Alien rhythms, god-level chops and samurai guitar duels: these are the best guitar albums of 2023

Wolfgang Van Halen (Mammoth WVH), Jake Kizka (Greta Van Fleet), Gina Gleason (Baroness) and Malina Moye
Left to right: Wolfgang Van Halen (Mammoth WVH), Jake Kizka (Greta Van Fleet), Gina Gleason (Baroness) and Malina Moye (Image credit: Scott Legato / Gina Wetzler / Lester Cohen / Getty Images)

We’ve brought your favorite riffs of 2023, the year’s best guitar solos that sent you back to the woodshed, and now it’s time for the top 20 albums of 2023, as determined by you and our panel of editors.

And this, as we always say, is the big one – because albums are a heavy lift. Anyone who has made one will tell you they never go down easy. There are some familiar faces here, some triumphant returns, and some new faces too, but let’s give a shout out to some of the artists who just missed out on the top 20.

Jason Isbell came closest with Weathervane. Samantha Fish and Jesse Dayton’s two-hander, Death Wish Blues, just behind it, and there were some huge releases that didn’t make it. In the parlance of our FM heroes, Covet’s Catharsis, boygenius’ The Record and Steven Wilson’s The Harmony Codex were all bubbling under.

But the rules say it’s got to be 20, and here they are...

20. Baroness – Stone

It is not as though Baroness were ever averse to light and shade in their sound. There were always dynamics. 

But since John Dyer Baizley and Gina Gleason introduced Telecasters and Stratocasters, seeking out a more precise bandwidth in the mix – frequencies to call their own and complement one another – Baroness have become even easier on the ear.

It’s like that phenomenon where the mix sounds bigger the more you take out, and it gives the song even more room to breathe. 

Which is all to say you can enjoy them on an audiophile basis, needle on vinyl, headphones on, eyes closed, or in the unquiet ecstasy of the live show, and your ears will thank you either way. Single coil pickups. They just might catch on.

19. Sophie Lloyd – Imposter Syndrome

After adapting some of biggest tracks in the rock guitar canon as shred for the watching social media generation, embarking on some casual stadium rocking with Machine Gun Kelly, and wrangling a built-for-speed series of signature guitars with Kiesel, Sophie Lloyd had already established her star in the firmament by the time her debut LP arrived. 

It was like she planned it all along, a strategic power move that Don Shula would have been in awe of. And it made her dream of an all-star solo album – as per Slash’s – come true, with the likes of Lzzy Hale and Matt Heafy dropping by to collaborate.

The playing is off the charts, the intonation so on-point that we fear Paul Reed Smith might hire a local magus to turn her into a compensated bridge. If you fancy stealing some of that fretboard fire for yourself, check out our guest lesson with Lloyd, but, please, leave the pyro to the professionals.

18. Sleep Token – Take Me Back to Eden

Someone has to unmask Sleep Token, and soon, before conspiracy theories begin to circulate about how this band came to be and how it could engineer a sound so resolutely 21st century it defies categorization.

The catch-all term ‘post-metal’ could work when describing Sleep Token but Take Me Back to Eden has such an elastic grip on the gravity of genre convention that it’s all meaningless.

There’s probably already a subreddit where the fevered are proposing that they are actually not from London at all, but were constructed by Boston MIT in collaboration with some tech bros with shares in Spotify in an effort to widen audience’s streaming appetites, that they’re just some clever algorithms in a flesh suit and mask. 

But maybe the big takeaways from this are that as sense of mystery makes the audience lean in, and the freedom that comes with anonymity is what gives Sleep Token’s own very human curiosity room to breathe and express itself. And, yeah, to riff on 8-string guitars tuned to double drop E. Until they take off the masks, we’ll never know.

17. TesseracT – War of Being

Acle Kahney and James Monteith’s guitars engage in a strange sort of yogic terraforming on War of Being, at once metaphorically crossing the streams to create a rhythm tone so anti-guitar it has a mechanized quality, a sound that could be used to cut through mountains, and in others they take the opposite direction, evaporating the guitar and holding it in a suspension of digital delay and reverb. 

With a band like TesseracT you have to give some props to the drummer, Jay Postones, for putting on such a generous spread of rhythmic intrigue. For this style, that’s the best effect any guitar player could ask for. It all makes for a dynamic, rhythmically complex album that’s as much sci-fi as it is metal.


EDITOR'S PICK: Meet Me @ The Altar – Past // Present // Future
Sure, American malls are dying, but mall-punk lives! Cheap nostalgia is one of the easiest things to bottle up and sell, but you can’t fake good songwriting, and Past // Present // Future, the ripping debut from Meet Me @ The Altar, has it in spades. You won’t hear any of this record’s ample bounty of killer riffs on a King Crimson record, but try and get them out of your head – we dare you. And once you clear the riffs out of there, the album’s choruses will take up residence. Past // Present // Future is a pure sugar rush, and – without pandering – will bring back anyone’s memories of first looking to the guitar as an outlet for angst. – Jackson Maxwell

16. Periphery – V: Djent is Not a Genre

God rest ye weary djentlemen, ’tis the season for recognizing the brilliance of the mega-brain riff architects in having it both ways. 

Misha Mansoor, Jake Bowen and Mark Holcomb have succeeded in both successfully trolling of the genre that shall not be named while also expanding its territory across the fiefdom of progressive metal – nay, of progressive music. 

Once upon a time the word prog conjured pastoral vistas, a sprightly jester with a flute and a flock of starlings. Back then the magic was earthly, transposing Mixolydian to Locrian over a Hammond B3 organ. 

Now, listening to Mansoor et al, it’s like breaking into a data center and jamming the cable in the brain to overwhelm it with 1s and 0s. Alien rhythms abut state-of-the-art riffs, but there’s humanity at its core. 

Again, Periphery have it both ways, tracks like Wildfire sounding as though they landed here via meteorite, yet with a melodic understanding of what it means to be human.

15. Foo Fighters – But Here We Are

But Here We Are is a triumph of human beings doing what they need to do, of taking the time, but ultimately getting back on the horse and getting on with the urgent business of life while managing grief and its fallout. 

The Foo Fighters’ first studio album since drummer Taylor Hawkins’ death in 2022, it was bound to be freighted with poignancy. It is a quality that is ever-present in Dave Grohl’s songwriting but never more so than here. 

Grohl plays the drums and master of ceremonies here, his voice and guitar flanked by Chris Shiflett and Pat Smear, and the real-life human context that we are all aware of going into it ultimately doesn’t leech one iota of its stadium-rock exuberance, and the Foos’ gift of being able to write four-quadrant songs that anyone anywhere can relate to.

14. Rival Sons – Lightbringer

You have got to hand it to Scott Holiday and Jay Buchanan for seeing this through. A double album in all but name, with Lightbringer a companion piece to Darkfighter, both released this year, a one-two punch delivered via a supernova of creativity. 

It was all overseen in the studio by the great Dave Cobb and recorded in 2021 when – as anyone would surely agree – it was hard enough to keep one consistent thought in our heads let alone juggle the creative choices steering this. In anyone’s book, this is magnum opus material.

There is sun-kissed American folk, all dreamy with a slide. There are big Jon Lord-inspired octave fuzz riffs dragging their tail around, leaving space for the groove. There are three-dimensional textures. There are multitudes. There is a nine-minute long opening track that’s driven by acoustic guitar, all at a time when the world was ending.

13. Avenged Sevenfold – Life Is But a Dream…

One sure way you can tell that Avenged Sevenfold chanced upon something special on Life Is But a Dream… is the number of people who think it sucks. 

Sometimes a swing for the fence yields a home run, but nobody saw it. Or they haven’t seen it yet, which is what Synyster Gates was getting at in the music press. But as Gates said to Metal Hammer, they’ve got to think of this album like their Sgt. Pepper’s and give it time to grow.

“I think with an album like this, time is on its side,” he said. “For my mom, Sgt. Pepper’s was the death of The Beatles, and I think for a lot of people this is the death of Avenged Sevenfold. But for a lot of other people, it’s a birth. The birth of a different band.”

And the sound of two players in Gates and Zacky Vengeance who are now just starting to open up the imagination and see where it takes them.


EDITOR'S PICK: Marnie Stern – The Comeback Kid
We didn’t realize how much we missed Marnie Stern. From the opening lines of Plain Speak and its tapped-out “I can’t keep on moving backwards” mantra, to the literal “what if I add this?” layering of Believing Is Seeing and the grandiose shred-meets-Pixies masterpiece that is Working Memory, The Comeback Kid is a self-reverential joy ride and an ode to the sheer fun that you can have picking up the guitar. All hail the return of the queen of math rock. – Matt Parker

12. The Rolling Stones – Hackney Diamonds

It has been one of the biggest talking points in current affairs. Just how can this octogenarian carry on in the world’s most important job? How can he reach the masses? Does he have the energy to inspire them? And our question is: which one are you talking about, Mick or Keef? And also, yes, yes they do. 

The Stones in 2023 are a lesson to us all, out there still doing this at 80, with as much energy and presence as they did when they were out of their heads in the ‘60s. 

Class is permanent. This is a very fine Stones record. Ably shepherded onto tape by Andrew Watt, it has the uptempo grooves, the Keith Richards riff machine and mega-watt Jagger charisma. It has the blues. It has Richards and Ronnie Wood daring each other to underplay. 

And it has the guests, with Lady Gaga cropping up on Sweet Sounds of Heaven, and Sir Paul McCartney – a Beatle! – popping in to blow things up with a custom Höfner bass guitar with an onboard fuzz. Macca’s another one… Octogenarians, what are they like!?

11. King Gizzard & the Lizard Wizard – Petrodragonic Apocalypse

It is as though one morning Stu MacKenzie woke up, shook the Magic Eight-Ball and asked it for direction and it instructed him to go back to the source, to get the boys back in the jam room, to write a goddamn metal record. 

“And whatever you do, Stu,” said the Magic Eight-Ball, because this is how Magic Eight-Balls talk in Australia, “don’t half-ass it.” 

That was the mission. Some bands would fear a blank day, showing up in each other’s company with nothing. Maybe most would, especially when heavy metal can be an unwieldy and rigid art form to shape. 

But King Gizzard & the Lizard Wizard have the gift of collectively tapping into something in the moment, at ease in the same space, breathing the same air and in time with one another, summoning a riff into being and letting it go forth and multiply until you have an album-cum-fantasy world has been built from the ground up. Come step in. You might see ours anew.

10. Nita Strauss – The Call of the Void

This solo album is a long time coming but let’s cut Hurricane Nita a little slack. As one of the world’s great box-office rock and metal guitar players, she has little trouble filling her day. 

There’s the gig with Alice Cooper, where every one of those days on tour is Halloween. There have been gigs with Demi Lovato, where she can present Jedi-level shred to a mainstream pop audience. You can only imagine the offers she has had to turn down. 

She has the same 24 hours like the rest of us, but what she needed was just enough me-time to put together a shred tour-de-force. Having originally been signed up for an instrumental record, her songwriting facilitated by a bulging contacts book, she called up an A-list cast of vocalists to guest on the record.

There was Alissa White-Gluz of Arch Enemy, Anders Fridén of In Flames, Alice Cooper of course, while her two-hander with David Draiman disturbed the established order at the summit of the charts and scored her a number one. 

But of course Surfacing really split the atom: Strauss strikes up a lightning collaboration with Marty Friedman – a real Uma Thurman vs Gordon Liu samurai sword duel played out on signature Ibanez and Jackson guitars.

9. Queens of the Stone Age – In Times New Roman…

In Times New Roman… is such a good time that you would never guess it was borne of bad times, but the darkness underneath the party jams has always been a dominant mood in the QOTSA universe. The very sound of this recording is pleasing. 

As ever, the Queens electric guitar sound is for tone gourmands to pore over, to stand at the speaker to try catch a whiff of garrigue, as though these auditory pleasures could be savored on an olfactory plane.

Paper Machete, Carnivoyeur, What the Peephole Say… Josh Homme loves a pun, the double meanings, and playing tricks with the audience, the greatest of which being that this is somehow easy to put together. 

Well, it’s easy to enjoy. But Homme and Troy Van Leeuwen’s guitars engage in conversations in an foreign tongue all their own, at a remove from how the rest of us see the instrument. It gives them a sound that we’ll forever chase but never capture.


EDITOR'S PICK: Night Verses – Every Sound Has a Color in the Valley of Night: Part 1
Four albums in, Night Verses are still scaling new heights as they put prog-metal through a post-rock blender. Nick DePirro uses everything in his arsenal to flex his mind-bending techniques, employing alternate-tuned harmonics, savage alternate-picked runs, and Whammy squeals and dives to punctuate his guttural eight-string riffs. Sure, those otherworldly sonics and intoxicating melodies will win over the guitar nerds, but there’s an accessibility to the California trio’s viciously inventive instrumentals that ensures they have the potential to reach beyond the progressive sphere, too. – Michael Astley-Brown

8. Joe Bonamassa – Blues Deluxe Vol. 2

A sequel to the album that legit saved Joe Bonamassa’s career, Blues Deluxe Vol. 2 finds the Joe Bonamassa of today in more august fortunes. 20 years on, he is the Mayor of Nerdville, the world’s highest-grossing bluesman. 

If he wants to retire to the easy chair with his sheepskin slippers for a cigar and a glass of Grand Brulot VSOP Cognac Cafe, then why not. God knows he has earned it. Now, he still has and will always have the blues. The question that animated this sequel was whether he still had it. 

“The contrast between a cocky 26-year-old and an established 46-year-old is considerable,” said Bonamassa. “Does the fire still burn like it did? Am I still playing hungry? Am I even good enough to pay tribute to my heroes all over again? The answer lies somewhere in this album.”

This also came across as Bonamassa realigning the chakras and returning to his essence. He plays blues-rock, classic rock. He and Josh Smith have formed one of blues’ most in-demand production teams. 

Sometimes you need to get back to basics, leaning into covers of Guitar Slim’s Well, I Done Got Over It and bending those strings. But is it even JoBo’s best album this year? Maybe it’s the eggnog talking, but Bonamassa’s Merry Christmas, Baby is going down like Live at the Regal right now.

7. Haken – Fauna

If we are getting this right, Fauna could be thought of a little like a box of Animal Crackers – each track was inspired by the animal kingdom. 

Or at least, that’s how it was for the London collective as they set out on this epic safari through this prog metal Serengeti. That this was their first without outgoing keyboard player Diego Tejeida didn’t slow them down, but then we wouldn’t expect it to. 

Sure, keys are important, but when you’ve got Richard Henshall and Charlie Griffiths it’s like a musical cheat code. Or should that be cheetah code? 

If you are looking for an idea of just how big Haken can sound, Elephants Never Forget is a good place to start – we’d tell you more besides it being a broad-hipped beast ferried on the back of some serious eight-string tones, but we’re guessing Eddie Trunk has the exclusive on the story behind that one.

6. Greta Van Fleet – Starcatcher

Starcatcher sounds like the sort of album that came together after your boy Jake Kiszka locked himself in a cabin with his Gibson ’61 Les Paul SG and a bunch of old blues records.

After 40 days and 40 nights in the boonies, with nothing to eat but fiddleheads and dandelions, the fever set in but he reached an epiphany that somehow restored Greta Van Fleet to factory settings. 

At least that’s how we imagined it when he told GW about how Starcatcher was a little more primal, a call-back to their blues influences, and less cinematic. 

“I needed to get back to the basics of players like Lightnin’ Hopkins, Elmore James, Robert Johnson, Lead Belly, Muddy Waters and Albert King,” he said, mentioning nothing about a cabin, foraging for weeds or any of that other stuff we imagined. 

“I think we’ve gone in directions I’d call ‘cinematic,’ and I think the mindset this time was, 'Let’s dial it back, get out of the city, go back into the country and put some of those types of songs together.' The result is what I’d say is a pretty heavy record.”

Ah, yes, “back into the country”, we didn’t imagine it at all. Phew! But cinematic? It still paints pictures in your head. 

5.  Malina Moye – Dirty

Malina Moye has one of the best guitar tones going. And it is like she is not even making a secret of it, telling the director of her music videos to get in all tight to the amp for a close-up on those tubes. 

She uses a Gibson Flying V and a Fender Stratocaster. All of these things are readily available if you have the green, but reproducing the sounds we hear on Dirty is gonna take more than raising money and acquiring the tools. 

There are all kinds of little subtleties in Moye’s playing, which is good, because this game is all about the phrasing. There’s the way she might embellish a chord. She’s the sort of player for whom one note can change the whole feel of the recording, that squirrelly fuzzy lead tone hightailing it over the jam in search of it.


EDITOR'S PICK: Cory Wong – The Lucky One
You don’t need to be told that Cory Wong has one of the most rhythmic right hands in all of guitardom, but you probably do need to be reminded that he absolutely shreds, too. Indeed, while his rhythm chops are already the stuff of legend, his solo skills are sorely slept on. Fortunately, Wong found time in his schedule to release yet another album this year, which put a new focus on his lead talents – and the results were sublime. Just listen to Separado. Is there anything this player can’t do? – Matt Owen

4. Matteo Mancuso – The Journey

We were warned about Matteo Mancuso. Steve Vai, Joe Bonamassa, Al Di Meola, Tosin Abasi, they all called it. They said he was the future and when you press play on the young Sicilian’s breathtaking debut it all suddenly makes sense. 

It’s an instructive lesson, too, because beforehand there was documentary evidence of his talent. We had all seen the clips, Eugene’s Trick Bag, all of it. But virtuosity in a clip doesn’t always translate – an album is a marathon. Most people can tell a joke but they can’t do stand-up. This takes talent, not moments.

The Journey is, of course, peppered with and powered by audacious guitar playing, a fingerstyle that Mancuso has explained and demonstrated, and yet remains out of reach of most of us. And it is a style that doesn’t call attention to itself. 

Those note choices are telling us a story. There’s jazz. There’s rock. There’s fusion. But above all there’s a sense that guitar’s greatest new talent has emerged and the poor guy doesn’t even own a pick.

3. Metallica – 72 Seasons

Metallica hasn’t had an album this strong since the Black Album, nor this musically ambitious since …And Justice for All, but it somehow squares the circle between both of these epochal releases in combining an abundance of musical information with clarity and immediacy in the songwriting.

Everything that makes Metallica the biggest metal band in the world is on evidence here. You’ve got James Hetfield, modulating between alpha grizzly and human vulnerability on the mic, his right hand going all the time, riffs, riffs, riffs. 

Then you have Kirk Hammett, ripping solos, mostly improvised but always entirely reactive to what he was hearing through the cans. He turned them over to Lars Ulrich and Greg Fidelman. Let them pick.

The NWOBHM influences are up front. So, too, Black Sabbath. This is Metallica in the raw, all id. Ulrich’s snare drum sound would punch a hole in the speaker cone. It’s all so big, and then they finish with Inamorata, the longest track they’ve ever written, gnarly twin-guitar melodies, the groove, the menace of it all.

2. Extreme – Six

Nuno Bettencourt quite literally said he wanted to draw blood with Six, as though 15 long-ass years without a studio recording from the Boston rock institution had turned him into Sugar Ray Leonard – or Edward Cullen – but what he really meant was that he wanted to give us the same kinds of feelings, the adrenaline and the euphoria, that he first felt when rock guitar was evolving in creative and technical ecstasies of the ‘80s.

To do that in this jaded age took something special, but then Bettencourt is not your common or garden-variety guitar virtuoso. He’s basically a frustrated drummer with God-level chops.

The solos took care of themselves. Rise, of course, is a story unto itself. But the riffs gave Six its energy. The melodies breathed an emotional life and humanity into it, and Bettencourt’s production style, more confrontational than before, pushing Gary Cherone all the way on the mic, give the performances the aggression and energy that’s needed to grab a hard-rock audience’s attention, and the charisma to hold it.

1. Mammoth WVH – Mammoth II

Wolfgang Van Halen’s talents have been abundantly clear for a number of years, but now onto his sophomore album as Mammoth WVH his musical gifts are truly turned loose to have the run of the place. 

When GW picks up the phone or corrals him unto a 16:9 aspect ratio for a Zoom call, it’s the guitar we wanna talk about – d’oh! – but really it’s the multi-instrumentalist aspect that blows our minds. Pulling shifts on drums, bass and vocals affords him a perspective that’s beyond the six-string specialist; maybe that’s why the guitar parts sit just right on Mammoth II.

Tracked at 5150 studios, using some of the very same gear that his father used – Take a Bow has a tapping solo performed on the Frankenstein – Mammoth WVH is nonetheless a very different project. It has its own sounds. Even when hearing that guitar, that legato, and thinking about the family connection, the context stops your mind from wandering.

Though you can’t help think that Wolfgang is making his own designs on building a stadium rock portfolio. You don’t name a band Mammoth without dreaming of making it big.

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Jonathan Horsley

Jonathan Horsley has been writing about guitars since 2005, playing them since 1990, and regularly contributes to publications including Guitar World, MusicRadar and Total Guitar. He uses Jazz III nylon picks, 10s during the week, 9s at the weekend, and shamefully still struggles with rhythm figure one of Van Halen’s Panama.