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Arts + CultureMusicThe Best Music of 2023: Feel what's happening now

The Best Music of 2023: Feel what’s happening now

ML Buch, DJ-E, , Anohni & the Johnsons, Lana Del Ray, Ryuichi Sakamoto, Call Super, more made it personal this year

Music writer Daniel Bromfield weighs in with his top listens of last year, a passel of honorable mentions, and one unfortunate letdown. See 48 Hills music writer John-Paul Shiver’s Best Music of 2023 here.

1. ML Buch, Suntub This might be the first album to capture the feeling of the Y2K Internet without any signifiers of the era. It’s all in the glossy surface, the almost unnaturally smooth lines and curves of the music, the subtle way its 55-minute length suggests the CD era, the Danish artist’s decision to sing in a monotone stuck in the same state of stupefied wonder as the protagonist of a point-and-click RPG game. The imagery is verdant and fleshy yet somehow 2D—she sings of being “splattered on the film of sky.” If the earth were flat, its pop music might sound something like this: stripped of much sonic depth, alarmingly devoid of bass, reliant on impossibly lustrous guitar tones (this is as much an experimental guitar album as a pop album) and harmonies the classically-trained Buch must have thought about long and hard (“Flames Shards Goo” is an unbelievable composition, pop or otherwise). This is the awe of the real world written in the language of the virtual, and it feels like some kind of milestone in millennial music—and, weirdly, an album I’ve been waiting for my whole life without knowing it.

2. Anohni & the Johnsons, My Back was a Bridge for You to Cross The thing I respect most about Anohni’s first album with the Johnsons in 13 years is her willingness to hurt the listener. It begins with a song explaining why the album is “so sad,” then pulls no punches for the remaining half hour-plus, using every trick in her arsenal to make the listener “feel what’s happening now.” This includes singing like a dying lamb on “Scapegoat,” allowing her exquisive vibrato to parch and dry on “There Wasn’t Enough,” and delivering her lines on “You Be Free” as if in unbearable pain. Anohni is a denizen of the ‘90s New York theater underground, and the filigreed baroque-pop of her past work sometimes wasn’t as much a match for her voice as the tough soul horns of “Fistful of Love,” “Thank You for Your Love,” or “Aeon.” By committing to soul music and committing even more uncompromisingly to the goal of wounding the audience, Anohni has made her best album 30 years into her career.

3. Lana Del Rey, Did You Know That There’s a Tunnel Under Ocean Blvd. Lana had already been in the spotlight for 10 years when she became the best active pop star in America, cutting back on the drums and embracing orchestral sweep and oceanic scale. Since “White Dress” on the inexplicably underrated Chemtrails Over the Country Club, Del Rey has junked the Lady Liberty schtick and emerged as an old-school balladeer with a tactile gift for songwriting. Tunnel is her best and most complete statement, speaking eloquently for those who take comfort in aphorisms: faux-deep pop songs, the words of pastors, clichés like “there is a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in.” The album has a hyperlink to Lost at Sea, the ambient piano album from Lana’s dad, which seems to proceed directly from the song “Grandfather Stand on the Shoulders of My Father While He’s Deep-Sea Fishing” and features a father-daughter collab called “Lost at Sea” that’s one of my favorite songs of the year.

4. Ryuichi Sakamoto, 12 If I knew I was dying, I imagine I would make an album like this—a little rushed, unconcerned with bells and whistles, sequenced in chronological order except for a brief piece at the end to represent the firmament the artist’s soul will soon pass through. Ryuichi Sakamoto, who passed away two months after this album’s release, chose a twinkling wall of chimes. This is the best farewell album I’ve heard from an artist who knows they’re dying, and while Sakamoto’s Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence co-star David Bowie was largely concerned with his legacy on swansong Blackstar, Sakamoto is more concerned with maintaining a daily practice for as long and as well as he can.

5. Call Super, Eulo Cramps JR Seaton’s clarinet-laced techno subversions haven’t always clicked for me in the past, but their fourth album makes the case for the Brit as a sort of minimal-techno troubadour—to post-Villalobos ketamine house what James Blake was to dubstep, essentially, though Seaton is far less constipated. This is some of the most impressive staccato sound design in a while, and though Seaton has described it as their most “personal” outing, they don’t make the mistake rock musicians (read: heterosexual men) make of sacrificing art at the altar of “authenticity.” There’s a track called “Clam Lute Wig” immediately followed by a track called “Years at the Hospital,” and that’s really all you need to know about what kind of record this is. 

6. Chuquimamani-Condori, DJ E 30 minutes of electronic music pitched at a hair-raising level of intensity, built out of lustrous synths and drum parts that seem to slam into each other at extreme speeds. DJ E exists at the intersection of so many of Elly Crampton’s long-running obsessions: feverish radio announcer voices, stock sound effects, Casio presets, all of it shot through with her distinct “Ocelote” tag (a bit lower in pitch this time than it was on the self-titled). It can be overwhelming to the unprepared listener, but DJ-E seems to be demanding you feel what they feel, and in this case, they seems moved by their own power, by their ability to make the listener experience the same sense of awe at the world around them. 

7. Animal Collective, Isn’t It Now? Animal Collective have entered the 2020s as a lean, mean guitar group, cutting back on the shroomy burblings that threatened to devour their sound during their post-Merriweather Post Pavilion doldrums over the last decade. While their reinvention sounded like it just getting started on 2021’s Time Skiffs, this is the most complete expression thus far of their capabilities as a jam band. This is their longest album at well over an hour, not because it has a lot it wants to say but because these 40-something family guys have earned the right to let their music sprawl across as many sides of vinyl as they want.

8. Kurt Vile, Back to Moon Beach Something has snapped in the Kurt Vile project, and his new album—his best in 10 years, and his saddest in 12—scans as an admission that his slacker lifestyle is no longer sustainable. Though Vile seems like a well-adjusted family man with a wife and two kids, the Vile character reads as an addict, and the six songs on this album-length EP find him contemplating an escape from his circular existence, sobered by the deaths of those close to him. Moon Beach is sadder still considering Vile’s longtime right-hand man Rob Laakso passed away not long after these sessions. For both reasons, this is likely to be the last Kurt Vile record that sounds like this.

9. Steve Gunn & David Moore, Let the Moon Be a Planet Even the title of this album suggests you have to buy into some level of woo-woo to appreciate what the guitarist and pianist are selling on this easygoing new-age jaunt. Let the Moon Be a Planet is pure front-porch music, ideally accompanied by some Tibetan flags and a windchime, and it’s my favorite release to emerge from the post-wook aesthetic since North Americans’ Lost Tracks. This isn’t hard-hitting or challenging music, but I can see myself carrying it with around with me in the future as an accompany to those moments of pastoral bliss where I want to light up a joint and kick off my shoes. 

10. Loscil & Lawrence English, Colours of Air This is the least liturgical-sounding album made with a pipe organ I’ve ever heard, maybe because the organ was in a museum rather than a church. Because I grew up Jewish, I don’t have much sentimental or nostalgic attachment to organ music and find the more churchlike works of Tim Hecker and Kali Malone slightly alienating, but I like the organ’s ability to generate huge washes of sound, and Morgan and English isolate that essential quality here while doing everything they can to eliminate any perceptible trace of the original timbre—these songs sound more like elemental rumblings than anything being “played.”

Honorable mentions: Arooj Aftab, Vijay Iyer, and Shahzad Ismaily’s Love in Exile, an epic of wine-dark spiritual jazz; Ken Carson’s A Great Chaos, a blown-out and demonic vision of the shape of pop to come; Continuity’s Continuity, ambient techno as the undulating core of the Event Horizon; Mike Cooper’s Black Flamingo, one of the best and strangest works from the octogenarian improviser and seafarer; the Country Side of Harmonica Sam’s Back to the Blue Side, a small honky-tonk masterpiece from Sweden; Ustad Zia Mohiuddin Dagar’s Vrindavan 1982, proof that the rudra veena is the coolest-sounding instrument of all time; James Holden’s Imagine This Is a High Dimensional Space of Infinite Possibilities, which elaborates on the connection between rave and British paganism; Jonny Nash’s Point of Entry, every note from his guitar like dew dripping from a flower; North Americans’ Long Cool World, ambient country music with a sheepdog charm; Arthur Russell’s Picture of Bunny Rabbit, more thumpings and moanings from the same haunted attic that produced World of Echo; Scree’s Jasmine on a Night in July, a beautiful and balmy little guitar record; Sufjan Stevens’ Javelin, whose grand arrangements flatter the tiny voice of a man in unbearable pain; Strategy’s Graffiti in Space, a new and noisy horizon for the surprisingly conservative genre of dub techno; and TisaKorean’s Let Me Update My Status, which dissolves meme rap circa 2007 into something like free jazz.

Dog of the year: Laurel Halo – Atlas. Has anyone heaping praise on this album ever heard a mid-tier Bvdub release? Brock Van Wey could put this album out under the name Be Still My Raging Heart and no one would’ve batted an eyelash. In fact, he probably has, about 10 times.

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

Daniel Bromfield
Daniel Bromfield
Daniel Bromfield is a San Francisco native and arts journalist whose work has appeared in the Bay Guardian, San Francisco Magazine, Resident Advisor, and various music sites. He ran the SF Rebirth blog, documenting all-ages shows in the Bay Area, from 2010 to 2013. His work can be found at danielbromfield.com

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