A brief look at my top theme picks this year, and why.
You’ve heard many of these names before (Astra, GeneratePress, Kadence, Blocksy, etc). And you’ve watched them battle it out…going head to head on features, nitpicking between nuances, perhaps even dipping into the pool of controversy and acquisition drama.
You wouldn’t think it, but actually a lot has changed in the WordPress theme industry. Perhaps not in features and re-establish
Once the dust settled in 2023, this was what I saw…
Recent changes in the WordPress theme industry
As annoying as this is (for the monetizing-hopefuls), I’m also happy for it. You can bet that the top themes are all copying each others’ best features and in a sense always improving themselves to stay with trends. It’s a good thing about open-source principles.
The top themes are never really too far from each other. And you can be safely assured that whatever feature a competitor makes, yours will probably have it soon enough. This means less jumping around each year. You can just stick to what you like.
- Granular design flexibility
- Speed and minimalism
- Settings in WP customizer
- Themebuilding capabilities – headers, footers, etc
- Developer hooks & filters
- Site library
It seems all themes nowadays have maximized their integration with Gutenberg in every way. Making it easy to build not only site content but also site templates with Gutenberg blocks. Things that you used to need a traditional pagebuilder for can now be done with Gutenberg. (At last…we are finally evolving away from Elementor, DIVI.)
It seems the top theme-makers have even gone further, many creating their own Gutenberg block library and pagebuilder to go with their theme. This makes for an even tighter integration, giving users even more features. It’s a win-win for all.
A return to design templates
This is something I’m really excited about. For many years, it used to be that you picked themes based on how they looked. After all…that’s what a theme was, a design template for your site. It’s only purpose was to focus on aesthetics and nothing else.
But then themes were sold on “flexibility”. The more features and customizations could be made, the more secure users felt about the theme’s future. The thinking was the theme had to be flexible enough to create literally ANY design. And that was crazy since it led to themes becoming so bloated that a whole new era of themes was born out “minimalism” (basically selling less).
We’ve now gone full circle to where every theme has every feature, and there seems to be a silently-agreed upon standardization of themes. In the features that they offer, in their settings UI, and integrations with popular plugins. This theme standardization has now allowed us to focus on the main area where they DO differentiate…the design. 😉
So we got the features, the integrations, the UI, and now the designs…here we go!
Johnny’s favorite WordPress themes 2023
The features, the UI, the designs…here we go!
Still my favorite. I like their vibe and soul the most. Stable, mature, solid features built exactly the way experienced devs like to work. I can’t say enough good things about the developer (Tom Usborne). I love using this theme to build custom designs.
For non-coders and non-developers, I’m much likely to recommend the next 3 themes (Kadence, Blocksy, Neve).
- Great features for all users, but I’d consider them with the most dev features (or most dev-minded approach) than all competitors. Most granular setup for HOOKS & FILTERS features.
- Has GenerateBlocks – Gutenberg block library and pagebuilder built by same company.
- Nice site library with few designs but well-polished and modern hip vibe.
- Solid community with good dev experience and design sense.
- Been around a long time (longer than anybody else). Very mature product and community.
- Lacks a drag-and-drop menu builder (in case you really wanted this). All other competitors have it.
They’ve got all the latest features but also really nice designs and also their own KadenceBlocks (Gutenberg block library and pagebuilder). Very similar to GP, but much better design library and fewer dev features. A good choice if you want to work off their starter templates and/or don’t need such complex dev features.
Although I use GeneratePress the most and like it’s comprehensive feature-set, Kadence theme is the one I most recommend for the general user. It has great design templates out of the box, beautiful UI that’s intuitive and easy-to-use, still has developer goodies like HOOKS & FILTERS, and integrates nicely with their awesome Kadence Blocks plugin.
- Really nice UI. Lots of free features.
- Great features for most users, just no dev-features like GeneratePress.
- I think Kadence has the best starter templates of any theme. Good professional hip designs. And just the right amount of options and differentiation between them. (Not too many, not too little.)
- Has HOOKS & FILTERS features as well.
- Has cloud library feature.
- I’m not a fan of them selling out to a bigger company, but also relieved they didn’t sell out to (not-so) Awesome Motive.
Another solid choice. Beautiful designs and great features. Small but dedicated dev team who really care about their product. Very comparable and similar to Kadence theme (especially since Kadence copied some of Blocksy’s features a while back).
A really nice theme with many innovative approaches to design and theme-building. Since they first innovated things, many of their features have been copied by other themes. They still have unique beautiful designs, distinct UI nuances, and a diedhard community.
- Really beautiful site starter designs. My favorite starter designs from this list are Blocksy’s and Kadence. Blocksy templates feel more posh, Kadence templates feel more hipster. Maybe Kadence wins because they have more options and differentiation…also a native KadenceBlocks plugin. But it really comes down to your preference.
- Has HOOKS & FILTERS features as well, done in very intuitive way.
- They don’t yet have a native Gutenberg block library plugin. Not a big deal since you can pair this theme up with any block library you want.
- Their theme settings UI uses smaller text. You may or may not like this nuance compared to other themes.
A big company with long-time experience building amazing themes (great design, features, code quality) and also A-level customer support to really support all kinds of users. They’ve been around a long time and made dozens of popular themes over the years. They used to cater to end users but are now targeting dev users with Neve.
Really nice alternative to the other 3. Big time quality and top notch customer support. You can try them if you want to see a different approach and different vibe to usual WordPress themes. Since the other 3 kind of copy each other so closely.
- Awesome template cloud feature. Save your customized templates in the cloud and import them into other sites.
- They’re less-known among the dev crowd but they totally deserve to be compared with the top. Super intuitive HOOKS & FILTERS features, that’s arguably easier to use than all other competitors.
- They also have Otter Blocks, super awesome Gutenberg block library plugin.
- Arguably the best customizer UI design compared to the others. It’s a small margin and very small difference, and perhaps very subjective but you can see for yourself.
- From what I remember, I think they were first to do the cloud library feature.
Get Neve theme or see my Neve review
Officially the most popular WordPress theme, and for good reason, but it isn’t my favorite (also for good reason). Astra most definitely follows the trends (copying everybody else’s top features) but their soul feels generic. They’ve also been involved in lots of community drama and controversy. The product itself has been a little buggy in the early years but I expect it to have matured by now.
Still though…I would never recommend Astra over the other options…it doesn’t have any unique qualities and its track record isn’t as clean as the others.
- Great features for most users. And they do have some dev features.
- Also has WPSpectra – Gutenberg block library and pagebuilder, built by the same company.
- Has HOOKS & FILTERS features as well.
- I absolutely hate their design library. Hundreds of generic templates that look good in thumbnails but you won’t choose any because they lack substance. You’ll waste lots of time scrolling. Feels like they made their template library out of B-grade rejected designs.
6. Bricks / Breakdance
Technically not a theme, but if you were gonna go a build-it-yourself route….these are my recommended options:
- Bricks theme – great for building sites completely from scratch with many granular controls for developers. The #1 option for having more developer features. See my Bricks review.
- Breakdance builder – think of it as an easier-to-use and less bloated version of Elementor/DIVI. Nice for people who prefer a more visual workflow similar to traditional pagebuilders. Also works alongside any theme. See my Breakdance review.
These options are for working in a totally different non-Gutenberg editor. Which can feel easier or more difficult. And can also give you a wider range of features and workflow options that you didn’t have with Gutenberg.
Still can’t decide?
Some distinctions to help you narrow it down.
- Which features to compare? – comparing features is nice, but also the UI. Make sure the layout is easy and makes sense to you.
- Not a pro? – compare template libraries to see which one has the design closest to what you want.
- Low budget? – compare their FREE vs PAID versions.
- You a dev working from scratch? – GeneratePress and Bricks get my vote completely.
- Need support? – I think Neve customer support is the most noob-friendly. Others are better with community support.
At the end of the day. All of these are solid options and almost all (except Bricks) has free version for you to try out.
Why didn’t other themes make this list?
- Because I didn’t know them.
- They didn’t offer anything unique to compete or stand out against the ones here.
- They’re still too new and unproven.
- But do mention them in the comments for me to consider for future reviews!