It never ceases to surprise me when I come across someone with the notion that there isn’t new music worth hearing these days. As much as I can appreciate the cynicism, the idea that pop music, for lack of a better term, peaked years ago is ridiculous. I get it: the kids have it easy these days, whereas we had to walk several miles barefoot in 10 feet of snow to buy the slab of vinyl for which we had scrimped and saved. But just because youth might be wasted on the young doesn’t mean that the kids aren’t alright. To my ears, the kids have taken the world of music they have at their disposal and cherrypicked the choicest influences, which is a momentous task in and of itself. Besides, that’s exactly why the musical pantheon has always been in a constant churn, as new ears hear what came before them and reinterpret it anew. While this year’s list of the best records of 2023 may have some familiar names, there are also plenty of new ones, indicative of a year loaded with exciting discoveries. Hope you find something unfamiliar to love.
Brigette Calls Me Baby
This House Is Made of Corners ep
I’m not a big fan of the seemingly short attention span–oriented EP format that has become more prevalent in the streaming era, but when a band emerges with something as fully formed and holistically captivating as Brigette Calls Me Baby’s recorded debut, it’s hard not to be enthralled. The band collectively wears both its heart and influences on its sleeve, the combination of hepped-up guitar riffs and singer Wes Leavins’ dreamy croon recalling legends like Roy Orbison and the King himself. But when Leavins emphatically sings lines like, “There is a place where I want to be… There is a place where I will be happy. Oh, there must be,” on “The Future Is Our Way Out,” it’s impossible not to hear echoes of Morrissey’s saturnine warble and The Smiths’ own infatuations with those ‘50s luminaries. The record’s only shortcoming is, of course, its brevity, but then that allows for the pleasure of anticipating what’s next.
You’d be forgiven if you confused the name of this London band for the name of a wine bar chain concept. But once you get that sorted, you’d do well to hear both of the two albums, Bar Italia released this past year. Of the two, Tracey Denim and The Twits, the latter is the stronger by a small margin. Their shape-shifting sound is hard to nail down, with acts as disparate as Polvo, Helium, and Unwound being just a few of the points of reference one could throw out. The band crafts woolly compositions that are at their heart pop songs, but with plenty of frayed edges, discordant notes, and sharp angels, those pop qualities are often obfuscated. Of course, that’s part of the band’s appeal—never being completely straightforward and seemingly singing out of the sides of their mouths. In lesser hands, The Twits might live up to its name, but the album is so artfully executed that it’s impossible not to be charmed.
In recent years, it seems no year-end list would be complete without at least one record from the Land Down Under. This year, the choice was obvious: Taken By Force, the sophomore full-length by Melbourne’s CIVIC. Like its predecessor, 2021’s Future Forecast, the band’s latest combines a bevy of influences at breakneck speed, but “punk” would simply be too simple of a nomenclature to convey the frenzy of ideas at work. The record is dotted with points of reference ranging from the Stooges to the Dead Boys as well as fellow countrymen The Saints and Radio Birdman, whose Rob Younger produced the record, but only as jumping-off points. CIVIC has taken the baton and run with it, spitting out frayed hooks and sharp riffs fused with pop smarts and lyrics that take on subjects ranging from the decline of Western imperialism (the title track) to being dicked around (“Time Girl”) with equal deftness. As such, Taken By Force is equally visceral and cerebral, with songs that get stuck in both your heart and head.
Over the course of 20 years, John Dwyer and a fluctuating cast of collaborators have released a myriad of records (as many as three in one year) while frequently tweaking their moniker. (They’ve been OCS, The Oh Sees, Thee Oh Sees, Oh Sees, and now Osees, among others.) Similarly, the band’s musical leanings have always been in flux as well, leveraging lo-fi garage, pysch, metal, and everything in between at varying times. For Intercepted Message, the band’s 28th and only album of 2023, they’ve ventured further afield into a whirlpool of proto-synth sounds. The change has seemingly energized the band, with the tracks on Intercepted exhibiting a frenetic electricity that’s been missing for a while. This is exemplified by the title track’s spastic mix of gyrating synth tones meshed with motorific beats and blasts of guitar and horns. Meanwhile “Unusual & Cruel” sounds like what might have been had Eno collaborated with Neu, and “Chaos Heart,” like the Ramones if they had added a fifth member on Moog. Dwyer has obviously never been short on ideas, but on Intercepted Message, his cup runneth over.
Formed in 2018 by Owen Williams and George Nichols, formerly of the short-lived but great Joanna Gruesome, The Tubs released their debut full-length this past year. A decided departure from JG’s blasts of sugar-coated post-punk, the London-based foursome has created a record that sounds more like what Hüsker Dü might have eventually become if they hadn’t broken up or if they had emanated from New Zealand; Dead Meat is ensconced in strumming guitars played with a certain ferocity. Meanwhile, it’s hard not to notice the more than passing resemblance of Williams’ voice to that of Richard Thompson. The culmination of those elements and the band’s knack for melodic hooks make for a decidedly fresh take on nevertheless familiar sounds. Solid all the way through, the album is capped by “Wretched Lie,” a stunner that melds a lilting guitar figure with those strums and a refrain of “You are always on my mind,” that melts your heart sung with Williams’ fetching inflection. Simply impossible not to love.
Praise a Lord Who Chews But Which Does Not Consume; (Or Simply, Hot Between Worlds)
From the opening yelp of “God Is a Circle,” it’s obvious that Praise a Lord is no ordinary record. Over the course of 12 tracks, Yves Tumor creates a thick sonic stew that liberally incorporates a wealth of textures and styles. The aforementioned opening track is underpinned with a danceable drum machine beat but is layered with a sludgy synthetic bassline, distorted guitar whines, and what sounds like someone on a respirator. Similarly, “Lovely Sewer” melds a pulsating bass throb with guitar chimes and keys into a new wave ballad of sorts, with refrains sung by what could be a distant cousin of Kate Bush. Meanwhile, “Echolalia,’ a highlight, features a dimly lit bass groove matched to a cracking beat and Tumor’s poignant meditation on loving someone freely. With Alan Moulder lending his hand to the record, Praise Your Lord’s dense layers are not unlike the shoegaze records for which he’s legendary, only grittier and funkier, kind of like… dare we mention the Purple One? With Praise a Lord, Tumor has created a wormhole of a record, uniting sonic universes we once thought separate into something spectacular.
This year, The Knife’s Karin Drejer returned to her Fever Ray solo project after a six-year hiatus. Their third album under the moniker, Radical Romantics continues to mine the vein they first tapped with their self-titled debut, exploring an icy landscape of dimly lit electronics while contemplating the treacherous terrain of love and the interpersonal. On standout “Shiver,” Drejer sings, “I just wanna be touched. I just wanna shiver. Can I trust you?” between the throbs of an electronic heartbeat and synthetic whines, as if it’s safe to expose her vulnerability amongst the album’s protectively thorny barbs. Two tracks later, on “Kandy,” she seemingly answers her own question, “I’ve been alone forever… I trust you,” revealing the slippery, duplicitous nature of this album and her own heart. Like Drejer’s past work, Radical Romantics occupies a unique sonic space, one devoid of time or place, where it’s a pleasure to get lost.
With the follow-up to 2018’s superb Cocoa Sugar, Edinburgh’s Young Fathers have continued to expand upon their musical multiverse, incorporating new strains into their frenetic soundscape. But where its predecessor seemed focused on boiling those reference points down to their essentials, on Heavy Heavy, they are simply meshed together, the contrast between competing elements being part of what makes the album so striking. As such, a song like “I Saw” builds from a simple bass pulse to a glorious cacophony of polyrhythms and tribal chants. Similarly, “Geronimo” would otherwise be a trip-hoppy meditation on what it means to be a man were it not for the gospel-like vocals that kick in two-thirds of the way through, taking the song to another plane. With Heavy Heavy, Young Fathers prove that their reach has no limits.
With its sophomore album, A Way Forward (an Agit fav of 2021), Brooklyn trio Nation of Language proved that it had fully absorbed its influences (early OMD, New Order, Book of Love) to create something powerfully evocative, yet wholly modern. Its third record, Strange Disciple, continues that trend, the band creating an equally captivating batch of crystalline pop songs. The record begins slowly with “Weak in Your Light,” which manages to pull at your heartstrings with just a few simple synth lines and refrains like, “I can feel myself come undone… just a reminder I’m in love.” But subsequent “Sole Obsession” is perhaps more emblematic of the band’s sound, with an electronic pulse layered with criss-crossing synths and Ian Devaney’s vocals soaring overtop. So too is “Spare Me the Decision,” which like the best electro-pop is danceable despite lines like, “But I care far, far too much now. And there is so much to say,” being steeped in melancholy for what could have been. Nation of Language has made an enchanting album that makes one nostalgic for the future.
After 2017’s mesmerizing self-titled return, it was hard to know where Slowdive would go. They’ve answered that question with Everything Is Alive, an album that ventures further into the ethereal swirl they created with its predecessor. With just nine tracks, Everything proves to be that record’s equal, a revelation of majestic atmospherics, sparkling guitar chimes, and lyrical hooks poignant in their simplicity. The record seemingly forms out of the aether, opener “Shanty” building subtly until it finally washes over you in a wave of guitars then recedes just as quietly. While much of the record works the same way, lead single “Kisses” is more dazzling for its uptempo rhythm and ringing guitar notes accenting the song’s wistful melody and Neil Halstead’s near-whispered vocals as he posits, “Tell me, ‘You’re the best thing.’ I tell you, ‘That’s what you need.’” This is an album that feels like a dream after it’s over, but luckily one that you can replay again and again.