It is that time of year, and whilst it has been a good 12 months of music, if not a vintage crop, for some reason 2023’s ‘Top Ten’ has been a bit of a challenge to decide upon. I have had to really ‘listen’ to the music to ‘hear’ it all properly, unlike some years where individual albums instantly hit home. Perhaps, however, that is a good thing!
So, here we go with another eclectic mix of rock and jazz albums. Let’s start with #10.
10. Sparks. the girl is crying in her latte
Over decades, Sparks rarely disappoint with their intelligent, witty and adventurous approach to lyrics and tunes. And this album is a standout, ranking amongst some of their best ever work. Always relevant, yet never just taking on the latest in musical trends for the sake of it, the brothers make serious politics and social commentary fun. They never fail to entertain, knowing that is their job. Even as you are tapping your feet to the beat, their lyrics always deserve close attention. The title track pretty much sums up the angst (or is it zeitgeist?) of the 2020’s. Whatever happened to coffee being simply offered as either black or with milk? Ron and Russell make a wide range of tasty brews, lampooning middle class aspirations in a way that only they can.
From the Guardian: ‘Throughout, arresting lyrics and equally arresting melodies jostle for the listener’s attention. The staccato menace of ‘We Go Dancing’ imagines Kim Jong-un as a DJ to rival Skrillex or Diplo; Not That Well-Defined is deliciously dismissive: ‘I’d say that you’re not that well-defined/ A photograph after too much wine’. The new wave-influenced ‘Nothing Is As Good As They Say It Is’ is infectiously upbeat; The ‘Mona Lisa’s Packing, Leaving Late Tonight’ has an irresistible swing; the slower ‘Gee, That Was Fun’ closes things in thoughtfully melancholic fashion, Russell itemising all the regrets that come with the end of a relationship atop Ron’s stately piano backing. There’s not a weak song here’.
9. Mammal Hands. Gift from the Trees.
This is my most played new British jazz album of 2023. Whilst it doesn’t have the feel-good factor of last year’s Ezra Collective’s ‘Where I’m Meant To Be’, it is beautiful musicianship, and the album really motors along. Loads of things to hear on repeated listening, and especially with a decent single malt in hand. Mammal Hands are my current favourite jazz band, and I look forward to whatever they do next with great anticipation.
From All About Jazz: Unusual piano structures, impressive percussion and lyrical saxophone have combined to produce an album of trio interplay that repays repeated listens. These are songs with a distinct identity with plenty of hooks, but there is also a lot of intricate details that are slowly revealed the more you listen. Mammal Hands are defying the standard jazz protocols and have something captivating to offer.
8. Caroline Polachek. Desire, I Want to Turn Into You.
There have been a bunch of interesting ‘pop’ albums this year – Jessie Ware comes to mind. But Caroline’s second album hits all the right notes, literally. Intelligent writing, great voice, ever-changing songs without any obvious references from other singers. Anthems, electronica, R&B and drum ‘n bass work together to create a totally enjoyable album. Siting in the studio or accompanying a serious road trip, this is fun.
From Under the Radar: From the first opening salvo of ‘Welcome to My Island’, it is evident that Polachek is aiming for the heights of pop maximalism. She opens the record with stratospheric vocal gymnastics, epic arena-ready synths, and punchy background vocals, all before launching into a song replete with intensely layered detail, darting breakbeat rhythms, and even a rapped bridge.
7. Yaeji. With a Hammer.
DJ Yaeji’s debut album confronts Asian American stereotypes, whilst also maintaining, celebrating her cultural roots. The album, blending Korean and English lyrics which float in Yaeji’s rather whimsical voice, offers a unique, diverse sonic palette. The opening track ‘Submerge FM‘ starts like you are about to hear a jazz album, and then it wanders into an Eno-esque soundscape before it steadies into a regular R&B style beat. I love the way that the album’s tracks wander around rhythmically, featuring all kinds of beats and noises, whilst also using traditional instruments such as flutes and saxophones. And whilst it is possible to hear this album as electronica chilled, it really isn’t. There is anger so close to the surface in many songs. ‘With a Hammer‘ showcases some serious musical talent, and Yaeji is an artist to watch.
From Bandcamp: ‘With A Hammer’ … is a diaristic ode to self-exploration; the feeling of confronting one’s own emotions, and the transformation that is possible when we’re brave enough to do so. In this case, Yaeji examines her relationship to anger. It is a departure from her previous work, blending elements of trip-hop and rock with her familiar house-influenced style, and dealing with darker, more self-reflective lyrical themes, both in English and Korean.
From Pitchfork: Yaeji has said that With a Hammer, her full-length debut, was created in a maelstrom: suppressed childhood memories, rolling waves of alienation, anger at increased violence against Asian Americans, revelations during the Black Lives Matter uprisings of 2020, that euphoric pique when you finally realize you’re really not as small as the world would have you believe.
6. Anohni & The Johnsons. My Back Was A Bridge for You To Cross.
This is a deceptively simple yet powerful album where Anonhi’s unique voice is actually the main instrument. And you have to really listen, as it seems that every lyric has a serious meaning to decipher. As I write this, I realise that ‘seriousness’ applies to many of the albums in this year’s choices, and I am not going to excuse that. There is much in the world to be concerned about, and whilst that is true in every generation, there seems no one, single dominant musical art form in today’s protest music. I think it is fair to say that this album is a ‘grower’. I admit that I wasn’t so keen when I first heard it, but then I realised that I wasn’t listening properly. When I did, I found it is full of emotional punches that worm into your brain and demand thought.
From the Guardian: There’s something deeply uncompromising about it: the lyrics are a potent stew of grief, environmental apocalypse and excoriations of transphobia; a brief track called ‘Go Ahead’ features Anohni’s voice at its most stentorian over noisy freeform guitar and what sounds like feedback, but is apparently a recording of a lemur’s song. But its default setting involves simple electric guitar figures, bass and drums, occasionally shaded with sax or piano or delicate orchestrations, carrying the retro-soul flavour of [her producer/ songwriter collaborator, Jimmy] Hogarth’s best-known songs. Anohni has mentioned Marvin Gaye’s ‘What’s Going On’ as an influence, and you can catch something of the atmosphere of that album’s looser tracks – ‘Wholy Holy’, ‘Save the Children’ – on ‘Why ‘Am I Alive Now?’ and ‘There Wasn’t Enough’.
5. Yves Tumor. Praise a Lord Who Chews but Which Does Not Consume; (Or Simply, Hot Between Worlds).
Let’s start by saying that this album is impossible to put into a genre box, which is one reason I rate it so highly. You’ll love it or hate it, marmite stye. It is psych-rock infused with R&B, noise, trip-hop, funk, glam, shoegaze, post-punk, a tough of grunge and more. One helluva mix, and always entertaining around the album’s themes of psychosexual drama and longing. Tumor has morphed from avant-garde electronic producer to a full blown big band leader, capable of surprising on each track. Play this a few times if you really want to ‘get it’. This is one album where the vinyl really is way better than digital streaming. Oh, and did I mention that if you like Björk you’ll love Purified by the Fire?
From the Guardian: ‘The boy you are today ain’t from a lack of pain’ they lament on Fear Evil Like Fire, over the rush of double-time drums. Whether they’re running away from or towards something is anybody’s guess, but crucially, Tumor remains one step ahead of the rest.
4. Arooj Aftab, Vijay Dyer & Shahzad Ismaily. Love in Exile.
In 2018, pianist and jazz composer Vijay Iyer, multi-instrumentalist Shahzad Ismaily, and singer Arooj Aftab first collaborated in an improvised performance. Now the trio have released their debut album. And it is wonderful – very nearly my album of the year. It is a meditative adventure featuring seven lengthy tracks, skilfully blending Aftab’s prayerful vocals with Vijay’s minimalist piano and electronics and Shahzad’s insistent bass and keyboards. Of note, Arooj’s album Vulture Prince was in my Top 20 of 2011. She won a Grammy Award with the song ‘Mohabbat‘ from that album for Best Global Music Performance. Love in Exile is a unique, soulful offering which sounds a little as if Beth Gibbons (Portishead) sings with Keith Jarrett. It evolves slowly, with moody melancholy that fully immerses the listener, and I hope that this talented trio invent more music very soon.
From Rolling Stone: ‘Love in Exile’ is not jazz, despite featuring pianist Vijay Iyer, a heavy in that world. Nor is it “global music” — whatever that means — even though it showcases Urdu vocalist Arooj Aftab, who won a Grammy in that category last year. Instead, listening to ‘Love in Exile’, which also features Shahzad Ismaily on bass and Moog, is more akin to visiting some sort of beautiful, strange sonic landscape made from strings, keys, and breath.
3. Jamie Branch. Fly or Die Fly or Die Fly or Die (World War).
This album is all invention and excitement. Fusing multiple musical influences, Jamie Branch just pushed and pushed. Howls, punk jazz, psychedelia, and just outright noise. Given Jamie’s tragic death, way too young, it is an extraordinarily joyful album where the artist’s vision and skills blend seamlessly with inspired band mates. Oh, and Jamie also designed the album art work, which instantly gives clues as to what you will hear. Of note, Jaimie played on last year’s excellent by ‘Pink Dolphins‘ by Anteloper, which was Jaimie and drummer Jason Nazary.
From Pitchfork: The late trumpeter’s third and final album opens dazzling new paths in her work. It’s a heartbreaking glimpse of where she might have gone next, but more importantly, it’s a joy to hear.
From the Guardian: Branch had very nearly finished this third outing under her own name with her Fly Or Die quartet: percussionist Chad Taylor, acoustic bassist Jason Ajemian and cellist-flautist-keyboard player Lester St Louis. Two groundbreaking, energetic studio albums precede it: 2017’s Fly Or Die and 2019’s Fly Or Die II – Bird Dogs of Paradise. … Branch was first and foremost a jazz trumpeter, trained at the New England Conservatory and boasting the nickname ‘Breezy’. On this record, she is often in league with trombone, flute and clarinet. But her Bandcamp bio memorably identifies her as ‘a psychedelic warrior for peace, making music into the void’.
2. Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark. Bauhaus Staircase.
This may be OMD’s last album (hope not), though after over 44 years can you blame them? Still, this is a new OMD classic. Songs and beats hold up really well alongside some of their very best work, yet the lyrics speak totally of today. Close your eyes and its music from the 1980s with the politics and social concerns of the 2020s. Perhaps only Sparks pull that off as well as OMD, so no surprise that both are in my top 10. And as someone who loves ‘Dazzle Ships‘ (I have always thought it their best album of all) Bauhaus Staircase manages to balance OMD’s pop majesty with McCluskey’s experimental side. The album directly explores important issues and in some cases the sadly dystopian state of parts of our world today, so it is worth listening properly to the lyrics whilst being gloriously entertained. Anthropocene – population zero – stands out. Yet everything on this beautifully produced album has that unique OMD blend of empathy and melancholy.
Oh, and for the gear nerds, I think that Bauhaus Staircase is the best ‘audiophile’ recording of 2023
From musicwaves.org: The Kraftwerk-influenced experimental side of the early days is present right from the second track, ‘Anthropocene’, just behind the title track, which features an excellent single that in another era would have flooded the radio waves. Still referring to the 80’s, ‘G.E.M.’, ‘Evolution of Species’ and ‘Slow Train’ remind us of the innovative side the duo brought to that era. Other tracks, such as ‘Look at you Now’, ‘Where we Started’ and ‘Don’t Go’, are more reminiscent of the 90’s, when the band turned their attention to more consensual but nonetheless highly enjoyable pop sweets. OMD’s incredible ability to write melodies that hit home immediately is still evident on ‘Kleptocracy’, which is as powerful as it is effective. A major player in electro, before the term came to designate anything and everything, OMD once again graces us with sounds that are still very familiar to the ears of the band’s regulars. But the work is as meticulous as ever, and the production is simply impeccable.
1. Corinne Bailey Rae. Black Rainbows.
This has to be the musical left (and right) turn of the decade. Corinne will likely be forever known as the woman that invited us all to ‘Put Your Records On‘, a sweet song from 2006 inspired by her own need to let her hair down. She explained (to Red Magazine) that ‘There was this idea that if you had curly hair, you were making this big statement. But if you have curly, afro, textured hair, that’s just how it is naturally. You’re not trying to make yourself bigger, this is just the room you take up‘.
Perhaps we should have realised that the already self confident Corinne would move on from rather polite pop-star-ish protest to something else. Well, that is Black Rainbows. It is full on everything – angry, defiant, noisy, yet romantic and inclusive, brimming with mature confidence. The music is also stylish, moody, and elegant. Corinne has a lot to say about the Black experience, and the whole thing is delivered in a stunning production which makes the most of Corinne’s fantastic vocal range. As I mentioned in other reviews, several of my picks this year concern themselves with the world’s issues in different ways, sometimes understated in delivery. Black Rainbows doesn’t just tip-toe around Corinne’s thoughts, it shouts them out loud. A powerful album, that deserves a lot more acclaim than it seems to be getting so far.
From the Guardian: Corinne Bailey Rae’s most popular songs on Spotify are coffee-shop staples such as ‘Put Your Records On’ and ‘Like a Star’. Nothing to wake the neighbours. By contrast, this is a scream through the letterbox. Bailey Rae originally planned ‘Black Rainbows’ as a side project, a freewheeling meditation on the history of Black experience she discovered at the Stony Island Arts Bank archive in Chicago. Now it’s her best work yet. Although just 45 minutes long, its audacious mix of rock, electronica, jazz and Afrofuturism forms an epic soundtrack narrating journeys to freedom.
I’d be remiss if I did not also mention the best reissue of 2023, and my most played vinyl.
The reissue has to be this 🙂
The Beatles. Red & Blue : 1962 – 1970.
The Beatles defined the concept album, redefined how to use recording studios, and turned popular music into an art form with longevity in just 10 years. One of the most amazing things about their output was that their singles were almost invariably released separately from their albums. So, whilst I normally don’t do compilations, the Beatles NEED a compilation to explain their work. And these records do exactly that. Originally released in 1973, the pair of double albums charted at #3. Now fully re-mastered by Giles Martin as part of the Beatles album re-release project, every track sounds fresh. There is more detail, better soundstage and just overall brilliance in the music, especially in the earlier, red album tracks.
And, my most played vinyl of 2023, which will no doubt surprise everyone.
Don Letts. Out of Synch.
Don Letts is probably best known these days as a presenter on BBC Radio 6, sharing a wonderful range of music both old and new with his inimical humour and style. He is always championing new music whilst supporting his beloved reggae and drum ‘n bass. However, Don is also a prolific film maker, DJ, musician and maker of music videos. Oh, and he’s been a band manager, too. The man is a legend, and now he has released his first solo album.
From NME: Speaking of the new single ‘Outta Sync’, Letts told NME: People were telling me that it was a fucking great introduction [to the album]. And I guess with that first verse, I couldn’t really argue. The track opens with the lyrics: ‘Now, because of my duality, raised on pop and bass, didn’t really bother me, ’cause it’s all about the taste / I’m the vinyl generation, and that’s how I got my start, combining clothes and music, and I turned it into art’.
That pretty much sums up why I love this album. Retro cool Don will soon be 68, and I hope that he rocks on forever.
Finally, my Top 30 of 2023. Click on the image below or here for the Apple Music playlist.
I hope that you find a few nice surprises.