First Floor's Favorite Releases of 2023
a.k.a. The second (and final) chapter of this year's list season.
The annual deluge of year-end lists started early this year—some media outlets actually started posting them before the calendar had even flipped to December—but here at First Floor, list season mercifully lasts for only two days.
Having already published my favorite tracks of 2023 yesterday, I’ll now turn my attention to my favorite releases from the year gone by. Both albums and EPs were considered, and while it wasn’t easy to narrow down the long list of candidates, I finally managed to settle on 20 selections. You’ll find them below, and please take note that they haven’t been ranked, listed in order of preference or grouped by genre. (That said, I will admit that there’s not a ton of dance music in there; the ambient, experimental and non-dancefloor stuff was just better this year, and therefore made up a bigger portion of my personal listening diet.)
Before we get started with my picks, a quick reminder: this week’s regular First Floor digest—which will also be the final edition of the newsletter this year—will be sent out tomorrow, so keep an eye out for that.
Otherwise, let’s go ahead and get into these releases.
Note: You can click the titles to hear each release individually, or you can also just head over to this convenient Buy Music Club list to find them all in one place.
Prior to 2023, anyone who’d heard Doc Sleep’s (mostly dancefloor-focused) contributions to labels like Detour, Dark Entries, Allergy Season and her own Jacktone imprint knew that she was a good producer, but as soon as Birds (in my mind anyway), her long-brewing debut album, saw the light of day this year, it became clear that the word “good” was no longer sufficient to describe her talents. Stepping outside the club—often far outside of it—the LP trades in free-floating melodies and subdued rhythms, its shimmering, zero-G textures embodying the spa-ready serenity of ambient but always retaining enough forward momentum to prevent the music from growing stale. It’s good, yes, but a word like “brilliant” makes for a more fitting descriptor.
It takes a lot to make dub techno sound special at this point, and while the gauzy soundscapes and subdued beats of Chicago trio Purelink do undeniably sound familiar, the group routinely avoids the usual pitfalls of the genre, never allowing their zoned-out compositions to descend into navel-gazing drudgery. Listening to their Signs album is akin to mainlining bliss, as its supremely chilled and exquisitely produced contents channel the interstellar calm of iconic acts like Basic Channel and Gas. The record doesn’t slap or bounce; it drifts and glides, free not only from the constraints of the dancefloor, but from those of gravity itself.
This year belonged to 3XL, at least for anyone with an appetite for freaky ambient, psychedelic trip-hop and blurred rap beats. Moreover, the Berlin outpost was prolific, seemingly dropping another woozy gem every month, yet even as the releases piled up, the quality never seemed to waver, which makes picking favorites a rather difficult task. mu tate’s there with you always and ben bondy’s spirit desire could have easily snagged the top slot, but in the end, it was crimeboys—a collaboration between Special Guest DJ and Pontiac Streator—who proved most intoxicating, as their very dark past album hazily cruised through smudgy grooves, washy atmospherics and the occasional foray into drum & bass, populating the whole thing with a litany of disembodied siren calls and seductively unintelligible utterances.
Choral Feeling is the sparkling debut album from Oceanic, and while it may be inspired by the club, it’s not necessarily for it, which is perhaps what makes its contents so compelling. As the title implies, the LP is rooted in choir vocals, but rather than take the easy route and simply reach for a sample pack, the Amsterdam-based artist instead recruited a gang of friends and family to come over and sing for (and with) him—and then used those recordings as the foundation of the record. Don’t let the word “choir” fool you; this isn’t a collection of stuffy church songs or an exercise in devotional grandiosity. Choral Feeling is light and playful, and though its sound palette does veer toward the ethereal, the songs themselves are bursting with the same sort of rejuvenating energy one feels while walking through a blooming spring garden. Could this music work in a club setting? Maybe, but it’s also joyous enough to say that no dancefloor is required.
Mark down 2023 as the year that the hardcore continuum was officially extended to the Middle East. Although Jordanian producer Toumba certainly wasn’t the first artist in the region to play around with heavy-duty bassweight, there’s no question that his Petals and Janoob EPs opened many listeners’ ears to the inherent flexibility of traditional Middle Eastern and Arabic sounds. Rather than simply slapping some oud and ney samples atop a dubstep framework, Toumba synthesized a true hybrid, maintaining the rhythmic and melodic sensibilities of his homeland—for instance, the track “Istibtan” is literally his take on a Jordanian wedding song—while also crafting tunes that could mash up the dance on any continent.
Pretty much every year is a good year for esteemed ambient / experimental outpost enmossed, but Orchid Dealer’s Soft Reflections in the Sun made for an especially engaging 2023 listen, its humid confines—the album was directly inspired by the time Orchid Dealer spent living in Florida—drenching even the record’s sunniest and most spacious corners with sweat, shmutz and suburban dread. There’s a darkness to the proceedings, but it looms beneath the surface, warping the record’s chirping nature sounds and hazy psychedelics into something ominous, and intriguingly doing so without completely marring the music’s frequent beauty. Is it unsettling? Yes, but Soft Reflections in the Sun is captivating all the same.
Given that Level Select was first released as a limited-edition cassette in January 2022, it’s admittedly a bit of a cheat to include the album here. Yet it was the album’s 2023 reissue on WRWTFWW that properly introduced me and many others to Pizza Hotline’s liquid drum & bass grooves, which to this day stand head and shoulders above most of the year’s jungle offerings. The nostalgia runs high here—amongst other things, both the music and artwork have been filled with allusions to Y2K-era gaming—but the UK producer’s gentle breakbeats and soft-focus, future-retro melodies are deeply mesmerizing, his soulful rumblings conveying the deep calm that comes with lying in a flotation tank.
The global rise of amapiano has been one of the world’s most interesting musical developments in recent years, but perhaps what’s even more interesting is the way that the genre—along with gqom and other South African rhythms—has entered into a back-and-forth conversation with UK bass music, producing all sorts of new hybrids in the process. The Cantankerous EP is one such hybrid, and it comes from LR Groove (a.k.a. one half of UK funky duo Tribal Brothers), who takes the high-stepping gait of amapiano, infuses it with elements of dancehall and, most importantly, adds in sledgehammer-like waves of heavy bass.
There was a time when an electro record would have been out of place on Ilian Tape, but seeing as how the Munich imprint has pretty much abandoned all notions of genre orthodoxy during the past few years, the BPM1 EP is just another great release from one of electronic music’s most reliable outposts. Breaking away from the neck-snapping rhythms and razor-sharp beats favored by many of his electro contemporaries, Polish-born, Germany-based producer MPU420—who also operates as MPU101—takes a more cosmic approach; his bubbling Drexciyan constructions are not just subdued, they’ve been built to breeze across the dancefloor and head toward the astral expanses sitting beyond the confines of our solar system.
In an era when most pieces of music can be neatly slotted into a some sort specific genre category, perhaps one of biggest compliments a new album can receive is that nothing else out there sounds quite like it. That’s certainly true for 绿帽 Green Hat, the latest full-length from Malaysian-born, Taipei-based Tzusing, who thrillingly defies the orthodoxy of the dominant London-Berlin-New York axis while stitching together bits of techno, EBM, metal, hip-hop, bass music and more. Billed as a meditation on patriarchal heteronormativity, the album is laced with aggression and rage, and though its harsh sonics do seem to indicate that Tzusing is intent on exercising some personal and cultural demons, the rest of us are lucky that he’s chosen to do it on the dancefloor.
More than 15 years into his career, Ital Tek is one of those artists who seems to be perpetually (and inexplicably) underrated. Timeproof is the UK producer’s seventh album, and it takes his music to bold new heights, employing a cinematic flair that’s on par with what folks like Oneohtrix Point Never have been doing in recent years. Towering synths, stomach-churning sound design, serrated synth flashes, booming drum hits… Ital Tek has many tools at his disposal, all of them massive, and he uses them to construct a veritable rollercoaster.
Somewhere Press began 2023 as a fledgling Glasgow imprint, but following a stellar run of releases, the young label has leveled up, becoming one of ambient / experimental music’s most promising young outposts. Chantal Michelle’s Broken to Echoes album had a lot to do with that, its fluttering textures and diaphanous drones patiently intermingling with murmuring field recordings and the artist’s celestial voice to create something truly beautiful. To be clear, there are moments when the record’s generous helpings of static turn harsh and jagged, but even then, Michelle’s sound world remains a spellbinding place.
Speaking of unique sound worlds, Tirzah has always been an occupant of her own musical universe—though in fairness, said universe was constructed with the help of her frequent collaborator Mica Levi. In 2023, the pair surprised just about everyone by making that universe smaller on the trip9love…??? album, building the entire full-length around a single, trap-indebted drum loop. It’s not a route that many other artists would have taken—especially if they were signed to a major indie like Domino—but Tirzah thrives in this stripped-down environment, delivering an updated take on trip-hop in which her hypnotic laments float through a sea of smeared sonics, haunted pianos and blown-out beats.
Even during a time when the lines between pop and “underground” dance music have become almost hopelessly blurred, & the Charm was an inherently risky proposition. Sure, Avalon Emerson was a top-tier DJ who’d previously dropped a slew of quality club tracks, but a proper pop album? That was a definite reach, particularly for someone who’d never really been in a band or written original pop songs before. To her credit, however, she buckled down and pulled it off, enlisting the help of folks like Bullion while assembling what gradually became a sparkling collection of dreamy dance-pop ditties. These aren’t mindless throwaways either; shiny but never superficial, Emerson’s songcraft skillfully borrows from formulas laid down by likes of Arthur Russell and The Magnetic Fields, getting deeply lyrical—and, at times, deeply emotional—while simultaneously doling out hooks and ruminating on topics like friendship, aging and environmental catastrophe. (Full disclosure: Emerson is a friend, we work together on Buy Music Club and I was hired to help write the initial press materials for this album.)
Headed up by Perko (a.k.a. Fergus Jones), the impeccably curated FELT label quietly had itself a fantastic 2023, its handful of releases—most of them rather pensive in nature—hovering somewhere between the fringes of the dancefloor and full-blown abstraction. Civilistjävel!’s Fyra platser EP best captured this dynamic, and though the record primarily deals in open expanses and various shades of distortion-laced drone, the music itself exudes warmth and humility, most notably on the standout “Louhivesi,” a stirring, quasi trip-hop cut that spotlights the stunning (and Enya-reminiscent) vocals of Luxembourgish-Finnish artist Cucina Povera.
I honestly have no idea what role Enya played in shaping Canaan Balsam’s musical vision, but in a year where it was at times difficult to find an ambient release that didn’t bear some trace of her legacy, it’s not surprising that the gorgeous Eternity lies within or nowhere album—one of the final releases from the now-shuttered Where to Now? imprint—immediately taps into the same sort of plush textures, choral melodies and devotional undertones that define much of the elusive Irishwoman’s best material. That said, Balsam isn’t some sort of soundalike or tribute act, and his music isn’t afraid to dabble in darkness, be it the form of brooding spoken word or opaque layers of distortion. Beyond that, he also brings a bit of industrial to the table, satisfyingly spiking even his most serene pastures with the occasional jagged edge.
Thought Anthony Naples has spent plenty of time focused on the dancefloor during the past decade, the NYC artist often uses his albums as a vehicle to go further afield. On the orbs LP, that vehicle appears to be headed toward the cosmos, or at the very least a dark room with a blacklight, a bean-bag chair and a constellation map on the ceiling. Deeply psychedelic in nature, the record cooly cruises along like an orbiting space capsule, and while it does indulge in the occasional jazz-funk flourish, the album’s melodic shimmer and gentle metronomic pulse ultimately steer the proceedings closer to ambient techno territory. What results is an exceedingly smooth ride, one in which Naples can forget about the club and take refuge in the ether instead.
Having spent more than a decade as one half of Beesmunt Sounsystem, BSS has a respectable dancefloor pedigree, but the Amsterdam producer has largely set that aside in recent years, throwing himself into sound design and charting a more meditative course with his solo work. “Meditative,” however, shouldn’t be mistaken for “boring,” as Vanta—the project’s debut full-length—is a positively vibrant effort, one whose ambient patches are offset by dynamic synths, bold melodic outbursts and manipulated, Imogen Heap-esque vocal clips. Drums are nowhere to be found, but the LP frankly doesn’t need them; Vanta has its own innate sense of forward momentum, and its airborne excursions are often quite dazzling.
It’s no secret that Poland has long been home to a wealth of electronic music talent, and in particularly strong year for the Eastern European country, Martyna Basta’s Slowly Forgetting, Barely Remembering album shined especially bright. While the LP could credibly be filed under ambient, it’s not exactly a peaceful listen, as the Kraków-based guitarist and composer has peppered her tunes with a myriad of seemingly organic sonic minutiae, some of it quite strange. Amidst Basta’s soft strums and warbling drones, you’ll find tiny crunches, splashes, scratches, rustles, clangs, whispers and other bits of environmental detritus, yet rather than detracting from the elegance of the music, these elements enhance the sense of intrigue, inviting listeners to draw in close and try to figure exactly what the hell is going on.
Exit Simulation isn’t a Christian record, but something divine does appear to be lingering in its soulful couplets and dusty grooves. Having spent her youth in a strict religious household, Niecy Blues long ago absorbed the communal and devotional power of church music, and now that she’s a grown woman, she’s redirected that power into her own compositions, imbuing her dimly lit, ambient R&B—which at different times also borrows from jazz, gospel and trip-hop—with a unique sense of emotional weight. Though her songs themselves are light and uncluttered, Blues has decades, possibly generations of trauma to unpack, and to her credit, she’s doing it in the most beautiful way possible.
Remember when I said that I’d narrowed down my list of favorites to just 20 releases? Well, that was only partially true. A lot more than 20 records managed to lodge themselves in my psyche during the course of 2023, but in the interest of time and sanity—both that of the First Floor readers and my own—I ultimately elected to only pen writeups for my absolute favorites. That said, there were another 31 releases that just missed the cut, and I figured they at least deserve a brief acknowledgement here in the newsletter. They don’t come with accompanying blurbs, but trust me, they’re all very much worth your time.
Note: You can click the titles to hear each release individually, or you can also just head over to this convenient Buy Music Club list to find them all in one place.
Shawn Reynaldo is a freelance writer, editor, presenter and project manager. Find him on LinkedIn and Twitter, or you can just drop him an email to get in touch about projects, collaborations or potential work opportunities.