Sunday, January 21, 2024

Favorite Tracks of 2023 (Double) Playlist

Earlier this week, I shared my favorite albums of 2023. But, per usual, I have curated a playlist of favorite songs from 2023 that aren’t on those albums. I did not notice until after I put the list together, but none of the main artists in these songs are white men. I guess that is one overarching theme, but I'm also pairing the tracks together in 7 separate themes. Here we go:

1&2: Things are changing

Sampha: “Spirit 2.0” from Lahai – This song by British artist Sampha bottles the feeling of hope in a new situation, even when things didn’t go great last time.

Sen Morimoto: “Feel Change” from Diagnosis – This song from Japanese American artist Sen Morimoto, is about not liking change but knowing that it continues to happen whether we like it or not. I love the musical irony of the constantly changing meter below the lyrics “nothing will change.”

3&4: Modern Spanish flamenco

Israel Fernández: “Despierta (Bulería)” from Pura Sangre – A bulería is a particular type of flamenco song or dance with a particular kind of rhythm, and often features improvisation from the singer. This bulería is telling us to “look forward, wake up”; in other words, don’t dream about the past, but plan for the future. The song also features some non-traditional effects and instruments.

María José Llergo: “Rueda, Rueda” from ULTRABELLEZA – This flamenco-influenced song is even less traditional, with the chorus sounding more pop than flamenco. “Rueda” means wheel and in this song refers to a cycle of party/touring life that this singer has found herself in, which is working out okay for her now, but if she stops what she is doing, she is worried that there will be bad consequences.

5&6: Chicago black girl power

Noname: “beauty supply” from Sundial – From the iconoclast Chicago rapper Noname, a song about how maybe standards of beauty—even if they are in protest of other standards of beauty—maybe are still not healthy. Strangely, Spotify tags this song as having explicit lyrics, when the same (single) word is featured multiple times in the “clean” version of one of the Olivia Rodrigo songs from GUTS.

Jamila Woods: “Boomerang” from Water Made Us – The masterful Chicago songstress and powerful lyricist with a track about feeling excited yet trepidatious that your ex wants to get back together, and is asking—is it really going to be different this time?

7&8: Classic Celtic, new twists

Claire Hastings: “Ca’ the Yowes” from Lullabies from Scotland – A beautiful old Scots song about a shepherd from an album of Scottish lullabies. Like Claire Hastings, who dreamed up this album while caring for her child, I think we should all sing songs in 5/4 to kids.

Nuala Kennedy: “Whirlpools: The Lighthouse Polka” from Shorelines – Did you know that polkas are considered traditional dances in Ireland and have been played there for 200 years? This one is by Kennedy, though.

9&10: What the heck is going on?

Genevieve Artadi: “Black Shirts” from Forever Forever – Maybe the title of this track lured me in. It's a fun, quirky jazz-influenced song about missing someone before they’ve left (on a business trip?); I don’t really mind that the words don’t scan well. “Black shirts” are what the singer is wearing until their significant other gets back.

Carly Rae Jepsen: “Aeroplanes” from The Loveliest Time – A prolific songwriter, Jepsen often comes out with a “Side B” album not long after a “main” album comes out. This album was the Side B of The Loneliest Time, one of my top albums from 2022. Usually, I’m not that excited about Side Bs, but this one has a higher percentage of great tracks, including this one, which thematically is really more about loneliness (unrequited love) but is also very weird harmonically, has three-bar phrases in the chorus, has a 2nd verse that pretends to be a bridge—and then the song transitions to an unexpected outro.

11&12: Not sure what is going on here, either…

Samaïa: “Avlanskani Cuneli” from Traversées – In this album, this French female folk trio sings songs from a lot of different cultures and languages. I think this track is in Laz, a language spoken in modern-day Turkey and Georgia. The song is also in mixed meter: 3 + 3 + 2 + 2.

Tricot: “Oool” from Fudeki – This song was actually from late 2022, and is actually a lot less weird (especially metrically) than many songs from this all-female Japanese band often labeled as “math rock.” You can hear their complex layered approach. I’m not quite sure what it is about, from what I can find—maybe an office romance, but they find out they are different outside the office, like Severance?

13&14: Been away

Molly Tuttle & Golden Highway: “Alice in Bluegrass” from City of Gold – What do you get when you cross Alice in Wonderland and bluegrass music, and then throw in various references to drug use? This song.

Haim: “Home” from Barbie: The Album – There are quite a few noteworthy tracks from this movie album, but this one from sister trio Haim is the best—though it is quite a bit more earnest than, for example, Lizzo’s ridiculous “Pink” acrostic poem (K is kool?).

In the words of Ben Folds: “But wait, there’s more!” I had a hard time paring down my list of great songs from this year, so I created a 2nd list of favorite tracks of 2023. I’m calling it “Yes White Elephant” because there are a lot of varied tracks and I’m giving you no background—just put on shuffle and enjoy whatever you get.

Thursday, January 18, 2024

My Favorite New Albums of 2023

First, I want to apologize for not getting this list out sooner—I had a setback in mid-December, prime list making time, when I got a double ear infection and all music sounded muffled and out of tune for 3–4 weeks. My ears eventually recovered (though still not quite back to normal) and I was able to narrow down my favorites from the crowded field. I thought for sure that because of certain life events this year, I would listen to less new music than normal this year. But it turns out the number of 2023 albums I listened to was pretty typical: 61. Here are my top 6, which for the most part manage to combine great music with lyrical content that are not just simple love songs, but resonate with our social condition in 2023.

What Matters Most by Ben Folds – I wasn’t expecting Ben Folds to be relevant in 2023, but this may be the most timely album I heard this year. The album is (mostly) a beautiful and earnest evaluation of what is important in life. And while Folds deals with the darker side of humanity, he also shows a halo of hope. Definitely check out the expansive and classically-inspired “But Wait, There’s More” (a phrase that cuts in several ways) and the conversational “Kristine from the 7th grade.” One warning: “Exhausting Lover,” a story of a bad decision, is for mature listeners only.

Celebrants by Nickel Creek – This album, written on a grand scale, works better as a whole; not many singles here. Honestly, I’m still working out the meanings of this album, but I can say that it is a post-pandemic album that deals with what happens we are used to meeting and seeing each other, but suddenly that all changes; “Celebrants” refers to people who are taking part in a party (celebration), though normally it is applied to religious ceremonies. If you want some entry points, I’ll pick a favorite song from each member: “The Meadow” (Chris), “Stone’s Throw” (Sean), and “New Blood” (Sara). The pair of instrumental tracks “Going Out…” and “...Despite the Weather” are instant classics.

The Sorrow Songs (Folk Songs of Black British Experience) by Angeline Morrison – Morrison loves the power of British folk song, but realized that there aren’t many songs from that tradition about the experiences of British Black people like her. So, she researched historic Black British experiences and wrote her own folk songs to document. She interspersed the songs with a few short quotes from non-Black folks. A powerful album from a great voice. For a taste, check out “The Hand of Fanny Johnson,” inspired by a mummified hand buried by an English family in 1996 that had been passed down for 200 years, claiming it was from the family’s black servant. You should really check out the beautiful album liner notes, which you can read or download here.

Dusk Moon by Rura – This all-instrumental album from this Scottish quartet is great from start to finish; if you want to dip your toes into some smoking yet nuanced trad music, try “Dusk Moon,” “The Grove” or “The Crossing.” Or just put the whole album on as some background music.

This is Why by Paramore – Like other albums on this list, this one is channeling post-pandemic angst and anxiety. I feel like the band watched The Good Place as a starting place for their research of modern moral quandaries. But no song tackles too much—each has a laser focus. It is hard to pick an entry point because every track is good, with a mix of driving, danceable, catchy music and clever lyrics. But why not start at the beginning, the title track “This is Why”? “Running Out of Time” is funny, sad, and serious all at the same time. “Big Man, Little Dignity,” one of the slower songs, draws from the ‘80s in a good way (and is maybe about Trump?). Bass clarinet fans, like myself, keep your ears open!

GUTS by Olivia Rodrigo – My favorite album of the year may be the sophomore album from Rodrigo—it is musically catchy and lyrically memorable; it’s got ballads and bangers. Besides deftly channeling some big feelings (love, jealousy, anger, disillusionment), Rodrigo shows she is a master of musical irony. For example, the first track “All-American Bitch” ping-pongs from a controlled, measured arpeggiated guitar to a frenetic punk song, while using music and contradictory lyrics to emphasize the impossible expectations heaped on young women. Another favorite, “Get Him Back,” is a master class in double meanings. I’m posting the clean version of the album here, but you can easily hear more expletives, if you want to feel the anger more—anger at mostly the patriarchy; but also herself.