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Music Notes: Best Albums of 2023 Edition


Time for my Top 10 albums of 2023 list! I listened to 97 new albums this year, which is the same number as last year. Given the sheer number of albums I heard that were from the previous five years that I still needed to hear, I am not complaining. Of those, here are my top 10 and then 10 more I thought quite worthy.

  1. Boygenius, The Album

This is the year of Boygenius, without question. This supergroup of Julien Baker, Lucy Dacus, and Phoebe Bridgers took the world by storm with their second album (the first really being an EP). Being openly queer and not giving a fuck who knows it definitely turned off some older people who didn’t understand what was going on and why all the kids loved them so much. Well, all the better. But other than the open queerness and everything that means, these three also made an absolutely stellar indie rock album–three great voices, three literary songwriters (more than one interview has talked about them meeting over a shared love of Henry James), three underrated musicians, three people who love each other and want to make music together. It’s damn near a perfect album. It’s the best album of the year for many reasons and the cultural impact is one of them–it is unquestionably the most important album of the year. But if it was just three people who hated each other as much as Waters and Gilmour do and they made this album it would still be the best of the year.

2. Jason Isbell, Weathervanes

Isbell had pretty much mined the sobriety and tough childhood stuff as far as he could go. The last album was good, but certainly not great and it sounded like he was trying too hard to go down the same routes as before. So with the new album, he both a) turned up the volume to make a rock and roll record and b) started telling stories about other people again. Both were very good ideas. This is a long album, but with perhaps one or two exceptions, the songs are great. “Cast Iron Skillet” is such a powerful piece about a woman whose family disowns her for marrying a Black man. “King of Oklahoma” is a great song about pain pill addiction and the terrible nature of health care in America. “Strawberry Woman” is a classic old-school folkie song. And then he lets the band rock out a bit on the last two songs. Nope, not happy lyrics, but it’s a happy man making the music with a great band around him, especially with the inclusion of former Centro-Matic leader Will Johnson doing everything on it.

3. Zoh Amba/Chris Corsano/Bill Orcutt, The Flower School

Is this noise jazz? Is it noise rock? Does it matter? Who cares. This is three incredible musicians just engaging in a festival of joyful noise that I love to death. I didn’t think the Orcutt/Corsano duo albums could be improved on. I was wrong. Amba is a perfect addition for these guys. Totally rules.

4. Jaimie Branch, Fly or Die Fly or Die Fly or Die (world war)

Fuck heroin. That’s the first thing I want to say. The last album by this young genius trumpeter shows how her art continued to grow and expand and enter into new places. First time I’ve ever seen a Meat Puppets song covered by a free jazz group! The fact that there won’t be more of her work is just sadness to the nth degree. But enjoy what we have. Luckily, she graced our planet for a little while anyway.

5. Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society, Dynamic Maximum Tension

This was a great year for jazz and each of these last three album has a good claim for my favorite of the year. In this case, Argue’s long-awaited album shows his mastery of both the big band form and the many figures who helped create the modern world. One of the things Argue does so effectively, and this is not easy to pull off, is to use jazz in a way that actually represents a figure or issue in ways that are not particularly abstract, but work perfectly without words. I am still working on comprehending everything going on here, but I am so happy it is here for me.

6. The Tubs, Dead Meat

Imagine if Richard Thompson had gone through a post-punk phase. That is The Tubs. And it rules. These people first met in an anger management class and created a punk band named Joanna Gruesome. It was great. They only made one album and then things break up, as they do. But they basically reformed, with another member of the band singing who, well, sounds like Richard Thompson listened to a lot of post-punk. Mostly, I really want to hear them take on “Sloth” because I bet it would kick ass.

7. Art Ensemble of Chicago, The Sixth Decade: From Paris to Paris

Six decades of one of the greatest jazz bands to ever exist and maybe they made one of the best albums. Amazing. This is a lot of music and it compels from stem to stern. I am just amazed that the vision of the great Chicago jazz people of the late 60s and early 70s continues to expand into the present. Great music. Of course nothing exists from this on YouTube, so here’s a 1983 performance for your ears.

8. Sleaford Mods, UK Grim

UK Grim is a highly appropriate album title for two very angry middle-aged British men, furious at what their country has become and with the voice to handle it. This is sheer ranting above electronic music, a great merger of two major trends in music over the last forty years. Great live show too, but don’t get too close to the stage or you will get sprayed with spittle.

9. Peter One, Come Back to Me

A beautiful return for someone who once was a big star in Cote d’Ivoire, moved to the U.S., and mostly stopped playing as he had to support himself. But he got hooked up with the alternative scene in Nashville around people such as Jason Isbell, Margo Price, and Yola and he came back with a just beautiful album in multiple languages that is a fantastic listen.

10. Lydia Loveless, Nothing’s Gonna Stand in My Way Again

Perhaps the best album of Loveless’ career, which says a lot because she has two other albums I love very much. But “Sex and Money” is the song of the year for me and the whole album is just killer alt-rock/alt-country/whatever. I saw her a few times live this year too, opening for Drive-By Truckers, and she absolutely kills it live. Great fun.

10 other really, really, really good albums, in a very vague order:

  1. U.S. Girls, Bless This Mess
  2. Algiers, Shook
  3. Illegal Crowns, Unclosing
  4. Wednesday, Rat Saw God
  5. Lorelle Meets the Obsolete, Datura
  6. Indigo de Souza, All of This Will End
  7. Noname, Sundial
  8. Speedy Ortiz, Rabbit Rabbit
  9. Yo La Tengo, This Stupid World
  10. Kate Davis, Fish Bowl

A few other notes:

Willie Nelson’s style, getting more attention now that he is still trucking along at the age of 90.

In addition to the late-year loss of Tommy Smothers, we also lost Detroit Black electronica legend Amp Fiddle and bossa nova master Carlos Lyra.

Morgan Wade went through a double mastectomy to prevent the likelihood of her family’s cancer history killing her. Wade is now a huge country star, selling out pretty big venues. But she most certainly didn’t have the money for this kind of thing, which meant that her buddy from one of the Real Housewives shows worked it out for her. There ain’t a lot of money in music, that’s for sure. Anyway, wish her the best of luck in her recovery.

Barack Obama has released his annual of list of his favorite songs, which seem as curated to be as hip as possible as they always are.

New Shakira statue in Barranquilla. Guess I will have to go back to that city!

This week’s playlist, which included too much time time sitting at the computer a) avoiding grading and b) grading furiously because I previously avoided it:

  1. Sleater-Kinney, One Beat
  2. Jason Isbell, Something More than Free
  3. Rashied Ali, New Directions in Modern Music
  4. ¡Conjunto! Tex-Mex Border Music, Vol. 6
  5. The Freight Hoppers, Where’d You Come From, Where’d You Go
  6. Warren Zevon, Bad Luck Streak in Dancing School
  7. Drive By Truckers, Pizza Deliverance
  8. Buddy Miller, Universal United House of Prayer
  9. Doc Watson, On Stage
  10. Lucinda Williams, Car Wheels on a Gravel Road
  11. Elodie Lauten, Orchestre Modern
  12. Drive By Truckers, Decoration Day
  13. Townes Van Zandt, The Late Great Townes Van Zandt
  14. Willie Nelson, And Then I Wrote
  15. Gang of Four, Entertainment
  16. Morgan Wade, Reckless
  17. Duke Ellington, Black, Brown, and Beige, disc 3
  18. Ornette Coleman, The Shape of Jazz to Come
  19. Roscoe Mitchell, Nine to Get Ready
  20. Tropical Fuck Storm, Deep States
  21. Waxahatchee, Out in the Storm
  22. The Paranoid Style, Rolling Disclosure
  23. Wussy, Rigor Mortis
  24. Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs, Live at Vanderbilt University, 1963
  25. Speedy Ortiz, Rabbit Rabbit
  26. Joey Purp, iiiDrops
  27. Merle Haggard, I’m a Lonesome Fugitive
  28. Buddy Tabor, Meadowlark
  29. Duke Ellington, The Far East Suite
  30. Tune-Yards, Bird Brains
  31. Junior Brown, 12 Shades of Brown
  32. Frank Ocean, Channel Orange
  33. Jordan Rakei, Origin
  34. The Rough Guide to the Best African Music You’ve Never Heard
  35. Blood Orange, Sutphin Boulevard
  36. Gillian Welch, Time (The Revelator)
  37. Mahavishnu Orchestra, The Inner Mounting Flame
  38. The Grateful Dead, One from the Vault, disc 1
  39. Lucinda Williams, self-titled
  40. The Decemberists, The Crane Wife
  41. Billy Joe Shaver, Tramp on Your Street
  42. Jaimie Branch, Fly or Die Fly or Die Fly or Die ((world war))
  43. Buck Owens, I’ve Got a Tiger By the Tail
  44. Joe Ely, Live Shots
  45. Merle Haggard, I’m Always on a Mountain When I Fall
  46. Richard Buckner, Our Blood
  47. Palace Music, Viva Last Blues
  48. Dua Saleh, Nür
  49. Tacocat, NVM
  50. Boubacar Traore, Kogno Magni
  51. Don Edwards, Songs of the Trail

Here’s to a great 2024 in music!!!!!

As always, this is an open thread for all things music and art and none things politics.

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