Thursday, January 11, 2024

This Fluid Thrill Awards: Best Music of 2023

I'm going to divulge my top ten albums of the year (those released on 2023) with some honorable mentions, plus hand out some additional bouquets to individual songs that took my fancy during the calendar year.

I've done this (or something similar) many times previously: 2021 albums and songs20202019, 2018 albums and songs, 2017 albums and songs20162015201420132012.

Here's a playlist to listen along while you peruse.

Best Albums of 2023

"Angel Numbers" by Hamish Hawk

Morrissey without the cringe factors. The Editors without the fake Joy Division crooning and with a sense of humour (so, um, nothing like The Editors, I guess).

I first noticed this album around March when doing my first trawl of Album of the Year sites and "Angel Numbers" was ranking highly (everyone who reviewed it, liked or loved it, but it wasn't that widely reviewed). Subsequently, it got some blowback (who is this guy? the algorithm is broke!), but actually, it worked for me! And Mr Hawk! Hurrah!

"Suburban Legend" by DURRY

Do Americans call a cigarette a durry? I don't think so. This durry, sorry, DURRY, is simply the last name of the brother-sister duo from Minnesota. The brother, Austin, used to be in the band Coyote Kid, which describes itself on its Spotify bio as a "Cinematic Indie band. We use our albums to tell the sci-fi fantasy adventures of the Coyote Kid. We use a unique mix of dark looming presence, cinematic scale production, high energy western rock'n roll, and a touch of the macabre to give an immersive listening experience."

Um, DURRY is nothing like that.

During the pandemic, Austin moved back home and started sharing some of his new musical ideas with his sister Taryn, 7 years his junior. And thus, DURRY was born. It's not cinematic or macabre or dark. It's world-wearing yet upbeat. So many catchy songs, so many funny lines.

Is it time for a revival of 90's arch pop-rock? Count me in.

"Turn the Car Around" by Gaz Coombs

I'm not sure how to phrase this, but let me try. This album, from the former frontman of Supergrass, sounds like what I'd hope a new Arctic Monkeys album would sound like. As in, I get the thread Alex Turner is pulling, and while it may not be as wordy and propulsive of their 2006 debut or anthemic as "AM", it's pretty cool, I guess.

Then comes Coombs, sounding like he's strung out after a trip to the Tranquility Base Hotel and Casino, sitting on the floor strumming his guitar with a Thousand Island Dressing stare.

Coombs wrote "Turn the Car Around", his fourth solo album, while performing reunion shows with Supergrass, and that is such a vibe. Like, didn't we all feel as if, in the year of our Lord twenty-twenty-three, that we were doing something that we used to do, and everyone else seemed happy with it, but deep down there was... something else? Somewhere new to be heading.

This is the sound of that feeling, the stepping towards and the attainment of that new somewhere.

Such a special album.

"Strays" by Margo Price

I didn't have alt-country songstress Margo Price dropping an album that sounds like Monster Magnet on my Bingo card this year. And I freely admit this might be a niche impression. Some might think of The Doors when the album starts with a bass drone, tambourine rattlesnake and organ key jangle, but not me. And then the driving riff starts. I'm fully expecting the New Jersey growl of Dave Wyndorf to deliver the lines, "I got nothing to prove, I got nothing to sell / I'm not buying what you've got, I ain't ringing no bells / I got a myth in my pocket, got a bullet in my teeth / I've going straight in the fire, I'm gonna talk to the high priest."

I genuinely searched online to see if Wyndorf was a co-writer, collaborator or was at least name-checked by Price, but alas. The best I can find is that Price and her husband wrote this album while on a six-day magic mushroom bender. Which also makes a lot of sense.

As someone who has never taken a psychedelic substance but has listened to a lot of music created, in part, thanks to these drugs, this Margo Price album has convinced me I'd like my first trip. If psilocybin is able to teleport Price from "Midwest Farmer's Daughter" and "That's How Rumors Get Started" to 'Been to the Mountain' - that is, from perfectly good but not necessarily my cup of tea to "this is the Monty Python Holy Grail mug I ordered online and used religiously while writing my last novel, then lost, then found, then broke, then repaired and still use for special occasions" cup of tea.

This is not to diminish the agency of Price or her collaborators here. I really love the quieter, less psych elements on "Strays". It's all great. I'm a fan. But I love it when a song starts off in a kind of Daisy Jones and the Six, languid, Eaglesy vibe, then Mike Campbell plugs in the electric guitar and Price sings "Light me up, burn me up, boil from the inside / Deeper than the ocean, get me higher than the tide..." 

"The Land, The Water, The Sky" by Black Belt Eagle Scout

The twelve songs on this album roll over you like a heavy sea mist. Katherine Paul's noisy electric guitar and softly chanted lyrics are the backbone of everything. Some songs build out the sound over time, with more guitar tracks or epic solos, propulsive drums and clanging cymbals, creating something epic, like moving from a photograph to an entire landscape. Others, like 'Salmon Sinta', pare it right back, to the point the lyrics end up being just "ba-ba, ba-ba", like moving from a photograph to a memory, or the sense of a memory.

This is amazing music live, and also amazing music to write to. 

"The Window" by Ratboys

I hadn't heard of Ratboys until 2023, despite them releasing albums since 2015. At times they sound very much of this era. The country-fied twang of Waxahatchee or Big Thief, with the accompanying willingness to get a little loud, a little unpretty, a little loose. But Ratboys also sounds old. Like something that might have come from the same stable as The Breeders in the 90's. Maybe they sound like the Breeders covering the New Pornographers? 

This is all to say that they sound like many good and virtuous things, while still being new and their own thing. From the power pop of 'No Way' to the unerring groove of 8 minute and 34 second 'Black Earth, WI', this feels like a statement of intent. 

I look forward to what new sounds drift through the window.

"3D Country" by Geese

There are some songs I put on just to annoy my son. He's eight. His brain is at least a decade from fully forming. He never likes songs he hasn't heard before. He has to have heard it two or three times on the radio before he can open his heart to a song. And, as his diet is determined largely by the radio station playing in the car when one or other parent ferries him and his sister to sports or cultural activities, or to beaches or forest walks with the dog, he has modern pop sensibilities. He doesn't like boring intros, but even worse are confronting ones.

"3D Country" is basically a whole album designed to get my son to complain. From the discordant jangle and drunken vocals of album opener '2122' to the tuneless trumpets, broken glass and violins on closer 'St Elmo', there's a lot of provocation going on. Which is rock, I guess. But it wouldn't be worth a damn if there weren't songs beneath the posturing.

And there are.

This album, more than any other in 2023, made me feel like there was still a place for noise and denim in somewhat-popular culture. 

"Blondshell" by Blondshell

Is Nu-Grunge having a moment? This album sounds like it was recorded in Olympia, Washington, slumped back on an unmade bed, looking to the ceiling, strumming an okay guitar and singing to the light fitting. Big Cobain energy, with hints of Sabrina Teitelbaum's earlier poppier incarnation (BAUM).

"Somebody's Child" by Somebody's Child

We seem to have reached the self-titled album stretch of our list. Irish one-man-band Cian Godfrey's debut album sounds immense. It sounds like a massive hit. It should've been bigger. It'll have to make do with making this list.

"The Rise & The Fall" by The Rural Alberta Advantage

Oh Canada! How do you do it? The RAA have been releasing albums since 2009 ("Hometowns", it's vvvvvv good, check it out), but I only dove into them in 2023.

"The Rise & The Fall" is a great album, up there with their previous records, and perhaps buoyed by this back catalogue, claims my tenth spot for 2023.

Honorable mentions from 2023

  • "Lucky for You" by Bully
  • "Noise for No Reason" by Pyrex
  • "Do Ya?" by meija
  • "I am the River, the River is Me" by Jen Cloher
  • "Emotional Contracts" by Deer Tick
  • "The Rainbow Wheel of Death" by Dougie Poole
  • "Haunted Mountain" by Buck Meek

Older albums I didn't hear until 2023 that would have cracked the top ten otherwise

  • "Wunderhorse" by Cub (2022)
  • "Everybody's Heart Is Broken Now" by Niki & the Dove (2016)

Other, but by no means lesser, awards

Artist I completely missed the first time around, but got way way into in 2023

Superdrag. They were amazing. 

Old song of the year

"Give me back my man" by The B-52s. I wrote about it in June. Still an earworm. Still on my roadtrip playlists.

Other contenders for this esteemed award:

  • "Fucking Ada" by Ian Drury
  • "Tush" by ZZ Top

And finally... Song of the Year

As in previous years, all albums in the top ten are ineligible to also have the top song (one gong is plenty, fellas!). And it has to have been released in 2023.

Normally, it's some one-off piece of indie pop brilliance full of nonsense syllables and not-quite-a-hit-but-still-a-wonder verve.

This year, I'm tempted to give it to Mitski's 'Buffalo Replaced', a short album track from a good-but-not-great album (incidentally, this song has the 2nd least plays of the 11 tracks on Spotify). It's kind of unpindownably good. But it doesn't really fit the mold.

Something more catchy, but probably too catchy, was Robbie Williams Xmas collab with Rod Stewart, 'Fairytales'. It's one thing to be formulaic, but to triumph within such constraints should be acknowledged. A wonderful car-ride singalong.

I really loved Car Seat Headrest's single-without-an-album (yet?) 'We looked like Giants' - very much my sort of indie rock - and Cory Hansen's 'Housefly' - very much my sort of alt-country - and 'Salt' by Teen Jesus and the Jean Teasers and the Grogans - very much my sort of Aussie rock... but they didn't ever quite separate themselves from the pack.

So I'm giving this most illustrious mantle to "Blame Brett" by The Beaches. It's catchy. It's funny ("I'm done dating rockstars / From now on only actors / Tall boys in the Raptors" - look-out Scottie Barnes!).  It's kind of self-effacing, kind of a feminist anthem (depending on what wave you think we're up to now). And it's Canadian!

*chef's kiss*

Wednesday, January 3, 2024

This Fluid Thrill Awards 2023: Best Reading

This list is all about the best books I read in 2023, not necessarily those that came out this year.

I've done this before. See: 2022, 202120202019201820172014201320122011, & 2010.

I read 59 books in 2023. The first time since 2018 that I didn't crack 60. But close to the average of 62 per annum from 2010 (if you exclude 2013-2016 when I didn't keep great records, in part because I wasn't reading or blogging as much).

More graphs and junk later. Let's get to the top 10!!

Birnam Wood by Eleanor Catton (novel, physical book, NZ, 2023)

What I said about it in February:
Potentially the best book I'll read this year and it's only Feb. If you loved The Luminaries you'll love this. Don't let the thriller billing lead you astray (though it does get thrilling) - this is a novel that revels in moving fully rendered, psychologically complex characters around the stage and getting them together at opportune/inopportune times (or, excitingly, for me at least, alone: a couple of these lonely, quiet moments seem to act as tent poles for the three act structure). 

If you are one of the people who talk openly about never finishing The Luminaries, when in the last 10 years did you start admitting this like it was a badge of honour? Go take a hard look at yourself in the mirror, then read Birnam Wood, though you might find it too slow as well. In which case, I've got nothing for you. I guess you don't need to be devastated as deeply as I do. 

Nothing further, your honour.

Foster by Claire Keegan (novella, audiobook, Ireland, 2010)

I read three very short books by Keegan this year. Foster was the first to be published by the second I read, and here's what I said about it in May:
It's probably only a short story, but it's packaged as a standalone book, much like Small Things Like These. Loved this one. Every books should be this short.
But, but, but! I didn't like So Late in the Day, when I read it toward the end of the year, and felt it didn't work as a standalone book. So maybe only great books should be this short.

The Ministry for the Future by Kim Stanley Robinson (novel, audiobook, US, 2020)

Here's what I said about it in May:
Another kind of novel that doesn't care much for things like character development or careful observation at the micro-level. This is all about the macro: what if poor performance against the Paris Agreement meant there was a Ministry for the Future to try and drive intergenerational justice (and what if that needed to be complemented by a dark-wing to get stuff done without bureaucracy). I got very depressed to begin with (I deal with this shit every day, so nothing was a surprise, it was more like: why I am listening to this while I work in my garden?!) but it kind of justified this depression through the journey it goes from this launching point. 
To which I'll add: it's the kind of book people who've read bring up in conversation (and maybe even some of those who haven't read it). I think it's even influencing the framing of some climate solutions, and/or reporting thereof. Who says fiction has lost its power?

Lioness by Emily Perkins (novel, audiobook, NZ, 2023)

I listened to this audiobook while in Europe. Specifically, lying beside the pool at the house in the Algarve we'd rented with our friends from Germany. So: not normal life (and not wholly consistent with my admiration for Kim Stanley Robinson and my day job tackling carbon emissions). But it felt appropriate to be living like the 1% while immersed in Perkins story of a rich man's second wife and the slow unravelling of everything. 

Just who is the lioness? Is it Therese/Theresa, or her more forthright neighbour, Claire? Can there be only one?

Don't Tell Anybody the Secrets I Told You by Lucinda Williams (memoir, audiobook, US, 2023)

This is another audiobook I listened to on my trip (hence no contemporaneous micro-review to quote here). I love Williams' album, Car Wheels on a Dusty Road, but couldn't profess to knowing her full back catalogue or anything much about her life before reading this book. And it served to both point me to albums and songs I should listen to intently (hello, 'Pineola'), and, more importantly, leave me with a strong impression of the human being behind the words, her musical family, her prolonged naievty, her relationships with men, some of whom are equally lauded musicians. 

Martin Dressler by Steven Millhauser (novel, audiobook, US, 1997)

What I said about it in June:
To read Millhauser is to flirt with fables and the fantastic, but never quite cross over. It's fascinating. I think I prefer his shorter works, where you spend more time - proportionately - on the knife's edge.
Yes, but, actually, in hindsight, this was one of the novels I remember most vividly from my reading this year. And part of this is from the accumulation of detail, the slow edging away from diecast reality, that only a novel can deliver. 

Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel (novel, audiobook, UK, 2009)

What I said about it in February:
Yeah, okay, I get it now.
Audition by Pip Adam (novel, physical book, NZ, 2023)

A sample of what I said about it in my review for Landfall:

Both structurally and thematically, the closing seventy pages feel akin to the nocturnal swim in The New Animals—we are pulling a thread of strangeness and following wherever it may take us. Sometimes psychedelic, sometimes just plain stoned, but always surreal. Free of earthly forces and pre-eminent Western ideologies, might there be a chance for Alba, Drew and Stanley to remember and reconcile the past, heal, and move beyond?

Audition remixes the tricks and conceits of Adam’s earlier books in such a way that it’s hard not to think about it as a kind of capstone... 

Daisy Jones and the Six by Taylor Jenkins Reid (novel, audiobook, US, 2019)

Here's what I said about it in May:
I grew up with a father who loved rock documentaries so I enjoyed this. Spent a lot of time wondering why others who might be less of an anorak when it comes to music would enjoy it - the love triangle never quite joins up, which means it skirts around the worst cliches of these kinds of tails but it doesn't really have a huge amount of tension to drive the narrative forward. 
Shortly thereafter, I read Jenkins Reid's Carrie Soto is Back, which, despite also liking sports stories, I enjoyed less. I haven't seen the Daisy Jones TV show, but I did enjoy the album. Will it make my top ten albums of the year??

(Spoiler alert: No, it won't, but it would definitely make my top ten albums by a fictional band list.)

The Bell by Iris Murdock (novel, audiobook, UK, 1958)

One of the last books I read in 2023, and one of the earliest written. There's definitely a contrast between the depth and complexity in a book like this and, say, something by Taylor Jenkins Reid. The thing I sometimes forget, when reading mostly contemporary fiction, albeit across a range of genres, is that writers now held up to be literary greats are, so often, funny. And it's true that a brand of non-LOL humour provides the little bubbler outboard motor that kept things moving in The Bell. All the characters are faintly ridiculous. Murdoch is also a great teller. The opening of the novel is an onslaught of telling (as opposed to showing) and it's an absolute hoot. You can show me the glint of the moonlight on the blade, but I'll enjoy it more if you've told me how she got married to the wrong man, became estranged and has now decided to return to him in a rollicking dozen pages first.


2023 reading year statistics

Some years I set targets for diversity for the reading year ahead. Others I just wing it. I winged it in 2023 and my reading wasn't that diverse...

And only 9 of the 59 books I read in 2023 had non-white authors. Interestingly, no Australians, which must be a first, no Asian or African or South Americans, either. Sheesh.

For 2024, I'm going to set some reading targets:
  • At least ten single-author poetry collections
  • At least one book from every continent
  • At least four books in translation
  • At least four books by Australians
  • At least five different genres of novel.