Best new music 2023

Better late than never, here is my annual blog post listing my favourite new releases from 2023. It’s been a rather trying festive season this year because the rich soup of respiratory viruses making the rounds has ensured that my various holiday writing projects, including this one, got pushed and pushed. The only thing I know for sure is that it wasn’t Covid (at least that’s what the remaining rapid tests we have in the house said), but the fatigue and persistent head cold symptoms have been quite a hindrance. Here’s hoping that 2024 will be the year when we finally emerge from these prolonged pandemic/post-pandemic conditions.

In a vaguely related update: Two years ago, I reported in my 2021 annual music blog post that we had received — at the time I thought: in error — a Christmas card from a child named Cora. 24 months on, and the mystery is now solved. On a December afternoon, the doorbell rang and there was knocking. As before, I was on a Zoom call so couldn’t respond. I did, however, hear a gaggle of schoolchildren moving through our street at the same time. Later, I found this lovely hand-drawn Christmas card in our letterbox:

Clearly, this is a neighbourhood tradition whereby the pupils at the local Catholic primary school draw Christmas greetings and distribute them in the local area to spread some holiday spirit. (Cora, from two years ago, failed to include the right kind of metadata, thus leaving us clueless.) I for one rather enjoyed our “frind” Abraham’s artistic vision and good cheer.

May the same apply to you and yours. Happy 2024, everyone!

This year, I won’t be linking each of these to their corresponding Spotify, Tidal, Apple Music or Bandcamp entry… I figure that you probably have a music streaming service and know how to use it.

Ali Sethi & Nicolas Jaar – Intiha: Unexpected collaboration between a Pakistani-American singer/songwriter and producer Nicolas Jaar. The album re-uses/re-interprets tracks from Jaar’s album Telas from 2020 by adding evocative, atmospheric vocals.

Alison Goldfrapp – The Love Invention & The Love Reinvention: Alison Goldfrapp’s first “solo” release (Goldfrapp, her previous vehicle, was a duo). A terrific collection of disco/electronica, finely produced and thought through. It sometimes puts me in mind of electronic music I was very fond of in the 90s or early 2000s, such as Underworld. I may not have been entirely convinced of the original album, but when she released “Reinvention” later in the year — essentially a “dub” adaptation with longer versions of the original songs — I was sold.

Arooj Aftab, Vijay Iyer & Shahzad Ismaily – Love in Exile: This is such a special record. An experimental, part-improvised, deeply thoughtful album that resists short descriptions. Having seen Vijay Iyer play live this year (here in Guelph, of all places!) I’ve come to an even greater appreciation of the musicianship that’s involved here. I urge you to hear it.

Ava Vegas – Desert Songs: Ava Vegas is the (very Lana Del Rey derived) stage name of a young German singer/songwriter. Her debut album didn’t speak to me, but on this record she branched out into a kind of psychedelic, electronic art pop that’s both entirely contemporary and also backward-looking in an interesting way. Whatever shortcomings one could pin on this — the songs are good and there is promise of even greater things to come. Her voice sometimes reminds me of Tanita Tikaram, for those who remember who that is.

Billy Nomates – Cacti: Really cool, energetic “post-punk” (?) album by a young English singer/songwriter. Memorable, finely detailed songs that operate in a sound landscape that often conjures up the early dance/rock hybrid of New Order. It’s an album that has stayed with me since it appeared early in 2023, and I can’t quite say why. But it’s good.

Black Country, New Road – Live at Bush Hall: Most astonishing live album from a most astonishingly great band. Their lead singer and main songwriter left after their first two critically acclaimed albums due to mental health concerns. Most bands would have folded. These people have so much talent to go round that they decided to double down. This “comeback” record is a wonder. Musically stranger than its predecessors, but somehow more open to the world — and to experimentation.

Bongeziwe Mabandla – AmaXesha: A singer/songwriter from South Africa who sings in isiXhosa. He was a new discovery for me this year, but I’ve since gone back and heard his previous three albums which are also brilliant. Dare I compare him to Frank Ocean in some way? It’s an incomplete reference but, I think, captures the ambitions aimed for and realized here.

Brìghde Chaimbeul – Carry Them With Us: I wrote about this young Scottish folk piper last year. Here she is with her next solo record which is really lovely. Supported and co-produced by Colin Stetson (experimental saxophonist and soundtrack producer), she makes a beautiful racket that elevates the spirit as only folk music from the British isles can.

Foyer Red – Yarn the Hours Away: Other reviewers have referred to this as “art punk,” which seems like a good description. Foyer Red are like a way marker at the mid point between The B52’s and, say, Stars. So strange and complex and all over the place, yet also so easy to listen to and enjoy. I’m excited to hear what they come up with next.

Gracie Abrams – Good Riddance: Abrams is a very talented, very young singer/songwriter who writes thoughtful lyrics and had the good fortune of being produced by Aaron Dessner, member of The National and producer of a peerless string of incredible records in the last few years. I’ve listened to this more times than I care to admit. Standout track “Full Machine” is the most heart-breaking depiction of codependence I’ve ever heard.

Gregory Alan Isakov – Appaloosa Bones: You know that “modern” folk-pop sound that was all the rage about a decade ago, with groups like Mumford & Sons and The Lumineers? It seemed like a good idea for a brief moment but soon revealed itself as a kind of fad, mostly because perhaps the songs — and the overall artifice of it — didn’t really hold water. Isakov is like the “good,” timeless version of this sound. A brilliant songwriter who has quietly mined this seam for many albums now and deserves to be heard as widely as possible.

Hochzeitskapelle – The Orchestra in the Sky (Kobe Recordings): The band name translates as “Wedding Band.” Originally formed by professional indie musicians from Bavaria (including some from The Notwist) to play at a bandmate’s wedding, they were so well-received that they just kept at it. This year, two records came out that were recoded in Japan, with “Japanese friends.” The music is… odd but pleasant, an amalgam of folk, jazz, with echoes of Klezmer (maybe?), and now — vocals sung in Japanese. Ticks every box on the “odd music” checklist for me.

Janelle Monae – The Age of Pleasure: Brilliant, beautiful album. A party from beginning to end. And, since all tracks blend into each other, it doesn’t really end until it ends. This has many of my favourite genres on it (reggae, ska, R&B, afrobeat), expertly blended by one of music’s most brilliant and committed songwriters. Where her previous records could be a bit icy (like some of Prince’s), Monae here decides to have fun. And it really is fun!

Jessie Ware – That! Feels Good!: Ware is still on a roll. What’s Your Pleasure? from 2020 was a brilliant, classic disco/R&B/dance record, and this album delivers more of the same. This doesn’t have a weak track. And since I have a terrible, deep and abiding love for disco, this is always welcome. It’s also very finely produced and sounds incredible.

Matthew Halsall – An Ever Changing View: A British jazz trumpeter and band leader who has a “spiritual jazz” bent. I like most of Halsall’s work (that I’ve heard), and this new record is no exception. It’s post-bebop jazz for those of us who sometimes enjoy complex, well-played instrumental music that’s maybe not super-challenging — but also never dull or uninteresting. Check out his earlier albums, too.

Michael Blake & Chroma Nova – Dance of the Mystic Bliss: Blake is a Canadian jazz saxophonist who now lives and works in Brooklyn. This record really speaks to me. A careful balance of improvised and through-composed music, the Guardian perceptively called it “joyously audacious.” Fine ensemble work. I would go and see Mr. Blake live if the chance ever presented itself.

The National – First Two Pages of Frankenstein & Laugh Track: Much ink has been spilled about these guys, notably about how they make music for “sad dads.” I’m not a dad, but otherwise certainly of that age and disposition. I can confirm that their (new) sound speaks to me. There’s a richness, a comforting embrace to their (now post-“rock”) music that reminds me of Roxy Music’s Avalon from 1982. And sure, the lyrics occasionally feel like the internal monologue in my head. For further discussion, see the excellent profile in the New Yorker which explains everything.

Rae – My 21st Century Blues: Rae is a major new R&B talent from the UK. A smart, witty songwriter, some seem to think of her as Amy Winehouse’s true heir apparent. The album is very satisfying and promises so much more to come. I’m excited about her.

Róisín Murphy – Hit Parade: I’ve long been a pretty devoted Murphy fan. I think the kind of “abstract art-disco” she makes is pretty peerless (although there are other contenders, like the above mentioned Alison Goldfrapp and Jessie Ware). Murphy’s high-concept yet totally enjoyable/danceable music sometimes reminds me of Grace Jones.

Romy – Mid Air: Romy is a member of The xx, and this is her first solo album. It’s a subtle but highly sensuous affair. It’s a dance album whose audio landscape is “big room” club trance circa 2002, but brought up to date. These are sad bangers (to use that construct again), in the best way. Just a truly lovely record that makes introversion, anxiety and insecurity sound like a party.

Salomé Gasselin – Récit: Gasselin is a young viola da gamba player from France. This is her debut album as an ensemble leader. Filled with French music from the early to middle Baroque, it has a captivating sound: as a fretted string instrument, the viola da gamba is generally an earthy-sounding instrument. These recordings, for a small French label, sound spontaneous, rumbly, and have a rawness to the audio quality that I really enjoy. Like Brìghde Chaimbeul’s folk music mentioned earlier, Gasselin’s album makes no attempt to hide the woodsy, string-y ambient noise imperfections these historically accurate instruments give off — nor the church bells that ambiently chime in the background once in a while.

Sanam – Aykathani Malakon صنم – أيقظني ملاكٌ: A post-rock, post-folk, sometimes post-jazz band from Beirut, Lebanon. This is an outstanding, atmospheric album, both experimental and recognizably “rock,” sometimes overwhelming in its force. I’m also appreciating the regional nature of the song sources, particularly the nods to Palestinian music.

Stephan Meidell & Bergen Barokk – Temporal Gardening: Meidell is a Norwegian musician and composer. This work, a commission, is a collaboration with Bergen Barokk — a Baroque chamber ensemble. The music is strange but captivating. It reminds me of certain mid-90s attempts at making “organic” sounding ambient electronic music (for those old enough to remember: echoes of The Future Sound of London’s Lifeforms).

Tomorrow Comes the Harvest – Evolution: Grown out of a project that was founded by Detroit techno producer Jeff Mills and Tony Allen (afrobeat pioneer and Fela Kuti’s long-time drummer), the group now consists of Mills, Indian tabla player Prabhu Edouard and Guyanese keyboardist Jean-Phi Dary. Best described as an electronic world music experiment, it’s a brilliant record that I have loved listening to while working this year. I’m always pleased when the spirit of “world music” (in the sense of creating hybrids that are more than the sum of their parts) turns out not to be quite dead yet!

Ward Knútur Townes – Unanswered: And speaking of “world music,” here is a three-country collaboration between folk musicians from Iceland, Canada and the UK. I’m always keen to hear good new folk music (like last year’s mention of Bonny Light Horseman whom I still enjoy), and this falls into that category. I could imagine this group lasting a long time — and hopefully come to be appreciated like other such folk “super groups,” e.g. Bonny Light Horseman or Spell Songs.

The following albums are also interesting to hear. They’re all excellent (or at least really interesting) and recommended — I just don’t have any particular listening notes.

Aesop Rock – Integrated Tech Solutions

Andreas Ulvo – Lost in Space

Bex Burch – There is Only Love and Fear

Bridget Kearney – Snakes of Paradise

Corinne Bailey Rae – Black Rainbows

Elina Duni – A Time to Remember

Hilary Hahn – Ysaÿe 6 Sonatas for Violin Solo Op. 27

Lana Del Rey – Did You Know That There’s a Tunnel Under Ocean Blvd

Lankum – False Lankum

Natalie Merchant – Keep Your Courage

Nneka – Back and Forth (EP)

Noname – Sundial

Peter Gabriel – i/o

Shani Diluka – Pulse

Spell Songs – Gifts of Light

Teke::Teke – Hagata

This Is The Kit – Careful of Your Keepers

Tinariwen – Amatssou

U.S. Girls – Bless This Mess

10,000 Gecs – 100 Gecs

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