In a year where the album format proved to be massively popular despite industry predictions to the contrary, there was no singular way to produce a breakthrough LGBTQ+ album.
Some artists took an escapist approach to their work, sharing enormous pop records designed to help disengage from our reality and relish in joy and delight. Others centered their projects directly in the current moment, using genres like hip-hop, rock and folk to point out society’s problems and fight back against them. Others decided to focus their projects inward, studying their own emotional worlds and the ways they interact with others through world-class songwriting.
Whatever the approach, there’s no denying the out-and-out success LGBTQ+ artists achieved in 2023. Established names delivered long-awaited follow-ups that proved to be career-defining works, earning new heights on the charts. Newer acts pushed their way to the top, releasing debut albums that galvanized swaths of listeners into burgeoning fandoms.
Those successes came in stark contrast to the cultural context surrounding them. In the United States alone, over 500 anti-LGBTQ+ bills were proposed throughout state legislatures, more than any other year on record. Bills targeted everything from gender-affirming care for minors, to drag performances in public spaces, to discussions of sexuality and gender in public schools. Crime statistics showed that hate crimes against the LGBTQ+ community were on the rise. Brands were threatened with boycotts after opting for inclusive merchandise aimed at the community. In a year riddled with setbacks for LGBTQ+ people, queer and trans artists proved that success was still possible — often even probable — for the community.
So, after a year of wins for LGBTQ+ artists, the question remains; which albums stood out from the rest? Below, Billboard staff members pick their 20 favorite albums from LGBTQ+ artists in 2023.
100 Gecs, 10,000 Gecs
Like an Odelay! or Paul’s Boutique of the 2020s, 10,000 Gecs aims to collect the musical scraps of the artist’s youth — in the case of Dylan Brady and Laura Les, that’d be pop-punk, nu-metal, some light thrash, electroclash and an unmistakable hint of ska — and present it all in a framework that’s decidedly their own era’s. And as with their forebearers, it’s a waste of time to focus on the irony level present (yes they mean it, no they don’t mean it, whatever) over the sheer visceral power and energy that they summon through these disregarded past sounds and the obvious fun they have synthesizing all of it for their post-everything audience. After all, it’s the least-squeezed genres that have the most juice left. — ANDREW UNTERBERGER
Allison Russell, The Returner
After spending the entirety of her debut album reconstructing a painful past, Allison Russell opened her sophomore LP with a declaration of respite; “My reward, my recompense?/ Springtime of my present tense.” The Returner prides itself on focusing in the here and now, both celebrating the beauty of the world surrounding Russell (“Stay Right Here”) and looking at what still needs fixing (“Demons”). Even when the subject matter turns more dour, Russell and her “Rainbow Coalition” root their sound in the genre of joy itself, bringing effervescent melodies and soothing rhythms to the forefront of this modern day masterpiece. — STEPHEN DAW
Anohni and the Johnsons, My Back Was a Bridge for You to Cross
In addition to a vocal range capable of emotional bliss and devastation in equal measures, Anohni remains one of modern music’s most uncompromising figures, unafraid to delve into disparate influences and express bold opinions. My Back Was a Bridge for You to Cross finds Anohni arriving back to her band the Johnsons for the first time in over a decade, but the album — an urgent, socially conscious meditation on classic soul — is not a return to form as much as an amalgamation of eras, the quieter moments of 2005’s I Am a Bird Now refracted through the clenched fist of 2016’s Hopelessness. — JASON LIPSHUTZ
Imagine Blondshell as something of a coconut. On its exterior, the album sees Sabrina Teitelbaum embracing a more fortified sound than at any other point in her career, leaning hard into various rock formats to demonstrate her frustration wherever possible. But drill down into its center, and you’ll find softer flesh, as the established singer-songwriter conjures up conversations with her own inner voice, whether she’s bemoaning the low standards she sets for the people around her on “Sepsis,” or her urge to “fix” her partners on “Joiner.” With soul-crushing songwriting and undeniable production, Teitelbaum brings her Blondshell persona roaring to life on this marvelous debut. — S.D.
Boygenius, The Record
The definitively titled debut album from Boygenius, The Record, not only signaled that the boys were back in town, but that they were ready to take over the world. The supergroup of Julien Baker, Phoebe Bridgers and Lucy Dacus scored a top five debut on the Billboard 200 (at No. 4) with their first full-length, which Dacus could only credit to one thing: “I think people know this is a rarity,” she told Billboard at the time. And while she was speaking of the fact that, at some point, each member will return to their solo careers, the same thought applies to the album at large. It is rare to receive an album that speaks so honestly about depression, anxiety and debilitating love – for past partners, their fans and above all else, each other. “True Blue” sums it up best, on which they harmonize in devastating fashion: “It feels good to be known so well.” And thanks to The Record, so many can finally say the same. — LYNDSEY HAVENS
Brandy Clark, Brandy Clark
It is rare for an artist to wait until their fourth studio album to name it after themselves — but Brandy Clark has good reason for waiting this long. Alongside producer and friend Brandi Carlile, Clark uses her impeccable songwriting skills to capture her own life from her deepest insecurities to unrequited love. The album opens with a murder ballad in true country fashion and the tone vacillates from there, including a stunning warts-and-all portrait of her grandmother on “She Smoked In the House” (“She smoked in the house/ Burnt holes in the couch/ Lipstick-circled butts in the ashtray/ She saved in Folgers cans”). Clark poured her heart and soul into this latest collection, making her own name a perfect title. — TAYLOR MIMS
Chappell Roan, The Rise and Fall of a Midwest Princess
If being a “Midwest Princess” means being as cool as Chappell Roan, then consider her debut album something of a coronation. The 25-year-old makes a bold introduction with her first full-length, as the real-life Hannah Montana dives into life, love and all the complicated emotions of existing, all while being wildly funny and blissfully theatrical. Her breakout hit “Red Wine Supernova” manages to encapsulate just who Chappell is; a clever singer-songwriter with powerful vocal range and a perfectly twisted sense of humor. — RANIA ANIFTOS
Christine and the Queens, Paranoïa, Angels, True Love
Twenty-song albums are nothing strange in the streaming era, but it still takes a certain amount of bravado to release a 90-plus-minute album divided into three acts — based upon a classic piece of theater (Angels in America), no less. But ambition and experimentation are the operative words on the latest LP from Christine and the Queens, which finds singer Chris exploring loss, mourning and what comes after. It boasts not one but three Madonna guest vocals, two 070 Shake appearances and even Pachelbel’s Canon in D – Chris throws a lot at this moody indie-synth-pop canvas, and most of it sticks. — JOE LYNCH
Janelle Monáe, The Age of Pleasure
When Janelle’s name appeared amongst the eight nominees for album of the year at next year’s Grammy ceremony, it only felt right. The Age of Pleasure – a blissful manifesto on the vitality of embracing pleasure in all of its forms – truly felt like the album this year needed. The record’s lush amalgamation of reggae, Afrobeats, soul and jazz funnel Monáe’s pleasure politics through an explicitly Black queer lens. What does pleasure look like in a world hellbent on stamping it out for specific groups of people? Allow Monáe – with some assistance from Grace Jones, Nia Long and Amaarae, no less – to help you envision those new horizons. — KYLE DENIS
Kali Uchis, Red Moon in Venus
While announcing her third studio album, Kali Uchis described Red Moon in Venus as “a timeless, burning expression of desire, heartbreak, faith, and honesty, reflecting the divine femininity of the moon and Venus.” Across 15 tracks, listeners experience it all – from being stuck in the honeymoon phase on “All Mine,” to dancing relationship troubles away with her real-life boo Don Toliver on “Fantasy” to blaming herself for finding self-worth in an ex on “Blue,” to being ready to forgive and love again on “Happy Now.” No matter where love’s gravity pulls the Colombian-American singer, she remains centered by her own divine femininity. — HERAN MAMO
Kaytranada – with his silky mélange of R&B-infused house – and Aminé – with his effortless, swaggering sex appeal – are two of the smoothest guys in the game, and they cash in on that fact throughout their shimmering joint album, Kaytraminé. The hip-hop-dance record thrives on its prioritization of lowkey funk: Clipse samples turn into the backdrop for tongue-in-cheek braggadocio (“let’stalkabotuit”), while “Who He Iz” explores the percussive expanse of Missy Elliott’s production style. This year found artists like Kelela and Victoria Monét continuing the reclamation of dance music’s Black roots, and Kaytranada furthered that trend while also – with Aminé’s help – illuminating the sonic bridges between house and hip-hop. — K.D.
Kelela resurfaced after five years out of the spotlight with Raven, a rapturous reflection of her rebirth. The Ethiopian-American singer’s ethereal falsettos and soothing R&B vocals float over exhilarating drum’n’bass and garage beats and spine-chilling synths, with the help of electronic producers like Asmara, OCA, Kaytranada, LSDXOXO and Bambii. Kelela told Billboard that Raven is meant to “service the people who are there in the front row and have always been there: queer Black people.” But it’s also meant to finally service the singer herself as a queer Black woman who’s continuously exploring the beautiful complexities of her identity. — H.M.
Nakhane, Bastard Jargon
Some soul singers get their strength from diaphragm exercises, others seem to draw their power from their pain. Nakhane’s voice — determined and resonant — falls into the latter category, and Bastard Jargon finds the South African singer-songwriter touching on everything from their mother to gender identity to our fraught global political landscape. The mood veers from cinematic, syncopated pessimism (“Tell Me Your Politik”) to sweet, ambient acoustics (“Hold Me Down”) to funky, bright dance-pop – such as the Perfume Genius collab “Do You Well,” which could almost be a lost soundtrack cut from a ‘90s coming-of-age romance. — J. Lynch
Reneé Rapp, Snow Angel
With her vocal vulnerability and complex understanding of her sense of self displayed on Snow Angel, you’d never think it was Renee Rapp’s debut full length album — or that she’s just 23 years old. The rising star understands the emotional rollercoaster of young adulthood, and captures it with soaring ballads, shimmering synth pop hooks and clever one-liners. “I hope that I can care less/ but I’m afraid to care less,” she muses on her album closer “23.” But it’s just how much she cares that makes her music’s newest force to be reckoned with. — R.A.
Romy, Mid Air
It feels impossible that Mid Air should stand as Romy Madley Croft’s first proper solo LP, as she’s been a fixture in the worlds of indie, pop and dance for 15 years now, expertly triangulating the three with her indelible croon. But Mid Air is both a masterwork befitting Romy’s now-veteran status and a true statement of solo intent — 34 minutes of dancefloor liberation whose rush just keeps on rushing, gradually unwinding from the XX-reminiscent musical tension of the defiantly intimate opener “Loveher,” through to the pure ecstatic release of blushing closer “She’s on My Mind.” It’s one of the greatest gifts that a solo album can give you: getting to hear a beloved, familiar voice for what feels like the first time. — A.U.
Sam Smith, Gloria
For their fourth studio album, Sam Smith decided that they were done being perceived only as a singer of beautifully sad songs. More than anything else, Gloria showcases Smith’s depth as an artist, with signature ballads like “Love Me More” coexisting alongside bangers like “Lose You” and “I’m Not Here to Make Friends.” Showing off that complexity paid off as Smith landed their first No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart for “Unholy” featuring Kim Petras. — T.M.
The Japanese House, In the End It Always Does
The second album from musician and singer Amber Bain exudes a certain kind of permissive joy – the kind that feels celebratory despite, or perhaps because of, the sadness it coexists alongside. On “Sad To Breathe,” Bain sings of falling asleep crying, wondering how to change or why she has to at all; yet on “Boyhood,” she more confidently admits, “I wanna change but it’s nothing new,” over fluttering production that matches her “whatcha gonna do about it” attitude. That throughline is the beauty of In the End, an album that captures one’s journey from spiraling self-deprecation to supportive self-awareness so well. And sure, it may have taken a crushing breakup to get there, but doesn’t it always? The answer, according to Bain, is crystal clear. — L.H.
Troye Sivan, Something to Give Each Other
Troye Sivan knows how to capture lust and love over a dance floor-ready beat, and on his confessional Something to Give Each Other, he proves yet again that he’s pop’s prince of romance and sex — or a self-proclaimed “Love Junkie” — while still sharing just how easily heartbreak can take all those feelings away. While the album has provided Sivan with some catchy breakout hits with “Rush” and “Got Me Started,” the project has also solidified the 28-year-old star as an exceptional musical storyteller (with some killer dance moves). — R.A.
Vagabon, Sorry I Haven’t Called
In an art form like songwriting, it becomes easy to get lost in flowery metaphors; for Laetitia Tamko (best known as Vagabon), blunt, straightforward lyrics just come naturally. Sorry I Haven’t Called shifted the tone — both musical and emotional — of the singer-songwriter’s art, employing house-inspired electro-pop to bring out her vibrant inner world. Whether she’s softly accepting that “the last thing I want is unknown” on “Anti-F–k,” or excoriating an ex because they “turn me into someone I don’t f–k with” on “Do Your Worst,” Tamko says all of the quiet parts at the loudest possible volume throughout this stunning LP. — S.D.
Victoria Monét, Jaguar II
Few records were as meticulously engineered as Victoria Monét’s gorgeous Jaguar II, and it shows. The “On My Mama” singer’s debut studio album excels because of how well she and primary producer D’Mile thread together so many seemingly different musical styles. Whether she’s dipping into sensual reggae pop on “Party Girls” or evoking the grandiosity of ’70s R&B on “Hollywood,” it’s her slinky voice, witty couplets, and enchanting melodies that provide seamless throughlines. With Jaguar II, Victoria afford herself and her psyche the consideration she gave her liveliest romantic and sexual partners on the first Jaguar EP – and it’s that shift in focus that makes for such a compelling project. — K.D.