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Arts + CultureMusicThe Best Music of 2023: Dream beyond your curated...

The Best Music of 2023: Dream beyond your curated stream

Nabihah Iqbal, Sweeping Promises, Bored Lord, La Doña, Larry June, Pharoah Sanders, more bucked the algorithm with golden sounds.

2023 was an exceptional year for music. Explore beyond the mainstream platforms and discover the nonconformists who exist outside of the Skynet-like system. If you’re tired of the same popular albums dominating the year-end lists, then this is the place for you. While fan bases like Swifties, Beyhives, and Barbies were making noise in the music industry and it’s great in a way to have a monoculture back, it’s still refreshing to see a swarm of indie artists creating their own unique and joyful sounds under the radar. There’s space for everyone, folks. (See music writer Daniel Bromfield’s Best Music of 2023 list here.)

NABIHAH IQBAL, DREAMER (NINJA TUNE)

It’s hard to believe that DREAMER, released earlier this spring, is only Nabihah Iqbal’s second album. A celebration of post-punk, dream-pop, indie, and house, she has created a smooth and captivating spirit throughout by utilizing electro meets shoegaze soundscapes. The hymn-like intro “In Light” sets the stage for the indie-jangle elegance of the single “Dreamer,” which deserves to be played on repeat—especially the last minute and 17-second stretch. 

It’s a place you don’t want to leave.

EL MICHAELS AFFAIR & BLACK THOUGHT, GLORIOUS GAME (BIG CROWN)

How many more examples do you need to come to your senses? Black Thought is approaching (probably there) G.O.A.T. status in the emcee game. Last year’s Cheat Codes, a beats for the dome piece manifesto produced by Danger Mouse, provided Tariq Trotter with the proper space to wax philosophical about the street, the government, and so on. In certain places, he took up broadcasting the culture like a younger, 2.0 version of Chuck D. 

Glorius Game, produced by Leon Michels of El Michaels Affair, delves into the same rich visual stock of cinematography captured by Ernest Dickerson for Spike Lee’s Malcolm X with the soulful 45’s allure. So many distinct hues of Brown just post up and come alive here.

The word-play visuals fly vivid, allowing Black Thought, co-founder of the international Roots Crew, to embody the role of an OG, an elder statesman passing down wisdom without appearing dusty. Trotter seamlessly combines soulful elements with the knowledge and facts of a Walter Mosely novel, creating a unique and captivating experience. Exactly what you would expect and want from a 51-year-old Emcee.

It’s not a performance on the Tonight Show; it’s reality.

RAY BARRETTO, QUE VIVA LA MÚSICA (CRAFT RECORDINGS/FANIA)

The 50th-anniversary edition of Ray Barretto’s brilliant Fania salsa jewel Que Viva La Musica deserves all the praise, flowers, accolades, and recognition that anyone wants to heap upon it. Barretto, an influential bandleader and one of the foremost names in Latin jazz, boogaloo, and Afro-Cuban rhythms, established a form and presentation on this record that would be used for the next decade by everybody: Converting the genre’s root music of the ’60s into the hard-edged salsa sound of the ’70s involved expanding the depth of the rhythmic texture and increasing the degree of swing within compositions. 

Barretto gave salsa a Miles Davis fusion update to align it with the ’70s aesthetic. That recontextualization is prevalent throughout the ten-minute “Cocinando,” a hypnotic, psychedelic jam that was later used to open Leon Gast’s 1972 documentary Our Latin Thing, which showcases New York City’s exploding salsa scene.

ORCHESTRA GOLD, MEDICINE

The track “Keleya” (you’ll have to download the excellent album Medicine to hear it) by African psychedelic rock group Orchestra Gold, based out of Oakland, hits you with a certain level of profundity, cosmic swirl, and Fela-like groove. Mariam Diakite delivers its raw, mesmerizing vocals. Attacking saxophone charts, measured bass lines, and galvanic meter serve as the ideal foundation for the expanding guitar lines that squall through the song. In a nutshell, it’s dope.

SEABLITE, LEMON LIGHTS (MT. ST. MTN.)

Seablite, a fog-pop band hailing from San Francisco, caused quite a commotion among Bay Area listeners with their debut album Grass Stains & Novocaine in 2019. This marked a departure from the typical sound associated with local rockers. The days of the pretentious garage band posers with bloodshot eyes were gone; musicians were finally gaining recognition and appreciation from those who shared their musical sensibilities.

Over the next few years, several changes occurred, including a transformation in the band’s sound. Seablite, comprised of Lauren Matsui (also known as the bass player for Neutrals), Galine Tumasayan (vocalist and bass player), Jen Mundy (formerly of Wax Idols on second guitar), and Andy Pastalaniec (the band’s drummer who started his band Chime School a couple of years ago), embraced these changes and allowed them to enrich their sound.

Their latest offering, Lemon Lights is a delightful slice of alt-’90s euphoria. It transports you to a world where the rave may be p-p-popping off in the distance, but your guitar-driven, amplifier-fueled tracks, particularly the blistering scorcher “Blink Each Day,” do justice to your experience on this side of the festival.

SWEEPING PROMISES, GOOD LIVING IS COMING FOR YOU (FEEL IT)

On the “Eraser” single, Sweeping Promises, the duo from Kansas consisting of Lira Mondal and Caufield Schnug, skillfully combine the punk DIY spirit of past generations and deliver a ripper of a moment. 

With Good Living Is Coming for You they borrow elements from post-punk legends and create an album filled with catchy hooks that’ll blow your wig back. Minimalistic and infused with pop influences, it’s in conversation with bands like Dry Cleaning from the UK and Fake Fruit from San Francisco.

BORED LORD, NAME IT (T4T LUV NRG)

Back to the Future breakbeat eclecticism, sample-heavy tracks designed to ignite the rave and a deep admiration for West London’s Reinforced Records imprint, Bored Lord’s Name It injects electronic music with a powerful arse kick, reminding us that its essence lies in making people dance and feel free. All the other generic nonsense is mere filler. Immerse yourself in the distinctive fusion of broken beat, drum n’ bass, jungle, UK bass, Florida breaks, and house, crafted by Oakland’s Bored Lord, also known as DJ Daria. Catchy hooks, explosive beats, and haunting synths, combined with skillful sampling, will transport you back to the only word that matters when stepping into the rave: Move.

LA DOÑA, CAN’T EAT CLOUT (TEXT ME RECORDS)

Here’s an idea, City Hall. Do you want a return of that SF enthusiasm? Let’s designate a specific day, any day for that matter, as La Doña Day in the 415. I’m dead serious. This Bay Area original has always connected everything she does back to San Francisco, her community, and her family. She’s even been featured on Obama’s playlist, received recognition in Rolling Stone (although I’m not sure if that carries weight anymore), performed at this year’s Outside Lands festival, and had an incredible show at Fillmore in November. Her 2023 release, Can’t Eat Clout, “tells the story of a young female artist falling in love with herself, her lover, and her industry,” as stated by the Bay Area native herself. With her incorporation of cumbia, salsa, oldies, and reggaeton, La Doña is one of the best things happening in this city right now. 

Can’t Eat Clout won’t let you forget it.

LARRY JUNE & THE ALCHEMIST, THE GREAT ESCAPE (EMPIRE)

Raised in Atlanta and born in Hunters Point, Larry June is a national presence representing Bay Area hip-hop. He not only knows a thing or two about commerce, he gives motivational business advice. The Great Escape album, a proper link-up with producer Alchemist gives those words of wisdom a legit sheen, steady pushin’ this project forward with that good energy.

DJ SHADOW, ACTION ADVENTURE (MASS APPEAL / LIQUID AMBER)

“You Played Me,” the synth-heavy freestyle track, was the result of chance. DJ Shadow dropped a needle on an a capella track from a record he had never listened to before and combined it with a beat that evokes a lost early 80s R&B classic. Action Adventure, the seventh album by Josh Davis aka Shadow, a San Jose native, breaks free from writing for a vocalist. 

Josh creates for himself, and the results are what he truly desires: 14 tracks that explore various breakbeat styles.

THE SPINNERS, THE COMPLETE ATLANTIC SINGLES—THE THOM BELL PRODUCTIONS 1972-1979 (REAL GONE MUSIC)

The Spinners, formerly known as The Detroit Spinners, with their iconic brown jackets and brown turtlenecks, did one thing consistently in the ’70s: They made hits. Their songs became calling cards that resonated with all types of Americans for decades to come. The Spinners: The Complete Atlantic Singles—The Thom Bell Productions 1972-1979, is filled with arrangements that continue to be played at BBQ events, football games, and even during those Saturday morning retro “Soul Train” culture moments that bring us all closer together.

BROKEN CLOVER RECORDS, BCR CLIPPINGS #1 (BROKEN CLOVER RECORDS)

San Francisco’s own Broken Clover Records released its first compilation this past September. It features a diverse range of musical styles that you would expect from a city that combines foggy atmospheres with a touch of sleaze. 

Notable contributors to the compilation include Secret Emchy Society, Sagan, Dave Aju & The Invisible Art Trio, and TRIP SHOW. According to label owner Mickey Darius, the compilation covers everything from dreamy indie to queer country, glitchy beats, krautrock styles, stoner psych, dubby techno, and fuzzy post-rock. In Bay Area slang, it hits like a rent is due, Tuesday.

One standout track from the compilation is “K Racer” by The Tourist. It’s a mellow yet energetic track perfect for transitioning your Holiday dinner party into a NYE jump-off.

THE REDS, PINKS AND PURPLES, THE TOWN THAT CURSED YOUR NAME (SLUMBERLAND RECORDS)

Glenn Donaldson presents his album cover art, so close to the big little town of San Francisco, you can smell the magnolias blooming just underneath the framing. He’s been making music for over 30 years, and that staying power is what allows him to beautifully speak on things. These times, those before-times, employ that evergreen late ’80s, (the polar opposite of Big ’80s) college rock vibe that always carries a hint of cherry blossoms and melancholy in its tone.

The Town That Cursed Your Name, an ode to bands that never made it, evens perspective on a town that can overlook grit and fortitude while tossing praise at some hack cover band with “wonderbread” in the title.

Donaldson for the win. Fuck Yeah.

ANDRÉ 3000, NEW BLUE SUN (EPIC)

Three Stacks has always been the type of hip-hop artist that futurists look to for what’s next. So, after a 17-year hiatus since Outkast, his debut solo album New Blue Sun has made waves in the culture and given open-minded listeners something fresh to consider. Co-produced by André 3000 and Carlos Niño, a percussionist, producer, and spiritual jazz musician from Los Angeles, this 90-minute journey of heavy listening, whether by the campfire or on a transformative ayahuasca trip, may inspire listeners to explore more artists like Nate Mercereau, Brian Eno, Yusef Lateef, and others of that caliber. André, without uttering a word, reminds us that pursuing creative endeavors and allowing growth to persist, should always be the top priority.

PHAROAH SANDERS, PHAROAH (LUAKA BOP)

“Come on, have faith, and love will find a way.”

In a review for AllMusic, John Bush acknowledged that the playing on Pharoah Sanders’ 1977 album Pharoah was excellent, but also stated that Sanders was beginning to drift into watery new age muzak. He concluded that the legend was losing his way, a full 10 years after the death of John Coltrane.

It would seem that time settles all bets.

Luaka Bop, David Byrne’s imprint, gifted us this year the definitive, remastered version of Pharoah Sanders’ seminal record.

The lead track from the two-LP box set is the beautiful “Love Will Find a Way,” which at first may seem a bit different from Sanders’ “out” arrangements. Still, when you sit with it… that love, the upliftment, and most of all sincerity that traveled throughout his career remains evident. 

NON PLUS TEMPS, DARK ON HARMON EP

Non Plus Temps, the East Oakland ensemble, is composed of members from Naked Roommate, The World, Famous Mammals, and Preening. They create ghostly post-punk on their EP released this year, which showcases plundering basslines that foreshadow a dub-induced frenzy.

CON BRIO, SCREAM AT IT

The album’s title puts the edict in the air, front, and center, so the look-good, smell-better clientele who attend the Con Brio live experience know what to do when this East Bay band turns on the jets straight into the funk and roll. “Scream At It” sees Portland-based vocalist Sarah Clarke and the Bay’s own Viveca Hawkins trading vocal duties, and the contrast in their styles plays appropriately with the band’s wide songbook of genre clusters, leaving no gaps. “Searching for a New Word,” a standout groove on the album, features Monophonics’ backing vocalists Rainbow Girls taking the lead and feels right in the album’s wheelhouse.

WRITTEN IN THEIR SOUL, THE STAX SONGWRITER DEMOS (CRAFT RECORDS)

Stax is rightfully credited with creating “The Memphis Sound” and launching the careers of icons who essentially wrote many chapters in the American Songbook. Artists such as Otis Redding, Isaac Hayes, and Booker T. & The M.G.’s, The Staple Singers, Sam & Dave, Rufus and Carla Thomas, The Bar-Kays, and many others shaped the American soundtrack during pressing times.

The seven-CD collection showcasing the legendary Memphis label “Written in Their Soul: The Stax Songwriter Demos,” this compilation allows us to hear the idea, sometimes a rough outline or just a piece of an inkling before the hit song forever changed the world.

MARGO CILKER, VALLEY OF HEART’S DELIGHT

Original Country & Western songwriters have a talent for effortlessly turning bars and phrases into something extraordinary. Margo Cilker’s breakthrough record, Valley of Heart’s Delight, showcases this kind of storytelling ability by way of straightforward and genuine tales about her hometown Santa Clara that will break your friggin heart.

48 Hills welcomes comments in the form of letters to the editor, which you can submit here. We also invite you to join the conversation on our FacebookTwitter, and Instagram

John-Paul Shiver
John-Paul Shiverhttps://www.clippings.me/channelsubtext
John-Paul Shiver has been contributing to 48 Hills since 2019. His work as an experienced music journalist and pop culture commentator has appeared in the Wire, Resident Advisor, SF Weekly, Bandcamp Daily, PulpLab, AFROPUNK, and Drowned In Sound.

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