The 12 best new Chicago albums of 2023

Which Chicago artists dazzled most this year? WBEZ’s Reset asked Chicago music critics Greg Kot and Britt Julious and Vocalo host Nudia Hernandez to share their top albums.

Reset invited Greg Kot, Britt Julious and Vocalo's Nudia Hernandez to pick their top Chicago albums of 2023. Photoillustration by Mendy Kong / WBEZ
Reset invited Greg Kot, Britt Julious and Vocalo's Nudia Hernandez to pick their top Chicago albums of 2023. Photoillustration by Mendy Kong / WBEZ

The 12 best new Chicago albums of 2023

Which Chicago artists dazzled most this year? WBEZ’s Reset asked Chicago music critics Greg Kot and Britt Julious and Vocalo host Nudia Hernandez to share their top albums.

WBEZ brings you fact-based news and information. Sign up for our newsletters to stay up to date on the stories that matter.

In 2023, Chicago’s local musicians crafted albums full of personal reflection, social commentary and sonic innovation.

Reset’s Sasha-Ann Simons invited Greg Kot of the podcast Sound Opinions, Chicago Tribune music critic Britt Julious and Vocalo 91.1 host Nudia Hernandez to talk about their favorite releases by Chicago artists from the past year. Their picks span genres from hip-hop and electronic to indie rock and more.

Here are Greg, Nudia and Britt’s best local albums of 2023, in alphabetical order by artist.

* * *

Beloved! Paradise! Jazz!? by McKinley Dixon (City Slang)

cover for Beloved! Paradise! Jazz​!​?
Courtesy of City Slang

McKinley Dixon’s blend of hip-hop, jazz, funk, and literary art as part of rap is put on full display in Beloved! Paradise! Jazz!?, a title based on three works by Toni Morrison. His sound is experimental, from harder tracks accented by cymbal clashes and alarm bells to his lighter and sentimental jazz-rap.

Since his move to Chicago three years ago from the East Coast, Dixon has quickly become a part of the city’s DIY music scene.

Britt recalls interviewing him about the album and how he saw Chicago as a place of wonder. “He described a sort of magical realism of living in Chicago,” Britt says. “He just felt this power and beauty and magic and surrealism from life in Chicago in a East Garfield Park neighborhood working at the Conservatory. All of that influenced the creation of this record.”

* * *

Why Does the Earth Give Us People to Love? by Kara Jackson (September)

Why Does the Earth Give Us People to Love? Cover
Courtesy of September

At 23, Oak Park’s Kara Jackson is a newcomer to the Chicago music-scape. Jackson is only the third U.S. National Youth Poet Laureate, and her language skill shines in her debut alt-folk album, Why Does the Earth Give Us People To Love? One of Britt’s top picks of the year, this album also features other emerging Chicago artists including KAINA, NNAMDÏ and Sen Morimoto.

Britt was comforted by the complex, poetic way Jackson sings about grief in the album’s title song — a song the music critic heard as she grieved the recent loss of her grandmother. “It just really hit me in a way that I was actually kind of stunned,” Britt says. “She was saying all the things that I had felt but I wasn’t getting from other people or wasn’t being, you know, I couldn’t connect with my friends.”

* * *

The Patience by Mick Jenkins (RBC Records)

The Patience cover
Courtesy of RBC Records

The Patience — the fourth studio album from the South Side Chicago rapper Mick Jenkins — is short and sweet. Each track is grounded by drum beats and blues sound. Jenkins weaves together stories about skin color theory, food wordplay and materialism amongst other topics. The album also features artists Freddie Gibbs, Benny The Butcher, JID and Vic Mensa.

Sasha calls Jenkins “Chicago royalty.” Nudia agrees. “You expect the blues, but you get the bars from him,” Nudia says, referring to the strength of his rap lyrics and delivery. “Mick Jenkins does have a lot of work he has to live up to and hearing this, you’re like, ‘He delivered, again?’ ”

* * *

Perspective by Jlin (Cedille Records)

Perspective cover
Courtesy of Planet Mu

Musician and producer Jlin combines classical with the new and unconventional. Created in collaboration with the Grammy-winning Third Coast Percussion ensemble, Perspective earned Jlin a Pulitzer Prize for Music finalist nod. In the tracks, listeners can hear the sound of a cotton gin among a wide variety of live – not sampled – instruments from the ensemble’s studio.

Although Jlin hails from Indiana, Greg says she is strongly influenced by Chicago house music and Chicago footwork, also called juke. The two forms combine to create a “hyperactive brand of house” that scores footwork dance competitions. But, Jlin takes it to another level by making the production even more intricate.

“People are going to be talking about [her work] a major shift in club music, dance music, the evolution of house,” Greg says. “She’s truly one of the pioneers in the area – making stuff that’s going to be recognized as groundbreaking years from now.”

* * *

Victor by Vic Mensa (Roc Nation)

Victor cover
Courtesy of Roc Nation

Ten years after his debut album, Chicago rapper Vic Mensa is front and center with the 18-track album Victor. While Mensa’s works have always been autobiographical, this time the hip-hop artist zeros in on the idea of redemption and identity — insight he gained having worked through substance-use disorder. Earlier this year, Mensa celebrated his 10th anniversary of his first release alongside Chance the Rapper, and Chance is featured here, alongside artists such as Ty Dolla $ign, G-Eazy, Mr Hudson, Thundercat and more.

Victor was one of Greg’s top albums of the year, and much of his fondness for it comes from having watched Mensa grow throughout the years.

“I remember a conversation I had with him years ago about growing up on 47th Street and how he was kind of straddling two worlds … [He was] just negotiating all of that growing up in Chicago, a very complex relationship with the city with himself,” Greg says. “With each album, he just keeps growing as an artist. He’s unafraid. He’s fearless.”

* * *

Diagnosis by Sen Morimoto (City Slang/Sooper)

Diagnosis cover
Courtesy of City Slang, Sooper

A frequent collaborator with other local musicians, Chicago singer-songwriter Sen Morimoto this year released Diagnosis, which, Britt says, is impossible to pin to a single genre. (The first track off the album evoked Prince for Britt.) Labels aside, the throughline in Morimoto’s work is a searing indictment of capitalism. In the rap-heavy title track, he navigates the contradiction of participating in a capitalist system he opposes. This struggle has defined Morimoto as a musician, prompting him to create his own local label, Sooper Records.

It has also motivated some imaginative maneuvers, such as previewing the album at a drive-in theater, which made Nudia a fan. “Artists don’t put that much time into the way that they present an album to you. And I thought it was such a great way to go into this album,” Nudia says. “I had no clue he was capable of all this.”

* * *

Sundial by Noname (self-released)

Sundial Cover
Courtesy of Noname

The return of many Chicago artists to the scene made 2023 quite a year for local music. Nudia’s second favorite album of the year was Noname’s Sundial. The Vocalo host noted that the rapper has been focused on community work through her organization, Noname’s Book Club, which has distributed books to incarcerated people for the past five years.

Sundial is an expression of Noname’s politics and focuses on hip-hop’s radical storytelling roots. Each track calls entertainers and corporations out to shed light on societal problems, criticizing everything from Black capitalism to imperialism.

Greg says Noname’s dual roles as artist and activist follows a path set by older Chicago musicians such as Curtis Mayfield and the Staple Singers. “It’s almost like a badge of honor that you’re from Chicago. It’s almost expected that you’re not just furthering yourself and your career, but furthering the community,” Greg says.

* * *

The Window by Ratboys (Topshelf Records)

The Window cover
Courtesy of Topshelf Records

The Chicago indie-rock band Ratboys, active for 12 years, recently grew from two members to four. The Window is the group’s fourth studio album. Recorded with the help of Chris Walla, former guitarist and songwriter for Death Cab for Cutie, the album’s sweet, guitar-heavy sound leans country but remains decidedly Midwestern.

Greg’s second favorite of the year, the album is rich in story and reflection about a post-pandemic world. “One of the songs in this record deals with the idea of being separated by a window as a close family member was dying in a nursing home,” Greg says. “Now we’re out in the world and processing what it means.”

* * *

Clusterfunk by Ric Wilson (Free Disco / EMPIRE)

Clusterfunk cover
Courtesy of Free Disco / EMPIRE

Chicago rapper Ric Wilson’s Clusterfunk landed on each of Greg and Nudia’s lists. Wilson combines electronic dance music and hip-hop similar to Beyonce, Drake and Kaytranada. And while that combination has become more prevalent this past year, Greg says Rick Wilson has been doing it all along, while also incorporating biting social commentary courtesy of his education from the youth nonprofit Chicago Freedom School.

Nudia’s top song of the year was actually the album’s fifth track, “Everyone Moves to L.A.,” which features Canadian artists A-Trak and Chromeo. Nudia was particularly charmed by the album’s interesting recording process, which she learned about when she met up with Wilson backstage at Pitchfork Music Festival. “When [A-Trak and Chromeo] came in studio to record [the song], they would come in suits, so he started wearing suits. He said it completely changed the way he feels about making music,” says Nudia.

* * *

Yard by Slow Pulp (ANTI-)

Yard album
Courtesy of ANTI-

Three childhood friends from Wisconsin and their college friend turned lead singer make up the Chicago-based band Slow Pulp. The group’s pop punk, alt-rock, even alt-country sound is toned down in Pulp. The tracks all touch on internal anxieties about career, purpose and love prospects. Somehow nostalgic and edgy enough to satisfy one’s young adult rage, the music is the perfect movie soundtrack, Britt says.

“I call it ‘MK music,’ which is like Mary Kate and Ashley music. It’s like music that sounds like it would be a soundtrack of albums … or movies that were coming out between when I was the ages of 12-15,” Britt says. “Even if the lyrical content is kind of heavy in some ways, [the] dreamy yearning aspect reminds me of being 13 or 14 again.”

* * *

Tomorrow’s Fire by Squirrel Flower (Polyvinyl Record Co.)

Tomorrow's Fire cover
Courtesy of Polyvinyl Record Co.

Originally from Massachusetts, Ella Williams, the musician behind the self-produced indie-rock EP Tomorrow’s Fire, ruminates on zeitgeist topics such as climate catastrophe and hope in the face of nihilism. But the album also leaves room for daydreams about a summer crush. Britt says she relates to how Ella grapples with being an artist who must contend with capitalism and unsustainable practices on a dying planet.

“Anytime I listened to the record, it always feels like Ella is saying exactly what I wanted to articulate in my writing,” Britt says. “[She asks] how do you continue to strive and do those things, while living in a world that is constantly trying to put you down and makes it really difficult to survive to the next day?”

* * *

Water Made Us by Jamila Woods (Jagjaguwar)

Water Made Us cover
Courtesy of Jagjaguwar

Chicago R&B poet and singer Jamila Woods delivers her 17-track album Water Made Us four years after her last effort, LEGACY! LEGACY! Filled with collaborations with fellow Chicago artists, meticulous word choice, and the voices of her family and friends, the album is an intimate exploration of Woods’s life and relationships. Greg and Nudia each named it their best album of the year.

Greg says he was surprised by how personal the album was compared to Woods’s past releases. “There was some really important observations about how relationships evolve that were really helpful to me,” Greg says. “She had completely shifted gears and knocked it out of the park once again. The eclecticism of the music is just one of her strengths.”

The album’s different tempos delighted Nudia, who was expecting the low and calm vibe of Woods’s past release, “Boundaries.” But one thing that Woods made sure to keep the same was her commitment to uplifting fellow Chicago artists.

“No matter what album she works on, she will always put Chicago artists on. She has a collab with Peter Cottontail on there, and then also a song with Saba,” Nudia says. “So I love to see that no matter how big Jamila gets, she always puts on Chicago artists.”

* * *

Sasha-Ann Simons is the host of Reset. Follow her at @SashaAnnSimons.

Micah Yason is a producer for WBEZ’s Reset.

Ethan Schwabe is Reset’s audio engineer.

Mendy Kong is a digital producer at WBEZ. Follow them @ngogejat.