ferguson
Stories From a Rock N Roll Heart, Lucinda Williams’ first album since suffering a stroke in November 2020, plays directly to those kids in the high school parking lot during a Friday night football game in the era when they’d probably be blasting the album from a gold Camaro — on 8-track, of course. — Michael Elliott
The songs on Among Other Things come to life in a space that feels bluegrass adjacent. They’re more Wynonna Judd than Alison Krauss, more Joni Mitchell than Dolly Parton. White proves her deftness, carving out shimmering country ballads as thoughtfully as any traditional bluegrass tune. — Maeri Ferguson
Every single song on The War and Treaty’s Lover’s Game is alone worth the price of the album. Husband-and-wife duo Michael and Tanya Trotter follow up last year’s Blank Page EP with a stunning collection of songs that explore the vulnerability and incandescent passion of love. — Henry Carrigan
On their first album after the departure of founding member Woody Platt, the Steep Canyon Rangers show they have a firm grasp on who they are and the music they play. Joined by guitarist and singer-songwriter Aaron Burdett, the band has put together a collection of mostly original songs that showcase their stunning talent and range, moving comfortably from the core of bluegrass to the edges. — Nancy Posey
Stand in the Joy finds Prince looking back on the sweetest parts of the hardest times, recalling in detail the sights, smells, and sounds that helped him smile through grief and difficulty — the adrenaline of new love begun in secret, the shared sky that makes you feel closer to someone far away, or the subtle changing of the seasons bringing new life. — Maeri Ferguson
As she navigates the rocky terrain of young adulthood, Riccio has felt like a mountain and a mouse. She’s damn lonely under the summer sun. She’s learning to be kinder to herself. The urge to go somewhere makes her brain buzz. It’s a vertiginous time in one’s life and it feels very apt that Riccio should name her record Whiplash. — Laura Stanley
Proof of Life is a full blossoming of Oladokun’s artistic vision. All the pretty production ornamentation— the album is loaded with splashy bass lines and synth accents that fill out these songs — it’s always in service of the simple guitar and piano parts that made her earlier work so intimate. — Kyle Petersen
Inspired by the Northern California region where she grew up but left some time ago, Cilker’s sophomore album is a kind of spiritual revisiting of a place stuck teetering on the line between development and preservation. Like this dynamic, her feelings about it are complicated and deeply personal. — Maeri Ferguson
Thanks to the following ND contributors for participating in the 2023 Critics Poll: Managing Editor Hilary Saunders; Assistant Editor Stacy Chandler; columnists Peter Blackstock, Chris Griffy, and Amos Perrine; writers John Amen, Noah Berlatsky, Lyndon Bolton, Henry Carrigan, Rachel Cholst, Michael Elliott, Maeri Ferguson, Corbie Hill, Katie Moulton, Kyle Petersen, Nancy Posey, Kim Ruehl, Matt Ruppert, Laura Scholz, Jim Shahen, Laura Stanley, Tom Williams, and Jon Young; and photographers Boom Baker, Peter Dervin, C. Elliott, and Kim Reed.