I’m enough of a rockist snob to turn my nose up at Christmas music, so imagine my surprise at seeing a fucking Christmas album as a year-end pick. But Matt Rogers takes a piss out of the genre, offering a set of songs sung as earnestly as any pop star with Broadway pipes, but throwing equal measures of irreverence toward religion, gay culture and whatever else the zeitgeist deems important. But if these songs were just straight-up pop extracted from the seasonal theme? Fire. Absolute fire.
Right Said Fred, Up
Yes, Right Said Fred is a one-hit wonder, but this album is pretty solid. No, seriously.
The American Analog Set, For Forever
AmAnSet returns after 18 years with an album that doesn’t sound like the AmAnSet I remember from the 2000s. For Forever is uncharacteristically extroverted if your perception of the band is as frozen in time as mine.
I read a number of reviews that pointed out the last track on the album was jazzy without mentioning it was a cover of John Coltrane’s “Resolution.” These reviews were on metal-themed sites, so … OK? The rest of the album is a lot more tuneful than the Helmet I remember, a perception admittedly stuck in the early-1990s.
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.
A decade ago, I wrote a series of entries ranking my favorite albums from 1985 to 2004. My collection has expanded greatly since then, particularly in the last five years. So I wanted to see what has changed in 10 years.
2015 started strong with the return of Sleater-Kinney, and it stayed strong all the way through the release of the Hamilton cast recording. That said, the list goes through quite a number of changes, consolidating some stragglers and bouncing a few titles off.
Lin-Manuel Miranda, Hamilton: An American Musical
Kendrick Lamar, To Pimp a Butterfly
Sleater-Kinney, No Cities to Love
Jason Isbell, Something More Than Free
Deebs and Jarell Perry, Shift
Steve Grand, All-American Boy
Janet Jackson, Unbreakable
Other favorites from the year:
Software Giant, We Are Overcome
Madonna, Rebel Heart
Duran Duran, Paper Gods
Enya, Dark Sky Island
The Weeknd, Beauty Behind the Madness
Courtney Barnett, Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit
ASIAN KUNG-FU GENERATION, Wonder Future
Andrew Norman, Play
Troye Sivan, Blue Neighborhood
The Favorite 10 sees one title switched out — Gaytheist and Rabbit’s split EP for Miguel’s Wildheart. Father John Misty, Takaakira Goto, Seattle Symphony and Kronos Quartet make way for Andrew Norman, Troye Sivan and Software Giant.
Eight years into 2010s, 2015 is so far turning out to be my favorite year for the decade. The hierarchy of the list gives a false sense of preference — some of the albums outside of the Favorite 10 got as much play time as those at the top of the list.
Duran Duran and Enya could have occupied spots in the Favorite 10 if the field weren’t so crowded.
So many gay male artists are releasing new music this summer, it makes me wonder why they all didn’t put everything out in June. But muses can’t be rushed. Nor marketing plans.
Steve Grand, Not the End of Me, July 6
I listen to a lot of really serious music. I need Steve Grand to stop me from being too melancholy.
Luciano Berio, Sinfonia (Roomful of Teeth, Seattle Symphony, Ludovic Morlot), July 20
I went to the Saturday performance of this piece on the recommendation of my music theory professor.
Jake Shears, Jake Shears, Aug. 10
I’ve never really cottoned to Scissor Sisters, even though they seem to be in my wheelhouse.
Death Cab for Cutie, Thank You for Today, Aug. 17
The first two albums of Death Cab’s major label of phase made me wonder if they would follow R.E.M.’s downward creative trajectory in a similar fashion, but Codes and Keys and Kintsugi actually stemmed that tide. I’m not encouraged by the band’s comparison of this new album to Narrow Stairs, however.
Julee Cruise, Three Demos, Aug. 17
I loved Floating Into the Night, so I’m curious to hear these early drafts. A reissue of The Voice of Love also arrives the same day.
Troye Sivan, Bloom, Aug. 31
I was nowhere near the target market for Blue Neighborhood, but I liked it anyway.
Craig Armstrong, Sun on You, Sept. 7
Craig Armstrong is known more for his film scores, mostly because few of his studio albums get US releases. Here’s hoping a streaming release makes up for that drought.
Renée Fleming, Broadway, Sept. 7
A Broadway album? With Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “Tell Me on a Sunday”? And a song from Stephen Sondheim’s A Little Night Music that isn’t “Send in the Clowns”? OK, Renée Fleming, I’ll bite.
Prince, Piano and a Microphone 1983, Sept. 14
Sure, I’m curious enough to check out this set of demos, but what I’d like to know is when the vinyl reissue campaign will get to the Love Symbol album.
U2, Achtung Baby, July 27
U2, Zooropa, July 27
Zooropa is an odd album in the U2 canon, recorded in a spontaneous rush with experiments that work (“Numb”) and some that fail (“Lemon”). Despite a lavish repackaging, Achtung Baby had not yet been reissued in stand-alone black vinyl.