Reflecting on my favorite songs of 2023, I’m struck by how many of them are reflections on mortality, be it in the actual lyrics or because they contain a sense of maturity that often comes with growing old. Pop and rock music have always been a young person’s game. That said, there’s something sublime when old folks — or even just middle-aged folks — don’t try to be young or hip or recapture their youth, but rather, bring age, maturity, and the regrets that come with such things to bear on their music. The juxtaposition of music that’s so often associated with youth, with the wisdom and regrets of age, has become increasingly appealing and resonant to me.
Which makes sense, I suppose, considering that the world feels like it’s on the verge of flying apart, be it the increasing violence in the Middle East, the violent and apocalyptic rhetoric that underscores American politics, the growing disparities of justice and prosperity — or even just the brush with death that my own family experienced earlier this year.
Indeed, nearly all of the songs in this year’s playlist contain laments and darker undercurrents while, at the same time, expressing a sense of longing for something better, for a life that’s more whole and complete. They tap into the Jewish concept of shalom, that sense of peace and complete flourishing that occurs when the world is rightly ordered and everything is as it ought to be. Sadly, we are very far from shalom these days, which is probably why all of these songs have resonated with me as much as they have.
I hope they resonate with you, as well.
Originally released in 1992 by the 3rd Stone label, “Scum” is a twenty-one minute excursion through jazz, improv, electronic, drone, and alternative music that laid the foundation for Bark Psychosis’ seminal 1994 masterpiece, Hex. But earlier this year, Graham Sutton remastered and reissued the track on vinyl via Rolling Heads Ltd. as a Record Store Day exclusive. And in a bit of cheekiness, the B-side — titled “Mucs” — is just “Scum” played in reverse.
I’ve been following The Declining Winter ever since 2008’s Goodbye Minnesota, and I can confidently say that Really Early, Really Late is their finest work yet (read my review). Richard Adams and his collaborators — which include epic45’s Ben Holton — perfectly encapsulate everything that I loved about Adams’ work in Hood while expanding the sonic palette in some new ways. The title track is a perfect example of this, eight-and-a-half minutes of melancholy post-rock that’s perfect for long, meandering walks under gray skies.
I’m not sure what else there is to say about Depeche Mode at this point. The guys are musical icons and could totally rest on their laurels. But what do David Gahan and Martin Gore do, instead? Release a solid album led by one of their best singles in years. In addition to being an absolute banger, “Ghosts Again” is a poignant reflection on mortality as only musicians in their sixties(!) can write. And the song’s all the more poignant in light of the death of their friend and bandmate, Andy “Fletch” Fletcher, in 2022.
Fuse is Everything But the Girl’s first album since 1999’s Temperamental, and shows that Tracey Thorn and Ben Watt are still down with the club scene. But “Run a Red Light” is one of the album’s more subdued moments. Electronics flicker at the song’s periphery, but its core — both musical and emotional — is Watts’ simple piano and Thorn’s soulful voice as she sings of late nights, early mornings, and romantic urgency with a mix of nostalgia and regret that can only come with age.
2022’s Trees At Night found Fine China scrapping their ’80s-influenced sound for New Age-y ambience and textures. With 2023’s Eyes in the Water, the Arizona outfit still delved into drifty atmospherics, but brought back some of their classic riffs and melodies. The resulting work, as exemplified by a song like “Whitebelt,” sounds very much like a band in the midst of a significant transition — and hints at even better things to come.
Luxury have a new album coming out in February, their first since 2015’s triumphant Trophies. But Luxury’s members have been far from inactive. Frontman Lee Bozeman has released music under his own name as well as A Great Cloud of Witnesses. While one usually associates crooning vocals, smart lyrics, and impeccable melodies from Bozeman, “Hopeful, Optimistic” is a gorgeous piano instrumental. In addition to being a lovely song in its own right, it’s evidence that Bozeman is just a great songwriter, whether with his bandmates or flying solo.
While I miss the element that Heike Langhans’ vocals brought to albums like 2019’s Inner — Space, I’m glad that Daniel Änghede is soldiering on with ISON. His blend of metal, shoegaze, ambient, and electronic music makes for a stunning sound that ably evokes the depths of space in all of their beauty and terror. “Radiant Void” slowly unfolds over the course of seven minutes, with Änghede joined by the vocals of Lisa Cuthbert and circle&wind for a transcendent cosmic metal journey.
Following a nearly 30-year hiatus, time has certainly weathered The Julies’ dreamy indie-pop. But that’s not a bad thing; the passing decades have only given their songs more emotional heft. Case in point: “Forever Machines,” which tackles the controversial topic of gun violence and gun control. In the hands of a lesser band, such a song could easily become preachy, especially with lyrics like “I know you won’t read it/The Sermon on the Mount/I know you don’t need it/When your Gospel is stand your ground.” But The Julies succeed via impassioned vocals and atmospheric post-punk.
I discovered Jenna Fournier, aka Kid Tigrrr, via a compilation of Cure covers. Her take on “To Wish Impossible Things,” one of Robert Smith and Co.‘s most heartbreaking songs, was the compilation’s clear highlight thanks to Fournier’s aching vocals and dreamy atmospherics. Needless to say, I’m very excited for Kid Tigrrr’s debut full-length when it drops later in 2024.
Siblings Kessiah and Stephan Gordon began composing music together following the deaths of their mother and grandmothers. The resulting album, titled Life In Death, is by turns heartbreaking and melancholy, but always beautiful and moving (read my review). “Good Grief” begins with the sort of delicate guitar interplay one associates with American Football. As the song progresses, however, it’s slowly enveloped by a poignant string arrangement that imbues the song with even greater emotional depths.
One of America’s most iconic folk/gospel standards, “Wayfaring Stranger” has been covered by the likes of Burl Ives, Emmylou Harris, and Johnny Cash. Gary Murray’s cover might be the most atmospheric version yet, which should come as no surprise if you’ve listened to any of LN’s catalog (like 2022’s excellent Monkeys & Spoons). And the song’s century-old lyrics about life’s sorrows and reuniting with lost family members hit even harder when you know that Murray’s own folks passed in recent years.
Given their music’s inherently melancholy bent, a song title like “Future Grief” is no surprise from Sweden’s Mary Onettes. Joined this time by the wispy vocals of Agnes Aldén, the band’s mopey take on classic ’80s sounds (e.g., New Order, The Smiths) still sounds as great as ever. 2023 saw a bunch of activity from the band — a handful of new singles, a tour — which hopefully means a new album isn’t that far off.
I’ve recently become enamored with the Echoes Blue Music label, which consistently releases lovely ambient gems from such artists as Antarctic Wastelands, Be Still the Earth, Norvik, and Narrow Skies. The married duo of Anita and Ben Tatlow, who record as Narrow Skies, describe their music as “earth-inspired, nature-infused, atmospheric alt-pop.” In this case, that takes the form of an electronic-accented piano ballad highlighted by Anita Tatlow’s yearning voice.
Released on the iconic Shimmy Disc label, Numün’s Book of Beyond features an eclectic mix of Eastern and Western instrumentation, with Balinese gamelan and Turkish banjo playing alongside slide guitars and mandolins. The resulting music is trippy, psychedelic, and cinematic. (Imagine a wuxia film score by Ennio Morricone.) But to Numün’s credit, a song like “Beyond” is never just trippy for trippiness’ sake; it’s more evocative and meaningful than that.
Markus Popp has been pushing sonic boundaries for nearly 30 years as Oval, most famously with his experiments into glitch music utilizing damaged CDs. “Touha” still has the same fractured, fragmented sound that’s often associated with Oval — but it’s more sedate and otherworldly, filled with music box-like chimes and tones that float amidst the buzzing electronic drones. It just goes to show that pushing sonic boundaries doesn’t necessarily require you to make music that’s unpleasant to listen to.
Pure Bathing Culture have weathered some storms over the years, but that’s just made their shimmering dream pop all the more emotional and affecting. “Neroli Blue” comes from the Roxi’s Dream EP, and perfectly encapsulates everything that I love about their music: Sarah Versprille’s striking vocals, lyrics that are filled with dreamily romantic imagery, and Daniel Hindman’s sterling production and effortless guitar.
Slow Salvation’s debut album is arguably Velvet Blue Music’s dreamiest release to date, and if you’ve followed the label at all, then you know that’s saying something. As Christina Hernandez’s vocals drift and sigh through Travis Trevisan’s arrangements, “Here We Lie” unfolds like cigarette smoke in a Wong Kar-wai movie: effortless, graceful, and languorous, yet filled with longing and melancholy.
When he began working on the songs for Slowdive’s fifth album, Neil Halstead was dabbling in modular synthesizers. Once his bandmates got involved, the songs began morphing into the classic Slowdive sound that we all know and love. But “Shanty,” which kicks off Everything Is Alive, still contains some of the original modular sounds in the pulses that undergrid and drive the song’s nigh-endless layers of guitar. It’s proof that even after all these decades, one of shoegaze’s old guard is still pushing their sound in new and interesting directions.
Soft Science take everything that we loved about the Sarah Records sound — e.g., winsome vocals, chiming guitars, gorgeous melodies — and condense it all into this single song. In other words, it’s four minutes of indie pop perfection.
Martin Stürtzer is almost workmanlike in his production; he released four albums in 2023 and numerous YouTube livestreams. But the thing is, all of that quantity doesn’t mean there’s any loss of quality. That said, Space Is Not Empty is the album I probably listened to most, which found Stürtzer experimenting with different styles and equipment. “Integrated Flux” might be my favorite song he’s ever released, blending deep ambient techno with elegant flourishes that handily suggest an interstellar journey to the furthest reaches of the cosmos — or a higher plane of existence.
Ambientologist’s Anxiety / Hope compilation is billed as “a carefully curated, concise collection of vocal ambient pieces.” Anita Tatlow’s drifting vocals are a perfect match for Be Still the Earth’s highly textured ambience, which is filled with swelling drones, toy-like chimes, and field recordings. Clocking in under four minutes, “Respite” never wears out its welcome even as it leaves you wishing it was at least three times longer; you simply don’t want the song’s spell to be broken.
When it comes to making classy, cinematic jazz ensemble music, nobody — and I mean nobody — swings like Sven Wunder. Filled with swooning strings, funky rhythms, and enough vibes for a dozen songs, “Take a Break” plays like the theme to the greatest ’60s spy film never made.