I’ll remember 2023 for many reasons, and most of those reasons found me looking for music as a way to escape or find solace. I also spent much of the year listening to and spinning dance music, so my attention was increasingly divided between the kind of indie rock and folk that I always gravitate towards and the electronica music that usually logs in at 125BPM. This list gave me a chance to reflect on the mellower, more soulful stuff that I fell in love with this year. I hope you find some things that help get you through even the darkest days.
- Cleo Sol – Heaven / Gold (Forever Living Originals)
British neo-soul singer Cleo Sol, who is also a vocalist in SAULT, has one of the finest voices in modern music today. She recorded two full length albums in 2023, each released in September, both sounding like music that might have been recorded decades ago but timeless in a way that all of the best jazz and soul records have been.
On the opening and the best track of the bunch she croons, only two beautiful verses set to piano and some drum loops seem to just travel into the cosmos: “Self” she sings “Ooh, save me, save me from myself / Ooh, be gentle, gentle with myself / God knows this time I’ll never lose myself / Now I know I can change the world without changing myself.” Both songs succeed into some sort of ephemeral transport to a place most people don’t get to often enough.
- Sufjan Stevens– Javelin (Ashmattic Kitty)
There are very few musicians who have managed to survive and thrive in a world dominated by hip-hop and electronica making music for as long and esoterically as Sufjan Stevens. Across almost two decades, and a dozen albums, ranging from the obscure to the largely accessible, he and his band of collaborators have made everything from poignant folk records “Carrie and Lowell” to the raucous jubilant rockers on tracks like “Chicago” and “Jacksonville.”
On “Javelin” he finds that comfortable place that exists when his spiritual beliefs and otherworldliness are grounded in the realities of life on earth in stripped down acoustic numbers and elevated to almost religious barnburners. On “Will Anybody Ever Love Me,” he starts delicately enough “Watch me drift and watch me struggle, let me go / Cause I really wanna know / Will anyone ever love me.” before building towards an anthemic revival of joy and sadness as only Sufjan can do.
- The Clientele – Claire’s Not Real (Merge)
Twenty-years into their eclectic career, London’s occasionally orchestral and undefinably magical retro trio of sophisticates has returned with perhaps their finest album to date. Their baroque stylings swirl with strings and brass delivering you to a kind of netherworld that seems very much not of this time and place.
On the beautiful “Claire’s Not Real” we hear “And sometimes, I am walking home, to my door, and I’m not there anymore.” There is a kind of smokey haze that lingers over each of these songs, at times reminiscent of certain acid inspired Beatles songs such as on “Dying In May” and others more like early Kinks on “Blue Over Blue.” There is a kind of beautiful surreality that rumbles melodically through this album leaving you in a kind of enervated headspace marching towards the future.
- Slowdive – everything is alive (Dead Oceans)
Thanks to the Tik-Tok generation there has been a much deserved renaissance in shoegaze music. When I first heard this album, I could have sworn this was something I might have missed in the 90’s, but alas it was the new masterpiece from Neil Halstead (Slowdive, Mojave 3) and company. When I went to see them touring this year, I expected a bunch of old nerds like me, but The Warfield was filled with a bunch of gothy kids under the age of 30. Bravo, long live shoegaze.
The eight songs on “everything is alive” all clock in at over five minutes of elegantly shimmering guitars, keys and percussion. As always it is like boarding a waking dream en route to some galaxy you can only imagine in a sci-fi movie where an astronaut is left floating in space but unworried about finding his way back home because the universe is so beautiful.
- Yo La Tengo– This Stupid World (Matador)
Thirty-five years after the release of their unpretentious debut “New Wave Hot Dogs,” Yo La is back with another sonic masterpiece. It’s loud, discordant, nostalgic for the past, but very much living in the future. What makes a band survive so long in this fickle time of singles, social media ephemerality, and shallow celebrity? Well it helps that Ira and Georgia have been married all these years, and that the band is still one of the most mind-blowing live acts on the planet, but mostly it’s because their sound is so distinctive and tends to evolve just enough every time out to keep loyalists and newbies entertained.
On standouts like “Fallout” Ira Kaplan sings “Makes me sick what’s in my mind / It’s so hard to react in time,” while the band drives towards some sort of unknowable place and time, while only a few songs later Georgia croons quietly on “Aselestine” about how the drugs aren’t working like they’re supposed to. We live in a occasionally dark time for sure, but Yo La Tengo helps create a kind of strange place to look back down at the earth and wonder.
- Fruit Bats – A River Running To Your Heart (Merge)
Over the past decade the quality and consistently prolific output of Eric B. Johnson and his bands Fruit Bats and Bonny Light Horseman has been nothing short of incredible. Sometimes I guess it just takes a while for some artists to really find their groove. “A River Running To Your Heart” is another magical journey into the heart of America from where he takes you from Tacoma to Los Angeles, down rushing rivers and gazing into the night sky.
Inspired no doubt by his non-stop touring, there is mostly joy in the little things you see out the window of a van or bus. On “Waking Up In Los Angeles” he croons “Waking up alive again, but trying to stop the bleeding, that’s how it is, but at least there’s still the sky above, and you still like the feeling of waking up in Los Angeles.” We’re all just looking for that feeling of being home, and this record reminds us to keep looking.
- boygenius – the record (Interscope)
If for some reason you didn’t spend time with this debut album (there was an EP that came out earlier that teased the promise of the band) then you must have been living in a cultureless bubble. The band is perhaps the most important female supergroup of all time featuring three indie rock goddesses in their own right (Lucy Dacus, Julien Baker and Phoebe Bridgers).
But unlike many experiments “the record” is an perfectly executed exercise in symmetry and sharing, with each of them writing a third of the songs, sharing singing duties and creating a real equilibrium. Almost every song here is a keeper from the anthemic “Not Strong Enough” to the sublime acoustic numbers like “Cool About It” that have a Simon and Garfunkel feel. This is a classic rock masterpiece in an era that has long forgotten the genre.
- Rose City Band – Garden Party (Thrill Jockey Records)
On “Garden Party,” the latest from Portland based impresario Ripley Johnson and company, there is a pitch perfect old-timey sound that you’d swear this was recorded 50 years ago. From the first notes you’d almost think the band was covering “I Wasn’t Born to Follow” by the Byrds, or anything by Gram Parsons, but these are all original songs conjured from a lifetime of listening. In some ways it would be easy to think of the band as a Grateful Dead inspired indie rock experiment, but it’s at a much higher level.
There are those ultra tight rambles that feel lifted from an old school Bakersfield vibe (“Slow Burn”) or those straight-up Garcia inspired insta-classics like “Mariposa” which stretches on for over seven minutes on the silkiest guitars you’ve heard since a 1977 “Eyes of the World.” There is gold in these hills, so make sure you find time for the garden party.
- Elderbrook – Little Love (Mine Recordings)
It is rare that I find an electronic “album” that works as a complete work and not just a collection of disparate singles, but Elderbrook’s “Little Love” is a melodic lovefest of an album the more reminiscent of the early Zero 7 than other modern electronica. In part it is that he is a soulful singer and songwriter and not just a knob twiddling DJ.
Another part of his genius lies in his ability to create a deep groove through addicting repetition: “I’m wasted, on you,” just washes over you like gentle waves for almost four and half minutes. Unlike Rufus Du Sol, who blew up so fast that they weren’t able to take the time they needed on their last album to ensure that their songs were only good, Elderbrook has had the luxury of time to make sure almost everything here is at a certain level. Time and patience are the keys to this kingdom.
- Blondshell – Blondshell (Partisan)
In the 90’s there were a handful of fiercely independent female voices (Liz Phair, PJ Harvey) that have inspired a generation of young artists (soccer mommy, Snailmail, the ladies in boygenius) and now Blondshell. This is a near perfect debut, filled with fuzzy guitars, small coming of age topics that seem stolen from another decade.
On the sexily clever “Kiss City” she croons “Just look me in the eye / when I’m about to finish / Kiss City / I think my kink is when you / tell me that you think I’m pretty.” There is a whimsical melody that rolls through every song here, never exactly serious but always spot on. Listening to this brings me back to a younger and simpler time.
- Michael Nau – Accompany (Karma Chief/Colemine)
The lazy hazy countrifed surrealism of Michael Nau has never been better than on the eleven mesmerizing tracks on “Accompany.” There are slow building moments of joy and wonderment scattered throughout this criminally unheard masterpiece that finds inspiration from new folkies like Cass McCombs and Kurt Vile.
In many ways there is a jazz undercurrent that runs through the fabric of this record. It a textural affair filled with gently brushed drumlines and an unhurried pacing. On standout tracks like “Sharp Diamonds” he sings “So when you write a poem, repeating songs” he then just repeats the chorus “when you’re traveling alone, and it all sounds fine again …” until it just fades away lightly. Mesmerizing and magical every step of the way.
- Kraak & Smaak – Twenty (Jalapeno)
There is nothing like that certain kind of jazzy electronica that mixes soaring vocals and just enough BPMs to get your booty moving, but enough soul to distance itself from the dance music that has quietly replaced rock over the past few decades. Dutch DJ’s Kraak & Smaak have an incredibly deft touch, infusing every song with a kind of slow simmer; not a full on dance party, but an infectious vibe for sure.
Unlike most DJ albums, “Twenty” feels like a cohesive mélange of different styles, that all fits perfectly as a “vibe.” The hip-hoppy “Money In The Bag” comes just after the disco gospel of “Squeeze Me” and the spooky “Danse Macabre.” Some “records” eliminate the need for a playlist – this is one of them!
A bunch more that are critical for your survival ..
13. Ahnoni – My Back Was A Bridge for you to Cross (Secretly Canadian) Ahnoni (aka Antony) has one of the most distinct and intimate voices in the history of music. This is not an uplifting set of songs, but the texture and honesty tucked into these ten gorgeous tracks are as as good anything she has ever done – deep soulful reflections on life, love and hardship. As usual this music exists in that strange world somewhere between Nina Simone and Leonard Cohen. Heavy stuff for heavy times.
14. Gaz Coombes – Turn The Car Around (Gaz Coombes) I remember the first time I heard Supergrass with Gaz Coombes’ urgent and youthfully optimistic voice making the room take on a life of its own. Twenty-years later he still sounds relevant and fresh bringing back that retro Brit pop sound that we’ve been missing way too long. This album is a gift for nostalgists and for people who just can’t get over yearning for rock music. This is a special overlooked masterpiece that is best consumed loudly.
15. Buck Meek – Haunted Mountain (4AD) Buck Meek, who is a also a founding member of Big Thief, has already proven that he can write songs and play guitar as part of a collective, but this year’s “Haunted Mountain” is as good as any album that the prolific Big Thief has put out to date. Buck has a dreamy voice, and the kind of earthy Americana swagger that always get under my skin immediately, and the 11 songs included here are just magical.
16. Alberta Cross – Sinking Ships (Dark Matter) The decade old Alberta Cross has been making dreamy Americana music long before it was less fashionable. Not much has changed except that perhaps the songs are better and the band is more comfortable in it’s own skin making the kind of naturalistic songs that romantics can learn and love like the sublime title track.
17. Andy Shauf – Norm (Anti) The silky-voiced Canadian singer-songwriter is back with another dozen perfectly crafted pop gems filled with a baroque instrumental accompaniment. Almost a decade into his voyage as a new age troubadour, his songs occasionally veer into slower more experimental moodiness, but it is when he stays pop on tracks like “Halloween Store” and “Wasted on You” where there is a kind of uplifting joy that only he can conjure.
18. The Endless Coloured Ways: The Songs of Nick Drake (Chrysalis) Nick Drake wrote three of the most perfect folk records of all time before losing himself to paralyzing depression. But those incredible songs still sound as if they could have been written in any time and are beautifully covered by a wonderfully eclectic group of indie royalty including Liz Phair “Free Ride,” Fontaines D.C. “Cello Song,” and Ben Harper “Time Has Told Me” and an ethereal version of “From The Morning,” by Let’s Eat Grandma.
19. Let There Be Music – Bonny Doon (Anti) The third record from Detroit indie-folkers is a patient ramble through the minds of a group just starting to settle into adulthood. Their Americana roots deposit them somewhere between the whimsy of Pavement and the wander of Gram Parsons. “Let There Be Music,” is a big record about the little details we often forget to notice.
20. Dope Lemon – Kimosabe (BMG/Angus Stone) Angus Stone is Australia’s number one folkie in my book. Whether performing with his sister Julia, solo efforts or the bluesier Dope Lemon, he has a slacker nonchalance mixed with a Dylanesque knack for songwriting. Over the course of four albums, the project has morphed from side-project into a fully realized band. It’s loose and jammy, but also serious and often nostalgically sentimental. Angus’ voice is as blissfully ragged as ever, but at thirty-seven he is in full stride making melodic rock songs that build slowly the way that all of the good ones are supposed to do.
21. Julie Bryne – The Greater Wings (Ghosty International) On this acoustically transcendent folk masterpiece, Julie Bryne finds a musical space somewhere between the earth and the sky. There is a closeness and intimacy to the way “The Greater Things” was recorded, with her vocals and guitar buried in your ears if you’re listening on headphones. This is pure magic.
22. Young Fathers – Heavy Heavy (Ninja Tune) Who knows when we’ll get another TV On The Radio album, so thank God for the wacky, unclassifiable Scottish indie-rock-hip-hop trio whose music is probably the closest thing to the original. On this breezy ten song album we cover the spectrum of modern music, a melange of heavy and light, happy and sad and everything in between. Run, don’t walk, and make sure you listen a few times to let it all sink in.
23. Everything But The Girl – Fuse (Buzzin’ Fly/Virgin) It’s hard to believe it had been almost twenty-five years since the last proper full-length album from Tracey Thorn and Ben Watt, but “Fuse” picks up right where they left off. In the 90’s their electronic infused ethereal soul was a natural extension of the earlier 4AD bands (Cocteau Twins, Lush, Dead Can Dance) and the emerging trip-hop music that would ultimately spawn modern electronica. This breaks no ground, but proves they are still as vital and creative as they were when they practically invented this kind of album.