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.
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).
"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
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!