Two things prevented me from really exploring new releases of 2023: working on my own music and discovering the work of Brian Fennell, id est SYML.
My iPod Touch has a playlist of unreleased Observant Records tracks that at one point lasted 2 hours. I have an EP, a reissue and a number of singles ready to unleash over the next two years. So I’ve been working in my own monkey house for a while, which means I’m probably losing perspective on how good this work may be.
Back in 2019, SYML released his debut album and showed up on a number of my social media feeds. My reaction: Oh, he’s cute. When he showed up again in 2023, I decided to listen to The Day My Father Died. I’ve since gone back and listened to his back catalog and also the albums he recorded with the band Barcelona.
So it’s just been me and Brian Fennell for most of 2023.
SYML, The Day My Father Died
When I first put The Day My Father Died on the half-year list, I hadn’t yet explored SYML’s self-titled debut. Now that I have, I actually like that album a bit more, but it didn’t stop The Day My Father Died from consistently getting multiple plays on my media players. Fennell has a great voice, and he’s a great songwriter. But his songs are so well-suited for his voice, it’s hard to imagine someone else covering his work. Still, it makes for some engrossing listening.
My first play of the album was underwhelming, but I gave it another few spins, and before I knew it, the album had seeped into my consciousness. Nothing on this album stands out as a chart-topper, but in its entirety, Raven has a seductive quietude.
Eluvium, (whirring Marvels in) Consensus Reality
Eluvium albums tend to be more meditative, but this one goes for epic gestures. And it’s a welcome change.
Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit, Weathervanes
Jason Isbell is similar to Emmylou Harris in how they both don’t really make bad albums. But Weathervanes made me rethink just how much I liked the albums preceding it. Both The Nashville Sound and Reunions had reached the year-end favorite list, but Weathervanes has an emotional core about as raw and vulnerable as Southeastern, his breakthrough album that turned 10 in 2023. It’s probably his best album since Southeastern.
Everything But the Girl, Fuse
Do I like this album more than Walking Wounded, Amplified Heart or Temperamental? No. But Ben and Tracey reuniting is just the balm we need for the start of the 2020s.
Kesha, Gag Order
I love it when pop stars have genuine axes to grind, and Kesha comes out swinging.
Soundtrack, BLEACH: THE BLOOD WARFARE I
BLEACH: Thousand Year Blood War is the only scripted television show I watch, and I have been enjoying the conclusion of the BLEACH storyline immensely. A lot of the music on the soundtrack is familiar to anyone who’s watched the show for any length of time, but the stakes raised in the story means the score has to rise to the occasion. So real orchestra players come in where synthesizers held court, and Sagisu Shiro’s score gets more intense as a result.
Danish String Quartet, Prism V
Over the course of five albums, Danish String Quartet explored the connections between Beethoven and Bach on composers that came centuries in their wake. In this final edition, the quartet pairs Beethoven’s Op. 135 quartet with a quartet by Anton Webern written before Arnold Schoenberg’s influence would take a strong hold. As such, the Webern link to Beethoven and Bach is clearer than the ones the Danish drew with Bela Bartok, Dmitri Shostakovich or Alfred Schnittke.
Vagaon, Sorry I Haven’t Called
If you liked Vagabon’s self-titled album , this album doesn’t disappoint. Lætitia Tamko occupies that nebulous space between pop and indie rock navigated by the likes of Solange, Jamila Woods and Sampha (the latter who also released albums in 2023.)
The Drums, Jonny
The singles preceding this album’s release were some of Jonathan Pierce’s catchiest, and the rest of the album is no slouch. Plus, the album cover is quite … honest. I like it.
Olivia Rodrigo, GUTS: I’m not the target audience for Rodrigo’s lyrics, but man she sure gives us olds that big rock sound.
NUMBER GIRL, Mujo no Hi: Yes, “Toumei Shoujou” shows up four times on this live set, and yes, each iteration sounds as vital as the one before it.
Troye Sivan, Something to Give Each Other: I like the cover of this album too.
Jamila Woods, Water Made Us: Did you like Legacy! Legacy!? This one is good too.
Queens of the Stone Age, In Times New Roman …: Recommended if you like … Like Clockwork.
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.
It’s been five years since I discovered the media section of Lifelong Thrift Shop, and I’m at a point where I’m making fewer discoveries. These days, I pick things up because they pique my curiosity, and I anticipate I’ll be re-donating a lot of the albums I bought in the past year.
Still, the vast majority of my listening these days is catalog, as the Favorite Edition Year Final will make clear. In the past, I might have scoffed at someone as new and popular as Olivia Rodrigo. Now? I shrug and follow the mantra, “Let people like things.”
There’s a lot of music out on which I missed when I sought the dopamine hit of finding a new favorite band.
Riz Ahmed, The Long Goodbye:Rogue One is probably my favorite movie in the Star Wars extended universe, and Riz Ahmed is big part of why. I’m usually skeptical of Hollywood actors making music, but The Long Goodbye is amazing. It’s a breakup record, but with an entire country. The interludes don’t even feel that arch.
Linda Ronstadt, Mad Love: “Hurt So Bad” drew my attention this album, which I then discovered had some solid post-punk credentials on it. I still don’t think calling it her “new wave” album is entirely accurate, though.
The Fixx, Reach the Beach: I bought this album on the strength of “One Thing Leads to Another” alone, but I was surprised to find “Save By Zero” on there.
Kelela, Take Me Apart: I love that today’s R&B artists draw on influence outside the genre. This album feels more like Utada Hikaru.
Laurie Anderson, Big Science: I have two other Laurie Anderson albums that did not answer the question why she’s so lauded. Then this album popped up at the thrift store, and it became clear.
Alexander O’Neal, Hearsay: This album did well at the time, and it’s definitely a fine production by Jam and Lewis.
Test Pattern, This Is My Street: Man, I want an entire physical release of this Documentary Now! parody of Stop Making Sense.
Brothers Johnson, Light Up the Night: Sure, this album was made in the last throes of disco, but there is some mighty fine playing here. And “Stomp!” is timeless.
Electric Light Orchestra, Time: I’m definitely not the target market for the orchestral classic rock of ELO, but this album was essentially the band’s detour into new wave. And I’m all for that.
A Taste of Honey, Twice as Sweet: Yes, this album concludes with “Sukiyaki”, but the 9 tracks preceding it are no slouch.
Big Pig, Bonk
Arditti Quartet, Arditti
Control Machete, Artillería Pesada, Presenta …
Prefab Sprout, Two Wheels Good (a.k.a Steve McQueen)
On May 10, 2021, I received the second dose of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine. I had an appointment to get the Johnson and Johnson vaccine, but on the day I was to drive 20 miles to get it, distribution of the vaccine was paused.
After weeks of wondering when I’d be eligible to get a vaccine, followed by another few weeks of battling for an appointment, I had little mental energy left to do anything but work and practice for my music lessons.
Record Store Day Drops happened, and I was actually dreading it. A large music shop in my neighborhood closed permanently, and I haven’t eulogized it yet.
After a year and change of a pandemic that is nowhere near close to ending, I haven’t put much energy into listening to music of the current year. I visit the thrift shops every week to discover the past, but the present has no allure for me.
TL;DR: I don’t have much to offer for this half-year list.
The one release to which I’ve listened with any consistency contains remixes of a song released more than a decade ago. I’ve been distracting myself with so much YouTube and violin practice that I have a backlog of unopened vinyl, including titles I bought on Record Store Day.
I hope the second half of the year is kinder than the last year and a half.
Here are my favorites of 2021, what few I could find.
Utada Hikaru, One Last Kiss EP: I haven’t cottoned to an Utada song this hard since “Be My Last”, and all the incarnations of “Beautiful World” on this EP makes a strong argument that it too is one of her strongest songs.
Anton Reicha, Reicha Rediscovered (Ivan Ilić): Reicha is pretty obsessive about interrogating the theme of L’Art de varier (The Art of Variation) to the point it’s almost maddening. But maybe that’s the point.
Yo Majesty, Return of the Matriarch: Earlier this year, I had a hankering to hear “Club Action” by Yo Majesty, though I had sold my copy of Futuristically Speaking … Never Be Afraid when cash got tight. So it was a bit of serendipity to learn the duo reunited to release Return of the Matriarch.
Princess Goes to the Butterfly Museum, Thanks for Coming: I actually don’t think this album is as good as it could have been. The trio’s self-titled debut EP is actually stronger, but it has enough attitude that I can’t completely dismiss it.
The older I get, the more I find music from the past I hadn’t yet discovered more interesting than the new.
Riz Ahmed, The Long Goodbye: Wow, a breakup record with an entire country. Amazing.
Laurie Anderson, Big Science: Oh, so that’s why Laurie Anderson is a BFD.
Kelela, Take Me Apart: I find indie R&B way more interesting than indie rock these days.
The Fixx, Reach the Beach: File under: an album I would have owned a long time ago if only I learned who sang those songs at the time I first heard them.
Linda Ronstadt, Mad Love: I’ve read the success of Mad Love allowed Ronstadt to record more adventurous albums, which makes me wonder what would have happened if she had done another new wave album.
I liked Rogue One probably a lot more than an average Star Wars fan might, so I was willing to entertain Riz Ahmed’s hip-hop work with the usual skepticism afforded to Hollywood actors dabbling in music. This work is no dilettante effort. Ahmed prosecutes the societal forces in the UK that brought about Brexit in an astonishing performance.
Wayne Horvitz, Live Forever, Vol. 1: The President – New York in the 80s
Wayne Horvitz dives into his archive to surface this must-have collection of live recordings and outtakes.
Kelela, Take Me Apart
I love how modern day R&B artists are willing to blur the lines between pop music and indie rock.
I’ve known about this album since it was first released in 1987, but I was too young at the time to have understood the impact of the Minutemen on independent rock.
sungazer, vol. I sungazer, vol. 2 Adam Neely, time//motion//wine
I never paid much attention to YouTube till I learned about Adam Neely and music theory YouTube. It’s been a year now since I discovered his channel, and YouTube has since eclipsed Science Channel as my television entertainment of choice. Neely’s own music combines electronic beats with rhythmically complex jazz, and while I enjoy watching him explain music theory, I sometimes wish the YouTube algorithm would give him enough slack to create more music.