Albums of the year 2023
It’s hard for us to believe, but this year is the tenth anniversary of our albums of the year roundup, and it’s been another spectacular year for new discoveries and for brilliant comebacks from much-loved artists.
Without further ado, let’s dive into our favourite 20 albums of 2023, but here are all our previous roundups too:
20. Marta Salogni and Tom Relleen – Music for Open Spaces
An emotional one to open the list, and one that’s hard to comment on as it features our much-missed friend Tom Relleen. Much more than a beautiful tribute to an extraordinarily gifted musician and wonderful person, it’s a fantastic record in its own right, conjuring space, shifting perspectives and at times even feeling like it’s capable of slowing down time.
19. Multitraction Orchestra – Reactor One
Apparently formed as a creative response to the Covid-19 lockdowns, this puts to shame whatever the rest of us were getting up to. It’s an incredibly impressive, cohesive suite stitched together from hours of improvisations recorded remotely in response to Alex Roth’s original guitar parts. From hectic skronks to laid-back tone pieces, it’s also remarkably short and focused, and took us on a journey this year.
18. Fennesz + Osmotic – Senzatempo
Master collaborator Fennesz delivers the goods again – previous partnerships with the likes of Ryuichi Sakamoto and King Midas Sound were incredible, and this joint album with Turin duo Ozmotic is fantastic too. Four stately, lush and at times confrontational ambient works that demand you pay attention to their layers and detail at all times. Following Agora up with this, Fennesz has been on quite the run of form.
17. Laurel Halo – Atlas
I’m still unpacking this one. It’s dense yet inviting, formless yet focused, organic but crackling under a fuzz of processing, like a kind of shapeless dream of a forgotten visit to a jazz club. A consistently fascinating puzzle box of an album that’s kept me coming back ever since it came out in September.
16. Anthéne & Simon McCorry – Florescence
It’s tough to keep up with the ever-prolific Anthéne, who seems to release about five albums per year, but this collaboration with cellist sound sculptor Simon McCorry is one of his best – tracks like “No Sign of Leaving” are right up there with some of Stars of the Lid’s finest moments, all heart and warmth. It’s the third time they’ve worked together, and it’s a pretty seamless partnership at this point – and with the album themed around spring, you can buy it now and let it warm you up through the thaws in about, ooh, three months.
15. Eluvium – (Whirring Marvels In) Consensus Reality
Eluvium goes orchestral, in another of our albums composed during lockdown with the liberal use of remote collaboration, stems being pinged around the world and then assembled into something remarkable at the other end. Thinking about the creativity and ways artists managed to work together during such an awful and unprecedented time is one of the few (relative) joys of considering the peak of the Covid-19 pandemic. Anyhow, I digress. This one has the emotional heart of any Eluvium release, but supercharged through a boatload of beautifully-arranged strings over the washes of electronics. Please, someone use this as a major soundtrack and pay Mr Cooper a load of cash in the process.
14. London Brew – London Brew
Shabaka Hutchings, Tom Skinner, Nubya Garcia, Tom Herbert and, well, loads of other super-hot names from the London jazz scene producing a double album tribute to Bitches Brew – what’s not to love about this?
What’s amazing is to hear the progression of the sessions through the album, from expansive, freeform sessions of feeling one another out on the 23-minute title track to tighter, more melodic expressions like “Raven Flies Low”. You can hear spontaneity, but also relationships developing between the players. Motion, vibrancy and love flows right through the heart of this brilliant record, and that’s the best possible way to create something in the spirit of Bitches Brew.
13. Aesop Rock – Integrated Tech Solutions
“Uh… who the f*** is f***ing Steven?” Hurrah for Aesop Rock! He’s back doing his Aesop Rock thing, spitting out dense, abstract stories about meeting Mr. T, oddly aggressive work colleagues (?) called Steven or discovering a new love for Picasso over some of the most inventive, kinetic production of his recent career. For my money, his best stuff since The Impossible Kid.
12. Audrey Carmes – Quelque Chose S’Est Dissipé
A Parisian ambient artist who’s very much one to watch on the basis of this wonderful debut. Lush basslines, vibraphones, subtle synthesiser parts and whispered French vocals make this very much a headphones-late-at-night listen. There are nods to some of the quieter moments of Harmonia or a less mystical Popol Vuh in here, and overall it’s operating in a similar zone to records like The For Carnation in the careful choice of every note and the spaces left between being even more important that what’s there. Definitely one of the discoveries of the year for me.
11. Kosmischer Laufer – Volume Five
Sometimes all you need is the description of an album to know if it’s the one for you. This is labelled as “the secret cosmic music of the East German Olympic program 1972-83” – sold. That’s a hell of an invention to build around your music, and it lives up to the billing, moving from burbling Cluster-esque noodles to full-on gorgeous Dinger-beat motorik propulsions. A fifth dose of brilliant retro-futurism to gorge on as you imagine winning gold in the 1,500 metres for the Vaterland.
10. Colleen – La Jour et la Nuit du Réel
Colleen is one of those artists who just keeps getting better and better the further they explore the depths – and indeed the limitations – of their musical setup. This entire double album is made from an all-analog combination of one semi-modular Moog Grandmother, and two delays, the Space Echo and Moogerfooger Analog Delay, with no additional digital production. Seven pieces consisting of various movements, and the cumulative effect is magical – far from becoming repetitive, it’s a deep exploration of synthesis and mood that reveals more every time you listen to it, which is surely the hallmark of something truly great.
Bonus points too for packaging of the year – the artwork is stunning, and the silver and gold vinyl for “night” and “day” respectively is a lovely touch.
9. Oxbow – Love’s Holiday
Oxbow have had more than 20 years to get good at this stuff, and they’ve got really good at it. This absolutely shreds – as ever, it’s Eugene Robinson’s vocal performance that’s the star, crooning, wailing, shrieking his way through an absolute commitment to every syllable. It’s backed up by some extremely well-chosen collaborations with Lingua Ignota and Roger Joseph Manning Jr., utterly distinctive guitar work and some beautiful shifts of mood across the album. A truly peerless band.
8. Hawksmoor – Telepathic Heights
Regular listeners will by now have pieced together that elements including “analogue synths”, “krautrock-inspired”, “hauntology” and “retro-futurism” are all pretty high up on my musical hitlist, and wouldn’t you know it, Hawksmoor smashes them all on his first album for Soul Jazz. Another album that ties itself down to a limited setup involved Moogs (in this case the Sub-37, alongside drum machines and a sprinkling of guitars), once again it’s all the better for it, as it dives headline into whomping basslines, creamy analogue filters and lightly-delayed drum sequences. An absolute treat from start to finish.
7. Forest Swords – Bolted
Apparently recorded in a warehouse/factory, and you can really hear it in both the open space and the coldness of the record, as frosty beats and smeared acoustic instruments seem like they’re being absorbed and reflected through brick. The real magic trick of Bolted, though, is the constant integration of vocal snippets. Sometimes an entire, recognisable line, sometimes a held fragment of one painful syllable, they’re simultaneously saying everything and nothing, and the emotional heart of this terrific album.
6. Sigur Rós – ÁTTA
Sigur Rós have been exploring the boundaries of ambient music with their gorgeous Liminal series of releases and live shows, and following the thunder of Kveikur in 2013, it makes sense for them to take another sharp leftfield turn for their next full album a decade later. What’s remarkable about them over the last few releases is how they can change direction quite dramatically, and yet sound entirely like themselves, and inimitably so. ÁTTA might have had a slightly bemused reception when it dropped, almost entirely beatless and weightless, but every listen reveals new layers and more beauty. Yet another magical, essential release.
5. Suki Sou – Notes on Listening
In recent years there have been more 70s-analogue-synth-early-electronic revivalists than you can shake an oscillator at, but Suki Sou is among the very best, and to call this pure revivalism would be doing it a massive disservice. It’s an album that traces strong, direct threads back to the likes of Cluster, early Harmonia, Laurie Spiegel and Suzanne Ciani, but has a character all of its own. There’s depth, detail and warmth in every single waveform here, and a real sense of the possibilities and wonder that lie within the deep exploration of a sound.
Bonus points too for naming a track “Oscillating Swoosh” – it does exactly what it says on the tin.
4. Craven Faults – Standers
It’s hard to believe how consistently high Craven Faults’ levels have been over the last six years, and this is absolute bliss (again). He sounds like he’s cranking up an entire room of the most beautiful-sound analogue synths one at a time over the length of each mesmerising piece. Bonus track “May Birching” goes on for 70 minutes (!), but such is the trance-like hold every single one has on the listener, you wish they all did. Listening to the whole album in one sitting is like sitting next to a log fire with a fine whisky, looking out at an austere, freezing cold hillscape outside.
3. The Unit Ama – Toward
Sometimes you just need to leave a band to get on with and shape themselves into mastery of what they do – after 20 years together, The Unit Ama have pulled off a triumph. I’ve come back to this collection of songs time and time again in spring, summer, autumn and winter and got something more from them each time. Toward, in short, brings together loads of amazing bits from bands I love, and I can actually mention them in the same breath as Fugazi, Shipping News or Codeine without overstating my case. The strength of songwriting underneath is such that you could strip each one back for, I dunno, a Unit Ama MTV Unplugged, and you’d find a set of newly-discovered folk songs handed down from generation to generation, then heavily dusted in loud, clanging guitars.
2. Tim Hecker – No Highs
An outstanding career peak for Tim Hecker more than 20 years on from Haunt Me, Haunt Me Do It Again, this is a striking work of crescendo, anxiety and release that sounds like he’s learned a lot from working on soundtracks in recent years. Built on ostensibly simple foundations of arpeggiated synth lines that layer and build sometimes over eight or nine minutes, it’s a lesson in when to build tension, how long to hold it, and how to release it in a way that ensures it doesn’t dissipate entirely. Colin Stetson’s saxophone blends absolutely perfectly to the extent that at times it feels like a collaborative album. No Highs – except this massive high, obviously.
1. Swans – The Beggar
And so we come to the greatest album of the year – the one that has simultaneously comforted and terrified me for months on end. I can’t think of another band that’s been on a run of form anything like Swans since their return in 2010, with musical canvases painted with incredible ambition and terror from To Be Kind to The Seer. While The Beggar doesn’t have any of the obviously spectacular moments like “The Glowing Man”, it’s utterly enthralling from start to finish. There’s intensity in the mortality-confronting build of “Paradise is Mine”, almost unbearable oppression in the 43-minute “The Beggar Lover”, and in “No More of This”, a hopeless ballad that bids farewell to its loved ones, before it explodes into almost festive joy at the end (no, really). A colossal, titanic achievement that wins a tiny “album of the year” trophy from us → 🏆