Dancing Astronaut’s 2023 Album of the Year: RL Grime – ‘PLAY’ (+ honorable mentions)
Dec 28, 2023
2023 saw a swell of dance/electronic albums hit digital streaming platforms. Among the swath of debuts and follow-ups, some projects functioned less as mere extensions of artists’ discographies and more as decisive comebacks. Dancing Astronaut’s 2023 Album of the Year—RL Grime’s PLAY—is among the latter, but the title-taker isn’t the only one. Later-stage long-forms (think sophomore LPs and beyond) account for most of our honorable mentions. The list of our 23 top runner-up albums of 2023 reflects our staff’s favorites this year beyond PLAY, with all albums appearing in alphabetical order below.
Words by Zach Salafia and Ross Goldenberg.
In 2023, RL Grime did far more than just reaffirm his seat on trap’s throne.
A half-decade separated the Sable Valley boss’ second and third albums, and during the five-year stretch between NOVA and PLAY, clearly, Grime had come to the conclusion that playing it safe was not something he wanted to do. And in a year rife with album ingenuity, one project stood above the rest when all was said and done: PLAY, Dancing Astronaut’s 2023 Album of the Year.
There’d been rumblings of a NOVA successor more than a few times in recent years.. And although “Renegade” with Nero didn’t ultimately find its own place on the PLAY tracklist, that end-of-2022 release—with a new form of Sable Valley artwork—from Grime felt like the beginning of a new chapter.
And it was.
At the beginning of June, we got the decisive sign that we’d awaited. After wiping his Instagram clean, everyone was left to believe only one thing: it was finally album time. But Grime wouldn’t formally confirm it until nearly a month and a half later—after we’d already received “Pour Your Heart Out ” and “Breach,” with 070 Shake and Juelz, respectively. Through a trio of teaser posts that simply read “APEX,” “GRID,” and “RUSH,” Grime announced the three parts that would later make up his junior LP.
PLAY splits a towering 21 productions across three sections, with each representing a distinct style; whereas APEX leans into the classic brand of trap that prompted Grime’s early-2010’s reign, GRID sits in crossover territory, with a flurry of singer-songwriter pairings, while RUSH undeniably stands out as the most experimental of the three. Although each segment can certainly hold its own, when combined, they comprise one of the single most ambitious, innovative longform projects that the dance/electronic scene has seen in recent memory, let alone in 2023.
The level of experimentation evident on PLAY is made all the more significant by the place it occupies in Grime’s discography. After years of fan anticipation, it’s likely that many listeners would have been happy to have a new LP’s worth of material from the producer, regardless of the output’s style. And with a well-demonstrated winning formula, Grime could easily have sat comfortably within his wheelhouse on his junior album. His decision to subvert convention, nimbly striking a balance between pushing boundaries and appealing to his early-career audience members, is the crux of PLAY’s designation as our 2023 Album of the Year.
Grime’s willingness to traverse new and different sonic terrain is perhaps best exemplified on RUSH, in which he dives into his “deepest musical inspirations.”
“[RUSH] became a place where I could venture back into the house/breaks/garage/techno/etc. Roots that got me into dance music in the first place. I think I was always hesitant to release anything like this as RL because I wanted a clear distinction from my older projects,” Grime said. “It was important for me to create a space where I could explore those genres and have it make sense contextually.”
By allowing Grime to hold no creative bounds while harnessing his bar-none production, RUSH is ultimately the section that prompts PLAY’s 2023 Album of the Year status to go from “candidate” to “confirmed.” Naturally, PLAY sees Grime stand on his own a number of times, but we’d be remiss if we didn’t call out its collaborative lineup, which sees him reunite with some familiar faces, like Baauer, ISOxo, Montell2099, and Juelz, as well as Sable Valley staples like JAWNS. Notably, the album also includes a slew of co-production credits from Dancing Astronaut Artist to Watch in 2024 Holly. Vocal assistance from the likes of Bea Miller, Reo Cragun, 070 Shake, and more round out the LP, providing a propulsive push towards its denomination as the finest and most sonically diverse dance album of the year.
The cherry atop an already guaranteed future classic came in mid-December when RL Grime unsuspectingly let seven PLAY extras loose as an early holiday gift. In the form of a free download, Grime delivered bonus collaborations alongside both Juelz and Heimanu, his coveted VIP of “Renegade,” a handful of live edits, and even two original productions. These additional productions, commensurately high in caliber as the album’s original 21 tracklistings, only further strengthen PLAY’s appeal. .
Of course, RL Grime’s 2023 Album of the Year case wouldn’t ave been complete without a robust supporting tour. The Sable Valley head brought his junior album around the states with stops in 14 different cities, including New York, where Dancing Astronaut presented PLAY’s date at Hammerstein Ballroom. Broadly, the tour’s tracklist was a seamless blend of Grime’s classics—like “UCLA” and “Core”—and album material alike, peppered with unreleased IDs and PLAY remixes. It was clear as day that Grime put everything he had into a tour set that’d been five years in the making, and select dates even began with a RUSH-themed opening set.
On the eve of PLAY’s arrival, RL Grime opened up about why he’d been moving in silence—specifically on social media —in the time following NOVA. He explained that the never-ending battle for online attention had “weighed down on [his] creativity and ultimately pushed [him] away from engaging at all with social media.” Creating PLAY allowed him to “regain [his] confidence not only as a producer but more importantly as a person.”
This stretch gave Grime the opportunity to make a statement with his return and extend a legacy that already seats him in this genre’s hall of greats. And in doing so, he deftly played two of dance music’s most delicate games: not only releasing an album, but releasing a junior album. A two- or even a three-piece concept album, like PLAY, is virtually unheard of in the dance space, and among a countless number of compelling candidates in 2023, RL Grime outmatched the competition with a dynamic body of work that teemed with refined production, diversity, ambition, and innovation. PLAY as a whole is an open-and-shut masterclass of what Grime is capable of that offers a first-hand look at his growth and maturation over the past five years while evoking the very feeling that hooked us when we listened to VOID, NOVA, or any of his past work for the first time.
On his third album, RL Grime paradoxically cements his “trap god” label by transcending it on an LP that, by so seamlessly meshing the familiar with the futuristic, unequivocally secures the title of Dancing Astronaut’s 2023 Album of the Year.
Anyma – Genesys
CamelPhat – Spiritual Milk
EMBRZ – In Our Own Way
G Jones – Paths
Gorgon City – Salvation
ILLENIUM – ILLENIUM
ISOxo – kidsgonemad!
Jayda G – Guy
Kx5 – Kx5
Last Heroes – All I See, You See Me
Lastlings – Perfect World
Le Youth – About Us
LP Giobbi – Light Places
Maceo Plex – ‘93
Massane – By The River
Mathame – MEMO
Nitepunk – Human
SG Lewis – AudioLust & HigherLove
Skrillex – Quest for Fire
Sub Focus – Evolve
Sultan + Shepard – Forever, Now
The Chemical Brothers – For That Beautiful Feeling
William Black – The Nature of Hope
Featured image: Andrew Keyser