For reasons explained in the year-end overview for new releases, Brian Fennell dominated my media players in 2023. In addition to his work as SYML, he fronted the indie band Barcelona from the late 2000s to the mid-2010s. In the interest of diversity, I limited how much of his catalog appears on this list. Otherwise, it would have been SYML and Barcelona all the way down.
Spiderland looms large in indie rock circles, which makes it easy to overlook the charms of its predecessor, Tweez. This album just hints at the post rock gestures Slint would pioneer, but its blistering, lo-fi sound deserves its own spot in the underground rock pantheon.
Barcelona, Absolutes SYML, SYML
Fennell’s most recent work is much more introspective, but with Barcelona, he started out very much a rocker. Over time, electronics crept into the band’s sound, practically taking over the band’s third album, Basic Man. The self-titled SYML album sits at a midpoint where Fennell still wrote some rockers, but the quieter music started to make itself known. As beautiful as Fennell’s voice is on that quieter music, these louder albums demonstrate his versatility. He’s no slouch in front of lots of guitars.
Thomas Frank featuring Airport Mode, “Burn the Sails”
Thomas Frank is known primarily for his YouTube channels, but he also has musical ambitions. “Burn the Sails” is his first single as a singer, having released instrumental guitar pieces up till now. He admits to using pitch correction software, but the underlying vocals are indeed quite good.
Sudan Archives, Natural Brown Prom Queen
I didn’t get around to listening to this album till the start of 2023. Otherwise, it would have ended up on the 2022 list.
Nena, ? (Fragezeihen)
The bilingual international album 99 Luftbalons takes most of its material from this second German-language album. So if you liked the English side of 99 Luftballons, then this album is a must-have.
Queens of the Stone Age, … Like Clockwork
Songs for the Deaf casts a pretty long shadow over the Queens’ discography such that I was hesitant to believe all the good reviews … Like Clockwork garnered at the time of its release. So yeah, this one is definitely a keeper.
King Geedorah, Take Me to Your Leader
Do I listen to MF Doom for the rhymes and the beats or for the cartoon mythology? Why not both?
Luscious Jackson, Electric Honey
I let this album go when cash got tight in the early 2000s, and it shows up with enough regularity at the thrift shop that I brought it back into the collection. It should have never left.
Daryll Hall and John Oates, Private Eyes
I would have liked Daryll Hall and John Oates more if their music hadn’t been so thoroughly saturated at the time of release. Now removed from that onslaught, I have to say Private Eyes is pretty darn catchy.
Robert Palmer, The Island Records Years: I haven’t compared this boxed set with previous reissues to determine if these albums have been remastered, but Palmer’s early albums are some of the most underrated. He starts off with the Meters as his backing band and eventually becomes the dapper singer fronting a band of models.
Jason Isbell, Southeastern: 10th Anniversary: Isbell’s breakout album gets supplemented with demos and a full live performance.
The Replacements, Tim: Let It Bleed Edition: This four-disc edition of the Mats’ major label debut album includes a new mix by Ed Stasium, the producer behind Living Colour’s Vivid. And it sounds pretty good.
Half way through the year, and I have to admit the favorite list isn’t looking too solid for the last six slots. I definitely like albums by SYML, Kelala, Eluvium and Jason Isbell. I like the first album by Everything But the Girl in 24 years, but it’s not my favorite of theirs. The remaining slots are up for grabs, although Kesha’s album has enough rawness to hold onto its spot.
Here’s how 2023 is shaping up so far:
SYML, The Day My Father Died: Brian Fennell has a gorgeous voice, and this album feels singular to that voice.
Kelela, Raven: This album needs a few listens before it burrows deep.
Eluvium, (whirring Marvels in) Consensus Reality: Probably the most epic album in the Eluvium discography.
Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit, Weathervanes: This could be Isbell’s best album since Southeastern. It’s raw.
Everything But the Girl, Fuse: Welcome back, Ben and Tracey.
Kesha, Gag Order: Drag them, girl.
Sufjan Stevens / Timo Andres / Conor Hanick, Reflections: I saw a number of reviews complaining about the fact this album is essentially modern classical music. Which, of course, is a selling point for me.
Danish String Quartet, Prism V: I wish the Danish had chosen a more modern Webern work in the way they had with Schnittke and Shostakovich, but it’s an impeccable pairing with Beethoven and Bach nonetheless.
Queens of the Stone Age, In Times New Roman…: This album actually reminds me a lot of … Like Clockwork, with which I also recently caught up.
Thomas Frank, “Burn the Sails”: Thomas Frank is a productivity YouTuber, but this first foray into singing is really impressive.
Sudan Archives, Natural Brown Prom Queen: I overlooked this album in 2022.
Queens of the Stone Age, … Like Clockwork: I remember this album getting good reviews around the time it came out.
Luscious Jackson, Electric Honey: I reviewed this album back in 1999 but let it go for cash. I’m glad it’s back in the collection
Nena, ? (Fragezeichen): A number of tracks on this album served as a foundation for the multilingual album 99 Luftballons.
System of a Down, Toxicity: This band is pretty operatic, no?
Daryl Hall and John Oates, Private Eyes: There are way too many hits on this album for it not to be enjoyable.
Rosanne Cash, King’s Record Shop: This album holds up pretty well.
I’m at an age where I’m not as willing to get past a first listen if I don’t feel an immediate connection, and I nearly gave into that instinct with Raven. But I gave it another listen, and something took hold. Every subsequent listen hooked me further. Now I’m predicting Raven will end up in the year-end favorite list because it just seeped so deep into my subconscious.
Robert Palmer, The Island Records Years
Robert Palmer’s first albums are seriously underrated. He starts of singing blue-eyed soul, but then pivots multiple times throughout his career — first to new wave, then to the hard rock of The Power Station. This boxed set of his Island Records albums stops just past his breakout hit, “Addicted to Love.” And if your perception of Palmer is a dapper guy singing in front of models, then you need this set to get the fuller picture. Palmer always had a great voice, but his curiosity was his greater asset.
Daryl Hall and John Oates, Private Eyes
Hall and Oates had all those great singles that radio pummeled to death. I would like them at first, but after a while, I would want to hear nothing more from the duo ever again. Enough time has passed for me to re-evaluate that legacy, and I have to admit — this album is all kinds of catchy.
Queens of the Stone Age, Like Clockwork …
I like Queens of the Stone Age, mostly because I think Josh Homme is a handsome man. But I do like those early albums up to Songs for the Deaf. But as a casual fan, I can’t say I followed the band much after 2003, so when Like Clockwork … came out in 2013, I wasn’t entirely sold on the favorable critical consensus. Boy, did I miss out.
Sudan Archives, Natural Brown Prom Queen
This album should have ended up in the 2022 Favorite Edition list as an honorable mention. Natural Brown Prom Queen scratches that reptile part of my brain that digs pop music that takes its shot.
Luscious Jackson, Electric Honey
I’ve only ever owned one Luscious Jackson album, and it’s Electric Honey. I spun this album so much that I actually went to see the band on tour, unfamiliar with the two albums that preceded it. Then I had to sell it for cash when I got caught up in the economic downturn of 2000. But I picked it up again at the thrift shop and marveled at how I could have ever let it go.