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.
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.
OK, I confess: I started listening to Brian Fennell because he showed up in my social media feed, and thought, “Oh, he’s really cute.” So yes, there may be a halo effect to my becoming a stan. But Fennell has had a diverse career so far. As part of the trio Barcelona, he sang powerfully in front of a driving guitars. By the time he released the self-titled debut album as SYML, that rock vocabulary expanded to include electronics. SYML and Absolutes are the best of Fennell’s early works.
Soundtrack, Star Trek Voyager: The Caretaker
I’m ambivalent about Star Trek as a whole, but do not doubt my devotion to Star Trak: Voyager. Most of that fandom was driven by a crush on Garrett Wang, but I really liked how Voyager felt grittier than other series in the franchise. Jay Chattaway’s scores for the series did their job girding what was happening onscreen, so subconsciously, I perceived there were some avant-grade gestures going on. I didn’t realize the extent till this soundtrack laid it all bare. So much so, Jerry Goldsmith’s theme song feels anachronistic next to it.
Vagabon, Sorry I Haven’t Called
This album is the first of three I’m anticipating in 2023. The others are Water Made Us by Jamila Woods and LAHAI by Sampha. I don’t get the impression Vagabon strayed too far from what made her previous album appealing, and that’s fine with me.
Explosions in the Sky, End
Seven years have passed since the previous Explosions in the Sky album, and they too have made made drastic renovations to their sound, similar to labelmate Eluvium. End actually has some conventional song structures — shocker! — and electronics figure much more heavily this time around. The album starts of strong, but it does flag in the second half.
Jason Isbell, Southeastern (10th Anniversary Edition)
I could go on about how the the live and demo versions of this breakout album provides context and whatever else reviewers prattle on about, but I am a gay man who is not above listening to music performed by an attractive guy. And Isbell is a smoke show on the updated cover of Southeastern.
The Replacements, Tim: Let It Bleed Edition
Hey, you know the guy who produced Living Colour’s debut album Vivid? He updated the mix of the Replacements’ major label debut, and it sounds pretty damn 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.
Thomas Frank featuring Airplane Mode, “Burn the Sails”
I don’t usually pay attention to singles, and Thomas Frank is more known for his YouTube videos about productivity and the web app Notion than for music. But Frank, who previously released guitar instrumentals, took singing lessons and applied them to this single. And it’s impressive. I hope he has the gumption for an EP, at least.
Eluvium, (whirring marvels in) Consensus Reality
The last few Eluvium albums felt like they could be interchangeable, but this one? Not so much. Matthew Cooper has expanded his sonic vocabulary to include bona fide string arrangements. This albums feels uncharacteristic of the Eluvium M.O., but in very welcome ways.
SYML, The Day My Father Died
When I was younger, I would spend more time with albums, playing them weeks on end, even the ones for which I felt ambivalence. I don’t do that any more. So it’s rare that an album dominates my media devices the way this album has. Brian Fennell has a gorgeous voice, but he also knows how to tailor his songs for his voice. And they’re really good songs. They kept playing in my head long after the playback stopped. I can’t remember the last time an artist did that for me.
Natalie Merchant, Keep Your Courage
I think Merchant took her own advice with this album title because I don’t think I’ve heard her so confident.
NUMBER GIRL, Mujo no Hi
I didn’t realize NUMBER GIRL’s influence would have enough staying power to bring the band back together for fans who never saw them live in the first place. It was weird enough coming across a video of ASIAN KUNG-FU GENERATION covering “Toumei Shoujo,” which NUMBER GIRL played four times on this final concert of their reunion tour. And they sound every bit as fierce as they did nearly 20 years ago. Paint me a little disappointed that a new album didn’t result from this reunion, but I’m glad the newer generations of fans got to see NUMBER GIRL in their element.
Kesha, Gag Order
Good on Kesha. Drag them.
Danish String Quartet, Prism V
Danish String Quartet’s Prism series paired works of Beethoven and Bach with composers who came in their wake, ranging from Felix Mendelssohn to Alfred Schnittke. Do I totally buy the connections Danish sees between the two B’s and Bartok or Shostakovich? I like the fact the Danish even tried to forge one. The final installment of this series pairs an early string quartet by Anton Webern with Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 16, Op. 135. The Webern quartet is a post-Romantic work with an unstable tonality but still fairly lush compared to the austerity his later works took on. Here, the connection with Beethoven is much more apparent.
Sufjan Stevens / Timo Andres / Conor Hanick, Reflections
I read user reviews complaining this album as nothing but modern classical garbage, so I took a listen myself, and no, it’s not garbage. But it is definitely modern classical, perhaps even post-modern. I have a few of Stevens’ indie rock albums, and I find them unoffensive. But this side of Stevens? I can get behind it.
Jake Shears, Last Man Dancing
Shears’ solo debut left not a single impression with me. But this follow-up is — what is that term the youngs use today? Oh, yes: FIRE.
Sugababes, Angels with Dirty Faces
I remember not having enough savvy about pop music to give this album an ambivalent review when it came out. Now that I’ve had a number of decades to reflect on this album and its predecessor One Touch, I have to say it’s a solid work. And it’s an essential album for anyone who wants to get a sense of Sugababes at their finest.
The Donnas, Early Singles 1995-1999
I learned of the Donnas right on the cusp of their signing to Atlantic Records, so I was unaware of their punk bonafides, which these early singles definitively establish.