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Radio Milwaukee’s best albums of 2023: the first four

Courtesy of the artists

It’s “best of” season: albums, songs, new artists, comeback stories, etc. Because we pride ourselves on putting our listeners and members first, that’s exactly what we did last week when we unveiled the top 100 songs played on 88Nine in 2023, as selected by you.

This week, we turn things over to Radio Milwaukee's on-air team — those dedicated music lovers you hear on 88Nine and HYFIN — for what qualifies as our picks for this year’s top albums. But we did things a little different than other lists you may have read already and posed a question to our contributors:

If you could only recommend ONE album from 2023 for people to listen to, which one would it be and why? 

Wording it this way guarantees a couple things. First, it keeps the list short. We love these rundowns as much as you, but 100 albums? Whew. No thanks. Second, it really gets the wheels turning for people who really love music. You might as well be asking someone to pick their favorite child.

That might explain why many of the answers you’ll read over the next couple days took a VERY long time to put together. These are not knee-jerk responses. They’re carefully, wonderfully thought-out recommendations from the people to whom you trust your music-listening day.

The end result is not a numerical list. You’ll find no rankings here. Instead, we ask you to look over this first batch of albums, bounce over to part two, and then put a few in your ears as we wind down 2023.

Courtesy of the artist

Nation of Language, Strange Disciple

Music is a really good channel for emotions — when feelings hit repeat mode, comforting people, places and things (also on repeat), helping us to get unstuck. This year was a personally challenging one. Luckily, musical repetition was there as a guide (and in particular, this album).

Nation of Language’s Strange Disciple easily led the way among my most sought-after sounds, recently cemented further by their October show in Milwaukee. That live performance truly put a 3D sparkle on their already-lovely, nostalgia-laden songs, making them feel more raw, real and to-the-heart (sorry, album producer Nick Millhiser).

After experiencing NOL's newest songs live, it was clear the band isn’t as much of a sonic time-warp / guilty pleasure as I may have been inclined to initially interpret. They’re simply a joyful crew, bent on making emotional waves for their fans to connect with and ride on.

I first gravitated toward NOL during the initial months of the 2020 pandemic, after the release of their debut full-length, Introduction, Presence (and their kickass, synth-punk-y cover of one of my faves, Pixies’ “Gouge Away”). That debut album drew me in immediately with its classic new-wave sensibilities echoing artists like OMD and New Order, and by deepening dance-punk footsteps first put down years ago by modern maestros like LCD Soundsystem and Bloc Party. Band leader Ian Richard Devaney’s undeniably awesome voice was that extra-extra.

Fast-forward to 2023 — through another album (2021’s A Way Forward), adding Aidan Noell on synths (Devaney’s wife and a newbie synth player, at that) and bringing on bassist Alex MacKay — and NOL has uncovered their most cohesive sound yet.

Strange Disciple has found its way into my headphones countless times, starting with the singles leading up to its official release in September. Maybe it was because I was already familiar with the band from the get-go, or maybe it was because I’ve long had a love of synth-pop (being a child of the ’80s), but this album magnetized and sustained me as musical comfort food in 2023.

— Erin Wolf, 88Nine Music Director

Courtesy of the artist

Killer Mike, Michael

I have been a fan of Killer Mike’s for 22 years. I remember exactly the first time I heard him over a track: Dec. 1, 2001. I remember it because it was my brother’s birthday, but I was the one who received a gift by stumbling on an artist who would quickly become one of my personal favorites.

I had no idea this track by Outkast featuring Killer Mike would go on to earn Michael Render his first Grammy award, and I’m so excited to say that Killer Mike’s latest album Michael has much more than Grammy awards in its crosshairs.

I’ve interviewed Killer Mike twice. The first time, we discussed what ultimately became the album’s first single, “Run.” At the time, I had no idea he was planning to drop a full-length album. When chatter about the release rose, I immediately thought back to that initial interview a year earlier in hopes that the rumors were true.

Not only did he deliver an incredible album, he also changed the nature of the conversation around grieving, redemption, economics and the Black church’s role in African-American survival. Yes, it’s an incredible hip-hop album. But, in my opinion, Michael is at the top of the list for album of the year.

— Element Everest-Blanks, HYFIN Music Director

I recommend you listen to the album Michael by Killer Mike. This album will speak directly to you. He will entertain you, as well as teach you some things. If you like great storytelling that addresses social and political views, listen.

— Chris Alexander, HYFIN On-Air Talent

Courtesy of the artist

Sampha, Lahai

My essential album for 2023 is a remarkable fusion of personal narrative and progressive R&B. With a title honoring Sampha’s paternal grandfather, this album delves into themes of heritage, fatherhood and self-discovery. The 14-track masterpiece is a departure from his debut, Process, offering a vibrant tapestry of human connections.

Futuristic in its production, Lahai blends genres seamlessly — from jazz and soul to hip-hop and electronic music — showcasing Sampha's versatile artistry. The influence of jungle, West African music and orchestral soul creates a unique, immersive soundscape. His collaboration with artists like Yaeji and Yussef Dayes adds depth, making the album something truly special and unique.

Highlights include the integration of synthesizers, drum machines and various percussion, reflecting Sampha's diverse influences. The album resonates universally, exploring time, spiritual journeys and parenthood's profound impact. Its live renditions add an exhilarating dimension, connecting audiences to its deeply personal yet universal narrative, as seen in his recent Tiny Desk Concert.

Overall, Lahai isn’t just an album; it's a journey through Sampha's evolving musical landscape, inviting us to reflect, celebrate and dream. It stands as a testament to his innovative, thoughtful artistry in today's music scene, solidifying his place among musical giants.

— Tarik Moody, Director of Digital

Courtesy of the artist

Jungle, Volcano

I've eagerly awaited this moment for a considerable time. Throughout the year, my excitement has revolved around various projects: Young Father's Heavy Heavy, Bad Bunny's nadie sabe lo que va a pasar mañana and Arlo Parks' My Soft Machine, to name a few. But in my pursuit of an album that resonates deeply, Volcano by Jungle stealthily claimed the spotlight, blaring emphatically in my car, at work and even on hikes.

And when I say loud, I mean it's not just for me; it's the kind of loud that invites everyone within earshot to tune in. The opening track, “Us Against The World,” swiftly became my anthem, sparking a desire to engage in a dance battle. Yes, you read that correctly, a dance battle!

If you haven't indulged yet, I highly recommend the mesmerizing 47-minute dance film masterfully crafted alongside this incredible project. Spearheaded by the exceptional Shay Latukolan as the primary choreographer and leading visual creator, it's an artistic marvel.

Jungle, despite not gaining significant mainstream recognition until now, has rightfully stirred attention, especially with the track “Back on 74.” The influence of the choreography alone on millions of TikTok users is palpable and undeniable. This, in itself, bodes well for the band's future success.

— Kenny Perez, 88Nine Asst. Program Director / On-Air Talent